A Philosopher's Blog

How Your Next Fridge Will Turn on You

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 10, 2014

Fridge2There is considerable buzz about the internet of things, smart devices and connected devices. These devices range from toothbrushes to underwear to cars. As might be imagined, one might wonder whether a person really needs a connected toothbrush or even a connected fridge. While the matter of need is interesting, I’ll focus on other matters.

One obvious point of concern is the fact that a device connected to the internet can be hacked. In some cases, people will engage in prank hacking. For example, a wit might hack a friend’s connected fridge to say “I am sorry Dave. No pie for you” in Hal’s voice. Of greater concern is the possibility that people will engage in truly malicious hacking. For example, a smart fridge might be hacked and shut off, allowing the food in it to spoil. Or the temperature might be lowered so that the food in the refrigerator is frozen. As another example, it might be possible to burn out the motors in a washing machine—something analogous to what happened in the famous case of the Iranian centrifuges. Or a dryer might be hacked in a way that could burn down a house. As a final example, consider the damage that could be done by someone hacking the systems in a connected car, such as turning it off while it is roaring down the highway or disabling the software that allows the car to brake.

Because of these risks, manufacturers will make considerable effort to ensure that the devices are safe even when hacked. Naturally, the easiest way to stay safer is to stick with dumb, unconnected devices—no one can hack my 1997 washing machine nor my 2001 Toyota Tacoma from the internet. But, of course, being safe in this way would entail missing out on the alleged benefits of the connected lifestyle. I cannot, for example, turn on my washer from work—I have to walk over to the machine and turn it on. As another example, my non-smart fridge cannot send me a text telling me to buy more pie. I have to remember when I am out of pie.

Another obvious point of concern is that connected devices can easily be used as spies—they can send all sorts of data to companies, governments and individuals. For example, a suitably smart connected fridge could provide data about its contents on a regular basis, thus providing a decent report on the users’ purchasing and consumption behavior. As another example, a suitably smart connected car can provide all sorts of behavioral and location data. It goes without saying that the NSA will be accessing all these devices and siphoning vast amounts of data about us. It also goes without saying that corporations will be doing the same—just think about Google appliances, cars, and underwear. Individuals, such as stalkers and thieves, will also be keen to get the data from such devices. These concerns are, obviously, not new ones—but the more we are connected, the more our privacy will be violated.

A practical concern is that such devices will be more complicated than the non-smart devices they replace, perhaps making them less reliable, more expensive and such that they become obsolete sooner. While my washer is not smart, it has proven to be very reliable: I’ve had it repaired once since 1997. In contrast, I’ve had to replace my smart devices (like my PC and tablets) to keep up with changes. For example, the used iPad 1 I own is stuck on version 5 of the iOS—and Apple is now on version 7. While some apps still update and run, many do not. Just imagine if your fridge, washer, dryer and car get on the high tech upgrade cycle of being obsolete (and perhaps unusable) in a few years. While this will be great for the folks who want to sell us a new fridge every 2-3 years, it might not be so great for the consumer.

While I do like technology and can see the value in smart, connected devices, I do have these concerns about them. Of course, my best defense against them is that I am a low-paid professor: I’ll only be replacing my current non-smart devices when they can no longer be repaired.

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Defending the Humanities: Practical Value

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 15, 2013
A war shield

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous essay, I noted the concern that the humanities are in decline in the academy. In this essay I will argue in defense of the practical value of the humanities.

Honesty compels me to admit that some of the problems faced by the humanities are self-inflicted. First, humanities faculty have generally not done a very good job “selling” the practical value of the humanities to students, parents, politicians, and society as a whole. Part of this might be the result of the notion that humanities faculty should not stoop to selling their beloved disciplines like a pimp sells his hookers. My view is that the practical value of the humanities can be shown without descending to the level of what would amount to intellectual prostitution.

Second, some humanities faculty devote considerable time to saying and writing ridiculous things about absurd matters as well as creating pointless academic problems whose solutions would achieve nothing of significance. These absurdities infest the professional journals and abound at the professional conferences—thus perhaps making it a mercy that the general public studiously ignores these venues. Those who become masters of both self-promotion and empty absurdities are often the most lauded of faculty—enjoying excellent compensation, modest workloads, and considerable attention. This enables critics of the humanities a ready stock of easy targets when they wish to argue for the uselessness of the humanities. Having endured finely nuanced deconstructions of cybernetic genders in fictional spaces, I have considerable sympathy for their disdain. However, I will endeavor to show that this fluffy absurdity is not all there is to the humanities and that there is actual practical value to the disciplines of the humanities.

