Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sometimes the Old Ways are Better

The FDA is looking into the dangers of drinks that combine alcohol with caffeine:

Companies that have begun marketing drinks that combine alcohol with caffeine will have to
answer to the FDA, the agency announced.

Caffeine is not on the agency's list of ingredients that may be legally added to alcoholic beverages, Sharfstein said in a telephone press conference.

In addition, he said, several recent studies have indicated that combining caffeine with alcohol is very unsafe. (See APHA: Mixing Alcohol and Energy Drinks Heightens Injury Risk and Energy Drink Labels Don't Predict High Caffeine Jolt)

The agency decided to investigate after receiving a letter signed by 18 state attorneys general and one city attorney urging the FDA to take action against such beverages.

The letter cited research indicating that the combination drinks heightened the risk of motor vehicle accidents and sexual assaults, Sharfstein said.

Under pressure from state authorities, two big marketers of alcoholic beverages, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, had previously agreed to pull combination drinks named Bud Extra, Tilt, and Sparks off the market.

However, smaller companies are still selling drinks with as much caffeine as a cup of coffee and up to 9.9% alcohol under such names as LiquidCharge, Joose, and Four Loko.

I've never tried the beverages under scrutiny, and the few "energy" drinks I've tried taste like (what I imagine to be) weasel piss. But what about Kahlua? Or a shot of Bailey's (perfect on a snowy morning) in your coffee? Back when I was bar tending, I learned to mix a whole slew of coffee drinks. Will the FDA be coming after those?
Wish they'd focus there energy on e. coli and such, instead.

But Why?

Walking down San Francisco St. yesterday, a car caught my eye: a somewhat beat up mid-90's Toyota, nothing unusual except the license plate. Australian plate (larger than state plates). And I had to wonder why someone would bother to bring this car from Queensland to Flagstaff (I knew the person didn't drive it over), given that you could buy such a car here cheaper than the shipping cost from Australia. I could see shipping a Mercedes or such. But a beater Toyota?
Still scratching my head about it.

Friday, November 13, 2009


When NASA 'bombed' the moon last month, I was on the San Juan river. We made a bunch of sarcastic comments about the implications of the moon bombing, but it appears to have worked:

It turns out there's plenty of water on the moon - at least near the lunar south pole, scientist said Friday.

"Indeed, yes, we found water. And we didn't find just a little bit, we found a significant amount," said Anthony Colaprete, a principal project investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center.

The discovery came from an analysis of data from a spacecraft NASA intentionally crashed into the moon last month.

Colaprete estimated the impact kicked up at least 25 gallons of water.

Most interesting, with the possibilities for further lunar exploration.
Now, where should we bomb next?

A Victory for Due Process

Perhaps, just perhaps, America is returning a nation where the "rule of law" is again supreme:

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and four other men accused in the plot will be prosecuted in federal court in New York City, the United States attorney general announced Friday.

The decision marks a milestone in the administration’s efforts to close the Guantánamo prison, something that President Obama announced shortly after taking office that he would do within a year, but that has proved difficult to achieve because of uncertainty about what to do with the detainees housed there.

Shrub and his crew of criminals used 9/11 to embark on a program of lawlessness, torture, and war without end, but now that they're gone we can regain some of our credibility by returning to the rule of law. This trial will be tainted by the torture of KSM, but the preponderance of evidence should be enough to gain a conviction. Legally.
Politically, this decision is going to generate a lot of screaming from the usual (never) rightwing rabble, but the simple fact is: it's the right thing to do.

Friday the 13th Boobies

Ain't superstitious. It's bad luck to be superstitious.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Afghanistan Plan

Four plans were proposed. All four were rejected. All four plans were "escalation" plans, calling for different levels of troop increases, without any "exit strategy"; sort of "surge 2.0" with permanent occupation of Afghanistan as a result. Not what president Obama was looking for.

President Obama is pushing his national security team for more detail about an exit strategy for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan.

The president met with his advisers Wednesday to chart new strategy for the war. Obama went into this latest strategy session with what the White House had called four "final" options on the table.

