Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Europe (page 2 of 13)

Greetings from Charles de Gaulle Terminal 1, aka a badly-designed circle of Hell

I think everyone will agree that 18 hours is far too little time to really see Paris; likewise, any seasoned traveler will agree that 8 hours is more than enough time to experience Charles De Gaulle airport. Or at least that's what I expect to conclude, after my day here.

I was supposed to be on a flight home early this morning, but thanks to a problem with my ticket that's too pedestrian to share yet sufficiently problematic to keep me from getting on the plane, I've got a full day here at CDG. I was going to fly out of the relatively new Terminal 2E, which is a shiny giant shed-type hall familiar to anyone who's spent time in Singapore, Malaysia, Terminals 4 and 5 of Heathrow, the phenomenal Denver airport, or any number of other airports built in the last decade. (For those of you who don't know, the Very Big Terminal That's Also a Destination and a Statement is all the rage, and the new ones tend to be mind-bogglingly large open spaces.) Since I could get a flight on Continental and United for 1/4 what Air France wanted, and since Star Alliance flies out of Terminal 1, I'm here.


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For those of you who've never been to Terminal 1 and are of a certain age, you've seen it on the cover of the Alan Parsons Project's classic album I Robot. For those who are younger, imagine the proposed donut-shaped Apple headquarters… gone terribly, terribly wrong.


via flickr

I really enjoyed myself on this trip, I have a growing number of French friends, and I find the place completely lacking the snobbishness that Americans expect (partly this is a function of moving in tech and academic circles, whose membership seems to regularly worry about having to play catch-up to the US). But Terminal 1 is one of the great, if not the greatest, acts of architectural contempt ever. It's like foreign policy in the 2000s, or the creation of subprime mortgages designed for people who couldn't even make the first payment. It seemed like a good idea in a certain heady, breathe-your-own-exhaust bobble, but in retrospect is so obviously a bad idea you have to wonder: didn't anybody say something?


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The thing that sums it all up is the central courtyard, which is enclosed by the torus-shaped building, and whose airspace is crisscrossed with people movers, like the travelators at Ikea that always seem to be out of order. It was probably meant to be a commentary on alienation and modernity, or maybe it was a way for the travelers to begin to take to the skies as soon as they headed to their gates, but– bitch, PLEASE. They're a bunch of damn hamster tubes. I doubt anyone working today would create something that would be such a challenge to maintain, and creates such a traffic bottleneck. We still make plenty of design mistakes, but I think airport designers today would make different ones.


via flickr

The rest of the airport feels to me like your basic 1960s modernist dream, the sort of thing that Archigram and Team X would have cried tears of joy over: it's all roughened, sculptural concrete, primary colors, glass and metal. Some of the ceiling detailing has a wing-like filigree that suggests that Someone Was Trying, but still… it's a whole that's much less than the sum of its parts.

Plus a circular building feels like a mistake. It takes a big space and makes it feel eternally smaller, without hinting that there are interesting things elsewhere. And of course, expansion is impossible. You can't build onto a building like this, you can only build new terminals in the same general time zone (the inter-terminal train system deserves high marks).


via flickr

Still, it's better than the Dulles gates, if only because the contrast between Saarinen's magnificent main terminal and the shocking pedestrianism of every later expansion is so painful. The other terminals don't feel like they were even designed: they were assembled in the same Platonic architectural workshop that mindlessly turns out self-serve gas stations and downscale strip malls. At least this place was trying to make a statement, and no matter how badly they misfired or how poorly the project has aged, there was effort here.

But I found a working power outlet for my iPad, I have Diet Coke, I have 900 pictures downloading into my photo editor, and most important, I have a ticket home. So it's cool.

Working with the iPad

On this trip I've experimented with leaving my laptop behind and just taking my iPad, and so far it's performed pretty brilliantly. So long as I have an Internet connection I can do pretty much everything I would want to do with a laptop, and even without one I can do about 80% of the things I would normally do with my MacBook Pro.

The thing that makes the difference is the keyboard. Apple makes an excellent Bluetooth keyboard, which is both extremely thin and light, and has a good solid feel: they're full-sized keys, and they have nice throw, so I don't feel like I (or my hands) are compromising. And the difference between writing with a real keyboard, and tapping on the screen, is like night and day: I can tap with more than one finger on each hand, but it's not as fast or accurate as when I'm using real keys. Not only do I make more mistakes, but I can't feel when I make mistakes, the way I do when I'm using a regular keyboard.

