Deception, Self-Deception, Confabulation, Bullshit, Narrative Fallacy, Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 23, 2019

I’ve been studying Plato. Plato is good for the soul but hard on the ego. Humans often lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Our superpower is self-deception. As children, we are told stories that we desperately cling to for the rest of our lives. We adapt to reality by making up explanations that usually end up being fictional. And when our stories clash with reality, the odds are we embrace the story. We aren’t rational. We are rationalizing creatures. We seek what we want by lying to ourselves and the people around us.

Anyone who follows the news knows this.

If a noise wakes us up in the middle of the night we don’t rush outside to investigate it. We start making up explanations trying to imagine what the noise could be. We tell ourselves its a burglar. Or if we’ve seen a raccoon lately, we’ll say to ourselves that Rocky is in the garbage can. Or its the wind, or a fallen tree limb. We can’t help ourselves. Instead of saying we don’t know we imagine that we do. Generally, we imagine wrong.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb called this tendency the narrative fallacy in his book The Black Swan. Neuroscientists call it confabulation. As children, we ask how the world was created and our parents tell us answers to the best of their abilities. How we are raised determines a lot of what we believe. If you were brought up a Southern Baptist more than likely their ideas about God are what you’ll believe for the rest of your life. However, if you were kidnapped at birth and given to a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia you’d grow up believing their local variation of the origin story.

Psychologists and philosophers talk about deception and self-deception. We like to think this problem belongs to other people. Our intuition tells us we’re right. We feel right. But are we?

We want to believe what we learn growing up is the truth. Few people are intellectual rebels that reject their upbringing. Not only will you maintain your beliefs, but you will also rationalize and lie to defend those beliefs.

A good percentage of humans learn to lie to get what they want. Conscious lying sometimes involves knowing the truth but working to suppress it. Liars are different from bullshitters. To a degree, liars are conscious of their lying. Bullshitters, as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt in his philosophical essay “On Bullshit” often don’t know they are lying, or even know what is true. Their grasp of reality is usually tenuous. They have told so many lies they don’t know what’s true anymore, but they have learned they can say anything to get what they want. Their concept of reality is so fluid that it changes from moment to moment.

The trouble is we bullshit ourselves all the time. We are especially dangerous to ourselves and others when we think we know more than we do. This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People who suffer from this cognitive ailment are clueless about their own lack of knowledge. They firmly believe they are smart and wise.

We have so many built-in brain functions for fooling ourselves that I have to wonder if it’s even possible to know the truth if it came up and tapped us on the shoulder.

Most people dismiss philosophy as abstract useless wordplay. I just finished reading Plato in the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein and I’ve developed a new respect for Plato and philosophy. Goldstein came up with a very clever gimmick for presenting Plato’s philosophy. She imagines him alive today going on a book tour in America. She has his ancient words respond to our modern conundrums by fictionalizing Plato in different settings arguing with people of varying beliefs. I really recommend listening to this book on audio because these discussions are quite dramatic and effective. When Plato goes on a conservative talk radio show it’s hilarious. But I think my favorite encounter was between Plato and a neuroscientist who was going to scan his brain. The section where he’s on a panel with two opposing authors dealing with education was also quite brilliant.

However, the gist of Plato at the Googleplex is to question what we know and think we know. I’ve been lucky to be the kind of person that’s usually gone against the current, but I realized in later years my skepticism has not always protected me from bullshit. I’m acquiring new levels of doubt as I age realizing my own persistent gullibility.

For example, as a life-long science fiction fan, I’ve had high hopes for the future. I realize now that many of my cherished science-fictional beliefs are no better than what the faithful believe about God, Heaven, angels, and life-after-death.

And there is one cherished concept I have to reevaluate. I’ve always believed that humans would one day overcome their problems with confabulation. 2,400 years ago Plato concluded that only a small percentage of humans would ever be able to tell shit from Shinola.  He felt only a few could ever understand what philosophy teaches. I’ve always wanted to assume that we’re evolving, our knowledge is growing, and our abilities to educate are improving, so eventually, that percentage would be much greater.

That belief might be self-deception. But it might not.

We have to honestly ask ourselves can philosophy be integrated into the PreK-12 educational system so the majority of the population understands their problem with confabulation? This is to assume we can be totally different from who we are now as a species. Are we hardwired so we can’t change, or are we adaptable to change if we can find the right educational path?

