A Big Effing Einstein Deal

Posted February 11, 2016 by Tom
Categories: astronomy, physics, Science, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

Just a quick note here as I’m on deadline for a piece on this stuff, but today we got the official announcement of the worst kept recent secret in physics.  Here, via the Guardian, is the TL:DR version of what was said:

On 14 September 2015 at 9:50 GMT, the two detectors of the newly upgraded Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected a signal.

It was unambiguously a gravitational wave signal because it matched the predictions from Einstein’s general theory of relativity almost precisely.

J.M.W._Turner,_R.A._(1775-1851),_Storm_at_Sea.Christie's

This is huge news, as it is, among other things, the latest and most elusive (so far) direct confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, a theory of gravity that describes what we feel as a force holding our feet to the floor is in fact the local warping of spacetime by matterenergy. (In the case of our feet and our floor — that warping is the dent in spacetime created by the mass of the earth.)

It is as well a triumph of virtuosity in observation and measurement.  The detection of a gravity wave is a simply wondrous an act of human hands and mind.  It is a joy to witness, at least for me.

More after I get the paying work done….

Image:  J. W. M. Turner Storm at Sea 1851 or before.

Submissives In Your GPS — Or As Long As We’re Talking About Hilary’s Campaign

Posted February 8, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Election 2016, Gender, Politics, Women's rights are human rights

Tags: , ,

Reading Ann Laurie’s post  over at Balloon Juice reminded me of the obvious: being aware of the experience of others takes constant effort.  And, (as I wrote about one example here), the failure to do so amidst white male self-assumed universality leads to harm in just about any domain — more for those dismissed, but non-zero for the presumed pre-MOTUs as well.

With that as pre-amble, check out this from CNN Money:

All virtual assistants have to deal with inappropriate comments and questions. From seasoned vets like Siri and Google Now, to the rash of new specialists with names like Amy, Molly, Mia and Robin.

When Microsoft launched Cortana in 2014, a good chunk of early queries were about her sex life, according to Microsoft’s Deborah Harrison.

It turns out people feel very comfortable talking freely with text and voice assistants. Humanizing the bots with names, faked emotions, personalities and genders (mostly female) helps build trust with users.

Microsoft has its corporate head in the right place, at least on this one:

Cortana is clearly identified as a woman. She has a female avatar and is voiced by human woman Jen Taylor. But the writers are conscious about avoiding female-assistant stereotypes. Cortana isn’t self-deprecating and avoids saying sorry.

“We wanted to be very careful that she didn’t feel subservient in any way … or that we would set up a dynamic we didn’t want to perpetuate socially,” said Harrison.

But the ‘bros and any MRA/PUA trogs need not worry.  The market will make sure that their all too familiar sex/power fantasies will find their representation in our brave new era.

Not all assistants will take the same firm approach. Robin Labs, which makes a voice-assistant for drivers, thinks there might be a market customizing personalities. CEO Ilya Eckstein says there is a high demand for an assistant personality that’s “more intimate-slash-submissive with sexual undertones.”

Full title: The Arnolfini Portrait Artist: Jan van Eyck Date made: 1434 Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk Copyright © The National Gallery, London

All of which to say is that it’s easy to call out, say, Chris Christie, when he talks of beating Hilary Clinton’s rear end.  As all here know, it’s far harder to combat the influence of the jabs and gestures that pervade daily life, well below the level of explicit speech, up to and including the robot in your GPS.

How this post may be read in the context of Hilary Clinton’s candidacy and (some of) its discontents?  You make the call.

Image: Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Wedding1434.

Programming Note/Self Aggrandizement — Vulcan/Planet Nine Edition

Posted January 29, 2016 by Tom
Categories: astronomy, radio, Self-aggrandizement, Uncategorized

Tags:

Hey, all:  if you’ve got a moment this afternoon, I’ll be talking with Ira Flatow on Science Friday about The Hunt for Vulcan in the context of last week’s announcement about Planet Nine.

Radio_King_poster

I’ll be on in the second hour, starting at around 3:20 ET, maybe a couple of ticks before, and rabbiting on with Ira until about 3:38.  Some NPR stations fecklessly omit the second hour of Science Friday, so check local listings.  You can always catch it live or later at the Science Friday site.

While there may be better ways to spend 18 minutes of your life…there are surely worse ones too.  Come on down if you’ve time and the inclination.

Image: Poster for the film, The Radio King, 1922.

