June 30, 2010

Otis still doesn't have a gun

At first there seemed to be little reason to comment on McDonald v. Chicago, since just about every pro and anti blog in the sphere already has, with each putting a particular spin to it but most missing the mark to some degree or another.

Contrary to popular opinion, the court’s decision did not overturn state and local handgun prohibitions. The court simply affirmed that local and state governments can't usurp 2A protections. They did not directly overturn the Chicago handgun ban, but rather they sent the case back to a lower court in Chicago with instructions to decide the original case, using this new standard as a guide.

So no, the 5-4 split court did not erase any of the current gun laws, and in fact, just like in the Heller decision, indicated that reasonable regulation remains appropriate.

We can expect problems to come from the fact that both the McDonald and Heller opinions were pointedly non-specific in defining what kind of regulations might be appropriate, or what restriction might pose a constitutional violation.

The question has come up about state's rights and the 10th amendment. When our Constitution was ratified, Bill of Rights protections applied only to the federal government and states were protected from federalism under 10A. Under those circumstances a state would have been mostly free to enact any restriction without worry.

However, 10A was limited under 14A. Due to the 14A clause precluding states from depriving citizens of the United States of "life, liberty or property" without due process, and the clause that reads "no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States," SCOTUS has, since the end of the American Revolution, broadly applied Bill of Rights persons at all levels of government.

In the Heller opinion, SCOTUS held that "the Second Amendment protects the right to possess a handgun in the home for the purpose of self-defense." Heller applied to federal law within the District of Columbia, but in the McDonald ruling the court utilized the same argument under 14A authority, holding that the same protection applied to all citizens in every jurisdiction; federal, state, and local.

In both of those rulings, however, the court leaves the “reasonable regulation” door ajar, and therein lies the rub.

Because of this we likely can’t expect wholesale changes of any laws, but states and cities will be forced to reconsider existing laws and determine if they comply with a very nebulous standard. Constitutional lawyers are likely rubbing their hands together in glee, knowing well that there will be scads of lawsuits, all of which leave the lower courts to decide that which is appropriate and what is not. Regardless of those decision, one of these suits will find its way to the High Court’s door some day in the future. SCOTUS has not seen the end of 2A arguments.

Until a time comes when “reasonable regulation” is defined, the ordinance banning handgun possession by most Chicago citizens will remain on the books, and Otis McDonald, the septuagenarian plaintiff in the case, still lives in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods.

And Otis still doesn’t have a gun.

June 28, 2010

The first domino

The moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in water depths greater than 500 feet may have caused it's first fatality. This will probably cost maybe 100-120 jobs on the $50K to $125K salary range. The rig will likely move to West Africa, providing those jobs to European Expats and African nationals.

The moratorium is overkill, and it will cost the U.S. dearly if the stay is not upheld.

UPDATE: Guess I missed it, but apparently Statoil declared force majeure in the GOM about two weeks back.

UPDATE: Seems another has fallen.

Monday Music

Jalacy Hawkins was born July 18, 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a young child, “Jay” was trained as a classical pianist and had dreams of being an opera star. Things changed. In his 20’s Jay picked up a guitar and all that other nonsense went out the window.

Here is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins performing Heart Attack and Vine.

Another hit came with I am the Cool!

Hawkins became popular in both rock & roll and blues genres, writing and performing some outlandish tunes. With a flair for the dramatic, Jay came on stage wearing strange haircuts, even stranger clothing, and he rigged his stage with a variety of shocking props.

I Put a Spell on You became Hawkins biggest hit. It was popular world wide and has been reprised by great blues and rock & roll artists many times since. Probably the best known tribute is this performance by John Fogarty and Credence Clearwater Revival.

Nina Simone does a fine version.

Even Marilyn Manson felt the need to channel Screamin’ Jay.

My favorite so far is this one; with Grammy award winning singer Joss Stone, and legendary rocker Jeff Beck on guitar. This version is contained in Beck’s latest CD; the first he has released in seven years and his first effort into classical strings. Emotion and Commotion was released just this past May.

Screamin’ Jay died in Paris about 10 years ago having left a musical legacy that continues entertaining us today, and likely will for many years to come.

