Reading Mentors

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Years ago, after reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell I contemplated how my life had been shaped by not having a mentor growing up. Looking back now, I see I had mentor-like encounters. My reading was guided by random external influences and that worked as a kind of mentorship. We expect teachers to be mentors, but they can’t, not really, not with so many students.

This is going to be a long essay to explain how I select books today to read and why. I feel compelled to jump back and write a history of my evolution of discovering what to read. Looking back, I wish I had known right from the first that some books are significantly better than others — that I should seek out the best. I also wish I had read from a wider range of subjects — that I could have had far more favorite subjects. And I wished I had learned at an early age that some books can be like junk food — making me addictive to empty calories.

Society expects schools to pick the best books for children, but I always rebelled against their choices. How can we raise kids to be better book selectors?

Bookstore reading

Can teachers ever select books perfectly customized for the individual student? How can teachers avoid turning off students by promoting the reading of unrelatable classics? How can parents and teachers overcome the urge to make kids read the books they loved so passionately but might not be relevant to their children’s lives? If only one book is taught in any given class period what are the odds that all the students will respond to it? Is the goal to teach reading – the ability to decipher fiction and nonfiction – or to teach kids how to find the right book that will provide them cognitive maps to reality? Are kids ever taught the dangers of reading? Are they ever warned that books can become a crippling addiction? Are they ever taught that books can spread dangerous beliefs, delusions, prejudices, hate, and lies? I wished I had learned those things early on.

It has occurred to me that how I found books have always influenced what I read. And what I read has always determined the direction of my life. Thus, I need to be more careful with how I find books. If you are not a bookworm you probably won’t understand this insight. Back in 1971 when I first took a computer course they taught us this acronym: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Before that, I remember hippies preaching, “You are what you eat.” From this, you might assume I’m about to write an essay on “You are what you read.” However, I’m going to take one step back and write, “You are what you find to read.”

The first book I can remember is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. My mother read it to me in the third grade (1959/60) after I had seen the film version with Wallace Beery. If my mother had chosen a different book for me I would have followed a different path as a bookworm? Both my parents were readers of tattered paperbacks. I remember mother reading Perry Mason and my father reading Mickey Spillane. Neither encouraged me and my sister to read. I guess they assumed our teachers would do that.

Evidently, at the end of the third grade, my teacher told my parents I had a reading problem and should attend summer school for reading. I vaguely remember going to a small, wedged shape room, probably a large closet rather than a classroom. The teacher told me to find a book and start reading. I went over to a twirling wire rack and found a small paperback titled Up Periscope. I started reading. It turns out I could read just fine. I don’t remember the summer school teacher ever giving lessons or even talking to him again. I was just bored by what they made us read in class. That twirling rack was an important book mentor and changed the direction of my life. The lesson I learned was I could pick my own books.

Starting in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades what I chose to read was determined by the school libraries and the physical locations where I came to browse. I was my own reading mentor. I remember always going to the beginning of the A’s of the kid’s section at Homestead Air Force Base Library in the 5th grade (1961/62). That got me reading Tom Swift (Appleton) and Oz books (Baum). Eventually, I worked up to the Hardy Boys (Dixon). I would have tried a greater variety of books if I hadn’t gotten hooked on series.

My sixth-grade (1962/63) teacher, Mrs. Saunders was the first teacher to be a book mentor. She’d read us books after lunch. I remember her starting A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and me rushing to the library after school and checking out a copy to finish on my own.

When I started the 7th grade (1963/64) at another school I found When Worlds Collide (Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie) again by browsing the beginning of a range. That simple routine was a reading mentor of sorts. By then I’d range up and down the alphabet looking for the kind of book I liked. I’d read a lot of so-so books. Books were like television or cookies, I consumed them as fast as I could. They were a commodity. I didn’t know there were great books. That’s when I could have used a reading mentor most. If only someone had only shown me how to find purpose in reading, rather than using reading for cheap thrills. If only a wise reader had shown me how to compare books to reality, or taught me about the quality of writing.

