13.73 billion years, plus or minus 120 million years

According to this fascinating piece over at the Bad Astronomy Blog, that’s the age of the Universe. And furthermore…

The energy budget of the Universe is the total amount of energy and matter in the whole cosmos added up. Together with some other observations, WMAP ((The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.)) has been able to determine just how much of that budget is occupied by dark energy, dark matter, and normal matter. What they got was: the Universe is 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 4.62% normal matter. You read that right: everything you can see, taste, hear, touch, just sense in any way… is less than 5% of the whole Universe.

Fascinating, and thought-provoking.
And now I’m off to Town Hall Seattle to listen to Uwe Bratzler, PhD talking about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Particle physics rules… from the Big Bang onwards!

Amazon Web Services, via Scoble

If you want to know what we’re doing here at Amazon in the area of web services – and why! – check out this interview by Scoble with Jeff Barr:

Tomasky (and Charlie) on Goldberg

Michael Tomasky reviews the execrable Goldberg (no, I’m not going to link to his trashy book) and, inter alia, notes the classic smear technique that he employs. When it gets right down to it, describing contemporary liberals as Nazis is grotesquely implausible, and Goldberg hastens to disavow any such intention. But since he cannot walk away from his thesis, he has to insist on a lingering connection, some common “underlying impulse”. But as Charlie noted in his rather odd comments ((The oddness is that Charlie is quite perceptive in telling us “what Goldberg is really showing”, but he refuses to criticize Jonah for wrapping up this “unstated lesson” in such a crudely partisan diatribe.)) on the book,

The unstated lesson of Goldberg’s book is that the appeal of authority is a human failing, shared equally by those on the left, and on the right.

So perhaps Goldberg should have simply written a book about the strictly non-partisan human impulse towards authoritarianism. But what kind of subject is that for a red-blooded member of the NRO? Instead, we have this wishy-washy attempt to link liberals (and only liberals) with fascism. Tomasky again:

Isn’t all this at once so broad and so qualified as to be meaningless? (Don’t worry, my ellipses do not cut out anything inconvenient to my argument. See for yourself on page 327.) Hillary Clinton does not seek any of the goals that fascists have traditionally sought, but somehow she is like them. And so on. Whole Foods is obviously a pretty fascistic enterprise, especially its EnviroKidz cereal line, but “none of this is evil, and it is certainly well-meaning”. Also, liberals “are not cartoonish Nazi villains,” and “the danger they pose isn’t existential or Orwellian”. Lurking behind all these futile disclaimers may be Goldberg’s well-founded fear that intelligent or knowledgeable readers might conclude that he is crazy.

We have become Saddam

Via Sully, a sobering assessment by Judah Grunstein: (My emphasis.)

… I’ll preface it by emphasizing that I’m not drawing a moral or methodological equivalency here, but simply a structural and functional one. Namely, as the glue that holds Iraq’s disparate parts together, the U.S. is now playing the role that Saddam Hussein formerly played in Iraq, and we’re playing it for the same reason that we were willing to tolerate Hussein for as long as we did: to contain Iran’s regional influence. What’s more, it’s a role that has once again led us to ally ourselves with some unsavory and unpredictable characters, all of whom have their own agendas that don’t always correspond to ours. And short of the improbable appearance of an Iraqi strongman in the structural, functional (and moral) image of Saddam Hussein, it’s a role that only we can play.

Is this what Cheney wanted – to bind the hands of his successors?

Banks returns to form with "Matter"

I’ve finally finished “Matter”, the latest “Culture” novel by Iain M. Banks. It’s been three years since his last book, “The Algebraist”, about which I had very mixed feelings. Like many of Banks’ readers, I was hoping for a return to a more confident kind of story-telling, without the inconsistencies that had marred “The Algebraist”.
Overall, I enjoyed it a great deal. Structurally, it has a familiar pattern: three journeys, party in space but mostly of self-discovery, that lead up to a singular point of crisis. Sounds a bit like “Lord of the Rings”, doesn’t it? Unlike “LotR”, the protagonists are three siblings, but as in Tolkien’s work the journeys are the main point of the tale. The revelation of the true nature of the crisis, and the climactic confrontation, are compressed into the last few pages. The dénouement is crudely perfunctory; a brief epilogue that follows an appendix, and almost seems to parody the close of Tolkien’s “Return of the King”.
Although the narrative is populated with familiar elements from earlier “Culture” novels, “Matter” keeps scratching some of the itches that affected Banks in “The Algebraist”. There is a cynical undercurrent about the illusion of “progress”, together with a determined attempt to destroy any comfortable identification that we might make between ourselves and any particular part of his menagerie. Perhaps you remember the wonderful quote by Sir Martin Rees, the British astronomer:

It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence; it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.

Banks confronts us with a universe whose population spans a vast spectrum of capabilities, of intentions, of possibilities. And with that variety there is inevitably going to be confusion, frustration and mutual incomprehension. As in “The Algebraist”, there are dead ends and unexplained elements. This is an important aspect of Banks’ world that needs to be conveyed, but some of the protagonists’ confusion winds up spilling over to the reader.
“Matter” feels more explicitly violent than earlier books by Banks; it’s as if he’s been reading Scalzi and other mil-sci-fi writers. This is not a criticism, just an observation. There is a deliberate “compare and contrast” between traditional warfare – think 17th century Europe with a dash of steam-punk – and conflict in a future of robotic weaponry and smart, morphing armour:

“In the unlikely event we do get involved in a serious firefight and the suits think you’re under real threat,” Djan Seriy had told the two Sarl men, “they’ll take over. High-end exchanges happen too fast for human reactions so the suits will do the aiming, firing and dodging for you.” She’d seen the expressions of dismay on their faces, and shrugged. “It’s like all war; months of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. It’s just the moments are sometimes measured in milliseconds and the engagement’s often over before you’re aware it has even begun.”

Speaking of which…
So if “The Algebraist” was a three-and-a-half star book, “Matter” is a solid four-star effort, and as I think about it over the next few days I may add another half star. Definitely recommended; I hope we don’t have to wait another three years for the next one.