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

 

Why We Can’t Trust Digital to Remember

In The Map of Knowledge Violet Moller describes how the works of Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy were collected, translated, transcribed, and preserved over over the centuries. Most of the works from the ancient world have been lost. We have the Arab civilization to thank for preserving much of what we have from ancient Greece after the fall of Rome, and before the emergence of the modern western civilizations.

When humans first develop writing we wrote on stone, wood, clay, wax, and metal, but eventually invented the more convenient papyrus and paper for scrolls and books. We’re still finding ancient works of papyrus like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and we’re still translating steles from antiquity that archaeologists unearth. In other words, our data can potentially last for thousands of years.

On the other hand, it’s surprising how quickly it can disappear. Since the dawn of the internet age how many digital content providers have gone bust leaving their customers without access to the works they bought? Remember Microsoft’s Zune player? Microsoft phased it out which is okay, but they also turned off the servers handling the digital rights, meaning owners of that content were locked out of their digital libraries. Over the years I’ve bought books, movies, television shows, songs, albums, etc. from various online sellers that have disappeared. Much of it was without DRM, but I didn’t back it up. Since then most of that content has been lost between all my computer upgrades.

Today I only buy digital content from Amazon because that company is so big I hope it will never go out of business. But it if did, I’d lose thousands of ebooks, audiobooks, movies, television shows, songs, and albums. So far it appears that Amazon (and their company Audible) have saved everything I bought, even when the work went out of print. But sometimes I think I owned something I can’t find in my Amazon library. So far I think it’s me because in the early years I bought so much from other companies that I now misremember what I bought from Amazon. But I never can be sure.

Many years ago I decided to go paperless and scanned my files to .pdf documents. My mother had saved all my report cards and I scanned those too, throwing away the originals away. I can no longer find those files. I thought they were on DropBox. When you have hundreds of thousands of digital files it’s hard to know when a few thousand disappear. I’ve been putting everything on Dropbox for years, and they’ve always seemed very reliable. Again, I can’t tell if I could have accidentally deleted those files, or something in their system ate them.

I recently discovered my Yahoo email has all disappeared. I used Yahoo to save backups of important emails, but I seldom went to the site to look at these old emails. I just discovered Yahoo deletes your content if you haven’t access your account for one year. Dang. Also, I used to have access to all my oldest emails at Outlook. But now Outlook only shows recent years. If you get to the bottom of a folder you can request Outlook to show more, but I’m not sure if they save everything anymore.

What’s needed is a program that catalogs all my files and tells me when some go missing. I don’t do backups because I assume I have my files locally and on Dropbox and that’s good enough. I used to save backups to external hard drives, but keeping up with such backups is a pain. I recently threw out six hard drives. They had been sitting in my closet for years, but when I checked them they no longer worked.

I also worry about all my financial records. All the companies I do business with begged to stop sending me paper copies so they could go digital. Now I wonder about the wisdom of that. I realize if I died I’m not sure if my wife would know where all my 401K savings are located. But if I only saved on paper and my house burned down, where would we be too?

I’ve read a few articles in the news lately saying if you read the fine print we don’t own our digital content. We can’t resale it or lend it, but what about accessing our purchased content forever? What if a publisher goes out of business? What if a publisher selling through Amazon goes out of business, is Amazon responsible for maintaining that digital content forever for its customers?

And what happens to my 1,400+ essays if WordPress shuts down? One of my blogs, Lady Dorothy Mills, is about a woman writer from the 1920s whose work is almost completely forgotten. I started a website about her decades ago, and I used to get 1-2 emails a year asking about her. It’s been years since I’ve had a query. Only a handful of her books come up for sale every year. Even printed books have no guarantee of surviving. If I really wanted to save my essays I should print them out. I don’t though. I hate saving paperwork.

We are becoming completely reliant on saving data digitally. After our civilization collapses, and they all do, how will future scholars like Violet Moller write about us? A book from this century could last a thousand years. But even if a hard drive could last a thousand years, would people in 3019 have a PC to run it?

Or will future civilizations carefully preserve our digital data someway? For years I tried to save the files I created on my Commodore 64 or Atari ST to my early PC programs like WordPress. Even as late as 2013 when I was still working I’d get requests to convert 1980s Apple II discs so the files could be read on Macs. It was seldom possible.

We talk about plastics surviving for thousands of years. I wonder if it’s possible to produce a new kind of paper that’s nearly indestructible, including fire and water proof? That way, anything we really wanted to save we’d print on the new DuroPrint format. Or can we design solid-state drives that can hold their bit positions forever?

I’m at an odd point in my life. I have a lifetime of books I’ve collected that run in the thousands. They included printed books, ebooks, and digital audiobooks. I’ve actually saved too many books. I figure I might live another 10-20 years and I want to thin out my collection to just what I need as I fade away. I also want to start deleting digital files and paper files of things I no longer need. What a huge task. I’ll probably delete 99 out of a 100 items, but for that one, I’ll want it to survive no matter what, and be discoverable by someone after I die.

I feel like I’m moving towards an Omega Point where I will die with just the exact books and documents I need. It’s the opposite of building a library or filing system. I’m not sure I need to leave any of my books or papers to anyone. I’ll give away my books before I die, and my wife will need only a few papers. But I do worry about a few rare objects I own, like the Lady Dorothy Mills books, or rare science fiction fanzines. I’ve been scanning the fanzines for the Internet Archive. I should probably scan the Mills books too.

The Map of Knowledge by Violet Moller

JWH

 

 

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