Month of August, 2006
You may have heard one of many news reports yesterday about increased nicotine content of cigarettes. The data that these news stories used came from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health where a 1996 state law requires cigarette makers to test the nicotine content of their products and report the results annually.
Less well reported was this tidbit about the U.S. Federal Trade Commission:
The Federal Trade Commission for three decades regularly released reports on the nicotine and tar content of cigarettes -- reports that frequently came under criticism for failing to adequately reflect the amount of nicotine smokers inhale in actual use.
The reports showed that nicotine levels on average had remained stable since 1980, after falling in the preceding decade. The last of those studies was released in September 1999, commission spokeswoman Claudia B. Farrell said yesterday.
The Federal Trade Commission has continued collecting data on nicotine, but she did not know why they have not published reports on the findings.
-- Cigarettes Pack More Nicotine, by Stephen Smith Boston Globe, August 30, 2006
The Los Angles Times reports that, "Massachusetts is one of three states to require tobacco companies to submit information about nicotine testing according to its specifications, and the only state with data going back to 1998." Cigarettes Packing More Nicotine, Report Shows, (From the Associated Press) August 31, 2006.
A short time ago, we posted a story about reallyready.org the website created by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) to highlight the many inconsistencies and faults on the Department of Homeland Security's emergency preparedness website Ready.gov.
Michael Stebbins, director biology policy at FAS, posted an update to the saga on monday. It seems that DHS believes there is some intellectual property infringement going on and so sent a Cease and desist letter (PDF) to FAS.
It seems disingenuous to me that, rather than incorporating FAS' analysis of ready.gov and making a much better, more informative emergency preparedness Web site for the public, DHS resorts to CYA scare tactics, trademark infringement letters, and obfuscation.
An unbiased observer would be forgiven for at least suspecting that DHS is not really concerned about confusing the public, they are using these use mark demands as a way to stifle a site that is embarrassing to them. Rather than worry about what they should be worrying about, providing clear information to the public, they are worrying that they look bad. We could hope for more, but the DHS that we are dealing with turns out to be a bunch of petty cover-your-ass bureaucrats more concerned about embarrassment than doing their jobs. I urge you to read my letter back to them and spread the word.
This is truly an inspiring story. Jared Benedict held 56,000 USGS maps for ransom. that's right, ransom. Benedict purchased the 56,000 public domain maps on CD-ROM from USGS. Then he asked internet denizens to help him recoup his cost of $1600. Once that was met, he sent all of the maps to the Internet Archive for permanent preservation and free access!
Doesn't that just give you tons of ideas for capturing and releasing all sorts of other government information? The Internet Archive better be ready for the steady stream of government documents!
Just wanted to apologize to our loyal readers for the outage over the last 24 hours. In trying to upgrade the functionality of drupal, our CMS, I inadvertantly caused a server crash. We are up and running now. Mia culpa!
I don't have much time left as the August guest blogger, so I will use my current position of power here in the center column to point out the new post by James R. Jacobs over there in the side column: "Google for government spending" blocked by unknown Senator . This post from James concerns S. 2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. My lunching lobbyist friend just let me know that the story is also covered in the August 28 Washington Times. (For those not familiar with the Washington Times, its editorial spin is somewhat different than that of, say, Mother Jones.)
I have wanted to write a post about the power of August recess, and this breaking story gives me just the opportunity.
Don't like what's happening? Talk to your Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. They should be back home for August recess. For some of the flavor of a congressional recess, check out the article "Recess!" by Paul Jenks in the August issue of LLRX.com. Jenks is slightly more cynical than I am about your constituent power during recess, but he does observe that "in Washington [members of Congress] are isolated somewhat from their constituents and are at the beck and call of their national parties, interest groups and the administration. On recess, they are on their own amongst their own." And you certainly have more power than I do: I live and vote in DC.
Whether the topic is the spending database, or net neutrality, or EPA Libraries, you can use what is left of August recess to make government information issues real to your elected representatives. But this is no endless summer. The Senate reconvenes on September 5, and the House reconvenes on September 6.
I just learned something new about the arcane rules that govern the US Senate. In an interesting story first posted on Cox News Service, an unidentified Senator put a "secret hold" on a bill, effectively blocking its passage until such time as that Senator decides to lift the hold. The irony is that the bill, introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., would create a searchable database of government contracts, grants, insurance, loans and financial assistance, thereby creating increased govt transparency! Read more about it on Mother Jones. And check out Porkbusters to see where your senator stands on the issue.
