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An Overwhelming Amount of History

by James Wallace Harris, 11/21/22

I’m not going to try and review Susan Wise Bauer’s three-volume history of the world. It’s just too much. I’m just going to give you my impression of what they are like and let you decide if you want to read them. I got all three audiobooks on sale at Audible and at least one of the Kindle editions on sale, maybe two. So if you want to try one, wait for a sale. Although, I sort of wish I had gotten the hardback editions too. I find I actually read more if I listen to audiobook editions or read Kindle editions, but the hardbacks would let me just dip back into them from time to time.

Here are their titles. Their subtitles are more accurate than the main titles. Links are to the Kindle edition.

  1. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome
  2. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade
  3. The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople

First off, I knew very little of the history that Bauer presents. However, and this is a huge warning, it’s nearly all about wars, conquests, rulers, and reigns. If you like history with a story or interpretation, these books aren’t for you. It’s just the facts mam. And it’s relentless. It took me most of 2022 to get through seventy hours of audiobook listening because I could only handle it in spurts. All three volumes equal the length of some audiobook versions of the King James version of the Bible.

On the other hand, I was very impressed with Bauer’s writing. It’s concise and fascinating. She often refers to period sources, which I liked a lot. And she would reference later art and literature that looks back on history. I was impressed by how much poets and artists from the 18th and 19th centuries knew about history. We just aren’t the classical scholars people used to be.

Here is a sample from The History of the Renaissance World to give you an idea of Bauer’s prose and focus.

If you’ve ever been curious about all those Kings of England and France, then these books are for you. Another reason why I like Bauer’s history books is she covers more than the Western world. She jumps to the East and the New World too. Here are two timelines for a sample of how she jumps around. If you note the years, you’ll see that she almost goes year by year. These cover just a few chapters in the Renaissance book.

And each mention on the timelines mostly leads to a short game-of-thrones-like conflict. Human history is amazingly like HBO’s Game of Thrones. However, the TV show is much less violent and evil compared to history. And that’s the main takeaway I got from reading these three volumes of history. Most of humanity throughout history has suffered from the ambitions of a few. The people of history that have led us have nearly always led us into suffering. There are no “Great” leaders in history even if they have been bestowed that title.

I know there is a movement among conservatives to fight what’s called Critical Race Theory being taught in schools. Conservatives don’t want their children to feel bad about themselves. Well, they shouldn’t read any history then. Anyone who idolizes any leader from the past, or glorifies any era is deluding themselves. Anyone who gets easily depressed should not read these books or any history books that cover history honestly.

That’s another lesson from reading these books. We glamorize history. If you compare the movies made about the Crusades or the Middle Ages to what really happen, you realize we’re lying to ourselves. Knights and crusaders were not nice people and were definitely not chivalrous. Heroes are not what we think. Joseph Campbell was full of bullshit when he described the mythology by the hero. So was Tolkien. If you feel romantic about any story dealing with aristocracy then you are fooling yourself.

We have whitewashed history so thoroughly that many people long for the past. The whole heroic fantasy industry is just childish make-believe. Even dark violent fantasies like Game of Thrones are clean and nice in comparison to history. If Hollywood made films based on Bauer’s history books and filmed things as they happened I doubt few people could psychologically handle them.

I can’t say I recommend Bauer’s History of the World series. I’m glad I read them. I might even read them again. Many have recommended we study history so we won’t repeat it. After reading these books I’m now confident we can’t break out of the loop.

When I was a kid I wanted to know the truth. Obviously, we can’t handle the truth. I keep trying. Studying history is like pistol-whipping myself to handle a little more truth. I face reality in tiny bits and then run back to escapist hiding, but I always poke my head out once in a while for a little bit more of reality.

Now that I’ve read these books I’m going to go hide for a while.

JWH

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“Why Are All Your Friends Women?”

by James Wallace Harris, 11/17/22

While my sister was visiting last week we socialized with five of my friends. At one point, Becky asked, “Why are all your friends women?” I answered defensively, “I have male friends too,” but actually not that many. Well, two, if you don’t count several guys I interact with on the internet.

I’m writing this essay because this morning I was reading Flipboard and saw another article about how modern men don’t have friends. That made me think about Becky’s question and wondered if I had more female friends than male friends because guys don’t make many friends with other guys. I thought of bull elephants and male orangutans that spend most of their time alone in the jungle. Is it just natural for males to lead lonely lives?

One reason I don’t see more guys I know is that I don’t like leaving home, and neither do my male friends. My longest-running friendship is with a guy named Connell. We met in March of 1967 when we were in the 10th grade at Coral Gables High School in Miami Florida. We struck up a conversation over science fiction and astronomy. I moved away from Miami in 1970 but have remained friends with Connell ever since. But we’ve both stopped traveling and haven’t seen each other in more than twenty years. However, we do talk on the phone a couple times a week.

I met my other close male friend, Mike, in 1980 at work. He lives in Memphis. Susan and I are friends with Mike and his wife Betsy ever since then. We used to socialize more with them, and even travel together, but both Mike and I have become homebodies, especially after Covid, but also because we’re getting old and our health is in decline. Only my wife Susan still likes to go out or travel. I’m quite impressed with her for that.

I had many more male friends, but they have died, moved away, or I just lost contact with them.

Somehow I’ve been lucky to make several female friends which I’ve known for over twenty years. I see and talk to them all fairly regularly. Counting Susan my wife, and Becky my sister, I think the number of my women friends is eleven. Becky got to meet five of them, not counting Susan. I guess that’s why she asked her question.

Several of my women friends I met through Susan. Susan was and is much more social than I am. She has run around with several social groups over the course of our marriage. For a decade Susan took a job out of town and only came home for the weekends, and sometimes not even that. This forced me into socializing again. I started going to the movies with some of her friends or having them over to watch TV, and they became my friends. Two of my women friends were ones I made at work before I retired. And two were ones I made on my own. Our shared friendships were mainly based on movies, TV shows, books, and liberal politics.

If Susan had never worked out of town, I don’t know if I would have made all those women friends. I guess loneliness is the mother of socializing. I do wonder now that I’m in my seventies and want to socialize even less if my women friends will still want to stay friends. When Covid hit we all stopped going to the movies and eating out, and that put a big dent in what socializing I had left in me. By then Susan was back home and we hunkered down keeping each other company for those social distancing years.

If I had never gotten married I would probably be an old guy like those in all the articles. I think some of my women friends were friends with me because they considered me safe because I was married and unthreatening. I think women also like me because I’m willing to listen, and I have a high tolerance for lady chatter. I know that comment will irk some, but I’ve known a lot of guys who told me they broke up with women because they talked too much.

I would like more male friends. Actually, I would like more friends of any kind who share my interests, but that tends to be old guys. Before I retired I thought I had several male friends at work that I would stay in touch with after retiring. But it didn’t work out that way. Some of those guys were just too busy with their families, or they lived too far away in the suburbs. And a couple of them I just stopped seeing when politics got too polarized. Guys love their hobbies, and unless you’re friends share your hobbies, we seldom make the effort to meet up. Many men are just not that social.

When I was young I joined clubs, like the astronomy club, science fiction club, or computer club, and I made casual friends. But I’m just not a hobby club kind of guy and dropped out of all of them. I might have stayed in them if the internet hadn’t happened. The internet is probably the biggest reason why so many guys don’t have friends today.

And when men are social, the driving force behind it is to get laid. Once I got married I began losing interest in going out, especially to parties. And I have to admit that I made friends with so many women because I was also attracted to them. Nothing happened in that regard, but I believe I enjoy the company of women because I’m programmed to chase after women and to consider them pleasant company. I’ve wondered if I would keep up female friendships if that programming had been turned off.

Unless we have a shared interest I’m not sure guys have a reason to get together. I’m not sure we crave each other’s company. We like to compete with each other, and we like to work together on a project, build something, be on a team, work towards a goal, or fix something together. Women seem to have the ability to just be friends without a purpose. To just hang out. All those lonely guys in the articles seem to be both unlucky in love and without a purpose.

I do have shared interests with all my female friends, but it’s at a smaller percentage than I have with Mike and Connell. Actually, many of my interests and all my hobbies bore my women friends. I wish my female friends had more male-like qualities. Probably all of them would call me sexist if I said why. But then I’m often called sexist by my women friends because I like to make generalizations about males and females.

I do wonder about all the men in these articles who can’t make any friends. Maybe they never leave their apartment. You have to leave the house to make friends. That’s probably why I haven’t made any new friends in the last decade. And I have to wonder why men don’t make more female friends. Guys who are married probably are like me and gave up socializing after getting married. But unmarried guys should be out there socializing – especially if they are under fifty and still want to find a wife. However, I’ve known a lot of guys who told me they don’t like being friends with women, and once they gave up on getting married or getting laid, just gave up on women.

The internet has allowed me to make a lot of online male friends. But that’s because I get to meet people who are interested in my exact interests without leaving home. For example, I like science fiction magazines that were published from 1939-1975. I and two online friends, one from Great Britain and the other from South Africa, created a Facebook group devoted to science fiction short stories and it now has 642 members. Many of them love the same old science fiction magazines that I do. I used to have two friends that loved those magazines that lived in town. One died, and the other moved away. Sometimes it’s hard to find friends with the same exact interest.