Each involved sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but would require different troop levels and would embrace different goals for the U.S. involvement there.

At the high end, there's the 40,000 or so troops that the top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, says he needs to pull off a successful counter-insurgency. At the low end, an option of 10,000 extra troops, mostly working as trainers for the Afghan army and police force. One middle option would focus on a narrower, counter-terrorism mission, while another, said to be endorsed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, backs sending 34,000 or so extra U.S. troops while calling on NATO to contribute several thousand more.

After the 2 1/2 hour meeting Wednesday, two administration officials told NPR that the president does not plan to accept any of the options in their current form. The officials said the president pushed his team for more detail about an exit strategy for U.S. forces. They said he wants to make clear to the Afghan government that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended.

Here's the real question that needs to be answered: What the hell are we trying to achieve in Afghanistan? Are our goals realistic or attainable? Because just sending more troops in the name of "winning" is merely a repeat of the mistake of Vietnam. Professor Cole explains:

Obama is said to have rejected all the plans so far presented to him, insofar as none leads to a foreseeable end-game.

If AP is right, this development is encouraging. All along, the things missing from Washington's plans for Afghanistan have been a firm, specific set of goals, a detailed means of attaining them, and a way to know when they have been attained.

How unlikely the big counter-insurgency dreams of some military analysts are to result in success is apparent in this recent Frontline report, in which the US military outpost in a village in Helmand never succeeds in getting the locals to open a single shop in the bazaar under US protection, and never succeeds in stopping the constant sniping at them by Taliban forces.

Cole: Let's back up and talk about what the goal is in Afghanistan. Your strategy and your tactics are going to come out of your goal. I'm a little bit afraid that, in regard to the goal, you see a lot of mission creep. The goal has become standing up an Afghan government and an Afghan military that's relatively stable and can control the country. There's a lot of state-building involved in that.

I am a severe skeptic on this score. I don't think that's a proper goal for the U.S. military. I think we are dealing with a tribal society of people who, as a matter of course, are organized by clan and have feuds with each other, and feuds with other tribes, and feuds with their cousins. I think that Washington misinterprets this feuding as Talibanism, and thinks that if you put a lot of troops in there, you can pacify the country and settle it down.

I just think it is a misreading of the character of the country. Afghanistan is a country where localism is important, where people don't like the central government coming in and bothering them. There's a sense in which the communist government of the 1980s, backed by the Soviet Union, wanted to drag Afghanistan kicking and screaming into the late 20th century, and to do that you had to impose central government policy on the countryside and on the villagers. And the villagers rose up and kicked the Soviets and the communists out. They were outraged, in part, against the centralizing tendency of Kabul.

So, I just think that Afghanistan is a country that needs a light touch. You just have to accept that there's going to be a certain amount of disorder in the countryside as long as people are organized tribally. And if you put 100,000 or 150,000 Western troops in there, that's just more people to feud with.

Finding an exit strategy for Afghanistan will be more challenging than it was for Iraq. At least Iraq had an infrastructure (albeit dysfunctional) prior to our invasion, so setting up a semblance of a government and leaving is actually attainable. No such infrastructure exists in Afghanistan, and it would be delusional to think we can build one. Again, Professor Cole:

Cole: If you are asking what I think is a plausible goal, I'd say it is training an Afghan army and police force as best you can. But you are just going to have to accept that it's going to be a weak government. You can shore it up to some extent, but you need to shore it up behind the scenes. It can't be seen to be a puppet government, because that will undermine its legitimacy.

