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Submission Summary: 0 pending, 83 declined, 24 accepted (107 total, 22.43% accepted)

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Submission + - How will we know a vehicle model is "driverless" (

RockDoctor writes: Some people differ, but having gone through dozens of (simulated) aircraft crashes as part of safety training for work, I hugely prefer to face backwards when travelling. Plane (no choice) train (choice) or automobile (rarely a choice), I prefer to be in a seat that will absorb my momentum from the start of an impact.
The "driverless car" will not be here until all people in the front row of the device face against the direction of travel. Anything less is a partial solution, waiting for a human to take over in a complex situation.
My wife can't travel facing backwards. So I take the risk of being killed by her flying body after I survive the crash. Joy, not.
People will learn to live with it.


Submission + - Continuing progress on "In Situ Resource Utilization" for space exploration. ( 2

RockDoctor writes: Many Slashdot readers will have heard of Robert Zubrin with his plans for launching self-contained rocket fuel plants to Mars to convert 1kg of hydrogen (supplied from Earth) to 18kg of oxygen/ methane to be used as rocket fuel to return explorers to Earth. This is an example of Utilizing (using) In Situ (already there) Resources (Mars' CO2 atmosphere) to reduce launch costs (masses) from Earth to achieve desired aims in space exploration at more affordable costs.

In 2013, the Journal of Aerospace Engineering ran a special volume on "In Situ Resource Utilization" with 20 papers on the subject. (These are paywalled, unless you know of tools like Sci-Hub to read the work paid for by your taxes.)

Yesterday, one of the editors of that special volume, Philip Metzger (a NASA planetary scientist specialising in the properties of Lunar soils) released a paper on Arxiv expanding on his contribution to that 2013 volume and detailing a roadmap for humanity to take gain control of the Solar System in order to solve problems on Earth. In the 2013 paper, Dr Metzger asserted (with working) that

bootstrapping can be achieved with as little as 12 t landed on the Moon during a period of about 20 years. [ I know it's Slashdot but RTFAFFS ! ...] The industry grows exponentially because of the free real estate, energy, and material resources of space. The mass of industrial assets at the end of bootstrapping will be 156 t with 60 humanoid robots or as high as 40,000 t. [...] Within another few decades with no further investment, it can have millions of times the industrial capacity of the United States. Modeling over wide parameter ranges indicates this is reasonable, but further analysis is needed.

The 2016 Arxiv paper produces some of the results of that further analysis, concentrating in particular on the need to develop a "water economy [..] to manufacture rocket propellant" from in situ resources on the Moon and later the asteroids.

The 2013 paper's abstract ends with one of the milder understatements in history.

"This industry promises to revolutionize the human condition."

Without doubt, Slashdot will contribute much heat and little light from typing hordes who haven't read either paper to dilute their ignorance, but analyses like this are not, as frequently described, the work of "space nutters" but realistic possibilities. Realistic until the author sees the fatal stumbling block to all such dreams :

"It will require a sustained commitment of several decades to complete."

— a level of dedication that humans have not shown themselves capable of for centuries, even for their highest achievement to date, war.

Submission + - Kepler releases catalogue of Habitable Zone exoplanet candidates.

RockDoctor writes: The Kepler consortium has released a catalogue of exoplanet candidates, filtered (according to various criteria) to include only those in their star's "habitable zones" ("HZ", where water could be sable as a liquid on the planet's surface). While there are inevitably plenty of caveats about the work, it does provide a list of potential targets for further study, and no doubt many of them are being followed up already. Planetary astronomers now have a "catalog[ue] of 104 candidates within the optimistic HZ and 20 candidates with radii less than two Earth radii within the conservative HZ". For those doing their astronomy homework assignments, there is a useful 2 page description of their HZ criteria.

The data is tabulated in the paper, but is keyed by KOI number, which users would need to cross-reference to the data on NASA's Exoplanet database.

As the authors say themselves, "The work described here is the product of efforts undertaken by the Kepler Habitable Zone Working Group," who might possibly know more about the subject than Joe Random Slashdotter. But that won't inhibit them from correcting the work without reading it.

Submission + - Second irregularly dimming star found. (

RockDoctor writes: Remember the screaming and welcoming of our Dyson-Sphere-Dwelling 1500 LY distant Overlords that accompanied the news that star KIC 8462852 was irregularly dimming on both short and longer timescales?

A second star with a similar light curve has been discovered and reported on ARXIV. With the euphonious names "EPIC 204278916" and "2MASS J16020757-2257467", the star is a young M1 (red) star, travelling as part of a group of stars which haven't had time to disperse from their place of formation. The age is estimated at 5 — 11 million years.

