Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Brilliant teaching aid for Möbius transformations

This is a simply brilliant bit of mathematical visualization. It you want a simple mental picture of Möbius transformations, this video will give it to you. Stunning.

The video is produced by Jonathan Rogness and Douglas N. Arnold. They have made available also for download a 130 Mbyte high res version, as well as the low-res clip on YouTube. There is a page for this video, which is produced under a generous Creative Commons license.

I picked this up from Good Math, Bad Math.

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Friday, 22 June 2007

Cycling Sensibly

Riding responsibly
I was sucked in. My previous blog entry, Cycling Responsibly, is about a clash between cyclist Stephan Orsak and the law. He was stopped while riding out of the airport. That encounter eventually led to Stephan being tasered, arrested, and detained. He is shortly to face a jury trial on five misdemeanor changes and one gross misdemeanor. You can read his account at greencycles.

Initially, I was angry at his treatment, and put up the previous blog article to help bring attention to his treatment. I called it Standing up for responsible cycling. Then, after reviewing some of the details more carefully, I felt that he had left out some important details, and I modified my blog article accordingly, and retitled it Cycling Responsibly.

Now, I've come around almost full circle. I think the police actions were understandable and for the most part well justified, though I deplore unnecessary use of the taser. It looks as if Stephan was in the wrong, probably from even before he was stopped right up until the present when he is trumpeting a self-serving and misleading account all over the web. Some of the police actions may have been excessive, or not. I can't tell, and at this point I don't trust Stephan's account as a reliable guide. I was an idiot to blog too quickly; my bad. But having blogged, I'm going to finish the story as best I can.

Also, I have found it interesting the information one can obtain on-line; this blog is intended also to demonstrate that.

A couple of provisos to bear in mind.

  1. Comments at Stephan's blog are massively polarized, and a number are absurd. Some folks hate cyclists; and some folks hate policemen. If I get abusive comments about killing people you don't like, I will remove them. Irrelevancies about liberals or hippies are not welcome. Disagreement or clarification is welcome, however.
  2. Stephan gives an enormous amount of details at his blog; including the complaint against him and the police statements. This is sufficient to get the perspective of police and most of the useful background. Thank you.
  3. I am not a lawyer; not remotely. None of this is useful legal advice.

I was accosted, assaulted with battery, and tased at Minneapolis St Paul USA international airport by Airport Police, simply for choosing to leave the airport by bicycle.
I had broken no laws.
-- Stephan Orsak

Oh really?
-- Duae Quartunciae
With all that in mind… It is a fundamental starting premise of Stephan's account that he broke no laws, and that the initial stop was unjustified police harassment of an innocent cyclist using his bicycle legally and responsibly. Stephan compares it to road rage against a cyclist; something any regular bicycle commuter will empathize with. Is this really true?

It's going to help to understand where all this occurred. I used Google maps and Google Earth, together with the detailed information Stephan made available at this site. You can click on images to see them in a larger size.

By his own account and by police statements, Stephan was stopped while riding outbound on Glumack Drive, the main exit from Lindbergh terminal of the Minneapolis St Paul airport. Northwest Drive is a service road that runs along side. It is (at this point) one way, heading back in towards the terminal. At his site, there is video of a car driver's view of driving down Glumack Drive, and photos of two signs. He was stopped east of the post office and west of the highway.

Here is a satellite view of the airport area, from Google Earth. The location is 44.88 degrees North; 93.2 degrees West. (44.88, -93.2).
Satellite view of Minneapolis St Paul airport

Here is the same region, with Google Maps, showing the relevant roads.
Map of exit roads from Lindbergh terminal

Here I have marked in yellow the route shown on Stephan's video, and also the locations of the two signs. The "Authorized Vehicles Only" sign is north of the road; the "No Pedestrian Crossing" sign is south. The region where Stephan was stopped must have been somewhere along the stretch marked in magenta.
Location of signs and of stop

It seems strange: the road Stephan was on can only lead on to the freeway. Yet on his page, he insists that he had a legal route to Fort Snelling Park. It seems impossible. However, I saw on a different site a description of where Stephan was planning to ride.
But by bike, one takes Outbound Road toward the highway (15mph to 30mph max, same as residential MPLS), then begin to take the ‘return to terminal’ ramp, but immediately get off the road and cross over the median to Northwest Dr, the parallel service road, ‘walk’ a few hundred feet as it is one-way, then ride the rest as it becomes two way traffic. It is very lightly travelled. From there, Post Road, crossing over the highway and to the Fort Snelling trails. Very nice once you’re there.
-- Stephan Orsak, in this comment, at star tribune blogs

Here is an expanded view of his planned route, with the portion he would have to walk in green, until North West Drive becomes two way again. Very neat! It provides a convenient way to leave a very bicycle unfriendly airport terminal, as long as you are willing to brave the heavy traffic on Glumack Drive, and to walk a bit where there is no legal road access.
Stepan's proposed legal exit route
Map of route to Post Rd
On the face of it, this is a legal route; though not one any road planner would anticipate. The roads are such that I would normally expect cycling traffic to be prohibited, and signs have been added since this incident to make explicit that bicycles are not allowed. I am sure that Stephan's normal use of this route involves riding illegally along a short section of NorthWest Drive, especially given his comments on the relative safety of riding and walking the bike. Even if not riding illegally when stopped, I guess that was part of his intent and that the police were correct to perceive a potential problem. There seems to be a viable and inexpensive way for the airport to add a safe bicycle path feeding onto NorthWest Drive leading to Post Road.

