Cosmic Inflation

A good explanation.

bigbang proven--

Discovery Clarification

I’m actually in hiding and silence for a week. It is Spring Break and I have locked myself away in a seaside town to do some writing, as I did last year. But I must break my silence for a little while. Why? Well there’s been a really great announcement in physics today and while being very happy that it is getting a lot of press attention – and it should since the result is very important and exciting – I’ve been stunned by how confusingly it has been reported in several news reports. So I thought I’d say a few things that might help.

But first, let me acknowledge that there’s a ton of coverage out there and so I don’t need to point to any press articles. I will just point to the press release of the BICEP2 collaboration (yes, that’s what they’re called) here, and urge you once you’ve read that to follow the link within to the wealth of data (images, text, graphs, diagrams) that they provide. It’s fantastically comprehensive, so knock yourself out.

I keep hearing reports saying things like “Scientists have proved the Big Bang”. No. The Big Bang, while an exciting and important result for modern cosmology, is very old news. (You can tell since there’s even a TV comedy named after it.) This is not really about the Big Bang. This is about Inflation, the mechanism that made the universe expand rapidly from super-tiny scales to more macroscopic scales in fractions of a second. (I’ll say more about the “super-tiny” below).

I also hear (slightly more nuanced) reports about this being the first confirmation of Inflation . That’s a point we can argue about, but I’d say that’s not true either. We’ve had other strong clues that Inflation is correct. One of the key things that pops out of inflation is that it flattens out the curvature of universe a lot, and the various observations that have been made about the Cosmic Microwave Background over the years (the CMB is that radiation left over from when the universe was very young (about 380,000 years old – remember the universe is just under 14 billion years old!)) have shown us that the universes is remarkably flat. Another previous exciting result in modern cosmology. Today’s result isn’t the first evidence.

So what is today’s exciting news about then? The clue to the correctcharacterization of what all this means is in the title of the press release: “First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation”. It’s the “Direct” part that’s important, and it connects to more excitement too. Let me explain. By examining the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the BICEP2 people were able to find something very important. If there was a period of inflation in the universe then the stuff left over (matter and radiation) ought to have an imprint of the gravitational waves (actual ripples in spacetime) that accompanied inflation. We’ve never seen these before, and this is precisely what they found! That imprint is in the from of a certain type of polarisation of the CMB. Yes, the same kind of polarization you play with when you use polarizing sunglasses. Light from the sun gets dodged around a bit by the molecules of our atmosphere, and we see the imprint of that as polarization… Well the imprint on the light of the CMB from gravitational waves in the very early universe makes a particular type of polarization too. That’s what they found.

This is hugely exciting since it is a direct (ish) detection of physics connected to the super-tiny scales many of us have been thinking about, and (through the gravitational waves) to much earlier than the 380K years when the CMB radiation first appeared. Those tiny scales are knocking on the door of the kinds of things I work on – quantum gravity. The very young universe had both quantum physics and spacetime physics (gravity) doing important things together and the combination of the two “quantum gravity” is what we hope to understand and put to the test one day, whether it be string theory or some other approach we may or may not have thought of. So this is exciting, since we’ve finally got some physics that is a bit more directly connected to those scales than we usually have access to.

Finally, there are questions like whether this is somehow “bigger than the Higgs” in terms of discoveries. I just think that’s a bit of a silly discussion, but let me engage slightly. On the one hand, I’d say we’d have been more surprised if we’d not found the Higgs, since there are so many things about the Standard Model of particle physics, the internal consistency of how quantum field theory (quantum mechanics for particle physics) works, and various other things concerning particles having mass, that depend upon something like the Higgs existing. On the other hand, there’s a lot more that we don’t understand about what constrains models of the very early universe (especially when knocking on the door of quantum gravity), and perhaps how cleanly we’d be able to see signatures of mechanisms like inflation, so I think we were less bound to having to find today’s signatures than we were to finding direct evidence of the Higgs mechanism. So it is great to learn (and more cleanly than most people were expecting) more evidence that inflation is on the right track. It could have been a messier story that took longer to sort out.

But you can run it both ways. You could say that my previous paragraph means the Higgs is a bigger result since we kind of needed it for full consistency of lots of things we already knew, or you could say it means the Higgs is a smaller result since we kind of needed it for full consistency of lots of things we already knew. Pick.

I return to my assertion that it’s silly to try to rank recent discoveries in this way, not the least because it plays into that tedious and damaging “what’s the next big thing” or “what has science done for me lately” attitude our culture likes to go in for.

Anyway – hurrah for physics and Congratulations to the BICEP2 team!

(Returning to quiet hiding mode… although there’s be some short posts every now and again.)


The Pocket computer: AAPL Cringely & Umiastowski


Apple launches its iPhone 5s and 5c on Sept. 20, 2013. (Adrees Latif / Reuters) Apple launches its iPhone 5s and 5c on Sept. 20, 2013. (

Apple’s next growth engine: Replacing the PC

CHRIS UMIASTOWSKI Chris Umiastowski is the growth investor for Globe Investor’s Strategy Lab.

When BlackBerry Ltd. pre-announced disastrous second-quarter results and 4,500 job cuts, I was en route to Ottawa with my wife to participate in the Army Run. That day – Friday, Sept. 20 – will go down as Black(Berry) Friday for the one-time smartphone giant. But it was also launch day for Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s.

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I’ve been a die-hard BlackBerry user for almost 13 years. But after I read the bad news on my BlackBerry while my wife navigated the roads, the two of us promptly checked into our hotel, walked over to the Rideau Centre Apple store and bought an iPhone.

