Saturday, 27 September 2014

In praise of praise for a place called home. However flat.

A journalist doing a piece about a village lost in the back of beyond is said to have interviewed, amongst others, the oldest inhabitant.

“Have you been here all your life?” he asked.

“Not yet,” replied the old man.

Since this morning I’ve been inspired by a book by a FaceBook friend, Cheryl Unruh, Flyover People. It
s an edited compilation of pieces she wrote for The Emporia Gazette and celebrates the joys of living a life in Kansas, which Unruh is clearly well on the way to doing (but hasn’t yet).

The title itself is appealing. When my (French) stepson came to live in England, kids at school started calling him “Frog”, displaying the innate kindness that children like to show to newcomers everywhere. Fortunately, he took to the name and started using it of himself, at which point it stopped being a weapon to tease him with. There's nothing better, when faced with a term of disparagement, than to adopt it and wear it with pride, as Unruh has done with the notion of a flyover state, a place one leaves mercifully below oneself as one travels by plane from one place of considerably more interest, to another.

It was an attitude I used to share at a time when, having made a number of visits to the US, I realised that I had only once set foot in a state without a seaboard. But then I visited St Paul, Minnesota, and fell in love with it. That made me realise that some of those in-between places deserve a better reputation than they enjoy. Unruh certainly gives me that feeling about Kansas.

“We know home when we see it,” she tells us, and as well as being charmed by the pen portraits she paints, I was amused by the sentiment. It’s hard to imagine a life that contrasts more strongly with my own. My grandmother once accused me of having completely filled the letter “B” pages of her address book, I’d moved so much; and though I’ve lived principally in Western Europe, the places I’ve called home have wandered across four language communities.

So it’s fascinating to read someone who displays a true rootedness. And that rootedness goes deep, is expressed in a boundless love for her rectangular state. I have to confess, but then I have a nasty sceptical mind, that sometimes I feel she protests too much, making a virtue of the sheer lack of what outsiders would see as features in her state. But there’s no doubting the sincerity of affection with which she takes us deep into the finest details, describing her husband taking photos of the pinpoints of light made by insects feeding on plant leaves. Nor can one be anything but inspired by the descriptions at the other end of the scale, of the immensities of skies of every shade of blue, forming a bowl over the vast swaths of varied greens on the plains beneath them.

The plains. That surely is the hallmark of Kansas, known even to people who know as little about the state as I do. It’s flat.

Members of the Kansas flatness research team at work
Its flatness was put to the test by a group of geographers from Texas and Arizona, Mark Fonstad, William Pugatch and Brandon Vogt. They set up a definition of flatness based on the ratio between the major and minor axes of an ellipse, as many surfaces can be approximated by ellipses or parts of them. 

This is true, in particular, of the surface of Kansas, and that of a pancake.

Since, sadly, they couldn’t gain access to “either a Kansas-sized pancake or a pancake-sized Kansas”, they had to resort to mathematical techniques to compare the two. I quote without comment the authors’ own words at this point, as they seem self-explanatory: “for both Kansas and the pancake, we approximated the local ellipsoid with a second-order polynomial line fit to the cross-sections.”

Who could disagree that this was an eminently satisfactory approach?

“We purchased a well-cooked pancake,” they inform us, “from a local restaurant,” and proceeded to microscopical analysis. 

“The importance of this research dictated that we not be daunted by the 'No Food or Drink' sign posted in the microscopy room,” a sentiment we can only applaud, as it granted us insight into a matter that might otherwise have remained a mystery. 

The mathematical index of flatness they used would give a value of 1.000 for perfect flatness. On this basis, the pancake scored 0.957, “which is pretty flat, but far from perfectly flat.”

What about Kansas? The state’s cross-section presented a problem.

“The state is so flat that the off-the-shelf software produced a flatness value for it of 1,” the authors point out. “This value was, as they say, too good to be true, so we did a more complex analysis, and after many hours of programming work, we were able to estimate that Kansas’s flatness is approximately 0.9997.”

There are results of scientific experiment that are ambiguous or uncertain. This is not one of them. This is conclusive.

“That degree of flatness might be described, mathematically, as ‘damn flat.’”

The conclusion? “Simply put, our results show that Kansas is considerably flatter than a pancake.”

The proof

There's nothing flat about Uruh’s writing, though. I haven’t finished the book yet, though I shall soon. And I’ve no doubt about her claim that the sheer flatness of the landscape makes the Kansas skyscapes all the more breathtaking.

The upside of flatness

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