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the editor's spin

Goodbye, Columbus

Stephen F. Nathans

May 2000 | We associate most cities with a single, signature image: San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, New York's Statue of Liberty, and St. Louis' towering arch or bowling pin spring to mind, depending on your predilection for our culture's mainstream or minutia. Athens has what's left of the Parthenon, and Paris, of course, sports la Tour d'Eiffel. Other cities are known by their religious import and its defining structures--the Vatican City's Sistine Chapel or Jerusalem's Western Wall. Boston's defining feature boasts neither stunning architecture nor the epochal religious weight that binds cultures for centuries--that is, unless you buy into all that "ballparks as cathedrals" ballyhoo propagated by the likes of George Will and the late A. Bartlett Giamatti.

I am referring, of course, to that most aged of all hallowed ballyards, Boston's Fenway Park. The years haven't been kind to the decaying structure, but it continues to confer heaps of time-worn character on the ever-changing city around it. The venerable park and the giant Citgo sign that watches over it have drawn more than their share of pilgrims to the city that styles itself The Hub, myself included. So it should come as no surprise that so many are having so much trouble letting it go.

If you've spent any time fighting traffic in New England in the last couple years you've probably seen more than a few bumper stickers urging you to "Save Fenway"--as if you could. (I even saw a few in Berkeley last summer on some sticker-plastered Honda Civics.) The debate rages throughout the Commonwealth and beyond these days, and at the center of it stand contentious plans to tear down the old park--which has stood since 1912--and replace it (several key elements, such as its famed left-field wall, moving intact) with a more modern structure in an open lot up the street.

As is often the case, the most febrile side of the debate is also the worst-informed. A survey in the Boston media revealed a fascinating fact: among those polled, there was a direct correlation between those in the "Save Fenway" camp and those who spend the least time in the current ballpark. Kinda makes you wonder why they care so much.

In any event, it makes for entertaining and spirited arguments, since it's about as easy to find a New Englander with an opinion on the fate of Fenway as it is to find a local who knows a better way than you to drive somewhere. There's a passionate reverence for tradition in the "Save Fenway" argument, and it holds up pretty well against typical arguments like the place is falling apart, too many seats are obstructed by posts, and it's too small to support a competitive, major-market team. Economics and conveniences be damned, principle is a powerful thing.

But the stat that always stymies the preservationists--as a rule, a particularly PC bunch--is this one: three-quarters of the old park's bathrooms are, shall we say, les salles de Men.

Remember the days when folks thought CD-RW and DVD would send CD-R the way of the dodo, just like an old ballpark? Turns out that unlike Fenway and its ilk, CD-R has the stats on its side: three years into the ReWritable era, CD-R media still sells more than 40 times as many units as RW media. From an outsider's perspective, that of someone who's rarely or never used a CD recording device, that doesn't make much sense. Why suffer the rigidities of a one-strike-you're-out write-once disc when the very machine that records it can write to media you can re-use up to 1,000 times?

The fact is, most users would trade 40,000 go-rounds on CD-RW for one crisp 650MB burn on a CD-R disc, and never look back if the disc goes bad. CD-R media sales averaged 400 million per quarter in 1999, according to Santa Clara Consulting's David Bunzel, and if ever-increasing production capacities are any indication, equally eye-popping numbers are still to come.

CD-RW, which debuted at over $20, still sells for about $7 per disc, unless you buy in quantity, and does anyone willingly buy CD-RW in quantity? True, CD-RW does its job, however inelegant the method. And it has gotten better, shrinking reinitialization intervals to just under the time it takes most of us to make enough money to buy a new one, and the latest discs support recording speeds as high as 4X, which makes second-time-around recording especially fast when you subtract the requisite 15% of capacity that re-using CD-RW discs routinely saps. The fact is, high prices notwithstanding--1X, 2X, or 4X--CD-RW discs are a dime a dozen. Show me a guy with a dozen unwrapped CD-RW discs and I'll show you a product reviewer with a festering pile of media, studied for science under the editorial gun, and summarily abandoned thereafter. (This goes for all but the pre-formatted, application-abetted kind; check out Ricoh's Direct CD-RW and Packet CD-RW for hard drive backups, a well-wrought and well-thought-out innovation.) But don't let anyone fool you into thinking ReWritable saved or surpassed Recordable, regardless of those specious figures about R/RW drives outselling R-only drives. You'd be putting the coattails before the coat.

Unlike CD-RW and the various writable incarnations of DVD, CD-R media retains its signature strength: universal compatibility with installed read-only drives, from consumer CD players and changers to PC and jukebox-bound ROMs. Furthermore, it now thrives on the same promise that above all made CD-ROM a foregone conclusion in mass-market PCs: widely available at under $1 a disc these days, it's cheap, cheap, cheap. Other contenders such as C3D/FMD and those pen-shaped high-density optical oddities that did the tradeshow circuit a few years back may score points for artistic impression and technical merit, but it's cheap manufacturing, solid technology partnerships, and broad compatibility that confer mass-market cachet on a given optical storage technology, and CD-R remains peerless in that regard. But given the fact that it seems on the surface to do less than any other technology mentioned--its drive-mate CD-RW included--you'd have to use it to know that it offers much more.


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