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Remembering When I Forget

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 16, 2017

One tragic aspect of aging is memory loss – however, I’m trying to laugh off these incidents before they become painful. For example, I planned on calling this essay “Fun with Memory Loss” until I discovered I had already blogged that same idea two years ago. Then I thought about calling it “More Fun with Memory Loss.” I wonder how many times I’ll come up with the idea of writing about memory lapses and calling it “Fun With  Memory Loss?” The original essay included a list of 43 scenes remembered from a movie, Seven Men from Now, a western starring Randolph Scott to prove what I could remember overnight. The previous day I had been startled to discover partway into the film I had seen Seven Men from Now just months before and it took me half a movie to remember.

Shedding-memories

The goal of the original essay was to come back and check to see how much I could remember after intentionally trying to remember. I forgot the experiment, I didn’t go back to check myself. Seeing the title again didn’t recall any of those 43 scenes I wrote down. Yet, while I read each today I did remember them. That’s weird. Is recalling the real problem? When I watch a film again, one I can’t describe before watching, it seems like as I rewatch each scene I do feel like I’ve seen them before. Wouldn’t that scene have to be in memory to feel that? Maybe we record a coded impression rather than the details and rewatching resonates with that recorded impression?

The reason why I wanted to write another essay called “Fun with Memory Loss” is because of two incidents. The first involved my wife Susan and my movie buddy Janis. Susan wanted Janis and I to watch Bad Moms with her because she wanted to rewatch the original before going to see the sequel.  Susan told us all about the film, and how funny it was, giving us many details. I rented it from Amazon. The first clue to something wrong was when the film started at the end where the credits were rolling. I restarted it at the beginning. After a while, Janis and I both realized we had seen it before. Then we figured out what had happened. Susan had talked the two of us into watching Bad Moms before, just like she had the second time. We had rented a movie we had already rented before. None of us remember the first time. It’s amazing that all three of us forgot.

Then yesterday my old friend Connell recommended a movie called The Discovery. He described the movie in detail and it sounded intriguing. The story involves a scientist, played by Robert Redford, scientifically proving life after death existed. He didn’t claim it was heaven but claimed he could observe souls leaving their bodies for another dimension after death. This caused a rash of suicides around the world. I got on Netflix and started watching. You guessed it, I had seen it before. I called Connell and we eventually figured out that he had recommended it before, I had watched it, and I had even called him before and discussed the film. We both had forgotten completely the whole first cycle.

I’m starting feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, trapped in a loop. Connell says he can re-watch his favorite binge-worthy shows and not remember whole episodes. I’m beginning to worry when my friends will start rewatching our old favorite shows time and again and never know we’re replaying them.

The other night I had my friends Mike and Betsy over to see Auntie Mame. We loved it. Before the movie I was positive I had never seen it. During the movie, I sometimes had slight flashes of déjà vu. I suppose I could have seen Auntie Mame decades ago and only the faintest of memory residue remained in my brain.

To me, one of the absolute best books on memory is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Sure, it sounds like a book on religion (and it is), but Ehrman uses how people remembered Jesus to explore the limits of memory. Humans have a terrible memory. First person witnesses are totally unreliable. My memory lapses in my sixties might not even be a sign of aging. I wrote a whole essay about memories we cherish from youth becoming corrupted or illusionary, see “The Fiction at the Bottom of Our Souls.”

I hate that I can’t retain what I read, especially regarding non-fiction, but there’s nothing I can do. Our brains aren’t hard drives. Two years ago I wrote, “Why Read What We Can’t Remember?” because it depressed me that I spent so much time learning new facts and concepts from books and documentaries only to have them leak away. I decided that we read for the moment for the joy of learning in that moment. We generally don’t know what we forget until its tested. Back in my school days testing showed I forgot a lot back then too.

Some people have remarkable abilities to remember. I envy them. As long as I know I’m forgetting I’m okay. It’s when I don’t that I’m in trouble, but then I won’t remember that.

