She Had a Mind Like an Intel Core i7

As I get older, I realize my mind is slowing down. I was never a quad-processor kind of thinker, but I’d like to believe my brain could chug along like a good ole AMD X2 chip.  Now my thoughts feel like they are powered by the original Pentium.  I’m starting to pay attention to the people around me, and realize we have unequal minds when it comes to gray matter CPU speeds.  I’m also wondering if working with machines is pushing everyone to think faster. 

In our culture, we mostly judge people by their covers, but when it comes to brain power we’re as diverse as our physical features, and we seldom take that into account when communicating.  In a classroom of third graders or even a college calculus class, all the students are expected to learn the same material at the same pace.  Is that fair?  When I was a kid I had supercomputer ambitions.  It took decades to accept my brain was just ordinary, like computers built to run Microsoft Office.

At work I’m a computer geek, and friends envy my tech knowledge.  I’m thankful I’m good at something because I’m so bad at everything else.  My brain struggles to remember the names of the people I already know, and it seldom remembers new names, but I’m surprised at how fast I learn technical tidbits.  But even that ability is eroding with age.

The other day I was helping a young women who had asked me about putting words on photos in Microsoft Word – something I didn’t know how to do within Word.  Her hands flew over the keys showing me her project and files, and I was amazed by how fast she could think, type and traverse folders with keyboard shortcuts.  I pulled up Google and searched on her problem and found a good solution, but before I could tell her anything, she read over my shoulders what to and was ready to go.  This girl had a mind like an Intel Core i7. 

I could tell her young brain, about a third in age of my rusty noggin, could process input far snappier than I could.  I admired and envied her fast thinking, wishing I was young again, because now is a fabulous time to be young working with computers.  On the other hand, I have to worry about slower thinkers, and the fact that I’m slowing down myself.

Is it me, or does the world feel like it’s speeding up?  Aging has me feeling like a lethargic cold blooded lizard living among fast thinking mammals.  My wife often gets impatient with my slow mental processing and tries to finish sentences for me.  This is why I love blogging – I can take as much time as I want to put my thoughts together.

Speed of thought is relative though.  Usually people complain that I go too fast when I help them with their computers, so I have to slow down.  When helping most people I show them the routine, let them walk through it once on their own, and then they are usually good for solo flying.  Some people I have to repeat the steps 2-3 times.  Occasionally I get people who have no knack for computers and I can show them how six times, let them write the steps down exactly, watch them four more times and then they still call me back 15 minutes later.  Often I have to learn on-the-spot how to solve the problem people want me to teach them, but few people notice how I do this.  Google is the magic word, folks. 

On one hand, I worry about these people who don’t seem to be adapting well to the machine age.   I admire the ones who refuse to run at gigahertz speeds and reject interfacing with machines.  I think I stand between two generations, the ones who lived without computers and didn’t need them, and the next generation of cyborgs that think like a CPU co-processor.  

But computer literacy doesn’t always run along generational lines.  Even though it seems we’re forcing everyone in our society to use a computer, not everyone is a PC or a Mac.  My friend Laurie, who is a scholar of reading literacy, hates that other skills add the word “literacy” behind their noun to refer to their minimum standard of expressing knowledge, so we need to think of another term for people who work well with computers – cyberbiotic?

As much as I admire fast thinking, I also have to worry if speeding thoughts aren’t the best way to think.  Has anyone notice how fast they edit TV shows and movies today, with the average length of film cut getting shorter and shorter over the years?  This makes the action go faster and faster.  I can’t watch The Amazing Race anymore because its quick edits are jarring to me.  When I watch an old movie from the 1930s, the pace suggests their time had calmer thoughts, and the long meandering sentences in a 19th century novel implies even more leisurely thinking.

I think it’s unfair that practically everyone has to use a computer in their jobs in the 21st century.  Computers do enhance creative pursuits, but does every task need to be computerized?  It’s as if we’re all adapting to living inside a new digital reality.  Will this cause us to breed humans with faster and faster minds to keep up with computer evolution?

I’m not sure the average person ever thinks about the speed of thought, but it’s obvious one of the inequalities of life that we suffer.  And I’ve noticed not all young people are fast thinkers either.  In the old days, when kids had learning disabilities they were called slow.  When everything speeds up, will people with average ability be considered slow too?

Minds are not like computers, but there are many fascinating comparisons.  Fast thinking can be compared to having a brain like the latest Intel chip, while old minds can be likened to the ancient 386 CPU.  Human memory is a far cry from computer RAM, because computing would be impossible if machines had recall times and error rates of gray matter memory.  Now that my memory is slipping away, I know that memory is often more important than processing speed.  I can still think fairly fast, but it often takes me hours to recall specific words and names.  The computers in the Apollo space capsule that went to the Moon were less powerful than the computers in today’s cheap telephones.  Efficient programming and accurate memory can overcome major CPU limitations.

I’ll bet a person with a slow mind but good memory can beat out a fast mind with a poor memory in many job categories.  But there are other factors, such as Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  A person with a mathematical mind can pursue careers that average Jacks and Jills can’t.  Nor would gimpy math minds want to have to work with numbers.  I wanted to be an astronomer when I was a kid, and got through high school physics, college calculus and several college physics courses before I ran out of mathematical momentum.  I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of Bob Dylan, but I have zero point zero musical ability.

If I had been tested in the 7th grade and told about the limits of my brain, and informed that I could be an astronomer if I was willing to practice math two hours a day, would my life have been different?  The mind is like a muscle, it can be improved with exercise – like I pointed out in “10,000 Hours to Greatness.”  This really is a case of “If I knew then what I know now.”

We all hear about kids in other countries that must grind through hours of study to keep up with the standard.  Now that everyone is competing with machines, will everyone have to run faster and faster?  Maybe I could have pushed myself to work harder as a kid to become an astronomer, but will future kids compete with AI astronomers?

We all hear about how our educational system is in crisis, whether that’s true or news media chicken-littling, I think it’s a mistake to make an educational system that essentially tries to be one size to fit all.  Would kids try harder if you customized their curriculum to fit their personal ambitions, matched to their brain speed and the amount of time they wish to practice?

