Saturday, August 29, 2009

PREVIEW: 'Michael Jackson, King Of Pop' Comic Book

Back in June, we told you about Bluewater Productions' plans to publish the comic book biography "Tribute: Michael Jackson, King Of Pop." Now, we have your first look at the comic, which will chronicle the entertainer's life and many contributions to music and pop culture.

Click on the image below for a five-page preview of "Tribute: Michael Jackson, King Of Pop," which hits shelves in October and features a wraparound cover and forward by Giuseppe Mazzola, a member of "The Official Michael Jackson Fan Club" and a personal friend of the musician. Wey-Yuih Loh ("Political Power: Colin Powell") and Giovanni Timpano ("Vincent Price Presents") will write and illustrate the book, respectively.

According to Bluewater president Darren G. Davis, "Tribute" will be a 24-page comic that will also include a "special section we are working on with Golden Apple Comics, the store Michael Jackson shopped at for the last 20 years."

As frequent readers know, Jackson was no stranger to the world of comics. Along with a collection of comics and comic book movie memorabilia that would have even the most jaded fan drooling, Jackson almost became the owner of Marvel Comics back in the '90s in a partnership with Stan Lee.

Lee explained how their relationship began and how close they actually came to buying Marvel

Fresh Fighting Erupts in Burma

Fresh fighting broke out early Saturday in northeastern Burma after days of clashes between government troops and ethnic rebels.

Thousands of people have fled to the border town of Nansan in China's Yunnan province this month to escape clashes in Kokang in Burma's Shan state, following the deployment of government troops in the area.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says up to 30,000 people have fled into China.

The Chinese Red Cross told the Chinese Daily newspaper that one person was killed and several were injured Friday when someone threw a bomb across the Chinese border.

China has called on Burma to maintain stability in the border region and urged more measures to protect the security and legal rights of Chinese citizens there.

War in Darfur is finished, claims UN commander

Nigerian general suggests only one rebel group is still capable of military attacks

By Daniel Howden, Africa Correspondent

The six-year war in Darfur is effectively over, according to the United Nations military commander in the region. The conflict that has cost 300,000 lives, according to UN estimates, and displaced up to 2.7 million people has ended, General Martin Luther Agwai said yesterday.

"As of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur," the outgoing head of the joint UN-African Union mission told reporters in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. "Militarily there is not much. What you have is security issues more now. Banditry, localised issues, people trying to resolve issues over water and land at a local level. But real war as such, I think we are over that."

However, the Nigerian general's comments drew an angry response from Western campaigners and some Sudan observers. One regional analyst, Gill Lusk, said the remarks were unhelpful because they could lead people to believe that Darfur's problems had been solved. "There has been a large decline in fighting in Darfur, and that is undoubtedly a good thing for the people," she told the BBC. "But it is the government that turns the tap on and off – they can restart the violence whenever they want."

At the height of the war in 2005, Arab Janjaweed militias were raiding African villages, burning, killing and raping civilians. In some cases, villages were bombed by government planes disguised as humanitarian flights. The scale of the atrocities provoked an international outcry and accusations of genocide against the Arab-led government in Khartoum.

It also resulted in the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant this year for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, the first time a serving president has been indicted for war crimes. Khartoum has denied charges of genocide, estimates casualties at 10,000 and maintains that the hundreds of thousands of Darfuris living in refugee camps should return home.

General Agwai said the underlying causes of the conflict, and many of the rebel groups, remained in place but he said only one of them – the Justice and Equality Movement – was in a position to launch military strikes. "Because of the fragmentation of the rebel groups, I do not see any major thing that can take place," the commander added.

Fouad Hikmat, a regional analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the absence of war did not amount to peace. "We do not have peace in Darfur. There is no violence but it is not peace. All of the underlying causes of conflict in the region remain. There is a sort of ceasefire but the violence could return very quickly."

The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when several non-Arab groups took up arms against Khartoum, complaining at lack of representation and deliberate neglect of the region. The Bashir government has sought to portray the fighting as tribal rivalries over land and water. Attempts at reaching a negotiated settlement have failed.

America's special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, said in June there were only the "remnants of a genocide" in Darfur.

GOP blasts Idaho candidate's 'Obama tags' comment

The list of Idaho Republicans condemning a GOP gubernatorial candidate's comments about buying a license to hunt President Barack Obama grew Friday, as party leaders worried the incident would reflect badly on the state.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo said former elk rancher Rex Rammell's comment at a Twin Falls GOP merits an apology, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch disavowed him from the Republican Party, and Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter called Rammell's comment "reckless and inflammatory."

Rammell is among those running in the 2010 Idaho GOP primary against incumbent Otter.

On Tuesday, a GOP rally attendee shouted a question about "Obama tags" during discussion of Idaho's upcoming wolf hunt, where hunters must purchase $11.50 wolf tags.

Rammell responded, "The Obama tags? We'd buy some of those."

In a statement Friday, Crapo said, "Rex Rammell's comments are in very poor taste and should not have been said. Remarks like these should not even be made jokingly. He should apologize for those remarks and for the perception they may have created."

