Creative Blogging

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 7, 2018

Events in my life are leading to a perfect storm for writing about blogging. I’ve been discussing blogging with my friend Laurie who is a professor of reading. She plans to include blogging in a course she’ll teach this spring. Laurie introduced me to the idea of multi-genre research papers, which is an alternative to the five-paragraph essay used in high schools. She was asking me about blogging because she wanted her students to use a blog for their progress reports. When I heard the concept of multi-genre writing I immediately thought of blogging because blogging is at heart multi-genre, or at least in the way these academics are defining the term. Blogging is both multi-media and multi-genre. I’ve been trying to convince Laurie that her students’ multi-genre research papers should be blogged.

Michel_de_Montaigne

Concurrent with this I’m reading for my nonfiction book club How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Michel de Montaigne is legendary for developing the personal essay, and he has inspired countless readers and writers for centuries. Montaigne should be considered the Patron Saint of Bloggers. Montaigne retired early and became a contemplative, developing a personal philosophy by writing about his experiences. [Here’s an excellent essay, “Translating Montaigne” to help you find a copy of his work to read.]

And I just got The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and approaches writing and grammar through studying how the brain works at communication. Pinker realizes that we all read and write differently since we’ve all moved online. I’m anxious to dive into this book because I want to scientifically and systematically improve my blog writing.

Then there’s the book I read last year, The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. She combines teaching writing with understanding memory. Writing the personal essay is all about recalling details when our brains are very poor at remembering. We constantly trick, lie, and delude ourselves, and learning why is both psychologically rewarding and artistically challenging. Contemplating the limits of memory is a fantastic tool for understanding how to write.

I’ve written two essays recently about blogging, “Blogging in the Classroom” and “Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning.” What I’m advocating is we start requiring children to blog their school work to teach them about reading, writing, memory, thinking, and history. Essentially what I’m asking is everyone become a Michel de Montaigne to write their personal history. I also expect them to be historians, teachers, preachers, scientists, philosophers, naturalists, and so on, to write about the world at large too. For example, here is Peter Webscott’s “Reading the world – visiting Montaigne’s Tower.” It is an example of a multi-genre essay about visiting Montaigne’s house. This kind of writing is how we should explore our personal experiences and thoughts, and blogging is how we can save those insights for a lifetime.

Creative blogging should be our tool to write our autobiography, one that is preserved, even after we die. Creative blogging is how we should communicate our deepest thoughts to our family and friends. Only the closest people to you will ever take the time to read your blog. Learning who they are is revealing. Blogging has the beautiful side-effect of showing which of our interests bores other people. That will probably scare you. Learning to know what you care about most and how much your friends and family care about what’s important to you is quite enlightening. It teaches how you are unique. It also teaches you how you overlap with other people, and that’s the key to friendships.

I also wrote this a couple years ago, “77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays.” Strangely, painful truths are wonderfully educational. I could probably come up with 177 things I’ve learned from blogging today. It keeps growing.

JWH

Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last week I wrote “Blogging in the Classroom” but I don’t think I got my intended idea across. I’m going to try again. It’s been almost 60 years since I first learned to read and write. I imagine those skills are taught very differently today. And to be honest, I’m quite ignorant about what happens in 21st-century classrooms. That means my suggestions below could be completely impractical. However, I read several articles a day in The New York Times and Flipboard and often they are about the problems of education. Everyone wants to solve this problem, including me.

blogging in the classroom 2

I am very fond of thought experiments. I love exploring “If I knew then what I know now.” I also love applying technology to problems, including social problems. What inspired my previous essay was “What if I had started blogging when I first learned to read and write back in the late 1950s?” I further refined that thought experiment to include: “What if all kids had to blog their homework, book reports, tests, papers, essays, etc. whenever they wrote something for their teacher that work was open to everyone in the class to read?” My theory was peer pressure would have made me try much harder. And I would have loved having a history of my educational progress. But I’m not sure if that essay got at the heart of what I was thinking. I thought I’d rewrite it and make my intent clearer. (Notice that I’m using blogging to improve my writing, self-expression, and how I organize and present my thoughts.)