June 27, 2010

Sunday Funnies

June 26, 2010

Recent federal anti-fraud efforts productive

One of the schemes touted by the Obama administration as a means to help pay for healthcare reform appears to be having some effect. Added resources provided to law enforcement and regulatory agencies have produced some impressive results in a remarkably short period of time.

Last year a Houston Podiatrist and a co-defendant were arrested on federal charges of submitting false and fraudulent claims to both the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs. Franklin Beltre, DPM, was actually out of the state for much of the time, while the services were performed instead by co-defendant Manuela Alana, an unlicensed, unsupervised podiatrist. Both defendants accepted a plea bargain with Beltre this month receiving a 36-month sentence and Alana sentenced to 24 months.

On June 17th, Dr. John Edward Perry III, MD, age 47, of The Woodlands, Texas, and Kate Ose Olear, age 43, a Nigerian national residing in Houston, have been convicted of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud. Durable medical equipment company (DME) owner Olear billed Medicare $2.8 million for unnecessary arthritis kits, with authorization from Perry, for more than 683 beneficiaries – some of whom were deceased.

Also on June 17th, 50-year-old Nicodemus Udofia of Tyler, Texas, was arrested by a joint team of state and federal investigators. Udofia, the owner of a Tyler DME, is charged with multiple counts of health care fraud, wire fraud, illegal remunerations, and aggravated identity theft.

Then on June 21st, four Houston-area home health agency owners and three of their employees were charged for alleged participation in a $5 million Medicare fraud scheme. Clifford Ubani, 52; Ezinne Ubani, 45; Princewill Njoku, 51; Caroline Njoku, 45; Mary Ellis, 54; Michelle Turner, 42; and Cynthia Garza-Williams, 49, are charged with a variety of counts, including conspiracy to commit health care fraud, paying and/or receiving kickbacks, and making false statements in the submission of claims to the Medicare program.

The investigations all are part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force; a joint effort by agents of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Personnel Management, Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Division, Texas Attorney General Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, United States Railroad Retirement Board and the FBI.

These are just a few cases from my home state of Texas that have been in the news over the past couple of weeks. The year-old strikeforce teams (dubbed HEAT) deployed across the country are being very effective. Nationwide, in just the first half of 2010, their efforts are being credited with the recovery of more than $3 billion, including $670 million in audit receivables and $2.5 billion in investigative receivables. For every dollar invested in the program, four dollars are being recovered and returned to the trust fund.

1,935 individuals and entities have been excluded from participating in federal health care programs. Additionally, 293 criminal actions and 164 civil actions have been initiated. Several criminals are already serving time.

The HEAT teams are weeding the patch, reducing false claims recovering ill-gotten monies and jailing the bottom feeders. Far more importantly, the honey pot has been salted. The formerly low-hanging fruit of federal money has become become incredibly difficult and more risky, resulting in fraudsters not quite so as anxious to apply for a provider number.

The Obama administration’s healthcare cost containment efforts are effective but largely unnoticed by the mainstream press. However, he wins a gold star from this blogger.

Additional resources and news HERE, HERE and HERE.

June 25, 2010

College credit for superstition

Texas judge rules that the Institute for Creation Research cannot award accredited degrees in myth.

The purveyors of the supernatural will appeal, of course.

Read Judge Sparks' ruling HERE.

June 24, 2010

Nectar of the gods

Places like Kansas City and St. Louis try to claim some kind of ownership to barbecue. I'm sorry... but it started in Texas. The cattle were raised here and delivered there, so it only makes sense that all things beef had their genesis in Texas.

Barbecue as we know it is rather new to this world, with roots barely older than 100 years. There is evidence suggesting that German immigrants to Texas in the late 1800's/early1900's, while trying to find ways of cooking beef brisket to make it more palatable, just might be how closed pit, smoked bar-b-cue came about.

In the late 19th century, around the time that the Texas cattle industry was booming, German immigrants were taking the lead in preparing and cooking beef. The Germans fit in naturally because of strong butchering and sausage-making history. As good butchers will do, these German immigrants sought whatever means possible to make use of every scrap of the beef carcass, including the cheaper, most useless, and most unpalatable cuts. 

Beef brisket fits that description. The cut is as tough as skirt and has a very high fat content to boot.

