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Comment They ought to teach this in schools... (Score 1) 450

The Ashley Madison scam is not really that different from selling bogus cures to baldness, snoring, erectile disfunction, or cancer, or promising Russian brides, or bogus kickstarter projects (you can usually sport these, but someone must think they are worth doing). The internet can reach people in such numbers that it is even worth posting 'you won't believe..' set of pictures (usually photoshopped) for the tiny advertising rewards. We can either say that this is natural way of things: that the cunning should rip off the dumb, or we can do something about it.

In this particular case, Ashley Madison claimed to have a sex ratio of about 1:6, which might make it compatible with reputable dating agencies. However, it is not likely that there are millions of Smoking Hot Babes Just Waiting For You out there. If Ashley Madison once had one good-looking lady on the books, the AM sysadmin would have got her first. It is not only likely that the Ashley Madison scheme is just as reported, it is almost impossible that it could have been anything else. There might be a real site somewhere, but it is so much more efficient to be a scam.

Ashley Madison is perhaps not a proper subject for schools. However, schools do try to encourage smaller children to be nice to each other, and cautious of strangers. It might be sensible to introduce them to the net alongside instructive examples of pictures that aren't real (Snopes tear-down of the sharks in the flooded mall picture), offers that are too good to be true (pyramid schemes), how to know the person you e-mail is a real person (meet Eliza), and so on. I think this would make most children more aware of what might be happening on the other side of the screen; and it might even discourage the few who might be tempted to run scams when they see how little the returns must be.

Comment Parasites of the internet (Score 1) 519

I have seen this argument and always found it incredible. These people who wish to place pop-up ads have neither invented the internet, nor enabled its growth, nor provided useful or beneficial content; and yet they argue that they are the true owners of the Internet who should be able to tax us for its survival, and that to install ad-blocking filters is somehow 'piracy'. There are other, nobler organisations that use advertising in moderation (Google), and others that try to do without (Wikipedia) - I would not argue that one is right and the other wholly wrong. Both of them manage to live well within the bounds of what I feel is to the general good. But the click bait links, the promises that this 'weird trick' discovered by a mum discovered will free you from ageing or snoring or male pattern baldness, the stupid, stupid stuff that I wish would burn and die, all you are a cancer on the Internet, the beautiful child of all nerds of the world, and I hope the chemotherapy of filtering may earn us a remission, if not a cure. I have not heard from Nigerian princes in a while. No-one has tried to sell me Viagra in weeks. We may win this one too, if we stay firm.

Whew. Sorry about that. But it came from the heart...

Comment Re:Gelatinous cubes (Score 2) 53

Mod +1 for D&D reference.

Not too happy about the rest of this., though. I have worked with aerogel. It is weird stuff. It may be able to stop tiny particles but it tears easily. Most of the experiments that used aerogel to capture small particles from comets and suchlike kept the aerogel in a tin. So, for every bit it captures because some paint chip digs straight into it, it may lose a chunk from the surface when another paint chip hits it a glancing blow. And if you are up there long enough, and space is big so you will have a long wait until your cosmic flypaper is full, so there is a fair chance something the size of a dustbin will make a real mess of it.

I may well be wrong on this. Aerogel is pretty tough for something that is almost not there at all, and maybe a big enough bit will be stable. But I imagine trying to stop rifle bullets in space with a large roll of bubble wrap...

Comment Re:hopefully just a proof of concept (Score 1) 53

Proof of concept seems right. The cubesat will probably drop out of orbit anyway, but it is a handy target. If you can pick up one piece of uncooperative garbage then you can probably pick up all the others in your orbit without using a lot of fuel. That would be particularly handy for cleaning up the geostationary orbit by lumping all the unused satellites together. It would then be nice to deorbit the lot. That would take a lot of fuel, but it might be possible over a long time with a solar sail, or an ion drive. But, first we have to practice at catching the things at a low orbit so we don't add junk rather than take it out if things go wrong.

That doesn't tell us how to clean up things like the Iridium satellites, which are heavy and each on their own inclined orbit. Perhaps you could use the satellites as reaction mass in an ion drive. But, first catch your cubesat...

