Thursday, July 31, 2008

How freewill might be seen in the future

In this 4-min. You Tube video, I am asked to discuss some mind-body concerns regarding free will at in "Answering the Critics" panel at the Open Theology and Science conference at Azusa Pacific University on April 12, 2008.


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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Textbook prices, publishing idiots, and the future of course content

The New York Times is reporting on a problem that's going to get worse before it gets better: students scanning their textbooks and giving the scans away for free.[1] I've known a long time that textbook publishing houses are playing a losing game. Their books are foolishly over-priced.

For example, I use a textbook in one of my classes, one now in its 6th edition. I can say that the content difference between the 4th and the 6th edition is negligible, but the layout is so different that I'm forced to use the new editions.

One might argue that I could just use another book. There are a couple of reasons against this. First, the textbook in question is very accessible, so I've made a tactical call: it's better to have a book that students will enjoy reading, and therefore do so, rather than it is to have a book that students won't read -- or won't read well.

Second, because I'm teaching 160 students a year for the course, and offering four major objective tests in the class, that means I am forced to offer lots of different tests and versions. There is really only one way such a feat becomes practical: test banks. These contain hundreds of questions on each chapter than can be selectively mixed and matched over different iterations of testing. Prudently, the publishing houses tie their test bank data to the chapter layout of the ever-issued new editions. My classes are fairly small. Imagine classes where a prof teaches 400 students a year. Clearly, the textbook publishing houses have.

With the rise of devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, textbook usage is on the verge of entering a new digital era. The textbook publishing companies like to think that they will be able to leverage this for more profit margin, since they can eliminate the middle man. They are wrong, at least for the areas of classics and humanities. Why so? Although the sciences change rapidly, classical works in history, literature, and philosophy don't change -- at least no faster than language dialect changes. A good translation from the 1950s (or even earlier) is just as readable today as the moment it fell off the printing press. Profs like myself who are disgruntled at the idiotic prices students are forced to pay will get together and produce their own textbooks with an open license to use each other's material. (This is something like why the open-standards software movement has been so successful.) When, by evolutionary modification and adjustment of better and worse entries, these efforts reach a high level of content and readability, they will live on for many years, for many cost free years. (There are wiki efforts which have started doing this already.)

Classroom content in digital book-reading devices which will eventually be adopted as the standard tool for text-"books" of the future. When the cost of a digital book reader falls to less than the cost of the total cost of books for a semester's classes, that will be the sweet spot when students take matters into their own hands, and when scan-n-share will really take off. Even now, students regularly share textbooks and "rent" them to their friends.

As a social group, college students are the most potent mix of cunning, intelligence, and thrift. When it comes to outsmarting textbook publishers, these students will win; and, this whole industry will probably be forced to move to a non-profit status industry. The old model will die. And I'll say, "Good riddance."


[image]Tempe in Touch (city website)

[1]Randall Stross "First It Was Song Downloads. Now It’s Organic Chemistry" New York Times July 27, 2008 (Accessed July 27, 2008)

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Zen of Cellphone

[ A call comes in to a philosopher standing outside his house on a cloudless, windless, perfect Oklahoma morning. The caller's voice is one of a gruff male, seemingly irritated at having even to speak, much less to another human being. ]

Philosopher: "Hello?"

Caller: "Where you at?"

Philosopher: "Staring at my trashcan."

Caller: [Long silence. Hangs up]


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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Save gas, and make church come to you

Today I was driving to church thinking about all the money I could save if somebody just drove church to me. People could schedule times and just make the quick visit necessary for confession, communion, and a really short homily. This all came to me in a flash as I recalled an early modification to the Model T, pictured above. (Apparently, the steeple folds down so it can fit into a garage too!)


[image] NY Times archive

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ethics: damned utilitarian if you do; damned by utilitarians if you don't

For sometime it has been known that the brain is divided up into specialized modules. For example, vision is processed in the back of the brain, while abstract reasoning and planning is processed primarily in the front of the brain. And more basic emotions, such as fear and anger, are controlled by the limbic system, which roughly occupies the center of the brain. However, even further advances in brain function have revealed some vexing issues for ethics.