Res Ipsa Loquitur: Obama Derangement/Immigration Edition

Posted January 28, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Obama, Republican follies, Two Parties -- Not the Same

Tags: ,

I really do think the Democrats would have a lock on election success if only Obama would say publicly that drinking Drano(hemlock?) is a bad idea.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project (1)

For the latest on that score, check this out:

Most Americans say they back a plan that would allow certain illegal immigrants to stay in the country, but support for the idea slips when President Barack Obama’s name is attached to the question, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.

That is:

Sixty-one percent of Americans supported Obama’s plan — which shields some undocumented immigrants from deportation — when they were not told Obama had taken the action, according to the poll released Wednesday. While half of Republicans rejected the plan when described this way, 42 percent of Republicans supported it.

Told that the idea was Obama’s, though…and this happened:

Support fell to 54 percent overall, with only 31 percent of Republicans supporting it and 62 percent opposing the measures.

I guess that the fact that almost a third of Republicans still managed to hang on to their view exceeds my expectations.  But a 20 percent swing attributable only to the horror at lining up with the Kenyan Moooslim Socialist Usurper is a measure of the triumph of the worst elements in our polity.  They’ve managed to make agreement with even the most mild of sensible ideas an existential horror for too many.  (See criminal justice reform for another reminder.)

As long as that prevails (and it looks like it will for quite a while) we’ve got problems. And the urgent need to elect a Democrat to the Presidency this November.

It Came From Planet Nine

Posted January 26, 2016 by Tom
Categories: astronomy, General Relativity, Mathematics, Science, Self-aggrandizement

Tags: ,

There be dragons out there, waaaaay out there, in the dark, off the edge of the map.

Or rather, a virtuoso combination of observation and mathematical modeling has led to an exciting, in some ways joyously old-school prediction. Orbital oddities identified in a handful of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) were subjected to the same kind of inquiry that allowed 19th century astronomers to infer Neptune from Uranus’s behavior, in what was widely understood to be a triumph of Isaac Newton’s “System of the World.”

William_Blake_-_Isaac_Newton_-_WGA02217

The new analysis, by two Caltech astronomers, theoretician Konstantin Batygin and the observer and Slayer-of-Pluto Michael Brown, has led to a broad outline of what to expect — a ~10 Earth mass planet travelling a very eccentric orbit that never comes closer to the sun than ~250 Earth-Sun distances, a unit of measure known as the Astronomical Unit.

I’m sure many of you saw the news about this last week.  Alexandra Witze in Nature had a  good write-up, as did Alan Burdick in The New Yorker.  (For those (quite a few) on the blog with the urge to read the original Batygin-Brown paper — go here.)

I couldn’t be more excited by the news.  I sometimes forget what an extraordinary run of solar system exploration I’ve been privileged to witness.  The variety we’ve found exists in our near-environment has leapt unbelievably, just in the last two or  three decades, and the richness and complexity of our own solar system is allowing us to make more sense of the process of planet and planetary system formation as more and more data emerges about exo-systems.

But for all that excitement, there’s something special about a new major planet.  As I write in The Hunt for Vulcan [Shameless Plug Here], the idea of a whole new world joining the neighborhood had enormous romantic power in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  Arguably, given our present immersion in the imagined reality of multiple worlds, that romance cuts deeper still today.

But. ButButButButBut….it’s important to remember that a prediction, no matter how well supported, how seemingly necessary, isn’t the same thing as proof, as the discovery itself.  That’s what I tried to say in this essay on the subject.  A sample:

In 1846, the discovery of Neptune turned Le Verrier into a celebrity; for a time, he was the most famous man of science in the world. He went on an international tour and seized the moment to rise to the top of power in the highly contentious and hierarchical world of French astronomy. Batygin and Brown are taking a much more measured tack with Planet Nineand for good reason.  “We felt quite cautious about making the statement we made,” Batygin says.  Why such concern? Because, he says, “immediately after the detection of Neptune spurious claims of planets in outer solar system began to surface. We didn’t want to be another red herring.”

It wasn’t just the distant reaches of the solar system that tripped people up: 

Johannes_Vermeer_-_The_Astronomer_-_WGA24685

The only problem being, of course, that Vulcan was never there.

I’m much more hopeful for Batygin and Brown’s Planet Nine, but hopeful don’t pay the rent — or, as Batygin told me:

“If Newton is right, then I think we’re in pretty good shape,” says Batyagin. “We’re after a real physical effect that needs explanation. The dynamics of our model are persuasive.” And yet, he adds, that’s not enough. “Until Planet Nine is caught on camera it does not count as being real. All we have now is an echo.”

