Throwing Away the Past

Have you ever found a pair of ticket stubs to a concert you went to a quarter-century ago when cleaning out an old drawer?  You hold in your hand proof that you were somewhere in the past at a certain time, and even what building, row and seat, and what you heard for a few hours.  Do you save the ticket stubs or toss them?  Maybe you could jot the info down in a journal, or make an entry into Facebook Timeline.  If you don’t, you’re throwing the past away.

I often throw my past away, and sometimes I regret it.  Saving the past takes work.  I turned 60 last year and my memory is in decline, so I often wish I had validation for lost memories.  But saving the past often feels like hoarding, and hoarding scares me because the weight of past can become paralyzing.  Some folks bury themselves in the past long before they die.

1939-05 - Dad at Homestead FL

Most people don’t have eidetic memories.  Have you ever wondered how biographers could write gigantic biographies of people who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago?  George Washington and Abraham Lincoln left big historical trails to follow, but most people leave few clues to piece together.  My father died when I was 19 and it took me years to realize that I knew nothing about him.  I had memories and a handful of photos, which I thought was all I needed, but when I finally got around to examining those memories I realized I had zip, nada, nothing.  I have no idea what was going on inside his head.  Like, what was he thinking on his graduation day in the photo above?  What did he hope to get out of life?

Recently I threw out decades of credit card bills, medical statements, receipts on big purchases, bank statements.  I knew if I wanted to I could recreate at least my spending and medical history with those clues, but in the end, I chose to throw them all away.

Who are we?  Are we what we think?  Are we what we own?  Are we what we did?  Are we what we love?  Are we what we hate?  I’m not a believer in the afterlife, but I wonder what it would be like, because if we went some place new do we throw out who we were on Earth?  Memories of my Dad are defined by Camel cigarettes and Seagram 7 bottles.  If my Dad can’t have his cigs and booze, can he be my Dad in heaven?  Or do they have bars and ashtrays on the other side?

And is that how the young man in the photo above expected to be remembered?  By his bad dying habits?

There was a period in my life where I fanatically collect LPs.  I had over a thousand of them.  Collecting and listening to music is what made my life good and meaningful.  I eventually sold or gave them all alway.  I only have one LP now.  Last year I had a fit of nostalgia for an album I heard in 1971 called Never Going Back to Georgia by The Blues Magoos.  It was never reprinted on CD.  I ordered a used copy off the internet and a friend gave me a turntable and I played that album a couple of times.   What I heard was not what I remembered from forty years ago.

It takes a great effort to recapture the past once you throw it away.  I know many people who never throw anything a way.  I knew a guy who claimed he had every book he ever bought and read.  I know that’s not true because he lent me a book and I never gave it back, and I’m sure I’m not the first.  I have a piece of his past – sorry about that Bob.  But is it a piece that matters?  And which pieces do?

Does the past matter?  I can go long periods of time without thinking about the past, but boy do I hate it when a memory pops up and I can’t place when and where I was.  It bums me out that I can’t remember one face or name from kindergarten through third grade.  I do remember returning to Lake Forest Elementary in my fourth grade year and meeting a girl name Helen and how it upset her that I didn’t remember knowing her from when we went to second grade together.  I can remember a few people from 5th and 6th grade.  That’s pitiful, ain’t it?  In all my K-12 years I can barely remember and name more than a dozen classmates.  Where did all those people go, I spent years with them.

Religious people agonize over being reborn after death – they just don’t want to let go, they’re just afraid of dying.  But I think we die every day, every moment, I think we’re constantly throwing away the past.  We’re new people every day.  We go to sleep every night and our brains housecleans the day’s memories and throws out most of them.  If we kept all our memories we’d be like hoarders buried under piles of useless crap.

But each night, and maybe not every night, the old noggin decides to keep a few bits of the past, so there’s a precedence for keeping some stuff.  I wish I had kept a diary and took more photographs throughout my life.  A case could be made that we should each be our own biographer, and maybe that’s the right amount of past to keep, what we could keep in one big book.  Our brains aren’t very good with details, so we should jot the important ones down and take a few snaps to document our lives.

