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I'm going to be a bit distracted from Azimuth business in the next few weeks.

I'm preparing two talks for my visit to Hong Kong University March 22-28, one called "Higher gauge theory, division algebras, and superstrings", and the other called "Energy and the environment: what mathematicians can do". I'll put the slides of my second talk on the Azimuth Blog before I give it—I hope in time to get useful suggestions. I plan to keep giving this talk over and over, gradually improving it.

To add to the fun, March 12-20 my student Mike Stay is visiting me—he's the one who works at Google and does computer science.

So, I may not get around to writing my next blog post on network theory until after all this. But I should be able to turn out two more issues of This Week's Finds based on my interview with Yudkowsky.

## Comments

what is the audience you expect for this talk? Mathematicians who want to work in that field, or a general public who want to hear what mathematicians have done/will do?

`> the other called "Energy and the environment: what mathematicians can do". I'll put the slides of my second talk on the Azimuth Blog before I give it—I hope in time to get useful suggestions. I plan to keep giving this talk over and over, gradually improving it. what is the audience you expect for this talk? Mathematicians who want to work in that field, or a general public who want to hear what mathematicians have done/will do?`

This particular talk will occur in the weekly colloquium for the math department at Hong Kong University. So the audience will consist of professional mathematicians, and also grad students.

My goal is to first quickly explain some of the problems, and then spend time describing some things mathematicians can do about them.

There are lots of specific mathematical research projects related to environmental issues, and I hope to get the audience interested in those. But one of the most important thing

allmathematicians in academia can do isget better at education. Some of our problems arise from innumeracy, the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy. This includes a poor ability to detect bad use of statistics, illogical arguments, and plenty of other things. Too often math courses are taught in a way that makes math seem like an esoteric and pointless game, rather than a powerful tool.I want to convey some urgency about this issue. I also want to give some examples of math problems that touch on environmental issues - problems that would make good homework exercises.

University math teachers don't just teach future scientists; at least in the US, they also teach future high school teachers. (I guess I'd better check how it works in Hong Kong!) So, there's a trickle-down effect.

`This particular talk will occur in the weekly colloquium for the math department at Hong Kong University. So the audience will consist of professional mathematicians, and also grad students. My goal is to first quickly explain some of the problems, and then spend time describing some things mathematicians can do about them. There are lots of specific mathematical research projects related to environmental issues, and I hope to get the audience interested in those. But one of the most important thing _all_ mathematicians in academia can do is _get better at education_. Some of our problems arise from [innumeracy](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innumeracy_%28book%29), the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy. This includes a poor ability to detect bad use of statistics, illogical arguments, and plenty of other things. Too often math courses are taught in a way that makes math seem like an esoteric and pointless game, rather than a powerful tool. I want to convey some urgency about this issue. I also want to give some examples of math problems that touch on environmental issues - problems that would make good homework exercises. University math teachers don't just teach future scientists; at least in the US, they also teach future high school teachers. (I guess I'd better check how it works in Hong Kong!) So, there's a trickle-down effect.`

In the unlikely event that anyone here cares, here's my other Hong Kong talk:

This leads up to two wonderful results proved by my student John Huerta. I also blogged about

histalks on this subject:It's sort of important to me because three of my favorite subjects—n-categories, gravity and the octonions—finally fit together. This work seems like a nice conclusion to my old love affair with fundamental physics and pure mathematics. Now I can go ahead and do new stuff.

Now I'm polishing up the second part of my interview with Yudkowsky...

... and watching videos of the magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Some good news: the nuclear power plants don't seem to have leaked anything.

`In the unlikely event that anyone here cares, here's my other Hong Kong talk: * [Higher gauge theory, division algebras and superstrings](http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/susy/). This leads up to two wonderful results proved by my student John Huerta. I also blogged about _his_ talks on this subject: * [A categorified supergroup for string theory](http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2011/03/a_categorified_supergroup_for.html). It's sort of important to me because three of my favorite subjects—n-categories, gravity and the octonions—finally fit together. This work seems like a nice conclusion to my old love affair with fundamental physics and pure mathematics. Now I can go ahead and do new stuff. Now I'm polishing up the second part of my interview with Yudkowsky... ... and watching videos of the magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Some good news: the nuclear power plants don't seem to have leaked anything.`

but it's more widespread than just to those who went to university (I suppose you agree, since you refer to teacher's later)

are you referring to math courses given to math students, or math courses in general? I've only had academic mathematics during my engineering studies – so not very esoteric ;-) – and while many students found them "too mathematical", I think many others found them fine. In fact, those of us who spent more time solving (very simple linear) differential equations were much quicker in understanding electrical networks.

