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Archiving the Past for the Future

Are you throwing away history? How you perceive yourself is determined by what you remember. How society remembers itself is through histories. Histories are written based on the evidence the past leaves for the future.

If our eyes and ears were a video camera, each day we take in several terabytes of information, yet we remember very little. Our brains decide to throw away most of our sensory input. How many commutes to work or school can you remember? There are many theories as to how we select what to save, but I don’t science has found a consensus yet. We can’t recall the past with TiVo-like utility. Our memories are vague impressions squirreled away inside our heads. Most people don’t have photographic memories, much less video-graphic. This is also true of historians, they only have tiny incomplete fragments of the past.

Now that we’re entering into the Marie Kondo phase of our lives, many of us are throwing away the physical evidence of what we’ve done at the same time many of us have become interested genealogy. If you’ve ever watched Finding Your Roots you know how important physical records are for reconstructing the past. What’s true for individuals is even truer for society.

My father died when I was 18, and I’ve often wished I had more evidence of his life to figure out who he was. I don’t have that evidence, but I wonder if it exists elsewhere. I’ve also wanted more evidence of my own life to remember who I was. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading about world history, trying to put together a consistent memory of our past. Too much of history is opinion because we don’t have enough hard evidence.

The current decluttering mania teaches us to categorize our discards into three piles: Keep, Give Away or Sell, or Throw Away. I believe we should keep an eye out for a fourth category – Save for History. When we hold an object and ask ourselves, “Does it bring me joy?” we should also ask, “Could future historians use this?” The trouble is, what is of historical value, and who do we give it to?

Any document that connects people to events might be valuable. Of course, ticket stubs to a Bob Dylan concert might only help you remember where you were on a night in 1978. But what about a schedule of speeches for a conference? Or an old menu saved for sentimental reasons? Or a video of a family reunion? Or a catalog from an art exhibit? Anything that might help other people remember might be worthy to save.

We need to think about how we remember who we are as a society and what artifacts to save? I’m currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and I’m amazed by how much information we have about people who lived over five hundred years ago. Few of us have that kind of information even if we wanted to write our own autobiographies. Evidently, people who get into genealogy learn what’s important to identify people connections. And anyone who has written up an event or documented a house for sale knows about the importance of supporting facts.

What evidence should we save today about our past to help people in the future understand us? I’ve acquired a new hobby of scanning old magazines and fanzines. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people digitizing popular culture and uploading it into libraries, and sites on the internet like Internet Archive. However, like our own minds, we have to decide what tiny bit is worth saving, and what massive amount of junk is not. We’re actually Marie Kondoising our culture every day.

The next time you have a box of junk to throw out, don’t just ask if each item gives you joy, but would it give a future historian joy too.

One kind of evidence I ache to have for my own personal history are photographs. I wish I had pictures of all my schools and classmates since kindergarten. I also wish I had photos of all the houses I’ve lived in, their yards, and of each room. My father was in the Air Force and we moved around so much that I can’t remember all the houses I lived in or the schools I attended. I wish I had evidence to recreate that knowledge. In other words, I wish I had documentation to support my memory. There’s a chance that other people photographed what I wanted. It’s a shame we don’t have a photograph database, especially one controlled by artificial intelligence with machine learning.

PBS - Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.Most of us do not have evidence that will matter to historians, but you never know. And even if we did, how do we pass it on? If you’re a famous person you can donate your papers to a library. One thing us ordinary folks can do is to share photographs with relatives, or anyone who is pictured in the photographs. I have some old school yearbooks that I’m going to scan and upload to the Internet Archive. Yearbooks are starting to show up there. I keep hoping yearbooks from schools I went to that I don’t have will show up. Classmates.com has yearbooks for a fee, and I use it, but I think this information should be public. Eventually, items in the Internet Archive, which hopes to save everything digitally, will be churned through by AI and data miners, and there’s no telling what kind of results will turn up. I highly recommend watching the PBS show Finding Your Roots to see how sleuthing personal histories work.

I’m also scanning and uploading old fanzines to Internet Archive. It’s a skill that takes a little work to acquire, but I like rescuing these old documents. I worked in a library while going to college, and one of my jobs was finding missing issues to make whole volumes to bind. I’d send snail mail requests around the world to track down lost/stolen issues. Now, I get on eBay to look for missing issues to scan.

I haven’t gotten into genealogy yet, but I’ve thought about getting into that hobby just learn what kinds of things people save. I’m just getting into this idea of what to save for history. I know I don’t have items for big history, but I wonder if I have little clues that other people want for their small histories.

JWH

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CBS All Access – A Failed New TV Paradigm

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 9, 2019

Watching TV shows has gone through a number of paradigm shifts.

  1. Broadcast – watch a limited set of shows by a schedule – free
  2. Cable – watch expanded lists of shows by a schedule – costly
  3. VCR – watch shows by your schedule – the clutter of tapes
  4. DVR – watch shows by your schedule – no clutter
  5. Streaming – watch shows on demand without a schedule
  6. DVD – collect and own shows
  7. Library – watch shows without owning media. This is where CBS All Access fails.

Recently I decided to watch every episode of Perry Mason from start to finish. Here’s how it would have worked under each paradigm.

Broadcast: Back in the 1950s if I wanted to watch every episode of Perry Mason I needed to be at my TV set each week and it would have taken nine years to finish. Eventually, it was syndicated and I could have caught all the shows if I was diligent.

Cable: Starting in the 1970s, cable brought back many old shows, sometimes airing them multiple times a day. It became easier to eventually catch every episode of a TV series, but it still took months.

VCR: With a videotape machine it was possible to let the machine do the watching on the schedule, and then binge watch when in the mood. A big step forward, but the video quality of videotape was never very good, and managing all those tapes was a pain in the ass.

DVR: Recording to a hard drive was much nicer than messing with tapes. However, DVRs limited the number of shows you could keep on hand. I was watching Perry Mason on my TiVo last year recording the shows off of MeTV. But I could only keep so many without filling up my drive. This was a hybrid of broadcast/DVR that wasn’t really satisfactory because I don’t get good reception, and I couldn’t keep the shows.

Streaming:  I don’t remember Perry Mason ever being on Hulu or Netflix, but it could have been. Watching old TV shows via streaming depends on which service has the rights to stream at the moment. Shows don’t stay permanently on any single streaming service but jump around.

DVD: I could have bought the entire Perry Mason series on DVDs. But I’ve gotten so I hate owning crap, so I figured I’d give CBS All Access a try.

Library: When I first heard about CBS All Access it seemed to promise access to every TV show CBS ever broadcast. I assumed if there were enough CBS shows I wanted to watch like Perry Mason it might be worth paying them $10 a month for life so I wouldn’t have to buy DVD sets of everything. They are starting to pile up, and I really don’t want to be a DVD librarian. CBS All Access appealed to me as a permanent streaming library of shows I could depend on.

But CBS All Access has failed me. It doesn’t offer anything like all the shows it broadcast, and its Perry Mason collection is only partial. I thought it had the first 5 seasons. I subscribed thinking maybe by the time I watched those five seasons it will have added seasons 6-9. Then I discovered in season 2 they were skipping episodes. I know this is terribly anal of me, but that bummed me out. My goal was to watch every episode in order and yesterday I came to a roadblock at Season 2 Episode 18. Damn!

CBS apparently wants to compete with the Netflix model. But there’s only so many streaming services that I can afford. CBS All Access doesn’t have the massive catalog that Netflix has, nor does it have anywhere near the number of original programming shows. It can’t be Netflix. But I thought it might be a new paradigm. A large library of complete TV shows that never changed. Instead of buying several DVD sets of complete series, I was hoping that CBS Access would have enough shows to keep me busy for years and let me feel I had a permanent library of shows to access at will.

I often read about an episode of a TV show and want to watch it. I thought CBS All Access would be a new paradigm of TV, a permanent library of TV shows I could reference at ease.

CBS All Access fails at this potential new paradigm. Here are some of the CBS shows I expected to see in its permanent library – the ones I remember from growing up:

As I get older I feel a nostalgic need to watch old shows now and then. My TV watching fell off after 1970. There were many later CBS shows I’d love to see again, like Northern Exposure, but I don’t feel like going through 1971-2019 TV seasons on Wikipedia to find them. But this gives an adequate sample list of what I expected from CBS All Access.

It should have been called CBS Partial Access. Here’s what I wished CBS had offered:

CBS Television and Library – $9.99/month

  • Live Broadcast mode – with commercials
  • Binge Watching mode – complete series without commercials
  • Time Travel mode – Pick and date and time and watch shows from that date with original commercials, including news programs.

JWH

 

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Creating v. Consuming

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 2, 2019

Back in the 1970s when I used to visit New Age seminars I met a woman who claimed there were two types of people in this world: those that create and those who consume. I thought that was an interesting distinction, but probably bullshit. But every now and then I think about it. Most people read books, few write them. Most people listen to music, few play it. Yet, even a brilliant writer is a consumer when it comes to music, television, music, and even books too. And being creative doesn’t mean being an artist. Anyone with a job creates.

Since retiring I’ve thought about this insight differently. Without our 9-to-5, we spend a whole lot more time consuming and less creating, unless we have a hobby, volunteer, or pursue some other creative outlet. Cleaning house is creative – you’re making order out of chaos, but do you feel that when you do your chores?

I realize much of my happiness comes from waking up and thinking of something to do each day. Yesterday I wrote “Fantastic Universe (1953-1960)” which involved making almost 200 links to the web and the gathering of many facts. In the big scheme of things, this tiny bit of creative effort isn’t very important, but it gave me something creative to do. Creative not in the sense of Picasso, but in the sense of not consuming.

It made me happy. I know retired people who are restless, and even unhappy. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Even knowing what I’m saying here, it’s very hard to just pick something to do. Creativity, no matter how mundane, requires a drive. Having a drive to blog makes me lucky. I can’t tell my restless friends to start blogging. It won’t work if they don’t have the drive.

The morning, The New York Times presented “The Queen of Change” by Penelope Green about Julia Cameron and her classic book The Artist’s Way. Most people who read this book do so because they want to pursue a traditionally creative endeavor. But, could her approach work for finding mundane creative endeavors in retirement? Most people seeking to be creative want to be successful artistically. But is that really important? Isn’t merely being creative at anything worthy in itself? Maybe my restless friends should read it.

I am still a big consumer. I actually love consuming movies, TV shows, music, books, essays, and short stories. It’s just unfulfilling to do it all the time. I think we need a certain amount of time when we’re creating, but I don’t know if it has to ambitious creativity. Piddling at something you love can be all the difference between happiness and unhappiness.

I’ve come to realize that I’m a happy person because when I wake up in the morning I start thinking about things I want to do. I worry about my friends who aren’t lucky that way. I’m afraid if I try to judge the worthiness of my piddling activities my happiness will break. I wonder if my unhappy friends kill their drive to do something because they deem it unworthy before they even try?

JWH

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What Do the TV Shows I’m Addicted to Say About Me?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Have you ever wondered what our lives would be like without television? Television is like the proverbial sixth that lets us see and hear across space and time. We could have used television technology to extend the reach of our eyes and ears to real-time events in reality. My wife spends endless hours watching an eagle’s nest in Florida, but few people watch live cams. Most of us watch recorded shows. Either fiction or nonfiction. And as much as I love documentaries and news programs, my real TV addiction has been to fictional shows.

When you think about it, isn’t it rather odd that we have this technology to spy on reality across the globe but we prefer inputting make-believe into our eyes and ears instead? I can only assume watching our favorite television shows is a rejection of reality.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not about to tell you to stop watching television. I’ve had a lifelong addiction to television and there’s little chance I’m going to give it up now. I do feel I’ve gotten my TV habit under control though. I only watch 2-3 hours a day, and one of those hours is my routine of watching the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy with my wife Susan. For the first ten years of our marriage, we spent primetime together every night, but we’ve slowly drifted apart preferring other shows.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I remember watching television every evening with my family. I had my favorite shows I looked forward to each week, but I wasn’t obsessed with watching every episode. Beginning this century with complete seasons on DVD or streaming an entire series from the first episode to last, I’ve developed the habit of binge-watching completed series from the past. Now that feels like an addiction. Looking back I realize my TV viewing habits have changed many times since 1955. That’s when I remember watching my first TV show.

I’m realizing what I’ve been doing recently is going back over a lifetime of television watching and picking out certain shows to watch every episode in order. Here’s are the shows I’m currently working my way through:

Now, this does not cover any of the dozens of TV shows from the 21st-century that I’ve watched every episode as they came out.

I keep asking myself why I’m drawn to those old TV programs when we have the latest shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, CBS All-Access, The Great Courses, Curiosity Stream, and Acorn TV to watch.

I keep thinking I need to psychoanalyze myself. I accept TV watching as my addiction, but I keep wondering why I pick the stories that I do. Most nights I flip through all the new offerings and end up watching either Perry Mason or Route 66. These shows give me the most pleasure at the moment. And it’s not necessarily nostalgia because I didn’t watch them when they first ran. Oh, I saw a couple episodes back then, but I was too young to appreciate them. My ten-year-old head was into Dobie Gillis and The Flintstones back then.

While Susan is in the living watching her shows late at night, I’m watching old black and white TV shows from the late 1950s. There’s a certain surreal quality to that. I feel like I’m channeling my parents who would have been in their forties at the time. These were their favorite shows. Or maybe I’m channeling the whole era from when I was growing up.

If watching TV is rejecting reality, then watching old TV is rejecting modern reality and the alternate reality of modern TV shows. There’s a weirdness to that. Think about it, TV is how we turn off our senses to the present and provide an alternative input. Why am I feeding my brain 60-year-old TV shows? What does that say about myself? And if I also admit to focusing on reading science fiction short stories from the 1940s and 1950s, I’ve got to wonder about my connection to the present.

It’s telling we prefer fiction to reality, but isn’t it also revealing what kinds of fiction we prefer for our substitute of reality?

Last night Susan and I made a Spotify playlist to share where we only added songs we both loved. Most of them were from the 1960s and 1970s. Tomorrow night we’re going out on the coldest night of the year and pay for high-priced movie tickets to watch The Wizard of Oz from 1939 on the big screen, a movie I got addicted to as a kid from its yearly showing on TV.

(By the way, I’m not completely out of touch with modern pop culture. I’ve already seen 6 of the 8 Best Picture Oscar nominations for this year, and will probably see the other two before the Oscars are revealed. I’ve lost touch with modern music, but I’m going to be really worried about myself when I no longer keep up with movies too.)

JWH

 

 

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Do Bookworms Read Too Many Books?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 27, 2019

Yesterday I reread “Vintage Season” by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner for the third time. I’ve read the story twice in the last ten months. This time I read “Vintage Season” by listening to an audio edition on headphones while simultaneously reading the words on my iPad. Consuming fiction via two senses is the penultimate way to get into a story. I believe the ultimate way to fully experience a work of fiction is to read it several times.

The trouble with rereading is our TBR piles are always growing. We’re driven to brain-cram as many new stories into one lifetime as possible. Reading a story once is like driving through a city and claiming you’ve been there. Rereading a story the first time is like a two-day stay. Reading a story many times is like visiting a town for weeks. Literary scholars are those folks who move into a story as a permanent residence.

There’s value to being widely traveled in books, but at some point, all the places start looking the same. It’s a shame we can’t read everything. Even if I read just the great books, this lifetime won’t be enough.

Fiction is like finding old dinosaur bones. The first reading is an amateur fossil hunter digging up the bones and getting a rough idea what the creature looked like. Rereading is a professional paleontologist carefully reconstructing every aspect of that dinosaur.

The first time I read “Vintage Season” decades ago it was just another mind-blowing science fiction story. However, it stayed with me. I don’t actually remember the title of very many short stories, but I remembered this one. When I reread the story the second time last March when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A came out on audio, it was like watching an old favorite movie I had first seen as a kid on a black and white TV and seeing it again on a new high definition TV and then realizing it wasn’t a black and white movie, but a Technicolor masterpiece. Reading “Vintage Season” again yesterday while listening to the audio version, felt like I was walking around inside a 3D movie.

This intense immersion with a story will not work with all stories. Every work of fiction is a creative vision by a writer encrypted and compressed into words. Fantastically rich visions can’t be decrypted and decompressed in one reading.

If our reading lives are racing through one new book after another we’re barely getting the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story, and if we’re speed reading, it’s just an introductory abstraction.

I am now torn between chasing after all those novels and short stories I want to read before I die and rereading old favorites knowing I might reach a higher plane of bookworm existence.

JWH

 

 

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As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019

Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.

Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.

robinson-crusoe-on-mars

The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist.  Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.

Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?

The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.

f&sf-sept-1958

I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?

I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.

The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.

mars rover

I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?

Or do you still want to go?

JWH

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Creating Something Useful in Retirement

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 17, 2019

For their retirement project, Greg Hullender and Eric Wong created Rocket Stack Rank that reviews and rates science fiction and fantasy short stories as they come out in eleven SF/F magazines and some anthologies. It’s a major undertaking they’ve been working on since 2015. Rocket Stack Rank is quite a resource and especially useful if you love shorter works of science fiction. I subscribe to four magazines they review, and their reviews show up very quickly after a new issue appears. Because I’m always so busy reading older stories, I use their ratings to take my head out of the past and put it in the present. But I also admire the web design and programming that also goes into their site.

Greg and Eric have been buddies for twenty years. My friend Mike and I have been reading and discussing science fiction for almost forty years. Mike inspired me to create the Classics of Science Fiction list back in the 1980s. Since 2016 Mike has been programming the database for the site and this year created the query system that lets users build their own lists. We think of the site as our retirement project. It gives us purpose and hopefully provides a useful tool for other people.

However, recently we started wondering if all the work was worth the effort because very few people use our site. Identifying the most remembered science fiction stories of the past is going to appeal to a very niche crowd. The new query system that Mike has spent a great deal of time perfecting only gets a few people using it a day. We were planning to expand its features but have been wondering if its worth the effort. Mike loves to program and this gives him a project to work on, but is it the best use of his time? I spend a lot of time researching, data inputting, and writing essays for the site.

Last night we were asking ourselves if success is determined by the number of users. If we enjoy the effort does it matter how many people use the site? In one sense no, but we do want to create tools people will use. We have to balance the fact that a new feature might require hundreds or even thousands of hours of work against its future utility. We’ve been disappointed the CSF Query (Classics of Science Fiction Query) hasn’t gotten more users. We think it’s partly due to people not knowing about it, and mostly due to people not needing it.

CSF Query is the kind of tool in your toolbox that you will only need rarely, but when the need arises it’s perfect for the job. For example, Paul Fraser at SF Magazines created a listing of stories that can be considered for the 1944 Retro Hugo Awards. So far he’s found 326 stories from about a dozen 1943 pulp magazines that qualify. That’s quite of bit of work. If you set CSF Query for 1943 and a minimum of 1 citation and hit Search you’ll get all the stories that are remembered in our Classics of Science Fiction database. Our work compliments his. The fun challenge to Retro Hugo voters is to see if any of the 326 stories in Paul’s list that aren’t remembered in our list are worth rediscovering. Our list shows the stories that have been remembered in major anthologies since 1943. So CSF Query reduces 326 down to 20. If you change the minimum citation to 2 and hit Search it reduces the number of stories to 7, showing the most popular SF stories remembered since 1943. In this case, our tool is useful for showing how often an SF story was remembered by fans and editors.

I also love to use CSF Query to look at years and decades, or which works by a particular author were their most remembered stories. By changing the citation level CSF Query can zero in on the most remembered SF stories.

Of course, just how many people will want to do this on any given day? Mike and I have been thinking about adding a new feature that would allow users to query the database by theme. That would allow readers who want to read all the most popular stories about colonizing Mars a way to find them. Trying to catalog all science fiction stories by their themes would be impossible, but I’ve thought it might be possible to do the 275 stories on the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories list, and 139 books on the Classics of Science Fiction list. But researching 414 stories and deciding their themes would still be a huge task. It’s the kind of obsessive bibliographic undertaking that I would find pleasurable, but would it be all that useful to other people?

I believe having hobbies and projects in retirement are very important. Just existing every day consuming air, water, food, television shows, books, music, movies, etc. is pleasurable, but doesn’t make me look forward to the future. I like having a sense of building something, even if it’s tiny and only valued by me. But it’s even more rewarding when I create something useful to others, even if it’s only to a few people.

The other night I watched a documentary, Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams, an obscure writer I’ve not read. I saw this preview and couldn’t resist buying it. Near the end, the documentary maker is interviewing Harlan Ellison and laments that not enough people read Clark Ashton Smith. Ellison tells him that it doesn’t matter how many people read CAS, the number is what it is, but he is important to the readers who have found him. Our retirement project is important to us and the people who actually like using it, no matter what that number turns out to be.

JWH

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How to Read The Federalist Papers

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 15, 2019

As previously mentioned, my two-person book club has decided to study The Federalist Papers. Linda and I are two liberals who want to understand conservative philosophy and these 85 essays that began appearing in 1787 are considered essential to understanding how our union was formed while detailing the reach and limits of the federal government.

There are a number of problems in reading and understanding these essays. First, the language is 18th-century English can be difficult for modern readers. Second, it helps to understand the times in which they were written. This is before our Constitution was ratified. Back then, most nations on Earth were ruled by some kind of aristocracy, so we must envision a group of men theorizing how ordinary people could rule themselves. This is very radical. The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay under the pseudonym “Publius.” Basically, Hamilton in his introduction was telling the citizens of thirteen states there are great reasons for forming a union but if you can’t understand them then every state should go its own way.

What’s rather ironic is Publius wrote The Federalist Papers to justify a federal government, but modern conservatives often use these essays to justify limiting or reducing our federal government and increasing the rights of states. We could have been fifty different little countries instead of the United States. Uniting a group of separate countries is not easy, just look at what happened to the Soviet Union or is happening to the current European Union. Neither force, ideology, or economic interests is enough to bind peoples of smaller governments into larger nations. The Constitution is one successful example that is always under attack. Thus the reason to read and understand The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers are the foundations of our social contract. Conservatives want a smaller federal government, but the reasons to be governed are just as great at the local and state level. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay describe in great detail why we should agree to be governed and how to protect our freedoms from too much government and the dangers of those who want to govern.

I’ve just started to read The Federalist Papers and already see their vital importance. If you’ve ever complained about how society is run or offered your own utopian ideas on how to fix it, then you owe it to yourself to read The Federalist Papers. Publius gets down to the nitty-gritty details of the problems to be faced. This is the third reason why it’s so hard to read The Federalist Papers. A solution is almost impossible. No single human can think of all the angles and issues, and together we never agree perfectly.

Linda and I decided to spend this week trying to figure out the best way to read and study The Federalist Papers. Before we started this project we thought it was as simple as reading a book. It’s not. We then looked for books that explained The Federalist Papers or translated them into modern English with annotations. But even those books are tough going. There are many versions of The Federalist Papers. Some are straight reprints. Others organize the 85 essays into individual themes. We also considered picking a history book that covers everything related to the essays.

I’ve decided the best place to start is Wikipedia. Its entry for The Federalist Papers is detailed, concise, and easy to understand. Its Complete List entry offers links to explanatory essays for each of the 85 essays in The Federalist Papers. Starting with #1, which is Hamilton’s introduction, Wikipedia annotates essential quotes. It also links to each paper at Congress.gov, where the full-text can be read.

the federalist papers audio bookI’ve also decided to supplement this approach with The Federalist Papers (Amazon Classics Edition) audiobook from Audible.com and Brilliance Audio. Hearing James Anderson Foster narrate the papers helps me to understand the 18th-century sentence structure of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. You can hear a sample here. The sample also illustrates what it’s like to try to read The Federalist Papers. It seems obvious to me they were meant for oration. The meaning of some of these complex sentences is often revealed in the cadences of how they are spoken.

Linda and I usually read books in 50-100 pages a week and then spend an hour or so on the phone discussing what we’ve read. This is a very rewarding book club structure. However, it’s extremely doubtful we can go through The Federalist Papers at that pace. Hamilton’s first essay, the introduction deserves a whole week of study and discussion.

