Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

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).


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.

Belief superiority impedes learning, but at least it boosts confirmation bias

A decade ago, I discovered Phil Tetlock’s terrific book Expert Political Judgment, which was a study of efforts to predict the future of political events. For someone who works as a futurist, the book was (and remains) pretty earth-shaking: Tetlock did a fantastic job of explaining the biases that keep most of us from correctly forecasting, improving the quality of our forecasts, or even recognizing the sources of our error. Most of us are actually a lot better at explaining how we were almost right, and rationalizing our apparently errors (our prediction came true later than we said, or it would have happened but for the 2008 meltdown, or it was just around the corner).

This is not to say that it’s impossible to do good forecasting, or that you can’t improve; indeed, Tetlock has spent the last few years exploring exactly how people can do that.

So I was interested to see that Futurity has an article about new research that examines how “belief superiority”— that is, our confdience that our own knowledge and beliefs are superior to others, because we’re better-educated, better-read, etc.– leads us astray:

Across six studies and several political topics, people who were high in belief superiority thought that they knew a great deal about these topics. However, when comparing this perceived knowledge to how much people actually knew, they found that belief-superior people were consistently overestimating their own knowledge.

“Whereas more humble participants sometimes even underestimated their knowledge, the belief superior tended to think they knew a lot more than they actually did,” says Michael Hall, a psychology graduate student at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author.

Not only that, but belief superiority didn’t lead to more rigorous self-examination, or more thorough research and revision of one’s beliefs. Researchers “presented participants with news articles about a political topic and asked them to select which ones they would like to read. Half of the articles supported the participants’ own point of view, whereas the other half challenged their position.”

What happened?

Belief-superior people were significantly more likely than their modest peers to choose information that supported their beliefs. Furthermore, they were aware that they were seeking out biased information: when the researchers asked them what type of articles they had chosen, they readily admitted their bias for articles that supported their own beliefs.

So what’s going on?

all of us feel good when the beliefs we think are important are confirmed.

In other words, when a belief is strongly held, is tied to one’s identity or values, or is held with a sense of moral conviction, people are more likely to distance themselves from information and people that challenge their belief.

This suggests that one of the things you should look for in a futurist with lots of self-awareness, and an ability to handle uncomfortable situations and truths– particularly about their own abilities.

“Trump’s definition of an attack on the U.S. is when his lawyer’s home is raided by the FBI, not when Russia attacks our elections”

Sarah Kenzidor is always worth reading:

Trump’s definition of an attack on the U.S. is when his lawyer’s home is raided by the FBI, not when Russia attacks our elections and infrastructure. As president, his main goals have been building a kleptocracy and dodging criminal prosecution, and any war– particularly when it involves Russia–will be enacted with those twin aims in mind. If Trump distracts the public from his own misdeeds, and financially benefits and consolidates power through war, it will not matter to him how many lives are lost–including the lives of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen. His callousness toward U.S. troops places him in stark contrast to any predecessor.

There’s also an interesting article about her in the Columbia Journalism Review..

The world is flat, episode #20,331

This New Yorker piece about Chinese clothing and apparel manufacturers working in Italy is awesome. Apparently Chinese workers started coming to Italy in the 1990s, then started setting up their own workshops. Now they’re

manufacturers for Gucci, Prada, and other luxury-fashion houses, which use often inexpensive Chinese-immigrant labor to create accessories and expensive handbags that bear the coveted “Made in Italy” label. Many of them are then sold to prosperous consumers in Shanghai and Beijing.

Finally a parenting style I can get behind

When my kids were younger, I set a basic parenting standard for myself. I decided that if they were not serial killers, child soldiers, or felled by an easily-preventable disease, I had succeeded.

This wasn’t a high standard. Definitely not tiger mom-like behavior. More like lion dad, assuming that the lion spends most of his time lying around and napping.

Turns out I was ahead of the curve. Today’s Washington Post has a piece making “The compelling case for being an ‘intentionally lazy’ parent:”

Educators are being taught strategies and interventions to incorporate the skills in their classrooms: posting schedules, making to-do lists and providing outlines or organization checks and rubrics that detail assignment requirements. This is a crucial step — but parents need a framework to reinforce these skills at home.

That framework is what I call “Intentional Laziness Parenting.” Essentially, it means to deliberately be disengaged. This may sound counterintuitive, but it gives children the independence to try, do, and maybe even fail a little, on their own.

I think I only got the executive skills things down when I was out of graduate school, but if you can master it before then, awesome.

And intentional laziness parenting is not actually lazy at all. It’s difficult and requires both mental and physical determination from the parent.

Oh well.

“The Power of Rest:” My new Calm masterclass


A couple weeks ago I wrote about spending the day in San Francisco, and being the “talent” on a new project. Well, it’s now out:

It’s a new masterclass on “The Power of Rest” from Calm, the company that brought you 2017’s Apple App of the Year.

