I made it up to Oxford, and to my hotel room, which overlooks the business school, fittingly enough.
The event in London was quite interesting. I'm glad I went, and I met a couple people who it was nice to meet.
The guys who work the coat check desk were two elderly guys who, I swear, were the ones who taught Michael Caine to talk. These guys had accents that Americans would love-- not the posh accents used by people named Rupert and Portia, but by the cheeky butler. I had to wonder if they can switch it on for Americans. Maybe they just turn it to eleven, so to speak, when we Yanks are around.
I'm now in London, at the Royal Geographical Society, waiting for The World in 2050 conference to begin. I got into London a couple hours ago, and even though I'm laden down with my bag, I spent a little time just wandering around.
I'm really relieved to be here. Not being able to communicate with people in completely casual ways was getting a little oppressive: there's a weird, almost psychologically disquieting contrast between the vividness and brilliance of the conversations I have with people when I'm in conferences and workshops in places like Budapest on one hand, and my almost complete inability to talk to anybody outside those venues. Either I'm frantically trying to keep up with ideas and contribute my own, or I'm mute, and nothing in between. So being in London, and being surrounded by a constant buzz of English (with a little Russian, Italian, French, etc.), is... reassuring at a kind of cognitive level that's a bit unexpected.
I needed to do some work refining pitches I'm making over the next couple days-- even with very informal meetings it's good to know what you want to talk about-- so I went over to Kensington Garden, sat down on a park bench, and popped open my computer-- and immediately was able to get onto the RGS open wifi network. So as people jogged and biked home from work, I was sending thank-you notes and scheduling meetings. Strange. Strange to be here when just a few hours ago I was in Vienna. Strange to be in Europe. Strange to be sitting on a park bench with my laptop. But that's life these days.
After the conference I'll go up to London. I look forward to getting to my hotel room.
A couple curious things I saw walking around Vienna today.
Is it just me, or do "Alter Schmuck" and "pullovaria" this sound like his and hers medical centers?
And I dislike sexism in that special way that fathers of daughters do, but...
Space Invaders? Huh?
[To the tune of Amy Winehouse, "Back To Black," from the album Back to Black (I give it 2 stars).]
This afternoon I went to the Jewish Museum Vienna. The museum is located near Stephensplatz, in the center of the city, in a building that was once the residence of a Hungarian count, and later an art gallery. I had heard good things about it, but I was completely unprepared for how unexpectedly brilliant and moving it is. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the history of Europe should have some passing familiarity with the brilliant and tragic history of the Jewish community in Vienna. But the experience of the museum isn't powerful because it plays on your emotions in obvious ways: it's not a kind of material version of Schindler's List. It's an amazing experience for other reasons.
The bottom floor is dominated by a large room with selections from the Max Berger Collection of Judaica. The room itself has a curved wall that stretches to the top floor.
It reminded me of Adolf Loos' Steiner House, one of the great milestones of early Viennese modernism.
steiner house, vienna
The exhibit is in one long case, with selections from the Torah etched on the glass in front of the objects.
The placement of the words is unconventional to say the least, and the intention is twofold. First, it's meant to remind you that the objects were used in rituals that were communal and spoken, and were themselves representations of the divine: in a way, the words are what you should focus on, and the objects are their mere physical expression. Second, the words present a challenge: you have to choose to look past them to see the objects. Seeing objects and their history actually isn't easy, and the design of the exhibit highlights this fact.
Now if this all sounds kind of postmodern, you're exactly right. Indeed, the whole museum is saturated with an awareness of the complex nature of representation: the current exhibit on stereotypes, for example, talks about this a lot (no surprise).
It's hard to talk about stereotypes and not sound kind of saccharine or predictable: even if you try to apply some reflexivity or rigor, people who study stereotypes tend to conclude that "stereotypes are bad." I haven't seen someone (say) deconstruct Amos and Andy and conclude that black people really are awfully funny when they shuffle.
But even the stereotypes exhibit-- inevitably titled "typical!"-- is saved by the amazingly good design. Everything about the exhibits is carefully constructed: the lighting is terrific, the artifacts are well-placed, the rooms flow into each other smoothly, and there are all kinds of interesting choices-- the scrims that hold the captions and gently divide rooms, most notably-- that make the experience a lot more compelling that I expected. Too often we associate this kind of perfectionism with a lack of passion and creativity: real creativity is messy and ragged and inspired, grunge rock rather than Chopin. But that's not at all true: perfectionism can communicate a level of reverence for craft and content that forces you to take its subject more seriously.
That experience of consciously looking through-- looking through words etched in glass, through cloth, through one's own perceptions and limitations-- in the Berger Collection and typical! reaches a climax in the viewable storage room in the archive, on the top floor.
Actually, that's not quite true. It's more complicated than that. In a normal museum, there are objects that are stored away and inaccessible to the public. The visible storage room, as the name suggests, makes the storage of objects... visible. There are map drawers, climate-controlled storage for textiles, and movable stacks, all the kinds of things that historians are familiar with. Even if you're not someone who's spent time in archives, you might find that infrastructure kind of interesting; but if like me, and you've literally grown up in archives (when I was a kid I went with my father to the National Archives in Rio, and sat in the reading room and read science fiction while he read notarial documents... or whatever), the experience is really striking.
But the more I took in the storage area, the more remarkable it seemed. Some of the artifacts had been damaged in the attacks on Jews in 1938, and they'd never been repaired: you could still see the burn marks on some of the Torah covers. And the reason this collection exists is that the civilization that produced it was very nearly completely destroyed: Vienna in particular had one of the most prosperous and accomplished Jewish communities anywhere, and that world was eradicated almost overnight. The collection is a witness to that tragedy... and it exists in part because of it.
While it's described as a visible storage area, you can only see things on the outer shelves; the next shelves are faintly visible... but after that, objects recede into obscurity. Visibility shades into invisibility. You're aware of the objects, but just as aware of everything you can't see: tens of thousands of artifacts, boxes and boxes of material.
So the collection is visible and accessible, but at the same time what you can see reminds you of everything that's invisible and inaccessible; it's dedicated to preservation, but some of what's being preserved is a record of destruction. Like the practice of history itself, it demonstrates how we can examine and ponder the records of the past, but never really get to the people and age that made them. It's like a beloved person who's physically close, but firmly and permanently out of reach. All these ideas are stock in trade among historians trained in postmodernism, and I've known them for years; but I've never seen postmodernism put to so serious a purpose, nor its ideas used with such gravity and grace.
There are times when you're confronted with something so brilliant and devastating it's almost overwhelming. Maybe it was the combination of jet lag and overwork, but the brilliance of the idea of the visible archive, the amazing care that went into it, the seriousness with which it uses concepts about history and memory that too often are used for merely clever and sophistic purposes, and the history of the artifacts themselves, made this one of those times for me. For minutes I stood there, not daring to move, not wanting it to end, amazed at how perfect and piercing it all was.
I've got lots of pictures from today's wanderings around Vienna.
However, at this point I'm too tired to do anything with them besides put them up on Flickr.
The photoset is here. Commentary tomorrow some time.
Tonight outside IIASA's headquarters I saw the carnival rides that were being set up earlier this week. This time, they were in action.
It was delightfully surreal to see bumpers cars in this baroque square, and the kids were really enjoying themselves. There was a large tent with tables across from the rides, where parents could sit and drink beer. Though many of the riders were teens or adjults.
The scene was a little weird, but I'm sure stranger things have happened there, sometimes involving people wearing powdered wigs.
And given how quiet the town is, one cannot begrudge any entertainment....
Today was the second day of the conference on ubiquitous communication in an intelligent world. It was one of the most stimulating conferences I've been to in the last couple years, and that's saying a lot: but it was small, intimate, really well-supported, and aimed for a high level of cooperation and productivity. And it worked. Something I'm going to want to replicate.
We finished up in the afternoon, and a couple of us walked over to the Buda side of the city, then climbed up to the castle. We went over to the historic district, which I'd never been to, and took in the Hungarian Telecommunication Museum. Don't laugh. It was actually really interesting.
