What the Heck is a Billion, Anyway?

•July 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the nearly unimaginable magnitudes of existence. Easy, at least,  for one whose insomnia-fueled post-midnight meanderings multiply like mosquitoes in marshes. I like to believe that these late-night mental gymnastics-cum-neurotic-worries began as my version of sheep-counting, that time-honored prescription for combating sleeplessness. More likely, however, they’re simply the schizophrenic circlings of a mind not coherent enough to form rational thoughts or arguments, yet not exhausted enough to shut down entirely. Perhaps they’re like the slow unwinding of the springs in an old clock.  In any case, when I can’t sleep, I often mentally stagger through a gamut of thoughts from the mundane, to the paranoid, to the vaguely interesting. I thought I’d share (hopefully) one of the last with you.

The world is quickly approaching seven billion souls. That’s quite an extraordinary number. I know most of us have been subjected to these sorts of mental exercises over the years, but take a second to (re)comprehend just how large “7 billion” is. To give a few trite metrics: if you spoke one number every second, it would take you a little less than 222 years to count to seven billion. A stack of seven billion dollar bills would be over 476 miles high/long. That’s a little more than the distance from here to Washington, DC, and back. Imagine walking that distance alongside such a colossal stack: dozens of hours of asphalt, over a hundred in all, following that green-gold serpent through towns, fields, over freeways, under rivers. It’s impossible for me to comprehend what seven billion of even a simple inert object (such as a dollar bill, though some might rightfully object to its characterization as “inert”) truly represents, much less seven billion entities as complex and baffling as humans.

Stack o' cash, 15 billion strong.

Stack o' cash, 15 billion strong.

Humans don’t sit neatly in a row, forming a “Yellow-Brick-Trail” to our nation’s capital (though admittedly, dollar bills only do so in my mind at ungodly hours). No, right at the moment, smaller but also so-large-as-to-be-incomprehensible-subsets of this human mass are (inter)acting in the thousands or millions of ways we do each day: in the eye-blink I’ve been at my desk, thousands have cried, hundreds have died, and tens of thousands have made love. Millions have awoken, angry hands clutching futilely at beeping aggressors, hips too-soon withdrawn from lovers’ warm pressure.

I earlier warned these musings were “vaguely interesting”; indeed, this is well-trodden ground for most and for my mind as well. But, for those who have not blessed with the hazy, thick surreality of a four-o’clock (mental) walk, there’s actually an openness, an expansion of certain capabilities that is perhaps enabled by the lack of intentional thought, the release of any semblance of mental control.  And so, while I thought about these well-trodden multitudes last night as I lay in my sweltering room, hands clasped behind sweat-speckled scalp, I found myself in greater grasp of a billion’s (or seven billion’s) enormity. For the first time, its threatening bulk towered comprehensively above, overwhelming every perceivable sense, forcibly clarifying my truly infinitesimal nature.

The experience left me drained. In fact, I’m still too exhausted to properly describe any jubilant morals derived therein. So, I’ll sign off with one meager, inadequate insight: I’m now even more amazed that, with such a unimaginable mass of humanity alive today, all chaotically striving to achieve some minimum standard of living, that such a turbulent mathematical system of effort hasn’t managed to house, clothe, or feed all of its component parts. Because, truly, that’s a hell of a lot of effort.

Bucket List, or Existential Crisis?

•July 7, 2010 • 1 Comment


Today I finally experienced an event that was at the top of my list of “New York City Experiences”, yet it somehow took me nearly four years to finally do so. Why did it take so long, you ask? To explain, I’ll have to briefly preface with some background on the metamorphosis of my relationship with the City (I can already hear A’s groan, “Oh god, here comes a windy, needless digression”).

Imagined objections aside, in the past year my feelings toward the City have undergone a near-complete reversal: from  love-hate dichotomy, scales mostly tipped in varying degrees towards the latter, to nearly continuous wonder and bemused bewilderment.  This reversal was fed by many fresh streams, flows of love, money, time, and energy that were scarcely trickles in years past. But perhaps more voluminous than all these was an acceptance of a radical truth: that control, in a place so monstrously turbulent, is impossible. For someone both inclined to getting what he wants and used to being able to process the flows of less daunting former homes, this truth at first felt as comfortable as an steel-wool sweater. But after several years of struggling to direct the tide, the onrushing sea of swirling, intersecting humanity, my entire being began to plead with me to learn to ride above the waves, or to simply allow myself to be swept under. I, obviously, chose the former, and now, from my higher, undulating perch, wonder why I tried to stand statuesque for so long. Of course, it hasn’t been all Oz-like walks arm-in-arm in the woods (I mean, Central Park) or pleasant naps in fields of opium poppies–I’ve had to learn to say yes when I wanted to say no, to rally when I would rather have fled, to smile instead of cry. But this tide has swept me along through a dizzying panorama of experiences, each worthy of its own marker, its own flag, but which have begun to pass so rapidly that I cannot even give each its proper due, much less catalog them all. In the past week alone, I’ve rushed by a poignant vignette of a puppy and two homeless men and an entire weekend of debauchery and relaxation, and I’m still struggling to even catalog what I referred to as “#1 NYC experience” at the beginning of this ramble.

