For my September 2007 diary, go here.

Diary - October 2007

John Baez

October 1, 2007

On September 9th I wrote about the bad effects of plastic trash. Here's another story on that:

October 2, 2007

Today I flew to the Deep Beauty conference at Princeton. In the Denver airport, I bought a National Geographic magazine. It was quite good, better than in the old days. I enjoyed the short article about a new species of clouded leopard discovered in Borneo. Online, I can only find an earlier article on the same subject:

People believe there are 5,000 to 18,000 of these Bornean clouded leopards, many in a mountainous rain forest called the Heart of Borneo. Despite their name and appearance, they are not closely related to true leopards. They live in trees and are very agile: they can descend tree trunks head-first, and even climb while hanging upside-down from a branch! They probably hunt by dropping down on their prey, but this has not been seen: they're quite elusive.

Except for bats, new mammal species are hard to find nowadays. But the Bornean clouded leopard is not a new find! It was first noted by Western zoologists in 1823. At the time it was considered a separate species, Neofelis diardi. It was later reclassified as a subspecies of the clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa, which is found in southern China, the eastern Himalayas, north-east India and south-east Asia. However, in December 2006, genetic analyses convinced scientists that the Bornean clouded leopard is actually a separate species. You can tell the mainland clouded leopard looks different:

But looks don't prove much. Genes matter more, and a molecular clock estimate says that the Bornean clouded leopards separated from their mainland kin 1.4 million years ago, after they used a land bridge to reach Borneo and Sumatra. Now they're different enough to be a separate species.

Someday, I hope not too late, people will regard each Bornean clouded leopard as a work of art more precious than any masterpiece by Monet or da Vinci. Beautiful and more irreplaceable than any mere work of man, it has been honed through eons of natural selection, almost perfectly adapted to its environment — until we showed up. Now all the rules have changed. Now it survives only with our forbearance.

The World-Wide Wildlife Federation is trying to save 220,000 square kilometers of the Heart of Borneo. I support them, and I hope you do too.

If you're not in love with the Bornean clouded leopard yet, watch this:

I don't know if the clouded leopards are related to the Asian leopard cat.

Here's another article I enjoyed:

Since we visited Singapore and Malacca in the summer of 2005, and Lisa has gotten job feelers from the National University of Singapore, it's not just a love of exoticism that makes me interested in the pirates that ply their trade in the Strait of Malacca. I'm not sure I'd want to take a cruise near Singapore, given the high rate of piracy nearby! Check out the International Maritime Bureau maps showing pirate attacks worldwide — you'll see a lot concentrated around Malaysia and Indonesia. The National Geographic also had a good article on the comparative merits of different biofuels: Click on the boxes here to compare biofuels. Or if you just want the executive summary:

But the best article of all was this:

The really cool part is a chart that Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala made up in this paper: It lists 15 measures, each of which could reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tons per year by 2057. Here's an executive summary of what they claim: Here are the 15 measures, which Pacala and Socolow call "wedges":

I should do my part for wedge 2 and stop flying to so many conferences.

Of course I'll also vote against Bush in the next election — or at least whomever he supports.

October 7, 2007

I'm back from the conference Deep Beauty: Mathematical Innovation and the Search for an Underlying Intelligibility of the Quantum World, organized by Hans Halvorson of the Princeton University philosophy department.

Here are some of the participants at von Neumann's grave, in a picture taken by Jamie Vicary — who therefore remained invisible himself, alas:

From left to right: Simon Kochen, Jeffrey Bub, Bob Coecke, Peter Woit, John Baez, Mike Stay,
Andreas Döring, Camm Maguire and Chris Heunen.

The honor of being the "keynote speaker" (woo-hoo!) was almost completely balanced by the inconvenience of it all. First of all, the conference took place for two days in the middle of the week: the first full week of class here at UCR. Second, the trip there was a nightmare.

On Tuesday morning I caught a shuttle to Ontario airport at 5:15 am. My 8 am flight with United was cancelled, so I wound up sitting in the airport until 11:40 am, flying to Denver, sitting around for a couple of hours, and arriving at Newark airport after midnight. I made it to the Nassau Inn at 1:30 am and went to bed around 2. I got up at 8:30, slurped down some coffee and inhaled a bagel, and gave my talk on Spans in Quantum Theory at 9:30.

