If I Had Free Will, I’d …

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2020

After watching the TV show Devs, I’ve been thinking about free will and determinism.

If I had free will, I’d:

  • Do what I decide to do
  • Keep my house clean and orderly
  • Eat only healthy food
  • Exercise just the right amount
  • Weigh sixty pounds less
  • Own only what sparked joy
  • Finish every writing idea
  • Complete my To-Do list daily
  • Open my mail and not let it pile up
  • Master a few hobbies
  • Remember all the important details
  • Be kind, generous, charitable, and helpful
  • Not waste time on useless fantasies
  • Be more active

I have to assume because I can’t achieve any of these goals that I lack free will. But is free will only about self-control? Did I choose to write this essay or did I write out of determinism? I think of having free will as being disciplined, but does that mean that people who are discipline have free will? What if being lazy and undiscipline is what I chose with my free will?

Other people think that free will as being able to choose between right and wrong. It seems much easier to not kill someone than it does to vacuum the house. It takes no effort not to lie, but a lot of effort to be creative. Maybe there are levels of free will, and I’ve got enough free will to not steal, but not enough to lose weight.

I once read that success in life was getting to be sixty-five without becoming a drunkard or living in a mental institution. I think James Mitchner said that. Maybe free will isn’t more than not giving up?

p.s.

My wife Susan says I just don’t have any will power.

JWH

Restless in an Age of Anxiety

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 18, 2020

To paraphrase Rodney King, “Why can’t we all be normal?”

Usually, I’m a very laid back guy, but a slow restlessness is building up in me. It could be the weeks of confinement, but I doubt it. I’m retired and seldom went out before the pandemic. The U.S. is closing in on 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 and millions want to get out again. That makes me nervous, but I’m not sure if it explains my uneasy sense of restlessness. What makes me more nervous is millions of people want to believe the pandemic won’t get them. That might be part of it. Some people want to deny the coronavirus like they deny climate change, but I’ve been living with deniers for decades, so that might not be it either.

They interviewed a scientist on 60 Minutes yesterday and he said people need to recognize the certainty of physics, chemistry, and biology. Reality doesn’t give a damn about what we believe. It’s foolish to believe in mind over matter. And that makes me restless when I realize the inevitability of the objective reality. I’ve always wanted to believe I could outwit determinism.

I might also be feeling restless now because I need prostate surgery for my BPH. I’m scheduled to see a urologist and expect to have some kind of surgical procedure done. Peeing all the time isn’t normal, so maybe I’ll find peace if they can fix me. I’m hoping it’s like my two heart procedures. I had a heart arrhythmia for years and they went in and zapped something inside my heart and I was normal again. Anxiety was deferred. Another time, I was having chest pains and breathing problems, and they went in a stuck in a stent, and I was normal again, bringing another kind of peace. I know the urologist will rotor-rooter my you-know-what, and hopefully, I’ll be normal again. I also know until I’m physically normal again, I’ll worry about the possible complications and side-effects, and that’s a source of the restlessness too.

However, I don’t think my current restlessness is completely anxiety over having surgery. I wish politics could return to some kind of normalcy. I’m tired of having a crazy incompetent megalomaniacal crook being a rampaging bull in the White House. I want some dull-ass politico that just works at bi-partisan politics, statesmanship, foreign affairs, and leadership the heals the nation. It sure would ease my nerves if I didn’t feel our capital was Clowntown.

It also makes me nervous when protestors bring their guns into capitol buildings. Protesting is an honest outlet in a democracy. And I accept that people have the right to own guns, I just don’t want to see them. Seeing them at protest rallies makes me nervous. How do you tell a second amendment rights protester from a mass shooter? They all look like crazy angry white guys with guns. Don’t get me wrong, I like guns. But I don’t like seeing them out in public unless they are being carried by a person in uniform — either the police or military. It makes me nervous seeing guys with guns on their belt at concerts and other social gatherings. I don’t think they will protect us from bad guys, and seeing their guns make me think of beserk killers. At least armed women keep their guns hidden in their purses. Part of the problem with the protesters with assault rifles is they look like people cosplaying their favorite action heroes, but that’s unnerving because it also looks like they’re grown men playing acting with real guns. I’m all for people owning guns, but I only want to see civilians with guns in their homes, at the shooting range, or out hunting. Otherwise, I’ll think they’re a crazed shooter of school children or concert goers.

Another thing that’s gnawing at my sense of normalcy if the economic meltdown. The United States has a tremendous economic engine, but it’s taking a massive hit right now. It’s unsettling to think of how many tens of millions don’t have jobs, that millions of companies might go under, and that a whole generation is being delayed from starting their chosen careers. This is a time we should all stay calm and find a way to work together, but instead, everyone is arguing. Without wise leaders in times of crisis, incompetent leaders create the feeling we’ve all shipped out on the Titanic. We need a Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Churchill, not the Great Tweeter.

