Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Jamie Oliver and the economics of publishing

Jamie's Italian restaurant

This little factoid in the New York Times profile of Jamie Oliver stood out for me:

Books, however, remain the engine of the Oliver machine: He has sold more than 45 million of them — $7.4 million worth just last year, according to Nielsen Book Research — and is the country’s best-selling nonfiction author. For a time, only J.K. Rowling outsold him.

Mr. Oliver, who has dyslexia and what he says is an unusually short attention span, likes to dictate his books rather than type them.

There was a Jamie’s in Cambridge when my wife and I were there on sabbatical, and we went once or twice. It was a nice place.

At Jamie's Restaurant

The aesthetic of shipping containers

The New York Times has an op-ed on how shipping containers have become an architectural resource, and why this is bad.

These container environments inadvertently perpetuate a sense of a Darwinian world in which only the tough survive. That brutality can be fun if it’s about creating a landscape for weekend partying; at Amsterdam’s shipyard, you can live out your “Mad Max” fantasies for 24 hours before heading back to the suburbs.

But the harsh landscape of the shipping container is a terrible shorthand for modernity. It’s not just the now-inescapable connotations of the migrant crisis. It’s that the people who’ve most celebrated the container form are precisely not the ones who’ve ever had to live in one: they can always go home, to a proper building somewhere else. And it’s that the shipping container suggests a world in which everything is contingent and temporary, and humans are doing little more than camping. That’s not the way to produce good offices, or housing, or cities.

On truth and Brexit

“Hardline Brexiters now revel in their disregard for the statements of experts and fact-checkers,” William Davies writes in the London Review of Books, in an essay on politicans and the truth in the era of Brexit:

The reason there are so many mechanisms in place to remind powerful people of the actual facts of matters – mechanisms that include quangos and policy research institutes and publicly funded broadcasters – is that we assume they need constant reminding. A functioning constitution should be able to cope with the odd charlatan and bullshit artist, steering them gently away from the levers of power like a friend removing car keys from a drunk….

The beauty of ‘sovereignty’ as a political ideal is its metaphysical character, which evades efforts by economists and civil servants to pin it down, and seems to release political speech from the straitjacket of verifiable evidence.

Thus the idea “Leave” expands from “freedom to Leave the EU” to “freedom to take leave of the truth.” As it’s been in the US for the last couple years, it’s going to be very exciting to be a Conservative politician: you’ll get to wake up every morning, not knowing what your core beliefs are. Deficits are nothing to worry about! Russia is our friend!

Davies goes on to argue that the lies politicians tell— and among UK conservatives, have discovered that they can not only get away with (for a while), but are rewarded for telling— come in two varieties: campaign exaggerations and distortions of the truth, and a blithe disregard for keeping one’s promises. The first is “£350 million for NHS!”; the second is less spectacular but for economies and nations is a lot more serious. “Business investors can cope with various models of capitalism,” Davies argues. “What they can’t cope with is perpetual uncertainty.”

York Minster stone masons tour

I was recently in England with my wife, and one of the highlights of the trip was a spur-of-the-moment tour we took in York Minster of the stone yards and exterior scaffolding.


Like lots of cathedrals, York lets you go up to the top of its towers, and the view from there is great; but the stoneyard and scaffolding tours are more unique.

York Minster

In the stoneyard, you get to see how the restoration work is planned, and how stones are actually carved. You spend some time with the master mason in the main office, then head off to the workshop where the stones are actually carved.

York Minster

York is one of the few cathedrals that still has its own stonemasons on-site, and they’re busy restoring several areas, including the East Front.

One especially cool feature of the tour is that it give you a chance to see some up close carvings that normally you only get to see from the ground.

York Minster

For someone like me who’s interested in how people work, and how work changes over time, it’s a really interesting experience.

York Minster

The scaffolding tour is just as cool: you put on a hard hat, go up eight stories of scaffolding, and see how restoration work is actually done.

York Minster

York Minster is also interesting because there was a lot of restoration work done in the early 1800s that now has to be replaced, because they used a different kind of stone than was used in the 1300s, and the two stone types are actually (very slowly) attacking and eroding each other.

York Minster

York Minster is beautiful and the standard visit is well worth it, but I highly recommend checking out the stoneyard and scaffolding as well.

Dog is my coauthor

A typical early morning writing. Davis gets up on the couch, insists on being petted, and eventually settles down and goes back to sleep. It’s very nice, even if it’s a little distracting on some mornings.

The one lawn Davis likes

I have no idea why it is, but when it warms up, there’s one lawn that Davis likes to roll around on after a long walk. It’s a few doors from our house, which may be a factor. But it’s literally the only lawn he ever wants to lay down on.

(And I’m testing a Word Press-to-Instagram plugin. We’ll see if it works!)

