#167: Fault Tolerance

I got lost for the first time this trip. Not lost entirely, but far enough off course that it meant something.

Dad’s company is near Changhsu, an hour northwest of Shanghai. “It’s not a very big city,” Dad says on our way in. “It only has a couple million people.”

His right hand, Timo, gives me a tour of the spacious warehouse on the outskirts of town, with its umbilicals suspended twelve feet above, snaking electricity and hydraulic air down to the assembly zones. There are striped-tape walkways on the ground and a laminated sign with a “Number of parts manufactured since last defect” number written on it. There are welding boxes, chemical hisses, employees in safety glasses and company polos. There are rooms in the corners: one for air, one for power, one with barrels of oil. “Rooms for the elements,” Timo says.

I marvel at the amount of precision and coordination required for all this, required to manufacture a single dynamite-stick-sized part to go into an automobile made up of thousands of such parts. Multiply by the number of manufacturers that produce the same essential component with slight variations. Multiply again by the different makes and models of cars. Then factor in the way these parts must all work in unison, with fault tolerances measured in millimeters … and then trying to comprehend the scale and coordination required to make a motor vehicle even run – it’s downright astonishing. And equally, if not more astonishing: How fault-accepting and forgiving living bodies seem in comparison.

The next day, while Dad’s at the office again, I take a cab to Yúshān (虞山) – Yu Mountain – named after what a lot of places are named after, here, and everywhere: an official or mayor or regent; a member of an old dynasty. Yushan has on it several circular tombs – one belonging to a disciple of Confucius – and old buddhist temples with napping ticket collectors. The mountain is spotted, too, with sunlit tea fields that smell (surprisingly) strongly of tea. Several tea houses too, terraced things with views of the Yangtze, and when you order tea they’ll bring out a chair and folding table and thermos of hot water, and you can sit there with your Kindle and glass of longjing and think about how hot it is.

I took a bus up to the top and, as has become somewhat routine for me on trips like these, I end up accidently coming down a different path. I pass small stone chambers built into the side of the mountain, as if people millenia ago decided to renovate their caves. I see simple altars dripping with red wax, smelling faintly of incense. Some cave-rooms are gated by large boulders suspended across a … ravine? A seam in the cliff? I’m struggling to find the words not from awed speechlessness but rather because I don’t know the names of mountain features. One spot looks like peach pits wedged between two blocks of moldy cheese. A small arch looks like a peg-legged sea captain, or an elephant with a droopy trunk. Every place seems to have more than one trail leading to/away from it.

The way down is made of rough stone steps that are just smooth enough and far enough apart that they demand my full attention. It’s easier to go up than down; I have to concentrate not to slip. I wasn’t expecting a hike, and every time I lose my footing it’s because I got distracted by a moving branch or palm-sized butterfly or errant thought, like wishing I’d worn my hiking boots. My leg upper muscles vibrate in the intense heat, it’s ends up being one of those hikes that takes either twenty minutes or two hours – it’s hard to tell which.

I make it down in one piece, as evidenced by my letter to you now. And that night, when we get back to Shanghai, I sleep for eleven hours straight.

Symbolic of something, I think. Though I’m not yet sure what.