Mind you, it wasn’t for me. My wife, who had also carried a BlackBerry for years, had decided to switch. Consider her move one more example of how much the smartphone market is tilting in Apple’s direction.

Over the next three days, the company sold over nine million of the new iPhone models, breaking last year’s record of five million when the iPhone 5 was launched. This tremendous unit growth is in stark contrast to the company’s stock price, which has dropped from about $650 (U.S.) last year to below $500 now. And it’s a major reason I’m still enthusiastic about the stock.

It’s absolutely true that earnings growth at Apple has disappeared over the last few quarters. But I’m not that interested in short-term results. I’m interested in where the company is taking its business over the next decade or longer. The record sales (not to mention my wife’s change of heart) say that iPhone demand is at record levels despite high prices – and I think this could be just the beginning.

What happens if Apple can turn the iPhone into a replacement for the traditional PC? Author and tech guru Robert X. Cringely wrote a fantastic post last week entitled “The Secret of iOS 7,” that points out how Apple’s latest mobile operating system could shake up the mobile and PC industry yet again. His case is based on four observations:

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that the iPhone 5s runs a 64-bit “workstation class” processor;
  • Apple’s productivity software, iWork, is now free on all new iOS devices;
  • Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 7, now incorporates Bluetooth support for both keyboards and mice;
  • Most industry pundits expect an Apple TV display of some kind to hit the market soon.

Put it all together and you can begin to sense where Apple thinks the digital world is headed. We’re now verging on a point, 13 years after BlackBerry invented the smartphone market, that we have enough computing power in our pockets to eliminate notebooks or desktops.

For now, there’s no way I’m giving up my huge office monitor. But Mr. Cringely makes a strong case that the situation may soon change.

“Jump forward in time to a year from today,” he writes. “Here’s what I expect we’ll see. Go to your desk at work and, using Bluetooth and AirPlay, the iPhone 5s or 6 in your pocket will automatically link to your keyboard, mouse, and display. Processing and storage will be in your pocket and, to some extent, in the cloud. Your desktop will require only a generic display, keyboard, mouse, and some sort of AirPlay device, possibly an Apple TV.”

It’s not rocket science to consider a smartphone operating system and applications that know when they’re hooked up to a large display, and therefore switch to a user interface that fills the screen and looks more like a desktop.

In fact, several years ago, when I was a sell-side analyst at TD Securities covering Research In Motion, I helped a startup company pitch this exact strategy to the BlackBerry maker.

Imagine the appeal to a business: You could connect your smartphone to a cheap monitor and the operating system smartly converts your e-mail and other enterprise mobile apps to full-sized desktop experiences. The cost of supporting remote workers drops tremendously.

As far as I know, BlackBerry failed to take action on what could have been a brilliant plan. But this strategy – if it is what Apple is planning – sets the stage for a whole new leg of growth in both the consumer and enterprise markets for Apple.

Of course, it won’t be easy or painless. I agree with Mr. Cringely’s assertion that Google will also be all over this PC replacement strategy, so Apple would be smart to act quickly. I expect this will lead to both companies dominating the future of computing.

Microsoft and all Windows box makers should watch out. On the other hand, Apple shareholders could do quite well over the next three to five years.

According to S&P Capital IQ, Apple stock trades at 11.5 times next year’s earnings estimates. Investors are paying less for Apple than they are for the S&P 500 index, with a 14.2 times multiple on forward year earnings. So while Apple may have been one of the weakest performers in my Strategy Lab model portfolio over the last year, I’m still very much a fan of the stock.

AppleAAPL-Q  483.41  -6.15  -1.26%

Opening a grain sack.

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Now that steel cut oats is at last becoming popular, and Anna has even used the grain sack stitch to close her bags of oats, it’s time to reveal the farmer’s trick. How to open a grains sack. DInk Sinclair taught me this, back in 1971 when we bought our first farm.

 Look closely at the stitching at the top of the feed sack. One side of the stitching will be a flat single running stitch, while the other side will have a knotty or looped appearance.Usually, the flat stitch is the “front” of the bag as well, with any printing appearing on that side. The loops are usually on the back side. Once you removed the “pull string” you will see the lops more clearly.

With the looped side of the bag facing you and the “pull string” side facing away, grasp the corner of the bag to your right and with a scissors or knife cut off the chain of stitches that extend past the right edge of the bag.

Pull the stitches of what you have just cut  with your fingers or the point of your jackknife until you have unraveled enough of the pull string to reach the fabric of the feed sack or the paper closure sometimes used.

Grasp the end of the pull  string in your left hand and the loops string in your right. Pull the strings away from each other. The stitching on the bag should unravel across the top, leaving you with an open feed sack.

ifttt: If This Then That

A good site to get some handy tools that are not too difficult to comprehend.

Came via Paolo’s Blog (this one covers one quick transfer you may need to do a lot).

More later when I get it working. His descriptions are somewhat cryptic.

The IFTTT BLog has a good explanation of what they’re up to: event driven programming for the masses!

Jesse & Linden

A Place for Posts of Merit

Given the odds of Facebook succuming to the pox of greed or the decay of tyrannies, it seems useful to have a place where interesting material (to me at least) can be available in a fashion where it can be moved, copied, edited, removed etc.

Who knows if WordPress will or will not follow Facebook and go for the huge bucks sometimes, but at least it’s easy to keep an archive and (so far) easy to remove what needs to be removed.

These posts are eclectic by design. (See Ludovico Carracci, who died in Bologna in 1619. And his cousins.)  A little art, a little farming, lots of travel, a few bete noirs, some Innis and some post-Innis, etc etc.