Why Do We Keep Repeating History When We Know We’re Repeating History?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/22

I’m listening to and reading Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Maryazak. It’s a quick overview of 40 civilizations of early history beginning with the Akkadians and ending with the Hephthalites. To be honest, I had only heard of less than half of these civilizations, mostly because of references in the Bible or from Greek and Roman history.

I’ve never studied ancient history much but I’ve recently gotten hooked on it, especially after reading The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick. The first two were a slog to get through but I still admired them. The Writing of the Gods was sheer fun and would probably appeal to many readers. Forgotten People of the Ancient World is a breezy summary, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, but it doesn’t go too deep. Perfect for me right now, but I’ll want to know more later. Actually, the entries on Wikipedia cover more for each civilization than Matyszak’s chapters, but his book integrates a digestible narrative with inspiring photos and maps making it easier to read.

When you read/listen to one summary of a civilization after another, it’s pretty damn obvious that humankind is on repeat mode. Humanity is Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but we never learn how to break the cycle. You’d think with all this history we’d figure it out the secret.

Some cycles are obvious, like the rise of powerful leaders. Why do we call Alexander III of Macedon the Great? Sure, he conquered a lot of territories but he also killed, destroyed, and plundered. We hate Putin today for what he’s doing in Ukraine, but how was Alexander III of Macedon any different? We really should call Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, Putin, and every other empire builder the monsters of history.

That’s the number one cycle we keep doing over and over, which is to allow egomaniacs to become rulers. We’ve tried to avoid that by creating democracy, but as you can see from recent times that doesn’t always succeed at controlling men who want more. And even then democracies sometimes go around and destroy other countries too, just like would-be emperors. Humans have this thing about destroying their enemies and expanding their territory. Like Rodney King, I must ask, “Can’t we all just get along?”

A less obvious cycle we repeat is the reverberation between big government and small government. All the successful civilizations grew, needing central control to keep things organized. The central government of the Akkadians had to build vast irrigation systems which required taxes and governmental infrastructure. There are always people who resent that. They rebel and undermine the central government and civilization erodes and eventually collapses. Why can’t we find a balance between secure political structures and personal freedoms?

We fail to be good stewards of the Earth and overtax Mother Nature with our endless growth and consumption. Nor do we save for the future to withstand random destructive acts of nature. Humanity is no Boy Scout, it’s never prepared.

Another hit on the Top Repeat list is ignoring reality. We feed our hatreds and greed with crazy ideas and justifications. We’re always our own worst enemy.

I feel like we’re living in end-of-civilization times. Reading about history is somewhat soothing but for a strange reason. It promotes stoical thinking.

Here’s a neat video on YouTube about how chaos theory predictions patterns of disorder in ordered systems. We live with entropy, and civilization is anti-entropic. It helps to understand both chaos and complexity theory. It won’t help the world to know this, but at least it explains some things.

JWH

More Fun With Memory Loss

by James Wallace Harris, 5/2/22

Today I went to post my review of “The Long Iapetan Night” by Julie Nováková to my short story club that reads and reviews a short story a day. It was then I discovered the group had already read the story last year, and I had read and reviewed it before.

It was disconcerting that I had completely forgotten I had read this story, and I had even written a review before too. Usually, when I watch movies I’ve seen before, I discover it by getting to a scene that will trigger a memory. That never happened with this story.

Figuring I might have written this essay before I searched my site and found “Fun With Memory Loss,” which is what I originally called this post. So I retitled this essay, “More Fun With Memory Loss.” I did some more checking and discovered I’ve written about memory loss another time too, “Remembering When I Forget.” For those of you who read my blog with good memories, I apologize for repeating myself, but probably expect “Even More Fun With Memory Loss.”

I don’t believe I’m suffering from dementia, but I do think my memory is faltering. I find that fascinating. I’m even amused by these glitches because they reveal a tiny bit about how memory and personality work. For example, in my second review I ended by asking the group:

I enjoyed this story, but the plot seemed like something I've read before, where a second space mission is trying to figure out what happened to the first space mission. However, I can't recall any examples. Can y'all?

When I read my first review I realized this might have been the story, or it may have not. Was the vague sense of the plot all that I remembered, or is that plot used more often? In my first review, the story made me think of the film Alien, which is about a space mission that investigates a lost space mission.

In my first review, I summed the story up this way:

"The Long Iapetan Night," tells us that Earth's global civilization took two body blows in the 21st century, one from a super-volcano, and another from a massive solar flare. This sets up the plot for a second Saturn colonizing mission to wonder what happened to the first. At first, that earlier colony is just an odd mystery, then it becomes a historical tragedy like the lost colony of Roanoke, finally, the story mutates into a horror story in the present that overtakes the second mission too.

This long novelette would make a creepy space movie like ALIEN.

In my second review, I summed it up this way:

Depending on your reading reaction, "The Long Iapetan Night" by Julie Nováková might be considered a horror thriller if you thought it creepy enough, or just a mystery thriller if not. Humans arrive on Iapetus for the second time about a century after the first explorers. The mission to Saturn is split into two crewed modules on Titan and two on Iapetus.

