Catching Words With Crosswords

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 17, 2017

I like to imagine my conscious mind as a small boat floating on a sea of memories. Words I readily use swim in schools near the surface. I can  grab them quickly. Other words swim deeper, take longer to catch. Some words dwell in the darkest deeps of my memory sea, taking hours to reel in. Doing crossword puzzles helps me catch words I haven held in my mind for a long time. After I release them, they swim close to the boat for a while, making them easier to catch again.

crossword_puzzle

For most of my life crossword puzzles had little appeal for me. I’ve never been good at games. But last year I started doing the mini-puzzles in the New York Times. I liked them because I could actually finish the grid, which I couldn’t with the full-size puzzles. The mini-puzzles provided positive reinforcement, and only took a few minutes. Which is the limit of my gaming patience. As my confidence grew I looked forward to doing the mini-puzzle each day. My wife Susan, who works out of town, does them too. We do them before our last phone call at night, and compare our completion times. I’ve only beaten her once.

Recently the New York Times sent me an sales pitch – get a year of the full-size puzzles for just $19.95. My new sense of crossword ability con my ego into pressing the buy button. As soon as I started the first full-size puzzle I had buyer’s remorse. They were way too hard for me. They were over my head. I did find it satisfying that I could answer many clues, more than ever before, but felt bad about leaving most boxes empty.

I’m not giving up. I just figured I needed more practice. Then my friend Linda told me about the Dell Crosswords puzzle books. I bought one called Easy Crosswords. And they are easy! Maybe too easy. But it’s very encouraging to complete whole puzzles, and they’re more practice than the mini-puzzles. I’ll get to the big puzzles someday.

I noticed something else. Doing the crosswords made me think of words I seldom used. Ones that swam deep in my sea of memories. This must be why the social security set love doing crosswords. I’ve already started my battle of recalling words (which I know I’ll ultimately lose but will fight the good fight anyway). Every year more nouns and names hang out on the tip of my tongue. Which reminds me of a poem by Bill Collins my friend Connell sent me, called, “Forgetfulness.”

The poem begins:

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

In my struggle to recall words, I’m not sure if they completely disappear, or merely sink too deep to be captured. I’m always surprised by forgotten vocabulary suddenly returning. Doing crossword puzzles churn the words in my sea, keeping them near the surface. One scientific study found that doing crosswords could delay the onset of memory loss by 2.54 years. Other studies show elderly minds can retain elasticity and even grow new brain cells and connections, although those studies focus on aerobic activity, and not games.

Then there is the issue of speed. I feel my mind goes slower than other minds. My wife Susan and my friend Linda can do the mini-puzzles 2-5 times faster than I can. That might explain why I’ve never liked games. It makes me wonder if people who think faster are attracted to games. When I first started doing the NYT’s mini-puzzles they took me 5-12 minutes to complete. I now do the easy ones in 2-4 minutes. Susan and Linda often finish in 1-2 minutes, with occasional times below a minute. I think Susan’s best is 43 seconds.

I’m wondering if I think slower than other people. My wife used to get very impatient with me, finishing my sentences before I could. I complained and she’s been more patient. Which is nice of her, but I can tell I’m slowing her down. Maybe that’s why I like writing better than talking. I can say what I want at my own chosen speed.

Anyway, the point of this story is to express my thanks for crossword puzzles. Hope I didn’t take too long in doing it.

JWH

Spotify vs. Amazon Music

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 12, 2017

I love music. I love technology. And I love music technology.

Decades ago I daydreamed the perfect music delivery technology would be one where I could say out loud the name of the song I wanted to hear and it would instantly play. I even pictured myself taking walks with a cloud of music following me like the dirt cloud following Pigpen, the Peanuts character. The iPhone and ear buds almost creates such magic. Now that I have an Amazon Echo, I feel like a Jetson when I declare to the air I want to hear a song and Alexa plays it. However, I’ve since revised my dream music delivery system. I no longer can remember all my favorite songs or their titles, so the “open sesame” bit isn’t as fantastic as I once imagined. Now I dream about having instant access to all music using a savvy streaming music database that knows everything about the history of music.

