A Philosopher's Blog

Brain Games

Posted in Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 7, 2014
Brain Games box art

Brain Games box art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a general rule, most people want to gain for as little as possible effort. For example, people seem to often buy exercise equipment thinking that it will make exercise easier. They usually find out that is not the case—thus the brisk trade in lightly used exercise equipment and its regularly being buried under clothes. The latest brain training games seem to be offering the same temptation: if a person plays these brain games, she will become smarter. The appeal is, of course, that the games are supposed to fun rather than burdensome—like education tends to be. The obvious questions is whether such games work or not.

On the face of it, the idea that playing these brain games can have positive effects does make some sense. After all, exercising the body improves it—so, by analogy, the same should hold for the brain. The obvious concern is that not everything that people think is exercise actually improves the body. Likewise, the brain games might be like useless exercises for the body: you are doing something, but it is having no effect. To address this matter, the thing to do is to turn to some actual science.

As it stands, the unbiased research seems to show that the current crop of commercial brain training games have no meaningful impact. While people do get better at the games, this is most likely due to familiarity. To use an analogy to another type of video game, doing the same scripted event over and over in a game like World of Warcraft or Deadspace III will cause a person to improve at that specific task. To use a specific example, in Deadspace III the player has to “fly” through a field of debris and avoid being smashed. My friend and I smashed into the debris repeatedly until we finally made it—through familiarity with the process rather than by getting “better.” The same seems to be true of the current brain games and getting better at such a game does not entail that one is smarter or more mentally capable. In light of the existing evidence, spending money on the commercial brain games would be a waste of money—unless one is just playing them for fun.

Interestingly enough, video games of the more “traditional” sort can improve memory and mental skills. This is not surprising—such video games typically place players in challenging environments that often mimic general challenges in the real world. As such, rather than simply focusing on a relatively simple game that is narrowly focused, the gamer is forced to fully engage the general challenge and develop a broader set of capabilities. As such, video games of this sort probably help improve mental abilities in a way analogous to how reality does so. In the case of video games, the challenges will tend to be more challenging and more frequent than what a person would generally encounter in the real world. For example, participating in a World of Warcraft raid involves tracking abilities, maintaining situational awareness, following (or giving) orders, following a strategy and so on. That is, it provides an actual mental workout. So, a person looking for games to make her smarter would be better off getting a gaming console or PC and selecting challenging games. They will probably be much more fun than the brain games and apparently more effective.

I would also like to put in a plug for traditional table top games as well—be they games like Risk or D&D. These games provide enjoyable challenges that seem to have a positive impact on cognitive abilities. Plus, they are social activities—and that is no doubt better for a person than playing brain games online solo.


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The Curators of Culture

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 2, 2014
English: Oprah Winfrey at the White House for ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a well-connected author comes out with a new book, she makes the rounds of the various shows—radio and television. Such others also get mentioned fairly often. For example, a few days ago I was listening to NPR and the author Karen Russell was apparently the author of the day. Her latest book, Sleep Donation, was reviewed and she also was interviewed. Her book was also mentioned regularly throughout the day. Authors who have their own shows, such as Bill O’Reilly, can (and do) plug their own books. The authors are also supported by those who might be regarded (or at least regard themselves) as the cultural elite. These are the people, such as Oprah, who tell the rest of us what is good.

There is, obviously enough, considerable advantage to being blessed by the curators of culture. First, there is the boon of exposure. One way to look at this is a bit inaccurate but still useful. A book can be thought of as having a certain percentage of people who will buy the book—if they hear about it. Alternatively, this can be thought of in terms of there being a certain percent chance that a person who hears of the book will buy it. So, for example, a book with a 5% purchase rating would be bought by 5% of those who hear about it (or each person who hears about it has a 5% chance of buying it). While this is obviously an abstract simplification, it does nicely show that the more people who hear about a book, the more the book will sell. This is true even of books that are not that good. This is the same principle that email spam and blog spam works on: if enough people hear about something, even if the response rate is low money can still be made. Obviously enough, when an author is able to get on a talk show to talk about her book, her sales will increase. Likewise for other forms of exposure for the author and the book. Equal obvious is that fact that access to the curators of culture is limited and carefully controlled—an author has to be suitably connected to make it into that circle of media light. This suitable connection might even be a matter of luck—the book just happens to catch the attention of the right person and the author is invited, perhaps briefly, into the circle.

