Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: Cambridge (page 2 of 6)

Pictures from Oxford

Lots of pictures from Oxford going up on my Flickr account.

Here’s one of the place we stayed, the bar that was the inspiration for the Prancing Pony. For all you Tolkien fans: the inspiration for the Prancing Pony!
via flickr

Continuing the LOTR / fantasy theme, we went to the Eagle and Child (the favored custom of the Inklings) for dinner.

The Eagle and Child
via flickr

Off to Oxford

After lunch with one of the founders of the field of cognitive archaeology, it's off to Parker's Pieces to catch the bus to Oxford. I'm commenting / chairing a session tomorrow in a conference on visualization in the age of computerisation, a subject that of course is slightly irresistable to me.

I've decided to try the kamikaze-like move of not taking any laptop at all– just my camera, beloved Moleskine notebook, plenty to read and write, and my iPhone. I want to reduce the amount of stuff I'm carrying, but I also suspect this a secret way to convince myself that I could really use an iPad– that under the right circumstances, I could make it a viable mobile tool. Fortunately the waiting times for the new iPad are insane, so I'm in no danger of actually getting one.

Besides, it's good to play around with tools, to better understand which ones you really need, and which ones you don't. Self-experimentation is always valuable.

Jamie’s Dream School

Heather and I have been drawn into “Jamie’s Dream School,” a program on one the networks that apparently is not BBC. (Who knew there were such things here? There’s good coffee now, too, which definitely also did not exist when I was coming here in the late 1980s.) The “Jamie” is celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who had a lousy time in high school, and wanted to create a school that could energize students who have run into the kinds of problems he had as a kid.

The program is fascinating, in part because he’s been able to draw in some very famous people to serve as teachers (actor Simon Callow, classicist Mary Beard, historian David Starkey), and because the students include some astonishingly badly-behaved, no-filters, unselfconsciously revealing, and deeply undisciplined kids. Which is not to say that they’re bad people, nor that they lack potential; but it’s often hard to tell what’s underneath the bluster and distraction.

I keep thinking, “What they need is a meditation teacher.” The kids spend a lot of time chattering, texting, distracting themselves, talking over each other– keeping a running non-commentary of noise that makes it hard for them to hear teachers, each others, or themselves. I don’t get the sense that they all enjoy being this way (by episode four, some of them are definitely showing impatience with each other and their own lapses), but it’s not clear that they have a lot of knowledge about how to behave differently– not in the sense of being from bad backgrounds and not having role models, but in just not knowing how to be silent and present and mindful. Knowing how to still yourself is a pretty fundamental, and profound, form of self-control, and particularly in a school is important.

(Indeed, it may be that one of the great virtues of regular church-going was that it introduced people to spaces where ritual silence was the norm. Indeed, is there a religious or spiritual tradition that doesn’t treasure silence? Are there practices that see the divine in chitchat (I think things like speaking in tongues don’t count– while it can’t be understood, it’s a sign of holy presence), or distraction as a form of divine possession? I think not.)

The show is also worth watching to get a sense of just how challenging good teaching is. When you see someone as talented as Simon Callow struggle to get kids interested in acting, you begin to appreciate just how much craft knowledge and intelligence is necessary to teach well. The idea that those can’t do, teach, is such utter bullshit.

What I’ve been doing when I haven’t been traipsing to the Orchard

After working on this for a couple weeks, I’ve reached that familiar point with the contemplative computing article (or mini-monolith, as it’s well over 10,000 words) where it’s not yet completely finished, but I need to put it down for a little bit, and go do other things. I have a couple editors who are ready to kill me if I don’t deliver on other work, and it would be good to get a little critical distance from the piece.

This time I’m trying an experiment: I’ve put the article up on Google Docs, and made it public. You can read it here, though it may take forever to load, as Gdocs tends to choke on large files, so I’ve also posted a PDF.

The introduction is below. Naturally, comments are welcome.

Contemplative Computing

The phrase “contemplative computing” sounds oxymoronic. Information technologies today do many things, but they do not make us more contemplative. Instead, they interrupt and distract us; they throw up swarms of real-time data that obscure our long-term perspective; they encourage us to spread our attention across a range of activities and devices—Web pages, documents and presentations, emails, phone calls, text messages, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Some look to technological solutions (e.g., better filtering tools or “distraction-free” software) or better personal management (exemplified by the GTD—”Getting Things Done” movement) to give teem balance; a few take digital sabbaths, and simply leave their digital lives behind for a day a week. I believe, however, that we can create information technology that does not distract us from the world, but invites us to engage with it more thoroughly, thoughtfully, and profoundly. In this article I will describe what contemplative computing could be; why it is an appealing and achievable design goal and attitude to devices; and how we can get there. My argument will unfold as follows.

