News

This:

The Pentagon says there were no U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan in March — the first zero-fatality month there since January 2007.

To put that into further context: this is the first month without U.S. combat deaths since March, 2003 — almost eleven full years. [via]

Grandreview

I won’t repeat the line that’s echoing in my head — the one John Kerry said of a different conflict.  But I’m thinking it.

One more thing:  US casualties do not write the whole story.  Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly free of conflict.  As we listen to the usual suspects talk war at every turn of events, it’s not a bad thing to think about the last time we listened to their advice.

But I’m not going to go too far down that road in this post either.  This is a moment to be glad no one got the news this month, to hope that record will continue, and to spare a thought for all those who received that awful word over the last decade and more.

Image:  Matthew Brady, Grand Review of the Armies, 1865.  Thought of using this image, but couldn’t bring myself to do so.  NSF those who’ve lost folks — or maybe any of us.








Leave RBG Alone

In a week when Jeffrey Toobin could write this, in the New Yorker

There were two lessons from Tuesday’s argument in the Hobby Lobby case in the Supreme Court. First, it’s very important that there are now three women Justices. Second, it’s even more important that it takes five votes to win…

There was little doubt where the Court’s three female Justices stood. After Paul Clement, the lawyer for Hobby Lobby, began his argument, twenty-eight of the first thirty-two questions to him came from Ruth Bader Ginsburg (four questions), Sonia Sotomayor (eleven), and Elena Kagan (thirteen). The queries varied, of course, but they were all variations on a theme. The trio saw the case from the perspective of the women employees. They regarded the employer as the party in the case with the money and the power…

The outcome of the case is not certain, although it does seem like eight votes are locked in, split along the customary four-to-four lines… There is no such thing as a women’s position on this case or on any other issue. But there is such a thing as women’s voices, and with this case, especially, it was important that they be heard. On this day at the Supreme Court, they were.

… It seemed like a good time to highlight Dahlia Lithwick’s cogent argument at Slate:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Irreplaceable. All You Liberals Trying to Push Her Out, Think About That.
… Over at the Atlantic, professor Garrett Epps has just written in defense of Ginsburg. You should read the whole piece, but two important points he makes are worth repeating: Ginsburg plays a crucially important role in the Roberts Court as the senior justice on the liberal bloc, not just in terms of assigning opinions but in terms of writing them. If anything, Ginsburg has been stronger in recent years than ever and has been a crisper, more urgent voice for women’s rights, minority rights, affirmative action, and the dignity of those who often go unseen at the high court than ever before. She has gone from rarely reading her dissents from the bench to doing so with great frequency, calling out the majority for what she sees as grave injustices and proving that her voice is both fiery and indispensible. Telling her that her work is awesome, but it’s time to move on is tantamount to saying that a liberal is a liberal and that Ginsburg brings nothing to the table that another Obama appointee will not replicate. That analysis suffers from exactly the same realpolitik flaw Ginsburg’s critics ascribe to her: that counting to four, or five, is more important that the justice herself. Ginsburg, like Antonin Scalia, is writing those dissents for law students, for the case books, and for Congress. Not all justices are created equal in that regard… Read more








Third Way Wankers Write In Villager Rag Bemoaning the Influence of Dirty Hippies. Alternative Working Title- “Dog Bites Man.”

Brought to you by the department of redundancy department:

A charge implicit in the Moulitsas post is that moderate Democrats lack political courage—that they would do the right thing if only they were brave enough. This just doesn’t withstand scrutiny. We actually sat in meetings with Senate moderates during the darkest days of the ACA deliberations. They knew that voting for the bill could send them to the Valley of the Doomed, and for many it did or still could. They put their careers on the line and took that vote anyway—every single moderate named in the piece who was still in the Senate voted for the ACA. So did those unnamed, like Senators Begich and Hagan. That is political courage.

