Do Internet Ads Work On You?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 19, 2014

This morning I found out that the legendary programming magazine, Dr. Dobbs will be ending its 38 year run at the end of 2014. The main reason for their failure is dwindling internet ad revenue. For years magazines have been failing because of competition from the internet, and many magazines have gone web only publishing. Now, we’re seeing that model for publishing failing too.

People using the internet want everything to be free, and they ignore ads. If we won’t subscribe and won’t click on ads, how will publishers pay for their online presence? When I read about Dr. Dobbs, I went researching internet advertising, and the first article I went to read, “A Dangerous Question: Does Internet Advertising Work at All?” at The Atlantic. Ironically, it required me to click four times to fight off pop-up and slide up ads. Reading on the internet now means a constant fight with avoiding ads, and even more, avoiding the temptation of click-bait seductions.

If you look a The Atlantic page, how many ads do you see? I had to consciously make an effort to count them because my brain has been conditioned to tune them out. All banner ads at the top of web pages are invisible to me, as are on-page ads.  The only way they can get my attention is to block my reading and force me to read an ad. And some sites force us to watch a video. Most nice sites let us skip ads or close the pop-ups. Others don’t. If I see how many seconds I have to wait, and if it’s over ten, I close the window and give up.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that does this.

The question becomes: What happens to the internet when ad-supported revenue fails to pay for web publishing? Will all sites put up paywalls and require subscriptions?

Google makes billions off of ads, but then everyone uses Google. If I am going to respond to an ad, it’s most likely from how I see them used in search results. In fact, if I’m going to buy anything I’m going to do a Google search first to research my purchase.  For most things, I make my buying decisions by customer reviews at Amazon, or sites like Angie’s List.

Maybe I am atypical. Are there millions of people out there clicking away on ads? Are there enough of these people that can finance the free web? I don’t know. I do know there’s a frenzy of ad bombardment going on, and it seems like most of the sites I do visit are escalating their efforts to get my attention. This is damn annoying. Makes me want to go back to print magazines. Actually, I subscribe to Next Issue. I get 140 magazines for $15 a month. Sure it has ads, but they are easily ignored, and they are generally more beautiful.

The reason why most of my television watching is via Netflix streaming is because I don’t have to watch ads. I pay Spotify $10 a month so I don’t have to hear ads. And it annoys the hell out of me that I’m paying more for my movie ticket and force to watch ads. One reason I got tired of DVDs was because they were forcing me to watch previews and ads.

Time is an extremely important commodity in life, and ads waste a lot of our precious time. And sadly, 99.99% of all the ads I do end up watching have no relationship to what I want or need. I can’t really believe advertising is an effective means to acquire customers, but obviously I’m wrong. TV, radio, the internet, magazines, newspapers, sports, etc. are all ad driven businesses.

Yet, I’m not sure if they work on me. Do they work on you?

What if science tells advertisers exactly the best way to connect with potential customers that’s highly efficient. Will all inefficient forms of advertising disappear? Companies have known since the 19th century that most of their advertising dollars are wasted, but they’ve never been sure which dollars were well spent. What happens if they do find out?

JWH

By 2020 Robots Will Be Able to Do Most People’s Jobs

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 17, 2014

People commonly accept that robots are replacing humans at manual labor, but think they will never replace us at mental labor, believing that our brain power and creativity are exclusive to biological beings. Think again. Watch this video from Jeremy Howard, it will be worth the twenty minutes it will cost you. It’s one of the most impactful TED Talks I’ve seen.

What Howard is reporting on is machine learning, especially Deep Learning. Humans could never program machines to think, but what if machines learn to think through interaction with reality – like we do?

But just before I watched that TED Talk, I came across this article, “It’s Happening: Robots May Be The Creative Artists of the Future” over at MakeUseOf. Brad Merrill reviews robots that write essays, compose music, paints pictures and learning to see. Here’s the thing, up till now, we think of robots as doing physical tasks that are programmed by humans.  We picture humans minds analyzing all the possible steps in the task, and then creating algorithms in a computer language to get the computers to do jobs we don’t want to do. But could we ever tell a computer to, “Compose me a melody!” without defining all the steps?

The example Jeremy Howard gives of machine learning, is Arthur Samuel teaching a computer to play checkers. Instead of programming all the possible moves and game strategy, Samuel programmed the computer to play checkers against itself and to learn the game through experience – he programmed a learning method. That was a long time ago. We’re now teaching computers to see, by giving them millions of photographs to analyze, and then helping them to learn the common names for distinctive objects they detect. Sort of like what we do with kids when they point to a dog.

