A Philosopher's Blog

The 1,000 Feet Law

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 12, 2011
Gun laws fail safety test: Greens
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Law making is often a reactive sort of thing: something bad happens and lawmakers rush to crank out a new law in response. While the bad situations sometimes do show a need for a new law (or a change in the old laws), it can be unwise to legislate when passions are still strong. Deciding on a new law, like other important decisions, is general best left to when cool and rational reflection is possible.

Just a few days after the shooting, laws are being seriously proposed. One is to ban the sale of high capacity magazines and the other is to make it illegal to knowingly carry a gun within “1,000 feet of the president, vice president, members of Congress or judges of the Federal Judiciary.”

In the case of the clip ban, it seems unlikely that this would have much of an effect beyond creating a buying surge on the part of gun owners. Even now gun stores are reporting a surge in sales because people are worried that a ban will be put into effect or that gun laws will be otherwise change.

The ban could, perhaps,  have some small impact. If someone decides to go on a rampage and has not stocked up on high capacity clips, then he might have some difficulty finding them and perhaps be forced to reload or switch guns somewhat more often when shooting, thus possibly reducing the overall damage done. However, a person would almost certainly not cancel a planned rampage based on a lack of high capacity clips.

The 1,00o feet law seems like it would also be rather infective. As people have been quick to point out that it is already illegal to shoot people. Making it illegal to carry a gun within 1,000 feet of these officials is certainly not going to serve as a deterrent if someone already intends to make an attempt at murder.

It could be replied that the law would allow someone to be subject to an extra charge if they tried to shoot an official. So, for example, on top of an attempted murder (or murder) charge, a person could be charged with breaking that law as well. While this has some appeal, it seems unlikely that this sort of extra charge would be needed in such cases.

Another reply is that this law could allow police to check people within 1,000 feet of an official for guns and to arrest people who have them. This would, it could be argued, protect the officials and the people around them. At least from someone who is unwilling to take a shot from 1,001 feet

While this does have some appeal, it does raise concerns about privacy. After all, the mere possibility that someone has a gun does not seem to warrant checking people who happen to be within 1,000 feet of an official. That would seem to be a violation of a Constitutional right. If people are not checked for guns, then the law would seem to be limited to charging people after they have gone for a gun with the intent to shoot (which would already seem to be a crime) or charging people who openly bring guns to within 1,000 feet of an official.  This might not be a bad idea in the eyes of some. After all, Tea Party folks were sometimes inclined to bring guns to political events involving officials and this law would seem to allow them to be arrested for doing so. This might, however, be seen as a violation of certain rights.

The proposed law also seems to have some other problems as well. When I first heard about the proposal, the story just reported that it would be illegal to have  a gun within 1,000 feet of an official. This, naturally enough, struck me as absurd. After all, 1,000 feet is a rather long distance (about 333 yards or 3.3 football fields) and it is easy enough to imagine someone innocently being within this distance while in possession of a gun. For example, someone might live next door to an official or drive by one while on the way to go hunting.  When I learned that the proposed law required that the person knows that they are within 1,000 feet of an official, it seemed somewhat less absurd. However, this law would seem to ban anyone who lives near an official from owning guns. It would also seem to ban people from going hunting or shooting with officials or even be in the area. Presumably this could be sorted out by more specific details in the law that make exceptions for such cases.

It might be pointed out that guns are also not allowed within 1,000 feet of schools (which somehow still fails to prevent people from bringing guns to school) and hence the law is reasonable.

Of course, there are some rather important differences between schools and officials: schools have fixed, known locations and are easy to identify as schools. Officials are mobile and not always easy to identify. Of course, this would enable people to appeal to the “knowingly” part of the proposed law if they happened to get within 1,000 feet of an official they did not recognize.

Of course, if the proposed law is rife with exceptions, it might merely amount to making it illegally to knowingly bring a gun within 1,000 feet of an official with the intent to shoot him/her. However, that already seems to fall under existing laws.

Given the apparent absurdity of the law, it might be suspected that it is being proposed so it can be tagged onto other laws and provide a reason for not passing those laws. After all, laws are often proposed with the express intent of being un-passable.

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Obama’s School Talk

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2010
BOOTHVILLE, LA - MAY 21:  Members of the 2008 ...

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Obama spoke yesterday on education, specifically about the problem of getting kids to complete high school. I am, of course, interested in seeing how his critics will attack his claim that kids should stay in school so they can get better jobs and contribute more to the social good. I assume that since the public schools are just that, public, he will be attacked for endorsing a national socialist plan of education.

Rather than get into the politics of the matter, my main concern is with considering his claims about the alleged negative impact of not completing highschool.

