Blogging, Aging and Maintaining Mental Abilities

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 31, 2014

It’s amazing how some old sayings reflect unfathomably deep wisdom. Two of which that come to mind are “Use it or lose it” and “You don’t know what you’ll miss until it’s gone.” Some of these old sayings don’t become relevant until you’re old, which is a shame, because such knowledge would give the young a savvy advantage. It’s always difficult to predict what to keep using until you need it in the future.

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Take handwriting. Until a few weeks ago when I discovered it was gone and I missed it, I never gave it two thoughts. When I had a pinched nerve in my neck and couldn’t type for a few weeks, I truly missed the ability to write in cursive. Now that I can type again, I’ll probably forget that I really needed to write without a machine. I’m sure one day I’ll again regret the loss of that skill, so I should practice it now. But I won’t, will I?

The trick now is to recognize the skills we do wish to keep, and keep practicing them. Blogging has taught me the value of practicing verbal skills. Both for writing and speaking. If I stop blogging for any length of time I feel my ability to use words begin to fade. It’s subtle, but it’s there. If I go without writing long enough, it’s not even subtle.

When I was younger, and watching my father’s generation of men die off, my uncles and other older guys I knew, seemed to withdraw into themselves as the years passed by, and talked less and less. I know I’m making crude generalizations here, but men, and maybe women, seem to lose their conversational abilities as wrinkles become more numerous. When I was young I assumed aging involved a withdrawal from life, either from boredom, lack of interest, or a diminishing urge for self-expression. Now I wonder if it’s a fading ability to communicate. Either put words together into concise thoughts, or lose the ability.

When I don’t blog my mental muscles to shape paragraphs gets flabby. Since most of my friends are women, I tend to spend most of my time listening. I’ve lost the ability to argue, and my verbal skills of discussing ideas are beginning to fade too. When I do talk to men, our old ability to battle with words has been lost to a détente of friendship.  My old buddies are guys that I agree with, and I’ve given up on confrontational acquaintances. Maybe I should be more aggressive in my blog writing and find some wordy foes to spar with.

If the only thing you do is watch television, then the only skills you’ll have when you get old is sitting and watching. Maybe that’s why all the old men I knew stopped talking?

Every time I write an essay I can feel my brain working out. It’s like being at the gym and pumping iron – I can feel I’m lifting heavier concepts with systematic practice. I doubt blogging is for everyone, but I expect everyone needs some kind of verbal exercise that includes both conversation and writing. And it may even help to learning handwriting again.

JWH – Happy Halloween

The Job of Blogging

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blogging is an interesting hobby, but strange in some ways.  Most blogs are like diaries, yet before the Internet most folks would be horrified to have their diaries read before they died.  Blogging is a bit like writing papers for school, and most students absolutely hated writing research papers and book reports. Blogging has an element of journalism, so maybe its popularity reflects a strong desire for bloggers to be reporters. However, there’s tens of millions of blogs, most going unread, as are most daily newspapers. If I really wanted to be read I should try and write stuff for popular web sites, that’s where the readers are going. Writing for professional sites should be my ambition, but its easier to just to be my own editor.

In some ways blogging is confessional, and that doesn’t require readers. Writing is therapeutic. But I don’t think I’d take all this time to write if I didn’t think I had readers. The urge to write encompasses the urge to inform and entertain. I’m not sure how entertaining and informative I am, but I keep trying. Before I changed my domain name, I was getting 200-400 hits a day, with occasional spikes.  My best day ever was 4,521. Evidently switching names has screwed up things with Google, because now I only get 100-150 hits a day. Most of those lost hits were for product review pages. And that tells me something – web surfers mostly want information from the Internet. And that’s reasonable. Most of the pages I still get hits on deal with science fiction. When I write about me I get no hits.

