Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Everyday (page 1 of 52)

Road trip and “new” car

Earlier this summer my son and I flew out to Colorado, spent a day with my dad and stepmother, then drove across the West. The main “purpose” of the trip was was bring out a car that my dad was selling us, to replace my ancient Mazda sedan; but it was also a chance to spend some time with Pop and my son, and for them to spend some time with each other.

Three generations at Arches

It’s also a drive that I really love and haven’t done in some time.

Western Colorado

On our first day we followed I-70 through Grand Junction, past towns with names like Rife and Parachute, the latter featuring some awesome and completely unproblematic cultural appropriation.

Unproblematic cultural appropriation in Parachute, CO.

From there we continued into eastern Utah, which is fantastically desolate.

Eastern Utah

We arrived at Moab in the mid-afternoon, and spent our first night there. For those who’ve never been, Moab is a small town whose main claim to fame is its proximity to a couple truly spectacular national parks, Arches and Canyonlands. It is to the average Western town what REI is to Sears: super-healthy, catering to a mix of people who are obsessively outdoorsy, and others who just have money.

My son and I took the afternoon and drove into Arches, which proved to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. For one thing, Arches is absolutely spectacular; but for another, an incredible number of great views are accessible by car. 

Arches National Park

Of course, it would be great to spend a few days there, camping and hiking and climbing, but you can appreciate the place in a few hours, which is what we had.

Arches National Park

We drove up as far as we could in the park, and we hiked around for a bit.

Arches National Park

About ten years ago when my kids were young, and we took them to the aquarium every other weekend (that’s how it felt, anyway, and we managed to more than pay for our Monterey Bay Aquarium membership several years running), I was always struck at how they and their peers would find the clownfish and invariably say, “There’s Nemo!” The movie Finding Nemo was a filter they carried around with them through the aquarium.

Well, driving through Arches, I couldn’t help but think to myself, This looks just like Radiator Springs! I hadn’t realized just how great a job the Pixar people had done of tapping into the archetype of the Western landscape, but boy did they get it.

Arches National Park

The next day we went back with my dad before getting on the road.

Arches National Park

We drove for several hours, until we reached the town of Selina, Utah.

DSCF6875

We ate lunch a place called Mom’s Cafe (you can’t possibly miss it) and it turns out that the food is really pretty good. I had the chicken fried steak, which was exactly the dish you would expect at a place called Mom’s Cafe in Selina, Utah.

DSCF6887

The “scone,” on the other hand, was completely inexplicable, though partly that’s because my reference scone is in Grantchester.

Scones at the Orchard

We then continued west, through Utah and into Nevada, and picked up Highway 50, the “Loneliest Highway in America.” It lived up to its name.

On the Utah-Nevada border

But so long as you’re prepared for it, it’s also a pretty spectacular drive, desolate and solitary in a way few things are in America any longer.

Pictures from our road trip

We stopped for the night in Ely, though the next time I do this I might try Austin or Eureka, both of which are closer to central Nevada, and are even tinier.

As for the car, which is a 2002 Chrysler 300M.

Our

Having driven it around for a few weeks, I like everything about it, but it doesn’t feel like me. I love the leather interior, the comfortable seats, the V6 engine, the sunroof, the air conditioning that works, the suspension and quiet: in other words, I love everything about the car, but I suspect I’m always going to feel like it’s a really good rental car— awesome amenities, but not really my own property.

Still, I’m grateful for it, and will drive it until it can’t run any longer, or I inexplicably hit the jackpot with some future book. And it was acquired in about the coolest way I’ll ever get a car.

My new camera and Last Great Things

Yesterday I bought a new camera, a Fujifilm X-E1. I've been coveting it since it was announced: it looks like the rangefinder cameras my dad had when we lived in Brazil in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the specs are fabulous, and the reviews have been pretty ecstatic. My wife and I went to the camera store, checked out a couple different models, and after some deliberation, we took the plunge.


via flickr

We thought about a Nikon D7000, because we already have a D5000 and are quite happy with it. But while the D7000 gets great reviews, I felt that the X-E1 would be better for the kinds of professional uses I expect to put a camera to in the coming years– lots of street photography and observations of people using devices– and it'll be very easy to travel with. The D7000 is fabulous, and feels equally professional, but it's a much heavier camera, both physically and visually. This one will be less obtrusive.

