Henry’s Buffalo

Probably most of our readers don’t have personal experience with old-fashioned, Pleistocene-style big game hunting.  The only place in which it is still possible – not for much longer, at that – is Africa, where the big game had a chance to adapt as mankind gradually became formidable hunters and thus managed to survive until today. Without that experience, it’s hard to realize how remarkable Neanderthals were, how difficult hunting bison and elk with thrusting spears must have been.  It’s not easy to appreciate the risks stone-age hunters had to take when they went after mammoths, rhinos, or Cape buffalo: it’s not exactly safe today, even with modern weapons.  One of us, however (Henry Harpending) does have that experience, and the following note gives a flavor of what it’s like – particularly when you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re doing.

Encounter with a Buffalo

When I (HCH) was a graduate student in the 1960’s I spent a year and a half in the northern Kalahari desert doing fieldwork with !Kung Bushmen, foragers who lived by foraging wild foodstuffs and hunting game animals.  With several other graduate students we had a base camp near the border with Southwest Africa (now Namibia) about 100 miles south of the Caprivi Strip on the northern border of Botswana.  The nearest source of supplies was a two-day trip from their camp by four wheel drive truck.

Several weeks after the rainy season ended there were reports in the neighborhood of a cape buffalo that was harassing people and animals.  Often older males lose rank and leave herd to wander by themselves, angry and uncomfortable.  They are a threat to people and stock, especially horses. 

We were out of meat in our camp, and so with the confidence and foolishness of youth we decided to hunt down the buffalo.  We had visions of steaks and chops as well as many pounds of dried meat for travel rations and dog food.  At that time permits for Buffalo were only a few dollars from the Botswana game department, and we had several.  Although there were stories of Buffalo being aggressive and dangerous to hunt, to my eye they were simply large cattle. Bushmen never hunted them with their poison arrow and spear technology, but they too were naïve and had great faith in our high-powered rifle. 

One morning we set off to where the animal had last been reported.  The party was a colleague, several young Bushman males, and myself.  We soon picked up its tracks and for several hours followed its wanderings through the low thorny scrub.  To me the tracks looked exactly like those of a cow but the Bushmen never hesitated.  When it was apparent at one point that there were no tracks at all in view I asked, and the Bushmen told me that there was no point in following the tracks since they knew exactly where it was going.  We often saw this hunting with Bushmen­–they used actual tracks as a guide but knew the habits of animals so well that they often proceeded on their own to pick up actual tracks later on. 

This went on for hours until, suddenly, a young man grabbed my shoulder and said “there it is.”  I looked long and hard until I saw it, well camouflaged behind several yards of thick brush, sideways, staring hard at us with its bright pig eyes.  It was about forty yards away. 

As I brought the rifle up I was dismayed to realize that it still had a powerful telescopic sight.  I should have removed it and use open iron sights in thick bush but I had forgotten.  With the magnification of the scope I saw a black mass surrounded by brush.  It took a moment to locate the front legs, then the chest.  Oriented, I aimed and fired.  “Bang-whump”, the bang from the rifle and the whump as the bullet struck the buffalo.  He jerked a little, then simply stood there staring at me.  “Bang-whump, bang-whump” as I fired two more rounds.

Now he tossed his head and snorted, then started running toward us.  Buffalo charge with their nose high, only lowering their head to use their horns on contact.  I fired one more round at the charging animal, head on, simply pointing at him because he was so close, then turned and ran.  We discovered later that the bullet had struck his shoulder, ricocheted off his scapula, and exited through the skin on his side.  It certainly didn’t slow him down at all: I might as well have been shooting at a railroad locomotive.

There were three of us running away now from the charging animal: my colleague, our camp dog, and myself.  Perhaps fortunately for us the buffalo went after the dog, which handily outran it.  After its charge the buffalo wandered off several dozen yards and collapsed in a thicket. 