I’ve subscribed to many subscription music services over the years, starting with Rhapsody. I’ve hopped from one to the next trying to find the perfect blend of technology, user interface, and music catalog. Spotify is my current favorite. It has 98% of the music I want. It’s very close to a perfect streaming music service. However, in recent months it crashes on my Roku 3, my primary device for listening to music through big speakers. Before Spotify I used Rdio and loved it. But then I tried Spotify on the Roku and it’s user interface blew away Rdio’s. Plus, Spotify would play songs nearly instantaneously, which wasn’t true of Rdio. So I switched. I’ve been mostly content with Spotify, until it started loading slower on the Roku, even freezing up quite often. Spotify is still instant on my computer, tablet and phone, so I assume the problem is with the Roku.

I love my Roku 3, and thought maybe buying the latest Roku model could fix this problem. But what if it didn’t? Since I’m an Amazon Prime customer, I thought of giving the Fire TV a try. But spending $89 to fix the problem via hardware might not be the only solution. I wondered if subscribing to Amazon Music would allow me to keep my Roku 3. So I signed up.

In every way I prefer Spotify except one – but that one feature might make me switch. However, Amazon’s user interface is so clunky that I don’t know if I can. Oh, that one feature? Well it’s going to be hard to explain if you don’t use streaming music. But I will try.

Streaming music services have vast catalogs of music – not everything ever recorded, but it almost feels that way. Once you start using streaming music it’s just too inconvenient playing LPs, CDs or MP3s. They’ve become a damn bother. I stopped listening to The Beatles for years even though I bought their remastered CDs. I was just too lazy to play them. Spotify is that convenient. (The Beatles are now on Spotify.) But every once in a while I really want to hear songs not on Spotify. I have to get out my CDs or play the MP3 from my Amazon cloud player. Not a lot of work, but not my idea of my perfect music system.

For background listening I use playlists, especially one playlist, the “Top 1000” list I’m building. I HATE that I own songs I can’t put on Spotify playlists. Well, that’s the great feature of Amazon. It allows Amazon Music subscribers to play songs from their personal cloud collection. I have 1700 ripped CDs, and some LPs converted to MP3 on my Amazon cloud storage. Making playlists using songs from both pools of music is a snap.

Once in a very blue moon - Nanci GriffithThis means I can create playlists that contain 100% of the songs I want to hear. 98% from streaming and 2% from my personal collection. Now, that’s an over-the-top feature! Maybe it’s a time to switch feature. Of course I’ll have to recreate my Spotify playlists on Amazon. That’s will take some work. Mainly because looking up songs on Amazon Music isn’t as quick and easy as Spotify. Not that Amazon doesn’t have some nifty UI tricks that Spotify doesn’t, but Spotify is what I know, and it’s much more refined.

I could switch to Amazon Music with the hopes that Amazon will perfect its user interface over time. I’ve written a number of essays begging music services for features I want. Being able to upload my music was the major wish. There are many features I want that could get me to switch services again, though. The next biggest feature I want, is for streaming music to incorporate more song/album metadata information. That way I could search for “Jazz albums of the 1950s” or play songs that came out in July, 1965. I want streaming music to have the kind of information that record collectors use. There’s no reason why streaming music couldn’t catalog every album/single ever recorded. But that’s for the far future, maybe 2019 or 2021. Here’s some of the sites I use for music information:

GypsyThere are many different companies offering streaming music. Competition isn’t about price, since $9.99/month is standard, so user features will be everything. For years I’ve been jumping from service to service looking for my music streaming utopia. But as I build longer playlists switching services is getting harder. I thought I was committed to Spotify, but Amazon’s feature of mixing their collection with mine is tempting. However, if a streaming service offered the data services from the above sites, it would make me want to switch again.

To be honest, since streaming music is about convenience, Spotify is more convenient than Amazon Music right now, so I’m sticking with Spotify. What I might use is Amazon Music’s $3.99 a month subscription for Echo owners, and create playlists for Alexa to play me when I want to hear missing music from my collection. However, if Amazon improves their software I would switch. If you’re an Amazon Prime user and are a casual music listener, it’s $7.99 Unlimited plan might be the best deal.

Another feature that would be handy, is a universal file standard for playlists, so we could easily import and export them.