Otter said Friday afternoon that there was no place for Rammell's comments in Idaho, which he said damages confidence in the political process and those who serve the public.

"As governor, as an Idaho Republican and as a citizen of our state, I reject and condemn this kind of rhetoric," he said.

Rammell, a longshot GOP candidate who as an independent garnered just 5.4 percent of the vote in his unsuccessful 2008 U.S. Senate run against Risch, has refused to apologize and said he doesn't advocate assassinating Obama.

"Anyone who understands the law knows I was just joking, because Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue hunting tags in Washington D.C.," he said.

Rammell isn't the first Rexburg resident who has drawn attention for making an anti-Obama comment.

Last November, second- and third-grade students on a school bus there chanted "Assassinate Obama" after his election, prompting the mayor of this eastern Idaho town to publicly apologize.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson also criticized Rammell's comments, which he said weren't a true reflection of Idaho residents' hearts.

"It is absolutely irresponsible to say such inflammatory things, especially for someone who seeks to be a leader in Idaho," Simpson said. "I know our great state is filled with people who do not share Rex Rammell's views and we should not let isolated situations dictate how our state is perceived."

Risch has tangled with Rammell before, in 2006.

That summer, more than 100 elk from Rammell's ranch near Rexburg escaped into the wilds, prompting Risch, then Idaho's governor, to order an emergency hunt to prevent the spread of disease or interbreeding with wild elk herds near Yellowstone National Park.

Rammell's political run two years later against Risch for U.S. Senate — a race Rammell contested as an independent — was seen largely as an attempt to settle a personal grudge.

On Friday, Risch disowned Rammell as a GOP colleague.

"Everyone needs to remember the last time Rex Rammell ran for public office, he said, 'I'm not really a Republican.' He then filed as an independent," Risch said in a telephone interview from Lewiston, Idaho. "I agree with him. He's not a Republican. We all have our disagreements with the president, sometimes deep disagreements. But the man is the president of the United States and deserves to be treated as such."

SAT scores still low for African-American youth

More minorities are taking the SAT, but test scores for black students remain lowest among racial and ethnic groups, according to data released this week by the College Board.

Black students scored at least 72 points behind the overall average in critical reading, mathematics and writing.

"No one is disputing the fact that black and Hispanic students score much lower than white students do," said Andy Jacob, spokesman for the New York City Department of Education. "In the past, a lot of black and Hispanic kids were not taking [the SAT] at all and I don't think anyone wants to go back to those days."

Education advocates say more minority test takers is a positive first step but more is needed to fix the disparity in test scores.

"[More students taking the test] is not the end of the road," said Kim Sweet, execuitve director of the Advocacy for Children of New York. "It is still about how well the students are doing on the test and where they're going after. All of us in education need to work harder in making that happen."

Serena Williams seeks 12th major title at US Open

In one breath, Serena Williams says she considers herself the favorite at the U.S. Open.

In the next, she says she doesn't want to be touted as the woman to beat at the year's last Grand Slam tournament, which begins Monday.

At one point, Williams says she has no target number for major titles. At another point, she says she really was hoping to surpass Monica Seles' nine major singles championships — and now that Williams has 11, she wants to catch Billie Jean King's career count of 12.

"I used to never look at numbers. But the more I get, the more numbers I look at," Williams said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I want to get back to where I don't look at numbers."

Perhaps Williams is simply saying the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps she's really not sure how she feels. Or perhaps she's working on her acting chops during interviews and news conferences.

This much is clear: There have been two very different tennis players who have shown up under the name "Serena Williams" the past 12 months.

Check out these statistics dating to the start of the 2008 U.S. Open:

_Grand Slam Tournament Serena Williams is 25-1, for a .962 winning percentage, with three titles at the past four major championships, including a year ago at Flushing Meadows; she is 9-1 against top-10 players at majors in that span.

_Lesser Tournament Serena Williams is 21-11 (plus one walkover), for a .656 winning percentage, with zero titles at her past 12 nonmajor events; she is 3-5 against top-10 players at nonmajors in that span.

The contrast in numbers is far less pronounced for older sister Venus, but she, too, tends to play her best on the sport's biggest stages. Venus ranks second to Serena among active women with seven major titles.

"The Williams sisters just take it to another level when they are playing the Slams," observed Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles.

"The Williams sisters look at it as an opportunity," added Navratilova, part of Tennis Channel's announcing team at the U.S. Open. "They don't put that much pressure on themselves when they play the other tournaments. It's sort of like warmups."

Compare that to someone such as Dinara Safina, who is No. 1 in the WTA rankings and seeded No. 1 at the U.S. Open, ahead of No. 2 Serena Williams and No. 3 Venus Williams. Safina is 0-3 in Grand Slam finals over her career; she has, however, won three other titles in 2009.

Ask the younger Williams about the key to defending her championship at Flushing Meadows and she insists that she can't allow any shred of pressure to creep into her thoughts.

"I have to be really relaxed. Last year, I was super relaxed, and super calm. I just enjoyed every moment," she said. "That's where I need to be again."