(Yes, yes, I know. If I rambled less I could write more. That’s like asking a fish to ride a bicycle.)

So clever, they are

So clever, they are

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Masters of the Universe

•June 29, 2010 • 5 Comments

The masters at work, determining our future

So, I determined how much money millions of workers will receive from their employer pensions today.

I’m still in shock.

Why, you may ask, was I chosen to wield such power? Am I simply being hyperbolic? I answer: I have no idea, and no, not whatsoever.

My head’s still spinning. I can’t fathom, so I’ll just explain. I was invited (in my mentor’s place) to represent academia/the non-profit sector at a gathering of pension experts whose titles and affiliated corporations read like the rap sheet from the financial crisis: Goldman Sachs, Blackrock Capital (a huge hedge fund), PIMCO, TIAA-CREF; vice presidents and CIOs abounded. They had gathered because the traditional employer-sponsored pensions (also known as defined benefit plans) of many large corporations are in dire straits, and something needed to be done about it, before an unimaginable meltdown occurred.

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Paper Trains

•June 27, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Taking a train shines a sad, severe light on our country, illuminating both our physical decay and wrongheaded economic priorities. I’m speaking here of Amtrak, though the same could be said for the NYC subway, Chicago’s L, or most of our other railways and subways (with perhaps MetroNorth and New Jersey transit as slight outliers). The cavernous station in Philly, rivaling Grand Central in size if not splendor, is eerily empty, footsteps echoing as if in a museum. Along the row of the twenty or so ticket booths, only two tired faces sit behind desks. The glowing screens of the blue boxes that have replaced the other eighteen stand resolutely mute. The first thing you notice as the train glides out of the station, surprisingly smooth and silent, are the forlorn, disheveled heaps of railroad ties. Since the passenger trains leech rails abashedly from their heavier, more vital freight cousins, they run through the forgotten corridors of towns. The windows reveal a rapid succession of crumbling, abandoned hulks of former factories, graffitied cement, overgrown lots.  You’re reminded that this decay is often the rule rather than the exception; whole sections of cities have been abandoned, discarded like chaff, baseball cards, training wheels—anachronistic and unwanted. The holistic impression is as if the entire system has simply given up, but keeps limping along, defeated, eyes downcast.

The ride engenders the questions: “Why have we allowed our cities to decay to this point”, and “Why isn’t rail service cheaper/faster/more widespread”? And I know many of the answers, as I’m sure you do. But it’s a doubly melancholy reflection.

The Conductor Breaks Through

•June 22, 2010 • 2 Comments

In a city this stimulus-saturated, where the simple act of existence ensures a nearly overwhelming daily sensory bombardment, one would think that small gestures–minute shifts in this onslaught–would tend to be drowned out. Not so. In fact, the daily barrage of bodies, cars, sirens, yells actually manifests itself more as a constant drone, as as a backdrop of thousands of buzzing bees, blocked by those of us sensitive to it by intermediating books, beats, booze–a nuisance, to be tuned out, but one still very permeable. Au contraire, any event that manages to register above the hubbub is in fact magnified–Queen playing on a thousand watt amplifier over the background jackhammers. To register, events simply need to have, well, a particular character which lifts them above the clamor; a character which has no single defining quality or attribute, but is rather richly varied–there are many paths for an event’s ascension. They need not be grand nor bombastic, nor even particularly unusual.

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Bhutan and Happiness

•June 21, 2010 • 3 Comments

So, as the “Disoriented Musings Overture”, I’ve been reading a lot today about Bhutan. Now, if you know absolutely nothing about the country, this National Geographic article is a pretty pleasant place to begin. Briefly, the country had no roads, electricity, or infrastructure of any kind until the 60s, and just introduced television in 1999. Bhutan was a monarchy, but unlike most governments where power is concentrated a single (or few) set(s) of hands, the populace of Bhutan nearly universally adored their king, and are in fact generally unhappy with his recent abdication and imposition of democracy. I won’t speculate here at causes–oh wait, I cant resist: the country is 75% Buddhist. Now, (perhaps only to me) interesting trivia aside, the reason I spent a good bit of the day reading about the country (besides seemingly unending recent boredom at work) is that Bhutan is the only country that measures national progress not by Gross Domestic Product, but by Gross National Happiness. That’s right, the entire country measures all development by whether or not it makes people happy.

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