Sunday, March 30, 2008

Anthony Martin on Reducing Emory’s Carbon Footprint

Michael Specter’s article on carbon emissions for the New Yorker makes a compelling argument: “How do we alter human behavior significantly enough to limit global warming? Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” Accordingly, Specter primarily focuses upon potential avenues for corporations and industry. The point I ultimately took away is that while we should (and must) be dedicated to reducing our carbon footprint on an individual level, it is imperative that broad changes must occur on an institutional level (and higher) to truly address the issue.

This led me to consider the question of what changes higher education can make in order to also become more environmentally sustainable. And so I turned to my uncle, Dr. Anthony Martin, a senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University. Martin is an accomplished paleontologist who has been at Emory for eighteen years, and he’s talked with me before about the university’s environmental challenges, especially considering their near-constant state of rebuilding and expanding. I e-mailed him with a couple of questions, and his gracious responses demonstrate that there is a wealth of possibilities for colleges and universities to reduce their carbon footprint.

Nota Bibliothecae: As we learn more about carbon emissions and their environmental effect, it's becoming clear that large-scale changes are necessary to appreciably decrease our collective carbon footprint. I was wondering if you could tell us a little about how Emory has been approaching the problem of carbon emissions at an institutional level.

Anthony Martin: In 2006, Emory University hired a director for an office of sustainability initiatives. This high-level and full-time position, as well as the office of sustainability initiatives, was created to show a serious commitment toward environmentally sustainable practices. The director, Ms. Ciannat Howett, is an environmental lawyer and was previously the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center and is an Emory grad, so she was seen as someone who would have the requisite knowledge and negotiating skills for starting and sustaining (pun intended) these initiatives. For some examples of what this office is doing with current projects, these are listed here.

Among Ms. Howett's long checklist of institutionalizing sustainable practices is looking at the carbon footprint of the campus: how to calculate it, what factors contribute to it, and how it can be reduced. Of course, the most direct way to assess the carbon footprint of a university is to examine its daily, seasonal, and annual energy use. In Georgia, this is especially problematic because most of our electricity comes from coal, and we have the lowest gasoline taxes in the nation, combined with poor state support for public transportation and large suburban communities in the metro-Atlanta area (this means people drive a lot, and oftentimes by themselves). With regards to transportation, Emory has addressed this in some incredibly (for Georgia!) progressive ways:

(1) All employees have free access to MARTA (the public transit here in Atlanta), fully subsidized by Emory;
(2) Emory and other employers in the university area have jointly paid for free shuttle buses that transport people to and from campus;
(3) Some of the shuttle buses are alternatively fueled, either with natural gas or biodiesel. (A cool side story to that: the biodiesel project was started by an Emory undergraduate student in my department, Eric Fyfe. Students can make a difference! Read about it here
(4) A bike program was started in which a local bike store and Emory agreed to discounts on bike purchases and Emory provided helmets for free;
(5) The carpool program provides discounted annual parking for two people in a carpool, and a free reserved space on campus for carpools of three or more. (I belong to one such carpool, and sometimes take the bus or ride my bike, too);
(6) Vanpools were started by Emory several years ago, linking to suburban areas. Vanpool participants only have to chip in for gas, take turns driving, and have a free reserved parking space near the center of campus;
(7) Emory has an agreement with Zipcar (merged recently with Flexcar) to have dedicated cars parked on campus for people who need a car during the day. (And yes, they're all hybrids.)

Other than transportation, buildings are energy hogs, so Emory has also embarked on a “green building” crusade, which has succeeded wildly. We now have the most square footage of LEEDS certified buildings of any university in the U.S. (including some of the dorms!). Energy conservation is now a part of daily life here, and a scholar-in-residence (Dr. Susan Kidd) was hired this year to investigate other sustainable energy strategies that can reduce our carbon footprint (story is here).All in all, we're doing pretty well. And again, let me emphasize that this is happening in Georgia. If we can do this here, it can be exported to places where there is (how shall I say it tactfully?) not so much institutional inertia and resistance to change.

NB: How might other universities (or even businesses/commercial groups) follow Emory’s example?

