Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Come for the salmon and natural beauty, stay for the white nationalism

This piece by David Lewis about a white nationalist convention in Seattle is something:

Seattle had somehow gone from virtually no open racists (although I’ve worked retail at places with pretty open whites only management policies) to being the kind of place to which you’d travel all the way from Sweden to study a new style of racism….

Former skinhead movements fizzled out because, in addition to requiring fanatical racism from their followers, they also required severe lifestyle changes like going off to live in survivalist compounds or being a Nazi 24/7. The Johnson Seattle approach to racism is more like, “let’s get a cake for Hitler’s birthday after picking the kids up from soccer practice,” making it more compatible with the way a lot of these people already live and the way they grew up.

Between this and the Buzzfeed article about Milo, it seems clear that while in most circles it’s still socially unacceptable to be openly white nationalist, they’re trying hard to change that.

Marina Hyde on the Tory conference

I don’t always read Marina Hyde, but her piece on the recent Tory conference in Manchester– “From Boris the Lion King to Theresa May’s P45 – my malarial week at the Tory conference“– is hilarious in that way a deeply partisan piece (think P. J. O’Rourke) can be.

Though when you have Boris Johnson as a target, it’s hard to go wrong.

He’s not so much a cabinet minister as an event horizon.

Almost entirely because of Boris, the Tories now resemble a franchise of the reality-TV show Real Housewives: a cast of behaviourally incontinent people with zero idea of how to act when people are looking at them, with the most ambitious star seemingly having decided that conflict is winsome. Boris’s May-undermining Sun interview on the eve of conference was the intellectual equivalent of pouring a whisky sour over the head of someone called Cristee, yet was analysed as though it were one of Talleyrand’s more complex gambits. According to what one cabinet minister told the FT: “Boris’s own psychology is a matter of infinite fascination.” Only to Boris, surely.

As a bonus, there’s this bit about Katie Hopkins:

No one could fail to salute whichever Tory brain judged that this already toxic conference would benefit from issuing a guest pass to Katie Hopkins. It’s akin to surveying survivors of the Lusitania and thinking: you know what would really lift the spirits round here? A visit from Typhoid Mary. For reasons I briefly considered looking up, Katie had got herself up in a full wedding dress for her turn at a fringe event. All that effort and still only the second most irksome and publicity-crazed blond at conference.

It’s kind of nice, in a heaving-a-sigh-of-relief-that-it’s-not-your-trainwreck-for-once kind of way, to read this kind of thing from across the Pond.

Dogs and cats in Europe

While I was in Copenhagen week before last, I came across a cat while heading to a friend’s house for lunch:

Cat

Then a couple days later, I ran into this cat at the book stalls in Amsterdam:

Open air book stalls

I also crossed paths with a couple dogs.

Open air book stalls

I always like seeing animals when I travel, if only because they remind me of my own pets back home.

Amsterdam city center

This is not bike parking this is art

Spotted at Papirøen:

This is not bike parking this is art

Art can be confusing, I suppose.

Back in Copenhagen

During my travels in Europe week before last, I spent a couple days in Copenhagen, which is one of my favorite cities.

Copenhagen

I’ve not been back there in a few years, so it was good it see it again. It’s a wonderfully civilized city, and I love its blend of history and modernity (Danish design being one of the high points of the 20th century in my opinion).

Copenhagen

And of course, as am American who likes to cycle, I find the bike culture wonderful and irresistible. This was rush hour on Wednesday afternoon:

Rush hour

Indeed, bikes are kind of a constant photographic subject when you’re there.

Copenhagen

This time I was staying at a hotel called Wakeup Copenhagen, on the Borgergarde, and just as important, across the street from the now world-famous burger joint, Gasoline Grill.

Gasoline Grill

They really are fabulous burgers.

Gasoline Grill

After giving a talk at a conference on the future of work, I had a free day, and spent it wandering around the city, and met up with a friend and went over to Papirøen (Paper Island).

Copenhagen

Papirøen is a former newsprint warehouse turned street food venue. It’s in the same general part of the city as Noma, and is a big part of the burgeoning Copenhagen gourmet food scene (a very odd sentence to write, but there it is.)

Paper Island street food

I went with the ostrich burger, not because I have any particular hostility towards ostriches or because eating ostrich was on my bucket list; but how many times does one have the opportunity?

The best ostrich burger in Copenhagen

It was a very cool scene, and very nice to get reacquainted with the city. I hope it’s not another ten years before I’m back there again!

Utrecht and Happinez festival

My second talk at the Happinez festival

I was in Europe for about ten days at the end of September. I used to blog about trips in near real-time, but what little real-time reportage I do from the road now tends to happen on Facebook; so this is a chance to catch up on the trip as a whole.

