Running Away to Mars

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 8, 2017

While reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a handbook for processing memories, it triggered several vivid revelations about my childhood. Especially the time when I ran away to Mars in 1963. That flashback revealed why I first dropped science fiction. I wanted an antidepressant. Science fiction has proven quite effective at masking reality, because I can’t even remember being depressed. How PKDickian!

Two Mars

A lifetime of contemplating the future has been an excellent mantra for ignoring the present. I am rather disappointed that running away never got me anywhere. I’ve been to Mars many times, but never to the one that exists in reality.

Today I’m plotting my own alternate history timeline. What if I had not run away to Mars back in 1963 and stayed on Earth instead? Wow, that’s more mind-twisting than The Man in the High Castle.

Maybe it wasn’t the Mary Karr book that jarred these insights. Could it have been the election? Have we all run away to imagined worlds? Reality seems so deserted these days.

JWH

5 Goals vs. 25 Goals

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 6, 2017

Grit-by-Angela-DuckworthI’m reading a wonderfully inspiring book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. Duckworth won a MacArthur “genius” grant, pursued several interesting careers, and is currently a teacher focused on helping students find their true passions, showing how grit will get them what they want. The book was often praised in 2016 book reviews, getting on several best-of-year lists, and was featured on PBS’s NOVA program “School of the Future” (also at YouTube). Grit is Duckworth’s first book, and continues to blaze the trail set by other books I’ve admired on the same topic: The Outliers, Talent is Overrated, The Talent Code. They all preach effort counts more than natural abilities. Duckworth observes people who apply themselves persistently getting ahead, a quality we know as grit. Since I’ve never been a particularly gritty person, I love reading this book.

Duckworth profiles many successful people, and I was particularly taken by a story she heard about Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor. Buffett’s advice was to write down 25 career goals. Then do some soul searching and select the five that matter the most. Finally, look at the leftover twenty, and accept they must be ignored at all costs. This bit of ambition triage is a common advice among productivity gurus. It’s old wisdom about focusing. However, I was intrigued by applying this advice to my general goals. Could I boil them down to just 5?

We all want too much, own too much, do too much, befriend too many people, consume too much. It’s much easier to narrow our desires down to a manageable number. But is 5 the right number? If we list everything we want out of life, it will tally more than 25. Now Buffett was specifically referring to career goals, but I want to use his advice for general ambitions. To apply his wisdom holistically.

Rationalizing Buffet’s Advice – Approach #1

I’m also going to do a bit of cheating. I could say my goal is to finish reading Grit. That’s something I can accomplish. But is it what Buffett meant? He meant something bigger. I could say I want to read 52 books a year and I want to get good at math. That would be two goals. Is it cheating to say I have a goal of being well educated and combine my reading and math goals into it? Reducing two to one?

Let’s say we have sixteen hours a day to divvy up between our goals. That’s a little more than three hours for each if we have five goals. But if you have to work, that has to count as one of the goals, and it takes up over half of the day, leaving little for the other four.

Now that I’m retired, I won’t have to waste one of my goals on working. Because of aging, my biggest goal is health. Staying healthy means I can pursue my other goals. Should it count it as a goal? Shouldn’t it just be part of living? I say yes it does count as a goal, because pursuing my health is hard. I show the most grit in life when it comes to staying healthy. I have to, because it’s so easy to careen into unhealthiness.

If I listed every last thing I want to do each day, it would run more than 25 items. But, if I list goals by their intent, I can get them down to 5 items:

  1. Constantly work at improving my health
  2. Constantly work at improving my writing
  3. Constantly work at improving my relationships
  4. Constantly work at learning more about reality 
  5. Constantly work at making the world a better place

Notice that all my goals will never be accomplished? And to be honest, I do very little towards number five. And because I’m getting older, and my mental and physical abilities are in decline, means my ability to work harder is declining. All my goals are losing battles. I can’t stop and cross off any as finished.

Below are many goal categories that could cover countless specific goals, but in general, they are goals that do have finishes. For example owning a new car or learning statistics with R.

  1. Possessions
  2. Careers
  3. Pleasures
  4. Hobbies
  5. Entertainments
  6. Skills
  7. Games
  8. Accomplishments

Improving my health does require many sub-goals like eating better, exercise, taking medicine, going to the doctor, learning to cook healthy meals, shopping for natural foods, etc. I no longer eat for pleasure, entertainment or even socializing. If I was a gourmet, I’d have to list it as one of my main goals. If I loved cooking or growing food, they would have to be a separate goal too. If I loved playing golf or cross-country biking, I couldn’t count them under health as exercise, I’d have to count them as sports goals. If I pursued both passionately, they would count as two.

