Saturday, November 24, 2007

Rumors of the Death of the Book

This topic isn't exactly Brookline related per se, although I'm sure we have more than our fair share of heavy reader and authors per capita than just about anywhere. So here comes another gizmo we are supposed to want to carry around with us and use, the Kindle. It's supposed to be so much like reading a book, we can get lost in the experience, just like we do when we read.....The great minds at MIT worked for a decade devising E Ink, which is much more like ink on paper, rather than looking at a backlit screen. There will be a wireless all-pervasive "whispernet" cellphone network that we use to download our books from Amazon. We can climb a tree and download a book at the same time!

Do you detect a note a sarcasm? I am showing my age I guess. How many books do I need access to at once? To actually read? One of my big problems with the Kindle is its exclusive network and control of content. Can you get books anywhere else and read them on the Kindle? Or is this world domination a la Amazon? At least with an IPod it supports multiple file formats and you can source music files any number of ways.

Another big problem I have is browsing or serendipity. How many of you have wondered into a great book store or yard sale for that matter and stumbled upon a great book you never knew you were looking for? How will we find these if the physical objects don't exist? Amazon recommends X because you liked Y is just not going to get it.

I know, books are an environmental nightmare and this is the digital age after all. The Death of the Book is Inevitable!! This is what "they" say anyway. I wonder. We always get this idea that its a zero sum proposition, when in fact, it might just be that we have another way to read, with both formats remaining viable for different purposes.

After listening to a very interesting discussion on WBUR with Steven Levy (author of this week's Newsweek article The Future of Reading) and Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenberg Elegies) a friend gave me a copy of the Newsweek article. In it Levy says "Talk to people who have thought about the future of books and there's a phrase you hear again and again. Readers will read in public. Writers will write in public...the notion of the author as authoritarian figure gives way to a Web 2.0 wisdom-of-the-crowds process."

If you ask me this is completely missing the boat. Being an author isn't just about the ideas. Sure, in the research phase of project, get all the input you can. The more ideas the better. But its the process of making connections, winnowing, the content. Then its the craft. Do you think the group process would have made Shakespeare better? Any writer worth their salt knows its sweating bullets, editing, editing , editing that makes something good.

When we read something it is that we want to experience another persons vision, or get some idea of how they think or share their view of the world? How could this happen if everything written was a group effort? There would be no cohesion. Maybe I'm missing something in what they are predicting.

Digitizing books has obvious research benefits (searchable databases, universal access etc.) and I'm all for that. But does that mean technology will necessarily improve upon the book? Maybe not, but perhaps we won't have a choice. I don't know about you, but it sure seems like the future sure is coming faster than ever!
[Where: 02446]

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Beacon Street Finishing Touches

If you are a construction junkie or a little kid who likes watching big trucks moving dirt and pouring pavement, you've had quite a year. The Beacon Street project finally hit Coolidge Corner full force for the past few months, and each time I've ventured to the corner on foot I've stood in amazement at the scale and monumentally of the action going on. It's also been a challenge wandering into the street or onto the bouncing plywood planks as we attempt to frequent our usual places of business. These maneuvers seemed nearly impossible for many elderly and mothers with strollers, but they still tried, as the rest of us tried to help them! I also stood, quite saddened and stunned, when I went to go to Rodney's bookstore and found it gone. It was a treasure trove to me.

I admit, I haven't been completely tuned into the whole project, mostly trying to remember not to come home on Beacon in my car the few times a week I'm out in it. I can't say I really know why it was that this massive undertaking was considered necessary. Granted one of the big improvements on the functional side, in my opinion, is we will no longer have the angle parked cars backing up into the travel lanes. I was once stopped in a line of cars backed up from the Harvard/Beacon light and someone in a parked car started to back-up. Now, this seems normal, they are just getting ready to move when the traffic clears, but no. I soon realized that this person was either blind or not looking and was continuing to back-up into my car and I had no where to move to, my only resort was my horn. It took a good five long blasts until the apparently blind and nearly deaf person finally stopped within an inch of my car.

The bike lane is a good idea, although it would have been much better to have done it without gaps. But all those traffic lights seem like a few too many. I'm all for safety at intersections and if it helps the pedestrians, great, but I remain skeptical on that score. We should be at the point in our thinking that we accommodate all users of a roadway, no longer seeing it as the exclusive domain of maximum velocity moving automobiles, but rather a part of the fabric of a living breathing community. The name for this new (or actually old) way of looking at streets is called "complete streets". The pedestrian/auto conflicts at Beacon/Harvard have really been escalating in the last few years, as the cars get stuck in the middle of Beacon or don't want to wait for pedestrians as they try to turn right. On this score, I'm not sure the new project will be much help. As I crossed Beacon Street from the Southeast corner, I noticed a strange offset to the route we were guided on which sent us directly into a large (5 ft tall) switch box as we crossed the T stop. I hope this was just a construction fluke. Otherwise this is a case of not considering the pedestrian.

Coinciding with the completion of the Beacon Street project, the new commercial building next to the post office is nearing completion. The one good thing about this new building is all the glass. It will at least not be a harsh, solid wall. Sadly though, it will be a Staples. Generic, utilitarian office supplies, which are readily available at two other nearby locations does not stir the soul.

But what has really grabbed my attention now is the "jewelery" of the project. It's like after your house rehab gets done and now you are putting the furniture, the rug and pictures into the room. It becomes livable again. One day we see a mountain of dirt with a squadron of interesting looking mid-sized trees and the next day they are planted in a row between the T tracks and the roadway to the east of Pleasant Street. Nice, I hope they live. At least we have gotten some rain. So many of the new trees I saw planted this summer in and around Washington Square looked as if they will not make it. But as a whole, the plantings look nice and I am hopeful that the overall effect will be leafy, green and softening as they grow.

How about those snazzy new light posts. They have a nicely detailed curving arm in a glossy black paint, with an elegantly egg shaped glass. They are lovely, but they get lost in the forest of poles! Are we really going to have the jumble of sizes and styles that we've got going, or are they (please!) going to take down a few of the old ones. As an example of what I'm talking about, check out that little traffic island at Beacon and Pleasant Street. There are the thick short poles with the multitudinous traffic signals on them. These we are stuck with, but they add a lot of visual clutter just by themselves. Then there are the new street lights, great, wish we could see them. Then there are the old street lights, the pole is a composite stone and the light fixture is your standard issue interstate highway lamp. Then, (yes there's more!!!) there are the sixties era square black shades with white globe lamps meant to look smart and dress up the traffic island (which was always trying to convince us it was meant to be a public space as evident from the presence of a bench). There are more of these black square retro lights scattered about in Coolidge Corner. My guess is they came in with the Center Place development, which with its mirrored facade is looking pretty dated these days too.

The design of the new light posts is nice, but if there is no consistency of use, their effect will be one of creating chaos rather than making a design statement. The look of the street "jewelery" such as the plantings, signage, lighting, benches, building facades, etc. will set the tone for all of Coolidge Corner and will have significant impacts on how welcoming and pleasing it is. Consistent design standards are needed and would be welcome to both developers and regulators alike. I wonder if we will get our historic cast aluminum street signs back? Are they really still thinking of posting both signs, the historic and a new street sign on the same post? This would be disastrous and silly. These details could be the most important part of this massive project, I hope they pay attention and reduce the chaos.