Waiting for Heinlein

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 14, 2017

Are you disappointed your life hasn’t turned out like the stories you love? Would I feel this way now if I had loved literary fiction instead of science fiction? In the last third of my life, I’m cherishing nineteenth-century English novels and early twentieth-century American novels, realizing they would have been better preparation for my life – the life I got instead of the one I wanted. Science fiction is as wondrous as any religion but as frustrating as a Samuel Beckett play. Of course, doesn’t religion and science fiction promise futures that will never arrive?

Robert Heinlein

I’ve been waiting a long time for the future to get here – sixty years by one reckoning. And I must admit, sometimes I feel the fringes of Tomorrowland when I use my smartphone, but for the most part, I’m still waiting for Heinlein to show up. Other writers have complained about not getting their jetpack, but they had such foolish gadgets back in the sixties.

I’m waiting for interplanetary rocketships with long sleek hulls, that land on four fins with thrusters, or interstellar spaceships like the U.S.S. Enterprise. Reading about extrasolar planets is encouraging, but it ain’t what Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke promised with tales of visiting them.

I’m also waiting for robots like Asimov and Simak promised. I do talk to Alexa, but she has no soul. And I enjoy seeing the little robots DIY people make with a Raspberry Pi board, but I think we should have robots well beyond the ones we saw in Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space.

Do we screw up kids by letting them read science fiction and fantasy? Even before I discovered Robert A. Heinlein at age 12 in 1964, I had absorbed a great deal of science fiction via an old black and white television my family bought in 1955. Should we judge reality by our dreams? Would we have invented everything that makes us human by accepting reality as it is?

Maybe fantasies are fine except we should be more discerning when creating them.

I don’t know if this is too sick to admit, but as a kid, I was disappointed that WWIII didn’t happen. All those 1950s movies about mutants and last people on Earth had its allure. Living like Harry Belafonte in The World, The Flesh and the Devil seemed great, especially after Inger Stevens arrives. (Like Harry’s character, I could have done without the Mel Ferrer’s character.)

And even though the robots in Target Earth were scary, I liked them, although I didn’t love them like I loved Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was a shame learning in the 1960s that our 1950s flying saucers dreams were flaky and fake. It was somewhat redeeming when we got to see Closer Encounters of the Third Kind in the 1970s, but it really was too late, at least for believing in Have Space Suit-Will Travel adventures.

It was crushing in 1972 when we stopped going to the Moon. From reading Heinlein I was positive humans would reach the red planet by the end of that decade and build colonies there in the 1980s. I thought before I died (which I imagined being around the mid-21st century), I’d leave life knowing that interstellar travel was in the preparation phase.

I’ve written this essay before. I’ll probably write it again many times before I die. The feelings that inspire these thoughts come out again and again. I wanted more science fictional dreams to come true in my lifetime. Of course, I also expected more of my liberal dreams to unfold before I died too, but Donald Trump has crushed them. Books, especially those we read when we’re young give us a kind of hope that never goes away. I know the hopes I got from science fiction are no more practical than the hopes the faithful get from reading The Bible. Does needing the impossible mean we’re stupid? Or do those desires shape our souls?

The thing that distinguishes science fiction from religion is the belief that humans can build rockets that will take us to the stars. The faithful believe God will take them to heaven. Maybe my frustration with the future is it takes longer than a lifetime to get where I dream of going.

I still embrace three science fictional hopes that could come true before I die. The first is SETI. I’m not sure humans will ever travel to other star systems, but we might get messages from beings living light years away. Second, even if we don’t get a message from ET, I hope astronomy will eventually detect atmospheres with spectrographic evidence of advanced life on extrasolar planets. Finally, I hope AI minds arrive. Many people fear artificial intelligence will wipe out humans, but I hope they will help us evolve. Our species is smart, but I don’t think we’re smart enough to survive self-extinction. AI minds could save us from our own stupidity.