Second, there is the gift of endorsement. If a book is endorsed or praised by the right people, this will typically grant a significant boost to sales—over and above the boon granted by exposure. While endorsement does provide exposure, exposure does not always entail endorsement. After all, the curators of culture do sometimes speak of books they dislike or regard as bad. While the condemnation of a work can impair its sales, the exposure can increase sales. There is also the fact that being condemned by the right sort of people can boost sales. In the case of ideological works, for example, being condemned by an ideological foe can often boost sales among ideological friends.

As discussed in an early essay, the quality of a work has little connection to its success. Luck, as noted in that essay, is a major factor. Exposure and endorsement add to this (although either or both might be acquired by luck). While the ideal would be that works receive exposure and endorsement proportion to their merit, there is little correlation. The best books need not be the most exposed or most highly endorsed. Mediocre (or worse) books might garner great attention and receive unwarranted praise from the curators of culture.

This is not to say that merit never achieves success, just that merit seems to be a rather small factor in successful sales. Sometimes, just sometimes, a meritorious work does achieve success against long odds—but this is notable in its rarity.


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The iSolated Age

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2013
Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

After my three hour committee meeting, one of my colleagues, Steve, and I had a conversation that began with Twitter and ended up as a general discussion about the coming age of iSolation (trademarked).

Steve told a story of the eerie silence as he approached his classroom and how what greeted him was not an empty room, but a room full of students all interacting with their smart phones, tablets and other devices. No one spoke or paid the least attention to anyone around him or her. I added my own tale of feeling vaguely disturbed by students walking in groups, yet interacting only with their phones and not each other. Unless, perhaps, they were Tweeting or texting the people with them.

The conversation then turned to the push for online learning and how it might be the case that we will see the last generation of students who get to choose between being taught in person and being taught online. Naturally, the push for online learning is driven mostly by economic concerns: having masses of students enrolled in online only classes that are auto-graded (or graded by low paid graders) would replicate the exploitative or automated model (or both) of factories. This would mean far lower costs and thus far higher profits for those owning the machines of education and the lucky few left to run the process.

We did, however, set aside the economic motivation to consider an important question (at least for educators): would the online model be better than the traditional model in terms of providing quality education?

This sparked a side discussion about digital books and digital music. Steve is Jazz person and is of the school of thought that the analog approach is superior to the digital approach-not just in terms of the music but also in terms of the social aspect. He spoke of how he used to go to music stores and be able to discuss music with others of like interest. The idea of joining a Facebook group to post about Jazz had little appeal to him, perhaps even less than the vision of people downloading digital music in iSolation from each other.

I added in my view of books-namely that while I find the Kindle very appealing because it allows me to carry hundreds of books when I travel, I still value the experience of reading an actual book.

Thinking about this, I realized that my preference was based not in any rejection of digital books (I like my Kindle and love the books I sell for the Kindle). Rather, I value the full aesthetic experience of reading an actual book. There is, I contend, a different aesthetic experience when it comes to a physical book: its design, the weight in one’s hand, the act of turning the pages, and so on all create an experience that has aesthetic value and one that cannot be (as of yet) replicated by a digital book. In support of this claim, I made an analogy between seeing a movie and going to a play based on the same story. While the movie will provide an aesthetic experience, the play will provide a different one in virtue of its nature. Likewise, the same would seem to hold for digital books and actual books.

