Can 20th Century Dogs Ever Learn 21st Century Tricks?

We moldy holdovers from the 20th century must admit now that it’s 2014, that the 21st century is much different from how things used to be in our Leave it to Beaver days.  Young people born in the 1990s will have a hard time even understanding our old ways.  And why should they?  As a writer I should spend less time focusing on the past because more and more of my potential audience will have no understanding or connection to it.

On the other hand, I don’t think I can ever become a post post-modern, or whatever we should call a 21st century individual.  I just can’t move my head into the Twitterverse, and have a hard time even using Facebook, which evidently is becoming passé with the younger generations because they’ve already moved on to newer technologies that I don’t even know the names of.  Even more, I really can’t imagine myself wearing Google glasses, or modern fashions.


But I have changed a lot.  Is that even interesting to the 21st century citizen, that a 20th century person is adapting?  If I live to be 100, I’ll have spent roughly half a century in two different centuries.  How long will it take to become a completely 21st century person?  Is it even possible to catch up?  Will 20th century folk always be on the trailing edge of 21st century living?

In history and literature, the term modern means early 20th century, and by the time I was born I was growing up in a post-modern era.  That kind of talk is completely alien to a true 21st century mind.  What do they call their post post-modern lives?

In the world of science fiction, we talk about post-human cultures, and post-humans and trans-humans.  We expected genetics and other cyber technologies to transform humanity into something new.  However, we thought they’d be physically different, but what if that’s not true?  What if merely growing up in a high tech culture makes that generation significantly different?  Hell, us baby boomers growing up in the 1960s thought we were significantly different from our parents who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s.

Would it be possible for a 20th century person to catch up and even surpass a child of the 21st century?  I have 50 years of wisdom and knowledge they don’t – won’t that count for something?  I also have 50 years of reading science fiction and thinking about the future that should give me some kind of edge.  But is thinking about the future of equal value to growing up in the future?  I don’t know.

When I sat down to write this essay I intended to write a completely different essay.  It was originally called “How New Technology Changed My Old Lifestyle.”  But as I wrote the first few sentences I realized the more interesting question is:  Can my older mind catch up with newer thinking?  And if I’m having a hard time, how do the Gen X and Millennials feel?  If must be confusing for a Millennial (Generation Y) to think of themselves as the cutting edge generation and realized they’ve already been surpassed by the latest crop of youngsters, which some people are calling the New Silent Generation or Generation Z.  Hey, it’s a bitch getting old, get used to it.

And even though modern teens walk the tech walk, and talk the tech talk, do they even have a clue as to what the fuck is going on?  Is living in virtual worlds almost 24×7 of any real value other than hiding out from the real world?  Did rock music and dope confer anything special on us baby boomers that made us more savvy about reality?  Is being hip a real survival trait?  Can you transform the world into a better place with just smartphone smarts and social media savvy? 

I think the real trans-human mind will think with scientific clarity that requires seeing with statistics and math.  The real power minds of the 21st century won’t be Twitterers, but data miners.  Talking in 140 characters only leads to snippy gossiping skills, if you want to conquer the world you’ll need to be able to digest petabytes of data at a gulp, and convert it into  graphics that show visual insights that transcends text.  In other words, if you’re only nibbling at tech, you won’t get far.  It’s the super-geeks that will inherit the Earth.

To answer my title question, yes, it’s possible for baby boomers to excel in the 21st century but only if you ignore the glitter of tech glamour, and go deeper.  In every generation it’s the folk that can tell shit from Shinola that succeed.  Technology is transforming how we live, but I’m not sure it’s transforming us in how we think.  People still think the same stupid stuff, but just say it in 140 characters or less.

Probably the real 21st century citizens have yet to emerge.  And all the tech we’re seeing is a kind of churning of digital conversions, transforming culture more than people.  Does it really matter that you watch TV shows via broadcast TV, cable TV, or Netflix TV?  19th century people would feel superior to me because I’m not smart enough to hitch up a team of horses.  I’m thinking the difference between old humans and post humans are whether or not they can comprehend what David Deutsch writes about in The Beginning of Infinity, which is the ability to effectively evaluate knowledge.  Sadly, I’m just as far from understand that as I am at understanding the Twitterverse.