The stop

All did not go to plan; somewhere along Glumack Drive Stephan was stopped by police. This stop was entirely proper. Even if we admit the legality of Stephan's plan, it is not one that fits with the roads. Glumack Drive was at that point a road going exclusively to places where a bicycle is illegal. That's a good reason for police to stop you.

The argument

The police were at the time on a call to lookout for a missing fifteen year old girl. By their account, they did not want to waste time dealing with the cyclist; they just wanted to resolve his position quickly and be on their way to a more important matter.

Stephan treated the matter as if it was police harassment from the start. By his own account, he failed to stop when initially asked, because there were no lights and no siren, and the actions of police were equivalent to shouted insults from another driver.
… It was indistinguishable from what regular cyclists occasionally experience as road rage. I was not stopped in a normal way with siren and/or flashing lights for any kind of violation, but was being distractedly yelled at while traveling down the road. …
Things were off to a bad start. Already, Stephan had shown himself slow to follow instructions. (I think a siren or lights is used to get your attention; not as a required signal for when police are giving you an instruction.) Already, the police were in a hurry and were abrupt and abrasive.

It went down hill. Stephan accused the police of being overbearing and abusing their authority. The police told him the bicycle was dangerous on Glumack Drive and that he should walk his bike along Northwest Drive instead, towards the point where he could proceed to Post Rd. He was roughly 400 meters from the point where NorthWest Drive would have allowed two way traffic again. Stephan continued to argue the legalities of this with them.


At this point, Stephan decided to leave. By his own account, he "took the initiative" to leave, and also to ride rather than walk his bike on NorthWest Drive, since in his own judgment this was a safer than walking.

Everyone was plainly angry, but here a line was crossed, and Stephan was the one who crossed it. He decided on his own behalf to terminate the discussion, and to ride the wrong way up a one way street rather than to walk as instructed.

Up until this point, we could debate endlessly about politeness and wisdom of either party. When Stephan rode away, however, it was plainly illegal, directly disregarding instructions, and a cyclist leaving police who were on foot. That's not going to end gently. The exact details of warnings and so on from police and from Stephan are inconsistent, but in the end a taser was used.

Stephan's accounts of this always have as the byline that he was tasered "simply for leaving the airport by bicycle".

That's flatly false. Leaving the airport by bicycle resulted in being stopped and challenged. What lead to the taser was illegal riding on a one way street, and worse, doing it against explicit instructions and as a way of leaving the argument with police "on your own initiative". That sounds a lot like fleeing; you don't leave an argument with police "on your own initiative".


I'm not a lawyer; neither is Stephan. But he decided to argue the law with police (a very bad idea, regardless of any issues of fairness or actual legalities) and his web page tries to suggest that police actions were unconstitutional, and inconsistent with the regulations. He links to the list of airport bylaws and ordinances and cites "ordinance 58", of dubious relevance. It says no person shall be stopped "except as otherwise restricted by other ordinances". I followed his link, and I think he'd do better to look at the other ordinances, in particular ordinance 100 (on driving; effective June 2004). There are clauses there about signs, and bicycles, and driving in unsafe conditions, and appeals process, and so on; which may or may not apply. Ask a lawyer about that.

But it seems to me that one crucial bit is section 4.6 on traffic control. It says:
Section 4.6: Traffic Control. Drivers shall obey all posted regulatory markings, Traffic signals, and all instructions of a MAC representative, the Airport Traffic Control Tower, or an officer charged with Traffic control and enforcement.

That's not a police state clause; it's pretty much common sense. You argue or appeal the legalities and the manner of instructions later, with their superiors and with the benefit of proper legal advice. But at the time of an encounter, you recognize that police do actually have the authority to decide what is safe or not and to instruct you accordingly. Even if you personally disagree with what is safe, at the time you follow instructions, which in this case involved only a minor inconvenience of a 400 meter walk.


I'm a bit cheesed off about this. I used to be a daily bicycle commuter in heavy central city traffic. I know about harassment from those who cannot accept a bicycle as a legitimate road user, and I know about riding responsibly. I've participated in bicycle advocacy actions, and I've observed the cavalier disregard for safety and road laws by many of my fellow cyclists.

I feel Stephan let us down. His account was incomplete, inaccurate in some crucial ways, and unfair on the police involved. I think they could have handled it much better, but that the lion's share of the blame belongs to Stephan. I come to this conclusion very reluctantly. Having joined in rather too hastily in Stephan's ill considered broadcasting of events all over the net, I now have to backtrack and 'fess up to having changed my mind.
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Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Cycling responsibly

Stephan Orsak and bicycle
Note. There will be a followup to this article after I sort out a few details. The account given here seems incomplete in important ways. Stay tuned.

Stephan Orsak uses his bicycle as a means of transport. It's one small way in which people can modify their lifestyle so as to reduce their impact on the environment. He is about to go to court facing five counts of various misdemeanors and one of gross misdemeanor, relating to an interaction with police at Minneapolis St Paul airport.

I've revised my original blog post considerably. I hope Stephan manages ok in court. I would also like to see bicycles given more recognition as a valid choice for ground transport. But I think in this particular incident Stephan made a bad situation worse. Ah well. I have blogged it anyway, so I'll leave it up with a pointer to Stephan's account at greencycles.

Now, after a bit of time to sit and think, I'll try and add something substantive.

Most people who have ridden a bicycle as a regular means of ground transport will have met up with occasional instances of "road rage" directed against them for no other reason than being on a bicycle, even when using it legally and responsibly. But when it comes from the cops, things can go bad.

