The Day the Earth Slowed Down: The Three Gorges Dam is damn big, and that’s not all

It is of mythical proportions, impossible to truly grasp. It makes mountains look like molehills and molehills look like very small piles of dust. That’s right, I’m talking about China’s 3 Gorges Dam, astride the Yangtze River in Hubei Province. More than just a mouthful.

Whence came the 3 Gorges Dam?

It is the year 1919 (not really, but in the story). FOMC Sun Yat-sen (that’s FOMC as in father of modern China, not fear of mad cows, or f*ck off mister chicken) sits atop his yak-wool cushion, admiring the earthenware tidbits that adorn his little non-imperial alcove. An idea strikes him, like a bullet to the ear. Holy moly, he thinks: I’ll build a dam. 

He puts pen to paper, humming with ambition. Words are written: big, small, medium, all humming. Soon enough he has written a full article, the like of which has never been seen in all of contemporary China. In English, it is called ‘A Plan to Development Industry’, which is a bit clunky but gets to the point. He publishes it in The International Development of China which, again, clunky, but clear. 

The gist is, he wants to build a great big dam to control the flooding of the Yangtze River and embody the ‘new might’ of China. Brilliant idea, they all said. Well, no they didn’t. Did they get to work on it straight away? Did they fuck. 

Outsiders with bigger dicks

It was actually the Japanese who moved the thing along when, in 1939, they occupied Yichang and surveyed the area. They were so excited about the prospect of owning all of China that they commissioned and completed the Omani plan in anticipation of the big day. 

Then, obviously, the United States weighed in with a my-dick’s-bigger-than-yours in the shape of John L. Savage, who did his own surveys and came up with his own proposals. This, he called the Yangtze River Project. 54 Chinese engineers went to the States for training. Unfortunately, however, the Chinese Civil War had other plans, shittier plans, and the project was put on hold in 1947. 

Mao liked the dam, but wanted to do a different dam first. Then, in 1956, he (Mao Zedong, “Little red cook book, little red cook book!”) wrote a poem about dams and called it ‘Swimming‘…

The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

A not so gorge-ous episode

When, soon after, some engineers spoke out against the project (and in so doing pooh-poohed his poem), Mao had them sent to labour camps. The government did not look favourably on those who dissented the dam. Jump forward to the Tiananmen protest of 1989, and journalist Dai Qing publishes ‘Yangtze, Yangtze’, a book of essays opposing the project.

Criticism of the project had as its backdrop a string of disasters that took place in Henan Province during a typhoon in 1975. A series of catastrophic structural failures caused the release of 600 million cubic metres of water – a wall of water 6 metres high and 12km wide. It was the third-largest flood in history, affecting a total population of over 10 million people. 3 million acres were inundated, 6.8 million houses collapsed, and as many as 240,000 people drowned or died in the wreckage. 

Survivors became sick from contaminated water, and were trapped without food for many days. It was a sore point for quite some time. 

But not too long! The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, and was finally approved in 1992. 

It is not visible from space

We have a propensity to mythologise Chinese construction projects. Even the most gargantuan cannot be seen from space. 

But it is motherflippin’ big

When the quantity of concrete is written down, it merits the use of standard form. It is more fun to use objects than measurements. Example: it took 63 Eiffel Towers worth of steel. Fun! 

Clone the longest known animal ever to have lived on the earth (average female blue whale = 25m) and place 93 of them end to end, and you have the length of the dam. Fun! 

The concrete used to construct the dam wall itself weighs approximately 6.5 million tons, which is about one and a half times the weight of the world’s heaviest civilian building.

But it is still less than half the reservoir flooded by the Itaipu Dam. Props, South America. 

How well does it work?

The Three Gorges Dam is not the perfect dam. It is one of those things that arguably serves the greater good, but means a lot of little people get ignored and really pissed off. A third of its budget was spent on relocating 1.2 million people out of its flood zone. 

But it also provides energy to lots of people. The Three Gorges Dam has an estimated power output equivalent to a regular power station burning 25 million tons of crude oil a year. It generates 11 times more power than the Hoover Dam, Nevada. It could power the entirety of New Zealand, Ireland, Iceland, Costa Rica, The Bahamas and Rwanda, combined (which is 1.5% of China’s total energy consumption). 

