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Comment Re:Van Braun built weapons for Nazis (Score 3, Interesting) 165

Then he came to the USA, and played the same con on Congress to fund his continued work here.

So in your view von Braun was an amoral, self-agrandizing liar who was willing to actively engage in the selection of slave labour working in death camps to build rockets that killed thousands of strangers just so he could play with cool toys? Because that's what you're describing.

I say "self-agrandizing" because everything that von Braun wanted to do would have been done without him, without the 12000 dead slave labourers, without the 9000 dead British civilians.

I've had some pretty extreme scientific and technical ambitions in my time, but have somehow been able to realize many of them without killing people, and have given up the rest because: killing people. So I'm willing to pass judgment on von Braun in this respect: if he faced a choice between following his dreams and not killing people I'd have to say the latter is the far better choice.

Comment Re:Vendor vs In House (Score 1) 209

One of the key problems I've run into, not only in regards to ERP, but in general, is that when you outsource all of your development your future is in the hands of someone who doesn't have your companies best interests as their primary concern.

Even in those cases where you get a good service provider (which will depend on the specific people you've got working on your project much more than the company they work for, so anyone who says "Oracle = good" is missing the point) you still run into one of the most fundamental human problems: we suck at communication.

When you outsource something the degree of clear, concise, validated communication required is many times what is required for in-house development (where communication can still be a major problem). Capturing user needs and implementing them in a useful and user-efficient manner is hard enough with a high-bandwidth internal-communications channel. With outsourcing it is almost impossible for the people designing and building the system to get the information they need from the end-users.

So one question I would ask the OP is: how often do your provider's developers talk to your end users? (not your end user's managers, who don't have a clue what the system requirements actually are). If the answer is "never or hardly ever" then in-house is definitely the way to go, because your in-house team will have at least some chance of building a system that will serve end-user needs.

Comment Re:Whelp. (Score 2) 139

For me, the resistance comes when I look at the large reptiles of today which are descended from dinosaurs.They don't have feathers.

Which large reptiles are those? And which dinosaurs are they descended from? And how did dinosaurs, which were all killed at the KT boundary, manage to have descendents?

Dinosaurs are reptiles with their legs under their bodies. This makes them distinct from other reptiles (the kinds we have today, which are not descended from dinosaurs) which have their legs off to the side.

Mammals also managed the legs-under-the-body trick, and birds (which are descended from dinosaurs, unlike all modern reptiles, none of which are descended from dinosaurs, what with dinosaurs all being extinct without issue at the KT boundary.)

Comment Re: Just let me do brain surgery! (Score 1) 372

Of course brain surgeons don't "just do" brain surgery .... in any surgery, there's a ton of pre-operative work, investigation, preparation, paperwork, practice, etc

Most of which is not done by the surgeon. I've worked a lot with surgeons, and can assure you they are used to having other people do almost everything but surgery for them.

Surgeons are the equivalent of the "master programmer" team, which is a now mostly-obsolete team structure where there is one (or a very small number) of expert coders surrounded by a larger group of admin/build/whatever types who make sure the master programmer has nothing to do but code. It works on certain problems, but unlike surgery, the scope of what we expect software developers to do has grown far beyond what one person can handle in almost all interesting cases (I say this as a team of one who does everything from firmware to UI, but it is on a very narrowly defined embedded application that I've worked extremely hard to keep more-or-less within scope for a single very senior person.)

Comment Re:Advanced? (Score 1) 95

Try to imagine an alternate history where we emerged from the industrial revolution with effective, sustainable fusion and solar power without ever polluting the planet.

First off, what we can or cannot imagine has absolutely nothing to do with what is or is not real, so it isn't clear why you're bringing this up. Three hundred years of knowing what is real through publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference had demonstrated that the pre-scientific "method" of "imagining what might be the case and then reasoning from it" is a hiding to nowhere, knowledge-wise.

That said, as it happens I can imagine such an alternative history. One simple way of doing it is to have an intelligent species that evolved somewhat more quickly than we did on a planet formed in very short order after the supernova that birthed it exploded. Such a planet would have a good deal more 235U in the mix, making light-water moderated natural uranium nuclear reactors possible (of the kind that existed on Earth in at least one location 2 billion years ago).

An intelligent species on such a planet would likely never go down the hydro-carbon-fuels path, but would be all-nuclear, all-the-time from a very early stage of technological development (one presumes that in such an environment they would be evolved for somewhat higher radiation-tolerance than most terrestrial species.) As such, no hydrocarbon pollution would be evident.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying any of this is true. Merely that I can imagine it. There are quite possibly any number of subtle issues that make such a scenario impossible, and the failure of philosophy (knowing by imaging) tells us that we will be very hard-pressed to find them. But you asked for an imagining, and there one is.

Comment Re:What is life? What is a virus? (Score 5, Insightful) 158

Then, in that case, what separates pithovius from the prokaryotes?

Structure, from the sound of it, although mostly this is people committing various fallacies of reification and making false claims of "natural kinds".

