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Poem Window Prototype

I decided it was a Really Good Idea, having proposed to make infrastructure for the the Poem Windows, to try out the system to make sure it would actually work like I expected. I bought a Geeekpi 7" 1024x600 display with Acrylic Stand and assembled it.

It arrived without instructions of any kind. There were 5 acrylic pieces, a PCB, an LCD, and a bunch of little nuts and screws and other things. I went to the Amazon page, where there were several pictures that were actually sufficient for most of the assembly. I discovered the hard way that you needed to get all the cables connected before trying to assemble the stand, but I had only been hooking pieces together very loosely, so it was not much work to disassemble and then reassemble the stand after everything was hooked up. The only really frustrating part was trying to attach the ribbon-cable video connector, which was not described anywhere nor clearly visible in the video.

Eventually I got it assembled and was genuinely amazed when I hooked everything together, powered it up, and it lit right up. And then turned off. I checked the connections a couple more times and then logged into the pi via ssh and un-commented the safe_hdmi directive to see if that would make it work. And it did! So from that point on, it was just a matter of getting the HDMI configuration right. Eventually, I found that there was a page with configuration information. The magic recipe (from that page) was
hdmi_group=2
hdmi_mode=87
hdmi_cvt 1024 600 60 3 0 0 0
hdmi_force_hotplug=1

Poem Window Prototype

Voila! One Poem Window prototype, suitable for testing and display.

Poem Windows

With all my "free time" this summer, I decided to write and shop around a proposal for a Makers at Amherst Media project to refresh the infrastructure of the Poem Windows in Amherst. I've been working with Rene Theberge and the the Amherst Public Art Commission to craft a plan and find the necessary funding.

Poem Windows

Created in 2002 by a Japanese artist, the project was abandoned after the original technology failed. Evidently, it never worked particularly well, especially in cold weather and, after a few years, quit altogether. But it was an idea that resonated with me.

Poem Windows Dedication

A few years later, Amherst Coming Together tried a second attempt that used iPads, but it was not a good technology decision and mostly seemed to display error messages about installing updates.

Poem Window

I propose to replace the equipment using inexpensive Raspberry Pi computers and small displays that simply show a URL in a full-screen browser window. This is all the system actually does: When the computer starts, it consults a file on the network that determines which URL to show: the page displayed at the URL is responsible for showing the necessary content. The browser also uses a plugin that will retry periodically in case there is a transient problem with network connectivity. In addition, the system checks the operating system for integrity and pushes updates out to the computer every morning, which is important for security. This design is based on the system for providing Inexpensive Digital Signage that I developed for the College of Natural Science at UMass. We support around a dozen signs and also use a variant of the same system (combined with a script mostly developed by BMB) to monitor -80 freezers. It should work fine in this context.

I also had an idea that might provide some level of on-going support for the poem windows installation: invite organizations, businesses, and individuals to purchase their own "poem window" the price of which could be set sufficiently high to subsidize the permanent installation. It would basically use the same components, plus a low-cost acrylic frame, to enable it to sit on a counter or table. If there were more poem windows where people could see them, it could also increase the incentive for people to contribute poetry and images for the displays. It could also help keep the Makers busy, if they agreed to take up the support effort.

The proposal does not address how to collect and present the content for the new displays. That will need to be a separate effort that will technically require a website with a page to accept submissions and a presentation page that, when run full-screen, will be the display that is viewed by the poetry windows. But it will also require a committee of people to establish criteria for submissions, run a campaign to solicit submissions, and a process for judging submissions and approving some for display. I hope to also have time to contribute to and help shape that effort. But one step at a time.

Court Poetry and the Roots of Haiku

Over the holidays, I found a wonderful book at the BookMill: An Introduction to Court Poetry by Earl Miner. I've read much of the English language literature about haiku and have been aware for a long time that the roots of haiku derive from the earlier court poetry and this book provided some interesting insights.

Most of the court poetry takes the form of waka (tanka or longer poems termed chōka) and the simplistic description I had seen of tanka was not far off: a 5-7-5 part that sets the scene (from which haiku is derived) and a 7-7 part that offers an emotional response. Many of the tanka also use pillow-words (or Makurakotoba) and pivot-words (Kakekotoba) that represent idiomatic devices to express certain ideas, themes, or moods. To really understand the poetry, you need to also understand what these represent. Or, perhaps more importantly, who had used those terms previously.

From reading Bashō's haibun, A Narrow Road to the Interior, I had been aware of how many haiku were a reflection on some earlier poet or poem. Many of the places Basho visited were inspired by poems written centuries before and often echoed the subjects and language of those poets. I remember particularly, Bashō stopping by a willow tree known to Saigyō. The book acknowledges that his aesthetic was particularly important to the writers of haiku and haikai that followed. He also must have had a wicked sense of humor.

I suppose it should not be a surprise to realize that many, if not most, Japanese poems, need to show awareness of the previous literature to be taken seriously. With a well-documented literature that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, the trick is not only to experience something meaningful, but to say something new about it.

It reminds me a bit of the epiphany described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You can spend your whole career pursuing some fundamental question only discover that it was answered more than a thousand years ago — and more elegantly and definitively than you could ever have stated it. It could be enough to drive anyone crazy.

A small book can only do so much to survey a thousand years of literature, especially in the absence of the history, geography, language, and culture necessary to make sense of it all. But it was very helpful to me to articulate with what I already understood and help me fill in some gaps and add just a little bit more.

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