This experiment would require raising a generation without fiction. That includes both God and Harry Potter. No Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. We’d have to stop lying to our children, or letting them play with lies and fiction. They’d have to grow up on nonfiction and documentaries instead of fiction, television, and movies.

Children’s entertainment would be limited to sports, games without a fictional narrative component, arts, crafts, and other hobbies. When kids ask why we can only give them answers that we know. For example, if they ask why everything is here we can only answer we don’t know. If they ask who made the world, we can only answer what we know from observable cosmology and geology.

It’s too late for me. I can’t give up fiction. I love it too much. I too addicted. I should be building my own robots and programming them instead of reading science fiction about robots. I wish I was, but it’s so much easier just to dwell in fictional worlds where intelligent robots exist, or we’re colonizing the solar system, or we’re creating utopias.

Fiction offers an infinity of virtual realities we prefer over actual reality. I believe our chronic confabulation is caused by wanting reality to be different from what it is. Buddhists call that desire. Eastern religions teach we should accept reality, whereas western philosophes promote shaping reality to our needs and wants. Western thought is active, it’s all about conquering reality. When we fail we lie to ourselves. Probably we suffer from such great confabulation because we seldom get what we want. It’s easier to have romantic fantasies or watch porn than date than to actually seek out our perfect match.

I think the path lies between the East and West. We shouldn’t be completely passive in our acceptance, but we shouldn’t want absolute control either. It would be interesting to know how people think a thousand years from now. Will they have a more honest relationship with reality? There could be a good science fiction story in that, but then it would be fiction. Maybe there’s another kind of acceptance too. Maybe we have to accept that we are amazing confabulating creatures. It will be a shame when such an imaginative species goes extinct.

And I’m not excusing myself from self-delusion either. My liberal friends and I believe Republicans are only out to reduce taxes and regulations at any cost. That they are either deluded about Trump, consciously lying to get what they want, or they are confabulated by his bullshit. Anyway, they ware willing to back Trump at any cost because Trump gets them what they want.

Like I said, I’m willing to consider this a liberal narrative fallacy. I believe its possible Republicans could be seeing a truth we liberals don’t. However, their stance on climate change suggests they are blind to science. I believe scientific consensus is as close as we ever get to the truth, and I could be wrong about that too. I also know that even though I accept what science says about climate change I don’t act on their conclusions. Oh, I do a token amount, what’s convenient for my consciousness. But if climate change is real, then none of us are doing what it takes to avoid it.

Looking in the mirror and seeing who we really are is hard. That’s what Plato was all about.

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

 

Wanted: Purina People Chow (Formulated for the Aging Geezer)

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 26, 2019

Abstract: Seeking a 100% nutritionally balanced meal plan for my aging body that involves the fewest possible standard meals that can be easily prepared. These meals should never cause gas, acid reflux, constipation, stomach pains, bloating, lethargy,  diarrhea, or any other bodily discomfort.

Trigger Warning: Do not read if you are unsettled by descriptions of bodily functions or euphemistic words that describe them. Do not read if you are depressed about getting older. Do not read if you want to keep all your geriatric surprises until they happen to you personally.

My friend Linda recently asked me why they didn’t warn us about all the weird things that would happen to our body as we got old. Not long after that I was at my doctor and asked her that question. She replied with a twinkle in her eyes, “You don’t want us to spoil the surprise, do you?” I thought, maybe she doesn’t want to depress her patients. I gave her an example to see what she would say. I told her my dick was shrinking. I lamented that my dick had never been big, and now it was beginning to whither. I might have also said WTF? She gave a little knowing laugh. Maybe that was a common complaint from men that she found funny, but I worried that maybe other changes for my little wonder worm were in my future and she didn’t want to tell me.

The other day I saw an article on Flipboard about vagina atrophy. Maybe such secrets of aging are out there and I just haven’t been paying attention. If penises and vaginas can atrophy, what about other organs? Am I peeing so much because my bladder is atrophying? Is constipation a new problem in my life because my intestines are shrinking away? Is all my stomach problems due to my stomach wimping out? WTF? I bet this is TMI, isn’t it?