Now here’s my wish.  I wish The Library of Congress would create a national digital archive where we could store our memoires, like a permanent blogging site that historians can depend on for mining memories about all of us.  I know most of our autobiographies will go unread, but they’d be there.  I’d love to read my father’s thoughts, and his father’s, and his father’s father, and so on.

There are things we do want to remember.  Most of the past we throw away, but maybe we should start throwing away a little less.

JWH – 3/16/12

My Music DNA: The FM Years

Until I wrote My Music DNA:  The AM Era I never thought about how my life has been one long experiment with technology.  We like to think personal technology started with personal computers, or for some people, the iPod, iPhone or iPad, but now that I contemplate the topic, I realize The Gadget Age started in the 19th century with photography, then the phonograph, movie camera and radio.  Before gadgets if you wanted to hear music you had to go where the musicians were performing.  If you wanted to see Paris you had to go to France.

Gadgets bring the world to us, whether it’s voice, music, images or movies.  To a degree, books and paintings are proto-gadgets, they bring distant words and images to us created by people, but gadgets bring snapshots of reality, whether it’s images (photography), voice and music  (phonograph, radio) or movies (film and television).  A personal computer or iPad are dazzling devices because not only can they bring us voice, music, images and movies, they can process these media like a word processer processes words.

Although FM radio was patented in 1933, first broadcasts weren’t made until 1939, and stereo not added until the late 1950s, I didn’t get my first FM radio until 1968.  FM radio took a long time to catch on.  If you look at the Fidelity Potential Index Table you will see how sound recordings have evolved since the invention of the wax cylinder.  FM music has more fidelity than the 78 and 45, but not as much as the LP.  I had already started buying 45s and LPs before I got my first FM radio.  My first FM radio came in a small console stereo I bought in 1968 from the Columbia Record Club, when I was 16.  It was my first installment plan purchase.  I don’t have a photo of my first console stereo, but it looked something like this.

console-stereo2

Working as paperboy, cutting lawns, babysitting, and eventually as a bagboy didn’t not pay enough to buy all the music I wanted to hear, so my FM radio was a magical piece of technology.  AM radio was all about hit singles, whereas FM was about albums.  FM radio took me out of the teeny-bopper tunes and introduced me to a more mature level of album oriented music.

Among the albums I discovered back in 1968 on my FM radio was Truth by Jeff Beck, which I immediately bought.  I was transitioning from AM radio to FM and I discovered new groups like Cream,  Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, Steve Miller, Grateful Dead, etc.  I also got into the albums of artists I had discovered on the AM airwaves like The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas and The Pappas.

I remember friends coming over in 1968 to hear the FM radio for the first time and being blown away – it was that different from AM.

My FM years didn’t last long, from 1968-1972.  It was transitional technology.  FM brought me a wide range of music from around the world, but it was a broadcast technology.  I started buying LPs in the AM era, and by 1970 I had about 300 albums, but they were never enough.  FM radio was my music news and how I discovered new music until I couldn’t handle the disc jockeys.  At first, back in the 1960s, FM was considered underground music, but FM took over the hit parade as more people got FM receivers.  At a certain point disc jockeys became so annoying I gave up FM and AM radio.

In 1969 I started getting my music news from The Rolling Stone magazine.  For a brief while in the late 70s and early 80s I returned to FM to listen to WEVL, a volunteer radio station where music fans hosted music shows rather than professional disc jockeys.  But for the most part I gave up radio listening in the 1970s.  I became a album buying addict, buying over a thousand LPs before I switched to buying CDs in the 1980s, and I went on to buy 1,500 CDs before I phased into streaming music in recent years.

AM radio showcased top hits that were played frequently.  AM hits of the 1960s provide the core music that Baby Boomers share.  On any given day you could hear about 40-60 different songs.

