Can We Elect a Leader That Will Make Us Better People?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 26, 2019

If Democrats win the 2020 election will we become better people? We assume whoever we elect will change the country for the better but isn’t it “we the people” rather than a single leader that will make that happen? Liberals believe Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us. But conservatives feel the future is brighter than its been in years. Which is it? Trump gave the rich a gigantic tax cut but added a staggering amount to the national debt. Trump is fighting for economic fairness with our trading partners yet Wall Street is in a panic, our farmers are going broke, and our allies think we’ve gone nuts. Trump has rolled back on all kinds of regulations just when we need more regulations to save the environment. Trump has revealed the hidden racism and xenophobia we thought we’d had overcome.

However, if a Democrat is elected in 2020 will any of this change? Can a new president pass sweeping laws that will halt climate change, stop greed, or end hatred of other people?

I’ve been reading two books that are so positive about the future I almost think they were written by someone named Pollyanna: The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku and Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance by Naveen Jain. Kaku is a physicist that sees a glowing science-fictional future of mankind colonizing the Moon and Mars. Jain is an entrepreneur that pleads with us to think positive and overcome our self-fulfilling pessimism.

Positive books

I have to wonder if Jain is right. Can we be better people if we think positive? His book is quite inspirational, but I wonder if he isn’t selling snake oil. There’s a huge industry out there selling success, with costly seminars, courses, and books that people buy to convince themselves to become rich by willpower. Both books show how we’ve accomplished so much in the past so why not believe we’ll do the same tomorrow.

Doesn’t chasing abundance ignore the price of abundance? Trump says I can make you richer by cutting taxes. That appears to be true. But how rich will we all be if he runs the economy into the ground? When the Republicans deny climate change are they saying, “Don’t spoil the magic of abundance by bringing in reality!”

And I’m not just questioning the conservatives. If we elect a Democrat will that person stop global warming, halt illegal immigration, eliminate gun violence, dissolve racism and reduce xenophobia? Isn’t that also magical thinking? What Trump revealed is society can make people speak and act politically correct but still think political incorrectness in their hearts.

The only way to stop climate change is for everyone to use 90% less of fossil fuels. That means driving less, flying less, eating less meat, heating and air conditioning less, and I mean a whole lot less. The only way to keep the oceans from filling up with plastics is to stop using 90% of the plastics we use now. The only way to end racism is to fully integrate, make everyone truly equal under the law, and bring about economic equality. The only way to end sexism is for everyone to live by the Golden Rule.

However, if we quit using fossil fuels the economy will collapse. How do we shop when practically everything comes in a plastic container? The government has been trying to bring about integration for decades and we haven’t allowed it. And who really lives by the Golden Rule? I don’t think Elizabeth, Kamala, or Bernie can pass laws to change these traits. We have to change ourselves. But if we could do that wouldn’t we have done so already?

I’m an atheist, but I do read the Bible. The most common thread in the Old Testament is the prophets constantly pleading with the people to follow God’s will. They never do. The Bible is one long story of people failing to live righteously, failing to change. Hasn’t laws replaced scripture as a method of social engineering? Can we vote in righteousness? Haven’t we already decided religion failed and our best hope is law and order?

If you look at history, people are better under laws. Isn’t the social unrest we’re seeing, the mad shooters, the road rages, the street gangs, the political corruption really a rebellion against laws? Republicans hate regulations but isn’t that because those laws hinder their greed? Conservatives want libertarian laws for themselves, but law and order for everyone else.

One interesting insight that Naveen Jain points out in his book is Americans are extremely pessimistic about the future, but the Chinese are practically glowing with optimism. Why would that be? Isn’t China an extremely regulated society with a rigid Big Brother government? Shouldn’t living under an Orwellian rule crush the Chinese people’s spirit? Why do they have hope when we don’t?

I don’t think people are going to change. But I do think society changes. And I think society suppresses human nature, controls greed, and codifies the Golden Rule. I wonder if the followers of Trump love him because he apparently frees them from the growing burden of rules. Trump is all for regulating people he doesn’t like but isn’t he loved for deregulating human nature in his true believers?

Essayists are those folks making running commentary on the side-lines of history. We don’t have the answers. We’re just trying to guess what’s happening from making consistent observations. I believe both conservatives and liberals wished the world was more orderly, just, and fair. The conservatives want to be free to pursue their dreams of abundance and hate regulations that hinder their success. They don’t want to see limitations. Liberals see life on Earth like being in a lifeboat. We must share our resources fairly. Conservatives hate that attitude because it assumes there isn’t unlimited abundance for all. How does picking a new leader change this dynamic?

Have we reached a stage in society where laws are no longer effective? Many people will say they were never effective, but if you study history and other societies around the globe it’s obvious that’s not true. What might be true is we’ve reached a new stage where they are becoming ineffective because too many people are ready to revolt. We are getting very close to “It’s every man for themselves” panic. (I wanted to rephrase that old saying to not show gender bias, but when society collapses, women will lose all their political gains and the bias will be true again.)

