Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

The Women Who Made Male Astronomers’ Ambitions Possible

A nice, unexpected piece by Erin Blakemore in JSTOR Daily about “The Women Who Made Male Astronomers’ Ambitions Possible,” which talks about my research on Elizabeth Campbell and women’s work in astronomical expeditions:

They lived on mountains and watched the stars. They hiked through the jungle to observe eclipses. They were the women who helped late nineteenth-century astronomers on their expeditions. Historian Alex Soojung Kim-Pang writes about them in Osiris, raising important questions about how women’s labor has made it possible for men to do scientific research.

My scholarly history off science work feels both like it’s a long time ago, and still very close; it’s nice to see it still get read now and then.

American R&B songwriters are crafting K-pop hits

BTS in Shoreditch. (Usually there were KoreN tourists taking selfies in front of this!)

I discovered K-pop a couple years ago, and it’s slowly worked its way into my workout playlist, the music I listen to when I walk the dogs, etc. I don’t speak Korean (much to my grandmother’s disgust), but I’ve always appreciated the work that goes into the music.

Turns out, some of that work comes from American R&B writers who’be been pushed out of the US market: a decade ago,

paring down rapidly to keep pace with hip-hop, deemphasizing melodic complexity and embracing the austere loops and rhythmic cadences that often imbue rap with pummeling power. As a result, [writer Claude] Kelly remembers, “Suddenly, I didn’t have to write a bridge anymore.”

“People would say, leave that 16 bars, and we’ll get a rapper on it so we can make sure it gets on the radio,” continues Kelly. “Things that had a bridge, that were a little slower, that took more time to build and had more than two keyboard sounds, people got afraid of.”

Rap’s minimalist palette still rules much of American pop. But some writers with bridges to spare have found an unexpected – though not unwelcome – refuge in South Korea, where K-pop artists still treasure the songcraft that persisted in R&B’s mainstream until the early 2000s: Meaty chord changes, harmonic richness and a bridge that demands a singer demonstrate range and ad-libbing ability.

Another example of foreign companies taking our jobs, or appropriating African-American culture?

“Everyone is stealing from R&B; not everyone is giving credit to it,” says Kelly, who also wrote for Girls Generation. “I’m actually happy that the K-pop scene is so unapologetic about giving props to Nineties R&B for its influence – much more than our American pop does, much more than American hip-hop does, much more than American country music does.”

K-pop’s willingness to acknowledge its debts to R&B leads to an odd phenomenon for the genre’s ace writers – a feeling more familiar to American jazz musicians, who have long been valorized overseas and overlooked in their homeland. “It’s almost like you get more honor outside of your own country for what you do sometimes,” Kelly admits.

It’s also the case that, as is so often the case, the Korean product is more complicated than the thing that inspired it:

“Korean pop music likes differentiation and changes,” Bell continues. “The average American song is four melodies, maybe five. The average K-pop song is eight to 10. They are also very heavy in the harmonies.” “The one-loop beat doesn’t work over there,” adds [writer and producer Kevin] Randolph…. “You definitely get to stretch. No other style of music has that many parts in their songs.”

I also gotta check out songwriting camps, where people might generate a dozen demos in a week.

Monica Hesse on women voters

Great title:

Women are expected to swing this election — because, of course, we expect them to do everything

“With a lot of these philanthropists, you don’t know what the motives are or whether they’re going to be indicted in the next week“

I admit I don’t usually keep up with the philanthropy world, but this New York Times profile of Agnes Gund, an art collector and philanthropist, is really interesting:

Three years ago, Ms. Gund went to see Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.” She was so disturbed by its message about America’s racist system of mass incarceration that she went home, removed her most prized painting by Roy Lichtenstein from the walls, and sold it to Steven Cohen, a hedge fund investor, to the tune of $165 million.

Then, she took her money from that and — with her friend Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation — started “Art for Justice” that would serve as a bank and provide funds for artists in prison and for organizations working in the arena of criminal justice reform. (She has already funded it in excess of $100 million.)

Then there’s this classic line:

“With a lot of these philanthropists, you don’t know what the motives are or whether they’re going to be indicted in the next week,” said James Reginato, a writer at large at Vanity Fair. “Aggie personifies class in the old sense of the word. She’s unbesmirched by any kind of taint like so many of them. She’s universally adored.”

Dogs with jobs

When I was on my travels, I met several dogs who were helping people I interviewed. There was this dog doing graphic design:

Normally, with dog

Then there was this very good dog who joined us for a meeting.

