Faith in Science

I am reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an overview of the men and women who brought about the age of computers. At other times during the day I’m listening to The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about how automation is making humans dumber. Isaacson gives the history of computers starting when they were first imagined as mechanical devices, but really came into being as electronic devices using vacuum tubes, and finally evolving into solid state devices we know today after the invention of the transistor.

Here’s my problem. I can sort of visualize how a mechanical calculator works, at least for adding and subtraction, but beyond that my brain explodes. I especially can’t conceive of how vacuum tubes were used to make a digital computer. I started taking computer programming classes in 1971, and even passed two semesters of assembly language. I used to be pretty good at binary and hexadecimal arithmetic.  But it’s extremely hard for me to imagine how a computer actually works. Essentially, it’s all magic, and I just accept that it’s possible to build a computer according to the laws of science – but my acceptance is really faith in science.

Nicholas Carr believes the more work we give to computers the dumber humans will become. Watch these two videos, and tell me if you understand them. The first is from 1943 and is about the basics of a vacuum tube, obviously a device essential to most of industrial progress at the time, but a forgotten tech today.

This is the technology that scientists used to build the first electronic programmable computers. Can you in any way conceive of how they get from vacuum tube to data processing? How much would I have to know to understand how the first computers were assembled? I keep reading about vacuum tubes, and even though I get a slight glimpse into their nature, I cannot for the life of me imagine how they were used to create a machine to do arithmetic, and show the results – much less understand the commands of a programming language, no matter how primitive that language.

I then thought maybe I’d understand vacuum tubes better if I could understand how they were made.  I found this film.

This film makes me mightily impressed with scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If civilization collapsed it would be a very long time before we could ever reinvent the vacuum tube, much less a computer.

What these two short films show me is human knowledge is divvied up so everyone learns extremely tiny pieces of total knowledge, but collectively we can create magical machines like an iPhone 6. A smartphone represents countless forms of expertise I will never understand, or even fathom with any kind of analogous modeling. An iPhone 6 probably has the equivalent of billions of vacuum tubes as transistors shrunk down into a solid state that are only individually visible with an electron microscope. It’s fucking magic. There’s no way around it. I know it’s science, but to my mind any mumbo jumbo I come up with to explain the miracle of a smartphone is no better than the incantations in a Harry Potter novel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all were Renaissance beings that knew everything the entire human race had learned up to this point? Would we all have more respect for science if our K-12 education had been about recreating how we got to our current level of technology? What kind of curriculum would be required so that each graduating class had to build an ENIAC to earn their high school diplomas? That would only put them 70 years behind the times.

I don’t want to live by faith in science, I want my brain to comprehend science.

I think Carr might be right. I think we’re passing our knowledge off to machines and slacking off ourselves. One day we’ll have intelligent machines that can actually do anything any scientist in history has every done. And all we’ll know how to do is double-tap an app icon to get it started.

JWH

50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Do not read this if you are depressed or are easily depressed. I’m not kidding. I hope I’m proven wrong. I really do.

I write this on the day I turn 63, while thinking about the future. Usually I’m extremely positive about the future, probably because I love science fiction. However, if I wrote a science fiction novel today I’m afraid it would be a pessimistic apocalyptic novel. Normally I hate being cynical, but I thought for this essay I’d let it all hang out. I’ve spent my whole life assuming we were getting smarter and we’d become a rational species before we made ourselves extinct. I now think I’m wrong. We’re going to cross the finish line before we can get our shit together. Up until a century ago, the world was safe because there wasn’t enough of us, and the Earth’s carrying capacity could absorb our endless acts of stupidity.  My bet, is those saving graces will run out in the next one or two hundred years. We won’t go extinct, but our global civilization will be stillborn, and collapse. The once mighty homo sapiens will end up being subsistence farmers and fish folk, and the industrial civilization will fade into distant myths. So it goes.

tundra

I doubt many people will read this essay, and I beg anyone with a depressive nature not to read these cases I present to make my point because they are truly depressing. Since I am not a true cynic, I hope I am proven wrong. These essays are just random articles I’ve run across recently, in no particular order, but taken as a whole paint a very bleak picture for the human race.  And it’s so sad, because most people are good, and many people are smart, and we should be much better than our collective self.

I think there will be a number of reasons for our downfall, and they roughly fall into these categories:

  • Pollution.  The byproducts of billions of human lives are overwhelming the ecosystem. Rising CO2 levels is just one of many indicators that we are self-destructing.
  • Scarcity. We’re using everything up.
  • Theocracy. If it wasn’t for Islamic fundamentalism the globe would be mostly quiet regarding wars. But the more we work to stop worldwide terrorism it’s pretty obvious that’s there is an unresolvable conflict between democracy and theocracy. Even in America there is an upwelling for theocracy. I believe such movements are causing civil wars around the globe, and we’re seeing the emergence of World War III. Theocracy is the evil our Founding Fathers feared when they created the Constitution.
  • Inequality. Social order breaks down when there is too much inequality, and inequality is on a sharp increase.
  • Corruption. Wealth and plutocracy protect the few against the many and this undermines order.
  • Crime. As the population density increases, resources dwindle, inequality grows, humans attack each other.
  • Extinction. We are currently in another mass extinction event. There have been several in the history of Earth. Humans are the cause of this one.
  • Hate. As our problems grow with more and more fellow humans sharing the planet, we lash out at each other.
  • Tyranny. As long as billions are oppressed by political and social injustice then we haven’t developed a practical political system to support humans on Earth.
  • Misogyny.  Hatred of women is so deep rooted in all the cultures of the world that for many, including women, it’s hard to see. As we approach the worlds first global civilization freedom for women is on the rise. Sadly, this freedom will be the first to go when things fall apart.
  • Prejudice. For all the enlightenment we’ve achieved in the last fifty years over race and sexual orientation there are strong indications that many people are still ignorant of the scopes of their prejudices.
  • Xenophobia. Many among us can’t get over their tribal instincts.
  • Disease. Drug resistant diseases are on the rise, and the global spread of dangerous diseases because of transportation and warming climates indicate the revenge of mother nature is near.
  • Denial.  There are too many reality deniers among us. Up to now, we’ve been able to deny the gloom and doom of the population bomb, our inherent stupidity, and greed, because the Earth could absorb our mistakes. We deluded ourselves into believing we could always beat the system. Well, the bill is coming due, and we can’t pay the check.

