A Totally New Reason To Give Up Old Religions

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 22, 2014

I am an atheist, but I accept that other people want to be religious. However, even my religious friends are willing to admit that religions have their problems. No need to go into specifics, just pay attention to the news. The results of those problems are religious people arguing and killing each over details of religion that happened centuries and even millennia ago.

My advice is to give up the past and start over. If there are inherent aspects of reality that support religious morality, they should exist now, and there’s no need to endlessly speculate about what happened a very long time ago. Whatever Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, etc. saw in our existence should still be here now, and modern people should be able to tune into it.

Many of the problems threatening old religions is modern experiences. Old religions can’t handle the discoveries of science, human diversity, egalitarian equality to all, and our current sins. Old religions were invented when people were homogenous tribes that were horribly xenophobic, and their sins were much different from ours. The old concepts of religions were invented before all the concepts of systematic knowledge.

People want religion for guidance on how to live fairly and just, to reward the good and punish the bad, and hopefully find everlasting life.  Most of the ethical rules people want from religion can be hammered out democratically and should work on a global level. The desire for the soul to be eternal must be taken on faith, and if that’s so, it should be pure faith, and not anything that tries to deny what we know about reality.  Denying the knowledge gain from science does not prove the possibility of eternal life.

Any new religions created now should always incorporate modern knowledge. Modern knowledge provides no encouragement for eternal life and heaven, but it doesn’t preclude those possibilities either. Instead of denying science, just say there’s hope one day our souls will transcend this reality, and let it go at that.  It would also be wise to say that God is unknowable and beyond description.  Let science explain this reality and choose to believe that there is a greater reality that is impossible to detect from this reality.

Any speculation about a transcended reality is pointless, other than the faith and hope that it exists. Such speculation can generate an infinity of possibilities, all of which will lead to arguments and killing. This reality has its own rules and structure. To ignore them is delusional. We won’t find out if another reality exists until we die, and then we can learn its rules and structure. Any moral or ethical considerations about this reality should be based on how this reality operates, and not speculation on other possible realities. If there is a God, and that being put us in this reality, it should be obvious that understanding this reality is the important job of being here.

Most people love religion because it gives them purpose and a community to belong to. Rejecting old dogmas does not mean giving up these core fulfillments of religion. My challenge is to the faithful to invent new religions that are globally encompassing, egalitarian, anti-xenophobic, and structured to incorporate all the knowledge we have about this reality.


Rate Your Attention Span 1 to 20

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Your attention span is the amount of time you can stay focused on a task. The intensity of focus varies from person to person, and from task to task. People who want to become great at a skill seek to focus their attention so intensely they refer to that state as being as “in the zone.”

55% of web viewers spend less than 15 seconds on a web page, about the time it takes to read the above paragraph. That means everything I write from now on will be ignored by most people. For those with ultra-short attention spans, you can jump over the following explanatory text, and go directly to the section at the bottom for the rating system I’m proposing.

Few people ever have the kind of attention spans to get into the zone, but we all wish we could be more successful at accomplishing our goals, and that means strengthening our attention span. That’s bucking the trend though, since we seem to be evolving towards more and more activities that require shorter and shorter attention spans. If you’re still reading, you’ve got more focus than 99% of the average web reader.

Writing the above took several minutes of my attention span. I am easily distracted, especially since I work at a computer connected to the internet. Nicholas Carr makes a case in his book The Swallows that we’re all ruining our attention spans by adapting to the internet with computers, tablets, laptops and smartphones. He also describes several scientific studies that show that reading from hypertext pages, with lots of multimedia, is also bad for our attention spans and our ability to learn. That’s why I’m only providing plain text today.

As more of my friends, who are not young by the way, switch to texting and tweeting, I wonder if Carr isn’t right. Most of my friends claim they haven’t the time or interest to read by blogs, most of which can be read in five minutes, and many have admitted they have started a particular blog but their mind drifted away before they could finish. I can accept being boring might cause them to lose their interest, but I also have to wonder if my friends have deteriorating attention spans. I do think it’s amusing that I can listen to my friends ramble on for twenty minutes at a go, but they can’t scan something I’ve written that will take them five minutes or less.

Writing a blog, which is where I push the limits of my attention span, usually requires 1-2 hours, but sometimes if I get in the zone, I can push to 3-4. However, I’m often distracted by hunger, thirst and the need to pee. I’m guessing at my best, I can usually stay on task for an hour, and on some days push it closer to two. There are varying degrees of attention. Most people have no trouble sitting for two hours in a movie theater with their attention fully enraptured by the film. Of course it helps that we’re all sitting in a dark room where it’s very rude to talk, and the object of our attention is uniquely fascinating. Can you sit equally still at home watching the same movie on TV?

Last night I started studying an old algebra book, and I was able to stay on task for about 12 minutes – and it was hard, very hard. I had to really push myself to get that far. Each morning I cook, eat breakfast and clean up, and that takes 15-20 minutes, but it’s easy and pleasant. We can focus easier on our older routines, but its hard to keep our attention on learning something new. Carr’s book also explains why that’s true too. Our brain is very plastic. We call it plastic because the brain can reshape its neural pathways to learn new routines. But we can also think of it as plastic because it can mold a new stable shape around a new routine. You’re capable of developing new habits, but those habits hold their shape and have a certain resistance to reshaping. It’s both hard to create a new habit, and hard to break an old habit, but it’s possible.