My colleague and I got together after the charge, brushed each other off, then noticed that none of the Bushmen with us was near.  We looked around and called but got no response.  Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a fellow about fifteen feet up a tree frantically signaling me to be quiet, then pointing at the (apparently) dead buffalo.  I laughed and told him to come down, the animal was dead, it was getting dark and we needed to get started butchering it.  He shook his head, silent, and frantically waved us back in the direction opposite the carcass.  All the Bushmen were up in trees, all waving at us to get away, no one making any noise.

My rifle was empty, slung over my shoulder, as I honed a belt knife for the job ahead.  I urged everyone to get out of the trees and get to work but everyone refused.  I said “all right, we will just make sure”, then loaded my rifle and sat in a stable shooting position.  The buffalo’s carcass was about forty yards away with its back to us.  I took careful aim at the center of the neck, exhaled, and fired.  “Bang-thump”.

Immediately the “dead” buffalo got to its feet, glared at us, and walked away.  I told my Bushman friends that I was sorry that I had mocked them and that I was grateful they had not let me start to skin a live buffalo.  They looked at me in disgust and told me that they understood that Europeans were very bright about certain things but that they could see that we could also be capable of heroic stupidity.

Evening was close by this time, and we had a mile or so walk to our truck, so we left off the chase and returned to our camp for the night.  Fortunately the area where our encounter had occurred was far away from any settlement or any route between settlements so we were not concerned about the animal assaulting any humans that night.

We didn’t sleep very well that night.  We were up late around the fire as all the participants took turns telling the story of the day.  Of course everyone told the same story, since there was only one, but somehow we were all attentive to each new version.

The next morning we were up very early.  Some trace of sanity came to us as we decided to drive down to the local headman’s hamlet and borrow his dog, renowned for his hunting and tracking abilities.  We also wanted to borrow another rifle from him, a Martini-Henry rolling block antique left over from the Boer war.  When we arrived he came out and gave us a warm welcome and a windy speech congratulating us for doing something for the community, ridding it of the dangerous buffalo.

Several months before I was sitting in camp reading a science fiction novel on a Sunday afternoon when a large group of armed men on horseback came storming into our camp in a scene straight out of a 1950’s western movie.  They had one saddled horse with no rider which, it turned out, was to be mine.  There was a lion or lions in the area that had been killing cattle, it was time to go out and hunt them down, and they were sure I would want to participate.

These were Herero, the local Bantu-speaking tribe.  They are pastoralists living off herds of cattle, sheep, and goats.  Lions are a major threat to their herds, and these group hunts are in part simply farmers protecting their stock but they are also macho male rituals demonstrating bravery.  I pointed out that I had never been on a horse in my life and that I was as scared of horses as I was of lions.  Galloping around in a mass of heavily armed men waving a high powered rifle in one hand was not my idea of how to learn to ride a horse, I said.  I also cheerfully admitted to my cowardice.

I was hardly reassured when my Herero interpreter explained that it was great fun, not really very dangerous, and that it was the duty of all men.  As he said this he gestured with a hand missing three fingers that had been bitten off by a lion in the course of one of the hunts years before.  They were all polite and cheerful and did their best to hide their disgust with me.

The headman made reference to this incident in his speech that morning. He said he was delighted to see that I was finally overcoming my unmanly cowardice.  He would be happy for us to use his dog, his rifle, and he also sent one of his sons to help out.  We then drove to the place where the charge that ended the hunt the day before had happened, looked around for the tracks of the departed buffalo, and set off to hunt it down.

We followed it for hours through nasty low thorn brush.  We saw where it had circled onto high ground and watched our approach.  Everyone was on high alert, men at the rear of our party constantly looking backward, expecting an ambush at any time.  My colleague and I had started the day thinking that we each were some combination of John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway but after hours of high tension slogging through Kalahari sand we were hot, thirsty, tired, and feeling quite burned out.