From there we walked through the castle, and made our way to the Elizabeth Bridge.
After crossing it, I headed back to the hotel, hung out for an hour, then went out to the Central European Cafe for dinner.
Apparently this was a place where a lot of the early Hungarian network theorists used to hang out and work, so naturally I had to go there.
After that I almost went back to my room and went to bed, but decided to go for a walk instead. As I was passing an outdoor cafe, I ran into one of my fellow workshop participants, and I talked him into coming with me to the Frank Zappa Cafe.
For those of you who don't know, Zappa was actually a pretty powerful influence in Eastern European countercultural circles: Vaclav Havel described him as "one of the gods of the Czech underground," and Radio Prague explains that
Frank Zappa's popularity in Prague is closely connected to the dark days of the dissident era, when his music and that of the Velvet Underground were blacklisted by the censors. For example, Frank Zappa's second album, Absolutely Free was smuggled into Czechoslovakia within a year of its 1967 release, and critics claim that the music influenced the famous Czech underground rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe. Zappa's tunes thus came to represent freedom and independent thought to dissidents in Czechoslovakia. Reports have it that when young kids in communist Czechoslovakia played heavy rock music, the police would tell them to "turn off that Frank Zappa music."
So, in memory of Zappa and to celebrate the spread of democracy, we sat there and drank a substantial quantity of palinka. We agreed that the cherry was the most interesting, and plum was good but simpler.
After that I wasn't quite ready to go to bed, so I walked around some more, and found Raday Utca (where this blog's old banner was photographed). I discovered another cafe that looked promising, so I had a couple more drinks and did some writing. I figure so long as I get up tomorrow, I'll be fine: I can sleep on the train back to Vienna.
There's one in Menlo Park that I go to a lot.
Tonight I found another one in Budapest, on Raday Utca. Rather different, but still the same name (allowing for the fact that Hungarians, like Asians, put family names first).
Now I need to look for them in Vienna and London....
[To the tune of Wynton Marsalis, "Autumn Leaves," from the album Live at Blues Alley (Disc 2) (I give it 3 stars).]
We went to a village about 45 minutes outside the city, and had dinner at a traditional restaurant on the banks of the Danube. It was one of those dinners that started with grappa and palinka, proceeded to two wines with dinner, and something else afterwards. I haven't had this much to drink since Shrivenham.
Dinner was marvelous. I didn't go for the jumbo plate of wild boar and venison-- I didn't think my system could take anything quite that outrageously heavy-- but still it was excellent.
When we got back to the city, I decided I had to walk a little to get some of the alcohol out of my system. (For some reason I treat booze like going to the movies: after a couple hours, I'm ready to leave the state of inebriation, and if I can will either steam or walk it off.)
So I walked over to the river, and took in the view of the castle and Chain Bridge.
This is one of my favorite views in the whole world. I don't think I'll ever get tired of it. It's not as a big or spectacular as the Singapore skyline or downtown Manhattan, but it's beautifully proportioned, and it's the sort of scene you can stare at for hours.
Eventually I walked back to the hotel, avoiding the main tourist streets.
This is one of the reasons I like coming to Budapest: the chance to spend time in buildings like this.
entrance to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, via flickr
I think of all the academies of science I've visited, this is the one that has the best location by far: on the banks of the Danube, right beside the Chain Bridge, with the castle, Parliament, and St. Stephen's all nearby. Really something.
And it's a beautifully-maintained building. The Hungarians take their science seriously.
Thursday night I arrived in Budapest, on the late train from Vienna. After a steady diet of Alan Furst I kind of expected something more distinctively Mitteleuropa, preferably viewed entirely in black and white; however, the real thing is a lot more Long Island Railroad or Great Western than old spy thriller.
Still, it did the job, and was very reliable.
I got to Budapest around 11. Even if the trains themselves were modern, the station was pleasingly turn of the century. Like any train station late at night, it had that slight air of fatigued menace. It may have been quite safe, but I just haven't spent enough time here to recognize the social cues.
Just before we reached the station I realized I had very little Hungarian money, so I had so spend a little time wandering around looking for either an open exchange bureau or an ATM, and trying not to go to the guys who were hanging around offering to change money. I remember using them regularly in Latin America when I was a kid, but these days-- I don't know, it seems too easy in the digital age to be legit. Eventually I did find an ATM, got some money, and grabbed a cab.
This was smart, because it turned out that the train station was a lot farther away from my hotel than I'd realized. I ended up getting to the hotel around midnight.
I'm in the Frankfurt airport, the closest thing the modern traveller can come to being in one of the factory scenes in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. (The happy ending is when you get to fly out of here.) This is one of the world's busiest airports, but I'm always impressed at how industrial and second-tier it feels: it's more like San Jose than San Francisco, the world's biggest business commuter airport. Even Heathrow in its old days (before Terminals 4 and 5) was nicer.
At least I'm in the Red Carpet Club. I've got a long layover between flights, so it's worth it to perch here for a little while. Though I confess whenever I'm allowed into one of these, I feel like the character in Sting's song "Take Me Dancing"-- that I'm the business equivalent of a poor boy in a rich man's car.
Which is kind of absurd, because for one thing I've put in plenty of miles and deserve to be here as much as they next person (who in this case is one a hundred thousand business travelers dressed today in white shirt and dark suit, sucking down Amstel Lights with a kind of blank determination). But more important, the fact is that this is only a privilege because the public spaces in most airports truly sucks. By comparison this feels nice, when it's really only human. And the free drinks are nice, but are a small reward for the amount of money and carbon the international traveler burns up before they're allowed in.
Yesterday was a pleasant, if somewhat hurried, start to the trip. I got into Philadelphia at 7 (and for once managed to get upgraded, escaping the rule that those regional upgrade award things are designed to make you feel like you could get something cool but also designed to be unusable-- sort of like health insurance for too many people), and spent a little time at Penn before heading downtown. Penn is pleasant, and has been on a steady upward slope for a while in terms of its safety and fresh-faced attractiveness, and I like visiting, but despite having spent some of the most intense and formative years of my life there, increasingly I feel removed from the place. It was central to my last round of self-fashioning-- intellectually I grew up there-- but I'm on to other things now.
From there I went downtown, checked in with my friends at Chemical Heritage Foundation, and then spent most of the rest of the day at Cosi, drinking coffee, working on my talk, and brainstorming with Darlene Cavalier about writing projects. Darlene is an interesting character, a former professional cheerleader turned science policy wonk and public engagement advocate. We've got an op-ed piece coming out in a magazine this fall, and are thinking about what we can work on next.
In the afternoon I gave a keynote talk at CHF's Innovation Day conference, then immediately bolted for the airport. I had a 7:30 flight, and was worried about getting stuck in traffic and security, but both were very smooth: there was virtually no traffic, and PHL has redesigned its security lines to be much more user-friendly.
After a brief layover in Dulles, it was on to Frankfurt. The flight was fine, though I didn't quite get to the level of intense, over-the-Atlantic creative thinking that's characterized some of my other travel; instead I slept more, and worked on business things. I just hope I can get in that mode on the flight home, because I've gotten a LOT of work done on planes, and would be bummed if my brain no longer responds to the combination of stimulus and lack of stimulus-- the prospect of being in another part of the world and facing the challenges of being on road, combined with the immediate reality of being sealed in a tube with only your thoughts and a couple hundred sleepy people-- that long plane flights provide.
I've got about three hours before my flight to Vienna. I think I'll see what the showers are like here.
Later. Feeling a lot more human after a longish shower. I've still got a couple hours until my flight, and I'm going to give myself a couple hours to navigate customs, get my boarding pass, etc.. I didn't put a change of clothes in my carry-on bag; maybe I should have, even though I'm pretty overloaded as it is.