Politically we like to think we live in an egalitarian society.  And as growing adolescents we like to think we can be anything we want when we grow up.  Socially we like to think we live in a classless society and can marry whomever we wish.  Our churches teach us to believe that God created us all equal.  Good or bad, I think we’re diversely unequal in our ambitions, the speed of our thoughts, and how much attention time we can apply to any task.

As I make my to-do list of projects I want to pursue in my waning years, I think I’m far more realistic because of this knowledge about my limitations than when I was young daydreamer planning what I could do with my life.

Maybe I’m just feeling sorry for myself and my slowing mind.  Maybe it’s the way of the world for every new generation to speed past their elders, and for the elders to crab about the speeding youngsters.  I turn 58 in eleven days, which is still pretty young, but I’m already looking forward to living in a retirement community where things move at a slower pace.  Hell, if I move to the land of the ancient, they’ll think I have an Intel Core i7 mind, at least for awhile.

JWH – 11/14/9

The Beatles 09-09-09

Hardcore Beatles fans are waiting for the the ninth day, of the ninth month, of the ninth year, of this new millennium for the remastered Beatles catalog to be released.  It’s been 22 years since the last reissue of the Beatles, when their LPs first came out on CD, when many audiophiles claimed those productions were botched. 

Could this be the stimulus package that the music industry needs to get people to buy CDs again?  My wife and I have been buying Beatles CDs again for the last year, getting them all except A Hard Day’s Night, so now we have to decide if we want to go and buy them yet again.  Of course we both bought all the LPs in our separate teenage lives in the 1960s.  And if we want, we can even buy the remastered CDs again immediately because they are also releasing a special second box set in mono.

Will modern kids who live and die by the iPod be anxious to buy sonically superior versions of the Beatles’ songs?  Especially considering that their collections are probably stolen now?  I can’t Help! but believe that EMI is expecting us Baby Boomers to pay the tab.  And will we?  Susan and I have opted not to get the box set immediately, but I plan to at least get A Hard Day’s Night.  I want to see just how good these remastered songs sound.

The real question is:  How many people still listen to CDs on a stereo system?  I do, and a few of my old fogey friends, but I think the number is dwindling.  I was one of the gullible who bought into the SACD (Super Audio CD) technology when it came out, just about the time the rest of the world was turning to MP3 music.  To really appreciate the quality of the new CDs, they need to be heard on a good stereo, or at least a good car CD player.

I know who will buy these new Beatles CDs, the same 3,000 folks Susan and I saw when we went to see Rain, A Tribute to the Beatles last June, a Beatles cover band.  The hall was full of Baby Boomers and their kids and grand kids, all seeking the perfect illusion of being at a Beatles concert, and damn if Rain didn’t bring a deep kind of nostalgic catharsis.  I recently saw Rain on PBS, and the illusion doesn’t work with TV.  I always thought it was a joke that people loved Elvis imitators, but now I know different.

In the 09/03/09 Rolling Stone magazine, they get Paul’s response to one of the recording engineers talking about the new digital production, “McCartney judges the reissues by an even higher standard, ‘It sounds like it did in the room when you recorded it.’”  The magazine even says the recording engineers on the project claim, “the digital version is indistinguishable from the masters.”  These new discs will be the closest we can get to time traveling back to the 1960s. 

However, they also quote Paul as saying, “I can listen to a record on the radio on the beach and it sounds OK to me.”  He goes on to explain that he and John were never audiophiles, and they originally recorded most of the songs in mono and let technicians make the stereo mixes.  But at the end of the piece they quote Paul again,

Now I hear John and think,’There he is,’ he says, Like, you can almost close your eyes and you can kind of see him, because the quality is so real.  So I like that about it.

Fans who don’t buy the remastered CDs won’t get that close if they listen to these new songs as MP3 downloads, but the quality still might be noticeably better.  I’m anxious for the Beatles’ catalog to appear on streaming music services like Lala and Rhapsody, so I can add their songs to my playlists.

I’ve been listening to my ripped Beatles albums at work and while I write on my blog this last couple of weeks trying to decide which of the remastered albums I will buy first.  Here are their albums in the order of their original British release.

  • Please Please Me
  • With the Beatles
  • A Hard Day’s Night
  • Beatles for Sale
  • Help!
  • Rubber Soul
  • Revolver
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  • Magical Mystery Tour
  • The Beatles (The White Album)
  • Abbey Road
  • Let It Be
  • Past Masters
  • Yellow Submarine

Strangely, I’ve learned that my taste in Beatles’ songs have changed over the years.  I used to think the later albums were their masterpieces, because of their studio sophistication and the kids had grown into mature artists, but now I’m wondering if The Fab Four were more creative when they were younger, and their songs were silly love songs.  My current favorite Beatles song is “I’m a Loser” from Beatles for Sale.  However, I can click anywhere in my 253 Beatles’ song collection and find tremendous creativity.  My friend Janis interrupted this writing with a phone call, and we chatted for a long time about the Beatles and I played the beginning of dozens of songs for her.  She could hear the beginning of the music, remember the words, and start singing the songs, which made me envious of her talent, because I can never remember words to any song but “Happy, Birthday,” and I sometimes stumble on its lines.  Susan also has perfect memory of words and melody.  I’m so jealous.

The Beatles are considered the musical giants of 1960s music, but there are so many songs from the 1960s that I love much more than any particular song the Beatles created, like “Downtown,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Eve of Destruction,” and so on.  Their collective catalog overwhelms, but they were mostly competing with one-hit wonders.  Look at their competition: 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969.

I wish some record company would remaster the hits of 1960s on month-by-month CD collections, with each set capturing the top 100 songs for that month.  Wouldn’t it be great to buy February 1964 and hear The Beatles invade the American music charts again, and hear their songs in context to their competition and inspiration.

Recently I finished listening to The Beatles by Bob Spitz, unfortunately an abridged audio book of a great Beatles biography, that has rekindled my Beatles-mania.  I plan to read the full version of the book someday and try to list and listen to all the songs mentioned that inspired the Beatles.  They loved the popular music of the 1950s, and they even named their band after Buddy Holly’s, The Crickets.  Bob Spitz must have interviewed hundreds of people for the biography, and I was most taken with the musical influences that create The Beatles.  An idea of what I’m talking about can be found on John Lennon’s Juke Box.

