Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.

JWH

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 4, 2020

I have never been to San Francisco but over my lifetime I’ve read many books about social movements that city produced. They include the Beats (1950s), Rock (1960s), Gay Liberation (1970s), and Silicon Valley (1970s, 1980s). Anna Wiener’s 2020 book Uncanny Valley is about San Francisco of the 2010s, although I’d say mainly about from 2013 to 2016 when Trump is elected president with a bit of updating to 2018. Anna Wiener was on the peripheral of several interesting news events of the decade, so even though this is a personal memoir, she had a stadium seat to some significant social upheavals that affected more than just San Francisco. This is probably why The New York Times chose Uncanny Valley as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2020.” It was also on these best of the year lists from Esquire, NPR, and Parade. Bookmarks which tracks links to reviews found mostly rave reviews.

Describing what Uncanny Valley is about will be hard. Wiener, graduated from college in 2009 and went to work for publishers in New York, and then at age 25 moved to San Francisco to work at a succession of three internet startups, the most famous of which was GitHub. I’m a computer guy who loves books about the history of computers and computing. I was hoping Uncanny Valley would be another The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It wasn’t. Anna Wiener wasn’t a programmer or computer engineer, and her memoir is not really about computers even though it focuses on people who passionately are.

Wiener’s role in her story was much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, as a commentator on the main characters, or like Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wiener was an observer of a social revolution, not a revolutionary herself. Wiener gets to know the revolutionaries, their causes, their ambitions, their faults, their crimes, their successes and anguishes. Wiener tries to understand the philosophical implications of this revolution but it’s too complex.

The young millenials who become millionaires and billionaires creating tech startups in San Francisco have a lot of overlap with the counterculture revolutionaries of the 1960s. They imagine reshaping society with similar utopian ideals, justifying their hubris with similar sounding pop philosophies, they indulge in drugs, alternative lifestyles, leftover New Age faiths, wild conspiracy theories, and silly science fictional schemes that have echos in previous cultural revolutions. They even contemplate engineering cities from scratch like hippies use to dream about communes. But this time around they are capitalists and they all want to get mega rich.

Silicon Valley and San Francisco are not everyday America, but they impact it in a way we can’t escape. Most of us live at least part-time on the net, joining the hivemind subculture Silicon Valley created. Anna Wiener lived in the eye of the hurricane collecting data readings she hoped would reveal meaning. I’m not sure anyone can make sense of that era. She felt bad and blamed herself for failing, but that’s silly. What she has done is taken excellent notes about her experiences and impressions.

Uncanny Valley could be a textbook supplement for a graduate course on current issues in business and business ethics. It could also be a meditation guide for young people who contemplate their own participation in society. Like the Beats in the 1950s, and the Hippies in the 1960s, and the New Agers in the 1970s, the millenials are struggling to make sense of life and find a righteous path for living in a corrupt world of commerce. Like every generation, they’re looking for meaning in a meaningless reality. In some ways, Uncanny Valley reminds me of The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszaks – but who remembers that 1969 book?

Throughout this memoir I kept feeling the people Wiener described were going through many of the same psychological struggles I did in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a chronicle of typical youth angst. Of course, that left me wondering if we can ever solve the problems we all rail against early in life, but which we eventually forget when we co-opt ordinariness.

The only thing unique about Wiener’s generation is how some of them got so damn rich. Part of Uncanny Valley deals with the problems of chasing those billions, and soul changing of catching mountains of money, or the agony of failing to become wealthy.

Even though this is a short book, there’s a great deal to it, really too much to digest, including many ethical issues created by the business models of these new tech industries. Often Wiener would be working on software that got into the news for its evil side effects. Or that same software would empower legions of formerly powerless people to do evil. She often worried about the degree of guilt that belong to her.

Ultimately, Uncanny Valley becomes a must read book because Anna Wiener just happened to be in the right place at the right time to glimpse at generation changing events. Nearly everything she writes about has been well documented in news stories over the last decade. If you’ve been paying attention, a lot of it will be familiar. Weiner got closer than most reporters. However, she obscures the names of everything. I found this very annoying, but finally accepted it as a quirky writing affectation. In one review I read, it was suggested she Wiener had to sign so many non-disclosure agreements she’s become shy of using real names for anything. Of course, Wiener might have thought it funny to make us guess.

I don’t know how often I convince blog readers here to read what I review. Uncanny Valley could bore the crap out of most of my friends, or it could dazzle them. If you like nonfiction and memoirs, and interested in issues dealing with current events, profiles of younger generations, sexism, privilege, technological change, politics, economic equality, ecology, homelessness, gentrification, capitalism, and contemporary ethical issues, then this book might be for you. If reality overwhelms you, you should avoid it like the Covid.

