Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

“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.)

Do kids’ over scheduled lives crowd out grandparents?

My son was at a rugby tournament today (a Sunday), at a field that was a couple hours’ drive. So when I came across this piece by Louis M. Profeta I took notice:

Some years back, I wrote a piece that went viral, “Your Kid and My Kid Are Not Playing in the Pros,” and I got more than a thousand e-mails about the article. Most were supportive, some not, but what I was completely unprepared for was the correspondence I received from grandparents. For the most part, they were all absolutely heartbreaking. The central theme was that they did not know their grandchildren because travel sports had robbed them of weekends and Sunday night dinners and countless other opportunities to interact. Going to their baseball games in the middle of the summer — or sitting in a loud gym — was just not a bonding experience for them; it was physically exhausting. Besides, you can’t talk about rationing sugar during the war, or marching on the mall, or sitting through the Watergate hearings between timeouts. It doesn’t work like that, that’s not enough.

I’ve had plenty of Saturdays or Sundays where I was in the car for hours with kids, but the piece makes me wonder to what degree overscheduling kids’ lives comes at the expense of extended family. In these very highly scheduled lives, do we deepen horizontal connections with teams and interest groups but unintentionally weaken connections between generations?

When you serve the dogs dinner but forget dessert

Apparently tonight’s menu was incomplete, because my English Labrador dove through the recycles until he found a discarded ice cream container.

Moments in the life of Davis

Fortunately it was empty.

Social media, populism, and Charlie Gard

Ranjana Das, a senior lecturer at Surrey University, is looking at the way social media was used in the Charlie Gard case, and has an interesting post on “Social media and Charlie Gard: populism versus public services?“.

The social media furore around the Gard case has been startling, and offers much to reflect on, in terms of the kind of public discussion and debate that has occurred around medical ethics, healthcare and the very role of the NHS in British public life. By employing some classic markers of populism, the ‘army’ has demonstrated a kind of ‘networked populism’ which has co-opted evidence-based debate into the territory of heightened, emotive responses between and across strangers. These have ranged from genuine anguish and expressions of sorrow, to the use of terminology from the Third Reich to characterise doctors, lawyers and clinicians, and to displaying overwhelming emotions of feeling at one with and attached to the real-time tweeting of court hearings, almost as though these were televisual narratives unfolding.

For an American, part of what’s interesting and puzzling about this case is how “Charlie’s Army” came to turn on the NHS, and talk about it as an unaccountable elite ignoring the will of the people, as opposed to an institution that’s central to the postwar British state and social contract between the UK and its subjects– a very “populist” institution.

Roger Cohen and Michael Lewis on deconstructing the administrative state

Washington Monument and Capitol

Two pieces caught my eye today about the current state of the government, and how the administration, when it’s not walking away from its latest rage-induced self-harm, is doing real damage to our institutions and the expertise they contain.

First, in the New York Times, Roger Cohen writes about “The Desperation of Our Diplomats:”

An American jewel is at stake, a place where honorable patriots take an oath to the Constitution — that is to say, to the rule of law, representative governance and the democratic processes that, with conspicuous failings but equally conspicuous bravery, United States diplomats have sought to extend across the world. They have done so in the belief that humanity, in the long run, will benefit from freedom. Since 1945, liberty has extended its reach. But now, at a time of growing great-power rivalry, a diminished State Department leaves a vacuum Russia and China will fill.

Second, Vanity Fair has a long piece by Michael Lewis about what’s happening to the Department of Energy under Rick Perry, who seemed surprised to discover that the DOE mainly does stuff with nuclear weapons, not oil exploration:

Donald Trump’s secretary of energy, Rick Perry, once campaigned to abolish the $30 billion agency that he now runs, which oversees everything from our nuclear arsenal to the electrical grid. The department’s budget is now on the chopping block. But does anyone in the White House really understand what the Department of Energy actually does? And what a horrible risk it would be to ignore its extraordinary, life-or-death responsibilities?

The piece makes a couple things really clear. DOE deals with some incredibly hard and technically complicated issues, and has attracted people competent to deal with them– but the current administration seems to barely care about the world’s nuclear problems (except for North Korea, which they want to outsource to China, since we’ve outsourced so much else to them). Second, there are big problems that have traditionally been hard for anyone to get a grasp on, that the administration is likely to ignore or make worse.

