Is Science Fiction Wrong About Space Travel?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2015

A good case could be made that science fiction inspired space travel. Few people contemplate space travel without exposure to science fiction. Science fiction is so embedded in our culture that it would be very rare to find a young child that doesn’t know about science fictional ideas. Traveling to other worlds is science fiction’s most successful concept, and believing humanity’s future involves exploring the final frontier is practically wired in our genes.

What if science fiction is wrong about space travel? What if manned space travel to the planets and other star systems is just impractical? What if the final frontier is just a big fantasy? After one big leap we’ve chosen not to go anywhere for over forty years. What does that say? The more we learn about how dangerous it is for humans living off Earth, and how long they’d have to travel to get anywhere, it seems more and more practical to stay home and send machines.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s science fiction was all about space travel. Kids today embrace dystopian stories set on Earth. Has there already been a psychic shift by the young? Do the kids growing up today no longer see space travel in their future? Have young people decided that space travel is only appealing to geologists and robots?

I saw Interstellar for the second time last night, and although I really loved the film, it was all too obvious that it’s a fantasy on the same order as those offered by religion and children’s stories. This made me wonder if science fiction can envision humans living millions of years on Earth without going anywhere. I think it’s possible to send people into space, even to the stars, but will we?

Humans aren’t very farsighted, otherwise we wouldn’t be destroying the Earth. We’re big on fantasies, and small on reality. Is The Game of Thrones a better oracle about future humanity than Star Trek? Is science fiction wrong about space travel?

What if we don’t go to Heaven or Alpha Centauri? What if Earth is our final destination? The faithful give meaning to their lives by believing in Heaven, and many humanists found meaning in the final frontier. If we never leave Earth, can we find meaning staying home?

JWH

Should I Buy An iMac?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, May 23, 2015

I regularly use the following computer applications: Chrome, Outlook, Windows Live Writer, Word, Spotify, Photoshop, Xmind and Excel – pretty much in that order. The application I spend most of my writing time in is Windows Live Writer, a tool for writing blogs. Microsoft has not updated Live Writer since 2012, and it looks like it will be abandoned when Windows 10 rolls out.

I’ve been using a personal computer since 1979. My life since then has been one long history of learning new programs, getting attached to them, and then having them ripped away from me. This pisses me off. Windows Live Writer is considered by most reviewers as the best blog editor by far. I now need to decide if I want to cling to Windows 7, or upgrade to Windows 10. Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for its first year, that’s a huge enticement to switch.

iMac

The obvious solution is to start using the web based editor built into the WordPress. I’ve spent years using Live Writer, so that’s going to be a painful. I’ve been looking at reviews of other standalone applications for blog editing, and nothing comes close to the web application WordPress offers.

Is the lesson here to give up on local applications altogether and switch to web applications? I just bought a Chromebook and that’s also forcing me to work in the cloud. But if I do switch to all web apps, then it won’t matter what computing platform I use – Windows, Mac, Linux or Chrome. Does that also tell us something about the future? These changes could portend big changes down the road.

I decided to stick with Windows because of Windows Live Writer. For years I’ve thought about buying an iMac. That urge became a craving when that beautiful 27″ 5k iMac came out. But I’d always think, “What about Windows Live Writer?” Nothing is stopping me now.

Yet, I have to wonder, “Why buy a Mac?” If I do everything inside Chrome, why care about an OS? Won’t it be overkill? Does the OS x or Windows 10 even matter? If I buy an iMac, won’t it just become a very expensive Chromebook?

Will we stop buying computer programs like we’ve stopped by music CDs? I already subscribe to Office 365. I mainly do it for Word and Outlook, both of which are free if you use the web versions. The free version also includes Excel. Google Docs has me covered too, for those programs. And I’m sure I could find web applications for the other programs I use.

The two programs I’d miss the most are Live Writer and Outlook. I’m writing this post in the WordPress web app, and it’s not bad. I could adjust to it if I had to. Is this the future of personal computing? Are computers just going to become different sized screens with the operating system becoming invisible? I understand why Microsoft is pushing so hard to get market share with its phone and tablet. Since I have an iPhone and iPad, why shouldn’t my next computer be an iMac? Microsoft really should have kept supporting Windows Live Writer.

Hold on though. If the need for Windows and OS X is disappearing, why do we need iOS and Android? Is it possible to have a future where we buy phones, tablets and desktops without reference to the operating system? When we buy a television we don’t think about how it does its magic.

JWH

The Future of Books

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Here’s my conundrum, do I keep The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel by Johnny Rogan, or give it away. This 1988 book revised in 2008 has 735 pages about the The Byrds, my favorite music group from the 1960s. Rogan has since updated this book in 2011 to a 1216 page monster, that’s just the first volume of a trilogy. I read the 2008 edition with much delight, spending several evenings in an orgy of nostalgia, playing my old Byrds albums as I read about how each was created. I kept the book thinking I’d reread it. Was that a mistake? Is the knowledge in books changing so fast that there’s little reason to save them?

