A Philosopher's Blog

Keeping Dead iPods in Use

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 29, 2008

iPods and many other MP3 players have built in batteries. Like all batteries, these batteries will eventually die. iPods and some other players are notoriously bad in regards to user access. For example, while it is possible to open an iPod mini, doing so would be quite a challenge to most people. Some of the players do allow easy user access to the built in battery and it is thus possible to replace it after the original battery fails. For example, I have a nifty little Sandisk player that I can easily take apart and replace the battery. Of course, there is still the problem of getting the right battery when your’s finally dies. And, of course, there is the matter of cost. If the battery costs enough, then it would make more sense to buy a newer and better player than to spend money replacing the battery.

When an MP3 player’s internal battery dies and it is not something you want to (or can) replace, it is tempting to just throw the player away. This would be a waste in two ways. First, it would add to the waste being dumped into landfills. Second, you’d be throwing away a useful piece of equipment.

In terms of the usefulness, even with a dead battery an MP3 player is still a functioning piece of hardware-provided it can get power. First, most MP3 players can be used as drives-when plugged in to a PC you can drag and drop files to and from them. Thus, a battery dead player can be revived as a portable storage device. Since they are typically designed to be used on the go, they tend to be sturdier than the typical storage device, thus making them quite appealing in this role. Second, you can buy an adapter (wall socket or car) that will let you power the player. While this obviously is not an option for being fully mobile (unless you have a really long extension cord) it is an excellent way to provide music in your vehicle or in a room. For example, I have a 7 year old Creative Nomad player plugged into a sound system. It is not cutting edge, but it sounds just fine-and is far cheaper than setting up one of those expensive audio streaming devices. As another example, I have an original iPod mini that I use in my truck. I have a $15 adapter that powers it just fine. I can also use it to transport files. So, I can have my tunes and feel smugly righteous as I drive to and from work and races.

If you don’t want to re-use your old MP3 player, at least try to donate it to someone. It is better to have it stay in use than to have it become mere waste.

Race, Gender and Prison Populations

Posted in Law, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on February 29, 2008

America is a world leader in many ways. Unfortunately, one of these ways is in the percentage of the population in prison. According to recent statistics there are 2,319,258 Americans in prison. This is about 1% of the adult population. This puts us ahead of all other countries -even China (1.5 million in prison).

While the overall average is that 1 in 100 adults are in jail, the numbers are different when gender and race are taken into account. For all males 20-34 the number is 1 in 30. For black males in that age range, the number is 1 in 9. For women 35-39, there is 1 white woman in jail out of every 355. For black women the number is 1 in 100.

What is also of concern is the amount of tax money being spent on prisons. The national average per prisoner is $23,876 per year. Rhode Island tops the nation in spending at $44,860 and Louisiana is at the bottom with $13,009. States spend about 6.8% of their general fund budget on prisons. Four states (Vermont, Michigan, Oregon and Connecticut) spend more on corrections than they spend on higher education.

Interestingly, the increase in prison populations and spending has not been caused primarily by an increase in crime. For example, Kentucky had a 600% increase in prisoners while only experiencing about a 3% increase in crime. Thus, there must be another factor contributing to the increase.

Many experts attribute the increase to tougher sentencing. For example, the famous “three strikes” rule has lead to an increase in the time people spend in prison. An increase in sentence time increases the prison population by keeping the same people in prison longer. So, even if crime increases only a small amount (or even if it decreases somewhat), prison populations will begin to expand. To use an analogy, imagine a high school that extends the graduation time from four years to twelve. Even if the number of incoming freshmen remains the same, the school population will swell dramatically.

These numbers are rather worrisome.

First, there are the overall numbers.

While many people see prisons as a cure for crime (like a hospital is a cure for disease) this is not the case. Prisons clearly do not cure crime. If they did, America would have the lowest crime rates in the world.

However, the analogy between prisons and the hospitals does hold in one respect: having a significant number of people in either indicates something is seriously wrong. In the case of a significant hospital population, one would infer a major health problem. In the case of the prisons, it indicates a major social problem. In the case of a health problem, building more hospitals and not addressing the cause of the problem would hardly be an effective solution. While it would treat the effects of the problem, the problem itself would remain and thus would continue to put people in the hospitals. The same is true of prisons. Building more of them without addressing the causes of crime merely means we have more places to put the people who will become criminals.


