Become a fan of Slashdot on Facebook


Forgot your password?
Back for a limited time - Get 15% off sitewide on Slashdot Deals with coupon code "BLACKFRIDAY" (some exclusions apply)". ×

Comment The China Syndrome movie didn't kill nukes. (Score 1) 268

And it sure has hell wasn't Greenpeace or the Clamshell Alliance.

It was the 1980s oil glut that did the deed. That was especially devastating following on the heels of the 1970s oil crisis, because so many companies who entered the alternative energy business in the late 70s only to have the floor cut out from under them in 1980. I had a good friend who quit his job at a software company in 1980 to go to work for a company developing a seasonal thermal energy storage scheme. He was an accountant and according to him the numbers were solid as long as oil prices were north of $100/bbl. That was in May of 1980 when oil was trading at $114/bbl. 13 months later the price of oil had fallen to $60/bbl. For the next five years the Saudis tried to prop up falling oil prices by cutting back production, but in '85 they gave up, opened the spigots, and oil prices dropped to $23/bbl.

The economic reaction was entirely what you'd predict with oil prices at a 40 year low. The development of new energy technologies stalled. Cars got bigger again and SUVs of unprecedented size and low fuel economy became wildly popular. And new nuclear plant starts dried up. Oh, the industry pointed the finger at the big, bad environmental movement, which is laughable because so far as I know they only nuclear power plant ever canceled due to protests was the monumentally stupidly sited Bodega Bay in 1964. Imagine for a moment the Clams and all those guys didn't exist; it wouldn't have mattered in the least. Nobody is going to invest in new nuclear power plants when oil is priced at $18/bbl. But it sounds better to say that the Greens have put you out of business than to say the prices you used in your revenue projections were off by an order of magnitude.

Comment Re:Books thesis (Score 3, Insightful) 145

Well, having worked in both the non-profit sector and in public health, I think the criticisms of the Gates Foundation's public health efforts are malarkey. It's basically an opportunity cost argument and by that standard virtually every charitable foundation is wanting. Why are you spending money on the ballet when there are kids who can't read? Why are you spending money on literacy education when there are kids who don't have enough to eat etc. The problems of the world are endlessly varied and complex, and you can't ask much more of anyone than that they pick a spot and take a whack.

That said, the idea that spending money on infectious diseases is wasteful is particularly inane. Sure, in some places obesity may result in more premature deaths than malaria, but the fact is nobody really knows how to effectively fight an "obesity epidemic", whereas malaria is clearly eradicable -- and once it's gone, it's gone forever, because P. falciparum has no natural host other than humans. The same goes for communicable diseases for which we have vaccines; we know how to fight those cost effectively, even eradicate them in many cases. The missing piece of the puzzle is money.

Now criticism of the foundation's education efforts is a lot more warranted. Just like everybody thinks they're qualified to design a website because they have opinions about which sites they like and don't like, everyone thinks they're qualified to redesign the educational system because they went to school. The difference is that Gates has the money to make his bad ideas materialize. It may be hacker philanthropy, but most attempts at "hacks" result in kluges.

So overall it's a mixed bag. While you do have to give props to Gates for being "the man in the arena", sometimes, unlike in Teddy Roosevelt's famous speech, the man in the arena's failings don't fall exclusively on himself. So while philanthropy is admirable in itself, where the philanthropist's activities impinge on areas of public policy like education his actions should be held up to scrutiny like anyone else's.

Comment Re:Where was the CIA, FBI and NSA... (Score 3, Insightful) 285

How do you know it was credible, besides through the benefit of hindsight? The CIA/FBI/police get 100 tip-offs per day that the stranger down the street must be a drug dealer/kiddie fiddler/international terrorist because he can't whistle 'Dixie'.

Strawman argument. The point is that there were several credible warnings of both an Al Qaeda attack and specific concerns with piloting students affiliated with them, some from foreign intelligence agencies; all these reports were not duly considered and discarded -- not because they were the moral equivalent of not being able to whistle "Dixie", but because of organizational and political dysfunction.

It was a failure -- specifically a failure to do something that was well within the government's power to do. I'm not saying that signals intelligence is not important, but it's an evasion of responsibility to claim our failure to take effective action was because we needed some technical capability that we lacked at the time. We had everything we needed to catch the 9/11 hijackers before they struck except for leadership.

Comment Re:End of open and honest? I'll disagree. (Score 1) 241

I'm pretty sure I can post open and honest comments while not being anonymous.

If you're white, middle-class, cisgendered, belong to a mainstream religion, have political views within the mainstream, and live in a cosmopolitan community, yes.

If you're a closeted gay atheist anarcho-communist in a small town in "flyover country", maybe not so much.

Comment Re:Increase productivity?? (Score 3, Insightful) 412

Here's my anecdote: Many interesting ideas I had back in the day came to me under the influence of pot. Some of those ideas brought me a great deal of money.

I never said this doesn't happen, but your reasoning is post hoc ergo propter hoc: your ideas came to you while you were stoned, therefore they must have come from the pot. In order to conclude that you'd have to have done all of your thinking about the problems while you were stoned.

As I said, I think it quite plausible that drugs can, at the right time, help you escape the limitations of self-censorship in your thinking. But in my experience people who are stoned all the time certainly have novel ideas, but those ideas aren't particularly useful. That's because creativity actually involves a kind of interplay of critical and imaginative thinking. Enough people have anecdotes like yours to think there's something to it, but the very nature of creativity -- at least as I'm defining it -- makes me doubt you can get it entirely out of a bottle.