Of course, the other thing that makes a big difference in the functionality of the iPad + keyboard is not the device itself, but rather the fact that I've got a bunch of useful material up online that I can access when I'm writing my talks. In particular, my habit of putting pictures up on Flickr is really starting to pay off: as my photography has improved (or at least gotten more quirkily distinctive, and migrated to ever more impressive devices), that's turned into an online repository that I can access when I'm revising my talks and need to illustrate new points.

I would like to see better synchronization between my machine and iDisk, or a feature that automatically backed up files to my iDisk. Or rather, I would like this for my hosts, so they could always have access to the latest version of my talk.

I may go for an adapter to connect the iPad to a monitor, but I really liked being able to carry around the iPad and read my talk off it. I worried that it looked a little dorky, and it probable does; but apparently the aluminum back reflects the stage lights in cool ways, so I'm going to keep reading off it (and maybe look for some holographic cards or such to tape on the back for such occasions). I know it makes me look a little like Jonathan Pryce's evil Rupert Murdoch-like character in that James Bond movie, but c'est la vie.

The other thing I'll have to practice is using it as another display surface, so I can occasionally different images than what's showing in the presentation, or maybe toss our specific words than I want the audience to focus on. Not even technically or logistically difficult: I could just add pictures to the presentation text, and flip over the screen when I want to show something to people.

Though I wonder if the VGA adapter works with the iPhone? Could I do presentations in Keynote and then run them off my phone, while reading the text on the iPad? Must experiment. I should also see what the Keynote remote control is like.

Marseille

I'm in Marseille, France, for another hour or so. Since I got here I've been running around, looking at demos, working on my talk, or walking around and taking pictures, so I've not had a lot of time to post. However, I'm now in the train station, waiting for a train to Paris, and rather than walk around one more neighborhood with my bags, I decided to just hang.


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Before I came here, I checked out my local bookstore for travel guides on Marseille. There aren't any. This is the second (or maybe third) biggest city in France, yet according to the travel industry no one goes here: tourists avoid it in favor of Aix or Lyon or other more attractive places. You'd never know that it wasn't a destination here: the train station is full of backpackers and families with rolling luggage.


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But I can see why it's not considered by the guidebooks to be authentically French, in that imaginary pure Gallic way: being a 3,000 year-old port city, Marseille is a real hybrid, with people from all over the Mediterranean. Lots of Tunisian and Moroccan restaurants, west African shops, tourists from Scandinavia and Spain, and the occasional English speaker. It's not as hyper-developed as some cities; it's more like Budapest than Vienna, but it's by no means unattractive or run down, nor is it palpably unsafe.


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I gave my talk on contemplative computing on Friday afternoon, right after lunch. Somehow I seem to gravitate to the post-lunch talk times, but what can you do. I was up until 3 the night before refining the talk, and the next morning tinkered with it some more; partly I was still cutting it down, and partly I was working in references to earlier talks and some cool demos I had seen at the conference exhibit hall. But I think it paid off: I was certainly pleased with the talk, I think it introduced the ideas well, and people seemed to like it.


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I'll put up a copy of the talk with pictures later.

One of the great things here has been the food: both nights I ran into people with whom I went out to dinner, and we found various Moroccan or Tunisian places that were excellent. I may have to buy a tagine when I get home.


via flickr

Okay, off to get my train. More from Paris!

Starting my trip

I'm at SFO, on my way to the Lift 2011 conference in Marseille. Curiously, while it's the second largest city in France, it doesn't seem to be a place that you can get to from here; plus, thanks to some complications with my travel plans (which my conference organizers were incredibly good about dealing with, I must say for the record), I'm flying to LAX, connecting to a New Zealand Air flight to Heathrow (ah, Heathrow!), then taking Air France to Paris. After that, it's onto the TGV, for a three-hour train ride to Marseille.

I'm actually quite looking forward to that last, as it'll give me a chance to see something of France. Other than one hurried connection through De Gaulle about five or six years ago, I haven't been in France at all, and hear there are some parts that are cool.

My talk at the conference is on contemplative computing, and is part of a session on the concept of "Slow." I'm doing a much less technical version of the talk this time: the first couple times I gave it, I was speaking to HCI and new media audiences, and this one will be a broader mix of people (though since it's sponsored by an organization devoted to next-generation Internet activities, there will be plenty of folks who do know technology). So rather than being a lot of stuff about the skilled nature of calm and name-checks to Wittgenstein and Weiser, the main message of this talk will be "you don't have to let information technologies drive you nuts."

I'm experimenting with just taking my iPad2, and leaving the laptop behind. This means I can't work on the slides, but I consider that a good thing: given that when I can I'll promiscuously throw in images and new ideas at the last minute, it's better for me to have the discipline of a fixed set of images to work with. I can– and as I hear other speakers, fully expect to– revise the talk itself, and it occurred ot me last night that I could actually edit it on the iPad and read it on the device. I don't know if that'll be cool or dangerous, or a little of both.

