A Philosopher's Blog

Same Sex Marriage & the Slippery Slope

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 30, 2008

California’s Supreme Court recently decided that same sex marriage should be permitted. There are various arguments for and against same sex marriage. Some are good and some are not.

One stock argument was put forth by Justice Marvin R. Baxter: “Who can say that in 10, 15 or 20 years, an activist court might not rely on the majority’s analysis to conclude, on the basis of a perceived evolution in community values, that the laws prohibiting polygamous and incestuous marriages were no longer constitutionally justified?”(LA Times)

On one hand, this could be regarded as a reasonable argument. After all, the justice seems to be contending that a gradual process that began with same sex marriage could lead California to accept what appear to be clearly immoral marriages.

On the other hand, this could be seen as a slippery slope fallacy. After all, there does seem to be quite a distance between allowing monogamous same sex marriages and allowing polygamous and incestuous marriages. While the justice does note that it could take 10-20 years, he does not really make a solid case as to why this terrible result would inevitably arise from allowing same sex marriage. Also, his “who can say” remark could also be seen as a fallacious appeal, specifically the “who is to say” fallacy. This could also be regarded as an appeal to ignorance. In this case, the justice’s poor reasoning would be that because we don’t know that this decision won’t lead to polygamy and incestuous marriage being legalized it follows that it could happen. However, the burden of proof is on him to argue that this is a likely possibility. While it could happen it could also not happen.

A matter also worth considering is his worry that community values might change and allow things that he presumably regards as immoral. The very nature of democracy is such that the law is supposed to be based on the will of the majority. Hence, his view could be seen as undemocratic. This can be countered by the view that democracies cannot be allowed to be true democracies otherwise they would fall into injustice. After all, there have to be limits on what people can vote for and bring about. The challenge is trying to determine what these legitimate limits should be.

Having been divorced, I think that one wife is probably one too many, but a case could be made for polygamy. The main moral arguments against it tend to be based on the fact that polygamy is usually practiced in an unjust manner and typically involves the oppression of women by men. While that sort of marriage is morally unacceptable, it is not unacceptable because of the multiple spouses but because of the oppression. It seem possible, but unlikely, that a non-oppressive and morally acceptable polygamy could exist. If so, I have no moral objection against it.

Incestuous marriage is clearly unacceptable. This can be argued for on psychological grounds in terms of the harms as well as genetic grounds. However, as noted above, there seems to be a significant distance between accepting same sex marriage and the acceptance of incestuous marriage.

Although I have come to believe that the disadvantages of marriage outweigh the advantages, I believe that adults should have the right to enter into such unions. As such, I accept same sex marriage. I also support same sex divorce-the next logical step after same sex marriage.

Blogs & Books

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2008

One fond dream of most bloggers is that a major publisher will recognize their snarky wit or their witty snark and offer a substantial cash advance on a book. The publishers also seem to believe that blogs are potential mines for book gold.

One major success was the Hipster Handbook. This book, by Robert Lanham has sold about 40,000 copies since 2003. Recently, Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like blog garnered him a $350,000 advance from Random House. Not a bad chunk of change for humorous stereotypes. The book will have to sell about 100,000 copies in order for Random House to make back what it paid out in the advance. That would be an amazingly successful book.

While publishers are willing to hand out such piles of money, it is not without its risk. For example, the Gawker blog racks up major hits, but the book has apparently sold less than 1,000 copies in a year. The bloggers were allegedly paid $250,000 for the deal. Making $250 per copy is a rather amazing profit (assuming that the publisher does not take back the advance).

Nielsen. The fashion and lifestyle news- letter DailyCandy was another flop: its highly anticipated 2006 release has sold 11,000 copies. For Random House to earn back its advance on “Stuff White People Like,” it’ll have to sell 100,000 copies—a figure that would likely land the book on the best-seller lists. Next up on the reading list: how to get a book deal by blogging—and get people to buy it.

In some ways, the publishers’ approach to books based on blogs feels just a bit like internet investments of the 1990s. People see something cool and popular and then throw cash it in the hopes that it will spit back even more cash. In some cases this has worked. In some cases it has not.

Naturally, every book is something of a risk. A first book can be extremely risky since there is no track record of sales. One must estimate and guess how well the book will do based on other factors. In the case of blogs, the publishers most likely estimate sales based on similar books, the blog hits and the buzz about the book deal. While these factors do provide a guide, they can be very misleading.