Did you ever teach an average class of high-school students? (without them knowing you are a professor)

`> Some of our problems arise from innumeracy, the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy. This includes a poor ability to detect bad use of statistics, illogical arguments, and plenty of other things. but it's more widespread than just to those who went to university (I suppose you agree, since you refer to teacher's later) > Too often math courses are taught in a way that makes math seem like an esoteric and pointless game, rather than a powerful tool. are you referring to math courses given to math students, or math courses in general? I've only had academic mathematics during my engineering studies – so not very esoteric ;-) – and while many students found them "too mathematical", I think many others found them fine. In fact, those of us who spent more time solving (very simple linear) differential equations were much quicker in understanding electrical networks. > So, there's a trickle-down effect. Did you ever teach an average class of high-school students? (without them knowing you are a professor)`

John wrote:

I guess it's gotten worse since then.

Frederik wrote, about innumeracy:

Right. But since I'll be talking to university professors, I want to focus on things they can do. I expect I'll need to give this talk a number of times before it gets really good.

I wrote:

Frederik wrote:

Math courses in general. In the US, most students need to take some math in college. Physicists and engineers and mathematicians generally like it, perhaps because they see ways that it will help them in their work. Not everyone else does. For example, the mathematicians at UCR get a lot of complaints from professors in biology and chemistry, who say we aren't succeeding in teaching the students in those subjects the math they need to know. This includes simple stuff like exponential growth, exponential decay, etc.

I wrote:

Frederik wrote:

No - that would be a very good thing to do someday. I've taught a lot of future high-school math teachers. It's famously difficult to get them interested in mathematics besides the subjects they expect to teach, but I sometimes succeed.

`John wrote: > Some good news: the nuclear power plants don't seem to have leaked anything. I guess it's [gotten worse since then](http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/12/world/asia/12nuclear.html?partner=rss&emc=rss). Frederik wrote, about innumeracy: > ... but it's more widespread than just to those who went to university. Right. But since I'll be talking to university professors, I want to focus on things they can do. I expect I'll need to give this talk a number of times before it gets really good. I wrote: > Too often math courses are taught in a way that makes math seem like an esoteric and pointless game, rather than a powerful tool. Frederik wrote: > are you referring to math courses given to math students, or math courses in general? Math courses in general. In the US, most students need to take some math in college. Physicists and engineers and mathematicians generally like it, perhaps because they see ways that it will help them in their work. Not everyone else does. For example, the mathematicians at UCR get a lot of complaints from professors in biology and chemistry, who say we aren't succeeding in teaching the students in those subjects the math they need to know. This includes simple stuff like exponential growth, exponential decay, etc. I wrote: > So, there's a trickle-down effect. Frederik wrote: > Did you ever teach an average class of high-school students? (without them knowing you are a professor) No - that would be a very good thing to do someday. I've taught a lot of future high-school math teachers. It's famously difficult to get them interested in mathematics besides the subjects they expect to teach, but I sometimes succeed.`

Are the HKU talks open to the public? I've tried writing the maths department in the past about attending seminars, but no one there ever replies to my queries.

`Are the HKU talks open to the public? I've tried writing the maths department in the past about attending seminars, but no one there ever replies to my queries.`

Simple, eh? My most interesting teaching experience was with my sister, when she started to study medicine in Göttingen - I was in highschool and helped her with the math and physics she had to handle, for example understanding exponential decay. Soon I found out that she did not even understand the geometric meaning of the differential - after attending a year long class on calculus in highschool and getting the best grades.