Before entering into my defense of the humanities, I must first engage in a brief discussion of practical value. After all, to show that the humanities have practical value requires having a concept of practical value. There is also the matter of the often overlooked concern about why a specific view of practical value should be accepted as the proper measure of value.

Interestingly enough, defining practical value and arguing why a specific view of practical value should be accepted are both subjects that fall solidly within the humanities, specifically my discipline of philosophy. While some will obviously be tempted to go with their own view of practical value because it is “obvious”, this would be to engage in the fallacy of begging the question—that is, assuming as true what actually needs to be proven. Thus, one obvious practical value of the humanities is that it is needed to sort out the very nature of practical value and to determine which view of practical value that should be accepted.

For the sake of the discussion and brevity, I will stick with a fairly simple view of practical value that is popular in certain circles. The basic idea is that the practical value of a major is its economic value. Put a bit crudely, this can be considered in terms of how effectively job fillers are created for the jobs created by the job creators. The general measures of value would thus involve employment rates and salaries.

One common stereotype is that those majoring in the humanities are doomed to unemployment or, at best, poor salaries. Anecdotes (and jokes) do abound about people who got a degree in a humanities discipline and ended up doomed. However, as any philosophy major should know, an appeal to anecdotal evidence is a fallacy. What is needed is not anecdotes but statistical data.  Conveniently enough, Georgetown University released a detailed report on this matter.

Based on the usual stereotypes and common anecdotes, one would expect theatre majors, literature majors and philosophy majors to have very high unemployment rates as recent college graduates. Interestingly, theatre majors have an unemployment rate of 6.4%, literature majors are at 9.8% and philosophy majors are at 9.5% (unemployment rates are significantly lower for experience degree holders). Interestingly, the information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) have the highest unemployment rates. Computer science (8.7%) and accounting (8.8%) are fairly close to the humanities. Those doing best are elementary education majors and (5%) and nursing majors (4.8%).

Taking employment as being a measure of practical value, these statistics show that humanities degrees have practical value. After all, the employment rates for those with humanities degrees are competitive with non-humanities degrees.

In terms of compensation, the humanities fields generally offer less salary than some other fields. However, the average income of a college graduate in the humanities considerably exceeds that of the average income of a high school graduate. Thus, by this measure of practical value the humanities do have practical value. Thus, when people ask me what someone can do with a humanities degree, my cynical (but truthful) answer is “get a job and get a paycheck.” Some people get some very good jobs and some even become famous.

In addition to the concern about the practical value of a humanities there is also concern about the value of humanities classes—especially those that students are “forced” to take. While schools do vary, it is common for universities to have a humanities requirement and various non-humanities majors often require classes in the humanities. For example, the Florida public university system requires students to take two classes in the humanities. As another example, many of the students in my Critical Inquiry, Ethics, Aesthetics and Introduction to Philosophy classes have to take these classes for their non-humanities major.

It could be argued that “forcing” students to take humanities classes is a waste of student time and money (especially given that tuition is at an all-time high and graduation rates are still depressingly low) because such classes have no practical value to the students. That is, these classes do not contribute provide practical skills that would have a practical payoff. As with the humanities majors, it will be assumed that practical value in this case is a matter of economics.

Some humanities classes do have clear and general practical value. Obvious examples include the basic English classes (writing skills are uniformly useful), critical thinking classes (which is all the rage today), and logic.

Other humanities classes have practical value that does depend on the context. For example, those intending to be involved in overseas business can benefit from humanities classes covering these nations. This relative value is not unique to the humanities. For example, a class in biochemistry will not be particularly useful to someone who plans to manage a company that develops game apps for iPads, but it would be unreasonable to dismiss the class as useless simply because it is useless to some people.

Since the practical value of a class can be relative it is well worth considering whether or not a specific class has practical value for a specific major or student. As such, I would not claim that all humanities classes have practical value to all majors and all students. I would also not claim that all science or math classes have practical value to all majors and all students. However, the mere fact that a specific class does not have practical value to some students or some majors does not entail that it has no practical value.

As a final point, there is some concern that people should be reluctant to make an appeal to the practical when defending the value of the humanities. After all, this would seem to concede too much to those who regard themselves as opponents to the humanities. Rather, it could be contended, the defenders of the humanities should avail themselves of more traditional appeals to the inherent value of the humanities.

There is some merit to this concern and appealing to the practical does run the risk of handing a considerable advantage to those who wish to diminish or dispose of the humanities. However, I would contend that the humanities can be defended on practical grounds without abandoning the more traditional arguments in its favor. In the next essay in this series I will endeavor to argue for the value of the humanities on non-practical (that is, non-economic) grounds.