First, blogs are (in general) free to read. The publisher must make money by selling books, so going from the popularity of a free product to the success of a paid product can be problematic.

Second, blogs tend to be rather short. A long blog typically is little more than a short essay. While books can, of course, be made up of short parts (like collections of essays or cartoons) going from the success of the blog to the success of the book can be problematic. After all, one must wonder whether the blog will transfer well to the book medium. In the case of newer blogs, there is the obvious question of whether there will be enough material to actually create a book. If there is not, there is the question of whether the blogger can create enough material of the same quality for the book. To use an analogy, think of the popular YouTube videos of cats doing funny things. While these videos get many views, the market for a full length DVD movie of cats doing funny things is most likely not very large.

Third, blogs are read online and are mostly visited by the sort of people who spend time online. These are not always the same people who buy books. Hence, the fact that a blog site is getting swamped with hits does not mean that most of the readers are book buyers.

Fourth, blog books are often just printed versions of existing blog posts. While there is an appeal to having a printed book to read, it can be difficult to sell people something they can get for free and probably already have read. Of course, many successful books are based on material that has already been released and people buy books that they could get online for free. For example, books that are out of copyright such as Dracula, Frankenstein and Alice in Wonderland still sell quite well in bookstores. The publisher just has to be sure that the blog book is something that people will want in print.

Although I already have had book deals, I’m always looking for a another one. So, if you are a publisher with a few hundred thousand dollars lying around, I’d be happy to give the bills a new home. I’ll even put a funny cat clawing something white people like on the cover.

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Robots & Marriage

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 28, 2008

Science fiction has long dealt with the subject of robots, love and marriage. Sometimes, as in the works of Asimov, the stories are quite serious.

Sometimes, as in the movie Heavy Metal, the stories are intended to be humorous.  In 2007 David Levy’s book Love and Sex With Robots was published and stirred up the discussion once again.

Levy puts forth the hypothesis that someday humans will marry robots. This is something that has been discussed over the years in science fiction and does raise various philosophical concerns.

Discussing marriage is a rather problematic thing. There are, of course, the obvious emotional issues regarding marriage which makes it a subject that many find difficult to discuss rationally. There is also the more philosophic problem that arises because the concept of marriage itself is rather controversial and difficult. The following discussion will try, in a small way, to sort out robot-human marriages.

The legal question is easy: the legality of human-robot marriage will be whatever the law states. Currently, tradition and law tend to forbid humans from marrying non-humans. As such, in most cases laws would have to be changed to allow humans to marry robots. But, this is something for lawyers, judges and lawmakers to hash out.

The philosophical aspects of the matter are, of course, rather difficult. In something as short and informal a s a blog, I can only broadly paint some of the issues and concerns.

One important matter is the definition of marriage. If we take marriage as being between two humans, one male and one female, then robots cannot marry humans. Of course, this view of marriage would also prevent humans from marrying aliens. While this is not of concern now (or so it seems), humans might one day encounter a compatible species or species and desire to marry. Hence, this definition of marriage seems a bit too narrow.

One way to approach the matter of who should be allowed to marry is to consider the purpose of marriage. Obviously, this varies from person to person.

Some take the purpose of marriage to be the production of children. Humans and robots cannot produce children naturally, and hence on this view they cannot marry. Of course, on this view anyone who cannot have children or does not want to have children would also be forbidden to marry and this seems to be unfair. Anyone who wishes to take this view would need to provide a convincing argument as to why everyone who is married must have children and why those who cannot or do not want to have children must not get married (or must divorce if they are married now). Good luck with that.

Some take the purpose of marriage to be an expression of love between two people.  In order for robots to marry humans, they would thus need to be people and be capable of love.  However, the love requirement for marriage would also prevent many human marriages. People often marry for reasons other than love. If robot-human marriages are to be banned on this basis, then human-human marriages would require a love test as well. If it is merely a matter of saying the words, then robots could pass the test.  If the existence of a true and metaphysical love must be proven, then no one would be able to pass the test. The person requirement does seem to be reasonable, though. Perhaps it is better to turn away from the purpose of marriage and instead focus on whether a robot can be the sort of being a human should marry.

So, the question is: can a robot be the sort of being a human should marry? Interestingly, a similar question can be asked about humans. After all, people ask themselves: “is she the sort of woman I should marry?” What then, is the sort of being that a human should marry?