`<blockquote> <p> For example, the mathematicians at UCR get a lot of complaints from professors in biology and chemistry, who say we aren't succeeding in teaching the students in those subjects the math they need to know. This includes simple stuff like exponential growth, exponential decay, etc. </p> </blockquote> Simple, eh? My most interesting teaching experience was with my sister, when she started to study medicine in Göttingen - I was in highschool and helped her with the math and physics she had to handle, for example understanding exponential decay. Soon I found out that she did not even understand the geometric meaning of the differential - after attending a year long class on calculus in highschool and getting the best grades.`

The Germans have a mobile task force standing by for these kinds of emergencies, the "Technisches Hilfswerk", ready to be deployed all over the world. There are for example people (and dogs) equipped and trained to find people buried in collapsed houses, they helped in Turkey and in Haiti.

But I don't think that the well organized and prepared Japanese are going to ask for help...

I wonder what an earthquake of this strength (8.9!) would have done to a region that is less prepared.

`<blockquote> <p> ...watching videos of the magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. </p> </blockquote> The Germans have a mobile task force standing by for these kinds of emergencies, the "Technisches Hilfswerk", ready to be deployed all over the world. There are for example people (and dogs) equipped and trained to find people buried in collapsed houses, they helped in Turkey and in Haiti. But I don't think that the well organized and prepared Japanese are going to ask for help... I wonder what an earthquake of this strength (8.9!) would have done to a region that is less prepared.`

Eric wrote:

Hi!

I bet they are. I've never been to a math talk that was so interesting that they felt the need to keep people out. Often they give the grad students free food just to make sure someone shows up!

The website at Hong Kong University doesn't seem to list colloquia (unusual!), so at present all I can tell you for sure is that 1) the math department is on the the 4th floor of Run Run Shaw Building, and 2) I'm giving a colloquium talk on Wednesday afternoon, with this title and abstract:

Please don't draw any illegitimate inferences from this information, e.g. that my talk is in the Run Run Shaw Building! (It might be - I just don't know.)

I'm also giving this talk in some sort of geometry conference on Friday:

`Eric wrote: > Are the HKU talks open to the public? Hi! I bet they are. I've never been to a math talk that was so interesting that they felt the need to keep people out. Often they give the grad students free food just to make sure someone shows up! The website at Hong Kong University doesn't seem to list colloquia (unusual!), so at present all I can tell you for sure is that 1) the math department is on the the 4th floor of Run Run Shaw Building, and 2) I'm giving a colloquium talk on Wednesday afternoon, with this title and abstract: > **Energy, the environment, and what mathematicians can do** > Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is causing two serious problems: global warming, and the decline of cheaply available oil reserves. Unfortunately the second problem will not cancel out the first. Each one individually seems extremely hard to solve, and taken together they demand a major worldwide effort starting now. After a quick overview, we turn to the question: what can mathematicians do to help? Please don't draw any illegitimate inferences from this information, e.g. that my talk is in the Run Run Shaw Building! (It might be - I just don't know.) I'm also giving this talk in some sort of geometry conference on Friday: > **[Higher gauge theory, division algebras and superstrings](http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/susy/)** > Classically, superstrings make sense when spacetime has dimension 3, 4, 6, or 10. It is no coincidence that these numbers are two more than 1, 2, 4, and 8, which are the dimensions of the normed division algebras: the real numbers, complex numbers, quaternions and octonions. We sketch an explanation of this already known fact and its relation to "higher gauge theory". Just as gauge theory describes the parallel transport of supersymmetric particles using Lie supergroups, higher gauge theory describes the parallel transport of superstrings using "Lie 2-supergroups". Recently John Huerta has shown that we can use normed division algebras to construct a Lie 2-supergroup extending the Poincaré supergroup when spacetime has dimension 3, 4, 6 and 10.`

Much worse!

I think this will pretty much eliminate the chances for a Nuclear Energy wedge. The Japanese are known to be well prepared for this sort of emergency. If they couldn't make it totally safe, the public will have a hard time believing anyone else can either. This will escalate the NIMBY problem to new levels.

I'm sure there are ways to build systems that are foolproof in the event of major trauma but I'm not the one that will need convincing.

I sure hope it doesn't turn into a Chernobyl.

