Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Another victim of the economy . . . recycling

More evidence of the down turn in the economy is demonstrated by the decreased demand for packaging made from recycled materials.

The past couple of years have been very, very good to waste paper recycling exporters. The demand from Asia has been huge. Speaking in terms of volume, waste paper is one of our top exports. Unfortunately, over the last three months, the recycling industry has slowed due to the decline in consumer spending. Bales and bales of abandoned cardboard and newsprint just sit in Chinese ports. Material that was previously selling for $150 a ton was suddenly selling for $20. Recycling exporters were stunned.

The question then becomes – If China doesn’t want our recycling anymore, what happens to it? It may just end up in a landfill. Recycling (like most things) is based on an economic need. The sad fact is that no one is going to recycle if there is no money in it. Local recycling efforts are feasible because is it easier and cheaper to coordinate; however, not all recycling efforts are that simple. Whatever happened to reduce, reuse, recycle?

From NPR: Recycling Industry Slows as Consumers Shop Less

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Rising Cost of Higher Education

As the United States continues its attempts at economic recovery, the New York Times is reporting on another trend that may have more dire long-term implications. While most are aware of the ever increasing costs of college tuition, a recent report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education finds that in the not so distant future many Americans will not be able to afford higher education.

“Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007 while median family income rose 147 percent.” It is argued that if this trend continues at a similar rate, a college education will no longer be affordable for many people. College loans have doubled in the last ten years, and low income families – who would be hit the hardest by such an increase – do not receive sufficient grant money to offset this increase in price.

Some are worrying that a reduction in the number of people who afford college would increase the educational gap between the United States and the rest of the world. Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has stated that, “Already, we’re one of the few countries where 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than older workers.” With such an educational disadvantage, the United States could easily fall behind many other countries in several important areas.

Public universities have acknowledged the rising tuition costs, but point to the options that are available to students today. People have the option to go to a community college (average tuition fee of $3,200.00), a private research institution (average tuition fee of $33,000.00) or a number of alternatives in between.

In order to help ensure a strong economy, education is a key factor. With the rest of the world recognizing the importance of higher education, the United States cannot ignore this potential problem. Luckily, there are more cost feasible choices for students (i.e. community college) which can provide students with useful skills and knowledge. However, for some these community colleges may not provide the education they are seeking; if tuition increases at the rates projected, these students may have to forego the specialized learning available at some private institutions, causing a lack of qualified employees in some key occupations.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Barbara Fisher and the Benefits of Community Gardening

We have, for the time being, witnessed a merciful decline in the cost of food since last spring, when a confluence of factors triggered worldwide price increases. Yet as New Yorker financial analyst James Surowiecki writes, "the recent price drop doesn’t provide any long-term respite from the threat of food shortages or future price spikes...we’re still having a hard time insuring that people simply get enough to eat, and we seem to be more vulnerable to supply shocks than ever." For those who can afford it, paying more for food can be a good thing, particularly in the case of the U.S. Journalist and writer Michael Pollan notes in last year's essay "Unhappy Meals" that "Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation." Still, unstable food prices mean that more people have less to eat.

While there aren't any easy solutions to avoiding another food crisis, it's instructive that Pollan has been a strong advocate for domestic food policy reform, while also urging his readers to make personal changes in their eating habits. This combination of thinking structurally and individually is what I enjoyed about a recent post from Barbara Fisher's blog Tigers and Strawberries. Fisher is a leader of the local food movement, and in answering the question of what to say about food and farming with "one minute of [President-elect] Obama's undivided attention," she responds thusly:

"I would suggest that federal support for urban community gardens and farms could help the urban poor produce some of their own fresh food, and perhaps a program of tax credits for suburban and small town families who turn some or all of their yards to food production would encourage the middle class to not only produce some of their own food as well. Educational programs to help non-gardeners learn the skills needed to grow food, such as the current County Extension Agencies could be expanded so that there was more community outreach and involvement, as well as tying the Extension offices to public school Edible Schoolyard programs across the country.

"Americans really want to roll up our sleeves and do something to help make our country great again, and these sorts of self-help programs will get people moving in a positive direction again, as well as providing good, fresh food to people who may otherwise have no access to it at all. "

That first sentence--federal funding and tax credits for producing food locally--is particularly striking. Obviously, neither proposal would ameliorate the type of problems that Surowiecki identifies within the global food market. But with proper planning, they would allow citizens, regardless of economic status, to participate in the growing of their own food. As Fisher points out, such policies would have environmental and educational benefits; they also would provide a healthy source of food without the use of industrial farming's less desirable growing methods, such as heavy fertilizer and pesticide use.

While it's unlikely that we will see federally subsidized community gardens anytime soon, local governments can certainly promote local food habits without having to spend a lot. Terre Haute, Indiana offers a good example. Thanks to the efforts of many people (including my father Pat Martin, a city planner), Terre Haute opened its Community Garden to the public in April. The garden has several other sponsors in addition to the city (with Indiana State University being the primary sponsor); it asks members to donate a "portion of their produce" to a local food bank; forbids the use of pesticides, herbicides, inseticides, and fungicides; and, for this year's growing season, offered education programs and workshops related to gardening. Perhaps the only drawback is that the garden includes seventy-one plots, which limits potential participants.

So Barbara Fisher's idea is practical and more than feasible to implement, even if it will take a lot of approaches to, in her words, insure "good, fresh food to people who may otherwise have no access to it at all."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Update on Nebraska Safe Haven Law

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed into law yesterday a bill adding a 30-day age limit to a safe-haven law that allowed 36 children — including teenagers as old as 17 — to be abandoned at state hospitals.

Hours after the Governor signed the law, which went into effect today, a 14-year-old California boy was dropped off at a Nebraska hospital. He will mark the last teen to be dropped off after the safe-haven law established an age limit.

The law was meant to prevent newborns from being dumped in trash bins or worse.

Hospital officials have described children crying hysterically as they pleaded with their parents not to leave them.

Five of the children have been from other states, including from as far away as Florida and Michigan. The law was not revised to preclude infants from other states from being dropped off.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Two Updates

The past two weeks I have written about Proposition 8 (here and here), and the week before these articles I had written on Nebraska’s safe haven statute (here). As new developments have arisen with both of these issues, I would like to take the time this week to bring these latest updates to the attention of the readers of this blog.

Proposition 8

Being reported today on this issue is the fact that the California Supreme Court has agreed to hear challenges to this recently passed ban on same-sex marriages. Three lawsuits have been filed in California challenging that the Plaintiffs’ civil rights have been violated with the passage of Proposition 8. Challengers to Proposition 8 also claim that the State had improperly bypassed the Court’s judicial authority by allowing voters to effectively overturn the previous California Supreme Court.

Arguments in the case are due by December 19, and responses are due by January 5, 2009. Oral arguments, at the earliest, will be heard in March. While this suit is pending, the Court has not authorized the continuation of same-sex marriages; allowance of such marriages will not be allowed unless the Court finds in favor of those opposing Proposition 8. During these hearings, the Court will also determine the validity of those marriages performed after the Court’s original ruling, but before the passage of Proposition 8.

