Thinking Outside Your Head

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 13, 2015

Most people do all their contemplation inside their head, but it’s worthwhile to explore ideas about externalized thinking. Internal thinking is confined by our ability to mentally recall details and juggle concepts. We find it very hard to plot a novel or design a skyscraper without writing things down, and since the invention of the stylus we haven’t had to. From clay tablets to computers, we’ve been able to do much of our thinking outside of our brains. However, people generally prefer to use neurons for personal thought processing, and use external tools for professional thinking.

Like most people, I’m lazy and usually attempt to juggle my thoughts mentally, but now that I’m getting older, I realize external forms of memory are a big help. Until you attempt to organize your thinking externally, you don’t realize how vague your thoughts really are. Most people take in information – they watch television, listen to music, read books, listen to their friends talk. Except for talking, people generally don’t express their thoughts, and fewer still attempt to translate their feelings into words.

Take movies for example. Let’s say you see a movie that resonated deeply with your emotions. What do you tell your friends? “I just LOVED that movie.” Not much real information in that statement. And if pushed for details, you might expand your message, “It made me laugh. It made me cry. I really identified with the main character.” Still not saying much. People with better memories and communication skills will summarize scenes that touched them most. That actually does a better job of communicating. Writing a full movie review that systematically chronicles your reactions and explains why you have them, pushes your ability to express yourself, think coherently, and externalize your thoughts.

It’s much easier to babble one’s random thoughts as they float to the surface of our consciousness than to wrestle them onto paper, organizing them into successive coherent sentences. Writing this essay is hard work for me. I’m constantly feeling the urge to get up from this computer, go get some Triscuit® crackers and Swiss cheese, get in my recliner, and munch my snack while listening to Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan.

In other words, my instinct tells me to run away from the work of external thinking. Writing this essay took days. All this thinking about thinking got me to think about how we lasso, corral and brand our thoughts. From this work I noticed certain techniques we use to think outside our heads.

Lists

One of the most basic ways for external thinking is to make a list. Some people are quite good at remembering, and can keep a tally of items in their head with no trouble. I can’t. Putting items on a list is an external form of thinking and memory. Reorganizing the list and contemplating their ranking is external thinking. Looking at the list later is external memory.

Lists come in different variety, such as unordered, ordered, alphabetical, numerical, etc.

List of Musical Instruments:

  • Violin
  • Guitar
  • Piano
  • Oboe

It really doesn’t matter what order they are listed, we’re just trying to remember the class of things called musical instruments.

Favorite British Invasion Bands of the 1960s:

  1. The Beatles
  2. The Yardbirds
  3. The Who
  4. The Rolling Stones

Not only are we trying to remember specific groups, but rank them. This reflects personal opinion and tastes. If you took on the task of listing your absolute top 25 albums of all time, it would require a lot of contemplating and reflection. Composing such a list could take a great deal of work and effort, and using pencil or computer to compose the list would be a huge aid, because few of us can keep twenty-five items in their head at once. Recalling a lifetime of favorite albums is a mental struggle. Keeping a list over days or weeks is a kind of long term thinking. It allows us to conquer space and time.

Favorite British Invasion Bands of the 1960s:

  • The Beatles
  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Who
  • The Yardbirds

This is the same list, but it’s alphabetical. Such a listing connotes a desire not to rank.

Favorite Albums:

  • Rubber Soul (1965)
  • Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  • Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
  • Electric Ladyland (1968)

This uses a numerical approach. If you look at the various approaches to making lists you see that list gathers details and imposes order. Unless you have a special kind of brain, you don’t do this mentally. This is why I say it’s thinking outside your head. List making is just the beginning. There’s all kinds of ways to think externally. My list of books read since 1983 is an external memory. At first I kept the list in an old chemistry notebook, but recently moved it to Google docs using the spreadsheet. For decades I recorded just the title, author and date I finished reading the book. I refer to this list pretty often and it’s been very useful as a memory aid. When I moved to the spreadsheet, I added some columns – year the book was first published, and what format I read the book – hardback, paperback, trade paper, ebook, library book, Kindle ebook and audiobook. I’m able to search the list and reorder it by any column, and I can extract sublists – like all books I read in 1999. I could never do this mentally. There are some idiot savants that might, but it’s not a common trick.

