Escaping into Artificial Realities

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 3, 2020

Is it possible to escape reality? We talk of escapist books, movies, and television shows, but aren’t they part of reality too? I’ve been a lifelong science fiction fan, and isn’t that another kind of escapism? Or is my reality one of music, books, movies, and television? Maybe art is artificial reality. Maybe we create art to fashion the reality we prefer over the reality we have? Or maybe we create art because we don’t want to face real reality?

Since I’ve retired I’ve retreated more and more into artificial realities inside my house rather than dealing with the reality outside my house. That’s even accelerated with the pandemic. Yesterday I started reading The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols for a nonfiction book club. Nichols reports on how the Dunning-Kruger effect has taken over society, and everyone wants to achieve political equality for their dumbass POV, no matter how uneducated and stupid that point of view turns out.

Evidently, not only do we seek to escape reality, but reject it too. I found Nichol’s introduction compelling and frightening. I think he’s right that everyone wants to reject experts, to reject science, and assume a view of reality based on their on their own personal narrative fallacy. I don’t know if I’ll find any hope by finishing this book, but it so depressed me that I retreated into The Wham of Sam a 1961 LP from Sammy Davis Jr. — leaping into a reality of an thrilling big orchestra, hip lyrics, and jazzy singing. Then I jumped further back into time, to 1957 to listen to Dream Street by Peggy Lee.

Her band was smaller, the music more relaxed, the mood more dreamy, and I found this reality an alluring call of Sirens. I spent most of the day researching stereo equipment to perfectly recreate that old sound. I want to arrange a room that’s perfect for music but I don’t want to mess with a lot of gear. In other words I want to escape the reality of wires, complicated equipment, or collecting LPs or CDs. I just want to stream high-definition music to great speakers. Right now I’m looking at a Bluesound Powernode 2i with some Kiptsph RP-5000F speakers.

The problem is I don’t have the perfect room for my new escape pod. My wife has the living room and I have the den (we each have our own favorite forms of escapism). The living room is better shaped for music, and I tried to get Susan to trade with me but she wouldn’t. The den is full of windows on three walls, so reality is glaringly obvious. She also didn’t like what I wanted to do to the living room, by covering the windows with soundproofing. Basically, I wanted my TV and stereo at one end, my bookcases on the side walls, and my La-Z-Boy in the middle of the room. It would be my spaceship for exploring artificial realities. But Susan nixed that idea. I thought about buying an extra house, but that would involve too much hassle with the real reality. I could rearrange my current man cave (library/office/extra room) but that would involve getting rid too much of my cherish crap.

I’ve also started noticing some correlations between my chosen escapist worlds. See if you recognize them.

There’s a clue if you compare these photos with the album covers. I have Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, but I spend nearly all my TV viewing watching DVDs of old TV shows. My favorite TV network would be MeTV if it wasn’t for all the damn commercials.

Yes, I’m stuck in the past. Currently, I’ve zeroed in on 1955-1975 for finding my escapist artificial realities. Most of the television shows, movies, music, and reading I like fit in that time span. The obvious thing to think is I’m being nostalgic, but I really didn’t watch those shows or listen to that music growing up. In fact, I hated Frank Sinatra type music, and shows like Perry Mason — those were escapes my parents preferred.

It’s not nostalgia but pleasantness I’m seeking. Modern shows are full of unpleasant aspects of reality. Modern shows have too many guns and killing. Hell, I’m even getting sick of Matt Dillon shooting so many people.

I haven’t completely rejected current reality. I watch the news, and read several articles a day about current events. I’m also reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson because I’m very worried about inequality. Black lives do matter. If we don’t solve injustice, corruption, inequality, and institutional racism, we won’t solve any of our other problems. We all need to work together. United we survive, divided we won’t.

Donald Trump is trying to make the 2020 election a referendum on law and order. He claims he’ll be the law and order president if elected. But why believe that, he’s been the break the laws and create disorder president since 2016. I believe 2020 will be a referendum on consensus. Do we want to work together as a united people and collectively solve our problems or not?

And that brings us back to the Tom Nichols book. If we can’t agree on the facts, if we can’t achieve a consensus view on objective reality, we’re all doomed to retreating into our subjective realities. I’m getting old, and I don’t think society will crumble before I die. It’s practical for me to hide out in the past listening to old music, watching old TV shows, and reading science fiction about futures that will never happen. I’m safe if I don’t live too long.