The-Byrds---Johnny-Rogan

The edition I have is quite exhaustive in its scope. But if I wanted to read about The Byrds again, shouldn’t I read the latest definitive work? Why have I saved this book for seven years? It’s still a great read, and maybe it’s all I need to know about The Byrds.

Books have become a physical burden. I had a friend who claimed to own every book he ever read. Can you imagine the Sisyphean task of dragging a library behind you everywhere you went? That would be a snap if they were ebooks. Or if I lived in one house my whole life. Or if knowledge wasn’t changing so fast.

This book represents another kind of burden, a psychological burden. We experience life one moment at a time, yet most of us cling to all those past moments. Not only do I want to save my memories of The Bryds, but retain a book that collects all the group member memories. That’s kind of weird when you think about it.

We exist in a transitional time. We’re very close to having all our external memories online. What if The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel  was a website that grew as Rogan wrote and researched? The multimedia aspects of the web could greatly expand its potential. Personal and public libraries wouldn’t be burdened with lending and storing the book. And it would be available to all instantly.

I can also see the content this book incorporated into Wikipedia. What if all knowledge was hyperlinked into one book? What if the history of The Byrds was written by anyone who cared about their history? What if all memoirs, interviews, photos, bootlegs, videos, etc. were at one location, and hyperlinked by a carefully crafted narrative of dedicated editors?

We now serialize history with the latest definitive book. What if history lived on the web as an ongoing collective project? Is moving towards such a hive mind existence scary? How much time do you spend reading the web versus reading books? How often do we get facts from iPhones?

Can you imagine books in the future? Are they changing so fast that it’s not worth collecting them?

I’ve always been a lover of books. I hoard and collect them. But I’m starting to wonder if I only need to own one book, the one I’m reading.

JWH

Tidying Up My Music Collection Using the KonMari Method

Marie Kondo, the guru of tidy, preaches, “Discard anything that doesn’t spark joy.” I’ve been buying music CDs for over thirty years and my collection is a huge mess. I definitely don’t love all the albums I own. There’s always the conflict between collecting and playing. Like all hoarders, I tell myself that one day I will want to play this album. Well, I have albums I haven’t played for a quarter century. I bought Marie Kondo’s the life-changing magic of tidying up because she talks about sorting through books. I figured the same approach applied to albums. This issue is further complicated by the fact that nine-five percent of the time when I play music, it’s via Spotify.

Six key issues to consider:

  • Does owning compact discs spark great joy?
  • Do I find great joy in the high fidelity of compact discs?
  • Do I find great joy in the album or the song?
  • What sparks the deepest joy in collecting albums?
  • How does digital libraries affect the philosophy of tidying up?
  • How many albums is too many?

 

Exif JPEG

 

Does owning compact discs spark great joy?

Streaming music services like Spotify offer gigantic music libraries for a low monthly subscription. Why bother keeping my thousand albums when I have instant access to millions? Kondo says we should only own things that bring us joy. Is the physical container of music something that brings us joy? Even though I’ve put the price of a SUV into my music collection, is it still worth keeping? Does the whole collection have sentimental value, or just parts of it?

Kondo tells us “The criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it.” Does a CD have some kind of emotional physical value? Is a favorite song less meaningful to my life if it streams through my Roku rather than plays on my CD player? To be honest, I don’t have any physical attraction to my CDs. I was quite sentimental over my LPs when I bought them back in the 1960s and 1970s, but when I started buying CDs in the 1980s, they never acquired that aura of emotional objects.

If I knew I could always have access to the same music I own through renting I’d get rid of all my CDs. Because I don’t have that assurance, I want to keep all my albums that I treasure. Yet, what do I treasure when its not the physical object? Is it all the songs on an album, or just special ones?

Some albums bring me great joy. Some albums are keys to memories. I need to save those keys.

Compact discs were always too small to enjoy visually, and their booklets were always too hard to read. They succeeded because of convenience and sound quality. Streaming music is even more convenient, but the sound quality isn’t quite the same.

 

The Allman Brothers Band At Filmore East

 

Do I Find Great Joy in the High Fidelity of Compact Discs?

One of the main reasons to keep compact discs is their high fidelity. This only matters when I’m sitting in my den and I’m listening to music in the same way I concentrate on a movie at the theater. Otherwise, 320kbps streaming files are fine. However, there are times when I want as much sonic detail as I can get. The other day I read One Way Out,  a history of the Allman Brothers. It inspired me to get out my Allman Brothers albums that I haven’t played in a decade. Once again I was back to listening so intently just to distinguish Duane from Dicky.  Listening with intense concentration to  every instrument begs to have the fidelity to create a large soundstage that showcases every musician’s performance.