I got a clue from this New York Times article, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Your Vacation?” In Sweden, air travel is down because enough of their citizens worry about its impact on the climate. Some of their citizens have voluntarily acted on their own for the good of all. But that’s from a smaller, less dense country than ours, and one that’s socialistic, which means they are more concerned with the common good. We are more concerned with individual freedoms and opportunity. Our nationalistic psyche is different. We believe we should grab all we can take, to go for the gusto. We have revised greed from sin into a virtue. Are Americas fundamentally different from citizens of other societies?

I’m not sure if we vote in Harris, Sanders or Warren that will change. I’ve been thinking about how I’d have to live to walk my talk. I already feel I do a great deal to be environmental, but I doubt its enough. If I used 1/7,000,000,000 of my share of sustainable resources, what would that be? And if I polluted 1/7,000,000,000 share of sustainable waste, what would it be? And what’s the difference between choosing on my own to live environmentally, and voting in a person that will pass laws that make us?

Even though I’m an atheist, I would say that difference would be finding the Kingdom of Heaven within, and being a slave in Paradise.

JWH

[Damn, I write about weird shit sometimes, don’t I? No wonder some writers feel they are channeling a muse. Sometimes I feel its all pointless philosophy and I should go play in my science fictional worlds.]

Growing Old With Dolly Levi

I first encountered Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth. There was no singing and dancing. This was back in the sixties and I was still in my teens. I identified with Barnaby and Minnie and felt Cornelius and Irene were older, in their twenties. Dolly and Horace were very old, like my mom and dad. I could imagine myself as the youngest romantic couple and assumed I’d be in Cornelius second stage of getting married romance soon enough. But at that age, it was quite disturbing to imagine Shirley Booth and Paul Ford in bed together, to imagine later life-stages of romances. I didn’t sympathize with Dolly then. I didn’t understand she was an older woman making a romantic comeback. I didn’t realize the story was about the other end of a lifetime looking back towards my end.

I’ve never seen a Broadway play. And over my lifetime, I’ve seen less than ten musicals performed in a theater. I have seen quite a few famous film musicals but it took me years to acquire the taste for them. I didn’t see Hello Dolly! with Barbra Steisand when it came out in 1969. Maybe the first musical I saw was the film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1970, which also starred Streisand. I went because of the story but ended up liking the singing. That led to seeing Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! All-in-all I probably saw five musicals on film in the 1970s. At the time I equated them with music for the elderly. Old people’s music featured big bands with trumpets and trombones, while young people’s music was made by a group of four or five with guitars and saxes.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but my first real encounter with Dolly Levi was in 1964 when I heard Louis Armstrong sing “Hello Dolly!” but I didn’t recognize what the song was about then. I loved Armstrong’s voice, and he was a cool old black guy, which in some ways made him more acceptable to my twelve-year-old self. My parents hated my music, rock ‘n’ roll, so I hated their music, even though it didn’t have a name. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee were all oldster crooners to me from way back when. Somewhere from being young to growing old, I learn to love their music too.

I’ve been listening to as many versions of “Hello Dolly” I can find on Spotify. I’ve reached an age where I love to hear how music is interpreted by different arrangements. When I was growing up peer-pressure convinced me to shun music that wasn’t written and composed by the performer. Back in the sixties, at the beginning of the singer-songwriter era, we felt it was inauthentic for an artist to sing other people’s songs. That was silly. All the great rock ‘n’ roll I loved in the 1950s and early 1960s was usually written by lyricists working with composers and performed by solo artists and groups. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started out doing covers.

One of the best features of Spotify is to search on song titles to find all the cover versions of a song. A great song can have over a hundred different recordings. I’ve had two versions of “Hello Dolly” in my “Top 1000” playlist for years – the one by Louis Armstrong and the other by Bobby Darin. For some reason this weekend I played over a dozen versions of “Hello Dolly!” I never got tired of it and was constantly delighted by the different arrangements, instruments, and singers.  Thinking about why I enjoyed this song so much was very revealing in so many ways, both about the song and it’s many arrangements, and about myself. The whole listening experience was enlightening about growing older. And, as I listened to the lyrics over and over Dolly Levi came to life.

Dolly Levi existed before the song, Broadway musical and Hollywood movie. Thornton Wilder created Dolly Gallagher Levi for The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938, but it was inspired by earlier plays. Wilder revised the play and retitled it The Matchmaker which premiered in London in 1954 and New York in 1955. Ruth Gordon played Dolly first on Broadway before Shirley Booth played her on film in 1958.

Then on January 16, 1964, a Broadway musical, Hello Dolly! was created from the play with Carol Channing as the original singing Dolly Levi. This is where the songs I keep playing originated. However, there are two original versions, one sung by Dolly in the play with a chorus of waiters. It runs for about six minutes. In late 1963 at the producers request Louis Armstrong recorded a different version of the stage “Hello Dolly!” from the male point of view as if one of the waiters got a solo. Armstrong’s version was released on January 1964 and eventually breaking The Beatles three-song streak of holding the #1 position of Billboard Hot 100. This was his most successful hit song, and it stayed at the top of the charts for nine weeks.