I hate giving talks when sleep-deprived or jet-lagged. I can still fight my way through them, but the fine-tuned sense of "nailing it" — of saying everything the best way, with drama and a sense of humor — is gone. Luckily, this time, despite the punishing trip, I was feeling quite peppy when I gave my talk, perhaps because I'd slept a lot on the plane. So, I nailed it, finished early, and enjoyed a nice long question-and-answer period afterwards. Later that day I sort of crashed.

The conference was funded by the Templeton Foundation. It was one of a series of conferences at Princeton this week, whose ostensible purpose was to honor the 75th anniversary of von Neumann's book The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, but were also timed around a Templeton Foundation board meeting at held at Princeton. The Templeton Foundation is controversial among scientists for its support of religion and especially its funding of the the Discovery Institute, which promotes "intelligent design". However, in my indirect dealings with them — both at this conference and in my work for the Templeton-funded Foundational Questions Institute — I've never heard anyone even mention religion.

I hope to write more about this conference in This Week's Finds.

October 8, 2007

Today Thomas Riepe passed on an interesting article about a World Bank study on the "intangible capital" that citizens of rich countries have access to: Bailey asks:
When a Mexican, or for that matter, a South Asian or African, walks across our border, they gain immediate access to intangible capital worth $418,000 per person. Who wouldn't walk across the border in such circumstances?
The World Bank study is here:

October 9, 2007

At the end of my June 28th diary entry I mentioned how Craig Venter's team had succeeded in giving a bacterium a complete genome transplant. I said "Of course this is 'cheating' in at least two senses: it uses an already functioning cell, and it uses the genome of an existing bacterium. The fun will start when they put in a novel, human-crafted genome."

The fun is starting! Mike Stay points out this article:

The key part:
The Guardian can reveal that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they have painstakingly stitched together a chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.

The DNA sequence is based on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium which the team pared down to the bare essentials needed to support life, removing a fifth of its genetic make-up. The wholly synthetically reconstructed chromosome, which the team have christened Mycoplasma laboratorium, has been watermarked with inks for easy recognition.

It is then transplanted into a living bacterial cell and in the final stage of the process it is expected to take control of the cell and in effect become a new life form. The team of scientists has already successfully transplanted the genome of one type of bacterium into the cell of another, effectively changing the cell's species. Mr Venter said he was "100% confident" the same technique would work for the artificially created chromosome.

Of course the new chromosome has not been designed ab initio, but it's very sensible to start by modifying an existing chromosome. Let's see if they're right about it having all the "bare essentials needed to support life". They may have left something out. People may be just figuring out why we have an appendix, for example.

October 10, 2007

I bumped into a poem by Rumi that sent chills up my spine:
If you want what visible reality
can give, you are an employee.

If you want the unseen world,
you are not living your truth.

Both wishes are foolish,
but you'll be forgiven for forgetting
that what you really want is
love's confusing joy.

These starlings also send chills up my spine — though only metaphorically speaking:

And, the new Radiohead album is out: In Rainbows. You've probably heard about it, since everyone is talking about it — but some of you, my friends, are far removed from the whirl of pop culture, so I thought I should mention it.

It's caused a big stir, since it's available online for a price you get to choose yourself, plus a $1 service fee. Right now their website is so busy I can't get through. They're not saints. They're doing it for good economics reasons: and they'll make a lot of money off this, as well as creating a lot of good publicity, which will help them when signing their next contract with a record company (if they choose to do that). But, I like the idea a lot.

October 11, 2007

I'm not sure I believe this story Mike Stay pointed me towards. It reminds me of variou episodes of unreliable Russian and Soviet science — like polywater, Kirlian photography and those Soviet military projects to harness paranormal abilities. But it'll be really cool if it's true:

I assume you know about the Chernobyl disaster. This article says Ekaterina Dadachova and Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine have found two species of fungi in the entombed Chernobyl reactor — Cryptococcus neoformans and Wangiella dermatitidis — that contain lots of melanin. Melanin is a name for a variety of chemicals, including those that give you a tan: they protect against ultraviolet light. However, Casadevall and Dadachova claim these fungi use melanin to obtain energy from gamma rays, much as plants obtain energy from light using chlorophyll!

