Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: Travel (page 1 of 7)

Silence please

Construction at the Bodleian library is probably interfering with the silence.

via flickr

Not to mention making Sir Thomas himself look a bit like he just wrapped himself in a shower curtain….

via flickr

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

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.

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

Saturday in Ely

Today we went to Ely, which is about 15 minutes from Cambridge by train. It’s a much smaller town, but has one of the most impressive cathedrals in Britain. (Heather’s account of the visit is already up, and she has several pictures.) Since we went to evensong at King’s College chapel– which is one of the most remarkable examples of English Perpendicular architecture– it was interesting to compare them.

We biked from our house to the train station, finally found a space in the bike parking area (which is nuts), and after many minutes in line, bought tickets. This was the first time I was using the electronic ticket kiosk and my local chip-and-pin card, and with a large line behind me, I just wanted to get through the transaction as quickly as possible; as a result, I bought two one-way tickets, but at least they were to the right place.

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

The train ride is short but pleasant, and there’s a walk from the train station to the cathedral that is generally unobjectionable but not amazing. However, there was a horse along the way.

Hello horse!
via flickr

We stopped for a Cornish pasty before going in the cathedral, then spent the next several hours immersed in late medieval ecclesiastical architecture. The high point, literally and figuratively, was the tour of the Octagon and Lantern, an unusual feature of the cathedral added in the 1300s. The tour first takes you up onto the roof, which is pretty cool.

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

The tour involves a lot of narrow staircases.

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

You can view the stained glass up close. A lot of it is actually Victorian rather than medieval– between the Reformation, Civil War, and 500 years’ time, much of the original was lost by the time the Victorians rediscovered the art and restored the stained glass.

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

Getting close to it is really great.

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

Next you ascend to the level with the painted panels. While it looks like it’s made of stone and metal, most of the Octagon is actually wood, covered in lead.

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

They open up the panels on the octagon, so you could look across….

Heather in the Octagon
via flickr

…and down.

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

Finally, we went up onto the roof. During clear weather, it afford a terrific view of the Fens, but it was pretty cloudy today; still, it was impressive, and very cold.

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

Ely Cathedral
via flickr

After that we walked around town a bit, and inevitably arrived at the best bookstore in Ely, and possibly the world: Topping & Co.

Best. Bookstore. In England.
via flickr

It’s an unexpected find– a wonderful three-story, crowded bookstore, with an excellent staff who know what they’re doing.

Best. Bookstore. In England.
via flickr

Not only did they have a couple books I wanted, they offer their patrons pots of tea or coffee, which is not only very welcome on cold days, but it also increases the odds that people will buy stuff.

Best. Bookstore. In England.
via flickr

It worked on me, but they’re books for work, so it was all right.

Today’s adventure is London, and the British Museum and Bloomsbury.

Back to Heathrow 2

Thursday Heather flew into Heathrow, so I took the bus from Cambridge to the airport, and picked her up.

Christ's Pieces
Christ’s Pieces, via flickr

Most of the buses in Cambridge leave from the central station on Christ’s Pieces, but the airport buses originate and terminate a couple blocks to the south, at Parker’s Pieces. Fortunately, everything’s reasonably well marked, and it’s not too difficult to find the bus you need. (The Cambridge-to-Heathrow bus seems to be the 797, which also helps.)

Parker's Pieces
parker’s pieces, via flickr

Heather’s plane was late leaving SFO, so it was delayed by a couple hours. I had to change our bus tickets, which meant a ridiculous set of fees (National Express, like most bank, seems to love them their transaction fees). After that, I headed from the Central Bus Station to Terminal 1. It’s a couple minutes away by tunnel, and then you’re in Terminal 1.

Tunnel from the Underground station to Terminal 1
tunnel to terminal 1, via flickr

After looking around a bit, I found the restaurants at the departure level, in an upstairs area that overlooks check-in and security. So I spent the next couple hours there, doing some reading. There are a couple coffee places, so it was a pleasant enough place to spend time.

Reading at the airport
reading, via flickr

Eventually, Heather’s plane arrived, and we headed back to the bus station. There’s huge amounts of construction on the highways around London, and we were fighting both rush hour traffic and a couple accidents, so we ended up getting into Cambridge about an hour later than planned. C’est la vie.

What matters is that we made it, and have the next couple months in England, largely child-free. I don’t think I’m going to cease to find that amazing until after we’ve left.

First day in Cambridge!

After many months of proposals, preparation, visas, rallying parents, reassuring children, and wondering how elderly cats would handle it, I’m finally in England– in Cambridge, starting my three-month visit at Microsoft Research.

I started last night, on the evening flight out of San Francisco, and ended around dinnertime, when I got into the flat (technically a terrace house, I think) we’re subletting. About 18 hours all told, though none of it was really stressful: heavy yes, thanks to my having brought two suitcases (I am going to be here for three months, after all), but not really difficult. The bus even took me into downtown Cambridge, more or less, to the station on the edge of Parker’s Piece, rather than the car and park on the edge of town (damn you, National Express Web site– I could only buy a ticket as far as the Park and Ride on the edge of town, but the driver was fine about letting me go into city centre).

After I got things more or less sorted out I went out and wandered around the town a little. Naturally I headed for the town center, walking past St. John’s and Gonville and Caius, then up along the market.

Pictures from Cambridge

Eventually I ended up at the Yippee Noodle Bar, a minimalist but hip Asian place that made some great Singaporean noodles.