Well done on that count, but it could also be doing a lot of harm, causing a different kind of pollution. The region surrounding the Three Gorges Dam is home to thousands of plant, insect, fish and terrestrial vertebrate species. Landslides and water pollution threaten (read: throw into disarray) the interrelatedness of a bunch of unique ecosystems. The eco-stability of the region is, in a word, shat on by a heck ton of dirty water, which is good for business, but not so good for maintaining that which is cool. 

So what’s all this about the earth slowing down?

Here’s the rub: when the Dam closes its doors to fill its reservoir, it accumulates a total of 38 trillion kg of water. While this is only a teeny proportion of the total weight of the earth, it is enough to have an effect… on the earth’s rotation. The maths has to do with moments of inertia and angular velocity. If you’re spinning on ice and you tuck your arms in, you’ll spin faster, and vice versa. Collecting such a weight of water in one location on the earth’s surface literally makes the earth spin slower. The crux is, it’s really damn big.

It increases the length of each day by 0.06 microseconds. Can you feel it? If you add up all those microseconds over a human lifetime, you’ll have approximately one and a half seconds to contemplate dams!



This article also appears on Medium, along with several other pieces, which you can find by visiting my writer profile.

Alternatively, read more on the subject (or indeed on other subjects) elsewhere on this blog:
Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Old China vs New China
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
China: The importance of being sincere

A Most Slippery Man: Amusing notes on the inventor of Vaseline


Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?

Coronavirus has struck at an interesting time. These are turbulent days. Commentators speak in seismic proportions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ replacing such indulgencies as past and future. We are living in the midst of an Event, or a The Event, like the event which occurred on the 11th of September, 2001. It is an event that shapes modern history, after which one does not look back in quite the same way. Maybe such an event is inevitable. Maybe coronavirus is necessary for us to change direction.

We’ve got the whole world in our hands – or is it the other way round?

It is bad

Chilling stories are emerging which recommend the most drastic measures for 12–18 months. If not, 2.2 million will die. If we are clever and disciplined and follow orders, only 1.1 million will die. If we alter our lifestyles dramatically, only 20,000 will die.

The only reliable metric we have is death count. Different countries test and report differently. Widespread testing has not yet been rolled out, and the 14-day incubation period means that even if draconian measures are put in place now, we could still see sharp rises in case numbers during the two weeks that follow.

But it has always been bad

It is interesting that, following such cataclysmic climate catastrophes as the Australian bushfires, it is only now that such measures look likely. In 2018, as many as 29 million people were adversely affected by climate disasters. Wildfires ravaged California, hurricanes battered other parts of the US, and 5 million were displaced by flooding in India.

If you look at the numbers, they are staggering in ways the coronavirus isn’t — yet. We live in a time of unprecedented times. We read about giant events resetting the lives of other people all the time. But these are localised, generally speaking, or at least easy to think of as such.

Climate activists the world over called for policy overhauls, and small victories were won. But nothing fundamentally changed. Someone dies by committing suicide every 40 seconds. There were over 6,500 suicides in the UK in 2018 alone. The Yemeni Civil War has led to as many as 100,000 deaths since 2015. But for some reason, these all get swept under the rug. There are ongoing global tragedies that fail to galvanise us as a human population.

We are, or at least should be, better together

Is coronavirus the silver bullet we need?

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been a smattering of quietly beautiful news reports. Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan are among several Chinese cities to be enjoying uncharacteristically blue skies. Air pollution levels are lower than they have been, in some cases, for decades.

Likewise, in Italy, pollution levels are plummeting. The ban on all but essential travel in swathes of Europe is allowing the continent’s airwaves to breathe, and its waterways to refresh. The canals of Venice are seeing dolphins for the first time in 60 years.

An unexpected side effect of the pandemic: Water’s flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever.
The fish are visible, the swans returned

Europe’s most hated airline, along with several other budget carriers, are grounding the vast majority of their flights. While this is an estimable bummer for pilots and crews, the benefits are clear.