JWH – 1/8/14

The Weight of My Possessions

I own too much crap!  I’m no hoarder, but I still own too many unused, unwanted, unneeded things.  I hang onto to stuff believing I’ll need it for the future, but after six decades of experience, I’ve hardly ever needed what I saved.

I wish I had an app for my tablet that knew absolutely everything I owned and the last time I used it.  This is a fantasy app, because even if I had such an app, I’d never input all my crap to track.  I wished I had this fantasy app that magically knew everything I owned, when each thing was last used, and counters for all the categories of ownership.  I could contemplate iPossessions every morning when I woke up, and before I went to sleep at night, and it would inspire me to lighten my physical load, and theoretically, every day after that, my spirit would grow lighter.  Aren’t we psychologically burdened by ownership?

How many pair of pants do I own?  I tend to wear my three favorite pairs of jeans over and over.  Many other pairs of pants have hung on their hangers for years unworn.  Why?

I have about 700 hardback books and another 500 digital audio books, plus over a 100 and growing ebooks.  I know I will never read most of them, but I keep saving them.  And like an idiot I keep buying them!  I’m cleaning up my home library/office this morning trying to make more shelf space for books.  Either I need to buy another bookshelf, or get rid of about 20 feet of books stacked in piles around the house.

If you don’t know it exists, why own it?  If you don’t use it, why own it?  If you’re not using something and someone else could, why not give it away?

There are even websites devoted to reduced ownership, like The Minimalists.  Some people like Andrew Hyde, who is a traveler, takes this concept to extremes, he only owns 15 things.  I have no need to go that far, but maybe getting my list below 1,000 items might be a fun challenge.  I’m sure my current list would run more than 5,000.

Some people like to minimalize to save money, like Living on a Dime, which has articles like “How Many Clothes Do I Need?

There’s a website called The Burning House which asks people to submit a photograph and a list of things they would grab to save when their house is on fire.  Think about it!  What would you take?  Those items should be your real prized possessions.

If my house burned down, what would I miss?  What would I cry over not having ever again?  And how many things would I never know that I had lost?

Or think about it this way, what if your house burned down and you got a new one.  What possessions would you replace first?

[After this wonderful pep talk to self, I shall go forth and throw away! ]

{{I hope}}

JWH – 9/29/13

My Favorite Free Newspapers and Magazines on the Web

When The New York Times put up a paywall I stopped reading it.  I love The New York Times, but $180 a year is outrageous for what was once free.  I was even more shocked at that the same content costs even more to read on a tablet or smart phone.  I found ways around their monthly page limits, but ultimately I just gave up trying to regularly read the paper.  I’m not against newspapers and magazines charging money for their content, I just think it needs to be a fair price.  Of course a fair price is like beauty, and is set in the eyes of the beholder.  $15 a month might be the right price for upscale New Yorkers, but not to me.  If The New York Times charged $29.95 a year for digital subscriptions, I’d be a subscriber.  Instead I decided to go looking for other sources of news.

By the way, I have a weird concept about periodical pricing.  A newspaper that produces 365 editions a year sounds like it should cost more than a magazine that produces twelve issues a year.  But I can only read so much per day, and only involve with myself with so many periodicals.  On average, I read about as much from a daily newspaper as I do from a weekly or monthly journal, so in my mind, they each require a reading grazing fee, which should be about equal.  The difference between magazines and newspaper titles is not quantity, but quality of writing and the amount I can read.  Since I can only read an hour or less a day on periodical publications, I’m not willing to spend more than $15 a month total for my newsy reading.

As long as some publishers offer free content I’m going to consider it first.  The internet is full of free content, but which free source of essays and articles are the best?  What content is worth paying for if it was reasonably priced?  I pay $9.99 a month to Rdio for streaming digital music.  I subscribe to The Rolling Stone Magazine and The New York Review of Books on my iPad.  I’m open to paying for more content, but the price has to be right.

Commercial newspapers and magazines generally produce the best writing anywhere because they pay professional writers.  In searching for the best content on the web, I tend to find the highest concentration of quality writing at print magazine and newspaper sites.  These free sites are so good I would pay for them if I had to and the price was right.