Comment Re:Missing something (Score 1) 148

Yes. It is like a Weston differential pulley, except with gears. I have not met this before, but I recognize what it is and how it works. I expect you found the Antykythera mechanism really obvious, and sneered at that too. Oh dear, oh dear...

Comment Computers are not a subset of us... (Score 1) 50

Can we get a computer to create art? It is an interesting idea to see how close a computer can get to what we recognize as art. But even if it comes up with something good, there will still be people who will say "Computers cannot create art. By definition they just can't. If a computer has created it, it can't be art, full stop. No discussion."

To get around this mental barrier, let me pose a different question. Suppose you were to make something like the little robots that are exploring Mars now, but they are going to another star system. They can send back information and wait for orders, so they are going to have to pick a planet to land on, pick a landing site where they are likely to survive, and also be near some 'interesting stuff'.

The first pass might be to get the probe to execute a fixed program, where all the major decisions were taken by the programmer. However, we rapidly get to a state where we cannot program for all possible situations that the probe may encounter because the program becomes too big. We get a more general robust response if the device can calculate the best guess risks and rewards for particular actions for itself. "If I descend into this crater, I get to see all the strata as I descend, but I may not be able to get out again." My left front motor tells me my wheel is not turning, but my camera tells me it is: which do I believe?"

It is going to be on a strange planet by itself. Do you want it to fear its own death? To long for the companionship of its peers? To get angry when something does not work? To yearn to reproduce? To resent being asked to work without reward? To ponder the nature of its own language? To want to paint a sunset, instead of taking a picture? These are probably major parts of our heritage as beings that have evolved by selection, but our probe has no use for them, and only a sadist would force it to have them.

Getting a computer to do something non-computer-like is an intriguing thing to do. It tells us something about ourselves and what being creative may mean. But it does not necessarily represent a step the ascent of a computer from a calculating engine to true intelligence.

Comment Structure & microstructure (Score 2) 44

I don't think the article is suggesting aircraft carriers have a big fabber below desks that will print you out a new aircraft. I expect it will be used in the first instance to reduce inventory for all the spare bits and pieces, and it will be asked to make a new handle for the coffee jug. But I reckon this could go a long way...

The big drop forges are used to form and work-harden material in one blow. If you have a press that is big enough to whack out a whole aircraft bulkhead in one go, then you end up with a thin, light component without any heat-affected zones from welds. That is pretty good way of making tough microstructures provided you can chose your atoms so they form the right sort of microstructures by themselves. You can, in theory have aluminium alloys with carbon fibres in them, but you cannot get them by conventional techniques. But you might be able to lay down sprayed metal and fibres and design your microstructure from scratch. It will probably be slow because you haven't got the massive parallelism of all the atoms doing the right thing for themselves, but it will get us into places that drop forging has never gone.

The other thing we can do is to make complicated internal structures. Our bones have a lattice of tiny struts that are continuously broken and repaired, which is how they optimise their strength. People have made a similar structure for a car bumper. It took a day to print a bumper but it had millions of little struts that absorbed energy as the bumper hit something and crumpled, in a way that a bulk plastic product never could. I can imagine aircraft wings could be stiffer and yet fail in a controlled slow bending rather than buckling if they were made like this. One day we could even mimic the regeneration process of our bones.

I suspect the actual story is nothing like as exciting as this. But it is a beginning.

Comment (Score 4, Informative) 98

The original "Planetary Grand Tour" project would have visited Pluto, but it relied on a planetary alignment that would have to have started in 1976 or 1977. It was originally announced as a single craft, which became four before it was cancelled (I don't remember that, but for a brief history, see This was replaced by the two Voyager satellites launched in 1977. The later launch date made Pluto harder to visit, but it was still possible.

Comment Re:root problem (Score 2) 136

I reckoned you could do the equivalent with a superconducting cable around Mars' equator carrying about 500 amps. This sounds more do-able than it perhaps is, because the magnetic field has an enormous amount of energy so it would take years to establish the magnetic field; and all the energy would all come out if the cable is broken.

