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Archive for April, 2008

This has gotta be one of the most bizarre things I’ve read in a while.

(Link via India Uncut)

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The exit polls have been pretty off the mark this election season but in a consistent manner. As Brendan Loy notes in this post, the polls have been typically off by 7-8 points in Obama’s direction. This pattern was repeated yesterday — Clinton won Pennsylvania by 9 points when the CNN exit polls earlier in the day predicted she should win by 2.

I guess this is due to a combination of two factors.

1) The pollsters are clueless about weighted sampling and ignorant about the demographics of this contest (or more likely, simply too lazy to implement them): Obama does much better among the young, the affluent, the urban and the educated. A polling strategy that picks up a disproportionate number of such individuals, as would happen, for instance, if the pollsters spent most of their time in the big cities or other easily accessible parts of a state, is bound to go wrong.

2) People are not truthful when asked who they voted for: It may be true that a lot of whites vote for Clinton, then lie that they voted for Obama (so as to not appear racist?)

 

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Hiking the fairyland loop

Panorama

Taken on April 19 in Bryce Canyon, Utah.

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“The very essence of romance is uncertainty; if ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.”

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of being Ernest.

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Eugene Volokh has an interesting discussion about a new California law, currently under discussion, that aims to protect researchers against animal rights terrorism.

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Watch twenty couples on twenty couches in a video response to the question “What’s the difference”?

I think the idea was great and the execution was beautiful. My major peeve: too many laptops.

(Link via Instapundit)

Update: The music in the video is growing on me. I wish there was a ringtone version of it.

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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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posted earlier about the Elane Photography case. The New Mexico Human Rights commission issued its opinion today, holding Elane Photography guilty of discrimination. As Eugene Volokh discusses here, the breadth of the decision is astounding and ostensibly covers other businesses of a similar nature. For instance, freelance writers — by the same logic employed by the commission — can be compelled to write things contrary to their religious beliefs.

As this case makes clear, the attack on freedom of speech from anti-discrimination laws is current and real. And it is getting worse.

(Link via The Volokh Conspiracy)

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Here’s another post by Cass Sunstein.

Also, I find one of the comments below that post worth repeating in full:

Having effectively evicted us from the label “liberal,” the Left now wants to appropriate the word “libertarian” as well.

I guess we should be flattered that our intellectual real estate is appreciating, but I am concerned that the truly freedom-minded will be priced out of the mainstream. If we don’t fight to hang on to “libertarian” we could end up with something like “minarchist” – the equivalent of sleeping under a bridge in a cardboard box on the lunatic fringe.

Hehe. I guess the commenter is being slightly tongue-in-cheek here but labels do matter and I certainly share his unhappiness at the appropriation of a beautiful word ( “liberal” ) — possibly for good — by those whose policies have nothing to do with liberty.

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Dean Christopher Edley of Berkeley responds to the John Yoo controversy:

While serving in the Department of Justice, Professor John Yoo wrote memoranda that officials used as the legal basis for policies concerning detention and interrogation techniques in our efforts to combat terrorism. Both the subject and his reasoning are controversial, leading the New York Times (editorial, April 4), the National Lawyers’ Guild, and hundreds of individuals from around the world to criticize or at least question Professor Yoo’s continuing employment at UC Berkeley School of Law. As dean, but speaking only for myself, I offer the following explanation, although with no expectation that it will be completely satisfying to anyone.

Professor Yoo began teaching at Berkeley Law in 1993, received tenure in 1999, and then took a leave of absence to work in the Bush Administration. He returned in 2004, and remains a very successful teacher and prolific (though often controversial) scholar. Because this is a public university, he enjoys not only security of employment and academic freedom, but also First Amendment and Due Process rights.

It seems we do need regular reminders: These protections, while not absolute, are nearly so because they are essential to the excellence of American universities and the progress of ideas. Indeed, in Berkeley’s classrooms and courtyards our community argues about the legal and moral issues with the intensity and discipline these crucial issues deserve. Those who prefer to avoid these arguments—be they left or right or lazy—will not find Berkeley or any other truly great law school a wholly congenial place to study. For that we make no apology.

Does what Professor Yoo wrote while not at the University somehow place him beyond the pale of academic freedom today? Had this been merely some professor vigorously expounding controversial and even extreme views, we would be in a familiar drama with the usual stakes. Had that professor been on leave marching with Nazis in Skokie or advising communists during the McCarthy era, reasonable people would probably find that an easier case still. Here, additional things are obviously in play. Gravely so.

My sense is that the vast majority of legal academics with a view of the matter disagree with substantial portions of Professor Yoo’s analyses, including a great many of his colleagues at Berkeley. If, however, this strong consensus were enough to fire or sanction someone, then academic freedom would be meaningless.

Assuming one believes as I do that Professor Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service, that judgment alone would not warrant dismissal or even a potentially chilling inquiry. As a legal matter, the test here is the relevant excerpt from the “General University Policy Regarding Academic Appointees,” adopted for the 10-campus University of California by both the system-wide Academic Senate and the Board of Regents:

Types of unacceptable conduct: … Commission of a criminal act which has led to conviction in a court of law and which clearly demonstrates unfitness to continue as a member of the faculty. [Academic Personnel Manual sec. 015]

This very restrictive standard is binding on me as dean, but I will put aside that shield and state my independent and personal view of the matter. I believe the crucial questions in view of our university mission are these: Was there clear professional misconduct—that is, some breach of the professional ethics applicable to a government attorney—material to Professor Yoo’s academic position? Did the writing of the memoranda, and his related conduct, violate a criminal or comparable statute?

Absent very substantial evidence on these questions, no university worthy of distinction should even contemplate dismissing a faculty member. That standard has not been met.

In an ideal world, what the dean said would be no more noteworthy than a routine enunciation of the basic principles of tolerance and freedom. Unfortunately, these principles are seldom remembered when dealing with opinions that differ from ours. McCathyism is no less abhorrent when applied against the ‘other side’; and for remembering this, the dean deserves praise. Bravo!

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A guest-blog at Volokh by Cass Sunstein on libertarian paternalism. Hopefully we will see more writings on the subject.

Unlike some hardcore libertarians, I am sympathetic to the idea of libertarian paternalism, particularly the “one-click” variety that Cass mentions. In any case, as even libertarian opponents of the idea will agree, libertarian paternalism is certainly a huge improvement over the pervasive (and coercive) paternalism that exists today, and will possibly be easier to implement than full-blown libertarianism. Of course, the crucial point in libertarian paternalism is the ease of opt-out; if you make the default too hard to change, you take the libertarian out of the phrase.

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“For there is no such thing as sin; there are only differences.”

S.B.

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Some doctors did a study of the type of websites that come up when one enters suicide related queries in online search engines. The results were interesting – most of the sites are pro-suicide and many of them offer detailed prescriptions on how to commit the act.

While I strongly believe in an unalienable right to commit suicide, I am not pro-suicide personally — given a choice between apparent hopelessness and certain hopelessness, I lean towards the former.  Nevertheless, I do recognise that there exist situations when suicide is indeed the best of all alternatives, and for that reason it is useful to have the knowledge necessary for a quick painless end. For anyone wishing to have such a guide in your shelf, I highly recommend Derek Humphrey’s Final Exit — an excellent book on various methods of self-delivereance.

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