And paywalls sites still offer lots of free content. The New York Times is very generous by allowing readers following links to read full articles.  Other sites, like New Scientist suck readers in but quickly cut off the flow of free words.  But even NS will offer some free complete reads.

The sample articles I use come from my Evernote clippings or from my Twitter feed, which I use to remember articles I read and like.


The Atlantic

Far and away, my favorite free online magazine is The Atlantic.  Their website provides content from their print magazine along with original content written just for the web.  I subscribe to their daily updates which recommends 3-5 articles to read each day.  The Atlantic’s web reporting equals their top tier print reporting.



Los Angeles Times

I started noticing the Los Angeles Times when Zite frequently sent me there to read book reviews.  Zite is a tablet app that does for article reading what Pandora does for music.  You thumbs up and down what you read and Zite finds more of what you like.  The LA Times evidently is writing more of what I like to read.



The Smithsonian

I can’t figure out if content for The Smithsonian is blocked or if they just end every article with “subscribe now for more coverage” to scare you into thinking there’s more to be had if you plunk down some dollars.  I keep finding plenty of free stuff to read.  Fascinating stuff.  Actually, more great stuff to read even if I read 24×7.  Here is the listing for the last March, 2013 issue.  And here is the start of the archive section.



The Guardian

The Guardian is another newspaper that Zite often takes me to.   Zite and Google links me to foreign newspapers, which is one of the great pluses of the world wide web.  Zite knows I love book reviews and both the LA Times and The Guardian reviews a lot of books.



Brain Pickings

Brain Pickings isn’t a commercial newspaper or magazine, but it’s so professional that it should be.  Maria Popova is a professional writer who has created a beautiful web site that she calls “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.”  Brain Pickings is classy blog written by a professional writer with amazing graphic design skills.  I wish Auxiliary Memory was 1/100th as good.



John Brockman’s is where the world’s smartest people hang out.  The site is built around conversations with cutting edge thinkers, but it also focuses on the latest science books.  The conversations are often a narrative overview of a current project. is not a newspaper or magazine, but the quality of content is so great that it competes well with professional journalism.  The contributors are major science writers and philosophers, writing about research on the front lines of new knowledge.


Most sites on the web are free.  It’s hard to imagine that pay sites can compete with so much quality free content.  My six favorite sites are just a drop in the gigantic WWW bucket.  My goal is to find the right mixture of reporting that gives me the best puzzle pieces for mapping reality.  All too often we read news that is immediately forgotten.  I want to read articles that educate me with a lasting impact.  In fact, I often think reading less on the internet is better.

Like junk food with empty calories, the web is full of junk data and empty facts.  Brilliant articles that are available for all to share should have a great impact on our society.  It used to be people had to buy books and journals to get quality information.  Now all seven billion of us have access to a tremendous amount of free knowledge.  We can all be renaissance men and women.  The quest is to find the needle in the haystack article to read each day that makes a lasting impression.

Tools like Zite let me quickly review 20-30 newly published articles each day, out of thousands.  But the real goal, is to find the single article that’s worthy of study, contemplation and memory.

However, there is a problem with this system.  It only gets me the free articles.  What if the best articles still cost money?  Is the best knowledge being shared today, or withheld?

JWH – 3/3/13

Rethinking the Great Books of History

I am listening to “Books That Have Made History:  Books That Can Change Your Life” from The Teaching Company, taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears and I’m wondering if the “classic” books of history are being oversold.


I’m a life-long bookworm.  I got my degree in English Literature.  I study books about books, such as those by Harold Bloom, and I even study the Bible as literature although I’m an atheist.  I wish I had the time to master the great books.  And I started listening to these lectures expecting to expand on my knowledge of the great books of history.  However, Dr. Fears is making me think otherwise.

Books That Have Made History is a popular course for The Great Courses, but I think it has a fatal flaw.  And I’m not the only one to criticize this series, just read the customer reviews at the site.

Dr. Fears approaches these 36 lessons with the assumption the greatest books of history have great moral lessons to teach.  He expects great books to explore and answer four questions:

  • Does God or do gods exist?
  • What is fate?
  • What do we mean by good and evil?
  • How should we live?

