For my November 2009 diary, go here.

Diary - December 2009

John Baez

December 1, 2009

China plans to demolish 85% of the old city of Kashgar: Zooming into Kashgar on Google Maps, we see different things at different scales. First the immensity of the Taklamakan desert, then the lush green of the oasis fed by mountain streams, then the gritty urban landscape of a city of 350 thousand, and then the winding streets of the old town... and then children running through these streets, in a photo taken by Shiho Fukada:

December 2, 2009

I'm getting to really love the routine of stretching outdoors in the fresh morning air... and I can feel the difference. I used to be much more stiff and creaky, not just in the morning, but throughout the day. And now I've gotten over the feeling that the slightly painful feeling of stretching to ones limits is a bad thing... perhaps because I can see how each week I can stretch a bit more!

December 3, 2009

Tarim Desert Highway
photo by Sean Gallagher

I began pondering the Taklamakan Desert here in my November 19th and November 29th entries. Over a millennium ago, Kashgar was just one of many thriving towns along the Silk Road. But it seems the melting snow from the Kunlun and and Tien Shan mountains, which feeds the rivers that flow into this area, has been gradually diminishing over time. Many of these towns were abandoned as the desert encroached, and are now sand-buried ruins.

The Tarim Desert Highway, shown above, crosses the Taklamakan Desert from north to south. It is about 550 kilometers long. About 450 of these lie on shifting sand dunes. At the halfway point along the desert highway, there are a few restaurants and a gas station. Except for the workers there, the region is entirely uninhabited.

The above photo was taken by Sean Gallagher, who has written about desertification in China:

December 4, 2009


For centuries, Tuareg camel caravans have carried heavy blocks of salt from the mines in Taodenni to the city of Timbuktu. Now this tradition may be drawing to a close:

Also read about the literary heritage of Timbuktu:

It's being saved by libraries including the Ahmed Baba Institute.

December 5, 2009

Looking around for more information on the Silk Road, I blundered into this excellent blog: Like me, Jochi fell in love with the Silk Road after reading Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. Now he's digging deeper. A typical entry points out the series edited by Lisa's colleague Victor Mair: Sino-Platonic Papers. It's now free online!

Turfan was a cool place:

The article begins:
More than twenty languages are represented in the medieval documents found in Turfan, mostly in the early years of the twentieth century. Perhaps no other archeological area has offered up such linguistic bounty. Identified languages include Old Turkic, Chinese, Sanskrit, Sogdian, Middle Persian, New Persian, Parthian, Tibetan, Mongolian, Prakrit, Tumshuqese, Tocharian A and B, Bactrian, Khotanese, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Tangut, Greek and Khitan. In addition there are at least twenty scripts attested with most languages attested in more than one. For instance, Old Turkic is found in the Brahmi, Manichean, Sogdian, Uyghur, Nestorian (Syriac), Tibetan, Runiform, Arabic and `Phag-spa scripts. For many of these languages, the documents are the oldest known samples on perishable materials. For some of these languages, the Turfan documents supply much of the information we have on them. The materials are highly valuable to several philological fields.

`Phags-pa Sanskrit inscription at Juyongguan


But Turfan is special in other ways as well. It was here that significant remains of a once vibrant Manichean community were discovered. Besides the artistic legacy of Manicheism found in frescos, painted cloth wall hangings, and manuscripts illuminations, there was the religious literature. Before this time, the doctrines of this once world religion — it was practiced from China and India to Spain and North Africa — were known only from polemicists like Augustine. Suddenly, scholars could hear members of this faith speaking from the past. Not only did they speak in seven languages, but apparently one voice is even that of Mani himself. Some of the written remains are copies of works penned, and illustrated, by the third century Babylonian-Persian saint. Here also were found Nestorian Christian churches and manuscripts in at least four languages. And the recent discovery of the Sogdian tombs in Xi'an has provided new information on Zoroastrian (Mazdean) burial customs in the east, and has led scholars to now see evidence for Zoroastrian burial practices in Turfan. But the main religion of Turfan in the first millenium was probably Buddhism which is represented by literary documents in more than ten languages. In the artistic sphere, medieval Turfan was equally cosmopolitan. The early scientific travellers were struck by the clear presence of Indian, Iranian, Chinese and Greek elements in sculpture, frescos, and other painting.

December 7, 2009

Rain! The first real rain since spring — a solid day's worth of rain, not just a sprinkle. We need it badly! I opened up the top of the compost bin to let it get moistened up.

Later, many other parts of the country got a harsh snowstorm:

Lisa flew to Hong Kong this evening. She's speaking at a conference on... happiness!

December 9, 2009

The Obama administration announced it will pay native Americans $3.4 billion dollars to settle a class-action suit. The US government has cheated tribes for more than a century of royalties for oil, mineral and other leases. Now, finally, over half a million people are getting some compensation. Congratulations to Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff, who has been working for this 13 years!

