Could You Pass 4th Grade Math?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 12, 2016

One of my great regrets in life is not trying harder in school when I was young, especially at studying math and science. I did get through Calculus I in college with a B, but I laid out a year and when I returned to take Calculus II, I was lost. I always studied just enough to pass the tests, but never enough to gain a deep understanding. It was complete laziness on my part.

Now that I’m retired, and I sense my mind in decline, I’ve wondered if I could learn in my final third of life what I didn’t in my first third. It’s that age-old question: Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Would it be possible for me to relearn math and then finish Calculus II? I’ve been meaning to get started on this project for two years, but like my younger self, I put it off to play instead.  I don’t know why, but about a week ago I did get started, studying math with a workbook and the Khan Academy.


My first impulse was to begin again with Algebra, but I thought I better refresh myself with Arithmetic, and tried some 4th grade math. It’s a good thing I did, because I’ve discovered I’ve forgotten how to do advanced subtraction and division problems. Decades of using a calculator has ruined my basic math skills and I discovered I was completely flummoxed by that whole carry the number thing.

What’s really amazing is how fantastic the Khan Academy is at teaching. At least the new version, with interactive assessments. Ever since personal computers came out in the late 1970s, I thought they should be fantastic teaching tools. And I assumed the best subject computers to tutor would be math. But every time I looked at math teaching programs I was disappointed. The Khan Academy programs have come up with a rather straight forward method that I’m actually finding addictive. They have drills that automatically assess my answers. Each session covers six problems. I work out the problem on paper, and put in the answer on the computer. If it’s right, I get the next problem, if it’s wrong, I’m forced to keep trying. I can ask for hints, or I can watch instructional videos.

Khan Academy

My ego pushes me to get all six problems right in a row. I hate seeing the big X that reminds me I failed. Early on I learned that I’m careless about reading the screen properly, or transferring the problem to the paper, or the answer to the screen. But I quickly began to double check my work. Then I learned that I make casual math mistakes. I used to know my times tables cold, but evidently I’ve got some bugs in my brain. So I do everything twice or thrice. Finally, and this was most enlightening, is I’ve completely forgotten how to do some basic math skills. Which makes me glad I started with arithmetic.

This challenge is demoralizing in a way. I used to believe that with effort I could relearn all my old math and finish Calculus II, but now, I’m not so sure. It’s certainly going to take a lot of time, and hard work. What I’m actually feeling are the limitations of my mind. I’m hoping those limitations are like exercising the body, and that with daily workouts will build my math stamina. I already physically exercise three times a day, and I know my body will never do what it did in my twenties or even forties again. I might be fooling myself that I can mentally turn back the clock, but for some reason I do have hope. I believe my brain is plastic enough to still learn. I’ll learn just how adaptable my 64 year old brain is this year when I get into algebra.

I am reminded of that wonderful novel, Flowers for Algernon, about a guy name Charlie, with an IQ of 68. Charlie volunteered for a medical experiment to boost his intelligence. The procedure worked, and eventually Charlie became a genius, but then the treatment wore off, and tragically Charlie returned to his low IQ existence. Getting old feels like being Charlie after the treatment starts wearing off.

Essay #997

Explaining Reality With More Than One Book

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What are the minimum number of books you’d have to read to get a good overview of reality? Would they all be science books, or would we need philosophy, history, mathematics or even religious texts to go beyond what experimental results can’t cover?

There are billions of people on this planet who explain existence with the help of just one book. These sacred works have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, well before science and scholarship. It’s quite understandable to want just one manual, but is this world explainable in words? Science experiments offers an alternate explanation to ontological questions, but requires reading a library of books to understand. That might be why billions stick to their single volume guides.

On the Origin of Species

Is there a single science book that can compete with The Bible, Quran, Tanakh, Tao Te Ching, Rig Veda, Diamond Sutra, etc.? Does science even try to give one book believers what they want? A book on cosmology or biology explains aspects of reality but without telling people how to live. People who live by just one book, read for guidance, not explanations. They want the world to be easily explained, fair and just. The trouble is science splendidly explains how reality works in tremendous detail, but offers no guidance how to live. We followers of science are left to find our own purpose, because science clearly shows everything in this reality is a product of impartial statistical events.

