Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Contemplative computing (page 2 of 5)

Book cover!

Here’s the cover for the contemplative computing book:

via flickr

Little, Brown spent a lot of time on it, and I think they’ve managed to communicate a lot in a very small, challenging medium. They were also really good about explaining the design choices, making clear that they thought worked, and accommodating those changes I thought would improve it (or explaining why they would be hard to implement).

So the machine chugs along, and we get one step closer to having a finished book on the shelves!


“we feel too little of those creative emotions from which a good life springs”

From the conclusion of Bertrand Russell’s 1948 BBC Reith Lectures on “Authority and the Individual” (mp3, or transcript):

We know too much and feel too little. At least we feel too little of those creative emotions from which a good life springs. In regard to what is important we are passive; where we are active it is over trivialities.


How writing a book is like racing in the Tour de France, and not like self-marketing

I sent off the revised draft of my book last Friday, and celebrated this weekend by watching the end of the Tour de France.

the book is back, via flickr

It was great to see an Englishman win the tour (Britain’s investment in cycling is paying off, as John Kay notes), and it was also cool to see someone win who was so clear about how much his victory was a team achievement. Yes, Wiggins gets to wear the yellow jersey, but as he himself acknowledges, he stands on the shoulders of his teammates.

I was juxtaposing this to Penelope Trunk’s recent essay about self-publishing her book. The piece, a long post on her Brazen Careerist blog, is about how traditional publishers don’t know anything about their markets, they take too long to get stuff out, and you’re better off doing it yourself. The piece was really striking to me because both in scope and substance it’s so different from my recent (or current) experience.

home office, california style, via flickr

First of all, Trunk’s account of the publishing industry is all about production and distribution; the work of shaping and editing books is invisible. To me, though, this is about 90% of the value that the publishing industry offers. Fourteen months ago, give or take, I had a very very different idea for a book about contemplative computing. That book might have fit well with an academic press, but it wasn’t the book I really wanted to write. I was lucky to have an agent who pushed me to think more commercially without giving up my intellectual bona fides or the ambition of explaining to ordinary users how our deep entanglement with technology shapes us. I was also really lucky, once I’d produced a manuscript, to have an editor who could work with me to tune it up, and who insisted (in that totally self-effacing way most book editors have) on making it more accessible and useful.

Another important way in which our experiences contrast is that Trunk describes books as calling-cards, as a way of introducing to the public who you are and what services you have to offer. Now, this is totally in keeping with the Tom Peters “Brand of Me” way of seeing the world, and I had professors at Wharton who talked about how their books were really just ways of attracting clients, so clearly there are authors who either genuinely feel that a book can play this role, or see reasons to talk about it this way. For me, though, writing this book has been pretty transformative, and I have a hard time imagining starting something this hard with the assumption that there won’t be a big personal payout at the end.

it’s about ME! via flickr

I’m probably going to experiment with some digital self-publishing in the coming year, though I wouldn’t call what I’m going to create electronic books– more like electronic pamphleteering, or digital broadsheeting. A “book” feels like a different proposition than a highly illustrated, expanded version of a talk. Indeed, it’s not just a different proposition, but a promise to readers that the object they’re getting has been through a more rigorous kind of review and publishing process.

bytes, via flickr

Indeed, the only way I would self-publish a “book” would be if I could hire editorial talent as strong as Zoë and John, and I’m not sure I’d want to take on the risk of investing that much in a book. It’s possible that I could find equivalent talent in the freelance editorial market, but I quite like the idea that lots of other people at Little, Brown share the risk with me, and have an incentive to help the book be a success.

Just as important, I don’t want my relationship with an editor to become more transactional. As John Kay recently pointed out, the financial services industry worked best for investors and companies when it was more trust-based; in today’s world of super-fast transactions and massive bets, there’s less interest in building trust, because you tend to assume that you’ll be rich and retired within a couple years. I don’t need intellectual relationships that are more transactional. Indeed, I think those two things are polar opposites. Frictionless, transactional relationships are mindless (in Ellen Langer’s use of the term), and can just as easily succeed as win-lose games; meaningful relationships involve trust and struggle, and only succeed when both parties succeed.

stay, via flickr

I see tremendous benefit in having a team of people who are invested in your victory, like Team Sky was invested in Wiggins’ taking home the yellow jersey. If all you’re doing is a straight-on transaction, something you know how to do and really can do on your own, then maybe the self-publishing model works; but the way I write books requires a team.

“when ideas and solutions appear pat, cute, easy, or triumphant, they’re almost certainly wrong”

Balloon Juice:

I think TED talks are the worst example of modern faux-intellectualism. Audience flattering, based on ego and personality, dripping with self-congratulation, they contribute to one of the great lies of our time, which is that the truth is entertaining and can be contained in bite-sized, ready-for-television aphorisms. The reality is that progress is hard, that knowledge making is a long and dispiriting slog, and that when ideas and solutions appear pat, cute, easy, or triumphant, they’re almost certainly wrong.

Mainly this is an excuse to trot out my favorite Bart Simpson quote: To those who say there are no easy answers I say you’re not looking hard enough!

As someone who’s given TEDx talks, yet is occasionally put off by just how much buzz these talks generate (or really, how ready some speakers are to point to hit counts as proof that They Are Taken Seriously) I can understand the criticism.

Yet there can be value in struggling to take a complex project and at the very least, show people enough of it to make them think that it would be worth investing their time and attention to see the whole thing. Good TED talks aren’t like music videos; they’re like movie previews.