Elouise Cobell outside the offices of Kilpatrick and Stockton in Washington on Dec. 8, 2009.
AP Photo by Gerald Herbert

She was the Treasurer of Blackfeet Tribe based near Browning Montana - my father used to work on the reservation there. She discovered financial irregularities and started digging. She found out that native Americans were owed about $176 billion dollars of payments for mining rights (for example oil wells) and agricultural rights for their land — debts that were the result of signed agreements between tribes and the U.S. government.

She wound up settling for a small fraction of this amount: $3 billion. She wrote:

In 1996, we embarked on a journey to end decades of mistrust, suspicion and apprehension about the federal government's management of Individual Indian Money accounts. I was among the more than 500,000 Indians across the nation with funds in such an account, and I did not know and could not find out how much money I had, where it came from, how it was being invested, nor how or whether it would ever reach my pocket.

As a banker myself, I knew that was not right. Who would turn her paycheck over to a banker hundreds or thousands of miles away, giving a faceless, unknown person sole authority over how that money is invested, as well as the ability to decide how often she can withdraw and use it to meet her family's needs? Only someone given no other choice.

When we filed this case, I thought it would be 2-to-3 years of litigation. I believed all we had to do was expose the lack of accounting by the government, everyone would come to agreement over the issues, and we would settle the case. I expected to have a settlement 10 years ago; instead it turned into a battle of 14 years.

We have faced Secretaries of the Interior and Treasury in three presidential administrations to arrive at what we hope is this long journey's final destination. Today we have an Administration that is listening to us, and an Administration willing to admit the wrongdoings of the past and settle this matter to benefit those who had to do without access to their own money for way too long.

Although we have reached a settlement totaling more than $3.4 billion dollars, there is little doubt this is significantly less than the full amount to which individual Indians are entitled. Yes, we could prolong our struggle and fight longer, and perhaps one day we would know — down to the penny — how much individual Indians are owed. Perhaps we could even litigate long enough to increase the settlement amount.

Nevertheless we are compelled to settle now by the sobering realization that our class grows smaller each year, each month, and every day, as our elders die, and are forever prevented from receiving their just compensation. We also face the uncomfortable, but unavoidable fact that a large number of individual money account holders currently subsist in the direst poverty, and this settlement can begin to address that extreme situation and provide some hope and a better quality of life for their remaining years.

I am particularly happy to see recognition of the need for funds to be set aside to promote higher education opportunities for Indian youth. When Indian parents and grandparents talk to me about this suit, they always speak of how they will use the money they receive to improve their children's and grandchildren's lives. I am hopeful that these funds can lift a generation and help break a cycle of poverty that has held too many Indian families and individuals in its grip for too many generations.

In a related story, watch this video essay on an 1.8-million-acre area that had been claimed by both the Hopi and Navajo in northeast Arizona, where all development has been frozen for 40 years. In May, President Obama repealed this freeze! But it's taken a toll. Also read the accompanying story:

December 11, 2009

More rain last night!

As the big United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen lumbers on, don't forget the melting Arctic:

Stream of meltwater washing down a moulin in Greenland
Photo by Alun Anderson

December 12, 2009

It rained today again... pouring!

(It doesn't rain much here. On days when I don't say it's raining, it doesn't mean I'm bored of the idea of rain. It means it's dry.)

Tevian Dray and Corinne Manogue are visiting southern California. They came by today, along with my grad student John Huerta, and we talked about the octonions, the exceptional Jordan algebra, spinors in 10d spacetime, and E6.

Then we went to Tio's Tacos for dinner.

December 13, 2009

Cloudy and cool but not rainy. Today we talked about the magic square, and then Corinne and I made dinner.

December 14, 2009

Sunny again. I began the day working on my paper with Paul-André Melliès. Then John, Corinne and Tevian came over. We talked about the magic square and generalizations of the 3-ψ's rule. Then we went to dinner at a Middle-Eastern restaurant.

Some news today: computer technicians found 22 million emails that the Bush Whitehouse 'lost':

Meanwhile, the really big news — the news that could decide our future — is the wrangling going on in Copenhagen:

December 15, 2009

Here's an interesting report on the Tibetan plateau, which I received as a kind of Christmas present from my great friend Oz:

Glaciers on the Tibetan plateau are melting faster than global warming alone can account for. Why? It seems that soot from air pollution in Asia, especially India, is to blame. The white clouds above indicate — somewhat paradoxically — black soot. The highest concentrations of soot occur over the densely populated coastal plains of China. But there's also a lot over India, and it washes over the southern arc of the Tibetan Plateau. You can watch a video of this.

You don't care about Tibetan glaciers? Well, the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus rivers start there, so millions of people depend on them!