Consider the an old standby, double-sided thought experiment that challenges those who think ethics is merely a version of risk assessment or a type of pain/pleasure accounting.

First, imagine that you're standing next to a fork in the train-tracks, and before you is a lever that changes the direction the train will take. Sadly, the train can not be stopped, and if left to progress along its path, it will run over and kill 5 people standing at the end of the tracks. But if you pull the lever the train will change directions, killing but a single person standing at the other side of that fork. What do you do?

Second, take the train situation again, but this time you're standing on a bridge which crosses over the tracks. Also, there's only one direction the train can go; still, at the end there are 5 people that will be killed. You know that the only way to stop the train is by throwing some sort of heavy object in it's path. Alas, the only heavy object at your disposal at the moment happens to be a very portly man standing next to you on the bridge. What do you do?

If you survey people, a bit under 90% will pull the lever to save the five people, and kill the one person in the first scenario. But over 90% of the people will refuse to push the portly man over the bridge to save the second group of five. The odd problem is that a merely bean counting view of ethics, attending to just the risks or the consequences, should result in the scenarios being assessed the same: one dies, and five live! But, in fact, this is not how people actually behave. Therefore, ethical assessment is not analogous, say, to financial assessment.

Brain scientists have an explanation for why this is so, and thus why ethics must be something other than bottom-line type thinking. Some of our reasoned ethical decisions are processed in one area (at least) in the brain, but some are also processed in a more specific part -- the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which has to do with guilt, shame, and compassion. Both general reasoning and the unique emotions particular to humans are essential marks of our species, but neither can be easily argued to trump the other for decision making. This is why the train experiments cause us such consternation. Ethics is a troublesome business, but when recent developments in brain science are thrown in, we recognize just how much subtlety there really is to moral choice.


[image] by Gary Larson, from David O. Brink "Philosophy 13: Ethics, Fall Quarter, 2003" (Accessed July 14,2008)

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Brain and motor control interaction ain't so clear

It's just this kind of stuff that bothers me.


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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Texas, Liberty, and Killing Burglars

In the news recently has been the case of a 62-year-old man who fatally shot two burglars last November as they fled his neighbor’s house.

Although the full circumstances of what happened in this case are less clear than I'd like, there is one selection from a NY Times article which I do appreciate:
The Texas Penal Code allows the use of deadly force if the “actor reasonably believes the deadly force is immediately necessary.” Deadly force can also be used to protect property when “the other is fleeing immediately after committing burglary.”[1]
In Philosophy of Law, there are often two citied justifications for the role of law in society: punishment and prevention. The death penalty is often berated for its failure in the second role, prevention, since death-worthy crimes are most often performed during moments of extreme emotional passion. Therefore, people will not (or temporarily could not) reason thru to the consequences of their action.

However, in the burglary case, this line of complaint doesn't work, because an argument to the effect that somebody premeditated to rob a house out of passion doesn't make sense. And in a state like Texas where its Penal Code allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves and their property from such burglary, this would make even dim-witted burglars think twice about the risks involved -- especially if instances of the use of such force are regularly reported by the media.

Unquestionably, there will be misuses of this law by people who were not justly defending self or property, but laws are necessarily an imprecise vehicle of organizing a society that values liberty. And from what I can tell, liberty in America has been unduly constrained in the last few decades, and even more so in the era where too many bad laws have been implemented and justified in the name of defending against (the nebulous category of) terrorism. Thus, such laws about using deadly force are legitimate and just in light of other American constitutional commitments. As for applying these laws, I agree with the assessment of District Attorney Kenneth Magidson (of Harris County, TX): every case involving deadly force “stands or falls on its own particular facts.”[1] That seems a reasonable attitude to me.


[image] "An Individual Right" Red Planet Political Cartoons (Accessed July 1, 2008)

[1] Adam B. Ellick "Grand Jury Clears Texan in the Killing of 2 Burglars" New York Times July 1, 2008 (Accessed July 1, 2008)


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