How Audible.com Changed My Life

Back at the beginning of 2002, I joined Audible.com, signing up for their two books a month plan and getting a free Otis digital audio player. Audible.com sells audio books online and designed a system so their digital audio books worked with the emerging technology of digital audio players. This coincided with the rise of the iPod and made Audible.com revolutionary in that it made audio books, after the learning curve of setting up the equipment, easier to use than paper books. I now carry my iPod Nano with me at all times, and listening to a book is just a matter of plugging in an ear-bud and pressing play. I never carried a book around like that. I keep a log of books I read and before Audible I was reading on average 1-2 books a month, and after Audible I was average a book a week. Not only that, but I was “reading” from a much wider selection of subjects and genres. So I was improving on quantity and quality.

I’ve often heard people gush about books that changed their life. I always found that hard to believe, but I actually believe my life would be different if I hadn’t joined Audible. Oh, I’d be working at the same job and married to the same woman, but for the last six years I have been more excited about reading than any time in my life. Being a lifelong bookworm, that’s a pretty big statement. Joining Audible.com caused four paradigm shifts in habits.

Learning How to Read All Over Again

Switching from eyeballs to ears as my primary conduit for sending words into my brain taught me I have always been a very bad reader. This was a bit of a shock because I had always prided myself on being a good reader. I believed that because I loved to read, read lots of books and read them fast, it made me a great reader. Boy was I wrong. Switching to audio books showed me I was skimming rather than reading. The dying urge to know what was going to happen forced me to focus on dialog and plot at the expense of narrative details and voice.

Listening to a good book read by a great narrator showed me how much drama and characterization I had been missing. Listening at a reading pace taught me to take in the whole book and I began to value the narrative parts, seeing more details, making the settings vivid and allowing me to imagine what the characters looked like and acted. For some reason hearing words, like the names of colors or the names of objects, made me visualize what those words were pointing to in the real world. The shift was dramatic, as dramatic as being stoned and listening to music for the first time.

It really is a matter of concentration. Listening gave me the time to concentrate on what the author was intending. Since I’ve learned this trick I’ve been able to go back to reading with my eyes and read slower. What I’ve learned is eye reading and ear reading emphasize different ways to learn and experience books. If I want to study a book I have to read with my eyes, if I want to experience a book I listen. For pure reading enjoyment listening is the way to go but if I find a book I want embrace fully, I also have to read it.

Over the years I have also learned that I have been training my ears and mind to audio and I now hear a book way better than I did six years ago when I switched from reading to listening. I’m also improving my reading ability. I didn’t expect that as a person in my fifties.

I would say my old way of reading a novel I took in maybe 10% of what the author intended. Listening bumps that up to 25%. Reading and listening takes things to 35%. Multiple readings, with both eyes and ears, improve on those figures, but I imagine it takes a lifetime of study to really go beyond mining 50% of the gold in a great novel. My guess is there are highly educated readers with refined minds and powerful abilities to concentrate that can do what I do in one reading, but my experiences of the last six years has also taught me my limitations. I am a humbler bookworm.

Learning How to Widen My Reading Tastes

In 2002 when I switched to audio books, the audio book industry was far smaller than it is now. Thus Audible.com had a much smaller selection of books. Best sellers and classics were the top choices for publishers when deciding which books to give the audio book production treatment. When I joined Audible I expected to get the same kind of books I was reading: science fiction.

My first two selections were The Menace from Earth by Robert A. Heinlein and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, two books I had already read and loved. To say that I was blown away by listening to them would be an understatement. I hate to use curse words in my public writing, but the only way to convey this is to say I passionately thought to myself, “What the fuck!! How the hell did I miss so much? These are fantastic books!!!”

My immediate desire was to buy all my favorite books in unabridged audio and listen to them. The trouble was Audible didn’t offer them. I got Starship Troopers, another Heinlein novel, and Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris, a nonfiction book about amateur astronomers. I discovered the magic worked just as well with nonfiction.

Okay, with my next two monthly credits I decided to be brave and just try something other than science fiction. What the heck, two books were only $16 at the time. I selected Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. I had been forced to read the Dickens book in high school and it was my model when I thought of classics. I had no idea who Tracy Chevalier was or what her book was like, but it came highly recommended. Well Mikey liked it! Turns out, Great Expectations is one of my all-time favorite books – what a discovery.

