A Philosopher's Blog

The Value of Theft

Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on December 31, 2007

Rick Cotton, NBC Universal general counsel, had the following to say: “Society wastes entirely too much money policing crimes like burglary, fraud and bank-robbing when it should be doing something about piracy instead.” He adds that “Our law enforcement resources are seriously misaligned. If you add up all the various kinds of property crimes in this country-everything from theft, to fraud, to burglary and bank robbing, all of it-it costs the country $16 billion a year. But intellectual property crime runs to hundreds of billions a year.” (quoted from “Page-view Syndrome” John C. Dvorak, PC Magazine January 2008 Page 62).


While I suspect that intellectual property crime does not do hundreds of billions of dollars of damage a year, Cotton does raise an interesting point. To be specific, this is the matter of how society should expend its resources in protecting what is of value.


Because of financial and political realities, societies will have limited resources to spend combating crime and protecting what is valuable. From a utilitarian standpoint, the way to determine how to spend resources is a matter of assessing costs and benefits. Put succinctly, society should spend its resources in ways that protect the greatest overall value. It is a matter of rational economics-you want to get the most for your expenditure. The question then arises as to the way the value is to be measured.


One way to do this is by monetary value. This has the advantage of being clearly quantifiable and it also makes intuitive sense to use money as a measure. After all, we will generally measure our expenditures in terms of money. For example, the salary cost of the police and the costs of security measures.


If Cotton’s numbers are right, then we are making a mistake. After all, if property crimes of the non intellectual sort cost a mere $16 billion and intellectual property theft inflicts hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, then we are making a serious mistake. We should be spending more resources on protecting intellectual properties and less on preventing burglary, fraud and bank robbing. However, his claims can be disputed.


One obvious concern is the accuracy of the numbers. Calculating the damage done by intellectual property theft is a tricky matter relative to calculating the theft of tangible goods. If, for example, someone had stolen my Xbox 360, games and accessories when I bought it, I would have lost $550 worth of property. This is because that is what I paid. If people are distributing electronic versions of my book, then I would be losing revenue from sales, but it would be difficult to calculate my loss. To do so, I would need to know how many people had the bootleg copies. I would also need to know how many people would have actually bought the book if they did not get a bootleg copy. Obviously, these numbers would be rather difficult to determine. I don’t claim that his numbers are wrong-just that I am amazed at his apparent certainty.


The most important concern is the matter of value. In terms of money, there is not just the matter of the overall value but also of the relative value and the nature of the harm. Even granting that the crimes Cotton mentions do less overall monetary damage, they almost certainly do more relative damage. To be specific, the injury someone suffers when they are the victim of fraud or have their house stripped of valuables is proportionally worse than the damage done in the case of intellectual theft. After all, the industries that claim to be hardest hit by intellectual property theft seem to still be making massive profits. If they are hurting, that is a pain I think the rest of us would be glad to suffer. Also, there is the nature of the harm done. If someone steals my possessions, I can no longer use them. If someone steals my book, I do lose income but the damage is less. Of course, if my livelihood depended entirely on my book, then the damage would be more serious. But, as noted above, the companies seem to still be making adequate profits.


 While money provides a measure of worth, it is not the sole measure of worth. By policing thefts, fraud and robbery society maintains order and protects individuals from harm to both their property and their physical well being. After all, while people generally do not steal intellectual property at gun point or by breaking into a house that is often what happens in the sort of crimes that Cotton seems to regard as less important. Thus, Cotton is in error.

Two Rejected Resolutions

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2007


Since people tend to do dismally at self-criticism, I decided to ask people what New Year’s resolutions I should make. So far I have two that I must reject: “be less philosophical” and “cease to be a smart ass.” Fortunately, I can reject both at once.


My Aristotelian essence includes being a smart ass. Thus, being a smart ass is part of what it is to be me. I cannot not be me. So I must be a smart ass. Thus, I must reject the proposed resolution to cease to be a smart ass.