Living through a world-wide crisis in the middle of a polarizing political conflict is the wrong time to make decisions based on party affiliation. Taking sides because of single-issue positions is insane right now. We need to create comprehensive solutions that work holistically for every citizen. Politics based on greed and self-interest is going to undermine everything. It’s time to remember old adages like “United we stand, divided we fall.”

I want the pandemic to go away so life can go back to normal. But physics, chemistry, and biology will not allow that. Reality has thrown us a curve that demands we think differently, far outside any box we’ve ever known. Instead, we’re being drowned in insane conspiracy theories.

My friend Connell said he thought the internet would bring enlightenment by spreading knowledge faster and wider. Instead, the net spreads chaos and ignorance. Maybe the world would feel less crazy if I unplugged? The trouble is technology offers us the ability to form a hive mind, one with seven billion concurrent parallel processors, but instead of being seven billion times wiser, collectively we’re acting like the biggest single asshole with the worse case of Dunning-Kruger ever.

If would make me less restless if the country was run by leaders who were experts in their fields rather than yahoos who just think they are. We need to set job requirements for our politicians, ones that show they have the experience needed to do the exact tasks of their titles.

I have no idea how we find our way back to normal. That old curse, “May you live in interesting times” is one vicious curse. I wish we all had duller lives at the moment.

There is one last thing I’m considering. I’m wondering if I’m getting restless from getting older. I’ve never really worried about aging before. But then I never felt getting old before. I have felt my body failing before. Having my heart flake out is very educational about dying. And chronic pain is also instructive. But what’s more insidious, is diminishing vitality. I logically knew getting old meant slowing down and I accepted that cognitively. But I didn’t know what it felt like. I didn’t know what having a slow leak in my mental drive feels like. I think that’s making me restless. It’s not depressing me — yet, but it is nagging me in an interesting way. I realize I don’t have the psychic energy to do the things I want, which tells me to conserve my psychic energy. In other words, it’s time to seriously Marie Kondo my desires and ambitions, and that also creates a sense of restlessness.

That explains another reason why I want to get back to normal. I don’t want to waste my dwindling supply of motivating energy worrying about the pandemic or politics or crazy guys with guns. Writing this essay reveals that I need to let such things go, but I’m not sure I can. And letting things go also creates a sense of restlessness. It’s hard to come up with the right combination of attitudes to preserve my dwindling psychic drive.

JWH

 

 

Have You had BPH Surgery?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, May 16, 2020

I need BPH surgery and have been researching TURP and Urolift procedures. I’d prefer to have the Urolift since it’s less drastic, but I’m not sure if it’s a long-term solution. It’s only been available since 2013. TURP is considered the gold standard procedure, but it has several potential nasty side-effects.

If anyone had either procedure and willing to share their experience or advice, please leave a comment.

JWH

What Is Your Specialty in Life?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Do you have a specialty in life? (Doesn’t everyone?) A subject you love more than anything else. A topic you want to share with others. An area of interest you always think about? I tend to believe everyone has one, but they don’t always reveal it. I’m not sure we know what interests our family and friends, what warms their heart of hearts. I don’t talk about my specialty with most of my friends because I know it will bore the crap out of them.

And of course, our specialty changes all the time. What fascinates us in our teenage years might be completely forgotten by our thirties. Or what we dwell on during work hours might be ignored nights and weekends. Or even what we think about waking up might not be what we dwell on before bed.

I know during my middle years I was obsessed with computers. I began computer school in 1971 with mainframes. They were interesting but not exciting. Then in 1978, I got obsessed with microcomputers, and until I retired in 2013 I spent most of my time at work and at home thinking about PCs and what they could do. I spent decades programming dBASE, FoxPro, HTML/ASP/SQL Server. I thought after I retired I would continue to program, but I haven’t. I planned to get into Python and artificial intelligence as a hobby. I keep thinking I will still, but it hasn’t happened in six years.

I’ve often wanted my specialty to be something other than what it actually was. I don’t think we have any free will over what fascinates our minds. I’m not even sure we can explain where our specialties originate. For some reason, our neurons are drawn to highly specific aspects of reality. Often, with no rhyme or reason.

Being retired is somewhat like living in limbo before dying. I love being retired, but it’s not like growing up when we were expected to study, or the work years, when we were expected to be productive. I suppose retired people are expected to have a good time in their waning years, and I do, but they are lacking in future goal thinking. When we were little, we prepared to grow up and become what we thought we wanted to be. When we worked, we prepared for the freedom of retiring and doing exactly what we really dreamed of doing when we were kids. What’s our real future goal now? Preparing to die? I guess if you’re Christian you can plan your heavenly years in eternity.