Then I tried White Noise by Don DeLillo and The Western Canon by Harold Bloom and I began to get the big picture of what I’d had been missing all my life by living in the ghetto of science fiction. Being a hard-core science fiction fan had always prejudiced me against fantasy. I got His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman on Audible and paid a rather large sum for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on CDs from Amazon.com. I was happily eating crow.

I then tried books I would never have thought to read, like Moby Dick, Sister Carrie and Pride and Prejudice. I’ve always hated long books, but I discovered I could handle long stories if I listened to them, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. These really are books I would never read in book form. I never had the patience for classics or long books. Audio changed that.

Finding New Times to Read

Then I discovered The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I had bought the hard cover edition when it came out because it got such fantastic reviews but I never found time to read it. It was about then I discovered listening allowed me to “read” far more books than I could read with my eyes. Finally I had time to read best-sellers and all those books on the front tables in my favorite bookstores. I had always assumed best-sellers were the fast food of the literary world, but again I learned I was wrong, at least some of the time.

Those by-the-door display tables held the books people were talking about at work. The ones that got reviewed and their authors got to appear on TV. I finally tuned in and found what I was missing. I got to do this because I was now reading a book a week by multitasking with listening.

I cut off one earpiece to my stereo headphones, so the Y-shaped wire was now one straight wire. I kept my player in my shirt pocket from the time I dressed until I got undressed to go to bed at night. I wrapped the wire around my neck and dropped the ear bud end back in the same shirt pocket. It was my new geek tie. My wife thinks I’m dorky-looking and gets embarrassed seeing me in public, but the people at work didn’t complain. I’m a computer guy, so they don’t expect much from our attire.

From then on I learned how to read on the run – to multitask. I listen to books whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t require my full mental attention. I listen when I walk and exercise. I listen when I eat alone or wait in line. I listen when I do the dishes or pick up around the house. I listen when I drive. Using only one ear piece makes this much safer. I listen at work and while doing boring tasks like reformatting a hard drive and reinstalling software, or setting up a new server, or running around putting patches on fifty machines.

I got so good at multitasking reading I was even interviewed for the New York Times and got a tiny mention in the paper where they noted the number and variety of books I was reading because of Audible.com.

Connecting with Other Readers

Finally, Audible.com has brought me together with a lot of other readers, both online and at work. Because I wore my dorky wire tie, people would ask me about it. When I explained they were amazed and many of them joined Audible. They became pod people too and we ended up reading the same books. Audio books became the focus for a lot of new friendships. I also joined a Yahoogroup for Audible fans and met other audio book fans and even some of the people who publish and narrate audio books. We even got up a book club at work. Now when I go to parties I have a lot more books I can talk about. When I meet new people I’m willing to buy and listen to books they suggest and this opens up new lines of communications.

I used to be mostly a solitary bookworm, but now I’m a social bookworm. That’s a big difference. If I had stuck to science fiction as my main reading all of this wouldn’t have happened. I had science fiction reading friends, but they were few and far between. Actually, this shift in taste has moved me away from my science fiction world. I’ve encouraged some of my old SF buddies to try other books but they haven’t. You’d think reading with an iPod would be science fictional but that geeky quality doesn’t appeal.

Most people don’t want to change. I have found changing can be exciting.

I would say the majority of readers I know stick to paper books as their main source of reading. Some have added audio books as supplemental reading and some are half and half readers and listeners, usually reading at home and listening in the car. I’ve yet to meet anyone who carries their iPod with them everywhere.

I’ve also tried to get some of my hardcore bookworm friends to multitask so they could consume even more books, but audio book magic doesn’t work with everyone. A few are learning to multitask read. It’s the books and stories that are making me more friends. So I have to give Audible.com credit for helping me try a great selection of books that helped me connect with other people, and not being a cyborg bookworm.

Adapting to the Future

I’d like to think I could learn from this unexpected discovery and apply it to new experiences. Blogging is helping me learn to write and think, but I don’t know if it will have the transformative changing power that shifting to audio books have had. Strangely enough, writing is an anti-social activity, even though it’s all about communication. A blog is like a public diary, but few people read mine, and it generates little social communication. I value blog writing as a way to practice concentration and help fight off Alzheimer’s.