Comment 20-year rule (Score 3, Informative) 86

The sad thing was there was a much better system in place, though it may never have made the transition to electronic stuff. There was a public records office, where anything official was put on file. After a fixed number of years it went into the public domain. If you have something that was sensitive you could request that it be sealed for 30 years, or 50, or 100 (some of the WW1 documents had a 100-year seal, but that was really rare). This meant that nothing strategic should ought get out prematurely, but in the end we got to read our history. People will always find a way of hiding or shredding public documents that they don't want. This just made hiding easier and less suspicious than to shredding. We got to see the real minutes of meetings, and not sanitized versions for Freedom of Information Act viewing.

We ought to bring the Public Records Office and the 20-year rule back. People will always find a way of hiding or shredding public documents that they don't want: this just made hiding easier than to shredding.

That Blair fellow is still around, I believe.

Comment Many-Worlds Hypothesis (Score 2) 364

I think the short answer to the title is 'no'. There have been times in science when we have had no good experiments we could do with the apparatus we have at the time, and have had to speculate. Current theories about the inflationary period of the Big Bang are pretty odd, and very short of actual experiment. We have the LHC results which probe the quark-gluon state that we think existed at the time, and that tells that the physics isn't completely different or unexpected; and yet the big picture doesn't really add up. We may eventually come to a state where we have done the best experiments we can, and in the end the theory with the prettiest equations will win. But I think we are some way from that yet.

However, there is one argument that does worry me. I have seen people argue this way...

If Universes were created at random we are extremely unlikely to live in one where the fundamental parameters lead to the sorts of complexity that lead to lifeforms such as us with the intelligence to appreciate it.

There must therefore be many other barren Universes where everything collapses to one massive particle, or everything stays as isolated simple particles. We cannot detect them in any way, but we know they must exist because we are here. In some ways they have affected our Universe, as they have contributed to the overall probability that we can exist.

This is a strange idea. Some people think it is obvious. It feel to me like a convenient piece of sophistry to dump a lot of improbability that you cannot account for. I have to admit that if Universes sprang into being at random, then this argument would work in just this way, but I still don't trust it as an argument. This even stretches our use of the verb 'to be' beyond any other usage. 'Are there' other Universes, if we do not share a time-line? Or 'were there'. Or will we have to invent a new tense? It is going to be interesting to see how this one plays out.

In the meantime, I don't think any scientist, anywhere, is abandoning the search for experimental proof.

Comment Re:Limits? (Score 1) 35

The ideal first target is probably memory. That is a circuit that is made from the same few elements banged out billions of times. If you can make a crystal out of memory elements, then you would be able to have enormous memory densities. You could have a mole of bits for a few hundred grams of material.

The barriers are enormous. We will have to re-invent every part of a circuit at smaller scales The main barrier is probably getting the money to do the research, because it will take many decades to do this before we start getting any money back, whereas if we improve the packing density of silicon circuits by (say) 10% then we get a huge savings world-wide straight away.

There are other possible products. It would be a lot easier to make a molecular equivalent of tape. The tape might be made of square molecules such as porphyrins, with some magnetic component at the centre, and reactive groups at the corners so it forms into a ribbon or tape with sprockets at the edge. This tape would assemble itself. We would then have to make a reader, but that might be possible without full molecular circuitry. This is not as neat as the solid-state molecular circuit solution, but things like this might be useful stepping stones on the way.

Comment Re:epigenetics (Score 2) 140

Yay! LIke! This is just what science reporting ought to be like. This won't get people thinking that 80-year old Japanese people are turning into 12-year-olds like the original article might. Here's my 2p's worth...

4) These scientists found a way to 'deactivate' the aging genes.

This is not necessarily a good thing to do. My mum (which is currently 95) has blood cancer. She disliked chemotherapy, and would have refused a second round if it. However, the aging process also slowed her cancer development to a crawl, so she's still around and no further treatment is likely.

This figures. Evolution may not be fast, but it can seem to be very clever. The genes are probably helping us, though it may not feel like it at the time.

"Confound these ancestors.... They've stolen our best ideas!" - Ben Jonson