Good News in the Daily Grind

Your Coffee May Have Some Health Perks, but Can Brew Trouble in People With Certain Conditions

To judge by recent headlines, coffee could be the latest health-food craze, right up there with broccoli and whole-wheat bread.

But don’t think you’ll be healthier graduating from a tall to a venti just yet. While there has been a splash of positive news about coffee lately, there may still be grounds for concern.

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The Latest Findings on Coffee 

[HEALTHCOLjp]

  • Diabetes: Many studies find that coffee—decaf or regular—lowers the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, but caffeine raises blood sugar in people who already have it.
  • Cancer: Earlier studies implicating coffee in causing cancer have been disproven; may instead lower the risk of colon, mouth, throat and other cancers.
  • Heart disease: Long-term coffee drinking does not appear to raise the risk and may provide some protection.
  • Hypertension: Caffeine raises blood pressure, so sufferers should be wary.
  • Cholesterol: Some coffee—especially decaf—raises LDL, the bad kind of cholesterol.
  • Alzheimer’s: Moderate coffee drinking appears to be protective.
  • Osteoporosis: Caffeine lowers bone density, but adding milk can balance out the risk.
  • Pregnancy: Caffeine intake may increase the risk of miscarriage and low birth-weight babies.
  • Sleep: Effects are highly variable, but avoiding coffee after 3 p.m. can avert insomnia.
  • Mood: Moderate caffeine boosts energy and cuts depression, but excess amounts can cause anxiety.

Source: WSJ research

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This month alone, an analysis in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who drink three to four cups of java a day are 25% less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who drink fewer than two cups. And a study presented at an American Association for Cancer Research meeting found that men who drink at least six cups a day have a 60% lower risk of developing advanced prostate cancer than those who didn’t drink any.

Earlier studies also linked coffee consumption with a lower risk of getting colon, mouth, throat, esophageal and endometrial cancers. People who drink coffee are also less likely to have cavities, gallstones, cirrhosis of the liver, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, or to commit suicide, studies have found. Last year, researchers at Harvard University and the University of Madrid assessed data on more than 100,000 people over 20 years and concluded that the more coffee they drank, the less likely they were to die during that period from any cause.

But those studies come on the heels of older ones showing that coffee—particularly the caffeine it contains—raises blood pressure, heart rate and levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in blood that is associated with stroke and heart disease. Pregnant women who drink two or more cups of coffee a day have a higher rate of miscarriages and lower birth-weight babies; caffeine has also been linked to benign breast lumps and bone loss in elderly women. And, as many people can attest, coffee can also aggravate anxiety, irritability, heartburn and sleeplessness, which brings its own set of problems, including a higher risk of obesity. Yet it’s just that invigorating buzz that other people love and think they can’t get through the day without.

Why is there so much confusion about something that’s so ubiquitous? After all, some 54% of American adults drink coffee regularly—an estimated 400 million cups per day—and coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world, after oil.

For starters, the vast majority of coffee studies to date have been observational, in which researchers examine large sets of data over many years, looking for patterns in peoples’ habits and their health.

But subjects don’t always remember or report accurately on how much they drink. Cup sizes can range from 6 to 32 ounces; caffeine loads can vary from 75 to nearly 300 milligrams. Loading up with sugar, flavored syrup and whipped cream can turn a no-fat, almost no-calorie drink into the equivalent of an ice-cream soda.

Even carefully constructed observational studies that correct for such variables can only find correlations, not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. There may be other, hidden reasons why people who drink a lot of coffee have a lower risk of illness—such as jobs that provide a steady income and access to health care, exercise and healthier food. Conversely, “people who don’t feel that healthy may be less likely to drink six cups of coffee a day. … It’s just a possibility,” says Jim Lane, a psychophysiologist at Duke University Medical Center who has studied the effects of caffeine for more than 25 years.

Risks Disappear

Indeed, many studies from earlier decades that linked coffee drinking to a higher risk of cancer were apparently detecting related habits instead. Once researchers started adjusting for study subjects who also smoked cigarettes, the additional cancer risk disappeared.

“When I went to medical school, I was told that coffee was harmful. But in the ’90s and this decade, it’s become clear that if you do these studies correctly, coffee is protective in terms of public health,” says Peter R. Martin, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University and director of the school’s Institute for Coffee Studies, founded in 1999 with a grant from coffee-producing countries.

Still, many researchers believe that the only way to draw firm conclusions about something like coffee is through experimental trials in which some subjects are exposed to measured doses and others get a placebo, with other variables tightly controlled. When that’s been done, says Duke’s Dr. Lane, “the experimental studies and the [observational] studies are in very sharp disagreement about whether caffeine is healthy or not.”

Harmful Effects

His own small, controlled studies have shown that caffeine—administered in precise doses in tablet form—raises blood pressure and blood-sugar levels after a meal in people who already have diabetes. Other studies have found that caffeine and stress combined can raise blood pressure even more significantly. “If you are a normally healthy person, that might not have any long-term effect,” says Dr. Lane. “But there are some groups of people who are predisposed to get high blood pressure and heart disease and for them, caffeine might be harmful over time.”

Epidemiologists counter that such small studies don’t mirror real-world conditions, and they can’t examine the long-term risk of disease.

