Monday, December 21, 2009

Tea and the Internet Revisited: A New Iteration


As previously noted on CHA DAO, 'The internet seems to be infinitely elastic; it has the protean capacity to remake itself, apparently endlessly, and to recapitulate and even subsume everything that it had been previously.' Metaphors like 'virus' may tend to make us forget, however, that this is not a natural, organic, or spontaneous occurrence: changes on the internet happen because humans write new programs, or update existing ones.

Anyone who has updated the operating system on their own computer is at least occasionally aware of this. But in the case of internet-based functions, the coder(s) may be so invisible that we lose sight of the fact that -- hitherto at least -- computers do not produce their own major applications. These have to be conceived of and executed by humans.

Without a doubt one of the most important tea-related computer applications, to be found online or off, is Babelcarp -- the 'Chinese Tea Term Translator.' As awareness of the importance of China and Chinese culture grows in the west, online Chinese/English dictionaries continue to proliferate -- Xuezhongwen and nciku being two particularly useful ones. Cyber-translators such as Google Translate and Yahoo's Babelfish have come a long way since the latter was first introduced by altavista. But none of these does for the user what Babelcarp does, which is to focus specifically on tea-related terms -- using both English and Chinese (the latter in both traditional and simplified hanzi as well as in English transliteration, both hanyu pinyin and Wade-Giles). The transliterated forms even include the tone numbers for Mandarin pronunciation -- a vitally important aspect of the spoken language. And, of course, the English definitions are carefully wrought, often including cultural and geographic details relevant to an understanding of the term.

My friend and colleague, Lew Perin, is the designer and owner of Babelcarp. He combines a broad education with meticulous expertise in information technology, long and careful study of Putonghua, profound knowledge of tea and tea culture, and -- that rarest and most valuable of traits -- a good heart. He has kept Babelcarp in a state of more or less constant improvement since its inception in 2002. Like all the best programmer/developers, he is always looking for user feedback on how to make Babelcarp better.

Recently Lew unveiled an important update to the very mechanism of the Babelcarp database. When I asked him to provide us with a summary of what this entails, he offered the following explanation:
What's new is this: Babelcarp has always worked with items consisting of a phrase (in Pinyin and/or Hanzi) and its definition. The way Babelcarp has always worked, when you get the definition it's cross-referenced via links to other items mentioned in the definition. Now, for the first time, you also get links that go in the opposite direction. That is to say, if you call up item A and there are other items in the database, say, B and C, whose definitions point to item A, you get links to B and C as well. This makes it much easier to navigate the map of Chinese tea knowledge in the Babelcarp database. I'm sorry, but I don't know the maximum number of degrees of separation between Babelcarp entries.
I encourage you to play with Babelcarp: see how it works and what it can tell you. Chances are that you, like many other users, will find yourself losing track of time as you hop from one item to another. Before you know it, you will have given yourself a mini-tutorial in Chinese tea culture. In its rhizomatic allure, Babelcarp is a microcosm of the entire World Wide Web: its usefulness is enormous, and growing all the time. And, again, it instructs us in how even (especially?) the most seamless and efficient computer applications have a human face behind them.


Evan Meagher said...

This is extremely cool. A very usable tool to help scale the steep learning curve of tea culture. I'll definitely save this and pass the link to friends interested in learning more about tea. Thanks for posting!

Angel Del Vecchio said...

Thanks for informing me of this tea site. Silly me, I always believed the Chinese based names put on tea labels just had to do with production and marketing. I will definitely use this site in my new exploration of tea : )

corax said...

no indeed angel -- in fact i would say that chinese teas are the subject of less marketing or branding than almost any other commercial product. so many of them are grown on tiny farms by farmers who produce them 'organically' -- because they cannot afford any chemicals. all this may change noticeably over the next decade or so -- but for the past many hundred years it has been this way.

Angel Del Vecchio said...

The thought of brewing up some tea with chemicals is a terrible thought. I'm glad that for the most part tea is grown organically. Do you know of any any places to find good tea?