A subset of educational goals includes:

  • Getting students to become expert readers
  • Getting students to become expert writers
  • Getting students to master grammar, rhetoric, and logic
  • Getting students to think for themselves
  • Getting students to communicate abstract concepts clearly
  • Getting students to learn on their own
  • Getting students to learn how to teach others

Generally, this is done by a top-down teacher-student relationship. In modern times we work to get students to work cooperatively but the real focus is grades and test scores. Basically, we shovel knowledge at kids and then test them from time to time to see how much they retain. The reason I never liked school, nor was a good student, is because I never felt involved in the process. I never saw why I should cooperate with the educational system. Years later I learned why, but not while I was in school. And pleasing teachers or my parents was never an issue with me. I never had a mentor nor did my parents try to mentor me. I don’t know what percentage of students are like me, but what I’m going to suggest could motivate such kids.

Education has a lot of problems, mostly stemming from declining budgets and political attacks on the system. Plus, we expect children to learn too much. And we’re constantly trying to find one pedagogy that succeeds with all students. Then there’s the problem that we’re constantly experimenting without real evidence. And we throw way too much technology at the problem. Thus, I know what I’m suggesting is probably unwise. However, I would like to see more experiments with basic reading, writing, math, and science. I’m suggesting we use technology to do this. My whole experiment could be refashioned to use only paper and pencils but it would be slower. Humans have developed a symbiosis with computers and I think we need to accept that.

I believe the wild success of social media tells us a lot about educational psychology. We want to communicate. We want to be understood. We want acceptance. We want to be involved with other people with similar interests. For a planet with an overpopulation problem, too many people are lonely. We have a governmental system based on democracy, but we can’t reach any significant levels of agreement. And too much of our social interaction is based on anger, resentment, hatred, and that’s leading to more and more violence. We’re confrontational rather than cooperative. We’re narrow-minded rather than broadminded. We can only see our self-centered needs rather than empathetically understanding the needs of others. And most people have a poor grasp of reality, prone to embracing delusions.

What I propose is we switch students from handing in schoolwork to the teacher via paper and email, and instead post to their blog so that it’s public. I believe learning to read and write based on our fellow students’ efforts will improve our own and make us better human beings. Students should own their own blogs and not use school supplied blogging software. If students used their own blogs they’d be documenting their educational development for life. Students should sign up with WordPress, Blogger, or other international services and give their URLs to their teachers. Teachers should publish these links to all their students and require their students to read and comment on each other’s work.

All too often using blogging in the classroom is about teaching blogging. That by itself is of little educational value. Just another trendy effort to promote technology in schools. What I’m suggesting is teachers require students to take tests, do homework, write reports, all on their blogs, with the results be public. Grading can be private but I’m not sure if it’s even needed. Grades and standardized tests rank students unfairly and inaccurately, so why bother? What we really want is for each student to be the best person they can be by teaching every student that people have different talents and lack of talents. Failing at math doesn’t make you a dummy. It either means you lack a mental facility for math or you aren’t trying hard enough. Learning the limits of either is very important. Seeing how other people work will teach you about your own limitations and how to improve your best skills. We need to embrace the theory of multiple intelligences and recognize we’re not going to be great at all of them.

What we really want is for students to search for their talents and improve them. We want to teach them generalized learning skills that can be applied to any subject, talent, or endeavor. And I believe blogging can help do this. Peer pressure is very powerful. It can be cruel, but it can also be inspirational. If 25 students read what their 24 fellow students were doing it would show them far more possibilities than what one teacher can show them. We need to grow up knowing how other people think rather than constantly trying to figure out how to think for a test.