Analysis of 70+ days of data from the K2 mission epoch shows a rotation of 3.6 days, but a period of 25 days near the start of the observation epoch showed dips in intensity of up to 60% lasting for up to about a day each. Details are in the Arxiv paper linked to above, particularly figures 1 and 4.

If confirmed, this discovery changes the situation with interpreting the so-called "Tabby's Star". Firstly with a second object in the class, the odds of it representing a class of naturally occurring objects compared to a unique, unusual object is greatly increased. Secondly, the different celestial mechanical situations around the different stars allows a better estimate of plausible formation mechanisms. One potentially important point is that clumps of debris that could produce these dimmings seem to be quite large. "It is also important to note that the resulting size for the transiting and occulting clump would be quite large at with the clump being in the order of 1.5 times the radius of the Sun.

Sadly, this appears to be a new class of "dirty young planetary system." no alien Overlords, no screaming in the streets. Just business-like astronomy.

Submission + - Microsoft Bing uses Wikipedia (globally editable) data

RockDoctor writes: Though they're trying to minimise it, the recent relocation of Melbourne Australia to the ocean east of Japan in Microsoft's flagship mapping application is blamed on someone having flipped a sign in the latitude given for the city's Wikipedia page. Which may or may not be true. But the simple stupidity of using a globally-editable data source for feeding a mapping and navigation system is ... "awesome" is (for once) an appropriate word.

Well, it''s Bing, so at least no-one was actually using it.

Submission + - ESA and Tim Peake to rent out room on ISS on AirBnB

RockDoctor writes: After their successful deployment of the inflatable broom cupboard on the International Space Station, the ESA and Tim Peake are planning to rent it out on AirBnB.

No comment on when the road there will be improved — it's unsurfaced (and un-foundationed) for the last 100+ km — but the parking for your vehicles could easily be described as "spacy". Driving up there — particularly in a convertible car — is literally breathtaking. You'll feel all the pressures lifting from you.

I'm writing like an advertising agent. I'd better commit sepukku with an IBM mechanical keyboard.

Submission + - Progress reports on Plan-28, the project to (re-)build the world's 1st computer. (

RockDoctor writes: Many readers will be aware of the continuing project to (re-)build a version of an antique computer which not even Slashdot's venerable 3-digit UID greybeards have worked with. Between 1822 and 1847, Charles Babbage worked on a number of designs for general-purpose programmable computing engines some parts of which were built during his lifetime and after. Since 2011 a group under the name of "" have been working towards building a full version of the machine known as the Analytical Engine. (The group's name refers to the series of Babbage's plans which they are working to — versions 1 to 27 obviously having problems.) This week, they have released some updates on progress on their blog. Significant progress includes working on the machine's "internal microcode" (in today's terminology ; remember, this is a machine of brass cogs and punched cards!) ; archive work to bring the Science Museum's material into a releasable form (the material is already sanned, but the metadata is causing eyestrain) ; "One of the difficulties in understanding the designs is the need to reverse engineer logical function from mechanical drawings of mechanisms — this without textual explanation of purpose or intention. The original hope was that the notations, expressed in Babbage’s symbolic descriptive language [discussed here before]."

Progress is slow, but real. Last year marked the bicentennial of Ada Lovelace, who wrote programs for the Analytical Engine and it's predecessor, the Difference Engine, and whose position as "the world's first programmer" is celebrated in the name of the programming language Ada.

Submission + - Braindead staff at BurgerKing tricked into smashing windows - twice!

RockDoctor writes:

[A prank caller] tricked workers at a Minnesota Burger King into smashing the windows of the restaurant to keep it from exploding.

Which is pretty fucking funny — though it might cost the restaurant chain 10-30k$ and if anyone gets fired, it should be the manager who was caught by the prank and instructed his staff to start smashing the windows.

But it seems that there was another similar case "in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on Thursday night" ; and there are reports of other cases. So, Burger King's upper management should have been raising the alarm to their store-level management already. Or, perhaps, they might hire people with at least a trace of general science background.

This sounds more fun than pulling the wings off flies — and ethically is more defensible. Where is the printed Yellow Pages ...?

Hang on! When did Burger King get promoted from "sludge purveyor" to "restaurant." And how many restaurants are sueing them for defamation and reputational harm?

