For my March 2010 diary, go here.

Diary - April 2010

John Baez

April 1, 2010

In Glendale California, police had the bright idea of dressing an officer as a giant bunny rabbit. The idea was that he would walk across a crosswalk and see if motorists would stop. If they didn't, more cops would come roaring out on motorcycles and arrest the culprit — as shown above.

One violator claimed it was no fair: he said the officer suddenly "hopped out in front of him".

I would like to see a video of that.

This is one of my favorite April Fool's jokes:

In 1915, the Geneva Tribune reported that on April 1 a French aviator flying over a German camp dropped what appeared to be a huge bomb. The German soldiers immediately scattered in all directions, but no explosion followed. After some time, the soldiers crept back and gingerly approached the bomb. They discovered that it was actually a large football with a note tied to it that read, "April Fool!"
I often feel sorry for people who have been taken in by a joke, but in this case I don't. What makes this one especially funny is that there was an actual war going on, but somehow still room for a joke. That's panache.

While we're yukking it up: if you haven't listened to this yet, you should:

I love the tone of voice when he says "I'm going to have you fired."

April 2, 2010

Male zebra finches have annoying songs which are highly individual. They start out babbling when they're young, and they learn a song from their father. Once they learn it, they keep that song for life. And so, now that their genome has been sequenced, we may discover some interesting things about how people learn to talk:

My friend Tom Leinster is a category theorist who discovered some math that turns out to be related to known ways of estimating species diversity! He passed on a quote from.

Here it is:
...with an effort funded to the level of the cost of two useless B-2 bombers ($1300 million), the task of more or less completing a global survey of plants could be completed. Botanists, plant collections, and botanical gardens are crucial to the future of humanity, and botanical resources need rapid expansion and deployment to accomplish the task of understanding and protecting Earth's flora. It is an indication of misplaced priorities within the scientific community that relatively unimportant exercises such as the sequencing of the human genome can take priority over the assessment and preservation of Earth's irreplaceable botanical wealth.
I don't think sequencing the human genome was "relatively unimportant". It's speciesist, but I'm not sure speciesism is wrong — and in any event I think it's unavoidable. The push to sequence the human genome as the beginning of a push towards sequencing the genomes of individual people, which is pushing down the price for gene sequencing. In 2003 it cost about $300,000,000, in 2007 it cost about $1,000,000, and in 2008 it cost less than $60,000. In February 2009 the price fell to $5000, and it must be lower by now.

Cheap genome sequencing will in turn be a key aspect of saving — or at least recording — genetic diversity as the current mass extinction continues. Of course, having a genotype on file is not nearly as good as having a living organism: there's a lot of information in the full organism that's not contained in the DNA, as the study of epigenetics continues to reveal. So, we can't turn a genotype back into a living creature unless there is a fairly similar creature still alive. We need to save living creatures, and classify them — and for plants, this requires "botanists, plant collections, and botanical gardens", as Ehrlich notes. It also will require seed banks! Unlike animals, many plants are quite easy to save in compressed form.

So, while I don't think sequencing the human genome was a waste of money, we should build fewer B-52s and spend more on botany.

April 3, 2010

In case you haven't been paying attention: our Solar System seems unusual, as solar systems go, in having the gas giants far away from the sun. If they were close, like in most solar systems, we might not be here! At least, not if "we" means life that requires a rocky planet with liquid water on its surface. Here's a fun little interview about this subject: It'll be very interesting to get data on more solar systems... and you'll notice: this doesn't require sending people into space. Indeed, there's not really much of anything interesting we can do right now by sending "canned primates" into the vacuum. So it's very good news that the Obama Administation is planning to cancel the Constellation program — a nostalgic rerun of the Apollo program. Instead, they want to boost funding for something useful: climate research! The plan is to launch as many as 10 new satellites that will measure ocean temperatures, ice coverage, ozone depletion and the central question of how much carbon dioxide is being released through human activities. This would be great!

In other news: China is planning to mine methane hydrates buried in Tibet, and use them for fuel:

If people decide to mine and burn the massive amounts of methane hydrates at the ocean floor — admittedly a bigger challenge than mining it in Tibet — the amount of CO2 emission we've seen so far would look like a dainty appetizer to a gut-busting feast.