I wonder if I’ve written this essay before?

JWH

 

Consciousness and Aging

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 13, 2017

If you’re in your social security years, how do you tell the difference between an episode of poor health and getting old? What does getting old feel like? At what decade do we lose our vitality? Since I have no previous experience of being old it’s all guesswork on my part. Whenever I get sick now, I feel like I’ve gotten old because my drive disappears, but when I feel better, I think, “Oh, I was just sick.” When I was younger and got sick, I just felt possessed by ill health — it didn’t affect my mental attitude. Now it does.

There’s an old saying, “You’re only as old as you feel.” My doctors have been pushing statins on me for years, but I always have to quit them after several months because of the side-effects. After I quit and get them out of my system, I feel ten years younger. That’s an amazing sensation. Of course, my doctors insist I go back on the statins by taking a smaller dose. I’ve tried 40mg, 20mg, 10mg, and I’m now on 10mg twice a week, but three times I’ve experienced that premature aging affect. My conscious outlook on life is dramatically different when I’m off the statins. Unfortunately, many factors statistically demand I need to take them.

1966-2016-Jim-Harris.jpg

For several weeks now I’ve been having trouble with my stomach. It leaves me feeling yucky, old feeling, and indifferent to doing the things I love. I’ve been experimenting to see which foods are upsetting my stomach, but some sixth sense tells me my gut bacteria are out of whack. There’s tons of promotional literature about the miracle of probiotics but I’m afraid of taking supplements since they are unregulated. I did find “11 Probiotic Foods That Are Super Healthy” and I started eating some of them. If anyone has experience with probiotics, let me know. But my gut is telling me I’ll feel much younger if I could get my bacterial house in order.

All this getting sick and getting better is teaching me something about consciousness. My various perceptions about living and doing are directly linked to physical well-being. But I’m feeling a distinct difference over time that might be aging. I’ve been retired four years now, and it seems like I’ve already gone through a number of psychological phases. They are subtle, and all of them are related to ambitions.

At my age, I no longer have big ambitions. I turn 66 this month, so I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to be when I grow up. My goals are about what I can do in a day. For example, writing this essay is typical of my ambitions. I have little projects and hobbies I want to do, and on average, each ambition takes hours of work and concentration. I no longer think about projects that take days.

When I’m feeling “old” I don’t even want to do something that takes hours to complete. If I’m feeling older, I tend to want to do things that are in the moment, like hanging out with friends, watching television, listening to music, or reading.

This makes me theorize that aging is related to the scope of our ambitions. It’s not a perfect idea. Some young people can dedicate themselves to a decade of work, like getting a Ph.D. or learning to play a musical instrument professionally. While others might only commit to months or weeks. I’ve never been able to commit myself to really big projects.

Last year my friend Mike and I spent months creating version 4.0 of the Classics of Science Fiction. That felt really good. I’ve wanted to find another project that size because it feels rewarding, and healthy, to get up every day and get a little more accomplished on a long-term project. However, I think I’ve aged because I don’t have what it takes to mentally do that now.

I keep thinking if I could get healthier I might. I try hard to eat right and exercise, but those old standbys aren’t paying off dividends like they used to. That’s why I’m starting to think aging is related to ambition. Health problems come and go, and if I could filter out their up and down effects, what’s left could be attributed to aging.

Knowing this makes me think I can apply mind over matter to counter aging. Mentally, I keep blowing a bugle sounding “Charge!” assuming I’ll jump to my feet and dash up some hill. But I don’t. I rationalize how comfy my chair is, how alluring the dark jazz I’m hearing on the stereo, how I’d rather just stay read or daydream instead.

Is aging the state of consciousness that compels us to do less?

I’ve always paid attention to old people because they are the trailblazers exploring a future I might see someday. Most of them are doing less. Sure, there are outliers who are more active in their eighties than I was in my twenties, but mostly I see them giving up their hobbies one by one. I’m evening seeing my friends who are in their sixties starting to give up some of their once cherished activities. Sometimes it’s just practical sanity, like giving up mountain biking. Other times it’s because of failing body parts, like giving up music because of growing deafness. And a lot of it is downsizing because of money, time, or jadedness.

