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Comment Re:This will be a historic mission. (Score 1) 190

KAUST might be world famous, but for what exactly? For the most money spent on what amounts to, given the resources available to them, at best mediocre science output?

I can tell you that in my discipline (computer graphics), KAUST only has a reputation of an elephant graveyard for greedy elderly not-really-at-the-top-of-the-A-list academics who want to roll in some hard petrodollars before retirement. Science? Yeah, some is bound to happen if you lock up lots of people with long publication lists in a luxury ghetto in the desert. But a role model university? Hardly. More an elaborate joke of sorts.

Locals are forbidden to attend, or to enter the campus. Undergrads (all foreigners, of course) have to be paid hefty salaries to even show up.

Sound like Harvard? Sure does, right? Just vacuum up all that sand which tends to accumulate everywhere, and you will hardly be able to tell the difference...

Comment Re:Cancer vs common cold (Score 1) 52

Close, but no cigar. Big Pharma actually has a very good reason to sell you a cure for cancer (as opposed to a chronic disease treatment): namely, that once cured, you go on living as a once again healthy human being. So you can once again be fully functional, earn money, and hopefully grow a lot older than you would have with chronic cancer.

By itself, this increased wellbeing of yours is of course of no concern to the bean counters in said companies. But chances are high that you'll eventually develop some *other* sort of cancer, sooner or later. Or some other $complicated_disease, for which you will need the services of Big Pharma.

The difference is really between slowly killing your customers with a not 100% efficient "cure", or actually curing them - so they can become repeat customers at some later point in time. Which makes the whole thing a no brainer, really: *especially* from an accounting viewpoint.

Comment Re:One thing for sure (Score 1) 531

The problem here is that at least from our human viewpoint, we cannot have it both ways.

Truly free will in all matters (including the freedom to royally screw up - how free are you if that is not an option?), *and* a provable, hands-on experience of an omnipresent God for everyone. Both at the same time are not on the cards. That concept is not convoluted at all.

Think about it: sure, you'd be making an informed decision about being good or evil if you had a good view of the pits of hell on a clear day. A very informed decision at that. But assuming an even marginally sane person making the decisions, how *free* would you be in that decision? Evil would simply not be an option, unless you fancy an eternity of 50 Shades of Grey on steroids. And in this scenario, you happen to know for a fact that this would happen, and that it would not be much fun at all. Because you (and everyone else) gets a free preview on a clear day.

If you will, by hiding himself from really obvious view, God gave us the ultimate freedom. Which is no mean feat: He created a world with creatures modelled in His image - and then give them the ability to even reject Him, if they are so inclined. Sure, he could have created us as obedient little things who praise Him all day long, and who never think about leaving paradise for one second. But would that have been *us* - humanity, with all its quirks, beasts in human form, saints, normal people, geniuses, losers? All mixed together? Only by being *this* extremely free we are truly human.

Comment Re:One thing for sure (Score 1) 531

The answer most in line with the point I was trying to make would be "that is why Jesus walked around working miracles before everyone had mobile phones with cameras".

Roughly speaking, the idea is that God cannot (should not) leave any really hard evidence the He exists and cares for us in a direct way. And a book about a Jewish carpenter working some miracles 2000 years ago hardly counts in that regard, no matter how popular it proved to be over the centuries in some parts of the world.

However, the story about that whole episode which played out in Galilee and Judea way back when does serve the purpose of giving those who want to listen, and believe in God, the opportunity to do so very elegantly. No coercion of any sort, no proof, but the message is there in a very clear form.

At least in Catholic theology, there is a related line of thinking that you can not really be held responsible for not following Christ if you never had a chance to hear the message properly. The logic of "reject God, and go to hell" only really applies to those who were told, and actively rejected God. In other words, those who explicitly chose to do evil, instead of following a path of truth and goodness that they were made aware of. Unsurprisingly, over the centuries, there has been a lot of debate about how many people this actually applies to: at the end of the day, few people are completely evil, all the way down to the core. I personally regard speculations about that as comparatively pointless, though, as it is not our job as humans to sort that kind of thing out in the first place. Which is quite a relief - $DEITY is much better at such things anyway, what with the omniscience, and all. :)

Comment Re:One thing for sure (Score 1) 531

Your last sentence is a great description of the quandary that God seems to be in, at least from our limited viewpoint. He created humans in His image, as beings that he loves and cares about - and as beings which he intended to be genuinely capable of free will and true decision making according to their own intentions and goals. This set-up will almost inevitably lead to suffering in some form, as precisely our freedom to do anything we want almost guarantees that at least some bad decisions will be made (hopefully along with many good ones). But if He were to interfere directly in our lives in any but the most subtle ways, he might as well have just created a bunch of obedient poodles instead. The world might be happier for a while under strict guidance from Above, but where would our dignity as truly free beings go?

The whole situation is not entirely unlike that between parents and their children: sure, you can try to make them grow up as obedient little robots that exactly copy your moral values, and your life goals. Such kids will probably have less visible conflicts with you and the world - at least initially. But would such parenting be humane? Probably not, right? Alternatively, you can try to make them grow up as independent entities, over whom you as a parent watch while they need watching over - but retreat once they start living their own lives. This has a much larger potential for things to go wrong: but at least you are raising human beings, not robots.

From our reference frame, the question of whether God could not have created a world without all the suffering and misery we see around us, while at the same time still giving us a chance to be genuinely free, as it would seem to befit divinely created beings, will probably always remain un-answerable.

Comment Re:One thing for sure (Score 1) 531

Very well put, thanks! Something that I as a fellow Christian find to be a consolation in this regard is the fact that it would cause problems for us as created entities, if a reliable (or even remotely common, or in any way provable) way of communicating with God existed.