Being a philosopher, I did note that our concern over the shift to the digital world might simply be a manifestation of the usual lamentations of people as they grow older and things are not as they were when they were kids. I imagined my ancestors of long ago lamenting the kids and their new-fangled writing and how it would wreck everything. Why not, I imagined them saying, just stick with speaking and remembering? As such, I believe it is important to consider that my concerns are fueled not by reason but by feeling.

That said, I believe it is equally important to consider that my concerns might have a foundation-that is, the worries about the age of iSolation is not just a matter of yelling at the damn kids to get off my lawn, but a point of legitimate worry regarding the road we are now following.

In conclusion, buy my damn books.  Then get off my damn lawn. 🙂

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Random Political Silliness

Posted in Humor, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2011
A pair of roper-style cowboy boots. Notice the...

Best not to ask why the boots are in the shower...


Last week some of my friends and I were talking politics before our weekly Pathfinder game. While some serious points were raised, much of it was the usually joking that befits pre-game banter. Some examples (accuracy not guaranteed):

Magic Underwear

Dave: “You know the Republicans are in rough shape when the most rational guy at the table is wearing magic underwear.”

Trent: “What does the magic do?”

Mike: “I assume that it provides some defense against craziness.”


Cowboy Boots

Dave:”….cowboy boots.”

Mike: “What was that about cowboy boots? Well, you know that there are only two legitimate reasons for a man to wear cowboy boots.”

Ron: “What are they?”

Mike: “The first is that he works in gay porn.”

Dave: “What’s the second?”

Mike: “That he is an actual cowboy. So, who was wearing them?”

Dave: “Herman Cain.”

Mike: “Did he ride in on a horse?”

Dave: “No.”

Mike: “Interesting.”


999 Plan

Dave: “Have you heard of Cain’s 999 plan?”

Mike: “Yeah, he got it from Sim City. But here is the interesting thing. If you flip his plan upside down, you get 666.”

Dave: “The plan of the beast!”

Mike: “Exactly. And who is the opposite of Herman Cain?”

Trent: “Obama?”

Mike: “Sure, why not. You know what that means?”

Trent: “Obama is the beast?”

Mike: “No, Rosie O’Donnell is. Do the math.”



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Of Showers & Grout

Posted in DIY/Recipes, Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on October 2, 2011
Grey and white tilling grout.

Image via Wikipedia

Since I bought my house over a decade ago, this year it was due for some major improvements. The process began when my AC exploded and continued through painting and various other tasks. In July my tile shower started leaking badly and none of my fixes could stop it. So I had to resort to replacing it.

Busting out an old tile shower is an ordeal. If it was put in properly, there will be a layer of tile (and grout) over a backer board (typically cement on a mesh) and behind that might be a layer of drywall. Getting the tiles off is easy. If you like living dangerously, you can bop them with a hammer (at least wear safety glasses and protective clothing-tile shards can cut like blades). If you want to be a bit less destructive, a chisel for masonry work can be used to pry them off. Getting the backer out is usually a matter of force-either busting it out or prying it off the walls. Drywall is easy to remove. Some folks take a very direct approach and just hammer through the walls in square sections, pulling out everything at once. If you do this, be very careful to avoid bashing the pipes, supports and the other walls. A typically full shower is made up of a hell of a lot of stuff-so a cart can be handy for getting the stuff out. Tearing out a shower will typically generate a lot of dust-wear a proper respirator (don’t settle for those little white masks) and be sure to cover everything you’d rather not have buried in dust.

