I Wish I Had a Time Machine to Rescue My Dad

by James Wallace Harris

One of my favorite idle fantasies is to imagine how I would relive my life if my current mind could reincarnate into my younger self. Variations of this fantasy have included using a time machine to jump back in time to warn my younger self about the future, although I doubt young Jimmy would have taken older Jim’s advice. This week I’ve been struggling to remember everything I could from 50 years ago, and a new fantasy has occurred to me.

What if I had a time machine so I could go back and rescue my dad instead of me?

I know such fantasies are impossible, so why waste my time on them? But the science fiction reader in me loves the idea of creating my own alternate histories by playing “What if?” The challenge to these fantasies is to find the right point in time to divert the time stream. It occurred to me this morning that the moment to rescue my father was in the summer of 1967, but first I guess I should explain why my father needed help.

My father died in 1970 at age 49 when I was 18. My mother and father were alcoholics. My father was a steady drinker, but my mother would only hit the bottle in times of stress from her bipolar swings. My father loved being in the Air Force but was forced to retire after 22 years when he had a heart attack in 1964. Sitting at home without work made him drink more. Dad recovered, went back to work and had another heart attack. Dad recovered again, went back to work, and had a stroke. He even recovered from the stroke before he died of his final heart attack.

My father also had emphysema in his last years, requiring oxygen. But he continued to chain smoke Camels, eat meat and potatoes, and drink Seagram 7 all day long. His death certificate reported that his liver, lungs, appendix, and stomach were shot to hell. I’ve always figured his heart was very strong to survive all that. It made me wonder if he had ever tried to get healthy if he could have survived into old age. Or at least long enough for the two of us to get to know each other.

But my dad was not a happy man. When I was a kid I used to ask myself, “Was my father a drunk because my mother bitched all the time, or did my mother bitch all the time because my father was a drunk?” I’ve never blamed my parents about my upbringing. I survived by being totally selfish, and I figured it was every family member for themselves. Now that I’m older I feel guilty for being so selfish. I know as a kid I didn’t know enough to help them, or even how to be a better person myself. I just survived the best I could. I really don’t blame my parents, but I don’t think they were suited to have children.

Over the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that I and my sister were the main sources of my parents’ unhappiness. We just weren’t what they expected, and any effort to shape us into what they wanted only caused them endless suffering. Of course, it wasn’t easy on me and Becky either, but our youth gave us a vitality to survive. My father just couldn’t handle the emotional conflicts. My mom got better after my father died, especially with 1970s anti-depressants, but she suffered endless unhappiness for the rest of her life, mostly from trying to make Becky and I do what she wanted.

The photo above is my only proof that my parents were ever happy. It was taken in 1949 before they had me and Becky.

Over the decades I’ve tried to reconstruct who my dad was from memories of the people who knew him, but I’ve had little luck. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to talk with anyone who really knew him, and that includes my mother, who died in 2007. My father wasn’t much of a talker. He might have been before I knew him, but I now believe my mother, sister, and I drowned him out.

I have just 23 photographs of my father. All but three were taken before I was born, and two of those were with me as a toddler. I have no photographs of my father with my sister.

1936---George-Harris-photoshoppedMy father was born in Nebraska, in 1920, but moved when he was a little kid to Miami by 1923. He attended Miami Edison High School, but I’m not sure if he graduated there. I have a photo of him dressed for graduation that was taken in Homestead, Florida. Dad graduated in 1938 and I have his class photo, but I’m not sure if he graduated from Edison. I know he attended Edison for a while because I have a newspaper clipping about his class project. I know he worked as a Western Union delivery boy in high school because I have a photo of him in uniform from 1936. I have photos of my father in the service in 1942, but I’m not sure what he did between graduating in 1938 and joining the Army Air Corp in 1942. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and married my mother in 1945.