External memory

Outlines and Mind Mapping

A step up from list making is outlining or mind mapping. Our brains are constantly striving to categorize by who, what, when, where, why and how. Using an outline, or it’s modern equivalent, the memory map, we can add more layers of structure that a simple list cannot handle. Outlines are essentially compound lists. They offer layers of structure and can infer more inherent meaning.

I thought out this essay with Xmind. Each detail originated in my brain, but recording it in Xmind allowed me to see a growing structure that triggered additional inspiration and details. Thoughts are like spider webs that interconnect in interesting patterns. We don’t see those patterns until we externalize them.

Logs, Calendars and Timesheets

Sometimes we want to organize pieces of information by time, like the list of books I’ve read since 1983. I wish I had been doing this since 1959 when I first became a bookworm. I just read a biography of Kay Francis, and she keep a calendar for decades that recorded the parties she attended and her sexual conquests. The biographer used it as the structure of their book. I wish I had kept a list of all the movies I’ve seen. At work I sometimes kept timesheets of projects I worked on.  Logs, calendars and timesheets are our way of planning events and remembering when things happened.

Diaries, Journals and Blogs

For casual thinking outside the head, nothing beats diaries, journals and blogs. Isaac Asimov kept diaries his whole life that allowed him to write his memoirs with precise details. This blog is my way of remember my external thinking sessions. Quite often I’ve reread posts I wrote years ago and not remembered them at all. This is amusing to me now to see how I thought back when. Reading old blog posts is sometimes sad too, because I often feel like I can no longer think as well as I did just a few years ago.

Essays and Books

Before October 14, 1947 when Chuck Yeager flew his Bell X-1 people theorized about the “sound barrier” as if it was impossible to fly faster than sound. I often feel like I have a cognitive barrier that I can’t think through.  Even though I’ve written 916 blog posts for Auxiliary Memory I feel there is an essay length that confines my thinking. I struggle to make a thousand words coherent. Imagine the task of writing 100,000 words. I have met writers who talked about taking ten years to write a book. That’s a Mt. Everest of external thinking.

As an aside, I got the details about Chuck Yeager from Wikipedia, which is a hive mind form of external thinking and memory.

I have often thought that the large novel or nonfiction book is the most complex form of human thought. Can you imagine all the thinking that went into War and Peace? Isabel Wilkerson said she interviewed 1200 people to write The Warmth of Other Suns, and took over a decade to write. Did any individual architect designing the One World Trade Center spend as much time thinking about their project?

As an expression of external thinking, the novel or nonfiction book is among the most complex, don’t you think?

Thinking About Thinking

This essay is a recursive expression of external thinking. I started out by making lists of ideas. Then I switched to mind mapping. For each section, I would spend time daydreaming about the idea, and when I came up with interesting details, I’d write them down. I cannot even keep a portion of this essay in my mind at once. If I start rereading the beginning, I forget the rest quickly. It’s only when I reread this post several times do I see consistent patterns. Several times within the essay I used the same example, having forgotten I used it previously in another writing session.

I’m at the 1,500 word mark and hitting a barrier. Writers with better minds than mine can take this subject and turn it into a 100,000 word book. One of the best I’ve read is The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick.

There are two barriers that hold me back. One is the scope of the idea, and the second is the length of time I can contemplate an idea. If an essay gets too long, or I have to struggle with it for more than a few days, I crash and burn. I’d love to be able to write a book, but that’s probably more external thinking than I’m capable of accomplishing. I wonder if that’s a cognitive barrier or an age barrier – or both. Even with these tools I can only comprehend so much at any one time.