After Carol Channing, many famous singers and actresses have played Dolly Levi. There’s a long thread on Broadway World about Dolly Levi’s age. The Barbra Streisand fans rationalize Dolly should be in her twenties because Streisand was 26 when she played Dolly, but they seem to naively miss the point of the play and lyrics. Dolly is a woman of a certain age, one who wants to hear her favorite songs from way back when, one who went away into her personal haze, one who has come back hoping tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days. The role was written for Ethel Merman, who would have been 56 in 1964. She turned it down but accepted it when she was 62. It turns out Bette Midler is the oldest Dolly Levi, at 71. Carol Channing was 43 when she began the role, but 74 the last time she played it.

I think Dolly Levi’s story is supposed to be about being older and looking back, and that’s how I feel about why I like the song so much. I supposed for realism sake, Dolly should be in her forties, maybe fifties, an age I’m well past, but like Dolly, I love to hear old songs from way back when. I still want tomorrow to be brighter than today. In other words, I’ve finally reached an age where the song’s meaning is at it’s most significant perspective.

But it’s not just the words that make me contemplate the perspectives of age. The various Broadway recordings of the play and its revivals have one kind of sound. A 1960s Broadway orchestra sound that took me a lifetime to appreciate. I first got into jazz in the early 1970s, which took me back through the decades until I could enjoy ragtime. Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly!” has a banjo and a ragtime/Dixieland feel, also reminding me of Armstrong’s best music of the 1930s. Many versions have the arrangement of Las Vegas acts from the 1950s and 1960s, like those by Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. There’s a version by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a version with strings for the Lawrence Welk state of mind, and there’s even a version sung in French by Petula Clark. Harry Connick Jr. even brings a modern interpretation.

I’ve made a playlist of “Hello Dolly!” covers. I hope you have Spotify to hear it. (You can sign up for the free account if you don’t.) Crank up the volume. The music sounds best played loud over large surround-sound speakers. It still sounds wonderful on headphones but I prefer the aural soundstage created by speakers. The song evokes happiness and is upbeat which explains its enduring popularity. Most of the musical arrangements are for big bands or orchestras, although it works well with small combos. The various arrangements and Broadway recordings show how a good melody and lyrics can be creatively interpreted in endless ways.

The longer versions are how the song is performed by lead actresses on stage with a chorus of waiters. The shorter versions are usually male solo singers, although some female vocalists sing the short version. It also helps to see how the song was choreographed.

I chose this Bette Midler clip because of the quality of the film clip and how well it shows the staging of the song. I wished I could have found a film clip of Carol Channing from 1964.

Most people listen to music as a background filler. I listen to music like I’m intently watching a movie. Most people can’t get into a crazily obsessed state of mind like I can. It takes patience, practice, and concentration. I kid my friends that they have ants in their pants because they can’t just sit and listen to music. I’ve written this essay for them, to try and explain why I can sit absolutely still for an hour mesmerized by one song played twelve times. When you get deep into a song, time slows down and there is so much to discover.

JWH

Love, Death + Robots: What is Mature Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 25, 2019

Love, Death + Robots showed up on Netflix recently. It has all the hallmarks of mature entertainment – full frontal nudity, sex acts of various kinds, gory violence, and the kind of words you don’t hear on broadcast TV or in movies intended for younger audiences. There’s one problem, the maturity level of the stories is on the young adult end of the spectrum. 13-year-olds will be all over this series when it should be rated R or higher.

When I was in high school I had two science fiction reading buddies, Connell and Kurshner. One day Kurshner’s mom told us almost in passing, “All that science fiction you’re reading is so childish. One day you’ll outgrow it.” All three of us defended our belief in science fiction, but Mrs. Kurshner was adamant. That really bugged us.

Over the decades I’d occasionally read essays by literary writers attacking science fiction as crude fiction for adolescents. I vaguely remember John Updike caused a furor in fandom with an essay in The New Yorker or Harpers that outraged the genre. I wish I could track that essay down, but can’t. Needless to say, at 67 I’m also starting to wonder if science fiction is mostly for the young, or young at heart.

I enjoyed the 18 short mostly animated films in the Love, Death + Robots collection, but I have to admit they mostly appealed to the teenage boy in me, and not the adult. Nudity, sex, violence, and profanity doesn’t equate with maturity. But what does? I’ve known many science fiction fans that think adult literary works are equal to boredom.

So what are the qualities that make science fiction mature? I struggled this morning to think of science fiction novels that I’d consider adult oriented. The first that came to mind was Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Orwell died before the concept of science fiction became common, but I’m pretty sure he never would have considered himself a science fiction writer even though he used the tricks of our trade. Margaret Atwood doesn’t consider herself a science fiction writer even though books like The Handmaid’s Tale are both science fiction and mature literature. Other mature SF novels I can think of are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are all novels that use science fiction techniques to tell their story but were written by literary writers.

Of course, I could be howling at the moon for no reason. Most television and movies are aimed at the young. Except for Masterpiece on PBS and a few independent films, I seldom get to enjoy stories aimed at people my own age. Which brings me back to the question: What makes for mature fiction? And it isn’t content that we want to censor from the young. If we’re honest, nudity, sex, violence, and profanity are at the core of our teenage thoughts.

Mature works of fiction are those that explore reality. Youth is inherently fantasy oriented. The reason why we’re offered so little adult fiction is that we don’t want to grow up and face reality. The world is full of reality-based problems. We want fiction that helps us forget those problems. Getting old is real. We want to think young.

Love, Death + Robots appeals to our arrested development.

Love Death + Robots - robots

I’m currently reading and reviewing the 38 science fiction stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m writing one essay for each story to discuss both the story and the nature of science fiction in general. I’ve finished 10 stories so far, and one common aspect I’m seeing is a rejection of reality. These stories represent what Dozois believes is the best short science fiction published from 2002-2017. On the whole, the stories are far more mature than those in Love, Death + Robots, but that’s mainly due to their sophistication of storytelling, and not philosophy. At the heart of each story is a wish that reality was different. Those wishes are expressed in incredibly creative ways, which is the ultimate aspect of science fiction. But hoping the world could be different is not mature.

Science fiction has always been closer to comic books than Tolstoy, Woolf, or even Dickens. And now that many popular movies are based on comic books, and the whole video game industry looks like filmed comic books, comic book mentality is spreading. The science fiction in Love, Death + Robots is much closer to its comic book ancestry than its science fiction ancestry, even though many of the stories were based on original short stories written by science fiction writers. Some reviewers suggest Love, Death + Robots grew out of shows like Robot Carnival and Heavy Metal.  Even though Heavy Metal was considered animation for adults, it’s appeal was rather juvenile.

I know fully well that if Netflix offered a series of 18 animated short science fiction films that dealt with the future in a mature and realistic way it would get damn few viewers. Even when science fiction deals with real-world subjects, it seldom does so in a real way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a genre to be mature that wants to offer hope to the young. Yet, is its hope honest? Is it a positive message tell the young we can colonize other planets if we destroy the Earth? That we can solve climate change with magical machines. That science can give us super-powers. That if we inject nanobots into our bloodstream we can be 22 again. That don’t worry about death because we’ll download your brain into a clone or computer. Doesn’t science fiction often claim that in time technology will solve all problems in the same way we rationalize to children how Santa Claus could be real?

Actually, none of the stories in Love, Death + Robots offered any hope, just escape and the belief you can sometimes shoot your way out of a bad situation. But only sometimes.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, one story, “Helping Hand” by Claudine Griggs is about a very realistic situation that is solved by logical thinking. Strangely, it’s the only story by a woman writer. A “Cold Equations” kind of story. That’s a classic 1954 short story written by Tom Godwin where the main character has to make a very difficult choice.

My favorite three stories (“When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots”) were all based on stories by John Scalzi and have kind of zany humor that provides needed relief from the grimness of the other tales. I actually enjoyed all the short films, but I did tire of the ones that felt inspired by video game violence. Even those films like “Secret War” and “Lucky Thirteen” which aimed for a little more maturity, rose higher than comic books, but only to pulp fiction.

The two films based on Alastair Reynolds stories, “Zima Blue” and “Beyond the Aquilla Rift” seemed to be the most science fictional in a short story way. I especially like “Zima Blue” for its visual art, and the fact the story had an Atomic Age kind of science fiction feel to it. So did the fun “Ice Age” based on a Michael Swanwick story. Mid-Century science fiction is really my favorite SF era. Finally, “Good Hunting” based on a Ken Liu has a very contemporary SF feel because it blends Chinese myths with robots. World SF is a trending wave in the genre now.

I’m still having a hard time pointing to mature short SF, ones that would make great little films like in Love, Death + Robots. Maybe “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, which I reviewed on my other site. I guess my favorite example might be “The Star Pit” by a very young Samuel R. Delany, which is all about growing up and accepting limitations. Most of the films in Love, Death + Robots were 8-18 minutes. These stories might need 30-60. It would be great if Netflix had an ongoing anthology series of short live-action and animated science fiction because I’d like to see more previously published SF stories presented this way. Oh, I suppose they could add sex, nudity, violence, and profanity to attract the teenagers, but what I’d really want is to move away from the comic book and video game plots, and into best better SF stories we read in the digests and online SF magazines.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Can Hope Replace Fear?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 25, 2018

Once again I’m writing a political essay that few will read. I do this when I’m disturbed about events in the news that I’m powerless to control. We liberals are horrified by what fears over undocumented immigrants are doing to this country. Trump wants to bypass the rule of law, or apply existing laws like a cold war police state. It seems like an extreme right minority will tear the country apart to stop illegal immigration. That’s very scary. It’s even scarier that tens of millions support them. But liberals have fears that scare conservatives, so I think it’s vital we work to understand their fears if we want them to understand ours. What I realized this morning is unless we can empathize with each other’s fears, we will always have a politically polarized society.

We like to think love and hate are the two primary emotions, but I they aren’t. Hope and fear are more primal. Love grows out of hope, and hate grows out of fear. Think of people you love and hate. Love comes from the hopes you have, and hate comes from the fears. Liberals hate Trump because he causes us to fear, but conservatives love Trump because he gives them hope for their fears. What we need right now is politics of hope for everyone.

