Coral Forest

crochet_forest_7Given that you read here at this blog, you may well like to keep your boundaries between art and science nicely blurred, in which case you might like to learn more about the coral reef forests made of crochet spearheaded by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. The pieces mix crochet (a hand-craft I know and love well from my childhood – I got to explore my love for symmetry, patterns, and problem-solving by making doilies) with mathematics – hyperbolic geometry in particular – as well as biology (mimicking and celebrating the forms of corals – and drawing attention to their destruction in the wild). You can read much more about the projects here. I’ve mentioned the work here before on the blog, but the other day I went along to see a new set […] Click to continue reading this post

Carmageddon Reaction

Atlantic Station on Gold Line East LA Branch(Scroll to the end of this post for the funny thing I actually intended to post without my own musings getting in the way…) It has certainly been a huge story, with national and maybe even international attention been given to it. Carmageddon is the name given to the event of the 405 highway being closed for a 10 mile stretch for most of this weekend, for maintenance purposes. People are warning of disaster, complaining, predicting calamities for business, stocking up on food supplies, and so on and so forth. Some people are angry, some are amused, some are confused. For the most part however, people are quietly making sensible plans to adjust their routines or plans to take account of the event. (Er, I’m not sure I’d include flying from Burbank to Long Beach among the sensible plans!*)

I’m sort of struck by the huge impact this is having in people’s minds, and it has raised all sorts of discussions, reflections, and arguments about the reliance on cars that people have, public transport, and so on and so forth. All subjects you’ve maybe read being discussed here over the years. (Search the archives and/or use the search bar to the right.) The clichés about there being “no public transport” in LA is a convenient one for all to use at times (or all the time) when we want to stay in our nice cosy cars and ignore the alternatives and the possibility of making adjustments to include even occasional use of them, but I readily admit that the West side is a lot closer to the standard image of Los Angeles in this regard than points further East (still staying decidedly North-leaning in the discussion of course – the South LA conversation is an interesting one for another time). The density of shops, cafes, and long, desirably walkable stretches with other pedestrians (yes, they do exist in LA) does indeed seem lower over there, and while there is some bus coverage, the lower density makes the flaws of that part of the transport system hurt more, and of course the subway/metro […] Click to continue reading this post

CicLAvia Report

ciclavia2010_4Well, it is not often I get to say this, but Sunday’s CicLAvia event was, for me, completely perfect. It was simply about community, family, and enjoying the streets. It did not have an overtly political or activist vibe to it (as is often the case when you try to do some things a little differently from others in this town, like ride the bus or walk to the grocery store), and I saw a lot more people simply enjoying (and remarking on it out loud) the fact that they were out on the streets of the city than I saw people proclaiming rabid anti-car sentiments, as I’ve seen at bike-centric events before. I think the former feeling will go a lot further in making lasting change than the latter in the long run. There was some political content around, but it was largely confined to the steps of City Hall, where (when I passed) there were endearingly naive chants being led by a bloke with a microphone about “LA saying no to oil!’ and “no to coal!”. Don’t get me wrong – naive is not necessarily used as a derogatory term here. Noble dreams begin with a heavy dose of naivete, I believe. Hope, against the odds, for significant change, and so forth. (I could use the fully decorated version, naïveté, but it looks a bit pretentious to me today…)

So the event was mostly about people getting out there and enjoying the city streets, and sharing their enjoyment by doing it together. I was impressed with the turnout […] Click to continue reading this post

Off to CicLAvia…

Getting ready to disappear off to explore. the route. Should be fun, although it is a tad too hot a day for it to be perfect for cycling and wandering long in the sun. On the other hand, that will bring a lot of people out to enjoy their Sunday outdoors, I hope, walking, cycling, rollerblading, skateboarding, running, etc. […] Click to continue reading this post

Street Invasion!

cyclovia_morelia_3On Sunday in Morelia, Mexico, I was walking along the main street near my hotel and it seemed that something unusual was going on. The street was empty of cars, and some sort of event was going on. I saw a few cyclists here and there in the distance, but not the sort that look all hardcore and determined to go fast and determinedly on their way, but instead the more leisurely stop-and-smell-the-flowers sort. I wondered almost immediately if I had run into a local ciclovía, and a few minutes later, a sign confirmed this. Wonderful!

