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Comment: Re:Ya, but... (Score 1) 334

by grcumb (#47922129) Attached to: Ask Slashdot: Any Place For Liberal Arts Degrees In Tech?

English lit. grads can do a variety of jobs, but wouldn't be my first choice for a programmer, unless they could demonstrate strong programming skills.

How very condescending of you. But I would say the same about engineers, CS grads, science and math majors as well. Mostly because I find them generally closed-minded, with a strong tendency toward binary thinking. It is a rare person indeed that is capable of writing truly good code. Those who are capable typically can maintain a balance between left and right brain, holding a wide range of possibilities in their head, visualising very complex models and fluid scenarios, and only in the last instance reducing them to computer logic.

It may seem paradoxical, but the only useful test of a good programmer is whether they program well.

The best team I ever worked on featured an ex-veterinarian, a chemical engineer, a Classics major, one who switched majors from music to sociology, one who did half a law degree, and myself, a theatre/English lit. double major.

The half a lawyer now helps to manage Google's international network. The chemical engineer manages the systems of a globally known company. The musician/sociologist is CTO of a successful SaaS operation. The vet is a senior application designer, and I'm Chief Technologist at a think tank. I'm sure you've done far better, but we haven't done so bad either.

Comment: Re:Ya, but... (Score 1) 334

by grcumb (#47921963) Attached to: Ask Slashdot: Any Place For Liberal Arts Degrees In Tech?

... employees with STEM degrees have critical thinking skills *and* STEM degrees. Just sayin'.

So... your point is that STEM degrees are intrinsically better prerequisites for all aspects of software development? Or that STEM degrees are intrinsically better in some way than liberal arts degrees? If either of those is your point, I suggest you check your assumption that completion of a STEM degree implies the presence of critical thinking skills. Because NO.

And if you think for a moment that a smart liberal arts major isn't capable of complex abstraction, conceptualisation and its expression in formal logic, then... well, once again, check your assumptions.

Comment: Re:So, a design failure then. (Score 1) 130

by hey! (#47921919) Attached to: Developing the First Law of Robotics

It depends on your design goals.

In Asimov's story universe, the Three Laws are so deeply embedded in robotics technology they can't be circumvented by subsequent designers -- not without throwing out all subsequent robotics technology developments and starting over again from scratch. That's one heck of a tall order. Complaining about a corner case in which the system doesn't work as you'd like after they achieved that seems like nitpicking.

We do know that *more* sophisticated robots can designed make more subtle ethical systems -- which is another sign of a robust fundamental design. The simplistic ethics is what subsequent designers get when they get "for free" when they use an off-the-shelf positronic brain to control a welding robot or bread-slicing machine.

Think of the basic positronic brain design as a design framework. One of the hallmarks of a robust framework is that easy things are easy and hard things are possible. By simply using the positronic framework the designers of the bread slicing machine don't have to figure out all the ways the machine might slice a person's fingers off. The framework takes care of that for them.

Comment: Re:Dual degrees (Score 1) 334

by grcumb (#47921895) Attached to: Ask Slashdot: Any Place For Liberal Arts Degrees In Tech?

There's certainly a place for people with dual degrees in tech and liberal arts -- people who truly understand the tech they're discussing, plus have the experience in communication and argumentation to explain it, push for it, and lead it.

Hi there. I'm the Chief Technologist of a thinktank and do a lot of technical work, from application & systems design and development through to legislation, policy and regulation. I did a double major in Theatre and English Lit. when I went to university. It amazes me that the majority of 'engineers' or science geeks show such disdain for liberal arts majors. Do they not realise that smart people are everywhere?

The thing that really makes me chuckle, though, is that they don't seem to believe that someone with strengths in the arts could ever be an autodidact, in spite of the fact that most good geeks have this capability as a defining trait. In theatre, I had to learn basic electronics, electrical circuitry, technical design, how to build weight-bearing structures, basic colour theory, linguistics, aesthetics (which, scoff as you like, requires pretty heavy thinking about the nature of human consciousness) and about a dozen other disciplines. And English taught me a little humility about the power of expression. It taught me to harness it as well.