When I was a kid I could eat anything and it never bothered me. Growing up I don’t really remember shitting much. I can’t ever remember taking a dump at school. And I think I only went to the boys’ room once a day to piss, and maybe some days not pissing at all. Hell, if I was in school today I’d be waving my hand to go to the restroom every hour – at least. And that lunchroom food would give me a stomach ache, heartburn, and gas that would last the rest of the day. In fact, I can’t remember spending much time in the bathroom when I was young, other than those adolescent years of jerking off while pretending to need to take a long leisurely crap, but now I practically live next to the toilet. And it’s no longer because of one-handed reading.

I’ve decided what I need is to study nutrition and create a small repertoire of meals that don’t offend my fussy body. In the last decade, I’ve slowly learned through painful lessons I refuse to accept, that my stomach, intestines, and bladder just don’t like my favorite foods anymore. For example, eating peanut butter now makes me feel like I have a bleeding ulcer. Drinking iced tea or soda pop makes me piss every fifteen minutes. Oatmeal creates enough gas that I could pressurize a natural gas tanker. Fatty foods give me painful acid reflux that feels like I’m having a heart attack. And the list of humiliations goes on and on.

I understand that my bladder is being crushed by an enlarging prostate and I have to pee more often, but if I get constipated or pressurized enough for farting I have to pee 2-3 times an hour. That’s very annoying. I hate to leave the house anymore because I have to piss so goddamn much. My wife is annoyed I won’t go on trips, but the logistics of finding that many bathrooms on the road put travel plans out of the question.

And I don’t mean to be whining. I know people with cancer, dementia, chronic pain, strokes, debilitating diseases, and other depressing conditions, so I consider myself very lucky to only have the puny physical problems I do have. But I figure if I’m going to live another 10, 20, or god forbid 30 years, I need to adapt to a long-term strategy of surviving with the minimum of discomfort. And since much of my discomforts come from eating, I need to buckle down and find out just exactly what my body wants. I feel hostage to my digestive system and I’m ready to pay the ransom.

If Purina offered People Chow that provided everything I needed for optimal nutrition, bright eyes, and a shiny chromedome, I’d eat it three meals a day. I’d forego all eating pleasure just to make turds that slid smoothly out, to be free of gas and bloating, to need to pee as infrequently as possible and especially to have a nice peaceful stomach.

I know I sound like all those old folks who talk endlessly about their bowel movements. But I figured something out last night. If young people had our bowels they’d be talking about their shits and pisses all the time too. Take care of your body because if you don’t it will get its revenge. (No, I’m glad I drank a trainload of  Cokes and chocolate shakes and ate those thirty-three tons of M&Ms.)

What I want to find are meals that satisfy my body’s need for nutrition and causes no physical complaints. I figure I need to eat two healthy meals a day with one snack in between. The problem I face is finding a selection of meals and snacks that are nutritionally balanced. I don’t even need culinary variety.

I know such meals exist because I sometimes go days without my body complaining. Then I’ll eat something and my pleasant digestive detente will be shattered for a week. Being vegetarian complicates things because foods with enough protein are limited. For fifty years I did fine with dairy products, beans, and peanut butter, but now those cause constipation, gas, and stomach pain.

I wish that my healthy diet could be based on ice cream, pie, cake, cookies, chocolate, Coke, and ice tea. Actually, my digestive system loves pie and ice cream, but they make me gain weight. Come to think about it, everything that makes me lose weight annoys my insides. Is just getting fatter the answer?

It’s such an insanely hard puzzle to figure out the right combination of foods that are ideal. If anyone knows of cookbooks for geezers or meal plans for sissy stomachs, post them below.

JWH

 

The Uneducated Unkindness of Youth Censoring the Past

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Yesterday I read, “The Cult Books That Have Lost Their Cool” by Hephzibah Anderson at the BBC online. Anderson snidely dismisses several novels that were considered classics by my generation. Of course, when I was young I was just as quick to dismiss the works my parents loved. History has shown us that revolutionaries tend to eliminate people and art that don’t meet the standards of the new zeal. As an old person, and evidently part of an old guard, I’m seeing more of my history dismissed, causing artists and artists to disappear from pop-culture consciousness. It feels like agism censorship.

I can accept that the young have judged us harshly and found us morally wanting. What annoys me is they don’t have any sympathy for human frailty, and quite often I feel their social media kangaroo courts are conducted without examining the actual evidence. Take for example Anderson’s assessment of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

Based on a road trip from New York to Mexico with Beat muse Neal Cassady, Kerouac wrote what would become the Beatnik’s bible in just three weeks. It took six years to get published and more than half a century later, it exudes tiresome stoner machismo. Kerouac pokes fun at gay people, and isn’t much better where women and black people are concerned. A few years back, a spate of books and films inspired only a flicker of revived interest in his legacy. Boorish egotist or inspired prophet? The jury isn’t just out, it left the building long ago, dancing after the hippies who supplanted the Beats.