I spent three days at the Happinez Festival in Utrecht, then the following week was all over, giving talks in Geneva, Copenhagen, and Luxembourg; then it was back to Amsterdam, and home. If there’s a way to solve the traveling salesman problem to get the least optimal result, I think I found it.

The Happinez Festival is a biennial festival put on by Happinez magazine. It’s held in a nineteenth-century fort that’s been converted into a concert and event venue, which was fascinating. The walk to the venue is very pleasant, and takes you through some classic Dutch countryside.

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For three days, the place gets transformed.

Happinez Festival

The fact that it’s a fort made for some interesting moments.

Happinez Festival

The green room for speakers, for example, is located in what used to be a gunpowder magazine.

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I spoke on all three days, to crowds that were satisfyingly large, and more important, pretty engaged and interested.

Day 1 of the Happinez Festival

We also did book signings after each talk.

I’d love one day to understand the dynamics behind book signings– in particular how you can have large numbers of people one day, then nobody the next!

My third talk at the Happinez festival

I also got to see a bit of the city, as I wandered down to the cathedral and university.

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Utrecht is an amazingly pretty place, and while it doesn’t have the amazing concentration of cultural monuments that Amsterdam has, it’s still a great place to walk around. (Few cities are as dense with world-class museums and architecture as Amsterdam, anyway.)

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Maybe I’m just getting older, but I appreciate well-kept, prosperous, stable cultures more and more– which means I really enjoy my time in places like the Netherlands and Nordic countries.

However, some things continue to mystify me. The wide variety of things available at the hotel breakfast to put on food that turn out not to be butter but instead unknown varieties of spreadable cheese, for example:

Absolutely none of these is butter, it turns out

But other than that the hotel the speakers were staying in (the Hotel Mitland) was great.

Hotel Mitland

My room had a terrific view for working.

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It was an interesting experience to give the same talk three times, on three consecutive days. It did mean that I was able to refine my remarks to an unusual degree, and sharpen both the points I was making and the delivery. Usually, if you’re diligent you take notes on what you’ve said, how it went over, etc., but there’s a 50-50 chance that you’ll forget or lose those notes; this time, having 24 hours between talks meant I was able to incorporate the feedback a lot more quickly.

 

Dealing with rejection is a writer’s most important professional skill

Well, maybe it’s not more important than having something to say, a command of their language, and the ability to edit and improve, but still, the ability to tolerate rejection and keep going is absolutely critical to anyone who wants to publish. Anjali  Enjeti’s Atlantic essay “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After 10 Years” does a nice job of making this clear.

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade….

Today, six manuscripts languish on my laptop—two nonfiction books, two novels, and two picture books. My older children are now teens, and my youngest, the one I was pregnant with when I started this journey, a fourth grader. In the meantime, I’ve managed to forge a rewarding career as a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. My essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in publications I could never have dreamed of writing for: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The Guardian, and NBC. Despite all this, I’m no closer to getting a book deal.

Stories like these aren’t that uncommon among well-known writers: Ray Bradbury, for example, spent ten years writing before he finally created a story that he knew was good. And who knows how many person-years are spent on never-published works: every published author has a book or two that they spend some time on but abandon, and there are countless people who never get that far.

And Enjeti isn’t someone who hasn’t been able to publish other work: she’s got lots of articles in magazines, book reviews, and the like. Again, this isn’t so unusual: in her essay she talks about a fellow book reviewer and editor who hasn’t been able to get his book represented.

I’m starting to work seriously on the proposal for my fourth book, and while I have a great relationship with my publisher, there’s always the chance that this could be a long, drawn-out process. At least a dozen editors rejected Rest out of hand, and I had interviews with half a dozen who passed on it; and it’s not that they were dumb, or cruel, but that their calculation was that the book wouldn’t work in their list, or sell enough copies.

However, ultimately I ended up at Basic, with a great editor, and that made up for all the rejections. I learned two things from the experience. First, you’ve gotta be able to accept the rejections, learn what you can, and keep going. Second, this is like getting married. It’s flattering to get five offers; but all you need is the one great one.

Enjeti ends on an upbeat note:

Despite not getting a book deal after 10 years, I’m happy with the career I’ve built. Rejections still flood my inbox, but my smaller successes go a long way toward offsetting the disappointment…. My dream of seeing one of my books sitting on a shelf in a library will never fade completely. Maybe in a few months I’ll ramp up my submissions again. Maybe I’ll maintain this slower approach for the rest of my life. But for now, I’m doing what works for me. It’s not the ending I’d hoped for, but it’s a happier, more balanced path.

This sense of balance is essential. If you invest really heavily in your identity as a certain kind of author, you’re likely to end up disappointed. Books aren’t like professional degrees; they’re more like 500-page lottery tickets. There’s a chance you’ll hit it bit, but it’s a small chance; and if you accept that at the outset, and have other things in your life, you’re going to be able to be a lot more philosophical.

