3 Reasons I Want To Be An Audiophile, and 6 Reasons I Can’t

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 18, 2019

Audiophiles are obsessive creatures who try to create Nirvana on Earth by assembling the perfect sound system but frustratingly never reach paradise because they’re always seeking another allusive component that promises to be the final Holy Grail of High Fidelity. I would love to be a genuine audiophile but I just don’t have the Right Stuff to be an audionaut. (My spelling checker suggested “audio nut” for the last word, how appropo.)

Reason To Be #1 – You Really Love Music

Now you have to love music way more than the average music listener. You have to ache to hear recorded music at its fullest fidelity. Most music fans are happy to just have music on in the background of their lives. Audiophiles listen to music like they were at the theater watching a great movie or play. They don’t want any talking. It’s all about hearing music with 100% concentration. But it’s even more than that. You also want to know everything about the music, how it was created artistically and technically, and how it fits into the history of music in general. Audiophiles become scholars of music.

Reason Not To Be #1 – Requires Loving Music Too Much

The love of how the music was made or how it could be played back becomes so obsessive that it overshadows the joy of listening to music. Audiophiles love the details to death, especially technical details. There’s nothing wrong with amassing such knowledge, but at some point, I realize it could become an all-consuming black hole of scholarship.

Reason To Be #2 – You Desire Higher Fidelity

I want to hear the music recordings played so I hear everything. The average music fan is perfectly happy with a smartphone and a pair of earbuds. Buying a pair of good headphones is the first step on the road to becoming an audiophile. Once you realize you can hear more details from your favorite songs you go on a quest to upgrade your equipment. It’s knowing when to stop that determines your sanity. As much as I enjoy listening to music on headphones, I really love hearing it played loud so the music fills the room with a soundstage and all the performers and their instruments seem separated spatially.

Reason Not To Be #3 – You Need To Hear What No One Else Can

This is where audiophiles begin spending thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands trying to recreate what they believe is what the music sounded like in the studio when it was recorded. It depresses the hell out of me when I hear an audiophile claim that an $18,000 cable made a night and day difference. I worry that I’m hearing musical sludge and don’t know it. I hate feeling like if I was only rich like Bill Gates I could hear my favorite songs as they were meant to be heard. When extreme audiophiles talk about how much better they hear music they make me want to go back to listening to AM radio.

Extreme audiophile

Recently I watched a documentary on Johnny Winter that was made just before he died. At one point he wants the film producer to hear the music he loved growing up. So he plays an old blues record on a portable stereo in his living room that looked like it came from an elementary school in the 1950s, with detachable speakers. While he was playing a scratchy old record on this crappy record player his face lit up like he was experiencing enlightenment. I remember back in 1965 listening to music on a tiny transistor radio with a single earpiece. I was so happy with Top 40 AM back then that I nostalgically consider 1965 to be the peak of popular music. Of course, over a lifetime I have bought one music system after the next seeking to hear that same music in greater high fidelity. But watching Johnny Winter, who probably had the money to own a good audiophile system looked so happy listening to his favorite music in such lo-fidelity that it made me realize that love of music isn’t about equipment.

Reason To Be #3 – The Desire to Hear New Music

Most people imprint on the music they heard growing up as teens and end up playing those same tunes over and over again for the rest of their lives. Audiophiles continue to seek out new music from all genres and historical periods until they die. Audiophiles can branch out of the generation they were born into to psychically dig music from other generations and other cultures.

Here’s a video Michael Fremer, a senior editor at Stereophile magazine, talking about his favorite 100 analog albums. Fremer is an extreme audiophile. I love watching his videos, and this one is very inspiring because of his passion for these particular albums. I’m going to play everything on his list because I want to hear what excites him so – just not from the same source. The video is also evidence of why not to become an audiophile. Pay attention to what he knows and what it would take to play what Fremer loves. This is a long video, and he doesn’t start his countdown until he first gives a lecture on LPs’ ability to last. That should have been a separate video.

Reason Not To Be #3 – The Desire to Hear New Music by Specific Recordings

Fremer is extremely knowledgable and I love learning from him. He’s not snobbish, but he is rather crusty in his opinions. He appears to really admire 45rpm double LPs, a format I didn’t even know existed until watching the video, and Google seems to know little about that format too. Fremer often claims certain reissue 45rpm LPs are by far the absolute best presentations of certain classic albums, but these editions are $50-100, or more. Fremer is an LP snob and the way he talks it makes you feel if you aren’t listening to these exact LP pressings you are wasting your time. I’m going to listen to these 100 albums, but not the actual LP.

My preferred music format is streaming music via Spotify. This horrifies audiophiles, although some audiophiles are beginning to accept Tidal because it streams at CD quality. I’ve tried getting back into LPs twice in recent years and I just don’t like messing with the turntables or LPs. This probably means I can’t be an audiophile according to the faith of most audiophiles.

Reason Not To Be #4 – Money

Some audiophiles spend huge piles of money seeking High Fidelity.  In another Fremer video, he talks about having to take out a bank loan to buy his amplifiers, and the guy doesn’t look poor. He also talks about using two $18,000 cables – but he got those on loan. Most true audiophiles spend a great deal of money on their sound systems. There are low-end audiophiles, but I expect true audiophiles consider them pretenders. On the other hand, some people consider themselves audiophiles if they merely like to tinker with sound. One German audiophile I watched recently on YouTube recommended using a $35 Raspberry Pi as a foundation for a music streamer. And I know people who build their own speakers. So it is possible to spend little, and still, claim to be an audiophile. However, I tend to think real audiophiles read audiophile magazines and buy audiophile-grade equipment.

