Twisting My Brain Around Time Travel

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 17, 2016

There’s a book by Clifford D. Simak with a title I love, Time is the Simplest Thing. It’s not. Try to define “time” in words. You can’t. Everyone tries, but has anyone ever succeeded? In Time Travel: A History, James Gleick covers the science fictional subject of time travel, and the scientific subject of time. Thus, if you’re a science fiction fan, you’ll have a wonderful stroll down memory lane of many iconic time travel stories. But it’s the other half of the narrative, the one where Gleick explains the science of time – that tied my mind in knots.

Time-Travel_James-Gleick_coverI don’t believe in time travel. H. G. Wells didn’t believe in time travel. James Gleick does not believe in time travel. So why spend so much time speculating about an impossible subject? That’s what Gleick’s book is about. One big spoiler warning to anyone planning to write a time travel novel – after Gleick described so many time travel stories I wondered if there’s any need for more. Can anyone read this book and think of a new angle on time traveling? Time Travel: A History illustrates just how speculative one idea can be. For me Gleick’s book is a celebration of the concept of time travel, and an eulogy. Time travel stories are fun, especially when young, but other than escapist entertainment, speculation about real time travel feels as valuable as counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. This book is about speculating on time travel. When we are young we hope concepts like God and Time Travel are real, but when we’re old such thoughts fade, but it’s pleasurable to contemplate old thoughts of fancies. I know I won’t be traveling in time, or outer space, or even to heaven or hell. Now is all I’ve got. Being old makes me want to know the real nature of time. Gleick’s book combines the two.

What’s really rewarding about Time Travel: A History is the respect it gives to science fiction. Gleick uses famous SF stories to illustrate how we struggle to understand time. Of course, it’s also bait and switch. Science fiction fans will buy the book to read about time travel, but Gleick spends a good deal of “time” conveying the thoughts of Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Proust, Bergson, and other heavyweight thinkers about the nature of time.

Time-Machine-Norton-Critical-EditionOf course, Gleik covers The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, including some of the serious reactions to that story. I wish he could have gathered a sample of man-on-the-street reactions. How did the average person respond to the idea of time travel in 1895? How did the standup comics of the day, or whatever they were called, poke fun at the idea? Did the story generate 1890s pop culture buzz? In some ways I would have liked this book to have been The Time Machine: A History. Looking at the publication history of The Time Machine at ISFDB, I’m not sure it was an instant hit. I have a copy of the Norton Critical Edition that features early reviews and later scholarly essays, but it doesn’t offer what everyday readers thought. I wonder if such a history could be written? (Or has?)

One of the trickier aspects of reading this book is paying attention to when Gleick uses the phrase “time” or “time travel” because my mind often wanted to switch them. For example, when he quotes Lee Smolin, “I no longer believe that time is unreal” my eyes tried to read it as “I no longer believe that time travel is unreal.” I assume my unconscious mind wanted a scientist to claim time travel is possible. As a species, I believe we all wish to travel in time. Don’t we do this is so many ways: art, history, journalism, fiction, nostalgia, dreams, memories, and so on. Gleick covers all this too.

By_His_Bootstraps_ASF_Oct_1941It’s when Gleick tries to define time, especially in relation to Einstein’s discoveries, that my head explodes. I want to believe there is one now that exists everywhere, all across this universe, to other universes in the multiverse, down into the atomic world, the subatomic, the quantum, and if they exist, to all the dimensions of strings, and then to what makes up strings, and so forth. But my understanding of Einstein, which is very limited, tells me the observer has their own time. What does that mean? I can understand if that means clock time is different in different locations – depending on the speed of the observer. But is Einstein saying  the nature/substance/structure of time is different for each observer? Do they each have a personal now? Many scientists doubt the existence of time, and consider it an illusion.