Thus brisket historically was never been a beloved cut. Cooking a brisket by any of the common means resulted in something only barely edible. Rather than cooking over an open fire, more often it was boiled or pickled into the old-world corned beef. Boiled beef sucks, and corned beef was never a a Texas favorite, so it was often just fed to the dogs.

Well, we don’t feed it to the dogs these days. There is a whole subculture grown up around Texas barbecue, but wannabes from around the county still spin history to make it appear as if their poor excuse is the real thing. 

Sorry folks, but history wins this one. Texas is the home of real barbecue. 

Historically meat was cooked over open fires. Pits in the old days were simply some kind of bowl with a fire built in the bottom, and a spit or grate over them. In the late 19th and early 20th century the Texas  German community started cooking this otherwise useless cut of meat slowly on pits with lids, under low heat, and not directly over the fire. The high fat content simmered in the low heat and melted away slowly, keeping the meat from drying out and leaving only tender beef with a wonderful smoky flavor. 

This worked, and the only argument at that time revolved around which tree produced the best smoking wood.

Other than the rubs, nothing much has changed to this day. Closed pit, slow smoking remains the way to achieve a great beef brisket. You don't really need spices, seasonings, or rubs because of the flavor is naturally in the meat, but a good rub will help you win fans and contests.

So, in the public interest, I’d like to offer my recipe for Texas dry rub barbecue brisket.

Smoking a brisket is a slow process, so you should plan to start cooking the evening before. Depending on the size of your smoker you can do more than one brisket at a time. I have a big one capable of doing ten at the same time. The process is slow, and you’re cooking more with smoke than heat, so the more meat the merrier.

My favorite smoking wood is pecan, but mesquite and apple are good too. Hickory, while a favorite of many, fails to meet my expectations. In the end the only real criterion is that the wood be of the hardwood variety. Pine makes sucky BBQ.

Maintenance of the fire is imperative. The brisket will be under heat for up to 18 hours, and under smoke for at least the last six hours, so the heat level must remain constant over the entire time. Your target temperature is 180 degrees, so plan to babysit the fire overnight, having a good supply of charcoal and a fair supply of wood on hand before starting.

You'll actually have two fires. Build your first with charcoal alone. If possible avoid using starter fluid, but if you use that noxious stuff be sure it has burned off before starting the next step.

While the fire is settling down you should prepare your meat. Start with a 7-10 pound untrimmed beef brisket. This time of year is the best time to buy brisket, as many of the grocery stores offer sales on the traditional Independence Day fare. You’ll find the best prices in the Kroger at 99 cents a pound (usually limit two with a minimum purchase). Look for a slab that is nicely fatty on one side and bloody red on the other. Never buy a trimmed brisket.

Rub the brisket thoroughly with the dry rub (recipe below), wrap in heavy-duty aluminum foil (I like to double wrap to ensure a good seal), fat side up. To add a bit of the familiar, I like to drape several thick slices of bacon over the brisket before wrapping.

Place the wrapped brisket in the pit for about 12 hours. Keeping the moisture in the meat is important, so be certain you have a good wrap. Check your temperature frequently to ensure you maintain 180 degrees.

After 12 hours have passed, peel the foil open and remove the bacon, exposing the meat directly to the heat (you can eat the bacon now, but you need a beer to go with it.)

Start tossing some of the soaked pecan wood onto the coals and watch the smoke start to rise. Close the pit and leave it closed. Every time you open the lid you let smoke escape and the temperature suffers. In about six hours you’re ready to pull the brisket off the rack and enjoy a real, tasty treat.

You've been cooking mostly with smoke for these six hours, so you’ve got to make your wood smoke as much as possible when burning. My way of accomplishing this is to soak the wood in a trough of water prior to placing it in the firebox. Make sure you have a bed of good charcoal, get it burning good and hot, then place the soaked wood on top. To maintain sufficient moisture in the meat I set a pan of water on the edge of the fire. The steam from the water helps keep the meat hydrated.

Like I mentioned earlier, even without a rub the brisket, if prepared in this manner is very tasty. The fat boiling off adds the majority of the flavor and the bacon certainly doesn’t hurt, but a good rub adds your personal signature. Throughout history, barbecue chefs have created signature rubs, and then taken that recipe to the grave. I have no intention of following suit. Here is mine.