What has kept robots in factories doing grunt work is they can’t see and hear like we do, or understand language and talk like people. What’s happening in computer science right now is they can get computers to do each of these things separately, and are close to getting machines that can combine all these human like abilities into one system. How many humans will McDonalds hire to take orders when they have a machine that listens and talks to customers and works 24x7x365 with no breaks? As Howard points out, 80% of the workforce in most industrialized countries are service workers.  What happens when machines can do service work cheaper than humans?

Corporations are out to make money. If they can find any way to do something cheaper, they will, and one of the biggest way to eliminate overhead is to get rid of humans. Greed is the driving force of our economy and politics. We will not stop  or outlaw automation. Over at io9, they offer, “12 Reasons Robots Will Always Have An Advantage Over Humans.”

Now, I’m not even saying we should stop all of this. I doubt we could anyway. I’m saying we need to learn to adapt to living with machines. A good example is playing chess. Machines can already beat humans, so why keep playing chess? But what if you combined humans and chess machines, to play as teams against other teams, who will win?  Read “The Chess Master and the Computer” by Garry Kasparov over at The New York Review of Books. In a 2005 free for all match, it wasn’t Grand Masters with supercomputers that won, but two so-so human amateur players using three regular computers. As Howard points out, humans without medical experience are using Deep Learning programs to analyze medical scans and diagnose cancers as well or better than experienced doctors.

harold1

When Jeremy Howard talks about Deep Learning algorithms, I wished I had a machine that could read the internet for me and process thousands of articles to help me write essays. So I could say to my computer, “Find me 12 computer programs that paint artistically and links to their artwork.” That way I wouldn’t have to do all the grunt work with Google myself. For example, it should find Harold Cohen’s AI artist, AARON.  I found that with a little effort, but who else is working in this area around the world? Finding that out would take a good bit of work which I’d like to offload.

Imagine the science fiction novel I could write with the aid of an intelligent machine. I think we’re getting close to when computers can be research assistants, yet in five or ten years, they won’t need us at all, and could write their own science fiction novels. Will computer programs win the Hugo Award for best novel someday? And after that, a human and machine co-authors might write a more thrilling novel of wonder.

JWH

What I Learned From My First Year of Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 11, 2014

Now that I’ve been retired for over a year, I realized I’ve learned something about being retired. Ever since I retired, the most common greeting I get is, “How’s retired life?” I don’t know if folks are curious about retirement, or if it’s just their way of asking what’s new. Anyway, here’s my answer.

RetirementArrow

Money

When people bring up retirement, most of my unretired friends lament they can’t afford to retire. I have many friends that have retired and many that haven’t. It’s like the story about ants and grasshoppers. Some creatures hoard for the future, and some just hop around having fun. If you want to retire you have to transform from a hopper to a hoarder. I did that by spending less years before I retired. I just stopped buying shit.  If you want to know what retired life is like, live off 50% of your present income each month and save the rest for three years.

Now that I am retired I don’t seem to have any money problems – yet.  This morning when a guy was blowing leaves off my roof, I wondered how much it would cost me if he fell and sued.  Or could I pay for that kind of cancer drug that cost $80,000 a year? Or something bad happens that insurance doesn’t cover. We’re all one random catastrophe away from being ruined. Even though I’ve arranged to afford retirement, there’s always money problems to consider. As I tell my unretired grasshopper friends, every dollar you spend now is one you’ll want in old age.

I’ve got my finances in order, and hope the money lasts the lifetime I have left. But on a day-to-day level, being retired means watching pennies. If you’re the kind of person who has fun without looking at the bill, then I would recommend working as long as you can. In the past year I’ve been called cheap or tight a few times, and that bugs me. That’s not something I was ever called while working. But I realized, part of being retired is learning to live cheaper and hanging onto money.

The stereotype thing to say is “I’m living on a fixed budget” but that’s bullshit. Most people live on a paycheck that’s the same every month, so a “fixed budget” doesn’t really convey the point. Being retired means learning to live on a reduced budget. There won’t be any merit raises or jumps to jobs with higher salaries. So no more fantasies for fancy cars, bigger houses and vacation adventures, and that affects you psychologically. Middle life is about expanding and upsizing. Retirement is about shrinking and downsizing.  But don’t get me wrong, it’s not depressing. Once you start living efficiently, you realize how wasteful living used to be.