Our point of view character is Lev, on Iapetus, but we're also introduced to another narrator in italic sections of the story. I found this confusing at first, especially since I listened to the story and there was no transition to indicate something was different. I discovered this problem by looking at the Kindle edition. I thought it was Lev's journal at first. Eventually, I realized it was the journal of an explorer from the earlier mission, and a mystery unfolds as the crew of the second mission tries to find out what happened to the first mission. This is where we have to wonder about ghosts, or unseen aliens because the old habitat begins to kill the new arrivals.

To make this story even darker, Nováková has a major volcanic eruption that disrupts the world's weather and then a solar flare that knocks out all satellites in the inner system, so the first mission to Saturn is cut off and abandoned. The second mission is after Earth goes through a long recovery.

I like my first review better because it was succinct and more vivid in summarizing the story. What’s revealing is my two reactions are nearly the same. This makes me wonder about the fixity of our personalities. It’s interesting that I read the story the first time with my eyes and listened to it the second time. I wonder if that’s why I didn’t remember it?

I ended the first review by asking the group this question:

I have one question though. Why would anyone want to live in a world that's -180C (-292F)? Now that I'm getting older and more sensitive to cold, I just can't believe people dream of going to other planets where it's so cold. Mars today is from -11F to -117F today.

In the second review I ended with:

QUESTIONS:

Would any of y'all want to explore the outer moons? It has zero appeal to me, and I can't imagine any sane human wanting to live in such an extreme environment. Is science fiction being disingenuous by suggesting people could and would?

Also, could we build a spacesuit that could handle being immersed in liquid air and still be practical to walk around and use? I know space and vacuum can be extremely hot or cold, but wouldn't it be different if there was a medium like liquid air to absorb the heat?

If I read this story again in ten years will I react the same way? My memory probably won’t remember the story, but will my personality react to it in the same way?

Is personality a kind of memory?

JWH

Mingus Ah Um

by James Wallace Harris, April 15, 2022

I’m not an experienced jazz aficionado but I do love to listen to that genre from time to time. Today, for my afternoon album I played Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus via Spotify. You can listen to it while you read by clicking on the YouTube video below. Unfortunately, it will play at the fidelity of your computer/phone/tablet and that won’t do justice to this legendary album. It’s best to listen to jazz in a dark room on a great stereo when you can devote your mind and soul to the experience.

My love of jazz depends on the tempo. I prefer the dreamy numbers that I imagine are heard in smoky clubs at 3 a.m., like the cuts “Self-Portrait in Three Colors,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and “Pussy Cat Dues.” I listen to music because it triggers emotions, and slow jazz is often very emotional and moody.

I do admire, and even enjoy the medium-tempo pieces like “Better Git It in Your Soul,” and “Jelly Roll.” This is head-bopping speed and generally focuses on solos. At this speed, I can still process what each instrument is saying.

And depending on my mood, I can get into the fast pieces like “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” and “Pedal Point Blues.” The faster the jazz guys jam, the more they’re showing off. Usually, at this speed, if my mind is following along, I can dig the piece intellectually, but it’s stopped pushing my emotional buttons. This is how I often feel about listening to classical music. To truly appreciate these pieces I think it would be helpful to be young, high, and manic.

The frantic-pace performances push my limits to appreciate the form, like “Bird Calls,” which Mingus says wasn’t inspired by Charlie Parker, but bird calls. Parker is generally too speedy for my tastes. There are times when I feel Mingus is playing his bass twice as fast as the tune. The cuts on Mingus Ah Um aren’t nearly as fast as the hotter jazz from the early 1950s.

Jazz constantly mutates, so there’s no real one kind of jazz. Right now I prefer it from the late 1950s and early 1960s. 1959 was a fantastic year for jazz music. Two of the most accessible jazz albums ever came out that year: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Those two albums are often loved by people who never listen to jazz. We could consider them suitable for freshmen students of jazz. The other great jazz album of 1959 is The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. That’s graduate-level. Mingus Ah Um is more advanced than Kind of Blue and Time Out, but far from The Shape of Jazz to Come. It’s still very accessible. I’d recommend it for juniors majoring in the genre. I don’t think it should be anyone’s first jazz album. Kind of Blue and Time Out are the gateway drugs.

However, I should amend what I’ve just said. One of my all-time favorite songs regardless of genre is “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus, and it’s an assault on the senses. It makes you feel like you’re dancing with a tornado. I love it. There are many versions of this song, even many by Mingus, but this is the version I have to have.

If you go to buy this album, be careful, there are many editions, some not so good. The $7.98 CD from Amazon is a good entry-level choice.

JWH

Paying Closer Attention to The Beatles

by James Wallace Harris, 8/6/22

Yesterday morning while riding my stationary bike I watched a video about The Beatles. Eric Callero of Vinyl Rewind covered his least favorite Beatle song from each album. I think it’s fascinating that young people are into The Beatles and their albums that came out over fifty years ago. Can you imagine Baby Boomers excited about bands from the 1910s or 1920s when we were young.