Nebraska Safe Haven Statute

The Nebraska Legislature has reportedly voted 14-6 to send a newly worded safe haven statute for second approval. The language has been amended to set an age limit of 30 days for those children covered under this statute. Such language will create an age limit in Nebraska, the only state that had previously not set such a limit. The final vote on this language is scheduled for Friday, after which the Bill would go to the Governor who has already expressed approval for these changes.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why did Indiana go blue? (Part 2)

Another reason for Obama's Hoosier success concerns the evangelical vote. Spiritual Politics blogger Mark Silk notes that while the state's "evangelicals favored Bush by 77-22" in 2004, McCain won "by only 66-41 [sic; should be 31]." In contrast, evangelicals in Southern states generally broke for McCain by a larger margin than they did for Bush in 2004. (Mississippi's 90-9 split is the most extreme example.) Silk offers two different possibilities for this regional difference. The first:

"The most likely explanation for what happened in the South and Southern Crossroads is the persistence of racial prejudice in those regions. It's also the case that this is where evangelicals are most heavily organized and mobilized as Republican partisans. But in the Midwest, there is Obama's identity as a Midwesterner, and the common Midwestern religious sensibility that he appealed to, to take into account."

Silk also mentions in the comments section to his post that since "nearly 40 percent of mainliners answer yes to being born-again or evangelical Christians...it could be that the differential has to do with large numbers of [Indiana] mainliners voting for Obama, rather than 'true' evangelicals."

Both of these possibilities deserve some context. There is a very, very strong correlation between church attendance and political voting patterns. Protestants and Catholics who attend church on a weekly basis are much more likely to vote for Republicans; those who attend church less, practice another religion, or are non-religious are more inclined to vote for Democrats. To demonstrate, here's a chart that compares this year's "pew gap" with that of 2004. The pew gap remained fairly constant from 2004 to this year, but Obama, crucially, was able to make up a little bit of ground. Since evangelicals typically are every-Sunday church attenders, they factor heavily into this overall equation.

Regarding Silk's second point, the standard exit poll determiner of an evangelical is someone who answers "yes" to the question of whether they consider themselves to be a "born-again Christian," as he alludes. In Indiana, this means that while voters from actual evangelical denominations (for example, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals) will answer "yes," there is likely also a significant percentage of voters from mainline denominations that will self-identify as evangelical (for example, Methodists). This means that while mainliners adhere to the "pew gap" pattern I mention above, they tend to be a bit more flexible politically (even in a relatively conservative state like Indiana). So if the percentage of mainliners within Indiana's evangelical vote was high for this election, then that would, in theory, present slightly more favorable conditions for Obama.

And this leads us to Silk's first point. With a larger percentage of "true" evangelicals in Southern states--evangelicals that identify more as Republicans, and who might have more issues with Obama's race--the evangelical vote breaks most heavily for McCain. Yet in Indiana, the communitarian religious impulse, combined with a higher possibility of mainliners voting evangelical, becomes more important. An instructive example appears in a post that Silk made in late April as the Jeremiah Wright fiasco was still unfolding. Silk notes that Obama had attended a service at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The sermon he links to that St. Luke pastor M. Kent Miller had presented a few weeks before Obama's visit celebrates the church's "big tent congregation" and ability to overcome racial barriers through honest dialogue and collective worship.

Neither the evangelical vote nor Obama's spread-the-field canvassing offer a full answer of why Indiana went blue. Yet they both signify how Obama deserves credit for running a very strong campaign, as well as how his political and personal identify proved favorable to Hoosier voters.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Protests of Proposition 8 Continue Around the Country

With the defeat of California’s Proposition 8 in last week’s election, many continue to push to regain the rights they briefly had within the state. However, California is not the only state where such battles are being waged. A number of articles this week (here, here, here and here), point to one move towards actual achievement of these goals, but also to other moves that may or may not aid in achieving this right in other states.

In Connecticut, a judge on Wednesday issued an order allowing for same sex couples to marry within the state. Upon the issuance of this order, it has been reported that many same sex couples began applying immediately for licenses. With the passage of Proposition 8, there are once again only two states which allow such marriages – Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In Utah, supporters of same sex marriage arranged protests at Mt. Hope Church. Protesters in Utah have chosen mainly Mormon churches as these churches had spent millions of dollars in support of Proposition 8.

In New York City, a large number of protesters surrounded the LDS Manhattan temple in opposition to the temple’s involvement in the passage of Proposition 8. The article also mentions that a protest in all 50 states is scheduled for this upcoming Saturday (November 15, 2008).

Finally, in Michigan, protesters have also chosen to stage their demonstrations outside of a church. However, unlike the demonstrations in Utah and New York City, the demonstration in Lansing seems (based solely only on what is presented in the articles) to have gone a bit too far. It is reported that there were two groups – an outside group who held a legitimate protest, and an inside group. The troubling aspect of this protest is that the inside group apparently pulled a fire alarm, dropped leaflets and yelled at parishioners.

It is quite understandable that many were upset with the passage of Proposition 8 last week. However, demonstrations such as those in Lansing seem to be counterproductive to the cause. I doubt that the Connecticut judge would have been influenced by an angry mob gathered outside (or worse inside) the courtroom; instead, in Connecticut they chose to follow the proper procedures to attempt to have same sex marriages approved.

Protesters have First Amendment rights, and so I see little problem with the protests in places such as Utah or New York City. However, I am not sure that after-the-fact protesting will do any more than send a message of anger to these churches. And, once such protests are finished, the task will remain to attempt to legalize same sex marriage through proper legal channels. The more protests approach that of the scale in Lansing, the more difficult finding support through these proper legal channels may be.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Whales lose as Navy wins case over sonar

From the Wall Street Journal:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted restrictions on the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises off the California coast, a defeat for environmental groups who say the sonar can harm whales.

The court, in its first decision of the term, voted 5-4 that the Navy needs to conduct realistic training exercises to respond to potential threats by enemy submarines.

Environmental groups had persuaded lower federal courts in California to impose restrictions on sonar use in submarine-hunting exercises to protect whales and other marine mammals.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The court did not deal with the merits of the claims put forward by the environmental groups. It said, rather, that federal courts abused their discretion by ordering the Navy to limit sonar use in some cases and to turn it off altogether in others.

A species of whales called beaked whales is particularly susceptible to harm from sonar, which can cause them to strand themselves onshore.

To read the full opinion, click here.

To read a transcript of oral arguments, click here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Why did Indiana go blue? (Part 1)

One of the more stunning aspects of the presidential election returns came around 2:00 AM on Wednesday, when networks began calling Indiana for Barack Obama. Having grown up in western Indiana, I learned at a young age that Indiana always chose Republican candidates for president, despite the fact that Democrats are quite competitive at the state level. (The last Democratic presidential candidate to buck this trend was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.) This year was seemingly going to be no different.

