Should I Delete Facebook?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 23, 2018

Cambridge AnalyticaI’ve seen at least a dozen stories about people deleting their Facebook account because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Just now I read two news stories about Elon Musk deleting Space-X and Tesla pages from Facebook even though they had millions of followers. There’s lots of anti-Facebook sentiment percolating on the web right now with many users jumping ship.

But how many? Facebook has two billion users. Even if a hundred million people quit in protest will it matter? There have always been folks who grumped about Facebook. They are much like snobs who sneer at watching television. I look at TV and Facebook every day. Not much, in either case, but they both provide their little pleasures. And, little pleasures count for a lot in our social security years.

People fear Facebook because of identity theft or invasion of their privacy. But is any place safe on the internet? And if you read about Cambridge Analytica you’ll see that people happily filled out forms and shared them with friends. You’d have to be an idiot to not know that everything you do on the internet is monitored. No one pays to use Facebook. Have you ever wondered how Facebook makes its money? Our habits and opinions are valuable. Keeping America supplied with cat videos is expensive, so Facebook has to make its money someway.

When I’m on the internet I assume Big Brother and all his brothers and sisters are watching. I don’t care that they know I love cat videos and scans of old science fiction magazine covers. I have no idea what that information reveals about me politically or fiscally.

Before people rush to delete their Facebook account out of some kind of misguided protest, I think they should analyze what they get out of the service. Facebook keeps me in contact with relatives and friends I seldom or never see anymore. Facebook keeps in contact with people around the world that have the same esoteric interests as I do. And I enjoy seeing a half-dozen funny videos every day. They’re as good as a dose of Geritol.

For example, I’ve been reading old science fiction stories from the pulp magazines. I’ve made three online friends in South Africa, England, and here in the U.S. that also like to read such stories. I don’t know how many people left on this planet still love to read science fiction short stories in old pulp magazines, but Facebook has helped me find them. Facebook also keeps me in contact me with relatives I haven’t seen in fifty years.

Besides, Facebook helps me keep tabs on my wife. She always checks in wherever she goes.

I also find it very pleasant to share cartoons, videos, songs, beautiful photos, sayings, etc. with other people. For example, here’s one called Millennial Job Interview that has a passing dig at Facebook. I thought pretty damn funny and very revealing about modern times. Evidently, the young consider Facebook a hangout for older people. That might be true because most of my Facebook friends are older. And most of the people who write about deleting their Facebook accounts are younger. Should we consider this anti-Facebook movement an ageist attack on Baby Boomers?

I wonder if Big Brother finds what we share more revealing about our personalities than the facts typed into queries like Cambridge Analytica’s? For many people I know, what they share on Facebook reveals more about themselves than they reveal in person.

I share a lot on Facebook. My friends and family must think I’m odd from some of the content I post. However, I use both Facebook and Twitter as external memory banks. My biological memory is beginning to fail. I wish Facebook existed when I was young so I could scroll back into the past. When I scan through my timeline it’s like a stream-of-consciousness of what tickled my fancy. I’m sure if Big Brother applied a powerful artificial intelligence program to my timeline it could psychoanalyze my posts and provide me with the ads customized for my personality.

But you want to know something funny? If you asked me if there were ads on Facebook I’d tell you no. My mind is so good a tuning out ads that I don’t see them on web pages anymore. I do use an ad blocker, but they aren’t completely effective. I do know there are ads because I see them when I consciously go looking for them. But psychologically I don’t remember ads on Facebook. That might hurt them more than deleting my account. Sorry, Mark.

I suppose I could quit Facebook. Many who have quit Facebook claim their lives are so much better for it. Maybe mine would be better too, but I sure would miss those cat videos.

JWH

 

Writing Goals at Age 66

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Writing is focusing thoughts. Herding your thoughts into an essay reveals the chaos of thinking. When I was young I wanted to be a science fiction writer but that was not meant to be. Now that I’m retired writing is the hobby that keeps me sane. It’s vitally important to have at least one hobby when retired because the purposelessness of waiting to die can get existentially challenging.

fountain pen

Having goals in the last third of life can be tricky. The primary goal when aging is staying healthy. Working at maintaining health can be both time-consuming and energy draining. Any other ambitions depend on mental and physical vitality. Some days my batteries are so low all I can do is daydream and listen to music. But when I do have extra energy I want to make the most of it, and that means writing.