So, any move towards mine methane hydrates sounds like a dangerous idea to me. China and India both want to mine them on the ocean floor! But for the stuff in Tibet, the Chinese are taking a clever tack: they claim that global warming is bound to release this methane into the atmosphere, where it will be a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 if they don't mine it and burn it! It's the first time I've heard of people saying that mining and burning hydrocarbons will help prevent global warming:

Combustible ice has already been discovered in more than 100 countries, buried in both the Arctic permafrost and beneath the ocean floor. Besides China, countries including the US, Japan, and the Republic of Korea have plans to tap the natural gas hydrate buried in their territories. Last summer, US scientists on a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico discovered pockets of highly concentrated methane hydrate estimated to contain 6,700 trillion cubic feet of gas. The DOE has estimated that the total amount of methane hydrate worldwide could be as high as 400 million trillion cubic feet, including 85.4 trillion cubic feet buried in Alaska.

Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, researchers are also concerned about the environmental effects of extracting methane hydrate. However, if handled carefully, using methane hydrate as a fuel could be safer than simply letting it melt on its own. As the earth continues to warm, methane released into the atmosphere could cause even more damage than if it were burned for fuel. On the other hand, if large amounts of methane were accidentally released during extraction, the results could further aggravate global warming. Another risk from mining the combustible ice is geological slumping.

For these reasons, developing a safe technology to excavate the fuel is a priority. With these challenges in mind, China's Ministry of Land and Resources estimated last week that the country could begin using its combustible ice within 10 to 15 years, joining other countries in methane hydrate exploration.

April 4, 2010

The mysterious syndrome called "colony collapse disorder" has been killing off bees worldwide:

Bees are responsible for pollinating 30% of American crops that depend on pollination: apples, oranges, grapes, cherries, watermelon, squash, and so on. So, this problem is a big deal.

Luckily, people are fighting back! Beekeeping is becoming really popular! It was recently even made legal in New York City!

If Lisa weren't allergic to bees, and we weren't going to Singapore, I would probably start a hive myself. As it is, we've done our part by getting rid of our lawn and planting nice flowers, herbs and trees.

They like the wisteria. They really love basil, which keeps blooming for months. And they happily pollinate our citrus trees.

Lisa came back last night! She'd been to Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhengzhou, Shanghai, and San Francisco. A lazy day today...

April 5, 2010

Here's Stewart Brand's summary of the latest talk at the Long Now Institute — a talk by David Eagleman:
Civilizations always think they're immortal, Eagleman noted, but they nearly always perish, leaving "nothing but runes and scattered genetics." It takes luck and new technology to survive. We may be particularly lucky to have Internet technology to help manage the six requirements of a durable civilization:
  1. "Try not to cough on one another." More humans have died from epidemics than from all famines and wars. Disease precipitated the fall of Greece, Rome, and the civilizations of the Americas. People used to bunch up around the infected, which pushed local disease into universal plague. Now we can head that off with Net telepresence, telemedicine, and medical alert networks. All businesses should develop a work-from-home capability for their workforce.
  2. "Don't lose things." As proved by the destruction of the Alexandria Library and of the literature of Mayans and Minoans, "knowledge is hard won but easily lost." Plumbing disappeared for a thousand years when Rome fell. Innoculation was invented in China and India 700 years before Europeans rediscovered it. These days Michaelangelo's David has been safely digitized in detail. Eagleman has direct access to all the literature he needs via PubMed, JSTOR, and Google Books. "Distribute, don't revinvent."
  3. "Tell each other faster." Don't let natural disasters cascade. The Minoans perished for lack of the kind of tsunami alert system we now have. Countless Haitians in the recent earthquake were saved by, which aggregated cellphone field reports in real time.
  4. "Mitigate tyranny." The USSR's collapse was made inevitable by state-controlled media and state-mandated mistakes such as Lysenkoism, which forced a wrong theory of wheat farming on 13 time zones, and starved millions. Now crowd-sourced cellphone users can sleuth out vote tampering. We should reward companies that stand up against censorship, as Google has done in China.
  5. "Get more brains involved in solving problems." Undertapping human capital endangers the future. Open courseware from colleges is making higher education universally accessible. Crowd-sourced problem solving is being advanced by sites such as PatientsLikeMe, Foldit (protein folding), and Cstart (moon exploration). Perhaps the next step is "society sourcing."
  6. "Try not to run out of energy." When energy expenditure outweighs energy return, collapse ensues. Email saves trees and trucking. Online shopping is a net energy gain, with UPS optimizing delivery routes and never turning left. We need to expand the ability to hold meetings and conferences online.

But if the Net is so crucial, what happens if the Net goes down? It may have to go down a few times before we learn how to defend it properly, before we catch on that civilization depends on it for survival.

