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

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.

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

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

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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