I’ve been waiting my whole life to live my favorite stories of Robert A. Heinlein. That’s quite childish of me. On the other hand, I could have followed in my father’s footsteps. He died an alcoholic at age 49. I always assumed he drank because he couldn’t achieve his childhood aspirations. I’ve often wondered if science fiction was my alcohol. At least science fiction has kept me alive longer.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, my old friend Connell and I have been arguing about the future since 1967, waiting for Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov to arrive.

JWH

Aging, Changing, Technology, and Music

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 3, 2017

For someone whose childhood began in 1951, the year 2017 is the far fucking future. Sorry about the inappropriate word, but hey, that’s part of the relentless pace of change. We’re now allowed to use “bad words” in print.

I don’t think young people today can even imagine what a horrendous social offense it was to say fuck in the 1950s, much less write it down. If you could understand you might know what this essay is all about.

It Happened One Night

Last night I watch It Happened One Night with my friend Annie. I told her this 1934 picture was considered very risqué when it came out in 1934. After watching a while she asked why? By modern standards its so squeaky-clean it’s hard to spot the naughty bits. Even as a kid seeing it for the first time in the early 1960s, that old film still had its titillating parts. That changed after Midnight Cowboy.

I started listening to music in the 1950s on my father’s car radio when me and my sister could still stand in the front seat. This was before seat belts. It was his car and his music, but that’s how the times were back then.

For Christmas 1962 I got a AM clock radio. I played my music on that radio from 1962-1968. I turned it on when I got home from school and turned it off each morning when I left for school. I listened rock and roll while I slept, burning songs like “Rhythm of the Rain” into my unconscious mind. I grew up in Miami and loved WQAM and WFUN – the two competing AM Top 40 stations that played rock and roll.

My father had a second job bartending and would bring me and my sister 45rpm records that were pulled from the jukeboxes. In 1962 when I got the clock radio my sister had gotten a portable record player. I envied her that. (I might have stolen it.)

In 1963 an airman left his console stereo and LPs with my father was he was stationed overseas. That was my first introduction to LP albums. The airman left mostly folk music.

Our Man Flint soundtrack 

Eventually I got a little transistor radio to carry around. Then I got my own portable stereo record player when I started buying LPs in 1966. My first LP was the soundtrack to Our Man Flint. I would join the Columbia and Capital music clubs to mass collect albums. Joining, completing my fulfillments, quitting, and rejoining to keep getting those intro bundles.

When I started driving in 1967 I had a car radio. In 1968 I bought a console stereo system. It was my first use of credit, and I was only 16. The console introduced me to FM radio.

Just in the 1960s I went from AM to FM, and from mono to stereo. From tubes to solid state. In the 1970s I got a much larger console, started seriously collecting records, stopped listening to commercial radio, and eventually got into component stereo systems.

In the 1980s I switched to compact discs. I also tried different tape systems. As the decades past I used MP3 players and iPods, and even got into SACD audio for a while. For the last decade I’ve mostly been listening to subscription streaming music. I never got into Napster thievery. I guess I was too old fashioned to steal.

So in the course of half a century I went from listening to music on various physical media to listening to invisible streams of ones and zeros. In 1970 we were warned about Future Shock. Reading about what the future will do to us and living into the future are two different things. The future is both dazzling and tiring.

My point is the technology keeps changing. So does the music. So do the genres of music. I’ve bought some of my favorite albums many times, on LP, CD, cassette, SACD, and digital file (I was briefly into 24bit lossless).

The long playing (LP) record album came out in 1948, but it took a while to catch on. Because of streaming music, the concept of an album is fading. Not only have I outlived many technological changes, I’ve outlived an artistic concept.

And you know what? I’m tired. I’m fucking tired of change. I’m weary of the constant barrage of new technology. And I was a computer geek starting in 1971. Just read all those changes in computer tools I’ve used.

I’m happy with streaming music. Can’t we stick with it for a while? At least a quarter century, I hope. Give me 25 years and I’ll die on you, and the world can change as much and as fast as it wants after that.