When I first retired in 2013 I had a long list of hobbies I wanted to pursue. I’ve since learned I can only get better at one skill. I can piddle around with many interests, but if I want to see actual progress requires focusing on what I know best. Because I’ve stuck with it, that’s writing. However, at 66 my writing ambitions are tiny compared to what huge dreams I had in my twenties. Anyone young reading this essay should heed this advice: Do it now.

I’ve written over 1,500 essays in the last ten years, and most of that was piano practice. I’ve improved but my progress has been slow. Theoretically, there are magnitudes of possible improvements left to achieve, but it all depends on my health. Realistically, I know I’m not going to start pounding out bestselling novels. I have to match my goals to my vitality.

For years, I’ve been content with blogging and writing for a few other websites. I’ve recently started a new series, “Reading the Pulps” at Worlds Without End that’s got me excited. On the other hand, my efforts for Book Riot have declined as I’ve realized my perspectives might not be suited for a site where the readers are so young and mostly female. For the last few months, I’ve struggled to find something to say that would appeal to that audience. That struggle has led me once again to think about my writing goals.

Writing for this blog is easy, maybe too easy, and not challenging enough. Writing for another site requires thinking about the audience. This blog allows me to write anything I want. I write to please myself. I’m happy if others want to read it, and I try hard to make it read-worthy, but its primary purpose is to let me think out loud while practicing my writing skills. My goal has always been to write at least two essays a week for this site.

When I write for another site I realize I have to write content that helps that site achieve its goals. Other websites build audiences to make money. Their readers want reading satisfaction or they won’t return. My job as a content provider is to be so useful that readers will remember and keep coming back.

Book Riot makes money by showing ads or getting readers to buy books from an Amazon affiliate link. It takes a lot of page hits to make money from ad views. It’s faster to make money from link sales. Thus, my essays need to be either very positive about books or about something that inspires many page views. I know how well I’m doing because I’m paid a portion of what the page makes. I’m not making that much, so Book Riot isn’t making that much off of me. One writing goal I’m considering is to write something more appealing to their audience. This has become hard, but I haven’t given up completely. I love the challenge. I contracted to write two essays a month for Book Riot but I’m not sure I can keep that up for a third year. It would help if I could find an ongoing gimmick or angle.

Worlds Without End is slightly different. Right now it’s mostly a database system for readers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to find new books to read. WWEnd’s appeal is seeing how many books you’ve read on over fifty notable lists. It’s quite fun to use but users tend to come use the database for a while and not come back. The creators of WWEnd want to attract a community of fans that routinely participate in a growing list of new features. They want content contributors like me to help attract science fiction fans to that community. Like Book Riot, WWEnd’s audience is hardcore bookworms, but the age and gender demographics are wider. They do narrow reader interest to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, and science fiction is my main interest.

Most people who write about books write about new books. I’m more interested in old books. That limits the appeal of my essays. Currently, I’m having a lot of fun writing about stories that came out of the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. I have no idea how many readers are interested in that topic. (It’s pretty damn narrow, don’t you think?) However, one of my sub-goals is to get better at writing about the details of history, even if its a very tiny slice of history. That involves a lot more research. Lucky for me, that research coincides with what I love reading at the moment. I’m actually quite anxious to write two essays a week for this project.

If you’ve mentally kept a tally, you know I’m committing myself to 4.5 essays a week. I can actually do that if my health holds up. On bad weeks I’ll be behind 4.5 essays. However, I have two more goals. I want to try writing fiction again. Just short stories, but even that is probably way too ambitious. I have thousands of hours of momentum behind essay writing, but except for thirty unpublished short stories and two novel attempts from about twenty years ago, I have little experience writing fiction.

Writing fiction might always be a pipedream for me. However, I’m mostly reading short stories these days and that’s making me want to try writing one too. I think this goal goes beyond the limits of health. I’m finding it extremely difficult to start a new discipline as I get older. I feel like a fish in an aquarium. I’m reminded of my all-time favorite short work of science fiction, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a story about limitations. Delany was a young black man becoming a writer in the 1960s, so he knew all about overcoming limitations. You can read it here.

My last goal, and probably the least obtainable of all is to write a book about science fiction. There are countless books about science fiction and few people read them. I believe I have a unique slant on the subject. Mentally, I can’t imagine working on a project as large as a book, but I can imagine writing fifty blog essays. Each essay could be a chapter in a book. If I added one more essay to my weekly goal I could finish a book size project in one year.

There is a reality to making plans in the last third of life. We’re on a downward slope, and it’s hard to plan for erratic ever-shrinking vitality. In the first third of life, it feels like we have unlimited potential. Even in our middle work years we still feel we could do more if we could only find the free time. But now that I have all my time free I’ve discovered it’s not all useful time. Sixteen hours a day does not equal sixteen hours I can apply myself.