One basic requirement would seem, as noted above, to be being a person. After all, toasters and Xbox 360s are not the sort of things that people marry. They are, after all, things and are not capable of entering into the sorts of relationships that serve as the basis for marriage and they are not people.

Of course, many people fail miserably at providing the sorts of relationships that should be the basis of marriage. As such, the requirements for marriage will have to be kept fairly low. Unless, of course, we want to take steps to eliminate low quality marriages across the board. This might actually make the world a happier place.

So, if a robot can be a person and meet the minimal marriage requirements, then it would seem that robots could marry humans.

There is also a further consideration. A modern view of marriage is that those involved should comprehend the situation and be able to give their consent to marriage (the “I do” thing). Of course, human-human marriages do not always involve these two elements. Arranged marriaged and forced marriaged have long been practiced and do not involved consent. Sometimes they involve children who do not comprehend the situation. However, from a moral standpoint, these two factors seem imporant in distinguishing a marriage from the mere acquisition of property (which is how some marriages actuall are).

So, for a robot to enter into marriage, it would need to comprehend the situation and also be able to provide consent. This would require that the robot be intelligent and a free agent. Obviously, a machine could be programmed to say that it understands and to say “I do”, but for it to be a marriage the robot would have to, it would seem, be a person and acting freely. Thus, if a robot can be truly married, it must be capable of freely choosing the marriage.

Then again, as noted above, if marriage is regarded as merely an economic arrangement, a human could simply take possession of a robot and consent and comprehension would not matter. While those of a more liberal mindset might not regard it as a real marriage, it would be on par with many human marriages.  After all, many humans have been quite content to have a spouse as a possession.

There have also been various concerns raised about the consequences of allowing human-robot marriages. One concern, which was parodied in Futurama, was that men will find robot women so appealing that they will abandon their attempts to win over human females. Naturally, dire consequences are supposed to follow-such as the fall of civilization. Interestingly enough, this sort of thing is already happening.  Some Japanese males prefer to have hassle free “relationships” with virtual women (software).

In many ways, this is nothing new.  Some males ( especially those known as dorks, nerds and geeks) have become involved with technology (computers, video game consoles, etc.) and end spending far more time with their tech than with women. This is often seen as both sad and problematic. Obviously, if nerds could buy or build their own wives, then they might never leave their house (or their parents’ basement).

While this might seem comedic, there are some grounds for worry. Relationships with people are often messy, annoying and costly. Now, imagine if you could get an ideal spouse-one literally made for you to be just what you want. That would seem to be rather appealing.

But, one might ask, what impact would this have on individuals and society? I doubt that it would lead to the collapse of civilization. But, I suspect that it would have some harmful consequences-mostly an extension of the harms arising from spending too much time with technology and not enough time with other humans.

But, one might reply, what if the machines can supply us with the “human” contact we need? What if they were so human that we could not tell the difference? What if having the “perfect spouse” made people happy?

Robot Sex

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2008

Science fiction has long dealt with the subject of robots and love. Sometimes, as in the works of Asimov, the stories are quite serious.

Sometimes, as in the movie Heavy Metal, the stories are intended to be humorous.  In 2007 David Levy’s book Love and Sex With Robots was published and stirred up the discussion once again.

From a philosophical standpoint, the matters of robots, sex and love are quite interesting and raise various important questions. Some of these questions are rather easy to answer and will be dealt with first.

The easiest question to answer is “will humans have sex with robots?” The obvious answer is “yes.” Humans already have sex with objects (such as the infamous blow up dolls) and machines (vibrators). In fact, using a rather broad definition of “robot”, sex robots are already in production.

Another easy question to answer is whether humans can love robots or not. The obvious answer is “yes.” It is well established that humans can love objects (such as money, art, machines, houses, boats, and so on).  As such, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that humans can love robots. It is certainly possible that some people already do so For example, someone might already love his or her  Roomba.

A tougher question is whether humans should have sex with robots. If the robot is simply a non-conscious machine, then the morality of having sex with it is the same as having sex with any other object (such as a vibrator or sex doll).  As such, there is really nothing new from a moral standpoint in this matter.

