A Philosopher's Blog

The Real

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 31, 2010
Plato's The Republic, Latin edition cover, 1713
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As a professor (and even worse, a philosophy professor) I have become accustomed to people talking about the real world as a land far from the ivory tower in which I am supposed to dwell. Naturally I, and folks who are supposed to be like me, are not supposed “to get” how the real world works. Thanks to Sarah Palin and others, I have also grown familiar with the idea of a Real America, which is also presumably a place where I do not live. Not surprisingly, all this talk of the real got me thinking.

When folks accuse me, as a professor, of not being in the real world I tend to smile a bit. After all, there is a certain irony in accusing a philosophy professor of being far from the real world or not “getting” the way the real world works. This is because, obviously enough, of Plato’s famous discussion of the distinction between the lovers of wisdom (philosophers) and the lovers of sights and sounds. For Plato, the true philosophers were the ones who deal with the real.  The real for Plato is, of course, those mysterious forms. The other folks, those who seem to now claim to be the kings of the real, were characterized as merely playing with images and opinions.

Naturally, talking about Platonic forms and other philosophical stuff does little to convince folks that I  do not live many zip codes removed from the real world. As such, it seems like a reasonable approach to set aside talk about unseen realities and take a somewhat different approach.

One reasonable approach involves considering what is supposed to distinguish the real world from the sort of world that I and other philosopher types are supposed to reside.

On the face of it, my “world” seems to be just as real as the “world” of the folks who accuse me of keeping it unreal. After all, the buildings seem solid enough as do the people around me. I do work, I get paid, I interact with people, and do the things that other folks do. As such, my “world” just seems to be part of the world, rather than an unreal realm distinct from the allegedly real world.

But, someone might say, you philosopher types deal with things that are not real. You live in books, talk about made up ideas and so on. In the real world we deal with real things.

One obvious reply is that the “real” world contains an abundance of made up ideas and other such things that are supposed to be part of the unreal world. To use an obvious example, consider politics. As another obvious example, consider the financial system. The so-called real world seems no more (or no less) real than the world of philosophers and other academic folk.

But, suppose that I am willing to accept that the “world” I occupy is not the same as the “real” world. That is, that there are differences between what I do in my professional life and what, for example, people who are bankers, construction workers, engineers, financial planners, bureaucrats, priests, and so on do. There is still the obvious question as to why their “way of life” should be considered real and mine should be considered unreal.

This would seem to take us to the old saw that philosophy in particular and intellectual endeavors in general are useless. The real world is the world in which people bake, build and kill rather than think, talk and write. However, this seems to be a mere prejudice on par with intellectuals looking down on those who bake and build for not discussing Proust over lattes in the cafe. These “worlds” seem to all be quite real. I see the value in being able to repair a two stroke engine (having done it myself), cook a fine steak (or tofu) or put a round through a person’s head at 800 meters (haven’t done that, but could). I can also see the value in being able to consider various moral views, speculate on the nature of the universe or do mathematical proofs.

This is not to say that different professions are not different and that some professions (or specific people) might be less than useful. However, the blanket dismissal via the use of “the real world” seems to have no real substance.

As far as “getting it” or being part of the Real America (or Real Britain or whatever), this seems to be primarily a rhetorical device. Merely saying that someone does not get it or accusing them of not being Real Xs does not prove that they are in error or morally wrong. For example, someone might tell me that I “just don’t get it” when it comes to taxes and government spending because I argue that cutting the deficit requires increasing some taxes and reducing major expenditures, such as defense spending. Obviously enough, no matter how many times someone says that I do not “get how the real world works” or that I am not part of the Real America, he does not show that my view is in error.  What is wanting is, of course, an argument that shows that I am, in fact, in error.

In many cases it seems that accusing someone of “not getting it” or “not understanding the real world” or of not being “real whatever” is merely another way of saying “they don’t believe what I believe” or “they don’t see the world as I see it” or “they do not have the same values as me.” Obviously enough, the mere fact that someone has different beliefs, views or values does not prove that these beliefs, views or values are inferior or mistaken. Of course, the use of such rhetorical devices can be rather effective. After all, the real people want to get it.