In this case, Stephan was riding legally on roads that are heavily used and not bicycle friendly. He's got a video on his website showing the roads in question. I've ridden in such conditions as well, but it's not a place for a beginner, nor is it a place where you would want to meet up with car drivers that are intolerant of bicycles. There was, however, no legal impediment I can see to a bicycle being used. Using a bicycle is a reasonable choice and not one to which other vehicles can object.

Nevertheless, Stephan was stopped by police, who told him to walk his bike to a different location, and proceed from there. He was directed to use an adjacent one-way minor road, and to walk the bike against the traffic flow to another road where he could continue to ride. Police allege in their complaint that bicycles were not permitted; Stephan appears to have a good case that they were mistaken.

This is where matters became really ugly. Stephan provides his own account, as well as the police statements and the formal complaint brought against him. There are some differences, but it is clear even by Stephan's own account that he tried to argue with police, and that by his own initiative he decided that the conversation with police was over and it was time to leave. He left along the one-way road, but decided on his own initiative to ride rather than walk the bike. He was physically brought down off the bike, tasered, arrested, taken to hospital, and then to the police station to be charged and detained. There's a fair bit more detail at Stephan's website for those interested, both by his own account and as statements made by the arresting officers.

There are many comments at the website, and they are highly polarized. Many comments strongly attack the police, even to the point of wanting to see them with years in prison for assault. Many are extraordinarily critical of Stephan, with crude gutter language.

Don't take this the wrong way Stephan. I sympathize, and I hope you win in court; either acquitted or else at worst given a light token punishment. I've been a daily bicycle commuter myself, in central city traffic; it looks to me that this started out as an unfair response to responsible use of a bicycle in heavy traffic.

But I think you made some unfortunate choices, and share the responsibility for what followed. So here is my "Duae Quartunciae" on the issues raised by your clash with the law.

  • Unfortunately, some folks have deep seated prejudice against bicycles, and take any use of a bicycle on a major road as an affront. Sometimes even police may share that bias.
  • Police legitimately have powers and authority to step in when in their judgment they see a problem, and also responsibilities and constraints on the exercise of their special powers. The time to argue legality is not when you are first meeting up with the police; but later when you can take it up with some higher authority. To actually argue the toss at the time is really stupid, no matter how much you believe you are in the right.
  • To decide on your own initiative that a conversion with police is concluded, and then turn your back and leave, and in a manner that you decide is best rather than in the manner that police have said is best, is incredibly foolhardy. If police say one thing and you decide on something else and just leave, you are asking for trouble; and you have very little recourse. Your best hope, I would guess, is for a measure of leniency based on your own good record and upon the legality of use of the bicycle when stopped. I hope you get it.
  • If you are riding away from police who are on foot, you've got very little hope of being stopped gently.
  • The use of a taser was way out of line. By all account you had been brought down off the bike before the taser was applied. It looks like an over reaction by a pissed off policeman; and I hope they get disciplined for it.
  • If you put up a website, on which you say "I was accosted, assaulted with battery, and tased at Minneapolis St Paul international airport, simply for leaving the airport by bicycle. I had broken NO laws.", and the judge happens to see it, your chance of leniency probably drops precipitously. You were not tasered simply for leaving the airport by bicycle, even by your own account. You were tasered shortly after riding illegally on a one-way street.

I hope you don't take this the wrong way. I am wishing you the best of luck in July.
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Monday, 18 June 2007

Mike Argento scoops everyone on ID Pleasurian Philosophy

The immediately preceding post gives the background as to why ID Pleasurian philosophy is getting so much attention right now. So far, the following blogs have taken William Dembski's suggestion that we check out the ICON-RIDS blog: Stranger Fruit, Pandas Thumb, Afarensis, Duae Quartunciae, 忘却からの帰還 (Japanese), Clever Beyond Measure, Thinking for Free, Pharyngula, Amused Muse, Red State Rabble, Scientia Natura, paralepsis, paralepsis.

But it turns out we are all more than a year late. We were scooped on this story by Mike Argento, in April 2006, with Talk about strange bedfellows.... Mike has picked up all the essential details of this story, and his account is the usual rollicking fun filled ride.
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Sunday, 17 June 2007

The Wedge.

This is too good to be true! William Dembski, at his "Uncommon Descent" blog, ponders the following:

It will be interesting to see how the National Center for Science Education Selling Evolution deals with the growing number of non-religious ID proponents. Check out the following link: icon-rids.blogspot.com.

I have three predictions.
  • The NCSE will do nothing.
  • Bloggers all over the blogsphere are going to trumpet this link with unbridled and raucous hilarity.
  • William Dembski will delete his blog entry, and the guy he is linking to will be dropped from the ISCID.

Here's the link to Dembski's blog article. Let's see how long it remains a live link matching what I have quoted above.

My second prediction is a bit unfair. The story has already been picked up at Stranger Fruit, paralepsis, Afarensis, …

The ID proponent that William Dembski asks us to check out is William Brookfield. The chance that Dembski actually checked this out himself first is about nil. Why I am so sure? Is it because I've noticed that Brookfield fails to say anything remotely useful about ID? That's true enough; but that's never bothered ID folks before. No, the problem is going to be a little bit less "safe for work" than that…

This is solid gold ad hominem. Brookfield provides links to his own home page, the Brookfield Institute of Transparadigmic Science. Read, enjoy. It looks plausibly like just another random crank, but it gets better… so much better that one suspects a parody and sting operation.