It was laudable, but hardly courageous, for a Democrat from a blue state to have voted for the ACA. The last time a Democratic Senate incumbent lost in New York was 1899, and in Massachusetts it was 1947. They don’t stare political death in the face on any vote, ever. The moderates do.

Moulitsas might have a stronger case if the moderates he abhors were replaced by more liberal members. But almost every instance saw the opposite result. Of the 10 former Democratic senators that Moulitsas identifies, seven were replaced by Republicans, one by Montanan John Walsh, who is in a fight for his political life this year, and another by Democrat Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is unlikely to make the DailyKos Pantheon of Progressiveness. Just one, Joe Lieberman, of midnight-blue Connecticut, was succeeded by someone to his left. Meanwhile, the moderate Democrats in tough fights this cycle are running against Tea Party true believers.

Two Third Way hacks writing in the friendliest confines this side of the WaPo editorial page. This faux centrism will be the death of us all unless we beat them down. Markos responds:

But what’s truly funny about their attacks on me is that they have to invent words in my mouth to make a coherent argument. I’ve written over 10 million words the past decade, and yet we get passages like this:

    A charge implicit in the Moulitsas post is that moderate Democrats lack political courage—that they would do the right thing if only they were brave enough. This just doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

You rarely see that blatant an example of a strawman argument. It’s actually a thing of beauty. “He didn’t say this thing, but let’s pretend that he did, and OMG that pretend argument that we invented out of thin air fails scrutiny!”

Note that bullshit arguments are part and parcel of Third Way’s repertoire. As they were attacking Social Security, they completely invented a Colorado ballot initiative that wasn’t (claiming it raised taxes on just the rich, when it raised taxes on everyone). So it’s not as if honesty comes naturally to that crowd. But for now, I’ll make one more observation. This appears to be the nut of their argument:

    Of the 10 former Democratic senators that Moulitsas identifies, seven were replaced by Republicans, one by Montanan John Walsh, who is in a fight for his political life this year, and another by Democrat Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is unlikely to make the DailyKos Pantheon of Progressiveness.

Donnelly didn’t replace Evan Bayh. He replaced Dick Lugar. But that simple fact check isn’t the point I want to make. The point is this:

Who cares if seven of the 10 were replaced with Republicans? Ten years ago, Democrats had 49 members in the Senate. Today they have 53 plus Bernie Sanders and Angus King. And even if they lose the Senate this year, which they won’t, it won’t be much more than a rental as 2016 is a stellar map for us (up to 10 potential pickups).

So is it better to have Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller in a 49-seat minority, or is it better to replace them with better Democrats in a 55-seat Democratic majority? Only morons would argue for the former, but apparently, that’s what Third Way wants to be.

The Third Way, from what I can tell, used to be called Country Club Republicans with an added modern dash of libertarianism and more new money. Think white elites in a 10k a month apartment in NYC drinking coffee while looking out over the city as they listen to vacuous TED lectures while doing the NYT crossword puzzle. They are ok with the gays and abortion, as long as the details remain at arms length and don’t get brought up over dinner, and the minorities and the underclass don’t bother them so much, because then they can visit “authentic” ethnic restaurants in Brooklyn and Queens on the one day a week they venture out of Manhattan (not counting the helicopter jaunts, or, for the “poors,” the livery service or the rental Mercedes to the Hamptons). But even then they are only ok with that so long as Times Square doesn’t have too many needles and porn sites and stop and frisk is still going on to keep them safe and the Hamptons are still clean and lily white. They basically have the same sense of entitlement as the rest of the upper crust in the GOP, and they know they are better than the rest of us, just the really over the top Jesus stuff bothers them, and they vent their fascism in other ways. See also, Mayor Bloomberg.

Fuck ’em all.








The Most Exciting Sentence I’ve Read This Decade…

…Would be this one:

 We find an excess of B -mode power over the base lensed- CDM expectation in the range 30 < ` <  150, inconsistent with the null hypothesis at a significance of >  5 δ.

