Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Happy Birthday, John Prine

October 10, 2017

It’s this master of the American song’s 71st today. Meant to post earlier, but Prine’s good for a couple of lullabyes too.

I’ve seen him live only once, decades ago. A great time then.  His music has only grown on me.  His songs appear simple, and some of them actually are; they’re all reach deep.

Here are a couple of favorites; add your own below.

 

And, of course:

I could go on, but no need. Fill in the many gaps I’ve left…

I wish we lived in a better led, better spirited time and place. Listening to this helps me believe that might yet come to us all.

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Cosmic Goodness (Immigrant Edition)

October 3, 2017

Here’s a welcome respite from the ongoing hellscape of GOP-dominated America:

Three American physicists have won the Nobel prize in physics for the discovery of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that were first anticipated by Albert Einstein a century ago.

Rainer Weiss has been awarded one half of the 9m Swedish kronor (£825,000) prize, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm today. Kip Thorne and Barry Barish will share the other half of the prize.

If you want to listen to a gravitational wave — the sound of two black holes colliding — here you go:

For more detail on what the prize is for, here’s a lovely, relatively brief lecture — very accessible — on gravitational waves and what it took to detect them, delivered by my MIT colleague Nergis Mavalvala:

And if you want to go a bit deeper, MIT’s Rainer Weiss, one of the three laureates, offers longer, somewhat more technical account:

You can follow this prize — as so many before it — back to Albert Einstein.  As Mavalvala explains, the concept of the gravitational wave emerges directly from Einstein’s theory of gravity, the General Theory of Relativity.

To say “directly” is, as usual, a bit of misrepresentation.

Yes: calculation within Einstein’s 1915 theory does end up at a prediction of gravitational waves, but neither the history of that calculation nor the human story moved down anything like a straight path.  First, in 1905, Henri Poincare suggested that gravity waves might exist.  Then, in 1915, with his new mathematics of gravity, Einstein began to wonder if his theory would yield such waves, soon concluded it would not, then revisited the question, still during WW I, and proposed that three different examples of gravitational oscillations might actually be real.  Then, 1922, Arthur Eddington (who had led the eclipse expeditions that confirmed the underlying general theory three years before) showed that two of the three forms Einstein had proposed were mathematical mistakes, born of the choice of coordinate system Einstein used for his earlier calculation.

Einstein pursued other projects for a while, returning to gravitational waves in the 1930s, after emigrating to the US.  Working with an assistant, Nathan Rosen (of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox-that-isn’t), he wrote a paper concluding that gravitational waves do not exist, full stop.  The two men submitted the paper to Physical Review, which then sent it on for review.  The reviewer, Howard Percy Robertson, found a confounding error. On being informed,  Albert Einstein was not amused:

Einstein’s reaction was anger and indignation; he sent the following note to [PR editor John] Tate [10]:

July 27, 1936
Dear Sir.
“We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the—in any case erroneous—comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.”
Respectfully
Einstein
Still, Robertson was right, as Einstein’s next assistant, Leopold Infeld confirmed.  He told Einstein what he’d learned, and the older scientist listened:
Infeld refers to the day before a scheduled talk that Einstein was to give at Princeton on the “Nonexistence of gravitational waves”. Einstein was already aware of the error in his manuscript, which was previously pointed out by Infeld. There was no time to cancel the talk. The next day Einstein gave his talk and concluded, “If you ask me whether there are gravitational waves or not, I must answer that I don’t know. But it is a highly interesting problem
Einstein had already resubmitted his original paper to another journal, and the work was in proofs, which led to a scramble, and the final outcome:
“…After finding relationships that cast doubt on the existence of gravitational fields rigorous wavelike solutions, we have thoroughly investigated the case of cylindrical gravitational waves. As a result, there are strict solutions and the problem is reduced to conventional cylindrical waves in Euclidean space”.
Einstein was often swift to annoyance. He could, though, on reflection, be corrected — as he was here.
“I want to thank my colleague Professor Robertson for their friendly help in clarifying the original error.”