The actual paper is here:

As far as I'm concerned, the key finding is this:

Melanized Wangiella dermatitidis and Cryptococcus neoformans cells exposed to ionizing radiation approximately 500 times higher than background grew significantly faster as indicated by higher CFUs, more dry weight biomass and 3-fold greater incorporation of 14C-acetate than non-irradiated melanized cells or irradiated albino mutants. In addition, radiation enhanced the growth of melanized Cladosporium sphaerospermum cells under limited nutrients conditions.

They're getting energy from radiation! Hmm — could it be not the gamma rays themselves that do the job, but instead lower-energy radiation (X-rays or ultraviolet) produced by or accompanying the gamma rays?

Let's see. They zapped the fungi with radiation from a caesium-137 source, which puts out 662 keV gamma rays. That's a wavelength of only 2 picometers, while hard X-rays go down to 10 picometers. So, these are honest gamma rays. People even use them to sterilize things! But, I don't know what such gamma rays do when they hit the culture or container the fungi are in. Maybe they produce lower-energy radiation.

They also tried infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet, and they all helped the fungi grow about equally well! So, maybe melanin gets easily ionized by all sorts of radiation — I don't know the physics of melanin.

Lisa went to Shanghai tonight... she'll be gone for about a week.

October 13, 2007

Did you hear about the meteorite that landed near a small town in Peru on September 15th? The reports are quite confusing and contradictory. People saw something fall from the sky, ran over and found big hole full of water.

Some say the water was boiling at first. Some say the cause was a meteorite, while others say it was an American satellite or just a pre-existing lake. Some say that hundreds fell ill from strange fumes, possibly from arsenic in the water. Others say this was a case of mass hysteria, or that only a few people got sick.

An early BBC report was pretty dismissive:

However, later reports seem to confirm that a meteorite indeed hit the earth — a rocky meteorite called a chondrite, in fact. You can see a video of the scene.

(I thank James Dolan for telling me about this meteorite. I didn't hear about it at the time.)

It took me a long time to love Brian Eno's album The Drop. I just realized I actually do.

Eno is always pushing the limits of music. Unfortunately this means that by the time you've learned to enjoy one thing he does, he's off doing something else. On The Drop he forsook all the rich, subtle textures some of his music was known for. In 1997, he went to live in St. Petersburg for a year and made music in his apartment. He strippped the technology down to some cheap, almost cheesy-sounding synthesizers and drum machines. And, he played some weird melodies that don't quite sound like anything you've ever heard — a bit jazzy, but definitely not jazz, a bit repetitive and minimalist, but not in any style we're accustomed to. He called it "unwanted jazz", or "sour piano". When I first heard this album it seemed like a cheap imitation of the Eno I'd come to expect. But by now, I know what he's up to.

The reviews on Amazon nicely capture his fan's reactions, which were my reactions too. Hans Stoeve writes:

He who expects never receives. This old saying has been haunting me for awhile now and I can't help but think this is appropriate for this release. I have listened to The Drop quite a number of times now, and I'm left with an empty feeling when I hear it. Now don't get me wrong. Eno is THE reason why I am on the air, but maybe it's a good thing to look at your old ghosts from time to time and admit that either your tastes have changed in a big way over the years (which they certainly have), or Eno simply hasn't come up with anything new that is worth while. What I hear are fragments of Eno's past, fragments that include Neroli and memories of Spinner and Shutov Assembly also. As well as Low and Heroes. This is almost an attempt at some sort of jazz, but it's a sort of jazz you can't quite pinpoint and consequently you're left feeling confused. Maybe this is the purpose of this recording. Eno has for a long time been at the forefront of modern music. The man is a pioneer and a genius in my book and listening to this record raises many questions for me like: what is the purpose behind this? Where is Eno heading? Is he quietly having a laugh at us for taking it all so seriously?
Jesse Melat writes:
With all his astounding, influential and historic albums that the man has released, it's a mystery as to how this came about in his body of work. Or is it? The Drop is unique in the musical territory it charts; there isn't anything on Earth that sounds quite like it, but it just seems... dumb in some places. "Belgian Drop" really does sound like an amateur noodling with a Casio.
These reactions are perfectly valid, but they haven't worked their way through to the deeper layers of the music, and they seem to have forgotten that Eno's gift was always for making music that sounds bad at first but great eventually — music that breaks rules, but follows new rules that you have to discover. So, his old stuff always sounds better than his new stuff... but not because he's getting worse.