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Email Privacy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2010
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A recent case raises questions about the ethics of reading a spouse’s email. The gist of the situation is that Leon Walker of Michigan  faces the possibility of up to five years in prison for allegedly “hacking” into his wife’s email account (they are now divorced) and learning that she was having an affair with her second ex-husband.  Michigan does have a law against “hacking” computers, programs or networks to get property “without authorization.” Applying this law to accessing a spouse’s email is seen by some legal experts as a stretch, but Leon Walker might very well face trial under this law.

Walker has offered two main defenses for his actions.

His first defense is that his wife had asked him to read her emails before and had given him the password.

If this is true, then it would certainly seem that she had granted him authorization to access her email. As such, he would seem to have acted neither illegally nor wrongly.

Of course, there is the question of whether or not he was acting under her authorization when he learned of her affair. While it is possible, it seems somewhat unlikely that she would be sending and receiving emails related to the affair while still authorizing her husband to read her email. If she did, in fact, remove her authorization, then a case could be made that he did break the law. Ethically, it could also be seen as an incorrect act. After all, being married does not grant a spouse carte blanche access to the other person’s private matters and this would seem to include email. To use an analogy, if someone allowed her husband to open a bill addressed to her, this would not grant him a right to open all her letters and read through them without her explicit permission.

While it seems reasonable to accept a presumption of privacy even with spouses, there is still the question of whether the right to privacy gives spouses a right to hide misdeeds (such as having an affair). This leads to Walker’s second argument.

After getting the emails, Walker passed on the information with his ex-wife’s first ex-husband. This man used the information to justify filing an emergency motion to get custody of his son (whom he had with Clara Walker, the woman in question). The second ex-husband was apparently once arrested on a charge of domestic violence and since Clara Walker was apparently having an affair with him, Leon Walker saw this as a matter of significant concern.

Walker likened his reading his ex-wife’s email to kicking down a door during a house fire. While this would be breaking in, it would be breaking in with the intent of saving people from harm.

This analogy does have a certain degree of appeal. After all, just breaking down someone’s door to steal their stuff would be a criminal (and most likely immoral) action. This would be analogous to hacking into a computer to, for example, steal credit card numbers. In contrast, kicking down a locked door when a house is on fire so as to save people would not be a criminal act nor a wrongful action. If Walker is right, then his reading his ex-wife’s email should not be considered criminal or unethical.

Of course, when a person kicks down the door of a burning house they know that it is on fire and they have to gain access to actually help people. In the case of the email, Walker would need to have clear signs of a “fire” and would need to have reason to believe that he had to “kick down the door” in order to help people.  This is, of course, a factual matter. It could be the case that Walker had reason to believe that his wife was having an affair and that crucial information relating to the safety of others was locked behind the password (and could not be acquired via other non-intrusive means).

If this is the case, then Walker would seem to have acted in an acceptable manner. After all, a right to privacy does not seem to give a person a shield behind which they can conceal misdeeds or  hide information relating to a possible danger to, for example, a child. In such a case, the person’s right to privacy would be violated and in this they would be wronged. However, the violation could be justified based on the nature of what was being concealed. After all, it would seem odd to say that a married person has  right to conceal evidence of her affair from her husband. He would certainly seem to have a moral right to know that.

In response, it could be argued that the right of a spouse (or ex-spouse) to know about such things does not extend to intruding into certain privacy rights, such as email. After all, while there is a certain appeal to thinking it was okay to get into someone’s email when they were having an affair, one must also consider all the cases in which the spouse is not having an affair. It would be odd to say that spouses should have the right to get into each other’s email, mail, and so on all the time because people have affairs.

Some legal experts and Leon Walker’s attorney are, of course, focusing on the legal aspect of the case. The law in question seems to have been intended to deal with cases in which someone has actually hacked into a computer or network and done damage or has stolen something.

While reading someone else’s email is an intrusion into that person’s privacy, it does not seem to fall under the law, at least as it is worded. After all, nothing seems to have been stolen from the woman and she can hardly claim that she was the damaged party when her affair was exposed.