I don’t know if this is cheating on Buffet’s advice or not. I think of a goal as a specific quest, but all the things I’ve defined as goals can’t be finished. Buffet might have been thinking of something that could be accomplished, and scratched off a list – like making a million dollars. My goals are states of being I constantly strive to attain and never abandon.

With all my present goals I could show more grit. I would be much healthier if I could lose weight, and that would take some severe persistence I haven’t shown in a long time.

My shifting away from specific goals is due to aging. Take for example games. I’ve never really cared much for winning games, and generally when I played them it was to be social. When video games first appeared in arcades I felt challenged to get high scores, but tired of that after turning over Space Invaders. Now I play games like crosswords to improve my memory and focus. Pleasures like eating, drinking, drugs, travel, are becoming pointless because my body can’t handle them. My plant based diet isn’t miserable, but it’s certainly not something I desire. Eating for fun only hurts now. My only indulgence is dark chocolate covered almonds. It meets the requirement of the diet – barely, and I enjoy them, but it’s hardly a goal of eating gourmet food.

My main goal after health is writing. I could call that goal seeking identity. We all need a goal that defines us, where we find a sense of identity by pursuing. I think of myself as a blogger. When I worked, I thought of myself as a programmer. I can say that blogging also applies to my goal of health. Regular writing exercises my brain. Writing also gives me to look forward to and to get up and do each day.

I put friendships and socializing as my third goal, even though being social is also part of staying healthy. I’m mostly a hermit, but I do feel a certain need to socialize. At one time I would have put movies and television as two of my major goals because I loved them so much, and spent so much time with them, but I use both now as methods of socializing. I’m slowly fading away from enjoying fiction as a solitary pursuit.

Number four is about education. My reading is veering towards learning, and not pleasure. Nonfiction might be my new entertainment. Learning has become my new fun, maybe even my escapism. And in this crazy world of Donald Trump, learning to tell shit from Shinola is more vital than ever.

My last goal, and one I spend almost zero time on, is helping the world. I suppose if I wrote something useful, that could count, but if I’m totally honest, writing is for me. I work a recycling, conserving energy, consuming less. I try to be ethical in my behavior. I donate a little money here and there. At minimum I try to do no harm and maintain a small footprint on the environment. I’m 99% selfish though, and I think most of us are. I think all the problems in the world are due to selfishness. We all should give more time to altruism. I admire people who spend a great deal of their time being selfless. This is where I show the least grit.

Following Buffet’s Advice Without Rationalization – Approach #2

  1. Get a book of nonfiction published
  2. Get a novel published
  3. Get an essay published in a print magazine
  4. Get a short story published in a print magazine
  5. Learn to draw simple scenes of nature
  6. Learn to program digital music
  7. Digitize all my photographs and store them in three cloud locations
  8. Relearn math through calculus, linear algebra and statistics
  9. Write a blog about the best albums that came each year since the invention of the LP
  10. Become a really good minimalist
  11. Live in New York City for a year
  12. Build a parallel processing super-computer out of Raspberry Pi modules
  13. Write a program to produce meta-lists from multiple lists
  14. Sell the house and get a perfect apartment in a high-rise in a 55+ community
  15. Learn to travel cross country and not be afraid to travel alone
  16. Create a blog post that outlines the history of impressionistic art
  17. Learn to grow plants indoors for healthy air, herbs and maybe fruits and veggies
  18. Write an essay about the best jazz albums of the 1950s
  19. Learn Python and get into machine learning and text processing
  20. Learn R and statistics
  21. Decorate the house so it reflects my personality
  22. Move to a city where I can live without a car
  23. Build a robot that does something interesting
  24. Move to a foreign city for a year – London, Paris or Tokyo
  25. Take up bird watching

These are 25 things that popped into my head that I want to do. I could list a lot more. If I opened my folders of unfinished essays, novels and nonfiction books, I’d have hundreds of items to add to the list. What Buffett really meant was to pick 5, and to stop thinking about all the rest. What Duckworth’s book is all about is finding the few goals that align with our passions and persist at working towards those goals hour after hour until they are finished.

What I need to do is figure out which kind of goal oriented person I want to be. My first approach works well with my retired lifestyle, and my actual personality. The second approach is about succeeding at specific accomplishments. I’ve never been that kind of person, probably because of a lack of grit. But I’ve always wanted to be.

When I woke up I had the single goal of writing “7 Generations of Science Fiction.” I thought the many ways I could write it before I got up. I still plan to write that essay, but for some reason this essay grabbed me in the shower and wouldn’t let go. Every morning I get up and something grabs my attention, and it becomes my goal of the day.

Ultimately, it comes down to one goal, the one you work on.

JWH

The Memory Gym—Exercising Our Words

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 26, 2017

I don’t believe I have Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia – yet, but I am having memory problems, ones that are common to getting old. All my friends are having this problem. We especially have trouble recalling names, titles or proper nouns. Quite often we say things like, “Oh, you know, what’s her name, you know, who was in what’s that film, the one about, you know, that thing …” Everything is on the tip of our tongue. Often the word or name we’re looking for will pop up in our head hours later, which implies an access problem and not a storage issue. It’s like having a junk drawer with all kinds of stuff, and we know a 1/4 teaspoon measurer is in there somewhere, but we can’t find it. We can usually find the 1 tablespoon measurer because we use it more often.

Is that the key – using our words more often?

Brain-Fitness

I had an idea in the shower. What if I made a list of all the subjects I want to retrain mastery of as I get old, and then for each topic make a list of key words and names that associate with that idea, and then study those lists regularly, would that help? Or does it matter? I have to consider I might be forgetting these words because they aren’t worth remembering. On the other hand, maybe I’m becoming forgetful because I’m not exercising those words enough. What if language is like muscles and could be exercised? We go to gyms to keep our bodies in shape, why not have a gym for pumping words?

Yesterday’s experience of “What Was Her Name?” left me feeling slightly despondent. I have two natures, ones I call Western and Eastern, for their philosophies. My Buddha natures allows me to graciously accept the fate of getting old. It’s natural and inevitable. On the other hand, my Puritanical heritage tells me I should fight till the bitter end – to conquer nature, to stomp it in the ground. If I had been on the Titanic the western side would make a raft out of deck chairs. My Eastern side would sit in a deck chair cherishing the experience.

What’s fascinating about this morning idea of a memory gym is realizing there are cognitive areas I want to maintain and those that I would abandon. That I’d be willing to commit triage on my memories. I’m also fascinating by which topics I’d pick to study. Would I study jazz or politics? Science fiction or science? History or current events?

When they attacked what’s his name for not knowing any world leaders I thought, “Well, shit, I can’t think of any either.” Actually, as time passed I thought of a few. Should I waste time learning the names of Trump’s cabinet? Or would those memory cells be better used memorizing the best jazz albums of the 1950s?

I had a friend who told me before he died, and it was probably suicide, that he had gotten down to loving  only two things in life – Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. I thought that very sad, because I loved countless things at the time. I thought his depression had limited his interests, but now I wonder if it was memory. I can’t remember all those things I loved when I had that last phone call with John.

Growing up we chase after many interests, but as we get older, it gets harder to keep up with all our passions. Our brains get stuffed, and then they start to leak. Do we need to consciously make an effort to retain what we love most?

I’m learning there’s a relationship between words and what we love. Without words to define our memories, everything fades into the background chaos of reality. I have had two experiences of losing my ability to use words. Once in the sixties when I took too much acid, and once when I had a mini-stroke. In each case, as my ability to use words returned I realized their power. I can’t tell you what that feels like, but I can give you something to contemplate. Think of you, your dog and a ball. Both of you see the ball, but what does words give you?

For a Zen master, collie dog, baby, and old person without words, a ball is just a ball. Now think about a football player and fan, and how words let them make so much more of a ball. Right now I love listening to jazz and knowing its history. When my words are gone I’ll still love listening, but I’ll miss the history. What is “A Love Supreme” without the words of the title or the words John Coltrane? Without words it will only exist when playing, like a tree falling in the forest. With words it can exist as part of my personality.

A Love Supreme

JWH

Which Came First: Political Personality or News?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 19, 2016

My wife Susan found this infographic on Facebook. It was created by Vanessa Otero and distributed on her Twitter feed. You can click on the image to see a larger version.

Vanessa Otero News Graph 2016

My news sources are NBC, CBS, PBS, The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, Vox, and sometimes The Economist and The Wall Street Journal when I get free links. In other words, I stay close to the center of things, and by Otero’s reckoning, use sources of high standards, that can be analytical and complex.

Do I have the kind of personality that is drawn to those news sources, or did those news sources create my political personality? If you grow up reading news from sources on the lower left or right of the graphic, do you program your personality by them? In recent years I’ve met a number of people who watch Fox News all day long. These people have different personal personalities, but they often feel like they have the same political personality. They are usually paranoid about the government, believe in various kinds of conspiracies, are passionately anti-taxes, and hate when people get money from the government without working.

Do people in childhood develop particular beliefs and then migrate to news outlets that promote those beliefs, or do they get hooked on various news sources and adopt the beliefs of the news programs they watch?

Would people who watch Fox News morph into new political personalities if they switched to watching PBS news programs? If I started watch Fox News all the time, would I become conservative? I remember favoring JFK back in 1960, when I was in the third grade, and that was well before I watched the news. I’ve never liked any Republican candidate – is that because of my innate programming, or because of how I acquired my news?

When I did start watching the news, it was the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, probably around 1962-63. In 1960 when we moved from New Jersey to Mississippi, I learned I didn’t like racists. As a shy kid, I was always afraid of people with strong emotions, and the racists scared the crap out of me with their raging anger. I had no idea what they were talking about. They were for Nixon. Maybe that influenced my political development. I remember getting into a playground fight with a kid who was pro-Nixon. Did that experience lean me towards the left?

When I went to tech school for computers in 1971, they taught us a phrase, GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). That implies the news we consume does change us. But then, I’ve read books like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker that counter that philosophy. I’ve also read books like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman that explain how our consciousness minds aren’t too swift when it comes to making decisions. I’m almost finished with The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis that profiles Daniel Kahneman, and his colleague Amos Tversky. They were two Israeli psychologists that made careers studying how we make poor choices and misunderstand reality because our gut reactions are usually wrong.

JWH

TOP 100 Songs—A Spotify Experiment in Personality

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 3, 2016

If you selected your Top 100 all-time favorite songs, the ones that define your soul, how many of those songs would you think you shared with your friends? I’ve always loved seeing what albums my friends owned, and if they’d let me, what songs are on their playlists. People are surprisingly unique. I’ve yet to find anyone that shares even five favorite songs with me. Don’t get me wrong, me and my friends often enjoy the same kinds of music, but when it comes to absolute favorites, the songs we choose to form a life-long love affair, those tunes are quite distinctive. Maybe as identifying as fingerprints.

fingerprintmusic

This is where Spotify comes in. It would be fantastic if Spotify created a permanent playlist in everyone’s account called TOP 100, and encouraged their subscribers to fill it in with the songs that define the music they loved best in their lifetime. Then after a time, start showing us big data statistics. What is the percentage of overlap based on various demographic standards. Am I more likely to overlap with other people born in 1951? Does gender matter? Could Spotify predict where I grew up or my ethnic background? Would it be possible for Spotify to discern my Myers-Briggs type? And if there are incidences of high overlap, would listening to the playlists of those subscribers help me find songs I would love that I’ve never heard?

Conversely, could Spotify fill in our TOP 100 lists automatically from studying our current patterns of play? Or predict our second 100 favorite songs?

Even with millions of users, would they ever find two people with the same songs in their TOP 100 playlist? What would be the statistical odds? (I don’t know, I can’t do that kind of math.) How often would 50% agreement show up? What if the list was based on order? If they applied statistical analysis to the data, would it reveal anything about personality? Would it tell us anything about generational shifts? Are people predictable by their tastes? If they could connect to other databases, would our musical tastes also reveal what we love in books, movies, television shows and other art forms?

My bet, which is only a hunch, would be for age cohorts, the average overlap would be less than 5%.

JWH

The Williamson Effect–Losing Interest in Life

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 28, 2016

A friend of mine, before he died, called me to talk about life. His name was Williamson, and he was depressed. This was back on the first night of the Gulf War. Williamson said something then, a quarter century ago, that has always stuck with me. He said he was down to loving only two things in life. Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. I had gone to see The Allman Brothers with Williamson when Duane Allman was till alive. That was a long time ago. Williamson and I were buddies for a while in the 1970s, and we went different ways when I got a steady job.

Duane Allman Fishing 

Williamson hated working, always telling friends, “A job a good way to waste a life.” He spent his life avoiding the old nine to five, choosing to pursue endless hobbies and schemes hoping they’d pay off. They never did. I was surprised to hear from Williamson in August of 1990. The decades had changed him, and he was quite bitter. He called me a few times after that, and then disappeared. I heard later he died under mysterious circumstances.

I now worry when a friend tells me they are getting tired of things they used to love. I call it The Williamson Effect. I’m known to be a naturally happy person, even though I love to write about depressing subjects. I don’t know if I’m happy because of genes, or because I’m constantly searching out new things to love. Whenever I hear a friend suffering from The Williamson Effect I encourage them to try new things, especially music. I’m always amazed how a new artist and their music can revitalize my thinking.

I tried to convince Williamson that there was more to music than Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. He only sneered and belittled my then current favorites. Benny Goodman and Duane Allman are still on my main Spotify playlist, but so are Katy Perry and Sarah Jaffe, and I’m still living.

JWH

Autistic Characters in Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I started reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion yesterday, and realized I was enjoying yet another book with an autistic first person character. This got me to thinking, just how many books have I read with an autistic character, and then wondered, just how often autistic characters show up in fiction. So far my list includes:

GoodReads lists 65 books on their Autism in Fiction list, some of which I find quite surprising, like To Kill a Mockingbird. And it turns out I have another book on my to-be-read pile, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon that features an autistic character. It appears listing autistics in fiction is quite popular, and Wikipedia even has a list of fictional characters in books, movies, television and comics that are on the autistic spectrum. If you search Google for “autism in fiction” you’ll find a lot to read.

the-rosie-project-graeme-simsion

Most of the books have been from the last twenty-five years. Didn’t autistic people exist in the time of The Bible, Shakespeare or Charles Dickens? I do know that Confessions of a Crap Artist, written by Philip K. Dick in 1959 has a very autistic-ish narrator. And strangely, isn’t Mr. Spock from Star Trek very autistic like? There is a danger to retroactively diagnosing characters from the past with autism, just read “Sherlock does not have Asperger’s or Autism, Thanks – From 4 Psychiatrists” or “We Shouldn’t View Sherlock as an Autistic Savant.”

Many people do not consider Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be autistic, but I do, because he has some autistic like traits. And I think that’s what’s interesting about these books, they don’t all define their characters as autistic or having Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis that’s been replaced with the term autism spectrum disorder. That’s because it’s very difficult to pigeonhole people into precise mental categories. I’ve written about this before, “Don’t We All Have Personality Traits in the Autism Spectrum?” and “Reading Novels To View Reality From a Diversity of Mental Spectrums.”

I think is extremely fascinating we all want to clearly define people into categories, but our own unique traits are usually invisible to ourselves. Just like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project, who is unaware of his Asperger’s symptoms, we can’t see our own quirkiness. Think how often you have heard your voice on a recorder and found it shocking. Or how disturbing it can be to see photographs or videos of ourselves. Our inner self-image seldom matches outer evidence. So it’s easy to understand that other people see you far different from how you see yourself.

In the The Rosie Project, Don decides it’s time to get married and goes about finding a wife in a very systematic way. The whole time I was reading this story I couldn’t stop picturing Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. But doesn’t everyone fumble around trying to find their soul mate? And if we’re honest, aren’t we all clueless about finding compatibility?

People wonder why there’s been an explosion of autism in the general population. Some wonder if we always had autistic people and are just getting around the labeling them. Can you remember an old relative with autism spectrum traits? Others think the increase is from an environmental cause, and a few people have suggested the increase in autism comes from more super-intelligent people mating with each other. I have no idea, but I do find that characters in fiction with moderate amounts of traits from the autism spectrum appealing. (Although severe amounts are horrifying and tragic.) And I think that’s so because we can identify with their problems and admire their eccentric skills. Don’t we all have some kind of communication problem, or compulsive behavior? My friends consider me very good at communication, yet I’ve always felt a slight sense of agoraphobia when it comes to socializing. And I certainly wish I had the organizational skills of Sheldon and Don. I do know I pass all the tests for introversion with flying colors.

And how often do you feel that your friends are clueless to seeing the real you? Aren’t we all on a social awareness spectrum? If we fall into a certain range, does that put us on the autism spectrum? I have long ago given up on the idea of “normal” people. I assume we all exist on a hundred different spectrums – picture a mixing board in a sound recording studio. I doubt anyone has sliders position in the center all across the board. And I expect what we now call autism spectrum disorder will be broken up into several spectrums in the future.

Finally, I wonder if we were all characters in a book like Don Tillman, and readers got to see just how we think, wouldn’t our logic for doing things and making decisions seem peculiar to others? Aren’t we all strange little birds?

JWH