Have We Accepted Rising Oceans as Inevitable?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 16, 2017

I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel, New York 2140. The story depicts a future New York City through the eyes of a wide cast of characters, reminding me somewhat of Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Robinson’s characters are survivors of a massive rise in sea levels. And even though they face horrible problems, their problems don’t seem any worse than those we face. The message is we always have problems, and we always solve them in a muddling way.

New York 2140

I’ve felt until now that climate change fiction warned us to avoid environmental doom. Have we already given up the battle? Are we now accepting rising seas and mass extinctions as inevitable? Donald Trump’s budget came out today, and it’s all too obvious he’s not going to fight climate change. Has everyone else given up too, including science fiction writers, of returning CO2 levels to below 350 ppm?

It is quite clear that conservatives have chosen lower taxes over action to stop global warming. Their greed knows no bounds, just look at their health care proposal. They prefer a tax cut for the rich over any Sermon on the Mount compassion. They pretend to believe climate change is not real, but I can’t believe they’re that stupid. I wonder if they haven’t psychologically accepted rising oceans in exchanged for lowering taxes and deregulation windfalls?

New York 2140 is a very entertaining novel, but I’m wondering if Robinson isn’t taking a Pollyanna view of the future. His New York City of 2140 is vibrant and alive, even after the oceans have turned it into a new world Venice. If I wrote science fiction my 2140 NYC would look a hundred times worse than New Orleans right after Katrina. My novel of a doomed city would be closer to Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Robinson makes 2140 NYC horrible but exciting, even attractive.

New York 2140 cover

KSM is considered a very realistic science fiction writer, but isn’t he also overly optimistic? Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and 2312 reveal a lot of hope for the future. Is Robinson being too hopeful? We have to ask ourselves if civilization can survive runaway climate change? Robinson’s book suggests we’ll adapt and survive like our species always has in the past. But can we really bank on that trend? I’m not so sure.

I don’t think humanity will become extinct if we don’t reverse rising CO2 levels. We are adaptable. I do think we risk devastating billions of lives, and jeopardizing civilization as we know it. Our current successful civilization depends on relentless economic growth. I don’t think that’s sustainable. The real challenge of climate change is mutating our current civilization from free market capitalism to steady-state capitalism. The neo-nationalism we’re experiencing today suggests humans aren’t adaptable to such a change.

In that sense, I’m not sure Kim Stanley Robinson is right in thinking we’ll continue to succeed like we’ve had in the past. I worry we’re approaching a breaking point. That might happen yet in his novel, I haven’t finished it yet.

I’m listening to the audio version of New York 2140, but I admire it so much, I’ve decided to get the book version and read it too. I don’t think one reading will be enough.

JWH

Becoming an Outdoors Person Again

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 22, 2017

When I was a kid living in New Jersey, Florida, Mississippi, and South Carolina, I loved playing outside. My friends and I could spend whole days in the woods. I even liked camping out. As I got older the comforts of indoors ruined me for the outdoors, especially after I discovered computers in the 1970s. I just got too prissy to shit where my wild friends go. At 65, I do get outside some, going for walks and bike rides, but not as much as I should. A couple years ago I became a member at a botanic gardens near my house. Even though it’s the middle of February, it feels like Spring, and I’ve gone several times this week to take photographs. I thought I might chronicle the changes of seasons this year in my blog, and try to become a bit of an outdoors person again.

My inspiration for this transformation came from listening to One Wild Bird at a Time by Bernd Heinrich. Heinrich is a retired professor from the University of Vermont. He has cabins in Vermont and Maine where he observes birdlife in great detail. We often want to be the kind of people we are not. I’ve always wanted to be a naturist like Heinrich or Rachel Carson, unfortunately that lifestyle doesn’t fit my computer nerd nature. Heinrich has written other books I want to read, One Man’s Owl and Mind of the Raven, and maybe they will inspire me to visit the outside more often. One Wild Bird at a Time was an extremely pleasant book to listen to. Made me even want to take up birding.

Crane-on-the-Hill

I don’t have a cabin in the woods, but the botanic gardens is less than a mile from my house. I’ll make do with it. Real naturalists spend days outside observing, no matter the weather. I can only handle 30-60 minutes, even on the most beautiful days. Heinrich’s book is full of details, including proper names for all the living things that grow, creep, run, crawl, fly, hop, slither, flutter. I took the above picture. I can’t name any living thing in the picture. I think the bird is some kind of crane. I believe these guys are geese, but I’m clueless as to what kind. They honk.

Geese

Not only do I not know the proper names of the plants and animals, I’m not a very good photographer. So I’m trying to learn several things by visiting this park. First, to just enjoy being outside. Second, and this might never happen, but I’d like to learn the names of beings I see in nature. Third, I want to teach myself how to be a better photographer. Fourth, I want to become better at seeing.

I should keep a journal like Heinrich. For now, I’m just going to occasionally post something here. I went to the gardens on Saturday with my wife Susan. I wanted to test a cheap close-up lens I got for my Canon Rebel Xsi, attaching it to my zoom lens. Here’s one of my first shots:

Alien-face

I have no idea what kind of flower this is. It looks like a face of a science fiction alien.

Most of my shots came out poorly. I left the close-up lens on, but took a bunch of medium distant shots. The field-of-focus was painfully narrow. I returned the next day, Sunday, with just my 18-55mm zoom lens. I was again disappointed with the field-of-focus. I found this wonderful cheat sheet on field of focus. I went back to the park today, Wednesday, with just my 55mm fixed-focus lens, set to aperture override at f8. I discovered that setting the camera to manual aperture control automatically puts it in RAW mode. That has forced me to start learning new ways to process my photos in Photoshop Elements.

