Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.

JWH

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 4, 2020

I have never been to San Francisco but over my lifetime I’ve read many books about social movements that city produced. They include the Beats (1950s), Rock (1960s), Gay Liberation (1970s), and Silicon Valley (1970s, 1980s). Anna Wiener’s 2020 book Uncanny Valley is about San Francisco of the 2010s, although I’d say mainly about from 2013 to 2016 when Trump is elected president with a bit of updating to 2018. Anna Wiener was on the peripheral of several interesting news events of the decade, so even though this is a personal memoir, she had a stadium seat to some significant social upheavals that affected more than just San Francisco. This is probably why The New York Times chose Uncanny Valley as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2020.” It was also on these best of the year lists from Esquire, NPR, and Parade. Bookmarks which tracks links to reviews found mostly rave reviews.

Describing what Uncanny Valley is about will be hard. Wiener, graduated from college in 2009 and went to work for publishers in New York, and then at age 25 moved to San Francisco to work at a succession of three internet startups, the most famous of which was GitHub. I’m a computer guy who loves books about the history of computers and computing. I was hoping Uncanny Valley would be another The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It wasn’t. Anna Wiener wasn’t a programmer or computer engineer, and her memoir is not really about computers even though it focuses on people who passionately are.

Wiener’s role in her story was much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, as a commentator on the main characters, or like Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wiener was an observer of a social revolution, not a revolutionary herself. Wiener gets to know the revolutionaries, their causes, their ambitions, their faults, their crimes, their successes and anguishes. Wiener tries to understand the philosophical implications of this revolution but it’s too complex.

The young millenials who become millionaires and billionaires creating tech startups in San Francisco have a lot of overlap with the counterculture revolutionaries of the 1960s. They imagine reshaping society with similar utopian ideals, justifying their hubris with similar sounding pop philosophies, they indulge in drugs, alternative lifestyles, leftover New Age faiths, wild conspiracy theories, and silly science fictional schemes that have echos in previous cultural revolutions. They even contemplate engineering cities from scratch like hippies use to dream about communes. But this time around they are capitalists and they all want to get mega rich.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco are not everyday America, but they impact it in a way we can’t escape. Most of us live at least part-time on the net, joining the hivemind subculture Silicon Valley created. Anna Wiener lived in the eye of the hurricane collecting data readings she hoped would reveal meaning. I’m not sure anyone can make sense of that era. She felt bad and blamed herself for failing, but that’s silly. What she has done is taken excellent notes about her experiences and impressions.

Uncanny Valley could be a textbook supplement for a graduate course on current issues in business and business ethics. It could also be a meditation guide for young people who contemplate their own participation in society. Like the Beats in the 1950s, and the Hippies in the 1960s, and the New Agers in the 1970s, the millenials are struggling to make sense of life and find a righteous path for living in a corrupt world of commerce. Like every generation, they’re looking for meaning in a meaningless reality. In some ways, Uncanny Valley reminds me of The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszaks – but who remembers that 1969 book?

Throughout this memoir I kept feeling the people Wiener described were going through many of the same psychological struggles I did in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a chronicle of typical youth angst. Of course, that left me wondering if we can ever solve the problems we all rail against early in life, but which we eventually forget when we co-opt ordinariness.

The only thing unique about Wiener’s generation is how some of them got so damn rich. Part of Uncanny Valley deals with the problems of chasing those billions, and soul changing of catching mountains of money, or the agony of failing to become wealthy.

Even though this is a short book, there’s a great deal to it, really too much to digest, including many ethical issues created by the business models of these new tech industries. Often Wiener would be working on software that got into the news for its evil side effects. Or that same software would empower legions of formerly powerless people to do evil. She often worried about the degree of guilt that belong to her.

Ultimately, Uncanny Valley becomes a must read book because Anna Wiener just happened to be in the right place at the right time to glimpse at generation changing events. Nearly everything she writes about has been well documented in news stories over the last decade. If you’ve been paying attention, a lot of it will be familiar. Weiner got closer than most reporters. However, she obscures the names of everything. I found this very annoying, but finally accepted it as a quirky writing affectation. In one review I read, it was suggested she Wiener had to sign so many non-disclosure agreements she’s become shy of using real names for anything. Of course, Wiener might have thought it funny to make us guess.

I don’t know how often I convince blog readers here to read what I review. Uncanny Valley could bore the crap out of most of my friends, or it could dazzle them. If you like nonfiction and memoirs, and interested in issues dealing with current events, profiles of younger generations, sexism, privilege, technological change, politics, economic equality, ecology, homelessness, gentrification, capitalism, and contemporary ethical issues, then this book might be for you. If reality overwhelms you, you should avoid it like the Covid.