But, you ask, what about the request to be less philosophical?  Well, being a smart ass,  I think I’ll just say “no.” If it is good enough for Nancy Reagen, it is good enough for me.

My Christmas Tree

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2007

Some years ago my life was at a terrible low point. My marriage was failing, my career seemed stagnant, and I was stuck in what seemed to be a sea of bleak misery. Many of my problems seemed to stem from my reluctance to do bad things and the willingness of others to prosper through misdeeds.


One morning, when things seemed to be at their lowest point, I went for a run. As I ran, I thought about my life and how I ended up in the situation I faced. Interestingly enough, I had recently been teaching Plato’s “Ring of Gyges.” In this excerpt from the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon challenges Socrates to speak in defense of goodness (justice) for its own sake. He, Glaucon, proposes to speak on behalf of injustice. Glaucon makes an excellent case in support of the view that justice is a choice made out of weakness and fear. He further contended that the unjust life would be the better choice because what people truly value (wealth, power, and physical pleasures) can be best obtained by injustice.


In the past, I had always sided with Socrates and believed that justice is superior to injustice-even when it seems that the unjust triumph. But, I had seen the rewards of trying to be good and those reaped by those who have little moral compunction. At that moment, I doubted the worth and sense of trying to be a good person.


But, as I ran across the wooden bridge in the park, I saw that someone had torn one of the memorial trees out of the ground. They had left a cruel wound where the tree used to be and had tossed the uprooted tree onto a nearby picnic table.

Without reflection or thought, I ran to the hole. I looked at it and read the memorial sign. The tree was dedicated to Lancy Amelie Gray, a fifteen year old girl who had died in 2000. I then went to look at the tree. I could see that it was probably still alive. I walked back to the hole and got down on my knees. Ignoring the stares of those walking by, I dug with my hands until the hole seemed big enough for the tree. I put the tree back in the hole and packed the dirt back into place with my hands. I found a discarded water bottle nearby and ran back and forth between the tree and the fountain until the ground was well soaked.


While people often say that what they do without thinking is not the person they are, I think the opposite is true. What we do without thought often shows us who we really are. In this case, that moment showed me the man who I really am-or perhaps it just reminded me. I knew, as I pushed that earth back into place, that I was the sort of person who replanted trees and not the sort of person who would go through life tearing at things. I was still sad and my marriage still ended, but at that moment I was able to make the right choice and stay on the true path of my life.


I am no saint and have a multitude of flaws and sins. But, I do what is right and do my best to live up to being the person I am and should be. When I am troubled or need to make a difficult choice, I pause by the tree and remember who I really am. For me, that tree is my true Christmas tree.

DNA and Dating

Posted in Relationships/Dating, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 22, 2007

In the science fiction movie Gattaca, people assess potential dates and mates by genetic evaluation. This has now become a reality via a new dating service called Scientific Match (http://www.scientificmatch.com/). The following appears on the site:

“Welcome to a new era of human relationships. We’re the only introduction service that creates matches with actual physical chemistry. Our patent-pending technology uses your DNA to find others with a natural body fragrance you’ll love, with whom you’d have healthier children, a more satisfying sex life, and more. Our personal-values-analysis provides a deep spiritual bond, to complete your path to truly amazing relationships.”


The creator of the site was apparently inspired by the “sweaty T-shirt” study (http://ndt.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/15/9/1269). In this study it was allegedly found that women liked the smell of dirty shirts worn by immunologically men. This is the foundation for the claim about the natural body fragrance.

In accord with these results, the service provides genetic matches as well as the more traditional means (profiles and photos) of match making. Oddly enough, women taking birth control pills are not allowed to use the service-it is claimed that studies show they are (for some reason) attracted to men with similar genes.

