Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: workplace

My new writing desk

In my garage office I have a standing desk (actually a shelf in my Ikea bookcase). Most of the time it’s awesome, but sometimes I do like to sit down. To support this I’ve slowly added wireless devices that I can use while sitting– a repurposed keyboard from an iPad, and a trackball. Today, I discovered the perfect lap desk to put them on: a bamboo cutting board, liberated from the kitchen.

New lap desk: a bamboo cutting board from the kitchen.

It’s just the right size, and if I end up being both more productive and a little hungrier, I can live with that.

My workplace

I’m not exactly sure how much I should document life within the lab, so I’m going to err on the side of opacity rather than transparency. Still, I have to say something.

The lab
the lab at night, via flickr

So, without getting into too many details, it’s a brilliant place: after more than a year of working on really interesting stuff, but functionally working on my own, it’s great to be in such a fantastic concentration of phenomenally smart people. I’ve found several different groups working on things that I find very interesting or cool, for entirely different reasons.

afternoon panorama, via flickr

The physical environment is very nice: corporate, but nonetheless very comfortable. I’ve got an office that overlooks the inner courtyard, and while it’s a bit bare at the moment, I’m rapidly cluttering it up with reprints and books, and as a visitor it definitely helps to be in a place where you’re so visible: people don’t necessarily know your name, but when you’re visible from the stairs and elevator, you develop a quick “oh i’ve seen him around” level of recognition with your peers.

I also quite like the contrast between the ride through town, which takes me past buildings designed by Christopher Wren or erected on foundations laid in the 16th century, and the modernity of the science park.

evening path home, via flickr

I think, given what I’m working on, it’s just the right combination of old and new– proof that ancient ideas and very new technologies can speak to each other, and work well together despite their differences.

The Cam
the cam, via flickr

One interesting and reassuring thing is that I’ve had no trouble talking about the project. Before I got here, I kind of stumbled in describing “contemplative computing,” mainly because I wasn’t certain what kind of reaction I would get. But here, in a community of people who spend a lot of time thinking about communication as both a technical and human activity, the assumption seems to be that it’s an interesting project, so long as you don’t screw it up. Supportive but demanding. So I have to have a good game.

Concentration, distraction, stimulant
concentration, distraction, stimulation, via flickr

And I have to admit, after years of being my own tech support, it’s an eye-opening experience having IT people who are able to instantly do whatever you need. (Suffice it to say, if you’re not really good, you’re not going to last long doing tech support in a computer R&D lab– it’s as tough as being Jamie Oliver’s personal chef.) It seems to me when an organization is good, it’s good everywhere– you don’t have some outstanding parts and others that are filled with slackers. Excellence is either ubiquitous or absent.

[To the tune of Tori Amos, “Abnormally Attracted To Sin,” from the album Abnormally Attracted To Sin (a 3-star song, imo).]

Revising the social scanning article

At Kepler’s, in Menlo Park.

My HipstaPrint 0.jpg


I’m spending the morning trying to finish up revisions to Futures 2.0, which has been accepted for publication in Foresight, an academic journal on futures and forecasting.

This morning's workplace
via flickr

I have lots of other work on my plate, clients and editors who I don’t want to disappoint, and am taking the family to Colorado for the weekend (to see my folks before they relocate to Singapore in January). So I’m trying to focus.

[To the tune of Norah Jones, “Lonestar,” from the album Come Away With Me (I give it 1 star).]

Reflections on SciBarCamp

SciBarCamp is done. Other than a lot of excellent leftover Pakistani food, a surprising amount of beer, and a photo set on Flickr, you’d never know we hosted 60+ people for two days. Time for a bit of reflection.

Wednesday morning, as I was getting the Institute’s conference space ready for SciBarCamp– hauling tables, moving chairs, trying to figure out how to get sixty people into our large conference room, calculating how many and what kinds of signs we needed to put to up to help guests find the wifi, bathrooms, etc.– I overhead someone say, “What I love about these things is that you don’t have to do any preparation. You just show up.”