At this time I was fixated on space travel and biographies. I read for vicarious adventure. I found a numbered series that published cut-down biographies for children. I remember reading books about Ben Franklin, Aaron Burr, PT-109 and John Kennedy, and Blackjack Pershing. The numbered series acted like a mentor to me because I wanted to read them all. It also showed me that some people are more interesting than others, worthy of being written about. I wish I had had a reading mentor that that taught me that living is better than reading. On my own, I decided reading life was superior to real life.

In the 6th and 7th grade, my schools gave us order forms for Scholastic Books. I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction but I was drawn to science fiction books. Because of Scholastic Books, I discovered Jules Verne and H. G. Wells (too far down the alphabet to discover on my own I guess). These were the first books I bought after begging my mother to write a check. This was my first taste of owning and keeping books. I wish I had had some way of knowing what the other books were like on the Scholastic list. This was my first time I encountered a book list or publisher’s catalog. In a way, the Scholastic sales flyer was a kind of reading mentor.

Scholastic Order Form 1963

If I had found different books in the As and Bs at Homestead Air Force Base Library I could have taken a different path. I picked the Oz books because of the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on television. Now that I am older I sometimes wish I had not started down the path of fantasy stories. I can see now that I didn’t pick what I chose to read. My tastes had already been shaped by television, which makes it another kind of mentor.

The first person to truly influence my reading was my 8th grade (1964/65) teacher. I’m sad I can’t remember her name because she was very important. She had an approved reading list. To keep the grade we earned from tests during each six week period we had to read three books, three magazine articles, and three newspaper articles — otherwise, our grade was dropped one letter. We could raise our grade each period if we read five of each. Eighth grade was the year I struggled with grammar, so I was able to turn my Cs into Bs by reading. This teacher is memorable for two reasons. She introduced me to Robert A. Heinlein and got me to read books other than science fiction. She also taught me library research and how to make bibliographic lists. This teacher couldn’t be a personalized reading mentor to all her class sections, so she worked out a method of inspiring reading and allowing us to choose our own books from an approved list.

Because I asked a librarian about Heinlein, I was shown the adult science fiction section at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. It was small, only two half-height bookcases of four shelves each. Those shelves shaped my reading for a year. Again, a limited set of books becomes a reading mentor.

In the 9th grade (1965/66) I started earning money mowing lawns and babysitting. This got me into buying albums and books. Having money and a bike let me ride to used bookstores. Because I was a science fiction fan I mainly bought books from the science fiction section. I could only afford cheap books. I mainly bought ten-cent used paperbacks that were very old. That limitation was a kind of reading mentor. I mass-consumed science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s. Even today I realize that shaped my personality more than anything else.

It’s a shame I didn’t know better. I should have read more widely. In junior high, I did branch into nonfiction reading books about science, nature, space travel, exploration, history, maps, sailing, etc., but it was still a limited focus.

In the 10th grade (1966/67) I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. This defined my reading for years. Also in the 10th grade, while going to school in Mississippi that only required 16 credits to graduate, I had two library study halls in a six-period day. Science fiction was rare in Charleston, Mississippi, so I began reading more nonfiction.

In the 11th and 12th grade I worked and went to school so I stopped watching television and got little reading done. (This also became true after I got married and worked full time.) Being a bookworm requires the luxury of time.

In the 1970s while in college, I joined the Book of the Month Club and The Quality Paperback Book Club. This broadened my reading somewhat. So these book clubs became reading mentors. Book clubs allowed me to acquire hardbacks at a discount, but the two monthly selections also became a reading mentor too.

By this time I was regularly reading the science fiction magazines, F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, If, Amazing, and Fantastic. These periodicals had book reviews, and they became another reading mentor. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, I read a review of Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin. That started me reading books about books. However, I seldom branched out of science fiction. It wasn’t until I became an English major in the later 1970s that I began studying books outside the genre. But even then I rebelled against what my professors wanted me to read. For every required classic I was forced to read to pass a test, I read ten or twenty books of my own choosing.