Do people choose one book solutions because reality is overwhelming, preferring simple myths instead?

How many science books would a person of faith have to read before they could understand the existential nature of their lives? Because believers are taught from an early age to believe in their single books, their non-scientific views are deeply ingrained in their minds, and hard to reprogram. Apparently, anything we learn as children sticks with us, and is very hard to erase. If children were taught Darwin at an early age, and their one book was On the Origin of Species, would the world be psychologically different?

Few scientists understand the actual science of things beyond their narrow specialty. If everyone had to read the original research of all the discoveries of science, we wouldn’t have much time for anything else. Most supporters of science understand reality through popular science, which is only an approximation of real science. Our knowledge about reality is collective knowledge. People who argue against evolution are really arguing against millions of books and research papers.

I once bought On the Shoulders of Giants by Stephen Hawking, which reprints the original scientific writings of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, but I could not read it—at least for long. If I devoted my life to it, I could probably understand this book after a few decades of trying.

What would happen if schools showed documentaries that recreated all the great science, mathematics and engineering experiments of history, so that little kids saw how people discovered details of reality for the first time? Would seeing be better than reading?

I’ve read hundreds of nonfiction books and seen just as many documentaries, but I’d be hard press to point to a selection and claim they are the basis of my beliefs. Of course I have a confusing, muddled view of science and mathematics, and couldn’t actually teach what I know either. However, because there are endless views of The Bible or Quran, I tend to think even having just one book to master doesn’t lend itself to consistent explanations.

Despite all the books I’ve read about Einstein, and all the documentaries I’ve seen that explain his work, I still can’t comprehend relativity. Evolution makes sense to me, but I couldn’t teach it. I can understand why other people might not comprehend evolution.

Maybe we should ignore books altogether. Maybe we should strive to teach kids the basic concepts of science by having them recreate the experiments themselves. I’m getting sort of old, but I wonder if there are any experiments I could learn to do, that would allow me to see how a basic aspect of reality works. For example, I’ve been taught the sun is a big ball of hydrogen. Is there anyway I could prove that for myself?

For 2016, I plan to read On The Origin of Species. I wonder how close I can get to seeing the science behind it, and how much will remain just a story, a myth, a generalization? And after that, I want to find another science book that will take me closer to understanding real science rather than popularization. Einstein discovered relativity with thought experiments. I don’t think there will be many books I can comprehend actual science without mathematics and experimental apparatus, but there might be a few. I’m sure it’s more than one.

I ask my friends who believe in The Bible to distrust what it says, but am I not a creature of faith by my acceptance of science from popular sources? Who knows, maybe one book guides are one too many. Maybe we shouldn’t believe anything unless we can recreate the experimental proof ourselves.


Classroom Learning v. Online Learning

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 15, 2015

This week I started a continuing education class in beginning drawing. It’s the first classroom learning experience I’ve had in over a decade. Of course, folks my age don’t usually go to school, but I was still taking some graduate courses in my fifties. In recent years I’ve been using online courses from Coursera and Udemy, or I sometimes buy Great Courses on DVD. And whenever I want to learn something quickly, I go to YouTube and find a How-To video. Plus, I’ve been an autodidactic my whole life, and learn on my own with books.

Taking this drawing course is way off my beaten path because I’m trying to learn something I have absolutely no previous experience with in any context. Even my expectations for what the class would be like was completely different from what I experienced. I assumed the teacher would start us with pencil and paper and teach us the rudimentary skills of line drawing. Instead she had us create two 1-10 gray scales with 9B pencil and black Conte crayon. Then she had us “draw” from still-life objects by using shading rather than lines. She took us through a tour of the building where the walls were covered with student artwork and showed us how it’s possible to draw without lines, and explained the lines we see in reality are just edges to various levels of shading.


