A Philosopher's Blog

Ruins of Altus Free on Amazon 7/1/13-7/5/13

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on June 30, 2013

Ruins-of-Altus-CoverA Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 3rd-6th level characters.

Free on Amazon from July 1, 2013 to July 5, 2013.

Description

Important: This is a Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure. It is not a novel. It is also not an interactive Kindle “adventure book.”

This adventure is intended to be run after the PCs have completed “Smelter.” It is designed for a party of 3rd-6th level characters but can be modified to be more or less challenging. While the adventure is set on Althus Island and is intended as part of a series, it can be run as a standalone adventure in another campaign setting.

“Excellent job on securing the key resources from those beastly creatures—a nasty lot they must have been. It’s a pity that you weren’t able to capture them so we could put them to work. Well, in any case, the Regency is pleased at all you have done. But, as always, the Regency would be even more pleased if you did yet another task.

My scouts have reported that the two guard towers of Altus seem to be intact. They did report seeing large insects, giant ants I believe, entering and leaving the northern tower. They did not see any signs of activity around the southern tower.

As even those with a layman’s understanding of military tactics knows a stone tower is strategically superior to a mere wooden fort. It would be a great service to the Regency if you could secure one or preferably both of the towers for a base of operations in the town itself. If you…I mean we…were able to clear the town of its denizens, we would have ready-made habitation for those who will be coming to help secure and exploit the remaining resources in the mine.

Naturally, I have been empowered to reward you should you succeed in these tasks. And, of course, I am empowered to notify your next of kin should you fall valiantly for the glory of the Regency.

The Regency has promised a bounty of 500 fine pieces of gold per guard tower secured. Securing the theatre will yield a reward of 200 gold pieces. An additional 250 has been promised for securing the church, 150 for securing the fairgrounds and another 325 for securing the warehouse and dock area. For securing the entire town, the reward will be an additional 5 gold pieces per small building and 10 gold pieces per large building. This does not include the above mentioned structure.”

Available now on Amazon for 99 cents.

Downloads

Ruins of Altus Maps & Monsters

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

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DOMA Down

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2013
Same Sex Marriage

Same Sex Marriage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against an important part of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), specifically  the part of the law that denied benefits to same-sex married couples. The court also ruled 5-4 that the supporters of California’s Proposition 8 (that bans same-sex marriage) did not have the standing to appeal the existing ruling against the proposition. Thus, the court left intact a ruling by a lower court that the proposition is unconstitutional. The court did not, however, make any ruling about the proposition itself.

In the case of DOMA, the court ruled against Section 3, which is the section that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The legal basis for this ruling is that this definition is a violation of the the Constitutional right to equal protection under the law.  Justice Kennedy, who cast the decisive vote for the 5-4 ruling, noted that “the federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.” He also added that the law imposed  “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”

While this ruling is being lauded by advocates of same-sex marriage, it is important to note that it obviously does not make same-sex marriage legal throughout the states. However, it does certainly provide a foundation for legal arguments in favor of same-sex marriage. After all, Kennedy makes it clear that the statute disparages and injures those it targets and the same principle can, obviously, be applied to other such laws.

That said, it is important to note another key aspect of Kennedy’s claims. While he clearly notes the pernicious nature of the statute, he does so in the context of how the statute is an attack on the authority of the states which legalized same-sex marriage. As such, he is putting forth a principle with two key components. The first is focused on the personhood and dignity of the people in same-sex married couples. The second is focused on states’ rights, specifically their authority to pass laws regarding marriage.

In the case of DOMA, the two principles are in harmony: DOMA violated the legal authority of the states that had passed laws permitting same-sex marriage and this law certainly seems to have been aimed at disparaging and injuring citizens. However, there is the question of which principle should be given priority when they are in conflict. That is, would the authority of a state override the equal protection clause in this case or would the equal protection clause hold?

The ruling on Proposition 8 sheds some light on this, given that the decision apparently allows each state to set its own marriage policy. This would seem to indicate that the states have the authority to pass laws that would ban same-sex marriage. However, these laws would certainly seem to run afoul of the equal protection clause and would seem to be inconsistent with Kennedy’s reasoning in the first principle attributed to him. One way to reconcile the two would be for states to have the right to pass laws that allow same-sex marriage but lack the right to pass laws that would deny same-sex couples equal protection and rights under the law. This, obviously enough, would seem to imply that same-sex marriage should be legal in all the states. However, this discussion is rather speculative and can, no doubt, be easily countered.