I think Kenneth Burstall come closer to what I'm trying to say here:

at first listening a nasty and very small CD. it seems to have no relation to any of enos previous work and gives the impression that he had a really bad headache during recording and decided to transmit it. by laser. directly to you. that's why i like it - in this country (the uk) eno is fast becoming a national treasure (consultant to big projects, talker about future things etc). it's nice to be reminded that he's essentially an anarchist and he will bite you if you get too close. spiky, unsettled music. you may not like it, but it likes you in a concerned but faintly sinister way. now stop crying.
Right now Eno has an art exhibition near San Francisco, called 77 Million Paintings. I should have gone up to see it, but I'm too lazy. And, someday it may appear on my TV.

October 15, 2007

It rained the night before last! And today it was foggy, moistening the plants! If you don't live around here, you don't know how big a deal this is. The southwest US is in an 8-year drought, and southern California has been very dry this year. We get water from northern California and from the Colorado River, and both these sources are planning to cut back how much they supply us, by 25% or so. The state government is struggling to build new dams or other ways of storing water, but the Democrats and Republicans have competing plans, and the legislature is in gridlock: The little rain we just had won't help much. But, it's nice to see. And it's very nice to be able to turn off the sprinkler system in our garden for two days in a row!

The garden is beautiful these days — I'll have to take some photos. I just had some soup made from an enormous kale plant we harvested.

October 17, 2007

Clearing through old papers I found scrawled notes on a dream I had years ago; I can't remember when. I used to write down my dreams a lot when I was in college and grad school; gradually I slacked off, but this one comes from much later.
Riding through bog on horseback we spot two parrots ahead avoiding us. Someone running with us decides to chase it down. He can run superhumanly fast and keep up with a gallop. The parrot keeps flying ahead, looking back, pausing. "If we tire it and chase it down we can make it grant us a wish." We chase it until it tires and falls from the sky into a pond. The man lunges after and grabs it.

Then the parrot's husband appears to defend its mate! It dives at me and threatens to peck and bite me. I decide to catch it, so I resist its attacks and tire it until exhausted it gives up and I catch it. Then we are to extract a wish.

We go to the parrot's home and they are people, beautiful people, and there is a third beautiful woman. I realize we have done something terribly wrong and we will be cursed by the parrots for what we have done, and I tell everyone in the party to apologize. Even this will not be enough, so I tell everyone to give the parrots a gift of what they hold most dear.

Everyone does and then I realize I must too. I take a brooch of stones strung together by beads, and take it apart, to remove the center stone, a gift from Lisa, which I hold most dear. As I do beads and stones fall to the ground, and they are precious but I can't trifle to try to save all of them. I give the stone to the parrots, and then kneel sadly to gather the stones and beads and string them together. Everyone watches me and tries to help me find a new way, a new pattern, but without the center stone it is a bit pathetic. Someone in my party says that it looks much worse without the stone Lisa gave me and I say "Of course, you fool! That's the whole point!"

I am very regretful and I realize the only way I'll ever profit form this is that maybe if there is ever a forest fire the birds, who have heard of us from the parrots, will bear me aloft and save me.

Or (I picture this) when Lisa and I have a child, and there is a forest fire, and the child is lost, and we cannot save it, the owls will fly away with it and save it and leave it in a secret place by the coast. Lisa and I will despair and look everywhere (with little hope) for the child, and then find it and know the owls have saved it.

October 18, 2007

Todd Trimble pointed me to a interesting book: I've been a fan of Robert Fripp's guitar work ever since I heard Exposure back in high school.

I found the most illuminating section of this book to be chapter 10, on Tamm's experieces in the guitar school Fripp founded. A quote:

Fripp told the story of his dozing in a friend's Chelsea loft in the early 1980s. He leapt from the sofa with a sudden realization. "Music stands at the door and knocks," he said. "One day we hear it faintly, but by the time we get through all the junk on our floor, it is gone. So we clean up the mess. Next time, we answer the door and meet it, but the house has such a stench that it goes away. Finally we set our house in order, because..." and here Fripp did one of his long pauses, turned his eyes down to the mid-foreground, and grew visibly grave and saddened ... "because we just couldn't bear for it to go away and not return," these last words pronounced in a quiet, slightly wavering voice. It took him a few minutes to recover from the thought; he appeared disoriented and shaken.
For music, substitute whatever your true calling may be.