Meeting the team members.

I was thinking about these dogs yesterday morning when I got up early to write, and had to deal with this:

Not a productivity enhancement.

There are worse problems to have. Still, it does make typing a challenge!

Thought of the day

Not a bad sentiment (spotted on a bicycle in Copenhagen):

Scenes from Copenhagen.

I’m in the middle of processing the interviews from my trip, and more generally trying to organize all the stuff I gathered, and getting pictures (like this one) together is part of that.

Greetings from Óbidos, Portugal; and reflections on travel and rest

Courtyard of the Pousada da Vila, Óbidos.

I’m in the courtyard of the Pousada da Vila in Óbidos, Portugal.  I’ve been in here at the invitation of FOLIO, an annual literary festival, where I’ve been talking about REST. I also gave a talk at the local technology park, which was an interesting experience— very different kinds of audiences and locations.

Copies of REST sighted in Óbidos.

This is just the beginning of my travels, though. I’m visiting Portugal, Scotland, Denmark, and England (in that order), giving three big talks, doing interviews or field visits at fourteen different places, and staying in eight— count them EIGHT— different hotels. But if I can get as much material gathered as I think I will during this trip, it’ll be worth it, and it’ll mean I can write the next book— or more important, FINISH the next book.

The trip will end with me speaking at the SOMNEX sleep show at the Old Truman Brewery in London on Sep 12-14. If you’re in town and interested in sleep, register here and use the promo code SPK40 at check-out— you’ll get 40% off the regular price.

These kinds of long trips make me think about how to apply deliberate rest to travel, and curious to know what ways others have found to make travel less stressful and harried. I find I can do some of my best thinking on planes, in the evenings after a long day and a walk, and that travel can stir up both useful old memories and generate new ideas.

Scenes from Óbidos.

(This bookstore, for example, reminds me a lot of the open-air book stalls that my dad used to drag me to in Rio in the evenings.)

There are people who have creative breakthroughs while away from home— the English scientist James Lovelock developed his Gaia hypothesis while on a series of visits to Caltech— or who use travel to acquire experiences that they draw upon in their work for years to come— this is why artists still do versions of the Grand Tour of Europe, and why cooks and fashion designers work in other countries.

For me, I’ve found that just as in my daily life, good prep work is essential for having a less stressful, more restful, trip.

I’ve recently gotten into the habit of using Google Calendar to record all my logistical stuff— confirmation numbers, directions about how to get from the airport to the hotel, notes about which bus to take to get to the next appointment, etc. (When I’m traveling on my own, I’m a terrible skinflint. Partly because I hate spending money, but also because I concluded a few years ago that I was essentially spending money to maintain ignorance: a taxi fare is the price of not having to know anything about the bus or subway system. But with Google Maps and apps like Citymapper, I can get direction for public transport most places I go. Likewise, I don’t eat out at restaurants all the time: I take more satisfaction from finding and navigating the local supermarket.)

Having all these directions, numbers, etc. in one place that’s easily accessible reduces the stress of getting around, and makes it a lot easier to retrieve information when I’m on the go.

In sfo, ready to go

Likewise, I’m super-careful about what I pack (though somehow I still managed to forget a couple small iPad accessories on this trip!). I don’t exactly aim to pack really light— for a weeks-long trip where you’re doing serious work and giving talks, that’s just not possible— but I do try to think through just what I need.

That also includes thinking about the things that’ll make me comfortable in multiple different hotels, of uncertain quality and with unknown amenities. For example, I discovered a couple years ago that taking a pair of sweatpants or shorts and a sweatshirt that I would just wear in the hotel improved my quality of life on the road immeasurably: being able to change from my regular clothes into them, declare that I’m done for the day, and spend a comfortable evening, is well worth the extra weight and space in the bag.

On the other hand, I’ve figured out how to travel without a laptop, which makes my bag several pounds lighter. (Thank you, iPad!)

All of this creates more space for rest, by reducing stress and the need to improvise or manage stuff on the road. Once I’m traveling, the key things I’ve discovered are: walk a lot for yourself, and don’t try to do TOO much.

Scenes around Óbidos.

I love taking walks after work (and being an oversized male, I can do that pretty much with impunity in the places I go): they’re great opportunities for both seeing the sights, and for doing some mind-wandering after work. I generally don’t have detailed routes and things I try to see on these walks (though I dislike getting lost), and more generally I don’t pack too much into my days: even in a new place I try to resist the urge to See It All Now, and try to remember that just spending time in a place is often just as rewarding as seeing the three most renowned altarpieces (or whatever) in the city.