These are some of our main Achilles heels that will bring about our downfall. People used to think God would save us, many still do. More recently, we thought we could save ourselves, especially with science and technology.  I use to think that. I wish I still did.  Most people live with their heads in the sand, cramming their minds with sports statistics, shopping for new cars, planning a wedding, buying Christmas presents, and ignoring all the dying canaries falling from the sky. If you think I’m wrong read just a fraction of the articles I list below. I firmly believe we know enough to solve our problems, I just doubt we have the collective will to work together to get the job done.

  1. Falling apart: America’s neglected infrastructure” – 60 Minutes. It’s not that we can’t fix these problems, we’re just too cheap and short-sighted to do so.
  2. A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” – Rolling Stone. Some men don’t have a clue to how evil they are to women. If this is the best and the brightest, at what is supposed to be an institution of higher learning, then I rest my case.
  3. Depleting the water” – 60 Minutes.  Jared Diamond wrote a huge book about past collapsing civilizations. Even when older civilizations saw the end coming they didn’t change course. Neither are we.
  4. Dismembering History: The Shady Online Trade in Ancient Tests” – The Daily Beast. Greed and self interest know no bounds.
  5. Stop Trying to Save the World” – The New Republic. No matter how hard we try to do good we seem to fail. Do-gooders just can’t outwit stupidity and bad guys.
  6. Iran Nuke Deal: A Matter of War or Peace” – The Daily Beast. It’s not the war on terror, but the war of theocracy v. democracy. Three great religions claim to have the same God. Do their animosities end when they die and go to heaven, or does God segregate paradise by faith?
  7. The ‘Caliphate’s’ Colonies: Islamic State’s Gradual Expansion into North Africa” – Der Spiegel. Didn’t believe my point in #6? Try this one, and wonder if WWIII hasn’t already started.
  8. Hell is Other People” – GQ (British). This is what happens when civilization collapses. That seems to be happening a lot lately. This is what humans are really like when there’s no big government to rule them. Yeah, that’s a fuck you to my Tea Party friends.
  9. Extreme Wealth Is Bad for Everyone – Especially the Wealthy” – The New Republic. Everyone should read Thomas Piketty.
  10. The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi” – The New York Times. With all the money we spend on education, with all the discoveries of science, why do so many people still embrace bullshit ideas?
  11. Inside the Vigilante Fight Against Boko Haram” – The New York Times. Without big government guys with guns rule. Is this what the NRA means when it says “An armed society is a polite society?”
  12. In Brazilian city, homeless face ‘extermination’” – Aljazeera America. As our population grows, and we compete for less and less, we seem to lose our higher natures.
  13. Groundwater declines across U.S. South over past decade” – Climate.gov. New NASA satellites can measure ground water, and we’re using it up so fast that ground is sinking all around the world.
  14. The Horror Before the Beheadings” – The New York Times. From another front of WWIII.
  15. Poor teeth” – aeon. Is this how a great nation takes care of its citizens? As long as the “I’ve got mine, fuck you” attitude prevails in America, we’re heading downhill.
  16. ”Hurt That Bitch”: What Undercover Investigators Saw Inside a Factory Farm.” – Mother Jones. What if the survival of our species depends on how kind we are to animals? A certain percentage of humans are evil to other humans – is that the same folks who are evil to animals? Or do we have two problem groups to deal with?
  17. The Ebola Wars” – The New Yorker. Ebola can be easily contained if you have a big government. Science can destroy Ebola if we have a big government that supports science.  You know the next line I would write.
  18. The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate” – Deadspin. Some men just don’t have a clue about women. Their minds have never evolved out of the Neolithic, yet they are a product of the 21st century education and culture. When civilization starts circling the drain, I advise women to kill all the men and take up cloning for reproduction.
  19. Where the Tea Party Rules” – The Rolling Stone. America is coming undone, and it’s not because people are bad. Most Americans are good, salt of the Earth folk who do the best they can. But things keep falling apart. We can’t go back, and we can’t work together to go forward.
  20. My Terrifying Night With Afghanistan’s Only Female Warlord” – New Republic.  The real Katniss Everdeen who fights the dystopian world order called democracy. If you had the choice between dystopia and chaos, which would you pick? The decisions we have to make are very complicated.
  21. George Clooney, South Sudan and How the World’s Newest Nation Imploded” – Newsweek. Report from another front in WWIII. This war is not going to come to an armistice.
  22. Louisiana Has a Wild Plan to Save Itself from Global Warming” – New Republic. We could solve the global warming problem, it’s why we don’t that’s the real problem with our species. Climate change is another world war, one we’re ignoring. You can’t win if you don’t fight.
  23. A Hundred Women” – The New Yorker. One measure of how civilization is succeeding is to study how women are being treated around the world.
  24. Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash” – Pro Publica. As long as we have a plutocracy we’re not going to solve many of our problems because money always trumps common good.
