Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: England (page 1 of 28)

Visit to Charles Darwin’s Down House

After I finished my London publicity tour for Rest (which is coming out with Penguin Life in February 2017), my wife and I spent the weekend being tourists. On Saturday I did something I’ve long wanted to do, but never got around to: we went to visit Charles Darwin’s house in the village of Downe. I’ve written about the house, the nearby Sandwalk, and Darwin’s time there in my last two books, but I’ve never actually been there until now.

Darwin moved to Downe in 1842, to give himself more privacy and room to raise his growing family. He and his wife Emma both wanted to be in the country, and they intentionally chose a place that would not be very easy to get to.

It still isn’t.

First, you get to Charing Cross station, then take the train to the town of Orpington.

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From there, you get the number R8 bus that makes the rounds through the country, and stops at Downe. You then walk about a third of a mile to Down House. All told, it’s about 90 minutes to get from Charing Cross to Down House, but in reality, it’s longer: the trains and buses aren’t likely to sync up perfectly. In our case, that was a bit fortuitous, as it allowed us time to have lunch at the Maxwell pub in Orpington.
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After that, it was on the bus to Downe. When the roads are open, the bus stops right in front of Down House. This time, it didn’t, so we had to get off and walk.

However, this gave us a chance to visit the church in the village, which is really quite lovely.DSCF0875

There’s also a “Darwin Bar,” rather inevitably.

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From the village, it’s a few minutes’ walk to Down House. However, it’s worth noting that much of the walk is along a narrow country road with hedges on either side and no sidewalk, so you really have to keep to the very edge of the road and yet let cars know that you’re there so they don’t accidentally run you over.

Eventually, though, you arrive at Down House.

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The house itself has been part of National Trust for a few years, and they do a good job with the exhibits. The upstairs has been converted into an exhibit space, while the downstairs, with Darwin’s study, billiards room, dining room, etc. has been restored and looks like it did when Charles was living there.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures there.

For me, though, as big a draw as the house was, the Sandwalk was almost as big an attraction. The Sandwalk is a circular path that Darwin laid out on the property as a place where he could go walk and think, and he went out there at least a couple times a day, every day.

To get to it you go through the gardens, and down a path on the edge of the property.

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At the end of the path you come to the Sandwalk itself, just past the age tree on the left (which I believe Darwin himself might have planted).
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The path is a couple hundred yards long.

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At the end, there’s a little place where one can sit if it’s raining. To the left, you can see the path turning and starting to circle back.

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The return is through a darker grove of trees, but still quite pleasant.

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After we were finished, we walked back to the village, and waited a while for our bus back to Orpington.

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All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon. And having come with me on my thing, my wife then took us to see In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about life in Brooklyn.

Packing this weekend

Among other things I’m doing this weekend (mainly related to my son’s rugby career, it seems) I’ve got pack and get ready for my Big European Tour: I’m off to London for several days to promote the Penguin Life edition of Rest, then will go to Amsterdam for the release of the Dutch edition of Rest and a talk sponsored by The School of Life.

It promises to be a fun time, particularly because after I take care of some business my wife will able to join me. (Next time, kids!) And because after years of writing about it, I finally plan to go to Downe and visit Charles Darwin’s house.

I’ve never been to Amsterdam, so I’m very much looking forward to spending several day there. I’m going to be speaking at the Westerkerk, which promises to be a pretty extraordinary venue.

I just hope the dogs don’t get too flipped out by seeing luggage. But they usually do.

“nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards”

Britain cannot leave Europe any more than Piccadilly Circus can leave London. Europe is where we are, and where we will remain. Britain has always been a European country, its fate inextricably intertwined with that of the continent, and it always will be. But it is leaving the European Union. Why?

A universal truth: nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards. If just 3% of the more than 33 million Brits who voted in this referendum had gone the other way, you would now be reading endless articles explaining how it was, after all, “the economy, stupid”, how British pragmatism finally won through, etc. So beware the illusions of retrospective determinism.