Another way to discover The Beatles is through The Beatles Anthology, an 8 part documentary from 1995.  Once you start learning about their history it becomes addictive.  I have no idea if young people have much of an idea of who the Beatles were.  An old joke twenty years ago was about a young women asking an older man, “Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”

With the release of The Beatles Rockband game and the remastered catalog of albums, will there be a new wave of Beatle-mania this September.  I hope so.  Ask yourself and your friends, “What are your favorite Beatles songs?”  I was surprised with what my friend Janis answered.  She remembered songs that I never think of, but when I listened to them, I thought, wow, I need to concentrate on these tunes for awhile.  It’s so easy to forget.

Maybe people don’t listen to CDs anymore, but they still listen to songs, so lets hope these reissues get the world to go nuts over the Beatles again.

JWH – 8/31/9

The Garden of Eden

The other night on The History Channel, I watched “Mysteries of the Garden of Eden,” an episode of their Decoding the Past series, where scholars speculated about the location of the Garden of Eden.  In The Bible, Eden is a place, and the garden is located within Eden.  Over the centuries some people have considered the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as just a fictional metaphor about how life began, but other folk believe The Book of Genesis is the literal word of God.  I think the truth falls somewhere in the middle, in the delicious realm of speculation.

To the Christian mind, and the Jew and Muslim, the early chapters of Genesis are about the beginning of all time, the Earth and the first people.  It is very hard to date The Bible, with scholars arguing between 1446-300 BCE.  If you look a this timeline of the Levant, you’ll see that puts The Bible being written from the late Bronze Age throughout the Iron Age.  That’s well along in the story of human history.  Also, some fundamentalists like to believe that The Bible traces the origin of time to what some call Chalcolithic Age (4500 – 3300 BCE), which cuts out a whole lot of time that science knows about before then.  The above mentioned TV documentary suggests Eden existed in the Stone Age during the Neolithic period.

Let’s say The Bible was written down in 1000 BCE, can those writers really know anything about a place that existed in 6000 BCE?  Just how good is oral storytelling?  And why is the story about Eden remembered and considered so important?  By then the myth of Eden would be several times older than our myths about Atlantis.  The cradles of civilization are far older than The Bible, and many of the stories in The Book of Genesis were retold from early civilizations and their religions, thousands of years older the writers of The Bible.

Anyone who wants to understand the story of The Garden of Eden needs to study ancient civilizations, which I haven’t, but wished I had the time to do.  I’m fascinated by the idea of cultural memory and maybe even the woo-woo idea of the collective unconscious.  Since The Bible has been written down, and especially since it’s been printed, the idea of The Garden of Eden has solidified in minds of western culture.  We can never escape the power of that myth.  Not only does it haunt us, but also it corrupts the very fabric of reality.

I believe one way to deprogram ourselves of the memes of the Garden of Eden, a kind of mental virus, is by achieving understanding of the original intent of the storytellers of the fable.  We know that civilized mankind existed for thousands of years before the writers of The Book of Genesis.  We know The Book of Genesis is the opening story to explain the foundation of a nation and religion.  If some scholars are right, Eden is quite a distance from Israel, so why include it?

Eden is mentioned outside of The Bible in other texts, including travel stories with directions.  Here is the Biblical quote from the extensive BibleGateway.com – using the English Standard translation of The Book of Genesis 2:10-14:

10A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of(A) Havilah, where there is gold. 12And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14And the name of the third river is the(B) Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

If you have any love of history and archeology, these are some yummy clues.  Ever since I was a young atheist kid, I wondered if the Garden of Eden story had anything to do with mankind’s shift from being a roaming hunting and gather animal to settling down and taking up farming and developing technology.  Could these Genesis stories come from our deepest cultural memories?  We know that The Bible is old, but not that old, but we also know that the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and even serpent and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil come from religions a thousand years older than the people who wrote The Bible.  How far back do these stories go?

Anthropologists are used to collecting stories from primitive people.  They have even gone back decades later to hear the same stories told again by the same storyteller and find it repeated word for word.  How old is the story of the Garden of Eden?  Scientifically we know early man develop agriculture between Tigris and Euphrates long before writing.  But could the farming man remember being a hunting man?  And were the authors of The Book of Genesis philosophical enough to think about the change?  If they were, that’s a major conceptual idea to explore.

Even more astounding is another clue that the Decoding the Past show presented that was totally new to me.  I’ve always thought the story of the flood was the silliest story in The Bible.  At best I thought it was an incredibly overblown account of one flooded valley.  Flood stories are common in other ancient religious texts, so like the Garden of Eden, there might be some truth to it too.  Here’s where the show blew me away.  They proposed a theory that the Biblical flood is a description of flood waters from when the last ice age melted and greatly raised the world’s sea levels, like the Persian Gulf, and caused many valleys to be flooded by glacier melt.  This was around 6,000-7,000 years ago, they reported.

Before this melt, water levels were far lower, and because of this, the scholars on the show speculated that the Garden of Eden was located under the northern most area of the Persian Gulf, where the Tigris and Euphrates did meet with two ancient rivers that no longer exist in modern times.  This fits with Genesis retelling ancient religious stories from Babylon and Sumer.

Now I’m really puzzled.  How did the Genesis authors get the stories of these floods.  And did people then really remember and speculate about the transformation of man from hunters to farmers?  If global warming really slams us, and it destroys modern civilization, will people six thousand years from now talk about a time when men went to the Moon?

We think of The Bible as the foundation of Western civilization, but it appears the beginning of The Bible is actually about one, two or more civilizations earlier, and thousands of years older.  How were those stories maintained?

And does the Garden of Eden story go back even further?  Were those stories even ancient to the Sumerians?  If I was a scholar of ancient man and history I might know the answer to this.  And if I live long enough I hope to read all this history, but for now I can speculate.  If Eden was a real place, and world-wide flooding did happen, how much else of the story is real?  Adam and Eve? 

We know it’s silly to think of the absolute first man and woman, evolution teaches something far different that makes more sense.  But could Adam and Eve be a man an woman that quit a nomadic tribe to settle down to farming?  No, that’s stretching things too far too.  But I can imagine early storytellers picturing a time when unclothed people lived in a garden paradise and God took care of them.  Is there a chance that hunting and gather man left stories to be passed down to settled farming man, and then town building man?  Or were there still plenty of people still living in nature they could observe and contrast with their new civilized life?