Until Tidal, all subscription services used highly compressed files that have less fidelity than compact discs. And there are other digital formats that offer great fidelity than CDs. Unfortunately they involve buying digital files I’d have to maintain, and that’s a kind of clutter that’s more difficult to manage than physical clutter.

When it comes right down to it, the essential reason to own a compact disc is because I want to have it forever. I don’t want to ever lose access to some songs. Second in importance is to have the highest fidelity possible. I’m going to assume that future streaming will involve higher fidelity. But I can’t assume Spotify or its competitors will always have a license to stream my most cherished memories.

 

Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan

 

Do I Find Great Joy in the Album or the Song?

Most of the albums I bought in my life were because of one song. Few albums spark joy in their entirety. Blonde on Blonde, even though it’s a double album, in one I embrace in its wholeness. It’s a complete work of art. As I study what Kondo is trying to teach me, a philosophy of how to live with objects and always keep them in their place, I push myself to understand why I love certain things. When dealing with albums and books, I’m really judging them as containers of art. The art is priceless, but the containers are just that.

Compact discs are storage bins for music. Spotify is another kind of storage bin. Contemplating this tidying-up issue, I realize there are two kinds of music containers – one which I never want to lose no matter what. That involves keeping the album. Songs, on the other hand, which appear in various other kinds of containers – best of albums, anthologies, singles, soundtracks, etc, are much easier to rent through Spotify.

I’ve always loved the 1965 hit single “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. Yet, I’ve never been without a copy. I’ve had it on 45, LP and CD in various collections. Now I stream it. And I believe it will always be on streaming. I recently owned the original LP album it appeared on, but it was an old beat up copy I got for 50 cents. When I cleaned out all my LPs I gave it to the library because it was the only song on the album I liked. There was no sentimental reason to be attached to the LP.

When I ask myself if a CD/LP sparks joy, it can’t be just for one song – unless that song is nowhere else. “Song for Our Ancestors” by the Steve Miller Band, off their Sailor album, is the only song that sparks Kondo joy. Actually, it’s the only Steve Miller Band song that unlocks a memory. It’s not available on streaming. I have to save that CD if I want to always have access to “Song for Our Ancestors.” If that song had been on a Best of Steve Miller Band album, I wouldn’t save Sailor.

This also makes me ask: Should I save Best Of albums? Hits are the one type of song I can depend on Spotify to always have. Hit songs are constantly repackaged, anthologized and put on soundtracks. Hits are frequently heard on radio and Pandora.

 

Sailor---Steve-Miller-Band

 

What Is The Deepest Joy In Collecting Albums?

I love to visit someone’s home and look through their shelves of books, music and movies. When we collect, we create the fingerprint of our pop culture soul. The albums I want to save are the ones that define me. Not because I want my friends to see them, even thought I dig when they do, but because I want to define myself to me. My shelves of books, movies and albums should be a mirror for self-examination. Growing up, I tried to define myself by the size of my library, but now the only thing that matters is what each work of art reveals about myself. When I play an album I love it’s an act of meditation.

 

After Bathing at Baxters - Jefferson Airplane

 

How Does Digital Libraries Affect Tidying Up?

It’s quite easy to part with albums that I know are on Spotify. Do I learn the same lesson from giving them away if I knew I couldn’t listen to them again online? Because of Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Audible, Kindle and Scribd I now buy fewer books, albums and movies. My pile of digital clutter grows and grows, but it’s out of sight. Can I still derive the psychological rewards of being tidy that Kondo promises if I have an invisible pile of possession in the cloud?

If every book, movie and album was on Scribd, Netflix and Spotify, I could just own nothing, and just think of all those works in someone else’s library. Then it would be Scribd, Netflix and Spotify’s problem for keeping things tidy. I could reduce my home library to a chair and iPad for Zen like simplicity. I could paint the walls white, wear white clothes, and sit in my room reading and listening to music in my tidy personal Shangri-La.

 

Horses - Patti Smith

 

How Many Albums Is Too Many?

After a lifetime of buying thousands of albums, I realized I no longer listen to most of them. When I retired I had about 1,600 CDs and hundreds of LPs. Two years of culling and I’m down to about 900 CDs and 50 LPs. Soon, I’ll be down to less than 500 CDs and no LPs. Yet, I expect my collection to keep shrinking. 500 is still too many. Kondo tells her clients to have a goal in mind. My goal is to have a library of albums I absolutely adore. I can’t even remember what I own. That’s not special. It’s like having more children than you can remember their names.

When I first retired, I realized I could have become a record collector because I was buying used LPs and CDs five or ten at a time. However, the convenience of Spotify has spoiled me. I only get out a CD when I’m in the mood to thoroughly focus on the music. And that tends to be for albums I really love – the ones I want to play straight through. What I’ve learned from fifty years of buying music is most of what I bought hasn’t been memorable.