If I study math every night my attention span for handling math will expand. Carr’s fear is we’re changing our neural pathways to adapt to the internet, and that conditions tiny attention spans.  Are we losing our ability to stay on longer tasks? We will develop the ability to process thousands of small tasks a day, but will we lose the ability to work at anything that requires hours of focus?  My guess is we won’t give up the internet, so what we need to do is counter its conditioning by taking on one or more activities that require longer attention spans. For example, for every 25 tiny stories you skim on the net, read one 5,000 word essay in The Atlantic.

Extremely successful people are those people who have the ability to stay on task for hours. There are limits. There are times in war and natural catastrophes where people must be on for ten, or twenty, or even thirty hours or more, but it’s extremely rare. Some artists, writers, programmers, inventors, athletes, etc. can push the zone for hours on end, but they are uncommon people. Einstein could go into his trance and see how relativity worked, but there are few Einsteins.

Not everyone buys into the attention span gap. Some people believe everyone is just different, and have different interests requiring varying degrees of attention. Young people might not be able to read a popular physics book, but I can’t play a video game for 30 seconds without giving up. There is a great deal of appeal to this theory if we’re into acceptance, but it causes problems for those people who believe in uplifting themselves by their bootstraps.

Believing in strengthening your attention span is about equal to believing in body building. It’s possible to bulk up your focus.

For a thought experiment fun, I’m going to invent a scale for measuring attention span. I’m not being scientific, just hypothesizing.  I’m going to start the scale with less than ten seconds, and end it with greater than eight hours. The average attention span now is 8 seconds, and was 12 back in the year 2000.

I can get to Level 15-16 occasionally, but not often. Maybe three times a week. Anyone can get to Level 15 is they count watching a movie. I’m not sure I do. I’ve listed both passive and active activities, but in terms of rating your attention span, I would guess only active pursuits count. However, I would give people more credit for watching a 2 hour documentary over a 2 hour movie.

I can write two hours of blogs every day until the apocalypse, but I can’t make myself even write 20 minutes of fiction daily. I’d give anything if I could novel write 60 minutes a day. The best I can do is hit Level 17 in a half-ass manner by doing something I’ve already been doing for years. I don’t think I can reach Level 10 at anything new, at least right now. My new goal is to study math, and push myself to concentrate harder each day until I can reach Level 12.

Can you do these tasks without getting distracted? Or does hearing “Squirrel!” get you every time? At what level can you do something new without giving up?

Level Time Task
1 < 10 seconds Dial phone number from memory, multiple two small numbers in head, think of something to say, jump between web pages, watch a Vine video
2 15-20 seconds Read a tweet or text
3 20-30 seconds Very short conversations, look up fact online, fast glance at news article
4 30-60 seconds Watch a commercial, common time spent glancing at a web page
5 1-2 minutes Make a P&J sandwich, brush teeth, read short news story
6 2-3 minutes Listen/play/sing a song, brush teeth
7 4-5 minutes Study short poem or song lyrics, write a short email, order something online, listen to someone tell about their day, read longer news story
8 5-10 minutes Longer YouTube videos, Khan academy lesson
9 10-15 minutes Kid reading session, kid music practice, write a medium size email, solve a decent math problem, solve a medium Sudoku
10 15-20 minutes Prepare an easy meal, read a short article or short story, intercourse, commute, average time U.S. citizen reads per day
11 20-30 minutes Sitcom, useful study session, fill a cavity, walk/bathe a dog
12 30-45 minutes Older adult reading session, cook medium size dinner
13 45-60 minutes College class, tutor a student or be tutored, older children music practice, read a longer article, do a decent crossword puzzle, church service, listen to album
14 60-90 minutes K-12 activity, good disciplined novel writing, good amateur chess match, watch a TV documentary on PBS
15 90-120 minutes Watch movie, professional chess match, cook big meal, serious music practice, average video game session, watch a good documentary movie, productive bird watching
16 2-3 hours Perform at rock concert, bookworm reading session, productive time for serious hobby, perform complicated surgery,  time required to practice 10,000 hours in 10 years (2.73hr/day)
17 3-5 hours Solid morning’s work at job without distraction, Indy 500 race, write this blog, play 18 holes of golf
18 5-6 hours Average TV watching per day, prepare a Thanksgiving meal, the amount of work most people do in their 8 hours, write a stats program
19 6-7 hours Very productive day of writing/composing/painting/calculating, average night sleep
20 > 8 hours Performing brain surgery, intense in-the-zone painting, writing, programming, athletic feats, scientific/mathematical concentration, intensive combat

Most people can do something for several hours straight, even if it’s just watching television or sleeping. But that’s often just doing something passive. Doing something active, especially something that requires concentration, and even intensive concentration is what separates productive people from people who just get by in life.

Most of what we do every day is Level 7 or less when it comes to an active activity. If you can totally focus 100% of your attention on any object or task at Level 7, you’d have Zen level mastery over your mind, and that’s just five minutes of mental focusing. You’d be an advance Zen student if you could just watch your wandering thoughts for five minutes.

Because Nicholas Carr claims links are a distraction, I’ve left them for last. 