  25. The Fight of Their Lives” – The New Yorker. Strangely, many Kurds are Sunni, just like ISIL/ISIS, yet they want to destroy each other. Not all Islamic people are the same. The ones we call terrorists do not believe in borders. They are a threat to everyone that does not believe exactly like they do. Their brand of Islam is now spreading across the world. How do you have a global civilization that requires a choice between independent democratic nation states versus a borderless theocratic world rule?
  26. Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson” – The Atlantic. Why does skin color divide us so? The color of our skin is about as important as the color of our shirts. What drives this senseless hatred?
  27. Was Moses a Founding Father?”  – The Atlantic. How different is this from the Taliban or ISIS?
  28. The Case for Reparations” – The Atlantic.  They say Christianity teaches compassion. Does this sound like a nation of Christians?
  29. Zero Percent Water” – Medium.  Like CO2, H20 is one strong indicator of our future.
  30. Meet the College Women Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault” – New York.  How can this problem exist if these are our daughters – and sons?
  31. Young Carlos” – New York. Conservatives won’t do anything about climate change, but also hate new folks moving in. Being a climate change denier means learning to live with the side-effects of the thing you refuse to see. Maybe you’ll change your mind when all those people from western USA moves east to find water. People move to America now because there’s less population, more equality, more opportunity. The I’ve got mine, fuck you philosophy fails us ultimately, because if we have it good and everyone else doesn’t, they are going to come check us out. Think global, act local.
  32. China, the Climate and the Fate of the Planet” – Rolling Stone. How can we say “Don’t be like us.”
  33. Nuclear Tourism” – National Geographic.  Is Chernobyl the portrait of Earth without people?
  34. The Afghan Girls Who Live as Boys” – The Atlantic. The title says it all.
  35. Will Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement?” – BuzzFeed. Even the sons of the Enlightenment treat women badly.
  36. Zoonotic Diseases” – National Geographic. The complexity of the biosphere is astounding. But our ignorance and cruelty is more astounding.
  37. Hell in the Hot Zone” – Vanity Fair. Ebola is not the scariest thing about the outbreak, it’s us.
  38. Son, Men Don’t Get Raped” – GQ.  The lack of empathy in some humans compared to the compassion in others illustrates how far we have to go to change and save ourselves. You decide if we can make it.
  39. Dignity” – The New Yorker. Another report from the front on inequality.
  40. The Forsaken: A Rising Number of Homeless Gay Teens Are Being Cast Out by Religious Families” – Rolling Stone. I should have put “Intolerance” on the list above. If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. It’s a shame that religion is often not the solution.
  41. Why not kill them all?” – London Review of Books. What if America was like this? It will be if big government breaks down.
  42. How Libya Blew Billions and Its Best Chance at Democracy” – Businessweek. Sometimes an evil dictator is better than chaos. It’s hard to start a democracy.
  43. Putin Dreams of Empire” – New Yorker. Why is it still about alpha males?
  44. The Race to Stop Africa’s Elephant Poachers” – Smithsonian. If humans lack empathy for other humans, why expect them to feel for animals?
  45. The Social Laboratory” – Foreign Policy. Will it require Big Brother to bring about law and order?
  46. Gambling with Civilization” – The New York Review of Books. By denying reality to preserve their self-interests, aren’t Republicans gambling with our future?
  47. Two degrees” – Vox. CO2 is how we set the global thermostat.  Changing it two degrees will have untold consequences. It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature.
  48. A Convenient Excuse” – The Phoenix.  Addicts are great a rationalizing another fix.
  49. Climate Change and the End of Australia” – Rolling Stone.  It’s one thing to deny what might happen, it’s a whole other thing to deny what’s right in front of us.
  50. The Battle Over Climate Science” – Popular Science.  Don’t kill the messenger.  The real reason why we won’t survive is too many of us are reality deniers. We rationalize, we put off, we shirk, we ignore, we pretend, we lie, we escape in fantasies.

Happy Birthday to me. Tomorrow is another day. I’ll go back to being positive.

JWH

Alive Inside: The Most Inspiring, Emotional and Scariest Movie I’ve Seen in Years

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 24, 2014

At the end of the classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, when Big Brother wants Winston Smith to confess his thought crimes and betray his lover, they tell him that every person has one thing they fear more than anything else, and that fear can be used to break a person. Over the years, I’ve noticed that my friends each have something they fear to see in movies. That there is a subject they can not bear to see, and will always avoid films that have scenes that trigger those fears. Often that fear is to see cruelty to animals or children, or realistic violence. I have met people who claim they can watch movies about the most horrible monsters that can be imagined so long as they are make-believe, but any movie about a realistic monster, whether serial killer or cancer, is something that’s too frightening for them to handle. It makes them run away. What makes you run away?

In recent years I’ve noticed that the deepest fear some of my friends have is of getting old, and they can’t handle any portrayal of elder years. The sight of the aged, especially in a nursing home, is enough to put them into a deep existential panic. And stories about Alzheimer’s or dementia, is their trigger that Big Brother was talking about when they spoke to Winston Smith.

