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

 

Why Did You Stop Writing About Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 16, 2019

old-science-fiction-magazines

I haven’t stopped writing about science fiction. If anything, I’ve become more obsessed with science fiction history. However, I’m discovering only some of my Auxiliary Memory readers like reading about science fiction while many others have told me they tune out those posts. I don’t blame them, there are many subjects in this world I tune out too.

So for my fellow Sci-Fi fans, I’m posting my essays about science fiction to The Classics of Science Fiction website. Those of you who want to only read about science fiction can follow my blog over there. Information about subscribing and RSS feeds are at the bottom of individual blog post pages.

Auxiliary Memory will remain my blog about my personal life and opinions about everything that isn’t science fiction.

It’s been interesting to see how my friends and family relate to my blog posts. I write about a variety of topics. Every relationship is a Venn diagram of common interests. Out of all the people I know personally, only two like to talk about science fiction. However, I have many online acquaintances that I share an interest in science fiction. In many ways, I feel more connected to those people because we’ve zeroed in on a subject we love.

People use the term “blood relation” to mean a special bond. I’ve always felt that a “shared interest” is more significant than shared DNA. I have many interests, so I have many kinds of friends. The internet is especially useful because it lets us connect with people who share our most unique fascinations. I’m currently focused on old science fiction magazines and anthologies. Most of my conversations about this topic are with five people scattered across the world. I figured all told, there are probably less than a thousand people interested in old science fiction magazines and only a few dozen in old science fiction anthologies. What percentage of 7 billion would that be? Extremely tiny.

I write about a variety of subjects but I’m finding only some attract the general reader. Most people who read blogs like to read memoir-like narratives rather than essays on abstract subjects. Blogging is an extremely insightful hobby. Most people enjoy chatting with other people, but if they are going to take in 1,500-word chunks prefer reading books. Reading a blog is more like listening to a friend talk a blue streak than reading an article in The Atlantic.

In the old days, I’d be writing what I write for a diary or journal, and I’d assume no one else would be reading it. Blogging is like keeping a diary that you leave around for anyone to read. It’s a weird art form, but it’s also my chosen retirement hobby. So I shall continue to experiment with what it can do. One experiment is to separate out all my ideas on one topic into a blog just for that topic. It’s fun to distill a subculture.

JWH

 

 

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates Part 1

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 25, 2018

After writing “Analog Reading in a Digital Age” last week, I decided to try harder to get deeper into what I read. I’m tired of consuming so much knowledge but retaining so little. I have a two-person book club with my friend Linda where we read a nonfiction book together and discuss it a section at a time over the phone. Currently, we’re reading We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The first essay comes from May 2008, “This is How We Lost to the White Man.” It is subtitled “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism.” Writing about race is not something I normally do because it’s very easy to saying something wrong. I know I can’t speak for black people, but in truth, I can’t speak for white people either. I am an introverted person that has always been disturbed by emotionally charged people. Racists scare me with their inflamed ugly feelings. Discussing race in America often sets people off, so I avoid such talks. But I believe all nonwhite people are unfairly treated in our country and it’s a subject everyone needs to know.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in this essay is very hard for me to comprehend. It is easy to understand the unfairness of racism but difficult to evaluate solutions. The idea of black conservatism is new to me, at least in the way Coates used the term. Usually, I see racism discussed as a philosophical/spiritual/moral problem for white people, and a legal/ethical problem for governments. “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” asks what black people can do to solve the problem. That immediately puts me out of the discussion. However, I don’t think it should stop any white person from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it makes me want to know more about how other African-American writers feel about what he has to say. Coates summarizes and rejects past efforts, and that history is very informative.

This essay does remind me of something else I’m studying. I’m watching “Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature” by The Great Courses and taught by Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D. In the first lectures, Bedore describes how utopian visionaries struggled for hundreds of years to create the blueprint for a perfect society. As an aside, she said she believed our Founding Fathers were inspired by utopian writing, but they ignored Native Americans, African-Americans, and women in their design.