Obama noted that people who do not finish highschool make less money than graduates, are more likely to be unemployed and are more likely to engage in undesirabe behavior, such as commiting crimes. His proposed solution is to take steps to make it more likely that children will finish school.

The general line of reasoning behind this seems to be that since the problems he mentioned are associated with a failure to graduate, it follows that the failure to graduate is the cause. The obvious solution is to see to it that kids graduate.

I do agree that a failure to graduate does cause various problems and I am for taking steps to make it more likely that kids will graduate (and do so with a proper education). However, it is important to carefully consider the causality of the situation.

It is tempting to infer that the students who do not graduate suffer the problems they suffer from (such as lower employment) because they did not graduate. In many cases, this is no doubt the proper inference. However, it is also worth considering that the failure to graduate and the problems mentioned above stem from the same causal root. That is, the failure to graduate and the other problem might very well be effects caused by some other factor.

To use an analogy, suppose a person developed a sore throat and then had a fever. If he inferred that the sore throat caused the fever, then this would be too quick. He should consider that a third factor (such as a virus) caused them both.

So, when facing the graduation problem we should consider that there might be cases in which the falure to graduate is an effect rather than a primary cause. The reason why this is important is that addressing how to get people to graduate can be a rather different matter than addressing what causes people to not be succesful in life.

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Parking Blues

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2009

On Friday I bought my employee parking decal. Back in 1994 I think I paid $26 for my decal. Now, the price is $201 (includes tax). That is certainly some impressive inflation, especially considering that I get now exactly what I was getting then.

Naturally, I do wonder why the decal is so costly. Actually, I wonder why I don’t just get free parking as part of my job.

Now, I do understand that the traffic and parking folks need to maintain and patrol the lots. Of course, as my truck rumbles over potholes and I drive around and around lo0king at faculty spots occupied by students’ cars, I do wonder a bit more. But, when I see the nice traffic services’ cars (and golf carts) I get some idea of where the money goes.  When I bought my decal, I also noticed how nice the building is compared to my own office and classroom buildings. But, “if you bring in the bucks, you get the nice stuff.” All I do is teach and so on, so I can hardly expect to be considered a “buck bringer.” In fact, some folks might think that universities would be better off without faculty or students. Just imagine a golden age of universities in which only administrators occupied the campuses, untroubled by students and faculty.

To be fair, the traffic folks have been much more aggressive about enforcing the parking rules. I have seen cars towed and ticketed and the person in charge now is said to be very serious about the parking rules.

We are currently in sort of a lawless period-classes started at the end of August and the deadline for decals is this week.  So, things will probably improve quite a bit after this week.

I did try to use my shiny new $200 decal to find a spot close to my office, but no luck. I ended up parking at the stadium (as I have been), in the general lot, and walked the quarter mile or so to my office. No big deal, but for $200 I’d rather like to get something a little closer. Plus, when I was carrying shelving to put up in my office, that was a bit of a walk.

Obama School Speech

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2009

On 9/8/2009 Obama gave a speech aimed at America’s school children. While the message seemed to be innocuous (“stay in school, work hard, and don’t do drugs”), some folks were terrified that Obama would indoctrinate the children with his socialist ideals. It turns out that this nightmare has become a reality, as shown by this completely not made up phone conversation:

Friend: “Mike, I made a horrible mistake!”

Me: “What? Did you invest in AIG again? Take out another subprime mortgage loan? Buy the complete Friends show on DVD?”

Friend: “No..no. Far worse. I let my kids watch Obama’s school speech. Now…now they are like socialist zombies. Billy is trying to nationalize everything, Sally and Jane have grandpa trapped in the attic and are insisting that he be brought before a Death Panel, and Roger says he wants to get gay married to the parrot. Why, oh why didn’t I listen to Rush?”

Me: “Holy crap, that sounds bad. But why call me?”

Friend:“Well, I heard that you and some of your buddies have some experience in deprogramming  cultists.”

Me:“Sure. But we usually ‘deprogram’ them by shooting them. Sometimes we blow them up, though.  That deprograms the hell out of them. But I’m reasonable sure that you don’t want your kids shot or blown up, right?”

Friend: “Well…no, I suppose not. But, can you help me? Roger has started yelling that I need to divorce his mother and marry Bill O’reilly…I think the girls have got the shotgun…they are all speaking in some language I can’t understand. It might be…French…what can I do?”

Me: “Hell, it sounds like Obama’s speech summoned up some socialist demons and they are possessing your kids. You’ll need to perform an exorcism to drive them out. First, turn on Fox News full blast on all your TV sets. Then get webcasts of Rush’s show going on your PC. If you can, get Rush’s show on the radio, too.”

Friend: “Okay, I did all that…the kids have moved into the bathroom to get away from the holy power of Fox and Rush.”