Source: As a lifelong English European, this is the biggest defeat of my political life | Timothy Garton Ash | Politics | The Guardian

In London

I’m in London for a few days, doing some research for Rest.

My table at LSE archives

We’re staying at the Hotel Russell, which overlooks Russell Square in Bloomsbury. I’ve passed by it many times, and have always been curious about what it was like. It’s nice.

Hotel Russell

Our room doesn’t overlook Russell Square, of course; ours overlooks one of the other hotels, though if you crane your head out the window, you can see some of the trees.

Thursday I was at the British Library, and the Wellcome Collection. Both were great.

British Library

Friday I went down to the London School of Economics, and spent the day in their special collections. The LSE library has this wacky spiral staircase in its center.

LSE library

London is great as always, and being here in the summer (which I’ve done very rarely) is great. We did happen to be in town during a huge anti-austerity rally, which meant we could forget doing normal tourist stuff, but which proved interesting on its own terms.

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Wednesday I go up to Cambridge, to do some work in the archives there. Then it’s back home.

O Yes

No more Waterstone’s 3-for-2

The end of a marketing era!

No longer will readers be able to chuck a third free book onto their pile of purchases as they head to the till at Waterstone's: the UK's biggest bookseller is bringing its long-running three-for-two offer to an end.

The Bookseller reports that staff were told of the move yesterday, with the current three-for-two promotion across all paperback fiction to come to an end today. The demise of the famous offer, which has been running for more than a decade, follows the sale of the chain by HMV to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, and the appointment of independent bookseller James Daunt as managing director in June.

My son at the Science Museum

Just came across this picture from their trip to England in April.

At the Science Museum
at the science museum, via flickr

Last night in Cambridge

On our last night in Cambridge, my son and I took a long walk through Jesus Green and the colleges.

Last walk through Cambridge
the cam beside jesus green, via flickr

On his last trip to Cambridge my son had bought a wool hat with a cat’s face on it, and wore it pretty much nonstop since February. So naturally he wore it tonight.

Last walk through Cambridge
my son outside st. john’s, via flickr

It was a perfect evening, clear and cool. Early evenings like this, when the sky turns deep blue and the lamps come on, are probably my favorite part of the day in Cambridge: visually the town is at its most vivid and mysterious.

Last walk through Cambridge
all saints’ pass, via flickr

We went down Trinity Lane to Garrett Hostel Lane, which is the path I took every day to the lab.

Last walk through Cambridge
trinity lane, via flickr

Last walk through Cambridge
trinity lane, via flickr

The view of the Cam from the bridge is one of my favorite: no matter how many times I crossed it, it always impressed me. I’ve been very lucky with commutes. When I lived in Chicago, my drive to work took me down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue; in California, it’s been to Stanford, Sand Hill Road, and downtown Palo Alto. None too shabby. But this is the best of all.

Last walk through Cambridge
clare bridge from garret hostel lane bridge, via flickr

Last walk through Cambridge
trinity college backs, via flickr

The challenge now is to get to the airport in the wee morning hours tomorrow. And then, after that, to make something out of the three months– to make this sabbatical the start of something important, rather than an interesting lark. I know there are a couple great articles here, and maybe a book, if I’m really diligent; certainly I believe strongly in the idea of contemplative computing, and think it’s one that deserves a wider audience– and to be improved by being discussed and tried out and stress-tested by people other than myself.

I’ve learned an immense amount here. Not only do I have much better grasp on the HCI literature than I did when I came here (though there’s still a lot I don’t know, despite the best attempts of my colleagues to tutor me), but I’ve discovered works– in particular Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, but also Seneca’s Letters, Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, and others– that I think will influence me pretty deeply in my normal life, not just my thinking and writing (though the boundaries between those three are pretty thin when all goes well). And there’s probably no better place to practice contemplation of all sorts than here.