Unfortunately, most of the books I chose were science fiction, with a smattering of popular science and biographies. Now let’s jump ahead about thirty years. Amazon.com changed my reading habits a lot. But what really changed my reading habits was Audible.com. From listening to books read by wonderful narrators I learned I was a very poor reader myself. I also discovered my poor reading habits caused me to read too fast and love books that could be read fast. Once I started listening to books I tried all kinds of novels and nonfiction I would never have enjoyed before. Suddenly, I loved 19th-century novels. Ones that previously had turned me off by all the slow tedious descriptive bits. I also got into long rambling nonfiction books.

I have to say audiobooks have been my best reading mentor. I was reading around 12-20 books a year during the 1980s and 1990s. Mainly because of work and being married. From 1963-1973 I probably read several books a week. From 2002-2017 I read one book a week, or about 52 a year, mostly because of Audible.com. Not only did I read (listen) to more books, my range of reading topics exploded like a nova.

Then around ten years ago, I started blogging and writing about books. I began to think more about what reading meant. I read more book reviews. The internet gave me access to book commentary from all over the globe. I read blogs by other bookworms and discovered whole reading vistas I had missed. Sites devoted to books and reading maniacs showed me countless paths other bookworms had taken.

Since the 1980s I’ve been fascinated by meta-lists. I created one for science fiction, first for a fanzine, and then for the internet. Since then I’ve found others creating general fiction meta-lists, like The Greatest Books, or even collections of meta-lists like Worlds Without End. These are another kind of reading mentor.

Then there is Goodreads and Listopia where millions of readers gather to discuss books. I can even browse what books family, friends, strangers, and famous people read. That’s another kind of mentor.

Finally, in recent years I’ve been greatly influenced by Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, and especially meta-lists that collect them all together. For example, here is “The Ultimate Best Books of 2017 List,” a meta-list created by Emily Temple, where she combined 35 lists covering 520 different recommended books. These annual lists have been getting me to read 6-10 books each year I never would have tried before, and often they turn out to be the very best books I read in the year.

In conjunction with the Best-of-the-Year meta-lists is ebook bargain sales. I subscribe to a half-dozen email newsletters that tell me what books are on sale each day as ebooks. I’ve already bought three books from Temple’s 2017 list. It’s hard to resist trying a book that is on ten or more Best-Books-of-the-Year lists for only $1.99. That makes for a powerful reading mentor.

It turns out the wisdom of crowds is true. It might make the best reading mentor of all I believe. I would think if kids in school had access to meta-lists of books kids like themselves were recommending it might be an excellent mentor to aid teachers.

It would be great to have had a human reading mentor growing up. To be honest, I was never trustful of grownups as a kid. I was a know-it-all little schmuck who wanted to make my own decisions, even if they were bad. I was greatly inspired by my peers, but let’s be truthful here too, my peers were not that wise. We were all too influenced by trends. Plus, I became addicted to science fiction at an early age, which made me ignore most everything else to read.

A while back I wrote, “What 12 Books Would You Give Your 12-Year-Old Self.” Even if I had a time machine I doubt I could have been much of a mentor to my younger self. We all wish we had known what we know now back then, but we forget that most of us are hard of hearing when it comes to taking advice. Today’s kids seem more connected to their parents than kids of my generation. Maybe today parents can be mentors. Rich folks have always been great mentors to their children. I do believe Malcolm Gladwell was right in Outliers that the kids who succeed in life start early and have mentors.