But, the matter becomes more complex if the robot in question is intelligent. Science fiction has featured intelligent, human like robots (commonly known as androids). Intelligent beings, even artificial ones, seem to have an excellent claim on being persons. In this case, having sex with an intelligent robot would be morally equivalent to having sex with a human person. As such, whether the robot can freely consent or not would be a morally important matter. If intelligent robots were constructed as sex toys, this would be the moral equivalent of enslaving humans for the sex trade (which is, of course, routinely done).

It might be argued that an intelligent robot would not be morally on par with a human since it would still be a thing. However, aside from the fact that the robot would be a manufactured being and a human is a natural being, there would be seem to be no relevant difference between them. The intelligence of the robot would seem to be what it important.

It might also be argued that even an intelligent robot would not be self aware and hence not a person. It would seem to be a person, but would merely be acting like a person. This is a point well worth considering. The main problem is that the same sort of argument could be made about humans. Humans (sometimes) behave in an intelligent manner, but there is no way to determine if another human is actually self aware. This is the problem of other minds: all I can do is see your behavior and infer that you are self aware based on analogy to my own case. Hence, I do not know that you are aware since I cannot be you. From your perspective, the same is true about me. As such, if a robot acted in an intelligent manner, it would seem that it would have to be regarded as being a person on those grounds.

In reply, some people believe that other people can be used as they see fit. Those who would use a human as a thing would see nothing wrong about using an intelligent robot as a mere thing.

The obvious response to this is to use reversing the situation-no sane person would wish to be treated as a mere thing and hence they cannot consistently accept using other people in that manner.

Those with religious inclinations would probably bring up the matter of the soul. But, the easy reply is that we have as much evidence that robots have souls as we do for humans having souls. This is to say, none at all.

Another moral concern is that people will buy sex robots and become socially isolated from others. This is a reasonable concern, but is not specific to sex robots. After all, people buy all sorts of things that end up isolating them from others. These include video games, pornography, computers and drugs. As such, this moral issue is also nothing new and just falls under discussions about other things that lead people to being alone with their purchases.

In sum, it seems that sex with robots does not really bring up anything new from a moral perspective.

The discussion will continue with robots and marriage.

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NARAL’s Endorsement

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2008

Newsweek recently had an article discussing how Obama and McCain are competing to get the support of women who support Hillary.

This matter is, of course, a fairly serious one. There are a significant number of women who support Hillary and they will be important votes in the upcoming election. Also of importance are groups that are primarily considered woman’s groups, such as the pro-choice group NARAL. This matter also raises various concerns about gender and sexism.

To focus the discussion, I’ll be considering the matter of NARAL.

Recently NARAL decided to endorse Barrack Obama. There reasoning seems to be that Obama’s pro-choice credentials are as good as Hillary Clinton’s and he is probably going to win the nomination. NARAL, like other pro-choice groups, is concerned about defeating McCain. Interestingly enough, many people believe that McCain is pro-choice when, in fact, he is (or claims to be) pro-life.

Hillary supporters were, of course, very dismayed by the NARAL endorsement. On the NARAL web site there have been some rather negative comments. Some of these, such as the one presented from “Kayla” in the Newsweek article, follow the usual pattern of resentment: an expression of anger followed by a threat to abandon the group.

From a rational standpoint, these angry responses seem to be rather foolish. After all, Obama and Hillary vote in essential the same manner in regards to pro-choice issues and both have 100 % ratings from NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Supporting Obama hardly seems to be be something that should cause NARAL members to feel “shame.”

Of course, from an emotional standpoint it makes complete sense. People just feel the way they do and just vent their feelings in ways that are only weakly influenced by reason. Those who are devoted to Hillary have sometimes come to regard Obama as the enemy and hence NARAL’s support of him is regarded as an act of shameful treason against Hillary. One obvious motivation for this feeling is that Hillary is a woman and hence it is not surprising that some women see her as entitled to the support of NARAL. After all, they might think, no man can be as pro-choice a woman and perhaps no man can understand it as a woman can.

In short, there certainly seems to be a strong element of sexism in the view that Hillary is somehow entitled to the support of NARAL and that NARAL’s endorsement of Obama justifies people in feeling shame and deciding to abandon their support of the organization.

