Monday, February 26, 2007

Apostasy and Topology

Why does Salt Lake City seem to be the epicentre of the blogging world? Is it something to do with the contemplative stimulus of the solitary and desolate distances of the Utahan landscape? Pent-up repression producing a flowering of online creativity? The pod-people-like peer pressure of the sinister-sounding mass movement known as the bloggernacle and its army of bloggernackers, nackers, naccers and bloggerns? Housewives from polygamous households with a lot of free time because the washin’ and sock-darnin’ and grub up-rustlin’ are divided up so efficiently among all the womenfolk? Dooce envy? My relatives? All of the above?

Whatever the case, according to my calculations, aside from my current hometown of Kuala Lumpur, by far the most viewers of this site from a single location have hailed from Salt Lake City, the sedate, decaffeinated heart of “Stormin’” Mormon country.

If I continue on this topic for much longer I’ll just end up poking fun at the LDS, which is certainly not my goal today (although, while I will refrain at this point from sharing my thoughts on the religion per se, I would like to mention in passing that I find their global proselytizing efforts despicable, as I find the similar efforts of most such organizations. Enticing poor and gullible people around the world to abandon their traditions and then give you ten percent of their money is one of the least admirable human activities I can think of). I’ll stop before I get worked up.

AHEM ANYWAY, I was perusing this lovely google analytics map of the locations of my literally half-dozens upon half-dozens of readers (note the [relatively] enormous dot on Salt Lake City) when I realized that it’s a four-color map. You should check out the previous link but basically, the idea of four-color theory is that almost any map you can imagine can be colored in with four colors, no matter how many neighboring countries or whatever you add to the map. A map with thousands of fictional territories on it could be colored in with only four colors, and no two adjacent countries would be the same color. I had real trouble accepting this in high school, and I spent a lot of time trying to draw maps that would disprove the idea.

I was under the impression, probably influenced by the Wikipedia article, that “although the four color theorem was discovered in the process of coloring a real map, it finds no application in practical cartography.” I guess at least one person at Google must have disagreed and thought they’d try it out. I’m assuming the idea was that the colors of the countries shouldn’t interfere with the superimposed dots, so they wanted as subtle a palette as possible.

I got kind of excited about this because, while I’m not really a mathematics person, I do have a sort of armchair amateur layman’s fascination with Moebius strips, Klein bottles (seen below in origami form), prime numbers and so on. I’m the sort of chap who is mildly curious about the Fibonacci sequence and the related sorts of things, things of the sort that poseur authors like the vile Dan Brown usually assume people will think are mysterious and mind-blowing, and incorporate in their idiotic thrillers. Mathematics as magic with Einstein as Gandalf and M.C. Escher as Dumbledore, essentially. I’m not proud of it, but that’s pretty much the level I’m at.

In high school I did a report on the branch of math called topology, and at the time it made a big impact on me, particularly the four-color theorem, the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem and the idea that a coffee mug and a doughnut are essentially the same shape. However, it’s not a subject that really comes up a lot in daily life, so after I presented that report in math class my topological interest lay dormant for 15 years or so. (Speaking of that math report, I realized only upon watching the videotape afterwards that I had been so nervous that I had been bouncing up and down on my tip-toes during the entire speech. And thus was born my second most painful memory of public speaking in school. The first involved me pretending to be abolitionist John Brown in front of a packed auditorium in middle school and the less said about that, the better.)

Now that I’ve looked around a little, it seems that one of the interesting recent applications of topology is mapping the internet, which Ms. Cofino has been investigating recently. I suppose in “cyberspace” (ugh) where distances don’t matter and points of connections do, we’re all bouncing around from one site to another and never quite getting where we were headed, sort of like that pedestrian in Königsberg. Or like stops on the Salt Lake City subway system. Or something.

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