A Philosopher's Blog

College & Convenient Death Syndrome

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2009

When I first started teaching, I would generally believe students when they said they missed class do to a death in the family or some other dire circumstance. Sadly, I soon found out what should have been obvious: people will lie about terrible things for rather small reasons (like making up a test).

Since my grandfather died when I was in college, I understand how that can affect a person and hence I am sympathetic. However, like most professors I have noticed the convenient death syndrome: near relatives dying right around test dates and paper due dates. While death is a serious thing, I have often joked that professors should send out warnings to students relatives about our exam and assignment/paper dates and the alarming correlation between these dates and deaths.

My policy on excuses involving deaths (or alleged deaths) has been to express sincere sympathy and then request documentation. I still feel a bit bad about asking for this (“oh, someone you love died…well, prove it…”). But, I’ve found that good students who suffer a death in the family generally show up at my office and have the documentation already on hand.

For students who lack documentation, I have a “mercy” policy: each student gets a “mercy” that can count as a “no questions asked” excuse for a missed exam or late paper. I did this mainly for two reasons: 1) students do sometimes have legitimate reasons for missing class that cannot be documented and 2) I feel bad when people lie to me.

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Banks & Cars

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2009

The Obama administration recently began holding at least some corporate leaders accountable for their failing companies. Of course, by “some” here I mean “one”, specifically Rick Wagoner of GM.

The fact that the Obama administration requested that Wagoner step down has struck some as a bit odd. While it is sensible and ethical to remove a failed leader, it seems a bit odd to single Wagner out. After all, while GM has taken some taxpayer money in the form of loans and GM is not doing well, the company seems to have had no roll in the massive economic meltdown. Strangely enough, the corporate folks who bear the greatest responsibility for the meltdown have been untouched by any punitive actions. In fact, some of these folks have been paid bonuses (although some decided to return the money).

Naturally, there is speculation about why the Obama administration has not been as severe with the financial folks as it has been with the (once) Big Three US automakers. The more cynical have suggested that the key difference is that the financial folks bought the politicians. For example AIG seems to have donated generously to both Obama and Dodd in the past. While the Big Three (especially GM) once wielded considerable influence in Washington, those days seem to be over. Perhaps it is because the Big Three no longer have the money to give generously to the politicians. A truly cynical person might see the folks in government acting a bit like a mob: “pay us, and you’ll be fine; don’t have the cash for us…well, some things might get broken…”

It has also been suggested that some of the folks in the Obama administration are just a bit too closely connected to the financial folks that are being bailed out. This, one might contend, would bias the Obama administration. This is, of course, well worth considering. For all the talk on the right about Obama’s administration being socialist, they all seem well connected to capitalism. But, I could be mistaken about this.

Of course, perhaps it is the case that the Obama administration is yielding to the public desire for CEOs to be punished and Wagoner just happened to be th unlucky fellow to be dragged up on the alter to be sacrificed. But, this merely raises questions as to why he was selected.

Are Gaming Consoles’ Days Numbered?

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 27, 2009

OnLive, a new startup company, plans to offer the gaming world streaming games. The idea is that just as people now stream videos (mostly porn) and music to their PCs, gamers will be able to stream games to their PC or TV. The current hype is that OnLive might doom gaming consoles.

The OnLive system, image from Onlive

The OnLive system, image from Onlive

Using the service on a PC will most likely involve installing client software. For TV use, a hardware box (the OnLive Microconsole) will be needed. OnLive claims that it will offer the latest PC titles to gamers.

The service is supposed to offer numerous advantages. First, the hardware requirements are alleged to be moderate. The reason is that the servers are supposed to do the “heavy lifting” while the user’s PC or MicroConsole displays the images and sends output (game commands). If the service becomes a reality, this could appeal to many gamers-especially those who would like to play the high end games without buying a high end system. Second, OnLive will handle the patches and updates on their end. While patching games is easy enough, this would make keeping up with the latest patches and bug fixes effortless. Third, OnLive might be cheaper than buying games. I say “might” because the service is still in closed beta.

While the service sounds appealing, there is the question of whether it will doom consoles or not.

One obvious factor is the fact that Sony, Nintendo and (most especially Microsoft) swing some big sticks in the industry. If their people think that OnLive is going to be a major competitor to their consoles, they will no doubt use their considerable influence with the game companies. Platform specific games (Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3) are nothing new and the same sort of tactic could be used against OnLive.

