Maximum Daily Dose of Information

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 27, 2015

Is it possible to overdose on news? We know we’re ruining our bodies by eating too much food; should we worry about overstuffing our minds? Is the internet the equivalent of mental junk food? The FDA keeps warning us we’re taking too many drugs as they learn about long-term toxicity. Modern society seems all about excess of everything. What if everything we consume, either physically or mentally, has a maximum safe dose?

By nature I’m an information junky. I want to know everything. Of course, that’s a stupid approach because we’re all choking to death on information overload. Every day I wish I could read five books and two dozen articles. If I could, I’d watch eighty hours of television. Every day I get more email than I can process in a week, so I never clean out my inbox. I know I’m not unique.

It’s going to be a while before science answers this question, but I figure there’s a limit to how much information we can process each day. Somewhere below that limit is the healthy amount to digest. And way below that level is the amount of information we remember. We piss out unabsorbed facts just like we piss out unused vitamins after taking our Centrums. How much daily information we can practically process, and better yet, how much information do we actually need to make us spiritually healthy?

Here’s a proposed theory. Information that’s good for us are facts we remember the longest. Usually that kind of knowledge is useful for living. Information we encounter today that is remembered tomorrow is of a higher quality than all that info we forgot with a good night’s sleep. And information we remember next week is superior to what we forget after two days. Anything we remember next year, or for the rest of our life, is primo wisdom.

In other words, learning something worth remembering is within the safe daily dosage. All those other fun facts are just like the yellow pee we make after taking vitamin B12 tablets. Here’s three videos. Which do you think you’ll remember a year from now.

I’m pretty sure food waste is something I’ll think about for the rest of my life because I deal with wasting food every day. I’ll probably remember the video about sharks every time I hear about a shark attack, which won’t be that often. The cute pug will be forgotten before the day is over.

I’m a bookworm. Most of the books I read are forgotten rather quickly. Probably because I read too many books. But also because I don’t try to remember them. Most people read to occupy their minds. Reading is pleasant and entertaining. Like television, it’s a rather mindless activity. Of course, most work is mindless repetition. Our minds are not IBM Watson supercomputers mining data.

I’m now rethinking the way I take in news and information. Every article, every book, every blog has a few key points that I might remember. What I want to learn is how to quickly spot works that are worthy of reading—and remembering.

Take this essay. Have I given you a concept that you’ll remember?

JWH

TiVo Roamio OTA—Cord Cutters Will Love It

By James W. Harris, Monday, July 27, 2015

Thinking about giving up cable TV but can’t imagine living without a DVR? Well, TiVo has a DVR specifically designed for over-the-air (OTA) antenna users. The TiVo Roamio OTA is cheap to buy at $49, but seems expensive to use, $15-per-month for the TiVo service. Considering that other dedicated OTA DVRs cost $300-400, it’s a wash for the first couple years. After that, the value of spending $180 a year for TiVo’s TV guide service will be determined by how much you like the TiVo. I’m quite impressed.

TiVo-Roamio-OTA 

For the last several years I’ve been using an old computer with Windows Media Center as my OTA DVR. It worked well until Microsoft changed companies that supply their online TV guide. Since Microsoft won’t support Windows Media Center in Windows 10 I decided to give the Roamio OTA a try. I’ve got to say the TiVo is far superior to Windows Media Center, and better than any cable box DVR I’ve used. The Roamio OTA is a deluxe way to be a broadcast TV user.

The Roamio OTA can record up to four TV shows at once, and can store 75 hours of HD television (more if you plug in external drive). Plus the recorded image is uncompressed, looking the same as the broadcast image. Windows Media Center heavily compresses the recorded video. And the TiVo TV tuners are far better than the computer TV tuners I was using with my PC. In fact, the TiVo tuners appear equal or better than the one in my Samsung TV.

Setup was straightforward and easy. Buy the unit. Go to TiVo’s website and register online by it’s unique serial number. Connect the Roamio OTA to power, HDMI, antenna and in my case Ethernet cable, and start using. The machine will download the TiVo guide and do updates to the software the first time you use it. Windows Media Center and all the cable box DVR’s I’ve used worked with a grid. TiVo uses a split window. On the left side is all the channels for a specific time and date, and on the right is a window showing all the future shows on a specific channel for whichever channel you have highlighted in left window. This is a different approach, but a game changer, making using the guide much easier.

