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Comment Re:Billions of people? (Score 1) 202

The s indicates plural, that means more than one billion ... actually minimum two.

Who on earth is so stupid to believe that "a billion" people live in "deserts"?

Hmmm. I live in a desert in the SW US, the Sonoran desert. I share this land with about 8M of my fellow humans. It is probably the wettest desert on the planet, but it is still, by definition, a desert, with most areas receiving only about 150mm/yr in its bimodal precipitation regime. It is also the smallest desert biome on the planet, covering only about 260,000 square km.

The generally accepted definition of a desert is less than 250mm of annual precipitation. The UN breaks this down into desert, arid, grassland, and rangeland, and it covers a whopping 61M square km, or 41 percent of the land surface of the planet. According to the same UN report, 35 percent of the planet's population live in areas that meet this definition, which gets us to 2.6 billion people. There's your billions, with an "s," if you are one of those people on earth "stupid" enough to actually do a little research.

Comment Re:Kinda defeats the purpose (Score 2, Insightful) 152

Defeats the purpose of a F-35 doesn't it? Let's build a super stealthy aircraft and then have multiple none stealthy aircraft going into battle with it. Basically the F-16s will be saying, "There is an F-35 in the neighborhood, look harder and you will find it.

You have a point...almost. The *exact* same argument was used way back in the Dark Ages (1970-1990) when the US DoD was struggling to find a way, any way, to counter the increasing numerical gap and decreasing technological gap between US forces and Soviet forces. One just had to look at a sitrep from the Fulda Gap in southern Germany -- Warsaw Pact had 270 Soviet tank divisions and 4500 aircraft vs NATO's meager 115 divisions and 1500 aircraft -- to see that the balance of military power was tilted very heavily in the USSR's favor. The Sovs could suffer nearly 3:1 losses and still win the day.

The were two ways that the US decided to address the imbalance. The first and most (in)famous was the development and deployment of tactical nukes into Germany. Truly not a good idea. Once it leaked to the press that the Americans had decided that nuking Germany was ok to stop the Russians, PR was so bad that they had to be withdrawn, with a serious loss of face for the Americans.

The second was the development of "force multipliers." The deployment of multi-role combat aircraft like the F-16 in the 70s and F-18 in the 80s that could engage targets in the air or on the ground was one way of addressing Russia's 3:1 advantage.

Another force multiplayer (and the reason why you are not quite right) was the development and deployment of airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) that could detect and direct NATO's numerically inferior assets to converge on incoming Soviet assets. NATO didn't have to have numerical parity if it could determine where the axis of attack was and direct resources to meet it. This (it turned out) was a huge win for NATO. The Westinghouse radar on the E-3A AWACS could see for a radius of 600 miles and could easily discriminate between ground and air targets. But the take away here is that its range meant it could sit well behind the forward edge of battle, effectively immune from counter attack.

Yes, as you point out, and as AWACS detractors forty years ago pointed out, the enemy knows it's there. But knowing it's there and being able to do something about it are two different things. Seriously -- a stealthy F-35 is not going to be your priority target when it is the easier-to-see and (probably) easier-to-kill F-16 that is raining hell on your infrastructure.

Comment This is the "hand off problem"... (Score 1) 42

...and it is, according to nearly every engineer in the autonomous vehicle business, including the head of Google's autonomous vehicle project, unsolvable. It is at the core of the current regulatory conflict between legislators, who want to keep a human in the loop, and most autonomous vehicle makers, who want humans out of the loop because of the unsolvability of the hand-off problem. Google has already stated they will not produce their autonomous vehicles until the government agrees to remove the human-in-the-loop requirement for operating autonomous vehicles on public roads.

The major exception to this received wisdom is Elon Musk at Tesla Motors, who pretty much believes that no problem is unsolvable. Yay for him; we need incurable optimists. If we are ever going to think our way out of the crap-sack world we are currently headed for, it will be because of technological optimists like Musk.

I realize that betting against Elon Musk is probably not a good strategy, but I do think the hand-off problem is not solvable, for any value of "solved" you care to assert. Human task switching is not fast enough at pedestrian velocities, let alone autobahn velocities. Dragging a human from their porn/spreadsheet/email/phonecall/whatever and expecting him/her to correctly grok a traffic problem in a fraction of a second is not realistic.