Me: “Now you need to get a copy of the Wealth of Nations and touch it to each child’s head. While you do this, have your wife follow up with an Ayn Rand book. Any one will do. Also, sprinkle the kids with money and anything with a corporate logo on it. All the while, chant ‘greed is good.'”

Friend: “I’ve got a hat with the GM logo…”

Me: “For the love of God, don’t use that. GM is a socialist company now, under the dominion of Obama. Have you got any Microsoft products?”

Friend: “Yes.”

Me: “Use those.”

Friend: “Okay, I’m throwing copies of Office and Vista at them! They’re crying!”

Me: “That is a normal reaction to Microsoft. Getting a human response from them is a good sign! Keep it up man, keep it up!”

Friend: ” Greed is good! Greed is good! Greed is good!”

Roger: “I don’t want to marry a gay parrot! I want to smoke dope, play Xbox all day and drop out of school!”

Sally & Jane: “We don’t want to kill grandpa! We want to watch reality TV and not do our homework!”

Friend: “They’re back to normal!”

Me: “Yes, yes they are. The demons of Obama have been banished and all the evil influences of his speech have been driven out. Your kids are back to their usual unmotivated selves, just as God intended. “

Strip Searching Students

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on January 17, 2009

In 2003 8th grade student Savana Redding was strip searched by school officials. Her case has made it to the Supreme Court.

The strip search was the result of another student claiming that Redding, an honor student who had no history of disciplinary action, was distributing prescription strength ibuprofen. Redding denied having the drug and the strip search failed to turn up any drugs. It did, however, humiliate the young woman.

On the face of it, strip searching Ms. Redding seems to be a clear violation of her rights and a wrongful action. After all, the word of a student caught with drugs can hardly be considered adequate evidence on which to justify such a search. Further, it seems rather inappropriate for school officials to have the authority to conduct strip searches at all. While school personal do act in disciplinary capacities, strip searching seems to be an activity that   should require actual police authority.

Naturally, Ms. Redding’s case is a specific matter but it does raise questions about student rights and the limits of the authority of school officials. Traditionally the courts have given school officials significant leeway. Students have long been subject to restrictions and treated in ways that would not be tolerated outside of the school setting.

Not surprisingly, the school district position is that holding school officials to the legal standard of “probable cause” for such searches would create a “roadblock to the kind of swift and effective response that is too often needed to protect the very safety of students, particularly from the threats posed by drugs and weapons.”

On one hand, this does have some appeal. After all, children are not adults and this can (and has) been used to justify a difference between the rights possessed by children and those enjoyed by adults. Further, the school setting is also a different setting than the outside world and this often requires a difference in such matters. For example, consider the matter of hall passes. Outside of school, 18 year old students are free to go about as adults. Inside school, their movements are restricted by a system of permissions and passes. This is considered an acceptable practice because of the need to restrict student movement within school hours. Like wise, the school setting would justify violating the normal rules governing searches.

On the other hand, this sort of justification can be seen as defective. First, if it is a reasonable principle, then it would justify doing away with probable cause requirements across the board. After all, a case can almost always be made that a search was needed to protect someone from something. However, the requirements for probable cause are in place for excellent reasons. Hence, this principle seems to be unacceptable. Second, while the school setting can be seen as justifying differences in certain matters, the setting does not seem to justify such an extreme violation of a basic principle of law. Obviously schools do need to maintain a safe and orderly environment. But, this should not be taken to justify such things as strip searches. Rights do not simply end at the school door and the proper rule of law must apply even within the walls of schools.

“You’re Impossible to Find!”

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 11, 2008

It is now finals week at my university. In addition to the time when I give and grade finals, it is also the time when I hear those magic words: “you’re impossible to find!”.

I usually hear “you’re impossible to find” from students who have some dire problem that involves them, their not attending class, and the letter “F”.

I know I am not impossible to find: I’ve had the same office and email since 1993. My contact information is on the university web site, my syllabus and my own web site. My office hours are listed on the syllabus, my door and my web site. I’m also in the phone book. I also have 6-12 hours of extra office hours in finals week.  Yes, I do check my email, answer the phone, and hold my office hours. Really.  So, I’m very easy to find. Also, since they do find me to tell me I am “impossible to find”, it is obvious that I am not. If I were, they never would. Find me, that is.