It really helps to have a specialty in retirement. The only thing is I never imagined the specialty I’d end up having in my retirement years. My current specialty is science fiction anthologies. My dream before retiring was to write science fiction, but I can’t make myself do that. If I had free will, if I had mastery over my domain, I’d be writing science fiction. I have all the time in the world to write science fiction, I just don’t.

What I currently like doing and thinking about doing is collecting and reading science fiction anthologies. I’m even in a Facebook group of 187 people that share the same specialty. Although there are only three of us that seem to have this as our major, the other 184 people probably only pursue it as a minor. Still, my specialty is what gets me up in the morning, and keeps me working all day long. When I’m too tired to do anything else, I try to watch TV at night, but I’m finding that hard. I can’t really focus on the shows. I wish I had the mental energy to keep reading science fiction anthologies or writing about them. I have to accept that specialty.

What’s yours?

JWH

Devs – Turn On, Tune In, Psyche Out

Devs is a new eight-part science fiction miniseries on FX on Hulu. Physics and philosophy dominate this story but in a bogus way. Quantum computers are used to do things quantum computer will never do. The plot is driven by cliché thriller violence, while the characters are motivated by emotional reactions taken to absurd lengths. I should have hated this TV show, but I loved it. I’m even thinking about watching it again already.

Why, if the parts are so bad, can the whole be so good? The Matrix also abused physics, philosophy, computers, and succeeded in being wildly entertaining too. I’m trying very hard not to tell anything specific about Devs — I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. Reading the reviews, my guess is about 20-30% of viewers won’t like this show, but the rest might. Especially, if you love science fiction. If you’ve ever said, “Far fucking out, this is blowing my mind, man” (or its Millennial equivalent) while stoned then this show is for you.

Science fiction often tortures science to convey a sense of wonder — and some of the best science fiction goes beyond science to remind us of the limits of reality. Devs has the kind of physics and philosophy that potheads and science fiction nerds love to use to mess with each other’s heads. We should be reading Plato and Penrose but it’s more amusing to psych ourselves out by watching philosophy-fiction. (Phi-Fic?)

Quantum physics has become the LSD of science fiction. Einstein hated its spooky strangeness.  In the absence of a general theory of everything its possible to imply anything, and Devs takes us to some gnarly places. I wish Devs hadn’t felt the need for building its plot on a murder — and instead based it on philosophical concepts duking it out on a peaceful personal level.

The show seems to have paid off free-will to throw the fight in favor of determinism. I’m grateful they didn’t bring in good and evil, although in such a knockdown brawl of ontologies, tag-teaming the theory of God for a few rounds could have been even more consciousness-expanding.

I don’t believe in any of the theories or inventions Devs proposes, but I can’t mention them without spoiling your potential fun. What Alex Garland does is take some fascinating speculations and extrapolate them to their limits, creating some groovy PKDian science fiction.

Worth Reading:

devs-stewart

JWH

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2020

Anyone who loved Downton Abbey should also love the new miniseries Belgravia. Episodes are now appearing weekly on Epix. In the U.S. only three of the six episodes have been shown. However, after the second episode I was so anxious to know more I bought the audiobook of the novel Belgravia by Julian Fellowes and listened to it. I’m glad I did. The novel is beautifully written, feeling equal to reading Austen or Dickens. The first TV episodes follow the novel so closely that I imagine the rest will follow just as closely. I feel like I’ve watched the entire series with my ears, and now I will see it with my eyes.

The plot is deliciously tangled by those Victorian manners and customs I’ve previously encountered by reading 19th-century novels, but with a bit more grit, a good deal more sex, and from a darker perspective. The story follows two families sharing one tragedy, revealing class conflicts between those with aristocratic old wealth and social-climbing tradesmen with new money. Both primogeniture and men and women in service play an integral role in Belgravia. I’ve seldom encountered such a well-crafted plot — addictively complicated but not overly too much.

tamsin-greig-anne-trenchard

There’s one mystery that still intrigues me. Why does the original novel follow the miniseries so closely? It was published in 2016, years before the show. Did Julian Fellowes write the novel with a screenwriter’s skill? Did he work out the screenplay first and then wrote the novel?

I often get the feeling when reading some modern novels that their authors visualized them as movies in their heads. I don’t know if this is a good trend. I expect novels to offer content that could never be filmed. Novels are their own art form, not screenplays. And there are a few novelistic features in Belgravia the book. Even though the story moves as fast as a blockbuster movie, the third-person narrator does offer some backstory tidbits that’s not in the series. It also reveals some of the inner thoughts going on in the characters’ heads. I watched the first two episodes before reading the book, and I felt Tamsin Greig had already expressed those thoughts in her performance of Anne Trenchard, my favorite character.