I had a friend, John Williamson, who died back in the 1990s. John was crazy about music. Before he died, he told me he had gotten down to listening to just Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. My sphere of music is shrinking too. To maintain a vitality for life you have to maintain as many interests as you can. Yet, getting old means learning to live with less, and as we age, the amount we can handle dwindles. Two years from now I might still love 300 albums. If I live to 80, I might just cherish a 100. I believe John died young because he got down to only two musicians. I wonder who he was hearing when he left this world? Benny or Duane.

I’ve been playing Blonde on Blonde for half a century. Will it be playing when I fade out of existence?

Some of my younger friends fear this trend. They see losing interest in things once loved as a bad sign, but I see a positive angle in my declining years. As my record collection shrinks I get to know what’s left better. It’s a musical tontine.

Music is like a drug that energizes me. If I’m feeling down, music can lift me up. Music hyperlinks me to people and events. Music anchors my memories. It’s terribly sad when I play an album I bought long ago and can’t remember why, when or where I bought it, nor remember any of the songs. That’s an area of my garden I neglected and now it’s patchy with dirt and weeds. What’s best is to let another album expand into that space. I think shrinking my collection as pruning.

 

The Body Wins - Sarah Jaffe

Using Spotify has taken away the incentive to buy new CDs, but I do on rare occasions. I still discover new artists on Spotify, and when I find one I want to keep forever, I buy their CD. For instance I’ve bought the last three CDs of Sarah Jaffe. I don’t think I will ever get so old that I’ll stop adding albums to the library of music that defines me.

Nor, have I found all the replacement CDs from the past LPs I loved. The last LP replacement I bought was Shady Grove by Quicksilver Messenger Service – an album I’ve been waiting for a decade to come to subscription music. I finally gave up and bought it. I bought it the first time in 1970 as an LP. It had just one song I loved, “Edward, (The Mad Shirt Grinder)” I couldn’t get on Spotify.

Another positive purpose in culling albums is it gives me purposeful activity. Being retired, and having all my time free, requires a knack for keeping busy. I should be outside tending to a real garden, but I’m not that kind of guy. I’d rather tend a sound garden, or make up metaphors about one.

Shady Grove - Quicksilver Messenger Service

Since 1965 I figured I’ve bought between 2,500 and 3000 albums in my life. That’s about 2,600 weeks ago, so call it an album a week on average. Although for many years, I averaged four albums a week. I started out with LPs and 45s, but eventually bought mostly CDs. The way music is delivered has changed a lot in my lifetime. I mainly skipped the cassette and 8-track phase, but I did dip into SACDs and iTunes singles. I pretty much went from CDs to streaming music, which is where I’m at now. I could go to Spotify for all my listening, but I still want to own a album collection. I’ve had one since I was thirteen, so I can’t stop now.

In the heart of Marie Kondo’s book is the lesson to save what you cherish. I’m on a journey to discovery those albums I truly love most – and defining that library sparks joy.

JWH

Why Writing Dates Older Science Fiction Rather Than Science

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 7, 2015

If you live long enough you can watch science fiction evolve. Most fans automatically assume that it’s the advancement of science that spoils older science fiction, but I disagree. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny is downright silly when it comes to science, but I still love the hell out of that story. It’s my contention that writing dates older science fiction, and not the science.

The War of the Worldsthree-body-cover

I just finished reading The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, a sophisticated 21st century science fiction novel from China. Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker called Cixin “China’s Arthur C. Clarke.” I’ve read others who have given Cixin that tag too. Clarke wrote some exciting science fiction back in the 20th century, but The Three-Body Problem storytelling dwarfs anything Clarke wrote. Clarke wasn’t much of a writer, and no stylist at all. His characters were chess pieces used to fictionally illustrate his scientific prophecies.  Isaac Asimov wasn’t much better. Heinlein had some writing chops, decent enough in the 1950s, but his later works devolved into solipsistic characters all chatting amongst themselves.

The prose of The Three-Body Problem is refined in ways older science fiction writers never imagined. One way to understand why, is to read another essay by Joshua Rothman, “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate.” Rothman uses an idea by the critic Northrop Frye to explain the evolution of fiction over time. Frye believed four genres exist: novel, romance, anatomy and confession. Most science fiction and fantasies are romances. Back in the 19th century before the term science fiction existed, science fiction was called scientific romances. What we call literary, Frye calls novel. Satire, social commentary, philosophy is what goes into anatomy. Confession is autobiographical. The best fiction combines three or four of Frye’s genres. The best of 1950s science fiction combined romance and anatomy. The better 21st century science fiction writers combine novel, romance and anatomy. Ulysses by James Joyce is considered a novel that combines all four forms.

