Other Recent Essays

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 24, 2017

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I thought I’d link to recent essays I’ve been writing for Book Riot and Worlds Without End – two sites I like to plug.

Book Riot:

Worlds Without End:

I guess I’m neglecting my duties at WWEnd. I’ve started several essays for them that I haven’t finished. In recent months I’m starting a lot more essays for all my writing outlets than I finish. I worry that it might be age related. That I’m not focusing on work as well as before.

I worry that unfinished essays are a sign I’m getting older because I’m not focusing as well as before. But I’m also pursuing more hobbies and I’m enjoying more social activities so it might be I’m just having too much fun. Then again, isn’t focusing on creative pursuits all about ignoring time-wasting fun?

I usually get at least one idea every morning in the shower, and often I get two or three. Completing them is a matter of making myself stick to the task. That means sitting at the computer, writing and rewriting, until the essay is finished. I’m afraid I’ve been more indulgent at playing lately. I am retired. I tell myself it’s okay to do anything I want. Yet, I have a sense of guilt about doing things that don’t produce results. If I go a day without writing it feels like I wasted that day. On the other hand, I might have filled that day with many other wonderful pursuits that are rewarding in other ways.

Just before midnight, I go to sleep wishing I had more time in that day. I can’t comprehend how I ever scheduled a full-time at a job into my life.

JWH

 

 

What If Science Fiction Is Wrong About Space Travel?

Science fiction is about speculation and the topic it has speculated on most is space travel. What if science fiction is wrong? What if it turns out that humans aren’t suited for living in space or colonizing other worlds? What if homo sapiens need to live on Earth? How will such knowledge affect your philosophy?

Decades ago I realized that science fiction was my substitute for religion. I didn’t believe in God, heaven, or an afterlife, but I did believe in humanity spreading across the galaxy. I don’t know why that brought meaning to my life, but it did. I grew up reading and watching science fiction during the Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo year of the 1960s. As I covered in my last essay at Worlds Without End, “A Distance Too Far,” new research is showing the biological limitations of humans living in space. Space scientists hope to overcome those limitations but what if they can’t? What if humanity is condemned to living on Earth until we go extinct? What if we have to watch robots and AI machines live out our Star Trek dreams?

I assume most science fiction fans will react the same way the faithful react when they encounter an atheist. It’s really hard to give up a core value which gives our minds meaning. I have no idea how adaptable humans are to space but I’m wondering what it will mean if we can’t. If you’re a hardcore science fiction fan could you give up your faith in the final frontier?

What happens to us when we no longer believe in getting to heaven or other planets? Will we find meaning living vicariously through the eyes of our robots who leave Earth and become immortal among the stars? What kind of science fiction will be written in fifty years if we have tried to colonize Mars and failed? If we discover galactic radiation fries our brains and it requires 1-G to reproduce normally – will we give up on human space travel?

Or think about this. What if we do colonize Mars and adapt but discover everyone hates living there? There are thousands of people who would volunteer for a one-way mission to Mars. Have you ever wondered why? What motivates people to want to live on a barren rock, that’s bathed in solar and galactic radiation, that’s colder than anyplace on Earth, and its atmosphere is unbreathable? Is it a powerful fantasy implanted in childhood like theology? Is it a deep drive to spread our genes to new worlds? Or is it a psychological desire to escape an unhappy life here?

What if we discover that many of the hopes of science fiction won’t come true for us? Think a moment about our other science fiction dreams. What if we can only push our bodies so far before longevity research peters out and we realize immortality is impossible? What if we can’t download our minds into machines or clones? What happens when we discover that being homo sapiens comes with limits that can’t be surpassed? I’m sure we’re far from discovering those limits but what if someday we know those limits with certainty?

Science fiction has always given us hope for unlimited potential. Yet, reality suggests we’ll eventually bang into the glass walls of our aquarium. I wonder what science fiction will speculate on then.