Brisket Rub ala Phudpucker - (also useful for pork butt or loin)

RULE #1 – Use fresh ingredients. Stuff in cans, bottles or jars bought off of shelves may be old and losing flavor. Using the freshest and highest quality you can locate will improve the outcome, and keeping a grinder around so you can process your own promotes the highest quality product.

These are the spices I use, and the ratio in which they are added. Make the recipe as large or small as needed, and then toss any leftovers. They don’t keep well.
  • Raw, brown sugar – 16 to 1
  • Salt – 6 to 1
  • Dried garlic – 2 to 1
  • Dried onion – 2 to 1
  • Dried ancho chilies – 2 to 1
  • Cumin seed – 2 to 1
  • Annatto seed – 2 to 1
  • Fine grind black pepper – 1 to 1
  • Cayenne pepper – 1 to 1
  • Coriander seed – 1 to 1
  • Thyme – 1 to 1

So now go forth, make plenty big smoke (you’d be surprised how this helps get girls), then feed the naked and the unwashed with the nectar of the gods. Enjoy.

Taxes are taxes

My hometown of Fort Worth has been struggling with ways to close a projected $50 million budget deficit for the coming fiscal year. Nearby Dallas has been in the news due to protests over cuts in services as that city attempts to confront a projected $198 million shortfall.

A couple of reports that came out last month caused me to become curious about other U.S. cities and just how bad the situation is. As it turns out, American cities are in a world of trouble.

In the report issued by the American League of Cities, titled a Research Brief on American Cities, we find the following:

• Three in four (75%) city officials report that overall economic and fiscal conditions have worsened over the past year.
• Eighty-four percent of city officials report that unemployment has worsened over the past year and nearly nine in 10 say it is either a major (41%) or moderate (47%) problem for their community.
• More than six in 10 (63%) city officials report that poverty has worsened over the past year; representing the largest percentage of city officials reporting worsened poverty conditions since the question was first asked in NLC’s 1992 survey.
• To deal with the fiscal implications of these and other economic conditions, seven in ten city officials report making cuts to personnel (71%) and delaying or cancelling capital projects (68%).
• One in two (52%) city officials report that service levels will continue to decrease next year if city tax rates and fees are not increased.

Then Pew Charitable Trusts affiliate, the Philadelphia Research Institute, reports on the recession’s effect on city taxes, services and pension plans in a report titled, Not Out of the Woods, compare and contrast 12 American cities suffering from a variety of deficit-related ill effects, and the means employed by each to overcome their woes.

Around here there have been fee increases, free parking at city owned facilities (including museums) are being eliminated, garbage collection may be cut back, city swimming pools will not open, library hours are curtailed, and city employees are forced to take unpaid furloughs.

$50 million is a lot of money and they have to make up for it some way. We need to do something about it, but one means of increasing revenues is getting under my skin. Fort Worth and the surrounding suburbs are among many other cities practicing selective traffic enforcement as a means of revenue enhancement. Red light cameras, escalated parking violation enforcement, and speed traps. These and other selective taxes have enjoyed huge growth over the past few years.

Fort Worth is in the red, but other cities have it far worse. Researching a variety of Internet news sources I’ve compiled an interesting list of American cities and their reported budget deficits.

• New York City almost $5 billion

• Detroit $710 million

• Los Angeles $697 million

• Chicago $521 million

• San Francisco $483 million

• Phoenix $241 million

• Dallas $190 million

• Boston $130 million

• San Jose $126 million

• Honolulu $121 million

• Baltimore $121 million

• Denver $120 million

• Atlanta $80 million

• Las Vegas $80 million

• Seattle $72 million

• Harrisburg, PA $70 Million

• Yonkers $61 million

• Reno $35 million

• San Diego $30 million

• Norfolk $26 million

• New Orleans $24 million

• Cleveland $23 million

• Springfield, MO $17 million

• Sacramento $15 million

• Springfield, IL $13 million

• Bossier City $6.5 million

• Little Rock $3 million

• Lincoln NE $2 million

I suspect that I could spend more time digging and I would find that each of these cities is using similar creative revenue enhancement schemes as my own burg, placing non-tax taxes on their citizens.

America… Love it or leave it… I guess.

