Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jim Webb and Prison Reform

I was set to comment on a short but thought-provoking piece that Bradford Plumer had written for The New Republic concerning Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and his efforts to address the need for prison reform, a cause that remains quite unpopular among politicians. Then the magazine threw a curveball when they redesigned their site earlier this month, and I received the dreaded “Error 404” message when I re-checked the link. So to begin, here’s a key excerpt of what Plumer wrote, where he is covering a subcommittee meeting that Webb is co-hosting:

“Reentry programs [for prisoners] are one thing; talk of drastically reducing prison sentences, however, is still a radical notion for Congress…Webb, however, could be a convincing crusader here--after all, it's hard to accuse a man who once tried to bring a gun into the Senate of being a typical bleeding-heart liberal. Indeed, Webb emphasizes several times [during the meeting] that he's not soft on crime, and, as if to prove it, reiterates his desire to ‘break the backs of gangs’ and so forth. ‘But,’ he adds at the end, ‘I do hope my colleagues can better understand the impact of what we're doing here.’ ” By the time he says this, though, he's the only politician left in the room.”

There are two essays that I think help explicate this a bit. The first—Jeff Sharlet’s profile of Webb for Rolling Stone from June (full version here)—affirms why Plumer’s assessment of Webb as a potential “convincing crusader” for prison reform is likely accurate. Sharlet reminds us that Webb’s slim and unlikely victory in Virginia’s senatorial race last year was in large part due to his opponent George Allen’s gaffes, including the now-infamous “Macaca” comment. The “break the backs of gangs” comment is perhaps indicative of a self-consciousness regarding social issues and what will continue to help maintain his electoral support. Nevertheless, Webb is a hard-nosed “old school populist”—think William Jennings Bryan—who “loves war” and still carries many of the same political views as he did while Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. As a result, he has some freedom to pursue alternatives to incarceration while avoiding charges of being “soft” or too liberal—though that pursuit, as Plumer indicates in the above passage, will more than likely be a lonely one.

The other essay is Mark Mauer’s “The Hidden Problem of Time Served in Prison” for Social Research, which Plumer discussed this month on his blog. Of particular note is Mauer’s argument that the average length of prison sentences has markedly increased since 1990, which has primarily contributed to rises in both the prison population and system costs. Moreover, increasing sentence length does not act as a deterrent and has no bearing on recidivism rates. As Plumer notes:

“In theory, of course, you can lock up a prisoner for five or ten years, until he "ages out" of his prime crime-committing years, and that could reduce recidivism. But doing that for everyone would mean quadrupling our $60 billion-per-year prison system, and I trust no one needs to explain why that would be a horrible idea.”

Bearing this in mind as well as the fixture of tough-on-crime stances within politics, Webb faces an uphill battle with his reform efforts, but the fact that he is even concerned about the issue is rather noteworthy.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Voter ID and Muslim Women

The Jurist had this report yesterday on proposed Canadian legislation that could greatly affect Muslim women and their rights to vote. Canada’s Conservative Party has introduced a Bill, Bill C-6, and the provincial government of Quebec has indicated that legislation will be introduced that will require Muslim women to lift their veils to vote in order to be allowed access to the voting booths. While such legislation has not been introduced in the United States (yet), Canada’s legislation presents issues that may arise with the United States’ recent push towards more voter identification requirements.

According to the article, the issue over Muslim women and their verification of identity is a result of an incident that happened in Quebec in March of this year. Quebec’s chief electoral officer refused to allow some Muslim women to vote without first viewing their faces to verify their identity; as would be expected, this drew criticism from Muslim rights groups and was eventually overruled by Elections Canada. At the time of this incident, the need to view the faces of potential voters was unclear, and the government now wants to clear any uncertainty over the issue.

As is the concern in the United States, Canada is attempting to prevent voter fraud by verifying the identities of voters. If passed, Muslim women will be taken into another room, where they can privately lift their veils for election officials. In this way, the election official can match the identification provided with the actual face of the potential voter.

The United States has not yet officially dealt with this issue, leaving questions both as to how election officials are to deal with the matter if no legislation or rules are created, and the religious freedoms of these Muslim women if legislation and rules are indeed introduced. First, election officials throughout the country are attempting to require proof of identity before the person is allowed to vote. Although much of the legislation requiring the presentation of identification is being challenged, such proof is still required in several states. However, even if identification is required to be provided in these states, hypothetically, and this may be the argument of the Canadians attempting to pass the above legislation, any person wearing a veil can present any identification without fear of having their right to vote challenged, increasing the possibility of voter fraud.

While there may be some valid reasons to what the Canadians are proposing, I believe that the second question, the question of religious freedom, presents a stronger argument for not requiring these women to show their faces. According to the Jurist article, Canada is already writing in exceptions for persons with facial bandages by allowing them to vote if they present two forms of identification or have a qualified voter with them who can vouch for their identification. If such exceptions can be made for persons not expressing their religious freedoms, the issue of the importance of requiring Muslim women to raise their veils becomes even more questionable.