We try to design education curriculums that has the wisdom of mentors, but I’m not sure if such one-size teaches all plans can ever succeed. We know the internet inspires both good and bad in children but will we ever be able to channel its chaos? I wonder if kids can find other kids on the internet who could act as their reading mentors and provide the kind of wisdom I missed growing up. Teachers might try to catalog the best young adult bloggers to show their students. And I assume the internet allows teachers to be far more in tune with their students than teachers of my era.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Blogging in the Classroom

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 23, 2017

My friend Laurie who is a professor of reading at a college of education told me she is going to teach a course using blogging as a teaching tool. I found that fascinating. I’ve done a little research on Google and see that there are special blogging platforms for teaching, so the idea is catching on. This backs up a pet theory I’ve had for years. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a student. One of my worse habits was doing exams and papers as fast as I could and then turning them in without double checking my work. If I had only taken the time to reread what I wrote I could have probably changed my mostly C+ grades to B+. For a long time, I’ve thought if they made kids begin blogging in elementary school it would improve their writing and test-taking skills for their rest of their lives.

blogging in the classroom

Knowing that only teachers would see my work meant I didn’t have to try hard because I didn’t care about what teachers thought. Back then, if I knew other kids might see what I wrote I would have tried harder because peer pressure did matter. This is why I think blogging could be a great teaching tool. If kids knew their friends would read their essays I think they’d try a lot harder.

Now we have a system that protects young egos. Children are vicious with each other. So we make schoolwork private between student and teacher. I can understand that, but I wonder if we’re making a mistake. If we want students to learn to write clearly maybe some of their work should be public. Blogging might be a way to start.

Blogging can be private. Teaching portals can set up blogs to be private between student teacher, public to just the classroom, or public to the world. There are endless reasons to blog, in or out of the classroom. One very important reason is to preserve a personal history. If everyone started blogging when they learned to read or write they’d have a history of their life from around age seven. My father died when I was eighteen and I never really knew him. I’ve often wished that blogging had existed back in the 1920s and I could have inherited his blog. I also wish I had a history of my own early life. But I also think blogging would have made me more self-reflective and concerned about my education if I had started at an early age.

Blogging in the classroom could cause all kinds of important changes in society. We don’t emphasize writing in our culture nearly as much as reading, and that’s unfortunate. Education is focused on learning and not communication. We force kids to sit for years so we can fill them up with knowledge, but we give them little chance of expressing themselves. The rise of the internet is showing how billions of people think, and it’s not pretty. Self-expression on the internet often reveals crude skills of exclaiming emotions (usually rage), but not logical thinking or the ability to cooperatively communicate.

This is why I wonder if forcing kids to interact with their peers via blogging from an early age wouldn’t initiate positive changes. Sure, it might open Pandora’s Box, which is what we’re seeing on the internet today with all the hateful tweets and comments, but if we started sooner and trained children to study their thoughts, organize their observations, write clearly, decode how others think, and to compassionately communicate, it could be different.

I took up blogging in my late fifties. It’s given me a great retirement hobby, plus I’m learning to write and think better at a time when my mind would normally be in decline. I believe I would have been a superior K-12 student, and thus a superior college student if I had started blogging right after I learned to write. I believe I would have tried harder knowing my friends could read what I wrote. I also believe that writing more would have helped me learn more. If I had been taught to explain how things worked through writing I would have learned more from my lessons. Blogging could be a way to teach kids to teach and that’s a great way to learn.

For this to work, we’d have to overcome a lot of obstacles. Most children and adults are embarrassed to let others see their intellectual abilities. It’s like undressing our minds. We’d need to teach kids how to protect their privacy and create their public persona. Most people don’t seem to realize their inner thoughts are already expressed in what they say and do. Children often worry more about what they wear and own than what they say or how they behave. If blogging was required in schools, and part of their schoolwork was public, it might make students more reflective about their thinking and how it impacts others. For example, if school bullies read posts by their victims and how bystanders see their bullying would they change their behavior? I don’t know.

I am constantly reminded of a novel, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It’s a story of family tragedies, tragedies that could have been avoided if each member of the family would have expressed their thoughts.