`>> Some good news: the nuclear power plants don't seem to have leaked anything. >I guess it's [gotten worse since then](http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/12/world/asia/12nuclear.html?partner=rss&emc=rss). [Much worse!](http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/world/asia/13nuclear.html?src=tptw) I think this will pretty much eliminate the chances for a Nuclear Energy wedge. The Japanese are known to be well prepared for this sort of emergency. If they couldn't make it totally safe, the public will have a hard time believing anyone else can either. This will escalate the NIMBY problem to new levels. I'm sure there are ways to build systems that are foolproof in the event of major trauma but I'm not the one that will need convincing. I sure hope it doesn't turn into a Chernobyl.`

On the blog John wrote:

could it be possible to give a talk on "energy and the environment" (for mathematicians) next week

withoutmentioning Fukushima?But in the worst case (if it turns into a Chernobyl, which I doubt) there is still a small positive side: Wildlife defies Chernobyl radiation

`On the blog John wrote: > I could easily stay glued to my computer all day trying to figure out what the $%&@ is going on, but I need to write a talk on “energy and the environment”. could it be possible to give a talk on "energy and the environment" (for mathematicians) next week *without* mentioning Fukushima? But in the worst case (if it turns into a Chernobyl, which I doubt) there is still a small positive side: [Wildlife defies Chernobyl radiation ](http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4923342.stm)`

Yes, I'll definitely need to mention Fukushima next week. I want to mention some of the most plausible "stabilization wedges", and nuclear power is one, though of course most people will find it vastly less attractive this week than they did early last week.

So it probably pays for me to know something about the Fukushima disaster—at least a little bit more than what your average mathematician has learned by reading the newspapers.

So thanks—Frederik, and everyone else who has been helping analyze the Fukushima disaster over on the blog—for helping me keep informed about this situation.

It's almost impossible for Fukushima to "turn into a Chernobyl", if by that one literally means an event where a nuclear explosion creates radiation levels outside the reactor of up to 200 sieverts per hour. (See how impressive I sound?) Right now the highest radiation level I've heard at Fukushima is 0.5 sieverts per hour. So we could say that so far it's somewhere between a "milli-Chernobyl" and a "centi-Chernobyl".

But still, this could be enough to make a lot more people decide nuclear power is not an acceptable option.

They may change their mind later as the shortage of easy options becomes more clear...

`Yes, I'll definitely need to mention Fukushima next week. I want to mention some of the most plausible "stabilization wedges", and nuclear power is one, though of course most people will find it vastly less attractive this week than they did early last week. So it probably pays for me to know something about the Fukushima disaster—at least a little bit more than what your average mathematician has learned by reading the newspapers. So thanks—Frederik, and everyone else who has been helping analyze the Fukushima disaster [over on the blog](http://johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/tsunami/#comment-4646)—for helping me keep informed about this situation. It's almost impossible for Fukushima to "turn into a Chernobyl", if by that one literally means an event where a nuclear explosion creates radiation levels outside the reactor of up to 200 sieverts per hour. (See how impressive I sound?) Right now the highest radiation level I've heard at Fukushima is 0.5 sieverts per hour. So we could say that so far it's somewhere between a "milli-Chernobyl" and a "centi-Chernobyl". But still, this could be enough to make a lot more people decide nuclear power is not an acceptable option. They may change their mind later as the shortage of easy options becomes more clear...`

For me the main lessons up till now are:

reactors built in earthquake-sensitive areas should respect additional safety measures (additional to be worked out). The safety measures should be with respect to a certain occurrence of disaster, e.g. the Dutch dikes have an acceptable risk for complete failure of 1000 to 10k years (if sea level doesn't rise - btw they originally wanted 125k years but it was too expensive). Perhaps one can demand a longer timescale for the risk of nuclear accidents.

the cooling down of spent fuel rods should also happen in a concrete bunker, just like the nuclear core is contained in a bunker

instead of extending the lifetime of old reactors it would be safer to build new ones (unfortunately I fear it's easier in terms of pr for a company to let an old reactor silently keep in commission, even while building a new one would be much safer because it would be too difficult politically)

personally I'm also be in favour of public companies running nuclear power plants, it's most likely the public that will pay for any cleanup bill in the end anyway!

