A Philosopher's Blog

The Time Traveling Bacterium

Posted in Humor, Science by Michael LaBossiere on January 31, 2010
Cyanobacteria, NOAA, http://www8.nos.noaa.
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While my dreams sometimes seem to derive their content at random, often I know the exact inspiration of the odd nightly workings of my mind. A while ago I happened to see a segment on CNN about a young lady who almost died from H1N1 and then that evening I read Heinlein’s recursive time travel tale “By His Boot Straps.” That night I had a rather odd dream about a time traveling bacterium. Yes, I do know that H1N1 is a virus, but even in a dream I somehow knew that only a bacterium would work. So, here is the story of the time traveling bacterium.

Imagine, if you will a mutant bacterium that might well be an impossibility. While normal bacteria divide, this bacterium cannot. Instead, it travels backwards in time.

Naturally enough, after it goes back it will then move ahead  in time at the normal pace and will (let us assume) eventually met up with itself. Then the pair (or rather the one) will also go back in time. Once more they (or it)  will go forward in time at the normal pace and the pair (or one) will meet up with itself once more. The four (or one) of them will then go back once again, only to travel forward again, and thus there will be eight (or one). The eight (or one) would, of course, go back again and then there would be sixteen (or rather just one).  And so on.

Now imagine that this bacterium dwells within the body of a human being. Naturally, the immune system of the body will attempt to destroy the bacterium. Unfortunately for the host, the bacterium simply travels back in time when it is threatened with destruction. This, of course, merely multiplies the bacterium. It keeps traveling back in time, multiplying and multiplying via this method. Of course, eventually the bacterium will reach half the population that would kill the host. When it makes the next jump back in time and the forward trip to meet itself, this will result in the death of the host. Horribly, the host will seem to die instantly as the lethal population suddenly appears in his/her body.

The bacterium will, of course, end up in other hosts and repeat the process over and over again. With enough time, it would seem that the bacterium would eventually destroy all susceptible organisms on earth and perhaps crowd out everything else-thus resulting in an earth with a population of one.

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Prisoner Denied D&D

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 30, 2010
A D&D game session in progress
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In a rather odd story, a prisoner in Wisconsin has lost his appeal to keep his D&D material (that is Dungeons & Dragons).

This is the result of an anonymous letter sent in 2004 alleging that the prisoner, Singer, was forming a gang around the D&D game. Of course, anyone familiar with D&D will know that while D&D players seem a bit gang like (strange lingo, obsession with loot, and so on) they are rather far from the sort of gangs that people need to worry about.

The reason given by officials is that  D&D “promotes fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling.”

The first part of the charge is obviously true. D&D is all about fantasy role playing. Saying that it promotes this is like saying that track promotes running.

The other claims are far more debatable. They are also, as Socrates might say, the old charges that have been trotted out against gaming for decades-despite the complete lack of adequate evidence for such claims. My own experience has been that while gaming does tend to attract people with a desire to escape reality, gamers seem to be no more prone to violence or gambling than non-gamers. These matters are, of course, subject to empirical testing but the burden of proof rests on those who claim that gaming has these effects.

As I see it, it would actually be a good thing to have prisoners playing D&D.  After all, time spent playing D&D would be time in which they are not doing things like using drugs, raping each other, engaging in real violence, or engaging in other activities that create real harms.

D&D also tends to encourage reading, an interest in numbers, as well as the development of the imagination. It can also help people develop social and cooperative skills. True, players can elect to be evil and do evil things to one another, but that usually teaches the lesson that being evil does not work very well.

A more reasonable justification for not allowing prisoners to play D&D is that prison is supposed to be punishment. Therefore, the officials argued, prisoners should be denied what they enjoy.  This, of course, assumes that keeping prisoners bored is a form of punishment and that this has desirable consequences.

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Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2010
Leviathan Thomas Hobbes, 1651
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Despite the devastation of the economy by the financial folks, there are still people who are crying out against regulation of the economy. In many cases these people are just spewing words placed into their minds by pundits. They speak about the free market, the invisible hand, and market forces as if these are benevolent deities that will make all things right. Naturally, they regard any attempts to limit these divine forces as socialism, communism, and oppression.

Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who cry for a free market are also a bit obsessed with severely limiting personal privacy and personal liberty. These folks cry out against same sex marriage and cry for the Patriot Act and its ilk. They do not even seem to realize that they are crying for a free society for the money people and a restricted society for all the rest of us.

My own view is a fairly moderate one. While I am not a Hobbesian, I do agree that some people do need to be compelled to behave by the use of force. I also agree with Mill that it is better to have more liberty than less but also that freedom does, ironically, require restrictions on people’s liberty. Put in a nutshell, I think we should restrict people to the degree required to prevent folks from harming each other but that we should not go beyond this. I am, of course, just stealing Mill’s view.

Unlike some folks, I think that this also applies to the market. While some folks cry for a free market, they do not cry for a lawless society. Interestingly, these folks see the need for laws restricting behavior such as theft and murder. They also see the need for laws protecting property and rights. They rightfully regard a lawless society as a place of danger and as undesirable. However, they seem to think that human behavior is magically changed by the market. So, while we cannot allow people to engage in same sex marriage, we can safely allow financial folks to run free and wild. After all, their reasoning goes, the market will sort things out.

However, if the market can do this, then it should also apply across all of life. After all, if the financial folks can be allowed to run wild and free within the magic of the free market, then the same should apply to everyone. Unless, of course, those financial folks are not human beings but some other different race that can do just fine without laws or restrictions.

So, if human beings need laws to regulate their behavior, this also applies to their economic behavior.  Thus, we should no more have a lawless economy than we should have a lawless society. Naturally, the financial folk will complain that they cannot make as much money as they could without such limits. But, I am sure that rapists believe that they could commit  many more rapes if only people did not insist on preventing them from doing so.

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Stray Animals

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2010
Picutre of Lt.
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As everyone now knows,  Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of South Carolina made news by seeming to compare the folks who receive government support to stray animals.

His exact words were:

“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better…”

Interestingly enough, Bauer does have a point. However, it is not the point he thought he was making. Now, if we take the companies that we bailed out as being analogous to stray animals, then he is dead on. By providing these companies with tax payer money we are simply encouraging their bad and irresponsible behavior. As he argued, we need to hold stray animals like Goldman Sachs accountable and make those feral fat cats give something back in return.

Bauer also said the following:

“I can show you a bar graph where free and reduced lunch has the worst test scores in the state of South Carolina,” adding, “You show me the school that has the highest free and reduced lunch, and I’ll show you the worst test scores, folks. It’s there, period.”

Bauer seems to be right about this. Schools that have the free and reduced lunches do tend to have lower test scores. However, Bauer is making an error in his causal reasoning. It is not the free or reduced lunch prices that are lowering scores. After all, imagine if top scoring schools were given free lunch programs. This would not result in lower scores because the price of lunch has nothing to do with academic performance.

The most likely explanation for this correlation is that there is a another factor that is causing both (he is thus committing the fallacy of ignoring a possible common cause) effects. To be specific, poverty leads to a need for reduced price or free lunches and likewise tends to result in worse academic performance. Schools in poorer areas obviously tend to pay teachers less and tend to have far less money for supplies, equipment and programs. Also, people who are poor generally lack the resources to provide their kids with what is needed to do better in school. As such, the culprit here is not the lunch programs but rather poverty.

As a final point, it continues to amaze me that people can reach fairly high political offices without having an adequate grasp of what to say and not to say. I can understand a person making a quick and stupid slip, but Bauer developed his remarks at length. Even his attempts to defend himself merely dug a deeper hole. Then again, it is interesting to see a politician who seems to be willing to say what he really thinks-even if it is rather horrible.

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Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2010

As the world now knows, Apple has announced the iPad. Interestingly, if you go to the Apple site and search using “iPad” you get this:



About iPad
A note pad in the shape of the white iPod with video, with an elongated screen to fit more text.

What’s New in this Version
– Now on an iPod with video (5g)
– New font face and size
– Now overflows with a scroll bar
– Updated graphics

Presumably Jobs will have the iPad folks “vanished” along with their little note pad, too.

While my invitation to Apple’s event was presumably lost in the digital ether, I have seen the coverage of the device and hence think I am fully qualified to engage in some commentary.

While touchscreen tablets have been around for a while, their acceptance has been lackluster at best. However, Apple has worked its media magic once more and seems to have the world in a fine frenzy over their tablet device. Of course, whether folks actually buy it as they did the iPod  remains to be seen.