I can imagine endless ways in which blogging could be applied to teaching. Currently, we have teachers teachings and students taking tests to prove they’ve paid attention. What if we required students to spend more time teaching? Because blogs can contain multimedia, we could ask students to teach topics on their blogs using whatever media they wanted. I often have to research and study a topic when I write about it on my blog. That makes me realize that I’m my most important reader because I discover how little I know and how much I learn from working on the post.

I also learn how bad I write by using tools like Grammarly and Readable.io. Writing on a blog is like playing a video game, I’m always trying to better my own scores. And I like when I get good comments, not praise, but insights, because learning how other people think teaches me how narrowly I see things. Even when I get hateful rants it teaches me my views are far from universal. I think students could benefit knowing more about how their classmates think and feel, even when it stings.

I wish I had started blogging when I learned to write so I would have a record of all my school years. I wish I had taken a photograph of every classmate and teacher. I wish I had taken a photograph of every classroom and school. I wish I had taken a photograph of every playground and walk to school. I wish I had written about everything that excited me and scared me. I hate that I can’t remember or visualize all those people and places.

Because of this wish, I would recommend teachers have students sign up with an international blogging site that would stay in business the rest of their lives. They need to promote lifelong blogging to preserve memories. It won’t hurt to have a permanent personal blog and classroom blog for a year if that’s needed.

We might be protecting kids too much by letting them hide from criticism. I think teachers need to think hard about whether to let student blogs be public because some children will suffer emotional damage. But on the other hand, it might help them in the long run. It’s like parents who homeschool their kids for years to protect them. In the end, their kids have to interact with society and it’s usually much harder.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the Modern Equivalent of Byte Magazine?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

Is Facebook Replacing Older Ways?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2017

A few years ago an older version of our web site devoted to the Classics of Science Fiction would get hundreds of hits a day, some days going over a thousand. Now it’s lucky to get two dozen. Searching Google for “classics of science fiction” usually places the site on the first page of returns, which would suggest it’s still valid.

Why the decline in hits? It’s doubtful that science fiction has fallen out of favor. I’ve been wondering if how people use the internet has changed. I know our site is boring and statistical but it did have some fans. Now it doesn’t. I’m wondering if folks have stopped using the web in the same way they used it before. Are most people going to big sites and ignoring the small sites?

Or is everyone hanging out on Facebook instead?

Facebook

Pages and groups devoted to science fiction on Facebook often have thousands of followers. Are people spending more time socializing on Facebook than surfing the web? Facebook has over 2 billion members. Many of my friends and family use Facebook daily. Has Facebook reached a critical mass of users meaning it can’t be ignored?

I know many people who loathe Facebook. As online forums and Yahoo! Groups die from inactivity will those holdouts be forced to become a Facebook pod person?

The internet existed for years before the World Wide Web. It wasn’t until the invention of the web browser that people began surfing the internet purely for entertainment. Users jumped from link to link, going wherever inspiration led them to click.

Then came search engines. Instead of surfing, you keyword searched. Of course, search results could take you to unknown and surprising places.

The way we use the internet has changed again with smartphone apps. Whereas before I’d start with Google, I now tap Wikipedia, IMDB or other icons instead. There are times when I have to fall back to Google, but it’s usually when I’m doing writing research.

For years my online socializing happened on blogs, Yahoo! Groups, or forums at web sites. All those virtual meeting places are becoming depopulated. After the internet became universal I assumed it would always be the same. Now I’m thinking the underlying technology will always be there, but how we use it will constantly mutate.

Has Facebook become an alternative to web surfing, blogging, home pages, personal web sites, etc? Even more, is Facebook replacing family get-togethers, scrapbooks, printed photos, letters, postcards, greeting cards, telephone calls, and email? Many people now prefer texting to a phone call because it is less time-consuming. Has Facebook become the quick replacement for visiting online friends, or even some real life friends?