Second, the disparity in terms of gender is of concern.

While women are committing more crimes now than in the past, most prisoners are men. The obvious reason is that men commit more crimes. Of course, the question remains why this is the case. Some suggest that men and women are naturally different in ways that lead more men to crime. Other suggest that it is a matter of differences in socialization. In any case, the fact is that men vastly outnumber women in the prison population.

In any other area, the feminists would be throwing a fit about such a great disparity. Obviously, most feminists do not complain about this disparity and some use it as evidence that men are bad. Interestingly, the factors that lead to the disparity in crime probably also lead to the disparity elsewhere. As Kant pointed out, the traits that enable success for good also enable “success” in what is bad-what makes the difference is the goodness or badness of the will.

Whatever the reason, the fact that men end up in prison in such disproportionate numbers does seem to indicate a problem. If it is a result of natural inclinations, ways need to be found to channel those inclinations in other ways. If it is the result of socialization, then changes would need to be made that would result in less crime. Obviously, this is not a simple problem and would require a significant investment in resources even to begin to figure out the nature of the problem. However, such an investment offers something that prisons do not-a chance to actually have less crime.

Third, the ethnic disparities raise serious concerns.

As noted above, 1 in 9 black males in the 20-34 age range are in prison. With such numbers it is no surprise that this is something that is easily noticed. For example, the majority of my black students are women. One reason why there are fewer black males in college is that a large number of college aged black men are in prison. In the case of women, the percentage of black women in prison is also significantly higher than that of white women. This raises the obvious question: why is there such a disparity?

The easy and obvious answer is that blacks commit more crimes than whites. Even if it granted that this is true (thus laying aside reasonable concerns about racial biases in convictions and sentencing) a very important question still remains: why, then, are blacks committing more crimes?

Some people might suggest that it is a matter of race-black people are more inclined to criminal activity than whites. This nicely fits into centuries of racial stereotypes, but is unsupported by any actual evidence establishing the claimed causal link between race and crime (that is to say, evidence that shows that the qualities that are supposed to make a person black also incline that person to being a criminal).

A better approach is to look beyond race and consider the factors that incline people to crime. In general, social factors (education, opportunity, etc.) have a significant effect on whether a person turns to crime or not.

In the United States, minorities are denied social goods (education, opportunity, etc. ) more so than whites. This denial helps contribute to crime in many ways. One way is that people who are denied such goods still have needs and ambitions. If these needs and ambitions cannot be satisfied by legitimate means, then people will tend to turn towards illegal means. Another way is that people who are denied such goods feel less inclined to respect and obey a system that denies them such goods. This would tend to incline people towards crime. Since minorities tend to be denied the social goods more than whites, this would account for the disparity.

Given that these social injustices contribute to crime, it makes more sense to use resources to address these problems as opposed to spending more on prisons. Diverting funds from constructive social projects (like education) to prisons merely helps ensure that more people will end up in those prisons.

This is not to say that all crime can be solved by fixing fundamental social injustices. But, it would go a long way in taking a bite out of crime.





Is Russia a Threat to the United States?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2008

A common view is that Russia ceased to be a viable threat to the United States when the Soviet Union fell apart. While the fall of the Soviet Union did diminish Russia’s capabilities, it did not eliminate them. Russia still possesses a significant nuclear, chemical and biological arsenal. No doubt many of the Russian weapon systems are still targeted at the United States (although Russia recently threatened to target the Ukraine) and this obviously still presents a threat to the United States.

It might be argued that while Russia is still well armed, her leaders have no intentions that would threaten the United States. This seems to be unlikely. Russia has been showing clear signs that it has not lost the desire to be a world power and a major player and has done so in ways that put it at odds with the United States. If Russia is going to ascend once more, it almost certainly be at the expense of the United States. This, naturally enough, positions Russia as a potential threat.