Dr. Fears teaches these books with a firm belief in the answers.  He teaches each title by fitting them into his own theological beliefs.  In his opening lecture he discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s and hanged on April 9, 1945.  Dr. Fears said Bonhoeffer and the judge that sentenced him to die both read and studied the same classic books of history, and asks:  How did they come to such morally different conclusions?

Dr. Fears assumes the great books of history have answers to the great questions of history.  I think he’s wrong. 

Dr. Fears assumes there is a God, there is good and evil, that we’re expected to live by definite rules, and we have a fate or destiny in our lives.  I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears refuses to believe that the universe is accidental, that there is no good or evil, that there are no moral laws embedded in the universe, and the universe expects nothing from us.   I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears advocates The Iliad was the Bible for the ancient Greeks like the Christian Bible is for the western world, and that Homer was a singular real person.  I disagree.

Dr. Fears believe Moses was a real historical figure and there’s amble historical and anthropological evidence to support his story.  I disagree and even think many Jewish scholars disagree.

Now my point is not to say I dislike this lecture series because I disagree with the professor.  I’m asking why we should read the great books of history?  If they exist for the reasons Dr. Fears suggests, then I say, let’s forget them.  I’m dead tired of trying to puzzle out truth about reality from ancient thinkers.  I’m willing to read their books to understand the evolution of mankind and its history, but I have no interest in acquiring their beliefs.

Dr. Fears believes studying these books are valuable and relevant to teaching modern people how to think and act.  I think that’s wrong.  I think that’s why our world is confused and full of conflicting belief systems.

Great books make you think about life and reality, but they should give no answers.  Explicit answers are dangerous.  We live in the 21st century and we need to study the moment.  Now it’s actually impossible to study the current “now” in books, since books take years to write.  But for example, if you are studying cosmology, anthropology, or geology, or another other science, you really need to be reading books written in the last five years, and no more than 10 year old.

History and biographies can have a trailing edge of maybe 25 years, but that’s because some topics don’t get written about all that often.

If you’re studying the great books of history, I believe they should be read as primary sources to supplement current historical research.  Your research efforts should go into studying how and why they were written in context of their times, and not use them for acquiring personal beliefs.

This represents a schism in approaching reality.  If you believe that science has been the only consistent human endeavor to answer questions about reality, ancient knowledge will only be superstitious beliefs and endless philosophizing.  If you believe in God, then ancient writings are a goldmine of potentially revealed secrets.  Books That Have Made History falls in the later category.  My thinking falls in the former, so these lectures have little value to me.

However, they do make me ask:  Should or can we write current books that summarize good and ethical behavior for people to study?  If people are wanting to read books about how to live their lives in a “proper” manner, can’t we come up with something a little more current and based on contemporary knowledge?

JWH – 9/12/12

The Syncing Nightmare of Too Many Computers, Backups and Cloud Drives!

The Problems:

  • I have three home computers, three work computers, four external hard drives, and six cloud drive accounts, with tens of thousands of original files that are multiplied into hundreds of thousands stored on backup and cloud drives.
  • I have personal files and work files but often I want access to both kinds no matter where I’m at.
  • If I delete a file from the computer I’m working on, it’s not deleted from all the backed up copies.
  • Every time I look at a different drive I have to constantly decide again if I want to keep or delete a file.
  • Because I have 4 PCs, 1 Mac and 1 Linux machine I really don’t have a primary My Documents folder.
  • I have copied files in so many locations that I’m not sure which is the primary backup anymore.
  • I had a 1.5 TB drive fail and lost 200+ documentaries I was saving.
  • I have too many files from using personal computers for over 30 years.


The Goals:

  • I want two perfectly organized Master Filing Systems, one personal, one work.
  • I want the easiest system possible for maintaining order and security.
  • I want to get rid of the external hard drives.
  • I want the fewest copies that equals the maximum security.
  • I want each of my Master Filing Systems to be backed up.
  • I want the files to have an organization structure that makes it obvious where everything is and belongs.
  • I want this to be my last file reorganization that will last me the rest of my life.
  • I want to clean out all the clutter and ancient files I no longer need.