The trouble with any such reliable way of communicating with the divine is that it would, ultimately, deprive us of our dignity as truly independent beings. Once the creator makes himself be known in unambiguous terms that are obvious to everyone, you are no longer a truly independent entity, now are you? Sure, you still have your free will, but how much is that worth in a world where you know, for sure, that the Devil exists? How much choice does that leave you, to decide between good and evil?

The, as you put so nicely, subtle meta-communication of God with his creation lets us have it both ways: the faithful occasionally might get an (ambiguous, but still) glimpse of His presence. Sometimes, at least. And all others are truly left free to decide. Which is the way it ought to be, for how much would a moral decision for good be worth, if you knew for sure that you'd end up in Hell if you misbehaved?

Comment Re:Well, what did you expect? (Score 1) 146

Well, "Muslims". Actually I think that some basment-dwelling white male nerd would be far more likely to attempt an overflight of the White House with a drone that has "Allahu akbar" on it, than any local Muslim. "For the lulz", as it were.

But that having ben said, Occupy, Tea Party and real/imaginary Muslims are the most likely candidates for such shenanigans. The local chapter of the Democratic party would probably not do that sort of thing, right?

Comment Well, what did you expect? (Score 5, Insightful) 146

Given the quality of the drone toys you can buy in pretty much any electronics store these days, the only thing that surprises me is that this sort of thing has not happened much earlier. And I don't even mean actual attacks that cause harm: that no-one has flown a regular autonomous cam drone over the White House lawn yet during a press conference, with "Allahu akbar" written on it with a sharpie, in spidery teenage handwriting, is actually fairly surprising. And the message wouldn't even have to be Muslim: something like "Death to Goldman Sachs" would probably be more in the spirit of the Occupy crowd, who probably feel fairly betrayed by Obama. And who would be more likely to do something non-destructive (but noticeable) like this in the first place.

Comment Re:They've had that long. (Score 1) 257

It's actually a lot more subtle and complex than either of us has said so far.

For instance, the Arabic sounding names of some of the notables of the Islamic Golden Age were just "noms de plume": they actually were not Muslims, but found it easier to work under an Arab-sounding pseudonym. But this only applied to some of them - there were plenty of actual Muslim scholars in that era. The initial focal points of learning were Hellenistic, but I was oversimplifying things when I said that the science of the era was only Hellenistic, and did not carry over to the actual Muslim part of the population.

However, two things seem to be noticeable even so: first, the Arab-Muslim world did not succeed in developing systematic institutions of higher learning. Those universities that were founded dealt mostly with theology, and not so much with actual science. The brilliant scientists of the Golden Age were, by and large, not associated with them, and worked independently. And second, Islam itself changed at some point, and took the Golden Age with it: while in the beginning it was more tolerant of critical thinking, it somehow warped to turn its back on science:

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4...

The effect of the colonial rule of the Ottomans is a difficult point: technically, they saw themselves as the successors of the caliphs, and as the centre of the Muslim world. So they tried to continue this tradition, but how and why this did not have the desired effect is a long story in itself.

Comment Re:They've had that long. (Score 1) 257

Nitpick: "spread it with sword and fire" was literally from day 1 onwards - take a look at some history books that don't only gloss over the early days of Islam.

You are right that they did relax somewhat later on, once power in the newly conquered territories had been stabilised the hard way. Note that I said "somewhat", though: the inferior treatment of unbelievers did not only take the form of extra taxes: they were fundamentally second class citizens. Their testimony was not worth as much as that of a Muslim in court (if it was allowed at all), they were only allowed to own certain amounts of property (if that), could not intermarry with Muslims, and were more harshly punished for any transgressions - in particular, if the transgression had been inflicted on a Muslim.

This treatment was actually to a large part responsible for the "brain deflation" suffered by the Islamic empires the centuries after their establishment. After the very violent initial phase, religious minorities were treated sort of bearably - but not in a way that was really tenable in the long run. In the long run, lots of smart unbelievers converted, if only to save themselves the sort of hassle that their parents had to endure. And if there is one Achilles heel to actual Islamic culture (at least the old school version of it), it is that it is very poor at science and learning: once the old scientist caste of the Hellenistic culture they had taken over had converted, their technological and scientific edge evaporated over the space of only two generations or so.

Most of the fabled science of early Islamic empires was done by the people who had been doing science before the Muslim conquests: Hellenistic men of learning, i.e. unbelievers who were taken over from the old system. Quite a number of them converted, and had a quite reasonable working environment for their day and age. However, the supply of new scientists dried up after that: universities that actually teach people to think critically are not really wanted in a warrior religion that demands total obedience of its followers.

If you think that I am exaggerating, take a look at the atrocious performance of pretty much all higher education institutions in the Arab (!) Muslim world. I am emphasising "Arab Muslim" here, as the newfound Muslim conservativism you mention is most prevalent there. There are some Islamic states, like for instance Malaysia, that have functioning educational systems, and universities. But the cultural make-up of Malaysian society is fairly different from classical Muslim Arab culture.

Comment Re:They've had that long. (Score 1) 257

You start out young and idealistic, and you try to convert people peacefully.

Interesting idea. Except this is not quite what happened with Islam. You might want to read up on the historical development of that particular religion.

Hint: the whole "spread it with sword and fire" thing was not just a phrase from the sales brochure. They actually took that fairly seriously from day 1 onwards.

Comment Re:More conservative fear-mongering (Score 1) 432

The whole point that Taleb is trying to make is that you (resp. our species) might be wrong on this in some cases: he claims that if it can be reasonably argued that the consequences of a fuck-up in a given area would global and catastrophic enough, there is a case to be made for not taking chances in the first place. Even if said chances look just fine from the viewpoint of our current knowledge on the matter.

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