So why did Indiana go blue? It's a bit early to ascertain a thorough answer, but at least two reasons are suggestive. The first emerges from Walter Shapiro's article "Turning Indiana Blue," which Salon published just over two weeks before the election. As Shapiro writes:

"...if Obama wins the state, more than anything it will be due to the best voter-contact operation Indiana has ever seen. Even Murray Clark, the Indiana Republican chairman, says with grudging admiration in his voice, 'Obama's done these things right. That's how he nearly beat Hillary in the primary...' "

"Finding Democratic voters in fast-growing suburban Hamilton County, just north of Indianapolis, seems as unlikely as spying a herd of giraffes frolicking in a mall parking lot. In 2004, Bush rolled up the kind of victory in Hamilton County that Vladimir Putin might envy--obliterating Kerry by 51,000 votes with a 74 to 25 percent margin. Yet Obama has two storefront offices in the county (among 44 offices statewide) and is running an aggressive canvassing operation. This unusual commitment of resources is not lost on the Republicans. 'Obama's campaign has targeted the Doughnut Counties'--local lingo for the eight counties that ring Indianapolis--'particularly Hamilton County,' says Clark, the GOP chairman. 'They are targeting upscale voters, particularly women.' "

And Obama's strategy of campaigning in McCain's political backyard paid off. CNN's county-by-county return map shows that Obama lost Hamilton County by less than 29,000 votes (or 38 to 61 percent). Considering that he won Indiana by less than 26,000 votes, this was an important tactical victory, and an example of what influential Indiana political blogger Brian Howey calls "the greatest political campaign in American history that played out vividly amidst Hoosier cities, towns, taverns and farms." Howey writes in a later article that Obama improved upon John Kerry's 2004 tallies in several other Republican counties as well, thanks to "an audacious, successful game plan that spread the field [in other words, across the entire state]." It also helped that Obama had huge margins in arguably the two most important Democratic counties: Lake County, next to Chicago (67-32, with a 71,000 vote difference), and Indianapolis' Marion County (64 percent, with a 105,000 vote difference).

Next post: Why the evangelical vote was so important.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Same Sex Marriages Dealt Setback in Tuesday's Election

While America has seemingly embraced change in electing Barack Obama the next President of the United States on Tuesday, voters in three states were apparently not ready to accept full scale changes to what many consider a fundamental right. Voters in California, Florida and Arizona on Tuesday voted to ban gay marriages within their borders.

In California, approximately 52 percent of voters approved Proposition 8, only months after the state’s Supreme Court had ruled in favor of allowing such unions. Although Arizona had rejected such a ban two years ago, bans against allowing same sex marriage won by larger margins than that in California in this past election in both Arizona and Florida.

For those in California, some question whether the marriages performed between the time of the state Supreme Court decision and this vote will remain valid. The state Attorney General has gone on record as saying he believes they will remain valid; however, it is expected that law suits and debate will ensue as to the legality of these unions. The actuality legality of these unions may not be determined for some time, as these battles continue.

Aside from expected legal battles challenging the validity of these California marriages, many in California have already announced their intentions to sue to block the ban. Some opponents of this ban have specifically stated that they would fight this ban through all available methods, even to the United States Supreme Court if possible. Some hope that this issue will eventually appear before the Supreme Court of the United States so that this issue may be resolved once and for all.

With the passage of these measures, along with the passage of a measure in Arkansas which prohibits gay men and women from adopting children, some are questioning the prospects of the ability to obtain overall acceptance of same sex marriage by more states in the near future. Although Massachusetts and Connecticut will still allow same sex marriage, and New York and Rhode Island will still honor such unions, forty states now have laws or constitutional bans on allowing such marriages. With the current trend exhibited by this past election, it seems uncertain that the number of states allowing such marriages will be increased in the foreseeable future.

What five months ago seemed like a great victory for same sex couples has now turned into a crushing defeat. While options do remain open for same sex partners (Massachusetts, Connecticut, civil unions and domestic partnerships), the acceptance and change hoped for does not seem forthcoming. Even as Americans await the inauguration of their first African American President and the promise he makes of change, they seem unable to accept the legal marriage of these same sex couples.

To read the New York Times article, click here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Issue 5 and the Dishonesty of the Payday Lending Industry

Ohio voters will have no fewer than five statewide ballot measures to consider when they step into the voting booth tomorrow. While Issue 6's proposal of a $600 million casino project has become the most controversial (and costly) measure at this point, we still shouldn't overlook Issue 5 and its implications for payday lending reform. Although it has been less than six months since Governor Strickland signed House Bill 545, a rejection of Issue 5 will repeal the bill's 28 percent interest-rate cap. Consequently, payday lenders would once again be able to charge up to 391 percent interest on short-term loans.

Payday lenders and their supporters that are on the "no" side are primarily relying upon three arguments: 1) payday loans are the only viable option for consumers in need of short-term financing; 2) reform represents unnecessary government interference due to the creation of a database that records loan transactions; and 3) reform will cause lenders to shut their doors, leading to the loss of some 6,000 jobs statewide. As newspaper editorials and columnists around the state have documented, all of these arguments are (perhaps unsurprisingly) disingenuous:

--Cheryl Harris of the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes that the lenders' argument about viable financial options is really an effort to avoid describing how their loans actually work. The truth is that there are short-term alternatives--credit cards, bank and credit union loans, overdraft protection for checking accounts, credit counseling services--that are all better options than pre-reform payday loans. This comparison chart demonstrates why.

--Syndicated columnist Thomas Suddes dismisses the complaint over government interference by writing that "lenders themselves mishandle such data. Cincinnati-based Check 'n Go paid the state of Texas $220,000 in May because Check 'n Go 'exposed customers to indetify-theft [sic] by discarding records in easily accessible trash cans'--records such as borrowers' names, addresses, Social Security and driver's license numbers, and checking account information. It takes a lot to disgust Congress, but payday lenders did."

--Are payday lenders crying wolf when it comes to their claims that 6,000 jobs--their entire in-state workforce--will disappear. If Issue 5 passes, there is a distinct possibility that the industry will have to eliminate some jobs. But it's incredibly unlikely that the number will reach 6,000 because, according to Suddes and the Columbus Dispatch, over 70 percent of the state's payday lenders--1,149 out of around 1,600--have already applied for licenses as small-loans and/or second mortgage operators. Contra their own claims, they won't be vanishing from the state anytime soon.

When we add up the facts, the Dayton Daily News is correct to point out that what payday lenders are arguing is, in a word, "baloney."

UPDATE: Issue 5 has passed, with 63 percent of voters in favor.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Nebraska to Amend Their Safe Haven Statute

In the news the past several months there have been reports of parents abandoning their children, as old as 17, in Nebraska under the state’s safe-haven law. According to a news article today, Governor Dave Heineman has stated he will call for a special legislative session in order to correct the wording of the law.

Nebraska’s current law potentially allows any parent to abandon their children at hospitals up to the age of 19. As seen since the enactment of this law, hospitals in the state have received more abandoned children than they had expected and older than what most other state laws cover. People from outside of Nebraska have driven hours to the state just to take advantage of this safe haven law; nine children from Iowa, Michigan and Georgia have been abandoned in Nebraska.

Nebraska is the last state to adopt such a safe haven law, perhaps making it more surprising that they have not followed the lead of other states, and instead crafted their own language leading to these issues. The original bill was drafted only to encompass infants, but was later amended when the bill stalled in debate. According to one article, Senator Tom White defends Nebraska’s law by saying that, “All children deserve our protection.”

While Senator White’s statement that “All children deserve our protection” cannot be denied, Nebraska’s safe haven statute appears to go over and beyond the protection that needs to be provided. At this time, it appears that many parents are abandoning their older children as they are having a hard time dealing with their children’s attitude and/or behavior. Instead of working through these issues, children are being abandoned and are being sent to emergency shelters or foster homes.

Instead of protecting the children, it seems that the only people that are being protected are the parents who have given up and cannot deal with their teenage children any longer. These children are being dropped off at hospitals in Nebraska, being torn from their family with perhaps little possibility of finding another family for support. Such programs are helpful for infants and children up to a certain age, but it seems that extending such laws to include children up to the age of 19 are more harmful than good. Thankfully, the Nebraska Governor has realized this and is attempting to resolve this problem as soon as possible.