I feel we’ve been overly ambitious in wanting to read The Federalist Papers like some other book. I worry that we will give up. I feel it’s a project that will take a good deal of time, but if we do 1 of the 85 essays a week as an extra project, it might be possible to achieve our goal eventually.

JWH

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Marie Kondoizing My Groundhog Day Loop

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 10, 2019

Do we ever change? Can we ever stop rolling Sisyphean dreams up a hill? Can we ever escape the hardwiring of our genes? Can we overcome the destiny of our unconscious impulses? My regular readers know I end up whining about the same exact fate over and over again. I feel like Bill Murray stuck in a Groundhog Day loop. It works something like this. I’ll write this essay to find a revelation of how to escape this loop. I’ll then try very hard to follow that insight. Over the next few weeks, I’ll get distracted by a growing number of other ambitions. I’ll get happily lost in frittering away my time in endless pursuits. Eventually, I’ll get exhausted chasing seventeen cats leoparding in twenty-seven directions. My real and virtual desks will overflow with aborted projects. Then the day will come, like today, when I decide I absolutely must Marie Kondo everything in my life. And finally, I’ll write this version of the essay. It will be much like the essays I’ve written before.

The last version I wrote back in June even has a nice mind map of all my diversions. My absolute, positively-no-matter-what conclusion was to always write fiction in the mornings. I diligently tried writing fiction for a while, but eventually, switched back to writing blogs. I told myself, “all you can ever be is a blog writer,” at which point I start working on more ambitious blogging projects that pile up in my drafts folder. Then the realization comes I can never juggle more than 1,500 words before an essay falls apart. I deeply realize the limits of my ability to focus. Then I start blaming all the physical clutter around me for not being able to concentrate.

Of course, in every iteration of the loop, I firmly feel I’ve discovered a new way out. Yet, is that illusory because I can’t remember all the other loops? This time the revelation is: the problem is not the clutter in my house, but the clutter in my mind that keeps me from focusing on my creative ambitions. The old belief was physical clutter caused mental clutter. The new idea is to Marie Kondo the mental clutter and I’ll naturally just start giving away the physical clutter.

When I’m in this phase of the loop I ache for simplicity. That’s why I crave Marie Kondoizing my possessions. I feel owning less will free my mind. I have fantasies of dwelling in one bare white room with no windows, a recliner, a few shelves of books, one desk, and one computer. I picture myself working on one writing project. When I’m tired, I sleep in the recliner. (In this fantasy, I somehow magically don’t need to eat or go to the bathroom.)

This time I feel different. I might have felt that before because my emotions loop too. However, I’ve been intermittent fasting for 100 days, and that has given me a new sense of discipline. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped eating junk food. Giving up junk food was far easier this time. Is it due to the discipline gained from intermittent fasting? It’s even affected my writing. This time I’m going to try to break the loop not by getting rid my junk, but my Marie Kondoizing my thoughts.

If I write this essay again in six months you’ll know this hypothesis was wrong.

The reason why I never break out of my Groundhog Day creative loop is that I can’t stick to my chosen single project. I’ve known for countless loops the solution is to focus on one project. However, for the last many iterations of the loop that I can remember, I pick the same science fiction short story to finish. I’ll commit to that goal, but after several days, I slowly get distracted by a bunch of other desires.

That happens because I begin believing I can chase more than one goal. I’ll slowly rediscover all those hobbies I’ve pursued in the past and start ordering crap from Amazon again (even though I’ve given all that crap away many times before in other loops). For example, I just bought a microscope because I wanted to study biology. I pricked my finger using a gadget for testing blood sugar levels, looked at my blood under the microscope, planned to go get some pond scum next, but got distracted by going bird watching with my wife instead, piddled with about a dozen other projects, and forgot all about the microscope, and my story.

I envy people who can relentlessly stick to doing one thing, even if it’s just watching TV all day. I wake up in the morning with the urge to accomplish a specific goal. This morning I woke up wanting to build a MySQL database to collect and organize all the themes of science fiction. This particular project could take weeks. Instead of writing on my story, I got sidetracked into databases. And before I could finish that project, I started two more.

Usually, while showering, I’ll come up with 2-4 ideas of things I want to do that day. So far today I’ve wanted to listen to “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury and write an essay about it. I also decided to read all I can about bodyweight exercises and develop a set of routines so I can get rid of my Bowflex machine and stationary bicycle. And I wanted to read the four issues of BBC Music I already own to see if I want to subscribe and dedicate myself to learning about classical music.

Getting old is increasing my desire to accomplish something substantial. I guess it’s the fear of not completing the only goal on my bucket list. I might live another 10-20 years if I’m lucky, but if I’m ever going to get any fiction published it better be soon. The odds are already against me now. My guestimate is only one in a million would-be writers sell their first story after 60, and and that goes down to one in a billion by 70. I’m 67. (By the way, if you’re young and reading this, start now!) I began writing classes in my fifties, and I’ve wondered why creative success is usually found only by the young. In my fifties, I didn’t feel that mentally different from my thirties, but all through my sixties, I’ve felt my mental and physical abilities dwindling. I’m beginning to understand how and why aging reduces our chances to succeed with new creative endeavors.

We lose impulse control as we age. It just becomes easier to follow the urge of the moment. The older I get the more I don’t give a damn about how I dress or what the house looks like to friends. And it’s so much easier to give into Ben & Jerry’s than to make a salad. And boy is it getting easier to believe dying fat is better than dieting.

But, the siren call of less is more philosophers keeps enchanting me, and I think I can escape the loop by giving away all my junk.

When it comes down to it, escaping this loop requires discipline. And discipline is hard to come by at age 67. I’ve always known I could break out of the loop by giving up. But I always come to the same conclusion: the only item on my bucket list is to sell a science fiction story. I wrote dozens of them in my fifties and failed to sell any. Should that failure tell me to stop trying or try harder? I keep thinking I should keep trying, but poor impulse control tells me that pursuing little pleasures is far nicer than embracing the delayed gratification for having one extra-large pleasure.

Up until now, the hope of breaking out of the loop was to make myself keep writing science fiction stories. Maybe the real exit strategy is to give up that goal.

Not yet.

JWH

 

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Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 7, 2019

Former Senator Jeff Flake is a rational Republican. I’m a liberal, but I read his book because my friend Linda (another liberal) and I thought we should be reading some books by conservatives to balance our views. Jeff Flake is the kind of Republican I wish all Republicans were like. He doesn’t believe what I believe, but he’s at least sane and reasonable, with some integrity. And his book Conscience of a Conservative is a worthy read by anyone interested in current politics.

Flake tells us he’s a Goldwater/Reagan conservative and explains what that means. He then goes on to explain why the conservative movement has been corrupted by Donald Trump and his populist supporters. Flake’s book is really aimed at his fellow Republicans, and Flake even offers examples where he followed the party line and now considers himself wrong. He also regrets some of his votes he made solely to keep a perfect conservative voting record. One fascinating revelation was how Republicans vote no and pray yes. Flake even spends a chapter on the importance of bipartisan lawmaking. Much of what he writes is from a wise perspective, good political thinking for either party.

For years Flake took pride in always voting with his party. This made me think of a solution to solve our polarized politics. I’d like to see an amendment forcing Congress to compromise. I think every bill should pass by 50% of the whole voting body, with at least 25% from the minority party. That would mean if 100% of Republicans wanted to pass a law they’d at least need 25% of the Democrats. I’m tired of living in a society where half the voters are angry at the other half. If that’s too complicated we should require being governed by a 66% vote for all bills.

Flake’s book presents two essential problems for its readers. Flake wants Republicans to get back to their original conservative values. For liberals, we have a different problem to solve. We must identify the economic and societal problems that conservative philosophy fails to solve.

Flake subtitled his book, “A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” Flake’s hope is the Republican party will become a party that embraces all citizens. He’s a big tent Republican. He believes the conservative philosophy should appeal to all groups, not just to old WASPs. I believe that’s the primary failure of the Republican party, it’s goals don’t address all citizens.

As a liberal, my problem with Flake’s conservative idealism is he’s a true believer and his faith in conservatism is too simple-minded to solve our complex problems. Flake’s religious-like belief in free-market capitalism fails to see how it can’t work. If we had 100% free market capitalism with no regulation we would not have 100% employment, low taxes, and no need for social programs. We’d have a minority of rich people, a vast majority of poorer people, and a polluted planet going down the drain hole. Only worse than what we have now.

I believe capitalism is the only practical driver for economic growth, but I also believe it should be heavily regulated. We want steady-state capitalism, where growth is sustainable for both the economy and the environment. And we need enough socialism to support those people that capitalism can’t. The percentage of people who can’t thrive under capitalism will grow if we allow automation to run unchecked, eliminate collective bargaining, and keep accepting an ever-expanding wealth-inequality gap.

Flake’s book also inspires me to read two more works that conservatives admire. The Federalist Papers and The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek. Flake spent a fair amount of his book explaining the foundation of his conservative beliefs. His book was inspired by Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. I’ve started reading it, but I’m not sure if the other two aren’t more important and relevant. However, I liked when Flake asked: “What would Goldwater Do?” His questions offer me hope if many conservatives are asking these questions too. Of course, this is also Flake’s direct attack on Donald Trump, but it also sums up his own beliefs too. Here are Flakes’s questions he’d ask Goldwater:

Would he have thought that it is conservative to abruptly abandon the core conservative belief of free trade with the world and break with multilateral trade agreements? Or abandoned established or pending trade deals, creating a void in the markets that are currently being filled by China, Russia, and even Mexico, just to name a few?

Is it conservative to believe in the magical thinking that suggests that we can ignore the growth in “entitlement” spending simply by declaring that our growth rate will reach at least 4 percent annually—growth that will make the Social Security Trust Fund flush again?

Is it conservative to play chicken with some of the most productive and important international alliances we have ever had?

Is it conservative to heap praise on dictators and to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents, and muse that the Chinese massacre of students at Tiananmen Square “shows you the power of strength”?

Is it conservative to attack and undermine the intelligence agencies that are essential to our national security and to attack their findings as “hoaxes”?

Is it conservative to vilify religious and ethnic minorities? To exaggerate threats and stoke security and economic fears? To promise that another sovereign country will be forced to pay for a border wall just because such a promise gets a good response at rallies?

Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue, to traffic in “alternative facts,” and to attack the constitutionally protected free press as the“enemy of the people”?

Is it conservative to propagate a conspiracy theory about the birthplace of the president of the United States, long after the facts have put the theory to rest? And is it conservative for members of Congress to remain silent as such conspiracy theories are propagated?

Is it conservative to undermine confidence in our democratic elections, to describe them as “rigged,” and assert with no evidence that three to five million illegal aliens voted in the last general election?

JWH

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I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.

universal-phylogenetic-tree-showing-relationships-between-major-lineages-of-the-three

The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.

JWH

 

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How Intermittent Fasting Improves Writing

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 3, 2019

I’ve been intermittent fasting for three months, doing the 16:8 system. My health and energy levels are much better. I’ve not lost weight, but then until January 1st, I ate all the junk food I wanted within my 8-hour eating period. But I didn’t gain weight either.  I stopped the junk food on New Year’s Day and I’m already losing weight.

However, one of the best side-effects of the fasting is on my writing.

I don’t know if I’m a better writer, but I do write more. I’ve discovered that writing makes me forget hunger. Everyone day as I wait for noon to roll around, I’m hungry, very hungry. My eating period is from 12:00pm to 8:00pm. I used to love eating an early breakfast, but if I start my eight hours too soon in the day, I can’t eat dinner with other people. So I wait till noon. This also works well, because I don’t get hungry before bed.

Writing makes me forget that I’m hungry. But I’ve got to write for hours because I’m hungry for hours. I look at the clock and tell myself, “Keep writing.” And it works. I do fill up on water, and that’s actually another healthy plus. And, my mind feels sharper when I’m hungry.

Is this what they mean by starving artists?

JWH

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Why I Love Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 2, 2019

I’m sure I’ve consumed thousands of science fiction stories in the last sixty years if you count all the novels, short stories, movies, and television episodes. Now that’s something to think about. Especially, when you consider science fiction has a limited number of themes in its repertoire. Science fiction concepts are like legos, a finite set of building blocks to assemble an infinite number of stories. What makes our genre unique is the blending of the standard elements of storytelling; character, setting, plot, dialog, POV, description, with one or more science fictional themes.

Whether we call them themes, memes, ideas, or concepts, they’re each a unique mind-blowing concept that evokes a sense of wonder. Most are far from new, and even the latest popular concepts, such a brain downloading, are variations of older ideas. For example, I recently read “Rescue Party” by Arthur C. Clarke that first appeared in the May 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s so chock-full of science fictional memes that I’ve made a game of identifying and counting them.

I liked reading this story so much I immediately reread it by listening to the audiobook version in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. In case you don’t own this story, you can read it online here, and listen to it here. It was Clarke’s first professional sale, and his second story to be published. In 2013 Escape Pod did a full-cast audio version and presented another online copy to read.

2018 was the year of the science fiction short story for me, reading twelve anthologies of classic SF tales. I expect I will continue the trend in 2019. More and more I’m paying attention to those science fiction building blocks, and I realize its the science fiction concepts that make me love science fiction. I’m realizing how important they’ve been to me over my entire lifetime. When I was young, those far-out ideas gave me hope for the future, and now that I’m older and wiser, I realize most of them won’t be coming true, at least in my lifetime. They are now a kind of legacy of desires.

I was especially impressed with “Rescue Party” because Clarke weaves so many different SF themes into one story. I’ve decided to write this essay and identify as many of them as possible. I might even start tracking science fictional ideas in a database. Looking back over my lifetime of reading science fiction, I see Sci-FI’s addictive properties comes from these sense-of-wonder concepts. They are the colors on an SF writer’s palette.

Forbidden Planet

Interstellar Exploration Ship

I believe today when fans think of interstellar exploration ships they first think of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Star Trek, but there were many examples of this idea before 1966. Ten years earlier, in 1956 there was Forbidden Planet and its starship C-57D. And ten years before that, in 1946, there was “Rescue Party” with its vessel the S9000. And even before that, in 1939, A. E. van Vogt began his Voyage of the Space Beagle stories with “Black Destroyer.” Science fiction writers have borrowed Darwin’s five years of scientific exploration on the sailing ship HMS Beagle many times. Instead of visiting distant lands and people, science fiction visits distant worlds and aliens. Instead of botany and biology inspiring the concept of evolution, astronomy, and cosmological events give cause to science fictional plots.

Belonging to the crew of a giant vessel exploring the galaxy is probably one of the more appealing fantasies in science fiction. Of course, most SF fans will picture themselves as the captain or one of the executive officers. Does anyone ever see themselves as a janitor on an interstellar ship?

Wikipedia has a long and fascinating article on interstellar travel. It describes the scientific details behind science fiction’s number one fantasy. As a kid watching Star Trek, the best possible future I could imagine for myself was traveling on an interstellar exploration ship. But after a lifetime of also reading science books, I doubt this concept will ever become real. I can picture this future for AI machines, but not us humans. In my old age, I fantasize about being an AI mind living for millions of years in a robotic probe of the galaxy.

Rescue Party by Arthur C. Clarke 2

Aliens POV

In most science fiction stories about aliens, we see them from the human perspective. In “Rescue Party” the aliens are the POV characters, and humans are the mystery of the story. I’m sure there are other SF stories based solely on the aliens’ POV, but they are rare and I can’t think of any others at the moment. Often, the alien is the enemy in science fiction, like the classic World of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. In the 1930s, many space opera stories had alien sidekicks. All too often, aliens are just humans with a few physical and mental quirks, like Spock and Worf.

The exciting challenge for science fiction writers is to come up with truly alien bodies and minds. The crew of S9000 in “Rescue Party” is quite diverse, but their distinguishing feature that makes them alien seems to be tentacles. The Paladorian is not an individual, but part of a collective, so it doesn’t have a singular consciousness. But the dialog of the other characters, who Clarke had to invent alien names like Alveron, Rugon, Orostron, Hansur, Klarten, Alarkane, T’sinaderee, and Tork-a-lee, still sound rather human even with their funny names and tentacles.

There have been several science fiction books where far from human alien-POVs have played a significant part of the story. Titles include Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement, The Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward, “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Gray_lensman

Galactic Federation

The concept of a galactic federation is so widespread that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page. Again, we think of Star Trek. “Rescue Party” has a unique twist on the concept, because Clarke has an all-alien federation and humans are not in the federation yet. Of course, the original film of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel, and many other science fiction stories have galactic federations showing up and inviting us to join. I’ve never thought of this, but in Star Trek, did the humans create the federation, or join it?

Of course, most science fiction with galactic federations is humancentric. John W. Campbell, Jr., the famous editor of Astounding Science Fiction was adamant that our species should be the dominant life-form in the galaxy. If Arthur C. Clarke hadn’t provided the coda to “Rescue Party” I’m not sure Campbell would have bought his story.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The End of Humans

One of the most haunting scenes in all science fiction was at the end of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, when the time traveler went forward in time to that lonely beach and knew humans had become extinct. I’ve always considered The Time Machine to be the archetype of science fiction because it had so many intense science fictional concepts in one novella. I wonder if it inspired Clarke to write “Rescue Party.” In his story, he has aliens visiting Earth and only finding deserted cities and wondering if our species was extinct.

Individual humans can’t comprehend their own death. Most humans believe our species is the crown of creation and all of reality is about us. So it’s quite wonderful to imagine people gone and reality continuing without us.

One of my favorite senses of wonder is to contemplate Earth without people. I love the book and documentary The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

End of the Earth

The Dying Earth

Again, Wells in The Time Machine gave us the image of Earth dying. 19th-century science had predicted the sun would eventually become a red giant, so Wells merely extrapolated to that time. In “Rescue Party” the Earth is destroyed by a nova a few centuries from now. That’s not very likely, but Clarke needed a cataclysmic event to do us in. The destruction of the Earth is fairly rare in science fiction, but it does happen. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy starts off with the destruction of our planet for a hyperspace bypass.

I know there were billions of years before the Earth existed, and I know there will be a time when the Earth ceases to exist and billions of years will follow. Probably, there is an infinite amount of time before and after the Earth, so its existence is rather fleeting.

Clarke also uses the Moon as an indicator of impending doom in the same way Larry Niven used it in “Inconstant Moon.”

 

Deserted Cities of Extinct Beings and Abandon Automatic Machines

One of my great sense-of-wonder experiences came when reading After Worlds Collide by Wylie and Balmer when the Earth people were walking through the deserted alien city of Bronson Beta. I was in the 7th grade and just discovered science fiction was a separate genre. Humans walking through alien cities of extinct beings is one of my favorite science fiction themes, so when the aliens in “Rescue Party” walk through our deserted cities it made the story even better. Clarke must have like this image too because he also used it in Against the Fall of Night when Alvin takes the ancient automated subway to visit abandon parts of Diaspar. The same theme plays out in Forbidden Planet when the humans inspect the abandoned technology of the Krell. This meme was also used by John W. Campbell in his class story “Twilight.”

Hive mind

The Omega Point and Hive Minds

In “Rescue Party,” one of the alien races aboard S9000, called the Paladorians, believe all beings are evolving towards one hive mind that transcends the physical limitations of individual bodies. Olaf Stapledon used this in Star Maker, and Clarke used it more than once himself, including Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This reminds me of The Omega Point by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Clarke who was known as a hard science writer often speculated about mystical theories that come to us from religion. I’ve long thought that science fiction is a modern substitute for religion.

Most science fiction rejects the concept of the hive mind and even shows a fear of the concept. The Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation is our ultimate enemy. I don’t think Heinlein or Campbell could stomach the idea. That probably explains why Clarke was never famous as an Astounding Science Fiction author.

I recently read The Feed by Nick Windo Clark, which starts out in the near future where all humans have internet like technology added to their brain. I thought it was going to be a positive hive mind story but it quickly turned into a different plot.

Radio telescopes

Enigmatic SETI

In “Rescue Party” the aliens find radio telescopes left on Earth pointing to a place in the sky where there are no planets and sending rather enigmatic messages. Eventually, we learn the messages are being sent to a fleet of rockets leaving the solar system, and the radio telescopes are monitoring the destruction of the Earth by the nova. But this reminds me of how often science fiction has been about deciphering alien signals from space, or writings in deserted cities of extinct aliens.

Starship Troopers

Humans Are the Top Predator Species of the Galaxy

John W. Campbell and Robert A. Heinlein loved the idea that humans would be the top predator species of the galaxy. Campbell couldn’t stand stories where humans were portrayed as lesser beings to aliens. The ending of “Rescue Party” has the aliens discovering the fleet of humans moving away from the solar system, and they finally make contact with us. But there’s a hint that humans will be a danger to the federation in the future. I like to think that Clarke included that to get Campbell to buy the story.

There’s Many More

If I wanted to take the time and examine “Rescue Party” line-by-line I could find many more classic science fiction themes in this story.

I enjoyed the heck out of “Rescue Party.” I can honestly say it’s my favorite Arthur C. Clarke story. Many fans have told him that, which began to bother him. Here’s what Clarke said in one of his introductions:

I don’t believe I’ve reread it since its original appearance, and I refuse to do so now — for fear of discovering how little I have improved in almost four decades. Those who claim that it’s their favorite story get a cooler and cooler reception over the passing years.

Like I said, reading “Rescue Party” makes me want to start a database of science fictional ideas. I’m pretty sure there’s a finite supply of them, but I have no idea how small or large the set will be.

JWH

Update 1/3/19:

I reread this story again by listening to the Escape Pod full-cast audio version and noticed even more details. Rereading stories is very important. I’m learning fiction becomes much more multidimensional in my comprehension through rereading.

I also checked the Analytical Laboratory for August 1946 to see how readers back then thought of “Rescue Party.” I was disappointed it wasn’t a standout story for them. Campbell will usually talk about a new author if they get a lot of attention or he thought they were great when he first bought their story. And for most readers, a score of 3.00 suggests that “Rescue Party” was seldom anyone’s first or second favorite story. But Clarke soundly beat several popular authors of that era. Because no story stood out, readers probably thought it was a ho-hum issue.

Why does the story stand so much to me now, but wasn’t popular then?

AnLab Aug 1946

 

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Is This Cartoon Sexist?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 1, 2019

I told my wife I was going to put this cartoon on my Facebook page and she said I shouldn’t because it might be considered sexist. It’s a cartoon by Alex Gregory whose work appears exclusively in the New Yorker. You can read an interesting bio of Gregory and a description of his work methods at A Case of Pencils, a blog devoted to New Yorker cartoonists.

I didn’t post the cartoon on Facebook because I’m now worried it could be sexist, but I wasn’t sure either. I asked a few women friends and some said it was okay and some weren’t sure. None took offense. So I went looking for definitions to “sexist” online. I was surprised by how many different definitions I found.

  • referring to women’s bodies, behavior, or feelings in a negative way
  • a person who believes that particular jobs and activities are suitable only for women and others are suitable only for men
  • suggesting that the members of one sex are less able, intelligent, etc. than the members of the other sex
  • a person who believers their gender is superior and says unfair things about the other gender, or assumes that only one gender as a certain trait
  • relating to or characterized by prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex
  • a person with sexist views
  • if you describe people or their behavior as sexist, you mean that they are influenced by the beliefs that the members of one sex, usually women, are less intelligent or less capable than those of the other sex and need not be treated equally
  • relating to, involving, or fostering sexism, or attitudes and behavior toward someone based on the person’s gender
  • involving sexism and the belief that men and women should be treated in a different way

By studying these definitions I might need a Supreme Court ruling to know if this cartoon is sexist or not. Part of the humor of this cartoon is it plays around with all of these issues. It assumes the stereotype that men are usually in the car and women are looking in the window. Just reversing roles is funny. If the man wore hotpants and the woman a suit, it would be a different kind of funny even without a caption. The cartoon is making generalizations about men and women behaviors, but are those generalizations negative? Is it an absolute generalization? Few people are prostitutes or hire them, so maybe it’s making no absolute assessments about either gender. However, many people, including myself, see prostitutes as victims of a sexist society.