October 20, 2007

A peaceful, slightly lonely weekend without Lisa, who'll return (imshallah) from Shanghai very late tomorrow night. I went to the gym today for the first time in way too long, and feel much better for it. Then I continued trying to finish my paper A prehistory of n-categorical physics, for the conference proceedings I'm editing with Peter May. I'm having a lot of trouble trying to pack all my thoughts on this subject into one place — or figure out which thoughts to put in, and which to leave out.

So, it's been tough weekend, though very peaceful. In the afternoon I goofed off a bit composing some electronic music, which didn't turn out well — perhaps because music doesn't want to be used as a form of procrastination.

I also wrote a reply to Sean Carroll's challenge for people to say what "God" means. Normally I avoid public pronouncements on religion, since they tend to be tacky. But I think this challenge misses the point in a fundamental way: it pushes the whole discussion down to a debased level (which of course is the level where most public discussions of religion reside). And, I felt an urge to say why... which I will probably regret tomorrow. But here's what I wrote, mildly edited:

"God" means many things to many people. But to me — just me — "god" is a desperate attempt to take the awesome inexhaustible mystery of the universe — the fact that the deeper you go in any direction, the more you find — the blinding beauty and heart-rending tragedy of it all — and package it into a kind of "thing".

In my work I often experience this sense of awesomeness, of depths that pass beyond my understanding. In fact, that's what I live for. But I don't find it helpful to package it into a "thing". After all, this strange "thing" can't be a normal sort of thing in the universe, so it's easy to conclude it's either in some other universe (say, "heaven"), or doesn't exist at all, or exists in some very tricky sense. But all these alternatives are just distractions, as far as I'm concerned.

So for me, saying that god "does not exist" is just as silly as saying that god "does exist". They both take me further from the mystery of the universe into the realm of petty squabbles.

But, if we imagine that certain — not all — people talking about "god" are actually trying to convey an experience of the hair-raising awesomeness of reality, its shattering majesty, some things they say might make more sense. To take a few examples just from Christian theology:

No one has seen or can see God. (John 1.18)

He lives in unapproachable light. (1 Timothy 6:16)

The true knowledge and vision of God consists in this: in seeing that He is invisible, because what we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility. (Gregory of Nyssa)

God is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. (John of Damascus)

These examples were all lifted from an Orthodox website on apophatic theology, known more generally (among Christians anyway) as negative theology. Negative theology is a pretty good way to convey the mystical experience that underlies some of the less rotten aspects of religion — though keeping cool and not talking about it at all may be wiser. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

I chose Christian examples because the Anglocentric "culture wars" Carroll's blog are engaged in involve Christianity more strongly than other religions: they're largely a political battle between secular humanists and fundamentalist Christians in the United States (though Dawkins is British). But, I have no special affinity to Christianity, and if I were just looking for "negative theology" quotes, it'd be easier to find them elsewhere, often in traditions where "theology" is not even a concept. For example:

The way that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging way.
The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.

- Tao Te Ching

Santa Ana winds are blowing into town tonight. The broom hanging on the wall outside keeps knocking...

October 21, 2007

The Santa Ana winds are still blowing, and fires are spreading throughout Southern California. The year-long drought, the worst in recorded history, has dried all the brush to make perfect kindling. Now we have winds blowing at speeds exceeding 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph).

The biggest fires are west of us, near the coast:

Ventura County fires as seen from the towns of Piru and Lake Piru –
photo by Karen Loberg, Associated Press

Malibu, California – photo by Stephen Osman, LA Times

So far there are no fires here in Riverside County, and the skies looked blue today except for windblown dust near the horizon. But, there are now three fires in neighboring San Bernardino County. Quoting the Riverside Press-Enterprise:

The largest was 300 acres near Interstate 15 in Fontana. One vacant home was destroyed and 500 homeowners were told they should evacuate. The second blaze had burned about 30 acres near the junction of Interstate 15 and 215 in Devore. Five to 10 homes were threatened. Another fire had chewed through 35 acres south of the highway junction and winds were blowing between 50 mph and 80 mph, officials said.
Our house has a pretty good bunch of iceplant on the hill behind it, which is designed to protect us when the dry parkland in back catches on fire. But, we've got a wooden trellis out back. So, I'm always on the alert when these Santa Ana winds come — and especially this year, with everything bone-dry.