What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Birdman?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 17, 2014

Birdman is an intense multiplex examination of acting, and you need to remember there are two unseen actors – the reality you watching from the theater seat, and the fantasy you that watches from inside your head. Birdman depends the participation of both your personalities to tell its story.  We’re all at least two people, and a good actor will play a character as one person, but a great actor will play the character as normal human with its dual natures.

Michael Keaton has gotten a great deal of attention for Birdman, which comes with a subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Whether or not that subtitle is useful in explaining some of the mysteries of this movie is still a mystery to me. Keaton plays Riggan, a clichéd down-on-his-luck movie star, with estranged wife and daughter, trying to resurrect his ego to fame and family by directing himself in a Broadway play of Raymond Carver’s famous literary short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan had previous acclaim and wealth in Hollywood playing the superhero Birdman three times, but refused to come back to the role a fourth time. Of course, Keaton played Batman, and Batman Returns, and since we haven’t seen much of him lately, Birdman feels autobiographical in the sense that we know Keaton doesn’t need much rehearsing to get into character. Keaton is absolutely perfect for Riggan.


Birdman is all about acting. It’s also about Broadway, and reminds me of All About Eve, The Sweet Smell of Success, and most especially All That Jazz, which when you think about it, gives the impression that doing a Broadway play requires actors to live at the event horizon of insanity. Keaton’s Riggan is certainly unstable, a man psychological crushed by a character he can’t escape playing, that now haunts him as his alter-ego.  Riggan is desperate to find success, fame and love again, all the while tortured by his current failure as an actor, father and husband.

Like I said, Birdman is all about acting. Michael Keaton plays roles, within roles, within roles, until until we forget all about Michael Keaton, and feel like the man on the screen is truly insane. Throughout the film we see Riggan perform what appears to be superpowers of Birdman as if they were real, only later to discover we were watching Riggan’s fantasy POV. The movie is filmed in what appears to be one long continuous take, which increases the manic intensity of the characters. Keaton is joined by Edward Norton who plays Mike, an over-the-top method actor who antagonizes all the actors to go completely into character, and pushes Riggan into constantly upping his performance. Throughout the story, the two reverb off of each other until their characters are insane frenzies of feedback.

The women of the story anchor the two men to reality. Amy Ryan plays Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who’s unflinching compassion gives us hope she can bring Birdman down to Earth. Even his resentful daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, the cause of much of Riggan’s emotional distress comes to connect closely with him in the end. Yet, the ending of this movie is baffling unless you see that we’re all two people – a real person and a fantasy person.

The whole play within a film is rather baffling too. Why Raymond Carver? I went and read “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love” after seeing Birdman, but it has provided no insight.  Michael Keaton’s performance is a tour de force. Birdman is an intense roller-coaster ride of acting and emotion. Yet, does it say anything about love? There are all kinds of relationships in Birdman, but I never felt they were the focus of the story, and I think Raymond Carver is just as peripheral.  Ultimately, I think Birdman is really about acting, and what acting does to people. The trouble is, and I hope it isn’t true – Birdman tells us that great acting requires an all-consuming psychic toll.

In the end we forget Michael Keaton, because he’s become Riggan, who has forgotten himself and become Birdman. But who are we, the audience in the end? The realistic you will see a different ending than the fantasy you, but think about what the fantasy you wants to believe in the end, and why. In the end, we’re all actors and actresses.


Samsung Smartcam HD Pro–On the Trail of a Savvy Rat

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 15, 2014

This is a story of a rat. I didn’t know my mystery critter was a rat when my story began. That’s why we bought a security camera. So this is really a story about a rat and security camera. Most people coming to this page from Google will be researching security cameras and I have useful information for you. But I also hope you find the rat fascinating too. For sensitive people, the rat dies in the end, and for sick people, I don’t show it.

I’m including some video clips from the camera below, but only about three minutes worth. Some are taken in light, and others using the built in night vision. Just enough to give you an idea how how I used the camera. I’m not going to make a video of me reviewing the camera. This is my first time to edit a video and put it on YouTube, so it’s very basic.

A few weeks ago my mystery began. I had put out some roach bait that comes in a little plastic strip about four inches long. It’s a little trough full of brown goo that is poison to cockroaches. It works very well because we seldom see a cockroach and when we do it’s dying. Well, the next day I noticed that all the brown goo was gone from this new strip.

“Damn!” I thought. Did a whole family of roaches have a reunion dinner on that bait? The bait has never disappeared before.  So I put out new strip of bait.  A few days later I went to check on it, this time the bait AND the plastic strip was gone.  WTF? Roaches just don’t carry off plastic plates to dine on later. It was kind of freaky. Then I went into the kitchen and noticed that the bottom inch of a banana was missing from a bunch on the kitchen island.

“Shit! We’ve got a critter!” I called my wife who lives out of town during the work week. This unnerved her.

We have a million squirrels and chipmunks outside our house, and I know the chipmunks live in the crawlspace below the house, so I wondered if one of them had gotten in some way. I also wondered if it was a roof rat. Because I didn’t know what kind of critter I had invading the house I got a live trap from a friend.

I put another strip of roach bait on the trigger thinking the critter must love that stuff. But he wouldn’t go in the trap after several nights. 