I’ve been waiting for such a thing to come to LA for a while now, since I heard of it last year when I part (and presented) in a public discussion downtown at the Artwalk about bike issues in the city, and had heard that it was becoming more widespread (it started in South America – Colombia) but it was an unexpected treat to find one right outside my hotel room! Here are three more picture. Click for larger view.

cyclovia_morelia_1 cyclovia_morelia_2 cyclovia_morelia_4

It was great to see lots of people out and about just using the streets with no cars […] Click to continue reading this post

Not Entirely Alone, II

It has been a pleasure to see the large number of bikes in use in London, and particularly pleasing that it is a wide range of types of people using them as well. bikes_londonThere are many things about London that make it feel even more comfortable to me than ever (high prices of everything not being one of them) and the heavy bike use has to be one of them. Things in that department continue to improve over in my home city of Los Angeles, although I think it’ll still be a bit of time before you get bunches of cyclists routinely clustered at the lights waiting for the green, as in the photo on the right.

brompton_londonAlso great to see, sending a shiver of pleasure down my spine each time I’ll admit, has been the huge number of Bromptons in use in London. (See photo left.) I know it is true statistically that they are among the most popular single type of bike here (of any type, folding or non-folding) but it is still great that there are so very many sightings of them as you walk along the street especially at peak times. That’s something that really still has not taken off in LA. I’ve seen fewer than a handful of Bromptons in almost seven years on the streets here, relatively few folding bikes in total, and maybe only twice have I seen someone else using them in combination with the subway (and I remain the only person I’ve ever seen bringing them on to the bus). It […] Click to continue reading this post

You Don’t Need Magic To Use Energy Wisely

energy_posterThis is a fun poster I saw at the Grove the other day. (Click for a larger view.)

The good fairy (Tinkerbell, apparently) speaks the truth!

It’s nice to see such a campaign, and aimed at the younger set (who in turn might bug their parents into thinking about it too). It is sponsored by the Department of Energy (the same people who sponsor most of my research), and you can look at the website here. Maybe you’ll direct some others to it too! There’s an energy action checklist, and lots of useful tips and guidelines for everyone (young and old) to follow in order […] Click to continue reading this post

Amazing Asimov

Happy New Year, dear Reader!

my_robotForgive me for starting the year with an article on environmental problems, but it was Isaac Asimov’s birthday (at least the official one) on Saturday (I learned that here), and I found an excellent video of him talking wonderfully about global warming, united world action on such matters, and other issues back in 1988. It is below. I read a ton of Asimov back when I was a teenager. While not the greatest writing in a literary sense, it was full of wonderful ideas and compelling stories, and was quite inspiring for me at the time.

It is a pity that it was yesterday I switched on the little robot I use weekly to help me fight the good fight against dusty floors (see above right; the company that makes them is called iRobot, by the way – hardly any doubt that an Asimov reader was […] Click to continue reading this post

On Science and Politics

No doubt you’ve been aware of the recent debate that has been raging about whether or not the scientific case for climate change has been exaggerated by various scientists, in the light of the content of a long series of emails. It’s all over the news, and so I am sure I don’t need to point to all the news stories, commentaries, and – sad to say – convenient distractions that have been constructed on the basis of them by the climate change deniers, especially those with vested interest in the status quo. (Follow the climategate tag at The Intersection for some of the links, and a sampling of the discussions, and do look at the Nature editorial for example.) This matter, and the debates it has reignited, is of course a major issue in view of the upcoming work to be done by the leaders of the world’s major economies in Copenhagen later this month.

