A Philosopher's Blog

Sandy & Socialism

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2012

Because I am a philosopher, I am sometimes accused of “not getting” the “real world.” That is, people who disagree with me sometimes like to take the intellectual shortcut of accusing me of not getting it rather than actually presenting developed arguments showing that I am in error.

Despite being accused of being detached from the “real world”, I actually consider reality to be an excellent source of evidence for discussing philosophical concerns, such as the legitimate role of the state.

Not surprisingly, the legitimate role of the state is often an issue in presidential elections and the 2012 election was no exception. The Republicans put forth the general idea that government is not the solution. There was also the stock tactic of presenting government as both ineffective and undesirable. One interesting addition was the explicit Tea Party twist of an Ayn Rand attack on the demon of collectivism. In sum, the Republican Party presented the government as an evil to be reduced and collective action as undesirable. Then Sandy hit the east coast of the United States.

Despite the political ideology expressed by the Republicans, there has been no opposition to the government stepping in to take collectivist actions. Republican Governor Chris Christie (who spoke passionately against Obama at the RNC) praised Obama’s leadership in bringing the state into the rescue and recovery operations. Christie himself made it clear that the state has a clear role to play in the recovery. Christie and Obama are right about the importance of the state in such disasters. After all, it requires collective action to address a problem of this magnitude and the private sector alone cannot handle the problems. On the face of it, disasters like Sandy provide considerable evidence against the Republican attacks on the state and collective action.

An obvious reply is that while the Republicans have been critical of the state and collectivism, they can claim that they believe the state has a legitimate role to play in disasters while still being able to hold to their criticisms of the state and collectivism. That is, they can take the collective response by the state to Sandy as legitimate government activity while still painting other activities, such as student loans and welfare, as socialism.

While this reply has some appeal, it is reasonable to dig a bit deeper and look at the underlying principle at work.

In the case of a natural disaster, many people are put in danger and are in need through no fault of their own. Of course, people sometimes are partially responsible—by staying when an evacuation order has been given, for example. This can be taken as justifying the collective action of the state. To be specific, the scale of the disaster and its nature requires a collective response by the state because it is beyond the capabilities of individuals acting on their own and even beyond the capabilities of the private sector to handle. Also, the fact that the disaster has struck people through (in general) no fault of their own also serves to justify state intervention even for those who might otherwise be opposed to the state assisting people. After all, one might contend, it is one thing for a person to simply expect the state to give them free stuff and another for them to be given aid in the context of a disaster like Sandy—even if this includes “free stuff.”

As such, a reasonable principle to justify state intervention in a disaster would be that the state has a legitimate role in addressing large scale disasters that arise through no (or perhaps even partial) fault of those who are harmed by the disaster. This principle would thus justify the collective action taken by the state in response to Sandy.

However, the principle would also seem to justify collective action by the state in other cases as well. For example, the economic “storm” that damaged the economy was a man-made disaster, but it was widespread and hurt many people through no (or at most partial) fault of their own. That is, millions of people were victims of an economic disaster that is ongoing. As such, the collective response by the state can be justified in general by this same principle. Interestingly, the general harms caused by the economic system (such as unemployment, low wages, environmental costs and other endemic harms) could also justify collective intervention by the state to mitigate them. After all, people who are homeless because the economy tanked are no less homeless than people who lost their homes to Sandy or other storm.

The obvious objection is, of course, that there is a difference between man-made disasters and natural disasters. As such, it could be argued that the state can legitimately intervene in the case of a natural disaster like Sandy but to intervene in man-made disasters would be unjustified.

The obvious problem with this objection is that it would entail that the state would have no legitimate role in defending citizens from enemies foreign or domestic. That is, the state would have no justification in regards to the military or police functions. After all, they exist to respond to man-made harms on both the small and the large scale.

It could be objected that the state has a legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people using force, violence, fraud (or other criminal means) but no legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people acting within the existing laws. So, if someone blows up your house, then the state has a legitimate role in addressing the problem. If the economy is wrecked by other people via legal means and you lose your home, then you are on your own.