My wife Susan then decided we needed a security camera and bought me a Samsung Smartcam.  We chose it over Dropcam Pro because Dropcam requires paying a $10 monthly fee to store the video online from one camera. The Samsung Smartcam stores the video on a micro-SD card. Of course, if your burglar also latched onto your Smartcam, you lose your evidence.  We didn’t think the critter would take the camera.

I set the Smartcam up in the bathroom focused on the live trap.

A few clips from the Smartcam

The next morning I had the evidence it wasn’t a squirrel or chipmunk. It looked like a very big mouse, or a small rat.  “Please, please, let it be a mouse,” I thought at the time. The idea of a rat roaming the house and attic seemed particularly creepy.

Now here’s my problem. Should I put out a mouse trap or rat trap? If it was a rat, a mouse trap might only annoy it, leaving me with an angry rat running around with a mouse trap stuck to part of its body. If I put out a rat trap and it was a mouse, I might end up crushing its hindquarters, but not killing it.  So I thought I’d try and catch it live.

I moved the live trap to the front of the house, and started closing the door to the hall, so the rat could only roam up front, and I didn’t have to worry about waking up with a rat curled up in my warm lap.

For several nights running I got to film the rat – and it became obvious that it was a rat, even a big rat, when I got to see more film. And he was a smart one too. Several times a night he’d go out and check out that live trap. Walk around it, stare into it, get up on its back legs and look at the top.  He even stuck his head in it one time and got one of the temptation chunks of cheese, but wouldn’t go in all the way and touch the trigger.  Watching the rat on the Smartcam video showed me how savvy he was, and I was getting to like him.

I realized I had another problem. If it had been a squirrel or chipmunk I would have taken it down to the woods and let it go. But I couldn’t ethically take a roof rat anywhere to free it. They will travel miles to get into a house, and I wouldn’t want to push my problem on someone else. I’ve had a couple women friends who had roof rats and they ended up hiring professions that charged a $1,000. I knew if I caught the rat I’d have to kill it, and the only way I could think of doing it was dropping the live trap in a tub of water.

I went down to Home Depot and looked at their solutions.  I bought two large rat traps, the old fashion kind.  They were powerful. I bet they could break a finger. The first night I baited it will Stilton cheese, nice and smelly.  I put them in the pantry where I thought he was coming down from the attic.  I left the live trap and camera out.  Mr. Rat was caught maybe 10 times that night checking out the live trap. The Smartcam has a motion activated mode (as well as a sound activated mode) so it only films when something moves or makes noise. This mode is perfect for critter watching.  He wasn’t interested in the killing traps (which were off camera behind an open door), and was fascinated by the live trap.  He was smart, and could smell a rat himself.

So the next night I put peanut butter on top of the cheese in the killing traps. This morning I got up and checked my Nexus 7, and saw there was one motion event, just after midnight. The rat was again checking out the live trap.  The last I saw of my friend Mr. Rat on film was when he was heading into the pantry closet where the killing traps were. It was sort of sad. I had a hunch there was a reason there were no more motion events on the camera.

I got up and went into the kitchen and opened the pantry door. He was lying dead, with the trap upside down on his head. When I turned it over I could see the wire had snapped right across his skull, killing him instantly. There was a little pool of blood next to his head, like a miniature crime scene. I had killed my critter. I was both relieved and sad. I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, so I’m not into killing creatures. But I have an exception to my rule – if pests come in the house I kill them. I won’t step on a roach if it’s in the driveway, but if he comes in I’ll squash him. That applies to rats and mice. I would have relocated a squirrel or chipmunk.

I wished I could have saved the rat. He was clean and not filthy looking as their reputation, and he left damn few droppings, unlike mice. If you watch the film, you’ll see he lives in his own little world.  It’s a shame his world was an invasion of my world.

The camera was an aggravation to learn at first, but using it for several nights taught me how it works and I’m happy with it. From everything I read the Dropcam Pro is a better camera, but they charge per camera per month for video storage. If you’re serious about crime detection, then that’s the way to go. The Samsung Smartcam is advertised for monitoring children, pets and older adults, and for other monitoring that includes two-way sound. It can be use for burglar security, but if they steal it, you won’t have any video of them doing it. The Samsung is great if you want to set it up and watch your home at work or while on vacation.  It’s very easy to log into the web or use a mobile device to check the camera, or call up the stored video. It was particularly easy to use on my Nexus 7, and I like the interface better on the Android than the browser.

Setting up the camera is easy, but can be annoying. It’s meant to be so easy that you only need one small piece of paper for instructions. The mobile app guides you through everything. The part that bugged me was the two passwords. One login is for your account at the Samsung web site, and the other is for the camera itself. The camera requires being plugged into a wall socket. Unplugging it turns it off. The first time I moved the camera it felt like the camera wanted me to reconfigure it completely, so I reset the camera password. Actually, if I had let it sit for a while after plugging it back in it would have remembered everything, but the instructions didn’t tell me that, and I keep screwing around with passwords, until I got confused to what they were.

Be sure and pick passwords you can remember, and just be patient, the camera will reconfigure itself automatically after the first time each time you unplug it.

The camera is also picky about connecting to the Wi-Fi. However, I also learned if I waited long enough it seems to find it. It seems to me, that it was easier to configure when I had it near my Wi-Fi router getting a good signal, so I recommend setting it up in a strong signal location and then moving it to where you need it. The device does have an Ethernet port. It’s possible to permanently mount it, and I’m sure it would be much more responsive if wired. However, the Wi-Fi worked well enough for my mystery critter monitoring. There is a lag though, so two way communication will be like talking to someone on the Moon from Earth.