Though I've had it for about 18 hours (8 of which I've been asleep), and have mainly taken pictures of the dog (who I don't photograph enough) and my son and his friend (who are having a sleepover), I think it's going to be a camera I can spend years working with.


via flickr

As you can see, it's got a very retro, Leica rangefinder aesthetic, though it has an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one (or the cool hybrid that the X-Pro1 has). Of course, you can set everything to adjust itself automatically; but exposure speed, aperture, and focus all have dedicated manual controls on the camera or lens, and the ISO can be accessed from the Fn button just beside the shutter button.

Dive into the options menus, and there are tons of other things you can adjust, custom profiles you can create (that'll be next on my to-do list), and special effects– simulators that mimic the distinctive color profiles of different Fuji films, a couple black-and-white films, and so on.


via flickr

The other two things about it that I think I'm going to love are that it's very light, and it's surprisingly small.

The pictures don't really give you a good sense of how small the camera is. The body is about a quarter inch longer than an iPhone, and perhaps a quarter inch taller, so it's Not Large At All. And the body weighs about 12 ounces (350 g), which is Really Light.

So while it's mean to be a two-handed camera, you can comfortably carry it in one hand.


via flickr

My talks feature all my own pictures, and so having good a good camera is a professional necessity; it's an important part of the Brand of Me, and helps me get my ideas across to my audiences.

More than that, though, I feel like this is the kind of device I could spend a decade working with. These days, as specs constantly improve and costs drop, it's easy to convince yourself that the Next Cool Thing will make you a better photographer, or writer, or golfer, or guitarist. Of course, there is a marginal truth to that, but it's a lot more important to learn how to use a device to improve your own ability to see, or your voice.

That doesn't mean NOT taking advantage of technology. It not relying on its improvement alone, and being thoughtful about how you can both exploit it and improve yourself. (There are things I've almost completely outsourced to devices. In the last ten years I've memorized the phone numbers of my wife and kids, but entrust all the others to my iPhone.)

There's one other calculation for me. As I get older and more reflective, I think less about how many more turns of Moore's Law I can consume, and how many cool devices I can acquire. The challenge isn't to get the Next Great Thing, but the Last Great Thing: as much as possible, to choose things that, whether I live another five years or another fifty, will last; serve me well; constantly give me pleasure; and help me consciously extend or augment my own abilities. This requires a level of thoughtfulness and self-understanding, and frankly a certain amount of money: a $1400 camera is a lot more likely to fall into this category than a $300 one.

So we'll see if I made the right choice.

Davis does a black-and-white cookie impersonation

Hmm, this looks interesting!

IMG_2275

Ha! You leave me alone all day, and this is what you get!

IMG_2293

Look at me! I’m a black and white cookie!

IMG_2301

Can we go in the car now?

IMG_2280

Hello Davis

I had two cats die this spring and summer, and after they were gone, I really had no interest in replacing them. They had been with me for seventeen years, since they were kittens, and I’d always thought of myself as a cat person; yet, with their passing, I felt like that part of my life was now done.

In contrast, a few days after Christopher died, after I’d cleared out his dog bed and packed away his food and toys– indeed, the afternoon I got his ashes back from the crematorium– I realized: I want another dog. After my wife and I talked it over, we agreed that it would be good to get another dog.

We decided to get a rescue, mainly because there are so many dogs in the Bay Area who need homes. Christopher, so far as anyone could guess, was a Carolina or American Dingo, and that’s a pretty distinctive breed; you don’t see many of them. There’s a Carolina breeder here in California, and a couple places in the Rockies that specialize in Carolina rescues, but they’re not a breed that shows up on Petfinder or the adoption Web sites; so I quickly gave up the idea of getting another one. (I also wasn’t 100% sure getting the same breed was the smart thing for me.)

The Bay Area dog adoption market, it turns out, has a couple weird quirks. First of all, there are tons of chihuahuas and pit bulls, or mixes involving one of those breeds. Second, we import unwanted dogs, from as far away as Taiwan (which has several native breeds, but where it’s very tough to survive as a stray). Apparently the Bay Area can’t produce enough unwanted dogs, and has to import them. Who knew. I filled out a long form, had a phone interview, and got set up to see a couple dogs.

So on Sunday we went to a pet store deep in Campbell to meet two dogs: a five year-old border collie-husky mix, and a two year-old lab. The scene was crazy: a pen full of adorable puppies, crates with adult dogs in back, and people everywhere. If the wedding dresses in Filenes Basement could bark… you get the idea. We tried out both dogs, and were really split: collie-husky was great, calm, and watchful without being too eager, but she could jump tall fences. The two year-old was more compact and energetic, but also more kid oriented, so naturally the children gravitated to him.