I can also imagine these storytellers speculating about how people learn to think for themselves and started farming.  Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden – a big deal was made about that.  When we were animals, we were all naked.  Did Adam and Eve invent fashion, another attribute of civilization like pottery making, when they decided they needed to wear clothes?  The writers of Genesis could have heard about tribes of men and women who went naked, so it wouldn’t take cultural memory back 10,000 years to invent this aspect of the story.

See, it’s so easy to imagine Adam and Eve acquiring knowledge that they were no longer animals and they had to cover themselves, had to leave the Garden of Eden to farm, herd animals, build houses, and like they say, the rest is history, because history starts after we realized we were no longer animals and started writing about it.  It’s a shame those ancient storytellers didn’t remember being apes, because it would have defused the whole controversy over evolution. 

I wonder if there is any cultural memory of the Neanderthal man?  That would mean information had been passed down from Paleolithic times through Neolithic times into Bronze Age.  That’s expecting way too much of oral communication.  Or does it?

The easiest solution to imagine is the writers of Genesis wanted a beginning to their story and they just made up the creation in seven days, and then imagined God creating Adam and Eve, and then God getting mad at the couple and kicking them out of Eden because they didn’t obey the rules.  The whole Old Testament is all about God constantly grumping about the Israelites not minding his commands.  I can even imagine those writers thinking, “Hey, these other religions have Adam and Eve, a serpent, a Tree of Knowledge, we’d better have them too, in our story.”

Yet, wouldn’t it be wonderfully far out if the Genesis authors had known about an ancient distant land where people had decided to stop living like the animals, dress themselves, build houses, grow food, and then several generations later get wiped out by a flood.  I wonder how they would have changed their story if they had also known about the concept of global warming.  Or maybe that’s why so many Christians today adamantly refuse to believe in our global warming, because biblical teaching tells them God won’t flood the world twice.

For tens of thousands of years all people had to explain reality was oral storytelling.  And then for several thousand years they had scrolls and priests.  For the past five hundred years we’ve had books. For the last two hundred years we’ve had science.  And for the last twenty, we’ve had the Internet.  The communication of information is getting better all the time.  The Book of Genesis is a fascinating aspect to the Bible, because it’s about information before the invention of scrolls, a time when men passed on oral stories from generation to generation.  It’s a murky era to us now, hard to even believe, but can you imagine living in a time of verbal networking?

JWH – 8/6/9

When Did Your Time Begin?

My earliest substantial memory takes me back to when I was four.  Once, back in the 1990s, I return to the neighborhood where I lived for that memory, to my then personal big bang origin of memory time.  I stood out on the sidewalk in front of the house where I once lived and felt I was nearest to the beginning of time and space I’d ever get.  But I was wrong.  I have so far to go to find the beginning of my time.  Damn, what a rush.  Sometimes life is so intense I feel reality is a hurricane in my head, and I’ve been in real hurricanes, as well as mental ones brought on by fevers or chemicals, so I know what it’s like to have my neurons shaken up. 

At this moment, I’m jamming to my current favorite song (Howl by Florence + The Machine), drinking a beer and I’m thinking about The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, which I’ve been listening to for over a week.  I really dig that title – because Faulkner artistically succeeds at describing a hurricane in his head. 

The novel is set in 1910 and 1928, time well before my earliest memories, but now Faulkner’s story adds to my personal memory-map of time.  In recent years books by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wharton, and Dreiser fill in my awareness of America during the years of 1890-1930.  They only add to the intensity in my head.

At age four I remember discovering television and began mapping memories of America back to the 1930s.  I grew up loving black and white movies.  It wasn’t until my twenties that I got into silent movies and jazz and extended my American memories into the 1910s and 1920s.  Oh sure, I was forced to take history in school, but it never seemed as real as pop culture and art.

Reading The Sound and The Fury is like hearing a first person account of 1910, from inside Faulkner’s head, with the audio book letting me feel like I’m listening to his thoughts.  My sense of time goes back to the Big Bang, but not in a personal way.  The only time I tap into the tapestry of personal memory is when I read the words from people of the past.  My furthest reach by this kind of time travel is the early days of The Bible.  It’s very weird to be out strolling in the evening and hearing words that are thousands of years old, from ancient men living in tribal desert cultures, that existed before English or even the concept of history.

Are my real memories any better than say, those I got from watching Dead End, and experiencing a make-believe neighborhood near the river in a slum of 1930s New York City?  Or all my memories of the 1940s I got from reading Jack Kerouac?  Or the memories I find in photographs of my father’s family from Miami in the 1920s?  Tonight I caught a portion of an old Laurel and Hardy flick that used LA traffic scenes from the early 1930s.  I love that bit of realism.  I absorbed it into my own memories.

Black and white movies feel just like old memories in my head.  I can extend my sense of personal memory back as far as the photograph and film, but it’s hard to go further.  The words of the Bible do feel like hearing old people, but they don’t feel like real memories.  I love looking at art because it extends my memories back hundreds of years, but beautiful paintings only give a surreal sense of memory.  I once saw a photograph from the 1830s, and I thought that photo brought my memory as close to Jane Austen as I would ever get.

Even when I see photographs of myself which are earlier than my memories I feel they are part of my own memory.  Here I am from 1953.  I wish I could remember this day.  I wish I could remember everything.  Do you ever feel people in photos are looking back at you too?  If I stare at this photo long enough it starts looking 3D.  My grandmother here, was born in 1881, my mother 1916.  They grew up in Enid, Mississippi, next-door neighbors to Faulkner’s imaginary Mississippi.  That might be why The Sound and The Fury is so goddamn vivid, I’ve heard the voices of his characters all my life.  They sounded just like my cousins, aunts and uncles.

If there is a heaven I want it to be in the kingdom of my memories, so I can come back and explore their endless realm.  What if this life is our heaven?  Somewhere, or when, I’ll find my beginning of my time.

Jim-1953 

JWH – 7/29/9

My Life on a Hard Drive

I wanted to call this essay, “My Life on a Terabyte Drive” because it sounded cooler and more specific, but then I’m thinking about buying a netbook and they only come with 160 gigabytes of hard drive space, something less glamorous to say in a title.  I can’t even fit my music collection on that, so it wouldn’t be true either.  If you read to the end of this essay, you’ll see I could have called it, “My Memory Book,” but that title wouldn’t mean anything to you until I explained it all. 

