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How Game of Thrones Reflects History Like Two Opposing Mirrors

by James Wallace Harris, 6/15/22

My friends Linda, Connell, and I are rewatching HBO’s Game of Thrones, and this time around I can’t help but compare it to current politics and the books on ancient history I’m reading. When I saw the series years ago I only thought of it as an epic fantasy. This time I feel George R. R. Martin distilled millennia of human history into one fictional story.

I’ve lost count of the times a real game of thrones has played out in my study of history. By now I’ve read dozens and dozens of accounts of power plays for a throne. One example from ancient Egypt deals with an assassination attempt on Rameses III from The History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Baurer:

THE FAULT LINE running through Egypt, temporarily plastered over by victory reliefs and building projects, was still liable to crack open at any point. Rameses III held the throne by right of his father’s coup, and he was not immune to power plays.

Towards the end of his reign, one of his lesser wives hatched a plot to assassinate the king by mob violence. Scribes who recorded the affair during the reign of Rameses’s successor say that she began a campaign to “stir up the people and incite enmity, in order to make rebellion against their lord.”10 Apparently she hoped that the mob would not only remove Rameses III, but also his appointed successor—his son by another wife—so that her own son would become king.

A harem plot to kill the pharaoh was hardly unknown, but this one was remarkable for the number of people involved. The court recorder lists, among others, the two royal standard-bearers, the butler, and the chief scribe. The overseer of the herds was accused of making wax figures of the king, apparently for use in an Egyptian form of voodoo;11 the chief steward was convicted of spreading dissension. The conspiracy apparently stretched all the way down into Nubia: “Benemwese, formerly captain of archers in Nubia…was brought in because of the letter which his sister, who was in the harem, had written to him, saying, ‘Incite the people to hostility!’”12

The records of the conspiratorial accusations end, in monotonous regularity, with either “He took his own life” or “The punishments of death were executed upon him.” The exceptions were three conspirators who merely had their noses and ears cut off, and a single acquittal: a standard-bearer named Hori, who undoubtedly lived the rest of his years in disbelief that he alone had survived the purge.13

By the time the trials dragged to a close, the intended victim was offstage. Rameses III himself had died of old age.

That trial reminds me of the current Jan 6th hearings. I wonder how people will study January 6th in future history books?

Donald Trump’s campaigns to stay in political power remind me of Game of Thrones too. Trump wants the 2024 presidency like the Game of Throne characters wants the Iron Throne. I imagine Trump pictures himself as Tywin Lannister, rich and powerful, but he’s actually more like Robert Baratheon, a leader in name only who shirks his kingly duties to wench and hunt. All of Trump’s would-be advisors remind me of the treacherous advisors in King’s Landing. People like Steve Bannon obviously want to be a puppetmaster to the powerful in the same way Littlefinger and Varys pulled the strings on those who would rule Westeros.

This year I’m on my fourth book about ancient history and there is one obvious lesson that stands out above all others: Beware of rulers. There are always people, usually men, who believe they should rule, and they think nothing of getting thousands or even millions of innocent people killed to fulfill their ambitions.

The alpha humans always want more. The betas connive to be alphas. And the rest of humanity, the omegas, are the pawns in the game of thrones. To the ruthless, the 99.99% of humanity are the Star Trek red shirts in their personal fantasies. We see that with Putin in Ukraine right now. I’ve started another book, Bloodlands by Timothy Synder, that focuses on Hitler and Stalin’s roles in killing 14 million people from 1933 to 1945. Why do we let our rulers have so much power?

Until humanity can rule itself without ambitious psychopaths we’re going to repeat the same loop forever. In the history books, there have only been a couple of minor incidents where the ordinary citizens protested their role as cannon fodder. Most of history is about one ruler after another waging war. When will this infinitely repeated story horrify us enough to break free of the cycle? Since Game of Thrones was such a huge hit, maybe we love things just the way they are?

Eight seasons of Game of Thrones is about endless warring and the remembrances of wars. The story ends and we think there will be peace, but history tells us that won’t be true. Why don’t we get other stories in history and literature? Why not the stories of those people who built the beautiful cities we see in Westeros and Essos? Why is it always conflict and destruction?

Why do we mainly remember the monsters of history and literature? None of the major characters in Game of Thrones are good people. Is this why Trump and Putin are so well-loved in their respective countries? Are the rest of us just fans, taking sides while watching the game play out? Is that our only role, to pick a team to follow? Go Starks! Go Lannisters! Go Trump! Go Putin!

Below is one of my favorite and telling passages in The History of the Ancient World. In chapter 52, history intersects with the Old Testament and 19th-century literature. It’s not that I endorse what’s being reported, but I think it reveals something deeply psychological in the human race, especially when you compare these events of almost three thousand years ago to today. This passage reminds me of the destruction of cities in Ukraine and King’s Landing in season eight.

JWH

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Are You Prepared for a Trip to the ER?

by James Wallace Harris, 6/10/22

Now I don’t mean are you wearing clean underwear or are you psyched up to wait in line for hours to see a doctor? I mean something different. Are you prepared for your body to fail? When I was younger I was rushed to the ER because my sister hit me in the hit with a croquet mallet and I was bleeding like someone in a horror film or the time when we were goofing around in PE and I broke my arm, but those are not the kind of bodily failures I’m talking about. Are you ready to start falling apart unexpectantly?

Last week I had to go to the ER. I had food stuck in my esophagus. It was below the windpipe so I could breathe, but if I tried to swallow water to help clear it, the water wouldn’t go down and I’d have to puke/cough it back up. I waited two hours for the food to pass. This has happened to me before and it’s always cleared, but after two hours I worried it might be really stuck. So I went to the ER. I should have gone to a GI doctor years ago instead of waiting for an ER emergency visit. My mother had her esophagus stretched. I think having food stuck in mine for seven hours did stretch it.

Luckily, after waiting five hours, I got to see a doctor, and just as she was getting ready to send me to a GI specialist, the food fell through. What a relief. I had been imagining the kind of things they’d stick down my throat. I still had to stand another hour to be released.

Unluckily for me, I was having a bad back spell, and standing for six hours aggravated the crap out of my back. When my back gives me trouble, I can’t sit. I can lie down or stand. (I’m typing this while standing.) So, instead of going to see a GI doctor about my throat, I’m seeing a back doctor and getting an MRI tomorrow. After that, I might schedule a visit with a GI doctor, but I have three other pressing issues, any of which could send me to the ER again.

I did not expect to get so old at 70 so fast. While I was waiting in the ER for five hours I watched the other people around me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about waiting five hours. That’s part of the deal, and other people who came in before me were still waiting when I left. The ER was run very smoothly, and they have a triage system.

If it was obvious you needed help you got it immediately. The next stage involved a form that asked five questions to determine if they needed to act almost as fast. (If you could fill out a form, you’re not quite dying I suppose.) One of the questions was: Are you having trouble breathing. I wasn’t, since the food was past my windpipe. So I didn’t check it, if I had, I might not have had to wait five hours, but I didn’t want to cut in line. I sometimes started to have trouble, but I could cough up all the saliva that built up and I was okay again. The third stage, after a bit of waiting, is where a nurse takes your vitals and gets the details.

None of the form questions were about severe pain, and quite a few people in the waiting room seemed to be in a lot of pain. That old advice about seeing the ER doctor right away if you arrive in an ambulance isn’t true. We came in a car, but I saw people arriving in an ambulance that was told to wait in the waiting room, and the EMTs took them off the stretcher and put them in a waiting room chair. There were three waiting room areas, and I guess about forty people, but that included loved ones or caretakers.

One guy was in agony, I think from a kidney stone (he leaked blood by the urinal and on the floor while I was in there puking up spit). He kept demanding to see a doctor but was told he had to wait. He left claiming he was going to go find an ER that would help him. I wondered how to be best prepared for having kidney stones. Is it having a good urologist?

The lesson I learned in the ER, and it was a very educational experience, was to get prepared because I would be in there again, and maybe in worse shape. I had to call an ambulance for my mother a couple of times, so did my sister, and my mother even called them on her own several times. Getting old means getting to know the ER system. Getting old means learning to deal with all kinds of medical specialists. Getting old means learning to endure all kinds of diagnostic procedures.

I’m the kind of person that likes to picture what I’m going to do before I do it.

What I’m trying to figure out now, is how to be better prepared for trips to the ER. My mother said to always wear clean underwear, but there’s got to be more things to do to make the experience better.

JWH

Update: I’m not sure this essay succeeded in conveying the positive experience I got from my visit to the ER. It was painful for my back, and I would have preferred not to have had food stuck in my throat, but overall I found those six hours very enlightening. Contrary to that old adage, what doesn’t kill us won’t always make us stronger, but in this case, I think it made me wiser. I fear my writing effort here has failed because I haven’t conveyed that wisdom.

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Be Prepared!

by James W. Harris, 5/18/22

Back in November, I had to jump-start my truck the old fashion way with cables off my wife’s car. It was tricky getting her car into position so my cables could reach. After that, I started parking my truck facing out in case it happened again. But I had also heard about these portable chargers and I got on Amazon and ordered a DBPOWER 1000A Portable Car Jump Starter (pictured above).

When it came in I couldn’t believe how small it was. It comes in a nice case, but the actual charger is about the size of a paperback book. I charged it up on 11/6/21 and stuck it under my truck seat. Today, I went out and discovered I had done the same dumb thing again – which is to not shut my passenger door tight after getting groceries out. I know, I’m a dumbass.

I immediately remembered the DP1000 and wondered if it was still charged up. It was. So it holds a charge for at least six months. It was damn simple to use. You plug in a small set of cables, connect red to positive, black to negative, turn it on the DP1000, and start the truck. It started instantly. I was so impressed. I’m going to get one for my wife’s car now.

I’m not advocating the model of device I got is the best. It says it was good for up to a 7.0L gas engine or 5.5L diesel. There’s a huge variety of them to choose from, even some that are combined with an air compressor. I already had one of those.

I was mightily impressed with this little device. I’ve helped jump other people’s cars with my cables and it hasn’t always been convenient to align the vehicles. This is the solution.

JWH

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Why Do We Keep Repeating History When We Know We’re Repeating History?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/22

I’m listening to and reading Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Maryazak. It’s a quick overview of 40 civilizations of early history beginning with the Akkadians and ending with the Hephthalites. To be honest, I had only heard of less than half of these civilizations, mostly because of references in the Bible or from Greek and Roman history.

I’ve never studied ancient history much but I’ve recently gotten hooked on it, especially after reading The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick. The first two were a slog to get through but I still admired them. The Writing of the Gods was sheer fun and would probably appeal to many readers. Forgotten People of the Ancient World is a breezy summary, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, but it doesn’t go too deep. Perfect for me right now, but I’ll want to know more later. Actually, the entries on Wikipedia cover more for each civilization than Matyszak’s chapters, but his book integrates a digestible narrative with inspiring photos and maps making it easier to read.

When you read/listen to one summary of a civilization after another, it’s pretty damn obvious that humankind is on repeat mode. Humanity is Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but we never learn how to break the cycle. You’d think with all this history we’d figure it out the secret.

Some cycles are obvious, like the rise of powerful leaders. Why do we call Alexander III of Macedon the Great? Sure, he conquered a lot of territories but he also killed, destroyed, and plundered. We hate Putin today for what he’s doing in Ukraine, but how was Alexander III of Macedon any different? We really should call Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, Putin, and every other empire builder the monsters of history.

That’s the number one cycle we keep doing over and over, which is to allow egomaniacs to become rulers. We’ve tried to avoid that by creating democracy, but as you can see from recent times that doesn’t always succeed at controlling men who want more. And even then democracies sometimes go around and destroy other countries too, just like would-be emperors. Humans have this thing about destroying their enemies and expanding their territory. Like Rodney King, I must ask, “Can’t we all just get along?”

A less obvious cycle we repeat is the reverberation between big government and small government. All the successful civilizations grew, needing central control to keep things organized. The central government of the Akkadians had to build vast irrigation systems which required taxes and governmental infrastructure. There are always people who resent that. They rebel and undermine the central government and civilization erodes and eventually collapses. Why can’t we find a balance between secure political structures and personal freedoms?

We fail to be good stewards of the Earth and overtax Mother Nature with our endless growth and consumption. Nor do we save for the future to withstand random destructive acts of nature. Humanity is no Boy Scout, it’s never prepared.

Another hit on the Top Repeat list is ignoring reality. We feed our hatreds and greed with crazy ideas and justifications. We’re always our own worst enemy.

I feel like we’re living in end-of-civilization times. Reading about history is somewhat soothing but for a strange reason. It promotes stoical thinking.

Here’s a neat video on YouTube about how chaos theory predictions patterns of disorder in ordered systems. We live with entropy, and civilization is anti-entropic. It helps to understand both chaos and complexity theory. It won’t help the world to know this, but at least it explains some things.

JWH

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Why Did I Dream About the Dead Woman?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/15/22

A vivid emotional dream woke me. The dream was short, but it gave off an intensity. I was in a room, but I don’t think it was me. I was watching two men struggle with a dead woman trying to lay her body out straight. She wasn’t fat, but she was somewhat big, maybe tall, and around 160-170 pounds. There was a short man at her head and a taller man at her feet. I never saw their faces. The woman had died in a fetal position, tangled up in a quilt. The two men were lifting her up to stretch her out on her back. My impression was they were going to take her away, so maybe they were funeral people. I apologized to them for not helping, but I didn’t tell them I was afraid to get too close to the dead woman. I felt that strongly. I don’t know if we were related, but she was in her forties, much younger than me, but then who I was in the dream was younger too.

The woman was bald, and when they got on her back and arms folded on her chest, they stood up. The woman’s head then quickly sprouted short dark hair and she turned her head towards me and gave a beautiful smile. Shocked, I pointed exclaiming, “Look, she’s alive!” But when they looked down again, she was dead like before.

That was the end of my dream.

I’ve been reading books and watching documentaries about ancient Egypt and I wondered how ancient people would have interpreted this dream. Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with the underworld. All through history people have tried to make dreams meaningful. I wonder if this dream was supposed to be a message to me? I didn’t know the woman. And I’ve never believed in dream interpretation, yet I wondered why I dreamed this dream. Was it only my unconscious mind sorting information?

At 70, I’ve known a lot of people who are no longer with us. And since my body is obviously in decline, I don’t think I’ll be around for many more years. A dream about death seems important. When I woke up I wasn’t frightened. It wasn’t a nightmare. But I was puzzled.

Since I’m an atheist I don’t think we exist after death. But what if I’m wrong? Lately, there are been a lot of speculation about this universe being a simulation. What if I died and came to in another existence, and then realized I had been in some kind of virtual reality, wouldn’t that be weird? But then, what happens when I die in that reality?

I am amazed at my dreams for another reason. How does my brain generate images? Or construct stories? Often my dreams feel like productions equal to short movies. If I have a speech center of the brain, where is the movie studio center? What’s weird is I have that condition, aphantasia, that keeps me from visualizing imagery in my waking life. Yet, I have no trouble generating imagery in my sleep. I used to generate imagery when I was high, but that’s been half a century ago.

By the way, do we really see movies in our dreams? Sometimes I think dreams are a series of images, each one triggering an emotion, giving the illusion of movement.

I can easily understand how primitive people could believe what they did about dreams – they seem so real. The more I read about consciousness the more I believe my perceptions are very limited. And the more I read, the less I feel like I know anything.

I’m always amazed at people who are so confident in their beliefs. I’m sorry, but I assume you’re delusional. I know I am. The more I read, the more ways I’ve come across in which we fool ourselves. I guess you think I read too much.

Most of my dreams are about desperately searching for a bathroom and I wake up needing to pee. You may laugh at that, but isn’t it rather straightforward. Isn’t my unconscious mind just saying, “Wake up and go pee!” If it can be so direct about something so basic, what is my unconscious mind telling me when it shows me a smiling dead woman?

JWH

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Just Who Slept With the Pods?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/14/22

In the 1956 film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dr. Miles Bennel (Kevin McCarthy) realizes his friends and neighbors are changing. One by one they all start thinking alike and that worries him. If you haven’t seen this famous film about the pod people you should. It’s based on a 1954 Collier’s serial by Jack Finney called The Body Snatchers, which was then published as a book in 1955.

The story is about an invasion of pods from outer space that transform people if they sleep in the same room with one. Back in the 1950s, the story was seen as an allegory about communism. Finney has said he didn’t target communism specifically when he wrote the book, but most readers and moviegoers did back then.

In 1951, Robert Heinlein had published a similarly themed novel called The Puppet Masters. In that story, flying saucers land with creatures that attach to our backs, and take over our bodies and minds. Heinlein was an arch anti-communist, and his story was intended to imply the evils of a commie takeover.

In 1953 Robert Sheckley’s story, “Keep Your Shape” reflected a liberal’s paranoia. It appeared in the November issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Sheckley rewrote the story for his collection Untouched by Human Hands and gave the story a much more elegant ending and a different title, “Shape.” It’s a humorous story told from the aliens’ point of view, about how they invaded the Earth twenty-something times and always failed. The aliens come from a rigid society of shape-shifting creatures whose God dictates that everyone has to maintain a certain shape. On Earth, the aliens are corrupted by our freedom when they see that we take so many different shapes. Sheckley’s story was anti-establishment and anti-conforming.

My point in mentioning all these stories is I feel like the conservatives have been sleeping with pods or have an alien riding on their backs. I feel this because they all seem to speak the same way. It’s kind of creepy to see political ads for Republicans because they all claim to toe the party line better than any other Republican. They all claim to hold the same beliefs. And their followers all repeat the same soundbites. I’m sure conservatives feel the same way about us liberals.

A couple days ago The New York Times ran a book review called “Where Have All the Liberals Gone?” The conservatives have made the term liberal such a dirty word that liberals are now calling themselves progressives. Conservatives have aligned themselves so tightly with Donald Trump that it reminds me of the fanatics who follow Putin and everything he says.

It makes me feel like the Kevin McCarthy character wondering when I will fall asleep and wake up a pod person. I no longer think of communism when I watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I think of everyone following one leader, one strong man’s view. If you look at history, the dangerous horrors of the past didn’t come from ideologies, but from single men pushing their view of reality onto everyone else.

I no longer understand what conservative or liberal philosophies means, even if they ever had a consistent description of their goals. I’m now thinking it’s always been individual men pushing their own philosophy onto other people. (I use the word men because I can’t think of any women dictators in history. I hope women won’t mind me being sexist in this instance.) That’s why Trump is so popular – people resonate and relate to him. He is their political philosophy, no matter how you label it.

I want a true democracy. But I don’t think it will ever work when winning is defined as a 50% majority. I think it needs to be at least 60%, and better yet, a winning majority should be defined at 75%. I want to live in a society where we work to compromise and create laws that attempt to make 100% of the population happy. It will always fail to reach 100% agreement, but if we could work out compromises where 60-75% of the population come to some kind of agreement, then I think we could escape our never-ending political polarization.

Right now we vote for our self-interests. And we vote for candidates that come closest to those self-interests. I have to accept that Trump is a beacon shining on what a lot of people want. But as long as half the country wants something different we’re going to have a miserable society.

When 50% is the finish line for any political agenda, we’re going to be ruled by pod people. I think real democracy begins when 75% of the population hammers out good compromises. I don’t think one politician with one point of view could ever find that many followers. Maybe we should move away from politicians and have referendums on everything. If we can’t find ways to get three-fourths of us to agree, then we should do anything.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you live on, if we have minority rule, or even 50% majority rule, half the country will always feel they are living with pod people.

JWH

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Subjective Time

by James Wallace Harris, 5/11/22

I’m in a short story club where today’s discussion story is “Common Time” by James Blish from 1953. This blog will be my comment to the group, but I feel my insight is personal enough for this blog.

“Common Time” is about an astronaut in an experimental spaceship traveling at twenty-two times the speed of light. When the astronaut regains consciousness after launch he can’t move and it takes forever to open his eyes. He discovers that time is moving very slowly. He is able to count to 7,200 between each tick of the second hand on his clock. Eventually, his perspective speeds up until the hour hand is flashing around. The story is about how this astronaut reacts to the different perspectives of time.

I think time is a fascinating topic. I use the picture of a hummingbird above to illustrate subjective time. To a hummingbird, a human appears like a statue, frozen in time. I’ve often wondered how an intelligent robot will perceive time. The clock speed of computer chips is currently in the gigahertz range – that’s billions of cycles per second. Will AI minds even notice us? Of course, their bodies won’t be able to move a billion times faster than ours.

I also like to think about the concept of now. Is there a universal now everywhere? Now exists without clocks. Now can exist without even the concept of time. If we had a smartphone connection to a planet 1,000 light-years away that had an instant speed of communication we could talk to our alien friends in the now. Is that true for the whole universe? Or do different locations experience different nows? What about the multiverse? Is there one moment of now everywhere? Or many?

How long is the moment of now to a hummingbird or future robot?

Yesterday I woke up feeling better than I have in years. I noticed this when I was planning my day. I felt good enough to plan to work on a long-term project. Lately, I haven’t been feeling good, and the only things I wanted to do were those activities that focus on the moment. I was disappointed yesterday when less than two hours later after my aches and pains returned I only felt like reading, watching TV, or listening to music. I loved that feeling I had more time.

I can remember being young and feeling like I had all the time in the world to do everything I ever wanted to do. I’m writing this essay early in the morning because I feel like I have enough time to finish it. I won’t feel like that in a little while.

Jim Harris

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How Do You Label Your Existence?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/3/22

Now that I’ve been retired for eight years, I realize I can no longer call myself a programmer, which is the way I identified myself during my middle years. Because Susan and I never had children, I’ve never been a parent, and thus can’t be a grandparent in my waning years, which is a label some of my retired friends proudly embrace.

My new identity is a retired person, but that’s not much of an identity and I’m not sure I like using that label, but I do. I spend most of my time reading and writing about science fiction short stories, which gives me a little bit of a purpose. I can’t call myself a scholar, but I do study that subject in depth. It’s just a tiny subject that’s not very relevant but does give my existence a purpose. I’m not sure I can justify my existence by calling myself a science fiction fan.

I guess I could call myself a blogger but don’t know how satisfying a label it would be to use. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist or philosopher but I’ve never come close to actually being either.

I look around and see people defining their existence in various smaller ways. One prominent label that is often in the news is Republican. Some of these people treat being a Republican almost like a religious identification and evidently find great identity with it. They even take great satisfaction in calling themselves a Republican or a Conservative. I’m a liberal but don’t get off on calling myself one. I think that’s one of the big differences between the two parties. Conservatives are a lot more organized, and they seem to get a lot of satisfaction out of being part of their group. I think being young and liberal is more of an identity thing. It was for me.