Computers and the Internet have made a major change in my life but it’s more about how I process information. I don’t think computers have made me see cognitively different like switching to listening to books. I’ve been reading with an eBook for years, and I now have a Kindle but I don’t think that will be revolutionary either. The Kindle is like a magnifying glass that lets me read easier, but I don’t read more. I am experimenting with putting Audible.com books on my Kindle and reading and listening at the same time to see if it causes better memorization.

Becoming a bookworm when I was a child was the major transformative experience of my life, but I’d have to credit Audible.com as a powerful second stage booster that has launched me into orbit. It’s hard to imagine another new technology coming along like it, but imagine what it would be like if my reading was moved from orbiting Earth to trajectory to Mars.

And I can see that it might not involve technology too. I’ve often thought if I could train myself to write a good novel or short story it might teach me a lot more about reading. That would take a lot of discipline I don’t have. I try from time to time, but can never achieve escape velocity.

As a new humble bookworm I know I might not ever get any better at reading and comprehension, but then I never expected digital audio players and audio books to come along and change things. Who knows what the future might bring.

JWH

Personality and Pop Culture

Recently, while cleaning out my old LP collection, I decided there were a handful of albums I wanted to convert and keep on MP3. The two rarest albums in my collection were the soundtrack to the 1966 film, Our Man Flint and the original cast album to the 1967 ABC-TV Stage 67 musical television special On the Flip Side, staring Ricky Nelson. I call these albums rare merely because I have never met anyone else who owned or liked them. I had to sell my record collection in 1970 to pay for my first attempt at moving away from home. In 1989, I found out how rare they were when I bought them for a second time. They weren’t expensive, just hard to track down. I was also able to find the two The Man from U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack LPs on a 2-for-1 CD, as well as many of the James Bond movie soundtracks. That told me there were enough people out there that loved old 1960s spy movie soundtracks to make a market for it. How many of those people also loved a long forgotten Ricky Nelson TV special?

While listening to these two albums as I recorded them with Audacity, and I wondered just how many people in the world also owned this odd pair of LPs. And if there were any, would they be like me in any way? Would we share personality traits? If I listed my Top 100 works from the vista of pop culture I treasured – books, movies, albums, television shows – on some computer system to match my list with other people’s favorites, would people whose lists overlapped with mine, be a lot like me? I’m sure such a test would be more scientific than astrology, but how much so?

The baby boomers I grew up with all listened to the same Top 40 radio during the early and mid-sixties, and we often loved the same TV shows and movies into high school. Shared books were not a common thing – I seldom met other bookworms. Sharing music, movies and TV shows didn’t make us alike but it did make us feel like a cohesive group, even though we were tens of millions of individual personalities. As FM radio came in, and album rock became popular, everyone split into different musical genres. High school gave the illusion we were all alike because we clung together in cliques that shared similar interests. By the time we went to college we realized even our friends we shared everything with were really very different.

Now I’m wondering if we worked backwards, cross-tabbing our lifetime pop-culture favorites, would we discover any statistical revelations about our personalities. I often meet middle-age boomers, generally male, whom I can strike up lively conversations with a drop of a couple names. I know a number of Bob Dylan fans. I know a fewer number of Bob Dylan and Philip K. Dick fans. Getting it down to Dylan, PKD and Jack Kerouac and that makes me wonder about the relationship between personality and pop culture.

I’m going to make a list of my major pop culture landmarks and if you, the accidental browser, stumbles upon this page and share a love for many of these works, zap me a communiqué. Also, if anyone knows of a website or study that works with this idea, also let me know. I was born in 1951, so items before then were discovered later in life. These are movies and television shows I’ve watched many times. The books, except for the ones after 2000, which I’m just now feeling like rereading for the first time, are ones which I have read many times. Many of them I’ve also gotten unabridged audio editions to experience these novels in a new way. And I will watch any and all movie versions made from these stories. These are works that I also read about and study. All of these works are ones I could write thousands of words about. They each have a personal story behind them. This list is just an odd fraction that could be used in the theoretical personality matching system I mention above.

