Week 4. God, Ernõ and the Magic Cube

Between 1972 and 1976, four patents around the world were filed for mechanical puzzles that featured cubes with 2x2x2 or 3x3x3 dimensions. These puzzles were assembled in a variety of ways, including some with simple magnets and some with complex concealed pivot mechanisms, but they were all a variation on the interlocking puzzle that dates to the 3rd century BC. The most famous of these, the Rubik’s Cube — named after patent-filer number 3, Ernõ Rubik — is the best selling toy of all time, in part for its ingenuity, in part for its simplicity, and in part because it can appease weekend dabblers and competitive enthusiasts alike.

The genius of the cube is its apparent plainness — rotate the various layers to align the multicolored cubes with their like-colored mates — and its practical complexity. Not only is it incredibly hard (if not impossible for those like me) to solve without guidance, but there are in fact 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 ways to scramble the cube — which isn’t quite up there with the possible positions on a chess board (~10^50), but it’s nonetheless 43 quintillion, a word we don’t often hear. Which is to say that there are trillions upon trillions of ways the cube might look when you begin to solve it.

The funny thing about math, though, is that even the most absurdly impossible feat is merely a challenge for the right human brain.

Not long after Ernõ Rubik’s “Magic Cube” found its way from behind the Iron Curtain (Rubik is Hungarian and the cube’s first name was “Buvos Kocka”) via Tom Kremer and the Ideal Toy Company in 1980, people began figuring out general solutions. These early solutions often required less than 100 moves and in 1982 David Singmaster and Alexander Frey hypothesized that every possible permutation could be solved by a number of moves in the “low twenties.” In 2007, a pair of computer scientists refined that number to a hard and fast 26. In 2008, Tomas Rokicki lowered it to 22. And in 2010, Rokicki and a few others working with Google lowered it for the last time to a nice and round 20 moves. This number — 20 — is the God’s Number for the Rubik’s Cube.

God’s Number, is hard to achieve for most dabblers, but for the competitive solvers, it’s not far from the norm. The world record for fewest moves to solve, 19, is shared by three people (contestants are given an hour to study the cube and then write down their solutions). The record for the average number solves in a competition is 24.00.

The list of astounding Rubik’s related records goes on — the fastest blindfold solve is 17.87 seconds, the most cubes solved while blindfolded is 41 out of 41, fastest solve is 4.59 seconds — but there’s something neat in our ability to come so close to God — or at least to a theoretical perception of God. God’s Number comes from the idea that God, if given a cube, could always solve it in 20 moves. That we can come so close — 19 moves on three separate occasions — but not quite achieve the perfection at the heart of the number (20 moves, each and every time) says something marvelous about our capacity: that we can identify perfection and nip at its heels. And it says something about both what we can build — the cube; the computer that solved it; the mere possibility, for it would not exist without us and our habitual tinkering — and what we can do with these contrived constraints and ingenious inventions. Buried even deeper is an appraisal of our own self-worth, that God would busy herself with a toy a tinkerer built to better understand three-dimensional mathematics.

All of that, of course, is only true if you’re willing to take the arbitrary moniker a mathematician bestowed to a pretty number seriously. If you don’t, the cube is just the cube: a test of acumen, problem solving and patience.


Week 3. Long distances, subjective ingredients and a brief history of time

Tennessee Williams once wrote that “Time is the longest distance between two places,” meaning, I think, that time — because it is finite — is the only real measurement that matters between two points. Humans have yet to find a distance or a depth that is unreachable — at least in the course of a life (which might be thought of as the time allotted us).

But what, exactly, is time? That Facebook just invented a new unit of time (the flick) should say all that needs to be said about time’s human construct. Because for all the as astronomical preciseness, time is still just an imprecise calculation designed to position us at a point in the universe, in history, and in our own existence.

Time, as we understand it, developed over several thousand years, starting around 3,000 BCE, when evidence first appears that the Chinese had measured a 366-day year based on the movements of the sun. A thousand years later they had a 12-month calendar — which included an occasional 13th month. Two thousand years after that and they had recognized what we know today as precession and came to understand that every 300 years, the 12-month calendar would no longer match with the seasons.

In the west, precession was recognized and accounted for in the name of religion. After Constantine established the Easter holiday on the spring equinox, the date of the holiday continued to change (it is, after all, an astronomical event), so in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII implemented the Georgian calendar. The calendar, the one most of us use today, keeps the spring equinox around March 20-21 through the use of the leap year.

As for the more precise measures of time, those which can’t simply be observed by us layfolk through the rising and setting of the sun, their origin is not entirely known. Theories posit that the 24-hour day was devised to match the 12-constellation zodiac cycle. Others speculate that 12 fit nicely into 60 — which fit nicely into the 360-day year.