I observe people finding meaning in their existence in all kinds of ways. I know many people who are ardent travelers. They use the term traveler to define themselves. Many of them act like their purpose on Earth is to travel. They find self-worth by recalling the places they’ve been. I’ve noticed there are a lot of travelers with YouTube channels. I wonder if they feel like prophets of traveling?

I’m on the fringe of many subcultures. Take audiophiles for example. They find meaning in their never-ending question to achieve higher fidelity playback, I’m too cheap to go all the way with that group. I’m not a sports fan, but they are quite common around here, and they seem to find great happiness in identifying with their teams. There seems to be an overlap between sports fans, Christians, and Republicans, in that they all love their group identity and get immense satisfaction when their group wins or converts folks to the team.

I relate to many of my friends through the kinds of entertainment we share. Much of the conversations I have with my friends, deal with discussing shows and movies on television. I’m also a bookworm and find kinship with other bookworms. I’m not a foodie, but I know a lot of people who find dining out an important aspect of existence.

I believe people get more existential meaning from their pursuits when they have a strong label for themselves. The average person might love dining out, but someone who calls themselves a foodie obviously gets more meaning from it than those of us who just enjoy chowing down. And if people call themselves a gourmet, they feel even more important about themselves, like they were philosophers of the tablecloth.

That’s my trouble. I no longer have any good labels to define myself. I guess the best is Bookworm. It’s the one I’ve embraced since childhood. I’ve never been one for nice cars or clothes. I spend my money on books. I don’t travel because I prefer to read.

However, I have to wonder, when I lay dying in my La-Z-Boy, will I look back and feel my existence was well spent with all those books?

JWH

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More Fun With Memory Loss

by James Wallace Harris, 5/2/22

Today I went to post my review of “The Long Iapetan Night” by Julie Nováková to my short story club that reads and reviews a short story a day. It was then I discovered the group had already read the story last year, and I had read and reviewed it before.

It was disconcerting that I had completely forgotten I had read this story, and I had even written a review before too. Usually, when I watch movies I’ve seen before, I discover it by getting to a scene that will trigger a memory. That never happened with this story.

Figuring I might have written this essay before I searched my site and found “Fun With Memory Loss,” which is what I originally called this post. So I retitled this essay, “More Fun With Memory Loss.” I did some more checking and discovered I’ve written about memory loss another time too, “Remembering When I Forget.” For those of you who read my blog with good memories, I apologize for repeating myself, but probably expect “Even More Fun With Memory Loss.”

I don’t believe I’m suffering from dementia, but I do think my memory is faltering. I find that fascinating. I’m even amused by these glitches because they reveal a tiny bit about how memory and personality work. For example, in my second review I ended by asking the group:

I enjoyed this story, but the plot seemed like something I've read before, where a second space mission is trying to figure out what happened to the first space mission. However, I can't recall any examples. Can y'all?

When I read my first review I realized this might have been the story, or it may have not. Was the vague sense of the plot all that I remembered, or is that plot used more often? In my first review, the story made me think of the film Alien, which is about a space mission that investigates a lost space mission.

In my first review, I summed the story up this way:

"The Long Iapetan Night," tells us that Earth's global civilization took two body blows in the 21st century, one from a super-volcano, and another from a massive solar flare. This sets up the plot for a second Saturn colonizing mission to wonder what happened to the first. At first, that earlier colony is just an odd mystery, then it becomes a historical tragedy like the lost colony of Roanoke, finally, the story mutates into a horror story in the present that overtakes the second mission too.

This long novelette would make a creepy space movie like ALIEN.

In my second review, I summed it up this way:

Depending on your reading reaction, "The Long Iapetan Night" by Julie Nováková might be considered a horror thriller if you thought it creepy enough, or just a mystery thriller if not. Humans arrive on Iapetus for the second time about a century after the first explorers. The mission to Saturn is split into two crewed modules on Titan and two on Iapetus.

Our point of view character is Lev, on Iapetus, but we're also introduced to another narrator in italic sections of the story. I found this confusing at first, especially since I listened to the story and there was no transition to indicate something was different. I discovered this problem by looking at the Kindle edition. I thought it was Lev's journal at first. Eventually, I realized it was the journal of an explorer from the earlier mission, and a mystery unfolds as the crew of the second mission tries to find out what happened to the first mission. This is where we have to wonder about ghosts, or unseen aliens because the old habitat begins to kill the new arrivals.

To make this story even darker, Nováková has a major volcanic eruption that disrupts the world's weather and then a solar flare that knocks out all satellites in the inner system, so the first mission to Saturn is cut off and abandoned. The second mission is after Earth goes through a long recovery.

I like my first review better because it was succinct and more vivid in summarizing the story. What’s revealing is my two reactions are nearly the same. This makes me wonder about the fixity of our personalities. It’s interesting that I read the story the first time with my eyes and listened to it the second time. I wonder if that’s why I didn’t remember it?

I ended the first review by asking the group this question:

I have one question though. Why would anyone want to live in a world that's -180C (-292F)? Now that I'm getting older and more sensitive to cold, I just can't believe people dream of going to other planets where it's so cold. Mars today is from -11F to -117F today.

In the second review I ended with:

QUESTIONS:

Would any of y'all want to explore the outer moons? It has zero appeal to me, and I can't imagine any sane human wanting to live in such an extreme environment. Is science fiction being disingenuous by suggesting people could and would?

Also, could we build a spacesuit that could handle being immersed in liquid air and still be practical to walk around and use? I know space and vacuum can be extremely hot or cold, but wouldn't it be different if there was a medium like liquid air to absorb the heat?

If I read this story again in ten years will I react the same way? My memory probably won’t remember the story, but will my personality react to it in the same way?

Is personality a kind of memory?

JWH

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Mingus Ah Um

by James Wallace Harris, April 15, 2022

I’m not an experienced jazz aficionado but I do love to listen to that genre from time to time. Today, for my afternoon album I played Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus via Spotify. You can listen to it while you read by clicking on the YouTube video below. Unfortunately, it will play at the fidelity of your computer/phone/tablet and that won’t do justice to this legendary album. It’s best to listen to jazz in a dark room on a great stereo when you can devote your mind and soul to the experience.

My love of jazz depends on the tempo. I prefer the dreamy numbers that I imagine are heard in smoky clubs at 3 a.m., like the cuts “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and “Pussy Cat Dues.” I listen to music because it triggers emotions, and slow jazz is often very emotional and moody.

I do admire, and even enjoy the medium-tempo pieces like “Better Git It in Your Soul,” and “Jelly Roll.” This is head-bopping speed and generally focuses on solos. At this speed, I can still process what each instrument is saying.

And depending on my mood, I can get into the fast pieces like “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” and “Pedal Point Blues.” The faster the jazz guys jam, the more they’re showing off. Usually, at this speed, if my mind is following along, I can dig the piece intellectually, but it’s stopped pushing my emotional buttons. This is how I often feel about listening to classical music. To truly appreciate these pieces I think it would be helpful to be young, high, and manic.

The frantic-pace performances push my limits to appreciate the form, like “Bird Calls,” which Mingus says wasn’t inspired by Charlie Parker, but bird calls. Parker is generally too speedy for my tastes. There are times when I feel Mingus is playing his bass twice as fast as the tune. The cuts on Mingus Ah Um aren’t nearly as fast as the hotter jazz from the early 1950s.

Jazz constantly mutates, so there’s no real one kind of jazz. Right now I prefer it from the late 1950s and early 1960s. 1959 was a fantastic year for jazz music. Two of the most accessible jazz albums ever came out that year: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Those two albums are often loved by people who never listen to jazz. We could consider them suitable for freshmen students of jazz. The other great jazz album of 1959 is The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. That’s graduate-level. Mingus Ah Um is more advanced than Kind of Blue and Time Out, but far from The Shape of Jazz to Come. It’s still very accessible. I’d recommend it for juniors majoring in the genre. I don’t think it should be anyone’s first jazz album. Kind of Blue and Time Out are the gateway drugs.

However, I should amend what I’ve just said. One of my all-time favorite songs regardless of genre is “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus, and it’s an assault on the senses. It makes you feel like you’re dancing with a tornado. I love it. There are many versions of this song, even many by Mingus, but this is the version I have to have.

If you go to buy this album, be careful, there are many editions, some not so good. The $7.98 CD from Amazon is a good entry-level choice.

JWH

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Paying Closer Attention to The Beatles

by James Wallace Harris, 8/6/22

Yesterday morning while riding my stationary bike I watched a video about The Beatles. Eric Callero of Vinyl Rewind covered his least favorite Beatle song from each album. I think it’s fascinating that young people are into The Beatles and their albums that came out over fifty years ago. Can you imagine Baby Boomers excited about bands from the 1910s or 1920s when we were young.

I started listening to The Beatles in 1964 and bought all their records as they came out in the 1960s. My nostalgia finds it confusing because The Beatles albums on sale today were not the same ones we bought back in the 1960s. I bought all The Beatles standard albums again in the late 1980s when they came out on CD, and then bought them again this century when they came out on remastered CD.

The Beatles were tremendously exciting back in the 1960s but they weren’t my favorite band back then. That was The Byrds. I did play each Beatle album quite a bit as they were released, but I forgot about them in a few weeks. Then over the decades whenever Susan and I watched a documentary about the Fab Four I’d get the albums out again. When the remastered CDs came out several years ago I bought them but only listened to each album one or two times.

Yesterday, inspired by the Vinyl Rewind video I listened to Please Please Me and With the Beatles. Unlike Eric Callero I couldn’t pick my least favorite song from each album. I was surprised by how good all the songs sounded. I also notice something. I couldn’t distinguish between John and Paul’s voices. Sometimes I thought I could but I was never sure. I did spot the two songs sung by Ringo, but I didn’t even notice that George was the main singer of five of the songs.

This made me realize that I’ve never paid close attention to The Beatles’ songs. Susan and I love watching documentaries about The Beatles, and we’ve read a few biographies on them. Susan can sing their songs, but we’re not Beatlemaniacs.

While watching the Vinyl Rewind video I envied Eric Callero for being able to cite so many details from each song. I’ve always listened to music as a kind of drug. Music stimulates my brain, setting off emotions. I take in each song as a gestalt. To be honest, I hardly even pay attention to the lyrics.

I got out a book we had on The Beatles, tell me why by Tim Riley, that lists the main singer for each song and started trying to train my ear to discern whether John, Paul, George, or Ringo was singing. This website also gives that information.

I’m going to keep playing these albums after lunch and see just how much I can get out of each song. I remember noticing in the past I didn’t know who was singing. And I also remember noticing in the past that the songs are recorded weirdly, with what appears to be the bass, drums, and George’s guitars on the left, and the singing and John’s guitar, and sometimes other instruments, on the right. I also knew that some songs were covers, but never really paid that much attention to which were originals and which were covers.

The desire to notice more in songs comes from several motivations. For being such a major music addict I feel bad about not knowing more about the music I love. But I also feel bad that I don’t pay more attention to the details of life. I’m curious if I can become more discerning. I’m also curious if I can change myself so late in life.

At seventy, I feel my mind is slowly decaying. I know my body is, so it’s natural to assume my brain is too. I eat better and exercise to squeeze more out of my body. I wonder if paying attention to details will it help sharpen my dull mind?

JWH

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“Glad and Sorry” by Ronnie Lane

by James Wallace Harris, 3/23/22

For many many years, the song “Glad and Sorry” from the album Down by the Old Mainstream by Golden Smog has randomly played from my main playlist. I bought the CD because I was a fan of The Jayhawks and some of their members were playing on it. The song originally appeared on Ooh La La by the Faces in 1973 (originally, the Small Faces). I’m pretty sure I had that album back in the 1970s but didn’t remember it or “Glad and Sorry” when I first listened to Down by the Old Mainstream back in the 1990s.

I like to play whole albums after lunch and Spotify offered up Ooh La La. When I heard “Glad and Sorry” I recalled that album by Golden Smog. That’s when I started my research and discovered the song was written by Ronnie Lane of the Faces. Then I found a lovely remembrance of the song which I’ll quote below.

Here’s how the Faces did “Glad and Sorry” in 1973

Here it is again by Golden Smog.

The song is loved enough that it inspired 14 playlists on Spotify, and there are many cover versions. I love how some songs inspire countless performers to sing and record them. Here’s a nice jam session.

The lyrics are very simple:

That beautiful interpretation of the song is at the site One Week // One Band but without the name of who wrote the essay. Here’s the quote I mentioned, but it’s worth reading the entire piece. This is the way I wish I could write about music (I took this quote starting about halfway down the page, after the history of the song):

“Thank you kindly/For thinking of me/If I’m not smiling/I’m just thinking.”

All my life I’ve been the Quiet One, the one who (mostly) doesn’t say what he’s thinking, the one who doesn’t interact with others because he’s too withdrawn, or too self-serious, or too afraid that he’s bothering people. Always thinking, never sure he’s thought of anything worthwhile to say. “Smile,” they used to tell me, back when I had people in my life who would regularly engage in what they called encouraging me. “It’s not that bad.” Well, no—but smiling for the sake of smiling feels like dishonesty to me. Anyway, I’m thinking.

“Glad and sorry/Happy or sad/When all is done and spoken/You’re up or I’m down.”

It’s never “I’m up,” it’s never “you’re down.” There’s always a fundamental disconnect, we never meet in the middle, and I’m always lower. Not class or any bullshit like that, just circumstance. I can never meet your needs—emotional, physical, social, financial. The person who is You changes every so often, as people pass in and out of my life, but the relationship, once begun, is always the same. It’s bittersweet every time; the emotions are always tangled up. Glad, happy, sorry, sad—and then, at some point, I’ve done everything and said everything I’m going to do or say.

I wish I could relate to lyrics and poems like that.

I’m writing this because this song moves me, but I don’t know how to describe how it moves me. I’m writing this because I love how some songs stick with us for years. I’m writing this because I love how some very simple songs resonate deeply with people. I’m writing this to remember this afternoon, and to remember “Glad and Sorry.” Sadly, I won’t remember it every day, but on those days the songs pop up in my playlist, and I’ll add the original to my main playlist.

JWH

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Do You Still Watch The Oscars?

James Wallace Harris, 3/19/22

This YouTube video from CNBC says the Oscars and Emmys have lost more than 80% of their peak viewership. CNBC claims this is due to a generation shift, and because of cord-cutting. It reminds me of another news story I read about The Gilded Age on HBO Max. That report said the good news was the show was a hit, the bad news was only people over 65 watched it. Of course, that was devastating news to people who sell things.

Are the Oscars really a generation thing? Just how relevant are those awards to anyone nowadays? Why do we watch movies? Is it important that they be awarded prizes? Is it even important that the movies we love, win awards? Do we crave validation for our favorites? I used to use the awards as a checklist of what to try, but I stopped that years ago. However, I do love March, when TCM has 31 Days of Oscar.

I don’t know if it’s a generation thing either. I quit watching the Oscars decades ago. Even though I’m a big movie fan, it’s been years since I could remember the names of any of the new movie stars or directors, and the award ceremony always seemed to really be about and for them.

Before the pandemic, I went to the movies once a week. I haven’t seen a movie at a theater in over two years. When the 2022 Oscar nominations were announced I thought I’d stream all the films that were up for the best picture to catch up. I don’t really care who wins and don’t plan to watch the ceremony. This year ten movies are up for best picture:

This made me wonder just how many movies came out in 2021? Checking Rotten Tomatoes, they list 235 with over 70% positive reviews — there must have been many hundreds made. There are just 30 in their Golden Tomato Awards. Only 4 of the Oscar-nominated best pictures were in that 30. Indie Wire lists their 50 favorites, which have some overlap with both the Oscar nominees and Rotten Tomatoes but rank them differently. Paste Magazine remembers 2021 with another list of 50 films, and with a different slant of opinion. The web could provide me with many more lists, and if you look at enough of these lists, some movies do seem to pop up on many of these top movie lists. In recent years, that’s how I measure movie success — if a film got on multiple best-of-the-year lists.

I’m realizing by following the Oscar best picture nominee list I’m doing myself a big disservice. If I consider the other award categories that involve a feature film, there are 21 other films to consider, for a total of 31 (assuming my ability to count is accurate). I was surprised by how often the 10 best picture nominees were also nominated in the other categories. The movie business is big on promoting their films for the Oscars, often spending millions according to the CNBC report above. They said Netflix spent $60 million to promote Roma. So the Oscar awards feel incestuous, picking the same films over and over again in each category.

I also expected the ten films nominated for best pictures would all be stunning and obvious choices, but I loved only a few of them, and two of them I found tedious and boring. I thought it interesting that three of the ten were remakes. I thought all three remakes were technically superior to the originals, but I prefer the originals for Nightmare Alley and West Side Story. I’m not sure if I care about any version of Dune.

I saw the 1947 black and white version of Nightmare Alley just weeks before seeing the beautiful color 2021 version. I liked everything about the 2021 production, yet I thought the 1947 version was creepier. I wondered if time-period had anything to do with it? Nightmare Alley (1947) seemed to be about something real, something contemporary, whereas Nightmare Alley (2021) felt like a pulp noir fantasy. This was also true for West Side Story. The original felt relevant to when I saw it back in the 1960s. The 2021 version seemed like a perfect recreation of the past but without any current significance. Nowadays gangs kill each other with assault rifles, so a musical about angry teens with switchblades seems out of date.

Dune was gorgeous, but it felt like I was looking at the Illustrated Classics comic version of the story. I read Dune back in the 1960s, and again about ten years ago, and the story felt heavy and rich. The movie versions feel cliche. But science fiction movies about galactic empires have become so common that they now seem silly parodies of each other. While watching Dune my eyes were delighted by the visuals. Yet, intellectually I was wondering if the reason why science fiction movies don’t win awards is because they feel aimed at childish minds? There’s nothing wrong with children’s stories and YA fiction, but the awards appear aimed at stories for grownups.

I’m afraid Drive My Car mostly bored me. I love foreign films, so that isn’t the issue. The problem is Drive My Car felt like MFA literary writing. It’s the kind of story that academics love to analyze and admire. That kind of fiction works on me sometimes, such as The Wonder Boys, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or the way Birdman played with Raymond Carver. I just didn’t pick up on Uncle Vanya as a subtext like I did with “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in Birdman.

But what I like and don’t like isn’t really the point. What I’m asking is: Do the Oscars help us find the best films to watch from the previous year? In recent years I haven’t paid attention to the Oscars but this year I’m using the ten nominees to catch up on what I missed during the pandemic. While I didn’t go to the theater in 2021, I did stream a couple dozen films from that year. CODA and King Richard were my top favorites. I admired The Power of the Dog and Belfast but didn’t love them. I really enjoyed Being the Ricardos. Why wasn’t it up for the best picture Oscar? Who decides these things?

This makes me wonder about how we determine what makes a great movie. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, so there’s no objective way to measure movies. Looking at what I liked, King Richard and CODA makes me wonder if feel-good movies might be my yardstick. Both were riveting stories that left me feeling like I learned something, and they made me feel good about people. (Many movies push my misanthrope tendencies.)

Dune and Nightmare Alley were just fun stories. I would add The Dig and The Last Duel to that kind of story. Don’t Look Up was a very relevant satire, but very uneven to watch. I thought Some Kind of Heaven, another fun satire, was a far better film.

I won’t be around in 50 years, but in 2072 how many movies from 2021 will be shown on TCM in March? If you look back to the 1972 Oscars, I’m still watching many of the films it picked. Professional and critical recognition might matter after all. Then, on the other hand, how many movies do you love that are unrecognized, obscure, and forgotten?

We mostly find the movies we love by accident. It would be interesting if there were a system that would identify films we’d resonate with for sure. Giving films an Oscar doesn’t predict anything for sure, but it might help some in finding movies to watch. Watching the nine nominees for best picture was an interesting education.

I’m planning to watch Licorice Pizza tonight to finish out the ten.

JWH

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Does Retirement Cause ADHD?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/11/22

I’ve been retired for eight-and-a-half years and I feel it’s been one long slow physical and mental decline. Of course, that feeling of decline could just be natural aging. I can understand why my body is wearing out, I mean, what machine runs for 70 years without breaking down? But comprehending my mental decline is a little harder to visualize. I know the brain is also a physical mechanism but it doesn’t feel like one.

What if that decline isn’t entirely due to aging?

I know is I’m having a harder time focusing. This morning, I asked myself, what if that lack of focus isn’t due to aging? It occurred to me that maybe having all my time free is destroying my focus, and making me mentally lazy.

Let me use a rather icky analogy. I have an overactive bladder. Tests show my bladder has shrunk. One theory put forth by my doctor is I developed the habit of going to the bathroom as soon as I felt the need. That conditioned my bladder, and it shrank.

What if being able to do anything I wanted. when I wanted, has shrunk my attention span? My days are spent flitting from one fun diversion to another, but never sticking with any task for very long. After eight years, I now have the time-on-target of a butterfly.

For example, I have a very hard time sticking with TV shows and movies. I switched to watching YouTube videos a couple years ago because they were shorter. However, they’re starting to feel too long. I watch a few minutes of one, then click to another. Similarly, I’ve switched from novel-reading to short story reading.

My days are filled with a routine of chasing one interest after another. I do the same kind of flitting on my phone, spending many total hours during the day compulsively checking Facebook, email, Flipboard, Apple News+, Spotify, Audible, Scribd, Feedly, Wordle, Quordle, Octordle, Twitter, NY Times, NY Times Crossword, Google, Wikipedia, etc. That might be another culprit to consider.

Every night I try to watch TV after dinner. I used to watch the news faithfully, now I skip through the 30-minute recording in a few minutes. I used to watch Jeopardy faithfully, now I skip days, and if the topics aren’t appealing, I hit the old back button to return to the menu to find something else. I record countless movies on TCM I want to watch, but each evening I go through my recordings trying four, five, six movies, often just watching them for a few minutes each.

Every so often I find a movie or TV show I’ll stick to. I used to love binge-watching shows but seldom do that anymore. I end up clicking on YouTube and watching short videos. Especially ones that last under 5-10 minutes. When I tire of TV I switch to reading or listening to music or doing puzzles or blogging. I can always find something I enjoy doing, it’s just that I don’t stick with anything long.

I would say I was bored or depressed, but I don’t feel bored. I actually enjoy this constant grazing of different activities. I now check YouTube three times a day for new videos. I’ll read for a little bit, then listen to music for a while, then write on a blog, enter data for CSFquery, play with the cats, take a nap, eat a snack, visit a friend, go to the bookstore. There’s always something else to do.

When I worked I had to focus on my job from 8:30 – 5:00 each day. I wonder if that discipline gave me the ability to focus in general? During my work years, I could watch a 3-hour movie without getting the least bit restless. Or write for several hours until I was worn out and starving.

Has aging ruined my attention span or lack of discipline?

I’ve thought of a way to test this hypothesis? Start sticking to one project again and build up discipline. Then see if that beefed-up ability to focus crosses over and improves my attention span in other areas. It’s sort of like my bladder. I’m retraining it by waiting longer before I go pee.