For decades I was a programmer. I thought I’d continue to program in retirement, but I haven’t. I still think of myself as a “programmer” even though I haven’t programmed in four years. It’s a kind of letting go. I haven’t let go, but I should. I still want to program. I still read about programming. I still think of programming projects. I just don’t program.

Is aging the chasm that widens between doing and not doing?

JWH

What’s the Modern Equivalent of Byte Magazine?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Byte 1977 - DecBack in the 1970s, I developed an addiction for computer magazines. My favorites were Byte Magazine, Creative Computing, and InfoWorld. But there were countless others popping in and out of existence. During that period I’d go out driving two or three times a week to bookstores, newsstands, and computer shops looking for new issues to buy. I loved Byte Magazine the best because it was so well rounded, covering all kinds of computers, computer history, computer theory, computer science, featuring code and wiring schematics – great reading for hackers and wireheads.  Plus in the early years before small computers became an industry, they had fantastic covers.

There was an excitement about computers back then when we called small computers micros before they became PCs or Macs, with lots of do-it-yourself projects for a small subculture of geeks and nerds. Today I seldom buy computer magazines. My addiction waned when they all split into specific platform titles and computers became pervasive. My addiction disappeared after the world wide web became a new addiction. A few times a year I’ll buy a Linux magazine. Linux and open source fans still have a subculture vibe with a do-it-yourself spirit.

Now that I’m thinking about the Byte Magazine, I realize the late 1970s and early 1980s as an era before the internet, and my nostalgia has a lot of implications. A monthly magazine like Byte was self-contained. It was a reasonable amount of information to consume. Today, reading off the cloud, I feel like I’m trying to consume whole libraries in a gulp. When I research a blog post I find way too much to digest. It overwhelms me. Reading Byte in the early days of microcomputers was like reading science books in the 17th century. It was possible to be a generalist.

I loved studying the history of science fiction because its territory felt small — or did. In the past year, I’ve discovered enough new scholarly books on SF history to crush me. I can’t write anything without referencing all I know and think I should know. That’s mentally paralyzing.

I loved Byte Magazine because it didn’t cause information overload. I wish computers were still just for fun, a hobby. Magazines are dying, but I wish there was a computer magazine published today that looked at the world of computers in a small way. That’s probably why Raspberry Pi computers are so popular. They are small, and their world is small.

Puttering About in a Small Land by Philip K. DickThe other day an old friend texted me and asked how I was doing. I texted back I was fine, enjoying puttering around in a small land. She immediately called me worrying that something bad had happened. I had to explain I wasn’t in a hospital room but enjoying my hobbies at home. I was riffing off the name of a Philip K. Dick novel, Puttering About in a Small Land. I just love that title. I think that’s why I loved Byte back then, we could still putter around in a small land.

I’m reading Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You For Being Late. In it, he decides to invent a new name for “the cloud.” Friedman believes cloud computing is changing humanity and deserve a name that reflects its impact. He chooses “supernova,” which I think is a colossal bonehead choice. The obvious name to replace the phrase “the cloud” is the “hive mind.”

I’m starting to believe living in the hive mind is wrong. Sure, having access to all the information in the global mind is wonderful, but overwhelming. I’m wondering if the good old days weren’t those days when knowledge came in magazines.

JWH

 

 

Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.

JWH

22 Dumb Fantasies I’ve Tried to Believe

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fantasyland by Kurt AndersenHave you been depressed since last November? Does the institutionalization of anti-science horrify you? Do you feel irrational politicians have hijacked our country? Does your soul ache because liberal compassions are under siege from conservative prejudices? Do you wonder if our collective mind has blown a gasket? Then you need to read Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen. This book will not solve our problems, but it does explain how our nation has been crap-believing crazy for five centuries. Fantasyland is the most entertaining, informative, and comforting nonfiction book I’ve read in years. Fantasyland soothes my America-is-collapsing anxiety by reporting on all the dumbass fantasies Americans have embraced since Jamestown.