H. G. Wells confused things when he suggested that time was the 4th dimension, and we can travel through it, like we do through the 3rd. How does that explain Newton’s apple falling from the tree? How does that explain a light beam from a star 1,000 light years away? Is that a 1,000 year yardstick with ticks for all the nows that exist along its path – like counting tree rings? That light beam is a relic of the past, so it confuses us about the nature of time. Even though we think we see a star, what we’re seeing is 1,000 years old light. The star’s now is different. But does our sun and that star also share a same now regardless of the age of the light beams we see? Is there one eternal now everywhere? Is time merely a measure of how far points in the past and future are from the eternal now?

Think of it this way. We measure time on a timeline, and imagine the now moving down the timeline. What if we didn’t use the timeline, and used a constantly changing number for events in the past. For example, instead of saying I was born in 1951, I’d say I was born -65 years in the past, that Columbus discovered America –524 years ago. Of course, every year we’d have to memorize a new number for every event in history. It’s easier to give every event a year to remember, and let now always be an ever changing date. But isn’t that backwards? Isn’t now always the same, and the past an ever expanding number? And the future an ever shrinking number?

134-The-End-of-EternityWhat if we wanted to travel back 542 years to see Columbus. That requires moving our now back all those years. The essence of time travel is moving to another now. That’s why I personally don’t believe in time travel, I believe there is only one now for all of reality. What I want to know, and Gleick didn’t tell me in his book, is whether or not there are other nows, meaning multiple timelines, one for each universe. A great example of this problem is Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein. The premise of this book is some twins have telepathy, and that this telepathy is always instantaneous over any distance, so use them as radios for interstellar flights. The twin that stays home gets older much faster than the twin that travels to the stars. They always share a telepathic now, but they can tell there’s a difference. What the space traveling twin hears in his mind as he travels faster is his twin talking slower.

I can’t remember when I first grasped the idea of time travel. I saw the George Pal movie in the early 1960s, before I read the classic novel by H. G. Wells, but I’m not sure if I hadn’t seen cartoons, television shows or movies that also dealt with the topic. Before H. G. Wells few people thought of time travel, now, I doubt many people haven’t thought about it. Before Wells, writers wrote about people sleeping into the future. Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but had he invented time travel? Wasn’t Twain really inventing alternative history? Gleick does go into all the philosophical old variations on time travel, such as prophecy, fortune telling, eternal life, and so on. It’s amazing how many ways we play with the idea of time.

That’s the thing about this book – it demands rereading. Is that another form of time travel? Read Maria Popova review of the book. I wish I could think and write like her. And isn’t her essay an example of actual time travel? We constantly revisit the past, to annotate and evaluate. Reading my review, hers, and others, we’re all traveling to the same spot and time – the book Time Travel: A History.


[I wrote two versions of this essay. Microsoft decided to update Windows when I left the machine unattended, and I lost parts of the first version. Rewriting this essay feels like time traveling itself, and this version is the result of my mind going back and interfering with the timeline of the first version.]

Overcoming Inertia in Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In retirement you can do whatever want – if you’ve have the drive. Otherwise you do what you feel. That distinction might be meaningless to many. (I imagine old hippies replying, “If you’re following your feelings, you’re doing what you want.”) The difference defines ambition.

All too often I feel like kicking back in my recliner to daydream about writing while listening to favorite songs on Spotify, rather than actually writing at the keyboard. Just now I was lazing in my La-Z-Boy when this essay occurred to me. I told myself this morning my number one priority was to finish the essay I’ve been working on weeks for Book Riot, and then finish an idea I have for Worlds Without End. (I do have growing guilt over not working on them, but writing this is what I’m feeling.) The trouble is both Book Riot and Worlds Without End each have an essay in the can waiting to be opened, so the pressure to write another isn’t that driving. (BTW, I’m not blaming my laziness of them.)

countdown to ecstasy

In the middle-third of my life, I hated being trapped in the nine-to-five world of work. Before that, in the first third, I hated being imprisoned in the K-12 school system. But I’ve got to admit without that outside pressure I never would have learned much, or put in my 35-years of work. (At least I’m honest about my laziness.)