I have no desire to go back to work but maybe I can find one task I can work at until I can stick with it for three or fours hours straight. I’m going to work at this, but I just remembered something. Before I retired my ability to focus at work was waning. Maybe it is old age. Some people train with weights. I need to train with focusing. Then I’ll know.

JWH

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What the Hell Were Humans Doing in Prehistory?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/8/22

I’m still reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’m a member of an online book club that will be discussing the book all during the month of March, so I’ll be discussing it here piece by piece, whenever a particular topic intrigues me.

Here’s the setup for the book. Humans have been around in their present form for about 200,000 years, but recorded history only covers around the last three thousand years — what were we doing for those other 197,000 years? Anthropology and archeology help answer that question to a degree. The Dawn of Everything works to say to what degree is possible. However, most of what anyone can say about those 197,000 years is speculation, and that can cause controversy.

For most people, prehistory is a mixture of the Garden of Eden imagery and fantasies about cave people. Anthropologists study the evidence provided by archaeologists then speculate about that evidence by comparing it to what we learned from ethnographic research on various indigenous societies from the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, what most Americans know about the pre-20th century indigenous people of North America comes from watching westerns. In other words, unless you read a lot of books on anthropology it’s doubtful you think about prehistory at all, and what you do think you know is pop culture deceptions.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropologist and an archeologist, have caused some political shit storms by angering some of their readers with their discussion of freedom and inequality while analyzing what we know about prehistory. These brouhahas are caused partly because Graeber was an anarchist and was a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and, partly because they challenge the established Western views that speculate on humans in prehistory, and tie ideas about various forms of inequality and freedom to their speculation. They seem to imply humanity made a wrong turn, but I’m not so sure we did, but don’t care to argue it. Graeber and Wengrow do review a lot of speculation that claimed we made a wrong turn when we switched from hunting and gathering to farming, but I’m not sure they believe that idea either, but merely review it too.

First off, there is no introduction, so the first chapter works as an introduction, but I don’t think it’s a good one. So far, I’ve felt every chapter has been self-contained, so it’s hard to assess the book as a whole. They title their first chapter, “Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or why this is not a book about the origins of inequality.” I don’t think some readers took that to heart and feel The Dawn of Everything is harping about inequality. I wonder if conservatives dislike the book for the same reason they don’t like Critical Race Theory, that it smells of liberal thinking, and it asks them to relearn a history they’ve already embraced and memorized.

Here’s the thing about speculating about prehistory — speculation is only speculation. We’ve found some human bones, lots of animal bones, we have some pots and graves, some old cave paintings, remnants of housing, stone monuments, figurines, lots of rock tools, but not much of anything else. Most speculation about prehistory rests on ethnographic studies of primitive cultures that have survived into historical times. What Graeber and Wengrow challenge are generalized ideas we’ve developed about those cultures over the last couple of centuries.

Most of The Dawn of Everything is about the limits of speculation. What we really want to know is what were the people like? What did they think? How did they relate to each other? What kind of societies did they form? How much did they know about nature and reality? It’s one thing to look at old bones and relics and guess what people did, it’s entirely another thing to extrapolate what they thought and believed.

Here’s what I want to ask: Can ideal concepts exist before they are defined? Take inequality? That’s a concept that’s been emerging for a few centuries and a concept that modern society is working on. Even something like freedom is a concept been around for a long time, but has it always existed? What about science? Graeber and Wengrow have a whole chapter dealing with the origin of scientific thinking. Our ancestors might have observed nature and put two and two together but was that really science? I believe a concept like fairness might be very ancient, but I don’t know about inequality. I believe inequality is an emerging concept. There might have been societies in history and prehistory that had more equality but I don’t think they thought about it as a concept.

I think it’s completely insane to suggest humanity took a wrong turn because we don’t like aspects of our present society. The old saying, “the only constant is change” applies here. The variety of ways humans can organize their societies is infinite, and that comes across in this book. I think Graeber and Wengrow are right to say we can’t generalize about the past like Rousseau or Hobbes.

The best we can do is study all the ethnographic studies, examine all the archeological evidence and review all the speculation, and then create our own inner map of what prehistory was like with the jigsaw pieces we have. We also must be willing to constantly update that map as we gather new puzzle pieces.

We must resist philosophers and psychologists who try to characterize humans now or in the past in broad general terms. I believe what Graeber and Wengrow are telling us is not to lump together various stages of human development or societies into convenient pigeonholes. For example, there was no one shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Nor was there one type of nomads or hunting and gatherers. For example, North America had hundreds of different types of Native American cultures, so there is no way to generalize about what they thought about gender or money, or politics.

The trouble is there are places in the first chapter of this book (and I’m only on chapter six) that seem to imply that Graeber and Wengrow are advocating that we should be working towards all the various forms of equality. We can judge modern societies on inequality and even ethnographic studies of primitive societies we have studied, but I believe speculation on inequality in prehistory societies will be based only on our biases, and I think Graeber and Wengrow make that clear even though they keep trying.

Personally, I wonder if Graeber and Wengrow haven’t spoiled the rest of their book with chapter one. Most of the reviews I’ve seen focus on that first chapter. That might be due to the reviewers only reading that chapter, or it might be because it’s the one that pushes buttons. The other chapters I’ve read deal more with what we know, and I’m finding them quite fascinating. It makes me want to read more ethnographic studies — although, as Graeber and Wengrow show, those studies are often colored by their observer’s speculations. If anything, this book shows us time and again how we distort the evidence.

For me, the key to enjoying learning about prehistory is to avoid speculation and focus just on the evidence. The trouble is a certain amount of speculation is good. Nowadays generalizations are considered evil. But we make useful generalizations all the time — it’s called pattern recognition. We just can’t go overboard. Every archeological dig is like a crime scene. You only find so much evidence. Science never knows anything for sure, but works with statistics, looking for a preponderance of convincing evidence.

Most people don’t spend time studying history, much less prehistory. And it’s hard to make a case to get people to care about history and prehistory. For most people, it’s about as useful as studying geometry, cosmology, or particle physics. But consider this. All of us are deluded. We constantly fool ourselves in countless ways that make us see reality distorted by our cultural upbringing. Studying other societies that adapted to our shared external reality in different ways can break us out of the brainwashing of that upbringing. If the book is doing its job it should be stirring things up.

It’s not about whether or not we made a wrong turn, but knowing about all the possible turns we took and could have taken. I think this is scary for some people. If you want to believe the Bible is literally true, then learning about all the societies that existed at the same time as the Bible was being written could be disturbing. If you’re a scholar of Western culture that backed a particular view of history and prehistory, considering what Graeber and Wengrow are saying could also be disturbing. But aren’t all paradigm shifts uncomfortable?

Humans think we’re the crown of creation. And people raised in western culture believe we’re the pinnacle of human intellectual development. Maybe Graeber and Wengrow believe we took a wrong turn because our global society is sailing into an iceberg and they want us to change course. Personally, I don’t think our species has any control over its evolution. It’s not a matter of choice, but playing out all the anti-entropic possibilities. I believe studying history and prehistory shows us some of the many things we’ve already tried.

Knowing where we’ve been might help us know how we can adapt to climate change. Here’s one example. Graeber and Wengrow consider that prehistory societies made the choice between being hunting and gatherers and settling down and that they often chose to stay on the move because it offered more advantages. This video, it shows one modern reason why nomadic people choose to settle down and pursue year-round agriculture. It allows them to build wealth and stability in their lives. This is a very inspiring video.

JWH

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Schismogenesis, Cultural Appropriation, Conformity, and Identity

James Wallace Harris, 3/4/22

I’m reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow but I can’t review it as a whole because it features hundreds of interesting ideas and I have no way to assess them all in a small essay. So, I’m going to review some of its ideas in a series of blog posts. Each one will deal with a unique concept that I think is useful.

Overall, the book speculates about societies in prehistory and in three places uses the word “schismogenetic” referring to the term schismogenesis, a word coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson. This is not a common word, but one that I had to look up, and it’s used in various ways in the social sciences that isn’t exactly how Graeber and Wengrow use it.

Graeber and Wengrow use the concept of schismogenetic to identify a human trait that is very worth recognizing — the urge to belong to a group by defining distinctive wanted traits. This explains children and adolescents who like to conform, to subcultures and hobbyists who love sharing a common interest, to ethnic, cultural, and nationalistic groups who fight cultural appropriation to preserve their unique identity, to political groups who want to maintain unity, and so on.

Schismogenesis can be seen as the cause of xenophobia, but it could also be seen as the inverse of xenophobia. Xenophobia rejects others by traits we don’t like or want, and the schismogenetic urge defines our group identity by specific traits we embrace. This is just me speculating and I’m no expert. I want to embrace this concept because I feel it’s very useful. I see examples of it everywhere. If the term became popular it might help us understand ourselves.

Take conservatives and Republicans. It seems in recent decades they are defining themselves more and more exactly. They have generated a schism by clearly defining who they want to be issue by issue. Take mask-wearing. They’re against it. They see mask wearers as a liberal trait. Ditto for vaccinations. If liberals and Democrats had been against masks and vaccinations, the people on the right would have been for them. If the left is for Critical Race Theory, then the right is against it. If the left believes in climate change, then they don’t. And the details don’t matter to most people.

I use this political example not to be political, but I think it’s obvious that the schismogenetic urge is stronger in conservatives. They really enjoy defining themselves and being part of their group, and it seems they fear being seen as not conforming. For example, being called a RINO is a terrible insult. And this has worked out well for conservatives because they are better at organizing and defining themselves than the liberals.

But I believe we all have schismogenetic urges. I saw this photo on Facebook and it reminded me of how back in the 1960s we all wanted to be individual free spirits, but in reality, the hippie counter-culture was very conforming.

Graeber and Wengrow used the concept of schismogenetic to explain why the hundreds of Native American tribes created very distinctive and diverse societies. I think everyone uses the trait to join the groups and subcultures they want to embrace as their identity. I believe this is why the concept of cultural appropriation has developed in recent years — subcultures want to protect their identity, their brand. And that’s cool. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad trait, but it can lead to schisms divided by hate.

Some of the reviews that are deeply critical of The Dawn of Everything attack it because they consider Graeber and Wengrow of being historical revisionists. And I see this as a schismogenetic trait too. There are those who define themselves by the histories they embrace and they really don’t like the idea that what they’ve learned and accepted is being revised. It challenges their identity.

Science and history are constantly revising their disciplines with new data. The social sciences aren’t as exact as classical physics, so they go through more upheavals. Those upheavals cause new schisms and threaten old ones. Trying to fully grok The Dawn of Everything is difficult. Graeber and Wengrow keep bringing in politics by using studies of prehistory societies. I think this clouds what they are trying to do. At one point they say, “Since this book is mainly about freedom…” but is that true? I thought it was about prehistory. That makes me wonder if the goal of this book is to be schismogenetic.

JWH

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Have You Ever Lost Files From Google Drive?

James Wallace Harris 2/28/22

I’ve been using Google drive for years and years and always felt safe doing so. Over the past two years, I’ve had two spreadsheet files get corrupted. In both cases, I was printing them when part of the data was lost. It appeared that data that wasn’t in the print area was just removed.

In both cases, I tried to use the file version utility to get back to an early stage, and in both cases, it failed. I figured, what the heck, just don’t try to print from Google sheets, but download a copy and import it into Excel to print.

I told a friend about this, and he said he’s never had trouble with files on Google Drive. I figured my two incidents were just weird printing flukes. Then today that friend texted me and said Google Drive lost two of his files – just gone. Both were notes about a programming project that he spent weeks collecting. Ouch. Now I’m worried.

Google doesn’t offer tech support, at least that I can see for free personal accounts. There is a fair amount of documentation offering help. Basically, it suggests using the version control feature for corrupted files, and the undelete feature of the Trash. Even though I worked on my last spreadsheet for a couple hours, there were only two versions – a blank 11:35am version, and a corrupted 1:31pm version. I tried all kinds of things. I downloaded a .csv version to see if the data was hidden. I tried cutting and pasting to a new worksheet. I ended up importing the .csv file into Excel and retyping the deleted data.

Now, you might ask if I have Excel, why am I using Google Sheets? I just like Sheets, and I assumed by putting something in my Google Drive it would be safe. That Google would back things up, and keep plenty of versions.

And it’s also true, I’ve had corrupted files over the decades using Microsoft Office. Nothing is perfect. I used Google Drive because sometimes I like to share files, but mostly because it’s convenient, and I assumed such a tech giant would always protect my files better than I could.

Now, I’m wondering if corrupt or lost files on Google Drive are very common. Has it happened to you?

If I can’t trust Google Drive I’ll have to stop using it for creating files. I’ll do my work offline and then upload anything I need to share. In retrospect, I should have been saving my Google Drive files to a local drive before printing or doing any major reformatting or global calculations. I should have known better since I was in tech support for decades and I now remember all the times people came to me with corrupted files or lost files that happened after printing.

JWH

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What Was the Last Album You Obsessed Over?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/27/22

I’m not really concerned with which album you recall, but when. I’ve been playing When You See Yourself by the Kings of Leon over and over for weeks. What’s significant to me is it came out in 2021. When was the last time you bought a new album? I mean one that had been recorded recently?

I still buy the occasional new album on release day, like Adele 35, but it’s getting to be an extremely rare event. But even rarer is finding a new album I go bonkers over. I loved the new Adele album, but I haven’t played it obsessively like I have When You See Yourself.

Over my lifetime I’ve bought several thousand albums, but the ones I love the best are the ones I play constantly for weeks. Albums I repeat like those rats who continuously push the button connected to the reward center of their brain. Out of all those albums, probably less than 100, or even less than 50, and maybe even less than 25, were the kind I’d play over and over for weeks. I can’t really name the figure because my memory is so unreliable, but if it was only one a year, it would be around 50-60. But the albums that wowed me mostly came out in the 1960s and 1970s, and then they slowed to a trickle. That means it might only be 25.

One reason I was inspired to write this blog was seeing a post on Facebook about Breakfast in America by Supertramp. That was another album I couldn’t stop playing for weeks. But that was back in 1979 and again in the 1990s when I got the CD, and again for weeks in the 2010s when I remembered it.

I think most of my friends, and I’m talking Baby Boomers here, when they think of a great album, think of albums from the 1960s and 1970s. My wife Susan, is like me, she’ll still want a new album, but much less often than me, and it usually involves The Foo Fights or Jackson Browne.

I believe the album I’ve played the most times over the course of my life is Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan. Every few years I come back to it and wear it out again. I’ve bought it on LP, CD, and SACD.

Why do most people stop buying new music after a certain period in their lives? Why do most people seem to only play music from when they were growing up? And is the reason I love When You See Yourself is because it sounds like something that could have been created in 1975?

My previous obsessively played album was Young in All the Wrong Ways by Sara Watkins (2016). Before that, the album I couldn’t stop playing was The Way Sounds Leaves the Room by Sarah Jaffe (2011).

It might take a long while and some digging through albums to find the one before that. I know during the 2010s I returned to playing Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan from 1966 over and over again.

Certain albums from the past do pop up in my memory but these are hardly all of them. I thought I’d just remember a handful of them in pictures.

That’s enough. What were you favorites?

JWH

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“Dr. Bloodmoney” by Philip K. Dick

by James Wallace Harris, 2/17/22

Do you ever wonder why your favorite authors are your favorite authors? Growing up, the writer I loved more than all the rest was Robert A. Heinlein. As I got older I also became obsessed with other writers, like Samuel R. Delany, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Louisa May Alcott, but never for long. I first discovered Philip K. Dick (PKD) in 1968 when I took Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? off the new 7-day bookshelf at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami, Florida. I was sixteen. Since 1968, I’ve read many of his novels and short stories. I’ve read several biographies. I’m even reading his collected letters. But I have to admit, Philip K. Dick was one strange human being. I doubt if I could have hung out with him as a person because of all his crazy ideas. Yet, I keep reading his books. Some many times.

I didn’t plan that Dr. Bloodmoney would be my sixth book to read in 2022. I’m trying very hard to broaden the selection of books I read in 2022> I want to get away from reading so much science fiction. And it’s dangerous for me to start reading too much PKD because it can be like falling into a black hole. I read We Can Build You last week because I was trapped at home without power in an ice storm and I wanted to indulge myself with something purely fun. Researching that review led me down the PKD rabbit hole just a bit. That’s when I read that Dr. Bloodmoney, a novel I’ve never read, is considered one of PKD’s best. I always thought from the cover of the Ace original that it was one of his crappy paperback quickies. Boy was I wrong.

My new tips were right, Dr. Bloodmoney is great. Trigger Warning: Unless you’re a rabid fan of PKD, sometimes known as Dickheads, don’t run out and buy this novel. I know from experience from stories friends have begged me to read that the magic doesn’t always transfer. It’s that magic that I want to talk about. My buddy Mike loves PKD, but I don’t think the Philip K. Dick magic works with any of my other personal friends. I know that Richard Fahey loves PKD because of the comments he leaves on this blog. I also know that there are a fair number of Dickheads out there because the price of PKD’s used books keeps going up and up. But the truth is, I just haven’t met that many fellow fans.

Wikipedia has an excellent biography of PKD and an extensive article on Dr. Bloodmoney. I won’t reiterate what they’ve already done – it’s much better than I could do. No, what I want to describe is why the novel resonates so deeply with my soul. And feel free to leave comments on what writers ring your bell and why. Maybe would-be novelists could pick up some tips.

Dr. Bloodmoney, written in 1963-1964 and published in 1965, is set in San Francisco, Oakland, and Marin County just before the atomic bombs exploded and seven years later. 1965 is one of my favorite years. I consider 1965 the pinnacle year for popular music, and it was the year I read a pile of science fiction that influenced my reading for the rest of my life. I was 12 and 13 in 1964 and 1965. Folks, puberty, and pop culture really do a number on us.

I’ve never been to California, but Dr. Bloodmoney captures the feel I have remembering the 1950s and early 1960s. I was living in Miami at the time, but the people and settings of PKD’s novels written during those years have always reminded me of how people were when I grew up. This is a powerful attraction.

I lived at Homestead, AFB during the Cuban missile crisis, and grew up doing the duck and cover drills in grade school. 1964 was the year that Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail Safe came out, two almost identically plotted stories about atomic bombs. Dick wanted to call his novel In Earth’s Diurnal Course or A Terran Odyssey but Donald Wollheim at Ace wanted to cash in on Dr. Strangelove and titled it, Dr. Bloodmoney, Or Have We Got Along After the Bomb. In years since it’s been shortened to just Dr. Bloodmoney. But the important thing is it captures the fear of WWIII people had back then. The atomic bomb hung over our future like climate change hangs over young people today. That made it a touchstone for me.

The fear of nuclear war inspired a huge number of post-apocalyptic novels. I’ve always loved those stories. Philip K. Dick does something very different than all of them in Dr. Bloodmoney, he imagines American civilization surviving and getting back to normal after WWIII. For all its weirdness, it’s a very positive tale. He imagines people using horses to pull cars and having wood-burning steam engines power trucks. The direction of the novel is to return to a 1950s normalcy – and isn’t that what everyone wants today? And Dick knew of the evils of those years. One of his main characters, Stuart McConchie, is a black man who was just starting to make it as a television salesman when the bombs fell, is among the characters who strived the hardest to bring back personal success. It’s the simple things we wanted out of life back then, that make this novel so appealing now. Then and now, people just want a decent life, a good job, and to be free to pursue their own happiness.

The characters in Dr. Bloodmoney are quite diverse, but their most appealing quality is how much we care about them, even the evil and the deranged. All of them have “I’m just a little person trying to survive” in a big world vibe. Because this is a PKD novel, most of the characters, if not all, suffer various forms of mental illness. Dick suffered from mental illness his whole life and saw it everywhere. Mental illness, delusional thinking, and other psychological struggles are the main themes of all of PKD’s works.

Stuart McConchie, who I’ve already mentioned, undergoes many transformations in this book but could be the sanest person in the story.

Hoppy Harrington was a Thalidomide baby, born without arms and legs. He has psychic powers that he uses at the beginning of the story to get a job as a TV repairman. He rides around in a little cart and has artificial arms. After the bomb, his skills as a handyman becomes vital to the Marin County community, making him a highly respected member of the community. Unfortunately, his need to be loved leads to tragedy. In the novel, he is called a phocomelus, which is a word I thought PKD made up, but Wikipedia says it’s a real condition of people with malformed limbs.

Walter Dangerfield was an astronaut heading to Mars when the bombs fell, leaving him stranded in orbit around Earth. Because his spacecraft had years of supplies, and a huge library of books and music, Dangerfield becomes a disk jockey in orbit, playing music and reading books. Communities around the world live without electricity but jury rig old radios with car batteries to listen to Walt when he passes over. His folky ways tie people together and give them hope. Walt is one of the saner characters too but mentally struggles with loneliness and health problems.

Bonny Keller is a pivotal character who is desired by most men and the lover of many. She is also a leader of the Marin County community, and the mother of two of Dr. Bloodmoney‘s most essential characters, seven-year-old Edie, and her twin brother Bill, who lives inside her as a telepathic homunculus. Bill is in contact with the dead. The other characters think Bill is just Edie’s imaginary friend, but he’s very real. Okay, I did tell you this is one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read? Maybe I didn’t. I have now.

Bruno Bluthgeld, hiding out as Jack Tree because the world knows him as the physicist that caused the 1972 radiation crisis resulting in many human and animal mutations. He’s also assumed to be the cause of the atomic war. Bruno is Dr. Bloodmoney – the rough translation of Bluthgeld. Bruno also has psychic powers and suffers from tremendous paranoia because he believes everyone hates him and wants to assassinate him. Of course, sometimes that is true.

Andrew Gill is a post-apocalyptic entrepreneur. He’s developed a recipe of available plants to replace tobacco and has perfected a much sought-after brandy. When the bombs fell he was riding around in a VW bus. Gill was probably a proto-hippie.

This isn’t half of the characters in Dr. Bloodmoney. They are all wonderfully strange and have their own agenda. Dick is great at presenting little people in science fiction. Science fiction often has big heroes that save the planet, galaxy, or universe. PKD loved little folks that save themselves. Dick even has empathy for his most evil characters. He doesn’t see them as being evil, but enduring forces that are evil.

Philip K. Dick’s stories might be the most filmed of any science fiction author, but quite often the movie characters are nothing like his book characters. PKD loves ordinary people leading ordinary lives encountering the strange. Dr. Bloodmoney is science fiction because of the atomic bombs and post-apocalyptic communities, but it also includes psychic powers, which were common in science fiction in the 1950s, and even the supernatural. Bill and Hoppy are aware of what happens to people after they die, and it’s not just delusions of their insanity. However, the atmosphere of the story feels like mundane characters leading mundane lives, even though they are weirdos in a weird land.