Yeah, right.

Events like these may look like they’re spontaneous and free, but that’s only because someone has set up the environment in which it takes place. That labor shouldn’t really be visible to the participants– like all infrastructure, its purpose is to be useful, not to call attention to itself– but it is essential to the success of even the loosest and most improvisational event. To make a brief comparison to music: the most brilliant jazz improvisers, people like Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman, aren’t brilliant because they just get up onstage and do whatever comes into their heads: they’re brilliant because they’ve played for thousands and thousands of hours, are highly disciplined, have great training… and bring all that to the concert hall. [Update: See Fred Kaplan on creativity in jazz.] Likewise, when I travel, I like to be able to wander around and explore things; but I can do that because I carry a pack that has all kinds of things that I find useful, and come in handy under a variety of circumstances. (Preparation is likewise important for biking and cooking, and other things.)

The Institute’s conferences are scripted to the minute, the presentations are rehearsed endlessly, group exercises are agonized over. There’s a lot of top-down structure, because we have a lot of content to share, and because it’s hard for most people to think about the future in an orderly way. People, we assume, need the structure we provide in order to translate our work into terms that will be useful to them. So the bar camp model is one that I find very interesting.

But the camp isn’t just the absence of organization: that wouldn’t be a bar camp, it would just be chaos. There is structure here, and I want to understand what it is.

I was talking to Jamie McQuay, one of the organizers of this year’s camp and a veteran of the bar camp scene, about the ingredients for a successful bar camp. He said that the two things you really need are free space (which saves the organizers money and time, and cuts down on the number of sponsors you have to look for), and interesting people. Tantek Çelik, a camp veteran, told me that all you really need are physical and virtual spaces– a conference venue and a wiki.

But my sense is that there’s more to it than that.

There’s a cultural element to the camps that I think is important. People here are veterans of academic meetings, scientific society conferences, and industry trade shows, and know that world well enough to be intelligently dissatisfied by it. (I had a professor who said you couldn’t rebel effectively against Catholicism unless you had been educated by Jesuits. Not Franciscans or Dominicans, mind you– Jesuits. Truly, give me the child until he’s seven, and he’s ours forever.) When you have an event that’s a mirror-world of the traditional conference, you need to know what the traditional conference is like, so you can do the opposite. I would draw a comparison to Wikipedia. One of the usually unacknowledged reasons Wikipedia works is because people know, or think they know, what encyclopedia articles are supposed to sound like: readers and creators alike share a basic understanding of what they should be doing.

I also suspect a good bar camp also requires some minimum number of people who are veterans of the camp scene, and can catalyze others and acculturate novices. I’m not sure what that number is. Tantek said that return attendees are like culture in yogurt, which I think is a good comparison.

I think there are also some practical things that you can do that I’ve listed after the jump. None are especially profound, but they’d all make the event work better, and are worth paying attention to. But what else is there? Besides physical and virtual space, interesting people, a familiarity with conventional conferences, and perhaps some elusive bare minimum of people who’ve been to bar camps before, are there other things that a successful camp needs?

[To the tune of John Coltrane, “Out Of This World,” from the album The Classic Quartet – The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (I give it 3 stars).]

Very practical things

  • Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. You can’t have too many signs for wifi, Twitter tags, arrows pointing to the bathrooms and exits, put the agenda in a very public place, etc..
  • You can’t have enough mobile whiteboards, flipcharts, and other public writing surfaces.
  • 5-minute breaks between sessions. People need time to get from one room to another (or find out what room they’re headed to next).
  • Work in time for longer breaks. We tend to want to pack a day as full as possible. Don’t. People will take breaks whether you schedule them or not.
  • Clocks in the rooms. Also having someone go around and announce how much time is left in each session is good.
  • Cloakroom. People tend to put bags and coats on chairs, which inhibits their use by other people.


I have a day with no meetings. Owing to the combination of the Institute being a pretty meeting-driven place, and my own distracting sociability, this is a rare thing. Not one to be wasted.

Another day writing
via flickr

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.

© 2019 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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