I'm happy that the world in general is getting wetter as global warming proceeds. This won't cheer up residents of Bangladesh. I'm just happy because around here, it's not true — so I sometimes get the horrible feeling the whole world is drying out, burning up and turning into a desert. The American southwest is getting drier... but in general, more warmth means more water vapor, so more rain.

Fire's Fury Unlikely to Wane as Dangerous Conditions Intensify

Mark Muckenfuss
Riverside Press Enterprise, October 21, 2007


In fact, of the top 10 largest fires in California's recorded history, seven have taken place in the past 20 years. The most recent was this summer's Zaca Fire (240,000 acres) east of Santa Barbara.

Contributing to Troubles

Experts say several factors are involved. Decades of fire suppression have left forests overgrown. In earlier times, such growth would have been limited by periodic low-grade fires. In recent years, efforts have been made to reduce the excess vegetation by letting remote fires burn and conducting controlled burns, but neither strategy is practical in Southern California's densely populated mountains.

Climate change has increased the length of the fire season, drying fuels out earlier, keeping them dry for longer and leading to fires of greater intensity. The periodic drought cycle in which the region finds itself has exacerbated those conditions, as has a bark beetle infestation that's killed millions of trees.

With increasing numbers of homes bordering wildland areas, when a fire does break out, more resources are focused on saving structures, making it harder to contain other areas of the fire.

There is some disagreement as to the degree of importance of these factors, but most experts agree that each plays a part.

Richard Minnich is an earth sciences professor at UCR. He says environmental factors are much more important than the efforts of firefighters. "We're good at putting out little fires," Minnich says. "Once a fire is large, all that knowledge has trivial influence. We have no ability to control large fires any more than we can control earthquakes."

It wasn't until a cold front moved in during the fires of 2003, bringing rain and snow, that firefighters were able to contain the blazes.

Battling Big Blazes

Minnich says few gains have been made in fighting large wildland fires. "In practice, I don't see any difference between now and 1950," he says, "except that you have bigger and bigger planes and the fires are getting bigger." The problem he says, is the forest, which was once able to regulate itself, has an overabundance of vegetation.

"There is some historical evidence to support that Southern California used to look like what we see presently in Baja (California)," says Minnich. There, the chaparral environment supports fewer and more widely spaced trees.

Because of periodic natural fires, he says, the terrain is a checkerboard of areas with varying degrees of vegetation. When a fire does start in an area with sufficient fuel, he says, it usually burns itself out once it reaches an area with less vegetation. This can take awhile. Historic data indicates that before the 20th century, fires in Southern California would sometimes burn for months before extinguishing themselves, Minnich says. Back then, when there were few homes in the foothills and mountains, such fires weren't a problem. But the San Bernardino National Forest is now home to 100,000 residents and is the country's most densely populated forest. The presence of so many homes has necessitated policies of fire suppression. Populated areas limit the ability of fire managers to conduct controlled burns that would thin heavy fuels and, when fires do erupt, protecting those homes presents firefighters with greater challenges.

People, and the way they have changed the local landscape, are the greatest factor in bigger fires, says Stephen Pyne, a professor of American studies at Arizona State University and an expert in fire history. "I think there is a tendency to attribute to global warming the increase in fires," Pyne says. "It is a precondition, but it is not enough to explain it.

"We know that we broke the cycle of (natural) fires by introducing livestock and by removing American Indians who, the evidence suggests, burned very widely," he adds.

Recent removal of more than 1 million trees killed by a bark beetle infestation in the San Bernardino mountains have helped thin the vegetation. But Minnich says it is not nearly enough. "The people in Lake Arrowhead and Idyllwild need to start thinning seriously," he says. "They need saw mills in both places." Lumber processing facilities are operating in the forest, but they primarily deal with trees killed by the bark beetle. Minnich believes commercial lumber mills are needed to turn live trees into lumber.