I listened to Dr. Bloodmoney, narrated by Phil Gigante, who does a fantastic job with these characters, giving them each a unique voice. I was totally mesmerized by the story, no matter how fucking strange it got. And it gets very out there indeed. Is the weirdness why we Dickheads love PKD? I don’t know. I tend to believe I love him for his ordinary folks struggling to find meaning in a crazy reality.

The audiobook is available at Audible.com and Scribd.com. If you haven’t read Philip K. Dick, I recommend starting with Dr. Bloodmoney and with listening to the audiobook version.

[I’m going to try very hard to avoid another PKD novel and finish two nonfiction books next, but I can’t promise that for sure. Sometimes another PKD novel is just too enticing.]

JWH

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We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick

by James Wallace Harris, 2/9/22

My intended fifth book to read for 2022 was Humankind, a hopeful reappraisal of humanity by Rutger Bregman. However, during the ice storm, I didn’t feel like reading serious nonfiction while the power was out. For some strange reason I was in the mood for Philip K. Dick (PKD) and I randomly picked We Can Build You. I listened to it on audio, and it was wonderfully narrated by Dan Jon Miller.

PKD wrote We Can Build You in 1962 calling it The First in Our Family while it was a working manuscript. It was rejected by his publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, who had just put out The Man in the High Castle, and by several other publishers until Ted White bought it for Amazing Stories in 1969. White claimed the novel needed an ending, which White wrote with Dick’s permission. It was retitled A. Lincoln, Simulacrum and ran in the November 1969 and January 1970 issues. This is when I first read this novel. After that Donald Wollheim, who had rejected it for Ace Paperbacks, reconsidered the novel and published it for his new company DAW in 1972, but without the Ted White final chapter.

Before I digress, and I will digress all over the place, just let me say that Philip K. Dick is one of a handful of writers I obsess over. I’ve written about these writers before in my essay “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” I’ve read many biographies about PKD, and even reviewed them as a group. And I’ve recently started reading his collected letters (I have 5 of the 6 volumes). I’m not the only one obsessed with PKD. Dick is known for writing science fiction, and he’s probably one of the most filmed of all science fiction authors. However, PKD was a troubled soul, and he often used his books and stories to explore his own psychological problems. We Can Build You is one such book.

Readers will find many stories to follow within We Can Build You. One is about Louis Rosen, a partner in a firm that sells organs and spinet pianos. Louis falls in love with his partner’s daughter, Pris Frauenzimmer, who is schizophrenic, and only 18. Louis is 33. Over the course of the novel, Louis also becomes schizophrenic. In 1962, PKD was around 33. At the time PKD wrote this novel he was married to his third wife, Anne. There is evidence that We Can Build You is somewhat biographical to PKD’s life in 1962 and is a reaction to a troubled marriage with Anne and his own psychological problems. Was there another woman? Or is Pris modeled on Anne?

Anne was an atypical PDK wife (he had five in all). Anne was a year older than Phil, and she was blonde. Dick had a neurotic obsession with dark-haired young women, and Pris Frauenzimmer, the love interest in We Can Build You is eighteen and dark-haired. Makes you wonder.

I’m giving all this information as a kind of warning. We Can Build You can be read without knowing anything about Philip K. Dick’s life. For some, especially readers who enjoy outre science fiction but don’t know PKD’s work, it will be a reasonably entertaining story, although one that will strike them as quite odd even for the outre. For fans of PKD who only read his fiction, it will even be one of the better novels, but far from his best. But, if you happen to be a Dickhead, this book offers all kinds of delicious mysteries about the bizarre and tragic life of Philip K. Dick.

Some Dickheads consider We Can Build You as a trial run for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It certainly focuses on two of PKD’s favorite themes: What is human? and What is Real? It’s also about insanity, a theme that runs throughout many of his stories. But it’s mainly about Dick’s obsession with young dark-haired girls, one that’s gotten its own nonfiction book. Dick was born with a twin sister who didn’t live long, and he claimed that affected him for the rest of his life.

The first edition of We Can Build You in 1972 has a dedication that reads: “For Kathy Demuelle, my best friend, Mea voluptas, meae deliciae, mea vita, mea amoenitas …” Google translated that Latin for me as: “my pleasure, my darling, my life, my attractions.” This was written at the end of his marriage to his fourth wife Nancy and before he married Tessa, his fifth and final wife. These wives were barely legal for a man in his forties to marry. Dick’s published collected letters do contain letters to Kathy, and she is described in a letter to another young woman in this 1974 letter:

Kathy sounds just like Pris. But I don’t think Pris is based on Kathy. I don’t know when he met her. I need the first volume of the collected letters which I don’t have, and they are now sky high to buy used. The above letter does give us many clues as why PKD wrote We Can Build You.

However, after We Can Build You was published, Kathy evidently ghosted Phil, and he wrote Donald Wollheim asking for the dedication to be changed to Robert and Ginny Heinlein, which it is in later editions. Heinlein had out of the blue sent PKD money for medical expenses, and PKD was very moved. The early 1970s were a particularly bad time for Dick, who had suicide attempts, an escape to Canada, and had spent time in rehabs. PKD was agoraphobic but hated living alone, and often invited anyone who would, to live with him. And sometimes these were not very nice people, and sometimes they were very young dark-haired girls.

Knowing all of this should help us understand the protagonist of We Can Build You, Louis Rosen. But it’s also important to understand the major theme of mental illness and psychiatry in We Can Build You comes from a 1962 PKD, and not the 1972 PKD. Knowing the difference helps us to realize that the novel is about PKD then, but it prophesied the PKD to come.

Here’s the thing. Most readers think stories by Philip K. Dick are science fiction, but if you’re a Dickhead you realize they’re about PKD. Phil started out writing science fiction, but after he married Anne he wrote almost a dozen mainstream novels he couldn’t sell. Dick wanted to become an important writer and to support a wife that wanted that kind of success. At the beginning of the 1960s, PKD understood that wasn’t going to happen and returned his focus to writing science fiction. That’s when he published his masterpiece The Man in the High Castle in 1962. It was then PKD got the idea to blend mainstream fiction and science fiction and wrote We Can Build You.

The science-fictional elements of We Can Build You deal with building androids. The two main ones are Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. Each android is programmed with all the biographical knowledge we have for each man. They look completely human and act like they have been reincarnated. Although they become fascinating characters integral to the story, they aren’t the important part of the story.

The novel is really a bizarre love story. Louis loves Pris, but she doesn’t love him. She is cold, cruel, and indifferent. Pris is ambitious and convives to get Sam Burrows a tech billionaire that reminded me of Elon Musk. Pris doesn’t love anyone but knows Burrows can get her what she wants. This drives Louis insane and he goes to extreme measures to take Pris from Burrows. The last third of the book is Louis undergoing therapy after having a psychotic breakdown. PKD was not the kind of man women would want, and it’s surprising he found five wives. I believe this novel conveys PKD’s frustration with his search for a woman that could make him sane and whole.

The published novel has a mainstream novel ending. Ted White wrote a science fictional ending for the magazine serialization. You can read it here, starting with the heading “nineteen.” I actually like White’s ending, but not as an ending for We Can Build You. I like it because it encapsulates how many science fiction fans think of PKD’s stories. I think they are wrong. Of course, I think I’m right in seeing PKD differently, but then I could be wrong. Reading PKD always makes you doubt everything.

Ted White’s final chapter is written knowing all of Dick’s novels from the 1960s, and White completely misses the mainstream aspects of the We Can Build You and writes a bogus PKD ending. It’s an ending that science fiction fans expect, one that falsely assumes what they think PKD is saying in the book. The ending is as different as the theatrical release of Blade Runner and Riddley’s Scott’s ending in the director’s cut. I hate Scott’s interpretation, and it’s funny that Ted White wants to use the same twist. It only goes to show you how wrong both were about Philip K. Dick.

The funny thing is I remembered White’s ending from reading it in 1970, so all the while I was listening to We Can Build You I was expecting that ending. However, I never once found any support for it.

In an April 18, 1974 letter to Claudia K. Bush, PKD tells her his favorite of his own novels are:

  • Martian Time Slip
  • We Can Build You
  • Flow My Tears
  • Doctor Bloodmoney
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • The Simulcra
  • The Penultimate Truth

I don’t know if he intended that list to be in order, but We Can Build You came second to mind. He even mentions in the same letter that he wasn’t sure he liked Ubik. Nor does he mention any of his unpublished mainstream novels.

Additional Reading and References

Within We Can Build You Pris works on bathroom mosaic. It turns out Anne, Dick’s third wife, created such a mosaic, while he was writing the novel.

JWH

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Back to Normal?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/7/22

Every time we live through an extended power outage I learn something new about myself. Our power is back on. Our electricity was restored on the fourth day after the ice storm. There are still over 61,000 people without power in Memphis on the fifth day. I feel very bad for those people because I know their misery. I know some of their thoughts and anxieties, their inner pleas, and prayers for utility restoration.

We are back to normal, but this time I’m questioning my normalcy.

We lose electricity once a year or more, sometimes for 2-3 days. Last year I wrote “Cracks in My Comfort Zone” about the 2021 ice storm. I wrote “Thrown Off the Grid Kicking and Streaming” in 2017. In 2011 I wrote “Blogging by Candlelight and Paper” and in 2008, wrote “Living Like Jane Austen.” There were many outages in between those years, but not long ones. Sometimes it’s in the heat of summer, like Hurricane Elvis, when we went 13 days without power. But more often, it’s in winter, after an ice storm, or in the spring or fall from weather fronts colliding.

Each time I learn something philosophical while living without electricity. This ice storm wasn’t as bad because we never approached zero degrees like last year. The worst was 17 degrees. In both situations, my biggest fear was bursting pipes. This year my friend Leigh Ann had a supply shelf, a color laser printer, and her studio floor ruined by two burst pipes. Last year Mike and Betsy had a flooded bathroom from one burst pipe. Laurie told me about a neighbor that once had a tree fall on her house and do $200,000 worth of damage. But then I think about those people in Kentucky hit by a tornado. We’re all lucky.

After last year’s ice storm, I made several preparations. I had the gas fireplace I was too afraid to use last year cleaned and checked for safety. I had the pipes in my crawlspace insulated. I bought a Jackery to recharge the cell phones. That was a tremendous purchase. As were two battery-powered LED lanterns Susan and I carried with us at all times. I also had our trees thinned of dead branches, but it wasn’t enough. During the ice storm, we kept hearing the crack and crash of falling limbs. It felt like it was raining limbs on our roof. One huge limb came down in front of our house and our neighbor called and said we should rush to the casinos with that luck.

Being without heat and hot food is miserable, but what we suffered mostly from was boredom. That’s a pitiful problem of privilege that I hate to admit. The only time I’m bored is in a power outage. Ditto for Susan. That shows just how pathetically addicted we are to our TVs and computers. These power outages reveal our dependency on screens. I know that’s not good, but I don’t know if I’m going to change either.

We hunkered down and endured. While some of our friends got out and still did fun things. But those friends aren’t as addicted to screens as we are. This year I tried to get up and do more things around the house, like wash dishes by hand, clean out closets, fold clothes, even vacuumed with my battery vacuum. One day I went out and filled our tires with the proper amount of air pressure. That made this outage much better than last year.

However, one thing that made last year very miserable was my prostate problems. This year I had two temporary crowns the cold annoyed but that wasn’t so bad. Obviously, health and vitality are a factor in enduring power outages. It must be torture for people with acute and chronic health problems to go without power.

Last year our phones ran down quickly. We charged them a tiny bit in the car, but it wasn’t a practical solution. This year, we charged both phones with the Jackery several times, and the Jackery still had enough juice left for several more charging. Also, we have new iPhones with 5G and we were able to play Google TV on them – that lessened our boredom. I also listened to audiobooks and read using the Kindle app on my iPhone.

The small iPhone screens gave us most of what our big TV and computer screens give us in our normal lives. That was interesting. I’m thinking an iPad with a keyboard could do everything we wanted if it had broadband access. For next year, I want to check into getting a broadband hotspot that would work with our existing tablets and Susan’s laptop.

I often read fiction and nonfiction about life in the 19th century. Those people had to live with the cold all the time and didn’t have electricity. In adapting to future power outages I need to plan for ways to follow our normal routines and be just as active.

Susan and I wore lots of layers and snuggled under three Afghans each in our recliners. That essentially solved the cold problem. The gas fireplace helped some too, but not as much as I had hoped. The temperature in the house was 50 degrees. It was 44 degrees last year and falling. It was 57 degrees in the living room near the fireplace. That made a difference. Three days living at 50 degrees wasn’t horrible, but 44 degrees was just miserable last year. Overall, we handled the cold well. I have a few tweaks to try for next year. I’m assuming that bad weather will become more common.

We were better prepared for food this year. I had bagels and cream cheese, cheese sandwiches, and protein bars. Susan had tuna fish and peanut butter and jelly. We ordered pizza one night and got Burger King one lunch. I’m a vegetarian, so I had their Beyond Burger. It was good but cold. I heated it up on the gas fireplace.

Next year I know to get a healthier supply of food that can be eaten cold. I’ll investigate camping food. Also, if I know a storm is coming I should wash all the dirty clothes and dishes ahead of time. Slowly we’re getting better at adapting to short periods of living without power.

Susan’s folks went ten days without power in this house after the 1994 ice storm. I was afraid we might have to go that long again. Some people in Shelby county might have to go that long now. Being prepared for 1-2 weeks is important.

Susan wants to get a gas stove and maybe a gas oven. Eating hot food would have helped, especially for a longer outage. I could have heated up soup on the gas fireplace but just didn’t. If the outage had lasted longer I would have.

I want to buy a generator. Last year I pondered getting a generator but decided I didn’t want to mess with a portable gasoline generator and thought a permanent fall-over natural gas generator was too expensive for outages that only happen a couple times a decade. Now that it’s two years running I’m rethinking that.

The main lesson I learned this time is I need to become more active in my retirement life and less dependent on screens. The key is to be prepared for outages, but try and live as normal as possible while the electricity is gone. We tend to just sit and wait for the power to come back, and that’s not good.

I need to work on a new normal.

JWH

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Is Neil Young’s Spotify Protest Censorship?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/22

I’ve noticed an interesting overlap in two news stories over the past week. One was Neil Young’s demand that Spotify removes Joe Rogan’s podcast, and the other was about parents demanding books be removed from Texas schools. Since I’m against banning books should I also be against banning podcasts? Just because I love Neil Young’s music should I follow his protests?

I know next to nothing about Joe Rogan other than he said healthy young people shouldn’t need to get the Covid vaccine. That’s truly bad advice that could get some young people killed. But is censoring Joe Rogan the answer? I find controversy-driven talk show hosts to be repugnant. I just ignore them. But what if we did live in a world where we could shut up everyone we didn’t want to hear?

The problem is people on the right want to suppress certain ideas, and people on the left want to suppress other ideas. In both cases, those folks think they are doing good. I believe ideas should battle it out in the open. If a talk show host or book author says something that upsets people, should we censor them? Or should we evaluate what they have to say and decide for ourselves what we want to believe?

We do have certain kinds of censorship. We put the kibosh on false advertising, libel, slander, or any action that leads to provable damaging results.

Are there cases where young people have died, and their parents could bring a class action suit against Joe Rogan? With all the social media evidence, I suppose documentation where young people left evidence saying they didn’t get vaccinated because of Joe Rogan. But isn’t that for the courts to decide?

What Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, et al have done is assume this danger is true and are fighting against it. That seems honorable. But I’m sure the parents and supporters of banning books feel they are equally honorable. I admire people wanting to do good, but I often feel they aren’t

On the other hand, I had a completely different take on the Young-Spotify issue. I was offended by Spotify regarding Joe Rogan for an entirely different reason. I love Spotify but I’ve always felt guilty when I hear claims that it doesn’t pay music creators fairly. To pay some blowhard $100 million for a podcast when Spotify is accused of paying musicians $50 royalty checks is hard to accept. Why isn’t Neil Young protesting that? However, I have heard other musicians say they are paid well by streaming services, and those complaining performers have never been given proper royalties. Evidently, dividing the pie has always been unfair in the music business.

It’s mind-boggling to me that talking heads get more money than musicians.

If recording artists pulled their music catalogs to protest bad pay, I could understand their attack on Spotify. Is Joe Rogan getting more pay per play than hit songwriters? That would be disturbing. Does society really value the opinionated over artists who gave us songs we’ve loved an entire lifetime? To me, Carol Kaye deserves $100 million far more than Joe Rogan.

I also must wonder if Neil Young and his musician friends are only hurting their fans. Spotify now skips their songs when they come up in my playlists. I never wanted to listen to Joe Rogan, but now I can’t hear Neal Young on Spotify.

I bought all of Neil Young’s albums and CDs for decades, and I could go back to listening to them now, but streaming is how I listen to music nowadays. I hardly ever use my turntable or CD player. Luckily, I subscribe to more than one music streaming service.

My protest to Spotify is they should pay the musicians more, even the ones that originally got bad contracts. I love the idea of a universal listening library for rent. It’s too damn convenient. That’s why I subscribe. I want access to all music. I don’t care about anything but the music.

JWH

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2022 Book #4 – The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/22

Reading about the past is calming my anxieties about the future. The Horse The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony is not a book I recommend to the casual reader. I expected it to be a popular science book about archaeology, but it turned out to be something much heavier. It’s a scientific work, probably used as a supplemental textbook. I found listening and reading the book to be rewarding and inspiring but it’s not fun. However, it has caused me to do a lot of philosophical pondering.

I won’t try to describe the book, Wikipedia has done an extremely detailed job with hyperlinks. If you want to know what the book is like, here is Anthony giving a lecture. This is exactly like listening to the audiobook.

I bought this book years ago and never read it and gave it to the library book sale. Then I read a popular article about linguistic anthology and decided I wanted to try it again and found a used copy. Still, I didn’t read it. Finally, I found an audiobook version that made it more accessible. I’m glad I had the physical book to refer to, because of its many complex charts and illustrations. This was a rewarding read, but I just want people to know it’s real science, not even popular science, and the going is tough. It took me weeks to listen to it all. Mainly, I want to talk about how I reacted to the book.

For years I’ve been troubled, even disturbed that our species lack real effort to combat climate change. For almost thirty years I’ve been waiting for governments and citizens to change their ways. I now realize that was naive of me. People don’t change. Not that I’ve given up complete hope, but all the evidence tells me our global civilization will never do anything significant about climate change.

That has inspired some existential insights. I expected humanity to grab control of reality and do everything it could to freeze the environment to its 1850-1950 weather patterns and maintain that as a steady-state forever. Once I started studying archaeology I realized that weather has always been changing over our species lifetime, and even for the whole lifetime of the Earth. Humans have always adapted to new weather patterns. It’s probably too fantastic to think we’ll control the weather.

Reading The Horse The Wheel and Language showed that humans have never stayed the same either. We’re constantly changing. Civilizations come and go all the time. Reading and watching documentaries about history and archaeology is teaching me that change is constant. That old saying, “the only thing constant is death and taxes” is true.

On its own specific subject The Horse The Wheel and Language is fascinating, but like I said, I not going to recommend you run out and buy it. Most of it is one giant infodump describing several societies around the Russian Steppes from about 4000-1200 BCE. The most interesting chapters were the early ones about the Indo-European languages and how linguists infer what the Proto-Indo-European language was like, and more specifically to this book, where in the world did the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language lived.

Anthony claims by looking at the array of words in an ancient language and comparing it to the array of objects that archeologists have unearthed, we might pinpoint where those people could have lived. For example, if a language has the word for a wagon, but no wagons are ever found, it’s a not likely match. Or if a language has a lot of words for raising sheep, and lots of sheep bones were found, we might be getting warm. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. For example, linguists can show how words from adjacent civilizations have passed into a language. I found all this fascinating, but overwhelming.

This is why the words Horse and Wheel are in the title. Only certain early civilizations had horses and wheels. For a long time, horses were only hunted for food. Then they were domesticated for food. Then came riding horses, and finally using horses to pull carts, then wagons. This made me think about how we’ll adapt to climate change. We’ll invent housing, clothing, lifestyles, jobs, political parties, etc. to adapt.

One thing I was amazed to learn was just how many different groups of people existed in a small area in prehistory that we know about. Most people when they think of ancient civilizations think of Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and a few others. To me, the Russian Steppes and nearby lands sounded like North America before Columbus with countless tribes of nomadic and agrarian peoples.

For a while when reading the book I thought of making a timeline/list of civilizations to memorize but I soon realized that could become a lifetime project. I’ve ordered an archaeology textbook to help me get a bigger picture, but I’m not sure how big of a picture I can manage. Reading this book also made me crave maps, so I ordered a couple of atlases.

Many of these early civilizations lasted hundreds or even thousands of years. That made me think about how often world maps have changed in my lifetime. If the United States of America doesn’t make it to its 300th birthday it won’t be alone. All the descriptions of past changes of civilizations due to climate change, war, technology, disease, etc., make me wonder about what America might be like in the 22nd century. I now understand we can’t keep the weather of the 1950s forever, or the politics of the 1790s, or the technology of the 2020s.

About 85 million people died in the decade before I was born due to WWII, or about 3% of the world’s population. We’ve already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to kill that many or more by the end of this century. Since we’re not going to stop adding CO2 anytime soon, billions will probably die in the 22nd century. Percentage-wise, civilizations have seen that kind of population reduction before.

I believe conservatives wanted to preserve the social climate of the 1950s, while liberals wanted to keep the weather environment of the 1950s. Neither will get what they want. All the demographics on Americans and America will be so much different in the 22nd century that we wouldn’t recognize either.

I need to stop speculating or worrying so about the future. Studying the past is philosophical liberating for me, but I’m not sure how much I should pursue it either, but I will. Living in the now is what’s important. And that’s why most people don’t worry about the future. I doubt for most of humanity’s existence the future was even a concept. I also assume the reason why so many people embrace various forms of denial is they don’t want to know the future because deep down they fear change. But change is coming. We can’t stop it.

JWH

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2022 Book #3 – The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) ed. by Asimov & Greenberg

by James Wallace Harris, 1/22/22

Normally, I write about science fiction over at my blog that’s devoted to science fiction, but I’m reviewing every book I read in 2022 for this blog. To make it more interesting for my friends who don’t care about science fiction, I thought I’d explain why I’m still reading science fiction in old age even though I believe science fiction is really meant for young people. (For an actual discussion of the stories, I reviewed them here.)

There are thirteen short stories in The Great SF Stories 25 (1963). If I had read those stories at 11 or 12 in 1963, they would have meant something entirely different than how I perceived them at age 70 in 2022. Now that I’m seventy and examining my life with a more critical eye, I realize that my sixty years of reading science fiction is a kind of delusion. I’ve been thinking about delusional thinking since the Trump years. I don’t believe Q-Anon followers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, etc., are the only folks who see the world through their delusions. I think we all do.