Canada and the United States obviously have many differences; however, it appears that voter fraud is an issue being confronted by both countries. This legislation being proposed by Canada further demonstrates the problems with requiring the presentation of voter identification, problems not yet confronted and/or addressed by the United States. While the United States deals with challenges to their voter identification regulations based on challenges that such requirements constitute a “poll tax”, it will interesting to watch the situation in Canada in preparation for potential new challenges to our election process in the United States.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Wire and David Simon’s Artistic Vision

Margaret Talbot has an excellent profile on David Simon, the creator of HBO’s drama The Wire for the October 22 Arts Issue of The New Yorker. Over its first four seasons, The Wire has established a reputation as a critical darling—more than one reviewer has spoken of it in terms of among the best dramas in television history—even as its audience (in the four million range) is modest compared to intra-network shows The Sopranos and even Big Love. Talbot demonstrates how much of this success traces back to Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun with a tenaciously realistic/cynical view of life and a confidence that borders on hubris. Additionally, Talbot writes that he “is an authenticity freak,” and his attention to detail, from the filming that takes place throughout Baltimore to the “ghetto dialogue” of the characters helps set the show apart from its contemporaries:

“ ‘The Wire’ d├ębuted in June, 2002, looking more or less like a cop show. But the differences were important. It spent as much time with the lawbreakers as it did with the law enforcers. And you didn’t see the suspects through the cops’ eyes only—you saw them through their own as well. The drug trade emerged as its own intricate bureaucracy, a hierarchy that subtly mirrored that of the police department. Moreover, ‘The Wire’ did not rely on the jumpy handheld-camera shots and the blurry ‘swish pans’ that a lot of network cop shows had adopted. The camera remained locked, for minutes at a time, on people talking. And the story unfolded at a slower pace, too, which meant that many of the scenes elaborated on the characters and the power structures they moved within, rather than lay the pipe of plot.”

All of these aspects are notable, but having watched the first three seasons (and preparing to soon watch the fourth), I find the second half of the last sentence to be especially important. As each season concentrates upon a different aspect of Baltimore—first the street-level drug trade, then struggling longshoremen, individuals seeking power to make city-level changes, and finally the failings of the school system—it allows the viewer more context than one would ever imagine on a television show. As Talbot writes, this “sociological precision” allows Simon to present larger themes about how America’s transition to a service and technology-oriented economy continues to, in his words, “ ‘devalue human beings.’ ” The show’s storylines vividly convey this bleakness—its characters often make bad decisions that affect their lives, but their surrounding environment negatively affects them as well.

The result of this complexity is that there aren’t easy emotionally payoffs or neatly resolved morality tales in The Wire; on more than one occasion, I’ve spoken aloud in surprise or frustration even though I watch the show alone. Yet if we believe Picasso’s famous quote that “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” then The Wire presents a particularly useful form of storytelling that challenges us to reconsider our views on several topics—the effectiveness of social institutions, the circumstances of the urban poor, the impact of the War on Drugs—while also rewarding us with remarkable acting and narratives. That it does so is largely a testament to David Simon’s artistic vision.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Native Americans purging tribal rolls

Native Americans are in the process of redefining tribal identity that is causing great concern among Native people.

David Wilkins, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and a member of North Carolina's Lumbee Tribe, traces most purges to four factors: internal political squabbles, stricter racial requirements for membership, punishment for gang or drug-related crime and, most often, during debates over sharing casino profits.

In Oliphant v Suquamish Indian Tribe (435 U.S. 191), a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said the federal government should not intervene in most tribal membership disputes, leaving appeals up to the tribes.

According to the National Indian Gaming Commission, tribal casinos generated $25 billion in revenue last year. Tribes often split the profits by making payments to members. Fewer members can mean a larger paycheck for those left.

There are organizations that can help displaced Native people. The American Indian Rights and Resources Organization is a group that lobbies against expelling tribe members.

It's not clear how many people have been removed from tribes in the last few years. There are 562 federally recognized tribes, and tribal governments are not required to report citizenship decisions. But the number is in the thousands.

In Michigan, the Saginaw Chippewa want to remove about a tenth of their 2,700 members due to rules that require them to be at least one-quarter Indian. Critics said it's an attempt to cut casino payments.

The Cherokee Nation voted in March to deny citizenship to an estimated 2,800 descendants of tribal slaves.

In Rhode Island, the issue has become political. In the Narragansett election, Paulla Dove Jennings, a historian, is running an underdog campaign against the incumbent, Matthew Thomas, saying it is unfair to take people's identities as Narragansett away.

Clearly, there is a power struggle going on. The tribes have the power and the displaced do not.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Milton Caniff: "The Rembrandt of the Comic Strip"

A retrospective of Milton Caniff’s work will be on display at The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library’s 9th Festival of Cartoon Art, October 25th-27th, beginning at 11:00 AM. More than a dozen of the nation's top cartoonists, scholars and comic professionals will gather in downtown Columbus to celebrate Caniff's life and his work.

The Cartoon Research Library, which houses the works of many well-known cartoonists, got its start with Caniff's 1977 bequest of his papers.

Lucy Shelton Caswell said Caniff is one of the reasons the Cartoon Research Library exists. As the founding donor and a goodwill ambassador for the library, he persuaded other cartoonists to donate their work.

Underground cartoonist Frank Stack said he believes Caniff is the "key figure in the development of storytelling and artistic development of the comic strip" and he raised the bar for what a comic strip could be.

Caniff is best known for comic strips Terry and the Pirates, & Steve Canyon. Many cartoonists point to Caniff's works as an influence on their own work and his impact on the comic strip as a form of art.

Milton Caniff has a special place in my heart for the character he created when he was a boy scout. “Kit Cricket” is the character’s name, and here is the story behind his creation:

It was Milt Caniff, who was a scout at the time and later became a nationally known cartoonist of “Steve Canyon” fame, who submitted the name Cricket Holler (in 1921). Kit Cricket, the character we often see around the Miami Valley Council (Boy Scouts) and who is posted on the gate at Woodland Trails, is Milt’s creation, and he created a rather elaborate story about Kit’s defense of Cricket Holler from the malevolent “hodags.” You can read the story in “Fun and Service.”