Update: I’ve since discovered that the Amazon Music app on the Roku does not play or show music from Amazon Music – just my music in the cloud. I hope they fix this. I can play music from the blended libraries on my iPhone and send it to my receiver via AirPlay, and that works much better than the Roku App.

[By the way, the album covers I’ve added here are albums not available on streaming.]

JWH

Running Away to Mars

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 8, 2017

While reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a handbook for processing memories, it triggered several vivid revelations about my childhood. Especially the time when I ran away to Mars in 1963. That flashback revealed why I first dropped science fiction. I wanted an antidepressant. Science fiction has proven quite effective at masking reality, because I can’t even remember being depressed. How PKDickian!

Two Mars

A lifetime of contemplating the future has been an excellent mantra for ignoring the present. I am rather disappointed that running away never got me anywhere. I’ve been to Mars many times, but never to the one that exists in reality.

Today I’m plotting my own alternate history timeline. What if I had not run away to Mars back in 1963 and stayed on Earth instead? Wow, that’s more mind-twisting than The Man in the High Castle.

Maybe it wasn’t the Mary Karr book that jarred these insights. Could it have been the election? Have we all run away to imagined worlds? Reality seems so deserted these days.

JWH

5 Goals vs. 25 Goals

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 6, 2017

Grit-by-Angela-DuckworthI’m reading a wonderfully inspiring book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. Duckworth won a MacArthur “genius” grant, pursued several interesting careers, and is currently a teacher focused on helping students find their true passions, showing how grit will get them what they want. The book was often praised in 2016 book reviews, getting on several best-of-year lists, and was featured on PBS’s NOVA program “School of the Future” (also at YouTube). Grit is Duckworth’s first book, and continues to blaze the trail set by other books I’ve admired on the same topic: The Outliers, Talent is Overrated, The Talent Code. They all preach effort counts more than natural abilities. Duckworth observes people who apply themselves persistently getting ahead, a quality we know as grit. Since I’ve never been a particularly gritty person, I love reading this book.

Duckworth profiles many successful people, and I was particularly taken by a story she heard about Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor. Buffett’s advice was to write down 25 career goals. Then do some soul searching and select the five that matter the most. Finally, look at the leftover twenty, and accept they must be ignored at all costs. This bit of ambition triage is a common advice among productivity gurus. It’s old wisdom about focusing. However, I was intrigued by applying this advice to my general goals. Could I boil them down to just 5?

We all want too much, own too much, do too much, befriend too many people, consume too much. It’s much easier to narrow our desires down to a manageable number. But is 5 the right number? If we list everything we want out of life, it will tally more than 25. Now Buffett was specifically referring to career goals, but I want to use his advice for general ambitions. To apply his wisdom holistically.

Rationalizing Buffet’s Advice – Approach #1

I’m also going to do a bit of cheating. I could say my goal is to finish reading Grit. That’s something I can accomplish. But is it what Buffett meant? He meant something bigger. I could say I want to read 52 books a year and I want to get good at math. That would be two goals. Is it cheating to say I have a goal of being well educated and combine my reading and math goals into it? Reducing two to one?

Let’s say we have sixteen hours a day to divvy up between our goals. That’s a little more than three hours for each if we have five goals. But if you have to work, that has to count as one of the goals, and it takes up over half of the day, leaving little for the other four.

Now that I’m retired, I won’t have to waste one of my goals on working. Because of aging, my biggest goal is health. Staying healthy means I can pursue my other goals. Should it count it as a goal? Shouldn’t it just be part of living? I say yes it does count as a goal, because pursuing my health is hard. I show the most grit in life when it comes to staying healthy. I have to, because it’s so easy to careen into unhealthiness.

If I listed every last thing I want to do each day, it would run more than 25 items. But, if I list goals by their intent, I can get them down to 5 items:

  1. Constantly work at improving my health
  2. Constantly work at improving my writing
  3. Constantly work at improving my relationships
  4. Constantly work at learning more about reality 
  5. Constantly work at making the world a better place

Notice that all my goals will never be accomplished? And to be honest, I do very little towards number five. And because I’m getting older, and my mental and physical abilities are in decline, means my ability to work harder is declining. All my goals are losing battles. I can’t stop and cross off any as finished.