As of now I don’t worry about money.

Do I Miss Work?

No. Not in the least. Work did provide a structure, filled up my time, and gave me a sense of purpose and value, but after 35 years at the same workplace, I was done. It’s extremely nice to have all my time free to do what I want.

However, I don’t know if I’m typical. I do know some retired people who are restless not working. I never use the word bored about myself, but if you’ve ever claimed to be bored, I’d be wary of retirement. Every night I go to sleep lamenting I didn’t have enough time. If I have any complaint about retirement, it’s because I still don’t have enough time. Having all your time free does not mean endless time, but for some people, it’s way too much time.

I worked at a university and helped a lot of people, so I got a certain sense of satisfaction from work, plus I felt like my efforts went to a good cause. Now that I’m not working I feel selfish, and that I’m not contributing to society. But that doesn’t bother me. I did my time, I’m retired. However, if you need constant proof of self-worth, you might not want to retire.

Am I Doing What I Dreamed of Doing?

I thought I’d write a novel after I retired. I always imagined if I had the time I would write a novel. I didn’t. Now I see that writing is a novel is something you have to do no matter how much time you have. I don’t have that drive. But this also taught me who I was before retirement is the same person afterwards. I don’t know if this applies to other people or not, but I’m guessing if you’re retiring so you can be a different person, it might not work out.

I haven’t given up on writing fiction, but I’m becoming more aware of what’s involved. It’s real work – like a job. It takes discipline and dedication.  Right now I’m enjoying not working and just puttering around with my hobbies. Some people continue to work after they retire, and some don’t. I haven’t decided. I feel no need to work. I wanted to write novels because I think I have some good stories to tell, but I’m not motivated by money or success, so it’s hard to push myself to work hard again at something with no immediate rewards. But that’s another aspect to retirement.  Retiring is a kind of letting go. Picking an age to retire is picking an age to let go. You’re letting go of work and ambitions of success.

Live With Less

Disregarding the issue of money, retiring means living with less – unless you’re a natural born hoarder. You start thinking, “Do I need this big house?”  “Do I need all these clothes?” “Do I need all these books?” “What am I saving all this junk for?” and often the answer is no. I guess hoarders always answer yes.

Giving up cable was great for me.  Susan works out of town M-F and has cable at her apartment. When she retires we’ll get cable again because she’d go crazy without it. But for me, having fewer channels sharpened my sense of self.  I’m pretty much down to Netflix streaming, PBS, and the NBC Nightly News. And I’m good. I’m very good. I have more great shows than time to watch.

Now here’s the danger of this trend. I had a friend, John Williamson, who before he died, had gotten down to only liking two things in all of reality – the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. When it comes to pop culture I’m still expanding my interests, but I can foresee a time when I’ll contract. I don’t know if I’ll jettison as much as Williamson, but I can sense the beginning of that urge. One to withdraw into stuff I love and forget everything else. Well, as they say, you can’t take it with you.

There’s something appealing about living with less. It’s a feeling of streamlining. Of scraping the barnacles, packing to travel light, of seeking Zen simplicity.  My guess is getting old causes two extremes.  You become a hoarder or monk. I’m on the monkish side.

Fewer Friends

Working at the same university for thirty-five years made me feel I knew a lot of people, and I did. But work friendships really don’t transfer to retired friendships. Some did, most didn’t. I tried to keep in touch with some people. I called them three times. If they never initiated a call back, I gave up. The job place is a powerful source of social contacts. The friends I see now are mostly the same people I saw before I after work before I retired.

If you love a lot of casual friendships keep working and don’t retire. If you’re not your own best company, think real hard about retiring. Luckily, hanging around the house is no punishment for me.

Happiness

If you aren’t happy at your job, you might not be happy retired. Scientific research has found most people are happier at work than in their leisure. People generally find happiness when doing things, and for most people, work is where they often get things done. Now that I’m retired I’ve also learned that I’m happiest when I have things to do.  At the end of the day, I feel best when I can remember several things I did that day. It doesn’t take much though – finishing a book, cooking a pot of soup, publishing a blog, cleaning off a desk, watching a documentary, doing something with a friend. People who get bored are people who don’t know what to do.

It’s also rewarding to think of two or three small tasks each morning, and actually get them done before the day is over. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be much – order new underwear, pay a bill, visit the library, clean out a drawer, zero out my email inbox. My days are happily filled by with little pursuits.