As might be imagined, these rulings were not met with joy by all Americans and there is still opposition to same sex marriage. For example, Austin Nimocks, who is a lawyer with the rather ironically named Alliance Defending Freedom, said that “marriage – the union of husband and wife – will remain timeless, universal and special, particularly because children need mothers and fathers.”

Nimocks seems to be wrong on almost all counts. Marriage is rather obviously neither timeless nor universal. It could be special, but that all depends on what is meant by the term “special.” While children certainly do need parents, there is no necessary connection between children having parents and the sort of “traditional” marriage being put forth by Nimocks.

While my own view of same-sex marriage is extensively developed in  in my book For Better or Worse Reasoning, I will say a bit about the matter here.

Not surprisingly, I agree with the striking down of DOMA and agree with Kennedy’s view that the law disparages and injures citizens. I also agree that the law was a violation the authority of the states. As such, I regarded DOMA as a violation of both individual and collective rights.

I will add, however, that I think that much of our trouble with marriage stems from the fact that we have clumped together various relationships under the term “marriage” and we fail to properly consider that these relationships are quite distinct. In my book, I argue that marriage should be split into at least three categories, namely the legal marriage, the theological union (religious marriage), and the loving marriage. The concern of the state and the laws would be limited to the legal marriage, which is defined by all the various legal and economic aspects of current marriage (such as divorce, insurance, inheritance and so on). The legal marriage is just that, a legal contract, and would be open to consenting adults.

Those who value the religious aspects of marriage and see it is a matter involving God (or whatever) can have their theological unions that are handled by the appropriate religious authorities. This union would have no legal status and, as such, would allow for as much discrimination as desired. This would allow people to protect what they regard as the sanctity of marriage while also preventing them from denying other people their rights.

Those who see marriage as a matter of love would have their love unions that would also have no legal status whatsoever. They could, of course, involve personal promises and all sorts of romance. Naturally, a person could engage in all three marriages (perhaps with the same person in each case).

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Mike’s Run: Nuclear Pasta

Posted in Mike's Run, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 27, 2013

Pasta

VRA

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2013
Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. R...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was critical in making American democracy a reality. Before the law passed, disenfranchisement was the order of the day in some states and the law was intended to prevent citizens from being unjustly denied their right to vote.

On 6/25/2013, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 and ruled that Section 4 of the VRA is unconstitutional.  Section 4 specifies which states must get federal preclearance  before making changes to voting procedures. Not surprisingly, the states covered by Section 4 were predominantly southern states with an established history of disenfranchising minority voters.

Chief Justice Roberts’ main argument against Section 4  focused on his claim that it is “based on 40-year-old facts having no relationship to the present day.” Roberts does accept that Congress can determine which states require preclearance, but this must be based on current data. The court left Section 5, which defines the preclearance requirement, intact. However, by striking down Section 4 the court has neutralized Section 5.  This is because Section 5 now applies to no states. Congress can, however, pass a new bill to replace Section 4.  Justice Thomas wanted to strike down Section 5 as well and it seems possible that if congress did pass a new bill to replace Section 4, then the court would strike down Section 5 as well (assuming the make-up of the court remains the same). However, it seems unlikely that this will happen-given the nature of congress, the chance of such a bill passing is rather low.

By striking down Section 4, the court has not given states a free hand to do whatever they wish in regards to voting.  That is, all the other laws governing voting rights remain intact. The main impact is that the states once covered by Section 4 no longer need to get federal approval to make changes in regards to such matters as voter ID requirements or early voting. Such changes can, obviously enough, still be challenged-but only after the changes have taken place. The obvious concern is that this opening will be used to disenfranchise voters using methods that will be found to be illegal, but only after the damage is done.

Roberts’ line of reasoning does have a certain appeal. The gist of his argument is that the federal intrusion into the states in question is based on old data (from 40 years ago) and this data fails to warrant such an intrusion. Somewhat ironically, those who agree with Roberts’ point to the election of Obama (especially the turnout of black voters in the states in question) as evidence that there is no longer  a need for Section 4. The court has previously upheld the VRA on the grounds that it was needed to address the efforts of Southern officials to disenfranchise black voters. Since, according to Roberts, there is only old data to support this need, the intrusion is no longer warranted. Crudely put, the argument is that since the South has changed, there is no longer a justification for treating it as if it was acting in the old, bad ways.