    —Stewart Brand

I think it is very optimistic to think that we are "particularly lucky to have Internet technology to help manage the six requirements of a durable civilization". Previous fallen civilizations had previous technologies that were better than any technology before... do civilizations tend to last longer as the technology gets better? The examples of Egypt and Sumeria suggest perhaps the opposite.

It takes a lot of sophisticated infrastructure to keep the internet up and running. As Brand notes, it may have to go down a few times before we learn how to defend it properly.

April 8, 2010

After my classes ended at 3:30 pm, I picked up Lisa and we drove up to Fresno, where I'll give two talks tomorrow. It was a 5-hour drive: we left at 4 and got there at 9. Instead of driving into Los Angeles and up Route 5 — the quickest route, but boring — we went up Route 215 and over the Cajon Pass. Then we cut west through the desert on Route 138 to Palmdale, and then north through Lancaster to Mojave. The snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains were beautifully visible to the south for quite some time.

View Larger Map

The highway through Mojave leads through a depressing strip of gas stations and cheap restaurants. Then: eastwards up into the mountains, through Tehachapi, and then down to Bakersfield. The downward slopes are very green now, thanks to the rains — soon they will be brown, but now they're a paradise of grasslands and oak trees.

As one reaches Bakersfield and begins driving north on Route 99, the hills flatten out to an endless dull plain, smoggy and smelly: a land of agriculture, cows, and oil refineries, the highway clogged by trucks. Soon it became dark, and my mood darkened too. Passing through towns like Delano, Tulare, Visalia, I couldn't help but wonder what life was like there. What was there to do? Nothing beautiful to see, nothing interesting to do — I imagined — and anyone ambitious with the ability to leave would surely do so. If you were stuck there, you could work in a gas station or diner, eking out an existence from the constant flow of passing trucks, siphoning off a bit of the pulsing free energy of the highway, just enough to get by. I thought about how how people fill every niche, no matter how unpromising.

Photo of Bravo Farms on Highway 99, taken by Heludin-X.

Of course, I knew that someone driving through Riverside might think the same things... unaware of the crazy fun things that some people are doing in Riverside. And I knew that some of my mood came from the exhaustion of a 5-hour drive, the falling of night, the pollution, the smell of cows. Listening to Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited heightened my sense of the futility of human existence, but somehow soothed me as well.

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn't give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there's only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol' Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61.

Well Mack the finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get ride of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61.

Then, finally, to Fresno. A big city, but not a romantic one. Well, to be honest: a city I don't know at all. Got our room at the hotel, had dinner at a nearby Red Lobster, and then to bed.

April 9, 2010

Lisa and I were picked up after breakfast by Carmen Caprau from the math department. She's a student of Charlie Frohman who works on Khovanov homology. I gave a talk on the virtues of the number 5.

Then Carmen handed me off to Doug Singleton, my host from the physics department. He does theoretical particle physics, and we'd gotten to know each other from talking on sci.physics.research, back in the golden age of usenet newsgroups. We talked and looked around a bit. The Cal State Fresno campus is nice: prettier than UCR's, and with a brand new library! But like us, they're suffering mightily from the financial crisis.

Then lunch, and then I gave a talk on the Physics, Topology, Logic and Computation: a Rosetta Stone. I met a bunch of people and learned a bunch of interesting stuff. For example, I mentioned graphene as a material that might someday outdo silicon chips. Todd Wilson from the computer science department told me what's the current way to make computers faster: many-core processors, which do lots of tasks in parallel. But current-day languages do not work well for parallel processing. Functional programming languages like Haskell would be better! But ordinary programmers have trouble using those languages, and many computer science departments feel it's impractical to teach them — the big job market is for languages like C++. But languages like Python are catching on, which have some of the advantages of purely functional languages. I like this issue because the "Rosetta Stone" gives me ways to think about programming and parallel processing. So, maybe this is an opportunity to do something practical.

Later, Tim van Beek commented on my remarks here, saying:

Dear John,

I will try to boast a little bit by commenting on your remarks about programming languages in your diary, from April 9, 2010, I'm not sure if any of this is of interest to you, but knowing it will ease the conversation with most computer scientists and software developers.

"...the big job market is for languages like C++..."

For the development of large business applications the most used programming language is actually Java. Roughly, there is this line of development of programming languages:

  1. C was created with the goal to design operating systems, it was very successful (most operating systems today are mostly written in C), one reason for this is that it is very easy to directly to manipulate RAM and other system resources.