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Is Work a Blessing?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2013
English: Photograph from the records of the Na...

English: Photograph from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While watching news clips about the debate over cutting the SNAP program (more commonly known as food stamps), I saw Florida Republican Steve Southerland say “work is a blessing.” As he sees it, there should be a work requirement for people to be eligible for food stamps. This claim is certainly an interesting one.

In the United States, there is an entire mythology devoted to the notion of the blessings and value of work. The largest roots dig deep into the stereotypes of the Puritans: dour white folks dressed in penguin colors who scorned play and lived to work and pray. Or so the myths go. The mythology of Calvinism also contributed to this notion: the idea that people are pre-destined for heaven or hell—though the final destination could be discerned, perhaps, from the worldly success of the individual.

Interestingly, the mythology of work seems to have begun with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. On a not unreasonable interpretation of the text, God punishes man with a curse that will require him to work to survive: “Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life.” On this view, work is not a blessing, but a curse.

The mythology of capitalism, at least that which is distinct from the mythology of religion, also praises hard work and would seem to cast it as a blessing. This makes sense: the capitalist needs the workers to work hard for him so that they generate his profits. For the capitalist, the work of others is indeed a blessing. For him. Not surprisingly, those critical of the excesses of capitalism have contended that such work is not a blessing for the workers—especially children and those that toil in horrible conditions for pittances.

While Southerland simply threw out the claim that work is a blessing, presumably he has not given this matter considerable thought—at least in terms of properly defining work and sorting out what sorts of work (if any) are a blessing. There is also the question of what a blessing is. Perhaps he means that in today’s economic system, it is a blessing to be able to find a decent job. If so, I would agree that he is right. However, his intent seems to be that working itself has a special sort of value.

I would agree that working can have extrinsic value. After all, work is mainly aimed at achieving some end and usually there are other ends beyond that. For example, a person might work to assemble iPads in order to get money in order to buy food and pay the rent so as to avoid starving or dying of exposure. That, I suppose, could be seen as a rough sort of blessing. However, this sort of work seems to lack intrinsic value. That is, it is not something valuable in and of itself. After all, we do such work only because the alternative is worse. Few, if any, people would work most jobs if necessity and need did not drive them to do so, like a whip drives a mule.

I will even agree that work can be good for a person. After all, people seem to grow bored and discontent when they do not have appealing work to perform. Also, as my mother was fond of saying in my childhood, work can build character. She is obviously right—I turned out to be quite a character. However, not all work is of the sort that is good for a person. Working a crushing and demeaning job is work, yet obviously not a blessing for the person. Unless, of course, the alternative is worse.

I even accept that it is good for a person to earn his daily bread, at least when that earning is not destroying the person. After all, it is a matter of integrity to not simply receive but to earn. And even more so to give to those who are in need. Of course, I think a person could have the same or more integrity by living a life of value—and these need not be a life of what would be considered work. Which returns me to the matter of sorting out what is meant by “work.”

People use “work” in many ways, ranging from the toiling of slaves in the field to the creative acts of a free artist to running around a track (speed work). As such, the usual usage slams and jams together horrible things and pleasant things, torments and joys, evils and goods. As such, it is rather hard to say that work is blessing, given the incredible scope of the term. I would agree that some things that are called work are a blessing. I regard working out as a blessing—it is a gift indeed. I also regard much of my work, mainly teaching and writing, as blessings. However, this might be because, in a way, I do not see these things as work.

After all, work seems to be what is done from necessity in order to achieve some practical end (like not dying of starvation). What is done from choice because of the value of the activity itself seems to be another matter. Looked at this way, a workout is both a necessity and a valued choice: I need to do running work because it is necessary to be a runner. But, I also value running in and of itself—it is a choice I make for the sake of what I am choosing, not just to achieve some other end.

One of the grotesque failings of our civilization is that so many people have to engage in work of the onerous sort: grinding away the hours just to survive and seeing little value in what they do. Those who benefit from this often believe that this is a good thing for them, but they hold to a deranged set of values in which the accumulation of profit is seen as the highest good.

I am, obviously enough, borrowing heavily from Aristotle: the life of wealth and accumulation of wealth is not the proper function of man. Rather, it is the life of virtue and excellence. Sadly, as Wollstonecraft noted, wealth and property are valued more than virtue and poverty is regarded as a worse vice than wickedness.

Work, then, is not really a blessing. At best, it is necessity.

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Posted in Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 10, 2013
The Chrome Web Store as seen from Google Chrome OS

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For my birthday, I got a Samsung Chromebook. I have been using it for a while now and thought I would share my thoughts on the computer and, more importantly, the Chrome OS. I’m a professor, so I will say a bit on the usefulness of the Chromebook in the academic setting.

