Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In the Wake of the Boston Marathon

OK, haven't posted anything here for years, but here goes.

I'm a relative newcomer to Boston: I didn't move here until 2003, after graduating from college. There are times when I feel like an outsider (hockey, Bruins, what?), and even times that I feel close to the city but also like I haven't quite earned my place (see: October 27, 2004). But Patriots' Day is an all-inclusive event, and it's been my favorite day in Boston since I got tickets to the morning Sox game, saw the flyover, saw the helicopters tracking the elite runners, and exited the park to see the marathon for the first time.

I'm a runner but a very slow, amateur one; that first experience of the 26.2-miler was before I'd ever run a race and probably before I'd ever run 5 miles at one go. Seeing this never-ending swarm of *normal-looking* people coming down Beacon Street after having run 23 miles was something new (wow! They're impressive! and, ...could I do that?). And seeing this never-ending swarm of a crowd cheering them on brought home that it didn't matter if you were from Boston, or from Philly, or old, or young--it just mattered that you joyfully yelled your heart out to support the people who looked just like you, but who were running and running, doing this amazing thing.

I think that's what lies at the heart of everything I've loved about Patriots' Day, which I recently called my favorite day in the city because (as I tried to explain, without quite the right words) everyone is happy and there's just positive energy everywhere. There's the early spring cadre of runners on the carriage paths of Comm. Ave. in Newton on Saturday mornings, growing each week, wearing marathon jackets, oblivious to the cold and snow as they prepare for April. There's the building excitement of the preparations along the route--barricades and port-o-potties set up a few days before, then the camera bridge at the finish line and the tents that take over Copley Square. There are the international flags waving at the finish line, with tourists and locals alike taking pictures and posing. There's the yearly blessing of the runners at Trinity Church on Marathon Sunday, culminating with a bone-vibrating rendition of Chariots of Fire on the great organ (the organist getting psyched up since he's running too).

I was lucky to be able to join Trinity's church choir this year, and on Sunday we premiered a piece written by that organist who runs and is also our director. After the priest made his annual, well received joke about Trinity appearing "like the City of God" to the runners at the end of the race, we sang: "They shall mount up with wings like eagles; shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." And then, a bit self-consciously in our robes, a few of us hung around the back of the church to hear Richard play Chariots of Fire and to cheer him on when it was done. Everyone all smiles, everyone having fun in anticipation of the big day.

The electricity of Patriots' Day isn't just about the marathon. It's the reenactments of the revolutionary war in the pre-dawn hours in Lexington ("the drums are scary--you get why they played drums then," a coworker told me yesterday morning). It's the baseball game--in the morning! It's a vacation day, a holiday. Even the skeleton crew of us in the office yesterday took some extra time at lunch to catch a few pitches on the TV. The happiness is absolutely catching, and everyone's invited.

I couldn't make it to the festivities this year so I took my morning run into the city, along the marathon route, ending up at the finish line at 7, the sun slanting over the city, the hardiest folks already settling in their camp chairs on the sidewalk along the barricades. I took pictures; I Facebooked them; I couldn't refrain from multiple exclamation points.

And that's where it all happened, where the nature of how this day is celebrated and remembered in Boston changed. The very sidewalk, the very barricades, the very finish line.

There will be more marathons and more Red Sox games and more cowbell-ringing for the runners, and the sun will shine on the finish line again. But always, and rightly, we'll remember the dead, the injured, in the *place where it happened*, which we'll talk about in whispered tones. We'll be forced to think about hatred, evil, lunacy, or whatever brings a person to do something like this, and not just the magic of reaching goals worth fighting for and of taking in a morning at a green ballpark or being part of the effervescence of a supportive, happy crowd.

Our task now is to let that remembrance fuel us to do more great things, to build a stronger community, to let that effervescence bind us together as a city and as a humanity, to be the light that dazzles against the darkness--to take this tragedy and make it help us to mount up like eagles, to run and not be weary, and to walk and not faint.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cultural Observations of an iPhone User

The advent of mobile devices not only allows us to be more connected, it shifts how we perceive activities like reading, and how we think of other devices, like computers. For example, two things I've noticed since becoming an iPhone addict:

Thing 1: When you read things on the iPhone that you used to read on your computer or in analog (a newspaper or a book, for example), you're still perceived as doing something much more frivolous and distracted, like fragmentedly texting or obsessively checking email. You're perceived as being unfocused on the world around you rather than focused on a piece of content. Tim and I noticed this once when he was reading a book and I was reading on the Kindle app, and he kept wanting to tell me to stop obsessively checking my email or something--and he had to keep reminding himself that I was actually engrossed in a Dickens novel.

Thing 2: My home computer has become much more fun, because much more of my stress-related email checking has moved to the iPhone, while use of my computer has basically degenerated into watching Battlestar Galactica DVDs (and writing the odd blog musing).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Physical Book in 50 Years

Here's a metaphor for how we'll think of books in fifty years: like candles.

We use candles now to mark special occasions, for a sense of cozy old-school nostalgia, for atmospherics, for decor, and in a pinch for their original use when the power goes out. But most of the time, when you really want to get something done, you flip a light switch.

In the future, physical books will also be used to mark special occasions (they'll be souvenirs) and to decorate your apartment and for atmospherics and nostalgia, and in a pinch when your computer or portable data device is on the fritz. But most of the time, when you're really going to want to get something read, you'll just turn on your Kindle/iPhone/magic-electronic-gizmo.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Newer, Bigger Kindle

Okay, I'm going to put out there right now that Kindle's newer bigger self is not going to work. I seem to be in the minority, so let me be clear about what I mean by that: It will not sell as well as the original-sized Kindle, and it is not the way of the future.

The ways in which it will be moderately successful are as follows: As an entrance into the Boomer market (i.e., people who find the iPhone and even the original Kindle too small). What's going to hold it back here somewhat is the price. For folks who are already slightly skeptical about digital, $500 is a pretty big chunk of change. It will also be somewhat useful for folks who depend a lot on graphics--students who use textbooks, professionals who use manuals. For everyone named above, it's an interim step backwards, opening up the market for more users to become comfortable with the technology that already exists.

It's also a threat to Apple, because it's an interim step in the direction of a new kind of laptop technology: something like this could be your new computer someday. Make it a touchscreen, with a touchscreen keyboard, and you could run a pretty full OS. Apple is already responding to this threat with their Mediapad. If the Kindle goes in this direction, that's the one way that this thing will become a big player.

But I'm not sure Amazon is going in that direction because they seem pretty set on thinking of this as a *reading* device. And that's the real problem. The media device of the future is going to have to be an all-in-one, like the iPhone is.

The all-in-one mindset is important for two reasons. First, portability: if the logic behind the Kindle is that you don't want to carry around multiple books, then you also don't want to carry around multiple devices, and you probably don't want to carry around a big one. Portability is a key factor in mobile devices, and this Kindle just ain't it. If you're in the general market (not Boomer, not infographics-focused) and you wanted a digital reading device badly enough to pay that much money for it, you would have tried out the original Kindle, and by now you'd be used to it, and so why ever would you get something bigger?

Second, because we always want more functionality, not less. Why would I want to carry around a huge slab of computer that can only do one thing, when I could carry around something that could also act as a GPS, as a phone, as a Red-Sox-game-score tracker? I already expect more of my mobile devices. I think this is really important: if Amazon is trying to present a disruptive innovation (something that does less but reaches a broader market), they've got their price wrong. And if they're just trying to present a new innovation, then they are just innovating by looking in the rear view mirror.

So fire away. Why am I wrong?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The New Role of Publishers

Umair Haque makes a fascinating point in his most recent blog post when he urges the New York Times to acquire Twitter in part to "help the NYT rebuild detailed information about people, products, services, and news." In other words, the NYT becomes not just a source for information published by the NYT, but an aggregator of information provided by everybody.

What if that’s what publishers need to do today? Not just to provide content, but to help their customers share content between each other as well?

While some publishers are beginning to do this in a rudimentary way--OUP has a blog on which readers can converse through comments; HarperCollins has various reading groups--nobody has yet set this as their new business model.

You wouldn't only have to have discussion forums; you'd have to have space for people to upload their own work and the capability for your editorial team to sort it and comment on it somehow, so readers know what their getting (after all, one of the most important functions of the editorial team is as gatekeeper to good information). But a lot of the work would just have to be automated.

Is this the world we're heading to?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

…from Quirk Books (publishers of “Worst-Case Scenarios” and nothing else I have heard of) has sold almost 14K copies since its release on Saturday! Perhaps more amazingly, only one of those was to me!

What is Quirk doing right about word-of-mouth book marketing? I initially heard about the P&P&Z weeks ago on NPR's “Wait Wait Don't Tell Me” and one of my coworkers reports it was covered on the BBC world news this morning. I certainly Twittered about it when I preordered, and got the most RT’s I’ve ever had (ok, like 3, but still). I've even written a blog post about it! (Ooh, so meta!)

Is this just a case of good author track record (I hear Austen’s pretty hot right now…and for the past two centuries), a catchy title and idea, or are they actually doing something other publishers can emulate (perhaps in their own nice, brand-appropriate way)? Check out the publisher’s website - http://irreference.com/ - they’ve got plenty of space for reader feedback, tons of tschotschkes, quizzes, and much more. It's not all stuff that every publisher can do from a brand perspective (not all of us are publishing irreverent humor books), but there's certainly community-building inspiration here for all of us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Out of Africa

Just saw "Out of Africa" for the first time. It's a stunning film. This has something to do with the combination of Meryl Streep's slow, quiet voice and the expansive, serene vistas of Africa.

Yes, it's also to do with the attacks of lions and with Robert Redford's slow, quiet looks that hide a soul afraid of being caged in. And of course Karen and Dennis's argument before the fireplace cuts to the dilemmas of the 'plot' of the movie: trust, independence, freedom, dependability. Those are the human problems the film presents. Very nice and interesting to talk about, but not what makes the movie so perplexing.

The film's achievement is the lasting impression of peace it gives us despite the incredible disruptions at the end of its narrative. The answers to those human question are presented not by the unfolding plot but by those vistas, by that voice. The serenity of green and the roll of Karen's slightly labored lilt are what make you close your eyes after the movie ends and keep imagining it is still going on. Karen has gone out of Africa, but Africa has not left her, nor us.

From our greatest losses--the film tells us, reminds us, enacts for us--something, an overwhelming something, lasts.