Let’s use an example. Let’s imagine the teacher posts this question on Friday afternoon: “Why did American go to the Moon in the 1960s?” When students first try this system, most will go to Wikipedia and write up a summary. On Monday the teacher can assign everyone to read everyone else’s essays and discuss the results. The teacher can show how easy efforts lead to simple thinking. The teacher can ask the students to look for unique or deeper interpretations. The teacher can guide the discussion about common ideas and dissenting opinions. The teacher can then assign the students to write another essay challenging students to find source material that no other student is likely to find. The teacher can tell the students to seek out complex and multi-plex explanations.

The goal of this assignment is to teach research and writing history. With every assignment, the goals of improving reading and writing will be involved. We will also be promoting thinking and writing clearly. Students will be encouraged to use statistics and infographics. Students will be encouraged to analyze each other’s motive for expressing a point-of-view. Students will be encouraged to debate each other’s results. Students will be encouraged to combine their research and collaborate. Students should be encouraged to find consensus they can agree upon, but with everyone playing the devil’s advocate. We need to teach about fake and false information. We also need to teach students how not to be intellectual bullies, trolls, and assholes.

Then the teacher should assign their students to write yet another version of this essay so that it competes and encompasses the results of the other students. The teacher should encourage students to write their best version — the one they want the world to read. Most writing classes I’ve taken only urge students to submit one draft. It’s very important to teach students to go through multiple drafts.

Students should be encouraged to critique each other’s writing but taught how to do it kindly. The goal is for each student is to have 25 mentors (24 fellow students and 1 teacher).

Blogging is hard and time-consuming, so I don’t know how practical it is to integrate into a standard curriculum. However, I do believe the 10,000-hour rule applies here. I would suggest one hour a day of essay writing and a couple hours a week reading/critiquing other students’ work. That should accumulate 10,000 hours from grade 3 to grade 12. If computers are available in the classroom I’d recommend typing in tests and other schoolwork and sometimes spending time on discussing other students’ work. A major educational goal is to learn how other people think through reading their work and how to think clearly yourself by writing for others.

Mastering typing and software tools lead to much faster writing and rewriting. I would allow grammar and spelling checkers because they constantly nag writers to improve on the basics. Using them are almost like playing video games because you want to beat them.

JWH

(Goodby 2017 – Hello 2018)

Blogging in the Classroom

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 23, 2017

My friend Laurie who is a professor of reading at a college of education told me she is going to teach a course using blogging as a teaching tool. I found that fascinating. I’ve done a little research on Google and see that there are special blogging platforms for teaching, so the idea is catching on. This backs up a pet theory I’ve had for years. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a student. One of my worse habits was doing exams and papers as fast as I could and then turning them in without double checking my work. If I had only taken the time to reread what I wrote I could have probably changed my mostly C+ grades to B+. For a long time, I’ve thought if they made kids begin blogging in elementary school it would improve their writing and test-taking skills for their rest of their lives.

blogging in the classroom

Knowing that only teachers would see my work meant I didn’t have to try hard because I didn’t care about what teachers thought. Back then, if I knew other kids might see what I wrote I would have tried harder because peer pressure did matter. This is why I think blogging could be a great teaching tool. If kids knew their friends would read their essays I think they’d try a lot harder.

Now we have a system that protects young egos. Children are vicious with each other. So we make schoolwork private between student and teacher. I can understand that, but I wonder if we’re making a mistake. If we want students to learn to write clearly maybe some of their work should be public. Blogging might be a way to start.

Blogging can be private. Teaching portals can set up blogs to be private between student teacher, public to just the classroom, or public to the world. There are endless reasons to blog, in or out of the classroom. One very important reason is to preserve a personal history. If everyone started blogging when they learned to read or write they’d have a history of their life from around age seven. My father died when I was eighteen and I never really knew him. I’ve often wished that blogging had existed back in the 1920s and I could have inherited his blog. I also wish I had a history of my own early life. But I also think blogging would have made me more self-reflective and concerned about my education if I had started at an early age.