`For me the main lessons up till now are: * reactors built in earthquake-sensitive areas should respect additional safety measures (additional to be worked out). The safety measures should be with respect to a certain occurrence of disaster, e.g. the Dutch dikes have an acceptable risk for complete failure of 1000 to 10k years (if sea level doesn't rise - btw they originally wanted 125k years but it was too expensive). Perhaps one can demand a longer timescale for the risk of nuclear accidents. * the cooling down of spent fuel rods should also happen in a concrete bunker, just like the nuclear core is contained in a bunker * instead of extending the lifetime of old reactors it would be safer to build new ones (unfortunately I fear it's easier in terms of pr for a company to let an old reactor silently keep in commission, even while building a new one would be much safer because it would be too difficult politically) * personally I'm also be in favour of public companies running nuclear power plants, it's most likely the public that will pay for any cleanup bill in the end anyway!`

Eric wrote:

I'm pretty sure they are, and finally I know a bit more information. My talk

Energy, the environment and what mathematicians can do

will be in the Run Run Shaw building at 4 pm this Wednesday. My talk

Higher gauge theory, division algebras and superstring

will be in the same building at 2 pm on Friday, and it's part of a workshop on geometry and Lie groups. I'll also probably be giving a talk on the octonions at Chinese U. on Thursday, but I don't know when, and it's out in the New Territories so I doubt you'll want to go to that!

If you plan to show up to a talk, let me know or just say hi when you get there!

`Eric wrote: > Are the HKU talks open to the public? I'm pretty sure they are, and finally I know a bit more information. My talk [Energy, the environment and what mathematicians can do](http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/what/) will be in the Run Run Shaw building at 4 pm this Wednesday. My talk [Higher gauge theory, division algebras and superstring](http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/susy/) will be in the same building at 2 pm on Friday, and it's part of a [workshop on geometry and Lie groups](http://hkumath.hku.hk/~imr/records1011/2011Mar25-26/Workshop%20on%20Geometry%20and%20Lei%20Groups.htm). I'll also probably be giving a talk on the octonions at Chinese U. on Thursday, but I don't know when, and it's out in the New Territories so I doubt you'll want to go to that! If you plan to show up to a talk, let me know or just say hi when you get there!`

How was the talk?

`How was the talk?`

You know these mathematicians Frederik: after the business has been gotten out of the way, it's all non-stop bacchanalian debauchery until the next day. ;-)

`You know these mathematicians Frederik: after the business has been gotten out of the way, it's all non-stop bacchanalian debauchery until the next day. ;-)`

I'm sure that after John's talk they will limit themselves to a

vegetarianbacchanal and go home by foot/bike/subway instead of taking a taxi ;-)`I'm sure that after John's talk they will limit themselves to a *vegetarian* bacchanal and go home by foot/bike/subway instead of taking a taxi ;-)`

The debauchery must have been quite strong! It's again afternoon there and still no signs of life ;-)

`The debauchery must have been quite strong! It's again afternoon there and still no signs of life ;-)`

I think John menioned that he's giving another talk today, then another one tomorrow. He might just be focussing down on the preparing talks at the moment.

`I think John menioned that he's giving another talk today, then another one tomorrow. He might just be focussing down on the preparing talks at the moment.`

Yes, I understand. I don't want to seem too impatient but I wanted to show that I'm interested to hear about the response to the talk.

`Yes, I understand. I don't want to seem too impatient but I wanted to show that I'm interested to hear about the response to the talk.`

Hi! Sorry, I barely touched a computer while in Hong Kong, because I was really busy. I had a lot of fun, but the only debauchery was eating too much at Chinese restaurants.

I just now finished catching up on my email, and soon I'll start going through the Azimuth Forum and reading all the new articles here. These trips take days to recover from! — another reason to avoid them. But I was glad to see Hong Kong again. When I last visited, it was my very first trip to Asia, so it seemed rather intimidating. But now it seems very easy to get around. It was also a lot less hot this time.