Speaking of the iPod, the iPad seems to essentially be a big iPod Touch.  This is both good and bad. On the good side, the iPod Touch is a great piece of hardware and what is essentially a bigger version means that users will have all that Touch goodness with more screen space. Plus, users will have access to the apps for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

On the bad side, one reason I like my iPod Touch is that it is small enough to carry about easily. While the iPad is smaller than a typical laptop, it is bigger than the iPod Touch or iPhone.  As such, it is not as easy or convenient to carry about. I can put my iPod in my pocket or strap it to my arm.  Not so for the iPad-carrying it would be like carrying a book or netbook.

Of course, when I carry my netbook I get a full computer for my carrying effort. It can run normal programs such as Firefox, Word, Dreamweaver, Elements and so on. Plus, it has a keyboard for text entry. As presented, the iPad does not run normal Mac programs. So, for example, I could not use it to run the program I use to record my grades, Micrograde.

Naturally, there are iPhone apps that provide some of the functionality of standard programs (for example, Documents to Go provides what amounts to a mini version of Office) and with internet access the user can (possibly) run online programs.

It also comes with an iPad version of iWork, so it does have that as an office option. Of course, I don’t use iWork, so that is not terribly compelling.

If the iPad had been a full computer rather than a big iPod, I would have been sold on it. Since it is a bit smaller than a normal laptop and I rather like the iPod Touch touch interface I would have found it very useful. However, a big iPod is less useful to me, since I  need the ability to run standard programs rather than just iPhone apps.

I do, however, see some obvious uses for the iPad. As noted above, a user can get some of the functionality of normal programs by getting the right Apps. So, the iPad can be made to function like a normal computer. Also, it does provide a larger screen for browsing and watching videos, which are two killer functions.

Of course, since the iPad falls between an iPod Touch and a netbook, someone who already has both of these might find the iPad less compelling. I predict that sales will be good-which is hardly going out on a limb. Then again, I do have this vague feeling that consumers might think  “why should I buy an iPod that I can’t fit in my pocket?” I’m sure Steve Jobs has the answer.

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Eating the Happy Dead

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2010
Image by yum9me via Flickr

In my previous post I mentioned that reading an  article in Newsweek entitled “Vegetarians Who Eat Meat”,  got me thinking about two issues. The first is whether a person can be a vegetarian and also eat meat. The second is whether the way the meat animal is raised impacts the morality of eating it. I addressed the first issue in that post and I now turn to the second issue.

Some folks who were (or still claim to be ) vegetarians have returned to eating meat and justify their consumption by making a moral argument. The gist of the argument is that the morality of eating meat rests not on the eating of meat but on how the animal was treated prior to becoming meat. To be more specific, the idea is that if the animal is lovingly raised in an environmentally sustainable way, then the consumption of its dead flesh is morally acceptable. In contrast, eating meat raised in the usual way (such as factory farming) is not acceptable.

There does seem to be some merit to this argument. If it is assumed that the unhappiness and happiness of animals matters, then a stock utilitarian argument can be trotted out. Treating food animals well generates more pleasure for the animals and, in contrast, treating them badly generates more pain. If pain and pleasure are the currency of morality, then treating food animals well would be morally better than treating them badly.

From this it would presumably follow that folks who only eat the animals who were well treated would have the moral high ground over those who eat animals who suffered before becoming meat. This is because the folks who eat the happy dead are not parties to the mistreatment of animals. Except, of course, for the killing and eating part. After all, both the happy cow and the sad cow meat…I mean “meet” the same end: death and consumption.

The fact that the animals, happy or sad, end up as meat might be seen as what is important to the ethics of the situation. This seems reasonable. After all, if someone intends to kill me my main concern is with my possible death and not whether the killer will be nice or not.

But it also seems reasonable to be concerned about what comes before. To use an analogy, imagine two legal systems. While both hand out the same punishments, one system treats suspects horribly: they are locked in fetid cells, poorly fed and treated with cruelty. The other legal system treats suspects reasonable well: they can get out on bail, cells are clean, the food is adequate and cruelty is rare. There seems to be a meaningful distinction between the two and this would also seem to hold in the case of meat.