I can’t believe Anderson has even read the book. She says Kerouac pokes fun at gay people, but of the three main characters, Kerouac is straight, Ginsberg is gay, and Cassady is happy to have sex with almost anyone. And these men practically worship black jazz musicians. Kerouac hardly takes a machismo stance. He portrays himself with endless faults and emotional weaknesses. Kerouac was like Proust, he struggled to make sense of his life by fictionalizing it. The term beat deals with Kerouac’s existential angst over living in the 1940s and early 1950s. On the Road is about seeking freedom from an oppressive materialistic society. Anderson assumes it is some kind of bro road epic. If anything, Kerouac portrays the beats as Quixotic figures tilting at windmills. It’s a realistic portrait of the times, of men, women, gays, minorities, Mexicans, ethnic groups, and so on. It’s a sad, beat story about looking for kicks and being kicked down. It’s not pretty, but it is honest. Anderson has no sympathy for Kerouac’s suffering and struggle.

Nor is Anderson sympathetic to The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger:

Poor Holden Caulfield. Mired in a funk for more than half a century, the angst-ridden ‘everyteen’ is now regarded by the cool kids as being a bit – well, self-indulgent. His ennui is, if not exclusively a rich-white-boy problem, then certainly nothing compared with looming climate collapse and other woes weighing on the minds of his 21st-Century peers. Plus, in the era of helicopter parenting and geo-tagging, not to mention hyper-vigilant mental-health awareness, the idea that a depressed teen could simply go Awol in New York City for a couple of days is increasingly hard to indulge.

Just because Kerouac and Holden Caulfield don’t meet modern moral standards of 21st-century young people they are shunned and ridiculed. But here’s the thing, every generation is different. Should we erase the past because it’s different? Sure these people are morally and ethically wanting by today’s higher consciousness, but they are still human beings trying to make sense of life by what they knew at the time. The point of reading old books is to understand the past, to see it for what it was, not what we want it to be.

Dismissing Kerouac or Sallinger is cold and callous. Dismissing these writers is a kind of censoring the past. You can’t perfect the present by erasing the past. The ironic thing is Kerouac and Sallinger were revolutionaries like Anderson, wanting young readers to know that the times were changing. Of course, they did their own rejecting of the past too. That’s how it goes. But it’s better to see the bigger picture.

I wonder how Anderson will feel when she’s my age and someone her age now dismisses the cherished art and artists that shaped her generation?

I don’t really expect things to change. I always felt sorry for Kerouac. Kerouac and my father lived about the same years and died young from alcoholism. I wrote an essay years ago called “The Ghosts That Haunt Me” about Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Louisa May Alcott, and Philip K. Dick. These writers had painful lives, but they were outstanding in their soulful writing trying to make sense of those lives. It pisses me off that someone would blithely dismiss them for being uncool. I’m also sensitive about forgotten authors – see my page for Lady Dorothy Mills who has practically disappeared. It just seems hurtful to me that any writer would encourage readers to stop reading any author.

To be honest, I was like Anderson when I first read Kerouac when I was young. I thought it was a novel about thrills. But with every decade of life On the Road changes. I’ve been on the road for more years than Kerouac ever got to live. It takes a long time to really understand what beat means. Hephzibah, don’t be so quick to dismiss On the Road. Read it again when you’re older.

JWH

 

Book Shopping in the 21st Century

by James Wallace Harris, September 22, 2019

It’s early Sunday morning. My wife isn’t up. The stores are closed. And I’m book shopping. I just bought Those Idiots From Earth by Richard Wilson, an author I don’t even remember. I just loved the cover and title. Book shopping is so different from how it was back in the ancient times of the 20th century.

In the 21st century, I perused thousands of booksellers from around the globe in a fraction of a second. From the time I decided I wanted this book till the time I pressed the order button was about 25 seconds. Of course, I’ll have to wait several days for Mr. Wilson’s collection of SF stories to show up in my mailbox.

