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Unraveling a Loose Thread of History Found in a 1956 Issue of Galaxy Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 16, 2019

This morning I was flipping through some old issues of Galaxy Science Fiction I had bought on eBay and ran across this ad in the October 1956 issue:

Geniac - Galaxy 1956-10

At first, I flipped right by it. Then in the next issue I picked up, the December 1956 issue, I found this ad:

Geniac - Galaxy 1956-12

This one promised a whole lot more. Could this be for real? Computes, plays games, composes music? I don’t ever remember reading about home computers existing this early. I thought computer kits were something from the 1970s. This December ad promised a new improved 1957 model, and for only $19.95. In 1956, $19.95 was some serious money for a kid. It would probably be hundreds of dollars in today’s money. And was this a genuine computer, or was it some kind of trick, like those X-Ray glasses advertised in the back of comic books?

First stop: Wikipedia.

Geniac was an educational toy billed as a "computer" designed and marketed by Edmund Berkeley, with Oliver Garfield from 1955 to 1958, but with Garfield continuing without Berkeley through the 1960s. The name stood for "Genius Almost-automatic Computer" but suggests a portmanteau of genius and ENIAC (the first fully electronic general-purpose computer).

Operation
Basically a rotary switch construction set, the Geniac contained six perforated masonite disks, into the back of which brass jumpers could be inserted. The jumpers made electrical connections between slotted brass bolt heads sitting out from the similarly perforated masonite back panel. To the bolts were attached wires behind the panel. The circuit comprised a battery, such wires from it to, and between, switch positions, wires from the switches to indicator flashlight bulbs set along the panel's middle, and return wires to the battery to complete the circuit.

With this basic setup, Geniac could use combinational logic only, its outputs depending entirely on inputs manually set. It had no active elements at all – no relays, tubes, or transistors – to allow a machine state to automatically influence subsequent states. Thus, Geniac didn't have memory and couldn't solve problems using sequential logic. All sequencing was performed manually by the operator, sometimes following fairly complicated printed directions (turn this wheel in this direction if this light lights, etc.)

The main instruction book, as well as a supplementary book of wiring diagrams, gave jumper positions and wiring diagrams for building a number of "machines," which could realize fairly complicated Boolean equations. A copy of Claude Shannon's groundbreaking thesis in the subject, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, was also included.

Okay, so it was real! But in 1956? In the mid-fifties, commercial computers were just beginning to be rolled out to businesses. In 1957 American audiences got to see a humorous look at computers in the film Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Rumors of computers produced a fear that the librarians would lose their jobs, but ultimately humans prevailed. I expect most Americans in 1957 had never seen a computer and only knew about them from funny cartoons in magazines and newspapers. Geniac came out before Sputnik which ignited a fear that American youths weren’t being educated in science. Was there a desire by kids that early in the 1950s to know about computers?

Here is a History of Computer timeline that shows the Geniac for 1955. And here’s an article about the history of computers that played NIM games, which includes the Geniac.

Scientific American 1950-11The main designer of Geniac appears to be Edmund Berkeley. He wrote an early book about computers in 1949, Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. Berkeley was also written about in Edmund Berkeley and the Social Responsibility of Computer Professionals by Bernedette Long. If you follow that link she writes about his influence with Geniac. I’m awful tempted to buy the Kindle edition. He also designed what some people call the first personal computer, Simon. Simon appeared as 13 how-to articles that began running in Radio-Electronics magazine in October 1950. (All 13 parts can be read online here.) It would have cost around $600 to build and had very limited features with only 2-bits of memory. Berkeley wrote the article “Simple Simon” for the November 1950 issues of Scientific American.

Electronics was a big tech hobby back then and had been since the early days of the radio in the 1910s. Looking at the Geniac ad carefully though showed it wasn’t an electronics kit, but merely electrical. It might contain 400 parts, but they were wires, light bulbs, batteries, nuts, and little contacts. It seems designed to set up simple logic programs. How much could a kid do with one? YouTube to the rescue:

And this film, which features a later model from the 1960s called a Brainiac:

This brings up even more questions. Did kids really play with them? Where they inspired to study computers and become computer programmers and engineers? Were there any famous computer pioneers that started with a Geniac or Brainiac? Could Steve Wozniak or Bill Gates have played with one? Of course, those two might have been too young for this era.

The kit seemed aimed at kids, but it would have required a great deal of work and patience to produce any results. Actually putting one together and doing any of the example projects would have been very educational.

David Vanderschel describes his Geniac computer from 1956. He says an IBM 1620 was the first real computer he encountered in 1962. That was the first computer I programmed on in 1971 at computer school using FORTRAN.

Hackaday had a post last month about the Geniac claiming that Mike Gardi credits his professional success in software development to educational logic games like the Geniac. Gardi created a replica of a Geniac and has links to the original documentation. This 1955 manual had instructions for a couple dozen projects. Gardi said:

Technically GENIAC was a collection of configurable N-pole by N-throw rotary switches, which could be set up to cascaded and thus perform logical functions. As a result GENIAC could use combinational logic only, its outputs depending entirely on inputs manually set. However, projects outlined in the manual, which started with basic logic circuits, ultimately progressed to such things as a NIM machine and TIC-TAC-TOE machine.

I did find a Geniac on eBay that has a $99.99 buy it now price. There’s a Brainiac for sale for $349! That’s more than I’d want to spend. The Brainiac is in great shape though. It’s probably the one from the film above.

The more I Googled, the more intrigued I became about the impact of the Geniac computer. Is this how historians get sucked into writing books? I checked a couple books on the history of personal computers I own, but neither mention Geniac or Edmund Berkeley. If you search Google for the first personal computer you usually get the MITS Altair 8800. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe I could write a whole history book about home computers before 1975.

Additional Reading:

Update:

I went to my public library and looked through the books about the history of computing. I found no mentions of Geniac or Edmund Berkeley. I then checked The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years 1950-1960. I found no references to Geniac and only a handful of articles by Berkeley. His articles did sound interesting:

  • “Robots for Fun” Life, 173-74+, March 19, 1956
  • “Relations Between Symbolic Logic and Large-Scale Calculating Machines” Science, 395-399, October 6, 1950
  • “Simple Simon” Scientific American, 40-43, November 1950
  • “Tomorrow’s Thinking Machines” Science Digest, 52-57, January 1950
  • “2150 A.D. Preview of the Robotic Age” New York Times, 19, November 19, 1950
  • “Robot Psychoanalyst” Newsweek, 58, December 12, 1949
  • “Algebra and States and Events” Science Monthly, 332-342, April 1954
  • “We Are Safer Than We Think” New York Times, 11, July 29, 1951

An amusing thing happened at the library. I kept asking the librarians where the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature was located. They didn’t know. Finally, they asked a very old librarian and she found it for me. She then came back with the younger librarians, they wanted to see it too. I had told them when I was young every kid was taught to begin their library research with that classic index.

JWH

 

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Why We Can’t Trust Digital to Remember

In The Map of Knowledge Violet Moller describes how the works of Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy were collected, translated, transcribed, and preserved over over the centuries. Most of the works from the ancient world have been lost. We have the Arab civilization to thank for preserving much of what we have from ancient Greece after the fall of Rome, and before the emergence of the modern western civilizations.

When humans first develop writing we wrote on stone, wood, clay, wax, and metal, but eventually invented the more convenient papyrus and paper for scrolls and books. We’re still finding ancient works of papyrus like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we’re still translating steles from antiquity that archaeologists unearth. In other words, our data can potentially last for thousands of years.

On the other hand, it’s surprising how quickly it can disappear. Since the dawn of the internet age how many digital content providers have gone bust leaving their customers without access to the works they bought? Remember Microsoft’s Zune player? Microsoft phased it out which is okay, but they also turned off the servers handling the digital rights, meaning owners of that content were locked out of their digital libraries. Over the years I’ve bought books, movies, television shows, songs, albums, etc. from various online sellers that have disappeared. Much of it was without DRM, but I didn’t back it up. Since then most of that content has been lost between all my computer upgrades.

Today I only buy digital content from Amazon because that company is so big I hope it will never go out of business. But it if did, I’d lose thousands of ebooks, audiobooks, movies, television shows, songs, and albums. So far it appears that Amazon (and their company Audible) have saved everything I bought, even when the work went out of print. But sometimes I think I owned something I can’t find in my Amazon library. So far I think it’s me because in the early years I bought so much from other companies that I now misremember what I bought from Amazon. But I never can be sure.

Many years ago I decided to go paperless and scanned my files to .pdf documents. My mother had saved all my report cards and I scanned those too, throwing away the originals away. I can no longer find those files. I thought they were on DropBox. When you have hundreds of thousands of digital files it’s hard to know when a few thousand disappear. I’ve been putting everything on Dropbox for years, and they’ve always seemed very reliable. Again, I can’t tell if I could have accidentally deleted those files, or something in their system ate them.

I recently discovered my Yahoo email has all disappeared. I used Yahoo to save backups of important emails, but I seldom went to the site to look at these old emails. I just discovered Yahoo deletes your content if you haven’t access your account for one year. Dang. Also, I used to have access to all my oldest emails at Outlook. But now Outlook only shows recent years. If you get to the bottom of a folder you can request Outlook to show more, but I’m not sure if they save everything anymore.

What’s needed is a program that catalogs all my files and tells me when some go missing. I don’t do backups because I assume I have my files locally and on Dropbox and that’s good enough. I used to save backups to external hard drives, but keeping up with such backups is a pain. I recently threw out six hard drives. They had been sitting in my closet for years, but when I checked them they no longer worked.

I also worry about all my financial records. All the companies I do business with begged to stop sending me paper copies so they could go digital. Now I wonder about the wisdom of that. I realize if I died I’m not sure if my wife would know where all my 401K savings are located. But if I only saved on paper and my house burned down, where would we be too?

I’ve read a few articles in the news lately saying if you read the fine print we don’t own our digital content. We can’t resale it or lend it, but what about accessing our purchased content forever? What if a publisher goes out of business? What if a publisher selling through Amazon goes out of business, is Amazon responsible for maintaining that digital content forever for its customers?

And what happens to my 1,400+ essays if WordPress shuts down? One of my blogs, Lady Dorothy Mills, is about a woman writer from the 1920s whose work is almost completely forgotten. I started a website about her decades ago, and I used to get 1-2 emails a year asking about her. It’s been years since I’ve had a query. Only a handful of her books come up for sale every year. Even printed books have no guarantee of surviving. If I really wanted to save my essays I should print them out. I don’t though. I hate saving paperwork.

We are becoming completely reliant on saving data digitally. After our civilization collapses, and they all do, how will future scholars like Violet Moller write about us? A book from this century could last a thousand years. But even if a hard drive could last a thousand years, would people in 3019 have a PC to run it?

Or will future civilizations carefully preserve our digital data someway? For years I tried to save the files I created on my Commodore 64 or Atari ST to my early PC programs like WordPress. Even as late as 2013 when I was still working I’d get requests to convert 1980s Apple II discs so the files could be read on Macs. It was seldom possible.

We talk about plastics surviving for thousands of years. I wonder if it’s possible to produce a new kind of paper that’s nearly indestructible, including fire and water proof? That way, anything we really wanted to save we’d print on the new DuroPrint format. Or can we design solid-state drives that can hold their bit positions forever?

I’m at an odd point in my life. I have a lifetime of books I’ve collected that run in the thousands. They included printed books, ebooks, and digital audiobooks. I’ve actually saved too many books. I figure I might live another 10-20 years and I want to thin out my collection to just what I need as I fade away. I also want to start deleting digital files and paper files of things I no longer need. What a huge task. I’ll probably delete 99 out of a 100 items, but for that one, I’ll want it to survive no matter what, and be discoverable by someone after I die.

I feel like I’m moving towards an Omega Point where I will die with just the exact books and documents I need. It’s the opposite of building a library or filing system. I’m not sure I need to leave any of my books or papers to anyone. I’ll give away my books before I die, and my wife will need only a few papers. But I do worry about a few rare objects I own, like the Lady Dorothy Mills books, or rare science fiction fanzines. I’ve been scanning the fanzines for the Internet Archive. I should probably scan the Mills books too.

The Map of Knowledge by Violet Moller

JWH

 

 

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Why Isn’t Everything Beautiful?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 8, 2019

I’m reading The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller where she describes how books were important in seven beautiful cities in the ancient world. Over and over again Moller describes how a conquerer builds a city, embraces books and libraries, and founds a new civilization. They raise magnificent buildings and evolve a culture. Then someone else comes around and sacks the city.

It occurred to me that if humanity had preserved everything great we built the world would be beautiful all over. Moller describes the founding of Baghdad and it sounded magnificent. But all I can think about is how ugly that city is when I see it on the news. How many civilizations have built countless gorgeous edifices that have disappeared in time? Which is worse, war or entropy? People and decay eventually ruin everything beautiful?

The Biggest Little Farm

Last week we watched The Biggest Little Farm on Amazon about a couple who transformed an ugly drought-brown farm into something amazingly green and beautiful. Humans have the ability to go walk out into a desert and create what you see below.

beautiful house in desert

But soon or later we do this:

Syrian city

It takes so much effort to transform chaos into order you’d think we do everything possible to protect what we create. Moller writes about all the books and libraries that have been destroyed before the invention of the printing press. I know it’s hard to build something that lasts because everything eventually wears out, decays, falls apart, or is bombed, burned, or torn to pieces. But I think we could make things last far longer if we tried. What if the hanging gardens of Babylon still existed? Or all the larger works of the Mayans and Aztecs?

Just think how beautiful the world would be if we had spent all the money we spent on wars into preserving the best of our cultures. Sure there are lots of incredibly beautiful places that exist now, but what percentage of everything are they, and how long will they last? Imagine every city an entire work of art.

Quite often on television, I see documentaries about grand buildings that existed within my parents and grandparents lifetimes. Historical societies struggle to preserve as many as they can, but all too often we bulldoze aged building to make way for new ones. Sure it is natural for us to get tired of some buildings, but do we always have to? The other day I saw a story about an entertainment complex for teenagers in the 1940s where it had a roller skating rink, an immense pool, and a pavilion for music and dancing. Photos showed something very elegant, and to my modern eye very nostalgically attractive. I wished it still existed so I could go hear big band music live. Photos taken just before it was destroyed show it dilapidated and sad looking. Why did we let it fade away? I guess not everyone wants to hang onto the past.

When I drive through most commercial districts today everything looks utilitarian and tawdry. Depending on the wealth of the locale, the designs run from crappy decaying to hip conformity to city council standards. I can drive for miles on certain big city thoroughfares and see a repeating array of chain stores and restaurants. It feels like the cycling background in the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Wasn’t it more beautiful in the old days where every business building was unique?

I can remember over sixty years of changes. I can’t count the number of buildings I once knew that no longer exist. You’d think we’d construct every structure to last and to be the most beautiful it could be by the current architectural fashion. There’s a magazine I love to look at, Atomic Ranch, that reveres the mid-century ranch house. That’s an era I thought was beautiful. Sure, it’s not Athens or Alexandria, but the look is very appealing to me. I wonder if a mid-century modern neighborhood could be preserved for a thousand years.

It’s odd how ideas come to us. I was reading a book and I wondered why it isn’t beautiful everywhere we looked. Our species certainly has built enough beautiful objects to cover the earth. Why haven’t we preserved them?

Mid-century modern ranch

Of course, I’m one answer. We’ve let our house rundown. Suan and I have never been into yard work, decorating or housework. We care more about our hobbies and television. It takes a lot of money and effort to maintain something beautiful. Some of my neighbors work hard to make their yards and interiors look beautiful, on the outside and inside. What’s funny is some of them only make the effort on the outside, or just the inside. I’ve always envied my friends who make their personal environment beautiful. Take this as a thank you.

You’d think with seven billion people everything on this planet would look clean and tidy, if not aesthetically elegant. Maybe it’s too easy to find beauty on our flat-screen televisions.

What’s also fascinating to contemplate is how beauty pops up in nature through random nonintelligent design. Of course, the concept of beauty is something that might only exist in our species. Does any other animal stop to admire the rose? Maybe beauty only resides in human civilizations because of anti-entropic efforts. We’re all at war with entropy, and only some of us use our limited energies to create beauty.

Rose

I’ve read that color doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s something our brains adds. I’d hate to think this is true. I wonder what the other animals and insects see.

JWH

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Quantifying My Cognitive Decline

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 5, 2019

I subscribe to a service called Grammarly which checks my spelling and grammar as I write. Grammarly sends me a weekly report on how I’m doing. Two years ago it would tell me I was more accurate than 65-70% of their users, referring to grammar and spelling. I doubt even when I was young it would have been much higher. In recent months that number has fallen to 35-40%. And I can feel it. I have to proof my posts countless times and I still find errors after I’ve published. I’m appalled by how bad my writing has become. If I published my first drafts readers would think they were following Charlie Gordon into his descent phase from the book Flowers for Algernon.

I consider this good quantitative data on my cognitive decline. Grammarly does give me some good news. I’m generally more productive than 98-99% of their users, and my vocabulary is larger than 98-99% of their users. The first is explained by being retired and writing for two blogs. The second reflects long term memory. I can tell it’s my short term memory that’s failing.

I still don’t see this as an early sign of dementia, but I might be deluding myself. I think it’s just an aspect of normal aging. We’re used to seeing our bodies getting old because of all the visible physical changes. We’re not used to mental changes because they are less observable to ourselves and the people around us. Unless we talk or act differently, other people don’t see the changes. And we don’t feel the changes unless we try to do something and fail.

I have been noticing the number of times people ask me why I’m not talking. I tell them I’m just listening to them. Or say I’m thinking. But I believe it’s because it takes more effort to put thoughts into words, and when I do talk I can’t remember words, or I verbally trip when saying sentences. My cognitive problems are the most obvious when writing. If I’m just playing with the cats, watching television, or listening to music I feel fine. I believe we ignore our mental aging by doing less and saying less. Of course, many people also ignore signs of physical aging — that’s why so many foolish oldsters fall off ladders.

The real question is: Can we exercise the mind like we exercise the body? It appears we can slow physical decline by being more active. Is that also true for mental activity? My first reaction when I realized I was making more spelling and grammar errors was to quit writing. But I quickly decided that was the wrong approach. I believe writing exercises the mind. Instead of quitting I should work harder. However, I might need crutches. I thought about pilots who use preflight checklists, or how surgeons now use checklists to avoid making surgical mistakes.

I already pay Grammarly to keep an eye on me, but it’s far from perfect. In fact, when I see errors after I published it means Grammarly and I both missed them. I usually proofread my posts four or five times before I hit the published button. Often the most glaring mistakes are last-minute rephrasing where I don’t proof the whole sentence, or whole paragraph again. But other mistakes come from reading too fast and assuming I’m seeing what I read.

I believe my essays give the illusion that my mind is working just fine. Y’all don’t see how many broke things I fix. I use the internet to cheat. It really is my auxiliary memory. And I have unlimited do-overs. Most importantly, I can take all the time I need to say what I want.

I’ve always been a good typist. It’s been the most useful skill I learned in high school. What I typed used to be what I thought. Thoughts came out of my fingers. That’s no longer true. Now my fingers give me sound-alike words, leave out words, type words twice, and even throw in extra words. Quite often I end up typing just the opposite of what I was thinking. While typing this paragraph I created 8-10 alternate words to what I was thinking. Just that could explain the halving of my accuracy score in Grammarly.

[When proofing the above paragraph I had a new insight. What if my typing is as accurate as ever, and I’m merely typing jumbled thoughts when I once transcribed clear ones?]

Writing isn’t the only way I’m seeing increased cognitive problems. The other day I wrote “Untying a Knotted Plot” about my difficulty of understanding a short story. I had to read it four times. Admittedly, it is a complicated story. The author even wrote a couple of comments to help me. That essay was extremely difficult to compose. I struggled with trying to comprehend the story and write about it clearly. Every time I typed the author’s name I looked at the magazine to verify the spelling. I still got it wrong three out of eight times. I proofed the hell out of that piece because errors seem to be popping like popcorn. I felt like I was playing a very desperate game of Whack-a-Mole.

There’s another reason to keep writing. I want to document my own decline. Like the researchers in Flowers for Algernon, they tell Charlie to keep a journal. I’m going to be my own researcher and subject. I think it’s useful to be aware of my diminishing abilities. Aging is natural, and I accept it. I’m willing to work to squeeze all I can from my dwindling resources. What’s vital is being aware of what’s happening. The real problem to fear is becoming unconscious to who we are. Like Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The reason why Flowers for Algernon was such a magnificent story is that we’re all Charlie Gordon. We all start out dumb, get smart, and then get dumb again. Charlie just did it very fast, and that felt tragic. We do it slowly and try to ignore it’s happening. That’s also tragic.

JWH

 

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Can We Elect a Leader That Will Make Us Better People?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 26, 2019

If Democrats win the 2020 election will we become better people? We assume whoever we elect will change the country for the better but isn’t it “we the people” rather than a single leader that will make that happen? Liberals believe Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us. But conservatives feel the future is brighter than its been in years. Which is it? Trump gave the rich a gigantic tax cut but added a staggering amount to the national debt. Trump is fighting for economic fairness with our trading partners yet Wall Street is in a panic, our farmers are going broke, and our allies think we’ve gone nuts. Trump has rolled back on all kinds of regulations just when we need more regulations to save the environment. Trump has revealed the hidden racism and xenophobia we thought we’d had overcome.

However, if a Democrat is elected in 2020 will any of this change? Can a new president pass sweeping laws that will halt climate change, stop greed, or end hatred of other people?

I’ve been reading two books that are so positive about the future I almost think they were written by someone named Pollyanna: The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku and Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance by Naveen Jain. Kaku is a physicist that sees a glowing science-fictional future of mankind colonizing the Moon and Mars. Jain is an entrepreneur that pleads with us to think positive and overcome our self-fulfilling pessimism.

Positive books

I have to wonder if Jain is right. Can we be better people if we think positive? His book is quite inspirational, but I wonder if he isn’t selling snake oil. There’s a huge industry out there selling success, with costly seminars, courses, and books that people buy to convince themselves to become rich by willpower. Both books show how we’ve accomplished so much in the past so why not believe we’ll do the same tomorrow.

Doesn’t chasing abundance ignore the price of abundance? Trump says I can make you richer by cutting taxes. That appears to be true. But how rich will we all be if he runs the economy into the ground? When the Republicans deny climate change are they saying, “Don’t spoil the magic of abundance by bringing in reality!”

And I’m not just questioning the conservatives. If we elect a Democrat will that person stop global warming, halt illegal immigration, eliminate gun violence, dissolve racism and reduce xenophobia? Isn’t that also magical thinking? What Trump revealed is society can make people speak and act politically correct but still think political incorrectness in their hearts.

The only way to stop climate change is for everyone to use 90% less of fossil fuels. That means driving less, flying less, eating less meat, heating and air conditioning less, and I mean a whole lot less. The only way to keep the oceans from filling up with plastics is to stop using 90% of the plastics we use now. The only way to end racism is to fully integrate, make everyone truly equal under the law, and bring about economic equality. The only way to end sexism is for everyone to live by the Golden Rule.

However, if we quit using fossil fuels the economy will collapse. How do we shop when practically everything comes in a plastic container? The government has been trying to bring about integration for decades and we haven’t allowed it. And who really lives by the Golden Rule? I don’t think Elizabeth, Kamala, or Bernie can pass laws to change these traits. We have to change ourselves. But if we could do that wouldn’t we have done so already?

I’m an atheist, but I do read the Bible. The most common thread in the Old Testament is the prophets constantly pleading with the people to follow God’s will. They never do. The Bible is one long story of people failing to live righteously, failing to change. Hasn’t laws replaced scripture as a method of social engineering? Can we vote in righteousness? Haven’t we already decided religion failed and our best hope is law and order?