Reason Not To Be #5 – Never Ending Quest for New Equipment

Audiophiles tend to be people who are never satisfied. One of my favorite audiophile YouTubers is Steven Guttenberg, who calls himself The Audiophiliac. In one of his videos, he was talking about “The Last DAC/AMP/Reciever/Speakers/Turntable You’ll Ever Buy/Need” type of discussions and columns. You could see Steve turning green under the gills just thinking about not wanting new equipment. The idea of finding the right sound system you’d keep for the rest of your life or even 5-10 years just goes counter to the audiophile credo of always wanting newer and better.

I just bought a new sound system for my computer room. I realize my old system was 20 years old. My new system is a Yamaha WXA-50 streamer with a built-in amplifier and Bose 301 Series V speakers. It cost me around $750 and I expect that system to last a long time. I took weeks picking it out. I wanted audiophile speakers, but all the reviews of bookshelf audiophile speakers said not to put them against the wall. Audiophiles believe bookshelf speakers should be put on stands. (Then they aren’t bookshelf speakers, are they!) I only have one place to put speakers in this room, on top of my bookshelves. The Bose speakers were designed to be real bookshelf speakers, so I bought them. I’m very happy with them too.

Reason Not To Be #6 – Buying Bose Speakers

I watched a lot of YouTube videos by audiophiles reviewing speakers and boy do they look down their noses at Bose. In fact, I set out specifically not to buy Bose speakers to replace the Bose 201 speakers I currently owned. I wanted to buy Klipsch, Elac, Wharfdale, and other speakers admired by these reviewers but they all insisted they had to be set out from the wall on stands. When I saw a video about how Bose speakers were designed to work from bookshelves I said, “Fuck it, I’m buying Bose again.”

Reason Not To Be #7 – I Don’t Hear What They Hear

Ultimately I don’t think I can be an audiophile because either my ears aren’t good enough, or my cognitive ability to discern audio details is lacking. Or maybe I just can’t see the ghosts they do.

I went back to LPs twice in recent years because audiophiles keep claiming they sounded better. Records did sound different, even a pleasant different, but I heard more details from my CDs. I bought the equipment to play SACD years ago. Yes, they sounded better, but only if I was concentrating intently. Then when high-resolution FLAC files came out I tried them on a new receiver that was supposed to decode them. I bought Moondance by Van Morrison as my test. I compared it to a remastered CD and Spotify. I thought the CD sounded best, but I was perfectly happy with Spotify if I cranked up the volume.

Time and time again I heard audiophiles claim the difference is night and day to them, but the difference to me at best is the difference between the daylight at 2:00pm and 3:00pm.

I’m happy when the music fills the room and each performer and singer stands out. I love it when I can hear the texture of each instrument. I love it when I have enough high fidelity that allows me to easily focus on just one instrument when I want to. But most of all, I love it when music just sounds good.

I want to be an audiophile within reason. I believe one problem real audiophiles have promoting optimal sound systems is they focus too much on individual components when the total sound is depended on a gestalt setup. Reviewers should review whole setups so it’s easier for buyers to acquire and set up a system that should work together. Constantly reading/watching reviews of the gadget of the moment is becoming stultifying.

JWH

Playing Fair in the Game of Life

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 15, 2019

Imagine a poker game with one person winning every pot. Eventually, all the players but that one winner will become tapped out unless someone else starts winning. This is a good analogy for wealth inequality.

The challenge to the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls is making rule changes to the game we all play. Warren and Sanders want to make drastic changes to the rules to quickly make our society fairer to all, but that scares both the conservatives and the older well-to-do liberals. Biden promises to just tweak the rules a bit which enrages the extreme liberals who want significant change sooner.

We’re all playing this game of economic life whether we realize it or not, even when we think we’re not participating. Our economy is a game that everyone plays and the rules are decided by politics, laws, and voting. We like to think we’re a democracy and we all decide how the game is played but that’s not true. The winners of the game keep altering the rules so they can keep winning.

What would society be like if the game was played fair? What if everyone had an equal say in making the rules of the game, how would society differ from how we play the game now? Would wealth start circulating amongst all the players? Or will the winners refuse to ever change the rules? Maybe losers don’t want to change the rules either. Maybe they hope to be winners someday? How many players have to be wiped out before they realize their true odds of becoming a winner?

Right now a majority of our citizens believe everyone should work to make a living, and if you fail you should suffer the consequences. If you doubt this read “The American Right: It’s Deep Story” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild had come up with a little story she tells people that’s a Rorschach test for conservative thinking. Read it to see how you react, then read her article for how she interprets your reaction.

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. Others besides you seem like you – white, older, Christian, predominantly male. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone in line. Then, look! Suddenly you see people cutting in line ahead of you! As they cut in, you seem to be being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they?

Many are black. Through federal affirmative action plans, they are given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunch programs. Others are cutting ahead too – uppity women seeking formerly all-male jobs, immigrants, refugees, and an expanding number of high-earning public sector workers, paid with your tax dollars. Where will it end?

As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re asked to feel sorry for them all. People complain: Racism, Discrimination, Sexism. You hear stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees. But at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy – especially if there are some among them who might bring harm.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it or asking for help, you’re proud to say. You believe in equal rights. But how about your own rights? Don’t they count too? It’s unfair.

Then you see a black president with the middle name Hussein, waving to the line cutters. He’s on their side, not yours. He’s their president, not yours. And isn’t he a line-cutter too? How could the son of a struggling single mother pay for Columbia and Harvard? Maybe something has gone on in secret. And aren’t the president and his liberal backers using your money to help themselves? You want to turn off the machine – the federal government – which he and liberals are using to push you back in line.