Williams certainly knows what it takes to succeed at major tournaments, but there have been dips in performance at those events, too. For a while, she drew criticism for spending too much time pursuing outside interests and not enough time honing her game.

On the other hand, Williams' forays into fashion and acting helped turn her into something of a brand. She is not merely a sports star; she is a celebrity.

That's why she was invited to unveil a wax figure of herself Thursday at Madame Tussauds New York. That's why she was asked to make a guest appearance on Shaquille O'Neal's reality TV show. That's why she has an autobiography coming out next week. That's why she has nearly 1 million followers on Twitter.

That said, Williams is at her best — and is as good as it gets — when she has a racket in her hand, particularly at Grand Slam tournaments these days.

"I'm happy where I'm at, and I feel like I have several hundred more years to play," said Williams, who turns 28 in September. "Hopefully I'll win more."

Police Chief Tells NAACP Officer Was Wrong

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati's police chief says he expects to see the final internal affairs report on the tasing of a city councilman's daughter sometime Friday.

Celeste Thomas, 26, daughter of Councilman Cecil Thomas, was shot with a taser gun and arrested Sunday during a traffic stop.

Addressing a meeting of the NAACP at Southern Baptists Church in Avondale Thursday night, Chief Tom Streicher said the officer used unnecessary and excessive force because Thomas was not physically resisting arrest.

"There's not a criminal charge of assaulting a police officer, menacing a police officer, or resisting arrest," says Streicher. "And those are the charges that should be there that would support that use of force. Where's the charge? If it's not there, then I've got to ask the question, 'Then why did you use the taser?'"

Chief Streicher said the cruiser-cam video and witness statements from the arrest of Celeste Thomas, indicate she may have been interfering with officers arresting the man driving her car, but she was not physically resisting.

"If a person is on their knees, hands in the air asking, 'What did I do?’ – are they resisting arrest or are they posing a threat? I would have to say no,” said Streicher.

Our calls to the Fraternal Order of Police went unanswered Thursday night. But the story here on announcing the chief's meeting with the NAACP drew more than 130 comments, most of them angry the chief was not standing behind Officer Plummer.

The chief said, "The crowd is pretty happy in here. But read my e-mail. I got some hate mail over this, 'don't support your officers, blah, blah.' Well I do support the officers, I do support the department, I do support the community, but above all I support my oath of office. I don;t make decisions to make people happy. I make decisions to do the right thing."

Supporters of Officer Plummer were planning a protest at City Hall Saturday.

The chief suspended Officer Plummer's police powers, stripping him of his badge, gun, and placing him on desk duty pending the outcome of the internal investigation.

Meanwhile, Chief Streicher says, if he isn't happy with the report and its recommendations, he'll send it back.

Federal Reserve Threatens Economic Disaster If Forced to Reveal Secrets

The Federal Reserve has come out swinging at the judge who ruled in favor of Bloomberg News and their Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve asked a federal judge not to enforce her order that it reveal the names of the banks that have participated in its emergency lending programs and the sums they received, saying such disclosure would threaten the companies and the economy.

The central bank filed its request on Wednesday, two days after Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled in favor of Bloomberg News, which had sought information under the federal Freedom of Information Act. [...]

“Immediate release of these documents will cause irreparable harm to these institutions and to the board’s ability to effectively manage the current, and any future, financial crisis,” the central bank argued.

It added that the public interest favors a delay, citing a potential for “significant harms that could befall not only private companies, but the economy as a whole” if the information were disclosed. [...]

And a group of banks that make up the Clearing House Association LLC has sent a request to the judge urging her to reconsider her ruling.

The Clearing House Association LLC, which represents banks, in a separate filing supported the Fed’s call for a delay. It said speculation that banks’ liquidity is drying up could cause runs on deposits, and trading partners to demand collateral.

“Survival can depend on the ephemeral nature of public confidence,” Clearing House general counsel Norman Nelson wrote. “Experience in the banking industry has shown that when customers and market participants hear negative rumors about a bank, negative consequences inevitably flow.”

The Clearing House said its members include ABN Amro Holding NV, Bank of America Corp (BAC.N), Bank of New York Mellon Corp (BK.N), Citigroup Inc (C.N), Deutsche Bank AG (DBKGn.DE), HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA.L), JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N), UBS AG (UBSN.VX), U.S. Bancorp (USB.N) and Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N).

I guess judge Loretta Preska has received ‘the phone call’ telling her to back down. Today the judge has issued a stay to the order she issued just two days ago in order to allow the Federal Reserve time to put together an appeal. The judge has stayed the order until September 30th to appeal the Freedom of Information Act ruling.

It is tax payer money that is in question here and ‘we’ want to know how it is being used. The Federal Reserve continues to play games and is fighting every request to disclose anything about how the public funds are being used. Ron Pauls HR 1207 bill to audit the Fed will probably end up in the ‘do not call’ registry very soon as well.

Transparency? ha ha ha

Failed Banks and the Deposit Insurance Fund

As a companion to the August 28 Problem Bank List (unofficial), below is a list of failed banks since Jan 2007.

The FDIC released the Q2 Quarterly Banking Profile this week. The report showed that the Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF) balance had fallen to $10.4 billion or 0.22% of insured deposits.