If you look at history, people are better under laws. Isn’t the social unrest we’re seeing, the mad shooters, the road rages, the street gangs, the political corruption really a rebellion against laws? Republicans hate regulations but isn’t that because those laws hinder their greed? Conservatives want libertarian laws for themselves, but law and order for everyone else.

One interesting insight that Naveen Jain points out in his book is Americans are extremely pessimistic about the future, but the Chinese are practically glowing with optimism. Why would that be? Isn’t China an extremely regulated society with a rigid Big Brother government? Shouldn’t living under an Orwellian rule crush the Chinese people’s spirit? Why do they have hope when we don’t?

I don’t think people are going to change. But I do think society changes. And I think society suppresses human nature, controls greed, and codifies the Golden Rule. I wonder if the followers of Trump love him because he apparently frees them from the growing burden of rules. Trump is all for regulating people he doesn’t like but isn’t he loved for deregulating human nature in his true believers?

Essayists are those folks making running commentary on the side-lines of history. We don’t have the answers. We’re just trying to guess what’s happening from making consistent observations. I believe both conservatives and liberals wished the world was more orderly, just, and fair. The conservatives want to be free to pursue their dreams of abundance and hate regulations that hinder their success. They don’t want to see limitations. Liberals see life on Earth like being in a lifeboat. We must share our resources fairly. Conservatives hate that attitude because it assumes there isn’t unlimited abundance for all. How does picking a new leader change this dynamic?

Have we reached a stage in society where laws are no longer effective? Many people will say they were never effective, but if you study history and other societies around the globe it’s obvious that’s not true. What might be true is we’ve reached a new stage where they are becoming ineffective because too many people are ready to revolt. We are getting very close to “It’s every man for themselves” panic. (I wanted to rephrase that old saying to not show gender bias, but when society collapses, women will lose all their political gains and the bias will be true again.)

I got a clue from this New York Times article, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Your Vacation?” In Sweden, air travel is down because enough of their citizens worry about its impact on the climate. Some of their citizens have voluntarily acted on their own for the good of all. But that’s from a smaller, less dense country than ours, and one that’s socialistic, which means they are more concerned with the common good. We are more concerned with individual freedoms and opportunity. Our nationalistic psyche is different. We believe we should grab all we can take, to go for the gusto. We have revised greed from sin into a virtue. Are Americas fundamentally different from citizens of other societies?

I’m not sure if we vote in Harris, Sanders or Warren that will change. I’ve been thinking about how I’d have to live to walk my talk. I already feel I do a great deal to be environmental, but I doubt its enough. If I used 1/7,000,000,000 of my share of sustainable resources, what would that be? And if I polluted 1/7,000,000,000 share of sustainable waste, what would it be? And what’s the difference between choosing on my own to live environmentally, and voting in a person that will pass laws that make us?

Even though I’m an atheist, I would say that difference would be finding the Kingdom of Heaven within, and being a slave in Paradise.

JWH

[Damn, I write about weird shit sometimes, don’t I? No wonder some writers feel they are channeling a muse. Sometimes I feel its all pointless philosophy and I should go play in my science fictional worlds.]

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What Would Have Made Me Want To Study as a Schoolkid?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 23, 2019

I considered my K-12 education a 13-year prison sentence. I did my mediocre best getting mostly Cs and Bs, with rare As and Ds. My good grades didn’t reflect my ability but showed what I was actually interested in. I had a lot of great teachers that tried hard to get me to learn, but I didn’t cooperate. I wish to apologize to all of them now, especially my 12th-grade math teacher. I just didn’t want to pay attention, study, or do homework. Life was full of fun diversions and I found no incentive to make the most of my school years.

I regret that now and it’s really pointless to worry about it now, but it is an interesting problem to think about solving. How do you get kids to want to study? A certain percentage of children respond well to traditional classroom learning, but most don’t. When I’m shopping in used bookstores I look at K-12 textbooks and I’m horrified by how much crap they want to stuff in a young person’s head.

Part of the problem is society wants kids to acquire proficiency in a specific set of subjects before they’re 18. Then they up the ante by a couple of magnitudes for higher education. Before you can start life you have to be programmed with 400,000 facts. We’re told we need that many factoids to succeed in life but I doubt many believe it. I always considered it cruel and unusual punishment. I never knew what crime I committed to deserve such torture.

And it’s not like I didn’t enjoy learning as a child. I was a bookworm from the 4th-grade on, reading several hundred books while serving my K-12 time. I just didn’t want to read the books teachers wanted me to read.

I don’t know if I was a typical child. But I’d guess most kids didn’t like the system either. I’ve often thought about what if I could have designed my own pedagogy. It’s a fun thing to fantasize about. Try it and post a comment. I have come to some conclusions for me only, not a general system.

  1. The most important thing I should have been taught as a kid is about the world of work and how I’d spend forty years doing something that I could either like or dislike. I needed to learn as early as possible if I didn’t find my right vocation I’d spend those years in quiet desperation at best and crushing resentment at worse.
  2. I needed to have been shown by experience that there are many kinds of tasks and work environments. After high school, it took me several jobs to realize I preferred working inside rather than outside. I eventually learned I rather work with machines than people, but I liked an environment with well-educated people, and tasks that produced something useful to humanity rather than the bottom line. And I didn’t need to be the boss. I’m pretty sure I could have learned all of that in grade school.
  3. I learned too late in life that I loved science and technology. Again, I can imagine ways to get kids to learn subjects they like while they are still in grade school. It might require spending some classroom time in real work environments.
  4. What I sorely missed was a real incentive to study. I was told an education led to a good job but I never knew what a good job meant. I think study incentives need to be more immediate. I think the goal of being freed from classes would have been the incentive that would have worked for me. In other words, tell me the week’s goal. If I can finish by Thursday I could have Friday off. If I could finish in four weeks of a six weeks period, I could have two weeks off. If I could finish the year in March, I could have a long summer. Or even, if I could finish at 14 I could bum around for a few years before college. That would have inspired me to study harder. (I know that K-12 schools also serve as babysitters, so being freed from classes might mean more library days, or sports, or clubs, or other school activities. Although I wanted to be out on the streets or at home.)
  5. For such a finish-early system to work we’d need to carefully define and quantify what needs to be learned. Right now schools are one-size-fits-all. Not every kid wants to learn everything every other kid learns. Society needs to decide what subjects form a basic education, and what should be electives. We should find creative ways to test everything. Educators have gone nuts with cultural literacy.
  6. Society is discovering all kinds of learning and teaching methods. They didn’t have personal computers when I was little. But I think if they did I would have learned best in the classroom and taking quizzes at night on the computer for homework. If testing had been more like computer games and trivia contests they would have been fun. Competing for high scores would have pushed me, but grades never did in the least. If every subject had a rating like in chess, that would have been fun.

I’m curious if anything could have motivated me to study as a kid. It’s too bad we don’t have time machines. It would be a fun challenge to go back in time and see if could motivate my younger self.

Uh, maybe that’s an idea for a science fiction novel.

JWH

 

 

 

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What’s the Legacy of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Last night I watched “Summer of Love” on PBS’s American Experience. If you have a login for PBS you can follow the link and watch it. Or try your Roku PBS app. I’ve seen this documentary before, it originally appeared in 2007, but I guess PBS wanted to capitalize on the Woodstock 50th anniversary.

Watching “Summer of Love” was a bummer, a bad trip this time around. I remember back in the 1960s how badly I wanted to run away to San Francisco and become part of the counterculture. I thought a revolution was going on and I was missing out.

Over the years when I’d watch these remembrances of 1960s counterculture it would be with nostalgia. This time around I realized my nostalgia was all gone. At 15 it would have been fun for a while, but you have to watch between-the-scenes. There’s only so much prancing in the park you can do before it gets boring, and you can’t stay high forever. And I’ve lived in communal situations a number of times in the 1970s and it wasn’t all peace and love.

This past week I also watched documentaries on Woodstock and Altamont. Between Monterey Pop Festival on June 16, 1967, and Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, the 1960s counterculture reached adolescence and then died a tragically early death. However, the dreams of what people wanted from the counterculture still persist. They have haunted us for fifty years.

We kept the long hair, beards, colorful clothes, free love, music, and dope, but we never found peace and harmony, we never freed ourselves from the 9-to-5 grind, we never escaped capitalism. We foolishly believed utopia was possible. We tried very hard to integrate and free ourselves of racism but we’ve never really succeeded. Both women and minorities have made great strides in society but we haven’t reached equality. In the 1960s the counterculture believed we could all transform ourselves. We thought we could clean up the environment, treat all life on Earth with love, and redesign capitalism to be kind and just.

It just didn’t work out. We can see the counterculture legacy in the 2020 candidates for the Democratic Party. We’ve convinced half the world to care about the environment but even the most idealistic of us can’t stop using plastics. Burger King might sell veggie burgers but we still have massive factory farms of animal torture. We know the use of fossil fuels will destroy us yet we still drive cars and electrify our homes with coal.

I think there have always been hippies with dreams of living kinder lives. Jesus and his disciples are one example of keeping a counterculture dream alive for two thousand years. Yesterday I listened to “Episode 38: The new anti-capitalist science fiction” of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. They just won the Hugo award for Best Fancast. Both are science fiction writers that are leaders in one of the many new countercultures. They assume, they dream a revolution will take place. It’s really the same revolution of 1967. They are full of hope. I still hope, but how much hope do I really have left?

For the 1960s legacy counterculture revolutionaries to succeed capitalism must be transformed. The extreme idealists have always wanted to do away with capitalism but I don’t think that’s possible. Capitalism is too basic to human nature, buying and selling are as natural as eating, even chimpanzees barter and trade. But can capitalism be tamed and civilized? Or will it always be Darwinian, the vicious survival of the fittest?

There is no doubt that society has drastically transformed since the Summer of Love in 1967. That’s proof we can change, but can we change everything about ourselves? If you study history change is constant. We never stay the same. We will never build a society or economic system and then rest with the satisfaction of achieving our goal. Human society is always boiling over with more wants.

The real question we must ask ourselves is: Can we stop being self-destructive? Conservatives want to cling to a dream of a stable past that never existed, while liberals dream of a stable future that’s a fantasy. There’s a type of insanity that grips us all — one where we believe if we all believed the same thing it will solve all our problems. In other words, we’re all revolutionaries. Christians think if everyone was Christian the world would be perfect. Conservatives think if everyone voted their party line we’d solve all our social problems. Counterculture thinkers believe we need to throw out the old for the new. The trouble is there are many counterculture revolutionaries out there now, some quite evil and nasty, and few revolutionaries share the same revolution. It’s chaos, but then isn’t it always chaos?

Read LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It chronicles all the revolutions that are going on right now on the internet. The amount of information in this book is staggering. It has 107 pages of notes on sources. I expect the Summer of 2020 to be more heated and dramatic than the Summers of 1967 and 1968 (and if you don’t remember, 1968 was nasty). The hippies of San Francisco were kids at play and even the fiery student activists in Chicago of 1968 were babes in the woods compared to the radical revolutionaries online today.

The real legacy of the 1960s counterculture is more counterculture. It was easy to spot the hippies on Haight-Ashbury, or Yippies of Chicago, or the Black Panthers, or the SDS, or the Weather Underground. The new countercultures are as visible as electricity in the wires of your home. Read LikeWar. Don’t wait 50 years to watch the historical documentary.

What Dylan said back then is still valid, “‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones?”

JWH

 

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Corrupt Biblical Archaeology

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 17, 2019

Yesterday I encountered two reports of Biblical scholarship that depressed the hell out of me. I’m an atheist, but I find historical biblical research fascinating. The first encounter was with the new issue of Harper’s Magazine and its story “Common Ground: The politics of archaeology in Jerusalem” by Rachel Poser, a senior editor for the magazine. (Harper’s offers one free article a month to read behind its paywall, so if you click the link it will count.) Poser’s report is about how right-wing activists have coopted archeology to justify Israel’s reclaiming land in Jeruselum. It’s a long, but fascinating report about right-wing politicians and zealots corrupting the science of archaeology, and their feuds with secular scholars who are seeking an unbiased understanding of the past.

My second encounter was last night on Netflix with the third episode of The Bible’s Buried Secrets entitled “The Real Garden of Eden.” Host Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor at the University of Exeter makes a rather strained case that a garden in a palace of ancient Jeruselum was the Garden of Eden, and Adam was their king. Stavrakopoulou uses almost no quotes from Genesis and builds her argument with an hour’s worth of archaeological evidence that seems flimsy at best. I can’t prove she’s wrong, but I’ve heard much better theories.

In both of these encounters with Biblical archaeology, it was obvious that science was being corrupted by shoehorning evidence to fit a cherished hypothesis. Of course, for thousands of years, humans have used ancient scripture as a kind of legal precedent to justify their claims. In both the article and documentary, archaeologists cherry-picked their findings and didn’t offer opposing evidence, either from valid scientists or their counterpart ax-grinders.

If you read the articles returned in this Google search, you’ll see many challenges to Stravrakopoulou’s hypothesis. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a theory, everyone has their evidence. There are scholars who pursue rigorous biblical scholarship and biblical archaeology, but how do we tell the cranks from honest academics?

Actually, a good place to start is Wikipedia’s entry on The Garden of Eden. At least it summarizes the complexity of the problem. Rachel Poser’s description of Elad’s effort to prove the biblical David existed and the sites Elad’s archaeologists were excavating belong to David’s kingdom are simplistic in their logic and evidence. Stavrakopoulou case for Eden is also simplistic. And if you pay attention to any of the popular documentaries about biblical history and archaeology, they’re often simplistic too. Everyone seems to be trying to deceive other people into accepting their pet theories. Is there any way of not being conned?

First of all, does the Garden of Eden or King David really matter to the modern world? I would distrust anyone who uses any biblical history as validation for any present-day disputes over morality, ethics, land, laws, etc. They are only academic issues. Researching history, and evaluating it with archaeological evidence is a fun intellectual pursuit. But if you use it for any kind of justification of action, then it’s a complete fallacy.

I find it insane that modern minds use ancient thoughts to rationalize how we should live today. We should have laws against using old beliefs for legal precedent. Read Poser’s article. It’s horrifying how we’re using three-thousand-year-old fables to kill each other.

To Christians and Jews, the world began four thousand years ago, and they struggle to overlay that fantasy onto reality. They ignore the fact that more ancient civilizations surrounded the Levant even at the time of Genesis. Even when Adam and Eve were supposed to be walking in the Garden of Eden humans had been around for hundreds of thousands of years, or that David’s Kingdom was an itty-bitty bump in the road between two vast empires.

I don’t know why western civilization is so focused on the tiny Holy Lands of the Bible when Earth is thousands of times bigger. It’s as if we all have a kind of history myopia that fails to see the planet and its history as a whole. I think the main problem is we’re raised with only one set of myths. Would we be more rational if our parents sent us to a different church/temple/synagogue/mosque/shrine every week as a child? Our insanity seems to come from trying to rationalize one viewpoint at the exclusion of all others.

The story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis is a wonderful work of literature from pre-history. It’s a fascinating challenge to try to understand why it was written, by who, and when. But imagine if three thousands years from now, people revered a copy of Gone with the Wind as their only source of American history.

One solution might be to invite Asian archaeologists to dig up the Holy Lands, ones who had never been exposed to The Bible.

JWH

 

 

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The Young Are Politically Active Again

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Last night I watched the two most recent episodes of The Weekly, a new TV show from The New York Times that premieres on FX Sunday nights and then go to streaming the following day on Hulu. There’s a fascinating contrast between episode 8 “Hard Left” which shows mostly young women activists on the left campaigning hard for The Green New Deal, and episode 9 “Down the Rabbit Hole” with mostly male activists on the extreme right making political change in Brazil. Young people are getting elected in Brazil because of their YouTube skills. Young liberals are making swift progress coopting the 2020 Democrats using political theater that would have made Abbie Hoffman proud.

Despite their polar philosophies, both sides use social media to a savvy degree. This is why I highly recommend reading LikeWar, a new book about the political weaponization of social media. It’s also why I recommend The Great Hack currently streaming on Netflix. The 2016 election results caught most people by surprise. If you want to stay ahead of the game for 2020 you need to understand how political tactics evolved on the web. If you only watch the nightly news you’re going to be clueless again.

I don’t think the young have been as politically active since the 1960s. The episode “Hard Left” is about how the Sunrise movement is forcing the Democrats to move far to the left and splitting the party. “Down the Rabbit Hole” is about how YouTube’s algorithms help the extremists on the right around the world.

What’s interesting is how the young are aligning themselves with older political extremists. I remember the passions of the activists of the 1960s, and I think that’s happening again. There seems to be a new generation gap, with young extremists on the far left and right, with most of the older Baby Boomers in the middle seeking compromise. The young aren’t in a compromising mood. Things will probably get much nastier.

But watch both episodes, it’s also about gender, starkly revealed in these two documentaries. Once again, the males don’t come off well.

I have a feeling that most folks my age will be horrified by these new radicals. I’m glad to see them. Our time is almost over, the future belongs to the young. Whether they are right or wrong, left or right, they need to take responsibility. I admire the Sunrise movement, they realize inheriting a liveable planet is up to them because our generation ain’t going to do shit.

But isn’t it odd that all this coincides with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock? Civil rights, second-wave feminism, and the ecology movement all peaked back then too. I saw a lot of the 1960s in the two episodes of The Weekly. But watching The Great Hack is something different. It’s like watching science fiction.

The above photos are of Rhiana Gunn-Wright and Kim Kataguiri.

peace-300x300

JWH

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Owning a Piece of History

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 9, 2019

A few weeks ago I watched “Galileo’s Moon” on the PBS show Secrets of the Dead. It was about a copy of Sidereus Nuncius (1610) by Galileo showing up for sale, one of the most famous science books in history, and it even had Galileo’s signature. The show was about how antiquarian book dealers and scientists worked to authenticate rare books. I thought it would be wonderful to own such a significant piece of history, and it disturbed me that rich people could buy these timeless treasures for themselves.

I’ve long wanted to own a rare scientific book and wondered if I could afford any volume published before 1700. Books by Galileo run in the hundreds of thousands to the millions. I’m sure I could probably find something I could afford, but it’s doubtful I would have ever heard of it.

During the course of the show, they interviewed Marino Massimo De Caro whose home was a museum to Galileo, astronomy, and space history. I realized if you’re going to own such unique treasures you have to preserve and maintain them. Anything that’s over 400 years old needs to be protected so it might exist for another 400 years, or even 4,000 years. I couldn’t handle that responsibility.

Then I saw three lots of Galaxy Science Fiction on sale at eBay. I already have access to all its issues as digital scans, so I didn’t need reading copies. However, I decided it would fulfill my desire to own something historic. Of course, old science fiction magazines won’t be historic to 99.9999% of Earthlings, but among the people who know the history of science fiction magazines, they would be. There were 355 issues published between 1950 and 1976 and I got 165 of them, just under half. Quite a purchasing coup.

One reason I even checked eBay to see if they were available is that I’m reading, Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years by David L. Rosheim. And I read it because I just finished reading The Way the Future Was a memoir by Frederik Pohl who edited Galaxy in the 1960s. Between those two books and other science fiction histories I’ve been reading, I know how important Galaxy Science Fiction was to the genre in the 1950s and 1960s. I started reading Galaxy in the mid-1960s and had collected many back issues then. By 1971 I was even trying to collect the earliest science fiction magazines. My first purchase of pulps was four issues of Amazing Stories from 1928. Amazing Stories began in April 1926 and was the first science fiction magazine. In 1975 I sold all my magazines and decided not to collect anything anymore. Owning objects is a burden, especially stuff that takes a lot of movers to relocate.

In the last couple of years, I’ve rekindled my love of old science fiction magazines but I’ve satisfied my need for them with digital scans I get off the internet. If I hadn’t seen that program about Galileo I doubt I would have had that hunger to own something old. But it’s given me great delight to bid for them on eBay and win the bid. And it’s been big fun going through the issues. But I now realize I’m in the same situation as big-time collectors of rare books – how do I protect and preserve my pieces of history?

I got these Galaxy magazines pretty cheap, so they aren’t precious. But they are historical in a tiny way, and they are disappearing. Most people throw away magazines. I bet my wife will throw these magazines away when I die. I’ll need to make a provision in my will to give them to someone who will cherish them too. However, I would assume such people would also be dying out, but a few lovers of old magazines are born in every generation.

On Facebook, Twitter, and eBay I meet people who collect much older magazines. Today I met a young man online who collects 19th century Dime Novels. If these issues of Galaxy are preserved, there will be a handful of people in the 22nd century that will want them. I could increase their value if I would track down and buy all the other issues too. I might, but I’m already feeling the burden of their weight on my Buddhist soul. I will probably enjoy these issues for a couple years and then sell them.

Even if I could afford a copy of Sidereus Nuncius, I doubt I’d want to own it long. Old stuff really belongs in museums and libraries so everybody can enjoy them.

Galaxy magazines from The Verge

JWH (Happy Birthday Jim Connell)

 

 

 

 

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Keeping Up In The 21st Century

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 8, 2019

I’m reading a rather disturbing book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It’s disturbing for a number of reasons. First, it shows how completely out of touch I am. Second, it’s very relevant about today’s politics, problems, and conflicts, but makes me realize that I don’t have the tech skills I thought I had – and I’ve been working with computers since 1971. And it’s about a new stage in human communications that I might not be able to join or want to join. I might need to accept I’m too old and let a new stage of human consciousness pass me by.

It’s very difficult to explain why people need to read this book. But here’s a setup that might help. It’s my take on things but relates to what I learn from the book. It’s about the different stages of communications.

  1. Language. This gave us a tremendous boost compared to the other animals, and it’s probably why we’re sentient.
  2. Writing. Let us store knowledge and communicate at a distance.
  3. Printing. Let us mass-produce knowledge.
  4. Telegraph. Let us communicate over distances very fast. This was a tremendous boom for business, war, and journalism.
  5. Telephone. Faster two-way communication without codes.
  6. Radio. The beginning of mass communication. For example, LikeWar quotes Joseph Goebbels saying the Nazis couldn’t have gained power without radio.
  7. Television. More effective mass communication. Truly transformed society.
  8. Computers. They magnified our thinking power and speed.
  9. Networks. Created a world-wide digital nervous system.
  10. Social media. Mass communication with mass participation, or two-way mass communication. LikeWar is about how social media is transforming politics, crime, business, and war. One example LikeWar uses is ISIS, which used social media to overpower traditional national powers.

If you don’t have social media skills you’ll be left behind. Most people’s reactions will be, “Too bad, I don’t care about Facebook.” LikeWar provides significant evidence that all future political power will come from the people who can master social media. LikeWar showed how Trump gained his power with Twitter. Don’t dismiss that out of hand. Singer and Brooking make a powerful case for it being true.

I’m 67 and barely use social media. I blog, I keep up with family, friends, fellow hobbyists on Facebook, I use Twitter to keep up with news about science fiction. That’s essentially nothing. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When I was growing up I watched the CBS News every night to follow the Vietnam War. The news was about 24-48 hours old. Some people today keep up with wars in real-time, watching people conduct war using the internet to outmaneuver people conducting war at television and print journalism speeds. LikeWar showed how ISIS used social media users worldwide as recruits in their local battles.

In other words, in any field of endeavor, any conflict, if you’re using print, radio, or television to keep up you’re way behind. We really are developing a global hive mind, and it involves new skills. I can use the excuse that I’m too old to chase that bus. But younger people or older folks who want to compete can’t. And I think that’s stressful. I think a lot of stress in our society is because we’re stratifying by the speed in which we can compete.

I’ll predict there will be a new class of Luddites, those people who choose not to race at social media speeds. But it means giving up power. We’ve had wealth inequality forever, and education inequality for hundreds of years, but what LikeWar envisions is a new kind of inequality. I’m not sure what percentage of the population will be able to keep up.