I first explain why contemplation is valuable, and how contemplative practices have been applied in fields as diverse as military training and psychotherapy. I then look more closely at contemplation itself: contrary to the popular perception of it as a solitary, passive state, I argue argue that contemplation is active, skilled, embodied, and social. From this, I develop a set of design principles for contemplative computing. These are intended for both designers and users, for neither have complete control over the way people use computers; indeed, contemplative computing requires being contemplative about computing– learning to think about how and why we use technologies in particular ways, and how to improve our relationships between devices. I explain how an approach to information technologies that emphasizes engagement, self-experimentation, and embodied cognition; that skillfully used spatiality and sparse design; that rewarded challenges, acknowledged obliquity, and allowed for mind wandering and reentering, would help us begin to deal with the problems created by today’s information technologies and our interactions with them.

Thus this article is an effort to demonstrate how we can design with values in mind [Harper, Rodden, Rogers, and Sellen, 2006]. The project also seeks to answer the call proposed by Levy to develop new means for contemplation in creative and scholarly life [Levy 2007] in response to growing time and productivity pressures [Menzies and Newson 2007]. As computers make their way into more and more parts of our everyday lives, we need to understand how tools initially built for the scientific laboratory or office may be ill-suited to the home or family; how the objectives of efficiency and optimization may not work in environments characterized by irreducible uncertainty and ambiguity. Given the ubiquity of computers and their power to influence our lives, it makes sense to think about how they can be designed and used to better promote our abilities to see, act in, and improve the world, and to improve ourselves.

Contemplation offers a variety of benefits. A contemplative stance can help people be more creative; deal with complex problems that require months or years to solve; and is essential to long-term happiness. Contemplation promotes both self-sufficiency and close, questioning observation of the world, and both are particularly valuable in this moment in the history of technology. We need to develop personal tools to better control information technologies, and to see how technologies that often are described as irresistible and inevitable are really shaped by human decisions and choices (or the failure to make such decisions). Contemplative computing can help with both of these urgent tasks.

Speaking tomorrow on spaces, media and collaboration

I’m giving a talk tomorrow at the Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice at City University London. Essentially it’s a live performance of the paper spaces article, though I’ll also try to tie in some of what I’ve learned from the contemplative computing project as well.

Here’s the abstract:

In this talk Alex will explore relationship between space and media. We normally treat spaces and media as different things, but our interaction with such communicative media as newspapers, paintings, books, and maps has an important embodied, physical dimension to it, which can be exploited to support collaborative work. This talk will describe how large-scale media, such as wall-sized maps and floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, support collaboration in four cases: analog circuit design, Buckminster Fuller’s World Game, emergency tabletop exercises, and expert workshops conducted by futurists. Alex will talk about how each invites invite participation, annotation, and reinterpretation by users as opposed to passive consumption, and how they support the generation of common knowledge. Finally, he will show how in the near-future we will be able to design digital tools that better support collaboration.

I’ve also put together a Prezi because it’s a talk about spaces and media and collaboration… and because that’s what I do.

Bath and Bristol

We're now back in Cambridge, after a long and pleasant couple days in the West of England. I really enjoyed it, both as a tourist, and in my capacity as Mr. Contemplative Computing.

We got to Bath on Thursday afternoon, and decided to walk to the hotel. This turned out to be a good move, because Bath is A Small Place. The train station is beautifully well-situated, not in the middle of things but on a street that takes you straight to Bath Abbey and the center of town; a block further is the Pulteney Bridge, and our hotel was just a couple blocks from there.


So if you want to go to the University or see some of the more out-of-the-way gardens you need a cab or bus, but much of what you want to see if within a few square blocks: the Roman baths, the Abbey, the Crescent, Circle, even the Saracens' Head (a pub where Charles Dickens lived, and which shows off Britain's proud history of multiculturalism).

After checking into the guest house, we went to the Abbey, and walked around the city. I couldn't help but notice that Bath Abbey is a fantastic, majestic space (though with terrible acoustics, apparently), and it literally overshadows the Latter-Day Saints church and Quaker meeting house nearby.

We then had dinner at a little Italian pizza place. After that it was a drink at the Coeur de Lion, which advertised itself as the smallest pub in Bath.


We stayed at a little place called the Edgar Townhouse, on Great Pulteney Street. We got put in a basement room, which turned out to be fine, though it was cozy. But the breakfast was good.

Breakfast this morning

Friday we went to Bristol for my talk. Bristol is only about 15 minutes away on the train, and the Watershed and other restored stuff is maybe 20 minutes from Temple Meads.

Pervasive Media Studio

The docks and shipyard, which had connected this part of Britain with the rest of the world, closed in the 1960s and 1970s, and so for a long time large parts of the city were derelict; they've now been revived, with the mix of science, media, Cal-Mex and Japanese cuisine, tax forgiveness, and startup space that are essential for such New City enterprises.


We saw a little of it, but after my talk headed back to Bath in time to go to the Roman Baths, which I found REALLY cool. For one thing, it's like two exhibit spaces in one: there are the original Roman baths, which have been the subject of some elaborate archaeological excavations, and the Victorian improvements, which involved things like carving new statues of Julius Caesar.


Like the medieval Stockholm museum, or the Turku museum, this one takes you through the archaeological site, rather than just presenting you with exhibits from the dig; it's a style of presentation that I really like.