Davis
via flickr

Eventually, we went with the two year-old, took care of the paperwork, bought an inordinately large amount of hardware, toys, etc., and brought him home. We renamed him Davis: my wife and I met there, and while he had been called Dallas by his foster family, he didn’t recognize the name.

We’re not really sure what breed he is, and probably never will be. I decided that he’s a “labramuddle,” because he’s smaller than a traditional yellow lab and his face is a bit squarer, but friends suggest he could be an English Labrador.

Davis
via flickr

It’s been less than a week, and Davis is settling in nicely. He has a crate that he sleeps in at night, and we’re still working on how to manage him during the day.

He’s very much of the “I’ll follow whichever human is doing something” model, but he’s more into following the children than Christopher was: I think he likes my son’s manic energy, and certainly enjoys the attention the kids lavish on him.

Davis
via flickr

We’ve taken him to the dog park a couple times, and fortunately he enjoys spending time there.

Davis
via flickr

In the last couple days I’ve discovered that he’s an absolute fiend for chasing balls, which is hardly surprising in a dog that’s bred to be a retriever. For me, though, knowing as little about dogs as I do, everything is still a revelation. (It also means exploring the world of dog toys.)

Davis
via flickr

However, for all his crazed energy, he’s also good at just hanging out under the desk while I work.

We’re quite happy with him, but frankly, we got lucky. Choosing a dog after less than an hour, in a crowded exciting and slightly frantic environment, hardly guarantees good results. if I had to do it again, I’d go to one of these adoption fairs first, with absolutely no plans to get a dog, so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the energy and emotionalism of the event; then I’d go back a second time, and start looking at the dogs.

Davis
via flickr

After all, a dog could be with you for years (if he’s a lab, Davis should live 10-12 years), and while we made a great choice, I’ve spent more time researching which movie to go to on the weekend.

But we’ve got him now, and he’s been great.

Goodbye Christopher

A couple weeks ago Christopher, the dog we inherited in January, died. My wife took him for a morning walk, he went to sleep in the backyard, and never woke up.

Christopher
via flickr

He was 14, so we knew when we took him in that he was more or less on loan. Still, it was a shock, even if it wasn’t really a surprise.

I hadn’t lived with a dog since I was a kid, and when we took him in I didn’t really know what to expect. But he proved to be very smart, and great at communicating his needs. I quickly realized that if I just paid attention to what he was doing, I could decode what he wanted– though sometimes it was especially easy.

Christopher
via flickr

It was also instructive living with a creature who didn’t really just wanted to belong, to be part of the family, and was happy so long as he could be with us. As someone who lives among highly analytical, calculating people, I’m constantly trying to figure out what clients want, what readers want, what funders want to hear, etc. Being with someone whose mental model of himself and others was really straightforward and guileless was instructive.

At the same time, it was also cool that he was a dog, and did dog things. While he took pleasure in being with us, he also enjoyed having his own, very different, incredibly physical life, one where smells and dirt were really fascinating. 

Christopher
via flickr

His life intersected with ours; it didn’t overlap completely. I found that cool.

We went to the dog park pretty regularly, and he had several friends there, including one dog he would follow around and just drool on. They were both quite elderly, so it was a charming sight.

Christopher
via flickr

He also made me a lot more familiar with my neighborhood. Taking him on walks twice a day meant I developed an intimate sense of my surroundings, albeit from a somewhat canine point of view. (I never knew things smelled so interesting around here.)

Christopher
via flickr

A friend– one of the many Peninsula people who had contact with him over the years– said that he was such a good dog he was sure to come back as a human. I’m not so sure he needs to; if it’s possible for a dog to achieve canine nirvana, I think Christopher managed it.

Christopher
via flickr

Christopher

About three months ago, we took in a new member of the household: a 13 year-old dog named Christopher. A friend of ours just turned 90 and is moving, and couldn't take him with her; my son knew Christopher for a couple years, so we agreed to try him out.

I haven't owned a dog in ages, and so I had no real idea what I was getting into. But with two cats (at the time), and birds whove established nests all around the house, I was feeling like, what's one more animal?

He was, of course, somewhat guarded at first, and had some health issues, but over time has become more comfortable, both socially and physically.

