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.


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.

For a long time, Thomas Edison was held up as a model of American ingenuity, an inspiring figure whose inventions changed life for everyone. But, relatively recently, Nikola Tesla has received more acclaim as the better inventor, and his works are considered to have been unfairly neglected in favor of Edison’s. lately, it seems like Tesla is more popular than Edison. Perhaps it’s just one of those fashions that goes back and forth. (You might even say it “alternates” which one is “current”.)

Freddie DeBoer linked to a comic that exemplifies the lately fashionable Tesla-worship. I agree with Freddie’s reaction; even though I’m disposed to be more sympathetic to Tesla, that comic made me feel kind of uneasy about it, so strident was its tone.

I know I’ve used this quote before in other contexts, and I hate to keep using the same things, but damn it if it isn’t completely appropriate for summing up Edison and Tesla:

“One of them is half-mad–and the other, wholly unscrupulous.”–Claude Rains, as Mr. Dryden in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Edison was a cutthroat businessman, there can be very little doubt. You don’t enjoy the kind of success he did without pulling some pretty mean stuff, I think. Tesla, meanwhile, was pretty clearly crazy. That was probably why he was such a great innovator.

For an example, it’s not clear to me whether Tesla’s “particle gun” was actually something real or just an idle thought he had. I sometimes think certain people–like the author of the above-mentioned comic–are too quick to credit Tesla with “inventing” stuff when actually it was just stuff he dreamed up in some of his less-rational moments.

Not that he wasn’t a great inventor. I’m just saying he’s a little over-celebrated. Of course, so was Edison when you look at all the rotten things he did, such as electrocuting animals for a PR campaign. I’m sure a lot of the admiration for Tesla comes as a direct result of people hearing in school about how wonderful Edison was.

There’s also an under-current of culture war to it, I think. Consider: the wily, Midwestern-born businessman/showman vs. the misunderstood, introverted immigrant. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a poll to look for correlation between political affiliation and support of Tesla or Edison, but I bet I know how it would come out.

I think part of it is the misrepresentation of Edison–like the author of the comic said, “he didn’t invent the light-bulb, he sold it.” Is that wrong?  Why, people greatly admire Steve Jobs, but if you think about it, a lot of what he did was selling what Jonathan Ive designed. That doesn’t make Jobs a phony; it makes him great at what he did: selling stuff.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the average blogger to correlate all his links. We live on a placid island of ignorance, in the midst of black seas of Wikis, and it was not meant that we should check the references. The Wiki editors, each biased in their own direction, have hitherto harmed us little. But someday, the linking together of barely-associated articles will open up such terrifying vistas of the internet–and of our own frightful pagerank therein–that we will either go mad from the revelation, or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of icanhascheezburger.com (Many apologies, Howard–MM.)

It all started with this post from Thingy–I realized I had never found out the origin of the common phrase “it was a dark and stormy night. So, I followed the link and it turns out, it was from this guy Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He was a prolific writer who also coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”.

So, I decided to read some of his books. Being a fan of horror, I chose to start off with The Haunted and the Haunters: or, The House and the Brain. It starts off as a fairly generic ghost story, but the end has some very interesting bits of philosophizing. Not a great work, but an enjoyable read, all in all.

He also wrote a book called Vril, the Power of the Coming Race. I tried to read it, but it was pretty dull. The plot did remind me a little of Arthur Machen’s later work The Novel of the Black Seal, which influenced Lovecraft greatly. But apparently, Vril inspired something of a “cult following”, and by that I mean that people actually thought it was true. The book is about a super-race that lives underground and has a powerful substance “Vril”, which allows them to do all sorts of amazing things. Some, notably the theosophists, believed that “Vril” existed.

Which is curious to me, because I know basically three things about theosophists:

  1. In the paragraph immediately after the one I parodied above in Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft mentions the theosophists briefly.
  2. The Theosophical Society was founded by Helena Blavatsky, who I know about solely because of the lines in the Warren Zevon song “Sacrificial Lambs”: “Madame Blavatsky and her friends/Changed lead into gold, and back again.”
  3. They have one weird logo. Observe:
Theosophical Society emblem, via Wikipedia

I only saw this symbol the other day, when I was reading about the lyrics to the They Might Be Giants song “I Palindrome I”, which includes the lyric “I am a snake head eating the head on the opposite side”. The technical word for this is Ouroboros. That word is also whence the name of the character Borous in the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Old World Blues is derived.

“Hold up, Mysterious Man,” cries the bemused reader. “What the Devil is the point of all this free-association?” Well, I’ll tell you: there was some philosopher I was reading about many months ago who had some sort of reasoning system of free-association, “correlating contents” and looking for subtle inter-connectivities in Nature. It was really interesting, but in recent days I have searched Wikipedia with considerable diligence, but I can’t find his page. I think his first name might have been Charles, but that’s all I can remember. Any information you can furnish me with as to who the guy was would be appreciated.