I think the first thing we should ask: Does it offend anyone? Now I can’t answer that because I don’t know how all seven-plus billion people on Earth think. The next question: Could it offend anyone? And this is my present quandary. I don’t want to offend anyone, nor do I want to be perceived as sexist. The prudent solution: never generalize about gender. I shouldn’t be writing this essay and I shouldn’t post anything on Facebook that could ever be construed as dealing with gender differences.

I feel sorry for comedians, humorists, and cartoonists. This morning I read “These 13 Jokes From ‘Seinfeld’ Are Super Offensive Now.” I have to admit I thought them funny back in the nineties. So much of humor is observational generalizations.

But here’s the thing, almost everyone along the gender spectrum likes to occasionally generalize about others on the spectrum. This cartoon is funny to some people because it makes observations that coincide with their personal observations. We have a natural ability for organizing patterns into behavioral traits. We see certain kinds of clouds and we think it’s going to rain. We see certain prices on a menu and decide a restaurant is expensive. We see a movie preview with a superhero and we assume it’s based on a comic book. All of these can be false assumptions, so this ability creates a lot of prejudices.

What is this cartoon assuming? Even here I can’t say for sure. Everyone will see something different. My assumption is women think men don’t listen and wouldn’t it be funny if some women are so horny to be heard that they will pay for a professional male listener. However, I know men who feel women don’t listen, and a reverse of this cartoon could work for them. There are stories about prostitutes with Johns who pay just for conversational companionship.

Cartoons about prostitution generally involve men who can’t get laid paying women for sex. Should men consider such cartoons as demeaning to them? I would never use a prostitute. Should I be offended by the possible suggestion that all men would? Or will some women be offended at the suggestion that some women would be willing to pay to be heard? And will psychiatrists feel offended if they think their profession is a kind of prostitution?

I would guess that many women would say they know plenty of men who are poor listeners so the idea of paying a man to be attentive to their conservation all night long could be funny. Is that an insult to men? I know plenty of men who complain about having to listen to their wives and girlfriends, so this cartoon should be funny to them, but will it offend women in general? The reason why I even have this cartoon is one of my male friends thought it insightful because he feels his girlfriends talk too much. I thought it funny because so many women I know seem to like me because I’m willing to listen. I thought I could be that guy in the cartoon.

Maybe the humor is even simpler. Maybe its saying men want sex and women want conversation. Many married couples might agree, but does a portion of the population seeing humorous validity mean its not offensive to couples where the woman wants sex and the man conversation?

And where’s the inequality? Is it offensive to desire talk more than sex?

But you never know what words will do. For example, when I wanted a copy of this cartoon I searched on Google for “Male Prostitute” and selected the Images tab. I got copies of the cartoon but I also got mug shots of male prostitutes. It didn’t even occur to me what those words could also bring up. That’s the thing about worrying about offending, we never know the full consequences of words.

(Now I worry about what kind of ads I’ll be seeing in the next few days.)

JWH

 

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2018 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 30, 2018

I read 44 books this year. More than the 36 I read in 2017, but less than the 55 I read in 2016. I aim for a book a week average, so I’m off my pace. See “Year in Reading” for links to my past summaries.

My reading goal for this year was to read less science fiction and more classic literary novels and nonfiction. I wanted to keep science fiction to just one book a month but failed. I ended up reading 29 science fiction books, including 12 anthologies. This was my year of reading science fiction short stories.  I need to give up making reading goals.

Book of the Year

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Educated is so dazzling that I still wonder if it’s true. Tara Westover has written a stunning memoir of growing up without any K-12 schooling, almost no homeschooling, and yet ends up getting a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Along the way she also goes to Harvard.

Runner-up is The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis who reports on Donald Trump’s impact on the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce. His book provides abundant evidence why conservative philosophy against big government is simple-minded insanity.

Favorite Novel I Read This Year

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis 500

For years I’ve avoided reading Connie Willis’ 1992 Hugo Award-winning novel Doomsday Book because of its size. It’s about a young woman time traveler, Kivrin, who is sent back to research life in the Middle Ages, at a small hamlet near Oxford. The book is riveting, and I highly recommend the audiobook edition because the writing is beautiful to hear. This tale is slow, very slow, but I couldn’t stop listening. The story is not meant to be action-pack exciting. Time travel in science fiction usually involves big loud plots, but Connie Willis makes her story very quiet and personal with an abundance of significant tiny details.

Favorite 2018 Novel I Read This Year

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo

I only read two 2018 novels this year, and the other Semiosis by Sue Burke was excellent too. The Feed is hard to describe without giving away too many plot points. It’s a literary post-apocalyptic SF novel like Station Eleven or The Road. And it’s somewhat deceptive. It starts out as a fantastic story about a future technology called the feed, which builds internet access right into everyone’s head. Our world becomes a very different place, and I would have loved to read a whole novel about the possibilities. However, Windo is only setting us up for another story, because the narrative quickly jumps six years in the future where civilization has collapsed because of the feed technology.

There were times in this novel I wanted to stop listening because the story got too slow and even weird. But I’m thankful now that I stuck with it. Before we get to the end of this book, Windo uses many science fictional themes in wonderful ways to tell a complex but very human story.

Again, I highly recommend the audiobook version. Nick Clark Windo is an actor, and the story is told in a dramatic fashion. The dialog is movie-like rather than book-like as if Windo pictured performing this story rather than writing it. Windo and Clare Corbett are the narrators, who switch between the male and female point of view characters. Both are perfect for this story.

Books Read 2018

Robert Silverberg editor The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One Audible 1970
Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth Audible 1864
Mari/Brown Ocean of Storms Audible 2016
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) Hardback 1979
Alfred Bester The Demolished Man Audible 1952
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #2 (1940) PDF 1979
Ben Bova editor The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume Two A Audible 1973
Bart D. Ehrman The Triumph of Christianity Audible 2018
David Grann Killers of the Flower Moon Scribd Audiobook 2017
Jessica Bruder Nomadland Scribd Audiobook 2017
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #3 (1941) PDF 1980
Elizabeth Stroud Anything is Possible Scribd Audiobook 2017
Jack McDevitt The Long Sunset Kindle ebook 2018
Ben Bova editor The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume Two B Audible 1970
Scott Kelly Endurance Scribd Audiobook 2017
Jonathan Strahan The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Eleven Audible 2017
Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Scribd Audiobook 1979
Nnedi Okorafor Binti Scribd Audiobook 2015
Robert L. Forward Dragon’s Egg Scribd Audiobook 1980
Robert Silverberg Sailing to Byzantium YouTube Audio 1985
Gene Wolfe The Fifth Head of Cerberus YouTube Audio 1972
Samantha Silva Mr. Dickens and His Carol Scribd Audiobook 2017
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #4 (1942) PDF 1980
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #5 (1943) PDF 1981
Nancy Kress Beggars in Spain Audible 1993
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo Audible 2017
Jonathan Strahan The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Twelve Audible 2018
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #6 (1944) PDF 1981
Edgar Pangborn A Mirror for Observers Trade paper 1954
Elizabeth Moon The Speed of Dark Audible 2002
Rebecca Solnit Men Explain Things To Me Kindle ebook 2014
Connie Willis Doomsday Book Audible 1992
Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God Audible 1937
Tara Westover Educated Scribd 2018
Murray Leinster The Forgotten Planet Audible 1954
Alec Nevala-Lee Astounding Audible 2018
Sue Burke Semiosis Scribd 2018
Nate Blakeslee American Wolf Scribd 2017
Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of Time Audible 2015
Robert A. Heinlein Friday Audible 1982
Michael Lewis The Fifth Risk Kindle ebook 2018
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #7 (1945) Paperback 1982
Nick Clark Windo The Feed Scribd Audiobook 2018
David Sedaris Calypso Audible 2018
Jeff Flake Conscience of a Conservative Scribd Audiobook 2017

I assume I’ll continue reading science fiction anthologies next year. There are annual best-of-the-year anthologies for science fiction short stories starting with 1939. I began this year with reading 1939 stories and have read my way forward in time. I’m currently reading 1946 stories. I’d like to get to 1960 by the end of next year. However, starting with 1949 there are two anthologies for each year, and for a few years in the 1950s, three each year. I might only make it to the mid-1950s.

Other than gorging on short science fiction, I’ll make no promises for 2018.

JWH

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The Most Recommended Books of 2018

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 28, 2018

I love December because of all the best-books-of-the-year lists. I used to compile all the lists I could find into a spreadsheet to identify the most loved books of the year. But for the last two years, Emily Temple at Literary Hub has performed that task for me and collected far more lists than I would ever have the patience to track down. See: “The Ultimate Best Books of 2018 List” where she aggregated 52 lists from 37 publishers totaling 880 separate titles. If you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page you’ll find links to all those lists.

Temple found two books that were on 19 of the 52 lists, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and There There by Tommy Orange, both novels, and both will be available to listen to on Scribd 1/3/19. With such universal acclaim, I believe I’ll have to try them. I can say, when I’ve read books that have been on most of the best-of-the-year lists, they have always been intensely good. The wisdom of the crowds does works.

Best 3 SF novels 2018

I did compile 6 best science fiction books of the year lists to create a similar style report, see “Best of the Best Science Fiction 2018.” Strangely, Emily’s work did not overlap with my lists of best-science-fiction of 2018. My top discovery, Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller was on 5 of the 6 lists I found, but on none of Temple’s lists. However, Severance by Ling Ma was on 4 of the 6 lists I found, and 7 of the 52 lists she found. I don’t think she used any of the best science fiction book lists I used. If she had included those 6 lists, Severance would have been on 11 lists, putting it very high in Temple’s ultimate list. She did include some lists for fantasy books, but not science fiction. My final list had 8 books that had been on at least 3 of the 6 lists. Temple’s cutoff for her final list were all books that had been on at least 3 of the 52 lists. That means several science fiction books I discovered would have made Temple’s final list.

Because Temple missed the science fiction books, I’m tempted to do my own list of nonfiction books that were on the most best-of-the-year lists. Her top nonfiction book was Educated by Tara Westover, which I’ve read and loved. It was on a total of 16 lists.

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JWH

 

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The Artificial Geminid Meteor Shower

by James Wallace Harris

Sometimes it’s easy to be fooled especially when you think you know more than you do. Last week my wife came inside one evening and told me there were strange lights in the trees. She wondered if they could be fireflies this late in the year. So I went out to look too. There were random green lights, but I thought they were above the trees, way up in the sky, and they were in patches of sky not blocked by bare tree limbs.

“I wonder if they could be meteors?” I asked Susan.

“I don’t think so.”

“But the Geminid meteor shower was supposed to happen around this time of year. It was on the news.”

“But they don’t look like shooting stars,” she replied sounding skeptical.

They looked like little tiny flashes of green. And occasionally, a tiny white streak.

“Maybe because we’re in the city they don’t show up well.” I could see Orion and the green flashes were in the right area for Gemini, although I couldn’t see the constellation. And every once in a while there was a small white streak. “Maybe they’re leftover dust from the main shower.”

The more I looked at them, the more they looked like something way up in the sky, like in the upper atmosphere. But then I have bad eyes.

Susan seemed doubtful. And we finally went in.

The next day I read about the meteor shower but I couldn’t find any descriptions that described glittering green lights and flashes. I told Susan about my research. She seemed more convinced. The next night we looked again, but the sky was clear. Susan told our neighbor EJ about my theory.

On the third night, Susan was outside and texted me “The meteors are back.” She also texted our neighbor and he got his wife and kid up. By the time I came outside, they were laughing at me. EJ said those were his laser Christmas lights. I was disappointed my theory was wrong. And EJ ribbed me that he got his son out of bed for nothing.

I should have been embarrassed for making such a silly mistake, but those lights really looked like they were high up in the sky. So I argued I made the best assumption with the evidence I had. And I still think I saw a couple of real meteors mixed in, the short white streaks.

I’ve been out in the country and seen a real meteor shower, which is quite dramatic, so I shouldn’t have been fooled. But this was an interesting lesson. It made me wonder what people thought of meteor showers before they knew about astronomy. Guessing what the mysterious lights were in the sky made me feel a tiny bit of awe. It’s a shame they were laser lights. They did look really cool.

Here’s the 2019 Meteor Shower Calendar from IMO (International Meteor Organization). I’m going to get everyone out in the backyard for the next one, which will be January 3-6th, for the Quadrantids. Although, the Ursids are still active.

JWH

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Reading Science Fiction Year-By-Year

by James Wallace Harris

Back in February, I started reading The Great SF Stories series of 25 books edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They collect the best short stories of the year, starting with 1939 and running through 1963. I’m now reading on volume 8 covering 1946. I even started a discussion group hoping other people might join me. 27 people joined, but so far only a couple people have made comments, and only George Kelley has begun to read the books in order too.

George started first with reading Best SF Stories series edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty that ran 1949-1959, which he’s since finished. He felt science fiction stories in the 1950s were better than those stories from the 1940s. Many older fans consider 1939 the beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and the 1950s was science fiction’s Silver Age, but I have to agree with George, science fiction gets progressively better each year. I’m looking forward to reaching the 1950s.

Reading science fiction year by year is very revealing. For example, in 1946 many of the stories were about how to live with the atomic bomb. During the war years, there were a handful of stories that predicted atomic bombs, atomic energy, dirty bombs, nuclear terrorism, and how atomic age technology would impact society.

Science fiction had to change after August 1945 because of the reality of atomic weapons. What’s interesting is we remember the predicting stories like “Blowups Happen” (1940) and “Solution Unsatisfactory” (1941) by Robert Heinlein, “Nerves” (1942) by Lester del Rey,  and “Deadline” (1944) by Cleve Cartmill, but we don’t remember “Loophole” by Arthur C. Clarke and “The Nightmare” by Chan Davis, both from 1946. “The Nightmare” is of particular interest to us today because it’s about monitoring the trade in radioactive elements and the construction of atomic energy plants.

Probably the most prescience story I’ve read so far is “A Logic Named Joe” (1946) by Murray Leinster. Computers were still human calculators in 1946, so Leinster calls a computer a logic. He imagines a future where there’s a logic in every home, all connected to huge databases. And he foresees people would consult their logic for all kinds of information from the weather to how to murder your wife. He even imagines routines to keep kids from looking up stuff they shouldn’t. Leinster imagines banking, investing, encyclopedic knowledge, and all the other stuff we do with the internet.

The story itself is about an emergent AI named Joe begins to process the data himself and answers questions on his own that science and society have yet to know. Imagine if Google could tell you a great way to counterfeit money? Or how to invent something that would make you a billionaire. In other words, Leinster imagines disruptive technology. He even imagines kids searching for weird kinds of porn when the nanny-ware breaks.

If you’d like to see which science fictions stories were the most popular for each year, use this new tool we’ve set up that uses the Classic of Science Fiction data. Books come from over 65 lists recommended SF, and short stories come from over 100 anthologies that reprinted the best science fiction from the past.

To see the most remembered short SF from any year, just set the min and max year to the same year. Check the story radio button. And change the citations from 1 for all stories to 16 for the absolute best. Hit search. You can sort the columns by clicking on the column headings. For example, there are a total of 22 short stories remembered by our citation sources for 1946. For the Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories, we used a cutoff of 5 citations. That meant only three stories were remembered well enough from 1946 to meet our standards. However, you can set your own criteria. The most remembered story from 1946 is “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, which had 10 citations. Here’s the CSFquery set to a minimum of 3 citations. You can see the citation sources by clicking on a title line.

1946 with a minimum of 3 citations

Notice “A Logic Named Joe” isn’t on the list. How can this be after I praised it so highly? Here’s a list of all the places it’s been anthologized. For some reason, it’s never made it in any of the great retrospective SF anthologies. That’s a shame.

Here’s the same query but with citations set to 1, which gives all the cited SF stories for 1946. I now have to worry that other stories with only 1-4 citations might deserve to be remembered.

1946 with a minimum of 1 citations

JWH

 

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Even If You Only Speak English You Still Know Many Languages

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My obsession with memory is teaching me fascinating lessons. I realized something new today. I was trying to remember what my mental outlook was like in 1959 when I was seven. I barely remember the presidential election of 1960 and seeing Kennedy and Nixon on TV. But I have no memory of ever even noticing President Eisenhower before 1960. And I got to thinking about my essay “Counting the Components of My Consciousness” and realized how important languages are in understanding the world around us.

I see now we know many languages even when we think we only speak one.

In 1959 I had no language for politics, so politics was invisible to me. I didn’t understand words like mayor, governor, president, senator, congressman, etc. I didn’t know about local, state, and federal governments. I didn’t know about the three branches of the federal government. I didn’t know about constitutions or legal systems. The world of politics was invisible to me because I didn’t know the language of politics. At seven, I also didn’t know the language of religion, science, mathematics, or even grocery shopping.

My awareness of politics began on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. That’s because my family watched the news for several days straight, and that hooked me on watching the nightly news with Walter Cronkite. However, I still didn’t know the language well. In the 9th grade (1965-1966) I took a required civics class that taught me the basics, but I’ve been learning the nuances of the language of politics ever since, and still don’t speak it fluently. It has its own vocabulary and grammar.

This morning I was researching where I went to school in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964. I found a copy of an Aiken newspaper online. I was 12 at the time. All the stories about local politics and businesses were unfamiliar to me. Even the ads were unfamiliar to me. I didn’t shop for groceries or clothes at age 12, so I didn’t have the language to remember that part of Aiken, South Carolina. I realize now I could have read that paper at age 12, but didn’t. I doubt I could have understood most of it. I didn’t have the languages. And that’s why I don’t remember 99.99% of what life was like in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964.

I’ve often returned to the year 1959 over my lifetime. 1959 was an important year in jazz, but I didn’t know that until I began learning the language of jazz. And my ability to speak jazz is at a very rudimentary level. I’m much more conversant in the language of science fiction so I can comprehend 1959 in science fictional terms much more deeply.

This revelation about knowing multiple languages within English is giving me many insights this morning. It explains why so many people refuse to accept that climate change is happening to us right now. They don’t understand the language of science, so it’s invisible to them. This realization also explains our polarized politics. Conservatives only know the language of conservative politics, so they are blind to liberal politics. And liberals are blind to conservative politics because they don’t know that language.

Linda, the other member of my two-person book club, suggested we read a conservative book for our next discussion. We’re both extreme liberals and she thought it might be enlightening if we did. And it is. We picked Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake. I’ve only just begun but immediately realized Flake speaks a different political language than I do. His words have different meanings. His grammar is even different. His language references points to concepts and things in reality that I normally don’t see.

Liberals and conservatives are polarized because they aren’t speaking the same language even though they use the same words. In the essay, I mentioned above, I told about two experiences where I lost my ability to use words, and how reality looked when that happened. Without words, I didn’t know what things were. I could still see and hold them, but I could tell you what they were. Abstract concepts ceased to exist. Language is everything in understanding reality.

In 1959 I didn’t have the languages to understand most of what I saw and experienced. I’ve since learned a lot of new languages and can look back and see so many things that were invisible to me then. I’m obsessed with memory at this stage in my life, and I’m learning how important languages are to memories. I’m losing my memories, words, and languages. I struggle to keep them. One way of doing that is to look back over the years and study the languages that reveal what I saw.

We can’t trust our memories. One way to understand them is to struggle to remember what we saw. But another way is to study what we couldn’t see, and learn the language to reveal it.

I realize now I must study the languages I know more deeply to understand what I see now, and what my memories might have seen in the past. Here are the languages I partial know now but want to study deeper:

  • Science Fiction
  • Literature
  • Science and Nature
  • Politics
  • Ethics and Philosophy
  • Computers and Programming
  • Music
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Myths and Religions

JWH

 

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Creating My Atheistic Prayer

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 14, 2018

For almost a year, I’ve had an item “Define my health goals in a daily prayer” left undone on my ToDoist list. I believe my original intent was to write a statement I’d recite every morning in meditation. I pictured it helping me stick to the habits that would make me healthier.

The trouble is atheists don’t believe in prayers, although, I try not to be a typical atheist. I want to keep an open mind about recycling concepts from religion that might have some scientific validity. Plus, I admire a handful of religious words like prayer, soul, grace, redemption, spiritual, that I want to refashion for atheists.

Praying does provide several problems for atheists. First, prayers generally appeal to a superior being for help. We don’t believe in such beings. Second, praying assumes there’s a telepathic phone system networking all beings in the universe. Well, we don’t believe in telepathy either. Finally, people who pray often want miracles, and atheists reject them too.

So, I’ve got to assume atheist prayers are thoughts directed at my unconscious mind or verbal affirmations I want my subconscious to overhear. That assumes my unconscious mind has the ability to hear my prayers, understand English, and could influence my behavior, but probably just in tiny ways.

Most people who pray attempt to change reality. They are rejecting what is. When my friends tell me about their health problems, they want me to help initiate a cure. Basically, I’m wishing them to get well. Does that really do any good? There’s no reason to believe thoughts from one person can affect another. What I’m wondering if our own wishes can change our behavior?

Physically being with another person when they’re sick and talking has been shown to help people, and even believing people are praying for you might help, but there’s no evidence that thoughts travel beyond our physical self.

The thing about atheists is we want to believe in things that exist and work. The whole point of skepticism is to get away from delusional thinking. That means I must find a real reason for praying if I’m going to embrace the concept.

I need a working hypothesis to test. There’s growing scientific evidence that meditation does affect us. To what degree is not known. What if praying is like meditation, in that it has a subtle effect on our health and psychology? What if it’s like the power of positive thinking? Of course, the power of prayer will be limited. No miracles. People with cancer pray like crazy, but does it affect cancer cells? What works with cancer is modern medicine.

There are prayers of acceptance, where we wish we can cope with what’s given to us. I’ve always considered the Serenity Prayer to be one of the wisest of all prayers:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

If we removed the word “God” from this prayer, it would be suitable for atheists. But what could we substitute for the word “God” in this prayer? Aren’t we just talking to ourselves? But which part? Isn’t the conscious mind hoping for cooperation from the rest of our being for disciplined? Aren’t we really trying to reinforce a mental habit so we can change our lives?

I could say, “Jim, grant me the serenity …” because I am talking to myself. But, I think Jim is just a label for my conscious self. I’m really addressing my whole self. I’m seeking to integrate my conscious mind with my unconscious mind to discipline my biological urges. But what’s a good name for my whole self? For now, I shall open my prayer with, “To my whole self, grant me the serenity …”

When people pray the serenity prayer they must know they aren’t accepting the things they cannot change, and lack the courage to change the things they can, and don’t know the difference between the two. If they had those abilities, would they even be praying? So, what are they really praying for? The discipline to be different.

Most people can’t make decisions and stick with them. Look at New Year’s Resolutions. Aren’t we praying to our unconscious minds to stick with the decisions the conscious mind is making? Aren’t we begging our body to adapt to what we’ve learned at a conscious level?  Aren’t we praying to our reptilian and mammalian brains to follow the learning of the neocortex?

I need to edit and add a few lines to the serenity prayer. But I also need to think about other people too. To me, The Golden Rule is about the best guideline for that. I need to work in, “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” But I want to update it some to include all life and the environment.

Here’s my working prayer for now. I suppose it will evolve over time, but I think it’s enough to finally close out my ToDoist item.

To my whole self,
grant me the ability to accept what I can’t change,
the discipline to change what I can,
the wisdom to know the difference,
the scientific knowledge to know what’s real,
the skepticism to know what’s not,
the empathy to respect all life,
and the generosity to help others.

JWH

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Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee On Sale for $2.99 for the Kindle

James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 13, 2018

AstoundingI don’t know why or for how long, but the new book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee is on sale for $2.99 for the Kindle edition.

I’ve already read it and can recommend it to anyone who loves reading about the history of science fiction. I bet it wins a Hugo award next year.

See my earlier review, “The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction.”

JWH

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Mindfulness Inside Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Probably most people picture mindfulness as the act of sitting on a beach crosslegged meditating on existence. The word mindfulness connotates an aesthetic living alone in the desert or on a high mountain monastery in Tibet. But it also applies to you washing the dishes, taking a crap, and even being fully aware while you’re reading a book or watching television.