Crane

Here’s a tightly cropped photo of the crane from Saturday, when I still had the close-up lens attached to my 18-55 zoom. The crane wouldn’t let me get that close to him, so I have to blow up the picture. He’s not in focused. Now here’s a photo I took today trying hard to get a larger field of focus.

Crane---Wed

I do believe the crane is much better focused, with details sharper both in front and behind him, but it’s still far from perfect. It’s hard to tell because the photo is so cropped and it’s been converted to jpeg. Here’s a screenshot from within the camera raw editor. It’s still been saved as a jpeg, but it appears sharper, showing more detail – although it might just be more magnification. (Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?)

Crane Screenshot from Camera Raw editor

All of this experimentation takes time. But I am learning. I want to get into photography, but I don’t want to get bogged down with equipment. I like detail, sharpness, and large depth-of-field. That means I can’t get too close to my subject. I believe what I need is a very good wide-angle lens with large image sensor that captures a lot of megapixels. I can then just crop out what I need.

I did a search on “minimalist photography” hoping to find advice on equipment, but it turns out there’s an art form with that label. For now I’m going to use my old Canon and see how far I can push it to get what I want. But ultimately, I’d like to buy a camera that meets my minimalist definition. Something that’s easy to carry and use, and helps me record what I see with the maximum of sharpness and detail. It occurs to me that this pursuit will force me into finding a system for managing my photographs. I’ve already learn to quickly delete what I don’t like, but photos pile up quickly. That’s not being minimalistic. I wonder if there’s software that works a diary for photos?

Another software invention I’d like to see, and it might exist already, is a way to organize my photos so they map out the park. Wouldn’t it be cool if photos saved precise GPS info, and you could drop them into a folder, and a program would automatically create a virtual view?

Of course this gives me yet another hobby to pursue. One which will slice up my time into even smaller segments. On the other hand, it does get me out of the house. It’s a seeing hobby. I’m trying to get away from so many hobbies that involve computer screens and book pages. It’s somewhat artistic, which compensates for my overly analytical nature.

Statue-of-girl-in-fountain

Here’s one last picture (and I took 175 these three days). I’m including it to see what a larger version will look like on my blog page. My layout limits me to showing photos at less than 600 pixels width. I’m hoping double clicking will show this photo in a larger view.

JWH

Rereading: The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 6, 2017

The-Soul-of-a-New-Machine-by-Tracy-KidderI first read The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder just after it came out in 1981, before it won the Pulitzer and National Book awards in 1982. I read it again at the end of 2016. Thirty-five years later it is still a stunning book, even though the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, the title character, died long ago, a few remember. As I read The Soul of a New Machine a second time, I kept thinking, “What happened to these great people who worked so hard?” I decided I’d provide a review with research/annotations/links. If you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine I highly recommend you do. Most books about science and technology date very quickly, but this one hasn’t. Why? Because it’s about people, not a machine. The story reads like a novel.

I’ve spent days struggling to write this essay. The book is about engineers who push themselves to produce a new computer, working 80+ hour weeks, not for money, fame, or rewards. They are driven to invent by their desire to master knowledge and skills. I’ve always wished I had that kind of passion. A few days ago I read “How to Become a ‘Superager’” in the New York Times, that reports that older people who push themselves mentally stay cognitively healthy longer. It’s more than doing crosswords though. I believe what they were talking about is like how the folks worked in this book drove themselves to master a problem. You just keep going, keep working, keep trying, keep pushing, until the problem is solved. Because I’m retired, I know I can quit and kick back at any time, when I tire of a task. But I want to finish this essay, and I’ve had to constantly push myself. I wanted to reread this book, carefully summarize it, and find out everything I could about what happen to the people in the story since it’s publication.

mv8000I’m going to hyperlink the hell out of this review for two reasons. First, if you just read The Soul of a New Machine and have the same questions I did, this should be a handy resource. Second, if you haven’t read the book, seeing why I’m so fascinated with a 36-year-old book about a forgotten minicomputer should make you want to read it. The Soul of the New Machine is a perfect example of what is now called creative nonfiction, but that term didn’t exist back when it was first written. It essentially means using techniques borrowed from novelists to write compelling nonfiction. This writing technique is old, but I first noticed it in the 1960s. Truman Capote used it in his 1965 book, In Cold Blood, which he called a nonfiction novel. Tom Wolfe used it for The Electric Kool-Acid Test in 1968 and called it New Journalism. So by 1978, Kidder had plenty of models to choose from.

What’s particularly impressive about The Soul of a New Machine is Kidder didn’t know anything about computers. His editor at The Atlantic told him to write about computers. He didn’t want to. Then Kidder went sailing with Tom West, the god of the new computer, and became part of the story. That’s another common aspect of creative nonfiction – the author becomes a character in the story, letting us readers know how the story came to be.

Here’s a Zen koan. Who would you want to be – the storyteller or the subject? Back in 1978 would it have been more rewarding to be Tom West or Tracy Kidder? Or Carl Alsing, Chuck Holland or Ed Rasala. A Hardy Boy or Microkid? But I’m getting ahead of myself, because you probably don’t know who those people are. My point is Tracy Kidder had to learn about computers, but he also had to learn about why computers were so fascinating to this small group of people, and why they wanted to build a new one. Kidder had to go beyond that, he had to learn what how each of these engineers got on the path that led them to become creators of a computer. His effort was no less than the engineers building the Eagle.

When I reread a book I love, I want to know everything I can about it, especially about how it was written, and if the book is about real people, what happened to them after the book came out. This review will be full of links to the articles that answer some of those questions. I wish I could write like Tracy Kidder and write the 2017 update to the story. But just writing these 2,000+ words showed me how much work that involves. Writing 100,000 words is beyond my comprehension.