[See the power of the pencil]

It was when we actually got down to work that I realized the difference between classroom learning and online learning. Nine-seven percent of my time I worked alone, but when I did get the teacher to come by to show me something it caused a big leap in my ability. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t spend that much time with me. She had to lecture and visit the other students. Now this one little insight is the intent of this whole essay. I have found numerous videos online that teach drawing. They are all equal or better to classroom lectures when dealing with information. The same is true for books, although seeing someone demonstrate drawing techniques works much better in videos than from the printed page.

Where the classroom wins is when you get feedback. Sadly, most classroom instruction is built around lectures, and the reality is most video lectures come from top tier instructors. I also watched my fellow students in class and realized if I could work with them, all of whom had more experience drawing than I did, I could learn from them as well. This reminds me of when I went to computer school back in the early 1970s, at the State Technical Institute in Memphis. Classes were three hours. The first hour was lecture. The next two hours were programming. The teacher hung around to give one-on-one help, plus students worked together and helped each other. This method was perfect. This is how Pythagoras and Aristotle taught over two thousand years ago. This is not how most of my university classes were like. It was better decades ago when classes were lectures and discussions, but unfortunately, someone asshole invented PowerPoint, and things got real boring. That’s why my last stint at college was taking fiction writing workshops.

My guess, the best way to learn is with a tutor, with one-on-one instruction. And I’d advise colleges and professors who don’t want to be put out of business by online courses to spend more time interacting with students while they work. Leave the lecturing to the folks who are most eloquent in front of a camera. Instruct while walking between your students, and having them work on something you can guide them personally. Stop by each student often to see how they are progressing. Give the students time to work together. Spend as much time as possible away from the front of the class. Online learning can’t compete to this kind of instruction.

Here are some samples of online lectures. Notice how the video deletes dead time—some of these seven minutes lessons would be a whole class period in the real world. It’s very easy to go back and repeat parts. It’s also easy to find other teachers covering similar topics. What the videos can’t do is give instant feedback and guidance. It really helps to have a human say, “That won’t work, try this.”

My continuing education course would actually be far more effective if it was built around a computer lecture series, and all the time I got to spend in class was interacting with a teacher and my fellow students.

JWH – #973

How Do You Keep Learning After You Finish School?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 7, 2015


  • Going to school forces us to acquire a general education.
  • Most people stop their general education when they stop going to school.
  • What’s the best method to continue a general education throughout life?


Regular reading of a general interest magazine that covers the widest possible number of subjects written by the best specialists on those subjects will provide the best continuing general education.

Proposed Test

Read The New York Review of Books. (not all articles are free)

Alternate Tests

Tell me your proposed solutions or preferred magazines.



Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 17, 2014

Have you ever notice how much advice the Internet offers?  The web probably has more advice articles than the complete history of women’s magazines.  From how to organize your life, to the most healthy foods to eat, to the best cities to live in, the quickest meals to fix, to how to fight memory loss, or meet the love of your life,  or which smartphones to buy, and so on, and so on. Some of the advice is based on scientific studies, but most of it is from personal experience, and probably a good deal is just some blogger making shit up.

What if we could consolidate all that advice into meta-lists so we could discover what the most common tips reveal? If one dietician says eating broccoli is great for your health, would you start eating it three times a week?  What if 2,000 different scientific studies proclaimed the virtues of broccoli? What if they said broccoli increases your sexual stamina, reduces cavities, clears your skin and conquers constipation?  At what point are we willing to take notice and act on advice? We’re all failures at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so is all this advice wasted on the undisciplined? Or are we all slowly evolving and improving from all these studies?  It’s taken about fifty years for most people to stop smoking.  And even with a Mt. Everest pile of evidence, many people still light up. When and how does advice become overwhelmingly convincing?