Or even several fractions of a second, if IBM's cognitive modelling of human drivers, which is what this expert system is actually doing, successfully expands the window for a driver to react. I am not sure that replacing a human with a robot that is programmed to learn to drive like a human is a win, but we'll have to see what happens. If we don't have a spike in traffic fatalities in BMWs (IBM will be rolling this package out in BMW models first, because they have already announced they are giving Watson to BMW) I will happily revise my estimation of the hand-off problem's solvability. :)

Comment Re:The actual real problem with Mars... (Score 1) 103

Good points, but I encourage you to take a slightly broader view. As you correctly imply, conflict is the engine that drives innovation; every technological advance our species has achieved can be traced to the need to acquire more resources and defend existing resources against competing cultures. But you are underestimating our ability to create conflict! Space means more opportunities for conflict, not less. As soon as Musk demonstrates the economic feasibility of exploiting off-planet resources (the X in SpaceX is really "eXploitation, not eXploration!) the acquire/defend paradigm will take hold. No culture is immune to this paradigm shift; cultures that fail to adapt to shifts in resources don't get to write history, they become history. The first time somebody claimjumps an asteroid full of diamonds/gold/unobtainium, depriving a government here on Earth of tax revenues, said government will invest heavily in finding ways to defend that claim. The first permanent human-habitable structure on Mars/Moon/Titan may be the 21st century equivalent of a log cabin, but I guarantee the second will be a military base.

Comment Check the stats, first, please... (Score 2) 500

In 2012, 75% of the 2 million farms in the US produced a paltry three percent of total revenue. In fact, their average annual income was less than $40k per farm, and most of that was from "non-farm" income, like subsidies, retirement income, etc. The dismal data is here.

John Deere couldn't care less about those farmers -- the money obviously lies elsewhere. And exactly where is that? In the three percent of farms (classed "large" or "very large" by the US Dept of Agriculture) that accounted for a whopping 52 percent of all production and 66.4% of agricultural revenue in the US.

So -- John Deere isn't going to worry about a bunch of hayseeds hacking their tractors -- they are not a significant revenue source now, and based on concentration trends in the US agriculture market, they are going to disappear entirely.

Marx was right about one thing -- owning the means of production (he called it "tools"; we call it hardware, now) is the key to capitalist success, and in a largely mechanized and automated industry like agriculture, that means owning the software, and through it, the hardware. John Deere has apparently grokked it rightly, as well.

Comment Re:It sounds like a death trap (Score 1) 238

After a certain height, the hanging weight of the water at the bottom causes the pressure at the top of the water column to drop below the vapor point, and all you get is near-vacuum water vapor going into the pump.

bottom? top? uh, what water column are you referring to? The water is being introduced from the pond/lake/ocean into a submerged, evacuated sphere. The water immediately outside the sphere doesn't change pressure much; the delta between the upper and lower hemispheres is in the weeds. The water simply blows through a turbine and generates electricity until the water pressure inside the sphere matches the water pressure outside the sphere. Did you even read the article?

Comment map != territory (Score 1) 169

That these researchers were able to obtain *any* information about the underlying hardware is remarkable. Models can never be completely right; the map will never, ever be the territory. Empirical adequacy is the best we can hope for. Looking at failure states to infer causal connections is exactly what I did as a sysadmin back in the day. These researchers are doing the same thing. It worked for me as a sysadmin, and it works in neuroscience as well, though with one caveat. Ethically, you can't just switch off a patient's cognitive apparatus at will and see how the patient responds; you have to wait until an automobile or industrial accident, combat wound, or disease does it for you. The map you get won't be perfect, but that doesn't invalidate the methodology. In this particular case, the researchers couldn't completely identify the target, but they did get at least one key subsystem, the clock, right. That is way cool...

Comment Here's hoping... (Score 2) 227

...they grok it rightly. SyFy can do justice to classic SF, if their Dune miniseries, which was surprisingly good, is any indicator. I remember reading twenty years ago, in alt.fan.heinlein, may it rest in peace along with the rest of USENET, that Tom Hanks had acquired the rights to both SiaSL and TMiaHM. Several current and future members of the board of the Heinlein Foundation were regulars in the group, along with Heinlein's wife Virginia, Heinlein's biographer Bill Patterson, and Heinlein's chief fan and fellow SF author Spider Robinson, who all independently confirmed the transfer of rights. The rumors never reached the level of casting a movie, though one thread was devoted to endless speculation about potential actors and actresses. I hope like hell SyFy repeats Dune's success with SiaSL; I think their decision with Dune to go with unknowns in the major roles (less money for acting => more money for writing, directing, costumes and scenery) was spot on and I hope they follow a similar decision process with SiaSL.