That’s from the abstract to this paper, released yesterday, in which the team using the BICEP microwave detector at the South Pole reports on their analysis of three years of data taken from 2010-2012.

So what’s that all about?  It’s the best evidence yet that a fundamental pillar of Big Bang cosmology is correct, that a concept named inflation does in fact describe what happened within the first instant of the formation of our universe.  Here’s how Alan Guth, the inventor of the idea describes it:

This theory is a new twist on big bang theory, proposing a novel picture of ho the universe behaved for the first minuscule fraction of a second of its existence.

The central feature of the theory is a brief period of extraordinary rapid expansion, of inflation,  which lasted for a time interval perhaps as short as 10^-30 seconds.  During this period the universe expanded by at least a factor of 10^25, and perhaps a great deal more. [Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe, p. 14.]

Guth’s initial version of inflation theory has been refined significantly since its origins in the late 1970s, and in its modern form inflation has become part of the basic toolkit of cosmological investigation.  The universe we observe doesn’t make sense unless something occurred to explain, for just one example, the way the universe looks basically the same everywhere, when viewed on the largest scale.  Inflation as the idea has evolved has become the best available explanation (though there have been competing models) for this and other observed cosmological properties.  But the challenge has been to find some tell-tale sign that shows* that inflation actually happened.

It’s been clear for a long time where such signs might lie:  in the cosmic microwave background (CMB),  a snapshot of the cosmos taken at a moment called “recombination,” when the universe cooled down enough to permit electrons and protons to come together to form (mostly) neutral hydrogen atoms.  Photons — light — that up till that moment had been embraced in electromagnetic dances with charged particles were then unshackled to fly freely through space, carrying with them the traces of where they’d been just before that liberation — which came just 380,000 years after the big bang.

J.M.W._Turner_-_The_Beacon_Light

Over time (13.8 billion years), that extremely hot (energetic) spray of light has cooled to 2.7 Kelvins — 2.7 degrees above absolute zero — and is now detectable as those very long wavelengths of light called microwaves.  This  microwave background was identified in 1965 as a generalized blur covering the entire sky; increasingly sophisticated measurements have revealed more and more detail.  Over the last twenty fiveyears those observations have turned into a probe of what happened between the big bang and the flash of the CMB itself:  each newly precise measurement constrains the possible physics that gave rise to the details thus revealed.  Step by step, each new level of detail narrow the options for what could have occurred during the big bang era — and the chain of events that lead from cosmic origins to us becomes increasingly clear.

In the 1990s,  improving resolution of CMB images revealed spots on the sky where there is slightly more energy in that microwave background — corresponding to regions in the early universe with slightly more matter-energy than surrounding regions.  Such variations account for why there are lots of galaxies full of stars in some places, and vast voids in other:  over millions and billions of years, gravity can work on very slight variations in initial density to sort matter into that kind of pattern.

With the advance of both space and ground based microwave imagers, it’s become possible to sample the CMB in vastly greater detail, and thus uncover much more than the simple (easy for me to say) evolution of structure in the universe.  For example, CMB researchers have identified several acoustic peaks in the background — literally, the ringing of the early universe, pressure waves produced by the interaction of light and matter in the very early universe.  The particular properties of those peaks reveal basic facts about the universe — and help distinguish between different theories about how we get the cosmos we inhabit from the big bang whose traces we see in the CMB.

Before today, the state of play was that CMB results were most consistent with the  predictions of inflation, compared with other candidate ideas.  At the same time though, observations that are consistent-with are not the same as direct observations of the cosmological equivalent of the miscreant’s fingerprints on the knife.  That’s what the BICEP results deliver.