Questions to Consider:

  • Can I trust a cloud drive like Dropbox or SkyDrive to be my Master Filing System?   This certainly would make using six computers and my mobile devices the easiest to use.
  • Would it be practical to use a cloud drive as my Master Filing System, and then use software to mirror the  cloud to local computers as backups?
  • Which cloud drive service is worthy of being my Master File Location?
  • How do I handle deleted files so the deleted files are removed from all the backups, but yet stored somewhere for long term recovery?
  • Do I need to worry about music files now that I have Amazon Cloud Player, Google Music, Rdio, and Rhapsody?
  • How do I keep my photos organized in my Master File Location and in-sync with gallery sites like Picasa?
  • What’s the best place to store emails?
  • Should I have a Master Deleted File System?
  • Does any cloud drive service offer a journaling file system?
  • When I create a Master Filing System, what folder structure should I use?
  • Are some file types too large to save permanently?
  • Can Dropbox or SkyDrive work like a roaming profile/home drive on a Windows Server?

Some Answers to Help Decide:

  • Dropbox offers it’s Packrat feature of unlimited undeletes for $39/yr. 
  • Using Dropbox means spending $139 a year minimum – the price of an external drive, but external drives take power, eventually, die, fill full of clutter, and take work to move from computer to computer.
  • Dropbox and SkyDrive have virtual drives making them easier to use than Amazon Cloud Drive, and allowing software like Second Copy to access them.
  • Dropbox virtual drives are available for all my my computers and devices.
  • Second Copy would let me replicate files from cloud drives to my PCs, thus making them the backups and not the cloud drives.
  • I could buy Dropbox for my personal Master File System and use SkyDrive for my work Master File System.  (I have a 25gb SkyDrive account because of work).
  • I have a 50gb Amazon Cloud Drive account that I could use as a cloud backup.
  • If I use Dropbox as my Master Filing System I could go around to all my computers, backups and other cloud drives and re-file all the files I want into it.  That might be the easiest way to create a Master Filing System.
  • For $25 a year Amazon keeps up to 250,000 songs for me in their Cloud Player and a copy in the Cloud Drive.  They also give me 50 GB of cloud space for other files.  Is this secure enough for maintaining my music library?

Are Some Files Too Big To Store Permanently?

When I lost the 1.5 TB of documentaries from my HTPC I began to wonder if some files are too large to save permanently.  At Dropbox’s rates, I’d have to spend $1500 a year to have maintained my documentary collection online.  I’m not going to do that.  Nor do I want to run a home server with backups to support such a library.  Maintaining 140 GB of music files is annoying enough, with copies on my main computer, two other computers, two external drives and at Amazon and Google.  But keeping a perfect copy of my music library in sync is a nightmare.  Then I have a large library of audiobook files scattered across several computers to worry about.  Are they even worth the worry when I spend 99.9% of time listening to books from

The solution here is just to live with what Netflix, Audible and Rdio provides to me, and not try to own my own library of movies, music and audiobooks.  This would certainly simplify a good deal of file management.


Writing all of this helped me to think things through.  I’ve decided to make Dropbox my Master Filing System for personal files.  Currently I have 13 GB of free space, but I might have to up it to 100 GB ($99/year).  I haven’t decided if I want to spring for the $39/year Packrat feature, but it’s tempting.  It will probably take me months of going through all my file locations and filing what I want to save into my new Master Filing System.  I certainly hope that Dropbox doesn’t go out of business.

I’ve been using Dropbox for a while now, but as a test, I’ll start using it as my primary My Documents folder for all my devices to see what happens.

For a backup to my Master Filing System, I’ll use Second Copy to replicate Dropbox to a folder on my local hard drive.  I haven’t decided if I’ll replicate to two different machines or not.

I might reduce my home computers from three to two and get rid of all the external hard drives.  Since I’d run Windows Media Center on both of them, I might mirror my recorded shows to both machines, but this means maintaining 2 TB drives on both machines, and I’m not sure I like that.  I’m awful tempted to give up trying to save recorded video or even collecting DVDs.

If I succeed with using Dropbox as my Master Filing System and I get a new computer, it will be very easy to set up and start working.  Just install Dropbox client and my software.  Then create a backup folder and start replicating Dropbox files to it as the new primary backup.

Settling on Dropbox means my home files will be available at work, but also on my iPad and iPod touch or even any computer I sit down to use as long as it’s on the internet.  Let’s hope this works out.