Because I can’t cast any first stones, reading this book makes me want to list all the stupid concepts I’ve tried to embrace in the last sixty years. We’re all suckers for fantasylands. We all hope to find saviors that will rescue us from our mundane lives. The desire to better ourselves, to create, to build an ideal world is one of the admirable qualities of our species. However, to live a life of delusion is sad.

Fantasyland proves hope for a better future depends on getting clean with reality. Recognizing we have a fantasy addiction is the first step. We need to simplify the serenity prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference” to “I seek wisdom to know the difference between reality and fantasy.”

As I read Fantasyland I constantly used it to condemn the conservatives for ruining our society with their delusions. However, I have my own delusions, we all do. I thought it might be fun to confess the history of my personal fantasylands. This inspired many questions as I wrote this essay we should consider.

  1. Should we lie to children, especially during their formative years, even if it’s in fun?
  2. At what age, if any, is make-believe safe?
  3. Should schools teach how to discern fantasy from reality?
  4. Does the Constitution protect us from other people’s delusions and fantasies?
  5. Do people have a right to believe anything they want?
  6. How do we teach history to convey the lessons of failed fantasies?
  7. Is fantasy in books, television, and movies a cause of our personal delusions?
  8. Aren’t most fantasies promoted by people trying to make money or at least validate their own delusions or egos?

An Abbreviated History of My Fantasies

Looking backward, I realize books often sold me on a new fantasyland. We seldom originate our own fantasies. As Kurt Andersen reports in Fantasyland, America was created by people with either a fantasy for finding gold or a fantasy for establishing a religious utopia. Evidently today, we have a greater abundance of fantasies to choose from, especially with mass media and the internet inspiring us. I wonder, without all our fantasies would this country be quiet and dull – or would it?

The Age of Magic (My Early Years)

#1 – Easter Bunny

I doubt the Easter Bunny is my first fantasy belief, but I’m listing it first because it’s the most embarrassing, even for a little kid. I can’t believe I ever believed a large rabbit went around hiding chocolate bunnies and colored hens’ eggs. Damn, I must have been a gullible toddler.

#2 – The Tooth Fairy

Okay, I was old enough to lose teeth, I should have been skeptical that any creature would pay a quarter for a rotten tooth. I can barely remember when this happened. I hope I actually didn’t believe what my parents were telling me, and that all I wanted was that change under my pillow.

#3 – Santa Claus

I was a total dumbass for the guy in the red suit. I remember being red face hot when a little girl put me down for being so stupid as to believe in Santa Claus. In my defense, I started first grade a year earlier than I should, so all the other kids were a year older than me. But still, I should have thought this through logically, there were plenty of clues.

#4 – Oz and Magic

I discovered the Oz books by L. Frank Baum when I was ten. I had been watching the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz since I was four. Oz was a fantasy world with magic that I wanted to exist. I have read there was a period when American librarians banned Oz books because they felt Oz books gave children unrealistic expectations about life. In my case, they were dead on.

#4 – Jesus/God

If parents really want kids to accept Jesus and God as the literal truth, they shouldn’t tell us about #1-3 first. It only sets us up to be skeptical about all invisible beings. My road to atheism began at age 11 when I got Baptized and I didn’t see the light. It totally confused me when Christians said one thing in church but did the opposite Monday through Saturday. I became a complete atheist by the 8th grade.

This ends my period of wanting to believe in magic. Maybe it’s something all kids want. I find it strange that the most fundamentalist of Christian believers reject the concept of magic when Bible stories are full of magic. God created the Earth with words. My rejection of magic was so strong I rejected all fantasy stories in favor of science fiction. It wasn’t until my fifties that I was able to enjoy fantasy novels like Harry Potter just for fun.