There’s a surfeit of terrestrial crazy to weigh us down.  It’s a relief, I find, to look up and out, and contemplate the ordered mysteries that so thoroughly dwarf Comrade Trump’s Yuuuuuggggge self conceit.

Images:  William Blake, Isaac Newton1795

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomerc. 1668

Y’all Qaeda Pissing You Off? Fire A Phone Call, Not A Glock

Posted January 6, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Crime, Fundamentalisms, Guns, libertarian nonsense, Massive Fail, quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Stupidity, The Way We Live Now, Uncategorized, Why Do They Hate America So?

Tags: , , ,

I’m enraged by the news in Zander’s post over at Balloon Juice.  Happy to let any of seditionists out of the Malheur HQ — but only into the welcoming arms of federal custody.

That’s a legitimate political view — and you know what sane and patriotic people do with such views?  They call their representatives in Washington to let them know how they feel.

'Telephone_Operator'_by_Gerrit_A._Beneker (1)

I just left a message at Senator Warren’s office and spoke to a nice young (I’m guessing) staffer in Rep. Joe Kennedy’s.  Markey is next on my list.  I told them how disgusted I was at the action of the Malheur thugs — stealing our property, yours, mine, and the whole damn American people’s while, many of them, stealing from the public till for years and years.

The key though is that I also made a request:  I want my Congressional representatives to put the question to federal law enforcement as to why they are not enforcing the law, either by denying the radical right wing intimidators their freedom of movement as long as they remain on the people’s property, or by arresting them when they do choose to wander.

It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either.  These folks only succeed because their supporters are vocal and active, while the hundreds of millions whom they rip off, disrespect and aim to intimidate and coerce just want to go about their business.  A little volume on our side of the playground is actually significant.

So call your official peeps!  Takes a minute or two, and it’s worth the effort.  This is also one where the partisan identification of your representatives matters a little less than on some of the calls to action this blog has made.  Armed take-overs of public buildings strikes a little close to home for a lot of Congressfolk.

So call! Be polite; know the message you want to send; thank the kids on the other end of the line for their help; and lets start making the country marginally more sane, one firmly worded dispatch at a time.

The phone numbers:

House and Senate switchboard: 202-224-3121.  Individual senator phone numbers.  Individual representative phone numbers. (Both lists by state.  You can sort by last name as well.)

Have at it, friends.

Image: Gerrit A. Beneker, Telephone Operator (A Weaver of Public Thought) 1921.

I Blame Obama

Posted January 1, 2016 by Tom
Categories: Military, Obama, The Way We Live Now, War

Tags: ,

Here’s a piece of unequivocal good news with which to start the last full year of the Obama presidency:

The executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response on the issue, said in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio this week that [New York] city had “effectively” ended chronic homelessness among veterans.

Lives change:

In 2015 alone, the city placed more than 1,000 veterans in permanent housing, according to city officials. Several weeks ago, at Clinton Avenue Residence, a new 43-unit development in the Bronx specifically for veterans, several men dragged garbage bags with their belongings through the gleaming lobby and into their studio apartments.

“I woke up and there wasn’t a person sleeping three feet away,” Eric Peters, 54, an Air Force veteran who has been in and out of homelessness for decades, said the next morning.

Mednyánszky,_László_-_Reclining_Soldier_(ca_1916)

New York City is doing better than many places, though not uniquely so.  Homelessness among vets is down 36% nationwide, and, as The New York Times reports,

 Houston, Las Vegas and New Orleans, among several cities, [have] effectively ending overall veteran homelessness, meaning they have identified all homeless veterans, not just the chronic cases, and placed them in homes.

Why has this happened? Because:

The city’s efforts are part of a broader federal initiative, started under President Obama and aimed at ending veteran homelessness in the United States. The federal housing agency, working in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, has now distributed 79,000 rental assistance vouchers to veterans across the country dating to 2008.

Three cheers for both the hard work being done at both the national and local levels.  I hope the program serves as a model to tackle homelessness writ large — but I have no problem with selecting veterans as the first to demonstrate that the world’s last superpower does not in fact have to house its people in cardboard boxes.

But I do want to point out what’s obvious in this crowd, and should be so in the wide world:  this is what respect — and more, support — for those who serve our military looks like.  The next time your wingnut acquaintance spouts about the Muslim Kenyan Usurpers disregard for the armed services, point this out to her or him — and ask him which GOPster has made this a priority.

Happy new year all.  Going to be an interesting ride in this year of our [insert pasta shape here] 2016

Image:  Ladislav Medňanský, Reclining Soldier, c. 1916.


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