So, it’s going to be a hard sell for me to recommend Alive Inside, a documentary about how music brings memories and self-awareness back to aging souls slumped in wheelchairs and warehoused in nursing homes. This film shows us humans deformed by age and memory loss, some that can no longer respond to any verbal commands. Then Dan Cohen puts a pair of Koss headphones on their time-ravaged heads and presses play on an iPod shuffle, and we see their souls return. It’s like in the book/movie Awakenings, about real life Rip Van Wrinkes who had gone to sleep in the 1920s because of side-effects of the 1918 influenza and given L-DOPA and reawaken in the 1960s. The effects of music on releasing lost memories was dramatic like that in Alive Inside. It’s as if music can reanimate long dead personalities and bring them back to the awareness after leaving reality for years.

I found Alive Inside profound. It made my spirit soar, and my body cry. Alive Inside has a simple message: we can help millions of people that we’ve hidden away in nursing homes. The film also asks why did we lock up all those old people in the first place.

Even though I’m promising people a peak emotional experience, I’m guessing many of my friends will quickly put this movie recommendation out of their minds. I am often accused of being morbid because I like to dwell on depressing subjects. I never feel depressed by facing reality. It’s quite the opposite. I was feeling lonely last night, and watching this documentary exhilarated me, and filled me with positive energy. I woke up at 4:30 this morning thinking about it, and got up at 5:30 to write about it.

Yet, there’s still the problem of getting my baby boomer friends to share this experience. Sooner or later we must face getting old. We must accept that our bodies are going to morph into the scary figures we see hunched down in wheelchairs in Alive Inside. The only way to escape this fate is to die, and the fact that millions of people are living in nursing homes tells us death won’t rescue us all.

You can contribute or volunteer at Music and Memory. Remember, Christmas is coming up. And they take used iPods too.

If our fate is to grow very old, then we need to start preparing our psyches for it now, and that brings me to another documentary we saw Friday night that tells another story about getting old, Advanced Style. This film was about older women living in New York City that use fashion to keep their hearts young. It’s message is to keep trucking in style until you die. The film was based on a book and blog of the same name.

The old people in Advanced Style are much easier to watch if you’re age-phobic, because the women are outrageously charming characters, independent and not living in nursing homes. So Advanced Style might be the first to see of these two if you are a baby boomer afraid of dementia and wrinkles.  Alive Inside is far more powerful, but to be honest, it’s not for the faint of heart. I do think both films are great strengtheners for our hearts – but sometimes its hard to look into the face of the future. I recommend Nietzsche’s advice, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Watch Alive Inside even if you are very afraid of getting old and losing your mind, it will make you stronger.

See, here’s the thing I see in films like these. We all die, but some of us die a long time before our bodies go. What we want is for the mind and body to go together. Sometimes that’s beyond our control, but sometime it is something we can control. Alive Inside hints that even when it looks like our minds have been flushed down the toilet, we’re still here, hiding behind the neurons. Both movies offer hope that if we keep trying we can survive until we die.

Alive Inside and Advanced Style are available on Netflix streaming, and the usually sites to buy.

JWH

A Totally New Reason To Give Up Old Religions

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 22, 2014

I am an atheist, but I accept that other people want to be religious. However, even my religious friends are willing to admit that religions have their problems. No need to go into specifics, just pay attention to the news. The results of those problems are religious people arguing and killing each over details of religion that happened centuries and even millennia ago.

My advice is to give up the past and start over. If there are inherent aspects of reality that support religious morality, they should exist now, and there’s no need to endlessly speculate about what happened a very long time ago. Whatever Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, etc. saw in our existence should still be here now, and modern people should be able to tune into it.

Many of the problems threatening old religions is modern experiences. Old religions can’t handle the discoveries of science, human diversity, egalitarian equality to all, and our current sins. Old religions were invented when people were homogenous tribes that were horribly xenophobic, and their sins were much different from ours. The old concepts of religions were invented before all the concepts of systematic knowledge.

People want religion for guidance on how to live fairly and just, to reward the good and punish the bad, and hopefully find everlasting life.  Most of the ethical rules people want from religion can be hammered out democratically and should work on a global level. The desire for the soul to be eternal must be taken on faith, and if that’s so, it should be pure faith, and not anything that tries to deny what we know about reality.  Denying the knowledge gain from science does not prove the possibility of eternal life.

Any new religions created now should always incorporate modern knowledge. Modern knowledge provides no encouragement for eternal life and heaven, but it doesn’t preclude those possibilities either. Instead of denying science, just say there’s hope one day our souls will transcend this reality, and let it go at that.  It would also be wise to say that God is unknowable and beyond description.  Let science explain this reality and choose to believe that there is a greater reality that is impossible to detect from this reality.

Any speculation about a transcended reality is pointless, other than the faith and hope that it exists. Such speculation can generate an infinity of possibilities, all of which will lead to arguments and killing. This reality has its own rules and structure. To ignore them is delusional. We won’t find out if another reality exists until we die, and then we can learn its rules and structure. Any moral or ethical considerations about this reality should be based on how this reality operates, and not speculation on other possible realities. If there is a God, and that being put us in this reality, it should be obvious that understanding this reality is the important job of being here.