The prostate-cancer study, for example, compared the coffee-drinking habits of 50,000 men working in medical professions with their incidence of prostate cancer over 20 years, and also took into account family history of prostate cancer and how frequently they had screenings. Roughly 5,000 of the men developed prostate cancer during that period, including 846 cases of the most advanced and lethal kind. But the more cups of coffee the men drank, the less likely they were to be in that most lethal group. “You can’t do a randomized controlled trial on men starting in their 20s and following them until they are old enough to get prostate cancer,” says lead investigator Kathryn Wilson, a research fellow in epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health. “For some of these questions, observational studies are the best we are going to get.”

As for diabetes, at least 18 studies have found that drinking three or more cups of coffee a day is linked with a lower risk of developing the disease. The more such findings are repeated, particularly with different populations, the stronger the evidence is.

Beyond Caffeine

In both the prostate and diabetes studies, the health benefits were found for caffeinated as well as decaffeinated coffee, suggesting that some other component in coffee is responsible. Coffee contains traces of hundreds of substances, including potassium, magnesium and vitamin E, as well as chlorogenic acids that are thought to have antioxidant properties.These may protect against cell damage and inflammation that can be precursors to cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease.

One theory gaining credence is that some of those beneficial components may counterbalance some of the harmful effects of caffeine. For example, while caffeine keeps people awake in part by blocking adenosine, a brain chemical that brings on sleep, the chlorogenic acid in coffee keeps adenosine circulating in the brain longer.

And while caffeine seems to boost adrenaline that primes the body for action, coffee itself may have a calming effect. Even the aroma of coffee beans can help ease stress in rats, researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea showed in a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry last year. Chlorogenic acid also slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream after a meal, which may counteract caffeine’s glucose effect.

Benefits Cloaked in ‘Mays’

“It’s a yin and yang effect,” says Vanderbilt’s Dr. Martin, an addiction psychiatrist who also notes that former alcoholics who drink coffee are more apt to stay sober than those who don’t. Even though these studies are just associations, he says, “they may provide leads for us to better understand some of the most common illnesses that affect mankind as well as developing ways to treat them. But everything is cloaked in ‘mays.’ ”

Most researchers agree that there isn’t enough evidence about the benefits of coffee to encourage non-coffee drinkers to acquire the habit. And no one has come close to finding a recommended number of cups per day for optimum health. People’s reactions to coffee are highly individual. One small cup can give one person the jitters while others can drink 10 cups and sleep all night.

At the same time, people who love coffee probably don’t need to worry that they are harming their health by drinking it — unless they already have high blood pressure or are pregnant or are having trouble sleeping, in which case it’s prudent to cut down.

Even Dr. Lane, who thinks the risks of caffeine outweigh coffee’s potential benefits, concedes he drinks several cups a day. “Why do I do it?” he muses. “I ask myself that question …”

Melinda Beck, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703278604574624032849271284.html

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Look Ahead With Stoicism—and Optimism

While so many of our institutions have failed, we can repair them. The first step is to take personal responsibility.

The accomplished and sophisticated attorney was asked what attitude he was bringing to the new year. “Stoicism and mindless optimism,” he laughed, which sounded just about right. He meant it, he said, about the stoicism. He had immersed himself in that rough old philosophy after 9/11, and had come to adopt it as his own. But he meant it about the optimism, too: You never know, things get better, begin with good cheer, maintain your equilibrium, don’t lose your peace.

We’re at the clean start of a new decade, and it wouldn’t be bad if the national watchwords were repair, rebuild and return, with an eye toward what is now our central project, though we haven’t fully noticed, and that is keeping our country together. So many forces exist to tear us apart. We have to do what we can to hold together in the long run.

We have been through a hard 10 years. They were not, as some have argued, the worst ever, or even the worst of the past century. The ’30s started with the Great Depression, featured the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and ended with World War II. That’s a bad decade for you. In the ’60s we saw our leaders assassinated, our great cities hit by riots, a war tear our country apart.

But the ‘OOs were hard, starting with a disputed presidential election, moving on to the shocked pain of 9/11, marked by an effort to absorb the fact that we had entered the age of terror, and ending with a historic, world-shaking economic crash.

Maybe the most worrying trend the past 10 years can be found in this phrase: “They forgot the mission.” So many great American institutions—institutions that every day help hold us together—acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do. You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it’s the one you’re part of.

We saw an example this week with the federal government, which whatever else it does has a few very essential missions to perform that only it can perform, such as maintaining the national defense. Our federal government now does 10 million things, many of them not so well. Its attention is scattered. It loses sight of the essentials, which is part of the reason underpants bombers wind up on airplanes.

Wall Street the past 10 years truly and profoundly lost sight of its mission. It exists to be the citadel of American finance. Its job is to grow and invest and enrich, thereby making the jobs possible that help family exist.

Wall Street has a civic purpose. But it must always do its job with an eye to prudence, because a big part of its job is to provide a secure and grounded economic footing for the nation. But throughout the ’00s Wall Street’s leaders gave themselves over to one thing, and that was looking out, always, for No. 1. And they knew how to define No. 1. It wasn’t the country, and it wasn’t even the company. They’d crater companies, parachute out, and brag about it later.