What was odder was seeing large numbers of fellow visitors listening to audio tours. It was a bit zombie-like, though I'm sure there are things they learned that I didn't. I'll have to go back to my Pevsner series volume on Bath to get caught up.


After that we had dinner at the Crystal Palace, a pub and restaurant just down the street from the baths.

Crystal Palace

I'm glad we got to see Bath on Thursday and Friday, because Saturday it was packed. Like Cambridge, the crowds are mad, with tons of people in the pedestrian-only shopping mall, cueing up for the Roman Baths and Pump Room, and generally being everywhere. Nonetheless, we made the best of it.

Roman Baths at Bath

We spent part of the morning at the Jane Austen Centre, a house converted into a museum for Jane Austen fans. Though these days, it's really devoted to that version of Jane Austen that's filtered through the movies; so much so that Austen herself (as well as all her other characters) are in danger of being upstaged by Mr. Darcy– in particular the Colin Firth version of Mr. Darcy. Actually, most of the museum is about Austen and Bath in her time; it's more the gift shop that has turned into the House of Firth. (The "I [Heart] Mr Darcy" bumper stickers and tote bags nearly sent my wife over the edge.)


Bath's relationship to Jane Austen is emblematic of the mix of honest and commercialism that at their best English historical sites manage to strike. The message can be reduced to, "Jane Austen reluctantly came to his city with her elderly parents, and over the next five years, endured the loss of her beloved father, the decline of her family's status, constant marginalization in a city obsessed with wealth and fashion, and a creative drought that represents an incalculable loss given her short life. Don't forget to visit the gift shop!"

Jane Austen museum

After that, we went to the Assembly Rooms and the Fashion Museum. The Assembly Rooms are a great space, featured in several scenes in Persuasion (there really is NO escaping Jane Austen here– I recognized several places from the movies, and the fact that the Rooms are on Bennett Street cannot but raise an eyebrow).

The Fashion Museum is fascinating, though perhaps for me not quite in the ways the creators meant. It's one of those museums where the curatorial and research work are not hidden away but are worked into the exhibits, which is something I always appreciate. (It's used to incredible and often devastating effect in the Jewish Museum in Vienna.) And while I'm not hugely knowledgeable about fashion, though I'm not as dismissive about it as I used to be, I did find it educational.

I'm pretty sure the designers did not intend to invoke postmodern / dystopian anime, but in the exhibit on wedding gowns (thank you so much, Kate Middleton), I was seized by the memory of the cyborg factory shootout scene in Ghost in the Shell 2, and for the life of me could not get it out of my mind.

Can't sleep... brides will eat me...

Being around historical exhibits doesn't usually make me want to be armed, but this did.

So it was an excellent time, but it's also nice to be back in Cambridge.

Ducks at the Abbey

Tonight, while walking back from dinner, we were crossing the square outside Bath Abbey, and saw two ducks.

They looked like they were sightseeing. It was amusing.

Greetings from Bath

We got into Bath this afternoon, and spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the city, soaking in the Georgian excellence, and generally seeing things that Jane Austen would have seen. (Heather actually downloaded a Kindle copy of Persuasion, a large part of which is set in Bath.)

I've never been here before, and so find the whole place very interesting. Unlike New Orleans, which I expected to sustain a sophisticated Weimar-level decadence, or at least have vampires, but instead turned out to be an open-air fraternity party, Bath pretty much lives up to my expectations, which come entirely from Jane Austen movies.

We're on Great Pultney Avenue, in the… let's say garden level… of a row house. It's one of those grand Bath streets, which may get a mention in A Certain Author's Works. Anyway, from here it's a short walk to the center of town, over one of the few bridges that has shops built onto it.

Naturally we spent a little time in the Bath Abbey.

We also went to the Circle and Crescent.

Mainly we just walked around a lot, until eventually we found the local Topping & Co. (our beloved bookstore), then wandered to dinner at an Italian place.

From there, it was on to a pub for a pint, and back to the hotel.

Tomorrow morning we'll head to Bristol, do a little sight-seeing there, then head to the Watershed for my talk.

“I am for… I am for Bath”

Off to Bath this morning, where Heather and I will spend the day. Then tomorrow it's a short ride to Bristol to give my talk.

I got the Pevsner architectural histories of both cities, but even though they're the size of a large travel guide they weigh a ton, thanks to the delicious heavy paper they use for all that four-color printing. So regretfully I left them at home, and will trust that I've either read enough of them to be at least minimally informed about where we're going, or can catch up when we get back.

Pretty much how I’ve felt about all of Cambridge

Down at Addenbrookes today, giving a talk about weight loss and futures. Across the parking lot from the building where I was speaking, there was this lab:

Pretty much how I feel about ALL of Cambridge
sign via flickr

Though for me, all of Cambridge has been a center for brain repair. I’m not sure if I can make a whole new career as Mr. Contemplative Computing (though I seem to have tapped into a set of anxieties and hopes even deeper than I expected), but whatever happens when I go back to California, I feel about as sharp and intellectually engaged as any time in my whole life.

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