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Comment This explains the meteor mystery (Score 3, Interesting) 134

When people see a bright meteor in the night sky, especially a fireball that leaves a glowing trail, it's pretty common for them to report that it was accompanied by a simultaneous sound of some sort, often a crackling noise. Those reports are frequent enough that we can't just dismiss them out of hand but no one has been able to propose a satisfactory explanation from a physics standpoint. If synaesthesia is actually common that would probably explain what's going on.

Comment Re:Dear Young Mr Zug (Score 1) 628

"Uppity"? That's an interesting choice of words. You used it three times, no less. It's a word with a rich history of being used in other equality struggles, usually by those who ultimately lost to describe those who ultimately won. The +5 score on your post notwithstanding, I imagine that history is going to play out the same way for you, too. It's more likely that "no one is going to give a shit" about you than her, in the long run. And that is as it should be.

Comment Context matters (a parable) (Score 0) 628

(Reposting as myself, forgot to log in)

Once upon a time, there was a high school CS class who's teacher chose a picture of a noose hanging from a tree as the subject of an image-processing test. When it was pointed out that this material might send a discouraging and undesirable message to black students in the class, the internet erupted in protest.

"Come on, people, it's just a picture of a rope! No big deal. Grow up!"
"We all have ropes lying around, you know. I have one in my garage. You probably do too."
"Do these idiots realize that our clothes are held together with thread? Tiny little ropes, all around us! There're everywhere! Ahhhh!"
"Oh, great, I bet they're going to ban rodeos now, too. All those cowboys walking around with loops of rope in their hands. Can't have that! OMG, where does it end!"


Context matters. The same image/concept/action that in one context is entirely benign may send a hostile message in another context. The Lena photo would be fine in an art museum, or in a fashion magazine, but as material in a CS classroom it sends a hostile message to some students. Anyone who can't understand that either a) has no ability to see things from anyone's point of view but their own, or b) actually approves of the hostile message, or both. Of course there's no changing the minds of people like that. We can only hope to outlast them.

Comment Re:What a load of BS (Score 4, Insightful) 507

The fact that a majority of Americans get no-questions-asked health insurance through their employers is exactly the problem and why we can't implement a sane system like the rest of the civilized world. Too many people think it's just fine the way it is.

And it is "just fine", until you decide you want to become self-employed and start your own business. Then all of a sudden, oops, you have a pre-existing condition? Sorry, no insurance for you. Or maybe you get laid off from work and can't find another job for a long time (hello, recession!). Sorry, no insurance for you. Or you're young and the only thing you qualify for is an entry-level job that doesn't offer health insurance as an employee benefit. Sorry, no insurance for you.

People who've worked stereotypical job-with-healthcare-benefits all their life can't fathom what it's like to not be in that position. And most importantly, they don't have a good understanding of how easily they could lose their nice job, along with their health insurance, in an instant and through no fault of their own.

The only reasonable health insurance system is to put absolutely everyone in in the same risk pool from birth until death. Anything else ends in having to tell some people, "Well, better hope you die quickly."

Comment Re:Gravity is a poor tractor beam (Score 1) 520

This stuff exceeds our ability to reason about it in a common-sense way. The energy contained in a 10-km asteroid is so large that it doesn't matter if you spread it out over 1000 1-km chunks or not - either way the Earth is not going to be habitable for a very long time. Even if all the pieces are so small that none reach the surface, all of that energy is just turned into a heat flash, shock wave, and ends up dumped into the atmosphere. The Earth's surface would be pretty much slagged regardless. It completely overwhelms the atmosphere's ability to act as a heat sink. It's kind of like arguing about whether it's better to be wearing a t-shirt or being shirtless when being shot by a shotgun. Doesn't make any practical difference either way.

Comment Re:Gravity is a poor tractor beam (Score 1) 520

The difficulty with this sort of problem is that the magnitudes involved are so ridiculously outside our realm of experience that we simply cannot reason about it in a "common sense" sort of way. If we're talking about something in the range of an extinction-level asteroid (which is what the original article was about), then no, spreading out the mass won't make any practical difference in terms of our ability to continue living here (assuming that most of it still hits the atmosphere). The mass of the asteroid contains X amount of kinetic energy and will contain that same amount regardless of whether its in one piece or thousands of pieces. Our common-sense reasoning says that lots of small pieces will spread out the energy load and the atmosphere is such a gigantic heat sink that it would be able to safely absorb it, but in the case of an extinction-level event we're talking about so much energy that it doesn't much matter how much it's spread out - it's still more than enough to instantly fry the entire impact side of the planet. The heat flash and shock wave of a distributed impact (even if spread out over several minutes or even hours) would completely immolate the surface of one half of the planet. Nothing would be left standing at all. The temperature of the entire atmosphere would jump by several hundreds of degrees. The non-impact side wouldn't fare much better since the effects from the impact side would spread globally within a few hours. Sure, the Earth's crust would remain more or less intact but there wouldn't be anyone living here anymore.