Blogging in the classroom could cause all kinds of important changes in society. We don’t emphasize writing in our culture nearly as much as reading, and that’s unfortunate. Education is focused on learning and not communication. We force kids to sit for years so we can fill them up with knowledge, but we give them little chance of expressing themselves. The rise of the internet is showing how billions of people think, and it’s not pretty. Self-expression on the internet often reveals crude skills of exclaiming emotions (usually rage), but not logical thinking or the ability to cooperatively communicate.

This is why I wonder if forcing kids to interact with their peers via blogging from an early age wouldn’t initiate positive changes. Sure, it might open Pandora’s Box, which is what we’re seeing on the internet today with all the hateful tweets and comments, but if we started sooner and trained children to study their thoughts, organize their observations, write clearly, decode how others think, and to compassionately communicate, it could be different.

I took up blogging in my late fifties. It’s given me a great retirement hobby, plus I’m learning to write and think better at a time when my mind would normally be in decline. I believe I would have been a superior K-12 student, and thus a superior college student if I had started blogging right after I learned to write. I believe I would have tried harder knowing my friends could read what I wrote. I also believe that writing more would have helped me learn more. If I had been taught to explain how things worked through writing I would have learned more from my lessons. Blogging could be a way to teach kids to teach and that’s a great way to learn.

For this to work, we’d have to overcome a lot of obstacles. Most children and adults are embarrassed to let others see their intellectual abilities. It’s like undressing our minds. We’d need to teach kids how to protect their privacy and create their public persona. Most people don’t seem to realize their inner thoughts are already expressed in what they say and do. Children often worry more about what they wear and own than what they say or how they behave. If blogging was required in schools, and part of their schoolwork was public, it might make students more reflective about their thinking and how it impacts others. For example, if school bullies read posts by their victims and how bystanders see their bullying would they change their behavior? I don’t know.

I am constantly reminded of a novel, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It’s a story of family tragedies, tragedies that could have been avoided if each member of the family would have expressed their thoughts.

I can imagine endless ways in which blogging could be applied to teaching. Currently, we have teachers teachings and students taking tests to prove they’ve paid attention. What if we required students to spend more time teaching? Because blogs can contain multimedia, we could ask students to teach topics on their blogs using whatever media they wanted. I often have to research and study a topic when I write about it on my blog. That makes me realize that I’m my most important reader because I discover how little I know and how much I learn from working on the post.

I also learn how bad I write by using tools like Grammarly and Readable.io. Writing on a blog is like playing a video game, I’m always trying to better my own scores. And I like when I get good comments, not praise, but insights, because learning how other people think teaches me how narrowly I see things. Even when I get hateful rants it teaches me my views are far from universal. I think students could benefit knowing more about how their classmates think and feel, even when it stings.

I wish I had started blogging when I learned to write so I would have a record of all my school years. I wish I had taken a photograph of every classmate and teacher. I wish I had taken a photograph of every classroom and school. I wish I had taken a photograph of every playground and walk to school. I wish I had written about everything that excited me and scared me. I hate that I can’t remember or visualize all those people and places.

Because of this wish, I would recommend teachers have students sign up with an international blogging site that would stay in business the rest of their lives. They need to promote lifelong blogging to preserve memories. It won’t hurt to have a permanent personal blog and classroom blog for a year if that’s needed.

We might be protecting kids too much by letting them hide from criticism. I think teachers need to think hard about whether to let student blogs be public because some children will suffer emotional damage. But on the other hand, it might help them in the long run. It’s like parents who homeschool their kids for years to protect them. In the end, their kids have to interact with society and it’s usually much harder.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH

 

Writing and Aging

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 12, 2017

Most skills are best learned young. Few people find initial success late in life. I started this blog a few years before I retired and it has been an enriching educational experience. I consider blogging public piano practice for writing. I hope I’ve gotten better, but I’m not sure. Regular practice should make me better, but aging is traditionally a time of decline. I know there are programs that analyze written texts to give readability ratings, but I wonder if there are programs that rates writing ability that could measure cognitive decline?

writing-engraving

We all know our last years are ones in decline, we just don’t know what it feels like until we get there. And even then, it’s subtle. It’s like that frog in boiling water analogy.