It will be interesting to see how the case develops and what impact it has on legality of the no doubt common practice of spousal snooping.

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Straw, Lies and Errors

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2010
Straw Man
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Straw man is a rather commonly committed fallacy. Interestingly, it is almost as common for people to accuse others of making straw men as it is for people to actually commit said fallacy. Since I am in a phase of holiday laziness, I decided to write a bit about straw men, lies and errors rather than take on a major topic.

Defining the straw man fallacy is easy enough:

The straw man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position (argument, theory, etc.) and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

Obviously enough, it is reasonable to point out when someone is making a straw man and to note that any attack on the straw man will fail to do any damage to the original version. Of course, it is important to be sure that such an accusation actually fits.

Whether a characterization is a straw man or not depends, obviously enough on what is being characterized. Roughly put,  “strawness’ is a relative thing and what might be a straw man characterization of one person’s position could very well be an accurate description of another person’s view. As such, a person can be wrongly accused of presenting a straw man because the accuser is mistaken about which position the accused is actually describing. I have even noticed that people sometimes assume that the writer must be writing about them when, in fact, the writer is not.

So, before crying straw it is a good idea to see what the person is actually characterizing. While it might seem to be distorted or exaggerated it might really be spot on.

While most straw men are distorted versions of specific views, there is also variation of the straw man which involves presenting a position that “no one” actually holds and attacking it. In many cases, these positions are attributed to vaguely identified groups (feminists, liberals, conservatives, etc.)  rather than specific individuals. While it is obviously legitimate to point out when people do this sort of thing, it should be determined whether the person is actually setting up such a generic straw man. As noted above, there are views that are really held that would tend to seem like willful distortions on the part of the person describing them.

There are various other ways to use straw men, but I’ll leave those for people to bring up in comments.

Switching now to lies, I have noticed that when I teach this fallacy my students inevitably ask about the difference between presenting a straw man and lying.

On the face of it, a straw man would be a form of lie. After all, a person knowingly presenting a distortion or exaggeration would seem to be engaged in an act of deceit that falls nicely within the kingdom of lies. As such, I do not see any significant problem with characterizing intentional straw men as involving a lie (or lies) as a component.  For example, when the health care bill Obama was supporting was characterized as establishing death panels and attacked on those grounds, then that would seem to qualify as both a straw man and a lie.

That said, there is more to a straw man than merely lying. As noted above, the straw man fallacy involves more than just presenting a distortion-it also involves rejecting the original on the basis of an attack on the distorted version.

The deceptive aspect of the straw man also brings in a moral element on top of the critical thinking element. After all, engaging in poor reasoning need not be immoral. However, the intentional use of deceit is often morally problematic (although, as people will no doubt point out, there are intuitively appealing exceptions). One obvious concern is that if a position is actually bad enough to morally require that deceits be used to attack it, then it would seem to follow that it could be justly criticized “in the flesh” rather than “in the straw.” No doubt there are exceptions to this as well-positions that are wicked or flawed and yet could not be defeated by arguing against them in their actual form.

While many straw men do involve intentional deceits, there are others that do not. These are cases that involve errors.

One obvious example of straw man by error is when someone tries to honestly characterize a view and simply gets it wrong because the view is rather difficult to understand. For example, I often see such straw men in student papers when they try to summarize the arguments of a philosopher.

Another example of straw man by error is when someone presents a straw man out of ignorance, sloppiness or some such reason. For example, a person might receive an email that distorts the Republican position on tax cuts and then go on to use that version in his blog. In this case, the person is not engaged in an intentional exaggeration.

To use an analogy, this could be seen as being a bit like counterfeit money. A person who knowingly creates a straw man is like a counterfeiter: she is created a deceitful product that she hopes others will accept as the real thing. Someone who accepts the straw man and unknowingly passes it on to others is like a person who gets counterfeit money and spends it herself, unaware that she is passing on phony money.

As with counterfeit money, the person who passes the straw man along in ignorance is not morally responsible for the deceit-she is acting in good faith and is also a victim. This, obviously enough, assumes that the person passing it on took a reasonable amount of effort to assess what was passed on to her.