Everything is a continuum. Humans divide the continuum up using acts of selective attention. The only infinitely sharp edge is the edge of our attention (because we scale the edge to match the scale we are attending to, so whatever scale we are attending to seems to have a sharp division between the things we are selecting out.)

"Species" do not have particularly crisp boundaries in the general case: they fade into each other, and we draw edges around them in more-or-less arbitrary ways. When we find new varieties we can either create new categories (by drawing new edges) or lump them into old categories (by moving old edges). Which move is to be preferred depends on the purposes of the knowing subject.

Comment Re:quelle surprise (Score 1) 725

Yes, but climate change is scientific fact.

Insofar as that statement isn't gibberish (that is: not very far) it's anti-science.

Here's a question for you: is it a "scientific fact" that the impact of an extraterrestrial body occurred at the KT boundary and cause the mass extinction associated with that world-wide discontinuity in the geological record?

A fair majority of scientists concerned with the question certainly think so. But there are some notable hold-outs:

People whose area of expertise is directly relevant to the question at hand, who bring up cogent if not compelling counter-arguments, alternative interpretations of the evidence, facts that appear to be in contradiction to the impact theory, and so on.

Yet they don't have a crowd of anti-scientific loud-mouths calling them "Denialists" or accusing them of being shills for "Big Paleontology."

They sometimes get into heated discussions at scientific meetings, but that's the way science works: there is no limit on the questions we can ask and if we have evidence and Bayesian argument we get a seat at the table, no matter how wigged out the ideas might seem ab initio.

Only in the area of AGW has the arena become a completely political one, where anti-scientific loudmouths compete with shills for Big Hydrocarbon, and everyone ignores the serious question, which is: given its almost certain human activity is adding about 0.25% to the Earth's energy budget (1.6 W/m**2) and we have almost no idea how the climate will respond to that (despite what climatologists sometimes claim about their unphysical models) how do we best respond?

There is a loud and well-funded contingent who believe in "abstinence only" solutions, despite those having failed in every other case they have been applied to (drugs, alcohol, contraception...)

There are green-energy people promoting solar, wind, algal biodeisel, biomass, and other carbon-neutral forms of energy generation and storage.

There are people working on better battery tech (Heinlein's "shipstones").

There are people saying we should seriously consider nuclear power as the only currently known working alternative to base-load coal.

There are people saying we should investigate geo-engineering to stablize CO2 levels.

And there are people saying that since we don't know what is going to happen we should do nothing (see: Shills for Big Hydrocarbon, above)

All of that important stuff in the middle gets drowned out by the anti-scientific loud-mouths and bullies allied with the first and last of those groups, who do nothing but spew gibberish like "climate change is a scientific fact" as if that added something to the debate rather than helped to quell the debate we should be having.

"Scientific literacy" is not or should not be knowledge of discoveries, but a willingness to practice the discipline (not method) that is science: the discipline of testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference. If you aren't practicing that discipline, you are almost certainly an enemy of science, because that is the natural state of the human mind.

Comment Re: "The real problem..." he explained (Score 5, Interesting) 132

Fragmentation and stagnation, despite some assurances to the contrary

I use Python both professionally and for fun (and C and C++ professionally) and don't get this impression at all. Major upgrades to shipped languages take time. The willingness to impose one-time incompatible changes for the sake of long-term improvements takes guts, and can certainly go wrong, but can very well be worth it.

As someone who worked in C and C++ pre-standardization, I recall (perhaps erroneously) that the new standards broke a fair bit of existing code, albeit in minor ways. And of course Microsoft's broken C++ compiler in Visual Studio 6 resulted in a vast amount of borken code when they finally caught up to the rest of the world.

That said, I haven't moved to Python 3 yet, although I believe all the libraries I really care about have now migrated. I tend toward late-adoption, though, and my sense of the Python community is that everyone accepts we are eventually going to move to 3. Big changes take years, so it's no surprise that lots of developers are still on 2.x. The real watershed will be when a few major libs (wxPython, say) drops 2.x support.

In contrast, my impression of Perl 6 is that it's the language of the future, and always will be. It appears so different from Perl 5 that it's a little weird the same name is being used, and it has mostly resulted in sucking the oxygen out of Perl 5 development.

Comment Re:Confusing article (Score 2) 37

What exactly is a "substitute carbon nanosheet"

Reading between the lines, it looks like it is a thin layer of mixed carbon and hydrogen with a structure that they have not yet properly characterized but which they have shown has the properties required for transparent electrodes in solar cells.

Specifically, they say the properties of the layer can be controlled by the properties of the polymer they start with, which suggests that it partakes in the polymer's nature, which would mean it is more than just a single layer of carbon atoms.

They may be being cautious and simply saying it is "graphene-like-enough" for this application, but having not fully characterized it may not want to claim it is "truly" graphene, which is a fairly vague term for a variety of single-sheet carbon materials that may have a variety of defects, in just the same was as "paper" is also fairly vague (from tissue to construction.)

Comment Re:R... (Score 4, Interesting) 143

So can Python do everything that R can?

No, but Rpy can.