Now that I’ve been retired over a year, and I’m getting into my new routines and habits, I’m starting to discover new things about myself. Work filled so much of my time that it distorted my view of life. Now that I have all my time free I’m seeing myself differently. Who I planned to be in retirement is much different than who I’ve become. But then, fantasies are always different from reality.

Before I retired I imagined filling my time on big projects, but I’ve discovered that it’s more about the little projects that count. Big projects take weeks, months and even years to accomplished. For day-to-day happiness, it’s all about how many little things I can do in a day. Before I retired I thought being free from 9-to-5 work meant I could finally write that novel. And that still might happen, but writing a novel takes a very long time, and if I had to wait until one was published, it might be years before I found the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Becoming Different

Even though I’m the same person as I was in youth and middle age, I’m also becoming different. I’m not really old at 63, I’m sort of like an infant elderly person, just learning to crawl. From this vantage point I can see becoming old is transformative. I have no idea what it will be like. But I feel like I’m in a marathon and I’d better pace myself.

JWH

Can OneDrive Replace All My Hard Drives?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Now that Microsoft is offering unlimited OneDrive storage to its Office365 users, it’s hard not to consider moving my entire digital life to the cloud. Is that crazy? Can I trust Microsoft with my files? Do I still need back up?  I have four computers with nine hard drives, some internal, some external. I also have two tablets and a smartphone. Can I consolidate all those files into one cloud filing system to share among all my devices? What happens when the net is down?

OneDrive

Security and Privacy

We trust our money to banks backed by the Federal government. Can cloud storage sites become as trustworthy? We don’t have to worry about backing up our money, so it would be great to have an institution for banking our files.  We want similar levels of security for our digital files as we do our money. We want privacy, and we want to believe our files will never be lost or stolen.

Because Microsoft is a corporate giant, and because it wishes to dominate the business and personal computer landscape, I have a feeling it will do everything possible to protect and secure our files – otherwise it would be sued out of existence. Is even that logic comforting enough to make me trust OneDrive with all my digital possessions?

Users of cloud storage have to decide what kind of files they will trust to file banks. Ripped movies and songs are different from personal photographs or banks statements, when it comes to privacy and security. But if hackers can break into your home computer and cloud servers, which are safer? Would Sony have been safer keeping their files on OneDrive? Who knows what’s safe anymore. My mistake, and Sony’s might be having one system, with one root level access. That implies spreading the risk across many cloud drives.

For now I’m going to trust OneDrive with all the files I don’t care if I lose. I will wear a belt and suspenders with files I’m desperate to keep no matter what.

Because I map OneDrive and Dropbox to my computer, I could run SecondCopy to replicate every file I save to OneDrive to Dropbox. Or I could subscribe to a cloud backup service. Finally, if I was super-paranoid, I would save to a local hard drive.

Speed

Accessing and saving files from a hard drive, SSD drive or USB drive is faster than working with the cloud directly. The speed of processing files will be determined by the speed of your internet provider.  Speeds across the net vary sharply. I often get 20Mbps downloads, but only 1.5Mbps uploads. And the upload speed is what determines how long it take to save a file. It can take weeks to upload a terabyte.  But once in the cloud, files are much faster to access.  You wouldn’t want to edit movies in the cloud, but it’s fine for most other tasks.

For many devices, Microsoft keeps a copy of your files locally – a kind of backup, and then copies those files to the cloud in the background. Using those files are just like normal. It’s easy to keep a full local copy of all your files on computers with 1TB drives, but tablets with 16GB or phones with 8GB makes that hard. The is a computer science problem that will require a lot of clever programming to solve.

My guess is network speeds – wired, wireless, cellular – will increase more and more, and eventually our files will reside completely in the cloud.  We’re becoming so netcentric, so interconnected, that we’ll always trust being linked. Eventually, it will be safer to store files in the cloud, than on local drives.  Just imagine if your computer burns up in a house fire, or your phone falls in the lake, if your files are stored in the cloud, it’s only a matter of finding another device to access them.

This implies two things for our future: unlimited bandwidth and faster networks.

I’ve been moving some audio book files as a test, and I’ve finished about 24GB in about forty hours. When I consolidate all my data from all my drives I doubt I’ll have more than 400-500 GB, so it might take me 15-20 days to get my files uploaded to OneDrive. I’m not sure what my Internet provider will think about that. Using OneDrive will effect your internet quotas.

I doubt I’ll access my audiobooks over a cellphone connection, not because of speed, but because of metering.