Sticking with the money analogy, if I pick up some flawless counterfeit bills in my change at the grocery store and I pass them on to others when I buy things, I would seem to be an innocent victim. After all, the source is supposed to be safe and the bills pass all the tests I could reasonably be expected to us. However, if I am handed bills from a questionable person or the money looks a bit fishy, then I would be culpable (to a degree) for uncritically accepting them and passing them on to others.

If this analogy holds, then a person who passes on a straw man from others might be called to task for this or might merely be an innocent victim. In some cases it might be rather hard to determine which category a person falls into.

As one final point, people sometimes make the mistake of conflating errors and straw men. For example, I might claim that WikLeaks’ leak was a good thing because it revealed important new information to the public, such as the fact that Saudis provide considerable support to terrorist organizations and the fact that Pakistan also lends support to such groups. In response to this someone might say that I made a straw man because it is already well known that the Saudis and Pakistanis are supporters of terrorist groups.

However, there is a difference between merely being in error and making a straw man. To be specific, being in error is merely being wrong and a straw man is, well, what was defined above. In the example just given, I could be completely wrong (some have claimed that almost everything leaked was already available), however it would not be a straw man because there was no attempt to present a distorted or exaggerated version of a position. The main test (which is not perfect) is to ask what position, if any, is being distorted or exaggerated. If there are not plausible grounds for claiming an act of distortion has occurred, then it is more reasonable to claim that the person is wrong about the facts rather than accusing him of creating a straw man. Naturally, there will be gray areas in which it is not clear what is the most plausible explanation.

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Arguing By Example

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2010
Al Capone. Mugshot information from Science an...
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Like most people, I often argue by giving examples. Also not surprisingly, people often take issue with my examples. As such, I thought it would be useful to say a bit about arguing by using examples.

Not surprisingly, an argument by example is an argument in which a claim is supported by providing examples.

Strictly presented, this sort of argument will have at least one premise and a conclusion. Each premise is used to support the conclusion by providing an example. The general idea is that the weight of the examples establishes the claim in question.

Although people generally present arguments by example in a fairly informal manner, they have the following logical form:

  • Premise 1: Example 1 is an example that supports claim P.
  • Premise n: Example n is an example that supports claim P.
  • Conclusion: Claim P is true.

In this case n is a variable standing for the number of the premise in question and P is a variable standing for the claim under consideration. Naturally, people generally do not lay out the premises and the conclusion so formally. Rather, they will say things like “Obama is a socialist. For example, he supported socialized medicine. He also supports other social programs like Social Security.”

So, that is how to build the argument. What tends to concern people the most is how to attack them.

The strength of an analogical argument depends on four factors First, the more examples, the stronger the argument. After all, if you are trying to make a case by weight of example, the more weight the better.

Second, the more relevant the examples, the stronger the argument. Examples that really do not fit or just weakly fit do not provide much in the way of support.

Third, the examples must be specific and clearly identified. Vague and unidentified examples do not provide much in the way of support.

Fourth, counter-examples must be considered. A counter-example is an example that counts against the claim. One way to look at a counter example is that it is an example that supports the denial of the conclusion being argued for. The more counter-examples and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument.  As such, counter-examples can be used to build an argument by example that has as its conclusion the claim that the conclusion it counters is false.

When assessing (or attacking) an argument by example it is important to note that attacks on them generally tend to just weaken them rather than conclusively refute them.  For example, if an example used to support the conclusion is show to actually not be relevant, then the argument only loses the support of that conclusion. If the other examples remain “unharmed”, then the conclusion would still be supported by them. To use an analogy, refuting an argument by example is a bit like trying to take out a building-removing one support will generally not make it collapse. Also, as with structures, some supports are more important than others.

It is also important to keep in mind that showing that an example is flawed or mistaken does not show that the conclusion the example was used to support is false. To use a silly example, suppose that someone claimed that Al Capone was criminal and one of the examples used was that Al Capone rustled camels and sold them as dog food. Pointing out that this example has no basis in fact would not, obviously enough, prove that Al Capone was not a criminal.