If this sounds like I’m wishing for someone to crack the whip over me, I’m not. Na, I’m just whining about my own lack of drive. I didn’t have it then, and I don’t have it now. I’ve always admired people who live like guided missiles, always on target. And that’s the confusing thing about retirement. It feels like I’ve reached the target. The social security years can feel like being in the queue for nonexistence. How we fight that is important. It defines the game in the last third of life.

Don’t assume I’m depressed. I’m never bored. I go to bed every night near midnight, regretting the day is over, and wishing I had more time. Every day I do get a few things done I want, but mostly I overindulge my whims. And that’s quite satisfying too, in a heroin kind of analogy. My problem is I have too many things I both want to do, and feel like doing. My lament is I spend too much time with Ben & Jerry’s, and not enough with broccoli. (Not literally, just another analogy.)

Being the puritanical atheist I am, I’m hung-up on doing productive work in my existential random existence.

Most people think retirement is all about not working – not me. I might have a minor guilt trip about being unproductive, but I’m not about to get a job, paid or unpaid. I won free-time millions in the retirement lottery, and just need to figure out how to wisely spend them. This means creating my own definition work. Right now, I gauge productivity in essays. Any day I finish an essay, feels like a productive day. Even if I write a navel-gazing one like this.

If I actually write a hard-to-conceive, hard-to-implement essay, that takes great effort and research, I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain. That’s when I believe I’ve won out over inertia. It’s how I redefine rolling my rock.


When Do You Get Your Creative Energy?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 9, 2016

More and more I’m realizing what it means to be a morning person. I’ve been retired for over two years and have all my time free. Yet, I’ve discovered if I’m not creative before noon, I should switch from output mode to input mode. After lunch I can socialize, read, listening to music, watch TV, cook, exercise, clean house, but I can’t write or program. I can study in the afternoons and evenings, but I don’t know how effective it is.

Yesterday I was flowing with creative ideas, and poured out words before 9am, but I had to go to the grocery story before it got busy. Even getting back by 11am, I realized nothing was coming out of the idea faucet. It felt so freaking strange to be so full of ideas that morning and sixty minutes later feel so completely empty. My brain felt dark. Sometimes I can take a nap after lunch, and I’ll start thinking of things to write, but I can’t make my body sit at the keyboard and type.


My mind turns on around 5am, but coziness keeps me in my sleeping chair until 6:30 or 7:00. Often I’ll write for an hour or so before showering and exercising, and then eat breakfast at 10 or 10:30. What’s so damn cliché, is showering turns on my idea faucet full blast. I can usually keep working for another hour or two after breakfast, but that’s it. My thoughts slow down to a drip drip drip. No recourse but to eat lunch.

I’ve wondered if eating calms the mind? I’ve read our body goes through daily chemical cycles, and evidently there’s a stage in my chemical processes that stimulate ideas. At other times during the day I can get ideas, and the faucet might speed up to a dribble, but my body is filled with inertia. I wish it was healthy and legal to do artificial stimulants. It’s also cliché how many writers used drugs to stimulate their muses.

I’ve recently read a couple biographies of Philip K. Dick, and he’d write like a maniac all night long. He was also crazy, and he did a lot of speed. Being a night person has its drawbacks, because if you have mental problems, staying up all hours only inflames them. I’m a calm and happy person. Are other morning people that way too? I’ve always wondered if I wasn’t a productive creative person because I’m too even keeled. Elizabeth Gilbert in her new book claims it is possible to be well adjusted and creative, but I’m not sure how many people are.

By the way, I never hear about afternoon people. Are there swing shift creative people?


Time Management for Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 21, 2015

My working friends think I have unlimited free time because I’m retired. Hell, before I retired I thought I’d have a time bonanza too. It didn’t work out that way. I’ve got so much I want to do that I fantasize buying Microsoft Project to run my life. Living by impulsive is turning out to be frustrating. It’s low stress, something that my inner-hippy loves, but totally unproductive.