In an ironic twist, legislation that would open up the murky world of government contracting to public scrutiny has been derailed by a secret parliamentary maneuver.
An unidentified senator placed a "secret hold" on legislation introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., that would create a searchable database of government contracts, grants, insurance, loans and financial assistance, worth $2.5 trillion last year. The database would bring transparency to federal spending and be as simple to use as conducting a Google search.
The measure had been unanimously passed in a voice vote last month by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. It was on the fast track for floor action before Congress recessed Aug. 4 when someone put a hold on the measure.
Now the bill is in political limbo. Under Senate rules, unless the senator who placed the hold decides to lift it, the bill will not be brought up for a vote.
[Thanks Crooks and Liars!]
While reading Bowling for Broadband 2: Toward Citizen-Centric, Broadband-Based E-Government, a ten page report issued by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, I was struck by this paragraph (emphasis mine):
Recent developments in the market place for Internet access threaten to render the old online vs. offline digital-divide debate a moot point. The nearly 30% of Americans who donâ€™t have any type of Internet access can now be considered hardcore Internet non-adopters. The Internet has been a high-profile part of the nationâ€™s culture for a decade and monthly dial-up access has been universally available for well under $10.00 per month for nearly as long. So, it is hard to make a case that these Americans have not made the intentional choice to stay off line or use someone elseâ€™s access. However, broadband providers are still optimistic they can persuade this demographic of the value of broadband. A recent study by Leichtman Research Group shows that the coaxial cable and DSL providers are not simply engaged in a zero-sum competition for each otherâ€™s customers. They are actively marketing to the 30% of offline Americans and the 28% who use dialup access with a wide range of packages and prices that are competitive even with â€œenhancedâ€ dial-up services.
Taking the Census Bureau's latest estimate, there are 299,566,801 American citizens. That means there are over 89,000,000 Americans who do not use the Internet at all, and more than 83,000,000 citizens who currently can't do better than a 56K modem. If you've got a 56K modem, HP estimates that it takes two minutes to download a 768K document. For a not untypical 5MB government document, our 83,000,000 dialup users will have to wait 15 minutes to see the file. That isn't real access.
While Congress, the Government Printing Office and too many documents librarians can't wait for the totally electronic future, such a future will leave over a 170,000,000 million people behind simply because they do not have quick and easy access to broadband. Is that fair? If not, what can we do about it? Should we do anything. Should offline and underconnected people be excluded from knowing about their gov't if they underconnectedness is something under their control?
Don't misunderstand me. I believe in digital government information as an important access tool. Just not the only access tool. Especially when it looks like it will be sole-source access through federal servers.
A recent post on govdoc-l regarding virtual depositories got me thinking about definitions and what exactly IS a virtual depository. So I decided to explore the etymology of the term. Please go to the FGI library and check out "Toward a definition of 'virtual depository'", my little thought piece on what it the term means and how I understand it. By all means, please post comments/ideas/suggestions/diatribes at the end of the page.
A tip of the FGI hat to the 13th Floor blog of Governing Magazine for bringing the world news of an unusual but helpful remix of government information:
The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (Hardcover)
by Sid Jacobson (Illustrator), Ernie Colon (Illustrator)
That's right, a comic book version of a government report. And one I think would be useful in libraries. Currently sold by Amazon, the graphic novel is being serialized by Slate. I'd strongly suggest looking at the Slate version if you have any doubt your library could use this item. According to CBS News, this version has been endorsed by the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission:
The 9/11 panelâ€™s co-chairs, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, have written a foreword for the graphic novel that praises â€œthe talented graphic artists of this edition for their close adherence to the findings, recommendations, spirit and tone of the original commission report.â€
Aside from its worth in explaining the findings of the 9/11 Commission, I think this volume will be useful in explaining the value of permanent no-fee access to fully functional government information. If the report had been done by a private group, a graphic novel would have been much harder to produce because it would be considered a "derivative work" under copyright law and the would be creators would have had to negoiate with the copyright holders who might have felt that a graphic novel would "demean" their serious work. If the report was crippled with (Digital Rights Management) DRM, the creators wouldn't have been able to copy and paste text from the report into their manuscript which would have stretched out its creation. And finally, what would have happened to their idea for a graphic novel if the 9/11 Commission report had been reclassified and/or taken off the web because the government was uncomfortable with its findings? Having public domain, non-DRM'd gov't information distributed in many places helped grow this graphic novel which will likely introduce more people to the report's findings. Will the future be as productive? Look through our issues pages and judge for yourself.