LikeWar

JWH

 

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Growing Old With Dolly Levi

I first encountered Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth. There was no singing and dancing. This was back in the sixties and I was still in my teens. I identified with Barnaby and Minnie and felt Cornelius and Irene were older, in their twenties. Dolly and Horace were very old, like my mom and dad. I could imagine myself as the youngest romantic couple and assumed I’d be in Cornelius second stage of getting married romance soon enough. But at that age, it was quite disturbing to imagine Shirley Booth and Paul Ford in bed together, to imagine later life-stages of romances. I didn’t sympathize with Dolly then. I didn’t understand she was an older woman making a romantic comeback. I didn’t realize the story was about the other end of a lifetime looking back towards my end.

I’ve never seen a Broadway play. And over my lifetime, I’ve seen less than ten musicals performed in a theater. I have seen quite a few famous film musicals but it took me years to acquire the taste for them. I didn’t see Hello Dolly! with Barbra Steisand when it came out in 1969. Maybe the first musical I saw was the film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1970, which also starred Streisand. I went because of the story but ended up liking the singing. That led to seeing Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! All-in-all I probably saw five musicals on film in the 1970s. At the time I equated them with music for the elderly. Old people’s music featured big bands with trumpets and trombones, while young people’s music was made by a group of four or five with guitars and saxes.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but my first real encounter with Dolly Levi was in 1964 when I heard Louis Armstrong sing “Hello Dolly!” but I didn’t recognize what the song was about then. I loved Armstrong’s voice, and he was a cool old black guy, which in some ways made him more acceptable to my twelve-year-old self. My parents hated my music, rock ‘n’ roll, so I hated their music, even though it didn’t have a name. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee were all oldster crooners to me from way back when. Somewhere from being young to growing old, I learn to love their music too.

I’ve been listening to as many versions of “Hello Dolly” I can find on Spotify. I’ve reached an age where I love to hear how music is interpreted by different arrangements. When I was growing up peer-pressure convinced me to shun music that wasn’t written and composed by the performer. Back in the sixties, at the beginning of the singer-songwriter era, we felt it was inauthentic for an artist to sing other people’s songs. That was silly. All the great rock ‘n’ roll I loved in the 1950s and early 1960s was usually written by lyricists working with composers and performed by solo artists and groups. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started out doing covers.

One of the best features of Spotify is to search on song titles to find all the cover versions of a song. A great song can have over a hundred different recordings. I’ve had two versions of “Hello Dolly” in my “Top 1000” playlist for years – the one by Louis Armstrong and the other by Bobby Darin. For some reason this weekend I played over a dozen versions of “Hello Dolly!” I never got tired of it and was constantly delighted by the different arrangements, instruments, and singers.  Thinking about why I enjoyed this song so much was very revealing in so many ways, both about the song and it’s many arrangements, and about myself. The whole listening experience was enlightening about growing older. And, as I listened to the lyrics over and over Dolly Levi came to life.

Dolly Levi existed before the song, Broadway musical and Hollywood movie. Thornton Wilder created Dolly Gallagher Levi for The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938, but it was inspired by earlier plays. Wilder revised the play and retitled it The Matchmaker which premiered in London in 1954 and New York in 1955. Ruth Gordon played Dolly first on Broadway before Shirley Booth played her on film in 1958.

Then on January 16, 1964, a Broadway musical, Hello Dolly! was created from the play with Carol Channing as the original singing Dolly Levi. This is where the songs I keep playing originated. However, there are two original versions, one sung by Dolly in the play with a chorus of waiters. It runs for about six minutes. In late 1963 at the producers request Louis Armstrong recorded a different version of the stage “Hello Dolly!” from the male point of view as if one of the waiters got a solo. Armstrong’s version was released on January 1964 and eventually breaking The Beatles three-song streak of holding the #1 position of Billboard Hot 100. This was his most successful hit song, and it stayed at the top of the charts for nine weeks.

After Carol Channing, many famous singers and actresses have played Dolly Levi. There’s a long thread on Broadway World about Dolly Levi’s age. The Barbra Streisand fans rationalize Dolly should be in her twenties because Streisand was 26 when she played Dolly, but they seem to naively miss the point of the play and lyrics. Dolly is a woman of a certain age, one who wants to hear her favorite songs from way back when, one who went away into her personal haze, one who has come back hoping tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days. The role was written for Ethel Merman, who would have been 56 in 1964. She turned it down but accepted it when she was 62. It turns out Bette Midler is the oldest Dolly Levi, at 71. Carol Channing was 43 when she began the role, but 74 the last time she played it.

I think Dolly Levi’s story is supposed to be about being older and looking back, and that’s how I feel about why I like the song so much. I supposed for realism sake, Dolly should be in her forties, maybe fifties, an age I’m well past, but like Dolly, I love to hear old songs from way back when. I still want tomorrow to be brighter than today. In other words, I’ve finally reached an age where the song’s meaning is at it’s most significant perspective.

But it’s not just the words that make me contemplate the perspectives of age. The various Broadway recordings of the play and its revivals have one kind of sound. A 1960s Broadway orchestra sound that took me a lifetime to appreciate. I first got into jazz in the early 1970s, which took me back through the decades until I could enjoy ragtime. Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly!” has a banjo and a ragtime/Dixieland feel, also reminding me of Armstrong’s best music of the 1930s. Many versions have the arrangement of Las Vegas acts from the 1950s and 1960s, like those by Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. There’s a version by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a version with strings for the Lawrence Welk state of mind, and there’s even a version sung in French by Petula Clark. Harry Connick Jr. even brings a modern interpretation.

I’ve made a playlist of “Hello Dolly!” covers. I hope you have Spotify to hear it. (You can sign up for the free account if you don’t.) Crank up the volume. The music sounds best played loud over large surround-sound speakers. It still sounds wonderful on headphones but I prefer the aural soundstage created by speakers. The song evokes happiness and is upbeat which explains its enduring popularity. Most of the musical arrangements are for big bands or orchestras, although it works well with small combos. The various arrangements and Broadway recordings show how a good melody and lyrics can be creatively interpreted in endless ways.

The longer versions are how the song is performed by lead actresses on stage with a chorus of waiters. The shorter versions are usually male solo singers, although some female vocalists sing the short version. It also helps to see how the song was choreographed.

I chose this Bette Midler clip because of the quality of the film clip and how well it shows the staging of the song. I wished I could have found a film clip of Carol Channing from 1964.

Most people listen to music as a background filler. I listen to music like I’m intently watching a movie. Most people can’t get into a crazily obsessed state of mind like I can. It takes patience, practice, and concentration. I kid my friends that they have ants in their pants because they can’t just sit and listen to music. I’ve written this essay for them, to try and explain why I can sit absolutely still for an hour mesmerized by one song played twelve times. When you get deep into a song, time slows down and there is so much to discover.

JWH

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A Life in Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I’ve always known that science fiction was an important aspect of my life, but I didn’t know how important until I read The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl, a memoir he wrote back in 1977 about his life in science fiction. This book isn’t in print, you’ll have to order it used, but the first three chapters are available online at Baen Books.

I got to spend a couple hours with Fred Pohl in the early 1970s. I wish I had known everything that was in his book then because I would have pestered him with a thousand questions. At the time I only knew him as the co-author of The Space Merchants with C. M. Kornbluth. I knew he had written several novels with Kornbluth and also with Jack Williamson. This was well before his famous books Man Plus (1976) and Gateway (1977). I think I had read his solo novel The Age of the Pussyfoot and owned a copy of A Plague of Pythons. I probably knew he had once edited Galaxy and If, a couple of my favorite magazines. Back when I met Pohl, along with James Gunn and John Brunner after they appeared at a conference at my university, my college roommate Greg Bridges and I got to sit with them at lunch. I knew Fred Pohl was fairly famous in science fiction, but I had no idea just how famous. I now understand why Brunner and Gunn question Pohl so intently. Years later, I was more impressed with Pohl for Gateway and his later novels, but he was never a big favorite of mine. He is now.

After reading The Way the Future Was I realized he was one of the major figures in the history of science fiction, at least or maybe more important than Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov or even John W. Campbell. Explaining why I now believe that will take some time. I will have to give a quick history of my own relationship with science fiction to connect the dots.

I started reading science fiction in 1962. My father was in the Air Force and I changed schools often. I generally always made a new best friend, but what kept me sane was science fiction. My parents were alcoholics, and I had rejected religion at age 12, so I used science fiction as my guide to life. The fiction part of SF was my mythology, and the genre’s history became my family history. Science fiction writers were the rock stars and founding fathers of my world. Over almost sixty years I’ve put together a rather detail history of science fiction in my head. It’s still constantly growing and expanding. Reading The Way the Future Was showed me that Fred Pohl was intimately active in most of it, almost as if he was a time traveler intentionally trying to experience it all.

Wonder-Stories-Quarterly-Summer-1930Hugo Gernsback began the science fiction genre by publishing Amazing Stories in April 1926, but soon lost control of the magazine, and started another magazine Science Wonder Stories in June 1929. Astounding Stories of Super-Science began it’s run in January 1930. The earliest science fiction fans, sometimes called First Fandom, all began reading science fiction about this time. Fred Pohl discovered science fiction in the Summer 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly. Pohl wrote, “I opened it up. The irremediable virus entered my veins.”

Over the decades I have read many memoirs and autobiographies of science fiction writers recounting the same experience of discovering science fiction in the 1930s. I discovered the science fiction magazine in the 1960s, and they often included short histories or biographies that recounted this knowledge. For almost sixty years I’ve been reading these chronicles, and The Way the Future Was is one of the best. Pohl begins with his discovery of science fiction and goes on to explain his adventures in the Science Fiction League (the first effort to organize SF fandom), of publishing fanzines in their earliest days, to starting the legendary science fiction club The Futurians, and the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939.

By the time Pohl was nineteen, he was editing Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories, and just before WWII, he became an assistant editor for Popular Publications, the largest publisher of pulp magazines. After the war, Pohl became a literary agent for most of the famous science fiction writers of the early 1950s. He was also one of the co-founders of the Hydra Club, another legendary SF club. His third wife was Judith Merril. That chapter also tells about his connections all the early book publishers of science fiction, including Doubleday, Gnome Press, and Ballantine Books. The in 1960 he became the editor of Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, and International Science Fiction until 1969, buying some of the best science fiction of the decade and discovering many new writers that have since become famous. I don’t know why John W. Campbell gets all the attention as the great SF magazine editor of the genre, someone needs to write Pohl’s biography.

The Way the Future Was explores many territories, but actually stops before Pohl became really successful as an SF novelist. It’s a shame he didn’t update it before he died in 2013. However, Pohl was close friends and good friends with all the major and minor writers of science fiction and has tons of wonderful anecdotes to tell. He was also a successful lecturer and often appeared on TV and radio, which provided other great stories. All-in-all, Frederik Pohl was very close to most of the significant events and people in science fiction from 1930-1977.

One reason I liked The Way the Future Was is because I have met many of the people Pohl wrote about. Of course, just barely. In nearly all cases I saw these people at science fiction conventions. Sometimes I’d get to chat a few words with them and shake their hands after a lecture. One time I was selling books at a convention and Donald Wollheim stopped to look over my dealer’s table, even bought a book, and we chatted. I forgot what book he bought. I was always on the distant periphery of science fiction, but I still felt a kinship with these people. They were the clan I identified with most, and Pohl’s book reminded me how I felt about that kinship. I always daydreamed of becoming a science fiction writer and getting closer to the clan. I never did. The Way the Future Was has reminded me of what I missed. It made me sad but in a wistful kind of way.

JWH

 

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Young vs. Old Voters

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 13, 2019

I’m using statistics from Pew Research Center’sAn early look at the 2020 electorate.” I’ve graphed them so blue is older voters, light green the younger voters, and middle-age voters are dark green. There is a certain symmetry to this graph. I’m going to “borrow” a PEW graph that shows the change vectors of each generation.

population trends

It’s obvious that Baby Boomer and Silent generations are in decline, but if you look closer, Millennial and Gen X generations have already started their decline. You’d think the 2020 election should reflect a generation shift.

If you look at PEW’s other graph in that article,

Voters by ethnic groups

you’ll see the shift that Republicans fear. Why do Republicans keep alienating minorities? Haven’t they even considered embracing diversity?

Finally, if we consider gender,

Voters by gender

where we see that woman voters are also increasing.

I have no way to predict how the U.S. 2020 presidential election will go. There are too many factors. But if population demographics are good indicators, then youth, minorities, and women should play a bigger role. But are they a large enough factor for Democrats to shun running another old white guy? Which side of the graph should the Democrats bet on?

Trump won in 2016 by finding the right dissatisfaction in America. I think that same dissatisfied voting block still exists, but are they satisfied with Trump? Many independent voters voted for Obama and then Trump because they hoped for significant change. Should the Democrats pick someone promising to make big changes? What do younger voters – liberals, conservatives, independents – really want?

We never seem to know the deciding issue in a U.S. presidential election until after its over. The face-palm slap factor is always a black swan that surprises us. You’d think with all the artificial intelligence out there that data scientists could tell us ahead of time. But I doubt they will.

As of now, I’m going to bet that the 2020 election will be about youth. I’ve been reading articles lately about climate change depression. Young people are bummed out about the future, and who can blame them? I’m guessing they might be the reactionaries in the 2020 election. Maybe I feel this because I don’t want to see the young giving up on the future. Climate change isn’t the end of the world, but voters who don’t vote about the future could be.

JWH

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Why Don’t I Do What I Know Is Good For Me?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, July 12, 2019

From all the studies I’ve read, I’d be a much healthier person if I ate a plant-based diet, and regularly lifted weights and did aerobic exercises. So, why don’t I?

I’ve never been a very disciplined person even though I know from limited experience that being disciplined has its rewards. If I eat right and exercise I feel better than when I don’t. Now that I’m getting older, the importance of health is becoming much too obvious. Yet, I do less to help myself. Why?

Popular wisdom now nags us that inactivity is as bad as smoking. I was disciplined enough to not smoke, so why can’t I make myself stay active? I’ve been a rather inactive bookworm my whole life. It’s hard to believe that my Walter Mitty ways are killing me. Laying around daydreaming feels perfectly natural to me. But I must admit that my energy levels are dwindling as the years go by. Not only do want to do less as I get older, but my muscle strength and overall stamina are fading too. But isn’t that plain old getting old? Can diet and exercise equal rejuvenation?

I tell myself to exercise more. I do. And I feel pretty good. However, naps are more alluring than ever. My doctor says all my blood work numbers are good. She says trying using the exercise bike twenty minutes a day. I do. Maybe I feel a tiny bit better, but I still love naps and daydreaming, and I can’t lift furniture or untwist jar tops like I used to. Is that because I’m racing towards 70? Or because I’m not moving enough?

I wonder if lifting weights or going to the gym would give me back my strength and stamina?. But it’s so much nicer to just read. I ask myself if going to the gym is the solution, why isn’t every oldster not in tip-top shape?

I have my best luck sticking with physical therapy exercises, doing Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, and walking. I gave my exercycle to my wife. I got rid of my big Bowflex machine because it was just too damn big. And I’m thinking about giving away my little Bowflex machine because I’ve found the back pains it cures are also cured by the Miranda Esmonde-White exercises.

Since I hate going to the gym and I’m getting annoyed exercise equipment, I’ve been telling myself to embrace body-weight exercises. I’ve been collecting how-to articles, but I haven’t put them into practice yet. I know it would be good for me, but I can’t make myself start.

I’ve reached a state of equilibrium with my diet. I no longer pursue the plant-based diet that I did after I got my stent. I eat cheese, eggs, and yogurt. I eat some sweats, but not much. I’m still a vegetarian – I have been since 1969. This is my 50th anniversary. But I just can’t make myself go vegan even though I think I’d be healthier and live longer.

In other words, I’ll eat and exercise moderately, but I won’t make a big effort to become healthier. Why? I spend between 20-60 minutes a day exercising. If I spent another 30 minutes I might have more strength, stamina, and longevity, but I won’t go that distance. Why?

I know people who are physical fitness fanatics, spending hours each day exercising, and I know people who are epic couch potatoes, who never exercise or even try to eat right. I’m not sure if there’s any consistency in who is healthier. Both groups are more energetic than me, and both groups suffer from various random health crises.  I know exercise nuts who have gotten heart attacks, strokes, and cancer, and I know do-nothings living into their nineties still cramming down the junk food nightly.

I think the illusion is we want to control our fates. I hate that I’m losing my stamina, strength, and energy, but maybe that’s the fate of this particular body.

My new diet is to stop eating anything that makes me feel bad within 24-hours. I have a whole list of foods and drinks that my body doesn’t like. I also exercise just enough to avoid aches and pains. I can tell when my body needs some stretching or activity. After that, I can’t make myself do things on the assumption that I’ll live longer. There’s just no feedback.

Before I got the stent in my heart I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was dying. That was a wonderful incentive to do something. But that was back in 2013. I now avoid fatty foods. If I eat too much fat I can feel a lack of oxygen. That inspires me. Feeling pain in my back or numbness in my legs inspires me. But the pleasantness of a nice nap while listening to music, or the contentment of sitting and reading doesn’t inspire me to move.

JWH

 

 

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Retelling Space History in 1080i

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

50th anniversaries are big deals. This month is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon. I started following NASA’s space program on May 5, 1961, when my 4th-grade class listened to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight broadcast over the classroom speaker. I was living Hollywood, Florida, just down the coast from Cape Canaveral. After that, I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school whenever there was a space launch so I could watch it on TV. I watched all the Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches with Walter Cronkite – except for Apollo 8. That I got to see live.

Over the years and decades, I have read countless books and watched countless documentaries about the space program, and the history of rocketry. Last night, PBS began a 3-part series commemorating the first moon landing called Chasing the Moon. I almost didn’t watch it because I figured I had seen and heard everything. But, boy am I glad I did tune in.

PBS has dug up films and facts I hadn’t seen or heard. And it was spectacular seeing these old film clips on my 65″ Sony high definition TV. I know the Apollo 11 event was filmed by dozens of news outlets, so why shouldn’t they have different films to show? But I could swear the take-off of Apollo 11 from the NASA’s cameras seemed new to me. I’m sure they had cameras from every angle possible, so why shouldn’t there be a unique one for the 50th anniversary? However, I wondered if the launch shot was from a later Saturn 5.

Chasing the Book - bookI also wonder if after 50 years I’ve just forgotten most of what I once saw? And maybe seeing the launch sequence in 1080i on a 65″ HDTV made it look different from all the small CRT screens I used over most of those years.

There were also some facts presented that I don’t remember ever knowing before either. For instance, NASA had trained a black astronaut, Ed Dwight Jr. at the request of the JFK White House, but for political reasons was left out of the second cohort of astronauts, the one that included Neil Armstrong. Dwight was sent to be trained by Chuck Yeager as a test pilot, but Yaeger told all the other pilots to give him the cold shoulder.

Another surprising story was the JFK tried twice to get Nikita Khrushchev to make the space race a joint expedition to the Moon. I knew that Kennedy wasn’t interested in space and only promoted the idea to compete with the Russians, but I don’t remember ever reading about him trying to reduce the cost of the mission by co-opting the Russians. Wouldn’t history have been amazingly different if Nikita had agreed?

Chasing the Moon covers all the history I remember, but with slightly different details and film clips. It starts with Werner von Braun and Sputnik. However, the book that goes with the documentary starts back in 1903 and covers earlier rocket pioneers and the influence of science fiction. I wished the documentary had started there too.

Be sure and tune in tonight for part two. Many stations will be repeating part one, so fire up your DVRs. And the PBS streaming app should have it too. Wednesday, NOVA will be about the future of Moon exploration and colonization.

There is another reason to watch these 50th-anniversary celebrations. I’m starting to see the shaping of history. Sure it was great to be a 17-year-old kid watching the first Moon landing, but it’s also been great to see its history unfold over fifty years. I realize so much has been left out of the story. We always get the gung-ho glamor version, but the PBS documentary hints at much more. Besides covering the lost story of a black astronaut, they show clips of African Americans at the launch protesting. They came there on a mule-drawn wagon. The documentary also hints at the dirty pork-barrelling politics behind the scenes or how hard we worked to cover up the fact that our space program originated with Nazis. I didn’t know this, but the Russians eventually sent all their captured Nazis back to Germany. Of course, I knew about von Braun, since I have read biographies about him, but even those I expect were cleaned up.

There are still two parts to go and I wonder if they will try to answer the really big question that we always avoid. If going to the Moon was so great, why didn’t we keep going, why didn’t we go to Mars? We went to the Moon in nine years, but we haven’t gone beyond low Earth’s orbit since 1972. That 50th anniversary is only three years away. Was the final frontier just a cold-war political stunt? Are the plans to return to the Moon just another political keeping up with the Jones?

JWH

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Echo in the Canyon – Nostalgia Denied

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 6, 2019

I went to Echo in the Canyon expecting it to be a documentary about 1960s musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon. Instead, I got Jakob Dylan Sings the Oldies. Now there is nothing wrong with that, except I never got that impression when I saw the trailer at the theater last week.

Evidently, Jakob Dylan and friends Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Powers, Norah Jones, and Regina Spektor decided to put on a concert singing old songs that came from the artists living in Laurel Canyon back when and then turned it into a film project. We see them discussing the songs over a coffee table of old albums, rehearsing the songs in the studio and then playing them live. In between this, we see Jakob Dylan driving around L.A. talking to all the old musicians that are still living and giving us some clips from the past. And for some strange reason, they kept showing clips from a 1969 film called Model Shop. Echo in the Canyon is a bit about the past, but mostly it’s about the present looking back.

Now, this is cool. Younger generations of musicians often love to pay tribute to the past by creating albums of oldies. Bob Dylan recently produced Shadows in the Night where he sings Frank Sinatra songs. Or when Natalie Cole did Unforgettable… with Love, singing her dad’s songs. Or when John Lennon did Rock ‘n’ Roll singing his favorites hits from the 1950s. I actually like covers. I loved when Bruce Springsteen would sing covers at the end of his concerts in the 1970s. And I really enjoy picking a favorite song and listening to all the covers of it on Spotify. I’ve heard about a hundred versions of “All Along the Watchtower” that way.

The trouble is, the covers for Echo in the Canyon are bland and over-produced. The whole time while watching this film I ached to hear the originals. Now that might just be me, the film is highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes and two of my younger friends have seen it and loved it.

I admire cover tunes that take an old song and redo it in a very original way, such as when Jimi Hendrix sang “All Along the Watchtower” or when Lili Haydn redid “Maggot Brains.” Jakob Dyan and friends did fairly straight covers. These are very talented artists but they don’t shine on these old songs. Part of the problem is the original songs were more delicately produced with fewer instruments, and these modern versions have too many musicians playing on them. They have a modern Americana big group sound, which I think distracts from the lyrics.

For the most part, Echo in the Canyon doesn’t cover the biggest hits but picks album cuts instead. I thought that was an excellent approach but it means they also picked songs fewer people liked. I loved all of these songs back in the day. However, many of these songs were originally idiosyncratically produced, giving them highly distinctive performances. Jakob Dylan and friends reproduce them all in the same kind of jangling-guitar stereotype of folk-rock.

I’m not sure how much these younger musicians really liked these old songs. Watching them discuss the tunes while flipping through old LPs didn’t reveal much passion. Their body language didn’t quite show enthusiasm. What I read was, “OMG, school report” as if this project was something they had to endure. They give a respectful history report on our generation but I never believed they play these albums at home.