However, there are some concerns with Roberts’ reasoning. One obvious point of concern is that Roberts’ argument seems to be that since the data is old, we should assume that the Southern officials no longer have any intention to disenfranchise minority voters. Thus, Section 4 is unconstitutional.  However, it is rather a leap from the data being old to the inference that the VRA has permanently solved the problems it was created to address. Also, given the attempts to disenfranchise voters it seems reasonable to think that the problem still remains.

A reasonable reply to this is that it does not need to be assumed that the South is fully reformed in terms of voting rights. What is needed is merely the fact that the data is out of date and hence can no longer warrant a continued disparity between the states. If a bill can be passed using current data, then the intrusion could be justified once again.  However, it seems likely that no such bill will be passed and thus this aspect of the VRA has been nullified.

My own view is somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, having a disparity between the states in terms of what they can and cannot do without federal approval seems unfair. After all, one may ask, why should Massachusetts have more liberty than Texas? On the other hand, there is the principle of relevant difference: if a state is significantly different from another state in regards to voter disenfranchisement, then a difference in treatment can be justified on this ground. While the notion of states’ rights does have some appeal, it seems self-evident that an appeal to states’ rights cannot be used to warrant denying an individual his or her legitimate individual rights. That is, a state does not have the right to deny the rights of individual citizens just because it is a state.

As might be guessed, I tend to favor having a consistent system in regards to voting rights that does not single out states but, at the same time, guarantees that individuals will not be robbed of their right to vote. To this end, having nationwide laws about relating to voting would seem to be sensible. As far as the justification, the obvious approach would be to focus on the federal elections-this would warrant a national approach. I also agree that legitimate concerns about voter fraud should be addressed by such a nationwide policy.

Getting back to the main issue, I am rather concerned about the impact of the ruling. In general, I suspect the effect will be a significant increase in efforts to disenfranchise voters in various ways (as we saw with the voter ID proposals and related endeavors to suppress voting). While these efforts will be met with after the fact law suits, this will involve fighting a multitude of small battles after damage has already been done. This ruling, I think, is a bad one for those who value the right of all citizens to vote.

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Mike’s Run 1: Playing Doctor

Posted in Humor, Mike's Run by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2013

Mike's-Run-1L

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Prism & Privacy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2013

The revelations about the once secret Prism program of the National Security Agency

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

have revitalized the old debates about liberty versus security and the individual versus the state. Obviously enough, there are many legal and ethical issues here.

On the face of it, Prism was quite legal-at least in the United States. That is, the program went through all of the legally established procedures for such a program. It remains, however, to see if it is actually constitutional. While questions of legality and constitutionality are interesting, I’ll focus on some of the ethical concerns.

Not surprisingly, the main moral defense of Prism and other programs is based in utilitarianism: any (alleged) wrongs done by intruding into privacy are morally offset by the greater good done by increasing security. The Obama administration has made vague claims that the program has prevented attacks and there is the claim that it will prevent attacks in the future. However, as I have noted before, these claims are coming from the administration who hid the program behind lies. These past deceits and the fact that they are prejudiced clearly makes the administration a dubious source for claims about the efficacy of Prism. However, I do agree that Prism can potentially be morally justified on these grounds and this would be contingent on it doing more good than harm.

The alleged good of such a program can be assessed in terms of the attacks prevented and estimates of the damage that would have been done if such attacks had succeeded. Naturally, the importance of Prism is such prevention must also be considered. After all, if other means  would have prevented the attack anyways, then Prism’s credit should be adjusted appropriately.

There are various ways to argue that Prism and similar programs are wrong. One option is to use the same method as can be used to defend it, namely an assessment of the consequences of the program. In order to show that the program is wrong, what would be needed would be  reasons to believe that the harms inflicted by the program exceed the benefits. As noted above, the alleged benefits involve increased security. However, the only evidence I have for the effectiveness of the program is the claims made by the people who are endeavoring to defend it. In regards to the harms done, there seem to be a variety of actual and potential harms.

