Yosemite Sam

When you grow up in a particular environment, you tend to think of it as the default, but it ain’t necessarily so. Once you realize it doesn’t have to be, you can end up wondering what really is normal – especially if its a topic that people don’t discuss all that much.

One of my boys [ Sam ] developed the ability to curse before he could talk. He sounded a lot like Yosemite Sam: “That dirty perka shorka bat-flattin’ portin’ filabunkabertin’, perkalooma burtin’ dirtin’ boostinattin’ bartin’ anatom, oooooooh!”. He did it when he was really mad. I have no idea who might have set him such a bad example.

Do other toddlers do this?

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The Coming Thing

In your opinion, what are the most interesting possibilities coming up in science and technology? With an emphasis on things that have practical value. Two categories: Biology and not-biology. Show your work. Be prepared to argue, as always.

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Halsey’s Typhoon

In December 1944, Task Force 38, under Admiral William Halsey, sailed straight into a typhoon in the Philippine Sea. 790 sailors were lost, and many other ships suffered serious damage.

Previously, on October 25, Halsey had been decoyed into chasing empty Japanese carriers while leaving the American invasion force largely unprotected, resulting in the Battle off Samar – the last major naval battle. Six American escort carriers, 3 destroyers, and 4 destroyer escorts faced 4 Japanese battleships (including the Yamato), 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 11 destroyers.
My uncle Frank was on the Raymond, one of those destroyer escorts. We won, no thanks to Halsey, but lost 1500 men.

In early June, 1945, Halsey sailed into a typhoon again. A number of ships suffered serious damage, but only six sailors were lost this time.

Halsey fucked up, repeatedly. It’s obvious even to fictional characters, like Marko Ramius in The Hunt For Red October. If not for pressure from the top, Halsey would have been relieved. But Nimitz had reasons for sparing him. Not ones I agree with, but reasons. Halsey was an important symbol of the Navy to the general public, and it was thought that letting it all hang out would hurt the Navy in the expected budgetary fights after the war. And to be fair, Halsey wasn’t a traitor or anything: he was just dumb. Or, as a kinder person than I once said, by 1944, the war had become too complicated for Halsey.

Christ, they gave Halsey five stars, more than Spruance.

Problem is, this seems to be standard policy. Once you soar above a certain level, you never get punished for fucking up. Mangle a major company (like HP) and they whip you with hundred dollar bills – your failure is the stepping stone to a Presidential campaign. Invade the wrong country, turn another into an anarchic sand pile, misread the Soviet Union as the coming thing – you have foreign policy ‘experience’. Reminds me of an 11 year old’s definition of experience – what you have after you’ve forgotten her name..

I’m not quite ready to say ‘off with their heads’ – but surely we could cut back on rewarding high-level failure.

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The Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo

All too often we see large, long-lasting research efforts that never produce, never achieve their goal.

For example, the amyloid hypothesis [accumulation of amyloid-beta oligomers is the cause of Alzheimers] has been dominant for more than 20 years, and has driven development of something like 15 drugs. None of them have worked. At the same time the well-known increased risk from APOe4 has been almost entirely ignored, even though it ought to be a clue to the cause.

In general, when a research effort has been spinning its wheels for a generation or more, shouldn’t we try something different? We could at least try putting a fraction of those research dollars into alternative approaches that have not yet failed repeatedly.

Mostly this applies to research efforts that at least wish they were science. ‘educational research’ is in a special class, and I hardly know what to recommend. Most of the remedial actions that occur to me violate one or more of the Geneva conventions.

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The Idea Factories

Bell Labs was a fount of important inventions, but it was not alone. Other industrial labs did too: IBM Watson, IBM Zurich, IBM Almaden, Xerox Palo Alto, Hughes Malibu ( with parquet flooring and a view of the Pacific, I might add), etc. All the way back to Menlo Park. But they’re largely gone.

We could resurrect the industrial labs. Should we?

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Tibetan mastiff


The Tibetan Mastiff can take high altitude better than generic dogs, or so breedists would like you to think. Some of the genetics changes are similar to those seen in human Tibetans – regulatory changes in EPAS1, for example. Domesticated dogs haven’t lived in Tibet all that long – but wolves have. The Tibetan Mastiff picked up some of those useful variants from local wolves, even though the amount of admixture wasn’t large. Adaptive introgression, just as Tibetans seem to have acquired their high-altitude version of EPAS1 from Denisovans.

Andean Indians didn’t have any archaic humans around to steal adaptations from. They have had to develop their own altitude adaptations (in a relatively short time), and they aren’t as effective as the Tibetan adaptations.

Naturally you are now worrying about sad Inca puppies – did they suffer from hypoxia? There are canids in South America, like the maned wolf and the bush dog, but they are probably too divergent to be able to hybridize with dogs. The chromosomes are different, so pre-Columbian dogs probably couldn’t acquire their alleles. Moreover, the dogs of the Amerindians seem to have done poorly in competition with Eurasian dogs: I know of only a few breeds [the Carolina Dog, for example] that are known to have significant pre-Columbian ancestry. Perhaps Amerindian dogs were also scythed down by Eurasian diseases.

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Science Policy

If my 23andme profile revealed that I was the last of the Plantagenets (as some suspect), and therefore rightfully King of the United States and Defender of Mexico, and I asked you for a general view of the right approach to science and technology – where the most promise is, what should be done, etc – what would you say?

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