Sunday, August 15, 2021

Last Call For I Recall Gavin, Con't

Californians overwhelmingly support vaccine mandates in the latest CBS News poll, and there's every reason to believe that Gov. Gavin Newsom will soon make them a reality. The question is whether or not Newsom's recall vote next month will send the Golden State back to GOP control.

As Californians express widespread concern about the Delta variant, they overwhelmingly say the state's recent rise in cases was preventable, had more people gotten vaccinated and taken more precautions.

California's vaccinated voice a lot of judgment toward the unvaccinated: "They're putting people like me at risk" is a top way the fully vaccinated pick to describe those who won't get the shot, with many others outright "upset or angry" with those unwilling to get it. From a policy standpoint, there's strong support for vaccine mandates, too.

Meanwhile, as the effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom heads into its final month, Newsom faces what looks like a turnout challenge: while voters would marginally prefer to keep him in office at the moment, it looks like that will heavily depend on whether Democrats in his party get more motivated about it.

When California's vaccinated describe people unwilling to get the vaccine, another phrase they select is that "they're being misled by false information," in addition to the emotional response of being upset. Far fewer of the fully vaccinated say they respect the decision of those who won't.

Behind some of those sentiments, we also see that while unvaccinated Californians tend to describe the decision to get the shot as a "personal health choice," the vaccinated are more likely to call it both a personal choice and public health responsibility.

Californians' list of what may have prevented rising cases is dominated by more vaccinations and taking masking precautions, while far fewer point to other measures like more travel and border restrictions. Nor do they cast any blame on scientists and medical professionals for the recent rise in infections. (Though on this, we do see more partisan differences: Republicans are notable for singling out limiting of border crossings as one top way to have prevented it, more so than more vaccinations or policy measures.)

So, given all that, vaccine mandates find wide support across California. A large majority support allowing employers to mandate vaccines for employees. And it's not all that partisan: four in 10 Republicans are OK with this idea, too. There is strong support for making vaccines mandatory for health care workers, and a lot of support for letting businesses that draw crowds also mandate that their customers be vaccinated. Moreover, many people would be more willing to use or visit such a business.


Indeed, we're looking at nearly two-thirds support for vaccine mandates in California. This should be a winner for Newsom in his recall vote, for the people of California to vote NO on recall.

All the GOP candidates have said they will remove all mask ordinances and mandates if they are elected.

Your choice, folks. Make the clearly correct one.

Af-Gone-Istan, Con't

Kabul, and with it Afghanistan as a whole, has all but fallen to the Taliban over the weekend as the last US personnel out of the US embassy there has turned out the lights.
Afghanistan’s embattled president left the country Sunday, joining his fellow citizens and foreigners in a stampede fleeing the advancing Taliban and signaling the end of a 20-year Western experiment aimed at remaking Afghanistan.

The Taliban entered the capital earlier in the day, and an official with the militant group said it would soon announce the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the presidential palace — a return rich in symbolism to the name of the country under the Taliban government ousted by U.S.-led forces after the 9/11 attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

The insurgents pushed through a city gripped by panic, where helicopters raced overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents, and the American flag was lowered. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.

Afghans fearing that the Taliban could reimpose the kind of brutal rule that all but eliminated women’s rights rushed to leave the country, lining up at cash machines to withdraw their life savings. The desperately poor — who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital — remained in their thousands in parks and open spaces throughout the city.

Though the Taliban had promised a peaceful transition, the U.S. Embassy suspended operations and warned Americans late in the day to shelter in place and not try to get to the airport.

Commercial flights were later suspended after sporadic gunfire erupted at the airport, according to two senior U.S. military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations. Evacuations continued on military flights, but the halt to commercial traffic closed off one of the last routes available for Afghans fleeing the country.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the U.S. pullout from Vietnam, as many watched in disbelief at the sight of helicopters landing in the embassy compound to take diplomats to a new outpost at Kabul International Airport.

“This is manifestly not Saigon,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

The American ambassador was among those evacuated, said officials who spoke condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing military operations. He was asking to return to the embassy, but it was not clear if he would be allowed to.

As the insurgents closed in Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country.