JWH

 

 

Thrown Off the Grid Kicking and Screaming

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 2, 2017

Last Saturday, Memphis was hit by a storm that knocked 188,000 customers off the grid. As of Friday evening, 17,514 are still without power. I’m one of them. However, I’m not doing too bad. A neighbor lets me run an extension cord to his carport. When the storm hit I was without power for several hours, and then it came back on partially. Evidently, one of my two 110 circuits coming from the transformer had problems. So I turn off everything that I could. Things that took 220 just wouldn’t run at all.

On Tuesday I got an electrician to look at things and he suggested I shut down all my circuits that weren’t getting a full 110 volts. He checked each at the breaker box. I had fans, TV, computer, and even the refrigerator (but I had to run a cord to an 110 socket that worked.) Then on Wednesday an MLGW guy came by and told me and my neighbor that our circuits were not working right and he had to pull us completely off the grid for safety reasons. I was bummed. Losing my partial electricity felt like being thrown out of the lifeboat. However, I called my other neighbor and he threw me a lifeline. I’m able to run a fan, a lamp, the refrigerator, and my internet router off one orange extension cord coming through the window.

Several of my friends were without any power for days. Back when we had Hurricane Elvis, Susan and I went without power for 13 days in July and August heat. I’ve had the power go out at this house several times for 2-3 day, in summer and winter. I’ve written about these adventures before “Living Like Jane Austen,” “Blogging by Candlelight and Paper,” and “Are You Prepared for a Natural Disaster?

Living without electricity is no fun but very educational. I’m extremely glad to have my lifeline to Ernie’s house. A fan makes all the difference between misery and comfort. I’ve been reading many books written in the 19th century these last few years and I can’t imagine how people survived without electric power. I would never time travel back to their times. I wonder what future Americans will have that they believe they can’t live without but we don’t know about yet?

This time I have LED lanterns, which are much nicer than candles. And I have a smartphone. One time the power was out I got out an old Sony Walkman and played cassette tapes of old radio shows for entertainment. Having an iPhone 6s Plus has made all the difference this outage. I don’t feel isolated from the internet.

I guess I’m addicted to two grids: electricity and the internet.

Having that extension cord means I’m just barely on the grid. It teaches me what I really want most when it comes to flowing electrons. I have chosen four items: a fan, a lamp, a router, and a refrigerator. The fan is the most essential. I’d let my food go bad before I’d give up the fan.

I’ve been thinking about buying a generator for next time. I hear my neighbor’s out behind my house. They are noisy as all get out. I’d want one that’s quiet or could be made quiet. So I’ve been thinking about how to build a little doghouse for a generator that would protect it from rain, thieves and baffle the noise.

26073005

I bought The Grid by Gretchen Bakke but haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read enough about the book to know the grid will be even less dependable in the future.

I know of five times this house has been without electricity for more than 2 days, but that’s over a twenty-year period. However, with climate change, this could happen more often. We’ve been told this is the third worst outage in MLGW’s history. The main problem is trees and straight line winds or ice storms. This will always be a problem because we have lots of trees and power poles. Moving to a newer neighborhood would help. [Note to self – make sure all future living sites have underground power cables.]

During the storm, I worried about trees falling on the house. More than a hundred came down to block roads around the city. I’ve read about people with holes in their roof trying to survive without electricity. I’m thankful I don’t have that problem. I’m surviving okay, but it’s wearing me down slowly. I can’t cook hot food. I’m down to my last pair of clean underwear. It’s so dark I have to take a lantern to the bathroom. But I shouldn’t whine. Much of the world has it worse than this all the time.

We really should vote to raise our taxes to update and renovate the grid.

JWH

 

 

Being Old and Observing the Young

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The older I get, the further away I get from the young. It’s not intentional on my part. They’re just leaving me behind.

