The Eclectic Quill

Website of Joshua McGee


Lies, Damned Lies, and Twitter

This is not a pro-gun or an anti-gun post.  This is a pro-logic, anti-fearmongering post.

I composed these tweets in response to a RT from a popular Twitter account of the following alleged statistics:

The United States is 3rd in murders throughout the World!  But if you take out Chicago, Detroit, Washington D.C. and New Orleans, the United States is 4th from the bottom for murders.  Believe it or not, these 4 cities also have the toughest gun control laws in the United States.

This is how I responded on Twitter.


Don’t you know it’s Loko? That’s why I don’t f*ck wit da big Four!

The caffeinated malt beverage "Four", sold in formulations called "Four Loko" and "Four MaXed", has been ordered withdrawn from sale by the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  The FDA has called them a "public health concern".  The reason given is that caffeine can mask sensory cues of intoxication, and therefore caffeine is an "unsafe food additive" in alcoholic beverages.  (Four also contains guarana and ginseng -- those make up the remainder of the ingredients that suggested the name of the product -- but those can be safely ignored for this discussion.)

Let's take this apart a bit.  First, the FDA is not saying that caffeine is itself an unsafe food additive.  It's still present in other foods, beverages, and snacks, and I'm not aware of any restrictions (if nothing else, I'd expect to find ThinkGeek's range limited if there were), although my ultimate point is not especially harmed if there are restrictions.  But my understanding is that giving the FDA the authority to ban food additives is to ban additives that are themselves unsafe.  No Red Dye #2, no strychnine, etc.  Making it illegal in one domain seems silly -- but even if it were in-principle defensible, what bugs me is the doth-protest-too-muchedness of this issue: caffeine is not safe.  Caffeine is a psychotropic, addictive drug that has some nasty side-effects.

Which is fine, as far as it goes: I'm not in favor of outlawing caffeine any more than I am of outlawing alcohol, although I do wish sales of both were age-restricted, with the threshold age as 18.  But note that it's not illegal to sell them together, just to mix them together before sale.  Anheuser-Busch could legally produce alcoholic malt beverages and high-caffeine products, and even request retailers to sell them next to each other in the same case, and not be breaking the law.

I think a way to understand this weird position is that there are some implicit arguments being made, that might be unpopular were they stated outright.  One is that by selling them mixed into one drink, and selling them so cheaply, one is encouraging their purchase and use by young buyers without much money.  So let's work through the math -- I did some research at my corner market (El Monte, Los Angeles County, California, USA in late 2010) to see what I could figure out.  There will be some numbers, so bear with me.  All prices are after tax.

  1. A "unit of alcohol" -- one "drink" -- is formally defined as 20ml of pure ethanol.
  2. Prior to the removal from sale, Four Loko was $3.25, sold in 23.5oz cans.  That's $3.25 per 0.7l, or $4.68/liter.  The cans were 12% alcohol, so the liter contained 120ml of ethanol, or six drinks.  Thus, alcohol is $0.81/unit in Four Loko, with the smallest purchase being four drinks' worth.
  3. Let's say you want to concoct your own carbonated high-caffeine sweet alcoholic drink.  The most straightforward seems vodka and Monster drinks.  At this store, vodka is $6.60/750ml bottle, or $8.80/liter.  A liter of vodka at 40% a.b.v. contains 400ml of ethanol, or 20 drinks.  Thus, alcohol is $0.44/unit in vodka, with the smallest purchase being 15 drinks' worth.  Monster drinks are $3.25/24oz, or $4.58/liter.
  4. So we're going to mix vodka and Monster to get the equivalent of a can of Four Loko.  To figure out the ratio of vodka to Monster, we need to dilute 40% alcohol to 12% alcohol.  So we need 3 parts vodka to 7 parts Monster.  So to get a liter of Loko-equivalent, we need 300ml and 700ml, respectively.  This will cost $2.64 for the vodka and $3.25 for the Monster, or $5.89/liter, for $0.98/unit of alcohol.  This is 26% more money than Four Loko (it also tastes a hell of a lot better, but that's not relevant here).  If you buy one bottle of vodka and two cans of Monster for $13.10 (as the minimum purchase), you can do this, and get the equivalent of 3 cans of Four Loko with some vodka left over.  So all you need is three people to pool their money.
  5. Can we do better?  How about a Black Russian?  Use the same $8.80/liter vodka.  The cheapest coffee at that store seems to be Folgers Crystals, which is $2.99 for a jar that makes 2.84l, for a mere $1.05/liter.  I don't know if one needs to use a smaller or larger measure of coffee crystals to get Four Loko-level caffeine, but let's say you just want to mix vodka into coffee reconstituted at the suggested strength (if not, the coffee is super-cheap anyway).  Using the same logic with Monster above, add 300ml vodka ($2.64) into $0.74 of coffee.  This makes a Four Loko-strength concentration $2.37, or $0.59 per unit of alcohol, or 28% less than Four Loko.  A bottle of vodka and a can of crystals would run $9.59 for the minimum purchase and would make more than 3½ cans of Four Loko, with a whole bunch of coffee crystals left over.  Water is generally free, and at a convenience store one can usually mooch sugar packets and ice.