The Future of Google Book Search

Three years ago, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers filed a class action lawsuit against Google Book Search.

Yesterday, that lawsuit was settled. Google will now be working closely with these industry partners to bring even more of the world's books online. Together Google and the publishers will accomplish far more than any of them could have individually, to the enduring benefit of authors, publishers, researchers and readers alike.

Google has agreed to pay $125 million to start the Book Rights Registry, resolve legal fees from the 3-year-old lawsuits, provide more access to out-of-print books, compensate authors for unauthorized use of their work and find new ways to sell copyrighted books online.

The settlement is subject to approval by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

To read more about the settlement, click here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Proponents of Proposition 8 Targeting Public Schools

With the election just weeks away, proponents of Proposition 8 in California appear to be ramping up their efforts to overturn the state Supreme Court decision allowing for same sex marriages. In an effort to overturn the decision in In Re Marriage Cases, supporters of Proposition 8 have taken to running commercials suggesting the harmful effects that legalized same sex marriages will have on schools and their students. (Samples of some of the commercials can be found here and here.)

In these commercials, advocates of the proposition worry that schools will be required to teach students about same sex marriage. Proponents of the measure point to instances such as a field trip of first graders, with parental permission, to San Francisco City Hall where their teacher was married to her female partner.

However, opponents of Proposition 8 state that schools have already been teaching tolerance of gays and lesbians, long before the Court decision. Children have been taught about such issues as homophobia, discrimination against homosexuals and sexual orientation; whether Proposition 8 passes or not, schools indicate they will continue teaching such subjects.

Many campaign ads focus on the negative and often instill some level of fear into the public. However, as is the case in most instances, the opponents of Proposition 8 provided concrete evidence of the effects this measure will, or rather won’t, have on the education of students.

As presented in the article, “[a]n estimated 52,000 children are being raised by two mothers or two fathers in California.” Children will notice such things and have questions; this will occur whether same sex marriage is legalized or not. With the changing world, it seems necessary to help children with their questions and teach them acceptance rather than discrimination. Perhaps it should be the parents rather than the school teaching this, but it seems odd that this issue seems to only have appeared with the vote on Proposition 8 approaching.

Monday, October 13, 2008

John Berry’s “Escape from Reading”: Where to Begin?

To be blunt, John Berry’s September 15 editorial column for Library Journal (“Escape from Reading”) is misguided. Berry begins by mentioning that “I never ‘loved’ reading, the way so many people declare they do,” with his increasingly poor eyesight only making the act “more difficult.” Therefore, as he writes:

“In this new phase of my life, I have begun to view the progress of media and information technology as advancing my liberation from reading, or at least from much of the guilt and drudgery I associate with it.”

The word “liberation” in this sense is a bit peculiar, but isn’t really problematic yet. But Berry further contrasts reading with other (aural-visual) forms of media consumption that he prefers. Reading is “time-consuming,” while new media forms are easier and more efficient. Classic literature full of “lifeless typography,” such as Ulysses and Moby-Dick, was once a proverbial millstone around his neck, while “[b]oth sound and image giver the words more color, more life.” Not liking books once meant negative feelings (guilt, embarrassment, shame), while “I [now] don’t have to...feel guilty because I’ve put down the book to watch the movie.”

So how is Berry’s dislike of reading meaningful for the modern library? As he writes:

“We librarians would be fools if we didn't take advantage of the liberation the new media have given us from our ancient role, chained to the codex book and the hard labor of reading it and toting it around. Though books will always have an exalted place on our shelves, there's a great deal more we can offer, both in our stacks and on our library web sites. It is clear to me that among our most exalted professional missions is to make sure these new ways to receive entertainment and information are accessible and available to everyone. That can only lead to more widespread enlightenment, even for those who, like me, need sometimes to escape the printed page” (emphasis mine).

This is a bewildering passage for several reasons. Berry’s support of new media as a tool of liberation is remarkably uncritical, ignoring any sort of social or historical context (other than his own personal experience). Are other forms of media consumption inherently “easier” than reading? How does “easier” equate with “liberation” or “enlightenment”? Moreover, librarians are more than adequately incorporating “these new ways to receive entertainment and information,” which is largely contributing to the 21st century library models that…Berry decried earlier this year. Hmm.

Similar questions arise with regard to Berry’s treatment of reading. As best I can tell, “reading” in this column primarily stands for reading canonical works with which many people struggle. But reading books is, quite obviously, about much more than wrestling with Ulysses, as the broad review coverage of Library Journal amply demonstrates every issue. What should also be quite obvious to Berry is that there are countless ways to read books and respond to what we are reading, whether James Joyce or Danielle Steele wrote it. There are too many counterexamples to plausibly imagine books as something to which we are enslaved or “chained.”

And this leads to perhaps the most irritating aspect here, which is tone and word choice. Berry declares halfway through that “some folks will see this as a confession,” which is really an unavoidable conclusion. By casting books as oppressive and the act of reading as guilt-ridden, he clearly makes it sound as if his general rejection of both is a courageous act. It isn’t. That’s not to say that Berry’s struggles with reading aren’t legitimate, or that libraries shouldn’t extend their outreach to patrons who are there for reasons other than to check out books. Rather, adequately addressing such issues requires an appreciation for complexity and a lack of hyperbolic claims—both of which are sorely lacking in this column.

Friday, October 10, 2008

2008 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari

The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced today that former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari has won the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. The committee cited Ahtisaari's "significant" part in establishing Namibia's independence and his "central" role in solving the question of the Indonesian province of Aceh in 2005. Ahtisaari twice worked to find a solution in Kosovo -- first in 1999 and again between 2005 and 2007. He also worked with others this year to find a peaceful solution to the problems in Iraq, the committee said. Ahtisaari is Chairman of Crisis Management Initiative, an independent, non-profit organization that promotes and works for sustainable security.

The prestigious prize includes a medal, a personal diploma, and 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million) in prize money. The committee awards the peace prize annually according to guidelines laid down in the will of its founder, Alfred Nobel. The committee plans to award the prize to Ahtisaari on December 10th at Oslo City Hall in Norway.

The peace prize is one of five Nobel prizes awarded annually. The others -- for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature -- were announced this week and will be awarded in Stockholm, Sweden later this year.

There should be more people in the world like former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. I hope that he will inspire others by his efforts and accomplishments. Congratulations! Enjoy the $1.4 million.

source: CNN

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Bailout and Foreign Economies

While the current market issues and the associated proposed government bailout continue to be major concerns in the United States, other countries are also feeling the effects of this financial crisis. Many countries are feeling the impact of the crisis and pending bailout in their stock markets and banking industries.

Yesterday, the Senate voted 74-25 to approve a bailout, which included amendments that raise the amount of funds that will be federally insured from $100,000.00 to $250,000.00, extended tax breaks and will restrict “"golden parachute’ severance payments to disgraced Wall Street executives.” President Bush has asked the House of Representatives to approve the bailout by the end of the week so it can be enacted “to avoid further damage to the US economy”. It is uncertain whether this vote will be taken this week, and whether the House will approve this amended bailout after previously rejecting an earlier bailout proposal.