Scenes around Óbidos.

I also try to build in some time to stop and gather my impressions. Though since it’s never a burden to stop at a cafe and write, this really isn’t a problem for me to schedule!

This afternoon I leave Portugal and fly to Glasgow, Scotland, where it’s currently about 50 degrees and raining. Any thoughts of Europe being some monolithic cultural and geographical entity go out the window when you go from the edge of the Mediterranean to the border of the North Sea.

Russell Square and the creative benefit of a little stability

I’m just back from a couple weeks in England, and while I spent some time in Cambridge (where my wife is a dean in a summer program) and Southampton (where I was doing some work in the Mountbatten papers), I was mainly in London, and staying in Russell Square.

Russell Square

I realized on this trip that I almost always stay in Russell Square, ever since I first visited London as a graduate student in 1989. I was doing my dissertation research, and discovered Goodenough College, a place near Russell Square that hosts international students and visiting scholars. (One of the features of academic life in London is that there are halls or “colleges”– essentially single buildings or groups of buildings– that aren’t connected exclusively to one institution, and so can have people who are studying at SOAS, LSE, etc. It’s like if there were a dorm in New York City that had students who were attending Columbia, NYU, Cooper Union, and CUNY.)

Goodenough College

Back then, it was attractive because it was cheap, though to be honest I barely remember the accommodations; I would get into the Royal Astronomical Society archive at opening time, stay until it closed, then stagger out mentally exhausted.

Royal Astronomical Society

But the habit of staying in Russell Square stuck me with me. It’s on the Piccadilly Line, so if you come in from Heathrow you just get on the Tube and ride it to the Russell Square station; if you need to get to Cambridge, it’s a short ride (or longer walk) to King’s Cross; and of course it’s the home of the British Museum, the Bloomsbury group, and the University of London and its various colleges.

British Museum

The last time I was here, my wife and I stayed in the Hotel Russell, a wonderful Victorian hotel; it’s since become The Prestige and charges 21st-century prices, so we opted for one of the many little places on Bedford Street (all of which are in converted townhouses, and almost all of which seem to be owned by the same company). My last couple nights, I tried something new, and through a service called University Rooms, found College Hall, a dorm that rents rooms to tourists during the summer. It turned out to be a great deal: yes, it’s a dorm so it’s a bit spartan in terms of accommodation, but it’s also literally up the block from the British Museum.

University of London

Staying in the one neighborhood has also proved to be a good strategy because it’s allowed me to get to know the area pretty well, and to know where to go for the cheap lunches, where the supermarket is, etc.. All too often you need up spending enormous amounts of money eating out because it feels like too much trouble to come up with alternatives; I’m very happy to eat and sleep more modestly if it means being able to stay in a place another day, or spend my money on other things (like tickets to the London Hamilton, which my wife and I went to).

Hamilton

There’s a very interesting study of the impact of living abroad on the creativity of fashion houses directors, and it concluded that living abroad can boost long-term creativity, so long as you can spend more of your time studying the local arts, honing your craft, etc., rather than learning the language and navigating the bureaucracy.

I think a similar principle can be applied to trips like these. Simply being in London is stimulating, lets me meet all kinds of cool people, and gets my creative juices flowing; I don’t need to additional cognitive work of figuring out where to get dinner, or trying to get to all the places that the guidebook says are the hottest new restaurants. (Living in the Bay Area helps a lot: if I want world-class [insert name of cuisine here], I can probably bike to it.) Simplifying the logistics of travel makes it easier for me to spend time on the things that will be more valuable.

Caffe Nero

The key to productivity

It seems to me that one of the simplest rules to follow when doing knowledge work (or symbolic analyzing, or being creative) is this: don’t try to work only on little things when your mind is able to do big things; and don’t try to work on big things when your mind is only able to do little things.

This is a simple principle but it’s amazing how easy it is to not follow, and how much better you can use your time if you do.

“A dog loves a person the way people love each other only while in the grip of new love”

Amid all the lousy news, a nice New York Times reflection about our relationships with dogs:

A dog loves a person the way people love each other only while in the grip of new love: with intense, unwavering focus, attentive to every move the beloved makes, unaware of imperfections, desiring little more than to be close, to be entwined, to touch and touch and touch.

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