On Things Elastic, Idle, and Vast

I am lucky enough to have an incredible job which puts me up to unusual things. Like visiting five continents for research. In one month. November was pretty unique. I visited London, New York, Santiago, Sydney, Torquay, Melbourne, Singapore, and Beijing in the span of 25 days. Seeing such a wide variety of climates (meteorologically, economically), geographies, and cultures has stretched my brain in new ways. This trip will leave a mark on me.

long trip


Employed by Idleness

On my first visit to mainland China the most striking thing was the sheer number of people who are employed by idleness. My experience was probably a bit skewed by staying in the middle of the embassy district where literally every building is attended to 24 hours a day by a plank-straight guard, but buildings all over the city are similarly kept company.

The way that idleness is handled seems to me a useful way to understand a culture. In India something like a simple transaction in a store involves two or three more people than it would in the west. Cultures in warm climates generally tolerate a greater degree of loitering – doing nothing but watching the sun pass through the sky. In Europe and North America we stuff our idle people into offices. On paper these people look employed but there’s a reason that Windows comes with Solitaire installed. In China everything is guarded.

Vanishing of the Vanishing Point

Obligatory Beijing smog + giant bldg shot

Arriving around Midnight, I slip into Beijing under the cover of darkness. The cold is a shock after being in the southern hemisphere for two weeks but everywhere it smells lightly, pleasantly of burning things. From the width of the roads alone it’s clear that Beijing is a big place, but it’s not until the next morning that I wake up early and hop in a cab to visit some sites that the size becomes palpable. That smell of burning reveals itself as a mix of coal and dust and who knows what. Avenues fade to blue; everything beyond 100 meters is a silhouette in the smog.

As a visitor it’s pathetically easy for me to put aside the sad reality of the pollution and its long-term effects on the people who live there. For the moment I’m in thrall with the incredible optics of a city that is so vast it yields the potential for, but ultimately denies, infinite vistas with vanishing points in every cardinal direction. These forever-boulevards literally choked by smog are tragically beautiful with something akin to the sad sadism of foie gras. In so many ways, Beijing is the foie gras of cities: ethically complicated but undeniably exquisite.

It’s a city that any kid who grew up with video games already knows: the Z-buffer culling of distant objects to reduce render time is exactly what dense smog produces. Successive layers of massive buildings and leafless trees rendered as increasingly pale outlines encapsulate you in a little sphere of existence, your own little microcosm of the endless city, as if seeing the whole thing at once would simply require too much processing power from your human brain. Please upgrade your buffers before you visit the city of the future.

Beijing has vanquished the vanishing point. What’s next?


Between the events of my personal life and the myriad places I’ve visited and people I’ve met for work during the course of this year, I keep returning to an earnest appreciation for the ultimate elasticity of the human condition.

On every continent, in every income bracket, under diverse conditions, what I’m in awe of these past few months is the ability of humanity to cope, to make due, and to recover. I’ve watched people close to me suffer life threatening injury, give birth to children, get married, get divorced, freak out, cash out, break things, die. But we keep going.


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