Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Sunlight Foundation - Making Government Accountable and Transparent

I recently watched a TEDx talk by Martha Mendoza, a writer for the Associated Press, about the importance of open government.  Mendoza listed several instances when the uncovering of government documents resulted in the preservation and safety of lives.  She explained how government documents are just pieces of paper, or just electronic files, sitting in the archives, but that, when you “bring in the sunshine”, when you bring them out, they speak the truth, “and the truth always matters…and the truth sets us free” (TEDx Talks, 2012).  (A little cliché, but she makes a great point!)

The Sunlight Foundation, like Mendoza, advocates an open and transparent government, and the increase of public access to government information.  It is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that was founded in 2006 by Ellen Miller, a political activist, and Michael Klein, a securities lawyer.  Miller and Klein started the foundation over concerns about the influence of money and relationships and a fear of corruption in Congress.  They were not the only ones with that fear.  According to a 2006 CNN poll, half of Americans believed most Congress members were corrupt, and thirty-six percent believed their own representative was corrupt (CNN, 2006).  Both of those numbers were higher than they were earlier in the year, indicating a niche, perhaps, for an organization such as the Sunlight Foundation.

The goal of the Sunlight Foundation is to increase transparency and accountability in the United States government by using the power of the Internet.  Much government information is considered “public”, but not all information is released instantaneously.  Even then, print resources can take time to travel or acquire.  Part of the foundation’s mission states, “We are committed to improving access to government information by making it available online, indeed redefining ‘public’ information as meaning ‘online,’” (Garvin, 2012).  The Sunlight Foundation believes that government information should be made available in real-time in order to be truly open and transparent.   

In order to achieve its goals, the Sunlight Foundation encourages citizen and blogger participation in aggregating existing government information, digitizing new information, and advocating policy changes to build a more open government.  They also work with software developers, local transparency activists, and journalists by “involving them in distributed research projects, hack-a-thons, targeted lobbying and training” (Sunlight Foundation, 2013).  The Sunlight Foundation website provides information on how to get involved.  It even encourages involvement by awarding grants to those who start innovative projects that will increase government transparency and accountability.

One of the initial concerns of the Sunlight Foundation was the influence of money on political relationships.  This concern is reflected in the foundation’s funding policies.  The Sunlight Foundation is funded by contributions, but there are strict guidelines, which are clearly stated on the foundation’s website, under which contributions may be accepted.  For example, “No project support will be accepted that could potentially provide tangible benefit to the donor nor enhance his/her professional or personal interests” (Sunlight Foundation, 2013).  Furthermore, all accepted contributions are listed on the foundation’s website by year.  In this sense of openness and transparency, the Sunlight Foundation practices what it preaches.

The Sunlight Foundation has played an active role in legislative reform on the issues of open and transparent government and increased access to government information.  The organization has helped write and revise bills that have been introduced to Congress. It advocated many other bills that would increase access to government information.  Not all of the bills have been voted on, and not all of those that were have passed.  But there is clear movement forward.  Change is happening.  Government is becoming more open, more transparent, and the public has more access to government information than ever before.  The Sunlight Foundation is helping “bring in the sunshine” on government information.  

Check them out: The Sunlight Foundation

CNN. (2006). Poll: Half of Americans think congress is corrupt. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/10/19/congress.poll/index.html
Garvin, P. (2012). The Sunlight Foundation. Online, 36(5), 20-24. Sunlight Foundation.  (2013). Sunlight Foundation.  Retrieved from http://www.sunlightfoundation.com
TEDx Talks. (2012, September 19). Why open government is so crucial to our society – Martha Mendoza. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzDE7D52zlA

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book trailer for Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

The assignment I enjoyed the most in the Readers Advisory class was the book trailer.  It was fun, albeit challenging, gathering pictures that resembled the story somehow, and trying to find that perfect song to fit the mood.  Below is the book trailer I made for Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  I intend to make more of these trailers for other books when I have time.

Book Reviews from my Readers Advisory class

In spring 2013, I took a Readers Advisory class, which was awesome.  I learned a ton of valuable, practical skills which I utilize almost daily at my reference librarian internship this summer.  One of the assignments was to create a blog for book reviews.  Keep in mind that they were written as if for a library, so the reviews are a little sterile (meaning little-to-no personality in them.)  But seeing as I've just started this blog, and I'd like for there to be at least some content right of the bat, I'll post them here.