A minor concern is that the service requires reliable, fast broadband. While this is not a major issue (most gamers already have broadband), OnLive faces the same challenge as online gaming with the additional challenge that OnLive will presumably have no offline play. After all, offline play with OnLive would just be normal computer gaming-why pay for a service that would let you do what you already do? Of course, online only games have been successful. Just consider World of Warcraft.

A more serious concern is that OnLive will need to provide the service at a reasonable price (after all, gamers with plenty of money for gaming will just buy high end rigs and the games) while still being able to purchase and maintain high end servers capable of doing something that servers generally do not do (that is, play PC games).  To get companies onboard, OnLive will also have to offer them the opportunity to make more money dealing with OnLive than they will lose from not selling games directly to consumers. This might be feasible. A game going out via OnLive would not need to be shipped to retailers on physical media, thus eliminating those costs.

Since some gamers are into mods, they might find the service unappealing. After all, I doubt that OnLive will let customers mod programs on their servers. Of course, OnLive could offer modded versions. Also, many gamers do not mod, hence this will not be a concern for them.

One rather significant reason that OnLive will not doom consoles is that consoles already co-exist with PCs. Unless OnLive can offer the content and experience that keep people buying and using consoles, the console is most likely safe from the threat of OnLive. There is, of course, some concern that OnLive could be harmful to retailers. Of course, this is the same worry that retailers who sell music and videos have had to deal with for years.

I’ll no doubt look into OnLive. However, to appeal to me it would have to be a significant improvement over how I currently game. I suspect that I won’t become a customer, though. I tend to get one game and play it through for a month (or months) rather than playing many games each month. But, for gamers who consume multiple titles each month, OnLive might be a good deal.

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The Curse of Springtime Strikes Again

Posted in Running by Michael LaBossiere on March 26, 2009

While I know better than to be superstitious, I somehow believe in the curse of Springtime. Here is the tale of the curse.

One of the premiere races of Tallahassee is the Springtime 10K. It is part of the larger Springtime Tallahassee events (or rather, the events are part of the 10K-we runners think we run the world). Every year I have had something bad happen right before or during the race. Some examples: one year I had a horrible sinus infection. Another year I pulled a muscle. First time. Ever. Yet another year I was kicking the kickstand of my Yamaha, slipped and fell-thus injuring my back.

So, what dire curse befell me this year? The worst ever. My skylight started leaking, so I (stupidly) went up to fix it. When I was coming down, the ladder just shot out from under me. I landed badly and did horrible things to my left knee. Weirdly, I took the main impact on my right leg-which was just fine. Of course, my left knee has been injured several times (including a few pre-Springtime injuries).

Fortunately, the X-rays (first time getting non-dental X-rays in my life) showed nothing broken. My knee is swollen up and the doctor prescribed some nifty pain killers. I did get the prescription filled, but will most likely do what I always do with pain meds-let it sit in the cabinet until it expires. Why do I even bother getting them filled? Well, I figure that if my pain tolerance should suddenly be overcome (normally it is set at “death”, but perhaps something less than death can break it) I’d want some drugs on hand…so I can run through the pain.

I really shouldn’t try running for a while, let alone racing. But, I am crazy as hell in regards to running.  But, I’m a bit less crazy than I used to be-so if my knee isn’t working Saturday, I won’t be racing. That would make me…sad.

Now some philosophy: yeah, there really is no curse of Springtime. I just do stupid stuff and it really sticks out in my mind when I have a big race.  I have bad stuff happen at other times, but don’t attribute it to any curse.

But, it makes for a good story. Weirdly, it gets better each year-something bad always happens right before Springtime. Now, let me add a bit more-it almost always happens on a Thursday. Spooky stuff.

Mexico & the War on Drugs

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 25, 2009

As Mexico continues to be plagued by drug violence, that same violence threatens to flood across the border into the United States.

Since this is a complex problem, there is no simple solution. Well, actually there are two simple solutions. One is wildly improbable, the other just a bit less so.

The first solution is for  drug users to stop buying  illegal drugs. Without a profitable market for drugs, there will be little incentive for those involved in the Mexican drug trade to continue in the business. Of course, the chances of drug users giving up their drugs is close to zero-even if doing so meant a reduction in murder. I suppose that it is easy to ignore all that blood on one’s hands when one is high.

The second solution is to legalize certain drugs and get the tobacco and alcohol corporations involved in their production and distribution (after all, they have experience in selling harmful drugs). This would eventually erode the market for illegal drugs and reduce the violence significantly. That this will work is supported by what happened after the repeal of prohibition-organized crime largely got out of the alcohol business.

