Japan discovered it has twice as many islands as it once thought it had.
The Japanese government discovered something I noticed when I was six years old.
You want to make sense of something like the set of all islands your country has. There are too many islands to list one by one, but you can count them. What does it mean, though, when you do the count over and the number gets bigger? What does that do to your idea of a set?
The problem in this case was they improved the surveying methods by using better satellite and aerial imaging. Suddenly, where before they only saw one island, higher resolution technology revealed two or three or more separate islands.
The Japanese have adopted a rule that only allows islands to count if they’re large enough. That means if the resolution gets too high there could be an opposite effect: Islands could drop out of consideration by no longer qualifying as such.
Time persistence also matters in counting. Data changes, populations change. There’s no persistent set of “residents of Seattle.” Residents are born, die, move away, arrive.
Both issues occur when you try to imagine the set of trees in Seattle. What you think of as one tree could resolve into several on closer inspection, and, meanwhile, trees can die and new trees take their places, more or less. The big news this week is that the city has lost 255 acres of wooded canopy. It sounds worse than it is — it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the overall total.
When I was six, I was expected to look at a picture that showed Farmer Brown’s sheep and answer the question “how many sheep does Farmer Brown have?” I was struck by the sheer impermanence of the facts. Sheep come, and sheep go. So, just because there are four in the picture doesn’t mean four is the answer. It just means that’s what it looks like now.
Benoit Mandelbrot wrote a wonderful essay revealing something about the problem the Japanese are having pinning down how many islands they have. It was called, in short form, “How long is the coast of Britain?” and it simply observed that as you try to use smaller and smaller rulers to measure, the length of the coast goes up exponentially with an exponent that is not one. (It worked out to an exponent of about 1.25.) The smaller ruler finds more length as it reveals more ins and outs of the coastline. The constant exponent was called “the fractal dimension of the coastline,” and so Mandelbrot called the coastline a “natural fractal.”
Mathematicians had discovered fractal dimensional objects 30 or 40 years or 80 years earlier, but until Mandelbrot found them in ferns, broccolis and coastlines the general public couldn’t be interested.
In scary news, I just found out Nordstrom is closing its Canadian stores. I didn’t know they had Canadian stores before. But now that I know they’re closing them, I’m panicking. What if they close the Rack next? Where am I going to get shoes?
So far, rather than closing Racks they’re opening new ones in places I’ve never heard of around the U.S. But how long can I expect that to continue before they decide, “Know what?
We’re losing money on these, too.”
Here we go again. People told me not to get an eight-track player, but I didn’t listen.
There used to be four Starbuck’s within walking distance of work, but now I don’t know where there are any.
There’s, what, one Denny’s left inside the city limits? Two IHOPs? My world is shrinking.
No Rack? It would be like no JCPenney, no Sears, no Woolworths, no Macy’s. I can’t live like this. Next there won’t be any Apple Genius Store.
There’s no persistence in this world. There is no actual persistent set of Nordstrom Racks. What will we do when there are no Chipotles? No Blue Water Taco Grills? No Taco del Mars? Eat homemade quesadillas on store-bought tortillas heated in the microwave? Is that any way to survive? It’s going to be like a war zone. Time to stock up on MREs and canned Chef Boyardee ravioli. A staple of my homeless days, I ate it cold straight out of the can.
But never mind me. Think of yourselves as the apocalypse looms.
Dr. Wes is the Real Change Circulation Specialist, but, in addition to his skills with a spreadsheet, he writes this weekly column about whatever recent going-ons caught his attention. Dr. Wes has contributed to the paper since 1994. Curious about his process or have a response to one of his columns? Connect with him at [email protected].
Read more of the Mar. 8-14, 2023 issue.