What A Difference 23 Years Make

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 31, 2019

Society is constantly changing and evolving, and so does the popular culture it produces. Starting in 1959, and into the early 1960s, there were a number of court cases that profoundly changed pop-culture by removing various censorship laws. It allowed movies to portray graphic sex and violence, and include nudity and profanity. This was especially noticeable in movie westerns. Westerns in the 1950s seem very different from those in the 1970s, and we can see the transitioning in the 1960s. Millennials and later generations probably have no idea what pop-culture was like before their time, and just accept today’s movies as a norm. If you live long enough, you can see that movies change.

My favorite westerns generally come from the 1940s and 1950s. The other night I watched The Missouri Breaks (1976) with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando which had a much different view of the old west. In many ways it was more realistic – we see people going to outhouses, using profanity, having sex, showing a bit of nudity, wearing dirty raggedy clothes, and so on. The characters seem more like real people and have complex problems and psychologies. Too often in older westerns, characters wore not only clean clothes which they changed often, but ones that look like they came from fashion designers. Most folks in the historical west wore the same clothes for many days, seldom bathed, and usually owned a tiny wardrobe. Just compare the two versions of True Grit.

Living conditions in The Missouri Breaks seemed repulsive to me, and it lacked heroes and heroines. It’s not a feel-good western, like Shane (1953).  Who wouldn’t want to be Shane (Alan Ladd), who would want to be Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando)? Of course, Brando’s over-the-top performance does weird-out the overall vibe of The Missouri Breaks, but then such characterizations have become more common as we approach the present day. The recent Joker movie is one example.

If we compare the west of Shane with The Missouri Breaks does it even feel like the same historical era? Is it really the same genre? There are violent people in both films because the essence of westerns is violence. You’d think I should be comparing the two characters the audience wants to see die in the end, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) and Robert E. Lee Clayton. Both films feature ranchers who hire gunmen (Palance and Brando) but the issue of who the good guys are is confused. In Shane, the good guys are hardworking homesteaders, and in The Missouri Breaks, they are horse thieves, train robbers, and maybe murderers. If we are for law and order, then David Braxton (John McLiam) the rancher and Robert E. Lee Clayton should be our heroes. They’re not.

Remember in Shane, Shane is a gunman just like Jack Wilson, but he’s trying to change, and live under law and order. Shane is the homesteaders’ gunman, but he’s the hero of the picture because he fights the rancher who bullies the homesteaders. Shane sides with law and order. Robert E. Lee Clayton is hired by the rancher to kill rustlers and murderers and appears to be for law and order. The trouble is Clayton takes psychotic pleasure in his job.

What happened in those 23 years from 1953 to 1976 that remade westerns? Shane is a killer, but one we side with. In The Missouri Breaks, we side with Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) who is a horse thief, train robber, and probably killer too. (We never know who kills the rancher’s foreman.) Of course, in westerns, the audience always sides with a killer, because westerns nearly always resolve conflicts with a killing. Before the 1960s we sided with the white hats against the black hats, but it seems sometimes in the 1960s, everyone started wearing gray hats.

Shane, the Alan Ladd character, knows killing is bad. He wants to avoid killing, but in the end, he is pushed into it to save the people he loves. The audience admires him. But Robert E. Lee Clayton, the Marlon Brando character, delights in killing and justifies his behavior by killing horse thieves, train robbers, and murderers, people we should be against, but we despise Robert E. Lee Clayton and rejoice when he is killed. And in the last fifty years, we’ve seen both the hero/anti-hero and bad guys kill more and more people in westerns. Brando’s bizarre performance was only a bellwether.

Tom Logan, the Jack Nicholson character, is an anti-hero. Yet, even when anti-heroes are as charming as Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), should we really like and admire them? It is true that the old west criminals were more colorful than dull hardworking people who actually built the west.

Something happened to the westerns in the 1960s. Before that the good people were nicer, but so were the bad people. Sure, the bad guys of the old west were mean, and psycho killers too, but they weren’t as disturbing as modern bad guys. Between the westerns of the 1950s and the 1970s, we see the bodies counts rise in each film, and we see more depraved violence. The profanity, nudity, and sex are the upfront obvious differences, but I also think there is a shift in how westerns present killing. Intentionally modern westerns of the 1970s like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, Judge Roy Bean, etc. worked hard to redefine the western in terms of artistic storytelling but also in presenting old west history with a different psychological perspective. In some ways, this shift became most visible with Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

When did good guys v. bad guys become neurotics v. psychos? When did westerns go from gunfights to serials killers and mass shooters? In the Old West, the most famous gunfight (O.K. Corral) three men died. In modern westerns, the body counts are so high that most viewers stop counting.