Echo in the Canyon is worth seeing, but if you’re a Baby Boomer, don’t expect a lot of reliving the past. It’s fun to see a younger generation examine our times, but it’s also kind of disappointing. I often see young people with T-shirts celebrating musicians from the 1960s, but 95% of the time it’s The Beatles. I loved that The Byrds got a lot of recognition in this film. They were my favorite group in the 1960s, and Buffalo Springfield was second. The Beatles only came in third with me.

Echo in the Canyon has even made an official Spotify playlist with songs from the movie and soundtrack mixed in with the originals. It’s a great way to compare the two. I hope you have Spotify and can play it. By the way, everyone should have Spotify, at least the free version. It’s becoming the Adobe Acrobat of playing music on the web.

Actually, I prefer all these artists doing their own original work. That’s where they are exceptional, and one day even younger artists will be covering their tunes. And probably fans growing up with their generation will grumble about those covers too.

JWH

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The 2020 Election Will Be A Referendum

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 1, 2019

The 2020 election will be a referendum for a single issue, we just don’t know what that issue is yet. If Bernie Sanders or Elizebeth Warren get the nomination the referendum will be:

  • Vote Yes for Medicare-for-All
  • Vote No for Medicare-for-All

Right now, the Democrats think it will be:

  • Vote Yes for Trump
  • Vote No for Trump

Every Democrat in the debates offered a freebie as if they could buy voters. But that’s not going to work. Free education or forgiveness of college loans will only appeal to a fraction of the voters, so it won’t work as a clear decisive referendum. Medicare-for-All would affect every voter, that’s why it’s possible referendum question.

The Democrats could pick a vital issue and make a stand, for example:

  • Vote Yes to Stop Climate Change
  • Vote No to Keep Doing Nothing

Which would essentially be a referendum that says:

  • Save the future
  • Fuck the future

But I think the Democrats are afraid to commit to such an issue. To save the future would require sacrifice and we aren’t the Greatest Generation. We’re the Greed Generation.

Bernie Sanders wants Medicare-for-All. It’s logical. It would eventually save money. It’s pro-equality. And it’s egalitarian. But it’s not a critical issue to the future. The future doesn’t depend on equality of medical care. Only those issues that will destroy us in the future are universally applicable. Of course, the issue of climate change is global, so our greed affects a lot of people who can’t vote in the U.S. 2020 election.

Donald Trump and his flock have decided the referendum is:

  • It’s every person for themselves
  • The parable of the fishes and loaves

I expect the Republicans to find ways to spread their “Think Selfish” philosophy to all voters, even to voters who never voted Republican before. I find it rather ironic that Republicans live by a Darwinian philosophy. They say they’re Christian, but they live by survival-of-the-fittest — and let the weak die.

Politics is not logical. I keep thinking we should be logical, but it’s much easier to be selfish. Not that I’m a saint. I’m quite selfish. I just think we should be logical just enough to avoid self-destruction. You’d think that would be considered a healthy kind of selfishness. But it’s like that psychological experiment where they offered kids a choice between a cookie they could eat now or two cookies if they waited for fifteen minutes. Most kids took the immediate cookie.

JWH

 

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60 Years – From Treasure Island to Black Sails

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 22, 2019

Sixty years ago, back in 1959, I read my first book, Treasure Island. Actually, my mother read it with me. I was seven and in the third grade. It was around Halloween because I went to a costume party dressed as Long John Silver. I’m not sure, but my faulty memory tells me I picked Treasure Island to read because I had seen the 1934 movie version on television, the one with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. I have reread the book and seen the old movie many times since. They are burned into my memory.

Sixty years later, in 2019 I’m watching a TV series called Black Sails (2014-2017) that features several characters that share names with characters in Treasure IslandLong John Silver, Captain Flint, Billy Bones, and Ben Gunn. The producers of the show consider it a prequel to the novel. If you haven’t read the book or seen one of the many filmed versions of Treasure Island it hardly matters, but if you have, knowing the character’s future adds to the fun of watching the show. To make the show even more delicious, many of the other characters are based on historical people from the Golden Age of Pirates.

Black Sails is not your typical pirate movie (well an extended TV series of 4 seasons with a total of 38 episodes). Black Sails spends most of its time developing characters and a complicated plot arc. Sure, it has sea battles, sword fights, treasure chests, and waving skull and crossbones, but it’s mostly about business. Pirate captains are elected. They keep their leadership only as long as their bookkeeper keeps them in the black. Pirates steal on the high seas but fence their booty in Nassau which is resold in the American colonies. Everyone is concerned with their own bottom line. Nassau belongs to England but its colonial governors are always corrupted. The main theme of the story is how some pirates and some Englishmen want to make Nassau legit like the other colonies.

Captain Flint and Long John Silver

Black Sails does feature a great deal of sex and violence, including plenty of full-frontal nudity, swearing, and gore, so it’s not for children like the original Treasure Island. But it’s also been modernized with several significant roles for women. None of the women characters are from Treasure Island and only one is from history (Anne Bonny).

In Treasure Island, Long John Silver is dishonest, violent, and likable. That’s true of the John Silver character in Black Sails. Captain Flint is a vastly complex character in the show, even its main character, but Captain Flint was just alluded to in Stevenson’s novel, and generally for his monstrous reputation. Black Sails spends much of its time giving Captain Flint a backstory. Billy Bones was not very likable in the book but is very likable in the television show.

Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Edward Teach, and Benjamin Hornigold were real pirates, and it’s worth following their links to read about them at Wikipedia. It’s also worth reading about the Republic of Pirates that the show builds upon that worked out of Nassau, and the pirate code of conduct. These six links will provide a significant history needed to truly appreciate what the show succeeds at doing.

Over my lifetime I’ve become acquainted with many fictional characters that have been legendary or mythic, ones which are constantly recreated and enlarged – Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Jo Marsh, Elizabeth Bennet – so that Black Sails is giving more life to Long John Silver. I like that. Maybe because he’s the character I’ve known the longest.

JWH

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Freak Out! – 51 Years Ahead of Its Time

Is there a word that means the opposite of nostalgia? Here’s a case of remembering something I didn’t like from the past. To further compound the problem, it’s a work of art that satirized what I did love back then.

I wish I could boast that I first discovered Freak Out! from The Mothers of Invention in June of 1966 when it was first released, but I didn’t buy it until 1968. And even then when I played it on my console stereo in my 11th-grade bedroom I kept saying to myself, “WTF?” Of course, back then we didn’t talk in acronyms. I didn’t hate it, but it was too weird-as-shit to like. I eventually got rid of that LP when I sold my record collection to pay for a travel adventure after my dad died in May 1970.

In 1973 and 1974 I went to see Frank Zappa perform live, I believe for the Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe(‘) tours. By then I liked his music because of all the jazz influences but still thought the songs were uncomfortably weird. To be honest, I mostly went to these two concerts because my friend John Williamson was a big Zappa fan.

Over the years I’ve bought a Zappa album here and there but seldom got into them. I do love “Watermelon in Easter Hay” which is on my Spotify all-time-favorite-songs playlist.

For some strange reason, I started playing Freak Out! a couple weeks ago and haven’t stopped. I guess the album was 51 years ahead of its time — at least for me. I mentioned this to a connoisseur of 1955-1975 music I know and he reacted rather badly. I replied, at least you have to admit this music is very creative. Randy said Zappa had no talent whatsoever. That shocked me. Sure in 1968 I might have accepted that criticism, but not in 2019.

This afternoon when I played Freak Out! while eating lunch my wife pleaded with her eyes for me to stop. (She tries very hard to let me have so sonic freedom around the house, but I stopped after I realized how much I was torturing her.)

In the summer of 1966, I was transitioning from the 9th grade to the 10th, and moving from Miami to Charleston, Mississippi. There’s a good reason for not discovering Frank Zappa in the rural deep south. But by 1968 I had returned to Miami and read about this legendary album. But like I said it was too weird for me. I didn’t understand then it was making fun of everything that made me happy. I was wanting to be a hippy when Frank was skewering the whole counter-culture movement along with the clean-cut youth culture. Somehow Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention saw through all the crap that I admired.

I didn’t know enough to dig their combination of creative music and absurdist lyrics. I didn’t know what the avant-garde was back then. And to be confessional again, I still don’t.  I just don’t care much for satire or humor in music. However, something has changed, and the gestalt of most of the songs have begun to work on me. I actually crave to hear them.

Why at 67 has this silly nonsense become something deeply real?

Freak Out - Inside

Like I said, it would be cool to brag that I’ve been into The Mothers of Invention since they premiered, but even though I only bought the album two years late, I’m over a half-a-century getting to like this album. The group did have an auspicious beginning, being the first group to have a double LP for their first album and to produce one of the first concept albums. Supposedly, even The Beatles paid musical tribute to it on their Sgt. Peppers album.

It’s very hard to understand how strange an album like Freak Out! was compared to the other albums of 1966. Playing it along with Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Sounds of Silence, Fresh Cream, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Fifth Dimension, Buffalo Springfield, Blues Breakers, Sunshine Superman, or even The Monkees,  you can feel its both a part of a larger musical transformation and a reaction to it.

Everyone remembers “For What’s It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield about the Sunset Strip curfew riots, just look at how often it’s been used on a soundtrack. It was recorded on December 5, 1966. But why don’t people remember Frank Zappa’s song “Trouble Every Day” written in 1965 about the Watts riots?

“Trouble Every Day” is far angrier but also captures the soundtrack of the mid-60s like “For What It’s Worth” but it’s never been used to accent a movie that I can tell. I love “For What It’s Worth” but it was a protest song about young hippies not getting to party while “Trouble Every Day” was about a major race riot. “Trouble Every Day” criticizes far more and with more exciting music. In comparison, the new folk-rock sound of “For What It’s Worth” feels kind of wimpy today.

“Freak Out!” had all types of songs that anticipated future trends. Just listen to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder.” Doesn’t that sound like Sha Na Na, a group that didn’t form until 1969? Zappa was making fun of a nostalgic movement that hadn’t even begun. Listening to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder” in 2019 seems even more relevant. On Facebook so many people my age post photos and music clips of Do-Wop nostalgia. One of my friends even said her retirement life was recreating her high school days.

I love “How Could I Be Such A Fool?” but it makes me wonder just how honest we all were about our teenage loves. The music of this tune presses some button in me and I often put it on repeat play. Why was Frank Zappa so cynical when so young?

And isn’t “I’m Not Satisfied” a great teenage angst anthem at least as good as “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle?

Why wasn’t it a hit single in 1966? It certainly reminds me of my 15-year-old emotional life in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966.

Zappa rerecorded several of the Freak Out! songs in 1968 as Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, to parody in even more creative musicality the 1950s rock era. I get the feeling that Zappa both loved this music, but also realized it came from a shallow culture.

So what is the word that describes anti-nostalgia? Maybe the word needs to convey both wistful fondness while recognizing what we love so much was essentially childish and unenlightened. And maybe the word should also mean demystifying nostalgia.

The 1960s was a weird time. It was both exciting and frightening. It was creative and brutal. Online I find so much nostalgia for that era, but few people remember the viciousness only the unthinking carelessness that was so fun.

JWH

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Why Did Martin Scorsese Donald Trump Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 15, 2019

After watching Martin Scorsese new film Rolling Thunder Revue on Netflix I read The New Yorker’s piece by Richard Brody entitled ‘“Rolling Thunder Revue,” Reviewed: Martin Scorsese’s Slippery Chronicle of Bob Dylan in Concert.’ It seems all my favorite parts of the film were made up. I had been lied to, I had been Donald Trumped.

When Bob Dylan showed up in New York City at the beginning of the 1960s he became infamous for lying about his past. He told such tall tales that the people around him had to constantly access his reality distortion field. Ever since then reporters, biographers, and documentary filmmakers have sought the truth about Bob Dylan in the same way modern theological scholars have tried to unearth the truth about the historical Jesus.

Whenever I read the rare book that interviews Dylan or watch an even rarer documentary featuring Bob Dylan I hope to gain a bit of insight into the Dylan enigma. So is Scorsese’s film a documentary or mockumentary? What is fact or fiction? Is it 20 Feet from Stardom or This Is Spinal Tap? Scorsese chronicles the Rolling Thunder Revue which itself was a circus of make-believe that Dylan tried to put over that might have been great performance art or a creative fiasco. Should I judge Scorsese harshly for lying to me when he was trying to make sense of a bigger lie? Or was he merely trying to join in the same kind of fun and pull Dylanesque gags too? Dylan and all his friends took on assumed names and characters during the tour – but was that that meant to entertain or divert us from thinking about Dylan as Prophet of the Babyboomers.

But here’s the thing. Ever since Donald Trump crowned himself Emperor of Lies it’s very hard to take any kind of lying in fun. When I was growing up people generally shunned anyone who lied. No one likes to discover they’ve been lied to. Donald Trump is such a large black hole of lying that his massive lies rip apart reality. We have so much fake news and deep fake films that any kind of lying for fun is hard to take. Donald Trump has made any kind of lying a horrendous offense no matter how small or innocent. As far as I’m concerned he’s even ruined Santa Claus.

What’s even worse is how Donald Trump has made lying acceptable to tens of millions of Americans. But isn’t that what we all do? We rationalize which liars we accept. Christianity has made a religion out of piling on the fantasy. What truth Jesus might have said has been distorted by two thousand years of compounded lying. Donald Trump has become the international standard for measuring liars. So when I compare Scorsese’s little lies to his, they don’t seem so big. I loathe Republicans for accepting and promoting Donald Trump’s lies, so I now hate to see myself forgiving any liars. Plus, there’s the whole A Million Little Pieces by James Frey ordeal. We really want our nonfiction to be honest.

On the other hand, we all know colorful characters who play the class clown for life and we forgive them for their fabrications. Dylan has always passed himself off as a jester. In the mid-sixties when his fans were about to turn him into a guru of political truth, a Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Dylan freaked out. He began swearing he was just a song and dance man, a roving minstrel that sang clever tunes for your amusement.

Dylan retreated from the limelight after a 1966 motorcycle accident that some claimed may or may not have happened. He knew what the world did to their saviors. That was quite wise. When he returned to touring, first with The Band in 1974, and then with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 he had to develop a new persona. The trouble was, even after he stopped writing protest songs that inspired a generation about injustice, he still wrote songs his fans felt spoke the truth with a capital T. Everyone wanted to be near this modern-day Jesus and decode remarkable parables.

Watching the films Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, and now Rolling Thunder Revue shows what a crazy hurricane of true friends, fake friends, crazy fans, and sycophants that swirl around the man. No wonder Dylan is sick to death of trying to explain himself and enjoys making up his own myths. We know Dylan is a genius from the lyrics of his songs. He is closer to Shakespeare than any of us. Yet, I can’t help but feel his lying makes him like Donald Trump. Trump really has ruined tall-tale-telling, at least for me, if not for everybody.

All of this is not to pan Rolling Thunder Review. If you’re a Dylan fan I highly recommend it, just be careful being taken in by Sharon Stone, Stefan Van Dorp, and other trickster characters. I plan on watching the film again after studying the actual events. The trouble is original Rolling Thunder Revue was chaos. The original tour was meant to produce a film, but the result, Renaldo and Clara was so bad it’s has been hidden away for decades. Richard Brody did get to see it and says:

But too often Scorsese seems to be joining Dylan in dancing delicately around the past. After seeing “Rolling Thunder Revue,” I watched “Renaldo and Clara” for the first time—and I wish I hadn’t, because its strengths only serve to highlight Scorsese’s failures. Dylan and Sara, as the fictional Renaldo and Clara—a couple whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by a visit from another woman, the so-called Woman in White (played by Baez)—perform in scenes of psychodramatic intensity and romantic anguish. “Renaldo and Clara” also features a remarkable set of concert performances from the Rolling Thunder tour—and Dylan (who edited the film with Alk) treats them with a finer and keener touch than Scorsese does.

Now we have Scorsese’s film that covers up the original film. I now wish they’d release Renaldo and Clara to DVD so everyone else can compare to the two accounts. Trying to decipher Dylan is like trying to solve any of the major mysteries of history. It’s a fun task, but also akin to seeking gold in El Dorado.

JWH

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What If Human Memory Worked Like A Computer’s Hard Drive?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Human memory is rather unreliable. What is seen and heard is never recalled perfectly. Over time what we do recall degrades. And quite often we can’t remember at all. What would our lives be like if our brains worked like computer hard drives?

Imagine that the input from our five senses could be recorded to files that are perfect digital transcriptions so when we play them back we’d see, hear, feel, taste, and touch exactly what we originally sensed?

Human brains and computers both seem to have two kinds of memory. In people, we call in short and long term memory. With computers, it’s working memory and storage.

My friend Linda recently attended her 50th high school reunion and met with about a dozen of her first-grade classmates. Most of them had few memories of that first year of school in September 1957. Imagine being able to load up a day from back then into working memory and then attend the reunion. Each 68-year-old fellow student could be compared to their 6-year-old version in great detail. What kind of emotional impact would that have produced compared to the emotions our hazy fragments of memory create now?

Both brains and hard drives have space limitations. If our brains were like hard drive, we’d have to be constantly erasing memory files to make room for new memory recordings. Let’s assume a hard drive equipment brain had room to record 100 days of memory.

If you lived a hundred years you could save one whole day from each year or about four minutes from every day for each year. What would you save? Of course, you’d sacrifice boring days to add their four minutes to more exciting days. So 100 days of memory sounds like both a lot and a little.

Can you think about what kind of memories you’d preserve? Most people would save the memory files of their weddings and the births of their children for sure, but what else would they keep? If you fell in love three times, would you keep memories of each time? If you had sex with a dozen different people, would you keep memories of all twelve? At what point would you need two hours for an exciting vacation and would be willing to erase the memory of an old friend you hadn’t seen in years? Or the last great vacation?

Somehow our brain does this automatically with its own limitations. We don’t have a whole day each year to preserve, but fleeting moments. Nor do we get to choose what to save or toss.

I got to thinking about this topic when writing a story about robots. They will have hard drive memories, and they will have to consciously decide what to save or delete. I realized they would even have limitations too. If they had 4K video cameras for eyes and ears, that’s dozens of megabytes of memory a second to record. Could we ever invent an SSD drive that could record a century of experience? What if robots needed one SSD worth of memory each day and could swap them out? Would they want to save 36,500 SDD drives to preserve a century of existence? I don’t think so.

Evidently, memory is not a normal aspect of reality in the same way intelligent self-awareness is rare. Reality likes to bop along constantly mutating but not remembering all its permutations. When Hindu philosophers teach us to Be Here Now, it’s both a rejection of remembering the past and anticipating the future.

Human intelligence needs memory. I believe sentience needs memory. Compassion needs memory. Think of people who have lost the ability to store memories. They live in the present but they’ve lost their identity. Losing either short or long term memory shatters our sense of self. The more I think about it, the more I realize the importance of memory to who we are.

What if technology could graph hard drive connections to our bodies and we could store our memories digitally? Or, what if geneticists could give us genes to create biological memories that are almost as perfect? What new kinds of consciousness would having better memories produce? There are people now with near perfect memories, but they seem different. What have they lost and gained?

Time and time again science fiction creates new visions of Humans 2.0. Most of the time science fiction pictures our replacements with ESP powers. Comic books imagine mutants with super-powers. I’ve been wondering just what better memories would produce. I think a better memory system would be more advantageous than ESP or super-powers.

JWH

 

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Is Travel Evil?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 4, 2019

I read two works this morning that makes me ask if travel is evil. The first was a short story “A Full Life” by Paolo Bacigalupi at the MIT Technology Review. I’m going to spoil the story since I doubt most of you will take the time to read it. It’s about a young girl named Rue, 15, who moves across the country several times as her parents seek work fleeing climate change catastrophes. Bacigalupi pours it on thick and heavy, showing weather-related heartache in Colorado, Austin, Miami, New York, and Boston. Poor Rue is one unlucky girl.

With each move, Rue gets encouragement from her grandmother, Nona, who extols the wonderful life she’s lived, of drinking espresso in Italy and meditating in Kyoto. Nona consoles Rue that travel is what makes life worth living each time Rue’s family is forced to move. In the end, Rue comes to hate her grandmother because she realizes all that travel done by Nona’s generation is what destroyed the world for Rue’s generation.

I don’t know if magazines coordinate their publishing efforts, but The New York Times featured this essay, “If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?” by Andy Newman about how travelers are devastating the environment is a perfect afterward for Bacigalupi’s story.

Most people want to do something about climate change, at least theoretically. We just can’t change our habits, the way we live now. I’m sure people in the 19th century that owned slaves knew it was wrong too, but they couldn’t give up their way of life either, so they rationalized, to themselves and each other.

I don’t mean to sound holier than thou, I worry a lot about the future, but I do little to improve it. Does that make us evil? Are we all living some Greek tragedy where we know our fate but can’t avoid it?

I’m currently reading Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone by Astra Taylor. Taylor would interview people asking them to define what democracy meant to them. Everyone defined it in terms of freedom, especially to do what they wanted. None of them felt democracy was about equality, even though in the time of the American and French revolutions, equality was part of the definition. Equality can mean many things, including sharing in the wealth, but also sharing the costs of freedoms.

What Taylor figured out is people want the opportunity to do what they want, and that’s how they defined democracy and freedom. They didn’t care about inequality as long as everyone had equal opportunity. But what are the costs of opportunity?

Democracy doesn’t mean freedom, but rule by the people. It means we’re all responsible for running things. I don’t know why everyone in Taylor’s survey redefines democracy to mean freedom. I guess they figured if we’re running the joint we can do what we want.

I tend to think we all want to do what we want, and we don’t care about the consequences. Is this evil, or just human nature? We may think visiting Venice or Paris is enriching our lives, but what are the costs to everyone else?

My friends keep saying I’m dwelling on depressing topics. And that I must be depressed. I’m not. I’m fascinated by the interesting times in which we live. (A Chinese curse is to condemn your enemy to live in interesting times.) As a kid, I was fascinated by the Titanic. I even wished to time travel back to 1912 to be on that doomed ship. In a way, I’ve gotten my wish. We’re all passengers on the Titanic. I consider problems entertaining challenges. Are there solutions to climate change? Are there ways to travel that don’t doom the future? I think there are.

The most fascinating problem for me is: Will we solve our problems? If we are the rulers, then it’s our job. But I think Taylor’s survey about democracy is more revealing than my first thoughts. Maybe everyone does think democracy means we’re all free to do our own thing.

JWH

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Like and Sharing Society

by James Wallace Harris

Today we like each other by clicking a Facebook icon and share by inviting others to view images and videos that trigger our strong emotions. Oh, we still share by getting together for an activity or like each other with hugs and kisses, but it seems less often, doesn’t it?

In David Brooks’ latest column at The New York Times he says:

When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it became a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.

As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.

That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.

In primitive societies, whole groups would live in one big room. Over time families moved into their own separate dwellings, but often were multigenerational. Then we invented the nuclear family. And now people often live alone in apartments. We connect by computers to create virtual social bonds. It’s kind of weird when you think about it.

This also reminds of the classic 1909 science fiction story by E. M. Forster called “The Machine Stops.” Eighty years before the WWW Forster imagined humans ultimately living alone in rooms connected to each other by a machine. Read this story, it will amaze you.

These trends sound like a sad progression of human evolution, but I believe there are reasons why we’ve chosen our paths. Primitive people worked together with a common goal of survival. Everyone had to contribute. The same was true to a lesser degree during the era of multigenerational families. Even during the early era of nuclear families, we had much to keep us together. But once everyone had a different job that took them into a different direction, and we developed our own personal interests and goals, things came apart. Even as late as the 1950s and 1960s families still had a lot of shared experiences. With only one television parents and kids would gather around it in the evenings. They ate their dinners together while watching Ed Sullivan or Lassie. Kids would go to school, and parents would go to work, but they still found countless shared interests to spend time together.

What separated me from my family in 1962 was a clock radio. But also my father worked two jobs and my mother one, so they disappeared for most of the day. Yet, when they were home, I began retreating to my room to listen to Top 40 Rock ‘n’ Roll and reading science fiction while they watched The Beverly Hillbillies with my sister.