If there was one damning and utterly illustrative quote that captured Wall Street in the past 10 years it was that of Charles Prince, CEO of Citigroup, in July 2007. Worrying investment trends were beginning to emerge, but why slow down? He told The New York Times, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” This from a banker, a leader, a citizen, a man responsible for a community.

Congress forgot the mission, or rather continued more than ever to seem to have forgotten the mission. They weren’t there to legislate with a long view, they were there to be re-elected and help the team, the red one or the blue one. This is not a new story, only a worsened one.

The Catholic Church, as great and constructive an institution as ever existed in our country, educating the children of immigrants and healing the weak in hospitals, also acted as if it had forgotten the mission. Their mission was to be Christ’s church in the world, to stand for the weak. Many fulfilled it, and still do, but the Boston Globe in 2003 revealed the extent to which church leaders allowed the abuse of the weak and needy, and then covered it up.

It was a decades-long story; it only became famous in the ’00s. But it was in its way the most harmful forgetting of a mission of all, for it is the church that has historically given a first home to America’s immigrants, and made them Americans. Its reputation, its high standing, mattered to our country. Its loss of reputation damaged it. And it happened in part because priests and bishops forgot they were servants of a great institution, and came to think the great church existed to meet their needs.

A variation of this attitude continues in the public schools, where there are teachers who forget they have a mission—to teach and guide the young—and instead come to think the schools exist for them, to give them secure jobs and meet their needs.

Name the institution and you will probably see a diminished sense of mission, or one that has disappeared or is disappearing. Journalism too the past decade—longer—has had trouble remembering why it exists, which is to meet a real and crucial public need for reliable information about the world we live in. It’s the job of journalists to find the news, to get it in spite of the myriad forces arrayed against getting your hands on it, to report it clearly and honestly.

And as all these institutions forgot their mission, they entered the empire of spin. They turned more and more attention, resources and effort to the public perception of their institution, and not to the reality of it.

Everyone gave their efforts to how things seemed and not how they were. Press secretaries, press assistants, media managers, public relations experts—they abound more than ever in our business and public life. Half the people in Congress are people who one way or another are trying to “communicate” the member’s thinking. But he’s not really thinking, he’s positioning, and they’re not thinking either, they’re organizing and deploying focus-grouped phrases and turning them into talking points

So what to do? Here my friend the lawyer’s stoicism and mindless optimism might come in handy, for turning around institutions is a huge, long and uphill fight. It probably begins with taking the one thing we all hate to take in our society, and that is personal responsibility.

If you work in a great institution: Do you remember the mission? Do you remember why you went to work there, what you meant to do, what the institution meant to you when you viewed it from the outside, years ago, and hoped to become part of it?

And an optimistic idea, perhaps mindlessly so: It actually might help just a little to see national hearings aimed at summoning wisdom and sparking discussion on what has happened to, and can be done to help, our institutions. This wouldn’t turn anything around, but it could put a moment’s focus on a question that is relevant to people’s lives, and that is: How in the coming decade can we do better? How can we repair and rebuild?

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704152804574628522483219740.html

Today in History – December 31

Today is Thursday, Dec. 31, the 365th and final day of 2009. Today is New Year’s Eve.

Today’s Highlight in History

On Dec. 31, 1909, the Manhattan Bridge, spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, was officially opened to vehicular traffic by New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. on his last day in office.

On this date

In 1600, the East India Company, formed for the exploitation of trade with East and Southeast Asia and India, was incorporated by English royal charter.

In 1759, Arthur Guinness founded his famous brewery at St. James’s Gate in Dublin.

In 1775, the British repulsed an attack by Continental Army generals Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold at Quebec; Montgomery was killed.

In 1857, Ottawa, located in Ontario at the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau, and Rideau rivers and whose area was first described by Samuel de Champlain in 1613, was named the capital of Canada by Queen Victoria.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act admitting West Virginia to the Union.

In 1869, Henri Matisse, one of the foremost painters of 20th century French art, was born.

In 1879, Thomas Edison first publicly demonstrated his electric incandescent light in Menlo Park, N.J.

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman officially proclaimed the end of hostilities in World War II.

In 1961, the Marshall Plan expired after distributing more than $12 billion in foreign aid.

In 1969, Joseph A. Yablonski, an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America, was shot to death along with his wife and daughter in their Clarksville, Pa., home by hit men acting under the orders of UMWA president Tony Boyle.

In 1974, private U.S. citizens were allowed to buy and own gold for the first time in more than 40 years.

In 1978, Taiwanese diplomats struck their colors for the final time from the embassy flagpole in Washington, D.C., marking the end of diplomatic relations with the United States.

In 1985, singer Rick Nelson, 45, and six other people were killed when fire broke out aboard a DC-3 that was taking the group to a New Year’s Eve performance in Dallas.

In 1986, 97 people were killed when fire broke out in the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Three hotel workers later pleaded guilty in connection with the blaze.)

In 1993, entertainer Barbra Streisand performed her first paid concert in 22 years, singing to a sellout crowd at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

In 1997, Michael Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was killed in a skiing accident on Aspen Mountain in Colorado.