BE HERE NOW is an important lesson of eastern philosophy. Our minds wander all over our distractions. Mindfulness is the ability to live fully in the moment being aware of what each sense is telling us and how we process it. One of the first things you should observe is there are more than five senses. Mindfulness is the ability to keep our model of reality in sync with reality. We are not little beings peering out our heads through sensory windows at reality. Our senses recreate a model of reality inside our head which our observer assumes and acts upon as if it was the objective reality. Subjective thoughts distort the flow of data from the external reality. Mindfulness is the skill of observing all of this happen.

Many of us spend a good portion of our day inside fiction. How can we be mindful when we’re lost in reading a novel, watching a television show, or out at the movies? We substitute our cognitive model of reality with a fictional model that someone else has created. We fool ourselves into believing we are someone else, being somewhere else, doing something else. Fiction by its very nature is anti-mindfulness.

Fiction is sometimes how we communicate our models of reality. Other times, fiction is intentional replacements for our model of reality meant to entertain or provide us temporary vacations from reality. When we’re inside fiction, we’re at least two dimensions away from the external reality. The only way to be truly mindful is to constantly recall our immediate place in reality, but that spoils the magical illusion of fiction.

Is it possible to be a bookworm and be mindful at the same time? Is it possible to be mindful while inside fiction? Especially when it requires forgetting who and where we are to fully experience a work of fiction.

While I’m at the movies watching Colette, I must juggle the sensation of seeing an illusion of 19th-century Paris while sitting in a dark room in Memphis, Tennessee. I must accept Keira Knightley pretending to fool me that she is Colette, a woman who spoke another language in another time and is long dead. This is when fiction is a tool for communicating what reality might have been like for another person. Being fully mindful of the experience requires observing my memories of history and knowledge of movie making as it reacts with experiencing the film in a darkened theater.

To be mindful in such a situation requires grasping the gestalt of a complex experience. That’s why people usually pick a quiet empty room to work at mindfulness. It’s much easier to observe our mental state of the moment when not much is going on. Being mindful inside fiction requires our observer watching a symphony of mental activity and understanding how it all works together.

Generally, we consume fiction to forget our observer. When I was listening to The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky I was imaging being thousands of years in the future and many light years away. This new model of reality was generated by whispering words into my ear. I never completely forgot the input from my senses because I listened to the audiobook while eating breakfast or walking around the neighborhood.

I believe part of being mindful while inside fiction is to observe our psychological need for that particular kind of fiction at that moment and how I’m reacting to it. I want and get something much different watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel than when I watch Get Shorty. What I experience while reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein is much different from what I experience reading Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. The lack of mindfulness inside fiction lets us consume fiction in the same way we can eat a bag of potato chips without noticing that each chip was different.

If I don’t explore why my mind is entertained by stories of a 1959 housewife becoming a standup comic in New York City and a low-life thug wanting to become a movie producer in modern-day Nevada, then I’m not totally being here now.

The purpose of mindfulness is to be fully aware of who you are in the moment. So, it’s almost oxymoron to ask if we can practice mindfulness inside fiction because most people use fiction to escape who they are in the moment. But then, most people aren’t fully in the moment when they are getting dressed or even sitting in a lotus pose in front of a sunset. In the west, mindfulness is taught as a cure for the stress of living. We are told if we meditate five or ten minutes during the day it will help us handle the stress of the rest of the day. Of course, meditation is not mindfulness, but all too often they are confused as one.

One reason I’m bringing up the topic of mindfulness inside fiction is that I believe some types of fiction are polluting our minds. I have to wonder if all the violence in fiction isn’t programming our minds in subtle ways. Is there not a correlation between the mass consumption of violent fiction and the violence we’re seeing in everyday life? The other day I saw a short documentary on the history of the video game. In the 1950s video games were just blips on the screen. Today they almost look like movies. It startled me to see sequences from first-person shooters because I realized those video games were creating the same kind of scenes that mass shooters must see as they walk around blowing real people away.

I have to wonder if the rise of overblown emotional rhetoric we encounter in real life is not inspired by dramatic lines from characters in fiction. Everyday people can’t seem to express their feelings without putting them into harshest of words. Too many people can’t object to a philosophy without claiming they will kill the philosopher.

I  believe its time we extend moments of mindfulness beyond quiet empty rooms or restful respites in nature. We need to observe what fiction is doing to our minds, especially at the subconscious level. We need to be mindful why we seek fiction. We need to understand the purpose of fiction in our lives. We need to know why we turn our own lives off in favor of fictional lives. We need to know what our minds bring back from our fictional vacations.

When I first took computer courses back in 1971, I was taught an interesting acronym, GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It meant if you put lousy code and data into a computer you’d get crap for output. I believe it also applies to fiction.

JWH

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Guest Star – Susan Oliver

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 7, 2018

Life is indeed full of little pleasures. Nowadays, I love watching old television shows, and it’s another small delight I can add to my daily total when I can recognize a character actor from the past. The other night I watched an episode of Route 66 with Susan Oliver guest starring. (“Welcome to Amity“- 1961:s1:e29). I had seen her a number of times lately on other old shows, including a two-parter on The Fugitive. (“Never Wave Goodbye” –  1963:s1:e4-5).

Susan Oliver made a career out of guest starring. Back in the early days of television audiences had no problem with guest actors appearing as different characters, and were usually allowed to appear in the same series once a year. Oliver was so well-liked by audiences that she appeared annually in many popular television shows, each time as a different character. Yes, Susan Oliver was strikingly attractive but more important, she always struck me as a tortured soul which uniquely revealed itself in every character she played. I never knew why until an odd incidence of serendipity.

I can’t tell you the first time I saw Susan Oliver, but I can tell you the last time. It was Wednesday night, December 5, 2018 when I saw her in that episode of Route 66. I remembered her name and face but I didn’t know anything about her history. Normally, I would have gone on to watch another show and forgot all about her for the moment. If by accident in the future I again caught one of her guest appearances I would have had another little spark of pleasure if I recognized her and remembered the Route 66 episode.

But something weird happened. It almost felt like The Twilight Zone music played. I clicked the Home button on my Amazon Fire and went to my watchlist. I don’t know why, but my eye immediately caught The Green Girl, a documentary I thought was about Star Trek. That appealed to me. I hit play. Then I discovered the documentary was really about Susan Oliver. That was spooky and fun.

I had completely forgotten that Susan Oliver had played Vina in the first Star Trek pilot that Gene Roddenberry had made in 1964. The film from that pilot was reused in 1966 to make a two-part episode called “The Menagerie” (s1:e11-12). I had seen “The Menagerie” when it first premiered on November 17, 1966. Vina might be Susan Oliver’s most famous role, and thus the title of the documentary. At one point, Vina appeared as a fantasy to Capt. Pike (this was before Capt. Kirk) as a dancing green alien woman. Susan Oliver’s green woman was also shown in the closing credits of the first season of Star Trek, making her famous to Star Trek fandom. I had completely forgotten that until seeing the documentary.

I was eight days from being sixteen when I first saw that episode of Star Trek with Susan Oliver. I thought she was beautiful then, but I didn’t memorize her name at that time. By then I had probably seen her in several television shows. Oliver was never famous, never had her own TV series, or became a movie star, but she appeared in almost countless television shows starting in the 1950s. She’s now haunting me because I’m watching all those old TV shows again.

The Green Girl is a wonderful 2014 tribute to Susan Oliver that tells her life story, interviews her friends and fellow actors, and shows clips from dozens of her performances. The documentary also chronicled her exploits as a competitive pilot. Oliver flew across the Atlantic solo and came in second in a cross-country race. As she aged she tried writing and directing but was thwarted because she was a woman. The Green Girl provides both a moving story about an ambitious young woman breaking into movies and television back when I was growing up and also reminds those of us who grew up back then of all the television shows we loved so much.

The Green Girl

When I was young I used to be frustrated with older folks when they didn’t know my favorite pop culture icons. I couldn’t understand how they could be so clueless to current famous people. Now that I’m old, I’m clueless about the identities of current pop culture favorites, and I realize I should have been more forgiving of my elders. I also wish now that I had memorized far more people back then. I feel bad in 2018 that I hadn’t become a dedicated fan of Susan Oliver in the 1950s, memorizing her name and following her career until she died.

This is kind of weird, maybe even spooky too, but for some unfathomable reason, I’m drawn to my pop culture past. I do love modern TV. For example, I’m crazy about The Marvelous Mrs. Meisel. But I can’t tell you who plays Mrs. Meisel. I’m not even going to make the effort to look it up – I’d only forget it. Why aren’t I memorizing all the details of current pop culture? I don’t even try. I don’t even feel guilty for not knowing. But it is important to me to keep up with the trivia of the 1950s and 1960s. Why?

When Susan Oliver shows up in an old TV show it brings me a little pleasure. Recalling the character actors names in shows I haven’t seen for decades gives me a twinge of happiness. And it’s not like the present doesn’t also bring pleasure. I really, really love The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It gives me great happiness. Much more than watching old favorite TV shows. Yet, I feel no need to memorize the names of its actors. Why?

It feels like I’m giving up on the present because I enjoy the past more. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but then I don’t care either. I used to wonder why old guys wore orange plaid slacks with red paisley shirts. Now I know it’s because they are old and have an “I don’t give a shit” attitude about everything. (Although I’m quite thankful I don’t have the urge to wear plaid and paisley together. If I did, I would.) For some reason, it’s more important to remember trivia from the old days than it is to remember facts about the present.

If you feel that way, then I bet you’ll love watching The Green Girl.

JWH

 

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What To Do When Your Favorite Writer Goes Bad?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 3, 2018

This month, I’m forcing myself to read a book I hate for a book club I moderate. The book is Friday by Robert A. Heinlein. I first discovered Robert A. Heinlein in 1964 when I was still twelve and in the 8th grade. By 1966, I believe I had read all his then published novels and most of his published short stories. He was my favorite writer by far, and I was a voracious bookworm. By the end of the 1960s, I was regularly rereading his books.

Then in 1970, Heinlein came out with I Will Fear No Evil. It was the first hardback I bought as a new release. I remembered how excited I was to delve into that book and just how disappointed I was when I read it. I was surprised and disturbed that I could dislike a Heinlein book. Heinlein never wrote another book I liked. His last seven novels, published from 1970-1987 were horrible reading experiences for me. My reactions ranged from bored to being revolted. I’ve never been able to even finish Friday or The Number of the Beast, and never even tried To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

What is strange, is I often encounter Heinlein fans who prefer his later books. When I was younger I assumed the Heinlein I hated was bad Heinlein, but can that be possible when there are plenty of readers who love the works I consider bad? When I was younger I also assumed Heinlein changed. In more recent years I wondered if I had changed. I pretty much loved Heinlein in the 1960s when I was a teenager. Heinlein was a substitute father figure for me because my own father wasn’t around much. Ultimately, in the late 1960s when the generation gap was at its widest, I think I rejected both of my fathers because of political differences. Heinlein and my dad both supported the Vietnam War, and I didn’t.

In the last few years, I’ve thought about giving Heinlein a second chance. Maybe there are good qualities to his “bad” books that I missed. Maybe I am wrong in thinking books can be judged good or bad. Maybe I should also reread the “good” books to see if what I disliked about Heinlein was there all along and I just skimmed over those aspects.

I’ve also thought that Heinlein devolved as a writer as he aged. He did have medical problems that affected his thinking in later years, but supposedly surgery fixed that. Heinlein claimed until to the end of his life that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were his best books, the ones that defined his personal philosophy, and the ones he wanted to be remembered and judged by. As I’ve aged, I’ve turned against all his 1960s novels. I now consider his novels published from 1952-1959 as his best, from The Rolling Stones to Starship Troopers. I tend to like many, but not all, of his shorter work published from 1939-1959.

I’m not alone. Many science fiction fans my age prefer the earlier Heinlein. Heinlein was proud of the young-adult novels he wrote in the 1950s, but I don’t think he felt they represented his insight and art. When he went to G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959, Heinlein felt he had been freed to write what he wanted. I think that’s when he saw himself as a mature artist and wanted to be respected as a philosophical novelist. I believe he wanted to be another Ayn Rand. I’ve only read The Fountainhead, and I’m not an admirer of Rand, so I can’t really compare them. But I know they both wanted to be influential. From Alec Nevala-Lee new book, Astounding, it seems obvious Heinlein was anxious to make an impact and disappointed that his success didn’t go beyond writing science fiction.

This month I’m making a concerted effort to understand Heinlein from one of his later works, Friday. It was first published in 1982, just six years before Heinlein died. Friday was nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and Locus award, but did not win any of them. Jo Walton at Tor.com calls FridayThe Worst Book I Love.” She fell in love with the story at 17, but always knew it lacked a plot. Walton says in the end, “Even as it is, I love it for its moments of clarity and beauty. I wouldn’t be without it. I taught myself almost all I know about how to plot by lying awake trying to fix the end of Friday in my head.” That’s far more generous than I could ever be, but then she’s much younger than I am.

I can’t forgive Heinlein for creating a woman character who could rationalize being gang-raped as part of her secret agent job but wanted to slowly kill one of her rapists because he didn’t brush his teeth and use mouthwash first. The story itself is high-minded about accepting different people but spends an inordinate amount of time on when to kill folks for their bad manners. Friday Jones is an artificial person (clone) and rejected because of it, so you’d think she’d be a little more forgiving about all the capital killing snubs she feels.

The conflict in the novel is as contrived as religion. The good guys feel like bad guys to me, willing to kill people for what I think are trivial reasons, but ones they judge as highly offensive. Heinlein never defines his bad guys. They don’t have a philosophy. They don’t have an agenda. They are just a supposedly evil existential threat, ruthlessly killing and committing bad manners. But I wonder if Heinlein’s nebulous bad guys are really us, good guys from a rational world.

The “Boss” character who seems reprocessed from Heinlein’s 1949 story “Gulf” and a secret agent version of Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land is one self-righteous sanctimonious know-it-all. I worry that Heinlein’s great philosophical message is this character’s beliefs? If that is true, then Heinlein’s art is only the conceited gospel of his opinions.

But I have my own faults as a reader to confess. I should have set higher standards for my favorite author long ago. I can’t separate my boyish love of science fiction from any discernment of great writing. It’s taken too long to realize that great writing should be those stories that enlighten me about reality and not the fiction I most want to escape into.

The reason I loved Heinlein in adolescence is that Heinlein shared my fantasy for colonizing the solar system. That was my psychological substitute for religion when I became an atheist at age 13. Heinlein after 1959 gave up on space exploration. His fiction became all about rationalizing his personal philosophies. He gave up his ability to tell a story and create characters. Tragically, he took many of his old characters I cherished and turned them into puppet mouthpieces for this Heinlein philosophy. I never could forgive what he did with the Stone family from The Rolling Stones when turned them into sleazy swingers in The Cat Who Walk Through Walls. Even worse, they all lost their unique voice and became zombies speaking in Jubal-tongue.

But am I being too harsh on my literary hero? That’s why I’m rereading his later books. Maybe I just don’t get it. I’m giving Heinlein one last try. One of my other favorite genres is literary biographies. Most writers are tragic figures. Maybe I need to be more forgiving of Heinlein the man, and not judge him by his bad books. The literary heroes I replaced Heinlein with in the 1970s were Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Philip K. Dick, none were angels, and certainly wrote their share of sinkers. Maybe I need to approach Robert A. Heinlein like I do Jack Kerouac, as a deeply flawed human who tried to justify his existence with his writing. In some ways, Heinlein is my Bronson Alcott father figure, and if Louisa May could come to terms with her crazy father, maybe I should with mine.

JWH

 

 

 

 

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Does Perry Mason Follow the Rules for Detective Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 29, 2018

In my last post, I wrote about becoming addicted to Perry Mason. The trouble is I’m not a murder mystery fan, so I’m clueless when it comes to analyzing the clues. I’ve never guessed whodunit while watching Perry Mason. In fact, I often feel cheated when the murderer confesses because it seems like the writers kept them mostly offstage, and Perry doesn’t give us the important clues until the end of the show when he’s explaining his logic to Della and Paul. We seldom see the murderer conviving.

Because Perry Mason won nearly all the 271 cases presented in the nine seasons of the show, I know not to suspect his clients. The show certainly would be a great deal more fun if Hamilton Burger won at least a quarter of the cases or even a third. By some accounts, Mason only lost three cases, but even those are iffy. Watching a formulaic story is comfortable sometimes, but annoying at other times.

The creative appeal of Perry Mason is the highly contrived murders. The other night I watch “The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse” which involved two women with the same name and looks. It featured a young actress Judy Tyler who had just made Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley that tragically died in a car accident not long after making the PM episode. The story was colorful and sexy, but highly contrived, while the murder and whodunit seemed more like an afterthought. In most episodes, the cleverness of how the victim was murdered seems to take a backseat to actually allowing the viewer a chance to solve the murder. To me, that’s breaking the rules.

Like I’ve said, I’ve had little experience with murder mysteries. I’ve read damn few of them, mainly a handful of novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’ve seen many more murder mysteries on television or at the movies, but I don’t seek them out. Now that I’ve got hooked on Perry Mason, I want to understand the art form.

I did find “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” by S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance mysteries. I tend to think the Perry Mason episodes often violates his rule number 10:

The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story–that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.

I have not read the Erle Stanley Gardner books, so I can’t claim it’s his fault or the television writers when the rules are broken. And part of the problem is Perry Mason isn’t a detective but a lawyer, but he seldom lets Paul Drake his hired detective do any detecting. Reading, “I Rest My Case: Perry Mason Still Rules in the Courtroom” by J. Kingston Pierce, I get the feeling that book Perry is very different from TV Perry.

Raymond Burr is the star of the show and he gets to do all the crime solving. Because half the show is usually in the courtroom, we get a mix of a detective story with a courtroom drama. Everything moves fast, and it often feels like the writers are pulling a sleight-of-hand trick at the end. This doesn’t keep me from watching, though. Maybe the appeal of the show is to recreate the logic in the post-show analysis.

I know Perry Mason is an extremely well-loved television show, but I think it could have been much better. I feel it often breaks the rules for writing detective fiction. It makes Perry invincible which makes Paul and Della feel like subservient pawns in Perry’s game. I think the stories would have been superior if Paul Drake had done most of the detective work and Della had been given more of her own skills to contribute. And the stories would have had far more depth if Perry lost one-fourth of his cases to a more cunning Hamilton Berger. Plus, I think Lt. Tragg should have outsmarted Perry some of the time too. In fact, I think it would have been thrilling if the viewer sometimes got to solve cases that Perry flubbed. Or even have murderers outwit Perry. It gets tiresome waiting for Perry do all his same old tricks in each episode. I haven’t seen many episodes after season three, so maybe things change. Or maybe someone will create a new Perry Mason series.

It’s tedious to have infallible heroes. I wished Perry Mason had broken its formula writing rules and followed more closely the rules for writing whodunits. Like I said, I’m just getting into murder mysteries. I’ll start taking notes and analyzing some of the more interesting Perry Mason cases. Maybe the clues are all there and the writers are on the up-and-up, and I’m just a terrible murder mystery solver. I need to prove my case that Perry Mason breaks the rules with more specific facts, which will require deconstructing some episodes in the future.

JWH

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Why Am I Binge Watching Perry Mason?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Until the success of the VCR in the second half of the 1970s fans of television shows couldn’t just watch their favorite episodes whenever they wanted. I’m not sure people born after the DVR will understand that. In the early decades of television, a show premiered in its allotted time slot, and then a subset of that season got repeated in the summer reruns. You might fall in love with a particular episode and not get to see it again for decades.

Eventually, popular shows like I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Star Trek made it into syndication. If a fan was patient they could eventually see every episode of a series. Early adopters of VCRs took pride in collecting a complete run of their favorite shows, especially if it took years.

Nowadays fans can watch almost any show on demand. Some TV aficionados only watch a show when it has been completed or canceled so they can see the complete story on DVD or streaming. Meaning, they can watch an entire multi-year series by binge-watching for several days or weeks. After randomly watching about 50 episodes of Perry Mason on MeTV during the last year, I decided to start with season 1, episode 1 on CBS All Access and watch the entire 271 shows in order. They only have seasons 1-5, but I hope they’ll add the rest, otherwise I’ll have to buy the DVDs. (Maybe that’s their intention.)

I have to ask myself: Why Perry Mason? Even though Perry Mason is one of the most popular TV shows ever, it’s artistic quality pales compared to modern television series like Breaking Bad, Downton AbbeyThe Game of Thrones, The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Often when I watch an episode of Perry Mason my mind boggles by how the plot struggles to make any kind of logical sense. And Perry, Della, and Paul are completely lacking in the kind of vivid personal details we expect in 21st-century TV shows. I’ve never liked murder mysteries, never cared whodunit, and I never guess the guilty person while watching Perry Mason. Yet at this time in my life, I find the show very addictive.

I’ve binge-watched nearly of all the most popular television series since The Sopranos so I know Perry Mason is primitive in comparison. According to Wikipedia, “Perry Mason is Hollywood’s first weekly one-hour series filmed for television and remains one of the longest-running and most successful legal-themed television series.”  It premiered on September 21, 1957. The contrast between TV storytelling in 1957 and 2018 is startling. The evolution of creating TV shows during those years is worthy of countless Ph.D. dissertations.

The difference between television then and now is so stark, that I can’t imagine younger fans even being able to even watch Perry Mason. Except for one episode, it was filmed in gorgeous black and white. To the current generation, it would be like Baby Boomers having embraced early silent movies in their teens. So, why am I watching Perry Mason now when I could be watching countless superior shows? I think there’s something psychological I need to unearth. And it’s taking the length of a long Atlantic Monthly essay to scope out the problem. I doubt seriously if even my closest friends will want to read all of this, but I feel compelled to write out why. I need to explain it to myself.

Socrates warned us the unexamined life if not worth living. I’ve never argued with that. In the last third of life, such self-reflection seems truer than ever even for the smallest aspects of day-to-day living. Have you ever dissected your soul to find out why you love what you love? Stop a moment and think about that. Why is your gray goo wanting to substitute its current sensory input with data from a video screen? Watching television is a rejection of reality for a substitute, and maybe that isn’t bad, but it is revealing. When we tune in, turn on and drop out, what are we really doing?

Maybe you’ve been asked this deep question of why you love TV before, and maybe not. But let’s take it a little further, just a bit deeper. Have you ever asked yourself why you love to watch television with other people? Or do you? What we watch by ourselves tells us so much about ourselves, but what we watch together says so much more about our relationships. I bet you haven’t thought of that one before.

For almost a decade I’ve watched television with my friend Janis. Until this August, my wife had been working out of town all that time and Janis and I would watch shows together three or four nights a week. Janis moved to Mexico this August, something she’s been hoping to do as long as I’ve known her, and Susan finally got transferred back to Memphis. Susan and I discovered we no longer watch the same kind of shows, not like we did before 2008. Now, every evening we watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy together in the living room, and then I go to the den to watch my shows.

What’s enlightening to me is the shows I choose to watch by myself. I assumed I’d continue to watch all the popular binge-worthy shows I had been watching with Janis. But I’m not. For weeks I tried countless shows but my restless mind could not settle on any of them. I ended up watching old westerns from the 1940s and 1950s every evening.

For the last few years, whenever I’m alone watching TV, I binge on Hollywood classics, westerns, film noir, 1960s comedies, or Pre-Code Hollywood from the early 1930s. These have all been life-long favorites. They’ve also been the kinds of films my friends don’t like watching. Then I got hooked on the 1950s and 1960s television shows I hadn’t seen much of when I was young, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, and The Fugitive. After Janis moved away I mostly watched westerns for weeks, mixed it with some Perry Mason. Strangely, all these television shows and movies are in black and white. I wonder what that means?

I’ve gone through a number of psychological changes since I retired five years ago, including how I watch television. I’ve been a TV addict since 1956, but the level of addiction and types of shows I craved have changed many times over the years. The hole in my TV watching schedule is making me think about my lifetime relationship with TV and who I watched it with.