A key point here is to realize that when science intersects with politics – especially the kind of rabid, personal, dirty politics that surrounds the climate change issue – the grey areas that are already present in honest science can get further muddied by the fact that scientists are human beings who don’t always act perfectly in all situations, and whose actions (well emails suggesting certain actions) can also be subject to question (especially when we don’t have all the facts concerning context, etc, on several of the emails which seem very ambiguous to me).

There are two things to keep in mind. The first is that there is a global community of scientists at work here, with so many different approaches, motivations, contexts, data sets, and so forth that have been brought to bear on the matter of climate science. To think that a series of emails from some small subset of them (that may or may not suggest that data have been presented unevenly, for whatever reasons) can undermine a huge body of work and conclusions from an entire worldwide scientific community is to seriously misunderstand what science is about, and how it works. jenga_gameIt is not a tall, tottering late-stage game of jenga, where there’s a danger that at any moment one of the little wooden sticks will wobble and bring the whole game crashing to the ground. Instead, it is a highly interwoven collection of findings, ideas, analysis, and conclusions that are supported by a wide variety of pieces of evidence, all arriving at the same striking picture – Our world is changing fast and our actions are highly relevant to these changes both past, present and future. Instead of a jenga construction, think more of a woven tapestry. Pulling out a few threads changes it a little bit, but it does not make the whole thing unravel and destroy the picture. Or, if you like, think of a pyramid structure, like the lovely Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico (image borrowed from here). […] Click to continue reading this post


bcycleHey! B all you can B and look at the Bcycle site and then go to the bit that says “I want it more” and add your city and zip and click that box that says tell your mayor.

This is *exactly* what I was wishing for a couple of years ago in an earlier post or two*. (See here and here.) Also fits nicely with a more limited plan a friend is working on that I’m hoping to help push forward… Will tell you more when I get permission to do so.

This is Excellent!!!! Let’s join in to […] Click to continue reading this post

They Couldn’t Car Less

As you know (maybe), for environmental (both local and global) and other reasons I’m not a fan of routine unnecessary car trips, and so I walk, bike, and use public transport a lot. My car is mostly only used on the weekend. This sort of declaration usually results in blank stares, subsequent treatment as a leper (or worse, in many LA circles, – poor!!), serious inquiries as to whether I was convicted of DUI, comments that this is impossible in LA, admissions from locals who’ve lived here for umpteen years that they’d no idea that there was a subway (that has changed slightly in the lastmelba_thorn_by_diane_meyer few years… now at least they know, but typically they’ve no idea where the stops are), and so on and so forth. I will admit to getting annoyed when I see announcements for events and locations that go to lots of trouble to give driving and parking instructions and never mention the subway stop or bus lines that might work for some as well. (Right: Artist Melba Thorn, photo by Diane Meyer for an exhibition on the issue, to be discussed below. Ironically, (at the time of writing) the exhibiting gallery also only gives driving and parking directions on their site. Isn’t that rich?)

Anyway…. you know all this from reading the blog. Check the archives for posts and discussions on a variety of aspects. Here’s part of the executive summary of my main point, and then information about a new exhibit follows after: […] Click to continue reading this post

New Year Gear

One of the things I seem to do each year is replace my tyres (tires? always confused about the spelling there…) on the Brompton for another year of cycling around the city (often in combination with public transport).new_shoes_for_brompton_2 The beginning of the academic year seems to be about when I do it, which feels right somehow. It reminds me of my youth, when the night before the school academic year started there’d be frantic sewing of new school uniforms, or adjustment of old ones, to be worn the next day. I remember that always being a last minute thing, […] Click to continue reading this post

Bikes and the City, 2

blog on a bikeYou’ll notice that I often talk about alternatives to driving everywhere in Los Angeles. Sometimes I talk about bikes (see for example the last post) as part of a range of options. Well, in December last year a student at USC doing a project in journalism (Lauren Lee – she’s at the Annenberg School) did a short report on bikes and the city for her project. (See also some of my posts about this issue, such as here, here, here, and several posts in the list at the bottom of this one). In her research, Lauren found this blog, gave me a call, and I agreed to make a few comments to camera for her as part of her larger report on some of the changes that are happening here in Los Angeles. (She also interviews Adam and Josef Bray-Ali, owners of the Flying Pigeon LA bike shop (hey, they have a blog)- a bike that might interest you.)