There are a variety of Chromebooks ranging from the $200 “netbook” models to the $1500 Pixel. I have the $249 Samsung Chromebook and consider it to be the optimal Chromebook at this time, in terms of price, weight and capabilities.

In terms of the hardware, this Chromebook is quite adequate for the Chrome OS. It has 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of eMMC storage, a 1.7 GHz Exynos 5000 Series processor,and  a screen resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels.  Subjectively, the screen is sharp and handles color well. The sound is what one would expect from such a device-less than awesome, but not awful. For those concerned about size and weight, it weighs 2.4 pounds and measures 10.4 X 8.09 X .69 (inches). For ports and slots, it has 1 USB 2.0 port, 1 USB 3.0 Port, an HDMI port, a headset port and a SD card slot. With the right HDMI to VGA adapter, it can output to a VGA monitor or projector-be sure the adapter works with the Chromebook before buying it, though. While the USB ports allow the user to plug in any USB device, the Chrome OS has extremely limited support for devices. As a general rule, if a device requires you to install a driver then it will not work with Chrome OS. Fortunately, USB storage devices work fine. This laptop also has wi-fi (which is essential) and Bluetooth. It has, of course, a webcam.

My subjective assessment is that the hardware is reasonably matched to the price. The keyboard is not exceptional but is reasonably comfortable to use. I am not a big fan of trackpads and the trackpad on the laptop did nothing to change my mind.  Fortunately, many wireless Bluetooth mice work with it (but not all). I do like the laptops  size and weight-I can easily put it in my backpack and carry it around all day.

What makes a Chromebook a Chromebook is, of course, the Chrome OS. Roughly put the Chrome OS is essentially a browser operating system: almost everything you do, you do in the Chrome browser. As such, if you want to get a very good idea what using a Chromebook is like, fire up Chrome and try to do what you want to do.

There are some advantages to the Chrome OS. First, it is a lightweight OS and hence it boots fast. Second, it is a fairly simple OS and hence has somewhat fewer problems than more robust operating systems like Windows, Mac and full Linux systems.  You set up your Chromebook in seconds: turn it on, log in to your Google account and you are ready. This is in contrast with the time and effort it takes to get a Mac or Windows laptop up and running. Third, Google handles all the updates and as long as you connect to the internet you will have the latest version of the OS. There is, for the most part, no messing around with updating. Fourth, the Chrome OS is obviously integrated with Google’s software. When I got my Chromebook, I also got two years of 100 GB of storage on GoogleDrive, which is supposed to be worth $120. If you use GoogleDrive, you can look at a Chromebook as a $130 laptop with the GoogleDrive subscription. Looked at that way, it is an excellent deal. Fifth, there are many good apps available for Chrome ranging from word processing apps to games.

There are also some major disadvantages to the Chrome OS. First, being a minimalist and simple OS it provides little to no support for devices. As mentioned above, while it has USB ports, most devices will not have drivers and hence will not work. Storage devices are, however, the exception. Second, printing from Chrome OS requires either a printer that works with Cloud Print or having another computer set up to handle the printing connection. Third, with the exception of the offline apps available at the Chrome Store, the user cannot install software in Chrome. While the Chrome OS obviously cannot run Windows and Mac software, the limited number of truly useful or good offline apps makes being offline a problem. Fortunately, Google’s core software (such as Google Docs) works offline so you can still edit and create documents. However, you will only have access to your local files when offline. One thing that obviously mitigates the offline issue is that cloud computing is almost now the rule rather than the exception. However, when considering a Chromebook you will want to consider your software needs. To see if Chrome OS will be adequate offline, fire up Chrome and disconnect your PC from the internet (be sure to set up your Google drive so you can work offline).

While the Chrome OS has rather serious limitations, as long as they are taken into account a Chromebook can be very useful. In my case, I use my Chromebook in two main roles. The first is as my “web” laptop. Since Chrome OS is essentially a browser, I can do all my web activities, such as blogging and email  with the laptop. Since it boots almost instantly, has a great battery life and is light I find it ideal for when I need to do something online quickly or want to be away from my desktop (like outside in the sun).

The second role  is as my academic laptop. While I do create most of my content in Word, PowerPoint, Respondus, Acrobat and Illustrator, most of my teaching involves Blackboard  and email. Blackboard works fine with the Chromebook, so I can edit/create exams, check on student grades, view assignments and so on. Obviously, web-based email also works fine on a Chromebook. I also use it at meetings-I can take notes using Google Docs or Evernote (or pretend to do so). Previously I used a first generation iPad for that, but rather prefer the Chromebook’s keyboard. With the iPad I had to bring a Bluetooth keyboard and poke at the screen with my finger. The Chromebook weighs about the same as the iPad plus keyboard and word processing is much easier on the Chromebook-at least for me,  but I grew up using a typewriter rather than texting.