Click on graph for larger image in new window.

The graph shows the cumulative estimated losses to the FDIC Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF) and the quarterly assets of the DIF (as reported by the FDIC). Note that the FDIC takes reserves against future losses in the DIF, and collects fees and special assessments - so you can't just subtract estimated losses from assets to determine the assets remaining in the DIF.

The cumulative estimated losses for the DIF are now over $40 billion.

In this Dick Bove interview with CNNMoney, the interviewer Poppy Harlow said:

"When we look at that list though - we don't get the names from the FDIC obviously - only about 13% of the bank on that list actually end up failing".
The 13% number is historically accurate, but that is over the entire cycle - and this down cycle will probably be worse than most. So during this down period, the percentage will probably be much higher. As far as the names of the banks on the "list", most of them are on the Unofficial Problem Bank list.

The FDIC closed three more banks on Friday, and that brings the total FDIC bank failures to 84 in 2009.

Obama: No turf wars, red tape in Katrina recovery

President Barack Obama marked the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Saturday by pledging to make sure that turf wars and red tape don't slow the pace of the continuing recovery.

He also said he would visit New Orleans by years' end.

In his weekly radio and Internet address, the president noted that the Bush administration's response to the killer storm raised questions among people in the U.S. about whether the government "could fulfill its responsibility to respond in a crisis."

He said he wanted to ensure "that the legacy of a terrible storm is a country that is safer and more prepared for the challenges that may come."

Since taking office, Obama has sent 11 members of the Cabinet to the region to inspect progress and to hear local ideas on how to speed up repairs.

"Our approach is simple: Government must keep its responsibility to the people, so that Americans have the opportunity to take responsibility for their future," Obama said in his address, released during his vacation on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.

Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi and leaving behind more than $40 billion in property damage. Hurricane Rita followed almost a month later, with billions of dollars in additional damage and at least 11 more deaths.

Obama acknowledged that recovery has not come at an acceptable pace.

"I have also made it clear that we will not tolerate red tape that stands in the way of progress or the waste that can drive up the bill," said Obama. "Government must be a partner — not an opponent — in getting things done."

As a candidate, he promised during a speech at Tulane University in February 2008 to help the city hire police officers, repair schools, improve public transit, finish rebuilding the levee system and offer financial incentives to attract teachers, businesses and medical professionals.

Obama's disaster relief chief, Craig Fugate, has been cited by Gulf Coast officials and Obama administration officials alike for breaking through the gridlock that has delayed recovery.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., recently said he had a lot of respect for Fugate and his team. "There is a sense of momentum and a desire to get things done," he said of the career emergency official.

In half a year, Obama's team says it has cleared at least 75 projects that were in dispute, including libraries, schools and university buildings.

Even so, many towns remain broken, littered with boarded-up houses and overgrown vacant lots. Hundreds of projects — including critical needs such as sewer lines, fire stations and a hospital — are entangled in the bureaucracy or federal-local disputes over who should pick up the tab.

"No more turf wars," Obama said. "All of us need to move forward together, because there is much more work to be done," he said.

Bucs name Leftwich starting QB

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have named Byron Leftwich their starting quarterback for the regular season opener, September 13 against Dallas.

Leftwich, who was signed to a two-year contract in the offseason, was tabbed as the starter over Luke McCown after a battle during training camp and the preseason.

"Byron did something a little bit more special as far as what he can do off the play-action pass, getting the ball down the field," said Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris. "Some of those things came more natural to him."

Leftwich spent the 2008 season with Pittsburgh, performing as the backup to Ben Roethlisberger after Charlie Batch was shelved with a broken right collarbone.

The Marshall product appeared in five games for the Super Bowl champion Steelers, completing 21-of-36 passes for 303 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Leftwich, the seventh overall pick of the 2003 NFL Draft, was 24-20 as a starter in four injury-plagued seasons in Jacksonville. The 29-year-old quarterback was released by the Jaguars before the 2007 campaign, and signed with the Atlanta Falcons, where he played just three games while throwing for 279 yards on 32-of-58 passing.

In 54 career games, Leftwich has thrown for 9,624 yards with 54 TDs and 38 interceptions.

McCown will serve as Leftwich's backup with rookie Josh Freeman slated in the No. 3 role.

"Luke did a great job competing," said Morris. "He was a competitor. He took chances and had some success doing it, but we thought Leftwich was the better guy."

The Bucs made some roster moves Saturday. They released defensive end Jarriett Buie, defensive back DeAngelo Willingham and guard Julius Wilson, also waived wide receiver Kelly Campbell.

DJ AM - His Tragic Return To Drugs Proved Deadly

An autopsy got underway Saturday afternoon to determine the exact cause of DJ AM's death -- but with cops already leaking the news that a crack pipe and numerous prescription drugs were found in the apartment, there's little doubt that pharmaceutics played a role in the disc jockey's tragic demise.

The sight of his body being removed from the Manhattan building Friday night was shocking enough to his family and friends but few if any were prepared for the idea that he'd fallen back into drugs.

Click Here For More Photos.