AM: The easiest way to convince a university or business to adopt this is to pose what I call an “economic fundamentalist” question: “Do you like to save money?” Decreased carbon footprints results from decreased energy use, which saves lots of money (especially in the long run) and eventually is self-sustaining. And if you just need a business model to follow, check out Ray Anderson and Interface, Inc. Here's someone whose company made sustainability a part of the company mission statement, and they're not only achieving that goal, they're making a tidy profit while doing it. It's pretty tough to continue to argue for wasting energy when the last remaining justification (“But it'll cut into out profits!”) is taken away.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

ArcelorMittal still polluting in Cleveland

ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel company, is seemingly obliged to be a good neighbor to the hundreds of thousands of people who live near one of its Cleveland plants.

Ohio Citizen Action, an advocacy group, filed a complaint about Mittal’s Blast Furnace C5 with the U.S. EPA in 2007 claiming former owner LTV Corp. nearly doubled the blast furnace’s capacity during the 1980s without installing proper environmental controls.

Currently under investigation by both the U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA, Mittal’s Blast Furnace C5 has doubled its production capacity again with no new pollution controls installed. At this point, the U.S. EPA is trying to decide whether enforcement action is needed.

Both the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA say they lack the money to investigate fully. It is difficult to accept that public health can be ignored because of money issues.

Ohio Citizen Action is quick to point out that the company's worldwide profits – $10.4 billion in 2007 – suggests that paying for new and improved controls would be easy.

There are many in the Cleveland area and around Ohio that believe Mittal will be driven away by the increase in environmental restrictions. It would be unlikely that Mittal would consider closing its most productive plant because of health complaints. Cleveland has been good to Mittal Steel to the tune of $10.4 billion in profits. And, I find it hard to believe that Mittal expects citizens to value job security over health.

To read the Cleveland Plain Dealer article, click here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Supreme Court Considers 6th Amendment Rights of Mentally Ill Defendants

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Indiana v. Edwards, a case challenging a lower court ruling that a mentally ill defendant is disallowed from representing himself in Court. The question of whether this denial violated the defendant’s 6th Amendment rights was the central issue of the hearing.

In this case, the defendant, Ahmad Edwards, was charged with attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon. The defendant was suffering from schizophrenia and delusional disorders which prevented an immediate trial. Later, Edwards was found fit to stand trial and attempted to represent himself in the proceedings. However, the Judge denied defendant’s request for this self-representation. Edwards was convicted and appealed; the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the conviction based on defendant’s denial of his 6th Amendment rights.

Indiana Solicitor General, Thomas Fisher, argued that the initial trial judge was proper in preventing Edwards from representing himself as he feels the granting of such request would have led to the trial “descending into farce”. Additionally, he argued that the test for allowing such self-representation would be whether the defendant could coherently communicate; without the possibility of coherent communication, “the point of a trial – designed to be adversarial – is lost.”

Edward’s attorney claims that “the idea that a jury would be forced to listen to ‘rants’ was ‘overblown’.” With court rules in place, he feels that the judge would be able to control the self-represented defendant as he would any other attorney. He argued that the defendant’s 6th Amendment rights should not be denied due to concerns of potential problems.

At least two justices, Kennedy and Souter, seem to be siding with Indiana in this case. Addressing the need for coherent communication, Justice Kennedy compared the failure to communicate to “two ships passing in the night, or in the case of some defendants, about five ships passing in the night." As to the trial judge being able to use court rules to rein in a self-represented defendant who may go to far, Justice Souter stated that by the time the judge steps in in such manner, "the damage is done."

On the other side of the debate, Justice Scalia seems to have sided more with the defendant in this action. Instead of disallowing a person to represent himself or herself based on merely potential problems, Justice Scalia suggests that the court first, “[g]ive it a try.” He seems to agree with the defendant that these potential problems are not sufficient to deny a person his or her Constitutional rights.

While the protection of a person’s Constitutional rights are of utmost concern, this case appears to provide a rare instance for denying those rights. As counsel for the state and Justice Kennedy suggest, without coherent communication the adversarial process does not work. The ability to defend yourself and question witnesses would seem to require a higher level of competence and ability than to merely stand trial.

On the other hand, defendant and Justice Scalia’s arguments do not appear very persuasive, at least to me. To “[g]ive it a try” and act after the fact would seem to only provide remedies that would be too late. As Justice Souter stated, at such point, “the damage is done” meaning that the only available remedy may be a mistrial and refiling of the case. By imposing these higher standards regarding self-representation, such problems should be limited while still ensuring that the defendant is ably and properly represented.