The yet-to-be-realised cherry

Social commentators in the UK, US and elsewhere are noticing the resurgence in favour of socialist policies. Educational institutions, both brick-and-mortar and online, are making pay-to-access materials free for a limited time (read: 12 to 18 months) to help those in quarantine. Visited the NYTThe Journal, and QNS for more detail on those. In the UK, the Co-op has joined legions of others in supporting children forced to stay home during these first months of the pandemic.

Healthcare professionals, among other keyworkers keeping our society relatively intact, are self-deploying on the frontline. Volunteers are jumping out of the woodwork. Community groups abound. Town councils are considering buying and cultivating local land. Teachers are offering their services remotely and for free.

We are seeing glimmers of a socialist utopia through the cracks forming in our crumbling, ultra-consumerist paradigm. Universal Basic Income is being floated with renewed buoyancy — people all over country are recognising that the government’s business-first approach has set us up to fail during a time of global health crisis. Our gutted NHS is understaffed, under-resourced and criminally undervalued.

And lead us not into temptation

It has been said that we will see the best and worst of humanity in the coming weeks and months. It is tempting in such situations to simplify the virus. We might see it as a divine clarion call, or method of holy retribution — punishment for sins uncountable — designed to sweep us out of ideology and into something purer. But do not become unstuck.

From FP:

Anti-misinformation measures from tech companies may help mute these voices, but, as the anti-vaccine movement demonstrates, the task will be Sisyphean unless we understand and address the mechanism by which maladies become mirrors.

Aside from being a killer reference to Sisyphus and delightfully alliterative, this is perceptive. Human populations are weak when shocked. Ideas proliferate, but so do prejudices, misinformation and wanton references to the divine.

Conspirators sit at their computers, or in front of shiny logos, and pontificate about the ever-changing ‘they’ and what ‘they’ stand to gain. Trump calls it a Chinese virus — we are told to ‘wake up and smell the silicon’ — Asian-looking Brits are being beaten in the streets. Heaven only knows what Piers Morgan has to say.

Seek method in madness, and measures of moderation

If you gaze long into the abyss of a disease, your own ideology gazes back at you.

True, and fair enough. The virus is not some pendulous revenge tack swung back at us by Mother Nature herself. We are not living an allegory, lungs besieged by the viral wing of a suffocating Gaia.

Yes, there are somewhat pleasingly poetic connections to be found between our hyper-industrial, anthropocentric activity on this earth, a strangling of the world’s resources, or pummelling of its vital organs, and the ease with which the coronavirus swipes at our respiratory systems — individual and collective.

But the blanket coverage of coronavirus is not a test from a divine power. Nor, probably, was it fabricated with evil intent, or released by Jeff Bezos to increase dependence on Amazon. Disparate micro-patterns emerge but do not necessarily form a larger whole. Those profiting from the virus are simply well placed. Obviously Bezos stands to gain because he is well placed to gain in just about any situation.

If we are going to ride this wave towards a socialist utopia (and please let’s do that), let us do so carefully, with measure, and without crashing.

Remember, always remember:

Ladies, please. Let’s not lose our heads.

Lose our heads? Aaaahh.


This article also appears on Medium, as part of the Data Driven Investor publication, along with another piece titled:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Read more on the subject elsewhere on this blog:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Old China vs New China
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
China: The importance of being sincere

Old China vs New China

One student of mine said her boyfriend was ugly because he was too dark. They used to call him Blackie. How does one approach that?

—Chengdu, 2017

Old China bad; New China good?

Something clicked recently, a sort of phenomenon which has come to light in my head in the last week or two. It’s about the relationship between the old and new, those who do and those who document, the rugged and the pristine. There is a rift in so many ways – behavioural, habitual, maybe even ideological – and the natural response of the present generation, who perch on the edge of a thousands of years-old series of dynasties and handwritten histories and instead look upwards to the stars through a pixelated lens, is to ogle. Ogle and boggle. Because people doing things with their hands – that’s fascinating. Really, it is, especially if the current vogue is to cover up as much skin as possible so as to avoid getting any darker, play LOL (League of Legends) on your iPhone in order to pass the time, and go to the canteen three times a day for your sustenance. One student of mine said her boyfriend was ugly because he was too dark. They used to call him Blackie. How does one approach that?

