Why We Can’t Trust Digital to Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Map of Knowledge by Violet Moller

JWH

 

 

Keeping Up In The 21st Century

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 8, 2019

I’m reading a rather disturbing book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It’s disturbing for a number of reasons. First, it shows how completely out of touch I am. Second, it’s very relevant about today’s politics, problems, and conflicts, but makes me realize that I don’t have the tech skills I thought I had – and I’ve been working with computers since 1971. And it’s about a new stage in human communications that I might not be able to join or want to join. I might need to accept I’m too old and let a new stage of human consciousness pass me by.

It’s very difficult to explain why people need to read this book. But here’s a setup that might help. It’s my take on things but relates to what I learn from the book. It’s about the different stages of communications.

  1. Language. This gave us a tremendous boost compared to the other animals, and it’s probably why we’re sentient.
  2. Writing. Let us store knowledge and communicate at a distance.
  3. Printing. Let us mass-produce knowledge.
  4. Telegraph. Let us communicate over distances very fast. This was a tremendous boom for business, war, and journalism.
  5. Telephone. Faster two-way communication without codes.
  6. Radio. The beginning of mass communication. For example, LikeWar quotes Joseph Goebbels saying the Nazis couldn’t have gained power without radio.
  7. Television. More effective mass communication. Truly transformed society.
  8. Computers. They magnified our thinking power and speed.
  9. Networks. Created a world-wide digital nervous system.
  10. Social media. Mass communication with mass participation, or two-way mass communication. LikeWar is about how social media is transforming politics, crime, business, and war. One example LikeWar uses is ISIS, which used social media to overpower traditional national powers.

If you don’t have social media skills you’ll be left behind. Most people’s reactions will be, “Too bad, I don’t care about Facebook.” LikeWar provides significant evidence that all future political power will come from the people who can master social media. LikeWar showed how Trump gained his power with Twitter. Don’t dismiss that out of hand. Singer and Brooking make a powerful case for it being true.

I’m 67 and barely use social media. I blog, I keep up with family, friends, fellow hobbyists on Facebook, I use Twitter to keep up with news about science fiction. That’s essentially nothing. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When I was growing up I watched the CBS News every night to follow the Vietnam War. The news was about 24-48 hours old. Some people today keep up with wars in real-time, watching people conduct war using the internet to outmaneuver people conducting war at television and print journalism speeds. LikeWar showed how ISIS used social media users worldwide as recruits in their local battles.

In other words, in any field of endeavor, any conflict, if you’re using print, radio, or television to keep up you’re way behind. We really are developing a global hive mind, and it involves new skills. I can use the excuse that I’m too old to chase that bus. But younger people or older folks who want to compete can’t. And I think that’s stressful. I think a lot of stress in our society is because we’re stratifying by the speed in which we can compete.

I’ll predict there will be a new class of Luddites, those people who choose not to race at social media speeds. But it means giving up power. We’ve had wealth inequality forever, and education inequality for hundreds of years, but what LikeWar envisions is a new kind of inequality. I’m not sure what percentage of the population will be able to keep up.

LikeWar

JWH

 

Like and Sharing Society

by James Wallace Harris

Today we like each other by clicking a Facebook icon and share by inviting others to view images and videos that trigger our strong emotions. Oh, we still share by getting together for an activity or like each other with hugs and kisses, but it seems less often, doesn’t it?

In David Brooks’ latest column at The New York Times he says:

When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it became a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.

As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.

That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.

In primitive societies, whole groups would live in one big room. Over time families moved into their own separate dwellings, but often were multigenerational. Then we invented the nuclear family. And now people often live alone in apartments. We connect by computers to create virtual social bonds. It’s kind of weird when you think about it.

This also reminds of the classic 1909 science fiction story by E. M. Forster called “The Machine Stops.” Eighty years before the WWW Forster imagined humans ultimately living alone in rooms connected to each other by a machine. Read this story, it will amaze you.