Submission + - IOS devices have their own Y2K problem

RockDoctor writes: The Guardian is reporting that there is a bug in some versions of IOS handling of date and time : it can hang the machines.
If you set the date back to 1 Jan 1970 — the infamous Unix year zero — many versions will then hang, requiring at least shop repair, if not actually bricking the device.

Submission + - Richard Dawkins has (minor) stroke.

RockDoctor writes: Controvery-stirring biological scientist and anti-theist Professor Richard Dawkins is reported to have suffered a (minor) stroke on Saturday.

He is reported to be back at home already and recovering. However he has been forced to postpone a planned promotion tour to Australia and New Zealand in support of his recent autobiographical book "Brief Candle in the Dark"

I would like to say that we all send Professor Dawkins our heart-felt best wishes, but knowing the number of Christians on Slashdot, I am sure that the death threats, bile, fear and contempt will spew forth below, in the true spirit of Christian kindness. Other religions can at least curse his scientific contributions and atheist activism without such hypocrisy.

Submission + - White guys dieing earlier in America

RockDoctor writes: In a change not seen in other countries, white middle-aged Americans are suffering increased mortality rates. The accumulated death toll, of deaths in excess of death rates seen in other demographic groups, amounts to about 500,000 deaths since the mortality gap started to open in the late 1990s.

[Trigger warning : numbers ahead!] They showed that from 1978 to 1998, the mortality rate for US whites aged 45 to 54 fell by 2% a year, a figure very much in line with the celebrated improvements in health seen in the other countries.

But after 1998, the death rates of US whites began to buck the trend. While other countries saw their mortality rates continue to fall, they began to rise among middle-aged white non-Hispanic Americans by 0.5% a year. The effect was not confined to the 45- to 54-year-olds. In the 35- to 44-year-old bracket, the mortality rate stopped falling in 2000. For 55- to 59-year-olds, the fall slowed to 0.5% a year.

The rise in death rates among middle-aged white Americans means half a million more people have died in the US since 1998 than if the previous trend had continued. The death toll is comparable to the 650,000 Americans who lost their lives during the Aids epidemic from 1981 to the middle of this year, the researchers said.

Submission + - Scottish Universities use computer gaming to model drug-resistant TB

RockDoctor writes: The BBC report that medical researchers at one Scottish university have teamed up with computing students at another Scottish university to develop a game which will help to model the treatment of tuberculosis.

Drug-resistant TB is an increasing problem around the world, but there are drugs in the pipeline to treat it. However both experience and medical common sense (based, as is everything in biology, on evolution) shows that to prevent the evolution of new resistances, drugs should be applied in combinations, and those combinations should be varied. With 10 drugs in the pipeline, that's potentially 90 combinations of two drugs and 720 combinations of three. That is to many to perform clinical trials on.

So, the medics and medical chemists at Saint Andrews turned to the nearby Abertay University (well-known for computing and gaming tuition, a mere 581 years after Saint Andrews was founded) to develop a game that models some of the human interactions involved in drug treatment, to try to understand better which combinations of treatments would be more effective at treating TB, and preventing the establishment of more drug resistant strains. As one of the sound designers says :

For the team's sound designer Mazen Magzoub, project Sanitarium has a special resonance. He's from Sudan.
"There isn't enough medication," he says.
"And even when there is enough medication the nature of living in Sudan does not allow the patient to continue (treatment) for the prescribed period.
"And that makes the tuberculosis bacteria tolerant towards that certain type of antibiotic.
"That's basically the challenge in the developing world."

The game is "Sanitarium."

Submission + - EU may become a single digital market of 500 million people.

RockDoctor writes: The Guardian is reporting that the EU is becoming increasingly vociferous in it's opposition to "geo-blocking" — the practice of making media services available in some areas but not in others.

“European consumers want to watch the pay-TV channel of their choice regardless of where they live or travel in the EU,”

That adds up to a block of nearly 500 million first-world media consumers. They don't necessarily all speak the same language, but English is probably the most commonly understood single language. And the important thing for American media companies to remember is that they're not American in thought, taste or outlook.

Submission + - Crowdfunded satellite deploys solar sail.

RockDoctor writes: The LightSail experiment on the Planetary Society's ExplorePlanets mission has deployed, marking a substantial step forward on the progress of this space propulsion system.

Despite problems with software glitches, the motor for deploying the sail started operating very early on Monday (European time), and as of early morning on Monday reports were coming in that the orbit has perceptibly changed, suggesting the sail was causing noticeable drag on the satellite (as expected).

American newspapers are catching onto the event.

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"But what we need to know is, do people want nasally-insertable computers?"