As recently as August 25, DJ AM was proudly talking to friends about his 11 years of sobriety, has learned. Then he broke up with girlfriend Hayley Wood. The American Apparel model, 23, reportedly was the one who ended the affair and DJ AM took the break-up hard. AM, whose real name was Adam Goldstein, and Wood began dating last December.

He was discovered dead in his $2 million apartment in Manhattan's SoHo District at 5:23 PM. Concerned that AM hadn't shown up for a flight to Las Vegas, two friends had gone to his home and when they couldn't get a response, called 911. Police broke in and found AM's lifeless body on his bed.

It's been almost a year since the AM and good pal Travis Barker were in a plane crash that cost the lives of four others. AM suffered Survivor's Guilt from the episode and was in chronic pain from his injuries -- possible other contributing factors to his return to drugs.

Karzai widens lead in Afghan election race

KABUL — President Hamid Karzai widened his lead over his main challenger in election returns released Saturday, creeping toward the 50 percent mark that would enable him to avoid a run-off in the divisive presidential contest.

Karzai's top challenger Abdullah Abdullah stepped up his fraud charges, raising doubts whether the former foreign minister's followers would accept the incumbent if he wins in the first round.

Accusations of fraud in the Aug. 20 vote have poured into the Electoral Complaint Commission, which must investigate the allegations before final results can be announced.

Fraud allegations from Abdullah and other presidential candidates as well as low turnout in the violent south could strip the election of legitimacy, not only among Afghans but also among the United States and its international partners that have staked their Afghan policies on support for a credible government.

A widely accepted Afghan government is one of the pillars of President Barack Obama's strategy to turn the tide of the Taliban insurgency. The election controversy has boiled over at a time of rising U.S. and NATO casualties, undermining support for the war in the U.S., Britain and other countries with troops here.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid a surprise visit Saturday to British troops in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, hoping to counter critics who accuse his government of failing to support Britain's mission here. A British Marine was killed by a bomb in Helmand on the day of the prime minister's visit, the Ministry of Defense said in London.

Figures released Saturday show Karzai with 46.2 percent of the votes against Abdullah's 31.4 percent. The results are based on 35 percent of the country's polling stations, meaning the percentages could still change dramatically.

Few results have been announced from northern Balkh province, where Abdullah was expected to run strong, and from some southern Pashto-speaking provinces where Karzai draws his support.

Karzai's aides appeared confident that the president would score a first-round victory and avoid a run-off, which would probably be held in October if needed.

By contrast, Abdullah has been stepping up his charges, telling Italy's RAI television that Karzai was responsible for "state-crafted, massive election fraud."

Abdullah's drumbeat of allegations appear aimed in part at the United States and its allies, which would face some hard choices if a substantial number of fraud complaints are found to be true.

"If we allow he who robbed the votes of this country to move forward, we would give the Afghan people a future that they do not want to see, and I think this goes also for the international community," Abdullah said in the Italian interview.

Abdullah said he would keep his protests "within the confines of the law."

"But the fact is that the foundations of this country have been damaged by this fraud, throwing it open to all kinds of consequences, including instability," he added. "It is true that the Taliban are the first threat to this country, but an illegitimate government would be the second."

International officials — including Obama, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan and the European Commission — were quick to congratulate Afghans for pulling off the vote in the face of Taliban threats and violence.

But the massive fraud allegations that have surfaced since then have cast a dark shadow over the process, and some officials are withholding judgment on whether the election was credible.

Senior officials from 27 countries — including special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke — are to meet in Paris on Wednesday to discuss Afghanistan, and the disputed election is likely to dominate the agenda.

During his visit with British forces, Brown promised to provide more equipment to help his soldiers cope with Taliban roadside bombs, the major threat to NATO forces. More than 200 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 — more than Britain lost in the Iraq conflict.

"Let me pay tribute to the courage, bravery, professionalism and patriotism of our forces," Brown told the troops at the British base in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province. "I think our forces have shown extraordinary courage during this period. They know the reason why we are here and that is our security at home depends on a stable Afghanistan, no return of the Taliban, and no role for al-Qaida in the running of Afghanistan."

Brown called for speeding up the training of Afghan forces so they can play a bigger role in fighting the Taliban.

Britain has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with more than 60,000 Americans. Obama ordered about 21,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year, raising the total international force to more than 100,000.

A Principled and Pragmatic Approach to Healthcare Reform

On 8/13/09, Paul Begala's Washington Post article titled Progress Over Perfection made the case that our country needs the "right blend of principle and pragmatism" and we ought not to prefer "glorious defeat to an incremental victory." The primary issue, imo, is how to take an approach stressed by John in the past, i.e., (1) define what we have to (ought to, should, must) do in order for our healthcare reform strategy be judged as principled and, at the same time, (2) define what we can do in order for it to be judged as pragmatic. Following is how I see it.