There’s one last factor. I think it’s age-related. The desire to make an effort. That desire fades more and more as I get older. Often now I tell myself I should be doing something and I mentally reply that I don’t want to. It’s so pleasant to just sit and daydream, or hang with friends, or read a book, or watch television, or listen to music.

The sirens of small pleasures are more alluring than ever.

JWH

 

 

 

Poor Man’s Time Machine

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 12, 2018

Some days you just want to live in another era. Statistically, we live in the best of times. If you’ve read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, you should feel safer about war, crime, and violence. Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress promises to make us feel better about everything. Bill Gates is calling it his all-time favorite book. Yet, 2017 was a very depressing year for me because of Donald Trump. 2018 should be even more depressing because there’s no sign that Trump will be impeached or quit.

time-machine-steampunk-clock

Whenever I watch the NBC Nightly News it makes me wish I had a time machine. Sadly, I can’t afford one. When I read Global Citizen I feel like I should be doing something to help the world because that site shows how people can make a big difference. But to be honest, I’m old, set in my ways, and don’t want to get out in the world anymore. When I look at Congress I see a rabid pack of old white guys snarling and snapping at each other to shape America with their narrowminded beliefs. It’s time for women, youth, and diversity to take the reins.

I don’t think the world needs input from another old white dude, so I’m retreating from the rat race by reading books. What’s hilarious, those books are mostly by old dead white guys. Maybe it’s like the old Tarzan movies, and we’re like a dying elephant knowing where to go to our secret graveyard.

I’ve been time traveling back to the late 16th-century by listening to The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame. When Montaigne was still in his thirties he retired by retreating to a tower in his castle, bringing a desk, chair, and a thousand books. There Montaigne contemplated reality by comparing his personal experiences to what he read. Along the way, he invented the personal essay, which is why I consider Montaigne the Patron Saint of Bloggers.

Montaigne remains essential reading for jaded bookworms because he explains the usefulness of all those dead white writers of history, the ones remembered in The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Listening to Montaigne makes me understand why 19th-century intellectuals were so big on classical studies. By the way, if you have a detailed scholarly bent, love annotations, and notes on textual variations, you might prefer the M. A. Screech translation. Listening to the Frame translation makes me feel like Montaigne is talking at me. It’s very smooth.

And I highly recommend you listen to Montaigne on audio because he’s a rambler, and rambles on for over a thousand pages. But, if you prefer to hold a book in your hands, I recommend the Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete Works, also translated by Frame. It’s easier to hold and has a nifty ribbon bookmark. However, you’re still holding a 1,336-page book. Because there’s no ebook edition with a Frame translation, I’d recommending getting older Cotton/Hazlitt translation from the public domain for your carry around everywhere on your phone edition. Amazon has many 99 cent Kindle editions, but I picked this edition because the text reformats nicely on my phone.

(By the way, I got turned onto Montaigne from reading How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.)

When I’m not back in the 16th-century I spend a lot of time in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, either by watching old television shows and movies, or reading old books, or listening to old music. Recently I’ve been listening to a playlist of music from the 1920s and 1930s created from ten volumes in a series called The Big Broadcast.

I’m still having big fun reading through The Great SF Stories #1-25 (1939-1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. These stories were from the great science fiction pulp magazines. It almost feels like I’m living in 1940 when I read the stories and play music from that year, especially when I get so deep into a tale that I forget it’s 2018, and a maniac runs the country.

I’ve fantasized about redecorating my living room so it only contains furniture and objects that could have existed before WWII. We bought the house my wife grew up in after her parents died, and left the living room unchanged with the old furniture, lamps, and pictures on the wall. I imagine smoking a pipe wearing a smoking jacket while sitting in one of the blue chairs reading a July 1939 issue of Astounding Stories.

Susan did add an antique floor standing radio she bought at an estate sale. We gutted the old equipment from it that didn’t work, but left the knobs and the frequency scale. I could build a computer to hide inside it that played pre-war radio shows and music. I could put mint copies of old books, slick and pulp magazines on the coffee table. Then play Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong while reading and imagine I’m back in the past.

I’d have to concentrate hard not to remember Donald Trump. Actually living in the 1930s would be horrible compared to today. I’m just nostalgic for its pop culture, well some of it. For example, I’d have to make sure I played “All of Me” instead of “Strange Fruit” when listening to Billie Holiday.

