Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: menlo park (page 1 of 2)


Peninsula School, this afternoon, via flickr

[To the tune of Tzimon Barto, “Preludes: Prelude No. 6 in B minor (Assai lento),” from the album Chopin: Preludes & Nocturnes (a 3-star song, imo).]

Peninsula Craft Fair

Today was the Craft Fair. Each year Peninsula has a fair in early December that’s part fund-raiser, part school marketing, and part social event; it’s one of my favorite events for the same reasons I like things like biking and travel. This year, as usual, we were over there during early set-up: my daughter had a table this year, and was selling handmade jewelry. (She did pretty well, too, and we had some interesting conversations around pricing: in particular, whether you should charge people more for pieces that actually take you longer to make when you’re just learning, or whether you give people a discount because your early work isn’t necessarily as good as your later work.)

Craft Fair
setting up the front porch, via flickr

After helping my daughter get settled with her stuff– which basically involved making sure she had the boxes that she needed, and that he’d connected with her fellow Girl Scouts– I walked around and took pictures. I always like the school right before these events open: it’s like being backstage before a show.

Craft Fair
turning the play space into a cafe, via flickr

Of course, since its a progressive school, Peninsula has always had a pretty active arts and crafts program, though the specific offerings have varied depending on the interests of the teachers, tradition, etc.. (Though by varied, I mean decade by decade: my wife’s weaving teacher arrived at the school during the Roosevelt administration, and left sometime in the Reagan years.) For a long time, I regarded it as an interesting part of the school culture, but more recently I’ve come to form a theory that it serves an important role balancing the other parts of the school curriculum.

Craft Fair
our renovated auditorium, via flickr

It’s a bit of a stereotype about the school that Peninsula kids spend a lot of time learning interpersonal stuff, getting in touch with their feelings, etc.– typical flaky California educational stuff. Like some stereotypes, there’s a grain of truth to that, at least in the lower grades: certainly the nursery kids are explicitly taught how to behave, how to deal with disagreements and bad feelings, etc.. I think for the older kids it’s more implicit, in part because most of them have been through years of training already, but also because they all kind of realize that they need to be civil because they’re all going to be living with each other for the next several years.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but even for someone who writes, teaches, and designs events for a living, it seems a bit… insubstantial. But after reading Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett, and especially the way craft standards support the rough, blunt communication about success and failure, I started to see the crafts at Peninsula in a new light.

Karyssa Miller's amazing weavings
karyssa miller’s weavings, via flickr

For while it’s important to get along with other people, and to be creative, it’s also important to know that some things absolutely have to be done in certain ways, and that beyond a very basic level, expression can’t happen without mastery of your medium and cultivation of talent. The kids start off on very simple looms, and progress over time to more sophisticated ones: it’s a big thing to move to the floor looms, or to graduate from rope pots to the potter’s wheel. Further, the loom doesn’t give a damn whether you’re imaginative, or you get along with your friends: it needs to be handled a certain way, and it requires you to have a feel for your materials. The utter impersonality of craftwork forces you to learn things that you don’t in more egalitarian and human contexts, and the fact that the school provides both is a good thing.

Soup heroes
soup heroes, via flickr

Ghosts of Spring Fairs past

I realized tonight that we’ve been going to the Fair for a number of years now.

me and my son in 2003

It’s interesting for me to reread what I wrote about the Fair in years past: I tend to see it as a concentrated dose of Peninsula culture, or an event that I can subject to an amateur thick description– a ritual that shines a light on a whole world. And of course, there’s face paint.

my son in 2005

I’ve long appreciated the amount of time parents put into organizing and running it, but what strikes me this year is the degree to which the kids are also involved in putting on the Fair. My kids have always enjoyed going to the fair, but this year they were enthusiastic about going the day before to help set up, and of course going back the next morning. It seemed unthinkable to them that we wouldn’t do setup– which of course is just what made our going inevitable.

from 2006 (hmm, does this extra weight make me look fat?)

