Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

[Adapted and updated from a post I wrote about this five years ago.]

Whenever I write about climate change, I always feel obligated to mention that I’m not a climate scientist, and thus my opinion doesn’t count for much.

But then, climate scientists are automatically dismissed by surprisingly large segments of the population as part of a massive liberal conspiracy. This has the effect of making scientists’ opinions not count for much, either.

So, I like to take a different approach–forget using data or climate models, and use common sense instead.

The world’s human population is around 7.5 billion–meaning there are more humans on the planet then ever before. The planet has not grown to accommodate them.

Now, the typical human body temperature is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That means the planet now has more 98.6 degree furnaces on it than ever before. If you add furnaces to a room, does the room become hotter?

Obviously, it’s a big planet. It can take quite a bit, so maybe this isn’t going to have major repercussions. Maybe it doesn’t even register. Or maybe it will eventually destroy the world. Beats me. I don’t know the first thing about biology, chemistry or physics. But still, I assume it has some effect. It would be kind of weird if it didn’t, right?

When you add in the fact that humans have started engaging in activities over the last century that had never occurred previously in the history of the planet, you again have to suspect that this has some effect on the atmosphere. Again, if it’s not, that would be kind of bizarre.

For this reason, I’ve always thought the burden of proof is on those who claim it has no effect.

I keep seeing these news stories about how various demographics voted; the surprisingly high number of Latinos voting for Trump, the number of millennials who voted for Clinton, etc.

Why do the pollsters and journalists seem so confident of these numbers? It’s a secret ballot.

Yes, I know they do exit polls.  But after the entrance polls were shown to be wildly inaccurate, why are the journalists assuming that the exit polls are accurate?

As an old science teacher of mine told me once when I was conducting a survey for a class project: “the problem with surveys is that people lie their butts off”.

(I wish I could talk to him right now–he was a blunt, gruff, brilliant man.  I bet he’d have some interesting things to say about this election. But I digress.)

Moreover, people who do exit polls obviously don’t talk to everyone who votes. I know this because I voted, and there was no one standing there to ask me how I voted afterward. (For whatever it’s worth, I voted in a very pro-Trump area. It seems quite probable to me there were fewer exit polls conducted in such areas.)

Now, I know all about “representative samples” and so on. I aced Introductory Stats in college, so I’m familiar with the subject. And I don’t see any reason why, when the experts got things so disastrously wrong beforehand, I should be expected to believe they are not still getting them disastrously wrong now.

Longtime readers know that I really admire actress and director Natalie Portman. One reason is that she is a committed non-meat-eater, as am I. So when she wrote that Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals turned her from being vegetarian to “a vegan activist”, I had to read it.

First of all, the book made me very glad to be vegetarian. The conditions Foer describes at slaughterhouses are appalling. He documents it thoroughly, and it is tough to read even if you have never eaten meat. It is probably worse if you have. It was more viscerally disturbing than Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and that book was famously effective in introducing reforms in the meat industry. (Of course, it was a fictionalization.)

The section on the breeding of meat animals was especially good. I first became aware of this practice when I was a kid and my parents bought pet chickens. We would let them roam around our big country yard and collect the eggs when possible. Flocks of chickens are really fun to watch. They move almost as a unit, and if one gets distracted and breaks off from the group, she will panic and run back. They are funny.

Anyway, our chickens all started as normal chicks, but some grew up to be so large they couldn’t even move. These were the “meat chickens”, bred to grow big quickly and be killed. We had no idea of this when we got them, of course. My parents did their best, but these birds were sickly and died well before the rest. So, I can vouch for Foer’s point that it’s not enough to have “free range” animals, if those animals are already intrinsically unhealthy as a result of being bred for slaughter.

You might dismiss Foer (and me) as wimpy bleeding-heart types who are too idealistic to understand the cold reality that the suffering of animals is necessary to feed people. “We can’t waste time worrying about stupid animals when we need to eat”, you object.

Ok, but there is more bad news for you in Eating Animals: the conditions under which the animals are slaughtered is not just bad for the animals, it’s also disturbingly unsanitary and results in unhealthy meat. Foer suggests that many so-called “24 hour bugs” that people pick up are actually the result of eating bad meat. So, even if you don’t care about animal welfare, you might consider that the meat industry may not be doing a bang-up job on human welfare either. (Some good news: I recently heard that scientists are developing synthetic meat, which can be made without killing animals. If that works out, it could solve all these problems. But it’s a long way off.)

As far as turning vegan: the book definitely does leave you feeling sickened by the whole farming industry. The conditions of dairy cows and egg chickens is really not much better than those bred for meat. I suspect that humanely farmed dairy and egg products might not be so bad–or at least, they might not be as bad in theory, provided they are healthy animals, and not the mutant breeds. But again, Foer notes that just having a label like “free range” or “no cage” is almost meaningless–many of these animals still suffer horribly.

Another phenomenon Foer documents well is the hostile reaction he often gets from people who eat meat when they learn he doesn’t. People seem to feel that vegetarians and vegans are judging them just by existing. It makes people defensive.

(Actually, people are sensitive about dietary advice of any kind. Look at the reaction to the First Lady’s nutrition programs.)

While Foer himself definitely comes down on the side of pure vegetarianism, he does give supporters of meat produced by small family farms (as opposed to “factory farms”) a fair chance to argue for their position. I do wonder about some of his assertions concerning practices at the factory farms. If things are truly as bad as he suggests, I can’t understand how people are not dying by the thousands daily from contaminated meat.

Foer is a very good writer and–in the early chapters especially–quite witty. There are several turns of phrase that made me laugh aloud. His knack for humor disappears in the later chapters that deal with the gory details of slaughter, but it helps to ease the reader in to some very depressing stuff.