Every time I take my son to camp at Cricket Holler it makes me smile to see Kit Cricket guarding the gates of the camp.

For registration or more information about speakers and the Cartoon Research Library, go to

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Continued Use of Lethal Injection in Question

While the United States Supreme Court considers the chemical composition used to administer lethal injections, many jurisdictions are staying pending cases involving the use of the same. According to SCOTUSblog, the Court had agreed to consider the constitutionality of the current lethal injection formula used in 36 states. Such consideration comes as a result of the Court’s decision to review the case of Baze v. Rees (Supreme Court docket number 07-5439).

A total of 17 states have suspended any executions by lethal injection until such time as the United States Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the chemical composition used. The only execution scheduled to be held before the spring of next year is in Mississippi, where the state is awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

While states such as Alabama, in the case of Siebert v. Allen, are staying execution by lethal injection without an explicit ruling by the United States Supreme Court, Mississippi is awaiting a ruling in the case of Berry v. Mississippi (Supreme Court docket numbers 07A334 and 07-7275). The Mississippi Supreme Court has refused to stay the execution, scheduled for 6:00 P.M. next Tuesday, based on the fact the United States Supreme Court has not yet indicated the need to stay all executions by lethal injection; the Mississippi Supreme Court has indicated it would comply if the U.S. Supreme Court issues a stay of the execution in this case.

Meanwhile in Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals is drawing criticism for staying a September 25 execution when a rushed filing was delayed past the court’s closing time due to computer issues. The same day the Court refused to accept any late filing in the case is the same day the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Baze. The New York Times is reporting that any motion to stay the execution could not be brought with the U.S. Supreme Court due to the fact that Court of Criminal Appeals never issued a definitive ruling that could then be appealed. The question of whether the execution would have been stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court will never be answered, but Berry may provide further insight into the issue.

The decision in Baze will almost certainly alter the landscape of lethal injection executions in the United States. While the ultimate change may be as minor as reformulating the chemical composition used, it is already creating effects on states that had executions scheduled and the prisoners involved, and causing many to think about the issues associated with such executions. As we await a final ruling, it will also be interesting to watch cases such as Berry, which may indicate the direction the Court is heading, or at the least send a message to states regarding staying executions until a final decision in Baze is rendered. A stay of execution in Berry may be sufficient to persuade states, such as Texas, that lethal injection executions should be halted without the need to obtain case-by-case rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Sony Reader: The Great Hope for E-books?

Not that long ago I argued that books are resistant to digitization due to a combination of convenience, experience and cost factors. This week, I first learned about the Sony Reader, and initially began to wonder about the soundness of my argument. The product specifications that Sony details on its official webpage are impressive: the Reader is smaller and lighter (9 ounces) than a standard paperback, yet contains a six-inch screen and a memory slot to expand beyond its capacity of eighty e-books, and can also store other electronics such as PDFs and mp3s. In writing about his initial experiences with the Reader, Frank Wilson of the Philadelphia Enquirer notes perhaps the most winsome feature:

“…the crucial question is a fairly simple one: How readable is it? The principal reason e-books haven't caught on is that print on a screen hasn't been able to compete with ink on paper when it comes to readability. E-books have, for example, proved less than ideal for reading in full sunlight.

“The Sony Reader seems to have solved that problem. I've read mine in full summer sunlight on my patio. I've read it in morning and evening twilight on the sofa in my living room. I've read it in bed in ordinary lamp light. And I've read it on the bus and on the subway. It's easily as readable as newsprint, and sunlight is certainly no problem. In fact, the brighter the light, the easier it is to read.”

If the experiential factors of reading are what primarily limit the current market for e-books, then creating a device that allows for easier reading in what are normally less-than-ideal viewing conditions is a step in the right direction. Yet Wilson cites plenty of drawbacks: a general user-unfriendly software interface (no indices or search feature and a confusing help guide), a limited selection available through Sony’s e-book store, and a high expense for both the Reader ($235) and the e-books (same price as hardback versions, which is an incredibly poor decision). At four to six hours per charge, the battery life is so-so. And then there’s Sony, whose consumer reputation could be better.

Even if we set these issues aside, the Sony Reader doesn’t fundamentally address the issues of e-book technology. David Haskin of PC Advisor finds that in addition to the fact that e-books lack a standardized format (leading to compatibility issues):

“…the devices [for e-books] themselves just aren't good enough yet. Some people find them unwieldy; others say they're difficult to use. And for many people, there's just no replacing the old-fashioned, reassuring feel of paper” (emphasis mine).

Wilson thus demonstrates that the Sony Reader is difficult to use, and that while it replicates the look of book paper, it isn’t an equal replacement for the tactile sensations of turning a page.

I think the “old-fashioned” book is safe for now.

Monday, October 22, 2007

FBI Attempts to Reconstruct Terrorism Cases

The Los Angeles Times is reporting today on the FBI’s efforts to ensure that sufficient evidence, which is neither too controversial nor inadmissible, is available for upcoming war crime tribunals involving accused Al Qaeda leaders. With the recent publicity over the treatment of such war criminals and accusations of improper treatment by the CIA, bordering on torture, the FBI and the United States government want to ensure that the trials are solely about the persons on trial, not the United States agencies that collected evidence.