But given that my talk style is now to use almost all images and no text, I think this new approach will work.

I've also not packed ANY books at all: I've got other stuff to work on, and besides, I put a couple things on the Kindle. (I'm very skeptical of ebooks being useful for intellectual work, given that serious reading is a martial art, but I figure they should be fine for Jane Austen and Raymond Chandler.) So I'm now in the curious situation of having a camera that's considerably heavier than my computer. I can live.

I got here ridiculously early– we start boarding at 11:20, and I got to SFO just before 9. But better that than rushing through the airport. And besides, I can work in airports and airplanes as well as anywhere.

I love Air New Zealand

So I'm on my flight to London, thence to Paris and Marseille. Usually I take United direct from SFO, but this time I had to route through Los Angeles, and am on Air New Zealand. I've never flown Air New Zealand before, and I hadn't really thought about what the flight might be like.

It's been less than an hour, but this might be my new favorite airline. These airlines from small countries with new fleets, that do a lot of long haul flights, really have to figure out how to make travel comfortable.

The safety video featured Richard Simmons, and an uncredited cameo by Mark Harmon (it's good to see he's getting work). There's an awesome entertainment system (albeit with an emphasis on New Zealand movies, though with actors like Tamaeru Morrison and the scandalous under-representation of Kiwi cinema on Netflix streaming, that's not really a problem), power outlets in the seat, and some kind of reclining footrest thing that I haven't figured out yet.

It's like a Singapore Air but with a sense of humor.

It makes me think it would be cool to go to New Zealand. I can only hope they have digital distraction issues there, and the book takes off.

Don't know what the food is like, but I have hopes. And my iPad gets to charge up as we head for the Atlantic.

Not sure what this tower is, but it’s awesome

Stumbled on this tonight, and it’s a great piece of architecture.

Downtown Stockholm

I don’t know what it is, though.

Downtown Stockholm

However, in its small way it’s as cool as the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Patronas Twin Towers at night

Pac Man

The subway stop near our hotel is decorated with images from old video games, including Pac Man.

Pac Man love

You’ve gotta love a public transportation this whimsical. It’s also really, really efficient.

Evening in

It started snowing this morning, and hasn’t stopped. I didn’t expect to see several inches by this evening, but that’s what we’ve got.

I went to the conference for a morning session on innovation systems; it was interesting to compare attempts to build systems here to ones I’ve seen or been involved with in Silicon Valley, thought reading John Kay’s Obliquity has made me skeptical of all attempts to reduce things as complex as innovation and entrepreneurship to a set of business processes. However, that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t keep trying to work on these issues, just that we need to recognize that our best efforts are likely to move the needle just a little.

My kind of place

I confess I didn’t know much about the Mobile Life Centre, but was quite favorably impressed with it. There’s a neat group of students, and several really great senior researchers, including a couple who’ve had close ties to Microsoft Research.

After that I met Heather and had lunch in a pizza and kebab place in Gamla Stan.

Today's lunch: Kebab and chips

It was unexpectedly huge, so instead of eating out, after going to the Royal Palace and the medieval museum, we had coffee at Coffeehouse by George, bought some bread and cheese at NK, and had dinner in our room. Between Heather having a bit of a cold and it being freezing cold outside, a quiet evening inside seemed like the thing.

It's snowing! WTF is it doing snowing?

Our hotel room, by the way, has been quite nice: it’s essentially a studio apartment, with a little kitchen, and one of those slightly mysterious European bathrooms (what do people have against showers that don’t spill water everywhere)?

Our hip, ultramodern hotel room in Stockholm

We leave Stockholm tomorrow morning, and head back to England. Then we have Saturday to ourselves, and Sunday the kids arrive for a week.

Wacka wacka wacka

At one of the Metro stations here in Stockholm.

Wacka wacka wacka

This place is very cool.

Wacka wacka wacka

In Stockholm

We’re in Stockholm, Sweden for the next couple days. I’m at a conference at the Mobile Life Center, in Kista, which is the high-tech neighborhood of Stockholm. Lots of interesting-sounding stuff the next couple days, but we got here in time to see a little of the city.

After flying from Heathrow via Amsterdam, and taking a taxi from Arland airport to the city (hint: take the train, there’s nothing to see driving), we got to our hotel, then immediately set out for Gamla Stan, the old town (actually its old island).

Around Gamla Stan this evening

More about it later; I’ve got a bunch of pictures up on Flickr. It’s a really cool place.

Around Gamla Stan this evening

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