  2. C++ was most successful in adding "object orientation" to C and was the big player in the 1990s.

  3. Java added a "virtual machine", that is a program that functions as an interface between operating system and program. This allows one to execute Java programms on different operating systems without the need to recompile them. But Java was also successful because it simplified or removed many constructs from the C++ language, that often confused developers and led to code that is very hard to understand. One part that was removed is the capability to directly access RAM that C++ inherited from C, Java does not know "pointers" anymore (pointers point to memory addresses and can be used to read and write from memory directly). Niklaus Wirth, who became famous for creating the programming language Pascal, besides other things, always stresses that the design of a language is much more about the question what you cannot do, rather than about what you can do, the evolution of Java from C++ is a good example.

    Don't confuse Java and JavaScript, the latter is a scripting language used to add dynamical content to web pages. Java once had a similar functionality called applets, which is one reason why the two are often mistakenly identified. When people talk about security problems of web pages and "Java", then it's always about JavaScript.

  4. Then there is the .NET-Framework from Microsoft, that contains a programming languge C# that uses many concepts of Java, this is the latest addition to the C-based family.

The latest version of Java is 7, the version 5 (also called "Tiger") added a lot of concepts for the programming of concurrent programs, it owes much to Doug Lea, the web page of his classic book is here (he wrote that before Java Tiger was created):

Parallel processing is becoming increasingly important, as you already wrote, and is yet tremendously hard to do even when using Java Tiger (I'd rather try to implement any numerical algorithm you name, as long as there is one thread that does the computation in a deterministic way, than try to implement a system that has multiple threads sharing data and dependencies).

Kind regards,

Over dinner, Gerardo Munoz passed on two articles about graphene. It turns out there's pretty good evidence for the fractional quantum Hall effect in this material!

April 10, 2010

View Larger Map

Lisa and I drove from Fresno to Sequoia National Park. We made our way through the smaller towns near Fresno and out into the surrounding farmlands. Vineyards, then orchards as the land rose. Then we drove up into grassy hills, then up further to an elevation of 4000 feet, with steep slopes covered with wildflowers, and shockingly colorful redbuds in bloom. Entering Kings Canyon National Park we drove up and up, our elevation rising to 6000 and 7000 feet, where we met pine forests and then snow. We had lunch near the entrance of Sequoia National Park, and then we drove on... to the giant sequoias themselves. These are the world's largest trees.

These pictures, and most of those that follow, were taken by Lisa.

We went on lots of little hikes. The best was to a large grove, deeply covered with snow, with a stream running through it... and almost no other people!

As I said, the giant sequoia is the world's largest tree, measured by volume rather than height. We saw the largest one of all, the General Sherman tree. It's about 2500 years old, still magnificently thriving. With luck, it could live for another thousand years. But more likely, changes in climate will kill it long before then.

Various ancestors of the giant sequoia were widespread up to around 175 million years ago. Then the Earth began to cool and the range of these trees gradually shrank. Now in California we have the coast redwood from Oregon to Big Sur, and the giant sequoia here in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The giant sequoia likes cold weather, but not too cold. I was surprised to learn that after the latest ice age, these trees only began to grow in the Sierras only quite recently — around 4000 BC, if I remember correctly. The oldest ones have lived for a substantial fraction of this time: they're about 3500 years old!

The giant sequoia, technically the Sequoiadendron giganteum, is the only living species in its genus. It only grows naturally here, in 68 groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Giant sequoias are also popular as an ornamental tree in many parts of the world, but I don't know if they are spreading on their own in any of these areas.

April 11, 2010

We spent last night in Sequioa National Park at the Wuksachi Lodge. It's a great lodge, rustic but elegant, nestled among pines, with a view of the mountain peaks. It was deep in snow which had built up over the impressive series of storms we've been having this winter. We had a wonderful dinner, went straight to sleep, and had some highly overpriced toast for breakfast. For $12.95 you can get a huge breakfast buffet, which would be great if you were going to spend the day hiking or skiing, but we were going to spend the day sitting on our butts, driving. Indeed, since snow was expected later today, and it would probably close down the road through the park, we decided to get going quick.

We drove south through the park, stopping occasionally to look at the mountain slopes. Near the start we saw some ominous clouds creeping over the hills.

Shortly after we took this picture, the whole view was blotted out as a wave of fog crested over a nearby slope. So, we headed on down the road. After descending further we reached more sunny weather. A friendly couple asked us to take their picture, and then returned the favor.