JWH

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Is It Worth the Effort to Create a Database to Store Memories I’ll Forget?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/16/22

This weekend, while my sister was here visiting from Florida, we watched The Automat. It’s a lovely nostalgic documentary about the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants that were in Philadelphia and New York City from 1902 to 1991. What made the story so charming is it combined history with sociology, pop culture, and interviews with famous people who related fond memories of visiting the Automats. The Automat portrayed a unique subculture.

I told my sister this documentary reminded me of another I liked very much but I couldn’t remember its name or even its subject. That was rather frustrating. After she went to the airport yesterday, I began struggling to remember that documentary. I got on Google and tried search terms such as “nostalgic documentaries” and “quirky documentaries.” I went through many lists, discovering documentaries I had seen, liked, and forgotten, but didn’t find the one I wanted. I had a vague sense it involved a household fixture. During the hours of trying to dredge up what the documentary was about, I recalled it dealt with music, but not normal music, maybe it was about jingles in ads. Then the word “Broadway” popped into my mind.

I put the word Broadway in IMDB and came up with Bathtubs Over Broadway. It was on Netflix and I went and watched some of it again. It’s about a writer, Steve Young, who wrote for The Late Show with David Letterman. Part of his job was finding oddball records for Letterman to make fun of on the show. Young discovered that during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s corporations would spend huge sums of money putting on musicals at their conventions, and they made commemorative soundtrack albums to give to their salesmen. Sometimes these corporations spent more on producing these shows than some famous musicals on Broadway. Again, this documentary combined history, sociology, pop culture, and interviews to document a unique subculture.

Now, this essay isn’t about those shows, but about remembering those shows, or remembering anything. I often struggle to recall a name of a person, book, movie, album, TV show, event, etc. I’ve done this all my life, but it seems to be getting worse now that I’m older. And, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, I’ve been wondering if there is a technique or system I could develop to help me remember.

My first thought was to keep lists. My second thought was to make flashcards. My third thought was it had to work with my phone. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has a feature that allows registered users to keep lists, so I started one for documentaries I’ve watched. Weeks ago, I also started a list in Notes on my iPhone for movies and TV shows I’ve seen, but I might move it to IMDB.

One reason I feel the pressure to remember books, TV shows, movies, and documentaries is that whenever I talk with my friends, one of the main topics is what we’ve been reading or watching. And during my weekly get-togethers or phone calls, I often forget what I’ve seen or read during the past week.

However, is all this list-making worth the effort? I’ve tried it before and failed. It takes a bit of time, a little effort, and discipline. I have faithfully maintained a books-read list since 1983 and that has paid off in many ways. I’ve often wished I had started that list with Treasure Island, a book my mother read to me in 3rd grade in 1959. So a log of all the TV shows and movies I’ve watched would have been just as handy.

But how practical is it to keep lists of everything we want to remember? What about a list of everyone I’ve ever known? Or a list of everywhere I’ve ever lived, including vacation spots? They wouldn’t be impractical long lists.

Most of my memory struggles could be solved with five to ten good lists.

Have I just come up with a new idea for a social media service or an extra feature for Facebook? When do kids get their first smartphone or tablet? How young can you start entering data into your memory database?

It’s amazing that we have memories at all. I have no idea how molecules in the brain record what we experience. It’s amazing but unreliable. What if we had a reliable external memory? How would that change us and society?

What if we had photos and video clips of everyone we’ve ever met? Or at least got to know? You know those videos of people whose fathers took one picture a day or year for decades to make a speeded-up version of their growth? What if we all did that with our family and friends over our lifetime?

What would this take to make this happen? We have some of the technology right now. It would just take discipline and maybe ten or fifteen minutes a day. I started with my reading log in 1983. Several years ago I began using Goodreads. Now I’m using IMDB. None of these methods is perfect. What’s needed is software designed specifically to be external memory, with features that helped with recording and retrieval.

All of this makes me wonder just how much we want to remember? It might not be that much. Theoretically, we could record everything we see and hear to video, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want that much. It would be nice to just have a few minutes of video of our peak experiences. Isn’t what we really want a finite number of concrete facts? A handful of lists, a diary, and a collection of photos and videos might do the trick.

So, how much of our life could be remembered in one terabyte?

JWH

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Dang, I Broke My TV Watcher

by James Wallace Harris, 11/5/22

I seem to be losing my ability to watch television. In the past year or two, when I try to watch TV by myself, I have the hardest time getting into a TV show or movie. If I’m watching television with Susan or a friend I have no trouble settling into the show, but if I’m alone, I often abandon a show after five or ten minutes. Because I’m a lifelong TV addict used to filling my evenings with the boob tube, this is disturbing.

I’ve got sixty-seven years of solid practice watching TV, so why am I losing this skill now? Some of my earliest memories are of watching TV when I was four. I started watching television with the 1955-1956 season, but sometime in 2021, I began noticing I had a problem, maybe even earlier, but it’s painfully obvious in 2022.

The TV watcher part of my brain has broken. And it’s not for trying. Every evening I try getting into several movies and TV shows. Every once in a while, I find one that my mind will latch onto, but it’s getting rarer. So I’m developing some theories about why my brain is broken.

The Gilligan Island Effect

I loved Gilligan’s Island back in 1964 when it first aired. But as I got older I could no longer watch it. My friend Connell and I use Gilligan Island as our example of being young and stupid. Whenever I catch it on TV now I cringe and wonder how could I ever been so easily amused. That feeling is also true for The Monkees. It embarrasses me to recall those were once among my favorite shows. Now I understand why my dad used to pitch a fit when they were on, telling me and my sister we were morons.

As we age we become more sophisticated in our pop culture consumption. I assumed that development stopped when I got into my twenties because I pretty much watched the same kind of shows for the next several decades. However, with The Sopranos, TV jumped a level in sophistication, and for most of the 21st century, I’ve been consuming ever more sophisticated TV content.

What if my TV-watching mind has gotten jaded with all TV? So everything now feels stupid like Gilligan’s Island did when I got a couple years past twelve?

The TV Buddy Effect

As I said, I can watch all kinds of TV shows and movies if I’m watching them with other people. And looking back over my life I realized I watched a lot of TV with other people. With my family growing up. With friends when I was single. With Susan for most of my married life. With my friend Janis when Susan was working out of town Mondays through Fridays.

When Susan retired and Janis moved to Mexico, things changed. Susan now wants to watch her favorite TV shows from the 20th century and I don’t. So she sits in the living room with her TV and cross-stitches while watching endless reruns of her favorite shows. She likes old shows because she doesn’t have to look at them while she sews. I sit in the den and try to find something to watch on my own. Over the last few years, I’ve had less and less luck until I’m starting to wonder if I can’t watch TV alone at all anymore.

Susan and I do watch some TV together. Around 5:30 we watch Jeopardy and the NBC Nightly News that we record. It’s a family habit and the cats sleep in our laps. On Wednesdays we watch Survivor.

This year I was able to binge-watch Game of Thrones. I had watched it as it came out, and when two of my friends living in other cities each expressed a desire to rewatch the entire series I joined them. I discussed each episode with Linda and Connell in separate phone calls.

The YouTube Effect

Let me clarify something. I can watch about an hour of YouTube a day, and I can channel surf trying to find something to watch for another hour. (By the way, that drives Susan crazy. Another reason she likes watching TV by herself.)

My dwindling ability to watch TV has coincided with my growing love of watching YouTube TV. I have to wonder if watching endless short videos and constantly clicking from one subject to another has broken the TV watcher in my brain, so I can’t stick with longer shows.

The Relevance Effect

Last week I binge-watched A Dance to the Music of Time, a four-part miniseries based on the twelve-novel series by Anthony Powell. I had seen it before, but because I was now reading the books I wanted to watch it again. That seems to suggest if I have a good reason to watch television that I have no problem sticking to a show. My mind isn’t completely defective. I’m now on the fourth book in the series, and I’ve bought a biography of Powell and a character concordance to supplement my reading. The series has over 300 characters.

Knowing the Magician’s Tricks Effect

Another theory I’ve developed deals with my studies in fiction. As I read and think about how fiction works, I’ve paid more attention to how movies and television shows are constructed too. I’ve noticed that I often quit a movie or TV show when I spot the puppeteer. I can hardly stand to watch a mystery or thriller nowadays because they seem so obviously manipulated.

Male Aging Effect

I remember now how my uncles as they got older stopped watching TV except for sports, and even then, still not often. My male friends stopped going to the movies years ago, and I’ve finally stopped myself. I’m now doing what Susan and I used to laugh about her father – going to sleep in his den chair after dinner. Since we bought Susan’s parent’s house when they died, I’m going to sleep in the very same den, around the very same time – 7:30.

Conclusion

Because I sometimes find shows that hook me, I figure my TV watcher isn’t completely broken. I do worry that it will conk out completely. Right now I spend my evenings listening to books or music, and I worry that those abilities might break if I overuse them. I’m thinking my TV watcher needs new kinds of TV content to watch, but I have no idea what that would be.

With so many premium channels cranking out so many kinds of quality shows for the last two decades, I worry that they’ve done everything to death. One reason my mind responded so well to YouTube is the content is very different from regular streaming TV content. But I feel like I’m about to reach the end of YouTube too. I’m starting to think TV shows and movies are like clickbait, that once you’re used to all the variety of bait, you become jaded and stop clicking.

JWH

p.s. I’m using DALL-E 2 to generate the art for my blog.