JWH

Have We Accepted Rising Oceans as Inevitable?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 16, 2017

I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel, New York 2140. The story depicts a future New York City through the eyes of a wide cast of characters, reminding me somewhat of Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Robinson’s characters are survivors of a massive rise in sea levels. And even though they face horrible problems, their problems don’t seem any worse than those we face. The message is we always have problems, and we always solve them in a muddling way.

New York 2140

I’ve felt until now that climate change fiction warned us to avoid environmental doom. Have we already given up the battle? Are we now accepting rising seas and mass extinctions as inevitable? Donald Trump’s budget came out today, and it’s all too obvious he’s not going to fight climate change. Has everyone else given up too, including science fiction writers, of returning CO2 levels to below 350 ppm?

It is quite clear that conservatives have chosen lower taxes over action to stop global warming. Their greed knows no bounds, just look at their health care proposal. They prefer a tax cut for the rich over any Sermon on the Mount compassion. They pretend to believe climate change is not real, but I can’t believe they’re that stupid. I wonder if they haven’t psychologically accepted rising oceans in exchanged for lowering taxes and deregulation windfalls?

New York 2140 is a very entertaining novel, but I’m wondering if Robinson isn’t taking a Pollyanna view of the future. His New York City of 2140 is vibrant and alive, even after the oceans have turned it into a new world Venice. If I wrote science fiction my 2140 NYC would look a hundred times worse than New Orleans right after Katrina. My novel of a doomed city would be closer to Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Robinson makes 2140 NYC horrible but exciting, even attractive.

New York 2140 cover

KSM is considered a very realistic science fiction writer, but isn’t he also overly optimistic? Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and 2312 reveal a lot of hope for the future. Is Robinson being too hopeful? We have to ask ourselves if civilization can survive runaway climate change? Robinson’s book suggests we’ll adapt and survive like our species always has in the past. But can we really bank on that trend? I’m not so sure.

I don’t think humanity will become extinct if we don’t reverse rising CO2 levels. We are adaptable. I do think we risk devastating billions of lives, and jeopardizing civilization as we know it. Our current successful civilization depends on relentless economic growth. I don’t think that’s sustainable. The real challenge of climate change is mutating our current civilization from free market capitalism to steady-state capitalism. The neo-nationalism we’re experiencing today suggests humans aren’t adaptable to such a change.

In that sense, I’m not sure Kim Stanley Robinson is right in thinking we’ll continue to succeed like we’ve had in the past. I worry we’re approaching a breaking point. That might happen yet in his novel, I haven’t finished it yet.

I’m listening to the audio version of New York 2140, but I admire it so much, I’ve decided to get the book version and read it too. I don’t think one reading will be enough.

JWH

Technology & Education

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Does technology improve education? Are people in the 21st century better educated than those from the 19th century? If we use current politics as a metric I’d have to say no. We have a president who constantly makes absurd claims and is backed by a majority in congress. Those wealthy, “well-educated” leaders are currently claiming that the loss of healthcare is a gain in freedom. Evidently, they’re depending on Americans being poorly educated to get their treasured tax breaks. The Republicans have made a political movement out of anti-education in era when technology brings us tremendous amounts of information. Obviously, all that availability of knowledge hasn’t helped the average citizen see the con.

Technology has apparently improved all walks of life except education. If schools reflected the productivity we see in agriculture, medicine, manufacturing, and communication, we’d all be Einsteins. Why hasn’t that happened? When I sat down to write this piece I assumed technology was an overwhelmingly obvious benefit to education – but the little devil on my left shoulder started muttering snarky observations. She might be right.

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The world wide web has made living on Earth feel much smaller. We can Skype folks from any country in the world, so why aren’t foreign languages skills booming? Anyone can study free lectures from ivy league universities on science and mathematics, yet STEM scores aren’t improving.

We have access to more news, information, knowledge, data, experiments, statistics, scientific studies than ever before in history, yet America elected a human whose grasp of reality is so slight that his observations are the daily butt of comedians. We have more data but not more wisdom. We’re unable process the daily tsunami of information that our tech tools gives us.

This leads me to theorize that being well educated comes from inner motivation and not external tools.