Are the Russians likely to attack America? This seems unlikely, given the behavior of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. What I think we can expect to see is a gradual return to some of the hidden conflict of the Cold War as Russia makes deals with countries hostile to America, steps up its espionage efforts and makes trouble for American allies.

One lesson I recall from my days in political science is that Russia has always historically sought to create a buffer zone between itself and potential enemies-hence the formation of the Soviet Union.   Given that Russia has been a favorite target for invaders (Napoleon and Hitler being the most recent) their view is actually quite understandable. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has lost its buffer. Further, the countries around it have been acting in ways that the Russians seem to dislike (hence the recent blustering about targeting Ukraine with nuclear weapons). If Russia follows the historical pattern, then trouble awaits on the horizon.

As we get mired down further into the war on terror, we certainly should not forget about the Russians.

The Nader Dilemma

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 25, 2008

Rumor has it that Ralph Nader plans to run for President once again. As most people will recall, Nader is often credited with keeping Al Gore out of the White House by “stealing” away votes that would have otherwise gone to Gore. Naturally enough, many conservatives are pleased that Nader is running. They know that although he might cost McCain a few votes, he is more likely to pull votes away from the Democrat’s candidate.

The Nader situation presents something of a dilemma.

On one hand, there is good reason to think Nader should run. By doing so, he provides a third party candidate and brings a greater degree of choice to the election. America has long had a two party system, thus leading to a feeble joke I recall from my undergraduate days:

Q: What’s the difference between Soviet and American politics?
A: One party and one candidate.

For those who grew up in a post Soviet world: the Soviets had a one party system in which everyone up for “election” was a communist and there was only one candidate per office.

While some independents do get elected from time to time, the United States is effectively a two party and two candidate country when it comes to many elections. You can pick anyone you want…just as long as s/he is a Democrat or a Republican.

It is ridiculous to believe that even most Americans fall neatly into one or the other parties in terms of their political views. As such, the two party system does not really provide Americans with a proper range of choices and representation. As such, having more alternatives seems desirable.

Obviously, building an effective party takes time (and money). Nader and any other third (or 4th) party candidate will certainly not win the upcoming election or any Presidential election for quite some time. But, without that building up period, there can be no viable 3rd (or 4th or 5th) party. Hence, it could be concluded that Nader should run.

On the other hand, since Nader has no chance of winning perhaps he should not run. By running, he will no doubt be pulling votes away from the Democratic candidate and thus aiding the Republican candidate. Thus, by voting for Nader, people are more likely to help McCain get into office-something his supporters would presumably oppose. After all, Nader’s views are generally closest to the Democrat’s party line. Thus, ironically, by voting for what they believe in they could end up helping put someone in office they disagree with. Of course, the Republicans will probably think Nader should run-for exactly these reasons.

Pre-Human Civilizations

Posted in Science by Michael LaBossiere on February 25, 2008

A while ago I saw the History Channels interesting show on Life After People. I had also read articles on the subject of what would happen to our buildings and works after our time came to an end.

Interestingly, the remains of our civilization would be almost completely eradicated in about 50,000 years. While this seems like a long time, when compared with the estimated age of the earth (4 billion years give or take a few million) and even the origins of our own species (3-6 million years) it is but a blink in time.

Since I like science fiction, I started thinking about what another intelligent species would find if they were to come to earth after our fall. Then I started thinking about whether or not it is possible that we are not the first intelligent species to arise on earth.

Since we are here, we know that intelligent species can arise here. We also know that intelligent species can go extinct. After all, the Neanderthals were apparently quite close to us in capabilities and they passed from the stage of history. So, the idea that a pre-human race could arise and fall is not an impossibility.The fact that the earth has had billions of years to produce such a species also is a point in favor of the hypothesis that it could have happened before.

The obvious problem is, laying aside various conspiracy theories about government cover ups, that no evidence exists of any pre-human intelligent species. As such, claims about the existence of such a species would be pure speculation. However, the lack of evidence for such a species is not conclusion evidence against the claim that there was such a species.