Strangers in Their Own LandTo go deeper into what Hochschild is revealing with her “Deep Story” test, read her book Strangers in Their Own Land. She finds that conservatives identify with this story. In past decades I’ve known many conservatives that have told me variations of this story. But their resentments and prejudices keep us from making society fair. What I find ironic is many of the people who resonate with Hochschild’s Deep Story claim to be Christians, but isn’t her story an anti-Gospel?

We don’t have to examine the whole economic system to see how it’s unfair. Just look at companies like Amazon and Uber as samples. A few people in each company make billions while most workers barely make a living, yet each company would collapse without the low-paid participants in their shared game. Why do thousands of employees have to work their asses off so one guy gets rich enough to have his own space program? Why do Uber drivers put in all the millage but don’t get their fair share of the fares? Why is Trump so desperate to keep his tax returns secret? Is it because he doesn’t want us suckers to know he’s rich without paying his fair share of taxes?

What if labor got a fairer share of the rewards of our economic game? Somehow we’ve decided the owners of a company deserve more money than the people who punch the clock. Is that how we really want to play the game? Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to make the game fairer by taxing the winners and use the government to redistribute the winnings. This is one way, but is it the only way, or the best way?

If you don’t understand the long history of capital v. labor I highly recommend reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. Before the industrial revolution wealth was mostly in owning land, and the landowners used slaves, serfs, peasants, and tenant farmers to make themselves wealthy. When industrialization came along those with capital shifted to owning businesses and letting labor do all the work to make them wealthy.

The reason why capital has always been at war with labor is capital didn’t want to share the rewards of the game. They have always fought unions because of greed. They have always embraced automation because of greed. If they could completely eliminate labor they would. Just see how hard Uber wants to develop self-driving cars, or Amazon to add robotic book pickers. If we extrapolate these trends into the future we’ll have a game with very few winners owning a lot of robots and mostly jobless losers.

Our present economic system is rigged to produce fewer winners. We think because unemployment is low most people are still in the game. But is that really true? The economy doesn’t have a finite pot of money, wealth is always being created. But it appears the 1% are acquiring all the old wealth and new wealth at an increasing speed. Liberals have a history of creating safety nets to keep players in the game. Conservatives even begrudge this level of wealth redistribution. If Warren or Sanders is going to win in 2020 they need to convince a vast majority of players there’s a genuine need to redefine the rules to keep the game from collapsing.

Capital needs consumers with money to spend. That means labor must stay in the game. That’s why we’re hearing talk of guaranteed incomes. If the rich aren’t willing to share their wealth now I doubt they will in this future scheme. This means the present game will end when the very few have corned all the chips and the economy falls apart.

Capital is against universal healthcare because they profit from limited healthcare. Republicans and conservatives are passionately fighting any changes to the game. They see any proposal to redistribute wealth as an attack on the existing game rules that favor them winning. Is there a way to change the game to be fairer to everyone that doesn’t involve redistributing the wealth?

Can the 99% create their own wealth without interfering with the 1%? I recently read an article that said the lower 50% has already been drained by the 1% and now they are working to drain the other 49% percent. Wealth transfer to the wealthier even effects millionaires. For Bill Gates to have $100,000,000,000 means 100,000 people aren’t millionaires. And for every 1,000 billionaires, we don’t have a 1,000,000 millionaires.

How can Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have their own space programs? How many underpaid workers does that take to build that science-fictional dream? Is the game really fair when some winners in society can afford to play NASA and millions of losers are without homes? Even if we rationalize losers don’t deserve anything because they don’t work, does anyone in our rich society deserve to have so little? Bezos and Musk cannot have their space programs without the whole society supporting them.

Isn’t what we want is a fair society that rewards hard work but is passionate toward those who can’t compete? Don’t we also want a society that is ecologically friendly and sustainable? How do we change the rules to get that if the greedy want to keep playing the existing game?

The game requires everyone to play, even when they don’t work or vote. I’m sure conservatives would love to ship off all the unemployable to another country. A certain percentage of the active economy generates wealth by taking care of people who can’t. If they didn’t exist, these caretakers would be out of a job too. We’d have to exile them. But then that would put more people out of work. See the snowball growing? All activity in the economy goes into generating the total wealth of the economy. And yes, building private space programs do create jobs, but how much more economic activity would our economy have if average workers were paid more?

I’m not saying billionaires shouldn’t have their rewards, but couldn’t the rewards of a successful company be spread around fairly? Why do the owners and shareholders get all the profits? Because labor has always been the target of cost reduction. It’s so ingrained that it’s a religion with business. But if the wealthy don’t want to have their taxes raised they should consider raising the wages of their employees so society won’t have to raise taxes on the rich to help the poor.

The trouble is people who have gained seldom want to give back. Of sure, they become famous philanthropists, but that’s not really giving, is it? It’s just another expression of being a winner.

I don’t know why I keep writing these essays. Striving to describe how things work does not change anything. I’ve been reading about Plato lately. He had lots of insights into how things work. And over the centuries society has changed. That’s hopeful. Everyone has way more than what everyone once had. Besides more material wealth, we have more peace and personal health than our ancestors.

Yet there is still so much poverty and sickness in our world today. Can’t we change the rules of the game to help them? Aren’t there more billionaires today because there are more workers getting ahead? Wouldn’t universal healthcare stimulate the overall economy? Would giving the homeless homes stimulate the economy? Doesn’t raising the living standards for the 99%, create more wealth for the 1% to chase?