Suddenly, in early afternoon, we heard the dogs baying, then loud snorting and crashing noises about fifty yards in front of us.  The dogs had come upon the wounded buffalo.  My colleague and I turned, looked at each other, and without a word being spoken simultaneously dropped our guns on the ground and frantically scrambled up the nearest tree.  We were no more than five or six feet off the ground, but all the trees here were small and covered with thorns as our cut up hands and legs showed.  Wayne and Hemingway indeed!

Soon several Bushmen came strolling up to our tree chatting casually even while the awful chorus of snarls, barks, and snorts was going on nearby.  They saw us, stopped, looked at us, looked at our guns in the dirt, and burst out laughing. One said “would you please come down, clean up your guns, and shoot the buffalo?” 

Our shame at this point overcame our abject terror.  We climbed down, cleaned our guns, and moved up to try to get a (safe) shot at the buffalo.  It was in thick cover and we were very reluctant to plunge in after it.  Finally my colleague realized that there was a large Cape Fig tree that he could climb.  He could shoot from a high vantage point and we would not need to go into the thick stuff.  He climbed the tree, found a comfortable position on a limb, took careful aim, and shot.

Unfortunately there was a sapling in the path of the bullet.  The round ricocheted off the sapling and eviscerated the headman’s dog.  Meanwhile my colleague was clinging to his branch with the rifle swinging by it sling and hitting him in the leg.  He had forgotten about the effect of the recoil on him and his springy branch.  He then got back into position, shot several times, and the buffalo dropped.

This time our approach to the body was not as cavalier as it had been the day before.  We spend many minutes hitting it with thrown sticks and rocks to assure ourselves that it really was dead.

Several of us walked back to fetch the truck while the rest of us worked for hours skinning and dismembering the animal.  It took four of us to life a hindquarter into our truck.  We ever took the head back to be given to old people who would cook it and patiently get as much meat off it as could be gotten.

Finally we had some meat in camp.  Unfortunately it turned out to be completely inedible.  There was hardly a trace of fat anywhere in the animal, and like everyone in the Kalahari we craved and dreamed about fat.  We boiled the tongue all the next afternoon, hours and hours, and at the end we could hardly cut it with a knife.


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What Feynman says in this video is false.

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Scientists Against Time

Back in WWII, air defense was difficult. You were shooting at high altitude, fast-moving targets. Missing was the most natural thing in the world. One out of thousands of anti-aircraft shells hit. So, there was a need for better methods.

The solution was the proximity shell – a shell with a tiny radar inside that would make the shell explode when it got _close_ to a target. This was technically challenging: it’s not easy to cram a radar into an artillery shell, not easy to build one that still works after experiencing accelerations of thousands of gravities. Moreover, people needed an answer _soon_.

The British had made some progress, but lacked sufficient resources. The US picked up the project, starting a lab that eventually became APL (Applied Physics Lab, associated with Johns Hopkins, which still exists today) . Its leader was Merle Tuve, who understood what the wartime priorities were:

” I don’t want any damn fool in this laboratory to save money. I only want him to save time.”

The New York Times, written & edited by orcs, for orcs, is criticizing Emergent Biosolutions for screwing up covid vaccine production – and those criticisms may well be valid. But they are also criticizing the original decision to throw money at Emergent Biosolutions for vaccine production – and I doubt if that is valid. The right thing to do, which by some odd chance we actually did, was ( besides getting rid of procedural obstacles) to try several vaccine approaches, several manufacturers, and use whatever was shown to work and could be produced rapidly. We didn’t know which companies would succeed ( Merck didn’t), so a shotgun approach was the logical way forwards.

The cost of the whole vaccine effort was nothing compared to the other costs of covid, while an effective vaccine was by far the most likely way of getting us out of this crappy situation.

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The Silly Season

Inside a Battle Over Race, Class and Power at Smith College

In midsummer of 2018, Oumou Kanoute, a Black student at Smith College, recounted a distressing American tale:
She was eating lunch in a dorm lounge when a janitor and a campus police officer walked over and asked her what she was doing there.