One thing that concerned me was that I'd have to drive everywhere with him, as he's too old, and I'm too smart, to have him run beside me on the leash while I bike. So I found an old Burley trailer, ripped out the seats, and put in a dog bed. With enough dog treats he'll hop right in, and now happily rides.

Most days we go to Peninsula in the morning, and he has a circuit he likes to make, visiting different classrooms and saying hi to different kids, and to a cage of guinea pigs. I can't tell if the thinks they're friends or food.

Some of the kids knew him from his previous life; like my son they had tutored with his old owner, who herself was a teacher at Peninsula for a long time. So he's quite the celebrity at school. And he's made a couple canine friends, too.

Being thirteen, he has a variety of chronic ailments, and so he takes as many allergy pills and vitamins as I do. But peanut butter seems able to disguise just about everything.

And despite his age, or perhaps because of it, he's quite cheerful, yet generally pretty mellow. He sleeps like a rock, and like Marlowe has a genius for finding strategically inconvenient places to bed down: getting to the coffee maker in the morning is now like the maze scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indeed, his example, along with my dad's heading off to Singapore for two years after his retirement, has started me rethinking the nature of aging. To the degree I've thought about it at all, I've tended to assume that getting older is mainly about declining faculties, managing chronic health problems, and fighting social irrelevance– telling kids to get the hell off your lawn, but not knowing which kids they at because you don't have on your glasses.

But maybe there's more to the story. Maybe the other stuff can be epiphenomena, the friction or froth that is part of every part of your life.

I've been thinking about this particularly in relation to technology use. There's a tendency of think of elders as 1) incapable of understanding computers, 2) a set of engineering challenges (decreased mobility, reduced short-term memory) that need to be solved using technical means, and 3) something a bit less than free agents. But Steve Jobs was something like 18 months away from being eligible for Medicaid when he died; was he too old to "get" Apple's products? Do the guys (and they're largely guys) who built Silicon Valley in the 1960s and 1970s, who spent their careers in the computer industry and now are retired, somehow lose the ability to think about technical stuff when they get their gold watches?

I suspect that, for important segments of the population at least, the conventional narrative about computers and aging is completely wrong. That there are things we can learn from elders about technology choice and use– about how much to let devices into our lives, about how to use them, about what things really matter. Sure, there are things people my age can do to help our elderly parents make sense of technology; but there are things we can learn from them, too.

 

RIP Tennison

Tennison
on the bed, via flickr

Last night our cat Tennison died. She was 17.

IMG_4480
with my son, via flickr

A couple weeks ago she started eating less, then stopped altogether; I fed her by hand for a few days, but after a while she lost interest in that as well.

I thought about taking her to the vet, but she didn’t show any signs of being uncomfortable or in any pain. I couldn’t feel any tumors or see anything wrong. She didn’t even seem particularly hungry. She just seemed ready to be done.

cats under the couch
under the patio furniture, via flickr

I would not have imagined seventeen years ago that she and her brother would be with me this long, or play such a role in my life. I got them at the Berkeley pet shelter, in the summer of 1995, when they were just a few weeks old. I had been house-sitting some friends’ cats, and discovered that I liked their company, and became desensitized to them after a while, so I went looking for my own. There they were.

After she stopped eating she just did what she’s done for the last couple years, which is sleep pretty much constantly. Sometimes I thought she was spending more time in her box, or on the couch, awake. Though I could never be quite sure if her behavior was changing, or I was paying more attention to her.

Suspccious cat
reading my books, via flickr

A couple months after getting them, I asked out a fellow Davis historian I’d known for the past year. We were engaged a couple months later. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Getting the cats made clear how much better life could be when you’re not alone.

A few days I ago I noticed that her voice was hoarser, and she had trouble speaking. Not that she was ever a great talker. I started spending more time carrying her around. She was moving very slowly, and I wanted her close by.

Occasionally I (rather selfishly) thought, I’m almost finished with the book, so don’t mess it up by dying now. Perhaps it’s wrong to think that she could sense that I was too focused on the book, and had enough energy to wait for me to finish.

It's my computer now
taking over the computer, via flickr

After I sent it off on Sunday, she seemed to decline more rapidly.

Yesterday we spent part of the day in the garage (she walked in while I was working there), then, as we’d done for the last few days, I put her up on a patio chair in the afternoon, and sat beside her while I read. In the evening I brought her inside, and tried to feed her something. She wasn’t interested.