I know that my view that programs like Prism are wrong stems from purely emotional causes. First, I was quite the WWII buff as a kid and I was taught that only organizations like the Gestapo engaged in such broad spying on the citizens of the state. Second, I grew up during the Cold War and well remember being told that the communist countries were bad because they spied on the citizens, something we would not do in the West. That sort of thing was for the secret police of dictatorships, not democratic states. These are, of course, naive views and based in emotions rather than logic. However, there seems to something to the notion that a difference between good guys and bad guys does involve the willingness to gather intelligence about citizens.

One harm is that the secrecy and nature of the program seems to have increased the distrust of the citizens for the United States government. It has also damaged the United State’s image around the world. Of course, this sort of damage can be considered relatively minor and it can be claimed that the fickle focus of public attention will shift, especially if some celebrity scandal or  drama catches the public eye.

Another category of harms arises from the invasion of privacy itself. These harms could include psychological harms regarding the violation of privacy and fears about what the state might do with the information. As was evident in the debate over gun control, people can be quite agitated and dismayed by even the rumor that the state might track firearm purchases. While the Prism program does not (directly) track guns (as far as we know) it certainly gathers a vast amount of information about people.

A third category of harms involves the potential harms. One obvious worry is that even if the information is being used for only legitimate purposes now, there is the possibility that the information could be misused in the future. Or is being misused now. Some people were quite upset by the IRS asking certain groups for more information and with the Department of Justice gathering information about reporters. Obviously, whatever harms occurred in those cases would be vastly multiplied. After all, Prism is getting into everyone’s business.

There are, of course, other harms that can be considered.

A second option is to go with a rights based approach to the matter. If there is a moral right to privacy, then Prism would certainly seem to intrude on that right (if not violate it). Naturally, rights can be limited on moral grounds. The usual example is, of course, that the freedom of speech does not allow anyone to say anything at anytime-the right is limited by concerns about harms. Likewise for the right to privacy (if there is such a right).

The obvious challenge with an appeal to a right is to argue that there is such a right. In the case of legal rights, this is easy enough-one can just point to the relevant laws that specify the legal rights. When it comes to moral rights, it is a bit trickier.  Classic rights theorists like John Locke argued for rights to life, liberty and property. A case can be made that certain privacy rights fall under the right to property. For example, it can be contended that my communications belong to me and if the state intercepts and stores them, the state is stealing my property. A case can also be made to put certain privacy rights under the right to liberty. For example, I should have the liberty of communication without the state restricting it by creating the fear that my communications can be intercepted and copied without the justification of legitimate suspicion of wrongdoing on my part.

In any case, it would be interesting to see a full development of privacy rights or at least a clear presentation of what is lost when privacy is intruded upon by programs like prism.

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Playing with Solipsism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2013
Ol' Solipsism

Ol’ Solipsism (Photo credit: found_drama)

Imagine that you are the only being that exists.  Not that you are the last person on earth, but that the earth and everything other than you is merely the product of your deranged imagination. This, very crudely put, is solipsism.

As with watching Star Trek, most philosophers go through a solipsism phase. As with the Macarena and Gangnam Style, this phases usually fades with merciful rapidity. This fading is, however, usually not due to a definitive refutation of solipsism. In many cases, philosophers just get bored with it and move on. In other cases, it is very much like the fads of childhood-it is okay to accept the fad as a kid, but once you grow up you need to move on to adult things. Likewise for solipsism-a philosopher who plays with it too long will be shamed by her fellows. Mostly.

Just for fun, I thought I would play a bit with solipsism-in the manner of an adult who finds an favorite childhood toy in the attic and spends a few moments playing with it before setting it aside, presumably to go write a status update about it on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, solipsism actually has a lot going for it-at least in terms of solving philosophical problems and meeting various conditions of philosophical goodness.

One obvious thing in favor of solipsism is that, as per Descartes’ wax example, every experience seems to serve to prove that I exist rather than that something else  exists. For example, if I seem to be playing around with some wax, I can (as per Descartes) doubt that the wax exists. However, my experience seems to show rather clearly that I exist and doubting my existence would just serve to prove I exist. In fact, as skeptics have argued for centuries, it seems impossible to prove that there is anything external to myself-be it an external world or other minds. As such, solipsism seems to be the safest bet: I know I exist, but I have no knowledge about anything else.

Another factor in favor of solipsism is its economy and simplicity. All the theory requires is that I, whatever I am, exist. As such, there would presumably be just one ontological kind (me). Any other theory (other than the theory that there is nothing) would need more stuff and would need more complexity. These seem to be significant advantages for solipsism.