These trends sound like a sad progression of human evolution, but I believe there are reasons why we’ve chosen our paths. Primitive people worked together with a common goal of survival. Everyone had to contribute. The same was true to a lesser degree during the era of multigenerational families. Even during the early era of nuclear families, we had much to keep us together. But once everyone had a different job that took them into a different direction, and we developed our own personal interests and goals, things came apart. Even as late as the 1950s and 1960s families still had a lot of shared experiences. With only one television parents and kids would gather around it in the evenings. They ate their dinners together while watching Ed Sullivan or Lassie. Kids would go to school, and parents would go to work, but they still found countless shared interests to spend time together.

What separated me from my family in 1962 was a clock radio. But also my father worked two jobs and my mother one, so they disappeared for most of the day. Yet, when they were home, I began retreating to my room to listen to Top 40 Rock ‘n’ Roll and reading science fiction while they watched The Beverly Hillbillies with my sister.

Brooks dates our divergence with the computer, but I think it came earlier with other technologies. When I got that clock radio and my sister got a portable record player we went our different ways. By the 1970s many families had multiple television sets, so each family member took to their separate rooms to watch only what they loved. We stopped making the effort to sit through shows other people loved. In the 1980s personal computers came out and we divided again. Walkmans, MP3 players, audiobooks, tablets, smartphones, they’ve all given us ways to isolate ourselves into pursing highly unique art forms.

Anthologies-web

Think about all the interests and hobbies that only you love. Above is a photo of what currently separates me from other people. My fascination with reading old science fiction short stories and studying their history culls me off from the rest of humanity. By Brooks’ distinction, I’m defined by both print and digital technologies, but I also love hearing these stories read by professional narrators, so that connects me with an oral tradition too. But when I listen, I’m wearing headphones that shut me off from the rest of reality, although I’d love to know someone who’d like to listen to the stories with me.

When Susan, my wife comes home from work we sometimes eat together, and sometimes not. We faithfully watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy that we recorded on our TiVo, and then she goes to the living room to watch her shows and I stay in the den to watch mine. We got married in 1978, and through 2008, we had one television set, and we’d watched the same shows together every night.

In 2008 Susan took a job out of town, and for ten years we watched television separately and we learned exactly the kind of TV that resonated with our personalities. I developed a number of friends who came over to watch TV with me, and I learned that friendship was a VENN diagram of shared TV shows. No two people have exact tastes. When Susan moved back permanently last year she brought her own TV, so we had two. We also had two Rokus, and subscriptions to several streaming TV services that allowed us to watch exactly what we want to watch when we wanted to watch. We had also learned to binge-watch different kinds of shows. Taste in TV now separates us.

We do find other ways to share. We’ve been doing game nights with friends. Last night was a game night, and the four of us all talked about the TV shows we watched. It was kind of funny because our tastes overlapped in various combinations. If I wanted companionship to watch my TV shows, I might need to call a dozen different people, and some nights I’d still be watching TV alone.

When TV was broadcast, most of my friends watched the same shows. Now with over 500 scripted TV shows being produced every year, friends connect by the few unique shows we each share a love to watch. And I often feel I disappoint people when I tell them I don’t like the shows they love. It was damn surprising how much The Game of Thrones united people.

I really enjoy having friends over to watch shows together, but that seldom happens anymore. For ten years my TV buddy Janis and I shared a love of several shows and we’d get together and watch them 3-4 times a week. But Janis has moved to Mexico, and most of my other friends don’t want to come over to watch TV that regularly.

I have a handful of internet friends who also love the old science fiction anthologies, and we have a group email address we use to discuss them. I’m also in two online book clubs where we discuss books daily by email. I guess these replace my water cooler friends from my work days.

Facebook is constantly attacked in the news nowadays, but it’s a very useful tool for keeping up with family and friends. Knowing that someone else likes the same cat videos as I do is nice. Not much of a bond, but at least it’s a shared affinity. What really bonds people is raising a family or a career that forces you to work intimately with other people. Susan and I never had kids, and my work days are over. My friend Mike and I work on a computer/web project together, and that’s a great way to connect.

It’s funny, but I think the single thing that brings me and my friends together now is our collective worry about getting old, and our constant talk of bodily functions. Nothing bonds aging baby boomers like a conversation about constipation.