OK, sorry for all that.  But I needed that to get the right number.

When the FDA took Four Loko off the market, they made caffeinated energy drinks 26% more expensive and increased the minimum purchase size by roughly three.  (It's of course a smaller minimum purchase if you buy 200ml or 325ml bottles of vodka, but they are much more expensive per unit volume, and I didn't research their prices.)  Black Russians remain 28% cheaper.  How to account for this?

I don't want to get all bleeding-heart tin-foil-hatty here, but this has got to have something to do with market demographics.  Young men of racial minorities are key purchasers of Four Loko.  Young whites drink "Red Bull and Vodka", which is basically what we're talking about with the Monster concoction.  Adults (mostly white?) drink Black Russians.  So they're not banning caffeine; they're not restricting sale of caffeine and alcohol together; they're not demanding a 26% increase in the price of Four Loko, which would have the same effect -- they're just banning it.  And the market segment has no powerful lobby.

Anyone else reminded of harsher penalties for crack cocaine possession than powdered cocaine?


Damien Echols retrial

Seventeen years ago, Damien Echols (of what are now called The West Memphis 3) was sentenced to death, courtesy of gross police incompetence and disbarment-level legal proceedings, on the grounds of being an outspoken young man who liked Metallica and fit in poorly with conservative Christian culture.  Essentially all testimony against him has been recanted, police coercion is evident, and DNA evidence not only exonerates him but implicates two others.  At least some family members of the victims now believe him to be innocent.

As part of the wicked, tragic, and profoundly stupid "Satanic ritual abuse" moral panic in the United States, Echols was swept up in the superstitious bigotry of 1993 Arkansas.  Among other absurdities, black concert t-shirts he owned were displayed in court as evidence of his "satanism".  Along with Echols, two other teenagers were arrested, tried, and given life sentences.

He has now been granted a new hearing for his innocence.

On behalf of people who were outspoken heavy-metal-listening black-t-shirt-wearing 19-year-olds in opposition to conservative Christianity; on behalf of opponents of state-sanctioned murder; on behalf of citizens concerned about abuse of law enforcement and judicial authority; on behalf of all who possess a modicum of human rationality and resistance to gross superstition about the "supernatural"; on behalf of those who are aware that "satanism" is not "devil worship" and that neither of those is a frightening scourge in America but that Bible Belt conservatism is; on behalf of, I hope, everyone reading this:  ABOUT.  FUCKING.  TIME.

In a just society, Echols and his alleged accomplices would be released, and several police officers, a judge, and the real murderers would replace them behind bars.  But these seventeen years should irrefutably attest that this is in no way a just society.


Sharron Angle

Do you know about Sharron Angle yet?  She is the Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for the 2010 election challenging Harry Reid. 