The school spends a lot of time talking about its distinctive culture, and arguing about how much we can (or should try to) describe it; however, what’s missing from these discussions is a recognition of the basic fact that while the parents (and adults more generally) are indispensable to the running of the school, we may not actually be central to its culture. It’s the kids who really own it. That’s a slightly radical idea, especially for a bunch of intelligent of often pretty egocentric grownups who are used to creating and controlling things (welcome to Silicon Valley, where pride is our favorite of the Seven Deadly Sins). Certainly if you take an active, performative view of culture, we’re but the chorus; and factor in the tacit knowledge that circulates among and is shared by the kids but never makes it to the grownups, and parents become rather peripheral.

Setting out signs for the Spring Fair

Sunday morning my kids got me up before 7 to… go to school.

The day before, we had been at Peninsula (at their insistence), setting up for the Spring Fair. My daughter was invited to come back the next morning to set out “no parking ” signs around the neighborhood.

This is actually a nontrivial thing. One of the most important things any private school in the area has to do, from what I can tell, is not alienate the neighbors over parking. Every school seems to go to great lengths to make sure that clueless parents don’t park in the neighbors during back to school night.

So the next morning I drove the kids over to school at 7:30. I had visions of dropping them off, making sure they were fine, then heading to a Starbucks. I didn’t have any coffee before we left.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. First, we got the signs loaded into the truck, a battered old Toyota that looks like it’s served the school about as long as internal combustion has been in existence. Then the kids climbed into the back, and after getting some friendly but very clear safety instruction, we were on our way.

Setting out signs
via flickr

We drove up and down the streets, stopping occasionally to set out signs. The kids would hand them over to the parents, who’d then set them up.

Setting out signs
via flickr

The kids really enjoyed being in the truck, of course: they don’t often get to ride around in vehicles like this, and when they weren’t working, they were trying to touch the trees as they passed.

Spring fair setup
via flickr

At some point, jogging behind the truck, it occurred to me that I probably looked like the personal security detail for the first family of a Third World dictatorship, or a “freedom fighter” on my way to liberate a radio station in my nation’s second-largest city. Though I left my AK-47 at home.

Setting out signs
via flickr

Of course, the kids had a fantastic time. Not only was it cool for them to drive around and throw things out of a truck; it was cool for me to see how readily and willingly they gave up their Sunday morning to work. I don’t think they’re motivated by loyalty, or the kind of impulse that sometimes moves me to do alumni interviews for my alma mater; it’s something deeper, that doesn’t involve as much calculation. With luck, they’ll find other places in their lives that deserve this kind of investment, and reward it.

And I never made it to Starbucks, but it was okay. They had coffee at the Big Building.

Ah, coffee at last!
via flickr

Stuffie cafe

Last week my daughter’s class held its annual Penny Carnival. The Penny Carnival is one of the cooler things that Peninsula does, and is a great example of how school events bring together the older and younger kids.

In the penny carnival, kids from the lower school come to the fourth grade class to do activities, like face painting and petting animals. They also bring their stuffies, and leave them in stuffie day care.

I noticed that one of the stuffie day care areas was something she had made at home a few days before: a little stuffie-sized cafe.


I asked how she chose a cafe. She explained that they wanted something global. “We had the London Eye, and an Eiffel tower from Paris,” she explained. “But we also wanted something American. So I made a cafe.”

When I was growing up, cafes were things we read about in travel books. Now, they’re so ubiquitous my daughter (who’s spent plenty of time in them, thanks to me) can consider them quintessentially American.

She later added that this particular stuffie cafe is located in New Jersey.

Please rise for the national anthem

Singing Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" with the Bell Brothers.

via flickr

And man, do I need to replace that shirt, which is an artifact of my previous body. Maybe I should ignore the credit limit, take a weekend in San Francisco, and Just Do It. I currently have two pairs of jeans and a black jacket that actually fit; everything else ranges from oversized, to cavernous, to drapery.


There’s been a small epidemic of break-ins in our usually safe neighborhood– robberies when people are away at work. Yesterday it was our turn.