After a long drive down an twisting road we reached Buckeye Flats, a campground set amid beautiful redbud trees. On a big rock there called Hospital Rock we saw some petroglyphs left by the Monache Indians. Then we walked down to the Kaweah River, raging with icy water made by melting snow.

Then we drove out of the park, down to Exeter and then south along Route 65 to Porterville, where we had lunch at the Black Bear Diner — a kind of country-western joint. At this point the wind started picking up as the storm moved in. Looking out the window, I saw clouds of dust blowing through the town.

View Larger Map

We continued driving down Route 65, through orange groves and some olive groves, stuck for miles and miles behind a slow truck. Wind-blown dust filled the sky. By the time we reached Bakersfield, gusts buffeted the car, which shuddered with each blast. The wind lightened up as we proceeded to Tehachapi. We got a few drops of rain from the threatening clouds, but nothing substantial. By the time we hit Mojave we'd almost run out of gas, so we stopped at an Arco to fill up. A black guy was going from car to car asking for money. Again I thought about how people will fill any niche, eke out any sort of existence no matter how depressing. So I gave him a five dollar bill — mainly since I didn't have a one — saying "I really shouldn't do this, but...." He thanked me profusely. I finished filling up and drove off.

We took a route identical to the way we'd come up, but in reverse: down through Rosamond, and Lancaster, and Palmdale, and then east, over the Cajon Pass, down through San Bernardino and back home. I was pretty tired. It was nice being back home.

April 15, 2010

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland is spewing out ash. It's causing flight cancellations throughout Europe... and the scary part is, it could go on for months. In fact, that's exactly what it did back in 1821.

Here's a video of the volcano taken in infrared light:

April 21, 2010

More rain! Quite amazing. The hills behind our house are covered with blooming brittlebush, in numbers we've not seen before.

April 22, 2010

For Earth Day, Richard Minnich gave a lecture here at UCR, part of a series called Global Climate Change: Causes, Impacts, Solutions. He's a professor of geography, and his lecture was called Climate's Control of California Landscapes. He began with a long tour of California's climate during the last 65 million years or so, with great pictures of the changing flora and fauna. Unfortunately I had to leave before he reached the recent wave of large fires and the great tree die-off due to drought since 2002. Here are a few facts I learned, which filled in some holes in my understanding of climate history: For more details, try:

April 23, 2010

Speaking of the Mohave Desert, there's a lot of argument going on about building solar power plants in this area:

picture by Reed Saxon / AP

April 28, 2010

Mike Stay points out this story: A fragment:
The ground was cracked and sandy. In one of the cracks — which by the way were not deep, and which branched into others — I caught a glimpse of a colour. Incredible, it was the same colour as the tiger of my dreams. I wish I had never laid eyes on it. I looked closely. The crevice was full of little stones, all alike, circular, just a few centimetres in diameter and very smooth. Their regularity lent them an air almost of artificiality, as though they were coins, or buttons, or counters in some game.

I bent down, put my hand into the crevice, and picked out some of the stones. I felt a faint quivering. I put the handful of little stones in the right pocket of my jacket, where there were a small pair of scissors and a letter from Allahabad. Those two chance objects have their place in my story.

Back in my hut, I took off my jacket. I lay down and dreamt once more of the tiger. In my dream I took a special note of its colour; it was the colour of the tiger I had dreamt of, and also of the little stones from the plateau. The late-morning sun in my face woke me. I got up. The scissors and the letter made it hard to take the discs out of the pocket; they kept getting in the way. I pulled out a handful, but felt that there were still two or three I had missed. A tickling sensation, the slightest sort of quivering, imparted a soft warmth to my palm. When I opened my hand, I saw that it held 30 or 40 discs; I'd have sworn I'd picked up no more than 10. I left them on the table and turned back to get the rest out of the pocket. I didn't need to count them to see that they had multiplied. I pushed them together into a single pile, and tried to count them out one by one.

That simple operation turned out to be impossible. I would look fixedly at any one of them, pick it up with my thumb and index finger, yet when I had done that, when that one disc was separated from the rest, it would have become many. I checked to see that I didn't have a fever (which I did not), and then I performed the same experiment, over and over again. The obscene miracle kept happening. I felt my feet go clammy and my bowels turn to ice; my knees began to shake. I do not know how much time passed.

For my May 2010 diary, go here.

The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them. - Albert Einstein

© 2010 John Baez