Lately, I’ve wondered about retirement villages. Would moving to a 55+ community would create new kinds of social bonds? I’ve wondered if it would create the social structures I had back in my K-12 years. Would playing Pickleball and Four Square everyday undo all the specialized isolation that TV and computers created? Who knows, maybe I could find other people to watch Perry Mason, or even share a love of 1950s science fiction like these guys:

JWH

Say Goodbye to the Internet in Your Will

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, April 9, 2018

I’ve been using the internet long enough to have online friends pass away. I’m in one online book club that has had three members die. I’ve had other internet friends just disappear, and I’ve wondered what has happened to them. Sometimes on Facebook family members will post a goodbye. I greatly appreciate that when it happens.

Quite often I don’t know where my internet friends live. And even when I do, the standard of publishing an obituary in the local paper seems to be fading along with print journalism.

Last Will

There is much anger directed at Facebook in recent weeks. However, Facebook is how many people stay in contact with friends and family. Few reports count all the positive benefits of Facebook. As many as two billion people use the service. In recent years, Facebook is often how I find out internet friends are sick, dying, or have passed away. It’s become the new obituary page.

We all need to leave login credentials to our social media groups in our wills with instructions to contact these sites after our death. And even provide a parting farewell to publish.

Social media is often dismissed as shallow. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. Maybe we should make it better.

JWH

 

 

 

Should I Delete Facebook?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 23, 2018

Cambridge AnalyticaI’ve seen at least a dozen stories about people deleting their Facebook account because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Just now I read two news stories about Elon Musk deleting Space-X and Tesla pages from Facebook even though they had millions of followers. There’s lots of anti-Facebook sentiment percolating on the web right now with many users jumping ship.

But how many? Facebook has two billion users. Even if a hundred million people quit in protest will it matter? There have always been folks who grumped about Facebook. They are much like snobs who sneer at watching television. I look at TV and Facebook every day. Not much, in either case, but they both provide their little pleasures. And, little pleasures count for a lot in our social security years.

People fear Facebook because of identity theft or invasion of their privacy. But is any place safe on the internet? And if you read about Cambridge Analytica you’ll see that people happily filled out forms and shared them with friends. You’d have to be an idiot to not know that everything you do on the internet is monitored. No one pays to use Facebook. Have you ever wondered how Facebook makes its money? Our habits and opinions are valuable. Keeping America supplied with cat videos is expensive, so Facebook has to make its money someway.

When I’m on the internet I assume Big Brother and all his brothers and sisters are watching. I don’t care that they know I love cat videos and scans of old science fiction magazine covers. I have no idea what that information reveals about me politically or fiscally.

Before people rush to delete their Facebook account out of some kind of misguided protest, I think they should analyze what they get out of the service. Facebook keeps me in contact with relatives and friends I seldom or never see anymore. Facebook keeps in contact with people around the world that have the same esoteric interests as I do. And I enjoy seeing a half-dozen funny videos every day. They’re as good as a dose of Geritol.

For example, I’ve been reading old science fiction stories from the pulp magazines. I’ve made three online friends in South Africa, England, and here in the U.S. that also like to read such stories. I don’t know how many people left on this planet still love to read science fiction short stories in old pulp magazines, but Facebook has helped me find them. Facebook also keeps me in contact me with relatives I haven’t seen in fifty years.

Besides, Facebook helps me keep tabs on my wife. She always checks in wherever she goes.

I also find it very pleasant to share cartoons, videos, songs, beautiful photos, sayings, etc. with other people. For example, here’s one called Millennial Job Interview that has a passing dig at Facebook. I thought pretty damn funny and very revealing about modern times. Evidently, the young consider Facebook a hangout for older people. That might be true because most of my Facebook friends are older. And most of the people who write about deleting their Facebook accounts are younger. Should we consider this anti-Facebook movement an ageist attack on Baby Boomers?

I wonder if Big Brother finds what we share more revealing about our personalities than the facts typed into queries like Cambridge Analytica’s? For many people I know, what they share on Facebook reveals more about themselves than they reveal in person.