What is the difference?

Old China is ghastly, gaunt and decrepit – it is all the adjectives under the sun (the invisible sun, the elusive sun), and heaves as it breathes. It is drooping eyelids under the weight of its own history. It is playing mahjong or Chinese chess in hoards of old men, bent over like stray cats, lost in a mist of technology and change, caught in the eye of the storm, finding refuge in nostalgia, routine, traditional, stillness.

It is square dancing solemnity, lit incongruously by LED screens blaring ads and silent infomercials. It is being written constantly and literally onto the paving stones of parks, by men and women stooped forming right-angles over brushes, inhabitants of a bygone era, plucking watered words from their pasts and sweeping them in swathes over stone – only to be washed away with the rest. Hosepipes scatter puddles and the slate is cleaned. It is meditative, persistent, never cowing, droning on patiently in the background.

It is transient and permanent and clung to and revered. Temples, water, work, rice, sagging, beautiful, real – radiant, sad. Old China underpins the New like a giant slab of concrete, impermeable to change and being blinkered out, stifled by the monster redevelopment project of New China, by social upheaval and hyper-modernity and WeChat. Its song is mellifluous but its fingernails are breaking and its scratches are no longer indelible on the minds of the young – who flaunt the badges of New China like gold stars. The old chime lugubriously as their pasts are stripped away, & collect round each other with sunflower seeds and flasks of tea and chortle like characters from Beckett, half-dead, gripped by laughter and serenity.

The New China strides like a juggernaut, indefatigable and unforgiving. It is cement, glass, pragmatism – shiny, rustling faux leather and long puffer jackets, fashion town, colours, blasé, picture-taking paradise, boyfriends and girlfriends and shirking tradition – absence of past, eternal present future beckoning, industrious and lurid and loud and lawless and gloriously all of the above, unabashedly everything and in abundance. It towers over all else and constantly surveys, tacky and deadpan and resplendent and giggling, full of life and in perpetual motion – patterns and patents and discovering yourself – dancing yourself.

It is bottled green tea and inflated packets with mock croissants, 8000¥ t-shirts and exhibitions of wealth. It is techtonik dancing in an LED-lit, floodlit, jam-packed shopping reverie, pink hair and profile pictures. It is getting to grips with the ever-changing notions of flux and self and self-hood. It is unabashed and by itself, beside itself, fighting itself, for itself. It is of interest above all, and is only ever boring if that boredom stems from being overstimulated and therefore desensitised. It is WeChat. It is self-procreating, reproducing, simulacra-inducing, churning out versions of its own existence onscreen. It is expectorating chicken ankles between selfies, and whitening its cheeks and teeth to meet the new criteria.


This piece also appears on Medium, along with several others, covering China as well as other countries.

For more bits on China from this site, follow these links:
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
The importance of being sincere

Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe

The terrain is constantly being redesigned, reshaped, remoulded, in a bizarre and at times saddening demonstration of power of machine over nature.

The terrain of China is constantly being redesigned, reshaped, remoulded, in a bizarre and at times saddening demonstration of power of machine over nature.

—Chengdu, sichuan province, china, 2017

How many people are there in China? There are lots of people in China.

As there are 1.3(86) billion people here, pragmatism and utility are first priorities in a lot of processes. Canteens are enormous and churn out vast quantities of food, very cheap, for hoards of hungry hippos. Wastage is wastage, but the children are fed. Everything is made in order to accommodate hundreds or thousands or millions of people. The subway carriages are bigger than London’s; the roads are wider, have more lanes; local small-time bakeries are constantly constantly constantly producing loaves, and constantly constantly constantly have queues; towerblocks are in perpetual construction, popping up like Lego tenements; in the outskirts of the city, gigantic roads are mid-way through being built, and jut out at the sky 15 floors up in order to one day ferry people upon people upon people to the corners, near and far, of China.

