Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From a Distance

Take Off

Each time I'm leaving California I feel like it's going to be the last look. Nothing seems to be permanent here and these temporary settlements let my European senses tingle with a feeling of imminent doom. The highways are always under construction without ever getting better, shops seems to come and go like the seasons, hardly noticeable here in Southern California, what was a beauty spa last time is now a Sushi bar, what was a drugstore is now a pet grooming salon. Many of the buildings have colorful facades with shacks behind them where the lights will flicker, and if there's a truck going by the whole construction starts shaking. If you live here, you'll get used to calling the plumber, to windows who don't close or don't open, to potholes, to power outages, to flooded streets, you'll get used to throwing away things and buying new ones, you'll get used to breast enlargement ads, you'll get used to guarantees that guarantee the impossible, you'll get used to fakin' it, here at the West Coast.

I look through the double glass of the little airplane window and see a whole country constantly fixing what constitutes its civilization, always running, always busy to avoid falling back, I see a society that needs an incredibly high throughput of energy and resources to maintain its level of complexity. And I can't but wonder what happens if this throughput gets any less. Fast forward some thousand years, only the beach will be there long after all the angels got lost. Each time I'm leaving California I'm wondering why.

Touch down

Through the clouds I see a glimpse of North America every now and then. Approaching the Toronto area the buildings get denser, more streets, cars clogging the highways, large industrial areas, finally skyscrapers. I can't but find this manmade rash on the Earth's surface incredibly ugly, Toronto, LA, NYC, Chicago, London, Paris, Cape Town alike in their ugliness, spreading like a disease, still growing like we'd have 1.25 planets to live from.

One of 6.6 billion humans, in a tiny metal box above the clouds, going from here to there like too many times, I can't but be proud what we managed to achieve. All the infrastructure, all the logistics, all the scientific knowledge necessary to make these cities work, smoothly, providing food, water, shelter for millions of people, guaranteeing survival and creating a place to live, a place for culture, entertainment and the search for understanding.

The flight is in time. Due to "technical difficulties" with the baggage retrieval system we have to wait two hours for our luggage.

And back

On the way back, it is dark outside, not much traffic on a late Sunday evening. A family van on the lane next to us. The father driving, the mother and the two kids in the backseats all have a laptop open and are watching different movies, their faces ghostly in the light of flickering stories from elsewhere. Where does this highway go to?

See also: Ghosts in Transit, Scenes


  1. While driving back how did you type?:)

  2. Not sure how it is connected, but you reminded me of this Dire Straits song

  3. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5d/Kenneth_Snelson_Needle_Tower.JPG/800px-Kenneth_Snelson_Needle_Tower.JPG

    Technological civilization is a beautiful and amazing construction - awesome heights achieved by minimal means of support - until one component fails,


    Corrosion or Luddites, demand initial quality plus preventative maintenance or suffer frequent replacement of infrastructure, finance, and personnel.

  4. I love that Needle Tower, Uncle Al. It looks like it should collapse - what's keeping it up?!

    I think skyscrapers can be very beautiful if done correctly. I love these new skyscrapers in which each floor twists in the wind:


    Not only do they look amazing, but your view would be constantly changing.

    New stuff can be really cool! The modern world is not all bad news!

  5. Hi Arun,

    ah, Telegraph Road... as if Bee's post wasn't already melancholic enough, why do you have to remind me of an English class twentyfive years ago...?

    Cheers, Stefan

  6. And the beat goes on and on...

    And it is life, isn't it? The complexity will always be unmanaged, blind, sprawling forward. When an aspect becomes understood to the individuals that unwittingly create it, this very act moves it beyond our understanding again. Our craving for comprehension and control thus fuels the ever more complex chaos.

  7. Hi Fh,

    There is a large body of research showing that systems with increasing complexity tend to lose resilience, that circles of breakdown and reorganization are pretty much unavoidable, and that the devastation of a breakdown crucially depends on the system's ability to reconfigure and readapt a previously stable state. Complexity does not always sprawl forward, if it grows too large it becomes unmanagable, something that however many people seem to deny based on the believe that human ingenuity will save the day. We'll see it break down, just wait a couple of years, and then the historians will start wondering how could this ever happen? Much like they are wondering today about the quirks of the global economy...

    Hi Plato,

    I didn't type, I was too tired. Also, unfortunately the Dell doesn't have a backlit keyboard. It's a reason for me to change back to IBM.

    Hi Uncle,

    Demand initial quality. Well said. How can you expact this if people get used to crap and accept it?



  8. Given the US Department of Education and Head Start, initial quality" is easy! "If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?" The Scots summarized civilization run by Marketing Departments, uachdar muc garadh.

    Needle Tower is stable by tensegrity. It is amazingly strong for its mass until the first component fails. The failure of US education, finance, justice, and armed forces has its tower inserted deep into Sturgeon's law. Timber!

  9. But is it so different now than in the past? What would you see if you can fly over Cairo in 1000BC, Rome in 100AD, Constantinople in 1000AD, Beijing in 1500AD, London in 1800AD? You see the same thing. Because humans have not change a bit since Day One. Not even with all the great knowledge accumulated. In fact, it is not knowledge that built the great cities; it is the human desires that build everything. Isn't that also the reason you're at PI? What are your desires after you've seen others as you traveled the world?

  10. "The sky over night city, was the colour of a television screen tuned to a dead channel . . ." - William Gibson

  11. We design for resiliency. Actually, California's building code (to cope with earthquakes) is quite good, I am told.

    The means by which we are communicating - the Internet Protocol - was designed with resiliency in mind.

    The idea of energy independence is really not to be entirely free of imported energy but rather to have diverse sources of energy and thus be less vulnerable to any disruption.

    Actually the most melancholy thing in the whole piece (to me!) was the family not paying attention to each other.

  12. I guess it's just a matter of perspective. It always fills me with awe when I fly and see the cities, towns, farms, and roads from so high up. There's still an awful lot of emptiness in the world and open places. Perhaps to some, the sight of millions of leaves fallen from trees in the autumn looks ugly and very wasteful. Or maybe the copious eggs laid by frogs and spiders? Disgusting to some, but fascinating to others. I hope whatever is bringing you melancholy will fade away soon. :-)

  13. Bee, simply being centered in front of a keyboard, you're supposed to be able to place your hands on it and be in the right place - and know it. I took a year of typing in high school (one of the few classes I got an 'A' in...I think....last quarter, anyways) and though I didn't use it much for a few years, it came back when I did.

  14. yes, but california... thats where anything is possible.


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