The common advice to bloggers from successful bloggers is to publish regularly.  At least once a week. That means writing 52 read-worthy essays a year. Most popular bloggers publish several times a week, but often, they are the subject of their writing. My life is not as entertaining as The Bloggess. Even if I was more fascinating, I doubt I could handle the stress of making myself more interesting. Besides I love writing about interesting things that aren’t me.  For instance, last night on PBS I started watching a new series, How We Got to Now.  The first episode was called “Clean” and it was about how America started cleaning up its act. It featured a fascinating segment about how Chicago first built sewers.  They actually raised up the buildings to make space. Now that grabbed my attention!

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[Click to enlarge]

If I could, I’d want to write nonfiction books on science and history, but I’m not that disciplined and dedicated. Thus, blogging for me is a way to write tiny reports about the books I read, the documentaries I see, and the web pages I discover, that are worthy of wider attention. People do the exact same thing on Facebook and Twitter.  Blogging is just more verbose. Blogging gives me more time to make my case.

Few writers write original content. They report on people, places and events. Most journalism is a kind of history. Reviewers report on other content creators. For example, the raising of Chicago’s buildings is something I could research and write about, but why should I compete with what Wikipedia has published, or PBS? Blogging is more liked linked lists in computer programming. If you read other web sites about the topic, for instance Gizmodo, you’ll see no one writes much on the Internet about any particular subject, and they often share the same facts, links and images. The image above is at every site I visited. If you follow the links, you will get more information, but not much. Following several links give a bigger picture. If you want true in-depth reporting, you have to read books.

A great blogger will consolidate a greater amount of information, closer to magazine pieces in size. Open Culture and Brain Pickings are my favorite examples. Open Culture just provided me with a wonderful piece about Alice Guy-Blaché, a women director also mentioned in last week’s Makers on PBS that I wanted to research. I wonder if Jonathan Crow was inspired to write his piece because of Makers? Or was it an interesting coincidence.

As a bookworm and documentary junky, I’m constantly finding new facts that startle me. For example, the other night I watched The Galapagos Affair, about a tiny historical incidence from the 1930s, involving a German couple moving to an uninhabited island in the Galapagos. Their letters home made them world famous as a modern day Adam and Eve. Eventually five more people join them, and two were murdered, leaving an interesting mystery. I found this bizarre history riveting, and highly recommend the documentary that’s available on Netflix Streaming.

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If I was a better journalist, say up to Maria Popova’s standards, I’d go research to see if more people in history have tried to play Adam and Eve. If Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter got the idea, so must have others. As a kid I was always fascinated with Swiss Family Robinson type stories. As a blogger, that should be my job, to track down more information. But to be honest, that requires a lot of work, and I don’t know if I’m up to it. I’m now working in a space beyond Twitter and Facebook, but not yet a full article.

That’s what this essay is about. Even though I’m not being paid, I feel blogging is a kind of job, and comes with responsibilities. While I have been nattering about blogging, I hope I’ve provided some useful information, and maybe turned you onto some interesting reading. Is that enough though?  How much information do I have to provide to make it worth your time to read what I write?

JWH

A New Look

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If you are a regular reader of Auxiliary Memory you’ve notice that things look different.  The URL has been changed to be easier to remember – http://auxiliarymemory.com.  The purpose of the new layout is to make online reading more pleasant, and to simplify the look on smartphones or tablets.  There is one simple menu at the top of the page under the three horizontal line symbol.

My new goal is to write more enjoyable essays to read.  Essays with more content and structure.  This will involve more research and study.  Most readers come to this site because Google directs them here, but I do have a few friends who are regular readers.  Readers from Google are researching a topic.  Now that I’m retired I have more time to study, and this gives me an opportunity prowl the web for fascinating subjects to write about.  This exercises my aging mind and improves my writing skills.  Writing has become my main retirement hobby.

I’ll continue to write biographical pieces, but I want to write less about me.  As I’ve worked to research new subjects I’ve learned that journalism is  stimulating and challenging.  My hit statistics show certain kinds of essays get no hits.  There are many reasons for this.  First, the essay is blather about nothing, so there is nothing for Google to index.  Second, many other people have written about the topic better and Google points to their essays.  Or third, I’ve written about something that no one even bothers to query Google.

