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

Christmas 2017 – Still Stuck in the 1960s

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 25, 2017

Much can be revealed about myself from examining my Christmas presents this year.

  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – Blu-ray
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – 2-CD 50th Anniversary edition
  • The Complete Monterey Pop (1967) – 3-disc Blu-ray edition
  • Trouble No More by Bob Dylan – live recordings 1979-1981

I already own various versions of these works. This is the fourth time I’ve acquired Sgt. Peppers (LP, CD, remastered CD, and now remastered again 2-CD).

beatles-sgt-pepper-50th-anniversary-2xcd_01

I wish I could say my wife knew me well enough to have picked these out, but they were all put on my Xmas-2017 wishlist at Amazon by me. Susan actually knows what I like, she just can’t keep up with what I buy. All the other items on my wishlist, except the Arduino starter kit, were pop culture items from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Is being stuck in the past a sad state of psychology, or just normal for a 66-year-old guy? One reason why I keep rebuying the past is to get higher resolution recreations of art  I resonated with from my teen years. I generally never got to experience the Sixties directly except for a few exceptions. For example, I got to see Cream live on their Farewell Tour in 1968 in Miami. I never got to see The Beatles, The Byrds, or The Beach Boys in the 1960s. I didn’t attend Monterey Pop or Woodstock. I got to see a lot of legendary bands in the 1970s and later, even ones who got their start in the 1960s, but that’s not the same.

Until I started getting Rolling Stone Magazine in 1968, most of my news of rock and roll pop culture was highly delayed. It was mostly gossip told by DJs or news items in Life, Time, or on television. The Beatles were always in the news. Most of my favorite bands didn’t make it to television except for cheesy fake performances on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971), American Bandstand (1952-1989), Shindig! (1964-1966), Hullabaloo (1965-66), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969). I remember one time catching a great segment on Jefferson Airplane on the Today Show, where they demonstrated the liquid light show. Made me want to run away to San Francisco.

In a way, buying these old recordings is like trying to return to the past. I know that’s impossible. Maybe a better way of looking at it is to say I admire artwork from a particular era. That too is revealing. I feel closest to all forms of pop culture from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I also love work from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and stuff from the 1980s through today, but there’s a powerful affinity for art created for us Baby Boomers. I’m in-sync with modern television and movies but completely out-of-sync with the contemporary music scene. (Maybe I’ll catch up one day before I die.)

It’s interesting that one of my Christmas gifts is from the 1979-1981 era when Bob Dylan was going through his Christian phase. Back then I bought Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) as they came out. I even saw Dylan live during this time period. But I didn’t feel for this era Dylan like I did for 1964-66 Dylan or 1961-1963 Dylan. Listening to this new bootleg series of 1979-1981 performances I realized I had missed out on something great. Dylan had left me behind, and now I’m catching up.

Am I really hearing the 1960s again? This time when I played the new version of Sgt. Peppers it was both the same and subtly different. In 1967 when I first heard the album, I played the LP on my little console stereo. That technology defined the sound for back then. Today I played it on a Denon AV receiver through four floor standing Infinity speakers. The sound filled the room and Susan and I felt like we were in the middle of the soundstage.

I’ve always admired Sgt. Peppers as a concept album, and loved many of its songs, but I’ve never played them heavily in repeat fashion like I do all my favorite tunes. Sgt. Peppers feels like a music hall performance that needs to be listened to from start to finish. It never sounded better than it did today. This remastered edition felt airier than the last remastered edition, and I thought in a few places I heard things that weren’t there before. Of course, that’s probably tricks of memory. I rediscovered once again what a wonderful work of art this album represents for The Beatles and the 1960s. Just buying Sgt. Peppers again and taking the time to listen to it intently with no interruptions makes it worth the dollars.

Merry Christmas! What did Santa bring Y’all?

JWH

Science Fiction in the 22nd Century

by James Wallace Harris

I’ve been wondering if most science fictional concepts were invented in the 19th and 20th centuries and if we’ll just be reprocessing old speculative ideas during the 21st century?

