A Philosopher's Blog

Experience Machines

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 8, 2017

Experience MachinesExperience Machines, edited by Mark Silcox (and including a chapter by me) is now available where fine books are sold, such as Amazon.

In his classic work Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick asked his readers to imagine being permanently plugged into a ‘machine that would give you any experience you desired’. He speculated that, in spite of the many obvious attractions of such a prospect, most people would choose against passing the rest of their lives under the influence of this type of invention. Nozick thought (and many have since agreed) that this simple thought experiment had profound implications for how we think about ethics, political justice, and the significance of technology in our everyday lives.

Nozick’s argument was made in 1974, about a decade before the personal computer revolution in Europe and North America. Since then, opportunities for the citizens of industrialized societies to experience virtual worlds and simulated environments have multiplied to an extent that no philosopher could have predicted. The authors in this volume re-evaluate the merits of Nozick’s argument, and use it as a jumping–off point for the philosophical examination of subsequent developments in culture and technology, including a variety of experience-altering cybernetic technologies such as computer games, social media networks, HCI devices, and neuro-prostheses.

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Running with the Pack Review

Posted in Book Review, Ethics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on November 13, 2013

Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality

Mark Rowlands (Author) $25.95 November 2013

Like Mark Rowlands, I am a runner, a known associate of canines, and a philosopher in Florida. This probably makes me either well qualified as a reviewer or hopelessly biased.

While the book centers on the intrinsic value of running, it also addresses the broader topics of moral value and the meaning of life. While Rowlands references current theories of evolutionary biology, he is engaging in philosophy of the oldest school—the profound and difficult struggle to grasp the Good.

Decisively avoiding the punishing style that often infects contemporary philosophy, Rowlands’ well-crafted tale invites the reader into his thoughts and reflections. While Rowlands runs with canines rather than his fellow “big arsed apes” his writing has the pleasant feel of the well-told running story. While the tale covers a span of decades, it is nicely tied together by his account of his first marathon.

Since the book is about running and philosophy, there is the question of whether or not the book is too philosophical for runners and too “runsophical” for philosophers. Fortunately, Rowlands clearly presents the philosophical aspects of the work in a way that steers nicely between the rocks of being too technical for non-philosophers and being too simplistic for philosophers. As such, non-philosophers and philosophers should find the philosophical aspects both comprehensible and interesting.

In regards to the running part, Rowlands takes a similar approach: those who know little of running are provided with the needed context while Rowlands’s skill ensures that he still captures the attention of veteran runners. This approach ensures that those poor souls who are unfamiliar with both running and philosophy will still find the book approachable and comprehensible.

While the narrative centers on running, the book is a run across the fields of value and the hills of meaning. In addition to these broad themes, Rowlands presents what seems to be the inevitable non-American’s critique of American values. However, Rowlands’s critique of American values (especially our specific brand of instrumentalism) is a friend’s critique: someone who really likes us, but is worried about some of our values and choices. Lest anyone think that Rowlands is solely critiquing America, his general concern is with the contemporary view of value as being purely instrumental. Against this view he endeavors to argue for intrinsic value. Not surprisingly, he claims that running has intrinsic value in addition to its obvious instrumental value. While this claim generally seems self-evident to runners, in the context of philosophy it must be proven and Rowlands sets out to do just that.

Interestingly, he begins with a little known paper by Moritz Schlick in which he contends that play has intrinsic value. He then moves to Bernard Suits’s account of what it is to be game and notes that running is a form of play; that is, it involves picking an inefficient means of achieving a goal for the sake of engaging in the activity.  Running is not a efficient way of getting around in an age of cars, but runners often run for the sake of running-thus running can be a game.

As Rowlands tells the reader, his approach is not strictly linear and he takes interesting, but relevant, side trips into such matters as the nature of the self and of love. These side trips are rather like going off the main trail in a run—but, of course, one is really still on the run.

Near the end of this run, Rowlands goes back to the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. He notes that the gods, such as Zeus, showed us that play is an essential part of what is best. The philosophers showed us that the most important thing is to love the good. The athletes taught us that running is play and therefore has intrinsic value.

He ends his run with a discussion of joy, which is the recognition of things with intrinsic value. As he says, dogs and children understand joy but when we become adults we lose our understanding—but this need not be a permanent loss.

While Rowlands’s case is well reasoned, he does face the serious challenge of establishing intrinsic value within the context of what I call the MEM (mechanistic, evolutionary, and materialist) world. Many ancient (and later) philosophers unashamedly helped themselves to teleological and metaphysical foundations for the Good. While this generated problems, this approach could seemingly ground intrinsic value. While I agree with Rowlands’s conclusion, I am in less agreement with his attempt to establish intrinsic value in his chosen world view. But, it is a good run and I respect that.

Like a long run, Rowlands’ book covers a great deal of ground. Also like a long run, it is well worth finishing.  Plus there are dogs (the most philosophical of animals).

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30 More Fallacies in Print

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 15, 2013


Now available in print on Amazon and other book sellers.

30 Fallacies is a companion book for 42 Fallacies. 42 Fallacies is not, however, required to use this book. It provides concise descriptions and examples of thirty common informal fallacies.

Accent, Fallacy of
Accident, Fallacy of
Amphiboly, Fallacy of
Appeal to Envy
Appeal to Group Identity
Appeal to Guilt
Appeal to Silence
Appeal to Vanity/Elitism
Argumentum ad Hitlerum
Complex Question
Confusing Explanations and Excuses
Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc
Equivocation, Fallacy of
Fallacious Example
Fallacy Fallacy
Historian’s Fallacy
Illicit Conversion
Incomplete Evidence
Moving the Goal Posts
Oversimplified Cause
Overconfident Inference from Unknown Statistics
Pathetic Fallacy
Positive Ad Hominem
Proving X, Concluding Y
Psychologist’s fallacy
Reification, Fallacy of
Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy
Victim Fallacy
Weak Analogy

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99 Books 99 Cents Promo Video

Posted in Pathfinder, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2013
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Blogs & Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ripping Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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