Second reflections on writing

A while ago I wrote a piece about writing for the trades. As someone who’d written for academic audiences, and for corporate and government clients, it was interesting to take on the challenge of writing a book for a popular audience.

I just finished the first draft of the manuscript– as in, sent it off to my editor and agent a couple hours ago– and while it’s all still fresh, thought I’d spend a little more time on what I’ve learned about writing.

via flickr

The single most important thing is, be organized. The reason I was able to write this draft in a year was that I started the process with  a strong, well-organized outline– an outline that I took very seriously, because it was the basis of my book contract. So that short-circuited all that screwing around you do trying to find the perfect structure. I had one that the publisher liked, and so I was damn well going to stick with it.

Then on a daily basis, this means: organizing your goals for the week, listing out the sections you’re going to write, and generally spending as much time as you need to be clear about what you’re going to write– so long as you actually write it. There’s always the danger that this kind of prep becomes a substitute for actual word production. Watch out for that.

It also meant always setting up the coffee the night before, and organizing your workspace before bed so you could just sit down and be ready to go.

These are little things, but they make tangible your commitment to the project.

Baylands, Thanksgiving
via flickr

Another is to seek solitude. Turn on Freedom, or LeechBlock, or whatever. Put on the headphones. Before they exist on paper, good words live in a very quiet space, that you can only really reach in solitude. Of course you need to share your work in writing groups, with editors, and (you hope) a very big public. But in order to have ideas good enough to share, you need to seal yourself from everything but the words.

It’s like how monastics describe the role of silence in contemplation of the divine. A common theme in monastic practice is that you cannot hear the voice of God, or achieve Enlightenment or satori, or see the ultimate truth, until your soul is quiet and ready. God does not make himself heard over the din. You have to listen for Him.


Another thing that I found really helpful was to stop for the day in mid-thought, or with one more sentence in the paragraph. It had to be something I knew I wouldn’t forget, but having that as the first thing I did the next morning really helped me get started. The beginning is always the hardest part, and so if you can make the start of each writing day easier by actually knowing exactly what you’re going to say, you’ll make your life easier.

via flickr

I now think that after years of writing, there’s a more direct connection between whatever parts of my mind generate good ideas, and the part of my mind that controls my hands. There’s a relationship between the physical act of writing and the “mental” act of creating that is not merely linear: I don’t have ideas and then write them down. I have ideas because I am writing.

So it’s absolutely essential that I spend time at the keyboard.

Cafe dog
via flickr

And I needed something to make it easier, because I was getting up in the pre-dawn hours and writing for an hour or two before anyone else woke up. (Even the dog stayed asleep and didn’t follow me out to the living room.) I am absolutely NOT a morning person, but it made a big difference to have that time to myself, and to write in a state where I was actually to tired to distract myself. My semi-conscious brain was better able to stay on target, and whatever good ideas were bubbling up from my subconscious had an easier time reaching the calmer surface of my mind.

Getting Started
via flickr

This was a complete change from the way I normally write and live. I’m naturally a late sleeper, and so it took real will for me to get up early. But it really did work. I was actually taken by surprise. I figured that having some words under my belt before I took the kids to school would be a psychological boost. What I didn’t expect was that the very early morning would actually be a good time to write. But it turns out it was. Everyone should experiment with writing on a different schedule, or in a different way, to see if there are things that work better for them.

Thus endeth the lesson. For now.

Trying out Blogsy

I decided to download Blogsy, a blog editor for the iPad, and give it a try. I’ve lamented the apparent absence of decent Typepad editors (indeed, I still pine for the old days of Ecto), but this one looks pretty promising.

via flickr

I spent yesterday at the Being Human conference in San Francisco, about which I’ll have more to say shortly. It was a very interesting time, and quite well-done.

A year ago…

…I was settling into Cambridge. Wow.

My street
my road, via flickr

Quiet day in the cafe

Maybe because it’s Thanksgiving week, but it’s oddly quiet at Cafe Zoe, where I’m now working, as the construction crews are back digging up the Hetch Hetchy.

Reworking the digital sabbath chapter
cafe zoe, via flickr

One of the things we believe about working at home is that it’s quieter than the office, but that’s only true if you don’t have backhoes and giant cement machines chuffing back and forth outside your window.

“Real time” and Jóhann Jóhannsson

I'm working this morning on a section of the book about the idea of "real time"– how the concept got started in computer science, how it's multiplied and diffused through the financial sector and Web and social media to color our perception of time, and finally how unreal it is, compared to spiritual or religious ideas about and experience of time.

I've got Jóhann Jóhannsson's Fordlandia blasting on the stereo, mainly because it's a pleasure to listen to something that's so beautifully crafted and passionate. Jóhannsson has turned into a hero of mine. He composes works about machines (the Ford assembly line, the IBM 1401 computer), and he's technically brilliant, but his work is lush and passionate. You get the sense listening to his best work that nothing of him is held back. That's what I want my readers to feel.

Lady Gaga, Glee, and me

Probably the only time in history I'll be mentioned with Lady Gaga and Glee: Publishers' Weekly's article on what books American publishers are selling at next week's Frankfurt Book Fair.

Look under the listings of Hachette, the conglomerate that owns my publisher, Little Brown.

(And so long as I live, I swear I'll never get tired of saying "my publisher, Little Brown"!)

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