It could be replied that NARAL’s endorsement of Obama is disrespectful because Hillary has a longer involvement with the group and hence has a great claim on their support. This motivation would, of course, not be a sexist one. It would be based on a reasonable principle that established loyalty should count and be rewarded. In this case, the young upstart Obama would be regarded as “stealing” the endorsement after only a few years serving the pro-choice cause. In contrast, Hillary has long been involved with the group and the pro-choice cause and hence had a right to expect NARAL’s endorsement.

From a political standpoint, NARAL runs the risk of alienating some of its supporters. But, it seems very likely that Obama will be the nominee for the Democrats and I suspect that those who are now miffed at NARAL will come back into the fold once he is the nominee. Unless, of course, they would rather express their anger by supporting the pro-life McCain in the fall. That would certainly teach NARAL to endorse a man.

Tanning Beds

Posted in Business, Ethics, Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on May 23, 2008

Tanning Bed

While the sun provides free tanning, it is not always reliable. This is why people often turn to tanning beds.  When I first heard of tanning beds (or “fake bakes” as they were called), they struck me as a bad idea. My view was supported by various tanning bed horror stories told to me by one of my grad school roommates. She was a nurse, so she had first hand experience with the various negative consequences of tanning beds.

While the dangers of skin cancer have been well publicized, people continue to use tanning beds. Part of this is due to the fact that the tanned look has remained popular and is considered a sexy look.  This has not always been the case. Many years ago, the pale look was considered the proper look for white women. Another part of the reason is that the Indoor Tanning Association has been conducting a pro-tanning ad campaign. The campaign addresses the health concerns about tanning by making use of findings about vitamin D. As has long been known, the body will naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is rather important and has various health benefits.

However, what the ITA campaign fails to mention is that a person can get enough sunlight to generate an adequate amount of vitamin D fairly quickly.  For pale people, the needed exposure time is about 10 minutes. People with darker skin will need about twenty minutes. Further, people can get vitamin D via dietary supplements or as part of food. For people living in areas with inadequate natural sunlight, tanning beds can provide a means of getting UV light. However, for most people the tanning bed is not a good choice. It can also present a health danger. The main danger is, of course, skin cancer.

Skin cancer cases have been increasing since the 1970s. Part of this is due to changing behavior and dress, part is also due to environmental changes and part seems to be due to tanning beds.

The prime demographic for tanning beds are 15-29 year old females and this group has a larger incidence of skin cancer than males of the same age. Dr. Anir Dhir, a dermatologist in Lexington, Kentucky notes that of the  800 cases of melanoma he has treated, “60 of them were in women younger than 30 years old, and all of them were avid tanning-bed users.” Newsweek, March 19 These findings are typical, thus indicating a connection between tanning beds and cancer. This is hardly surprising. It has been established that UV exposure is a causal factor in skin cancer and tanning beds expose people to UV radiation.

It might be wondered why tanning beds are still legal, given that they seem to be clearly a threat to health. The answer is the same as for tobacco-money and organization. The indoor tanning industry brings in about $5 billion a year and has the well organized ITA to fend off attacks.

As with tobacco, most users of tanning beds know that what they are doing is risky. The attitude of many people is best expressed by  Alex Lloyd. She goes to the tanning salon five days each week. She is aware of the risk, but ignores it. In her words: “A lot of people tell me I do it too much, blah, blah, blah. But I just don’t care.” Newsweek, March 19.

From a moral and health standpoint, it seems that she is making the wrong choice in not caring. After all, she is intentionally putting her health at risk in return for merely having a tan. That seems to be rather irrational. It also seems immoral for the tanning salon to provide her with the means to hurt herself.

Of course, it can be argued that people should have the right to harm themselves if they are aware of the risks and accept them. After all, people are allowed to smoke, drink, drive cars, and so on and these activities all put people at risk. While it seems foolish to risk somethings so serious (skin cancer) for something so frivolous (a tan), the freedom to do stupid things seems to be an unavoidable part of freedom. As such, people should be allowed to go to tanning beds.

This, as noted above, assumes that the people are making an informed stupid choice. The ITA seems to be somewhat deceptive in its ad campaign. While it is true that UV radiation does enable the body to create vitamin D, exposure to UV radiation also has serious health risks. To downplay these risks is morally unacceptable and the ITA should be honest about the risks. Natural enough, they can appeal to the fact that almost all advertising campaigns are (by their very nature) acts of deceit, downplaying and so forth. However, the mere fact that everyone does such things hardly makes it right-this is an appeal to common practice.