FM radio offered a far larger range of music and styles until it was hijacked by the Top 40 format and became zany entertainment for automobile drivers.  In the early days of FM if you tried hard enough you could hear 100-200 different songs in a day.

Buying LPs offered the choice of thousands of albums at better stores.  And LPs allowed fans to own music, another kind of enabling technology.

With Internet shopping, collectors could buy a million CDs if they could afford it – then the MP3 revolution hit, and collectors could steal those million albums if they had the time, bandwidth and lack of ethics.  Now with steaming music anyone can have easy access to over a million albums, or about 15-20 million songs for $9.99 a month.

iTunes and iPod reinvented the hit singles and almost killed the album.  Streaming music is like combining FM and owning LPs with renting music, and it promotes the album.

FM radio still exists, as does AM radio and even LPs, but they are waning technologies that have been supplanted by the Internet.  FM radio was a stepping stone technology that expanded the world of music over AM.  FM radio is now a trailing technology – it fits a niche market, and has many competitors like Sirius Radio, a paid service, or Pandora Radio, free and paid, that offers music from a very wide selection of albums, and is a far superior to broadcast technology.  Broadcast radio itself is a waning technology, even with HD Radio.

Streaming music offers the greatest selection and control – with instant access to most of the albums in print.

Strangely enough, it’s very hard for me to remember FM songs that I loved because of listening to the radio, versus songs from the same time period that I bought on LPs.  The way I’ve discovered how to tell the difference is to listen to Play Cofi Jukebox at tropicalglen.com by the years below.  The songs I loved but never bought are songs I can give thanks to FM radio technology.  What’s surprising is just how many of those songs there were.  Just click on a link and listen.  How many of the songs did you buy, and how many are part of your memories because you listened to FM radio?

19681969197019711972

It’s strange to think that young people today may never have listened to an AM or FM radio, or bought a LP or CD.  But I wonder, just what kind of technologies will supplant streaming music?  Combining streaming music with a smartphone is about as close to thinking of a song and hearing it instantly telepathically as one can get.  Will they ever invent brain transceivers that stimulate the neurons directly, and just bypass the ears?  It’s just amazing to think of all the technological change in one lifetime.

But you know what?  There’s one constant that doesn’t change.  That’s listening to music.

JWH – 2/21/12

Living in the Cloud: A File Structure for Life

I’ve been messing with microcomputers since 1979, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s that I realized I was creating data I didn’t ever want to lose.  By the mid-00s with digital music, video and photography it’s obvious to everyone that we had invisible possessions we’d want to keep for life.  This presents a number of problems.  How long can I preserve photos like this of my great grandparents?

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

File Formats

My first efforts of writing fiction was on a Commodore 64 – and even if I had any of its floppies, I couldn’t read the discs, nor would I have a word processing program to read the files.  When I got a PC I bought Word Perfect, but that was many PCs ago, and I’ve since converted those files to Word.  If I live to be 100 (1951) will I still be able to read those files?  If by a miracle I do live a century I’m pretty sure I’ll be a sentimental old slob who cries over his ancient snapshots.  Will I be able to find the ones I want and still view them?  Is it .jpg forever?  I’ve been buying audiobooks from Audible.com since 2002, will I still have my audiobook library to play in 2051?  Or all the Kindle books I’m buying now?

Standard file formats are critical to long-term preservation of data.  How long will Amazon maintain the DRM copy protection on my Kindle books and Audible audiobooks?

Data Migration

I’ve lost count how many computers I’ve own after eleven.  Every time I get a new computer I need to move all my files over and that’s a pain.  I’m always making a new folder and throwing stuff in it, so the number of files I’m saving constantly grows, and every few years I try to clean things out and it’s a big job.  Usually when I get a new computer I just copy everything in My Documents to the new My Documents folder.  But what if I got a Mac?  Or what if in 2022 they come out with some far out new computer system?