Naturally, I wonder why students continue to use that phrase. One possibility is that the mean I am difficult to find if they randomly show up at times when it is not my office hours (“I went to your office on Sunday on you weren’t there!”) or go to someplace that is not my office (“oh, you mean your office is not in the woman’s bathroom in the basement of Jones Hall?”). Another possibility is that they just use the phrase with no meaning behind it-like when people say “how are you doing?” A third possibility is that they are playing it as a bargaining chip-“you’re impossible to find, so I deserve some more grade points or maybe a pony.” A fourth possibility is that they have other professors who really are “impossible to find” and think that it is likely I am the same way. A fifth possibility is that they think I am so old or crazy that I won’t remember whether I can be found or not. Or maybe “you’re impossible to find” means “f@$k you for failing me, you damn philosopher” in some form of slang.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that many students who have told me that “I am impossible to find” do show up to class when they need to see me. They often show up late, storm up to the front of the class clutching a piece of paper, and then reluctantly sit when I don’t suspend class to attend to them. They then spend their time fidgeting as if they were sitting on a small porcupine or hotplate. Then they storm out-only to return a day or seven later to tell me that I am “impossible to find.”

I don’t blame them-after all, how can I expect them to actually stay an entire class if they have something of supreme importance to discuss with me? How can a reasonable person expect them to go to my clearly posted office hours or send me an email or call me on the phone? Truly one cannot. It is a wonder that the Dean has not put a stop to my evil ways; but perhaps she cannot find me.

The Dumbest Generation?

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2008

Since I am a professor, people often ask me if students are becoming more stupid. My usual reply is that every generation thinks that the generation that follows is worse-mainly because they forget just how stupid they were. Most people don’t like that answer.

People do, however, like to write about how the current generation (current when they write) is worse than their own generation. The latest in this line of writing is  Mark Bauerlin’s book The Dumbest Generation. The book, like many others, presents evidence of the ignorance of the youth of today. Some examples include:

  • In 2006, 2/3 of high school seniors could not explain a sign saying “colored entrance” in a photo of a theater.
  • In 2001, 52% of high school seniors asked to name America’s allies in WWII named Germany, Italy or Japan rather than the Soviet Union.
  • In a 2004 survey, 25% of 18-24 year-olds could not identify Dick Cheney as the Vice President of the United States.

My own experiences tend to match the data. For example, if I am teaching on December 7th I will ask my students why this day is one of infamy. Most students have no idea what I mean.  Of course, I teach philosophy classes rather than history classes, so perhaps the students are simply not in the historical mindset when I ask them such questions.

I’ve also gotten anecdotal evidence from other faculty. Each year, many professors claim that the students they have now are worse than the previous year.  This claim is being made by professors are various universities-not just where I teach. Of course, this is anecdotal evidence and must be regarded with a degree of skepticism.

One way to explain this data is that the current generation is dumb. They don’t know many important facts and are regarded as poor students by educators.

There are, of course, other ways to explain this.

First, the current generation has a different mindset about facts. When I was a kid, there was a great deal of emphasis on memorization. While I never found rote memorization very appealing, it did make sense. If you needed some information and did not have the book on hand, you had to rely on your memory. Today, however, information is almost always available. Most people have web capable mobile phones and they can just look things up.  As such, memory is not as critical.

People from my generation might regard today’s youth as lacking because they do not memorize things as well as we claim we do. To put things in perspective, our generation can also be compared to past generations. Back before books were readily available and literacy was rare, people were forced to rely heavily on memory. According to some accounts, some of the ancients could perform amazing feats of memory. So, compared to them, my generation is dumb as well.

But, this is only if dumbness is a matter of memory (or rather a lack of memory). While memory is important, it is unreasonable to say that people are dumb because they do not remember as well as generations that had inferior technology and hence had to memorize more.

Of course, it could be replied that such technology is making people dumber. To use an analogy, just as the car has made many people physically weaker (because people drive rather than walk), information technology is making people mentally weaker. This does have some plausibility.

Second, it can also be explained in terms of prejudice. People tend to regard themselves as better than others and this tends to transfer to groups as well. For example, people who live in one state tend to think of themselves as better than people who live in another state. Likewise, people tend to see their own generation as better than the current one. If each generation was, in fact, more stupid than the previous generation, then kids today should be about as smart as squirrels.

Third, it can also be explained in terms of memory.  While kids today are supposed to have poor memories, the fact is that no one’s memory is very good. We have a tendency to distort what we think we are remembering.  For example, the older generation always tells the younger generation how hard they had it as kids (“we had to walk uphill both ways, through the snow, past wolves, to school). So, when people look at the current generation as being stupid, they are most likely judging them against memories that are gilded by time and pride.

Fourth, my experience has been that professor are like everyone else in that they enjoy complaining about things. For professors, one main area of complaint is obvious the students. Hence, it is not clear that the students are getting more stupid. Further, when people get better at something, they are often more critical of others. So, as a professor gets better and better over the years, her students seem worse by comparison. Hence, the students could be just about the same-they only seem worse.