I see the 2020 election as a referendum. It’s not really about Trump, he’s only the face of greed. Voting for Trump is a vote for maintaining the plutocracy. Voting for a democrat will be a vote to change the rules.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simplifying My Stereo

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 11, 2019

Does anyone ever call their music player a stereo anymore? A long time ago we’d call it a phonograph, a record player, later on, a Hi-Fi, stereo, or receiver. I guess people call them audio systems now? Actually, I don’t know what people call machines that play music in these modern times. Researching this article meant constantly changing the terms in my Google requests to find what I think I needed.

What I want is to hear my music at its maximum fidelity with the least equipment for the smallest price. I just want to own less crap. A long time ago I imagined the perfect music delivery system while I was stoned. What if we could just think of a song and then hear as if we were a character in a movie who could hear the soundtrack? Wouldn’t that be far-out! No equipment, just music, like having a stereo system integrated into our heads.

With Spotify and my iPhone, I come close to achieving that dream. However, I don’t want to always wear headphones. Basically, what I want is to tap my iPhone and hear the music fill the room.

What I believe I need is called a music streamer (sometimes called a network amplifier). But neither is precise or accepted. I appear to want an amplified music streamer. There are other music streamers that connect to an existing stereo amplifier. I’m currently thinking about buying is the Yamaha WXA-50, but I’m also wondering if it’s worth spending almost three times as much to get the new Denon PMA-150H. The Yamaha came out in 2016 and the Denon was just released. (I do think the Yamaha would serve all my needs but I am worried about buying technology that came out 4 years ago.)

 

I guess I should explain what these gadgets do. That will require a bit of backtracking. Right now my home office stereo is a two-channel receiver connected to a pair of Bose speakers. They are connected to my computer and CD player. Music sounds pretty good, especially when I crank it up. But this system is probably 25-30 years old. I can play Spotify, CDs, or MP3 files. I have a turntable, but that’s packed away, but if I wanted, I could play LPs.

I want to be able to control all my music from my iPhone. First, this means I don’t have to worry about another remote. Second, it means if I want to hear music that’s not on Spotify it has to be ripped. I don’t want to mess with CDs or LPs anymore. It also means I don’t want to depend on my computer. Right now I can use my iPhone with Spotify Connect to play music through the computer via the receiver, but I want to eliminate the middleman, the computer. Which then means I can put the music streamer and speakers anywhere.

I’d love to do away with speaker wire too, and wireless speakers are starting to catch on, but I’m not sure they are ready for prime time just yet. Probably if I waited for another year or two that will be the big selling point to new music streamers. If you know of a great solution now, post a comment.

Speakers are a big problem with creating my dream music system. Placement is critical, and I don’t have any good places to put them in my home office. Every inch of wall spaced is currently being used. I’d like a pair of Klipsch RP 600M speakers, but they have a rear-facing port meaning they need to be set away from the wall. I might have to settle for the Elac Debut B6.2 speakers that are not as exciting but have a front-facing port. I could put them and the Yamaha WXA-50 up on top of my bookshelves. They’d barely be seen, and that would free up deskspace too.

However,  would this solve all my problems? Can I use the WXA-50 to play audio from my computer remotely? Right now all audio/music comes through my computer. If I get this new seti[, music will come from one system, and computer audio from another. I’ll need two sets of speakers. I’ll be able to remove the large Pioneer receiver and Bose speakers from my computer desk, but I might have to put back my powered computer speakers. I’d rather not.

And if I rip my CDs to FLAC I could pack away my CDs, get rid of their shelving, and put away the CD player too. I’m almost to the point of using Spotify for all my music, but unfortunately, there are a few albums they don’t have in their library.

Having two sets of speakers in one room ruins my goal of finding a simpler way to live with less. I know I’ll never have an integrated music system in my head. Going digital means eliminating a lot of physical objects and technology, but it can’t eliminate everything. I absolutely have to have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and a box to run them. If an all-in-one computer like an iMac had perfect internal speakers I could simplify my tech needs to a monitor/keyboard/mouse.

I could also achieve music simplicity if I accepted always listening to music while wearing headphones. But the half-ass audiophile in me feels over-the-air music sounds better. Also, I believe music sounds better not coming from a computer, but from a separate DAC/amplifier. Sure, high-end audiophiles believe in a whole array of separate components to get the best sound, but luckily I’m not that driven. If I’m not playing music through the computer, I can accept a very modest level of audio quality. That means I should consider music and computers as two different systems to simplify.

A music streamer and speakers could be the lowest level of tech simplicity for listening to music, especially if they eliminate wires. I guess its possible futures designs could build the DAC/amp into a pair of speakers for even more simplification. And, all-in-one computer (monitor/mouse/keyboard) will be the lowest level of tech simplicity for a desktop computer.

JWH

 

 

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 3, 2019

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know is Malcolm Gladwell’s sixth book. I’m a big fan ever since his first book, The Tipping Point. Gladwell is an explainer, but he’s not straight forward in how he explains things. He enlightens by having the reader go step-by-step through the data he’s gathered to reach the same conclusion he has carefully discovered himself. He doesn’t just try to tell us the answer. Gladwell sees the world multidimensionally, so simple explanations won’t do.

In Talking to Strangers Gladwell wants us to understand what happened to Sandra Bland. Bland was pulled over for not using her turn signal when changing lanes, ended up being arrested, and committing suicide while in jail. The story was in all the news in the summer of 2015, and there was even an HBO documentary about the incidence. Gladwell became quite angry by the event and feels the media has failed to explain what happened and why.

