Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Time, It Goes So Fast. Except When It Doesn’t. Or Goes Backwards.

As someone with a whole lot of time on his hands lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about just how to spend the days, hours, minutes, and nanoseconds afforded to me. And I think I’ve got an answer: I’m going to think about time. And then my head is going to explode.

Because time has gotten very complicated. As Scientific American reported yesterday, physicists trying to solve the problem of time—i.e., why is it that “all the equations that best describe our universe work perfectly if time flows forward or backward” while we can only experience time in one direction?—have a novel concept: It’s all gravity’s fault. That is, gravity, rather than the entropic force of thermodynamics, is responsible for pushing things together, pulling things apart, and ultimately creating the complex system of the universe that we now experience, at least when we’re paying attention.

And then the neat thing they decide is that this means our universe exists in the past of another universe’s future—and, presumably, that that universe exists in our own past, back on the other side of the Big Bang. Also, Galactus is real. Here’s how SA puts it:

From that low-complexity state [the Big Bang], the system of particles then expands outward in both temporal directions, creating two distinct, symmetric and opposite arrows of time. Along each of the two temporal paths, gravity then pulls the particles into larger, more ordered and complex structures—the model’s equivalent of galaxy clusters, stars and planetary systems. From there, the standard thermodynamic passage of time can manifest and unfold on each of the two divergent paths. In other words, the model has one past but two futures. As hinted by the time-indifferent laws of physics, time’s arrow may in a sense move in two directions, although any observer can only see and experience one.

So, yes, your bong-smoking college roommate was right.

Of course, there’s another hitch in time, too. And that’s that the better we’re able to measure it, the more useless it becomes as a measurement. According to NPR, there’s a clock at the University of Colorado Boulder that “can keep perfect time for 5 billion years” without losing a second, or even an infinitesimal fraction of a second. Except that when you get that precise, the idea of “a second” changes depending where you are. At sea level it’s, well, a second, I guess, but the farther away you get from the Earth’s core—or any large generator of gravity—the faster time moves.

So two versions of this clock, which is apparently a jumble of wires surrounding a chamber where “strontium atoms are suspended in a lattice of crisscrossing laser beams,” would give you different times depending on their altitude, even though they’d both be functioning better than this Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Automatic, which costs $1,251,360 and which I just added to My Wishlist, in case you’re feeling generous this holiday season.

Where does that leave us? We’re living in the past of another universe that exists in our own past, and how we even measure the pastness and futureness of anything depends on where we’re measuring it from—all because of gravity. Which, as we know from careful study of Interstellar, can be controlled by LOVE. Because LOVE is always the answer to complex physics problems.

As a corollary, we also have an explanation of one of the greatest pop hits of the 1980s, by a band I believe we should rename the Big Bangles. Now that you understand the latest physics, this will all make a lot more sense:

(Note: I spent just over an hour writing this—at sea level.)

How to Get Around New York City: Some Very Simple Instructions

Hello, tourists! Also: Hello, residents! Please allow me to be the first, and possible the last, person to welcome you to New York City. It is, you have probably noticed, a very big city. The buildings are tall. There are lots of people. The transit systems seem to have been designed by sadistic mental patients formerly consigned to Roosevelt Island. (Fun fact: They were!) Simply getting from place to place can be terrifying. Why, you might bump into someone! Or offend a native! Or be run down like a fixed-gear bicyclist by a garbage truck!

Unless, of course, you follow these two principles for Getting Around New York City™. I will tell you now: One of these principles is self-centered and rude, while the other is broad-minded and conscientious. I will leave it to you to decide which is which.

Principle no. 1: Get the hell outta my way!

The first thing you should remember when it comes to Principle no. 1 is that you should get the hell outta my way! I don’t care who you are—tourist or native or ex-resident returning to the once-forlorn neighborhood of Brooklyn where you lived 30 years ago—but you just need to get the hell outta my way. I might be walking, or biking, or driving; it doesn’t matter which. I might be moving fast or slowly, toward you or away from you. There might be other people around into whose way you must move in order to get the hell outta my way. That doesn’t matter! What I need for you is to anticipate MY NEEDS, where I’M GOING, and get the hell outta my way. I could be going up or down subway stairs; you should move aside. I could be trying to browse B&H for camera gear I can’t afford; you should let me through. All that matters, in the end, is that you get the hell outta my way.

What happens if you don’t get the hell outta my way? I may bump into you, perhaps roughly, perhaps not. I may give you a dirty look, and you’ll be both cowed and angry. I may suck it up and walk around you. I may call you a jerk, or whisper “Jerk!” under my breath, or think about what a jerk you are later, when I’m home and enjoying a nice glass or whiskey. Good luck recovering from that, jerk!