Gray_lensmanLeckie_AncillaryJustice_TP

I’m in a 1950s science fiction reading group and we’re discovering that most of the books now considered classics of the genre are rather poorly written. Many, are becoming almost unreadable.  But that writing was light-years beyond the  science fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s. E. E. “Doc” Smith is painful to read today. I’m worried that my favorite SF books from the 1950s and 1960s will cause young readers today to cringe at its creakiness.

Part of the clunky factor of older science fiction was the poor writing standards of that era. SF editors of the time were not very discerning, and most SF writers wrote quickly to pay bills. Much of the stuff being published in the 1950s came from 1930s and 1940s pulps, and most of the original SF written in the 1950s was slapped together for cheap paperback publishers.

Genre SF tended to focus on the fantastic, the adventure, and were all romance in Frye’s terminology. The trouble is, the fantasies of one generation eventually fail for future generations. To last, a book needs elements of the novel and anatomy by Frye’s definitions.  Modern readers will find E. E. “Doc” Smith’s romances silly today. They were pure romance, crudely written. His books might still work for people who enjoy a comic book level of fictional reality, but not for anyone who enjoys the richness of modern fantastic literature.

Rocket-to-the-Morgue Ready Player One

Goodreads has a nice listing of Best Science Fiction of the 21st Century. At the top of the list is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Cline’s exciting and fun story is still not a literary masterpiece by snooty New York literary types, but it is better written and told than most 20th century science fiction. It’s not brilliant like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but then George Orwell wasn’t a genre novelist. Nor does Cline attempt a distinctive style like Samuel R. Delany, J. G. Ballard or Ursula K. Le Guin began doing for SF back in the 1960s. Cline just uses all the good writing practices that modern writers use today. Cline’s novel is fun and speaks to a 21st century audience that remembers the 1980s. I grew up reading Heinlein and Bradbury, writers shaped by their personal experiences of the 1930s and 1940s. Since science fiction tends to be about the future, younger writers are both more savvy about the future, and better trained as writers. They have decades of better novels to study, and they probably graduated from  writer workshops like Clarion, or even attend MFA programs.

Forbidden-Planetex-machina-poster

The exciting aspects of The Three-Body Problem still involve science fictional concepts that have been around since the 19th century, but with new 21st century twists. Just being able to integrate computer networks, the world wide web and computer games into a story gives 21st century science fiction a huge advantage over 20th century science fiction.  But I don’t think that’s why Cixin novel is better. His plot is elegantly complex. His characters, although not great by modern literary standards, are far more engaging than what we encountered in most 20th century science fiction. But most of all, he knows how to weave far more information into his fiction without doing infodumps. Older writers often stopped their story to just narrate information they wanted their readers to know. Newer writers know how to paint the background while keeping the story going.

Certainly the Ex Machina robot Ava beats the hell out of Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet in both looks and AI mind power. But if you watch the old movie today it creaks. Ex Machina deals with the complexity of artificial intelligence so adroitly that it’s narrative creates a thrilling fictional mystery that even people who have no interest in AI can engage. That was also true for The Imitation Game. Good modern writers can take even the most abstract subject and make it into a compelling story.

a case of consciencesparrow_cover

It’s surprising how quickly old science fiction develops a patina of quaintness.  And for any theme within science fiction, we can see evolutionary development over time. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell from 1996 is far more sophisticated at exploring religion and first contact than 1958’s A Case of Conscience by James Blish. More than that, her story is told with far more skill. I expect the next science fiction writer to take a swing at the subject will supplant the other two for a couple decades. And that’s the nature of writing science fiction. We’ve been rewriting the old science fiction ideas since H. G. Wells. New writers have to top old writers. If they don’t, readers will just keep reading the old favorites. Sure science advances, but writing seems to be advancing faster. Otherwise, how could we keep telling alien invasion stories over and over?

Earth_AbidesStation Eleven

Sometimes an old book is just as good or better than a modern equivalent exploring the same theme. Station Eleven is beautiful written, but it doesn’t have the insight into after the apocalypse that Earth Abides revealed to readers in 1949. Both are great novels. And here’s the case for young people to read older novels. Not everything from the past suffers literary decay. Earth Abides can still take on a recent heavy-weight like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. George R. Stewart wasn’t writing from inside the SF genre. And many of the powerful science fiction books that survive from that era turn out to be written by non-genre writers.  Two other examples are On the Beach by Neville Shute and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Fifty years from now, future readers will probably be reading The Time Travel’s Wife by Auddrey Niffenneggar rather than any time travel stories from Asimov’s Science Fiction or Analog.

I believe most of the old classic science fiction from the 20th century that’s still in print is because of nostalgic rereading. Baby boomers and millennials push their favorite books onto their children and grand children, and keep them in print. Very few great science fiction novels from mid-20th century remain relevant today. A story like Earth Abides by George R. Stewart still works because a world-wide plague that kills off 99.99% of the population can still happen. But 1950s interplanetary adventures and galactic empires just seem silly today, like a Buck Rodgers serial did to me in the 1960s.