In sum, it is acceptable for people to use tanning beds, provided that they are informed of the risks they are taking. ITA’s ad campaign does seem to be immoral in that it is trying to get people to engage in a harmful activity by means of what could be regarded as deception.

DNA & Violent Crimes

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 22, 2008

Maryland is considering joining eleven other states in taking DNA samples from people arrested for violent crimes. Some states also take DNA samples, but only when a person is actually convicted of a crime.

The main argument in favor of taking DNA samples from anyone arrested for a violent crime is that it is supposed to provide greater protection from such crimes. The basic idea is that when a person is arrested for a violent crime, his/her DNA goes on file and then can be checked against DNA evidence from other crimes.

For example, suppose that Rick is arrested for rape and a sample of his DNA is taken. This DNA could then be matched up against DNA evidence from other crimes. Imagine that Rick had committed rapes in the past, but had not been arrested before. Assuming that DNA evidence had been collected in the past cases, Rick’s DNA could be matched to them, thus enabling Rick to be tried for those crimes as well. Or, suppose that Rick is not convicted of the rape, but later commits another rape. DNA evidence from that crime can be used to link Rick to the rape-something that would be harder to do without having his DNA on file. Thus, routine DNA sampling can help increase the chances that the guilty will be caught and punished for their crimes.

The collection of DNA can also be used to exonerate someone of a crime. Suppose that Rick is accused of rape and his DNA is sampled. The DNA evidence is already available for use in the case and is also on file should he be falsely accused in the future. DNA testing has sometimes served to prove people innocent and making this a routine part of criminal investigations can help protect the innocent from wrongful convictions.

Naturally, there are also arguments against taking DNA samples when people are arrested.

The usual practical argument is cost. The estimated cost in Maryland will be $1.7 million per year and some might argue that the money could be better spent elsewhere. Governor O’Malley takes the usual line and says “If we can save even one person from being murdered or raped, it’s hard to put a price on that,” he said.

While this sentiment is laudable, it is also unrealistic. In a practical sense, this approach is generally not followed. After all, government officials routinely allow people to suffer when the expenditure of money could prevent such suffering. A standard example is the case of health insurance.

Another problem with this approach is that it would seem to be morally questionable to expend $1.7 million to save one person from murder or rape if that same money could be used to save more people from death or suffering. On utilitarian grounds, we should use our resources to create the greatest good. It seems quite likely that there are many things that could be done with $1.7 million that would yield better results.

This approach might seem callous-someone might say, “what sort of monster would begrudge spending $1.7 million to save even a single person?” To which, I must reply-the sort of monster that almost all of us happen to be. Everyday we weigh the cost of things against the good they generate and we tolerate many things that seem monstrous. The simple fact of the matter is that we do not have the resources or the will to do every good thing, so we must spend our resources and our will for maximum effect.

Another concern with taking DNA samples is that it seems to violate the Fourth and Fifth Constitutional Amendments. These famous Amendments serve to protect people from unreasonable search and seizure as well as self incrimination (best known in terms of “pleading the Fifth”).

One easy reply to this concern is that it can be regarded as being on par with taking fingerprints-something routinely done when someone is arrested. By analogy, if fingerprinting is Constitutional, then so would the taking of DNA samples.  Of course, one important difference is that a DNA sample provides far more data than a fingerprint and more will be said about this later.

A third concern is that the DNA data will be kept on record even if the person is not convicted and this is regarded as problematic by those who favor civil liberties and privacy. It has been suggested that the DNA sample data should be removed from the database if a person is not convicted. However, this would serve to undercut some of the arguments for using this method. If the DNA data is purged, then it obviously cannot be used in later cases. If the DNA data is going to be purged if the person is found not guilty, then it might as well not be taken until a conviction is acquired. Otherwise, time and money would be wasted processing samples that could be purged later on.

A fourth concern is that DNA, unlike photos and fingerprints, contains a great deal of information about a person. This includes information about health and family.  As such, the taking of DNA samples can be regarded as a form of search and seizure rather than a method of identification. After all, if my finger prints are taken, the state just has my prints. If my DNA is sampled, they have a wealth of information about me. As such, taking DNA samples as a matter of routine could be seen as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Privacy advocates are also concerned that such data might be misused or exploited in various ways. For example, data on health could be used by insurance companies to deny people coverage. There are also various other ways that DNA data can be exploited and the future will no doubt reveal new methods of doing this.