Additional Reading:

JWH

Simplifying My Stereo

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 11, 2019

Does anyone ever call their music player a stereo anymore? A long time ago we’d call it a phonograph, a record player, later on, a Hi-Fi, stereo, or receiver. I guess people call them audio systems now? Actually, I don’t know what people call machines that play music in these modern times. Researching this article meant constantly changing the terms in my Google requests to find what I think I needed.

What I want is to hear my music at its maximum fidelity with the least equipment for the smallest price. I just want to own less crap. A long time ago I imagined the perfect music delivery system while I was stoned. What if we could just think of a song and then hear as if we were a character in a movie who could hear the soundtrack? Wouldn’t that be far-out! No equipment, just music, like having a stereo system integrated into our heads.

With Spotify and my iPhone, I come close to achieving that dream. However, I don’t want to always wear headphones. Basically, what I want is to tap my iPhone and hear the music fill the room.

What I believe I need is called a music streamer (sometimes called a network amplifier). But neither is precise or accepted. I appear to want an amplified music streamer. There are other music streamers that connect to an existing stereo amplifier. I’m currently thinking about buying is the Yamaha WXA-50, but I’m also wondering if it’s worth spending almost three times as much to get the new Denon PMA-150H. The Yamaha came out in 2016 and the Denon was just released. (I do think the Yamaha would serve all my needs but I am worried about buying technology that came out 4 years ago.)

 

I guess I should explain what these gadgets do. That will require a bit of backtracking. Right now my home office stereo is a two-channel receiver connected to a pair of Bose speakers. They are connected to my computer and CD player. Music sounds pretty good, especially when I crank it up. But this system is probably 25-30 years old. I can play Spotify, CDs, or MP3 files. I have a turntable, but that’s packed away, but if I wanted, I could play LPs.

I want to be able to control all my music from my iPhone. First, this means I don’t have to worry about another remote. Second, it means if I want to hear music that’s not on Spotify it has to be ripped. I don’t want to mess with CDs or LPs anymore. It also means I don’t want to depend on my computer. Right now I can use my iPhone with Spotify Connect to play music through the computer via the receiver, but I want to eliminate the middleman, the computer. Which then means I can put the music streamer and speakers anywhere.

I’d love to do away with speaker wire too, and wireless speakers are starting to catch on, but I’m not sure they are ready for prime time just yet. Probably if I waited for another year or two that will be the big selling point to new music streamers. If you know of a great solution now, post a comment.

Speakers are a big problem with creating my dream music system. Placement is critical, and I don’t have any good places to put them in my home office. Every inch of wall spaced is currently being used. I’d like a pair of Klipsch RP 600M speakers, but they have a rear-facing port meaning they need to be set away from the wall. I might have to settle for the Elac Debut B6.2 speakers that are not as exciting but have a front-facing port. I could put them and the Yamaha WXA-50 up on top of my bookshelves. They’d barely be seen, and that would free up deskspace too.

However,  would this solve all my problems? Can I use the WXA-50 to play audio from my computer remotely? Right now all audio/music comes through my computer. If I get this new seti[, music will come from one system, and computer audio from another. I’ll need two sets of speakers. I’ll be able to remove the large Pioneer receiver and Bose speakers from my computer desk, but I might have to put back my powered computer speakers. I’d rather not.

And if I rip my CDs to FLAC I could pack away my CDs, get rid of their shelving, and put away the CD player too. I’m almost to the point of using Spotify for all my music, but unfortunately, there are a few albums they don’t have in their library.

Having two sets of speakers in one room ruins my goal of finding a simpler way to live with less. I know I’ll never have an integrated music system in my head. Going digital means eliminating a lot of physical objects and technology, but it can’t eliminate everything. I absolutely have to have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and a box to run them. If an all-in-one computer like an iMac had perfect internal speakers I could simplify my tech needs to a monitor/keyboard/mouse.

I could also achieve music simplicity if I accepted always listening to music while wearing headphones. But the half-ass audiophile in me feels over-the-air music sounds better. Also, I believe music sounds better not coming from a computer, but from a separate DAC/amplifier. Sure, high-end audiophiles believe in a whole array of separate components to get the best sound, but luckily I’m not that driven. If I’m not playing music through the computer, I can accept a very modest level of audio quality. That means I should consider music and computers as two different systems to simplify.

A music streamer and speakers could be the lowest level of tech simplicity for listening to music, especially if they eliminate wires. I guess its possible futures designs could build the DAC/amp into a pair of speakers for even more simplification. And, all-in-one computer (monitor/mouse/keyboard) will be the lowest level of tech simplicity for a desktop computer.

JWH

 

 

Predicting the Future: 2065

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 25, 2019

This week’s NOVA “Look Who’s Driving” is about self-driving cars. Most people are scared of the idea of getting into a car and letting it drive. I know I am, and I’m a science fiction fan. Just think about it for a moment. Doesn’t it feel super eerie? On the other hand, what if they could actually make driverless cars 100% safe? I’m getting old and realize at a certain point it will be dangerous for me and others if I keep driving. A driverless car would be perfect for older folks, and by 2065 there will be a lot of old folks. And in the documentary, they mentioned that driverless cars should mean fewer cars and they showed aerial views of how cars cover our city landscapes now. Imagine a world with far fewer cars and parking lots. That would be nice too.