In simplest terms:  modern theories of cosmic inflation say that immediately after some tiny perturbation occurs that marks the birth of a universe, it gets pulled apart by inflation — which you can think of as negative gravity, a gravitational field that stretches space-time.  The inflationary episode is so powerful that it expands the infant universe by orders of magnitude in fractions of a second — as some say, inflation provides the bang in the big bang — and it’s so violent that as space-time undergoes such wild tugs, ripples form.  Those ripples are gravitational waves — predicted by Albert Einstein, inferred from the behavior of pulsars, but never detected directly.  An observation of such primordial fluctuations, variations in the strength of the gravitational field from point to point in the early universe, would offer the first direct glimpse of traces of an inflationary episode marking the birth of our cosmos.

And that’s what BICEPs results contain:  the team led by John Kovac at the Harvard – Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Clem Pryke at the University of Minnesota, Jamie Bock at Caltech/JPL, and Chao-Lin Kuo of Stanford and SLAC report the detection of the signature of gravity waves in the CMB with the properties corresponding to those predicted to be produced by inflation.

In slightly more detail, the BICEP experiment observed a particular pattern of polarization in the light (microwaves) of the CMB that inflation would be expected to produce.   (Many more details:   web resources from the BICEP team and partner institutions;  quick semi-technical gloss on the results from Sean B. Carroll;  Matt Strassler’s take; Dennis Overbye’s account in the NYT.)

One key caveat before the wind up:  this is one result from one group.  It is reported with great confidence (that five sigma claim).  But something this big needs independent confirmation — data from the Planck satellite for example, or more ground based observations from other microwave detectors.  This isn’t yet a done deal.

Such confirmation (or disproof) will come fairly quickly — a few years at most.

In the meantime, assuming the data do hold up, what would that mean (forgive me) more cosmically?

At the very least:  that we now understand in previously unattainable detail how our current habitat emerged from nothing (or better, “nothing”).  That the idea of a multiverse — other patches of space time that underwent an inflationary episode to form island universes of their own — has now gained a boost (if one patch of space-time can inflate, so could others)….

…or to put in mythic terms:  there is grandeur in this view of life (the cosmos).  Paraphrasing an old friend, astronomer Sandra Faber, with this new, richer, more fully realized picture of the birth of the universe we have once again enriched that creation story that only science tells, the one that connects the earth we inhabit today with a process of cosmic evolution that we now can trace back all the way to just the barest instant this side of the point of origin.

A good day.

*To a close approximation — this is physics.  You want certainty, become a mathematician.

[Thanks to Dr Katherine J. Mack of the University of Melbourne, aka @AstroKatie, who helped make sure no egregious errors slipped through.  Any mistakes, major or minor, that remain are mine, all mine.]

Image:  J. W. M. Turner, The Beacon Lightc. 1840

PS:  Bonus video showing one of the founding architects of inflation theory receiving news of the result:








From Balloon Juice to the NY Times

Me last week:

There are a couple of categories of people who are undeniably worse off under Obamacare than they would have been under a no change policy. They can be clustered into a few broad groups.

  • People earning over $250,000 per year in Modified Adjusted Gross Income who have employer sponsored health care or Medicare and are paying more in taxes
  • Young single males with absolutely no health problems, no relatives with health problems and incomes over 250% Federal Poverty Line that previously had a $42 a month, $25,000 deductible plans that did not cover maternity or mental health needs. Those policies got cancelled and they actually have to buy good insurance. Young guys making under $25,000 a year usually will get decent subsidies, past that, it is hard to be sympathetic to someone bitching that they (a member of a high accident group) have to buy decent insurance. Avik Roy has been trying to make this class sympathetic and failing miserably)

Those are the two big classes of losers under the law. Neither are particularly sympathetic.

Paul Krugman on the Op-ed page yesterday in the NY Times:

Why can’t the right find these people and exploit them?

The most likely answer is that the true losers from Obamacare generally aren’t very sympathetic. For the most part, they’re either very affluent people affected by the special taxes that help finance reform, or at least moderately well-off young men in very good health who can no longer buy cheap, minimalist plans. Neither group would play well in tear-jerker ads.

 I’ll take this as a win.