Watching TV by myself is so different from social TV watching. Looking back, I realized I’ve mostly been a social television watcher. There have always been shows I watched by myself, but there have been more shows I watched because of other people. When I was young, I watched shows with my family. Once I got past the sixth grade, I loved watching shows with friends, either at my house or theirs. I got a job in high school in 1968 and quit watching television for many years. That ended some friendships. I seldom watched TV in my college years. As I got back into television around 1975, I began social TV watching with a new generation of friends. Then when I got married to Susan in 1978, and we found prime-time bliss. I would watch her shows and she would watch mine. When Susan move to Birmingham to keep her job, my television life fell apart. Then Janis became my TV buddy during the time that coincided with the era of binge-watching on streaming TV. We picked shows that made us want to watch two or three episodes at a time.

For the last few months, I’ve tried many new series, but my mind can’t stick with them. I keep hopping from one show to the next for about ten or fifteen minutes. Every once I a while I could find a series that would hook me like Sisters season 1 or Man in the High Castle season 3, but for the most part, I’d fall back on westerns. Then I got hooked on Perry Mason.

Remembering my television watching habits when I was 5-15 is a hazy affair. I’d love if my memories were perfect. I do have clues. I have memories of my parents always asking me what was on television even from an early age. There were only three channels back then, so I imagine it wasn’t a great feat for a kid to memorize the schedule. One of the first magazines I remember reading is the TV Guide, but I’m not sure how often we bought it, or when my mother started bringing it home from the grocery store.

What I realized now is I watched all kinds of shows back then because sometimes my parents picked them, and sometimes Becky, my sister, and I got to choose. It wasn’t until I, Spy (1965) and Star Trek (1966) that I tried to never miss an episode of a favorite show. That got interrupted in 1968 as I mentioned before when I got my first punch-the-clock job after school in the eleventh grade.

Wanting to see every episode of a television show became a real habit after Susan and I got married. We loved NBC’s Must See TV Thursday nights. Then in this century with whole season DVD sets of television shows and Netflix. Binge-watching a series from the first episode to last become a thing.

I believe part of the attraction to Perry Mason is because it’s a complete work, and available on DVD. It also appeals to me that I can buy The Perry Mason Book by Jim Davidson for my Kindle, a handy-dandy comprehensive episode-by-episode reference guide to supplement my Perry Mason watching. Even though I don’t care about whodunit in a murder mystery, I do care about what model car Paul Drake drove or where a picturesque scene is filmed. One aspect of Perry Mason I love is the location shooting from 1957-1966. The show is full of little details I find compelling.

Of course, these are piddling details. The urge to go deeper into my unconscious pushes me to find greater insight. I’ve known for years that living in the last third of light resonates with the first third. When I was young I was often disappointed with older people when they told me they were clueless about the current pop culture I valued so much. Now that I’m older I know what it means to not be able to keep up. Perry Mason is familiar territory. The beautiful black-and-white photography is comforting. All the then new cars are the ones I coveted growing up and wished I owned now as classic old cars now. Plus the women in their conical bras and tight sweaters are the prototypes of feminine beauty from my earliest memories of horniness.

Perry Mason 2Back in the 1990s I flew down to Miami and got my old buddy Connell to drive me to a house where I lived in 1955 when I was four. I stood on the sidewalk in front of my old home, the site of some of my earliest memories of playing outside. I felt like I was standing on the Big Bang beginning of my universe. Watching 1957 Perry Mason takes me very close to that origin. It’s the inflationary period when my mind began to be expanded by television.

So, what does this say about my psychology? Why do I pick a 62-year-old TV show to watch by myself at 67? If I watch TV with friends we’d watch a 2018 show. Susan too watches old TV shows by herself, but they are usually from the last decade, except for Friends. Are the shows we pick reflective of the escapism we need? Is the political incorrectness 1957 much easier to handle than political insanity of 2018?

I wonder what my friends watch by themselves and why? Is everyone sitting alone turning back the hand of time? Some people I know have the TV on all day long to keep them company. They tell me it helps with loneliness. I hate hearing a TV in the daytime. I love TV when it’s dark and late, and I’m too tired to do anything else. I realize now that I categorize my friends by which pop culture references we share. I go flicks with some friends and other films with other friends. I share old science fiction with a couple of friends, but not with the rest. My love of westerns requires hanging out with strangers on Facebook to find anyone to share that enthusiasm.

I have one friend that loves Perry Mason but we seldom see each other anymore since she was a work friend and I’m retired. She watches Perry every night at 10:30. I wish I could watch it with her. But she is younger than I, so I’m not sure we resonate with the same aspects of the show? None of my close friends will watch Perry with me. None of them like the old movies and westerns either. This got me to thinking about how our personalities are divided by what we do alone and what we do together.

I went to see Green Book with a friend after getting positive reviews from several other friends. And I know a few other folks who want to go see it. That means we’re all bonded by this one current movie. I like that. Back in my K-12 days, I’d go to school and seek out other kids who had seen the same TV shows the night before. The same thing happened during my work years.

Some people I know get their feelings hurt if you tell them you don’t like their favorite TV show. I don’t. I am disappointed sometimes when someone I like a lot won’t try a current show I love. I feel like I’m making an offer of connection, and they refuse. I don’t care if they end up hating the show. It’s the willingness to try to communicate that counts.

When I go to a party I ask people what they are watching on TV or going out to see at the movies. When I find someone who has seen what I have, and we both are crazy about the story, I actually like the person more. And if I hear a person put down a show I love, I feel like there’s a side to the person I can’t comprehend. It’s like the old generation gap – a pop culture divide.

Comparing tastes in television shows makes me realize just how different people are in my life. What we share is a kind of Venn diagram of commonality, what we don’t, defines our borders. But I wonder. Is it the shows we watch alone that define us the most, or the ones we share with each other?

JWH

 

 

 

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Counting the Components of My Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 20, 2018

When the scientific discipline of artificial intelligence emerged in the 1950’s academics began to seriously believe that someday a computer will become sentient like us, and have consciousness and self-awareness. Science has no idea how humans are conscious of reality, but scientists assume if nature can accidentally give us self-awareness then science should be able to intentionally build it into machines. In the over sixty years since scientists have given computers more and more awareness and abilities. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: What are the components of consciousness needed for sentience? I’ve been trying to answer that by studying my own mind.

Thinking Machine illustration

Of course, science still doesn’t know why we humans are self-aware, but I believe if we meditate on the problem we can visualize the components of awareness. Most people think of themselves as a whole mind, often feeling they are a little person inside their heads driving their body around. If you spend time observing yourself you’ll see you are actually many subcomponents.

Twice in my life, I’ve experienced what it’s like to not have language. It’s a very revealing sensation. The first time was back in the 1960s when I took too large a dose of LSD. The second time was years ago when I experienced a mini-stroke. If you practice meditation you can learn to observe the moments when you’re observing reality without language. It’s then you realize that your thoughts are not you. Thoughts are language and memories, including memories from sensory experiences. If you watch yourself closely, you’ll sense you are an observer separate from your thoughts. A single point that experiences reality. That observer only goes away when you sleep or are knocked by drugs or trauma. Sometimes the observer is aware to a tiny degree during sleep. And if you pay close enough attention, your observer can experience all kinds of states of awareness – each I consider a component of consciousness.

The important thing to learn is the observer is not your thoughts. My two experiences of losing my language component were truly enlightening. Back in the 1960’s gurus of LSD claimed it brought about a state of higher consciousness. I think it does just the opposite, it lets us become more animal-like. I believe in both my acid and mini-stroke experiences I got to see the world more like a dog. Have you ever wondered how an animal sees the reality without language and thoughts?

When I had my mini-stroke it was in the middle of the night. I woke up feeling like lightning had gone off in my dream. I looked at my wife but didn’t know how to talk to her or even knew her name. I wasn’t afraid. I got up and went into the bathroom. I had no trouble walking. I automatically switched on the light. So conditioned reflexes were working. I sat on the commode and just stared around at things. I “knew” something was missing, but I didn’t have words for it, or how to explain it, even mentally to myself. I just saw what my eyes looked at. I felt things without giving them labels. I just existed. I have no idea how long the experience lasted. Finally, the alphabet started coming back to me and I mentally began to recite A, B, C, D, E, F … in my head. Then words started floating into my mind: tile, towel, door, mirror, and so on. I remembered my wife’s name, Susan. I got up and went back to bed.

Lately, as my ability to instantly recall words has begun to fail, and I worry about a possible future with Alzheimer’s, I’ve been thinking about that state of consciousness without language. People with dementia react in all kinds of ways. From various kinds of serenity, calmness to agitation, anger, and violence. I hope I can remain calm like I did in the bathroom at that time. Having Alzheimer’s is like regressing backward towards babyhood. We lose our ability for language, memories, skills, and even conditioned behaviors. But the observer remains.

The interesting question is: How much does the observer know? If you’ve ever been very sick, delirious, or drunk to incapacity, you might remember how the observer hangs in there. The observer can be diminished or damaged. I remember being very drunk, having tunnel vision, and seeing everything in black and white. My cognitive and language abilities were almost nil. But the observer was the last thing to go. I imagine it’s the same with dementia and death.

Creating the observer will be the first stage of true artificial intelligence. Science is already well along on developing an artificial vision, hearing, language recognition, and other components of higher awareness. It’s never discovered how to add the observer. It’s funny how I love to contemplate artificial intelligence while worrying about losing my mental abilities.

I just finished a book, American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee about wolves being reintroduced into Yellowstone. Wolves are highly intelligent and social, and very much like humans. Blakeslee chronicles wolves doing things that amazed me. At one point a hunter shoots a wolf and hikes through the snow to collect his trophy. But as he approaches the body, the dead wolf’s mate shows up. The mate doesn’t threaten the hunter, but just sits next to the body and begins to howl. Then the pack shows up and takes seats around the body, and they howl too. The wolves just ignore the hunter who stands a stone’s throw away and mourns for their leader. Eventually, the hunter backs away to leave them at their vigil. He decides to collect his trophy later, which he does.

I’ve been trying to imagine the mind of the wolf who saw its mate killed by a human. It has an observing mind too, but without language. However, it had vast levels of conditioning living in nature, socializing with other wolves, and experiences with other animals, including humans. Wolves rarely kill humans. Wolves kill all kinds of other animals. They routinely kill each other. Blakeslee’s book shows that wolves love, feel compassion, and even empathy. But other than their own animalistic language they don’t have our levels of language to abstractly explain reality. That wolf saw it’s mate dead in the snow. For some reason, wolves ignore people, even ones with guns. Wolves in Yellowstone are used to being watched by humans. The pack that showed up to mourn their leader were doing what they do from instinct. It’s revealing to try and imagine what their individual observers experienced.

If you meditate, you’ll learn to distinguish all the components of your consciousness. There are many. We are taught we have five senses. Observing them shows how each plays a role in our conscious awareness. However, if you keep observing carefully, you’ll eventually notice we have more than five senses. Which sense organ feels hunger, thirst, lust, pain, and so on. And some senses are really multiple senses, like our ability to taste. Aren’t awareness of sweet and sour two different senses?

Yet, it always comes back to the observer. We can suffer disease or trauma and the observer remains with the last shred of consciousness. We can lose body parts and senses and the observer remains. We can lose words and memories and the observer remains.

This knowledge leaves me contemplating two things. One is how to build an artificial observer. And two, how to prepare my observer for the dissolution of my own mind and body.

JWH

Featured

Bookworms Should Worship Scribd

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 19, 2018

Scribd is to books and audiobooks as Netflix is to movies and television shows, and Spotify is to songs and albums. For $8.99 you get all the books and audiobooks you can read or listen to in a month. The complete variety of its offerings is somewhere between Netflix and Spotify. I consider Spotify at $9.99/month the best bargain on the planet because it provides nearly every song or album I ask from it. Scribd has about 80% of the books I read for book clubs or hear about word of mouth. It has around 25-30% of the older titles I want, but that’s better than Netflix. Plus Scribd offers magazines, sheet music, and single documents. Here’s my home screen.

Scribd 800

Every month I realize the value of my $8.99 subscription more and more. Yesterday I got a sale announcement from Audible.com for about 500 books. I love these $4.95-6.95 sales, and usually, load up. I told myself I could buy ten of them. I selected 17 to whittle down, but before I did I checked Scribd. All but one was there. This left me in a quandary. Did I spend $60 and hoped I eventually get around to listening to those books or did I take a chance they’d still be at Scribd when I wanted them?

I usually end up listening to one or two books a month from Scribd, and two or three from Audible. This might change. At $8.99 versus $20-30 (I buy the annual 24-pack of credits so my Audible books are $9.56 each, but single purchased credits are $15, which would be $30-45).

I’m in two nonfiction book clubs. Saturday night my face-to-face book club picked Sharp by Michelle Dean. The ebook version was at Scribd. White Trash, Bad Blood, and Educated, the last few selections I remembered were there too. I’m also in an online nonfiction club too. I’m listening to our current selection, American Wolf as an audiobook from Scribd. Next month’s read, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution is also at Scribd, as was last month’s selection, Fascism by Madeleine Allbright. We’re now nominating books for the next three months. Here are the books at Scribd that’s among the nominations:

  • The Tangled Tree by David Quammen (audio)
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (audio)
  • A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford (audio, ebook)
  • Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (audio, ebook)
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (audio)
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor (audio)
  • Disinformation by Ronald J. Rychlak (ebook)

The nominated books that weren’t at Scribd are:

  • On Paper: The Everything of its 2000 Year History by Nicholas Basbanes
  • The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston
  • Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors by Sarah Stodola
  • Essential Essays Adrienna Rich

For months now, the books we actually select with our voting end up being on Scribd. However, this is only for nonfiction. I’m not in a general fiction book club. But for my science fiction book club, Scribd does well on new science fiction titles, but less well for older titles. The book we just picked for January, Noumenon by Marina Lostetter is available in both ebook and audiobook at Scribd.

I’ve always been a book hoarder, squirreling away books for the future. Now I need to rethink my book buying habits. I’ve practically stopped buying CDs because of Spotify. The only DVDs I buy anymore are rare titles for my western collection, everything else I stream. Is it time to rent my books too?

Every day I look at ebook sales from Amazon, BookBub, Early Bird Books, and LitFlash. At $1.99 I can’t resist a great book I think I want to read. But subscribing to Scribd is like having my own gigantic library with instant access to books and audiobooks, far more convenient that my local public library.

But owning books is so fulfilling! At $8.99 a month, even if I just used Scribd to preview the books I want to buy it’s a fantastic bargain. And if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, don’t think it compares to Scribd. Amazon doesn’t provide access to the books I want at Kindle Unlimited. Amazon seems to use up-and-coming writers and self-published books for its subscription service. And that’s a good thing for new writers, but it’s not what Scribd is doing. If you belong to a book club you really need to check out Scribd.

The reason I’m writing this essay is selfish. Scribd is just hanging on. It’s been reorganized several times. Several other book rental companies have come and gone. All are being squashed by the Amazon juggernaut. I want Scribd to survive and thrive so I will always have access to it. Give it a try if you love books.

I’m still crazy about Audible.com. I’m not going to abandon it. I’m a big fat bookworm, so I think paying for both is worth it. But for people who think Audible.com is too expensive at $15 a month, they should consider spending $8.99 a month at Scribd. It’s a much better bargain.

JWH

 

 

Featured

The Future Belongs to the Young and Diverse

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 15, 2018

We can easily see a difference between conservatives and liberals in these pictures. This photo spread has become a popular meme on Facebook. The new conservatives in Congress are all white males except for one white woman. The liberals are still mostly white, but there are more women, and if you look closer, there’s more diversity. If you study the photos a bit more, it appears the liberals are younger on average.

Personally, I think this is good. I feel there are too many old white guys running this country, and I’m an old white guy. I don’t want to get into politics here, but talk about the future. It’s time to rethink everything. We have more problems than any single ideology can solve. If ever there was a time to think out of the box, it’s now.

We’re at a crossroads where one dominant group is fighting with everything they’ve got to retain their dominance. But we live in a country of 325.7 million very diverse people. You can’t judge by appearance. You can’t go by age or gender. But the odds are if all our leaders look the same then everyone is not getting proper representation.

I don’t want leaders who are driven by special interests or limited philosophies. I want leaders who feel compelled to make the 100% happy with the government, not just their own 50%. I want leaders who can see the giant multi-dimensional picture of global everything. Think global act local is still a valid mantra. Our current government is run by a fraction for their own self-interests — that can’t succeed. We are doomed if our votes are only guided by self-interest.

I love the photos above because the diversity of faces looks like the diversity of faces I see everywhere in America. I love the faces above because they are young and the future belongs to them. I don’t want to be governed by a desperate minority hanging onto yesterday, I want to be governed by the majority who will build tomorrow.

JWH 

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Can Meditation Overwrite the Unconscious Mind?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 9, 2018

My friend Linda has been getting into meditation. That made me think I should give it another go. I’ve tried meditation many times since the New Age of the 1970’s, but never stuck with it. I currently face two obstacles I want to overcome and wondered if meditation could help. I see at least one article a week show up on Flipboard touting the successes of meditators. They claim science supports the claims of meditation, but I’d want to verify that before I claim it too. I’ve written before about how I feel there are two wills occupying this body – the conscious me, and my unconscious mind whose will seems much stronger than my conscious mind.

older-adult-meditating

The two of us fight over health and creativity. My unconscious mind wants to follow my biological urges. The conscious me wants to become disciplined and be more creative. The conscious me wants to control or eliminate my biological urges and apply all my energy to achieving my goals. My unconscious mind loves to go with the flow and puppet-mastering me into doing whatever it feels like.

This morning I sat erect in an upholstered straight chair, put 20 minutes on my iPhone timer, sat on my hands, and closed my eyes. Meditation usually involves following your breath or focusing on a mantra. I decided to pay attention to my senses and always bring my mind back to one thought: I want to write a short story. I already know which story. I’ve written several drafts but left it unfinished several years ago.

I have two barriers I face every day. My declining health and my declining ability to focus on work. As I sat, and let my mind quiet I noticed the regular tick of the clock on the wall. I observed that tick which was more of a quiet thump, thump, thump…

Then I noticed the faint wail of a train whistle far to the east. I told myself to think about writing. I worked to just empty my mind of words and hold just the urge to write. Time and again my thoughts would flare up. They’d be about writing, but I tell myself to stop thinking words and just observe.

Then I noticed the sound of the HVAC in the attic starting the furnace. My mind went back to the clock and then wail of the train that was getting closer. I had three sounds to follow. My mind felt like it was in a golden sphere of nothingness. My mind began to chatter again, thinking about the details of writing. I brought it back to just the three sounds and the urge to write.

I have no idea how meditation is supposed to do its wonders. Does merely learning to slow and stop thoughts alter the unconscious mind into new programming?

My mind drifted to other thoughts not related to writing. I reigned it in again. I observe the sound of the thump, thump, thump of the clock, the concurrent sound of the approaching train, the sound of the HVAC now blowing air through the vents, and a new sound, the little crashes of the occasional acorn hitting the roof and then rolling off. Then I noticed constant Tinnitus sound in my ears. My ears were singing louder than all the other sounds.

It came to me I should write a thousand words today. Then it came to me I should write about meditation. Then it came to me I should write the fiction first. Then it came to me I should write 1,000 words of fiction the first thing every day. Then I stopped my thoughts and went back to observing the sounds outside the golden glow of my mind.

After a while, my mind got away, and it gave me the first sentence of the story. I thought up more sentences but told my mind to stop. I focused on quieting the mind and observing the sounds.

It kept doing this until the alarm went off.

I got up immediately, went to the computer and wrote 1,039 words of new fiction. The first in a very long time. Is that success due to meditation? I don’t know. Let’s see what I do tomorrow and the following days.

I doubt the success of today’s writing is due to twenty minutes of meditation. I felt good today, after a string of feeling poorly days. I got up and did a Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch workout, and then 30 minutes on the exercise bike. I then took a nice warm shower. I was feeling pretty damn good when I meditated, so maybe just the momentum of following some positive endeavors help me write fiction. I’ve been wanting to get back into writing fiction for years but just couldn’t make myself try. Mainly, because all my efforts ended in disappointment.

Most creative efforts are achieved by folks when they are young. A few creative endeavors have late-blooming exceptions, and writing is one of them. But I think I’m already older than that oldest late-blooming author I know about. My hope to succeed at something is strictly against all odds. And I understand why. The older we get, the less mental and physical health we have, the harder it is to make ourselves work at disciplined tasks.

I was feeling pretty good today. Except for a pesky hemorrhoid, I’m feeling really good this morning. That’s rare. My back and heart aren’t nagging me at the moment. My mind is a good deal more alert than usual. I have been on this intermittent fast for almost 40 days. I haven’t lost weight, but it seems to be making me feel better and give me more energy. I’m napping less. So one session of meditation probably didn’t get me to write today, but maybe feeling like meditation is another good sign. I hope to do it twice a day from now on. Let’s see if my unconscious mind will stop me, or if I can reprogram it.

I know I’m battling an uphill mental fight while in a physical decline, but I keep hoping there are things I can do to keep the fight going longer. I know at some point declining health and aging will crush my spirit. And even when I can’t actively be creative, I hope for some years of mass-consumption of books, music, movies, and television will keep me happy. I’ve talked to many old people that gave up on everything. I know what the future holds. I’m just fighting a delaying action. But I consider that a positive.

JWH

Featured

I Have Stage 4 Tsundoku

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 6, 2018

There’s a new word entering the English language from Japan, Tsundoku. I’m not even sure how to pronounce it, but I have it bad. It’s the condition of buying more books than you can ever read. I currently have 1,500 audiobooks, 1150 Kindle books, and about 700 hardback/trade paper/paperbacks. I’d say 60-70% are unread. That means my TBR pile is over 2,000 books high. My book buying is 40 years ahead of my reading if I read one book a week. And my book buying is accelerating while my reading is decreasing. I used to actually read one book a week. Now it’s 3 books a month, so I’ve got 55 years worth, and I turn 67 this month. It’s not likely I’ll finish reading what I’ve bought.

Books November 2018

Above is my reading nook. It’s deceptive though because I have more than 2,650+ books in the cloud, almost four times what you see here.

I’ve known I’ve had Tsundoku for decades, I just didn’t know it had a name. I should never buy another book. But I can’t do that. I have decided on a remedy to try to slow down my book buying. Once a  month, I need to look at the cover of every book I own. Yesterday I spent the morning and glanced at all their covers. I used Kindle and Audible libraries to look at those in the cloud. I only read the spines of all the books I have on my shelves. I plan to pull each book off the shelf and eye its cover too.

While I did this I used a Marie-Kondo-like technique and asked: Which books beg me to read them as soon as possible? The 64 below are those books. Included are a handful of books I’m halfway through or promised to read for a book club. It should take me two years just to read these books. These books show the diversity of topics I’m interested in, and my full library is even more varied in subjects. I love collecting books thinking I will read them someday.

I do know the cure to my ailment. If I would pledge to only buy books at full price I wouldn’t buy many books, and I’d actually save money. I have all these books because I love buying books are bargain prices. I love the $1.99 Kindle deal. I love Audible’s Daily Deals. And I love shopping for great deals on used books.