It’s such a complicated story that Gladwell doesn’t even get to Bland’s story until page 313, but when he does, it all comes together perfectly.

Many people feel society is coming apart. That politics is disintegrating our culture. That everyone is on a short fuse, overly sensitive, and too easy to take offense. That there is little honesty in the world, and too many people want to carry guns. Our society is being overrun by mistrust and resentment. I am reminded of an experiment I heard about in school back in the 1960s. It involved cramming rats into a cage to simulate overpopulation. The stress of being forced to interact made them go mad and attack each other. Gladwell doesn’t mention this, but I was reminded of it constantly as I read his book.

Gladwell says we don’t know how to talk to strangers. He then goes on using various famous historical and news events to explain how miscommunication created extreme problems, often resulting in lethal consequences. His examples are quite fascinating. The first goes all the way back to Hernán Cortés meeting the Aztec ruler Montezuma, an extreme case of strangers meeting. Then he deals with Cuban spies and the CIA. This chapter is a mind-blower because Gladwell presents several historical cases where the CIA were completely fooled by double-agents. This is impressive because we assume CIA agents are highly trained at observing and understanding people.

After covering the CIA’s failure to detect traitors, Gladwell goes into detail about how Neville Chamberlain totally misread Adolph Hitler. These are fascinating cases of how we misread strangers, but they are so varied that you have to wonder what they mean to Sandra Bland’s case. Gladwell reminds us occasionally that Bland is his real goal, but he also tells us we’re not ready yet. He was right. You really want to stick close to Gladwell’s examples and explanations, because they do pay off big.

The problem is most people default to the truth, which is Gladwell’s way of saying we tend to believe other people are telling the truth. After reading his studies you feel like you should distrust everyone. Gladwell then gives cases of people who are always wary, and this is actually a worse way to live. To complicate matters, he gives several cases, such as Amanda Knox’s and Bernie Madoff’s where people act contrary to how they should act, which makes them even harder to read. I’ve seen a lot of news stories and documentaries about both of these cases and they don’t get to the details and insights that Gladwell does. I get the feeling that Gladwell wrote Talking to Strangers to show us how we’re all thinking too simplistically.

I’m not going to reiterate all of Gladwell’s arguments and cases. Besides not being able to tell when people are lying, and for many reasons, Gladwell gets to two other important insights. Coupling and location. He uses Sylvia Plath’s suicide and various studies on crime reduction methods to explain them. This is where Gladwell’s insights get more subtle. We want problems explained with one answer. Gladwell teaches us that sometimes a problem requires multiple datasets to understand what’s really going on. All too often we jump to what we think is the obvious conclusion when were missing whole areas of evidence. Evidence that sometimes appears to have no connection to the case.

Talking to Strangers is not a book you want to read casually, although it is very easy and entertaining to read. In essence, Gladwell is being a Zen master trying to explain the sound of one hand clapping. His examples bring us to the point where we have to have our own “I see!” moment. He can’t tell us. When Gladwell finally gets down to explaining what happened with Sandra Bland you should come to the conclusion that our present-day problems can’t be explained with the kind of logic we ordinary use with our friends or the kind of thinking we hear from pundits on TV. We’re too quick to lap up easy answers.

The trouble is most people will never understand what Gladwell is teaching. Most of us will continue to act on instinct using very limited instinctive thinking. Humans can’t handle the truth. This is my conclusion, not Gladwell’s. We think we know when we don’t. In fact, too many people are absolutely certain of their conclusions because their own explanations feel so right. We all live in the film Rashomon, each thinking we see the truth, but can’t understand the multiplex view we’d get from watching our lives from an outside vantage point.

Talking to Strangers, like other Gladwell books, are ones we should reread periodically. It’s so easy to fall back into simplex thinking. One of my favorite novels is Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a science fiction novel about a farm boy from a backward planet traveling to other worlds and cultures. Before he leaves a wise person tells him that there are three kinds of thinking: simplex, complex, and multiplex. What this kid learns is most people are stuck in simplex and maybe complex thinking, and very few achieve multiplex thought. The story is about the kid evolving through the three stages of thinking.

Talking to Strangers is Gladwell’s attempt to get us to think in multiplexity.

JWH

 

I Believe I’ve Found a Solution to All My Reading Problems

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 3, 2019

Problems:
  • I miss reading like I did when I was young
  • I try to read too many books concurrently
  • I start too many books I don’t finish
  • I buy too many books I never even get around to trying to read
  • I start too many reading projects (reading multiple books on one subject)
  • I’m attracted to too many subjects
  • I want to read every book that sounds great
Solutions:
  • Only read one book at a time
  • Only listen to one book at a time
  • Keep a list of books I want to read next
  • Keep a list of audiobooks I want to listen to next
  • I can only buy a new book/audiobook when I’m finished with my current book/audiobook and I must read it immediately.
  • I must look through my TBR lists before buying a new book.

When I was a young bookworm I only bought a new book when I finished my old book. I didn’t have much money, so deciding what to buy and read next was a huge pleasure that I’d spend a lot of time contemplating. When I first joined Audible.com, I only had two credits each month, and I was very careful about how I used them. I’d listened to everything I bought. Deciding on the next audiobook was always a delicious time of deciding.

Being able to afford all the books and audiobooks I want has been bad for me. I spend more time buying books and thinking about buying books than I do reading and listening. When I was younger, I used to read an hour or two every day, and many hours on the weekend. I barely read three hours a week now, but I do get in 5-7 hours a week of listening to books. I miss those days when I got so into books I’d finish them in a day or two.