JWH

The Tools We Use for Thought Processing

Most people seldom see their words, only hear them. Writing is like capturing thoughts in amber. In the 21st century the common denominator of written communication is the text, which gives scant exercise for thought processing. Writing is our way of making our minds look sharp to others in the same we edit our appearance with clothes and makeup. Sadly, we judge people more on their physical appearance than on their mental looks. When reading social media, note how your friend’s words reveal their mind’s fashion. Few people realize how unimaginative their inner styles appear, with their clichéd, repetitive second hand thoughts. Few people on Facebook create original thoughts, but link to other people’s ideas they find stylish.

Learning to write is like learning to put on makeup, eventually you can transform a ordinary mug into something sexy. Learning to write is like going to the gym to buff up your thinking muscles. The tools we use to write, to process our thoughts, are like the tools we use to make our bodies look beautiful. Bodies and minds have a certain degree of plasticity that allows us to shape who we are. Writing is all about shaping mind to produce clear and precise thoughts.

There is something special about putting words to paper. When humans went from memorizing words to writing them down, a magical transformation happened to civilization, as beautiful chronicled in The Information by James Gleick. Can you imagine the sense of wonder those Sumerians felt long ago putting stylus to clay and realizing their words could last long past their own lives? That must have been mind blowing – sort of like discovering the World Wide Web back in the early 1990s.

As someone who desires to write, I constantly observe my limitations with forming words into structures that communicate what I’m thinking. Our thoughts are jumbled and disorganized, and I assume other people are like me, in that we don’t think clearly and exact. In our minds we don’t automatically generate organized paragraphs. Putting words to paper is a way to crystalize inner chatter, but it’s also a translation from vague mental impressions to a linear progression of words on screen. From first draft to last, our thoughts constantly churn, so writing becomes rewriting, as we seek to recursively shape a single flash of inspiration out of constantly changing insights to that original idea.

Do the tools we write with affect how we express ourselves? Would authors tell their stories differently if they wrote it with pencil, pen, typewriter, computer or by dictating it into their iPhone? Would a novel written on a desktop be different from one written on a laptop? I started thinking about this when Nicholas Carr mentioned Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter in his book The Swallows. Carr’s book is about how the Internet is ruining our attention span for long narratives. Nietzsche switched from pen to an early typewriter that was called The Writing Ball, or The Hansen Writing Ball, a beautiful Victorian era machine that any steampunk fan would kill to acquire.

The Writing Ball 3

Nietzsche’s friends told him his writing changed when he started using this typewriter. Nietzsche got painful headaches from writing with his pen, and the typewriter allowed him to write with his eyes closed. Evidently, the machine altered how he expressed his thoughts. It empowered his writing.  Mark Twain, had tried this twenty years earlier but failed. Twain was one of the first writers to use a typewriter, in the 1870s. He gave them up, claiming typewriting made him swear. But his manuscript for Life on the Mississippi was submitted as typewritten from his handwritten manuscript.

From Twain to now, writers have migrated from pen to typewriter to computer. Some still write with pens. I have met writers, like Joe Haldeman, who prefers to write his first drafts by pen – and he uses many different colored pens, and writes in bound volumes of blank paper, with his own illuminations like ancient monks at their scrolls. When you read or listen to writers talk about how they capture their words, it’s obvious that the tool does matter.