Everything we do takes time. It’s much easier if we only have one passion to single-mindedly chase, because it’s then a snap to know how to apply our free time. But if you chase many goals, that takes juggling. For example, the other day I got an ad in the mail for the local paper. I haven’t taken the paper in years, but the price was so low that I thought maybe I should give it a try. I feel guilty for knowing so little about my city and state, especially the politics and business. This Sunday I bought the paper as a test. I can’t find time to read it. One reason I cancelled the paper all those years ago is because they would pile up unread. Taking on any new activity requires shifting old ones around. That abundance of extra time I thought I’d have after retiring doesn’t exist.

Time Management 

I figure it takes about an hour a day to properly read the paper. Especially if you want to value what it offers. Just quickly flipping the pages and scanning the headlines isn’t worth wasting its carbon footprint. But where would that hour come from? Either I’d have to expand into another activity’s timeslot, or I’d have to read less on the internet, magazines or books. It’s just not practical for me to take the paper right now. I could, but I’d have to become a newspaper reader and give up being an internet addict. That’s like becoming a different person.

When you’re retired it feels at first like you have all the time in the world, but that’s not true. Half the day is taken up with body maintenance. Another quarter of the day is taking up with socializing and fun. I can’t remember I how squeezed in eight hours of work. Of course the numbers above are rough approximations. I’ve averaged them for the week. I often spend whole weekends in social activities, so I’m spreading activities across a single 24 hour clock as my pie chart.

When I look at this schedule I realize why I’m not getting much writing done. Three hours a day feels about right for how I’m doing things now. I have to work hard to get those three hours. It’s very easy to just fill the day with all the other stuff. I could cut out two hours a day of television and give it to writing, but I’m not sure that would work. Watching two hours of TV before bed every night seems almost a necessity for my body and mind’s upkeep, as valuable as sleep and eating. My mind is shot for the last few hours of each day, so I don’t think I could do anything ambitious.

And the older I get, the more reenergizing my cells need to keep going. All those naps and eye resting moments help recharge my batteries. I’ve recently read that sleep is the time when the brain flushes out toxic byproducts accumulated from mental activity during the day. That sounds true because when I take a nap it erases a mental fog that’s developed from writing.

I’ve been thinking about taking on two new activities – drawing and studying math. I want to push myself to learn something completely new and different. Actually, I get impulses to pursue all kinds of new activities. Writing this essay makes me realize that I’m not devoting enough time to writing, and I shouldn’t take on anything new. But I think I will try learning to draw. I need to find other things to give up, because I think always learning one new thing is essential to mental wellbeing. Thus, I need to make room.

What’s required is performing activity triage. I wonder if drawing is something I can do when I’m intellectually tired? I’m currently taking a Coursera course, “Learning How to Learn” based on A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley. In the book and course she teaches techniques for more efficient learning. And I think her insights points to ways to solve my time management problems. Learning them will make me more efficient at pursuing all my ambitions. I need to stop wishing for more time, to stop hoping to can do more things, and learn to do fewer things, but being better at each, and doing so with greater efficiency.


The Way We Were and The Way We Are

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 9, 2015

One of the few positive aspects of getting older is living long enough to see great changes in society. Although, a savvy young person should be able to observe the same changes by watching old movies. It’s not the same thing as living through those changes, but it’s good enough for intellectual chitchat. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies from the 1950s, especially ones from 1951, the year I was born, and struggling to understand why I like them so much now that I’m 63. It’s amazing how much different America is today than it was then. What’s far more important, is seeing how we’ve stayed the same. That takes a discerning heart, and it’s easy to overlook how we haven’t changed because all the new stuff overwhelms our senses.

To get the easy stuff out of the way quickly, in the 1950s there were no smartphones, internet, personal computers or social apps. White males dominated society, people of color were barely visible on screen. Women usually wore dresses, stayed at home defining themselves as wives and mothers. There was a double standard for sexuality back then, and women were considered tainted if they had sex outside of marriage. There wasn’t much of a youth culture. Watching these old films its easy enough to spot obvious differences between then and now, like how men wore hats and suits all the time, and cars looked like those we see in Cuba today.