Now that I’ve caught my critter I’m going to put the camera in the attic and see if any other critters are up there. Over the years we’ve had our workshop out back robbed. I could put the camera in the window to monitor our yard, but I’m not sure I want to see how many strange people walk on our property. We used to have a fox that went through our yard. I’m thinking it might be more fun to have the camera watch the yard to see how many different animals visit us. I can think of a bunch of fun things to do if we still had pets. Ever wonder which dog tore up the pillow?

We now live in a age where we film everything. The Samsung Smartcam HD Pro is essentially a spy camera for when you’re not around. It let me play nature photographer and observe the activities of a rat in my house. That was cool, although I would prefer not to have had a rat, or the need of the camera. If you need one this Smartcam is nice once you learn how to use it. I do wish it had some features that it doesn’t. I wished I could have streamed the video to a hard drive or cloud drive instead of storing the video files on a micro-SD card.

The camera would be cooler if it had 32-64 GB of internal memory that could be accessed over the net. Right now, you sneaker net the micro-SD card band and forth between your computer when you want to edit film.  I think Samsung assumed most people would never want to keep the film, and would only look at it from a browser or mobile device and then erase it. And that might be true for most people. If I hadn’t want to include some of the results in this blog I would have done that. I imagine most people would prefer having a card slot to built in memory, but I think we’re moving away from physical media. My 32GB card could store days of continuous filming, and after I switched to motion detected filming, could have recorded weeks of occasional motion events.

It would also be cool if it had a rechargeable battery so it could be placed somewhere for 12-24 hours without any wires. Of course, that would have added a good deal to the cost of the camera.  It comes with mounting brackets, and the ability to shared with nine other cameras, so I get the feeling Samsung thinks most people will be buying multiple cameras and permanently mounting them in several locations. I’m cheap, and just playing around with the device, so I wanted one that was easy to move. To me the perfect solution would be a device with rechargeable batteries that saved film clips to local net devices.

Unless you have a real reason to have a security camera I’m not sure if they are worth the money as a casual toy. If you need to monitor something unattended, or from a distance, this Samsung Smartcam might be a good choice. Read the reviews carefully. It was a big help in catching the rat, but I’m not sure if I have any use for it now. Think hard about why you want a security camera. If you’re really have burglars, then the Dropcam Pro is probably what you want, but be prepared to pay the monthly fees.


The Tools We Use for Thought Processing

Most people seldom see their words, only hear them. Writing is like capturing thoughts in amber. In the 21st century the common denominator of written communication is the text, which gives scant exercise for thought processing. Writing is our way of making our minds look sharp to others in the same we edit our appearance with clothes and makeup. Sadly, we judge people more on their physical appearance than on their mental looks. When reading social media, note how your friend’s words reveal their mind’s fashion. Few people realize how unimaginative their inner styles appear, with their clichéd, repetitive second hand thoughts. Few people on Facebook create original thoughts, but link to other people’s ideas they find stylish.

Learning to write is like learning to put on makeup, eventually you can transform a ordinary mug into something sexy. Learning to write is like going to the gym to buff up your thinking muscles. The tools we use to write, to process our thoughts, are like the tools we use to make our bodies look beautiful. Bodies and minds have a certain degree of plasticity that allows us to shape who we are. Writing is all about shaping mind to produce clear and precise thoughts.

There is something special about putting words to paper. When humans went from memorizing words to writing them down, a magical transformation happened to civilization, as beautiful chronicled in The Information by James Gleick. Can you imagine the sense of wonder those Sumerians felt long ago putting stylus to clay and realizing their words could last long past their own lives? That must have been mind blowing – sort of like discovering the World Wide Web back in the early 1990s.

As someone who desires to write, I constantly observe my limitations with forming words into structures that communicate what I’m thinking. Our thoughts are jumbled and disorganized, and I assume other people are like me, in that we don’t think clearly and exact. In our minds we don’t automatically generate organized paragraphs. Putting words to paper is a way to crystalize inner chatter, but it’s also a translation from vague mental impressions to a linear progression of words on screen. From first draft to last, our thoughts constantly churn, so writing becomes rewriting, as we seek to recursively shape a single flash of inspiration out of constantly changing insights to that original idea.

Do the tools we write with affect how we express ourselves? Would authors tell their stories differently if they wrote it with pencil, pen, typewriter, computer or by dictating it into their iPhone? Would a novel written on a desktop be different from one written on a laptop? I started thinking about this when Nicholas Carr mentioned Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter in his book The Swallows. Carr’s book is about how the Internet is ruining our attention span for long narratives. Nietzsche switched from pen to an early typewriter that was called The Writing Ball, or The Hansen Writing Ball, a beautiful Victorian era machine that any steampunk fan would kill to acquire.

The Writing Ball 3

Nietzsche’s friends told him his writing changed when he started using this typewriter. Nietzsche got painful headaches from writing with his pen, and the typewriter allowed him to write with his eyes closed. Evidently, the machine altered how he expressed his thoughts. It empowered his writing.  Mark Twain, had tried this twenty years earlier but failed. Twain was one of the first writers to use a typewriter, in the 1870s. He gave them up, claiming typewriting made him swear. But his manuscript for Life on the Mississippi was submitted as typewritten from his handwritten manuscript.