Conservatives fear illegal immigration in the same way liberals fear climate change. Each perspective destroys hope for the future. All of us want health, liberty, security, happiness, family, friends, and prosperity. Our fears arise when we feel those hopes are in jeopardy. We think Trump is destroying our future, while conservatives believe he’s protecting theirs.

Liberals fear climate change will devastate the planet. Conservatives fear illegal immigration will destroy our social order. What is the practical reality of these fears? Can we ever be united if everyone fears destruction from two different threats that split us into opposing sides? Can we collectively work to give each other hope?

I use the phrase “illegal immigration” for the want of a better term. Liberals prefer the term “undocumented immigrant.” But to a conservative, that probably feels like what liberals feel when we hear phrases of climate change denial. To use the phrase undocumented immigrant is to deny the reality that undocumented immigrants are doing something illegal.

The only way to find hope is to understand each other’s fears. The only way to heal the division is to cooperate in solving each other’s fears. Liberals need to find a rational way to deal with illegal immigration that will sooth conservative fears, and conservatives need to work on environmental security to reduce liberal fears.

For decades conservatives have told liberals they sound like Chicken Little running around screaming “The sky is falling” when discussing climate change. Well, conservatives are now overreacting to illegal immigration in the same way. We need to calm each other down, discuss the realities of each danger, and decide practical solutions we can implement together. Both problems are exceedingly complex, promise slow but huge changes to society, but can be solved if we work at it collectively. But zero tolerance of illegal immigration is like asking American to give up cars to save the Earth. Extreme solutions are too simple-minded to work.

Liberals need to understand the fears of conservatives, and conservatives need to understand the fears of liberals. It does no good to justify our fears by convincing others to fear them too. What we need to do find ways to spread hope. But I’m not sure if that’s possible if we live in panic mode.

We feel stories about immigrants causing excessive crime are unjustified, and there’s plenty of proof to disprove those stories. We believe you use crime hyperbole to justify circumventing laws. We believe conservatives have genuine fears over illegal immigration that come from three actual threats to your way of life. First, you don’t want to pay more taxes to support immigrants. Two, naturalized citizens tend to vote liberal, so it’s a threat to the Republican party. And three, you want to maintain a white America.

These are hard issues to address. Hard cold mathematics tell us our society is diversifying racially. This is your big fear: “The Next America” – a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. Here’s the graph that probably scares you most:

Changes in race in America from 1960 to 2060 - Pew Research Center

Zero tolerance for illegal immigration will not change those trends. Those numbers may be conservative if they don’t take into account climate change and economic collapse. If we don’t slow climate change migration numbers will explode. It’s like the physics of gases. If you have two containers, one with low pressure and one with high pressure and you allow a path between, the pressures in the two tanks will equalize. As long as there are good and bad places on this planet, populations will migrate. No wall you build will ever be high enough to stop it. Just remember, if you lived in a bad place, you’d head for a good one too. One solution is to rebuild collapsing countries.

If the Republican party wasn’t so exclusive and strived to serve the entire population they wouldn’t have to fear diversity. By becoming the party of the white holdouts, the Republicans are forced to find solutions that only serve a minority of voters. We need both political parties to offer hope to all citizens.

Finally, illegal immigrants do raise taxes, but to remove them would be even more expensive. And they contribute a giant chunk of change to the economy. We actually benefit economically from both legal and illegal immigration.

But this probably doesn’t alleviate your fears. If you could only let go of your hangups over skin-color your fears could be reduced. Maybe reading “Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War” might help.

Conservatives need to accept that diversity is already here. Liberals will have to accept that immigration must have limits. Liberals need to accept that capitalism drives the economy. Conservatives must accept that the cost of preserving the environment is essential to healthy capitalism. Conservatives must accept that immigrants are key to future growth. Liberals must accept that too many immigrants can destabilize the economy.

Fear destroys our morals and ethics. Fear makes us do things we wouldn’t do if we were hopeful.

Climate change is going to drastically alter all societies on this planet. Mass movements of people around the world are going to alter all those societies too. In fact, there are many trends that are changing every society on Earth going on simultaneously right now. We can’t stop them. But to keep our hopes we must learn to adapt and control them.

When reading or watching the news, pay attention to its emotional impact. Does the story offer hope or fear? All too often stories provide an extreme example. Not only do we need to become savvy over the fake news, but wary of sensational news. If a story scares you, research it on Google. The more you know the less you’ll fear.

JWH

22 Dumb Fantasies I’ve Tried to Believe

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fantasyland by Kurt AndersenHave you been depressed since last November? Does the institutionalization of anti-science horrify you? Do you feel irrational politicians have hijacked our country? Does your soul ache because liberal compassions are under siege from conservative prejudices? Do you wonder if our collective mind has blown a gasket? Then you need to read Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen. This book will not solve our problems, but it does explain how our nation has been crap-believing crazy for five centuries. Fantasyland is the most entertaining, informative, and comforting nonfiction book I’ve read in years. Fantasyland soothes my America-is-collapsing anxiety by reporting on all the dumbass fantasies Americans have embraced since Jamestown.