ItsAMadPoster

JWH

Confessing My Anxieties

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 14, 2017

There’s nothing that sets off my anxiety more than having an event in the future to worry about. Next week I’m scheduled for jury duty and I’m worried I’ll be sequestered. I have no idea how many people are like me. We never know how other people think, do we? So I thought I’d just tell you about my quirky anxieties and figured you might tell me about yours.

the future 

The tendency is to believe everyone thinks in the same way, but I don’t know if that’s true. First, we can divide the world up into the anxious and the anxiety free. Of the people I know who confess their anxieties, it appears our symptoms come in all varieties, with many variations of physical and mental properties.

I have no idea how common my type of anxieties are among other people. If I studied psychology I could analyze the data and statistics, but I think I’ll take different path. I’m just going to confess my anxieties and ask my friends to confess theirs. Confession is great for the soul, or so they say.

I’m not sure how honest I should be. I don’t want to come across as psychically naked. But on the other hand, this experiment is based on revealing what’s behind my barriers. The act of writing down my problems is therapeutic. That implies a certain degree of honesty is required for effective results.

My main source of anxiety comes from thinking about the future. That can be planning my grocery shopping trip or worrying about climate change in the year 2100. I’ve always thought this was a particularly good trait for someone who wants to writes science fiction – an ambition I’ve had since age 12. Unfortunately, even though I imagine hundreds of scenarios every day, I’ve yet to learn how to dramatize them into fiction.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered this trait is a handicap. It has a number of downsides. It’s especially paralyzing for social activities. Future worry has led me to create a very comfortable now. I am my own siren. On the other hand, any disruption to my routine causes anxiety. Most of the time, it is very minor anxiety. I am happiest when I have nothing scheduled. I have friends that schedule their lives weeks in advance – what a nightmare.

My second anxiety, and I believe it’s caused by the first anxiety, is I hate to leave home. When I was young I always wondered why older folks were so homebound. Now I know. Home is security. Controlling my future is easiest done from home. Leaving the house increases the variables involved in imagining the future. When I was young I could go out and play all day, ranging over neighborhoods, countryside, and woods. It never even occurred to me to plan my future. After I retired I had nearly complete control over my time. It was only when I have to be somewhere else do I lose that control.

My agoraphobia is not extreme, but it is growing. I have not always been this way. Even after I grew up and out on my own, I could leave home with abandon, worry free. Before I got married, the longest I had lived in any one house was eighteen months. I’ve lived in my present house about ten years, and I think that long comfortable stay has affected me.

However, I believe my agoraphobia started when I developed a heart arrhythmia in my forties. My fear of having an episode in public made me want to always stay home. Even after I had surgery to fix my heart a bit of that anxiety remained. I began going out again, but never like before. Because this event was concurrent with getting older and living longer in the same house, I’m not sure which was the primary cause.

Then in my early sixties I had to have a stent put in my heart because of clogged arteries. Around the same time I developed spinal stenosis which has caused a number of physical limitations. I have a Catch-22 situation. If I exercise more to help my heart, my legs go numb, and I have back problems. If I exercise less the numbness decreases and the pain goes away, and my heart feels worse. I have to walk a razor’s edge to stay feeling reasonably well. I’ve also worked out a rather severe diet that helps both conditions. Eating out makes it very difficult to follow that diet. All of this conditions me like Palov’s dog to stay close to home.

Many of my retired friends are trying to do more outside the house, especially travel. Travel scares the crap out of me. First, I’d have to leave home. Second, I’d have to give up most control. Third, I’d have to eat at restaurants. Fourth, I wouldn’t have my custom exercise equipment. Fifth, I might have to sleep in a bed, which freezes up my back. (I’ve been sleeping in a recliner for years.)