The FBI is reconstructing cases due to fears that much of the collected evidence will not be admissible as many of the prisoners on trial had be held incommunicado overseas, allowing the CIA to use coercive means to collect evidence. Much, if not all, of this evidence would not be admissible in a United States court of law, and it is thought that the military commissions will take a similar stance.

Efforts to collect additional evidence began after legal rulings against an accused Al Qaeda leader indicated that other suspected members would be provided with a forum for trial where evidence would be presented. According to the article, “[t]he FBI's efforts appear in part to be a hedge in case the commissions are ruled unconstitutional or never occur, or the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay is closed.” If any of these situations would arise, detainees would be released, transferred to military custody elsewhere, or tried in U.S. federal courts where sufficient evidence would be required to charge them with terrorism. If the U.S. attempts to try these individuals in federal court for terrorism, any evidence obtained by coercion would be disallowed.

As presented as part of a previous post, experts have stated that torture or coercion provide reliable information. This is evidenced by the U.S. court’s refusal to allow evidence obtained by coercion to be presented at trial. Due to the CIA’s use of such methods, the FBI is now attempting, and has been for approximately the past two years, to rectify this issue and collect evidence that will be deemed reliable and therefore admissible. After the mistreatment of these detainees to obtain evidence to prove their guilt, it is likely that the evidence obtained will not be usable and the FBI will most likely have a difficult time now reconstructing the cases and obtaining admissible reliable evidence. As such, it now appears that the methods used not only harmed the prisoners but may also reduce the chances of the U.S. obtaining convictions for terrorism against these persons.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mike Adams and Evangelical Faith in Higher Education

In August, I wrote an entry about Andrew Paquin, an assistant professor of global studies at Colorado Christian University whose use of “progressive” texts in the classroom led to his dubious dismissal. The Chronicle of Higher Education now reports on a different and somewhat inverted scenario: Mike Adams, an associate professor of criminology at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, was recently denied a full professorship even after what he felt was a solid teaching and scholarship background. The rub? As Thomas Bartlett writes, Adams is arguing that his Christian faith is what led to the university’s decision. Additionally, his lawsuit against the university also claims political bias as a factor in the university’s decision:

“About the same time Mr. Adams became a Christian, the former liberal also became a conservative. He joined the Republican Party in 1999. He later started writing columns for, a right-wing Web site. He has been a guest on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, among others.

“The examples of discrimination mentioned in his lawsuit tend to be about his political views rather than his faith. He claims, for instance, that a former department head asked him to tone down his columns, to make them less caustic.”

Bartlett’s article is therefore an attempt to answer the question of whether conservatively-oriented evangelicals like Adams actually encounter hostility (or even discrimination) within academe because of their beliefs. It’s a thorny issue, and Bartlett has done his homework: Randall Balmer and George Marsden in particular are both top-rate scholars, and as evangelicals, neither of them has been shy about sharing opinions regarding their personal faith. Marsden’s response is especially striking. While I haven’t read The Soul of the American University (though I would like to), I’m aware that the book is an attempt to argue in favor of the days when judging religious values was a central component of higher education.* For him to place the onus on how a professor presents his or her beliefs is perhaps telling with regard to this particular case, where Adams has clearly forwarded some quite aggressive opinions in his body of work.

The story becomes even more interesting when we consider Andy Guess of Inside Higher Ed’s account from April:

“…colorful details, as well as plenty of documentation, add weight to an otherwise routine accusation. Take a department chair’s alleged comment that her ‘image of a perfect job candidate is a lesbian with spiked hair and a dog collar.’ Or the professor’s shock tactics on [conservative web community], where a recent political column, musing on a university’s alleged tolerance for terrorists versus homophobes, was titled “How to bomb a gay bath house.”

*See Stephen Prothero’s excellent book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, page 140.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Revisiting Radiohead

In the week since Radiohead’s groundbreaking digital release of their new album In Rainbows without a fixed price, the initial results have been quite favorable. Music reviewers have formed a consensus in their praise of the album, using terms such as “masterpiece” and “primo.” Perhaps more importantly, the album seems to be selling incredibly well, though use of a weasel word like “seems” is necessary due to shaky supporting evidence; the earliest reported figure of 1.2 million sales originates from a “source close to the band.” Even if this total is high, the response to Radiohead’s strategy indicates that fans are favorably disposed to paying what they want for a digital album.

Yet there’s a less-considered benefit to Radiohead’s strategy that Mark Pytlik raises in his review of In Rainbows for Pitchfork:

“Like many music lovers of a certain age, I have a lot of warm memories tied up with release days. I miss the simple ritual of making time to buy a record. I also miss listening to something special for the first time and imagining, against reason, the rest of the world holed up in their respective bedrooms, having the same experience. Before last Wednesday, I can't remember the last time I had that feeling.”

Pytlik hits the nail on the head. Though I have no idea how old he is, it’s apparent that the “music lovers of a certain age” to whom he refers are those old enough to have begun music collections before the rise of Napster and peer-to-peer downloading methods around 2000. For all of the advantages associated with the digital music era that originates from that point—instant gratification, portable devices that can contain one’s entire music library, the ability to preview and access album material before release dates—I think a lot of music lovers (myself included) have probably lost some of the anticipation and ritual that used to be a part of buying new music. When I was younger, I remember tracking the days before a major release, and how excited I would get just by opening the shrink wrap on a newly-purchased cassette or CD. While listening, I would pore over album art and liner notes, trying to memorize lyrics so that I could sing along accurately.