Generally, we think of science fiction as a specific subject of entertainment, but I also believe science fiction fans believe in certain concepts because of their love of the genre. Science fiction works best when we’re young, giving us a sense of wonder. Like religion, it introduces certain beliefs that most fans keep their whole life.

Science fiction is immensely popular, at least at the movies and on television, but also as a reading category too. There are certain beliefs about the future that science fiction fans embrace. Some of those beliefs are even shared by people who don’t like science fiction, but they’ve come to accept them because science fiction is so pervasive in pop culture. If you examine your own beliefs carefully, you might spot some that come from science fiction.

What’s interesting about these beliefs, and I’ll get to the specifics soon, is they’ve been around a long time, some are even older than science fiction. I’ve been reading science fiction for six decades, and the genre has undergone many changes over those decades. A few ago I started a reading project to read all the science fiction anthologies that collected the best-of-the-year short stories. I started with The Great SF Stories 1 (1939). I’m up to volume 18 (1958) but a year ago I joined a Facebook group that reads SF anthologies, and it voted to group read volume 25 (1963). 1963 is an interesting year, it was the year after I started reading science fiction.

This anthology is a blast from the past in several ways. I have read some of these 1963 stories before, but not when they came out. When I started reading science fiction, I was discovering books from the 1950s and earlier. I didn’t discover “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” until years later. It’s the most important story to me in the anthology and the best science fiction story of 1963. I first read it in Judith Merril’s 10th Annual which I owned in paperback in the late 1960s or The Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume one which I got from the Science Fiction Book Club in 1970. I’ve read it many times over the years, and I still love “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” It’s a fantasy about science fiction that I wish was my reality.

I mention these details partly out of nostalgia, partly to stress-test my memory, but mainly because “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a significant story. Roger Zelazny paid homage to the kind of science fiction I grew up loving as a kid. Back then I wanted Martians to exist. I wanted to believe intelligent life was everywhere in the solar system and beyond. As a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I was a believer in a lot of crappy ideas. Philip K. Dick wrote a wonderful novel about such believers called Confessions of a Crap Artist. See my review.

Over the decades, in mainstream magazines, science fiction would be criticized by modern literary writers as fiction for adolescents. This always made science fiction fans furious, but I believe it’s true. Most of us just don’t want to grow up. I know I never did. Such criticism was like telling one of the faithful their beliefs were programmed into them as children but aren’t real. Most religious folks cling to their beliefs no matter how convincing the arguments are against them. I’ve gotten some older science fiction fans mad at me for saying atheistic things about our faith, science fiction.

Now that I’m looking back I see how science fiction is something I wanted to believe in, even though it’s mostly just fun make-believe stories. I could say it’s a cognitive perspective that I use to view reality. Unfortunately, I’ve reached an age where I have doubts about any realistic uses of science fiction.

I am like a preacher who has a good job as a paster who has lost his faith but is too old to get work at anything else. I’ve got to keep working, to still be good at my job, but without having faith. I still love science fiction, and I’ve come to admire it in new ways. Instead of a religion or philosophy, I think of it as an art form. I might not believe humanity will ever have interstellar travel, but stories about it can be quite creative.

Each of the stories in The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) worked in a new way for me in 2022. For example, as I read the Jewish science fiction humor of “Bernie the Faust” by William Tenn, originally published in the November 1963 Playboy. I wondered if Tenn was making fun of science fiction fans. In the story, a tough New Yorker businessman thinks he’s taking a rube to the cleaners by selling him the planet Earth, but then fears he’s sold out the human race to an alien. As a kid, I would have wanted to believe aliens were visiting us. Now, I wonder if Bernie was just delusional in thinking the rube was from outer space, and he’s a stand-in for science fiction fans, and Tenn was making fun of us.

In “Turn Off the Sky” originally appearing in the August 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), Ray Nelson fears a future utopian liberal America. The main character is a Beatnik anarchist who finds purpose in preaching anarchy but falls in love with a prostitute who still believes in capitalism and making money. In 1963, the only Beatnik I knew was Maynard G. Krebs. I didn’t discover the Beats until 1968, and now in 2022, I admire the story for its grittily realistic aspects, but as a kid in 1963, I would have been all caught up in the utopian counter-culture. “Turn Off the Sky” was probably written in 1959, and Nelson predicts many things that didn’t happen until the later 1960s, and explored ideas still relevant today. Many SF writers were very conservative, and even though Nelson was a childhood friend of the hippies’ favorite science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, I could sense his conservative’s fear of socialism way back in 1959.

Regarding conservative philosophy, I could also see that in “No Truce With Kings” by Poul Anderson, first published in the June 1963 F&SF. As a kid, I wouldn’t have liked this story. As an old man, and lifelong liberal, I still didn’t like this story, but it’s actually interesting in 2022. Anderson imagines a Post-America that’s trying to rebuild. One group wants to recreate the U.S. federal government, but others want to maintain feudal states. Anderson proposes that people are only capable of managing small-scale governments, and the feudal system was the best size for human communities. You see this belief today, especially out in Idaho right now. This story won a Hugo award back then.

The value of reading these old science fiction stories isn’t that they were about the future, but they were about 1963, and reading them today shows how things don’t change.

Philip K. Dick’s story in this anthology, “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” also imagines a Post-America after WWIII, but further in the future. As a kid, I would never imagine a Post-America. I figured the United States would exist into the far future and dominate interplanetary and interstellar exploration. But reading these old science fiction stories I realize that many writers weren’t as confident. In 2022 I’m not confident about our future anymore too. In the story, humans who had colonized Mars return to Earth and the U.S. to rebuild, but they are soon in conflict with humans who had colonized the Proxima Centaurus system and have also returned to Earth to rebuild it too. PKD imagined quite a neat invention in this story. The New York Times was preserved by moving underground, and when it was liberated, turned out to be an AI that presented very accurate news, even becoming an oracle. Again, I see a political savviness that I wouldn’t have perceived as a kid but recognize now. The story isn’t about the future, but 1963. And like the other stories, things haven’t changed.

A more personally relevant story was by Clifford Simak, “New Folks’ Home,” about a seventy-year-old man retiring. Since I recently turned 70, this meant more to me now than it would have back at age 12. Lawyer Frederick Gray takes one last fishing trip into an isolated wilderness before moving into his retirement home. He injures himself and breaks into a remote cabin to save his life. There he finds a completely automated home that takes care of him. The home is an alien outpost on Earth, and it offers him meaningful work and longevity. The work is done by remote access like we do in our current pandemic, but with aliens in other star systems. I’ve always loved Simak stories for their gentle hopeful view of life. Simak wrote a huge number of stories and novels, many of which were about aliens among us, and intelligent robots. Like I’ve mentioned above, as a kid, I wanted to believe aliens could visit Earth, and we’d eventually visit them someday. I no longer believe interstellar travel will be possible. But I do think intelligent machines will emerge eventually – but that might be a delusion too.

One last story I want to mention is “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To” by Alfred Bester. (F&SF October 1963). Linda Nielsen thinks she’s the last person on Earth. Like Ralph Burton, played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, Linda is fixing up her apartment by taking whatever she wants from a deserted New York City. I mention this movie because it’s a favorite movie and I pictured it as I read “They Don’t Make Life Like They Use To.” I love the last person on Earth stories. My all-time favorite novel is this type is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. As a kid, I wanted to be the last person on Earth, sometimes I still do. Isn’t that a weird desire? But it’s a popular theme in science fiction.

However, I’ve always thought it would be neat if the last person on Earth was actually the last person, but in these stories, someone else always shows up. In the movie, it was Sarah Crandall, played by Inger Stevens. Since Bester describes Linda as Nordic, I wondered if he saw the movie with the Nordic Stevens and decided to just start with a blonde. Also, in the last people on Earth stories, the second person is generally of the opposite sex, so the plot develops sexual tension. In a number of these stories, a third person shows up. Usually, it’s two males fighting over one female. Another movie example of this is The Quiet Earth (1985).

Bester brings about an interesting twist in the end that finally convinces Jim Mayo and Linda Nielsen to get it on. This satisfies us readers who have been waiting for that action, but it wraps up the story too quickly, at least for me. However, the ending reminds me of another last Adam and Eve story, “Quietus” by Ross Rocklynne.

This story combines several themes I loved as a kid. Being the last person on Earth. Rebuilding society the way I think it should be built. Aliens visiting Earth. Aliens discovering the last people on Earth. I have to admit in 2022 I don’t see civilization surviving for many more decades. But then, evidently neither did many science fiction writers back in the 1950s and 1960s. Most people feel we’ll muddle along, like always.

However, in 1963 I really didn’t believe civilization would collapse, or WWIII would happen. As a young person, I had faith in the future. I had faith in a lot of things that science fiction promised. I no longer believe in many of those promises. And for some reason, I think civilization will collapse sometimes this century. (I’m also reading a lot of archeology, and civilization collapse is the norm.)

Reading old science fiction is no longer about believing in the future. Reading old science fiction is about how much we got right and how much we got wrong. It’s probably because I’m old and turning cynical, but I feel the worse thing we got wrong was optimism about human potential. I think technology, society, culture, knowledge, etc. progresses, but not humans. We don’t change.

Science fiction also progresses and evolves. One concept that has emerged since 1963 is the idea of downloading human minds/personalities and uploading them into robots, clones, or virtual worlds. Essentially, the is a new version of immortality, and even heaven. I’ve never believed in this concept, and I have argued with many science fiction fans that do. Some passionately believe it, maybe as strong as the faithful believe they will be reborn in heaven.

We should be careful of the ideas we embrace. It’s so hard to tell if they are delusions.

JWH

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2022 Book #2 – Bewilderment by Richard Powers

by James Wallace Harris, 1/16/21

I often wonder how young people today feel about the future. The only way to have hope is through massive acts of denial. Susan and I never had children, so I don’t know what it’s like to answer their questions as they grow up. Do you lie? Do you hide the news? What do you tell them about the metal detectors in the schools? How do you explain our handling of pandemics or climate change? What do you teach your kids about race relations and the politics of hate? What do you tell your kids about the thousands of failures we are facing as a society?

This is the core of the new novel by Richard Powers. Bewilderment is about raising a nine-year-old kid with emotional problems. He’s probably on the autism spectrum but is very high functioning. He probably has other learning disorders, but nothing is definite. He has trouble in school and his teachers want to medicate him with powerful psychoactive drugs. He has hair-trigger tantrums. His mother has died. How would you cope with such a kid? To make matters worse, the setting is the near future where things have gotten even worse than today. Imagine what the U.S. would be like if Trump was on his third term.

Bewilderment is not marketed as science fiction, but it’s set slightly into the future and talks about technology that might be possible soon. The story often references science fiction and uses its techniques, so I do consider it a science fiction novel. It’s the most gut-wrenching science fiction novel since Flowers for Algernon. If that novel wrecked you emotionally, you might not want to read this one. I found this one even more emotionally devastating.

Theo Byrne is the widower father of Robin (Robbie), a nine-year-old boy who is smart enough to know that humanity is on an insane self-destructive path and he can’t stop asking why. Robbie relentlessly wonders why his father, his teachers, or any of the adults he meets don’t act rationally. Robbie acts out, sometimes violently, sometimes in tantrums, demanding truth and honesty. Robbie is the one sighted person in the land of the blind. Robbie is the person we should all be. And Theo is constantly at his wit’s end trying to help his son.

Teachers want to control Robbie with psychoactive meds, and Theo is looking for any solution but that. Theo is a great dad. He constantly tries to engage Robin in insightful learning. Theo has two tools for calming Robbie. One, he calls on his memory of reading 2,000 paperback science fiction novels for engaging stories to divert Robbie from his meltdowns. Second, Theo is a scientist developing simulations of exoplanets for the day a new space telescope will be launched. He gets Robbie involved in these possible worlds that could be discovered soon. The basis of Theo’s work is to develop as many simulations as he can, so when the telescope detects certain conditions with an exoplanet they can match it to the simulations and quickly understand what we might be seeing.

Theo uses his simulations to visualize being on other planets to engage Robbie’s attention. This works at times, but often it only fuels Robbie’s awareness of what we’re doing to the planet Earth. For a nine-year-old, Robin can extrapolate brilliantly. His bullshit detector never fails.

Bewilderment progresses through one year of Theo’s and Robin’s life. Robbie is obsessed with memories of his dead mother, who was a lawyer for all the save-the-world causes. It’s through learning about his mother that Robbie finds some hope of controlling his emotions.

Like I said, most people will not consider Bewilderment a real science fiction novel. Bewilderment doesn’t have spaceships, galactic empires, time travel, robots, or dystopias — well, other than our own. The reason I like to think of Bewilderment as a science fiction novel is it uses all the sense of wonder I grew up with to give us hope for the real future we’re about to enter.

Unfortunately, Bewilderment shows our science fiction dreams are going to fail us. Or more exactly, we are going to fail them. The rap sheet for our species is long. The list of what we’re destroying grows every day. One of the things Richard Powers believes we’re destroying is our positive science fiction dreams. That like me, he worries about what hopes young people can still find in science fiction.

Science fiction has always been about hopes and fears regarding the future. What happens when science fiction only has fears to work with?

JWH

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2022 Book #1 – The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

by James Wallace Harris

My old buddy Connell and I often talk about the unexpected scientific discoveries made in our lifetime. Back in the 1960s, we both grew up reading science fiction and we had certain expectations about the 21st-century. Now that we’re in our seventies living in that century we realized that science fiction missed so much, and so did our imaginations.

Because we grew up thinking the black and white astronomical photos made by the Mt. Palomar 200″ telescope were the pinnacle of astronomical awareness, we never imagined what the Hubble Space Telescope would show us in color. We never dreamed that astronomers would discover exoplanets or robots would roam the solar system. We thought people had to go to all those places.

Nor did we imagine society being transformed by computers and networks. I never pictured the computer I’m typing on now, or what I could do with my iPhone or iPad.

But one of the biggest discoveries we missed was about animal consciousness. We expected that we’d have to wait for interstellar spaceships to be developed before we’d meet another form of intelligent life. We never realized it was all around us on Earth and in the oceans.

Intelligence and sentience are on a spectrum. We grew up in a time when people believed they were the crown of creation, and all life below us was unconscious and stupid. We’re finally realizing just how stupid we were. See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

There are so many books to read to illustrate what I mean. The Soul of an Octopus is just one, but a beautiful work by a woman that has learned so much about animals by spending time with them. Sy Montgomery writes in a way that we follow her around as she makes her discoveries. You will fall in love with four beautiful creatures, Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. You will cry when some of them die, but you will also get to meet intelligent alien lifeforms.

I still read a lot of science fiction, I can’t help myself, it’s a lifelong addiction that I no longer try to escape from. But I’ve learned if I really want to experience the far-out I need to read science books, books like The Soul of an Octopus.

My reading goal for 2022 is to read as many intensely great books as I can find. The Soul of an Octopus starts the year with a bang.

JWH

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Do you drive yourself crazy trying to find your next book to read?

by James Wallace Harris, 1/7/22

I do. I’m as indecisive as Hamlet when picking my next book to read.

I’ve just finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery which was a wonderful nonfiction book that made me go misty-eyed many times while reading it. It’s a memoir about getting to know octopuses. At first, Montgomery falls in love with Athena, an octopus at a New England aquarium, then spends years getting to know a succession of octopuses at that aquarium, before eventually learning to scuba dive so she can visit octopuses in the wild from the world.

I thoroughly loved this book, and whenever I read a great book, I want to be very careful picking my next book to read. I’ve had an impressive streak of great reads, both novels, and nonfiction, and I hate to break it. The Soul of an Octopus is the first book I’ve finished in 2022. I want my second book to be just as moving and inspirational.

Right now, I feel I’m in the mood for a novel, but I’m always feeling something different from one moment to the next. I started Around the World in 80 Days just before the premiere of the first episode of that story on PBS Masterpiece last Sunday. That novel is good, but I’m not sure it’s good enough for my next read.

I’m supposed to be reading The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim for my nonfiction book club, and I’ve started it too. But I’m afraid it’s going to be academic theorizing that will disappoint me. I’m intrigued by the idea of why reading fairytales could be significant to the moral development of children, but I’m not sure I buy the hypothesis. After reading the entry on Wikipedia on fairytales, I’m tempted to find a book about the history of fairytales but I don’t know if there’s an obvious book on the subject. Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner might be a good starting place. It gets raves from The New York Times and The Guardian.

Is my momentary pique of interest in fairytales just a fleeting distraction? This happens to be all the time. I read an essay and I want to gallop off to read a book. I don’t like reading fantasy fiction that much, but the Wikipedia entry got me very curious about writers studying fairytales. It’s not the stories themselves that attract me to the idea, but the study of them. I already have many unread books on the history of the novel patiently waiting on my shelves, so why should I go buy another book?

This is why I’m writing this essay, to reveal just how chaotic my mind is when it comes to making the decision of what to read. I have thousands of unread books sitting on shelves, both wooden and virtual. When I bought each of those books, I thought I would read it next. That didn’t happen. I got distracted by another idea or book before I could start. Thus my never-ending queue of books waiting to be read.

I also have the list of 2021 books I just blogged about. Rereading that list reminds me I was anxious to read two novels: Bewilderment by Richard Powers and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, and was strongly considering two more, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood or Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. All four of them were on many best-of-the-year lists for 2021, and in all likelihood, would be tremendous books — just what I’m in the mood for.

Yes, I should very definitely read a great contemporary novel. I’m almost convinced that’s what I should do. Then, seeping up from deep down in my unconscious mind is the urge to read a science fiction novel. One that will thrill me like those science fiction novels thrilled me when I was 13. I think that desire comes from just getting over Covid. Whenever I’m sick, I get nostalgic for classic science fiction. I’m tempted to read Orion Shall Rise by Poul Anderson after researching reading his novella “No Truce with Kings.” I was intrigued by Anderson’s desire to write a novel about future societies trying to rebuild after our global society collapses.

My reading moods are far less varied than the number of books I want to read. Science fiction satisfies my sense of wonder. Literary novels, either from the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries make me feel closer to people. Reading nonfiction gives the satisfying feeling I’m learning something.

I have ten large bookcases full of printed books that stare down at me with countless volumes begging to be read. My digital larder of Kindle books and Audible books wanting by eyes and ears is just as many. The reality is I can only love one book at a time. I can be reading on several if I’m only so-so into them. But if I really get into a book, I won’t read anything else until it’s finished.

That’s exactly what I’m in the mood for, to be completely consumed by wanting to finish that one great book. That’s what I’m always wanting. I keep thinking I can consciously choose such a book. I keep thinking I can intellectually figure out what such a book should be. However, it never works out like that.

Until I open a book and get hooked, I never know what book that will be. Yet, there is a part of me, my anal-retentive side, that wants to pick 52 books from my shelves and schedule them on my calendar to read during 2022. That aspect of my personality wants to command what will happen. That part of my personality thinks I bought all those damn books then I should get busy and systematically read them.

The La-De-Da part of my personality just wants to tell the anal-retentive me, “Fuck off.”

Oh, the mental chaos it is to be me.

JWH

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Why It’s So Important to Remember What I Read in 2021

by James Wallace Harris, 12/30/21

Reading is my sixth sense, how I explore the larger reality I can’t observe with my classic five senses. Every year I can only read so many books, making it important to wisely select the novels, nonfiction books, short stories, and articles I do read. Reading changes me. I shape myself by what I read. Each year I work to become more conscious by what I select to read. However, this self-improvement effort is very much like my efforts to eat healthily and avoid junk food. I’m never a saint.

At seventy, my mind is becoming like an old suit with moth holes. Words and thoughts leak out of my consciousness through little missing places eaten away by the moths of time. Remembering is something that’s become very important to me, as much as sex was on my adolescent mind.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams is the 52nd and last book I read in 2021. It’s an accomplishment to read so many books in one year. And 52 is a good number. It means I averaged one book a week, and that’s a nice reading pace.

I’ve always wanted to be one of those superbookworms who could read 100 or 200 books a year, but my mind and memory can’t handle that much new content. I like to think one book a week is what my mind can handle, but I’m probably fooling myself.

52 is probably too many but I’d hate to read less. I feel I did a pretty good job of picking worthwhile reads, ones I still remember reading at the end of the year, but I have to admit, some of them were not necessarily the best books I could have picked. I will try harder next year. The problem is the conflict between reading books that expand my awareness, and books that soothe my soul.

One way to remember the books I read in 2021 is to remember my favorites, the ones I’d recommend. Links are to essays I wrote during the year.

New Fiction

New Nonfiction

  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause – Ty Seidule
  • Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis
  • Under a White Sky – Elizabeth Kolbert

Old Fiction

Old Nonfiction

  • The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
  • Evil Geniuses – Kurt Andersen
  • The Art of Dying Well – Katy Butler
  • Hackers – Steven Levy
  • The Sisters – Mary S. Lovell
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer

Another way to remember is to recall why I read certain books. I’m in a two-person book club with my friend Linda, I’m also a member of an online nonfiction book club, I’m in a Facebook group that reads science fiction anthologies, I have a personal reading goal to read all 25 volumes of The Great SF Stories edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, I like to read science fiction novels, I love to read popular science books, and I enjoy reading some contemporary and classic fiction.

Two-Person Book Club With Linda

  • Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America – Kurt Andersen
  • Horseman, Pass By – Larry McMurtry
  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari
  • Leaving Cheyenne – Larry McMurtry
  • The Art of Dying Well – Katy Butler
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Elderhood – Louise Aronson
  • Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story – Michael Lewis

Linda went on to read several more Larry McMurtry books, but I just couldn’t keep up with her.

Online Nonfiction Book Club

  • Underland: A Deep Time Journey – Robert MacFarlane
  • The Sisters – Mary S. Lovell
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
  • Noise (didn’t finish) –
  • Uncanny Valley (read in 2020) – Anna Weiner
  • Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World –  Fareed Zakariia (didn’t finish)
  • Fermat’s Enigma – Simon Singh (didn’t finish)

I had read The Sisters, Uncanny Valley, and The Invention of Nature on my own and nominated those books. I skipped four books this year: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, Forgetting by Scott A. Small, Kindred by Rebecca Waggs Sykes, A Promised Land by Barack Obama.

Nonfiction I Picked

  • Hackers – Steven Levy (reread)
  • Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Mike Ashley
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media – P. W. Singer
  • A People’s History of Computing in the United States – Joy Lis Rankin
  • Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. – Sam Wasson

I love reading about the history of computers, and the history of science fiction. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I also love reading about pop culture history.