One of the things I really enjoy about coming to Europe is the slight disorientation that comes from interacting with very ordinary, mundane things. Bathroom fixtures may be just different though to require you to think about how they work. Doorknobs may have different degrees of freedom than in America, and the auditory and tactile feedback is more pronounced. Signage is often clearer and more abstract. All in all, it requires you to think a little bit more about how things are made and why; they're material expressions of the fundamental contingency of our world. (On the other hand, dealing with customs agents and government bureaucracies isn't fun; if anything is amiss, you need a level of linguistic and cultural understanding that I usually don't have.)
I'll arrive in Vienna around 5:30 this afternoon, which means I should be in the city an hour or two later-- enough time to get checked into my hotel, then head out and find some dinner (something very light) and do some reading for tomorrow's conference.
I'm on my flight from Washington to Frankfurt. Everything looks good.
In some ways I was made to live in this age. My mind seems happiest in its own world of texts and ideas and writing, while my body has an irrepressible desire to throw itself around the globe. Today, I can do both.
I even scored a big exit row seat so I have a ton of legroom. An important perk.
I never knew Britain was so dangerous:
Crumbs: half of Britons injured by their biscuits on coffee break, survey reveals
An estimated 25 million adults have been injured while eating during a tea or coffee break - with at least 500 landing themselves in hospital, the survey revealed.
The custard cream biscuit was found to be the worse offender to innocent drinkers.
It beat the cookie to top a table of 15 generic types of biccy whose potential dangers were calculated by The Biscuit Injury Threat Evaluation.
Hidden dangers included flying fragments and being hurt while dunking in scalding tea through to the more strange such as people poking themselves in the eye with a biscuit or fallen off a chair reaching for the tin.
[To the tune of Pearl Jam, "Little Wing / Maggot Brain," from the album Live 1995 (I give it 4 stars).]
Yesterday we spent the day fetching my daughter from Camp Winnarainbow, where she's spent the last two weeks. She spent a week there last year, and quite enjoyed it. This year she was there long enough to write us letters, which basically said, "Hello, I don't miss any of you, and now I must go and walk on stilts." (And here she is...)
RyanAir this week announced that they will soon eliminate all airport check-in counters and require passengers to carry-on their luggage. Starting early next year, passengers will need to schlep their bags through airport security and drop them at the steps of the plane for checking into plane's cargo hold. Once aboard though, there will be gambling!
Not exactly going to have Virgin Air quaking in its boots.
My favorite comment: "It's like Ryanair has ceased to become an air carrier and has become a Brecktean improv group."
[h/t to Nancy]
I've been in Bloomington, Indiana for a conference on visualization and the history and philosophy of science. It's one of those events that brings together my old life as an historian, and my new life as a futurist: on one hand we're mainly talking about how visualizations of scientific communities and social dynamics can be used by historians and philosophers; on the other I suspect that there are cool things I could do with these maps to forecast the future of science.
the official conference picture, via flickr
There's one other think-tank person here, which saves me from being the one non-academic Ph.D. in the room, the scholarly equivalent of Stephen Colbert's one black friend.
There have been some efforts to use scinometric (or "science of science") maps in the history of science, but so far as I know, most of this work has followed fairly conventional historiographic paths: for example, mapping the Darwin or Mersenne correspondence, or asking questions about the growth of scholarly networks. We've not yet used them to something radically new, like using geographical coding to calculate the speed of the transmission of ideas or instruments, or constructing agent-based models of scientific communities and seeing how they evolve over time. But that's why we're here-- to think about how we could create such things, and what benefit they might bring.
I quite like Bloomington, or the few blocks of Bloomington that I've seen.
The place is enormous. It has roughly the same number of students as Berkeley, but physically it's much larger. It also takes collegiate Gothic (a somewhat stripped-down, modernized version) to a scale I don't think I've never seen before. If you took Princeton or Bryn Mawr, put it on a balloon, then blew up the balloon to five times its previous size, you'd get the IU campus. Yale and University of Chicago bear some family resemblance to Oxford or Cambridge, thanks to their small scale; IU takes Gothic where it's never gone before.
It's also pretty heavily wooded. There are a couple streams that flow through the campus, and they're surrounded by forest and crisscrossed with little footbridges.
campus tuesday night, via flickr
the same location, wednesday afternoon, via flickr
The town has a lot of restaurants, and a lot of foreign food, for a place its size. Tuesday night I had dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, and last night it was Thai at Siam House. (Both are a serious challenge to dieting!) One local attributed this to the long presence of foreign students at IU, some of whom brought spouses or other relatives who went into the restaurant business. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but for whatever reason, there's good food here.
There's a bit of a restaurant row, small places in old houses. That's cool, as it gives the restaurants a more informal character.
restaurant row, via flickr
There are also rabbits that come out in the evening, which adds one more little (furry and bouncy) note of whimsy to the place.
insouciant bunny, via flickr
I'm in the shuttle from Indianapolis to Bloomington. I got here six hours late, as I gave up my seat on last night's redeye in exchange for an early morning flight. I'm not sure it was a good trade. On one hand, I did get $350 (though it's not cash, I need to use it in the next year, and I'm sure US Airways hopes that I'll lose it rather than use it), and I won't miss any of the critical conference stuff-- I'll still get there in time for this evening's dinner. On the other, I gave up the chance to spend a day exploring Bloomington (though whether the town would really provide entertainment worth $60/hour is unknowable) and do a little early networking. And I accepted the airline's offer to stay in a hotel, though that turned out to be a wash: yes it was free, but it took longer to get the shuttle than I expected, which ate into ime I would have spent sleeping.
On my East Coast trip, I did something similar. I got into JFK around 2 in the morning, in that dead time when the airport has effectively shut down. After about half an hour I got the Supershuttle, and immediately settled in and dozed off. A few minutes later, the driver woke me up Two couples needed to go to Long Island, and if he didn't take them, they'd be stranded and have to spend the night in the airport. Could he take them, and drop them off at their homes first?
I was too groggy to ask why they couldn't drop me off first and then take the other passengers, and I wasn't really obliged to say yes. But my flight was already several hours late, and so I kind of felt like, what's a couple hours more? Plus, I know how much it can suck to be stuck in an airport: for all the appearance of luxury, they're really places designed to move people in and out as efficiently as possible, and are sullenly hostile to people who find themselves stuck. And, in some way, having had such a great time the precious few days at the conference and reconnecting with friends, I suspected that karma would catch up with me if I said no. It was time to rebalance.
So I said yes. We picked up the other passengers, who were pretty damn grateful to be going home. We then barreled out of JFK, promptly got lost, and spent the next half hour trying to figure out how to get to Stony East Oyster Point, or wherever. By the time we rolled up to the Paramount, it was about 5:30 in the morning.
Maybe I've done enough of this kind of thing for the year. But what matters is that I'm here now.
And the flight here was fine. I changed planes in Phoenix, which was a bit more direct a route than my original itinerary, which had me connecting through Charlotte, North Carolina (sigh). And I brought along a copy of Richard Sennett's The Craftsman, which is a wonderfully stimulating book, and which I realize I can blend into three different things I'm working on (that I've got three different-- and more to the point, unfinished-- pieces going simultaneously is a fact we shall not linger over).
Wednesday night I got together with some high school friends, and my high school choir director, for dinner at Strawberry Street Cafe, a restaurant in the Fan.
strawberry street cafe, via flickr
These are people I was pretty close to in high school-- I spent a huge amount of time doing choir stuff, and several of us were also the core group for the school's honors and AP courses-- but haven't seen in person for a very long time, and reconnected with on Facebook over the last year or so.
I chose Strawberry Street Cafe because everyone knows where it is, it's kid-friendly, and because I didn't really know it. The place was just a couple years old when I started high school, and it advertised regularly on the radio, so I heard about it... but never went there. It remained part of a cool grown-up Richmond that I was too young and poor to visit myself. Reconnecting with my past social reality in a place from a past imagined landscape seemed nicely symmetrical.
strawberry street, via flickr
It was especially lovely to see my music teacher, who was a terrific influence on me, and who went on to run a very successful intensive performing arts school, from which she's retiring in a few weeks. She was an influence not just because I spent a lot of time in her classes, or because I've continued to play (I have my old guitars, but don't really use them; I expect my daughter is going to take them over sooner or later). Of course I continue to love music, but I peaked as a musician in college (I didn't want to devote the time to meeting ever-higher performance standards, to say nothing of taking the hit on my grades).