I highly recommend this book. Parts of it are sickening to read, but I think it’s always better to know the truth than remain ignorant. If you have the stomach for Eating Animals, I predict you will no longer be able to stomach eating animals.

I have a pet peeve: people complaining about food having “chemicals” in it.  Three of my co-workers have done this in the past few weeks.  I can’t really blame them, though–some foods are actually advertised as being “chemical-free”.  I wonder how that works.

See, everything is composed of chemicals. So having them in your food is not inherently good or bad. It really boils down to what the chemicals are, and how they interact with the chemicals naturally occurring in the human body.

Then I read about this lady named Vani Hari, who calls herself the “Food Babe“, and who has been blogging about the pernicious influence of chemicals in food.  She’s even succeeded in getting stores and restaurants to pull some from their shelves.

But there’s been a backlash against her–people saying she has no scientific basis for her claims.  She responds by saying these people are shills for the powerful food chemical industry.

What I know from skimming her blog is that she seems to equate ‘processed” with “bad for you”.  While it’s true that there are probably preservatives and such that are used in some foods that do have harmful effects, I also don’t think you can just say “oh, that food is processed! It’s not good.” Cooking food is processing it, and that’s been a major development in human evolution.

I think there are a lot of things wrong with some of the commonly-available foods, and some of Hari’s advice is good.  (Avoiding McDonald’s, for example–their food is dreadful.) But I think some of the other stuff she says is built more on irrational fears of “chemicals’ than on concrete issues.

Via eurobrat, a study that I can only hope is a joke:

Researchers from Michigan Technological University hunting for evidence of time travel within social networks have failed to find any.

Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson explain in their paper, titled “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travellers”, how they scoured Google, Bing, Google+, Facebook and Twitter for a series of carefully-chosen terms.

They looked for terms like “Pope Francis” being used before there was a Pope Francis. But sadly, they were unable to find any instances that seemed to be relevant.

The cynical, practical part of my mind is amazed that they wasted their time on such nonsense.  The sci-fi enthusiast in me also thinks it’s silly for another reason: obviously, anybody who has conquered the fabric of space-time  could easily go back in time and remove any internet references that would give them away.

Probably, in the future, there will be some time-travelers’ code that prevents them from doing such things. Perhaps there will even be time-travel moderators, who, like Wikipedia editors, venture back to remove all suspect references.

This is the issue with the concept of time-travel: it instantly introduces mind-bending paradoxes that the humans cannot comprehend.  Try reading Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out Of Time, and count the plot holes.  I’m not really sure if you can apply the normal scientific method to learning about time travel.

But don’t listen to cynical old me.  We all know the U.S. Government, and particularly Donald Rumsfeld, has long been control of time travel technology.

Ross Douthat generated quite a lot of chatter with his column this past week on America’s declining birthrates.  Particularly controversial was this passage:

The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

What’s particularly curious is that the second paragraph of Mr. Douthat’s column begins:

It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility.

On the face of it, this appears nonsensical.  “Modern” means “of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote“.  As such, there can be no “universal laws” about modernity.  All we can say is that in modern times fertility decreases, but “modern” is itself a relative term.  What is “modern” today will be ancient some time from now, and if the birthrate goes up at some time in the future, the law will reverse itself.

There is a kind of logic to it though, if you buy into Spenglerian theories of civilizational life-cycles.  In this view, all civilizations are born, grow and die.  If “modernity” is taken to mean “the end of the cycle”, then this makes some sense.  I think that is the only way it does, in fact.

When an NYT columnist echoes an ultraconservative German nationalist,  it naturally causes a stir.  Really though, Douthat’s article is thoroughly in agreement with biological determinism–whatever group of people produces the most offspring will “win” in the eyes of biological determinists, and the quality of the upbringing is only a secondary concern.  (I am not saying Douthat actually believes this.  I am just saying what he wrote in that column agrees with it.)

It’s the old “nature vs. nurture” debate that lies at the core here, and that debate is so old–I’ve said my bit on it here–I think it’s safe to conclude that it is insoluble.  Probably it will turn out that Ray Kurzweil is right, and it is all a moot point anyway.

Cool:

Japanese scientists have devised a mathematical formula that can predict the box office performance of a movie based on the level of related activity on social networks and other websites before and during its release.

It’s a good idea, but there sample size was too small; only 25 movies were used.  Even so, I bet movie studios and PR firms are going to try to do a lot more looking into this, because it’s a pretty cool idea.  Especially in terms of giving them advance warning if they have a “bomb” on their hands.

This is your Solar System:

This is your Solar System on black holes:

Any questions?

It seems that a black hole was ejected from its galaxy by another black hole.  This gives some insight as to what happens when an immovable object meets another immovable object. That isn’t the important bit, though:

This discovery… implies that there may be supermassive black holes moving through the universe outside of galaxies. And we currently have no way of knowing that they’re there.

Does that mean we could all be sitting around, minding our own business, and suddenly we’re all crushed to a point of infinite density?  ‘Cause that’s enough to ruin my whole day.

As if on cue, a guy named Rob Flickenger has invented a Tesla energy gun:

Cool. I like electricity. But notice that the thing’s range is apparently 12 inches. And it took only took a little over a hundred years to do it! To me, this somewhat long development time does explain why the armies of the world weren’t lining up to pay Tesla when he first talked about his energy weapon.

By the way, people keep calling it a “Tesla coil gun”. I believe there is also a “coil gun” that is a different thing altogether, invented by Carl Gauss–sometimes called a “Gauss gun”. And yes, I only know about this stuff from playing Fallout. With Science!

But, we can sleep soundly in our beds knowing that our best and brightest are devising new and better weapons. Hey, wait…

Nikola Tesla, via Wikipedia.