One should also be aware that examples are often used in conjunction with other arguments. A person might, for example, present a causal argument linking tax increases and job losses and then provide various examples. Merely attacking the examples does not (in general) harm the other argument. After all, while having a bad example or two to illustrate an argument can have a significant psychological impact, it need not have any logical impact on the actual argument. Obviously, having bad examples in an argument by example would be bad for that argument.

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The War on Food

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 27, 2010
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One of our Christmas gifts was a heightening of the terror alert level in anticipation of attacks during the busy travel season. While no Christmas attacks materialized (perhaps because of the crippling storms), we did have a new episode in the War on Food. 89 people in 15 states (and the District of Columbia) were victims of food borne salmonella. Fortunately, swift action was taken to deal with this problem.

While a food safety bill was recently passed, this most recent incident serves to underscore the need for even more reform in food safety. Now, if Al Qaeda had dropped the salmonella into the food supply, I suspect that the reaction from pundits and politicians would be rather interesting. However, it is an interesting fact that a failed attempt by an underwear bomber resulted in a multi-million dollar makeover of airport security while these sort of incidents generate relatively little change. Now, if government contractors stood to make millions protecting us from food based dangers and politicians could ride a wave pf food paranoia into office, then I would suspect much more would be done.

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Paladin Tanking in Cataclysm

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2010
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The basics of Paladin tanking have not changed. As always, there are two main goals: holding aggro and not dying. As always, doing this rests partially on your gear, partially on your build, and largely on your skill.

As far as gearing, build and the basic tanking rotation, the best source of information is on Elitist Jerks. This is the place to start.

While Elitist Jerks do a great job, their main focus is on showing readers how to build a tank that is number optimized rather than on how to actually go about doing the tanking-especially in PUGs. As such, I thought I’d say a bit about the Paladin abilities in the context of tanking in general and PUG groups in particular.

One thing I have found very useful is having a mental “pre-tanking” checklist to make sure all my tanking stuff is active. The most critical is, of course, Righteous Fury. This is essential to holding aggro. Without this, you will see the mobs rushing to kill the DPS and healer and then lots of swearing in party chat. This will be directed at you. Even if you are all tank all the time, Righteous Fury turns off when you die (and when you change specs)-so be sure to activate it after a death. When questing you will want to turn it off, unless you like having other folks’ mobs being pulled to you by your AOEs.

You will also want to make sure that you have your seal (Seal of Truth) and aura (Devotion in most cases) are active. You can wait to buff (Kings or Might) once you get in the instance. As druids always remind me, Kings=Mark of the Wild, so if you have a filthy druid in the party, be sure to use Might.

If you have other consumable based buffs (potions, scrolls, or food) these can usually be put up at the start of the instance. At the end of WotLK I didn’t bother much with these consumables-even the heroics were super easy. However, now that I am re-gearing I have found that the buffs can make the difference between wiping and winning. Once you are super geared and everything is easy again, these consumable will be less important..

Once you get in an instance, be sure to see who is in the party. Obviously, if you are in a group of friends/guild mates, then you will already know the classes, etc. However, if you are in a PUG, it is a good idea to see what sort of DPS and healer you have in the group. Party composition can change the dynamics of tanking. For example, if you have all melee DPS then they will tend to be very close to you, thus making it easier to get aggro back from them. If, however, you have ranged DPS, you’ll have to keep an eye on them to make sure that they are not picking up adds as they cravenly try to get as far from the fight as possible. In the case of healers, the different classes have different buffs and styles. If, for example, you have a shaman healer, then you will want to make an effort to stay in range of his totems.

As always, tanking starts with pulling. It is generally a good idea to mark targets so people know what to attack, what to sheep and so on. Pulling hasn’t changed much, aside from the fact that Hand of Reckoning doesn’t do damage anymore. I usually pull the main target with the hand and use the shield on any casters to properly motivate them. I then try to get Consecration down and blast with Holy Wrath so as to get aggro on everything. Most DPS folks are not willing to give you even a second to grab and hold aggro, so you will generally have to focus on getting as much AOE threat out there as fast as possible. Also, most DPS do not get the idea that they have some responsibility in managing threat-so you’ll have to assume that this is all up to you.

