Friday, June 22, 2007

Universal Suffrage Includes the Mentaly Ill

Rhode Island, along with other states, is struggling with whether or not to grant suffrage to people who have been declared insane:

"I just think if you are declared insane you should not be allowed to vote, period," said Joseph DeLorenzo, chairman of the Cranston Board of Canvassers. "Some people are taking these two clowns and calling them disabled persons. Is insanity a disability? I have an answer to that: no. You're insane; you're nuts."
I believe, by definition, that Mr. DeLorenzo is incorrect in his assessment that the insane are not disabled. A disability is a limitation of physical or mental capacities, and the insane, most would agree, have severely limited mental faculties. But, Mr. DeLorenzo's prejudice against these people seems to be evident in his use of the slur clown.

Rhode Island state law currently prohibits people with serious psychiatric impairments from voting, which, in my view, is a serious misstep. We fought for years in this nation to eliminate discrimination in voting rights based on race (Fifteenth Amendment), gender (Nineteenth Amendment), and class (Twenty-fourth Amendment). Even after Reconstruction, many states and localities attempted to bar Blacks from voting with dubiously enforced literacy tests, which were finally banned by the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. We should by no means allow any backward motion in granting universal suffrage for full citizens.

What do opponents to suffrage for insane adult citizens fear? That the mentally ill might be too easily swayed to vote one way or another? There are plenty (far too many, I'm sure) sane people who are just as gullible--would they like to institute a test of mental fortitude in order to participate in democracy? And what would happen if the mentally ill actually did swing an election? If ever the insane gather enough votes to elect one of their own into office, our nation will have a much greater problem than the electoral process (namely, the state of the population's mental health).

Rather, limiting the voting rights of the mentally ill opens the door for even more oppression; for, who is to say that any sane person is actually fit to decide who should rule? What if they haven't thought through all the issues, or read widely enough, or can reason soundly enough? The National Voting Rights Act says that
No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color . . .
Perhaps the time is right to extend this Act to secure suffrage for all citizens of our nation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Strikes in France: Enough's Enough!

The educators at France's first juvenile penitentiary (établissement pénitentiaire pour mineur, AMOTMJ - English, pamphlet), in Lavaur, began a strike yesterday, the facility's first day of operation (Le Monde - English, La Dépeche du Midi - English, La Croix - English). The facility is the first of seven to be opened beginning this year in accordance with a criminal reform law creating a separate space for juvenile offenders in an effort to synthesize sanction and education (La Loi d'Orientation et de Programmation pour la Justice du 9 septembre 2002). Currently, France's 700 offending minors are held in adult facilities.

The educators' principal demand is to meet with with the facility's director to discuss their complaints regarding personnel, remuneration, and security. The Confédération Générale du Travail, who supports the workers, claims that the 24 recruited employees plus support staff are insufficient to handle the facility's detainees, since the original plans called for 36, even though the facility has temporarily lowered its maximum capacity from 60 to 40 to accommodate the lack of personnel. Twelve adolescents were transfered to the facility Monday, and another twelve are scheduled to arrive next week.

Now, please note that what I'm about to say does not come from any anti-French sentiment: I love the French--I lived and worked there for a year and would love to go back. But, give me a break! This attitude that you should exercise your right to strike on every occasion has gone too far. To say that the facility is understaffed when the pupil-to-adult ratio is better than one-to-one (or even two-to-one as would be the case at full capacity) is, frankly, utterly absurd. The staff may have a legitimate desire for personal alarm equipment, but a strike at the facility's opening is hardly the appropriate means of expressing their views, especially when the facility is operating at a drastically reduced capacity. This facility has been in the planning stages for four years--the personnel should have known what they were getting into when they signed up--and if they had any objections, raising them before the adolescents were scheduled to arrive would have been the appropriate action.

Union strikes may be useful in cases where the power imbalance puts workers at a significant disadvantage and working conditions are disgraceful, but I simply don't see how that could be the case here. My guess is that the personnel at this facility are decently well-educated and have a fair degree of social capital. Their working conditions, though perhaps improvable (what isn't?), are far from inhumane or unbearable. Furthermore, strikes in the public sector usually do nothing but create a lot of noise and inconvenience innocent third-parties (such as school children or people who rely on public transportation), unlike in the private sector where the interruption of production decreases profits and directly hurts the managers against whom the workers have a complaint. Refusing to play and pouting in the corner because you don't like the rules is childish--end this foolishness and have a mature, reasonable negotiation like adults.