I share a lot on Facebook. My friends and family must think I’m odd from some of the content I post. However, I use both Facebook and Twitter as external memory banks. My biological memory is beginning to fail. I wish Facebook existed when I was young so I could scroll back into the past. When I scan through my timeline it’s like a stream-of-consciousness of what tickled my fancy. I’m sure if Big Brother applied a powerful artificial intelligence program to my timeline it could psychoanalyze my posts and provide me with the ads customized for my personality.

But you want to know something funny? If you asked me if there were ads on Facebook I’d tell you no. My mind is so good a tuning out ads that I don’t see them on web pages anymore. I do use an ad blocker, but they aren’t completely effective. I do know there are ads because I see them when I consciously go looking for them. But psychologically I don’t remember ads on Facebook. That might hurt them more than deleting my account. Sorry, Mark.

I suppose I could quit Facebook. Many who have quit Facebook claim their lives are so much better for it. Maybe mine would be better too, but I sure would miss those cat videos.

JWH

 

Marie Kondoizing a 240GB SSD

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, February 2, 2018

This is one of my essays where I think out loud trying to solve a problem. Sometimes this helps other people with the same problem, and sometimes I get comments with insights I didn’t imagine. It’s surprising how beneficial thinking by writing can be.

A few years ago I decided I wanted a minimal computer system, so I swapped out my big tower rig for an Intel NUC with a 240gb M.2 SSD (solid-state drive). This little computer is smaller than a Mac Mini, drives a 27″ 4k monitor, takes up very little desk space, and is very quiet. I’ve been happy as a cosplayer at ComicCon until yesterday when I noticed the red warning that my disk was almost full. I don’t even have a full 240GB because after formatting the drive is only 232GB. That’s my whole digital world.

Intel NUC

 

I could add an external drive, but that would ruin the elegance of having a small computer. I don’t have 232GB of user-generated data but I do use Dropbox for my main file system which I replicate with Second Copy to OneDrive. Both my Dropbox and OneDrive offer 1TB of space in the cloud, but my files are stored locally and backed up to the cloud. This means I have quicker access and automatic backups to two different cloud locations. I store around 50GB of data files on Dropbox, which when copied to OneDrive, makes up a total of 100GB on my SSD. With the OS, data I don’t back up, and programs on my C: drive brings the total to around 210GB.

Lately, I’ve been collecting scans of old pulp magazines from the web. Yesterday I got in 25GB of pulp-scans in CBZ format from a collection I bought on eBay. I wanted to add them to Dropbox, which means with replication to OneDrive, would add 50GBs to my system.

Astounding Stories020

 

My digital life just got bigger than my digital universe. So last night I spent the evening Marie Kondoizing my SSD. I uninstalled programs, cleaned out files, ran cleanup programs, and got my SSD down to 23GB free. I had hoped to build a folder on Dropbox called Pulps and eventually collect entire runs of all my favorite magazines.

I figured my ultimate pulp collection might run 200-300GB, which means after replicating to OneDrive I’d need 600GB. I could fork out $350 and upgrade my SSD to 1TB.

I then put on my Marie Kondo thinking cap and wondered:

  1. Do I need complete runs of all these old magazines?
  2. Do I need to back up all my digital content in quadruplicate?
  3. Could I upload the magazines to Dropbox and OneDrive without using my local SSD?
  4. If the magazines are readily available on the web, do I need to own and manage copies of my own?
  5. Since I have Dropbox on my Linux machine, and it replicates my Dropbox cloud to its local drive, do I really need OneDrive as a secondary backup?
  6. Will my digital universe legitimately grow enough over time to make it worthwhile to expand my digital universe to 1TB?
  7. Should I rely more on free cloud services like Flickr and Google?
  8. Should I upgrade my M.2 SSD to 1TB? (About $350)
  9. Should I go ahead an upgrade my whole computer? Maybe even make things simpler by getting an All-in-One computer with a 1TB drive. (Either Dell or iMac will approach $3,000)

To answer #1, it’s very cool to have the entire history of science fiction pulp fiction on Dropbox, where I can call up any issue I want on my iPad to read. But to be honest, it’s not that much trouble to find the issue online and just copy it to Dropbox as needed. Hell, it might even be possible to use my iPad to find the issue and read it directly without even saving it to Dropbox.

