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Friday
May092008

Bird noises and building design

Here is my story about why I became interested in facility design (from "Building Digital Libraries for Analog People: 10 Common Design Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them" KQ, May/June 2000):

I once caught a glimpse of what purgatory must be like for school librarians. While student teaching in the mid-70’s in a small Iowa town, I watched the most hapless librarian I have ever met trying to do her job – which at that time was mostly keeping study hall students quiet and busy.

Her media center was, as are too still many yet today, two classrooms pushed together with perimeter shelving and a high circulation desk at the front of the long room near the door. The floor held just two tables near the circulation desk. The main seating was provided in rows of tall-sided study carrels running in long aisles down the length of the room. (See figure one)

The librarian spent most of the time I observed her running up and down those aisles of carrels trying to detect which students were making the little bird noises they knew drove her crazy. I believe this happened every hour of every school day. At least it was going on each time I visited the library. (That school building has since burned down. I like to think it was the act of a merciful God.)

A few years later when I was a school library media specialist myself, I overheard my principal say that he thought tall-sided carrels would be just the ticket for helping students work quietly in the new media center we were planning. My ears pricked up quicker than a dog’s. I decided it might not be a bad idea to be a bit more involved in the library design process.

Ah, it's good to be able to find oneself amusing. But it's my story and I am sticking to it.

Anyway, a short list of articles and columns I've written on facility design...

Next up: How does where we place computers in our buildings reflect our philosophy toward technology?

Friday
May092008

Is being "wired" a good thing?

As part of the planning process for the new elementary school we're building, a group of teachers and administrators toured four nearby schools that opened in the past two years. I am still mulling over what I saw, but this is what jumped out at me. Wires. In otherwise, thoughtfully (if not innovatively) planned schools, I saw wires and cords...

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After retrofitting hundreds of classrooms in our district (with its oldest buildings from the 1920s) for telephones, computer networks, mounted projectors, interactive white boards and voice amplification systems, I was expecting, nay yearning, to see some beautiful, clean, neat, efficient installations - where technology was transparently integrated into the physical structure of these new buildings. You know, an absence of wire molding, no power cords snaking across floors and down walls, and sufficient electrical outlets where they needed to be.

No such luck.

If the wiring looks like that shown above in my new elementary school, I will be ashamed.

Oh, there is a practical as well as aesthetic reason to be neat. Wires are intimidating. The more wires, the scarier the technology looks. The scarier the tech, the less likely it is to be used. Hide the wires to help for the sake of your technophobes.

This is first in what will probably be a series of continuing ruminations addressing the question: How do I keep my district from building a brand new 1950’s school?

What are the qualities of an elementary school building that prepares kids for the future? 

Wednesday
May072008

Plucked from the belly button of a Burmese temple dancer

My heart goes out to Myanmar. For a very personal reason. I was a visitor there once upon a time and fell in love with the country's people, its beauty and its troubles.

Exactly 20 years ago, my good friend Clair and I left a NESA conference in Bangkok to take a five day tour of what was then known only as Burma. Armed with but a Lonely Planet guide, we visited Rangoon, Mandalay, and Pagan. It was, and remains, the most interesting, exotic and different place I have ever visited.

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Clair on left.

Burma in 1988 felt like stepping back into the 1940s. My top 10 memories, now a bit faded, I'm afraid...

1. The Lonely Planet advised travellers to buy a fifth of Jack Daniels and a carton of Marlboros in Bangkok duty-free and sell them on the Burmese black market for enough "kyat" for a one week stay's worth of spending money. It worked. Burma was the only place I have ever done a black market currency exchange. At the time the official exchange rate was 1 US$=20 kyat; the black market rate was 1US$ = 140 kyat. One could buy Burmese currency on the black market and then drink in government run hotels for about $.20 a beer. A stipulation in one hotel was that one needed to buy food with each drink. So the menu would read: Chicken 20K, Chicken wings 10K, Chicken bones 5K. My order - A beer and bones. Hold the bones. Only country I know that had 75 and 35 denomination bills.

2. The Strand Hotel in Rangoon was the colonial equivalent of the Oriental in Bangkok or Raffles in Singapore. But  it had never been restored (as of 1988). The rooms were sad - bare wires and tired beds. The bar closed at 9PM. We learned to order a few beers at 8:55. Then sit quietly. 10 minutes after the lights went out in the room, the rats would entertainingly scurry across the top of the bar.

3. Near Mandalay we waited for 45 minutes to cross a bridge that was closed twice a day to let the ox-drawn carts of hay cross first.

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Photo - Doug Johnson - Rangoon, Burma - April 1998 - scanned from Kodachrome slide.

4. The Pagan/Bagan temple area encompasses thousands of acres - stupas as far as the eye can see - quite literally. Clair and I hired a taxi to take us around the region and we spent the day clambering through the crumbling temples. At the end of the day, the taxi driver commented, "You very, very brave men." Really? "Yes, Burma has the highest incident of death by snake bite in the world and the temples are full of snakes."

5. Burma was (is) known for its rubies. We were often accosted by small boys carrying metal Sucrets boxes lined with cotton containing "real" Burmese rubies. One boy offered proof that the stone was real by smashing it with a brick.  I bought one after negotiating down from $100 to an even exchange for my pocket knife and a ball point pen. On my return to Bangkok, the jeweler confirmed I had purchased colored glass, but I still had the "ruby" made into a tie tack. I claim that I plucked it from the navel of a Burmese temple dancer.

6. Hanging in my home office yet today is a ceremonial "nat" (spirit) hat. It is in the shape of a cow's head with a horn spread of about 4 feet, decorated with spangles and glittery balls. I wore my hat through the notoriously strict Saudi customs coming home. No smuggling one of those babies. I still wear it on hat day at school when in the mood.

7. One had a choice of two alcoholic drinks in Burma - Mandalay beer and Mandalay rum. I've drunk beers from all over the world and found the only really bad beer was Mandalay beer. We regretted not keeping the Johnny Walker.

8. Our hotel in Pagan was about a half mile out of town on a narrow dusty road. I don't remember Pagan having any paved roads at the time. The Lonely Planet offered two suggestions for recreation: the Pagan disco and the Pagan massage. The massage was a tiny wooden shack with a very old man and a kid and a couple benches. I got the old man and Clair got the kid. I have never been so viciously pummeled, poked, kneaded, and bent in my life. As I remember, a very sharp elbow was the main instrument of torture. The disco was what looked like a garage lit with florescent lights, posters of pop stars (the BeeGees, maybe?), and a boombox. Clair, the DJ and I were the only people there. Since Clair is a terrible dancer, we didn't stay long.

9.  We stumbled on a village having, we think, a wedding festival. Along the dusty streets passing between wooden shanties, was a parade of brilliantly costumed and gorgeous young women and men riding in carts being pulled by equally brilliantly caparisoned oxen. Every photo we took looked worthy of the cover of National Geographic. (I gotta get back to scanning my slides!)

10. Beautiful sunsets and beautiful people are my two major images of Burma. Wearing a protective clay on their faces, the women were delicate, shy and lovely. The men, small, wiry and smiling. And each evening started with an outstanding sunset. But that was years ago and the world and I have both changed more than a little, I fear.

My rational side says everyone in the world should have the opportunities provided by a Starbucks-Toyota-iPod economy. My romantic side yearns for corners of the world that remain culturally unique. If anything I've written sounds patronizing or politically incorrect, I apologize. I am writing out of fondness and from memory. As a traveller, I never claim to be anything more than a tourist.

I know there is controversy over traveling to Myanmar/Burma today. One's tourist dollars either support a totalitarian government or aid the local people, depending on your political views. For myself, I would go back in an instant, given the opportunity. 

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Photo - Doug Johnson - Rangoon, Burma - April 1998 - scanned from Kodachrome slide.