Wednesday, April 6, 2005

New Product Announcement

At least, I am starting to advertise the new product on

For those of you who aren't amateur astronomers, let me explain what a "toe saver" is. Most equatorial telescope mounts (which allow you to track astronomical objects as they slowly move across the night sky) are a style known as a "German Equatorial Mount." These have two axes: one points at the celestial pole, and is known as the polar axis. To track objects across the sky, the mount rotates on the polar axis at one revolution per day. (Is it running? Or not? Be patient, and you will eventually see it move.) The other axis is at a right angle, and is known as the declination axis. (Here's an example, in case my text isn't painting you a picture.)

At one end of the declination axis is the telescope; at the other end is a counterweight. The counterweight needs to be adjustable as to location on the axis, so they are usually held in place by set screw or thumbscrew. What happens if, as the shaft cools, the screw releases? The counterweight slides down the shaft, and perhaps lands on your toe. Hence "toe saver."

But the real damage isn't to your toe. It is that now your telescope has nothing to counterbalance it. Like a runaway locomotive, or a government with only one branch of government, but much more quickly, it lurches out of control, perhaps smashing itself against the mount. Your toe will heal; the telescope will not.

Anyway, "toe saver" screws have become common on serious (and even pretty unserious) German equatorial mounts in the last few years. If you have to disassemble your mount with any frequency, such as when moving it, you need to unscrew the toe saver to remove the counterweight, and reinstall it when you are done. This is a mildly annoying task, since it can take 10-20 seconds to do, and it is very easy to lose the toe saver in the dark, especially because you are almost certainly going to drop it in grass.

What I am now selling is a quick release toe saver. It takes the place of the existing toe saver for Losmandy mounts, but uses a quick release pin that comes out in less than a second. The pin also has a lanyard loop on it, so that you can tie it to the mount, and be sure that it won't get lost.

Now, if only the marketplace decides to reward my brillance with some orders....

UPDATE: Well, three hours elapsed, and I have enough orders that I have to order up more parts tomorrow. (Okay, I didn't build a huge inventory.)

Monday, April 4, 2005

Some People Are Just Unreasonable

I mean, if someone who had stabbed you before confronted you in your doorway, what would you do?
ALBANY, N.Y. The state's highest court has ruled against a New York City man claiming self-defense when he killed another man during a confrontation in a doorway.

The Court of Appeals unanimously ruled the doorway to an apartment can't be considered part of that person's home.

That argument was being used by Richard Aiken, who's [sic] appealing his conviction for killing Theodore Badgett in December 1999 in their Bronx apartment building.

The two men had a history of run-ins, and Badgett had stabbed Aiken in an earlier dispute.

In the 1999 confrontation, Badgett confronted Aiken as Aiken stood in his doorway. Aiken hit Badgett in the head with a lead pipe, killing him. Aiken said he feared for his life.
Aiken is obviously some sort of paranoid. Someone stabs you once, and you start to make all sorts of bizarre assumptions.

The controlling principle should be that you shouldn't have to be in fear in your own home, even if you don't have the door closed, locked, and barred:
Aiken argued that New York law says a person doesn't have to retreat from a threat if he's in his own home.

But the Court of Appeals says an apartment doorway is a hybrid private-public space in which a person doesn't have the same reasonable expectation of seclusion as in a home.
Of course, reading the decision often gives a bit more detail than the news account of it. But in this case, it makes the New York State Court of Appeals (the state supreme court, according to New York's not quite unique usage of the term) look like fools, and the "victim," Mr. Badgett, sounds like he got what he deserved:
Defendant and the victim were next-door neighbors in the same apartment building in the Bronx for nearly 40 years, virtually their entire lives. Their families were close until 1994 or 1995, when a dispute -- with ultimately tragic consequences -- arose over cable and telephone wiring. The victim and his family believed that defendant was siphoning off their services, even after the service providers found that the suspicion was without basis. In 1997, following a heated verbal exchange, the victim stabbed defendant in the back, hospitalizing him for two days.
Okay, this wasn't a simple one-time dispute--and two days in the hospital suggests that it wasn't something done with a butter knife.
Although the families remained next-door neighbors, separated only by a common wall, from 1997 to 1999 the victim repeatedly threatened to shoot, stab or otherwise injure defendant. He made these threats to defendant's face, to his father and to neighbors -- at one point even brandishing a boxcutter.
So the "victim" didn't learn from his mistake--and Aiken sounds like he had good reason to be scared out of his wits--especially in a city where, remember, it is quite difficult to legally obtain a handgun for self-defense, and even a long gun is strongly discouraged by a somewhat complex licensing procedure. Now, Aiken isn't completely blameless; he started an argument through the wall between their apartments, including using a pipe to make a dent in the wall. Still, the rest of the actions make me inclined to think that the "victim" in this case was Aiken more than Badgett. Badgett called the police (good), went to open the front door of the building for them, but the rest of his actions suggest a stupid and out of control guy:
Still holding the metal pipe he had earlier used to hit the wall, the victim then engaged in an angry argument with defendant, who remained in his doorway.... According to defendant's trial testimony, he continued standing in the doorway, never going into the hall, when the victim reached into his pocket, came up to defendant's face "nose to nose," and said "he was going to kill" him. Believing he was about to be stabbed again, defendant struck the victim on his head with the metal pipe, killing him.
The judge refused to allow Aiken to argue that because he was in his home, he was entitled to use deadly force in self-defense.