Internet services

The Roamio OTA also has smart TV features built into it, much like Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV streaming boxes. Here’s where I was somewhat let down. TiVo’s interface for these services is not as easy and intuitive to use as my Roku. At first I thought I could live without my Roku most of the time and use just one box and remote for all my TV viewing. This didn’t work out. It’s a shame that TiVo didn’t contract with Roku to do their streaming services. TiVo’s implementation of these services aren’t bad, much better than my Sony Blu-Ray player. So if you don’t have a Roku box then TiVo’s streaming services will be a huge plus.

I was especially glad to see Spotify, but sadly TiVo’s implementation is clunky. The reason I switched from Rdio to Spotify is because Roku’s Spotify interface is outstanding. If the streaming TV interface was superior in TiVo, I’d consider switching from Roku to TiVo.

The Roamio OTA will also work with TiVo extender boxes (TiVo Mini) to access content on bedroom TVs. TiVo also has an app to work with your mobile devices. And it has intelligent features to search content across the guide and all the streaming services you use. TiVo promotes OnePass, a sophisticated programming/search service with a lot of intelligence to help you find and routinely record your favorite shows, actors and genres. Roamio OTA will even scan for shows it thinks you might like and record them in dynamic hard drive space not being used by your planned recordings.

Several years ago “convergence” was a hot buzzword in the computer industry. TiVo is converging OTA TV, DVR and streaming TV box. This allowed me to replace my big PC in my entertainment center with a tiny box. I still have a Roku and a Sony BD/DVD/CD player. It would be great if those three devices were one.

My TV is hooked up to a Denon AV receiver. I’ve configured the Roamio OTA to use the default HDMI pass through port, so I can turn on my TV with one button on the Roamio OTA remote using the TV’s own sound. For superior sound I can turn on the Denon for special shows. I used to have to use a wireless keyboard/trackpad to control my Windows Media Center PC, and always turn on the receiver to hear recorded TV. The Roamio OTA has simplified by setup greatly. I now can watch live TV, recorded TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus with just one remote and one on/off button. It’s a shame the Roamio OTA doesn’t have a BD/DVD/CD drive. Someday we might even see a stereo receiver combined with all these other functions, so we’ll only have one box to connect to our television sets.

Roku and TiVo should consider merging. But that’s another story. For now, the Roamio OTA is best way I’ve found to enjoy over-the-air broadcast TV.

JWH

Exercising My Attention Span

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 23, 2015

Few people can read an entire article on the internet, no matter how short, including this one. I know I can’t.

My attention span has become a 90-pound weakling. I wish my focus was a Olympian weightlifter. I’m quite confident I won’t make such a dramatic transformation at age 63, but I do wonder if mental exercises lead to heavier feats of focus.

Here’s an example of my current ability. I can focus on Sudoku, Crosswords or Chess for maybe five minutes. I can handle maybe ten minutes of Words With Friends. If I’m inspired I can write on a blog for a couple hours, but if I’m not, I peter out in about twenty minutes. I have a hard time sticking with a movie on TV if I’m by myself. If I go out, or have friends over, I have no trouble watching a whole show. But if I’m by myself I might take 2-3 nights to finish a film. A sitcom has to be great for me to stay to the end. I seldom give them a second try. When I was younger I could watch TV for hours and hours.

Sudoku

I have kept my stay-on-task muscles toned for reading. I have read 43 books so far this year, mostly on audio. I listen while I walk, or when I fix food, eat and clean up. I can eyeball read a book if I really like it in about a week, doing 40-60 pages a night. When I was young I could read a book in a day. I have a damn hard time finishing shorter works of fiction, especially novelettes and novellas, which used to be my favorite length.

All of this makes me wonder if the duration of my attention span is related to age. Does getting old mean losing the ability to stay on task? I’m not unhappy with my activities. I just flitter from book to TV to music to computer to magazine. I fill up my days always wishing I had more time. I’m not bored. But I have changed.

Chess

To be honest, I’m 327 words into this essay and I already want to take a nap. Before I retired I could spend hours focused on a programming problem. Now I never program. I can’t tell if it’s because it’s not required, or I don’t have anything fun to automate, or I just can’t keep my mind on the project long enough to get started. I do have programming ambitions.

I knew that getting old meant slowly becoming physically weak. I also knew I’d have trouble with memory, and I do. I didn’t anticipate diminishing ability to concentrate. I always thought being retired meant I had all the time in the world to do what I wanted to do—I’d just do things slowly, hobbled by forgetfulness. I’m paying a lot more attention to old people in movies because they are blazing a trail I’m following. By the way, go see Mr. Holmes.