“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” said Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council. “God should hold him accountable.”

As night fell, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition. Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the upscale diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.

In a stunning rout, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week, despite the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and NATO over nearly two decades to build up Afghan security forces. Just days earlier, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
Understand that Afghanistan fell in a week because the US and NATO got 99.99% of things wrong from day one, nearly twenty years ago. We never should have been there in the first place, and we should have gotten out ten years ago when I said we should have.

The breakneck speed at which Afghanistan has fallen is only proof that the nation-building exercise of a Middle East democracy in Kabul was always an arrogant American dream. We were always going to be propping up the army and the government until that day we stopped, and the day we stopped everything fell apart like a balsa wood house in a hurricane.

This last piece of Unfinished Bush Business is coming to a close, and we'll finally witness the disaster over the rest of the year that we only delayed for two decades. Republicans are loudly blaming Biden, as if somehow that Trump didn't want to do the same thing to the point of inviting the Taliban to Camp David before scrapping peace talks entirely two years ago.

And as usual, the real victims over the last two decades have been the Afghan people, who died by the hundreds of thousands and will only suffer more under the Taliban.

So it goes.

Sunday Long Read: Star-Crossed Distances

This week's Sunday Long Read comes to us from Rivka Galchen at the New Yorker, detailing the most powerful space telescope NASA has ever produced, the James Webb, expected to launch in a September mission. Once the space telescope goes online, scientists will have their clearest view yet through a time-travel machine as light from stars that took billions of years to reach us will be on display like never before.

Next month, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to take a slow boat from Los Angeles, spend a few days traversing the Panama Canal, and arrive at a spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The telescope will have been twenty-five years and ten billion dollars in the making. Thousands of scientists and engineers from fourteen countries will have worked on it. It could have flown, sure, but it’s a tight squeeze—plus the telescope weighs seven tons, and Kourou’s airfield is connected to its spaceport by seven bridges not built to endure such a load. The telescope will be put into Ariane 5, a European rocket named for a mythical princess who helped a man she loved defeat the Minotaur and escape a maze. Ariane 5 will carry the telescope some ten thousand kilometres in thirty minutes. The J.W.S.T. will then continue on its own, for twenty-nine days, toward a lonely, lovely orbit in space, about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, where we will never visit it, though it will stay in constant communication with us. From Earth, it will appear ten thousand times fainter than the faintest star.

On its way, the telescope will slowly unfurl five silvery winglike layered sheets of Kapton foil, about as large as a tennis court. These sheets, each thinner than notebook paper, will function as a gigantic parasol, protecting the body of the telescope from the light and the heat of the sun, moon, and Earth. In this way, the J.W.S.T. will be kept nearly as dark and as cold as outer space, to insure that distant signals aren’t washed out. Then eighteen hexagons of gold-coated beryllium mirror will open out, like an enormous, night-blooming flower. The mirrors will form a reflecting surface as tall and as wide as a house, and they will capture light that has been travelling for more than thirteen billion years.

This is the hope, at least.

“Oh, gee, I worry all the time,” said Marcia Rieke, an infrared astronomer based in Tucson, who has devoted much of the past two decades to the J.W.S.T. “Even the rocket, which is the most reliable rocket out there, it still has some tiny chance of exploding at launch.” Rieke, who has astrology-blue eyes and a no-nonsense ponytail, is the scientific lead for the near-infrared camera, known as the nirCam, which is one of four main research instruments on the telescope. She is an expert on the formation of galaxies, and the nirCam will allow us to see light from billions of years ago, when the earliest galaxies and stars were formed. I spoke with Rieke over Zoom, where she had as a background a lunar eclipse she photographed in Sabino Canyon, which is near her home but looks like it’s on Mars. “I’ve spent decades in this field, and there’s still so much I don’t know,” she said.