Number #2 is intriguing. If I simplified my backups I could reduce the amount of space needed on my SSD. I could even stop running the background copy program, freeing up other resources. This might be a way to have my cake and eat it too.

Number #3 offers some very interesting possibilities. I’d need to study how Dropbox and OneDrive work in greater detail. Can I store stuff on OneDrive that isn’t replicated to my SSD? I could unmap my OneDrive and only upload stuff to it via the web. But it would be nice to have part of it mapped locally so I could automatically back up essential files from Dropbox in real time.

Number #4 is the heart of the matter. A true Marie Kondo insight. I’m spending a lot of time and effort to collect something I might only use for 1% of its content or less. On the other hand, if collecting brings me true happiness, it’s not an issue. If The Pulp Magazine Archive became the perfect repository for old pulp magazines I wouldn’t need to collect. Why recreate a library when someone else is already doing all the work?

Number #5 is interesting but also complicates things. If I only relied on Dropbox for my backing up I’d have a copy of my files on my SSD, in the cloud, and another local copy on my Linux SSD. That’s pretty safe. But if my house burned down there would only be one copy, on Dropbox. Having all my files on Dropbox and OneDrive means if my house burns down and one of those companies has a catastrophic failure, I’d still have access to my files. Also, Dropbox on Linux doesn’t keep up that well with changes to Dropbox on Windows. Finally, I have a bad habit of reinstalling Linux whenever I want to play with a new distribution.

Number #6 brings up questions about my future and longevity.  If I excluded data I didn’t create like pulp scans, music, videos, audiobooks, etc., my digital universe would shrink dramatically. I could exist on the free space I earned from Dropbox and not even pay their $99/year fee.

Years ago I ripped my 1,700 CD collection. I kept multiple copies of 130GB of around 30,000 songs. I was always worried about losing it. Then Rhapsody, Rdio, Spotify came around and I got less and less worried. Awhile back I uploaded it all to Amazon and let all my local copies disappear one by one as drives died. I hardly ever go to Amazon to play that music. If there was a Spotify for old pulp magazines I wouldn’t even think about collecting them. I got rid of hundreds of CDs, but I’ve kept about 500. I sometimes wonder why I even keep them, or why I still buy CDs on rare occasions. I tell myself it’s because of the better fidelity, but I’m not sure if I can tell the difference anymore.

The odds are my digital universe will shrink over time, rather than expand.

#7 is something I should also consider. Why keep all my photographs on my SSD? And replicate them to my two paid cloud services when there are several free cloud services for photographs? Again, I couldn’t rely on just one company. If I’m going to trust cloud storage I need to always use two companies — especially if I’m going to abandon all local storage.

If I managed things correctly I don’t need to go to #8 or #9. Hell, I saw the other day where users can rent high-end graphics cards in the cloud for playing extreme video games so they don’t even need a powerful gaming computer locally. If that’s true, the future of computers will be moderate machines that just view data processed and stored in the cloud. It means we’d need less powerful CPUs, basic GPUs, less RAM, and less SSD space.

Still, should we rely on the cloud completely? If the internet goes down I can still work with all my files on Dropbox because they are replicated locally. Of course, I freak out when the internet goes down just like I do when the power goes out. I don’t want to live without either.

Have we moved to a wired world we can’t live without? Is there any need to own any work of art that could be digitized? Do we even need any local storage? I believe I have this urge to collect copies of old pulp magazines because back in the 1970s I actually collected the real issues and hated I could never afford all I wanted. I sold my collection because pulp magazines are all disintegrating. Pulp scans on the web are preserving these old magazines for the future. But do we really need more than one copy if everyone can access it on the web?

I think I’ve answered my questions. No to a bigger SSD drive. No to a new computer. I don’t need to collect pulps but I can without hardware upgrades, but I should assume my collection efforts will be invalidated by the web in the future. If I was a photographer or videographer, I’d need massive amounts of local storage, but writing fiction and nonfiction takes little hard drive space. I’ll keep this computer until it dies. My next computer will be an All-in-One because that’s even more minimalistic. I’m not sure I can break my pulp collecting habit, but it’s rather minor compared to collecting stuff in the real world.

JWH

 

 

 

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