I should preface it with some remarks of my own. It is a nice report, but she edited out all the things I said that I think get at a central and key point. (To be fair, she was trying to make a two minute report, and I was babbling on enough for a Spike Lee four-part documentary…) I’m not advocating that everyone cycle everywhere they need to get to. Instead, I’m trying to get across the idea that cycling works really well in combination with the public transport system that already exists. One of the reasons people give most often for not using public transport is that the bus or subway stop is not quite close enough to where they want to get to, and/or close enough to their home. Leaving aside the cases where that sometimes this means “more than one block” or “not right next to my garage”, I’m trying to get across the […] Click to continue reading this post

The Keeling Curve

keeling curveToday on NPR’s Morning Edition they played a piece by Madeline Brand that aired in 2007 about the Keeling curve, and the man behind the curve, Charles David Keeling. As you may know, the Keeling curve (above) is a striking demonstration of the steady increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as measured from one location (on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii) by one very simple method over almost 50 years.

It is a lovely story of dedication and determination that resulted in a simple, striking, […] Click to continue reading this post

Another Physicist in the House

With more refreshing words about what he thinks science is, and the role science can play in shaping society and steering the country forward, Barack Obama announced several key science posts today. One of them is a physicist by the way. (“Excellent…”, cvj rubs hands together with a gleam in his eye, “…all going according to plan.”)

Here’s a YouTube video of the announcement:

From an AFP piece by Maxim Kniazkov:
[…] Click to continue reading this post

Some Science With Your Politics

Well, there’s all sorts of rhetoric on all various matters from the main presidential candidates, and there’s still a long way to go until November. It’s nice to hear a bit of chatter about global warming, gas prices, research into alternative fuels, cars with higher efficiency, and other issues that have a high degree of science playing a role in shaping our decisions about our policies and actions, in all aspects of society. (Although there is some occasional mention at some points at state level, it would be nice to hear a lot more about concerted thoughts about public transportation infrastructure, but perhaps that’s just way too much to ask in a society still rather naively obsessed with individualism at all costs.)

So what are the official positions of the candidates on science, across the board? Well, […] Click to continue reading this post

This is a Tough One

blog on a bikeWith the rise in gas prices, I’ve been seeing more and more people on the streets, walking and cycling, and more people using the subways and the buses. While I know that it has been producing real hardship for some people, I have to admit that it has been fantastic to see this change. So many streets and street corners have come to life. It has always been clear that higher gas prices would have this positive change, and I’ve hoped for it in some ways, but I wish that it had not come about in this way. I’d rather that it was because we’d managed to break out of a political climate so selfish and naive that nobody could propose raising taxes to an extent that would simultaneously give an incentive for people to use their cars less while at the same time providing much needed revenue with which to improve public transport infrastructure. Sadly, instead we’re just having high prices with nothing to show for it but a bunch of expressions of anger, while the oil companies and producers get fatter and fatter.

When I say I’d been hoping for higher prices, I need to clarify. I’m completely aware of […] Click to continue reading this post

Science Debate 2008 – Closer to Reality

So Chris and Sheril have announced the next step in the journey to a real debate about science issues of note that intersect with the current political sphere. And they’ve come a long way in a short time! Here’s some of what they said in a recent post:

ScienceDebate2008 is now co-sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academies, and the Council on Competitiveness. We were looking at venues, and finally settled on an offer from the Philadelphia-based Franklin Institute–named, of course, after one of this country’s first and greatest scientists. We can’t think of a more appropriate venue.