How dogs know when we’re sick

This Amanda Mull article about “How My Dog Knows When I’m Sick” will be familiar to any dog owner:

Midge, my 12-pound rescue pup, isn’t the world’s most affectionate dog. We get along great, but she has her own hobbies: horrifically dismembering her cute little plush toys, chewing through her chew-proof bed. But as soon as even a mild head cold starts to take hold of me, my dog is transformed. She’s no longer her usual self, jabbing a dagger paw into my ribs to prod me into throwing her ball. Instead, she’s Doctor Midge, Medicine Chihuahua, ready to nurse me back to health by cuddling up against me (or on top of me) at all times.

Although I’m of the firm belief that my dog is a unique and special angel, it’s easy to find tales of other pets comforting or guarding their people during times of illness or injury. I was sick last week, and as Midge was glued to my side, friends told me about their own pets attending to them around the clock after everything from surgery to stomach troubles.

My lab pretty much monitors me all the time, which I’ve assumed means he’s neurotic, but maybe means I’m constantly on death’s door; but when the other dog— who normally is more standoffish, pays that kind of attention to me, I’m definitely under the weather. And interestingly, when I’m really laid out with something, she’ll often stay with me more faithfully than the lab.

It’s not clear whether they have a concept of sickness that extends to both themselves and humans— i.e., whether they recognize in us the same state that happens when, say, they eat something they shouldn’t have— but it’s definitely the case that they know that something is happening, and they want to help, even if helping mainly involves making it impossible for us to adjust the covers because they’re weighed down by sleeping dog.

“entitled men who… sneer at those who have to endure the consequences of their actions”

Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain sounds like a good read. And this bit about the British elite, from the New York Review of Books review, is a nice little jab:

[P]atrician fecklessness is one of the most enduring modes of British upper-class charisma, a way to signify superiority over the rule-governed, bean-counting strivers of the bourgeoisie. O’Toole correctly identifies it as a type of camp, allowing mistakes to be laughed off and ignorance to be presented as a virtue, evidence that one is not “touched” by the matter at hand. The English public’s fatal attraction to this posture has been responsible for many otherwise inexplicable political careers. Boris Johnson’s improbable upward trajectory is, for example, entirely due to his pitch-perfect performance in the stock role of the rakish comedy toff, a figure whose avarice and incompetence is indulged because it is somehow enjoyable to watch him getting away with things….

It is Britain’s misfortune to have been ruled by such people, entitled men who don’t feel they need to master a brief and sneer at those who have to endure the consequences of their actions.

Cat cafe and Namsan Park

After the Gongpyeong Historic Site Museum, I walked to Myeongdong. I needed lunch, and wanted to keep up my track record of only eating things cooked on a grill or wok by guys in parkas, and eaten standing. I was headed to Namsan Park, and it’s a short but uphill walk to the entrance to the park.

So to fortify myself, I had some bulgogi from one of the street vendors. I believe it was made using both a grill and a wok, so my criteria were satisfied.


I also stopped for coffee at the Myeongdong Cat Cafe.


Fortunately there’s a funicular that takes you up to the cable cars. From there, it’s a few minutes to the top of Namsan Mountain.


It was a very clear day, so while it was cold, the view was spectacular. I didn’t go up the N Seoul Tower; I’ll save that for a time when I’m here with my wife.


You really get a sense of how vast the city is from up there. More than 10 million people live in Seoul, about a quarter of nation’s population.


I spent a while there, then took the cable car back down after sunset (the temperature was dropping quickly).


After one more bite of street food, it was back to the hotel, as I have a busy Monday promoting Rest, and Tuesday I’m doing my own interviews for the four-day week book. So if any more tourism happens it’ll be pretty much accidental.

The amazing Gongpyeong Historic Sites Museum


About a mile from the Gyeongbokgung Palace, in the basement of a skyscraper, is one of the most remarkable museums I’ve ever visited: the Gongpyeong Historic Sites Museum. Gyeongbokgung and the National Museum get the attention, but if you want to see something really amazing, come here.


A few years ago, when work was starting on a new skyscraper, construction crews unearthed building foundations and materials from a 17th-century neighborhood. Archaeologists were able to use this to reconstruct a picture of daily life in this area, and incredibly, the building developers built a museum over the dig.


They built a glass floor over some of the dig, installed catwalks over some other sections, and cleared a path through the site elsewhere; so you have the experience of first walking over the site, then descending into it.


This being Korea, there are also giant screens everywhere, and a VR reconstruction of a building that you can explore (it’s not bad at all).

I’ve seen this kind of museum once before, over a Viking site in Turku, Finland, and each time I’m impressed by the idea of locating a museum right over a dig.

It’s rarely the case that the layout and architecture of a museum is just as interesting as the materials within it (and often museum designers strive to keep the space in the background of the visitor’s attention), but in this case, there’s no way not to admire the design. But for me at least, that didn’t detract from the historical material.


And the museum is HUGE. When you first go into it you don’t get a sense of just how big it’s going to be, but it’s just massive.

Finally, it was surprisingly quiet there, and there were no huge crowds. Which was a nice change from, well, everywhere else in Seoul!

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