But if you’re younger than me, or have children, escaping reality is not an option. You better elect a president that has some experience. You better vote for people who will use experts. Vote for people who will work to solve problems for everyone and not pander to crazy folks Dunning-Kruger fantasies.

I’m all for equality, for equality of rights, of equality of economics, of equality of justice, but Nichols is right, we are not equal in knowledge. You wouldn’t want Joe Blow doing your brain surgery. So why elect politicians that know nothing about politics?

Nichols says Americans have rejected experts, and I think that’s true. We all want to think for ourselves, and that’s admirable, but unfortunately, we don’t all have the education and experience to make the right decisions. If Nichols is right about the trends he sees, my guess is there’s no hope for the future. But then I’m not an expert.

Science fiction is about speculating on extrapolations. Unless there’s a paradigm shift, unless there’s a big fucking positive Black Swan just around the corner, all my speculation sees is apocalyptic collapses in the future. Admiring Mary Tyler Moore in old TV shows and listening to Peggy Lee sing is merely enjoying myself on the Titanic while waiting for the iceberg.

We all know we’re heading toward an iceberg. We all know we could even do something. We all know there are people who know what to do. We just don’t want to listen to them.

JWH

Playing All The Albums I Never Bought

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 27, 2020

A subscription to Spotify allows me to play all the albums I never purchased. For example, I called up “The 100 Best Albums of the 1970s” from Pitchfork and saw that back in the day I had bought 37 albums on their list — meaning I missed 63 great LPs.

That includes their #1 pick, Low by David Bowie from 1977. Over the years I have bought several David Bowie albums but somehow I completely missed that one. Not only did Pitchfork think Low the best David Bowie album of the era, but the best album by anybody for the decade. So I played it this afternoon, and their #4 pick There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly and the Family Stone.

I liked both of those albums. I’ll probably play them again, but I bet I would have liked them more if I had bought them when they came out. Music is a product of the times, so my first listening of these old albums is more like time traveling than listening to new music, especially when I read about them now. It’s like studying art history.

Paste Magazine had a whole different take on “The 70 Best Albums of the 1970s.” Low by David Bowie came in at #34. Their #1 pick was Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, which I did buy back then (and later on CD, and finally on SACD). Blood on the Tracks was and is a fantastic album for any decade.

I had owned 42 of the 70 albums on the Paste Magazine list. Probably, that’s due to buying popular albums. I’m sure hundreds of albums, if not thousands came out during the 1970s. I wonder how many I could play now that I’ve never heard and they would be as good or better than those I bought and loved back in the 1970s? In fact, could I have hated albums back then that I would love now?

If you look at the Best Ever Albums site for the 1970s, which appears to rank albums by sales and weeks on charts, you see a whole different view of the decade. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd comes in at #1, and of course, it’s one of the best selling albums of all time. Like Blood on the Tracks I bought it on first on LP, then CD, and finally SACD. Now I just stream it when I think about hearing it.

Low came in at #16 on this list. Pitchfork and Paste Magazine lists have a lot of overlap, but each found favorites the other didn’t. I wonder if I took the time to listen to a few hundred albums from the 1970s, what would my Top 100 be?

My actual favorite albums of the 1970s was, and still is, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. It came in at #20 on the Best Ever Albums list.

Looking at all three lists shows many popular albums I missed discovering back then, and never stumbled upon in the following decades. Oh, there were many albums, such as those by Genesis or The Clash that I missed when they first came out but I eventually bought in later decades. Overall, I missed stacks and stacks of supposedly great albums.

We never absorb all of pop culture. Narrow tastes and limited opportunity keep us from experiencing the complete spectrum of art in its time. Streaming music lets us rectify those limitations if we want. I shunned Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday as a teen for being too the 1960s, but now that I’m old, they are wonderfully timeless.

With Spotify I can now play almost everything from these three lists. Yet, I wonder if my current reaction would be anything like my 1970s response? Every week I’d spend hours in record stores flipping through bins of albums looking for just the right ones to buy. My financial situation limited me to one or two a week, although if I was without a girlfriend or dope I’d sometimes buy three or four. I frequently joined and quit record clubs to game their system and periodically acquire shipments of a dozen new albums. And I often bought or traded albums with friends. So for some peak months, I might hear 30-40 albums.

