A tale of two Dutch cities and fractal time

Dutch cities Zwolle and Deventer are similar in appearance but only because being removed from an age dims the fine detail. Time isn’t fractal – the pattern isn’t visible and identical at all scales.

Take two Dutch cities…

The Dutch cities of Zwolle and Deventer are fairly similar in appearance, having more or less the same kind of layout with the same kind of buildings and the same kind of houses. At least, they seem to be pretty much the same from this moment in time, and this is arguably down to their similar age and in part down to their shared history.

Dutch cities 1: Deventer
Map of Deventer by Willem and Joan Blaeu, 1652

(Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deventer#History)

Dutch cities 2: Zwolle
Map of Zwolle by Joan Blaeu in Blaeu’s “Toonneel der Steden”, 1652

(Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwolle#History)

A lesson from history?

But when all is said and done, who gives a monkey’s about their history? Is it fair to say that history has had it’s time and that now it belongs in the past? Surely the present is what’s important, it’s now. Now is when we see the detail. Now is when we shape the future. Right?

Time heals. Or smears, or covers subtle differences. Back in those historical days, those cities are likely to have been perceived as very different from each other. If you lived there back in the 9th century you’d have probably been able to tell the differences apart far more easily.

But get closer – really get into those Dutch cities, walk the streets and meet the people, the differences – internal and external – become clearer; you can probably tell by the way someone speaks, dresses or behaves which city they come from, for example, or even from which side of it.

The important differences I see from the viewpoint of today are practical – which Dutch city can I drive to and find a parking place most easily? And how much is the town council going to charge me to park there?

Using the knowledge that Zwolle has a history of being tight with money (See the “Blauwefingers” section on Wikipedia), for example, would be insanely prejudiced. But on the other hand, knowing that Deventer takes pride in its history to the extent that it’s often used as a filming location (reference Wikipedia) might make it a place well worth a visit.

Ultimately the fact remains that history is, in some ways and to varying degrees of relevance, important.

A comparison with age

When I was 17 I had a part time job in a petrol station. It was easy for me to tell who was over or under 16 and to whom to serve cigarettes. My older colleagues found it difficult – as too so would I now, being much older.

Middle age

When we were young children, old people pretty much looked the same. You know, where ‘old’ is above 5 years old. As we got older that threshold increased. Anyone above their teens, where boys had stubbles and girls had breasts, were ‘old’. Then there were grown up adults who had jobs who were ‘old’, and so on till pension age and beyond.

Then before we knew it, an additional threshold had formed – one where younger people look and behave the same. All babies “look like Winston Churchill”. All toddlers “scream and wet themselves”. All teenagers (including 15 and 16 year olds trying to buy cigarettes) “find everything unfair, hate their parents” – and so on.

Within our own age group there’s more distinction. I’m growing up. A young adult. Middle aged. Nearing retirement. There’s more resolution from the moment of now – which differs from the case of the two Dutch cities where “now” needs to be in the past.

Being removed from an age dims the fine detail; being in it increases that resolution. Time isn’t fractal – the pattern isn’t visible and identical at all scales.

Do differences matter?

This is the paradox – that whereas understanding history and seeing the similarities and differences between cities is interesting, the lack of resolution between (or within) age groups is disturbing.

I overheard a sad conversation on the train a few mornings ago. Now admittedly my Dutch may not be completely up to par but this is what I (think I ) overheard. A couple were talking about their grandmothers. Apparently one had died at 60-something whereas another had just celebrated her 94th birthday. In true Dutch style of directness this difference was summed up as “Ja, dat kan.” (“Yes, this can happen.”).

The underlying but unspoken thought was that after a certain age people are old and can be expected to pop their clogs at any given moment. Yes. It can happen.

In relative terms the difference between a 60 year old and a 94 year old is moot; but in absolute terms we’re talking here of 34 years! Can we really be so quick to dismiss 34 years of life? That’s about the age of the lady who said this (as far as I can tell…)

Both the young and the old (quantify those adjectives for yourself! 😉 ) seem to agree that those differences don’t matter – indeed, the young and the old seem to share the same fascination with age. I’m four and a half!. (Said with pride). “I’m eighty eight and still going”! (Proudly). Maybe it’s to do with position on the Gaussian hill of age distribution. I dare you to ask the 39 year old how old she is. (I suspect a pursed lip and “…under forty”.)

At the same time, being young or old means being in the age groups where there is most temporal blurring for other age groups!

Conclusion

My feeling is this: Now is important, even when it was in the past. Just as now shapes tomorrow, the past shaped today – and today’s (usually) our starting point!

After all – wouldn’t you want your actions today to have some meaning for the future? I’m sure the historical folk of the Dutch cities of Deventer and Zwolle would feel / have felt the same way!

Paul

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Author: Paul Wandason

I love astronomy and science fiction, but I love my family more. So I love time travel too!

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