Convenience and Simplicity

Ultimately, convenience corrupts everyone. I no longer play my CDs or MP3 files, its way easier to play songs off of Spotify. Once I trust Spotify completely, I’ll delete 200 GB of mp3 files off of OneDrive.  People are going to stop collecting and saving digital content like movies, television shows and songs. Why go through the headaches of running your own media server when you can pay Netflix or Spotify to do it for you? Owning creative content is going to disappear – renting is just too convenient.

That means maintaining the content you personally create, the words you type, the pictures you take, the movies you make, are going to be the files you want to protect and save no matter what. It’s now possible to configure your mobile devices to automatically save to OneDrive, and once those files are online they’re available to your other devices.

Once I trust the idea of having all my files in one location, accessible to all my devices, my next goal will be to develop a file organization system.  I’ve been doing that for a few years with Dropbox and I’ve become very good at finding and filing files.

Costs

I get unlimited OneDrive because I subscribe to Office365. I pay $99/year for a 5-license subscription, but I could have gotten a single license for $70.  Dropbox was charging $99/year for 100GB of just space. So Office365 is a bargain. I’m either getting free Office Professional, or unlimited cloud space for free. I will also save on external drives, USB drives, and buying computers and mobile devices with lots of extra storage space.

Now, if you only use Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and can live with less than 15GB of file space, just get a free Outlook.com account, and use the online versions of those programs. Or if you’re Google oriented, they offer Google Docs and free cloud space. However, I wanted Outlook, Access and Publisher.

Pros

  • Simplicity – can throw a lot of hardware away (one of my machines was for backing up).
  • One location to organize – never work about duplicate files over many drives.
  • Accessible from all computers, tablets and mobile devices.
  • File versioning – can undo back to previously saved versions.
  • Recover deleted files.
  • Automatic backup (?).

Cons

  • Trusting everything to Microsoft – what if they screw up or go out of business?
  • Using OneDrive is more complicated than using a hard drive, but it offers more sophisticated features.
  • How OneDrive works is changing – it’s in a state of flux at the moment.
  • File upload time is very slow.
  • File download time is much faster, but not like from hard drive or SSD.
  • First attempt to move to Microsoft OneDrive presented some problems.  Dropbox is more bulletproof now.
  • I might need to backup OneDrive to Dropbox for extra safety.
  • $100 a year for 5 computers, or $70 a year for 1 computer – but I get Office365.
  • Privacy issues.
  • Locks me into Microsoft for the rest of my life.
  • Sync issues with mobile devices.
  • Can I still use Google Docs?
  • No file larger than 10GB
  • And there might be a current limitation of having just 20,000 total files.
  • Not all programs work with placeholder files.

Other People Worrying Over the Same Thing

JWH

Printed Book v. Audio Book

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 8, 2014

I am reading and listening to the same book, Timescape by Gregory Benford. This 1980 science fiction novel is about the year 1998, and the Earth suffering from an environmental collapse. The reason it’s science fiction is because the people in 1998 find a way to send a message back to people in 1962 to tell them to stop doing what they’re doing. I first read Timescape back in the early 1980s, just after it came out, and then listened to it in 2007. I’m reading it again this month for a book club, but as an experiment, I thought I’d listen to what I just read a week later. This has proved to be a fascinating experiment.

When I started routinely listening to audiobooks in 2002, I discovered just how bad a reader I was. Even though I was a lifelong bookworm, and thought myself a great reader, audiobooks revealed I wasn’t. My inner narrative was sketchy and wimpy compared to what I heard by professional narrators. This was true for a number of reasons, but mostly because I read too fast. I was skimming, rather than reading. There is more to reading than finding out what happens next. A great book will be rich in details, its scenes dramatic, and its characters full of distinctive voices. Speed reading tends to gloss over the details, flattens the drama and eliminates the voices.

A dozen year later, I now read much slower. I work very hard not to skim. I keep an eye out for the clues the author gives to imagine the dramatic interaction of the characters, and their personal voice. I’ve come a long way, but not far enough. I’m rereading Timescape because I’m leading a book discussion group, and I’m summarizing each chapter.  I concentrate harder on the details of the prose and take notes.

Then a week later, I decided to listen again to the same story. As I progress over each chapter, I remember reading the words. I’m don’t think I skimmed much at all, but it’s still very obvious that I’m not getting the dramatic intent of the story. The book is narrated by Simon Prebble, and he brings so much more nuance to the story. Prebble is not making stuff up, the clues to how the characters should sound are in the narrative, I just don’t imagine the drama in my head when reading compared to what I hear in the audiobook.