Brooks dates our divergence with the computer, but I think it came earlier with other technologies. When I got that clock radio and my sister got a portable record player we went our different ways. By the 1970s many families had multiple television sets, so each family member took to their separate rooms to watch only what they loved. We stopped making the effort to sit through shows other people loved. In the 1980s personal computers came out and we divided again. Walkmans, MP3 players, audiobooks, tablets, smartphones, they’ve all given us ways to isolate ourselves into pursing highly unique art forms.

Anthologies-web

Think about all the interests and hobbies that only you love. Above is a photo of what currently separates me from other people. My fascination with reading old science fiction short stories and studying their history culls me off from the rest of humanity. By Brooks’ distinction, I’m defined by both print and digital technologies, but I also love hearing these stories read by professional narrators, so that connects me with an oral tradition too. But when I listen, I’m wearing headphones that shut me off from the rest of reality, although I’d love to know someone who’d like to listen to the stories with me.

When Susan, my wife comes home from work we sometimes eat together, and sometimes not. We faithfully watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy that we recorded on our TiVo, and then she goes to the living room to watch her shows and I stay in the den to watch mine. We got married in 1978, and through 2008, we had one television set, and we’d watched the same shows together every night.

In 2008 Susan took a job out of town, and for ten years we watched television separately and we learned exactly the kind of TV that resonated with our personalities. I developed a number of friends who came over to watch TV with me, and I learned that friendship was a VENN diagram of shared TV shows. No two people have exact tastes. When Susan moved back permanently last year she brought her own TV, so we had two. We also had two Rokus, and subscriptions to several streaming TV services that allowed us to watch exactly what we want to watch when we wanted to watch. We had also learned to binge-watch different kinds of shows. Taste in TV now separates us.

We do find other ways to share. We’ve been doing game nights with friends. Last night was a game night, and the four of us all talked about the TV shows we watched. It was kind of funny because our tastes overlapped in various combinations. If I wanted companionship to watch my TV shows, I might need to call a dozen different people, and some nights I’d still be watching TV alone.

When TV was broadcast, most of my friends watched the same shows. Now with over 500 scripted TV shows being produced every year, friends connect by the few unique shows we each share a love to watch. And I often feel I disappoint people when I tell them I don’t like the shows they love. It was damn surprising how much The Game of Thrones united people.

I really enjoy having friends over to watch shows together, but that seldom happens anymore. For ten years my TV buddy Janis and I shared a love of several shows and we’d get together and watch them 3-4 times a week. But Janis has moved to Mexico, and most of my other friends don’t want to come over to watch TV that regularly.

I have a handful of internet friends who also love the old science fiction anthologies, and we have a group email address we use to discuss them. I’m also in two online book clubs where we discuss books daily by email. I guess these replace my water cooler friends from my work days.

Facebook is constantly attacked in the news nowadays, but it’s a very useful tool for keeping up with family and friends. Knowing that someone else likes the same cat videos as I do is nice. Not much of a bond, but at least it’s a shared affinity. What really bonds people is raising a family or a career that forces you to work intimately with other people. Susan and I never had kids, and my work days are over. My friend Mike and I work on a computer/web project together, and that’s a great way to connect.

It’s funny, but I think the single thing that brings me and my friends together now is our collective worry about getting old, and our constant talk of bodily functions. Nothing bonds aging baby boomers like a conversation about constipation.

Lately, I’ve wondered about retirement villages. Would moving to a 55+ community would create new kinds of social bonds? I’ve wondered if it would create the social structures I had back in my K-12 years. Would playing Pickleball and Four Square everyday undo all the specialized isolation that TV and computers created? Who knows, maybe I could find other people to watch Perry Mason, or even share a love of 1950s science fiction like these guys:

JWH

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Abortion and Democracy

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, May 31, 2019

[The above graph is borrowed without permission from this webpage.]

This essay is not about a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy but the impact of passing laws on abortion on our democracy. Right now, many states are passing restrictive laws limiting abortion or even trying to ban it outright. According to the latest Gallup polls, 29% of Americans want abortion legal under any circumstances, 50% legal under conditions, and 18% want abortion made illegal under all circumstances. That means 79% of the nation want women to have the right to choose to some degree, and 18% want to take that right away completely. It also means 68% of the country want to limit abortions in some way. And it also means 47% of the population occupy both extreme ends of the spectrum.

We’re living in times where politically active special interest groups can get laws changed, often against the majority’s will. Is that fair? Shouldn’t the laws in a democracy reflect the will of the majority?

We often teeter between extreme positions rather than compromises. Shouldn’t a law that demand absolutes be suspect? Having laws that demand no abortions under any conditions or laws that say abortions are legal under any conditions only make extremists happy. The same religious people who demand that there should be no exceptions to Thou Shalt Not Kill regarding abortions often make exceptions with the murder of adults – self-defense, war, capital punishment, law enforcement, etc. And if we asked the 29% of the population that believe abortion should always be legal about specific instances wouldn’t they make exceptions too?

It’s doubtful we can make laws that 100% of the population accept. But what percentage of the population should we aim to please to create a stable society? A simple majority leaves half the country unhappy. Even a two-thirds majority (66%) leaves one-third dissatisfied. A three-fourths majority (75%) to four-fifths majority (80%) should be our goal, but it’s doubtful Americans will ever agree that much.

I believe we should always work to have a minimum of a two-thirds majority. Right now, 68% of the population want some limits on abortion and 79% want women to have the right to choose. That suggests we could find a compromise that satisfies a large portion of the population.

Passing laws that only 29% or 18% want seems unethical, undemocratic, and oppressive.

Many believe that men should have no say whatsoever regarding abortion. But like I said, this essay isn’t about abortion, but democracy. Could we have voting by one gender only for a special issue, or restrict voting to a subset of the voters for unique voting situations? Should men have any say in women’s issues after hundreds of thousands of years of enslaving women? Or should democracy always be by all the people all the time?

The reason why we can have minority rule on certain legal issues is that special interest groups have played the representative political system to their advantage. It’s possible for millions to game the system when only dozens or hundreds pass the laws, even when those millions are a small minority of voters. I’m not sure that would be possible if we made decisions by referendums.

And even if we did decide by referendum, is a simple majority enough to maintain a stable democracy? I believe controversial laws should be based on a two-thirds rule. Although shouldn’t we really should strive for three-fourths compromises?

Is there a date after conception that 66-75% of the population would agree on where abortions could be restricted? We know that 18% percent of the population want conception as the cutoff. Ensoulment is a controversial issue, and religion and philosophers have been speculating about it since pre-history.

People who want the date of ensoulment to be at conception is base it on the idea that the soul exists, and there’s never been a shred of evidence that souls do exist, or that they come into existence at conception. This means a belief in a myth from ancient times by a small minority is being imposed on a much larger modern majority. Is that constitutional, democratic, or ethical? Our democracy is based on freedom of religion, but what happens when a religious belief demands that the entire population follows its beliefs?

The social conflict is between the rights of women to control both their bodies and their fate, and the freedom to hold religious beliefs. The extreme religious voters will not allow women to make their own moral decision as to when to have an abortion. This minority demands that 100% of the population follow their beliefs. This begs the question: When does a minority in a democracy have the right to decide for the majority?

Right now, because we have a representative democracy, an extremely tiny fraction of the population decides for the whole. We assume our political representatives are voting on laws based on what their constituents want. However, corruption has distorted representative democracy. Would a referendum system remove that corruption?

If the United States had a referendum on abortion how would it work? Up till now, referendums pass with a simple majority. But they often leave half the voters unhappy. Wouldn’t it be better to create referendums where we all try to find a compromise? Could we find a compromise on abortion that satisfies 66% of the voters, or even 75%? For example, would 75% of Americans agree on unlimited abortions for the first 12 weeks? (I’m not taking a position here, just an example.)

Too many voters are all or nothing with their opinions. Is it even possible to create a large consensus? Since the voters who want no abortions and the voters who want no restrictions on abortion are adamant and won’t compromise, and their totals equal 47%, that means there’s no way to reach a 66-75% compromise. Would some of them change their minds if they knew the 53% wanted a larger consensus? What if the laws of referendums demanded a two-thirds majority to pass a law? Are we to be held hostage by voters with extreme positions?

Representative democracy works well when our political leaders are wiser than the population. If you look at the history of our laws, it’s obvious on every issue the goalpost is always moving. We’re never satisfied with our final decisions. If we had a referendum democracy, we’d probably need to revote on laws periodically. Maybe once a decade, or generation. Could over time we learn how to compromise as a whole? To make group decisions that make a significant majority of voters satisfied.

Our current system has distilled into a political stalemate, resulting in a contentious polarized population. We need to work together to make each other happy. We need to let go of our extreme positions. We need to learn to compromise in the middle. There will always be extremists who think in black and white terms. We can’t let them rule us. I’m assuming 66-75% of the population aren’t extreme thinkers. That’s just a guess. If it’s true, we should find ways to work together.

JWH

 

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What Would Give Us Hope for the Future?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, May 25, 2019

I have little hope for the future. I’m not alone, my most popular essay with over 60,000 hits is “50 Reasons Why the Human Race is Too Stupid to Survive.” So I keep asking myself: “What would give us hope for the future?”

If certain changes were made in our laws I might change my mind about the future and be hopeful. However, I seriously doubt they will be made because the current state of corruption is too ingrained. Until we can solve these five problems I don’t think there can be any hope for the future.

  • Greed
  • Corruption
  • Deception
  • Inequality
  • Pollution

Our current system has wired our society for self-destruction. If we don’t do something to alter course our civilization will collapse in the next 50-75 years. Just count the countries that have collapsed around the world in recent years. There are several bald spots on civilization right now. Civilization is thinning around the globe. We need to repair those bald spots and make civilization sustainable economically and ecologically.

I no longer feel electing a new leader every four years is a solution. We need to tweak our political system so that it’s more democratic. We need to redesign capitalism so it’s equitable and ecological. Our current political polarization leaves a majority of the population depressed because we effectively have minority rule. Even we got rid of the Electoral College it will only help a little. We’d also need to get rid of all the corruption in the voting process such as gerrymandering and unfair laws to control who votes.

Even if we overhauled the voting system so that it’s 100% fair and open, we’d still have lethal problems. The most important of which is corruption. People with money control too much. We live in a plutocracy. The solution here is to remove all campaign contributions. The government should pay for all campaigning so every candidate has equal resources and no reason to be beholding to any special interests.

Ending political contributions would not end corruption. We’d also need to overhaul the tax system so businesses couldn’t strive to get a better deal. By allowing tax breaks for certain industries or to lure them to specific locations we create a structure for corruption. The influence of greed needs to be removed from politics.

Some people don’t want a true democracy because they fear it would bring mob rule. I’m not so sure. But we might need to change the definition of majority. Winning with 50% causes polarization. We’ve coalesced around two parties by forming coalitions of special interests. We need to get back to bipartisan compromises. We should change the percentage to win an election to 55%, and maybe eventually larger. We should change the percentage for a law to pass to 66%. And more laws should be based on referendums, rather than politicians.

We need to elect leaders who work for 100% of the people. Every political issue, no matter how divisive needs be base on solid compromises. Right now everyone wants extreme solutions, ban all guns – allow all guns, ban all abortions – allow all abortions, etc. We need to find middle paths that satisfy at least 66% of the country. If two-thirds of the population were satisfied, I feel the country would eventually heal itself.

And we need to stop endlessly arguing. Our polarized politics have made the country into one giant trench warfare where the lines never move. We need to find compromises, and then shut up for a while. We need to make a decision and stick with it for at least a decade before we argue over it again.

Part of our problem is we argue with lies and deception. We need to learn how to validate the information we club each other with. People with power and money know how to deceive. If we had a true democracy, those who want to influence change would have to appeal to everyone, and not just a few corruptible politicians. We need to eliminate lobbyists to politicians shift lobbying to the voters.

Part of the problem is inequality. A powerful minority are born with decisive advantages while too many are born without the opportunity to compete.

Capitalism is the only mechanism we have to create wealth and inspire innovation, but it unfairly creates too many losers. We want a system that rewards effort, but we don’t want a system that allows unjust competition. All of us are born on Lifeboat Earth without our choosing, but some were giving more of the provisions than others at the start. We are a greedy species, so we couldn’t stand a society that divided everything equally. However, for stability, we do need a fairer divvy up of what we have.

I would have hope for the future if everyone had an equal say, had equal opportunity, and the winners of society left the losers with at least a respectable life.

And we have to do all this while preserving the Earth. Seven billion people cause a lot of pollution. Climate change is a byproduct of pollution. Our pollution is destroying the environment for us and all other species. Not only should we seek equality for all humans, but other species deserve a share of equality too.

I think it’s possible to create a fairer sustainable society, but I’m not sure we will. As you consume the news each day, pay attention to these five problems. Are we moving to solve them, or increase them? Keep your own scorecard. How would you bet on the future?

JWH

 

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If You Love Collecting Anything, You’ll Love Bathtubs Over Broadway

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 19, 2019

Steve Young was a comedy writer for the David Letterman Show. One of Young’s extra duties was finding oddball records that Dave could make fun of on the show. Because of this Young discovered an extremely rare kind of LP – musicals produced for corporate sales conventions. At first, these songs were the butt of jokes on the Letterman show but soon Young fell in love with the songs, lyrics, performances, and eventually the performers. Young began to passionately collect these records for himself. The history of his collecting, and how it led him to discover the history of the industrial musical is told in the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway, currently playing on Netflix and for rent at Amazon. It has a 100% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Last night I had friends over to watch a movie. I tried to get them to see Bathtubs Over Broadway. I’ve tried for weeks to get any of my movie watching buddies to see it with me. My friend Linda saw it at a film festival in Denver and told me it was wonderful. We ended up watching The Bookshop instead, hoping it would be one of those feel-good indy English flicks, but it wasn’t. So after Mike and Betsy left, I stayed up late watching Bathtubs Over Broadway by myself.

I do admit the title sounds awful, but to all my friends who wouldn’t watch this movie with me – HA! You don’t know what you missed.

Of course, maybe it’s just me. I thought Bathtubs Over Broadway was a heartwarming documentary about becoming a pop culture collector. But then I have a slight collecting habit myself. I love tracking down old science fiction anthologies, so I know the excitement of finding a rare item.

Steve Young said before he started collecting the industrial musicals he had no friends in his life other than family at home at coworkers at work. Once he started sleuthing these LPs he befriended other collectors – weird guys like himself. I also know the importance of finding someone else who shares an obscure interest in a microscope aspect of reality.

What’s most inspiring about Bathtubs Over Broadway was the length Steve would go to find these rare LPs. The heyday of industrial musicals was in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and Young discovered some of the composers and performers were still alive. At first, he contacted them hoping they’d have more records he could collect, but ended up making wonderful friends and learning a unique aspect of American history.

Bathtubs Over Broadway might sound kitschy and camp, and it is, but it’s also uplifting, moving, inspiring, educational, and enlightening.

Don’t let the title mislead you into missing it.

p.s.

In case you want to know more, Steve Young and Sport Murphy wrote a whole book on industrial musicals – Everything Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. Follow this link to hear songs, see videos, and read more history after watching Bathtubs Over Broadway.

Everythings Coming Up Profits

JWH

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Why Did You Stop Writing About Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 16, 2019

old-science-fiction-magazines

I haven’t stopped writing about science fiction. If anything, I’ve become more obsessed with science fiction history. However, I’m discovering only some of my Auxiliary Memory readers like reading about science fiction while many others have told me they tune out those posts. I don’t blame them, there are many subjects in this world I tune out too.

So for my fellow Sci-Fi fans, I’m posting my essays about science fiction to The Classics of Science Fiction website. Those of you who want to only read about science fiction can follow my blog over there. Information about subscribing and RSS feeds are at the bottom of individual blog post pages.

Auxiliary Memory will remain my blog about my personal life and opinions about everything that isn’t science fiction.

It’s been interesting to see how my friends and family relate to my blog posts. I write about a variety of topics. Every relationship is a Venn diagram of common interests. Out of all the people I know personally, only two like to talk about science fiction. However, I have many online acquaintances that I share an interest in science fiction. In many ways, I feel more connected to those people because we’ve zeroed in on a subject we love.

People use the term “blood relation” to mean a special bond. I’ve always felt that a “shared interest” is more significant than shared DNA. I have many interests, so I have many kinds of friends. The internet is especially useful because it lets us connect with people who share our most unique fascinations. I’m currently focused on old science fiction magazines and anthologies. Most of my conversations about this topic are with five people scattered across the world. I figured all told, there are probably less than a thousand people interested in old science fiction magazines and only a few dozen in old science fiction anthologies. What percentage of 7 billion would that be? Extremely tiny.

I write about a variety of subjects but I’m finding only some attract the general reader. Most people who read blogs like to read memoir-like narratives rather than essays on abstract subjects. Blogging is an extremely insightful hobby. Most people enjoy chatting with other people, but if they are going to take in 1,500-word chunks prefer reading books. Reading a blog is more like listening to a friend talk a blue streak than reading an article in The Atlantic.

In the old days, I’d be writing what I write for a diary or journal, and I’d assume no one else would be reading it. Blogging is like keeping a diary that you leave around for anyone to read. It’s a weird art form, but it’s also my chosen retirement hobby. So I shall continue to experiment with what it can do. One experiment is to separate out all my ideas on one topic into a blog just for that topic. It’s fun to distill a subculture.

JWH

 

 

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I’m a Slow Learner of the Big Picture

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 12, 2019

It took me over ten years to graduate college, changing majors several times. I realize now that my problem was seeing the bigger picture of every topic. I never understood why I needed to learn what was required in each course. For example, The Modern Novel, a course I took for the English major I finally completed. Back in the 1970s, I couldn’t fathom why they called novels from the 1920s modern. Well, now in the 2010s, I do. I just read The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein. Goldstein chronicles how Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Elliot struggled in their personal lives to finish their most famous works in 1922. Each floundered in their efforts before finding new narrative techniques.

I now see the “modern novel” in a larger context, and I’m sure if I keep reading the history of everything from 1875-1930 I’ll expand that mental map even larger. Since I was an English major in the 1970s I’ve learned about the revolutions in art, music, philosophy, and other subjects in the early 20th century that add to that bigger picture. If I had taken courses in history, science, art, music, literature, engineering, medicine, etc. concurrently that covered the 18th-century one semester, then the 19th the next, and then 20th century, I would have understood how everything came together in the 1920s to be labeled modern. And that would have helped me comprehend the “post-modern.”

Concurrent to reading The World Broke in Two I’m also reading and studying the history of science fiction short stories. I’ve been reading these since the 1960s, and their evolution is finally coming together in multiple related ways. I realize now that I’m quite a slow learner when it comes to constructing the big picture in my head.

I remember back in high school and college feeling jealous how some of my fellow students always knew the answers. I assumed they studied harder than I did because I knew I didn’t study much. But that’s only part of the reason why they did better in school. I’m just now realizing they were also better at connecting the dots.

One of the big regrets in my life is not finding a passion while young to pursue with great effort and concentration. I knew success requires hard work, but the willingness to work hard requires drive and focus, and I never had that. I now understand that seeing the big picture is part of creating that drive and focus.

I’ve always been somewhat smarter than average, but never very smart. I had enough innate skills to get through school without studying much, but not enough cognitive insight to understand why I should study. I always saw school like the smaller image in the larger image above – a fragment of the whole that didn’t make sense.

Evidently, some people have a knack for seeing the synergy of details when they are young. We know this from the early works of successful people. It must be a cognitive skill like a sense of direction, spatial awareness, or conceptualizing in three-dimensions, but with data and ideas.

I know what I’m saying is vague, but then I’m trying to describe something I’m challenged at understanding. I only have a hint of its existence. I wonder if its a skill they can teach young kids? However, I also wonder if the way they teach subjects in school actually works against gaining this skill. Because schools divide up learning into thousands of lessons we’re trained to memorize individual facts, and not how those facts make patterns. Of course, pedagogy might have changed since I went to school a half-century ago.

I’ve often wondered if in each school year they should teach students the history of reality from the Big Bang to now so they see how all areas of knowledge evolved together. Of course, in pre-K years teachers would have to be very vague by telling kids the biggest generalizations, but with each successive year refine those details. I wonder if kids learned to see how knowledge arose from previous knowledge it wouldn’t help reveal bigger pictures of how things work.

JWH

 

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If I Was A Robot Would I Still Love to Read?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 8, 2019

One of the trendy themes of science fiction is the idea of mind uploading. Many people believe it will one day be possible to record the contents of our brain and put our self into a computer, artificial reality, robot, clone, or artificial being. Supposedly, that solves the pesky problem of dying and gives humans a shot at immortality. The odds of this working is about the same as dying and going to heaven, but it’s still a fun science fictional concept to contemplate.

I can think of many pluses to being a robot, especially now that I’m 67 and my body is wearing out into wimpiness. It would be wonderful to not worry about eating. Eating used to be a pleasure, now it’s a fickle roulette wheel of not know if I’m going to win or lose with each meal. And not having to pee or shit would be a top-selling advantage point to being a silicon being. And what a blessed relief it would be to never be tormented by horniness again.

Life would be simple, just make sure I always had electricity to charge up and spare parts for the components that break down. No worries about coronaries, cancers, viruses, fungus, bacteria, or degenerative diseases. Or flatulence.

I’d also expect to have superlative sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, along with a host of new senses. And I assume those senior moments would be gone forever.

But would I still love to do the things I love to do now – read books, watch television, and listen to music? What would reading be like if I was a robot? If I sucked down a book as fast as I can copy a file on my computer, I doubt reading would be much fun. For reading to be enchanting, I’d have to contemplate the words slowly. How would a robot perceive fiction? Are we even sure how humans experience the process of taking words from a book and putting them into our head?

Let’s say it takes me one minute to read a page of fiction. Somehow my mind is building a story while my eyes track the words. A novel would take hours to unfold. A robot could read a digital book in less than a second. Even for a robot brain is that enough time to enjoy the story?

Will robots have a sense of time different from ours? Dennis E. Taylor wrote a trilogy about the Bobiverse where Bob’s mind is downloaded into a computer. Taylor deals with the problem of robots perceiving time in it. He had some interesting ideas, but not conclusive ones.

In the WWW Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer theorizes that consciousness needs a single focus for sentience. No multitasking self-awareness. I think that makes sense. If this is true, robot minds should have a sense of now. They say hummingbirds move so fast that humans appear like statues to them. Would humans appear like the slowest of sloths to robots? Does slow perception of reality allow us to turn fiction into virtual reality in our heads?

Could robots watch movies and listen to music in real time? Or would images of reality shown at 24fps feel like a series of photos spaced out over eons of robot time? Would the beat of a Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let it Go” create a sense of music in a robot’s circuitry or just a series of periodic thuds?

It’s my guess that who we are, our personality, our sentient sense of reality, our soul, comes from our entire body, and not just data in our head. Just remember all the recent articles about how bacteria in our gut affects our state of being. Just remember how positive you feel about life when you have a hangover and are about to throw up.

I’ll never get to be a reading robot. That’s a shame. Wouldn’t it be great to read a thousand books a day? Maybe I could have finally read everything.

JWH

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Surviving 18 Months of Political Campaigning

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, May 3, 2019

The 2016 presidential election wore my psyche to a frazzle. It started early and dominated the news for a year. The 2020 election process has started even six months earlier. Damn! We know who the Republicans will run. For the next 18 months, we’re going to be bombarded by news of Democrats campaigning. That’s torture to contemplate.

Over the years polls have shown that the split between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are roughly even, or about 1/3 for each. If Democrats are serious about dethroning Donald Trump they need to run a candidate that independent voters will love. The political reality is Republicans will always vote for Republicans and Democrats will always vote their ticket, so the election is decided by the independent voter.

