A Philosopher's Blog

Bugs

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2011
Ochlerotatus notoscriptus, Tasmania, Australia

Image via Wikipedia

Having grown up in Maine (whose “state bird” is the black fly) and currently living in Florida (whose “state bird” is the mosquito) I have plenty of bug experience.

One odd thing I’ve noticed about the bugs around my house is that that they all seem to have different preferred targets. The mosquitoes, which dominate my backyard, are savage ankle and back biters. On the plus side, as long as I spray my ankles and the back of my shirt, I seem to be bug proof.

The bugs out front only attack my face and ears, so spraying my face is enough when working out front. Of course, if I am moving about, I need to do do more coverage.

The bugs in the park attack everywhere.

I can only infer that bugs have some sort of treaty system going based on the location of the victim. Around my house, the back bugs get ankles and backs. The front bugs get the face. Presumably the park is public domain for us and the bugs.

 

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eReading

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2011
Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

Although I have had my Kindle for a while, my recent trip to Maine afforded me the chance to spend an entire week ereading. When I first got my Kindle, it was a bit odd and I was not sure that my money had been well spent. After all, for the price of the Kindle I could have purchased a box or two of used books. However, I have found that the Kindle really shines (metaphorically, of course-the screen is not lit) as a book substitute.

I found, like many others, that regular use of the Kindle makes the actual device recede into the mental background, allowing me to simply read it like a book. That is, of course, the most important “features” of an ereader is that the reader ceases to realize that he is reading on an ereader and simply reads. I also own a rooted Nook and an iPod Touch, both of which provide ereader functions (the Nook, obviously, is supposed to be an ereader) in addition to providing supports for wide range of apps. My preference for the Kindle over the iPod as an ereader is easily explained: the Kindle has a larger screen and a vastly better battery life. While it might seem odd, I actually prefer the one trick pony Kindle to the multifunction Nook. I have found that the Kindle’s screen “reads like paper” while the Nook makes me feel the same way I do when reading on a PC-it just doesn’t feel quite right. Also, the Nook has a high distraction factor: I can easily check my email, surf the web, play games and so on. When I simply want to read, these distractions are actually a minus.  There is, of course, an obvious downside to the Kindle: when I travel, I need to bring other devices to provide email, web and document access. With my Nook or some other tablet, I could have all these functions in one device.

Not surprisingly, I am following the rumors about the (allegedly) upcoming Amazon android tablets. One appealing rumor is that it will have two screens (or one screen with two “modes”): one that is like the current Kindles  (for reading0 and another that is a color screen. That, if done well, could provide the best of both worlds. Then again, perhaps a single screen would be just fine. There are also rumors that Amazon will release a Kindle 4, most likely a touch version of the Kindle aimed at Barnes and Nobles touch ereader. Since I have a Kindle 2, I might be tempted by a touch Kindle 4-by then, the battery in my current Kindle might be worn out. Then again, an Amazon android tablet might become my ereader of choice. Of course, the tablet market is in a frenzy now, so who knows for sure what needless luxuries the future shall bring us?

Of course, I still like actual books and magazines: until they make a waterproof Kindle, I’m not taking it near water. Also, there is still that time on flights when all electronics must (for no good reason) be turned off.

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Religion and Violence

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2011
Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

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When it comes to Islam and terror, the fine folks at Fox have generally taken the view that Muslim terrorists are representative of Islam as a whole. However, when it turned out that Breivik (the person allegedly responsible for the terrible murders in Norway) claimed to be a Christian, the fine folks at Fox rushed to argue that he is not a Christian.

The main argument put forth by the fine folks at Fox is that a person who truly accepts Jesus would not engage in such horrible behavior. Naturally, Muslims who are not terrorists have argued that true Muslims would not engage in terrorist behavior. On the face of it, if the argument holds in the case of Christianity, then it should also hold in the case of Islam.

The obvious reply is to argue that while a true Christian would never do such things, such horrible acts are perfectly consistent with true Islam. The challenge is, obviously enough, to prove both of these things.

It will not do to point to the actions of those who profess the faiths. After all, people professing to be Christians have done terrible things as those who have claimed to be exemplars of Islam.

Turning to the holy books as evidence is a better approach, but not without its flaws. While the writings of Islam seem to allow and even endorse terrible things, the same is true of the Christian texts. As such, turning to the texts hardly seems to achieve the goal in question.

