Uses This

A collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done.

A picture of John Baez

John Baez

Mathematical physicist

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm a mathematical physicist who works at U.C. Riverside and also the Center of Quantum Technologies, in Singapore. I used to work on quantum gravity and the foundations of physics, but lately I've gotten interested in environmental issues, like what to do about global warming. I've been called the world's first blogger, which sounds great, or a "proto-blogger", which makes me sound like a caveman.

What hardware do you use?

I'm a minimalist when it comes to gear: I like to spend as little time as possible thinking about new tools, and as much time as possible coming up with ideas and explaining stuff. So, my computer is a Windows machine, a Toshiba notebook I picked up in Hong Kong... nothing terribly special! I have old cell phone, not a smart phone, and no tablet computer... though someday I'll get those things.

Do books count as hardware or software? With old-fashioned physical books it's hard to tell. I always have a dozen checked out from the library, sitting by my bed. Of course I'm constantly scouring the web for information. But paper books are good when you're trying to learn a new subject, because you can develop a physical memory for where things are in the book, and pop it open to the right section whenever you feel like taking another crack at understanding something. Right now my favorites are these:

Control System Design by Bernard Friedland. Control theory rocks! I've been meaning to learn it for years. The math is easy, but the idea of setting up feedback loops to stabilize systems is cool, and the techniques to do it optimally are really fun.

The Higher Infinite by Akihiro Kanimori. This book is about the whoppingly big infinities that logicians invent. I used to dislike this stuff, because it seemed useless. Now it's just a hobby for me, to stretch my mind.

Principles of Planetary Climate by Ray Pierrehumbert. This is one I'd like to read, which I've bought, but haven't gotten far into. It tackles climate physics, not just on Earth but other planets.

The Silk Road: A New History by Valerie Hansen. I'm going to western China this summer for a math conference, and then we'll go to Dunhuang, an old city on the Silk Road with hundreds of caves full of paintings. I've been dying to do this for years, so I'm boning up on the history.

And what software?

I spend a lot of time writing papers and preparing talks with free software: emacs for text editing, LaTeX for typesetting, and IrfanView for editing images. I blog using Wordpress and Google+. Nothing fancy, since I want to focus on the ideas.

I also help run a wiki on environmental issues, called the Azimuth Project. This uses some software called Instiki, but another guy takes care of that, a whiz named Andrew Stacey - not me. Same for the Azimuth Forum, where people in the project talk strategy.

What would be your dream setup?

My real frustration lies in the realm of music. I've been recording electronic music using strange software like WolframTones, which lets you 'evolve' pieces using cellular automata, or QuasiMusic which generates sounds mathematically from quasicrystals - patterns that almost repeat but never quite do. The fun part, and the hard part, is using these programs to create music that actually sounds good. I do a lot of sound editing using a free program called Audacity.

But I also like improvising in more traditional ways. I play an electronic piano, a Yamaha Clavinova, and also drums: a dumbek and a couple of frame drums. But I'm no good at recording this music! I'd like a setup where I could improvise on a piano or synthesizer, edit the MIDI files, add more layers of improvisation, and so on. This is supposed to be incredibly easy with today's technology, but I need more gear and I need more know-how.

The real problem is finding the time. If I have an hour to spend on music I always prefer to play music than learn how to use technologies. What I'd really love is someone who'd tell me what to buy and show me how to use it!

I also spend a lot of time writing ideas and doing calculations in notebooks - pen and paper. Typing math is a lot slower than writing it, because there are all sorts of weird symbols, and I always using weird mixtures of equations and diagrams. It would be nice to computerize this, but drawing with a stylus feels clumsy, and converting hand-written equations into LaTeX hasn't been automated yet. So here again, there's a lot of room for improvement.