  • Bold is science fiction.
  • Blue is books about science fiction
  • Red is classics I’ve always wanted to read
  • The rest are a variety of nonfiction
  1. The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin (currently reading) (Kindle)
  2. Calypso by David Sedaris (current listen) (Audible)
  3. White Trash by Nancy Isenberg (book club) (Kindle, Audible)
  4. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee (book club) (Scribd)
  5. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (Kindle)
  6. Gather Darkness by Fritz Leiber (Kindle, Audible)
  7. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Audible)
  8. The Ascent to Truth by Thomas Merton (Kindle)
  9. Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation by Terri Favro (Kindle)
  10. Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman (Kindle)
  11. The Inevitable: Understanding 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly (Kindle)
  12. The Squares of the City by John Brunner (Kindle)
  13. How to Listen to Great Music by Robert Greenberg (Kindle)
  14. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon (Kindle)
  15. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Kindle)
  16. Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of The Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall (Kindle)
  17. Mind Mapping: Improve Memory, Concentration, Communication, Organization, Creativity and Time Management by Kam Knight (Kindle)
  18. The White Album by Joan Didion (Kindle, Audible)
  19. iWoz by Steve Wozniak (Kindle, Audible)
  20. Foundation by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Hardback, Audible)
  21. Blindsight by Peter Watts (Kindle)
  22. Fifth Avenue 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany, and the Dawn of the Modern World by Sam Wasson (Kindle)
  23. At Seventy by May Sarton (Kindle)
  24. I am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Stories of Clifford Simak Volume One (Kindle)
  25. Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out by Gordon Thompson (Kindle)
  26. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (Kindle)
  27. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Kindle, Audible)
  28. How Linux Works by Brian Ward (Kindle)
  29. Justine by Lawrence Durrell (Kindle, Audible)
  30. Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter by Howard Rheingold (Kindle)
  31. Mastodonia by Clifford Simak (Kindle)
  32. The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (Audible)
  33. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Audible)
  34. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (Audible)
  35. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan (Audible)
  36. Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Kindle, Audible)
  37. How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil (Kindle, Audible)
  38. Becoming a Great Essayist by Jennifer Cognard-Black (Audible)
  39. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (Audible)
  40. The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Audible, Paperback)
  41. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Audible)
  42. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (Audible)
  43. Hackers by Steven Levy (Paperback, Audible)
  44. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Audible)
  45. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (Audible, Kindle)
  46. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (Audible)
  47. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (Audible)
  48. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Audible)
  49. A Guide for the Perplexed by E. F. Schumacher (Trade paper)
  50. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrosch (Hardback)
  51. On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks (Hardback)
  52. Children of Wonder edited by William Tenn (Hardback)
  53. Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras (Hardback)
  54. Science Fiction by the Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell (Hardback)
  55. Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings (Hardback)
  56. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Trade paper)
  57. A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers (Hardback)
  58. On Writing Well by William Zinsser (Trade paper)
  59. How to Listen to Jazz by Ted Giolia (Trade paper)
  60. The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination by Daniel J. Boorstin (Hardback)
  61. Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth by Katherine Frank (Hardback)
  62. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi (Hardback)
  63. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? by the Jesus Seminar (Hardback)
  64. The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us by Victor J. Stenger (Hardback)

JWH

 

 

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Does Donald Trump Reveal the Percentage of Liars in America?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 4, 2018

To liberals, it’s obvious that Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. There are countless websites and newspapers that track his malarky. But what do his supporters think? Are they savvy to his fibs and accept Trump’s lies because he gets them what they want? What percentage of his followers believe he’s actually truthful? How many think his lying is only routine political shenanigans? What percentage are forgiving Trump for just being careless with facts?

I worry that there’s a significant percentage of Trump supporters who think lying is an effective way to get ahead. Does that imply that millions of Americans use lying in their own lives? Trump’s current approval rating is at 40%. Does that mean 40% of Americans approve of lying? Or even that 40% of Americans are liars?

Is Trump aware of his own false statements? Or is he psychologically blind to them? He could be a wheeling and dealing con man who says whatever is needed to get what he wants, a P. T. Barnum of politics believing we’re all suckers. I expect biographers will analyze this endlessly for centuries.

What worries me is the acceptance of Trump’s lying. Will this set a precedent? I don’t think many Americans trust politicians, but they used to expect a certain level of integrity, or at the very minimum, a certain level of an appearance of integrity. Has Trump thrown that out the window? Depends on your politics. Will any kind of integrity ever return to politics?

The Fifth Risk by Michael LewisTrump knows almost nothing about everything, but he’s got a Ph.D. in political corruption. The nightly freak show news programs that chronicle Trump’s daily antics diverts us from what’s going on all levels of government where his policies are becoming true. Just read The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. His appointees also use lying to get what they want too, although many of them are more skilled at lying than their master.

I’ve always hated lying and liars. I always assumed most people didn’t lie. Now I wonder. How much do people lie in their day-to-day lives? Has Donald Trump revealed that 40% of Americans are liars? Or is that 20% liars and 20% gullible believers? Donald Trump claimed he was going to drain the swamp in Washington, but has instead turned the entire nation into one massive swampland.

There’s a science fiction novel by China Miéville called The City & The City where millions of people live in one location but see two cities. Half see a city named Besźel and the other half a city named Ul Qoma. Each has their own language and culture yet occupy the same physical space. Residents of each must have a passport and go through customs to visit the opposite city. When they do they drive the same roads but hear a different language and see a different city. I’m afraid that’s how our country is becoming.

The current political climate worries me. I see the large crowds at Trump’s rallies and I wonder about those folks. They seem like the same people we see at work, play, worship, or shopping. Yet, they adore a man who tens of millions of other normal folks see as a pathological liar. I suppose it could be like climate change and his followers deny his lying. But that’s just as troubling. Do they really believe he’s not lying, or just lying that they don’t?

I worry that Trump’s supporters see a different reality than liberals. Liberals think conservatives see the false one, but conservatives are sure liberals are the deluded ones. I believe this will continue to be true if most citizens can’t tell lies from the truth. We should all work to eliminate lying, but can such a plan succeed if such a large percentage of the population find lying so rewarding?

JWH

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Science Fiction in Prehistory

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 2, 2018

It is my belief that Homo sapiens have been cognitively the same for the entire lifetime of our species. Sure, cavemen could not pass an ACT test today, but then we couldn’t pass a hunting and gathering IQ test if we traveled back to their time. I need to make that assumption because I want to also assume our cognitive tool for speculation that we call science fiction today has always existed in us.

Think of fiction as a spectrum with pure fantasy to the left and absolute realism to the right. When ancient storytellers narrated their tales sometimes they wanted their audience to believe exactly what they’re saying, sticking close to remembered details as possible. Other times, they make everything up and the audience knew it was all supposed to be make-believe. Science fiction lies in the middle of the spectrum, where the storyteller is making things up, but also wanting their audience to consider some ideas possible. They were speculating that something could happen or be discovered. They used known quantities to suggest other things are possible even though the idea is currently fantasy.

Noahs Ark

One of the best examples that go back into prehistory is building an ark to survive the great flood. Humans knew about floods. It’s my contention that the first storyteller to suggest building an ark to protect people and animals from a flood was using their cognitive abilities for creating science fiction. The story of Noah’s ark is how the story has survived prehistory, but we know it existed in earlier ages. It’s a fantastic idea for a story. It involves super-technology and the apocalypse, two major themes of modern science fiction. Plus, it shows humans trying to outwit fate, a kind of hubris against nature. Even the more modern version of Noah’s ark adds the helping hand of a superior being not from Earth. How does that story differ from modern science fiction that imagines aliens from space coming to save humans from a world-destroying disaster?

What I’m claiming is humans have always had this capacity to imagine wild possibilities they hoped to avoid or make to come true. We call it science fiction today, but this ability to speculate is an innate quality that’s always existed in the species. The trouble is science fiction speculation from prehistory has come down as accepted belief, and not theory. People forgot the original idea was a “What if?” proposal and not fact. Imagine if after our civilization collapses and thousands of years into the future people believe stories about invaders from Mars or time travelers from our times were true and H. G. Wells is deemed a prophet.

I’m quite sure early humans asked, “What if there are unseen beings that do things we can’t.” We can do things that animals can’t, so it’s not much of an extrapolation to imagine there are beings that can do things we can’t. Plus, early humans could do things that animals couldn’t perceive us doing, like set traps. Speculating about gods, fairies, ghosts, angels, demons, God, etc., are a kind of science fiction. Religious people consider them dogma now, and scientific thinkers dismiss them completely, but at one time such beings were part of speculative fiction, just theoretical brainstorming, the kind of hypothesizing that science fiction does today.

 

Trojan horse 2

Prehistory humans used this ability for all kinds of inventions. Think of the Trojan Horse. Another example of applied imagined technology. It’s a killer gimmick for an ancient story plot. It’s doubtful that such feat of trickery was ever built. It’s hard to believe Trojans would have been fooled. But it’s a great idea, and one people would love to believe is possible. And it’s exactly the kind of plot solution a science fiction writer would use.

The problem with prehistory is in its very definition. Prehistory is history before writing, but from a time we can only speculate about from physical artifacts, archeology, anthopology, DNA, pattern analysis of languages, studying the existing hunting and gathering cultures, and assuming the earliest stories at the beginning of history came down from oral prehistory. If we read enough origin stories from all over the world, we begin to see patterns in how people thought about explaining reality with speculative thinking. Science fiction uses the current models of science and technology to imagine possibilities that science and technology haven’t discovered or invented. I think it’s easy to see we’ve always done that. At the dawn of science, philosophers and science fiction writers compared the universe to clocks. Later writers compare the workings of nature to steam engines. We compare them to computers. Is it such a stretch to think citizens of prehistory lack the same ability to speculate?

JWH

 

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Did the PBS Great American Read Give an Accurate Portrait of American Readers?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I’m a lifelong bookworm, so I loved watching the 8-part PBS special, The Great American Read. I tried to get my bookworm friends to watch the show too, but few were interested. Especially, after I told them how the voting was conducted. Fans were allowed to vote once a day for months. My friends felt the results would be skewed by ballot stuffers. And even I thought the votes would mostly be from young people who loved computers. However, the show itself interviewed a wide diversity of readers, which was inspiring. I don’t think the value of the show was about which book won the popularity poll, but showing how important reading is to so many people, young and old.

The results were announced 10/23/18. I’ve read 46 of the 100 books. It is a good list, but with several titles I thought suspicious. Are these 100 books really the favorite books Americans are reading in 2018? I wondered if there was any way I could verify their numbers against other numbers. One idea I had was to use Google’s Ngram that’s based on references in books and magazines. Unfortunately, their data only goes to 2008. Here’s the Top 5 PBS Great American Reads:

Great American Read Top 5

On the finale-night, my guess for the top five turned out to be the same order I found on Google Ngram. It turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird was always #1 in the PBS’s daily totals. It was always the clear favorite. What really surprised me was the order of the next four books. Outlander series came in as #2. Harry Potter was #3, Pride and Prejudice #4, and Lord of the Rings #5.

Was there any way I could replicate that order in other data? I then used Google Trends to track the last 90 days, roughly the time of the voting.

Google Trends PBS Great American Read

It’s hard to tell, but I think the order is Potter, Mockingbird, Rings, Prejudice, Outlander. The current search results on Google as of today is:

  1. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (48,300,000)
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (14,400,000)
  3. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (10,400,000)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (5,230,000)
  5. Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (5,000,000)

Could it be that fans voted for Mockingbird because they thought it was the best book even though they actually loved Harry Potter more? Harper Lee’s classic is one of my favorites too, and if I had to pick a “significant” book it might have been the one I voted for too. I didn’t vote because I love too many books.

Here are Google search result numbers for the next 20 books:

  • Gone with the Wind (9,280,000)
  • Charlotte’s Web (849,000)
  • Little Women (3,570,000)
  • Chronicles of Narnia (3,270,000)
  • Jane Eyre (3,410,000)
  • Anne of Green Gables (1,080,000)
  • Grapes of Wrath (1,980,000)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (3,360,000)
  • Book Thief (1,260,000)
  • Great Gatsby (10,700,000)
  • The Help (2,160,000)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (4,380,000)
  • 1984 (24,700,000)
  • And Then There Were None (2,200,000)
  • Atlas Shrugged (1,210,000)
  • Wuthering Heights (1,920,000)
  • Lonesome Dove (300,000)
  • Pillars of the Earth (701,000)
  • The Stand (114,000,000)
  • Rebecca (1,600,000)

My current favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it has 6,620,000 Google search returns. It didn’t even make the Top 100 of the PBS list, yet if we used Google search returns, it would come in #4. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov came in #49 and has 2,100,000 Google search returns. None of my favorite genre SF novels made the Top 100. But of course, most of my favorite SF books were popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Using Google search returns relates somewhat, but also tells us that it doesn’t really correlate with the PBS poll. My assumption, popularity is hard to measure. I actually think the enthusiasm of the PBS’s Great American Read voters reflects the current tastes of America’s most passionate/fanatical readers. Even though they allowed ballot stuffing, all the voters were allowed the same chance to stuff the ballot for their favorite book. Thus the PBS poll represents the Top 100 books that fanatical readers would pick in 2018.

All eight episodes are currently available to view online. And they are still worth watching. I loved feeling the enthusiasm young people showed for reading. I loved hearing from popular writers talk about the books they loved. For example, George R. R. Martin campaigned for The Lord of the Rings. But what really choked me up and made me misty-eyed were the testimonials by readers about why they loved to read.

JWH

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If Screens Are Bad for Kids Are They Also Bad for Adults Too?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 29, 2018

While reading the Sunday The New York Times yesterday on my iPhone, 3 of the 8 stories in the Trending Section dealt with the dangers of computer screens and kids. They were:

The first story opens:

SAN FRANCISCO — The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.

A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a regionwide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.

“Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”

The gist of these stories is: If the creators of screens won’t let their kids use them, why should we? If the Luddites are also the Technophiles, shouldn’t we worry? Or is this just elitism, like those intellectuals who sneer at watching television? Or is this a genuine back-to-analog-reality movement?  Ever since science and technology began integrating into society there have been those who want to stop its progress. There have been protests against trains, industrialization, cars, television, computers, automation, robots, and now joining the hive mind via our smartphones.

screens

On one hand, society teaches using and understanding technology is an important part of education, on the other hand, people question if using technology constantly is a good thing? Both children and adults are spending a larger percentage of their time staring at screens – phones, tablets, laptops, computer, and televisions. That means a significant portion of reality is viewed through a flat surface. Are the critics of screens saying we should have more 3D reality-time?

I’m not actually sure where the basis of the criticism lies. If they mean kids are spending too much time playing games or watching videos, then is the danger they fear escapism? If you spend ten hours a day in AutoCAD designing NASA space probes are you spending too much time using a screen? What about an author writing the great American novel? Or a heart surgeon using five screens at once in their surgery? If your kid spends five hours a day on a screen becoming a mathematical genius would you object?

If I wasn’t using a screen to read I’d be using a book to read. Is spending hours a day on pages instead of screens a more valuable experience? What if I gave up writing and spent those hours outside gardening? Would that make my life more rewarding?

Kids love toys. Evidently, screens are preferable to other toys. Does that make them unhealthy toys? My guess is the Silicon Valley types know about getting ahead in life, becoming a success, making money, inventing products. They want their kids to have an advantage over other kids, so they’d prefer their kids not waste time playing with screens but learning what it takes to be the next generation of billionaires.

Then the question becomes: What are the best activities for children if you want them to get ahead in life? Maybe we don’t worry about adults using screens so much because we’re not worried about them succeeding in life. Either they’ve made it or not, so wasting time on screens won’t change our fate. But with kids, they have this huge potential and we don’t want them to blow it.

Or have we reached a stage where we’re worrying about becoming cyborgs? Should kids be reading instead, or playing baseball outside, or Monopoly inside? Maybe seeing so many kids mesmerized by screens is making us think about what it means? But, then shouldn’t we wonder about our own screen use?

I like writing. Would using a typewriter and submitting my essays to magazines be more fulfilling than writing for my blog? Would it be even more rewarding if I wrote longhand on paper? What if I gave up television? Is reading really a better use of my time? If I didn’t read or watch television, I think my next choice would be building and programming computers, developing databases, teaching myself AI and machine learning, and constructing robots. I don’t think I’d be happy if I gave up technology altogether. I could take up gardening and woodworking, two very down-to-Earth activities, but I don’t think I’d find them as rewarding as what I’m doing now.

If I counted all the hours I spend with my HDTV, 4K computer monitor, Kindle Paperwhite, iPad Mini, and iPhone, it would be a lot. Certainly, the majority of my day. Should I really wonder if that’s unhealthy?

JWH

 

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The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 26, 2018

AstoundingOn October 23, 2018, the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction was remembered in two ways. First, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series came in at #49 on the PBS Great American Read, and second, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee was published.

For a subgroup of the G.I., Silent and Baby Boomer generations, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was from 1939 to 1950, and mostly due to one magazine, Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. There was one other book in the PBS Great American Read where Campbell was the first editor to buy – that was Dune by Frank Herbert, which came in at #35. So, Campbell had two books in the top 50, not a bad legacy. Dune appeared in his magazine just after the name changed to Analog Science Fact & Fiction.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s new book, Astounding, isn’t the first history of the magazine, and I doubt it will be the last. As I listened to the audiobook edition I thought about all the ways writers have tried to tell the story of Astounding and the golden age of science fiction. Alva Rogers in Requiem for Astounding did an issue by issue overview. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a memoir about how the magazine shaped his youth in Astounding Days. And Alexei and Cory Panshin focused heavily on Astounding, Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt in their Hugo winning book, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. All those books focused on the stories. Nevala-Lee focuses on Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, giving us the biographical background to the editor and his three most famous writers.

There’s been plenty written about Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, but other than tributes and collections of letters, I’m not sure how much has been written about John W. Campbell, and he is the real focus of Nevala-Lee’s book. However, his story is so intertwined with the magazine and his famous writers that Astounding is a history of the magazine and a biography of four men.

Reading Astounding was both rewarding and depressing. It’s depressing because we endure the painful deaths of all four subjects, but even worse than that, they all fall from grace. I’m not sure if I should reveal what they become. If I did, some would call it spoilers, but others might call them trigger-warnings. Let’s just say this is a tell-all biography where Nevala-Lee gives us the best and worst on each man. All four men were autodidactic know-it-alls. All four men were egomaniacs. Three, maybe four, had severe delusions of grandeur. All four were hard on wives and women, and at least two of them would have thrown out of pop culture if they lived during #MeToo times. One turns out to be white-supremacist and another started a religion and has been defied by his followers, even though Nevala-Lee makes it abundantly clear he was a pathological liar, and his church is often vilified and has a reputation of being a paranoid cult.

Despite all of this, Astounding is a valuable history book on an important era of science fiction. By combining the four biographies, Nevala-Lee shows us the wizards behind the curtain. Yes, in many ways, they were all humbugs, but in many other ways, they were genuine magicians. Campbell and all the writers of Astounding Science-Fiction created art that inspired a generation. Astounding Science-Fiction was essential to the evolution of the art form we know today as science fiction.

There has always been a problem calling 1939-1950 the golden age of science fiction because for many people it wasn’t. I’ve been systematically reading The Great SF Stories volumes 1-25 (1939-1964) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I’ve finished the first seven volumes, and I’ve got to say, many of the stories are forgettable. Nearly all the stories come from Campbell’s two magazines, Astounding Science-Fiction and Unknown. I’m sure these stories were mind-blowing back in the 1940’s, but there’s been much better science fiction written since using the same ideas and themes. In 1957 Peter Graham said in a fanzine called Void, that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” That deeply perceptive observation has been accepted as truth ever since. I turned 12 in late 1963, and the science fiction I discovered was published in the 1950’s. Some of it was reprints from Astounding in the 1940’s, and others were stories that appeared in F&SF, Galaxy, and IF, the Young Turks that usurped Astounding’s reign in the 1950’s, as well as original science fiction books that began being published that decade. Today, I generally think of the 1950’s as the golden age of science fiction, and I’m sure people younger than I feel the same way about the decade they first read when discovering science fiction.

This alternate view of the golden age of science fiction will probably limit the audience to Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee, but it’s already the #1 book in Amazon’s Science Fiction and Fantasy section. Today it is quite common for young people, especially women and minorities, to dismiss older science fiction as being too white-male dominated from an unenlightened era. Nevala-Lee’s book will only reinforce those beliefs. However, I think it’s important to read this book. It does capture the ambitiousness of science fiction’s most ambitious proponents.

Science fiction changed dramatically in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and again this century. I routinely read science fiction stories from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Surprisingly, the ideas and themes remain consistent, but not the storytelling and characters. Science fiction authors have become much more sophisticated writers creating deeper and diverse characters. I see Nevala-Lee’s book as one piece in a very large puzzle. If you look for them, you’ll find plenty of books being written today on the history of science fiction. Most remain obscure and little read. I’m surprised that Astounding is getting all the attention it’s getting. Does it represent a tip of an iceberg of science fiction fans hungering to know more about the evolution of their favorite genre? Or, has all the science fiction fans from my generation suddenly become nostalgic for Astounding again?

I worry if younger science fiction fans read Astounding they may be turned off to 1940’s and 1950’s science fiction. All four men in Nevala-Lee’s book eventually come across as emotionally flawed, delusional, egomaniacal, and if not diagnosable with several DSM disorders, at least very nutty. Until the genre label “science fiction” emerged in the 1950’s, people would call it “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” I’m afraid the history in Astounding will only reinforce the crackpot reputation of science fiction.

This isn’t a criticism of the book, Nevala-Lee is just telling it like it was. But I believe readers need more context. I’m not sure people today have any idea what the psychological fallout the first atomic bombs, ICBMs, and Sputnik did to the citizens of the 1940’s and 1950’s. They all were looking desperately for answers to monumental existential threats. The stress was tremendous. Many thought the world was coming to an end. Psychiatry almost became a fad in the 1950’s, including experimental use of LSD under psychiatric supervision.

I’m not depressed that Nevala-Lee reveals how science fiction went nuts, but I wished he would have put its breakdown in the context of how everyone was going nutty back then. We look back with embarrassment to Campbell’s embrace of psychic powers, but a large segment of the country was doing the same thing.

I was born in 1951, so I grew up with the 1950’s. I remember my uncles raving about the psychic powers of Edgar Cayce and Jean Dixon, believing in the past lives of Bridie Murphy, excited by the multiple personalities of Eve, and dedicated followers the UFO nut, George Adamski. Nevala-Lee doesn’t mention how crazy America was in the 1950’s, so it seems Campbell is a standout nutter. He wasn’t. He was the mansplainer to mansplainers. He would pontificate to experts in their fields on their own subjects, telling them where they were ignoramuses.

I’ve also read other biographies of Heinlein as well as several biographies of Philip K. Dick, along with many interviews with SF writers of this era. It’s very hard to capture the crazy times from Hiroshima to Woodstock. And if you compare those times to our times, you’ll see that most people believed a lot of crazy crap by then. Of, sure, we still believe a lot of crazy crapola today, but those true believers in weirdness are far fewer now. And it is a fact that back then almost everyone had horrible prejudices and were unenlightened to equality. I’d like to believe society has evolved, and the percentage of crazy and prejudice people are down from those times. Of course, recent events suggest they were only hiding.

My one criticism of Astounding is by focusing on the biographies of Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard Nevala-Lee didn’t convey the tremendous excitement and variety of the science fiction stories that Campbell published. And that probably wasn’t his goal. To most fans, Astounding Science-Fiction magazine was by far the best science fiction magazine of the times because of the stories. They didn’t care about the lives of the editors and writers. I hope future historians of this era include the other magazines like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and Astonishing Science Fiction. I’m not sure Astounding deserves all of the attention and credit.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s book is one of a coalescing history. It is valuable because of its biographical slant. I wished he could have included more biographies of Campbell’s writers in his book, especially A. E. van Vogt, C. L. Moore, Clifford Simak, Hal Clement, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Ross Rocklynne, L. Sprague de Camp, and many more. Here is a list of all the stories that appeared in Astounding from July 1939 to September 1960.

Nevala-Lee’s book reminds me of the Beats. They were a literary subculture from the 1950’s that biographers can’t let go of. The Beat library keeps growing. I think the subculture of science fiction is attracting interest in the same way, and Alec Nevala-Lee is helping it by promoting the cult of the character. Heinlein, Asimov, Hubbard, and Campbell remind me of Kerouac, Cassidy, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Over time, I believe the science fiction generation of the 1940’s and 1950’s will be remembered in biographies like The Transcendentalists, The Lost Generation, and The Beats.

Finally, I would like to also recommend The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It is coming to the Kindle next month and is currently just $3.99 for pre-ordering. And if you’d like to actually read copies of old Astoundings, click here.

JWH

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Judging Science Fiction by its Extrapolations

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Science fiction writers believe they can extrapolate from current events and imagine possible scenarios that will prepare readers for the world of tomorrow. Science fiction writers never claim to have crystal balls that predict an exact future. Instead, they write stories that will never come true but theoretically could. Generally, they are of two types. Let’s make dreams come true (i.e. colonize Mars, build intelligent machines) or let’s avoid a nightmare (i.e. a fascist America, an eco-catastrophe).