As such, I do think that the folks who eat the happy dead can claim a slight moral superiority over those who dine on cruel food. But, there is still the obvious concern about whether the consumption of meat itself is acceptable or not.

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Fallacy Podcast

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 26, 2010

For those who would like to learn more about fallacies or just hear what I sound like, I was recently interviewed on that subject. Here is the link: http://gnosticmedia.podomatic.com/.

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Vegetarians Who Eat Meat

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 26, 2010
Spit barbecue meat hanging on Avenue C in the ...
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I recently ran across an article in Newsweek entitled “Vegetarians Who Eat Meat”, which got me thinking about two issues. The first is whether a person can be a vegetarian and also eat meat. The second is whether the way the meat animal is raised impacts the morality of eating it.

On the face of it, a vegetarian cannot eat meat and remain a vegetarian. To use an analogy, just as a bachelor cannot be married, a vegetarian cannot be a meat eater.  Of course, some folks might wish to be able to call themselves “vegetarians” yet have the occasional cheeseburger. A conversation with such a person  at a party might go like this:

Vegetarian: (loudly) “Does this have meat in it? I’m a vegetarian, so I want to avoid eating any meat.”

Me: “Yes, that ham salad has ham in it. That’s meat, you know. But, I’ve seen you eat meat recently-like that cheeseburger you had the other day.”

Vegetarian: “Well, I do have a little meat now and then. But I’m still a vegetarian.”

Me: “Ah. I know some people who practice abstinence that way: they only have a little sex now and then.”

But perhaps being a vegetarian is not like being abstinent, but rather like being honest. An honest person does not stop being honest just because they tell a fib now and then. What matters is that such a person is mostly honest. As such, perhaps being a vegetarian is like being honest: they do not have to always avoid meat to justly keep the label, they just have to do so the majority of the time.

Also, there are many variations on the vegetarian theme, so a person could (with a suitable category choice) be a vegetarian and still consume meat. This, of course, does lead to some questions about what it means to be a vegetarian if people can claim that title despite consuming meat. But, as I see it, as long a they are not too self-righteous about it there is no harm in letting them enjoy their self applied title.

I’ll address the second issue in my next blog post.

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Air America Radio Falls Silent

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 25, 2010
Ron Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan, ho...

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Today marks the final day of the liberal Air America Radio. This network was created with the intent of providing a liberal alternative to the rather successful conservative talk radio programs.

Air America Radio’s death comes as no real surprise-after all, it had been dying slowly (and not so slowly) since its inception. Not surprisingly, some conservative folks are taking this as a sign of the decline of liberalism in America.

On one hand, this does have some plausibility. After all, Air America Radio targeted a liberal audience and its failure might indicate that audience has shrunk to the point where it can no longer sustain the company.

On the other hand, such an inference might be flawed. First, its failure might have nothing to do with the number of liberals and might rather be due to its failure to operate effectively as a business. That is, perhaps the company was not well run, did not provide content that appealed to its target audience and so on. It would be rather hasty to make an inference from the failure of this one company to the conclusion that liberalism is on the decline. I really cannot comment on its quality directly-I never listened to it.

Second, there might be factors about liberals and the talk radio format that results in liberals being less interested in talk radio than conservatives. As such, the failure of the company would reveal interesting data about liberals and talk radio that has nothing to do with the alleged decline of liberalism.

One other matter well worth considering is the nature of the inference itself. The logic used by the conservatives seems to be this:

Premise 1: The liberal Air America Radio is going out of business.
Conclusion: Liberalism is in decline.

This seems to require the assumption that how well a media company is doing is an indication of the political state of America, so the argument could be presented as:

Premise 1: The liberal Air America Radio is going out of business.
Premise 2: How well a politically leaning media company is doing (or not doing) is a reliable indicator of the political views of Americans.
Conclusion: Liberalism is in decline.

Assuming that this argument is reasonable, then the fall of Air America Radio would seem to be a happy moment for conservative folks. However, consider a cherished and common conservative claim: the mainstream media has a liberal bias. Interestingly, most media companies are doing fairly well these days. While newspapers are an obvious exception, their problems cut across the political spectrum and seem to arise from factors such as the rise of the web.

So, if the conservative claim about how the liberals dominate the media is taken seriously, then the following argument can be built:

Premise 1: Liberally biased mainstream media is doing well.
Premise 2: How well a politically leaning media company is doing (or not doing) is a reliable indicator of the political views of Americans.
Conclusion: Liberalism is doing well.