Just now I was flipping through the listings of all the forthcoming and recently published science fiction on Audible.com. Most of the titles and authors were ones I had never heard of before. There’s tons of science fiction coming out, but after reading their blurbs I’m not sure if any of them offer new SF inventions. Well, if you’re young and haven’t read tons of science fiction, then there are lots of new ideas to encounter. But if you’re old and have been reading science fiction for decades it seems like all the ideas have been used before. Is it possible we’ve already explored the limits of science fiction?

RingworldFiction has been around for thousands of years and most plots are retreads. Quite often scholars of fiction try to consolidate plots into a limited standard number. When I first started reading science fiction in the 1960s it felt like an author would come up with a new SF idea, and then spin an old plot around it. For example, Ringworld, very neat idea, but the plot reminded me of Oz books. Regular folks go on an adventure, meet lots of strange folks, see lots of weird sights, then travel together until the story ends.

I’m not sure if Larry Niven invented the concept of a ringworld, but Wikipedia credits Olaf Stapledon for imagining the first solar megastructure which we now call a Dyson sphere. I’d think a ringworld would be a creative variation. Just in terms of solar megastructures how many original structures could be imagined and how many creative variations? I’m sure there are limits.

I thought the 1938 story “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey was the first story of a man marrying a robot, but then this year I read “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller from 1895, and I wondered just how old is the idea of building spouses to order? The second half of the 20th century has countless romantic stories between humans and robots. The idea is well-liked now, but when will it be too known to entertain?

A twelve-year-old kid could read a new story today about a love affair between a machine and homo sapien and think it a fresh concept. I guess that means science fiction in the 22nd century will still provide a sense of wonder even if the ideas it presents are actually very old. Of course, by then people might actually be marrying robots. Who writes about first trips to the Moon anymore? Will science eventually ruin all the practical science fictional ideas by actually constructing them?

Arcadia by Iain PearsYet, I wonder, even worry, that science fiction has run out of good ideas. I don’t mean good ideas for plots, which are endless, but good ideas like space travel, time travel, dimensional travel, intelligent life besides us, creating intelligent life, creating artificial life, digital realities, etc. I’m currently reading Arcadia by Iain Pears which blends fantasy, science fiction, philosophy, myth, and religion into one clever story. If feels very original because of its complexity of plot, but is it original in ideas? Arcadia is great fun, but I keep hoping Pears will surprise me with an original SF concept. Pears constantly delights me with creative twists and turns of his story though, and maybe that’s good enough for an old jaded reader.

Biology is more complex than the chemistry of cosmology and seems to offer unlimited permutations here on Earth. But still, I imagine there’s a limit to what biology can produce. Writing science fiction is a spin-off of biology, but ultimately, won’t it have limits?

Maybe artificial intelligence will surpass what biology can produce, but AI will exist in a reality of physics, chemistry, and biology and may develop a greater degree of complexity than we’ve seen in biology. If atoms and molecules had been intelligent could they have foreseen the creative complexity of biology? I doubt we can imagine what AI minds will create, maybe their own version of science fiction. But I’m wondering if we intelligent biological creatures have limits and if our science fiction also has limits.

If we evolve Homo Sapiens 2.0 and they are much smarter than us, will they find more to occupy themselves in this solar system and galaxy than we could? More intelligence might actually produce interstellar drives but isn’t colonizing another planet still just colonizing another planet? Is building a galactic empire the most complex thing we can imagine doing?

Olaf Stapledon back in the 1930s imagined some very far out SF ideas, many of which were recycled in Star Trek and Star Wars. Aliens with psychic powers is a very tired concept though. It’s closer to the magical hopes of religion than science. One problem with being an older science fiction fan is we eventually feel all the ideas we encounter in science fiction are old.

The result of this jadedness is a sense of confinement. The perfect story to illustrate how I feel is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I call it the aquarium effect. We pity poor fish that live in an aquarium because they have a barrier they can’t cross. We all live in an aquarium, but we don’t all know where the glass is.

I wonder if science fiction hasn’t already found all the aquarium walls that confine us but we can’t know it because of the limitations of our minds. One of our major flaws is we imagine more is possible then is possible. Religion blinds people to our real limits, and so does science fiction.

JWH