To be principled, we ought to ensure that our strategy be guided by empathy ("putting yourself in others' shoes" to understand what they are going through) and compassion (caring what others are going through and doing what we reasonably can do to help those in distress). Failure to do so makes the strategy inhumane, fosters civil unrest, and causes cognitive dissonance that is often resolved by heartless, selfish, ignorant rationalizations (e.g., blaming the victim or believing that you are somehow more worthy than those less fortunate). As I have written in my blog, many humans are short on empathy and compassion, and our pathologically mutated form of capitalism breeds this disgusting tendency. When it comes to healthcare reform, a humanely principled strategy, therefore, means giving all Americans ready access to affordable top quality (high value, cost effective) care. Hence, we must have some sort of universal coverage and the means to continually improve the quality and lower the cost of treating persons with biomedical and psychological problems, as well as enabling people to take good care of themselves to prevent and effectively manage those problems.

To be pragmatic, we ought to find fair and effective ways to pay for the tactics aimed at realizing the two main objectives of a principled strategy: (1) providing universal coverage and (2) continually improving care effectiveness and efficiency leading to ever-better and more affordable approaches to care. The methods for financing these tactics must be sustainable over the long term, and there must be ample reliable oversight and transparency to assure no one is gaming the system for their own unprincipled selfish gains at other expense. These requirements are not easy to satisfy, especially since our society tends to focus on short-sighted, quick-fix solutions that are short on empathy and compassion for the public good, and also fail to promote self discipline and personal responsibility & accountability. This points to the need for substantial governmental reform aimed at minimizing lobbyists' influence, quid pro quo favors to party benefactors, operational inefficiencies, etc.

Some of the major healthcare reform tactics being discussed include the public option vs. co-ops, tort reform, and price gouging by pharmaceutical companies. These tactics are all important considerations for a healthcare reform strategy, but they do not explicitly address how they will help achieve the two main objectives of a principled strategy, i.e., prevent healthcare costs from continuously rising and promote ever-greater care quality. That is, these tactics fail to explain how they will to bring ever-increasing value (cost-effectiveness) to the consumer. As a result, it doesn't matter if the government (public option) or private insurers (co-ops) provides insurance coverage, malpractice insurance expenditures drops, and costs medication prices drop because expenditures will continue to climb and quality will not show much improvement unless we can answer these two unaddressed questions:

What is the most cost-effective ways to prevent, diagnose, treat and manage health problems for each person?

How can healthcare providers and consumers be enabled and encouraged to make decisions and take actions that implement those cost-effective ways of avoiding, understanding, and treating/managing health problems?
Answering these two questions requires that we focus extensively on (a) implementing coordinated international scientific research, (b) disseminating ever-evolving evidence-based guidelines emerging from that research, and (c) incentivizing everyone to act accordingly. Any strategy that fails to include the methods and means for achieving these tactics cannot possibly answer to the two questions above, which means it is an inferior unsustainable solution that is neither principled nor pragmatic because:

Consumers will never know how to take care of themselves in the most effective and least costly manner. This ignorance leaves all sorts of opportunities for the promulgation of ineffective and overly expensive self-management approaches.

Healthcare clinicians/providers will never know how to take care of their patients effectively for the least cost. This leaves all sorts of opportunities for ineffective and overly expensive testing/diagnostic and treatment procedures to promulgate due to widespread ignorance. The result is continuing escalation of costs due to over-treatment and over-testing; prescriptions for new and costly procedures, medications and medical devices that offer insignificant gains compared lower cost alternatives; gaming the system through fraudulent and unethical practices aimed at personal financial gains; etc.

The best way to curb malpractice expenditures has less to do with tort reform and more to do with (a) giving everyone the information they need to know the most cost-effective way to diagnose and treat each particular patient and (b) promoting clinicians' competence and willingness to deliver such cost effective care.

The best way to curb prices charged by pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers, and for consumers not to overpay, is for widespread cost-effectiveness and comparative-effectiveness research to be done, including post-market surveillance.
As far as the public option versus co-ops is concerned, I suggest that if co-ops can provide high-value care via affordable coverage for everyone in a way that cost the taxpayer less than a comparable public option plan, then we don't need the public option. I reject arguments by the insurance industry that they are better able to manage universal coverage because they have more experience and patient data by which to make decisions since the data they have are "claims/administrative" data, which is grossly inadequate for answering the two questions above; what's needed are comprehensive clinical outcomes data (see this link). Nevertheless, the problem is that it is impossible to validly determine if co-ops are superior unless the public plan is also implemented, so we can compare the two.

Here's an idea: Since it will take some time to establish and initiate a public plan, how about starting by instituting a nation-wide co-op system immediately and having it run for a year while the public plan is being created. The cost, quality, and access data depicting the co-op's performance would be analyzed at the end of the year, the results would be made transparent o the public, and this information would serve as a baseline by which to rate the performance of the public plan and subsequent versions of the co-op system. I suppose we can start by estimating the cost of the public option by extrapolating expansion of the current Medicare system, and then compare it to the co-op option supported by government subsidies. Anyway, both options must include the price of implementing the necessary cost-effectiveness research and incentives, as well as providing a justifiable game plan about how it will all be done in a sustainable way. In addition, there must be transparency of cost and quality for both options, so consumers can make an informed decision. No matter the method used, there must be a valid way to clearly compare the two options.