You’d think because writing requires little physical effort I could write for hours and hours, but I can’t. The amount of time I can stay at the computer is dwindling. And I assume that’s a symptom of getting older. However, I’m considering other assumptions. I follow a plant-based diet which helps my heart, but it’s a low-protein, low-fat diet. I’ve wondered if that’s contributing to my declining writing energy. The gurus of plant-based eating argue passionately that their diet restores energy in old age. I hope they are right.

I’m also wondering if I might have something else wrong with me, like diabetes. I get lethargic after every meal and need a nap. But I get blood work done 2-3 times a year because of my cholesterol and my doctor says my sugar levels are always perfect.

I do my best writing first thing in the morning and delay breakfast until after 10 am. Unfortunately, I have to spend some of that morning time on showering and exercising. I have to exercise faithfully to keep my spinal stenosis symptoms at bay. I tend to skip my back exercises if I don’t do them in the morning. I’m wondering if it’s possible to retrain myself to follow a new rut?

In fact, I’m thinking about totally changing up my routines just to optimize my energy for writing. I get several ideas a day for writing projects, so inspiration isn’t a problem. I wish I could write eight solid hours a day. Just two or three years ago I could write 3-4 hours routinely and had occasional bursts of 5-6 hours. Now I’m lucky to have 1-2 hours of writing before my mind fogs. A side-effect of this is I start many more unfinished essays. I could plot the number of unfinished essays. That might give concrete data.

I’d really like to know if this decline is due to aging, a health problem, a mental problem, or something else. I feel like I’m trying harder than ever. I’m sticking to my healthy diet, plus I do physical therapy exercises, Bow-Flex, bike riding, and recently restarted my Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch exercises too. All activities their proponents claim will give me more energy. But to be honest, I felt more energetic eating junk food and avoiding exercise. However, that led to a clogged arteries, a heart stent, and spinal stenosis. Because of eating well and exercise, my heart has stopped nagging me, and even though I have limited mobility because of my spinal stenosis, I don’t have to take pain meds anymore.

I am managing all my medical problems by doing all this stuff that’s supposedly good for me, which leaves me believing aging is the thief stealing my writing energy. HBO has a new documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Have Breakfast” about several high-energy geezers. Man do I envy their energy! The show features Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, and others, extolling the excitement of 90+ living! Watching those hyperactive oldsters is inspiring. Why can’t I be like them? Is it genetics? If I’m honest, I have to admit I’ve always been on the low-energy side of the activity spectrum, so I can’t expect to suddenly be a different kind of person.

If my mental energy problem is aging, how do I cope with it? I don’t plan on giving up and becoming a TV addict. This seems to be a Destination Moon problem, a 1950 science fiction film about the first trip to the Moon featuring a problem that I often use as an analogy for many problems in life. The astronauts in this movie used too much fuel when landing on the Moon, so they don’t have enough fuel to get back to Earth. The solution is to jettison all the mass they could from their spaceship. We are often stopped from taking off for our goals because of we’re carrying too much crap that weighs us down.

I’ve come to this same conclusion over and over again. Our desires and possessions weigh us down. I want to write about too many topics. I want to read too many books. I want to watch too many movies and television shows. I want to buy too much stuff. All this saps my mental energy.

Getting old is like being a rocket that has a little less fuel every day for taking off. Exercise and diet have given my rocket a bit more efficiency to use with a dwindling fuel allotment, but I’ve about squeezed as much efficiency as I can out of the process. Now I’m down to throwing stuff out the hatch to lower the ship’s mass for the take-off.

Here’s one concrete example. Susan and I have collected hundreds of DVDs over the years. I have a growing collecting of westerns, science fiction, and classic movies that I love. My mind craves more. Should I spend my time searching out new old favorite films to add to my collection, or spend that time on watching the ones I’ve already collected, or spend that time watching new films I haven’t seen that could be just as great or greater than my old favorites, or should I give up some of that movie time to writing?

