LGP Stories

Personal Stories from DLGP

Beauty in Complexity

Written by: on November 12, 2018

Street Directions in Hong Kong

Most of my days are spent finding ways to more efficiently move data from one place to another. In website development we live and die by the reality that if our site doesn’t start to load within 3 seconds people move on to the next site. In this light processing data faster becomes an obsession. Complexity slows things down, so programming is all about making a complex thing as simple as possible, but not too simple, to get the job done. The computer scientist David Gelernter is quoted as saying, “Beauty is more important in computing than anywhere else in technology because software is so complicated. Beauty is the ultimate defense against complexity.”1

Leaving for Hong Kong was difficult for me. I didn’t know what to expect, I was nervous about meeting people, and I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing any of this in the first place. Hong Kong is the most densely populated city in the world, so I was expecting crowds and traffic – complexity. Doctoral research is complicated. The foster system, which I will be writing my dissertation on, is complicated. While all of these things are complex in their own way, what I learned about them and myself is that within the complexity there can be beauty.

When people ask me about my experience in Hong Kong I will almost always refer back to the concept of efficiency. As mentioned before Hong Kong is the most densely populated city in the world, but in spite of that reality things moved without the gridlock one might expect. For example the Mass Transit Railway system (MTR) is very widely used. It can be crowded, but in spite of that it runs with a near German precision. The train arrives, one crowd gets off, the next gets on, and the train is off again. The train is efficient, but so are the people. Everyone knows the routine, except possibly our visiting horde of westerners, and they follow it, which results in efficiency. We were told that even the escalators in the train stations move faster than normal to more efficiently move people in and out of the station. The combination of the cultural knowledge of how the trains run and the structural setup of the system (faster escalators, on time trains, clear communication) serves to make what is a complex situation into an elegant solution.

On October 1 several of us went down to the waterfront to watch the fireworks celebrating the National Day of the People’s Republic of China. We were in a plaza surrounded by several thousand people. As I looked around at the crowd I expected that it would take half an hour at least for the crowd to disperse. The fireworks show ended and within ten minutes everyone was gone, except for our little group of Americans (and one Canadian). We walked back to the train with a crowd, but not a crush, of people. As we stepped on the train to go back to our hotel it was nearly empty. The network of walking bridges throughout Hong Kong made it possible for people to move quickly out of the plaza and disperse to where they were going.


I tend to find orientations only mildly helpful. Most of my learning happens when I start to dive into whatever it is the orientation was intended for. The orientation classes this time around were helpful. Once again I saw a very complex thing, doctoral research, broken down into a less complex path. The work will still be complex, but the process of seeing it organized and summarized overcame that complexity. In its own way the organization of the program was beauty overcoming complexity.

Lastly, my research topic of foster care I haven’t touched yet, but it is the lessons of how complexity can be made efficient and beautiful that is driving my move forward. Learning that every writing opportunity is a chance to explore my topic was helpful. Learning where to lean in and where to skim over was helpful.

These things I’ve taken from the time in Hong Kong and they are helping me to explore my life and my research in new and fascinating ways.

1 David Gelernter, “Programming quotes by David Gelernter | defprogramming” Accessed November 9, 2018, http://www.defprogramming.com/quotes-by/david-gelernter/


About the Author

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

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