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Comment Re:What would Kissinger do? (Score 1) 231

Whose incompetence? There were a number of terrorist attacks over the period from 1976 (Carter Administration) through the 1990s (Clinton Administration). Clinton had the opportunity to take out Bin Laden at least once, perhaps twice, but chose not to because we didn't have a 'smoking gun' sufficient to justify - that's an arguable case. 9/11 planning by Bin Laden began in at least 1999, perhaps 1998 - I don't recall. So if you're saying it was Bush incompetence, you're just uninformed. The fact is that Bin Laden (who was a big part of the "Mujahadeen" that we financed to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1970s) dedicated his life to killing infidels at that time if not before.

Afghanistan was not such a bad place prior to the Soviet invasion and removal of the king (not necessarily in that order). I have friends and relatives who worked there and visited there in the early 1970s. But the Russians have wanted a direct route to a warm water port for centuries, and have tried various methods multiple times including overthrowing governments. See also the "Great Game" of the 1800s between Russia, Britain, and China mostly.

It's quite reasonable actually to go back much farther, to the Jefferson Administration, in 1801-1809. See the Tripolitan War or Barbary Coast War, 1801-1815. US merchant shipping in the Mediterranean was being hampered by pirates out of Tripoli (present day Libya), who were seizing the ships and holding the crews and passengers for ransom. For several years the US (like several European nations) was forced to pay as much as $1 million per year to protect our fleets. When the US Ambassador went to Tripoli to negotiate, and find out why they kept attacking, the sultan or whatever said, "Holy Kuran tells us to kill all infidels. The fact that we don't kill your people but only hold them for ransom is merely a sign of our exceeding mercy." This was the motivation for Jefferson to build up the Navy, I think create the Marines but I'm not sure about that, and go to war. This is the basis for the latter part of a line in the Marine Hymn, "From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli."

IOW, the western European and American nations have been dealing with murderous thugs from those areas since the birth of this country.

Comment Re: So this is Russia answer to the ,, (Score 1) 256

The designs I'm familiar with are not microwave lasers (technically 'masers', which actually predate lasers), but an extremely diffuse beam that covers dozens of square miles at the surface. OTOH, if we assume that the beam comes from a single source, then the difference is just in the focus, which indeed could be altered at will to form a 'death ray'.

This raises an interesting fundamental but not very widely discussed aspect of technological civilization. At every stage of technological advance the amount of economic resources and destructive power available to a single individual increases. At one time not so long ago it was a rare thing for an individual to be able to create or destroy very much - mass killing required at least hiring a bunch of henchmen, and it was a rare individual who was left in control of, say, the lifetime income of a dozen average people. But today, as we are painfully aware, a single individual without any training or much preparation, or money, can kill thousands. And yet we continue to accept individual ownership and control of vehicles that have the capability. Thus civilization always demands ever higher levels of cooperation and self-control of its citizens. We have people (with the appropriate training and evaluation of ability and reliability) driving $100 million aircraft on a regular basis, and entrepreneurs developing what are lineal descendants of ICBMs, for purely commercial purposes. It's not a coincidence that both the US Atlas and Delta, and at least one of the Russian rockets, started out as ICBMs - the military were the first ones willing to pay the costs of 'first mover' development, back when it was a lot harder and more expensive than it is today.

And we are all used to the idea that in general we can depend on others to not use these technologies for ill. If space solar power does get built (I have my doubts for other reasons), it will probably happen after the vehicle launch rate reaches an average of one or more per day, with a significant percentage of those being manned launches. Space will then be mundane, and we will have gotten used to big, visible things flying around in the sky. There will be a significant regulatory and enforcement of rules present in space (a "Space Force", at least for near-Earth activities). By analogy, there was a time when if a very large ship appeared over the horizon, it was almost certainly a military or pirate ship. Today it may be Bill Gates' yacht.

I'm hand-waving the concept here of course, trying to get to a useful conclusion. I suppose the appropriate conclusion is that, human nature being what it is (and that is just 'nature nature' as expressed in humans), the size of the potential catastrophe is going to track the size of the civilization forever. This implies that if we become an interstellar civilization, some idiot at some point really will destroy a planet. I can only hope it will be just one among thousands that are not destroyed.

Comment Re:Ehh ok Russia, fine. Whatever. (Score 1) 256

The Boeing 707 was derived directly from the B52 bomber. It is quite plausible for both the US and USSR to fund a military spaceplane for its own purposes, in the process doing the essential big spend that no commercial company can afford to do. Then out of that work can come a derived fast commercial transport aircraft, providing all the benefits and more of the Supersonic Transport, without the sonic booms. Four hours London to Sidney, or New York to Capetown.