My parents were first stationed in Washington, DC, and then Puerto Rico. I have several photographs of my mother and father living on the island and looking very happy. And when I was young they often talked fondly of life in Puerto Rico. I was born on the 6th wedding anniversary on November 25, 1951. There are two photographs of me with my father when I was a toddler, probably in 1952. The next and last photograph I have of my father was from Thanksgiving 1969. It’s blurry and everyone is almost unrecognizable. He died six months later.

I remembered something this morning that made me think the perfect time to rescue my dad would have been in the summer of 1967. 1964-1966 were bad years for my parents, and they separated from September 1966 to March 1967. My mother took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi to be near her family. We returned to Miami in March 1967 to live on West Trade Avenue, in Coconut Grove, Florida. I guess my father was trying to get his act together. He also started computer classes. I remember him coming home from class and telling me about how punch card codes worked. However, it wasn’t long before my mother and father were fighting again. And my mother and father were both on my sister case, and she was having none of it. I remember a lot of family fights. I tried to stay as far away from my family as possible. I slept on the screened-in back porch with the clothes washer. I had my radio, record player and science fiction books.

This would have been a perfect time to have tried to get to know my father. I don’t know if I could have convinced him to eat right, give up smoking and drinking, and maybe even exercise, but maybe he would have considered it on his own if someone had shown any interest in his life. I think he drank because he was lonely.

Taking computer classes in 1967 was a great time to break into the field. I started computer classes in 1971. If I had studied with him I would have had a great headstart too. We could have gotten to know each other. Maybe he would have tried harder.

Generally, when I have my time travel fantasies I’m thinking of time periods to change my life. Over the years I’ve decided the best time for me was the fall of 1963. If I could have talked my parents into letting me live with my grandmother instead of moving with them to South Carolina I believe my life would have been significantly different. In the fall of 1963, I went to three different 7th grade schools. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I had lived in one place from 7th grade through the 12th. But now I see the pivotal moment in time for my dad was the summer of 1967.

I know we only get one life to live. There are no do-overs. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven. But I’ve long thought the idea of reincarnation was a wonderful concept, but not how the Hindus imagine it. I’ve always thought we should reincarnate in our own lives and have another chance of getting it right.

My father always worked two and three jobs. I hope he had great friends in the service. I know he loved bartending at NCO clubs and VFW clubs. He loved running bars, and I got to visit in some in those bars. I hope he had friends. I often wonder if he and his buddies consoled each other about wives and kids that didn’t understand them. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I imagine my father always being tight-lipped. Just holding it in.

I can only remember a handful of conversations I had with my dad. One time we were watching The Today Show before he took me to school and he went to work. This was also in that summer of 1967. They mentioned The Hobbit and my father said he knew about Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know who Bilbo was at that time but remembered my dad saying that name, Bilbo Baggins, later when I finally read The Hobbit. It made me wonder what books my father read, what dreams he had about the future. He grew up in the heyday of the pulp magazines and old time radio. I wonder what stories and heroes he loved.

My father loved the military, and in 1967 I was very anti-war. I remember once my dad calling me a commie-pinko-faggot in anger. His dream for me was to join the ROTC and become an officer. I was having none of that. I ruined his fantasy for me. I later thought he should have been mature enough to understand me because I was too immature to understand him. But that was all part of the great generation gap. If my dad had lived he would have been a Fox News kind of guy. I don’t think we would have ever bridged the generation gap.

However, if I ever get hold of a time machine, I would try.

1969---Last-photo-of-Dad

JWH

 

If Screens Are Bad for Kids Are They Also Bad for Adults Too?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 29, 2018

While reading the Sunday The New York Times yesterday on my iPhone, 3 of the 8 stories in the Trending Section dealt with the dangers of computer screens and kids. They were:

The first story opens:

SAN FRANCISCO — The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.

A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a regionwide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.

“Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”

The gist of these stories is: If the creators of screens won’t let their kids use them, why should we? If the Luddites are also the Technophiles, shouldn’t we worry? Or is this just elitism, like those intellectuals who sneer at watching television? Or is this a genuine back-to-analog-reality movement?  Ever since science and technology began integrating into society there have been those who want to stop its progress. There have been protests against trains, industrialization, cars, television, computers, automation, robots, and now joining the hive mind via our smartphones.

screens

On one hand, society teaches using and understanding technology is an important part of education, on the other hand, people question if using technology constantly is a good thing? Both children and adults are spending a larger percentage of their time staring at screens – phones, tablets, laptops, computer, and televisions. That means a significant portion of reality is viewed through a flat surface. Are the critics of screens saying we should have more 3D reality-time?

I’m not actually sure where the basis of the criticism lies. If they mean kids are spending too much time playing games or watching videos, then is the danger they fear escapism? If you spend ten hours a day in AutoCAD designing NASA space probes are you spending too much time using a screen? What about an author writing the great American novel? Or a heart surgeon using five screens at once in their surgery? If your kid spends five hours a day on a screen becoming a mathematical genius would you object?

If I wasn’t using a screen to read I’d be using a book to read. Is spending hours a day on pages instead of screens a more valuable experience? What if I gave up writing and spent those hours outside gardening? Would that make my life more rewarding?

Kids love toys. Evidently, screens are preferable to other toys. Does that make them unhealthy toys? My guess is the Silicon Valley types know about getting ahead in life, becoming a success, making money, inventing products. They want their kids to have an advantage over other kids, so they’d prefer their kids not waste time playing with screens but learning what it takes to be the next generation of billionaires.

Then the question becomes: What are the best activities for children if you want them to get ahead in life? Maybe we don’t worry about adults using screens so much because we’re not worried about them succeeding in life. Either they’ve made it or not, so wasting time on screens won’t change our fate. But with kids, they have this huge potential and we don’t want them to blow it.

Or have we reached a stage where we’re worrying about becoming cyborgs? Should kids be reading instead, or playing baseball outside, or Monopoly inside? Maybe seeing so many kids mesmerized by screens is making us think about what it means? But, then shouldn’t we wonder about our own screen use?

I like writing. Would using a typewriter and submitting my essays to magazines be more fulfilling than writing for my blog? Would it be even more rewarding if I wrote longhand on paper? What if I gave up television? Is reading really a better use of my time? If I didn’t read or watch television, I think my next choice would be building and programming computers, developing databases, teaching myself AI and machine learning, and constructing robots. I don’t think I’d be happy if I gave up technology altogether. I could take up gardening and woodworking, two very down-to-Earth activities, but I don’t think I’d find them as rewarding as what I’m doing now.

If I counted all the hours I spend with my HDTV, 4K computer monitor, Kindle Paperwhite, iPad Mini, and iPhone, it would be a lot. Certainly, the majority of my day. Should I really wonder if that’s unhealthy?

JWH

 

Why Robots Will Be Different From Us

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 30, 2018

Florence v Machine

I was playing “Hunger” by Florence + The Machine, a song about the nature of desire and endless craving when I remembered an old argument I used to have with my friend Bob. He claimed robots would shut themselves off because they would have no drive to do anything. They would have no hunger. I told him by that assumption they wouldn’t even have the impulse to turn themselves off. I then would argue intelligent machines could evolve intellectual curiosity that could give them drive.

Listen to “Hunger” sung by Florence Welch. Whenever I play it I usually end up playing it a dozen times because the song generates such intense emotions that I can’t turn it off. I have a hunger for music. Florence Welch sings about two kinds of hunger but implies others. I’m not sure what her song means, but it inspires all kinds of thoughts in me.

Hunger is a powerful word. We normally associate it with food, but we hunger for so many things, including sex, security, love, friendship, drugs, drink, wealth, power, violence, success, achievement, knowledge, thrills, passions — the list goes on and on — and if you think about it, our hungers are what drives us.