Sadly, there is no utopia to escape to. Steven Pinker is right, now is the best of time for humanity. The future is unknown. I hope trends continue and things continue to get better. But as long as Donald Trump is in the news I just can’t imagine it.

JWH

Free Will and Exercise

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 28, 2018

I’ve always been doubtful about the concept of free will. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become a complete skeptic. If we had free will would anyone be fat? If we had free will would anyone be self-destructive? Maybe I lack free will and other people have it because some people always do the right thing. Or maybe, those people who succeed have other internal motivating factors pushing them. For example, it could be all those men and women who faithfully work out at the gym are compelled by relentless mating impulses and not free will.

I have found that pain is an effective but imperfect motivator. I have chronic back pain. I also have clogged arteries.  Both will nag me incessantly if I don’t eat and exercise properly. Chest pain and shortness of breath is a wonderful motivator, but I inconsistently obey its commands. Immobilizing back pain will also get my attention but I don’t always listen. In both cases, I do just enough to get those two nags off my case. Why don’t I do more?

The Thinker

If I truly had free will I’d exercise regularly and diet until I got down to a healthy weight. Intellectually I know making those choices could rid me of my pain burdens and even give me freedoms I haven’t had in years. So, why don’t I do what needs to be done? Obviously, a lack of free will.

Other folks might say its a lack of willpower, but I disagree. I say free will is where willpower should come from. Let me use an example.

I have spinal stenosis which causes numbness in my leg that can lead to back pain. I also have some bad discs in my lower spine that can cause dull back pain. And if I let both get out of hand I get tight muscles in my lower back that causes very sharp back pains. I can’t handle anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs. If I eat a healthy diet I can keep my inflammation in check and reduce the numbness in my leg down. If I exercise and maintain a symmetrical posture for sitting and sleeping I can keep my discs happy. If I do both I don’t experience muscle pain. It’s like walking a tightrope.

My doctors have always told me my spinal stenosis would get worse but I’ve been able to keep it in check by faithfully following my diet, doing physical therapy exercises, and working out on my Bowflex machine. I’ve been doing this for years, and have kept the numbness and pain to a minimum. It never goes away completely, but I keep it at a level I consider okay.

Everyone once in a while I’ll rebel and skip a day or two of exercising. I just want to have a vacation from my routine. But it always costs me. If I vacation too long I pay severely where I’m laid up using heating pads and taking drugs that upset my stomach. Interrupting my routine starts a downward spiral and I have to fight hard to regain control.

Recently I took a vacation, lost control, and couldn’t get it back. I thought I’d finally reach the point where things would get worse like my doctors told me. That was depressing. I had to take drugs that totally tore up my stomach. At which point I had to stop taking the drugs. I figured I had to do something different. I remember I had started doing Miranda Esmonde-White exercises last year and they helped.

Here’s the thing. When I feel good I do less to help myself. If I had free will I would always know never to stop doing what’s good for me. I don’t decide to do right because of my willpower or free will, I do it because of pain. At least I respond to pain. I know people who don’t. They do nothing to help themselves and just suffer.

My current free will crisis is the knowledge that doing the Miranda Esmonde-White exercises is the best thing I’ve done for my back in years. In fact, for a few days, I felt no pain whatsoever. That was remarkable. Of course, the first thing I did when this happened was to start eating bad food and skipping my exercising. And the pain came back.

The Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch exercises showed me that I had a lot of tight muscles I wasn’t stretching in my normal physical therapy exercises, and when I loosened them up my back felt wonderful. I could sit with my legs crossed. I could slouch while sitting. I could sit in chairs that usually hurt my back.

I’ve been doing episode 1003 (Season 10, third episode) “Spine Stretch for Posture” daily since January 1st – 28 days in a row. There are 29 other episodes in the Season 10 DVD set I bought. Intellectually, I know if I systematically did more Miranda Esmonde-White episodes I might get much better. Yet I can’t make myself try them. I’ve been faithfully doing episode 1003 every day because it keeps the pain at bay but I can’t push myself to do more. Why?

Free will is an iffy concept. But I think of it this way. I don’t believe in souls, but let’s use the concept of a soul as an illustration. Think of the body as an automobile and the soul as the driver. I would say free will is the ability of the soul to decide where to drive the car. I don’t believe in souls or free will because our conscious and unconscious minds are completely integrated into our bodies. They can’t be separated. My conscious mind is only a fraction of the whole. Evidently, my body and unconscious mind also want to drive.

If we had free will we’d have complete say over our body and unconscious mind. At least that’s my theory. Sometimes I think my conscious mind can trick the other two.