And guess what?! They’ve actually invited the candidates: Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Barack Obama.

So the next step is to get the event (they suggest April 18, 2008) taken seriously by the […] Click to continue reading this post

Political Science

Ok, a sidestep into politics for a short, but important moment.

With all that’s going on with all the presidential debates and press conferences and other appearances, has anything struck you as a major topic (or class of topics) that is simply missing from the national discussion? A topic that affects our lives in so many ways, and helps shape our futures in a most profound manner?

I’m thinking of science. I’m thinking of it in all the forms in which it intersects with politics – where decisions made by the president involve policy directly related to science (climate change and stem cell research are two of the most obvious), scientific research (both basic and applied), safety and security issues (consider the EPA, Katrina and other natural disasters), resources (the ongoing and coming battles about water sources, for example, pollution and air quality go here too, as well as under other headings), and energy (well, take your pick of example issues there). There’s also science education, on which there ought to be coherent effort for many reasons […] Click to continue reading this post

Fourth IPCC Report

Don’t forget to look at the latest IPCC report released today! Full details including helpful digests and summaries can be found here.

News reports and discussions can be found all over the place.

News reports and discussions can be found all over the place. (Update: there’s an NPR report, with audio, here.) A report on the BBC by Richard Black begins:
[…] Click to continue reading this post

Climate Matters

There’s been some really excellent material over on Correlations. I recommend having a look. Among that, there’s been some very interesting posts about climate. The most urgent one is by Sheril, in which she reminds us about the behemoth, Cyclone Sidr, which is bearing down on Bangladesh right now, with potential human cost well beyond that of Katrina. One to watch.

The other posts I wanted to point to is the growing series of posts by Michael about climate science. People largely think of climate science in terms of the global warming arguments, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Michael’s trying to build an […] Click to continue reading this post

More Encounters On the Road Less Travelled

Julia Russell - eco homesHey, guess who I saw today! Recall, that I passed a woman on a tricycle a while back? Well, at exactly the same spot, I passed her again today. She’s called Julia, as you may recall from her comment on the blog sometime later, (as I’d met her subsequently and said hello properly). I briefly said “hello and how are you” this time as our bike and trike passed each other, but I apologized for having to rush off, and rushed off. I was trying to catch the next bus in order to get to my classroom by 9:55am. The class’ first midterm was at 10:00 today and I wanted to make sure to be on time. So I dashed off to the stop…

…Only to be accompanied five minutes later by Julia, calmly arriving on her tricycle. She was also catching the same bus, it turned out, and I’d landed in the gap between buses and needed to wait anyway. After checking with me that this was indeed the stop she needed, she chained her splendid red machine to a tree. I contemplated taking a picture of us and the two extraordinary conveyances together to show you. However, while I dithered over this, the bus came. So I’ll cheat and re-use the old picture (right).

Anyway, we chatted quite a while about things (including the frustration of trying to […] Click to continue reading this post

The Man of Tomorrow?

[Updated with a bit of video!]

Earlier this week I went for a walk with Nick Halmagyi to chat about physics, and since he had not been down to the meadows and gardens over by the neighbouring Aspen Institute, we wandered down that way. It was just after lunchtime, and a very hot day, and as we got near the Institute, we diverted away from physics so that I could tell him briefly what the significance of the Aspen Institute is. I explained that it was an important “think tank”, host to thinkers in the humanities, sciences, and diplomats, presidents, ex-presidents, and other dignitaries, who come and think great thoughts about the problems of the world. Well, let me use their own words from their website:

The Aspen Institute, founded in 1950, is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue.

As an example, I explained, it is probably the sort of place that Al Gore might have come to in order to think deeply about the environmental issues he champions. It is nice that the Aspen Institute is right next to the Aspen Center for Physics, and the two organizations, while now independent (but the Center actually grew out of the Institute, see here) sometimes work together on various matters including public outreach. The public lecture I gave here last year as part of the Heinz Pagels Memorial Lecture series (see e.g. here and here), for example, was actually over in the Paepke auditorium, one of their buildings.