In most fights I rely on Hammer of Wrath rather than Crusader Strike (even single target tanking). This is because the talents and glyph seem to make this a better attack. However, the numbers have not been completely crunched on this. In any case, you want to be cranking out the HoW and CS attacks to generate Holy Power.

Holy Power is a new resource and is kind of like the DK runes. Each HoW/CS hit generates 1 Holy Power, up to the capacity of three.  Coincidently, there are three things you can spend Holy Power on.

Ideally, you want to use all three Holy Power on your Shield of the Righteous. This does impressive damage and also creates a lot of single target threat. You can also use your Holy Power on Inquisition (which boosts your Holy damage). However, the Shield seems to be the priority for Holy Power.

You can also spend Holy Power on Word of Glory. This is an instant cast heal that has the added bonus of giving you a damage shield if you over heal (provided you have the talent-which you should). If your healer is sub-optimal, you will probably be spending your Holy Power on Word during all the fights. This, unfortunately, makes holding aggro harder and prolongs the fights (since your damage drops off). However, I have tanked many PUGs where the only thing between a wipe and a win was my self healing.

Avenging Wrath is a useful ability, one that I generally save for boss fights or when I know it will be ready for the boss fight. I do, however, avoid wasting it on bosses that are rigged to fear or otherwise break the fight. The damage boost helps in keeping aggro (and killing mobs).

If you happen to lose aggro, the Hand of Reckoning is good for getting it back. Righteous Defense is also very useful for saving another party member when they put out to much threat or get jumped by adds. As a last ditch rescue, the Hand of Protection will save a party member from physical attacks. Divine Guardian is also very useful and not just for cases in which other party members have aggro. The 20% damage reduction for everyone else can be a real life saver when a boss is throwing out a nasty AOE. Holy Radiance, an AOE heal, is also useful in assisting the healer in those broad damage situations.

One final concern is the matter of not dying. While a good healer will make this easier, you will probably PUG with some bad healers from time to time. Also, just as it is not your job alone to manage threat, it is also not the healer’s job alone to keep you alive.

Divine Protection is an ability that I use pretty much every fight. It has a 1 minute cool down and gives a nice damage reduction. It is especially useful when the mob/boss is popping out some high damage special attack. This ability helps make the healer’s job easier.

Divine Shield is the ultimate damage reducer in that it makes you immune. The downside is that it breaks threat. This can be used in certain conditions to break (or avoid) a nasty effect. However, you have to be sure to drop it and then regain the aggro. In some cases it can literally save the day-I have finished off at least two bosses after everyone else died by bubbling and beating the boss to death.

Lay on Hands is a major life saver. In general, you should use it either on yourself (when the healer is failing, OOM or dead) or the healer. It is generally not a good idea to spend it on a DPS, unless that DPS is somehow critical.

If you were Paladin tanking before, Ardent Defender probably saved your holy bacon a few times. It still can, but now you have to actively save your own bacon-it is activated manually now. Like most Paladins, I use this as my “oh sh@t” button and hit it when my health is way low and the healer cannot or will not save me. Timing it just right can be challenging. After all, it is intended for when the next hit (or a few hits after that) will kill you.

The final ability is, of course, Guardian of Ancient Kings. While it does not last long and has a significant cool down, it is a great ability for tough fights. In general, this is best used during the boss phases that are the most damage intensive.

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Merry Christmas!

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on December 25, 2010
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Peace on earth, good will to all.

On this day, let hate be set aside for at least a moment.

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Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 24, 2010

The other day I was watching the History Channel’s shows on the deadly sins. The last one I watched was about greed and this got me thinking of the holiday season and the recent battle over tax cuts.

On one hand it is reasonable to see the desire of the wealthy to keep their tax cuts as being, well, reasonable. After all, as people have argued, the wealthy (sometimes) earn their money and hence have a right to keep it. Also, people argue that the tax cuts will help create jobs.