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Can Fiction Educate As Well As Nonfiction?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/2/22

I turn 71 this month, and getting older is getting harder. Being old is nothing like I imagined. That’s a problem for me because I like to be prepared, and being prepared requires anticipating the possibilities.

Last year I read The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler. It’s a useful handbook giving tips about healthcare for the elderly, plus Butler relates plenty of stories about people she met who were going through a variety of issues as they approached death. I learned a lot from her book. People tend to decide between two paths toward the end of life. Some want to take advantage of everything medicine has to offer, and others prefer to take a gentler path, choosing less aggressive medical procedures, or even refusing treatment. One of the best lessons of the book is doctors will go to extremes to keep you alive unless you learn to say no. And for me, the important part of The Art of Dying Well is learning when to say no, and how to decide what you want before you lose control of your situation.

When I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout this week, I was surprised by how it inadvertently taught many of the same lessons. Although it’s called a novel, it’s a collection of thirteen interrelated short stories, and often those fictional stories were like the case studies in Butler’s book. Olive is in her late sixties at the beginning of the book, and seventy-four at the end. I was particularly horrified by the final accounts of Olive’s husband, Henry.

Olive Kitteridge is a book that offers a series of intense emotional impacts. And most of them made me think about how I will deal with a particular issue if it should happen to me. Henry’s fate is the hardest to contemplate. One day he and Olive are going to the grocery store and when he steps out of the car, he falls to the ground. He’s had a sudden stroke that leaves him blind, unable to walk or talk, and probably has left him deaf. He’s put in a nursing home where he needs to be cared for like a small child. To me, that’s scarier than anything Stephen King ever imagined. And how do you prepare for something like that?

It would help to have all the proper legal paperwork ready. And it would help if others knew your wants. That’s covered in the Butler book, but it’s covered in more detail in Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson. Aronson is a doctor who eventually got into geriatric medicine. Her book is heavier than The Art of Dying Well, with more clinical details. It has a tremendous wealth of information, but I found Aronson’s structure for her book somewhat disappointing. Elderhood has a clearly laid out structure but Aronson doesn’t always stick to it.

Both nonfiction books are excellent handbooks for anticipating getting older, especially for the medical and legal details. But the novel, Olive Kitteridge, was also excellent for the same purpose, but in a different way. I guess it’s a handbook for philosophically preparing for our last years. Some of its most important lessons were about communication, or more precisely, the lack of communication.

Much of the novel is about waiting until it’s too late to express our true selves. One of the strongest reasons why people want an afterlife is so they can meet up with dead loved ones. Is that because we really want to tell them something? Or that we really want to ask them something? I know that’s true for me.

I loved reading Olive Kitteridge enough that I’m going to read more Elizabeth Strout books and have already started on Olive, Again – a sequel with additional short stories about Olive Kitteridge and the people she knew. I’m also keeping The Art of Dying Well and Elderhood to reread again and again as I get older.

JWH

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To Doze, and To Dream

by James Wallace Harris, 10/28/22

“To sleep—perchance to dream” is what Shakespeare had Hamlet say, which suggests dreaming was an iffy affair back then. That used to be for me too, but lately, I’ve been dreaming my ass off. I’m afraid I’m not as eloquent as the bard but it conveys how close I am to that cauldron of the unconscious.

It is also true, I sleep more, but I sleep in patches. My overactive bladder never lets me stray too deeply into the dream world, so I believe my need for REM sleep has adapted. I now reach the dream world much faster than when I could sleep the night away.

All this dreaming lets me consciously observe my unconscious mind closer than I have ever done before. Dreams percolate up even during a bit of drowsy dropping off. They are so close it’s like watching ripples on a pond.

What disturbs me is at night, when I get my best sleep, and my bladder kindly lets me leave this world for as long as one or two hours, then when the need to pee does bring me awake, I’m able to recall dreams with plots. Normally, surface dreams are just the bubbling up of chaotic ideas and images. Often bizarre and unconnected, these dreams are what I expect dreams to be. But in deeper sleep, there seems to be another mind at work, an author of dreams. And that often provokes a Weird Tales kind of vibe. Who is the composer of my unconscious? Or is a bit of my conscious mind deep diving into my unconsciousness? Maybe the two states are starting to blend?

Lately, some of my dreams make me think this author dwelling in my deep mind wants to be a science fiction writer. When I watched Everything Everywhere All At Once the other day, I felt that screenwriter was kin to my dreamworld writer. The unconsciousness connects to the multiverse.

I’ve always assumed when I die I’ll reach a state of absolute nothingness. Now, I worry I might be thrown into the chaos of endless dreams. My scientific thinking conscious mind doubts that, but as the conscious world becomes more chaotic itself, it’s easier to wonder about such possibilities.

I used to think humans were mainly rational beings. Recent years have taught me differently. I still believe we dwell in an objective reality that we subjectively observe. But I now doubt how well our conscious minds can map that external reality. I assume the unconscious mind is like an iceberg, with nine-tenths of it existing below the surface of awareness. I had hoped as we evolve as a species, and evolved as individuals, more of that tip would rise above the deep.

My frequent encounter with dream snippets suggests I’m seeing into my own subroutines. That makes it easier to understand why so many people around me talk about the world so weirdly.

This makes me recall a very strange book I once read: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. Jaynes offered a rather logically thought-out woo-woo theory that humans didn’t always think with a singular integrated mind. I now wonder if our sharply polarized political world isn’t due to the population being divided by different states of mind. Jaynes assumed we left the bicameral mind stage thousands of years ago. Maybe we didn’t. Maybe I should reread his book. Maybe it will read less woo-woo today?

The logic of the dream world seems much different than the logic of the wide awake world. But I’m not sure everyone knows the demarcation between the two.

JWH

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Audiophile Music: What I Can Hear and What I Can’t

by James Wallace Harris, 10/18/22

For the past couple of years, I’ve been following several YouTubers that review audiophile equipment. Audiophiles are a subculture of music fans who are fanatical about playback equipment: amplifiers, speakers, DACs, CD players and transports, turntables, headphones, streamers, etc. Most music lovers just get a system from Bose, Sony, Apple, Sonos, Yamaha, Devon, etc., and are happy enough.

Audiophiles are obsessed with every aspect of sound reproduction and are on a never-ending quest to find better equipment. Low-level would-be audiophiles like me spend four figures on a setup, while the hardcore aficionados spend five figures, and the rich dudes and they are always dudes, spend six figures on their equipment. The $64,000 question: Can they hear what they claim?

I love listening to music. One of my big regrets at this time in life is I don’t have any friends who want to come over and listen to music with me anymore. For most people, music is something they put on in the background. When I listen to music, I give it all my attention like watching a movie or reading a book.

When I was young, I and my friends would sit around and listen to albums. Back then I had friends who were like me and spend much of their income on buying records. But those were the years before I got married. And even in my early married life, Susan would go record shopping with me, and we’d listen to albums together. We also went to a lot of concerts. But at some point, Susan, and most of my friends lost interest in buying new records. Susan still loves going to concerts but if I ask her if she wants to listen to some albums from the bands she’s going to go hear with her friends she always says no. She only likes live music. And I gave up on live music years ago.

I consider albums are works of art that should be studied and admired. Audiophiles like to think they can buy equipment that will allow them to hear the music at a deeper level and I bought into that belief.

Listening involves two main factors. One is the limiting factor of our ears. What frequencies can they handle? As we get older, this degrades. The other factor is how much can we discern in what we hear. And that can be a lot. Have you ever considered how many details an artist who paints realistic scenes can see? Looking over my monitor out a picture window, I see mostly trees, but if I examine them closely, there is an infinity of details to be discerned. The same is true of listening to music.

Audiophiles make astounding claims, some of which are questionable. Back in the 1970s, I had a friend, Williamson who love the music of Duane Allman. He claimed when he listened to At Filmore East, a live album, he could hear when Duane adjusted the knobs on his guitar or amplifiers or changed a setting with a foot peddle. Is that even possible? Was Williamson just bragging, or lying? Or is such close study and listening possible?

Audiophiles often talk about listening to the decay of individual notes created by different instruments. They have a whole lexicon used for describing sound qualities. Many audiophiles claim they can tell the difference between records mastered with all analog sources and those that have digital recordings somewhere in the reproduction path. (Those people were recently embarrassed when they learned a company that claimed to sell expensive editions from all analog sources had been lying to them.)

After spending over a year researching reviews I bought a new stereo system that cost twice as much as my previous system. I knew I wouldn’t hear twice as much, but I hoped for a noticeable increase in sound quality. All the reviewers claimed the components I bought were superior to the ones I had. My new system sounds great, but so does my old one. They each sound different. But I don’t know if I can say one is better than the other.

Maybe these systems have gone beyond the level of my hearing ability and my ability to make finer discernments. I’m already losing interest in watching my audiophile reviewers, and they were my favorite thing to watch on TV for the past year. Many of those reviewers claim buying an $800 DAC would let me jump to the next level, but I wonder. And by the way, there’s a level of DACs beyond that in the $3,000-5,000 range they rave about, and more after that which run $10,000 and up. And those audiophiles swear they can hear so much more!

Can they? Could I?

I’ve already shifted my YouTube watching away from equipment reviews to album reviews. The LP came out in the late 1940s as record manufacturers shifted away from producing 78s. I’ve heard only a tiny fraction of albums that were produced since then. There are thousands of great albums to be discovered, so that’s what I’m working on now.