I think students would find this Chromebook a good choice. First, while it is not as sexy-cool as an iPad, it costs half the price of the basic iPad and comes with a keyboard. Second, for students who do not need specialized software it has what they will need: the ability to write papers, do email and so on. Since many professors use Blackboard these days, the poor handling of printing will generally not be an issue.  Also, most campuses have wireless and hence being offline will not be an issue.  Third, it is light and small which makes it easy to carry about between classes. Fourth, its connection to Google Drive means that files will be generally safe from computer issues (or the laptop being stolen). On the downside, this could rob a student of many of the usual excuses involving computers and work that has not been done.

Overall, I would recommend the Samsung Chromebook-but be sure to keep in mind its limitations. If you are looking for a low-cost “web” laptop, it is hard to beat. If you need a robust computer to run traditional programs, you’ll need to go with a Mac, Linux or Windows laptop.

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Technical Details

Screen Size 11.6 inches
Screen Resolution 1366_x_768
Max Screen Resolution 1366 x 768 pixels
Processor 1.7 GHz Exynos 5000 Series
Memory Speed 1333.00
Hard Drive 16 GB eMMC
Graphics Coprocessor Integrated Graphics
Wireless Type 802.11 a/b/g/n
Number of USB 2.0 Ports 1
Number of USB 3.0 Ports 1
Other Technical Details
Brand Name Samsung
Series Chromebook
Item model number XE303C12-A01US
Operating System Google Chrome OS
Item Weight 2.4 pounds
Item Dimensions L x W x H 11.40 x 8.09 x 0.69 inches
Color Silver
Processor Brand Samsung
Processor Count 2
Computer Memory Type DDR3 SDRAM
Flash Memory Size 16
Batteries: 1 Lithium ion batteries required. (included)

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Will Same-Sex Marriage Lead to Bestiality?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 8, 2013

One stock “argument” against same-sex marriage is that legalizing it will put us on the slippery slope to bestiality. That is, if

The Lone Ranger Rides Again

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the Lone Ranger can marry Tonto, then he can marry Silver. This line of “reasoning” is easy enough to defeat.

First, this is an example of the classic slippery slope fallacy. Second, there is fact that if allowing different-sex marriage between humans does not lead to or warrant bestiality, then it would follow by analogy that allowing same-sex marriage between humans would not lead to or warrant bestiality. After all, if Adam marrying Eve does not warrant Adam marring a snake, then Adam marry Steve would not do so either.

While the bestiality argument is typically presented as a fallacious slippery slope, it is worth considering whether or not a proper argument can be presented that would show that allowing same-sex marriage entails that bestiality must also be accepted. Obviously, merely claiming that allowing same-sex marriage will lead to human-goat marriage is not enough. What would be needed would be logical reasons that we cannot accept same-sex marriage without being force by consistency to allow human-animal marriage.

Perhaps the most plausible way to argue for this is to begin by contending that same-sex marriage is justified by the principle that a person can marry anyone he wants to marry. This would, of course, justify same sex marriage: if a person can marry anyone he wants to marry, then he can marry another man. And a woman can marry another woman. It would also seem to justify human-animal marriage: if a person can marry anyone he wants, then he can marry a goat. As such, if we justify same-sex marriage on this principle, then it would also justify human-animal marriages. It would also justify human-rock marriages, human-iPad marriages and so on. A person could, on this principle, marry anything.

Now, if it is assumed that a person can marry anyone he wants, then this would also include marrying people who do not want to get married, people who are already married, and even Catholic nuns and priests.

Obviously enough, this principle leads to absurd results. As such, if this were the justifying principle for same-sex marriage, then there would be an excellent reason to reject same-sex marriage. However, if there is another principle (or principles) that would justify same-sex marriage while avoiding absurdity, then this principle could be sensibly used.

One obvious avenue of inquiry is to consider the principle that justifies different-sex marriage. While some might assume that different-sex marriage needs no justification, that would seem to beg the question. Naturally, if what justifies different-sex marriage would also apply to same-sex marriage, then there would not be a principled way to forbid one while accepting the other. However, if the justifying principle for different-sex marriage did not apply to same-sex marriage, then one could be allowed while the other is consistently forbidden.