When Audible.com has a sale, I buy audiobooks about unfamiliar subjects and subcultures to check out. Recently I bought I, Justine: An Analog Memoir by Justine Ezarik. Ezarik is a young woman who goes by the name iJustine, and is supposedly well known on the Internet, but completely unknown to me. Her book turned out to be well worth the $4.95 sale price, because of its many insights of growing up in a unique subculture. I love books about computer history, so this volume was more than a web celebrity’s personal story. The times, they keep a changing—I’m reading more books about people born in the 1980s, growing up in the 1990s. I think I first took note of this generation with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

I Justine

iJustine makes her living doing what she loves. Totally geeking out on with Apple computers, gadgets and gaming, establishing a career by making her fan-girl life public, especially on YouTube. She even live-streamed herself for a while, which I found bizarre, and still spends most of her time making videos about her daily life, friends and digital life. I, Justine chronicles how she developed her internet celebrity business. iJustine, born in 1984, and now 32, is a Millennial.

iJustine is young, but not that young, because she also reports on the generation coming up behind her, which aren’t always her fans. iJustine describes a lot of nasty animosity in her world, which I occasionally encounter online. I find that very hard to understand. iJustine is an attractive young woman, who I would think guys would want to flirt with, instead some guys hate her, sending her the social media equivalents of hate mail, death threats, and even calling the police on her (swatting). There’s a lot of Gamergate type misogyny around her online world. I assume most of her time is spent having fun, being friends with nice people, and I just remember the bad stuff from her book.

I find the hateful incidents in her story disturbing, in the same way I find Donald Trump scary. iJustine herself is wholesome, polite, upbeat, and leans towards the silly side. She’s an extreme fan of Apple, working in a subculture that’s beyond my comprehension. I’m old, and only see digital life as an outsider. Reading I, Justine made me realize just how far away I am from being young. Although, my peers think I’m up-to-date because I know about computers and they don’t, being tech-savvy isn’t the whole story. I also wonder about how iJustine feels about aging. She says her target audience is preteen and teen girls. She’s half my age, and her audience is now half her age. At what age does a young woman start to appear too old to that audience? I wonder when she gets to be 64, will iJustine have trouble relating to the very young growing up in the 2020s? And can our culture keep mutating so frequently?

Since I don’t play video games, and don’t own a gaming console, that puts me on the other side of a huge generation divide. I was about to buy a new iPad so I could read my digital magazines better, but I’m now wondering if I shouldn’t buy an Xbox instead, just to see if I can get into video gaming. iJustine got her granny to play Call of Duty , and I assume she must be older than I am. I must be iJustine’s parents age. Maybe if Susan and I had had kids we’d have grown up with a succession of video gaming consoles too.

Now there’s growing excitement about VR. Virtual reality has zero appeal to me. I suppose this will put me two degrees away from the young. Or two-and-half since I’m a half-ass user of social media. I’m not quite Amish, but it seems I exist halfway between the Pennsylvania Dutch and hip hop America. What’s beyond VR life? Jacked in cyborgs?

Most of my friends live on the edge of the Internet. We all have smartphones. Most of us are now cord-cutters, watching TV off of Roku. I read ebooks and audiobooks, I listen to music via Spotify and Pandora. Half of my friends even use Facebook. We have adapted. But I, Justine showed me how far away I’m still from the digital norm. Like I said, I live on the shallow end of the net, while the young thrive in the deep end. There’s a big difference. I don’t comprehend the pithy (and often nasty) world of Twitter. And there’s a whole host of social media apps that I can’t even name, much less understand what they do.

That’s not saying I won’t catch up. Quite often subcultures become dominant. I’ve read many essays written at the dawn of the television age, resisting that change, and TV watching became universal. Yet, I can’t imagine wearing a VR headset. Will people start tuning out of reality for longer and longer periods of time? That seems no more practical than LSD back in the 1960s.

I support David Brooks notions about character and manners. All too often, iJustine reported having to deal with people who are rude and uncivilized. Is that becoming the new social norm? I’ve had to deal with some of those people blogging, and it’s stressful. I worry the more we interconnect through social media, the more we drop self-controls, letting raw emotions hang out. That can’t be good. At least not for dwelling in the Hive Mind.