But I learned a lot from her about how to perform, and those bits of craft and instinct have been a great help. It's not just that workshops and talks are performances, obviously they are; but I think you can fruitfully think of a lot of knowledge work as one kind of performance or another. As the Bard said, all the world's a stage; so knowing how to play is always going to be useful.
me and my music teacher
It was a nice reminder that some of the organizing tools I use for work and research are ones that I can use in my social life as well. When you spend a lot of your time with books and words, and come from a profession that alternated solitary contemplation and intensive gossip about colleagues, but featured very little genuine planned collaboration, it's easy to develop a sense of yourself as not that social, and maybe not that good at it. Wrong. As one of my daughter's friends once told a boy who was teasing her about being introverted, "I'm not an introvert. I'm very extroverted. I just don't like you very much."
And even if I do test as an introvert on some psychological scale, I can fake it.
There were eleven of us at the dinner, including two kids, four and five years old. (Most of my class seems to either have 5 year-olds, or 15 year-olds; I'm the only one with a child in the middle.) Two of my cohort married each other, two others had remained in regular contact these last 25+ years, but the rest of us were at best erratically connected. So it wasn't just me parachuting into an old social circle for an evening; it was a chance for the circle to reconstitute itself. I don't know why I assumed that people who'd remained in or returned to Richmond after college would have stayed in touch-- Richmond is a big place after all, and life does intrude on old connections-- but the fact that many of us were reconnecting after years was pleasant. It wasn't any less something that people were doing for me... but it was also something I was able to do for them.
And Strawberry Street Cafe was a good choice: the food is good, they were very gracious about our ever-expanding party, and they were welcoming of the kids. For me, it was good for another, entirely unexpected, reason.
For whatever reason I had no desire to go back to my old high school, to the apartments we lived in, or other places I saw on a daily basis; both Mom and I opted for the places that we always thought were special, like the VMFA and Maymont Park. (As one of the characters in Dune memorably put it, "People I miss. A place is just a place." While I admire that gruff practicality and emphasis on loyalty to comrades and family, I don't actually agree with it at all-- places do matter-- but some places remain more attractive than others, for whatever mysterious reason.)
the fan, via flickr
Walking through the Fan, I was struck by how well it compares with similar neighborhoods in Philadelphia or Boston or San Francisco, and how it feels like a great urban area for kids and families; I could appreciate the immense amount of energy that's gone into restoration and renovation of the turn-of-the-century housing stock. As someone intimately familiar with parenting and property ownership, I could appreciate things I couldn't twenty-five years ago, and imagine myself there.
virginia museum of fine arts, via flickr
Likewise, I always liked VFMA, but it felt like an expression of Richmond polite society, a UFO populated by Izod-wearing aliens. But in the year since, I've spent time in the British Museum and MOMA and the Smithsonian and DMA, I've given a talk at the Globe Theatre, I have a wallet full of membership cards to Bay Area institutions. I'm no longer alien to these people, I am them.
And I can now appreciate that the nicest parts of Maymont compare favorably with similar places in England and the Continent: it's not just a lonely Old South wannabe of a great estate, it IS a great estate.
maymont park, via flickr
Staying away from my high school Richmond and planting myself squarely in the places I imagined as defining grown-up Richmond let me start seeing the place differently. Maybe it's the start of a relationship with the place that has less to do with who I was, than with who I am. Which is good, because in the last year I had the very distinct sense of part of my old self being sloughed off, to make room for something new.
I thought I was visiting to reconnect with some of my past. But maybe I was visiting to create a future.
Wednesday night while in Richmond I stayed at the Linden Row Inn, in downtown. I think technically this is the edge of the historic Fan district, or just outside. I've been staying in lots of different kinds of hotels the last couple years, ranging from serious business hotels to things out of Blade Runner. This is way up there one the historically interesting, quirky in a Southern and slightly Gothic kind of way. It's a tremendous little hotel, and I've had a great time here.
The hotel is actually five buildings, built at different times. The buildings facing the street were joined together, forming a walled compound, and two buildings are in the center, in the garden. It's sort of like a topologically complex version of London's Goodenough Club, or the creation of an antebellum Frank Gehry.
The buildings have an interesting history. Edgar Allen Poe spent part of his childhood living in the compound after his mother died. (According to the hotel Web site, "Local legend has it that this was the 'enchanted garden' that Poe mentions in his famous poem, 'To Helen.'")
After that, it was a succession of girls' schools-- first the Southern Female Institute (possibly my favorite name for anything anywhere, and a brilliant girls' rock band name), then Mrs. Pegram's, and finally Miss Ellet's School (which eventually became St. Catherine's, where a friend of mine teaches). So that adds an interesting little twist to the place. The doors to some of the suites still have plaques that read "Miss [Teacher's Name] Parlour."
There's also a "Miss Scott's Alley." I have to wonder what she taught....
The rooms themselves and the service are fine. There's a basic free continental breakfast, and-- and this is the real treat-- the inn will drive you around and pick you up if you're going somewhere in the Fan, Shockoe Bottom, etc.. I hadn't really thought about it when I was picking the hotel, but it's a surprisingly nice perk once you've used it a couple times. And for exercise fanatics, there's a really well-equipped YMCA a block away that you can visit for free. (Outstanding.)
So it was cool. I'm staying there next time I come to Richmond.
I'm on the Amtrak from Raleigh, North Carolina to Richmond, Virginia. We're passing through the low pine woods and fields that I remember from when I grew up here-- to my botanically challenged eye this part of North Carolina and Virginia look pretty similar-- and little towns with white wooden houses and red brick main streets (broken up by the occasional strip mall and fast food complex). So even though I've never travelled this stretch of track, it feels awfully familiar.Train travel has always felt more fraught with meaning than, say, driving or bicycling. Partly it's the role that trains have played in Southern literature or popular culture: think of the blues and country songs that feature train whistles in the distance, or the first and last train station scenes in In the Heat of the Night. More personally, the train was my Way Out: I first took the Southern Crescent when I went to visit colleges, and most years I would travel back and forth between school and home by train, carrying a duffel bag of clothes and backpack. It didn't hurt that the train from Richmond to Philadelphia left at 4 a.m., which meant I'd go to sleep in one part of the country and wake up in another. (It later became my route to archives and a thwarted affair.) So riding the train became a pretty archetypal thing.
The Raleigh train station is three blocks away from the hotel and conference center, though for some reason the front desk didn't tell me this, and I took a cab. Maybe their sense of distance was more cultural than physical, because when I stepped into the station-- a tiny place compared to Philadelphia or New York, two rooms with wooden benches-- I had the very distinct feeling of having moved from the world of global discourses about sustainable innovation and the cultural factors that support academic-industrial knowledge transfer, to the set of In the Heat of the Night. (There was no Rod Steiger trying to fix his air conditioner, though.) It was a bit of a shock, after several days of hearing English spoken with a variety of accents, along with Spanish, Korean, Arabic. Yes, there's a world outside the conference events. And yes, we are in the South.
It's also a reminder of just how easily intelligent people and well-meaning projects can become almost hermetically sealed in their own worlds. This isn't to criticize the conference organizers-- they did a terrific job, and are rightly proud of the role RTP has played in the development of the North Carolina economy-- but to note how closed a system most conference are. Between the conference hotel, the conference center (which share a common basement, so you can go between them without ever going outside), the restaurants and bars catering to conference-goers, the full schedule of events, the vast numbers of people with whom you exchange business cards-talk-drink-eat-network, and the psychological and physical stresses and challenges of sitting in uncomfortable chairs for hours on end, eating marginally healthy food, and fighting jet lag, it's easy for conferences to turn into their own worlds.