This is a rather ironic conclusion for the conservative folks.  Of course, they can reply to this line of reasoning-but I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

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WoW: Gear Fetish & The Number Cult

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on January 24, 2010
World of Warcraft
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While I have played WoW on and off since 2004, I still consider myself something of a casual player. That is, I play a few days a week and generally just play when my friends are on. However, I do like to run an instance or two when my friends are not on. On those occasions I’ll use the dungeon finder to find a pick up group.

As one might imagine, this sort of thing can lead to all sorts of different groups. For example, I might end up with other casual players who like to play a fantasy game-they are there to have fun. In those cases, the dungeon is pleasant and people generally don’t get angry or complain. Plus, there are often some clever jokes. In other cases, I end up with people who are not so nice or folks who have no clue as how to play (and have no clue they have no clue). But, the folks I dread the most are those who have the gear fetish and belong to the numbers cult.

Gear fetish folks are obsessed with gear and they assume that unless you are perfectly geared for your role (that is, geared the way they think you should be geared) that everything will be a disaster. For example, I was playing my protection paladin and one player was actually freaking out because I only had blue (superior) tanking gear rather than a complete set of epic gear.  This was in a normal dungeon and not a heroic instance. In fact, he convinced the rest of the players to boot me from the group. This was before the dungeon had even actually started. Never mind that I had tanked that very instance several times before with no problems.

Now, I do understand why people are concerned about gear. If someone has completely wrong gear or gear that is awful, then they can be a sever liability. For example, when I play my shaman as a healer (I dual specialized) I really notice the effect of decent gear. A badly geared party tends to take way too much damage way too quickly for me to fix, hence a wipe can happen far too easily. However, people who are decent players can still do well even if they have not spent months grinding for the epic gear.

As I see it, if we are getting through the dungeon okay, then there really no reason to complain-especially since one reason to run dungeons is to get the better gear. Interestingly, I have been bitched at a few times when I responded to insults about my gear by saying that I was running the instance specifically to get better gear. In other cases people have been cool about and have even helped  kill a specific boss to get an epic drop for my character.

The number cult folks are those who are fanatics about the numbers. While WoW is a number based game, I enjoy it because it is a fantasy game. If I wanted to play Merchants & Mathematicians, I would play that game instead. This is not to say that I do not take into account the numbers, it is just that they are a secondary part of the game.

The number cult folks I meet in the dungeons usually begin by launching into a diatribe about the other characters-checking the gear (and finding it lacking), checking the damage done every battle and issuing performance evaluations and so on. Playing with these folks is like undergoing a job evaluation at the claws of a demonic mathematician: if you are not perfectly doing what they think you should be doing (and they have the numbers to show this) they leap into hateful action. While I do not mind useful advice, something like “u suk, u dps not at max liek me me get 1k dps easy” just make the game annoying. While I do understand that some people go into instances with the attitude that they are doing a timed job that must be done as rapidly as possible, that seems to be more like work than play. While I do prefer a party that is competent and doing well, cracking a numerical whip at everyone and typing out ungrammatical and misspelled insults the whole time is more like a hostile workplace than a fun game.

For me, the measure of success is that we get through the dungeon and have fun. Since I am not a professional WoW player, I am fine with running instances with other folks who are there to have fun. As I see it, if a player is doing a decent job, then that is just fine. After all, it is just a game. There are some folks who are there to have fun and are also very good with the numbers. But, those folks are fine. In fact, they often have good advice about characters and the instances. That is, they act like teammates rather than insane bosses.

Finally, a running analogy. I’m a serious runner and when I go to a race, I am there to run the best I can. I even have good gear: racing shoes, racing clothing and a GPS watch with a heart rate monitor. Some folks just show up to run. That is fine with me-after all, running is something that should be fun. Naturally, if I am on a team for a race, I want the other folks to be serious, but I do not expect them to be fanatics. What I expect is that we have a good run. Likewise for WoW.

For WoW players who want to critique my characters, they can be looked up on the Armory. My shaman is Keherus and my paladin is Xathon. I just ask that those who leave hateful commentary 1) use poor grammar and 2) misspell as often as possible. Bonus points for misusing leet speak.

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