I thought when I retired I would get more books read, but it’s been just the opposite. I have too many other distractions in my life. I won’t go into all of them, I’m sure everyone knows about all the new entertainment diversions that have popped up in the last couple of decades.

What worries me is another problem, a lack of focus. I wonder if getting older is reducing my ability to stay focused, or is it just all the distractions? Part of the problem is I have dozens of books pulled off my bookshelves in different stages of being read. I jump from one book to the next as my mental whims come and go. I have too many writing projects I want to research, and that means I don’t get anything finished. I can focus just enough to complete a blog length essay. I’d like to write something longer, but that would require focusing on one topic for days or weeks and my mind can’t seem to do that.

I’ve been wondering if my lack of writing focus is related to my lack of reading focus. Sometime after midnight last night, a solution jumped into my mind. I theorized if I only read one book at a time maybe that would help. Because reading and listening work only in their own unique settings I decided I could keep one book and one audiobook going.

From this theory, I’ve developed a plan that I believe might solve all my reading problems. I can’t start or buy new books/audiobooks while I’m working on a book/audiobook. I have to keep TBR lists for books and audiobooks with at least a hundred titles on each and I have to read through those lists before buying a new book/audiobook. I  have over a thousand unread books I could put on each list but the idea is to put just enough books I’m craving to read on each list to remind me why I shouldn’t buy another book.

To further keep me from buying new books/audiobooks, is making the rule I can only buy books after finishing books, and I must read any new purchase immediately. Any new book becomes the next read. In other words, to buy a book/audiobook I have to look at my TBR list and decide I want to read a new book more than any of the books on the list.

Right now I try to read all the books that are laying around and it doesn’t work. I need an analogous saying for “My eyes are bigger than my stomach” regarding reading. When you have countless books you’re dying to read it’s rather insane to go buy more. And boy am I crazy.

I don’t know if I will have the discipline to accomplish this plan but I’m going to try very hard. I’ve already started unsubscribing to the mailing lists advertising books on sale. I’ve got to break my restless habit of visiting used bookstores twice a week. I’ve also got to break my habit of jumping on ABEbooks and ordering any book that I think I should read.

I believe I will actually save money if I only buy books just before I read them even if I have to pay the full new price. Now, I’ve come to that conclusion before. And it slowed down my book buy a great deal, but I still bought way more than I can read. My problem is I want to read too much and I believe buying a book means I’ll eventually read it. That’s obviously not true.

The trick of this plan is to only buy a book when I’ve just finished another, whether book or audiobook. And only purchase that book if I want to read it before any of the other great books I already own and supposedly dying to read. If I can stick to that one act of discipline I believe it will have a cascading effect on solving all my reading problems.

Update 11/4/19:

I’ve decided I need a quitting factor. If I commit to reading a book I don’t want to be stuck finishing it if the book is no good. But I also want to give a book a fair shake. I figure I need to read a certain number of pages to get to know the book, but I’m not sure what that number will be. See the comments below for one suggested formula.

I also need to decide what to do with books I quit. Do I still keep them? For printed books, I’ve always donated those to the library book sales. But what about ebooks and audiobooks that clutter up my digital libraries? I’m thinking I should delete them. I believe Amazon has a provision for that, but that seems kind of drastic.

Finally, I decided on a couple loop-holes about buying books. If I buy a new book it has to be read immediately. But I can buy books I’ve already read. Quite often when I listen to a book I want a printed copy for reference. I keep an eye out for cheap used copies. Or there are books I’ve read in the past that I wished I owned a copy for reference. And sometimes I want to buy reference books that aren’t meant to be read from cover-to-cover. Finally, there are some books that I collect for various reasons — because I want a special edition, or I want to replace an old copy, or I just want an edition for its dust jacket or cover. This leaves me a little room to have fun book shopping without stockpiling books to read. However, my discipline will be sorely tested if I see a mint used edition of a book I’ve always wanted to read for $3.

I’ve already finished the first book I committed to reading and wrote a review last night. That felt good. I’m already reading on the second book I committed to, and I’m very excited about being able to stick with it. I skipped TV watching last night to read on it, and got up this morning and read some more. This early success suggests my idea of committing to reading only one book at a time works.

I guess its finally time to get down to the nitty-gritty of reading all those books I bought to read in my retirement years.

JWH

 

What A Difference 23 Years Make

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 31, 2019

Society is constantly changing and evolving, and so does the popular culture it produces. Starting in 1959, and into the early 1960s, there were a number of court cases that profoundly changed pop-culture by removing various censorship laws. It allowed movies to portray graphic sex and violence, and include nudity and profanity. This was especially noticeable in movie westerns. Westerns in the 1950s seem very different from those in the 1970s, and we can see the transitioning in the 1960s. Millennials and later generations probably have no idea what pop-culture was like before their time, and just accept today’s movies as a norm. If you live long enough, you can see that movies change.

My favorite westerns generally come from the 1940s and 1950s. The other night I watched The Missouri Breaks (1976) with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando which had a much different view of the old west. In many ways it was more realistic – we see people going to outhouses, using profanity, having sex, showing a bit of nudity, wearing dirty raggedy clothes, and so on. The characters seem more like real people and have complex problems and psychologies. Too often in older westerns, characters wore not only clean clothes which they changed often, but ones that look like they came from fashion designers. Most folks in the historical west wore the same clothes for many days, seldom bathed, and usually owned a tiny wardrobe. Just compare the two versions of True Grit.

Living conditions in The Missouri Breaks seemed repulsive to me, and it lacked heroes and heroines. It’s not a feel-good western, like Shane (1953).  Who wouldn’t want to be Shane (Alan Ladd), who would want to be Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando)? Of course, Brando’s over-the-top performance does weird-out the overall vibe of The Missouri Breaks, but then such characterizations have become more common as we approach the present day. The recent Joker movie is one example.