So, here's a HuffPost article about a January 2010 exchange on the Bill Manders show.  You can play the audio at that link, but here's a transcript:

Manders:  I, too, am pro life.  But I'm also pro choice.  Do you understand what I mean when I say that?

Angle:  I'm pro responsible choice.  There is choice to abstain, choice to do contraception. There are all kind of good choices.

Manders:  Is there any reason at all for an abortion?

Angle:  Not in my book.

Manders:  So, in other words, rape and incest would not be something [trails off]?

Angle:  You know, I'm a Christian.  And I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations.  And we need to have a little faith in many things.

So -- going to try to be exquisitely fair here: if a father holds his little girl down and rapes her, and she becomes pregnant, God could intercede.  If he doesn't intercede, that's part of his plan.  We would be sinning and subverting divine will if we allowed the girl to have an abortion.  The proper response is faith in God.

Does that about cover it?

This.  Woman.  Is running.  For national office.

She is the candidate of the more-conservative of the two main U.S. political parties.

Before I move on to the rest of my post, let's get this vile piece of Angular detritus out of the way.  It is too late to unspeak the words she spoke about rape and incest.  That horse has left.  There is no way you mess that one up that bad.  It's more absurd than saying, 'Officer, when I said 'Open the register and give me all your money!', I meant to say 'Do I have to buy something to get some change for the pay phone?'"

So, I'm setting my clock as of the timestamp of this post.  The RNC has 48 hours to withdraw all support for Angle.  That much is a given.  A statement on the order of "We were unaware of the insanity of Ms. Angle, and we apologize for our previous support of her.  The Republican National Committee does not oppose abortion in the case of rape nor incest.  We disown anyone who argues otherwise, for any reason, including superstitious special pleading."  If they do not, they are complicit.  If they do not, and if you are registered Republican, you must be publicly vocal about how abhorrent this is, and at least write a letter to the party, or you are complicit.  That's my line in the sand.

OK, now that I've established (to my satisfaction) that she is reprehensibly inhuman, or sociopathic, or both, my main point is done.  But I want to take a look at something very interesting that fell into place while researching this post.  I want to argue that this functions as a case study of when some religious conservatives choose to play the "illegally imposing their agendas" card.  Let's do a little quoting:

Here's Sharron Angle's official "About" page on her website:

She is proud of her past chairwomanship of We The People Nevada PAC

We The People used to have a web presence, but no longer.  But that's what is forStored on the archive servers 2005-03-11:

There is a strong movement by atheists to ban religious thought form the public square.  This should be recognized as an attempt to establish atheism as the national religion. ... The ACLU, NEA, and other organizations are examples of atheistic institutions trying to gain political control and an unfair advantage over Christian groups

So: atheists are trying to illegally impose their religious beliefs ("lack thereof", actually, but when your only book is the Bible, everything looks like a faith), through political means, to the unfair detriment of some others, in a fashion that would set national policy.

One more.  Also from the cached PAC page:

The radical homosexual movement and other groups seek to destroy the traditional family structure which is the underpinning of society.  Their agenda should be opposed.

Gay activists (and, remember, the ACLU was implicated above) are trying to destroy the underpinnings of society.  Their agenda should be opposed.

So, tying it together: silly, silly, silly me.  You know how crazy-liberal I am?  I thought one of the underpinnings of society was undoing the harm caused by fathers who rape their children.  I thought that, given that We the People and I agree that "The establishment clause prevents the combining of the state with religious organizations", that dictating the definitions of what family means -- not only who can get married, but why it is OK to let a god mediate when a "traditional family" is destroyed by a villain from the inside -- on the basis of what the god the person speaking happens to believe in is interpreted to desire -- could be considered ... pretty much nuts.

But that's just me.  I'm an atheist.  I, therefore, am probably using this unfairly in an effort to make my lack of religion the official national religion, to the unfair disadvantage of these Christians.  Who, of course, have no such desires.  Unless they win.