While this distinction might have some appeal, it also seems rather absurd. After all, the legality of the actions that cost you your house seem to be outweighed by the fact that you lost your house due to harms inflicted by others. As such, whether a natural disaster or financial shenanigans beyond your control cost you your house you would still be a victim who deserves aid. Naturally, it would be rather another matter when the disaster is self-inflicted. If I lose my house because I quit my job out of laziness, then the fault is my own and the state owes me nothing beyond what I have earned.

In sum, if the state has a legitimate role to play in addressing natural disasters like Sandy, it also has a role in addressing man-made disasters, such as the current economic system.

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Sandy

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2012

Sandy has struck the United States, killing several people and doing billions in property damage. As is to be expected, we are now hard at work repairing the damage and getting things back to normal.

I am sorry for the losses and feel for the people directly impacted. I wish everyone the best and hope for a rapid return to normalcy.

The brave people who responded to the disaster to rescue and aid others deserve our thanks for their actions and the good that they have done. The people who are now hard at work setting things right also deserve our appreciation. While this storm will be costly, we have pulled together as a nation and have shown, once again, that we are a strong people when we work together for the general good. For at least a little while, we will think of ourselves as Americans and forget (at least for a moment) the political divisions and bickering. Perhaps this sort of thing should be remembered more often and not just during disasters (natural or man-made).

Be safe and well.

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Benghazi

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2012

By popular demand I am adding a post on Benghazi, specifically the attack launched against American personnel. This will allow a thread for people to present the talking points of their specific parties/ideologies.

My views on the matter:

  • Murdering people is morally wrong.
  • The murderers should be found and punished (most likely via Obama’s favored instrument of justice: the drone launched Hellfire missile).
  • If the administration acted improperly before, during or after the incident, then those responsible should be held accountable and punished appropriate (presumably not with a Hellfire missile).

That is what I have to say about the matter. This is the same view I had of the original 9/11 attack. It is interesting to see the difference between the reactions to these incidents in terms of the political leanings of those reacting.

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Good Grief: Peanuts & Aesthetic Identity

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2012
A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanut...

A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Peanuts television special. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a recent essay cartoonist Scott R. Kurtz objected to the creation of new Peanuts content. This essay led me to consider the matter of aesthetic identity and the creation of this essay.

In the specific case of Peanuts, Charles Schulz was rather clear that he was the only one who could draw Peanuts. While there has been, as of this writing, no attempt to create new Peanuts strips, Boom Studios released a Peanuts comic book with new content that was not created by Schulz. There is also a rumor that the folks behind the movie Ice Age will be making a Peanuts movie written by Charles Schulz’s son and grandson.

Obviously, the continuation of characters and settings beyond the death of the original creator is nothing new.  Nor is the transfer of creative control of characters and settings anything new. Characters such as Superman and Batman live on after their creators have died. Star Trek continued after the death of Gene Rodenberry with the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and a new Star Trek movie. Frank Herbert’s Dune universe has spawned numerous books written after his death, including prequels. The same is true of Asimov’s Foundation series.

In general, the legal matters regarding the continuation of characters and settings when they are no longer in control of the original creator can be easily settled. After all, it seems rather well established that such intellectual properties are just that, properties. As such they can be inherited, bought and sold like any other property. So, if a company owns the legal rights to Peanuts, then they can do with Peanuts as they wish within the specifics of their rights. Naturally, there can be nasty legal battles and disputes when it comes to specific properties, but this is not anything special to such intellectual properties.

Since I am not a lawyer but a philosopher, I will not focus on the legal questions. I will, instead, focus on the philosophical matters.

