For my June 2010 diary, go here.

Diary - July 2010

John Baez

The older I become the more I realize that
I have to work very hard to reproduce what I seek: the instantaneous.
The influence of the atmosphere on things
and the light scattered throughout.
— Monet

July 1, 2010

I got approval for a second year's leave from UCR! So, I'll be staying in Singapore for two years — long enough, I hope, to feel like I'm living there.

I had dinner with James Dolan last night, and he gave me a puzzle in homological algebra. Then he helped me move 4 boxes of books out of my office.

This morning, pal Geoffrey Dixon sent me an email saying I should look up Peter Borschberg, a historian at the National University of Singapore. I also want to look up Walter Blackstock at the Systems Biology Division of the Institute of Molecular & Cell Biology, which is part of Biopolis, a big research center in Singapore, shown below. He does biological mass spectrometry, and like me he's fascinated by the Silk Road. He emailed me a while back after reading this diary...

July 2, 2010

Dinner with Jim at the Old Spaghetti factory last night. He told me some ideas on doctrines.

Thomas Fischbacher pointed me to this cool paper on "ecological engineering" and "living machines":

A tantalizing quote:
Kauffman (1993) and Kinsinger et al. (1991) argue that complex ecological systems with diverse enzymatic pathways and complex surfaces for the exchanges of gases and nutrients, such as are found in the micro-anatomy of plants, will enable the ecological engineer to design technologies with the potential of several orders of magnitude greater efficiency than contemporary mechanical and chemical technologies. If they are correct, it is an opportunity for ecologists and engineers to collaborate in a significant enterprise. It may be possible to reduce pollution and its negative impact on the environment to a small fraction of existing levels (Todd and Todd, 1995).
Tonight I finished another round of editing a paper on the octonions that John Huerta and I are writing for Scientific American.

July 3, 2010

St. Margaret and Mary School, Detroit
photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

In my June 30th 2009 entry I wrote about the decline of Michigan cities that lived on automobile production, especially Detroit and Flint. As my friend Sharon Newman-Gomez pointed out, there's a great documentary on this. Watch it!

July 4, 2010

From the first Treaty of Tripoli, which was signed by the United States and Tripoli in 1797 as part of an attempt to end the kidnapping of Americans by the Barbary pirates:

Article 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Interesting! By the way, the treaty didn't succeed: Tripoli and the other Barbary States, Algiers and Tunis, continued their practice of piracy, and the United States later launched the the First Barbary War in 1801, and the Second Barbary War in 1815.

July 5, 2010

The thing I worry most about is the weather in Singapore. Here's the average weather. Low and high temperatures in Celsius, percent humidity in the am and pm, millimeters of rain, and days where it rains more than .25 millimeters:
        low     high    am      pm      mm      days 
Jan	23	30	82	78	252	17
Feb	23	31	77	71	173	11
March	24	31	76	70	193	14
April	24	31	77      74      188	15
May	24	32	79	73	173	15
June	24	31	79	73	173	13
July	24	31	79	72	170	13
Aug	24	31	78	72	196	14
Sept	24	31	79	72	178	14
Oct	23	31	78      72	208	16
Nov	23	31	79      75	254	18
Dec	23	31	82      78	257	19
It's remarkably constant! The BBC, where I got this information from, lists the discomfort from heat and humidity as "high" every month except May, when it moves up to "extreme". But I don't remember being terribly uncomfortable the two times I was in Singapore. 32 degrees is 90 Fahrenheit (sorry, that's still more familiar to me), and indeed that's unpleasant when the humidity is over 70 percent. But I think I've been in enough hut and humid places — a summer in Hong Kong, a summer in Shanghai " that Singapore doesn't really stand out in my annals of discomfort. I remember Shanghai crushing me like a sledgehammer when I first went there, but somehow I got used to it.

And I keep reminding myself: millions of people live in Singapore; they don't all flee screaming. Everything is air conditioned indoors now... but in fact, they lived there even before air conditioning was invented.

Right now it's noon here, 3 am in Singapore. The temperature there is 82 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is 89%. It's supposed to rain.

Lisa is supposed to come back from Germany today; I'm not sure when.