A third factor is that solipsism seems to solve many philosophical problems. The problem of the external world? Solved: no such thing. The problem of other minds? Solved: no such things. The mind-body problem? Probably solved. And so on for many other problems.

Naturally, there are various objections to solipsism.

One obvious objection, which I stole from Descartes (or myself), is that if I was the only being in existence, then I would surely have made myself better. However, I make no claims to being omnipotent-so perhaps I made myself as well as I could. Or perhaps I did not create myself at all-maybe I just appeared ex-nihilo. In any case, this does not seem to be a fatal problem.

A related objection is the argument from bad experiences:  cannot be the only thing in existence because of the bad experiences I have.  I’ve experience illness, injury, pain and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if I was the only being in existence I would not have these bad experiences. All my experiences would be good.

Laying aside the possibility that I am a masochist, the easy and obvious reply is to point out that a person’s dreams are produced by the person, yet dreams can be nightmares. I’ve written up many of my nightmares as horror adventures for games such as Dark Conspiracy and Call of Cthulhu so it can be gathered that I do have some rather awful nightmares. I also have dreams with more mundane woes and suffering, such as nightmares about illnesses, injuries and so on. Given that it is accepted that a person can generate awful dreams, it would seem to make sense that the same sort of thing could happen in the case of solipsism. That is, if I can dream nightmares I can also  “live” them.

Another objection is that the alleged real world contains things that I do not understand (like specialized mathematics) and things I could not create (like works of art). As such, I cannot be the only being that exists.

The easy and obvious reply to the understanding reply is that I understand as much as I do and the extent of my understanding defines what seems possible to me. To be a bit clearer, I have no understanding of the specialized mathematics that lies beyond my understanding and hence I do not really know if there is anything there I do not actually know. That is, what is allegedly beyond my understanding might not exist at all. Interestingly, any attempt to show that something exists beyond my understanding (and hence must be created by someone else) would fail. To the degree I understand it, I can attribute it to my own creation. To the degree I do not, I can attribute it to my own ignorance.

In terms of the art objection, the easy reply is to note that I can dream of art that I apparently cannot create myself. To use an example, in the waking world, I have little skill when it comes to painting. But I have had dreams in which I saw magnificent  original paintings I had not seen in real life.  The same applies to dream statues, architecture and so on. As such, the art that seems beyond me in the world could be produced in the same way it occurs in dreams.

Descartes (or me), I think, had the most promising project for refuting solipsism: if I can find something that I cannot possible be the cause of, then that gives me a good reason to believe that I am not the only being in existence. Or, more accurately, that I am not the only being to ever exist. However, there does not seem to be anything like that-after all, everything I experience falls within the limits of me and hence could all be about and only me.

But surely that is crazy.

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Spambots

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 20, 2013
Spambots

Spambots (Photo credit: Unlisted Sightings)

Like all blogs, this blog is plagued by spambots. These bots work by posting comments and their mission is to get a link (or link) to the spammer’s site onto the blog. Naturally, the spam filters of WordPress and other blogging software endeavor to keep the spambots at bay.

The WordPress filters have done a great job at beating the bots, but those creating the bots have stepped up their game. The old style bots would crudely try to dump links into the comments and this tactic was easy to counter. The newer bots are a bit more subtle: the post comments without links and put the link in the information about the entity making the comment.  The spam comments are, of course, usually rather easy for a human to spot. Here is a recent one:

Good day I am so delighted I found your blog, I really found you by mistake,
while I was researching on Google for something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like
to say many thanks for a marvelous post and a all
round enjoyable blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to go through
it all at the minute but I have saved it and also included your RSS feeds, so when
I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the awesome
b.

While bad grammar and such are not unique to spambots, the generic nature of the comment make such bot comments easy to spot. While they are aimed at spamming, they do sometimes do something of value, namely accidentally presenting funny things.  The example given above made me laugh with its request that I keep up the awesome. In some cases, they are almost poetical.

I would infer that these bots have some degree of effectiveness-otherwise the spammers would have probably stopped using them a while ago. But, I do wonder what sort of person would see a spambot link on a blog and say “hey, this guy said to keep up the awesome, so I should click on this link  and buy the stuff being sold there. How could I not see him as a reputable merchant or information provider?”  I infer that the spammers use the same basic reasoning here that they use for spam email-if you try millions of times, you are bound to get some suckers.