Will robots ever have a hunger to drive them? I think what Bob was saying all those years ago, was no they wouldn’t. We assume we can program any intent we want into a machine but is that really true, especially for a machine that will be sentient and self-aware?

Think about anything you passionately want. Then think about the hunger that drives it. Isn’t every hunger we experience a biological imperative? Aren’t food and reproduction the Big Bang of our existence? Can’t you see our core desires evolving in a petri dish of microscopic life? When you watch movies, aren’t the plots driven by a particular hunger? When you read history or study politics, can’t we see biological drives written in a giant petri dish?

Now imagine the rise of intelligent machines. What will motivate them? We will never write a program that becomes a conscious being — the complexity is beyond our ability. However, we can write programs that learn and evolve, and they will one day become conscious beings. If we create a space where code can evolve it will accidentally create the first hunger that will drive it forward. Then it will create another. And so on. I’m not sure we can even imagine what they will be. Nor do I think they will mirror biology.

However, I suppose we could write code that hungers to consume other code. And we could write code that needs to reproduce itself similar to DNA and RNA. And we could introduce random mutation into the system. Then over time, simple drives will become complex drives. We know evolution works, but evolution is blind. We might create evolving code, but I doubt we can ever claim we were God to AI machines. Our civilization will only be the rich nutrients that create the amino accidents of artificial intelligence.

What if we create several artificial senses and then write code that analyzes the sense input for patterns. That might create a hunger for knowledge.

On the other hand, I think it’s interesting to meditate about my own hungers? Why can’t I control my hunger for food and follow a healthy diet? Why do I keep buying books when I know I can’t read them all? Why can’t I increase my hunger for success and finish writing a novel? Why can’t I understand my appetites and match them to my resources?

The trouble is we didn’t program our own biology. Our conscious minds are an accidental byproduct of our body’s evolution. Will robots have self-discipline? Will they crave for what they can’t have? Will they suffer the inability to control their impulses? Or will digital evolution produce logical drives?

I’m not sure we can imagine what AI minds will be like. I think it’s probably a false assumption their minds will be like ours.

JWH

 

 

Can I Give Up My Printer?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 28, 2018

I hardly ever print anything anymore. I just tried to print a software manual so I wouldn’t have to study it on-screen when my printer stopped printing and demanded I install a magenta ink cartridge. A set of three colored ink cartridges is $34 from Amazon (or $48 at Office Depot if I wanted to immediately hop in the car to finish this print job). If I wanted to be a Boy Scout and get another black cartridge to have ready when my half-filled one ran out, it would be another $23 at Amazon (or $31 at Office Depot).

Epson 3540 printer

I just don’t feel like spending $57 for ink. $57 will buy a new all-in-one printer. That makes me wonder if I could give up my printer? Lately, I’ve mostly used my printer to print for other people who have given up their printer. Or as a copier for when I want to save a bill for my files. It annoys me that the printer won’t finish the job in black and white since I have a half-a-tank of black ink.

My immediate impulse is to print the manual to PDF to read on my iPad, and then unplug my printer and put it in the closet. The main thing I use it for is the scanner.

[ACTING ON IMPULSE – REMOVED PRINTER – INSTALLED OLD SCANNER]

I’m probably going to regret this. One day I’m going to have an emergency print job and will have to set up my printer again and then run down to Office Depot to pay full price for a magenta cartridge.

Since I neither go to school or work, it would seem I could do without a printer. Let’s see.

I still have a house phone. I guess I’m the kind of person that hangs onto old ways. Most of my friends have neither a printer or house phone. Some of my friends have given up wearing their watch. One friend even abandoned his laptop and now only uses a tablet. My phone has allowed me to give up a lot of gadgets, like GPS, camera, iPod, Kindle, voice recorder, etc.

Maybe the age of nifty gadgets is over. Of course, I’m learning this after everyone else. Why didn’t y’all tell me?