Even with just the Senate approval of this bailout, European stock markets were lifted and the value of the dollar was raised in Europe. Although there has been some improvement due to this Senate approval, the European Central Bank has renewed millions of dollars in one-day loans to ensure that distressed interstate banks would continue to have proper cash flow. The Asian stock market continues to fall due to this American financial crisis; banks have been required to expend several billion dollars in order to ensure the Asian stock markets continue to move.

On Saturday, economic leaders from Britain, France, Germany and Italy will convene "to discuss the crisis and a Dutch proposal for a European rescue fund for banks.” Some countries have taken measures into their own hands rather than wait for a response from the European Union. Two major Dutch banks have already received government bailouts and an emergency law was passed in Ireland to guarantee bank deposits (a move several European countries fear will mean a large number of transfers from other European countries to Irish banks).

It is natural that we think of resolving our economic issues without necessarily considering the impact felt by other countries. Still, it is obvious that our economic difficulties are having a large impact outside of our borders. Hopefully, the bailouts and measures taken by both the United States and foreign countries will be sufficient to turn around this crisis and ensure measures are in place should something similar happen in the future.

You can read the original article here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Violating Federal Tax Law from the Pulpit

Earlier this morning, over thirty pastors planned to violate federal tax law by endorsing a presidential candidate while from the pulpit. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Jane Lampman reported last week, the pastors’ actions occurred on behalf of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), who proclaimed today as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The ADF—a legal organization associated with the Religious Right—argues that pastors have the right to endorse political candidates within church as part of religious free speech. This stance goes against IRS tax codes, which prohibit churches from becoming involved in partisan political activity. Violations can result in churches losing their tax-exempt status.

So what might be the ultimate significance of what the involved pastors and ADF are doing? Writing for Church Law and Tax Report a few years ago, Richard R. Hammar noted that despite what the codes say, many “flagrant violations” occur during election years that the IRS fails to punish. Moreover, Jeff Sharlet elaborates on a related source of confusion:

“Outraged? You probably should be—we're talking about the money machine of the Christian Right—but I'm guessing you aren't, because I barely understand what I've just written myself. Most people don't know that churches aren't allowed to talk politics. So news of a bid to stop a bid to overturn the ban requires the journalistic equivalent of explaining why a joke is funny. It's hard to get outraged over defiance of a law you didn't know existed.”

So while the story has picked up some steam in the last several days, it’s still difficult to tell if what’s happened—and the oppositional stance from mainstream media and religious leaders—will ultimately amount to much in the long-term.

Two things are clear, though. The first is that despite what the pastors and ADF may claim, they do not have the Constitution on their side. Lampman mentions that in three separate cases since 1954, courts have ruled that the IRS prohibition “does not violate the Constitution’s free speech clause.” Mark Silk also contends that Pulpit Freedom Sunday does not pose a constitutional issue, since the free exercise clause “has never been interpreted to include a right not to be taxed. The remedy for the grievance here is simply for ADF to try to get the law changed.”

Secondly, ADF intends for the title “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” to signify a courageous spiritual stance against government (read: secular, evil) forces of oppression. Yet as a Duluth pastor commented, the event is, in reality, “kind of foolish.”

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Redesigned Global Legal Monitor Launched

From The Law Library of Congress:

The Global Legal Monitor has transformed from a monthly published PDF to a dynamic continuously updated website. The new Global Legal Monitor has the ability to view legal developments by topic (more than 100 so far) and by jurisdiction (over 150). The content of the Global Legal Monitor can also be searched through its advanced search interface.

Each legal development has its own permanent link for easy access, sharing, and bookmarking. To keep up-to-date on new legal developments in the Global Legal Monitor subscribe to its RSS feed.

The Global Legal Monitor is an online publication from the Law Library of Congress covering legal news and developments worldwide. It draws on information from the Global Legal Information Network, official national legal publications, and reliable press sources.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

West Memphis Three Seeking New Trial

One of the members of the famed West Memphis Three, Jason Baldwin was in court yesterday seeking a new hearing. Baldwin, along with Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols, was convicted of murdering three young boys in 1993; since that time, new evidence has come to light which these convicted individuals hope to exonerate them of these crimes. Additionally, Baldwin claims he had ineffective counsel during the first trial. Earlier this month, all three members were denied new trials as the judge ruled the new DNA evidence failed to prove they were not at the scene of the crime; as such, Baldwin’s request for a new trial at this time focuses solely on his lack of effective counsel.

In 1993, three young boys were found bound and murdered in what police thought was an occult ritualistic murder. Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols were then arrested and put on trial, with the trial focusing on satanic rituals and heavy metal music. At the time, no forensic evidence could be found tying any of these individuals to the murder, but more recently DNA evidence was extracted from the knife used which match two unrelated individuals.

Due to the nature of the crime, some suggest that there was an attempt to appease the community as quickly as possible. Since the trial, allegations have come about regarding the confession of Misskelley, a “borderline retarded” individual. The reliability of his testimony has been challenged by many, even his own father.

In reexamining evidence, forensic specialists have also concluded that this was not any type of occult ritualistic murder. These specialists found no evidence of sexual abuse, and determined that the mutilation to the boys was caused by animals. Both the alleged sexual abuse and mutilation were the key facts giving rise to the idea of a satanic ritual.

Whether one supports the West Memphis Three or believes they are guilty, it seems very apparent that the judicial system did not work properly in this instance. While proper forensic tools may not have been available in 1993 to examine DNA, the fact that there was no physical evidence tying the accused to the murders and the reliance on a unreliable witness as the primary support for conviction would seem to give cause for a new trial.

It is understandable that the thought of ritualistic occult killings would give rise to fear in a community. Anybody hearing about such killings in their neighborhood would most likely react in fear the same way the residents of West Memphis did. However, a community’s fears do not override the right of Due Process that these individuals seem to have been denied. Whether they are innocent or guilty nobody will really know until all the evidence is properly presented.

For more on the West Memphis Three, many of the court documents and other updates can be found here. (Note: this site is pro-West Memphis Three and their opinions do not necessarily reflect my view; however, the site does provide much case information directly from the Courts, the police and other media outlets.)

Also, information on the case and additional evidence found since their conviction can be found here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Afghanistan Opens First Full-Service Law Library

As a Kent State University graduate myself, I was thrilled to hear about the wonderful work that a fellow MLIS graduate was doing in Afghanistan. Andrea Muto just established a new law library on the campus of Kabul University in Afghanistan. Her endeavor in establishing a library in Afghanistan is unprecedented. The country has suffered for 30 years from war and establishment of a law library was difficult.

Andrea had been working for a USAID-funded project in Kabul for about a year and a half. Among other projects, she created a new law library basically from the ground-up (space was provided) and hired a new law library staff (in a country where no tradition of librarianship exists). To read the full article, click here.

Take note of the searchable full-text database of laws Andrea worked with her staff. This database includes all laws from Afghanistan's Official Gazette from 1964 to present - and is the first of its kind in Afghanistan!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Elections Problems Expected (Already)

It’s September 18, 2008, and people are already, and once again, concerned with polling place procedures and issues that are expected for the November 4 election. According to a Washington Post article this morning, the large increase in voter registration requests, new procedures and new technology leads one only to expect further problems with our nation’s Presidential election.