Comment Re:So this is Russia answer to the ,, (Score 1) 256

Indeed. It's worth noting that prior to OST, both the US and USSR set off nukes in space.

One of the long term problems of space development is that almost everything in space is a potential weapon. For starters, they are kinetic kill vehicles if just aimed in the "wrong" direction. Then nuclear propulsion and power systems are going to be essential for almost every activity past the orbit of Mars. (I'm hoping for use of Thorium MSRs for most of that, as it removes almost all of the problems associated with Uranium and Plutonium, not only because this almost eliminates nuclear power plants as bomb sources.) For example, the recent Juno probe is the first outer planet probe to use solar panels. The solar power available at that distance is about 4.3% of the power available at one AU.

But despite the difficulties, I expect a lot of in-space mining, refining, and manufacturing to be based on solar power for many reasons, not least being that it's cheap and almost entirely zero maintenance, and you can make a solar power system as large as you need. Perhaps the biggest difficulty will be finding the necessary materials in space to make them out of.

Comment Re: So this is Russia answer to the ,, (Score 1) 256

I think this would be a suborbital vehicle. It's one thing (and a pretty good approach for fast point-to-point flight) to get out of the atmosphere for a significant part of a flight - this may be the real market for fast trips like London-Singapore. This is hypersonic speeds, plus maybe a bit more. But orbit requires three to five times more velocity, which requires 1/2 MV^2 more energy, which requires that much more fuel, which increases the mass ...

The only plausible SSTO vehicle I am aware of right now is the British project for the Skylon spaceplane that uses the hybrid jet/rocket SABRE engine. While the most critical element of SABRE, the cooler system, has been successfully tested, the first actual running engine is not projected to be until 2020 or 2022.

Comment Re:The grain alcohol didn't really raise food pric (Score 1) 351

You used to have to take possession of a commodity before you could sell/trade in it.

That wasn't true in 1976, when I was looking into commodities. At the time I could buy a railroad car of honey with delivery in six months for 20% down (I forget the exact margin), in hopes the price would go up. If it went up 5% then I would make 25% on my investment. If it went down, I could lose my shirt.

AFAIK it was never true. The whole point of commodities trading is for companies like General Foods to have a predictable price for their raw materials well in advance of needing them, and farmers to have a predictable price for their crop before it's grown. In between are the market makers and speculators. Overall the commodities market is remarkably good at stabilizing prices for both the materials and the products made from them. Another example - airlines also buy fuel for up to five years in advance.

You can also buy and sell options - I could buy an option to buy the honey, and if the price goes down then all I lost is the price I paid for the option (i.e. I lose 100% of my investment but not more than 100%). If it goes up, I might make eight or 10 times my investment. In 1978 Hillary Clinton, at the time 'First Lady' of Arkansas, famously made out on one of these deals. One of the Clinton buddies was the head of Tyson Foods, the company that pretty much runs Arkansas. One day, HC "on a whim" opened an options account at a commodities trading firm, and a day or two later bought ten options on chicken for $12,000 (even though there was only $1,000 in her account). The trade was closed a few days later for a $6300 profit - i.e. 630% profit in a couple of days. Over the next 10 months this investment, through ongoing trades, magically turned into over $100,000. The guy who ran her trades was an executive at Tyson Foods. Source: Washington Post - note other versions of this story are much less 'soft'.

Comment Re:Very Serious Flaws (Score 1) 532

If you look at the present LISA Pathfinder mission, which involves carrying two small test masses in nearly perfect gravitational free-fall, protected from other influences by the enclosing spacecraft, you'll see that it is possible to remove almost all confounding influences for an experiment like this. While we're probably not there yet, at some point a test in space will be the only true proof of concept. Of course, if somebody manages to build a system with a must higher thrust, say enough to accelerate the test apparatus at 1/1000 G, then I'll be satisfied that it definitely works! :D AFAIK so far nobody has run tests at high power yet - building a system that can accept a megawatt or dozen would definitely make the observations easier.

Comment Re:what's the difference ? (Score 3, Informative) 309

Actually college administrator salaries have increased far above (IIRC more than double) the rate of college tuitions (which is about three times the overall inflation rate), while professor pay has languished and benefits have been decreased, to the point where universities in particular have resorted to eliminating tenured and full time positions, keeping large teams of part-time instructors, kept judiciously below the number of teaching hours that would trigger full time benefits - shades of fast food!

The pay inflation of college presidents has far exceeded that of the average for corporate executives. This difference largely tracks the inflation of federal subsidies for higher education - in other words, the administrations have succeeded in rent-seeking at the expense of students and taxpayers. Today, with grants and loans, it is as hard for a family to pay for college as it was before the federal subsidies were expanded, while the taxpayer now has to toss in an additional large amount. The net result of the expansion of federal money has done nothing but line the presidential pockets.