Comment Non-renewable resource (Score 4, Informative) 231

Helium is a non-renewable resource, even more so than liquid hydrocarbon fuels. At least with jet fuel you could synthesize it if you really wanted to and had a large enough energy input, but the only way to synthesize helium is to fuse hydrogen in large quantities and if we knew how to do that in a controllable fashion we probably wouldn't need to mess around with dirigibles. Once you extract helium from the ground it eventually ends up in the atmosphere and then escapes to space, so once it's gone it's gone for good.

Comment Pandora's Box (Score 2) 341

I love how the U.S. military keeps inventing weapon systems that are far more effectively used against us than against the sorts of enemies we face these days. Sure, we get a few year's worth of lead time where we're the only one in possession of the new toys but once it's been invented, it's just a matter of time until everyone has it. Tell, me, who has more to lose from the wide availability of this sort of missile system? The people with the heaviest reliance on computers, of course. Same goes for Stuxnet, of course, except that was even worse because that weapon system delivers its own blueprint. Thanks, guys.

Comment Re:Worst System Except for all the Others (Score 1) 525

I worked at Microsoft for 18 years (up to 2011) and had a good mix of both IC and manager time.

The first thing you're missing is that the review system has been tweaked a few times since you left and it's worse now than it's ever been. Now the numeric system is 1 to 5 (1 is high, 5 is low), integers only, and all five numbers are used and have quotas. As of last year when I left, the very bottom review rating of 5 (equivalent in meaning to the 2.5 in the system you're familiar with) now has an enforced 10% quota. Yes, every year 10% of the work force gets a review score that devestates their career and puts them in serious danger of being fired. No, it doesn't matter how well those 10% did in absolute terms.

Secondly, I hear often hear people say, "But the curve isn't applied at the small team level; only at the large org level." That's only a semantic distinction. Sure, a front-line manager with 10 ICs isn't required to pick one person to recieve a 5. But he is required to stack rank all 10 people and send that up the chain with his recommended ratings, and those recommendations get normalized and tweaked to fit the curve at higher levels and sent back down again. So the manager might say, "My team did a kick-ass job this year, everyone did well, so I recommend that even my bottom person get nothing less than a 3." But when it goes up the chain, gets squeezed into the model, and comes back down, that bottom person may well now have a 5 and there's nothing the manager can do about it. The only thing he can do is go to that person and tell him, "Better pack your bags because you're screwed with a capital F." The entire system is random and non-deterministic.

Third, I agree that performance reviews are hard and anything we have to choose from sucks in some way (at least those systems that can scale to large companies). But Microsoft's system generates a certain set of unintended consequences that are horrifically corrosive and have rotted the company from the inside out. The most obvious unintended consequence is what you said - it's not enough to just do good work, you have to be seen doing it. It turns out that the smart thing to do is weight your efforts more toward the "be seen" part and less toward the "do work" part, to the extent that many people spend essentially all of their time "being seen" and almost none of their time doing actual product work. Over time those people tend to be rewarded disproportionately and the entire management chain ends up filled with people who's core strength is managing other's perceptions rather than doing great engineering. There are many other unintended consequences and I could fill a book talking about all of them, but suffice to say that it's slowly but surely killing the company.

Comment Re:Fight the power, Anon! (Score 2, Insightful) 267

Well, let's see. We just got done with a well-constructed, well-reasoned, well-executed protest against SOPA and PIPA, and we killed those bills dead as a *direct result*. When was the last time a DDoS did *anything* other than harden the resolve of the party being attacked? How do they think the MPAA et al will react? "Oh my goodness, some script kiddies are DDoSing our web site. Quick, release the MegaUpload people from jail and turn their servers back on! It's our only hope!"

Comment Re:Alas, poor Dualism, I knew they well (Score 1) 320

In that case our legal system will simply have to move away from the idea that prison is a punishment for wrongdoing to the idea that prison is a holding place for defectives. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter if you *chose* to murder that person, or if your brain chemistry led you inexorably to murder that person and there was nothing you could do about it. The fact is that we don't want to let people with a propensity for murdering people run around loose in society, so either way you need to be removed from society.

In fact, in the absence of the idea of free will, it makes a lot of sense to not have graduated prison sentences (punishment fitting the crime) at all and just go to a system of one-strike-and-you're-put-away-for-life. If you're demonstrably defective and your brain chemistry can't allow you to behave in a socially acceptable way, then you need to be locked up. And if you're defective then there's really no sense in ever letting you out again, is there? It's not like a a prison sentence is going to teach you not to mis-behave; your initial defense was that you had no choice about your actions in the first place.

Of course, what we're actually *likely* to get in real life is the worst parts of both philosophies - the idea that only people who made free-will choices to be evil can be punished/penalized/incarcerated, but no one is capable of free-will choices (we're all at the mercy of our chemical makeup), therefore no action is ever taken to deter or prevent anti-social behavior.

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