Sure, TV cowboys of the 1950s did a lot more killing than their movie counterparts. By one estimate, Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke killed between 138 men and 7 women to 303 people over a 20-year period. However, if we consider each episode a separate story, the violence is far less.

Maybe I like the westerns of the 1940s and 1950s because I find the death of the bad guy at the end of the film a satisfying resolution to the story. Watching modern westerns feel more like we’re Romans at the Colosseum, desiring non-stop killing. We’re not there for the story, but for the slaughter. Films like the Hateful 8 are designed to feed our need for gunplay porn. If people watch sex porn because they’re not getting laid and want to vicarious pretend having sex, then why do we enjoy so many killings in movies today? Is it because we’re not getting to kill all the people we want and vicariously find release in the pretend killings?

I believe body counts began to escalate in the westerns of the 1960s, starting with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and ending with The Wild Bunch (1969). I still loved these westerns, especially as a kid, and even when I felt they were becoming silly in their efforts to top themselves with gimmicky plots, explosions, and ways of killing people. However, as I’m getting older, I question my fondness for such killathon westerns. I admit I love TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Westworld, but I’m also wondering about myself too.

Westerns 1

These days I’d much rather rewatch Winchester ’73, Yellow Sky, Colorado Territory, Rawhide, Angel and the Badman, Shane, Three Godfathers, Tall in the Saddle, and movies like them. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, or turning back the clock to enjoy movies when there were fewer killings per film. I was taught in school that the ancient Greeks didn’t allow violence on stage in their plays. All violence had to happen off-stage. I’m not ready to go that far. I do like the realism of modern westerns. The sex, nudity, and profanity are fine. I’ve just got to wonder about the kill-porn addiction we’ve acquired.

Angel_badman

We have become a nation that worships guns. Notice how often we see people posing with guns, and how often we see them in pop culture. The interesting thing about westerns is we see a historical era where people lived by the gun but were moving toward a gun-free civilization. Westerns represent a time just before all the cowboys would hang up their guns. (Watch the wonderful Angel and the Badman.) We’re now living in a time where everyone wants to strap on a gun. Is this the undoing of civilization?

Isn’t it rather ironic that in the old west, Republicans were the advocates for gun control? They were for laws, regulations, order, progress, cities, and civilization back in the 19th century. Doesn’t it seem they want to bring back the wild west now? Aren’t old westerns really propaganda for gun control? In some ways, new westerns seem to counter the philosophy of old westerns.

But then we have one last problem. Were any westerns ever like the historical west? Or, are westerns really the pop culture snapshots of the people and times in which they were made? If that’s so, we live in some pretty strange times if we judge ourselves by the movies we see in the theaters today.

JWH

Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH

 

The Uneducated Unkindness of Youth Censoring the Past

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Yesterday I read, “The Cult Books That Have Lost Their Cool” by Hephzibah Anderson at the BBC online. Anderson snidely dismisses several novels that were considered classics by my generation. Of course, when I was young I was just as quick to dismiss the works my parents loved. History has shown us that revolutionaries tend to eliminate people and art that don’t meet the standards of the new zeal. As an old person, and evidently part of an old guard, I’m seeing more of my history dismissed, causing artists and artists to disappear from pop-culture consciousness. It feels like agism censorship.

I can accept that the young have judged us harshly and found us morally wanting. What annoys me is they don’t have any sympathy for human frailty, and quite often I feel their social media kangaroo courts are conducted without examining the actual evidence. Take for example Anderson’s assessment of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

Based on a road trip from New York to Mexico with Beat muse Neal Cassady, Kerouac wrote what would become the Beatnik’s bible in just three weeks. It took six years to get published and more than half a century later, it exudes tiresome stoner machismo. Kerouac pokes fun at gay people, and isn’t much better where women and black people are concerned. A few years back, a spate of books and films inspired only a flicker of revived interest in his legacy. Boorish egotist or inspired prophet? The jury isn’t just out, it left the building long ago, dancing after the hippies who supplanted the Beats.

I can’t believe Anderson has even read the book. She says Kerouac pokes fun at gay people, but of the three main characters, Kerouac is straight, Ginsberg is gay, and Cassady is happy to have sex with almost anyone. And these men practically worship black jazz musicians. Kerouac hardly takes a machismo stance. He portrays himself with endless faults and emotional weaknesses. Kerouac was like Proust, he struggled to make sense of his life by fictionalizing it. The term beat deals with Kerouac’s existential angst over living in the 1940s and early 1950s. On the Road is about seeking freedom from an oppressive materialistic society. Anderson assumes it is some kind of bro road epic. If anything, Kerouac portrays the beats as Quixotic figures tilting at windmills. It’s a realistic portrait of the times, of men, women, gays, minorities, Mexicans, ethnic groups, and so on. It’s a sad, beat story about looking for kicks and being kicked down. It’s not pretty, but it is honest. Anderson has no sympathy for Kerouac’s suffering and struggle.