In 2017, Rieke and her team went to the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, where tests would be performed on the nirCam and other Webb instruments. They wanted to expose the telescope to the extremely cold conditions of outer space. Hurricane Harvey hit while they were there. “While I was at the airport waiting to fly out to Houston, I was watching the forecast and fortunately was able to change my car rental to an S.U.V.,” Rieke said. “So I was able to ferry the members of the team between their hotels and the Space Center. They brought in really nice catering for us. I’m not sure how they managed that.” Imagine sealing one’s gold-plated work of decades in a giant pressure cooker and then pouring liquid nitrogen on top of it—that resembles the exposure test. The telescope was in Chamber A, the gigantic vacuum chamber at the Space Center where the command module for Apollo was tested. Remarkably, Rieke’s team accomplished its mission. Rieke has seen the J.W.S.T. survive not only Hurricane Harvey but also numerous threats of cancellation, along with delays that have serially shifted the launch from an original date of 2010 to late 2021. I asked Rieke what she was most looking forward to seeing. “I’m looking forward to seeing that it works,” she said. “I’ll start sleeping better about thirty days after it’s been launched. Launch isn’t even the riskiest step in deploying the nirCam.” Once the telescope is up and running, Rieke will return to studying events that happened in our universe billions of years before Earth was formed.

It’s easy to forget that light takes time to travel. But when we see the moon we are seeing it as it was 1.3 seconds earlier; Jupiter we see as it was forty minutes ago; the Andromeda galaxy—the nearest major galaxy to ours, and the most distant object we can see without a telescope—2.5 million years ago. “My students are often frustrated to think that they can’t see the things in space as they are today,” David Helfand, an astronomer at Columbia University, said. “I tell them it’s this great advantage. It means that the universe is laid out like a book. You can turn to any page you want. If you want to see ten billion years into the past, you look out at ten billion light-years away.”

Helfand, a former president of the American Astronomical Society, looks like Socrates. He attributes much of his success in life to a background in theatre, and he spends a lot of his time teaching science to nonscientists—the only prerequisite for his perennial class Earth, Moon, and Planets is “a working knowledge of high-school algebra.” He taught me about the J.W.S.T.

Most of the light spectrum is not visible to the human eye. When we look up at the night sky, it’s as if we were listening to Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with ears able to hear only the occasional middle C and maybe a tinny D. We have no biological receptors for radio waves, or microwaves, or ultraviolet radiation, or infrared radiation. If an object is moving away from us—and most everything in the universe is, because the universe is continuously expanding—the wavelength of its light is, in effect, stretched out, eventually rendering it infrared. Helfand said, “The atmosphere blocks out a lot of energy—that’s why we can live on Earth. But it’s not good for astronomy. And our atmosphere is particularly ugly for infrared.” On Earth, there are a number of telescopes larger than the J.W.S.T., but they can’t see the range of infrared light with the level of resolution and sensitivity that the new telescope will achieve.

“It will have many capacities, but the two big ones are ‘Very Far Away’ and ‘Very Close,’ ” Helfand said. The Very Far Away component will look back about 13.5 billion years, to when the universe was some quarter of a billion years old. “If you compare the universe’s life to that of a human, that’s like seeing the universe at, well, we’d have to calculate it, but it’s seeing the universe as a baby,” he said. After the big bang, the universe was a nearly uniform soup of matter and radiation. But by the mysterious epoch that the telescope will examine—sometimes called the Dark Ages—gravity had managed to amplify tiny irregularities in that soup, causing a kind of clumping. “So what we are on is the quest for the very first stars.” When did they turn on? What are they like? Did stars form before galaxies? How did black holes with masses millions of times greater than that of the sun form so quickly?

“The Very Close capacity is in some ways the most exciting,” Helfand told me. “It’s about looking at planets that are not too different from Earth.” The J.W.S.T. will study exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. Exoplanetology is a young field. The first exoplanet (outside science fiction) was discovered only twenty-five years ago. By 2005, about two hundred exoplanets had been found. Today, more than forty-four hundred are known, and it seems likely that such planets are ubiquitous. Though they don’t emit light, Helfand explained that “when these planets pass in front of a star they leave a sort of fingerprint,” and that fingerprint can be read for clues. The J.W.S.T. will be able to describe the atmospheres of these planets, possibly detecting free oxygen or other gases—potential signs of life
Exciting stuff here, if humanity survives on this rock long enough to be able to reach these exoplanets. We'll see, quite literally.
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