Unemployed over Greenland

Hanging thirty thousand feet over Greenland

Alasdair Allan
Aug 31, 2013 · 4 min read
Westbound over Greenland looking down towards the ice flows and the shadow of the vapour trail of another aircraft paralleling our track.

I travel a lot. There, I’ve said it. Because somehow and to some people I seem to be admitting to a vice, a not quite proper thing I should be ashamed of, although I’m not entirely sure why..?

I grew up in a small town. Small towns in Britain are different from small towns in the States, but in their own way just as provincial and inward looking. I didn’t travel growing up, and didn’t feel the lack.

But my father used to work in heavy engineering in a branch of a US company concerned with oil and gas extraction. They had a bunch of Telex machines to keep in touch with the head office, I remember the chatter of the machines and the spools of paper tape very well.

Growing up where I was growing up, it was my first view of the outside world, the thought you could type there and it could be seen all the way across the planet in San Francisco was intoxicating. It was the first time I saw the world as an interconnected place.

Today we take being able to talk to someone on the other side of the planet for granted; worse perhaps we’re annoyed by it. I’m typing these words in my garden in an attempt hold on to the last of British summer. Where are you sitting when you read them?

The last of the summer

The flow of email, text and instant messaging, video calls and push notifications is overwhelming. Back then—when I was growing up—it was very different.

Around aged eight or nine my father took a trip States—to the head office of his company—and in the four weeks he was away we heard from him just three times. Two telephone calls, one when he arrived, and one when he was leaving, both times the call was just a few seconds long. Enough to tell us he was well and to make sure we were. Telephone calls were expensive, international telephone calls were inconceivably expensive, and not entirely reliable.

We also recieved a postcard, a few words scrawled on the back of a piece of cardboard. That was the sum total of it, under a minute of audio and less than a dozen words.That wasn’t unusual, although it seems almost inconceivable these days.

Now when I travel the flow of email doesn’t slacken,and I probably talk to my wife more than I do when I’m at home—telephone calls are cheap, or in fact basically free—and without noticing it video calling, something that “never caught on” arrived and became part of daily life without people really noticing.

But despite the changes in technology, the best way to talk to people is still face-to-face, and because of this I spend a lot of my time sitting in a chair in the sky.

Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, oh my God, wow you’re flying, you’re, you’re sitting in a chair in the sky… but it doesn’t go back a lot. — Louis C.K.

Most of the travel I do involves me crossing the pond, and I’ve spent more time than I care to recall watching Godthab—the sole point of interest for at least a thousand miles—slowly move across the in-flight tracking display on the seatback video screen.

The amount of flying I do varies wildly year-to-year, but this year I’ll have watched Godthab slide across the screen more than a dozen times before the year draws to a close. That’s a lot of time unemployed over Greenland.

Vizzini: And you… Do you want me to send you back to where you were? Unemployed in Greenland! — The Princess Bride (1987)

Except that I’m not—unemployed that is—Paul Graham talks about avoiding distractions and, at least for now, thirty thousand feet over Greenland is one of the few places in the world with no distractions.

There’s only so many times you can watch the in-flights movies—if you fly enough it’s the same in-flight movies you had on the last flight in any case—so when boredom finally sets in properly, you’re forced to spend some uninterrupted time thinking. Something I’m paid to do but people try and distract me from for some reason.

I’m actually not looking forward to the widespread availability of on-board Wi-Fi on international flights, it’s just one more distraction, and will put an end to the thinking time I current get while unemployed over Greenland.

Because distractions are too easy to come by, for instance I just spent half and hour writing this post, mainly because I want to tell people about my growing obsession with Godthab.

Alasdair Allan

Written by

Scientist, Author, Hacker, Maker, and Journalist. Currently freelance, building, breaking, and writing. For hire. You can reach me at 📫 alasdair@babilim.co.uk.

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