There are less obvious differences that are more subtle to spot. Movies in the 1950s feel like they are made for adults, while many movies today seem to be made for adolescents or the adolescent in us. There were some science fiction and fantasy films back then, but they weren’t the norm. And even then, their science fiction and fantasy had a foundation of realism that modern genre films lacks. Partly that’s due back then because fewer movies were completely escapist, and they didn’t have CGI to make the unreal real—which tends to make the real unreal.

Like I said, it takes more work to study how we’re the same. The reason why we can still enjoy the plays of Shakespeare is not because we enjoy people talking funny and wearing weird clothes, but because how we see ourselves in those people who talk funny and wear weird clothes.


Last night I watched Detective Story (1951) about a morally rigid cop Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) learning his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) had an abortion before they met. Detective McLeod was raised by a criminal father that McLeod despised. McLeod upbringing contra-conditioned him to demand that everyone fit an exacting black and white categorization. McLeod judged everyone that came into the precinct as righteous or evil, with no room for compassion, or understanding. I see that kind of rigid morality all the time on the nightly news, and sadly in some people I know. McLeod’s thinking was no different from members of ISIS, people living in Old Testament times or Donald Trump’s political persona.

Ace in the Hole - 1951

A more complicated example of sameness is Ace in the Hole (1951) which also starred Kirk Douglas, as Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter capable of great compassion or cruelty depending on his personal needs. Chuck Tatum used his psychological skills to manipulate people and orchestrate sensational news stories. Tatum reminded me of Steve Jobs, because he believed it was good to push people into doing more.

The Big Heat

Many young people think terrorism is something new since 9/11. It’s always existed in human society. The Big Heat (1953) has Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) fighting terrorists who control the police force and corrupts the government. Small minded men with big guns kill Bannion’s wife with a car bomb. They kill witnesses and anyone who tries to help Bannion. Makes me think of the news from Mexico, but corruption using violence to rule is common throughout the world.

And it’s not just seeing that the bad people then are just like the bad people today. The good people then are like the good people today. Det. Lou Brody (William Bendix) in Detective Story  tries very hard to get Jim McLeod to bend and see shades of gray in the folks they arrest. In fact, if you look at every character in this film, to see what motivates them, you can find parallel characters in today’s movies and real life.

This reminds me of something I learned from anthropology. Neanderthals were a species that lived unchanging lives for hundreds of thousands of years, making the same tools in the same old way all their long species’ lifetime. Our species, Homo sapiens, have changed a lot over the millennia, yet, there are other traits that don’t change, and like the Neanderthals and their stone tools, we keep constructing similar personality traits over and over again, with the same routineness that our cousins flaked out stone scrapers.

For most of my life, the 1950s was my least favorite movie decade, but in recent months, it’s become my favorite. That will change. It always does. I stay up late watching shows that I once thought dreary and depressing, and now I find fascinating and inspiring. I remember the 1950s, just barely, since I was born in 1951, and these movies little resemble the memories I do have of those times. The closest they overlap are of a trip to New York City in 1959.

Living in Kidland in the 1950s was much different from Hollywoodland. I didn’t know any cops, mobsters, B-girls, reporters, or small-time hustlers. My world looked like those old home movies that The Center For Home Movies work to preserve. And I’d bet lots of family home movies taken today have strange similarities with home movies taken back in the 1940s and 1950s. I live in a house and neighborhood that was built in the 1950s, and sometimes on my morning walks I pretend I’m seeing the neighborhood like it was long ago. Since most people park their cars behind their homes it helps with the illusion. I see women coming out in their robes to pick up the paper, and they look like the women I saw when I delivered papers in the 1960s. I’ve read a lot of books written in the 19th century, and on the surface people appear very different, but if you look closer they don’t. Just read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. It’s much harder, but I can even find overlap with tales as old as The Bible, Homer, Plato, or Lucretius.

Even with smartphones, Ecclesiastes was right.