Plot

In February of 1978, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced the VAX, a groundbreaking line of 32-bit minicomputers. The story opens at Data General, DEC’s competitor, and their need to quickly produce a 32-bit supermini to compete with the VAX. Data General had a popular 16-bit minicomputer called the Eclipse, but decided to design a whole new 32-bit computer, code named Fountainhead, that would be superior to the VAX. As a backup, manager Tom West proposed a second project, to upgrade the Eclipse to 32-bit, which they code named the Eagle. The Soul of a New Machine is about the tremendous management and technical effort to redesign a 16-bit machine to work flawlessly as a 32-bit machine without a mode-bit. So owners of the 16-bit Eclipses could buy the new machine and run all their old software without any conversion. This rush effort took place in 1978 and 1979. In many ways it prefigures Steve Jobs’ effort to produce the Macintosh a few years later. Because they are stories about the men and women working long hours, sacrificing their personal lives, to give birth to a machine.

Setting

Most of the events in the story take place during 1978-1979, at Data General’s headquarters in Westborough, Massachusetts, off Route 495, in building 14A/B. I wish I could find photos of the actual offices and labs, especially where the Hardy Boys and Microkids worked. I’d like to see what their debugging tools looked like, and the prototypes named “Coke” and “Gollum.” This one photo from the early 1980s is the best I could do.

Kidder interviewed his subjects secretly at Data General, and outside of work, going to their homes, parties, outings and even sailing with Tom West. I wish I could find photos of those events and locations, but so far I haven’t. It’s weird to think such an heroic project took place in a dull basement of a nondescript building.

Characters

eagleteamThe first report from Wired Magazine shows the photograph on the right and lists who they were and where they are now. Unfortunately, the photo does not include Tom West, the Ulysses of the story. West was the manager who gathered a team of about two dozen men and one woman to build the Eagle, essentially in secret. Data General gave the real Fountainhead project publically to the engineers who had moved to North Carolina. There were two teams – The Hardy Boys who worked on hardware, and the Microkids who wrote the software. West had two lieutenants, Carl Alsing, who supervised the Microkids, and Ed Rasala who bossed the Hardy Boys.

Tom West – was the top level manager, and essentially the protagonist of The Soul of a New Machine. The best post-book profile of West I found was “O, Engineers!” from Wired Magazine, for the 20th anniversary of the book. This essay is well worth reading because West talks about how the book affected his memory of events. He didn’t always appreciate the fame the book brought. Plus it’s a good summary of the story and an update about how people came to judge the book. I also found The Computer Museum Report from Spring, 1983 which reprints a dialog between Kidder and West. West died at 71, in 2011. Here is his obituary at the New York Times, and one at the Boston Globe.

Steven J. Wallach – was the Eagle’s architect. A 2008 New York Times piece that chronicles Wallach’s whole career. He continued to design computers and start companies after he left Data General.

Carl Alsing – was probably the second most important character in the book. Tom West was often a mystery to the Hardy Boys and Microkids. Alsing was his John the Baptist. This 1974 DataGeneral newsletter has some photos of younger Alsing and West.

I found this YouTube video for the Science Friday Book Club that interviews Asling, Holland and Shanahan in 2015. It briefly shows the ball maze Chuck Holland created and mentioned in the book. When I read that part I really wanted to see it.

Carl Asling, Chuck Holland, Betty Shanahan 2015

 

Goodreads Computer History BooksJust look at Goodreads “Popular Computer History Books” – The Soul of a New Machine comes in at #2. I’ve read many of these books over the years, and I find them incredibly inspiring. I worked with computers most of my working life, but I was always a low-level programmer, web designer, or computer tech support guy. I guess reading computer history books for me is about envy. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine is like reading family history, but about my cousins who succeeded in the big time. I’ve always loved science fiction and computers. I’m not the only one, became that combo is common. The Soul of a New Machine is also #2 on “50 All-Time Classic Books About Computers and Computing.” I have to assume there are many readers out there like me.

Yet, as I reread this book I constantly asked myself why I was reading about technology that went to the scrapheap decades ago, was never famous other than being in this book, and about computer engineers that few people remember today? Yet, reading The Soul of a New Machine was just as much fun in 2016 as it was in 1981. The Soul of a New Machine is about how hard work leads to creativity. It’s about being different. The men and women in this story have keen intellects, were often loners, and all had unique hobbies peculiar to engineers. It’s a story about people who can focus on one goal with such concentration that they almost forget everything else in life. Tracy Kidder tells an amazing story about amazing people in amazing detail. Yet, in 2017, why would anyone want to read about the design and engineering team that built a long forgotten minicomputer, or a company that went out of business, and was never legendary or insanely great? I doubt younger people even know the terms mainframe, minicomputers and microcomputers. Or care about a time when a business struggled to bring out a 32-bit computer to market when 16-bit was the standard.

All of that technical history doesn’t really matter. What matters are the people. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine makes me ask the question at the top of the essay. Most kids today daydream of growing up to be a star – whether in sports, movies, music, television. They want to be rich, famous, or some kind of superhero. If I was a kid reading this book, I’d want to grow up to be like Tracy Kidder, Tom West, Carl Asling, or any of the people in that group photo above, or the people profiled in the books at Goodreads. Most kids won’t become Beyoncé. I didn’t become Bill Gates. When I reread The Soul of a New Machine I experience a beautiful sense of regret. I lived through some of the most exciting times in technological history. I was in the stands watching, and that was great, it wasn’t the same as being on the field, but it was still very cool.