Crossword

Now I’m not complaining. This condition doesn’t hurt or make me frustrated. It is what it is. I just wonder if I could beef up my attention span to pre-retirement levels because I’ve let my mind get flabby from lack of exercise, or is my decline just a physiological side-effect of aging?

When I woke up this morning I set myself three tasks. First, cook some pinto beans in a crock pot. They are cooking. Second, clean off my two desks. Task not done, but it should happen. Third, start research on an essay I’ve been thinking about for weeks and brainstorm it in X-mind and Evernote. Haven’t even thought about it again until now.

I wonder, as a kind of experiment, if I could train myself to work up to an hour a day on Sudoku puzzles, Crosswords and Chess, if that would strengthen my attention span and allow me to work longer at other mental tasks? Many older people do brain games to exercise their memory and thinking ability. I wonder if brain games will extend my ability to concentrate? Research if iffy on that.

I have stuck with writing this essay for three hours. However, if I came across it while surfing the net I would scan it in twenty seconds and jump on to something else. Maybe I should just practice finish reading essays instead of deducing the positions of numerals in nine 9×9 grids. Marie Kondo has made me change when it comes to tidying up. Maybe other self-help techniques work too.

Further Reading

JWH

Technofrustration

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I know technofrustration isn’t a real word but it should be. In the last twenty-four hours I’ve had two aggravating experiences with technology. First, my Windows Media Center stopped retrieving data for it’s television guide, and second, my new version of Windows 10 stopped working with the new version of iTunes when it comes to downloading Audible.com books. Both issues I believe are due to orphaned technology. Microsoft doesn’t want to support Windows Media Center anymore, and Audible probably doesn’t want to support desktops anymore. Before smartphones, Audible users would download audiobooks to their desktop and then copy them to iPod/MP3 players. I’ve been using an ancient iPod Nano for my audiobook listening because it’s much lighter than my iPhone for carrying around in my shirt pocket.

computer-frustration-mutual-cartoon

Microsoft wants to be out of the media center business, and I guess Audible wants to shift it’s audiobook delivery system to mobile devices. In other words, I want to keep doing things the old way, and I’m being frustrated in my efforts. I’m sure it’s very expensive for corporations to support legacy systems for the old farts who don’t want to keep up with the times. I wonder how many old techno foot draggers there are out there like me?

I only recently switched back to using an iPod Nano. It’s much easier to download an audiobook on my iPhone, but it’s a delight to just carry around a Nano. I was even shopping on eBay to find a 7th generation iPod Nano to buy to replace my ancient 2nd generation device. However, this morning downloading books to my old Nano stopped working, and after several software reinstalls I still can’t get it working. It might not be practical to go back to the old Nano technology. Many pundits figured Apple would never release an 8th generation Nano, but they did, so I figure I’m not the only audiobook listener who wants to travel light.

Part of my frustration is due to working with a prerelease version of Windows 10. When I talked with Audible’s tech support they didn’t seem to have scripts that covered Windows 10. What’s really hurting is not being able to record TV shows with Windows Media Center. Supposedly Microsoft contracted a different company to supply the guide data and some users aren’t getting the updates to the system.

I have to decide if it’s time to give up on my Windows Media Center PC and my old iPods. To avoid frustration I’m being herded towards using my Roku box and iPhone instead. I happen to have those devices—but what about all the people who don’t? Another way to avoid technofrustration is to give up on technology. I could just read books instead of watching TV or listening to audiobooks.

I wonder if the Amish are a tribe of people who suffered too much technofrustration in the 19th century?

JWH

The Creation of Atticus Finch

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015

Readers who love To Kill A Mockingbird with the passion of a true believer should not read Go Set A Watchman. However, if you want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, how books used to be edited, and how a decent literary novel evolved into one of the greatest novels of all time, then you’ll probably need to read Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most beloved, admired and respected character in all of literature. How was such a character created? Before this year most readers assumed Harper Lee based Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a real-life lawyer, using her mother, Frances Finch, family’s name. Superficially, it appears we have many clues to suggest the story was autobiographical. This month, Go Set A Watchman was published, an earlier draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch in Watchman is a much different man than the literary saint he became in the final version?