When Does Nonfiction Go Stale?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 19, 2015

When does a newspaper transform from news to wastepaper?  How old do the magazines at your dentist office have to be before you sneer at reading them? When does a science book become a history book? Why don’t we have classic nonfiction books like we have classic novels? What’s so important about new information as opposed to old information? If you found a two week old newspaper in your house you’d immediately throw it away, but if you found a 1832 newspaper in your attic you’d treasure it. How many bestselling novels from 1955 are still read today versus the nonfiction bestsellers from that year? When The Bible and The Iliad were written there was no distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

Sometimes it seems the books I enjoy reading the most are novels from the 19th century and the nonfiction books just published that are getting a lot of buzz. The only nonfiction book I can remember reading from the 19th century is Walden; or Life in the Woods  by Henry David Thoreau. I’ve always meant to read On the Origins of Species by Charles Darwin.

I started reading Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson, a book I bought new back in 1997, but just now getting around to reading. Dyson is the son of Freeman Dyson, and the author of the more recent book Turing’s Cathedral (2012), which I bought and is also lying around here waiting to be read. I wonder if I’ve waited too long to read Darwin Among the Machines, because I’ve read The Information (2011) by James Gleick and The Innovators (2014) by Walter Isaacson, as well as many other books about artificial intelligence and information theory since 1997. However, Dyson has a unique approach to the history of thinking machines, starting his story with Thomas Hobbes and his book Leviathan. Dyson even ties in H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of book I would write if I had the discipline to write books.

Darwin Among The Machines by George Dyson 1997 1st printing

Yet, I wonder about reading such an old book when there are so many newer books waiting to be read. Is there a Read By date for nonfiction books?

Dyson opens with,

“Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal,” wrote Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) on the first page of his Leviathan; or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, published to great disturbance in 1651. “For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in the principall part within; why may we not say that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life?”¹ Hobbes believed that the human commonwealth, given substance by the power of its institutions and the ingenuity of its machines, would coalesce to form that Leviathan described in the Old Testament, when the Lord, speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, had warned, “Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.”

Three centuries after Hobbes, automata are multiplying with an agility that no vision formed in the seventeenth century could have foretold. Artificial intelligence flickers on the desktop and artificial life has become a respectable pursuit. But the artificial life and artificial intelligence that so animated Hobbes’s outlook on the world was not the discrete, autonomous mechanical intelligence conceived by the architects of digital processing in the twentieth century. Hobbes’s Leviathan was a diffuse, distributed, artificial organism more characteristic of the technologies and computational architectures approaching with the arrival of the twenty-first.

The trouble is Dyson wrote this sometime before 1997, and artificial intelligence has come a long way since then, beyond what Dyson could imagine eighteen years ago. Yet, what he’s really writing about are the centuries of thought before the 20th century on the subject – and that is mostly new to me. The common starting place seems to be with Babbage and Ada Lovelace, so it’s rather interesting that Dyson starts with Hobbes.

I guess it depends on what I’m enjoying learning. I seem to have two modes of interest. First is, what’s happening right now. The second is, how did we get here. Should I spend my time reading about the current state of global intelligence, or study the history of how someone imagined it would be hundreds of years ago?

I could be reading The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality published 9/1/14 by Luciano Floridi. The Fourth Revolution is a book Hobbes would have found very interesting.

I wish I could read, digest and summarize a book in my blog in three or four hours. It takes me one or two weeks to read a book, and often longer to digest. If I really get caught up into a book I want to follow its leads and tangents. Just reading the first chapter of the Dyson book makes me want to go read about Thomas Hobbes. But do I need to spend so much time thinking about the 17th century when I live in the 21st? Tim Urban claims in “The AI Revolution” that the years 2000-2014 experienced as much progress as all the progress in the 20th century, and that the years 2015-2021 will speed even faster through that same amount of new information.

I am reminded of an old play title – Stop the World I Want To Get Off. Of course, I’m also reminded of that bestseller of the 1970s, Future Shock. Maybe it would easier on my mind to read Thomas Hobbes than Luciano Floridi. Yet, isn’t it sort of sad, that whatever nonfiction book I’ll read will be out-of-date in just a few years. If I had a good memory, I could tally up a very long list of nonfiction books that promoted some kind of far out idea as a possible understanding of how reality works yet has since been forgotten. How many people remember The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris or The Origins of Consciousness if the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes?