File Organization

If you start with one folder, and organize your digital life into sub-folders, what is the best structure?  I sure wished that iTunes hadn’t put ripped audio books into My Music years ago, because that’s causing problems moving my music to the cloud.   Is there a way to plan for future snafus?

Is there an optimal structure that will stand the test of time.  By structure, I mean folder organization.

\Jim Harris

\Audio Books

\Data

\Ebooks

\Mind Maps

\Music

\Numbers

\PDF

\Photos

\Words

\Essays

\Fiction

\Videos

Let’s imagine a future where we have federally regulated data banks like we have money banks and we can trust them implicitly.  In this future, data bank replicates our data in layers of backups, that for anything short of Armageddon, will be completely secure.  Should we put all our data in one place?  In the above chart I could remove \Music because I have my music stored at Google, Amazon and Apple.  I could also remove \Photos because of Picasaweb.  I could also remove \Audio Books and \Ebooks because of Amazon.

Because we don’t have data banks and because my cloud storage is limited at Dropbox and SkyDrive, I will let those other companies maintain my media files.  But if we did have trustworthy data banks, I’d probably want all my content in one location, which means precise organization is important if I’m collecting files for life.

Data Inheritance

There is another thing to consider – what happens when we die?  When our parents die we inherit their papers, books, records, photos and so on.  Won’t we do the same things with digital files?  When I die I want my file structure copied over to my wife’s data bank, and if I wanted, I’d like to give copies to all interested relatives and friends too.  Having a well organize file structure would make it easier for people to go through my digital processions.

Cloud of the Future

Someday we will have data banks.  We might even have laws that require our data to be saved for historians.  Can you imagine scholars from 2782 AD trying to research our times?  I saw a wonderful show on Nova last night, “Mysteries of a Masterpiece” about art historians working to validate a work of art as Leonardo da Vinci.  The scientists had lots of physical artifacts to examine.  If our world goes digital, what will future researchers have to figure out how we lived?

Moving to the cloud is the first step towards this future where we have data banks and preserving digital data for all time.

JWH – 1/26/12

Living the in Cloud: Dropbox and Evernote

If you access the internet from only one device this article won’t mean much to you, so I won’t mind if you go read something more interesting.

However, if you own a computer and a tablet, or a computer, smartphone and tablet, then reading about Evernote and Dropbox might be worth a few minutes of your time.  If you’re like me and juggle a lot of devices then learning to squirrel your digital crap all over the cloud becomes more vital.  At home I have both a Windows and Linux desktop, at work I have Windows, Linux and Mac desktops, and between the two locations I have an iPod touch and iPad 2.

What a pain it is to think of something you want and realize you left it in your other computer.  Moving to the cloud is in its early stages, so 100% tried and true solutions are in the future.  As society evolves towards the day when internet access has five nines of uptime, 99.999%, then we can develop a new paradigm of trusting our files to the cloud, and that will be the difference between life before personal computers and life after them.

dropboxevernote

Although I’d like to be a cyborg and meld my brain with silicon I’m not quite there yet, but I do think of the Internet as my auxiliary brain and that presents some problems.  Before the Internet going to work meant leaving my main auxiliary brain at home – how inconvenient.   Sure, someone invented the laptop and it was a good idea at the time, but it was only a stopgap solution.  After we got smartphones and tablets it became pretty obvious trying to sync all our crap between every device we owned was a losing battle.  The solution was to put all digital kipple in one location and then let all the machines, big and small, fetch what we needed from that primary storage.

What this means is the cloud is our new auxiliary memory and the machine we use is less important.  The old fanboy battle between PC versus Mac becomes silly.  If I can read my docs, listen to my music and look at my photos from any device, does it matter how big or small it is, or who made it, or even who owns it?  Instant access is what counts.  Memories are best served fast.

When the cloud becomes our digital memory deciding how to organize memories becomes significant.  I’m playing with two tools, Dropbox and Evernote.  Both are free to use with an introductory amount of cloud space, but fill up your cloud attic, and you’ll have to pay for more space for your white elephants.  That’s cool, but I haven’t committed to either one yet because I’m still evaluating how they store my memories.  I’ll probably buy into both, but I haven’t decided.