The Age of Science (Junior High)

#5 – Science Fiction

Science fiction was supposed to be the opposite of fantasy. When I was young I believe all the classics themes of science fiction were theoretically possible. Over the years I’ve slowly become a disbeliever to many of them, like faster-than-light travel, time travel, galactic empires, brain downloading, scientific immortality, etc. I still cling to intelligent robots or AI machines with conscious minds will be built someday.

#6 – Becoming an Astronaut

By the 8th grade I had exchanged religion for science fiction. This led me to an array of beliefs that would take me the rest of my life to realize were irrational. The first, the belief I would grow up and work in space took a long time to get over. Back in the 1960s, I was totally in awe of NASA and faithfully followed Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Sputnik went up just before I started Kindergarten and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just after I graduated the 12th grade. I had even gone to watch Apollo 8 launch Christmastime 1968, during my senior year. Sometime in my high school years, I learned astronauts had to have 20-20 vision, and I was a four-eyed geek with thick lenses. I still fantasized that science could fix my eyes, or NASA would eventually hire people with glasses. After reading Tom Wolfe’s famous book, I realized I never had the right stuff, and never would. It galled me when rich people started buying their way to space, but if I’m honest with myself, even if I was a billionaire I would never leave Earth. Space travel is just too inconvenient and uncomfortable for me.

#7 Becoming a Scientist

Probably the greatest regret of my life is not becoming a scientist. This was not an impossible dream – theoretically. However, even though I took biology, chemistry, and physics in high school, I just couldn’t devote myself to those subjects and work hard. Nor could I apply myself to math. I eventually got through calculus, but only with a half-ass effort. I even went to a tech school majoring in computer science in 1971, but I never could commit to studying hard. I wanted to have fun. I hated the classroom. One of the dumbest fantasies I had about myself involved being a disciplined scholar of science. I was always more science fiction fan than a scientist. Being successful at any pursuit requires hard work, concentration, and grit. My biggest fantasy in my life has been believing I could make myself acquire those qualities.

#8 – The Final Frontier

Instead of believing in heaven like most folks growing up in the south, I believed mankind’s was destined to travel across the solar system and out into the galaxy. That was my teenage religion. For most of my life, I believed colonizing space was our species purpose in existence. I’m now an atheist to that idea. We might travel to Mars or a few other places in the solar system, and even build colonies on the Moon and Mars, but I doubt much will come of it. Going to the stars is a fantasy for humans. I currently believe robots are destined to be interstellar travelers, but that too might be a fantasy.

The Counter Culture (High School and Early College Years)

#9 – Hippies and the Counter Culture

I remember in 1967 after reading about the march on the Pentagon standing at my school bus stop arguing with my longhair buddies about how the counter-culture was going to revolutionize America. In 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and The Rolling Stone magazine started defining a new fantasyland future for me. It also introduced me to Jack Kerouac, who drew me backwards into an older fantasyland.

#10 – Expanding My Mind with Drugs

The 1960s had another impact on me. Besides science fiction and NASA, I loved rock music and drugs. So did many in my age cohort. I was influenced by Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert and believed psychedelic drugs were the doors of perception. I sought transcendence with chemicals. I wanted them to take me as far as John Lilly claimed they took him, out into the galaxy to meet other beings – see The Programming and Metaprogramming of the Human Biocomputer. Yeah, if you mix belief in science fiction with acid it produces some far out fantasies, but really no different from mixing religion and faith.

#11 – The Beats and On the Road

I was completely romanced by Jack Kerouac and his on-the-road philosophy. I started hitchhiking around Miami when I was in high school, and continued when I went to college in Memphis. I did two short trips across states, one with my friend Connell. I learned I preferred the comforts of home. However, to this day, I still enjoy reading Kerouac. I see him as a tragic figure who followed many paths I wanted to follow but didn’t because I was either too scared or too smart. Kerouac was my father-figure substitute. My dad and Jack were horrible alcoholics that died within months of each other, both still in their forties. If I had gotten only my father’s genes that would have been my fate. I have a huge psychic connection with Kerouac.