One approach that people have taken is to argue that different-sex marriage is justified by a principle involving natural procreation. This principle would, obviously enough, not apply to same-sex marriage. However, this principle would lead to its own absurd results, namely that different-sex couples who could not have children or choose not to have children would not be permitted to marry. As such, unless we are willing to forbid such people from being married, then the procreation justification must be abandoned.

Once the procreation principle is out, there seem to be no non-ad hoc or non-question begging principles left that would allow different-sex marriage while forbidding same-sex marriage. For example, if a principle involving love is used, that could apply to different-sex and same-sex marriage (and, of course, we obviously do not take love to be a necessary condition for legal marriage). As another example, if someone claims that the principle is that men can only marry women, this would beg the question. It would be on par with arguing that mixed-race marriage is forbidden because the principle is that a person can only marry a person of the same ethnicity.

One worry at this point is that if any principle that warrants different-sex marriage would also warrant same-sex marriage, then it would seem that we would slide into human-animal marriage. Fortunately, this can be avoided in a principled manner.

Intuitively, marriage is a legal and moral agreement that requires the consent of both parties. Animals cannot, obviously enough, even understand marriage let alone provide consent. As such, a human cannot marry an animal. An animal can no more marry than it can make a promise or tell a lie. As such, same-sex marriage can be allowed without accepting a slide to human-animal marriage.

It might be countered that by taking marriage to require consent I am engaged in an ad hoc or question begging defense. After all, one might say, if marriage can include a man marrying a man, why can it not include a lack of consent and comprehension on the part of one partner, such as a goat? After all, if marriage is being redefined, why not redefine it completely?

The obvious reply is to note that if marriage can include a man marrying a woman, why can it not include a lack of consent and comprehension on the part of one partner, such as a goat? That is, if marriage is allowed, why not allow it for everyone and everything? However, if marriage (like debating or lying) requires certain capabilities (such as the ability to understand the relationship and consent to it), then humans can marry humans but not animals.

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42 Fallacies in Print

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 13, 2013


My first Kindle book, 42 Fallacies, has been manifested in the physical world.

Available now as a paperback on Amazon.

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99 Books 99 Cents

Posted in Business, Pathfinder, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 26, 2013

99-for-99-4-to-3 The purpose of the 99 Books 99 Cents project is, shockingly enough, to publish 99 books for 99 cents.  It is now live on Kickstarter, awaiting the generosity (or lack thereof) of the people.


Way back in the 1990s I created a Macintosh program called “Fallacy Tutorial” which, surprisingly enough, taught people about fallacies. After the program had been circulating the internet for a while, I started receiving requests to make the content available as text, then as a PDF file. Long after that, I started receiving emails asking me to make the book available for Amazon’s Kindle and this led to the publication of my first Kindle book, 42 Fallacies. This generated email asking me to make my work available for the Barnes & Noble Nook and I did so.

The recent budget cuts to education in Florida provided me with extended (and unpaid) summer vacations and I used this time to write numerous books. Since my two main interests in writing are philosophy and gaming, I wrote a mix of philosophy works and Pathfinder Roleplaying Game adventures.  Seeing the volume of volumes I was producing, my father asked me how many I planned to write. Jokingly, I said “I’ll write 99 books…99 books for 99 cents.”  I continued to produce books and when I had over twenty I realized that I could actually make good on what started as a joke. That is, I could write 99 books and make them available for 99 cents each (which is the minimum price for the eBook sellers such as Amazon).

Just as I had received requests to make my work available via the Kindle and the Nook, I received requests to make my work available via iBooks. I looked into this and learned that publishing directly through Apple and using their excellent software requires having a Mac and an iPad (to preview books). While I learned I could use a third party to distribute my books, I rather prefer direct control over my own work. Also, I tend to think that the main point of the iBook format is to take full advantage of the special features of this format rather than just distributing a chopped down, generic text file to all platforms.

Sadly, my G4 iBook proved to be unsuitable for the task of publishing books through Apple and my main writing laptop, an Asus Netbook running Windows XP, is starting to really show its age. So, I decided to attempt a Kickstarter project to secure the funds needed to complete my project properly.

Whatever the outcome of the Kickstarter, there shall be 99 books for 99 cents.

I’ve set up the project site here.

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Sandy & Society

Posted in Environment, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2012

Living in the south has made me as accustomed to hurricanes as growing up in Maine accustomed me to blizzards. However, Sandy was a new sort of thing: a massive storm that slammed into essentially the entire east coast of the United States and flooded vast areas of land.

A strong extra-tropical area of low pressure o...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is, of course, tempting to dismiss Sandy as an aberration and to ignore the doomsayers who speak of global climate change. After all, doubts can always be raised about what might happen and scientific theories about the world are always subject to philosophical doubt (the problem of   induction). Also, the mind deadening and emotion enhancing powers of political ideology make it easy to dismiss any claims, even when backed up with solid (or soaking wet) evidence.