JWH – 8/3/12

Are You Naïve, Delusional, A Rube, A Chump?–The War On Science

Do you believe everything you read?

Can you verify everything you know?

How much of what you know is wrong?

People believe what they want to believe, and they always think they’ve right.  Would you even know when you’re wrong?  Does it matter, or would you really like to know the truth?

The reason I ask these question is because we’re in the middle of a war on science.  Like the rulers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are people who want you to believe what they want to believe and they know what they believe isn’t scientific, so their battle plan is to confuse people by attacking science and making it very hard to know what’s true and what’s not true.  Like those rulers in that famous dystopian novel, they’re willing to rewrite history and invent newspeak to fool people into believing their version of the truth.

Why trust what I have to say is the truth?  Well, you shouldn’t.  Never trust anyone.  The important thing is to learn how to verify facts for yourself.  It’s also important to learn how information is presented to you.  It’s very easy to be persuaded.  People are quick to believe anything.  It’s surprisingly easy to convince people to believe false information.  It’s devilishly hard to be logical.  People aren’t rational, even though we believe we are.  We’re geniuses at self-delusion.  Don’t trust yourself either.

Absolute truth is elusive in this reality.  We don’t live in a black and white world, but one with infinite shades of gray.  One of the biggest misconceptions about science is its knowledge is one hundred percent certain.  We know with absolute certainty that the Earth orbits the Sun.  Our knowledge of celestial mechanics is good enough that we can launch a satellite to Saturn and years later and billions of miles traveled, we’ll hit our target perfectly.  This is while the Earth, the satellite and Saturn all move independently tens of thousands of miles an hour in different directions, and the gravity of all the bodies in the solar system come into play.  This is fantastic knowledge that correlates to many decimal places.

Science is far less sure about the causes of breast cancer or global warming, but scientists know far more about those topics than you think.  The trick is, if you are worried about getting cancer or impending global warming, is to understand just how much they do know.  Evolution is closer to the fact of the Earth orbiting the Sun than the causes of global warming, and what we know about global warming is massive, but millions of people are fooled otherwise.

Now I can’t prove that in this essay.  It would take more words than I have time to write.  What you need to learn is how to examine news about science, and to do that I highly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.  Oreskes and Conway examine several public scientific debates that have occurred since the 1940s and they show how science works and doesn’t work, as well as how anti-science forces are corrupting science in the United States.


After World War II scientists began to tell people that smoking cigarettes was not safe.  Now the tobacco industry didn’t want people believing that, even though their own scientists told them it was true.  When the tobacco industry realized they couldn’t refute the actual science, they discovered they could confuse the public by attacking science in general and sowing doubt.  Oreskes and Convey show a history of how big businesses have refined these techniques to fight one scientific discovery after another that threatened livelihood.  And they use the public as their dupes.

Oreskes and Conway examine these battles like a court case carefully weighing all evidence presented by science and the anti-scientists.  One thing big business learned quickly was to hire scientists to attack other scientists, and Merchants of Doubt presents several men  and women who have made careers of being anti-scientists.  Oreskes and Conway try hard not to vilify these individuals, but I can’t help seeing them as evil.

But who is to say I’m right?  The point of Merchants of Doubt is to learn how scientific issues are studied and decide for yourself.

We all get email with a political agenda.  These emails have carefully crafted stories designed to convince us to believe something specific about reality.  It might be that global warming is a myth, or Obama isn’t a natural born American.  Why believe what you read?  Why be skeptical?  Because there’s a war going on and each side is recruiting.  One side wants you to be their chump.  It’s like computer viruses that convert your computer into zombies used for organized crime – someone wants to use your mind, and they want you to act for them.

Don’t get brainwashed.  Learn how to think for yourself.  Learn how to think scientifically.  Be skeptical.  Seek good evidence.

Real science works through peer reviewed journals.  A scientist will develop a hypothesis to test.  They will set up an experiment.  They will report their results in a paper and send it to a peer reviewed journal.   Fellow scientists in the same discipline will review the article and judge it for proper methodology.  If the article is accepted and published it doesn’t mean the results are facts.  Other scientists will read the article and devise new tests and go through the process again.  Topics under examination will be thoroughly researched over and over again until a statistical consensus emerges.  It takes a long time.  All too often one test result will be reported in the national news and causes a big brouhaha.  This is one reason why many people find science confusing.  They think one test result is suppose to tell the absolute truth and it doesn’t.