And of the land

And the land: if it can be changed to better suit its purpose, it is. Whereas in England or France or for that matter most of Europe, you’ll nip around and see mostly large flat or hillside fields either growing maize or sunflowers or hemp or lying fallow or being pastoral with grazing animals etc etc., the actual lay of the land existing in its own way, in Sichuan much of the land is shaped and sculpted in order to suit the needs of the country, the people of the country. The terrain is constantly being redesigned, reshaped, remoulded, in a bizarre and at times saddening demonstration of power of machine over nature. Seeing this process mid-way is the most strange: the land sits bare like a big brown pudding being carved up. Gradient is no good, so hills become steps, and vehicles need access, so mudded highways are scraped into the soil, laid over so that the system is practicable.

I don’t know. I guess it’s completely normal. And it fits with the unabashed nature of social interactions – there are no political or societal reservations (as a whole, anyway) about redesigning the land they inhabit, if it thereby becomes more effective, more productive, more utilisable. It is a triumph of change, progression or something other, in a country heavily preoccupied with its own ancient history. I find it interesting.

How did you find it?
With a map.

Coming for you
squeaky faced Every day
cut and paste Weighing up
less speed more haste London town
where I was graced.


This piece also appears on Medium, along with several others, covering China as well as other countries.

For more bits on China from this site, follow these links:
Old China vs. new China
The importance of being sincere

China: The importance of being sincere

Stalls sell frogs’ legs and chilli squid alongside dried kiwis and skinned pineapples, bulbous wooden instruments and chariots made of sugar.

WeChat is a god.

Reflections on modern China, by a short term resident

—Chengdu, sichuan province, china, 2017

Chengdu is a human city much like any other. As, I suppose, are the other myriad cities which adorn China’s landmass. All the city constants are here – fashion is here, just as in London or Paris. There are leather trousers everywhere, sexy boots and ‘distressed’ jeans, lensless glasses and bouffant barnets. Pretty hip youngsters parade in garish patterns and wear expensive jackets with lurid docketing (like Superdry for the Chinese – examples include MY EX DIED and DON’T WORRY, WE ALL DIE ALONE), there are old, haggard street-people hocking loogies onto the pavement; there are juniors gobbing incongruously between glances at their phones. Phones are everything. They watch you just as they listen to each other. Kids lollop about, glued to luminescence, parents trailing them along by a thumb.

paragraph 2: of people, and social media

People are active. They are also everywhere. Street food vendors line narrow roads and churn out all hustle and bustle. Everyone is different – noisy, quiet, boisterous, timid, grotesque, refined – all nestled among architectural & societal & cultural contradictions. The city is oxymoronic. Stalls sell frogs’ legs and chilli squid alongside dried kiwis and skinned pineapples, bulbous wooden instruments and chariots made of sugar.

WeChat is a god. It is social media profiling, instant messaging, filesharing, video chat, timeline, group conversations, it is scanning for a bike ride, paying for your taxi, it is your credit card, your face, your identity, your geo-mapped position and your way of communicating with everybody – friends, family, students, bosses, companies, yourself.

paragraph 4: of metro, and food

The Metro is a recent addition to the city and is gorgeous. It is more navigable than the London Underground, even for an English speaker. Metro TV, bag searches, glowing arrows on the ground, flashing lights and screens and the future. Meanwhile, the busses wheeze like bloated locusts through the streets pumping dust and fumes into car windows.

Rabbit head, duck head, chicken feet, pig trotters & snouts, lambs’ ears, squid and frogs’ legs are all available at a dime a dozen, shimmering with oil and flecked with chilli. At a hot-pot restaurant everything is available – intestines, brains, fish innards, offal of all shapes and sizes, some peachy pink, others maroon red. Personally I have seen very few selfie-sticks for sale (weird) though possibly a million in action.

People are largely unabashed by social etiquette details which grind Englanders’ gears: proximity, being watched, spitting, eating with gusto (and I mean gusto), etc. Everything is honest, as it comes; you know where you stand. There are very few thank yous and, as far as I know, there is no way of saying please in Mandarin. Does language sculpt a national character or vice versa? What came first, the chicken feet or the steamed egg?

Eerily, the folk await –
the music sucks you in;
and if you choose to take the train,
it’s madness that you’ll win.


This piece also appears on Medium, along with several others, covering China as well as other countries.

For more bits on China from this site, follow these links:
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
Old China vs New China