Below are many goal categories that could cover countless specific goals, but in general, they are goals that do have finishes. For example owning a new car or learning statistics with R.

  1. Possessions
  2. Careers
  3. Pleasures
  4. Hobbies
  5. Entertainments
  6. Skills
  7. Games
  8. Accomplishments

Improving my health does require many sub-goals like eating better, exercise, taking medicine, going to the doctor, learning to cook healthy meals, shopping for natural foods, etc. I no longer eat for pleasure, entertainment or even socializing. If I was a gourmet, I’d have to list it as one of my main goals. If I loved cooking or growing food, they would have to be a separate goal too. If I loved playing golf or cross-country biking, I couldn’t count them under health as exercise, I’d have to count them as sports goals. If I pursued both passionately, they would count as two.

I don’t know if this is cheating on Buffet’s advice or not. I think of a goal as a specific quest, but all the things I’ve defined as goals can’t be finished. Buffet might have been thinking of something that could be accomplished, and scratched off a list – like making a million dollars. My goals are states of being I constantly strive to attain and never abandon.

With all my present goals I could show more grit. I would be much healthier if I could lose weight, and that would take some severe persistence I haven’t shown in a long time.

My shifting away from specific goals is due to aging. Take for example games. I’ve never really cared much for winning games, and generally when I played them it was to be social. When video games first appeared in arcades I felt challenged to get high scores, but tired of that after turning over Space Invaders. Now I play games like crosswords to improve my memory and focus. Pleasures like eating, drinking, drugs, travel, are becoming pointless because my body can’t handle them. My plant based diet isn’t miserable, but it’s certainly not something I desire. Eating for fun only hurts now. My only indulgence is dark chocolate covered almonds. It meets the requirement of the diet – barely, and I enjoy them, but it’s hardly a goal of eating gourmet food.

My main goal after health is writing. I could call that goal seeking identity. We all need a goal that defines us, where we find a sense of identity by pursuing. I think of myself as a blogger. When I worked, I thought of myself as a programmer. I can say that blogging also applies to my goal of health. Regular writing exercises my brain. Writing also gives me to look forward to and to get up and do each day.

I put friendships and socializing as my third goal, even though being social is also part of staying healthy. I’m mostly a hermit, but I do feel a certain need to socialize. At one time I would have put movies and television as two of my major goals because I loved them so much, and spent so much time with them, but I use both now as methods of socializing. I’m slowly fading away from enjoying fiction as a solitary pursuit.

Number four is about education. My reading is veering towards learning, and not pleasure. Nonfiction might be my new entertainment. Learning has become my new fun, maybe even my escapism. And in this crazy world of Donald Trump, learning to tell shit from Shinola is more vital than ever.

My last goal, and one I spend almost zero time on, is helping the world. I suppose if I wrote something useful, that could count, but if I’m totally honest, writing is for me. I work a recycling, conserving energy, consuming less. I try to be ethical in my behavior. I donate a little money here and there. At minimum I try to do no harm and maintain a small footprint on the environment. I’m 99% selfish though, and I think most of us are. I think all the problems in the world are due to selfishness. We all should give more time to altruism. I admire people who spend a great deal of their time being selfless. This is where I show the least grit.

Following Buffet’s Advice Without Rationalization – Approach #2

  1. Get a book of nonfiction published
  2. Get a novel published
  3. Get an essay published in a print magazine
  4. Get a short story published in a print magazine
  5. Learn to draw simple scenes of nature
  6. Learn to program digital music
  7. Digitize all my photographs and store them in three cloud locations
  8. Relearn math through calculus, linear algebra and statistics
  9. Write a blog about the best albums that came each year since the invention of the LP
  10. Become a really good minimalist
  11. Live in New York City for a year
  12. Build a parallel processing super-computer out of Raspberry Pi modules
  13. Write a program to produce meta-lists from multiple lists
  14. Sell the house and get a perfect apartment in a high-rise in a 55+ community
  15. Learn to travel cross country and not be afraid to travel alone
  16. Create a blog post that outlines the history of impressionistic art
  17. Learn to grow plants indoors for healthy air, herbs and maybe fruits and veggies
  18. Write an essay about the best jazz albums of the 1950s
  19. Learn Python and get into machine learning and text processing
  20. Learn R and statistics
  21. Decorate the house so it reflects my personality
  22. Move to a city where I can live without a car
  23. Build a robot that does something interesting
  24. Move to a foreign city for a year – London, Paris or Tokyo
  25. Take up bird watching