You will also need to remove the floor of the shower. That will consist of a layer of tile that can usually just be removed with a chisel and hammer (tap into the grout and then under the tile). Under that you might find, as I did, a lot of sand that was used to create the slope to the drain. You’ll have to shovel all that stuff (use a cart or wheel barrel to transport it) to get to the pan. You will probably have to break up some of it with a chisel. It will most likely be damp (did you pee in your shower…if so you’ll be handling some sand that filtered your pee). The pan is what keeps the water from going all the way through the shower wall. Oh, one interesting fact about showers: water will seep through the tile/grout walls and hence the need for waterproof backers and the pan. Pans are typically made by using a sheet of water proof material that is folded into a square pan shape and nailed to the supports. Some older ones are lead and some newer ones are metal and pre-made. In my shower, the pan had failed in several places and the tiles had also cracked in many places.

Once the sand is out, the pan is remove. Mine was “plastic” and hence I just popped out the nails and cut it to manageable pieces. I then removed all the rotted wood.

Rebuilding a shower is even more fun that tearing one out. Since I wanted my shower to not leak, I hired a contractor to do that for more. The main steps are replacing the rotted wood,  getting the pan installed (by a plumber) nailing in the backer (in my case, a Hardie backer), sealing the backer, tiling and then grouting the shower. After the shower is grouted (a nasty and time consuming process) the residue gout has to be removed-once right after the grouting and then about a day latter. This involves wiping down the tiles with a cloth/towel-although a wire brush (use gently) and a paint scraper can be handy. Dampening the towel with a bit of tile cleaner (but be careful not to dampen the grout) can help keep the dust down (this is also a dusty process).

The last annoying step is sealing the grout. Normal grout is porous. This means that it will absorb liquids. This is, obviously enough, bad in a shower-hence the need to seal it. There are many types of sealers with various means of application. Perhaps the most tedious method of applying it is with a small brush (be sure to keep as much of the sealer off the tile as possible). There are also spray sealers which are fast, but might not be the best choice in terms of their durability and water resisting properties. I went with a 3M sealer that had a one-coat application and a 20 year warranty. Sealers tend to produce obnoxious vapors, so when working in the confine of the shower stall a respirator and frequent air breaks are a good idea.

Grout will eventually wear out and develop cracks, so if you have a tile shower be sure to check your grout. Using a cleaner & sealer product regularly can help protect it, but it seems inevitable that it will need to be repaired. When I was using the shower in the other bathroom (which hadn’t been used in about four years), I noticed that the 27 year old grout had cracked in places, so my next project is repairing that.

I have learned to hate grout.

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Fighting Time

Posted in Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on October 1, 2011
Journal of Aging and Health

Image via Wikipedia

Although scientists and philosophers have speculated that time is not real (though they have never missed lunchtime on that basis), it certainly seems to be real enough as an opponent.

When I hit 40 and won my first Master’s award (Master=old), I started looking into the impact of aging on running. I had, of course, learned about aging back when I took anatomy and physiology, but this was a bit more real. While I will spare you the details, the gist of it is that once we humans hit our mid to late twenties, we start a slow spiral downwards (or rapid, depending on how one handles it). While everyone notices this, competitive runners tend to notice it more. This is not because we are somehow more realistic or more perceptive. Rather, it is the fact that we get to see the aging play out it cold, objective numbers as our times get slower and slower. There is also the subjective factor: runs seem to hurt more, one’s stride feels less snappy, and recovery seems to take longer. Or maybe gravity is just increasing in a selective manner-that is, under me.

Fortunately, there is some compensation for these harsh facts: running and exercise in general can be used to fight time. Running is especially effective at literally keeping the cells younger (no magic, just biology) which is why runners often look younger than they are (or, more aptly, other folks look older than they should). Exercise is also critical to resisting two major problems of aging: muscle and bone loss. Like an eroding sandbar, time eats away at the very makeup of our body. Fortunately, exercise that builds muscle and bone can slow down this loss, thus enabling the body to handle aging better. Exercise can also help with balance. Since falls tend to be a major threat to the elderly, building up your fall avoidance and resistance is a smart thing.