Memory Loss

The 800-pound gorilla squatting in my generation’s living room is memory loss. I don’t know how scary dementia is to people under 55, but for us folks over 55, it’s scarier than a serial killer with an idling chain saw. “Memory Loss From Alzheimer’s Disease Reversed For the First Time With Lifestyle Changes” is one article that grabbed my attention.  It’s based on this press report from the Buck Institute on a very small trial of ten patients.  Nine patients with varying degrees of dementia improved after 3-6 months following a specific 36-point  lifestyle guideline.  The tenth person with late stage Alzheimer’s didn’t improve.  The full report in PDF was published in AGING, September 2014, Vol. 6 No. 9.  Scroll down to Table 1. Therapeutic System 1.0.  The entire system is not easy to describe, but here’s a summary.  How many of these pieces of advice are you willing to follow to save your mind?

  • Give up all simple carbohydrates and gluten
  • Give up processed food
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits
  • Eat wild-caught fish
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Do yoga
  • Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night
  • Take CoQ-10, fish oil, melatonin, methylcobaliamin and vitamin D3 supplements?
  • Use electric toothbrush and flossing tool
  • Take hormone replacement therapies
  • Fast at last 12 hours between dinner and breakfast
  • Don’t eat 3 hours before bedtime
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week

How many articles have you read in your life that recommended some of these lifestyle changes?  Over the years I’ve seen some of these recommendations hundreds of times. Why didn’t I start following them in my twenties, thirties or forties?  Why did I wait until my sixties to get down to business? Even though this report in AGING came out in September, 2014, its advice is quite common.  Just read these other articles.

This is just a half dozen articles out of whole libraries devoted to the subject. Yet, if you take the time to read them, you’ll see consistent pieces of advice show up time and again, and even interesting contrasting advice.  Such as sleep at least 7-8 hours, but it’s bad to sleep more than 9 hours.

It’s key in evaluating articles on the Internet to understand where the knowledge comes from. First check if it’s based on a scientific study, and see if you can track down the original study. Popular articles summarize scientific studies, and sometimes they slant their summaries.  See if there are other articles from other sites that take a different slant. Great essays will cover multiple studies, and even explain conflicting studies.

Most articles aren’t based on scientific studies. In those cases you have to evaluate the expertise of the person giving the advice. If you’re reading dating advice, what experience does the romance guru have? Is it just personal, or do they have a relevant degree, or work for Plain old personal advice can be valuable, especially if that person’s insights are savvy and practical, and they fit your own observations and experience.

My point here is not to write specifically about memory loss prevention, but to show that there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, and maybe even wisdom to found on any subject.  How do we evaluate the wealth of information?  Most people find it confusing that on so many topics there’s lots of contradictory advice.  So, how do we decide which recommendations are valid? Wisdom doesn’t come easy.

That’s what I’m wishing for here, a web site that collects and contrasts all the studies and averages them out for every issue we want to consider. I want a Meta-Advice site, a one-stop-shop for evaluating advice, organized like Wikipedia, that has an army of specialists hammering out summaries and comparisons of all the research for any specific subject people want advice on. Google is great, but if you use Wikipedia a lot, you’ll understand why it’s structural approach is better for organizing advice information.

Imagine going to this Meta-Advice site and looking up memory loss and CoQ-10.  Let’s say it evaluates 57 different research studies. The summary might not be conclusive – science rarely is – but it would give us the best current answer, even if it’s only a statistic like in 63% of cases using 23,204 subjects, memory retention was improved when CoQ-10 was used in trials varying between 6 months and three years.  I’m making up these numbers, but you should get what I mean.

When research scientists or PhD candidates want to explore new territory they do a literature review of all the previous studies. They need to find the boundaries of what’s known and not known. This Meta-Advice site should do the same thing, and make it understandable to the layman where the boundary of knowledge is, and what they can learn from it.

It is possible for an individual to go to Google Scholar and do a search on “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention.”  But the results are overwhelming. Only the truly dedicated will wade through the massive number of articles available. That’s why a site like Wikipedia, where knowledgeable editors can predigest the information for the average reader would be a huge help. The Internet is coming up with all kinds of new ways of doing things. We have no idea what cognitive tools will be invented soon. If you think of the effective nature of what Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Flickr, etc., they all make managing information easier. I believe advice management is in need of an Internet makeover.  