However, it seems far more rational to consider that while the massive Sandy might be unusual, lesser storms of this sort could occur with greater frequency. That is, the east coast might start experiencing the sort of routine poundings that the folks down south have been suffering through for quite some time.  It is also well worth considering that flooding might become a recurring problem. At the very least, since Sandy happened once, we can be reasonable confident that it can happen again. After all, we know for sure that such storms are possible.

Sandy’s onslaught showed us once again how vulnerable and poorly prepared we are to face natural disasters. New Jersey was devastated by flood, wind and fire. Much of New York City looked like the set of some science fiction disaster movie with its flooded subways and streets. This incident shows how easy it is for the most powerful and advanced country in known history to be devastated by a storm. For all our iPads and military might, we still cannot keep water out of the subways or combat flooding. In short, we are woefully unprepared for the likely future.

Naturally, we can simply continue to live in denial-to insist that climate change is a conspiracy being put forth by mad scientists and liberals who hate capitalism, success and God. However, the flooding and devastation of Sandy seems to suggest that denial will not be an effective response.

Now, I would not suggest that the skeptics actually accept the idea that the climate is changing and that humans have had a role in this. Rather, I am just suggesting that we need to expend the resources and efforts needed to help mitigate the damage that is sure to come. Naturally, preparing for natural disasters is expensive and there is the natural tendency to simply forget about the danger once the current disaster has passed. Nature does have a way of reminding us, however, and perhaps the disasters will strike frequently enough that our minds will not be able to slide into soothing forgetfulness.

I would, of course, not suggest that we change our lifestyles in terms of the behavior that is alleged to cause climate change. That would meet mainly with derision and rage from those who have the most power to enact change and their loyal minions. However, I will suggest that we need to defend our cities, homes and lives against an enemy that is growing ever more violent: our own environment. As such, the east coast will need to build defenses against flooding such as sea walls. We will also need to develop defenses for our transportation systems-ways to flood proof the subways of the cities and to ensure that the airports remain above water. We will also probably need to relocate communities away from coastal areas that can be flooded. Obviously, we will also need to pour billions into disaster response capabilities, insurance funds and rebuilding supplies.

This massive undertaking will be on par with operating the military and the analogy is apt: we are, in effect, at war. We always have been-the war is just heating up. Naturally, just as the military requires the federal government, this disaster management cannot be fully handled by the states and the private sector. As such, responding to the weather threat will be a federal task.

Obviously, doing all this is far more sensible than even thinking about addressing the causes of climate change.

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Labor Day

Posted in Business by Michael LaBossiere on September 3, 2012
English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New Y...

English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882 (Lithographie) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since today is Labor Day, I won’t labor. Well, not as much as usual. However, there are some folks who are working today. For example, when I went grocery shopping I saw a sign saying that for the convenience of customers, the store would be open on Labor Day.

Given that Labor Day is supposed to celebrate “the economic and social contributions of workers”, it seems odd that businesses would stay open. Naturally, it makes sense that essential businesses and services would remain open even on Labor Day. However, some business do not seem to be so essential that they cannot allow their workers a day off.

Of course, I must note that I grew up in a small town that effectively shut down on Sundays-nothing was open other than the pharmacy and churches. As such, the idea of businesses being closed on certain days (holidays and Sundays) seems natural to me. This is, obviously, not an argument in favor of recognizing Labor Day.

However, there are some good arguments for having such days off. There are, of course, the religious arguments for this-after all, one of the ten commandments is about the Sabbath. Interestingly, people generally ignore that commandment-even when they are devoted to pushing one part of Leviticus.

One non-religious argument is that it seems to be a good thing to have holidays and days on which commerce stops so that people can rest. This would seem to have good psychological effects and, of course, there is the question of whether we really need to be able to shop so relentlessly on all days.

It can, however, be objected that a modern economy must run without any days off. After all, these are not the days of horses and whale oil. These are the days of iPads and Amazon and business is 24/7/365. As such, the idea of a day on which non-essential commerce ceases is a quaint idea…and, of course, assumes that there is even such a thing as non-essential commerce these days.

It can also be objected that a “day off” for workers is a day they are not getting paid and a day that businesses are not making money. As such, it makes sense for business to remain open on Labor Day (and also on the Sabbath).  It can also be noted that this should be a matter of choice-that is, no government or God should tell workers and employers when they should and should not work.

However, I still think that there should be days on which commerce ceases and Labor Day should certainly be one of them.