To further complicate scientific inquiry, people with a vested interest in a particular topic will make that topic newsworthy.  They will do everything they can to try their case in the court of popular journalism.  In peer reviewed journals only people who are specialists in the topic deal with the subject, but in regular journalism anybody can say anything.  You might get a food processing chemist proclaiming facts about climatology.  Or you might get high school dropout that just wants to get their opinion heard.

Don’t believe what you read about scientific concepts unless you thoroughly research them.  Few people are going to read peer reviewed science journals.  So what can you do?  Learn to read popular science books.  At least research Wikipedia.  Wikipedia can be untrustworthy, but many of its articles are a battleground between many points of view and a consensus often gets hammered out.

Another good realty check is   Snopes often reviews silly topics, but all too often people believe silly crap.  When you hear about something new check Snopes.  A large percentage of internet gossip is fabricated.

Like I said, I highly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt.  Instead of saying anything more about the book please read Global Warming Deniers and Their Proven Strategy of Doubt to get a bit of the flavor of the book.

This isn’t the only book on this subject.  Journalists, writers and historians are beginning to see a pattern.

JWH – 6/21/12

Anna Karenina–Translations

Every time we read a book we have to translate it into our mind, even when we’re reading a book written in the language we speak.  If the book was written in another language, we have to depend on another mind to do an initial translation for us.  Sometimes two or more people work on a foreign language translation.  Those translators must interpret what they read in the original language and refashion it into English for us.  They have to choose between a literal translation and one that reads well.  Many decisions have to be made.  If an old book is being translated, does the translator preserve the language of the past, or modernize it, do they translate the colloquial phrases, or substitute similar English sayings, should they improve upon the original authors writing, for example, and change a weak passive sentence into a strong active one, etc.

In our modern world books are most often translated to film, but every reader translates words into pictures when they read.


There are so many kinds of translations going on, more than just moving ideas from one language to another.  When we read a story we picture it in our minds, and we seldom picture it as the author pictured it.  How often have you read a book and then talked with someone about that book only to find they translated the book completely different.  The best illustration of this when movies are made from books.  Is Keira Knightley what you think when you imagine Anna?  Or is Aaron Johnson how you picture Count Vronsky?


If you’ve read a book about a poor person and have never been poor yourself, you will translate the book different from a reader who has been poor.  I have never been a woman, Russian, rich, dashing, beautiful, lived in the 19th century or been part of an aristocracy, so I have to imagine a lot when reading Anna Karenina and translating what it must have been like to been Anna or Count Vronsky.  I have studied American History, but is translating concepts about American slavery equal to Russian serfs?  I’ve seen Greta Garbo play Anna in a 1930s film, but is Garbo anything like what Tolstoy pictured when he was describing her with words?

Here is a portrait of Baroness Varvara Ivanovna Ikskul von Hildenbrandt that was painted in 1889, years after the book was published, but who people in Russia then used as a model for Anna.

PZ 401-038-753
Ilya Repin
Portrait of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt, 1889
The State Tretyakov Gallery

Researching translations is fun.  That’s why studying the Bible is fun for me even though I’m a non-believer.  My friend Mike loves studying Homer and other Greek and Roman writers and comparing translations.  Readers have to constantly ask:  Is this a good translation?  Think of how many Christian creeds, sects and churches been created from reading one book.

I’ve always wanted to tackle Anna Karenina or War and Peace.  Well I’ve finally read (listened) to Anna Karenina, but how much of the story did I get?  Is one reading enough to make a fair judgment?  Did I pick the right translation?  Without doing any research I ended up with the Maude translation because I liked the sound of the reader of the audio book.  But I have to wonder, did I pick a good translation.

I’ve gone out and found four different translations.  Two of which I have on my Kindle, and two of which I did a screen shot of the first page off of

Here’ is the opening of Anna Karenina translated by Constant Garnett (1901):

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.