#12 – Becoming Bob Dylan

Another absurd fantasy involved buying a guitar and harmonica and teaching myself to play and write music. This is an absurd fantasy because I can’t carry a tune, or even remember the words to favorite songs I’ve heard hundreds of times. I’m sure most kids have rockstar/sportstar/moviestar/writer/artist type fantasies. Probably every kid dreams of being famous for something. Fame is possible, certainly more possible than dying and going to heaven. Sadly, fame comes to about as many people as those winning big jackpots in Lotto.

#13 – Communes

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s the idea of intentional communities began spreading through the counter culture. I loved the idea, and had brief stints in two communal groups. I quickly learned I loved privacy, personal possessions, and having my own way. This was a very short-lived fantasy, but it still affects me. I now dream of living in a high-rise retirement community where all my friends each have an apartment.

#14 – Back to Nature

After realizing I wasn’t suited for group living I dreamed of buying my own land and escaping the rat race. I just didn’t want to join the 9-to-5 world. My bibles were Mother Earth News, Five Acres and Independence, and The Whole Earth Catalog. Several of my buddies had this dream too, but after several failures at handy crafts, gardening, and fixing machinery, reality taught me something different. I loved Henry David Thoreau, but I only read Walden and not his biography. I should have. The back to nature fantasy hadn’t worked for him either. This fantasy still returns to me occasionally, like the other night when I watched the beautiful documentary, Off the Grid.

#15 – Carlos Castaneda

I loved these books that were supposed to be anthropological. Even though I gave up Christianity, I was still gullible to other religious ideas. I figured there might be some truth in old spiritual studies. Castaneda mixed sacred drugs and the wisdom of indigenous people, and that had the appeal of promising ancient wisdom. I learned a lot, but mostly the wisdom of what to avoid.

#16 – Hinduism and Ram Das

Be Here Now really hooked me. Ram Das (aka Richard Albert) convinced me to open my mind to Hinduism. I even read The Bhagavad Gita, took up yoga, joined some New Age groups with Hindu teachers, and read a bunch of books about the sacred literature of India. I just never could believe. I tried.

#17 – Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts

I had been reading Alan Watts since I started reading Jack Kerouac. Ram Das further encouraged me to accept Buddhism. I liked Zen Buddhism because it seemed the least magical/metaphysical of all religions. I still admire Zen and meditation for their anti-bullshit methods of perceiving reality, but Buddhism has its fundamental side too, that can be just as dogmatic, and miracle driven as Christianity. Theoretically, I believe a reality-based religion is possible, but so far I haven’t found one.

#18 – Spiritualism, Channeling Seth

For a brief period, I read books about communicating with other beings by mediums like Jane Roberts. My science fictional fantasies were susceptible to alien beings communicating with us through other dimensions. John Lilly promoted this idea, and he was a scientist (although zonked out on drugs) and the great science fiction philosopher of the 1930s, Olaf Stapledon, also promoted these ideas. I soon rejected astral worlds because they were too inconsistent.

#19 – New Age Psychologies

Back in the 1970s there was almost a new psychology of the month coming out of California. I wanted to go and try things like EST, Rolfing, primal screaming, etc. I might have been converted if I could have gotten to Los Angles, but I didn’t. I just read the books, joined a local New Age community and subscribed to New Age Magazine. Like spiritualism, I gave up hope on these therapies because there were too many of them that offered conflicting truths.

My Work Years

By the end of the 1970s I got into microcomputers, and spent all my time thinking about computers. For the next 36 years I was preoccupied with being married, hanging out with friends, working, computers, science fiction, music, movies, television, and other down-to-earth pursuits. I read lots of nonfiction books, and slowly began developing more mature philosophies about life. However, I eventually learned of other fantasylands I had tried to find.