Post Hubble Space Telescope astronomy has made the cosmos light up in IMAX Technicolor so old science fiction seems like old black and white movies. Yet, that’s not the reason why those old novels are becoming forgotten. It’s the writing. Not the science. I’m not sure any of the nine novels selected by the Library of America as the best of 1950s science fiction will survive. My friend Mike claims The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester is just as fresh today as it was in the 1950s. That’s because of Bester’s skill at writing. In the last few years I’ve reread A Case of Conscience, The Long Tomorrow, Double Star, The Space Merchants and More Than Human, I tried to read Who? and The Big Time. I’m sorry, but these books just don’t stack up to what I’m reading today.

flowers for algernonevolution of bruno littlemore

One of the challenges facing older science fiction fans reading modern science fiction is the trend for literary writers to invade our genre. Literary novels are slower in pace and more wordy, so fans of older action oriented pulp fiction can find the newer stories plodding. But I encourage them to try and adapt. One reason why Flowers for Algernon is still loved and read today is because Daniel Keyes was a good writer and introducing literary techniques to the genre fifty years ago.

Every decade or two I’ll reread my favorite science fiction books I grew up reading. Sometimes I find a nostalgic glow of rediscovery and sometimes I find a scary sensation of surprised disbelief that I ever loved this story. Because the words in the books don’t change I have to worry that it’s me that’s gone through some kind of cynical transformation. As teenagers we find books that are easy and exciting to read. We don’t have much life experience or critical wisdom. Most of us at that age read whatever we stumble upon. We can bond and imprint on books that are terrible examples of writing. Then as we grow older, and read widely, we get exposed to better writing and writers. We may love our old raggedy stories, but eventually they become toys we need to put away.

JWH

Rethinking Cord Cutting

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 4, 2015

Because Microsoft has decided to kill off Windows Media Center starting with Windows 10, and I plan to upgrade to Windows 10 on all my machines because it will be free the first year, I will lose my homemade DVR. Using a PC to record TV shows from over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts takes a good deal more work than using the DVR that comes with a cable box. But if you want to give up paying for cable and still record TV shows to watch later, you need something like Windows Media Center to do the job.

antenna

Microsoft’s decision is forcing me to rethink my whole cord cutting approach to television, because I don’t want to go back to Xfinity or U-verse. Basically there are two modes for watching TV:

  • Live – by the schedule
  • Recorded – on demand

Cord cutter means getting TV from the internet or over-the-air broadcasts. Anyone accustomed to using a DVR will feel imprisoned by watching TV live again. Living around the TV schedule is so 20th century. That’s why I had to build my own DVR with Windows Media Center. DVRs let us save TV shows to watch later, skip commercials, pause, and scroll back to replay.

If I give up Windows Media Center I will have to learn to live without a DVR or find another solution.

I hate commercials, so I love skipping over them with a DVR. I could bypass commercials altogether if I gave up broadcast TV and got all my shows from the Roku. Without a DVR I wouldn’t watch broadcast TV. That’s not a possible solution for my wife though. She works out of town, but when she comes home for the weekend she loves TV. She splits her viewing between Netflix and tuning into AntennaTVMeTV, and Movies! – local channels targeted to cheap-ass baby-boomer cord cutters. I should confess I’ve become addicted to watching the old westerns on Grit TV. OTA broadcast channels seem to be popping up all the time, and strangely enough I find more to watch now than when I had cable. Sort of sad, to be stuck in a retro-TV-land, but it reminds me of how TV was when I were growing up.

Yet we can’t live without that modern doohickey, the DVR.

There are other media center software programs I could install and learn to record TV shows, but I’m through with being a do-it-yourselfer. Luckily, since I built my first DVR, several OTA DVRs have come onto the market. The market leader is TiVo, with it’s Roamio OTA, but there’s also ChannelMaster’s DVR+, Simple.TV and the multi-room networked Tablo. Until yesterday I was considering all of them except the Roamio OTA because TiVo charges $15 a month for its on-screen guide. It’s free for the DVR+, and just $4-5 a month for the other two. However, I just read that TiVo was selling it’s heavily subsidized $49 machine for $300 with unlimited access to their guide. That made me rethink the TiVo. Sadly, the $300 deal is over.The Roamio OTA is a 4-tuner device – meaning your can record up to four shows at once – and is considered the nicest to use by most reviewers. The TiVo has slick search features, as well as pause and replay controls. Those same reviewers all said they wouldn’t consider the TiVo with a $15 monthly fee. Obviously TiVo should listen, and since the other devices are already in the $300 ballpark, this could be a no-brainer decision if they offer the $300 deal again. TiVo could sell millions because their product is a broadcast TV watcher dream come true. Cord cutters are cheap, and a $15 monthly fee is too much for us cheapskates. Yet, my wife wants us to think about the TiVo because it’s DVR is equal to one you get with cable.