In 1999, ten years ago, people around the world celebrated while awaiting the arrival of the year 2000.

In 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation (he was succeeded by Vladimir Putin).

In 1999, the eight-day hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in Afghanistan ended peacefully.

In 1999, the United States prepared to hand over the Panama Canal to Panama at the stroke of midnight.

In 1999, former Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson died in Boston at age 79.

In 2004, five years ago, President George W. Bush pledged $350 million to help tsunami victims, and didn’t rule out sending even more U.S. aid to help people recover from what he called an “epic disaster.”

In 2004, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych resigned, admitting he had little hope of reversing the presidential election victory of his Western-leaning rival, Viktor Yushchenko.

In 2006, the death toll for Americans killed in the Iraq war reached 3,000.

In 2008, one year ago, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on an Arab request for a binding and enforceable resolution condemning Israel and halting its military attacks on Gaza.

In 2008, a man left four gift-wrapped bombs in downtown Aspen, Colo., in a bank-robbery attempt, turning New Year’s Eve celebrations into a mass evacuation. (The man, identified as 72-year-old James Chester Blanning, shot and killed himself.)

In 2008, a woman gave birth aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 59 while en route from Amsterdam to Boston.

Today’s Birthdays

TV producer George Schlatter is 80. Actor Sir Anthony Hopkins is 72. Actor Tim Considine (“My Three Sons”) is 69. Actress Sarah Miles is 68. Rock musician Andy Summers is 67. Actor Ben Kingsley is 66. Rock musician Peter Quaife (The Kinks) is 66. Producer-director Taylor Hackford is 65. Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg is 63. Actor Tim Matheson is 62. Pop singer Burton Cummings (The Guess Who) is 62. Singer Donna Summer is 61. Actor Joe Dallesandro is 61. Rock musician Tom Hamilton (Aerosmith) is 58. Actor James Remar is 56. Actress Bebe Neuwirth is 51. Actor Val Kilmer is 50. Singer Paul Westerberg is 50. Actor Don Diamont is 47. Rock musician Ric Ivanisevich (Oleander) is 47. Rock musician Scott Ian (Anthrax) is 46. Actress Gong Li is 44. Author Nicholas Sparks is 44. Pop singer Joe McIntyre is 37. Rock musician Mikko Siren (Apocalyptica) is 34. Rock musician Bob Bryar (My Chemical Romance) is 30.

Today’s Historic Birthdays

Jacques Cartier
12/31/1491 – 9/1/1557
French explorer

Charles Cornwallis
12/31/1738 – 10/5/1805
English soldier and statesman

Robert Aitken
12/31/1864 – 10/29/1951
American astronomer

Henri Matisse
12/31/1869 – 11/3/1954
French painter

George C. Marshall
12/31/1880 – 10/16/1959
U.S. Army general

Ben Jones
12/31/1882 – 6/13/1961
American racehorse trainer

Elizabeth Arden
12/31/1878 – 10/18/1966
Canadian-born American cosmetic executive

Nathan Milstein
12/31/1903 – 12/21/1992
Russian-born American violinist

Jules Styne
12/31/1905 – 9/20/1994
American songwriter

Thought for Today

“No one ever regarded the first of January with indifference. It is the nativity of our common Adam.” – Charles Lamb, English essayist and author (1775-1834).

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/31/AR2009123100019.html

http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/index.html

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Drug Use Linked to Pepper Spray Deaths

A Lethal Mix of Cocaine and Chilies

Police officers around the world often use pepper spray to restrain people who are out of control. But after a series of unexplained deaths, researchers now suspect the spray, which is derived from chili peppers, could be fatal if the subject has been using cocaine or other drugs.

The man was clearly out of his senses. Peter M., 42, was naked and covered with blood as he ran across Munich’s Höhenstadter Street. He threw himself on the ground, shouting: “I am God.” Then he smeared superglue on his wounds and smashed his head into a window.

Policemen rushed to the scene and sprayed pepper spray into the man’s face, but it had no effect. Several officers eventually managed to subdue him. When they finally handcuffed him, Peter M. collapsed. He was taken to a hospital, where he died two days later, on July 5.

The autopsy determined that the man had died of restraint-related asphyxia after being handcuffed by police. He had been using cocaine, which also could have caused his death. But pepper spray “played no role in the autopsy result,” said Barbara Stockinger, the Munich chief prosecutor assigned to the case. The case, which appeared to have been resolved, was closed.

But the death of Peter M. may not be as straightforward as it appears. The bizarre circumstances aside, his case resembles similar incidents around the world in which people under the influence of drugs get out of control, police use pepper spray to restrain them, and then, “15 to 30 minutes later, they’re dead or in a coma,” says John Mendelson, a doctor specializing in addiction at the California Medical Center in San Francisco.

Mice on Cocaine

The results of a study Mendelson has just completed reinforce a suspicion long held by critics of pepper spray, namely that it can be deadly for people under the influence of illicit or psychotropic drugs.

Mendelson’s conclusions are based on experiments with mice in his laboratory. One group of mice was given injections of cocaine and nothing else. The mice in a second group also received a dose of capsaicin, an extract from the chili pepper.