It can be argued that the violent content in the bible is either not an expression of the true essence of Christianity or that (to steal a bit from True Lies) true Christians only harm bad people (and thus are justified in doing so). In contrast, it must be argued that violent content in the Islamic writings is an expression of the true essence of Islam and that harming the good and the innocent is perfectly consistent with Islam. If this can be done, then the fine folks at Fox can consistently brand Muslims as terrorists while insisting that no Christian can be a terrorist.

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Dropping the 14th

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2011
U.S. Presidential flag, 1960-present (not usua...

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As the debate over the debt ceiling rages on, there has been more talk of Obama using an executive order to raise the debt ceiling. The constitutional basis for this is, of course, the 14th amendment and (presumably) the executive power of the president.

The constitution states that “the validity of the public debt … shall not be questioned”, which would seem to indicate that the debt ceiling would need to be raised on pain of violating the constitution.

However, a case can be made that raising the debt ceiling is distinct from not questioning the validity of the public debt. To use an analogy, consider the matter of personal debt. A person could, it seems, decide that she will not give herself permission to go further into debt while at the same time fulfilling her current financial obligations. Likewise, the congress could decide that the debt ceiling should not be raised while still accepting the validity of the debt. This actually has considerable appeal-after all, going ever more into debt is hardly a wise financial move.

There is, of course, a rather serious problem with that approach: apparently we cannot pay our debts without going more into debt. Going back to the analogy, the nation seems to be like an individual who cannot pay her debts except by taking out more loans. While this is hardly a desirable solution, it might be the only viable solution-at least in the very short term. As a long term solution it is certainly not viable.

 

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Yet Another Sex Scandal

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2011
David Wu

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While our attention should be on the debt ceiling and other such national matters, another sex scandal has occurred. This one involves David Wu of Oregon, a Democrat. While Wu apparently was not Tweeting junk shots, he is alleged to have had an “unwanted sexual encounter” with a young woman.  Wu is currently separated from his wife and apparently has various other personal issues he is dealing with.

Wu has decided to resign, but has stated that he will remain until the debt ceiling matter is settled. Given the way things have progressed with this matter, he might be there quite some time. The Democrats do, of course, have an excellent reason to let Wu remain for the duration. After all, he is a Democrat and they need all the votes they can get. Of course,Wu is from a district that is solidly Democrat in its voting and hence it seems likely that his replacement will be a Democrat. However, having Wu out of office while a replacement is being selected could put the Democrats at a disadvantage.

While it might seem that politicians are more prone to such poor behavior, it is probably the case that the engage in such misdeeds at roughly the rate of the general population. After all, the majority of politicians (like the majority if non-politicians) do not engage in such behavior (or, perhaps, simply do it well enough to avoid being caught). Politicians, however, differ from the general population in (at least) two main ways.

First, the news media is generally far more interested in the doings of politicians than the misconduct other folks (with the obvious exception of celebrities and those few who catch the lens of the media). Because politicians who behave badly end up garnering extensive media attention, it tends to create the impression that such behavior is common (this can be taken as the Spotlight Fallacy or the fallacy of Misleading Vividness).

Second, politicians tend to have personality traits that lead them to exacerbate such situations. For example, politicians tend to think that they are exempt from the usual rules. While normal folks often think this as well, it seems to be more extreme in the case of politicians.  This often leads politicians to fail to recognize that they are acting badly and thus can not only lead them to act badly but also to continue to do so past the point when a normal person would realize that the game is up. As another example, politicians seem to be even more deceptive than non-politicians and this leads them to drag out the denial (such as was famously the case with Weiner). This factor, combined with the first factor, ensures that the sexual misdeeds of politicians will garner a great deal of attention.

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The Debt Ceiling

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2011
South façade of the White House, the executive...

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The United States is currently at risk of hitting and then breaking the debt ceiling. While the general consensus among rational people is that this would be rather bad, congress (as I am writing) has yet to settle the matter.

On the one hand, raising the debt ceiling seems to be a no-brainer. After all, doing so has been business as usual and it has been done most often under Republican presidents. More importantly, the consequences of not doing so are supposed to be rather bad-hence it would seem to make sense t0 simply follow the usual process and raise the ceiling.

On the other hand, there are some legitimate concerns about simply raising the debt ceiling. First, the mere fact that it has been done repeatedly in the past is hardly a good reason to do it now. To believe that what is commonly done is right because it is commonly done is, of course, the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice.  To believe that something should be done because it has been done in the past and is thus something of a tradition is, of course, the fallacy of appeal to tradition. That said, it is still reasonable to ask (as a legitimate use of burden of proof) why the established policy should be changed now. This leads to the second point.

