Seeing the world a different way

26May08

When I was eleven, I learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube.

I’d like to claim that this was a result of precocious mathematical ability and an innate sense of algorithms, patterns and parity. In actual fact, it was the result of a summer spent in the Lake District, where it rained almost every day. The TV didn’t work, and I’d run out of books to read, so it was just me, a wobbly cube and a book called something like “Hints and Tips for solving Rubik’s Cube”. And, of course, a fundamental need to show off.

By the end of the summer, I had it down to about three minutes (helped by the aforesaid wobbly cube, with mechanisms that were all but worn through and a corner that tended to fall off if turned too harshly). Several years later, I can usually manage it in around 90 seconds (a long way off the record of around 8 seconds, but still not bad, I think!). Even if I haven’t gone near a cube for several months, it doesn’t take me all that long to remember sequences of moves – by now, it’s mostly muscle memory. If I try too hard to consciously think about it, things go wrong. But it doesn’t take too long to fix mistakes.

So when, on a trip to Kobe a couple of weeks ago, I saw a Rubik’s Cube in a department store, I had to buy it. This cube wasn’t the usual 6-colour version – it had a map of the world printed on it, as if someone had compressed a small globe into cubic form. Some countries are labelled, in English to give it an international feel (though its Japanese origins are betrayed by the name of one of the continents: Austraria) and, helpfully, make it easier for people like me.

This isn’t the first novelty cube I’ve owned. On a recent trip to South Korea, I found one labelled with flags. Three adjacent faces show nine flags each of the USA, the UK and Canada, while the other three have the flags of South Korea, Japan and China. But this cube, while unusual looking, has the disadvantage of being poorly made, and the faces grind together unpleasantly when moved. So I don’t use that one, leaving it in its pristine form on the bookcase.

So I was ready to play with the World cube. As I unwrapped the plastic, I noticed it came with a little piece of paper – a net of the cube in its solved form.

“I won’t need that,” I though, and put it to one side. I jumbled up the cube for a minute or two, and then started solving it.

And there I ran into a problem. Halfway through solving for one face (I use a “layer” method, starting with the bottom 9 cubes and moving upwards) I realised the red line marking the equator wasn’t matching up. The square with the Arctic Circle marked was upside down. Something had gone wrong.

Up until now, all my cube-solving has been done on normal 6-colour cubes. Which have one hitherto-unnoticed advantage. Their centre squares (the fixed squares, at the centre of each face) are symmetrical. This is not the case for my new cube. Suddenly, I found an extra level of care was needed. For the first time in more than ten years, I had to think about what I was doing. Luckily, I found most of the sequences of moves I use did not seem to affect this too badly – either they did not affect the orientation of the centre squares, or I could compensate for them with some extra turns.

But then I ran into a second problem. I consider myself fairly well-informed when it comes to world geography, at least on a country by country scale. Given a standard world map poster, I can certainly tell you where to find given major countries, and make a good attempt at the layout of Europe, Asia and parts of the Americas (though, shamefully, my detailed knowledge of Central America and Africa is far slimmer than it should be). But it seems my ability to visualise the world in three dimensions is awful. While I managed to put together a face of the cube showing Africa and the Middle East, I was unable to line them up with the othar faces without resorting to that now-so-useful piece of paper.

Partly this can be put down to my being used to obvious visual cues of brightly coloured squares, and being a little confused by the uniform blue and green. But it is more down to the fact that I’m just not used to thinking about the world in that way. In my head, the world is flat. The Americas are on the left, then Europe in the middle about Africa, and Asia on the left. Sometimes, such as in the maps I find here in Japan, the Americas move over to the right (insert your own political joke here). My younger brother owns a map with the southern hemisphere at the top and Australia in the centre. But the basic layout is always much the same.

Even when I have played with or used a globe, it has almost always been fixed and allowed to rotate on one axis (occasionally two). The countries change in relative size, but their relative positions have never changed. And I, it seems, never really learned how these positions fit together.

On the surface of the cube, North America sits sprawled on a corner with pieces on three separate sides. One side is centred on the Arctic Circle, with Russia and Finland on either side. This isn’t how I imagine the world, isn’t how the pieces fit together. In my head, the continents are in neat little boxes of their own, and sit carefully next to each other.

Faced with a jumbled world, I just couldn’t put it back together. Even with the helpful piece of paper, I couldn’t quite manage it without giving myself a headache. My internal map of the world is woefully incomplete. Years of geography lessons, and years of travel wherever and whenever I could afford it, have not given me enough knowledge of the world to put it back together.

The cube has joined its flag-bedecked friend on top of the bookcase, with Africa all neatly put together but the Americas hopelessly divided (again, your own quip here). Maybe I’ll have another go at it, perhaps on another rainy summer’s day. Or maybe I’ll spend the time with a globe and a map, figuring out what this planet really looks like. I’m sure it would be good for me.

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