Killstraight by Johnny D. Boggs

Daniel Killstraight has just returned home to Arkansas after seven years at a Pennsylvanian boarding school for “injuns.”  Before he can make his way back to the reservation, Daniel encounters a Texan man looking for a companion to accompanying him at a public hanging.  Daniel soon realizes one of the men sentenced to hang is his old friend, Jimmy Comes Last, who has been convicted of murdering a white man and his Creek wife.  After the hanging, Daniel attempts to console Jimmy’s grieving mother, who insists that Jimmy was innocent of the crime.  Daniel promises Jimmy’s mother that he will find out the truth.  He becomes a lawman and starts asking questions.  Daniel searches for the truth, and also for himself.  Having been immersed in the ways of the white man for so long, Daniel fears he has lost the way of his people, the Comanche.  Trusting no one, and often finding his life in danger, Daniel vows to keep his promise.

Fans of Westerns will appreciate the traditional loner hero struggling to survive against myriad perils, and descriptions of the landscape.  The “whodunit” aspect, focus on the investigator, and importance of secondary characters in this page-turner will appeal to Mystery readers.

Originally posted 18 Apr 2013

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Charlie and Eli Sisters are hired killers in the mid-1800s working for a man in Oregon City, Oregon known as the “Commodore”.  Their current assignment is to hunt down Hermann Kermit Warm, who has staked a gold-mining claim down in California.  Warm has ostensibly stolen something from the Commodore, though neither of the Sisters brothers (nor the reader) knows if this is true or, if it is, what was stolen.  Upon learning that Morris, the Commodore’s man in California who was supposed to lead the Sisters brothers to Warm, has deflected and joined Warm, Eli, who narrates the story, starts to contemplate a career-change himself.  Eli decides this job will be his last for the Commodore, and hopes to start a less-violent life.  Charlie, the cold-blooded leader, isn’t so sure about this life change. Regardless, things don’t go as planned with the Warm hunt, as many surprising factors come into play. 

Though this book lacks many qualities typical of the genre (the traditional hero, a clear-cut distinction between good/evil characters, lyrical descriptions of the landscape, etc.), fans of Westerns will enjoy the fast-paced, short chapters and focus on rough-living and survival in a harsh landscape.  Warning: this book contains a degree of descriptive violence.

Originally posted 15 Apr 2013

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang

This memoir tells the story of a Hmong family’s escape from political exile in Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand in the late 1970s, and their subsequent somewhat-forced relocation to America in the 1980s.  But this is more than simply a political story – it is a story about finding home.  Migrating since the 18th century, the Hmong long for a place to call home.  Yang tells the story of her own family’s experiences, opportunities, and struggles in adapting to a foreign culture. Differences in how the generations (grandparents vs. parents vs. Asian-born children vs. American-born children) adapt and assimilate, and their levels of resilience, are highlighted.  However, this is more than a story about just Yang’s family – it is the Hmong story.  This is what happened to the Hmong.  Much of the story is focused on Yang’s grandmother, the oldest living member of the family. Through her grandmother’s stories and experiences, the reader learns something about the Hmong culture and its traditions.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy the wealth of historical detail and the storyline which follows the life of a real character (and her family).  Readers interested in learning about different cultures will appreciate a story about a culture where little is known.

Originally posted 4 Apr 2013

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (audiorecording)

The story takes place in World War II Nazi-occupied France.  Two female friends, one Scottish and one an English Jew, are working for the British Special Operations Executive and the Air Transport Auxiliary.  Morven Christie reads the character of Julie with a Scottish accent light enough to discern every syllable of the oft-inscrutable dialect, yet discernible enough to remind the listener that Julie is not English, she is a SCOT!  Lucy Gaskell reads Maddie with an authentic English accent.  Both narrators speak in a voice that believably fits their young, female, British character, while demonstrating proper pronunciation and clear diction. Side characters are distinguished by slight alterations in pitch and tone.  The pacing of the narration rivals that of an excellent storyteller, which includes dramatic pauses and faster speech during action scenes.  The audio recording contains no music or sound effects during the narration, which allows the listener to focus on the conversational prose.  This is a high-quality recording, complete with steady volume levels and crisp sound.

Code Name Verity will appeal to fans of Historical Fiction due to its setting in World War II Europe.  Readers who enjoy the Women’s Lives genre may appreciate the story’s focus on the friendship of two females torn apart by war. And fans of Mystery will love the intriguing twists and turns.