The goal of these new procedures and new equipment was to avoid problems as experienced in 2000 (Florida) and 2004 (Ohio). However, as the article explains, and many people have already experienced, such measures have done little except to discourage voters and cause new problems. In many places, such as Ohio, there has been much discussion of the touch-screen systems that had been put in place and the additional problems they have caused. Such states are now turning to paper ballots, to be read by an optical scan machine; even with the addition of this “paper trail” though, there are concerns about adequate reading of the ballots and the procedure for how and where these ballots are to be read.

Also, this upcoming election will be the first Presidential election where federally mandated state databases for matching voters to their information will be implemented. Any small error in this database and the voter may be wrongfully denied their vote. With the matching requirements being so strict, in addition to the higher expected turnout, it is very likely that there will be several such issues.

Some local primaries have already evidenced the problems that can be expected in November. In some cases, the vote count was artificially inflated while in others some votes went missing. Results have been delayed due to technical issues, and the manufacturer of many of the voting machines in use has admitted to issues with the machines and the opportunity for lost votes.

Many of these issues have been discussed here and elsewhere many times before. However, with this being the first Presidential election since many of these procedures and new equipment have been mandated, this may very well be the true test, and perhaps downfall, of these measures. Jurisdictions are already receiving a huge influx of voter registration requests, and it is likely that the turnout for the Presidential election will be higher than that for local elections. With the larger amount of people present, the expected problems will only be exacerbated.

One apparent saving grace, assuming people are aware of it, is the ability in many states, including Ohio, to vote absentee without requiring any reason. In fact, Montgomery County has been sending absentee voter applications to houses in order to make voters aware of this option. However, to vote absentee, one must have faith that their ballot will be received and must still maintain the faith that the voting equipment will actually read their ballot correctly.

It is hoped that the election goes off without any problems, however that seems very unlikely. If the expected problems occur to the extent expected, it will be interesting to see what the states and federal government attempt next to solve these issues. If we keep changing the procedures and equipment though, it seems unlikely that anything will ever finally “stick” and we will be reading articles such as this for a long time to come.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Michigan Voter Challenges

An article published in the Michigan Messenger yesterday discusses the plans of the Republican Party in Macomb County to challenge voters’ eligibility based on matching their names and addresses to those published on a list of foreclosed homes. Macomb County is reported to be “a key swing county in a key swing state”.

In Michigan, parties are permitted to have representatives present to challenge voter qualifications. Such challenges can be made “provided they [the election challengers] ‘have a good reason to believe’ that the person is not eligible to vote.” The use of the foreclosure listings to challenge a voter’s qualifications is based on challenges being permitted to verify that the voter is a resident of the election district. The Republican Party’s logic in making these challenges based on the foreclosure list is that one a house is foreclosed upon, the person will no longer be living there and as such cannot use that address to meet residency requirements. However, what the Republican Party apparently is failing to recognize is that many people maintain residency of their property throughout the foreclosure process, often times negotiating with the mortgage company to settle their debt and still keep their property.

The primary issue with the use of these challenges is that minorities will be disparately impacted. Minorities comprise over half of all borrowers obtaining sub-prime loans – the type of loan that is most frequently defaulted upon. Not only are minorities, at least in Macomb County, a majority of the sub-prime mortgage holders, but they are also largely Democratic. As such, to disallow these votes, statistics would suggest that more Democratic votes will be disallowed than Republican votes.

In addition to disqualifying these voters, these challenges will cause delay in everybody’s voting process. While votes are being challenged, those in line will either wait patiently or most likely decide the wait is not worth their effort. Many are already disillusioned with the voting process since the installation of electronic voting equipment, and it is not unthinkable that added delays such as this will cause many potential voters to leave before casting their votes. Some people may be chased away from polling places by just hearing that such challenges may be occurring and that the process could be delayed.

It is understandable that counties have their own election procedures that must be followed and that the qualifications of voters must be determined. However, the way the Republican Party is handling such verification seems to have burdens that outweigh any of the benefits. A list of foreclosed properties does not seem like a very accurate account of these voters’ living conditions, and requiring voters to provide proof of their residency could disqualify many valid ballots. To add in the burden it has on all other voters, discouraging them from casting their ballots, really makes this plan troublesome.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Colgate slammed for Twittering

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an article online yesterday that discussed Twitter, a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

The article received mixed reviews from readers. I tend to agree more with the comments that are critical of the article . . . I too expect more from the Chronicle. I don’t twitter, but my husband and several of my friends do. I’m always slightly amused when I catch a quick glimpse of some of the things that are posted on Twitter, but for the most part, it just isn't my cup of tea.

I guess my biggest complaint with the article is that it is the writer is quite presumptuous and unprofessional. Mr. Carlson doesn’t even give Colgate credit for trying something new to reach its students. Undergraduate students are particularly fond of Twitter and it serves no purpose to criticize and mock Colgate’s efforts in trying something novel. I approve of Colgate’s attempt at twittering . . . keep posting young man, I’m sure that you will have more than 10 followers soon.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Library 2.0 Programs/Sites and Their Possibilities (Part II)

Facebook: I was kind of critical about Facebook a few months ago for its marketing approaches and the silliness of most of their programs. And then cruel irony intervened, and I became hooked shortly thereafter, to the point where it’s now become a daily “must-visit” site. This consistent interaction has really helped me to clarify Facebook’s strengths as a networking tool. Its interface is miles ahead of MySpace; it offers users several forms of communication that, altogether, can conceivably serve as a replacement for e-mail; and it’s extremely simple to locate people with a minimum of information. It also is averaging well over 100 million unique visitors a month, and has surpassed MySpace in overall popularity.

All of the above factors offer more than enough justification for libraries to consider how to integrate Facebook as a means of patron outreach. Several public and university libraries now offer a Facebook application that links to their catalog; user response seems to be modest so far, but it’s a useful effort. Chad Boeninger mentioned how he offers reference services through his Facebook profile, which also has potential. Yes, the marketing factors and clutter present drawbacks, but they’re worthwhile risks; the site’s features and amount of users are too good for libraries to ignore.

Instant Messaging/Skype: Instant messaging (IM) and Skype basically offer two different ways for libraries to provide real-time reference services; Ohio University offers both at their “Ask a Librarian” page. The logistics of using IM as a reference tool is pretty straightforward, and OU makes it even easier by offering a Meebo “Ask Us Now” client that automatically connects patrons under a guest screen name. Assuming that librarians have a regularly available schedule to answer questions, it has a lot of upside.

Skype—an Internet calling program—is a bit more complicated, as it requires a video camera. Boeninger mentioned that OU decided to set up a dedicated video kiosk in Alden Library for students to call reference librarians through Skype. (He personally takes calls whenever he is available at his desk; I think it’s the same for some of his colleagues, but I’m not certain.) This might not be such a great option for smaller libraries, but works rather well for OU, and is viable for similarly-sized academic libraries.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Another Develoment in Cell Manipulation

The Washington Post has an article on-line today discussing scientists’ recent success with transforming living cells within living subjects. As the article indicates, this may eventually lead to great progress in curing disease, but will most assuredly cause controversy and debate.

The cells transformed were those from within a mouse’s pancreas that, when flipping what the scientists deemed were the key molecular switches, converted a common cell into an insulin-producing cell. While there will be numerous tests which will take a good length of time, this indicates that there is potential in humans to perform a similar procedure in order to cure diabetes. The scientists hope that such treatment can also be applied to those with heart disease and other illnesses.

Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has already stated his support for this proposed method as he hopes it will end the need for stem cell research. Unlike stem cell research, where the cells to be converted are taken from dead embryos, the cells in this procedure would be able to be taken from a living person.

Still, many claim that stem cell research is needed, especially as this new procedure has yet to be performed on cells from any other living specimens aside from mice. It is uncertain how the procedure will transfer, and advocates of stem cell research claim that this new procedure may not be as useful.

The only problem I see with this new procedure is that advocates of stem cell research make a very valid point – this new procedure may not transfer over to humans. However, with research already being done to examine this potential roadblock, it seems that scientists are hopeful that they will be able to apply a similar procedure on humans. To be able to take cells from a living person and convert those into useful healthy cells that can cure disease would be ideal. It would avoid the issues associated with stem cell research, while meeting the goals that stem cell research was attempting to reach.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Library 2.0 Programs/Sites and Their Possibilities

Earlier this month I attended an OHIONET workshop entitled “What’s the Point of Web 2.0?” Presenter Chad Boeninger, a reference librarian at Ohio University, had a simple answer: for libraries, the main point of Web 2.0 is patron outreach. Library 2.0 approaches allows librarians to 1) provide better learning experiences; 2) “shift time” by accessing audio/video/text on their own schedule; and 3) have opportunity to provide feedback for what they learn. This is one of the most straightforward (and best) arguments I’ve heard in favor of utilizing 2.0 technologies in a library setting.

But what kind of technologies can libraries use to their advantage? Boeninger touched upon several different examples, and what follows is my attempt to consider the significance for some of them.

Free weblogs (Wordpress, Blogger): Boeninger primarily focused upon the idea of using blogs as a supplemental learning tool. In his words, blog authors can “create dynamic content” that reaches students and (potentially) non-students alike. (He provided two good examples here and here). As far as I can tell, there’s very little downside in using blogs this way; it’s relatively easy, accessible, and provides a lot of flexibility for creativity.

What about using a blog primarily as a platform for professional development? That’s what we’ve tried to do with Nota Bibliothecae, and many other law and academic libraries are using their blogs in the same manner. The upside is that it’s provided a creative learning experience for us, as well as a chance to reach readers with whom we otherwise wouldn’t have contact. It also has raised a host of questions that are likely familiar to some other “lawbrary” and academic library blogs: Who is our audience? What kind of interaction might (or should) we have with the blogs of our colleagues? What should be the direction of our content? These are things we’ll have to consider as we continue updating.

Twitter: Twitter is already a quite popular form of communication, and its “micro-blogging” format is an attractive alternative to operating a “normal” blog. One relevant example for libraries that Boeninger provided was from the Ford Library at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. The library recently established a Twitter page, but also displays updates (or “tweets”) on their own site as well. Right now, it appears that Ford is using Twitter as a general news service, which is a no-brainer—it’s quick and couldn’t be simpler. It would be helpful to know how many visitors their Twitter and “Library Information” pages are receiving as a rough gauge of its popularity, but they’re on the right track. Another possibility would be using Twitter as an emergency notification system, particularly in cases of inclement weather.

Next post: Facebook, instant messaging, and Skype.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mentally Ill Co-Conspirator to be Executed in Texas

In the news this morning is an article discussing the next planned execution in Texas. Aside from the fact that there is already much controversy surrounding the death penalty, this case is causing greater debate as: (1) the prisoner in question did not actually kill anybody, and was only a co-conspirator to the murders giving rise to his execution; and, (2) the prisoner in question is mentally ill.

Texas is one the few states in the country that allows the execution of conspirators to commit murder, whether they actually take an active role in the murder or not. Those in support of this policy claim that the execution of conspirators deters crime and allows closure for a victim’s family. However, those opposing this policy claim that executing a person who has not actually killed anybody “violates the most basic principles of justice.”

As to the other controversy, the Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally ill prisoners in 1986, disallowing the execution of anybody who was not fully aware of the reasoning for their punishment. However, the Supreme Court never established rules in how to determine a prisoner’s mental competency; as such, such decisions in Texas are left to the governor or jury on a case-by-case basis.

With the combination of these two factors, this case becomes even more problematic. Many are arguing that without this mental illness, this prisoner would never have been convinced to take part in this conspiracy. Aside from not understanding the reasoning for his punishment, many claim that he never actually had free choice in his initial participation. However, even after this theory was argued in the court, the prisoner was found guilty and was sentenced to be executed.

To not account for the propensity of mentally ill conspirators to be more suggestible than other conspirators when issuing a death sentence seems to punish a person for something they did not understand, or basically had no choice in doing. Depending on the level of mental illness, this suggestibility will vary, and such variation should play a part in determing the severity of the sentence when a jury or Judge issues a judgment, especially when execution is one of the options.

With the failure to establish guidelines for determining when a mentally ill prisoner can and cannot be declared competent for the purposes of their execution, this decision is left in the hands of those who may not be qualified to make this judgment. Whether it be the jury or the presiding judge or somebody in the local government, they most likely are not able to make psychological evaluations. In fact, these individuals most likely have very minimal contact with the accused, and in these situations they only have the opportunity to make judgments on what they hear in the court proceedings.

I cannot make a judgment on whether this execution is proper or not by merely reading this article. I cannot make a definite judgment on whether the proper tests and analysis were performed in order to determine this prisoner’s competency because the article does not indicate how this competency was established, if in fact it was established. The only thing I can feel somewhat comfortable in concluding is that if there were established procedures, including a separate set of guidlines for when the mentally ill person is a conspirator and not an overt actor, issued by the Supreme Court or the government, then there would still be controversy, but at least everybody would have guidelines to refer to when making these difficult decisions.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Phil Donahue to receive Ohio Citizen Action Award

Ohio Citizen Action will present the 2008 Howard M. Metzenbaum Ohio Citizen Action Award this year to Phil Donahue on Sunday, September 14th at 7:00 pm at the Cleveland Institute of Art's Cinematheque. There will be a showing of Donahue’s stirring documentary Body of War, a question and answer session with Donahue and a coffee and dessert reception.

The Metzenbaum Award is the highest honor given by Ohio Citizen Action. Since 1995 the award has been presented to Ohioans who best reflect Senator Metzenbaum's example of principled tenacity. This year's award will be presented by Senator Metzenbaum's daughter, Susan Hyatt.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Phil Donahue launched his audience participation television talk show in Dayton in 1967. The show, which was honored with 20 daytime EMMY awards, ran for 29 years and changed the face of daytime television. He is currently touring the nation as co-producer/director of the documentary Body of War. This film follows the story of Tomas Young, a 25 year-old paralyzed U.S. soldier, who was wounded after serving for less than a week in Iraq.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Organ Donation After Cardiac Death

An article from the Associated Press yesterday discusses a new controversy in the field of medicine – when to declare a person dead for the purposes of organ donation. This comes about after three newborns that had been placed on life support, but not yet meeting the legal criteria for going forth in harvesting their organs, were taken off of life support measures in order to allow for organ donations to other babies.

The standard for declaring somebody dead for the purpose of organ donation has been that the person no longer has any working brain functions. However, in the case of these newborns, they continued to exhibit brain functions, albeit minimal. Instead of using the brain functioning standard, the doctors in this case were able to harvest organs under a procedure known as donation after cardiac death.