If we compare the west of Shane with The Missouri Breaks does it even feel like the same historical era? Is it really the same genre? There are violent people in both films because the essence of westerns is violence. You’d think I should be comparing the two characters the audience wants to see die in the end, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) and Robert E. Lee Clayton. Both films feature ranchers who hire gunmen (Palance and Brando) but the issue of who the good guys are is confused. In Shane, the good guys are hardworking homesteaders, and in The Missouri Breaks, they are horse thieves, train robbers, and maybe murderers. If we are for law and order, then David Braxton (John McLiam) the rancher and Robert E. Lee Clayton should be our heroes. They’re not.

Remember in Shane, Shane is a gunman just like Jack Wilson, but he’s trying to change, and live under law and order. Shane is the homesteaders’ gunman, but he’s the hero of the picture because he fights the rancher who bullies the homesteaders. Shane sides with law and order. Robert E. Lee Clayton is hired by the rancher to kill rustlers and murderers and appears to be for law and order. The trouble is Clayton takes psychotic pleasure in his job.

What happened in those 23 years from 1953 to 1976 that remade westerns? Shane is a killer, but one we side with. In The Missouri Breaks, we side with Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) who is a horse thief, train robber, and probably killer too. (We never know who kills the rancher’s foreman.) Of course, in westerns, the audience always sides with a killer, because westerns nearly always resolve conflicts with a killing. Before the 1960s we sided with the white hats against the black hats, but it seems sometimes in the 1960s, everyone started wearing gray hats.

Shane, the Alan Ladd character, knows killing is bad. He wants to avoid killing, but in the end, he is pushed into it to save the people he loves. The audience admires him. But Robert E. Lee Clayton, the Marlon Brando character, delights in killing and justifies his behavior by killing horse thieves, train robbers, and murderers, people we should be against, but we despise Robert E. Lee Clayton and rejoice when he is killed. And in the last fifty years, we’ve seen both the hero/anti-hero and bad guys kill more and more people in westerns. Brando’s bizarre performance was only a bellwether.

Tom Logan, the Jack Nicholson character, is an anti-hero. Yet, even when anti-heroes are as charming as Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), should we really like and admire them? It is true that the old west criminals were more colorful than dull hardworking people who actually built the west.

Something happened to the westerns in the 1960s. Before that the good people were nicer, but so were the bad people. Sure, the bad guys of the old west were mean, and psycho killers too, but they weren’t as disturbing as modern bad guys. Between the westerns of the 1950s and the 1970s, we see the bodies counts rise in each film, and we see more depraved violence. The profanity, nudity, and sex are the upfront obvious differences, but I also think there is a shift in how westerns present killing. Intentionally modern westerns of the 1970s like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, Judge Roy Bean, etc. worked hard to redefine the western in terms of artistic storytelling but also in presenting old west history with a different psychological perspective. In some ways, this shift became most visible with Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

When did good guys v. bad guys become neurotics v. psychos? When did westerns go from gunfights to serials killers and mass shooters? In the Old West, the most famous gunfight (O.K. Corral) three men died. In modern westerns, the body counts are so high that most viewers stop counting.

Sure, TV cowboys of the 1950s did a lot more killing than their movie counterparts. By one estimate, Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke killed between 138 men and 7 women to 303 people over a 20-year period. However, if we consider each episode a separate story, the violence is far less.

Maybe I like the westerns of the 1940s and 1950s because I find the death of the bad guy at the end of the film a satisfying resolution to the story. Watching modern westerns feel more like we’re Romans at the Colosseum, desiring non-stop killing. We’re not there for the story, but for the slaughter. Films like the Hateful 8 are designed to feed our need for gunplay porn. If people watch sex porn because they’re not getting laid and want to vicarious pretend having sex, then why do we enjoy so many killings in movies today? Is it because we’re not getting to kill all the people we want and vicariously find release in the pretend killings?

I believe body counts began to escalate in the westerns of the 1960s, starting with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and ending with The Wild Bunch (1969). I still loved these westerns, especially as a kid, and even when I felt they were becoming silly in their efforts to top themselves with gimmicky plots, explosions, and ways of killing people. However, as I’m getting older, I question my fondness for such killathon westerns. I admit I love TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Westworld, but I’m also wondering about myself too.

Westerns 1

These days I’d much rather rewatch Winchester ’73, Yellow Sky, Colorado Territory, Rawhide, Angel and the Badman, Shane, Three Godfathers, Tall in the Saddle, and movies like them. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, or turning back the clock to enjoy movies when there were fewer killings per film. I was taught in school that the ancient Greeks didn’t allow violence on stage in their plays. All violence had to happen off-stage. I’m not ready to go that far. I do like the realism of modern westerns. The sex, nudity, and profanity are fine. I’ve just got to wonder about the kill-porn addiction we’ve acquired.

Angel_badman

We have become a nation that worships guns. Notice how often we see people posing with guns, and how often we see them in pop culture. The interesting thing about westerns is we see a historical era where people lived by the gun but were moving toward a gun-free civilization. Westerns represent a time just before all the cowboys would hang up their guns. (Watch the wonderful Angel and the Badman.) We’re now living in a time where everyone wants to strap on a gun. Is this the undoing of civilization?

Isn’t it rather ironic that in the old west, Republicans were the advocates for gun control? They were for laws, regulations, order, progress, cities, and civilization back in the 19th century. Doesn’t it seem they want to bring back the wild west now? Aren’t old westerns really propaganda for gun control? In some ways, new westerns seem to counter the philosophy of old westerns.

