Trump Had A Very Smart Uncle

A week or so ago, the Department of Defense, under Donald Trump’s acting Secretary, decided not to renew the contract for the Jasons.

The Jasons are about 40 scientists who can be tasked with various questions about science and national security. Recently, they’ve been asked how long the plutonium pits in nuclear weapons are likely to remain usable (answer: about a century). They were also asked, a while back about a hafnium bomb, which I still see, like Red Mercury, on the internets. (Answer: No, it wouldn’t work.)

The Jasons have security clearances, so they can be asked classified questions. The group has existed for almost sixty years.

The Department of Defense gave no reason for not renewing the contract, so I’ll take a guess. Donald Trump has a very good brain. His uncle was a professor in nuclear physics at MIT, and he had a very good brain. So we no longer need those university and national laboratory slackers when Trump is the only one who can solve the problems.

Here’s a nice summary, with all the relevant links, from the Washington Post.

And does anyone know if Trump’s uncle actually was an MIT professor? Tom?

Open thread.

Monday Morning Open Thread: Good Dog, Bad ‘Dogs’…

Vitisak Payalaw and his crew were working on an oil rig 135 miles off the southern coast of Thailand on Friday when they spotted something unexpectedly bobbing in the gentle waves.

It was a dog.

The animal was fighting his way through the moving water, heading for the oil rig. As he approached the structure, Payalaw, an offshore planner for Chevron Thailand Exploration and Production, held out a pole after the animal had splashed his way to the platform below the rig’s deck. As a video Payalaw posted to his Facebook account shows, the pup was soaked, shivering and too exhausted to whimper or bark…

Four members of the crew, including Payalaw, spent 15 minutes devising a way to pull the animal up to the rig, eventually slinging a looped rope around the dog’s neck and hoisting it to the deck. The pictures from the offshore planner’s Facebook account show the animal looking sapped after being taken aboard the rig.

According to NPR, the rig workers gave the dog water and pieces of meat. Then, they settled on a name: “Boonrod,” meaning “he has done good karma and that helps him to survive.”

“He looked extremely exhausted and ran out of energy. He didn’t move much,” Payalaw said to CNN. “He was shaking and he couldn’t stand, he had to sit all the time.”

How exactly a dog ended up paddling for his life in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand remains a mystery. According to the Bangkok Post, Boonrod may have jumped or fallen off another vessel in the water…

Payalaw told NPR he plans to adopt Boonrod if the dog is not claimed by an owner.

On the other hand… yeah, I also have the impression that these guys would be less like cybernetic St Bernards, and more like Repo Dogs…

The Blame Game

So, been a while…day job and family and existential dread. But I’m back…if only to point folks to a piece of mine up just now in The Boston Globe.  Despite the headline, I’m not writing about current tech, nor do I argue that China has already won that race.

Rather, what’s got me going is the longer game that we’re playing — and possibly losing — in basic, curiosity-driven science.  The TL:DR version of this is a quick recap of the 20th century story of the idea of government funded “useless” research that emerged in the US after scientists helped win the war with such science-derived developments as the atomic bomb, radar, and penicillin, to name the greatest hits.

I then point out that while US research funding hasn’t gone down much as a portion of GDP in recent years, others, especially China, have ramped up their investment, until now, when in absolute numbers they’re coming close to US spending, and by some measures are exceeding our effort.  Add to that the tax we place on ourselves by becoming daily less hospitable to immigrants, and there’s a clear danger, ISTM, that US will cease to be at the forefront of at least some big areas of basic science.

Does this matter? Well, there’s this:

Though Nobel prizes are an imperfect measure, with 269 science wins through 2018, US-based researchers have utterly outpaced the second-place nation, Britain, with its 89 Nobels.

More importantly, money spent on basic research produces more discoveries, enhancing a nation’s soft power. US astronauts on the moon may not have affected the price of eggs, but did establish America as the most technologically culture on the planet for the next few decades.

Unexpected technological advances have also flowed from seemingly impractical pursuits. For one classic example, the polymerase chain reaction, a Nobel-winning discovery in the 80s that enables the creation of an unlimited number of copies of a stretch of DNA, is one of the basic, essential tools of the modern bioengineering industry. The key to the process was found in the 1960s, by two microbe researchers taking samples in Yellowstone’s hot springs, just to find out how bacteria could survive in the heat. Transistors, invented in the 1950s, turn on quantum theory. GPS relies on Einstein’s general theory of relativity to make the corrections needed to locate your phone to the stretch of sidewalk you’re passing. Some studies suggest that the economic return on science spending may range up to $80 for each dollar invested.

As in: science is both a cultural good and, even if the path from question to invention isn’t always obvious, an impressive driver of human wealth and well being.

The obvious outrages of Trump and the GOP fuel my daily rage. But it’s their less visible, but constant and insidious neglect and ignorant disdain for learning and inquiry that both carries me to the edge of despair, and astonishment at the reckless abandonment of one of America’s critical sources of power.  It’s true that over the decades Democrats have mustered their own share disdain for taxpayer-funded science (anyone remember Proxmire), right now, we’re in an era in which Republicans have set the baseline…and it is, in its way, a surrender.

Fortunately, as I conclude in my piece, this is one folly that has an easy solution: more money.  Not even all that much.  It will still take time to make up ground abandoned in this know-nothing age, but it’s doable.  If and only if we win in 2020.

With that…open thread.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump1768.

Sci/Tech Open Thread: “Make Another Suit”

At the same time, in another sterling example of the GOP ‘Billions for bullshit, but not one cent for science’ offensive…

Serious explanation, from someone who’s not a moron:

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Late-Night Movies Open Thread: Scammers All the Way Down (The Theranos Grift)

I haven’t paid much attention to the Theranos scandal, because marketing a literal version of the classic Magical Money Box con to Silicon valley ‘edgelords’ hardly seemed innovative. Of course they knew it was almost certainly fraudulent, but like the medieval barons buying papal indulgences, just getting the offer was a mark of social status (to these marks.). And they figured they could always leverage it regardless, by selling the deed to a more gullible investor, or one looking to them for a favor.

(Besides, most ‘educated’ Americans know as much about medicine / medical technology as a feudal lord knew about actual Catholic theology. Throw your money in the offertory basket at Easter and Christmas, and be proud you can afford to pay for a private pew!)

Getting Henry Fekkin’ Kissinger hooked into her grift, though — that’s genuine craftsmanship. Like having the Papal nucio put his personal seal on those prettily-illuminated parchments…

A review, from Matt Zoller Seitz at

Theranos sounds like a creature of myth, and in the end, that’s what the company was. Appealing to the common fear of having blood drawn invasively in large amounts, Holmes spun an enticing pitch about building a compact, portable analysis machine named after Thomas Edison and able to perform 200 different kinds of tests quickly, using a pinprick’s worth of blood. Holmes styled herself as a Mozart-caliber wunderkind. She started her company when she was barely old enough to drink. Within a matter of years, it employed 800 people and was valued at $10 billion.

Unfortunately, Holmes’ machine couldn’t do what she promised. She wasn’t a scientist, and her own experts had warned her that it was physically impossible to build the device she’d envisioned. …
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