Facebook Group – Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction

  • Year’s Best SF 1 – ed. David Hartwell
  • Orbit 1 – ed. Damon Knight
  • The Very Best of the Best ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Year’s Best S-F, 5th Annual Edition – Judith Merril
  • The Dark Side – ed. Damon Knight
  • World’s Best Science Fiction 1968 – ed. Donald Wollheim
  • The New Space Opera ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction 3rd Annual – ed. Gardner Dozois
  • The Big Book of Science Fiction – ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (58% finished)

This group gets me to read a great deal of science fiction short stories. We discuss one short story a day, but I don’t read every day’s story. Still, probably over 200 stories. I really enjoy this group, and I’m learning a tremendous lot about the history of short science fiction. I’ve probably read over 400 short stories this year because of other SF anthologies and magazines I read on my own.

The Great SF Stories

  • The Great SF Stories 16 (1954) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg
  • The Great SF Stories 17 (1955) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg
  • The Great SF Stories 18 (1965) – ed. Asimov/Greenberg

I’ve been working through this 25-volume series since 2018. I’ve become immensely fond of this series. It’s a shame they are out of print. I own all twenty-five in paperback, but I read them on my iPad from pdf copies found on the internet. I keep hoping the Facebook group to vote to read the entire run. We do start volume 25 on the 29th of this month. I’d love to finish off the series in 2022, but that would be reading 7 more volumes in 2022 and that probably won’t happen.

Science Fiction

  • The Ministry of the Future – Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth – Walter Tevis
  • Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Children of Ruin – Adrian Tchaikovsky
  • The Clockwork Man – E. V. Odle
  • Past Master – R. A. Lafferty
  • Of Men and Monsters – William Tenn
  • Lords of the Psychon – Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Dying Earth – Jack Vance
  • The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
  • Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint – Abrashkin & Williams
  • A Gift of Time – Jerry Merritt
  • The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis

That’s a total of 26 science fiction books. Far more science fiction than I believe I should be reading. Each year I tell myself I should read less science fiction and more other kinds of books, but I can’t seem to break my life-long science fiction addiction.

General Fiction

  • Horseman, Pass By – Larry McMurtry
  • Leaving Cheyenne – Larry McMurtry
  • The Girl on the Boat – P. G. Wodehouse
  • The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford
  • Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
  • Don’t Tell Alfred – Nancy Mitford
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

I’m disappointed that I didn’t read a new 19th-century classic. Last year I read War and Peace. I did read The War of the Worlds, but I’ve read it a couple of times before. I had planned to read Madame Bovery.

2021 Books

  • Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Yesterday’s Tomorrows – Mike Ashley
  • Robert E. Lee and Me – Ty Seidule
  • The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson
  • Last Best Hope – George Packer
  • Crossroads – Jonathan Franzen
  • The Premonition – Michael Lewis
  • Under a White Sky – Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

Each year I aim to read a certain number of books that come out during the year. Nine is pretty good for 2021, but I’m going to aim for 12 in 2022.

JWH

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The Post-Doom Reading List

by James Wallace Harris, 12/23/21

I’m listening to a wonderful book right now, The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams which came out in August. It’s set in London. Someone is going around leaving little notes that say:

Just in case you need it:

- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Rebecca
- The Kite Runner
- The Life of Pi
- Pride and Prejudice
- Little Women
- Beloved
- A Suitable Boy

The novel is about the people who find those lists, read the books, and how reading changed their lives. Any bookworm should love this book, and most Goodreads reviewers do. I highly recommend the audiobook version because the narrators do the ethnic accents which make the book extra charming.

This inspires me to create my own list of favorite feel-good novels. If I went around leaving a list of books for people to read in these trying times, my eight would be:

We’re living through some hard times and I appreciate books with characters who overcome big difficulties. I’m moving into what I call my Post-Doom Philosophy. I’ve concluded that humanity will not solve its existential problems. Just not in our nature. And it will be better to concentrate on uplifting outselves.

I’m reminded of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Our present situation is beyond absurd, one I can’t change. I accept that we’re already in a collapsing civilization, we just don’t know how long it will take before a new paradigm shift emerges. Some civilizations collapse in decades, Rome took centuries. Everyone eventually dies, and all civilizations eventually collapse. We can’t wish either away. We’ve always had the problem of what to do in our last years of life, and just by coincidence this century, we’ll also have to consider what to do in the last decades of our civilization. It’s an interesting philosophical and spiritual challenge.

Just because the future looks bleak we shouldn’t feel all gloom and doom.

My friend Linda and I have a two-person book club where we read mostly nonfiction books together and discuss them on the phone each Sunday afternoon. We’ve read many books about the problems of the world. Linda just texted me asking if we could avoid such books in 2022 and pick books like The Soul of the Octopus by Sy Montgomery. She wants more delightful books. I couldn’t agree more.

If you were making a list of eight nonfiction books to leave around to inspire people, what would they be? What would your list of favorite inspiring novels be?

JWH

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Identifying the Best Books from 2021 to Read in 2022

by James Wallace Harris, 12/18/21

December is the time when we get loads of best-books-of-the-year lists. I enjoy looking at all those lists because I love finding the books that are the most recommended. I can’t read everything. I can’t even read everything that’s great.

I’m lucky to read 4-6 new books as they come out during the year, and sometimes they are among the ones critics have loved. That’s satisfying. For any given year I probably read 10-12 of its best books, that’s including fiction and nonfiction. That’s out of thousands of books published each year, so I get a microscopic sampling of books published. That’s why I work to find the best books, and by best, I mean the most talked about, the most recommended, the most newsworthy books.

I read on average one book a week, or 52 books a year. Most of them are older books, usually from the 20th century, sometimes from the 19th, and on rare occasions even older. I don’t want my head stuck completely in the past, so I try to read 10-12 books each year from the most recent two years. I usually discover a handful of books as they appear during the year, and then identify several more to read in the following year from the end-of-the-year lists.

Over time I’m discovering the most useful best-of-the-year lists. Here are the lists I’m using this year:

Books We Love – NPR. NPR lists over 2,800 books, but they provide a filtering system to help you zero in on the ones you might prefer. Their site has yearly lists back through 2013. Just the button for Staff Picks lists 179 books, that’s way too many. What I do is study the covers. And then go on to other best-of-the-year lists. It’s like the old TV quiz show Concentration, I try to spot covers again from memory. But instead of finding the pair, I try to find covers that are shown on the most lists.

Of their Staff Picks I’ve already discovered the following during 2021:

New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2021. This is another very long list. But they also offer another shorter list, The 10 Best Books of 2021. Sadly, the long list doesn’t include cover photos, so it’s harder to play my Concentration cover game, so reading the short paragraphs about them is important. And The New York Times even offers an even longer list, 100 Notable Books of 2021, this time with covers. The critics at the Times picked many of the books the NPR critics picked, and many books I’ve already heard some word of mouth. These are the ones I want to try so far:

Vogue, Vulture, and Time have recommendations that are often similar to NPR and The New York Times. Time also recommends another book I’ve already read: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson. That makes me feel I did pretty good finding books coming out during 2021. And they recommend Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe that’s been on most of these lists. I’m just not interested in that subject, but with so many recommendations I feel maybe I should try it. These lists also reinforce the books I list above that I already want to read.

Publishers Weekly has a website system like NPR that recommends way too many books to consider but has a filter system to narrow things down by genre and interest. Their database goes back to 2010, and their lists have links to the original reviews. Once again I’m seeing the same covers of books I’ve been wanting to read, but I’ve spotted two additional books to add to my list from their Top Ten List: All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles and The War For Gloria by Atticus Lish. I’ve been remembering those two covers from the lists I’ve been seeing, and their descriptions are enticing.

I believe I’ve found a total of 23 books from 2021 that interested me most, and I’ve already read 7 of them. That leaves 16. I doubt I’ll get all 23 books read in the coming year. It depends on how many 2022 books attract my attention first, or how mired in the past I become. If I read all 23 that will double my normal current book consumption habit.

There is one last list to mention, Goodreads Choice Awards 2021. These are voted by members of Goodreads. Sometimes the bookworms pick the same books as the critics, and sometimes not. However, this list at Goodreads uncovers a lot more fun genre titles.

Lastly, I’ve discovered that if I keep these recommended novels in mind, sometimes they appear in sales at Bookbub, or in the Kindle Daily Deal, or on Audible. Also, many of them come to Scribd, a book subscription library. I think of Scridb as Netflix for books. Five of the sixteen books I want to read are already available at Scribd. It’s a bargain at $9.99 a month.

JWH

Featured

Can We Build Tornado-Proof Houses?

by James Wallace Harris, 12/15/21

The recent tornado in Mayfield, Kentucky has me worried. I’m old, retired, and have health issues, so having my home destroyed would be immensely stressful. I feel so sorry for people in disasters like this, but especially when I see old people having to be helped because they are so helpless. I fear being helpless.

One thing I noticed in the pictures from Mayfield is some buildings survived the devastation. My friend Connell told me after Hurricane Andrew hit Miami they realized how houses were poorly constructed and made changes to the building codes. The newer homes are much more hurricane-resistant. I’m wondering if the same kind of codes can be applied to protect homes from tornadoes.

However, I don’t want to wait for new building codes or move to a new house. I doubt there are practical retrofit possibilities. One of the things that trouble me about tornadoes and other forms of weather damage is having to leave my home. If the house is a complete loss, there’s no choice, but what if there’s only some damage? Say a tree crushes one side of the house. I’d want to rebuild, and I wouldn’t want to leave my partially good house either.

So I’ve been thinking of something else. People use to have storm cellars. What if I could have a tiny home or a mother-in-law wing addition to my house that was built to strict specifications, could it survive a tornado? Something that Susan, the cats, and I could live in while our house was being rebuilt, or when storms are about to happen. Would this be practical? And how much would such a building cost?

Is Tornado Alley Shifting to the Southeast?

I’m starting to see reports that Tornado Alley is shifting to the east, with some maps putting it where I live in Memphis, Tennessee. Other people are saying it’s not shifting with widening.

This article says tornado alley is an outdated concept and suggests a new shape.

Then I saw this article about high winds. Now that’s pretty scary.

How big would a lifeboat house or addition have to be? Should it be partially underground? Or could it be built with concrete blocks and a steel frame to withstand most weather-related disasters? It would need to have a bathroom and shower, but otherwise, everything could be in one room, including a kitchenette. Should we assume water and sewer systems survive most disasters? What about gas lines? Or should it be totally self-sufficient?

This is something to think about. Maybe it’s a business opportunity for a new industry. Could a prebuilt pod be designed and mass-produced to reduce the cost of such a need? Basically, a tank-like RV or small house trailer that could be partially buried might be a good design.

Remember the bomb shelter craze of the 1950s and 1960s? Maybe we’ll have a new climate change shelter craze?

JWH

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What Am I Hearing?

by James Wallace Harris, 12/4/21

I got the new Adele album on CD on the day it came out. It’s called 30, but evidently, her face is so famous she needs neither her name nor the album title on the cover. The songs are beautiful, different, and produced and engineered with tremendous sound quality. 30 is not 25, or 19. Adele is exploring new musical territory.

However, this isn’t a review of Adele’s new album. Nor is it a review of the four audio systems I used to play that album. It’s about a quest to hear everything possible in a sound recording. And I mean more than just frequency response. I struggle to pull everything I possibly can out of this album.

We think we listen with our ears. Audiophiles are on a never-ending quest to improve their playback systems. In this regard, I’m only a cheap-ass audiophile. The Holy Grail for audiophiles seems to be reproducing the sound the producers heard when making the record. Is that even possible? Didn’t the producers and sound engineers add magic we’d never hear live in the studio?

I’ve been watching Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back on Apple TV+. It’s a 3-part, 468 minute documentary about watching the Beatles create music. My takeaway is the Fab Four sound a lot different from what we hear on their albums. What I’m hearing when listening to 30 is probably a far cry from what it would be like to stand in the studio and listen to Adele sing.

I’m also listening to at least four works of art at once. We have Adele’s voice, we have the musicians, we have the producer’s creation of those two works, and we have the lyrics that we decode with our experience and emotions. And this album is full of emotion, especially about the breakdown of her marriage.

All your expectations of my love are impossible
Surely, you know that I'm not easy to hold
It's so sad how incapable of learning to grow I am
My heart speaks in puzzle and codes
I've been trying my whole life to solve
God only knows how I've cried
I can't take another defeat
A next time would be the ending of me
Now that I see
   --- "Love is a Game"

I'm having a bad day, I'm having a very anxious day
I feel very paranoid, I feel very stressed
Um, I have a hangover, which never helps, but
I feel like today is the first day since I left him that I feel lonely
And I never feel lonely, I love being on my own
I always preferred being on my own than being with people
And I feel like maybe I've been, like, overcompensating
And being out and stuff like that to keep my mind off of him
And I feel like today, I'm home and I wanna be at home
I just wanna watch TV and curl up in a ball and
Be in my sweats and stuff like that, but I just feel really lonely
I feel a bit frightened that I might feel like this a lot
   --- "My Little Love"

When I play 30 on my four different systems the songs sound slightly different, and each makes me feel different. 30 also makes me feel different depending on which room I’m listening in, and how loud I’m playing it. If I play “My Little Love” in the den, my largest listening room, on my Bluesound Powernode 2i with Klipsch RP-5000F speakers at a loud volume I feel surrounded by music and singing. It feels closest to what I imagine hearing Adele in a small club might sound like. It also has the greatest emotional impact. And this is just streaming the song via Spotify. I believe part of this experience is due to the acoustics of the room and partly due to the Klipsch speakers, which seem particularly good for vocals.

When I play the CD in my computer room, which is probably 12×20, using the Bose 301-V speakers connected to a Yamaha WXA-50 amplifier/DAC and Pioneer DV-563A CD player it sounds almost as good, but has a much less emotional impact. The soundstage is good, but I have to keep the speakers up high on top of Billy bookcases from Ikea. I hear more bass, probably because of the 8″ woofers, and the speakers being close to the wall. It’s a really good sound, and I hear different things in the recordings that I don’t notice in the den.

I also have another system in the computer room, an Arylic A50+ streaming amplifier with Sony SSCS-5 speakers. It has a brighter sound, still surprisingly pleasing for such a low-cost system and 30 makes me feel different listening to it. Finally, I have two paired Echo Studios in my bedroom. If I play them loud enough, I hear a slightly different sound, where I notice even other details, especially since I listen to these speakers as I fall to sleep and often wake up hearing music in a dreamy state.

In all four systems, I sometimes focus on the music, sometimes on Adele’s voice, and sometimes on Adele’s words. Sometimes I even think about how the song sounds compared to other music eras.

When I listen to music I concentrate on it with the same intensity I concentrate on a movie at the theater. If I’m in the right mood, I achieve a kind of reverie where I forget my body and that heightens my thoughts and senses. I can’t get any of my friends to listen to music with me. They all like listening to music when they are doing something, and think it’s weird I want to zone out. I remember when I was young, I’d listen with other people and we’d all space out like we were in an opium den. Of course, we were smoking dope back then. (I remember getting one older guy high who loved music and he claimed he heard things he never noticed before. But wasn’t it always there? Isn’t it just a matter of paying attention?)

I’m sure we all hear music differently. But I keep wanting to hear more as if my current equipment is leaving out sounds I should be hearing. Listening to audiophile reviewers makes me wonder how much I’m missing. I keep thinking my experience would be greater if I only bought more expensive equipment. But that might be me fooling myself.

I keep telling myself I will find more if I just listen with a greater focus on the equipment I already have. I keep telling myself I will hear more if I read and study how the music was put together. I keep telling myself I will hear more if I keep asking “What am I hearing?” I spend too much time watching reviewers of stereo equipment when I should be watching videos or reading books by people who study the music. That what I hear will be improved by upgrading my brain with training. That what I’m hearing is mostly determined in my brain.

(Yet, I yearn for a Cambridge EVO 150 and Klipsch Cornwall IV speakers.)

JWH

Featured

The End of Civilization – Again

by James Wallace Harris, 11/29/21

When I was growing up in the 1950s annihilation by atomic war was a common worry. Kids were taught duck and cover drills, people built fallout shelters, we routinely heard Conalrad tests on the radio, and popular culture was full of stories about WWIII. The famous Doomsday Clock stayed set just minutes from doomsday.

Over the decades there has always been the world is ending forecasts. Some chicken little is always yelling the sky is falling. The new vogue is to claim civilization is collapsing. Routinely following the news makes it hard to ignore such fears.

What if civilization is collapsing? What should we do? The science is quite solid on climate change, and we’ve been warned for decades, but for decades we’ve done nothing significant. A fair number of folks are buying rural plots of land and AR15s but that hardly seems to be a practical solution for everyone.

My guess is most people are ignoring all the gloom and doom, or else going crazy in their own quiet squirrely way. I don’t think there is much we can do. The reason why many analyzed trends lead to possible apocalypses is that the natural thing for everyone to do is to keep doing what we’re always been doing. Humans aren’t big on intentionally making drastic changes to their lives.

If we’re not going to do anything to avert the forecasted catastrophes, then what are we going to do instead? Anxiety and depression are so self-destructive. It’s much too early to panic. We could party like it’s 1999, but the end isn’t that close yet. Enduring resignation will probably be a common plan, but that’s emotionally draining. Taking up Zen Buddhism or meditation might be useful. Enjoying the simple pleasures of life has always been an excellent choice. Ditto for pursuing creative hobbies.

Developing a positive perspective should be helpful. Civilizations always collapse, but often over decades or centuries. There will be a rush to hoard or consume everything left. The well-to-do will grab what they want, which is always more than they need. The practical will learn to live with less without agonizing over what they no longer have. For most citizens the collapse of civilization will be in such slow motion they will hardly notice it. It’s only the unfortunate who become refugees from random catastrophes that will feel the harshest impacts. So knowing how to relocate will be a valuable skill. There are certain preparedness precautions to take, but since nothing is certain, it’s not practical to go overboard with such measures.

Probably most useful is the ability for understanding the true reality of things. Don’t get caught up in delusions, fears, panics, but also avoid over-optimism and Pollyanish thinking.

I bring all this up because of some videos I’ve been watching. I have no idea how valid they are, but I consider the increase of such thinking as a kind of pulse-taking. What do you think of these videos? These three accept doom but try to find a positive perspective with dealing with such doom. They offer wisdom.

If you are a routine YouTube watcher and are signed in, watching these three videos will cause YouTube to offer you more of the same. There are quite a lot of these videos, so be careful. Don’t get overwhelmed.

JWH

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On the First Day of My Seventies

by James Wallace Harris, 11/25/21

When I left the work world back in 2013 I thought I’d apply myself toward writing science fiction short stories in my retirement years. For some reason, I’ve hit a barrier that hasn’t allowed me to do that. Very few people succeed at new creative pursuits in old age. I still hope to beat that statistic.

I’ve decided to attack the problem with a different approach. For my seventies, my goal is to write a nonfiction book. This is kind of an absurd goal since I’m starting to have trouble cranking out blog posts. But I have an idea — aim low, but be persistent. I seriously doubt I can produce a commercially successful work of nonfiction, so my ambition is to write a book I wouldn’t be embarrassed to self-publish on Amazon.

Two things make me think this is possible. I’ve written thousands of blog posts. All I’ve got to do is write fifty 1,000-word essays on the same topic that ties together in a coherent readable way. I already have several ideas that interest me, but can I make them interesting to other people?

At seventy, focus, concentration, and discipline are hard to come by. This week I’ve been watching videos on the Zettlekasten method of taking notes. Those videos have inspired me because they use an external system to organize ideas and build connections. This might let me overcome my cognitive limitations.

The older I get the harder it is to hold a thought in my head, much less juggle several thoughts at once to show how they connect. I’m encouraged I might overcome this limitation with the software Obsidian. That software is designed to help retain what you study and build a knowledge base. To help me remember what I find while researching on the web I’ll use Raindrop.io. I’ve already been using the mind-mapping software Xmind to organize ideas visually. Combing all of these programs might let me construct a large coherent collection of related thoughts and ideas.

I need tools that map where I’ve been and hopefully reveal where I want to go. These tools need to quickly show what I’ve already thought through. I just can’t do that in my head anymore.

Of course, I could be deluding myself. I used to wait until I felt good to work on my hobbies, which is a terrible approach. Now, I never feel good, so I’ll have to push myself to work anyway. That should be good for me. I’m usually drained of all psychic energy by mid-afternoon. I’ve even quit going out at night because I’m no longer functional by late afternoon. Working on this goal feels like I’m rolling a rock up the hill.

I just don’t want to give up, at least not yet. I just don’t want to become a passive consumer of other people’s creative efforts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consuming creative works still gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m just an old dog that wants to learn one last new trick.

JWH

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On the Last Day of My Sixties

by James Wallace Harris, 11/24/21

Tomorrow I turn 70. Thinking about that made me realize that today is the last day of my sixties. Damn, this decade has rushed by. I retired from work in October of 2013 when I was 62, so for most of my sixties, I’ve had all my time free. I’ve taken it easy and did exactly what I wanted. Looking back I’m not sure that was a good thing. Taking it easy has become an addiction.

A few weeks ago I thought of an idea for a blog about turning 70, but I never got busy on it. Between 60 and 69 I slowed down. I wonder now if I would have been more active if I hadn’t retired. Back then I could work eight hours and still find time to do many of the things I wanted to do. Now I have all my time free and I get almost nothing accomplished.

I can’t tell if this is a natural aspect of aging or dissipation due to not working. Being lazy doesn’t hurt, in fact, it’s quite pleasant, but I do feel guilty. I guess that’s the Puritanical Atheist in me.

I was at my doctor’s office at 7:30 am for my annual physical, then did the weekly grocery shopping at 9:30. After putting the groceries away had a snack and then a quick nap. I went out to lunch with my friend Laurie at 11:30. After lunch, we played one hand of Skip-Bo at 12:30. I was home by 1:30 for a nap, then listened to Adele’s new album, followed by The Kings of Leon’s new album, and wrapped up the afternoon by talking with my sister for an hour on the phone. It’s now about five. Doesn’t sound like I did much, does it? But that was an extremely busy day for me.

I call this grazing of lite activities puttering around in a small land. I wished I worked at my hobbies more systematically so I felt like I accomplished a little something towards a goal each day, but I’m more and more undisciplined as I get older.

Many of my friends who haven’t retired ask me “What’s retirement like?” It’s sort of like summer vacation between fifth and sixth grade, but never having to go back to school. I don’t know if I’m in heaven or the Twilight Zone.

I’m expecting things to get even more surreal in my seventies.

JWH

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The Meaning of Sharing Two Grandparents

by James Wallace Harris, 11/11/21

They say that blood is thicker than water. I’ve never been much into genealogy but ever since my cousin Harold Ervin died a couple weeks ago I’ve been thinking about my cousins and regretting that I didn’t spend more time with them. I keep asking myself why I didn’t and why I regret it so much.

It came to me that cousins are special because we share two grandparents. But what does that mean? I’ve always felt closer to my cousins on my mother’s side of the family. My mother was one of five sisters, and her mother, my grandmother, was a much-loved matriarch of the family. My sister Becky and I called her Nanny, and she had sixteen grandchildren (although one was by marriage).