For being the thing upon which our lives mostly depend — from how long we work each week to how long we sleep each night to how long we live — time is awfully imprecise. Of course, we’ve modified our calendars and walk around with cellular-network-enabled watches in our pocket. But we still live and die by a measure based on our position in the universe, by our relative relation to the sun and the stars. When we are is based on where we are — though in our daily lives that seems to have mostly reversed.

Huw Price, a Cambridge University professor of philosophy, says that the absolute direction of time — the sense that we are constantly hurtling toward the future — exists only in our minds, the result of a “subjective ingredient,” a “temporal perspective” that we project onto the environment around us. Similarly, the passage of time and the existence of moments, he says, are mental constructs. Rather, based on Einstein’s theory of relativity, the block universe that we live in is tenseless: the past, present and future are all equally real.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Max Tegmark describes this block universe theory of time like a DVD. You watch the movie on the DVD and the movie itself plays and there is a drama and things are happening and changing, but nothing about the DVD changes. Thought of through this lens, the only measure of change — as a product of the passage of time — is memory. (Memory and its relationship with time might be worthy of its own Breaking Eggs entry.)

On the other hand, theoretical cosmologist Andreas Albrecht makes the argument that time exists in relativity. “When you try to discuss time in the context of the universe, you need the simple idea that you isolate part of the universe and call it your clock, and time evolution is only about the relationship between some parts of the universe and that thing you called your clock,” he says.

All of which leads me to believe that change may be the best way to consider time. If time itself is merely a construct, it is at least the reflection of change, whether its the change in sunlight as the day progresses, or the flow of traffic or the accumulation of wrinkles and the loss of hair — time is merely the brain’s way of making sense of change, giving order to the chaos through some linear construct.

Some, of course, have continued to argue for the existence of time as an instrumental piece of our universe.  But it seems farfetched. Still, as I sit here mulling it over, it’s hard to imagine a world without time, or a facet of existence that is not built upon time.

To bring back Tennessee Williams, the full passage is, “I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further — for time is the longest distance between two places.” Time, real or not, is imperative to our personhood, to our development and growth, to our progress and our stability — time and our memory of change, is how we measure our maturity and, ultimately, at any given moment, how we know who we are.

To get a much better and more clear picture of time and complex arguments behind its existence, read Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s great “The illusion of time: What’s real?” which is where I gathered a great deal for this piece. 


Week 2. Honduras, palm oil and the repercussions of modernization

Nearly 25 years ago, the World Bank invested in a small jungle valley in Honduras. The land program the World Bank used, which lends money to impoverished countries around the globe, was ostensibly designed to bring much-needed wealth to rural communities through modernization. In this case, it involved loaning some $30 million to palm oil giant Dinant to help them buy up a few thousand acres of land in Bajo Aguán.

The plan was never popular in Bajo Aguán, but then-President José Manuel Zelaya — a leftist who raised the minimum wage by 80% and introduced generous subsidies for farmers — was a bastion against the complete exploitation of the locals, which kept a lid on the tensions. After he was ousted, though, in a 2009 military coup, conditions in Bajo Aguán rapidly deteriorated.

A 2015 investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that since 2010 at least 133 killings were linked to land disputes in the area. Primarily the violence has been two-sided, with both locals and Dinant (and other corporate landholders) accused of beatings, torture and murder.

Elsewhere in the country, 109 environmental activists have been murdered since 2010 for standing up against dams, mining operations and agricultural projects, according to a report from Global Witness.  The most notable of which is Berta Cáceres who was shot to death in 2016. Cáceres, an internationally renown environmentalist who had most notably succeeded in halting the construction of the Agua Zarca dam in Rio Blanco, was killed in a safe house after telling her friends and daughter to prepare for a world without her.

Honduras, of course, is just one example of the repercussions of modernization and the pressures put upon developing nations by the Global North. In many ways, it is a forgotten poster child: The rate of murders in the country was 42.8 per 100,000 last year (down from 85.5 per 100,000 in 2011); it is one of the two poorest countries in the Americas, despite being resource-rich; and it bore the brunt of American intervention — or in this case, lack thereof.

In the wake of the 2009 military coup that toppled Zelaya, the United States (and, many like to note, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) was one of the only countries in the international community that refrained from calling the act a “coup.” The argument that Clinton and co. made was that to label the military intervention — which exiled Zelaya to Costa Rica and threw the country into chaos — a coup would mean that the U.S. would be required to cancel all aid to the country. But here we are, years after the democratically elected president was ousted, and Honduras has remained unstable.