Nor is Anderson sympathetic to The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger:

Poor Holden Caulfield. Mired in a funk for more than half a century, the angst-ridden ‘everyteen’ is now regarded by the cool kids as being a bit – well, self-indulgent. His ennui is, if not exclusively a rich-white-boy problem, then certainly nothing compared with looming climate collapse and other woes weighing on the minds of his 21st-Century peers. Plus, in the era of helicopter parenting and geo-tagging, not to mention hyper-vigilant mental-health awareness, the idea that a depressed teen could simply go Awol in New York City for a couple of days is increasingly hard to indulge.

Just because Kerouac and Holden Caulfield don’t meet modern moral standards of 21st-century young people they are shunned and ridiculed. But here’s the thing, every generation is different. Should we erase the past because it’s different? Sure these people are morally and ethically wanting by today’s higher consciousness, but they are still human beings trying to make sense of life by what they knew at the time. The point of reading old books is to understand the past, to see it for what it was, not what we want it to be.

Dismissing Kerouac or Sallinger is cold and callous. Dismissing these writers is a kind of censoring the past. You can’t perfect the present by erasing the past. The ironic thing is Kerouac and Sallinger were revolutionaries like Anderson, wanting young readers to know that the times were changing. Of course, they did their own rejecting of the past too. That’s how it goes. But it’s better to see the bigger picture.

I wonder how Anderson will feel when she’s my age and someone her age now dismisses the cherished art and artists that shaped her generation?

I don’t really expect things to change. I always felt sorry for Kerouac. Kerouac and my father lived about the same years and died young from alcoholism. I wrote an essay years ago called “The Ghosts That Haunt Me” about Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Louisa May Alcott, and Philip K. Dick. These writers had painful lives, but they were outstanding in their soulful writing trying to make sense of those lives. It pisses me off that someone would blithely dismiss them for being uncool. I’m also sensitive about forgotten authors – see my page for Lady Dorothy Mills who has practically disappeared. It just seems hurtful to me that any writer would encourage readers to stop reading any author.

To be honest, I was like Anderson when I first read Kerouac when I was young. I thought it was a novel about thrills. But with every decade of life On the Road changes. I’ve been on the road for more years than Kerouac ever got to live. It takes a long time to really understand what beat means. Hephzibah, don’t be so quick to dismiss On the Road. Read it again when you’re older.

JWH

 

Ken Burns Chronologically – The History of the United States

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 24, 2019

While watching the new Ken Burns documentary, Country Music, I realized that his documentaries often cover the same time periods but through different subjects. For example, in this new series, I was enamored with how country music was spread in the early days of the radio in the 1920s and 1930s. Burns had also covered radio tangentially in his series Jazz, specifically in the film Empire of the Air, and to a lesser extent in such series as The Dust Bowl, Baseball, The Roosevelts, and other shows. We forget, and I guess for the young, they never imagined, that radio had the society changing impact of the smartphone.

This got me to thinking. Instead of watching Ken Burns films by subject, what if I watched them by time periods? I then made a Google Spreadsheet of all of Ken Burns’ films and sorted the episodes by date. (This is a crude start I hope to refine over time. I “borrowed” the descriptions from Wikipedia and Ken Burn’s websites.)

Let’s say I wanted to focus on the 1920s and get a multi-dimensional view of that decade, I could watch these episodes and films:

  • Empire of the Air
  • Jazz – “The Gift” – episode 2
  • Country Music – “The Rub” – episode 1
  • The Roosevelts – “The Storm” – episode 4
  • Baseball – “4th Inning: A National Heirloom” – episode 4
  • The National Parks – “Going Home” – episode 4
  • Jazz – “Our Language” – episode 3
  • Jazz – “The True Welcome” – episode 4 (first part)
  • The Dust Bowl – “The Great Plow-Up” – episode 1 (second part)

And then supplement those with parts of:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
  • The Mayo Clinic
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Thomas Hart Benton

Now I’m thinking about all the everyday history Burns hasn’t covered. I wish he would do documentary series on:

  • Feminism – especially the first and second-wave feminists. He’s got a start with Not For Ourselves Alone about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I wish Burns would film the book Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith which is about the rise of feminism, abolitionists, the temperance movement, and spiritualism in America from 1848-1900. Goldsmith also covered Stanton and Anthony.
  • Science Fiction in America – how did the genre evolve. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain wrote science fiction, as did many other Americans in the 19th century. Did cowboys discuss Frankenstein and Jules Verne out on the prairie? Show how science fiction developed in the dime novel, pulp magazines, on the radio, in movie serials, newspaper comic strips,  comic books, hardbacks, paperbacks, movies, television, and video games.
  • Books, Magazines, Newspapers, and Bookstores in America. How did we become a nation of readers?
  • Rock and roll – give it the same treatment as country music and jazz.
  • The History of High Fidelity in America. About how recorded music technologically evolved.
  • The Transcendentalists. Include Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson.

There’s an unlimited supply of everyday history I’d love to see. That’s what I love most about Ken Burns’ films, they are so visual.

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 Isn’t Everything Beautiful?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 8, 2019

I’m reading The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller where she describes how books were important in seven beautiful cities in the ancient world. Over and over again Moller describes how a conquerer builds a city, embraces books and libraries, and founds a new civilization. They raise magnificent buildings and evolve a culture. Then someone else comes around and sacks the city.

It occurred to me that if humanity had preserved everything great we built the world would be beautiful all over. Moller describes the founding of Baghdad and it sounded magnificent. But all I can think about is how ugly that city is when I see it on the news. How many civilizations have built countless gorgeous edifices that have disappeared in time? Which is worse, war or entropy? People and decay eventually ruin everything beautiful?

The Biggest Little Farm

Last week we watched The Biggest Little Farm on Amazon about a couple who transformed an ugly drought-brown farm into something amazingly green and beautiful. Humans have the ability to go walk out into a desert and create what you see below.

beautiful house in desert

But soon or later we do this:

Syrian city

It takes so much effort to transform chaos into order you’d think we do everything possible to protect what we create. Moller writes about all the books and libraries that have been destroyed before the invention of the printing press. I know it’s hard to build something that lasts because everything eventually wears out, decays, falls apart, or is bombed, burned, or torn to pieces. But I think we could make things last far longer if we tried. What if the hanging gardens of Babylon still existed? Or all the larger works of the Mayans and Aztecs?

Just think how beautiful the world would be if we had spent all the money we spent on wars into preserving the best of our cultures. Sure there are lots of incredibly beautiful places that exist now, but what percentage of everything are they, and how long will they last? Imagine every city an entire work of art.

Quite often on television, I see documentaries about grand buildings that existed within my parents and grandparents lifetimes. Historical societies struggle to preserve as many as they can, but all too often we bulldoze aged building to make way for new ones. Sure it is natural for us to get tired of some buildings, but do we always have to? The other day I saw a story about an entertainment complex for teenagers in the 1940s where it had a roller skating rink, an immense pool, and a pavilion for music and dancing. Photos showed something very elegant, and to my modern eye very nostalgically attractive. I wished it still existed so I could go hear big band music live. Photos taken just before it was destroyed show it dilapidated and sad looking. Why did we let it fade away? I guess not everyone wants to hang onto the past.

When I drive through most commercial districts today everything looks utilitarian and tawdry. Depending on the wealth of the locale, the designs run from crappy decaying to hip conformity to city council standards. I can drive for miles on certain big city thoroughfares and see a repeating array of chain stores and restaurants. It feels like the cycling background in the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Wasn’t it more beautiful in the old days where every business building was unique?

I can remember over sixty years of changes. I can’t count the number of buildings I once knew that no longer exist. You’d think we’d construct every structure to last and to be the most beautiful it could be by the current architectural fashion. There’s a magazine I love to look at, Atomic Ranch, that reveres the mid-century ranch house. That’s an era I thought was beautiful. Sure, it’s not Athens or Alexandria, but the look is very appealing to me. I wonder if a mid-century modern neighborhood could be preserved for a thousand years.

It’s odd how ideas come to us. I was reading a book and I wondered why it isn’t beautiful everywhere we looked. Our species certainly has built enough beautiful objects to cover the earth. Why haven’t we preserved them?

Mid-century modern ranch

Of course, I’m one answer. We’ve let our house rundown. Suan and I have never been into yard work, decorating or housework. We care more about our hobbies and television. It takes a lot of money and effort to maintain something beautiful. Some of my neighbors work hard to make their yards and interiors look beautiful, on the outside and inside. What’s funny is some of them only make the effort on the outside, or just the inside. I’ve always envied my friends who make their personal environment beautiful. Take this as a thank you.

