Wednesday, December 29, 2010

GPO Announces Google Partnership to Sell You Items It Provides Elsewhere For Free

The Government Printing Office announced on December 14 of this year a new partnership it has entered into with Google Books to sell -- "for the first time" -- "e-book format" versions of some of its more popular titles. According to the Press Release, the titles will appear in the Google ebookstore, "which can be searched, purchased and read on any connected device with a capable browser."

Keeping America Informed. O RLY?


Publications mentioned specifically in the Press Release include the following, with their current price at the Google ebookstore noted and linked in parenthesis:

The Budget of the United States, Fiscal Year 2011 ($9.99)
Remembering the Space Age ($7.99)
Borden's Dream: The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC ($7.99)

And this is the strange part: If you clicked on the links for these titles above you will quickly realise that there are freely and legally accessible electronic copies of these materials already available -- all of which are also able to be "read on any connected device with a capable browser." Which means that the GPO partnership with Google sells information that can be found freely online from GPO and other government sources, and in nearly identical formats.

The Google ebookstore does not specify the file formats offered for these for-sale books, though the Press Release's qualifier implies strongly that these are PDF files locked into the Google ebookstore interface, or as Google likes to call it, "the digital cloud." Which means that if you download the freely available copies of these publications, you will actually have greater options for access (i.e., offline access, unattached to any specific account, and infinitely transferable) than you will if you purchase them. In other words, this partnership makes no sense at all.

Of course, fans of the Federal Depository Library Program (in which CU Boulder is one of more than 1,000 participants) will already know that the government has a proud (and legally mandated) history of disseminating government information freely to the general public. The FDLP is one of the reasons why this blog exists. So it is a mystery as to why the GPO would actively undermine the FDLP, and seemingly prey upon any general lack of awareness, with no disclaimer provided, that these materials being sold are also very easily found for free in the same or an exceptionally similar digital format.

In short, the partnership between GPO and Google is puzzling to understand from any number of sides. But at least it came in time for Christmas.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Color Photographs of America, 1939-1943

In July of this year, The Denver Post's "Plog" photo blog presented a set of images from a remarkable 2006 exhibit from The Library of Congress: Bound for Glory: America in Color.

A woman and child near Natchitoches, LA, 1940


The set as a whole comes from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection whose photography project, spanning 1935-1944, was initially designed to monitor cash loans to farmers, and the construction of suburban communities. A second stage, according to the Library of Congress, "focused on the lives of sharecroppers in the South and of migratory agricultural workers in the midwestern and western states. As the scope of the project expanded, the photographers turned to recording rural and urban conditions throughout the United States and mobilization efforts for World War II."

Publications from and about the Farm Security Administration are available from the Government Information Library in Norlin Library.

The Whinery family in Pie Town, NM, 1940


The photos are notable for many reasons. Foremost, of course, they offer the opportunity to see the WWII-era States in color, which brings to a modern audience a sense of vibrancy and immediacy about the lives of Americans during the Second World War. In the selection highlighted by the Denver Post, there seems to be another conversation presented about the visibly segregated lives of Anglo and African Americans. Taken as a whole, the set is a valuable look into lives and habits from the country's not-too-distant past.

A city for any era: Chicago in 1943


Some readers may find these pictures reminiscent of another set of color photographs from the early 20th Century, also presented by the LOC: The Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection was placed online by the Library of Congress in the early 2000's and features rare color imagery of the Russian Empire between 1905 and 1915.

The Denver Post's PLOG has previously featured other photographs culled from the National Archives and Library of Congress, including a set on American cities before 1950, and Ansel Adams's infamous photographs of the Japanese Internment Camps located in California during World War II. It's an excellent site to bookmark for future visits.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

New Documents of Note for Dec. 9: The Airman, and NASA's Aura & Hubble Programs

This week's selection of recent and notable government publications received at the CU Boulder Libraries point us skyward, with publications from the Air Force and two of NASA's programs.