From Twain to now, writers have migrated from pen to typewriter to computer. Some still write with pens. I have met writers, like Joe Haldeman, who prefers to write his first drafts by pen – and he uses many different colored pens, and writes in bound volumes of blank paper, with his own illuminations like ancient monks at their scrolls. When you read or listen to writers talk about how they capture their words, it’s obvious that the tool does matter.

I never spent much time writing with a pen, but I wished I had. I remember in junior high buying cheap Sheaffer fountain pens and trying. Maybe if I had owned a Monte Blanc pen I would have fallen in love with handwriting. Would I have become a different person if I had become a pen and paper writer? People who use pen or pencil claim to have a more intimate relationship with their words. That is probably true, because they shape each word with a skill that is unique to the writer. And I imagine elation or pain shows through in the tracks of the pen unlike the uniform stamp of the letter a typewriter makes on paper, or the lowly pixel leaves on a LED screen.


I adapted to machine writing a very long time ago.  I started with a hand-me-down manual typewriter, but soon my parents bought me a cheap Smith-Corona electric typewriter, probably thinking it would be good for my school work. I spent years with that machine, eventually typing mimeograph stencils to make fanzines and apazines. Typewritten pages captures words, but you must completely retype the page after each edit. Producing second and third drafts were tension filled endeavors because any typo caused outbursts of anger. Retyping was stressful.

I’ve looked through my possessions but I can’t find any relics from that era of my life. How the Smith-Corona allowed me to express my thoughts would have been different from how I express them now. Typing allowed me to write as fast as I think, and I seldom retyped to produce clean second copies. So my original thoughts would have been preserved. If every time I rewrote something in this essay was called a draft, there might be hundreds.


Ultimately, it appears writers get to the same ending when their handwritten, typewritten or computer written text gets set in print. I’m not sure if a powerful AI program could tell from looking at a book what kind of writing tool the writer used to compose his story. I suppose all the editing functions of a word processer can be done with pen and ink and using the mind as a word buffer. But I don’t know. The more I read about how thinking can change the brain because the brain is so plastic, I’m thinking our tools do reshape our minds. I’m just not sure if they effect the final output.

I loved the hum of electric writing, and eventually fell in love with the golf-ball typewriter, the IBM Selectric, the standard writing machine in offices for decades. I could sit for hours just dumping my thoughts out onto paper. I wish I had examples of that writing. I’m pretty sure it was as ugly as a hex software dump. What changed my life dramatically was combining the computer and typewriter.


The first word processor I used on a job, back in 1977, was a standalone machine called an IBM MT-ST machine, which combined a Selectric typewriter with two magnetic tape drives. Although, cumbersome to use, the MT-ST machine was a revelation. It took on the job of retyping drafts by remembering all the perfectly type portions of the earlier draft. You played out tape one that contain the original draft until you reached the edit, skipped over the bad part, typed in the new sequence, which was also recorded on tape two, and continued copying the good content until the next edit. When done you had a new fresh paper copy and a recording of it on tape. This was one giant leap for mankind when it came to writing – word processing.


Using the MT-ST at work made me want to have one at home, but that was out of the question until the price of computers came down.

By 1978 my work bought an Apple II computer which I didn’t get to use in my job, but coveted and borrowed when I could. It converted me to the microcomputer revolution. I eventually got to use a lot of different Apple II and III models, and sadly had the job to surplus a lab with over forty of them, at the end of their era. Writing on early microcomputers was iffy at best, requiring learning a lot of arcane commands, but it was word processing.

Around 1981 we bought a CPT machine to replace the MT-ST, that looked like the one below. I went shopping with my boss and we also looked at the legendary Xerox Star which I really wanted, but they didn’t buy. Man, it would have been great to claim I was one of the early users. Just after getting the CPT machine I switched jobs and got to install and train people on the new IBM PC.

CPT word processor

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had found a way for me to own my own word processing machine, when I started  buying early 8-bit home computers like the Atari 400 and Commodore 64 that had simple word processing programs. It was then when I gave up typewriters. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, I was on a never-ending quest to find the perfect word processor program that suited my personal needs. For a while I thought it would be Word Perfect. But once Windows 95 came out, and I got to use Microsoft Word, that has been my tool of writing ever since. Word has changed a lot over the last twenty years, always refining how words leave our fingers and are stored digitally, only to be reorganized over and over again.

Even though I’m enchanted by the memory of handwriting, I could never go back. Me and my keyboard are one. I sometimes wonder if I can jump into the future and talk to my computer, but I can’t imagine editing and rewriting by verbal commands. I suppose if Word adds a Siri like helper so I can say, “Read me the second paragraph.” And then I tell the computer, “Write this sentence in its place,” and dictate a whole new sentence, I could begin to adapt.

Can you imagine Homer composing The Iliad? He never got to write anything down, and all the drafts were in his head. I wonder if he got friends to help, by reciting a scene to someone and then asking them to recite it back to see how it sounded. I use to have a speech synthesizer read my essays back to me. It was very helpful.