My body and unconscious mind don’t like eating healthy or exercising. They constantly try to con me to quit being good and doing what they want. But I’ve learned that I can fool them by repetition and conditioning. I’ve been able to muster up enough free will and willpower to make myself do episode 1003 every day this month. Sometimes its a struggle. I’ve discovered it helps to do it first thing in the morning. I just tell myself I can’t do anything fun until I do my Miranda exercises.

At first, it was really hard. My muscles were tight, I lacked the stamina. And the exercises seems confusing to my uncoordinated ways. I can’t dance because I can never remember the steps. So following Miranda always feels clumsy. Even after doing this routine 28 times I still struggle to remember the order of the exercises. This is another revelation about my lousy memory. At first, I thought it might be another sign of aging, but then I remembered I’ve never been able to remember song lyrics or melodies, even to songs I’ve heard a thousand times.

I’m reminded of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. He started out with eight, but eventually added a ninth, but others have suggested even more mental abilities. Free will or lack of free will might be due to a combination of ability levels.

Types of multiple intelligences

My solution has been to relax and just go along with the DVD. Over 28 days I’ve gotten much better at following Miranda’s moves, and even learning routines I hated. And the routines I hated were always the ones I had the most trouble following. But persistence has paid off. I realize Miranda was right, stretching all my muscles helps do the routines and erases my chronic pains.

Now, you’d think learning this powerful lesson would allow my free will to decide to do the right thing every day. It doesn’t. It’s a constant struggle. I resent giving up those 23 minutes. My unconscious mind and body like total freedom to be lazy and wanton. They hate that my conscious mind is always wanting to do something that requires discipline. For my whole life, I’ve hated to put anything on my calendar. Even if it’s something fun and exciting like a great concert.

My conscious mind is trying to fight this though, to trick my unconscious mind and body. I keep thinking if I could only remember the Miranda Esmonde-White routines I could do them throughout the day during odd moments. They say sitting is this new smoking, so doing something every hour would be great for my overall health. And, I wouldn’t feel like I have to follow a set routine. The trouble is I can’t remember the routines. Oh, I can remember them in a haphazard way, but I really need to be organized and stretch every set of muscles through the day.

Part of the problem is I follow the routines visually and I have a very poor visual memory. I wish each routine had a name. I’ve thought about watching all 30 episodes and trying to create a total list of routines and give each a name to memorize. And then work to condition my unconscious mind and body to do a few routines each hour during the day. That might fool them I’m not having to dedicate myself to regular exercising period.

I’d love to give up having to exercise every morning before I can start my day. I hate losing an hour to a scheduled routine. I tell myself if I would stop once an hour and do a few minutes of stretching I’d end up exercising more and I might be able to give up the morning routine and even the Bowflex machine. Miranda claims her stretches is all the exercising an older person needs, and that might be true. I feel like I stand taller, have better posture, and have more strength in my arms.

Which brings us back to free will. If I had a choice this is what I want. (Well, what I really want is to eat anything I want, never exercise at all, and still be healthy.) If I had free will I should be able to say, “This is something that works and I’ve decided to do it.”

Getting old is a pain in the ass. Wearing out is a pain in the ass. I recognize I must work harder and harder to maintain my dwindling vitality and wellbeing is just how it’s going to be. I just wish I had the free will to do what I need to do without having to fight sloth and gluttony.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

When Sense of Wonder Wanes

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 22, 2018

The essential goal of science fiction is to inspire a sense of wonder. Science fiction is most powerful to young readers. Many hardcore science fiction addicts spend the rest of their lives strung out trying to recapture that sense of wonder they found in youth. Sadly, sense of wonder fades in two ways. We become jaded as we age, and science fiction becomes dated.

Amazing-Stories-1928-Nov-small

The dynamics of this loss of wonder came to me as I listened to the new audiobook edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, edited by Robert Silverberg that was first published in 1970. I enjoyed listening to these old science fiction stories tremendously, but that joy was fueled by nostalgia for my lost sense of wonder. I’ve been recommending this audiobook widely because I want science fiction anthologies to succeed in the audiobook marketplace. However, I got an email from my friend Mike that makes me want to write a warning to go along with my recommendation.

Mike was enjoying the stories until he got to “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein, a story that first appeared in 1940. I told Mike this was the weakest story in the book for me. I’ve read it many times, and have heard two audio versions. All the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame were voted into the collection by the newly formed Science Fiction Writers of America after 1965. Each included author could only have one story. I never could understand why they picked “The Roads Must Roll” for Heinlein. I would have picked “The Menace from Earth.” But evidently, this story still had a sense of wonder to the SFWA members when they voted for it. But I first read “The Roads Must Roll” just before they voted when I was a young teen, and the idea of rolling roads seemed stupid to me even then. They were older and voting their nostalgia.