Not only do we surf the web, but we surf the current state of knowledge by reading the latest nonfiction books. New information flows into creation far faster than we can gain wisdom from processing that data. Is it practical for me to stop and read a book from 1997? Dyson was working to make sense of 1996.

Quite often new popular science books rephrase the same histories the older books covered. How many popular physics books have I read that summarized Einstein’s discovery of general relativity or  Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? Generally my knowledge of science lags far behind it’s discovery. At least I gave up on String Theory before The Big Bang  characters did.

I read for fun, so does it matter when a book is published if it’s fun to read? I’m not a scientist, so I don’t need to be up on the latest theories. I can never understand science at anything more than a popular science level, which is essentially at a philosophical level. And at a philosophical level, Darwin Among the Machines is still a fun read.

The problem that continues to nag me is whether or not I’m being the most efficient reader I can be. I only have a few more years left to live, and I want to cram in as much knowledge as possible. I know it leaks out my brain as fast as I consume it, but overall, a little residue remains and it feels like I’m progressing in my understanding of reality.

The decision to read an old nonfiction book versus a new nonfiction book must be made on how much knowledge will it add to my overall collection. That means I must choose between a writer who is carefully digesting a lot of historical information versus a writer who is reporting a lot of new information.


Finding The Top Albums By Year From 1948 to the Present

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 21, 2014

The 33 1/3 LP came out in 1948, and even by 1958 had only garnered 25% of the total record market. At first, 78s  continued to dominate, and then 45 rpm singles. It took a while for what we know as an album to become a major art form. Even the term album is a holdover from 78 rpm records, which could only contain up to five minutes to a side, and required many discs to make a collection of songs, which was called an album. LP discs can contain twenty or so minutes a side, and 10-12 songs per disc, and so they were an album of songs, not an album of discs. The modern concept of the album, first the LP, then the CD, seems to be fading. It’s apparent reign was about half a century.

Using Wikipedia’s excellent Timeline of Musical Events, it’s possible to drill down to a decade, and then year, to follow popular album releases over time. For example, here’s 1951, the year of my birth. If you look at the 1951 album releases and then try to find them on Spotify, you won’t, most likely. Nearly all of the early LPs of the 1950s aren’t reprinted. It’s not until the later 1950s do some albums become famous enough to be remembered, reprinted, and even stay in print. For example, Blue Train by John Coltrane in 1957.

Blue Train - John Coltrain

Now this is the point of this essay. If you subscribe to a subscription music service like Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, you can musically stroll down memory lane, year by year, and listen to the albums of the time.

Another great site that helps is Best Ever Albums, and here’s how they present 1957. In 1957, they list 107 top albums. By 1967 that jumps to 312, then 453 by 1977, 704 in 1987, to a 1,000 in 1997. Best Ever Albums quits tracking after a thousand albums each year. There’s no telling how many albums come out each year today. People still make albums, but listeners don’t buy them. They’re on Spotify waiting to be played. Unless you find a method to search for albums other than popularity, you won’t go looking for them. My time tracking method is one such alternative method of discovering albums.

My point is you probably missed a tremendous number of great albums. The average music fan bonds with a relatively small number of albums they discover in their teens and twenties, and then pretty much stick with their favorites for the rest of their life. They might add a few new songs to their playlists each year, but not many. Subscription music services offer you access to millions of songs and albums. What mind blowing tunes have you missed?

Using Wikipedia, Best Albums Ever and Spotify, it’s possible to attain a magical music education. I wished Spotify would let us browse by year, or even better yet, but release date. I love tracking things by time. I wished Billboard put all its charts online, but it doesn’t. It is possible to go to and play songs by year. You can then follow the links to Cash Box charts. For example, here’s the weekly charts for 1967.

I don’t know why I like to remember things by time. Maybe I’m trying to time travel.