AIRMAN: AF HANDBOOK I




The item gathering the most interest around our offices this week is Airman, the handbook for Air Force personnel that reinforces its core values while informing servicemen and servicewomen with a short history of the branch. The small book offers pictures and descriptions of insignia, ranks, and occupational badges, and compact illustrations and descriptions of everything from Operations to Aircraft. Airman is, of course, available online, but the guide is irresistible when seen in person, as everyone who spies it quickly wants to flip through its pages. It's the perfect pocket guide for all things AF. The CU Libraries have copies of AIRMAN dating back to 1957.

OUR CHANGING ATMOSPHERE: Discoveries from EOS Aura
Two NASA pubs make our list this week. The first from NASA's Aura mission. Aura was launched in 2004 to serve a six-year mission to seek out new information on Earth's ozone, air quality and climate. Some of those results are summarized in Discoveries from EOS Aura (PDF), bringing additional evidence of the harmful and long-term aftereffects of human industry and pollution on the Earth's atmosphere. This is a slim but data-rich publication.

A "smog event" in China, captured by Aura.

HUBBLE 2009: Science Year in Review
Twenty years old and one of the best known projects in NASA history, The Hubble Space Telescope continues to provide astronomists, physicists, and mathematicians extraordinary data about Earth and the universe our planet resides in. The annual Science Year in Review publication is a stellar presentation -- literally! -- of some of the most interesting images and findings from the program. The 2009 edition is not available online, so check out our copy from Government Information, or settle for some of the equally engaging publications from previous years.

Galaxy NCG 4710, as photographed in 2009 by Hubble

Click here for a video highlighting some of Hubble's stunning imagery from its Wide Field and Planetary Camera.

As always, each of the above publications is available in the Government Information Library, on the third floor of Norlin Library.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Internet Privacy and the 'Do Not Track' Proposal: The FTC is Open to Comments

Last Tuesday morning, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection opened hearings on Internet privacy for consumers in a session entitled Do-Not-Track Legislation: Is Now the Right Time?

Dealing with how companies collect, compile and sell information about visitors to their commercial Web sites, the outcome of this discussion has the potential to create radical changes in consumer protection online, and a fundamental shift in the practices of almost every company that conducts business online.

The hearings may sound like something straight off the desk of Senator John McCain, but actually center around a plan by the Federal Trade Commission to allow consumers to opt out of having their personal information and Internet browsing habits be collected by commercial sites. Indeed, the plan goes one step further in protecting consumer rights by prohibiting any such tracking of Internet behaviors except where permission has been explicitly provided by consumers. In other words, individuals would have to opt in before their information could be tracked, stored, or sold, which is nearly an about face from current Internet business practices that rarely broadcast when profiles are created for visitors, or when -- and to whom -- those profiles are sold.

Similar in title to the widely popular Do-Not-Call Implementation Act of 2003, which gave the Federal Trade Commission powers to enforce the National Do-Not-Call Registry, the Do-Not-Track proposal also shares a significant framework with that Law. Both are structured around a year 2000 document from the FTC called Fair Information Practice (FIP) Principles.


Similarities between the proposed Do-Not-Track plan and the Do-Not-Call Registry are very intentional. No word on whether either apply within a women's correctional facility.


Foremost among the FIP principles are notice and awareness, with the following items "recognized as essential to ensuring that consumers are properly informed before divulging personal information":

Identification of the entity collecting the data;
Identification of the uses to which the data will be put;
Identification of any potential recipients of the data;
The nature of the data collected and the means by which it is collected if not obvious (passively, by means of electronic monitoring, or actively, by asking the consumer to provide the information);
Whether the provision of the requested data is voluntary or required, and the consequences of a refusal to provide the requested information; and
The steps taken by the data collector to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and quality of the data.