From his page:
ID Pleasurian philosophy is a non-religious amalgam of ID science and Hefnerian Playboy philosophy. It serves as a strategically unified and archetypal counter proposal to orthodox ascetic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. It is also somewhat resonant with Wiccan and “mother nature”- based pagan cults (in the west) and Tantric Buddhism (in the east). Pleasurian-ism is an earthy, sensuous and physically celebratory form of “monistic idealism” or infocognitive monism.” Pleasurian science is naturally driven by the "pleasure of finding things out."

ID and Hefnerian Playboy philosophy? Can it get any better than this? Incredibly; yes. Brookfield also describes his position as an ID scientist in Pleasuria. Here is an extract; probably from Brookfield's partner Steve Saba. I'm not kidding. Caution. The first link in this extract may not be safe for work…

As an Intelligent Design Scientist I naturally support the WEDGE :-)

See amazon.com for more (mis)information on the "Wedge" :-)

Links are as in the original. The first link goes to the wedge that is illustrated at the top of this article. Really; I'm not kidding. I carefully sorted through all the pictures of "the wedge" available at that site to pick the one least likely to make my blog lose family appeal. The second link goes to pages for Barbara Forrest's book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design.

The point of this is not to be critical of Brookfield himself. His proposals for an "ID Pleasurian philosophy" sound quite fascinating; and I'm sure he'll get a big boost in recognition as a result of Dembski's blog article. He's got a wicked sense of humour; I love it! My main interest is to see how long Dembski maintains the link with Brookfield's research.

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Law vs Ethics: the case of Genarlow Wilson

Genarlow Wilson
The case of Genarlow Wilson shows clearly some of the differences between what is legal and what is right.

You would think this is an obvious distinction, but in reading debate on this case recently I was struck at how frequently people failed to make that distinction, or even deliberately sought to obscure it. It is a problem afflicting some of the comments from both sides of the arguments.

Background on the Genarlow Wilson case

Genarlow Wilson was convicted of aggravated sexual molestation for being given a blow job at a rather sordid New Year’s Eve party in 2003/2004. He was 17, she was 15. Wilson was sentenced to 10 years, with no possibility of parole. If the case had involved sexual penetration, then it would have been only a misdemeanor, worth a year prison time, because the two teenagers are so close in age to each other. But because the case involved oral sex, this provision did not apply. Wilson was convicted of a felony, as if he was an adult molesting a child. The loophole in law was closed as a direct result of the case; but not retroactively, so Wilson remained in jail.

The case recently received a new burst of publicity, when the felony conviction was overturned and replaced with a misdemeanor, and an order for Genarlow's release based on time served. There was an immediate appeal from the Attorney General, and Genarlow remains in jail for the time being. It seems likely that Wilson will be free on bond within a few weeks, but that the appeals process will grind on for months. I am hopeful for a satisfactory outcome eventually.

It is relevant also that there was another girl with whom Wilson and others had conventional sex. This girl was 17, and the following morning, not remembering all that had happened, she brought rape charges. This was why matters came to trial at all. The kids had been using a video camera at the party, and this showed clearly that she was an equal partner with the boys, aware and acquiescent in all that occurred. The trial found, correctly, that there was no rape involved. However, that video also showed the oral sex with the younger girl, which became the real basis for a conviction.

In the meantime, I have been reflecting more generally on the difference between law and ethics. The state needs laws to give guidance on how to deal with matters when it is required to step in a deal with them. But laws are often more inflexible than is appropriate -- more inflexible than is right.

The Genarlow Wilson case is a convenient illustration, to put into sharp relief some general issues with law and ethics.

Should the law be involved at all?

In many cases, involvement of the state to deal with disputes or behaviour is a symptom of the failure of other avenues; or worse, of an appropriate imposition over the head of other avenues. This applies especially with children and teenagers.

Families can and should be able to deal with many matters that would be quite serious crimes if taken up by the state. And sometimes families can't deal with them, and then the state needs to be able to step in and deal with things. In a perfect world, inappropriate consensual sexual activity between teenagers would usually be dealt with by their families. It's really hard; but if it can work that way, it is (IMO) usually the best. It becomes less and less of an option as children get older, of course. In this case, the rape charges from the older girl did justify legal intervention, although it was soon clear that there was no good basis there for a conviction.

There are plenty of other cases where legal intervention has no good justification. The inappropriate involvement of law in dealing with children is discussed in a recent New York Times op-ed by Bob Herbert: School to Prison Pipeline. (Link goes to the my5th blog copy of the op-ed.) The ACLU also produced last year: Fact Sheet - The School-to-Prison Pipeline in the National Context.


A common refrain from those who support Wilson's conviction is that there could be no consent, because the girl was only 15. (It was just 3 weeks from her 16th birthday.)

The state defines a line in sand where consent can be given for sexual activity. This is a legal fiction. It is an important fiction; in place for the protection of children, against those who would take advantage of their naivety, powerlessness and inexperience. But it is a fiction nevertheless – as anyone with a three year old will understand. Parents know the difference involved when giving a bath to a child with and without their consent.

Children give and withhold consent to all kinds of things. The effect of legal definitions is that you may not take any account of such consent in law. This is for their protection, but under some circumstances it can contribute to an injustice.

The laws of consent are especially important for the protection of children from pedophiles – adults with a pathological sexual attraction to children. Unfortunately, the way the line in the sand was drawn for this case; it handled pedophilia in exactly the same way as perfectly normal sexual drives in young people. A young woman of nearly 16 is biologically sexually mature. A young man of 17 is pretty much at his sexual prime. Sexual attraction between them is normal and natural, without a bit of pedophilia involved. That does not mean sexual activity is ethical! But it does mean that there is a difference between predatory behaviour of an adult with children, and a relationship between teenagers around about the dividing lines chosen by the state.