Second, think of the national debt as being analogous to a bar tab and Americans as heavy drinkers. Like a regular at a bar, we have simply raised our tab over and over again. However, there seems to come a time (perhaps now) when the barkeep should insist that the tab not increase again and that it be paid off. To insist on just raising the tab and continuing to drink the future is to act, obviously enough, like a selfish and thoughtless drunk. The responsible and correct thing to do is not ask for a bigger tab limit and to pay off the existing debt. Likewise, America needs to sober up, set a reasonable debt ceiling and pay off that debt. After all, we want to be a great nation and not that pathetic drunk in the corner, begging for booze and money.

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Taxes and Job Creators

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 26, 2011
Republican Party (United States)

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One of the key Republican talking points is that taxes should not be raised on those they call the “job creators.” Most other people refer to these “job creators” as the “rich.” However, it is somewhat wise of the Republicans to use this euphemism. After all, saying “taxes should not be raised on the rich” has far less rhetorical bite with middle and lower America than saying “taxes should not be raised on the job creators.” After all, middle and lower America are facing the consequences of these tax cuts, such as a sustained attack on the education of America’s children and the social services aimed at aiding the poor and needy.

The use of rhetoric is, of course, no substitute for actual arguments. After all, calling the wealthy “job creators” does not prove that taxes on the wealthy should not be restored to what they were before the Bush era tax cuts. However, an argument (or no doubt many) can be made in favor of leaving the tax cuts in place. Obviously enough, such an argument can also be countered.

Taking the Republican rhetoric at face value, the argument could be that restoring the old tax rate would result in the job creators not creating as many jobs. This would, obviously enough, be harmful to middle and lower America because these Americans need to work in order to pay for the necessities of life. After all, they are not rich.

Obviously enough, this sort of argument makes some critical assumptions. The first is that the job creators are, in fact, job creators. It is clearly the case that some of the wealthy do, in fact, create jobs. However, it is also clearly the case that not all of them should be lauded as job creators in a meaningful and significant sense. Of course, it could be argued that the wealthy are all job creators-after all, they create jobs via spending large sums of money on goods and services provided by other American. On this view, however, anyone who spends money would thus be a job creator, which would seem to render the classification somewhat empty of significance.

The second is that the job creators would create less jobs if they had to pay more in taxes (either because the tax cuts were removed or the entitlements for the job creators were reduced). This can also be seen in a positive way: less taxes means more jobs. However, there are two obvious replies here. One is that the economy was doing much better during the Clinton era-which was before the Bush era tax cuts. Second, tax rates are currently very low and many companies are flush with cash, yet the unemployment rate is rather high. As such, it surely cannot be the taxes that are the main factor in job creation. One plausible explanation is that the American approach to profits tends towards cutting employees. After all, the math is obvious: making the same amount of money while paying fewer employees (and/or paying them less) means a decrease in costs. This would nicely explain both the high unemployment rate and the substantial profits of many companies. As such, keeping the tax cuts in place would not seem to create jobs-it merely allows the job creators to maintain their substantial profits without creating any jobs.

A reasonable case can, however, be made for providing actual job creators with tax benefits-benefits linked specifically with creating jobs for middle and lower America. After all, the employees will be paying income tax on their pay, thus generating tax revenue that indirectly comes from the job creators. Linking these tax incentives to actual job creation would transform the Republican rhetoric to something meaningful.

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Cutting Entitlements

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2011

One wit recently claimed that America is an insurance company with an army. While this is not completely accurate, it does nicely present our large expenditures: defense and entitlements.

Our defense expenditures are clearly rather excessive. Not only do we spend more than any other nation, we spend more than the next few nations combined. As such, unless we are planning to fight the world, then we can probably trim back a bit. At the very least, we should get the countries we defend to pick up more of the tab. Otherwise, they are just receiving fate entitlements from the United States.

Some defense contractors also receive what might be considered entitlements: being paid far too well for contracts that are rather questionable in nature.

Of course, when people think of entitlements, they tend to think of things like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In general, politicians have been loath to mess with these. After all, they are jealously guarded by a very strong lobby and almost everyone (even Tea Party loyalists) want the government to keep its hands off these sweet, sweet benefits.

While I am in favor of helping out folks who deserve help, these entitlements are often pouring money towards folks who do not, in fact, need it. Of course, it can be legitimately argued that since people pay into the system, they are entitled to get back what they put in. Of course, this view would mean that the people who would need it least would get the most and those who need it the most would receive little or nothing.

If we see these services as “pay in and get back”, then we should dispense with them in favor of private services that offer better returns. However, if they are to be social safety nets, then they should be changed so that the benefits go to those who need them and so that those who need them less receive less. Those who do not need them at all should, of course, not receive anything.