I’m beginning to realize how I’m different from most people. I spend most of my time focused on works of art: books, music, movies, TV shows, paintings, computers, etc. Most people like doing real things, eating, going out, socializing, exercising, being in nature, and interacting in the real world. I like the artificial world of art and abstraction. I guess that’s because I’m an introvert.

So every day I listen to a couple albums from over the last seventy years. I sit by myself and listen with all the discernment I can muster. I listen to people in the past express their creativity. I’m never sure if I hear everything they intended.

JWH

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What If Mrs. Saunders Had Read Us To Kill a Mockingbird Instead of A Wrinkle in Time?

by James Wallace Harris, 10/10/22

In 1962, when I was in the 6th grade, my teacher Mrs. Saunders would read to the class after lunch. The book I remember from that year is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I found it so exciting that I went to the school library and checked out a copy so I could read it faster than 30 minutes a day. At the time, I didn’t know the novel was science fiction, or that the story belong in a category of fiction. But looking back, I see Mrs. Saunders had put me on the road to becoming a science fiction fan.

Yesterday, I wondered if Mrs. Saunders’s influence on my life would have been different if she had read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee instead? Would I have become a different kind of bookworm? Instead of being fascinated with space and time travel, would I have become interested in social justice and equality? I did come to care about those issues later on in the 1960s as the decade progressed, but could I have been made aware of them sooner by reading the right book?

Even though I mostly read science fiction, I do read some serious literature. I was an English major in college. I know when they come out, The Best American Short Stories 2022 will have far deeper, more mature, better-written stories than The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 3: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2022. Yet, the odds are I’ll probably buy and read the science fiction anthology.

In eighth grade, my English teacher required us to read three books each six-week grading period and raised our earned grade by one letter if we read five. She had an approved reading list. That’s how I discovered Heinlein. She gave me the chance to read science fiction and non-fiction, and I took it. What if I had read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank instead? Would I have matured sooner? Would I have been more conscious of the real world?

What if in 1965 I read The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński instead of Stranger in a Strange Land? Would I have become a different person? Or, did I read what I read because I was an immature kid that could only handle the immaturity of science fiction? I tend to think it’s the latter because I know serious literature is far superior to science fiction now and I still seldom choose to read it.

I believe I read science fiction then and now to escape from the real world. I read nonfiction as a kid and as an adult to learn about the world. However, I do wonder how I would have been different if I had gotten addicted to serious literature as a kid.

If I had a time machine and could go back to talk to my younger self I would tell him to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d say, “Kid, stop daydreaming about going to the Moon and Mars. Other people will do it, but not you. And if you could, you wouldn’t like it. Our personality isn’t suited for space travel. Spend more time with people and less time with books, and when you read a book, make sure it helps to know more about people.”

I’m pretty sure my younger self wouldn’t listen. People don’t take advice. Not even from our future selves.

For all I know, Mrs. Saunders may have read To Kill a Mockingbird to us and I just ignored it. She read us several books that year, and A Wrinkle in Time is the only one I remember.

JWH

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Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

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What I’m Learning From Thinning Out My Books

by James Wallace Harris, 9/22/22

I want a new stereo system for my bedroom. A higher fidelity one than what I described in “To Go, or Not to Go — To the Bookstore?” That was written back in July, well before I had my hernia surgery on August 29th. I used researching stereo equipment to avoid thinking about surgery before my operation and to ignore my physical discomforts afterward. I have a long history of using unpleasant experiences as justifications for buying myself new toys.

Two things have stopped me from ordering my new stereo equipment. First, my release instructions warned me not to pick up anything over five pounds while I recovered. Second, I have no room to set up new equipment. Making room will involve getting rid of stuff and rearranging furniture, all weighing over five pounds. So while lying around with pillows on my lap to protect my swollen private parts from cats, I’ve been mentally analyzing the best way to free up the most wall space while requiring the least weight lifting.

After much grinding of my mental gears, I’ve concluded the easiest solution is to get rid of two bookcases worth of books. My bedroom has four bookcases of books. For twenty years before I quit working I stashed away books for my retirement years. Well, I squirreled away too many. Way too many. And in the decade since I’ve had all my time free, I’ve learned that most of the approximately 500 books I’ve read over the last ten years were bought after I retired.

I’ve been trying to thin out my collection for decades. But whenever I try to pull volumes to give to the Friends of the Library I start reading and think, “Oh man, I’ll read this someday. This one is too good to give up.” I just can’t follow Marie Kondo’s advice because every book I hold sparks joy.

It’s either give up books or forget about that new stereo. Ouch! I’ve spent four hours this morning going through half a bookcase. With much agonizing, I’ve found 23 books to discard. That’s about one shelf of books. I need to clear off eleven more shelves.

This is so painful. But what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger – right? What I’m learning is each book is a little world of knowledge that I wanted to incorporate into my soul. And to decide not to read a book means deciding that’s an area of knowledge I’ll remain ignorant of.

By the way, did I tell you that all these books are nonfiction? I’m not ready to thin out my science fiction collection. That’s revealing too.

Some of the books I’m discarding I’ve decided would be better on audio anyway. I’m opening each book up and reading from it randomly. I realize that some books, particularly certain kinds of history books, I’d rather listen to than reading. I can get rid of those (unless I’d want to keep them for reference). Examples are Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson and Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.

However, I’ve discovered another type of book I can part with, but the reason why disturbs and depresses me. I’m finding some books I thought I could read when I was younger are probably too difficult for my older mind or would require a level of concentration that I no longer possess. A good example is Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates. Her intellectual analyses are ones I’m no longer capable of handling, and maybe never was.

The final type represents an acceptance of resignation. I’m just not going to live long enough to get around to some books. These are the books I feel would be the last in line. I’d love to read Complete Collected Essays by V. S. Pritchett or Harlan Ellison’s Watching because I admire their commentary on pop culture’s past. But I have to decide what’s really worth learning in my fading years of life.

Another funny kind of realization is I’m torn between preserving my precious reading time for what’s relevant to the existential needs of my remaining years and books that offer the purest delightful fun. Two examples of what I’m keeping are Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes and Zappa: A Biography by Barry Miles.

I know without a doubt I could give away all the books in all four bookcases and not really miss them. My eyes now prefer reading ebooks and I have over a thousand of them waiting to be read. I also have over a thousand audiobooks hidden away in the cloud. And I have six bookcases of physical books in my computer room. Yet, I just hate to part with physical books. I’ve thought about putting bookcases in other rooms of the house, but that would be unfair to Susan. She’s already bitching about how many books she’ll have to get rid of if I die before her.

With every book I hold to decide its fate, I mentally go through a gauntlet of emotions and thoughts. I should make a daily meditation of routinely going through my library. With each book, just reading a few paragraphs here and there inspires several ideas for blog essays.

JWH

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Did Henry Mancini Invent Spy Music When He Composed/Conducted The Music From Peter Gunn in 1958?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/20/22

The Music From Peter Gunn was composed and conducted by Henry Mancini and recorded on August 26, 31, and September 4, 29, 1958 for the TV show Peter Gunn that premiered on September 22, 1958. The original soundtrack was released in 1959 and won the very first Grammy award for Album of the Year that year, beating out Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Van Cliburn.

The soundtrack was very popular, eventually earning a Gold Record. And the song, “Peter Gunn” has become iconic, inspiring many covers and interpretations. The album was so successful that RCA came out with More Music From Peter Gunn later that same year.

You can listen to a rearranged compilation of those two albums here while you read on.

But this brings up my second question for this essay: How many songs were recorded in those original sessions for the Peter Gunn TV show? The tunes on the YouTube video sound slightly different from the original album, and the lineup of songs are different too.

I have found these two albums that call themselves complete, but they are different. The first has the original two albums, plus two more albums on two CDs. The full description is here. The second is just the original two soundtracks on one CD.

The first album is described at Discogs as:

This release contains the complete original Henry Mancini albums "The Music From Peter Gunn" and "More Music From Peter Gunn", scores for the Blake Edwards' "Peter Gunn" TV series. Also included two further complete LPs presenting alternative versions of this music by Pete Candoli and Ted Nash, plus a single tune omitted from the companion volume "Shelly Manne & His Men Play Peter Gunn"

The second two albums are a mystery to me, even though I once owned the Nash LP. I now wish I hadn’t given it away. If anyone knows why the Ted Nash and Pete Candoli albums are considered part of the complete Peter Gunn, let me know below. Were they connected with the show? Were these songs alternated arrangements for the show?

I’ve heard a lot of reissues and even the ones that are supposed to be the Mancini originals often sound slightly to somewhat different from the original LPs, with a different lineup of tunes, and song titles. One thing that’s really confusing on Spotify, is the album they list as The Music of Peter Gunn & More From Peter Gunn is actually the soundtrack to the 1967 film Gunn … The One! – which has newer versions of some of the songs they used on the TV show, along with newer songs for the movie.

The original album feels like a special subgenre of cool 1950s jazz, the kind of jazz that people who hate jazz thinks of jazz and loves to hear. Mancini in his autobiography said, “The Peter Gunn title theme actually derives more from rock and roll than from jazz.” But the rest of the album does sound like jazz. I do wonder if all the guys who recorded at Blue Note considered it jazz? And did they resent its success?