JWH

2016 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 31, 2016

December 31st is my time to contemplate my year in reading. I pick my favorite novels and nonfiction books, and I pick my book of the year. Unfortunately, I’m disturbed to discover that I don’t have any favorite novels for this year. Usually, I read several works of fiction that profoundly move me. This year none did. I need to concentrate on finding great novels in 2017.

I read several good novels, but none that had a deep impact. That’s partly due to so much rereading. Stand on Zanzibar and Hyperion are fantastic books, but this was my third reading for both, and I’m not inclined to list them as books that wowed me this year. I will say I was most impressed with the stories I read by Philip Wylie, Barbara Pym, Charlie Jane Anders, Walker Percy, and Keith Roberts, which were all new reads. I enjoyed them, admired them, but I’m not sure I’d recommend them to a general audience. Each will appeal to a selective group.

I read 55 books this year, about average for me. I read 15 books published during the year, which fulfills the goal I made in 2015 to read more new books. I failed at reading fewer novels. I meant to read only 12 but read 23.

Nonfiction was another matter in 2016. I’m going to have a very hard time picking my top five nonfiction books. Here are the books I wholeheartedly recommend as solidly good books that should appeal to most readers of their topics:

  • Science Wars (Great Course lecture) by Steven L. Goldman (the philosophical evolution of science)
  • The Search for Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick (PKD during his best writing years)
  • The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (art and memory, excellent example of memoir)
  • I Am Alive And You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrere (the best bio on Philip K. Dick)
  • How Great Science Fiction Works (Great Course lecture) by Gary K. Wolfe (history of science fiction)
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (black lives matter)
  • Dark Money by Jane Meyer (corruption in America)
  • Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman (memory)
  • Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson (hilarious humor and mental illness)
  • Saving Capitalism by Robert B. Reich (title says it all)
  • When Everything Changed by Gail Collins (why women’s rights had greater impact than computers 1961-2007)
  • Sex Object by Jessica Valenti (personal view of being a sex object)
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (raising a bird of prey, excellent memoir)
  • Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein (statistical reporting on being a sex object)
  • Leonard by William Shatner (loving memory of Mr. Spock)
  • A Brief History of Misogyny by Jack Holland (exactly what the title says)
  • The Big Picture by Sean Carroll (sweeping overview of cosmology, physics, and philosophy)
  • Time Travel: A History by James Gleick (all the ramifications of time and time travel)
  • Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (the nature of consciousness)
  • The Bible Unearth by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman (comparing archeology to Bible history)
  • The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (all about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky)
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance (poor and white in America, fantastic example of memoir)
  • The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder (pushing people to their creative limit, state of the art creative nonfiction)
  • Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Eliott Friedman (textual analysis, history, religion, and authorship)

Top 5 Nonfiction Books of 2016

  • Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Eliott Friedman (1987)
  • Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal (2016)
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance (2016)
  • Dark Money by Jane Meyer (2016)
  • Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman (2016)

It was extremely hard to limit my favorites down to five. Most of the nonfiction I read this year were exceptional reads. Quite often, as I read these books, I assumed I had my book of the year.

Because I didn’t have a novel of the year, that makes the book of the year obvious:

Book of the Year

Who Wrote the Bible

This is pretty amazing considering I’m an atheist. You might think I’m secretly religious since I also picked Jesus Before the Gospels as another top five book. Ehrman’s book is really about memory, and I’m obsessed with the topic of memory. I’ve tried to read The Bible several times in my life, but always bog down in the boring books of the middle. All the best Bible stories are in The Book of Genesis, The Book of Exodus, the four Gospels, and The Book of Revelation. What Friedman does is explain the documentary hypothesis, its history, and evolution, and then refines it with his latest research and analysis. This made the boring books of The Bible fascinating. Reading Who Wrote the Bible? along with The Bible Unearthed made me see The Bible as history and not religion. Such knowledge only purifies my atheism by showing that The Bible is not what I was told it was as a child. The Bible a wonderful book about learning how humans thought 2,500-3,000 years ago. Figuring out that the Hebrew bible probably had four authors (J, E, D, P) and one editor (the redactor), and why they wrote what they wrote, let me see why it was written. It was really about politics and creating a nation, and not spirituality. (By the way, I know it is still debatable if some of those authors were not teams of writers and editors.)

On one hand, I wished humanity would just forget religion. On the other hand, all the clues to how we thought thousands of years ago are embedded in ancient religious texts from around the world. Studying these works show we haven’t changed, and it’s not likely we will. Our culture has evolved significantly, acquiring knowledge and technology, but the various ranges of human actions, thinking and emotions have not. Knowing this goes a long way to understanding my second favorite book of the year, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal. Both of these books decode the political events of 2016. We really don’t change. For example, the modern conflict between Sunni and Shiites was reflected in the power struggles described by the Deuteronomists, with the descendants of Moses and Aaron, or why J and E wanted their stories in The Book of Genesis. I picked Who Wrote The Bible? as my book-of-the-year because it added to most new details to my map of reality.

Books Read 2016 (Links are to essays I wrote about these books)