One point of concern is the matter of ethics. To be specific, there is the moral question of whether or not the creations should be continued after the death of the creator. This can, of course, be tied to the legal concerns in many ways. If, for example, the creator agreed to this continuation in a contract or other agreement, then it would seem that the continuation would be morally acceptable. If the creator made it clear that s/he did not want the work continued, then even if someone (say a relative who inherited the property) had the legal right to continue the work, then doing so would seem morally dubious. This would also apply to cases in which characters and settings had entered the public domain. While people would have the legal right to use the characters and settings, there is still the moral question of whether or not they should do so—especially when their efforts degrade the characters and settings. For example, the John Carter movie is based on Burroughs’ works which are now public domain. However, the treatment of these excellent works was so awful that it seems that Disney acted in an immoral way by degrading the characters and settings with an inferior work. While the moral concerns are both interesting and important, I am also concerned with the matter of aesthetic identity.

Philosophers have disputed the matter of identity for quite some time and have focused on specific types of identity, such as personal identity. Fortunately, aesthetic identity can bypass many of the usual metaphysical problems regarding identity since the fictional characters and settings do not have the ontological status of actual people and settings (unless, of course, one believes that fictional worlds are also actual worlds). However, there are still concerns about identity in the context of aesthetics.

In the case of characters, the concern is similar to that of personal identity: when a character is continued by someone other than the original creator, is the character still the same character? To use a specific example, if someone else draws and writes Charlie Brown, is that character still Charlie Brown in terms of his aesthetic identity? Or is it just a character that looks similar and says similar things—a mere imitator? In some cases, it would seem that the continuity of aesthetic identity is possible. After all, it seems reasonable to claim that many comic book characters retain sufficient identity to still be the same characters even though they are drawn and scripted by different people (and played by different actors in movies).  Interestingly, it can be argued that in some cases even the creator of a character fails to preserve the aesthetic identity of a character. What is needed, of course, is a full account of aesthetic identity of characters—a project that goes beyond this short essay.

In the case of settings, the aesthetic identity would also be a matter of concern. For example there is the question of whether or not the Dune universe in the newer prequels is similar enough to Herbert’s Dune universe in terms of its aesthetic qualities. While the identity of a setting would include the obvious factors such as getting the locations, inhabitants, history and such right, there is also the matter of capturing the “look and feel” of the setting. So, while a book might get all the facts about the Foundation universe right, it might fail to capture the aesthetic qualities that make the Foundation universe the Foundation universe. As with the aesthetic identity of characters, the specific conditions of the aesthetic identity of settings would also need to be developed.

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Stealing the Vote

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2012
English: Rep. James Moran's (D-VA 8th)Congress...

English: Rep. James Moran’s (D-VA 8th)Congressional Portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Patrick Moran, the son of Democratic Representative Jim Moran, was “stung” by a Project Veritas “operative.” The “operative” attempted to talk Moran into a scheme that would amount to voter fraud. Moran eventually said he would “look into it.” As might be imagined, this is being trumpeted as evidence of a conspiracy on the part of Democrats to commit voter fraud. Moran claims that he thought the “operative” was mentally unstable and was just humoring him. However, Moran resigned from his position in his father’s organization.

While Moran should have simply rejected the offer, it is understandable that he would humor someone. After all, people often try to be agreeable-especially when they think the person they are interacting with is unstable.  In my own case, I have spoken with unstable people who have suggested odd things (such as using philosophy to defend the earth against aliens) and I have sometimes actually said “I’ll look into that” when, of course, I was merely humoring someone who might suffer emotional damage from any other response.

While the police are investigating the matter, there is a rather reasonable question as to whether or not he actually did anything wrong (or illegal). In terms of wrong doing, the main question is whether or not Moran was seriously considering the plan and intended to engage in such a wrongful act.   As such, one important question is whether or not there is any evidence that Moran was in the process of acting on his alleged agreement to engage in this action. If he was merely humoring someone he regarded as unstable, then such an “agreement” would hardly constitute a moral misdeed (except insofar as he did not put a stop to someone else suggesting wrongdoing).

Moran was right to resign. After all, politics is a harsh business and anyone who gets caught on tape saying something this bad should remove themselves from the political realm until they can either learn to remain silent or spin things better. Naturally, if Moran actually intended to engage in this wrongful activity, then he should be punished appropriately. Attacking the integrity of the vote is an assault on the foundation of the democratic state.