I’ve long liked Michael Lewis, and thought his reporting on the aftermath of the financial crisis was one of the only good things to come from the meltdown. So I’m a little worried that someone who’s so good about writing about catastrophes caused by a mix of greed, hubris, self-interested short-sightedness, that play out in a way to does virtually no harm to those who created it but great harm to everyone else, is now writing about the state of the federal government.

Then again, maybe it’ll be Moneyball Michael Lewis writing, and it’ll turn into an uplifting story about how a bunch of rebels and misfits changed the game. But I doubt it.

My new writing desk

In my garage office I have a standing desk (actually a shelf in my Ikea bookcase). Most of the time it’s awesome, but sometimes I do like to sit down. To support this I’ve slowly added wireless devices that I can use while sitting– a repurposed keyboard from an iPad, and a trackball. Today, I discovered the perfect lap desk to put them on: a bamboo cutting board, liberated from the kitchen.

New lap desk: a bamboo cutting board from the kitchen.

It’s just the right size, and if I end up being both more productive and a little hungrier, I can live with that.

Do spiders have extended minds?

For years I’ve been fascinated by the “extended minds” thesis, the claim that we should regard our minds not as confined to our brains, but including brains, bodies and technologies. (Andy Clark, author of Natural Born Cyborgs, is one influential exponents of the concept.) It’s an idea that guided my book The Distraction Addiction: my contention that we shouldn’t regard technologies as inherently dehumanizing, but instead should be see the best of them as tools we use to become better versions of ourselves, builds on the idea of extended minds.

So I clicked pretty quickly when I saw an article titled “Does a Spider Use Its Web Like You Use Your Smartphone? on The Atlantic Web site. It turns out that for almost the last decade, Brazilian biologist Hilton Japyassú has been conducting experiments on spiders, learning how they use their webs to sense the world and solve unfamiliar problems. He and a colleague now argue that “a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.”

The whole article, which touches on octopus cognition, other spider species, and Haller’s Rule, is worth reading.

And here’s the abstract from the essay “Extended Spider Cognition” by Hilton Japyassú and Kevin Laland:

There is a tension between the conception of cognition as a central nervous system (CNS) process and a view of cognition as extending towards the body or the contiguous environment. The centralised conception requires large or complex nervous systems to cope with complex environments. Conversely, the extended conception involves the outsourcing of information processing to the body or environment, thus making fewer demands on the processing power of the CNS. The evolution of extended cognition should be particularly favoured among small, generalist predators such as spiders, and here, we review the literature to evaluate the fit of empirical data with these contrasting models of cognition. Spiders do not seem to be cognitively limited, displaying a large diversity of learning processes, from habituation to contextual learning, including a sense of numerosity. To tease apart the central from the extended cognition, we apply the mutual manipulability criterion, testing the existence of reciprocal causal links between the putative elements of the system. We conclude that the web threads and configurations are integral parts of the cognitive systems. The extension of cognition to the web helps to explain some puzzling features of spider behaviour and seems to promote evolvability within the group, enhancing innovation through cognitive connectivity to variable habitat features. Graded changes in relative brain size could also be explained by outsourcing information processing to environmental features. More generally, niche-constructed structures emerge as prime candidates for extending animal cognition, generating the selective pressures that help to shape the evolving cognitive system.

“To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete”

Dylan Hernandez has an excellent piece in the New York Times about class and the SATs. Hernandez grew up in Flint, Michigan, in a working-class family, and talks about spending time in a summer program at Phillips Exeter.

His classmates that summer were in the main from families that were far better-off, and were “impossibly sporty, charming and intelligent, with perfect smiles and impeccably curated Instagram profiles,” as well as “truly interesting people.” But he was surprised to find that they were also serious SAT grinds:

The majority of low- and middle-income 11th graders I know in Michigan didn’t even sit for the preliminary exams. Most took the SAT cold. Few were privy to the upper-middle-class secret I discovered that summer: To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete….

Don’t get me wrong. My newfound friends worked extremely hard, but they also seemed to have access to a formula for success that had been kept from the rest of us. It just wasn’t something our overworked guidance counselors could teach.

As a result, all the drilling they did for an exam that is supposed to be an equalizer in ranking students according to raw test-taking skills was only widening the American achievement gap.

This seems to me a pretty accurate reflection of the way advantage and merit work in America today: most kids from advantaged backgrounds work hard to leverage the benefits of their upbringing; but they still enjoy those advantages.

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