Because I can’t cast any first stones, reading this book makes me want to list all the stupid concepts I’ve tried to embrace in the last sixty years. We’re all suckers for fantasylands. We all hope to find saviors that will rescue us from our mundane lives. The desire to better ourselves, to create, to build an ideal world is one of the admirable qualities of our species. However, to live a life of delusion is sad.

Fantasyland proves hope for a better future depends on getting clean with reality. Recognizing we have a fantasy addiction is the first step. We need to simplify the serenity prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference” to “I seek wisdom to know the difference between reality and fantasy.”

As I read Fantasyland I constantly used it to condemn the conservatives for ruining our society with their delusions. However, I have my own delusions, we all do. I thought it might be fun to confess the history of my personal fantasylands. This inspired many questions as I wrote this essay we should consider.

  1. Should we lie to children, especially during their formative years, even if it’s in fun?
  2. At what age, if any, is make-believe safe?
  3. Should schools teach how to discern fantasy from reality?
  4. Does the Constitution protect us from other people’s delusions and fantasies?
  5. Do people have a right to believe anything they want?
  6. How do we teach history to convey the lessons of failed fantasies?
  7. Is fantasy in books, television, and movies a cause of our personal delusions?
  8. Aren’t most fantasies promoted by people trying to make money or at least validate their own delusions or egos?

An Abbreviated History of My Fantasies

Looking backward, I realize books often sold me on a new fantasyland. We seldom originate our own fantasies. As Kurt Andersen reports in Fantasyland, America was created by people with either a fantasy for finding gold or a fantasy for establishing a religious utopia. Evidently today, we have a greater abundance of fantasies to choose from, especially with mass media and the internet inspiring us. I wonder, without all our fantasies would this country be quiet and dull – or would it?

The Age of Magic (My Early Years)

#1 – Easter Bunny

I doubt the Easter Bunny is my first fantasy belief, but I’m listing it first because it’s the most embarrassing, even for a little kid. I can’t believe I ever believed a large rabbit went around hiding chocolate bunnies and colored hens’ eggs. Damn, I must have been a gullible toddler.

#2 – The Tooth Fairy

Okay, I was old enough to lose teeth, I should have been skeptical that any creature would pay a quarter for a rotten tooth. I can barely remember when this happened. I hope I actually didn’t believe what my parents were telling me, and that all I wanted was that change under my pillow.

#3 – Santa Claus

I was a total dumbass for the guy in the red suit. I remember being red face hot when a little girl put me down for being so stupid as to believe in Santa Claus. In my defense, I started first grade a year earlier than I should, so all the other kids were a year older than me. But still, I should have thought this through logically, there were plenty of clues.

#4 – Oz and Magic

I discovered the Oz books by L. Frank Baum when I was ten. I had been watching the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz since I was four. Oz was a fantasy world with magic that I wanted to exist. I have read there was a period when American librarians banned Oz books because they felt Oz books gave children unrealistic expectations about life. In my case, they were dead on.

#4 – Jesus/God

If parents really want kids to accept Jesus and God as the literal truth, they shouldn’t tell us about #1-3 first. It only sets us up to be skeptical about all invisible beings. My road to atheism began at age 11 when I got Baptized and I didn’t see the light. It totally confused me when Christians said one thing in church but did the opposite Monday through Saturday. I became a complete atheist by the 8th grade.

This ends my period of wanting to believe in magic. Maybe it’s something all kids want. I find it strange that the most fundamentalist of Christian believers reject the concept of magic when Bible stories are full of magic. God created the Earth with words. My rejection of magic was so strong I rejected all fantasy stories in favor of science fiction. It wasn’t until my fifties that I was able to enjoy fantasy novels like Harry Potter just for fun.

The Age of Science (Junior High)

#5 – Science Fiction

Science fiction was supposed to be the opposite of fantasy. When I was young I believe all the classics themes of science fiction were theoretically possible. Over the years I’ve slowly become a disbeliever to many of them, like faster-than-light travel, time travel, galactic empires, brain downloading, scientific immortality, etc. I still cling to intelligent robots or AI machines with conscious minds will be built someday.

#6 – Becoming an Astronaut

By the 8th grade I had exchanged religion for science fiction. This led me to an array of beliefs that would take me the rest of my life to realize were irrational. The first, the belief I would grow up and work in space took a long time to get over. Back in the 1960s, I was totally in awe of NASA and faithfully followed Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Sputnik went up just before I started Kindergarten and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just after I graduated the 12th grade. I had even gone to watch Apollo 8 launch Christmastime 1968, during my senior year. Sometime in my high school years, I learned astronauts had to have 20-20 vision, and I was a four-eyed geek with thick lenses. I still fantasized that science could fix my eyes, or NASA would eventually hire people with glasses. After reading Tom Wolfe’s famous book, I realized I never had the right stuff, and never would. It galled me when rich people started buying their way to space, but if I’m honest with myself, even if I was a billionaire I would never leave Earth. Space travel is just too inconvenient and uncomfortable for me.