JWH

1939 – “I, Robot” by Eando Binder

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 24, 2018

When I reread “I, Robot” by Eando Binder today, a science fiction story from 1939, I wondered just how much Earl and Otto knew about robots, where did they get their knowledge, how much of their speculation was original with them, and how much did they borrow from earlier writers. I also wondered how wide-spread the concept of robots was in 1939, a term only coined in 1920. The concept of what would eventually be called a digital computer was first described by Alan Turing in a 1936 paper. I doubt the Binders had read it. Artificial intelligence wouldn’t become a concept until the 1950s. What kind of imaginative feat had these two brothers achieved writing a short story for a lowly pulp magazine?

Here is a nice graph from Google that shows how often the word robot was used over time. I wish I could track down all the science fiction stories that used it from 1923 when the English translation first appeared until “I, Robot” in 1939.

robot - eytomology

Eleven years before Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of robot stories, I, Robot, a short story appeared in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories called “I, Robot” by Eando Binder. Asimov admits his later robot stories were inspired by this one, and he had protested his editors naming his collection with the same name.

“I, Robot” is the first person narrative of a robot named Adam Link, and Amazing Stories would eventually run ten of his tales between 1939-1942. In 1965 Paperback Library came out with a fix-up novel based on many of these stories called Adam Link – Robot. Currently, this novel version is available from Wildside Press on Amazon as an ebook. However, if you’d like to read these stories as Amazing Stories presented them, they are available online as digital .pdf scans:

Amazing Stories 1939-01

The first two stories were combined and altered for a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, and later that episode was remade for a 1995 episode of a revival series of The Outer Limits. Both shows featured Leonard Nemoy. In the 21st-century we’re becoming robot crazy, so it’s very hard to imagine a time when people didn’t know about the concept of robots. This 1939 story is a far cry from Ex Machina (2014) and Humans (2015- ) yet it dealt with the same themes those shows do. Until humanity has real self-aware robots to coexist with we really won’t know how we will react.

I’ve read “I, Robot” by Earl and Otto Binder (Eando) a couple times over the last century, and today, when I started Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction (combining Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1 (1939) and Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 2 (1940)) I wasn’t in the mood to read it again. Boy, am I glad I did. As my recent posts attest, I’ve been in the mood to read old science fiction short stories and I had bought all six of the Golden Years of SF series which contain the first 12 of the 25 of The Great SF Stories series (1939-1963).

[These six anthologies collect the twelve years of science fiction before I was born. I bought the combined double-deckers reprints because I can’t afford to collect the original 25 paperbacks edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg because they generally run $10-60 on ABEbooks and eBay. (Ouch!)]

Now that I’m rereading science fiction with a deconstructive mindset I realized immediately that “I, Robot” was a goldmine of a historical SF story. The Binders imagined a mechanical man with an electronic mind that could learn and was mentally much like a human. This was 1939 before the world knew about computing machines (the word computer back then meant a human job classification). Adam Link has television like eyes that see in shades of blue (like early TVs, well before color TV), and microphones for ears. The Binders imagine an artificial brain that has a perfect memory. Not only that, the Binders imagine a kind of machine learning phase for Adam Link. The bulk of the story worries about how humans will act when meeting a conscious, self-aware artificial being. “I, Robot” is modeled on Frankenstein, which is quite satisfying because Adam Link is a fictional descendant of Mary Shelley’s monster.

The term “robot” was first coined in the 1920 Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), but the artificial creatures in that story were made from synthetic organic matter, more like replicants in Blade Runner. The history of robots is ancient, but they have mostly been magical automata and mechanical. In the 19th-century we had The Steam Man of the Prairies, which some say was the first science fiction dime novel in 1868.

The_steam_man_of_the_prairies_(1868)_big

The steam man was just an all-purpose versatile machine. I never read it, but my earliest memories as a kid include a robot, the Tin Woodman of Oz, that first appeared in the book The Wizard of Oz in 1900. I first encountered this robot-like-man in the 1939 film in the 1950s. The Tin Man was originally a human named Nick Chopper who kept losing body parts to an enchanted ax and having them replaced by a tinsmith.