  • Portrait of Marchesa Balbi by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (painting 1621)
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (novel 1813, film & TV many)
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (novel 1861, film many)
  • Paris Streets, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (painting 1877)
  • Treasure Island (novel 1883, film 1934)
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (novel 1895, film 1960, 2002)
  • Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (novel 1902, film many)
  • Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel 1912, film 1932)
  • Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey (novel 1912)
  • The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum (novel 1913)
  • Mark Twain’s Autobiography (1924)
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (novel 1926)
  • City Lights (film 1931)
  • Grand Hotel (film 1932)
  • The Wizard of Oz (film 1939)
  • The Maltese Falcon (film 1941)
  • High Barbaree (novel 1945, film 1947)
  • Battleground (film 1949)
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (novel 1949)
  • The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1952)
  • Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1953)
  • Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1955)
  • Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1956)
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac (novel 1957)
  • The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1957)
  • Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein (novel 1958)
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (novel 1962)
  • “The Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire (song 1965)
  • “Stop in the Name of Love” by The Supremes (song 1965)
  • “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan (song 1965)
  • Our Man Flint (film and soundtrack 1966)
  • Star Trek (TV series 1966-1969)
  • Mindswap by Robert Sheckley (novel 1966)
  • “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany (short story 1967)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (novel 1968)
  • “Cowgirl in the Sand” by Neil Young (song 1969)
  • “Fresh Air”/”What About Me” Quicksilver Messenger Service (songs 1970)
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Persig (nonfiction 1974)
  • The Big Chill (film 1983)
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (novel 1985)
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (novel 1985, TV miniseries)
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood (novel 1987)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV series 1987-1994)
  • Northern Exposure (TV series 1990-1995)
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (novel 1992)
  • Tombstone (film 1993)
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (novel 1995, film 2000)
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (novel trilogy 1995-2000)
  • Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling (novel series 1997-2007)
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series 1997-2003)
  • The Matrix (film 1999)
  • Freaks and Geeks (TV series 1999-2000)
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel (novel 2001)
  • Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu (nonfiction 2001)
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (novel 2002)
  • Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett (memoir 2004)
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (memoir 2005)
  • Lost (TV series 2004- )
  • Heroes (TV series 2005- )


The Kindle is My First Portable Auxiliary Memory Device

My Kindle started out as a crutch for my handicaps, but it’s becoming a cybernetic tool to supplement my brain. Necessity really is the mother of invention. The Kindle has come at just the right time to be a multipurpose tool.

I miss my epic bookworm days of youth. Most of my current reading is done in front of my widescreen LCD monitor because my greatest source of reading material is the Internet. Fiction usually enters my brain via my ears with books bought at Audible.com and played through my iPod. I plug into my audio book whenever I find myself doing something that doesn’t require my full attention, like doing the dishes, exercising, or eating alone. I get about fifty books a year read this way – far more than I read in paper form, which only averages about four books during the same period. I’m still a bookworm, but a strange technical geeky bookworm I guess.

I’m not quite becoming the bionic man but I need gadgets to supplant what my body used to do. One reason why I don’t read as many books is because my eyes demand large print despite my thick prescription reading glasses. The reason I ordered my Kindle is it’s a high-tech magnifying glass that instantly makes all my Kindle books into large print editions.

Another reason why I don’t read like I did when I was a kid is my back and neck can’t take hours and hours of holding a book. To read I must sit in my La-Z-Boy with a swing-arm book holder. Reading is no longer casual, but a strain I must gear up for. I bought the Kindle because it promised a wider selection of large print reading material, including magazines and newspapers, in an easier to hold portable format.

This blog is named Auxiliary Memory because that’s my dream gadget – a device to carry around everywhere that helps my brain function better. I’ve always considered my computer and the Internet my first auxiliary memory, but I’ve wanted a smaller more portable edition. The Kindle is the first of many machines that will ultimately fulfill this dream. It’s not perfect but it’s a step in the right direction.