I’m surprised Belgravia the miniseries didn’t appear on PBS Masterpiece, but then, it did get me to subscribe to Epix. I figure at $5.99 a month it will cost me at most $11.98 to watch the entire series — unless I get hooked on another Epix series. I already binge-watched a previous series, The War of the Worlds during a free 30-day free trial. If Epix can keep them coming I’ll keep letting them have $5.99 each month.

Epix

JWH

 

War and Peace – Book v. TV

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Last night I binged watch the first four episodes of the 8-part mini-series War & Peace put out by the BBC in 2016. This is notable, at least for me. In the past year, I’ve been having a terrible time focusing on TV. Every evening I try out several TV series and movies hoping to find something to hook me. I rarely succeed. I quit most shows after just a few minutes, even the ones I feel are high-quality and interesting. I don’t know if my mind is deteriorating, or I’ve just become jaded with TV. I wrote about it here.

Now, and then, I do find a show my mind will latch onto, and War & Peace was one. Strangely, the other two that I can remember at the moment were Sanditon and Black Sails. This makes me wonder if my mind has a thing for literary-historical stories. But don’t think my taste is all high-brow, I also got hooked by Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein not long ago, and it’s quite low-brow. I never can predict what my mind will settle on.

It’s funny, but while watching War & Peace last night I thought Tolstoy might be the Jane Austen of Russia, even though he was a contemporary of Dickens. Austen’s stories often referred to the Napoleanic Wars, and since watching War & Peace involves a lot of scenes with fancy dress balls, whispered marriage intrigue, socializing by candlelight in manor houses, servants in elaborate outfits, and riding around in elegant coaches during those war years with Napolean, watching War and Peace feels very much like watching Jane Austen.

I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich but have been intimidated by its size and reputation. I’ve probably read less than twenty foreign-language translated novels in my life, sticking primarily to books from the English speaking world. For the last couple of decades, I’ve tried to read one 19th literary classic each year, and every once in a while throw in a European classic. Mostly, these reads have been from England. Seeing War & Peace offered on Hulu last night tempted me. I figured it might get me interested in reading the novel, and it did, but for a strange reason.

As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, “How can a six-hour TV production do justice to a novel that runs 55-74 hours on various audiobook editions?” After finishing the second episode, I was so curious to know that got up and bought an ebook and audiobook edition of War and Peace to compare. Luckily, Amazon offered a deal I couldn’t resist, buy the 99 cent ebook edition, and they would sell me an audiobook edition for $1.99.

I didn’t immediately jump on the offer. I’m very picky about audiobook narrators and book translators. I went to Audible and tried the samples from four different versions of the novel, and the Amazons Classic edition on sale did indeed have the narrator I liked best. I then found and read “What’s the best translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy?” The translation for the Amazons Classic edition was by Aylmer and Louise Maude, and it came in number two on their list. Their number one choice was by Anthony Briggs but it didn’t seem to be available at Audible. So I bought the deal. I figure if I fall in love with the book I’ll eventually buy the Briggs translation.

Before I started episode three, I listened to the chapters of the novel that covered the first episode, especially Anna Pavlovna’s party. The show had tried to cover much of what was in the novel, at least in introducing the characters, setting, action, plot, and relationships. Sure it conveyed the essence of the story, but was it really Tolstoy’s story? It left out all the background information, and the actors sometimes didn’t match the descriptions of the characters they played. Is it important for actors to look like their literary descriptions?

Tolstoy’s omniscient point-of-view gives us so much about the characters’ motivations, but the television show just ignores that content. On the other hand, the show gave me gorgeous visuals, ones my mind’s eye would never imagine. And that brings up other things to ponder. Did all the clothing, uniforms, hairstyles, furniture, table settings, houses, etc. all actually look like their early 19th-century Russian counterparts? But then book readers, what do book readers imagine in their heads? Is it anything like Tolstoy imagined when writing his story?

Wikipedia has several helpful guides, including: “War and Peace characters order by appearance” — an invaluable cheat-sheet of who’s who as they show up in the story, with links to entries for the historical characters, often with photos or paintings. There is also an entry listing characters alphabetically. And, this Google search by image provides many valuable links. I wish this War and Peace family tree was in English.

War and Peace family tree

Watching War & Peace has convinced me to read War and Peace. It’s also making me want to look at other movie and television versions, as well as try reading different translations into English. I consider visual presentations to be another kind of literary translation. I also thought this when I read Anna Karenina and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, researching both their novel translations and their various visual presentations.

It looks like War and Peace will be my classic novel for 2020. Well, what the heck, the pandemic is giving us all plenty of time to try those big novels we’ve always meant to read.

JWH