(For the sake of rigor:  I haven't been able to determine [help?] what years Angle chaired We The People, and cross-reference it against caches of their "Principles" page during her tenure.  Until I get this, it is just conceivable that this politician who thinks that abortion is not justified even in cases of child rape does not believe in a conspiracy of gays and atheists to destroy America.  I think that's unlikely.  I expect you would think so, too.  But let me know if it's that's the case.  I'll have to Google for another example.  In the interests of efficiency, I'll start with listings of Tea Party candidates.)


Why I love this country, reason #227

So, my truck was stolen.  It's been missing for several weeks.  It was recovered today by the Arcadia police department, who had it towed some twenty miles away to the lot of a private tow company.  I received a message from the Arcadia PD to this effect, with the number to the tow truck company.

I called the tow truck company.  To release the vehicle, I apparently need to bring in a vehicle release form from the PD.

Also, my registration has lapsed.  I've been not operating it, but apparently I needed to give the DMV money for the right to have it parked and not being operated.  Fun.  And I didn't do that.  The registration expired in January.

But apparently my registration was canceled last June.  This was because I didn't have it insured.  This seemed reasonable because, you know, I wasn't driving it.

Also, for a long and horrible reason that deserves a longer explanation in a later post, I don't have the title for the vehicle.

That's not the only thing I need to release the vehicle, though.  I owe the tow company $175.  For towing my stolen vehicle to a lot absurdly distant.  I don't need the truck any longer.  I asked them if it would be OK to just sign it over to them.  They said they needed the original pink slip.  I asked if it would be OK to give them DMV form 227, which is expressly designed to allow transfer of ownership with a stolen title.  No, that's not OK.  I need the original.  I would get this, by mail, through the DMV.

This would be fine, except that they will charge me $50 per day to keep my truck on their lot.  Now, they automatically own the car after 42 days, at which point they'd hold a lien sale.  But I'd still owe them for the accumulated storage costs ($2100), minus the amount of money they'd get for the truck at auction (roughly $13.17, largely due to damage done by the thieves, resulting in the ignition being destroyed in some fashion and the driver's side door not being closable.)

So, on genius advice, I called the local NPR station to see if they would come pick it up.  They can do that, as early as tomorrow.  And they will accept the transfer-of-ownership-without-title form.  So I can get the release form from the Arcadia PD, pay the tow company $225 ($175 in tow fees plus $50 in storage fees), for the right to donate my car to charity.

So I called Arcadia back, to see what the procedure is to get a release form.

"Well, normally you would come down here and get one," I was told.  "But your registration has lapsed.  Normally we'd release it anyway, because you're the victim.  But it's been ten months [since, unbeknown to me, the DMV canceled my registration].  So it's up to the watch commander."

"So, basically, what you're saying is that whether or not I get a form allowing me to reclaim my vehicle that was stolen from me is up to the discretion of whoever is sitting behind the desk at that moment?" I asked.

"Yeah, that's basically what I'm saying," I was told.

"That's funny.  I thought we had a system of laws to determine issues such as these," I responded.

"Well, we do," she said.  "But a big part of it is institutional policy."

What?  Institutional policy?  That's ... surely not what she means.  Surely she means something like "officer discretion".  I later had a debate with my father about this (short, because I ended it) about whether on not police discretion was reasonable.  I contended that it was not.  My father contended that it was just fine.  I recounted a story I had heard about a police officer who explains that she won't give tickets for driving under the influence.  It would be hypocritical, she argued, because she drives drunk.  Isn't officer discretion ... what gets us into a place in which minorities are disproportionately targeted versus white people?  Basically, it seems, whether or not I get my release tomorrow is a function of how much the cop likes my story and how I look.  Christ.

So, I'll keep my readers posted.  We'll see if I can get police permission to pay hundreds of dollars to a private company contracted by a California city for absconding with and storing a vehicle stolen from me to allow me the right to donate the vehicle to charity.