Strangely, listening to an audiobook is like using a magnifying glass to examine the details of writing. Benford has created characters with distinctive voices and psychologies. He even gives his sister-in-law, Hilary Foister, credit for helping him with the British portion of the story. For instance, I’m always jarred when British people drop the definite article, like when they say, “go to hospital” or “go to university.” I don’t know why we want the definite when declaring generic places, but that’s how it is. When reading that kind of thing in Timescape I didn’t notice it, but I did when listening.

When Renfrew meets Patterson for the first time he experiences a number emotions.  Renfrew grew up a working class kid that’s made it to Cambridge, to become a physicist,  and meets the upper class Peterson, a politico who’s going to evaluate his budget for a highly theoretical experiment in times when many are starving. Renfrew is very tense, and class conscious.

     “Good morning, Dr. Renfrew,” The smooth voice was just what he had expected.

     “Good morning, Mr. Peterson,” he murmured, holding out a large square hand. “Please to meet you.” Damn, why had he said that? It might have been his father’s voice: “I’m reet please to meet ya, lad.” He was getting paranoid. There was nothing in Peterson’s face to indicate anything but seriousness about the job.”

Do you feel the paranoia from reading it? I did a little, but I felt it more when listening. Prebble even does the father’s voice with the accent and different tone, a tiny flashback. The two men sound different in the narration, sounding like what Benford tells us they sound.

This rather plain passage presents all the essential details, but when I listened to Prebble read it, I got the feeling we were decoding more of Benford’s intent. I even picture how Benford imagined the scene and wrote it. Charles Dickens was famous for acting out his characters and scenes as he wrote them. I think most good writers, even if they aren’t hammy would-be actors, at least mentally picture their scenes in a dramatic way, and hear the voices of their characters. If you read very fast all characters sound the same – your inner voice.

When readers decode fiction they can reconstruct the scene in an infinite number of ways.  I tend to think most of us readers don’t do a lot of decoding, but merely grab the basic information to move the story forward and rush on to the next fact. I have met people who claimed to see novels acted out in their heads, but I don’t.

However, when I listen to an audio book read by a great narrator, I do. It’s like a book is a freeze-dried drama and the narrator is the water that reconstitutes the story. I think this is true because the audiobook goes at a very slow pace, the pace of speech. That gives my mind time to feel the words which triggers images. Finally, the professional reader colors the narration with a rich reading voice that adds addition textures.

Benford is not a great literary writer, but Timescape is far more literary than most science fiction novels. Timescape won several awards and has been added to many best book lists. I think it succeeded because it stand outs among other science fiction novels as better written and more character driven. It also stands out because of its serious extrapolation and speculation – it’s not your typical sci-fi escapism. And I feel listening to Timescape magnifies its higher qualities beyond what I was able to perceive by just reading the book with my inner voice – which is quite plain.

As a person who’d love to write fiction, I hear in Benford’s story what I’m missing in my own writing. The details I notice under the magnification of audio narration reveal qualities in writing I aspire to acquire. I think listening to audio books can be a superior way of decoding fiction. I wonder how blind people running their fingers across the Braille page compare what they take in by touch to what they hear with their finally tuned ears. Thousands of years ago when humanity transitioned from an oral culture to a written culture, I wonder if they missed what went away when they started reading silently.

As a lifelong book worm I’ve been conditioned to seeing words, but now I’m learning what it means to hear them.

JWH

Would You Go To Mars?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 6, 2014

Have you ever wanted to go to Mars?  Probably not, but if you have, have you ever wondered why? What’s the appeal of leaving Earth and traveling to another planet? Over 200,000 people signed up for Mars One, which hopes to start sending four people to Mars every two years starting in 2024, in one way missions. NASA is talking about manned missions to Mars in the 2030s. China also has its sights on Mars.

Why do so many people want to go to Mars?  At National Geographic I found this short film, which interviews five people that are volunteering for the Mars One mission, even though it means not coming back.

Are these five people just unhappy with their life on Earth, and hope to find something new on Mars?  I think that’s how I was in my teens, back in the 1960s, when I used to dream of going to Mars. I read a lot of science fiction, and I guess I was seduced by the romance of adventure and excitement. The trouble is my personality type isn’t suited for adventure and excitement. I recently wrote “When I Was A Martian” about growing up thinking like these people in the film.