As my colleagues will tell you, I have a significant lack of mathematical ability; my brain is simply not wired to read equations (or musical notation - another great failing). I can do it, but I expend a great deal more effort than my math whiz friends. This puts some programming work outside my competence - algorithms especially. I understand perfectly the concept of big O, though, and with assistance, I can write highly performant code.

But... I can design, create palettes, do layout and describe workflows a fuck of a lot better than most engineers. I know enough typography to be dangerous, and I can outperform most people when it comes to interfaces.

I know the value of a good engineer. I learned it at my father's knee. But if anyone ever suggested that I fill my software shop with nothing but STEM grads, I would laugh them out of the room. No offence, all you engineers, but there's a whole raft of software design and development issues that you guys suck at.

Comment: Hmmm. (Score 1) 48

by jd (#47921793) Attached to: Astronomers Find Star-Within-a-Star, 40 Years After First Theorized

If Kip Thorne can win a year's worth of Playboys for his bet that Cygnus X1 was a Black Hole, when current theory from Professor Hawking says Black Holes don't really exist, then can Professor Thorne please give me a year's subscription to the porno of my choice due to the non-existent bet that this wasn't such a star?

Comment: Re:The protruding lens was a mistake (Score 1) 246

by hey! (#47921441) Attached to: Apple Edits iPhone 6's Protruding Camera Out of Official Photos

I don't think you've really grasped Apple's design sensibility. Job one for the designers is to deliver a product that consumers want but can't get anywhere else.

The "camera bulge" may be a huge blunder, or it may be just a tempest in a teapot. The real test will be the user's reactions when they hold the device in their hand, or see it in another user's hand. If the reaction is "I want it", the designers have done their job. If it's "Holy cow, look at that camera bulge," then it's a screw-up.

The thinness thing hasn't been about practicality for a long, long time; certainly not since smartphones got thinner than 12mm or so. They always been practical things the could have given us other than thinness, but what they want you to do is pick up the phone and say, "Look how thin the made this!" The marketing value of that is that it signals that you've got the latest and greatest device. There's a limit of course, and maybe we're at it now. Otherwise we'll be carrying devices in ten years that look like big razor blades.

At some point in your life you'll probably have seen so many latest and greatest things that having the latest and greatest isn't important to you any longer. That's when know you've aged out of the demographic designers care about.

Comment: Re:Where the pessimism comes from. (Score 4, Insightful) 172

by hey! (#47915329) Attached to: Sci-Fi Authors and Scientists Predict an Optimistic Future

I'd argue that we do try to write about the future, but the thing is: it's pretty damn hard to predict the future. ...
The problem is that if we look at history, we see it littered with disruptive technologies and events which veered us way off course from that mere extrapolation into something new.

I think you are entirely correct about the difficulty in predicting disruptive technologies. But there's an angle here I think you may not have considered: the possibility that just the cultural values and norms of the distant future might be so alien to us that readers wouldn't identify with future people or want to read about them and their problems.

Imagine a reader in 1940 reading a science fiction story which accurately predicted 2014. The idea that there would be women working who aren't just trolling for husbands would strike him as bizarre and not very credible. An openly transgendered character who wasn't immediately arrested or put into a mental hospital would be beyond belief.

Now send that story back another 100 years, to 1840. The idea that blacks should be treated equally and even supervise whites would be shocking. Go back to 1740. The irrelevance of the hereditary aristocracy would be difficult to accept. In 1640, the secularism of 2014 society and would be distasteful, and the relative lack of censorship would be seen as radical (Milton wouldn't publish his landmark essay Aereopagitica for another four years). Hop back to 1340. A society in which the majority of the population is not tied to the land would be viewed as chaos, positively diseased. But in seven years the BLack Death will arrive in Western Europe. Displaced serfs will wander the land, taking wage work for the first time in places where the find labor shortages. This is a shocking change that will resist all attempts at reversal.