Yes, I do have friends and a few subscribers that read whatever I write, and I’m grateful for their encouragement.  To replay their kindness I feel inspired to work harder.  I must write about things that interest me, but the challenge of being a writer requires I be more interesting to others.  The simplicity of my new layout is intended to keep my focus on words and sentences worth reading.

JWH – 9/20/14  

I, Sisyphus, Blogger

Sisyphus was a Greek dude the gods condemn to roll a rock endlessly up a hill.  Albert Camus came along in the 20th century and gave The Myth of Sisyphus an existential twist.  Camus said living is like endlessly rolling a rock up a hill, but if we can find personal purpose while we’re doing something so meaningless we can overcome the meaninglessness of reality.  I think of blogging as chronicling my life of endlessly rolling  a rock up my hill.  I beat the gods by understanding the nature of reality, even if I have no higher metaphysical purpose.  Camus saw the lack of meaning in reality as a form of absurdity, but I don’t.  The randomness of reality might feel like we’re rolling a rock up the same hill over and over again, but we’re not.  Humans have always lied to themselves that we serve God’s purpose to console ourselves with imaginary meaning, but isn’t finding our own purpose in an indifferent multiverse actually more empowering?  Sisyphus was condemned to his task by the gods for having hubris.  A godless reality has condemned us to a short existence of self-awareness in an awe inspiringly huge existence.  Although we are born into the limits of our natural design, it appears we have a mind that will allow us to out think those limits.

Sisyphus-wide

Blogging is not a chore for me, but it does require I make an effort.  In fact, I want to make the best possible effort.  If I don’t, I’m just rolling a rock up a hill.

Blogging has to be more than puking words out through my keyboard.  Blogging is anti-entropic.  This universe is entropic, so overall things are coming apart, but as it does, there are swirling eddies of highly organized anti-entropic events.  Life is one of those events.  Even though I shall return to dust someday, and the atomic elements in my body will dissipate and join less organized states, I exist momentarily in a highly organized, self-aware, anti-entropic state.  I have a window on reality.

We are all windows on reality, observing existence.  I can see why pantheists like to think that everything is God—but that’s an illusion too.  Reality is unaware of itself, only we rare eddies of complexities, swirling in the dust of existence, notice that something is here.  We’re quite insignificant in the scheme of things.  We roll our rocks and then we die.  Our window on reality closes.

Blogging is my way organizing words in highly anti-entropic arrangements about what I see from my window.  We all struggle in our own way against the heat death of the universe.  We each see different views while looking through different windows, but we’re all looking on the same reality.

Each essay I write for this blog is an effort to create order against the tide to disorder.  My body has long past the point of its most organized state, but I believe even though my mind is beginning to come apart, I’m making the most organized observations of my life.  Sometimes the most complex eddies of organization come when larger organized structures are breaking apart.  Creation always comes from destruction. 

There are dynamics to blogging that I’m still learning, and will always be learning.  The medium is sometimes more complex than the messages.  My job is to write.  If I write something interesting, something that’s anti-entropic and interesting from your window of observation, you’ll enjoy what I’ve written.  The more I’m read, the more I’m challenged to write even more interestingly. 

How long can I do this?  Sometime between now and when I die, I’ll run out of mental momentum and my writing will fall apart into disorder.  But until it does, I’ll struggle to write more and more precise observations.  If dementia doesn’t overcome me, I should get better at writing, which is creating ever more ordered anti-entropic essays and observations.

Some days when I sit down to write my mind is not very orderly, and I produce crappy essays.  Other days, something comes together, and the words come out in patterns I didn’t anticipate and I catch a wave to ride, and writing feels like I’m surfing something big and moving.  I know what I do is a product of my conscious and unconscious minds in relationship with the random events of my life.  Life really is like a routine of rolling a rock up a hill over and over again.  It’s seeing the patterns and making the observations that give our meaningless existence an existential fulfillment.

JWH – 7/31/14

Why Blog?

This will be my 671st post.  I must be approaching or just passing my millionth word written, so I think it’s time to evaluate why I blog.  When I started I wrote whatever I felt like and didn’t worry if anyone read what I wrote.  Sometimes I’d ask my wife Susan or a friend to read something, but for the most part I considered my blog a diary that I left around opened.  I’m interested in a lot of things my friends aren’t, so I used blogging as an outlet for discussing various topics I had no one to talk about with.  I guess that might mean I use blogging as kind of therapy.  Blogging is also a great way to practice writing, organize thoughts, and learn to research – sort of junior journalism.  All of these various purposes are great so long as I don’t think too much about being read.

During the last year I’ve been getting more readers.  Mostly by accident.  Sometimes I write about a subject that people are researching on Google, like encrypting files for Dropbox, or science fiction books from the 1950s.  I have a few friends that actually follow what I write, but you can count them on one hand.  I do have 468 followers on WordPress, but I think that’s mostly due other bloggers wanting to attract readership themselves.  But it does make me think about what I write.  If I hit the publish button and hundreds of people get an email then what I write can be an annoyance or entertainment.  That thought has made me delete most of the posts I’ve written lately.

My friend Annie has even been critiquing my posts, with comments like, that one rambled on for far too long, or you didn’t stick to your point, or that topic was boring.  I don’t disagree with her assessments either.  If I’m going to write something people will be reading then I have a responsibility to make it worth reading.  And this presents some problems.

There are three kind of readers on the internet:  browsers, subscribers and searchers.   Some people get to my pages because writers link to me, others subscribe and get everything I write, but most people read what I’ve written because it’s something they Googled or Binged.  Just look at my stats.  (You might need to click on the image to make it large enough to read.)

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I get the most  hits for writing about something specific, like a Toshiba netbook or LG Blu-ray player.  But I also write about a lot of topics few people are interested in.

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Most of my favorite essays I’ve written get few readers.  That’s because they are personal and personal essays don’t get hits.

If I want lots of readers then I’d need to write about something that lots of people want to read about.  Well, that doesn’t actually work either.  Writing about what everyone else is writing about gets damn few hits.  The key to getting search engine hits is to write about something few people have written about, but enough people want to read about.

The key to get subscriber hits is to always write about a specific topic and find fans for that topic.

I don’t do ether.  I write about whatever interests me at the moment.  That’s good for me but bad for regular readers, and gets few search engine hits.

What I need to do is decide what kind of writer I want to be – at least when it comes to blogging.

JWH – 6/25/13

Blogging and Novel Writing

I’ve always wanted to write a novel but never had the focus or determination to complete one.  November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWrMo.  The goal of NaNoWrMo is to get would-be novelists to complete a first draft of 50,000 words.  Now that’s about the minimal length of fiction to be called a novel, and most editors usually want twice as many words if you submit to them, but the NaNoWrMo consider 50,000 a good writing marathon for one month’s writing.  Their goal is not for people to complete a polished novel, but just go the distance.  They’ve yet to make December National Novel Rewrite Month, but many bloggers have suggested it. 

Essentially this means knocking out 1,667 words a day of fiction.  I have no trouble writing as many words on a blog post, but fiction is different.  I love blogging and don’t expect to give it up for the month of November.  Blogging is therapeutic for me.  Writing about something that requires research exercises my memory.  And I definitely need help with my memory – it’s slipping away more every day. 

But I want to write a novel.  Of course I’ve been wanting to write a novel since I was in high school over forty years ago.  Rationally I’d think if I hadn’t written one by now I never will.  Well, I’m looking at NaNoWrMo as a shit or get of the pot test.  Either I’ve got to finish a novel now or give up thinking about ever writing one.  All my blogging indicates I like writing essays, which suggests I should work harder to polish that skill.  If I fail to produce a first draft in November that’s what I will do – but for now I want to give it one more try.

What I should do is publish my daily NaNoWrMo work here but that might screw up my chances of getting the novel published in the future.  I’ve read that most authors have to write several novels before the get one good enough to publish, so maybe I’m being too protective of my first first draft.  Also, I believe, and this might be naive, that I’ve got a unique science fiction idea and and I don’t want to spoil it by letting people read a first draft.  However, I might be willing to show versions of the opening here as a marketing research to see if anyone responds.

Working on a novel will seem strange though.  My blogging is about watching the world and reacting.  It’s about looking outward.  Novel writing is about looking inward and creating everything from scratch.  That might be why I’ve never been able to write a novel.  I’ve written about 30 short stories and even 5,000-12,000 words are an agony to produce.  I recently put my best effort online and it sank like a stone.  Writing non-fiction is engaging – writing fiction is lonely.

I haven’t signed up with NaNoWrMo yet, and I still might chicken out.  The idea of coming home from work every evening and turning off the world, shunning all my favorite hobbies to focus on one activity is scary.  I love my evening routine.  Writing fiction will be like working two jobs.  So why do it?  I don’t know.  I read a lot of fiction and I’ve always wanted to create a fictional work of art.  It’s like going to a party and always listening to everyone else talk.  Writing a novel would be like having my say.

JWH – 10/18/11

Blogging by Candlelight and Paper

I started this blog last night while the power was out, writing with pen on paper by candlelight.  My power was out just 45 hours, but some people on my block still don’t have power.  I think after the storm Monday as many as 60,000 homes were affected.  We’ve had our power out as long as 13 days here in Memphis.  Memphis is a sea of trees if seen from the air, and when we get high speed windstorms lots of them blow over.  Down the street I saw where one tree fell and knocked another over.  My power was out because on the next block over a tree fell on the power line and pulled the pole over and the wires down.  Two houses over they had their power line pulled off their house.

The first night without power my nephew was visiting and we sat up playing rummy by candlelight, but he left first thing in the morning, to continue on his trip from Portland, Oregon to Lake Worth, Florida.  I thought my power was going to be out until Friday, so I was bucking up for two more nights of darkness and cold but MLGW fixed me.  Having these incidents are very educationally, and even though I hate when things like this happens I try to make the best of them.

I spent a lot of time last night thinking about being addicted to the grid.  I found plenty to do in the dark.  I have an iPod touch with 22 unabridged audio books on it.  I also found an old Walkman and a box of old time radio shows on cassette, so I listened to a 1950 episode of Philip Marlowe Detective.  But I spent most of the evening thinking about how we live on the power-water-gas-information grid and how ill-prepared we are for when things go wrong.

When I came home yesterday I had plan to take my frozen food to my friends house, but by then it had gone mushy.  I had to toss out most of what was in the refrigerator and all the stuff from the freezer compartment.  So I started thinking about how I would eat for three days.  I figured I could eat out, or buy food that doesn’t require refrigeration.  I didn’t want to mess with an ice chest because we had just thrown away two that had gone mildewy.   A neighbor a few doors down was running a very loud gas powered generator, and I thought about buying one of those for the future but I decided against it too.  I hate the noise.  It does protect the food but they take a lot of gas, so I figure it would be a breakeven deal.

What I wanted was more light.  I had three flashlights, two candles in glass lanterns and a giant block candle with seven wicks, but even with nine flames I didn’t have enough light to read comfortably.  I once read a wonderful book about America in the 1800s and it chronicled how people’s lives were changed by the technology evolving past candle light.  Whale oil made a huge difference.  I did some research on Amazon and found there are LED lanterns now, so I’m going to order one of them to be prepared for future blackouts.

I also wanted a radio or TV to listen to the news.  I have two Walkman cassette players with AM/FM/TV tuners, but the TV part doesn’t work anymore since they phased out analog signals.  And I couldn’t find any news on the AM/FM bands.  I didn’t have much patience though.  I plan to buy one of those emergency radios that have a crank to recharge the batteries and l want learn which radio stations are worth tuning before the next power outage.