For the full article from the USA Today, click here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Thinking about God in the White House (Part II): Reactions

As I mentioned in my previous post, Randall Balmer’s last book, Thy Kingdom Come, represents an angry condemnation of the Religious Right’s political role. Shortly after its publication, Jeff Sharlet wrote that “his now-barely-restrained anger is beautiful to behold." I agree with this, and find myself siding with Balmer on the overwhelming majority of the criticisms that he raises. At the same time, John Wilson makes a good point that the book lacks “the depth, the nuance, the texture, the alertness to human complexity” that highlights some of Balmer’s best work.

In comparison, God in the White House represents a return to form of sorts. Balmer does incorporate some of his criticisms from Thy Kingdom Come—concerning the Religious Right, of course, as well as his (correct) assertion that George W. Bush’s support for torture is hypocritical. The difference is that these criticisms don’t overshadow or detract from the rest of the narrative; indeed, this is a remarkably smooth read. And Balmer’s “alertness to human complexity” is present throughout, as he highlights the contradictions, ironies, and humor within the lives of his subjects. If anything, he’s fairly evenhanded, despite professing his political inclinations in the introduction.
There are a couple of bones for me to pick. Balmer includes a major speech from every president in the book, from Kennedy’s “Catholic” address in Houston to the words of Bush on September 11. I found a definite advantage to this; after finishing a chapter, I would flip back to the associated speeches in the appendix section, which thereby added to and reinforced what I had just read. Nevertheless, there’s no mention of the latter within the main text after the first chapter on Kennedy. That reason, plus the book’s short length (less than 250 pages), makes me question the real purpose for their presence. They’re certainly instructive and relevant, but are they “filler” as well?

Another issue somewhat related to book length: in the introduction, Balmer is clear “about what this book is not.” It is neither a “comprehensive history” of religion’s role in the presidency, nor a book concerned with “polling data,” nor much concerned with “civil religion” (3-4). Fair enough on the first point, which would require a massive undertaking. Same with the second, though polling data would certainly have its uses in a study like this. But his decision to eschew civil religion—“the conflation of religious devotion with national symbols” (4)—makes me wonder a bit. For example, he writes in the last chapter:

“Americans, apparently…want their candidates to profess some kind of faith—and they seem not terribly concerned about the particularities of that faith” (147).

Compare this with one of his statements in the conclusion:

“Perhaps it’s inevitable that in the United States, which has no religious establishment, we look to the president as a kind of moral figurehead, the sum total of our projections about the supposed goodness and honor and moral superiority of America and Americans. We expect the president to be the vicarious embodiments of the myths we have constructed about the United States of America” (163).

Both of these assertions are quite truthful, and they are very important to what Balmer has to say about holding ourselves accountable as voters. They also strongly relate to the concept of civil religion in America. After all, how we view our political leaders often involves a conflation of nationalism and religious beliefs. So why, then, is he so quick to claim that civil religion is a “tiresome” subject and doesn’t contribute that much to his narrative (4)? This is an area I wish he would have expanded upon, especially since this is a pretty brief book; contrary to what he claims, I think it would enhance what he has to say.

The above problems aren’t all that major, though, and I think there’s two other reasons why this remains a noteworthy study. First, there aren’t many scholars who could manage to condense this type of topic into a remarkably concise and smooth read while remaining informative. I love that Balmer has written a book that is both historically important and accessible to a general audience. We need intellectuals like him who can clearly emphasize to the American public why history is important to our everyday lives. Even if he excludes certain amounts of information (such as the civil religion angle), this is why it’s still a worthy purchase.

We also need to heed Balmer’s words about accountability, especially during an election year. “Change” has become a primary symbol of potential renewal in the current presidential campaign. This is understandable considering that Bush’s approval ratings remain steady at 30 percent, and it does have some truth—whoever is elected will likely be quite different than what we have become used to.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Another Primary Election in Florida?

With Ohio’s primary having been concluded with some issues, albeit not to the extent that many had expected, it seems that Florida is back in the limelight as being one of the states, along with Michigan, with election related issues that may play a major impact on this November’s Presidential election. Both Florida and Michigan have held their primary elections earlier than allowed, invalidating the results in which Senator Clinton was originally declared the victor. In order to ensure that the citizens of Florida have their votes counted, the state is now considering redoing the primary election, primarily with mail-in ballots.

As the current race to be named Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party is so close, the 38 delegates that Florida would provide to Senator Clinton would enable her to cut the lead currently held by Senator Obama by approximately one-third. As Senator Clinton would greatly benefit from receiving these delegates, she has refused an initial plan where Florida’s delegates would be apportioned between the two candidates; Senator Clinton has stated that, "In my view there are two options: Honor the results or hold new primary elections."

Senator Obama’s campaign manager has stated that he feels that holding another primary election with mail-in votes may be problematic. Concerns raised by the Senator’s campaign include fairness to voters and Florida’s inexperience, concerns mirrored by Dan Tokaji of the Election Law @ Moritz Project. Professor Tokaji worries about security issues with mail-in votes, stating that most election fraud occurs with mail-in ballots, mistakes by voters that can be more easily corrected with current election technology, not available with mail-in votes, and the fact that mail-in votes are more likely to be submitted by certain demographic groups.

The key issue is ensuring that Florida’s citizens have their votes counted accurately and that Florida’s delegates are allocated to the proper candidate. This year, many states wanted to be the first primary, an honor usually reserved for New Hampshire. However, in fighting to be first, Florida’s and Michigan’s election results were declared invalid and at present neither state’s delegates have been awarded.

It is not the citizens’ fault that their votes were not counted. Those that wished to vote showed up at the polling place, or voted via another available method, and cast their ballots for the candidate they wanted to represent them in the Presidential election. Due to the state government’s error, a way must be found now to ensure that these people’s votes actually count and are heard. Unfortunately, this error along with past election law errors in Florida may cause some to not wish to participate in anticipation that something else will go wrong or thinking that their first vote should count. Those that do wish to participate in this new primary may not have an opportunity or may not have their vote counted properly due to issues in mail-in elections in general.

It is unfortunate that states such as Ohio and Florida are regularly looked at as the most common source for election law issues; it is even more unfortunate that these issues are more often found than not. With elections in other states being run without such major problems, it is sad to see that voters in Florida and Ohio have to endure the possibility that their votes may not be properly counted.

For the complete story from the Washington Post, click here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Thinking about God in the White House (Part I): Arguments

I had been looking forward to the release of Randall Balmer’s new book God in the White House since I first heard about it late last year. Balmer, a professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, is an excellent religious historian and writer. At his best—notably 1989’s Mine Eyes Have See the Glory, now in its fourth edition—he is insightful, accessible, and witty, with the capability to convincingly develop surprising conclusions. As an Episcopal priest and self-described left-of-center evangelical, Balmer also isn’t afraid of being opinionated. In his last book, 2004’s Thy Kingdom Come, he writes “as a jilted lover” (ix), angry with how the Religious Right movement has overtaken evangelicalism. While I find his analysis in that book to be somewhat flawed, his subjective criticism is still refreshing, and remains one of his strengths.

With God in the White House, Balmer turns his focus to answering the following question:

“How did we get from John F. Kennedy’s eloquent speech at the Rice Hotel in Houston on September 12, 1960, in which he urged voters effectively to bracket a candidate’s faith out of their considerations when they entered the voting booth, to George W. Bush’s declaration on the eve of the 2000 Iowa precinct caucuses that Jesus was his favorite philosopher?” (1).

This is a dramatic shift, one that did not even begin to occur with Kennedy. In fact, Balmer writes that “Kennedy’s case against considerations of faith as a criterion for voting prevailed through the ensuing three presidential elections: 1964, 1968, and 1972” (156). Voters weren’t the only ones that were seemingly unconcerned about their leaders’ faith. As her husband set about dispelling fear over his Catholicism, Jacqueline Kennedy remarked, “ ‘I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s Catholic. He’s such a poor Catholic.’ ” (12). Lyndon Johnson became a member of the Christian Church (or Disciples of Christ) when he was fifteen, but “evinced little piety” as a politician (51). And Richard Nixon’s background as a Quaker did not play a large role in his adult life, especially considering the underhanded nature of his political behavior.

It’s this last factor—specifically, the Watergate scandal—that Balmer cites as a turning point. After Gerald Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon created a national controversy, voters were “once again [ready] to consider matters of faith and character in assessing their choice for president” (77). Former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter fit the bill. A born-again Southern Baptist, he was open about his evangelical background, winning electoral support from fellow believers that had shown little interest in politics during the past several decades. Balmer interprets his election as a type of national redemption, allowing the electorate to rid itself of the ugliness that had occurred with Watergate.

But this redemption was brief. A year before Carter entered the White House, Bob Jones University—a small fundamentalist school in South Carolina—lost its tax-exempt status. The IRS based their actions on the school’s ban against interracial dating, which violated Green v. Connally. To evangelical leaders, this was “an assault on the integrity and the sanctity of the evangelical subculture” (98). With the help of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, their response was the formation of the Religious Right. Weyrich then placed Carter at odds with the Religious Right by making him the scapegoat for the IRS ruling, though he was not the one responsible.

The result was that Carter “could no longer count on the support of white evangelicals” (110), who had played a key role in his political rise. Instead, evangelicals threw their support behind Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. Reagan was divorced, had initially been an abortion proponent, and was barely a churchgoer. Yet he “played to evangelical voters” (117), and was able to cement the Religious Right as a core Republican constituency. While Reagan didn’t do much with regard to Religious Right priorities such as abortion, the latter continued to support George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992.

After documenting all of the above (as well as the Clinton and current Bush administrations), Balmer makes a fairly simple argument in his conclusion. Since Carter’s election in 1976, religion has been central to presidential politics. Yet the faith of our presidents have not translated into effective policies, and to expect them to be moral guides for the nation is simply a form of “cheap grace” that deflects responsibility from voters (164). At the same time, faith has become more political with the rise of the Religious Right. But this also presents drawbacks, for it compromises what faith is really about. The solution, he suggests, is to “hold ourselves and our nation accountable to the values we espouse” (172-173). If we, the electorate, insist on having candidates express their faith openly, then we need to insist that their faith and their actions correspond. More importantly, we need to re-examine ourselves, and what our actions say about our own values. As he concludes, “Anything less is cheap grace” (173).

Monday, March 10, 2008

Baseball and Sumo Wrestling

While America’s pastime, baseball, is under much scrutiny domestically for alleged steroid abuse, an incident involving Japan’s national sport has raised cause for questioning into the methods employed to train prospective sumo wrestlers. While the questioning into this training is keyed towards abuse of the trainees and not performance enhancing drugs, there seem to be several similarities between the questions involving abuses in both sports.

One of the key issues which appears present in each sport’s investigation is alleged compliance by those in charge. In the case of the ongoing steroid investigation into baseball, there have been several allegations from the Mitchell Report and in the Senate Investigation that others in the clubhouse, including players, trainers and some coaches, were aware of the use of steroids by athletes. Some even claim that the commissioner of Major League Baseball had turned a blind eye to the problem. Not until Jose Canseco came forth with his controversial publication and Barry Bonds approached the all time homerun record did such investigation appear to become a seriously investigated matter.

In the sumo wrestling incident, the Japan Sumo Association, run by the masters of the training schools, quickly announced the death to be a cause of heart failure when the body had marks and bruises from an apparent beating. Had the student’s father not stepped in, the body most likely would have been cremated and each school would have continued as it had been run before this death. Without a third party coming in and demanding further investigation, a true answer would not have been found.

The apparent reason driving such compliance in each sport appears to be money. In baseball, the league was garnering much attention from Barry Bond’s homerun race. Both Commissioner Bud Selig and former record holder Hank Aaron distanced themselves from the chase by not being present when the record was broken; at the same time, Major League Baseball benefited from the publicity, negative and positive, by bringing in more viewers to the sport. In Japan, the masters at each school receive payments based on the number of students they train. When a student, such as the one described in the article, attempts to leave, it is not uncommon for the master to turn to abusive practices to stop any such plans.

Also in both cases, the investigations have led to broader research on how widespread the practices are. In the case of baseball, the U.S. government is in the process of investigating steroid abuse in football, basketball, hockey and even professional wrestling. The research in Japan is even more encompassing. Not only did research turn up the fact that more than 90% of the 53 stables in Japan have used such abusive processes, but also discovered the fact that such abuse, more psychological than physical, is prevalent in education and business in Japan. Before World War II, the Japanese military had a very strong influence in the everyday lives of the citizens. During this time, many of the citizens were beaten by the military. Such abuse apparently remains throughout Japan, rarely to the point of death as in the case of the sumo wrestler, but most certainly with effects that will be longstanding in the Japanese community and way of life.

While the issues in the case of steroid abuse in baseball are primarily applicable to issues in other sports and with other athletes, the result of the investigation of the death of the sumo wrestler has wide ranging implications for those living and working in Japan. Both sports have obvious issues that must be corrected in order to end any further controversy and send messages to those who aspire to become athletes in the respective sport. Like baseball, with the seemingly neverending investigation, the changes required in Japan, assuming such changes are possible and/or desired, are not something that will happen overnight. While changes are pending in each sport in each country, it is unfortunate that such practices will most likely continue to the detriment of the athletes, the sports, and the people.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Farewell to The Wire

In honor of its series finale tonight, two Wire-related pieces for today. The first is Mark Bowden’s profile of The Wire creator David Simon for The Atlantic. Back in October, I wrote about Simon’s artistic vision and what I felt what his ability to challenge social conventions in his storytelling. Bowden praises the complex morality and nature of the show, but finds that its relentlessly bleak outlook avoids the nuances and contradictions of reality:

“Simon is the reporter who knows enough about Baltimore to have his story all figured out, but instead of risking the coherence of his vision by doing what reporters do, heading back out day after day to observe, to ask more questions, to take more notes, he has stopped reporting and started inventing. He says, I have figured this thing out. He offers up his undisturbed vision, leaving out the things that don’t fit, adding things that emphasize its fundamentals, and then using the trappings of realism to dress it up and bring it to life onscreen” (emphasis in original).

This has been particularly important to consider with regard to this season, which centers on the Baltimore Sun, Simon’s former newspaper. Simon is clear that the show’s portrayal of the paper is a fictionalized account, but some of the season’s themes suggest score-settling on his part. This has included thinly-veiled shots at his former Sun editors, William Marrimow and John Carroll, which Bowden describes as “arguably unfair.” Does Simon’s anger negatively affect this season, then? I’m not sure that I’ve definitively decided, though others have answered in the affirmative. Still, I think Bowden offers us a reminder to remain critical as viewers, even when we’re watching a show as thoughtful and critical as The Wire.

Secondly, NPR’s Terry Gross has a great interview from January with Michael K. Williams, who plays Omar on the show. A highlight occurs a few minutes in, as Williams responds to Gross’ question about playing a gay character:

“I would say the most fearless thing that I was able to pull off and portray as Omar on television was his openness with his sexuality, and not have that go over the top. It meant a lot to me that this character be taken seriously by my peers and by my community, and I didn’t want this topic of his sexual orientation to hinder his seriousness, and I didn’t want to disrespect anybody in the gay community either...I looked at it as an opportunity to stand out, to shine, to be that sore thumb, if you will…”

As Omar would say, “Indeed.” The way in which Willams and the show present Omar avoids any reliance on offensive gay stereotypes: “swishiness,” hypersexuality, and so forth. That is admirable enough, but the fact that Williams is using his character to spread a social message (another example) speaks volumes.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Chinese human rights lawyer released

A prominent Chinese human rights lawyer, Teng Biao, was released today after being dragged into a black car with no license plates in front of his home on Thursday night. The Chinese secret service is believed to have kidnapped Mr Teng. It is a well-known and frequently used method in China. Teng was driven back to his apartment in Beijing at around 1:40 pm, his wife told Deutsche Presse-Agentur by telephone. Click here to read the news story from The Guardian.

Amnesty International saw a possible connection between the disappearance of Teng Biao and charges that have been brought against the human rights and HIV/AIDS activist Hu Jia.

Human rights organizations accuse Beijing of attempting to crack down on dissent in the days leading up to the Olympic Games, which starts in August. Teng Biao and Hu Jia criticized human rights violations in an essay entitled, “The real China and the Olympic Games 2008.”

Here is a press release from Human Rights in China with helpful links.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Equal Medical Coverage For Those with Mental Illnesses

After attempts having been made through the past ten years, the House of Representatives yesterday passed a bill which would in effect prevent insurance carriers from discriminating against mental illness patients in setting higher premiums than those for people with physical infirmities. In a 268-148 vote, the House passed the bill that would require insurance companies to provide services to those with mental illnesses comparable to those with physical illnesses. Previously, the Senate has passed a similar bill, but it appears that the President may oppose the current language of the bill as being overbroad.

Currently, insurance providers have no regulations prohibiting them from discriminating between the two types of maladies. Many of these providers set higher co-payment requirements for those seeking assistance with mental health issues; other insurance providers limit the services, including limits as to how many visits may be made to the patient’s doctor, they will cover. Should this bill be approved by the President, health plans for small businesses with fifty or fewer employees and private health plans would still have the ability to discriminate in these ways.

According to the New York Times article reporting this development, there are three primary reasons that there has been a push for increased coverage for those with mental illness. One reason for such a push is that researchers have found some mental illnesses to be genetically linked and have discovered methods of treatment for these diseases. Another factor leading to this push is the fact that there are now insurance companies which specifically deal with the issue of mental illness, providing such coverage at reasonable rates to employers. Finally, with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental disorders, the stigma associated with mental disease is not as prevalent as it has been in the past.

Those who support these measures view the availability of equal coverage as a civil rights issue. The article lists a few Senators and Representatives who are personally involved with the issue of mental illness, either their own or a family member’s, which presumably led to their support for such legislation.

Those who oppose the legislation claim that the language is overbroad as it covers too many illnesses. The bill would require that any company providing insurance coverage must provide coverage for any mental illness described in the law; for some, this could mean a decision between providing no coverage at all or covering all mental and substance abuse disorders listed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

There is a definite need to ensure that those with mental illnesses are provided reliable and effective care. Mental illness can be just as serious, in more cases more serious, than physical illness. Those with untreated mental illness, in some cases, can become a danger to themselves and those around them. With the available treatment for such people, it is necessary to diagnose and provide the proper medicine.

While the legislation passed by the House and Senate is to be commended, it does seem that the coverage is overbroad. To require treatment for every mental illness covered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is very burdensome for many employers. Instead of increasing coverage by employers, the business may decide, as is their right, to not offer any coverage at all denying provision of company sponsored insurance for not only mental, but also physical, illnesses. Due to this concern, I believe that the government is on the right track in addressing the issue of medical coverage for those with mental illnesses; however, I believe that more of a middle ground needs to be reached in order to effectuate the goals of any such legislation.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Tomorrow's Ohio Primary

As many Ohioans prepare for tomorrow’s Presidential primary, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has, in their Politics Blog, an article asking Are We Ready for Ohio’s Primary . Much attention will be paid tomorrow to Ohio’s primary, not just because of the closeness of the Democratic race, but due to the number of problems faced in the past and in preparing for the primary. Many are hopeful, but do not know what to expect. Even Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner comments that, "This is kind of like waiting for a baby to come."

Based on a December report identifying security problems with touch-screen voting equipment, the Ohio Secretary of State has been attempting to eliminate such voting technology while ensuring that everybody has an equal opportunity to vote for their selected candidate and be counted. Brunner has stated that “her office has tried to anticipate every potential problem, and equip election boards with the tools to solve them,” knowing full well that any further problems in Ohio will reflect poorly on her and will continue the perception of the lack of reliability in Ohio’s process.

Along with Brunner, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Director has stated that “everything is in place to conduct a successful election.” In order to help alleviate any problems, Jane Platten has implemented new tactics to avoid problems and confusion, including placing greeters at the doors to the polling place to help point voters to their proper district.

Adding to the attention paid to the Ohio primary is the fact that more than a fifty percent turnout is expected. As the Ohio Secretary of State has required that voters be offered paper ballots as an alternative to touch-screen technology (where such technology is still in use), there will be a potential increase in the time required for voting, and the time required to count such votes.

Professor Edward Foley of the Ohio State University, and Director of Election Law @ Moritz, has stated that, “most election day problems won't affect the outcome of an election. But the prospect of long lines and previous mishaps can convince people not to vote.” Accordingly, even a simple glitch or delay may negatively affect voters and outside viewers based on Ohio’s previous difficulties. Even without technology malfunctions or poll worker error, the use of paper ballots, although deemed necessary by Brunner, along with the expected large turnout may lengthen lines to the point that many voters may simply leave without voting.

Even after tomorrow, the election problems in Ohio, and especially Cuyahoga County, will not be resolved. However, with a smoothly run process, many Ohioans may regain faith in how Ohio runs its election and be encouraged to attend polling places and vote in future elections. With even minor difficulties, any faith may be lost.

