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

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

Why Would Anyone Want to Be President or Queen?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 12, 2016

I’ve been watching The Crown, an excellent 10-part biopic on Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a Netflix original. I’ve never cared about royals before, but this show is riveting. John Lithgow as Winston Churchill makes the series compelling, just for his part of the history. However, the show gives a somewhat realistic portrayal of the duties of a British monarch, and it looks so painful, I wouldn’t wish it on Donald Trump. Why would any little girl want to be a princess after seeing The Crown? Poor Elizabeth goes on one tour of the Commonwealth that lasts for months. At one point she has to have her cheek shot up with a muscle relaxant because of smiling at the crowds for hours at a time has frozen her face. Another time she has to ride in an open car in hundred degree heat for two hours so the possession can go at a pace safe for horses.

Obama-2008-and-2016

I also wonder about Donald Trump. Why would a billionaire used to absolute freedom want to be President? It’s like being a rock star wanting an office management job, one requiring 80 hours of drudgery a week. I always thought the point of getting rich was to escape a day job. Trump is already fighting his bridle by refusing to take all his daily briefings. What’s going to happen to him when he’s on the job and his life is scheduled 24×7? If it’s anything like QEII’s schedule, I’ll actually feel pity for that lying deluded megalomaniac. Solitary confinement in a maximum security prison would be a more human punishment.

Just look at what eight years did to poor Obama, and he was a young man. Donald Trump is starting the job at 70. Will he age normally in the next four years? Of course not. Why waste precious golden years choosing to be chewed up by history?

Trump is already annoyed at Saturday Night Live, but didn’t he know becoming president means being the most hated person on Earth? Sure millions will love him, but there’s always a larger segment of the population that reviles the CEO of the USA. Doesn’t every person dreaming of living at the White House know they’ll be mocked in a thousand ways a thousand times a day? Even with a “good” approval rating, a president gets endless barrages of flack, much of it mean-spirited. I feel sorry for presidents. Everyone on the planet wants a piece of them, and the burden of office is a great deal more than tremendous. Talk about a plot for a horror flick. You spend 4-8 years in stressful conflict with countless nightmare inspiring issues. I’m pretty sure a week of that job would kill me. We know Trump and Clinton are very strong old people because they survived over a year of campaigning. But won’t that be a fun 10k compared to Iron Man triathlon of serving one term?

I’m very curious how many hours a day Trump will occupy the Oval Office. I bet he’ll spend most of those moments daydreaming about being an ordinary billionaire, jetting around, making deals, playing golf, and grabbing you know what.

I really can’t understand why anyone would want the job of President, or Queen. In The Crown, Winston Churchill seems obsessed with creating a political order that matches his passionate ideals. QEII feels the weight of centuries. What drives Donald Trump?

JWH

Counting My Worries

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 21, 2016

My friends and I are hyper-worried about the future, now that Republicans have gained control of all three branches of government. I suppose that could be a signal to stop worrying, since they now have the reigns, and thus the worries. Of course, both parties have always assumed the other side would destroy the future, explaining each side’s endless worrying.

What if I stopped worrying about politics and only worried about things I could actual change? What if I was granted the serenity prayer?

Serenity Prayer

If I only need to worry about those things I can change, then how many things do I need to worry about? What world problems can I change on my own? Would rephrasing that be more illuminating? How many problems do I make worse? My wife and I never had children, so we don’t add to overpopulation. I’m retired, get out little, and live off a plant based diet, so my carbon footprint is relatively small. Except for an occasional roof rat, I don’t kill anything. I’m not a terrorist or hate anyone. I don’t drink, do drugs or commit crimes. I’m rather bland and innocuous. I’m a watcher and a reader, observing reality as I wait to die. By this accounting, I have little to worry about.

A major increaser of worries is trying to convince other people to be different. Whether its getting a spouse to do more housework, a friend to eat healthy, or everyone to stop using coal, convincing people to be different creates endless worries. I could vastly reduce my total worry count if I stopped trying to change people.

What about worrying about myself? For example, I’m currently worried about writing a new essay for Book Riot. My choices are either to write or not write, but I spend a lot of time either worrying about not writing or worrying about what to write. The Zen thing to do would be either to write or not write and forget the worrying.

What, Me Worry

Should I worry about anything? Is not worrying shirking a duty? Shouldn’t we all be taking turns worrying about the world’s problems? Everyone should contribute to charities, right? Is worrying helping those causes? Maybe giving or volunteering to a charity is the only way to solve their problems. But many charities spend their income trying to convince more people to worry about their cause. The solution, give to charities that do rather than worry.

I’ve convinced myself I have little to worry about, so why do I worry so much? My mother was a worrier. I called it gnawing her bone. She believed that worrying about bad things kept those bad things from happening. The evidence suggests all my worry about climate change and Republicans had no effect on the 2016 election.

Maybe I should stop gnawing my bones.

JWH

Should Manufacturing Robots Be Banned?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 19, 2016

alberteinsteinBecause my friends have been depressed since November 8th, I’ve been wondering what it would take to make both liberals and conservatives happy – and solve all our environmental problems. Once again, the election has shown, “It’s the economy stupid.” Without widespread economic security, the population will be unstably polarized. As long as such unrest exists, no other major problem can be solved. To solve the problems of sustainability, climate change, overpopulation, inequality, mass extinctions, pollution, will first require solving the problem with the economy.