The first LP I bought with money I earned (from cutting lawns) when I was fourteen was the soundtrack from Our Man Flint, with its music composed by Jerry Goldsmith. I quickly acquired soundtracks for Goldfinger and Thunderball, composed by John Barry, and the soundtrack for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was arranged and conducted by Hugo Montenegro, but I believe at least the title tune was composed by Jerry Goldsmith.

I loved the music on these soundtracks and thought of them as Spy Music. I’m not the only one that uses that label. You can find playlists on Spotify under the title Spy Music, and even the All Music Guide has it as a category. The songs on these albums sound a bit like jazz, but I don’t know if the music would really be considered jazz. But I do like this music a lot.

When I started trying to find out how many songs were recorded for the original Peter Gunn show it occurred to me that Mancini’s music might be the origin of what I call Spy Music. It’s gotten me back into listening to Spy Music. When I get time I’m going to make my own playlist for Spotify. Some of the Spy Music playlists I’ve listened to use cover tunes. That bugs me. I want the originals, well, at least the songs from the original albums.

This bit of research is also making me want to research soundtrack music. For movies and TV shows, each scene only uses pieces of a song. Do composers write whole songs and then the editors clip out what they want. Or are composers given clips of scenes and asked to compose music just for them? Are soundtracks fleshed-out clips? And why are so many soundtracks missing from Spotify?

That’s why I wondered just how many songs were composed for the Peter Gunn TV show? Did Mancini just create a batch of tunes for Blake Edwards? Were Nash and Condoli on set arrangers? This blog quotes the whole chapter on Peter Gunn from Mancini’s autobiography, but it doesn’t answer all my questions. I’d love it if some YouTuber researched all of this and produced a 30-minute documentary that answered my questions.

Update: 9/22/22:

I got The Music From Peter Gunn – Complete edition, a 2-CD set in from Discogs today. Its booklet answers some of my unanswered questions.

The Pete Candoli and Ted Nash albums were recorded in 1959. It says the recording location for all the albums was Hollywood. I wonder if it was in the same studio? The first two albums were from RCA but the other two were from Dot and Crown, but they all could have been recorded in the same location. Many of the musicians were the same. Was the 1959 recording done to give the musicians their own album and chance to earn additional money, or were they extra recordings for the TV show?

JWH

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How Could We Maximize Democracy?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/15/22

What if we had the perfect voting machine – how would it change politics?

What would make the perfect voting machine?

  • It would only allow one vote by each registered voter
  • It would block any illegal votes
  • It would block tampering
  • It would be trusted by all
  • It would make vote tallying easy
  • It would allow for easy recounts
  • It would be easy to use
  • It would be easy to access

Let’s imagine a perfect machine. Let’s imagine its impact like we were plotting a science fiction story about the future.

What if the government issued every registered voter a tablet that had limited internet access and could only be used for one function: voting. The tablet would be configured:

  • Fingerprint recognition
  • Faceprint recognition
  • Voiceprint recognition
  • Eyeprint recognition
  • Had a unique physical ID number in a chip
  • It will only work with the .gov domain

To register to vote and get one of these machines you’d have to prove your identity to the government. It would link your machine ID and identity to the voter registration system. It would register your encrypted biometric data. You will be given a voter registration card with your name and machine ID.

When you vote it would only accept one vote from your machine’s ID and only if your machine has validated your biometrics in four ways. This is far more secure than any online banking system or financial investment system. No one but yourself should be able to use this tablet. If it was stolen it would be useless.

Whenever a vote is taken the results should be tabulated nearly instantly and the results put online. Anyone could validate their vote by looking up their machine ID in the voting results. It’s not likely anyone will know this number unless you tell them. If you think your vote was changed you can register a protest.

This method would allow any individual to conduct a vote recount. The data file from a national election would be large, but probably smaller than a downloaded song. Voters could be given software that would allow them to drill into the data and analyze the results. Everyone should get the same totals. If needed, a vote could be retaken to validate the process. And countless checks can be added to the system to automatically look for fraud.

Right now we have a representative democracy. We vote for people we want to vote for us. With this system, we could vote directly. Our elective representative would prepare possible laws but everyone would vote on them. Of course, not everyone would vote on each issue, but the numbers would be huge. Far greater than any valid statistical sample. This would eliminate more forms of current corruption.

To make this system even more effective, we should set the winning majority higher than 50%. This could solve our current political polarization. We should aim to make more people happy with our government and laws. We should aim for a two-thirds majority or 66%.

That would push out the extremes of the political spectrum and create a purple party in the middle. Our representatives would have to work up laws based on compromises that would appeal to a wider majority.

Right now we’re getting minority rule and citizens are becoming unhappy. There’s talk of civil war. Extremists on the left and right want things that the majority of Americans don’t. Our political system is corrupted by political parties and their shenanigans. If we maximized democracy it would eliminate the need for political parties. Everyone would vote for their own unique platform. But to achieve a two-thirds majority would require voting with the aim of making the most people happy rather than just ourselves.

I doubt this will ever happen, but it’s a kind of science fictional speculation of how we could change things if we tried. Human nature pushes us to keep doing the same thing until everything breaks and we’re forced to start over. Some people are advocating starting over now, but that will only make even a smaller percentage of people happy.

If we had such a maximized voting system it would be important to elect politicians that tried to make the majority happy rather than just special interest groups.

JWH

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What If I Didn’t Come Back From The Dead?

by James Wallace Harris, 9/3/22

Last Monday I had hernia surgery and was under general anesthesia for over two hours. Being anesthetized is maybe the closest thing to being dead. Our conscious self is turned off so completely that it feels like we’re gone for good.

Interestingly, my book club book this month is Being You by Anil Seth and he introduces the study of consciousness with the discussion of general anesthesia. This was the fifth time I was put under so beforehand I was contemplating being gone. And I kept asking myself: “What if I don’t come back?” I thought it was philosophical fun to imagine nonexistence.

Mostly I thought about people I would miss but if I didn’t exist I wouldn’t feel anything. I think of death being like how things felt before I was born. I feel the only existence we know is this one. But my atheist beliefs could be wrong. I wondered how it would feel if I came to, but in another existence. I’ve always hoped if that happened I would be given all the answers to my questions about this existence.

My hunch is this existence is our only one. That reality is filled with many infinities but infinite existence isn’t one of them. Mostly I thought if I wasn’t coming back I should do a lot of paperwork before I might die to help Susan out. But I didn’t do that for two reasons. First, I assumed I was coming back. Second, because I’m lazy.

Still, it felt very weird and fascinating trying to imagine not existing.

Before my surgery, I had a long talk with my surgeon and he agreed to do everything I wanted. I was worried about two things. I was afraid lying on the surgical table for hours would inflame my spinal stenosis. I worried that I couldn’t hold my pee for that length of time because of my overactive bladder. I told him of these fears weeks before the surgery. He said he would try to arrange my back on the table like I needed and would give me a catheter but I would have to wear it for a few days at home. So I practiced lying flat each day before the surgery. Then on the day of the surgery, I told him to not worry about positioning me for my back but do whatever was best for his work. I also asked for the catheter to be removed before I came to and if I couldn’t pee on my own in recovery they could put it back in.

He seemed glad I practiced lying flat and agreed to my method with the catheter. This made me very happy and cleared all my worries. My surgeon then said he wanted to pray for me. I said sure. I’m not the kind of atheist that’s against religion or religious rituals. I am actually grateful for any prayers I receive.

I was impressed by the length of his prayer. He carefully went over all my problems and concerns and then covered all his goals in great detail while asking God for help. It was reassuring on several levels. First, it let me know how closely he listened to me, and second, it carefully laid out his working plans. But it fits in with my contemplations on nonexistence. And his prayer set the right mood for the occasion.

I felt that we each used a different language for understanding our shared existence. I use the word Reality for what he calls God. He believes in a personal relationship with God whereas I think I’m interacting with infinity and randomness. What he calls God’s will I call the unfolding of evolving randomness. Prayer assumes we can ask for blessings. I assume I will get what will be but I’m on one long lucky anti-entropic run of fabulous luck. The big difference is my surgeon believes there’s an existence after this one and I think death is oblivion. I’ve always been exceedingly grateful for this existence.

Well, I did come back. I’m writing this on my iPhone with one finger. The surgery went very well but it was more involved than my surgeon expected. I had no back pain after the surgery. And for 24 hours my back felt limber and young. Even after the drugs wore off it hasn’t been bad at all. And I peed right away when they rolled me back to my room after recovery. And in the days since I haven’t had much pain. I did without drugs except for a couple Tylenol and later, a couple of ibuprofen. However, I am suffering from a swollen scrotum which is typical of this operation and why I’m not sitting at the computer.

I’m quite glad to be back but I’ve learned that God’s will or reality wasn’t finished with me regarding this surgery. We never get what we picture, and my surgeon’s prayer didn’t cover post surgical complications. I thought going under inspired a lot of philosophical musings, but it turns out dealing with an expanding scrotum, generates even more existential thoughts.

One side effect of this experience is to feel sorry for women and their boobs. I imagine my affliction feels somewhat like getting a breast implant. My package is so much bigger it’s freaking me out. Having a sensitive globular appendage is not convenient. It gets in the way, making sitting and walking weird. So I imagine having two would be more than twice as inconvenient. And the size of my burden is still smaller that what most women have to deal with. I now regret every time I ever wished a woman had bigger breasts.

Yes, I came back, but to something I never imagined. But then, the future has always been what I never imagined.