I never spent much time writing with a pen, but I wished I had. I remember in junior high buying cheap Sheaffer fountain pens and trying. Maybe if I had owned a Monte Blanc pen I would have fallen in love with handwriting. Would I have become a different person if I had become a pen and paper writer? People who use pen or pencil claim to have a more intimate relationship with their words. That is probably true, because they shape each word with a skill that is unique to the writer. And I imagine elation or pain shows through in the tracks of the pen unlike the uniform stamp of the letter a typewriter makes on paper, or the lowly pixel leaves on a LED screen.

pen2

I adapted to machine writing a very long time ago.  I started with a hand-me-down manual typewriter, but soon my parents bought me a cheap Smith-Corona electric typewriter, probably thinking it would be good for my school work. I spent years with that machine, eventually typing mimeograph stencils to make fanzines and apazines. Typewritten pages captures words, but you must completely retype the page after each edit. Producing second and third drafts were tension filled endeavors because any typo caused outbursts of anger. Retyping was stressful.

I’ve looked through my possessions but I can’t find any relics from that era of my life. How the Smith-Corona allowed me to express my thoughts would have been different from how I express them now. Typing allowed me to write as fast as I think, and I seldom retyped to produce clean second copies. So my original thoughts would have been preserved. If every time I rewrote something in this essay was called a draft, there might be hundreds.

smith-corona

Ultimately, it appears writers get to the same ending when their handwritten, typewritten or computer written text gets set in print. I’m not sure if a powerful AI program could tell from looking at a book what kind of writing tool the writer used to compose his story. I suppose all the editing functions of a word processer can be done with pen and ink and using the mind as a word buffer. But I don’t know. The more I read about how thinking can change the brain because the brain is so plastic, I’m thinking our tools do reshape our minds. I’m just not sure if they effect the final output.

I loved the hum of electric writing, and eventually fell in love with the golf-ball typewriter, the IBM Selectric, the standard writing machine in offices for decades. I could sit for hours just dumping my thoughts out onto paper. I wish I had examples of that writing. I’m pretty sure it was as ugly as a hex software dump. What changed my life dramatically was combining the computer and typewriter.

selectric

The first word processor I used on a job, back in 1977, was a standalone machine called an IBM MT-ST machine, which combined a Selectric typewriter with two magnetic tape drives. Although, cumbersome to use, the MT-ST machine was a revelation. It took on the job of retyping drafts by remembering all the perfectly type portions of the earlier draft. You played out tape one that contain the original draft until you reached the edit, skipped over the bad part, typed in the new sequence, which was also recorded on tape two, and continued copying the good content until the next edit. When done you had a new fresh paper copy and a recording of it on tape. This was one giant leap for mankind when it came to writing – word processing.

mtst

Using the MT-ST at work made me want to have one at home, but that was out of the question until the price of computers came down.

By 1978 my work bought an Apple II computer which I didn’t get to use in my job, but coveted and borrowed when I could. It converted me to the microcomputer revolution. I eventually got to use a lot of different Apple II and III models, and sadly had the job to surplus a lab with over forty of them, at the end of their era. Writing on early microcomputers was iffy at best, requiring learning a lot of arcane commands, but it was word processing.

Around 1981 we bought a CPT machine to replace the MT-ST, that looked like the one below. I went shopping with my boss and we also looked at the legendary Xerox Star which I really wanted, but they didn’t buy. Man, it would have been great to claim I was one of the early users. Just after getting the CPT machine I switched jobs and got to install and train people on the new IBM PC.

CPT word processor

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had found a way for me to own my own word processing machine, when I started  buying early 8-bit home computers like the Atari 400 and Commodore 64 that had simple word processing programs. It was then when I gave up typewriters. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, I was on a never-ending quest to find the perfect word processor program that suited my personal needs. For a while I thought it would be Word Perfect. But once Windows 95 came out, and I got to use Microsoft Word, that has been my tool of writing ever since. Word has changed a lot over the last twenty years, always refining how words leave our fingers and are stored digitally, only to be reorganized over and over again.

Even though I’m enchanted by the memory of handwriting, I could never go back. Me and my keyboard are one. I sometimes wonder if I can jump into the future and talk to my computer, but I can’t imagine editing and rewriting by verbal commands. I suppose if Word adds a Siri like helper so I can say, “Read me the second paragraph.” And then I tell the computer, “Write this sentence in its place,” and dictate a whole new sentence, I could begin to adapt.

