I first noticed that something odd was happening around midday on Saturday, when Beijing passed the first of a series of unscientific measurements I use to take stock. First came the “indoor smog” test. When my wife and I walked into a mall in Beijing on Saturday, the air inside the vaulted-glass atrium had the color and weight of fog over a fishing village at dawn. We hadn’t noticed it before we got there because we’ve largely engineered our lives to avoid having to dwell on the issue. We live in a one-story house with windows that face the yard, in part because we discovered, years ago, that sweeping views from a high floor are just a daily reminder of all that you can’t see. We gave up running outside years ago and bought a treadmill, after a doctor-friend weighed the issue and concluded that running inside was better than going without exercise. This weekend, I climbed on the treadmill and wheezed to the end of a half an hour before deciding that we had now passed my next threshold: the “screw the treadmill” test.
By Sunday, Beijing was advising people not to leave their houses. The airport cancelled dozens of flights because pilots couldn’t see, and the capital ordered cars off the roads. Factories were shutting down, and the Web site of the environmental-monitoring center crashed….