In the masterclass, I talk about the key insights from my book REST: why rest is important, what kinds of rest help promote creativity and recovery, how famous people have incorporated rest in their daily schedules to enhance their ability to solve problems. I also provide a teaser from the paperback edition of REST, building on the foreword that Arianna Huffington so kindly wrote for the book.

I have to confess, it was a terrific experience working with Calm and the film crew, and they did a FABULOUS job making me look good in this trailer (and on their app, too), but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing video of myself. Maybe this is a generational thing, and my kids and their peers are so accustomed to selfies and videos that they will never have this experience, but I still find hearing myself on answering machines (or more realistically, voicemail or podcasts) kind of odd, and watching myself onscreen is really strange. I wonder how actors do it?

Anyway, don’t mind all that. Check out the class, and get some rest!

On the uncertainty of genetic testing

That’s a map from one of the commercial DNA testing companies showing my ancestry– half East Asian, almost half British, with a little Finnish and Central Asian. The test pretty much confirms what I already knew about my parents’ backgrounds, though the Finnish is a bit of a mystery (and probably something more like a statistical error or algorithmic equivalent of a best guess).

For those of us who’ve had these tests done will appreciate Kristen Brown’s latest article in Gizmodo, “How DNA Testing Botched My Family’s Heritage, and Probably Yours, Too:”

A big problem is that many of us have a basic misunderstanding of what exactly we’re reading when Ancestry or 23andMe or National Geographic sends us colorful infographics about how British or Irish or Scandinavian we are. It’s not that the science is bad. It’s that it’s inherently imperfect, an estimation based on how much our DNA matches up with people in other places around the world….

Heritage DNA tests are more accurate for some groups of people than others, depending how many people with similar DNA to yours have already taken their test…. That the data sets are primarily made up of paying customers also skews demographics. If there’s only a small number of Middle Eastern DNA samples that your DNA has been matched against, it’s less likely you’ll get a strong Middle Eastern match.

I assume that these tests haven’t been as popular with people of East Asian descent, because my dad’s family is pretty clearly been in northern Korea and Manchuria for a few centuries (with some Mongolian ancestors mixed in), and I can’t imagine that the two billion people between Srednekolymsk and Singapore are that genetically similar. So presumably as more people in and from Asia take the test, that giant green blob will get smaller.

And indeed, it turns out, as the databases grow, the places they tell you you’re from change:

Another anecdote that stuck with me came from my friend Alexis Madrigal. Initially, he said, his Mexican family came up as Arab North African, which was surprising. As 23andMe refined its test and its data set grew, it also refined the results: Now, he was descended from Jewish people from Southern Europe. The number of Madrigals in central Spain had long led the family to suspect that their migratory path to Mexico had at some point passed through this region. As more people took the test, the picture of where his family was “from” changed. The Canadian bioethicist Timothy Caulfield shared a similar story. At first a DNA test revealed he was entirely Irish, but as the data set changed, he gradually became less Irish.

It’s an interesting piece, and it raises some good questions about why we even bother with this kind of thing in, as she puts it, “in a world where people have been mixing and matching and getting it on since the beginning of human history.”

Trump has “governed explicitly as a president for white Americans and the racial reactionaries among them”

Jamelle Bouie on “The lasting damage of Donald Trump’s bigotry” argues that in his first year as president, Donald Trump has abandoned his populist and reformist agenda, but held true to his promises to enact policies simmered in racial grievance:

Trump promised generous health care reform. Instead, he delivered a monthslong effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and end a Medicaid expansion that brought insurance and health services to millions of people, many of them his supporters in states like Kentucky and West Virginia. He promised to bring in the “best people” to staff his administration and—upon taking office—promptly staffed his White House and the larger bureaucracy with a cadre of sycophants, opportunists, and ideologues hostile to the missions and values of the departments they lead. Trump promised tax reform that wouldn’t benefit the rich and delivered just the opposite. And, most famously, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and wash corruption from Washington. What that has meant, in practice, is an open effort to enrich himself and his family at the expense of taxpayers, directing public funds to his private clubs and resorts.

But there’s another way to read Trump’s promise—not as a commitment to economic populism but as a statement of racial solidarity. Far from acting as a president for all Americans, he’s governed explicitly as a president for white Americans and the racial reactionaries among them. He’s spoken to their fear and fanned their anger, making his office a rallying point for those who see decline in multiracial democracy and his administration a tool for those who would turn the clock back on racial progress. If those Americans are the “forgotten men and women” of President Trump’s inaugural address, then he’s been a man of his word. That simmering pursuit of racial grievance has been its defining characteristic and threatens to be its most enduring achievement.

I would add one thing. Ever since the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, it’s seemed to me that Trump has been halting in his criticism of such people because he can’t give up their adulation of him. He can back away from them, criticize their actions, and say that American is bigger than them; yet so long as there’s a sliver that can be interpreted as praise, they’ll stick by him. For someone who needs attention and praise and the spotlight, and yet also needs to lash out and subjugate people, they’re the perfect audience. He’ll never leave them, and they’ll never leave him.

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