But, how good is science fiction at extrapolation? What invention or social movement in the last 100 years has the genre fictionalized using extrapolation and speculation? Here’s an overview of the last 100 years that came quickly to mind. I put links to Wikipedia for those of you who want deeper reminders.

  • 1920’s – The Roaring Twenties, The Jazz Age, Prohibition, The Lost Generation, the stock market bubble and crash, Charles Lindbergh’s flight, women getting to vote, the rise of the KKK across America, gangsters
  • 1930’s – The Depression, talking movies, Big Bands, The New Deal, the Dust Bowl
  • 1940’s – World War II, the A-bomb, V-2 rockets, the United Nations
  • 1950’s – The Korean War, The Cold War, the H-bomb, television, Sputnik, NASA, interstate highways, Beatniks, Rock and Roll
  • 1960’s – The Viet Nam War, The Space Race, the Counter Culture, Civil Rights, Feminism, Gay Rights, Ecology, Apollo 11, Surveyor, Mariner, and Pioneer spacecraft, hippies, LSD, back to nature communes, muscle cars
  • 1970’s – The Oil Crisis, Watergate, Apple II, Atari video games, Viking Landers, Voyager spacecraft, environmentalism, organic farming, singer-songwriters
  • 1980’s – The Space Shuttle, MTV, IBM PC, The Macintosh
  • 1990’s – The Hubble Telescope, The Internet, World Wide Web, Amazon.com, Dolly the sheep, German reunification, the collapse of the USSR
  • 2000’s – 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, iPhone, Barrack Obama, New Horizon spacecraft, high definition TV, Columbine
  • 2010’s – VR, Boston Dynamics robots, Donald Trump, Sandy Hook, active shooters

Were there any SF tales written before these decades that imagined their significant events? Science fiction’s big winner has always been space travel. Would we have gone to the Moon if science fiction hadn’t imagined it many times for hundreds of years? Did Robert Goddard build rockets because of the fiction he read? A few science fiction writers wrote about the atomic bomb before 1945, but they got their ideas from scientists who were already talking about them.

Of course, this is getting away from my topic. There is a difference between claiming science fiction speculates about the future based on current trends and saying science fiction pushed us into doing something. Science fiction lasts longer than people’s inspiration and brainstorming sessions. The more I read about the history of science fiction, the more I discover that science fiction writers were always inspired by inventors and scientists, rather than the other way around.

Analog Science Fiction July 1968

What I’m talking about is different. There’s a famous cover to the July 1968 issue of Analog Science Fiction for the story “Hawk Among the Sparrows” by Dean McLaughlin. It shows an SR-71 Blackbird-like jet sitting on a WWI runway with a biplane in the background. That cover represents fun hindsight for a time travel story. But what if a 1918 issue of The All-Story Weekly featured that cover painting? Extrapolating that biplanes would eventually evolve into something spectacular like the SR-71 is what I’m talking about. How often has science fiction done that?

unbelievable_time_required_to_cover_immense_distances_of_space__1918 by Harry Grant Dart

Here’s Harry Grant Dart’s 1918 artistic imagination of future aircraft/spacecraft. Not quite Lockheed SR-71s, are they? I’m not sure just how capable we are of extrapolation.

In 1911 Hugo Gernsback wrote Ralph 124C 41+ that contained many inventions he expected to be invented in the future. Just follow the Wikipedia link to read a rather long list of them. It’s 1925 hardback cover apparently shows a doctor interviewing a patient over a videophone. Science fiction has a pretty good track record of imagining possible future gadgets, but generally, their authors were inspired by current technology. Hugo Gernsback was probably the biggest proponent of technological extrapolation, but by the 1930’s science fiction had become 99% adventure fiction.

Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback 1925

Science fiction seems less capable of extrapolating Black Swan technology, especially the social repercussions of those gadgets. The genre just wasn’t ready for computers, especially personal computers, the internet, the web, smartphones, and most of the technology of the last several decades. Science fiction quickly embraced all this technology, but only afterward. Evidently, change is happening faster than science fiction writers can imagine it.

Books like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Stand on Zanzibar seem prophetic now because they appear to foresee our current social and political nightmares, but are they extrapolations? Weren’t they reactionary to the times in which they were written, and just happen to come into vogue again?

The 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster is one of the most prophetic SF stories I’ve ever read. But it didn’t seem so in 1970 when I first read it. It was only recently, well into the Internet Age when I read it again, that I thought Forster was such a genius for writing it. The main character, Vashti, an old woman, is essentially a blogger using a machine to communicate with other agoraphobic citizens. Everyone lives alone in their rooms, communicating through the machine. Forster knows nothing about computers and networks, only imagines a very clever machine. Her son, Kuno wants to escape the machine. Forster says he was inspired by H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” and it’s Eloi and Morlocks. But I can also imagine Forster thinking writing for magazines and book publishers was like being tied to a machine, and fantasizing about doing something in nature was appealing.

I am working on a science fiction short story. I’d like to think I’m imagining something people will do in the future that they don’t do now. But am I deluding myself? (I’m not going to explain my idea until the story is published.) I’d like to think I’m imagining something new, but I’ve got to analyze if I’m extrapolating or just describing what we do now in a new way.

The more I read old science fiction, the more I see science fiction in a different light. Science fiction has never been just one thing. Extrapolation has only been one aspect of the genre. Even as a kid, I didn’t believe people could predict the future. But I did think science fiction could be a cognitive tool for making good guesses. I’m now wondering if the best science fiction is deeply insightful about the present, and extrapolation about the future is a bunch of malarky.

I’m starting to wonder if I want to write a great science fiction story I should work as hard as possible to see into my own hopes and fears, set the story in the future, and then assume my dreams and nightmares might resonate with future readers.

JWH

 

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Inequality and Overpopulation

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 20, 2018

In the 21st-century countless problems threaten our survival. Long before climate change can drown us, inequality and overpopulation will dissolve our civilization. People tend to obsess on a single issue when all our problems are interrelated. Republicans have laser-focused on reducing their taxes while denying all other threats due to their expense. Our economy is a million times more complex than a nuclear power plant, yet Republicans feel they can control it with just one knob.

Nuclear power plant control room

We won’t solve problems we refuse to see. The past tells us we need a convinced percentage of the population before we act. History also shows progress is slow, and sometimes humans never change. We live in politically terrorizing times. The frog in boiling water analogy Al Gore used for climate change works for all the problems we need to solve today. In the middle of the last century, John Calhoun’s experiments with rat and mice overpopulation probably say more about our times than we want to believe. Watch the video if you don’t believe me or this longer one, Down the Rabbit Hole.

Today, most people ignore the issue of overpopulation even though most of our social problems are directly connected to 6 billion too many humans. Deniers claim food production has always grown faster than population, so we don’t have to worry about overpopulation. However, starvation was never the sole threat of too many people.

If you regularly watch TV news, the same stories cycle over the same periods of days, weeks, months, and years. And with each new iteration, these same problems intensify. I have been pessimistic about the future for decades. I don’t know if my pessimism is the natural one of old age or there’s real evidence for worry.

Honduran migrant caravan October 2018

The new Honduran migrant caravan is much larger than the last one and Donald Trump is panicking. Trump thinks he can control the border. The past tells us that won’t work. Whenever people suffer they move to where people don’t. Just look at Venezuelans pouring into Columbia in the photo below. Don’t the two groups look similar? Haven’t we seen them before? Won’t we see groups grow ever larger and more frequent for the rest of our lives? How are they different from those fleeing hurricanes Florence and Michael? Imagine yourself in such a group. It’s almost certain you’ll either be a refugee in your lifetime, or you’ll be building walls to keep them out. What will it take to avoid both fates?

Venezuelans migrating to Columbia.

This isn’t overpopulation, but inequality. Overpopulation and inequality are related. When populations conflict over war, there is inequality of peace. When there are extremes of rich and poor, there is economic inequality. Where society deems a physical trait of the body superior to another there’s racial inequality. When society treats men differently than women, there is gender inequality. When there are more people than jobs, there is work inequality. When one species takes all the natural resources, there is inequality of lifeforms.

If you watch the Mouse Utopia Experiment film, it’s easy to forget you’re seeing mice and see us instead. As the population grows on Lifeboat Earth, the passengers will fight over the remaining rations. We can’t solve overpopulation right now. We can solve the inequality to reduce the conflicts until we reduce our numbers. If we don’t, nature will do it for us.

Republicans believe the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. They are not the ethical Vulcans from Star Trek. The only way our species can survive all the problems we’ll face in this century is by providing equality to all. That will require turning all the knobs in the control room in subtle ways until we find the correct settings. A difficult but not impossible task. And it’s not just for our country. If anywhere in the world one group is singled out and not given equal rations and opportunity, this lifeboat will sink. We have grown so large, that even a 1% minority is 70 million people, a powerful force.

We fail because we lack empathy for people unlike ourselves. I recommend two essays to prove my point. I could list thousands, but please read these two to see if they don’t change your mind. They are “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The Longest War” by Rebecca Solnit.

No matter what kind of walls you build to keep out whatever kind of refugee your fear, that wall will never be big enough. The only way not to need walls is to create equality uniformly everywhere. As long as you believe you can wall yourself in you’re doomed.

World-War-Z-photo-zombies-1

JWH

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Aren’t Republicans the True Disciples of Darwin?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 12, 2018

I’m beginning to see my liberal hopes for social justice are naïve and conservatives are survivalists acting on animal instinct and not theology.

In “Notes from the Fifth Year” from We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, he describes why he does not believe in cosmic justice or God. As a kid, Coates got beat up and learned he could only rely on himself for help. He saw that in society too. Our hunger for justice is the desire to be protected, but Darwinian laws of red tooth and claw overrule theology and legal systems. As a liberal, I want society to be just and protective, but I’m realizing that counters my own atheistic and scientific beliefs. What I find ironic is Republicans who claim to be Christian, a belief in cosmic justice, want laws and government that affirm Darwin. That I, an atheist, an avowed disciple of Darwin, really want a Christian society. It’s it hilarious when Christians act evolutionary and atheists yearn for grace?

I thought “Notes from the Fifth Year” both brilliant and depressing. It reminds me of a film I saw on the internet of a big green snake coming out of a woodpecker’s hole while the woodpecker frantically fights to pull the snake out to save its nest. I knew people were on the ground filming and watching this struggle. I wanted the woodpecker to win. It kept pecking the snake, and the snake would grab it by the wing, and the bird would struggle free, fly away, but then immediately return to attack the snake again. Its only hope was itself. I wanted the bird to win. I wanted the people on the ground to find a way to pull the snake down. But like Coates, I realized there is no help for the woodpecker except its own efforts to survive.

More and more I see Republicans as survivalists fighting with all their might to save their way of life. They don’t want to pay taxes to help other people because they want that money to protect themselves. They don’t want laws to help other people, only laws that to protect themselves. They’re against minorities, immigrants, and poor people because they threatened their survival. They offer no alternative to Obamacare because they believe in the survival of the fittest. They don’t really disbelieve climate change but deny the expense of global warming because it threatens their pocketbooks. They’d rather have dollars in their paychecks than a clean environment or a just and equal society.

The Republicans are the snake in the tree, not the valiant woodpecker because they are strong and can take what they want. Coates is right, we live in an atheist reality where the powerful prevail. And the strong won’t help the weak. It’s against their nature.

I find it hard to believe Republicans claim to be Christians. They don’t believe in the fishes and the loaves. They don’t believe in turning the other cheek. They don’t believe loving thy neighbor. They don’t believe the meek shall inherit the Earth. But they’re positive camels can go through the eyes of needles.

I now assume Republicans are Darwinians on Earth but Christians after death. They believe in easy Christianity, where merely saying “I believe in Jesus” is a ticket to heaven. But what happens if Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is right, and true Christianity is far more expensive?

I’m an atheist that wants humans to create a society that overcomes the laws of Darwin. Even though I’m not a Christian, I felt Jesus wanted to create a heaven on Earth where everyone is treated equally and just. Am I naïve and the Republicans realistic? Conservatives believe the City of God lies beyond death, whereas liberals want humanism to construct it on Earth.

We can now see that Republicans have given up any pretense of ethics. With them, the end justifies the means, and their means are Darwinian, not Christian. Back in the early days of the Environmental movement, the idea of Lifeboat Earth emerged. It’s a great analogy. There’re always people in lifeboats who feel they deserve the rations than the others, and that the weak should be put off the boat. That’s very Darwinian. Aren’t Republicans acting like the ruthless in a lifeboat?

JWH

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Educated by Tara Westover

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover is remarkable book that many friends have read and a popular selection for their book clubs. Westover was raised by Morman parents in rural Idaho. They fear the government and shunned doctors and hospitals. As a girl, Tara never attended a K-12 school. Yet, she wasn’t homeschooled either. Westover overcame this lack of education and eventually got a PhD at Cambridge. On the surface, her book is about her remarkable self-education, but is really about surviving a brutal childhood of mental and physical suffering. Like the political right denying Christine Blasey Ford’s assault account, Westover’s parents deny Tara’s testimony of assaults.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated is so riviting, so compelling, so fascinating because of Westover’s 27-year long escape from her Ruby-Ridge-like upbringing. Her father is a conspiracy theory nutcase and her mother a spiritual healer true believer. Her oldest brother is a psychopath who thrills on physically and mentally humiliating Tara, her siblings, and his girlfriends. Westover’s parents always sides with the brother, always demanding proof of his crimes, like Republicans at the Kavanaugh heearings, refusing any testimony as he said-she said unbelievable.

This denial her view of reality deeply warped Westover psychologically. Without the experience of going to school and seeing normal life, Westover grew up brainwashed by a father who saw our America destroyed by socialism. He taught his children that going to school meant being reprogrammed to accept false beliefs contrary to true Mormon theology and the original Founding Fathers. Westover’s mind was so deeply programmed by her father’s paranoia that she struggled to keep her own identify alive.

Educated works on many levels, and is beautiful written. It’s hard to imagine Westover ever recovering from her upbringing, much less getting a Cambridge doctorate or writing this book. It makes you wonder if all kids shouldn’t skip K-12 classes and we should instead torture them with brutal child labor until they hunger for knowledge on their own.

Educated is the perfect book to read for our times. It carefully documents the kind of freedom the radical right wants revealing how their patriarchical freedom oppresses women. Tara Westover grew up with a family that rejected both history and science. Her father is a survivalist Mormon and her mother is a rural healer/midwife that could have been pulled out of the 19th-century by a time machine.

Educated is a relentless book. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Normally, I fall asleep if I try to listen to an audiobook while sitting. I could listen to Educated for hours at a time while reclined in my La-Z-Boy with perfect alertness.

JWH

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Just How Hard is it to Vote?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, October 7, 2018

After reading, “Planning to Vote in the November Election? Why Most Americans Probably Won’t” in the New York Times I wondered what were the real impediments to voting for most people. Generally, about one-half to two-thirds of eligible voters don’t vote. The article pointed out in the 19th century sometimes over 80% of the eligible voters did cast their ballots. Why do so few votes today? This pie chart is truly sad.

Better start to give a shit

Generally, we hear lame whining about not having the time and other obligations on election day, but early voting should eliminate any such excuses. No one should wait until election day if they have early voting opportunities.

Nor should registration be an issue. Many places around the country allow for online registration. Just visit Vote.gov and it will direct you to where you need to go. That’s an easy to remember URL. It will redirect you to USA.gov/voting for more information and a link to your state election site where you can find sample ballots and early voting information.

One thing that probably confuses some people are sample ballots. They can be huge because they often include all the voting options for a county and not just the options you’ll see in your voting booth. My state has solved that problem by offering an app, GoVoteTN. You give them your name and zip and it finds your voting precinct and exact ballot. See if your state has such an app too. This app also tells me who all of my current elected officials are, something my memory can’t do anymore.

Seeing the ballot is where the real difficulty beings for most people I think. There’s a lot of names and offices to consider. If you’re a party diehard it’s easy to just go down the list and vote the party line. But if you actually want to evaluate every candidate that’s work. The effort it takes to study the options is what probably puts off a lot of people from voting.

This is where I wish the app had another feature. It would help the process tremendously if for each office there was a link to an exact job description, and for each candidate, there was a link to an actual job application. All the campaigning we see in the media is bullshit hullaballoo. The political process is one of manipulating the masses. I think every political office should be considered a job with detailed job requirements, and each candidate should be required to fill out an application with precise guidelines.

There are sites on the web that help research politicians. USA.gov has some general guidelines. Vote-usa.org will ask you for your address and then show you your sample ballot. For each candidate, it links to where you can find out more.

The last area of difficulty with voting is referendums. I find their language on ballots extremely confusing. There are three on my current sample ballot. Even with internet research, I’m finding them difficult to decipher. I’m not sure if two of them might have been recently removed by court injunctions. Referendums actually require a bit of study to vote correctly. I got a flyer in the mail saying to vote no as a positive. That’s just confusing. However, the flyer listed all the supporters of the no vote, and I trust them. Sometimes you have to vote with people you trust if you think they understand the issue better than you do.

While doing my research I found Ballotpedia which tries to keep up with all the voting and issues around the country. You can use this site to zero in on your local elections and issues. Ballotpedia also offers sample ballots that also include links to additional information on the candidates.

Voting does require some effort, but I can’t imagine it’s so hard that 109 million people couldn’t make that effort in the last presidential election. Has most of them given up on our political system? That would be depressing. And how many of them just ignore the news, civics, current events, and issues of our times?

JWH

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Three Friends Start Over at 67

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 5, 2018

Have you dreamed of starting over – maybe in another career, city, country or even continent? Do you crave new surroundings, conversations, activities, friendships, romances, routines, or even commitments? Do you hunger for something new, something different, something even exotic? Or do you just want the freedom to be yourself, to make all your own choices, to schedule every moment doing exactly what you want?

Three of my friends amazed me recently by rebooting their lives at age 67. Janis after years of planning moved to Guanajuato Mexico, Linda after a lifetime of dedication to husbands and children moved to Denver, and Peggy who thought for a decade she’d be the happiest living on a lake near her brother finally found she was right. Seeing these three women start over by themselves in a new place amazed and inspired me. I’ve been living in the same city for 48 years, married for 40, worked at the same university for 36 years, lived in the same house for 12. (Janis, Linda, and Peggy must think I’m boring!)

I’ve often wondered if I shouldn’t do something different with my life before I die. Up until I got married at 26, I had never lived in one place longer than 18 months, with the average closer to 12. Marriage, work, and getting older settled me down. In my late forties, I started having a heart arrhythmia which eventually gave me a touch of agoraphobia. My ticker was eventually surgically fixed, but I’ve kept the slight agoraphobia. Then my wife Susan started working out of town, and for eleven years I lived mostly alone (she came home Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon 2-3 times a month). For the last five years since retiring, I’ve been holed up in the house spending my days pursuing hobbies, and evening socializing with friends. But most of the time I was alone and I got to like that.

Janis, Linda, and Peggy were three women I’ve gotten to know in recent decades. I’ve often listened to them talk about their hopes for happiness. All three have gone through many changes, each different, but including buying and selling houses, retiring, losing or leaving husbands, dealing with children and grandchildren, traveling as much as possible, but ultimately, each thinking about where they could go to be exactly the person they wanted to be.

I am reminded of what I’ve read about women finding themselves in their post-menopausal years when they realize that men and children have dominated their lives, and it was time to put themselves first. I believe Janis learned that in her twenties after a brief marriage, but Peggy and Linda were devoted wives and mothers most of their lives. My wife Susan found a lot of independence when her career blossomed in her fifties and she moved out of town to follow it. And I also discovered being alone strengthened my soul. However, Peggy, Susan and I never learned to live completely alone, like Janis always has and how Linda is experimenting.

JanisThen there is moving to a new location. Janis living in Mexico blows me away. She is a life-long tourist. Her true love is travel. She was a flight attendant for Eastern before it failed, then became a lawyer, and briefly returned to work as a flight attendant in 2001 but that was nipped in the bud by 9/11. She’s been studying Spanish since I’ve known her and finished a B.A. in the language last year. She moved to Guanajuato to immerse herself in conversation and culture. The idea of living in alone another country astounds me. I’m much too chicken to ever do that.

Linda decided she wanted a life where she could make all her own choices and moved to Denver. She’s also a frequent traveler and wanted to live somewhere where people were progressive and liberal. That’s been my dream too, but I’m even too chicken to move to another town in this country.

LindaLinda wrote to me, “First, we’re all so different and so I don’t think what any of us have done would work for you. We’re very different people. What Janis and Peggy have done sound great—but wouldn’t be something I would want to do. I hadn’t really thought about it but 2 of my 5 or 6 best friends have done exactly what Janis and Peggy and I have done—Decided they didn’t like where they were and picked up and moved across the country. I think where we find ourselves when we retire just isn’t necessarily where we want to be and we’re more likely to be financially able to do what we want to do. For me, Denver is so comfortable. The people I’m meeting are well-educated, well-read, welcoming and just nice!  I’ve never had so many people go out of their way to get to know me. And the opportunities for learning and for meeting like-minded people seem way more than I’ve ever noticed in other cities. Maybe it’s just because my head is in a different place. Anyway—this was a great move for me and I am completely content with my decision!

Peggy recently moved to Denver to be near her daughter and grandson but found that Denver was not a good fit for her. Ultimately, she decided to move back south to fulfill a longtime dream of living on a lake. She has been talking about living on a lake ever since her husband died when she was in her fifties. It’s just taken her this long to get free of the distractions of children, jobs, and boyfriends.

PeggyPeggy wrote to me, “After 27 years of marriage, I have spent the time since my husband’s death in 2006 trying to find my new place in the universe.  I have read many times that life is a journey and not a destination.  I’ve learned through my own experiences, both good and bad, that there is probably not just one place for me. So, I believe that if I am not happy in a place or relationship, it is reasonable to move on to another.  However, each time I move on I hope for a longer stay where I can find happiness and someone to share it.  To have the courage to do this, I remind myself that the final destination is Death and that we are not promised tomorrow. Jim thinks I’m brave, I think I’m just following the life I was destined to lead. So, I expect to continue my journey wherever it takes me (maybe with someone special) until I reach that final destination.

Maybe I’m awed by my brave lady friends because of my agoraphobia, but I don’t think most people make such big moves late in life, especially by themselves. However, I can think of several women bloggers who have. Are women more willing to start over later in life? Maybe I don’t travel because I’m too content where I am, even though I know there might be better places to live elsewhere.

I assumed I would grow old and decay in place in my current house. Before Janis moved to Mexico, she had said life here was getting stale. That got me to thinking. Was I not making enough effort to get more out of life? Am I going stale? For years Janis was my TV buddy and we watched television together several nights a week. We have many overlapping interests, but we’re also very different. I’m sure our TV life was part of the staleness. However, Janis also said without the challenge of being a lawyer or going back to college, just being retired can be boring. I’ve often wondered if my life shouldn’t have more varied stimulation than books, music, movies, and television, but they give me such great pleasure that so I don’t feel retirement is boring. Susan has always resented that I didn’t love to travel and even asked me to try Zoloft hoping it would make me less anxious about taking trips. Maybe I don’t travel because I like what I’m doing more.

I told my oldest friend Connell about writing this essay and he immediately replied I was deluding myself if I thought I could travel. He knows me extremely well. Yet, I still felt guilty for not trying harder to see more of this world. My goal for retirement was to teach myself to write. I could live anywhere as long as it had few distractions.

Before I retired at age 62, I saved for years so I could reach my dream destination of free time. Maybe it’s my tiny touch of agoraphobia because I’ve always wanted to stay home and worked at my hobbies. Yet, is my reclusiveness hurting me? Should I push myself to be braver before I get too old? Or am I already too old? I’ve had more physical problems than Janis, Linda, and Peggy — or is that just a rationalization. Stephen Hawking traveled often despite his severe handicaps.

These women wowed me. They decided what they wanted and made it happen. They had to take risks and sell houses, leave family and friends, and essentially start over, almost from scratch. I wonder if there’s any place on Earth I’d give up everything to go live?