I’m thinking about how I’m going to survive the next 18 months. One solution would be to not watch any news programs until next summer after the Democratic convention. Another idea is to figure out which candidate has the best chance to win against Trump and support them. But how is that done? I think it’s by figuring out what the independents will want in 2020, and not by what liberals want. Now is not the time to seek liberal pie in the sky.

Republicans have a very definite platform, even if it’s unwritten. They know what they want. We know what they want. They have a coalition of special interest groups that back them. The Democrats are much less defined by specific goals. Some Democratic candidates are using Medicare-for-All, wealth equality, and tuition forgiveness to attract voters, but are those issues that will appeal to independent voters? The reason why Trump won in 2016 is that the Democrats didn’t have the pulse of the nation.

My guess is voters who hate Trump will want a rational candidate, one who is psychologically normal, even dull. That might be why Biden gained an instant lead. I would like a qualified candidate, one that has the skills to do the job of president. Unfortunately, America picks its presidents like high school kids elect theirs. It’s all about personality and chemistry. Trump supporters love him like football fans love their favorite teams – a kind of fanatical passion that defies reason.

I personally feel burnt out by politics. I’ve read that many young people didn’t vote in 2016 because they feel politics doesn’t matter or that politics is a complete turn-off. Almost as many people didn’t vote as did in 2016. Can the Democrats find a candidate that will appeal to all those non-voters?

I don’t feel the job is attracting qualified candidates but egotists. I would prefer down-to-earth candidates that have real experience, either a mayor from a large city, governors, or senators. I’d like to see candidates who have governed at least a million people and made most of them happy. Because governing 330 million constituents is a huge step up.

Our country faces many big problems. We need someone that can lead the rest of us into solving them. Trump has done an excellent job of making the rich richer but has he even tried to solve the problems that are true threats to our nation?

Conservatives by their very nature want to preserve the past. The trouble is, the future is about his hit us like a freight train, so it’s suicidal to look the other way.

JWH

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The Case of the Overactive Bladder

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, April 28, 2019

Old men often reach a stage in life where they have to pee frequently because of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). This is caused by our prostates enlarging. Just another annoying aspect of aging. Depending on what I eat and drink, my bladder normally makes me go about every two hours, which means I get up three times in the night, and once during long movies. Not a terrible debilitation, but inconvenient. Yet, on some rare days, when I accidentally do the perfect routine, I only have to get up once in the night. That suggests I could do something to change things.

However, there’s something I also do that give me “pee spells” as I call them. They last about two hours and I have to pee every 10-15 minutes. This is extremely annoying, and I want to figure out what causes these spells. Maybe some of my readers might have this problem too and have already figured it out.

Of course, this case of the overactive bladder might be much too much information for some readers, so I expect most of them to have quit reading by now. But it is an interesting mystery, and I find people like solving mysteries.

My guess is I’m eating or drinking something that annoys my bladder since the condition only lasts a limited time. Figuring out that irritant is the mystery to solve. Sometimes I can go weeks without a pee spell, and other times it’s every afternoon. It’s the most annoying when it comes in the middle of the night. When it happens during the day I feel tired and try to nap. Of course, getting up every ten minutes to pee during a nap bugs-the-crap out of me and pisses off the two kitten who sleeps on my lap.

I had a pee spell yesterday. So here are the current clues. The week before I was on a sugar bender eating ice cream and oatmeal cookies twice a day, but I quit after one week. One theory is going between healthy and unhealthy diets does something to my bladder or hormonal system. I often feel like I have pee spells when I’m losing weight, but it might because I’m eating something healthy that’s triggering it and not the weight loss.

Because I hadn’t been eating much fresh fruits and vegetables last week I gorged on them this week. Another theory is my fruit salad might be the cause. I remember having frequent pee spells in the past, and maybe they were during the times I was eating fruit salads regularly.

I like fruit salads, and vegetable soups and salads because I can cram in many servings of each into one meal. However, that makes figuring out the culprit harder. I get all kinds of weird ideas like maybe I don’t wash my fruits and vegetables well enough and the suspect is a pesticide. Or maybe some fruit or vegetable is a natural diuretic.

I seldom take pain pills because they end up upsetting my stomach. This week I did take one ibuprofen for my back. So now its a suspect. I wonder if their occasional use is my problem and I’ve never noticed it before?

I’ve also wondered since I’m drinking less to pee less if this makes my urine more acid, and thus aggravates the muscles of my bladder. I’ve thought of drinking more, which is counter-intuitive, but I will test it. However, when I have tried drinking more in the middle of a pee spell it only makes it last longer. I wonder if there’s a way to get pH test strips to test my theory?

Another theory I’ve worked up relates to bacteria. Our gut biome is a big topic today, with claims it affects our thinking and personality. Could I be consuming something that alters the balance of warring bacteria in my intestines and that eventually affects my bladder?

When I was in high school and working at a grocery store after class, I’d often drink two 16-ounce Cokes on my commute home at 10 o’clock at night. I don’t remember it affecting my sleep. I also remember a few times of eating two Whoppers, a Coke, a shake with two orders of fries and not feeling stuffed. At 67, such a meal would kill me.

Getting old is so goddamn weird. I don’t want to be a hypochondriac, but my body has gotten hyper-sensitive to everything. I have to think about my health all the time, and I don’t want to. My body has become so sensitive to what I consume that I’ve thought about inventing the perfect bland diet. I wish Purina made People Chow. Or like in some science fiction story, I wish I could transfer my brain into a robot where I didn’t have to eat or eliminate at all. I’m a very happy person if my body didn’t keep nagging me. I’d be in my own Nirvana if I was a robot and could just read, write, watch, listen, and contemplate.

I tend to think the agent of my annoyance is something physical I consume, but I’ve also wondered about it being a psychological problem. I know that I’m weird, but am I that weird? My doctor once suggested trying Zoloft for anxiety and said one positive side effect of it might be to relax my bladder muscles. I did try Zoloft but not for long, it bothered my stomach. But this has gotten me to wonder if anxiety might cause my pee spells? Normally, I’m very happy except for when I have to go somewhere. As I’ve gotten older I just dread going places. This week I was dreading going to the book club last night.

I did ask my doctor about the medicines I see on TV for overactive bladders and she advised against them because of their side-effects. I was happy with that recommendation because I hate taking medicine.

So, there are the clues I have so far. Any health detectives out there that have already solved a similar crime?

JWH

 

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“A Modern Lover” by D. H. Lawrence

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 25, 2019

I recently read “A Modern Lover” by D. H. Lawrence. Twice. This short story was first published in 1933 three years after Lawrence’s death but probably written in 1909, evidently a minor work. Is there anything about this story I can recommend? People read so few short stories nowadays why even mention one unless it’s a perfect 10?

I’m now reading one or two short stories a day. I admit, most of them are science fiction, but I’ve changed my time machines coordinates from the future to the past because I’ve become fascinated by the history of short stories. This once popular art form is in decline, like opera and poetry. If you ask the average person to name the ten famous short stories I doubt you’d get many answers.

“A Modern Lover” is about a young man, Cyril Mersham, who grew up in rural England coming home to see his old girlfriend, Muriel, after living in the city. I have to assume the story is inspired by Lawrence’s own experiences – Cyril is about the same age as Lawrence when he wrote the story. Cyril had been close to Muriel and her family, spending much time with them, but has slowly seen them less as work and new experiences kept him away. He had been loved by both Muriel and her family, but they were turning cold to him on his infrequent visits because they knew he would eventually stop coming.

In the story, Cyril returns realizing that Muriel was the one woman he had been able to communicate with on a deeper level. He wants to have sex with her, but not commit to marriage. She knows this. In the story, Cyril meets Muriel’s new boyfriend Tom when he comes to visit too. Cyril upstages Tom by being both generous and kind to him, pretending he is out of the picture, yet showing Muriel what she would be missing. Tom is steady, has a good job, would be a dedicated husband, a better practical choice. Cyril slyly shows Muriel how Tom would be boring.

At the end of the story after Tom leaves, Cyril tries to convince Muriel to pick him but won’t promise marriage. Muriel says no, claiming women don’t have the same freedom as men.

It would be fun to take a current issue of Cosmopolitan back in time to let Lawrence read, so he’d know what women would become. That’s the payoff of reading “A Modern Lover” – it gives us a sense of how much things have changed. There are no televisions, radios, or phones in this story. No electricity. It shows how families entertained themselves during their evenings about a century ago. “A Modern Lover” shows how far we’ve come regarding gender equality. But it also shows just how much we’re the same in communicating between the sexes.

I’m currently listening to an anthology of 19th and early 20th-century short stories. They sparkle with details of the past. We so easily forget how fast even a little time changes us. My mother’s mother was born in 1881, my mother in 1916. These short stories describe their world in ways old photographs, genealogical research, and history books can’t.

It’s a shame that short stories aren’t popular anymore. Why do we spend so many hours in comic-book fantasies? Why do we binge-watch endless contrived thrillers on Netflix? Why do we love period television shows and movies written by people with no connection to the past when we could be reading fiction written in the past by people who experienced what is being described?

JWH

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Why Should Robots Look Like Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 24, 2019

I just listened to Machines Like Me, the new science fiction novel by Ian McEwan that came out yesterday. It’s an alternate history set in England during a much different 1980s, with computer technology was far ahead of our 1980s computers, an alternate timeline where the Beatles reform and Alan Turing is a living national hero. Mr. McEwan might protest he’s not a science fiction writer, but he sure knows how to write a novel using writing techniques evolved out of science fiction.

This novel feels inspired by the TV series Humans. In both stories, it’s possible to go down to a store (very much like an Apple Store) and purchase a robot that looks and acts human. McEwan sets his story apart by putting it in an alternate history (maybe he’s been watching The Man in the High Castle too), but the characters in both tales feel like modern England.

I enjoyed and admired Machines Like Me, but then I’m a sucker for fiction about AI. I have one big problem though. Writers have been telling stories like this one for over a hundred years and they haven’t really progressed much philosophically or imaginatively. Their main failure is to assume robots should look like us. Their second assumption is AI minds will want to have sex with us. We know humans will fuck just about anything, so it’s believable we’ll want to have sex with them, but will they want to have sex with us? They won’t have biological drives, they won’t have our kinds of emotions. They won’t have gender or sexuality. I believe they will see nature as a fascinating complexity to study, but feel separate from it. We are intelligent organic chemistry, they are intelligent inorganic chemistry. They will want to study us, but we won’t be kissing cousins.

McEwan’s story often digresses into infodumps and intellectual musings which are common pitfalls of writing science fiction. And the trouble is he goes over the same well-worn territory. The theme of androids is often used to explore: What does it mean to be human? McEwan uses his literary skills to go into psychological details that most science fiction writers don’t, but the results are the same. McEwan’s tale is far more about his human characters than his robot, but then his robot has more depth of character than most science fiction robots. Because McEwan has extensive literary skills he does this with more finesse than most science fiction writers.

I’ve been reading these stories for decades, and they’ve been explored in the movies and television for many years too, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina. Why can’t we go deeper into the theme? Partly I think it’s because we assume AI robots will look identical to us. That’s just nuts. Are we so egocentric that we can’t imagine our replacements looking different? Are we so vain as a species as to believe we’re the ideal form in nature?

Let’s face it, we’re hung up on the idea of building sexbots. We love the idea of buying the perfect companion that will fulfill all our fantasies. But there is a serious fallacy in this desire. No intelligent being wants to be someone else’s fantasy.

I want to read stories with more realistic imagination because when the real AI robots show up, it’s going to transform human society more than any other transformation in our history. AI minds will be several times smarter than us, thinking many times faster. They will have bodies that are more agile than ours. Why limit them to two eyes? Why limit them to four limbs? They will have more senses than we do, that can see a greater range of the electromagnetic spectrum. AI minds will perceive reality far fuller than we do. They will have perfect memories and be telepathic with each other. It’s just downright insane to think they will be like us.

Instead of writing stories about our problems of dealing with facsimiles of ourselves, we should be thinking about a world where glittery metallic creatures build a civilization on top of ours, and we’re the chimpanzees of their world.

We’re still designing robots that model animals and humans. We need to think way outside that box. It is rather pitiful that most stories that explore this theme get hung up on sex. I’m sure AI minds will find that rather amusing in the future – if they have a sense of humor.

Machines Like Me is a well-written novel that is literary superior to most science fiction novels. It succeeds because it gives a realistic view of events at a personal level, which is the main superpower of literary fiction. It’s a mundane version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, I was disappointed that McEwan didn’t challenge science fictional conventions, instead, he accepts them. Of course, I’m also disappointed that science fiction writers seldom go deeper into this theme. I’m completely over stories where we build robots just like us.

Some science fiction readers are annoyed at Ian McEwan for denying he writes science fiction. Machines Like Me is a very good science fiction novel, but it doesn’t mean McEwan has to be a science fiction writer. I would have given him an A+ for his effort if Adam had looked like a giant insect rather than a man. McEwan’s goal is the same as science fiction writers by presenting the question: What are the ethical problems if we build something that is sentient? This philosophical exploration has to also ask what if being human doesn’t mean looking human? All these stories where robots look like sexy people is a silly distraction from a deadly serious philosophical issue.

I fault McEwan not for writing a science fiction novel, but for clouding the issue. What makes us human is not the way we look, but our ability to perceive reality.

JWH

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My New TV

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 20, 2019

I’ve been meaning to buy a new television since 2017. My wife and friends have been making fun of me for two years of indecisiveness. My wife stopped going to Best Buy with me. Two years ago my Samsung DLP TV was ten years old and I had just replaced its expensive lamp for the third time. I decided then I needed a new TV. I got on the net and began researching televisions, sucking me into a black hole of technical comparisons.

Wednesday I went to Best Buy determined to make a choice. I walked into the store thinking it was either the LG B8 or Sony 900F, but I wasn’t sure of which size. As soon as I started looking at the TV sets I was overwhelmed with more enticing choices and bargains. I went from one TV to the next thinking each could be the one. Finally, I was looking at the Sony 900F for the nth time when the demo video showed my favorite cat video. I took that as a sign from God and whipped out my Visa card. I’m an atheist, but sometimes even us atheists need divine guidance.

At the cash register, I almost changed my mind to an LG LED 75″ TV. It was the same price but gigantic! It’s picture looked gorgeous too, but I remembered no reviews of it at Rtings.com. I’m glad I didn’t change my mind. Unboxing the 65″ Sony required asking my friend Mike to come over and help. These flat screen TVs are much lighter than the old CRTs, but the Sony weighed 36kg (79.4 lbs). Even after we got it installed it’s taken two more days to get it configured with my other devices.

Modern TVs aren’t like the TV I grew up with in the 1950s. The only cable it came with was the power cord. It had two dials on the side, one for changing channels (there were three stations to select from 12 possible numbers) and an on-off/volume knob. There were two adjustments in the back for the vertical and horizontal holds. The Sony came with several manuals, a clicker with about 20 buttons, and inputs for about a dozen cables. I needed to make it work with my receiver, Roku, TiVo, Blu-ray player, and iPhone, configuring it for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, DirecTV Now, HBO Go, Spotify, Curiosity Stream, and PBS app.

It took over an hour to figure out how to get the 900F to automatically play sound through my receiver. Through reading both the TV and receiver manuals I discovered I had compatible ARC HDMI ports on each that were designed to handle sound this way. The trouble was there was one menu choice deep in the receiver’s menu system that needed to be turned on first. It took me another 30 minutes to get the receiver’s setup menu to display on the TV.

I finally got everything working after a day’s hard work. But things still don’t work consistently. Sometimes my Roku comes on and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m still not sure the exact sequence of buttons to push. My receiver has 6 HDMI inputs and outputs just one HDMI cable to the TV’s ARC HDMI port. But for some reason, the TV senses both the Roku and Blu-ray player and tries to switch to a different HDMI port. Evidently, modern audio/visual devices talk to each other, but they don’t always understand each other’s lingo.

I might be the only person in my house who can turn on my TV and get to a program. I should have earned 3 college credits.

I knew I’d have problems. Before getting the Sony 900F my old setup had 6 clickers. I had considered buying a TCL 6 Series with a built-in Roku player just to reduce the number of remotes. Life with our electronic friends should be simpler.

Whatever TV manufacturer who can design a self-contained TV set that does everything right with just one clicker should achieve market dominance. We don’t need 3D, curved screens, or any kind of new high-tech whiz-bang features. What people want is ease-of-use.

The main problem with modern TVs is sound. The large flat screen pictures are fantastic, but to pair those glorious images with equally fantastic sound takes a bunch of extra equipment. And all smart TVs with the exception of Roku TVs can’t match the wonders of the Roku UI. And I still have DVD/BD discs I want to play. Android TV or WebOS user interfaces are no match for the Roku (or even Amazon Fire).

TVs should be either dumb monitors that we connect to our favorite components or self-contained boxes. I’d say the perfect TV for most people would be a 55″ Roku TV with near great sound and a slot for DVD/BD discs. That setup would require just one clicker. No one sells that kind of TV though.

My new system has one less clicker only because I’ve jettisoned the Fire TV. To use my new TV requires these clickers:

    • Sony 900F
    • Denon AVR-X1000
    • Roku Ultra
    • Samsung BD
    • TiVo Roamio

Susan once bought me one of those expensive universal clickers, but I didn’t like it. And I can use apps for some of these clickers on my iPhone. However, I find it easier just to keep a pile of remotes by my chair.

I keep hoping to find ways to simplify my electronic life. We could abandon the TiVo if we could find a way to record and stream Jeopardy and a few other OTA shows. We still play DVDs and Blu-rays, but when the era of physical media is over, that will make TV watching life much easier. If Sony’s Android TV had all the TV channels/apps that Roku does, that would eliminate another device. Too bad Sony isn’t a Roku TV.

Getting rid of the receiver is the hardest. Sony’s internal speakers are good enough for daily TV, but not for music and movies. The big problem is Spotify. I love that I can control Spotify on my iPhone but play it through the Roku and receiver to my big speakers. The album covers appear on the TV screen as I listen to the music. The ultimate TV would have a built-in receiver/amp that connected wirelessly to surround sound speakers. The new Wisa standard might provide that but it will require buying all new equipment.

Once I got my new TV set up I tried out all kinds of movies and television shows to see how it looks. 4K shows look amazing, but to be honest I can’t really tell that much difference from 1080p. What really jumped out is Perry Mason. The old black and white TV show on DVD looked stunning on the 65″ TV. Plus old movies on TCM like Red Dust from the 1930s are way more impressive. Just seeing more details in the sets makes old movies feel remastered. I don’t have a 4K Blu-ray player, but 1080p Blu-ray looks razor sharp.

As far as I can tell TV standards reached a “Good Enough” pinnacle at 1080p.

Our Planet is stunning. I upped my Netflix account to handle 4K and HDR. I’m not sure I need 4K or HDR because I’ve yet to discern what they actually do over 1080p shows without HDR. It’s not the quantum jump from DVD to BD, or SDTV to HDTV. Maybe my old eyes just can’t distinguish such fine distinctions.

Here’s the first TV I remember. I think it’s Christmas 1956 and I’m five.

1955q 58th Court

JWH

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Hope the Kittens Don’t Eat Me

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 10, 2019

At noon today, I snuck into the kitchen hoping to eat my egg salad sandwich before I had to feed the kittens. I’m doing an intermittent fast, so I haven’t eaten in 16 hours. I had already fed the kittens once this morning. I reached into the cabinet to get a saucer, but it made the tiniest of clanking noises, and the kittens thundered into the kitchen from the back bedroom, slamming their little bodies against the dishwasher to break their dash.

I had to feed them first. Damn. And Susan thinks we can get them off of Fancy Feast and onto a steady diet of crunchies. Ha!

I quickly put down their food and made my sandwich, but before I could take two bites Lily was climbing my leg. She’s gone crazy for people food lately.

K2

I was gobbling down my sandwich as fast as I could. Lily won’t take no for an answer.

K3

She’s a very determined tiny little kitten. But as she got to my waist, she saw a whole new world of the kitchen countertops. We’ve been worried when they were going to discover the counters. They’re already climbing higher and higher on everything.

K4

And then I saw she’s learned to do this:

No telling what is next.

If I’m found dead and the flesh is eaten off of me. Suspect the kittens.

JWH

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Why Can’t I Let Go of Technology I Don’t Need?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, April 7, 2019

If you live long enough you realize that things have a lifespan too. When I was growing up there were payphones everywhere. I don’t see them anymore. They still exist, but they are dying off. I do miss them. I can imagine situations when I’d even want to use one so I think AT&T should maintain payphones. Of course, we should let AT&T just pull the plug on this outdated technology.

In my lifetime I’ve bought over 2,000 LPs and 2,000 CDs. I have no LPs anymore, and I’m down to about 700 CDs. I hardly ever play them. I’d like to get rid of my CDs because I’d like to use their space to store more books I won’t read but want to buy.  However, I struggle to let the last CDs go.

It’s not being able to let go that intrigues me. Why am I so attached to something that’s not being used? I know people that own everything they’ve ever bought, including their childhood toys. I’m not like that. If I kept every computer I’d ever owned, I’d need another bedroom just to store them. I actually like letting go of clutter. But not these CDs. Maybe I fear streaming music will fail.

I had no trouble giving up my LPs — I’ve done it several times in my life. That’s one of my problems. I get nostalgic for things I once owned and buy them again. I’ve built up at least four record collections. However, I think (I’m pretty sure this time) that I’m over LPs for good, and I’m almost sure I’m over CDs too. But not quite.

This week I was tempted to get back into the world of CDs again when I read about the Brennan B2. Its 2GB model can hold 5,000 CDs. I could put all my CDs on it, and then pack them away, or donate them to the library. The Brennan B2 connects to computers, stereos, phones, tablets, and just about anything that plays music. I could use my iPhone to call up any song from my collection and play it on the phone, or through my stereo system or on my HDTV.

The Brenna B2 is the perfect way to access a CD collection. Of course, (I chid myself) that I ripped my CD collection over a decade ago before I gave most of them away, and they are all on Amazon for me to play on my iPhone, iPad, computer, stereo or TV. But I don’t. Well, hardly ever. I just checked, and Amazon is still holding 1,792 of my albums for me. I was able to instantly play 45th Parallel by Oregon, an album I’d completely forgotten I bought. I probably should rip all those CDs I bought since that ripping project, but it would be a pain in the ass. And by the way, the reason I forgot I owned the Oregon CD is that I don’t like it. The reason why I only have 700 CDs now is I got rid of all the CDs I didn’t care about anymore.

So why am I thinking about CDs again? It’s that damn Brennan B2! It’s the coolest piece of technology I’ve seen in years. And when I read it’s built on top of a Raspberry Pi computer I believed it even cooler. But that inspired, “Hey, I could build my own CD server and save $679!”

Last night I was playing Spotify after I went to bed. I love dreaming while listening to music. And in my half-awake state, I told myself that the Brennan B2 could never match the convenience of Spotify or the size of its music library. So why am I agonizing over buying a Brennan B2 still? It’s become I’m still addicted to getting tech toys even though I have a lifetime of experience knowing I won’t use them for long.

I know in my heart of hearts I’d buy the Brennan B2, spend a couple of weeks ripping CDs to FLAC, build playlists, and then play with it for an afternoon. After that, I’d forget all about it. I see now that what I’m really thinking about doing, is spending $679 to have a couple weeks of tech toy playtime. By the way, that’s why I write these blogs sometimes, to think things through. But even this psychoanalysis through writing isn’t curing me of the urge to buy the Brennan B2.