For more, try:

December 20, 2009

In his essay 'The Wisdom of Rats', Charles Bowden writes about the lands near the border of the US and Mexico:
If human marks matter, there are thousands of years of history on this creek, and if life matters, there are millions of years, and if reality matters, the creek is a recent wrinkle on the face of eternity. History here has been mainly a series of one-act plays — human communities enter with cultures formed in other environments, flourish for a spell, and then recede. Modern American and Mexican history insists it is the final act, and that its script will now play out here until the end of time. But as the nations shout these beliefs, the ground underneath them and the sky above them turn a deaf ear. We are dancing to the edge of life and we now move through the forests of dread and what we fear, really fear, is not some other nation conquering our plains and mountains and deserts, no, no, what we fear is that someone or something will do to us exactly what we have done to the buffalo, and to the mounted warrior on horseback with that lance and bow, what we have done to the rivers and the trees and the fine native grasses that first fell under our footsteps as we ventured into the bewitching and yearning ground.

December 21, 2009

Today the Russian Communist Party called for a moratorium on criticizing the murderous psychopath Jozef Stalin, since it's the 130th birthday of this vile monster. "We would very much like for any discussion of the mistakes of the Stalin epoch to be silenced today, so that people could reflect on Stalin's personality as a creator, a thinker and a patriot," wrote Ivan Melnikov, the Communist deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament. This might seem merely a sick joke, given that Stalin's foul deeds were far from "mistakes" — but unfortunately, it's part of a trend encouraged by Vladimir Putin and others.

So, let it be remembered:

His forced collectivisation of agriculture cost millions of lives, while his programme of rapid industrialisation achieved huge increases in Soviet productivity and economic growth but at great cost. Moreover, the population suffered immensely during the Great Terror of the 1930s, during which Stalin purged the party of 'enemies of the people', resulting in the execution of thousands and the exile of millions to the gulag system of slave labour camps.

These purges severely depleted the Red Army, and despite repeated warnings, Stalin was ill prepared for Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. His political future, and that of the Soviet Union, hung in the balance, but Stalin recovered to lead his country to victory. The human cost was enormous, but was not a consideration for him.

After World War Two, the Soviet Union entered the nuclear age and ruled over an empire which included most of eastern Europe. Increasingly paranoid, Stalin died of a stroke on 5 March 1953.

December 24, 2009

Asked why he left fame and fortune to return to his poor hometown in Mali, the great guitarist Ali Farka Toure said: "That life out there, it was like dried crap. It didn't stick to my shoes."

December 25, 2009

Lisa and I went to see the movie Avatar. While the premise is fundamentally silly — people are sending spaceships to another solar system to mine "unobtainium", on a world that has floating mountains, and the natives manage to beat off the invading heavily armed humans using little more than spears, bows and arrows, and some flying reptile-like creatures — other things about the movie made it well worth seeing. It was in 3d, with lots of motion-capture acting to produce realistic 10-foot-tall blue aliens! That sounds awfully kitschy. But it was well-done: it really did create the experience of an alien world. And the experience of putting on 3d glasses, leaning back and sinking into this strange world cleverly mimics the immersive experience undergone by the main character, who gets neurally linked to one of these 10-foot-tall blue aliens.

December 29, 2009

A lot of American documents from World War II are still classified. Historians can't get to them. But today President Obama asserted that "no information may remain classified indefinitely."

More importantly, he signed an executive order establishing a new National Declassification Center at the National Archive to speed up the declassification of documents. The accompanying presidential memorandum says:

Under the direction of the National Declassification Center (NDC), and utilizing recommendations of an ongoing Business Process Review in support of the NDC, referrals and quality assurance problems within a backlog of more than 400 million pages of accessioned Federal records previously subject to automatic declassification shall be addressed in a manner that will permit public access to all declassified records from this backlog no later than December 31, 2013.
He also got rid of George W. Bush's rule that allowed spy agencies to veto decisions by an interagency panel to declassify information. Instead, they'll have to appeal to the president.

All this is great until we get another president like Bush. Luckily Obama said that he's looking forward to recommendations from a study that's supposed to "design a more fundamental transformation of the security classification system".

For my January 2010 diary, go here.

The qoz is dotted with villages; compounds of grass with straw-roofed huts, which blend in with the color and texture of their surroundings. These works of man are pinpricks against the background of the enormous dimensions of the range-lands, for this is a place where humankind has wrought little of permanence on the landscape, where nature, by sheer size and power, has resisted any encroachment on its autonomy. As I travelled, I felt myself becoming totally immersed in my environment....

It was a world existing within its own time span, and all but oblivious to the outside. I never regretted my decision to cross it by camel. - Michael Asher, In Search of the Forty Days Road

© 2009 John Baez