The issue remained, though, that gravitational waves were complicated to model, and hence even to imagine detecting.  The article linked above and again here is a history of the idea, and it shows how much thinking and doing — for decades — went into the moment of discovery this prize celebrates.

And that just gets us to the gate of the work behind this year’s physics Nobel.  Weiss first came up with the idea for the detector that ultimately heard two black holes colliding almost exactly fifty years ago, after teaching MIT’s introduction to general relativity. The next decade, he began the collaboration with fellow laureate Kip Thorne, the near legendary Caltech general relativist to advance the idea of a large-scale interferometer as a gravity wave observatory.  The next key collaborators, Ronald Drever, who died last year, and the third prize-winner, Barry Barish, credited with the transformation of Weiss’s original notion into a full fledged and ultimately enormous lab, joined soon after.  The actual detection took place a mere four decades on.

And it’s beautiful — as Einstein once said of other work, an example of “the highest form of musicality in the sphere” of scientific endeavor.  The scale, the unholy precision, and the extraordinary extension of human perception into the most forbidding recesses of the universe are simply sublime, glorious and terrifying.  In these wretched political times, the notion that some of our species can create on such an encompassing canvas is…a balm, at least.

And, not to harsh that mellow, but because everything is political to me these days, a final thought.  Einstein, an immigrant, discovered the underlying concept.  Rai Weiss, born in Berlin in 1932, escaped with his family from the Nazis first to Prague and then New York.  Mavalvala, featured above, a key contributor to the ultimate instrument that made the detection, came to the US to pursue knowledge at the highest level from her home in Turkey Pakistan [apologies for the error].  Many, many more people from all over dedicated days and nights and years of their working lives to making this happen.

This is the intellectual and cultural capacity the GOP seeks to erode.  That makes them philistines, and worse: saboteurs of the American capacity to create both basic science and all the expected and unanticipated possibilities for human well being that flow from “musicality in scientific thought.”

Stupid Idea For Readers To Destroy

September 12, 2017

David Anderson’s post at Balloon-Juice got me thinking on single payer vs. universal coverage — I’m with David (and Elie). Don’t care how we get to health care for all Americans, as long as we get there.

So here’s my stupid idea: a move in stages.*

Stage one: Medicare For All Kids.  Same program, just for every kid up to the age of 18–or 26, to match current ACA practice.

The reasoning in my wholly non-expert addled brain being twofold: first, kids are, as a group, cheap to cover, so the financial lift here is presumably manageable.  Second: this has an aspirational frame that can be used to persuade.  I don’t know about you, but I’ll take (I took) risks on my own behalf I would never have done had I my son to keep safe when I started my own small business.  I don’t know how many people have deferred or abandoned dreams because they couldn’t go insurance-naked for their kids.

That’s anecdata, but David Leonhardt made much the same argument way back in 2010 in defense of the bill that became Obamacare. Medicare For All Kids, presented as a way to unleash Americans’ entrpreneurial spirit, would be a proposition on which I think Democrats could go to town.

The next stage is to take the step that didn’t find our David’s 218-51-5 support in the last go-round:  Medicare (buy-in?) For All Over 55.  This is a form of public option, and it would expand the single-payer approach to more and more of those either utterly unable to take on health risk themselves (kids, the post-work elderly) and those whose age-adjusted risk is growing to the point where it threatens to become unmanageable.   Again, this would require persuasion, but the idea that older but not old folks who might face, say, a 2008-like crisis of employment should find a ready avenue to coverage is, again, a case that can be made (by a better political rhetorician than me).

That leaves 27-55 year olds on their own — or rather, within the existing Obamacare/expanded Medicaid universe.  But it establishes a template for a single payer form of coverage without requiring a wholesale change over of a system with tons of interested parties and rent-seekers eager to defend their turf.

So — to steal Ta-Nehisi Coates’ old line: talk to me like I’m stupid.