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Blackboard Lessons from the Semester

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 19, 2013
Image representing Blackboard as depicted in C...

Image via CrunchBase

At the end of every semester, I engage in two types of assessment of my courses. The first is the bureaucratic assessment that I am required to do-this generates the right sort of numbers and properly buzzed words to be added to the volumes of data that seem to be studiously ignored by those who demand such tribute. The second is a thorough examination of what worked, what did not and what distinguished the two. The second assessment is used to improve each class, but does not contain the sort of data and buzzed-words that are considered the proper sort of assessment-that is, the sort that is beloved by the bureaucracy.

For the past few semesters, I have been evaluating and testing Blackboard-specifically the use of Blackboard as a means of evaluation and testing. On the plus side, Blackboard enables me to offload the mechanical aspect of teaching, namely the grading of true/false and multiple choice questions. On the minus side, the use of Blackboard does provide the students with new opportunities to cheat. Perhaps more importantly, there is the question of whether or not such evaluation is actually accurate in terms of properly assessing student ability.

In regards to cheating, I was surprised to find that the impact of cheating on Blackboard exams seems to be the same as the impact it has on in-class exams. This is based on comparing the scores on the Blackboard exams with those of the in class exams. The comparison shows that the results are quite similar, thus suggesting that the cheating methods used on Blackboard exams are used with about the same frequency and effectiveness as those used in traditional exams. Naturally, I am open to alternative explanations for the similarity in scores.

Because of budgetary concerns, the students do not have monitoring devices watching them take the exams. As such, I had to build the defense against cheating into the questions themselves. I was able to do this using information gathered from the take-home assignments I have been giving for years (which allowed the same opportunities to cheat that Blackboard based exams allow). The general idea is obvious enough: questions that require an understanding of the material make many methods of cheating (mainly looking through the notes or textbook) ineffective. However, students can still use other methods-such as getting a better student to take the exam or working together on the exams. While this no doubt occurs, it seems to be occurring on a relatively small scale or these methods actually create the same results as students taking the exams the “old fashioned” way. That is, the cheating is no more effective than the students taking the exams honestly.  I have this view because, as noted above, the exam scores for the Blackboard exams are essentially the same as those for traditional exams (that is, I get the expected bell curve).  Naturally, I could be in error here.

In addition to the education related goals, I also have the goal of reducing the amount of student problems I have to deal with, such as missed exams and the demand for make-ups. When I first tried Blackboard as a means of giving exams in my hybrid course, I was slightly surprised when the percentage of students “missing” a Blackboard exam turned out to be the same as the percentage who miss an in-class exam. In general, about 10-15% of the class missed each exam, regardless of whether it was on Blackboard or in the classroom.

I was slightly surprised by this result for two reasons. First, the Blackboard tests were available from day one of the semester and could be taken at anytime up until the deadline.  In contrast, in-class exams can only be taken in class on the set date. Second, the excuses I usually received from students regarding missing exams usually involved problems with attending the exam in person. However, the Blackboard exams can be taken from anywhere with access to the internet-and every student seems to have a smart phone, tablet, or laptop  (which they often use in class). As such, it seemed reasonable to expect that the percentage would be lower for the Blackboard exams.

But, a little reflection explained the lack of difference. First, students generally tend to wait to the last minute to do anything and hence they usually waited as late as possible to do the exams-sometimes too late, thus missing the deadline. Second, some of the factors that would impact being able to take an in-class exam would also impact being able to take an exam on Blackboard (such as attending a funeral or being sick). Interestingly, though, I found that although the percentage of students missing exams remained the same, the excuses changed: instead of funerals and illness preventing them from attending the exam ,dire (but often vague) technological problems prevented them from taking the exam before the deadline. As might be imagined, I could never confirm these technological problems. After all, I’m not going to get Google or the NSA to confirm for me that Sally Student’s apartment wi-fi went out one hour before the deadline for an exam or that Sam Student’s laptop “locked up” when he went to take the exam one hour before the deadline.

Since handling “make-up” exams on Blackboard is a bit annoying, I decided to try another method of reducing this problem. During the past semester (a six week summer semester) I set a due date for each exam at the end of the section the exam covered. The deadline for the exam was, however, set for the due date of the next exam. All the exams were accessible to the students from day one of the semester.