But then we have one last problem. Were any westerns ever like the historical west? Or, are westerns really the pop culture snapshots of the people and times in which they were made? If that’s so, we live in some pretty strange times if we judge ourselves by the movies we see in the theaters today.

JWH

Predicting the Future: 2065

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 25, 2019

This week’s NOVA “Look Who’s Driving” is about self-driving cars. Most people are scared of the idea of getting into a car and letting it drive. I know I am, and I’m a science fiction fan. Just think about it for a moment. Doesn’t it feel super eerie? On the other hand, what if they could actually make driverless cars 100% safe? I’m getting old and realize at a certain point it will be dangerous for me and others if I keep driving. A driverless car would be perfect for older folks, and by 2065 there will be a lot of old folks. And in the documentary, they mentioned that driverless cars should mean fewer cars and they showed aerial views of how cars cover our city landscapes now. Imagine a world with far fewer cars and parking lots. That would be nice too.

I’m sure folks in the late 19th century felt scared of the idea of giving up horses and switching to motor vehicles. And can you imagine how people felt about flying when aviation was first predicted for the future? Perfect driverless car safety has almost been achieved in ten years, so imagine how reliable it will be in another ten years.

I’m working on a science fiction short story that’s set in 2065 and trying to imagine what life might be like then. I assume war and poverty will still be with us, but there will be as much change between now and 2065 as there was from 1965 and now. I have to assume driverless cars will transform our society.

We feel dazzled by progress. And we feel it’s accelerating.  But can inventors keep giving us gadgets that transform our society every five years? Smartphones and social media aren’t new anymore. Self-driving cars should become common by the late 2020s and they should shake up the way we live. But will people accept robotic chauffeurs? This year we’re freaking out over the Boeing 737 Max 8 having flaky computers. However, what if the safety of AI cars, trucks, planes, ships, and trains becomes so overwhelmingly evident that we turn over all the driving over to robots? Can we say no to such a future?

What about other uses of robots? If we keep automating at the same pace we’re on now, by 2065 will anyone have a job? Should my story imagine a work-free society, or will we pass laws to preserve some jobs for humans? What kinds of jobs should we protect and which should be given to robots? We usually assume boring and dangerous jobs should go to machines, and the creative work should be kept for us. But what if robotic doctors were cheaper, safer, and gave us longer lives? What if it reduced city budgets and provided greater public safety to have robotic cops and firemen? And would you rather send your children off to war or robots? What if the choice is between paying a $1000 robot lawyer or a $1,000,000 to human lawyers in a big case?

What if by 2035 we have general-purpose robots that are smarter than humans but not sentient? Would you rather buy a robot for your business than hire a human? And if robots become sentient, can we own them? Wouldn’t that be slavery? I’m reading The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov, and he spent his entire writing career imagining all the possibilities robots could create. Sadly, I think Asimov mainly guessed wrong. I believe science fiction has lots of room to reimagine what robots will do to our society.

Generally, when we think of science fictional futures, we think of space travel. Will we have colonies on the Moon and Mars by 2065? I’ve been waiting for 50 years for us to go to Mars. I’m not optimistic that more years will get us there. I predict there will be another Moon rush, with several nations separately, or cooperatively setting up Lunar bases like the scientific stations that exist in Antarctica. Beyond that, I bet robots will become the main astronauts that explore the solar system.

I can imagine robots with high-definition eyes tramping all over the various planets, planetoids, moons, asteroids, and comets sending us back fantastic VR experiences. But how many humans will actually want to spend years in space, living in tin cans that are incredibly complicated machines designed to keep them alive, but with one teeny-tiny failure, vacuum, radiation, cold, or heat will horribly kill them? We’ve been without a dryer for three weeks because my new dryer died after three months and so far no one can fix it. Isn’t space travel safer and cheaper for robots? Space is a perfect environment for machines.

If robots become the preferred solution for all jobs, what will humans do? I have to believe capitalism as we know it won’t exist. What if robots are so productive they can generate wealth for everyone?

Then there’s climate change. Will we solve that problem? I bet we won’t. It would require human psychology to change too much. I must assume people will not change, so I have to predict a future where we’re consuming the Earth resources at the same accelerating rate we are now and polluting at the same rates too. We’ll probably get more efficient at using those resources and find better solutions for hiding our garbage — probably due to robots. We’ll have a lot more people, far fewer wild animals and cars, and a growing overpopulation of robots. Although, I think there might be room to predict a back-to-nature movement where some people choose to live close to the land, while others become even more hive-mind urban cyborgs. A significant portion of the population might even reject robots and automation.

That means by 2065 we might have a two-tier society. Liberals living in high-tech robotic cities, while conservatives live in rural areas and small towns with far less technology. That might make an interesting story. What if the future becomes those who ride in driverless cars and those who reject cars altogether? (If robots become 100% safe drivers, would it be practically to allow human drivers?) Could new kinds of rural economies develop that shun technology? I wonder this because I wonder if a robotic society will make some people back-to-nature Luddites. And I don’t mean that term that critically. Back-to-nature might be more ethical, more rewarding, and more human.

If you think this is all wild crazy ideas, try to comprehend how much we’ve changed in the last half-century. In the 1960s people looking for work found two categories: Men Wanted and Women Wanted. Women weren’t allowed to do most jobs, and many of them stayed at home. Think about how much we changed in just this one way. Then multiply it by all the ways we’ve changed. Is it so wild to imagine driverless cars and robotic doctors?

JWH