So far I’ve only covered mechanical tools for thought processing. Hypercard, Gopher, HTML, Wikis and blogging all changed how I processed my thoughts for others to see. Now I can add pictures and videos, and I can link to other documents. A document on the web is much richer than one printed on paper. One reason the web is so popular is it does allow for easy self-expression. If you follow your friends regularly on Facebook you eventually get to learn how they think in a way different from just listening to them talk. Young people might be evolving past written words to expressing thoughts in voice and video.

Large books have always been the most complicated expressions of crystalized thinking we have. Some take decades to write and involve interviewing thousands of people and reading thousands of articles and books. They reflect armies of thinkers working towards a single vision. However, the more information we have to process the harder it is to mentally visualize the work. There are tools for that too, like my current one, Xmind, which has just released v. 6.  Writers have been using tools like outlines, index cards, databases, spreadsheets, OneNote, Evernote, and all kinds of software tools to focus research for writing. I think Mind Mapping software is very useful, and potentially can be far more effective than I’ve succeeded with it so far. It’s like putting little abstractions of thoughts into bubbles, and then connecting the bubbles in creative ways.

Blogging has been a wonderful tool for thought processing. I’d recommend making it an integral part of K-12 education. Most kids are required to write, and even write research papers, but they are only read by teachers. If students knew that anyone would be reading their work, including their friends, they might try harder at learning to write well. Peer pressure is a powerful formative tool. As a thought processor, blogging combines the best elements of word processing with HTML, multimedia and networking. Combining a smartphone and blogging makes a kid into a documentary film maker, magazine writer, editor, and publisher, on equal standing with The New York Times with potential access to a world-wide audience.


The Insulting Parts of Interstellar

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This is not a review of Interstellar. The film is thrilling, emotional and big fun. Go see it. It has some astounding special effects and amazing sense of wonder concepts.

No, what I want to write about is the philosophical implications of the science fiction as presented in Interstellar. The film makes a great touchstone to contemplate the nature of science fiction. Science fiction reflects our collective ambitions about exploring reality and the future of mankind. At the deepest level of desire, science fiction fans want to travel into space, especially to the stars and other worlds. Interstellar even travels to other galaxies, something seldom seen even in the most ambitious science fiction stories.


Science fiction also reflects our desire to control reality, and sees us as the master of our own fate. Science fiction is a rejection of the metaphysical, which believes humans are the minions of divine beings. Science fiction is hubris at its best (or worse, depending on your belief in God). Science fiction is the ultimate expression of human powered evolution.

The trouble with science fiction is most of humanity doesn’t buy into the dream, they prefer metaphysical fantasies. In Interstellar, NASA is a forgotten aspect of the government, and schools teach that the Moon landings were faked. The movie suggests that the human race gave up on the idea of the final frontier, and that it’s not until humanity is about to become extinct that we finally discover our next stage of evolution is to travel to the stars.

I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar as an entertaining movie, but some of its philosophical implications rankled me. It suggests that humans are destined to use up the Earth, and when we do, abandon it like an old computer sent to the landfill. The movie makers suggest the savior for our species is to travel to the stars with the help of higher dimensional beings. That smacks of guardian angels to me.

I want humans to travel the stars, but not because we selfishly used up our planet. Besides, I want to colonize space now, and we need to find real reasons to do so. Positive reasons.

In the film, no one campaigns to save the Earth. The conflict is between our descendants who endure our legacy, and those who want to run away. That idea sucks big time. I’m sure the movie makers thought it was just an easy justification for the plot, but I find it offensive. Yet, their attitude is not uncommon. Republicans pretend our sins of self-destruction aren’t ours, while the Democrats are perfectly willing to accept we’re to blame, yet do nothing to stop us from destroying ourselves.

Interstellar sees Earthly humanity expiring and says, “Let’s go to the stars” to start over. Now, here is where I get into spoilers by explaining how we’re saved. One part of the solution involves New Age mumbo-jumbo, and the other part involves 1930s style super-science mumbo-jumbo, the kind found in books by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Neither solution will save us, nor are they philosophically appealing. They each say we need the help of higher powers. Bullshit.

We already know the science to save our planet – we choose not to. Abandoning Earth for the lifeboats is not an ethical solution. It’s about as noble as the Republican’s head in the sand plea of denial, or the Democrats mea culpa “The buck stops here but I ain’t going to do anything about it because the Republicans won’t play fair” whine.

I also find it offensive that the story in Interstellar suggests we need the help of super-beings. That’s one reason I don’t like religion – it shirks responsibility. We don’t need some divine daddy or fifth dimension super being to save us. If we can’t save ourselves then we deserve to go extinct. The movie cops out on its cop out, but I don’t like it’s philosophical solution either.

To me, the science fiction in Interstellar wimps out. Real, hard-core, science fiction is about humanity pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, using real science we discovered. To a degree the movie does that, and that’s exciting, but the ending of Interstellar is much like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I also found philosophical insulting. Arthur C. Clarke in his two most famous stories, 2001 and Childhood’s End suggests we need outside help getting to the next stage of existence, and that help involves superpowers that are damn close to metaphysical. I find that really distasteful.

I’m a believer in evolution, which doesn’t allow for outside helping hands. You either climb up out of the slime on your own, or you go extinct.