Naturally, those who advocate this say the data will be adequately protected. Of course, when we routinely hear about medical records, financial records and such being lost or stolen, our confidence cannot be that great.

In sum, DNA sampling has good arguments in its favor and a strong case can be made for using it as a tool in the eternal war against crime. Of course, there are also strong arguments against using it. Perhaps one way to deal with the matter is to develop a way of clearly identifying people with DNA without also revealing what can be considered legitimate private data. I’m not an expert on genetics, so I am not sure if that would be possible. Perhaps the data needed to positively ID someone would by its very nature contain exactly the sort of data that most worries privacy advocates.

Old Laptops

Posted in Environment, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 21, 2008

I have a modest amount of nerdtastic talent that allows me to often fix various computer and software problems. In addition to dooming me to helping people with various difficulties, it also enables me to revive old computers and put them into working order. Currently, I have quite a collection of obsolete, but functional computers. Among these are a number of laptops, including some from as far back as the early 1990s. In some cases, I have been able to give older computers to people who can use them. Often, however, people have no desire to have such old technology and instead prefer to have something brand new.

When I first started using computers, laptops simply did not exist. There where portable computers, but they were portable in the same sense that a large suitcase is portable. When laptops were finally available, I saw the advantages of having one. Sadly, as a graduate student I could not afford one. But now, as a professor, I can afford to buy not only a laptop, but a very good one. However, I still keep using older models-my newest laptop is an iBook G4 which is, in computer years, dead. I even have a Powerbook 5300 that still works just fine, but I mainly just keep that around because it has a floppy disk drive.

In some cases, it is quite reasonable to prefer a new laptop over using an old model. For gamers, a new laptop can typically barely handle the newer games so an old laptop is not a viable option. Those who work ion graphics and video also need speed, thus older laptops are not a viable option for them. However, older laptops can still serve in many capacities.

While I enjoy computer games and do work with graphic software, what I do most on computers is write. While some of the fancier features of word processing software do require some computer power, I have really noticed little difference between typing on the SE/30 I used in grad school and typing on the Pentium 4 PC in my office at school. Hence, power is not much of a factor in regards to using a laptop for writing. Thus, an older laptop can be used for such a task.

While some web sites, such as YouTube, do require a degree of computing power, most web sites can be viewed just fine on an older laptop, even a mere Pentium computer. Email programs also tend to have fairly moderate requirements as well, hence an older laptop can be used for this purpose as well.

Of course, the mere fact that something is still usable hardly shows that there is a good reason to use it. But, there are good reasons to use old laptops (and old computers in general).

One minor reason is that old laptops can be used to run older software, especially older games. Many rather enjoyable old PC and Mac games will not run at all on new computers or require rather extensive tweaking. However, they will obviously run just fine on the computers from the same time period.

A more serious reason is that keeping a laptop is use keeps it out of the landfill. While some computers are recycled, many of them just end up as garbage. Further, laptops (and computers in general) contain such things as mercury and other hazardous materials. So, it is generally better for the environment to not have these materials leaking out of a landfill or released by the crude recycling methods typically employed.

The most practical reason to use an old laptop is the economic reason. If you keep using your old laptop, you don’t have to buy a new one. If you don’t have a laptop, older models are much cheaper than newer ones. For example, I was able to get an IBM Thinkpad 600E for $40. I had to do some minor repairs on it and, of course, it is only a Pentium II machine. But it runs Windows 2000, Micrograde and Open Office just fine.IBM Thinkpad

As everyone knows, the main reason to have a laptop is portability. However, this advantage also puts laptops in danger-they can easily be stolen and can also be dropped. If you have an obsolete laptop, it is less likely to be stolen (assuming that the thieves recognize it as being obsolete). Also, if it is stolen or damaged, you are out far less money. Even if you have a nice, new laptop, it can be very useful to have an old laptop for those circumstances in which you’d rather not put your shiny beast at risk. For example, I use my $40 IBM on campus and when writing outside. If something happens to it, I won’t be happy. But I’ll only be out $40.

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Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2008

I recently bought plane tickets, thus setting off my usual dread of flying. I dread flying for two main reasons. First, I am terrified of heights. Second, American airlines are, to use the technical phrase, “sucking bad” this year.