Some experts argue that climate change is the primary driver in the phenomenon of larger fires.

Connie Millar studies climate and ecology for the U.S. Forest Service. "I think the underlying feeling within the firefighting community (is) the growing realization of the increasing role of climate," Millar says.

Climate Shifts

A study published last year in Science magazine connected earlier snowmelt and the later onset of winter weather to an increase in the size and intensity of fires. "It was finally the coming out of the closet, as it were," says Millar. Before the study, she says, "The agency had been more in the mode of assuming land-use changes were the primary (factor)."

Tony Westerling, professor of environmental policy at UC Merced, co-authored the study with Tom Swetnam, a watershed management professor at the University of Arizona. Swetnam is scheduled to appear tonight in a "60 Minutes" story on global warming on CBS.

The two scientists looked at historical data on fires and climate. They defined two periods, 1970-1986 and 1987-2003, and found the number of fires in the second period was four times what it was in the first and a six-fold increase in the number of acres burned. The researchers also found that since 1986, the length of the active fire season — when fires are actually — increased by 78 days.

Now it's 9:25 pm and there about 13 fires in Southern California. A nasty one is overrunning the city of Irvine, on the coast:

A new one just started up in Ontario, about 50 kilometers from my house over in San Bernardino county.

I'm hoping the high winds don't stop Lisa's flight from landing in Los Angeles airport — she's supposed to arrive there around 9:50 pm.

9:30 pm. Yay! Lisa called; her plane has landed.

In the town of Canyon Country there's a fire 5000 hectares in area (12,500 acres), and wind-blown embers are flying up to 3 kilometers. The winds are picking up, and they'll blow even faster tomorrow — with gusts up to 130-145 kilometers per hour (80-90 mph)!

Luckily, from all these fires, only one person has died so far.

October 22, 2007

It smells smoky outside, and I can see the haze. The wind died down overnight, but now it's picking up a bit.

You can see a map of the fires here.

None around here yet, luckily.

Firefighters trapped on a hill in the Santiago fire in Orange County –
photo by Karen Tapia-Anderson, LA Times

October 23, 2007

It's not windy here in Riverside, and there are no fires. The air is a bit smoky, but that's the only sign of the huge battles going on nearby.

Firefighters on the run in Castaic –
photo by Al Seib, LA Times

Couple surveying the remains of their house, destroyed by the Santiago fire –
photo by Allen Schaben, LA Times

October 24, 2007

As winds lessen throughout Southern California, firefighters may start to get the upper hand. The worst is probably over now. But, the Santiago fire (in Orange County, near the coast) and the fire near Lake Arrowhead (up in the mountains north of us) remain out of control.

The fires have been worst down in San Diego, where the Witch Fire has forced evacuations of almost a million people.

Amazingly, there have been no fires here in Riverside County. It wasn't windy at all yesterday. Now the breeze is picking up. I smell smoke, but the sky is mostly blue.

On a wholly different note: a while back Lisa spoke to the Rene Lysloff, who runs the gamelan here at UCR. I've been doing some electronic music lately. He suggested the WinChime program for making random wind chime music, and the Ableton Live and Sound Forge software for serious recording. I'll have to check these out...

Guess what's the biggest segment of the Italian economy.

October 25, 2007

Here's the situation as of this evening:

October 27, 2007

We had David and Michelle Scharffenberg over for dinner. They live up near Lake Arrowhead, between two of the big fires, and that whole area has been evacuated, with police preventing people from driving back up. Their two cats, Noggin and Newton, are stuck up there.

Amazingly, it rained a little this evening! Not much, just a drizzle, but it's a great change. On the other hand, the "onshore flow" (wind coming from the sea) is blowing smoke back here, and the Santiago fire is burning right up to the Riverside county line, so the air is much more polluted here now.

October 29, 2007

Yesterday was hot and dry, but today it's cloudy again with a chance of rain.

For my November 2007 diary, go here.

In the end, global warming presents the greatest test we humans have yet faced.... It's our coming-of-age moment, and there are no certainties or guarantees. Only a window of possibility, closing fast but still ajar to let in some hope. - Bill McKibben

© 2007 John Baez