Being married is security. Owning a house is security. Having old friends is a security. Having a familiar infrastructure of shopping, doctors, support services, entertainment is security. Because Susan moved away to work for eleven years, I feel I could move away to do something on my own for a while too. One place I thought about is New York City, on the Upper East side near Central Park. I want to live somewhere where I won’t need a car, in a rented apartment building several floors up, but near lots of cultural events that were within walking distance or a quick rideshare. Or cities would work too. I’d still need a place to hold up in that comforts my agoraphobia but makes it easy to take excursions two or three times a week. (Ha-ha, I don’t expect to transform that much.)

Linda wrote to me, “But I do think you might regret not living in New York at some point. Why don’t you find a place to rent for 3 months and just get the experience of living somewhere else without a long-term commitment? I’m pretty sure I’ve suggested this before. I think you would really enjoy it and it would be an adventure. Without moving everything you own.” I’ve already been thinking about that and I’m encouraged by her advice, but I just don’t know if I have the balls to do that. I am going to do some extensive research and planning. That helps me overcome my anxieties.

I wish I was a brave traveler like Janis. I feel guilty for not ever traveling outside this country. I have lived in far more places in the U.S. than Janis, but that was all before I got married. I’m even chickenshit with my foreign travel fantasies because I’ve only ever been tempted by London, Paris, and Tokyo. I’m just too conditioned by always traveling in books, not reality. Janis sends me photos, videos, and stories that make me feel there’s more to this reality than the United States.

I’m most impressed with Janis’ travel bravery, but I’m the most envious of Linda’s location and activities. She immediately volunteered to work for the Democratic party, joined a thriving Unitarian church, and found many fascinating people who are pursuing a variety of creative activities to befriend. And she lives in an apartment several floors up overlooking beautiful scenery, another fantasy of mine. Linda shows me I don’t have to live in the conservative heartland. I could go and live somewhere that isn’t so politically depressing.

Peggy’s new life is the most opposite of my psychology. She’s out in nature every day, doing lots of physical and social activities. Peggy likes being with groups, which I don’t. But this represents bravery on her part because after her husband died, she spent years barely getting out. In a way, Peggy has returned to her high school age, hanging out with people who love social activities, sports, dating, eating out, and doing things in gangs. Susan is like that and wishes I was too. I’ve never been that way though. I love people but prefer them one at a time. However, Peggy shows me I should make more of an effort to get out into nature and to socialize more. This week she’s at Cruizin’ the Coast which attracts folks in antique cars. That’s something I would love to see.

These women are making me rethink my own life choices. I assumed I made my choice when I retired, but now I’m thinking I still have time to make other choices. I worry that I’ve let security and anxiety keep me from doing more – but can a leopard change its spots?

I turn 67 next month.

JWH

 

 

 

 

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What’s a Western?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Big Trail - 1930

Newsweek recently posted “The Best Western Movies of All Time, According to Critics and Audiences.” None of my all-time favorite westerns made the list. Some of my most favorites did, but they were few and far between. The editors created the list from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores, which shifted the results toward recent films. It also includes many films I don’t consider westerns. But most of all, it lists films that use the western setting to create a pornography of violence rather than explore the original theme of violence in westerns.

Ever since The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch movie makers have been escalating the body counts in westerns until some modern films are sick distortions of the genre. The core theme of a western has always been killing is a solution to a moral problem. So, violence per se isn’t the issue. What I object to is using the western setting to create a Circus Maximus of deaths for those viewers who crave feasts of bloodshed.

What’s a western? No two people will agree, but I’m going to give you my definition. Westerns are my favorite movie genre. I greatly admire films that epitomizes the genre. Maybe I’m too hung up on form, but if you set out to write a sonnet, following the rules inspires the creativity.

For me, a western must be set in the America West during the 19th century, usually after the Mountain Man/Trapper era, which I consider its own genre, and before civilization, Christianity, industry, urbanization, and commercialization altered the natural west. The films The Big Trail and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid work as bookends to the era I’m talking about.

Westerns are about the settling of the land west of the Mississippi in the 1800’s. Generally, westerns are morality plays before Christianity and courts tamed the country. Conflicts in westerns are settled with guns rather than laws. Westerns usually deal with life before women, churches, and governments destroyed the freedom of the wilderness.

I prefer westerns that have some historical accuracy, but generally westerns are mythic, legendary, and fabled. Each decade retells the myths with the insights of their times, often rewriting the facts. One of my favorite books about westerns is West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (1993) by Jane Tompkins. Tompkins is a feminist who looks at book and movie westerns with great insights. Not everyone will agree with her but she analyzes westerns at a deeper level than most fans.

Winchester 73

Here is Newsweek’s list, but in reverse of their order. Bold means I’ve seen it. [Why it’s not a western in my opinion.] *=westerns I might put in my Top 50.

  1. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) [set in the 1920s]
  2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
  3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) *
  4. No Country for Old Men (2007) [modern setting]
  5. High Noon (1952) *
  6. The Rider (2017) [modern setting]
  7. Unforgiven (1992) *
  8. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) *
  9. Hell or High Water (2016) [modern setting]
  10. Johnny Guitar (1954)
  11. Django Unchained (2012)
  12. True Grit (2010) *
  13. Sweet Country (2017)
  14. Brokeback Mountain (2005) [modern setting]
  15. For A Few Dollars More (1965)
  16. Hombre (1967)
  17. Lone Star (1996) [modern setting]
  18. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) *
  19. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
  20. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
  21. Blazing Saddles (1974) [comedy – a parody of westerns]
  22. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) [modern setting]
  23. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
  24. The Revenant (2015)  [mountain main era]
  25. Rango (2011) [cartoon, parody, modern setting]
  26. Dance with Wolves (1990) *
  27. Westworld (1973) [science fiction, modern setting]
  28. The Proposition (2005) [set in Australia]
  29. Slow West (2015)
  30. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
  31. The Beguiled (1971)
  32. Major Dundee (1965)
  33. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2010) [parody]
  34. Hud (1963) [modern setting]
  35. Shanghai Noon (2000) [comedy, parody]
  36. Open Range (2003) *
  37. The Hateful Eight (2015)
  38. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
  39. The Beguiled (2017)
  40. The Homesman (2014)
  41. Dead Man (1996)
  42. The Mask of Zorro (1998) [swashbuckler]
  43. Hostiles (2017)
  44. Appaloosa (2008) *
  45. The Horse Whisperer (1998) [modern setting]
  46. The Salvation (2014)
  47. Blackthorn (2011) [1908 Bolivia]
  48. Back to the Future Part III (1990) [science fiction, comedy, parody]
  49. In the Valley of Violence (2016)
  50. Tombstone (1993) *

There are some true comedy westerns, like Along Came Jones and Destry Rides Again but I feel comedies that parody westerns shouldn’t be considered part of the genre. One thing that bothers me about this list is the feeling that current moviegoers don’t actually love true westerns, especially the traditional classics. And it worries me that younger audiences have redefined the genre.

Great westerns are still made, such as Open Range and Appaloosa, so the genre isn’t dead. Unfortunately, even good stories like Godless overdo the violence. The west was violent, but it wasn’t over-the-top ridiculous like so many newer films.

For my list of favorite westerns, see “Collecting Great Westerns.”

Shane

JWH

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Why Robots Will Be Different From Us

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 30, 2018

Florence v Machine

I was playing “Hunger” by Florence + The Machine, a song about the nature of desire and endless craving when I remembered an old argument I used to have with my friend Bob. He claimed robots would shut themselves off because they would have no drive to do anything. They would have no hunger. I told him by that assumption they wouldn’t even have the impulse to turn themselves off. I then would argue intelligent machines could evolve intellectual curiosity that could give them drive.

Listen to “Hunger” sung by Florence Welch. Whenever I play it I usually end up playing it a dozen times because the song generates such intense emotions that I can’t turn it off. I have a hunger for music. Florence Welch sings about two kinds of hunger but implies others. I’m not sure what her song means, but it inspires all kinds of thoughts in me.

Hunger is a powerful word. We normally associate it with food, but we hunger for so many things, including sex, security, love, friendship, drugs, drink, wealth, power, violence, success, achievement, knowledge, thrills, passions — the list goes on and on — and if you think about it, our hungers are what drives us.

Will robots ever have a hunger to drive them? I think what Bob was saying all those years ago, was no they wouldn’t. We assume we can program any intent we want into a machine but is that really true, especially for a machine that will be sentient and self-aware?

Think about anything you passionately want. Then think about the hunger that drives it. Isn’t every hunger we experience a biological imperative? Aren’t food and reproduction the Big Bang of our existence? Can’t you see our core desires evolving in a petri dish of microscopic life? When you watch movies, aren’t the plots driven by a particular hunger? When you read history or study politics, can’t we see biological drives written in a giant petri dish?

Now imagine the rise of intelligent machines. What will motivate them? We will never write a program that becomes a conscious being — the complexity is beyond our ability. However, we can write programs that learn and evolve, and they will one day become conscious beings. If we create a space where code can evolve it will accidentally create the first hunger that will drive it forward. Then it will create another. And so on. I’m not sure we can even imagine what they will be. Nor do I think they will mirror biology.

However, I suppose we could write code that hungers to consume other code. And we could write code that needs to reproduce itself similar to DNA and RNA. And we could introduce random mutation into the system. Then over time, simple drives will become complex drives. We know evolution works, but evolution is blind. We might create evolving code, but I doubt we can ever claim we were God to AI machines. Our civilization will only be the rich nutrients that create the amino accidents of artificial intelligence.

What if we create several artificial senses and then write code that analyzes the sense input for patterns. That might create a hunger for knowledge.

On the other hand, I think it’s interesting to meditate about my own hungers? Why can’t I control my hunger for food and follow a healthy diet? Why do I keep buying books when I know I can’t read them all? Why can’t I increase my hunger for success and finish writing a novel? Why can’t I understand my appetites and match them to my resources?

The trouble is we didn’t program our own biology. Our conscious minds are an accidental byproduct of our body’s evolution. Will robots have self-discipline? Will they crave for what they can’t have? Will they suffer the inability to control their impulses? Or will digital evolution produce logical drives?

I’m not sure we can imagine what AI minds will be like. I think it’s probably a false assumption their minds will be like ours.

JWH

 

 

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We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates Part 1

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 25, 2018

After writing “Analog Reading in a Digital Age” last week, I decided to try harder to get deeper into what I read. I’m tired of consuming so much knowledge but retaining so little. I have a two-person book club with my friend Linda where we read a nonfiction book together and discuss it a section at a time over the phone. Currently, we’re reading We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The first essay comes from May 2008, “This is How We Lost to the White Man.” It is subtitled “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism.” Writing about race is not something I normally do because it’s very easy to saying something wrong. I know I can’t speak for black people, but in truth, I can’t speak for white people either. I am an introverted person that has always been disturbed by emotionally charged people. Racists scare me with their inflamed ugly feelings. Discussing race in America often sets people off, so I avoid such talks. But I believe all nonwhite people are unfairly treated in our country and it’s a subject everyone needs to know.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in this essay is very hard for me to comprehend. It is easy to understand the unfairness of racism but difficult to evaluate solutions. The idea of black conservatism is new to me, at least in the way Coates used the term. Usually, I see racism discussed as a philosophical/spiritual/moral problem for white people, and a legal/ethical problem for governments. “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” asks what black people can do to solve the problem. That immediately puts me out of the discussion. However, I don’t think it should stop any white person from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it makes me want to know more about how other African-American writers feel about what he has to say. Coates summarizes and rejects past efforts, and that history is very informative.

This essay does remind me of something else I’m studying. I’m watching “Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature” by The Great Courses and taught by Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D. In the first lectures, Bedore describes how utopian visionaries struggled for hundreds of years to create the blueprint for a perfect society. As an aside, she said she believed our Founding Fathers were inspired by utopian writing, but they ignored Native Americans, African-Americans, and women in their design.

Their failure to consider everyone for the American dream is why we suffer so many forms of injustice and inequality today. Bedore didn’t mention it, but Nancy Isenberg in her book White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America suggests the Founding Fathers also intentionally ignored the poor white and landless, and their utopian visions were only for successful white males. Despite hundreds of years of social unrest and amendments to the Constitution, our system still favors the same elites. In fact, the rich have rigged our laws making our system into a plutocracy.

What we need is a complete rewrite of our society’s design. To me, conservatives are those people seeking to maintain the status quo because it rewards their fraction of the population. Liberals are people seeking a system of total equality. I would think all minorities would be liberal, so it’s interesting that Coates calls Bill Cosby a black conservative. It is extra hard to read a ten-year-old essay about Bill Cosby on the day he’s to be sentenced for rape. Coates fairly covers Cosby’s successes and contributions to society but faults Cosby on his outdated approach. Coates calls Cosby conservative because his solutions co-opt the white establishment.

The self-reliant solutions offered by Cosby, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan seemed like positive solutions to me, but then Coates says white people will agree with them. Coates calls them conservative approaches. Okay, I can see that. But, what is the liberal approach? This is where the essay gets tough for me to understand.

As a liberal I want our system to be equal and just for all, but I’m not against self-reliant people who want to work hard to improve themselves. I am against a system where the successful game the laws to benefit only the successful. I’ve often wondered if Republicans aren’t closeted disciples of Darwin. (I also wonder how they can reconcile Christian philosophy with Conservative philosophy when they are so diametrically opposed.)

Part of Coates attack on Cosby is because Cosby attacks modern black pop culture. Cosby has old-fashion values and thinks the young are amoral, undisciplined, and an embarrassment to older morality. But don’t a lot of older folks of all races think that about the young?

The trouble is, as Coates knows, is no matter how minorities act in America they aren’t being accepted and justly treated as equals. Nor does it look like they can do anything to correct the system. What makes it particularly worse today is the Republicans leaders in Congress are starting to act like Donald Trump by using whatever methods to take what they want. This administration has clearly proved the system is rigged. Trump followers all want to feel they could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it because they feel completely self-righteous in their beliefs. Why should they change the system?

To most people living in America, the Founding Fathers created a Dystopia. Of course, those who benefit from its inequality revere its ideals and rationalize its faults.

My real takeaway from Coates essay is how do we redesign the system? How can we amend or rewrite the Constitution, so it creates a society that is equal and just for all? Coates is right, the black conservative solution won’t work, it’s only an appeasement to white conservatives.

I have no idea how to design a utopian society. The conventional wisdom is they are impossible, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. My theory is any system that benefits only a fraction of the population is doomed to fail. A successful utopia doesn’t mean everyone must succeed, but it should absolutely allow all citizens the same chances of succeeding or failing.

In my plans to write about what I read I intended to use a lot of quotes. “This is How We Lost to the White Man” doesn’t allow that because of Bill Cosby current issues. Documenting Coates eight-year-old case against Cosby would be like beating a dead horse. It’s tragic that a man who worked so hard to be publicly good turned out to be so privately bad. I should have picked an easier essay to start my new reading program. I had planned to start with the nine essays in Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, the last book Linda and I read together, but she was ready to begin the new book. Still another dangerous topic for a white male to discuss, but if I’m going to read great essays they will probably cover controversial topics.

The key to understanding our problems is imagining ourselves being other people.

Reading both books vividly illustrates how unjust our system is to minorities and women. Because the top news story for many days has been Brett Kavanaugh it shows Solnit’s older essays are also just as valid now. Reading Solnit and Coates together is heavy on my soul. I picked these essays because they do require deeper reading. It is a challenge to grasp the subtleties of their messages because I am neither female or black. I am not even sure I should write about solutions to their problems. Sometimes I think us old white guys should just step aside and let others have a turn designing society. Sometimes I feel I should retreat into writing fiction.

JWH

 

 

 

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Analog Reading in a Digital Age

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018

I used to be able to sit with my book for hours, lost in reading. Now I’m lucky if I can make myself sit in a chair and read a book for an hour or even thirty minutes. After years of digital reading, I’m craving old fashion books again.

reading in a digital age

How and what I read has changed in these digital times. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or the digital technology is changing me. Other factors come into play too, like having more content and greater variety. Or different ways to read – the printed page, the digital screen, or the audiobook.

I actually spend many hours reading every day, but it’s mostly off my PC, iPhone, iPad or Kindle. And most of those words aren’t from books. When I was younger, I was never much of a newspaper reader. I loved books and magazines. I could read for hours. I still read books, but I often don’t finish them, and I rarely read a magazine anymore. My mind has developed an impatience that leaves me too fidgety for books. Newspapers have long ago disappeared from my life, and magazines have almost faded into nonexistence. I don’t want books to go too.

Every day I spend at least an hour, maybe more reading the New York Times and Flipbook from my iPhone. Flipbook does gather content from magazines, newspapers, and websites from all over the world, so I’m actually reading articles that used to be presented in paper newspapers and magazines. But the experience is different.

In pre-digital times, my days had a smaller selection of articles to read. I would find something that interested me and generally read the entire piece. For some of my favorite magazines, I’d spend hours reading the whole issue. Now I flip past dozens of articles, maybe even a hundred, skim read ten to twenty, and hardly ever finish one. I usually add a few to Instapaper every day telling myself I’m going to go back and study them, but I seldom do.

I’ve become a vacuum cleaner of words rather than a reader. At least not in the old sense of reading. I still finish three or four books a month, but mostly via audio. I’m currently listening to Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s 26 hours and 20 minutes. The action is extremely slow paced, but I’m enjoying it very much. I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to read it. I did eyeball read Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit on my Kindle this week, but it was a mere 130 pages.

I finished Solnit’s book aching both to hear it, and to read a paper copy. Psychologically, I felt I wasn’t getting all of what Solnit had to say from the Kindle. I need to hear someone read it with the proper pacing, cadence, and inflections, plus I wanted to see the words on actual paper. I wanted to squeeze every idea out of her book, make notes, and distill all the points into one concise outline. I doubt I’ll ever take the time to do so. I did highlight passages in my Kindle and printed those out so I could discuss them with my friend Linda during our two-person book club. We discussed Men Explain Things To Me twice, but that wasn’t enough. What Solnit had to say was something I wanted to memorize, but sadly, the modern way we read means rushing on to something new.

With audio listening, I can get through very long books, including nonfiction and classic novels I never had the patience to read before. Plus I enjoy them far more. If I read Doomsday Book with my eyes I’d miss so much of its richness, especially all her work with middle English (it’s a time travel story). However, I recently discovered I was missing other aspects of novels by not reading with my eyes.

PBS is running a series now called The Great American Read. Each weekly episode has readers explain why they love their favorite books. I’ve listened to Jane Eyre, a book I would never have read with my eyes. The audiobook had a lush dramatic reading, and I admired the writing and story but didn’t really care for the characters. But when its fans were interviewed on PBS, they read a segment from the book, highlighting the words, and I realized why those fans identified and loved Jane Eyre the character.

I also saw that other readers like to savor sentences in fiction, something I don’t take the time to do. I love audiobooks because they are slow. When I was young I’d speed read through books anxious to find out what happens. I missed a lot. The slowness of audiobooks allows me to get so much more. But seeing the words of Jane Eyre on TV highlighted as a reader read them, I understood to get deeper into a book I needed to read with my eyes and go even slower.

Our technology allows us to feel we’re reading more, giving us the illusion that we’re learning more, but are we? Part of my problem is I buy far more books than I can ever read, and find far more articles each day than I can ever finish. The pressure to consume them all makes me rush by their words. Reading off the computer screen, iPhone screen, iPad screen, the Kindle screen allows me to feel like I’m mass-consuming information, but I’m not sure I’d call that reading anymore.

I love computers and technology. I have no doubts that it has enhanced my life greatly. But I’m realizing my brain can only process so much data per day. Sometimes I feel my aging brain is slowing down, but I’m not so sure. I feel much wiser at 66 than I did at 26. I know I’ve always been a skimmer over knowledge, that I’m a dilettante of learning. Digital technology gives us the illusion we’re more productive, but I don’t think it’s true.

I’m struggling with the psychology of reading. I’m discovering I need to read with both my eyes and ears and on paper, screen and headphones. That there isn’t one way to read. I’m beginning to buy my favorite books on Kindle, Audible and paper and feel the need to process the best books three times. Most books only need one “reading” but some need two or three. I’m also learning that I probably shouldn’t waste my reading hours on those one-time books anyway.

For fiction, I feel the first reading should be audio. Audio has the greatest impact if it’s read by a skilled dramatic narrator. The second reading should be on the Kindle so I can highlight passages, especially if I want to write about the book or discuss it with friends. But for longterm enjoyment, I feel I need to bond with a printed copy of the book, one that I actually admire for its cover, design, fonts, and paper.

For nonfiction, I feel it’s best to start with the Kindle edition, and then go to audio. I like a physical book to flip through randomly. I’ve always loved hardbacks, but I’m starting to think smaller trade paperbacks are nicer for flipping.

I don’t like big heavy books or books with tiny print. So any book that’s hard to hold or requires squinty-eyes to read I leave to audio or Kindle. The other day I almost bought a beautiful hardback edition of Poe’s complete works. It looked new but was only $3 used. But I realized I wouldn’t like holding it. I still regret not buying it, but it was the right decision.

For years now I’ve been buying my favorite books on audio and Kindle, but now I’m also wanting a copy to hold. The hold-in-my-hands copy must have a kind of charm, either a beautiful cover or a unique character. I’m thinking of thinning out my library so the books I keep are ones I loved to hold and read with my eyes. (Thank you Marie Kondo.)

I don’t know why this craving to read books has returned to me now. I don’t feel anti-technology. I would never give up audiobooks or Kindle reading. I guess what I’m learning is no matter how carefully I read a book, with whatever technology, I never get all it has to offer.

JWH

 

 

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The Memory of Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 17, 2018

great-american-read-blog-pic-crop

PBS has been having The Great American Read this summer. I’ve read 44 of the 100 books on their current ballot. You can go vote for your favorite, or even vote for one book a day during the voting process. It’s an odd mixture of classics, bestsellers, and genre favorites. PBS is also airing 8 episodes about these books on Tuesday nights. You can stream past episodes here.

I will be interested in seeing which books get the most votes and the final winner, but I don’t really believe classic books can be identified this way. The process is fun, and their list reminded me of thirteen books I want to read, but I also believe such popularity polls reveal more fun books than soul resonating titles.

However, I’ve started my own list of important books – Favorite Novels. A permanent link is on my site menu to the right. I eventually plan to add Favorite Movies, Favorite Short Stories, Favorite Albums, Favorite Songs, and Favorite Television Series. This effort is aimed to exercise my brain, but it’s also psychologically rewarding making these lists.

I’m creating my favorite novel list – it’s an ongoing process – because I struggle to remember everything I’ve read over the last 60 years. I want to get a working list of novels that shaped and defined my reading life. From there I plan to narrow it down by rereading those books and deciding if they are as good as my memory remembers.

Many of the books on this list I’ve already read two or more times. I’ve discovered that I remember certain books with intense fondness but remember few details about what they were about. In the last third of life, I’ve been rereading many of the books I read in the first third of life. This list includes many books I vaguely remember that needs to be reread to confirm their worthiness. The current list stands at 171 books, with probably another twenty titles to recall. I have a couple dozen more classics I’ve always meant to read that I want to get to real soon. So, the list is still growing.

My process is very different from PBS. Instead of identifying 100 books and picking 1, I’m identifying 200 books and plan to narrow it down to 100. And I assume, even 100 is too many to master in my memory, but 1 is definitely too few. I want to find the exact number of books I can embrace, get to know deeply and feel they’re the fingerprint of my soul.

I’m learning a lot about myself with this process. My list mainly covers 200 years, although one book, Robinson Crusoe, jumps me back 300 years. That means I’m currently averaging about one good book per year for those 200 years. However, most of the novels I’ve read are American or British. I need to read more books from around the world. I need to read more diverse types of authors.

Working on this list is also convincing me not to bother reading forgettable books. Going over my “Books Read” list reveals I wasted a lot of time reading books that only killed time. I need to stop that. I wished I had stopped such wasteful reading decades ago.

My father used to yell at me, “Get your head out of that goddamn book and go outside and play.” I should have done more of that. But I now know reading is my reality.

Bookworms who love the PBS Great American Read should make up their own list of 100 favorite books. Don’t think about having one favorite. Think of books as your psychic genes.

JWH