On one hand, it makes sense: you've come a long way and are doing a lot of work, so you don't want distraction; but on the other, it does contribute to a certain otherworldliness in your thinking. This may not be a big thing if you're at a big microbiology conference, but it's a little worrisome when you're in a field that deals very directly with people and their lives, and professes to take an interest in the specifics of place and local culture. I'm not an insider in this field by any means, but I get the sense that there's a tendency to think of regional development or economic development as a problem that can be solved with the right formula or model; and I wonder if unconsciously we tend to assume that people who are already living in the place we're charged with changing-- or the company we're asked to help transform-- are going to be more an impediment than a resource. Likewise, when you're a futurist, it's really easy to get caught up in your own models and abstractions, and to lose sight of the scenarios you write are ultimately really about people. For us, I think, we need a different kind of conference. (Actually I think the whole model of the conference as a mix of academic meeting and trade fair should be overthrown, but that's a different matter.)
Indeed, in my work I've tried to point out that there are often local cultural resources or technical skills that conventional development tends to ignore, and which smart developers or entrepreneurs should try to harness: the pursuit of the New Thing sometimes keeps us from seeing the continuing value of older forms of knowledge. Likewise, we eliminate manufacturing at our own long-term peril: making stuff is actually pretty hard, requires a lot more skill than we knowledge workers tend to acknowledge, and manufacturing exerts a gravitational pull on other economic activities. Both of these argue for approaches that take a more sympathetic yet opportunistic attitude to history and local culture: rather than pave it over, you should ask if the local knowledge ecosystem (as we like to call it) has resources you can reuse. "Sustainable development" (which is a new popular buzzword) should pay attention to knowledge ecologies as well as biological ones, and learn to see local culture as a potentially valuable resource that provides useful services-- just as smart developers will realize that a swamp might provide more value as a bulwark against floods than a parking lot.
Ironic that I argue for preserving and using culture and history after spending so long happily (or sometimes militantly) apart from my own past and the world where I spent the bulk of my childhood. And maybe timely that I notice it now.
So it was kind a relief to get out of that and into something different. After I found baggage check and dropped off my duffel bag (one from REI with rolling wheels and various cool pockets, not the Army surplus one I had in college), I went for a little walk. Lots of old stores selling tires, beauty supplies, and other goods; a few bars or clubs, closed in the morning; and some vacant lots. And in the middle of it was a store converted into an artists' studio.
I'm in Raleigh, North Carolina for the next couple days, for the big International Association of Science Parks conference.
I haven't been to North Carolina in ages. I spent a summer at Duke in their precollege program 25 years ago-- it was a great time, but it more or less ruined my senior year, as it deepened my already substantial teenage "I wanna get out of there and get on with my real life and this rinky-dink high school is NOT it" angst-- and I spent a day or two in Raleigh at the NC State archives in 1994 or so, but that was one of those trips where all I was doing was taking notes on old correspondence and had no interactions at all with the place. I don't remember anything about Raleigh itself-- where I stayed, what NC State was like, where I ate lunch-- but I still remember working through the correspondence between Architecture School Dean Henry Kamphoefner and Buckminster Fuller.The IASP conference is one of the big science parks managers' and developers' conferences. My friend Anthony is doing one of the big talks, and I'm here to meet with our clients, meet various other people, and talk about the next phase of our work on the future of science cities.
I'd forgotten how lush North Carolina is. It's all that summer heat and humidity, which is already showing signs of appearing. California isn't exactly a barren wasteland, but the South always feels more verdant. (It must have been an extraordinary thing to come here from Europe 300 years ago, and to see these spectacular forests.)
I still have visceral ambivalent feelings about the South. On one hand, I like the land, the premium Southern culture places on friendliness and gentility, and the relatively low cost of living; on the other, I remember a certain amount of downside as well (kind of a cross between Faulkner and Bruce Hornsby), and I wonder how much easier a time my bookish, mixed race kids would have here. Probably Atlanta and RTP, which now have pretty large Asian populations and the kinds of service / information economies, would be fine; maybe Richmond would be too. But I'm happy having the kids where they are.
In the last few days I've been doing a lot of stuff: biking, organizing a Memorial Day dinner, preparing for a week-long trip to the East Coast, thinking about the craft and design of workshops. (These are the expert workshops that I organize all over the place.)
In many ways these are very different activities, but I really enjoy them all. I recently realized that despite their differences, they actually share a few qualities.
1) They're active, embodied knowledge.
Obviously bicycling is physical, but cooking is a nice combination of fine motor skill and lifting big heavy things (or in my case, avoiding setting myself on fire); you're always on your feet in a workshop; and travel is pretty physically strenuous, for good and bad reasons. Maybe I'm getting older, I'm less of a couch potato, or my ADD is increasing (and I know these are somewhat mutually exclusive explanations), but I find my patience with sitting for long hours and just reading is decreasing. I can do it, but I'm happier engaging my body. And nothing is better than activities where you're involving your body, but you have to think about what you're doing. (Gregg Zachary had a great piece last year on the rediscovery of the virtues of manual work. I'm part of a movement.)
cycling hunter's point, via flickr
Like Richard Sennett's craftsman (and I really recommend his book), I enjoy things that are physical or tangible, but also engage the mind. Thoughtful action is where it's at.
gestural interface missile command, via flickr
2) There are real deadlines.
My capacity for finishing things that have open-ended deadlines, or fake deadlines ("so we all agree that we'll finish our tasks by next week, right? right?"), is plummeting to near zero. I have too much other stuff in my life that absolutely has to get done.
hard deadlines: flames don't wait, via flickr
So hard deadlines are good for me now. Essential even. The workshop starts at exactly this time, the plane leaves at exactly that time, the guests are arriving now.
Hard deadlines also put a nice bound on craftwork, by preventing you from tinkering forever with something. A paragraph could always be better, but as Sennett writes, the demands of the trade force craftsmen to accept limits, to do the best job they can within the time they have, and to learn to be satisfied with that. As graphic designers say, "Finished is Good."
3) They require preparation.
The day of the cookout, I spent hours chopping vegetables, checking marinades, cleaning off platters (you can never have too many platters at a BBQ), locating plates and cups, setting up staging areas for food and drinks, laying out tools, etc. (I noticed, though, that this wasn't tedious, it was pleasant. It was a classic example of what Csíkszentmihályi calls flow.)
Likewise, when you travel, you've got to think a lot about what to pack, how to structure your time, how to get among different places, etc.. A bike won't work with a flat tire, nor will a cyclist work if he's dehydrated, so you'd better be prepared for those possibilities. Every ride requires some kind of adjustment: technical climbs mess up gears; thorns flatten tires; I get hungry. Having the resources to deal with those things lets me keep riding.
With workshops, you have to think in advance about everything, and I mean everything: you have to go over the agenda minute-by-minute, think about the flow of the day, tinker with questions and exercises to eliminate ambiguity and focus people, lay out materials, move the furniture around, make sure the caterers know when to appear, etc., etc. (Indeed, there are things that we normally don't think about that I'd like to start experimenting with, like lighting and ambient sound, making some activities more embodied and physical-- sitting is exhausting-- and playing with the day's menu to keep people from getting weighed down by muffins and too much coffee.)
Good preparation doesn't require you to think just about one thing. It requires you to think about a lot of different things, big and small; to think about timing and process; about division of labor; about contingencies and strategies. That's part of what makes it pleasant.
future of science workshop, malaysia, via flickr
But here's the important thing.
Some of that preparation is meant to help you keep things on track, and do things exactly the right way. But most serious preparation isn't about scripting. Rather, its about making it possible for you to adapt to whatever actually happens. I've never had a workshop run exactly the way I imagined it would: more people show up, they turn out to be interested in other things than we'd discussed before, the room isn't laid out the way we expected-- a thousand different things can go akimbo.
I used to think that the point of planning workshops in such great detail was so I'd have more control over them. Wrong. You never have control. You have whatever you have when you get in the room. The point of doing all that planning is to deeply understand the intentionality and philosophy behind the workshop, so you can improvise your way to the same end-point, and you have the tools at hand to do so.
perimeter institute, waterloo, via flickr
[Update: I've realized that this is my complaint about humanities graduate training: it socializes you to believe that you possess skills that are useful only in a very specific future-- namely tenure track jobs in your field-- and train you to believe that you're less qualified to succeed at a different future, and that any other future is a failure.]