When the researchers checked the cages again after 24 hours, only a few of the mice that had been given cocaine were dead. But more than half of those injected with the cocaine-chili blend were no longer alive. It appears that, at least in the case of mice, “capsaicin has a tendency to make smaller doses of cocaine fatal,” Mendelson says.

Spicy and Dangerous

In the 1960s, postal carriers began using a mixture of cayenne pepper and mineral oil to protect themselves against overly zealous watchdogs. Park rangers in the United States also used pepper spray to ward off intrusive grizzly bears. Police departments around the world began using the irritant in the 1990s.

Capsaicin is 600 times more potent than the spiciest cayenne pepper. Suspended in a mixture of ethanol and water, the substance irritates the eyes and mucous membranes. Pepper spray, effective at distances of about two meters (6.5 feet) and probably more dangerous than tear gas, enables police officers to contain violent individuals without having to use batons or firearms. Most police officers have been wearing pepper spray on their belts for years. “There is nothing available that’s more effective,” officials with the Berlin police department said after the spray was introduced.

“We recommended it,” says Hans Damm, head of the Forensic Science Institute at the German Police University in the northwestern German city of Münster. “Pepper spray was a new thing that came from the United States, and because it was a natural substance, even the Green Party couldn’t object.”

The dosage is a different matter altogether. Because the chili-based agent is difficult to obtain in pure form, companies often resort to the use of synthetic capsaicin. In addition, people’s reactions to the substance vary widely. “In some cases, there isn’t that much difference between effective and fatal doses,” says Damm.

In the past six months, at least three people in Germany have died after police used pepper spray against them. Two were under the influence of illicit drugs, while the third victim was taking strong prescription sedatives.

Strikingly Similar

In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has documented a number of deaths following the use of pepper spray, including 26 fatalities in California alone between 1993 and 1995. Of those cases, 24 of the victims were on drugs and two were mentally ill. Nevertheless, a study by the US Department of Justice concludes that pepper spray was partly responsible for fatalities in only two out of 63 cases studied.

It’s true that drug use can be enough by itself to kill a person. But researcher John Mendelson believes that there is an interaction between the chili extract and drugs. He speculates that the nerve receptors that respond to the substance are the same ones that are active when a person is high. According to Mendelson, the documented cases are strikingly similar: “It’s almost always people who do crazy things, like running naked through traffic while holding a knife.”

The German cases seem to support his theory. On Oct. 31, a 27-year-old drug addict died in Laucha in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. The man, who had taken crystal methamphetamine, ran into the street naked and began smashing the windshields of parked cars with his fist. Then he attacked a female pastor. Police sprayed the man in the face with pepper spray, but there was no reaction.

Finally, four officers overpowered and handcuffed the man. He died a short time later. The autopsy concluded that the cause of death was a drug overdose. German medical examiners are often unaware that “pepper spray could be a factor contributing to death,” says Fred Zack, a forensic scientist from Rostock in northern Germany. “We may be entering new territory here.” In 2007, Zack performed an autopsy on a heavily inebriated man from Ribnitz-Damgarten in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania who had died after pepper spray was used on him.

Tase Me, Bro

In another case, employees at a nursing home for the mentally ill in Heidhausen, a neighborhood in the western city of Essen, called the police on Aug. 7 to report that a 43-year-old patient, a powerfully built Russian, had threatened the staff. An emergency doctor injected a sedative into the man, but then he jumped out of his bed and attacked people standing nearby. Even with pepper spray, police officers had trouble restraining the man. He died soon afterwards. Four months later, the autopsy results are still inconclusive.

Mendelson believes that both illegal drugs and psychotropic drugs could interact similarly with pepper spray. Ironically, when pepper spray was introduced, authorities touted the substance as being particularly suitable for use against the mentally ill and people under the influence of drugs.

“Pepper spray hardly deters people in delirious states,” says Mendelson. He recommends the use of electroshock devices known as Tasers instead. “Under these circumstances, they appear to be safer and more effective.”

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Full article: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,669607,00.html

Got Change For A Million Silver Dollars?

Easy Money

Two Germans were caught in an Austria mountain town with 500 million dollars in counterfeit banknotes. It’s one of the biggest hauls of counterfeit dollars in Europe. But the culprits say they thought the 1 million dollar bills were real. Early next year an Austrian court must decide their fate. 

He dreamed of living the life of a millionaire — with a villa in the woods and an Aston Martin V12, preferably in Quantum Silver, in the garage. Once a moderately successful provincial attorney, he had decided that he was no longer willing to simply look on while others made their fortunes with major business deals. 

But his dreams of that villa, that Aston Martin and all the other trappings of wealth have vanished into thin air. Ralf Hölzen, 46, a tall, slender man with graying hair is sitting in a café frequented by retirees in the town of Goch in western Germany. On his plates sits a slice of Black Forest cake and he is removing the canned cream from atop his coffee. Once again Hölzen is living with his parents, only two blocks from the café. 

At the end of January, Hölzen will face trial in a district court in Feldkirch, in Austria’s Vorarlberg region. Austrian prosecutors have filed charges against him and his accomplice, Dietmar B., 52, for attempted fraud and possession of counterfeit banknotes. 