July 6, 2010

Here's an article by a team of scientists who tried to estimate "boundaries for a healthy planet":

From the original online version of the Scientific American article:
Earth System           Threshold Measure       Boundary        Current Level     Preindustrial

Climate Change         CO2 Concentration       350 ppm         387 ppm           280 ppm
Biodiversity Loss      Extinction Rate         10 pm           >100 pm*          0.1-one pm
Nitrogen Cycle         N2 Tonnage              35 mmt**        121 mmt           0
Phosphorous Cycle      Level in Ocean          11 mmt          8.5-9.5 mmt       .1 mmt
Ozone Layer            O3 Concentration        276 DU#         283 DU            290 DU
Ocean Acidification    Aragonite^^ Levels      2.75            2.90              3.44
Freshwater Usage       Consumption             4,000 km3^      2,600 km3         415 km3
Land Use Change        Cropland Conversion     15 km3          11.7 km3          Low

*pm=per million
**mmt=millions of metric tons
#DU=dobson unit
^km3=cubic kilometers
^^Aragonite is a form of calcium carbonate. Measurement is in global mean saturation state.

They mention that while climate change gets a lot of attention, biodiversity loss is the most out of whack measured sheerly by the ratio of the current estimated rate to the supposedly safe "boundary level". Then comes the nitrogen cycle. Ocean acidification is also above the boundary level.

Of course everything about this stuff is tricky, but it's important. We've got to think about it!

July 7, 2010

Lisa and I went to a nice farewell dinner thrown by Judy and David Kronenfeld last night. Al and Betsy Fix were there, and some other folks too.

Walter Blackstock pointed out an interesting special issue of the Kyoto Journal: issue 74, which is about the Silk Road.

July 9, 2010

Today is the big day: we're going to the airport at 9 pm tonight, and we'll catch a plane for Singapore (via Hong Kong) at 1 am. Now: last-minute packing and house cleanup.

Another farewell dinner last night, thrown by Gene and Barbara Anderson. Shannon Lynch and Akif Eskalen came too. Shannon and Akif are friends of ours, but they also happen to live right behind the house Gene and Barbara moved into when they returned to Riverside! So we had the pleasure of introducing them to each other.

My student John Huerta pointed out this talk:

Oberwolfach Vorlesung by Prof. Rupert Klein

The annual Oberwolfach Vorlesung is a public lecture of about one hour taking place at the MFO after the general meeting of the Gesellschaft fuer mathematische Forschung e.V. (The GMF is the running society of the MFO; please note that its general meeting is NOT public.)

We are pleased to announce the next Oberwolfach Vorlesung:

Prof. Rupert Klein (Berlin)
"Mathematical Challenges from Climate Research"
Saturday, October 2nd, 2010
at 5:30 pm in the institute's large lecture hall

For organisational and capacity reasons, we kindly ask you to register by letter or email to Please note that we cannot offer board and lodging for this event at the MFO. Instead, we recommend the nearby hotels to the interested participants.

I'd like to find out what Klein says!

July 10, 2010

I started my new blog, Azimuth.

July 11, 2010

A wonderfully smooth though tiresomely long trip took us to Singapore and to NUS where we picked up the keys to an apartment in Block A of Kent Vale, a faculty housing area near the northwest corner of the NUS campus. This is a temporary apartment... we'll get a permanent one when our stuff shows up in a couple of weeks. It's very spacious and nice, and it's on the 12th floor. The view is big but not particularly picturesque, since they're doing lots of construction on campus:

Here's Lisa trying to get the wireless to work:

Lisa and I spent today getting set up at our offices. The campus of the National University of Singapore is a bit Escher-esque, since it has a lot of densely packed buildings on steep hills, connected by lots of stairs and walkways, but separated by little gardens with lush jungle vegetation, and there are lots of tricky situations where the 1st floor of one building becomes the 4th floor of another just by walking down the hall. There are four or five bus lines on campus, and I had to quickly learn about those to get to a cafeteria to have some breakfast, then go to the Centre for Quantum Technologies and get set up there, then pick up Lisa and then come back to Kent Vale to pick up an extra set of apartment keys.

At the CQT I chose a slightly depressing windowless office on the 4th floor over a sumptuous one with windows on the 6th floor because there was nobody else on the 6th floor (yet), and I want to talk to people. Right after I made this decision I started regretting it. Since there was nothing to do in my office (I'd forgotten to bring my laptop), I went down the 3rd floor and hung out in the CQT's lounge. This is called the Quantum Cafe! — nice competition to the Black Hole Bistro at the Perimeter Institute. More importantly, you can make your own espresso — a real treat in an Asian context, where good coffee can be hard to come by.