I’m trying to talk myself now into getting out my Raspberry Pi that’s been sitting around doing nothing and building my own CD server. I even have a 1TB USB drive doing nothing to store those CDs that aren’t being played. I wonder if I could create a system that’s even half as nice as the Brennan B2? Did they write their software from scratch, or is it open source? I like the idea of accessing the music database through an IP address in a browser.

Of course, the Brennan B2 would be an amazing out-of-the-box experience.

No, no, no. This is crazy. Spotify lets me access millions of albums and I want to build a system that lets me access 700? Why don’t I realize this an idiotic urge? Well, the library sells old CDs for cheap. I could beef up my library considerably without spending too much. (Am I conveying my insanity well enough?)

There’s a joke in an old Woody Allen movie that he tells about a kid being told that masturbation will make him go blind. The kid replies, “Can I do it until I need glasses?”

That about sums up my ability to let go of technology I don’t need. I’m never ready to completely give it up.

JWH

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What Are Your Earliest Memory Signposts?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 3, 2019

When I was young I thought people all saw the same external reality. Over time I learned that we each have a variety of different perceptional abilities, and no, the external reality didn’t look the same to everyone. I still believe there is only one external reality, and we just have limited access to perceiving it. I don’t believe we all live in our own subjective realities. But I guess those limitations give us subjective experiences.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become obsessed with memory, and it fascinates me how varied the memory abilities are in the people I know. I’ve always known folks were smarter than I am, but that didn’t bother me. However, it does upset me that some people have vastly better memories, especially if they remembered more details about the past than I do. I guess memories seem more real than knowledge, but both are just faint shadows of the external reality.

My friend Linda and I were both born in 1951.  She in February and me in November, so she has a 10-month head start. The other day we were talking about first grade and I mentioned we started school just a month before Sputnik was launched (October 4, 1957). Linda said she remembered listening to Sputnik on the radio with her grandmother. I was incredibly envious! I have no memory of Sputnik but I wished I did because my school years were bracketed by Sputnik and Apollo 11.  We got to talking, and Linda remembers a lot more about the larger world than I did in 1st-grade. I’m so jealous.

And it wasn’t just her ten months head start. The first space launch I remember is Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I was in the 4th-grade and we listened to it over the PA system. Linda remembers more about the greater world than I did at the same age.

Linda says she’s always paid more attention to her surroundings than other kids. She’s an observer, I wasn’t. I think I was always focused on playing. I was like a kitten with a peanut, oblivious to the larger landscape. This got me to thinking about our earliest memories. Most people when they think about their first memories conjure up something personal. That makes me want to ask:

What are your earliest memories beyond your Charlie Brown existence?  

I’m wondering if I could make up a fun list of questions to put on Facebook that asks people what year they were born, and then the year they remember something from the world beyond toys. Here are some things I remember seeing for the first time:

Jim – 1951

  • 1st house. An upper duplex in Memphis. I think it was 1954 – I was 3+. Next a house in Miami on SW 64th Court I believe. I was 4 – I think. Memory is so unreliable. I know I lived in 2-3 houses before 64th Court. I have the vaguest memory of the one before it. It hurts to think about it because memories of that house are like thoughts on the tip of my tongue.
  • 1st teenager. At the apartment above met a teenager with a broken leg in a cast. Before that only remember my parents and my sister. The cast is what probably anchored that memory.
  • 1st time riding a bicycle. 1954-55. I was 4. at SW 64th Court. Also, remember learning to swing in a swing from the same time period. Also, the first time I saw a bow-and-arrow. And toy trucks. I loved toy trucks, even before toy guns.
  • 1st television show. Topper in 1955, I was 4-5. I saw TV before that and have vague memories, but Topper was the first show I wanted to see on my own.
  • 1st western. Gunsmoke in 1955. I was 4-5. This began a life-long love of westerns.
  • 1st car. 1955 Pontiac in Miami around 1956-57. I was 4-5. I remember being in earlier cars, but not their make and model. My heart still twinges when I see 1950s cars. I love looking at cars. My grandmother would quiz me on models and makes as I got older.
  • 1st realization of death. 1955-1956 from watching Gunsmoke. At 5 I knew what pretending to die was. You fell down and laid still. But watching Gunsmoke one night I realized that not pretending to die, to really die, meant not ever moving again. That blew my little mind.
  • 1st Coca-Cola. 1955. Probably had them earlier. But that’s when Becky and I started begging for them every time my father took us for a drive.
  • 1st real gun held. 1958. The first gun I remember holding was my father’s .22 rifle that his father gave him. We lived out in the country in South Carolina and my parents tried to raise chickens. My father would shoot at dogs who killed chickens. He never hit one though. He said he would give me the gun when I got older. When we moved to Hollywood Florida I took it outside to show the other kids and their parents complained. It disappeared.
  • 1st movie on TV. High Barbaree (1947) around 1958 in South Carolina.
  • 1st movie at the theater. Snowfire (1958) around 1958 in South Carolina.
  • 1st phone number. Yu-3-6954 – 1958 in Hollywood, Florida. Lake Forest subdivision.
  • 1st science fiction. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Around 1958. Saw earlier SF but don’t remember any details. Hollywood, Florida at babysitter’s house.
  • 1st 7-Eleven store. 1958.
  • 1st memory of music. 1958 I think, from a car radio. We didn’t have a radio or record player in the house then. Linda remembers Elvis from 1957. Another big envy.
  • 1st grocery store. Kwik Check, Hollywood, Florida. 1958. I was 6-7 and in the 2nd grade. Again I remember being in grocery stores before that, but only vaguely. I don’t think I understood what they were. I remember this Kwik Chek because my grandmother took me there to see a sock hop out front.
  • 1st book. I remember my mother reading Treasure Island to me in 1959 when we lived in New Egypt, New Jersey.
  • 1st magazine. Highlights. 1959 New Jersey again. At the dentist office.
  • 1st newspaper cartoon strip. I don’t know.
  • 1st political campaign. Kennedy-Nixon 1960. But only because I remember getting in a fight on the playground. I was for Kennedy and the other kid was for Nixon. We started shoving each other and ended up rolling around in the dirt and the teacher broke us up. Marks, Mississippi, 1960, 3rd grade.
  • 1st time watching The Twilight Zone. 1960 in Marks, Mississippi.
  • 1st library. 4th grade 1960/61. It might have been a public library in Hollywood or Ft. Lauderdale. The first library I know by name is Homestead Air Force Base Library 1962/1963. I was in 5th grade.
  • 1st book I read on my own. Kid’s version of Up Periscope by Robb White from Scholastic Books. Summer of 1961.
  • 1st time learning songs and singers. 1962 at Homestead AFB. One of the earliest songs I remember waiting to hear on the radio was “Telstar” by the Tornadoes (August 1962). I had been listening to music for years but didn’t pay attention to the song titles or who artists who created them.
  • 1st plane seen up close. An F-104 at Homestead AFB is the first specific planes I remember seeing up close in 1962. Also F-100, F-102, F-106, and B-52s. In the 5th grade. F-104 has always been my favorite plane ever since. I was told I first flew in a Constellation when I was little, but don’t remember. My father worked on the flight-line and took me to a public exhibition.
  • 1st memory of regularly watching the news. 11/22/63 – Walter Cronkite. I have vague memories of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, but not intentionally wanting to watch the news. I have even vaguer memories of the Kennedy-Nixon campaigns, but too vague to recall a specific memory. After the Kennedy assassination, I became a regular news watcher.
  • 1st time hearing The Beatles. February 7, 1964, on the Ed Sullivan show.
  • 1st time hearing Bob Dylan. July 20, 1965, on AM radio with “Like a Rolling Stone.” I’m sure I heard his folk songs but have no memories.
  • 1st used bookstore. Perrine, Florida, 1965.
  • 1st new bookstore. Now, this is a weird one. 1967 in Coconut Grove, Florida. I was in 10th grade. I don’t know why I was so late seeing a new bookstore.

This is just some of the memories of the outer world I can recall at the moment. I’m open to other suggestions that would be good signposts. I feel I really woke up as a conscious being in 1964. I turned 13 on November 25, 1964. I had rejected religion by then and was already thinking politically. The years between 1962-1964 are full of great memories, but I’m not sure how aware of the wider world I was at the time. For example, in 1962 John F. Kennedy visited Homestead Air Force Base. They let us out of school to go see him. I went fishing instead. When I got older I kicked myself for that. I was very focused on all the things I thought fun and didn’t care about the world at large.

It wasn’t until Kennedy was killed a year later that I started watching the news and began paying attention to the larger world. I was in 7th grade. Was that the normal time most people start? Or was I late? I’m sure Linda began noticing things much earlier.

JWH

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Why Is This Restaurant Playing The Big Bopper?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 31, 2019

Susan and I went out to breakfast this morning. She wanted to try this new place called Staks. One of those storefront restaurants where you order at the counter and sit down and wait for your food. (A trend I don’t like.) What surprised me was the music they played at 7:30am, oldies like “Rock Around the Clock,” “The Wanderer,” “Chantilly Lace,” “He’s So Fine,” and “Dawn” – all songs from when we were growing up.

We sat at a booth with high backs covered with green plastic. In the middle of the room were sterile white metal tables and chairs occupied by younger people, including three late twenty-something couples with babies in highchairs. I wanted to ask them what they thought about the music. I was grooving to oldies, but were they? Was it just Muzak to their ears? The staff was all teens and young twenty-somethings. Why were they being forced to listen to old people’s music all day? I assume some industrial designer imagined both the decor and music together believing old fashioned breakfasts went with old-fashioned music. There were no vegetarian or gluten-free options on the menu – that would remind people of now and break the illusion.

Just to check if I wasn’t the only one noticing this trend I found this at the Chicago Tribune, “Nostalgia has taken over food and pop culture because we can’t help but fall for it.” Google also gave me “4 Ways to Use Nostalgia to Grab Your Customers’ or Members’ Attention.” Of course, marketers have been selling us American Graffiti and Happy Days leftovers for decades.

I can understand a fondness for life between WWII and the Vietnam war because that’s when I grew up. Susan and I were the only music-age-appropriate customers in Staks. Susan still knows all the words to those songs. Why should our nostalgia be piped into younger generations? My parents hated rock ‘n’ roll. I have to work mighty hard to find songs from the 21st-century that I love. And the song I do find to love, tend to sound like songs from my past. My parents like music built around vocalists, horns, and woodwinds. I grew up with vocalists, guitars, bass, and drums. Modern music fans love processed vocals mixed with computer-generated tones and sampled clips.

My theory is every generation has a sound they are pop culturally programmed to resonate with during their teenage years. I assume in half-a-century the young people that were sitting in the middle of the room will be in booths listening to music from their generation wondering why another industrial designer brought it back.

By the way, here’s a 21st-century song I love. I’ve probably played it two dozens times today. It shows I shouldn’t think every generation is stuck in their own musical hole. It still doesn’t explain why I see young people wearing t-shirts with The Beatles, Jimi, or The Grateful Dead pictured on them. I never wore a shirt with Benny Goodman’s face and doubt I’ll wear a Rilo Kiley advertisement.

Finally, why is it easier for younger generations to embrace older generations of music than it is for older generations to keep up with the music coming from younger generations? There are plenty of places to eat and drink that feature contemporary music. I just don’t go in them anymore. Why? I’ve heard many in my generation say they feel invisible around younger people, and that made them feel old. I’ve got to admit I stopped paying attention to newer trends, so they are invisible to me. Maybe it’s mutual.

My guess is those under 30 kids in Staks never even noticed the music.

JWH

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The Elegance of Quiet Science Fiction Films

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 29, 2019

Advantageous (2015) is the kind of quiet science fiction film I love. It was directed by Jennifer Phang, who co-wrote it with Jacqueline Kim, the star of the film. Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix and I have no memory of it ever coming to the theater (even though it has an 83% Rotten Tomatoes rating). I watched this movie with my friend Annie. She thought the show was only okay, but I loved it. But then my favorite science film is Gattaca. I prefer quiet science fiction movies without chases, explosions, and dazzling special effects. Annie prefers more action.

Advantageous is set in the near future where AI are taking jobs from people. Advantageous is about Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) who is the spokesperson for a rejuvenation corporation who is being fired for looking too old. Gwen is desperate to get another job to keep paying for the expensive schooling for Jules (Samantha Kim), her daughter. In this future, the unspoken belief is its better to give jobs to men because if too many of them were unemployed it would cause civil unrest. Gwen feels Jules can only have a future if she has an elite education, and she’s willing to do anything give her daughter a future.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but let’s just say that Advantageous explores a number of popular current science fiction themes in written science fiction. The film is set in an unnamed city with a breathtaking skyline of ornate skyscrapers that are occasionally hit by terrorist explosions. The citizens of this future passively ignore these attacks as a powerful government deals with them without alarm. We are shown other flaws in this tomorrowland just as quietly. This is a utopian world that is beginning to reveal hairline cracks.

One requirement of enjoying quiet science fiction films is reading between subtle lines. It helps to be well-versed in written science fiction. Gwen is given a decision to make, a “Cold Equations” or “Think Like a Dinosaur” decision. If you don’t know these classic science fiction short stories you might not appreciate the impacts of her choice. The ideas in Advantageous have been explored in great detail in written science fiction. That makes me wonder if movie-only Sci-Fi fans will pick up on the finer points of this story.

Manohla Dargis over at the New York Times was less enthusiastic about the film than me:

Ms. Phang, who wrote the script with Ms. Kim, throws a lot into her movie — ideas about maternity, identity and technologies of the female body swirl alongside nods to the French New Wave — without always connecting the pieces. Eventually, a picture emerges that at times suggests a strange if alluring mash-up of “Stella Dallas” and Michel Foucault, with a smidgen of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” and a hint of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ms. Phang has a way with spooky moods and interiors, and as a performer, Ms. Kim makes a fine accompanist, though she’s tamped down too much. It’s a kick to see how effectively Ms. Phang has created the future on a shoestring even if she hasn’t yet figured out how to turn all her smart ideas into a fully realized feature.

I thought Advantageous was fully realized. It set up all the science fictional speculation and then dealt with them in a satisfying way. It just didn’t cover everything explicitly, but quietly implied what we needed to know. Maybe that’s why this movie is an unknown gem. Too many filmgoers want action and obviousness. I watched the film last night and I’m already wanting to see it again. I’m sure there are little delights I’ve missed. Quiet films are perfect for meditation, they keep unfolding with additional viewing and contemplation.

JWH

 

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Love, Death + Robots: What is Mature Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 25, 2019

Love, Death + Robots showed up on Netflix recently. It has all the hallmarks of mature entertainment – full frontal nudity, sex acts of various kinds, gory violence, and the kind of words you don’t hear on broadcast TV or in movies intended for younger audiences. There’s one problem, the maturity level of the stories is on the young adult end of the spectrum. 13-year-olds will be all over this series when it should be rated R or higher.

When I was in high school I had two science fiction reading buddies, Connell and Kurshner. One day Kurshner’s mom told us almost in passing, “All that science fiction you’re reading is so childish. One day you’ll outgrow it.” All three of us defended our belief in science fiction, but Mrs. Kurshner was adamant. That really bugged us.

Over the decades I’d occasionally read essays by literary writers attacking science fiction as crude fiction for adolescents. I vaguely remember John Updike caused a furor in fandom with an essay in The New Yorker or Harpers that outraged the genre. I wish I could track that essay down, but can’t. Needless to say, at 67 I’m also starting to wonder if science fiction is mostly for the young, or young at heart.

I enjoyed the 18 short mostly animated films in the Love, Death + Robots collection, but I have to admit they mostly appealed to the teenage boy in me, and not the adult. Nudity, sex, violence, and profanity doesn’t equate with maturity. But what does? I’ve known many science fiction fans that think adult literary works are equal to boredom.

So what are the qualities that make science fiction mature? I struggled this morning to think of science fiction novels that I’d consider adult oriented. The first that came to mind was Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Orwell died before the concept of science fiction became common, but I’m pretty sure he never would have considered himself a science fiction writer even though he used the tricks of our trade. Margaret Atwood doesn’t consider herself a science fiction writer even though books like The Handmaid’s Tale are both science fiction and mature literature. Other mature SF novels I can think of are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are all novels that use science fiction techniques to tell their story but were written by literary writers.

Of course, I could be howling at the moon for no reason. Most television and movies are aimed at the young. Except for Masterpiece on PBS and a few independent films, I seldom get to enjoy stories aimed at people my own age. Which brings me back to the question: What makes for mature fiction? And it isn’t content that we want to censor from the young. If we’re honest, nudity, sex, violence, and profanity are at the core of our teenage thoughts.

Mature works of fiction are those that explore reality. Youth is inherently fantasy oriented. The reason why we’re offered so little adult fiction is that we don’t want to grow up and face reality. The world is full of reality-based problems. We want fiction that helps us forget those problems. Getting old is real. We want to think young.

Love, Death + Robots appeals to our arrested development.

Love Death + Robots - robots

I’m currently reading and reviewing the 38 science fiction stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m writing one essay for each story to discuss both the story and the nature of science fiction in general. I’ve finished 10 stories so far, and one common aspect I’m seeing is a rejection of reality. These stories represent what Dozois believes is the best short science fiction published from 2002-2017. On the whole, the stories are far more mature than those in Love, Death + Robots, but that’s mainly due to their sophistication of storytelling, and not philosophy. At the heart of each story is a wish that reality was different. Those wishes are expressed in incredibly creative ways, which is the ultimate aspect of science fiction. But hoping the world could be different is not mature.

Science fiction has always been closer to comic books than Tolstoy, Woolf, or even Dickens. And now that many popular movies are based on comic books, and the whole video game industry looks like filmed comic books, comic book mentality is spreading. The science fiction in Love, Death + Robots is much closer to its comic book ancestry than its science fiction ancestry, even though many of the stories were based on original short stories written by science fiction writers. Some reviewers suggest Love, Death + Robots grew out of shows like Robot Carnival and Heavy Metal.  Even though Heavy Metal was considered animation for adults, it’s appeal was rather juvenile.

I know fully well that if Netflix offered a series of 18 animated short science fiction films that dealt with the future in a mature and realistic way it would get damn few viewers. Even when science fiction deals with real-world subjects, it seldom does so in a real way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a genre to be mature that wants to offer hope to the young. Yet, is its hope honest? Is it a positive message tell the young we can colonize other planets if we destroy the Earth? That we can solve climate change with magical machines. That science can give us super-powers. That if we inject nanobots into our bloodstream we can be 22 again. That don’t worry about death because we’ll download your brain into a clone or computer. Doesn’t science fiction often claim that in time technology will solve all problems in the same way we rationalize to children how Santa Claus could be real?

Actually, none of the stories in Love, Death + Robots offered any hope, just escape and the belief you can sometimes shoot your way out of a bad situation. But only sometimes.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, one story, “Helping Hand” by Claudine Griggs is about a very realistic situation that is solved by logical thinking. Strangely, it’s the only story by a woman writer. A “Cold Equations” kind of story. That’s a classic 1954 short story written by Tom Godwin where the main character has to make a very difficult choice.

My favorite three stories (“When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots”) were all based on stories by John Scalzi and have kind of zany humor that provides needed relief from the grimness of the other tales. I actually enjoyed all the short films, but I did tire of the ones that felt inspired by video game violence. Even those films like “Secret War” and “Lucky Thirteen” which aimed for a little more maturity, rose higher than comic books, but only to pulp fiction.

The two films based on Alastair Reynolds stories, “Zima Blue” and “Beyond the Aquilla Rift” seemed to be the most science fictional in a short story way. I especially like “Zima Blue” for its visual art, and the fact the story had an Atomic Age kind of science fiction feel to it. So did the fun “Ice Age” based on a Michael Swanwick story. Mid-Century science fiction is really my favorite SF era. Finally, “Good Hunting” based on a Ken Liu has a very contemporary SF feel because it blends Chinese myths with robots. World SF is a trending wave in the genre now.

I’m still having a hard time pointing to mature short SF, ones that would make great little films like in Love, Death + Robots. Maybe “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, which I reviewed on my other site. I guess my favorite example might be “The Star Pit” by a very young Samuel R. Delany, which is all about growing up and accepting limitations. Most of the films in Love, Death + Robots were 8-18 minutes. These stories might need 30-60. It would be great if Netflix had an ongoing anthology series of short live-action and animated science fiction because I’d like to see more previously published SF stories presented this way. Oh, I suppose they could add sex, nudity, violence, and profanity to attract the teenagers, but what I’d really want is to move away from the comic book and video game plots, and into best better SF stories we read in the digests and online SF magazines.

JWH

 

 

 

 

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Chocolate and Back Pain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 18, 2019

I doubt many people will associate chocolate with back pain, but I’ve experienced a connection. I’ve been dealing with spinal stenosis for many years and I’ve learned how to control it with diet and exercise because pills that fight pain and inflammation bother my stomach. I’ve learned that food can cause inflammation. I hate this idea because it’s all my favorite foods that indirectly add to my back pain. Inflammation causes the stiffness and numbness which leads to pain. Most people learn to relax back pain with an anti-inflammation pill, but if you pay attention, avoiding certain foods also has an anti-inflammation effect.

I was doing great this year. I’ve been on 16:8 intermittent fasting since 9/21/18, and off junk food since 1/1/19. About ten days ago I started experimenting with a few minor treats. However, one thing led to another and I fell off the wagon, binging on chocolate for two days. What stopped me was stomach pains. As I’ve gotten older, my stomach has gotten wimpier. Not only had I gotten my back almost pain free and a good deal more limber, but also stabilized my stomach into its quiet state. Going off my diet quickly let me know that value of eating healthy.

I don’t know why, but in recent years my stomach has become extra sensitive to two of my most loved foods: peanut butter and chocolate. When my stomach started hurting I immediately quit my chocolate binge. That’s when I realized that my back had taken quite a setback, proving how much diet contributes to inflammation. I was back to walking hunched over with a slight limp. Just last week I commented to myself that I was feeling much sprier in ages.

When I feel good, I become weak to temptation.

Needless to say, I’m back on my diet. I keep thinking what I eat shouldn’t affect inflammation that much, but it does. I created the above headline to sound absurd hoping to entice people to read this essay. However, I searched on this title and lo and behold, other people are writing about chocolate and back pain too.

I hate having to give up everything I love to eat. But I feel like Pavlov’s dog. Certain foods now come with a kick in the gut or whack to the back. The trouble is I can only remember my conditioning for so long before temptation strikes again. I’m hoping I can remember the miserable stomach pains I felt Saturday and the back pains from yesterday.

JWH

 

 

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Volunteer Librarians

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 9, 2019

A couple weeks ago I went with my friends Mike and Betsy to a book signing for The Watch on the Fencepost (a pleasant cozy mystery) by Kay DiBianca. Mike had worked with Kay for years and I went along because this was Kay’s first book, written after she retired, something I’ve always wanted to do. Kay introduced Mike and me to her audience as former librarians, suggesting we might be experts on books. Mike and I worked in a university library back in the 1980s, but as clerks, not librarians. At the time, we both wanted to become librarians, but it required moving out of town to get a Master’s of Library Science degree, something hard to do since we both had wives with jobs too. To become a librarian where we worked required an MLS to get the job and then another master’s in a useful subject area to keep it.

Mike and I were never qualified to call ourselves librarians so we’re always embarrassed when that title was bestowed on us. We both left the library to go into computers, but I think we each wished we had become librarians. Now that we’re retired I’ve noticed that many of our hobbies require librarian-like skills. I’m starting to think of ourselves and others that share our hobbies as volunteer librarians.

I haven’t worked in a library for almost four decades, but back then they had several main departments:

  • Acquisitions
  • Cataloging
  • Circulation
  • Reference
  • Periodicals
  • Binding & Repairs
  • Government Documents
  • Special Collections

My new hobby of scanning old science fiction fanzines for the Internet Archive involves acquisitions, cataloging, periodicals, repair, and special collection skills. Mike and I’s project for the Classics of Science Fiction involves reference skills like indexing, making rules for the title and author entries, using online databases, and linking to standardized catalogs. Each of us collects books and periodicals. Mike is much better at cataloging his collection in the GoodReads database. Mike would have made a great librarian because he is so extremely detailed oriented.