Continuing with the subject of attacking the integrity of the vote, Doug brought to my attention the fact that hoax letters are being sent to white, registered Republicans who are regular voters in my adopted state of Florida. These letters question the citizenship of the recipient and also ask for personal information such as social security number and drivers license number. While the citizenship questioning part does smell of voter intimidation (or retaliation against the official letters sent out by the state questioning peoples’ citizenship), the fact that the letters also ask for such information suggests that it might also be an identity theft scam. It could, of course, be both.

Given that I have consistently opposed attacks on voters from the right, I also condemn this attempt which might be an attack from the left (or just a identity theft scam or some sort of retaliation against Rick Scott). My position is that any attacks on the integrity of the voting process is wrong-regardless of whether it comes from left, right or center.  I am not going to play the usual game of “well, the other side does it too” or “the other side does it more.” After all, that is just a fallacious appeal to common practice or two wrongs   make a right.  I will simply condemn all such attacks and urge that efforts be taken to address them-whether they are in the form of a hoax letter or in the form of trying to suppress voters using the power of the state.

 

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Mourdock, God & Rape

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2012
Getup Get God

Getup Get God (Photo credit: prettywar-stl)

In a recent debate, Republican Richard Mourdock was addressing the subject of abortion. After noting that he believes that abortion is acceptable only to save the life of the mother, he went on to say: “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

As might be imagined, Mourdock has come under attack for his remarks. These attacks have primarily focused on what his claim indicates about his view of women and the sort of legislation he is likely to support.

Rather than address these matters, I will instead focus on his claim that if a woman gets pregnant from rape, then God intended it to happen. While this matter deals specifically with rape, it is part of the general problem of evil. This is, of course, the problem of reconciling a certain conception of God (all good, all powerful and all knowing) with the existence of evil (in this case rape). It also falls under the general subject of God’s causal relation to the world.

While he might not be aware of it, Mourdock is presenting a view of God that has been argued for by theologians and philosophers. To be specific, this is the view that God is the cause of all that occurs and that nothing occurs contrary to God’s intention.  For example, Hume in his essay on the immortality of the soul, writes  “as every effect implies a cause, and that another, till we reach the first cause of all, which is the Deity; every thing that happens is ordained by him…”

As far as things happening against God’s intention, this would seem impossible given the usual conception of God. After all, things could only go against His intention if He lacked the power to do otherwise or the event in question took place without His knowledge. On the assumption that He is all knowing and all powerful, then events happening contrary to His intention could not occur. Thus, if someone becomes pregnant from rape, then God (if He exists) intended that to happen-just as Mourdock claimed.

One reply to this is that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention, such as pregnancy arising from rape. The obvious reply is, of course, that if allows it and could prevent it, then He does intend for it to occur. If He cannot prevent it, then this would entail that God is rather different than the stock conception of a perfect deity.

It might be replied that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention because of free will. While this might get Him off the hook in regards to allowing rape, it does not do so in the case of pregnancy. After all, God could allow rapists the freedom to rape and still prevent rape from causing pregnancy. He could, for example, give women that pregnancy shut down system that Akin infamously mentioned. Or, even better, he could allow people the free will to chose to rape but prevent them from ever acting on that choice. As such, it would seem that if God exists and matches the stock description, then God does intent for the pregnancies that arise from rape.

There is, of course, still the question of whether not women should be legally compelled to endure such God intended  pregnancies. It could be argued that since God intended the woman to get pregnant from rape, then abortions should not be allowed since God’s intent should not be violated.  The easy and obvious reply to this is that the same logic would entail that we should do nothing in response to anything other than to accept it rather than go against God’s intent.

It can also be argued that we can determine  God’s intent by allowing abortion in such cases. After all, if God intends for the pregnancy to go through, then God can make that happen. If the abortion succeeds, then either God intended for it to succeed (and thus the abortion should have been conducted) or God is lacking in some manner (or does not exist).

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Pathfinder Adventure A7-1: Pit & Tower

Posted in Miscellaneous, Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on October 25, 2012

A Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 1st-2nd level characters.