I got home with the kids about 5:30, and as I was pulling up to the house, saw the front door open. I left the kids outside, went in, and pretty quickly it was obvious that we’d been hit sometime during the day. Of course, I called the police immediately, they came and did a report, then I spent 45 minutes on hold with Allstate, waiting to file a report.

The thieves were very selective. Lots of little electronics (games, the Wii, a couple iPods and DS Lites), some silver, and a significant portion of my wife’s jewelry, most of which (like 99.9% of the jewelry in the world) has a much higher sentimental than financial value. But lots of little things add up to a non-trivial chunk of change.

I lost a couple things– in particular some nice headphones a Danish think-tank gave me a couple years ago– but the stuff I cared about was untouched, mainly because the burglars didn’t care to take books (which are all inscribed) or DVDs (for whatever reason), and I don’t know enough about jewelry to have any. Later I realized that most of the highly portable and valuable things I care about are in my garage office, or in my pockets or about my person. If I were mugged I’d lose my entire personal data infrastructure.

But this was like the twister that leaves one trailer untouched and carries its neighbor to the next county (or nearest pawn shop).

An odd piece of karma. Or like a flu that hits everyone, but leaves one parent well enough to take care of the rest of the family.

The experience makes me want programmable RFID tags, so I could more easily mark small, expensive things that don’t necessarily have unique serial numbers. And better locks on the windows. At least the latter I can get at Home Depot.


My corner pub

Last night, as I was having an exceptional second beer in 24 hours (I’d had the first with dinner, and then went to the gym and sauna, so I thought I could risk it), I briefly lamented the fact that when I lived in Berkeley, I had a corner pub– the wonderful, loud, and interesting Bison Brewery, where I’d go, have a pint or two, and write. I wasn’t exactly a regular– the bartenders and I didn’t know each others’ names– but I still enjoyed the place. I don’t have a pub here. I drink so little it would hardly be possible. Still, it seemed a bit of a shame.

Today, as my wife took the kids and their friends to the movies, I headed over to Cafe Zoë, to do some work. (I’m now at that age– or maturity– where I see that solitude is an opportunity, not the absence of others.) I’ve been coming here for years, when it was under different ownership. As I was ordering my chai latte, I read a sign they’d just put up announcing a loyalty program. Visit ten times, your next coffee is free– a deal I’ll be able to take advantage of approximately every four days, even when I’m not running a tab. “I should sign up for that,” I said.

via flickr

The owner– Zoë’s mother– said, “Oh, we’ll give you this drink for free. You’ve been here a lot more than ten times. You’re a regular.”

I guess I am.

My new cafe… and bank

I’m spending the morning at Cafe Zoë, writing to a lot of people. I never expected, when I started working as a futurist, that I would have to calculate what time it was in Beijing and Budapest, and make sure to get some e-mails out while people are still in their offices or awake. But that’s my life these days.


I’ve been coming to this cafe for a couple years now (actually, a quick check of my external memory– aka the blog archive– reveals its been four years and one month), and this morning I discovered a new function. I got to the counter, realized I didn’t have any money, and apologized and told them I’d be back.

“It’s okay,” the owner said. “You can owe us. It’s not the first time you’re here.” She pulled out a book with IOU on the front– I guess there are plenty of people who come here a little absent-minded– and wrote down my order.

It makes perfect sense. Unless I want to never come back here, I’m good for the $3.60. And they want to keep me as a regular customer, so it’s a reasonable risk for them.

Fortunately they seem to be doing pretty well, despite the downturn: there are a core group of us who are here regularly, and they seem now to have multiple clienteles at different times of day: stroller jogger moms in the morning, people coming in for lunch, freelancers or people who aren’t working and home and don’t want to work in the office (hello!), and people from nearby businesses, popping in for a cup of coffee. It’s a real slice of the neighborhood, and very nice to see.

Back to work

Got a lot of my own stuff that I’m working on, as well as never-ending Institute stuff.


Fortunately it’s a cold, rainy day here, perfect for writing.

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