Interestingly, the idea of testing for compatibility based on genes does have a certain degree of plausibility. After all, a person’s genes clearly play an extensive role in the person’s traits-most especially the physical traits. It has also been argued that attraction is based on genetics. That is, that a person finds another attractive based on a subconscious assessment of their reproductive compatibility. Put crudely, people are attracted to those they want to mate with. If all this is correct, then it would be possible to match people genetically. Obviously, the matching system would not be perfect-there is more to a person than his or her genetic makeup. Factors such as background, environment and perhaps even non-physical factors (a soul) are also important. However, a genetic match could be a good starting point. It would also be useful in a practical sense-proper genetic testing a matching would reveal the sort of children that the couple would produce. It would be very useful to be able to take a test and find a perfect match. Fortunately for the romantics out there, this sort of laboratory matchmaking will probably not replace the traditional methods…at least for now.

 As Gattaca illustrated, the use of genetics in this manner is fraught with moral and practical perils. People have an unfortunate tendency to get caught up in dating trends and often rely on the fad system of the moment (usually whatever dating book happens to be top in sales). Thus, there is the possibility that people might put too much weight on genetic factors and end up being disappointed or missing out on excellent opportunities. In any case, this is yet another chapter in the ongoing debate over what it is that makes a person who he or she is as well as the debate over the nature of love.  

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Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2007

Recently the police’s use of force in America has received a great deal of media attention. This matter is, of course, philosophically interesting.



People typically find the images of police subduing people to be disturbing and they often comment about how excessive the force seems. In some cases, like in the Rodney King incident, the force was excessive. However, almost any use of force will look rather bad. Although I am not a cop, I’ve had years of experience in the martial arts and can attest that subduing a person is generally neither pretty nor easy.


If things have come down to “the hands being on”, then there are three basic ways to subdue another person. The first is force. In order to subdue a person by force, you have to use your strength against the other person and simply overwhelm him or her. This can be rather difficult to do even when you are actually stronger. If you also need to have a hand free to handcuff the person, it becomes much harder-you are using just one arm and they can use two. Obviously, overwhelming someone with force is typically going to look fairly brutal-that is because it generally is. The second means is to use pain. In the martial arts, most holds depend not on force but on pain. If you establish the right sort of grip, the person can resist, but the resistance will hurt a great deal. There is also the obvious problem of dealing with people who are intoxicated or whose adrenalin levels are high-they are less affected by pain and hence more has to be used to subdue them. Obviously, inflicting pain is not a pretty thing. The final means is fear. A person can be subdued by his or her fear that something bad will happen if they do not comply. Fear is typically created by threats of force or pain (“set down the knife or I will shoot you”). Obviously, threats are also not pretty.


The main point I am trying to establish is that the means used to subdue people who are resisting will almost always look ugly. That is the way force, pain and threats are. The important matter is, not surprisingly, whether the force was justified.


While some might regard me as a liberal, I endorse the use of justified force. Aristotle got it right when he argued that some people will listen to reason and be ruled by fine ideals. These are not the sort of people you see being slammed against police cars on Cops. But the many are not ruled by reason or fine ideals. They must be ruled by pain. Yes, this is a harsh and brutal view. Sadly, that is what is needed to deal with those who would hurt others. This is, of course, something that can be empirically tested. We could try to have a society in which police are not permitted to use force to deal with criminals. Let us then see how well that would work.


Being an idealist and anarchist at heart, I would prefer a world without violence. I do believe that we can work towards a better world by becoming better people. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to be a better person.

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Corn Ethanol

Posted in Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2007

Since the earth has a finite supply of fossil fuels and they are not being replenished (or are being replenished at a rate that is of no use to us) it is just a matter of time before we run out of gas. Literally. In the US, one proposed alternative is corn ethanol.


The basic idea is that corn is converted, via fermentation, into ethanol. This process is similar to that used to create moonshine, so we Americans have this down quite well. Using corn for fuel has several advantages. First, we can grow the corn in the US and hence it can help reduce our dependence on outside sources of fuel-especially sources in the Middle East. Not having to rely on that part of the world would be a good thing. On the downside, the economies of the countries there largely depend on oil and, looking into the distant future, an economic collapse combined with radical Islam could lead to a nightmare of epic proportions. Second, corn is renewable-we can plant more every year. Third, corn ethanol produces 22% less green house gas emissions than gasoline (according to the US Department of Energy, as cited on page 44 of the October, 2007 issue of National Geographic).


As with all things, there are some downsides to corn ethanol. First, there is some indication that the process of converting corn into ethanol actually uses more energy than it produces. Producing fuel at a loss is obviously not a good idea. Second, ethanol is currently more expensive than gasoline in terms of the energy it provides. Of course, as gas gets more expensive, this can change. Third, corn is a food crop. This means that corn made into fuel is not available for food and that the price of food based on corn will increase (due to the competition from those buying it for fuel).


Corn is, of course, not the only possible source of biofuel. Sugarcane, for example, is an extremely appealing source. Sugarcane conversion is very effective-for each “unit” of fossil fuel used one gets eight “units” of sugarcane ethanol. It also produces 56% less greenhouse gas than gasoline.  

The US is focusing on the inferior corn ethanol-mostly because of the power of the relevant lobbies. Perhaps some day we will end up having “big corn” replace “big oil.”

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Women, Burkas, and Education

Posted in Ethics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 20, 2007

Since I am on break, I have been able to start making a dent in the magazines that have piled up over the semester. I recently finished an article on Pakistan in the September, 2007 issue of National Geographic. Naturally, the article included information about Islam in its various incarnations in the area.

One of the most striking things I read (page 40) was about the “night letters.” These are posted on public buildings and demand that all women 1) wear complete burkas and 2) stop attending school. These edicts are said to be enforced by murder. In short, if a woman is not dressed right or is in school, then it is presumably right and good to murder her. This seems, obviously enough, wrong. Even if it is assumed, for the sake of argument, that women should be so dressed and kept uneducated, such a punishment seems wildly out of proportion to the alleged crimes. Such punishment would thus be morally unacceptable.

It might be argued that God wills these things and hence they are right. This raises the problem of determining what God wills. People claim that they know the will of God, but these claims often contradict each other and generally have no evidence behind them. As it stands, the injunction to wear the burka and to prevent education seem to be mere spawns of hate and prejudice. I see nothing of the divine in such things-especially once murder is brought into the equation.

There is also the problem of God’s power. Since God is all powerful, what He wills would seem to be such that it would come to pass. So, if God willed that women not be seen, he could have made it such that women could not be fully seen. Perhaps they would be blurred by magic (like editing on TV). Perhaps they would be invisible when improperly clothed. Or perhaps they would be covered in thick fur. Since woman can be seen and God always gets what He wills, it must be inferred that God wills that women be seen. In light of this, those who post such edicts would need to accept that either God has no problem with women being seen or that the god they think they believe in lacks the power to overcome the defiance of mortal women and must, like some sort of feeble thug, send minions to do his dirty work.

God could also have made the minds of women such that they could not be educated. If that is what He wanted, then He could have easily enough made it so. To create women with minds on par with men and then order that women not be educated on the pain of murder seems both cruel and senseless. It is hard to imagine a perfect being who is cruel and senseless. Thus, God could not and did not will that women be kept uneducated under penalty of death.

So, why the “night letters” if they are not the will of God? Well, those posting them might believe they are right. But, the real reason is that religion is being used as a tool of abuse and oppression. This does not mean that religion itself is evil, just that it is once again being employed for an evil purpose.

Philosophy of Phinances…Finances

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2007

Recently a student asked me for financial advice. Since I’m a philosophy professor this had two results. First, I had the thought that this was rather odd. I am, after all, a philosophy professor and one does not generally associate financial advice with philosophers. Second, I gave the requested advice. I am, after all, a philosophy professor and we have something to say about everything. What follows is the advice I came up with, sorted by category. Yeah, I’ve got a thing about order and categories. Most philosophers do.



Credit Cards

On the plus side, credit cards help you build your credit history and they provide a more secure means of making purchases (for example, most credit cards have rather good fraud protection). On the downside, credit cards can be sirens of financial ruin. They are quick and easy to use and whether the amount is $5 or $5,000 the transaction looks the same-there is not that feeling one gets when handing over cash. So, it is all too easy to spend way too much. Then, there is the interest rates-most students will end up with cards that have horrible rates. My overall advice is to get a credit card-preferably one that provides rewards like cash back. Steer clear of cards that offer odd point systems that only allow you to get junk. Use the card but be sure to pay it off each month. This will enable you to build a good credit rating, have secure purchases and get rewards while avoiding the interest. If you know you cannot be disciplined in your spending, then it might be best to not even have a card.



While most college students don’t think about investing, this is actually a good time to start. Investing effectively involves using your resources wisely and effectively. While most college students do not have much money, they tend to be young and this provides a valuable resource: time. This time can be used many ways. One way is to use the time to take risks, such as investing in promising new companies that might be the next Google…or the next big disaster. If your investments go bad, then you have time to try again. Another way is to use the time to avoid risks. Since you have plenty of time you can afford to make solid, low risk investments. You won’t make an instant bundle, but you will be building wealth over time.


I’m not an investment expert. If I were, I’d be dictating this in my beach house to my secretary. Meanwhile, my super-model masseuses would be rubbing my back and…well, you get the picture. But, I do have some general useful advice.


First, “you will win with sin.” Companies that deal in human sin (greed, lust, etc.) tend to be big money makers. Sadly, truly ethical companies and companies that try to do morally good acts tend to profit little in terms of finances. This can be confirmed by looking at the top companies. These tend to be involved in tobacco, alcohol, exploiting natural resources, and so forth. Of course, you will want to avoid companies that are stupidly evil-like Enron used to be before it tanked. Of course, there is the moral price of investing in companies that profit from human sins to consider.


Second, “never gamble more than you can lose.” If you plan to invest now, use money that you do not need for critical things like food and rent. Even if an investment seems good, it can still go bad (like Enron).


Third, “investing is better than banking.” While you should try to have some cash reserves for those problems that appear, you’ll get far more return on investments than in putting money in a bank account. Bank interest is low yield and generally does not even match inflation. Thus, you are actually losing money when you have it in such an account-each year the money buys that much less stuff. There are high yield savings accounts that are worth looking into, though. They provide a decent interest rate while also leaving you with quick access to your money.


Fourth, “etrading is the way to go.” A good broker can be worth a lot, but they tend to also cost a great deal. If you are reasonably intelligent, it is worth your time to set up an account with a reputable and safe online service to do your trading and buying. On the downside, you’ll be on your own. This can be bad.



When I was a college student, most students did not have cars. Today, most students seem to be driving better vehicles than most professors. On one hand, a car can be very important for transport to campus, shopping and socializing. On the other hand, cars are expensive and parking is always a problem. I made it through my college career without owning a car, but I did have friends who had cars. Plus, I went to school in places that were very pedestrian and bike friendly.


 My advice is that you are better off avoiding buying a vehicle if you can. Of course, if your parents just hand you the keys to a new car or SUV, then you are all set.



While work provides income, it is actually best to work as little as possible while in school. First, work tends to interfere with one’s education. When you are working, you are not studying or in class. Work tends to tire people out so they do worse in classes. Of course, many students have to work in order to even be in school. Second, in most cases the money you make working a job without your degree will be tiny when compared what you can make when you finish your degree. So, if you take extra time to graduate because you fail classes due to work or are unable to take the needed hours, then you are actually losing money. So, it is better to work less and graduate sooner-you’ll end up making more money.



Debt is bad. Avoid it if you can. It can be hard to do, so you’ll want to focus on minimizing the debt damage. This can be done by keeping your spending as low as possible-forgo luxuries as much as you can. It can also be done by getting the least bad kind of debt-low interest student loans. Be careful when shopping for loans-some are good and are actually intended to help students. Others are not so good. As always, assume people are out to screw you over when you are dealing with money. Be on guard, do research and read everything before signing.



Do not get married. Marriage is a 50-50 thing. By this, I do not mean that both partners need to contribute (that would be nice). By this I mean that statistically there is a 50% chance that you will be losing 50% of your stuff. This is because the divorce rate has been about 50% and the typical divorce laws result in the other person getting his/her half. If you foolishly insist on getting married, keep the wedding modest. Apparently it is an important day to women, but it is still just one day (or rather, a small part of a day). It doesn’t make good sense to incur huge expenses just for such an event. Also very important is to marry someone who has at least as much stuff and income as you. That way when the marriage fails you will come out even.


A person might reply by bringing up the matter of love. I think love is great and consider real love to be up there with truth and goodness (all three are of great value…and incredibly rare). But, marriage is not about love-it is about economics. If marriage was about love, when a divorce took place people would presumably just say “I don’t love you anymore” and that would be that. But that is not how divorces play out-divorces are a contest over the stuff. Yes, I am cynical about this. But, not to worry, if you get married you’ll be cynical, too. Or not-I really hope not. 🙂

Myspace Spam Back in Force

Posted in Miscellaneous, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2007

The Eternal War of Spam marches on. When the Myspace tech people added some new measures to prevent Spam, I noticed a huge drop in the crap coming into my inbox. But, as in all wars, the arms race has continued. The evil spammers have found a way to get around these measures and the spam has returned. I have notcied a new tactic in the Myspace spam-the spammer poses as a hot chick and writes an email as if s/he knows the recipient. For example:

“Hey, what’s up? you look sooo familiar! I believe we got drunk together in a party last week. Are you the guy that took Jessica home? Jessica told me she had a wonderful time with you!
Anyway Jessica is becoming more and more sexy. Here’s the link to Jessica’s private pictures, PLEASE do not give this out to anyone this is for you ONLY!”

It is a somewhat clever approach in that most Myspace users probably have been rather drunk and at a party in the last week. Also, it does take the classic approach of trying to make the recipient feel special. It is the same tactic that salespeople have been using for years (“I wouldn’t sell the car at this price to anyone else…but for you I’ll knock $500 right off the top”). Also, the promise of naked pictures probably is quite a lure to some people.

Spam tells us a great deal about the world. I’d like a better world, please. 🙂

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Headset with (Bad) Attitude

Posted in Humor, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2007

I recently picked up a new Xbox 360 headset. I had to do this because Microsoft makes a great deal of (to be technical) ‘crap that breaks.’ So far, the death total is: 1 Xbox 360 (Red Ring of Death), one controller, and 3 headsets. Oddly enough, this blog is not about the evils of Microsoft, but about the packaging for the headset in question.

As I was saying before my Microsoft rant, I bought a Plantronic headset for the Xbox. The set itself is decent (I should hope so-these guys designed the headsets for the moon landings) but the package text is not so decent. The text refers to the user’s friends as “know-it-all, bench-warming trash talkers you call ‘friends'” which seems needlessly hostile. It also gets right down to the avowed purpose of the headset-to “verbally devastate foes” using the mic boom that “flexes to fit your trash talking maw.”

I know that the hip, soul-patched marketing minions put together the text to appeal to the target audience. The text shows that they know this audience well. As I related in an earlier blog, trash-talking is the dominate thing in online gaming. I am somewhat surprised that the package did not say something like “Our headset is so cool that you can scream ‘fag’ out of your hateful maw and your gay foes will clearly and distinctly know that their sexual orientation has been soul-patched with your verbal devastation!”

Yes, I know it is just a headset. But, there really seems to be no need to give more encouragement to people to behave even worse than they already do.

Oh, as far as the headset itself goes, I like it. It does hold well to my ear without being irritating. It also has a volume control (I use that often) and a mic off/on switch. My only real gripe is that the mic boom rotates too easily and does not lock in place-mine gets turned around so that my verbal onslaughts sometimes get a bit muted. That was easily fixed by a bit of electrical tape, though. I got mine on sale for $20-about the same price as Microsoft’s crappy headset.

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