These are 25 things that popped into my head that I want to do. I could list a lot more. If I opened my folders of unfinished essays, novels and nonfiction books, I’d have hundreds of items to add to the list. What Buffett really meant was to pick 5, and to stop thinking about all the rest. What Duckworth’s book is all about is finding the few goals that align with our passions and persist at working towards those goals hour after hour until they are finished.

What I need to do is figure out which kind of goal oriented person I want to be. My first approach works well with my retired lifestyle, and my actual personality. The second approach is about succeeding at specific accomplishments. I’ve never been that kind of person, probably because of a lack of grit. But I’ve always wanted to be.

When I woke up I had the single goal of writing “7 Generations of Science Fiction.” I thought the many ways I could write it before I got up. I still plan to write that essay, but for some reason this essay grabbed me in the shower and wouldn’t let go. Every morning I get up and something grabs my attention, and it becomes my goal of the day.

Ultimately, it comes down to one goal, the one you work on.

JWH

7 Scary Traits of Climate Change Deniers

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 30, 2017

We’ve been hearing about climate change for decades. We’re bombarded with scary documentaries, long range forecasts, books, essays, news reports, science fiction on what global warming will do to Earth.

What I find even scarier are the psychological traits of climate change deniers.

climate-change-NASA

The power of denial might be eviler than actual climate change. Those traits reveal the limitation of the human mind. Our species, even with the best brains on the planet, might not be smart enough to save ourselves from self-destruction. Here are some psychological traits that could be more dangerous than increase CO2.

Egotism

Climate change deniers reveal their massive egos by their righteousness. The world has spent trillions of dollars on supercomputers, satellites, monitoring stations, laboratories while hiring vast armies of scientists with Ph.D.s to use that equipment.  97% of scientists analyzing the results show climate change is real. As long as we have a significant percentage of human population thinking they are smarter than all the scientists, computers, and science, we’re in big trouble.

Anti-Science

Science is our only tool for consistently understanding reality. Science is based the statistical consensus of evidence. Its methodology is designed to be immune to nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, philosophy or other biases. To reject science is to reject any hope of objectively understanding reality. People who trust science by flying on an airplane or having brain surgery but deny other scientific results indicate that humans might not be rational enough to survive as a species.

Greed

Greed is the main reason people believe they’re right and climate scientists are wrong. Solving climate change requires global cooperation, powerful governments, and taxes, three concepts hated by fundamental conservatives because it undermines their essential gospel of no taxes. In other words, they’d rather get rich than save the world.

Rationalization

The percentage of people who can brainwash themselves into denying climate change is terrifying. Their egos can embrace poorly educated talk show hosts over legions of highly trained scientists reveals a limited grasp of reality. Part of this comes from our ability to believe. The same trait allows humans to accept Jesus and positively know they’ve gained immortality. We can rationalize anything, and that’s dangerous.

Religion

Religion isn’t inherently anti-science. In fact, some churches are embracing global warming as a moral issue. However, hatred of science is a trait of many religious believers. They see science in opposition to religion, and since climate change is on the side of science, they have to choose the other side. To them, the choice is everlasting life and science.

Anti-Fate

Many people deny climate change because they hate fate. Climate change feels too much like fate, even though it isn’t. We can avoid global warming if we choose. Ironically, by denying a possible future they are creating it. They feel climate change represents an inevitable future, and they reject that.

Anti-Responsibility

Another trait of deniers is they deny responsibility to their descendants even when they’re family oriented. Instead of wanting to protect future generations, they shove their heads into the sand. They are denying an obligation to their children, grandchildren, and future generations. Climate change deniers deny the sins of the fathers.

JWH

My Book Addiction is Getting Out of Control

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, January 28, 2017

toomanybooksI wrote, “Hi, I’m a Book Addict” for Book Riot hoping the act of writing would exorcise my demon. It hasn’t. Below is a list of books I’ve bought this month. It’s about a year’s worth of reading since I read a book a week. I’m buying 10-12 books for every one I read, which I know sounds insane, but doesn’t stop me.

I’ve annotated the list with my rationalization for buying the book. I know I’m being impractical. I know I’m wasting money. It gives me pleasure to shop for books, especially to find bargains, but those are not reasonable justifications. This compulsive behavior does reveal a pathological need to “own” knowledge. Because my memory is failing, owning a book, especially an old favorite, is a way of keeping it in memory. My new memory is my iPhone, which has become my real auxiliary memory. I guess it’s an external brain, making me a tiny bit of a cyborg.

This list of books reflects what I want to know. Pathetically, not by study, but by acquisition.

Access to cheap books is the main cause of my addiction. Most of the books below cost me just a $1.99. Used books, either from my library’s used bookstore or ABEbooks.com average around $4. Here are the daily newsletters I get that announce bargain books:

I’ve hyperlinked some titles to show why the book is worth reading. If you want to maintain your place in the list, just right-click and select open in new window to read the annotation.

  1. Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley – read twice, want to keep for memory
  2. Draw Lab for Mixed Media Artists by Carla Sonheim – to inspire me to draw
  3. Time is the Simplest Thing by Clifford D. Simak – collecting Simak on the cheap
  4. 10-Minute Digital Declutter by S. J. Scott – love books about minimalizing
  5. 10-Minute Declutter by S. J. Scott – love books about minimalizing
  6. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – classic I’ve always wanted to read
  7. On the Road by Jack Kerouac – read many times wanted a copy for my iPhone
  8. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn – always wanted to read
  9. The Social Organism by Oliver Luckett – about social media
  10. The Grid by Gretchen Bakke – about our aging power grid
  11. Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem – interesting feminist take
  12. In the Darkroom Susan Faludi – one of the best books of 2016
  13. Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez – start ups at Silicon Valley
  14. Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth – rock music of 1971
  15. Kill ‘Em and Leave by James McBride – James Brown
  16. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – best books of 2016
  17. Schaum’s Outline of Mathematica by Eugene Don – to use with Mathematic on my Raspberry Pi
  18. Schaum’s Outline of PreCalculus by Fred Safier – I’m dreaming big
  19. Complete Book of Home Inspection by Norman Becker – should keep an eye on my  house
  20. How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen – how to measure success in life
  21. College Algebra DeMYSTIFieD by Rhonda Huettenmueller – my dream of relearning math
  22. Pre-Calculus DeMYSTIFieD by Rhonda Huettenmueller – my dream of relearning math
  23. How to Diagnose and Fix Everything Electronic by Michael Geier – I want to learn about electronics
  24. Practical Electronics for Inventors by Paul Scherz – I want to learn about electronics
  25. Schaum’s Outline of Linear Algebra by Seymour Lipschutz – my dream of relearning math
  26. Schaum’s Outline of Precalculus by Fred Safier – my dream of relearning math
  27. Why We Read Fiction by Lisa Zunshine (ebook and audio) – why do we read fiction?
  28. Altamont by Joel Selvin – the evil twin of Woodstock
  29. Summary of Analysis of Hidden Figures by Worth Books – wanted to see how a book is summarized
  30. The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall E. Stross – bio of Edison
  31. Visual Intelligence by Amy E. Herman – to improve my powers of observation
  32. Extreme Focus by Dominic Mann – want to improve my concentration
  33. Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein – old favorite to keep on iPhone
  34. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes – great science history
  35. Wonderful Town by David Remnick – New York as viewed by the New Yorker
  36. Time and Again by Clifford D. Simak – collection Simak on the cheap
  37. Console Wars by Blake J. Harris – love tech history
  38. Island by Aldous Huxley (ebook and audio) – admire Huxley and always wanted to read it
  39. The Best American Short Stories 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  40. The Best American Essays 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  41. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  42. The Best American Travel Writing 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  43. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 – love this series, get them cheap once a year
  44. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt – books to read because of Trump
  45. A Case of Conscience by James Blish – classic of science fiction I want to keep on iPhone
  46. The Second Golden Age of Science Fiction Megapack by Mark Clifton – first Hugo winning novel for 99 cents
  47. The More of Less – by Joshua Becker – love books on minimalism, might help with this book problem
  48. The Hollywood History of the World by George MacDonald Fraser – I’m writing essay on Hollywood’s treatment of history
  49. The  New Painting by Charles Moffert – I’m fascinated by the Impressionists
  50. On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – writing article about rereading
  51. Composing Digital Music for Dummies – I’d love to learn to use digital music programs
  52. The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – read library copy wanted one for me
  53. Mind Tools by Rudy Rucker – my kind of book
  54. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong – another top 2016 book
  55. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
  56. The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

JWH

The Memory Gym—Exercising Our Words

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 26, 2017

I don’t believe I have Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia – yet, but I am having memory problems, ones that are common to getting old. All my friends are having this problem. We especially have trouble recalling names, titles or proper nouns. Quite often we say things like, “Oh, you know, what’s her name, you know, who was in what’s that film, the one about, you know, that thing …” Everything is on the tip of our tongue. Often the word or name we’re looking for will pop up in our head hours later, which implies an access problem and not a storage issue. It’s like having a junk drawer with all kinds of stuff, and we know a 1/4 teaspoon measurer is in there somewhere, but we can’t find it. We can usually find the 1 tablespoon measurer because we use it more often.

Is that the key – using our words more often?

Brain-Fitness

I had an idea in the shower. What if I made a list of all the subjects I want to retrain mastery of as I get old, and then for each topic make a list of key words and names that associate with that idea, and then study those lists regularly, would that help? Or does it matter? I have to consider I might be forgetting these words because they aren’t worth remembering. On the other hand, maybe I’m becoming forgetful because I’m not exercising those words enough. What if language is like muscles and could be exercised? We go to gyms to keep our bodies in shape, why not have a gym for pumping words?

Yesterday’s experience of “What Was Her Name?” left me feeling slightly despondent. I have two natures, ones I call Western and Eastern, for their philosophies. My Buddha natures allows me to graciously accept the fate of getting old. It’s natural and inevitable. On the other hand, my Puritanical heritage tells me I should fight till the bitter end – to conquer nature, to stomp it in the ground. If I had been on the Titanic the western side would make a raft out of deck chairs. My Eastern side would sit in a deck chair cherishing the experience.

What’s fascinating about this morning idea of a memory gym is realizing there are cognitive areas I want to maintain and those that I would abandon. That I’d be willing to commit triage on my memories. I’m also fascinating by which topics I’d pick to study. Would I study jazz or politics? Science fiction or science? History or current events?

When they attacked what’s his name for not knowing any world leaders I thought, “Well, shit, I can’t think of any either.” Actually, as time passed I thought of a few. Should I waste time learning the names of Trump’s cabinet? Or would those memory cells be better used memorizing the best jazz albums of the 1950s?

I had a friend who told me before he died, and it was probably suicide, that he had gotten down to loving  only two things in life – Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. I thought that very sad, because I loved countless things at the time. I thought his depression had limited his interests, but now I wonder if it was memory. I can’t remember all those things I loved when I had that last phone call with John.

Growing up we chase after many interests, but as we get older, it gets harder to keep up with all our passions. Our brains get stuffed, and then they start to leak. Do we need to consciously make an effort to retain what we love most?

I’m learning there’s a relationship between words and what we love. Without words to define our memories, everything fades into the background chaos of reality. I have had two experiences of losing my ability to use words. Once in the sixties when I took too much acid, and once when I had a mini-stroke. In each case, as my ability to use words returned I realized their power. I can’t tell you what that feels like, but I can give you something to contemplate. Think of you, your dog and a ball. Both of you see the ball, but what does words give you?

For a Zen master, collie dog, baby, and old person without words, a ball is just a ball. Now think about a football player and fan, and how words let them make so much more of a ball. Right now I love listening to jazz and knowing its history. When my words are gone I’ll still love listening, but I’ll miss the history. What is “A Love Supreme” without the words of the title or the words John Coltrane? Without words it will only exist when playing, like a tree falling in the forest. With words it can exist as part of my personality.

A Love Supreme

JWH