Comment Re:They tell you upfront it isn't going to be good (Score 1) 191

In Star Trek: Voyager, the character striving for humanity was the Doctor. Also Seven of Nine, but the Doctor was definitely the outsider. By the time the show Voyager came around, half-Klingon wasn't really news and simply made portraying the internal struggles of the character B'elanna easier (since everybody has internal struggles) when it came up. It wasn't a huge deal that she was half-anything. The Doctor's programming to resemble a human and act similar to a human, as well as Seven of Nine's Borgness led to each character's struggle to be more human.

When looking for a Spock analog in ST:V, I struggled a bit between B'Ellana, Seven-of-Nine, and the EMH, but settled on B'Ellana. Yes, the EMH was trying to understand human behavior, but Data already covered that; Pinocchio is still Pinocchio even if you are just a hologram, so I felt that the EMH would have been a bit redundant for the purposes of my argument. I needed somebody different. The issue with Seven-of-Nine was a bit more subtle. She didn't have to struggle to become human, because she was born human. Her conflict was not about becoming human, but more about recovering what she lost to the Borg. Admittedly, B'Ellana's conflict was often given in terms of losing that Klingon temper of hers, and little more, but her internal conflict was much more like Spock's struggle with his Vulcan-suppressed human half than Seven-of-Nine's allegorical rejection of her Borg implants.

Comment Good Scientist+Good Attitude != Good Bureaucrat (Score 1) 98

I like his humble, collaborative attitude, befitting a true scientist. I expect that, in practice getting there in a repeatable way will be the result of various international cooperations where different organisations will bring their own skills. Empahy and dialogue can only accelerate the process.

He is no longer a scientist. He is a bureaucrat, now, so he is faced with problems where the scientific method and its associated toolbox are sub-optimal, as are his attitude of cooperation and collaboration. They are still useful, to be sure, but he will get more use out of a couple chapters of Machiavelli's The Prince than Newton's entire Principia.

The NASA director's primary challenge is to find compromises acceptable to groups of people who have divergent goals. Congress, DoD, private industry, various scientific orgs -- all of these have claims on, and thus have influence over, NASA's ability to function. Unfortunately for the director, their goals are not the same and are often opposed.

For example, the chair of the House sub-committee that controls NASA's budget, Representative Lamar Smith (R, Texas) denies the existence of AGW and has threatened to withhold funding from NASA if NASA continues to support projects that investigate it. Smith has already dismissed science-based reports on AGW as "biased" and has set up a committee funded by and staffed by the petroleum industry to "review" all AGW data before it is presented to Congress. In a bucket, if the man controlling your funding denies the very existence of what you are trying to investigate, then no amount of cooperation and collaboration on your part is going to produce anything but incredulity and anger on his part, so your funding will evaporate.

This is just one sample of some of the problems NASA's director faces. There are others, similar in scope and nature, including the conflict among scientists and engineers over manned vs unmanned exploration, and the re-emerging conflict over extraplanetary colonization now that Elon Musk has decided to colonize Mars. None of these problems are unsolvable, but they may not be amenable to collaboration or compromise, or yield to the scientific method. They may require a different set of tools and a different mind set, ones more often to be found in career civil servants, IMHO, than in scientists or engineers. It will be interesting to see whom he appoints to various roles in his administration; I'd wager it will be people more familiar with Machiavelli than with Newton... :)

Comment Re:They tell you upfront it isn't going to be good (Score 2, Interesting) 191

What made Star Trek great was that these things were exactly treated as non-issues. Like, say, in the future, we consider it ridiculous that we even have to mention that women can command ships or that black people hold power on stations. Even TOS had an alien as the second in command (and admittedly, it was made a theme far more often than necessary).

Well said. Roddenberry's optimistic view of the future is the reason most often cited when people talk about the appeal of ST:TOS.

Trek, in its original run, was adept at tipping the sacred cows of gender, ethnic, and political identity (Uhura, Sulu/Uhura, and Chekov, respectively).

