Reading

A Little About Aunt B and Her New Book

There's this woman I know named Betsy, and she's in every way awesome. She fucking kills me on so many levels. First of all, smart as a whip. Like, you go have a drink with her and suddenly you start penciling in library time on your calendar because you can suddenly feel a little dim. But it's not like she's all snobby and smug like a lot of smart people, who love nothing more than to make others feel unintelligent. That's not it. It's that she has this razor wit and she'll reference something you totally know, but she does it in such a sly, clever manner that you don't catch on to what you missed til you are driving home later.

And she has the best laugh. She's one of these people who throws her head back and laughs with her whole body, and even if you are pissed off or crying, you can't help but laugh back. She's also just as funny in real life, if not more, than she is at her hilarious Tiny Cat Pants

I found Tiny Cat Pants when I first started the blogging job at WKRN, and I was immediately charmed by its tagline: "Is there anything funnier than tiny cat pants?" At the time I discovered this question, I thought no. There couldn't possibly be anything funnier than that until I read the blog. The answer to that tagline is clear: Yes, there is, and its Tiny Cat Pants.

Here's the thing, though. Her blog is not jokes. No way. It's genuine, good-hearted humor. That's why it translates into real humor in real life. She's not trying too hard. She just is who she is, and she does it on a blog. And it's real, and it's always, always thought provoking, and it's fair, almost all the time, and if she says something she regrets, she says so. The woman is never loathe to admit a mistake.

Anyway, I admire the shit out of her. She's a strong-willed, beautiful soul who will defend you, support you, tickle you and serve you wine in her backyard in a mason jar on a hammock.

And she wrote a book. A book about ghosts and their stories in and around Nashville. 

This woman's writing reads like breathing--effortlessly. She's a master at the craft, in my humble opinion, and while her blog is scattered in topic, I can't wait to see her nail down this single idea.

You have to buy it. It's not optional. Do yourself the favor, and bring the delight of my friend Betsy into your home. It's a far cry from having her swapping stories and swatting flies with you, but hey, we can't all be so lucky.

Get it here.

And here is the book's website.


Fire Doesn't Lie

My father is a firefighter, and has been all my life. As a result, I am taken with stories of arson, interested in fire science and generally in awe of the men and women who fight one of nature's deadliest elements.

Last night I printed out a story from the New Yorker and read it on my commute home. It is a piece called, "Trial by Fire," and it asks whether or not Texas put an innocent man to death. After reading the article in full I cannot say whether or not the man was innocent, but after taking in the pile of evidence presented, no rational person could say he was certainly guilty.

It's the story of an explosive, rabid fire that killed three little girls. It examines how fire investigations have long been lead by those who go on things like junk science and gut instinct to determine whether or not a fire was caused by human hands. It is a wrenching look at what can happen when you don't have the education or financial ability to defend yourself. It's a sobering argument for doing away with the death penalty in this country forever:

[H]e received the files on Willingham’s case only a few weeks before Willingham was scheduled to be executed. As Hurst looked through the case records, a statement by Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshal, jumped out at him. Vasquez had testified that, of the roughly twelve hundred to fifteen hundred fires he had investigated, “most all of them” were arson. This was an oddly high estimate; the Texas State Fire Marshals Office typically found arson in only fifty per cent of its cases.

Hurst was also struck by Vasquez’s claim that the Willingham blaze had “burned fast and hot” because of a liquid accelerant. The notion that a flammable or combustible liquid caused flames to reach higher temperatures had been repeated in court by arson sleuths for decades. Yet the theory was nonsense: experiments have proved that wood and gasoline-fuelled fires burn at essentially the same temperature.

Vasquez and Fogg had cited as proof of arson the fact that the front door’s aluminum threshold had melted. “The only thing that can cause that to react is an accelerant,” Vasquez said. Hurst was incredulous. A natural-wood fire can reach temperatures as high as two thousand degrees Fahrenheit—far hotter than the melting point for aluminum alloys, which ranges from a thousand to twelve hundred degrees. And, like many other investigators, Vasquez and Fogg mistakenly assumed that wood charring beneath the aluminum threshold was evidence that, as Vasquez put it, “a liquid accelerant flowed underneath and burned.” Hurst had conducted myriad experiments showing that such charring was caused simply by the aluminum conducting so much heat. In fact, when liquid accelerant is poured under a threshold a fire will extinguish, because of a lack of oxygen. (Other scientists had reached the same conclusion.) “Liquid accelerants can no more burn under an aluminum threshold than can grease burn in a skillet even with a loose-fitting lid,” Hurst declared in his report on the Willingham case.

Hurst then examined Fogg and Vasquez’s claim that the “brown stains” on Willingham’s front porch were evidence of “liquid accelerant,” which had not had time to soak into the concrete. Hurst had previously performed a test in his garage, in which he poured charcoal-lighter fluid on the concrete floor, and lit it. When the fire went out, there were no brown stains, only smudges of soot. Hurst had run the same experiment many times, with different kinds of liquid accelerants, and the result was always the same. Brown stains were common in fires; they were usually composed of rust or gunk from charred debris that had mixed with water from fire hoses.

Another crucial piece of evidence implicating Willingham was the “crazed glass” that Vasquez had attributed to the rapid heating from a fire fuelled with liquid accelerant. Yet, in November of 1991, a team of fire investigators had inspected fifty houses in the hills of Oakland, California, which had been ravaged by brush fires. In a dozen houses, the investigators discovered crazed glass, even though a liquid accelerant had not been used. Most of these houses were on the outskirts of the blaze, where firefighters had shot streams of water; as the investigators later wrote in a published study, they theorized that the fracturing had been induced by rapid cooling, rather than by sudden heating—thermal shock had caused the glass to contract so quickly that it settled disjointedly. The investigators then tested this hypothesis in a laboratory. When they heated glass, nothing happened. But each time they applied water to the heated glass the intricate patterns appeared. Hurst had seen the same phenomenon when he had blowtorched and cooled glass during his research at Cambridge. In his report, Hurst wrote that Vasquez and Fogg’s notion of crazed glass was no more than an “old wives’ tale.”

Hurst then confronted some of the most devastating arson evidence against Willingham: the burn trailer, the pour patterns and puddle configurations, the V-shape and other burn marks indicating that the fire had multiple points of origin, the burning underneath the children’s beds. There was also the positive test for mineral spirits by the front door, and Willingham’s seemingly implausible story that he had run out of the house without burning his bare feet.

As Hurst read through more of the files, he noticed that Willingham and his neighbors had described the windows in the front of the house suddenly exploding and flames roaring forth. It was then that Hurst thought of the legendary Lime Street Fire, one of the most pivotal in the history of arson investigation.

I cannot recommend this story enough. For so many reasons.

[An aside: I didn't look at the New Yorker reporter's name until I finished the entire piece. I was surprised the writer is not a woman, and I can't put my finger on why.]