Then Mike sent me this email about “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon from 1941:

I think “Microcosmic God” is a terrible story. It makes the plot of “The Roads Must Roll” seem intelligent and elegant.

The two main characters are dreadful. Kidder is a cold-blooded killer who happily massacres the Neoterics whenever they have not followed orders to his satisfaction. Conant is a silly Saturday afternoon matinee villain who wants to take over the world. Oh, brother! Conant reminds me of Snidely Whiplash. How do you take a story seriously with flat characters like Kidder and Conant?

The Neoterics are a clumsy deus ex machina. You might as well give Kidder a magic wand and a book of spells. This is one of the most preposterous plot devices ever devised. It takes stupid to a new level.

There is no character development. The plot is stale nonsense, complete with bad guys spinning their revolvers on their trigger fingers. I’ve seen better plots in Charlie Chan movies.

I don’t know how or why this is considered a good story by the science fiction community. It’s awful.

Mike is completely right in his criticism, but I still enjoyed the story because I could imagine the sense of wonder it created in 1941. Even though it depicts cruel events, they are widely imaginative. I even gave it an A when I sent Mike my grading of the stories:

  • A+ “A Martian Odyssey”
  • A- “Twilight”
  • B- “Helen O’Loy”
  • C “The Roads Must Roll”
  • A “Microscopic God”
  • A- “Nightfall”
  • C “The Weapon Shop”
  • A+ “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”
  • A++ “Huddling Place”
  • A- “Arena”
  • A “First Contact”
  • B- “That Only a Mother”
  • A “Scanners Live in Vain”
  • A+ “Mars is Heaven”
  • A “The Little Black Bag”
  • B “Born of Man and Woman”
  • B+ “Coming Attractions”
  • A “The Quest for Saint Aquin”
  • A+ “Surface Tension”
  • B+ “Nine Billion Names of God”
  • B “It’s a Good Life”
  • A+ “The Cold Equations”
  • A “Fondly Fahrenheit”
  • B+ “The Country of the Kind”
  • A+++ “Flowers for Algernon”
  • A+++ “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”

Jupiter-red-spot

I’ve wondered for decades if 21st-century young people reading 20th-century science fiction stories would find a sense of wonder in them. The golden age of science fiction is supposed to be twelve, but would a 12-year-old today still find a sense of wonder in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame? Has its sense of wonder faded?

I know my own sense of wonder is in decline, but then so is my heart and mind. As we get old we wear out. My sense of wonder isn’t what it used to be. For example, I just read Ocean of Storms (2016) by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K. Brown. If I had been twelve when I read it, I believe my sense of wonder would have been wowed. It essentially recycles 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973) with the movie Apollo 13 (1995) and adds modern thriller clichés, evil conspirators, contemporary politics, genetic manipulations, and a bunch of hard to believe details. If I hadn’t already encountered all those classic science fiction ideas I would have loved this book. Because I was jaded by a lifetime of science fiction thrills, this book was only ho-hum. It offered me nothing new.

Ocean of Storms was our modern selection for my science fiction book club this month, the classic selection was A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864). The Verne book was more fun to read, but it offered no sense of wonder either. Its science is completely dated. However, it was fun trying to imagine how 19th-century readers had their sense of wonder blown away. Was science fiction in the 1800s more mind-blowing to its readers because they knew far less than we do today?

As an older science fiction fan, it’s extremely rare for me to encounter a new science fictional idea. In fact, I can’t come up with a recent example. Maybe Spin (2005) by Robert Charles Wilson or Quarantine (1992) by Greg Egan. Most of my enjoyment of science fiction comes from understanding the history of science fiction and working to comprehend the classic stories in the context of their times. I admire current novels like Aurora (2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson for using science fiction to speculate about the limits of space travel, but I generally don’t find much sense of wonder anymore.

Science fiction has become adventure stories set into older science fiction speculative ideas. It’s retreads of retreads. Modern science fiction is often far better written than older science fiction, and modern science fiction writers have superior storytelling skills. But the sense of wonder I found in my teens is gone.

Don’t feel too sad for me. I now find a sense of wonder in studying science fiction. Science fiction used to provide me a sense of wonder about the future, now it provides a sense of wonder about the past. There are two types of science fiction. The common form is entertainment, but the form I like are those stories that explore the event horizon between what science knows and what science might discover. I believe the stories included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame were selected because at one time they all speculated on possibilities existing on that event horizon. Just because science has advanced, destroying most of that speculation doesn’t mean their feats of imagination are diminished.