One key difference that the FTC recommends, however, is that while the Do-Not-Call Registry requires a unique identifier for each opt out (i.e., a specific telephone number to be added to the block list), Do-Not-Track legislation should NOT require a unique identifier -- because that would effectively identify individuals who have asked specifically NOT to be uniquely identified. Instead, the FTC proposed in their testimony that the most effective opt out would "likely involve placing a setting similar to a persistent cookie on a consumer’s browser, and conveying that setting to sites that the browser visits, to signal whether or not the consumer wants to be tracked or receive targeted advertisements."

Questions remain on how current browser privacy options do or do not comply with the FTC's stated goals, and whether a browser setting provides enough of desired protections. The plan is an interesting beginning, however, to a needed conversation on expectations of Internet privacy and the realities of online commerce.

The FTC's full report is available as a PDF: Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change. You can also watch a streaming video of the hearing or download that video by following the links at the bottom of this FTC page.

Click the image to see a PDF copy of the FTC's proposed Internet Privacy plan.



The FTC is also accepting Public Commentary on its plan for Internet Privacy. Public comments will be accepted until January 31, 2011. To file a public comment electronically, please click here and follow the instructions.

Friday, December 03, 2010

GAO Reports and Releases

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) which is often called the investigative arm of Congress. This set of publications from GAO investigate foreign affairs, government agencies, defense, and other issues. If you would like to know more about GAO, check out the library's guide.

Reports
Correspondences
Testimonies
  • U.S. Postal Service: Legislation Needed to Address Key Challenges, by Phillip Herr, director, physical infrastructure issues, before the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. GAO-11-244T, December 2.
    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-244T

    Highlights - http://www.gao.gov/highlights/d11244thigh.pdf
  • Aviation Security: DHS has Taken Steps to Enhance International Aviation Security and Facilitate Compliance with International Standards, but Challenges Remain, by Stephen Lord, director, homeland security and justice issues, before the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. GAO-11-238T, November 30.
    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-238T

    Highlights - http://www.gao.gov/highlights/d11238thigh.pdf
  • Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation: Improvements Needed to Strengthen Governance Structure and Strategic Management, by Barbara D. Bovbjerg, managing director, education, workforce, and income security, before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. GAO-11-182T, December 1.
    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-182T

    Highlights - http://www.gao.gov/highlights/d11182thigh.pdf
  • Personnel Security Clearances: Overall Progress Has Been Made to Reform the Governmentwide Security Clearance Process, by Brenda S. Farrell, director, defense capabilities and management, before the Subcommittee on Intelligence Community Management, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. GAO-11-232T, December 1.
    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-232T
  • NASA: Issues Implementing the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, by Cristina Chaplain, director, acquisition and sourcing management, and Susan A. Poling, managing associate general counsel, before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. GAO-11-216T, December 1.
    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-216T

    Highlights - http://www.gao.gov/highlights/d11216thigh.pdf
  • Sudan Divestment: U.S. Investors Sold Assets but Could Benefit from Additional Information about Companies' Ties to Sudan, by Thomas Melito, director, international affairs and trade, before the Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade, House Committee on Financial Services. GAO-11-245T, November 30.
    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-245T

    Highlights - http://www.gao.gov/highlights/d11245thigh.pdf
Presentation by Acting Comptroller General
  • "Acquisition Reform Challenges Facing Government," by Gene L. Dodaro, acting comptroller general, before the Integrated Program Management 2010 Conference, in Bethesda, Maryland. GAO-11-209CG, November 8, 2010
    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-209CG


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

World Aids Day 2010

Today is World Aids Day so here are a few resources to check out on this day:
  • UNAIDS
    This is the organization within the United Nations that works on issues of HIV/AIDS. They are redesigning their site, but you can view their blog for current information and their Global Report for information on HIV/AIDS worldwide. It is in this report that brings us the brings us the map below showing prevalence rates across the world.
    HIV/AIDS prevalence worldwide

  • CDC HIV/AIDS
    This is the web site to visit for information on HIV/AIDS in the United States. They have a short press release on World AIDS day on this site which links off to a web site on HIV in the US, where the graph below illustrates the growth of the HIV infections and people living with HIV/AIDS in the US from 1977 to 2009.