Additional Reading:

JWH

Devs – Turn On, Tune In, Psyche Out

Devs is a new eight-part science fiction miniseries on FX on Hulu. Physics and philosophy dominate this story but in a bogus way. Quantum computers are used to do things quantum computer will never do. The plot is driven by cliché thriller violence, while the characters are motivated by emotional reactions taken to absurd lengths. I should have hated this TV show, but I loved it. I’m even thinking about watching it again already.

Why, if the parts are so bad, can the whole be so good? The Matrix also abused physics, philosophy, computers, and succeeded in being wildly entertaining too. I’m trying very hard not to tell anything specific about Devs — I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. Reading the reviews, my guess is about 20-30% of viewers won’t like this show, but the rest might. Especially, if you love science fiction. If you’ve ever said, “Far fucking out, this is blowing my mind, man” (or its Millennial equivalent) while stoned then this show is for you.

Science fiction often tortures science to convey a sense of wonder — and some of the best science fiction goes beyond science to remind us of the limits of reality. Devs has the kind of physics and philosophy that potheads and science fiction nerds love to use to mess with each other’s heads. We should be reading Plato and Penrose but it’s more amusing to psych ourselves out by watching philosophy-fiction. (Phi-Fic?)

Quantum physics has become the LSD of science fiction. Einstein hated its spooky strangeness.  In the absence of a general theory of everything its possible to imply anything, and Devs takes us to some gnarly places. I wish Devs hadn’t felt the need for building its plot on a murder — and instead based it on philosophical concepts duking it out on a peaceful personal level.

The show seems to have paid off free-will to throw the fight in favor of determinism. I’m grateful they didn’t bring in good and evil, although in such a knockdown brawl of ontologies, tag-teaming the theory of God for a few rounds could have been even more consciousness-expanding.

I don’t believe in any of the theories or inventions Devs proposes, but I can’t mention them without spoiling your potential fun. What Alex Garland does is take some fascinating speculations and extrapolate them to their limits, creating some groovy PKDian science fiction.

Worth Reading:

devs-stewart

JWH

Alleviating My 8-Bit Nostalgia

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 15, 2019

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve become obsessed with watching YouTube videos about old 8-bit computers. I’ve even been shopping on eBay looking for old machines in good condition to buy. But I think I’ve cured my 8-bit nostalgia.

October 13th was the 6th anniversary of my retirement. My dream before retiring was to use my work-free years to become a science fiction writer. That hasn’t happened. Instead, I’ve chased the siren call of nostalgia. The other day I read an article about why people stop listening to new music and it gave me a clue about the nature of nostalgia. We keep listening to the music we imprinted on as a teenager because we gave that music a lot of our time. Once we got older we didn’t have that kind of time to devote to new music.

I’m wondering if nostalgia isn’t an attraction for anything we’ve already spent the time learning to love?  Now that I have a lot of free time it’s much easier to pursue old hobbies than learn new ones. This has given me an insight into my affliction. I both delight, relish and resent nostalgia. Nostalgia feels good to indulge in but it makes me also feel guilty that I’m not learning to love new stuff.

I’m nostalgic for two kinds of things. Stuff I once loved that I bought, and stuff I once wanted to do. Writing science fiction is something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. But it is much easier to love stuff that we can buy than it is to learn to love to do new things. That article didn’t realize it was saying two things. It was much easier to buy LPs than learn to play the guitar.

That article rings true because I stopped spending time with new music after the 1980s. I believe the new songs I do love are because they sound like old songs. Nostalgia is spending time enjoying things we’ve already spent the time learning to love. And the reason nostalgia was originally considered a psychological defect is because we stop learning to love something new. Over the centuries we’ve stopped considering it a flaw and turned nostalgia into a positive trait. Especially if we’re old.

However, that fits right in with our belief that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. If you indulge in nostalgia you aren’t learning new tricks. Maybe we can learn new stuff when we’re young because we don’t already have a backlog of things we already love to distract us with nostalgia. Of course, kids today seem to put thousands of hours into fun pursuits even before they start school. I now see nostalgia in people in their twenties.

I realize that in the past six years I’ve been cycling through the various periods of my life escaping into my past. Each period has something different I learned to love. I imprinted on TV watching in the 1950s and early 1960s before I became a bookworm. That’s how I got hooked on TV shows and old movies that I now collect. Starting around 1962 I got hooked on science fiction and rock and roll. I write about both. At the beginning of the 1970s, I got into SF fandom and fanzines, which eventually morphed into blogging. I started computer school in 1971 and got my first microcomputer in 1978. The 1980s were the time when I owned several 8-bit and 16-bit computers, and ran a BBS. I also got a job with computers and worked at it for 35 years.