Intergenerational Book Sharing

I got the idea for this essay after reading John Scalzi’s blog post “An Anecdotal Observation, Relating to Robert Heinlein and the Youth of Today.”  Scalzi is a successful young science fiction writer who gave his daughter a Heinlein novel to read that was a favorite from when he was her age.  The novel was Starman Jones, and it was a favorite of mine too.  His daughter didn’t care for the Heinlein book.  My wife and I don’t have kids, but over the decades I’ve known an lot of parents who have tried to get their kids to read books they enjoyed as a kid.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What’s great about this article is the hundreds of responses Scalzi got that provides a wealth of examples.

There’s a lot going on here.  For example, many people claim books become dated.  Well, that’s true if the child has grown up enough to know the book is dated.  Many readers said they read their favorite books to their kids when they were quite little and their kids loved the stories.  If you are seven years-old, do you know the difference between Treasure Island and Starman Jones?  Do pirates and space explorers have any context to date?

Many other people pointed out that young readers have much better books to read today.  If I could time travel back to 1964 and give my younger self a set of Harry Potter books, which would I prefer:  Heinlein or Rowling?  I’m thinking the 1958 Have Space Suit-Will Travel was the perfect book for me to love at age 12 in 1964, but it probably won’t mean much to many 12 year-olds today.  Even the Harry Potter loving kids might have a hard time getting their kids to read the Rowling classics.

If you’re thirteen years-old and discover The Beatles, does it matter if it’s 1964 or 2014?  Teen love doesn’t seem much different today than it did then, and today’s pop music isn’t that much more sophisticated except for the four-letter words and explicit sexual references.  Sure a teen in 2014 can tell there’s a major pop-culture difference between The Dick Van Dyke Show and Breaking Bad.  So some books might be timeless like a Beatle song.

kiss me deadly

When I was twelve, my dad read westerns and Mickey Spillane type thrillers, and my mother loved mysteries.  They didn’t try to get me to read what they liked.  And of the books they read as a kid, they were pretty silent.  My dad once mentioned The Hobbit, which came out around the time he graduated high school, and my mother always talked about Little Women, but I’m not sure at what age either of them read these books, but I’d guess in the 1930s.  Neither meant much to me in the early late 1950s and early 1960s when I started reading, and when I read them both when I was older, they were good, but not defining.

Now my parents hated rock music, and tried to get me to like their favorites like Perry Como and Dean Martin, but I declined.  And my sister and I were always at war with my parents over what to watch on TV.  I’m afraid we were selfish little shits.  My dad loved Bonanza, but we’d throw teenage tantrums if we couldn’t watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  We were probably too self-centered to take reading recommendations.

What’s weird is now that I’m 62 I’d be cool with listening to Frank Sinatra and reading Kiss Me, Deadly.  My dad died when he was 49 and I was 18, and like I said, we never had kids.  So I’m an island in the intergenerational pop-culture sea.  I’ve always loved the Heinlein juveniles, and wished they had become classics that all kids love—but that’s a silly sentimental desire on my part.  I’m not sure if they deserved to be read by all kids.  Of course, I’m not sure if all kids need to read the College Board Recommended Novels either.

Why do we want our kids to read the books we loved?  To make them like us?  To share what we liked?  To give them a leg up on finding the good stuff?  Most of the people who posted replies to the Scalzi blog listed books they discovered and loved as kids.  Are our literary first loves so important?  If you look at the College Board list of recommended novels below these are evidently what society thinks kids should read and know.  I’m skeptical.  I can’t believe these are the absolute best 100 novels everyone should experience as cultural literacy.  Maybe these are the ones easy to teach.  I’d do a lot of arguing over these titles.  I’m an atheist, but even I would expect The Bible to be on the list.