Those elements of my musical experience haven’t completely disappeared, but they’ve certainly decreased, and my access to digital music is a large reason why. It’s easy for me or for anybody with basic computer knowledge to preview “leaked” albums before their release date. It’s cheaper to subscribe to eMusic and download certain independent-label albums there, even when I want the CDs. And with the exception of being in the car (where I have a CD player), it’s more convenient to use my iPod and computer as my primary playback devices. I’d suspect that Pytlik has made similar types of acquiescence (especially considering the volume of music that he listens to for reviews), as has many of us in the past few years. The paradox is that while we continue to gain convenience and access in ways that we never could have during the pre-digital era, we also are losing some of the habits that can make music listening more enjoyable and tangible.

Radiohead’s certainly can’t change this process, but they allowed us to recapture some of the value behind what Pytlik mentions: being excited for an impending release, making time for it, and sharing in a type of communal musical act. In my eyes, that makes their achievement all the more remarkable.

Monday, October 15, 2007

State Regulation of Illegal Immigration

While President Bush and Congress continue to debate immigration legislation, the Washington Post today has an article reporting on the laws being passed by individual states in an attempt to delineate the rights of immigrants in their states. As states are taking it upon themselves to pass this legislation, the fear seems to be that federal standards will never be possible; the longer states are required to regulate immigration issues on their own, most often enacting legislation different or entirely contrary to other states’ legislation, the harder it will be to create uniform rules.

According to the article, 182 bills in 43 states were passed in the first half of 2007, more than doubling the 2006 total of state-enacted immigration laws. Some issues being addressed by this legislation include: the issuance of driver’s licenses; employment background checks to determine an immigrant’s status; and, the “transportation” and “harboring” of illegal immigrants.

While some see this influx of state-enacted immigration legislation as problematic, some argue that states have no other choice but to act while the federal government continues to work on uniform federal legislation. As the federal government continues to debate the best solution, states are left with the reality of how to handle the illegal immigration issues that are affecting their cities and towns. States cannot just sit back and wait as illegal immigrants continue to enter into their borders.

Still others see the state-enacted legislation as an opportunity to see what will work best when establishing federal regulations. With a large variety of state immigration laws, the national government will be able to observe and study what seem to be the best procedures for handling illegal immigration issues. The only issue with such a “laboratory” approach is that it takes time; if too much time is taken to observe how states handle illegal immigration and what is working, it would seem that even more disparate state immigration laws would be passed making it even harder to pass the uniform federal rules desired.

The issue of illegal immigration is certainly one that is garnering much attention. As evidenced by the increase in immigration related legislation passed already this year, it seems that states are eager to establish laws that will remedy the problems associated with the issue. However, as long as states continue to make disparate and sometimes contrary laws, it is expected that illegal immigration problems will continue, just perhaps in states with more lenient laws. As such, it appears that a uniform set of laws created by the federal government will be the best solution to alleviate the issue of illegal immigration; however, the longer the federal government takes in passing such rules, the harder it will be to unify the states under this single set of rules.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Amazonmp3 and Thinking Past DRM

With Amazon having recently released a beta version of their digital downloading service Amazonmp3, Nate Anderson of Ars Technica presents a nicely balanced analysis of its functionality, as well as how it stacks up to iTunes and other competitors. Although iTunes is now the third-largest music retailer in the U.S., it has stuck to the same restrictions with which it first began: for $0.99 per track, you receive a file in AAC format that is incompatible with non-iPod music players, a relatively low bitrate of 128 kbps (which negatively affects audio quality), and a digital rights management policy that limits file sharing. Conversely, Amazonmp3 sells files that work on virtually any music player, possess a higher bitrate (256 kbps), and—in a first for a service offering both major-label and independent-label music—are DRM-free. They also have variable pricing, with top-selling tracks going for $0.89 apiece and top albums for $8.99, a full dollar lower than iTunes.

These are all quite positive changes, but besides astutely pointing out kinks in the pricing structure (“That's a pretty decent deal [at $8.99 for top albums], but it makes you wonder how Amazon thinks it is going to sell Wilson Phillips' Greatest Hits for $11.99”), Anderson elaborates upon the limitations that remain even without DRM:

“There are a few restrictions. One of the biggest is that there's no redownloading of tracks; you'd better make a backup, because if you lose a song, you'll have to purchase it again to get another copy. Such a policy has an obvious analogue to Amazon's CD sales. If you purchase a Tim McGraw CD and your NPR-loving uncle ‘accidentally’ cracks the disk in two, you are out of luck; Amazon won't send you another copy. In this sense, then, music downloads are treated like physical property.

But they are not property. In fact, what you have purchased is only a "non-exclusive, non-transferable license" to each song. Because you have not actually purchased something physical, Amazon's terms of service explicitly forbid both re-selling and lending. With a CD, of course, you can do both quite legally. Digital downloads can be cheaper and more convenient, but there's no legal way to extract value from them when your tastes in music change. Caveat emptor.”

As Anderson notes, Amazon is partially responsible for these restrictions. The independent music-based download service eMusic, for example, allows its customers to redownload tracks even if it’s on a different computer. eMusic is a monthly subscription service and is therefore operates slightly differently than Amazon, but it probably wouldn’t be difficult for Amazon to promote a more user-friendly policy in this regard.