JWH

Remembering Old Science Fiction Short Stories

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I was messaging a friend in South Africa this morning, Piet Nel, about reading old science fiction short stories in retrospective anthologies and best of the year annuals. Piet is reading through the Terry Carr’s Best Science Fiction of the Year series (1972-1987), but he doesn’t have them all. This morning’s message told me how he used ISFDB.com to find the stories in The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4 elsewhere. #4 was the first volume he didn’t own. For example, here are all the places “Born with the Dead” by Robert Silverberg has been reprinted. Piet already had four copies of that story in other anthologies. Piet was able to find all the stories #4, either in books he owned or online.

I thought I’d take the same approach to The Best Science Fiction Stories 1951 edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty because I can’t afford to buy it. That annual came out the year I was born. By chance this month, I’ve already read two of them, “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson and “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber when I listened to The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One. [See the results of this game at the end of this essay.]

The-Best-Science-Fiction-Stories-1951-ed-Bleiler-and-Dikty

This morning I read an essay by James Jackson Toth, “Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment in Dedicated Listening” that resonated with me. Toth laments that streaming music is overwhelming him and he longs for the days when he had a limited collection of records he knew intimately. I feel the same way about science fiction. I’m not giving up on reading new science fiction, but my old mind can’t grasp much more new stuff. I’ve decided my specialty of knowledge will be science fiction published from 1946-1985. I need something to hang onto, and this will be it. Mostly, I chose this topic because I already know a bunch about it — why bother becoming a specialist in something other than what’s already crammed into your mind. But also, I’m attracted to this era because I enjoy talking with other folks that also love this era too.

This got me to thinking:

  1. How many people love to read old science fiction short stories from this era?
  2. What SF short stories from this era are anthologized the most?
  3. What are the essential anthologies to collect to get the top stories of this era?
  4. What stories would I put into an anthology if I was an editor of SF 1946-1985?

It’s not that I haven’t thought of these ideas before, and answered some of them in “The Best Science Fiction Short Stories.” That’s the most popular essay I wrote for the Classics of Science Fiction site. CSF is not a very popular, but that page has gotten 2,600 hits. Not many in the big scheme of things, but it suggests there’s a fair number of readers like Piet and I. Overall, I would guesstimate there are not that many fans of old science fiction short stories, probably much less than a thousand in the world, and we’re dying off all the time. I’m sure young folk would rather watch Black Mirror, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, Dust films, Short of the Week Sci-Fi, or The 7th Matrix for their short science fiction fix. I love these shows too, but I forget their details almost immediately.

Baby boomers were born 1946-1964 but I would think their formative reading years lasted until 1985. Only a small percentage of boomers got into reading science fiction, and for most of them reading science fiction was only a casual interest. I do know there are around 11,000 members to Space Opera Pulp, a group on Facebook for people who love covers to old science fiction magazines. Probably for most of them, that’s a minor nostalgic diversion. I wonder how many still buy, collect, and read old SF stories?

There are a handful of blogs that reflect a love for old science fiction short stories. That suggests we are the keepers of a very weak flame. I see many of the same names posting comments at these sites. Are we the fans of a dying art form? I don’t think science fiction is dying out, but I do think new science fiction gets most of the attention. Pop culture is inherently linked to generations, and the Baby Boomers who loved reading science fiction short stories from 1946-1985 make up a dwindling cohort. There is a bit of generational overlap, with folks older and younger than Baby Boomers still loving science fiction from that age of science fiction digests.

There are more anthologies than ever collecting the best short science fiction of the year, including one from the prestigious Best American Series. And there’s plenty of places that publish new short science fiction. I believe the readership is smaller today than we I was growing up, but the science fiction short story is still going strong despite the overwhelming popularity of media science fiction. I’d love if I could read and retain knowledge of all this new stuff, but I can’t. I try, but it’s a struggle to remember. Reading new stories from the past will also be difficult to remember, but reading them feels like I’m finding missing pieces of a puzzle I’ve been working on my whole life. Filling in those blanks are reinforced by surrounding memories, so that might help to learn new stuff.

And, I do find more and more pleasure nostalgically returning to old science fiction, and I don’t think I’m alone. Maybe I can keep it in my head. I think it is a mentally good thing to have a specialty to care for when aging.

