Nov. 13, 2013
The stillness, the radio's news,
the scent of rain. My neighbor
bending to pick up his newspaper
in its orange plastic bag, tossed
on the step. The cars all
heading this way or that,
a fine spray beneath their wheels. Vapor
rising from sidewalks, and the light
of the eastern sun, slanting long, as if
there's all the time in the world.
It's the birthday of St. Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia (354), a part of North Africa that is now Algeria. Augustine argued that no one could possibly be free from sin, because sinfulness is the very nature of humans. He developed the idea of original sin, saying that all humans are born sinful because all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, who committed the first sins.
Augustine used himself as an example of sinfulness by writing The Confessions (c. 400), one of the first memoirs of Western literature. In that book, he described all the sins he had committed in the years of his life before his conversion, everything from crying over a fictional character in a poem, to stealing pears from a neighbor's tree, to his sexual fantasies and exploits. He wrote, "Lord, how loathsome I was in Thy sight. [Lust] stormed confusedly within me. ... The torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over." He believed that people could never hope to be innocent, and so their only hope lay in God's forgiveness. His ideas about sin became the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is because of him that many Christian churches still baptize infants, to cleanse them of the sin they have inherited from their ancestors.
The World Wide Web turns 23 years old today. The proposal for a new global system of interlinked documents on the Internet was published on this date in 1990.
Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist who was working for CERN, wrote an early proposal in 1989. He wanted to create a more efficient method of information management and communication throughout CERN, but soon realized that the concept could be broadened to span the whole world. His first proposal didn't generate much interest, so he enlisted the aid of another computer scientist, Robert Cailliau. The pair produced a more elaborate proposal on this date in 1990, including a prototype Web page. They predicted it would take no longer than three months to have a Web of read-only files up and running, and they were correct. Berners-Lee developed the first Web browser — also called the World Wide Web — and housed the first server on his NeXT Computer System workstation.
Berners-Lee and Cailliau tried on a few different names for their system, including Information Mesh, The Information Mine, and Mine of Information, but rejected them. Early on, they referred to the World Wide Web as W3, but that nickname didn't stick; most people just call it "the Web." And the "hypertext and hypermedia links" that connect all these files and Web pages are now known as "hyperlinks" or, even more succinctly, "links." The Web gave rise to a new language of acronyms that we tend to use without thinking: a document is written in HyperText Markup Language (HTML), and it is assigned its own Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Berners-Lee and his team also standardized communication formats across different servers and clients through the development of HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP.
The very first Web page was nothing fancy. There were no pop-up ads, no social media, no emoticons, and no funny cat videos. There was a page header that read "The World Wide Web Project," and an introductory sentence that explained, "The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents." The Web became available for use by the public in August 1991.
The vision for the World Wide Web was already 20 years old by the time Berners-Lee wrote his proposal. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke had predicted it in the 1970 issue of Popular Science, writing that satellites would "bring the accumulated knowledge of the world to your fingertips." People would access this information, Clarke prophesied, through a machine that was a combination of computer, telephone, television, and photocopier. He also envisioned every home having its own small computer that would deliver to a person "all the information he needs for his everyday life: his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need over the course of living in a complex modern society."
It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He began to suffer from a lung disease at a very early age. He said, "My recollections of the long nights when I was kept awake by coughing are only relieved by thoughts of the tenderness of my nurse." His nurse stayed up with him at night when he couldn't sleep and told him all kinds of stories about ghosts and monsters and pirates. His father was an engineer who specialized in building lighthouses, and Stevenson studied engineering himself until he dropped out of school and became a bohemian, hanging out with seamen, chimneysweeps, and thieves. He wanted to live a life of adventure, to sail the high seas, but his poor health forced him to move to France, where the weather was supposed to be better. One night, he was passing by the window of a house when he looked inside and fell instantly in love with a woman he saw eating dinner with a group of friends. He stared at her for what seemed like hours, and then opened the window and leapt inside. The guests were shocked, but Stevenson just bowed and introduced himself. The woman was an American named Fanny Osborne, and when she traveled back to the United States, he followed her all the way to San Francisco, and finally married her there.
Stevenson and his wife traveled constantly during the years of their marriage, looking for a climate to improve his health. They tried Switzerland, Scotland, France, England, and even New Jersey. Stevenson's health kept declining, people called him "Bag of Bones," but he wrote constantly on trains, in boats, and in his bed, coughing. He once said, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." They finally settled on the Pacific island of Samoa.
One day in the summer of 1881, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island for his stepson, and the map gave him an idea for the novel Treasure Island (1883). He finished it in a few weeks, and was happy to get the £100 payment, never realizing that the book would become one of the most popular adventure stories of all time, with one of literature's most famous villains, the one-legged pirate Long John Silver. A few years later, he wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) in a single week. Despite his productivity, he believed strongly in the benefits of idleness. He said, "A faculty for idleness implies ... a strong sense of personal identity."
Stevenson's contemporaries saw him as one of the greatest writers of his generation. Henry James considered him an equal, and G.K. Chesterton wrote: "All his images stand out in sharp outline. ... It is as if [the words] were cut out with cutlasses." But with the rise of modern fiction and its emphasis on psychology and emotion rather than action, critics began to look down on Stevenson as merely a children's writer of adventure stories. One of the few modern writers who claimed Stevenson as an influence was Jorge Luis Borges, who said, "If you don't like Stevenson, there must be something wrong with you."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®