Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Travel (page 2 of 82)

Utrecht and Happinez festival

My second talk at the Happinez festival

I was in Europe for about ten days at the end of September. I used to blog about trips in near real-time, but what little real-time reportage I do from the road now tends to happen on Facebook; so this is a chance to catch up on the trip as a whole.

I spent three days at the Happinez Festival in Utrecht, then the following week was all over, giving talks in Geneva, Copenhagen, and Luxembourg; then it was back to Amsterdam, and home. If there’s a way to solve the traveling salesman problem to get the least optimal result, I think I found it.

The Happinez Festival is a biennial festival put on by Happinez magazine. It’s held in a nineteenth-century fort that’s been converted into a concert and event venue, which was fascinating. The walk to the venue is very pleasant, and takes you through some classic Dutch countryside.


For three days, the place gets transformed.

Happinez Festival

The fact that it’s a fort made for some interesting moments.

Happinez Festival

The green room for speakers, for example, is located in what used to be a gunpowder magazine.


I spoke on all three days, to crowds that were satisfyingly large, and more important, pretty engaged and interested.

Day 1 of the Happinez Festival

We also did book signings after each talk.

I’d love one day to understand the dynamics behind book signings– in particular how you can have large numbers of people one day, then nobody the next!

My third talk at the Happinez festival

I also got to see a bit of the city, as I wandered down to the cathedral and university.


Utrecht is an amazingly pretty place, and while it doesn’t have the amazing concentration of cultural monuments that Amsterdam has, it’s still a great place to walk around. (Few cities are as dense with world-class museums and architecture as Amsterdam, anyway.)


Maybe I’m just getting older, but I appreciate well-kept, prosperous, stable cultures more and more– which means I really enjoy my time in places like the Netherlands and Nordic countries.

However, some things continue to mystify me. The wide variety of things available at the hotel breakfast to put on food that turn out not to be butter but instead unknown varieties of spreadable cheese, for example:

Absolutely none of these is butter, it turns out

But other than that the hotel the speakers were staying in (the Hotel Mitland) was great.

Hotel Mitland

My room had a terrific view for working.


It was an interesting experience to give the same talk three times, on three consecutive days. It did mean that I was able to refine my remarks to an unusual degree, and sharpen both the points I was making and the delivery. Usually, if you’re diligent you take notes on what you’ve said, how it went over, etc., but there’s a 50-50 chance that you’ll forget or lose those notes; this time, having 24 hours between talks meant I was able to incorporate the feedback a lot more quickly.


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.


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.

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.


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


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.


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.


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).

The path is a couple hundred yards long.


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.


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


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


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Back in Virginia

I’m back in Virginia this weekend, for a memorial for one of my professors, and to see Mom and family.

I spent part of my childhood west of Charlottesville, in Stuarts Draft. We lived here for a couple years, and even after moved to Richmond, we came up here quite regularly to spend weekends with my grandmother. I haven’t been back in more than 20 years, a reflection of the same sensibility that led me to get out of Virginia as quickly as I could and no look back.

I have to admit I didn’t really give it enough credit. For one thing, it’s a beautiful part of the country.

Shenandoah Valley

And as a homeowner, I can’t help but notice that houses cost roughly a quarter of what they do in the downscale section of Silicon Valley that I live in. (The only thing remotely close to Bay Area prices is a 6 bedroom house on 27 acres, built in 1777.)

Mom and me

Mom still lives here, and indeed several of her brothers, nieces and nephews, and other kin live nearby— all of them not that far from where their mother grew up.

We spent some time driving around today— I spent an awful lot of time in the car, it’s turning out to be on of those trips— and I was really struck at home the area has changed. For one thing, my old elementary school has closed.

My old elementary school

The manufacturing plants that used to be the bedrock of the economy are also gone, and lots of the farms are gone too. In their place is an algae bloom of box-box stores and fast food. We think of poverty as looking like present-day Detroit or burned-out buildings; I’m beginning to think it looks like Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven, as far as the eye can see.


I also brought my son with me, as I wanted him to get a sense of where his dad lived, and that I essentially grew up in a version of District 12. However, since we visited Monticello today, his sense of ordinary life in this part of the world is a bit skewed!


Well, you can never be guaranteed that kids will learn what you mean them to learn.

Two years ago…

…my wife and I were in Stockholm. Just realized.

Downtown Stockholm
downtown Stockholm, via flickr

Funny how time flies.

Wacka wacka wacka
mosaic, Stockholm train station, via flickr

In Seattle

I was in Seattle this weekend at the POD Network conference, a conference of academic technology and professional development types.

I’ve not been in Seattle in a while, so it was cool to be there. And the crowd at the conference was terrific: very technically savvy, so they knew what I was talking about, but they could also ask interesting questions, and very engaged. Especially impressive for a crowd that had already been at the conference for three days and hadn’t yet had lunch.

via flickr

It was the first time I’d given a big talk since finishing the book, and it was good to see that it seems to hold up in public.

After my talk I spent the afternoon on the monorail (how often as a futurist do you get to ride on an artifact from the future?) and visiting the Experience Museum Project and Seattle Public Library, two of the cooler pieces of architecture… well, anywhere in the world.

via flickr

The Experience Music Project is said to look like a melted Jimi Hendrix guitar from above; that could well be urban legend, but I do know is it’s really cool on the ground.

More on security theatre

A very good Vanity Fair piece on security theatre in our nation’s airports. It features a walk through Dulles with security expert Bruce Schneier (who I once appeared with in an article)

To walk through an airport with Bruce Schneier is to see how much change a trillion dollars can wreak. So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost. And directed against a threat that, by any objective standard, is quite modest. Since 9/11, Islamic terrorists have killed just 17 people on American soil, all but four of them victims of an army major turned fanatic who shot fellow soldiers in a rampage at Fort Hood. (The other four were killed by lone-wolf assassins.) During that same period, 200 times as many Americans drowned in their bathtubs. Still more were killed by driving their cars into deer. The best memorial to the victims of 9/11, in Schneier’s view, would be to forget most of the “lessons” of 9/11. “It’s infuriating,” he said…. “We’re spending billions upon billions of dollars doing this—and it is almost entirely pointless. Not only is it not done right, but even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do.”…

What the government should be doing is focusing on the terrorists when they are planning their plots. “That’s how the British caught the liquid bombers,” Schneier says. “They never got anywhere near the plane. That’s what you want—not catching them at the last minute as they try to board the flight.”

James Fallows also has a Boxing Day roundup of security theatre. Beware terrorist cupcakes!

A little text about Paris

Having spent a day in Paris, it would be criminal blog negligence not to mention something about it, and put in a few pictures. I was there Saturday, and got to see a little of the Latin Quarter and the old Jewish quarter. Mainly, I took pictures. It goes without saying that a day is not nearly long enough to see the city, but it’s all I had. I’ll have to go back another time.

Gare du Lyon station, via flickr

Along the Seine, via flickr

Florence Kahn
Florence Kahn, the noted Kosher bakery/deli/etc., via flickr

Notre Dame
The obligatory picture of Notre Dame, via flickr

Small Fountain, via flickr

Shakespeare and Co.
Shakespeare and Company, via flickr

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.

via flickr

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?

via flickr

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.

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