This is all quite apart from the changes in values that have been forced upon us by scientific and technological advancement. The ethical issues discussed in a modern text on medical ethics would probably have frozen Edgar Allen Poe's blood.

I think it's just as hard to predict how the values and norms of society will change in five hundred years as it is to accurately predict future technology. My guess is that while we'd find things to admire in that future society, overall we would find it disturbing, possibly even evil according to our values. I say this not out of pessimism, but out my observation that we're historically parochial. We think implicitly like Karl Marx -- that there's a point where history comes to an end. Only we happen to think that point is *now*. Yes, we understand that our technology will change radically, but we assume our culture will not.

Comment: Where the pessimism comes from. (Score 4, Insightful) 172

by hey! (#47914675) Attached to: Sci-Fi Authors and Scientists Predict an Optimistic Future

The pessimism and dystopia in sci-fi doesn't come from a lack of research resources on engineering and science. It mainly comes from literary fashion.

If the fashion with editors is bleak, pessimistic, dystopian stories, then that's what readers will see on the bookshelves and in the magazines, and authors who want to see their work in print will color their stories accordingly. If you want to see more stories with a can-do, optimistic spirit, then you need to start a magazine or publisher with a policy of favoring such manuscripts. If there's an audience for such stories it's bound to be feasible. There a thousand serious sci-fi writers for every published one; most of them dreadful it is true, but there are sure to be a handful who write the good old stuff, and write it reasonably well.

A secondary problem is that misery provides many things that a writer needs in a story. Tolstoy once famously wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I actually Tolstoy had it backwards; there are many kinds of happy families. Dysfunctions on the other hand tends to fall into a small number of depressingly recognizable patterns. The problem with functional families from an author's standpoint is that they don't automatically provide something that he needs for his stories: conflict. Similarly a dystopian society is a rich source of conflicts, obstacles and color, as the author of Snow Crash must surely realize. Miserable people in a miserable setting are simply easier to write about.

I recently went on a reading jag of sci-fi from the 30s and 40s, and when I happened to watch a screwball comedy movie ("His Girl Friday") from the same era, I had an epiphany: the worlds of the sci-fi story and the 1940s comedy were more like each other than they were like our present world. The role of women and men; the prevalence of religious belief, the kinds of jobs people did, what they did in their spare time, the future of 1940 looked an awful lot like 1940.

When we write about the future, we don't write about a *plausible* future. We write about a future world which is like the present or some familiar historical epoch (e.g. Roman Empire), with conscious additions and deletions. I think a third reason may be our pessimism about our present and cynicism about the past. Which brings us right back to literary fashion.

Comment: Have they Denied? (Score 2, Interesting) 191

NSA officials were unable to find any evidence Snowden ever had.

This is essentially the "I do not recall" equivalent of paperwork investigations.

The essential question here is whether the NSA can conclusively deny that Snowden never raised concerns at the agency. Since if he did raise concerns, he probably would have raised them to people personally, a document search is not nessesarily going to uncover whether he did.

What will uncover this conclusively is a simple interview of NSA and affiliate company employees and especially supervisors who worked with Snowden. But since such a set of interviews would either a) reveal that he did raise concerns, b) involve people having to sign their names to untruths, or most unlikely c) reveal he really raised nothing, then I think it's easier for the NSA to just pretend that a half-assed email server word search constitutes an appropriate investigation.

Comment: Re:When the cat's absent, the mice rejoice (Score 5, Insightful) 283

Well, I'd be with you if the government was poking around on the users' computers, but they weren't. The users were hosting the files on a public peer-to-peer network where you essentially advertise to the world you've downloaded the file and are making it available to the world. Since both those acts are illegal, you don't really have an expectation of privacy once you've told *everyone* you've done it. While the broadcasting of the file's availability doesn't prove you have criminal intent, it's certainly probable cause for further investigation.