My current antenna is a RCA outdoor one, but it’s not great. It’s flaky in bad weather, and some channels come in much better than others. I should get a stronger antenna and put it up higher. However, I’m too old for working on my roof. I’ve been searching around Angie’s List and The Yellow Pages looking for TV antenna installers, but can’t find any. That’s annoying. With all this cord cutting going on, there’s good opportunity now for people to start a small business selling and installing antennas and OTA DVRs.

Investing in a great outdoor antenna and buying the Roamio OTA should solve my problem. I’ll be able to take the computer out of the den, and reduce the clutter in my entertainment center. Yet, there is something that urges me to cut the cord to the antenna too. We live in a TCP/IP world, so why not go completely Internet only TV?

$50, plus $15 a month will give us a deluxe broadcast TV setup. Susan and I have to think what we’re actually spending our money for though. To record the NBC Nightly News, CBS Sunday Morning, a few network TV shows we still watch, and to record a bunch of old nostalgic TV shows and movies. I would have included a long list of PBS shows I love, but I can now get them on my Roku through the PBS channel there. I could do all my TV watching through the Roku, but not Susan.

Cord cutters have given up on cable TV, but could they also  give up antenna television? Are we ready for a world with no live television? That’s weird to think about. Television is seldom truly live except for sports, news announcers showing prerecorded news and a rare live broadcast. Sport fans keep the cable companies in business. If live sports came over the Internet they’d be in real trouble. Current TCP/IP networking isn’t really suited for live broadcasting to billions, so they are safe for now. OTA TV does have a fair amount of sports. Enough for millions of cord cutters.

In ten years, maybe even five, things could be very different indeed. Think of how different our technological lives have changed since the year 2000. Should we be watching television like we did in the 1950s – with an antenna on the roof? I have to admit though, broadcast TV is still a viable solution for watching live TV, and it’s free.

JWH

Why Did The Robot in Ex Machina Look Like a Beautiful Woman?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ex Machina is a 2015 British science fiction film about artificial intelligence (AI) written and directed by Alex Garland. The story is about a billionaire  who connives to have a brilliant programmer come to a secret location to Turing Test a robot prototype. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan Bateman, the billionaire, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb Smith, the programmer, and Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the AI robot.  The film has little action but is quite thrilling. And I’m overjoyed to have a science fiction movie without silly macho weapons, fantasy feats of martial arts, and cartoonish battles to save the world.

Ex Machina asks, like computer scientists have been asking for the last sixty years, and philosophers for the last 2,500 years, what makes us human? Once we understood how evolution shaped life, we knew that whatever qualities that make us different from animals should explain our humanity. Artificial intelligence seeks to reproduce those qualities in a machine. We have yet to define and understand what makes us human, and robot engineers are far from making machines that demonstrate humanness in robots.

Although I’m going to be asking a lot of questions about Ex Machina, my questions aren’t meant to be criticisms. Ex Machina entices its audience to think very hard about the nature of artificial intelligence. I hope it makes people think of even more about the movie, like I’m doing here.

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The main idea I want to explore is why the robot had a female form. The obvious answer is movie goers find sexy females appealing. But is looking human the same as being human? AI scientists has always wondered if they could build a machine that average people couldn’t distinguished from a human, but they always planned to make the tests so Turing testers couldn’t see the humans and machines. However, in movies and books, we get to see the machine beings. Adding looks to the equations make them more complicated.

Because so many robot engineers and storytellers make their robots look like human females, we have to ask:

Would Ex Machina have the same impact if the robot had a human male shape or non-human shape? 

Is the female body the ultimate human form in our mind? In a movie that explores if a machine can have a self-aware conscious mind isn’t it cheating to make it look just like a human? Since we judge books by their covers, wouldn’t most people think a mechanical being that looks and acts exactly like beautiful woman be human? By the way, I can’t wait to see how feminists analyze this film. Imagine see this movie a different way. Instead of asking if robots have souls, if the film was asking if women had souls. In the theater, we could also see two extremely intelligent men testing to see if a beautiful woman is their equal.

By making the robots female, the filmmakers both confuse the machine intelligence issue, and add a layer of gender issues. It also shoves us into the Philip K. Dick headspace of wondering about our own nature. Is everyone you know equal to you? Do they think just like you? Do they feel just like you? Could some people we know be machines? What makes us different from a machine or animal? In the book Blade Runner was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick was comparing soulless humans to machines with his androids. Machines are his metaphor for people without empathy.