    US HIV infections and people living with HIV/AIDS

Still looking for more information? Check out the library's guide to health and medical information.

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports

Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a research agency of Congress and writes reports at Congress' request. These short reports (usually 10-40 pages long) cover recent topics of concern. This week brings us reports on defense, energy, trade, and much more. Although these reports are in the public domain, there is no central database available to the public. To get a copy of a CRS report, you can request it from your senator or representative. These reports were discovered by Secrecy News and Open CRS:
Interested in historical CRS reports? If you are here at the Boulder campus, check out the LexisNexis Congressional database, which has reports dating back to 1916.

Not on campus but still want access to additional reports? The library has a guide linking to various additional sources of CRS reports.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Traveling over the Holidays?

If you are one of the folks lucky enough to be flying somewhere this Thanksgiving week you might have been watching with interest all the discussion on airline security. In addition you might have been wondering exactly which leftovers can go in your carry-on. Here are some web pages to check out.

Traveling Tips
  • Traveling With Food and Gifts There is nothing worse than packing some leftovers in your carry on and having them be taken by the security guard. So this is a short list of some of the things you should stuff in your checked bag (or send home if you can't stand to pay the bag check fees).
  • Liquids Policy Okay, at this point most travelers know about the 3-ounce rule, but in case you need a refresher, check out this 3-1-1 plan.
  • MyTSA Mobile This is a mobile optimized web site for searching the TSA site using your smart phone. Interestingly, this is now the only way to view security gate wait times. The non-mobile version has been taken down for improvements.
Security Debate
  1. First, let's take a look at the TSA's information:
    • Advanced Image Technology This is the machine that is causing all the debate. It will scan through your clothing and let the operator see if you are carrying anything. To see what the operator sees, check out these images. It is possible to decline the machine and instead ask to be patted down.
    • Pat-Downs Want to know what triggers a pat-down and what rights you have during a pat-down? Check it out here to find out more. You can also link to a very brief statement that TSA provided on the fact that changes are coming to the pat-downs. It is these changes (which are not spelled out) that have triggered some of the debate.
    • TSA Statement from Administrator John S. Pistole This statement was released yesterday regarding the security debate.
  2. Second, let's check out some polling.
    • CBS's Poll This poll states that 4 in 5 people support full-body scanners. This does not ask if people would be comfortable using this machine.
    • Wall Street Journal Poll This poll asks if folks "Would you be willing to undergo a body scan examination before boarding a plane?" 76.3% said they would be willing.
  3. Finally, what do you think? This is a unscientific poll of our readers to see if you would be willing to undergo a body scan at the airport.
Would you be willing to undergo a TSA body scan before boarding a plane?
Still want more? Check out the library's guides to transportation and travel information.

New Documents of Note for Nov. 22: Child Health, Obesity, and the Great Recession

This week's selection of notable government publications recently received at the CU Boulder Libraries come from a variety of sources.

Child Health USA 2010, published by the Health Resources and Services Administration, is the latest of an annual, statistics-filled publication that has also been fully reproduced online. This publication reveals the ongoing discrepancies in child health and welfare, particularly where those differences involve race. For example, you may be startled to realize that State numbers for infant mortality demonstrate that black infants in Colorado suffer more than double the number of deaths per live birth versus white children in the state. These are important figures to remember as we use the holidays to seek out opportunities to positively affect our neighbors' lives.

From the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or "OECD," CU Boulder has received, "Obesity and the Economics of Prevention." Surprising almost no-one, the United States ranks first in obesity, with 36% of women and 32% of men labeled as such (Mexico and South Africa come in shortly behind the U.S.). Countries with the lowest rates for obesity are India (1% of men and women both) and Indonesia (0% of men, and 3% of women). Clearly, these numbers were taken just after we all ate last year's Thanksgiving dinner.