From 1968 to 2013 I tried writing science fiction several times but I never put the needed hours into it. I wrote about thirty short stories, a couple novel first drafts, and attended a bunch of classes, including Clarion West. But it was just a few hundred hours, and for most of that time, I was in my fifties. Was I too old to learn a new trick, or was it because I didn’t put in my 10,000 hours?

So, why haven’t I bought an old 8-bit machine? It’s because I’ve watched dozens of videos by The 8-Bit Guy. Watching him demo all these old machines vicariously gave me all I needed. It reminded me why I owned so many 8-bit and 16-bit machines in the first place. I was always looking for a machine that could do more. My current machine, an Intel NUC with an i7 processor, 16GB of memory, 1TB SSD, and 4K monitor is completely satisfying. It does everything I want. The 8-Bit Guy inflames my nostalgia for old machines but also reminds me why I gave them all to Goodwill.

However, The 8-Bit Guy has also taught me something else, something about nostalgia that I have written here. There is nothing wrong with returning to retro tech, but I do have a choice. I could put those hours into doing something new. Or put them into an old ambition I never achieved. (Is that another kind of nostalgia? Pursuing old dreams.)

For the past six years, I’ve been mass consuming old hobbies. The question is, will I continue to consume nostalgia or learn a new trick? It’s so easy to stick with what we know, and it’s so hard to learn something new. There’s a reason why we have that saying about failing to train old dogs. And there’s something else I’ve learned in my six years of retirement. My energy is draining away. I’m guessing old dogs can learn new tricks but it’s ten times harder than when they were young. Maybe even a hundred.

I could say I’m expending all my dwindling energy on enjoying my old loves. That’s kind of nice (and normal). And maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do when we’re old. But theoretically, I wonder if we can break the nostalgic habit. Instead of watching The 8-Bit Guy before I go to bed I could be watching YouTube videos on the techniques of writing fiction and get up in the morning and apply them.

JWH

Unraveling a Loose Thread of History Found in a 1956 Issue of Galaxy Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 16, 2019

This morning I was flipping through some old issues of Galaxy Science Fiction I had bought on eBay and ran across this ad in the October 1956 issue:

Geniac - Galaxy 1956-10

At first, I flipped right by it. Then in the next issue I picked up, the December 1956 issue, I found this ad:

Geniac - Galaxy 1956-12

This one promised a whole lot more. Could this be for real? Computes, plays games, composes music? I don’t ever remember reading about home computers existing this early. I thought computer kits were something from the 1970s. This December ad promised a new improved 1957 model, and for only $19.95. In 1956, $19.95 was some serious money for a kid. It would probably be hundreds of dollars in today’s money. And was this a genuine computer, or was it some kind of trick, like those X-Ray glasses advertised in the back of comic books?

First stop: Wikipedia.

Geniac was an educational toy billed as a "computer" designed and marketed by Edmund Berkeley, with Oliver Garfield from 1955 to 1958, but with Garfield continuing without Berkeley through the 1960s. The name stood for "Genius Almost-automatic Computer" but suggests a portmanteau of genius and ENIAC (the first fully electronic general-purpose computer).

Operation
Basically a rotary switch construction set, the Geniac contained six perforated masonite disks, into the back of which brass jumpers could be inserted. The jumpers made electrical connections between slotted brass bolt heads sitting out from the similarly perforated masonite back panel. To the bolts were attached wires behind the panel. The circuit comprised a battery, such wires from it to, and between, switch positions, wires from the switches to indicator flashlight bulbs set along the panel's middle, and return wires to the battery to complete the circuit.

With this basic setup, Geniac could use combinational logic only, its outputs depending entirely on inputs manually set. It had no active elements at all – no relays, tubes, or transistors – to allow a machine state to automatically influence subsequent states. Thus, Geniac didn't have memory and couldn't solve problems using sequential logic. All sequencing was performed manually by the operator, sometimes following fairly complicated printed directions (turn this wheel in this direction if this light lights, etc.)

The main instruction book, as well as a supplementary book of wiring diagrams, gave jumper positions and wiring diagrams for building a number of "machines," which could realize fairly complicated Boolean equations. A copy of Claude Shannon's groundbreaking thesis in the subject, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, was also included.

