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Comment Heinlein 1939 (Score 1) 504

"There has grown in the minds of certain groups in this country the idea that just because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with guaranteeing such a profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is supported by neither statute or common law. Neither corporations or individuals have the right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back."
  -- one of Robert A. Heinlein's characters in the short story Life-Line, 1939

Comment Re:Perhaps not everybody, but many more (Score 3, Insightful) 387

They don't need to code. They need an IT department that doesn't have its head in its ass and is supplied with enough resources to be able to afford solving user problems like that.

Yes... but the other piece of the puzzle is that the user has to be computer-savvy enough to know, or at least suspect, that there is a better way to accomplish a task. Users who have very narrow IT training may think there is only one way to do a task, and may not bother to ask for help because they don't even know that an alternative exists. Only people with slightly broader training will even be aware that there are things like scripts that can automate tedious processes.

Comment Re:Generally accepted? (Score 3, Insightful) 458

Scientists are not so naive as to simply think "it is expanding now, therefore it has always been expanding." The main reasons why we think there was a big bang are (

1) The universe is not just expanding, it's expanding in such a way that the relationship between distance and speed matches up neatly along smooth curves.

2) We can see (in microwave telescopes) the cosmic background radiation just where it should be, at just the frequency that was predicted if there had been a big bang (note the prediction was made in 1948, but the microwaves were not measured until 1965).

3) We can see gas clouds in the far distance (12 billion light years), which we see as they appeared 12 billion years ago, which are made of hydrogen and helium in the proportions that we expect would have been made in the big bang, and without the heavier elements that we think would not have been made in a big bang, and there is no other theory that has been able to explain the proportions of the light elements.

4) The way galaxies and quasars are distributed and the way they appear to have developed over time matches what we think would have happened if there had been a big bang (and rules out other ideas such as a steady-state universe).

You also asked:

You suggest we should be believers in this everything from nothing theory without the least bit of skepticism?

No scientist would suggest that you believe any theory without skepticism. Certainly, be skeptical! But skepticism is not the same as refusing to accept an idea just because it sounds far-fetched. If someone does come up with a better theory (where "better" = "makes predictions that match what we actually observe more closely and more efficiently than other theories"), then by all means, out with the old theory and in with the new. And it's certainly fine to attempt to poke holes in the current theory -- indeed, there is surely a Nobel Prize waiting for the person who proves that there was no big bang! But poking holes in the theory has to be done by either finding out that the theory contains contradictions, or finding that it fails to explain something that we can see happens in reality. One doesn't get the Nobel Prize for saying "that doesn't sound right."

Comment Re:Immigration (Score 2) 484

Being precise about terminology can help a discussion, especially when words have specific legal definitions. A major problem with immigration discussions is that people use terms incorrectly and don't make important distinctions. People don't understand the differences between asylum seekers, refugees, the many different kinds of work visa holders, and so on, and they don't understand the criteria for entry or the entitlements for each category, so they form opinions based on misinformation.

Comment Grading is about feedback (Score 5, Insightful) 253

Grading is not, or should not be, about the grade, it should be about the feedback that the lecturer gives to the student. Even if the computer can grade an essay well (which I remain to be convinced of, although I am sure I will soon have the chance to test it for myself), there is no claim made about the computer giving useful advice to the student. Can a computer explain how to refine a research question or structure an argument? Sadly, many lecturers don't in fact give good feedback, but we should be looking for ways to enable lecturers to give better feedback, not accepting poor feedback as the norm.

Comment Re:Discovery and limitations (Score 2) 205

there are very few observable physical phenomena that we cannot currently explain.

95% of the universe is made up of "dark" matter and "dark" energy -- we don't know what they are, but we know there must be something there because we can see gravitational influence on "real" matter and energy. It would surprise me if that 95% region of the universe were perfectly uniform, featureless, and uninteresting. Once we figure out how to observe it, we may find quite a few more phenomena worth exploring!

Comment Re:Really so complex? (Score 2) 86

For most of biology, we haven't yet been able to create numerical models. There are a huge number of variables, interactions, and feedback loops, and frankly we don't even fully understand how many biological processes work, so creating mathematical models is very difficult. But this is sure to be a productive area of research so any young computer geeks with an appetite for the squishy science should take note!

Comment Re:Liquid Water (Score 1) 188

Why do we still put a mandate of "liquid water" in the hospitable zone requirement?

It's not a "mandate", but it's a way of identifying the first and most likely places to look, for two reasons:

1) Water is necessary for "life as we know it", and we have a good idea of some indicators of life-as-we-know-it that we could observe at a great distance. We have no clue how to recognise life-as-we-DON'T-know-it from a great distance, we just don't know what to look for.

2) There is actually good reason to think that there is a high probability that alien life might be based on the same chemistry as life on Earth. Life on Earth is mostly made of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, which are also three of the four most common elements in the whole universe -- the fourth being helium, which doesn't react with anything so doesn't make any interesting chemistry. And out of all of the elements on the periodic table, carbon forms more compounds than all of the other elements combined. So our biology is based on the most common and most readily-combining elements in the universe, which suggests that we are unlikely to be unique.

Comment Re:English accents sound sexy (Score 1) 448

There is no such thing as "accent-free". We all speak with an accent, the accent of the place where we learned our language. You may think your way of speaking is "normal" and everyone else's as "different", but you are not the center of the linguistic universe; it is all relative. People from other places can hear your accent and can probably tell where you grew up by listening to you.

I suspect that discrimination on the basis of accent would probably violate the civil rights of U.S. citizens to travel freely and work in any state in the USA. You can't discriminate against someone just because they sound like they are from Boston, Brooklyn, or Charleston.

Comment Re:lol (Score 2) 248

Neil deGrasse Tyson makes some interesting points in relation to this: (1) The five most common elements in the solar system are hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. (2) Of all the elements, the one that makes the most compounds is carbon -- there are more compounds containing carbon than all other compounds of all of the other elements combined. (3) Life on Earth is made mostly of H, O, C, N, plus some trace elements, and is based on C. ("Organic chemistry" means the chemistry of carbon compounds.)

In other words, we are made out of the most common available materials (discounting helium which doesn't react with anything so doesn't produce interesting chemistry), including the element that produces the most complex and varied chemistry. So if you are looking for complex chemistry (i.e. life) elsewhere in the galaxy, it actually does seem to be a reasonable starting point to expect that it is fairly likely to also be based on the most common elements available, and on the element that produces the most complex and diverse chemistry.

Comment Re:There are 130 stars within 20 light years (Score 1) 343

Do we expect to send colonists on a one-way trip that takes most of their lifetime?

Why not? In human history, people have set out on one-way trips countless times. European colonists coming to the Americas never expected to return. Colonists heading west across the Great Plains of the USA never expected to return. People are absolutely willing to uproot themselves and head out on daring expeditions with uncertain results and no expectation of return.

And don't forget another effect: a spaceship launched later, but developed with better technology, can overtake a spaceship that flew earlier and slower. It would be pretty sad for a crew of an earlier ship to arrive and find a colony that is established by humans decades ago.

But you have to build that first spaceship anyway, because if you don't, then you never develop the technology to build the second, faster one. The Wright brothers' first airplane only flew 852 feet, which is pretty lame compared with what we have now, but they had to build that one so that they could figure out how to build Flyer II and then III, and so on until we have Airbuses. But you cannot jump directly to building an Airbus without first building the Wright Flyer.

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