I’m not sure the College Board list is any more valid than Scalzi and I wanting kids to read Heinlein.  I’m fond of Heinlein for sappy nostalgic reasons.  What would be the real reason to make a kid read a book?  I’m a life long bookworm in my social security years and have only read 42 of the College Board books.  Let’s get real.  How many classic books should a kid read before he gets out of high school?  This is only a recommended list anyway, so few people actually expect kids to read them all.  But how many books should a well educated kid read that represents a well rounded cultural education?

I’d cut the list down to 24, and make sure those 24 are books everyone should know as adults and would speak from one generation to the next.  But that’s me playing king of the book world.  There’s only one book from the list below that I’d claim should definitely be on the list of 24 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. 

When I think about it, there’s damn few books I think we should make kids read, and what they would be would be hard to decide.  My second book for the list would be Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and it’s not even on the College Board list.  My two would be it for 19th century English novels.  Picking two 19th century American novels would be very hard and inspire me to write a very verbose essay.

Is there a minimum number of books everyone should read?  That’s getting too much into common core thinking.  Are there books so good we should try to get everyone to read them?  Are there books we loved that define our childhood that we should expect our kids to read? 

I do find that I feel closer to people who have read and loved the books I loved.  My friend Charisse has read most of the books on the College Board list, so we have lots to talk about.   I feel Charisse and I have a stronger connection than I do with people I know that we share no books in common.

Maybe society is putting too much hope in specific books, and what’s important is we all read a lot of books and then try to find out the books we’ve each read that connect us.     

Achebe, Chinua Things Fall Apart
Agee, James A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert The Stranger
Cather, Willa Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen The Red Badge of Courage
Dante Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo Selected Essays
Faulkner, William As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Faust
Golding, William Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph Catch-22
Hemingway, Ernest A Farewell to Arms
Homer The Iliad
Homer The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik A Doll’s House
James, Henry The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair Babbitt
London, Jack The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur The Crucible
Morrison, Toni Beloved
O’Connor, Flannery A Good Man Is Hard to Find
O’Neill, Eugene Long Day’s Journey into Night
Orwell, George Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel Swann’s Way
Pynchon, Thomas The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William Hamlet
Shakespeare, William Macbeth
Shakespeare, William A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare, William Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles Antigone
Sophocles Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Swift, Jonathan Gulliver’s Travels
Thackeray, William Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David Walden
Tolstoy, Leo War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard Native Son

JWH – 7/21/14

A Documentary a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away

Most people are put off by documentaries and nonfiction books because they fear they will be educational, especially the mind-numbing kind of education they were exposed to when sentenced to 13 years of hard learning back in their K-12 prison days.  And yes, many documentaries and nonfiction books are as painful as classes back in high school.  However, and I mean a really big however, some documentaries and nonfiction books are mind blowing far out fun and entertaining – if you get off on learning about new things about this world and reality.  A good documentary should educate, but a wonderful documentary will entertain, and a great documentary will inspire.

As I have gotten older, I have become jaded to normal television entertainment.  It takes Breaking Bad quality to make me watch fictionalized television shows, so to fill up my old TV watching time I’ve turned to documentaries.  I’ve discovered if I can find the right documentaries I’m far more entertained than by watching 98% of fictional television shows.  More than that, I’ve discovered that watching a great documentary is uplifting for my mood, even if it’s about a depressing topic.  And the best documentaries inspire me with hope.  Documentaries can be elixirs for the soul.

For instance, last night I watched Touching the Wild on PBS Nature, about Joe Hutto spending seven years with Wyoming mule deer.  It took Hutto over two years of patiently following a herd of mule deer daily before they accepted him.  Eventually, he got to know them so individually that he named them.

Touching the Wild is about more than making friends with wild animals.  It’s an extremely profound philosophical work, about existence and death, about mind, language and intelligence.  One of the things that I’ve been learning from all of these documentaries is science is discovering that that animals are much closer to us mentally than we ever wanted to believe.  We are not God’s chosen creature.  We have no right to claim dominion over all the other creatures of this planet.  Nor can we claim our intelligence makes us superior. 