This is particularly ridiculous in Genarlow's case, because even on release he would have been registered as a "sex offender", and would be prohibited from contact with his own young sister. That's the law, and it is insane. It is actively and dreadfully wrong.

A felon convicted of crimes of property and rightfully serving hard time for such crimes is still a human person, worthy of support and care even as he serves out his rightful sentence. If he is fortunate, such a felon will continue to have the love and support of family, with regular visits and the hope that on release his family can help the hard process of returning to society. A sex offender, on the other hand, may be legally prohibited from meeting with young children of the family. Sometimes this is right and proper. At other times -- like this one -- it is insane.

Further on consent. The acts for which Genarlow was convicted were initiated by a fifteen year old girl. This is apparently recognized by everyone involved. Genarlow should certainly not have let them occur – that is, he should not have consented. But to worry about "consent" from the girl is gives the wrong impressive. She did not merely consent; she was actively and deliberately driving events, of her own volition.

A girl actively sought to give oral sex to a boy she knew, and he was the one who gave consent. He should not have done so; but the way in which legal terms are applied is actively misleading as a guide to the events themselves.

Plea bargains and deals

Another way in which what is legal differs from what is right is the whole matter of plea bargaining and dealing. Pragmatically, this is an important feature of an overloaded legal system. All kinds of legal fictions get agreed to for the sake of convenience and efficiency, and as a matter of hard calculation of payoffs for those involved.

In a plea bargain, someone can sometimes plead guilty to a lesser offense, even though in fact the crime itself is not well described by that offense at all. In doing so, the criminal decides to avoid the risk of conviction with harsher penalties, and the legal system avoids the costs of trial and the risk that a conviction may not actually result. There have been cases even when innocent people have pleaded guilty and been convicted of crimes, because the alternative was to fight a legal case for a much more serious crime that – because law is not perfect – they were not sufficiently confident of winning, or because the time and cost of defense was as bad as the consequences of conviction for the lesser crime.

This is relevant to this case, because in fact there were several teenagers who were convicted. All the others took plea bargains. Those convictions include convictions for a crime that never occurred; the alleged rape of the older girl.

Wilson chose to go to trial. It is still not yet clear whether or not this was a bad choice for him personally, but it was a case of Wilson standing up for what he felt was right. He was the only one of those charged with no prior legal record. And though he has suffered for his stand, some good things have resulted – such as a change to the laws to make them more ethically defensible than they were.

Mandatory sentencing

Some segments of society have been unhappy with how parole and sentencing issues have failed to be sufficiently strong. They have attempted to strengthen the force of law and reduce the capacity of human judges to adapt the consequences to circumstances, by placing very strong limits on parole and by insisting on harsh minimum sentences. In my opinion, this has entrenched and exacerbated the divide between what is legal and what is ethical.

About 2350 years ago, Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics noted that a problem with "laws" is that they are expressed as universal principles and so fail to account for inevitable exceptions. For real justice, it is important that there is the capacity for a judge or legislator to be able to deal with individual cases and exceptions by decree.

Mandatory and minimum sentencing laws are an attempt to limit a judge's ability to manage exceptional cases. They are conceived as a way of preventing corruption or an unjust leniency; but they also frequently contribute to an unjust harshness. In my opinion, that has certainly occurred here. The crime of which Genarlow was convicted has a harsh minimum sentence of ten years, and parole is explicitly disallowed.

In Georgia, the problem is worse than usual, because the governor apparently does not have authority under the constitution to grant a pardon. This is rather vested in a constitutionally mandated State Board of Pardons and Paroles; but their guidelines seem to make pardon in this case almost impossible.

Laws change

Another important difference between what is legal and what is right is that laws change. They can change very suddenly; far faster than ethics even if you allow for ethics as a subjective and relative quality.

In this case, the manifest injustice of the laws as they have applied to Genarlow has directly resulted in a change to the law. But the change was not made retroactive.

The law under which Genarlow was convicted did recognize the perfectly obvious fact that sex between teenagers of similar ages is in a totally different category to sex between an adult and a child. If the age difference is three years or less, the law makes sex a misdemeanor rather than a felony. However, the archaic expression of the law fails to make that important distinction for oral sex, with the inane and manifestly unjust result that if Genarlow had penetrated the girl, he would have had a far more lenient sentence, and have been out of jail long ago. But what happened is that she sucked him; and so for that he gets a felony conviction, sex offender status, a sentence ten times harsher, and no possibility for parole.

This underlines the huge difference between what is legal and what is right. The law has since been fixed. But the action of that law has not.

There are constitutional issues also with passing laws with retroactive effect. Retroactive or ex post facto laws are prohibited by the constitution. The full extent of how this works is not always clear. The intent is invariably to protect individuals from prosecution for acts that were not illegal when committed, and also from heavier penalties than those permitted at the time an offence was committed. However, the wording of restrictions may also be taken to prevent reduction in penalties.

Senate Bill 37 was introduced in the 2007 Georgia legislative session, which would have allowed Wilson's sentence to be reduced by the courts, but the session was adjourned in April, before the bill could be considered. An account is given in a press release by one of the supporters of the bill, Senator Emanuel Jones.

Weird arguments

Here are some profoundly callous or stupid arguments I have seen raised in discussions on this issue.