I can’t imagine Mars One succeeding before NASA or China, but I guess it’s possible. If there were ten times as many volunteers for Mars One, two million people wanting to go, all willing to donate one hundred dollars a month to the cause, that would generate enough private money to fund such an ongoing space mission. But would the lucky four who got to go to Mars be just average people like in the film, or would Mars One pick the right stuff astronauts like NASA? What if Mars One astronauts were chosen by lottery? What if ordinary people could go to Mars – would you go? When I was a kid, I would have said yes. For most of my life now I would have said no.

Orion_with_ATV_SM

NASA’s new space transport, the Orion, is designed for trips to the IIS, the Moon, asteroids and Mars, but somehow I can’t believe it’s big enough for trips further than the Moon. It only has 316 cubic feet of living space. A 10x10x8 foot room has 800 cubic feet, so can you imagine living over year with three other people in the space of a small bedroom? I can understand a spacecraft that size for a three day journey to the Moon, but not an 8 month journey to Mars, or similar length to an asteroid. Of course, it will be combined with other modules for longer trips, but I can’t imagine them being huge and roomy.

Orion_docked_to_Mars_Transfer_Vehicle

Russians and Americans have lived in space for over a year on space stations, but they have a good bit more room and variety of habitat modules. That makes me wonder, just how big does a mission to Mars spacecraft have to be to make it psychologically comfortable? What would be the most limited accommodations you could handle for a mission that could last 400-450 days.

Men and woman have sailed non-stop solo around the world in trips that were almost a year, living in cabins that about about the size of the Orion spacecraft. But only certain kinds of people have that kind of mental make-up for such solitary sailing. Which would you prefer, being a solo astronaut, or be crammed in a can with three other people for an eight month voyage to Mars? If I went with other people I’d need my own private living space, but then I doubt I have the right stuff.

I’m 63, so a one way trip to Mars doesn’t scare me.  Sounds like a better way to die than getting cancer or Alzheimer’s. But the Mars One volunteers who are interviewed in the film are young people who have every reason to stay on Earth. I wonder if they would really go if they got the opportunity.

There’s a kind of Ponzi scheme to Mars One.  They hope to send four people every two years, but after ten years they’d have twenty people on Mars. How many supply rockets will it take to keep those people alive? At what point could the colonists become self-sufficient? How many supply rockets will it take to build a self-sufficient infrastructure? When people aren’t selected to go, will they lose interest, stop donating money and strand the early settlers?

After we see people living on Mars, and what life would be like there, will people change their minds? I can’t believe the reality of life on Mars will be that appealing. Once a one-way program for colonizing Mars is started, ending the program means a death sentence to all the colonists. The ethical thing to do is build a self-sufficient colony first, with robots, and when it’s obvious that a human viable colony on Mars could survive, then ship the volunteers.

I bet if you wait until 2024 and asked these five people in the film if they still wanted to go to Mars they’d say no. People who are really willing to be astronauts are also willing to work their whole life towards that goal with an almost single-minded devotion.  And even among professional astronauts, I’m not sure how many would even commit to a 2-3 year mission. The failure rate of unmanned Mars missions is around fifty percent.

I’m not sure how many people actually would give up their Earthly lives for living in space.  Mars, the Moon, asteroids, the outer moons, they are all just rocks, with lots of radiation and intense cold. I think science fiction has oversold space travel. I think we will travel to the other planets, and maybe even colonize the Moon and Mars, but only very unique individuals are going to go, and even rarer folks will stay. I don’t think people who dream of traveling into space really understand what it means to leave Earth for good.

JWH

Why Do Millions of Americans Side with Capital Against Labor When It’s Not In Their Best Interest?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 5, 2014

I just finished The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, about automation. I had an insight in the middle of the night. We are political polarized by defining everything in terms of Republican and Democrat, or conservative and liberal, but the real division is still between capital and labor. Capital is the population that make their money my manipulating wealth. Labor is the population that make their money by working. There is a gray area, the portion of the population that labor by managing capital’s wealth. Even though we claim to live in a democracy, we actually live in a plutocracy. Most everything in our society is determined by money.

Sometimes I think people pick their political parties like they pick their football teams – emotionally.  They stick by them thick on thin, right or wrong, always the loyal fan. However, politics is more than just one team against another. Politics defines how we live, and it seems strange to me that so many Americans are Republicans even though that party’s goals don’t line up with their economic lifestyles.