My first dinner in Cambridge

After that it was across the street to the slightly terrifying Cambridge Clowns Cafe for a latte. I must say the coffee was outstanding, and the reviews of the food are quite positive, but there are a LOT of clown puppets there….

Latte at Clowns of Cambridge

From there, I made my way back home, unpacked, tried to figure out the heat (I think it’s not designed to work, as furniture seems to be pushed up against all the radiators), and finally gave up and dug out some extra layers.

Pictures from Cambridge

The next three months are going to be an interesting experiment in remote parenting: the very first thing I did when I got to the house was to figure out the wifi network, so I could talk to my family. We bought my son an iPod Touch partly so we could do Face Time and Skype (Face Time generally has higher picture quality) easily, and the two of us spent about half an hour talking. I caught up with the rest of the family a few hours later. We’ll see if we keep this up, and whether it’s a good thing or not.

Work starts tomorrow. Gotta get some rest.

One reason airline food is lousy: being in an airplane dulls your sense of taste

One of the things I read a lot about when I was researching weight loss is the physiology of hunger. On one hand, hunger is so simple, elemental and familiar at first blush it seems impossible that you could study it (much less learn to adjust it, which was my ultimate goal).

But one of the most important things i learned is that hunger is a psychological state as well as a physiological one: we can be distracted from hunger by excitement or fear, or conditioned to be hungry at particular times of day regardless of our blood sugar. We can be made hungry by proximity to foods with attractive smell, packaging, texture (what chefs and food designers call “mouthfeel”); we can be made hungry by foods that we’ve at a notable times, with friends, or in memorable and pleasant places. We misinterpret fatigue, stress, and thirst as hunger. Proximity to food, or the smell of something delicious, triggers hunger.

In fact, our appetite is so malleable it can be disconnected from a need for calories: in his book The End of Overeating, former FDA commissioner David Kessler argues that food designers—manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants— have become geniuses at creating foods that are not just tasty, but so addictive they stimulate desire among people who are full. Further, obesity appears to have some of the same properties of a communicable disease: it is influenced by large environmental factors, as well as the influence of one’s social circle.

Today, via Andrew Sullivan, I came across this piece by Peter Smith in Good about airline food, and research on the effects of airline environments on taste:

even under optimal conditions, cooked to the exact specifications of the latest celebrity chefs hired to reinvigorate flaccid airline fare, the taste of food changes when you’re inside a parched, hypobaric metal tube that’s vibrating and humming along at 550 miles per hour.

Recently, Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines conducted research inside a stationary Airbus A310 designed to replicate flying conditions. Deutche Welle reported that flyers said their taste buds felt dulled, requiring 20 percent more sugar and salt (explaining the particular appeal of V-8 or a Bloody Mary). In another study published this fall, British and Dutch researchers outfitted volunteers with headphones playing loud background noises and found that the noise made foods appear less salty and sweet. Loud noise did make crunchy foods appear crunchier—more Munchie Mix, anyone?

Really interesting. Though I would argue that there’s a big difference between eating sea bass in Singapore Airlines business class, and eating chips on Ryan Air.

[To the tune of Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau, “Unrequited,” from the album Metheny Mehldau (a 1-star song, imo).]

The hotel

i’m staying at the Renaissance Orlando Resort, a rather large hotel somewhere on the SeaWorld campus.

via flickr

It’s fairly pleasant, a good venue for the Collaborative Innovations Forum that I’m attending. It’s one of those hotels that has a gigantic indoor space, a central courtyard with a giant bar in the middle, and various things– health club, Starbucks, etc.– off it.

via flickr

Not that I expect to get out of the hotel the next couple days– the schedule tomorrow is pretty packed, and I fly home relatively early on Tuesday. So in an odd way, this is just the right kind of place to be.

I have to admit, after my unpleasant experience at the airport and general fatigue, I didn’t expect to have a very good time at the reception, but it turned out to be a very stimulating time. There are some very interesting, very intelligent people here.

Airport shuttles as captive markets

I’m in a cab from the Orlando airport to my hotel. I was supposed to be on the Mears airport shuttle… two hours ago… but apparently the challenge of taking a list of prepaid reservations, and calculating how many buses you’ll need to take people to places, is too much for them. So after 90 minutes of waiting around, and watching the dispatchers try to conjure more shuttles out of thin air and deal with an ever-increasing crowd, I threw in the towel, and headed for the cab line.

I don’t know what is responsible for it, but airport shuttle services seem to display all the problems you can imagine with captive markets. Once they have your money, they seem have very little incentive to actually get you where you want to go in a reasonable amount of time; Mears seemed to just not know how to get enough shuttles, as they were borrowing cabs (which I saw were actually owned by the Mears transportation group, so it was kind of all in the family). But this is not a problem specific to this company: I’ve had mediocre to bad experiences in all kinds of cities. Nonetheless, this seemed extreme.


Florida, meanwhile, has that unstable, holographic feel that I always have when I go to Arizona: that this is a place where you people probably really shouldn’t live, and may not be inhabitable in another 50 years. Maybe there’s something in the air after the housing crash– it’s a kind of post-speculative prick in the bubble of reality. But flying over the state, it looked to me like most of the place was kind of semi-liquid, as if earth existed here in a state of matter unknown anywhere else in the U.S. While Arizona felt so dry as to be unable to sustain human life (especially millions of air-conditioned retirees, college students, and porn stars), Florida feels like it could just melt back into the Gulf.

Of course, living in the Bay Area as I do, I’m not being critical of the place, so much as recognizing another unstable but over-designed environment. Should make for an interesting couple days….

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