If there is a God and he/she/they willed these big balls on me then I hope it’s God’s sense of humor and not punishment. So I will close with a prayer: “Dear God, please make my scrotum normal again. And if you intended a philosophical lesson help me learn it quickly. Amen.”

JWH

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Reading With My Eyes and Ears At The Same Time

by James Wallace Harris, 8/26/22

I’ve recently learned why it’s best to read with my eyes and ears concurrently.

When I joined Audible.com in 2002 it changed my reading life in several ways. First, it made me discover several things about my reading abilities. I always thought I was a great reader. I thought that because I was a bookworm. Listening showed me that was a delusion. I was really skimming books because I was reading too fast. Listening revealed that my inner reading voice was crappy at best. Listening made it all too obvious that there were nuances to fiction and nonfiction that I was completely missing.

When you listen to a professional narrator read a book you often get to experience the book at its best. Usually, the words are pronounced correctly, and the dialog comes across naturally, at a speed at which you’d hear it in real life. This enhances the dramatic effects of fiction, but it also has a cognitive impact on nonfiction.

I suppose good readers do all this in their heads, but I didn’t. I read to find out what happens. I did not savor the words or the writing. As a reader growing up I conditioned myself to read books with fast action prose. Either for fiction or nonfiction. I mainly stuck to science fiction and popular science books.

When I started listening I quickly learned I could handle other kinds of prose – especially longer, and denser books. For example, I listened to Moby Dick, not an easy novel. Listening opened up the 19th century to me. I never had the patience for old classics, but once I started listening I got into Dickens, Austen, Trollope, Elliot, and even Henry James. I also got into all kinds of nonfiction, including dry academic works, because hearing made them more interesting and accessible.

Over time listening helped me to read better with my eyes. Listening taught me to read slowly, and that made a big difference. I would switch back and forth depending on what format was the cheapest to buy.

However, there are still books I couldn’t get into – like Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherry. Her dense prose makes my eyes glaze over when I try to read that novel, and my ears tune out when listening. Because it’s one of a handful of novels I haven’t read on the Classics of Science Fiction list, I’ve been pushing myself to finish it. And I’ve learned a trick that will help me.

I can only listen to books if I’m doing something else, like walking, doing the dishes, eating, exercising, etc. I had to give up walking, and because of my back problems, I’ve been exercising less. That’s cut into my listening time. If I try to listen while just sitting I fall asleep.

However, I’ve found a trick to beat that. I listen to an audiobook while reading the book with my eyes. Not only do I stay awake, but I retain what I read better. That’s always been one of the drawbacks of listening to books. I don’t retain them as well when I read with my ears. I don’t get into them as well when I read with my eyes.

When I read with my eyes and ears at the same time I get into the most and retain the most. And it turns out, it lets me read some books like Downbelow Station that I previously couldn’t read with just my eyes or just my ears.

Isn’t that weird?

The trick is to follow along with the words as I hear them – and don’t let myself get distracted.

I listened to Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World and The History of the Medieval World but started listening and reading The History of the Renaissance World. I’m getting so much more out of this dual-reading method, especially retention, that I’m thinking about rereading the first two volumes with the new method.

There is a major drawback to dual reading – cost. I do subscribe to Scribd.com and they sometimes have both the ebook and the audiobook. They had the recent biography on Buckminister Fuller that I listened to on audiobook so I just had to buy the Kindle edition. With Downbelow Station I had the paperback I’ve been meaning to read for years, and I’ve had the audiobook I’ve been meaning to listen to for years. And sometimes Amazon will give you a deal on the audiobook if you buy the Kindle edition first. Sometimes I get the Kindle on sale for $1.99 from Bookbub announcements and then buy the audiobook. Or I buy a used copy of the book or get it from the library.

I’m not going to read every book with my eyes and ears. But for books that I want to study, or total grok, or can’t get into, I will try the dual reading method.

JWH

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What Books Do You Speak?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/8/22

Most of our ideas are borrowed since few people have original thoughts. The other day I was wondering why conservatives and liberals think so differently. I decided one reason is that they read different books. Of course, not everyone reads books. Ideas are also passed around from person to person, or by newspapers, magazines, journals, advertisements, political rallies, television shows, the internet, etc. We dwell in a sea of ideas.

Ideas do originate with original thinkers, and often they are first published in books. Journalism and other forms of mass media then propagate those ideas, which in turn are spread by word of mouth. So, for now, let’s think of the basic unit for storing and spreading ideas are books.

My theory is conservatives and liberals think differently because the foundation of their beliefs comes from different books. I’m not suggesting that all conservatives and liberals read the same set of books, but the ideas for their thoughts and speech originated in a subset of books.

I was thinking along these lines because I wondered if conservatives and liberals each had a core set of twenty books, what would happen if the conservatives read the liberal’s books, and the liberals read the conservative’s books? Would our polarized political opinions begin to homogenize?

Then I wondered about fundamentalist religious people who put their faith in one book. What would happen if all the fundamentalists around the world all read each other’s holy book?

Thinking about that brought up an obvious stumbling block. Most people’s beliefs are based on what they first learned as children. If you are raised Christian and conservative you’re most likely to stay Christian and conservative. That suggests ideas acquired in youth are stickier than ideas acquired later in life. For my test, we’d have to raise children with The Bible, The Quran, The Tanakh, The Talmud, The Vedas, The Upanishads, The Tipitaka, The Tao Te Ching, The Yasna, etc.

We know minds are open and plastic at birth. If you took a child from a Christian family and gave it to a Muslim family to raise, it will grow up Muslim. But for some reason, after a certain age, minds close and lose their plasticity.

On the other hand, fads arise and spread ideas/memes all the time. Adults will embrace new ideas. Fox News, the Internet, to Tik-Tok can spread new ideas like a California forest fire. This suggests that people can acquire new ideas that they put on top of the foundational ideas that were programmed in their youth.

And ideas don’t have to come from nonfiction books. If all you read are romance novels and watch romance TV shows and movies, your ideas about relationships will be different than if you only consumed mysteries.

I’m in a book club that was reading Developmental Politics by Steve McIntosh, a book about our polarized politics. McIntosh hoped his insights would help solve that problem but most of the readers in the book club doubted it. One of our members did believe in McIntosh’s ideas and thought they could work. I felt McIntosh’s ideas were insightful but figured for them to be persuasive, would require everyone to read many other books first. McIntosh’s book was complex enough to require reading dozens of other books to fully understand it.

That’s when I realized we speak in books. When we express ourselves, we pass on fragments of books, but we don’t pass on enough information to let other people fully understand the foundation of the original ideas. Generally, we pass on tiny fragments of the original idea that are barely impressions. And we seldom communicate ideas but express ourselves emotionally.

If you want to understand a person, you have to consume the same books they did, or at least the same secondary sources. If a friend is passionate about a belief you’ll never understand your friend until you understand the foundations of their beliefs.

Few people understand the sources of their beliefs. Few people can point to a set of books and say here’s where my ideas originated. The origin of a classical education came from the study of foundational books, but that idea broke down in modern times when we were overwhelmed with significant books.

Yet, even when there was only one book for most people, The Bible, Christianity spent centuries arguing over its meaning. If you study all the people who claim to be Christian today you’d find very little commonality. The Bible is too big and too diverse. If we took The U. S. Constitution instead, which is tiny in comparison, we still get endless disagreement.

Ideas are slippery and inexact. Even if we read the same books and speak about the same ideas we don’t interpret them in the same way. Humans aren’t computers. We filter ideas through our emotions. Books might sow ideas but they don’t plant them evenly, and they grow inconsistently.

It appears that humans latch onto vague concepts and use them for ammunition to get what they emotionally want. Even if we read the same books we’ll still be a long way from finding agreements.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. What we need is a better approach to understanding each other’s wants. It might start with reading the same books, but it would only be a start. We’d also need to start studying each other’s emotions, and emotions are even harder to communicate than ideas. That’s what McIntosh was getting into with Developmental Politics, building on developmental psychology.

JWH

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To Go, or Not to Go — To the Bookstore?

by James Wallace Harris, 7/21/22

Each morning before I get out of bed I plan to do something with my day. It’s never very ambitious because of health problems, lack of discipline, and laziness. And things seldom go according to plan. Today I decided to donate ten books to the library bookstore. That impulse came from getting a new toy. I feel like Jerry Pournelle in his old columns for Byte magazine called “Chaos Manor.” In those columns, Jerry would get a new computer which would cause a cascading series of problems. I got a new little tube amp, a cheap one, to set up a better stereo system in my bedroom. That single act has caused a domino-falling cascade of problems to fix.

The only place I have to put a stereo in my bedroom is on top of two bookcases. That’s okay if I don’t care about sound quality, but this new little tube amp sounds great — if the speakers are at ear level — but sounds like crap next to the ceiling. For me to solve this problem, will require moving two Ikea Billy bookcases and replacing them with a piece of furniture 72 inches wide and roughly 24-30 inches high.

“Ah-ha!” you might be thinking. “He’s finally getting to the part about going to the bookstore.”

Well, not quite. This is going to be a long story about getting old and how my aging mind and body affect my decision-making at seventy.

The quick and easy solution to my problem was to go into the dining room which we’ve converted into a gym and take the TV credenza and put it in the bedroom in front of the bookcases. That left the TV on the floor for now, but I had to give up exercising when my back went out a few weeks ago, so I can worry about it later. Since I’ve become semi-invalid the easiest solutions are the ones that work with the least effort.