If you know that you're going to go off the map-- if events are going to conspire to send you in another direction, and they will-- the best that you can do is have the right gear, and a clear picture of where you want to go.
4) They have serendipity.
The upside of plans not working out the way you expect is that they can work out better. Sometimes the very coolest thing isn't on the map, and the only way to find it is to venture into the unknown.
One of the great pleasures of having a big party is that mixing up friends who don't know each other can have pleasant results for everyone. The best rides are ones that have a brilliant hill and view that you didn't know about. The best trips are the ones that expose you to something you've never seen before, or didn't even know was cool. I fell in love with Budapest not because I'd always wanted to go there, but because it's an amazing, complicated, Old World post-socialist place that I find alternately fascinating and frustrating. I love London because it rewards walking: I know it well enough to be able to navigate by Tube or on foot, but every time I go out in the evening I discover something-- a little square, a park, a row of businesses-- that charms and captivates, and that I'd never heard of.
surprise in the london underground, via flickr
Workshops have serendipity too. Tons of it. You want to build connections between ideas or fields that even experts hadn't seen before, or explore the cross-impact of trends that people normally think about separately. When that works, the results are awesome-- and the amazing thing is, the results are awesome a lot more often than you'd expect. You never know what the outcome of a workshop is going to be-- and if you do, there's really no point in having it in the first place. This doesn't mean that a workshop shouldn't have certain goals or deliverables; far from it. But it's like an evening walk in London: you know where you're going to end up, you know that there are certain landmarks you'll pass, but you don't know what else you're going to see along the way. Your job is to be open to the serendipity, so you can take advantage of it.
5) They draw out people.
I mean this in two senses. First, they can push you do things you didn't know you could. Good rides challenge you to do things you didn't think you were capable of, or leave you exhausted by happy with your performance.
Second, they open up a space for people to contribute. My wife used the cookout as an opportunity to repot a bunch of flowers in the backyard, dig out and repot some aging bamboo, and do other things on her gardening/home improvement list. Once kids started arriving, my daughter made (or taught the kids how make) balloon swords, which they then played with all evening. I hadn't thought of either of these, but people commented on how nice the backyard looked, and the kids all left exhausted and uninjured. Win.
perimeter institute, waterloo, via flickr
Workshops require both kinds of drawing out. Running a workshop isn't an exercise in controlling other people, but it's a hard task to create a venue in which everyone can think seriously, think differently, and think together.
It's also not about getting a certain result, but about creating the conditions out of which interesting new things will emerge. Of course, workshops have objectives, but as a facilitator, you have to approach them obliquely, and recognize that the actual work and thinking will be done by participants: you're just ("just" isn't quite the right word!) there to help make it happen.
workshop in laxenburg, astria via flickr
6) Sometimes you can push, but mainly you have to flow.
You can challenge people, but you can't order them to be innovative. You can try to get guests to mingle or introduce them to each other, but you can't make them be chatty and friendly. You can also push yourself, but you must recognize that pushing doesn't get you everything: you can get to the airport on time, but you can't control the weather and need to be able to go with whatever the situation presents.
my son on a happier ride
This morning I got an unexpected lesson on pushing versus flow from my son. We were biking to school, and he has the habit of standing up while pedaling. I can't get him to stop (he's seven, after all), so I was trying to teach him how to do it in a way that maintains his balance. He got frustrated and mad, which made him distracted; and so he took a spill. Bad enough to break the mirror on his bike, add a couple nicks to the brakes or handlebars, and require some ice and band-aids when he got to school. Fortunately nothing on him was broken, and he'll be fine.
As I try to tell the kids, biking is one of those things that demands mindfulness: you have to watch the road, know what gear you're in, know where the cars are, know how tired you are. You can push yourself, but if you lose your concentration-- if you lose the flow-- you're likely to crash. In the course of pushing him, I made him lose what little flow he had.
Still, any spill that doesn't send you to urgent care is a learning opportunity, not an accident. And as a friend of mine wrote after hearing about the crash,
But falling is an essential part of growth. It teaches you where the boundaries are. If you never push hard enough to fall, you will never know if you could grow twice as much or twice as fast-- because you are playing it safe.
So across all these activities-- and maybe across everything you do-- hitting that mix of pushing and flow, planning but staying open to serendipty, and being active is key.
Sitting on the veranda. Wifi really changes your life, you know?
Beautiful day here in Sausalito!
A sign on the road in Nairobi:
[via the Freakonomics blog]
This weekend my son and I spent two night at Hidden Villa. It was a trip organized by the parent of a classmate of my son's, and it was us and about half a dozen other families. Hidden Villa was founded by the same people who started Peninsula School (the Duvenecks were amazingly entrepreneurial-- they also were involved in the creation of the Pacific Arts League, and they've immortalized by having a Palo Alto neighborhood named after them), so it has something of a special resonance with Peninsula families.
Hidden Villa is still a working farm, and there are a couple farm stands just to the left of the entrance. There's a pretty large organic garden, chickens (the eggs are excellent, I'm told), and a number of cows, goats and sheep.
While the kids were all excited about going camping at Hidden Villa-- they'd all been there on field trips at least once-- we were actually staying at the hostel, which consists of several heated cabins near a terrific lodge. (Basically, any time you get ready for a weekend by going to Costco rather than REI, you can tell it's not going to be real camping.) The lodge is a wonderful building, large and spacious, not particularly luxurious, but incredibly comfortable to be in.
And it's one of those spaces that, because of where it's situated, manages to feel wonderfully luxurious. I especially liked the screened-in porch, which for some ancient reason I'm drawn to.
We did a potluck dinner the first night, then various of us took charge of the remaining meals. We didn't have a complicated schedule for cleanup, but somehow it all worked out: I think when you're a group of parents of small kids, cleaning up is kind of automatic. The idea of either leaving the dishes for tomorrow, or not doing anything while other people were working, were both kind of unthinkable.
Besides, the lodge has a fabulous kitchen. Propane rather than gas for the stove, which means it heats up more slowly than normal, but otherwise it was a fantastic workspace.
Saturday morning we went for a hike, which led (after a refreshing uphill climb) to a stream that the kids found very diverting. It also reminded me that for kids, the most important thing you can bring to keep them happy and uncomplaining isn't lots of water, or good shoes, but other kids. If you're with your parents, everything quickly becomes a drag; if you're with classmates, it's all cool.
After the hike and lunch, we went on a tour of the farm. Needless to say, the kids loved the chance to interact with the animals-- pet the goats and sheep, feed the chickens, that sort of thing.
I realized at a certain point that, in addition to the obvious appeal of a beautiful natural location, there were two things I really liked about the weekend, and it got me thinking.
The first was the very unforced combination of quiet and company. I was with a dozen other adults and a lot of kids, but I never had the feeling that it was a strain: everyone got along very well, but things were unstructured enough-- and there were always enough parents around who could keep an eye on the kids, who paid us essentially no mind whatsoever and formed their own self-regulating tribe-- to allow you to wander off on your own. I enjoyed spending time with them because they're really nice people, but also because I didn't have the sense that anyone had to be entertained.
The kids were also really easy to deal with. They're generally a very well-behaved bunch, but you put them together, and they essentially seal themselves off from adults, lose any real interest in any of us adults, and take care of themselves until dinner. In the evening, they'd play games, or cluster around whatever parents were reading (everyone, and I mean every single child, brought a couple Bone books, so it was a virtual Bone-reading marathon all weekend). Very different from how things can be at home: my kids are pretty independent, but I felt like I spent less time interacting with ten kids there than I do with my own at home.
It was an interesting experience, and it made me wonder: why in the world don't we do this all the time? If kids are easier to deal with in larger numbers (a counterintuitive proposition, but maybe not that inaccurate), why do we insist on (or default to) taking care of them ourselves? Maybe the cohousing movement is onto something....