The officer, who could have been carrying a “lethal weapon,” left her near “meltdown,” Ms. Kanoute wrote on Facebook, saying that this encounter continued a yearlong pattern of harassment at Smith.

Ms. Kanoute was determined to have eaten in a deserted dorm that had been closed for the summer; the janitor had been encouraged to notify security if he saw unauthorized people there. The officer, like all campus police, was unarmed. ”

Here, in what is likely the sign of some internal power struggle, the NYTimes is actually dissing some young moron who thinks that all the janitors of the world are out to get her, rather than honoring her lived experience

But there is a deeper significance: this must be the most boring story ever told. When I was bitten by a spider in my back yard and alternated between agony and a strange crisp energy, that was more interesting. When ants came over the wall from next door (where the lady lived who once worked on the Manhattan Project) and kidnapped our ants, that was more interesting.  When my youngest boy tried to crawl through the fence to the condo behind us and got his punkin head stuck, _that_ was more interesting.

When my Dad’s sister won the golf tournament at the country club but was denied the prize because she wasn’t a guy,  followed by my uncle Dean’s protest (crapping in every hole in the golf course just before he went off to the Army)  – that too was more interesting.

I would imagine that many of my readers have had experiences  ( possibly in the last half hour) even more worthy of coverage in the Paper of Record than Ms. Kanoute’s.








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Black Doctors, Black Babies

There’s a paper out claiming that black infant infant mortality is much higher when they’re treated by white doctors, rather than black doctors.

Could it be that MCAT scores have negative predictive value?

No, there’s a simpler explanation: the report is nonsense.  A metaphorical cee-gar to the first person to explain why.

And the next question is: why do the pinheads that authored this paper have jobs?

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A Random Walk on Scientists

A number of  epidemiologists and virologists  did not expect to see significant adaptive evolution for increased transmission in covid-19, and continue to argue against that hypothesis.  Vincent Racaniello, well-known virologist, takes this position.  So does  David Dowd, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.

They think that chance can drive a new variant with no transmission advantage to high frequency, even when there are many cases ( tens of thousands or more) .  The B.1.1.7 variant went from ~1% to a big majority of cases in England.

I’ve just run some sims ( with the sort of transmission dispersion observed in cov-19).  R (fitness)  = 1, in both cases.  I propagate 100 times in each run. Variant A starts out with 5,000 cases, B with 2000.  How often did B catch up with A? 6 out of 100 runs.

How often did B catch up with A when A started out with 50,000 cases and B with 20,000 cases? zero, out of 100 runs.

Start out with 2000 B and 50,000 A, same fitness: how often did B catch up? zero out of 100 runs.

Start out with 2000 B ( with a fitness of 1.05) and 50,000 A with a fitness of 1: How often did B catch up? 100 out of 100 runs.


The top curve shows the relative frequency of B.1.1.7 as a function of time in Denmark.  Dowd can look at that and believe it is a random fluctuation. Wow.



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Lloyd Fredendall

Lloyd Fredendall was a general in the American Army in WWII, serving in North Africa.

He is known primarily for being a fuck-up. His early career may have been a sign: he dropped out of West Point twice.

He commanded II Corps in its advance into Tunisia, so his relative competence mattered.

He had a weird habit of talking in his own private slang. He called infantry units “walking boys” and  artillery “popguns.” Instead of using the standard military map grid-based location designators, he made up confusing codes such as “the place that begins with C.”  His subordinates had trouble understanding what the hell he was talking about.

He spent lots of effort building an underground fortress ( his headquarters) 70 miles behind the front lines  and spent most of  his time inside it, rather than visiting the front lines and talking with his commanders.

Tactically, also a mess: he split up units and scattered them widely. Which turned out poorly (Kasserine Pass).