I met Mile Gu, who told me about his paper "More really is different", which proves the uncomputability of the expectation values of some natural observables in the ground state of a lattice spin system with periodic Hamiltonian. I find it rather amazing that these are uncomputable, so I'll have to talk to him more and understand the physics of this better. Then I met Artur Ekert, the director of the CQT, who invited me here in the first place. I'm going to talk more to him tomorrow. And then I met Kuldip Singh, the administrative director (who turned out to have an old interest in quantum gravity), and Valerio Scarani, who works on quantum information and quantum cryptography. Kuldip Singh volunteered that an office with windows might open up on the 4th floor.

Later, a colleague of Lisa's got the wireless working in our apartment, and told us that that the best place to shop should be a short walk through a park to West Coast Plaza, where there's an upscale grocery store called Cold Storage, so named because it descends from an old Singapore company that sold ice. Crossing the road will take us to a "wet market" — that is, a more traditional Chinese market — called West Coast Market Square.

July 12, 2010

Walking through the park last night the air felt nice — almost cool, though humid as ever. The West Coast Plaza has a Starbucks, a Coffee Bean, a Quiznos sub shop — all just like home! That was somehow disappointing. But there was also a bunch of Chinese restaurants including a Formosan one that sells xiao long bao, and a toast shop — a Singaporean specialty whose charms I have not yet discovered.

It turns out that Cold Storage sells a diverse array of standard western foods, but at alarmingly high prices — enough to make me hope I'd overestimated the value of a Singapore dollar. I gritted my teeth and shelled out $5.00 for a kilo of oatmeal. As you can probably tell, I'm a real skinflint when it comes to buying staples like this. I'm not sure why; maybe because my parents grew up in the Depression and they ingrained this habit in me. I normally pay US $2.99 for a 30-ounce container of "Country Choice" steel cut oats, which are nice because they are just oats with a minimum of precooking and other messing around. We pay the food industry to predigest our foods for us.

(Turns out that a Singapore dollar equals 0.72 US dollars now. I was guessing 0.80, so I'm 8% less alarmed now.)

As if trying to live up to its name, Cold Storage is also air-conditioned to a ridiculous extent — enough so that upon leaving, the outdoors felt oppressively hot. That pissed me off. How can I adapt to a tropical climate and avoid wasting energy if stores catering to non-natives keep blasting me with arctic air?

Then we crossed the road via an overpass common here and went to the West Coast Market Square. The wet market was closed, since they tend to close around 5 or 6 pm, but the hawker centre was still going strong, with about half the little booths selling food still open. Lisa got Heinan chicken (steamed chicken with dark soy sauce and a chili condiment) and vegetables with satay sauce and "floss". After near-terminal indecision brought on by hunger, I got chicken curry from a claypot shop " something like this. Turned out they were almost out of chicken, since it was late — so the guy charged me $2.50 instead of $5. After dinner Lisa had a sour plum juice and I had lime juice. Then we walked around, looking at small shops selling a diversity of cheap practical things, very Chinese in style. We saw a 7-11 with lots of incense for sale, sitting in bundles outside. I've heard that 7-11's are taking over, here. We started feeling hot and tired, so we walked back home and went to bed.

Overall it was quite a nice first day in our new life. It will be nice to go to that hawker centre often enough to try all the dishes! In choosing a lime juice, I yet again missed an opportunity to try my first bandung:

or Milo dinosaur:

I'm not sure I'd actually like these things, but it seems important to try them while I'm here — just as in the United States you're not a full member of the culture if you haven't tried all sorts of absurd foods.

Greg Egan said he was not shocked by the results in "More really is different". He said it basically just showed you can mimic a Turing machine with an Ising model, and then — unsurprisingly — the Halting Problem would still be undecidable. Somehow this popped my consciousness into a state where the result indeed seemed obvious instead of "rather amazing", as I mentioned yesterday. Here's what I'd been thinking: you can usually compute ground state expectation values of observables for a lattice system by imposing a spatial cutoff, computing the ground state expectation values, and then removing the cutoff. With the cutoff they should be computable for any computable Hamiltonian, so the uncomputability can only arise in taking the limit. Somehow this seemed hard to achieve.