  • "He should have considered the consequences before doing the crime." What a thoughtless response. The consequences came as a horrible surprise for those concerned. The consequences were an unintended counterintuitive loophole in the law. It's possible, though we can't tell now, that those at the party refrained from sex with the younger girl precisely because they knew sex with a minor was particularly dangerous. But the loophole meant that by letting her give them a blow job rather than by having conventional sex with her, the law treated the matter as a felony involving an adult and a child, rather than as "Romeo and Juliette" sex between teenagers of similar ages.
  • "She can't give consent." Don't be stupid; of course she can. Furthermore, if she had given consent to actual sex the law would have recognized it and taken it into account. If it happened today, the law would recognize her consent and take it into account. It was a loophole in the law that mean this particular act was treated as adult abuse of a child, rather than what it really was – consensual acts between two teenagers with only a small age difference.
  • "She was pressured, drugged, forced, whatever." No, she wasn't. She was not drinking heavily; some reports suggest she was not drinking at all. (I'm skeptical!) But she initiated the acts, and showed no signs of trauma or coercion. A fifteen year old is more than capable of choosing of her own volition to precipitate such acts, and all the evidence, all the testimony, indicates that this is precisely what she did.
  • "He should have taken the plea deal." There were very good reasons for not taking the plea deal. The major charge, of rape, was something he definitely did not do. He had no prior record, and a plea deal would have branded him a sex offender unable even to live with his own little sister. This argument is a contemptible excuse for ignoring a plain injustice.
  • "But what he did was wrong." I agree; and so does he. This is a red herring to the point at issue.
  • "What if you were the girl's parent?" What is right and just is not up to the parents. But if it matters, neither the girl nor her mother pushed for prosecution. They also have declared that the result is grossly excessive.
  • "We are a nation of laws." The person who said this to me even followed up by "not a nation of men". This kind of elevation of laws to be beyond question or revision or correction is naked evil. A nation is a nation of laws and of people, and when laws are unjust the people deal with it, if they have a shred of decency.
  • "You can't make a retroactive law." Try, damn your eyes. This kind of thing is not what the constitutional prohibition of retroactive law was intended to prevent. I am sure a well chosen set of rules for sentencing and appeals would fix the problem with no constitutional issue. You have to want to fix it.
  • "It's up to the prosecutor." This may be true; so put as much pressure on the prosecutor as humanly possible.

There have been some invalid claims on the other side as well.

  • "The governor should pardon him." I don't think the governor in Georgia has that power. It was removed from the governor and vested in a State Board of Pardons and Paroles. They have a constitutional power to pardon, I think; but it would violate their current working guidelines.
  • "The Attorney General should be impeached for appealing against Genarlow's release." There has been widespread anger at the Attorney General's appeal. I am suspending judgment on that, for the time being. His objection seems well founded. He has said that he will not oppose Genarlow's release on bond in July while the appeals proceed. My major concern is the sex offender registration issue. I think the authorities need to find some way to ensure that Genarlow, who is now 21, is able to return to live with his mother and sister as the appeal process proceeds. This is certainly the safest for society and for Genarlow. By all means vote for a different guy next time, however, if there is a better prospect.
  • "Genarlow did nothing wrong." I disagree, so does Genarlow. Some people feel that there's nothing wrong with teenagers and consensual sex. I was struck by a recent report noting that the girl involved, who is unnamed and should remain unnamed, is now nineteen; a single mother with a two year old child. Teenagers are not good at thinking through consequences, and it is still an ethical good to apply some active constraints beyond what is applied for adults, and for others to have additional responsibilities not to acquiesce in sex with a minor however freely offered.

In my opinion, the Christian church bears a large share of responsibility for fostering the climate of fear and malice that has inhibited the capacity of the legal system to handle matters with justice and fairness. Mandatory sentencing, removing scope for parole, limited avenues of appeal, sweeping obligatory sex offender registrations, tough on crime grandstanding; these things conspire to make the law less just, less able to find a way to what is right. I know that this is not a universal; and that many Christians speaking up for the justice and fairness. The tragedy is that they so often seem to be a minority in the church, and that the church in the USA in particular has become profoundly compromised by allegiance with what is wrong.

Further reading

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Monday, 11 June 2007

Creation Museum Does Maths

The creation museum does maths!

Hat tip to Blue Grass Roots, for "Fun at the Creation Museum!!!!", his hilarious account of a visit to the new museum everyone is talking about. Go read.

Now let me get boring. Several people have picked up on this hilarious poster. The excuse for adding the 30% might be that it is close enough within a figure of accuracy. Personally, I suspect the addition of the 30% to the poster is simple innumeracy.

But where does the figure come from? It's an encouraging sign; and hopefully the sheer lunacy of the museum will help contribute to the trend described in the paper. But it would still be good to know the source.

The quote comes from the Barna group, a conservative Christian polling research organization. They are actually quite interesting, and I suspect their data is quite credible. There are some amusing features to it, however.

The source of the quote in the poster is, I think, a report that came out in January 2000: Teenagers Embrace Religion but Are Not Excited About Christianity:
Perhaps the most deceptive factor is the high level of church-based involvement among today’s teenagers. This study shows that teens continue to be more broadly involved in church-based activities than are adults. In a typical week, nearly six out of ten attend worship services; one out of three attend Sunday school; one out of three attend a youth group; and three out of ten participate in a small group, other than a Sunday school class or youth group meeting. In total, more than seven out of ten teens are engaged in some church-related effort in a typical week. That far exceeds the participation level among adults – and even among teenagers’ parents!

But before these levels of involvement result in celebration, be warned about teens’ plans for the future. When asked to estimate the likelihood that they will continue to participate in church life once they are living on their own, levels dip precipitously, to only about one out of every three teens. Placed in context, that stands as the lowest level of expected participation among teens recorded by Barna Research in more than a decade. If the projections pan out, this would signal a substantial decline in church attendance occurring before the close of this new decade.