Maybe I should jump back before I even knew about Those Idiots From Earth. I’m in a Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year created by Paul Fraser. It’s devoted to collections and anthologies of science fiction short stories. I hadn’t posted in a while, so I wanted to find a unique old science fiction anthology that had a cool cover. I was using the Internet Science Fiction Database and searching on anthologies edited by Groff Conklin. Several of his paperbacks had cover art by Richard Powers, a favorite artist of mine. I then clicked over to look at books with covers by Powers. That’s when I noticed Those Idiots From Earth. Checking Richard Wilson’s entry showed a few novels and a lot of short stories. He was a writer I don’t remember at all. If you follow those links you’ll see just how truly useful ISFDB.org is for book shoppers.

Once I saw that cover and title I was intrigued. I’ve owned hundreds of science fiction magazines, so I’m sure I’ve seen the name before, and maybe even read a story of Wilson’s. I just didn’t recall anything this morning. So I got on Google and found a review of the collection by Joe. He gave four stories 5-stars, and the rest either 4-stars or 4.5-stars. I’ve never read any reviews by Joe before, but he did make Wilson’s stories sound like something I wanted to read. I love finding new SF authors with a different slant.

I wanted to test read the title story, but it was never published in a magazine. Luckily, the first 5-star story, “The Inhabited” was in the January 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I checked my collection of Galaxy but didn’t have that copy. But I do have a complete run of the magazine on digital scans. You can read the story on the Internet Archive.

The Inhabited by Richard Wilson

“The Inhabited” is about an alien mind coming to Earth to scout out our planet. Are we worth invading? The alien mind occupies a cat, two men, a boy, and a pregnant woman before ending up in the mind of an insane man. The alien ends up confessing to a psychiatrist. It’s a neat little story. I decided I wanted Those Idiots From Earth and went to ABEbooks.com and ordered a copy. The original paperback was in fine condition and cost $4 (plus $4 shipping).

It took me a pleasurable ten minutes to find out about the book, but only about 25 seconds to find and buy it on ABEbooks. I’m hoping you’re getting the power of the internet for 21st-century book shoppers. ABEbooks claims it has thousands of booksellers in 50 countries selling millions of books. There were three copies available from all those locations. Now that’s efficient book browsing!

I remember the first bookstore I went to back in 1964. It was a little hole-in-the-wall shop in a strip mall in Perrine, Florida. The shop was dark and dusty. I was twelve. It was before I earned my own money. Back then a used paperback was a nickel or a dime – candy money. I had no idea what I was buying, but it was exciting. I knew I loved science fiction, and I’d buy books based on how cool their covers looked.

As I got older I would go all over town looking through old book shops. Whenever I visited another town, I’d look up their used bookstores. There were books I searched for years in several states and cities before finding them. The hunt for a book used to be quite thrilling. Then in my late teens, I learned how to use mailorder rare book dealers, which had its own kind of fun. I could almost always get my book, but sometimes it took years. There were some books I never found until the internet and ABEbooks.

In the 21st-century it’s much easier to track down a used book, but not quite as fun. Without the internet though, I would never have heard of Those Idiots From Earth. I often surprise my friends when they mention a book they’ve been searching for years and I find it in minutes.

I sometimes wish the internet had never been invented. I’m not sure if living in the hive mind of social media is healthy. Nor do I love keeping up with data overload. It does let me find the few people that share my exact interests. But then I have those highly specialized interests because of the internet. I remember when there were only three TV channels, Top 40 radio, and the science fiction section was two shelves of books at the new bookstore. At school, we all talked about the same movies, television shows, and songs. Nowadays every friend seems to have their own favorite show, so there’s less sharing, even though on social media what we do is called sharing.

The internet lets me get up on a Sunday morning and search through millions of books in thousands of booksellers from around the planet in a matter of seconds. That’s pretty damn far out. It’s not the same as riding my bike down to an old shop and spending an hour looking through stacks of unordered SF titles trying to find just the right books to get the most for my quarter.

The times keep changing. I can’t imagine how we can go any faster. Maybe I should wonder how to go slower?

JWH

 

 

Quantifying My Cognitive Decline

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 5, 2019

I subscribe to a service called Grammarly which checks my spelling and grammar as I write. Grammarly sends me a weekly report on how I’m doing. Two years ago it would tell me I was more accurate than 65-70% of their users, referring to grammar and spelling. I doubt even when I was young it would have been much higher. In recent months that number has fallen to 35-40%. And I can feel it. I have to proof my posts countless times and I still find errors after I’ve published. I’m appalled by how bad my writing has become. If I published my first drafts readers would think they were following Charlie Gordon into his descent phase from the book Flowers for Algernon.

