Saturday, August 4, 2012

Travel and topology

Today is the last day of MathFest; I'm dashing off to run a mathematical 5K race, to go to committee meetings, and (I hope) to hear Ghrist speak about applications of topology.  Then I'll fly home.  Sunday is my internet sabbath, and Monday we'll wake before the crack of dawn to head for the airport yet again, this time for a family vacation.  Don't fret if you don't hear from me for a little while.

That talk I'm hoping to hear is one that Ghrist describes as "the mathematics of holes".  Sometimes it's easier to understand what a space looks like by looking at what isn't there.   Even though both beach balls and swimming rings are made from (sort of) flat sheets of plastic, the inside of a ball looks vastly different from the inside of a swim ring.  It's the holes that are different, but not the surface.  The surface of each looks basically the same.

To me, this reminds me of my frugal lifestyle compared to the "standard" lifestyle.  Many people think frugality is the same as digging a deep hole of unfulfilled desires. I disagree.  The mall is a strange hole in my life, at least compared with other people.  I don't  go to the mall to buy new clothes -- but I still wear clothes.  In fact, I have so many they hardly fit in my drawers.

Paper towels are another odd-shaped hole in my life . . . a part that most people would say is "missing".   But my t-shirt rags clean better than paper towels, at least by my own unenlightened standards.

If Columbus had somehow gotten it wrong --  if he'd mistakenly thought our world was a sphere when really we lived on a giant doughnut -- would most people, living their day-to-day lives, have been able to tell the difference?  I doubt it.

For me, defining frugality by what is not there -- by the absence of processed foods, by the dearth of electronic video games, by the professional services you skip by doing things yourself -- is an important part of describing the large, overall structure of a life, in the same way that describing the shape of the hole tells you whether you're looking at a beach ball or an inner tube.

But this approach doesn't paint a good picture of what it's actually like to live this life.  Because, at least for me, living the frugal life day-in-and-day-out doesn't feel like digging holes.  It feels as normal for me to be walking around on my giant inner-tube as it does for any American-style consumer to be walking around on a giant beach ball.

And either way of living, when you think about it from too far away, is dizzying.

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