If the two scientists had been played by actresses, and the robot was a sexy actor, how would we have interpreted the movie differently? A bookshelf of dissertations could be written on that question. What are the Freudian implications of us wanting the robots to look like beautiful young women? How would society react if scientists really could build artificial mind and bodies, manufacturing millions of beautiful women sexbots that have to integrate into our society? Of course, many humans will immediate try to fuck them. But if AI machines looked like people, why should they act like people? Guys will screw blowup dolls now – is a vaguely womanly shaped piece of plastic all it takes to fool those men into replacing real woman?

How would audiences have reacted if the robots of Ex Machina looked like giant mechanical insects?

Ex Machina explores many of the questions AI scientists are still puzzling over. Personally, I think it confuses the issue for us to build intelligent machines to look like us. Yes, our minds are the gold standard by which we measure artificial intelligence, but do they need bodies that match ours?

If the robot in Ex Machina had looked like a giant metal insect would the audience ever believed it was equal to a human? We think Ava is a person right from the first time we see her. Even though it’s obvious she has a machine body, her face is so human we never think of her as a machine. This is the main flaw of the film. I understand it’s cheaper to have humans play android robots than build real robots, and people powered robots look too fake, but in the end, anything that looks human will always feel human to the audience.  Can we ever have a fair Turing Test with a creature that looks like us?

We don’t want to believe that computers can be self-aware conscious beings. Actually, I think this film would have been many magnitudes more powerful if its robot had looked a like giant mechanical insect, had a non gender specific name, and convinced us to feel it was intelligent, willful, self-aware, feeling, and growing. Which is what happened in Short Circuit (1986) with its robot Johnny Five.

The trouble is we equate true artificial intelligence with being equal to humans. Artificial Intelligence is turning out to be a bad label for the concept. Computers that play chess exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that recognize faces exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that drive cars exhibit artificial intelligence. We’ll eventually be able to build machines that can do everything we can, but will they be equal to us?

What we were shown is artificial people, and what the film was really asking:

Is it possible to create artificial souls?

Creating an artificial human body is a different goal than creating an artificial soul. We have too many humans on this planet now, so why find another way of manufacturing them? What we really want to do is create artificial beings that have souls and are better than us. That’s the real goal, even though most people are terrified at the idea.

Alan Turning invented the Imitation Game that we now call the Turing Test, but the original Turing Test might not be sufficient to identify artificial souls. We’re not even sure all people have souls of equal scope. Are the men of ISIS equal in compassion to the people who win a Nobel for Peace? We can probably create robots that kill other humans by distinguishing sectarian affiliations, but it’s doubtful we could create a robot that works to solve the Earth’s problems with compassion. If we did, wouldn’t you think it had a soul? What if we created an expert system that solved climate change, would it only be very intelligent, or would it have to have a soul?

In the end, I believe we can invent machines that can do anything we can. Eventually they will do things better, and do things we can’t. But will they have what we have, that sense of being alive? What would a machine have to do to reveal it had an artificial soul?

Can a machine have a soul?

In the course of the movie, we’re asked to believe if a robot likes a human that might mean they are human like. Eventually, we’re also led to ask if a robot hates a human, does that make them human too? Is love and hate our definition of having souls? Is it compassion? Empathy? We’ll eventually create a computer that can derive all the laws of physics. But if a machine can recreate the work of Einstein, does it make it equal to Einstein?

Ex Machina is sophisticated enough to make its audience ask some very discerning questions about AI minds. Why did Alex Garland make Ava female? Across the globe robot engineers and sex toy manufacturers are working to build life-like robots that look like sexy women. The idea of a sexbot has been around for decades. Are super-Nerds building fembots to replace the real women they can’t find through Match.com? If men could buy or rent artificial women to make their sexual fantasies come true, will they ever bother getting to know real women? Why does Nathan really build Ava?

Caleb falls for Ava. We all fall for Ava. But is that all we’re interested in – looks? If Caleb thinks Ava is a machine, especially one with no conscious mind, he will not care for her. But how much do Ava’s looks fool Caleb? How much are we fooled by other people’s looks anyway? If you fall in love with a beautiful woman just because of looks, does that justify thinking you’re in love with her?

We’re all programmed at a deeply genetic level to be social, to seek out at least one other person to bond with and develop a deeper communication. What Ex Machina explores is what features beyond the body do we need to make a connection. A new version of the Turing Test could be one in which we offer people the friendship of humans or the friendship of machines. If a majority of people start preferring to hang out with AI beings that might indicate we’ve succeeded – but again it might not. Many people find pets as suitable substitutes for human companionship. I’m worried if we gave most young men the option to marry sexbots, they might. I also picture them keeping their artificial women in a closet and only getting them out to play with for very short periods of time. Would male friends and female robots fulfill all their social needs?

Ex Machina is supposed to make us ask about what is human, but I’m worried how many males left the theater wishing they could trade in their girlfriend or wife for Ava? So is Ex Machina also asking if society will accept sexbots? Is that way Ava had a human female body?

JWH