Arrested Holding $202 Million in Counterfeit Bills 

Almost a year ago, Hölzen and B. were arrested in a bank in Austria’s Kleinwalsertal ski valley. The duo stands accused of having attempted to exchange $202 million in counterfeit bills. The police also found $291 million more in counterfeit bills in a black Samsonite suitcase the men were carrying. 

Technically speaking, it was one of the biggest successes that European police organizations have ever had in the fight against counterfeit US banknotes. But not even the Austrian police are willing to call it a coup. And that’s because the defendants lacked both a plan and any professionalism. 

Instead, the trial in Feldkirch is more likely to offer a cautionary tale about how, in greedy times, even ordinary people think there is a fast track to wealth. And about how they believed that they could get rich quick through a combination of cunning and a few printed piece of paper; And how they ruined their lives in the process. 

“The thing” — which is what Hölzen now calls the series of events during which he hoped to get rich quick — began with an unannounced visit in September 2008. Life was not going well for Hölzen at the time. His marriage had failed, and he had lost his license to practice law because of his chaotic financial circumstances. Hölzen owed tens of thousands of Euros in back taxes and he was keeping himself afloat by working as a consultant. 

Surprise Visitors Bring a Dodgy Deal 

Two men walked into his office one afternoon. One of them, Hendrik van den B., a tall, gaunt older man, was wearing a dark, expensive-looking suit and introduced himself as a Dutch businessman. He looks as though he has money, Hölzen said to himself. 

The other man, short and bald, was Dietmar B., from Essen in western Germany who looked much less imposing. According to Hölzen, what B. did not tell him was that he was a machinist, who had been unemployed for a long time and that he had already served prison time for attempted fraud and for his association with a criminal gang that was involved in grand larceny. 

The men told Hölzen that he had been recommended to them by a former client and that they wanted him to prepare a purchase agreement for some historic stocks, some of which were American silver certificates. They told him that these silver certificates, which closely resembled ordinary dollar bills, were never used as a conventional form of payment but were traded between banks in the past. And they remained extremely valuable. 

Hölzen, who dealt mainly with leases, tax law and traffic offences, had no experience with foreign currency transactions. His new clients may have seemed odd to him but he decided to put any misgivings aside. In the past, he had represented fraudulent investment advisors, the sort to use human greed to their own advantage. And eager to put an end to his own run of bad luck, Hölzen reasoned that what the two men were proposing could be his opportunity to earn a lot of money, and relatively easily. 

Hölzen Says all He is Guilty of is Being Naïve 

Which is why Hölzen told the men that he was interested in doing more for them than simply preparing legal documents. van den B., who saw Hölzen’s proposal as a potential opportunity, gave the former attorney a banknote to examine. Hölzen scanned the bill and e-mailed the image to various acquaintances. 

An employee with Julius Bär, a Swiss private bank, promptly replied that the pieces of paper were worthless. But Hölzen did not want to hear this. This deal of a lifetime couldn’t possibly be over before it had even begun, he thought. “This is my big chance,” he kept telling himself. 

That is Hölzen’s side of the story anyway. “I was naïve,” he admits — and that is all he will admit too. He continues to insist that he was not the main instigator of the crime with which he is now being charged. 

Just Add Six Zeros And You Have a Million Dollars 

The Austrian National Analysis Center (NAC) examined the 493 banknotes Hölzen and B. had in their possession. Of those notes, 295 were originally $1 bills. Counterfeiters increased the face value of the bills to $1 million, simply by adding six zeros. The counterfeiting was done “very expensively and professionally,” say the specialists. According to the NAC, the remaining $1 million bills that were in Hölzen’s possession were complete counterfeits. 

The Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), Germany’s federal police force, is all too familiar with the phenomenon of $1 million banknotes. Since 2003 they have been turning up in Germany more often. 

Most are presented to commercial banks for exchange, complete with forged certificates of authenticity. Last June, Italy’s financial police found US treasury bonds worth the staggering sum of $134 billion in the luggage of two Japanese nationals. The bonds were counterfeit but they were not well made. 

Meanwhile Hölzen claims that, right up until his arrest, he was convinced of the authenticity of the bills and that this conviction — that the bills were real — was the only reason he continued to become more involved with the two men. At the beginning of January in 2009, he and van den B. traveled to the Swiss town of Rohrschach. There they met with a Spanish businessman, Cristian C., who they hoped would turn the “certificates” into real money. In a café, the Dutchman handed the Spaniard an envelope containing 490 bills, each denominated at $1 million. Hölzen sat in on the meeting; He paid close attention and then obtained a receipt for the transaction. 

The Plan was to Make Handsome Profits for Everyone 

Investigators believe that Cristian C. wanted to have the bills examined by a bank so that he could then use them as security against a loan. Hölzen later told authorities that Cristian C. had planned to use the loan to speculate on a grand scale and rake in handsome profits for everyone involved. 

But the Spaniard failed to keep his alleged promise. He was unable to use the banknotes as security for a loan or exchange them for currency. He stopped calling the two men and answered their calls less and less frequently. Van den B. and Hölzen became nervous, fearing that C. was going to make off with the banknotes. 