The fear of heights thing is, of course, my problem. This fear brings great shame along with it because my great grandfather was a Mohawk and Mohawks have a reputation for being unafraid of heights. In fact, they are famous for working the high steel in construction. My father also doesn’t do well with flying and he is, of course, even more Mohawk than I.

Fear is, of course, a difficult thing. When it comes to such feelings, people feel what they feel (obviously). However, as Aristotle argued in his Nicomachean Ethics, we can consciously modify how we feel by conditioning. Or rather, to be more accurate, we can shape how we deal with how we feel. I’ve never been able to shake my fear of heights. Even buying tickets for a flight brings sweat up on my palms-that is how extreme and pathetic the fear is. However, when I fly I show absolutely no sign of concern and have, on occassion, helped other passengers deal with their fear. The fear doesn’t go away, buy I can control how I respond to it. To use an analogy, it is like being stuck on a plane with a screaming child. There is nothing you can really do to stop the child from screaming. But, you can control how you react to that. In the case of the fear, it is like having something screaming away on the inside. I’ve found that I can simply ignore it and thus prevent it from having any impact on my conscious actions. Naturally enough, this inclines me to accept Aristotle’s theory. I am also inclined to accept some of the classic views of the will-that a person is free and the master of her own mind. Naturally, there are forces that push against the will, but it seems a critical part of our being people and not just things. But, I could be wrong about this. In any case, even though I am terrified of heights, I have no problem functioning just fine while running about on top of tall objects or being on planes. I actually enjoy climbing and suspect that the fear merely adds to it.

The airlines sucking badly is, of course, mostly their problem. While some airlines enjoy sterling reputations, most of them are outside of the United States and, of course, none of them operate out of Tallahassee, Florida. I don’t fly that often, but almost ever time I’ve flown since the 1990s I’ve run into some kind of problem ranging from lost luggage to lengthy flight delays. Luckily, the longest I’ve been stranded in an airport has been about 7 hours, which is actually fairly minor these days.

Since there are some very good airlines, the main problem lies with the way the poor airlines are managed. After all, the airlines have to deal with the same basic problems so those that do it better must be better run. Or perhaps they are just lucky. Naturally, since the American airlines have to rely on the state for air traffic control and have to deal with Homeland Security, the state has a clear hand in making most American airlines suck.

Passengers also have a role in this as well. Making things go well requires money and it is hardly shocking that airlines that focus on providing more high end services (and higher end prices) tend to do better. The same is true in almost all industries. Compare, for example, your experience at a 5 star restaurant with that at McDonalds. Passengers tend to focus most on price and this means that airlines have to offer lower prices, which limits their resources. Also, when passengers pick cheap airlines, they will tend to have that McDonalds sort of experience.

Like many, these days I’ve lowered my airline expectations. I really just expect to  1) get to Maine from Florida in less than 12 hours and 2) survive the flight.

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Finding an Ethical Partner

Posted in Ethics, Guest Post, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on May 17, 2008

The divorce rate in America is a bit staggering and continues to climb each year. Currently, about 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce, while 60 percent of second marriages find the same fate. Granted, a divorce can be filed for different reasons, but dishonesty and infidelity is certainly a leading factor. This begs the question, are we screening our dates for integrity?

When canvassing for potential dates, we all know that physical appearance is a high priority. Most people are also looking for common interests and a sense of humor. However, it seems that ethics should also be high on that list, as that will ultimately provide the glue for a relationship. A virtuous, unselfish partner is one who will work harder at keeping the relationship healthy and loving.

Finding someone who is attractive, has similar goals and who possesses a strong moral compass may not be that easy. If it were, then perhaps there wouldn’t be as many relationships ending badly due to lies and infidelity. Many people find moral guidance in their religion and subsequently meet their future partner at church or temple. As we all know, however, following a religion does not automatically make a person morally sound. To that end, there are many secular singles in the dating world.

So, how does one screen a person for virtue? This isn’t as easy to assess as physical appearance, naturally, so one must really read between the lines. Think of integrity as a “soft skill” that is evident by a person’s past experiences. Look at the choices your would-be partner has made in life, the people that he or she is surrounded with. Unfortunately, there is no way to definitely “spot” a person with a strong moral compass, but this should certainly be something to consider when making a love match.


This post was contributed by Heather Johnson, who is an industry critic on the subject of best dating sites. She invites your feedback at heatherjohnson2323 at gmail dot com.