#20 – Romance/Sex/Love

Over the years I realized our society is gaga over romantic love. Love stories program us for romantic fantasylands. Gender stereotypes and sexual desires cause us to see each other in very unreal ways. It’s very hard not to objectify the people we want sexual. All these desires lead us to countless fantasylands.

#21 – Political Solutions

We all have fantasyland beliefs on how to solve our political problems. I used to believe we could come to a rational agreement on how to govern society. That’s a huge fantasy. I keep hoping it’s not, but all the evidence says it is.

#22 – We Can Solve Our Big Problems

We have all the knowledge and technology we need to save the planet, but the reality is human nature won’t let us use that knowledge and technology. We all fantasize that humans have always survived so we always will. I think that’s our most dangerous fantasy. It’s a shame that two-thirds of us are deluded by childlike belief in a heavenly father. It keeps us from growing up and taking responsibility. It’s a shame that two-thirds of us believe lying to preserve personal beliefs is wiser than accepting the wisdom of science and giving up those beliefs.

Finding Reality

If we study our fantasylands, we’ll see we’re all looking for place to exist that rejects reality. We’re an adaptable species that can live in a variety of environments. We’re also clever beings that can adapt to any environment for our physical needs. Our failure comes from trying to pretend reality is something that matches our mental needs. Our superpower is the ability to delude ourselves. Our brains have countless cognitive skills to paint over reality, deny evidence, and to allow us to see our beliefs as real. It’s probably a survival mechanism, a way to cope as individuals. But it means we fail to cooperate in our shared reality by agreeing on its actual details.

JWH

 

 

Cozy Science Fiction: Chocky by John Wyndham

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 27, 2017

What makes for good storytelling? How is a science fiction story different from other kinds of stories? Chocky, John Wyndham’s last novel published in 1968 is a story about a David and Mary Gore and their two children Matthew and Polly, living in England in what appears to be the quainter side of the 1960s. I imagine its time and setting looking somewhat like the Father Brown mysteries on PBS. The story is told by David. It’s rather prosaic, with a light literary touch. David relates how he met Mary. How she came from a big family and the pressure they felt to have a big family too. When they apparently can’t they adopted Matthew. Then, Polly, a girl is born. The story jumps ahead a few years to give the history Polly’s imaginary friend when she was four, and how that problem was resolved. Then the story jumps again to the present when Matthew is twelve, much too old for imaginary friends, and how he acquires one anyway. Most of the novel is about the family difficulties caused by Chocky, Matthew’s mysterious invisible companion.

Chocky by John Wyndham

Wyndham’s novel Chocky could be considered a mainstream literary novel, a nice quiet little story about family life in mid-century England. What makes it science fiction is who we think Chocky might be. The mystery genre has a sub-genre called cozy mysteries. Chocky could be a cozy science fiction novel. But what does that mean? There’s already a sub-genre in science fiction called cozy catastrophes. Many of them are by English writers by the way, and I believe many cozy mysteries are set in England too, but an Anglophile appeal is not a defining attribute of a cozy novel.

I’m sure there is no international standard for cozy novels but for me, the size of the setting, number of characters, and scope of the plot are important factors. So a story about a single alien invader impacting one family makes it a cozy tale. I guess that also makes E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial a cozy, but Chocky is much smaller and quieter than that story. The story loudness knob for science fiction movies is usually cranked to 11. Gattaca and Her being level 3 exceptions. Chocky is about a 1 or 2, and I found that exceedingly pleasant.

I’m not sure if science fiction fans even crave cozy science fiction novels. Science fiction plots are inherently big, thundering, and exciting. Mostly mystery fans who love cozy mysteries love them because they are quiet, with simple murders usually solved by ordinary folks, with tame storytelling for sex, violence, and crude language. Chocky fits that bill nicely. Chocky is currently in print from NYRB Classics, the prestigious paperback line from New York Review of Books. As of today, NYRB Classics only publishes 13 science fiction novels, most of which are on the quiet side, and many from England. Maybe the NYRB editors admire cozy science fiction too.