Film noir cat
film noir cat, via flickr

She went over to the water dish, and spent a few minutes there. I could swear at one point she was staring at herself in the bottom of the metal bowl.

My last picture of Tennison
the last picture, via flickr

I kept her with me on the couch, then when she was tired of that, I put her in the box with her brother. Occasionally I stroked her fur. Sometimes she purred a bit, but mainly she just lay there. She didn’t seem to have the strength or desire to move. It felt to me like she was winding down.

When I went to bed, I put her on the foot of the bed, where the cats have slept for years.

At some point during the night she got down, went into the hallway, stretched out, and died.

A year ago…

…I was settling into Cambridge. Wow.

My street
my road, via flickr

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve

Yesterday we organized a Christmas Eve hike in Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
via flickr

Windy Hill is a park bounded by Portola Road and Skyline Boulevard, and the hike we went on took us from the former to the latter. There are parking lots on Portola and Skyline. We followed the Ridge Trail to Spring Ridge, and hiked it to the top of the park.

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
via flickr

It’s one of the few parks that allows both dogs and horses, so we saw a fair number of each.

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
via flickr

It also turned out to be rather kid-friendly, though it helped that there was a whole pack of kids. Of all the things you can take to keep kids from complaining during a hike, buddies are the most important.

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
via flickr

Unlike the ridge parks, where any trail will have lots of uphill and downhill, these are one way: either you’re headed up to Skyline, or down to Portola Road.

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
via flickr

The view from the summit is really great, though there are lots of good views of the valley and East Bay as you go.

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
via flickr

The science of cycling: Do expensive bikes equal faster commutes?

I found this article about bike commuting a few days ago, and found it both quite interesting, and very entertainingly written.

I acquired a secondhand steel frame bike for £50, spruced it up, and set off. I soon got into the swing of cycling the 27 miles (43.5 kilometres) from home in Sheffield, United Kingdom, to work in Chesterfield and back, managing it most days when I wasn’t on call and didn’t have commitments off site. After about six months of commuting I began to wonder whether the one way journey time of about 55 minutes could be reduced. Those in the know suggested a new bike could knock 10% off it.

Evidence based cycling is not high on the bicycle salesman’s agenda. No one will tell you how much more efficient one bicycle is over another; they just say it is better. Making a decision on what was perceived to be best and dreaming of extra time in bed, I looked into the UK government’s Cycle to Work scheme. This scheme allows an employee to purchase a bicycle (up to a cost of £1000 (€1180; $1560)) at a significant discount by using tax incentives, provided the bicycle is used for commuting to and from work. The initiative aims to “promote healthier journeys to work and reduce environmental pollution.”1 However, doubt has been expressed in the popular press regarding whether the new generation of middle aged men in lycra (MAMILs) are actually using their scheme funded bikes to commute or just to gum up the roads (particularly hills) at weekends. The benefits are debatable but attractive, and the scheme has encouraged a lot of people to spend a lot of money on high end bicycles. I purchased a bike at the top end of the cost allowed by the scheme and opted for a carbon frame because it was significantly lighter than my existing bicycle’s steel frame. The wheels were lighter and tyres narrower too. All were factors that made me believe that the extra £950 I had spent would get me to work in a trice.

My new bike seemed wonderful, if somewhat uncomfortable. I didn’t notice a dramatic decrease in commuting time, nor did the cycle computer I had fitted to my new bicycle to record any notably swift journeys. But, one sunny morning, I got to work in 43 minutes, the fastest I could recall. My steel bike was consigned to a corner of the garage to gather dust—until I had a puncture. The next day I was back on my old steel bike. I fitted the cycle computer, set off . . . and discovered I had got to work in 44 minutes. “Hang on,” I thought, “was that minute worth £950 or was it a fluke?” There was only one answer: a randomised trial. I toyed with the idea of blinding it but, in the interest of self preservation and other road users, decided against it.

I now bicycle just about everywhere, and only use the car when I'm carrying lots of groceries or kids; in fact, I'm trying an experiment this fall where I'll be letting a friend use the car for a couple months, and we'll see how well we can do with one vehicle. Mainly I bike for my health, and also to lower my carbon and pollution footprint (which I then more an make up for by grilling, I have no doubt); and I've often wondered if a "faster" bike really would be worth it in my more bike-oriented mode. The answer seems to be, probably not.

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