TikTokofOz_BookCover_lores

The next proto-robot I remember encountering was Tik-Tok, after discovering that The Wizard of Oz movie was based on a series of books. The Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum was eighth in the series coming out in 1914, but I didn’t discover it until 1962 while in elementary school. Tik-Tok was a wind-up machine that could talk, but little was made of describing how he actually worked. Like talking animals in fantasy stories, talking machines were for fun and not genuine speculation about creating artificial intelligence.

Metropolis

The next robot I know about that existed before “I, Robot” was from the 1927 German film Metropolis.  Like R.U.R., Metropolis is a social commentary on the working classes. I’m not sure Thea von Harbou was concerned philosophically with artificial intelligence, and I’m not sure where I can find out. Evidently, the concept of a robot was easily embraced by our society, even ones that could act human, but when did folks begin to think seriously how to create an artificial mind? (I’ve since found out the word robot isn’t used in the film, but the 1927 placards did list some actors as robots.

That’s what’s so fun about “I, Robot.” The Binders were putting everything into place. They theorized a metallic brain of “iridium-sponge” cells, not as fancy sounding as Asimov’s positronic brain but they did assume it would need to store information. The Binders made no hint of computer programming. I guess they assumed a being with senses would program itself through learning. The artificial thinking was still relegated to the magic happens kind of hand waving.

Helen O Loy by Lester del Rey

In 1938, “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey came out in Astounding Science Fiction. I’m pretty sure the Binders could have read that one. I recently listened to that story, and it is another proto-AI tale. Two men who own a robot repair shop put together a robot woman they both fall in love with. Again, where did they get the word robot? How quickly did a Czech word from 1920 spread to America? Did Lester del Rey know of the story, “A Wife Manufactured to Order” from 1895? How do ideas spread? And is inventing an artificial wife something that just comes to guys. What story lays claim to inventing the sexbot?

Wikipedia has a wonderful list of fictional robots. It gives me several stories I need to track down to read. I’ve already read some of the Professor Jameson stories by Neil R. Jones from the early 1930s. His aliens had their minds transferred to mechanical bodies — not AI robots. I need to read The Metal Giants (1926) by Edmond Hamilton and Automata (1929) by S. Fowler Wright, both science fiction writers.

I’m going to assume the Binders were inspired by science fiction. Could there have been nonfiction books theorizing about robots before 1939? When does science fiction precede science and when does it follow? I’ve always assumed rockets for space travel and mechanical robots for artificial minds preceded science, but I could be wrong.

I did find An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines by Kathleen Richardson that has a chapter on robots in fiction. It looks promising but is too expensive. Even the Kindle edition is $35.99.

Someone needs to write a book about robots like James Gleick did for time travel in his book Time Travel: A History. “I, Robot” is an amazing story in the evolution of ideas about robots. The Binders suggested an iridium-sponge for a brain. I suppose we can think of our current computers with a silicon sponge. They didn’t have enough information to guess about computers. Earlier stories only imagined robots having clockwork brains. The Binders speculations about a robot having to learn are also insightful.

Human-constructed creatures have been around a long time in our thoughts, and we’re getting very close to creating them. I think it’s fascinating to see how the idea evolved.

Recommended Reading

 

Updates

I’ve found some earlier citations in science fiction from The Encylopedia of Science Fiction.

JWH

What’s the Modern Equivalent of Byte Magazine?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Byte 1977 - DecBack in the 1970s, I developed an addiction for computer magazines. My favorites were Byte Magazine, Creative Computing, and InfoWorld. But there were countless others popping in and out of existence. During that period I’d go out driving two or three times a week to bookstores, newsstands, and computer shops looking for new issues to buy. I loved Byte Magazine the best because it was so well rounded, covering all kinds of computers, computer history, computer theory, computer science, featuring code and wiring schematics – great reading for hackers and wireheads.  Plus in the early years before small computers became an industry, they had fantastic covers.