I used to have this fantasy about burglarizing a big record store and taking one of every albums. Try imagining the logistics of such a heist. With Spotify I don’t have to daydream about stealing albums, although it looks like the system of streaming music is now doing the thieving.

It’s a shame recording artists aren’t paid properly for us to legally listening to those millions of albums. I feel guilty I get so much pleasure for my $10 a month, and all the artists don’t get to become rich stars like they hope and dream. I’m not going to quit Spotify, but I do wish the system could be changed so music creators could their fair share.

Artists now get a tiny sliver of a penny for each time we play one of their songs. I can’t believe they don’t even get a whole goddamn cent. I believe the streaming services should charge us $2.99 a month for accessing their service, and then charge us a penny a song that would completely go to the artists, musicians, and publishers. I believe the split should be one-third to the composers, one-third to the performers, and one-third to the publishers. And the new deal should supercede any previous contracts. I hate that all those great session musicians of the past aren’t earning income from the music I play every day.

JWH

Dang! I Wore Myself Out

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2020

At 68, I can still grab a 52-pound speaker and hauled it all the way from the den to the back bedroom. I was impressed with myself. I even did it again with the left channel speaker. No big deal. Then I started noticing how my old body was beginning to whine. Was I wimping out? Hell, maybe I should have gotten the dolly. And I had the two rear channel Infinity Alpha-50 speakers to go. I plopped down in my old worn La-Z-Boy to rethink my plans.

Was I too old for my stereo system?

I was setting up my Denon system in the bedroom because yesterday I got totally frustrated with reconfiguring once again for my TV surround sound system. I was trying to get 4 HDMI devices inputted into to the AV receiver to automatically switch via the ARC HDMI to the TV and switch with just the TV’s remote. I had three HDMI inputs working for a year, but for some reason adding a fourth HDMI input annoyed the receiver. The video was switching fine, but the sound worked erratically. Modern electronics can be a pain in the posterior, and I knew it was time to get out the manual and study the labyrinth of settings carefully.

However, I’ve reached an age where I just don’t want to fuck with stuff anymore. (I know, I should have said tinker, but I’m getting crotchety too.) It’s like Dirty Harry said, “A dude must know just how much shit he can handle.”

As I approach 70 I feel like I’m riding a horse that’s too old to carry me. Sure I can I grab a big bulky 23.5kg speaker and lug it briskly across the den, up some stairs, through the kitchen, down the hall, to the back bedroom, while almost believing the lies I tell myself I’m still young enough to do it.

An emotional insight from deep inside me yelled, “Act your age — get a smaller stereo system you putz.” So I called my neighbor Paul who was looking for a stereo for his son and gave it to him. They came over and hauled it away in two car trips. (Hey, his son was young and strong, he can handle it.) But that’s 300 pounds of gear I don’t have to ever worry about again. Yet, two days ago I would have been horrified at giving my stereo system away — I love having a big sound system. I’m shocked and impressed I made such a quick decision. Usually, I’m insanely Hamlet for weeks.

Reality kicked hours later. This evening I couldn’t carry a 5-pound speaker to the bedroom. You should see me walking hunched over. I feel ninety-eight. I’m contemplating going to bed early with painkillers and heating pad. I wonder if I’ll ever stand up straight again?

People often talk about downsizing in their retirement years, but I’m learning that means more than buying a smaller house. Today I realized my tiny Yamaha WXA-50 streaming amplifier and bookshelf speakers I use in my computer room is an age-appropriate size and weight for a 68-year guy who is a worn out pug dog. The big 5.1 sound system I gave away is going to be replaced by a single soundbar for my den TV. I don’t even want to mess with rear speakers or a subwoofer. I’ve been studying soundbars and the idea of hooking one up with a single HDMI cable thrills me almost as much as when I was a teen studying Playboy. As an extra bonus, the den will have 5 less speakers cluttering up the floor. No more goddamn speaker wire. And my TV stand will have a nice empty shelf.

Not only do I want smaller things, I want simpler things. Years ago I replaced my huge tower computer with a tiny Intel NUC. I’ve been thinking about going back to a big tower computer again, but my back just screamed, “Don’t do it you crazy old dog. Sit. Act your age!”

Marie Kondo tells us we should ask if our possessions spark joy. My back pain is now advising I ask my stuff if they’re too complicated or too heavy for my declining mind and body.

JWH

How Good a Reader Are You If You Compared Your Reading Skills to Playing a Piano?

