Crunching Numbers

There are things you come to a country to see, the things that reveal a country’s character, or a part of its history, things that are beautiful and lovely to stand in front of and absorb (but also the things you’re supposed to see),

and then there are the things that do the same, but which are raw, honest, a shock, sometimes, to the system (the things you avoid at all cost),

but which can sometimes fascinate, or give a glimspe into the less-than-glamorous workings of how we live.

You wouldn’t expect to be able to cruise along the inner harbour of the port of Rotterdam – the third largest port in the world. But you can, and we did. We cruised from the city centre along the first 8 km of the harbour, which is small potatoes, compared to the rest of the 25 km to the North Sea. And we saw a glimpse of a glimpse of how much we consume, and what it takes for it to get to us.

Boats of all sizes come into the Rotterdam Harbour,

all 33 km of it, and the closer you get to the sea, the bigger the ships and the harbours get. I’ve stood at the pier at Hoek van Holland countless times, watching the freighters and supertankers come in from places like China and Madagascar and Norway and head out again. I did the math once on a small freighter, and came out, conservatively, at over a thousand containers per ship, and thought I’d accidentally added a zero. Did the math on a big one, like this one,

and came out at around 7000 (23 rows times 20 across times 15 deep). Not such a big one, it turns out (though it seemed incomprehensibly massive), because there are ones that can carry over 15 000, and there’s a rumour that they’re designing a ship so big that it’ll run aground in the Suez Canal, but able to carry 33 000 containers.

The Economist has an article this week on the humble container and how it’s single-handedly altered trade, and our consumption patterns (or is that the other way around? Chicken, egg... hard to tell), and if you like numbers, it’s an interesting article to read.

Rotterdam is expanding its harbour, in true, Dutch style, by creating land from the sea. If you build it, they will come, is the logic, I guess. A logic that the Dutch economy depends on, ironic as it may seem to have the world’s third largest harbour in one of the world’s smallest and most densely-populated countries.

If the ships are getting bigger, I wonder if the smaller ones – the mid-sized ones, like the ones that ‘only’ carry a thousand containers – will disappear. And if they do, what’ll happen to the inner harbour... will it be turned into housing, maybe, or ‘creative space’? Probably. Because as the harbour expands, so will Rotterdam.

It’s a formula, an interweaving of factors (economic expansion = increase in population = increase in housing, which in turn expands the economy) I find fascinating. I loved math in high school, though possibly because there was only ever one right answer to the kinds of questions we did (any mathematician reading this will probably laugh at the naiveté). The older I get, the more I realize that that’s not the case, even in something as answer-bound as math. But there’s something appealing, satisfying, even, about doing the math and, in the numbers, seeing the future laid out before you, whether you like what you see or not.