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Comment Re:The treaty says no such thing. (Score 1) 135

I considered the near Earth object case. Clearly that's the easiest place to return material from; the problem is that it's coals-to-Newcastle. So far as we know the bulk of that material is stuff that's easy to get here on Earth: silicates, sulfides, iron, nickel etc. Judging from meteors found here on Earth there are exotic materials like iridium, but in trace quantities.

While there's no doubt lots of valuable stuff like platinum up there, I think people are picturing it as floating around as nuggets of largely native metal. The platinum deposits in Canada's Sudbury Basin were delivered by a meteor, but that meteor was fifteen km across. It contained a lot of Pt in absolute terms, but in relative terms the Pt was rare compared to silicates or nickel. The liquefaction of the meteor in impact separated the heavy metals into convenient deposits. If we tried to mine that object while it was in space we'd have had to crush and melt a lot of ore to get much Pt.

Comment Re:The treaty says no such thing. (Score 4, Interesting) 135

It does not prohibit colonization, it just prohibits exclusive territorial claims.

Right, which does not necessarily prevent claiming materials found as private property.

That said, this is all a tempest in a teapot. At this stage of technology asteroid mining is about the worst imaginable investment anyone could make. It's a purely emotional investment, driven by enthusiasm, and it doesn't stand up to critical scrutiny. We don't even go after the valuable on the sea floor because the cost of finding and raising them makes that unprofitable. If there were hundred pound chunks of refinery-pure platinum floating around in the asteroid belt it would cost more to fetch and return them than they'd fetch on the market.

The economics of space travel is dominated by the cost of moving mass in and out of gravity wells and imparting the necessary acceleration to match position and velocity with targets. It follows that we're looking for stuff with the highest value/mass, and until costs drop by a couple of orders of magnitude there's only one commodity worth returning from space: knowledge. The first physical substances worth mining will be things useful in the pursuit of knowledge -- e.g. water that can be converted to rocket fuel without tankering to the outer solar system.

Comment The China Syndrome movie didn't kill nukes. (Score 1) 320

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) 146

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:Low calorie noodles already exist (Score 1) 156

Substituting oat fibre for cellulose isn't going to make any difference to taste or anything else. I doubt it would be any more sustainable either. I can believe that konjac is weird in the mouth since lots of sites carry warnings to drink water because it doesn't dissolve the way other gelatinous products do.

Comment Re:Where was the CIA, FBI and NSA... (Score 3, Insightful) 290

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.

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