What’s wrong with a crabwise walk towards increasingly universal health care, along these lines or better ones? For both politics and policy, what would be wrong w. introducing, say a Medicare For All  Kids bill in this Congress, just to get that ball rolling?

David? Anybody?

*”We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Image: Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1907

A Handful Of Quick DACA-Related Thoughts

September 5, 2017

 

Others have said what needs to be said about the Coward Trump and his DACA debacle.   Here’s my PGO addition:

1: To reinforce a point Charles Pierce made today: DACA folks are Americans. Full stop. They may not be citizens, but they are us; members of our society, our community.  They are not strangers.

Any attempt to frame them as aliens, or criminals — or as developmentally delayed moral agents who need (as John’s former elementary school teacher put it) being taught right from wrong — is both wrong and vile.

2: Task one is whatever we can do to “help” our Republican friends in Congress to fix the steaming pile of rodent droppings the leader of their party just dumped in their punchbowl

Task two, of course, is to teach every national Republican, no matter what goodness may reside in their hearts, bless their hearts, the lessons California GOPsters learned post Prop. 187.

To me that means that the first priority for any political action centers on voting.  I’m going to call my local town Democratic committee first, and see what I can do there to register folks.  Given that my town votes 2-1 D every election, with good turnout, I’m hoping they’re making the same connections they do every election with Ds who need help in New Hampshire.  If I get no joy there, I’ll contact folks directly in neighboring states.

After registration, it’s voter education and then turnout.  That’s it.  The unintended consequence of Trump’s reign of misrule is that a lot more people have become aware that politics does in fact matter where each of us live.  It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that realization doesn’t go to waste.

Last: again, this isn’t an issue in my home town of Brookline, MA — but this is why we need Democrats running in every office, down to assistant dog catcher.  Neighbors seeking votes mobilize voters as no one else can; if we have people doing so for every office, that’s a big part of the battle right there.  So I’ll be doing what I can to tell those up the food chain in the party that we gotta do what the Republicans, to their tactical credit, have long understood to be vital.

That’s it.  My motto going forward: Get (Stay) Mad. Get (More Than) Even.

Over to y’all.

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus 1601.

Grifters All The Way Down

September 3, 2017

Here’s what I don’t get.  Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is a rich guy. Seriously rich: on the order of a half a billion in net worth, w. a cool $70 million in 2016 earnings.  If he wants to check out a cool event — a total eclipse, say, a desire I wholly understnd — he can afford to do so at any level of comfort he chooses, and never miss the lucre.

Instead, he scams:

Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin took Mitch McConnell, some other Republican lawmakers, and his wife, Louise Linton, to Kentucky, ostensibly to touch large piles of gold at Fort Knox. Coincidentally, Kentucky also happened to be one of the best places to watch the total solar eclipse, which happened to occur on the day of their trip.

This trip had already attracted a bit of unwanted attention (back in those halcyon days before Melania’s stiletto adventures) after Linton instagramed the following:

“Great #daytrip to #Kentucky! #nicest #people #countryside,” Linton wrote, according to a screenshot of the now-private post, before tagging the labels she was wearing “#rolandmouret pants, #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf #valentinorockstudheels #valentino #usa.”

Nothing says populist like that kind of fashion profile, eh?

Now, however, it turns out that drawing eyes to the family outing might have been more than a mere PR flub:

The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Inspector General is reviewing the flight taken by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, last week to Louisville and Fort Knox, Ky., following criticism of their use of a government plane on a trip that involved viewing the solar eclipse.

“We are reviewing the circumstances of the Secretary’s August 21 flight . . . to determine whether all applicable travel, ethics, and appropriation laws and policies were observed,” counsel Rich Delmar wrote in a statement to The Washington Post late Thursday.

“When our review is complete, we will advise the appropriate officials, in accordance with the Inspector General Act and established procedures,” Delmar added.