I also have a better reference point for comparison now: Singapore. They're similar in many ways: former British colonies that still make a lot of money from shipping, a blend of English and Chinese culture, lots of people who consider themself 'expats'... but Hong Kong is a lot more exciting. In Singapore everything is neat and clean and well-organized, but you don't have that sense that surprises lurk around the corner, and you don't have that sense of restless energy, or 'buzz'. Somehow the mountainous landscape of Hong Kong contributes to the buzz. For example, you'd never see anything like this in Singapore:

This is part of the Central–Mid-Levels escalator in Hong Kong, the world's largest outdoor escalator system. People use it to commute. And look at the old-fashioned half-timbered building at right. That's the kind of incongruity that makes Hong Kong fun!

Or, check out these high-rise apartments:

These photos aren't mine, but I saw some equally cool things which unfortunately I forgot to photograph.

One thing I love about Singapore that's missing from Hong Kong is the cultural diversity: not just British and Chinese influences, but also Malay, Indian, Indonesian...

As some of you already know, I gave a brief report on my environmental talk here. Thanks again for all the help in preparing it!

While the Azimuth Project was not mentioned in the slides, I did mention it in the talk, and I urged people to look at the talk webpage for more details. When I give a version of this talk in the future, I'll link it more strongly to the Azimuth Project. I hope that next time I can show people some Milankovitch cycle / ice age simulations that we've done, and also some work on network theory, which I'm about to unveil on the blog. I think that'll make it more interesting for scientists looking for something to do. They may join the Azimuth Project!

`Hi! Sorry, I barely touched a computer while in Hong Kong, because I was really busy. I had a lot of fun, but the only debauchery was eating too much at Chinese restaurants. I just now finished catching up on my email, and soon I'll start going through the Azimuth Forum and reading all the new articles here. These trips take days to recover from! — another reason to avoid them. But I was glad to see Hong Kong again. When I last visited, it was my very first trip to Asia, so it seemed rather intimidating. But now it seems very easy to get around. It was also a lot less hot this time. I also have a better reference point for comparison now: Singapore. They're similar in many ways: former British colonies that still make a lot of money from shipping, a blend of English and Chinese culture, lots of people who consider themself 'expats'... but Hong Kong is a lot more exciting. In Singapore everything is neat and clean and well-organized, but you don't have that sense that surprises lurk around the corner, and you don't have that sense of restless energy, or 'buzz'. Somehow the mountainous landscape of Hong Kong contributes to the buzz. For example, you'd never see anything like this in Singapore: <img src = "http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0c/HK_Mid-Level_Escalators.jpg/450px-HK_Mid-Level_Escalators.jpg" alt = ""/> This is part of the <a href = "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central%E2%80%93Mid-levels_escalators">Central–Mid-Levels escalator</a> in Hong Kong, the world's largest outdoor escalator system. People use it to commute. And look at the old-fashioned half-timbered building at right. That's the kind of incongruity that makes Hong Kong fun! Or, check out these high-rise apartments: <a href = "http://www.eyecurious.com/review-michael-wolf-galerie-particuliere/"><img src = "http://www.eyecurious.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/wolfhk.jpg" alt = ""/></a> <a href = "http://colchu.com/category/shelter/"><img src = "http://colchu.com/wp-content/plugins/hot-linked-image-cacher/upload/photomichaelwolf.com/hongkongarchitecture/4bc60b0179397.jpg" alt = ""/></a> These photos aren't mine, but I saw some equally cool things which unfortunately I forgot to photograph. One thing I love about Singapore that's missing from Hong Kong is the cultural diversity: not just British and Chinese influences, but also Malay, Indian, Indonesian... As some of you already know, I gave a brief report on my environmental talk <a href = "http://johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/energy-the-environment-and-what-mathematicians-can-do-part-2/#comment-4860">here</a>. Thanks again for all the help in preparing it! While the Azimuth Project was not mentioned in the slides, I did mention it in the talk, and I urged people to look at the <a href = "http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/what/">talk webpage</a> for more details. When I give a version of this talk in the future, I'll link it more strongly to the Azimuth Project. I hope that next time I can show people some Milankovitch cycle / ice age simulations that we've done, and also some work on network theory, which I'm about to unveil on the blog. I think that'll make it more interesting for scientists looking for something to do. They may join the Azimuth Project!`