Atticus Finch

I am troubled by the implication of many reviewers of the Go Set A Watchman that the 1930s Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird has matured into the 1950s Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman. 1950s Atticus was created first even though his story appears second in print and second in time. 1930s Atticus evolved from 1950s Atticus.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper’s Lee ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” by Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times gives us some clues. Harper Lee was lucky to find Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott for her editor. Hohoff was the old fashioned kind of editor that worked extensively with a writer to shape their novels. Hohoff convinced Lee not to go with the novel she submitted.  I assume that submission is close to what we’re reading now as Go Set A Watchman. Lee and Hohoff worked two years editing the book that became To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Mahler also brings up one other valuable clue—Hohoff wrote A Ministry to Man, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott during this time that was published in 1959. There might be a good bit of Lovejoy in Atticus since the two woman worked so closely together, and the editor may have convinced Lee to create a more humanistic hero for her story.

My guess is Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman was probably closer to Amasa Coleman Lee, and the Atticus in Mockingbird is closer to John Lovejoy Elliott. But I also assume that Atticus is mostly the creation of Nelle Harper Lee. We can never know the actual scientific details of the evolution of Atticus Finch. It’s not too wild of a speculation that Hohoff convinced Lee that she needed a likable hero which Atticus Watchman was not. How much Hohoff actually contributed to the creation of Atticus is unknown.

We love Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her story would not have made the novel one of the perfect novels of all time. The success of Mockingbird tells me a great novel needs a great character that will be widely loved. How did Harper Lee learn this? From Hohoff? What about from her real father? We don’t know what Amasa Lee was like, but if he was closer to the Atticus Finch in Watchman, he could have taught Nelle Lee she needed a saint and not a real person like himself to create an immortal character. This is just speculation, but the ending of Go Set A Watchman makes me wonder if Nelle was inspired by her father to become a prophet for her cause. (By the way, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who shapes the future. Harper Lee is a true prophet.)

Readers want Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird to be real. Like all great people in history, their legend overshadows their reality. Atticus Finch stands with Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as being saintly inspirations to the masses, but they all were probably less than perfect to their friends and family. Harper Lee’s writing shows she was an incredibly sharp observer of people, culture and history. I can easily imagine Lee and Hohoff sitting around speculating on possibilities and throwing out, “What if Atticus Finch became a saint to his readers?” It was at that point that the Atticus of Watchman evolves into the Atticus of Mockingbird. It took Lee a couple of years to transform her protagonist. Whereas the early fathers of Christianity spent two hundred years transforming their god. If Lee had spent any more time on Atticus I’m afraid Lee would have given Atticus psychic powers and let him walk on water.

scout jem dill cropped

It’s fascinating that Harper Lee rewrote the novel and set it twenty years earlier. This was a savvy move because it let her create Scout, Jem and Dill as immortal characters rather than anecdotes of memory. But it also positioned Atticus back into time letting him stand out as a guiding light amongst his peers. It’s actually very hard to imagine 1930s Atticus dealing with the 1950s issues. Reducing everything to one court case simplified the major plot and left room for the second plot of Boo Radley. The trial doesn’t begin until the middle of the novel, but everything that comes before sets up the second half of the story. Somehow Hohoff convinced Lee to take sketches of her past and put them into a holistic unity. That also helped shape the character Atticus.

If you’ve read Go Set A Watchman you know it’s filled with long verbose passages dealing with intellectual arguments over race, often about desegregation, a concept 1930s people couldn’t imagine. This makes the 1950s Atticus a mouthpiece for racist rationalization. Throwing the story back twenty years, and letting Atticus speak far less, gives him wisdom and compassion, allowing him to be ahead of his times with modern humanistic insight. 1930s Atticus anticipating the 1950s makes for a much better Atticus. Writing a contemporary novel with a character who thinks with future insight is probably impossible. No wonder most great novels are about events that have gestated in a writer’s mind for decades. It’s also why successful prophets of history were discovered long after the fact.

The Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is made a hero for Jean Louise in a roundabout way. I’m extremely glad to have read Go Set A Watchman, but that’s because it gives me a lot of evidence about how Harper Lee became a great writer. Comparing the two makes it all too obvious why Lee never published anything more. It would have seem silly to create another best-selling saint, and foolish to compete with her own success. Lee could have done something like J. K. Rowling and explored another genre. I assume she didn’t stop writing, but probably kept it to herself like J. D. Salinger did all those years. Wouldn’t it be weird to see an early draft of Catcher in the Rye?