Colonizing space or traveling to the stars is a great ambition, but we need to go on under our own steam, and after we become good caretakers of the Earth. I think if we’re going to destroy everything we touch I imagine our alien neighbors, higher dimensional beings and the gods would prefer we just stay home.


How Many Novels Can Be Our Best Friends?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 10, 2014

Is it possible to know a book like a good friend? Does reading a book one time give us that best friend closeness? People often say a book changed their life, so we know some books can inspire great passion by what about lasting relationships? Does one reading let us experience the full intent of a book? I’ve read some of my favorite books many times, but I doubt I could analyze them with any depth, not like a professor of literature does with a classic. I’ve found entertainment rather than enlightenment in the books I’ve consumed. I want to change my ways. I want to pick some books and get to know them very well.

The old saying, “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing” can be applied to almost anything. However, when I ask, “Can we read too many novels” I’m going beyond that. Most people read for pleasure. Reading is an escape, and it’s fun, so what’s the harm of reading as much as we want? Even that line of attack is not where I want to go. Sure, there’s more to life than reading books, but it’s up to all of us to decide if we read too much. When I ask, “How many novels can be our best friends” I’m asking if some books deserved to be more than just read quickly to find out what happens in the end.

Asking questions is a way to explore deeply into a subject. But I’m not questioning the value of reading for fun, I am wondering if always reading a new book isn’t hurting my ability to appreciate novels at a higher level. I’m wondering if reading too many books is like having too many friends. Are my relationships with books, even my most favorite, really just acquaintances and not close friendships? I’m not suggesting I find my perfect reading companion and become best friends forever, although that might lead to the deepest understanding possible for a novel. I am asking if reading too many books makes us miss out on the depth that novels can give us.

If you’ve ever read any great literary criticism, you’ll know that some people get a lot more out of a novel than the average reader. Just read an issue The New York Review of Books or The London Review of Books and tell me how sophisticated of a bookworm you feel afterwards.

I admit my fiction habit, is one where I consume mass quantities of words. I read in a hurry to finish, and then rush to the next story anxious to have another page turning narrative to follow. Lately, I’ve been researching the topic of effective thinking, and I realize that even though think about books more than your average bookworm, I’m far from being in the professional leagues of story masters.

This leads me to wonder if I shouldn’t have books that I get to know very well. And how many books should be on that list? Could I ever claim to be a true friend to one hundred books? I doubt seriously if I could even memorize the titles of one hundred books, so one hundred is probably too many. However many there should be, I should be able to recite their names as if they were my children. Yet, over a lifetime, I’m guessing we find between 25-100 books that resonate so well with our souls that list could be our reading fingerprint.

In Fahrenheit 451 the characters became one book they memorized. I don’t want to be monogamous to one book, but I wonder how many literary companions I could pick and still be faithful to them all? If all seven billion plus people on this planet made a list of favorite books, how many books would it take before we’d all have a unique list? Would any two people on planet Earth pick the same 15 books? Or does it take 20 or 25 before absolute uniqueness shows up? Wouldn’t it be strange if it was as small as 8? Tragically, there are millions, maybe billions of people that don’t read for fun at all.

Another way to approach this problem is to ask how many books would I’d be willing to study in 2015, including reading criticism for each novel, and to write an essay that explores the deeper knowledge I’ve discovered about story. As someone who daydreams about writing a novel, this could be very educational. Right off the bat, I’m thinking twelve, one for each month. But is that too ambitious? Are there even twelve books I’d devote extra time to in 2015?

How shall I pick? I could easily select twelve old favorites I’ve reread many times, but to be honest, they’d include a lot of books I learn to love as a kid, and they’d mostly be science fiction. Obviously I should pick old favorites that still have depths to explore, or pick new books I feel will expand my literary knowledge. But they also need to be books I’d be willing to read again and again. I can imagine picking twelve and breaking up with nine after I’m done. If I continue to pursue this quest I expect in several years to have a dozen books I’ll really feel are my best fictional friends.

I want to reread some books to get more out of them, and I want to read some new books that will push my reading skills. I wanted to pick mostly famous books so there will be plenty books about those books. I’m also thinking I’d like read books that have been made into movies, just see to how they are interpreted. I’m pretty sure I want books that have audio editions, so I can read and listen. Here’s a list of books I’m considering getting to know in 2015:

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
  3. Out Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1861)
  4. Crime and Punishment by Fyordor Dostoyevsky (1866)
  5. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)
  6. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)
  7. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
  8. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
  9. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)
  10. Journey to the End of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)
  11. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  12. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
  13. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1948)
  14. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  15. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
  16. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)
  17. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez  (1967)

Mostly these are new books I hope I’ll love to get to know, but a few are old books I want to reread because I think I missed a lot the first time around. In some ways I feel like I’m moving into a new phase of life, because none of these books are science fiction. I’m not giving up on science fiction, but I feel I’ve overdone the genre. I do think I’ve reached a stage where I could pick my 25-50 all-time favorite science fiction novels. For the last ten or twelve yeas I’ve been rereading the science fiction books I read when I was in my teens and twenties, and most didn’t hold up. My ultimate list will be those that do. Sadly, most novels don’t even deserve to be read once. Most of us are pretty slutty when it comes to going to bed with a book. There are a lot of faces and names we’ve quickly forgotten. Is it any wonder that I’m asking if we have too many one-night reads, and not enough serious literary relationships?