"From Crisis to Recovery" is another timely OECD publication. The short book explores "the causes, course and consequences of the Great Recession," and reveals interesting trends. For example, the illustration below shows which countries (in blue) saw positive economic growth during 2009. Nearly all of them are in the Southern Hemisphere, revealing the interdependency of Western economies in vivid terms.



Each of these publications are available in print from Norlin Library and online thought the links above.

Friday, November 19, 2010

World Bank releases World Development Report

The World Bank has just released another collection to us that was previously not available for free to everyone (see post on free data report from April 2010)! The title is the World Development Report and you can now find them back to 1978 (press release). The World Development Report is the in-depth analysis of a particular research topic, for example last year in 2010 the report looked at Development and Climate Change.

Want to learn more about the World Bank? Check out the library's guide.

GAO Reports and Releases

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) which is often called the investigative arm of Congress. This past week GAO investigated defense, environment, international , and other issues. If you would like to know more about GAO, check out the library's guide.

Reports
Correspondence
Testimonies
Special Publications

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The FDA Bares Its (Yellow) Teeth on Tobacco

Tomorrow, November 18, is the 35th annual Great American Smokeout, a day when health-related organizations across the country encourage those who indulge in cigarettes to ignore the habit and live a day as a non-smoker.


According to a short history from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Smokeout began in 1972 in Randolph, Massachusetts, when a high-school guidance counselor challenged locals to donate their day's cigarette money to a scholarship fund.

The CDC's Web site also provides multiple online publications dedicated to information about the effects of Smoking and Tobacco use. These reports include information on women and tobacco specifically, recent Federal legislation and policies on tobacco use, and extensive amounts of data, such as this page of highlights on Colorado and the Surgeon General's reports on smoking and tobacco use from the past decade.

A recent addition to the national conversation on smoking comes from President Barack Obama, himself a smoker, who last summer signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. One of the main pieces of the Act -- which at 161 pages comes in fairly short for legislation -- was to transfer regulative authority over tobacco to the Food and Drug Administration, and give the FDA discretion over the advertising and promotion of tobacco products. The President, who has been badgered by both the press and his own family about smoking, discussed the risks and costs of smoking, and his own habit, at the signing of the Act on June 22, 2009.



Whether or not President Obama still smokes, the FDA has taken its new charge seriously, and this past Friday unveiled a set of proposed imagery to be added to packages of cigarettes as more visually intrusive warning labels. Some of those labels have been reproduced below.







Will these labels be effective in discouraging tobacco use? Do the messages speak well to their intended audience? The longterm answers of the campiagn are unknown, but the evidence of smoking's -- and secondhand smoke's -- effect on individual health is irrefutable. Unless, of course, you work for a tobacco company. We do hope, however, that if you choose to smoke, you will choose not to smoke tomorrow.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this post is himself a former smoker, and now a frequent runner. His secret to quitting was to take more naps and to eat a lot of carrots. Good luck!

Monday, November 15, 2010

New Documents of Note for Nov. 15: Microfinance, New Orleans, and HIV Prevention

Here are interesting and timely selections recently received at the CU Boulder Libraries. This week's items are all Congressional Hearings, which provide an excellent level of detail on their subjects, as well as input and testimony from recognized experts in their areas. Hearings are available in print, as well as electronically from a variety of sources such as FDsys (linked here) or via LexisNexis Congressional.

Promoting Small and Micro Enterprise in Haiti
A fascinating topic of sustained interest for Economists, especially as the subject garnered a Nobel Peace Prize for India’s Muhammad Yunus in 2006.

Post-Katrina Recovery: Restoring Health Care in the New Orleans Region
Here combined are two topics that may very well define the legacies of our most recent Presidents – access to health care, and the destruction and recovery of the city of New Orleans.