On the other hand, it is tempting to see this desire as a form of avarice. After all, it could be argued, the extremely wealthy do not actually need the tax cuts. They are, after all, extremely wealthy. As such, it would seem that the desire to keep the cuts is based on avarice, which can be seen as the desire for more for the sake of having more.  Ancient thinkers, such as Aristotle, regarded this obsession with wealth as a vice. Christian thinkers also argued for its wickedness and it was eventually cast as one of the seven deadly sins.

One moral problem with avarice is that it leads to various other immoral actions. After all, when someone values wealth excessively, they will tend to do what it takes to get that wealth. Another moral problem, as authors such as Aristotle and Wollstonecraft have argued, a focus on wealth distracts people from what is truly valuable: being virtuous. A third moral problem is that those who gather up wealth in excess would seem to be morally accountable for the harm they do in denying others. For example, if someone becomes wealthy by exploiting workers or by engaging in financial witchcraft that ruins the finances of thousands (or millions), then they would seem to be acting wrongly.

Naturally, all these points can be argued against. First, people will point out that it is possible to become wealthy without doing misdeeds. I actually agree with this as did the classic virtue theorists. After all, Confucius noted that there is no shame in being wealthy when one gains the wealth in a way consistent with virtue. The problem is, of course, gaining and keeping wealth through ill means.

Second, folks will point out that it is possible to be wealthy without placing wealth as having a value beyond its true worth. Once again, I agree with this. If someone can be wealthy without placing wealth above the well being of others and so on, then I am fine with this. The problem arises when wealth is valued more than it is truly worth (in the moral sense).

Third, folks will point out that the wealthy often give to charity and some folks become wealthy in ways that do not involve taking from others or denying them the means to survive. Again, as long as the wealth is not accrued in a way that causes others to suffer or harms them, then I am fine with this.

As such, like the classic thinkers, I am not against wealth. Rather, I am against avarice. I will, of course, leave it to others to argue that avarice is actually good.

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DADT Repealed

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2010
United States Joint Chiefs of Staff Badge
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The infamous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was recently repealed.

As has often been argued, the policy was rather  questionable. After all, it seemed to say that it was okay for homosexuals to serve provided that they did so secretly. This seems to imply that what mattered was not someone’s sexual orientation but what other people happened to know about that orientation.  Of course, the “don’t ask” policy seems to have often been ignored and when confronted, military personal were supposed to tell. As such, it seemed like a rather weird sort of policy that needed to be fixed.

While some folks worked hard trying to repeal it, others worked hard to try to stall and prevent the repeal. Most famously, John McCain fought an impressively dogged defense against it (in many cases, fighting against his previous self): each time one of his conditions (such as endorsement by the Joint Chiefs) was met, he would insist on another (such as a survey). Even when all his conditions were met, he still opposed the change. However, his opposition failed and it was repealed.

As I see it, this is a good thing. The top officers and most personal seem to be fine with the situation. Also, nations that have allowed homosexuals to serve do not seem to have run into any problems specific to this factor. In fact, lifting such restrictions seems to be beneficial. See, for example, the Palm Center report on this matter. Naturally, the report can be challenged. However, doing so would seem to require presenting cases in which allowing homosexuals to serve openly was a significant causal factor in creating problems to military effectiveness. Naturally, these cases would have to be properly compared to comparable cases involving heterosexuals to determine if the cause was specific to homosexuality or due to another factor. However, the most reasonable argument against the repeal (that it would impair military effectiveness) seems to have been soundly defeated. As such, the repeal seems reasonable.

Also,  if someone wishes to serve his/her country and can make such a contribution, then it would seem both wrong and wasteful to deny him/her that chance on the basis of sexual orientation. We do not, it would seem, have the luxury of prejudice, what with Iraq, Afghanistan, the endless war on terror, and with possible future conflicts with Iran and North Korea.

Naturally, if the future shows that repealing DaDT has damaged our military due to some factors that did not affect any other military, then a change should be strongly  considered. After all, the military cannot (as many would argue) afford the luxury of equality at the expense of its core mission.