After Kasserine Pass, Ike fired him. But how did Fredendall get anywhere in the first place, and why did removing him take so long?

Well, the most talented people didn’t much go into the American armed forces in those days, least of all the Army.  The Army wasn’t prestigious, wasn’t well-funded, wasn’t very meritocratic.  Promotion was slow, pay was lousy. The  US Army was about the size of the German Army while it was still obeying the Treaty of Versailles – but the Black  Reichswehr was an elite, taking only the best, secretly preparing for der Tag. Every sergeant was ready to be a captain.  The US Army was not like that.

The Army leadership all knew each other.  Most were West Pointers.  It was fairly easy-going.

Put to the test in WWII, we found out that our generals often weren’t very good. Ike himself had to learn an important lesson: how to fire people, including old friends. After a while American leadership became fairly good at that, for example when Nimitz fired Ghormley.

The Soviets already knew how to fire people ( sometimes with extreme prejudice) but Stalin learned to judge by performance and fire people intelligently: promote the winners, fire ( and sometimes execute) the losers. Act as if winning is the most important thing.

Generally, the governing classes in the US, for the last generation or two, has not acted as if they think that winning, actually achieving your goal,  is very important. Promotion follows failure: indeed, being right when almost everyone else is wrong just shows how undesirable you are.  Iraq is a good example.

Covid-19 is another example. The professionals weren’t very good, aren’t very good. They didn’t know a lot of important, knowable things. Probably the most talented people were going into something other than epidemiology or virology.

We don’t have to make them unpersons, don’t have to send them to Kolyma. We don’t have to pull out their teeth and fingernails.  There’s no reason to put on a black leather jacket and shoot them in the back of the head. That would be wrong.

But we can fire them.  And we should.

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Let me count the ways

As many virologists have stated, their expectation was that the evolution of noticeably higher-transmission variants of Cov-19 was quite unlikely.

There is solid evidence that this has now happened at least three times (D614G, A222V, and B.1.1.7)  with at least two others likely ( in South Africa and Brazil).

They failed in an important aspect of their job.







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Once upon a time, I was talking to a young engineer about some new wrinkle in solar concentrators.  He was enthusiastic: he thought that with a little effort, you could focus sunlight enough to generate a temperature higher than that of the Sun itself.

I said ” Nope. ”

Theory is your friend. Correct theory, that is.

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New Guy in Town

These graphs show the results of evolutionary experiments by Richard Lenski, in which a bacterial species ( e coli) has been evolving under constant conditions for many years: tens of thousands of generations.

These bacteria were not perfectly adapted to the experimental environment, and so there is selection for changes that allow them to do better in these conditions. Adaptive change is rapid at first and slows down with time, as the culture approaches an optimum phenotype. Fitness increases rather like the logarithm of time.

The probability of a beneficial mutation fixing is proportional to the advantage it confers. Large-effect beneficial mutations are more likely to fix and dominate the early phase. As the bacteria get closer to an optimum, the possible gain from a beneficial mutation is smaller, and so those smaller-effect beneficial mutations ( the only ones possible) are less likely to fix. Thus they take longer to fix (on average they need to occur many times before succeeding) and they also fix more slowly, since their growth advantage is small.

relevance: a new virus in humans is like the situation near the origin of graph B.  The virus is not yet close to an optimum, so change is fairly rapid – particularly if the virus is infecting vast numbers of people ( like covid-19) which greatly increases the number of copies of the virus and thus the chance of favorable mutations ( Fisherian acceleration). Favorable to the virus, that is.

An old virus in humans, say measles ( > 1000 years old)  is closer to an optimum: change is much slower.

It seems that most professional virologists are used to viruses that have been around for quite a while – understandable, since new viruses do not sweep through the human race every year.

You could have predicted the emergence of new higher-transmission variants of covid-19 from this theoretical perspective. I did, arguablywrong did, probably others have as well. But virologists did not.





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