Most people love religion because it gives them purpose and a community to belong to. Rejecting old dogmas does not mean giving up these core fulfillments of religion. My challenge is to the faithful to invent new religions that are globally encompassing, egalitarian, anti-xenophobic, and structured to incorporate all the knowledge we have about this reality.

JWH

Rate Your Attention Span 1 to 20

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Your attention span is the amount of time you can stay focused on a task. The intensity of focus varies from person to person, and from task to task. People who want to become great at a skill seek to focus their attention so intensely they refer to that state as being as “in the zone.”

55% of web viewers spend less than 15 seconds on a web page, about the time it takes to read the above paragraph. That means everything I write from now on will be ignored by most people. For those with ultra-short attention spans, you can jump over the following explanatory text, and go directly to the section at the bottom for the rating system I’m proposing.

Few people ever have the kind of attention spans to get into the zone, but we all wish we could be more successful at accomplishing our goals, and that means strengthening our attention span. That’s bucking the trend though, since we seem to be evolving towards more and more activities that require shorter and shorter attention spans. If you’re still reading, you’ve got more focus than 99% of the average web reader.

Writing the above took several minutes of my attention span. I am easily distracted, especially since I work at a computer connected to the internet. Nicholas Carr makes a case in his book The Swallows that we’re all ruining our attention spans by adapting to the internet with computers, tablets, laptops and smartphones. He also describes several scientific studies that show that reading from hypertext pages, with lots of multimedia, is also bad for our attention spans and our ability to learn. That’s why I’m only providing plain text today.

As more of my friends, who are not young by the way, switch to texting and tweeting, I wonder if Carr isn’t right. Most of my friends claim they haven’t the time or interest to read by blogs, most of which can be read in five minutes, and many have admitted they have started a particular blog but their mind drifted away before they could finish. I can accept being boring might cause them to lose their interest, but I also have to wonder if my friends have deteriorating attention spans. I do think it’s amusing that I can listen to my friends ramble on for twenty minutes at a go, but they can’t scan something I’ve written that will take them five minutes or less.

Writing a blog, which is where I push the limits of my attention span, usually requires 1-2 hours, but sometimes if I get in the zone, I can push to 3-4. However, I’m often distracted by hunger, thirst and the need to pee. I’m guessing at my best, I can usually stay on task for an hour, and on some days push it closer to two. There are varying degrees of attention. Most people have no trouble sitting for two hours in a movie theater with their attention fully enraptured by the film. Of course it helps that we’re all sitting in a dark room where it’s very rude to talk, and the object of our attention is uniquely fascinating. Can you sit equally still at home watching the same movie on TV?

Last night I started studying an old algebra book, and I was able to stay on task for about 12 minutes – and it was hard, very hard. I had to really push myself to get that far. Each morning I cook, eat breakfast and clean up, and that takes 15-20 minutes, but it’s easy and pleasant. We can focus easier on our older routines, but its hard to keep our attention on learning something new. Carr’s book also explains why that’s true too. Our brain is very plastic. We call it plastic because the brain can reshape its neural pathways to learn new routines. But we can also think of it as plastic because it can mold a new stable shape around a new routine. You’re capable of developing new habits, but those habits hold their shape and have a certain resistance to reshaping. It’s both hard to create a new habit, and hard to break an old habit, but it’s possible.

If I study math every night my attention span for handling math will expand. Carr’s fear is we’re changing our neural pathways to adapt to the internet, and that conditions tiny attention spans.  Are we losing our ability to stay on longer tasks? We will develop the ability to process thousands of small tasks a day, but will we lose the ability to work at anything that requires hours of focus?  My guess is we won’t give up the internet, so what we need to do is counter its conditioning by taking on one or more activities that require longer attention spans. For example, for every 25 tiny stories you skim on the net, read one 5,000 word essay in The Atlantic.

Extremely successful people are those people who have the ability to stay on task for hours. There are limits. There are times in war and natural catastrophes where people must be on for ten, or twenty, or even thirty hours or more, but it’s extremely rare. Some artists, writers, programmers, inventors, athletes, etc. can push the zone for hours on end, but they are uncommon people. Einstein could go into his trance and see how relativity worked, but there are few Einsteins.

Not everyone buys into the attention span gap. Some people believe everyone is just different, and have different interests requiring varying degrees of attention. Young people might not be able to read a popular physics book, but I can’t play a video game for 30 seconds without giving up. There is a great deal of appeal to this theory if we’re into acceptance, but it causes problems for those people who believe in uplifting themselves by their bootstraps.

Believing in strengthening your attention span is about equal to believing in body building. It’s possible to bulk up your focus.

For a thought experiment fun, I’m going to invent a scale for measuring attention span. I’m not being scientific, just hypothesizing.  I’m going to start the scale with less than ten seconds, and end it with greater than eight hours. The average attention span now is 8 seconds, and was 12 back in the year 2000.

I can get to Level 15-16 occasionally, but not often. Maybe three times a week. Anyone can get to Level 15 is they count watching a movie. I’m not sure I do. I’ve listed both passive and active activities, but in terms of rating your attention span, I would guess only active pursuits count. However, I would give people more credit for watching a 2 hour documentary over a 2 hour movie.

I can write two hours of blogs every day until the apocalypse, but I can’t make myself even write 20 minutes of fiction daily. I’d give anything if I could novel write 60 minutes a day. The best I can do is hit Level 17 in a half-ass manner by doing something I’ve already been doing for years. I don’t think I can reach Level 10 at anything new, at least right now. My new goal is to study math, and push myself to concentrate harder each day until I can reach Level 12.