Yet Anderson has raised an issue that goes beyond Amazon. Once of the inherent advantages of CDs has been the ability to resell them or exchange them as credit for new CDs. During the 1990s, this was mutually beneficial for both consumers (who generally lacked the opportunity to buy individual songs) and many music retailers (who developed a revenue source that guaranteed a high profit margin). Even as CD sales have shifted to the Internet, sites such as eBay (along with sister site and Second Spin allow consumers to update and refine their collections. In contrast, virtual music files such as mp3s obviously change the rules: they take up space, but aren’t actually tangible like previous commercial forms of recorded music. There currently isn’t a way to informally sell or exchange mp3s for purchase credit like CDs, so the only way to use one’s (unrestricted) digital music as a means of accessing new digital music is through illegal file sharing methods which major-label music companies and retailers such as Amazon have aggressively sought to discourage through DRM (and, in the case of the former, lawsuits).

In short, DRM is not a user-friendly technology, and we should applaud Amazon for developing a service that doesn’t rely upon it. This is only a partial victory, though, for as a virtual music format, mp3 files still posses an inherent drawback that allows labels and retailers to define the boundaries of “fair use.” Consequently, we are left with two questions: 1) whether mp3 files and other virtual music formats can ever become “property” like CDs, and 2) if so, whether anyone can develop a method for the legal exchange and reselling of virtual files.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Barriers to On-Campus Voting

In an article issued by the Politico this week, it is reported that college students are most affected by requirements imposed on voters, and as such are less likely to cast votes. The Politico states that barriers such as being unable to register, long lines, and voter challenges at the polls prevent a large number of college students from participating in elections. While these barriers prevent or discourage others from voting, one expert, Tova Andrea Wang of The Century Foundation, states that, “Many of the problems that can prevent anyone from voting fall disproportionately hard on students”.

Especially problematic for many students relate to voter identification requirements that are being instituted in many states. Many voters are being required to show picture identification, verifying that the address on their identification matches the address given for registration purposes. A large number of students do not have driver’s licenses, the identification most commonly presented for identification verification purposes. Even those who do possess valid state IDs may be prevented from voting as their identification would most likely contain their home address, an address not matching their campus address they used in registering to vote.

Another issue has arisen in the dissemination of misinformation. The article points to an instance at Prairie View A&M, where students were informed that they were not eligible to vote in the county. Even without intent to misinform, misunderstandings and/or honest mistakes from the people on campus providing information may cause students to believe they are not eligible to vote on their campuses.

Steps are being undertaken to introduce legislation that would correct many of these problems in time for the 2008 election. Steps are being taken to criminalize the deliberate dissemination of misinformation, and legislation is being considered that would require states to mail registration forms to all students and provide for Election Day registration. In order to encourage voter turnout, the Senate Rules Committee is considering creating a federal holiday for Election Day. These steps are seen as ways to ensure students are given a proper opportunity to participate in the election process and encourage them to do so.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Consumer Product Safety Commission

While it appears the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) has been busy pulling toys from shelves, it appears as if the Commission has failed to be as vigilant in pulling other reportedly dangerous products off of store shelves. According to a New York Times article today, the CPSC had been previously notified of the fact that a waterproofing product may be hazardous to the health of those who purchased it; however, even after months after such warnings, the product remains available for sale.

As stated in the article, “The task of getting dangerous products out of consumers’ reach is perhaps the most pressing challenge the Consumer Product Safety Commission faces in this era of surging recalls, particularly of products from China.” However, as evidenced by the facts presented in this story, the CPSC has failed to live up to this challenge in a case where they were reportedly warned of potential dangers months in advance.

Perhaps, as the article proposes, the CPSC “is too overwhelmed with reports of injuries and with new hazards to comprehensively investigate or follow up on many complaints”, especially in the current environment with the recent discovery of dangerous levels of lead paint in so many products being marketed to children. Additionally, the article proposes that the CPSC’s laboratories are too outdated to prove effective. Congress is in fact apparently discussing measures that would attempt to increase the CPSC’s budget to ensure the Commission remains effective in its mission, indicating that one or both of these propositions may be true.

Unfortunately, it seems that it takes a widespread outbreak of complaints and/or illness to occur to bring attention to problems such as this. Without the rash of recalls of imported toys, today’s story of warnings having gone unheeded by the CPSC may not have received such publicity. However, this toy recall has seemingly put everybody on guard against hazardous products and has caused the public to pay more attention to such dangers. Hopefully, this will draw attention not only to the need to keep the CPSC adequately funded, but also draw attention to other such organizations that may have been neglected and as such may not be operating as efficiently as they could be. No matter, something obviously needs to be done that will allow the CPSC to improve their effectiveness in order to ensure consumers are not being unnecessarily exposed to hazardous products.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Dave Zirin on John Carlos and the Jena 6

In one of the better articles on the Jena 6 controversy that I have recently read, sports commentator Dave Zirin of Sports Illustrated briefly interviews Dr. John Carlos, whose “black-gloved fist salute” on the medal podium became a defining moment of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Zirin’s work—including the weekly columns for his self-run site Edge of Sports—explores sports topics within social and cultural contexts, often searching for the negative social and economic implications of sports as well as positive examples of resistance. It’s consequently unsurprising that right before Jena 6 member Mychal Bell finally received the bail money to leave prison on September 27, Zirin’s conversation with Carlos produces this comment:

“Carlos feels a sense of frustration with ‘ministers’ and ‘so-called leaders of the black community,’ as he puts it, who show up for the big protests in places like Jena, but aren't there when the cameras are off. ‘These leaders today,’ he said, ‘they remind me of tow truck drivers. A tow truck driver is the first one to show up on the scene when there is an accident sometimes. It's true they have [radios] and sometimes show up at the scene before even the police. But can they actually fix the cars? Do they have grease under the fingernails? Will they be there to help the families once the car is towed away?’ ”

Carlos’ concern is especially relevant with regard to Jena. I don’t think we can fault the principal organizers of the Jena protests (notably Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson) for using time-honored strategies to maximize media coverage; indeed, media coverage has been critical to the fight against district attorney Reed Walters’ actions so far. Yet while Sharpton accompanied Bell out of jail, he and Jackson will more than likely not be around to “fix the cars” in the long term.