Here is the same opening translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918), the version I listened to:

ALL happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was upset in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess, and declared that she would not continue to live under the same roof with him. This state of things had now lasted for three days, and not only the husband and wife but the rest of the family and the whole household suffered from it. They all felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that any group of people who had met together by chance at an inn would have had more in common than they. The wife kept to her own rooms; the husband stopped away from home all day; the children ran about all over the house uneasily; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper and wrote to a friend asking if she could find her another situation; the cook had gone out just at dinnertime the day before and had not returned; and the kitchen-maid and coachman had given notice.

Here is another translation, from Joel Carmichael (1960).


And here is the more recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2000):


This last translation was made famous by being picked for the Oprah Winfrey book club in 2004.

While listening to the novel I felt there were phrases that sounded modern, and wondered if Russians had some of the same sayings we did, or if the contemporary feel came from the translators.  Then my friend Mike called me to talk about his research on translations of War and Peace.  So I got to thinking about the translation of Anna Karenina.

I was very happy with the Maude translation, but it felt like I was reading Dickens.  But then Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina just after Dickens died.  It was also serialized like Dickens’ novels, so it had that episodic feel.  Plus, both writers are coming to grips with similar changes in society brought about by industrialization, science and technology.

If you look at these different versions you’ll notice they are different and similar.  So, does the translation really matter? 

In the old two, Oblonsky had an intrigue with the French governess, while in the modern versions he had an affair.  Why the change?  How long has “an affair” meant what it does now?  But look at some other phrases:

“The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days.” – Garnett.

“The wife kept to her own rooms; the husband stopped away from home all day;” – Maude, and it’s only part of a long sentence.

“Oblonsky’s wife refused to leave her rooms; he himself hadn’t been home for three days.” – Carmichael.

“The wife would not leave her rooms, the husband was away for the third day.” – Pevear and Volokhonsky.

Notice, there’s even changes in facts.  In the first the wife had one room, in the others, rooms.  In the second, the husband had been away all day, but in the others three days.

Notice how we’re told the cook has left.

“the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time” – Garnett.

“the cook had gone out just at dinnertime the day before and had not returned” – Maude.

“the day before the cook had picked dinner time to go out” – Carmichael.

“the cook had already left the premises the day before, at dinner-time” – Pevear and Volokhonsky.

The Carmichael one doesn’t mention that the cook never returns.  And why doesn’t three of them mention that the cook is male?  I assumed the cook was female from my translation, but that’s my cultural spin on things.  I thought “walked off” was the strongest way of saying the cook quit.  “Left the premises” seems passive and not definite about why.

Well we do know why, the household is in confusion, upset and topsy-turvy.   Each of those words convey a different meaning to me, and none of them really convey the anger of a marital fight.  But then that might be Tolstoy’s failure.

Also, the famous first line is subtly different.  I wanted it to be more succinct.  Like “Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are distinctive.”  I don’t know Russian and would never be in the position to do a translation, but are the others translators like me, wanting to write the lines like they would want to read them?  If I had translated Anna Karenina it would have been a much shorter book, but is that translating or editing?

Then there’s Android Karenina, a parody mash-up of classic novel and science fiction – it’s another kind of translation.


Now many readers will be outraged by this particular translation of the novel, but really, is it any different in its extremes than the many film versions of Anna Karenina?  Most movie versions jettison the stories of Levin and Kitty, who appealed to me far deeper than Anna and Count Vronsky.  Just look at all these images from a Google search.  Each actress, or each painting for a book cover is an interpretation or translation.

How can modern readers understand Anna Karenina without understanding the social norms of the 1870s?  How much history do we have to know to really appreciate what Tolstoy is writing about?  I read AK at 60 and admired it greatly.  I could not have comprehended it at 20 or 30 or even 40, but even at 60 I’m sure I’m missing most of the story.  I don’t know Russian, but even if I did, I really don’t know much about life in 19th century Russia.  However, reading Anna Karenina is teaching me about Russia, like Dickens, Elliot and Trollope are teaching me about 19th century England.  Again though, through their translation.

History and fiction are constant mistranslations of reality, that change from generation to generation.

To see how we mistranslate history watch this little video “5 Historical Misconceptions Rundown" at YouTube:

JWH – 5/11/12