James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Most people assume if you can read you can read. But what if reading was a skill like playing the piano and most readers are no better at reading than an eleven-year old with a year of piano lessons. (I’m expecting you to hear a badly played tune in your head.)

What if you could read like Glenn Gould playing Bach? Can you even imagine what that could be like? It would be like having Broadway actors performing in your head. It would be like having the professors from The Great Courses whispering you the annotations. It would be like James Joyce reading Ulysses to himself.

Well, I don’t read anything like that. My inner reading voice is a tone deaf monotone, and my annotations come from a lifetime of half-ass autodidactism.

Growing up I read nearly a thousand books. Because I read so much, I assumed I was a great reader. Beginning in 2002 when I joined Audible.com I often selected audiobooks I had read and loved way back then — when every book I read was great, even those by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Hearing all my childhood favorite books read by skilled readers has shown me just how bad a reader I was when I was growing up and thought I was so great.

And it’s not just comparing my wimpy inner reading voice to professional narrators, or the fact that I was young and wasn’t mature enough to understand everything in what I was reading. I am including my college years in that youthful period, when my mind was at its peak performance, and being crammed with a variety of diverse knowledge.

Listening to audiobooks taught me that I read too fast growing up. That I paid attention to the action and dialog but skimmed over any long passages of dense narrative details. But I also missed the emotional cues, and I didn’t spend enough time picturing the scenes and settings. More than that, I didn’t dwell on the implications of what was being expressed fictionally.

Every so often a friend will say they love the sentences in the books they are reading. I don’t think I ever stopped to admire a sentence.

By the way, I don’t mean to imply that my reading skills have vastly improved over the years. They are a good deal better, but I am no concert pianist at reading. In fact, I have a hard time gauging my skills against others.

Growing up I assumed everyone saw the world in the same way, that our brains and senses were similar. I’ve since learned that our perceptions of reality vary so greatly that if two people standing next to each other watching the same event will interpret it in two distinctly different ways. Since discovering that I’ve paid attention to whenever people describe how they read, and I’ve learned that decoding words produces a wide range of cognitive results.

You can test this observation by asking your friends about what they experience when they read. I’ve been doing this for years and discovered some of my friends have amazing mental abilities that make me green with envy.

Have you ever loved a book and urged a best friend to read it and then been let down when they didn’t respond to it like you did? Have you ever read a classic novel or bestseller and wondered what all the fuss was about? Have you ever read a book about your favorite subject and found it boring?

Part of reading is decoding words in the way the author intended. Part of reading is being on the same wavelength as the writer. Learning to be a skill reader involves words, sentences, and paragraphs, but it’s also involves reassembling the vision the author constructed in their mind that they wanted you to see, and triggering the emotions and philosophical insights they felt.

What if readers could be ranked like chess players using their Elo ranking system? Would I be an 800 or 1200? I’m quite confident I’m nowhere near a master rating. I wish I could be a grand master of reading but I know that’s impossible. We all wish we could be rock stars at our chosen ambitions but we’re not. But just how much can we improve? Can advance reading skills be taught? Can advance reading skills be assessed? I wonder what I’m missing.

My SF anthology reading group on Facebook is reading two stories this week, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster from 1909, and “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe from 1972. I might have tried to read both when I was young because I had anthologies they were in, but I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have liked either. I just don’t remember. The writing style of the Forster was too quaint, and Wolfe’s prose was much too dense.

Reading these two stories in 2020 is dazzling my reading mind, but I hunger to know just how much I’m comprehending, just how much of their totality I’m experiencing with my current reading skills.

I’m reading these stories with my eyes (Kindle) and my ears (Audible) concurrently. I’m doing everything I can to read them with all the possible reading skill I can muster, but I have no idea how skilled that effort is. Am I 50% efficient at getting what Forster and Wolfe intended? Or even 75%, or just 30%? It’s my third reading for Forster and my second reading of Wolfe in recent years. I’ve also read about both stories, and I’m constantly encountering insights into them I missed or didn’t draw the implications the reviewers did.

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is about an old man telling about his childhood, and the audiobook I have has an old man with a pompous or posh English voice reading it. You can listen here:

The setting feels like the French Quarter of a 19th-century New Orleans but it’s actually set on another planet in the far future. Wolfe writes in a baroque style about two boys growing up in a brothel during a decadent era, being educated by a robotic tutor, and slowly learning their bizarre origins. The story is dense, and I’m not sure if I read it ten times that I would find every treasure Wolfe buried away in “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.”