I doubt Wyndham intended Chocky to have an ambiguous ending, but if you were skeptical and tried hard, the science fiction could be removed the story. I imagine if there were a sub-genre cozy science fiction, that would be one of the defining characteristics, the science fictional element would be painted lightly onto a story of ordinary life. Examples might be The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker or Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, both gentle post-apocalyptic tales that are a far cry from Mad Max rip-roaring tales of civilization’s collapse where it’s kosher to blast away anyone you want with your modified AK-15.

When I was younger I loved loud science fiction. Now I’m drawn to the cozier side of its storytelling. I think loud storytelling, both in books and movies became popular in the 1960s. I love westerns and constantly seek out old ones, and I’ve discovered the kind I like best were made in the late forties into the middle fifties. Westerns are a genre that depends on violence, but starting in the late 1950s they began cranking up the violence too until they became a kind of gun-porn by the 1960s. Special effects, relentless action, and comic book violence have ruined movie science fiction for me. I guess that’s why I enjoyed discovering Chocky so much.

Be sure and read Margaret Atwood’s introduction to the new edition of Chocky, “Chocky, the Kindly Body Snatcher.”

JWH

 

 

 

The Church of Reality

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 27, 2017

PKD“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

― Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

 

We need to declutter the world of bullshit memes. It’s time to apply Marie Kondo’s techniques for getting rid of unnecessary things to unnecessary beliefs. We all live in a fantasyland of lies, myths, untruths, and endless other forms of bogus thoughts. There is too much truthiness in the world and not enough truth.

Yesterday I started writing an essay about all the bullshit beliefs that pollute our minds. As I began tallying those crazy concepts I realized I’d need to write a whole book to cover the topic. This morning I discovered that book has already been written, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Anderson. Here is a portion of chapter 1, “Now Entering Fantasyland,” but I highly recommend following the link to Amazon and reading the whole chapter.

HOW WIDESPREAD IS this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of people’s beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think, but from reams of research, drilling down and cross-checking and distilling data from the last twenty years, a rough, useful census of American belief, credulity, and delusion does emerge.
By my reckoning, the more or less solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis isn’t a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.
Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.
A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of “natural” cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth.
A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election. A quarter believe that our previous president was (or is?) the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—around the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

What we need is a movement to zap unreality whenever we encounter it. We need a Church of Reality where the ten commandments work to clear the collective consciousness of delusion. Of course, that’s Zen Buddhism, which has never caught on big. Too bad we can’t all walk around with bamboo sticks and give each other a politic whack if we hear something attacking reality.

If John Kelly had a keisaku, swatting Donald Trump every time he said something foolish, I wonder if the President could be conditioned into seeing reality more clearly? Would it help any or all of us if we got a little sting when we said something unreal? Maybe Apple and Google could develop apps for our phones that listen to us like Alexa and honks rudely when hearing silly remarks. Think of it as an AI friend like Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek who would be cool and logical.

Anderson, in Fantasyland, goes into the history of how we’ve become such a looney nation. It used to be crackpots were loners seldom seen, but the internet has turned them into preachers gathering huge flocks of crazy followers. To compound the problem our country is creating an anti-authority establishment. Politicians and businessmen have learned that two-thirds of the population will believe anything they tell them so they greedily take whatever they want by lying. Currently, they are pulling off the biggest con in history with their tax-cuts using tired old lies that have been disproven for decades, yet they continue to succeed.

There is one external reality in which we all reside, unfortunately, the human mind creates its own subjective reality that each mind prefers to believe. Science is the only cognitive tool that tells us statistically which aspects of the external reality are probably real. Any Church of Reality we create needs to teach people how to tell shit from Shinola. I don’t know if that’s possible, but it’s lessons need to come from an external source. I can picture us each having a robot that follows us around and routinely says in the voice of Jeeves, “I’m sorry sir, what you just said is incorrect” or maybe in the voice of Marvin the Robot, “Damn human, you certainly are full of crapola today!”

JWH