Principle no. 2: No sudden movements, please

This one is simple. Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it. If you’re walking, keep walking. Don’t suddenly stop. Don’t suddenly turn to the right. Or to the left. Don’t break into a sprint. Or drastically reduce your walking speed. Just maintain a steady pace … and ignore what everyone else is doing around you. Yes, I know that requires you to violate Principle no. 1 (a.k.a. “Get the hell outta my way!”), but it will work. In fact, it will work so well that you can even walk slowly—we New Yorkers won’t mind, just so long as you don’t suddenly halt to sip your Starbucks or pause in a crosswalk to read a map.

Look, we just don’t want surprises. Surprises surprise us, and then we have to jump, swerve and stumble to avoid them, whether it’s a tourist flipping open a map on the subway steps or a cyclist running some red lights but not others, or a suburban sedan that can’t decide whether it wants to keep looking for on-street parking or should just go back around to that overpriced parking garage. If that’s how you behave, we’re liable to maybe bump into you, call/mouth/think you a jerk, and fume for hours afterward. And you really don’t want that! So, be consistent. Keep calm and carry on, as the Brits used to say.

Okay, you say, but what then should an ambulatory person do when said person needs to stop, to answer the phone or put on a pair of Marc Jacobs fingerless gloves or whatever? Think of the sidewalk (and the subway and streets and everywhere else) like a highway. If you need to stop, you don’t just stop. You find a place on the side where you can pause, and you decelerate as you pull over. Then you take care of your business—iPhone Google maps, nose-picking, wet-wipe-showering, whatever—and gradually accelerate back into human traffic. It’s very simple, jerk.


I’m not going to get into the corollaries here. Suffice to say that, in combination, these two principles lead to a host of other sub-principles that guide ideal maneuvering around New York City. But I’ll leave it to other writers to deal with those issues. I’m late already to bike into the city and pick up my daughter from preschool, and there’s bound to be all kinds of jerks in my way.

Why I Love Vietnam

During the Tet holiday, Ho Chi Minh City, 2005.

The last time I was in Vietnam, a strange thing happened. I was walking down a typical alleyway between two buildings near the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. There was a small vegetable market spread on one side, and a few fold-up tables that constituted another side. Some teenagers sat on parked mopeds, and off to the side a guy squatted on the ground, welding a piece of metal, sparks flying at his unprotected face.

Then, out of nowhere, a girl—maybe 18 years old—ran up to me, grabbed my right nipple through my shirt, and twisted it. Then she grinned and jogged off, looking back at me as she did so. It didn’t hurt, but man, that was weird. Except that it wasn’t weird at all. And it wasn’t sexual—she wasn’t a hooker. She just… thought it was funny. And it was. From a certain point of view.

When I tell people this story, a lot of them don’t get it. If they’ve been to Vietnam, they see it as further evidence of how difficult it is to do something that should be simple, like walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street, buying fruit, or taking a taxi. Those people will freely admit they don’t much like Vietnam. Who would, with such constant hassles?

To me, however, the nipple-twister is exactly why I love the place. The people there are outgoing and exuberant, not only fascinated by foreigners but unafraid to confront them. And they are original—where else can you get your nipples playfully twisted by a stranger as merely the prelude to a increasingly strange day?

Yes, there is hassle, but key to managing it is understanding that it is a game. Now, the game may be called “How Badly Can We Rip Off the Foreigner?” But it is still a game that you can play. You might not win—actually, you can’t win, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mitigate your losses. It helps, of course, to be able to speak some Vietnamese, so that when your taxi driver or the dragonfruit vendor quotes an outrageous figure you can squeal with derision, “Oh my God!” And from there you begin the bargaining/arguing procedure.

Now, look. If you want your travel experiences to be seamlessly pleasant, then Vietnam may not be for you, unless you are very rich. But me, I like travel to be challenging. Not difficult, exactly, but the kind of thing that tests me, tests my language abilities, my wits, my patience—all the assorted skills I’ve accumulated over the years. And Vietnam does this every second of every day, from the moment I step out the door in search of coffee or pho. And it rewards persistence and creative thinking.

Once, I remember, I stepped into a taxi and asked the driver to bring me to the best pho in the city. There began a long conversation about where and when and how to find such a thing. It was early afternoon—not prime pho-finding time—and the best places, in the cabbie’s opinion, lay on the wrong side of town. But the enthusiasm with which he matched my own was wonderful, and prompted me to declare, in shaky Vietnamese, “Ai co thich an pho, day la ban toi.” (Roughly, “he who likes pho is a friend of mine.”)

But it wasn’t just the fact of his enthusiasm—it was the purity of his spirit. There was, at least as far as I could tell, nothing but enthusiasm there, no irony or condescension or even game-playing. For 15 minutes in cross-town traffic, it was just two guys talking (through a minor language barrier) about their love of noodles. And implied by that, I think, was a love of the country that made them.

Zen and the Art of Super-Long-Distance Travel

It takes a long time to get from New York City to Chengdu, China. First, you get to the airport extra-early, to avoid security lines. Then you sit on a Cathay Pacific nonstop flight to Hong Kong—nearly 16 hours in an aluminum tube that, on its journey nearly halfway around the world, often passes within 500 miles of the North Pole. Throw in another five hours at Hong Kong International Airport—not the worst place to kill time, actually, thanks to its good restaurants and generally open spaces. Two-and-a-half hours to Chengdu, then who knows how long at immigration, then a cab ride or train or bus into the city… Air travel is speedy, but it still takes forever.