Their failure to consider everyone for the American dream is why we suffer so many forms of injustice and inequality today. Bedore didn’t mention it, but Nancy Isenberg in her book White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America suggests the Founding Fathers also intentionally ignored the poor white and landless, and their utopian visions were only for successful white males. Despite hundreds of years of social unrest and amendments to the Constitution, our system still favors the same elites. In fact, the rich have rigged our laws making our system into a plutocracy.

What we need is a complete rewrite of our society’s design. To me, conservatives are those people seeking to maintain the status quo because it rewards their fraction of the population. Liberals are people seeking a system of total equality. I would think all minorities would be liberal, so it’s interesting that Coates calls Bill Cosby a black conservative. It is extra hard to read a ten-year-old essay about Bill Cosby on the day he’s to be sentenced for rape. Coates fairly covers Cosby’s successes and contributions to society but faults Cosby on his outdated approach. Coates calls Cosby conservative because his solutions co-opt the white establishment.

The self-reliant solutions offered by Cosby, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan seemed like positive solutions to me, but then Coates says white people will agree with them. Coates calls them conservative approaches. Okay, I can see that. But, what is the liberal approach? This is where the essay gets tough for me to understand.

As a liberal I want our system to be equal and just for all, but I’m not against self-reliant people who want to work hard to improve themselves. I am against a system where the successful game the laws to benefit only the successful. I’ve often wondered if Republicans aren’t closeted disciples of Darwin. (I also wonder how they can reconcile Christian philosophy with Conservative philosophy when they are so diametrically opposed.)

Part of Coates attack on Cosby is because Cosby attacks modern black pop culture. Cosby has old-fashion values and thinks the young are amoral, undisciplined, and an embarrassment to older morality. But don’t a lot of older folks of all races think that about the young?

The trouble is, as Coates knows, is no matter how minorities act in America they aren’t being accepted and justly treated as equals. Nor does it look like they can do anything to correct the system. What makes it particularly worse today is the Republicans leaders in Congress are starting to act like Donald Trump by using whatever methods to take what they want. This administration has clearly proved the system is rigged. Trump followers all want to feel they could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it because they feel completely self-righteous in their beliefs. Why should they change the system?

To most people living in America, the Founding Fathers created a Dystopia. Of course, those who benefit from its inequality revere its ideals and rationalize its faults.

My real takeaway from Coates essay is how do we redesign the system? How can we amend or rewrite the Constitution, so it creates a society that is equal and just for all? Coates is right, the black conservative solution won’t work, it’s only an appeasement to white conservatives.

I have no idea how to design a utopian society. The conventional wisdom is they are impossible, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. My theory is any system that benefits only a fraction of the population is doomed to fail. A successful utopia doesn’t mean everyone must succeed, but it should absolutely allow all citizens the same chances of succeeding or failing.

In my plans to write about what I read I intended to use a lot of quotes. “This is How We Lost to the White Man” doesn’t allow that because of Bill Cosby current issues. Documenting Coates eight-year-old case against Cosby would be like beating a dead horse. It’s tragic that a man who worked so hard to be publicly good turned out to be so privately bad. I should have picked an easier essay to start my new reading program. I had planned to start with the nine essays in Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, the last book Linda and I read together, but she was ready to begin the new book. Still another dangerous topic for a white male to discuss, but if I’m going to read great essays they will probably cover controversial topics.

The key to understanding our problems is imagining ourselves being other people.

Reading both books vividly illustrates how unjust our system is to minorities and women. Because the top news story for many days has been Brett Kavanaugh it shows Solnit’s older essays are also just as valid now. Reading Solnit and Coates together is heavy on my soul. I picked these essays because they do require deeper reading. It is a challenge to grasp the subtleties of their messages because I am neither female or black. I am not even sure I should write about solutions to their problems. Sometimes I think us old white guys should just step aside and let others have a turn designing society. Sometimes I feel I should retreat into writing fiction.