I don’t mean to pick on Honduras, or to write flippantly about the strife that many millions of people are enduring. What I mean to do is work through my own knowledge about repercussions and about the consequences of modernization, and to get a sense for the struggles that activists around the globe face in the name of their righteous cause.

Berta Cáceres, for instance, was a dogged environmentalist who would have fit nicely into the American narrative of going green. But her most notable accomplishment was halting the construction of a hydroelectric dam — exactly the sort of project that American activists would be pushing for to undercut reliance on pollutants like coal and gas.

In Bajo Aguán things are more clear-cut, but still vague. Dinant is the sort of easily recognizable corporate landowner that is taking advantage of vulnerable communities, but they are operating with money from the World Bank doled out in the name of modernization, purportedly to help farmers and peasants adapt to a global world by injecting jobs and cash into communities.

And while these two brief stories don’t negate the importance of social, cultural and environmental progress and modernization, it’s easy to forget the reverberations; that nothing happens in a vacuum, and — even more — that everything is invariably inmeshed in a complex web of connections and crescendos: America support a military coup, drives demand for palm oil, lowers the cost of gas and inflates the value of renewable energy, and, in the process, forgets that people — often times people halfway across the world and living entirely foreign lives — make it all possible.



Week 1. From Backrub to Google: Wrestling with what’s known (and what’s not)

In 1996 a pair of friends wrote a program in their dorm room that crawled, cataloged and generally organized what was, at that time, the modest expanse of the internet. Backrub, as it was called then, got a small investment, moved into a garage and became Google.

Today, Google — and its parent company Alphabet — is, in many ways, the backbone of the internet, the trunk from which the webbed branches of the world wide web grow and one of the largest hubs of information that has ever existed. Despite being a software so ingrained into daily life that is has become functionally invisible, the most basic things that Google does (and those which allow it to generate more revenue than many countries) remain a mystery.

At its most simple, Google is a search engine that functions by performing three basic tasks: crawling the internet, indexing content, and, upon command, retrieving what’s been indexed. In action, Google’s software essentially visits every webpage that’s ever been linked to (crawling), makes a copy of the page (indexing) and then promptly repeats, following every link on that page, making a copy of those pages and following every new link ad infinitum. This indexing process generates massive amounts of data (dated estimations guess that Google stores some 15 exabytes — 15 million terabytes or 30 million personal computers worth — at any given time). This inundation of data makes Google’s ability to retrieve search results in a fraction of a second all the more impressive. It’s also why the final function of a search engine is arguably the most important: the retrieval algorithm.

Google’s algorithm is both beautiful and terrifying. Parsed down to generalities, when you enter a search query, Google uses an algorithm known as PageRank that helps to sort search results by two factors: relevance and ranking. But nothing is so simple as it sounds, especially not online. Google’s way of measuring relevance and rank is shockingly personal and it’s likely that no one knows us as well as Google does.

Odds are, if you are like me, when you are logged onto your private computer, you’re logged into Gmail, which means you’re logged into Google, which means that every time you search something, Google uses an algorithm developed specially for you, based on billions of factors — your search history, your browser history, your shopping habits, where you are, where you have been, what devices you are using, your demographic, your family’s demographic and dozens or hundreds or thousands of other factors that we (the unprivy internet novices) don’t even understand are important, but that Google has thought to track. And these factors and the search results they generate create a sort of personalized internet. An internet not so cloistered as the “social media bubble” that troubled so many after 2016’s elections, but one that nonetheless holds the power to skew our perception of knowledge and information.

Which brings me to a common personal refrain: Should I be alarmed? I love how seamlessly Google does everything I ask of it, and the collection of data is what makes their service work: They know everything I could ever need to know before I even ask. It’s delightful and unsettling all at once. (The My Activity page that brazenly packages everything you do on the internet as a sort of personal convenience is a small example of just how much power Google knows that it holds.)

And Google, of course, is just one of many. Our devices and desire for constant connectivity have bulldozed a path for dozens of innocuous-seeming services to make hundreds of billions of dollars off of us — the information that makes us individuals, all of it bought and sold thousands of times over so that when we open a page we see an add and suddenly desire a new pair of boots, even though we just bought the exact pair we thought we wanted.

Admittedly, Google might have been a lot to bite off for the first of what will hopefully be many blog posts throughout the year. But I guess I’m hoping to wrestle with things — with my apathy and my doomsayer inclinations, and, more broadly, to understand and engage with the many great unknowns of the world. And what is more unknown than everything about me that has been crawled, indexed, broken down to ones and zeroes and stored on some server in a far away state to sell me a new pair of boots?