The second thing that made me really think was the realization that part of what I liked about the weekend was that it offered some of the same rewards of traveling: it offered a chance to strip away life to a few essentials, and to live with a degree of thoughtfulness and enforced simplicity-- but without the frantic, focused edge than I have to maintain when I'm on the road. At one point, when I was sitting in the lodge and playing Go (the parents include a number of really serious Go players, and I got my ass kicked all weekend), it struck me that for these two days at least, I had effectively traded dealing with stuff for interacting with people. It was a good deal.
A few months ago I went through a phase of throwing out old stuff, and as I've lost weight I've been shedding clothes that are too large for me. But I now wonder: could I get rid of another 95% of what I own, keep a core of essential stuff, and have a better life? Do I need all those books from graduate school? Am I really any more likely to finish Barbara Stafford's Body Criticism than I am to get through the rest of Normal Cantor's the Civilization of the Middle Ages? Of course not. So why am I keeping them? Things like travel and this past weekend suggest that it would be possible for me to radically reduce the number of objects I have in my life, and not really miss them.
I'm not about to renounce all worldly goods, and I don't want to sound like a cross between Thoreau and Wigan Ludgate (the hacker-turned-recluse in William Gibson's Count Zero). But would I be happier with a much smaller, thoughtfully designed, and ruthlessly efficient personal infrastructure?
Could one live like that all the time? Out of the equivalent of a couple, say, a couple large suitcases? At what point does owning less make you richer? Can you, in essence, trade things for more friends? I'm not sure, but it's worth trying to figure out. Like I said, a monastic renunciation of worldly goods isn't in my future; but maybe a lighter life would be more worth living.
Another data-point (from the Guardian) on how the decline of cyberspace encourages digital information to migrate from screens to streets, from planning and research phases of activities to decision-making, and from formality and permanence to informality and immediacy.
Spotted by Locals is a network of city bloggers providing up-to-the-minute local information - from a cosy London hideaway to Madrid's best kept museum secret.
Like many great ideas, Spotted by Locals was conceived after a few beers. Dutch couple Sanne and Bart van Poll were on a city break to Brussels in 2007, and abandoned their customary guidebook in favour of tips gleaned from a Belgian blogger whose jib they like the sound of. "We went to the bars and restaurants he frequents, and walked around in the hidden local neighbourhood that was certainly not in our paper guide," says Bart. And in one of said bars, they came up with the idea that would imminently lead to both of them quitting their day jobs.
Spotted by Locals is a network of European city blogs written by over 80 local bloggers who Sanne and Bart have met personally since coming up with the idea. Each city blog is manned by a number of enthusiastic local "spotters", ranging from 18-year old Czech medicine students to 60-year old Belgian retirees. As the bloggers are all writing in second (or third) languages, the prose can occasionally be a little clunky, but therein lies its beauty: authentically local, on-the-ground advice. And, like all good blog content, the focus is on keeping up. "All tips are always up-to-date. Our Spotters only write about places they visit regularly, and update the information in the article frequently."
You could also do this in a more fluid fashion, if you mined Technorati for city names plus certain other terms, like vacation, travel, or a word that a service looks for.
I'm on the Caltrain from San Francisco to Palo Alto. I spent the day here getting a visa to go to China at the end of the month. I'm planning to be there for about a week, mainly in Beijing.
The Chinese consulate is located on the edge of Japantown. Today it had police barricades and several fairly bored-looking cops, and a couple Falun Gong demonstrators. I don't know if this is normal (I suspect the demonstrators kind of come with the place), or whether the police are here because of the Tibetan anniversary; however, the only excitement was inside, and caused by a few irate people yelling about their service. I got there at about 10:45, and joined a long line of people; initially I was seriously worried about whether I'd be able to get a visa today, but quickly realized that the line was moving relatively quickly.
Once inside I was struck by something else: that while my first impression was that it was pretty chaotic-- lots of people, several very long lines, a certain number of raised voices, an intercom that didn't work THAT well-- after a few minutes I could see that it was, in its way, pretty speedy. There were hundreds of people there, and all things considered, everything moved rather fast. Whatever social cues I follow that tell me that things are going well or poorly didn't quite apply here.
It put me in mind of Harry Collins' description of tacit knowledge. As he explains it, there's contingent tacit knowledge, which is stuff we don't talk about for various reasons but could. Somatic tacit knowledge, in contrast, is physical: putting on clothes is a good example (if you watch young children, they're figuring out how to interpret various kinds of resistance, and figure out that THIS means the sleeve is turned inside-out, THAT means the collar is just to the left, etc.). Finally, there's collective tacit knowledge, which you can only get by immersing yourself in a society. Riding a bike requires somatic tacit knowledge; riding a bike in traffic requires collective tacit knowledge; riding a bike in Copenhagen, Davis CA, and Mumbai requires the same somatic knowledge, but verrry different collective knowledge.
There are social signs we learn that tell us whether a place or situation is safe or unsafe, chaotic or orderly, quiet or tense: how people stand, how they speak, how frustrated or angry they act, whether there are kids or old people present, how friendly the guards or soldiers are, etc. etc. ad infinitum. The ability to read those signs is one thing that distinguishes insiders from outsiders, because they vary from culture to culture. (Not knowing them is one of the things that can get you into trouble in a strange place; and their comforting presence is one of the things that you pay for when you stay in places like business hotels.) Making sense of the consulate, I realized, required a slightly different body of collective knowledge than I apply when I'm in downtown Palo Alto. Once I got that, I was able to see that it was actually a smoother operation than I'd first realized, the presence of loudly angry aged Chinese women aside.
And indeed, I got in right under the wire: I was the last visa applicant they took before breaking for lunch. The whole process took about 45 seconds: I handed in my paperwork, picture, and passport, had a brief discussion about whether I wanted rush service (I did), and was told to come back in a few hours. Sure enough, that afternoon (after lunch in Japantown, which seems now to largely consist of Korean restaurants, and some work at Cafe Murano, a very cool little place on Steiner) they had it ready.
The visa takes up a full page in my passport, for some reason. Whenever I got to the EU, I'm lucky to get stamped; Singapore and Malaysia have nice-looking entry and exit stamps; but China and South Africa take up whole pages in my passport. There's probably some contingent social knowledge that explains why this is.
After getting some coffee, I headed out to take some pictures of Gammage Memorial Auditorium, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed complex that I'd seen in the dark a couple nights earlier. I wanted to walk around it during the daytime, and get a better sense of what it looked like.
Usually when I travel somewhere, I go for a long walk. On the better ones, I encounter some surprising thing that I didn't set out to see, but which makes the whole thing worthwhile. This morning, it was this. A sign on top of Lattie Coor Hall, it says "Explore."
We held our workshop on the future of science and economic development today. It wrapped up at 5, after which I went for a swim and some time in the hot tub; I then met up with my colleagues, and we went over to Scottsdale for dinner. We first went to the Billet Bar, a biker bar in old town, for a drink. (I had a Diet Coke-- I've pretty much given up on alcohol, as I've become an unaccountable lightweight.)
After that, it was to Bandera for dinner. It was really outstanding.
It turns out that Phoenix-- and in particular Scottsdale-- is, in certain important respects, an economic offshoot of Southern California: according to our local host, who's a geography professor at ASU and therefore entirely trustworthy on such matters, part of the porn industry has relocated to Phoenix, as have a number of rappers. Apparently it's easy to get back to LA, and there are no papparazzi (sp?) here. (The Billet Bar has "Industry Nights," which must be quite the scene.)
Not only does it have all that, but Scottsdale was also the home of Frank Lloyd Wright (in his Taliesin West phase), and is where the Taser was invented. Truly an all-American city.
Every year the chairs are driven south to their spring feeding grounds in Arizona....
One of the most striking things I saw during tonight's walk around Arizona State was this:
It's a computer center. And it's empty. Because it's closed. At first, I literally couldn't believe it. After years around Stanford, seeing a computer cluster that's not surrounded by students, and open 24/7, didn't really register. Proof once again that neuroscience is right, and that we tend to see what we believe, not the other way around.
