January 2013 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

January 2013

Another Deadly Garment Fire in Bangladesh

A fire swept through the ironically-named Smart Export Garments factory in Bangladesh over the weekend, killing 7 workers, including 2 teenagers:

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Clothing from many European brands, including at least two brands owned by the Spanish apparel giant Inditex, was discovered Sunday inside a charred factory where a deadly weekend fire killed seven female workers, including several who were teenagers.

The blaze at the Smart Export Garments factory, which erupted Saturday afternoon in a densely populated area of Dhaka, the capital, is the latest tragedy for a Bangladeshi garment industry that is now the world’s second-biggest clothing exporter, trailing only China. Two months ago, a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 workers, where jeans, lingerie and sweaters were made for retailers like Walmart and Sears.

The story is sadly familiar: The building was illegally constructed, lacking sufficient fire extinguishers and emergency exits. When the fire broke out, the young workers were horrified to discover that one of the fire exits was barred by a locked door. Smart Export was a subcontractor to major global brands, some of which pledge to maintain humane labor practices overseas, but it was unclear whether the SE factory had ever been audited for compliance.

[Photo credit: Unnamed seamstress in Bangladesh. kgbbristol, Creative Commons.]

Rachel Aviv on the Pedophile Predicament

Rachel Aviv of the New Yorker grapples with a very tough question: What should we do with men who have an intractable sexual attraction to children, but who have not yet abused a child? These are the guys who keep getting caught with child porn, but who have never touched a child, as far as anyone knows. Even self-proclaimed experts are very bad at predicting which child porn addicts will become full-blown child abusers. Some never do. Aviv reports that the current approach of indefinite civil commitment for these offenders coupled with dubious psychiatric treatments may be doing more harm than good.

#Sidney's Picks: Mississippi ME, Mumbai Attacks & ISI, Egg Donation

  • Your medical examiner might be a hack if…he records the weight of the victim’s ovaries and the victim is a man. Radley Balko continues his probe of the dubious ME who oversaw up to 90% of all autopsies in Mississippi, possibly sending innocent people to jail and letting the guilty go free.
  • For some women, egg donation is a job. Kaye Cain-Nielsen takes a hard look at the personal, political, and economic aspects of that work from her perspective as an applicant.

[Photo credit, Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

New Research Pinpoints Concussion Damage in Living Football Players

Historically, one of the biggest barriers to understanding the link between concussions and brain damage has been the fact that the damage can only be confirmed at autopsy. All that may be about to change:

Researchers at UCLA have announced a major finding that could save the lives of football players and other contact-sports athletes who’ve suffered countless traumatic brain injuries.

In the war against head trauma in football, one of the most vexing problems has been how to identify and treat a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a form of brain damage that’s caused by multiple blows to the head and is believed to be the culprit in the high-profile suicides of former players such as Junior Seau, of the San Diego Chargers, and Dave Duerson, of the Chicago Bears. Until now, doctors haven’t been able to diagnose CTE in living people; they’ve had to dissect players’ brains postmortem to spot the telltale signs. [Popular Science]

The researchers used PET scans to visualize abnormal protein deposits in the brain, a hallmark of post-concussion syndrome.

 

[Photo credit: KJ Holiday, Creative Commons.]

Pentagon to Lift Ban on Women in Combat

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is expected to announce tomorrow that the ban on women serving in combat in the U.S. military will be lifted. Women have been serving in combat in all but name for years, but the new policy will open up the final 20% of active duty military positions to female recruits.

[Photo credit: DVIDSHUB, Creative Commons.]

An Antidote for the Imperial Presidency

After the pomp and circumstance of yesterday’s inauguration, it’s refreshing to remember that not all nations buy into the trappings of the imperial presidency. Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, a former guerrilla leader, still lives in his old house, drives a VW beetle, eschews servants, and gives 90% of his salary to the poor:

In a deliberate statement to this cattle-exporting nation of 3.3 million people, Mr. Mujica, 77, shunned the opulent Suárez y Reyes presidential mansion, with its staff of 42, remaining instead in the home where he and his wife have lived for years, on a plot of land where they grow chrysanthemums for sale in local markets.

Visitors reach Mr. Mujica’s austere dwelling after driving down O’Higgins Road, past groves of lemon trees. His net worth upon taking office in 2010 amounted to about $1,800 — the value of the 1987 Volkswagen Beetle parked in his garage. He never wears a tie and donates about 90 percent of his salary, largely to a program for expanding housing for the poor. [NYT]

It’s a powerful lesson in leadership that Mujica doesn’t feel he needs an opulent lifestyle to project authority. His power resides in his office, not in conspicuous consumption.

[Photo credit: jonisanowl, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Black Market Boner Pills; Bloomberg; and the Upper Big Branch Mine

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Walmart Promises to Buy More American Goods (Where's the Catch?)

Eager for positive publicity in the wake of the Bangladeshi factory fire that killed over a hundred workers, Walmart pledged Tuesday to source more of its goods in the United States.

How much more? Well, Walmart promised to buy an additional $50 billion worth of American goods over the next decade. The New York Times crunched the numbers and found that $5 billion per year would be about 1.5% of what Walmart spends to buy and transport merchandise annually.

So, while a few American manufacturers will welcome the extra business, Walmart isn’t exactly pledging to change its business model.

[Photo credit: brandonevano, Creative Commons.]

 

Death Scream: A Criminal History of Cyanide

Deborah Blum, the thinking woman’s crime writer, tackles the mystery of the Chicago dry cleaner who won a $450,000 lotto jackpot and died in his bed the next day with bloody froth on his lips and a lethal dose of cyanide in his bloodstream:

According to news reports, Kahn’s wife first realized he was ill when he emitted a loud scream. Interestingly enough, that tends to be a classic symptom of cyanide poisoning, an almost involuntary response to the internal collapse. Gettler once described this as a “death scream.” The description of Kahn’s death has him screaming, staggering to a chair, and dying as he sat there.  In other words, cyanide killings tend to set a very specific range for actual time of death.

Kahn’s death is still a mystery, but the killer is likely to be caught when toxicologists determine exactly what kind of cyanide poisoned him. Cyanide is so tightly controlled, and available through so few channels, that toxicology can dramatically winnow the suspect pool, often down to just one person.

[Photo credit: Michael Till, Creative Commons.]

Oh, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy... Why Has Obama Pardoned So Few People?

Sasha Abramsky of The Nation asks why President Obama has pardoned so few people:

While in the White House, Bill Clinton pardoned well over 100 people. So did President Bush. To date, Obama has pardoned less than two dozen and commuted even fewer sentences. His first commutation wasn’t until late November 2011, when, according to CBS News, he ordered the release of a woman who had served ten years of a twenty-two-year sentence for cocaine distribution. CBS reported that “the latest numbers from the US Pardon Attorney show that since taking office Obama has denied 872 applications for pardons and 3,104 for commutations of sentence.” A year later, ThinkProgress reported that the only presidential pardon granted in 2012 was for the lucky turkey, as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.

A president who talks the talk about more sensible, nuanced drug policy, and whose oratory frequently invokes what is best in the American political imagination, has shown himself remarkably reluctant to use one of the most important of presidential prerogatives—the power to right judicial wrongs. “This president,” says Anderson, “has been unbelievably timid and disinclined to do justice in cases that scream out for commutation. There’s not a lot of moral or political fortitude in play.”

[Photo credit: Scott Beale, Creative Commons.]

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