Constitutional Authority

For NPR's All Things Considered, Andrea Seabrook reported that President Bush has made clear his intentions to veto any Budget that surpasses a spending cap, in an effort to limit pork-barreling. David Obey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, has taken offense at the suggestion:

The White House has a quaint position. They say that any change to their budget is an ear-mark, and therefore illegitimate. That makes the President the king, not a president. With all due respect, the congress has the power of the purse, and we're going to exercise it.
Obey is certainly correct that Congress has constitutional authority over the Treasury; however, a unilateral declaration on the part of the President to veto any bill, including the Budget, does not constitute the establishment of a monarchy. After all, the constitution has also endowed the President with the right to veto any bill he chooses, and this doesn't infringe on Congress' "power of the purse:" According to the Checks and Balances established by the Founders, Congress may override any presidential veto with a two-thirds majority in both houses.

If the President vetoes a bill, we would hope that he does so for good reason; but if Congress cares adamantly enough about its position, they may push legislation through nevertheless. On the other hand, given that the contested amount ($25 billion) is less than 1% of the entire Budget ($3 trillion), the whole argument is probably just a terrible case political posturing on both sides.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tracking Outgoing Links on Blogger with Google Analytics

I use Google Analytics to track usage statistics on Cogitorium. This free service provides all sorts of interesting information about how visitors get to the site (including what terms they used in a search engine), where they are (network-wise and geographically), and which pages they read. Since the Analytics' mechanism for tracking is some JavaScript code embedded in the footer of each page that is tracked, Analytics can't automatically track which external links visitors use to exit the site. Fortunately, the Google team thought of this, and provides the urchinTracker() function, which may be called using the onClick property of an external link to track these clicks manually.

The example code Google provides is great, but I didn't want to have to modify by hand the anchor tag for every link I put in a post. Inspired by a utility by Ben Nolan [updated link], I cooked up a simple JavaScript routine that will automatically insert a link-specific urchinTracker() call for external links in posts. The code tags links only in the post body and excludes links within the same domain.

<script type="text/javascript"><!--
localDomain = document.URL.substr(0,
document.URL.indexOf("://")+3) );
divList = document.getElementsByTagName('div');
for (j=0; divEl=divList[j]; j++) {
if (divEl.className != 'post-body') continue;
list = divEl.getElementsByTagName('a');
for (i=0; element=list[i]; i++) {
if (element.className = 'post-body' &&
element.href &&
!= localDomain) {
element.onclick = function(){
urchinTracker("/outgoing/" +
The code should be placed just before the </body> tag, after the normal Analytics code.

In addition to the external links in posts, I was interested in how often users click on the headlines I display using Google Reader's clip function. Coercing the clip anchors to include the onclick code was a bit more complicated, especially since the script appears to be either purposefully obfuscated or unfortunately arcane. After analyzing the code for quite some time, I managed to piece together the following solution:
for (j=0; j<window["GRC_c"]; j++)
divEl = document.getElementById('readerpublishermodule'+j);
list = divEl.getElementsByTagName('a');
for (i=0; element=list[i]; i++) {
element.onclick = function() {
}, 0);
When placed in the footer, this code should add hooks for Analytics tracking to all of the Google Reader clips in the document. I chose to have all headline clicks dump into the same virtual page for tracking purposes, but one could just as easily track individual headlines.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Blogging: What, When, and Why?

As a newcomer to Blogger, I find myself curious about how others tend to use the blog medium. The Pew Internet & American Life Project collected an interesting set of statistics last year about the habits of bloggers, based on follow-up interviews with 233 self-identified bloggers who had participated in a random-digit-dialing telephone survey on American internet usage.

About half of the bloggers surveyed said that they blog mostly for themselves, and about one-third indicated that their blogs focused on their lives and experiences. After personal experience, the second most popular primary topic for bloggers was politics and government (11%), followed variety of other minor topics. I was surprised, however, to find that only 4% of those surveyed indicated that technology was the primary topic of their blog, given that the medium, as I understand it, began in the techie circles as a web log--that is, a log of one's web surfing activities.

Most bloggers surveyed (59%) spent only one or two hours per week on their blogs, and another quarter spent between three and nine hours. The median number of ours spent per week was two. In terms of the frequency of posts:

  • 13% post at least once a day
  • 15% post three to five times a week
  • 25% post one or two times a week
  • 28% post once every few weeks
  • 19% post less often than every few weeks
Given that most bloggers post rather infrequently, it isn't surprising that 70% say they post only when inspiration strikes, while 22% (roughly the same as those who post three or more times per week) say they post on a regular schedule.