I’ve had two friends my age whose bosses asked them if they had ADD. And other friends who said young coworkers would push them aside to do a task, not in an unfriendly way, just impatient to see the task finished quicker. Which makes me wonder if young people see us as moving too slow, or think we can’t comprehend. More than once I’ve been dismissed as just an old white guy. That doesn’t hurt my feelings, but it makes me wonder if there’s a cognitive gap.

By the way, my wife and women friends tell me to stop writing about my age, and hide that I’m old. My guy friends are like me, unconcerned about age. My lady friends warn me young people don’t want to read about old folks. Of course those women want to think they are still young. My wife plays video games, loves Facebook, and her and her friends are always texting and sending selfies.

There was a scene in I, Justine that was kind of sad. iJustine worshipped Steve Jobs, and the one time she got near him, Steve probably recognized her, and ran away. Maybe Steve was feeling too old to deal with a crazy young fan. I’m sure iJustine is a nice young normal woman, but her world does seems a bit hectic, sometimes mean spirited, fast changing, often silly, and way too videoized. Yet, if you just look at her videos, iJustine seems quite normal, if a bit goofy, and so maybe all the problems are with how the young communicate with each other—the snarky Tweets, the extreme expressions of emotion, the black hat hacking, doxing, swatting, phishing, misogyny, death threats, and all the endless ways they treat each other like they didn’t understand the person on the other end is a real person, and not some video game character to destroy.

JWH

Why Doesn’t Google Fix Its Obvious Flaw?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 5, 2016

Yesterday I searched Google for a book review of All the Birds in the Sky  by Charlie Jane Anders. I carefully created a search request that would give me exactly what I wanted.

           “all the birds in the sky” review anders

Yesterday it returned 37,500 links. Today it returns 38,900. If I take out the quotes around the book’s title it returns 461,000. If I add “book” to the search request and keep the quotes it returns 41,100. This is absolutely ridiculous.

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If Google was as smart as it should be, the returns should be something like 78 or 123, or if there’s really a lot of book reviewers in this world, maybe 478. I can’t imagine that a book released two weeks ago should have garnered that many significant reviews, even counting bloggers, and I was wanting good blog reviews.

I’m reading All the Birds in the Sky and wanted to know what other people thought of it. I wanted significant reviews where readers pondered the implications of the story. Some of the returns on the first pages gave me what I wanted, but even those pages were cluttered with links to sites that weren’t book reviews. And I discovered that some review sites only give a minimum description of the book, as if the book hadn’t been read, but merely summarized by an overworked journalist, or composed by one of those new AI content creators that can crank out narrative that looks like it was written by a human.

Many of the returns were like this one “Babe of the Day – Penelope Cruz…” that had no information about the book. But there is a mention of the book in this guy’s blog links column.

Google’s AI should have been smart enough to know this site wasn’t a book review. Google’s AI should be smart enough to know that most of those 38,900 links aren’t book reviews either. Hell, I gave it a helpful hint by putting in the world “review” in the search query. Any half-ass AI should know that the words in the quotes is a book title, and the last word is the author’s last name.

I have to assume that offering me 38,850 links I don’t need helps Google make money. Google, the reason I gave up cable TV is because it made me pay for hundreds of channels I never watched. I don’t think I can cut the cord with Google. Bing gave me 5,600,000 results on the same query. Duck Duck Go doesn’t tell me how many returns it finds, but it does check mark some of its returns, as if “hint hint” these are the ones you really want. Their results come in a continuous scroll, so there’s no telling how many results there are.

Here is the search query I’d like to use with Google:

       “all the birds in the sky” review anders words>600 –notbuying

Google would know I wanted book reviews containing more than 600 words. Also, it would know I didn’t want to see any sites selling the book, so don’t bother sending me sites trying to sell the book. Of course if their AI was really sharp, I should be able to ask for:

       Give me significant reviews of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

And it would.

JWH