This confirms that the original research is capable of distinguishing three out of ten from one out of three. But I found the date interesting. The report is now over seven years old; and the same group has more up to date figures available, which the museum did not use. See this report, from September 2006. Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years. By this report, the current figure is one in four. Here's my own graph of some of their data:

According to this data, 81% of 29 years olds were "churched" as teens. 20% are still "spiritually active" and 61% disengaged in their twenties. (I would be in that 61% group.)

There is a lot of other interesting stuff in these reports. Many of these young people continue to maintain an outward allegiance to Christianity. There is also further commentary on "born-again" and "evangelical" categories, and a host of other reports.

Update: credit goes also to the "Friendly Atheist", who appears to have been the first to notice this gaff. See Part 2: My Day Inside the Creation Museum.

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Friday, 8 June 2007

Answers in Genesis lawsuit

On May 31 2007, Answers in Genesis was sued by their former colleagues, now Creation Ministries International in Australia. This has been a long time coming, and I've been following the unfolding story now for over a year.

Many bloggers have picked up on it recently; and this is intended to be a helpful cross reference to the material available, with some commentary of my own.

Potted Background.

Answers in Genesis in the USA was founded by Ken Ham, who is still CEO. Ham started out in Australia, where he and John MacKay helped start up the "Creation Science Foundation" (CSF) in the early 1980s, as a merger with another creationist group in Australia ("Creation Science Association" – CSA). Then in 1987 Ham moved to the USA. He still speaks of himself as a "missionary from Australia to the USA". Originally he was seconded to work with the ICR (Morris' group), which he did until 1993. Then he started up a new ministry, with the blessing of the ICR and the CSF. The new group was originally called "Creation Science Ministries", and had a close association with the CSF in Australia. Both groups changed their names to "Answers in Genesis", in 1994.

In Australia, John MacKay had been heading the CSF; but a very ugly and weird dispute in 1986 lead to his resignation and Carl Wieland became the new leader in 1987; a position he still holds.

The organizations were legally distinct, being incorporated separately in different countries. The same applied as "Answers in Genesis" was set up in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The management was very closely linked, with Ken Ham remaining on the board of AiG-Australia, and Australians remaining on the board of AiG-USA.

This close association remained in place until 2005, when the groups separated. The difference seems to have been mainly on management styles; the cracks began to appear in 2004. The Australian group renamed itself "Creation Ministries International" (CMI), and the American group remains "Answers in Genesis".

You can read the AiG-USA account of the history here, and the CMI (Australia) account here. There are some subtle differences in emphasis in these two histories, which the truly obsessive will find amusing.

An aside… the split with John MacKay in 1987.

The split between CSF and John MacKay back in in 1986-7 is only peripherally relevant; but it is so weird, so insane, that I can't bear to omit it entirely. In brief, MacKay started accusing a CSF staffer, Margarent Buchanan, of witchcraft, Satanism, and necrophilia with her dead husband. There was never the slightest basis for these accusations; apart from "discernment" by MacKay. MacKay made an ultimatum that either that woman left, or he did. This was a problem, because MacKay was so important to the group; but in the end MacKay resigned and went his own way. He was also excommunicated from his own Baptist church for the whole affair.

Ken Ham played an important role in fixing up the matter, and strongly condemned MacKay at that time. Buchanan was his personal secretary; she is now married to Carl Wieland. MacKay now runs his own group, Creation Research. One question that many onlookers would love to have answered is the extent to which MacKay has since reconciled with Ham. This page at MacKay's site suggests some level of reconciliation: Ken Ham's New Creation Museum (at MacKay's CR site). But Answers in Genesis has no corresponding comment that I can find.

For more on this extraordinary affair, CMI has put up a detailed set of documents. See Re: John Mackay, at CMI. Their reason for putting this material online again, after 20 years, is a concern that MacKay is being rehabilitated in some way. The only evidence given for such reconciliation is MacKay's own newsletter, cited above, which concludes "Pray for Ken and Mally as their ministry Answers In Genesis (AIG) has come under much attack over this past year." It is also claimed that MacKay addressed an AiG staff meeting in 2006.

I may be cynical; but I think the significance of this is overblown. The primary reason for putting up this information is, I suspect, to help discredit AiG further. But it's a wild rollicking read all the same.

The origins of the split between AiG and CMI.

The origin of the split between AiG and CMI appears to be concern over management style and structure, first raised in 2004. Wieland made some proposals for change, and Ham flatly rejected them. It appears that Ham pretty much refused to have any dealings with Wieland from that point on; which made negotiations very difficult.

Around the end of 2005, the two groups formally went their separate ways. AiG-USA maintained their close association with AiG-UK (United Kingdom); and four other groups (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada) renamed themselves Creation Ministries International. Since then CMI has also set up offices in the UK and in the USA.

The spit shows signs of considerable acrimony and power struggles, going far beyond management style differences. There are two major assets at issue. One is the Answers in Genesis website, maintained in the USA. The other is the journals, Creation and TJ (Technical Journal), produced in Australia and distributed in other nations.

In regard to both these assets, the Australians have been royally screwed by the Americans; and this is the basis of the lawsuit.

The basis of the lawsuit. (1) Control of the website.

With respect to the website, AiG-USA wanted to keep full control of everything on the site, regardless of who had written it originally. Many of the website articles are actually extracts from the magazine; many others are written by creationists from Australia or New Zealand. The problem for AiG-USA is that copyright remains with the authors.