And it drives many people completely nuts—particularly on those 15- or 16-hour flights. Perhaps luckily, I am not one of those people. In fact, I love long-haul flights—the longer, the better.

It’s not that I’m an airplane geek. I don’t get off on the subtle differences between Airbus models—certainly not enough to stay excited for most of a day. I don’t do mileage runs, either. And I don’t spend the flight in frantic anticipation of the adventures to come.

I like the long flights because they are the purest, most empty stretches of my life. Cut off from the world below (unless there’s Wifi, which is still rare on intercontinental flights), I read, catch up on movies I didn’t even try to see in theaters (most recently “Winter’s Bone” and “The Hurt Locker”), write e-mails and work on stories, and just generally veg out until the plane lands. In the air, nothing is expected of me. For the length of the flight, I almost don’t exist.

It’s not easy, of course. It’s taken me some time to learn to withstand the wearying effects of long-haul travel. There’s no special trick to it: I fly economy. I belong to every frequent-flier program, pretty much. I check in online. I put the pillow behind my lower back. I have a bottle of water, a book, my iPhone and headphones, and I remove my laptop from my bag before I stow it (the bag) above me. If I’m flying into a new city, I have a window seat; if I’ve been there before, the aisle. Once in a while, I get up and just walk around the plane. None of these things should surprise you—it’s the kind of advice you read in travel magazines all the time.

Perhaps the one trick I have learned—the one that’s special to me—is that I am capable of not caring. Seriously. I can just sit there, nodding off or wide awake, for a long time. I can have a crying baby at my side or a corpulent monster. But I don’t care. I think about Siddhartha (the Herman Hesse version of the character, that is), who declared he knew only three things: how to sit, how to think, and how to wait. (Or am I remembering this wrong?) If you want to travel often and over long distances, those are good things to know how to do.

But I recognize that they’re not easy for everyone. People get annoyed. They get uncomfortable. They get restless. Add in the anxiety of being in a pressurized aluminum tube 36,000 feet above the earth’s surface, and it’s reasonable to expect bad moods and a reluctance to do this all over again. But just because I recognize that this is true for other people doesn’t mean I understand it on a visceral level. Me, I can’t get so upset, so worked up about the insufferable indignities of air travel. It takes too much energy.

Nor am I the opposite—filled with wonder at the physics, engineering, and economics that make air travel possible. For me, it’s a given.

No, the flight—the journey as a whole—lets me enter this Zen state of not-caring and not-being. It’s almost a purification ritual, exhausting my body and clearing my mind before I land in a new place, ready to figure out who I’m going to be in Chengdu, or Tunis, or Ireland. I need it, and I need more of it.

An extra blanket and a mini-bottle of Scotch wouldn’t hurt, either.

Relativity and Travel

“Every day, people are moving; they are doing things like climbing stairs. It’s interesting to think about — are frequent flyers getting younger [because they move so much] or aging faster [because they spend so much time in the air]?”

James Chin-wen Chou, physicist, MIT, quoted in Wired

A Slow Start

I’m Matt Gross, a food and travel writer who works for publications such as Saveur, Afar,, and the New York Times, where I wrote the Frugal Traveler column from 2006 to 2010 and where I’ve recently begun a new regular series, “Getting Lost.” This blog, “The Minor Glories,” is supposed to be a kind of supplement to all of that, a way to talk about the zillions of interesting things that, for one reason or another, don’t make it into my longer articles.

(The blog’s name comes from an article I wrote for WorldHum, “The Minor Glories of Constant Motion.” Also, it sounds like the name of a band, and since I’ll never be in an actual band, I’m going to use it here.)

What will you find on “The Minor Glories”? Well, not much straight-up travel writing, probably. The big stories of international adventure and intrigue are generally the kinds of things I get commissioned to write for newspapers and magazines, so you’ll find them there, not here.

Here you’ll get something entirely different: the leftovers and cutouts, the interstitial moments, the behind-the-scenes sausage-making that produces those glossy, polished features. Here I might post beloved fragments of stories that didn’t make the final draft, or I might elaborate on my strategies for “Getting Lost.” I’ll probably discuss my researching, writing, and editing techniques, most often as a way of procrastinating the actual research, writing, and editing. And I’d like especially to answer questions about the travel-writer life from you, my beloved readers. (Post them in comments or e-mail them to worldmatt at worldmatt dot org.)

Frankly, I have no idea where this whole thing is headed. I write a lot—my travel and food stories, plus the parenting blog—so I don’t want to promise that this site will be updated constantly. But it might be! Lately I’m enjoying not knowing what the future will bring, so I’d like to invite you to join me on this minor-key journey into the not-yet-known.