For my March 2017 diary, go here.

Diary — April 2017

John Baez

April 2, 2017


It's a natural combination. Ganesha is one of the most beloved of the Hindu gods. Kids love him, because after all, just how cool is an elephant-headed god? But he's also revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences — and the god of beginnings, honored at the start of ceremonies. He first appeared around the 5th century AD, and he's been spreading ever since. Even many Buddhists and Jains like him.

Spider-Man is one of the most beloved of the Marvel Comics superheroes. He has super strength, extreme agility, a 'spider-sense' for detecting foes, and the ability to cling to most surfaces and shoot spiderwebs using wrist-mounted devices of his own invention. And yet he's approachable, since he's also Peter Parker, a photographer at the Daily Bugle with problems like our own.

I don't know who invented Spider-Ganesha, and I don't know if this blend will catch on. But it could — the line between gods and superheroes is smaller than monotheists might think. They say that after his death Hercules ascended to Olympus. There was an Egyptian cult honoring Alexander the Great from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BC. And the historical Chinese general Guan Yu was deified about 300 years after his death. I've seen plenty of statues of him in Taoist and Buddhist temples in Shanghai and Singapore — and in Hong Kong, you can find him in every police station!

If we're going to have gods and heroes, I say we should have lots, and do it with a playful, relaxed attitude, enjoying them without 'believing' in them.

So, three cheers for Spider-Ganesha!

Read a great discussion of this in the comments on my G+ post.

April 6, 2017

Trillions of warriors, in a battle visible from space

See the murky cloud in the water? It's made of dying warriors — tiny sea creatures called coccolithophores who are fighting viruses, losing, dying and falling to the sea floor.

It's not an unusual event. It happens around the globe all the time. This war has been going on for millions of years. The combatants have evolved intricate strategies to outwit each other. And most interestingly, the way this battle plays out is crucial for all oxygen-breathing life on this planet.

Listen to the story here. You won't regret it! It's well-told, it's thrilling, and it will make you think of the world in a new way:

April 8, 2017

Dogs are now considered to be the same species as wolves. They can interbreed with wolves just fine. They've just evolved to look and act different through interaction with us. They eat things wolves wouldn't touch. Dingoes, in Australia, are semi-wild dogs that went through a similar evolution.

Now that humans have taken over the world, there is very little true wilderness. In most places where wolves roam, they encounter people. They have the option of trying to get food from human sources. It's often easier than hunting.

This means that all wolves are evolving into something new. They're roaming less, getting less scared of people. We're "making a new dog".

That's what this paper is about:

And as humans encroach on their range, wolves are having more trouble finding mates. Sometimes they mate with domestic dogs. But mainly they're starting to interbreed with coyotes! This especially true in the northeast US. There are now zones where coyote populations are more wolf-like. They've got wolf genes affecting their body size and proportions.

So: nature is doing its thing. There is no sharp separation between nature and culture, civilization and wilderness. The rapid changes in human culture are rippling through the whole biosphere in a myriad of ways.

April 30, 2017

Back in old Hong Kong!

Why "old" Hong Kong? One reason is that Hoagie Carmichael song, the Hong Kong Blues. It starts like this:

It's the story of a very unfortunate colored man
Who got arrested down in old Hong Kong
He got twenty years privilege taken away from him
When he kicked old Buddha's gong.
It's featured in the great Bogart–Bacall movie To Have and Have Not. You can see the scene here:

It's a cheesy bit of orientalism made tolerable by Hoagie's charm. But Hong Kong is indeed full of history and mystery, so "old Hong Kong" sounds right.

Anyway, we're back! Today Lisa and I went to the jade market in Yau Ma Tei. Our favorite jade seller was not there: she's visiting relatives in China. Her husband was, and he showed us some nice white jade from Xinjiang — the wild west of China. This is getting rare these days, but we decided not to buy any until the woman comes back in 10 days. It gives us an excuse to postpone difficult decisions — and an excuse to return.

We also took a look in the Tin Hau temple near the jade market. Tin Hau is the god of the sea, a favorite of sailors. But the little figures shown here are some of the sixty Tai Sui deities one for each year in a 60-year cycle formed by multiplying the 12 signs of the zodiac by the 5 phases: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Like many Chinese temples I've seen, this one has statues of all sixty. But how they look varies immensely from temple to temple!

Then we walked north to Mong Kok, a very busy area full of shops. It was densely packed with people — maybe because it's a long weekend with May Day coming on Monday? There was a long line for this food stall:

Lisa was happy to see that the Mong Kok computer center, a building packed with useful small stores, has been reopened. We bought some crucial VGA/micro-D converters and went back to our hotel, exhausted but glad to be back in old Hong Kong.

For my May 2017 diary, go here.

© 2017 John Baez