This is why Carlos’ forward thinking about what happens after Jena is astute. When Walters claims that God prevented disaster from occurring during the (largely African-American based) 20,000-strong demonstration in Jena on September 20, what does that signify for African-American residents concerning their right to receive due justice under the law? Indeed, the implied racism of Walters’ comment is a reminder that while protests on behalf of the Jena 6 have been effective in the short term, Jena’s racial relations—not to mention the racial relations of the surrounding region and Louisiana in general—have deep historical roots that will require profound and fundamental shifts, both from a structural and attitudinal standpoint. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to imagine the Jena protests as a positive turning point, and both Carlos’ and Zirin’s commentary also us to do so while also providing us with a proper sense of perspective.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Former Duke Lacrosse players file lawsuit

Nine months after a woman leveled rape accusations against three Lacrosse players, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong dropped the charges. In April 2007, more than a year after the woman made the claim, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the former players innocent victims of a "tragic rush to accuse."

Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligman and Dave Evans, the accused players, are now responding with a federal lawsuit filed yesterday against Nifong, the City of Durham and the police detectives who handled the investigation. The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees and drastic changes to the way that the Durham Police Department handles criminal investigations.

The lawsuit calls the criminal case against the lacrosse players"one of the most chilling episodes of premeditated police, prosecutorial and scientific misconduct in modern American history."

Friday, October 5, 2007

United States under fire for authorizing torture techniques on terror suspects

The United States (US) is under fire again after new allegations chronicle accounts of secret memos that authorize the use of painful physical and psychological interrogation methods on terror suspects. The White House is denying the claims and issued a statement defending its interrogation policy, stating that the US is well within the law and the Geneva Conventions.

The New York Times (NYT) reported on Thursday that memos from the justice department authorized simulated drowning, head-slapping, exposure to frigid temperatures and lengthy periods of sleep deprivation as legally acceptable techniques by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (Click here to read the NYT article)

Human rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First are calling for an independent probe into the justice department's opinions on torture.

According to the New York Times report, the 2005 memo which explicitly allowed using the painful methods in combination came months after a 2004 legal opinion in which the justice department publicly declared torture abhorrent.

The White House and US justice department have said the 2005 memo did not change the 2004 policy.

The United States Congress has prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terror suspects.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Secret Memos Authorize Harsh Interrogation Tactics

The New York Times is reporting today on a legal memorandum, apparently secretly authorized by now former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, which essentially endorses the use of torture in interrogations. While a public opinion was issued in December, 2004 condemning the use of such practices, a second opinion was issued in February, 2005 explicitly allowing psychological and physical torture when questioning prisoners.

In 2005, Congress was in the process of “outlawing ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ treatment” when yet another secret opinion was issued by the Justice Department. In this document, it was stated that none of the C.I.A.’s current procedures, which assumingly included harsh psychological and physical tactics, would fall into the classification of actions being regulated by Congress.

Even though a number of practices have been dropped due to pressure from Congress and the Supreme Court, this latest opinion appears to remain in effect and has been reinforced by additional recent memorandums. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that Al Qaeda members are covered by the Geneva Convention, leading to the cessation of interrogation practices such as the pouring of water over the suspect’s covered head to induce a fear of suffocation, President Bush in July, 2006 “signed a new executive order authorizing the use of what the administration calls ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques — the details remain secret — and officials say the C.I.A. again is holding prisoners in ‘black sites’ overseas”.

There are two specific issues raised within this article (although I am sure that there are many more) that call into question the use of torture by the United States in prisoner interrogation. The first is the effectiveness of these methods. According to the article, “President Bush and C.I.A. officials would later insist that the harsh measures produced crucial intelligence”. However, the article goes on to say that, “many veteran interrogators, psychologists and other experts say that less coercive methods are equally or more effective”. If “less coercive” methods are in fact “equally or more effective”, it would seem that the effectiveness of harsh psychological and physical tactics in interrogation may be overstated and the use of such tactics unnecessary. Nonetheless, even proof that these tactics are more effective does not account for the physical and mental anguish the prisoners may be put through.

A second issue, regarding the use of torture in general, is the fact that it opens the door potentially a bit wider than expected. In one sense, the use of such tactics may be overused. As John D. Hutson, a former Navy lawyer states, “I know from the military that if you tell someone they can do a little of this for the country’s good, some people will do a lot of it for the country’s better”. Mr. Hutson not only fears the abuse of these tactics by Americans, but fears that such a policy may endanger Americans. In expressing his fear of such, he asks, “The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is O.K., what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him? How do we protest then?”