The report also includes other interesting information about the type of people who blog, what motivates them, how they choose what they write, and so on.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Embryonic Stems Cells Without the Embryo

Nature reports this week on a simple new technique for generating stem cells tailored to a specific individual without relying on cloning or embryos:

Research reported this week by three different groups shows that normal skin cells can be reprogrammed to an embryonic state in mice. The race is now on to apply the surprisingly straightforward procedure to human cells. If researchers succeed, it will make it relatively easy to produce cells that seem indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells, and that are genetically matched to individual patients. There are limits to how useful and safe these would be for therapeutic use in the near term, but they should quickly prove a boon in the lab.
The technique works by injecting four genes into the skill cell, which unlock the cell's puripotency:
Last year, Yamanaka introduced a system that uses mouse fibroblasts, a common cell type that can easily be harvested from skin, instead of eggs. Four genes, which code for four specific proteins known as transcription factors, are transferred into the cells using retroviruses. The proteins trigger the expression of other genes that lead the cells to become pluripotent, meaning that they could potentially become any of the body's cells.
Although the method is nowhere near ready for human therapy treatments, this new development suggests that there may be viable alternative sources for stem-cell based studies, rather than the ethically entangled destruction of embryos.

(Story from NPR.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Meditations on Ender's Game

Peter might be scum, but Peter had been right, always right; the power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can't kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you. (Ender's Game, chapter 12)
"I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!" (Luke 12:4-5,ESV)
Then, to Dink's surprise, Ender began to cry. . . . "I didn't want to hurt him!" Ender cried. "Why didn't he just leave me alone!"
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Orson Scott Card crafted an absolute masterpiece in this bildungsroman chronicling the development of a military genius. I read the entire work in one day, submerging myself in the incredible portrayal of a phenomenal mind.

When I came to Ender's realization above about power, I thought immediately of Jesus' words about whom to fear in life. Even from childhood, Peter seeks power over others and sets his sights on global authority, due to his keen observation about this "dog-eat-dog" world: If you can't subdue, there are those who can, and out of their fallen selfishness, will. But, despite all his intelligence, Peter has failed to realize that the power to kill is not ultimate power; for, to kill is only to force the end of life prematurely. The one who kills does not have authority over all eternity, which rests in the hands of God alone.

Now, replacing one fear with another seems to paint a rather bleak picture, but we haven't considered all the facts yet. While Ender holds the same capacity for power as his older brother, he shares equally well in his sister's compassion. And thus, his violent act against Bonzo in self-protection causes Ender no little psychological and emotional pain. I wonder if God, too, cries "I didn't want to hurt them!" For, God loves his creation, but our rebellion has cut us off from him and carries certain forensic consequences--consequences that God doesn't want to carry out, but that he must for his justice's sake.

And yet, there's hope.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
Jesus did not intend his message about fear to spread trepidation, but comfort, as backwards as that may seem. You see, he goes on to say,
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (John 12:6-7)
To put it all together, our rebellion poses a threat to God's righteousness, and incurs punishment in order for God to maintain his justice. But, since God loves us so very much, he has provided a means by which the consequences of our rebellion can be laid on another--on himself in the person of Jesus Christ, to be specific--so that we may enter--through repentance--into a positive, loving relationship with him once again. And if God, who holds the power over eternity, loves us that much, why should we fear anyone who holds power merely over our body?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What's in a name?

I must say, I resisted the idea of getting a blog for quite some time. Blogs were the "in" thing, and I don't like jumping on bandwagons--it has something to do with asserting my own individuality. Instead, I reasoned, I'd like to have a means of communicating "thoughts"--snippets of ideas, a paragraph or two, that come to me at random times. I was planning on publishing these thoughts, along with essays and projects, on a website I would design, and the thoughts would be indexed by subject category, keyword, and date.

Hmm. Sounds kind of like a blog--but I can't call it that, of course.

In any case, the website never materialized, yet I still had a urge to record and share the various interesting ideas that strike me from time to time. Finally, I decided to take the path of least resistance and share my thoughts with Blogger. So much for principles.

But, what, pray tell, is a cogitorium? The name derives from the Latin cogitatorium, which Lewis & Short define as "a receptacle of thought." That's precisely what I intend this to be--not a "web log," but a holding tank for my ideas and a nexus for your ideas and mine (does that sound too grand?). In any case, I thought cogitatorium had one too many syllables for a speaker of English, so I dropped one to arrive at the name.

And so, let there be thought!