Obviously it is hoped that any election difficulties in Ohio and nationwide are resolved so that everybody receives an equal opportunity to cast their vote for their candidate. By continuing to run poor elections, causing voters to feel participation is too burdensome or discouraging, the voice of these voters will not be heard. Even with these problems, in Ohio and elsewhere, it is always necessary to remember how important it is to vote and take place in the democratic process. Whether it be at the polling place or through absentee ballot, it is important that the American people voice their opinion and ensure that the person elected is the one that represents the citizens of the country.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

In Brief: Pre-Primary

--Jim Wallis’ defense of Barack Obama’s faith last week likely won’t do much to convince those perpetuating anti-Muslim and racist smears against the candidate. For the most part, Wallis lays out the standard (and obvious) facts: Obama doesn’t support Louis Farrakhan, isn’t Muslim, and isn’t a black separatist or nationalist. Yet there is a key point that he additionally emphasizes:

“And one Sunday, as Obama has related to me and written in his book The Audacity of Hope, the young community organizer walked down the aisle and gave his life to Christ in a very personal and very real Christian conversion experience.”

Again, this isn’t new information; as Obama writes in Audacity, “…kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me.” What’s noteworthy, then? Since starting the magazine Sojourners in 1971, Wallis’ primary target audience has been the evangelical community. Central to the evangelical movement is the concept of conversionism, where one commits to change one’s life or is “born again” as a response to the witness of Jesus. So when Wallis relays Obama’s own conversion, the subtext is, in effect, “Look, fellow evangelicals! This man made a decision for Christ!* For crying out loud, he’s like us!” For evangelicals who may be on the fence about whether or not to vote for Obama, the fact that they share a core religious experience with him could be quite significant with regard to how they cast their vote.

Regardless, it’s sad that posts like Wallis’ are even necessary in the first place.

--One of my burgeoning favorites, Georgetown professor of history Michael Kazin, argues that political rhetoric is indeed crucial to Presidential success. As he writes, both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan relied on persuasive and inspiring rhetoric to capitalize politically against their “discredited and dispirited” incumbent opponents, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. In comparison:

“Obama may never have the opportunity to match the achievements of Roosevelt or Reagan. His performance on unscripted occasions is less impressive than when he stands before a crowd of supporters, teleprompter rolling. But he has already accomplished a remarkable feat: marshaling his eloquence to persuade millions of Americans that he has both the character and the intelligence to nudge the country toward a more democratic future. Neither Clinton nor John McCain displays that talent.”

Clinton no doubt recognizes this reality, and her pointed criticism on Saturday—“His entire campaign is based on one speech he gave at an anti-war rally in 2002”—represented another attempt to deflate Obama’s rhetorical advantage.

--Gulp. Hope we get it right.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Open Library set to take on WorldCat

Aaron Swartz has developed a free online book catalog that he hopes will rival subscription based WorldCat, the largest bibliographic database on earth. His approach is what is causing concerns in the library world. The difference between the two catalogs is noteworthy – anyone will be able to update Open Library, his catalog, whereas WorldCat only has records from libraries.

The new catalog project, Open Library, is set to go live in early March with records on 20 million books. The goal is to create a comprehensive Web page about any book ever published. Each page will include not just author, title, and publisher but also links that direct users to the nearest library with a copy and to related books. Other links will allow users to buy a book online or write a review of it.

The project is similar to WorldCat, which is owned by OCLC, a nonprofit group that promotes technology in libraries. But it seeks to be bigger. While WorldCat has catalog records only from libraries — including about 10,000 academic libraries — that pay to be part of OCLC, the Open Library will include records from anywhere, free of charge. And while librarians maintain WorldCat, the public would maintain Open Library.

Mr. Swartz also wants to integrate his database with Wikipedia so that a citation of a book on the popular encyclopedia links to the book's page on Open Library. Another idea is to integrate Open Library with LibraryThing, a site that helps people catalog and share their own books. Eventually, Open Library may expand to include journal articles, too.

If Open Library can convince libraries to contribute, it would be amazing. Unfortunately, librarians are known for their loyalty and many aren’t willing to share because they don’t want to offend OCLC. Not only that, it may prove a bad business move for libraries who rely on OCLC for other services.

Click here to read the whole article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.