#7 Becoming a Scientist

Probably the greatest regret of my life is not becoming a scientist. This was not an impossible dream – theoretically. However, even though I took biology, chemistry, and physics in high school, I just couldn’t devote myself to those subjects and work hard. Nor could I apply myself to math. I eventually got through calculus, but only with a half-ass effort. I even went to a tech school majoring in computer science in 1971, but I never could commit to studying hard. I wanted to have fun. I hated the classroom. One of the dumbest fantasies I had about myself involved being a disciplined scholar of science. I was always more science fiction fan than a scientist. Being successful at any pursuit requires hard work, concentration, and grit. My biggest fantasy in my life has been believing I could make myself acquire those qualities.

#8 – The Final Frontier

Instead of believing in heaven like most folks growing up in the south, I believed mankind’s was destined to travel across the solar system and out into the galaxy. That was my teenage religion. For most of my life, I believed colonizing space was our species purpose in existence. I’m now an atheist to that idea. We might travel to Mars or a few other places in the solar system, and even build colonies on the Moon and Mars, but I doubt much will come of it. Going to the stars is a fantasy for humans. I currently believe robots are destined to be interstellar travelers, but that too might be a fantasy.

The Counter Culture (High School and Early College Years)

#9 – Hippies and the Counter Culture

I remember in 1967 after reading about the march on the Pentagon standing at my school bus stop arguing with my longhair buddies about how the counter-culture was going to revolutionize America. In 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and The Rolling Stone magazine started defining a new fantasyland future for me. It also introduced me to Jack Kerouac, who drew me backwards into an older fantasyland.

#10 – Expanding My Mind with Drugs

The 1960s had another impact on me. Besides science fiction and NASA, I loved rock music and drugs. So did many in my age cohort. I was influenced by Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert and believed psychedelic drugs were the doors of perception. I sought transcendence with chemicals. I wanted them to take me as far as John Lilly claimed they took him, out into the galaxy to meet other beings – see The Programming and Metaprogramming of the Human Biocomputer. Yeah, if you mix belief in science fiction with acid it produces some far out fantasies, but really no different from mixing religion and faith.

#11 – The Beats and On the Road

I was completely romanced by Jack Kerouac and his on-the-road philosophy. I started hitchhiking around Miami when I was in high school, and continued when I went to college in Memphis. I did two short trips across states, one with my friend Connell. I learned I preferred the comforts of home. However, to this day, I still enjoy reading Kerouac. I see him as a tragic figure who followed many paths I wanted to follow but didn’t because I was either too scared or too smart. Kerouac was my father-figure substitute. My dad and Jack were horrible alcoholics that died within months of each other, both still in their forties. If I had gotten only my father’s genes that would have been my fate. I have a huge psychic connection with Kerouac.

#12 – Becoming Bob Dylan

Another absurd fantasy involved buying a guitar and harmonica and teaching myself to play and write music. This is an absurd fantasy because I can’t carry a tune, or even remember the words to favorite songs I’ve heard hundreds of times. I’m sure most kids have rockstar/sportstar/moviestar/writer/artist type fantasies. Probably every kid dreams of being famous for something. Fame is possible, certainly more possible than dying and going to heaven. Sadly, fame comes to about as many people as those winning big jackpots in Lotto.

#13 – Communes

At the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s the idea of intentional communities began spreading through the counter culture. I loved the idea, and had brief stints in two communal groups. I quickly learned I loved privacy, personal possessions, and having my own way. This was a very short-lived fantasy, but it still affects me. I now dream of living in a high-rise retirement community where all my friends each have an apartment.

#14 – Back to Nature

After realizing I wasn’t suited for group living I dreamed of buying my own land and escaping the rat race. I just didn’t want to join the 9-to-5 world. My bibles were Mother Earth News, Five Acres and Independence, and The Whole Earth Catalog. Several of my buddies had this dream too, but after several failures at handy crafts, gardening, and fixing machinery, reality taught me something different. I loved Henry David Thoreau, but I only read Walden and not his biography. I should have. The back to nature fantasy hadn’t worked for him either. This fantasy still returns to me occasionally, like the other night when I watched the beautiful documentary, Off the Grid.

#15 – Carlos Castaneda

I loved these books that were supposed to be anthropological. Even though I gave up Christianity, I was still gullible to other religious ideas. I figured there might be some truth in old spiritual studies. Castaneda mixed sacred drugs and the wisdom of indigenous people, and that had the appeal of promising ancient wisdom. I learned a lot, but mostly the wisdom of what to avoid.

#16 – Hinduism and Ram Das

Be Here Now really hooked me. Ram Das (aka Richard Albert) convinced me to open my mind to Hinduism. I even read The Bhagavad Gita, took up yoga, joined some New Age groups with Hindu teachers, and read a bunch of books about the sacred literature of India. I just never could believe. I tried.

#17 – Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts

I had been reading Alan Watts since I started reading Jack Kerouac. Ram Das further encouraged me to accept Buddhism. I liked Zen Buddhism because it seemed the least magical/metaphysical of all religions. I still admire Zen and meditation for their anti-bullshit methods of perceiving reality, but Buddhism has its fundamental side too, that can be just as dogmatic, and miracle driven as Christianity. Theoretically, I believe a reality-based religion is possible, but so far I haven’t found one.