The underlying justification by the judge, the appellate court, and the high court continues to use laim, advanced in Richard Maxwell Brown's No Duty To Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society that there was historically a duty to retreat rather than use deadly force. I won't claim to have exhaustively studied this question, but I know that there is at least some serious argument about whether Brown's claim is correct or not, and I must confess that my study of the struggles over concealed weapon regulation and the uses of deadly force in Colonial and Early Republic America lead to me think that Brown has overstated such a duty to retreat. One component of the development of concealed weapon laws in the antebellum period was that people engaged in disputes often killed the other party based on the sometimes justified belief that the other party was about to draw a knife or a gun, and it was difficult for a jury or judge to dismiss this fear out of hand. I can't recall ever reading a decision or a debate that suggested that there was a duty to retreat under such circumstances, which is rather surprising, if this was actually a well recognized legal obligation.

The decision acknowledges that the right to use deadly force in self-defense was recognized by statute, well before the American Revolution:
When deadly force was reasonably used in self-defense it only excused -- but did not justify -- the homicide (see Wharton, Homicide § 3, at 211 [1855]). The difference was more than theoretical, as the excused killer was subject to property forfeiture and, at times, even a penal sentence (see Dressler, Understanding Criminal Law, [3d ed], § 17.01, p 205). However, with the enactment of 24 Henry VIII, ch 5 (1532), the justification defense was enlarged to include deadly force reasonably used in self-defense. This broader reading of the justified use of deadly force was further refined by cases involving attacks in the dwelling of the defender. Such a defender -- even if the original aggressor -- did not have a duty to retreat when inside the home, or "castell" (Lambard, Eirenarcha, or Offices of the Justice of the Peace, 250 [1599]).
This is the same assertion made by Joyce Malcolm in her recent book, Gun Control: The English Experience. Yet, the decision then goes on to claim that outside one's home, there is a duty to retreat, and fails to explain when and how this duty to retreat ended up back in English law, after the 1532 statute:
The home exception to the duty to retreat reflects two interrelated concepts -- defense of one's home, and defense of one's person and family. "The house has a peculiar immunity in that it is sacred for the protection of a person's family," and "[m]andating a duty to retreat for defense of dwelling claims will force people to leave their homes by the back door while their family members are exposed to danger and their houses are burgled" (State v Carothers, 594 NW2d 897, 900-901 [1999] [Minn] [internal quotations and citations ommitted]). Yet somewhat at odds with this privileged status accorded the home is the state's general interest in protecting life. "The duty to retreat reflects the idea that a killing is justified only as a last resort, an act impermissible as long as other reasonable avenues remain open" (People v Jones, 3 NY3d 491, 494 [2004]). Indeed, requiring a defender to retreat before using deadly force may in fact be "the more civilized view" (LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law § 10.4 [e], at 155 [2d Ed]). Inevitably, then, a balance must be struck between protecting life by requiring retreat and protecting the sanctity of the home by not requiring retreat.
Whether one regards the duty to retreat is "the more civilized view" or not seems rather arguable. If someone who engages in a felonious attack need not fear the possibility of injury or death, it emboldens the criminal. While government may indeed have a "general interest in protecting life" (as long as it isn't two days shy of birth, or in a persistent vegetative state), it also has an interest in protecting the right of law-abiding people to not cower in fear. Aiken wasn't completely law-abiding in this case, but neither was he screaming threats of violence, nor did he have a history of felonious assault--unlike Badgett.

The decision goes on to explain that New York State imposed a duty to retreat outside one's home in 1965, overturning a 1940 decision that
held that a defendant faced with felonious attack on a public street was justified "in standing his ground and, if necessary, destroying the person making the felonious attack."
I happen to think that this statutory duty to retreat, even when under felonious attack, is absolutely crazy, but that's the law.

The real dispute in this case is whether a man standing in his doorway is within his home or not. The New York high court has decided that standing in your doorway isn't the same as being in your home.
Here, defendant was in an area that functioned as a portal between an interior world and a public one. It was the region where a stranger, seeking access to the interior, could ask for entry. The actual physical space of the doorway straddled both the private apartment and the public hall. A nonresident could stand there and knock, ring a bell or turn the door's handle. The resident had exclusive control and possession only over that part of the apartment, the private property, from which nonresidents could ordinarily be excluded.
If this seems reasonable to you, consider the case of an open window. You walk by that open window. A criminal reaches in, and stabs you. I'm sure that the court would claim that once the criminal had crossed the boundary of the window frame, that he was violating the boundary of home--but an open window suffers from much the same problem as a doorway: a space that is not necessarily closed to the outside, as evidenced by the fact that the criminal is able to reach in without forcing entry.
Indeed, the Penal Law and its common law history reflect the concept behind the castle doctrine that inside one's home a person is in a unique haven from the outside world. While a person is not bound to abandon one's home, requiring a person standing in the doorway to step inside the apartment to avoid a violent encounter is not the equivalent of mandating retreat from one's home. Here, defendant need only have closed the door, or pulled up the drawbridge, to be secure in his castle.
Easy to say from the bench. If you are standing in the doorway, waiting for the police, and someone with a history of felonious attack approaches threatening your life, you must make a split second decision about whether to back up, and hope that you can get the door closed and locked in time, or to defend yourself, before the attacker gets inside your home. I've had to shut a door in a hurry before to deal with an attacker, and it isn't as easy to do as writing "closed the door, or pulled up the drawbridge."