While sitting in my La-Z-Boy with my cats, Nick and Nora, in my lap the other night, I struggled to recall facts in my failing brain which has an average seek time that varies from microseconds to hours. The cats were sleeping so peacefully that I hated to disturb them by getting up to go over to the computer. Google and Wikipedia are great for free association to improve my neural access time. Then I saw the Kindle, and luckily, it was within arm’s reach. I thumb-typed into the search box and bingo I was on Wikipedia recalling forgotten knowledge. This was when I realized the Kindle was my first portable Auxiliary Memory Device that I could carry with me everywhere. The Kindle offers limited access away from the computer, but it also means reading for fun away from my chair and bookstand too.

The Kindle isn’t the perfect reading machine but it’s a start. Breaking the tether from my desktop computer means a paradigm shift. Laptops are portable but not that portable. I was thinking about buying an Asus Eee PC just before I bought the Kindle, and I still might, but the Kindle trumps the Eee PC with its free broadband cellular wireless. I also considered buying an iPod touch, Nokia N800 or a Palm TX all of which also depend on the less universal Wi-Fi for connectivity. On the plus side these devices offered better user interfaces to the Internet. On the third hand though, is the fact that the Kindle is very readable.

My penultimate science fictional auxiliary memory would store a copy of everything I’ve ever read and it would help me call up ideas and reference them when I needed. My ultimate auxiliary memory would record everything I see and hear for ready reference. At fifty-six memory loss is a regular problem and scares me about the future. The idea of having a little device I carry everywhere that helps me remember produces a warm fuzzy feeling. The Kindle is my experiment expanding on that idea.

I bought a 2 gigabyte memory card for my Kindle and that will allow me to store about 2,000 books. I only want to store books and articles I’ve read on that memory card and use the built in memory for books, periodicals and audio books I’m currently reading.

Moving ahead poses many interesting obstacles. I don’t think I’ve read 2,000 books, but I’m sure I’ve read more than a 1,000, but finding them in Kindle format will be tough. Even though Amazon crows about the 90,000 Kindle books available through their store, it’s really just a page in the Encyclopedia Britannica compared to how many books are out there on the world wide bookshelf. Also, 2 gigabytes of memory is skimpy when it comes to audio books, which I’d also like to store in my auxiliary brain.

Nonetheless, the Kindle is a great start. The internal memory allows me to listen to a book while reading one on screen. Now that might sound silly, but it’s a useful function for memorizing stuff. I took a series of Shakespeare courses in college and I would read the text while listening to recordings on LPs (it was the 1970s). I aced every exam for remembering details. I recently bought A Midsummer Night’s Dream on audio but found it extremely difficult to follow the details. I plan to get a Kindle edition to follow along while I listen. I’ll supplement my reading and studying by connecting to Wikepedia. Not only will the Kindle be a reading and external memory device, it will also be a study device that helps reinforce my real brain’s ability to think and remember.

For a future Auxiliary Memory Device I’d love to store all my music and audio books on it. Hell, at the science fictional level, I’d like it to be a black hole of personal experience and include everything I’ve seen or heard, thus all movies and television shows I’ve seen and any book or article I’ve read and all my photographs. But that’s too much to expect of the current generation of Kindle.

The 1.0 Kindle will store books. I’m also thinking of going through My Documents folder and looking for stuff that will help my faulty memory. I think I’ll start making memory lists. People gripe about the ten cent fee Amazon charges for converting documents for the Kindle, but I’d gladly spend a dime rather than hooking the Kindle to the USB cable. What I’d like to see is the equivalent of the RSS symbol on Internet pages, so when I read a good article or essay I can zap it over to the Kindle to live on my Auxiliary Memory and recall with a quick search.

I’m even thinking about cutting and pasting all the stuff I read each day into an email, adding comments and thoughts and then emailing the results to my Kindle. For three dollars a month it can become a diary.

This is why I love that the Kindle supports magazines and newspapers and has the save clippings feature. Many of my conversations with friends involve starting my conversation with, “Well I read this cool article…” and then stumbling over the details, forgetting the source, and like telling a joke badly, not quoting the essential facts correctly. If I carried my Kindle everywhere, I could pop open the article and just quote the damn sucker.

Here’s where the experiment needs real world testing. I’ve been so afraid of hurting my Kindle that I don’t carry it everywhere. I’d hate to smash up a $400 device. If it was a $100, I’d wouldn’t worry because I’d gladly rush out and buy another. But I just don’t know how many $400 readers I want to buy and how often. (My friend Linda knows the sick feeling that comes with smashing an ebook reader.) Not only do I need to get over my fear of taking it out of the house, but I need to get over my fear of carry it everywhere in my house, including the bathroom. (Is that too much information?) For an auxiliary memory device to work it needs to be by my side constantly. (Note to Jeff Bezos, how about adding a voice recorder – that’s another device I carry everywhere now.)

The current 1.0 version of the Kindle is not grab-and-go friendly. I’m constantly pushing the wrong button and so does everyone I let play with it. To make me feel better about carrying it around I keep it in its cover. I think I’d prefer a hardened Marine version designed for combat in all-terrain conditions. Something my cats could puke on and it would survive. Something that I could drop several times a day. Like a cell phone I expect to upgrade regularly and carry with me 24×7.

That brings up how to carry such an Auxiliary Memory Device. I keep my phone in my left pants pocket and my iPod in my shirt pocket. The Kindle isn’t quite pocket-able or even purse-able. I do carry a messenger bag, but not around the house. I do have a potbelly big enough to make a kangaroo pouch but that might make some people squeamish. I can picture a flat purse like holder to be worn around the neck, but when it comes down to the realistic nitty-grity, the Auxiliary Memory Device might be something we constantly carry in our hand. That means it needs to be rugged, waterproof and food-proof, and handle extremes in environment. The Kindle isn’t that device, but I not saying don’t buy one because it’s not. The Kindle is more than good enough to start practicing on having an Auxiliary Memory Device, and there’s plenty of room for inventors to make clever holders for it.

The idea now is to explore the ramifications of having an Auxiliary Memory Device, and you can’t do that without road testing something. The Kindle may be the best device to start with because of its broadband communications and combination of features.

JWH

Morality in Knocked Up Places

    You never know where you will find your philosophical inspiration – I recently watched Knocked Up and can’t stop thinking about it. This film was odd, because on the surface it had everything to offend any league of decency citizen, but on the other hand it totally affirmed the conservative view on family and right to life. Despite what the right would like to think, few people on the left are anti-family or advocate baby killing – this probably explains why this movie was so popular, it’s positively pro-baby.

    Knocked Up was such a success in the summer of 2007 that I have to wonder if these pro family values didn’t help make it a success, even though it’s obviously not aimed at the moral majority. Studies of literature have shown that people love stories with happy endings and in particular, stories that affirm the status quo. Thus part of the huge success Knocked Up achieved was by appealing to the common good. No one watching the movie had to be an Oscar winning screenwriter to predict the ending – and the plotting was standard romantic fare, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to win girl back, boy succeeds when he remolds himself into the girls expectations.

    While Knocked Up had its sentimental side, it also had a raunchy edgier side that turned off a lot of people. I’ve talked to many women who hated this movie and many of their comments parallels Michelle Alexandria’s review in Eclipse Magazine. I identified with the Seth Rogen’s pudgy geek romantic lead, but found it hard to believe that any woman would love this bong sucking schmuck whose ambition in life, along with his crew of omega males, was to start a web page that help guys find the boobs and bush scenes in movies. Nor would I believe that any amount of beer, pity and pithy lines would cause the Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) character to unzip her jeans for the Ben Stone, the character Rogen plays with such realism.

    I’m partial to romantic comedies with multiple couples, and Knocked Up’s contrasting romantic duo is Debbie and Pete, Alison’s sister and brother-in-law played by Leslie Mann, Apatow’s other half, and Paul Rudd. Debbie and Pete have two adorable daughters, and we later find out that Alison and Ben are having a girl, so this movie has a lot of girl power. Knocked Up has a modest unfunny premise, but builds its humor by contrasting the male ambitions with female biological imperatives. Several women I asked about Knocked Up actually made the L sign on their forehead when we discussed Ben Stone – in other words Seth Rogen was hugely miscast as a typical target of the feminine biological imperative.

    I have to ask, is Judd Apatow making philosophical cultural theory here, and even suggesting a social paradigm shift? Ben Stone seems to be your typical modern young man, one who works diligently to avoid growing up, highly skilled at video game play, obsessed with the female form but clueless about the womanly mind. Is Apatow speculating that these young men will do what’s right when the time comes but to accept them as they are until then? Is this film one big rationale trying to sell geeky guys to beautiful gals? That’s the odd thing about this movie. It is pro family, but it’s also pro get high, get drunk, have sex, act gross, be a slob, avoid growing up at all cost film – not the kind of male women are programmed to seek out.

    Women constantly complain in our society that men are clueless, but both of the main male characters in this movie persistently express their true feelings and it goes in one ear and out the other for their respective female partners. Since Apatow casts his wife as the shrew who can’t be tamed, I’ve got to wonder if this story isn’t their personal expression of an ongoing family argument. The Debbie and Pete characters are better acted and show glimpses of hidden depths that I wished had been explored. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd show a lot of anguish in their characters that could make a whole other non-comedy movie.

    Long ago I read a fascinating scientific experiment about ovulating women where scientists studied them at discos. They measured two things: the amount of skin showing from their outfits and whether or not they were ovulating. It turned out the women showing the most skin were often ovulating. When asked if they were at the disco to seek a father they said no, and many said they had husbands and serious boyfriends elsewhere. Despite what their minds said, their bodies were putting them into ideal positions to make babies. Knocked Up works perfectly off this experiment. Katherine Heigl’s character was not thinking about getting pregnant but she was ovulating when she felt the need to get out of the house. One bit of scientific info from the study is ovulating women are more attracted to strongly masculine faces, again making Seth Rogen unrealistic for the role. Maybe they should have used Martin Starr with his caveman grooming.

    And does the same experiment explain the scene where the two sisters again return to the trendy disco, this time to be rejected from the line because one was pregnant and the other was too old? Debbie had dragged them out due to a frustrated need to prove something. On the surface we think she still wants to prove that she’s young and pretty and can still compete on the dating scene, but is her body also wanting her to make another baby? Is she ovulating this time? Is the doorman actually judging the women and only letting in the women who are physical perfect for baby making? Consciously we say no because we know the doorman is supposed to only let in beautiful women, but the same study says the attributes that men list for female beauty also reflect baby making ability. Just how many humans come into being from disco encounters?

    What is driving the women in this movie? We know what the men want, both before and after marriage. To the two men, magic mushrooms and Vegas lap dancers represent freedom. Debbie’s husband Pete is hated for wanting some personal time. Debbie tells him taking a night off from the family is worse than cheating on her with another woman.

    What are the movie makers saying to us? The closing credits feature photos of cast and crew with their own babies. Is the philosophy of the picture that it’s okay to smoke pot and goof off until you knock someone up but then it’s time to grow up? Older pro family pictures advocated that men would grow up when they started dating, or at least by the time the wedding bells rang. Are Apatow and company promoting a new ideal? Some of these geeky guys in this film do have girlfriends – which affirm their lifestyle. Even the more grown up and career successful Katherine Heigl character is shown in a romantic interlude helping hapless Seth Rogen count exposed female body parts.

    Is Apatow offering a compromise for our society by telling us it’s cool to be liberal until the girl gets knocked up but then it’s time to become conservative and flush the dope down the toilet? Both of the young fathers in this movie have to make a lot of sacrifices. Like the Beauty and the Beast myth that young girls love so much, the young men are transformed from beasts into prince charmings by end of the film – but what transformations did the women go through? The less stated myth, but affirmed here is beautiful women are transformed into nagging beasts.

    My women friends don’t buy the beautiful Katherine Heigl hooking up with the homely Seth Regen. I think women want all there romantic comedy heroes played by Colin Firth acting like Mr. Darcy. Has Apatow targeted this film to geeks, giving them a romantic fantasy that tells them if they give up their childish ways they can have sex with a real live beautiful blonde. Or is he selling to the women of the audience asking them to believe that geeks are lovable and easily house broken and make good fathers?

    I know I over analyze stories too much, but I can’t help finding a wealth of questions and observations in this one. My women friends hated the way men behaved in this movie, but I can’t help but think it was an accurate portrayal of young male behavior. I accused one of my lady friends of not remembering what guys in their youth were like, and she readily agreed. Does Knocked Up show the side of men that women refuse to see? The standard romantic story requires the man to be good looking, successful and agile at saving young damsels in distress. Apatow is selling a much different romantic male lead. And this is different – I mean Kevin Smith never tried to make Jay and Silent Bob the romantic male leads?