I’m sure folks in the late 19th century felt scared of the idea of giving up horses and switching to motor vehicles. And can you imagine how people felt about flying when aviation was first predicted for the future? Perfect driverless car safety has almost been achieved in ten years, so imagine how reliable it will be in another ten years.

I’m working on a science fiction short story that’s set in 2065 and trying to imagine what life might be like then. I assume war and poverty will still be with us, but there will be as much change between now and 2065 as there was from 1965 and now. I have to assume driverless cars will transform our society.

We feel dazzled by progress. And we feel it’s accelerating.  But can inventors keep giving us gadgets that transform our society every five years? Smartphones and social media aren’t new anymore. Self-driving cars should become common by the late 2020s and they should shake up the way we live. But will people accept robotic chauffeurs? This year we’re freaking out over the Boeing 737 Max 8 having flaky computers. However, what if the safety of AI cars, trucks, planes, ships, and trains becomes so overwhelmingly evident that we turn over all the driving over to robots? Can we say no to such a future?

What about other uses of robots? If we keep automating at the same pace we’re on now, by 2065 will anyone have a job? Should my story imagine a work-free society, or will we pass laws to preserve some jobs for humans? What kinds of jobs should we protect and which should be given to robots? We usually assume boring and dangerous jobs should go to machines, and the creative work should be kept for us. But what if robotic doctors were cheaper, safer, and gave us longer lives? What if it reduced city budgets and provided greater public safety to have robotic cops and firemen? And would you rather send your children off to war or robots? What if the choice is between paying a $1000 robot lawyer or a $1,000,000 to human lawyers in a big case?

What if by 2035 we have general-purpose robots that are smarter than humans but not sentient? Would you rather buy a robot for your business than hire a human? And if robots become sentient, can we own them? Wouldn’t that be slavery? I’m reading The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov, and he spent his entire writing career imagining all the possibilities robots could create. Sadly, I think Asimov mainly guessed wrong. I believe science fiction has lots of room to reimagine what robots will do to our society.

Generally, when we think of science fictional futures, we think of space travel. Will we have colonies on the Moon and Mars by 2065? I’ve been waiting for 50 years for us to go to Mars. I’m not optimistic that more years will get us there. I predict there will be another Moon rush, with several nations separately, or cooperatively setting up Lunar bases like the scientific stations that exist in Antarctica. Beyond that, I bet robots will become the main astronauts that explore the solar system.

I can imagine robots with high-definition eyes tramping all over the various planets, planetoids, moons, asteroids, and comets sending us back fantastic VR experiences. But how many humans will actually want to spend years in space, living in tin cans that are incredibly complicated machines designed to keep them alive, but with one teeny-tiny failure, vacuum, radiation, cold, or heat will horribly kill them? We’ve been without a dryer for three weeks because my new dryer died after three months and so far no one can fix it. Isn’t space travel safer and cheaper for robots? Space is a perfect environment for machines.

If robots become the preferred solution for all jobs, what will humans do? I have to believe capitalism as we know it won’t exist. What if robots are so productive they can generate wealth for everyone?

Then there’s climate change. Will we solve that problem? I bet we won’t. It would require human psychology to change too much. I must assume people will not change, so I have to predict a future where we’re consuming the Earth resources at the same accelerating rate we are now and polluting at the same rates too. We’ll probably get more efficient at using those resources and find better solutions for hiding our garbage — probably due to robots. We’ll have a lot more people, far fewer wild animals and cars, and a growing overpopulation of robots. Although, I think there might be room to predict a back-to-nature movement where some people choose to live close to the land, while others become even more hive-mind urban cyborgs. A significant portion of the population might even reject robots and automation.

That means by 2065 we might have a two-tier society. Liberals living in high-tech robotic cities, while conservatives live in rural areas and small towns with far less technology. That might make an interesting story. What if the future becomes those who ride in driverless cars and those who reject cars altogether? (If robots become 100% safe drivers, would it be practically to allow human drivers?) Could new kinds of rural economies develop that shun technology? I wonder this because I wonder if a robotic society will make some people back-to-nature Luddites. And I don’t mean that term that critically. Back-to-nature might be more ethical, more rewarding, and more human.

If you think this is all wild crazy ideas, try to comprehend how much we’ve changed in the last half-century. In the 1960s people looking for work found two categories: Men Wanted and Women Wanted. Women weren’t allowed to do most jobs, and many of them stayed at home. Think about how much we changed in just this one way. Then multiply it by all the ways we’ve changed. Is it so wild to imagine driverless cars and robotic doctors?

JWH

 

 

Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH