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.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

American killed in Beijing as Olympics begin

The Olympics' opening ceremony was a spectacular show, but the beginning of the games began with the stabbing of two American tourists. One of the victims has died. The attacker jumped to his death in this rare daylight stabbing.

A Chinese man stabbed the in-laws of the U.S. Olympic men's volleyball coach, killing one and injuring the other while they visited the 13th Century Drum Tower, a 130-foot-high landmark. The victims were Todd and Barbara Bachman, parents of former Olympian Elisabeth Bachman, who is married to men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon. Todd Bachman was killed.

The assailant also stabbed and injured a Chinese tour guide with the Americans. He then committed suicide by throwing himself off the Tower. The killing was a rare instance of violent crime against foreigners in tightly controlled China, which has ramped up security measures even more for the Olympics.

I find it interesting that the media is already calling this a rare daylight stabbing – an “isolated act not directed at Americans.” The embassy went as far as to say “we don’t believe this has anything to do with the Olympics.” Not to be cynical, but what else would it have to do with? American tourists at the Olympics were attacked. Communist leaders may be afraid that any negative press might take the shine off the games – well this certainly won’t help. Murdering tourists at the Olympics will definitely tarnish the games.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Waterboarding at Coney Island

An article this morning reports that waterboarding has been brought to America, with a twist. People at Coney Island in New York now have the opportunity to see waterboarding performed firsthand, as demonstrated by robotic actors.

According to the article, the waterboarding being demonstrated is faithful to how many claim it is being done by the United States military; the robot actors include a hooded man and a person dressed in an orange jumpsuit with water being poured over his head. People watch through barred windows, and are able to see the disputed procedure by inserting one dollar into a bill acceptor near this window.

Signs describing the demonstration as a “Waterboard Thrill Ride” and using Spongebob Squarepants (stating that "It don't Gitmo better!") as advertisement would seem to be aimed at downplaying the seriousness of this interrogation method. However, the aim of the creator is completely the opposite. In the article, Steve Powers that he wants “people to understand the psychological ramifications of this."

He also claims that people are able to see the physical pain inflicted, even through the barred windows they watch through. Two patrons interviewed by the article seem to agree that this display was shocking, which I imagine is what the creator wanted. However, while one of the individuals interviewed is glad that people are gaining a better understanding of waterboarding, the other seems to write off the procedure as just another horrific incident of war that people don’t need to see.

What seems good about this display is the fact that it appears to respect these divergent viewpoints. It is not being forced upon anybody, and in fact can only be viewed by a person willingly inserting money at the display. For those who do not wish to view the display, they merely have to keep walking. Also, it appears that the fact that people watch through barred windows would make the display private enough that those happening to pass by would not be able to view it unless they really tried.

Bringing this practice to the attention of people in this way is very interesting. Obviously, by using robots nobody is actually being hurt in this demonstration. Still, it seems that the message is getting across. Many who have read about waterboarding can now get a more concrete handle on what actually happens and potential long-term effects. By providing the choice to people to view this display, I think that a valuable service is provided in educating people as to this practice.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Two Recent Takes on Food and Responsibility

--I’m not really a fan of the New York Post, but their brief profile on Steve Dublanica—a.k.a. “The Waiter”—is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it represents the public unmasking of Dublanica, whose blog Waiter Rant inspired his “new book of the same name.” Secondly, Dublanica raises a salient point regarding restaurant dining:

“ ‘You need to know where your food comes from,’ he says. ‘The same thing holds true for restaurants. You should know that the waiter doesn't make a salary and a tip [or] that a good percentage of restaurants don't treat their employees well.’ ”

Is this somewhat obvious? Sure. But I think it’s a good reminder; even if a restaurant or food-related business is sourcing organic ingredients and humanely-raised meat, their responsibility—and our responsibility as diners and consumers—doesn’t stop there. This means being willing to criticize the establishments that we otherwise love (A good example is Whole Foods: great produce despite the high prices, excellent commitment to paying a living wage, shaky record regarding unions.)

--Gordon Atkinson offers a thought-provoking entry on hunting and gun control at his blog Real Live Preacher. In response to the recent shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, Atkinson first describes his family’s history of hunting for food. He then praises both “careful hunters” and “gentles vegetarians”; criticizes irresponsible gun ownership and those complicit in consuming factory-farmed meat; and finally circles back to gun control and the possibility of finding common ground. This line of thinking isn’t perfect—he generalizes a bit too much, and really unpacking all of these issues would require a much longer essay. Still, I found one passage to be particularly striking:

“Honest and careful hunting of the type that leads to frugal living, care for the land, and respect for what it means to take the life of an animal is a good thing. It’s a natural thing. It’s much better than dropping into a fast-food restaurant and eating meat that doesn’t cost much or cost you anything in time and trouble. The meat industry treats animals as things. They grow up in pens and cages, do not live decent animal lives, and are killed with no sense of compassion, stewardship, or conservation.”

For years, I’ve been ambivalent about hunting deer, especially with regard to my home state of Indiana. One the one hand, Indiana’s deer-hunting season is crucial to controlling overpopulation, and there are enough restrictions to encourage responsibility. And deer hunting also has a practical food value, especially when processed venison can go to food banks. On the other hand, I have a hard time grasping why anyone would experience enjoyment while hunting, and I’m prone to lapsing into generalizations myself when it comes to shooting deer for sport.

Yet as Atkinson, points out, this is a hypocritical stance on my part considering how much meat I’ve consumed from fast food chains over the course of my life. He’s correct to note that there’s a huge difference between reckless hunting and conservationist-based hunting. For omnivores who stand disconnected from the source of their meat, there are valuable lessons to learn from the latter.