Last walk through Cambridge
the cam near our house, via flickr

I have a sinking suspicion that the project is a bit of a disappointment to Microsoft, though; it’s at once not quite philosophical or theoretical enough, nor has it expressed itself in a prototype. So this only more motivation to produce something great: I feel the need to prove that the odd choice of a futurist as a visiting fellow was a good one after all.

Unfortunately I can’t finish the work here: to remain would be too disruptive of our normal lives. After three months here, I feel very much at home– I can conduct a normal life here, rather than just be a tourist– but I know my regular life is waiting for me in California.

Reality
a t-shirt shop on bridge street, via flickr

But I’ll be back.

The end
via flickr

Less than 48 hours in Cambridge

Took the kids to London again yesterday, and went to the Science Museum. Naturally I gravitated to the airplane display, which includes a beautifully-stages collection of engines, and a number of planes, including a Hurricane and Spitfire.

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via flickr

From there we went to Harrods, which I think is something everyone should see, but which is far too rich a place for me to actually think about buying anything. These days, it seems to be an ingenious technology for attracting back from Asia and the Middle East a little of the money that we sent over to buy oil and flat screen TVs: I would have felt distinctly underdressed in my REI and Royal Robbins traveling kit, were I more clothes-conscious (or rather, mindfully contrarian about fashion).

Harrods
via flickr

Part of me thinks that places like Harrods are absurd and unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, and that they symbolize everything that’s going wrong with global capitalism: the incessant attention to luxury goods, the promotion of exclusivity, the encouragement of a particular variety of class consciousness summarized by David Brooks complimenting rich people on their intelligence and good looks.

At the same time, I can’t help but be impressed at how good they are at what they do. And maybe we really should have a place where someone can say, “But is this elevator pharonic enough? Are we sure we can’t dial the Egyptianness up to 12?”

We’ve got two more nights in Cambridge, then we’re leaving at the crack of dawn on Saturday. Fortunately, with the family all here I’ve been playing a combination of B&B owner, butler, dad, son, and tour guide, so I’m not really focused on the fact that I’m returning to California. Which is generally a good thing for me, i think. After three months here, I’m in no danger of going native– I could live here for decades and still think of myself as American or Californian, even if I started saying “Cheers” rather than “Thank you”– but I do feel comfortable here in a way that is expanding, and a little reassuring.

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via flickr

The challenge now will be to build on what I’ve done here, rather than have this be an interesting and restorative three months that represent a break in my regular life.

On the Eye

After the Transport Museum, we went on the Eye. Thanks to a quirk of timing, we had an entire compartment to ourselves.

On the Eye
via flickr

Previous to getting on the actual ride we went to the “4D experience,” which is essentially a 3D movie with dry ice and the occasional water effect to get viewers wet, plus extremely loud music. As we were leaving it, I heard a kid say, half-admiring and half-sarcastic, “That was the STUPIDEST THING EVER!”

On the Eye
via flickr

And indeed it was that instantly recognizable form of dumb that lives by the motto, when in doubt, make it Really Really Loud. Nonetheless, the view was a spectacular as always, even though it was kind of cloudy.

On the Eye
via flickr

Even my daughter enjoying taking pictures and interacting with the security camera.

On the Eye
via flickr

Transport Museum

Today we took Mom and the kids to the London Transport Museum.

Transport Museum
via flickr

It’s at Covent Garden, and is a fun place, but with the exposed metal and the multiple school groups, it tends to be a little loud. Still, it’s worth it, and it’s not like noise is NOT part of the experience of public transportation.

I think my favorite part was the room devoted to transportation advertising and design. The Underground and the rail system has had an amazing history of getting great industrial design, and even if their work isn’t always brilliant, they’re trying hard.

Transport Museum
via flickr

Indeed, the whole museum is beautifully designed, and works very well.

Transport Museum
via flickr

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