Dropbox is like having a hard drive in the cloud.  You create folders and store whatever kind of files you want.  It’s very computer centric.   When you join you get 2gb of free space.  If you convince a friend to join they give you another 250mb of space.  If you get enough friends to join you can get up to 8gb of free space, but after that you rent larger blocks of space.  By the way, if you join from this link I’ll earn some extra space.

Evernote is different, it’s database centric.  Evernote is a free-form database where you leave notes, either ones you type, or ones you email via a smartphone, or clip from the web, or cut and paste from your own computer documents.  You can even embed PDF files.  If you spend $45 a year, upgrading to the Premium version, gets you more memory processing features and more storage space.

The neat thing about Evernote is being able to search your collection of notes.  Since I’m getting old and the access speed on my biological memory has become erratic, untrustworthy and slow, having cloud base memory with search is nifty indeed.  Because Evernote is a free-form database, throw your data in any old way, it doesn’t matter, and let search find it for you.  You can be as sloppy or neat as your personality.

Both programs install as programs on your computers, work from web apps, or install as apps on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets.

I can access Evernote and Dropbox from my PC, Mac, Linux, iPad, and iPod touch.  If I think of something I want to remember, or read something I want to remember, I can choose to remember it the old way, or I can memorize it in my auxiliary memory.

JWH – 1/24/12

I’ve Been Living Under a Rock–So Who are the Kardashians?

I’ve been living under a rock, or so it would seem, because until today when I looked up Kardashians on Wikipedia I really didn’t know who they were.  For weeks I’ve been hearing the word Kardashians and wondered if they were a band. 

Friday at work, I overheard three students arguing about the K named people.   When two left, I asked the remaining young woman, and she smiled and kindly explained they were people who were paid to be famous.  “Umm…  They do that now?” I wasn’t so clueless that I hadn’t notice tabloids exclaiming gossipy stories about K named women at the checkout.  Something about an expensive wedding and a marriage gone bad in 72 days.

Today I looked up the name Kardashian on Wikipedia and found out about their television show.  Even when I had cable I never watched E!.  I really don’t need to know any more about the Kardashians than I do now, and would not recognize one if I saw one.

This amuses me and I chuckle at my own cluelessness.  To the young, knowledge of the famous is a sanity check.  Not knowing the glitterati often gets me a sneer or sarcasm, that tells me I’m out of touch with reality and implying I’m over that famous hill.  I turned 60 last year, and I can’t name the young people who are currently famous as movie stars, TV stars, sport stars, and I would stay rock stars, but is rock is even famous anymore?  I’m just now memorizing Kate Winslet’s name and I saw Titanic twice at the theaters – for the shipwreck.

My pop culture education grades took a nose dive when I gave up cable TV and quit reading TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly.  I do read The Rolling Stone on my iPad, so I know a few new groups, but I had to buy two Arcade Fire albums before I could remember their damn name, and I still can’t remember any of their dang song titles.  Starting in my late 40s, and all through my 50s, I’ve been losing the ability to remember nouns – so maybe that’s why I lost interest in pop culture.  Following the famous requires noun memorization.

I know who Kay Francis and Robert Montgomery were, and I doubt millions of young people do – so there!  Who is clueless now?

Luckily, forgetting doesn’t hurt.  Oh, it’s annoying when I struggle to recall a name I used to know, but it doesn’t hurt.  And it’s not even embarrassing at work when young people make fun of me for not knowing the people they worship.  I remember being 13 and baffled by parents, aunts, uncles and teachers that reveal their low IQ by not knowing The Byrds and Robert Heinlein.

The 21st century is so passé, the 19th century is where it’s at.  My new idols are Anthony Trollope, Louise May Alcott, John Singer Sargent, Edith Wharton, Charles Darwin, … so back under my rock.

JWH – 1/16/12