“The Machine Stops” is about an agoraphobic woman blogger who Zooms with all her friends in a country completely controlled by an AI machine. Well, not exactly since it was written in 1909. But when you read it, you’ll wonder if E. M. Forster ever hitched a ride on H. G. Wells’ time machine. Again, there is so much in this story that I can’t tell if I’m little Becky playing her first recital at church or Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff in Russia. My hope is I’m at least Becky as a sophomore majoring in music at college.

I just wished I had some kind of assessment tool to help me evaluate my abilities and progress. I suppose I could go back to college and take literature courses, but I’d prefer something more scientific, something more quantitative, something involving computers and brain scans.

Anyone who has read the works of Oliver Sacks knows how different humans minds can function. Reading isn’t just reading. Our ability to process words into mind movies varies so greatly that it’s impossible to comprehend. Every cognitive ability you can possibly envy in another person goes into the infinite ways in which we process books. Because we can’t see what other people experience when reading we assume it’s like our own reading experience. But it’s not.

In my last third of life I’m struggling to read with greater skill. With fiction, I’ve mostly shifted to reading short stories. Novels take up too much of my precious time, and they are also too indulgent. Short stories, novelettes, and novellas are compact, intense, and offer more variety of reading experiences. I’d like to think I’m an old dog that can still learn new tricks. I know I’ll never read like a pianist performing at Carnegie Hall, or even at a high school auditorium.

I intuit this from listening to the best audiobook narrators or from watching lectures on The Great Courses Plus. But I have acquired the awareness of my progress and that’s something. It’s a shame we haven’t emphasized the details of reading skills. Oh sure, schools constantly grade kids on reading ability, but we never get enough feedback as to what those abilities truly are.

All I can guess is what you experience in your head when reading is much different from what I experience. I just wonder if there is any way to compare experiences? I participate in a number of reading groups, but the best we seem capable of is expressing if we like or dislike what we read. We know how much a musician knows because they perform and their performances can be evaluated and compared.

I suppose the real GRE for evaluating reading is writing. By that measure, I also come up short. I struggle to write fiction like a drowning person flails in the ocean.

JWH

Browsing My Bookshelves When My Favorite Used Bookstore is Closed

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 17, 2020

Since I can’t go book shopping, I’ve decided to browse my own bookshelves instead. I’m amazed by what interesting books I find there.

It’s been months since I’ve shopped at my favorite used bookstore, Second Editions. I use to visit it at least once a week. I certainly don’t need any more books, there are already thousands on my to be read pile. Over the years I’ve discovered that my reading habit is entirely separate from my book-buying habit. I love to read and I love to shop for books — I just don’t always read the books I buy.

The other day I browsed through my entire Audible.com library of 1426 audiobooks looking for all that contained short stories. Time and again I was amazed by what I owned that I hadn’t listened to yet (I can’t resist a good sale). Once again, I told myself I needed to stop buying new books and read or listen to what I already own. But I love going to Second Editions, the used bookstore run by our Friends of the Library.

I never know what I’ll find. Sometimes it’s an old book I’ve been hoping to find again, or it’s a book I never knew I wanted but had to buy, or it was a hardback copy of a book that just came out that I was thinking of paying full price — that’s how I got Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson for $5.

I’ve only got five six-shelf bookshelves to browse — but I’m overwhelmed by how many books I find that I want to read. Strangely, it’s 100%. Well, maybe not so strange. Because of my limited shelf space, I tend to donate books back to the Friends of the Library of those I’ve read or decided I’m not going to read. My self-imposed rule is I can’t own any more books than I have bookshelves. I’ve technically broken this rule because I’m currently allowing myself a legal loophole by shelving some books at the top of my clothes closet. Those three six-foot-wide shelves really do look like bookshelves. (But don’t tell my wife!)

Second Editions bookstore is closed for the duration of the pandemic. I know everyone is missing their favorite places to hang out, so I shouldn’t whine about missing mine. However, I do miss it. And browsing my own bookshelves looking through the books I often bought at Second Editions does help a little, but not much. It does help me empathize with young people who can’t resist gathering in public places during a pandemic.

I wonder if I pulled out a few books, and gave myself a twenty if the experience would feel more like visiting Second Editions? Maybe Susan could pretend to be the clerk at the cash register and we could chat a bit about books?

JWH