Here are some sites I read by fans of old science fiction stories. (There are more, but memory limits me at the moment. Be sure and send me your link if you focus on this era of science fiction.)

Game Results

These are the stories I have for The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 edited Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty. Links are to ISFDB. This goes to show how well some stories from 1950 have lasted, although I should admit that the anthologies I own them in were assembled decades ago. I guess I should admit that they are mostly forgotten stories.

Stories I Have in Anthologies

Stories I Have in Magazines

Stories I Don’t Have

JWH

Could A Robot Read Jules Verne?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 12, 2018

I’m listening to the AmazonClassics audiobook edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, a novel originally published in France in 1864, and first translated into English in 1871. The translation I read was by F. A. Malleson, from 1877, and is considered a pretty good translation. Verne suffered from many bad translations, often ruining his reputation in the English speaking world.  The story is impressively narrated by Derek Perkins. His voice perfectly matches this 19th adventure tale. This audiobook sounds more thrilling and real than most of the silly movie and television productions I’ve seen.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 26Journey to the Center of the Earth 36

However, I have one problem with Verne’s story. It’s not very believable. Of course, it’s well over a century-and-a-half since Verne imagined it, and science has progressed a great deal, but was it even believable in his day? I wish I had an AI robot that could read and understand fiction and nonfiction. I want to talk to it like Alexa but it would be much smarter. I want my AI mind to crawl across the web and answer questions for me. Google is so goddamn stupid that it drives me crazy. I searched for [19th-century reviews of “journey to the center of the earth”] but it only brought up modern reviews of recent book editions and movie versions. I thought my query was quite explicit. If Google is such a leader in AI, why can’t it understand my query? Don’t you get tired of all the crap Google searches return?

I want to build an AI mind that I could input texts of all the science fiction stories and novels from the 19th and 20th centuries and have it analyze those works by correlating that content with information found on the internet. Journey to the Center of the Earth was originally published in a magazine for boys. I’ve love to find diaries, journals, essays, and books by 19th-century readers who read Journey to the Center of the Earth when it came out and to know their reactions. Verne adds a good deal of science from his day into his story to make it sound plausible, but was it?

Hollow Earth theories and stories go back much further than Verne. Were its proponents and speculating on real possibilities and taken seriously? Or, were they the UFO nutters of their day? I get the feeling that the concept of dinosaurs had inflamed 19th-century imaginations and Verne used his story to speculate how dinosaurs could still exist. He was doing the same thing that Doyle’s The Lost World and Crichton’s Jurassic Park did, creating a theory to present live dinosaurs. I have many theories about the evolution of science fiction, and having an AI collaborator could really help.

I’d love to build an AI robot that I could chat with me about science fiction. I picture talking my digital companion like Mannie did with Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) by Robert A. Heinlein. I imagine creating my AI friend like the AI machines in When HARLIE Was One (1972) by David Gerrold or Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers, where Harlie and Helen came into consciousness by interacting with a human mentor. I fantasize talking with this AI and collaborating on articles about the history of science fiction. And what if it woke up and became conscious?

Computer scientists are building AI machines using machine learning to do all kinds of things today. If they can master games like Chess, Jeopardy, Go, and old Atari 2600 games, or analyze MRIs and X-rays for cancer, why couldn’t they learn everything to know about science fiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about learning ML (machine language) using Python. I’ve been daydreaming about building a machine after reading (“Deep Confusion: Misadventures in Building a Deep Learning Machine,” “The $1700 great Deep Learning box: Assembly, setup and benchmarks,” and “Build a super fast deep learning machine for under $1,000“) or just paying for a hosting service like Paperspace. There’s a new edition of Python Machine Learning: Machine Learning and Deep Learning with Python, scikit-learn, and TensorFlow by Raschka and Mirjalili that could get me started, or Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and TensorFlow: Concepts, Tools, and Techniques to Build Intelligent Systems by Aurélien Géron.

Of course, I doubt if I could ever program such a fantastic AI machine or even learn the basics of ML at my age. I’ve been watching a series of videos from Google Developers on Machine Learning Recipes. I’ve also been reading about Natural Language Processing with Python, a book I bought years ago when this idea first came to me. The concepts aren’t hard, but it would be just the first steps on a journey of ten thousand miles. I’m not sure I have the concentration power or memory space anymore. I’m probably too old and too feeble minded to do it, but that doesn’t mean some youngster couldn’t.

I’m quite envious and jealous that young people today can choose this kind of work for their career. I programmed databases during my work years, and that was fun enough, but imagine getting to develop robots, AI minds, and machine learning? What an exciting time to be a programmer.

JWH