Comment Increase is proportional to federal subsidies (Score 0) 309

Looking at the data, the increase in the pay for college administrators closely follows the increase in federal grants and loans to students, while the pay for instructors and professors has stagnated. The result is that the cost of college has skyrocketed, making it just as hard for a family to pay for college today, with the loans and grants, as it was before the explosion in college funding.

This idea of "Let's put _everyone_ through college with our unlimited federal funds!" does nothing but move money from taxpayers to rent-seeking college administrators (and a few more fancy buildings), reduces the overall quality of college students, and reduces the general efficiency of college classes while impoverishing college teachers.

This is yet another example of how a primitive 'do-good' methodology - unlimited federal funding for everyone to go to college - breaks the feedback loop of costs vs. benefits that act when a family unit must choose how to spend their limited resources.

A further negative consequence is that the pressure is reduced for high schools to make sure that their students are competent, while superfluous requirements for college degrees for every job proliferate. The result is beneficial in a sense - people are kept out of the workforce for an additional four to six years, improving the jobless rate.

Comment Re:Astronomers don't want you to know this neat tr (Score 1) 73

My interpretation has been that the French helped with the Revolution to keep a large fraction of British forces occupied 'over there', so the French wouldn't have to fight them at home.

Also, it's a little-recognized point, but it's quite arguable that George Washington, as a fairly new officer in the British Army, accidentally started what we call the French and Indian war. He was tasked with building a fort at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongehela rivers, which join to become the Ohio, in what is now Pittsburgh. A French force wandered by, on the way toward (IIRC) Virgina. Washington's force attacked and killed most of them (again, IIRC). As it turned out this was not, as Washington had thought, a raiding party but a diplomatic one. Oops.

But the Revolution was in fact more significant than what you propose, for at least two reasons. 1) This was the first country where Rousseau's and Locke's ideas about the sovereignty of the individual 'man' over the government were explicitly defined in the fundamental law of the nation - Britain had gone some way in that direction, but primarily only with respect to the relations between the King and the aristocracy. Even Hamilton was aghast at the prospect of the great unwashed masses actually being able to vote. 2) This was the first country that was defined not by ethnicity or geography but by the founding principle.

As various people said at the time, democracy has generally not been successful - at that time no democracy had ever survived more than about 200 years, as the two forces of people voting themselves largesse out of the public till, and the influential continually manipulating the system and the people to give themselves absolute power (sometimes using 'bread and circuses' - a term going back to Pericles, who caused the eventual destruction of Athens a few decades later) will eventually bankrupt the nation, which will then turn to military rule or defeat by a nearby enemy. From Greece and Rome to Argentina and Venezuela, we see this happen over and over again.

Comment Re:Problem with the definition of a planet (Score 1) 73

One complication - hydrostatic equilibrium also is somewhat dependent on local conditions, i.e. composition of the body. A hypothetical planet made entirely of Mercury, for instance, might be/have been in HE when only 5 feet in diameter (before it froze solid, or orbiting close enough to a heat source to remain liquid). That's of course an absurd extreme, so there's probably an example somewhere out there in the universe! :)

So IMHO, HE is a necessary criterion, but may not be sufficient. I read an article a few months ago that asserted another criterion to go with HE but I don't recall what it was. In any case, I generally agree with what you say, for what it's worth.

Comment Re:What about self discharge rate? (Score 1) 75

Flow batteries are already in use in many places, mostly in large scale installations, where it is desired to store 1/2 day's worth of energy at a utility plant. They have some differences/advantages compared to other batteries: 1) there are no issues with the battery 'wearing out' like any solid-based battery - the electrolyte fluid(s) is(are) pumped past the membrane, so there's no need for ions to migrate onto/off of a plate. It is possible for the membrane separating the two sides to get messed up but that can be relatively easy and cheap to replace; 2) because the total capacity of the battery is determined by the size of the tanks, and the current potential is determined by the size of the membrane, these two factors are now completely separated. You can customize your battery for the optimum combination of total capacity (Watt-hours) and power (Watts).

IIRC a San Diego professor has a flow battery that uses organic quinones for the electrolyte. Quinones are (relatively?) non-toxic organic molecules that are cheap and easy to produce. So IMHO this would be a better direction than Lithium.

CAVEAT: IANA battery guy, only an interested follower, so all of the above may only be relatively close to the facts. (I have a cruising sailboat, am interested in the future potential for using flow batteries in my boat. This would require about 5KWH capacity, and peak draw of about 1-2KW but the peak could be handled by some intermediating hardware.)

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