We approached the main grounds of the Institute, near their residence buildings, and were greeted by a most frustrating -and ironic- sight. Their sprinkler system was fully on, spraying water unnecessarily into the air and onto the asphalted walks, with some making it onto their lawns, where even there it would mostly evaporate (in addition to aiding the hot sun in scorching the grass somewhat). For once, I did not have my camera and so cannot share this horrible sight with you. For a moment it was as though I was back in LA, but this was Aspen, where everyone talks about the environment. Then I remembered – everyone talks about the environment. At the same time, there are more and more SUVs every time I come here (rental companies even try to force SUVs on you when you try to rent a regular compact car – did you read my story of that last year?), more and more land seems to be cleared to build ever-larger houses, and so forth. On the other hand, bicycle use is very high here, there’s an excellent free bus system, an enforced reduction of individual car access to the Maroon Bells wilderness area, and I imagine several other worthy environmental efforts that I have not seen are being made. So it is a tale of two communities and mind sets. It’s complicated, as with any populate. But you’d have thought the Aspen Institute would be “fostering enlightened leadership” by not watering their lawns and (sidewalks) with vast amounts of water at the maximally worst time of day to do so in terms of effectiveness. (Frankly, given the environmental disaster most lawns are, one could go further and hope that in the spirit of leadership, they’d turn more of their expanse of lawns into other use, perhaps expanding the excellent wildflower garden they have in one corner, or letting more of the surrounding meadows repopulate the grounds. It could be rather beautiful.)

wild flower gardens at aspen institute

Anyway, we shook our heads at the irony of the sight and we wandered off toward the river, continuing our chat about matters in other dimensions (no, really). The next day I came back at that same time to check the sprinklers again (with camera), since such systems are often on timers, but had it rained very heavily the previous night and so -happily- it did not seem that the sprinklers had been used.

On Wednesday I returned once more. The sun was overhead and strong again (not as much as Monday) and the main system was not on. But once again I noticed signs of watering, and saw a smaller component of the lawn being watered by a hose-driven system. I now think that it might be that they were sprinkling (well, gushing) on Monday (and partly on Wednesday) in the mistaken belief that pouring water (and into the air, where it rapidly evaporates) on the lawn while the sun is baking it will somehow help, and they did it on an ad hoc basis, but I can’t be sure. Either way, it is a terrible waste of water resource by an organization that is committed to leadership in matters of importance, such as the environment.

Then I noticed that many people wearing name badges were heading from the Institute toward the direction of the auditorium and the Aspen Music tent. This fit with the next deliciously ironic thing: Al Gore was going to be talking! He’d been at the Aspen Institute (I’d no idea of his presence or the event until a radio announcement on Wednesday morning), and the sprinkler matter, this was remarkable. Convenient, one might say.

It turned out that it was not taking place in the Paepke auditorium, as I thought it […] Click to continue reading this post

NASA’s Wrong Stuff?

Have a listen to Greg Easterbrook (of Wired) in conversation with NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. The issue is whether NASA’s focus on setting up a manned base on the moon, and then heading for Mars, is really the right focus for a huge (multiple billions of dollars) expenditure, given other scientific priorities. The link is here. See also his Wired piece here, entitled “How NASA Screwed Up (And Four Ways to Fix It)”.

That was yesterday. Today, also on NPR’s Morning Edition, I heard NASA’s chief administrator Michael Griffin attempts to defend the policy. There’s a link to audio here, and be sure to listen to the audio (the transcript offered there is only partial, for a start). I find it revealing. He seemed to have a great deal of difficulty answering certain key questions, such as “Do you think it is the best use of money or not?”. “Are there priorities that you have had to cut…?” His answers on climate change and global […] Click to continue reading this post