This began as a place to gather images and impressions in preparation for writing a book, Letter by Letter, about the history of the idea of writing; it continues to live as a kind of shoebox under the bed.
I'm Matthew Battles. I write about technology in natural history, culture, and our experience of the natural world. I'm a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where I help out with metaLAB at Harvard, a collaborative investigating the roles of technology in the Arts and Humanities. On Twitter, I'm @matthewbattles.
We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them. We want the greatest possible contrast with the streets and the shops and the rooms of the town…. We want, especially, the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town, those conditions which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy. Practically, what we most want is a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade. This we want as a central feature. We want depth of wood enough about it not only for comfort in hot weather, but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.
Technology comforts, surrounds, and confounds us. When we argue about MOOCs, hydraulic fracturing, NSA surveillance, or drone warfare, we’re arguing about technology. Unfortunately, the conversation is impoverished by the absence of a robust cadre of scholars who can engage with and critique the role of technology in society. Instead, we have the glib boosterism of tech intellectuals like the former Wired editor Chris Anderson, the media gadfly (and CUNY journalism professor) Jeff Jarvis, the British writer Andrew Keen, and the Google executive Eric Schmidt. A fairly homogenous group of white men with elite degrees inclined to champion innovation, disruption, and the free market, these tech intellectuals have usurped the role of explaining technology to policy makers, investors, and the public. Their arguments and advocacy are too often a tepid substitute for robust analysis and honest critique.
Montfort’s involuted, single-line programs give BASIC something of the tang of the Old English of Beowulf—sharp and shorn, barbed and battered by the harsh economies of its habitat. Perl, by contrast, might be the programmer’s version of Occitan, the language (a cousin to latter-day Catalan) of the medieval troubadors, whose poems chimed with the decadent elaborations that flavored courtly life in medieval southern Europe—a fanciful dichotomy, which manages to caricature both the software and the vernaculars in question. Programmers of philological bent will find the comparison to Occitan especially laughable, given Perl’s cobbled-together nature and its reputation for clunkiness; a better example might be the macaronic jargon of the later middle ages, of which Pig Latin is an impoverished descendant.
The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven;
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea.
Looking back, see white clouds combining;
Entering the green haze, it becomes nothing.
Seen from the middle peak, the sectioned fields change;
Shadowed and sun-splashed, the many gorges vary.
Looking for human lodging for the night—
Query the woodcutter over the water.
Wang Wei (699–759), “Zhongnan Mountain.” The original poem was composed in the lüshi verse style of the High Tang; the lines were strongly divided into two- and three-syllable feet with an implied caesura, running in couplets linked by rhyme, logic, and enjambment. I’m accessing the original via How to Read Chinese Poetry: a Guided Anthology, ed. by Zong-Qi Cai; my version is informed by his lovely and illuminating commentary.
The poem struck me forcibly a couple of years ago, after a weekend spent on Maine’s Mount Katahdin. In it I found echoes of the work the mountain did on me: the braided vistas merging, the gulfs and drops seducing, the patterns of forest succession merging and disappearing into one another. Wang Wei catches a patterning that is always at work in us and around us, but which a mountain often brings into focus: combination, nothingness, change, and variation. Zong-qi Cai points out that the two middle couplets in fact end in he, wu, bian, and shu—the words for these four concepts, which buttress Chinese Buddhist cosmology.
Our haze on Katahdin was different from Wang Wei’s, however: on an otherwise clear day frenzied by a warm wind„ apparent only once we were high of the mountain shoulder, a brown haze blown up from the cities to the south hung on the horizon.
If a poet meets an illiterate peasant, they may not be able to say much to each other, but if they both meet a public official, they share the same feeling of suspicion; neither will trust one further than he can throw a grand piano. If they enter a government building, both share the same feeling of apprehension; perhaps they will never get out again. Whatever the cultural differences between them, they both sniff in any official world the smell of an unreality in which persons are treated as statistics. The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which they both subscribe, namely, that among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.