My days are divided up between active pursuits of writing and body maintenance, and mostly passive activities of socializing, reading, music, movies, television, emailing, book clubs, web surfing, news reading, crosswords, and other fun pursuits. I have to push myself for the active activities, but find it easy to pleasantly wallow in the passive pursuits. I wonder if less wallowing would translate into more active energy?

What I’ve noticed in these past few retired years is a slow mental erosion. I don’t like that. I know it’s inevitable because I keep an eye on folks older than myself. I know each decade means less energy. I’m sure high-energy dudes like Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke notice it too. Charles Dickens used to have so much manic energy that he’d briskly stomp miles and miles all over London when not writing, but even Dickens ran down in the end.

We all know that one day our rocket will not have enough fuel to take off. As we age, fuel management becomes critical, even an art. I believe I reached a stage in life where fuel management demands a whole new level of creativity.

JWH

p.s. – now that I’ve written this I can collapse for the rest of the day into a wallow of pleasant passive pursuits.

 

 

 

 

Rereading: The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 6, 2017

The-Soul-of-a-New-Machine-by-Tracy-KidderI first read The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder just after it came out in 1981, before it won the Pulitzer and National Book awards in 1982. I read it again at the end of 2016. Thirty-five years later it is still a stunning book, even though the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, the title character, died long ago, a few remember. As I read The Soul of a New Machine a second time, I kept thinking, “What happened to these great people who worked so hard?” I decided I’d provide a review with research/annotations/links. If you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine I highly recommend you do. Most books about science and technology date very quickly, but this one hasn’t. Why? Because it’s about people, not a machine. The story reads like a novel.

I’ve spent days struggling to write this essay. The book is about engineers who push themselves to produce a new computer, working 80+ hour weeks, not for money, fame, or rewards. They are driven to invent by their desire to master knowledge and skills. I’ve always wished I had that kind of passion. A few days ago I read “How to Become a ‘Superager’” in the New York Times, that reports that older people who push themselves mentally stay cognitively healthy longer. It’s more than doing crosswords though. I believe what they were talking about is like how the folks worked in this book drove themselves to master a problem. You just keep going, keep working, keep trying, keep pushing, until the problem is solved. Because I’m retired, I know I can quit and kick back at any time, when I tire of a task. But I want to finish this essay, and I’ve had to constantly push myself. I wanted to reread this book, carefully summarize it, and find out everything I could about what happen to the people in the story since it’s publication.

mv8000I’m going to hyperlink the hell out of this review for two reasons. First, if you just read The Soul of a New Machine and have the same questions I did, this should be a handy resource. Second, if you haven’t read the book, seeing why I’m so fascinated with a 36-year-old book about a forgotten minicomputer should make you want to read it. The Soul of the New Machine is a perfect example of what is now called creative nonfiction, but that term didn’t exist back when it was first written. It essentially means using techniques borrowed from novelists to write compelling nonfiction. This writing technique is old, but I first noticed it in the 1960s. Truman Capote used it in his 1965 book, In Cold Blood, which he called a nonfiction novel. Tom Wolfe used it for The Electric Kool-Acid Test in 1968 and called it New Journalism. So by 1978, Kidder had plenty of models to choose from.

What’s particularly impressive about The Soul of a New Machine is Kidder didn’t know anything about computers. His editor at The Atlantic told him to write about computers. He didn’t want to. Then Kidder went sailing with Tom West, the god of the new computer, and became part of the story. That’s another common aspect of creative nonfiction – the author becomes a character in the story, letting us readers know how the story came to be.