But now I see that it's easy to achieve. You can set up the Hamiltonian so that its ground state mimics the running of a universal cellular automaton. Then computing ground state expectation values to a given accuracy may require making the cutoff arbitrarily large — or more precisely, uncomputably large.

Here's a fun question, then. The ground state corresponds to thermal equilibrium at T = 0. Suppose we consider expectation values not at T = 0, but at nonzero temperature. Are these still uncomputable? I'm hoping they'll be computable: namely, that thermal fluctuations will ruin the functioning of the universal computer. I have a philosophy that reasonable physics problems have computable answers. The T = 0 idealization would count as "unreasonable" if the results are destroyed by increasing the temperature just a little bit.

July 15, 2010

Combining land and ocean temperatures worldwide, this June was the warmest June on record in 131 years. Similarly, this May was the warmest May on record. This April was the warmest April on record, and this March was the warmest March on record.

Do you hear about this on the news? I haven't.

There have been a lot of floods this year. Are floods getting worse? Opinions vary. It seems people agree that flood damage keeps increasing. But some say it's mostly due to more people living near the coasts:

while others say that, at least in the Northeast U.S., heavy rainfalls are increasing: while the Southwest seems to be suffering from more droughts.

July 16, 2010

Some useful advice from Walter Blackstock, which I reproduce here for anyone who visits Singapore:

Hi John,
Welcome to the air-conditioned Nation!

Recommend Kinokuniya for books, Sim Lim Square or Funan Mall at City Hall for electronics, Buddha Tooth Temple in Chinatown as an example of a working inner city temple. Cold Storage varies with location: Jelita is high-end for ex-pats, Takashimaya on Orchard has Japanese food, Holland Village is basic and crowded. Brewerkz by the river does a decent pint — prices vary with time. Their Wine Garage is nearby, but you will be shocked at the price of wine in Singapore.

July 22, 2010

A taste of an America nostalgic for times long gone:

July 23, 2010

July 24, 2010

photo by Ariana Lindquist for NPR

The sea goddess Mazu is back!

In truth she was never gone... Lisa says she's very popular in Taiwan, and we've visited temples to Tin Hau, a similar figure, in Macau and Hong Kong. According to this article, she has 160 million followers and 4,000 temples in mainland China, and now the government there is encouraging her worship:

While the title focuses on how China's leaders are using Mazu, lets not forget that Mazu — or, let us say, her followers — is also using them.

But let us not forget that in China one can easily pay reverence to one god or goddess without denying others, so that the 160 milllion followers of Mazu may also be Buddhists, and regularly visit Taoist temples as well.

Here in Singapore, we've seen the usual signs of Chinese religion: there's a Taoist temple near the wet market at West Coast Market Square, and the market itself has an altar where they burn incense. Across the street there's a Christian church that does services in English, Filipino and Mandarin.

On a more mundane note: Lisa and I had a really great lunch today! It was Teochew cuisine, from the city of Chaoshan, a region of China in the north-easternmost part of the Guangdong province. It was braised duck on yam rice. It came with a bowl of anise-flavored chicken broth and some nice condiments on the side: half a hard-boiled egg, some peanuts, and some cucumber slices. The flavors were intriguing, especially with the help of a dollp of shacha sauce. It cost all of 3 Singapore dollars.

You can get it from a little booth in the outermost row of booths in West Coast Market Square, here, which specializes in Teochew food. (Lisa calls it "Chaozhou" food, but it's often written Teochew, and that's what you'll see on this booth.)

July 30, 2010

Some blue sky at 7:20 am today, but now it's pouring rain.

Here's the kind of thing I love about Singapore: in the national news today in the Straits Times, the big headline story yells:

Girl, 14, Allegedly Kicks Her Teacher

That is what you'd hope for in a civilized country. In Los Angeles such a minor incident would never be reported.

Meanwhile, up in China, here's what they think about Sarah Palin:

Being out of the American sphere of infleuence, I hadn't noticed that Palin likes the word "refudiate" until I saw this video!

For my August 2010 diary, go here.

Be the change you wish to see in the World - Mahatma Gandhi

© 2010 John Baez