Either at work, or with friends, I’ve had to help many people move their personal data from one computer to another.  When I started this kind of support years ago, all I needed was one floppy.  The last time I moved my stuff to a new machine, I bought a 750gb USB drive.  No, I didn’t need to fill it up, at least not then.  My Mozy.com account says I have 193.3gb backed up with them, but that’s only my life from one of three home computers, and I’ve yet to complete the epic task of scanning all my family photos.

When I contemplate putting my life on a hard disk many fanciful ideas come to mind.  I like to compare this goal to mind uploading, a science fictional concept that deals with transferring a person’s personality to a computer.  I first wrote about this idea in “My Life in 75 Megabytes,” which lets you know how long I’ve been thinking about this concept.  Back then my own expanding universe was much smaller, and could fit on a zip disk.

I find I have seven discrete concepts I’d like to explore in this essay:

  1. What goes into a digitized life?
  2. How is a digital life organized?
  3. How do we synced ourselves across many machines?
  4. What role does the media player play?
  5. How to we span living across local and network drives?
  6. What do we need to protect our digital memory?
  7. And do our files define our personality?

Thinking about buying a netbook that will be my carry-around auxiliary mind, a Mini-Me, so to say, I’d like to think about it’s full theoretical potential.  Let’s just play with the idea of what we’d like to have on a computer if one day we found ourselves orphaned from home with only the clothes on our back and a computer in our hand.

What Goes Into a Digitized Life?

Photographs have been the primary artifact that people want to protect and preserve.  Photographs are what people cry over the most when their CPU bytes the big one.  Next up is music files, either ripped, stolen or DRMed.  Few people stuff their machines with essays and fiction like me, but many folks like to maintain a wordy autobiography in the form of an email archive.  A few $-minded souls, horde tax records like misers.  And I’m starting to see hard drives become the new shoebox for home videos.  I myself, have hundreds of audio books that I’ve tediously ripped from cassette tapes and CDs that I’d hate to lose.  My wife wants to preserve video games, and their activation codes.  I’ve met a few people who maintain databases of things they love to collect.  When it comes down to it, there’s an almost endless variety of things people junk up their hard drives with and want to save forever.

All this digital junk can be broken down into two extremely distinct types:  Unique, owner created data, that can’t be found anywhere else, and copies of stuff other people created, either received free, stolen or bought.  It’s far more painful to have a laptop stolen with five years of digital snapshots than one with hundreds of dollars worth of songs bought from iTunes.

For the purpose of this essay, let’s not worry about the actual size of the hard drive on your buddy computer, but instead imagine this device will contain everything you want to save that can be digitized and if found in 30 years by your grandchildren, or 300 years by a scholar of the 21st century history, would make a statement about who you are.  Think about this super-netbook as your library of personally created data, plus copies of your favorite songs, books, audiobooks, movies, TV shows, paintings, poems, short stories, novels, etc.  Just think of it as the memory you wished your neurons could records.

The File Structure of Our Lives

I don’t know if you’ve ever gone into someone else’s computer and tried to extract what they desperately want to save, but it’s a fascinating task.  Microsoft, Apple and Linus all make provisions for storing user documents in a specified place, but users do their damnedest to squirrel important files all over their drives.  And even when they stick to the Home directory concept, everyone creates their own folder structure and naming system.  In recent years the idea of standard music and photo folders have emerged, which is great, but I think we need to convene a panel of Nobel prize winning eggheads to develop a worldwide standard, to be used across all OS systems, so future archeologists poking through our private digital junkyards can easily find our treasured entombed memories, and make sense of them.

We need to organize our auxiliary brains and keep them tidy for ourselves too, because as we toss more stuff into our net noggins, finding what we want becomes harder and annoying.  I love the fact that most applications in Windows now open My Documents as default when you mouse click Open File.  It drives me nuts that people want to override this and put their crap all over the desktop or in folders they created off of the root drive. 

I’m also glad Microsoft simplified “My Documents,” “My Music,” and “My Pictures” into Documents, Music and Pictures.  But now we need to expand on that to include Videos, Movies, Books and other categories.  This is where things get tricky, where arguments start, and OS turf wars begin.  Under “Jim” on my Vista machine I have:

  • Desktop
  • Downloads
  • Links
  • Pictures
  • Searches
  • Documents – Shortcut
  • Contacts
  • Documents
  • Favorites
  • Music
  • Saved Games
  • Videos

This is how Microsoft divides my life, and they’ve made some mysterious choices to me.  I wish I had a Mac so I could see how Steve Jobs wants the same job accomplished.  Ubuntu just gives me a home folder, leaving me free to make my own decisions from there   Since our computer will define our personality and I said we could save anything digital document that defines us, this means the home folder will become a library of digital files.  I’m not sure if the structure set out by Microsoft is a workable Dewey Decimal system for this task though.

What folder do I file my digital audio books?  Where do I put my ebooks or .pdf files for magazines and articles?  And should I save Gattaca, my favorite science fiction movie under Videos, the same place where I would store my home made clips?  And if I collected favorite YouTube videos, should they also be filed with my personal videos?

I think we need to rethink the \Home\ folder concept.  \Jim\ should be just for documents I created, and another folder called \Library\ should be used for all files I collect that were created by other people.  And the two might even have sub-folders with the same titles, like \Videos\,  \Photos\ and \Music\.  (That’s assuming I become more creative than I am now.)  Thus the new \Jim\ might contain these sub-folders:

  • Audioclips
  • Banking
  • Blogs
  • Bookmarks
  • Data
  • Diary
  • Emails
  • Essays
  • Fiction
  • HTML
  • Lists
  • Medical
  • Numbers
  • Photos
  • Timeline
  • Video

This isn’t perfect yet, but I hope you see where I’m going.  Under \Library\ I might have these sub-folders:

  • Art
  • Audiobooks
  • Books
  • Lectures
  • Magazines
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Photographs
  • Podcasts
  • Television
  • Video

In my personal folder, I have Photos, for those I take, but Photographs under Library, for pictures I buy.  Art would be for digitized artwork I like.  My desktop gallery program could be set to pull from Art, Photos and Photographs.