But I think you missed one sacred cow by dismissing the role Spock played in Roddenberry's attack on societal mores. Roddenberry wanted to skewer religious sensibilities as well cultural ones, so he gave one character green skin and pointed ears to make him look like a demon, and would have given him wings and a tail if it had been in the costume budget. Having a demon as a sympathetic character striving to be more human (a trope, btw, that has firmly embedded itself in the Trek franchise a la Data, Odo, and B'Ellana) Roddenberry was taking aim at the religiosity that was (and still is) a core American demographic.

The racism and religiosity that Roddenberry baited in TOS fifty years ago is still a legitimate target in the US, so it will be interesting to see which sacred cows Discovery is going to try to tip, if it remains true to its roots.

Comment Nice analysis, but... (Score 1) 219

I don't think copyright is totally bad. For example, I recently published my first novel. Without copyright law, someone else could grab my novel and start printing/selling their own copies of it. I'd wind up competing with my own novel. Then there are issues of film studios being able to take anyone's work and make movies based off of it without compensating the author at all. I'd have to spend a lot of time and money filing lawsuits to make them stop and, without copyright law, I might not be successful.

The big problem with copyright law isn't its existence. It's the length. Copyright was originally 14 years plus a one-time 14 year extension. This isn't so bad. The novel I just published would have until 2044 (assuming I renewed the copyright) to make me money. Then, the book transfers to the public domain for others to build on it. Very few works still make money after 28 years - and I'd wager most of the ones that still do (like Star Wars) partly keep making money because of new material being added.

However, over the years, copyright terms lengthened until now it's 70 years after the author's death. If I die at age 90, my novel will be protected by copyright until 2135. At that point, my youngest son (now 9) would be 128 - and likely deceased. If my youngest son had a child at 30, his child would be 98 when my copyright ran out. I don't need copyrights on my works lasting until my great-great-great grandchildren are born. That's not giving me incentive to create new works. 14 years + 14 years would be plenty.

If copyright law was reset back to 14 years plus an optional one-time 14 year extension, a lot of the problems with copyright would go away.

Nice analysis, but...

Corporations are effectively immortal, and are being imbued with the legal rights once reserved for humans. Well, at least in the US anyway, thanks to recent court cases like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. Not sure about the rest of the planet, but I'm certain the success of American corporations in getting legislation passed to favor their interests (or prevent legislation inimical to their interests, see below) is not lost upon the business communities in Europe and Asia.

As it stands, copyright law was written long before the rise of corporations and their political influence. It was created in an environment where people had a very finite window to create and profit from a work, as your cogent analysis makes clear. If a corporation is effectively immortal, though, then this underlying assumption about finite windows is no longer valid. Existing copyright law would need to change to reflect the fact that corporate copyright holders are not constrained by the same finite windows that humans are. Lo and behold, that is exactly what is happening, via laws enacted to extend the length of time the copyright can be invoked.

You make very valid points about the copyright period, but your solution doesn't take into account the needs of corporations, who have a vested interest diametrically opposed to your solution. Any attempt to roll back the current time limits on copyright would be resisted by corporate copyright holders who would stand to lose hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars of potential profit. Corporate copyright holders would act to preserve the status quo, and would prevent any such legislation from ever seeing the light of day. Again, I can't speak for Europe and Asia, but it is certainly clear that the interests of corporate copyright holders in America are already well-represented in Congress -- that kind of legislation wouldn't even get out of committee, let alone make it to the floor for a vote.

Submission + - SPAM: iRobot plans hunter-killer version of Roomba

rocket rancher writes: Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, the developer of the Roomba domestic robot, announced late last month that his company will develop a hunter-killer drone for RISE (Robots in Service to the Environment) to combat the human-caused invasion of lionfish along the south-eastern US seaboard, which, according to the NOAA, pose a serious threat to reef environments.

The PBS article that I cited above caught my eye because I may have helped contribute to the start of this problem when I was stationed on Okinawa back in the mid-Eighties. I helped a friend and fellow diver with an import license collect these lethal little beauties for sale to tropical fish dealers in the US. We would hunt them at night by herding them, one at a time, into a mesh specimen bag and then transferring them to a larger holding bag, being extremely careful to avoid their neurotoxin-equipped spines. They are very exotic looking, thanks to their defensive spines and external gill clouds, so there was a steady demand for them by stateside aquariums and exotic fish collectors. We could make a hundred dollars capturing a couple dozen of them over the course of a few nights every couple of weeks, which nicely supplemented our paychecks.

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In less than a century, computers will be making substantial progress on ... the overriding problem of war and peace. -- James Slagle