On Jan. 21 Hölzen and B. drove to Switzerland a second time. They had an appointment to meet with Cristian C. in Rohrschach at 12:45 p.m. But the Spaniard left them waiting. 

Hölzen and B. were in a hurry. They had an appointment at the Volksbank Riezlern, a bank in the Kleinwalsertal area in Austria to keep that they had made days earlier. Riezlern is a popular tourist destination for skiers and hikers. But additionally because the valley is only accessible from Germany, used to have a special tax free status and because many Germans deposit their savings in Austrian bank accounts, it also boasts a thriving banking scene. 

‘This Stuff is Worthless’ 

Hölzen was familiar with Volksbank Riezlern from his days as an attorney and he planned to convert the certificates into cash there. He was determined not to share any of the proceeds with the German tax authorities. 

When Cristian C. finally appeared, more than an hour late, he handed the two Germans a large brown envelope that contained the banknotes. Hölzen signed a receipt but no one counted the bills. “This stuff is worthless,” C. claims to have said — even though Hölzen and B. refused to believe him. 

At the bank in Kleinwalsertal, the two Germans were met by one of the bank’s employees, Jutta B. The men were impatient and anxious to unload the supposedly historic bills. They wanted the bank to determine their current market value, then credit the amount to the accounts they intended to open in Riezlern that day. That was the plan anyway. 

The two men placed five $1 million banknotes on Jutta B.’s desk. “I had the feeling that they believed that the securities and the money were absolutely real,” Jutta B. later told the police. But because the notes on her desk were unfamiliar to her Jutta B. was hesitant. Noticing her reaction, Hölzen and B. pulled out more bills: two bundles, one containing 99 and the other containing 100 banknotes. The notes came to a total of $199 million. The rest remained in the suitcase. Jutta B. excused herself and left her office. She called the bank’s headquarters in Vienna where a colleague told her that he did not believe that $1 million bills existed. It was at that stage that someone also called the police. 

Did They Really Think the Money was Real? 

The eventual case, when it comes to court, will revolve around whether the two Germans believed that the banknotes were real or whether they were deliberately trying to unload counterfeit bills. The investigators claim that by the time they reached the bank in Riezlern, Hölzen and B. “had come to terms with the possibility that the banknotes could be counterfeit.” They also say that Hölzen and B. must have figured that the employees at Volksbank Riezlern would not detect the fraud and would “credit their accounts despite the fact that the bills were worthless.” 

Hölzen, and B., who is in detention awaiting trial, dispute the investigators’ claims. They insist that they are not dim-witted enough to have walked into a bank with half a billion dollars in counterfeit money. For this reason, the former attorney plans to tell the trial judge about what, in his opinion, are serious mistakes made during the investigation and why he thinks the case is tainted by legal contradictions. 

Hölzen cannot expect any support from van den B., the man who allegedly obtained the counterfeit bills from unknown sources in the first place. The 74-year-old Dutchman, who has avoided being charged because authorities have been unable to find enough evidence linking him to the crime, will appear as a witness for the prosecution. He claims that he had no knowledge whatsoever of Hölzen’s and B.’s excursion to Kleinwalsertal. 

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,669480,00.html

Obama administration is right to prosecute alleged Detroit bomber in U.S. court

FORMER VICE president Richard B. Cheney on Wednesday joined a Republican chorus criticizing the Obama administration’s decision to charge alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in federal court. Mr. Cheney and others argue that Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to down Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas, should have been held as an enemy combatant and pumped for information, rather than read his Miranda rights and provided a lawyer. They further argue that the decision to shuttle him to federal court shows that President Obama is in denial about the dangers of terrorism.

This last claim has no merit. Just as it would be a mistake to approach all terrorist acts as a law enforcement challenge, so would it be imprudent to dispense with strong and available law enforcement tools, and to deal with all such incidents as acts of war. Recall that the Bush administration prosecuted shoe bomber Richard Reid in federal court for attempting to down a transatlantic flight using the same type of explosives allegedly found on Mr. Abdulmutallab. No one then questioned the Bush-Cheney administration’s judgment or its resolve — and rightly so.

The prospects for Mr. Abdulmutallab’s prosecution are good. Multiple eyewitnesses can testify to the incident on the plane, and physical evidence, including the failed explosive device, has been recovered. If the case goes to trial, there is probably little danger that secret sources or methods will be exposed.

Yet part of the critics’ argument is worthy of discussion. Mr. Abdulmutallab could have been detained without charge and interrogated outside of the constraints of federal rules to give the administration an opportunity to gather information in hopes of thwarting a future attack. The Supreme Court has acknowledged this authority, and the Obama administration has gone so far as to argue that Congress, through the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, gave the president the right to hold combatants indefinitely as long as a court of law rules that the initial detention was justified.

So why not bundle the Nigerian suspect to a secure location for intensive questioning by the CIA? First, because he already has been talking to authorities about his affiliation with al-Qaeda and the possibility of other attacks. Second, because he is no Khalid Sheik Mohammed — he is not a seasoned al-Qaeda operator but a disturbed young man whom the group tried to use as cannon fodder.