#18 – Spiritualism, Channeling Seth

For a brief period, I read books about communicating with other beings by mediums like Jane Roberts. My science fictional fantasies were susceptible to alien beings communicating with us through other dimensions. John Lilly promoted this idea, and he was a scientist (although zonked out on drugs) and the great science fiction philosopher of the 1930s, Olaf Stapledon, also promoted these ideas. I soon rejected astral worlds because they were too inconsistent.

#19 – New Age Psychologies

Back in the 1970s there was almost a new psychology of the month coming out of California. I wanted to go and try things like EST, Rolfing, primal screaming, etc. I might have been converted if I could have gotten to Los Angles, but I didn’t. I just read the books, joined a local New Age community and subscribed to New Age Magazine. Like spiritualism, I gave up hope on these therapies because there were too many of them that offered conflicting truths.

My Work Years

By the end of the 1970s I got into microcomputers, and spent all my time thinking about computers. For the next 36 years I was preoccupied with being married, hanging out with friends, working, computers, science fiction, music, movies, television, and other down-to-earth pursuits. I read lots of nonfiction books, and slowly began developing more mature philosophies about life. However, I eventually learned of other fantasylands I had tried to find.

#20 – Romance/Sex/Love

Over the years I realized our society is gaga over romantic love. Love stories program us for romantic fantasylands. Gender stereotypes and sexual desires cause us to see each other in very unreal ways. It’s very hard not to objectify the people we want sexual. All these desires lead us to countless fantasylands.

#21 – Political Solutions

We all have fantasyland beliefs on how to solve our political problems. I used to believe we could come to a rational agreement on how to govern society. That’s a huge fantasy. I keep hoping it’s not, but all the evidence says it is.

#22 – We Can Solve Our Big Problems

We have all the knowledge and technology we need to save the planet, but the reality is human nature won’t let us use that knowledge and technology. We all fantasize that humans have always survived so we always will. I think that’s our most dangerous fantasy. It’s a shame that two-thirds of us are deluded by childlike belief in a heavenly father. It keeps us from growing up and taking responsibility. It’s a shame that two-thirds of us believe lying to preserve personal beliefs is wiser than accepting the wisdom of science and giving up those beliefs.

Finding Reality

If we study our fantasylands, we’ll see we’re all looking for place to exist that rejects reality. We’re an adaptable species that can live in a variety of environments. We’re also clever beings that can adapt to any environment for our physical needs. Our failure comes from trying to pretend reality is something that matches our mental needs. Our superpower is the ability to delude ourselves. Our brains have countless cognitive skills to paint over reality, deny evidence, and to allow us to see our beliefs as real. It’s probably a survival mechanism, a way to cope as individuals. But it means we fail to cooperate in our shared reality by agreeing on its actual details.

JWH

 

 

Anne, The Human, Raises Robbie, the Starling

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 27, 2016

My friend Anne was given a nestling that was found by a daughter of one of her friends. Anne has pet birds, so they assumed she’d know what to do. She didn’t, but she called around and found out. At first, Anne thought Robbie was a robin, thus the name. As he (she?) got bigger it was obvious the name should have been Stevie. Robbie was fed cat food to begin with, and then mealworms and crickets, which Anne bought from Petco. Anne had Robbie for over two weeks and he grew like crazy, plus he decided she was his Mom. If Anne was around when Robbie was out of the cage, he wanted to sit on her head.

Robbie really liked and trusted Anne. When I visited them he wasn’t too keen on me, but he did let me feed him mealworms, but he didn’t want to get on my hand or head.

Anne assume she had to keep Robbie until he knew how to take care of himself, but wasn’t sure how to know when he could. She wondered if Robbie needed parents to show him where to find food and water. I told her I assumed birds worked more from instinct than education. I said that since Robbie was flying around the porch, that he was probably old enough to be on his own. So we let Robbie go free.

You can’t see it in this video, but after Robbie flies into the tree he immediately starts eating. We couldn’t see what, but we think he was picking bugs off the tree. Later that afternoon Anne called to Robbie and he came back down. She tried to put him in the cage so he could drink water, but he would have none of that. She let him fly back up into the trees. He would fly between the trees, or top of the house, as she worked in the yard.

We’re curious how long Robbie will hang around. I assume he will do the same things he would have if he had just left the nest naturally. Would he have hung out with his parents? I don’t know. I hope he finds some other starlings to join their flock.

This was a wonderful experience for Anne, although it was emotionally rough at times, especially when she had to let Robbie fly away. Anne and Robbie’s time together reminded me of a miniature version of “My Life as a Turkey,” the classic Nature episode on PBS.

Update: Anne reported this morning: “I called to him and sure enough he flew down, getting closer and closer til he was close enough to land on my head. I put him on top of the cage and fed him, but not as much as he wanted to be fed so he’ll have to figure it out himself. I cld recognize his call, like any good mother!!!! So he made it thru the night, and whatever rain we got, fine. He looked very good and strong.”

JWH

Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 17, 2014

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

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

memory-loss

Memory Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH