2022 Book #1 – The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

by James Wallace Harris

My old buddy Connell and I often talk about the unexpected scientific discoveries made in our lifetime. Back in the 1960s, we both grew up reading science fiction and we had certain expectations about the 21st-century. Now that we’re in our seventies living in that century we realized that science fiction missed so much, and so did our imaginations.

Because we grew up thinking the black and white astronomical photos made by the Mt. Palomar 200″ telescope were the pinnacle of astronomical awareness, we never imagined what the Hubble Space Telescope would show us in color. We never dreamed that astronomers would discover exoplanets or robots would roam the solar system. We thought people had to go to all those places.

Nor did we imagine society being transformed by computers and networks. I never pictured the computer I’m typing on now, or what I could do with my iPhone or iPad.

But one of the biggest discoveries we missed was about animal consciousness. We expected that we’d have to wait for interstellar spaceships to be developed before we’d meet another form of intelligent life. We never realized it was all around us on Earth and in the oceans.

Intelligence and sentience are on a spectrum. We grew up in a time when people believed they were the crown of creation, and all life below us was unconscious and stupid. We’re finally realizing just how stupid we were. See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

There are so many books to read to illustrate what I mean. The Soul of an Octopus is just one, but a beautiful work by a woman that has learned so much about animals by spending time with them. Sy Montgomery writes in a way that we follow her around as she makes her discoveries. You will fall in love with four beautiful creatures, Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. You will cry when some of them die, but you will also get to meet intelligent alien lifeforms.

I still read a lot of science fiction, I can’t help myself, it’s a lifelong addiction that I no longer try to escape from. But I’ve learned if I really want to experience the far-out I need to read science books, books like The Soul of an Octopus.

My reading goal for 2022 is to read as many intensely great books as I can find. The Soul of an Octopus starts the year with a bang.

JWH

On the First Day of My Seventies

by James Wallace Harris, 11/25/21

When I left the work world back in 2013 I thought I’d apply myself toward writing science fiction short stories in my retirement years. For some reason, I’ve hit a barrier that hasn’t allowed me to do that. Very few people succeed at new creative pursuits in old age. I still hope to beat that statistic.

I’ve decided to attack the problem with a different approach. For my seventies, my goal is to write a nonfiction book. This is kind of an absurd goal since I’m starting to have trouble cranking out blog posts. But I have an idea — aim low, but be persistent. I seriously doubt I can produce a commercially successful work of nonfiction, so my ambition is to write a book I wouldn’t be embarrassed to self-publish on Amazon.

Two things make me think this is possible. I’ve written thousands of blog posts. All I’ve got to do is write fifty 1,000-word essays on the same topic that ties together in a coherent readable way. I already have several ideas that interest me, but can I make them interesting to other people?

At seventy, focus, concentration, and discipline are hard to come by. This week I’ve been watching videos on the Zettlekasten method of taking notes. Those videos have inspired me because they use an external system to organize ideas and build connections. This might let me overcome my cognitive limitations.

The older I get the harder it is to hold a thought in my head, much less juggle several thoughts at once to show how they connect. I’m encouraged I might overcome this limitation with the software Obsidian. That software is designed to help retain what you study and build a knowledge base. To help me remember what I find while researching on the web I’ll use Raindrop.io. I’ve already been using the mind-mapping software Xmind to organize ideas visually. Combing all of these programs might let me construct a large coherent collection of related thoughts and ideas.

I need tools that map where I’ve been and hopefully reveal where I want to go. These tools need to quickly show what I’ve already thought through. I just can’t do that in my head anymore.

Of course, I could be deluding myself. I used to wait until I felt good to work on my hobbies, which is a terrible approach. Now, I never feel good, so I’ll have to push myself to work anyway. That should be good for me. I’m usually drained of all psychic energy by mid-afternoon. I’ve even quit going out at night because I’m no longer functional by late afternoon. Working on this goal feels like I’m rolling a rock up the hill.

I just don’t want to give up, at least not yet. I just don’t want to become a passive consumer of other people’s creative efforts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consuming creative works still gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m just an old dog that wants to learn one last new trick.

JWH

On the Last Day of My Sixties

by James Wallace Harris, 11/24/21

Tomorrow I turn 70. Thinking about that made me realize that today is the last day of my sixties. Damn, this decade has rushed by. I retired from work in October of 2013 when I was 62, so for most of my sixties, I’ve had all my time free. I’ve taken it easy and did exactly what I wanted. Looking back I’m not sure that was a good thing. Taking it easy has become an addiction.

A few weeks ago I thought of an idea for a blog about turning 70, but I never got busy on it. Between 60 and 69 I slowed down. I wonder now if I would have been more active if I hadn’t retired. Back then I could work eight hours and still find time to do many of the things I wanted to do. Now I have all my time free and I get almost nothing accomplished.