Can you do these tasks without getting distracted? Or does hearing “Squirrel!” get you every time? At what level can you do something new without giving up?

Level Time Task
1 < 10 seconds Dial phone number from memory, multiple two small numbers in head, think of something to say, jump between web pages, watch a Vine video
2 15-20 seconds Read a tweet or text
3 20-30 seconds Very short conversations, look up fact online, fast glance at news article
4 30-60 seconds Watch a commercial, common time spent glancing at a web page
5 1-2 minutes Make a P&J sandwich, brush teeth, read short news story
6 2-3 minutes Listen/play/sing a song, brush teeth
7 4-5 minutes Study short poem or song lyrics, write a short email, order something online, listen to someone tell about their day, read longer news story
8 5-10 minutes Longer YouTube videos, Khan academy lesson
9 10-15 minutes Kid reading session, kid music practice, write a medium size email, solve a decent math problem, solve a medium Sudoku
10 15-20 minutes Prepare an easy meal, read a short article or short story, intercourse, commute, average time U.S. citizen reads per day
11 20-30 minutes Sitcom, useful study session, fill a cavity, walk/bathe a dog
12 30-45 minutes Older adult reading session, cook medium size dinner
13 45-60 minutes College class, tutor a student or be tutored, older children music practice, read a longer article, do a decent crossword puzzle, church service, listen to album
14 60-90 minutes K-12 activity, good disciplined novel writing, good amateur chess match, watch a TV documentary on PBS
15 90-120 minutes Watch movie, professional chess match, cook big meal, serious music practice, average video game session, watch a good documentary movie, productive bird watching
16 2-3 hours Perform at rock concert, bookworm reading session, productive time for serious hobby, perform complicated surgery,  time required to practice 10,000 hours in 10 years (2.73hr/day)
17 3-5 hours Solid morning’s work at job without distraction, Indy 500 race, write this blog, play 18 holes of golf
18 5-6 hours Average TV watching per day, prepare a Thanksgiving meal, the amount of work most people do in their 8 hours, write a stats program
19 6-7 hours Very productive day of writing/composing/painting/calculating, average night sleep
20 > 8 hours Performing brain surgery, intense in-the-zone painting, writing, programming, athletic feats, scientific/mathematical concentration, intensive combat

Most people can do something for several hours straight, even if it’s just watching television or sleeping. But that’s often just doing something passive. Doing something active, especially something that requires concentration, and even intensive concentration is what separates productive people from people who just get by in life.

Most of what we do every day is Level 7 or less when it comes to an active activity. If you can totally focus 100% of your attention on any object or task at Level 7, you’d have Zen level mastery over your mind, and that’s just five minutes of mental focusing. You’d be an advance Zen student if you could just watch your wandering thoughts for five minutes.

Because Nicholas Carr claims links are a distraction, I’ve left them for last. 

Links

JWH

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Birdman?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 17, 2014

Birdman is an intense multiplex examination of acting, and you need to remember there are two unseen actors – the reality you watching from the theater seat, and the fantasy you that watches from inside your head. Birdman depends the participation of both your personalities to tell its story.  We’re all at least two people, and a good actor will play a character as one person, but a great actor will play the character as normal human with its dual natures.

Michael Keaton has gotten a great deal of attention for Birdman, which comes with a subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Whether or not that subtitle is useful in explaining some of the mysteries of this movie is still a mystery to me. Keaton plays Riggan, a clichéd down-on-his-luck movie star, with estranged wife and daughter, trying to resurrect his ego to fame and family by directing himself in a Broadway play of Raymond Carver’s famous literary short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan had previous acclaim and wealth in Hollywood playing the superhero Birdman three times, but refused to come back to the role a fourth time. Of course, Keaton played Batman, and Batman Returns, and since we haven’t seen much of him lately, Birdman feels autobiographical in the sense that we know Keaton doesn’t need much rehearsing to get into character. Keaton is absolutely perfect for Riggan.

birdman

Birdman is all about acting. It’s also about Broadway, and reminds me of All About Eve, The Sweet Smell of Success, and most especially All That Jazz, which when you think about it, gives the impression that doing a Broadway play requires actors to live at the event horizon of insanity. Keaton’s Riggan is certainly unstable, a man psychological crushed by a character he can’t escape playing, that now haunts him as his alter-ego.  Riggan is desperate to find success, fame and love again, all the while tortured by his current failure as an actor, father and husband.

Like I said, Birdman is all about acting. Michael Keaton plays roles, within roles, within roles, until until we forget all about Michael Keaton, and feel like the man on the screen is truly insane. Throughout the film we see Riggan perform what appears to be superpowers of Birdman as if they were real, only later to discover we were watching Riggan’s fantasy POV. The movie is filmed in what appears to be one long continuous take, which increases the manic intensity of the characters. Keaton is joined by Edward Norton who plays Mike, an over-the-top method actor who antagonizes all the actors to go completely into character, and pushes Riggan into constantly upping his performance. Throughout the story, the two reverb off of each other until their characters are insane frenzies of feedback.

The women of the story anchor the two men to reality. Amy Ryan plays Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who’s unflinching compassion gives us hope she can bring Birdman down to Earth. Even his resentful daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, the cause of much of Riggan’s emotional distress comes to connect closely with him in the end. Yet, the ending of this movie is baffling unless you see that we’re all two people – a real person and a fantasy person.

The whole play within a film is rather baffling too. Why Raymond Carver? I went and read “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love” after seeing Birdman, but it has provided no insight.  Michael Keaton’s performance is a tour de force. Birdman is an intense roller-coaster ride of acting and emotion. Yet, does it say anything about love? There are all kinds of relationships in Birdman, but I never felt they were the focus of the story, and I think Raymond Carver is just as peripheral.  Ultimately, I think Birdman is really about acting, and what acting does to people. The trouble is, and I hope it isn’t true – Birdman tells us that great acting requires an all-consuming psychic toll.

In the end we forget Michael Keaton, because he’s become Riggan, who has forgotten himself and become Birdman. But who are we, the audience in the end? The realistic you will see a different ending than the fantasy you, but think about what the fantasy you wants to believe in the end, and why. In the end, we’re all actors and actresses.

JWH

Samsung Smartcam HD Pro–On the Trail of a Savvy Rat

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 15, 2014

This is a story of a rat. I didn’t know my mystery critter was a rat when my story began. That’s why we bought a security camera. So this is really a story about a rat and security camera. Most people coming to this page from Google will be researching security cameras and I have useful information for you. But I also hope you find the rat fascinating too. For sensitive people, the rat dies in the end, and for sick people, I don’t show it.

I’m including some video clips from the camera below, but only about three minutes worth. Some are taken in light, and others using the built in night vision. Just enough to give you an idea how how I used the camera. I’m not going to make a video of me reviewing the camera. This is my first time to edit a video and put it on YouTube, so it’s very basic.

A few weeks ago my mystery began. I had put out some roach bait that comes in a little plastic strip about four inches long. It’s a little trough full of brown goo that is poison to cockroaches. It works very well because we seldom see a cockroach and when we do it’s dying. Well, the next day I noticed that all the brown goo was gone from this new strip.

“Damn!” I thought. Did a whole family of roaches have a reunion dinner on that bait? The bait has never disappeared before.  So I put out new strip of bait.  A few days later I went to check on it, this time the bait AND the plastic strip was gone.  WTF? Roaches just don’t carry off plastic plates to dine on later. It was kind of freaky. Then I went into the kitchen and noticed that the bottom inch of a banana was missing from a bunch on the kitchen island.

“Shit! We’ve got a critter!” I called my wife who lives out of town during the work week. This unnerved her.

We have a million squirrels and chipmunks outside our house, and I know the chipmunks live in the crawlspace below the house, so I wondered if one of them had gotten in some way. I also wondered if it was a roof rat. Because I didn’t know what kind of critter I had invading the house I got a live trap from a friend.

I put another strip of roach bait on the trigger thinking the critter must love that stuff. But he wouldn’t go in the trap after several nights. 

My wife Susan then decided we needed a security camera and bought me a Samsung Smartcam.  We chose it over Dropcam Pro because Dropcam requires paying a $10 monthly fee to store the video online from one camera. The Samsung Smartcam stores the video on a micro-SD card. Of course, if your burglar also latched onto your Smartcam, you lose your evidence.  We didn’t think the critter would take the camera.

I set the Smartcam up in the bathroom focused on the live trap.

A few clips from the Smartcam

The next morning I had the evidence it wasn’t a squirrel or chipmunk. It looked like a very big mouse, or a small rat.  “Please, please, let it be a mouse,” I thought at the time. The idea of a rat roaming the house and attic seemed particularly creepy.

Now here’s my problem. Should I put out a mouse trap or rat trap? If it was a rat, a mouse trap might only annoy it, leaving me with an angry rat running around with a mouse trap stuck to part of its body. If I put out a rat trap and it was a mouse, I might end up crushing its hindquarters, but not killing it.  So I thought I’d try and catch it live.

I moved the live trap to the front of the house, and started closing the door to the hall, so the rat could only roam up front, and I didn’t have to worry about waking up with a rat curled up in my warm lap.

For several nights running I got to film the rat – and it became obvious that it was a rat, even a big rat, when I got to see more film. And he was a smart one too. Several times a night he’d go out and check out that live trap. Walk around it, stare into it, get up on its back legs and look at the top.  He even stuck his head in it one time and got one of the temptation chunks of cheese, but wouldn’t go in all the way and touch the trigger.  Watching the rat on the Smartcam video showed me how savvy he was, and I was getting to like him.

I realized I had another problem. If it had been a squirrel or chipmunk I would have taken it down to the woods and let it go. But I couldn’t ethically take a roof rat anywhere to free it. They will travel miles to get into a house, and I wouldn’t want to push my problem on someone else. I’ve had a couple women friends who had roof rats and they ended up hiring professions that charged a $1,000. I knew if I caught the rat I’d have to kill it, and the only way I could think of doing it was dropping the live trap in a tub of water.

I went down to Home Depot and looked at their solutions.  I bought two large rat traps, the old fashion kind.  They were powerful. I bet they could break a finger. The first night I baited it will Stilton cheese, nice and smelly.  I put them in the pantry where I thought he was coming down from the attic.  I left the live trap and camera out.  Mr. Rat was caught maybe 10 times that night checking out the live trap. The Smartcam has a motion activated mode (as well as a sound activated mode) so it only films when something moves or makes noise. This mode is perfect for critter watching.  He wasn’t interested in the killing traps (which were off camera behind an open door), and was fascinated by the live trap.  He was smart, and could smell a rat himself.