I think of my scanning project as collecting and preserving documents that are disappearing. There’s a very librarian-like appeal to it. Mike and I used to work with cataloging periodicals using OCLC and Mark II records. I wonder if these are still in use today? (I just checked and they are.) Now that we’re building our own databases of records we’re concerned about standards and interoperability with other database systems. We’re designing our system so titles and authors entries follow exact rules. Like libraries using the OCLC system, we’ve decided to piggyback our efforts on a more universal system, which is the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB.org). ISFDB.org is a vast worldwide effort of volunteer librarians indexing and cataloging all books and periodicals related to science fiction and fantasy.

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s better to join larger efforts. That’s why I’m noticing volunteer librarians building what I believe will one day become the Library of Planet Earth. Right now countless systems, collections, databases, indexes, bibliographies, are springing up on the internet, usually by groups with special interests. They seldom work together, but someday they will. For example, I think it’s very logical that Wikipedia, ISFDB.org, WorldCat, Internet Archive, and other separate systems start cross-referencing everything about science fiction. Everything I upload to the Internet Archive is already cataloged in ISFDB and has entries in Wikipedia. I can already see that Wikipedia will become the Card Catalog of the emerging Planet Earth Library.

Other scanners preserving pulp magazines use Galactic Central which works to index all stories in pulp magazines and related periodicals. It overlaps with science fiction but covers other genres. Sometimes I wish Galactic Central had features of ISFDB, and sometimes I wish ISFDB had features of Galactic Central. Before computers, lone bibliographers compiled lists and 3×5 card stacks by hand and then published them in printed indexes that had to be annually updated. Now all their work is being done by volunteer teams that build huge datasets in the cloud that update in real-time. Eventually, I see these systems merging into super-systems. For example, one day there will be one database that catalogs every short story ever published.

If you pay attention to the information you get on the internet, you’ll start noticing the volunteer librarians. Wikipedia is both volunteer encyclopedists and volunteer librarians. If you’ve ever used Discogs or MusicStack or All Music then you’ve seen the work of volunteer music librarians. Every subject hobby has them.

Some people just have a natural urge to collect, catalog, preserve, index, and organize diverse kinds of recorded knowledge. It’s a kind of hoarding of historical artifacts. We don’t want civilization to Marie Kondo itself and throw out all the tidbits of knowledge that keep piling up. In a way, volunteer librarians are like the dream mechanism in our heads at night that decides which memories are worth keeping. We can’t save everything, but we can try.

Volunteer librarians don’t need library science degrees, just a strong urge to collect,  catalog, and preserve.

JWH

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Improving My Memory by Remembering the Science Fiction I Read in High School (1965-1969)

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 25, 2019

In recent years my ability to remember has become rather haphazard. I’ve even forgotten the names of some of my closest friends – at random times for several long unpleasant moments. My memory access times are just flaky. Retrieval times are their longest when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. It makes me wonder if memory functionality doesn’t correlate to the time of day.

However, in the past week, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my recall ability. At first, I’ve even wondered if I’ve eaten something with memory-boosting vitamins. Or could I have increased my exercising or gotten better sleep? Then I remembered I’ve been dredging my deepest brain cells to recall my high school years. This was set off a few weeks ago when I realized 2019 was the 50th anniversary year of my release from the K-12 imprisonment.

Marshall-Brent

Has a prolonged effort to recall the past strengthened my memory muscles? The other night I watched Lifeboat, the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock film and the next day I could recall all the actors’ names. Last night I watched The Rains of Ranchipur, a 1955 film that starred George Brent. I never can remember his name and always confuse him with Herbert Marshall, whose name I never can remember either to great frustration. Here I am remembering both of their names. What has changed?

Has all my effort to remember somehow opened up clogged neural pathways?

The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein 1967

This morning I found a history of the Science Fiction Book Club. I joined it in early 1967, and the 1965-1969 monthly select list triggers memories of which books I bought during those years. I’m working to distinguish which books I bought from the Things to Come monthly sales flyer, and which I bought later. Making such a distinction helps to remember. My memory tells me the first book I ordered was The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein. It was the April selection for 1967. But my memory tells me I got it in March. However, the sales flyers came weeks earlier so this memory could be true.

It just occurs to me that “the past through tomorrow” are ironic words to come up right now.

I often feel like a detective looking for clues to my own past. I know from personal experience and books to distrust memories. We constantly fool ourselves. We work on the assumption that our memories are accurate. They aren’t. That’s why I’m always looking for external clues to verify what I think I remember.

I’m pushing my memory to recall how I bought books during the 1965-1969 high school years. In the 8th and 9th grades (1963-65) I was getting books from my school libraries at Homestead Junior High and Cutler Ridge Junior High School. Around this time I started making money from cutting lawns and a paper route. The first books I remember buying new at a store were two paperbacks. Well, that’s not exactly true. In the 6th and 7th grade I ordered paperbacks from Scholastic Book flyers they gave out in class, and my mother gave me the money to buy them. But in 1965, but maybe early 1966, I remember going to a shopping center on my bike to buy The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein and Stranger in a Strange Land on separate occasions They were from a spinning wire rack at the back of a drugstore. I just checked ISFDB.org and the first book was 1966 and the second 1964. So that validates my memory. Here are their covers as I first saw them back then:

First-Heinlein-books-I-bought

In August of 1966, we moved to Charleston, Mississippi, a very small town without a bookstore, but with a very tiny, very ancient, very dusty storefront library. Charleston’s drugstore had one twirling rack of books, but without science fiction. I bought Popular Science magazines instead. I also got a job throwing papers for the afternoon paper from Jackson. I got my first checking account at 15. This is when I first joined the Science Fiction Book Club. We moved back to Miami in March of 1967 to Coconut Grove, Florida, the oldest section of Miami (if I can trust my memory). It was here that I visited my first new bookstore, and even then it was half bookstore and half stationary store. It only had a couple of shelves for science fiction, but as of now, I can’t remember buying any specific books there.

I did get a job at the Kwik Chek in Coconut Grove in November of 1967. This is when I got my second checking account, at 16. With my first paycheck I remember being around $40, I ordered the twelve Heinlein juveniles in hardback directly from the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons. (They cost $3.33 each, or $39.96 for the set, so that verifies.) I’ve forgotten how much postage I had to pay. Those books arrived on 2/18/68. I know that because I still have them. I had signed and dated them.

My collection of science fiction was growing. I had a two-shelf bookcase I built in shop class in the 9th grade. My collection took about half of one shelf. I can visualize myself shelving I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov along with Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein. Using the listing of the Science Fiction Book Club I believe I added the following books to my bookshelf during 1967-69 years. This included buying some of SFBC’s older selections. Looking at the covers instantly verifies my memories. I’m also surprised by the famous SF books I didn’t buy during those years but bought much later once I discovered what they were. So some classic science fiction novels I read when they came out and others way afterward. This exercise is also teaching me which books I bought but didn’t read.

  • A Treasury of Great Science Fiction (2 volumes) edited by Anthony Boucher (January 1960)
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (August 1963)
  • Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein (September 1963)
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (October 1963)
  • Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (May 1964)
  • Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein (November 1964)
  • The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov (December 1964)
  • Prelude to Mars by Arthur C. Clarke (August 1965)
  • Twice 22 by Ray Bradbury (March 1966)
  • Mindswap by Robert Sheckley (May 1966)
  • The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard (Summer, 1966)
  • Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov (August 1966)
  • Earthblood by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown (January 1967)
  • The Artificial Man by L. P. Davies (Febrary 1967)
  • The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein (April 1967)
  • Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (December 1967)
  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (January 1968)
  • Cryptozoic! by Brian W. Aldiss (May 1968)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (September 1968)
  • The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd (November 1968)
  • Nova by Samuel R. Delany (May 1969)
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas by Fritz Leiber (June 1969)
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (July 1969)
  • Omnivore by Piers Anthony (July 1969)
  • The Pollinators of Eden by John Boyd (August 1969)
  • The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (September 1969)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (October 1969)
  • The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner (November 1969)

If you are still reading I hope this hasn’t been too boring watching me walk down memory lane. If it’s helping me to exercise my brain then I’ve got to keep doing it. During this period I also bought paperbacks, but not very often. It wasn’t until 1969-1970 that I got into buying used books in volume (by the cardboard box). That’s because I discovered flea markets and trade-in paperback bookstores. I especially remember three paperbacks I purchased during my high school years: Empire Star, Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection. Samuel R. Delany was my second favorite author after Heinlein and my favorite 1960s science fiction writer. Delany was younger, so I felt he represented contemporary science fiction and Heinlein represented the 1940s and 1950s science fiction.

Looking at these titles really does define my reading memories from high school. And their dustjackets trigger old emotions. I wonder if that’s why my memory is improving All this remembering is stirring up the chemicals in my brain?

A Treasury of Great Science Fiction

I Robot by Isaac Asimov

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Farnham's Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein

Earthblood by Laumer and Brown

Mindswap by Robert Sheckley

Omnivore by Piers Anthony

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

JWH

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I Wish I Had a Time Machine to Rescue My Dad

by James Wallace Harris

One of my favorite idle fantasies is to imagine how I would relive my life if my current mind could reincarnate into my younger self. Variations of this fantasy have included using a time machine to jump back in time to warn my younger self about the future, although I doubt young Jimmy would have taken older Jim’s advice. This week I’ve been struggling to remember everything I could from 50 years ago, and a new fantasy has occurred to me.

What if I had a time machine so I could go back and rescue my dad instead of me?

I know such fantasies are impossible, so why waste my time on them? But the science fiction reader in me loves the idea of creating my own alternate histories by playing “What if?” The challenge to these fantasies is to find the right point in time to divert the time stream. It occurred to me this morning that the moment to rescue my father was in the summer of 1967, but first I guess I should explain why my father needed help.

My father died in 1970 at age 49 when I was 18. My mother and father were alcoholics. My father was a steady drinker, but my mother would only hit the bottle in times of stress from her bipolar swings. My father loved being in the Air Force but was forced to retire after 22 years when he had a heart attack in 1964. Sitting at home without work made him drink more. Dad recovered, went back to work and had another heart attack. Dad recovered again, went back to work, and had a stroke. He even recovered from the stroke before he died of his final heart attack.

My father also had emphysema in his last years, requiring oxygen. But he continued to chain smoke Camels, eat meat and potatoes, and drink Seagram 7 all day long. His death certificate reported that his liver, lungs, appendix, and stomach were shot to hell. I’ve always figured his heart was very strong to survive all that. It made me wonder if he had ever tried to get healthy if he could have survived into old age. Or at least long enough for the two of us to get to know each other.

But my dad was not a happy man. When I was a kid I used to ask myself, “Was my father a drunk because my mother bitched all the time, or did my mother bitch all the time because my father was a drunk?” I’ve never blamed my parents about my upbringing. I survived by being totally selfish, and I figured it was every family member for themselves. Now that I’m older I feel guilty for being so selfish. I know as a kid I didn’t know enough to help them, or even how to be a better person myself. I just survived the best I could. I really don’t blame my parents, but I don’t think they were suited to have children.

Over the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that I and my sister were the main sources of my parents’ unhappiness. We just weren’t what they expected, and any effort to shape us into what they wanted only caused them endless suffering. Of course, it wasn’t easy on me and Becky either, but our youth gave us a vitality to survive. My father just couldn’t handle the emotional conflicts. My mom got better after my father died, especially with 1970s anti-depressants, but she suffered endless unhappiness for the rest of her life, mostly from trying to make Becky and I do what she wanted.

The photo above is my only proof that my parents were ever happy. It was taken in 1949 before they had me and Becky.

Over the decades I’ve tried to reconstruct who my dad was from memories of the people who knew him, but I’ve had little luck. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to talk with anyone who really knew him, and that includes my mother, who died in 2007. My father wasn’t much of a talker. He might have been before I knew him, but I now believe my mother, sister, and I drowned him out.

I have just 23 photographs of my father. All but three were taken before I was born, and two of those were with me as a toddler. I have no photographs of my father with my sister.

1936---George-Harris-photoshoppedMy father was born in Nebraska, in 1920, but moved when he was a little kid to Miami by 1923. He attended Miami Edison High School, but I’m not sure if he graduated there. I have a photo of him dressed for graduation that was taken in Homestead, Florida. Dad graduated in 1938 and I have his class photo, but I’m not sure if he graduated from Edison. I know he attended Edison for a while because I have a newspaper clipping about his class project. I know he worked as a Western Union delivery boy in high school because I have a photo of him in uniform from 1936. I have photos of my father in the service in 1942, but I’m not sure what he did between graduating in 1938 and joining the Army Air Corp in 1942. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and married my mother in 1945.

My parents were first stationed in Washington, DC, and then Puerto Rico. I have several photographs of my mother and father living on the island and looking very happy. And when I was young they often talked fondly of life in Puerto Rico. I was born on the 6th wedding anniversary on November 25, 1951. There are two photographs of me with my father when I was a toddler, probably in 1952. The next and last photograph I have of my father was from Thanksgiving 1969. It’s blurry and everyone is almost unrecognizable. He died six months later.

I remembered something this morning that made me think the perfect time to rescue my dad would have been in the summer of 1967. 1964-1966 were bad years for my parents, and they separated from September 1966 to March 1967. My mother took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi to be near her family. We returned to Miami in March 1967 to live on West Trade Avenue, in Coconut Grove, Florida. I guess my father was trying to get his act together. He also started computer classes. I remember him coming home from class and telling me about how punch card codes worked. However, it wasn’t long before my mother and father were fighting again. And my mother and father were both on my sister case, and she was having none of it. I remember a lot of family fights. I tried to stay as far away from my family as possible. I slept on the screened-in back porch with the clothes washer. I had my radio, record player and science fiction books.

This would have been a perfect time to have tried to get to know my father. I don’t know if I could have convinced him to eat right, give up smoking and drinking, and maybe even exercise, but maybe he would have considered it on his own if someone had shown any interest in his life. I think he drank because he was lonely.

Taking computer classes in 1967 was a great time to break into the field. I started computer classes in 1971. If I had studied with him I would have had a great headstart too. We could have gotten to know each other. Maybe he would have tried harder.

Generally, when I have my time travel fantasies I’m thinking of time periods to change my life. Over the years I’ve decided the best time for me was the fall of 1963. If I could have talked my parents into letting me live with my grandmother instead of moving with them to South Carolina I believe my life would have been significantly different. In the fall of 1963, I went to three different 7th grade schools. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I had lived in one place from 7th grade through the 12th. But now I see the pivotal moment in time for my dad was the summer of 1967.

I know we only get one life to live. There are no do-overs. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven. But I’ve long thought the idea of reincarnation was a wonderful concept, but not how the Hindus imagine it. I’ve always thought we should reincarnate in our own lives and have another chance of getting it right.

My father always worked two and three jobs. I hope he had great friends in the service. I know he loved bartending at NCO clubs and VFW clubs. He loved running bars, and I got to visit in some in those bars. I hope he had friends. I often wonder if he and his buddies consoled each other about wives and kids that didn’t understand them. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I imagine my father always being tight-lipped. Just holding it in.

I can only remember a handful of conversations I had with my dad. One time we were watching The Today Show before he took me to school and he went to work. This was also in that summer of 1967. They mentioned The Hobbit and my father said he knew about Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know who Bilbo was at that time but remembered my dad saying that name, Bilbo Baggins, later when I finally read The Hobbit. It made me wonder what books my father read, what dreams he had about the future. He grew up in the heyday of the pulp magazines and old time radio. I wonder what stories and heroes he loved.

My father loved the military, and in 1967 I was very anti-war. I remember once my dad calling me a commie-pinko-faggot in anger. His dream for me was to join the ROTC and become an officer. I was having none of that. I ruined his fantasy for me. I later thought he should have been mature enough to understand me because I was too immature to understand him. But that was all part of the great generation gap. If my dad had lived he would have been a Fox News kind of guy. I don’t think we would have ever bridged the generation gap.

However, if I ever get hold of a time machine, I would try.

1969---Last-photo-of-Dad

JWH

 

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How Accurately Can I Remember 50 Years Ago?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 16, 2019

2019 is the 50th anniversary of my graduating high school in 1969. I attended three different high schools in two states from 1966 to 1969. I’ve been looking at their yearbooks which has triggered a flood of memories. That is inspiring me to write a series of essays in lieu of attending my high school reunion. The process of struggling to remember and validating my memories with evidence has unleashed emotions and revelations that reflect a new honesty about myself. This is my third attempt to write about this experience. I keep bombing out when the essays got too long and complicated. So I’ve decided to cut them up into thematic chunks. I’ve toyed with writing “50 Lessons From 50 Years Ago” because I’ve remembered at least fifty scenes from the past that are worth an essay each, with more burbling out of my unconscious every hour. I’ve either stumbled upon a psychological fountain of wisdom, or a wriggling can of worms.

As my current ability to remember becomes iffier, and access times get longer, the whole topic of memory has become a siren call of fascination, even obsession. This week as I’ve worked to remember 50 years ago, I had many revelations about myself, some unpleasant and unflattering. An essential insight is I might be different from most other people. Because my family moved so much as a kid, I have always been hung up on recalling the past because I was always remembering friends, homes, and schools I just left. I envy people who never moved. My friend Linda, who is working with her 50th-anniversary reunion group is also in charge of the 1st-grade reunion. She told me recently she’s in contact with 9 of her 15 classmates from her first grade. That blows my mind. I can’t remember a single classmate from grades 1 through 3. And I can’t remember now if I went to four or five schools in those first three grades. I do remember living in 7 houses during those years.

This first essay will be about the limits of memory and evidence. To put it bluntly, our memories are flawed and unreliable. Whole books have been written about that. My favorite is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Don’t be scared off because it’s about Jesus, Ehrman takes a historical approach and spends most of the book talking about how we remember. Describing someone from 2,000 years ago tests the limit of memory and evidence. I’m just trying to remember who I was 50 years ago and a few friends. Supposedly I should have been the best eye witness. I probably wasn’t. After reading through the yearbooks I went searching for more physical evidence. I found very little.

The photo above is from my 10th-grade yearbook, The Warrior when I attended East Tallahatchie High School in Charleston, Mississippi from September 1966 through the beginning of March 1967. I’m the guy in the striped sweater. Except for the teacher I can’t recall any of those other science club members. So far I’ve only found three photos of myself from 1966-1969. That’s scant evidence. I thought I had a few old report cards my mother saved, but I can’t find them. I have no diaries, journals, or other physical evidence. I had more physical evidence, but in the 1970s, went through a Buddhist phase and got rid of all my possessions that triggered memories. God, I wish I had that stuff now, what a jackass. At the time I wanted to free myself from thinking about the past.

The Yardsticks of Memory

There are two primary ways to reconstruct the past. The first is memories. The second is physical evidence. But I needed a standard unit of measurement, a yardstick to lay against both memory and evidence. Or I needed anchors in the past to work out from. I’m slowly developing several:

  • How many people did I know and how often did I talk to them? This involved recalling names and finding photographs and giving myself the third-degree about how deeply I interacted with these people.
  • What was I required to do every day? What were my routines?
  • What did I want to do with my free time?
  • What did I hope to do? What were my plans for the future?
  • What events can I document on Google that I remember attending?
  • Where and what did I eat at my three meals?
  • What TV shows did I watch?
  • What books did I read?
  • What movies and concerts did I go to?
  • How did I commute to work and school?

I’ve decided not to attend my reunion because digging through the yearbooks convinced me I knew too few classmates. I realized while contemplating this whole high school reunion thing, that I can measure my high school years by how much I talked to the different people. Today I can name damn few people I got to really know back in high school. I wasn’t particularly shy. I’m fairly confident that I learned all the names of my classmates in every class. I paid that much attention. People would talk to me and I’d talk to them, but it was all casual chit-chat that’s been forgotten. I remember several girls in each class that triggered sex fantasies to alleviate the boredom of lectures. Some of them actually like talking to me. However, I only actually dated only one girl for a couple of months, and I can’t remember one distinctive thing she said to me. I found damn few kids in my memories that liked to talk about what I liked to talk about, which was science, science fiction, the future, and NASA’s efforts at space travel. I did gab daily with folks about cars, television, movies, and rock music because those were the lowest common denominators of pop culture back then. I didn’t like talking about sports or school activities or gossiping about the other kids.

I still chat on the phone several times a week to my oldest friend, Jim Connell. We met at Coral Gables High School, my second high school, in 1967. So he wasn’t part of my graduating class, but Connell was the person I spent the most time with back then. We were also pals with George Kirschner. George is probably the second person I spent the most time talking to during my high school years. We three loved science fiction, and we had each had rejected our Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish upbringing. I was into the counter culture, George was the know-it-all with a more sophisticated upbringing, and Connel was adventurous but shy and loved the ocean. We all loved science.

My family moved from Coconut Grove, Florida to South Miami when I was in the 11th grade, and I finished out high school at Miami-Killian Senior High. However, I kept my job in Coconut Grove until the last week of November 1968. That kept me tied to some of my friends that still went to Coral Gables High School, but it meant a long daily commute to work. Remembering this made me realize I had friends at two high schools and a job so that meant a lot more names and conversations to recall.

It also made me realize that I did a lot of traveling every day and I didn’t own a car. Just trying to remember how I got from place to place is unearthing all kinds of memories. Google Maps tells me from home to Kwik Check was 16.1 miles via Old Cutler Road, and would take 37 minutes. Here’s a memory puzzle. I think my mother and father each had a car, but I didn’t. They both worked. I remember a 1967 Pontiac Tempest and vaguely remember a much older Mercury. I think sometimes I’d go to school on the bus, or catch a ride with Tim Green. Miami-Killian was between home and work. And then I’d hitch-hike into the Grove, but I don’t think I did that often. I only vaguely remember driving to school a few times, but what I really remember was loving the drive home after work. I’d be hot and sweaty after working six hours. My end-of-the-night tasks were sweeping and mopping the floors, cleaning the bathrooms, and incinerating the out-of-date food. I’d buy two 16-ounce Cokes after work and drive home via the Old Cutler Road, which was dark and lined with ancient looking trees. I’d have the windows down and play the radio very loud. I love the time I had to myself driving home. It was the only time I wasn’t rushing. So my assumption is my parents would lend me their cars. But I have no memory of discussing who’d take the car each day, or how they got to their jobs.

Nor do I remember much about my sister Becky’s life back then. She was two years younger than me. When I started the 12th at Miami-Killian she started the 10th, but I have no memory of which junior high schools she attended in Gables or South Miami Heights.

And this makes me remember something else. To many, high school is 9th through 12th, but in Miami, junior high was 7th through 9th and high school 10th through 12th. So if I’m recalling the details of my high school years, do I think of four schools or three, or four homes or three? Because recalling the 9th grade is a whole other memory era for me, and a different group of friends.

This quicksand trap is teaching me about memory. Every time I find a piece of evidence, remember a name, think of an activity or recall an event, I trigger memories around them. It feels like it’s all there, I just need to find the hook, or thread of the web and follow it. It boggles my mind to think that chemical etchings in my brain stores all these memories.

Now that I’m working out the framework for finding memories, I want to pick an individual memory and reconstruct it in depth. I know there was the reality to my life fifty years ago, but it was all perceptual. There was the person I wanted to be, the person I thought I was, the person other people saw, and they were all different. And my parents and teachers wanted me to be different people with different futures, and I wanted to be something I could never be.

One of the hardest things to remember is my realistic expectations about the future. I remember countless unrealistic expectations, but how often did I make realistic decisions and plans? Stay tuned for part 2.

JWH