Some of these emergency radios have hand cranks that will charge a phone or USB gadgets.  My cell phone ran out of power just after the storm.  This event taught me to keep my phone and gadgets well charged, keep the dishes washed up, and don’t let the dirty clothes pile up either. 

Luckily the house only got down to 60 degrees – just a touch cold.  I put on a hoody jacket and slept in my clothes under one patchwork quilt and was fine.  I have been in the house without power in the dead of winter and in August, so it could have been much worse.  But being addicted to a favorite temperature is a bad habit to have.

Most of all I was annoyed by having my routine disrupted.  That’s really being a pussy I know, but I’m a man who loves his rut.  If I owned an iPhone 4 instead of an iPod touch I think I would have felt connected to the net and felt less of a sense of net withdrawal.  The funny thing is I saw this PBS show last Friday about a family in England being forced to live with 1970s technology.  I never would have thought the 70s as the old days, but when I saw how different they had to live I realized how much life has changed just in my lifetime.

I tried to imagine what life was like for Jane Austen at the beginning of the 19th century, two hundred years ago.  No toilets, electricity, running water, central heat and air, safe foods, etc.  Dark was dark back then.  If I only had candles last night and none of my gadgets I would have been closer to Jane Austen times.  What the hell did they do in the evenings?

Just listening to the old time radio tapes reminded me of stories my mother and father told me about how they grew up.  Radio shows aren’t very sophisticated entertainment – and neither is television once you get used to the internet.  I think our modern minds have become addicted to complex stimulation.  Listening to the Philip Marlowe mystery was quaint but I’d hate to return to those simple story days.

Since I gave up cable last year my wife constantly searches the local channels for something to watch when she’s in town.  She likes to watch Antenna TV, a channel with old TV shows from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  I loved The Monkees as a kid, but seeing it now makes me wonder if I was mentally handicapped as a teen.  I grew up back then but I wouldn’t want to return to such primitive entertainment.  I can’t imagine what young people today think of us when they see such shows.  But then I was talking to a young woman (in her thirties) and she told me how much she loved The Adams Family because it was something fun to watch with her 4 year old daughter.

Of course I did a lot of thinking about the poor people in Japan who are having their routine lives diverted for probably months if not years.  I was having no trouble adapting to life without power – it’s not life threatening, but I wouldn’t want to go all Thoreau and choose such a lifestyle.  I’m reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and he makes living out in nature sound exciting and romantic, but reading between the lines I don’t think the desert heat comes through well in just words.

I also thought about what it would take to live with less, and wondered how much less is acceptable.  Could I live without the Internet?  Sure, but I really wouldn’t like it, but that’s weird to think about.  Why is the Internet so important?  I spend  Sunday afternoon to Friday evening living alone, so I use the Internet to socialize at night.  The computer, phone and TV make me feel in touch with the world and people.  If we fell back to Jane Austen times, work would be my only social contact and I’d probably read in the evenings.  I’m too tired after work to be socially active.  But if we didn’t have this modern world I don’t suppose my wife would be working out of town.

I wonder what our married lives should be like without our electronic addictions?  And yes, my wife has her addictions too, like Farmville and Angry Birds.  When Nicky was visiting we talked, and then we played cards.  I can see how simple games like chess, checkers and cards could be so valuable to people in the old days.

My first night back with electricity I’m typing my blog, listening to Miles Davis’ “So What” from Kind of Blue and enjoying unnatural light and heating.  I just got in the 5th season of Friday Night Lights, one of my all time favorite TV shows to watch later, and I’m back in my routine.  However, I’m not as inspired to write like I was last night.  See, being forced to do something different has it’s educational value.  Thinking about being out of my rut was stimulating in itself.  I should try to do it more often.  Yeah, right.

JWH – 4/6/11