Lots of details to be worked out, of which cost of coverage is only one factor. Other factors required for continuous increase in the value (cost-effectiveness) of care to the consumer--in addition to the need for universal coverage, knowledge of cost-effectiveness, incentives for delivering high-value care, tort reform, and cost controls on pharmaceuticals—include the need for (a) care coordination (e.g., through patient-centered medical homes), (b) well-care/sick-care integration, (c) serious consideration of complementary and alternative (CAM) approaches to care in addition to conventional Western allopathic approaches, (d) serious consideration of the mind-body connection, and (e) development and use of next-generation health information technology that provides clinical decision support through implementation of patient-centered cognitive support methods.

Being overly focused on the immediate cost and management of universal coverage, without a balanced focus on the urgent need to continuously increase care value to the consumer, will never result in a better healthcare system and, most likely, will cause further deterioration of care quality and substantial rise of costs over time!

I conclude, therefore, that we certainly do need a principled and pragmatic approach to healthcare reform. Unfortunately, the current debate in our country is grossly imbalanced as we focus on ways to pay for and administer universal coverage, without due consideration for how we will pay for and administer ways to continually increase value to the consumer in ways that reduce healthcare expenditures and improve care quality over the long haul. The bottom line: I contend that the ONLY principled and pragmatic way to minimize cost while maximizing care quality (i.e., optimizing cost-effectiveness/value) is by assuring everyone get all the personalized care they need—and only the care they need—which is delivered in the most efficient and effect way possible. We are literally in the dark ages, however, when it comes having such evidence-based knowledge! This means that we much commit the resources necessary to (a) obtain and evolve such knowledge through international collaboration focused on ongoing clinical outcomes research, and (b) use such knowledge to support the decisions and actions taken by clinicians and consumers. This should be a top priority equal in importance to universal coverage!

Gulf Coast Still Struggling Four Years After Hurricane Katrina

The widespread devastation from Hurricane Katrina still leaves its mark across the Gulf Coast four years after the massive storm came ashore, killing nearly 2,000 people in the process. Many of those killed were never recovered, but my thoughts and prayers go out to them, their families, and their friends.

The storm completely changed entire cities and communities up and down the Gulf Coast. The devastation was total in many areas, and widespread flooding, particularly around New Orleans caused total devastation around the low-lying areas. Commemorations of the hurricane are taking place up and down the Gulf Coast and around New Orleans.

The slow pace of recovery has long been a sore point, and President Obama vows to speed the recovery, particularly around New Orleans:

Mr. Obama said he had coordinated the recovery effort across federal agencies and state and local governments. “No more turf wars,” he said.

“I have also made it clear that we will not tolerate red tape that stands in the way of progress, or the waste that can drive up the bill,” Mr. Obama said, adding, “Government must be a partner, not an opponent, in getting things done.”

He said his administration had put in place dispute-settlement programs in an effort to speed up the recovery.

In addition, he said, the government had freed up hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance that had not been distributed.

“As we rebuild and recover, we must also learn the lessons of Katrina, so that our nation is more protected and resilient in the face of disaster,” Mr. Obama said.

“That means continuing to rebuild hundreds of miles of levees and floodwalls around New Orleans,” Mr. Obama said, “and working to strengthen the wetlands and barrier islands that are the Gulf Coast’s first line of defense.”
Those levees are still not quite up to snuff.

In fact, nationally, levees are in poor shape because of design and/or construction defects such as those protecting New Orleans, threatening millions of Americans. For all the talk about improving infrastructure, levee and waterworks that protect millions of Americans is undercapitalized. Why this is the case is simply a matter of priorities. Politicians would rather unveil new construction projects than the tedium of constant attention that levees and other water protection projects require.

Then there's the issue of levee reconstruction, which has been hampered by natural conditions, including salty soil that inhibits growth of grass that stabilizes the surface of the levees that prevent erosion. The Army Corps was supposed to rebuild a section in Plaquimines Parish, but they didn't even think to test for salt content. They've missed reconstruction deadlines as a result, putting lives in danger.

Pumping stations that are supposed to divert water away from New Orleans aren't up to snuff either. There are questions about the costly system, and that hundreds of millions of dollars could have been saved using proven technologies.
Citing the corps' $430 million plan to replace the hydraulic pumps by 2012, just five years after they were installed, the special counsel concludes that a "proven" direct-drive pump design would have been less prone to corrosion and breakdowns. Based on an independent engineering review, the counsel says direct-drive pumps could have been purchased "more quickly, more reliably and without planning for pump … replacement."

Hydraulic pumps are powered by pressurized oil. Direct-drive pumps use solid drive shafts.

The findings, previously unreported, were sent to President Obama on June 12.

The investigation confirms "serious allegations about the reliability of the pumping equipment" that were raised in a 2007 whistle-blower complaint by corps engineer Maria Garzino, the letter says. The findings raise concerns about whether a major storm could overwhelm rebuilt flood controls that the corps has set up in New Orleans since Katrina hit four years ago this week.

The corps declined to comment, but corps officials previously have disputed the concerns raised by Garzino, who was a supervisor on the pump project.