The Domestic Epidemic is Worse Than We Thought: A Wake-Up Call for HIV Prevention
A topic truly without boundaries, HIV prevention is the focus of worldwide attention, yet prevention practices encouraged by U.S.-funded programs remain highly politicized.

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports

Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a research agency of Congress and writes reports at Congress' request. These short reports (usually 10-40 pages long) cover recent topics of concern. This week brings us reports on foreign relations, economics, politics, and much more. Although these reports are in the public domain, there is no central database available to the public. To get a copy of a CRS report, you can request it from your senator or representative. These reports were discovered by Secrecy News and Open CRS:
Interested in historical CRS reports? If you are here at the Boulder campus, check out the LexisNexis Congressional database, which has reports dating back to 1916.

Not on campus but still want access to additional reports? The library has a guide linking to various additional sources of CRS reports.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Images of An Active Military

Connotations of military service to those who have not experienced it can rely heavily on scenes and stories passed down by friends and family histories, and through the documents and images preserved by institutions and individuals alike. The collective memory about the military and active combat can become clouded, however, by portrayals that are purposefully more commercially-minded.

U.S. Army Sgt. Stephanie Tremmel, in Afghanistan (link)


Whether films based on popular military histories -- like the Band of Brothers series based on Stephen Ambrose's book, and Oliver Stone's biographical film Born on The Fourth of July, from the Ron Kovic autobiography -- or though efforts to translate contemporary events within newer entertainment formats, as with Call of Duty: Black Ops, a video game released this Tuesday, the effect of a more commercialized view of military service can be a help and hindrance to understanding how well the modern world understands and interprets military service.

Members of the 2-504th Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in Iraq (link)

While these portrayals are passionate, and often founded on fact, an unromanticized history of military service is essential to understanding the value and responsibilities of the country's volunteer military service. To that end, one tool that provides actual photography and footage of our modern, active military is the Department of Defense database, DefenseImagery.mil.

Reenlistment ceremony for the 4th Infantry Division, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, Afghanistan (link)


DefenseImagery.mil, whose photographs populate this post, is a collection of still imagery and film dating from 1982-forward. A search by military branch, service member name (when noted), or by country or area of deployment retrieves downloadable digital imagery. Print copies of imagery, or copies of videos, can be purchased for a fee.

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenya Spratt, in Afghanistan (link)


The photos, combined with historic collections from the Library of Congress's American Memory, provide an even perspective on the realities of military service, as well as the opportunity to recognize common scenes of military life that have spanned the history of the United States. If nothing else, they allow viewers to escape the hyperbole of war as a commercial production, and let them instead see the faces of men and women who have and who continute to serve the country though military service.

As with any image database, users should be aware of, and follow, the terms of use for this collection.

Happy Veteran's Day.

GAO Reports and Releases

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) which is often called the investigative arm of Congress. This past week GAO investigated defense, environment, international , and other issues. If you would like to know more about GAO, check out the library's guide.

Reports
Correspondence

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility was created by President Obama to address the "nation's fiscal challenges" ("About the Commission") also known as the federal debt. Specifically, the goal is to balance the federal budget by 2015.

Today the co-chairs released the first proposal. The proposal comes as a Power Point slide show or a written explanation of each of the cuts equaling $200 billion. These cuts come through elimination or merging of departments, pay freezes, and much more. This is just the first pass, the commission has been charged with submitting a final report by December 1, 2010 and it requires approval of at least 14 of the 18 bipartisan members.

Now this was just released this afternoon, so the media coverage is just starting, but here are a few major newspaper's start on this story:
Want to learn more the budget and debt? Check out the library's guide.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Good Reading: The Government Book Talk Blog

A blog begun in the early months of 2010 by Government Printing Office employee Jim Cameron, Government Book Talk is an excellent resource on new and historic government publications to show readers how "Gov Pubs," as we call them, are not merely shelves of statistical abstracts and Congressional hearings. In no time at all, Cameron has put together an intelligent, readable resource while unearthing a host of insightful documents on U.S. government history and fascinating slice-of-life materials.