How to Keep our Digital Life Synced?

I have two desktop machines and laptop at home, and various iPod and MP3 players, including a iPod touch, and I’m planning to buy a netbook.  Plus I have several computers at work with years of programming code I created that I never want to loose.  At work I have USB drive I brought from home that has a backup of all my home files, but in particularly, my music library so I can play songs at work.  At times I also bring USB drives home, so my work is backed up.

The absolute ideal file storage solution would a 100% reliable gigabit network to a federally protected online databank with all my computers accessing one file system library that was perfectly safe until the Sun goes nova.  Plus, my data would be preserved for ever and ever, even after I died, for historical researchers.  I’m watching The Tudors – don’t you wish the producers of the show had access to Henry’s and Anne’s home directories?

Unfortunately, we don’t have such an ideal solution.  The trend is toward owning multiple computers, and by computer I also mean cell phone, iPod, and even video game units, anything that processes and stores digital data you create.   And we’re already seeing syncing solutions.  You can backup cell phone directories to your home computer, or if you have an iPhone, you can get your email, contacts and calendar from an Exchange server at work, thus syncing your phone numbers in one database.

In fact, the iPhone is a marvelous device, in that it can sync songs, photos, audiobooks, television shows, movies and other files from your mothership desktop to your lifeboat phone.  Apple doesn’t seem to like the concepts of netbooks, hoping you will use an iPhone/touch instead.  However, I find their amazing little screen too small to be my carry-around computer companion.

The Role of the Media Player

iTunes is also a fascinating program and concept.  It’s a program that attempts to manage the \Library\ portion of your file system, and a media player for playing songs, television shows, movies and audiobooks from your library.  With a bit of tweaking from Apple, it theoretically could handle my Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher and PDF documents too, if we wanted one file librarian to manage all my computer files, including the personally created \Jim\ files too.  Wouldn’t that be cool?

Right now we generally have one program that creates each kind of content, such as a word processer for writing, a spreadsheet for playing with numbers, a database for handling data in tables, a publishing program for making magazine content, web editors for creating web pages, audio programs for recording voice, and so on.  But on the other hand, there are two classes of programs emerging that show us the results of what these other programs produce.  The first general class of file viewers is the web browser for looking at data files on the net, and the second program is the media librarian for looking at files on your computer.

I’m not sure if media librarians are a good idea or not.  They are designed to make life easier for the user and isolate the user from knowing about the file system.  The entire Macintosh philosophy seems to follow this belief too, that things are easier if you keep the user from needing to know too much about the file system.  I’m not sure that’s a good educational goal.  Both the web browser and media librarian work to replace the operating system.  An emerging class of Linux netbooks work to create an easy-to-use visual menu that sits on top of the OS and hides things from the user too.

The trouble is, if users work directly with the file system and double clicks on one, whether word processor document, or mp3 music file, those files will be launched into an editor program, rather than a player program, assuming the user created the files.  Media librarians like iTunes, Windows Media Player, Rhapsody, Audible Manager are great for organizing and playing certain kinds of files, producing playlists, sharing media with other users, etc.  The trouble is to select one universal media library program that does everything perfectly.

When I download an audiobook from Audible.com, it goes into my iTunes and Audible Manager, and I can have it also go into my Windows Media Player.  Sometimes the download gets messed up and the audiobook doesn’t get filed in one of the players.  So I have to find the file and manually add it to the library.  iTunes files all MP3 files under Music, so songs and ripped audio books get mixed together.  That annoys me.

Plus iTunes only wants to work with iPods, so it doesn’t help me when I use my Zune.  But then my Zune Media player won’t have anything to do with my iPods.  And all my media librarians fight to own my MP3 collection of 18,000+ songs.  It’s a huge pain.  I also have multiple programs willing to play my videos too, but none are universal, thus I have to have specialty programs like Amazon Unbox to view videos bought from Amazon.

Right now you can set Windows to launch any program you choose for a particular file extension.  Thus if I have Rhapsody set for .mp3, it will launch when I click on a song or an audiobook or a podcast, all of which share the .mp3 extension.  I wish Windows would allow a folder override to this system, so for \Audiobooks\ I could set Audible Manager as a my player, and for \Music\ I could set Windows Media Player, and for \Podcasts\ I could set iTunes.

Now that we’re slowly moving away from DRM enslaved files, we will be less reliant on media librarian programs like iTunes.  Also, why does your favorite program to play songs also have to be your program to load songs onto a MP3 player?  And why can’t I have one librarian for all my devices, including iPods, Creative MP3 players, Zune, phone and netbooks?  Every portable device has a limited amount of storage space, so wouldn’t it be great to have a librarian on my largest computer that could talk to all my lesser computers and help me manage a subset of files I want to maintain on each?

I would love a librarian where I could rate my content 1-10, whether songs, movies or word documents, and then when I plug in a portable device, the librarian would show me how much that device can handle by telling me, “This device can hold all content rated 8 and above, would you like me to load it?”  Or I could set it to always load personally created data first, then songs as a second priority, and only sync television marked unseen, and to manually sync movies.

Even still, I’m not sure I like one program to do everything for me.  I like choice.  I like the Unix philosophy of having a tool for each job.  I think I’d prefer to pick each app that played each kind of file.  That way I could have the perfect ebook reader for me that might be different from my perfect music player.   Hell, I might like one kind of MP3 player for playing albums, another for playing playlists, another for random playing of songs, and even another program where I play and manage my all-time favorite 1,001 tunes.  And all of these would work from the same \Music\ folder structure.  I’d also like a program that would generate reports on the \Music\ folder by listing all albums, artists and tracks, and keep statistics on each.  I have no idea how many albums I own, even though they are all on a computer.

Hard Disk Driving versus Network Driving

As the Internet get better, meaning faster and with more features, space on our local hard drives will be needed less, until we only need to store personally created data.  If Rhapsody’s library had every song my personal music library did, I’d never mess with a \Music\ folder again.  If the network was fast and always dependable, I wouldn’t even worry about putting songs, television and movies on my devices because I’d just stream them from Lala, Rhapsody, Pandora, Zune, Netflix and Amazon.  A netbook with a 160gb hard drive would be fine and dandy as my auxiliary brain until I took too many photos or videos.  And if I could store unlimited photos and videos reliably online, I’d again be free of hard drive space limitations.