Many organizations, including the federal government, are encouraging this type of donation. Instead of requiring a child to exhibit total lack of brain functioning while donees in dire need of these organs to allow them to continue living wait, this procedure allows families the option to donate and creates a larger supply of needed organs.

One of the biggest criticisms of this procedure centers on the fact that it involves children. The other major criticism is the fact that many claim that this donation process violates laws governing when organs may be harvested. In the case of the newborns, the doctors quickly transplanted organs soon after the life supporting measures were removed. It has been argued that the doctors did not wait long enough as they performed the transplants before the donor was declared dead, and the fact that the hearts could be restarted indicates that these donors could not have legally been pronounced dead as they had lost neither total heart nor total brain functioning.

It is understandable that many argue for the protection of children, especially newborns. For some, it is much harder to accept procedures such as these as the newborns in this instance obviously had no choice in the matter and were alive by medical standards. With modern medicine, many believe that more can and should be done in these cases rather than use these children as donors.

However, in these cases the parents were given free will and as legal guardians they have to make the best choice for their child. It cannot be easy to make such decisions, but in doing so these parents had the opportunity to save the lives of three other children. Had they waited for their child to lose all brain function, it is uncertain what the status would have been on the three children that received the donated hearts. The donors’ hearts may have deteriorated beyond medical use, and the three donees may have not had the chance to receive the hearts. From the article, it seems certain that death was imminent for the three donor children, and by allowing the parents to make this decision they were able to help out other families that may have not been able to wait.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Review: Sex and the Soul

Freitas, Donna. Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

“Hooking up’s defining characteristic is the ability to unhook from a partner at any time,” declares Laura Sessions Stepp in her 2007 book Unhooked. Sessions Stepp, a Washington Post reporter who often writes about youth trends, goes on to define hooking up in terms of detachment: it can range from a single kiss to intercourse; occur in public or in private; involve close friends or complete strangers; and spark a relationship or simply be the relationship in itself. The practice of hooking up among high school and college students certainly isn’t new, but Unhooked was the first book-length study devoted to hook-up culture.

Mainstream media quickly picked up on Sessions Stepp’s argument that hooking up was detrimental to young women. Yet her work fails to justify such attention. Though there are references to several scientific studies, she profiles just nine girls, all of them from similar economic and geographic backgrounds. Equally as limiting is her tone, which at points is unnecessarily scolding to young women. As Rob Horning wrote about Unhooked last year, “[W]hatever young women choose to do sexually needn’t be pathologized automatically; it seems that the search for explanations for whatever sexual behavior a woman exhibits is ultimately an attempt to wrest it from her.”

This is why Donna Freitas’ new study Sex and the Soul is a welcome arrival. Freitas shares many of Sessions Stepps’ concerns, and finds that hookups often do not help college students “discover the thrill of sexual desire or romantic passion, of falling madly in love and expressing this love sexually.” What’s different is that she maintains a consistently feminist stance by contending that it requires a community effort for students to have a healthy sexual environment. Freitas also presents an impressive amount of qualitative evidence in exploring how hookup culture affects both young men and women on college campuses.

Indeed, methodology—presented within clear and concise writing—is the heart of Sex and the Soul. Freitas’ research questions involve whether religion and spirituality might help bring about positive changes for campus culture. Over 2,500 students at seven different institutions took part in her online survey about “sexual experiences and religious and spiritual commitments.” From that group, she interviewed more than one hundred students, and their responses comprise much of the book’s content. There’s little to criticize here; the schools range from small evangelical colleges to large public universities, and the distribution of students by gender, race, and sexual orientation is fairly diverse.

While the results of Freitas’ investigation “defy easy summary” (in the words of foreword author Lauren Winner), there is plenty to consider. The two main categories of difference that ultimately emerge are “evangelical” and “spiritual.” At evangelical colleges, students share a public faith, and mostly view sex and religion as “inseparable” from each other. Conversely, those at Catholic and other private and public institutions tend to be more privately spiritual than openly religious, and tend to keep their sex lives and spirituality separate from each other. Evangelical schools promote a culture of sexual purity and chastity, while hookup culture has a strong presence at “spiritual” schools.

These categories appear to be a bit too binary at first, but Freitas observes common traits and nuances between them. Many of the self-identified spiritual students that she interviews express unhappiness with how hooking up makes them feel about sex and romance. In fact, spiritual students, much like evangelical students, largely define romance as being free of sexual intimacy. Yet the same problem exists with purity culture as well. As Freitas writes, “The depth and intensity of…stress and anxiety around sex, sin, and shame among [evangelical] students are hard to overstate.” The only real exception is LGBT students, who instead face the “more basic” question of “what it means to be a sexual being with a minority sexual orientation.” Ultimately, no group is getting what it really wants.

What causes this discomfort, regardless of whether one is spiritual or religious? Freitas identifies peer pressure as a major factor. At spiritual schools, even though students say they want romance, they have perpetuated the practice of hooking up to the point where “the first hookup seems to have replaced the first date.” And there is a great deal of sexism involved in this change, for the language and activities of hooking up often emphasize male pleasure and female subservience. By stressing abstinence outside of marriage, purity culture also lapses into misogyny; men become the pursuers when it comes to relationships, while women—who face more pressure to remain virginal—become the pursued.

Yet the rigid gender roles of purity culture point to an additional factor—namely, that college campuses themselves are also responsible for the state of things. For example, evangelical students aren’t the ones who create strict rules and guidelines on their campus that often result in resentment and mistrust. And when spiritual colleges emphasize personal freedom over a specific value system, then there shouldn’t be much surprise when some students end up floundering. In this regard, Freitas thinks that evangelical schools have a slightly healthier model that their spiritual counterparts. Nevertheless, she thinks that both types of colleges can do better in helping students achieve a healthier connection between sex and the soul.

So what, then, are some plausible solutions to counteracting hookup culture? Unfortunately, this is where Freitas’ analysis lags a bit. It’s understandable that she criticizes the lack of overarching values systems at spiritual colleges. But how do those colleges address that problem when they face increasing competition from new educational providers? If anything, they will likely default more to a type of “pluralism as its own value” model as a means of attracting applicants. Or—to pose another question—are there historical examples for colleges to follow that would allow them to remain pluralistic and promote a plausible set of values for their student bodies?

Similar questions arise regarding evangelical colleges. In her conclusion, Freitas presents Lauren Winner’s work as a positive alternative to the sexism of purity culture. And it’s true that Winner’s 2005 book Real Sex sharply critiques some of the more egregiously false claims that purity culture has embraced. Yet her study also presents a quite orthodox approach to Christian sexual ethics, where any sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful. The point is that even if the values systems and community-based approach of evangelical campuses are admirable, will they really allow students more wiggle room when it comes to sexual propriety? It’s highly doubtful. The point is that as unique as evangelical approaches are, their particular religious grounding simply doesn’t translate well to other colleges.

But Freitas does present a quite reasonable solution at the end of Sex and the Soul—a small guide for parents, counselors, and other adults as a means of staying attuned to students’ concerns about sex, religion, and spirituality. This suggests that while it will take more consideration to develop system-level solutions to hookup (and purity) culture, there are approaches on an individual level that can make a difference. And it’s important to remember that she does best at critiquing the disjunction between students’ sex lives and their spiritual awareness. Thanks to her host of statistics, interviews, and analysis, any future research on this topic will have to start with her work.