What will most likely happen is that the US and Mexico will continue to bicker about the problem, then the police actions will step up as more people die. Eventually, the violence will spread into America and then the US will take action on this side of the border. Then the problem will be reduced down to a level that most people are willing to tolerate and the US-Mexican drug situation will simmer away until the next time it makes the news. And thus the eternal war on drugs will go on and on and on.

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Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 24, 2009

While the Dow has taken an upswing, there is still plenty to worry about in the economy. Meanwhile, people are still upset over the AIG bonuses. On the plus side, the mystery of who allowed the exception that made such payouts legal was solved: Chris Dodd.

Dodd claimed that the Obama folks made him put the exception into the law. Two reasons are given for this decision by the Obama folks: 1) concern about the possibility of legal problems and 2) the view that such compensation would be needed to retain the top people.

I can understand the concern about legal worries. After all, breaking contracts after the fact does seem to be a rather thorny area-especially when the contracts are held by people who have access to some of the best lawyer (and politicians) money can buy.

As far the retention argument, that requires some consideration. The argument is that such exceptional compensation is needed to get top talent to stay with (and supposedly save) bailed out companies.

Is it the case that people will only take a job that pays exceptionally well? Clearly not-people routinely take jobs that pay very poorly. These people often work very hard at these jobs-witness the typical sweat shop laborer. Those folks work long, grueling hours for tiny amounts of cash.

Of course, most people who work such jobs do so because they have no choice. The top talent folks have a choice, hence they can demand more compensation or go elsewhere to get it.

Of course, people who do have choices often work very hard for less than exceptional compensation. One might wonder why these top talent folks should be entitled to such exceptional compensation when other folks would be glad to have such jobs even at a fraction of the pay. In other words, what justifies the claim that such folks should get that exceptional compensation? Why not just say “godd riddance” to these folks and get people in there who will do the job for less? After all, isn’t that what companies do to save money? For example, when companies outsource they are getting people to do the same job (or so they claim) for far less. Surely the same logic should apply all the way to the top.

It might be argued that the top talent cannot be replaced in this manner-that they are so top in their talent there are no other folks that can be hired to do the same quality of work at a lower price. Of course, given that many of these top talent folks were instrumental in wrecking the economy, one wonders about their talents and motivations.

Of course, there are top talent people that do earn their money. As odd as this might seem, a professional athlete or a top actor can be good examples. For example, if a star player or actor is paid $50 million, but she brings in $75 million in profits, then she has certainly earned her pay-just as a McDonald’s worker who gets paid minimum wage but whose labor makes a profit. The basic principle is that compensation is justified by contribution. So, exceptional contributions earn exceptional compensation.

In the case of athletes, actors and other stars, it is obvious that they can bring in massive profits and hence earn those massive paychecks. For example, a single star can significantly impact the box office take of a film. This is because people will see the film because of her and would not see the same film if it had not starred that actress.

However, is the same true in the case of the top talent in business? Does a top talent person really create wealth in proportion to their compensation? Prior to the economic disaster it seemed as if they did-top talent worked all sorts of “magic” that created money out of nothing. But, as it turned out, that money largely went back to nothing once again.

So, my view is this-if a person really does contribute exceptionally to the success of a company, then they have earned exceptional compensation. Such people would be well worth the price. After all, if paying $30 million in salary and bonuses gets a person whose efforts and ideas single handedly generates $100 million for the company, then she is a good deal. Unless, of course, you can get a person who would generate $80 million in return for $5 million and so on.

No doubt some top talent earn their keep and then some. However, I suspect that in many case, the “top talent” of corporate folks is somehow getting sweet bonuses in return for little or nothing.

I’ll also repeat an offer I made before: if I can get permission for a leave of absence from Florida A&M University, I’ll gladly be a top executive for a bailout company for that oh so pitiful $400,000 a year. I bet I’ll do far less damage than most of the current “top talent” has done.

BSG Finale

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2009

I was a kid when the original Battlestar Galactica aired on TV. I rather liked the show then, mainly because I was a kid. I’ve stayed away from watching the episodes again so as to avoid scraping away that glorious glow of faded memories.

When I heard that BSG was being remade for the Sci-Fi channel, I had mixed feelings. I was worried that they would do awful things that would desecrate my faded, yet shiny, memories of the original. I was hopeful that the series would be cool sci-fi. Turns out I was right-it did both.