If the the broadband and the network were that great I wouldn’t even need a \Library\ file system at all.  However, any experience with flaky network connections will make you horde your favorite content locally.

There’s a reason why they call these cute little computers netbooks.  They are gadgets designed to depend on the Internet for their content.  I’ve never wanted a smartphone because I’ve never wanted to pay a broadband cell phone bill, but I’d be much more likely to want broadband service with a netbook.  And all the cell phone providers are quickly ramping up to sell netbooks with two-year broadband contracts. 

Laptops were supposed to be on-the-go computing, but they have been too big, too expensive and don’t last long enough on a charge, to be the always on-the-go computers.  I just don’t want to carry an expensive laptop everywhere, afraid I might break it, lose it, or have it stolen, but I might carry a $350 machine everywhere I went, especially if it’s charge would last all day like a cell phone, and I could get access to the net.

I’ve set up a half-dozen netbooks so far, all for women who want these purse size computers.  I’ve had several grown women in my office all squealing like girls over purple and pinkness.  They don’t even understand the potential of netbooks, all they see is pretty and purse-able.  They even buy netbooks with their own money for work use.  I’ve talked to other women that bought them for home use at Walmart or from the Home Shopping Channel, and they tell me their kids are buying them too.  Netbooks are hot.  $250-$400 seems to be the right price for portable computing.

I’m waiting for 8 hours of battery life, which many models have now, and better video processing, which is coming this fall.  I’d also like faster processing and I’m torn on deciding between a 10” or 12” screen, and what resolution it should have.  I’ve set up a Dell Mini 10 with 1366×768 resolution that’s super sharp but teeny tiny  But the Dell’s was properly proportioned at the resolution, something not true of all netbook screens I’ve seen.  I hate squashed or stretched fonts!  

Netbooks are getting very close to showing 1080p video, so they will make great on-the-road theaters that can replace portable DVD players and iPods, plus they make great Skype video phones.  Combined with broadband and Bluetooth headsets, they can be cell phones too.  The implications for this auxiliary brain as a communications tool is immense.

Backing Up is Hard To Do

As we put more of our life on our netbooks, or should we steal a trademark, our Lifebooks, it will be vital to back them up.  If netbooks are synced with desktop computers, that’s one level of backup.  Asus even sells their netbooks with 10gb of online storage.  And there is always services like Mozy.com that backup files to Internet servers.  But the main thing to remember, these devices will become our heads we can lose, and we’ll hate the day we experience a digital lobotomy.  I’ve always said the Internet is our real sixth sense, and netbooks will only reinforce this belief.  Once we all got addicted to electrical devices like computers and televisions, we’d get pissed when electricity went off.  After I became dependent on the net, I actually get jumpy and depressed when the net goes down.  If we become addicted to our little buddy computers we carry everywhere, losing one will be painful indeed.  Like losing part of ourselves.  Being able to quickly replicate our digital life onto a replacement netbook will be extremely important.

Do Our Files Reflect Our Personality?

If a team of psychologists with AI tools, found my future netbook with all my writing and all my favorite photos, art, books, movies, television shows, songs, on it, could they analyze the content and produce a description of my personality?  If netbooks had been around for hundreds of years, and we could study the content of our ancestors, how much would we know about them?  My father died when I was 19, and there has always been so much I’ve wondered about him.  I would love to have a copy of his auxiliary brain.

Also, imagine kids starting school with netbooks and keeping all their schoolwork, photos and videos they make throughout their K-12 careers.  Boy, I wished I had such a childhood treasure.  I wished I had taken photos of all my classmates, all my classrooms, hallways, schools and teachers.  I wish I had taken photos of all the homes I lived in, with photos of all the rooms, furniture and the streets I walked.  We always focused our cameras on families and friends, but I wished I had also taken photos of objects, like houses, rooms, streets, cars of my life, to aid my memory.  I’ve forgotten so much that I’d love to recall.  Maybe it has little true value, because I did forget all that stuff, but now I wish I had more evidence of my earlier life.  I wish I had photos of every dog and cat I owned.  I can barely picture my furry friends now, mostly just recall their names, like Blacky, Chief or Mike, and some I can’t even remember, which is sad.

I seriously doubt there is much real detail to download from our brains, if such a science fictional reality is ever possible.  I don’t know if personality profiles can be resurrected from netbooks, but I think my sense of personal history would be much stronger, and my self awareness, far more vivid, if my poor old brain had more solid evidence.

The Future of Netbooks

Thinking about these seven concepts of how we could store our life digitally and have it readily at hand, to help us with day-to-day activities, makes me picture all kinds of possibilities for netbooks.  I doubt our futures will include jacks in the back of our skulls like the people in the movie, The Matrix, but the netbook could become the mind-computer interface between ourselves and the net. 

With Bluetooth, we could have cell phone like headsets, so we could make calls, but also use our netbooks for dictating voice recordings, to aid our memory with verbal annotations.  Photo and video cameras could be combined with Bluetooth so anything we snap or video is immediately recorded to our external brains.  Medical monitoring devices could be combined with Bluetooth, netbooks and broadband for new kinds of health tracking and assessment.  Netbooks will only expand social networking, and if our youthful population is so close now because of cell phones, think what constant video phoning will do to their generation.

Netbooks might finally bring us into the age of videophone that’s been predicted by science fiction since Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon entertained tykes in the 1930s in the Sunday funnies.  Computer pundits thought we’d all be wearing computers by now, but maybe a good device that’s easy to carry will do instead.  This makes me predict purses will become common for men, at least leather over-the-shoulder pouches, or we’ll see more men with messenger bags.  But netbooks are so easy to carry, they may never get to far from our hands.

If netbooks had reversible LCD touch screens as a standard feature, so they could function like Tablet PCs, netbooks could replace the emerging ebooks devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader.  Right now I find it easiest to carry a cell phone in my pants pocket and a Zune in my shirt pocket, one for phone service the other for audiobooks.  But if I have a netbook with me wherever I go, or nearby, then all I would need to carry on my person is a Bluetooth headset.  Should I predict the demise of the iPhone and iPod?