Yo! Mnuchin! Pay attention here.  The Air Force is not your personal air taxi service. You want to take a day off? Fine. You’re the boss. You can play hooky to join millions jazzing on the sun’s waltz with the moon.  And you can pay for it your own damn self, just like I did, my brothers, and everyone I know.

More seriously:  someone who actually takes public service as service knows not to give even the appearance of putting one’s hand in the cookie jar.  And it’s not as if this puts Mnuchin through any hardship.  As noted above, he is far and away rich enough to pay for all his pleasures; there’s no meaningful gain to him to sleaze a little grift off the top.  But apparently, he can’t help himself.

These guys: scum floats — but how can you tell when it’s scum all the way down?

Image: Elihu Vedder, Corrupt Legislation (detail), mural in the Library of Congress, 1896.

Eclipses Make People Crazy, Daniel Defoe Edition

August 6, 2017

So:  some folks choked on Annie Dillard’s perhaps overly magniloquent response to her eclipse, so here’s something quite different for the more Augustan among us.

For reasons not relevant to this post, I am this morning nosing around Daniel Defoe’s writing from the late 1710s, and just a few minutes ago I stumbled upon this hoot of a passage from the second volume of The Family Instructor:

It happen’d once, that a Discourse began between the Father and Mother about the Eclipse of the Sun, which fell out in April 22. 1715.

The Eclipse of the Sun was the Subject of all Con|versation at that time, having been, as is well known, so Total, and the Darkness so great, as that the like had not been known in that Age, or some hundreds of Years before.

The Wife had enquired of her Husband, what the Nature of the Thing was, and he was describing it to her and the Children in a familiar way; and, as I said, that a kind of Reflection upon one another was the usual Issue of their common Discourse, so it was there; the Husband tells her, that the Moon was like a cross Wife, that when she was out of Humour, could Thwart and Eclipse her Husband whenever she pleased; and that if an ill Wife stood in the Way, the brightest Husband could not shine.

She flew in a Passion at this, and being of a sharp Wit, you do well, says she, to carry your Emblem to a suitable height; I warrant, you think a Wife, like the Moon, has no Light but what she borrows from her Husband, and that we can only shine by Reflecti|on; it is necessary then you should know, she can Eclipse him when she pleases.

Ay, ay, says the Husband, but you see when she does, she darkens the whole House, she can give no Light without him.

Ʋpon this she came closer to him.
Wife.

I suppose you think you have been Eclips’d lately, we don’t see the House is the darker for it.

Husband.

That’s because of your own Darkness; I think the House has been much the darker.

Wife:

None of the Family are made sensible of it, we don’t miss your Light.

Husb.

It’s strange if they don’t, for I see no Light you give in the room of it.

Wife.

We are but as dark as we were before; for we were none of us the better for all your Hypocri|tical Shining.

Husb.

Well, I have done shining, you see; the Darkness be at your Door.

It’s evident that both meant here, his having left off Family-Worship; and it is apparent, both were come to a dreadful Extremity in their Quarrel.
Wife.

At my Door! am I the Master of the Fami|ly! don’t lay your Sins to my Charge.

Husb.

No, no; but your own I may; It is the Retrograde Motion of the Moon that causes an E|clipse.

Wife.

Where all was dark before, there can be no Eclipse.

Husb.

Your Sin is, that my Light is your Darkness.

Wife.

That won’t excuse you, if you think it a Sin; can you not do what you please without me?

My advice to the husband? Don’t throw shade when your own wit is so poorly lit.

Image: Edmund Halley, A Description of the Passage of the Shadow of the Moon over England In the Total Eclipse of the SUN on the Day of April 1715 in the morning.

Darkness At Noon (Well, A Little After 10 a.m. From Where I’ll Be Standing)

August 5, 2017

This is a follow up to what I’ve been hearing from some folks about how they plan to take in the eclipse of 2017.  My family’s headed out for Oregon in a couple of weeks, basing ourselves with relatives in Portland before heading a little south and east in the very wee hours of the 21st.