First, consider the fossil record. We as of yet have no fossils that suggest the existence of a pre-human intelligent species. However, intelligent beings are generally good at avoiding situations that tend to produce fossils. Further, such fossils might have existed or might even exist now. We have hardly explored the earth thoroughly enough to be able to claim we have a complete picture of the past. In those gaps in our knowledge might exist a space for an intelligent species.

Second, consider the ruins. We have been able to dig up the ruins of ancient Troy and even much older settlements. It could be argued that if an intelligent race had existed before us, we would find the remains of their civilization. This is a reasonable concern and, obviously, without such evidence the claim that such a species existed would be unsupported. But, given how quickly the evidence of our own civilization would vanish, there is reason to think that such a species could have risen and fallen. Their buildings and works (assuming they were like us in this regard) could have long crumbled to unrecognizable dust.

Naturally, my claim is not that such a species did exist. My claim is much weaker-the evidence is such that such a species could have existed. Sadly, it seems likely that even if they did exist, then their story shall never be known to us or anyone else. Someday, perhaps, long after the end of humanity, some other species will be asking the same questions and wondering if anyone came before them.

Freezing Laptop Batteries

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2008

I have some modest amount of nerdastic powers when it comes to technology, so people often ask me to solve their computer problems. In return, people often dump truly broken hardware on me. Not in the sense of “dropping it on me with the intent of harm”; but rather in the same sense that a person drops junk off at the dump.

Fortunately, I hate to let things go to waste and I love a repair challenge. One recent challenge involved a 1998 Compaq laptop my ex-wife had “beaten to death.” The power supply was dead, the battery was dead and the case was cracked and broken in many places.

Replacing a laptop power supply is fairly easy-numerous companies sell “universal” replacements that come with a variety of tips. I use a Targus adapter that has served me well with a number of rescued laptops.

Fixing a cracked and damaged case is also easy. As long as the damage does not affect the safe operation of the machine, some glue and electrical tape will fix most cosmetic damage. Electrical tape also matches the black of many laptops quite closely.

The battery is a tough part. I had heard that freezing a battery can restore it. Since the laptop battery was dead, I figured it was suitable for an experiment.

The battery itself is a 1998 NI-MH battery for a Compaq 1275 Presario laptop. I took the battery and placed it within a ziplock bag. The bag is important to keep moisture off the battery and to otherwise protect it from what might be in the freezer (like leaking ice-cream).

I froze the battery for 24 hours and then removed it from the freezer. Since the battery was cold, I kept it in the bag to protect it from condensation. I then waited for the battery to warm up. After checking it for damage and wiping it down, I put it in the laptop and let it charge up.

Initially, the battery would take a charge but would discharge in a matter of seconds. The software also failed to recognize the batter. Then I charged the battery for a long time (several hours) and the software recognized the battery and it held a charge. Naturally, the battery is not as good as new and my trust in it’s staying power is quite limited. However, it does work again.

I tried the same technique with a Lithium Ion battery for a a Gateway laptop my ex-wife had also beaten to death. No luck with that. It might be the difference in the battery or it might be that the abuse inflicted on the Gateway damaged the charging mechanism (the titanium case was broken in some places). I did manage to repair its power supply to some degree. The Solo 3350 has a weird connector that apparently was only used in that model and hence my Targus adapter is of no use. It works reasonably well, but the battery is kaput.

So, freezing laptop batteries can return them from the dead. Before you freeze your batteries, I’d suggest only using ones that are already dead. Freezing a battery that is in decent shape might not help it and might actually do it some harm.

The Press & McCain

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2008

As almost everyone knows, the New York Times launched an attack on Senator McCain. The full text of the article can be found here.

While I believe that the media has an important role to play in exposing corruption and misdeeds on the part of politicians, journalists need to base such exposures on adequate evidence. After all, without evidence such assertions are just that-mere assertions and hence should not be accepted as true. Journalists also should retain their professional objectivity-when a journalist is writing to further an agenda, then that person has crossed over from being a journalist to being a propagandist. Yes, everyone has a view that colors his or her perception. But reporters have an obligation to overcome that bias and to try to present the information in an objective manner. If a reported cannot do that, then s/he should make it clear that s/he is writing an opinionated editorial piece and not actual reporting the news. The NY Times article seems to sin on both accounts-it is not adequately supported and certainly seems to cross the line between merely reporting the news and being an intentional attack aimed at a political purpose (harming McCain’s chances of being President).

