Posts Tagged ‘Seattle’

FolioYou have to admire the chutzpah of Seattle entrepreneur David Brewster and his latest notion – an athenaeum in the heart of the city of Amazon.

Not only does it cock a snook at digitization of the printed word, it’s housed just a block away from the city’s acclaimed public library, home to nearly 1.5m books.

What on earth is he thinking? There hasn’t been a new athenaeum in the US since 1899 and it’s little wonder. Why would anyone pay to join a library when the excellent public network is ubiquitous and free?

Why, in the age of eBooks, would anyone forgo the convenience of digital downloads to brave Seattle’s notorious congestion and go to a physical address downtown?

Brewster smiles patiently as I trot out the objections. He has a gleam in his eye and a vision of his bibliophile’s heaven.

Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum will be a social hub, a curated collection, a quiet place to read and contemplate and work. It’ll be a place for discussion groups and literary seminars, for concerts and serendipitous connections – a place to cultivate ideas.

It’s housed in part of the Y building at Fourth and Marion which is currently being refurbished ahead of an anticipated opening in October. There are already hundreds of books on the shelves and more stacked in piles awaiting classification.

Many have been donated from the private libraries of individuals. Folio aims to keep these as collections that might otherwise have been broken up.

The focus is on “quality books” so it’s not the place for the latest bodice ripper or Dan Brown. Its curation favors art, architecture, literature, history, economics, political science, journalism, philosophy, law and natural sciences. It’s especially strong on books about the Pacific Northwest.

All these, of course, can be found at the public library up the hill and while Brewster is careful not to denigrate its efforts, he points out that it has an ever-widening remit in its provision of information services.

His focus is much narrower – readers who cherish physical books and the tangible pleasures of reading, and authors who need a place to research, to write and to connect with other authors.

If it sounds like an elitist home for the literati it isn’t meant to be. Anyone can pop in and read books at Folio, just not take them away, and free or low-cost public programs are promised. Borrowing books requires membership which is $125 a year.

Brewster is especially keen for Folio to become a hub for young, up-and-coming writers in the area and board member Steve Scher, the journalist and former KUOW commentator, sees it as a potential space from which he can produce live podcasts on books.

So far the enterprise – a tax exempt, non-profit – has raised almost $100,000 towards running costs. The gamble for donors is whether the niche is strong enough and distinctive enough to attract and retain members in a whirlwind of digital disruption and changing consumer habits.



The Japanese Garden that sits within Seattle’s8694056943_3e1ede8f88_z Arboretum is full of symbolism but it’s easy to find pleasure in its carefully manicured grounds without understanding what it all means.

This is a world of rivers, forests and mountains condensed into a site of a little over three acres where man’s mastery over nature creates a sense of serenity through careful planting and stylized vistas.

The island pines represent cranes and are symbols of longevity as are the turtles that lounge on the rocks or float with necks stretched out of the water as if to catch the sun’s rays.

Elegant bridges, gates and boulders show harmony between man and nature but it’s clear who has the upper hand in this world. You’ll struggle to find a weed on the moss-covered slopes and the trees are carefully pruned and shaped to meet an ideal of aesthetic perfection.

This is a place that’s instantly soothing, a place set apart from the harsher world beyond. The subtle planting with its multiple shades of green calm the mind and invite visitors to slow down and enjoy the moment.

Maintaining this level of perfection is anything but tranquil of course, it takes a lot of hard work. But it can be yours for a few hours and a few dollars without you having to lift a finger. And for that kind of serenity it seems cheap at the price.

Garrison KeillorGarrison Keillor at Benaroya Hall, Seattle

America’s favorite raconteur cast his spell from the minute he walked on stage. There was no preamble to the act, no “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”, no “Hello Seattle”, no bonhomie. He just walked to the center of the stage, picked up his microphone and started to sing. You could hear a pin drop.

The rich baritone seemed oddly out of place coming from the figure before us, a crumpled man of 71, with a shock of unruly grey hair that a lifetime ago his mother would surely have licked and flattened down with a Kleenex.  The red sneakers and red tie were quite a shock too, a signpost of rebellion against formality and convention and  a vivid contrast to the sober, grey suit.

It wasn’t long before a murmur of suppressed audience humming became fuller-throated participation, encouraged by Keillor’s invitation that “hymns weren’t meant to be sung alone”. And with that, the bond was established.

What followed was two hours of unbroken performance; rambling stories, schoolboy smut (“As a boy I always liked Saturday…because it contained the word turd”), limericks, anecdotes, songs and reminiscences – all delivered without notes and without ever missing a beat.

Keillor’s a skillful storyteller who knows his audience and knows his stuff. He has a fund of great material and even when he lapses into weaker one-liners his timing and delivery get him off the hook.

Some of the humor dates back to the music hall era: “My mother used to say it’s best to marry a woman with a great sense of humor…because she’s going to need it later on”. That gag was old even then and might have drawn an invitation to “kindly leave the stage”, but taken on its own it misrepresents the wider arc of Keillor’s show.

It was a night of nostalgia and shared values, of humor and sentimentality, of life as it was and life as it is, with a sharp eye on the shuffle towards old age: “They start calling you ‘sir,’ and they start taking your elbow as you go down the stairs.”

Keillor’s observations come wrapped with reassuring warmth, like a favorite blanket. Be grateful and be cheerful, he exhorts, think how lucky you are, he says, and goes on to tell how lucky he was to have escaped severe brain damage after suffering a stroke.

He spoke, too, in typically self-deprecatory terms, about how he got his first job in radio: there was no formal interview; they just needed someone to drive 40 miles in the dark of the Minnesotan winter to turn on the station transmitter at 5am.

Forty years later and A Prairie Home Companion is still going strong and a legend of America broadcasting continues to hold us in his thrall.

IMG_5613As a new immigrant to the US the opportunity to travel across the continent by rail – from sea to shining sea – was not to be missed. Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to Boston, three days out, three days back and in between a weekend in the stellar company of Nieman Fellows at their 75th anniversary at Harvard. What’s not to like?

Along the way we’d be traversing the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies, absorbing the vastness of Montana and its big skies, the wild immensity of North Dakota amid its fracking boom and the more manicured landscapes of New York State with its rolling hills, rich greenery and picture-book villages.

What followed revealed far more than the epic scenery in my newly chosen country, it showed the daunting determination of pioneers who put a railroad through tremendously harsh terrain, and a distinct lack of ambition by modern-day politicians to build on their legacy.

Our Amtrak adventure began badly. The scheduled departure from Seattle’s King Street Station was delayed due to the unexplained late arrival of the Empire Builder from Chicago.

With no digital displays on site, no wifi, and no useful information from Amtrak there was much confusion among passengers. An hour’s delay became two, then three, then four.

The evening meal we were supposed to be enjoying while skirting Puget Sound and climbing into the spectacular Cascade Mountains became a Subway snack box, a sandwich, a cookie and a bag of chips eaten in situ.

With time hanging heavy and excitement ebbing out the door I started to ponder: Why was there no sense of occasion when arriving at the station? Why wasn’t this route being promoted as a wonder of the rail network?

Where was the signage for Empire Builder travelers? Where was the lounge for those embarking on this 2,200-mile trip? And in a land of hype and hard sell where were the mugs, the T-shirts, the baseball caps and trinkets? Why did we feel forgotten instead of special?

Seahawks fans came and went, a raucous, painted tribe from across the way at Century Link Field where 67,000 of them had watched their team beat the Jaguars 45-17. They went home happy. We sat and watched and strained to hear wisps of information from the acoustically-challenged ticket hall PA system.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Twitter feed urged travelers: “RT if you’re ready to take your first X-country trip with us #enjoythejourney” My reply: “I’m ready, you’re four hours late!” failed to elicit an @Amtrak response.

It was left to one of the rail staff, standing on a bench and shouting into the echoing hall, to explain the details of what was unfolding. Notions of an American-style, Orient Express experience were rapidly diminishing.

IMG_5619We left in darkness at around 9pm, almost five hours late. We saw nothing of the marvels of the mountains in this disappointing beginning to a much–anticipated trip. Instead we tried to focus on trailblazers Lewis and Clark, in whose vicinity, if not footsteps, we were travelling for part of the way. They would surely have shrugged it off as a minor irritation and we tried to do the same.

The train staff were annoyingly, repetitively, apologetic as they tried to compensate for the shortcomings though they, too, were suffering the consequences.

We never did get an official explanation for the lateness. A landslide, mudslide, track fire, flooded rails, bison on the line, any of these would have salved the situation and even added to the enjoyment.

The more likely explanation was that the incoming train was forced to give way to freight, sidelined so the real business of the railroad could be conducted. Track repair was another excuse – heavy oil traffic means more maintenance, our car assistant said. The Empire Builder’s punctuality record for August 2013 shows it was on time on only a third of its journeys. For the previous 12 months it fared better, with a 61% time-keeping record – but that’s a long way short of acceptable efficiency.

Amtrak lays the blame firmly at the door of the freight companies on whose track it travels and in the case of the Empire Builder, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (BNSF) is cited for the bulk of the problems.

Having someone to blame is all very well, but as a customer I just want something that works and that’s seemingly beyond Amtrak’s scope to guarantee. Their fares are expensive (we could have flown business class to Boston and back for less) their punctuality is poor and they lack the investment and the infrastructure to get out of the mess they are in. Truly, this is no way to run a railroad.

For anyone who has traveled in Europe where train travel is heavily subsidized the contrast could not be greater. High-speed, long-distance routes criss-cross the continent, trains are modern and luxurious, stations are well-appointed and businesslike, and the overall experience is one of effortless efficiency.


Amtrak’s rolling stock is visibly ageing and tired. The polished metal exteriors of the two-storey Superliners have a certain nostalgic appeal, but that’s quickly extinguished by the dumpy interiors.

Our upper berth roomette was on the cramped side of cozy, with no room for suitcases which had to be left in rack alongside an aisle downstairs. Beneath the facing seats which flatten out into a single bed I found popcorn remnants dropped by the previous occupants and a Sudoku puzzle book. Clearly corners had been cut to get the train back into service leaving me to wonder what else had been skimped on.

We had only a single powerpoint, that’s standard. But the audio system didn’t work, the air-conditioning didn’t work, the heating controls didn’t work.  And sharing restrooms and showers was always going to be a challenge. (They weren’t cleaned during the trip). On the return leg a vacuum problem knocked out all the restrooms in the carriage, and the water heater failed meaning cold showers only. And so it went on.

Staff worked tirelessly to overcome the difficulties but the overall impression was one of worn-out kit being constantly resuscitated when it would have been kinder to put it out of its misery. Either that, or take the whole kit-and-kaboodle out of service for proper restoration.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Amtrak: It’s crucified for the subsidies it gets, pilloried over costs and reliability and then held up as an example of the failure and wastefulness of public monopolies. Congress’s Catch 22 requires the company to provide long distance routes as a public service and then denies it sufficient funds to fulfill the requirement.

Privatisation has no solutions either, unless the public is prepared to countenance the sale of profitable lines in the north-east and the closure of all others.

Why does it have to come down to all-or-nothing choices between unfettered capitalism and underfunded public monopolies? Europe’s high-speed rail network shows that there are alternatives, if you accept the notion of public service – and are prepared to fund it.

There’s value to keeping cars off the road, limiting CO2 emissions from trucks and planes and keeping far-flung communities linked by rail, but the ledger that balances costs per passenger mile doesn’t have a column for less tangible benefits.

Highways continue to suck up the bulk of transport subsidies in the US and because of powerful lobby interests they do so without the hue and cry surrounding the funding of railroads.


I’m not anti-car, nor opposed to flying for that matter, but in a country of vast distances, choked roads and crowded skies a modern, high-speed, rail network should be part of the transport mix.

There were many things Amtrak could, and ought, to have done better on our trip. But travelling through the landscape, watching a canvas of epic proportions unfold, has no equal by road or from the air and in the end that was its saving grace.

The next step for the service has to be to build on the enterprise and imagination of the early railroad pioneers. Their blood, sweat and tears deserve a better legacy than mere memories of faded glory.

057The shooting of a Seattle bus driver by a man with a history of drug offences and mental health issues came as a shock – but probably not a surprise – to anyone who uses public transport in the city.

Since arriving from London a couple of weeks ago it’s clear that there are many people wandering the streets who really shouldn’t be, given that they need specialist, institutional care.

Wait at a stop around Third and Pine or Pike and you’ll see the full array – people who are off their medication, those who are self-medicating, those who are delusional, or destitute, or desperate, or all three.

They need help because they’re incapable of supporting themselves. And shelters and hostels aren’t the answer when they’re simply returned to the streets during the day.

Even in the short time I’ve been using public transport here I’ve witnessed several incidents – more than I saw in several years in London.

Just the other day a glaze-eyed woman, with only the faintest idea of where she was, directed a foul-mouthed tirade at the driver of a route 70 bus as she left the vehicle.

Far more serious was the episode with the scary, psychotic, man mouthing obscenities and making threats against someone only he could see.

The unwashed and unkempt who reek of urine and soiled clothes are merely offensive, but some of the encounters I’ve witnessed have been aggressive and frightening.

Naively, perhaps,  I’ve seen nothing to explain how a man with a long track record of criminal behaviour came to be in possession of a gun; it seems weapons are so routinely available it’s not something that needs explanation.

And the damage his attack has caused goes far beyond the injuries to the bus driver who was shot, though I’m delighted he has been released from hospital and is on the mend.

The shooting represents a huge setback to attempts to bolster public transport and to get people to leave their cars at home. It’s also damaging to Seattle’s wider reputation as a good place to visit and a good place to live.

There’s a balance to be struck between an individual’s freedom, a community’s duty of pastoral care and the rights of all people to move freely and safely as they go about their business. In this instance the system has clearly failed and a deep rethink is required.

Less violent crime downtown? Not by numbers from police

IMG_5318The artifacts and iconography of the Pacific Northwest are among my favorite folk art representations and the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus in Seattle has a rich seam of treasures.

Totem poles hold a particular spell for me with their stylised representations of whales, ravens, eagles, salmon, wolves, bears and other animals of the region.

Each is identified with a particular quality or talent – the salmon with persistence, the otter with curiousity for instance – and they are incorporated into collective myths and legends that make up family or tribal identities.

For people who don’t keep written records these pillars of history connect the past to the present and help keep alive the stories and memories of their ancestors.

Intersect explainedFor the past couple of weeks I’ve been on a busman’s holiday in Seattle – getting some R&R but also dipping into the local tech scene.

During that time I’ve been exploring a storytelling, social network start-up called Intersect which has just come out of Beta.

At first glance it’s just another blogging platform but a second look reveals a number of interesting features that really mark it out as something different.

And the more I’ve used it the more potential I’ve seen for it to be harnessed for pro-am newsgathering.

One of the most interesting aspects is the way it deals with levels of privacy, an area that has bedevilled Facebook and Google.

Intersect allows its users to create their own private circles, mirroring the kind of complex social relationships we all maintain.

This fine-tuning of people into circles of, say, family, or close friends, acquaintances, work colleagues or business contacts, gives a much greater degree of control over who gets to see what you choose to publish.

It also makes use of place and time to create intersections between users’ stories.

For instance, it’s possible to see not just the stories that have been filed about a particular area, but also to define a time period to filter what you might be interested in.

In my case I’d been to the Evergreen State Fair and was keen to see who else might have been at this year’s show and what their impressions had been.

Seeing the world through other people’s eyes is always interesting, especially if it extends an experience we’ve had.

Now imagine what it would have been like to extend the timeline backwards to the 1950s and to hear stories and see pictures from the State Fair then and to reflect on what had changed – and what had stayed the same.

Intersect founder Peter Rinearson says stories are a big way we share, connect and remember.

“On Intersect, like in memory, stories live at the times and places we experience them, where they can reach out to people who cross our path.”

These threads of the past overlapping with the present open up all manner of serendipitous possibilities for discovery.

Rinearson likes to relate an example of someone finding a shoebox full of pictures in the attic, not knowing who is in them, posting them on the site and not only getting answers but possibly providing a third party with a treasured piece of information related to an image, or place, or time.

He wants Intersect to be a place where people tell stories that foster community connections.

The site has editorial staff selecting what they consider to be the best material for highlighting as Intersect Story Picks and this goes towards enhancing a contributor’s reputation.

It also has a borrow function in which a story you’ve found interesting can be borrowed and brought into your own timeline. The more times your own stories are borrowed the more your reputation is enhanced.

This reputational element could prove especially helpful for journalists when curating crowd-sourced content around an event or theme.

There’s also potential for seeding event coverage in advance, by finding who will be attending and, if they’re willing, adding them to a circle of contributors who can supplement journalists’ material.

It doesn’t have all the answers to the thorny questions over trust and objectivity of contributors but it’s the best example I’ve seen of a set of tools that might, just might, foster a new form of collaborative journalism between professional newsrooms and the people formerly known as the audience.

The site has $1.6m seed funding and its initial launch will be in the US only.

How is it possible that the Experience Music Project is even in King5’s nomination list for western Washington’s biggest public eyesore, never mind running second to the Alaskan Way Viaduct?

We know a thing or two about monstrous carbuncles here in London, just ask Prince Charles. In fact, it’s said that architects and planners inflicted more damage on the capital than was ever managed by the Luftwaffe.

Far from being an eyesore, Frank Gehry’s EMP is one of Seattle’s finest buildings – inside and out.

And Seattleites should put up a statue to Paul Allen for founding such a fabulous home for Jimi Hendrix’s memorabilia, right down to the purple haze on the building.

If you decide really don’t want it, I’m sure our Mayor Boris Johnson would be happy to take it off your hands.

For what it’s worth my nomination would be for the downtown stretch of I-5. Now if you were to dig it up, flood it and import some gondolas from Venice think how much better your morning commute might be.