Most important, the Bush administration’s own experience has showed that holding suspects as enemy combatants creates more problems than it solves, because of the lack of due process and legal accountability. We have called for the creation of a national security court to govern presidential decisions to detain those who are too dangerous to release but against whom there is insufficient evidence to hold under federal criminal statutes. This authority could be valuable in interrogating those high up in a terrorist organization who are believed to possess significant operational information. It would be wasted on Mr. Abdulmutallab.

Editorial, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/30/AR2009123002347.html

Hard to Count the Cost

Prices are often irrational. So are consumers.

Almost two-thirds of retail prices end in a nine on some estimates. These “charm prices”—set just below a round number—are meant to lead consumers to round down rather than up. While some doubt their effectiveness, plainly Steve Jobs is a believer, insisting initially that all tracks on iTunes be priced at 99 cents, as is Jeff Bezos, whose Kindle was first priced at $359, later $299 and then $259.

In “Priceless,” William Poundstone explains charm prices and other common pricing anomalies. More broadly, he explores some of the basic notions of behavioral economics and argues that psychology matters as much as logic in many simple economic decisions. Most prices, Mr. Poundstone notes, are not the result of exact science but are “slippery and contingent,” relying on “coherent arbitrariness”: Consumers don’t know the “right” price for anything and mainly respond to price increases and the price of one thing compared with another.

Not surprisingly, retailers and marketers exploit consumer psychology to make consumers think that they are getting more for less and to divert attention from any attempt to charge more. Sometimes, for instance, manufacturers stealthily reduce the size of their product. Mr. Poundstone cites Skippy peanut butter, which recently added an indentation to its jars that reduced its size by 9%. Consumers tent to react less to this subtle price inflation than to a higher price tag—particularly for regularly purchased products whose price consumers will remember. Eventually, a company will run out of corners to cut and can then start over with an entirely new package and price that is hard to compare to the old one.

Another popular pricing technique is to use expensive “anchors” that consumers use as comparison points. Mr. Poundstone says, for instance, that Prada carries a few “obscenely high priced” items to make everything else seem affordable by comparison. Restaurants sometimes use similar tactics. The “$1,000 caviar and lobster omelet” on the menu at New York restaurant Norma’s is principally for show, not sale. Even if no one orders it, its astronomical price tag may tend to “bewitch” customers into spending more than they would have otherwise.

Whatever the pain of an irrationally expensive breakfast, it pales in comparison with buying an over-priced house. To avoid that mistake, however, a buyer may need to cover up the price tag and appraise the house without being influenced by the seller’s number. In one experiment, a group of licensed real estate agents were shown a house and told that it had been listed for $119,900. When asked to estimate a reasonable purchase price, their average was $111,454. When a different group of agents was told that the listing price for exactly the same house was $149,900, their average estimate was $127,318. The agents had subconsciously used the listing price as a reference point for their appraisals—even though they knew it was irrelevant.

Consumers, of course, are aware of all these tricks. And yet the evidence is overwhelming that they are influenced by them. Forewarned but not forearmed: Individuals are far less rational than they often believe.

This notion has been best explained by Dan Ariely in “Predictably Irrational” (2008), which Mr. Poundstone cites frequently. Mr Ariely explored some of the basic notions of behavioral economics—and showed how real-life decision-making differs from utilitarian economic models. At the core of much behavioral economics is “prospect theory,” a set of ideas that were developed by Daniel Kahneman (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics) and Amos Tversky.

The theory emphasizes how risk—or risk aversion—affects decision-making, and it helps to explain why actual prices often differ from what one might rationally expect, even for something that is easy to value—like money itself. Consumers tend to over-value certainty: When offered the choice between a certain $3,000 and an 80% chance of $4,000, most people choose the lower amount even though the alternative’s expected value—its average probability-weighted return—is $3,200. Similarly, individuals have an irrationally high aversion to loss: Most people turn down an offer to flip a coin and win $110 for heads and lose $100 for tails. A study of contestants on the TV game show “Deal or No Deal” found that more decisions were consistent with prospect theory than with maximizing the expected return.

The additional value that individuals place on locking in certainty and avoiding loss explains why consumers are willing to buy financial products that otherwise seem to make no sense—such as extended product warranties where the price of the warranty is greater than the expected value of the loss being protected. Similarly it explains why consumers over-pay for flat-rate plans—say, unlimited calling plans, when a limited plan would likely be cheaper: They want to avoid the risk of a huge bill.

While Mr. Poundstone explains the increasingly sophisticated techniques that businesses use to exploit human irrationality, he says little about the effect that the rise of e-commerce may have on all this pricing strategy. While there may still be some scope for psychological manipulation, consumers should be harder to confuse with access to instant price comparisons and product research online. Relatedly, the Web may offer opportunities for better customer segmentation and hence finer price differentiation—where prices take into account each consumer’s willingness to pay. Why give everyone a discount when some people will pay full price? Perhaps the customer that searched for “highest rated” will pay more than someone who searched for “lowest price.” Tailored offers and customized bundles can muddy the water for comparisons. As Robert Crandall, a former CEO of American Airlines, has said: “If I have 2,000 customers on a given route and 400 different prices, I’m obviously short 1,600.”

Mr. Philips is executive vice president of News Corp., which owns Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704152804574628390662807658.html