JWH

A Personal God of My Own

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sometimes I wish I had a personal God for amicable chats when I have insomnia in the wee hours. Lying in the darkness, I often wish I had someone to share philosophical thoughts. I picture this personal God like a kid’s imaginary friend, or even a big pooka rabbit, like the one Jimmy Stewart conversed with in Harvey. I imagine my imaginary deity as a mashup of Mark Twain, Robert Sheckley, and Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe this God should look like Clarence the guardian angel, clueless and hapless. (Again, a Jimmy Stewart reference.) I suppose my guardian angel could look like the suave Dudley (who looked like Cary Grant), but that wouldn’t be as funny. Loretta Young would make a sexy guardian angel, and I can picture her being very insightful.

(I wonder how many people under 60 get my angelic movie references?)

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I once dreamed I had sex with God and was shocked (in the dream) to discover God was a woman. She was a stout matronly female in her sixties, with big soft bosoms, who looked somewhat like an older Sophia Loren. In this dream, I’m having very pleasurable sex with this zaftig lady, and my reaction was fucking an older woman was a lot of fun, especially one so jolly – but then I realize she was God. Seeing my shock she laughed at me with a deep throaty laugh, like the laugh my father’s mother had. I’ve always wondered what Freud would have made of that dream.

I was in my forties at the time. When I woke I was a little embarrassed to be enjoying a sex dream with a grandmotherly woman. (It didn’t bother me she was God.) I’ve had some very strange dreams over the years, and I’ve run into God before – but not as this woman.

So I suppose my personal God could be a she. I might even prefer that. When I first thought of having a personal God the name Fred popped into my mind. A good, no-nonsense name. I could have some great conversations with a God named Fred. But I sort of like God being a woman. Probably, I’ll call her Gladys or Gloria.

I’ve been an atheist since I was eleven years old. I remember my mother making me go to church as a kid, and me trying hard to believe. I even asked to be baptized thinking it would let me see what everyone claim to see. But after nothing was revealed, I took the path of unbelieving. I’ve never been the kind of atheist that advocates disbelief. I know too many people who find great comfort in theism to ever want to take it away.

And when I say I’m an atheist, I mean I have no doubts. God does not exist for me. When I talk with God, I know I’m pretending. It’s better than talking to myself, but not by much.

I believe we are all bubbles of consciousness that have accidently emerged into this infinite sea of random reality. I use the word reality because I don’t believe the universe is everything. I believe reality is quite indifferent to us and infinite in all directions and dimensions. People want a God because they want a father figure. They want their lives to mean something. When I think of my imaginary personal God, I’m really pretending I’m talking to reality. I know reality isn’t listening and doesn’t give a shit, but I like to pretend otherwise.

Many of my atheist friends would like to talk to God too, to curse the creator for all the suffering they see and experience. I’m not that way. I’d like to thank God for my existence. I used to have a lot of questions, but I’m satisfied now with what I know and don’t know. There are some things I’d like to kid ole Gladys about, though.

Like last night, I had friends over to watch A Man Called Ove, and at one point in the film, I glanced to my left and noticed my friend’s foot. It was beautiful. And I don’t mean in a sexual fetish way, but in an existential existence way. Gladys, why is one portion of reality more beautiful than another? Why are we here and not nothing? Why is the foot more aesthetically appealing than other objects in the den? You can be very weird at times. Your sense humor can be so trying – I can understand how I got old, fat, and bald – but why not shut off the sex drive as we age? Very funny, Gladys.

I accept the random nature of existence. I even accept what I fear and don’t want. So I’m content without God, but bantering with a personal God could be satisfying. It would be fun to have Gladys to chat about the beauty and absurdity of this existence.

“By the way Gladys, can you explain Donald Trump? That’s really going too damn far!”

JWH

Canon DSLR v. iPhone 6s Plus

‘by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, February 23, 2017

How important is it to own a camera when our cell phones are cameras? Today I took pictures at the botanic gardens with my Canon Rebel Xsi and my iPhone 6s Plus. It’s not quite comparing apples with apples but I tried taking similar shots. I’ll show the test photos in pairs, with the camera on top, and the phone below.

