Is It Worth the Effort to Create a Database to Store Memories I’ll Forget?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/16/22

This weekend, while my sister was here visiting from Florida, we watched The Automat. It’s a lovely nostalgic documentary about the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants that were in Philadelphia and New York City from 1902 to 1991. What made the story so charming is it combined history with sociology, pop culture, and interviews with famous people who related fond memories of visiting the Automats. The Automat portrayed a unique subculture.

I told my sister this documentary reminded me of another I liked very much but I couldn’t remember its name or even its subject. That was rather frustrating. After she went to the airport yesterday, I began struggling to remember that documentary. I got on Google and tried search terms such as “nostalgic documentaries” and “quirky documentaries.” I went through many lists, discovering documentaries I had seen, liked, and forgotten, but didn’t find the one I wanted. I had a vague sense it involved a household fixture. During the hours of trying to dredge up what the documentary was about, I recalled it dealt with music, but not normal music, maybe it was about jingles in ads. Then the word “Broadway” popped into my mind.

I put the word Broadway in IMDB and came up with Bathtubs Over Broadway. It was on Netflix and I went and watched some of it again. It’s about a writer, Steve Young, who wrote for The Late Show with David Letterman. Part of his job was finding oddball records for Letterman to make fun of on the show. Young discovered that during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s corporations would spend huge sums of money putting on musicals at their conventions, and they made commemorative soundtrack albums to give to their salesmen. Sometimes these corporations spent more on producing these shows than some famous musicals on Broadway. Again, this documentary combined history, sociology, pop culture, and interviews to document a unique subculture.

Now, this essay isn’t about those shows, but about remembering those shows, or remembering anything. I often struggle to recall a name of a person, book, movie, album, TV show, event, etc. I’ve done this all my life, but it seems to be getting worse now that I’m older. And, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, I’ve been wondering if there is a technique or system I could develop to help me remember.

My first thought was to keep lists. My second thought was to make flashcards. My third thought was it had to work with my phone. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has a feature that allows registered users to keep lists, so I started one for documentaries I’ve watched. Weeks ago, I also started a list in Notes on my iPhone for movies and TV shows I’ve seen, but I might move it to IMDB.

One reason I feel the pressure to remember books, TV shows, movies, and documentaries is that whenever I talk with my friends, one of the main topics is what we’ve been reading or watching. And during my weekly get-togethers or phone calls, I often forget what I’ve seen or read during the past week.

However, is all this list-making worth the effort? I’ve tried it before and failed. It takes a bit of time, a little effort, and discipline. I have faithfully maintained a books-read list since 1983 and that has paid off in many ways. I’ve often wished I had started that list with Treasure Island, a book my mother read to me in 3rd grade in 1959. So a log of all the TV shows and movies I’ve watched would have been just as handy.

But how practical is it to keep lists of everything we want to remember? What about a list of everyone I’ve ever known? Or a list of everywhere I’ve ever lived, including vacation spots? They wouldn’t be impractical long lists.

Most of my memory struggles could be solved with five to ten good lists.

Have I just come up with a new idea for a social media service or an extra feature for Facebook? When do kids get their first smartphone or tablet? How young can you start entering data into your memory database?

It’s amazing that we have memories at all. I have no idea how molecules in the brain record what we experience. It’s amazing but unreliable. What if we had a reliable external memory? How would that change us and society?

What if we had photos and video clips of everyone we’ve ever met? Or at least got to know? You know those videos of people whose fathers took one picture a day or year for decades to make a speeded-up version of their growth? What if we all did that with our family and friends over our lifetime?

What would this take to make this happen? We have some of the technology right now. It would just take discipline and maybe ten or fifteen minutes a day. I started with my reading log in 1983. Several years ago I began using Goodreads. Now I’m using IMDB. None of these methods is perfect. What’s needed is software designed specifically to be external memory, with features that helped with recording and retrieval.

All of this makes me wonder just how much we want to remember? It might not be that much. Theoretically, we could record everything we see and hear to video, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want that much. It would be nice to just have a few minutes of video of our peak experiences. Isn’t what we really want a finite number of concrete facts? A handful of lists, a diary, and a collection of photos and videos might do the trick.

So, how much of our life could be remembered in one terabyte?

JWH

Have You Ever Lost Files From Google Drive?

James Wallace Harris 2/28/22

I’ve been using Google drive for years and years and always felt safe doing so. Over the past two years, I’ve had two spreadsheet files get corrupted. In both cases, I was printing them when part of the data was lost. It appeared that data that wasn’t in the print area was just removed.

In both cases, I tried to use the file version utility to get back to an early stage, and in both cases, it failed. I figured, what the heck, just don’t try to print from Google sheets, but download a copy and import it into Excel to print.