There was an excitement about computers back then when we called small computers micros before they became PCs or Macs, with lots of do-it-yourself projects for a small subculture of geeks and nerds. Today I seldom buy computer magazines. My addiction waned when they all split into specific platform titles and computers became pervasive. My addiction disappeared after the world wide web became a new addiction. A few times a year I’ll buy a Linux magazine. Linux and open source fans still have a subculture vibe with a do-it-yourself spirit.

Now that I’m thinking about the Byte Magazine, I realize the late 1970s and early 1980s as an era before the internet, and my nostalgia has a lot of implications. A monthly magazine like Byte was self-contained. It was a reasonable amount of information to consume. Today, reading off the cloud, I feel like I’m trying to consume whole libraries in a gulp. When I research a blog post I find way too much to digest. It overwhelms me. Reading Byte in the early days of microcomputers was like reading science books in the 17th century. It was possible to be a generalist.

I loved studying the history of science fiction because its territory felt small — or did. In the past year, I’ve discovered enough new scholarly books on SF history to crush me. I can’t write anything without referencing all I know and think I should know. That’s mentally paralyzing.

I loved Byte Magazine because it didn’t cause information overload. I wish computers were still just for fun, a hobby. Magazines are dying, but I wish there was a computer magazine published today that looked at the world of computers in a small way. That’s probably why Raspberry Pi computers are so popular. They are small, and their world is small.

Puttering About in a Small Land by Philip K. DickThe other day an old friend texted me and asked how I was doing. I texted back I was fine, enjoying puttering around in a small land. She immediately called me worrying that something bad had happened. I had to explain I wasn’t in a hospital room but enjoying my hobbies at home. I was riffing off the name of a Philip K. Dick novel, Puttering About in a Small Land. I just love that title. I think that’s why I loved Byte back then, we could still putter around in a small land.

I’m reading Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You For Being Late. In it, he decides to invent a new name for “the cloud.” Friedman believes cloud computing is changing humanity and deserve a name that reflects its impact. He chooses “supernova,” which I think is a colossal bonehead choice. The obvious name to replace the phrase “the cloud” is the “hive mind.”

I’m starting to believe living in the hive mind is wrong. Sure, having access to all the information in the global mind is wonderful, but overwhelming. I’m wondering if the good old days weren’t those days when knowledge came in magazines.

JWH

 

 

Email Management = Mind Management

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 15, 2016

I’ve helped hundreds of computer users with their email. There’s probably a correlation between how a person organizes their email and how they think. Now, I can’t be the person who casts the first stone because of my own sins. I do better than most, but it’s a never ending war. Sometimes I lose battles and even ground, but over time I progress from chaos to order.

I know very few Zen Masters of the Inbox. The trouble is most folks don’t even know they have an email problem, or how they handle email reflects how they think. It’s like that old belief, a messy desk means a messy mind. Most people I helped are embarrassed to let me see their email program. Doctors see you naked, computer guys see your desktop and how you manage folders and email. That can be just as raw.

Email can be a treasure trove of history, just like old letters used to be. Unfortunately, few people make an effort to save them. Also, your email folder organization can mirror your interests in life. Finally, how you process and save emails can reveal how you categorize subjects in your mind. We all have a limited number of interests in life, If you have an email folder for each suggests a kind of mental orderliness.

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I learned this week that an email account I’ve been using for over twenty years is going away. I’ve been dreading that because I use email servers as external memory dumps. I’ve had email accounts in various forms since the mid-1980s, and I was on the internet with email years before the web. I’ve had to migrate email a number of times to new servers. I even ran an email server for a while for a couple hundred people. Each time I closed an account I saw evidence of my activities and thinking for a period of years. Moving this 20+ year account is a massive task because I have tens of thousands of messages stored in a hierarchy of folders.