Some of the items Government Book Talk has featured include pieces on the use of Balloon Bombs during World War II, a Comic Book History of Printing, documents on Urban Landscaping and Historic Orchards, and a multi-war perspective on Prisoner Interrogation. All of which are, of course, publications from the federal government.

If you enjoy some of the stories we've published that highlight specific government resources and historic events, you'll want to subscribe to Government Book Talk for a great look into the lives and history behind these fascinating government documents.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports

Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a research agency of Congress and writes reports at Congress' request. These short reports (usually 10-40 pages long) cover recent topics of concern. This week brings us reports on foreign relations, military, and much more. Although these reports are in the public domain, there is no central database available to the public. To get a copy of a CRS report, you can request it from your senator or representative. These reports were discovered by Secrecy News:
Interested in historical CRS reports? If you are here at the Boulder campus, check out the LexisNexis Congressional database, which has reports dating back to 1916.

The Supreme Court Discusses a Minor's Right to Play Mortal Kombat

The Supreme Court this week heard oral arguments in Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California v. Entertainment Merchants Association,a case that contemplates whether video games deserve specific legal treatment that excludes them from protection under the First Amendment.


SCOTUS transcripts of oral arguments are both enjoyable and fascinating to read, and in this case (number 08-1448, to be exact), the discussion has particular relevance to a younger set that has grown to see video games change from simple distractions between homework assignments to becoming a tournament sport and the source of very public discussions on whether the format is an recognizable art form.

In his questioning Zackery Morazzini, the Supervising Deputy Attorney
General for California, Justice Antonin Scalia frames the overall issue:
JUSTICE SCALIA: You are asking us to create a -- a whole new prohibition which the American people never -- never ratified
when they ratified the First Amendment. They knew they were -- you know, obscenity was -- was bad, but -- what's next after violence? Drinking? Smoking? Movies that show smoking can't be shown to children? Does -- will that affect them? Of course, I suppose it will.

But is -- is that -- are -- are we to sit day by day to decide what else will be made an exception from the First Amendment? Why -- why is this particular exception okay, but the other ones that I just suggested are not okay?

Where the discussion becomes difficult to deliberate is in reference to the games themselves. Three games were mentioned by name in Tuesday's discussion: Mortal Kombat, a fighting game that has also been turned into a movie franchise; MadWorld, an over-the-shoulder perspective video game in colored only in black, white, grey, and red; and Postal 2, an open-ended first-person-perspective shooting game, and the most widely discussed at the Court for its extreme violence. (Perhaps not surprising to those in public relations, the publisher of Postal 2, Running With Scissors, has created a page on its Web site to track the progress of the case, with considerable editorializing.)

Debates on the First Amendment are easily discussed in the abstract, but when recorded examples from gameplay in Postal 2 depict the brutalization of women and what appears to be a deliberate nod to the teen-aged perpetrators of real-life murders in public schools, the debate becomes far less abstract.

While avoiding approaching the topic's more nebulous aspects, the Court takes the practical considerations of censorship into consideration, such as when Justice Scalia asks Morazzini how video game developers can avoid prosecution, or if the expectation is to define video game obscenity trial-by-trial.



Also discussed is the effectiveness of the existing but voluntary ratings system for video games, as organized by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and whether parents having the last word in the purchase of items otherwise unavailable to minors is protection enough from violent content. Chief Justice Roberts takes a particular interest in how the distribution of video games might be parallel, in the state's view, with the sale of cigarettes and other items seen to be as harmful toward minors.

The arguments overall are an excellent opportunity to see the working styles of individual Justices, and in particular its newest members, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. Both Justices show a familiarity with the medium and good humor about the process (Kagan remarks that half her staff likely grew up playing Mortal Kombat), though nearly every Justice participates in the discussion.

All in all, the oral arguments are a short, timely, and interesting introduction to the deliberations of the Supreme Court about a topic on which surely most college students themselves have an opinion.