Exercise alone, as they say about losing weight, is not enough: diet is also important. When I was young, it mattered less what I ate (or so I thought). Being older, I have less margin of junk (so to speak), and I have had to change my diet to be significantly more healthy. What is actually pretty cool is that what I eat now is not only better for me, but it actually tastes better than much of what I used to eat. It does help that I am not a poor graduate student: eating well is not a luxury, but it is not as cheap as ramen and generic rice puff cereal.

My main goal is not to live really long (although I am fine with that) but to have a good life as long as possible. That seems to be something almost any of us can do, with a little planning and a lot of sweat.

In the end, however, time kills us all. But all races must end and the glory is in the running.

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Are Used Games Theft?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on September 13, 2011
Heavy Rain

Image via Wikipedia

According to the French game developer Quantic Dream, the company has lost  between €5m and €10m due to the selling of used copies of its game Heavy Rain. This estimate was calculated by matching the sales figures of new games with the number of players registering Trophies on PSN. The company’s co-founder Guillame de Fondaumiere summed the matter up by saying, “on my small level it’s a million people playing my game without giving me one cent.”

While de Fondaumiere is not actually accusing buyers of used games of being involved in an act of thievery, the parallel to piracy seems to be an apt one to draw. After all, one stock argument against the digital  piracy of video games is that the piracy is costing the companies money via lost sales. However, the people who buy (and sell) used copies are clearly not engaging in piracy: the buying and selling of used property is well established and the burden of proof rests on those who would argue that the owner of a piece of physical property (in this sort of case, a game disk) cannot re-sell his used property. To use the obvious analogy, if I buy a house, then I have the right to resell it again. Imagine, if you will, a developer complaining that he is not getting a cut every time the house he sold is re-sold. Obviously, they would like such a cut. But, when it is sold, it is sold and the right to re-sell it goes along with the purchase (unless specified in the contract).  To use another analogy, when I do my job, I do not expect to be endlessly paid for the work I did (even when my students use what I taught in their careers)-I get paid for it and that is the end of it.

The matter become a bit less clear in cases of digital purchases, but Fondaumiere is discussing the re-selling of the actual games disks. As such, there seems to little foundation for his complaint, other than the fact that he is worried he is not getting every cent he thinks he is owed.

One obvious factor worth considering is that the reselling of a used game does not entail that a sale is lost. As a gamer, I can attest that there are games that I have bought used that I would not have bought new. As such, calculating the “loss” from used game sales would be somewhat tricky.

A second factor is that gamers sometimes wait for the price to drop on a game. For example, I bought Borderlands when the Game of the Year edition came out (with all the expansions included). It was much cheaper than the original version, yet it would be odd to say that my delay robbed the company (they did, of course, get some money from me).

A third factor is that when gamers buy games, they often factor in the fact that they can resell the game or pass it on to someone. Laying out $60 for a game is more palatable when you know that you’ll get some of that back or that you can give it to someone. While it is difficult to calculate the positive sales impact of the ability to re-sell or give away games, it would seem to be a factor worth considering. As such, the re-selling of games might not be a losing proposition for game companies. At the very least, this factor would mitigate any harms done by the reselling.

A fourth factor is that gaming stores generate significant income from re-selling used games (often over and over). While this has also been a point of contention, it does help retailers stay in business and thus be available to sell new copies of games.

However, de Fondaumiere  contends that the retailers will ultimately hurt themselves by selling used games. He asserts that game companies will think that they cannot make money via retail and will instead go to direct online distribution (which is already an option for many games), thus eliminating the retail game sellers by removing their access to products. From the perspective of retailers, this would be rather bad-after all, many retailers make their main profits from selling (and re-selling) used games. It is, of course, worth noting that the used record and CD retail industry took a severe hit with the advent of the digital revolution. The same could very well happen to the gaming world. While I have bought games via Amazon, it has been years since I bought a game at an actual physical store and I often buy download versions of PC games.  This trend might solve the problem of used games, at least how he sees it. Of course, this might also lead consumers to be more reluctant to purchase games on release-after all, being unable to sell them back or give them away does reduce their value for some customers.