Okay, so it was real! But in 1956? In the mid-fifties, commercial computers were just beginning to be rolled out to businesses. In 1957 American audiences got to see a humorous look at computers in the film Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Rumors of computers produced a fear that the librarians would lose their jobs, but ultimately humans prevailed. I expect most Americans in 1957 had never seen a computer and only knew about them from funny cartoons in magazines and newspapers. Geniac came out before Sputnik which ignited a fear that American youths weren’t being educated in science. Was there a desire by kids that early in the 1950s to know about computers?

Here is a History of Computer timeline that shows the Geniac for 1955. And here’s an article about the history of computers that played NIM games, which includes the Geniac.

Scientific American 1950-11The main designer of Geniac appears to be Edmund Berkeley. He wrote an early book about computers in 1949, Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. Berkeley was also written about in Edmund Berkeley and the Social Responsibility of Computer Professionals by Bernedette Long. If you follow that link she writes about his influence with Geniac. I’m awful tempted to buy the Kindle edition. He also designed what some people call the first personal computer, Simon. Simon appeared as 13 how-to articles that began running in Radio-Electronics magazine in October 1950. (All 13 parts can be read online here.) It would have cost around $600 to build and had very limited features with only 2-bits of memory. Berkeley wrote the article “Simple Simon” for the November 1950 issues of Scientific American.

Electronics was a big tech hobby back then and had been since the early days of the radio in the 1910s. Looking at the Geniac ad carefully though showed it wasn’t an electronics kit, but merely electrical. It might contain 400 parts, but they were wires, light bulbs, batteries, nuts, and little contacts. It seems designed to set up simple logic programs. How much could a kid do with one? YouTube to the rescue:

And this film, which features a later model from the 1960s called a Brainiac:

This brings up even more questions. Did kids really play with them? Where they inspired to study computers and become computer programmers and engineers? Were there any famous computer pioneers that started with a Geniac or Brainiac? Could Steve Wozniak or Bill Gates have played with one? Of course, those two might have been too young for this era.

The kit seemed aimed at kids, but it would have required a great deal of work and patience to produce any results. Actually putting one together and doing any of the example projects would have been very educational.

David Vanderschel describes his Geniac computer from 1956. He says an IBM 1620 was the first real computer he encountered in 1962. That was the first computer I programmed on in 1971 at computer school using FORTRAN.

Hackaday had a post last month about the Geniac claiming that Mike Gardi credits his professional success in software development to educational logic games like the Geniac. Gardi created a replica of a Geniac and has links to the original documentation. This 1955 manual had instructions for a couple dozen projects. Gardi said:

Technically GENIAC was a collection of configurable N-pole by N-throw rotary switches, which could be set up to cascaded and thus perform logical functions. As a result GENIAC could use combinational logic only, its outputs depending entirely on inputs manually set. However, projects outlined in the manual, which started with basic logic circuits, ultimately progressed to such things as a NIM machine and TIC-TAC-TOE machine.

I did find a Geniac on eBay that has a $99.99 buy it now price. There’s a Brainiac for sale for $349! That’s more than I’d want to spend. The Brainiac is in great shape though. It’s probably the one from the film above.

The more I Googled, the more intrigued I became about the impact of the Geniac computer. Is this how historians get sucked into writing books? I checked a couple books on the history of personal computers I own, but neither mention Geniac or Edmund Berkeley. If you search Google for the first personal computer you usually get the MITS Altair 8800. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe I could write a whole history book about home computers before 1975.

Additional Reading:

Update:

I went to my public library and looked through the books about the history of computing. I found no mentions of Geniac or Edmund Berkeley. I then checked The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years 1950-1960. I found no references to Geniac and only a handful of articles by Berkeley. His articles did sound interesting:

  • “Robots for Fun” Life, 173-74+, March 19, 1956
  • “Relations Between Symbolic Logic and Large-Scale Calculating Machines” Science, 395-399, October 6, 1950
  • “Simple Simon” Scientific American, 40-43, November 1950
  • “Tomorrow’s Thinking Machines” Science Digest, 52-57, January 1950
  • “2150 A.D. Preview of the Robotic Age” New York Times, 19, November 19, 1950
  • “Robot Psychoanalyst” Newsweek, 58, December 12, 1949
  • “Algebra and States and Events” Science Monthly, 332-342, April 1954
  • “We Are Safer Than We Think” New York Times, 11, July 29, 1951

An amusing thing happened at the library. I kept asking the librarians where the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature was located. They didn’t know. Finally, they asked a very old librarian and she found it for me. She then came back with the younger librarians, they wanted to see it too. I had told them when I was young every kid was taught to begin their library research with that classic index.

JWH