Steven L. Goldman Science Wars 2016-01-07 Audible 2006
Elizabeth Gilbert Big Magic 2016-01-07 Library hardback 2015
Anne R. Dick The Search for Philip K. Dick 2016-01-19 Trade paper 2009
Edmund de Waal The Hare with the Amber Eyes 2016-01-24 Library hardback 2010
Emmanuel Carrere I Am Alive And You Are Dead 2016-01-26 Trade paper 2004
John Brunner Stand On Zanzibar 2016-01-29 Audible 1968
Graeme Simsion The Rosie Project 2016-02-03 Kindle ebook 2013
Charlie Jane Anders All the Birds in the Sky 2016-02-14 Audible 2016
Kurt Vonnegut Bluebeard 2016-02-18 Library hardback 1987
Gary T. Wolfe How Great Science Fiction Works 2016-02-24 Audible 2016
Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me 2016-02-24 Library hardback 2015
Dan Simmons Hyperion 2016-02-28 Audible 1989
Jessica Chiarella And Again 2016-03-06 Audible 2016
Jane Mayer Dark Money 2016-03-15 Library hardback 2016
John Seabrook The Song Machine 2016-03-18 Audible 2015
Bart D. Ehrman Jesus Before the Gospels 2016-03-26 Library hardback 2016
Justine Ezarik I, Justine 2016-03-30 Audible 2015
Keith Roberts Pavane 2016-04-03 Audible 1968
Lady Dorothy Mills Phoenix 2016-04-10 Hardback 1926
Jenny Lawson Furiously Happy 2016-04-16 Library hardback 2015
Deborah Davis Strapless 2016-05-18 Library hardback 2003
Paul Kalanithi When Breath Becomes Air 2016-05-21 Library hardback 2016
Dan Simmons The Fall of Hyperion 2016-05-24 Audible 1990
Clifford Simak A Heritage of Stars 2016-06-01 Audible 1977
Robert B. Reich Saving Capitalism 2016-06-04 Audible 2015
Philip Wylie The Disappearance 2016-06-11 Audible 1951
B. A. Shapiro The Art Forger 2016-06-16 Kindle ebook 2012
Gail Collins When Everything Changed 2016-06-20 Audible 2009
Jessica Valenti Sex Object 2016-06-24 Library hardback 2016
Rainbow Rowell Eleanor & Park 2016-06-28 Audible 2012
William Golding Lord of the Flies 2016-07-03 Audible 1954
Peggy Orenstein Girls & Sex 2016-07-07 Library hardback 2016
Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk 2016-07-20 Audible 2015
William Shatner Leonard 2016-08-06 Library hardback 2016
Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me 2016-08-17 Audible 2015
Neil Clarke ed. The Best Science Fiction of the Years – Volume 1 2016-09-14 Audible 2016
Barbara Pym Excellent Women 2016-09-22 Audible 1952
Jack London The Scarlet Plague 2016-09-28 Audible 1912
Jack Holland A Brief History of Misogyny 2016-10-11 Audible 2006
Arthur C. Clarke 2001: A Spacy Odyssey 2016-10-14 Audible 1968
Sean Carroll The Big Picture 2016-10-27 Audible 2016
Zenna Henderson Pilgrimage: The Book of the People 2016-11-01 Library hardback 1961
James Gleick Time Travel: A History 2016-11-17 Library ebook 2016
Frans de Waal Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? 2016-11-19 Audible 2016
Edward O. Wilson Half-Earth 2016-11-21 Audible 2016
Walker Percy Love in the Ruins 2016-11-30 Audible 1971
J. G. Ballard The Drowned World 2016-12-04 Audible 1962
Andre Norton The Stars Are Ours! 2016-12-07 Web audio 1954
Andre Norton Star Born 2016-12-12 Web audio 1957
Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman The Bible Unearthed 2016-12-19 Hardback 2001
Michael Lewis The Undoing Project 2016-12-19 Audible 2016
Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol 2016-12-24 Audible 1843
J. D. Vance Hillbilly Elegy 2016-12-25 Library hardback 2016
Tracy Kidder The Soul of a New Machine 2016-12-28 Hardback 1981
Richard Elliot Friedman Who Wrote the Bible? 2016-12-29 Hardback 1987

My goal for 2017 is to try and read more nonfiction, especially new books. I’m not going to worry about how many works of fiction I read, but I do want to work harder at finding the best fiction possible. I also want to stop reading mediocre books.

JWH

A Rotten Tomatoes for Books?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Every month thousands of books are published but few find readers, even on a planet of seven billion people. The sad fact is most hardbacks are 1st editions, and never get another. Millions of writers have struggled to create their masterpiece, only to have them disappear to indifference. Books go begging to be reviewed, so I find any effort to promote books a good thing.

Book Marks

Literary Hub, a site previously unknown to me, began a feature called Book Marks, which rates books by collecting book reviews and statistically processing the total. This immediately brings to mind Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Book Marks gives books a letter grade, and the few books they now list, have mostly high grades. I don’t know if this grade inflation is due to starting their business with buzz-worthy books, or if most books today actually get good reviews. Personally, I hate to review books by giving them a rating because I feel bad telling writers they have ugly babies, so I can imagine the later being the case.

I wish Book Marks followed Rotten Tomatoes and gave a percentage rating based on total positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes claim they judge the overall slant of a review to decide. However, most of these books have very few reviews, so one with two positive and one negative would receive a 66% rating in a percentage system, and that would be deceptive. At Rotten Tomatoes they generally have over a hundred reviews for most popular movies. One way to solve this problem would be to require only books that have at least ten reviews to get listed. But that causes other problems.

Publishing tends to be a winner take all enterprise. In other words, a few books succeed while most don’t. Book Marks is starting off by promoting books that are already getting major promotion. Their system is inherently biased against those books that are getting the least attention. But I can’t criticize Book Marks for their efforts. Like I said, any book promotion is a good thing.

This however makes me wonder how to create a better system? I feel sorry for authors who can’t find readers for their books, especially after a great self-promotion effort, or even writing an unrecognized masterpiece. Let’s be honest. All us bookworms have too much to read. We have more A+ novels on our TBR piles than we can finish in a decade. So why consider an A- book, or for some insane reason, a C+? See where the school grade system breaks down?

Readers don’t have a problem finding great books – our problem is finding more time to read. The problem at hand is writers finding readers. One solution: create more bookworms! But with PlayStations and VR that’s not likely. Efforts like Book Marks will actually further promote winners over losers. Statistical efforts to improve book reviewing will help the limited pool of readers find the most popular books, causing a larger percentage of books to be ostracized. Book Marks is only making the process more efficient. That sounds harsh, even cruel, but then does every book written deserve to be read?

I assume there’s a large percentage of books published that are well worth reading if only they could find the right reader. And since falling in love with a book is so subjective, I’m not sure any rating system is valid. What we need are systems where readers can fill out a profile, like a dating service, of what they are in the mood to read, and that system locate all the books that fit that mood. That could alleviate the problem of everyone wanting to read the most popular books, and spread readers out, giving more books a chance to succeed.

Such a system would have a side-effect that some authors might not want. More books would become moderately successful at the cost of other books being huge bestsellers. For example, a million readers who would have all bought a blockbuster would instead buy one hundred different books selling ten thousand copies each.

Currently, bloggers spend huge amounts of time reviewing, listing and writing about books. This is the new digital word-of-mouth. Many of us consciously choose to write about books that haven’t gotten attention, and that helps more books get noticed. But we also end up writing about the same popular books. It’s just natural to want to read and discuss books that everyone is reading. One way to promote books that aren’t getting attention is to mention them when reviewing bestsellers. Let the unknown titles draft on the success of hits.

And I think that’s what Book Marks needs to do to improve their service. Mix in more books and find ways to group them into themes. Personally, I don’t like the grading system, but I bet their readers do. I would recommend not grading a book until it’s gotten ten reviews to be statistically valid. Since Book Marks are copying Rotten Tomatoes they should work quickly to up the number of sites they monitor for reviews, and aim to get close to twenty reviews. Books will never be reviewed like movies and get hundreds of reviews, but if Book Marks wants to use such a comparison system, the more reviews the better. Plus, if they used more review sites, it will promote those sites, and thus promote book reviewing in general.

7 Uses for Goodreads Other than Reviews and Ratings

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I struggle to manage my always growing, ever changing, collection of books, and my constant craving to read more. And I don’t have a vast library, like some of my bookworm friends. Counting physical books, ebooks and audio books, I have around two thousand titles. Enough to be unsure of what I own. Enough to make them a problem to find. And I own more unread books than I have time to read during the rest of my life. That should condition me to stop buying books, but it won’t.

I’ve been testing various book databases for years, but never committing to any. I tried Goodreads’ book database system a couple of times, but always disliked it. However, I’ve now decided it’s the best compromise for my needs.

goodreads 

Most people zip over to Goodreads to read reviews and ratings. Do they know it’s a free database for managing book collections? Goodreads represents the wisdom of crowds, with some books actually having millions of ratings. Because of this group knowledge, Goodreads is essential to bookworms. The fact that it’s own by Amazon, where I buy most of my books, including paper, ebook and audio, makes it’s hard to ignore.

I’m going to skip reviewing all those social aspects of Goodreads, and focus on tools for organizing books into useful collections. This can range from cataloging your personal library, keeping track of books you want to buy, or even tracking all the books on your favorite subject. Goodreads is a general purpose tool that has to be customized for specific uses, yet it’s not always obvious how. My recommendation is to just stick with Goodreads until it starts working for you. Everyone customizes it differently. Take each task you normally do on paper or program, and do it on Goodreads. Eventually, you’ll see the magic in its madness.

By thinking about all the ways I make lists of books, I’ve been able to adapt Goodreads for my needs. It’s not always a perfect fit, but I assume Amazon will keep refining Goodreads, and the bumps I stumble over will be fixed, and the features I desire will show up. I have to trust Amazon because it houses my digital library. This means hoping it will stay in business until I die.

Lifetime Reading Lists

I wish I had kept a list of every book I’ve ever read since I read Up Periscope during the summer before 4th grade. Beginning in 1983 I did start logging everything I’ve read, and it’s been great – well worth the effort. Goodreads is a good tool for this. However, if you reread books, and like to track each reading by date, Goodreads won’t do that smoothly. The clunky solution is to add a different edition of a book for each reading, but that messes with your total read numbers. I currently list books I read in both Google Sheets and Goodreads, to get all the functionality I want. It would be more efficient if Goodreads was my only tool, but I can’t replicate all the functions I now get from the spreadsheet.

The core functionality of Goodreads database is to track books you’ve read, are reading, or want to read. Goodreads even offers a nice stats feature to track your reading productivity. If you don’t want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, its basic features are very nice and straight forward. If you do use it as a personal card catalog, you have to understand it also tracks books you don’t own (unless you’ve keep every book you’ve ever read and bought every book you plan to read).

This can be confusing. Think of Goodreads as a system for tracking books you want to remember, whether that’s to remember what you’ve read, what you own, what you hope to own, what you’ve studied, and so on. You enter in all the titles you want, and then tag them accordingly. One tag is ownership. Another tag is read. You can make up your own tags – such as beautiful-covers.

You never want to delete a book you’ve read, even if you’ve given it away. You need the entry to remember you’ve read the book. And you’ve got to add a book if you plan to read it, even if you don’t own a copy.

Books Database

Over the decades I’ve tried many programs for listing the books I’ve own, but none of them worked the way I wanted. I’ve even tried writing my own program. Because of smartphones, it’s obvious that on-the-go viewing is a must feature, and that’s beyond my programming skills. Goodreads practically invalidates all other efforts because of this. It’s possible to keep my books in Excel, Access or commercial book database programs, and then export listings to Dropbox, to check on my phone while book shopping, but the Goodreads app is always up-to-date. That feature alone makes it a winner.

That’s not to say Goodreads is the perfect books database. How it looks, how it’s organized and how it creates reports is not how I would have designed them. But it does most things I want, and getting the job done without dedicating my life to Python programming sealed the deal. Plus, I can export .csv files to programs that can create fancy reports if I want.