I actually loved my father’s mother more. We called Ma. My father was one of three boys. But my father’s side of the family didn’t make over Ma as much as my mother’s family made over Nanny. Could sixteen grandchildren versus ten make a difference? I do think my cousin Alana might have made over Ma more. She was always my favorite cousin on my father’s side. It could be that I knew my father’s side cousins a lot less, and thus didn’t know how much time they spent with Ma. One of my big regrets in life is essentially forgetting about Ma after we moved away from Florida. I only went back to see her once.

The above photo shows the last time all sixteen of Nanny’s grandchildren were together. I’m the bald guy on the far left. I’m not even sure when that photo was taken. And I really wish it was a much better photo, one where I could see everyone clearly. But it’s what I have to help me remember, and the poor image is kind of fitting since the memories that day are fuzzy too.

Seven of the sixteen are now dead, and it seems like something very essential to my life is fading away. Even though I have strong feelings for these fourteen people (not counting me and my sister), I don’t remember actually spending that much time with them. I have spent far more time with people that aren’t kin. But these fourteen, and the eight cousins on my father’s side, have a large presence in my memory. Is that because of blood? The most intense memories of my cousins come from the years 1960-1970. Were the kinship experiences I had in adolescence the strongest not because of genetic connections but because everything was so strong during that phase of life?

Looking back I realized that I saw my cousins mostly when my grandmothers were alive. (I never knew my grandfathers.) After my grandmothers died I saw my cousins mostly when visiting my aunts and uncles. Then when my aunts and uncles died, I seldom saw my cousins again. Actually, I haven’t seen my cousins on my father’s side of the family since his funeral in 1970. I do regret that. I also regret that I don’t have a group photo of the ten of us.

Contemplating all of this I realized there are varying levels of kinship bonds. Parents and children are the strongest. But that relationship comes in two modes. Your relationship with your parents, and the relationship with your children. My wife Susan and I have never had children, so I don’t know the second mode. I’m guessing the strength of bonding is greater with your own children. I wonder if I didn’t want children because I never felt a strong bond with my own parents? My parents weren’t happy, and I’ve often thought having children is what tore their marriage apart. Their marital strife certainly affected my desire to have children.

The next most powerful relationship is between siblings. After that, it’s with grandparents. Next, is with aunts and uncles. Then comes cousins. Finally, it’s nephews and nieces. My connections to my cousins were at their strongest when my grandmothers were alive. After that, my aunts and uncles kept me close to my cousins. But once my parents and their siblings were gone the connections to my cousins just faded away. By then, they had their children, and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. That’s sad that Nanny’s family has dispersed, but natural too.

The passing of my cousins might be hitting me harder because Susan and I are a dead end. I have no direct descendants going forward in time. All my connections to family are toward the past, and they are disappearing. I wonder if we could have felt what we feel now when we were young would we have chosen to have children? Strangely, Susan still doesn’t regret not having children, but I do. However, I don’t think I would have been a good parent, I’m too selfish. Most of my friends don’t have children, but of the ones that do, I see they’re having a whole different life in old age than us childless couples.

Writing this essay has answered my question about why I regret so strongly that my cousins are dying. They are the last of my direct line relatives. Susan and I have eleven nephews and nieces, and we like them very much, but they feel like they are on different branches of the family tree. We never got to see our nieces and nephews that much after they grew up, and they are now spread across the country. They have their own children, and in not many years, their own grandchildren. And how much blood do we share with our nephews and nieces? But I have such fond memories of my aunts and uncles, why hasn’t it gone the other way? Is it because I didn’t try harder?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been recalling all the times I saw my grandmothers, aunts and uncles, and cousins. I’ve even thought about trying to write down every encounter I can remember – the number is quite finite. I’m starting to think there really weren’t that many meetings. Mostly we met at holiday dinners, vacations, weddings, funerals, and reunions.

For some reason, we have a special bond with people who have the same pair of grandparents. Is blood really thicker than water? Or is it because we knew those people when we were young and gathered on so many special occasions? I will continue to think about this for a while. I wonder what my cousins think? Maybe I’ll send them this blog.

JWH

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Do I Still Want To Be A Programmer?

by James Wallace Harris, 10/28/21

For most of my work life, I worked with computers. I thought of myself as a programmer, it was part of my identity. After I retired in 2013 I still thought of myself as a programmer, but I haven’t done any real programming since I stopped working. I keep thinking I want to get back into programming, but so far I haven’t. I think I need to either start programming or stop thinking I’m a programmer.

The obvious reason why I haven’t done any programming is I don’t have any tasks I want automated. Without a programming problem, I have little incentive to program. I’ve done some piddly stuff with HTML but that hardly counts. No, I need something that requires computer processing power to accomplish.

This morning I watched several YouTube videos about fun programming projects. None really appealed to me. Making my own Sudoku solver or password manager might be fun, but the idea of putting hours of work into something that creates a tool I don’t care to use seems pointless, especially when others have already created superior tools that do the same thing.

I’ve thought about programming a book manager since I’m always frustrated with Goodreads but just entering in all my books in a potentially finished project depresses me. I just don’t want that tool bad enough.

I’m trying to imagine creating a tool that would be a joy to create and use. One thing I’ve always wanted to make is an abstract art generator. Something I could use mathematical equations to produce trippy light shows. This is a super-advanced example of what I’m talking about. I picture myself developing very simple things, to begin with.

This Pinterest page shows works closer to what I might be capable of programming. I’d like to start with recreating the animated sequence in the credits to On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, then expanding on that, making it more interesting, adding user controls, so people can alter what’s happening in real-time.

I keep wanting to create an auxiliary memory system but why recreate what Evernote is already doing. I’ve had one idea but it would be very challenging, and probably way beyond my skill level. I collect scans of old magazines, and sometimes the scans are poor, or the original printing of the magazine was poor. I thought it would be neat to create a program that sharpens the text of these old magazines scans. I fantasize about restoring scans of old magazines to look beautiful.

Notice the I in the word Image at the top of the page. It has white bites out of it. I wonder if it’s possible to write a program that could examine all the letters and come up with perfect replacements that are uniformly sharp and dark. I’d also like to be able to create a background for the text that looks like the paper the magazine used when it was new. Also, notice the L in Likeness, it has a smudgy spot in it. I’d want to program out such artifacts.

I also wonder if it’s possible to create a program that could return faded worn covers so they look like they did when they were new. To brighten up colors, remove wrinkles, smudges, and markings. I want it to work in batch mode since I have thousands of digital magazines.

I have one other idea, but this is super-super advanced. I’d like to write an AI program that could input all my old digital SF magazines and read them. I’d want the program to decipher what the stories are about and build a theme database. Then I could ask it for things like “List all stories that are about colonizing Mars” or “List all stories about generation ships,” or “Create a list of all the major themes you find.”

There are three hard questions I have to ask myself:

  • Do I really want to dedicate the time to these projects?
  • Are these goals beyond my skill level?
  • Am I too old and tired?

I don’t have much discipline left, but I might have enough to apply myself for one hour a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but I’d be damned impressed with myself if I did. I never feel good anymore, and most of the time I’m just tired. I might have the skill to create simple light shows. It would be really fun to write a program to take bitmap images and improve the type, but I’d have to push myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself before. That would be a miracle. Creating an AI to read magazines is a fantasy.

I believe what I need to do is try creating the light show in Python. If I can’t, I should stop thinking about programming. If I succeed it might give me the psychic energy to go further. If I fail, I can free my mind of some old desires, and clean out programming books and magazines from my bookshelves.

This really is about coming to grips with aging. There are already many physical activities I’ve had to give up. I’m starting to think I might have to give up mental ones as well.

JWH

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Once Upon a Time the Future was So Bright We Had to Wear Shades

by James Wallace Harris

Between Camelot and Reaganomics existed the counterculture. For a very short while we thought we were entering the Age of Aquarius. Of course, it was a childish utopian dream, but a very positive hope. What happened to that dream? Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin reminded me of those hopes and dreams. Lattin explains what happened to four of the people who sold us some of that hope. Of course, those four weren’t the only ones. Back then, there was an entire army of John the Baptists promising heaven on Earth if we only believed.

In the sixties many of us thought by the 21st-century we’d have conquered war, disease, poverty, injustice, prejudice, inequality, and be living in a society where everyone had equal opportunity to achieve both spiritual and material wealth. We expected to create a world civilization that would make Jesus, Buddha, and all the past prophets and philosophers proud. We expected science to answer all our questions, and for technology to build ecological sustainable lifeboat Earth before we launched our spiritually-wise selves across the galaxy. Some of us called this anticipated transformation the Age of Aquarius, then The New Age, while hoping for the age of The Final Frontier.

Space travel never went beyond low Earth orbit after 1972. After three days of love, peace, and happiness it’s been Altamont every day since. And the doors of perception only led to tragedy and heartache. All our planned communities failed.

Just look at us now. You’d think the second coming had happened and no one was chosen, and we’re begun a thousand year streak of doom. There are damn few Pollyannas left on Earth that can see rays of hope for the future. Unlike Christians who have waited two thousand years without giving up their faith, the counterculture gave up theirs rather quickly. I read where psychedelic drugs are trying to make a comeback. And there are embers of spirituality still trying to rekindle the world but never do. What made us dream such big dreams in the sixties?

Before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius I was a straight-lace kid. I was gullible and believed what I was told. The U.S. Air Force guided my father and the Southern Baptist Church guided my mother. They had expectations for what I should believe, and I had no objections to those expectations. Well, not until 1963 or 1964. During my 12th and 13th year I changed. Looking back I could say it was merely puberty, but the whole country began changing at the same time.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club got me to thinking about those years and changes. Changes that had began much sooner than 1969 or 1970 when I first tried psilocybin and LSD. The making of my counterculture had begun before the drugs, with rock and roll and science fiction. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club referenced many books I had read back then that shaped my thoughts. I began wondering about all the influences that had reprogrammed me during the sixties and seventies that gave me utopian ideals.

I remember in 11th grade sometime after the 1967 protest at the Pentagon, when a group of us kids waiting for the school bus discussed the coming revolution as if it was a certainty. Even as a dumbass high school kid I thought it weird that we expected such a huge social transformation. But those hopes kept building. Then in 1968 and 1969 Hair and its music was all the rage and people began talking about The Age of Aquarius. The hope became more than a political transformation, the counterculture began to expect a whole new age, which became the focus of the 1970s. I think all our foolish fantasies ended when Reagan was elected in 1980. By then I was married and working at the job I’d stay at until I retired.

My transformation was really an intersection of countless ideas that came from books, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, songs. We think everything comes from the internet today, but before the world wide web we had plenty of informational input. Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club reminded me of those books and other information sources, and all the prophets behind those words. For example, I don’t know if people today have any idea of the impact The Beatles and Bob Dylan had on their fans. Rock music was our gospel.

In 1962, when I was eleven, I got hooked rock and roll and science fiction. In 1963 I began rejecting religion when I started noticing that the people at church did not follow what was preached. A Joycean year of doubt ended in 1964 when I realized I was an atheist. I was just 13. My mother still tried to make me go to church but I felt like I was a spy, a pretender, a fraud. I didn’t have a new philosophy yet, but I was open, and about to try many.

Then in 1965 I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein and got into Bob Dylan because of “Like a Rolling Stone.” I was still very straight-laced. I remember watching anti-drug and anti-smoking films at school and I was positive I’d never be stupid enough to do drugs or smoke cigarettes.

But only two years later, in early 1967, I read an article in Popular Science about LSD. Instead of sensationalizing the drug with fear and loathing like the news did on TV, the article described LSD as a tool for medical research and exploring the mind. That sounded science fiction. That sounded like something for me.

I can’t remember when I first heard about Timothy Leary. I’m pretty sure I heard about LSD well before I heard about Leary and his famous “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out” saying. In late 1968, or maybe early 1969, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. That book didn’t turn me onto Timothy Leary either, but The Beats. I knew about Leary in the sixties, but he always seemed like some kind of media clown. Around this same time I began reading The Rolling Stone magazine. It became my main source of counterculture propaganda.

But remember, I was also mass consuming science fiction, which was changing too with its own New Wave revolution. I remember Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner had a huge impact on me, as did Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions.

I wish I knew when I first bought Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. It was probably the early 1970s, but it might have been sooner. The 1970s brought a flood of influential books and magazines. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had made me aware of overpopulation in the mid-1960s, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the environmental movement was giving us plenty of reasons to change our ways.

By the mid-1970s I became open to trying religion again, but mainly Eastern religions. Be Here Now by Ram Das (Richard Albert), books by Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Herman Hesse, and New Age Magazine made me think that spiritualism and mysticism had some answers.

I wasn’t stupid, I knew the dreams were doomed. Books like The Population Bomb, The Limits of Growth, and Future Shock, among many others like them, kept me grounded. Plus, the science fiction books I was reading became more realistic and pessimistic about the future.

Still, we had a great deal of hope about the future. We thought we could solve all our problems. We had the knowledge, we had the technology, we knew the solutions, it was only a matter of getting everyone to work together. That’s when the dream ended. We never could work together. We all separated into our own personal trips. No matter how much visionaries preached, we never could agree.

Reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club also covered the decades of falling apart. Alpert, Weil, and Smith were able to rebuild their lives and become constructive, but not Leary. Their lives parallelled my life and I’m sure all other counterculture true believers. We found ways to be here now. To make do with reality. To give up on our utopian fantasies.

Looking back I also remember what life was like when we were chasing those dreams in the 1960s and 1970s. Things were bleak. The war, the riots, the prejudices, the inequalities, the crime, the bombings, the protests, the generation gap, the oil crisis, the burning rivers, the pollution, the urban decay.

Drug taking and believing in utopian futures were symptoms of the disease, not cures. Much like similar symptoms today. The right-wing countercultures of today have their parallels with the left-wing countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s. But there’s one big difference. We no longer need to wear shades when looking towards the future. That’s rather sad. No, that’s depressingly tragic.

JWH

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Make America Great Again

by James Wallace Harris, 10/2/21

Donald Trump had his shot at making America great again with his tax cuts for the rich. That put us trillions in debt. Why not let Biden have his legislative shot to make America great again? It will add more trillions to the national debt, but why worry about that now when we didn’t under Trump? Besides, the consequences of doing nothing condemns us to failure. And who knows, rebuilding the country might increase the economy letting us afford to pay off the debt better in the future? Isn’t that what the Republicans promised? Why shouldn’t the Democrats have their chance at the same idea?

Isn’t it time to try the trickle up theory? The conservative theory claimed if the rich had more money some of it would trickle down to help all Americans. That hasn’t happened. Let’s try the opposite, make everyone better off, and maybe some of the wealth will trickle up to the wealthy.

To find out what’s in the infrastructure bills, I copied the details from Investopedia. It all sounds good to me. We’ve been avoiding fixing all this stuff for decades. Why not just go ahead and get it done?

We’ve tried the Republican’s method more than once, let’s test the opposite to see if it works?

What's in the $1.2 Trillion Bipartisan Bill

The 2,702-page bipartisan bill contains just $550 billion in new spending. The $1.2 trillion figure comes from including additional funding normally allocated each year for highways and other infrastructure projects. The new spending consists of:8

$110 billion for roads and bridges. In addition to construction and repair, the funding also helps pay for transportation research at universities, funding for Puerto Rico’s highways, and “congestion relief” in American cities.

$66 billion for railroads. Funding includes upgrades and maintenance of America’s passenger rail system and freight rail safety, but nothing for high-speed rail.

$65 billion for the power grid. The bill would fund updates to power lines and cables, as well as provide money to prevent hacking of the power grid. Clean energy funding is also included.

$65 billion for broadband. Includes funding to expand broadband in rural areas and in low-income communities. Approximately $14 billion of the total would help reduce internet bills for low-income citizens.

$55 billion for water infrastructure. This funding includes $15 billion for lead pipe replacement, $10 billion for chemical clean-up, and money to provide clean drinking water in tribal communities.

$47 billion for cybersecurity and climate change. The Resilience fund will protect infrastructure from cybersecurity attacks and address flooding, wildfires, coastal erosion, and droughts along with other extreme weather events.

$39 billion for public transit. Funding here provides for upgrades to public transit systems nationwide. The allocation also includes money to create new bus routes and help make public transit more accessible to seniors and disabled Americans.

$25 billion for airports. This allocation provides funding for major upgrades and expansions at U.S. airports. Air traffic control towers and systems would receive $5 billion of the total for upgrades.

$21 billion for the environment. These monies would be used to clean up superfund and brownfield sites, abandoned mines, and old oil and gas wells.

$17 billion for ports. Half of the funds in this category would go to the Army Corps of Engineers for port infrastructure. Additional funds would go to the Coast Guard, ferry terminals, and reduction of truck emissions at ports.

$11 billion for safety. Appropriations here are to address highway, pedestrian, pipeline, and other safety areas with highway safety getting the bulk of the funding.

$8 billion for Western water infrastructure. Ongoing drought conditions in the western half of the country will be addressed through investments in water treatment, storage, and reuse facilities.

$7.5 bill for electric vehicle charging stations. The Biden administration asked for this funding to build significantly more charging stations for electric vehicles across the nation.

$7.5 billion for electric school buses. With an emphasis on bus fleet replacement in low-income, rural, and tribal communities, this funding is expected to allow those communities to convert to zero-emission buses.

What's in the $3.5 Trillion Democratic Proposal

The Democratic FY2022 Budget Resolution Agreement Framework memorandum is designed to enact President Biden's Build Back Better agenda. This proposal, often referred to as an investment in human infrastructure, is far-reaching and ambitious. It lists the following amounts and areas to be addressed:9

$135 billion for the Committee on Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry. Funding to be used to address forest fires, reduce carbon emissions, and address drought concerns.

$332 billion for the Banking Committee. Including investments in public housing, the Housing Trust Fund, housing affordability, and equity and community land trusts.

$198 billion for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. This would develop clean energy.

$67 billion for the Environment and Public Works Committee. These monies would fund low-income solar and other climate-friendly technologies.

$1.8 trillion for the Finance Committee. This part of the bill is for investments in working families, the elderly, and the environment. It includes a tax cut for Americans making less than $400,000 a year, lowering the price of prescription drugs, and ensuring the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share of taxes.

$726 billion for the Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions Committee. This addresses universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, childcare for working families, tuition-free community college, funding for historically black colleges and universities, and an expansion of the Pell Grant for higher education.

$37 billion for the HSGAC Committee. This would electrify the federal vehicle fleet, electrify and rehab federal buildings, improve cybersecurity infrastructure, reinforce border management, invest in green-materials procurement, and invest in resilience. 

$107 billion for the Judiciary Committee. These funds address establishing "lawful permanent status for qualified immigrants."

$20.5 billion for the Indian Affairs Committee. This addresses Native American health programs and facilities, education programs and facilities, housing programs, energy programs, resilience and climate programs, BIA programs and facilities, Native language programs, and the Native Civilian Climate Corps.

$25 billion for the Small Business Committee. This provides for small business access to credit, investment, and markets.

$18 billion for the Veterans Affairs Committee. This funds upgrades to veteran facilities.

$83 billion for the Commerce Committee. This goes to investments in technology, transportation, research, manufacturing, and economic development. It provides funding for coastal resiliency, healthy oceans investments, including the National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund and the National Science Foundation research and technology directorate.

JWH

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The Pursuit of Love Leads Me Down a Rabbit Hole

by James Wallace Harris, 9/27/21

My friends Mike and Betsy recommended a new TV series on Amazon Prime, The Pursuit of Love, so I gave it a try. This essay chronicles where their casual recommendation has led me.

As I watched the show on Amazon Prime I was reasonably entertained but disturbed by certain details. For a period piece set the 1920s – 1940s it felt over the top. I doubted people really looked and acted like they did in the show. The sense of a revisionist history was further enhanced by the soundtrack that used contemporary music. I called Mike to chat about my impressions, and he agreed. I knew nothing about the novel the show was based on. We both thought the past couldn’t have been much like that, but didn’t know for sure. Of course, we knew it was a rom-com drama and wasn’t meant to be a history lesson, but it kept sideswiping bits of real history, and that was intriguing.

I decided to research its historical accuracy and discovered that the TV show was based on a trilogy of novels written by Nancy Mitford. They were based on her family, and it was then I discovered she was part of a famous group of six sisters. I remembered reading a review of a book called The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell years ago. I read the review because I liked the book’s cover but details within the review put me off. Two of the sisters had been friends with Adolph Hitler, and several family members had supported Hitler, and one daughter married the hated Oswald Mosley, leader of the English fascists. They just didn’t seem to be nice people to read about. The sisters had become notorious, an embarrassment to their parents, hounded by press, which made them sound like depression era Kardashians. Not something for me.

Still, the television show intrigued me. Was it an accurate portrayal of people in England at the time? Or was it a modern interpretation of how 21st-century screenwriters wanted to glamourize that history. I ordered a copy of The Sisters to find out. I figured the biography would tell me. I also discovered there had been two previous television productions of the story, based on: The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949). There was a third book in the series, Don’t Tell Alfred (1960). By the way, I think all three TV productions focus on the first book despite two of them using the title from the second book, but the 1980 series goes into the second book.

My assumption that I’d hate The Sisters from reading the review was completely wrong. The family’s biography turned out to be immensely readable and fascinating. All I can say if if you love Downton Abby, there’s a good chance you’ll love this book. I’ve always been partial to biographies, and this one is a good one. A good biography makes you feel like you’re getting to know someone, and in this book, you get close to nine people (mother, father, son, and six daughters).

I learned that Nancy Mitford had lived a real life version of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s she fictionalized in The Pursuit of Love. I then wondered if the 1980 miniseries, Love in the Cold Climate, that had been on Masterpiece Theater was a more realistic portrayal to the times? I went looking for it but found it’s not available to stream or buy. I did find a used DVD copy to order, but when it arrived it was a Region 2 disc. Luckily, I remembered had an extra DVD player that was region free. (This version is available on YouTube.)

About this time my friend Anne dropped by and saw the biography. She got excited and said she remembered seeing a show on Masterpiece Theater a long time ago based on the Mitford sisters. I pulled out the DVD, “This one?” “Yes, that’s it!” She got even more excited and we decided to watch it together. This version gives Judi Dench star billing as the mother but she doesn’t get much air time. The only other actor I knew was Anthony Head, and his wasn’t a major part either. I did like this version, and I think I’ll rewatch the 2021 version. The main thing about the 1980 version, was the actors, costumes, and sets looked more realistic to how I picture the 1920s – 1940s. The performances were much more subtle, and being eight parts rather than three, included a lot more of the details and dialog from the novels.