So the next night I put peanut butter on top of the cheese in the killing traps. This morning I got up and checked my Nexus 7, and saw there was one motion event, just after midnight. The rat was again checking out the live trap.  The last I saw of my friend Mr. Rat on film was when he was heading into the pantry closet where the killing traps were. It was sort of sad. I had a hunch there was a reason there were no more motion events on the camera.

I got up and went into the kitchen and opened the pantry door. He was lying dead, with the trap upside down on his head. When I turned it over I could see the wire had snapped right across his skull, killing him instantly. There was a little pool of blood next to his head, like a miniature crime scene. I had killed my critter. I was both relieved and sad. I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, so I’m not into killing creatures. But I have an exception to my rule – if pests come in the house I kill them. I won’t step on a roach if it’s in the driveway, but if he comes in I’ll squash him. That applies to rats and mice. I would have relocated a squirrel or chipmunk.

I wished I could have saved the rat. He was clean and not filthy looking as their reputation, and he left damn few droppings, unlike mice. If you watch the film, you’ll see he lives in his own little world.  It’s a shame his world was an invasion of my world.

The camera was an aggravation to learn at first, but using it for several nights taught me how it works and I’m happy with it. From everything I read the Dropcam Pro is a better camera, but they charge per camera per month for video storage. If you’re serious about crime detection, then that’s the way to go. The Samsung Smartcam is advertised for monitoring children, pets and older adults, and for other monitoring that includes two-way sound. It can be use for burglar security, but if they steal it, you won’t have any video of them doing it. The Samsung is great if you want to set it up and watch your home at work or while on vacation.  It’s very easy to log into the web or use a mobile device to check the camera, or call up the stored video. It was particularly easy to use on my Nexus 7, and I like the interface better on the Android than the browser.

Setting up the camera is easy, but can be annoying. It’s meant to be so easy that you only need one small piece of paper for instructions. The mobile app guides you through everything. The part that bugged me was the two passwords. One login is for your account at the Samsung web site, and the other is for the camera itself. The camera requires being plugged into a wall socket. Unplugging it turns it off. The first time I moved the camera it felt like the camera wanted me to reconfigure it completely, so I reset the camera password. Actually, if I had let it sit for a while after plugging it back in it would have remembered everything, but the instructions didn’t tell me that, and I keep screwing around with passwords, until I got confused to what they were.

Be sure and pick passwords you can remember, and just be patient, the camera will reconfigure itself automatically after the first time each time you unplug it.

The camera is also picky about connecting to the Wi-Fi. However, I also learned if I waited long enough it seems to find it. It seems to me, that it was easier to configure when I had it near my Wi-Fi router getting a good signal, so I recommend setting it up in a strong signal location and then moving it to where you need it. The device does have an Ethernet port. It’s possible to permanently mount it, and I’m sure it would be much more responsive if wired. However, the Wi-Fi worked well enough for my mystery critter monitoring. There is a lag though, so two way communication will be like talking to someone on the Moon from Earth.

Now that I’ve caught my critter I’m going to put the camera in the attic and see if any other critters are up there. Over the years we’ve had our workshop out back robbed. I could put the camera in the window to monitor our yard, but I’m not sure I want to see how many strange people walk on our property. We used to have a fox that went through our yard. I’m thinking it might be more fun to have the camera watch the yard to see how many different animals visit us. I can think of a bunch of fun things to do if we still had pets. Ever wonder which dog tore up the pillow?

We now live in a age where we film everything. The Samsung Smartcam HD Pro is essentially a spy camera for when you’re not around. It let me play nature photographer and observe the activities of a rat in my house. That was cool, although I would prefer not to have had a rat, or the need of the camera. If you need one this Smartcam is nice once you learn how to use it. I do wish it had some features that it doesn’t. I wished I could have streamed the video to a hard drive or cloud drive instead of storing the video files on a micro-SD card.

The camera would be cooler if it had 32-64 GB of internal memory that could be accessed over the net. Right now, you sneaker net the micro-SD card band and forth between your computer when you want to edit film.  I think Samsung assumed most people would never want to keep the film, and would only look at it from a browser or mobile device and then erase it. And that might be true for most people. If I hadn’t want to include some of the results in this blog I would have done that. I imagine most people would prefer having a card slot to built in memory, but I think we’re moving away from physical media. My 32GB card could store days of continuous filming, and after I switched to motion detected filming, could have recorded weeks of occasional motion events.

It would also be cool if it had a rechargeable battery so it could be placed somewhere for 12-24 hours without any wires. Of course, that would have added a good deal to the cost of the camera.  It comes with mounting brackets, and the ability to shared with nine other cameras, so I get the feeling Samsung thinks most people will be buying multiple cameras and permanently mounting them in several locations. I’m cheap, and just playing around with the device, so I wanted one that was easy to move. To me the perfect solution would be a device with rechargeable batteries that saved film clips to local net devices.

Unless you have a real reason to have a security camera I’m not sure if they are worth the money as a casual toy. If you need to monitor something unattended, or from a distance, this Samsung Smartcam might be a good choice. Read the reviews carefully. It was a big help in catching the rat, but I’m not sure if I have any use for it now. Think hard about why you want a security camera. If you’re really have burglars, then the Dropcam Pro is probably what you want, but be prepared to pay the monthly fees.

JWH