Here’s a Zen koan. Who would you want to be – the storyteller or the subject? Back in 1978 would it have been more rewarding to be Tom West or Tracy Kidder? Or Carl Alsing, Chuck Holland or Ed Rasala. A Hardy Boy or Microkid? But I’m getting ahead of myself, because you probably don’t know who those people are. My point is Tracy Kidder had to learn about computers, but he also had to learn about why computers were so fascinating to this small group of people, and why they wanted to build a new one. Kidder had to go beyond that, he had to learn what how each of these engineers got on the path that led them to become creators of a computer. His effort was no less than the engineers building the Eagle.

When I reread a book I love, I want to know everything I can about it, especially about how it was written, and if the book is about real people, what happened to them after the book came out. This review will be full of links to the articles that answer some of those questions. I wish I could write like Tracy Kidder and write the 2017 update to the story. But just writing these 2,000+ words showed me how much work that involves. Writing 100,000 words is beyond my comprehension.

Plot

In February of 1978, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced the VAX, a groundbreaking line of 32-bit minicomputers. The story opens at Data General, DEC’s competitor, and their need to quickly produce a 32-bit supermini to compete with the VAX. Data General had a popular 16-bit minicomputer called the Eclipse, but decided to design a whole new 32-bit computer, code named Fountainhead, that would be superior to the VAX. As a backup, manager Tom West proposed a second project, to upgrade the Eclipse to 32-bit, which they code named the Eagle. The Soul of a New Machine is about the tremendous management and technical effort to redesign a 16-bit machine to work flawlessly as a 32-bit machine without a mode-bit. So owners of the 16-bit Eclipses could buy the new machine and run all their old software without any conversion. This rush effort took place in 1978 and 1979. In many ways it prefigures Steve Jobs’ effort to produce the Macintosh a few years later. Because they are stories about the men and women working long hours, sacrificing their personal lives, to give birth to a machine.

Setting

Most of the events in the story take place during 1978-1979, at Data General’s headquarters in Westborough, Massachusetts, off Route 495, in building 14A/B. I wish I could find photos of the actual offices and labs, especially where the Hardy Boys and Microkids worked. I’d like to see what their debugging tools looked like, and the prototypes named “Coke” and “Gollum.” This one photo from the early 1980s is the best I could do.

Kidder interviewed his subjects secretly at Data General, and outside of work, going to their homes, parties, outings and even sailing with Tom West. I wish I could find photos of those events and locations, but so far I haven’t. It’s weird to think such an heroic project took place in a dull basement of a nondescript building.

Characters

eagleteamThe first report from Wired Magazine shows the photograph on the right and lists who they were and where they are now. Unfortunately, the photo does not include Tom West, the Ulysses of the story. West was the manager who gathered a team of about two dozen men and one woman to build the Eagle, essentially in secret. Data General gave the real Fountainhead project publically to the engineers who had moved to North Carolina. There were two teams – The Hardy Boys who worked on hardware, and the Microkids who wrote the software. West had two lieutenants, Carl Alsing, who supervised the Microkids, and Ed Rasala who bossed the Hardy Boys.

Tom West – was the top level manager, and essentially the protagonist of The Soul of a New Machine. The best post-book profile of West I found was “O, Engineers!” from Wired Magazine, for the 20th anniversary of the book. This essay is well worth reading because West talks about how the book affected his memory of events. He didn’t always appreciate the fame the book brought. Plus it’s a good summary of the story and an update about how people came to judge the book. I also found The Computer Museum Report from Spring, 1983 which reprints a dialog between Kidder and West. West died at 71, in 2011. Here is his obituary at the New York Times, and one at the Boston Globe.

Steven J. Wallach – was the Eagle’s architect. A 2008 New York Times piece that chronicles Wallach’s whole career. He continued to design computers and start companies after he left Data General.

Carl Alsing – was probably the second most important character in the book. Tom West was often a mystery to the Hardy Boys and Microkids. Alsing was his John the Baptist. This 1974 DataGeneral newsletter has some photos of younger Alsing and West.

I found this YouTube video for the Science Friday Book Club that interviews Asling, Holland and Shanahan in 2015. It briefly shows the ball maze Chuck Holland created and mentioned in the book. When I read that part I really wanted to see it.