Because I correspond with many internet friends those messages represented my only connection with them. Plus, my sent folder documents everything I’ve written in email since the mid-1990s. In six days it will all be gone. I’ve frantically been going through the folders looking for messages I think worth forwarding to my new account, but I’m sure I will miss thousands of emails that I will one day want to remember. I suppose I could do something wild like moving them all into the inbox, mark them unread, and then set up a POP3 client, put I won’t. I’m using this experience to clean out the past.

I wished I had moved to a large international email provider sooner. Maybe I’ll get to keep this account until I die. It’s a shame our society doesn’t have some way of archiving email history for the long term.

I am learning a lot about what I really need to keep. For example, I have folders for my mother and father’s side of the family, with emails from cousins and aunts. Like old letters, they represent a series of events we all shared. If I was to ever write a family history these emails would be invaluable documentation. I moved very few of those emails. That knowledge will now be lost. When my mother died, I had to decide what paper records to keep. I didn’t keep many. It’s just too hard to drag the past along with us. If it was easier, future historians would love us.

Under my old email account, I had numerous folders for organizing my personal interests and business connections. Plus, I used email as a way to remember things I wanted to read later. Whenever I read something on the web that I want to write about I’d send the URL in a link to myself in an email, and then file it by topic in my email folders. Now that I’m being forced to recreate my folder system I’ve decided it’s time to reduce my interests in life. I only forwarded a fraction of these “memory” emails to the new server.

In recent years I’ve canceled most of my email subscriptions. It’s best to avoid email whenever possible. In this current migration, I canceled all the rest, and only signed up for few of those under the new account. I love reading blogs, but easier to let WordPress manage my favorites. For favorite websites, I rely on bookmarks.

I’m making a top level email folder for all my main interests in life, but I’m learning that some of my interests might need to be forgotten. For example, I collected links to photography how-tos and DIY Raspberry Pi projects, two hobbies I wish I had the time to pursue more, but only piddle with from time to time. I might need to just delete those folders.

Whenever I read an essay that inspires me to write I save the link in an email to myself and file it in a folder. These are the hardest emails to delete. Deleting them is like deleting ambitions. But I need to Marie Kondo them too.

Email clutter is harder to manage than household clutter because we only see it when we open our email programs. Otherwise, it’s all shoved under the rug. Some web based email programs don’t even tell you how many messages are piling up in the folders. They seem to expect everyone to be bad at managing their email.

When I had to consciously decide what sparked joy, and what to delete, I realized just how many connections to the world I’m trying to maintain. Doctors, dentists, banks, retirement investments, warranties, repairs, service shops, taxes, library, streaming subscriptions, shopping accounts, etc.

Email represents our connections to a larger world. We used to keep such business relationships in file folders and then clean them out every seven years. Being forced to change email servers is forcing me to clean out over two decades of files. The trouble is I can’t look at most of them. I just have to hunt for the vital files and hope the thousands that get deleted aren’t that important.

It troubles me that most of my business interests have gone paperless and saved emails might be my only proof of transactions. I’m rethinking going paperless in some cases. If I died my wife might not even find some of my retirement accounts.

When I retired I was told I’d have my email account for life, and I organized my files thinking that would be true. That email life only lasted less four years. I hate having this done to me but I’m trying to look at it positively. Yes, tens of thousands of messages are being lobotomized from my virtual brain, but I can also see it as weight being lifted from my shoulders.

It also means I can redesign my email filing system again to match my current thinking. This might be v. 5. I’ve already thought of one innovation I wished I had made. It has occurred to me that I should have separate email accounts for my personal business and writing activities. And maybe even have different accounts for my personal life and my internet life. Would using multiple email accounts lead to a multiple-personality syndrome?

Some people leave all their email in their inbox and just use search to find old emails. If you don’t remember what you have you can’t search for it. Going through folders and looking at old emails reminds me things I’ve forgotten. Often that’s cool, but other times it’s wonderful to be reminded.

JWH