June 23, 2010

Cheap drug saves lives

Patients suffering acute injury with serious bleeding historically don’t do well. But a recent study is showing that if these same patients were to receive a cheap, readily available drug that is easily administered in the pre-hospital setting, potentially tens of thousands of lives could be saved every year.

A Professor of Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Dr Ian Roberts, has published the results of a study showing that early administration of a drug called TXA (tranexamic acid) to these patients does indeed save lives, with no evidence of adverse effects or clotting.

The CRASH-2 trial was a large, randomized study involving more than 20,000 adult patients in 274 hospitals across 40 countries, and is the first pre-hospital trial of TXA. Smaller trials have shown the drug reduces bleeding in patients undergoing major surgery.

For those between five years and 45 years, trauma is second only to HIV/AIDS as the leading cause of death. Dr. Roberts estimates some 600,000 trauma patients die from uncontrolled bleeding annually. In the CRASH-2 study, a one-gram dose of TXA improved survival rates by 15%. By these figures, the number of annual trauma-related deaths could theoretically be reduced by 90,000.

TXA is a readily available, off-patent drug costing $2.50 or less per gram.

June 22, 2010

The $20 Billion Boondoggle

President Obama brags about it, saying that the $20 billion BP has agreed to pay into an escrow account  is a sign that the administration is doing something.

Smokin’ Joe Barton goes ballistic and mea culpas on bended knee in front of BP execs, berating our President for what he called a shakedown.

With respect to the President, but not the fool Barton, $20 billion ain’t gonna be near enough.

Consider this. The administrative fine to BP for each leaked barrel of oil is $4,300. At the estimated rate of leakage, the estimated time necessary for the relief well to be drilled and the flow cut off, $20 billion might not even cover that fine.

In addition, we can expect that payment to hundreds of thousands of injured parties, residing in five states, for all of the liabilities already suffered and all those to come, added to the total cleanup costs for hundreds of miles of coastline and millions of acre-feet of water... will exceed $100 billion even in the short run.

Then there are the long-term effects of the very unwise, knee jerk moratorium enacted by the administration. Using industry estimates we could potentially see some 200,000 lost jobs just in the drilling and oil services industries.

For every lost job the multiplier effect may mean two, three or even five additional jobs lost in industry ranging from construction to manufacturing to fast food. This means a potential of a million job losses. Businesses will close due to lost business, and regardless of what eventually happens, many of those jobs will be gone forever.

So don’t be fooled by all the foofarah over a measly $20 billion. Such an amount is a drop in the bucket, and anyone thinking BP will actually pay the full, real cost incurred now and continuing into the future, is deluded.

On the news today we hear of tar balls washing ashore along Alabama and Florida coastline. This photo is of a 1-ton tar ball scooped out of the GOM a few miles off Florida's western coast. The orange thing appears to be a Billy Pugh personnel basket, commonly used to transfer personnel from rig to boat or vice versa. It has about a six-foot diameter, so the size of this thing is easily determined.

I’m glad to see anything that will help those losing livlihoods, but in the end $20 billion probably wouldn’t buy a hot lunch for all of the people hurt by BP's carelessness.

June 21, 2010

Monday Music

In the waning years of the last century three brothers from San Angelo, Texas travelled to Nashville in search of a record contract. The group, known as Los Lonely Boys, plays a style of music that they call Texican Rock and Roll, combining elements of blues, soul, country, and Tejano, all blended with classic rock and roll.

The Garza brothers, Henry, Jojo and Ringo Jr., met very little success with self-released albums in 1997 (Los Lonely Boys) and 1998 (Teenage Blues).

However, after returning to Texas in 2003 they recorded an album at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales studio. The re-done eponymous album released in 2004, containing the hit single Heaven, gave the band a foot in the door.

After this, the Boys pretty much caught fire, releasing live albums in 2005 and 2006, and another studio album in 2006. That album, Sacred, contained yet another hit single; Diamonds.

Another studio album, Forgiven, followed in 2008 and contained a reprise of the classic Bo Diddley hit, I’m a Man.

In 2009 the band released their best album to date. 1969 is a tribute to several of the great artists of that legendary year, including Santana’s Evil Ways, The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues, Tony Joe White’s Polk Salat Annie, the Beatles' She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, and this one by the Blind Faith.


June 20, 2010

Sunday Funnies