Carl Asling, Chuck Holland, Betty Shanahan 2015

 

Goodreads Computer History BooksJust look at Goodreads “Popular Computer History Books” – The Soul of a New Machine comes in at #2. I’ve read many of these books over the years, and I find them incredibly inspiring. I worked with computers most of my working life, but I was always a low-level programmer, web designer, or computer tech support guy. I guess reading computer history books for me is about envy. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine is like reading family history, but about my cousins who succeeded in the big time. I’ve always loved science fiction and computers. I’m not the only one, became that combo is common. The Soul of a New Machine is also #2 on “50 All-Time Classic Books About Computers and Computing.” I have to assume there are many readers out there like me.

Yet, as I reread this book I constantly asked myself why I was reading about technology that went to the scrapheap decades ago, was never famous other than being in this book, and about computer engineers that few people remember today? Yet, reading The Soul of a New Machine was just as much fun in 2016 as it was in 1981. The Soul of a New Machine is about how hard work leads to creativity. It’s about being different. The men and women in this story have keen intellects, were often loners, and all had unique hobbies peculiar to engineers. It’s a story about people who can focus on one goal with such concentration that they almost forget everything else in life. Tracy Kidder tells an amazing story about amazing people in amazing detail. Yet, in 2017, why would anyone want to read about the design and engineering team that built a long forgotten minicomputer, or a company that went out of business, and was never legendary or insanely great? I doubt younger people even know the terms mainframe, minicomputers and microcomputers. Or care about a time when a business struggled to bring out a 32-bit computer to market when 16-bit was the standard.

All of that technical history doesn’t really matter. What matters are the people. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine makes me ask the question at the top of the essay. Most kids today daydream of growing up to be a star – whether in sports, movies, music, television. They want to be rich, famous, or some kind of superhero. If I was a kid reading this book, I’d want to grow up to be like Tracy Kidder, Tom West, Carl Asling, or any of the people in that group photo above, or the people profiled in the books at Goodreads. Most kids won’t become Beyoncé. I didn’t become Bill Gates. When I reread The Soul of a New Machine I experience a beautiful sense of regret. I lived through some of the most exciting times in technological history. I was in the stands watching, and that was great, it wasn’t the same as being on the field, but it was still very cool.

JWH

Artificial Intelligence Wants Us To Write Better

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 7, 2016

For weeks now, my computer has been nagging me to write clearer. I checked Google, and Microsoft has upgraded Office 2016 with two new tools for Word and Outlook: Editor and Researcher. In the past, I’ve thought of adding Grammarly to Office, but using the full version is rather pricey. I wonder if the new Editor feature in Word is meant to compete with it, or similar add-on grammar checking programs? It must be a bummer for little companies that create a business by patching cracks in big programs when those cracks are filled.

punctuation

Anyway, the update feels like Microsoft fed my computer a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser, the classic guide to clear writing. Word now bitches at me to simplify my sentences. Little red underlines and popups tell me the same thing my teachers used to write in red ink on my papers. This advice feels like a Deep Learning program studied all the works of Ernest Hemingway and now wants us to write like Papa. It’s hard on passive voice, wordy phrases, and unnecessary words. Words like “really” and “just” are superfluous. And they are, but I often use them to make my writing voice sound like my speaking voice. The AI in Word obviously thinks I sound dumb. Surely, it knows best.

When did AI minds decide clear writing in humans was needed? Did NSA computers ask Microsoft computer to help clean up our language? Spy programs would have an easier time tracking our opinions if we wrote precisely.

Do you take style and grammatical suggestions from your computer? We could tell it to shut the #@&% up. Don’t our grammatical quirks give us unique voices? Won’t Word convince all humans to sound alike? I wonder how many people around the world learn English just so they can go more places on the web? Will grammar checkers convince us all to write the same way? Maybe it’s not Microsoft, but the AI overlords. They want us to be more logical. We’re being evolved.

JWH