While I would certainly like to get my money back when I retire, I would be willing to forgo this if my own retirement plan (a big part of which is retiring with everything paid off and a substantial financial reserve) turns out to be adequate. After all, I am willing to contribute to the general good-even if this means that I have to do without what I do not actually need, though might be “owed.”

Clam Festival Classic

Posted in Running by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2011
Yarmouth Clam Festival

Image via Wikipedia

While I visit my family in Maine every year, I haven’t always been able to run a race wile visiting. I have done the Beach to Beacon a few times, but its popularity has made it difficult to ensure an entry. This has made it somewhat hard to plan  a visit incorporating a race.

This year, however, I ended up arriving in Maine on July 15th, the start of the Yarmouth Clam Festival. It features numerous healthy (kayak, running, and bike races) and unhealthy (fried foods) activities.  I signed up for the Class Festival Classic 5 mile race.

I woke up early, as I always do on  a race day, and was pleased that the weather was nice and the temperature was just under 60 degrees. Having been running in the sweltering conditions in Florida, I was looking forward to some cool running.

I picked up my race packet and strapped the chip to my leg and was ready to warm up. I’ve used all sorts of race chips over the years, but this was the first time I used on that attached with a velcro ankle strap. I actually found it the least annoying of the chips-I didn’t have to mess with my shoe laces or worry about the sticky plastic strip failing to stick.

The race had a good turnout, as I could see at the start. A bit tired from traveling the day before, I took off at a conservative pace and focused on running consistently. The course was all paved and had several relatively small hills. The master’s record for the course is apparently 25 minutes-I ran 26 minutes on 5 mile cross country courses when I was in my 20s. I didn’t run that fast this year, only crossing the finish line after 33 minutes.  Since this is my old 10K (6.2 mile) time, this shows that age (and bacon) can be tough on speed. The winning time was just under 25 minutes, which was rather impressive.

I am looking forward to running it again.

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DIY Art

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2011
Icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x.

Image via Wikipedia

Having recently written a post on artists selling their ideas of art, I have been thinking about the matter of what I call DIY art. Or perhaps it should be called “kit art” or “some assembly (and parts) required art.”

Traditionally, when someone buys art they are usually buying a finished product such as a painting, sculpture or play. There are, of course, exceptions such as when people buy works that were left unfinished by the death of the artist. However, the usual intent is to buy a completed work.

However, as I noted in an earlier post, there are artists who sell works that are incomplete. In some cases, the “work” is merely a short description such as DeWitt’s “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.” The person who purchases such a work has to provide both the materials and the labor in order to have the work instantiated. Interestingly, these works do not come cheap-there seems to be no “discount” of the sort one expects to get when buying a set of plans for something as opposed to the completed object.

There are arguments in favor of taking such directions as being art. First, they could be seen as being on par with other DIY art such as paint by number or art kits for various items. True, the paint by numbers sets and art kits provide materials as well as the directions, but this could be regarded as a modest difference. After all, if something can be sold as art that requires the purchaser to add labor, it would also seem that requiring the purchaser to also  provide the material would not change matters much.

One obvious reply is that it could be argued that when one buys a paint by number set or an art kit, one is not buying art. To use an analogy, if you buy eggs, flour, milk and a recipe for a cake, you are not buying a cake. Rather, you are buying what you will need to make a cake. Likewise for the art-buying the idea is no more buying the art than buying a cookbook is buying meals.

Second, it could be argued that what makes a work a work of art is not the matter that composes it nor the labor that constructed it. Rather, it is the idea or concept behind the art. To use the obvious analogy to Plato’s forms, the true art lives in the realm of ideas and not in the instantiation of the idea. As such, it does not matter which hands complete the work, it is the mind that conceived it that is the artist.

One obvious reply is that while this does have some appeal, the creation of art seems to require more than merely thinking of a brief idea. In some cases, the substantial idea can be considered art-such as the writing of a song or conceiving a poem. However, merely coming up with a description or short directions such as the example above, hardly seems to count. To use a rather obvious example,  if I say “a story in which suspense builds until the twist ending blows the audiences’ mind” I have not thereby created a novel: I actually have to do the work for it to be a work of art. If I merely provide a title, such as “Brittle Soul”, I also do not create art.  Likewise, merely providing a short description of how to make a work of art would not itself be art, but merely a possible recipe (or even just a potential title) for art.

I’m on vacation and this was pre-written, so I apologize for what will be slow responses to any comments.

 

 

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