Finally, as for these secret approvals and orders, a question of the checks and balances system our government operates on is called into question. As stated in this article, Congress has attempted to pass legislation to limit these interrogation tactics; these attempts have been met by the Executive Branch issuing memorandums that these laws do not apply to their existing practices, although it would seem that these were the exact types of practices Congress was attempting to prohibit. Then, even after the Supreme Court has ruled regarding torture practices and the coverage of Al Qaeda prisoners by the Geneva Convention, apparently President Bush has signed another executive order, of which the exact contents are unknown, authorizing “enhanced” interrogation techniques and holding these prisoners in secret locations. Although Congress and the Supreme Court appear to be attempting to protect the rights of prisoners’ and prevent them from being subjected to these interrogation techniques, it seems that the Executive Branch is taking it upon itself to continue to allow these practices, even though there are arguably more effective and humane methods to obtain the required information.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Radiohead’s Revolutionary Idea

We shouldn’t use the word “revolutionary” lightly, but in this case I think it’s appropriate. As Jason Gross from PopMatters’ blog Crazed by the Music reports, rock band Radiohead has developed a new model for the release of their new album, In Rainbows, on October 10:

“With their contract up, instead of signing to a new label, they decided to put out their new record themselves. A lot of bands have done that with their own labels but Radiohead decided that they wanted to put it out online first and ask fans to pay whatever they think is fair. This not only goes against the fixed pricing that Apple has demanded for iTunes but also the flexible model that the labels have been fighting for because in the end, they themselves still set the price. Actually, it goes against the whole orthodoxy of the industry itself.”

Indeed it does, for this is the first time that a top-selling band has completely eschewed any type of price structure for a major release. As Gross notes, the band has two distinct advantages in that they’re currently free from a label contract and they’ve made plenty of money over their career. Even if this release method results in a commercial failure—which I doubt it will—their risk of loss is relatively small in the long run. Moreover, Radiohead is coupling the October 10 release (which is digital only) with an elaborate limited-edition “discbox” for a fixed price of ₤40 (around $81-82 US), which includes shipping and the digital release. What I assume will consequently result is a decent amount of serious fans buying the discbox—assuring some fixed profit—while many others will pay a small average sum for the digital download, which, although not a guaranteed profit, costs less to distribute outside of a major label and third-party websites and stores.

Gross is accurate in his argument about the larger significance of Radiohead’s decision:

“Remember how EMI was banking on releases by Coldplay and Gorillaz to keep the company solvent? That’s two acts supporting a major label, which should show you what thin ice they’re on and how much thinner it’s going to get now…

“So then the big question is, what happens next for the biz? It’s not gonna crumble overnight (though was already crumbling anyway) but this is another huge challenge to it now. Other big acts will get the bright idea that they can do this too, no matter how long and how strong a relationship they’ve had with their label (when you see [Bruce] Springsteen or U2 bolt, you know the game’s really over for majors).”

In his book Exploding, former Warner Brothers music executive Stan Cornyn details how beginning in the 1970s, major labels became reliant on a small percentage of hit artists to offset the vast majority of acts whose releases lost money. Combined with a general “as much as the market will bear” approach to album pricing, this was a successful financial strategy when (for example) Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours sold seventeen million copies, and it remained successful until a few years ago, when the transition to digital media began accelerating. With CD sales now in a multi-year (and probably permanent) tailspin and consumers upset over RIAA piracy-related lawsuits and the use value of their purchases, a group of Radiohead’s stature opting out of the entire traditional contract and release model represents, as Gross writes, a looming “black hole” for the majors, for they would lose the profit source they need to survive in their current form. The ramifications of a music world without major labels as we know them are arguably varied (and a topic for another day), but it certainly looks like that’s where we’re headed.

Finally, although Gross doubts that smaller, independently-oriented artists will be able to follow Radiohead’s lead anytime soon, Bob Mould (a critically respected singer-songwriter with an established following) explores some potential offshoots of their strategy--and the resulting financial implications—on his personal blog.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Access to DNA Evidence for Prisoners

Through the use of DNA evidence, more than 200 convicts have been exonerated of the crimes they have been imprisoned for. Because DNA evidence is providing opportunities such as these for convicts to prove their innocence, all but eight states currently are now making DNA evidence available to prisoners even though such evidence may not have been available to them at the time of their conviction.

It is reported that misidentification has led to wrongful convictions in 75% of the cases for which prisoners are now being exonerated. Due to such errors, many states, aside from increasing access to DNA evidence, are now also altering the methods in which witnesses identify suspects, the way informants are used, and the way evidence is handled by the crime lab. Also, at least six states have formed commissions to aid in the expedition of cases for those who are wrongfully convicted

Such access may provide assistance to many more prisoners, as studies suggest that there are “thousands more innocent people in jails and prisons”. One organization, the Innocence Project, is constantly reviewing thousands of cases and is currently pursuing approximately 250 of these cases. Unfortunately, many of these cases will never be heard as the evidence required to prove the innocence of the prisoner has been destroyed or lost.

Even though it may be only a small percentage of cases that are overturned due to this newly accessible DNA evidence, the fact that innocent people are finally being exonerated of crimes they have not committed seems to justify the time and expense required to provide access to such evidence. At the least, it seems that states are finally realizing the necessity of ensuring proper handling of evidence and the fallibility of witnesses, and are taking steps to ensure that both evidence and witnesses are handled properly to ensure proper convictions. While eyewitnesses will always be valuable in identifying suspects, technology today provides further support to these identifications and aids in ensuring that the proper person is charged for a crime. The added certainty provided by DNA evidence, assuming proper handling and maintenance of the evidence, should assure that people are not wrongfully convicted and deprived of their liberty.