Description

Bekus’ Pit

“Well, I have never been to the Pit. I’m content to stay here where it is warm and safe…and ale is within easy reach. But people have told me tales of the place over the years.  They say it is an unwholesome hole in the earth from which emanates a faint moaning. The Pit is easy enough to get into—just bring some stout rope. You can get some at Bessie’s store down the road. The Pit is pretty much a small series of caves, although a dwarf told me he thought some areas showed signs of having been worked at one time. It’s dark, so be sure to bring some torches. You can get them at Bessie’s as well. As far as how the pit got its name, well Bekus was a curious sort of man and he was the first one to find the Pit. The second one to find it…well the second man anyway, was the guy who found Bekus’ remains.”

Brekart’s Tower

Brekart began his adventuring career as many had done before him by cleaning out Bekus’ Pit. After that he undertook a series of adventures that enabled him to increase in power. Unfortunately for Brekart his ambition for power exceeded his abilities. Fifteen years ago, using enslaved goblins and orcs for labor, Brekart constructed a tower ten miles from Thusul and declared himself the lord of the region. He sent armed “tax collectors” into Thusul and set up toll booths along the area roads. Not surprisingly, it was not long before word of his activities reached the ears of the legitimate rulers.

As per tradition, an emissary was sent to Brekart demanding that he submit himself for trial and execution. After Brekart refused the demand a small force was sent against him. The force, consisting of loyal adventurers and a support group of soldiers and siege engineers, made short work of Brekart’s “tax collectors” and surrounded his tower.

The attacking force was somewhat concerned since Brekart occupied what appeared to be a stout and well-guarded tower. Unfortunately for Brekart, some of his goblin troops slipped away in the night only to be captured by the besiegers. In return for their freedom, the goblins revealed a rather important secret: the goblins, angry at being enslaved, had built several serious, but hidden, defects into the tower.

The next morning the besiegers lined up for the attack while Brekart gave a loud speech to the effect that his attackers would be gutted and fed the crows. Just as Brekart got to the part about his “unbreakable tower” one of the engineers let fly with a stone from a small catapult. The small stone struck the fatal weak point of the tower, causing the top section to collapse. Brekart survived the collapse, but found himself all alone at the feet of his enemies. With his surviving “loyal” followers running as fast as they could away from the debris, Brekart had no choice but to surrender.

In accord with tradition, Brekart’s goods were auctioned to repay the cost of the siege and to provide reparations. After the last item was sold, Brekart was beheaded. His head decorated a pike by the city gate until it was stolen by a very large raven.

The ruins of Brekart’s tower remain to this day. Over the years various creatures have found the ruins attractive and have set up residence there. Occasionally adventurers visit the ruins to slay any worthy opponents they might find there and to search for the treasure of “tax” money that is allegedly still hidden somewhere in the ruins.

Available  on Amazon

Downloads

Pit & Tower PDF

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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My Research Philosophy

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2012
From http://hypernews.ngdc.noaa.gov

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine, if you will, a once noble vessel, now stricken and adrift. Many of the decks are ruined shells, filled with debris and inhabited by the lost and helpless. Other decks are nicer, but still plagued with troubles. To make matters worse, members of the crew and passengers live in rival groups and periodically slaughter each other over various matters. The situation is all the more hopeless because there are no lifeboats and virtually no chance of any outside help (although some swear to have seen lights in the sky).

Some few do try to set the ship right and get her back on course. Oddly enough some of the brightest passengers have retreated into the ship’s towers (the walls of which are lined with tiles of finely cut elephant tusks). In the towers, these bright people scribble furiously on scraps of paper in languages only they and their fellows can understand. These scraps, which deal with such dire matters as whether blue is green or green is blue, are passed from tower to tower to the delight of the inhabitants. Sometimes they gather together in bands and, behind tightly closed doors, discuss important matters such as whether they exist or not. While one might expect the crew and passengers would unite and toss such oddballs to the sharks, they do not. Instead, regular tribute is given to the tower dwellers.