I told a friend about this, and he said he’s never had trouble with files on Google Drive. I figured my two incidents were just weird printing flukes. Then today that friend texted me and said Google Drive lost two of his files – just gone. Both were notes about a programming project that he spent weeks collecting. Ouch. Now I’m worried.

Google doesn’t offer tech support, at least that I can see for free personal accounts. There is a fair amount of documentation offering help. Basically, it suggests using the version control feature for corrupted files, and the undelete feature of the Trash. Even though I worked on my last spreadsheet for a couple hours, there were only two versions – a blank 11:35am version, and a corrupted 1:31pm version. I tried all kinds of things. I downloaded a .csv version to see if the data was hidden. I tried cutting and pasting to a new worksheet. I ended up importing the .csv file into Excel and retyping the deleted data.

Now, you might ask if I have Excel, why am I using Google Sheets? I just like Sheets, and I assumed by putting something in my Google Drive it would be safe. That Google would back things up, and keep plenty of versions.

And it’s also true, I’ve had corrupted files over the decades using Microsoft Office. Nothing is perfect. I used Google Drive because sometimes I like to share files, but mostly because it’s convenient, and I assumed such a tech giant would always protect my files better than I could.

Now, I’m wondering if corrupt or lost files on Google Drive are very common. Has it happened to you?

If I can’t trust Google Drive I’ll have to stop using it for creating files. I’ll do my work offline and then upload anything I need to share. In retrospect, I should have been saving my Google Drive files to a local drive before printing or doing any major reformatting or global calculations. I should have known better since I was in tech support for decades and I now remember all the times people came to me with corrupted files or lost files that happened after printing.

JWH

Do I Still Want To Be A Programmer?

by James Wallace Harris, 10/28/21

For most of my work life, I worked with computers. I thought of myself as a programmer, it was part of my identity. After I retired in 2013 I still thought of myself as a programmer, but I haven’t done any real programming since I stopped working. I keep thinking I want to get back into programming, but so far I haven’t. I think I need to either start programming or stop thinking I’m a programmer.

The obvious reason why I haven’t done any programming is I don’t have any tasks I want automated. Without a programming problem, I have little incentive to program. I’ve done some piddly stuff with HTML but that hardly counts. No, I need something that requires computer processing power to accomplish.

This morning I watched several YouTube videos about fun programming projects. None really appealed to me. Making my own Sudoku solver or password manager might be fun, but the idea of putting hours of work into something that creates a tool I don’t care to use seems pointless, especially when others have already created superior tools that do the same thing.

I’ve thought about programming a book manager since I’m always frustrated with Goodreads but just entering in all my books in a potentially finished project depresses me. I just don’t want that tool bad enough.

I’m trying to imagine creating a tool that would be a joy to create and use. One thing I’ve always wanted to make is an abstract art generator. Something I could use mathematical equations to produce trippy light shows. This is a super-advanced example of what I’m talking about. I picture myself developing very simple things, to begin with.

This Pinterest page shows works closer to what I might be capable of programming. I’d like to start with recreating the animated sequence in the credits to On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, then expanding on that, making it more interesting, adding user controls, so people can alter what’s happening in real-time.

I keep wanting to create an auxiliary memory system but why recreate what Evernote is already doing. I’ve had one idea but it would be very challenging, and probably way beyond my skill level. I collect scans of old magazines, and sometimes the scans are poor, or the original printing of the magazine was poor. I thought it would be neat to create a program that sharpens the text of these old magazines scans. I fantasize about restoring scans of old magazines to look beautiful.

Notice the I in the word Image at the top of the page. It has white bites out of it. I wonder if it’s possible to write a program that could examine all the letters and come up with perfect replacements that are uniformly sharp and dark. I’d also like to be able to create a background for the text that looks like the paper the magazine used when it was new. Also, notice the L in Likeness, it has a smudgy spot in it. I’d want to program out such artifacts.

I also wonder if it’s possible to create a program that could return faded worn covers so they look like they did when they were new. To brighten up colors, remove wrinkles, smudges, and markings. I want it to work in batch mode since I have thousands of digital magazines.

I have one other idea, but this is super-super advanced. I’d like to write an AI program that could input all my old digital SF magazines and read them. I’d want the program to decipher what the stories are about and build a theme database. Then I could ask it for things like “List all stories that are about colonizing Mars” or “List all stories about generation ships,” or “Create a list of all the major themes you find.”

There are three hard questions I have to ask myself:

  • Do I really want to dedicate the time to these projects?
  • Are these goals beyond my skill level?
  • Am I too old and tired?