Is that possible? Can we create an economy where most people find security? Corporations are at war with workers, either by moving jobs overseas, or by buying robots. Donald Trump promised he’d stop corporations from moving jobs. Would that help? No, the problem requires a global solution. Would banning robots help? Maybe. If capital was willing to accept higher production costs, employing more people, it should. However, robotics creates jobs too. And we have to decide if billions of people working like machines is a good thing. People want is a job they love. People want to feel creative, productive, worthwhile, and independent. Does a Foxconn assembly job provides that? Could we create enough jobs without banning robots? I doubt it.

If robots were regulated, and cars for example, had to be made by human hands, could they be made at affordable prices? Let’s bring in the environment now. What if we designed a sustainable transportation system, one that’s a blend of bicycles, cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships, and planes. Such a system needs to create jobs and protect the environment. Would building things like cars only by human hands create enough jobs, and still be profitable for corporations?

If we don’t outlaw robots, what would be the next solution? It’s obvious that free-market capitalism fails many workers and the environment. Capital ranks wealth over labor. The next solution would be a minimum income for people without jobs. This would be a tax on capital, something it also hates. Since capital hates both labor and taxes, it might need to decide which it hates more.

Conservatives claim if they had free reign their economic solutions would create more jobs. That claim is probably false. If their economic theories were true, they still want to ignore the environment. Ignoring the environment ultimately means economic self-destruction, so it can’t be a solution. Remember, any real solution must be economically and environmentally sustainable.

Capital’s current path is towards fewer workers and greater inequality. Since we originally stated that the base problem is economic security for workers, that brings us back to where we started. Liberals believe a growing economy/population can be designed to protect the environment. Conservatives believe a healthy economy can be built by ignoring the environment and population growth. Neither are realistic.

I’m not sure a solution is possible, which is more depressing than the Republicans winning all the branches of the government.

JWH

Lessons I Learned from the 2016 Election

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 13, 2016

To say Tuesday, November 8th, was a shocker for most people is an understatement. Since everything is grist for my mill, I’m going to write about what I’ve learned from this disturbing experience. Like the pundits and pollsters, I had no idea how badly my fellow citizens wanted Donald Trump for president. I live in an isolated bubble of liberal friends, and we all thought Trump was a poor choice. In fact, we thought Trump was an overwhelmingly obvious poor choice. We were wrong.

Are_We_Smart_Enough_webLesson 1: Electing a president is not an intellectual decision. I’m currently reading Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal. The chapter on chimpanzee politics is rather enlightening. Electing a U.S. president has many parallels to selecting an alpha male. I think our society is not against electing a female for the alpha male position, but we might not be ready to give up alpha male traits in our leaders. The point of de Waal’s book is animals are smart in all kinds of ways we don’t recognize, and sometimes those smarts are superior to ours for the same talent. He makes a case that our intellectual intelligence can be self-deceptive. Humans are animals, and we function on many levels, using many kinds of intelligences. To analyze the election results totally by measures of left brain logic is a huge mistake.

Lesson 2: Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” meant different things to different people. For people who are financially secure, America is already great. Sure our country has many problems needing fixing, but let’s not rock the boat. For people out of work, or working at low-paying jobs with no hope of ever succeeding, then Trump’s slogan takes on a whole new meaning. But do we know how many people are really out of work? How bad is the economy to the heartland? I see vastly different figures for the number of working age people not working. Here’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Employment release just before the election. Things don’t look bad at all, especially compared to 2008 and 2012. But if you’re a conservative, you read reports like, “Right Now There Are 102.6 Million Working Age Americans That Do Not Have a Job.” That’s unbelievable to people with math skills, but completely believable if you only see the bad sides of the economy. Looking at Wikipedia’s population demographics, I figure there’s roughly 185 Americans aged 20-64. (Add 34.4 million if you want to stretch working ages from 15-69) Looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I see 149 million Americans have jobs. That’s a 36 million difference. Not as scary as the 102 million the conservatives claim, but nowhere close to the 5% to the official unemployment numbers. But if 20% of the working-age Americans are out of work, then that’s a big factor for the election. Yesterday’s New York Times essay, “Can Trump Save Their Jobs? They’re Counting on It” is probably a better indication of how many voters felt. They are looking for an alpha male to align themselves with in hopes of gaining help. It’s a shame the election wasn’t between Sanders and Trump, when both candidates would have targeted the same issue. It would have been interesting to see which solution Americans preferred for solving “It’s the economy, stupid” angle.

Lesson 3: Does ethics matter? Both candidates were generally considered less than ethical by the general population. There were plenty of mud-slinging on both sides. Supporters of each candidate seem willing to ignore personal defects of any kind in their candidate, but not in the candidate they didn’t favor. I think the vast majority of voters went with either liberal or conservative values and ignored personal values. In other words, most members of either party would vote for a yellow dog. The country seems to be divided into thirds: liberals, conservatives, and independents. The independents swung the election.

Dark MoneyLesson 4: The future looks very different to liberals and conservatives, but both fear a bleak future. Liberals fear the climate apocalypse, while conservatives fear the secular apocalypse. Science and demographics show both trends are happening. Conservatives were determined to protect the Supreme Court from liberals. They want a Christian theocracy and the legal foundation for conservative economics. Read Dark Money by Jane Mayer. My guess is it’s less about Roe v. Wade, and more about taxes and regulation. Trump was feared as a disruptor by the plutocracy, but because of the Republicans winning Congress, they are more than happy to embrace him now. There are very few large piles of money for the 1% to siphon off anymore, and owning the Supreme Court helps to get access to that wealth.

Lesson 5: We’re not logical. Voters don’t cast their votes based on logic. Who we like is often decided by our unconscious minds. Read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnerman. Even when we’re thinking we’re making an informed choice, it’s probably just a delusion of our conscious mind. Also, there are too many variables in the equations of politics for anyone to actually solve the problem logically, mathematically, philosophically, or ethically.

Thinking Fast and SlowLesson 6: I am immensely disappointed that my liberal ideas aren’t shared by the majority. Even though Hilary Clinton won the overall popular vote, that doesn’t mean the country is half liberal. My guess is roughly a third of the country is actively liberal philosophically. That means we want social programs to protect the poorest, extra taxes for the wealthiest, we seek diversity and equality, to protect the environment, fight mass extinction, to balance wealth inequality, and work to develop a sustainable economy and environment. We find it horrifying that greed and xenophobia win out over these values. Yet, the lesson of 2016 is a vast majority of Americans want to protect a way of life that has vanished, and they are unconcerned about the human impact on Earth. This is illogical to us, but that’s because we don’t understand the theological implications of conservative values. So the biggest lesson for me is I’m out of touch with the needs and desires of most voters. I felt climate change should have been the #1 issue of the election, and it was completely ignored. I feel that many of my fellow citizens are anti-science, and science is my religion.

The Black SwanLesson 7: I have no reason to expect more people to side with me in the future. On the other hand, I can’t expect to predict the future in any way. Even though I’ve read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and intellectually know it’s impossible to predict the future, we all keep hoping we can shape it. Tuesday, a whole flock of black swans landed. That should have been enough to teach all of us that we can’t predict the future. It won’t. We will all continue to campaign for our own models of reality. Conservatives refuse to see climate change, but then I guess I refuse to see conservatives.

JWH

Are Americans Two Distinct Species?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 4, 2016

Should we divide America into two countries as a social experiment? If we allowed liberals and conservatives to have complete control over their own nation, would that produce two happier populations? Would the citizens of each nation end up mostly agreeing on how to govern themselves? Would the majority in each culture be calmer and more satisfied? I’m wondering if Americans aren’t really two distinct species:

  • Homo sapiens liberals
  • Homo sapiens conservatives

The extreme polar views expressed in the 2016 U.S. presidential election convinces me they are. I was just reading “Why Republicans Still Reject the Science of Global Warming,” and its stark description of political differences only reinforces such speculation. Science often describes two species of animals that to my eye look the same, but have adapted to the environment differently. When I listen to my Fox News loving friends, I feel they are a completely different kind of people. They are so passionately confident about being absolutely right. Then again, I feel the same way about my liberal views. Are we both seeing the same reality dramatically different because we’re different creatures that only look similar on the outside?

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(c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / iqoncept

What would happen if we separated these two species? What would happen if all the conservatives move west of the Mississippi, and all the the liberals to the east? So each would create a government government according to their philosophies. In the west they’d form a free market nation, with a small government based on The Bible, and in the east they’d build a secular nation, with a big socialist government. Would the citizens in each new nation then be happy?

Would these two nations then evolve dramatically differently? Would the mating of conservatives with conservatives, and liberals with liberals, further enhance their distinct differences? In thousands of years, would the citizens of each country look physically different? I know this is an impossible experiment to perform, but it sure would be fun to see the results.

I might have an idea for a science fiction novel here.

Would the western states pursue an anti-science legal system, moving away from urban society, back towards small town rural living? Would easterners pursue science, becoming cyborgs, and create high-tech super cities?  Would westerners allow diversity? Or would they move towards a conformity of looks and culture? Would easterners mutate into even newer forms of post-humans, genetically enhancing themselves even more? Would westerners become like the Amish, and halt the acceptance of technology? Would easterners run their nation on renewable energy and give up fossil fuels? Would the western states build a giant wall around their country, and reject globalism? Would they still build a large world-spanning military?

I could imagine the westerns states slowing their pace of living as they settled on a ideal conservative lifestyle, whereas easterners would embrace everything new and diverse, enjoying rapid change.

I can envision the westerners creating a Christian theocracy, although it would be a strange one where everyone would carry a gun. And eastern Americans would build a non-religious culture that oddly enough would appear like the meek had inherited the Earth.

And you know what’s funny. If conservatives created their own nation, I can’t imagine them ever electing Donald Trump as their leader. He neither acts, nor looks like someone that would fit in the west (or the east).

JWH