My considered view is that the selling of used games is acceptable and companies have little grounds on which to complain of such losses.



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Photos and Memories

Posted in Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2011
The Polaroid Corporation logo.

Image via Wikipedia

A short while before she was heading to Orlando, my girlfriend asked me to scan the photos in her old photo album and in a box. No doubt worn out after a week of preparing to move and dealing with her ongoing dissertation study, she said that she was tired of carting the photos about and wanted to toss them after I had scanned them.

While this might not seem like a matter fit for philosophy, it did get me thinking about the exploitation of male labor by the female oppressors. I mean, it got me thinking about the preservation of photos and whether there would be any meaningful difference between the original photos (which are pre-digital) and the digital copies.

The easy and obvious answer would seem to be that there would be no meaningful difference. After all, a photo is just an image and the scanning would duplicate that image. In fact, the scan would be better than the original. Not only could the scanned image be backed up against loss and printed as needed, it could also be color corrected and otherwise improved relative to the original. Also, a photo created from a negative is already a copy (of sorts) and hence any concern about one being an original and one being a copy can apparently be set aside. That said, it would seem to be worth looking a little deeper.

Before looking a bit deeper, I believe I am obligated to present a possible biasing factor. Being a person of moderate age, I grew up long before digital cameras and have a certain nostalgic attachment to physical photos. However, I do not even own a film camera anymore and have been doing digital photography since the late 1990s. As such, I think that I can restrain my bias and look at the matter with some objectivity. Or perhaps not-the ways of one’s youth can be hard to shake.

While an non-digital photograph is but an image of an event that was most likely created from a negative (with the obvious exception of the Polaroid), it can be argued that a photograph can become an artifact of memory, history or nostalgia. This, perhaps, makes it more than just a mere surface image that can be copied by scanning. Rather, it is an item that is imbued in a way that makes its physical composition an important part of what it is. Since this component cannot be replicated by scanning, to scan a photo and discard it would be more than merely discarding a redundant image, but throwing away a vessel of memory, a vehicle of history, a bearer of nostalgia.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine if someone wanted to scan historical documents and throw away the originals to save space and weight. While the images would be preserved, a significant part of the history would be lost. To use another obvious analogy, consider the distinction between an  historical item, such as a coin or sword, and a modern replica. While the replica might look exactly like the original (and might even be “better”), it would seem to be lacking in important ways.

Of course, it can be argued that while historical artifacts have a value in terms of historical research, the main value of old items comes from the fact that we value them. Take, for example, a fading childhood photo. While it has numerous objective qualities, these do not include those that make it a vessel of memory, a bearer of nostalgia or a possessor of sentimental value. These qualities do not exist in the object. Rather, they are a relational property between the person and the object: a photo has sentimental value because I value it. Perhaps they are not even that-after all, a person could certainly be duped into thinking that a photo is the original one, even though it was replaced with a new print modified to look old. Perhaps someone damaged the photo and wanted to replace it without the person knowing-perhaps as a perceived kindness or to avoid the fruits of anger. The person would feel that sentiment, but would, of course, be in error. It would be like a person thinking she was seeing the person she loves, but was actually seeing his twin. Until she became aware of her error, she would feel that love. Likewise, a person would feel the same way about the photo, at least until she was aware it was not the original.

Or perhaps she would still feel the same way. After all, perhaps it is the case that the value attached to the image is based on the image rather than the object. So, for example, a scanned copy of an old photograph would create the same feelings and stand in the same relationships as the original in terms of the value placed upon it. If so, then being rid of the old photos would be no loss at all.

In my own case, my emotional view is that it would make a difference. While the image is an important aspect of the photo, the physical photo also has a value as an object connected to the past. Of course, this feeling is just a feeling and could merely be the result of my pre-digital youth. I also feel the same way about hand written letters, but that perhaps says more about my age than about the world.


