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Archive for April 16th, 2008

Another post by Cass Sunstein in the libertarian paternalism series.

Meanwhile, I agree with those who do not like the term ‘libertarian paternalism’. Among the serious alternatives I have encountered so far, I think ‘non-coercive paternalism’ fits best.

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Drunk drivers should be punished, no one doubts that. Yet this story, which I found while randomly surfing through some related news is, I think, a sad tale of vengeful justice, and deserves to be repeated.

For 40 years, Phil Cisneros worked as a heavy-equipment operator in the copper mines outside Globe. He was a family man, a big-hearted guy who taught his five kids and a bevy of nephews fishing and woodworking. In time, he administered those same lessons to his 15 grandkids.

He was liked by everyone and life had been good to him till his wife, Lucy, got Alzeimer’s.

It was a difficult time, a time that would drive many men to drink. Cisneros was one of them. He’d never been a teetotaler; prosecutors say he’d been busted for DUI in 1980. But with his wife’s health declining, a one-time problem became a frightening pattern. Cisneros got popped for no fewer than four DUIs from 1989 to 1992, barely getting out of jail for one before he was charged with the next.

Lucy died in 1993. Obviously, Cisneros was devastated. Five years later, in 1998, he got one more DUI.

It is, indeed, a terrible track record. But then something happened. Cisneros stopped drinking and driving — and, for that matter, stopped driving at all, according to his neighbors and family. He met another woman (coincidentally, another Lucy), fell in love, and got married again.

He didn’t even get a parking ticket in the next nine years. His behavior was impeccable. He was happy. After many years of misery and sadness, life seemed to have turned good for him again.

If the ultimate objective of the law is rehabilitation — to turn offenders into good people — Cisneros had already achieved it.

But then, in 2007, he was arrested again and sentenced to three years in prison. No, it wasn’t a new offence.

It turns out he’d never cleaned up that last offense from nine years ago. And neither the prosecutor nor the judge was in the mood to give him a break.

Apparently, in Cisneros’ absence, a jury had sentenced him to eighteen months in prison nine years ago and Cisneros wasn’t even aware of it, till the Border Patrol arrested him when he was returning from a visit to Mexico.

Cisneros’ family — a huge, close-knit group — begged the judge. They said that the old man suffered from a host of health conditions: prostate cancer, diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, sleep apnea, shingles, and shortness of breath. He’d already had double bypass surgery.

And his second wife had cancer.

But the judge wouldn’t relent.

Phil Cisneros was 83 when he was put behind bars last year. As feared, he was repeatedly hospitalized during his prison stay. Then he had a heart attack.

The family petitioned Governor Janet Napolitano for clemency: His death, they said, was imminent. Her board of executive clemency recommended his release, unanimously, on March 4.

Phil Cisneros was finally released on March 7 after a gruelling nine months in prison. On march 9, he was dead.

(The original articles that I used as my source are by Sarah Fenske and appeared in the Phoenix New Times. They contain much more than I have quoted; click here and here)

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Most people, on coming to know that I do research in pure math, respond with a nod or a wide-eyed, “Ohh, that must be so hard!” Occasionally however, someone goes further and asks me what my research is really about. And then, I am usually in a fix.

How do I respond? There’s no way to explain that I study special values of L-functions for automorphic forms to a person who is not already familiar with all these words. So I usually take refuge in generalities like “Prime numbers”. Sometimes when I am in the mood, I explain to them what Fermat’s last theorem says (if I am lucky they already know this) and add that I work with methods ‘related to’ how Fermat was proven.

It was therefore a source of great joy to me to read Barry Mazur’s excellent article in the Bulletin on error-terms in number theory and the Sato-Tate conjecture. While the article isn’t quite about what I do research on, it comes fairly close. More importantly, it is engrossing, beautifully written, mathematically solid and accessible to anyone who knows some college-level mathematics and statistics. Perhaps, I should start carrying a copy of it in my pocket for exigencies like described above.

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