Originally posted 27 Mar 2013

I am J by Cris Beam

“J”, born Jeni, is a Puerto Rican teenager living in New York City with his Catholic mother and Jewish father.  He believes he is a male mistakenly born in a female body – J has never felt feminine, and hates his female parts.  J has always tried to hide his female body with baggy clothes, short hair, and baseball caps.  But it isn’t enough – people constantly mistake J as a lesbian.  At the age of seventeen, he commits to the process of becoming physically male.  J starts doing research on gender reassignment surgery and admits his plans to his mother, asking for consent to receive testosterone shots.  His mother eventually gives permission, but sends J to live with his best friend, Melissa, on the premise that she needs time to explain things to J’s father.  The story chronicles J’s frustration and confusion as he tries to connect with his best friend, a potential girlfriend, and his parents during this difficult time of transition.

Though classified in the Young Adult genre, this book would interest anyone who appreciates a truly inspirational story – gender reassignment is the surface topic, and may appeal to those going through similar life changes, but the underlying theme is about the importance of being oneself.

Originally posted 25 Mar 2013

Ada’s Rules by Alice Randall

Prompted by an invitation to her 25-year college reunion, Ada Howard decides she needs to lose the 100 pounds she has gained since her college days.  The reunion is in one year, and one of the alums organizing the reunion is her old flame, Matt Mason.  Matt Mason is “the one who got away”.  Furthermore, Ada has suspicions that her Baptist preacher husband might be cheating on her.  Ada finds herself entertaining the thought of having an affair with Matt Mason at the reunion, but she wants to look the way she did when they dated.  So Ada decides to lose weight.  She creates a list of “Fifty-Three Perfect Rules for an Imperfect but Excellent Health and Beauty Revival” to follow along her journey, and tries to influence her friends, family, and community into “healthing” as well.  Ada has struggles along the way, but rule number 34 states: “Don’t stay off the wagon when you fall of the wagon, and you WILL fall off the wagon.” 

Readers who enjoy the Women’s Lives and Relationships genre will appreciate Ada’s dynamic relationships, her struggle with universal women’s issues, and the optimistic outlook of the story.  Readers looking to lose weight themselves will be inspired by Ada’s realistic path to a healthier self.

Originally posted 25 Mar 2013

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The year is 2044, and humans are struggling to survive the Great Recession.  But there is one escape from the misery of real-life – an online virtual-reality gaming system called the OASIS.  James Halliday, the 80s pop-culture obsessed, video game geek and OASIS co-creator, is one of the richest men in the world.  When Halliday dies, he leaves behind an elaborate contest to find his hidden “Easter egg”.  The winner of which, will receive Halliday’s fortune.  Wade Watts, a poor teenager living with his callous aunt, is one of the “Gunters” (egg hunters.) Parzival, Wade’s online avatar, is the first to achieve the first of the three keys needed to find the egg.  Little did he know, this feat would put his life, both virtual and real, in danger.  Rival corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI) is determined to find the egg in order to dominate the online gaming industry.  IOI and its recruited band of gaming experts, known as “Sixers”, will stop at nothing to achieve the egg first.  Along the way, Parzival befriends fellow Gunters, and together they unite in an attempt to beat the imperialistic Sixers to the egg.

This fast-paced science fiction novel will appeal to readers who appreciate the speculative view of a world where few live in reality.  Fans of 80s pop-culture and self-professed video game geeks will love the references and nostalgia aspect of the novel. 

Originally posted 3 Mar 2013

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues, the second novel by Esi Edugyan, follows the musical career of a World War II-era jazz band based in Berlin called the Hot-Time Swingers.  The book is told from the perspective of the bass player, Sid Griffiths, and cuts back and forth between their time during the war and “present day” 1992.  But Sid is hardly the star of the show.  Hieronymus Falk, the band’s young trumpet player, is a prodigy…so much so, that even Louis Armstrong takes notice of Hiero’s phenomenal talent.  Armstrong invites Hiero and the rest of the Hot-Time Swingers to record an album with him in Paris.  But for a group of Afro-German and Jewish jazz musicians, getting out of Berlin is not easy.  Not all of them make it to Paris, and collaboration with Armstrong does not go according to plan.  When Germany invades France, the band members are forced to choose - finish the album or escape Paris with their lives.  Hiero’s future, in particular, is unknown.

Fans of historical fiction will appreciate the author’s use of slang to transport the reader to the world of jazz musicians.  Literary fiction readers will appreciate the thought-provoking storyline and somewhat ambiguous ending.

Originally posted 2 Mar 2013