Given the dire plight of the ship, it seems immoral for the tower dwellers to squander their intellects and the ship’s resources in such activities. Instead, it seems fair to expect them to help solve the problems that plague the stricken vessel, and those on board.

Not surprisingly, the stricken ship is a crudely obvious metaphor for the earth and the ‘oddballs’ in the tower are, of course, philosophers.

While the analogy might seem a bit silly, it is not all that far from the truth. After all, one has but to look at the daily paper or any news show to see just how well things are going. War, crime, disease, sexism, racism, violence, genocide and other problems abound in the ‘real’ world.

Philosophers are often regarded as being detached from the ‘real’ world. This is shown, in part, by the fact that philosophers tend to focus their research on highly abstract, often self-generated puzzles and conundrums whose solutions (if ever obtained) would seem to have no significant consequences. Further, even when philosophers attempt to address ‘real’ problems, they seem to take perverse delight in creating the most diabolically convoluted and irrelevant papers and presentations possible. Naturally, these papers and presentations are largely for the consumption of other philosophers.

While abstract philosophy has its merits, my view is that a significant portion of philosophical research should be aimed at these very serious problems. When people are on a stricken vessel, each person is expected to help out with the situation. Thus, it seems reasonable to take the current situation on earth to be remarkably like that of a stricken ship. Thus, philosophers are under an obligation to help out.

Given my view on this matter, much of my research has focused on such serious problems that have significant consequences in the world. I have written extensively on topics in ethics, technology, and politics with an approach that is both practical and philosophical.

That said, many philosophic problems are rightly regarded as very important matters and some are even regarded as eternal and essential questions. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, presented an eloquent and excellent case for the value of philosophy and philosophic questions. To blend Russell’s words with a wonderful line from the Matrix, it’s the questions that drive us to expand our imaginations, to open up new possibilities and to free ourselves from dogmatism. These things certainly seem good and worthwhile.

While Russell argued for the value of philosophy, he also recognized the importance of being involved in the problems of the ‘real’ world. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1960 when Russell told a journalist that there was no time to talk about philosophy in the face of the nuclear threat. True to his word, Russell went out and was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. Thus, it would seem that philosophers are not excused from being involved in ‘real’ world problems. Of course, such an argument from authority is relatively weak. Fortunately, another argument can be given.

If philosophers defend their pursuits by claiming that the importance of the philosophic problems obligates them to work on them, then it would seem that philosophers would be equally obligated to work on problems of similar importance. It seems reasonable that matters of life and death, the survival of the human race, and human freedom are matters which are equally important as the problem of personal identity, epistemology and whether beauty is a real quality of objects or not. Hence, it would seem that philosophers cannot be excused simply by claiming that what they do is too important to allow the ‘real’ world to interfere. This does not mean that philosophers should stop doing philosophy. Many philosophic questions overlap with and are relevant to critical ‘real’ world problems. Philosophers are actually ideally suited to deal with problems in a rational and logical manner. This view is what guides my approach to philosophical research.

Thus, philosophers should still do philosophy, but they should also become more involved in the problems of the world.

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Predictions about Romney

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2012
Romney

Romney (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

Interestingly, pundits generally make predictions that turn out to be wrong yet this seems to have no impact on their status as pundits. In this spirit, I call on you to make predictions about what Romney will do, should he win the election. The more specific the prediction, the better.

For example, Romney claims that he will create 12 million jobs, so one possible prediction is that he will do so. Another is that he will not.

If he gets elected, we can return to this post and see what predictions were accurate and which were not.

If possible, limit the comments to predictions. No mention should be made of Obama. Naturally, anyone who is physically incapable of resisting the commands of Fox and must type out talking points against Obama will be forgiven.

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The RIP Method of Studying

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2012
Students often ask me about how to study, usually after doing poorly on a test or three. I’ve condensed my advice down to RIP:
1. Review: Look over the notes regularly-don’t try to memorize them. Reading through them repeatedly will make the information stick.
2. Inquire: Ask questions about things that are not clear.
3. Practice: Take the practice test 2-3 days before the real test and see how that goes. If it goes badly, focus on the content that caused the most trouble.
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