You’d think with seven billion people everything on this planet would look clean and tidy, if not aesthetically elegant. Maybe it’s too easy to find beauty on our flat-screen televisions.

What’s also fascinating to contemplate is how beauty pops up in nature through random nonintelligent design. Of course, the concept of beauty is something that might only exist in our species. Does any other animal stop to admire the rose? Maybe beauty only resides in human civilizations because of anti-entropic efforts. We’re all at war with entropy, and only some of us use our limited energies to create beauty.

Rose

I’ve read that color doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s something our brains adds. I’d hate to think this is true. I wonder what the other animals and insects see.

JWH

Corrupt Biblical Archaeology

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 17, 2019

Yesterday I encountered two reports of Biblical scholarship that depressed the hell out of me. I’m an atheist, but I find historical biblical research fascinating. The first encounter was with the new issue of Harper’s Magazine and its story “Common Ground: The politics of archaeology in Jerusalem” by Rachel Poser, a senior editor for the magazine. (Harper’s offers one free article a month to read behind its paywall, so if you click the link it will count.) Poser’s report is about how right-wing activists have coopted archeology to justify Israel’s reclaiming land in Jeruselum. It’s a long, but fascinating report about right-wing politicians and zealots corrupting the science of archaeology, and their feuds with secular scholars who are seeking an unbiased understanding of the past.

My second encounter was last night on Netflix with the third episode of The Bible’s Buried Secrets entitled “The Real Garden of Eden.” Host Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor at the University of Exeter makes a rather strained case that a garden in a palace of ancient Jeruselum was the Garden of Eden, and Adam was their king. Stavrakopoulou uses almost no quotes from Genesis and builds her argument with an hour’s worth of archaeological evidence that seems flimsy at best. I can’t prove she’s wrong, but I’ve heard much better theories.

In both of these encounters with Biblical archaeology, it was obvious that science was being corrupted by shoehorning evidence to fit a cherished hypothesis. Of course, for thousands of years, humans have used ancient scripture as a kind of legal precedent to justify their claims. In both the article and documentary, archaeologists cherry-picked their findings and didn’t offer opposing evidence, either from valid scientists or their counterpart ax-grinders.

If you read the articles returned in this Google search, you’ll see many challenges to Stravrakopoulou’s hypothesis. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a theory, everyone has their evidence. There are scholars who pursue rigorous biblical scholarship and biblical archaeology, but how do we tell the cranks from honest academics?

Actually, a good place to start is Wikipedia’s entry on The Garden of Eden. At least it summarizes the complexity of the problem. Rachel Poser’s description of Elad’s effort to prove the biblical David existed and the sites Elad’s archaeologists were excavating belong to David’s kingdom are simplistic in their logic and evidence. Stavrakopoulou case for Eden is also simplistic. And if you pay attention to any of the popular documentaries about biblical history and archaeology, they’re often simplistic too. Everyone seems to be trying to deceive other people into accepting their pet theories. Is there any way of not being conned?

First of all, does the Garden of Eden or King David really matter to the modern world? I would distrust anyone who uses any biblical history as validation for any present-day disputes over morality, ethics, land, laws, etc. They are only academic issues. Researching history, and evaluating it with archaeological evidence is a fun intellectual pursuit. But if you use it for any kind of justification of action, then it’s a complete fallacy.

I find it insane that modern minds use ancient thoughts to rationalize how we should live today. We should have laws against using old beliefs for legal precedent. Read Poser’s article. It’s horrifying how we’re using three-thousand-year-old fables to kill each other.

To Christians and Jews, the world began four thousand years ago, and they struggle to overlay that fantasy onto reality. They ignore the fact that more ancient civilizations surrounded the Levant even at the time of Genesis. Even when Adam and Eve were supposed to be walking in the Garden of Eden humans had been around for hundreds of thousands of years, or that David’s Kingdom was an itty-bitty bump in the road between two vast empires.

I don’t know why western civilization is so focused on the tiny Holy Lands of the Bible when Earth is thousands of times bigger. It’s as if we all have a kind of history myopia that fails to see the planet and its history as a whole. I think the main problem is we’re raised with only one set of myths. Would we be more rational if our parents sent us to a different church/temple/synagogue/mosque/shrine every week as a child? Our insanity seems to come from trying to rationalize one viewpoint at the exclusion of all others.

The story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis is a wonderful work of literature from pre-history. It’s a fascinating challenge to try to understand why it was written, by who, and when. But imagine if three thousands years from now, people revered a copy of Gone with the Wind as their only source of American history.

One solution might be to invite Asian archaeologists to dig up the Holy Lands, ones who had never been exposed to The Bible.

JWH