I watched the new series on and off. Watching most episodes seemed like watching a stylish music video: it seemed cool while I was watching it, but when it was over it seemed like nothing had really happened. I think that was the main thing that kept me from really bonding with the series: it seemed to wander and ramble in ways that made it appear that the writers really had no idea where they were going or what they were trying to say. The characters also seemed inconsistent. But not, as Aristotle would day, consistently inconsistent.  They seemed a bit too random at times.

When I heard they were actually going to bring the series to an end with a planned finale, I started watching again. Some episodes were promising, some just wandered aimlessly through shallow pools of vagueness.  Then the finale arrived.

Overall, I found the finale unsatisfying.  While the action was cool (thus appealing to my 14 year old self) and the acting good, there were some rather serious flaws. I’ll say a bit about some of these.

One rather picky point is that it seemed odd that the Cylon colony was only one jump away. After all, the fleet had been on the run for years, jumping quite often. Why would the Cylon colony be so close? Has the fleet been going in a circle? Did the Cylons move the colony to chase the fleet? Were the upgraded FTL drives of the Galactica and the Raptor just really amazing?

Another picky point is the scene on the bridge in which Starbuck is putting in the jump coordinates. Adama yells at her to jump the ship, she says she doesn’t have the coordinates, and he yells to jump anywhere. Did everyone else on the bridge forget the coordinates? If so, they obviously regained their memory when it came time to contact the rest of the fleet.

I found the flashbacks to the past less than appealing. I would think that the characters would have been sufficiently developed during the course of the series so that such flashbacks were not needed. If they had been profound and important (that is, either worth seeing in their own right or making a significant contribution to the story) then they would have been fine. But, I don’t think we needed to see Adama and  Ty at a strip joint. I certainly didn’t need to see Adama throwing up on himself.

The angel and God thing did not appeal me to that much. It is not because I have anything against mixing religion or pseudo-religion with sci-fi. It mainly bothered me because it did not seem very well implemented. Perhaps the writers were trying to imitate Arthur C. Clarke here (mostly benevolent beings guiding and shaping the development of others). Perhaps not. It was hard to tell because the angel thing was rather clumsily implemented.

While the idea of having the fleet survivors (or rather just Hera, apparently) become us was something I expected, the way it was handled did not make a great deal of sense.  In the finale, the survivors just decide to give up all their technology and culture and go native. But this does not fit. Here is why.

Throughout the series, the writers made a point of presenting many of the minor characters in rather negative ways. For example, the Sons of Ares are presented as brutal thugs and are shown in this past season as folks who steal food from women and children in Dogsville. As another example, the ship captains are shown as obsessed with getting the parts from the Galactica. As a third example, the mutineers seemed quite obsessed with never cooperating with the Cylons and quite willing to murder their fellow humans to achieve their ends. I must admit, the writers did an excellent job at making these folks seem petty, selfish, obsessed and violent. In fact, they did such a great job that the decision to just give up all their technology and civilization simply did not make sense.

One of the character notes that he didn’t think they would go for Apollo’s idea  to abandon their civilization and Apollo gives a very short answer as to why-an answer that simply does not satisfy because it is wildly improbable given all that has come before in the series.  Where the Sons of Ares magically made nice by the power of the angels? Was everyone? Perhaps we can just assume that they managed to work things out and got everyone to go along with abandoning everything (medicine, technology, science, clothing and so on).

Presumably all the other survivors died off without reproducing (or their ancestors died off) since Hera is the ancestor of all “modern” people. That also seems a bit unlikely, given that there were thousands of people in the fleet. Then again, when they gave up all their technology and civilization, then their mortality rate would probably go way up.

My overall view is that the finale was okay, but could have been much better. The same holds for the whole series.

SyFy? Really?

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2009

While reading a Penny Arcade post, I read that the Sci-Fi channel allegedly plans to change its brand name to “SyFy.” The reasoning seems to be that “SyFy” sounds like “sci-fi” and is “ownable.” I went to the site for SyFy and what I read made me hope that this is all a joke or parody. It sounds almost too stupid to be true. But, I must emphasize the “almost.” I’ve dealt with minds (or mind like things) that create such text in all seriousness.  Any case, here are two excerpts and my commentary:

“Syfy will continue to celebrate the traditional roots of the genre, while opening the brand aperture to accommodate a broader range of imagination-based entertainment.”

It might be just me, but talk of opening a “brand aperture” to “accommodate” more stuff sounds vaguely pornographic. Perhaps that is the intent? Or maybe they are making some sort of reference to gluttony: they need a bigger mouth to devour more stuff? In any case, talk of “accommodating apertures” is a bit creepy.