“An easy subject, at which very few excel”

A line from Keynes’ obituary of Marshall, about the intellectual qualities necessary to be a good economist:

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialised gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher-in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

This is a pretty good description of the skills you have to possess to be a futurist, too!

Archival work as strategic wandering

I’m in Corvallis for a couple days, doing some work at Oregon State University. My son is here for a rugby camp (how we raised a pair of athletes is beyond me, but I’m glad we did), and I decided to hang here and do some stuff rather than spend an extra 20 hours driving back to California, then returning to collect him.

The Oregon State library is excellent: the main building dates from the 1960s and they had a major remodel and expansion in the 1990s, so it’s all light wood and collaborative workspaces.

Scenes from Corvallis and Oregon State

The special collections room is especially nice: light, airy, and with a great view of the Library Quad, one of three (!) quads at OSU.

Scenes from Corvallis and Oregon State

Pauling looms in the special collections. Now, the Pauling papers itself is absolutely vast– thousands of boxes, everything from his research notebooks to DVDs of interviews, covering 70-odd years of his professional life– but the dude is everywhere. Like right outside the front door:

Scenes from Corvallis and Oregon State

And he should be: Pauling (OSU ’22) is the only person to win two solo Nobel Prizes, and only one of four people ever to win two. Plus, the collection is absolutely beautifully maintained: meticulously cataloged, fanatically well-documented, and super-accessible. It’s a dream.

I came here looking for two things, one of which I figured I’d probably find material on, the other of which was a total crapshoot, and of course 1) is a total bust, and 2) is the success.

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Dunkirk and different forms of heroism

My family and I saw Dunkirk late last week, and I spent the next couple days turning it over in my head. It is, of course, a really great movie, as you would expect from Nolan, and one that does a certain amount of time-bending and bobbing and weaving with narrative. The performances are terrific, and the end of the film is just wonderfully bold.

But Dunkirk also defies virtually every wartime movie convention. There’s no movie reel explication, no character has their backstory detailed in conversations over rations or a bottle of wine found in an abandoned farmhouse, the politicians and generals are completely absent; all that’s left is people, many of whom look pretty similar (uniforms and haircuts will do that), trying to escape the machinery of war.

And, as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams points out in her essay “Dunkirk offers a lesson – but it isn’t what Nigel Farage thinks,”* trying to help each other escape the machinery of war:

the emotional heart of the event has nothing to do with battle – give or take a bit of dogfighting – and everything to do with generosity; unarmed sailors saving strangers for no better reason than that they needed to be saved…. Up close, all you can see in a thousand small boats, defenceless against the skies, is what Thatcher dismissed as the “soft virtues”: humility, gentleness, sympathy. Of her “vigorous virtues” – self-sufficiency, independence, rectitude – almost none.

Indeed, that is the immediate legacy of war: that self-reliance is revealed as not just a myth but a peculiarly unattractive one, thin and tasteless against the richness of fellowship. The mood of postwar Britain was the one that built the NHS, created social housing and signed up to the UN refugee convention. If anything is ever learned from bloodshed, and it would be better if we didn’t have to learn it repeatedly, it’s that there is no fit memorial to those who gave their lives but near infinite generosity between those who didn’t.

This reminds me a lot of Harry Leslie Smith’s writing about the legacy of World War II, and how at fantastic cost his generation built a postwar world that was not only peaceful, but incomparably fairer, more secure, and more prosperous for everyone, most especially people who had grown up poor during the Depression (as he had). Dunkirk, unlike most war movies, isn’t mainly about action and killing; it’s mainly about saving people. Even the dogfights are about shooting down German planes that otherwise would strafe and bomb British soldiers and ships, which makes it more like the action on the ground.

It also reminds me of some reading I’ve been doing on heroism, and how to think about it. In a series of essays (this one on “The Banality of Heroism,” is easily accessible), Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo argues that people who act heroically voluntarily risk life and limb, or reputation or honor (as whistleblowers and reformers do); that they often have to actively navigate and overcome obstacles to undertake those acts; that they do so without expectation of reward, or even much expectation that their acts will be remembered. Heroism isn’t just something you exhibit on the battlefield or fighting criminals; it’s a quality people exhibit when standing up for justice, or opposing popular but wrong points of view, or rescuing stranded soldiers and allies.

So you go into Dunkirk expecting military heroism, and witness a very different sort: that kind of heroism exhibited by the first responders in the World Trade Center who risked life and limb to help people get out, or the heroism of people who help rescue strangers during an earthquake or flash flood. But better than most movies, Dunkirk makes the case that both varieties of heroism deserve our respect.

* (Of course, “It’s not what Nigel Farage thinks” is one of those lines that typesetters would be able to set in their sleep; they wouldn’t even need to think about where in their trays they’d need to reach for the correct letters, they’d done it so often.)

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