A government that can provide more services to people is good. Road building is good. Encouraging the markets to open is good. But as far as fighting what the U.S. is calling Taliban, they are really just regional warlords. They might have a tactical alliance with the old Taliban of Mullah Omar, but it's a mistake to sweep them all up into a single category . . . '

As with Iraq, getting out will be much more difficult than getting in. Shrub, the idiot, was content to invade and then wage war without end, but now Obama is stuck with trying to clean up this mess. The reality is that there are no easy ways out of Afghanistan: simply pulling out would leave behind an 'opium and terrorist' incubator as well as a humanitarian hell, but blind escalation merely postpones the inevitable while further draining American lives and wealth. In the end, we will leave Afghanistan; the question is really what we leave behind and when we leave it. Not an easy choice.
So I support Obama's decision to reject the current proposals. I only hope he can come up with a workable plan that will actually work to get us out of Afghanistan.
(for the purposes of this post, I'm not addressing what a huge mistake it was to start these wars; the past cannot be changed: we're there. The question is what to do now.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Veteran's Day

Full honor and thanks to our veterans.
Now I dream of a day when we can stop generating so many new veterans, or damaging and disabling so many of those who are serving our nation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Birds Don't Understand Physics

I assure you that my bird was not involved in this:
The Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle accelerator, just cannot catch a break. First, a coolant leak destroyed some of the magnets that guide the energy beam. Then LHC officials postponed the restart of the machine to add additional safety features. Now, a bird dropping a piece of bread on a section of the accelerator has, according to the Register, shut down the whole operation.

The bird dropped some bread on a section of outdoor machinery, eventually leading to significant over heating in parts of the accelerator. The LHC was not operational at the time of the incident, but the spike produced so much heat that had the beam been on, automatic failsafes would have shut down the machine.

This incident won't delay the reactivation of the facility later this month, but exposes yet another vulnerability of the what might be the most complex machine ever built. With freak accident after freak accident piling up over at CERN, the idea of time traveling particles returning from the future to prevent their own discovery is beginning to seem less and less far fetched.

Maybe I'm wrong; maybe birds do understand physics, and were trying to prevent time traveling particles. Just a thought.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Understanding Priorities

Health care will be expensive. 78 billion, 80 billion, 91 billion per year are the numbers under debate. Perhaps 1 trillion over 10 years. Sounds like a hell of a lot of money.
The grand adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have run between 108 and 140 billion per year over the past 8 years, with a total cost around 1.3 trillion so far (actual number is probably higher).
The annual defense appropriations bill passed a few weeks ago came in at 680 billion (they did have to work late on this, so it includes the cost for congressional pizza delivery), for 1 year.
Our priorities are clear. We'd rather spend our money on damaging bodies than on healing them. Bombs: they're more entertaining than colonoscopy's.

Video of an old Friend

Locals who were around the Flagstaff music scene a few years back will probably remember Dom Flemons, an extremely talented young man who's gone on to fame and fortune with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He used to frequently play happy hour at the old Mogollon. I became friends with him, partly because I was amazed that this teenager knew all this old time folk-blues music that no one else his age would ever think of playing.
Here's a vid of him with Blind Boy Paxton and Frank Fairfield (Dom's the one singing, seated in the middle):

or go here for more:
(yeah, I don't usually post videos...I'm making an exception)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Health Care Hash

The House passed the healthcare bill last night, 220 to 215. By the time all the amendments were done, it became a very mixed bag. The Stupak amendment restricting abortion funding is particularly odious; a real offense against poor women.
But there are some good points to the bill as well:
* coverage of as many as 36 million uninsured Americans
* ends subsidies of private insurers under medicare advantage
* closes the "donut hole" in medicare drug coverage
* allows medicare to negotiate drug prices
* prohibits denials based on prior conditions, and ends rescission's except in cases of fraud
* funds more education of doctors and nurses
* includes the seeds of a real public option
Do we deserve better? Yes. Is this as good as we can get at this time? Probably.
Speaker Pelosi said she had the votes, and in the end she did. My own congress waffle, Ann Kirkpatrick, ended up voting "yes" after much dithering, as I thought she would (and she actually had enough spine to vote against Stupak, which mildly surprised me).
With our current dysfunctional congressional system, this compromise is probably all we can get. But it really is a shame that women's rights were sacrificed to get it.
Now it's on to the Senate, where the circus will be even more ridiculous. Lord only knows what we'll be looking at by the end of that process.