I consider this good quantitative data on my cognitive decline. Grammarly does give me some good news. I’m generally more productive than 98-99% of their users, and my vocabulary is larger than 98-99% of their users. The first is explained by being retired and writing for two blogs. The second reflects long term memory. I can tell it’s my short term memory that’s failing.

I still don’t see this as an early sign of dementia, but I might be deluding myself. I think it’s just an aspect of normal aging. We’re used to seeing our bodies getting old because of all the visible physical changes. We’re not used to mental changes because they are less observable to ourselves and the people around us. Unless we talk or act differently, other people don’t see the changes. And we don’t feel the changes unless we try to do something and fail.

I have been noticing the number of times people ask me why I’m not talking. I tell them I’m just listening to them. Or say I’m thinking. But I believe it’s because it takes more effort to put thoughts into words, and when I do talk I can’t remember words, or I verbally trip when saying sentences. My cognitive problems are the most obvious when writing. If I’m just playing with the cats, watching television, or listening to music I feel fine. I believe we ignore our mental aging by doing less and saying less. Of course, many people also ignore signs of physical aging — that’s why so many foolish oldsters fall off ladders.

The real question is: Can we exercise the mind like we exercise the body? It appears we can slow physical decline by being more active. Is that also true for mental activity? My first reaction when I realized I was making more spelling and grammar errors was to quit writing. But I quickly decided that was the wrong approach. I believe writing exercises the mind. Instead of quitting I should work harder. However, I might need crutches. I thought about pilots who use preflight checklists, or how surgeons now use checklists to avoid making surgical mistakes.

I already pay Grammarly to keep an eye on me, but it’s far from perfect. In fact, when I see errors after I published it means Grammarly and I both missed them. I usually proofread my posts four or five times before I hit the published button. Often the most glaring mistakes are last-minute rephrasing where I don’t proof the whole sentence, or whole paragraph again. But other mistakes come from reading too fast and assuming I’m seeing what I read.

I believe my essays give the illusion that my mind is working just fine. Y’all don’t see how many broke things I fix. I use the internet to cheat. It really is my auxiliary memory. And I have unlimited do-overs. Most importantly, I can take all the time I need to say what I want.

I’ve always been a good typist. It’s been the most useful skill I learned in high school. What I typed used to be what I thought. Thoughts came out of my fingers. That’s no longer true. Now my fingers give me sound-alike words, leave out words, type words twice, and even throw in extra words. Quite often I end up typing just the opposite of what I was thinking. While typing this paragraph I created 8-10 alternate words to what I was thinking. Just that could explain the halving of my accuracy score in Grammarly.

[When proofing the above paragraph I had a new insight. What if my typing is as accurate as ever, and I’m merely typing jumbled thoughts when I once transcribed clear ones?]

Writing isn’t the only way I’m seeing increased cognitive problems. The other day I wrote “Untying a Knotted Plot” about my difficulty of understanding a short story. I had to read it four times. Admittedly, it is a complicated story. The author even wrote a couple of comments to help me. That essay was extremely difficult to compose. I struggled with trying to comprehend the story and write about it clearly. Every time I typed the author’s name I looked at the magazine to verify the spelling. I still got it wrong three out of eight times. I proofed the hell out of that piece because errors seem to be popping like popcorn. I felt like I was playing a very desperate game of Whack-a-Mole.

There’s another reason to keep writing. I want to document my own decline. Like the researchers in Flowers for Algernon, they tell Charlie to keep a journal. I’m going to be my own researcher and subject. I think it’s useful to be aware of my diminishing abilities. Aging is natural, and I accept it. I’m willing to work to squeeze all I can from my dwindling resources. What’s vital is being aware of what’s happening. The real problem to fear is becoming unconscious to who we are. Like Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The reason why Flowers for Algernon was such a magnificent story is that we’re all Charlie Gordon. We all start out dumb, get smart, and then get dumb again. Charlie just did it very fast, and that felt tragic. We do it slowly and try to ignore it’s happening. That’s also tragic.

JWH

 

What’s the Legacy of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Last night I watched “Summer of Love” on PBS’s American Experience. If you have a login for PBS you can follow the link and watch it. Or try your Roku PBS app. I’ve seen this documentary before, it originally appeared in 2007, but I guess PBS wanted to capitalize on the Woodstock 50th anniversary.