Can you imagine Homer composing The Iliad? He never got to write anything down, and all the drafts were in his head. I wonder if he got friends to help, by reciting a scene to someone and then asking them to recite it back to see how it sounded. I use to have a speech synthesizer read my essays back to me. It was very helpful.

So far I’ve only covered mechanical tools for thought processing. Hypercard, Gopher, HTML, Wikis and blogging all changed how I processed my thoughts for others to see. Now I can add pictures and videos, and I can link to other documents. A document on the web is much richer than one printed on paper. One reason the web is so popular is it does allow for easy self-expression. If you follow your friends regularly on Facebook you eventually get to learn how they think in a way different from just listening to them talk. Young people might be evolving past written words to expressing thoughts in voice and video.

Large books have always been the most complicated expressions of crystalized thinking we have. Some take decades to write and involve interviewing thousands of people and reading thousands of articles and books. They reflect armies of thinkers working towards a single vision. However, the more information we have to process the harder it is to mentally visualize the work. There are tools for that too, like my current one, Xmind, which has just released v. 6.  Writers have been using tools like outlines, index cards, databases, spreadsheets, OneNote, Evernote, and all kinds of software tools to focus research for writing. I think Mind Mapping software is very useful, and potentially can be far more effective than I’ve succeeded with it so far. It’s like putting little abstractions of thoughts into bubbles, and then connecting the bubbles in creative ways.

Blogging has been a wonderful tool for thought processing. I’d recommend making it an integral part of K-12 education. Most kids are required to write, and even write research papers, but they are only read by teachers. If students knew that anyone would be reading their work, including their friends, they might try harder at learning to write well. Peer pressure is a powerful formative tool. As a thought processor, blogging combines the best elements of word processing with HTML, multimedia and networking. Combining a smartphone and blogging makes a kid into a documentary film maker, magazine writer, editor, and publisher, on equal standing with The New York Times with potential access to a world-wide audience.

JWH

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.

handwriting

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

Why the Fad to Declutter and Simplify?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 27, 2014

One of the most emailed stories at The New York Times this week was “Kissing Your Socks Goodbye” about a woman in Japan, Marie Kondo, who is famous for extreme tidying up. With shows like Hoarders reaching season 6, it’s obvious that throwing things out is in, and it’s chic to live with less. But why is less more? What’s the virtue of turning all your rooms, closets and drawers into Zen gardens of simplicity? Is it just a fashion, or does it reflect a mental desire for personal change?

zen-interior2

You’d think simplifying one’s life would be as natural as drinking water to quench a thirst. Just give up everything you don’t use regularly, and then keep everything else orderly and tidy. Man, I’ve been trying to do that for most of my life and have always failed. Clutter and kipple are relentless! Is that because my personality is disordered, and my outside reflects my inside? The trouble is, my head is far more cluttered than my closets and drawers. I just got too many things to think about, and I don’t want to throw any of those ideas away. If I wasn’t too lazy to photograph the rooms in my house, I could show you I’m reasonably clean and orderly, and far from being a hoarder, but being moderate is bland. If I could photograph the inside of my brain, it would look like this:

hoarders

By the way, I hope you didn’t find this essay looking for how-to instructions on organizing your life. I’ve got no tips for you. This is a philosophical analysis of why we want to simplify our lives for people who can’t – people like me. Have you ever wondered why an uncluttered life is so prized? Even Henry David Thoreau only lived at Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days, and didn’t spend all his time there even when he implied he was. If we had a completely decluttered home it would be empty. The urge to be Buddha is deceptive, because asceticism is only hiding from the real issues.