Goodreads has two kinds of “bookshelves” – their term for categorizing your books. The first is exclusive, which means all books have to be tagged in one, and only one, of those shelves. Goodreads start you off with read, currently-reading, to-read. I added discard (so I can track books I once owned but didn’t read) and reference (for books I don’t plan to ever read). Any book I add to the system has to be read, currently-reading, to-read, reference or discard. Then Goodreads allows as many non-exclusive shelves readers want to create. Books can be shelved in multiple non-exclusive shelves. For example you could create shelves called fiction, science-fiction, anthologies – and put The Science Fiction Hall of Fame on all three.

The best thing about Goodreads is the barcode scanner built into its iOS/Android apps. It’s an extremely fast way to enter books, as long as the books have a visible bar code. For some damn reason, used book dealers have an annoying habit of pasting their tracking label over the ISBN barcode. You can also enter books manually with the ISBN number, or by title. Those are quick too, but nowhere near as fast as the barcode reader. I can do 40 books in two minutes – that’s their batch limit. You hit upload, clear the batch, and do 40 more.

Most books are already in the system, so you’re actually just linking to existing records. You only have to create a new record for rare out-of-print titles not in the Goodreads system. That’s more work, especially if you want to upload a scan of the cover. Which I do. I’m fanatical about cover images. One of the annoying restrictions of Goodreads is I can’t upload better images for books added to the system by other members.

Goodreads has a feature to let you tag books you’ve purchased from Amazon. I wish they also offer that feature for books I bought at Audible and ABEBooks, companies Amazon also owns. I’ve been hoping Amazon would mass add records for Audible editions, because now I link to CD editions of the same book. Who owns CDs anymore? I dread linking over 800 titles by title searches.

Collector’s Database

Book collectors want to track exact editions, and Goodreads does this. This is both good and bad. Probably most bookworms don’t care about such exacting details. They just want to know they have a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and whether or not they’ve read it. I wish Goodreads allowed for a generic title entry. I’d probably use one for most books. I don’t usually care if I “own” a 1st edition hardback or the 7th paperback edition, but I am picky about what cover I see. I want the cover I remember, or the cover I love best, and that means picking the edition with the right cover. What’s annoying, is the right edition will have no cover, a bad scan, or the wrong cover. Even when I own the right cover, I’m not allowed to alter other people’s cataloging. And Goodreads fights you if you try to create another edition with similar publishing details.

The cataloging features for Goodreads is probably good enough for most book collectors, but not good enough for serious book collectors. That should improve over time as more exacting users join the system. I wish Goodreads could tie into the Internet Science Fiction Database, which has great edition information. I also wished Goodreads would link to Wikipedia, because as I study my collection, or catalog books, I often want to know more about the book. Such synergy of two great tools would be fantastic.

Want Lists

Most bookworms make lists of books they want to read, and have various methods of keeping track of those books. Because Goodreads doesn’t assume the books you add are ones you own, it’s perfectly adaptable as a Books Wanted list manager. Because it’s tied to the social and database features at Goodreads, it’s the most elaborate Want List ever. You can add library books, or even books you see at bookstores, with the scanner feature. Although my local independent bookstore will chase patrons out if they think they’re checking Amazon for prices.

It’s quite easy to fill up your Goodreads database with books you want to read because one of the exclusive fields is “to read.” If you want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, you have to check the “owned books” check-box.

Card Catalog

Some bookworms own enough books that they wish they had a Dewey Decimal system to help them find books. You can create non-exclusive shelves to track book location, even if they are stored in boxes. Just label each of the shelves on your real-world bookshelf, say shelf-01 through shelf-24, and then create a virtual shelf for each in Goodreads. Then tag each book by the shelf they are on. Or shelve books by subject on your actual bookcases, and then create subject shelves in Goodreads. You can also create box-001, box-002, …, if you have zillions of books in the attic.

This takes work and discipline. The more you use Goodreads, the more anal attentiveness becomes part of your personality. And you can use Goodreads as little, or as much as you want. At first Goodreads seems like a very disorganized mess, but eventually you realize it’s looseness offers great flexibility.

Scholarship

Because Goodreads is not just a database for books you own, it’s very useful for organizing books in a variety of ways. Let’s say you’re getting your master’s degree, you can use Goodreads to organize all the books you need to know to pass your comps. It doesn’t matter if you if you don’t own them, or even borrowed them from a library. You can create an exclusive shelf called “research” and tag all the books there. You can even use non-exclusive shelves to organize them into categories, like 19th-century-America, 20th-century-America, 18th-century-Britain, 19th-century-France.

Reading Challenge

I want to read all the books on the Modern Library Association 100 Best Novel list. I created a non-exclusive shelf and added all one-hundred books. Then I marked those books read, to-read, currently-reading. By using the “select multiple” button,  clicking on the plus next to “read” and “modern-library-100” – I can see how many of the 100 I’ve read – 39.

This last trick reveals a flaw in Goodreads. Often I want to reread books. If I mark a book “to-read” it’s removed from the “read” shelf. But that ruins things for tracking books read. And I can tag a book “currently-reading” that I’ve read many times before. I wish Goodreads had a tracking system for remembering each time I’ve read a book, when, and what format. In my spreadsheet I track author, title, date published, date finished, format. Format includes hardback, paperback, ebook, library hardback, audio book, etc.

I don’t know of any alternative to Goodreads that does as much, so I’m going to stick with it for now. I assume the momentum behind it will make it even more useful in the future. It’s a shame that Amazon monopolizes my book world, but the practicality of why is too overwhelming.

JWH

Being Old and Observing the Young

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The older I get, the further away I get from the young. It’s not intentional on my part. They’re just leaving me behind.

When Audible.com has a sale, I buy audiobooks about unfamiliar subjects and subcultures to check out. Recently I bought I, Justine: An Analog Memoir by Justine Ezarik. Ezarik is a young woman who goes by the name iJustine, and is supposedly well known on the Internet, but completely unknown to me. Her book turned out to be well worth the $4.95 sale price, because of its many insights of growing up in a unique subculture. I love books about computer history, so this volume was more than a web celebrity’s personal story. The times, they keep a changing—I’m reading more books about people born in the 1980s, growing up in the 1990s. I think I first took note of this generation with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

I Justine

iJustine makes her living doing what she loves. Totally geeking out on with Apple computers, gadgets and gaming, establishing a career by making her fan-girl life public, especially on YouTube. She even live-streamed herself for a while, which I found bizarre, and still spends most of her time making videos about her daily life, friends and digital life. I, Justine chronicles how she developed her internet celebrity business. iJustine, born in 1984, and now 32, is a Millennial.

iJustine is young, but not that young, because she also reports on the generation coming up behind her, which aren’t always her fans. iJustine describes a lot of nasty animosity in her world, which I occasionally encounter online. I find that very hard to understand. iJustine is an attractive young woman, who I would think guys would want to flirt with, instead some guys hate her, sending her the social media equivalents of hate mail, death threats, and even calling the police on her (swatting). There’s a lot of Gamergate type misogyny around her online world. I assume most of her time is spent having fun, being friends with nice people, and I just remember the bad stuff from her book.

I find the hateful incidents in her story disturbing, in the same way I find Donald Trump scary. iJustine herself is wholesome, polite, upbeat, and leans towards the silly side. She’s an extreme fan of Apple, working in a subculture that’s beyond my comprehension. I’m old, and only see digital life as an outsider. Reading I, Justine made me realize just how far away I am from being young. Although, my peers think I’m up-to-date because I know about computers and they don’t, being tech-savvy isn’t the whole story. I also wonder about how iJustine feels about aging. She says her target audience is preteen and teen girls. She’s half my age, and her audience is now half her age. At what age does a young woman start to appear too old to that audience? I wonder when she gets to be 64, will iJustine have trouble relating to the very young growing up in the 2020s? And can our culture keep mutating so frequently?

Since I don’t play video games, and don’t own a gaming console, that puts me on the other side of a huge generation divide. I was about to buy a new iPad so I could read my digital magazines better, but I’m now wondering if I shouldn’t buy an Xbox instead, just to see if I can get into video gaming. iJustine got her granny to play Call of Duty , and I assume she must be older than I am. I must be iJustine’s parents age. Maybe if Susan and I had had kids we’d have grown up with a succession of video gaming consoles too.

Now there’s growing excitement about VR. Virtual reality has zero appeal to me. I suppose this will put me two degrees away from the young. Or two-and-half since I’m a half-ass user of social media. I’m not quite Amish, but it seems I exist halfway between the Pennsylvania Dutch and hip hop America. What’s beyond VR life? Jacked in cyborgs?

Most of my friends live on the edge of the Internet. We all have smartphones. Most of us are now cord-cutters, watching TV off of Roku. I read ebooks and audiobooks, I listen to music via Spotify and Pandora. Half of my friends even use Facebook. We have adapted. But I, Justine showed me how far away I’m still from the digital norm. Like I said, I live on the shallow end of the net, while the young thrive in the deep end. There’s a big difference. I don’t comprehend the pithy (and often nasty) world of Twitter. And there’s a whole host of social media apps that I can’t even name, much less understand what they do.

That’s not saying I won’t catch up. Quite often subcultures become dominant. I’ve read many essays written at the dawn of the television age, resisting that change, and TV watching became universal. Yet, I can’t imagine wearing a VR headset. Will people start tuning out of reality for longer and longer periods of time? That seems no more practical than LSD back in the 1960s.

I support David Brooks notions about character and manners. All too often, iJustine reported having to deal with people who are rude and uncivilized. Is that becoming the new social norm? I’ve had to deal with some of those people blogging, and it’s stressful. I worry the more we interconnect through social media, the more we drop self-controls, letting raw emotions hang out. That can’t be good. At least not for dwelling in the Hive Mind.

I’ve had two friends my age whose bosses asked them if they had ADD. And other friends who said young coworkers would push them aside to do a task, not in an unfriendly way, just impatient to see the task finished quicker. Which makes me wonder if young people see us as moving too slow, or think we can’t comprehend. More than once I’ve been dismissed as just an old white guy. That doesn’t hurt my feelings, but it makes me wonder if there’s a cognitive gap.

By the way, my wife and women friends tell me to stop writing about my age, and hide that I’m old. My guy friends are like me, unconcerned about age. My lady friends warn me young people don’t want to read about old folks. Of course those women want to think they are still young. My wife plays video games, loves Facebook, and her and her friends are always texting and sending selfies.

There was a scene in I, Justine that was kind of sad. iJustine worshipped Steve Jobs, and the one time she got near him, Steve probably recognized her, and ran away. Maybe Steve was feeling too old to deal with a crazy young fan. I’m sure iJustine is a nice young normal woman, but her world does seems a bit hectic, sometimes mean spirited, fast changing, often silly, and way too videoized. Yet, if you just look at her videos, iJustine seems quite normal, if a bit goofy, and so maybe all the problems are with how the young communicate with each other—the snarky Tweets, the extreme expressions of emotion, the black hat hacking, doxing, swatting, phishing, misogyny, death threats, and all the endless ways they treat each other like they didn’t understand the person on the other end is a real person, and not some video game character to destroy.

JWH