Watching “Summer of Love” was a bummer, a bad trip this time around. I remember back in the 1960s how badly I wanted to run away to San Francisco and become part of the counterculture. I thought a revolution was going on and I was missing out.

Over the years when I’d watch these remembrances of 1960s counterculture it would be with nostalgia. This time around I realized my nostalgia was all gone. At 15 it would have been fun for a while, but you have to watch between-the-scenes. There’s only so much prancing in the park you can do before it gets boring, and you can’t stay high forever. And I’ve lived in communal situations a number of times in the 1970s and it wasn’t all peace and love.

This past week I also watched documentaries on Woodstock and Altamont. Between Monterey Pop Festival on June 16, 1967, and Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, the 1960s counterculture reached adolescence and then died a tragically early death. However, the dreams of what people wanted from the counterculture still persist. They have haunted us for fifty years.

We kept the long hair, beards, colorful clothes, free love, music, and dope, but we never found peace and harmony, we never freed ourselves from the 9-to-5 grind, we never escaped capitalism. We foolishly believed utopia was possible. We tried very hard to integrate and free ourselves of racism but we’ve never really succeeded. Both women and minorities have made great strides in society but we haven’t reached equality. In the 1960s the counterculture believed we could all transform ourselves. We thought we could clean up the environment, treat all life on Earth with love, and redesign capitalism to be kind and just.

It just didn’t work out. We can see the counterculture legacy in the 2020 candidates for the Democratic Party. We’ve convinced half the world to care about the environment but even the most idealistic of us can’t stop using plastics. Burger King might sell veggie burgers but we still have massive factory farms of animal torture. We know the use of fossil fuels will destroy us yet we still drive cars and electrify our homes with coal.

I think there have always been hippies with dreams of living kinder lives. Jesus and his disciples are one example of keeping a counterculture dream alive for two thousand years. Yesterday I listened to “Episode 38: The new anti-capitalist science fiction” of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. They just won the Hugo award for Best Fancast. Both are science fiction writers that are leaders in one of the many new countercultures. They assume, they dream a revolution will take place. It’s really the same revolution of 1967. They are full of hope. I still hope, but how much hope do I really have left?

For the 1960s legacy counterculture revolutionaries to succeed capitalism must be transformed. The extreme idealists have always wanted to do away with capitalism but I don’t think that’s possible. Capitalism is too basic to human nature, buying and selling are as natural as eating, even chimpanzees barter and trade. But can capitalism be tamed and civilized? Or will it always be Darwinian, the vicious survival of the fittest?

There is no doubt that society has drastically transformed since the Summer of Love in 1967. That’s proof we can change, but can we change everything about ourselves? If you study history change is constant. We never stay the same. We will never build a society or economic system and then rest with the satisfaction of achieving our goal. Human society is always boiling over with more wants.

The real question we must ask ourselves is: Can we stop being self-destructive? Conservatives want to cling to a dream of a stable past that never existed, while liberals dream of a stable future that’s a fantasy. There’s a type of insanity that grips us all — one where we believe if we all believed the same thing it will solve all our problems. In other words, we’re all revolutionaries. Christians think if everyone was Christian the world would be perfect. Conservatives think if everyone voted their party line we’d solve all our social problems. Counterculture thinkers believe we need to throw out the old for the new. The trouble is there are many counterculture revolutionaries out there now, some quite evil and nasty, and few revolutionaries share the same revolution. It’s chaos, but then isn’t it always chaos?

Read LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It chronicles all the revolutions that are going on right now on the internet. The amount of information in this book is staggering. It has 107 pages of notes on sources. I expect the Summer of 2020 to be more heated and dramatic than the Summers of 1967 and 1968 (and if you don’t remember, 1968 was nasty). The hippies of San Francisco were kids at play and even the fiery student activists in Chicago of 1968 were babes in the woods compared to the radical revolutionaries online today.

The real legacy of the 1960s counterculture is more counterculture. It was easy to spot the hippies on Haight-Ashbury, or Yippies of Chicago, or the Black Panthers, or the SDS, or the Weather Underground. The new countercultures are as visible as electricity in the wires of your home. Read LikeWar. Don’t wait 50 years to watch the historical documentary.

What Dylan said back then is still valid, “‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones?”

JWH