"There are still questions about the contracting, design and safety of these critical pump stations," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said about the special counsel's report. The corps must "demonstrate that these structures are indeed safe and will function properly," Landrieu said.

The special counsel's findings are the latest turn in a long debate over the pumps.

The Defense Department's inspector general has reviewed Garzino's concerns twice and ruled each time that the pumps, though not tested as well as they could have been, were a reasonable choice and should provide adequate protection until they're replaced with a more permanent system. Each time, the special counsel, an independent office that investigates whistle-blower complaints, has disputed the Pentagon's conclusions.

It must be restated once again that the disaster in New Orleans was the result of the failure of the levees that were supposed to protect against storm surges. Hurricane Katrina made a glancing blow against New Orleans, hitting further to the East, and the city escaped the damage from the storm as it passed. It was when the backside of the storm forced water back into the various drainage canals that the levees failed - primarily because they were inadequate to the task and improperly designed and constructed. The majority of those killed, and the tremendous damage in New Orleans resulted from the failure of the protection system put in place by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Hot Air also has additional coverage of the anniversary of the landfall along the Gulf Coast, and how much of what people know about happened is wrong.

Jaycee Lee Dugard’s Kidnapper Found While Proselytizing

Over the past couple days, you may have heard the story of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the woman who was abducted at the age of 11 and kept in captivity for 18 years. During that time, she was raped and gave birth to two children (one child was born was Dugard was only 14).

The kidnapper is Phillip Garrido, a 58-year-old and registered sex offender.

While so much of the story is disturbing, what’s particularly relevant to me is how Garrido was caught after all this time:

The case broke after Garrido was spotted Tuesday with two children as he tried to enter the University of California, Berkeley, campus to hand out religious literature. Officers said he was acting suspiciously toward the children. They questioned him and did a background check, determined that he was a parolee and informed his parole officer.

People who knew Garrido said he became increasingly fanatic about his religious beliefs in recent years, sometimes breaking out into song and claiming that God spoke to him through a box.

In April 2008, Garrido registered a corporation called Gods Desire at his home address, according to the California Secretary of State. During recent visits to the showroom, Garrido would talk about quitting the printing business to preach full time and gave the impression he was setting up a church, Allen said.

As reader Stacey writes:

I don’t know what religion has to do with this, if anything, but the fact that this man was proselytizing while keeping a human caged up in his backyard says something bad.

Was this man mentally unstable? No clue. He clearly had issues.

But his non-criminal actions are no different than so many other people — people who want to set up a church, who believe God speaks to them, who proselytize… if you want to call him delusional or crazy because of these things, then you’d be saying that about most religious people, too.

How is someone that deeply religious capable of doing something so awful? Shouldn’t there be some sort of cognitive dissonance going on? I know we all can point to examples of religious people doing evil things (e.g. The Crusades, Hitler, etc.) but this guy is different. He’s someone’s neighbor.

What do religious people say when they hear about this story? It makes no sense to say he wasn’t truly faithful when all the facts point to him being devoutly religious. How do they distance themselves from Garrido’s criminal behavior while believing many of the same things he does?

One thing is clear from this story: Having religious belief does not make you a better, more moral, kinder person than those us without religion.

Obama: Kennedy was 'soul of the Democratic Party'

BOSTON — President Barack Obama has saluted Sen. Edward Kennedy for surmounting pain and suffering to become a family patriarch and personification of American legislator.

Eulogizing the 77-year-old Kennedy, who died Tuesday, Obama called the senator "the soul of the Democratic Party" and said that in his personal life, he lived up the expectations as "the heir to a weighty legacy."

Obama led some 1,500 people, including three former presidents, at a funeral Mass for Kennedy at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basicala in Kennedy's beloved Boston. He said the senator handled life's challenges with a "spirit of resilience and good humor."

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BOSTON (AP) — President Barack Obama led the nation and a church filled with mourners Saturday in remembering "the greatest legislator of our time," celebrating the indelible impact of Edward M. Kennedy over a 47-year Senate career and his role as patriarch of America's most famous family during tragedy and triumph.

Delivering an emotional, simple eulogy for Kennedy that capped a two-hour Roman Catholic funeral Mass, Obama employed humor, his own experiences and timeless anecdotes to memorialize the senator, who died Tuesday at 77 after battling brain cancer for more than a year. The country may have viewed him as "heir to a weighty legacy," Obama said, but he was playfully known by the youngest Kennedys less grandly: as the big cheese, "The Grand Fromage."

"Ted Kennedy's life's work was not to champion those with wealth or power or special connections," Obama said. "It was to give a voice to those who were not heard; to add a rung to the ladder of opportunity, to make real the dream of our founding."

The president said that "though it is Ted Kennedy's historic body of achievements we will remember, it is his giving heart that we will miss."

The service drew to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica three of the four living former presidents, dozens of Kennedy relatives, pews full of current and former members of Congress and hundreds of others affected by the senator in ways large and small. No fewer than seven priests, 11 pallbearers and 29 honorary pallbearers took part. Mournful performances came from tenor Placido Domingo and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.