If Susan and I had had the foresight to have children we could have gotten them to move the bookcases into the dining room, left the TV on the credenza, and then sent those kids to Ikea to get a cabinet for the stereo. Unfortunately, back in the early 1980s, we didn’t anticipate this need.

My back has gotten somewhat better. I can do a little lifting. I don’t want to do too much because I might screw it up again. I figured I could unload a shelf or two each day in stacks on the floor. There are two cases with six shelves each. You do the math. I could put slides under the cases and push them into the dining room, and then reverse the process of loading them back up. Ikea also offers delivery and assembly for a fee. Thus, without offspring, and if I’m patient, I can get the job done in a week or two depending if Ikea can deliver that quickly.

But is this the best long-term solution? Susan has long complained that she doesn’t want to deal with all my books after I depart this world — whenever that might be. I keep telling her she can just call Salvation Army or a book buyer, but maybe all those books are my responsibility?

This morning I decided I would start going through my books and weed out enough to empty two bookcases. I figured I could carry ten or twelve books to the library bookstore each week and eventually, I’ll donate two bookcases worth of books. So after doing my spinal stenosis physical therapy exercises I pulled the first book off the shelf I thought might be the first of ten I would part with today. It was The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan.

I opened it up to a random page and started reading. Whoops. There went my plan. Maeve wrote lovely little essays about living in New York City for The New Yorker. The first one I read was about seeing a young woman collapse on the street outside her restaurant window. The next was about an evening walk to see a farmhouse that had been moved from downtown to Greenwich Village. I bought this book after seeing a documentary, I think on HBO, about another writer who met Brennan before she died. That writer had discovered Maeve on the street after she had become homeless. I’d like to see that documentary again, but I can’t remember its title.

I’m afraid every book I pulled off the shelf had a story behind it, one that made me want to keep it. I have more books than I could read in another dozen lifetimes. It might take me years to find and decide which books I could give away that would free up two bookcases full of books.

That left me so despondent that I went to the library bookstore and bought five more books.

JWH

p.s.

The other night Janis and I were jabbering on the phone about all the hoarders we know. We felt horror at what has befallen our friends. Now I need to worry if that affliction needs to be added to my recognized list of afflictions.

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Getting Too Close to Helpless

by James Wallace Harris, July 14, 2022

For this essay, I’m defining helpless as being in a situation where we can’t help ourselves or get help from someone else. As I get older I worry that someday my wife Susan or I will find ourselves in a completely helpless situation. This weekend it almost happened. Our hot water heater in the attic broke and water was pooling on the sheetrock of the ceiling above my computer room. A seam then spread open and water was draining onto the floor. Susan and I had to find a solution fast and several times I wasn’t sure we would.

First, we were lucky I discovered it so soon. I have an overactive bladder so I’m frequently going back to the bathroom which is annoying. But in this one instance, it put me Johnny-on-the-spot as I went down the hall to the bathroom. The pool of water was only in the middle of the floor.

I yelled to Susan and ran into the kitchen and pulled the filled garbage bag out of the tall kitchen trash can and ran back and put that under the water flow. I saw that it would fill pretty fast so I ran back to the kitchen and got the recycle bin and dumped the contents out on the floor and took it back to the room. By then Susan was there with a pile of towels.

I then went out into the hall, pulled down the attic stairs, and rushed up into the attic. The hot water tank is right next to the stairs and I could see the overflow pan was full and not draining. Damn. I went back down the stairs and ran outside and unscrewed the hose from the outside faucet and dragged it back into the house and up the stairs and connected it to the flush drain. It didn’t have a faucet handle but a slot so I yelled for Susan to get me a large screwdriver. I tried to turn off the hot water heater but it would only let me shut it down to pilot light. For some reason, I couldn’t make the button turn to the off position. I looked at the pipes and saw a red handle so I turned it all the way to what I hoped was an off position. When I had the screwdriver I opened the flush faucet and water started spraying everywhere from a leak in the hose connection. I turned it off.

Two weeks ago my back was hurting so much, that I could barely walk, so I was thankful I was able to be going up and down the stairs. I was moving at a frantic pace but I was calm. I wondered what would have happened if I couldn’t go up the stairs. I don’t trust Susan on the attic stairs. It was then I realized I could be helpless. If I couldn’t fix this problem I had to get someone else. Help means either doing it yourself or finding someone who could. I was suddenly scared I couldn’t, and we’d be helpless. I know this is a minor emergency, but it was enlightening.

Then I went back down the stairs and called our regular plumber. I told them immediately I had an emergency of running water but they made me give me my information first before they told me they couldn’t have someone out until Monday. It was Saturday afternoon, but I thought it was Friday. So I called another plumber thinking I might catch someone still there. The same thing happened. Wanted my information before telling me the soonest would be Monday.

I got some duck tape and went back upstairs and wrapped the hose. I turned on the drain again. It didn’t shoot water. I went outside and saw that water was coming out of the hose. I then went back to the computer room and dragged the first bucket to the front door and emptied it on the front porch. I took the empty bucket and swapped it for the full and emptied it.

I felt I had a bit of breathing room. Then Susan said she still heard running water.

I went to the computer and looked up emergency plumbers. I found one that claimed 24/7 service and called them. Same thing. Can’t come until Monday. I then ran to the hall closet and got my T-wrench and went outside to the street to turn off the water to the house. However, I couldn’t get the valve to budge. I figured I had to call MLG&W to come shut off the water. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t know how long they would take to get here, and I didn’t want to go days without water.

I went back upstairs and realized that I had shut off the gas, not the water. I started looking around. This time I looked at the top of the water tank, which almost goes to the ceiling of the attic. There I saw water spraying from around the intake pipe, but I also saw another turn-off handle. I gave it a quarter turn and the water stopped running.

That gave me a sense of release. The flow of water from the computer room ceiling slowed, and in about fifteen minutes it stopped. I called the plumber and made an appointment for Monday.

However, I kept wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to shut off the water. What would we have done? What would Susan have done if I wasn’t home? She probably would have called a neighbor, her brother, or MLG&W. I pictured us taking turns swapping filled buckets all weekend, even taking sleeping shifts at night.

It’s incidents like this when I want more control. I should have been prepared. I should have known where the water shut-off to the tank was located. I thought I was prepared by buying the tool to shut off the water at the street. When the plumber came Monday I ordered a new tank and ordered an automatic shut-off device that works with a water sensor in the overflow pan. I also ordered a new overflow pan and all new drainage pipes. But is that enough? I prefer not to deal with another computer room flood. This was the second. Years ago the HVAC installers made the mistake of putting in the condensation pan at a tilt – a tilt away from the drainage outlet.

We don’t have complete control of our lives. On the news that night there were stories about flooding in the east that ruined entire homes. Our flooding was nothing, so I was thankful. However, knowing we can’t control everything doesn’t stop me from worrying about becoming helpless. One sight that always scares me when I see it on the news is when first responders have to rescue old helpless people.

I know I’m worrying about the inevitable, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. It doesn’t stop me from thinking of ways to be prepared. If I designed houses I wouldn’t put the HVAC and hot water heater in the attic. Every house should have a little machine room on the ground floor, with a floor drain and sensors for flooding. This house has had a hot water heater in the attic since 1952 and things have been mostly good 99.9999% of the time.

Getting old has made me worry about my body breaking down or my house breaking down. I realize there are things I can do to help myself. I also realize there are things I depend on Susan to help me do. And I know there will be other things I will have to depend on friends or hired help. This flooding incident has made me think about the times I might not find any kind of help. Generally, that’s never a problem because we have each other. But it’s a thought.

JWH

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It’s Hard To Tell What’s A Bargain Is Anymore

by James Wallace Harris, 7/2/22

One value of writing an essay is thinking through an idea. I’ve rewritten this essay several times as I rethink my assumptions and feelings. When is a bargain a great deal or just something cheap I really don’t need? When does something feel expensive when it’s not? When is something cheap but overpriced or a wonderful value? How does inflation warp our sense of value as we age?

In 1962 when I was in the 6th grade I could ride my bike down to the base theater on Homestead Air Force Base and see a movie for 15 cents. That was a kid’s price back then. I could get a candy bar for 5 cents, and a coke in a cup for another nickel. It was a small cup, but also the only size cup. Total expenditure was a quarter. The last time I bought a movie ticket, before the pandemic, it was $12. Candy was around $5 and a drink was around $5, but the comparison isn’t perfect. In 1962 I probably got a 200-calorie sugar high, and today it would probably be a 2,000-calorie sugar overdose.

Magazines in 1962 were 15-25 cents. Today it’s $7.99 – $11.99. Back then I’d read in a magazine all week. Today, I’m lucky if one will divert me for 30-minutes because I have so many others to read. Back then I was happy with Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Mad Magazine. Today I try to keep up with a couple dozen mags. But is having a quantity a bargain?

A paperback was 35-60 cents. I’m not sure they have mass-market paperbacks anymore. It’s $11.99 for a Kindle book. A science fiction magazine like F&SF was 40 cents in 1962, but $9.99 an issue in 2022. What’s hilarious is I often pay $10-15 for old issues of F&SF today. Last year I paid $35 for Fall 1949 issue (v.1 n.1) of F&SF. It originally cost 35 cents. I believe that tells me its real worth. How many things do I enjoy today that I would I pay 100x their original costs sixty years from now?