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iPhone---bridge

I might have made a mistake leaving the HDR (high dynamic range) mode on the iPhone. The park does not look this lush. But here’s a comparison of two close-ups (camera/phone). It’s easy to see the Canon camera gathers more details.

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The Canon sensor is a CMOS APS-C 12.2 megapixel, sized at 22.20mm x 14.80mm, at 5.20 microns per pixel pitch. The iPhone has 12 MP, f/2.2, 29mm, 1/3″, 1.22 µm pixel size sensor. So they both have the same 12-megapixel rating, but the Canon’s sensor is giant compared to the Apple’s sensor. (Bigger is better.) See “Camera sensor size: Why does it matter and exactly how big are they?” Here is a graphic from that article that shows the various sensor sizes in comparison. The iPhone is the dark blue box, and the Canon is the dark yellow. Still, the iPhone photo competes fairly well, especially if you’re only going to put your snaps on Facebook. Some cell phones do have larger sensors, like the darker of the two greens.

I’d love to have a camera with a full-frame sensor, but at over $2000 that won’t happen.

Sensor size comparison

In terms of taking photos, the Canon was much easier to use, even though it’s much bulkier to carry. Ease of use was mainly due to not seeing the iPhone screen in the daylight. Peering through the camera’s eyepiece is great. There are cell phones that have brighter screens than Apple’s, meaning they’d work better outdoors. I’m not sure I’d want to switch to Android just for that, but it might be a consideration for some. But holding a phone for taking pictures is not pleasant compared to holding a camera. However, the trade-off of always having a phone, a device that fits in my pocket, is a major consideration.

Here are three more photos. They illustrate the fact that the iPhone is naturally more wide-angle than the Canon with the 50mm lens. The middle shot using the phone is zoomed in and should have less detail quality because of it. It was also not taken at the exact location of the Canon shot. Plus, the un-zoomed phone shot, with the HDR setting seeing more sky, dramatically makes the iPhone photo stand out. The sky was not that blue. The colors from the iPhone photo are completely false, but the photo is much more eye-catching.

DSLR---islandiPhone---island-zoomediPhone---island

This urges me to get a good wide-angle lens for my Canon. The field of focus is good for the camera and phone, but I much prefer the details in the camera photo. My 50mm 1.8 lens is a low-end Canon. I wonder if an expensive lens would get me a dramatically better photo?

Looking at these pictures brings up another issue – color fidelity. Our reality is not color calibrated. We all see the same scene differently because of our eyes see differently. So do our cameras. The top view, using the Canon camera is closer to how I remember seeing the colors.

Right now I’m not aiming for artistic photography. Creative photography manipulates the colors to be more appealing. People are attracted to vivid colors. At the moment I’m into photography to record what I see. In day-to-day life, when we look around we see everything in focus (if we have good eyes or proper glasses). It’s usually when we try to switch from looking around to focusing on something up close that we have trouble focusing. Cameras don’t focus that easily. That’s why I love a deep field-of-focus – it’s more like natural seeing. It’s more realistic. So are unsaturated colors. Nor do I want the weird effect we get from a too-wide angled lens or the flatness of a telephoto. (At least for now.)

Considering all of this, the camera does the job for my requirements. I could probably adjust how I use the iPhone camera to my needs, but it’s awkward to hold, even though its easier to carry around. It’s also very difficult to frame photos when shooting in daylight. When I was bracing my shots on a pylon next to the water, I worried about dropping the phone, but the camera was protected by a neck strap. Plus I had a better hold of it. All-in-all, using a camera for photography is more practical than using a phone for photography. And that overrides the fact I always have a phone with me.

Yesterday I was thinking I might want a new camera, but I think this old Rebel Xsi does fine. I just need to use it more precisely. A higher quality wide-angled lens might get me closer to what I want, but it might not be necessary.

JWH