Are my anxieties just in my head? Or has my body dictated them? If I worked hard I might discover how to eat healthy on the go, how to exercise anywhere with no equipment or portable elastic bands, how to sleep comfortably by improvising back friendly nests with available furniture at hand. Theoretically, all that’s possible, but it’s hard to imagine. To get a good night sleep I need a certain kind of recliner adapted with four kinds of pillows.

Now I know why old crotchety folks I met in my youth were so set in their ways. Aging means adapting to your bodily demands. If I eat just right, exercise just right, and sleep just right, I can avoid pain. Have my anxieties evolved through pain avoidance? Or am I just being a pussy? Should I just get over them?

My wife thinks I give in too easily. She might be right. She loves to be on the go, to travel, to be active. She has aches and pains – but just ignores them. I know a number of people our age who eat whatever they want, never exercise, and lead happy active lives. Then I know other people who are adapting their life to deal with ailments, conditions, pains, disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

Is anxiety mental or physical? Like I said, there many kinds of anxieties. I think some are mostly mental. I think mine are related to the physical, but I could be fooling myself. If I changed a mental condition with drugs or conditioning, is it really mental?

Most people associate anxiety with depression. As long as I can pursue my hobbies at home I’m extremely happy. I don’t feel crippled by anxiety. I guess I would if I wanted to travel. Maybe I’m happy because I accept my limitations. If I wanted more, I might be unhappy. Even this might be age related. If I was young and felt this way, I’d feel resentful, even imprisoned.

Does getting old allow us to accept what we can’t change? Or does getting old mean we stop trying to change.

Is everything I’ve written here a rationalization that allows me to avoid living life to the fullest? I have a feeling going to jury next week will teach me a lot. I’m not to try to get out of the duty, but it provokes all the fears I mention above. I’m having far more anxiety than before my heart procedures. I’ll write an update to this piece and confess what I learned after I’ve faced those fears.

JWH

7 Scary Traits of Climate Change Deniers

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 30, 2017

We’ve been hearing about climate change for decades. We’re bombarded with scary documentaries, long range forecasts, books, essays, news reports, science fiction on what global warming will do to Earth.

What I find even scarier are the psychological traits of climate change deniers.

climate-change-NASA

The power of denial might be eviler than actual climate change. Those traits reveal the limitation of the human mind. Our species, even with the best brains on the planet, might not be smart enough to save ourselves from self-destruction. Here are some psychological traits that could be more dangerous than increase CO2.

Egotism

Climate change deniers reveal their massive egos by their righteousness. The world has spent trillions of dollars on supercomputers, satellites, monitoring stations, laboratories while hiring vast armies of scientists with Ph.D.s to use that equipment.  97% of scientists analyzing the results show climate change is real. As long as we have a significant percentage of human population thinking they are smarter than all the scientists, computers, and science, we’re in big trouble.

Anti-Science

Science is our only tool for consistently understanding reality. Science is based the statistical consensus of evidence. Its methodology is designed to be immune to nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, philosophy or other biases. To reject science is to reject any hope of objectively understanding reality. People who trust science by flying on an airplane or having brain surgery but deny other scientific results indicate that humans might not be rational enough to survive as a species.

Greed

Greed is the main reason people believe they’re right and climate scientists are wrong. Solving climate change requires global cooperation, powerful governments, and taxes, three concepts hated by fundamental conservatives because it undermines their essential gospel of no taxes. In other words, they’d rather get rich than save the world.

Rationalization

The percentage of people who can brainwash themselves into denying climate change is terrifying. Their egos can embrace poorly educated talk show hosts over legions of highly trained scientists reveals a limited grasp of reality. Part of this comes from our ability to believe. The same trait allows humans to accept Jesus and positively know they’ve gained immortality. We can rationalize anything, and that’s dangerous.

Religion

Religion isn’t inherently anti-science. In fact, some churches are embracing global warming as a moral issue. However, hatred of science is a trait of many religious believers. They see science in opposition to religion, and since climate change is on the side of science, they have to choose the other side. To them, the choice is everlasting life and science.