The deciding factors on buying a netbook is how big the screen and keyboard, and whether or not they are useable for long periods of typing and reading.  I bought an iPod touch to be my carry around computer, but I didn’t like typing with a single finger, and the screen was too small for browsing the web.  It’s pretty nice for reading text email, terrible for HTML email, very nice for checking movie times and looking at previews, pleasant for reading ebooks, although I might like a slightly larger screen, and very nice for Pandora and Wolfgang’s Vault. 

When netbooks first burst on the scene in 2007, their appeal included solid state storage over spinning hard drives, so, “My Life on a Hard Drive” might be a poor title soon, but if spinning drives disappear, I predict we’ll still call solid state devices hard drives too.  Technology is evolving away from moving parts, so we might eventually call netbooks, memory books, the name I want to use for them.  If the right technology pans out, and the right pricing for broadband emerges, memory books might be very common indeed. 

What will you put on your memory book?  How will you organize it.  How can a memory book improve your life?  A good portion of our population has been able to avoid the computer revolution, but if a memory book becomes so personally useful, will anyone choose to be a Luddite in this revolution?  As I age, and my memory falters and skips, being able to query a memory book becomes a very useful mental crutch.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  Will it make me weaker or stronger?

I do know organizing my thoughts for this blog helps me retain words, and even learn to use new words.  Writing these blogs help me refine and distinguish discrete ideas and concepts.  In the past year I’ve met a number of people, usually young, who have asked me what my favorite movies, books and songs are, and I had a hard time making a quick list.  That disturbs me.  Maybe if I constantly worked to maintain a library of favorites on my memory book, or even just keep my memory book handy and constantly annotated a list of favorites, I would feel better.  Who knows, I might not even need to open my memory book, but my real memory of such lists would be fresh enough to have something to say in casual conversations.

I don’t know if my memory weakness is normal for someone my age, or if it portends Alzheimer’s in future years.  My wife already gets impatient with my slowness to respond, and hates when I tell her she better start acquiring more patience in case I get worse.  “You better not,” she warns me.  Having a memory book might become the glasses of my memories someday.  Or my memory book might become a very large hand to write notes on.  Or it my memory book might become a gym to exercise my neurons.   This is all fascinating to consider, and I can’t wait to test out these ideas.  I’m just not ready to buy a netbook yet.

JWH – 6/28/9

New to Me, Old to You?

I discovered popular music as a kiddo while riding around in my Daddy’s 1955 Pontiac, playing with the AM radio push-buttons.  This was around 1958, and I was seven.  For some reason my parents didn’t have a radio in the house, nor did they own a record player and records.  Music wasn’t important in their life, but they seemed to love the music on TV, on the variety shows, where my Dad dug Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and my mother would tell us kids to shut up so she could listen to Nat King Cole or Perry Como.  Those crooners were so damn old, even then.

My parents would get especially excited if music clips of Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller played in an old movie.  They’d tell my sister and I how that was their music.  Big bands, with trumpets and clarinets, it seemed as ancient as Egypt.  Music that felt new was the rock and roll music I found on the AM radio in the car.  That music made my Dad turn red and shout, “Turn off that goddamn noise.”

I’m listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service, a San Francisco rock band from the late 1960s.  Quicksilver still feels out of the womb new to me.  Even though it’s forty years later, a much greater span of time than from Benny Goodman of the late 1930s to the late 1950s, Quicksilver didn’t get old to me.  Why?  Would kids hearing my music today feel it had been dug up by archeologists?

Is my music new to me, but old to you?

Listening to current pop music makes me feel old.  It’s all made by teenagers, or over-the-hill burnouts in their twenties, but then the rock and roll of the 1950s was made by teenagers too.  Time is doing a number on my head.  Time is more than relative.  I can feel young and old, both at the same time, just by listening to music.

JWH – 6/16/9

Fuel For Writing

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on Auxiliary Memory.  I’ve started several essays but never finished any.  I also started a diet. I’ve notice over the years that there’s a relationship between calories and the number of words I produce.  Cookies, cokes, cakes and candy fuel my mind for writing.  Dieting leaves my brain lethargic, suitable only for watching TV.  And man have I been watching TV this past two weeks!  I’ve seen 33 episodes of Battlestar Galactica.  I had to boost my Netflix from 1 disc at a time to 3 to keep up with my hunger for more shows, watching up to 4 episodes a night.

The difference between being active and passive is junk food.  But since I’ve ballooned to 237 pounds I can’t keep feeding my creative drive.  And those healthy fruits and vegetables just don’t stoke the fire to crank out words.  I’ve got to find some kind of discipline to get back into writing.  Without sweet calories, I guess I need to learn how to push myself by will-power alone.

Of course, I’ve got to ask myself why write at all?  Not to mention the fact that I’ve been mentally beating myself up for the last couple years for writing on the blog instead of working on fiction.  Blog writing is like practicing the piano.  It’s very good for mental health.  For the last decade I’ve been forgetting more and more words, and even how to pronounce them.  When I started blog writing that boosted my ability to remember.

Getting old has other side affects besides the slowing of brain access speeds.  There is a tendency to solidify thoughts in old age, so if you’re not careful you’ll parrot your frozen opinions whenever a response is needed.  Exploring concepts in a blog helps break down comfortable old opinions into their basic parts so you can start over and remodel the rooms in your brain.

All this new thinking requires energy and time.  My best time to write is mornings, but Monday through Friday I have work, and often on the weekends I have personal obligations.  Writing at night requires lots of extra calories.  The obvious solution is to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and write before work, but right now I don’t have that kind of discipline.  My body naturally wants to sleep until 6:30 am when the cats start meowing for their breakfast.

There are alternative fuels for writing.  Sometimes playing loud music can stimulate my brain cells.  Other times reading an inspiring article and taking a short nap to digest the thoughts will get me to jump up and start writing.  I’ve never had the mental energy to write like a professional writer, that is to stick to writing like working a 9 to 5.  Real writers can write when they’re not in the mood, or when they lack the energy.  Real writers can’t not write, but I don’t have that demon.

One way or another I’ve got to find the energy to write.  I would be tempted by artificial stimulants, but my old body can’t even handle caffeine anymore.  I know I can’t stop writing because my mind would quickly start sliding downhill again.

JWH – 3/29/9