“A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.”

While reporters do need to rely on anonymous sources, there are significant problems with using them as evidence for claims.

The first problem is a straightforward matter in the realm of critical thinking. When a journalist (or anyone) cites a source to support a claim they are using an argument from authority. The basic idea is that the claim should be accepted as true because the person cited is a legitimate expert in the field and is therefore likely to say true things in her field. The quality of the argument rests, naturally enough, on the quality of the alleged expert. The quality of an expert is assessed in terms of a variety of factors such as the person’s education, degree of bias, positions held, and amount of experience. If the expert in question is a legitimate expert, then the claims she makes in her field should be regarded as very plausible and typically accepted as true.

One obvious problem with anonymous sources is that the audience has little, if any, basis upon which to assess the quality of the alleged authority. At most the audience might be given vague information about the person’s job. For example, the source might be identified as “a high government official” or “a military expert on terrorism.” Given such a dearth of information, the audience cannot make a reasonable judgment about the quality of the source and hence cannot reasonably accept the claim as plausible on the basis of the alleged authority.

Of course, journalists do expect the audience to believe these claims. If they did not, they would obviously not bother to report them. Since the authorities are not adequately identified another basis is needed for the audience to rationally accept such claims. In such cases, the audience is supposed to accept that the claims made by source are correct because the journalist accepts them as a legitimate expert. In short, the audience is relying on the critical thinking ability of the journalist. Unfortunately for the audience, journalists are generally not experts in critical thinking nor do they tend to be experts in the areas they are writing about. Because of this lack of expertise, there are reasonable grounds for concern when journalists rely on anonymous sources. To be specific, unless it has been established that the journalist is adequately skilled at assessing the expertise of her sources, then there is no reason to accept the anonymous sources as credible on the basis of the journalist’s say so. This is not to say that the claims should be rejected, but the rational course is to suspend judgment in regards to such claims.

What is also interesting about the article is that it never actually presents any evidence that McCain did anything wrong in the relevant events. As the above quote indicates, there is just the claim that certain unnamed people said they believed that McCain might be involved with the woman. That is certainly far from a solid foundation.

Ironically, if this was intended as an attack on McCain, it might have backfired. It has helped to unite many conservatives with McCain against the assault of the “liberal media.” It has also generated sympathy among some non-conservatives. Most people find apparently baseless innuendo to be unacceptable and this makes Senator McCain look like the victim of an unfair attack. He has also handled the matter with great restraint-thus enhancing his standing in the eyes of some.

If the NY Times has solid evidence, then they should bring that forward and settle the matter. If not, they at least owe Senator McCain and the world an apology.

Standardization in Education

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2008

As part of the trend in assessment and standardization, some university bureaucrats have begun pushing for standardized classes with standardized texts. In general, they do not take the view that they, the non-teaching administrators, should decide what books are used in classes. Rather, the plan is to have departments standardize certain classes in terms of the textbook and content.

To be fair, this proposal has certain merits. First, there are some classes that are aimed at providing a general content that will be needed in the major or in other classes that follow. Standardization can help ensure that such content is provided and that the students are thus prepared for later classes. Second, most schools have a general education curriculum that is supposed to provide a core education. As with the classes in the major, standardizing such classes can help ensure that the students receive the education they need. Third, having standardized classes will simplify things for the faculty, students and the book sellers.

Despite these merits, this proposal has serious flaws. First, there is the matter of academic freedom. One critical aspect of the university system is that the professors have a degree of autonomy and this includes the right to select the material that will be taught. Obviously, professors need to stick within certain rational guidelines. But as long as a professor is doing a competent job, there seems little reason to take away such freedom of choice. An essential part of the intellectual environment is the clash of ideas. Mandated standardization conflicts with this essential part of academics.

Second, students often seek out professors who teach specific material and hence standardizing classes would also restrict their freedom of choice in this matter.

Third, there is the fact that some faculty write text books and hence there would be the potential for a conflict of interest as well as conflict between faculty. For example, if the chair happens to have a text on the market, s/he might be sorely tempted to make it the standard text. As another example, multiple faculty members might have different books out there for sale, thus leading to conflict in regards to which gets adopted.

Fourth, each professor tends to have his/her own style and strengths and they tend to pick texts that match these qualities. For example, one professor might be well versed in the the varieties of feminist ethics and hence select a book with more readings in that area. Another professor might prefer a more informal approach to logic than another and hence select a book that is more informal (and perhaps less dull to the students).

Fifth, if someone is qualified to teach a class, then that person should be qualified to select a suitable text and teach an adequate class. If this is not the case, then standardization will not really solve that problem.  After all, in the standardized scenario there would merely be an incompetent person doing a terrible job trying to follow a standard plan. While this might be somewhat better than an incompetent person following his/her own incompetent plan, it would still be a serious problem. To use an analogy, it would be like saying that the solution to bad drivers getting into accidents is to make sure that everyone has the same car to drive. That would hardly solve the true problem. The solution would be to replace someone who is incompetent with someone who can do the job properly.

Obviously, I’m opposed to standardization. I do, however, agree that faculty are obligated to do a competent job at providing the education students need.  Honesty compels me to say that not all faculty do this and that is a problem. But this problem can be solved without imposing standardization on the faculty. The solution, as noted above, is to deal with incompetence and failings directly.


Posted in Ethics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2008

Amy Sutherland has a book coming out entitled What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage. In this book she discusses how a wife can use the training techniques developed for animals (such as Shamu, the famous killer whale) in order to get her husband to do what she wants. It must be noted that her book is aimed at making a marriage better by reducing conflict and problems. As such, the intent can be seen as laudable.

The idea of conditioning human behavior is a rather old one. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics,outlines his method of moral education. Essentially it is a program of habituation. For example, one becomes brave by being conditioned to face danger (an approach long utilized in military training). After Aristotle others built on this theory such as Pavlov (in his famous dog experiments) and Skinner (in his behaviorist approach). Naturally enough, men have long been regarded by some women as dogs to be trained or domesticated and this often ends up in humor as well.

There are, of course, moral concerns about intentionally using training techniques on someone you love in order to change their behavior. Such an intent seems to be a matter of manipulation and seems to show a lack of respect for the person. It further seems to be based on the assumption that people are not free agents and can be conditioned and controlled. This view of humans is seen as morally repugnant by many people.

That said, there is the obvious fact that people always try to change the behavior of others towards what they would prefer. For example, I try to get my students to learn, write better and do well in class. This is done, in part,  by  motivating them with rewards (good grades) and punishments (bad grades). As another example, if I am interested in dating someone, I would act in ways that I hope would incline her to go out with me. Of course, it could be said that in doing such things I am not using animal training techniques to make a person conform to my will. This, it could be argued, is a morally relevant difference.

While that is a reasonable point, there is the main question of whether such techniques are immoral or not. In the case of pets, the techniques are, in general, morally acceptable.  After all, pets do not have a very good grasp of language and are somewhat limited in terms of their powers of reason. Hence, conditioning techniques are what are needed. In general, such training does benefit the animal. A well trained and well behaved pet is generally happier than a poorly trained and badly behaved pet. After all, a badly behaved pet could well be sent to the shelter or end up creating conflict and unhappiness. For example, a badly trained dog might end up destroying furniture and attacking other dogs or even people. A well trained dog, on the other hand, will not exhibit such bad behavior.  So, the techniques are justified in that they are effective and the end for which they are intended is a good end. Of course, some animal training uses methods that are needlessly brutal and some is aimed at bad ends. In those cases, such training would be morally unacceptable.

Turning to humans, the same sort of justification can be used. If the end is laudable and the means are the most effective, then such conditioning could be justified.

In the case of Sutherland, her goal seems to be to have a better marriage by modifying behavior that creates needless conflict. That seems like a laudable goal. In general, if woman used this technique to create a better marriage in the sense of reducing needless conflict and enhancing domestic tranquility, then the ends would be good.

What, then, about the means? Is it acceptable to use conditioning techniques on humans? Since humans are, one hopes, rational beings (to some extent) it would seem that such techniques would not be acceptable. People should attempt to use reason in order to change the behavior of others.

Naturally, this assumes that people are rational and are governed by rationality. This is sometimes the case, but often not the case. If people were generally rational, they would behave in ways much differently than they do now.  In reality, most people tend to be ruled by their passions and desires and do not submit readily to arguments and fine ideals (to steal from Aristotle). In such cases the only viable option is to use methods that work. As Aristotle argued, habituation does work. Further, merely convincing someone that their behavior is causing problems only rarely causes them to change that behavior and act in ways that would less problematic. In order for someone to actually change and stick with the change, they need to be habituated to change their behavior. This can, of course, be done by the person himself. But it does help to have exterior motivations (such as salsa and chips-as used by Sutherland). To use an analogy, think of exercise. Almost everyone believes that exercise is beneficial. But believing this does not result in most people exercising. To get people to exercise generally requires more motivation. Getting someone to stick with it requires habituation.

Naturally, if such techniques are used to achieve unacceptable ends, then such actions would be immoral. History shows that people can be readily conditioned in ways that are oppressive and abusive. Clearly, such things would be harmful and hence immoral.

In light of the above discussion, it seems that conditioning people can be acceptable-provided that the methods are benevolent and the goals are laudable.

Ripping Books

Posted in Business, Ethics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2008

Copying movies and music is old news. It is easy to do and all attempts to prevent it seem to be doomed to failure. It can probably even be proven that any encryption scheme must be such that it can be bypassed.

One medium that has done well in resisting copying is the printed word. While there have been numerous projects devoted to scanning books and making them available (such as Project Gutenberg and, more controversially, Google’s recent project), books still have two defense mechanisms that help protect them.

First, scanning a book is tedious work. Flatbed scanners do a decent job on a few pages, but scanning an entire book would be an ordeal. After all, you have to manually scan each page. Then the text has to be recognized via OCR software which takes time and is still not error free. Hence, the text will need to be edited-which takes even more time. There are commercial devices that do a better job-but they are very expensive. Given the time and cost of scanning books, this is an excellent defense. Of course, there have been some inroads against this defense (see Steven Levy’s column in the February 18th issue of Newsweek, page 24). For a mere $2,600 you too can have a set up for making copies of books that consists of two cameras and a rig for holding a book in place and in the dark. This is a less tedious than a flatbed scanner, but still very tedious. Also, it is rather expensive. So, it will probably be a while before people start copying new books and sharing them as they do stolen music and movies.

Second, people generally prefer to read a book that is an actual printed text. While Amazon is betting that people will be willing to switch to an electronic device for reading, the printed page is still the favored medium. Copying a song or movie onto your hard drive costs nothing. Printing a book still costs money-unless, of course, you have access to free printing. In most cases, it is obviously easier and cheaper to just buy the actual book rather than steal one by copying and printing it.

Naturally, someone who copied a book could make a profit selling bootleg printed copies. One interesting possibility is that a clever student might copy an expensive textbook and sell copies of it. Since some textbooks can cost over $100, a clever an unscrupulous person could make a tidy profit each semester. In fact, I have heard of students trying to sell photocopies of expensive texts to other students.

People might also be able to sell bootleg copies of bestseller-but selling illegal book copies would present some challenges and would probably have a rather narrow profit margin-assuming it has one at all. Selling a bootleg movie on DVD allows a decent profit since DVDs are cheap. Selling a bootleg book would be far less profitable since the book still has to be printed on paper and bound.

Interestingly, if electronic books succeed, they will obviously change things. Someone will find a way to hack the protection used on commercial electronic books and will then be able to distribute them as easily as people now distribute stolen music and movies. Further, access to professional quality electronic versions of texts (as opposed to the usual scanned versions) will make it possible to create high quality bootleg versions of books. This is because they can be printed right from such files-or after the files have been suitably cracked.

I am reasonably sure that as books go electronic piracy will become a serious problem for the printing industry. It will not, perhaps, be as extensive as the copying of music and movies, but it will still be a problem.