JWH

 

 

 

Prioritizing My Ambitions

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Being 66 and retired gives me a lot of free time, yet at the end of every day, I always wish I had more. My lifelong, no-so-secret ambition has been to write a book. I’ve had plenty of ideas, and I could have found the time, even during my nine-to-five years. Yet, I haven’t. Why? Because I fritter away my goddamn time. I have a personality that loves to do what I want when I want. Some people call that laziness, but it’s essentially poor time management. Somehow I need to learn how to prioritize my time to succeed.

Most people must achieve their ambitions before forty. Most big ambitions required the peak performance of youth. Generally, writers must also succeed in bloom, but there are a few outliers that give me hope. Writing is one endeavor where late bloomers have an outside chance. So, if I don’t want to go to my grave still fantasizing about the books I want to write, I need to conquer time management.

All that’s required is focusing, working diligently, and ignoring all the distractions. Of course, that’s easier declared than lived. I’ve mind mapped how I spend my time. What I need to, is Marie Kondo its branches.

Time Mind Map

I write best in the mornings, but to maintain my health I must exercise. My self-control wanes quickly during the day, so if I don’t do my exercises in the morning, there’s little chance I’ll do them at all. In fact, I’m skipping my morning bike ride to write this. That bike ride gives me vitality, something in short supply. And if I don’t do my physical therapy and Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, my back will go out. Maybe one reason people don’t succeed after forty is that we have to spend too much time on body maintenance.

I need to completely get over this ingrained habit. I need to write in the mornings and exercise later in the day. I doubt I have the mental and physical energy to write more than four hours a day, maybe only two, even if I give it my best hours. Somehow I need to make those writing hours the #1 activity in my day. After that, I have to make exercise #2.

I have a friend whose life-long ambition is to live abroad. She’s finally getting to do that because she’s getting rid of everything she owns here. Part of my time management problem is possession management. According to minimalists, owning less is more freeing. That’s true, For example, I’ve been spending a lot of time and mental energy researching buying a new television and computer, or what books and magazines to collect. I need to stop that. It would also help to get rid of all the stuff I must spend time maintaining.

If you study that mind map, you’ll notice I consume a great deal of fiction. Generally, I rationalize television and reading by claiming I only do it when I’m too tired to do anything else. I need to make sure that’s true.

Looking closer, I also realize I spend a great deal of time socializing. I’m not sure I can give friends up, but I need to make being with them more efficient. People are just as essential as food, but some of my social activities are junk food.

Many of the activities listed above are mostly ambitions I just piddle around with at best. Maybe it’s time I give up thinking I’m a programmer. I spent my work years programming, and I think of myself as a programmer, but I really don’t program anymore. I want to. If I gave up writing I’d want to program. But I can’t have two ambitions. There’s not enough time.

If I’m really serious about writing a book then I need to prune the crap out of that mind map above. Meditating on it is very revealing. I should print it out and study it first thing every morning when I wake up. I should reread this essay every morning to remind myself of the lessons I’ve learned writing it.

I find it most rewarding on waking up if I make two goals for the day. It used to be five, then three, and now two. They can’t be too big either. And sometimes I have to waste one on things like grocery shopping or seeing a movie.

If my mind map was smaller, with fewer branches, it would be easier to be ambitious with my limited resources. It’s going to be painful to give up so many possessions and activities. But if I really want to succeed with my goal, I can see from studying the mind map, that’s the price.

Afterward:

The two goals that came to mind this morning, were to write a new blog, and finish a scanning project and submit it to Internet Archive. This accomplishes one of them. I think of blogging as writing. I’ve always said blogging was piano practice for writers. Yet, I see it’s not working on a book. I’ve got to start blogging outside my morning writing hours. Blogging is essential to my my mental agility. It has to be #3 after morning writing and exercise. But I positively have to stop blogging in the morning.

If I can’t make writing in the morning my #1 activity every day, I should Marie Kondo my ambition to write a book. To be honest, I must prune my ambitions too.

Maybe I’m really doing what I want, and the desire to write is what I should give up.

Not yet.

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