For the record, I consider creativity the finding of novel approaches to a thing that are better in some way than pre-existing approaches. This almost certainly presupposes an intimate familiarity with pre-existing approaches, unless we count pure dumb luck as creativity. Picasso, for example, didn't draw the way he did because he couldn't to realistic work. He had very good drawing skills, and his early works were representational. That level of draftsmanship doesn't come without struggle; and from that he derived his interest in geometric figures, most easily seen in the development of his landscapes. Note if "House in the Field" seems a bit crude, it was painted when he was twelve years old.

Comment Re:Wow... (Score 1) 67

Unfortunately it's a symptom of having only enough money put into the system to house and punish those found guilty and not rehabilitate them. We keep them completely shut out of society with no preparation on how to re-integrate and then just shove them out the door with a few dollars in their pocket. Can you imagine trying to catch up on all of the changes in society if you have been away for a decade or two?

Actually, rehabilitation may well require isolating prisoners from some parts of the outside world.

The specific concern being addressed here is the operation of criminal networks in prison. This goes two ways: imprisoned leaders continuing to operate their criminal enterprises from behind bars, and gangs extending their operations into prison -- supplying drugs, weapons, and contraband, recruiting members, targeting rivals. Clearly not participating in criminal activities is a precondition to reformation.

All that said, recent research shows that the recidivism rate calculations may be misleading, because they overrepresent repeat offenders. Basically if you ask the question "What is the likelihood that someone exiting prison will return to prison," and "What is the likelihood that someone entering prison for the first time will be incarcerated again after he's released," you get very different answers. A solid majority (about 2/3) of people who go to prison will only go to prison once.

Can we conclude that prison then is better at reforming people than we thought? Not necessarily; it may be that most people who commit crimes only do so once in their lives, or naturally age out of the crime-prone demographic. But what is clear is that the recidivism problem is overwhelmingly people who go back to their old lives when they're released. So if you want to reduce the recidivism rate you have to focus on people whose social connections keep them involved in criminal activity throughout their lives. Disrupting at least some of those connections is a no-brainer.

Comment Re:Increase productivity?? (Score 5, Insightful) 412

Comparing recreational doses of cocaine to microdoses of LSD is an apples-to-oranges comparison though. Cocaine is a stimulant; LSD is a hallucinogen; it would make more sense to compare it to marijuana, although all these drugs have radically different (and very complex) mechanisms of action. Because we call them all "illegal drugs" doesn't mean they're the same thing or act the same way. Even the same drug at different dosages can have dramatically different effects.

It's very plausible that microdoses of LSD produce illusory creativity, since many drugs do indeed undermine self-perception -- not that that tends to be very reliable in humans anyway. But drugs are unlikely in my opinion to be a substitute for struggle in the creative process. Creativity has two components: novelty and appropriateness. Drugs are an easy way to get to novelty, but when it comes to judging appropriateness there's no substitute for plain, naked struggle with the obvious but inadequate approaches to a problem. Only then, after you've been forced to gain a deep and intimate connection to the problem's constraints, can some kind of flash of insight do you any good. Until you've struggled with a problem your insights are worthless, whether or not they come to you in a flash.

So it's essentially inconceivable that any drug could make you creative. However it seems plausible that some drugs could act as a kind of adjuvant to creative struggle when you're approaching a creative breakthrough. Such breakthroughs often come at a time when you're critical faculties are slightly deranged; when you're exhausted; dropping off to sleep; or just say "screw it for now" and do something unrelated.

Note that "plausible" isn't the same as "probable", much less "likely". The problem with information with drugs is that it's almost always slanted one way or the other. For example I think MDMA has a lot of potential to alleviate suffering, however research on it has been restricted by the fear that if it proves useful then controlling its recreational use will become harder. On the other hand I wouldn't take the word of recreational users and dealers unquestioningly either; I can easily find people who swear by homeopathy. There's a distinct lack of objectivity and reliability in information about recreational drugs.

The "good" news, I think, is that there's no substitute for creative struggle; and I think you can mentally train yourself to make that leap of intuition once struggle has prepared you.

Comment ...or the difference may be totally insignificant. (Score 1) 491

The marginal increase in the probability of an someone being a terrorist given that you know he's an engineer may be startling in relative terms, but in absolute terms it's insignificant.

Estimates of total active membership in terror groups worldwide is under 200,000, but let's assume there's even million active terrorists just for the sake of having round numbers and not having to quibble over where to put the decimal point. There are seven billion people in the world, so the rate of terrorist participation in the general population is 14 thousandths of a percent; let's call that p(T), and call the probability that someone is a terrorist given that they're an engineer p(T|E). Let's look at the absolute marginal difference being an engineer makes, i.e.:P(T|E) - P(T)

i. p(T) = 0.0001428
i. p(T|E) = 9 * P(T) = 0.001286
iii. P(T|E) - P(T) = 0.001143

So being an engineer increases your chance of being a terrorist by at most about 1/10 of 1% under wildly pessimistic assumptions. In fact the marginal difference is really more like 1/50 of 1%. Now it's interesting that the rates of terrorism are so much larger among engineers than other people, but it has little practical significance and being an engineer myself that's what I'm most concerned with. If you were designing a surveillance program and were picking out groups that need keeping tabs on, 1/10 % is a grasping-at-straws number

Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. - Alan Turing