I can’t tell if this is a natural aspect of aging or dissipation due to not working. Being lazy doesn’t hurt, in fact, it’s quite pleasant, but I do feel guilty. I guess that’s the Puritanical Atheist in me.

I was at my doctor’s office at 7:30 am for my annual physical, then did the weekly grocery shopping at 9:30. After putting the groceries away had a snack and then a quick nap. I went out to lunch with my friend Laurie at 11:30. After lunch, we played one hand of Skip-Bo at 12:30. I was home by 1:30 for a nap, then listened to Adele’s new album, followed by The Kings of Leon’s new album, and wrapped up the afternoon by talking with my sister for an hour on the phone. It’s now about five. Doesn’t sound like I did much, does it? But that was an extremely busy day for me.

I call this grazing of lite activities puttering around in a small land. I wished I worked at my hobbies more systematically so I felt like I accomplished a little something towards a goal each day, but I’m more and more undisciplined as I get older.

Many of my friends who haven’t retired ask me “What’s retirement like?” It’s sort of like summer vacation between fifth and sixth grade, but never having to go back to school. I don’t know if I’m in heaven or the Twilight Zone.

I’m expecting things to get even more surreal in my seventies.

JWH

The Meaning of Sharing Two Grandparents

by James Wallace Harris, 11/11/21

They say that blood is thicker than water. I’ve never been much into genealogy but ever since my cousin Harold Ervin died a couple weeks ago I’ve been thinking about my cousins and regretting that I didn’t spend more time with them. I keep asking myself why I didn’t and why I regret it so much.

It came to me that cousins are special because we share two grandparents. But what does that mean? I’ve always felt closer to my cousins on my mother’s side of the family. My mother was one of five sisters, and her mother, my grandmother, was a much-loved matriarch of the family. My sister Becky and I called her Nanny, and she had sixteen grandchildren (although one was by marriage).

I actually loved my father’s mother more. We called Ma. My father was one of three boys. But my father’s side of the family didn’t make over Ma as much as my mother’s family made over Nanny. Could sixteen grandchildren versus ten make a difference? I do think my cousin Alana might have made over Ma more. She was always my favorite cousin on my father’s side. It could be that I knew my father’s side cousins a lot less, and thus didn’t know how much time they spent with Ma. One of my big regrets in life is essentially forgetting about Ma after we moved away from Florida. I only went back to see her once.

The above photo shows the last time all sixteen of Nanny’s grandchildren were together. I’m the bald guy on the far left. I’m not even sure when that photo was taken. And I really wish it was a much better photo, one where I could see everyone clearly. But it’s what I have to help me remember, and the poor image is kind of fitting since the memories that day are fuzzy too.

Seven of the sixteen are now dead, and it seems like something very essential to my life is fading away. Even though I have strong feelings for these fourteen people (not counting me and my sister), I don’t remember actually spending that much time with them. I have spent far more time with people that aren’t kin. But these fourteen, and the eight cousins on my father’s side, have a large presence in my memory. Is that because of blood? The most intense memories of my cousins come from the years 1960-1970. Were the kinship experiences I had in adolescence the strongest not because of genetic connections but because everything was so strong during that phase of life?

Looking back I realized that I saw my cousins mostly when my grandmothers were alive. (I never knew my grandfathers.) After my grandmothers died I saw my cousins mostly when visiting my aunts and uncles. Then when my aunts and uncles died, I seldom saw my cousins again. Actually, I haven’t seen my cousins on my father’s side of the family since his funeral in 1970. I do regret that. I also regret that I don’t have a group photo of the ten of us.

Contemplating all of this I realized there are varying levels of kinship bonds. Parents and children are the strongest. But that relationship comes in two modes. Your relationship with your parents, and the relationship with your children. My wife Susan and I have never had children, so I don’t know the second mode. I’m guessing the strength of bonding is greater with your own children. I wonder if I didn’t want children because I never felt a strong bond with my own parents? My parents weren’t happy, and I’ve often thought having children is what tore their marriage apart. Their marital strife certainly affected my desire to have children.

The next most powerful relationship is between siblings. After that, it’s with grandparents. Next, is with aunts and uncles. Then comes cousins. Finally, it’s nephews and nieces. My connections to my cousins were at their strongest when my grandmothers were alive. After that, my aunts and uncles kept me close to my cousins. But once my parents and their siblings were gone the connections to my cousins just faded away. By then, they had their children, and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. That’s sad that Nanny’s family has dispersed, but natural too.

The passing of my cousins might be hitting me harder because Susan and I are a dead end. I have no direct descendants going forward in time. All my connections to family are toward the past, and they are disappearing. I wonder if we could have felt what we feel now when we were young would we have chosen to have children? Strangely, Susan still doesn’t regret not having children, but I do. However, I don’t think I would have been a good parent, I’m too selfish. Most of my friends don’t have children, but of the ones that do, I see they’re having a whole different life in old age than us childless couples.

Writing this essay has answered my question about why I regret so strongly that my cousins are dying. They are the last of my direct line relatives. Susan and I have eleven nephews and nieces, and we like them very much, but they feel like they are on different branches of the family tree. We never got to see our nieces and nephews that much after they grew up, and they are now spread across the country. They have their own children, and in not many years, their own grandchildren. And how much blood do we share with our nephews and nieces? But I have such fond memories of my aunts and uncles, why hasn’t it gone the other way? Is it because I didn’t try harder?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been recalling all the times I saw my grandmothers, aunts and uncles, and cousins. I’ve even thought about trying to write down every encounter I can remember – the number is quite finite. I’m starting to think there really weren’t that many meetings. Mostly we met at holiday dinners, vacations, weddings, funerals, and reunions.

For some reason, we have a special bond with people who have the same pair of grandparents. Is blood really thicker than water? Or is it because we knew those people when we were young and gathered on so many special occasions? I will continue to think about this for a while. I wonder what my cousins think? Maybe I’ll send them this blog.

JWH

Do I Still Want To Be A Programmer?

by James Wallace Harris, 10/28/21

For most of my work life, I worked with computers. I thought of myself as a programmer, it was part of my identity. After I retired in 2013 I still thought of myself as a programmer, but I haven’t done any real programming since I stopped working. I keep thinking I want to get back into programming, but so far I haven’t. I think I need to either start programming or stop thinking I’m a programmer.

The obvious reason why I haven’t done any programming is I don’t have any tasks I want automated. Without a programming problem, I have little incentive to program. I’ve done some piddly stuff with HTML but that hardly counts. No, I need something that requires computer processing power to accomplish.

This morning I watched several YouTube videos about fun programming projects. None really appealed to me. Making my own Sudoku solver or password manager might be fun, but the idea of putting hours of work into something that creates a tool I don’t care to use seems pointless, especially when others have already created superior tools that do the same thing.

I’ve thought about programming a book manager since I’m always frustrated with Goodreads but just entering in all my books in a potentially finished project depresses me. I just don’t want that tool bad enough.

I’m trying to imagine creating a tool that would be a joy to create and use. One thing I’ve always wanted to make is an abstract art generator. Something I could use mathematical equations to produce trippy light shows. This is a super-advanced example of what I’m talking about. I picture myself developing very simple things, to begin with.

This Pinterest page shows works closer to what I might be capable of programming. I’d like to start with recreating the animated sequence in the credits to On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, then expanding on that, making it more interesting, adding user controls, so people can alter what’s happening in real-time.

I keep wanting to create an auxiliary memory system but why recreate what Evernote is already doing. I’ve had one idea but it would be very challenging, and probably way beyond my skill level. I collect scans of old magazines, and sometimes the scans are poor, or the original printing of the magazine was poor. I thought it would be neat to create a program that sharpens the text of these old magazines scans. I fantasize about restoring scans of old magazines to look beautiful.

Notice the I in the word Image at the top of the page. It has white bites out of it. I wonder if it’s possible to write a program that could examine all the letters and come up with perfect replacements that are uniformly sharp and dark. I’d also like to be able to create a background for the text that looks like the paper the magazine used when it was new. Also, notice the L in Likeness, it has a smudgy spot in it. I’d want to program out such artifacts.

I also wonder if it’s possible to create a program that could return faded worn covers so they look like they did when they were new. To brighten up colors, remove wrinkles, smudges, and markings. I want it to work in batch mode since I have thousands of digital magazines.

I have one other idea, but this is super-super advanced. I’d like to write an AI program that could input all my old digital SF magazines and read them. I’d want the program to decipher what the stories are about and build a theme database. Then I could ask it for things like “List all stories that are about colonizing Mars” or “List all stories about generation ships,” or “Create a list of all the major themes you find.”

There are three hard questions I have to ask myself:

  • Do I really want to dedicate the time to these projects?
  • Are these goals beyond my skill level?
  • Am I too old and tired?

I don’t have much discipline left, but I might have enough to apply myself for one hour a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but I’d be damned impressed with myself if I did. I never feel good anymore, and most of the time I’m just tired. I might have the skill to create simple light shows. It would be really fun to write a program to take bitmap images and improve the type, but I’d have to push myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself before. That would be a miracle. Creating an AI to read magazines is a fantasy.

I believe what I need to do is try creating the light show in Python. If I can’t, I should stop thinking about programming. If I succeed it might give me the psychic energy to go further. If I fail, I can free my mind of some old desires, and clean out programming books and magazines from my bookshelves.

This really is about coming to grips with aging. There are already many physical activities I’ve had to give up. I’m starting to think I might have to give up mental ones as well.

JWH

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