We all want to have full lives, not empty ones. We are limited by space and time, but the goal isn’t empty rooms and blank calendars when we seek to simplify. And we don’t want sparse lives. We want maximum use of our time and space. Can you imagine living in the Zen living room above? It conveys serenity, but no action. I am anal enough to keep my books orderly. Here’s a fairly recent photo of my shelves. I can’t photograph my Kindle and Audible books though, but Amazon keeps them reasonably tidy.

IMG_0892

My problem is not really clutter, but lack of focus. I want to do too many things, and I have the possessions for lifetimes of activities if I ever made use of all my stuff. But isn’t that what hoarders say about pieces of tinfoil – that they might find a use for it, so why throw it out? I have well over a thousand unread books, and I buy twice as many books each year than I read. I have more hobbies waiting to be started than I have likely years left in my life. My clutter is mental, rather than physical. It’s a time management conundrum, rather than a space management failure.

Last night I watched Print the Legend, a film about the 3D printer movement, especially about Makerbot founder Bre Pettis. Like Steve Jobs, Pettis is driven to build a tech empire. I have no desire to be like that, but I admire the hell out of the people who can focus on one goal and make something happen. I don’t want to clean out all my drawers and closets, I want to clean out my head. Marie Kondo’s advice is to throw away everything that doesn’t thrill you. My problem is I’m thrilled by a very long queue of ideas in my head. To be a person that makes things requires picking one idea and ignoring the rest. I use to think that was writing a novel, and I even still do, but I just can’t throw out all the other stuff piled up in my brain.

I probably could clean up my house so it looked very Zen, but it wouldn’t make me serene. Organizing the words in this essay does. Maybe what cleans up my mind is sweeping out all the thoughts about a particular subject into a nice tidy pile of words.

If I could be the person I dream of being, I’d need to pick one project and work on it till it’s accomplished. I can throw stuff away all day long from my house, I just can’t throw out the piles of junk in my head. But that’s what I need to do. I used to think if I threw out all my physical possessions I’d have a Zen mind. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I do wonder if I could achieve a Zen mind, would my house end up empty?

JWH

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!

Street_Raising_on_Lake_Street

[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.

eve and adam

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

Are We Becoming Cyborgs?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 9, 2014

Because of a pinched nerve I’m having difficulty typing.  Because I want to write, I’m seeking alternatives to a keyboard and computer screen.  This failure to type is revealing something about my current state of being.  My mind and body have adapted to the computer.  When I can’t use the computer, or the Internet is down, I’m anxious, and feel physical withdrawal.  I hate this feeling.  Even though my arm hurts more as I type, I keep typing.  Sort of crazy, isn’t it?

handwriting

I’ve tried dictating, and I’ve tried hand writing, and I’ve discovered I’m lousy at both.  When I was young I could write longhand for hours.  Now I can barely scratch out a few minutes of a childish looking print.  Fifty years of typewriters and word processors have ruined me for that ancient tool – the pen. 

The net is full of stories about the death of penmanship.  I used to think, “So what, we’ve got computers.”  Now I regret those thoughtless words.  My left arm burns, throbs and stings as I type, and I feel like banging on it like  Dr. Strangelove.  

I’ve become a cyborg.  The transformation has snuck up me.  If you think you’re still 100% human, try going without your smartphone for a week.

I realize now I shouldn’t have let myself become so adapted to one way of writing.  My body has integrated with cyberspace, and now I feel handicapped when when I can jack in.  Yet, I know fully well that writers were immensely productive before the 20th century with just pen and paper.  Helen Keller wrote inspiringly without seeing or hearing.

Even if I can get my doctors to fix my neck and arm, I think I need to relearn handwriting and pick up the skill of dictation.  I’ve read about a number of authors who write by talking and they claim its immensely productive.  My ability to speak is better than my handwriting, but not by much. Both are so linear.  My thinking depends on word processing features, spelling checkers, and referencing Wikipedia and Google. I now need the Internet to complete my sentences.

Because I’ve thoroughly aggravated my arm, I need to go rest it a couple hours.

JWH

A New Look

path-through-trees

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