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Eating in America

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 22, 2010
Nutrition Assistance for Puerto Rico is a fede...
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During this holiday season it is natural to think of food. While America is supposed to be the land of plenty, about 17% of Americans are food insecure. That is, they sometimes run out of food. About 6% of Americans have very low food security-meaning that they often run out of food.

The main cause for food insecurity is, obviously enough, a lack of money: the food runs out when the money runs out. While some of this could be attributed to poor management of money, most cases would tend to involve simply not having enough money to secure enough food.

While I have never been poor in the true sense of the term, I did live on a very limited income in graduate school. I was careful with my money, but a meager TA salary only goes so far. I never had  a car and generally did not even have a phone. I never starved, but I did subsist on such things as Ramen noodles, pasta, rice-puffs and what I could scarf at university events. At the end of the month, I’d sometimes be down to eating bread and peanut butter. As such, I have a great deal of empathy for folks who live with food insecurity.

As the economy continues to limp along, we can expect even more people to end up being food insecure. While the government does provide support (1 in 7 Americans receive food stamps), state support only goes so far. I do know that everyone has stories about how they see “those food stamp” people buying cigarettes and booze, but most people on food stamps seem to be buying food. In any case, even if folks are misusing the system, my main concern is with the fact that so many people are food insecure due to poverty.

At this point, someone is no doubt thinking something like this: “hey, I see on the news all the time that Americans are obese! How can there be so many people who are food insecure when there are so many fatties? Poor fatties, too! I mean, go to Wal Mart!”

This does raise an important point. On the face of it, we seem to be involved in some sort of paradox: we have obese people who are also food insecure. However, a little consideration dissolves the apparent paradox.

One factor is this: cheap foods are often very high in calories.  For example, last week I bought a name brand cake mix for $1.97 and a can of frosting for about $2. Hence, people who are short on money will tend to buy cheap foods and these will tend to be high calorie foods and this will put them at risk of obesity.

There are also other health concerns. Unfortunately, being high in calories is not the same thing as being good food. After all, a bag of sugar is high in calories, but having a bowl of sugar for each meal would not be healthy eating. healthy foods, such as lean meats and fresh produce, tend to be more expensive than the cheap, high calorie foods. As such, people who are food insecure tend to not only be lacking in food but also lacking in good nutrition.

One reason why high calorie foods are cheaper is because of government subsidies. For example, big corn growers are heavily supported by Uncle Sam and this means that high fructose corn syrup is very cheap. As such, it tends to end up in a lot of cheap foods. Ironically, the same government that subsidizes unhealthy foods also works hard to educate people about healthy eating.

As I see it, the subsidies should not go to food that is not very healthy. Rather, it would make more moral and practical sense for the state to subsidize nutritional food. After all, if we are going to spend money to make food cheaper, it should be for food that will be good for people. Otherwise, federal money is being spent in a way that contributes to poor health-which then costs the people even more money. By subsidizing healthy food, everyone could be happy: the big food companies get to stay at the public trough and people get to eat better.

Another factor is that foods that taste good to people tend to be those loaded with sugars and fats. These are high in calories and hence tend to contribute to obesity. For example, people like junk food and fast food because they taste good, although they are bad for you. These foods are, in fact, designed to be highly appealing.  People with more income still buy junk-but they can also buy better food as well. While I like junk as much as the next person (probably more), it does seem reasonable to push food companies towards designing junk that is actually not junk. That way people would at least get some nutritional benefit from the junk food.

A third factor is food education. Most people do not really understand how to eat well (or exercise) and this would tend to be even more likely in the case of people with lower incomes. After all, they would be less likely to have received education in nutrition and be less likely to keep up with current findings. Of course, even if someone with a low income knew a great deal about nutrition, the high cost of good food would remain a significant factor. While food education can certainly be improved (and has improved), making healthy food more affordable would do far more.

A final factor is, of course, the matter of choice. When I was living on a very limited income in grad school, I was careful to pick the healthiest foods I could afford. I never got obese (of course, training for marathons really helped with that). I would like to think that people would eat better if they could afford it, but maybe this is not the case. Of course, I suppose it would be better to have people who are obese on nutritional diets rather than people who are obese on crappy diets.

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