Taking an unapologetically snobbish tone in her 1905 essay “The Decay of Essay Writing,” Virginia Woolf lamented how the nineteenth-century democratization of literacy had flooded the literary marketplace with personal essays. A new class of writers, blinkered by the “amazing and unclothed egoism” that came from asserting one’s importance through reading and writing, thought nothing of sacrificing “their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox,” Woolf complained. Theirs was a mass demonstration of newly acquired cultural capital over and above any aesthetic or political purpose they may have had for putting pen to paper in the first place. “You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes—the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast in the form of the essay,” Woolf wrote, scolding those middle-class writers who would dare leave their grubby prints on the windowpane of good prose. If one can set aside her disdain, there is a larger point: too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.
So if Mrs Woolf were alive today she would be similarly dismissive of blogs, especially this one!
Fifteen years ago today my beloved Sue died and for me this is always the most sombre day of the year. One ‘gets over’ the death of a loved one in the sense that people ‘get over’ the loss of a limb. But, as C.S. Lewis acutely observed in A Grief Observed, “you’ll never be a biped again”. He was right.
I once spent a day during a general election campaign going round the UK in a helicopter. It was a fascinating experience, but not one I’d like to repeat. Choppers seem to me to be ludicrously primitive machines — a bit like steam-powered automobiles. They are also, of course, vanity toys for the very rich. And they are incredibly noisy. So this Bloomberg video brings a welcome dose of reality to chopper-worship.
True to form, Alex Ross found an original take on the eclipse story — from the diary of Virginia Woolf, June 30, 1927:
“At the back of us were great blue spaces in the cloud. But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red & black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, & very beautiful, so delicately tinted. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue: & rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker & darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank & sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; & we thought now it is over — this is the shadow when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment: & the next when as if a ball had rebounded, the cloud took colour on itself again, only a spooky aetherial colour & so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down, & low & suddenly raised up, when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly & quickly & beautifully in the valley & over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering & aetheriality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. The colour for some moments was of the most lovely kind — fresh, various — here blue, & there brown: all new colours, as if washed over & repainted. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. That was within the power of nature…. Then — it was all over till 1999.”
En passant, isn’t it interesting that a lot of Americans who presumably don’t trust scientists on climate change were rushing to get a view of a phenomenon that, er, scientists predicted?
I’m sure that Mrs Woolf and I wouldn’t have got along if we’d met. (After all, I’m a countryman of James Joyce, and we know what she thought about Ulysses). But her diaries are simply wonderful.
John Roberts, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, has a kid at Cardigan Mountain School, a post boarding school in New Hampshire. Last month, Roberts have the Commencement Address at his son’s ‘graduation’ from this establishment. His speech is interesting — intriguing, even, because it’s hard to figure out if he’s being ironic or just cynical. Anyway, below is a representative sample. “Other commencement speakers”, he said,
will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Is the Internet Broken?. Good discussion from the Aspen Ideas Festival. Answer: No — the Internet isn’t broken. It’s still doing what it was designed to do, namely to connect computers to other computers. It’s those computers — and what people do with them — that’s the problem. Two guys on the panel — Howard Shrobe from MIT and Milo Medin (ex-NASA, now at Google) — really know their stuff.
Charles P. (Chuck) Thacker was one of the great generation that took networking and the personal computer into the mainstream world. After studying at UC Berkeley and developing the Berkeley Timesharing System on an SDS 940 mainframe, he was one of the ‘dealers of lightning’ recruited by Bob Taylor when he set up the Computer Systems Lab at Xerox PARC. In three years, Chuck, Butler Lampson, Bob Metcalfe, David Boggs, Alan Kay and Charles Simonyi invented much of the computing kit we use today — from graphical windowing interfaces and the mouse (adapted from Douglas Engelbart’s original design) to Ethernet local-area-networking and the laser printer. I got to know him in the late 1990s when I was writing my history of the Net and he was working in Cambridge in the Microsoft Research Lab. The photograph captures him as I remember him: large, imperturbable, wise, friendly.