As I expected, this did not eliminate the problem. However, it reduced the percentage of missed exams from 10-15% down to about 5-7% for the semester. In these cases, there were two main categories for excuses given for missing an exam deadline: technological problems (combined with waiting to the deadline) and professions of ignorance regarding the deadline for an exam.  For example, I am writing this sentence at 5:21 pm on the day of the final for my summer class and I just received a panicked email from a student claiming that she did not know when the exam deadline was (it was at 3:00 pm). I put the date and time of the final on the board and announced it in class everyday  last week, plus Blackboard lists the deadline date and time as well. In terms of the professed ignorance excuse, I believe that I have done all that I can reasonably do to keep students informed. It would be interesting to learn how people form erroneous beliefs about deadlines-especially when the correct information is presented regularly and is readily available.

These findings did confirm some obvious things: 1) no matter what, some people will put things off to the last minute, 2) no matter how much effort a professor takes to inform students, some of them will remain in ignorance of deadlines, and 3) some people will simply let deadlines go by-most likely because they believe they will be able to do it after the deadline anyway. As with any such problem, the rational solution involves balancing the cost of reducing the problem with the reduction gained. At this point, I think I have done as well as I can on my end-that is, that any additional reduction of the problem would be a bigger problem than the problem.

While Blackboard did reduce some problems, it also created other difficulties. The first was not a problem with Blackboard, but merely a Blackboard variation on a problem with people. To be specific, some students claimed that Blackboard had cut off their exam early or “locked up” on them, when this had not, in fact, happened. Fortunately, Blackboard provides information that makes it possible to sort out such matters. To be fair, some students might have honestly mistaken the fact that Blackboard enforces the time deadlines as cases in which Blackboard was doing something wrong.

The second was a problem with Blackboard-or rather a problem for anything web-based. As might be guessed, students did encounter legitimate problems with browser crashes and other such things. As might also be guessed, I had informed the students to 1) not wait to the last minute to take an exam and 2) contact me as soon as the problem occurs so I can reset the exam before the deadline runs out. As might be guessed, the fact that people will ignore #1 can make it a problem for me to be able to reset an exam before time runs out.

I attempted to address this problem by having the due dates and deadlines mentioned above. I also set the exam deadlines at a time I would be awake and able to check my email regularly-this did dismay the students since they wanted the deadlines to all be a midnight. Not surprisingly, students did wait until the last hour to start an exam. For example, a student emailed me at 1:41 (by the gmail time stamp) to inform me that she got kicked out of the two hour final, which had a 3:00 pm deadline. The email did not reach the FAMU server until 2:12 PM and I saw it at 2:40. Since my only option is to clear an attempt, I offered to do so and to extend the final deadline for everyone in class (what I do for one, I must do for all) to allow her to complete the exam.

The obvious issue with a Blackboard deadline is that some people will push close to the deadline and then run into legitimate problems (like Blackboard or their browser giving them the boot). On the one hand, it is certainly reasonable to enforce the deadline-that is, reset the test for the student and given them until the deadline to complete it. After all, neither the deadline nor the possibility of problems should come as any surprise to the student.  Also, as some of my colleagues say, being held to a deadline is a good life lesson. On the other hand, it can be argued that the student is entitled to take the exam and that a problem that is not her fault should not deny her the chance to have the full time for the exam. Thus, the deadline should be extended.  Of course, there is then the matter of having a problem happen after the extension, which could keep extending the deadline. There is also the obvious point that waiting to the last minute is the student’s fault, even if the problem that he runs into is not his fault.  To use an analogy, if I wait to the last minute to drive to a race and miss it because I did not foresee the construction that required me to make  detour, the fault of missing the race would certainly seem to be my own.

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De-Extinction

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 17, 2013
The Woolly Mammoth became extinct around 12,00...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pausing in her grazing, a mother mammoth casts a wary eye for signs of danger to herself and her offspring. Hidden from her view, a saber-toothed cat assesses his chances of getting a meal…or getting stomped. The cat is startled by movement behind it and whirls about to confront a vehicle full of people. Digital photos are snapped, then uploaded to Facebook. “Damn tourists”, thinks the cat, as it saunters away.