These guys got off on a narrow technicality. Of course technicalities do matter; a government that isn't restrained by laws is inherently despotic. The agents simply misunderstood the law; they weren't violating anyone's privacy.

Comment: Re:Crude? (Score 2) 96

by hey! (#47904781) Attached to: Original 11' <em>Star Trek Enterprise</em> Model Being Restored Again

Compare that to some of the ST:TNG props that I've seen that look fine on screen, but when examined closely look like someone gave a 5-year old a couple of shots of vodka and turned them loose with a paintbrush.

There's a certain wonder to that too.

I had the same reaction when I saw the ST:TNG props in person. You wouldn't buy a toy that looked that cheesy. The wonder of it is that the prop makers knew this piece of crap would look great onscreen. That's professional skill at work. Amateurs lavish loving care on stuff and overbuild them. Pros make them good enough, and put the extra effort into stuff that matters more.

Comment: Re: Great one more fail (Score 1) 578

by hey! (#47904749) Attached to: High School Student Builds Gun That Unlocks With Your Fingerprint

These kinds of responses are conditioned on certain assumptions that may not hold for all users.

For example, let's assume that you have no need whatsoever to prevent other users from using your gun. Then any complication you add to the firearm will necessarily make it less suitable, no matter how reliable that addition is. An example of someone on this end of the spectrum might be a big game hunter who carries a backup handgun.

On the other hand suppose you have need of a firearm, but there is so much concern that someone else might use it without authorization that you reasonably decide to do without. In that opposite situation you might well tolerate quite a high failure rate in such a device because it makes it possible to carry a gun. An example of someone on this end of the spectrum might be a prison guard -- prison guards do not carry handguns because of precisely this concern.

This isn't rocket science. It's all subject to a straightforward probabilistic analysis *of a particular scenario*. People who say that guns *always* must have a such a device are only considering one set of scenarios. People who say that guns must *never* have such a device are only considering a different set of scenarios. It's entirely possible that for such a device there are some where it is useful and others where it is not.

Comment: Re:When the cat's absent, the mice rejoice (Score 5, Insightful) 283

The criminals here worthy of being described as scum and deserving confinement are the people involved in child pornography, not the investigator. At worst he seems to have exceeded his statutory jurisdiction in pursuit of actual crimes.

Allow me to quote the immortal words of Mr H.L. Mencken:

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.

Now, on behalf of Mr Mencken, and all those who fight for human freedom, allow me to suggest you fuck off, and to remind you that just because there are a few scummy characters in the world, it still doesn't justify putting the entire state of Washington under surveillance, which is what happened here.

Comment: Isn't that enough? (Score 1) 284

by Okian Warrior (#47895475) Attached to: California Declares Carpooling Via Ride-Share Services Illegal

I know everyone is all over Uber and and the other one because the cars are "nicer" and the service "better" than cabs. But [...]

Um... isn't that enough?

Firstly, you're wrong about the liability.

Secondly, you are confusing the possibility of injury with its probability.

If the probability of injury is small and the cost of injury is also appreciably small, the expected cost of using Lyft or Uber may be much less than the expected cost of using a cab.

For an example, if a ride-share is $6 less than a cab fare, and if there is an average of 1 injury every 100,000 rides, then if the average injury costs less than $600,000 then it's a better deal for everyone to use the ride share.

Using this reference, cabs crash about once every 300,000 miles.

Also note, the number of crashes in regular driving has decreased dramatically over the last few years, probably due to increased safety measures in vehicles and modern roadway improvements (Denver Barriers around bridge supports, for example).

And in any event, most people have health insurance. At the very least, a significant portion of riders would have health insurance - enough to reduce the risk by a further factor of four or more.

SHELL GAME is where you can't win. CASINO GAME is where the odds are against you. Uber and Lyft seem to be decidedly in the passenger's favor.

Cue the irrational fearmongering reply: "unless you are the one injured, then how would you feel!".

Yes, we will be going to OSI, Mars, and Pluto, but not necessarily in that order. -- Jeffrey Honig

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