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.

Somebody famous once asked “if time travel is possible, where are the time travelers?” Presumably they would disguise themselves to fit in, but you have to assume there would be lapses. Maybe the people we think are crazy are really time travelers. That might explain things. Or maybe the people who think they are time-travelers are crazy.

Thingy posted some musings of her own about Andrew Basiago’s story, and it set me thinking more about time travel. Personally, I’m quite confident that Basiago is either playing a hoax or else a bit touched in the head–I swear, “project Pegasus“. Really?– but I do wonder about it on a theoretical level.

The most plausible means of time travel was that I’ve read went something like this: if something could go into a black hole and not be destroyed, it could theoretically reappear at any point in the Universe and at any point in time. The problem is, nothing that we know of can survive going into a black hole. (Obviously, I’ve oversimplified a lot here, mostly because I don’t understand it too well myself. This might help.)

Then, of course, there are all the paradoxes that arise with time-travel. They make for good stories, but they also seem to suggest it’s impossible. Oh, well. It’s a question better minds than my own have had difficulty grappling with, I know that.

So, in my last post, I expressed some disbelief about the claim this one dude made that the government has time-traveling capability. But he also said they have teleporters, which even though highly unlikely, is at least theoretically possible. Even though I don’t think it’s true, it is fun to think about. So, naturally, I read up on teleportation.

It’s all pretty interesting; especially the part about how if teleportation were made possible for humans, it would mean that when a person steps into the teleporter he effectively “dies” and a clone is created on the other end. All in all, I think I’d prefer to take the bus. Still, it would be useful for moving stuff from place to place.

On the other hand, one of the major life lessons I’ve learned from video games is that teleportation experiments inevitably lead to an invasion of evil monsters from another dimension.

ThinkProgress has a good article about how global warming is causing the recent outbreaks of extreme weather. The article is worth reading in full,  and also includes this video, which does a pretty good job explaining things:

You know, my Republican friends often say: “What global warming? It’s nice and cool outside right now.” That’s why the term “climate change” was introduced; because “climate” is basically an averaging of what the weather is doing. So, global warming does not mean it will henceforth be warmer than previously all day, every day, but rather that the average trend is towards warming.

And moreover, slight changes in averages can have a major ripple effect throughout the whole system.

Well, I’m not a scientist, but the video features people who are. They explain everything pretty well.

(Hat Tip to Private Buffoon.)

I watched a NOVA program about the deadly 2011 tornadoes last night. One of the tornado researchers they interviewed said some thing to the effect that the way to prevent such tragedies is to improve warning systems, so that people get warned hours in advance.

Today I see that weather forecasters are predicting strong tornadoes in the Midwest for tomorrow. 24-hours warning; that’s pretty good. So, everyone in the danger zone should head to their safe-rooms or basements until Sunday.

The problem is, for many people, that’s unfortunately not practical. That’s why the idea of tornado prevention fascinates me so much, even though I suppose it’s more likely that we will figure out how to mass-produce tornado-proof buildings before we learn how to do that. I posted about it earlier this year, and I still wonder about how we could go about preventing tornadoes.

My layman’s understanding is that tornadoes form when a cold front hits a warm front, so it seems to me that something to either cool the warm front or warm the cold front is in order. So, why wouldn’t putting silver iodide into the warm front help? (Obviously it wouldn’t, because we’re not doing it,  but I still don’t quite understand why.)

This started out as a comment on Thingy’s blog, but for some reason, I couldn’t get it to accept it. Apparently, I fail the robot test.

I’m sorry, Blogger, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Anyway, a guy named Robert Krulwich says that the color pink doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion in our minds. My understanding was that this was the case with all colors–they are just how our brains interpret light reflected at different wavelengths. And the scientist they quote in this Time magazine article says something similar.

When they say pink is made up color, I guess they mean that only the human eye is capable of perceiving it; that other eyes might not have blend the wavelengths the same way. Whereas, red wavelengths are still being reflected no matter what is looking at it. (That doesn’t mean they appear “red” to some non-human entity, but they are consistently seen as that wavelength.) If I’m reading this right.

Ok, I just confused myself. If anyone with actual knowledge reads this, please enlighten me. In the meantime, I’ll be re-reading Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing for a crash course on why this matters.

We’ve had an unusually warm winter in the U.S, and yesterday there was a deadly outbreak of tornadoes. Here is a Reuters article by Deborah Zabarenko from over a week ago about experts in the field predicting a bad tornado season. To quote from the article:

Climate change is indirectly related to this forecast because strong thunderstorms create conditions where tornadoes can form, and strong thunderstorms could be fueled by the warmer-than-normal surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico, according to Paul Walker, senior meteorologist at Accuweather.

Obviously, you can’t say “it’s climate change” just based on two bad tornado seasons in a row. But it’s still an important–and tragic–data point.

I’ve often wondered if there’s any means of dissipating a tornado, or lessening its force somehow. They seem to have pretty good advance warning about them, so there might be time to put something together. I was reading about Project Stormfury, and even though it was a total failure, I wonder if it might be the germ of an idea for something worthwhile, either because tornadoes have different properties or else by seeding them with different substances. I also found this forum discussion on the topic of tornado prevention, for what it’s worth.

Or we could decide to believe that humanity has no impact on the environment. That’s also an option.

Fox News headline: “Alien life clues in Antarctic Ice?” The story says, in part:

[Scientists] don’t expect water samples from Lake Vostok will hold alien life, though any life it contains may have taken a slightly different evolutionary path than what appears on the planet today.

As the rest of the article goes on to say, it wouldn’t be “alien” life at all–just other forms of Earth life. So the headline is perhaps slightly misleading, although it does sound like it could hold some interesting stuff. But the scientists’ hopes that it will tell us something about alien life are all so heavily based on conjecture–they’re hoping to find life that might resemble life that might exist in some similar places that are “suspected” to be on the moons of Jupiter. It’s hard for me to get too excited about that.

I just wish they wouldn’t “hint at strange survival in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism.” And it’s the Antarctic, which automatically demands a Mountains of Madness reference.

(Just so you know, I’ve always treated these real-life similarities with Lovecraftian tales as mere humorous coincidences.*)

*But sometimes, “I am inclined to wonder—and more than wonder.”