I've used R, and it really has a lot of strong points, but I prefer to access it these days via Rpy, which gives me all the power of R along with everything else I get from Python (other libraries, better application development frameworks, etc.)

Both R and Python are real programming languages that are going to be completely useless to non-programmers, so neither of them is a SAS replacement, but of the two, I'd choose Python+Rpy over R for flexibility, power and ease of use (the latter is of course a strongly personal preference... if you really think like a traditional stats geek R will likely seem nicer, as it is clearly created for and by such people.)

Comment Re:Were Denisovans really a DIFFERENT SPECIES? (Score 2) 133

Why are Denisovans considered different species, rather than simply a different race (or breed?) of the same Homo Sapiens?

"Variety" is probably a better word than "race" or "species". The "biological species concept" is extremely poorly defined, which is a bit of an embarrassment for a field largely based on a book called "The Origin of Species".

Like all concepts, the boundaries of a "species" are fuzzy, and the only really precise dividing line is the attention of the knowing subject. In many cases this is unprobelmatic: almost any knowing subject looking at the same population would draw the edges between species in the same way. There are, however, many cases where different people will draw different edges for different purposes.

Again: this is no different from any other concept, although people who don't get out much will often insist that the edges they choose to draw by an act of selective attention are "real" and everyone else's are "wrong".

In the extreme case, in the plant world, ubiquitous hybridization results in populations that are practically all genetically unique individuals, and the species concept breaks down entirely.

Comment Re:Disagree with first sentiment (Score 2) 105

There is a whole swath of biological research under the banner of "basic science"...

Absolutely. I've worked both with pure biologists and physicians (and biologists in a medical context) and they have dramatically different outlooks and mindsets. Many, many biologists are deeply interested in understanding what is going on, while physicians and medical-focused biologists are much more interested in finding stuff that works to solve this problem.

The divide is very similar to that between pure and applied physicists, although for some reason we don't talk about "applied biologists" (perhaps we should.) Pure physicists are simply trying to find answers to questions; applied physicists are trying to find solutions to problems. The same is true in biology.

Comment Re:How long before... (Score 1) 105

In places where people have to worry about starvation I wonder if IQ might even be a liability.

Brain size and IQ are not particularly correlated, and I've seen at least some research suggesting that people with high IQs or more education are actually more efficient at using their brains, to the extent that there is some thinning of the grey matter in such individuals in their late teens or early 20's.

Thinking does take more energy than not, but this isn't a big effect compared to brain size: http://www.scientificamerican....

Comment Re:How long before... (Score 1) 105

I suggest you ask evolutionary biologists.

And evolutionary biologists will ask, "What is the evolutionary advantage of intelligence?"

What we think of as "intelligence"--the specifically human abilities to build complex machines and to use anything to represent anything else and to create unbounded chains of logical inference--is almost certainly an epiphenomenon of having a brain big enough to engage in the kind of complex social and cultural behaviour that developed due to sexual selection in our evolutionary history.

The human brain is like the peacock's tail: men with big brains were more likely to get laid, probably because we could be more entertaining and interesting to women with big brains. Once the process started it ran away with itself, until both men and women ended up with these enormous brains that happen to be able to think deep thoughts.

Evolution does this kind of thing, like flight-feathers evolving from modified scales that were selected for thermal rather than aerodynamic properties.

Comment Re:How long before... (Score 3, Interesting) 105

Why is there a whole raft of genetic diseases in the human population now? Shouldn't they have been "selected out" a long time ago?

Many genetic diseases are the result of optimizations for other things (anemia is related to malaria resistance, there is some problematic gene in a Jewish sub-population that is related to plague resistance, etc.)

Evolution is continuously running an extremely complex multi-dimensional optimization problem with a time-varying objective function. Local minima abound, and it's easy for organisms to get trapped in them.

Furthermore, kin selection and possibly group selection play a role in human evolution, which makes the whole thing even more complex and non-linear. So looking at specific genes and saying, "That doesn't make sense!" as if there was some obligation for the universe to "make sense" to our naive pre-scientific intuition is fairly silly.

The human genome is a Rube Goldberg apparatus that manages to make hundreds of thousands of products out of 40,000 strongly interacting templates plus a bunch of ridiculously inefficient secondary control mechanisms like micro-RNAs (which in some typically degrade already-transcribed mRNA). Pointing to one step as if it can be considered in isolation from everything else is not a good move.

Loss of vitamin C manufacture could well have to do with the development of some other pathway that was more important at the time, and may well continue to be more important today. The only way to really find out is to either a) understand the genetic trade-offs in detail or b) ask some volunteer to have their vitamin C production turned back on by a technique like this. Personally, I'd recommend the former.

Given how weird humans are developmentally, some things like this may be important when we're young and not so much when we're older, so in the fullness of time we may find we can turn on vitamin C production only after people mature, for example. The possible range of futures, given how little we know now, is large.

In the meantime, we have plenty of people with genetic diseases that we know the cure will not significantly disrupt their cellular machinery, because we have lots of examples of people without those diseases who are just fine.

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