By then I was reading the novel, and had encountered some of the family anecdotes four different ways. This was rather revealing about basing fiction on real life events. For example, Nancy tells in her novel how her father liked to hunt his children on horseback with fox hounds. The novel version is a gussy-up memory, but the two television versions sensationalizes the story. When I read the biography Lovell suggests it was probably one old hound one time with a couple of the daughters. And Jessica Mitford also wrote a book about the same family stories of growing up with her sisters, Hons and Rebels, and gives a different view, but I haven’t read it yet. Nancy later on felt Jessica’s memory had been distorted by her book, and that led to squabbles between them. However, all six girls were always squabbling, and all six became very successful in their own ways.

There is another adaptation of Love in the Cold Climate from 2001 what I want to watch, but I’ll have to subscribe to BritBox to watch it. It’s another 3-part version. I’m curious how they present the time period too.

The Sisters was full of history. The Mitford girls were related to Churchill and connected by marriage to the Kennedys, two of them were pals with Hitler, one connected to de Gaulle, and one had connections with the Roosevelts. They all knew many famous writers and became bestselling authors themselves. They were part of the Bright Young Things set. And if you’re into that kind of thing, they hobnobbed with fellow aristocrats, royalty, while growing up in manor houses, hunting foxes, attending coming out balls, following the season, and doing all those things we saw in Downton Abby. Various sisters lived in London during the Blitz and V-2 bombings, Spain during the revolution, Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and France before and after the war. One sister had to go before the House of Un-American Activities, while another was jailed during the WWII for being married to Oswald Mosley.

Here is a nice animated video that quickly covers the history of the Mitford sisters:

Because of all this history, and wanting to know more about the writers they knew, I ordered two more books to read.

This history fills in a time period after the Bloomsbury group that I learned about as an English major and before The Beatles who made England interesting back in the 1960s when I was growing up.

I fell into this black hole of literary history in the same way I fell into reading a zillion books about The Beats and Jack Kerouac, or all the books I’ve read about the Transcendentalists, or the Lost Generation, or the Impressionists, or certain crowds of science fiction writers. I love how an art movement brings people together.

JWH

Featured

Explaining My Addiction to Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 9/26/21

One reason I haven’t been posting much here lately is because I’m writing a short story review every other day on my science fiction site. I’m reviewing The Big Book of Science Fiction, an anthology of over a hundred science fiction stories from the 20th century, including many stories I’ve read over the past sixty years. The whole endeavor is a kind of self-psychoanalysis of a lifetime addiction to science fiction.

I’m slowly realizing what science fiction means to me. In 1960, I became a bookworm in the 4th grade to cope with the stress of growing up. In the 5th and 6th grades I slowly focused that addiction on science fiction. A couple decades ago I realized I had substituted belief in science fictional ideas for my childhood beliefs religion, becoming an atheist around age 12 or 13. But actual space exploration played a part too. Sputnik went up weeks after I began the first grade, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon weeks after I graduated high school.

When I first started reading science fiction in the early 1960s I knew no one else that read it too. Then in March, 1967 I met my buddy Connell in 10th grade who became my lifelong friend. When I discovered he had read some science fiction I asked him who was his favorite author. I expected him to say Heinlein, since I assumed Heinlein was the absolute best. Instead, Connell said Clarke. We’ve been arguing ever since.

After Star Trek ended in 1969 I realized that millions of science fiction fans had come out of the closet. I joined an APA in 1970, then a local science fiction club, and then started going to SF conventions with my friend Greg. At the time, science fiction fans seem few and far between.

Then in 1977 Star Wars came out, and it seemed like everyone began to love science fiction. But I soon realized that even though the world loved science fiction on TV and at the movies, very few people actually read the science fiction magazines, and only slightly more people regularly read science fiction books.

As a kid, I wanted to be a science fiction writer like other kids wanted to be rock stars, football players, or astronauts. And even though I took writing courses in high school and college I never developed the discipline to write. Later on, I guess as a mid-life crisis, I took off six weeks from work in 2002 and attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and afterwards began a MFA in creative writing. I still didn’t have what it took. When I retired in 2013 I thought I’d finally get down to writing, but I didn’t.

Over the eight years I’ve been retired I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of science fiction. It’s become a pleasurable hobby to fill my time. But I’ve also discovered why I’ve psychologically embraced the genre. For most of my life I thought that space travel was important to the development of humanity, and science fiction was a kind of prophetic literature that gave exploring the high frontier meaning. Now I see wanting to leave Earth as a kind of psychological escape, and science fiction is only a minor art form, a specialized kind of fantasy and entertainment.

In my old age, I read science fiction and admire it for creative storytelling. But I know it’s only a couple steps up artistically from comic book reading. I do read literary novels, and know the difference. Science fiction appeals to the adolescent in me. That keeps me positive while the world around me is turning negative. Reading science fiction in my old age makes me realize I never grew up, but then I’m also realizing most of the people around me never have either. As a species we’re not very good at maturing and facing up to reality.

The percentage of people who rely on denialism to cope with reality grows every day. I like to think I don’t deny reality so much as avoid it. Most of the people who aren’t deniers tend to be avoiders. Only a small percentage of the population face up to reality. I don’t mind reading and studying reality, but I have no discipline to live the life I know I should live. Reading science fiction is my way of occupying my mind when I’m not thinking about how humanity is destroying itself.

I admire people who actual do something about the problems we face, but they are very rare. Most of us just fool ourselves that everything is going to be okay and maybe do a few token things to help, but isn’t that really an effort to sooth our guilt? Reading science fiction is my version of watching Ted Lasso or The Andy Griffith Show. But we’re all on the Titanic killing time in amusing ways even though we know we could change the ship’s course if we worked together. Unfortunately, cooperation is not in our genes.

Reading science fiction teaches me about the possibilities. Science fiction has always been about building better futures, advocating better societies (utopias) or warnings of de-evolving into dystopias, or even the nightmares of apocalypses. It’s all too obvious that we’re actually heading towards the collapse of our global civilization and an environmental apocalypse. Half the population copes by denying this, and the other half that does recognize our destiny does little to avoid it.

We indulge in mindless consumerism and socializing, or restless tourism, or occupy our minds with political and religious rationalizations. When I see people protesting that the 2020 election was stolen, or vaccinations are evil, or the January 6th attack on the capitol didn’t happen I realize those people have the psychology of children, the kind who throw tantrums, who scream “You can’t make me” or “You’re not the boss of me” to their parents, teachers, and even peers. But you can’t reason with them not because they can’t see reason, which they can’t, but because that’s their survival mechanism, and if you could get past it, these people would only fall apart. I have to assume reading science fiction is my survival mechanism.

I am starting to worry a tiny bit because some of my coping mechanisms are starting to fail. I used to binge watch TV in the evenings. I’ve always loved TV, and looking back see that it was a reality stress releaser too. But I now have to try a dozen or two dozen TV shows or movies before I can find one that I can watch. And I no longer can watch TV and movie science fiction. For example, I was looking forward to the new production of the Foundation series on Apple TV+. It just annoyed me, and I quit trying after fifteen minutes. I forced myself to finish the first episode the next night, but still no joy.

I worry that I’m also going to develop a tolerance to written science fiction, and it will fail to hold my attention like my TV watching. So far, I still find great pleasure in reading science fiction short stories. I don’t have the patience to read novels anymore, but continue to enjoying reading old SF anthologies and magazines. I worry that this love won’t last.

Luckily, I still have other interests to turn to if I finally wear out on science fiction. The current state of the world is very sobering. It might even cure my addiction to science fiction, but I doubt it. I’ve had it my whole life now. It might be too late to give up. But my attitude has changed. We wanted a lot of fantastic things from religion, and that’s true of science fiction. That’s why I compare them. I believe we need to change our expectations for both. Religion and science fiction need to focus on reality. They both need to be more down to Earth.

JWH

Featured

Do You Remember This Album?

Memory is a funny thing, mainly because they’re completely unreliable. And it’s quite easy to have false memories. My memories for the Gypsy album tells me I bought it in the early 1970s, and when I was dating my wife in 1977, I went through her records and found a copy of it. I have a memory of saying, “Hey, you like this album too?” I thought it was cool we both loved an obscure record. I asked Susan this morning of her memory about the album, and she says she owned it before we met. That’s confirmation, but read on. We both might be fooling ourselves.

You can listen to the album while you read on. And if you owned this album please leave a comment. I’ve never met anyone else who loved this album.

All this dredging of memories came about because I got out my CD of Gypsy the other day and played it. I thought, “Wow, what a wonderful album, why wasn’t it famous? What happened to the group? Should I buy their other albums?” Checking Spotify showed they didn’t exist in that worldwide form of collective memory. Nor are their albums available to buy on Amazon. I then checked YouTube, which is becoming our digital attic, and found copies of their albums to play. That made me even more curious about what happened to the band. Then that night, while browsing new YouTube offerings on my TV, YouTube listed a documentary about the group Gypsy in my to watch feed. I know people complain about digital companies tracking our interests, but I was quite thankful for this intrusion. The 2016 documentary Gypsy: Rock and Roll Nomads answered most of my questions.

But when I started checking facts, I’m not sure I can support Susan’s and my memories. Gypsy by Gypsy came out in 1970, and according to the documentary, bombed because Metromedia Records did not promote it. Now I bought a lot of albums simply because of their covers, and this was one – I’m positive. But then this is a story about faulty memories. I could have bought it in late 1970, but I can’t remember that. I don’t have a memory for when and where I bought it. All I remember was loving the cover, buying it, and then loving the album when I played it. I played it for weeks, and then put it away. That’s what my memory tells me. That could have happened from 1970-1977 before I met Susan. However, because the album was so poorly promoted, I probably needed to have bought it right after it was first released in 1970. I have no memory of buying it that early. How long does an album hang around in record stores?

The information I found at Discogs implies it got better support than the documentary suggested since it was released on LP, cassette, 8-track, and reel-to-real, and it was also published in eight countries outside the U.S.

Now the Discogs information gives me a second theory, one that conflicts with Susan’s and my memories. The album was rereleased in 1979 on LP, the year after we got married. I could have bought it then, at Peaches, and we discovered we loved it together. Later on we both gave ourselves false memories that we had discovered it by ourselves. Unfortunately, we got rid of our LPs as we bought CDs, so I don’t have any physical proof of which pressings we owned.

Sometime after 1990 I bought Gypsy again on CD (AJK Music A 862-1). It’s a fantastic album, but no one we know is familiar with it. When I played the CD the day before yesterday, I played it loud, and it sounded amazingly great. I just can’t believe it’s not a classic rock album everyone knows. Watching the documentary explained why the band failed. It was the typical story of we could have been contenders, we were almost famous, we were at all the right places, had all the right opportunities, performed with all the other great bands, but we just didn’t make it.

But I had one last unanswered question. Why isn’t this great album on Spotify? I think I found an answer to that question too. Spotify doesn’t pay much and some bands won’t release their albums through streaming music services. From the documentary I learned that James Walsh keeps the band going and sells CDs online. He is the only original member of the band still trying to keep the band’s memory alive. All four of Gypsy’s albums are available from their website as a 4-pack for $60, as well as histories of the band. The site was updated 3/4/21, but there are no new concerts scheduled. I have a feeling the site was created to promote the CDs and documentary, but concerts are rare.

I wonder how many CDs Walsh still sells? I know streaming pays poorly but it does keep the music alive, and it’s worldwide distribution. I don’t know about the second, third, and fourth albums, but the first album, Gypsy, really needs to be out there for people to discover. Keeping it off Spotify is a big mistake, like when whey went with Metromedia instead of Atlantic.

JWH

Featured

The Albums I Didn’t Buy in 1971

by James Wallace Harris, 8/30/21

[The above photograph is the only one I have of myself from 1971.]

I’m old enough that every year I live is also the 50th anniversary of a year I remember. This year, I keep seeing remembrances of 1971, especially lists of albums that claim to be the best of 1971.

This got me to thinking. How many great 1971 albums did I buy when they first came out? Then how many 1971 albums did I buy on LP or CD before switching to streaming music? Then how many albums have I discovered since having streaming music? Finally, how many albums from 1971 do I still need to play? Spotify has turned out to be a wonderful time machine.

It’s kind of overwhelming the number of memorable albums that came out in one year. The number is impressive, and it’s taken me fifty years of listening to find most these albums, and I’m still not done. Thanks to Spotify I’m still at it.

Albums I Bought When They Came Out

These two albums by Marvin Gaye and The Allman Brothers Band are among my lifetime favorites. I’ve never stopped playing them. I’ve bought them on CD, and even got the Fillmore East on SACD, and they are still repackaging those concerts, and I’ve bought them too. One thing that’s very special in my memories, is I got to see the Allman Brothers in concert in 1971 before Duane was killed.

These next three were major albums for me, and I played them for years, but I eventually got tired of them. I did buy them again when CDs came out, and I play them once every couple of years. Most of the albums listed below held my attention for just a short while. Many I only played once. A great record buy was one I’d play for a couple weeks straight. A very good record would hold my attention for days. Maybe the best albums are the ones we keep playing for the rest of our lives.

Back in 1971 I loved going to record stores. I’d usually visit two or three a week. I didn’t have much money then, so I didn’t buy that many albums in the year 1971 – I’d guess less than fifty, and most of those were from earlier years. Mostly I flipped past albums I wished I could buy. I used to have a fantasy of robbing Peaches back in the late 1970s. It was the biggest record store I had ever seen up to that time, maybe since. Having streaming music is like owning the biggest record store ever.

Eventually I did buy over a hundred albums that came out in 1971. I’d love if I could remember when and where for each one, but I can’t. I also wish I could remember those I bought on LPs in the 1970s and early 1980s, and which ones I bought when they were reissued on CDs, but I can’t do that either. Over the years I’ve gotten rid of my LPs, and most of my CDs. Here’s the list of 1971 albums I owned at one time or another. I’ll bolded the albums I still own (I think). I saved about 500 CDs, but I seldom play them. I’ve forgotten what I own. I bought thousands of LPs and CDs, but I moved around a lot, and sold my collections. There are many albums I bought more than once when I got money to rebuild my collection.

Here are the albums from 1971 that I bought after 1971. I’d say most of them were bought before 1980. It’s funny how a year in pop culture can linger. By the way, I got to see many of these acts in concert.

  1. Tapestry – Carole King
  2. L. A. Woman – Doors
  3. Every Picture Tells a Story – Rod Stewart
  4. American Pie – Don McLean
  5. Crazy Horse – Crazy Horse
  6. The Concert for Bangladesh – George Harrison & Friends
  7. 4 Way Street – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
  8. Chicago III
  9. Quicksilver – Quicksilver Messenger Service
  10. Bob Dylan’s Great Hits Vol. II – Boy Dylan
  11. Anticipation – Carly Simon
  12. Rough & Ready – The Jeff Beck Group
  13. Byrdmaniax – The Byrds
  14. Farther Along – The Byrds
  15. Electric Warrior – T-Rex
  16. If I Could Only Remember My Name – David Crosby
  17. Santana
  18. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys – Traffic
  19. 4 Way Street – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
  20. Tarkus – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  21. Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren – Todd Rundgren
  22. Deuce – Rory Gallagher
  23. In Search of Space – Hawkwin
  24. Nantucket Sleighride – Mountain
  25. John Prine – John Prine
  26. Rory Gallagher – Rory Gallagher
  27. America – America
  28. Who’s Next – The Who
  29. Hunky Dory – David Bowie
  30. Aqualung – Jethro Tull
  31. Imagine – John Lennon
  32. Ram – Paul & Linda McCartney
  33. The Yes Album – Yes
  34. Pearl – Janis Joplin
  35. Madman Across the Water – Elton John
  36. The Inner Mountain Flame – The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin
  37. Songs for Beginners – Graham Nash
  38. Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon – James Taylor
  39. Pictures at An Exhibition
  40. The Electric Light Orchestra – Electric Light Orchestra
  41. A Space in Time – Ten Years After
  42. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – The Moody Blues
  43. Cold Spring Harbor
  44. Little Feat – Little Feat
  45. Deuce – Rory Gallagher
  46. Osibisa – Osibisa
  47. Osibisa – Woyaya
  48. Free Live! – Free
  49. Future Games – Fleetwood Mac
  50. Broken Barricades
  51. Link Wray – Link Wray
  52. Live in Cook County Jail – B. B. King
  53. Gonna Take a Miracle – Laurya Nyro & Labelle
  54. Welcome to the Canteen – Traffic
  55. 11-17-70 – Elton John
  56. All Day Music – War
  57. Music – Carole King
  58. Sittin’ In – Loggins & Messina
  59. Stephen Stills 2 – Stephen Stills
  60. New Riders of the Purple Sage – New Riders of the Purple Sage
  61. Gather Me – Melanie
  62. ZZ Top’s First Album – ZZ Top
  63. A Clockwork Orange – Various Artists
  64. Survival – Grand Funk Railroad
  65. Flying Burrito Brothers – The Flying Burrito Brothers
  66. Bonnie Raitt – Bonnie Raitt
  67. Cahoots – The Band
  68. Album II – Loudon Wainwright III
  69. Other Voices – The Doors
  70. If Not for You – Olivia Newton-John
  71. Linda Ronstadt – Linda Ronstadt
  72. Street Corner Talking – Savoy Brown
  73. Stoney End – Barbra Streisand
  74. Carly Simon – Carly Simon
  75. In The Garden – Gypsy
  76. Barbra Joan Streisand – Barbra Streisand
  77. Thirds – James Gang
  78. Edgar Winter’s White Trash – Edgar Winter’s White Trash
  79. I Don’t Know How to Love Him – Helen Reddy
  80. Leon Russel and the Shelter People – Leon Russell
  81. Moments – Boz Scaggs
  82. Collaboration – Shawn Phillips
  83. Boz Scaggs & Band – Boz Scaggs
  84. Meddle – Pink Floyd
  85. Blue – Joni Mitchell
  86. Teaser and the Firecat – Cat Stevens
  87. The Cry of Love – Jimi Hendrix
  88. White Light – Gene Clark
  89. Carpenters – Carpenters
  90. Weather Report – Weather Report
  91. The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions – Howlin’ Wolf

This puts me just under a hundred albums I remember owning. To trigger my memory I had to look at the list of Top 1000 albums sold in 1971. I’m pretty sure I owned more albums from 1971 because their covers look very familiar. I think I owned them, but I’m not sure, so I’ve added them to the to stream soon list.

Albums Streamed Recently

These are the albums I remember streaming in the past couple of years. I’m sure there were more, but I just don’t remember. Maggot Brain and Pieces of a Man are albums I wished I had discovered in 1971. They are classics. I’ve added them to my most played play list.

  1. Melting Pot – Booker T. & The MG’s
  2. Maggot Brain – Funkadelic
  3. Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys
  4. Nilsson Schmilsson – Harry Nilsson
  5. A Nod is a Good as a Wink… To a Blind Horse – Faces
  6. Coat of Many Colors – Dolly Parton
  7. Black Moses – Isaac Hayes
  8. Shaft – Isaac Hayes
  9. Pieces of a Man – Gil Scott-Heron
  10. Roots – Curtis Mayfield
  11. Al Green Gets Next to You – Al Green
  12. All Day Music – War

Albums I Plan to Stream Soon

  1. Performance Rockin’ The Fillmore – Humble Pie
  2. McDonald and Giles
  3. Man in Black – Johnny Cash
  4. The Bill Evans Album – Bill Evans
  5. Randy Newman Live – Randy Newman
  6. Earth Wind and Fire – Earth Wind & Fire
  7. Yesterday’s Wine – Willie Nelson
  8. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) – Elvis Presley
  9. Where I’m Coming From – Stevie Wonder
  10. The Sun, Moon and Herbs – Dr. John
  11. Live Johnny Winter And – Johnny Winter
  12. Super Bad – James Brown
  13. Distant Light – The Hollies
  14. Wildlife – Mott the Hoople
  15. Sugar – Stanley Turrentine
  16. Church of Anthrax – John Cale & Terry Riley
  17. Nose Roses – Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band
  18. Givin’ It Back – The Isley Brothers
  19. Where’s the Money? – Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks
  20. Nick Drake – Nick Drake
  21. Seven Tears – Golden Earring
  22. Fillmore East – June 1971 – The Mothers
  23. A Message to the People – Buddy Miles
  24. Back to the Roots – John Mayall
  25. Alone at Last – Gary Burton
  26. So Long, Bannatyne – The Guess Who
  27. The Doobie Brothers – The Doobie Brothers
  28. Manna – Bread
  29. Doctor Hook – Dr.Hook and the Medicine Show
  30. Sunwheel Dance – Bruce Cockburn
  31. Patchwork – Bobbie Gentry
  32. Rock Love – Steve Miller Band
  33. Rudy the Fifth – Rick Nelson
  34. Someday We’ll Look Back – Merle Haggard & the Strangers
  35. From the Inside – Poco
  36. Merry Clayton – Merry Clayton
  37. Nancy & Lee Again – Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood
  38. Lovejoy – Albert King
  39. Gypsies, Tramps, & Thieves – Cher
  40. Ruby – Buck Owens & His Buckaroos
  41. Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream – Mason Proffit
  42. Elegy – The Nice
  43. Rita Coolidge – Rita Coolidge
  44. David Bromberg – David Bromberg
  45. Sunfighter – Paul Kantner & Grace Slick
  46. Take Heart – Mimi Farina and Tom Jans
  47. Dave Mason & Cass Elliot – Dave Mason & Cass Elliot
  48. 1969 – Julie Driscoll
  49. Nice Feelin’ – Rita Coolidge
  50. Garden in the City – Melanie
  51. Can I Have My Money Back? – Gerry Rafferty
  52. Me & Bobby McGee – Kris Kristofferson

Lists Used to Remember

JWH

Featured

What’s Your Lamborghini?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/24/21

Few of us are exempt from materialistic desires because I don’t know anyone who follows in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi. Today’s gurus are the influencers on the internet, those beautiful young people who convince other people to give them money to buy what they can’t have themselves. Most of us don’t feel incomplete without a Lamborghini but we do want something.

I realized what I want is weird. My Lamborghini is old books and magazines, things most people would throw away, or give to Goodwill.

I’d rather have a first edition of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov than a new Ferrari. (Although, if given a Ferrari I could sell it and buy a collection of all Gnome Press first editions, including I, Robot.)

I saw both of these on a Facebook group devoted to collecting old SF/F books. I suppose I could spend my retirement savings to satisfy this book lust, but I won’t.

Just recognizing where my materialism lies an is enlightening self-realization. It doesn’t free me from those desires, but it lets me know just what species of wacky duck I belong to.

So, what’s your Lamborghini?

JWH

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Films from everywhere and every era

A Sky of Books and Movies

Books & movies, art and thoughts.

Emily Munro

Spinning Tales in the Big Apple

slicethelife

hold a mirror up to life.....are there layers you can see?

Being 2 different people.

Be yourself, but don't let them know.