In 1962 all TV was free. There were three channels. I can still get ABC, CBS, and NBC for free if I wanted to use an antenna, but I watch them through a $65 package from YouTube TV today and get several dozen channels thrown in. It ruffles my feathers to pay that $65 but my wife Susan considers it a cheap essential and her favorite form of entertainment.

Susan worked out of town from 2008-2018. She loves TV way more than I do, so I encouraged her to have cable TV at her Mon-Fri apartment. I got to cut the cord at our house, which delighted me. I bought a TiVo to record off-the-air shows like Jeopardy and the nightly news but I mostly watched Netflix for fun shows. About $25 a month total. I was thrilled except that I missed Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Cord-cutting felt like a real bargain!

When Susan stopped working out of town I convinced her to try streaming TV. We tried AT&T TV before settling on YouTube TV. YouTube started out at $45 a month and is now $65. Not a bad deal, but with all of our other subscription TV services, we’re now spending $128 a month. That seems like a lot, as painful as having a cable bill. But times have changed. There are so many options for watching TV.

Cord-cutting was never about saving money. I just hated paying the cable bill because out of the hundreds of channels we got, Susan liked about a dozen and I watched two. That just bugged the crap out of me. However, I now subscribe to Apple News+ for $9.99 a month and it gets me over 300 digital magazines to read. I probably look at less than a dozen of them, yet I don’t agonize over the fact I’m paying for almost 300 I’m not reading. I’m not being consistent, am I?

Before Apple News+ it wasn’t uncommon for me to buy a handful of magazines at the bookstore and spend $75. So, I’m thinking: What should a handful of TV channels cost?

I also spend $9.99 a month with Scribd.com for ebooks and audiobooks. I read or listen to one or two a month and consider it a bargain without worrying about the ones I’m not reading. Again, $9.99 versus $40-50 for two books. I only use YouTube TV for TCM, so $65 for one channel seems extreme. Although, if pressed, TCM is worth $65.

Netflix used to be about $9.99 a month, and I considered it a great bargain too. However, now that there are so many subscription services, it’s hard to tell what a bargain is anymore. When we only had Netflix and watched it all the time it was a bargain. Netflix seems much less of a bargain when we have Netflix, AppleTV+, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, PBS Passport, Peacock, Paramount Plus, Wondrium, etc.

We should go through a new kind of cord-cutting, sub-cutting. With so many premium streaming TV services, we often ignore one or two for months while we binge-watch shows on the others.

I don’t mind paying for something we use. We spend very little money on going out, vacations, clothes, etc. I drive a 22-year-old truck. We’re retired, and spend most of our time home, so we can afford a few TV subscriptions. However, I don’t want to waste money either. And I like a bargain — and I’m a cheap ass. But is Netflix a bargain when I ignore its large buffet of movies and TV shows for several months of the year?

We recently canceled Netflix because neither one of us watched it for months. We even discovered we were paying for two subscriptions because Susan had never canceled her out-of-town sub. We mainly canceled Netflix to protest the newest price hike. Psychologically, a TV subscription should be $4.99 – $9.99. Anything more, and I worry about getting my value.

HBO Max is $14.99. That seems like a Mercedes price when I’m used to driving a Toyota. HBO Max has a cheaper subscription but it’s with commercials. I’m adamantly against paying to watch anything with commercials. If I had to watch commercials I’d go back to over-the-air TV and cancel all my subscriptions.

When we had cable I always wanted to have a la carte channel buying. I thought the perfect payment method would be to subscribe to just the channels we wanted. And I’d be willing to pay extra to not have commercials.

For some reason, Netflix seemed like a wonderful bargain at $9.99 a month, but a terrible deal at $17.99 a month. Oddly, HBO Max at $14.99 a month seems like a better deal than Netflix or Hulu. But now that I’ve canceled Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max hardly seems worth $30+ a month either.

My friend Linda is very disciplined. She subscribes to only one TV service a month. Currently, it’s HBO Max, but she plans to cancel it and go to AppleTV+ again when some of her favorite shows return with new seasons. So she spends from $5 to $15 a month on TV. Now that’s a bargain.

When YouTube TV was $45 a month it was a real bargain. Now that it’s $65 it doesn’t seem like one. And if they raise their price again, it will seem like a rip-off.

But am I being penny wise and pound foolish? Going to a movie is $12. Buying a DVD runs $8-25 and I used to buy a lot of them. Renting a movie on Amazon Prime runs $2-20 and I still do that. Watching just one or two movies I used to go out to see, or once bought on disc turns any premium TV subscription into a bargain.

The other day I bought 8 seasons of The Andy Griffiths Show for $15 each on Amazon Prime for Susan’s birthday. She watches that series over and over while she sews. But I thought it was painful to see her watch Andy on commercial TV that cuts several extra minutes out of each episode that originally ran 28 minutes. Most premium streaming TV channels offer dozens, if not hundreds of complete TV series. Andy isn’t on any of them at the moment.

I really can’t complain about their monthly prices. They are a bargain. But only if we watch something during the month. I’d say one movie or one season of a TV show is breaking even, and anything more makes them a bargain.

Susan doesn’t mind commercials. She sews while watching television, and just ignores those never-ending painful minutes of ads. I sometimes wonder if she could handle over-the-air broadcast TV. I bet she’d be just as happy watching MeTV all day long as she is watching all the old TV shows on TBS every day. But she loves many other channels. She considers YouTube TV a cable TV service. When a tennis tournament is on she has to have ESPN. So YouTube TV is a bargain to her, but a waste of money to me.

Bargains are relative. And it’s harder to budget when two people are involved. Susan said if YouTube TV raised its prices again, we’d cancel something else.

Even though I don’t watch them much, I consider AppleTV+ and PBS Passports to be real bargains because they are only $5 a month. If all the services charged just $5 a month I’d be willing to subscribe to all and not worry if I used them each month. But at $10-15, I figure we have to decide which is worthwhile, and which is a bargain.

Maybe we should cancel any streaming TV service that’s more than $10 a month. But I pay $13 a month for YouTube Premium so I don’t have to watch commercials. All the content is free, I’m just paying to get rid of stuff I don’t want to see. Now, is that a bargain?

Life was simpler when everyone watched the same three broadcast channels. We had a lot more shared culture. But those days are over. Now we have endless choices in endless varieties. Is that a bargain? Again it’s relative. But in 1966 I could go to school and nearly everyone I knew had watched some of the same shows I had watched the night before. That was priceless.

JWH

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When Will Women Have a Constitutional Right to an Abortion?

by James Wallace Harris, 6/25/22

Predicting the future is impossible, but we can speculate. The Supreme Court just changed its mind about how it interprets the Constitution regarding a woman’s right to an abortion, so can we expect it will change its mind again? Congress could pass a law giving women a right to an abortion but the Supreme Court could knock it down. The most lasting solution would be ratifying an amendment to the Constitution. That probably won’t happen anytime soon. But when might it be possible?

Anti-abortionists fought to reverse Roe v. Wade for half a century, will it take that long for the political pendulum to swing back? Polls show that a majority of Americans want abortion to be a legal right for women, so how did anti-abortion voters win? The common answer is they joined forces with the conservatives. The conservatives have also worked for decades to get what they want, and are succeeding because they have formed a tight coalition among several special interest groups.

I would assume feminists would have to join several other special interest groups and work with the Democrats to get what they want. Is that possible? What alignment of special interests would beat the alignment of specialist interests the Republicans have formed?

We must admire the conservatives for their dedication, focus, and work to get what they want. Are liberals willing to make an equal effort? Will liberals make a more significant effort to join school boards, get elected in city and state governments, work to influence law school curriculums, and do everything else the conservatives have done since the 1970s?

I have read many books about how conservatives have achieved their political goals over the last fifty years. Many of their tactics have not been honest or ethical. Will liberals go to such extremes? We are currently watching the conservatives subvert democracy to game the system. They have been sowing doubt on all the tools liberals would use to get what they want, especially science, education, medicine, journalism, and common sense.

Liberals have always relied on intellectual proof to fight for what they want, and conservatives have completely undermined intellectualism. Liberals can’t rely on logic to get what they want. They will need to build a coalition of passionate wants. Conservatives have won what they wanted with well-managed minority interests. Can liberals find enough minority interest groups to create a larger coalition than the conservative groups? They have the feminists, LGBTQ+, some minorities, environmentalists, and anti-gun, but who else? They used to have labor, but that’s not so anymore.

It would be great if the liberals could claim the scientists, but scientists are often people first and scientists second. The Republicans have done well with certain religious groups, are there other believers that would passionately support the liberals?

Are there interests that liberals could take back from the conservatives? The core driving force of conservatives has been anti-taxes. Greed is the most powerful political interest of all. If the Democrats could find ways to solve social problems by spending less money it would be a huge factor. If Democrats could find ways to improve the financial health of families and individuals without increasing taxes it would also help. Voters want security, stability, and law and order. Republicans have always been able to capitalize on that more than Democrats. If liberals want to swing the pendulum back their way, they need to change that.

I doubt I’ll live long enough to see the political pendulum swing back to the liberal side. The conservatives are still gaining momentum. I’ve seen a lot of change in my life, and if I live another ten or twenty years I expect to see a lot more. I never imagined that Roe v. Wade would be overturned. But then, the future has always been everything I never imagined.

JWH

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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

Featured

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

Featured

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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