If Harper Lee had only written about Scout, Jem and Dill, she could have continued to crank out novels her whole life like Louisa May Alcott did after Little Women. Or if Lippincott had published Go Set A Watchman, which would have had modest success, she could have shown improvement. But to create something so perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I can understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the world of fame.

JWH 

Would You Nap in a Self-Driving Car?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 14, 2015

It won’t be long before self-driving cars will be common. First tested in California, they’re now being let loose in Texas. It’s doubtful you’ll see one real soon, but maybe by 2020 or 2025. Since I easily remember a time before smartphones, that will be fast enough. We’ll go through a phase where regular cars will get more and more auto-pilot features, but sooner or later we’ll have cars without steering wheels.

googlecar 

But I’m wondering how many people will feel safe in such cars? It sounds a bit creepy to me. But what if they turn out to be perfectly safe? Would you feel comfortable enough to take a nap while zooming down the expressway? Would you send your kids off to school without going with them? In another twenty years I’ll be reaching an age where I should give up my keys–self-driving cars might extend my years of autonomy.

Will we reach a time where a human driving a car will scare us?

How will you feel seeing cars tooling down the highway with no people in them? It might be practical to go to work and tell the car to go home so another family member could use it. It might be possible to have taxis, Uber and Lyft vehicles roaming the roads without drivers.

I can remember a time before cellphones, personal computers, the internet, and a bunch of other technological marvels. I’m not that old at 63, but I’m reaching an age where so much change is wearisome.  I remember talking to my grandmother, who was born in 1881,  about her life before cars, planes, radios and televisions. I’m sure she met old folks who remember times before telegraphs and steam engines. Before these speeded up centuries our species often went hundreds or thousands of years without much change. Neanderthals went tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years, without much change.

I wonder why everything has gotten so speeded up lately? Will things ever slow down again?

We need to expect other kinds of changes, more than the constant change of gadgets. Imagine economic and social changes. If cars are smart enough to drive themselves, why should we own them? Why not let them seek their own most efficient utilization? If you combined ride sharing with robotic cars we’ll drastically change the whole economy, and maybe help the environment.

Yet, that will put a lot of people out of work. Are we really sure we want the future we’re rushing into?

JWH

Should Robots Be A Major Political Issue in 2016

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 12, 2015

We need to decide if we really want robots. Why are we working so diligently to build our own replacements? We need to decide before its too late.

humans-amc

As Democrats and Republicans declare themselves candidates for president in 2016, they each scope out issues they hope will define their electability. Donald Trump has gotten massive free PR by making very ugly statements about immigration. Bernie Sanders is staking claims around fair income and wealth inequality. None of the candidates have focused what I consider the defining issue for the next president—climate change. However, I’m also discovering a growing number of reports about automation, robots and artificial intelligence to make me wonder if robots shouldn’t be second to climate change on the 2016 party platforms.

Climate change, automation and wealth inequality are all interrelated. Illegal immigration is a minor issue in comparison. In fact, most of what the current crop of candidates focus on are old-moldy issues that are far from vital to our country. The 2016 election will define our focus until 2020, or even 2024. We’re well into the 21st century, so it’s past time to forgot about 20th century issues.

If you doubt me, read “A World Without Work” from the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly. Derek Thompson does a precise job of stating his case, so I won’t repeat it. Let’s just say, between automation and wealth inequality, there’s going to be a lot of people without jobs, and the middle class will continue to shrink at an even faster rate. Bernie Sanders political sniffer is following the right trail that will impact the most voters. Reporters should trail Sanders and not go panting after Trump. Follow smart people, not fools.

Another way to grasp the impact of the robot revolution is sign up for News360.com and follow the topic robotsmanufacturing automation, machine learning, natural language processing and artificial intelligence. Over a period of time you’ll get my point. Our society is racing to create intelligent machines. I’m all for it, but I’m a science fiction geek. If we don’t want to make ourselves into Neanderthals, we should think seriously about evolving homo roboticus. Being #2 in the IQ rankings will suck. But then if we embrace plutocracy and xenophobia, maybe we deserve to be replaced by AI machines.

If all of this is too much trouble, and you just want learn through the emotional catharsis of fiction, watch the new TV show, Humans on AMC. The show covers all the major robot issues, and sometimes in subtle ways. So spend some time thinking about the individual scenes in this show. Humans is very creative. Then start flipping the channels and pay attention to how often robots and AI come up in other shows. It’s like all the water is rushing away from the shorelines and we need to worry about when the tsunami will hit us.

JWH