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Oh, for Bags of Holding…

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on July 15, 2011
Cover of "Airport (Full Screen Edition)"

Cover of Airport (Full Screen Edition)

One of the more clever magic items from D&D is the classic bag of holding. These magical bags open to an extradimensional space and can be stuffed full of things (generally loot taken from their previous owners). They do, however, have some flaws-like if you put one inside another it rips a hole in reality. But that is a small price to pay for such convenience.

The reason why I mention these bags is because I recently flew to Maine and witnessed the usual scene of people trying to stuff massive bags and huge items into the carry-on bins. I can, of course, understand the desire to avoid paying the bag fee (if only on the basis of principle). However, no amount of cramming or attempts at deceit (“oh, this really is a carry on…it just looks like a Uhaul trailer”) will change the way space works and certain things (or amounts of things) will simply not fit into a bin or under a seat.

In my case, I am able to largely bypass the problem. When I go to Maine, I am going to visit my family and hence can leave stuff there rather than needing to carry everything with me. This saves a considerable amount of luggage space. However, a little smart packing also goes a long way:

  • I only bring what I will need. If I don’t think I’ll need it, it stays home. If I find I cannot do without, I can always buy another one (assuming it is not something expensive).
  • I roll up my clothes. This is not a great option for professional travel, but when you just have casual clothes, it is usually fine.
  • Travel size is the way to go. Also, anything bulky but cheap can be bought on arrival.
  • Backpacks are way better than anything else. They are easy to carry, compress well and you can get them with all sorts of pockets and compartments (such as the all important running shoe compartment).
  • Messenger bags usually count as a “personal item” and can be packed with important and expensive stuff, just in case the backpack has to be checked (usually because some tools have managed to stuff huge duffel bags into all the overhead bins).
  • While I do carry magazines for times when electronics cannot be used, my Kindle has taken the place of the books I used to carry with me (I am a voracious reader and have a pathological need to always have books). I considered a tablet, but the Kindle is tougher and cheaper than the tablets.
  • I carry a cheap netbook-it is lighter than a full laptop but is far more useful than a tablet. Plus it is less likely to be stolen-people are looking for iPad2s and the top Android tablets to jack.
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Posted in Business, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 7, 2011
American Gold Eagle
Image via Wikipedia

Seeing Rand Paul pushing for a return to the gold standard got me thinking about gold. I’m not expert on gold, but I know that we went off the gold standard under Nixon and that hard currency like gold is often portrayed as very useful in various post-apocalyptic scenarios (although zombies only accept brains as currency).

While Paul is often portrayed as being a bit crazy (moonbattastic even), the idea of restoring the gold standard does seem to have some appeal-at least to certain folks. Of course, it also seems like it would simply bring about a return to the problems that leaving the standard was intended to address.

Rand and other gold proponents tend to focus on gold being a tangible asset and that it has consistently held or increased its value. Rand often contrasts gold with paper money, with paper money coming up the loser in his eyes.

In some ways, Rand does have some good points. While gold is valuable because we value it, there are some important differences between the way the value of gold works and the way the value of paper money works. In the case of gold, most people seem to value the gold itself. In contrast, paper money is valued to the degree that people have faith in what lies behind the printing on the paper. Crudely put, gold seems to back itself, while paper requires backing. So, for example, if I have some gold coins, I could take them almost anywhere and expect that people would value (and probably try to steal) them, regardless of what king, president or country’s mark is upon the metal. In contrast, how people regard my paper money would depend a great deal on the marks upon the money and what was supposed to be backing it up.

Though gold is a special sort of currency, its value is still extrinsic-that is, it is valuable only to the degree that people value it. True, from a practical standpoint, most people do value it. But this is quite different from gold actually being somehow intrinsically valuable. This would mean that gold would somehow have value even if no one valued it or had any use for it. It is, I suspect, important to keep this in mind.

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