We’re putting ourselves in the hands of the cloud-cover forecast as to how far east we go (or try to), and in those of our cousins for local knowledge of roads and routes. There Will Be Traffic, which is why my hunch is that we’ll be en route not much after midnight.

That’s my plan.  What follows is for those of you in or near the path of the partial eclipse, and plan to stay there.

I’ve got just one thing to say to y’all:

Reconsider.

A total eclipse is a completely different beast from a partial one.  Partial eclipses are weird and cool.

Something comes along and takes a bite out of the soon, and the sheer wrongness of that is emotionally powerful, and produces its own truly odd visual effects:

 

BUT…

Totality is a completely different beast.

Here’s Annie Dillard, testifying:

I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it….

The sky’s blue was deepening, but there was no darkness. The sun was a wide crescent, like a segment of tangerine. The wind freshened and blew steadily over the hill. The eastern hill across the highway grew dusky and sharp. The towns and orchards in the valley to the south were dissolving into the blue light. Only the thin river held a trickle of sun.

Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountain tops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day…

From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.

      — Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”, from Teaching a Stone to Talk

My own experience was similarly uncanny, impossible to anticipate.  The first film that was really mine, the first on which I had sole producer and writer credit, was an episode of NOVA broadcast in 1992 called “Eclipse of the Century.”  It documented the 1991 eclipse whose a path of totality tracked directly over the Big Island of Hawaii — and hence over the deep-space telescopes placed atop Mauna Kea.

It was a hell of a first film to attempt — we ended up with a crew of over 20, 12 cameras, insurance from Lloyds of London against the possibility that clouds would doom the film — something like $5,000 against $250,000 on four minutes or so of clear skies — and so on.

I had a ton of help, of course:  a supervising producer, a proper director, a great assistant, and above all, wonderful camera people and their crews, in many ways a who’s-who of the top documentary shooters of the day.  Without them the whole farrago would have collapsed in hideous ignominy.

As it turned out, nature gave us great drama — clouds rising, threatening to cover the sun minutes before totality and then…

Well, take a look at this clip.*

For myself — I was with the crew that was filming the adventures within the control room of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.  That was headed by Jon Else, for those of you who follow documentary stuff, and though I was nominally his director, Jon needed no guidance from a rookie to do his usual brilliant work. About 90 seconds into totality he turned his head and told me to get onto the catwalk to see the matter for myself.

I did.

I’m not going to tell you what I felt.  As the Dillard passage above suggest, it seems to me, words can carry something of the emotional intensity of the moment, but the experience itself is unsayable.  Mimesis ain’t in it here; there’s no representation that captures the reality anyone other than the writer would perceive.

In purely descriptive terms, the shift in colors that Dillard describes is the overture, the phenomenon that alerts you to the strangeness under way.  But when the moon’s disc fully covers the sun you get something else altogether, a darkness that isn’t quite the darkness of night (especially if you’re high up, with a truly distant horizon, because you can then detect a kind of lightening all around you at the edges of your viewable frame).

And most of all, you get the corona, the solar atmosphere. The human eye can see it out to a distance of at least 10 solar diameters, maybe more.  But because the brightness falls off so sharply from near the limb of the sun to hte diffuse, outer corona, most  most photographs, and certainly in the video linked above, don’t begin to do justice to what you’ll see for yourselves.

Luc Viatour / https://Lucnix.be

All of which is (a) to prove the point that words are poor guides to what happens during totality and (b) if you have a chance, check it out.

*I can’t find the whole film on the web anywhere.  That’s no surprise — in 1992 we weren’t clearing rights for an internet that wouldn’t properly exist for years to come.  One cool thing about that eclipse that you’ll see if you do look at the clip were those two giant solar prominences.  Don’t see that every time.

Images: George Stubbs, Eclipse at Newmarket with Groombefore 1789.

Photos of a partial eclipse of the sun taken in Yunnan province, China, 1999

Luc Viatour, Total Solar Eclipse, 1999