While this scene is not yet a reality, there are people who hope to make it so through de-extinction. De-extinction is the restoration of a species that has been lost to extinction. The most famous fictional example is Jurassic Park: dinosaurs are restored and made the central focus of an amusement park. There have been real-life attempts at restoring lost species, but these have focused on species that went extinct far more recently than the dinosaurs.

There are various ways in which a species can be restored. The best known (thanks to the movies) is genetic restoration: the genes of the species are recovered and used to recreate the species. For example, recovered mastodon DNA could be implanted into an “emptied” elephant egg and the egg could then be implanted into a female elephant. If the process succeeded, the surrogate mother would give birth to an actual mastodon.

A somewhat less known method is “trait” or “appearance” restoration. In this method, an extinct species is recreated by selectively modifying an existing species until it looks like the extinct species. For example, an extinct species of pigeons could be “restored” in this manner. One rather obvious question about this method is whether or not such a restoration should be considered an actual de-extinction. To use the obvious analogy, if after my death someone is modified to look like me, then I have not been restored to life. Likewise, creating a species that looks (and acts) like the extinct species does not seem to really restore the species. Rather, a rather clever imposter has been created.

In additional to the practical concerns of the science and technology of de-extinction, there are also moral concerns. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns involve he potential consequences of de-extinction.

One matter of concern is that the de-extinction of a species could actually have negative consequences for other species or the environment. A restored species could become an invasive and harmful species (directly or indirectly), which would be rather bad and has been shown by existing invasive species that have been transported by humans into new environments. In the case of de-extinction, humans would be re-created rather than transporting-but the effect could be quite similar.

It can be replied that the impact of a species could be sorted out ahead of time, especially if the species went extinct fairly recently. The counter to this reply is to point out that people have made rather serious mistakes when importing species and that it is not unreasonable to believe that people could make comparable mistakes.

Another matter of concern that a species could be restored despite there not being a viable habitat for it. This sort of irresponsible de-extinction might occur for a variety of reasons, perhaps to provide a novelty attraction for a zoo or park. This sort of treatment of an animal would certainly seem to be wrong because of the exploitation of the species. The reply to this is the same that is given when species that are close to extinction are kept in zoos or parks: such an existence is better than no existence. This does have a certain appeal, but it could be contended that restoring an animal to keep it in a zoo is relevantly different from endeavoring to preserve an existing species. It could also be contended that the zoo preservation of endangered species is wrong, hence the restoration of an extinct species to serve as a zoo exhibit would also be wrong.

One common argument against re-extinction is that it would be expensive and it would thus take money away from conservation efforts that would yield more results for the money. While I cannot predict the exact cost of restoring a mastodon, it seems safe to predict that it would be extremely expensive. This money could, one might argue, be better spent in protecting elephants.

While such cost arguments have considerable appeal, they often suffer from an obvious defect. This defect is that the argument fails to take into account the fact that there is not just one pool of money that is allocated to this matter. That is, money spent on restoring a species need not come from the money that would otherwise be spent on preserving existing species.

While it could be argued that money spent on de-extinction would be better spent elsewhere, it could very well be the case that the money spent on de-extinction would not, in fact, be spent on anything better. To use an obvious example, a wealthy celebrity might not care much about the plight of the snail darter, but he might be willing to spend millions of dollars to get a saber-toothed cat. To use another example, an investor might not be interested in spending money to save elephants, but she might be very interested in funding a Mammoth Park featuring restored mammoths and other charismatic but extinct species that people would pay to see. Interestingly, this sort of funding could itself raise moral concerns. That is, bringing back the mammoths so some investors can make a fortune on Mammoth Park might strike some as morally dubious.

Laying aside the moral concerns connected to why we should not engage in de-extinction, there is also to matter of why we should (morally) do this. In the case of natural extinctions, it would seem that we would not have a moral reason to restore a species. After all, humans were not responsible for its demise. Naturally, we might have pragmatic (to create Mammoth Park) or scientific reasons to restore such a species.

In the case of human caused extinctions, a case can be made that we should undo the (alleged) wrong that we did. This line of reasoning has the most appeal. After all, if we were responsible for the death of a species and we could restore this species, then it would seem that we should do so. To use the obvious analogy, if I kill someone (by accident or by intent) and then I get the means to restore the person, then I should do so (unless, of course, killing the person was the right thing to do).

In any case, I am waiting for my dire wolf-husky crossbreed.

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