I started listening to The Beatles in 1964 and bought all their records as they came out in the 1960s. My nostalgia finds it confusing because The Beatles albums on sale today were not the same ones we bought back in the 1960s. I bought all The Beatles standard albums again in the late 1980s when they came out on CD, and then bought them again this century when they came out on remastered CD.

The Beatles were tremendously exciting back in the 1960s but they weren’t my favorite band back then. That was The Byrds. I did play each Beatle album quite a bit as they were released, but I forgot about them in a few weeks. Then over the decades whenever Susan and I watched a documentary about the Fab Four I’d get the albums out again. When the remastered CDs came out several years ago I bought them but only listened to each album one or two times.

Yesterday, inspired by the Vinyl Rewind video I listened to Please Please Me and With the Beatles. Unlike Eric Callero I couldn’t pick my least favorite song from each album. I was surprised by how good all the songs sounded. I also notice something. I couldn’t distinguish between John and Paul’s voices. Sometimes I thought I could but I was never sure. I did spot the two songs sung by Ringo, but I didn’t even notice that George was the main singer of five of the songs.

This made me realize that I’ve never paid close attention to The Beatles’ songs. Susan and I love watching documentaries about The Beatles, and we’ve read a few biographies on them. Susan can sing their songs, but we’re not Beatlemaniacs.

While watching the Vinyl Rewind video I envied Eric Callero for being able to cite so many details from each song. I’ve always listened to music as a kind of drug. Music stimulates my brain, setting off emotions. I take in each song as a gestalt. To be honest, I hardly even pay attention to the lyrics.

I got out a book we had on The Beatles, tell me why by Tim Riley, that lists the main singer for each song and started trying to train my ear to discern whether John, Paul, George, or Ringo was singing. This website also gives that information.

I’m going to keep playing these albums after lunch and see just how much I can get out of each song. I remember noticing in the past I didn’t know who was singing. And I also remember noticing in the past that the songs are recorded weirdly, with what appears to be the bass, drums, and George’s guitars on the left, and the singing and John’s guitar, and sometimes other instruments, on the right. I also knew that some songs were covers, but never really paid that much attention to which were originals and which were covers.

The desire to notice more in songs comes from several motivations. For being such a major music addict I feel bad about not knowing more about the music I love. But I also feel bad that I don’t pay more attention to the details of life. I’m curious if I can become more discerning. I’m also curious if I can change myself so late in life.

At seventy, I feel my mind is slowly decaying. I know my body is, so it’s natural to assume my brain is too. I eat better and exercise to squeeze more out of my body. I wonder if paying attention to details will it help sharpen my dull mind?

JWH

What Was the Last Album You Obsessed Over?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/27/22

I’m not really concerned with which album you recall, but when. I’ve been playing When You See Yourself by the Kings of Leon over and over for weeks. What’s significant to me is it came out in 2021. When was the last time you bought a new album? I mean one that had been recorded recently?

I still buy the occasional new album on release day, like Adele 35, but it’s getting to be an extremely rare event. But even rarer is finding a new album I go bonkers over. I loved the new Adele album, but I haven’t played it obsessively like I have When You See Yourself.

Over my lifetime I’ve bought several thousand albums, but the ones I love the best are the ones I play constantly for weeks. Albums I repeat like those rats who continuously push the button connected to the reward center of their brain. Out of all those albums, probably less than 100, or even less than 50, and maybe even less than 25, were the kind I’d play over and over for weeks. I can’t really name the figure because my memory is so unreliable, but if it was only one a year, it would be around 50-60. But the albums that wowed me mostly came out in the 1960s and 1970s, and then they slowed to a trickle. That means it might only be 25.

One reason I was inspired to write this blog was seeing a post on Facebook about Breakfast in America by Supertramp. That was another album I couldn’t stop playing for weeks. But that was back in 1979 and again in the 1990s when I got the CD, and again for weeks in the 2010s when I remembered it.

I think most of my friends, and I’m talking Baby Boomers here, when they think of a great album, think of albums from the 1960s and 1970s. My wife Susan, is like me, she’ll still want a new album, but much less often than me, and it usually involves The Foo Fights or Jackson Browne.

I believe the album I’ve played the most times over the course of my life is Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan. Every few years I come back to it and wear it out again. I’ve bought it on LP, CD, and SACD.

Why do most people stop buying new music after a certain period in their lives? Why do most people seem to only play music from when they were growing up? And is the reason I love When You See Yourself is because it sounds like something that could have been created in 1975?

My previous obsessively played album was Young in All the Wrong Ways by Sara Watkins (2016). Before that, the album I couldn’t stop playing was The Way Sounds Leaves the Room by Sarah Jaffe (2011).

It might take a long while and some digging through albums to find the one before that. I know during the 2010s I returned to playing Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan from 1966 over and over again.

Certain albums from the past do pop up in my memory but these are hardly all of them. I thought I’d just remember a handful of them in pictures.

That’s enough. What were you favorites?

JWH

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