Questia Online Library

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One of the first things I noticed when I came to the United States for my graduate education was the ubiquity of online resources. The Internet back home in India was still a novelty and its potential for educational resources was extremely limited.

Questia Online Library is an example of one such online library that gives you access to a large collection of books and journal articles in the fields of humanities and social sciences. The database also includes magazines and newspaper articles and is searchable by title, author, subject, and keyword.

One of the impressive options in Questia is the availability of online tools that enable users to create footnotes, bibliographical references, and hyperlinking across titles. I cannot overemphasize the importance of such tools that not only recreate the way you would use physical resources but also enhance your experience in using online tools in order to help you maintain a list of resources you accessed. One more additional feature that impressed me was the availability of more than 5000 books in online format. These books are public domain books whose copyright has expired hence are available to read for free in their entirety. No more buying expensive books or looking them up in libraries. You can use all the above mentioned reference tools in these books as well.

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Last Harvest – A Review

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I am a self-professed critic of sprawl development which unfortunately isn’t saying much because any urban planner especially in this new age of planning is exactly that. Yet we see sprawling sub-divisions crop up everywhere around us and chances are that we will end up living in one of these cookie-cutter homes that we so love to hate. Call it trying to do the best thing for your children or just finding a good deal on your investment dollars, we see that in spite of the growing criticism of sub-division development, it continues to flourish. So are we just trapped in our ivory tower while the common people go about making the perfectly rational choice?

Last Harvest Witold Rybczynski, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and the acclaimed author of Home and A Clearing in a Distance tackles this paradox in a subtle narrative of his experiences of a new development in his latest book, Last Harvest – How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-first Century, and why we live in Houses Anyway. If the title and the subtitle hasn’t tired you, I’m sure it certainly has piqued your interest. Simon and Schuster was kind enough to send me a review copy because the conflict of promoting new urbanism in the face of persistent popular choice for regular homes has always been a subject of interest for me. Rybczynski takes us along on the slow path of a real-life development of a residential sub-division in rural Pennsylvania called New Daleville. Located on a former cornfield, New Daleville was conceptualized by its developers as a neotraditional development, complete with homes built close to each other to encourage a sense of intimacy and community.

Rybczynski assumes the role of a bystander as he witnesses the often slow-moving process of real estate development that is often fraught with bureaucratic redtape and technical limitations. However, at no point do we sense a feeling of hopelessness or exasperation with the process but instead reveal in the everyday process of getting things done in the real world. At one point in the book, Rybczynski shares an incident regarding disposal of treated waste water and how an unexpected change in plans requires working around a sub-optimal solution that would inordinately delay the project. As students in architecture or land development school, we often tend to overlook such petty details but in the real world, they often tend to be the biggest obstacles in getting the work done.

The underlying theme of the book is utilizing and remaining true to the form of neotraditional development. We read plenty of background literature on the development of New Urbanism and Celebration and Seaside, Florida make repeated appearances in the narrative. While arguing for a different perspective in our living, Rybczynski does not shy away from emphasizing the decisions of owning a home and even having larger bathrooms as perfectly in line with our real-world needs. Rybczynski underlines the fact that new residential development although encroaching on natural agricultural land need not resort to unoriginal cookie-cutter homes that we have come to hate. Customized home building that emphasizes on architectural treatment of facades gives as much importance to the exterior as it lends a subtle yet strong complementary effect on the neighborhood. This effect on the community is not lost on the developers who are not only selling a house but are also looking to create a community that blends in with the rest of the town.

Overall, I quite liked the book. It was an easy and refreshing read quite different from overbearing polemics that often chastise us for giving in to our selfish need and indulging in sprawl-encouraging homes. Rybczynski’s book gives us an insight into how the developers understand this growing need for neotraditional development and highlights their efforts through this engaging anecdotal read.

Moving the search burden from Renters to Landlords

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Note: This is a paid review through the Review Me program.

The housing market has cooled in the last few months with the appreciation rate dropping from almost 12% to 0.4% signaling signs of an impending recession even from the former Fed Res. Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan. However, the rental market is buoyant as ever and has been devoid of the uncertainties of the home buyers market. The rental market is also heavily location dependent and generally barring large scale changes in urban geography tends to be stable.

Information dissemination through Internet-powered technology has proven to be beneficial for the consumer who otherwise had to drive around the town to get a good deal. Craigslist was one of the first sites that shattered the monopoly of the newspaper classifieds. Tenant Market is one such site that connects renters with landlords. The property information is uploaded by landlords based on criteria for an ideal tenant which is matched with profiles uploaded by renters. The following graphic (click to enlarge) does a fine job of explaining how Tenant Markets work:

The search function is free but Tenant Market charges a subscription fee starting at $29.95 if the landlord wishes to contact the renter. The landlords are proactive by looking for renters that match their criteria and contacting them. The 10-day trial costs $29.95, the standard subscription valid for 20 days sets you back by $39.95 and the Good-till-filled subscription is valid until vacancy is filled and costs the landlords $74.95. The prices seem fair for considering the high rents and unpredictable nature of renters.

Tenant Market claims to reaching over 11 million renters per year. I find this number a little high but Tenant Market claims to partner with “some of the Internet’s biggest apartment hunting, rental listing, and online services that reach over 10 million unique visitors per year” apart from advertising. The renters aren’t required to respond to every landlord that contacts them and received a personalized offer. Both the renter and the landlord are free to meet, visit the property, and discuss finer details before finalizing the contract.

Tenant Market is not your typical classified site since it requires you to first register and create a profile for landlords before the site proceeds to hook you up. I think this is a different and unique approach in the rental market by moving the burden of searching from the renter to the landlord. It may seem a big discomforting to sit back and wait for the landlord to contact you when you might be in a tearing hurry. The site is definitely oriented toward the landlords and it might need a few testimonials before renters are comfortable in sharing their profiles and rest assured they get quick and reliable offers.

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Automated Homefinder – Review

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Note: This is the second in the series of paid reviews through ReviewMe.

The real estate market, often an indicator of the national economy, has been doing the yo-yo dance over the last few years and although the market looked optimistic, trends have been on the downward slide since past few months. However, this phase of home-buying has been characterized by ample information available over the Internet. The surplus amount of information is always a plus when you are about to make the biggest investment of your life. Sites like Zillow have even bared the erstwhile fiercely guarded aspects of real estate namely the price. In addition, the mobility of population especially the high-skilled ones has been enhanced by the ability to research information before making the move. Often standard of life has been an influential factor in addition to the cost of living. People may wish to live in New York for its parks, museums, and night life even though it frightfully expensive (I know, I would). Also, the tools to review as much information as possible of the new place you are planning to move to without getting off your couch are more easily available now.

Automated Homefinder is one such web service that focuses on the real estate market in Colorado. This website is a free service offered by Benchmark Realty located in Boulder County and serves a host of locations around the state. This service is basically an aggregation from several Colorado Multiple Listing Servings (MLS) including listings from public information records like foreclosures, “for sale by owner” and “real estate owned” notices. Colorado is a growing market and although demand is high, the home prices are sagging. The weather can be great especially when there is no winterstorm blowing through the region.

Automated Homefinder allows you to browse through almost 40,000 listings in Boulder, Ft. Collins, Denver, and other major cities in the state. You can specify your search criteria by home size, price range, location, and other relevant criteria options available on the site. Remember, you might have to select a city first before narrowing down your search. And also, remember not to set your price range too low. I tried looking for a home between $150,000 and $300,000 and came with nothing. Living in a small and inexpensive town can spoil you.

Be sure to check out the price ranges in each city before running a search. These price ranges are provided for 24 cities and are categorized by number of listings, minimum and maximum price, and the average price. Don’t let the million-plus maximum prices scare you. Also, be sure the average price also doesn’t fool you because it can be skewed by couple of high-end properties. More the listings, the better representative the average price will be. In addition you could also sort the cities according to all of the above factors by clicking on the up or down arrows next to the field headers. The listings however are not displayed on the screen but instead are emailed to you. I am not sure why that is so but perhaps, it is to gather information on who is requesting listings. A nifty feature is the mortgage calculator which I assume is for a quick look at your payments. So is the Appraisal Tools section which aid your home buying decisions

A couple of suggestions; in addition to the oh-so-cliched testimonials, it would be useful to let users leave comments directly on the site. This would greatly enhance the credibility of the site. Also, the site would be better served by a discussion forum where people could post questions about the city they are locating to and could be replied by residents or a support staff. Of course, the chances of misuse cannot be denied but I feel, the benefits largely outweigh the downsides. Although, there is information available on Colorado and Boulder, this section can be significantly expanded or at least a compendium of related links [some provided] be provided to help the user gather more information.

Overall, an excellent service for those planning on moving to Colorado in the near future.

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Starry Nights Lights – Review

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It has been a while since I roamed the aisles of interior design trade shows in Mumbai first organized by Inside/Outside Magazine at the Nehru Center or NSCI grounds. Even before I went to architecture school where it was almost incumbent upon us to attend such shows to collect reference material for our files, I used to attend these shows with my dad. Often strapped for time, we would split up and I would collect brochures and catalogues of products he hadn’t time to look at which he would carefully categorize and file away for future use.

The advent of the web may have made this exercise redundant but it was always fun to browse through latest products in one huge place. You almost had instant ideas for your designs that you couldn’t wait to implement or sometimes saw an innovative product that redefined your perspective for treating interior space; be it a new material or bathroom fittings. But the best display was always by light equipment and fittings. In this light (no pun intended), I was asked to review the website for Starry Nights Lights. Note that this is a part of ReviewMe’s Paid Reviews for this blog. Remember that this is not a review of their products which I haven’t sampled but that of their website.

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