We essentially have a strict two party system, even though independent parties show up from time to time. We divide ourselves into conservatives and liberals, but those really aren’t apt descriptions.  It’s really capital versus labor. Economics is  the driving force of our society. There are societies that are shaped by other forces, like religion, but in the 21st century, most societies are shaped by money.

Even before the Industrial Revolution, we had the wealthy, usually the aristocratic, governing the poor, usually peasants. With the coming of machines, we had the rise of the middle class – merchants, skilled trades, academics, clergy, etc.  As industry transformed society it broke down into essentially two driving forces: capital and labor. Some people had the money to do things, and other people had the skills to do things. People with money always assumed they were in charge because they financed the doing of things, but without the skills and labor of workers, nothing would have gotten done.

Because of automation, capital is now in the position of undermining the inherent leverage of labor. Capital is no longer dependent on hiring people to work, they can buy machines instead. Because of this, we’ve been seeing the erosion of labor power.  Politically though, why are we seeing so many millions of people who should be siding with labor siding with capital? I find this psychological conundrum very interesting.

Capital is those who invest. Labor is those who work. Except for their 401k savings, most people in America have little capital to invest. So why do they side with capital politically? Right now capital is on a role to crush labor by lowering wages in every sector it can, and to reduce the size of the government. This adds to capital’s total wealth on two fronts.  It’s understandable why they want to do this, except it’s destroying the middle class, which is the main generator of their capital.

So why are the laborers of America backing capital in their own self destruction? The plutocracy of America actually works through both parties, Republicans and Democrats, but they favor the Republican party as their main tool. However, there’s not enough true capitalists in America to give the Republican party the numbers to survive in the democratic process, so capital started working on coalitions.  Divide and conquer.  They have broken labor up into different social groups and pitted them against each other.

By backing hot button emotional issues like fundamental religion, race, xenophobia, and hatred of freeloading, they have gained millions fans for their team. What makes me wonder is why those people side with capital when it’s obvious they should side with labor. Is it a kind of denial of reality? Or is it a kind of wish, that they hope one day to be rich too, so they side with the rich now?

Capital is working extremely hard to squeeze every last penny from the system. They want workers to earn the bare minimum, and they want to pay the least possible in benefits. Conversely, they don’t want to pay taxes that help labor survive the shortfall. If people can’t make a living from capitalism, and they can’t make a living from socialism, where does capital expect labor to earn its bread?

We have over 330 million people in this country, and the number of jobs is shrinking. Capital is embracing automation with a passion, which means even fewer jobs for the future. Capital is close to destroying all unions and collective bargaining by labor. But they are also working hard to undermine professional workers too. K-12 teachers are on a rout, but capital, through state legislatures are now finding ways to attack higher education. Capital is also trying to find ways to pay professionals in medicine and law less too. And once glamorous high paying jobs like airline pilots are seeing their average salaries in decline because of automation.  If capital could replace all the fast food workers with robots, they would. And if the service economy goes, where will labor be?

Capital is so greedy they ignore the fact that a fat middle class generates the most capital for them, yet their goal is to kill the golden goose.  Nor will they allow socialism to take up the slack. Were will that leave labor?

Thomas Piketty, who wrote Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century suggests there will be social revolution.  That’s a nasty fix to the problem. There is a growing underground economy, but I don’t know if a capital-free economy can ever become large enough to sustain the growing unemployment of labor. The system is self-correcting. If capital gets all the marbles, things will fall apart, and our society will reset like a video game. But who wants that?

I think the solution is limitations on capital, supplemented with limited socialism. That’s what we’ve been doing since the 1930s, but capital has been fighting tooth and claw to undo it.  Capital should allow a higher minimum wage, and support universal health care.  In other words, if capital bought off labor to a degree they could avoid a revolution. I don’t think they will. Capital is too single minded. That’s why they are against immigration reform, Obamacare, social security, Medicare, education, and any other pile of money they can’t control. Capital wants every last penny.

The people behind capital make their living by piling up money – that’s why they resent government handouts and welfare – why should anyone live without capital or laboring? Yet, they are rigging the system so socialism is the only humane solution. If the 1% get all the pennies, the system will collapse. I don’t know why they don’t see that, in the same way I wonder why labor votes with capital.

The 99% need to survive somehow. They have to divvy up a portion of the pie. How small that portion gets before the next American revolution begins is yet to be determined. The last recession got us close enough to see the whites of their eyes. Nations all over the world are coming apart. Capital needs to take notice. Just because you can replace labor with machines doesn’t mean those people go away.

JWH