Anti-Fate

Many people deny climate change because they hate fate. Climate change feels too much like fate, even though it isn’t. We can avoid global warming if we choose. Ironically, by denying a possible future they are creating it. They feel climate change represents an inevitable future, and they reject that.

Anti-Responsibility

Another trait of deniers is they deny responsibility to their descendants even when they’re family oriented. Instead of wanting to protect future generations, they shove their heads into the sand. They are denying an obligation to their children, grandchildren, and future generations. Climate change deniers deny the sins of the fathers.

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

Should We Give Our Jobs to Robots?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 9, 2015

If you use the self-service checkout machines at grocery stores, you have effectively voted to give jobs to robots rather than people. We’ve been slowly passing our livelihoods to machines for decades. Guys used to pump our gas. Computers used to be women working at desks doing calculations. We poke ATM machines rather than chat with bank tellers. Taxes were prepared by accountants and bookkeepers, not programs. We bought music and books from clerks in stores. We used to have repairmen heal our gadgets, now we toss them as soon as they break, and just buy cheaper replacements. We purchase the mass produced rather than the hand-crafted. Our factories used to employ millions, but capital moves manufacturing anywhere in the world where labor is cheapest. Their next step is to automate those factories and get rid of the cheapest workers. Even the fast food worker, the starter job for kids and the fallback for the unemployed, are about to be taken over by robots. Robots have begun to do the work of professionals, like lawyers and doctors, and they are getting smarter every day.

Most of us ignore all these trends because we focus on our personal lives. It would be wise if you are planning your career, or living off retirement savings, to read Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. Automation is a disruptive technology that will impact jobs and savings. The book careful details what’s been happening in the past, and warns of what will happen in the near future.

The Rise of the Robots - Martin Ford

Every day we decide to hire robots through our purchases. Every day we choose robots over people when we buy the cheapest products. Every day we side with capital over workers when we attack unions. Real wages have been dropping since the 1970s. Average household income has only keep par with falling middle-class earnings by having two incomes. Many individuals work two jobs to keep up. The biggest employment sector is the service economy, which generally pays close to the minimum wage. There are two movements to watch. One, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which benefits labor. The other, is to create robots to do those jobs, that benefits capital. Who will get those jobs in the future: humans or robots? If capital gets its way, it will be machines because you want the cheapest hamburger and fries you can get.

Even though most people in the U.S. are labor, the vast majority sides with capital. For centuries there’s been two forces at play where humans make their living: labor and capital. To understand this read Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, a very readable history. Anyone who wants to understand money and savings should read this book. There’s always been a balance between workers and investors. Investors can’t create industries without labor, so labor had a leverage in getting a fair share of the wealth. That leverage has weakened since automation. Capital is about to eliminate most labor costs by buying robots. And we’re letting them. Almost all wealth comes from consumers, and that’s a kind of voting block.

We accept automation and robots buy buying goods and services made by machines. We do this because we want everything on the cheap. To understand where our natural drive for cheapness is leading us, read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell. We’ve been voting to eliminate people from their jobs since the development of the self-service grocery store.

Like climate change, overpopulation, mass extinction, wealth inequality and all the other major problems we face, we are the cause, and have chosen our path even though we refuse to look where we’re going. We are giving our jobs to C-3PO. It’s a decision we’re making, although most people don’t know it.

To better understand what I’m saying, read these three books. All are easy to read, and entertaining in their presentation of history and facts. We need to stop wasting so much time in escapist entertainment and look around to what’s coming. I’m a lifelong science fiction, and was a computer programmer. I love robots and artificial intelligence. I want us to invent far-out robots that do things humans can’t do, but I don’t want robots taking jobs that humans can do, and need to do.

Civilization is breaking down in countries around the world where young people have no jobs and few prospects. It’s the cause of terrorism. A stable society needs to have most people working, even at jobs a machine could do.

Essay #988 –  Table of Contents