I am not a religious man, but this film was Biblical in its impact.  Strangely, I had seen Noah this weekend, and it makes you wonder if there was a creator, if he wouldn’t despise humans and want to wipe us out.  Christians babble on endlessly about being saved from sin, but I think it’s a childish cop-out to want to be forgiven.  We need to stop sinning to atone for our sins.  Watching Touching the Wild is like walking in Eden, we can blame the serpent all we want, but it is humans that are destroying paradise.

I was going to write this essay by listing dozens of great documentaries I’ve seen lately, but that would be too wordy I think.  I think instead I should tell you how to find great documentaries.  The highest qualities documentaries on TV are on PBS.  The next best source is streaming Netflix.  For instance I showed my friend Olivia Samsara yesterday that’s from Netflix.  She was blown away.

Cable TV has a lot of channels with documentaries and nonfiction shows, but most of its crap.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Some of it’s okay, but be careful.  The History Channel has such great potential, and sometimes it even has good shows, but all too often it has suspect information.  I wish it was peer reviewed by actually historians.  It would be great if actual Ph.D. historians had a chance to evaluate their documentaries in follow-up shows, because it would be enlightening to teach folks how they are being misinformed.  The History Channel has some good shows among the schlock, like The Universe, but they aren’t as well made as the science shows on PBS.  They tend to endlessly repeat the same animations and information.  Fox has redeemed it’s news division with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13 episode series currently appearing on Sunday nights, that would make Carl Sagan choke up with pride for his protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Like I said, PBS is where it’s at, when we’re talking about documentaries on regular television.  Currently Wednesday nights are called Think Wednesday, that start with Nature and NOVA, and follow up a three part series called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name.  Your Inner Fish should give creationists apoplexy and intelligence designers their worst nightmares, but for people who understand evolution it’s a thing of beauty.  If only Darwin could have lived to see it.

NOVA has been running a series on animal intelligence and last night show was about dogs.  Anyone who loves dogs should watch it, especially if you’ve wondered why your favorite pet knows when you are coming home.  By the way, if you have a Roku, get the PBS channel, and you can watch these shows if you missed them.  The Roku PBS Channel keeps current shows around for a few weeks like Hulu.

Throughout the week, PBS has fabulous documentaries.  Just take a chance and try some of them out.  They cover every subject you can think of, and more than you can’t.

The variety of documentaries at Netflix streaming is practically endless.  New ones appear faster than I can keep up.  If you add one to your queue, Netflix will recommend ten more on the same topic.  Often when I add one documentary, I’ll end up adding eight or ten because Netflix is good recommending more that fit my tastes.  And if you aren’t a documentary junky, you’ll be surprised by how many documentaries are being made each year.   Just look at four music documentaries I recently watched.  The variety of all documentaries makes the word diverse quaint.

I’m not much of a traveler, so documentaries are my lazy-ass way of traveling the world.  I’m also on the shy side, so documentaries let me meet people I never would in real life.  But you have to be careful, some documentary film makers are very persuasive, and it’s easy to be convinced into believing bullshit.  We’re so used to fiction, that we accept what we see on TV.  That’s bad.  Being educated can be thrilling, and it doesn’t have to be boring.

What you really want, is to be inspired.  And sometimes you’ll find inspiration in the strangest places.  I’m not into fashion, but I found the documentary on Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, who is in his eighties and rides a bike around Manhattan, as very inspirational.  That’s the best thing about documentaries – seeing stories about people who stand out in their effort to achieve their ambitions.  Quite often I watch shows about people that overcome so many obstacles that aren’t in my way and still do things I only dream about.  They make me want to be a better person.

If I’m feeling blue and watch an inspiring documentary, my mind and soul will be uplifted.  If I’m feeling tired and watch a great documentary, I’ll be energized.  There’s more to TV than cop shows and sitcoms, and before reality shows, there were documentaries – shows about the real reality.

JWH – 4/17/14