In October of 2005, there was a fateful meeting between AiG-USA and members of the board of the Australian group – but not the management of the Australia group. The Australian board signed a rather startling agreement, in which they give AiG-USA a license to use and modify all the articles on the website, while at the same time holding AiG-Australia liable for any damages that might be claimed arising from such changes. Basically, they handed over complete control of the articles to AiG-USA, took full responsibility for ensuring authors would also consent to this, and accepted full liability for any damages should the original authors object!

I'm not up on the legal ramifications of the document, and I have only seen an extract. But it should come out and be better clarified in the lawsuit.

In any case, this created a major gulf between the management of AiG-Australia and their board. A very strange power struggle results, with Wieland and other staff being dismissed, followed by a mass rebellion of staff, followed by their reinstatement and the resignation of the board. A new board was formed, and the old board was given indemnity from any consequences of their signing of the agreement with AiG-USA.

The basis of the lawsuit. (2) Control of the magazines.

AiG-USA had been distributing the two magazines produced in Australia to a list of some 35,000 subscribers. The Australian group has no access to this mail list, and the USA group produced a new magazine of their own, and represented that as the replacement for the previous magazines.

The American group announced in February 2006 that they could no longer distribute Creation magazine. The March distribution simply did not take place, and many subscribers were led to believe that the old magazines were no longer available. Instead, they were invited to give a new subscription to the new magazine: Answers. Attempts by the Australians to let people know the original magazines were still being produced were thwarted at every point. The misleading information given was a deliberate attempt to capture the subscriber base.

My view

My own conclusion is that the ethics of this case are all in favour of the Australian group, which has been treated with cynical malice by the Americans. No doubt there are differences of opinion on proper management style, or what reasonable rights should be due to each side. And certainly both sides are absolute screaming lunatics with respect to science.

Put all that aside… and what is left is a set of business actions by two competing businesses. Legal questions are beyond my meager abilities to resolve. I'm not at all sure that CMI actually has a strong legal case. But I think the USA group has been totally unethical. I will, of course, revise that tentative opinion if better information becomes available.

The other things that strikes me… it is normal in any dispute for both parties to maintain that they hold a higher moral ground. Is it just me, or does this become especially nauseating when both parties are Christians giving to quoting the bible at each other, blathering on about how they attempt to "lovingly" remonstrate with their "brethren", carrying on about "godly" documents (Ken Ham's favorite adjective for his sleazy little agreement from Oct 2005) and so on?

One other thing… in a recent letter (linked below) Ken Ham speaks of AiG being under "Spiritual Attack". No Ken; it is just a lawsuit. Nothing spiritual about it. The only thing you might call a spiritual attack, by the light of your religion, would be back in 2005 or so, when you faced up to temptations to rip off your parent body and run rough shed over their input into your little empire. And guess what? You lost the “spiritual” warfare at that point when you opted for underhanded avariciousness.

Further reading

Hopefully I have piqued your interest in this affair. Here now is a list of what information I have been able to find. I plan to be extending this list as appropriate, as information comes to light. Feel free to give suggestions in the comments.

Information from Creation Ministries International

CMI has adopted a deliberate policy of transparency, making enormous amounts of information available. It will of course reflect their perspective, but the wealth of detail does, in my view, give a serious observer ample warrant for reading between the lines and sorting out what went down.

  • Sad dispute between CMI and AiG-USA. This came out in November 2006.
  • Why CMI-Australia is holding AiG-US legally accountable for its actions. This came out in the last few days. It is currently prominently linked from their home page, and includes links to other documents.
  • The Briese committee of inquiry, Mark 2. CMI asked Clarrie Briese to hold an inquirey into the whole affair. Briese is a former magistrate, a fundamentalist Christian, and has been involved on the board of CMI. He was a poor choice for a fair inquiry, given his association with CMI; but his report contains a lot of background detail.
  • CMI-AiG Dispute -- a "superbrief" one page summary of events and issues by CMI, in the form of a handy timeline.
  • A brief chronology of events -- a longer pdf file (15 pages worth of brevity!) giving a much more detailed chronology of events.
  • Regarding John MacKay -- a page set up in April 2006, but which actually concerns events 20 years ago.
  • Letter to CMI supporters, by Philip Bell, formerly speaker/deputy CEO of AiG (UK/Europe). (Nov 2006). Bell explains his resignation from AiG, in relation to shenanigans over the magazines in the UK. Since writing that letter, Bell has headed up the new CMI office in the UK.
  • Gateway to other documents relating to Phillip Bell and AiG/CMI in the UK.

There is almost nothing from AiG available. However, AiG did send out an email to their supporters after the lawsuit was filed – though not to CMI. CMI obtained a copy of this in short order of course, and they have made it available as well, with their own comments interspersed.

If I see anything more from AiG on this, I will add it to the page.

Update: I have added above a second private AiG response that CMI has made public with their own commentary. There's an interesting ethical point here with making private emails public. The name of the recipient of this email has been removed; and it is material that AiG should really be making generally available. Their tactic of responding privately rather than publically is unfortunate. I would love to link to an AiG response, but they so far have not give one I can use. For the time being, you have to live with the CMI commentary being included. This second email gives the most comprehsive AiG perspective that I have seen so far.

Legal documents

Blog reactions

The following are slightly older blog references to the dispute, from last year, before the lawsuit
If there are more entries I should add, just tell me in the comments. I'm particularly keen to add any pages that provide some kind of AiG perspective on the whole mess.

*Update. Adding blogs: new entries since the original post are presently marked with an asterix.
Update June 9. A second AiG email has been linked into the resources. As before, it is put up by CMI with their additional comments.

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