“Syfy — unlike the generic entertainment category “sci-fi” – firmly establishes a uniquely ownable trademark that is portable across all non-linear digital platforms and beyond, from Hulu to iTunes. Syfy also creates an umbrella brand name that can extend into new adjacent businesses under the Syfy Ventures banner, such as Syfy Games, Syfy Films and Syfy Kids

I am impressed with the use of jargon here. Reading it hurt my soul a tiny bit.  Just a tiny bit (perhaps 1 hit point) but I still felt it. I think this means that they have a trademark that 1) can apply to all digital media and 2) can be expanded to trademark all kinds of other crap.

Although philosophers are often accused of being obscure or using odd jargon, we have nothing on the folks who spin this sort of stuff.

Please, someone provide evidence this is just a parody. 🙂

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Obama, Insurance, and Veterans

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 19, 2009

While conservatives often tout the benefits of privatizing things and accuse Obama of being a socialist, there is considerable opposition to an administration proposal to bill veterans’ private insurance for service related injuries.

While the government should take steps to cut expenditures, shifting the burden of paying for the treatment of service related injuries to the soldiers and their insurance is not a good idea.

First, implementing such a plan will save relatively little money. The estimate is that the government will save $530 million each year by implementing this plan. While this is a considerable sum to most people, it is rather tiny compared with the billions AIG received. If we can afford to dump billions into companies like AIG, surely we can afford to pay millions to help our soldiers. Are we so poor that we cannot take care of those who have bled in our service?

Second, the plan is a public relations fiasco. While there are no doubt some people who approve of the plan, the reaction has been uniformly negative. Even Jon Stewart expressed his outrage at this plan.  While I dislike paying taxes, I do not begrudge any of my money that is used to treat veterans. The evidence seems to be that most people also think this way.  Even the folks who have been calling Obama a socialist are for this socialized medicine. Weighing the savings against the damage it would do to the administrations popularity and approval rating shows that this is not a good idea.

Third, there is the obvious moral argument. Veterans who are injured in the line of duty deserve to have their medical bills paid by the taxpayers. The moral basis for this is the fact that these soldiers are injured on behalf of the people and this creates a debt that must be paid. In short, if soldiers are injured in service to the country, then the country owes them. To bill their insurance shows a profound lack of gratitude for their sacrifices.

As such, the Obama administration should stop considering this proposal. The prudent and right thing to do would be to issue a statement saying that the proposal is no longer being considered. An apology to the veterans might also be in order.

The Mystery Loophole & AIG Bonuses

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 18, 2009

While the AIG bonuses have become a national fixation (perhaps even a distraction), it seems that they are actually legal.  While Congress did place restrictions on companies who receive bailout money, someone wrote in a loophole:

iii) The prohibition required under clause (i) shall not be construed to prohibit any bonus payment required to be paid pursuant to a written employment contract executed on or before February 11, 2009, as such valid employment contracts are determined by the Secretary or the designee of the Secretary.

Given this, the AIG bonuses are legal. Of course, they are still outrageous and morally unacceptable. Not surprisingly, people are trying to find the person responsible for this addition.  Also not surprisingly, no one is (as of this writing) claiming credit for it.

Naturally, some people suspect that someone in the pay of AIG (or some other company being bailed out) put in the loophole. That seems to have some plausibility. But, as of yet, there is no concrete evidence for this claim. However, such political dealings would seem to be business as usual in Washington.

While the number one question is about who put in the loophole, it is also important to ask how the loophole went unnoticed for so long. One hypothesis is that it was intentionally ignored by those who should have been reviewing the document. If so, they would share the blame in this fiasco. Another hypothesis is that the folks who are supposed to review the document simply failed to read it fully and carefully. In this case, their failure would not be one of malicious intent but rather one of laziness. I would like to think that such things are carefully checked before they are signed. However, I am reasonably confident that such documents are often only given a cursory review. In this case, those involved would still deserve some of the blame-their negligence allowed this to happen.

I was discussing this matter with a colleague during my office hours and jokingly suggested that if no one admits to writing the loophole, then it should be treated as a typo or mistaken inclusion. As such, it should simply be deleted. After all, if no one with the official right or power included that loop hole, then it is not a legitimate part of the law. After all, if I were to sneak some text into the document and it was signed, surely it would not thus become law. Likewise for this mystery loophole-unless it can be shown that it was legitimately added, we should treat it as an illegal inclusion and it should be removed immediately.

If I am wrong about this and any text in such a document becomes law when signed, I plan to make a quick trip to DC to start changing laws-beginning with making myself tax exempt and the recipient of federal funding.