If I were Tom Friedman, this would be the beginning of a piece about how this is an example of how American competitiveness is in decline, and how in China there would be 50,000 students using a facility like this. He'd talk about how in Berkeley a similar center-- which he saw while on his way to play golf with the head of Cisco, before heading to Dubai-- was filled with graduate students, but they were all Chinese.
Sunday afternoon, I braved the single-digit temperature, ice on the roads, and responsibility for my dad's beloved Honda Element to go see the Hamilton Wing of the Denver Art Museum, the new (2006) Daniel Libeskind addition.
denver art museum, via flickr
Over the last few years, Denver has been building the area around DAM into a more coherent cultural complex, and trying to turn it into a Destination. The Denver Public Library is right beside the art museum; the historical society and state museum are up the block; and there's a new performing arts complex.
the old (now north wing), denver art museum, via flickr
The main stairway is a wonderfully dynamic space: not only is it a petting zoo of exotic angles, but as I returned to it through the afternoon, it looked different as the light changed.
stairway, via flickr
I know people have criticized the building for being confusing and vertigo-inspiring, but I found it no harder to navigate than a more conventional, square building. Each floor has two or three galleries, and once you have a working mental model of the basic layout, you can figure out things pretty easily.
daniel richter exhibit, via flickr
In fact, the unusual shape of the building probably makes it easier to orient yourself: when you're in a gallery that comes to a sharp point at one end, you know that the exit is in the other direction.
fourth floor: modern and african, via flickr
More generally, I think the shape of the galleries gives the exhibits a measure of dynamism that they wouldn't have in a more conventional space. The Clyfford Still exhibit, for example, has a number of huge paintings-- Still was arguably the first Abstract Expressionist, and he worked on the large scale characteristic of the movement-- that weren't just hung from the walls; they were suspended from the ceiling in a way that made them look like they were either floating, or had emerged from the angled wall behind them.
clyfford still, via flickr
And spending time in the Daniel Richter exhibit, which has a lot of tough, street-wise paintings, was definitely made more interesting by the space. I'm not sure that this would enhance the experience of looking at Dutch still-life paintings or Venetian portraits... but maybe it would.
daniel richter exhibit, via flickr
I'm... conveniently near the galley. Should make getting up easier. Which us good, because we seem to be delayed at least an hour. But it's an aisle seat on an exit row, so I really have no complaints.
This trip was very good. Normally when I come to Colorado it's with the kids, so even though we stay with my parents, I'm here in my capacity as Grandchild Travel Manager and Wrangler I hadn't quite realized how consuming that role is, and how much it reduces the opportunity for the adults to talk amongst themselves. We all so naturally reorient around the children, and it happens so gradually, it's easy to not notice what gets lost. So it may be selfish, but it was good to see them without the kids.
At the new wing of the DMA. It's a new wing, technically, but it so completely overshadows the old building, it's almost sad.
This should be interesting.
Extremely cold this morning! It snowed a little last night, and last night's low is forecast to be today's high.
Nonetheless, I may go down to the Denver Art Museum and see the new Daniel Liebskind (sp?) wing, which I hear is very interesting, possibly even vertigo-inducing.
The sun is coming up, and we're drinking tea and reading. Pop's finishing a biography of Admiral Marc Mitscher, I'm working on an end of cyberspace chapter. Food later.
It's 5:22 a.m., and I'm in a Supershuttle, headed to the Tampa/St Petersburg airport. I got here less than 48 hours ago, and I'm on my way home. William Byrd's Mass for Four Voices is playing on my iTunes, which gives a curiously spiritual feel to the trip. It's not a ride to the airport, its a pilgrimage.
I was thinking about why I like to travel-- not just like it, but really look forward even to short trips like these.
Novelty. Going to new places is really interesting. Going to London and Singapore is no longer novel, but I'm far from exhausting what's interesting about those places (the only time I've been to the British Museum was with my wife, a year and half ago, and I spent most of it staring slack-jawed at the Rogers courtyard).
I'm good at it. I know how to pack, how to get ready for trips, how to navigate airports and customs and security, how to get what I need from hotel and conference center people, how to find decent restaurants and interesting things to do with a free couple hours. There's a craft to travel, and even though it's as idiosyncratic as writing-- everyone's style is different, even if their objectives are the same-- I've learned to do it pretty well, and am still improving.
There are clear goals. Success is easy to measure: you catch your plane, get to the hotel, get prepared, deliver the talk, facilitate the meeting, build the map, please the client, etc. Not a lot of ambiguity most of the time. This contrasts with a lot of my life, where there are very big, but long-term and amorphous, goals, and the linkage between completing them and the reward is-- not unclear, exactly, but not very tight. You finish a piece for a client, and it may be a month before you get any feedback; six months pass between sending an article to the editors and getting reprints; and I'll probably be years before some of the things I do for the kids pay off (if even if they do, I might never hear about them).
On the road, though, I can practice a measure of decisiveness and focus that's hard to exercise in my normal multitasking, collaborative life.
I think a lot when I travel. Some of my most productive hours and best ideas come on planes. Partly this is a matter of necessity-- often I have to 16 hours to finish that keynote or else-- but there's something liberating about having 10 hours sealed in your own little pressurized, caffeinated world, with nothing to do but think and write. (The fact that most of the time the movies are lousy is a godsend. Singapore Airlines' 100 channels is a bit of challenge for me, but I usually manage to avoid it until the return flight.)
Away from it all, uninterruptible, and accustomed to having good ideas pop into my head, it's easy to get into that state where good thoughts appear. And even if I don't have some intellectual breakthrough, I usually get enough e-mail written to feel okay about the trip.
The privilege. Business travel is stressful in some ways, but luxurious in one important way: you spend a certain amount of your time around people whose job it is to take care of things for you. Not quite take care of you as a person; but in my normal life someone else isn't carrying my bags, doing all the driving, serving the food, getting the conference room set up, etc. At home my wife and I share the labor, I've got the kids doing more things, and they help with small tasks like carrying in groceries; but that's not the same as being in situations where it's someone else's job to do things for you.
And often I'm lucky to be going somewhere as someone's guest. I may be working for them, but the act of traveling imposes certain obligations and courtesies on all parties. Even if you're picking up the cost of a person's trip, you're still nice to them.
Of course, there are also times when it's disorienting and alienating. Sitting in a near-empty terminal in the pre-dawn hours, it's easy for that "what the hell am I doing here" sense of anomie to settle over you. But for now, at least, it's a price worth paying.
We stopped for an early dinner at the Moonlight Diner, a reconstructed (or just faux 1950s) diner near the Denver International Airport.
Less than 24 hours since I was last here, I'm back at SFO, headed to Colorado to spend a few days with my dad and stepmother.
I brought my end of cyberspace manuscript and a couple other things I'm working on. Lest this sound anti-family, consider this: the last time I talked to my dad (yesterday when I was in DIA), we spent about 20 minutes talking about the transferability of science park models developed around the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, and the unintended consequences of Singapore's immigration policy for the development of scientific communities in Asia. This is typical. The apple didn't fall far from the tree.
Though I also hope to get in some skating or skiing.
I write about people, technology, and the worlds they make.
I'm a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Menlo Park, CA consulting and research firm. I also have two academic appointments: I'm a visitor at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, and an Associate Fellow at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. (I also have profiles on Linked In, Google Scholar and Academia.edu.)
I began thinking seriously about contemplative computing in the winter of 2011 while a Visiting Researcher in the Socio-Digital Systems Group at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. I wanted to figure out how to design information technologies and user experiences that promote concentration and deep focused thinking, rather than distract you, fracture your attention, and make you feel dumb. You can read about it on my Contemplative Computing Blog.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, will be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. (It will also appear in Dutch and Russian.)
My latest book, and the first book from the contemplative computing project. The Distraction Addiction is published by Little, Brown and Co.. You can find it at your local bookstore, or order it through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or IndieBound.
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
PUBLISHED IN 2012
PUBLISHED IN 2011
PUBLISHED IN 2010
PUBLISHED IN 2009