I don’t have much discipline left, but I might have enough to apply myself for one hour a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but I’d be damned impressed with myself if I did. I never feel good anymore, and most of the time I’m just tired. I might have the skill to create simple light shows. It would be really fun to write a program to take bitmap images and improve the type, but I’d have to push myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself before. That would be a miracle. Creating an AI to read magazines is a fantasy.

I believe what I need to do is try creating the light show in Python. If I can’t, I should stop thinking about programming. If I succeed it might give me the psychic energy to go further. If I fail, I can free my mind of some old desires, and clean out programming books and magazines from my bookshelves.

This really is about coming to grips with aging. There are already many physical activities I’ve had to give up. I’m starting to think I might have to give up mental ones as well.

JWH

Lightning Killed More Than My Hardware

by James Wallace Harris, 4/17/21

Lightning zapped my Sony TV, NUC computer, Yamaha music streamer, and AT&T internet box. It was six days before we were back on the internet, but I still haven’t replaced the other equipment. I’ve been thinking about what I had and what I want.

The lightning strike has indirectly killed my interest in Linux. I’ve been playing with Linux ever since the early 1990s when I downloaded floppy disc images off Usenet. Each time I installed it I realized I couldn’t use it for my daily computing, but over the years Linux got better and better. I thought Linux terribly neat and always wondered if there would come a day I could use it for my regular computing tasks. When lightning struck I switched to using my Linux machine. I found programs to do nearly everything I did under Windows and figured that day had finally come. Then I needed to print. HP even offers support for different Linux distributions, but the HP software I downloaded wouldn’t install. It almost did, but it was missing a handful of dependencies, just some Python files, and I just didn’t want to go looking for them. So I finally gave up on Linux. I needed to print a letter to my doctor and couldn’t. I realized that if I made a big effort I could. I might even get my flatbed scanner to work too, but it would take a lot of fiddling, and I realized I’ve just gotten too old for fiddling with computers that don’t work.

I got out my copy of Windows 10. It installed within minutes. It automatically recognized the HP printer and downloaded the drivers. My letter printed. I’ve decided my backup computer will be a Windows machine from now on too. I’m just getting too old to keep up with two operating systems. And I was thinking about getting a Mac Mini too, one of the new M1 machines. I’ve dreamed of owning a Mac for decades. Well, lightning has killed that desire too. The side effect of losing my Windows machine has made me realize I want to simplify my computer usage, and Windows only is the way to go.

I haven’t replace my TV yet because I wasn’t sure what kind of TV I wanted next. I spent years selecting the Sony. I had known I wanted a 65″ TV, but there was so many other technical considerations. Since my TV died I’ve been watching my wife’s 55″ TCL Series 5 TV and realized it’s almost as good for 1/3 to 1/4th the price. I just didn’t miss all those superior technical features Rtings.com claimed the Sony had, and the simplicity of the TCL’s built in Roku interface turns out to be the real deciding factor. I still want a 65″ TV, but I’m going to buy a 55″. The larger TV weighs more than I can handle. Over the past few years I’ve been learning that weight matters too in factoring in convenience.

Evidently, lightning also killed my desire for high tech toys. When I replace my computer, I’m going to get an Intel i5 chip instead of the i7 that got zapped. Using my old machine with an i5 has shown me it’s fast enough. Even before the crash I was thinking about a new computer. I was hankering for a tower unit with a fast graphic card. But after the lightning strike I’ve decided to stay with the small NUC form factor.

I haven’t decided what to do about my Yamaha music streamer. The lightning killed the ethernet and wireless circuits, so I can’t stream music, but the amp still works, so I can play CDs and LPs. Maybe that’s good enough. However, in my evolution towards a simplified lifestyle I’ve been considering giving up CDs and LPs. Maybe I can find a small streamer to play through the amp. All it needs is Spotify connect. I bet an Echo Dot would do. I’ve already given up on streaming high definition music. It was just too much trouble for something I wasn’t sure I could hear.

It’s odd to think about how a lightning killed my desire for newer technology, but it has. I was already downsizing because of aging, so I no longer believed bigger was better, but I still had faith that the latest technology was better, and now I don’t. A burst of lightning has shown me that I reached good enough tech years ago. I don’t need cutting edge computing equipment, or audiophile stereo equipment, or even a television that Rtings.com rates the best.

When lightning killed my toys I was annoyed, but only mildly so because of the inconvenience. It was just after several towns in Alabama were hit by tornadoes and many people lost their entire homes. I considered myself lucky to lose so little. But in a way, I was doubly lucky because what I lost has taught me what I don’t need, and that will save me a lot of time and money in the future.

JWH

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

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