Thursday, April 30, 2009

GRB 090423

Ooooh! Yesterday's APOD shows the afterglow of gamma-ray burst 090423 which has a measured redshift of 8.2 -- making it the most distant GRB detected and (apart from the CMB) the most distant object ever observed. (090423 is also coincidentally our 10-year dating anniversary.)

For non-astronomers, redshift (or z) is the stretching of light-waves by the expansion of the universe; astronomers use it as a convenient shorthand for distance. Until recently you almost never saw anything beyond a z of 5, so a redshift of 8.2 is sort of like hitting 100 home runs in a season -- pretty cool! This burst arose from the death of a massive star back in the very, very early universe.

The rarity of high-z objects is partly because the bulk of the emitted light is shifted into the infrared (which is more of a pain to detect) and partly because neutral hydrogen absorbs much of the visible light past a certain redshift. In theory, objects like this one can tell us a lot about the era of reionization and the formation of structure in the universe. No doubt telescopes with infrared detectors are trying to squeeze every last photon out of this event.

If anyone is interested, you can follow the observation reports for this event -- from the initial detection by Swift to the discovery of the NIR afterglow -- at GRBlog or Jochen Greiner's website.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter Defector

D.C. is all a-twitter with today's news that Sen. Arlen Specter has decided to switch parties to avoid a tough Republican primary opponent. In theory this gives the Democrats the 60 votes needed to avoid the omnipresent Republican filibuster (assuming Al Franken ever gets seated). In reality, power still lies in the hands of the same handful of centrist Senators, no matter what letter appears next to their name.

On one level, it's a little bit sad to see the Republicans seemingly driving out their moderate members. Nate Silver has dubbed this the Republican Death Spiral, where moderates lose or leave the party and the increasingly conservative remainder is unable or unwilling to appeal to the mainstream, leading to more losses and more defections, etc. The psychology is pretty easy to understand.

One question is why this didn't happen to the Democrats in '02 and '04 when they were getting trounced at the polls? I think partly it did. There were numerous voices that called for moderating the party's message, but the leadership picked liberal Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader over the moderate Steny Hoyer. The party then nominated two solid liberals -- Kerry and Obama -- as their presidential standard-bearers, rather than reaching for a centrist.

But at the same time as the Dems stuck to their liberal guns, Howard Dean rolled out his 50 state strategy and Obama made a concerted effort to compete in red states like Virginia and North Carolina. A shift to the left, yes, but also reaching out beyond the base. (And of course, the Democrats also got lucky. As 9/11 faded, the Bush administration dragged on and the economy collapsed, the country as a whole seems to have shifted left.)

The key then is not ideology, but outreach and persuasion. Maybe the Republican Party's mistake is not in becoming more conservative, but in writing off large portions of America as unworthy. If you live in a city, the party barely even tries to appeal to your interests. If you are gay or lesbian or have family members who are immigrants, some Republican politicians don't even want your vote and routinely go out of their way to insult you.

As I've ranted before, this is dumb politics on their part. The Democrats, whatever else their faults, seem to have an unshakable belief that the entire middle class is their turf and their natural constituency. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how Specter changes the calculus for health care reform, cap-and-trade, EFCA, etc.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Easter Best

I've been neglectful of my picture posting duties. No more! Here's a few from Easter Sunday.

Quinn amidst nice big purple pile of trouble.


This was Quinn's first real Easter egg hunt. I think last year we put some eggs in front of her, but she wasn't really that mobile yet. This year she really enjoyed finding the eggs, saying "egg!" and then putting the eggs into the baskets of another kids. Also, there may have been some shrieking and a lot of running around.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Modest Tax Proposal

As we (well mostly Laura Jean, but I was there for moral support) were paying our taxes last night I was reminded that DC still (!) doesn't have representation in Congress. Totally lame, but probably unlikely to change anytime soon. Sigh.

Eric mentioned to me that some Republicans have proposed exempting DC residents from all federal taxes, rather than finding a compromise that gives us congressional representation. I suppose that would be somewhat fair (not to mention hilarious) -- but also utterly terrifying. I can only imagine DC would soon devolve into some form of Ayn Rand-ian dystopia. Overnight, tea-party types would stream into the District, buying up homes from current residents at hugely inflated prices. Soon they would have a voting majority and demand an end to local taxes too. The police would be replaced with warring private security forces. Anarchy would descend! Bwa ha ha!

I jest - but only a little.

Anyway, happy tax day. Here are some interesting posts from Kevin Drum on how our tax system isn't really all that progressive, from Ezra Klein on who really shoulders the tax burden and this nifty chart from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities about where it all goes.

Also, congrats Mom on making it through!

Friday, April 10, 2009

No (good) news

It's rare that my hometown of Fresno makes the national news for anything positive (see: Kevin Federline). Which is pretty lousy, but I guess no news is good news. Anyway, we popped up in this New York Times article about the sudden increase in shantytowns across the country. Between the housing downturn, the general recession and several years of drought it seems like things are pretty bad in the valley -- 15 to 16 percent unemployment is what I've heard.

The article finds out-of-work electricians and truck drivers living in tents and out of their cars -- more reminders that virtually all the people who can work, want to work, we just need to find ways to make that happen. And in the meantime places like Poverello House do good work to keep the social safety net from tearing away entirely. Places like that always need support, particularly in times like this.

Something to think about for our Passover and Easter (and other) celebrations.