Where Do Old Nerds Go To Die?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 1, 2015

While I was still working and planning my retirement, I assumed I would eventually relocate somewhere with a low population and high density of 55-plus people. I don’t like the idea of getting old and living in a big city. The older I get, the less I tolerate the hustle and bustle of young people. Now that I’ve been retired for a couple of years I’m feeling a stronger urge to find that place. In my mind I picture the elephants in the old Tarzan movies who instinctively knew the path to the secret elephant grave yard. My instincts are taking me in weird directions.

Staying put in my house that will be paid off in four years will be the easier, less stressful path to take. Yet, now is the time to consider moving to a town that’s safer, quieter, more beautiful, and possibly populated with people more like myself. I figure the older I get the more stressful it will be to move, so if I’m going to move, doing it it sooner would be better than later. Deciding where keeps haunting my mind. Starting over means both adventure and loss. I moved a lot growing up, so I know what it’s like to begin again in a new town, leaving all my old friends, and having to look for new ones. However, I’ve been settled in one city for over forty years now, so I’m a much different person.

When I wonder about where to retire I fantasize about my ideal living environment.  Susan would like to stay near her family, but I feel we’ve always stayed near her family, so maybe it’s my turn to pick. My sister lives near West Palm Beach, Florida, and I grew up in Miami, where my oldest friend still lives. Nostalgia makes me want to return home, but South Florida has changed a lot in 45 years. Thomas Wolfe was right, we can’t go home again. And when I drive around Florida using Street View on Google Maps it’s not the terrain I want to see when I leave this planet. But what landscape do I want to pass my waning years viewing?

If you think about it, where you retire is where you’re likely to die. And as much as we like to think about beautiful bucket-list places around the globe, most people want to die at home. And to be honest, it would be much more natural for me to die in front of my computer monitor or big screen TV than on some scenic mountainside or majestic beach. I fantasize I want to move to one of those beautiful mid-century houses I see in Atomic Ranch Magazine, in a quiet 55 Plus community of blue state folks. I could do that, but nagging doubts hold me back.

I’ve been anguishing over that issue for months now, so I was surprised this morning when my unconscious mind spit out the answer. And it wasn’t what I expected at all. Out of my dark subconscious a ray of illumination informs me that thinking about where to move my body is a diversion from the real issue I face; where to locate my mind.


Now, here is where things get really squirrelly, and my unconscious mind shows its savvy awareness of my true motivations. I’m almost embarrass to admit what my dark mind tells me, because it seems like a kind of perversion of the natural. What I love are high resolution screens. What I enjoy most is processing reality through television screens, computer screens, tablet screens and smartphone screens. Because wherever I move, what I want is a comfortable house that will hold all my screens and a high speed connection to the internet.

That should have been obvious to me all along, because for all these months I’ve agonized over where to retire I’ve also been researching how I can upgrade all my screens to 4K resolution. When I contemplate this revelation I realize I spend most of my waking hours in front of screens, and the only time I prefer 3D reality is when I’m with people, eating, going for walks, or looking at paintings in museums. Most everything else I prefer digitized.

Where to retire will be the best place for me to keep my screens and speakers, hang out with friends and go for walks. I’m not really interested in golf, shuffleboard or skiing, although if I lived somewhere where people did those things daily I might do them to be social. I need a certain amount of social time, but not nearly as much as I crave screen time.

It’s weird to confess I love books, movies, television shows and music so much, but if you think about it, I’ve always loved them, so why should I expect to change? What would be great is to move to a retirement village populated by people like me who want to socialize by sharing what they are learning and experiencing from their screens.

Is there a place where old nerds go to die?

Then my unconscious mind informed me of its second revelation. It’s not time to be thinking about dying, or even retiring. Just because I’m retired from the world of work doesn’t mean I’m retired from my ambitions. My hidden self informed me this morning not to waste time on thinking about where to live, but to apply that processing time to being creative. I retired from work to have time to write. I have that. I’m already where I need to be.

Thinking about beautiful locales of where to live was only a way of avoiding working on my ambitions. I need to move to Shangri-La when I no longer have the will to keep trying and want a pleasant place to wait to die.

Since I’m not an old nerd ready to die, then I’ve got to get back to work.

Have screen—will travel.


Pressing Against My Bowl

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 3, 2015

Creative success mostly happens to the young. Desiring to write a first novel after retiring is to sail against statistical odds so strong it feels like tilting at windmills. Despite increase exercise, switching to a plant based diet that gives me more energy, losing thirty pounds, and feeling better than I have in years, I realize I can’t make my mind young again. Aging lets me caress my limitations. Like being a goldfish exploring the boundaries of my bowl.


The trick now is to squeeze more efficiency out of my old brain. Whether I write a novel or not is no longer the goal. What’s important now is to keep trying. Concentrating on putting sentences into a coherent structures exercises something in me that I can’t name. Some days it feels like I’ve done more reps than usual, or pressed more weight than ever before. It gives the illusion that I’m swimming in a larger bowl.

I’ve never been a hard worker, but when I was young I had a natural vitality that kept me going. My mind is still active, but easily wimps out. I get appealing ideas all day long that I entertain in my head for hours. I will read and research for days. My unconscious mind digests these thoughts until I’m ready to sit down to write. Sometimes something comes together in a couple of hours, but because I’m tired, I’ll often hit the publish button to be free. Other times, I’ll set the piece aside to try again tomorrow. However, if I can’t bring an essay to completion in two-three tries I give up.

A person with youth and talent can rewrite an essay a dozen times, spending weeks and even months to get things just right. I’m pushing to write something now that is demanding more than I usually give. I push myself to stay with it. When I’ve got energy I want to keep working, when I’m tired I want to quit. My meaning is life always changing. Currently, it’s sticking to a task.

It’s no longer what I do, but finding something inside me to keep exploring the boundaries of my little universe. I’m learning that aging shrinks my ability to write, but wisdom expands what I want to say.


The Creation of Atticus Finch

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015

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

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

Atticus Finch

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

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

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

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

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

scout jem dill cropped

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

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

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

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


Why Writing Dates Older Science Fiction Rather Than Science

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 7, 2015

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

The War of the Worldsthree-body-cover

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

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


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

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

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

Rocket-to-the-Morgue Ready Player One

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


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

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

a case of consciencesparrow_cover

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

Earth_AbidesStation Eleven

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

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

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

flowers for algernonevolution of bruno littlemore

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

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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