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Cookies & Politics: Company Advocacy

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2012
English: Different sizes of Oreo cookies. From...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Gay Pride Day Kraft posted an image of a rainbow Oreo cookie (sadly not yet a real product). Almost immediately, the group One Million Moms condemned Kraft and urged a boycott of Kraft foods for attempting to jam their views down the throats of America. On an interesting side note, conservative groups seem to be rather inclined to use the metaphor of things being jammed down their throats, but that is probably more a matter for a psychologist than a philosopher.

One Million Moms has been consistent in its condemnation of companies that indicate an acceptance of homosexuality. They have condemned both DC and Marvel for having gay characters in their comic books. They also advocated boycotting J.C. Penney because the company hired Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson (she is openly and famously gay). They even went after the company for including a lesbian couple in its advertisement for Mother’s Day and for including a gay male couple in a Father’s Day advertisement.

Naturally, One Million Moms is not alone in this—other anti-gay groups and individuals have protested against companies that indicate that they are accepting of homosexual customers.

Not surprisingly, there are also people who condemn companies for the opposite reason, namely their being against homosexuality. For example, Chick-Fil-A donated about $2 million to anti-gay groups in 2009 and this has concerned some customers.

As might be imagined, these sorts of situations raise some interesting philosophical issues. One point of concern is whether or not companies should be involved in political causes, such as same sex marriage. Another is whether or not people should boycott companies that support views that they oppose.

If I were in charge of making decisions for a company, I would be inclined to not engage my company in advocacy. This is, of course, based on the approach I take to being a professor: I am not there to preach a specific ideological agenda or make converts to my cause. Rather, I am there to provide a quality educational opportunity. By analogy, if I was running a company that made computers, my goal would be to make computers that people would buy and not to support a specific ideological agenda. That is not the function of my company—it is not an ideology company but a computer company.

Naturally, in my personal capacity I do endorse specific views and I should certainly do so. However, I make it clear that my views are not necessarily those of my employer or my students. After all, I do not speak for all of them and their views are no doubt different from mine. Likewise, if I owned a company, it would be unreasonable and unethical of me to claim to speak for all my employees and for my customers on matters of ideology. That said, there are at least two obvious counters.

One obvious counter is that a company that remains silent on key issues can be justly regarded as tacitly accepting certain views. When these views are immoral, this involves the company in the immorality. For example, a company that went along with segregation in the United States would be acting immorally by simply going along with that evil.

It might be objected that companies should simply go with whatever the law or practice of the day is, thus not being advocates one way or the other. While this is tempting, there do not seem to be any reasonable grounds for exempting the people who run companies from the requirements of ethics. Hence, the excuse of “I was just following the law and doing business” seems to ring almost as hollow as “I was just following orders.” As such, it would seem that companies do need to be concerned about the stances they take on issues that actually concern the business of the company. This does, of course, give them a reasonable out on issues that do not concern the business of the company.

In the case of homosexuality, it could be argued that most companies do not need to take a stance on the relevant issues, such as the ethics of same-sex marriage. As such, they cannot be condemned for not taking a stance or engaging in advocacy one way or the other. However, it can be argued that even if they do not need to take a stance, they can do so and this leads to the second counter.

The second obvious counter is that companies have the moral right to engage in advocacy based on the right of free expression that the decision makers of the company possess. As far as the concern that company advocacy is questionable because the few decision makers for the company are claiming to speak for the entire company, there are two replies.

One is that while a company need not reflect the views of its employees, the employees are not obligated to endorse the advocacy views adopted by the decision makers of the company. That is, working for a company does not morally obligate the worker to accept the positions advocated by the company. So, someone could work for Kraft without being a supporter of same-sex marriage and their employment at Kraft should not be taken as an endorsement of what the rainbow Oreo stands for. Employees who find this too objectionable can, of course, quit—provided that they can find another job.

Second is that the company decision makers already make decisions about what the company does and deciding to take an advocacy position is just another decision. For example, Apple does not consult with the people who assemble iPads to see what they think about what the next version of iOS should be or what the EULA should contain. As such, they are not exceeding their legitimate authority over the company as an entity.

That said, the people who decide the advocacy roles and positions of the company are morally accountable for those roles and positions. As such, if they adopt an unethical position, they would be acting wrongly. There is also the practical concern of the impact of such advocacy on the company’s bottom line. After all, advocacy is often done with the intent of attracting or keeping customers and there is the question of which stance will result in the greatest profits. This is, of course, more of a practical than ethical question. Deciding to take a position based on the profit potential is, however, a matter of ethical concern. The company side is but one side of the cookie, there is also the consumer side. This will be discussed in the next essay.

My Amazon author page.

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