    I know this film won’t be taken seriously by conservative America but if you look deeply it makes some serious observations. The fish out of water is a standard trick for comedy movies, but during the laughs we see so much about our cultural habits. I have to ask how many mothers and fathers from the right-to-life movement wouldn’t consider abortion in the back of their minds if their beautiful daughter brought home the Seth Rogen character? This movie is seriously unrealistic because no woman as successful and girl-next-door beautiful as the Katherine Heigl character would ever spent two seconds with Ben Stone. She worked in an industry where male ambition is paramount and I’m sure the males there never would have given her the opportunity to meet Ben Stone. Nor would the inner baby making imperative that drives all women allow an Alison Scott like person even see a loser like Ben Stone, no matter how powerful her beer goggles were.

    Sure a Seth Rogen movie star guy could catch such a girl, but not the Ben Stone character. If a merely pretty Alison Scott who worked at Ben Stone’s Blockbuster had been in the screenplay, would that film have been just as successful? We could also solve the realism problem by casting the Ben Stone character with some pretty boy face and have the screen writers give him a decent job. If such realism had been written in the story I don’t think I would be thinking so much about the movie and writing this essay, so I give Apatow a gold star, probably five of them. But I’m not the average movie goer. To me movie enjoyment is how much a film makes me think and question.

    If Knocked Up is a breakout of story convention then we should expect action movies for male audiences to soon feature female equivalents to Seth Rogen in the token babe roles. Is that too radical? Such a film will probably need to be written and directed by a woman. Is this the beginning of the end of the beauty myth? I doubt it – Knocked Up is probably just a fluke. Would Knocked Up have been a success if the lead actress looked like Seth Rogen’s twin sister? Okay, that would just be your typical art film or foreign film – ordinary people falling in love.

    We’re looking at two powerful forces colliding. The power of the male sex drive is well known, but its power is more like a fission A-Bomb compared to the overwhelming personality altering fusion H-Bomb power of the female sex drive. In the end this film shows this because the men are crushed by the force of making babies. The biological imperative that women must live with is overwhelming and watching Knocked Up makes me wonder what women would want if they weren’t possessed by this power.

JWH

The 50 Percent Solution

    People do not like to change their habits. I’m a fat cat that needs to lower both my calorie and carbon footprints. Like dieting, global warming requires cutting back on consumption, which means changing habits, which means going against human nature. Most people want to wait until the federal government does something for them, but I wonder what I could do on my own. Since the people in the White House have neglected this issue, we’re on our own anyway, and if you read the news many citizens, businesses, state and local governments are doing a lot on their own. It’s quite impressive.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists supports political action requiring cutting green house gases to 80 Percent of what they were in 1990 by 2050, so as to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Many other politicians throw around the 50 Percent figure. This is a complicated issue. If 300 million Americans use 50 percent less, and 2 billion Chinese and Indians start using 50 percent more, is the environment still safe? Ultimately, do we need to decide what the environment can handle and then figure out what to do with our 1/6,765,843,415 share? And that share will always be shrinking until we can reverse population growth.

    What it comes down to is discipline, which I admit is a personal quality I’m sorely lacking. When dieting I’ve discovered I do better with simple concepts – like avoiding products that are mainly sugar or white flour. In this regard I like the idea of the 50 Percent Solution, where I just try to use half of what I was using. Unfortunately that requires math and most people hate math. One half is a simple concept. Since Big Brother knows everything I buy with my credit card, I wish Congress would just pass a law and tell Big Brother to just send me an email every month informing me how much carbon I’ve helped put into the atmosphere during the last thirty days.

    It would also be fantastic if my power company would provide data about how I’m doing. It would nice to have a graph like the DOW Jones average of squiggly lines showing my energy usage back to 1990. And each monthly bill should give me a percentage figure comparing that month against the same month in 1990. For example, December 2007 might say 1.75% of 12/1990. If I work hard for a year it might say next November, 1.31% of 11/1990 and I could dream about the day I reach .80% of 1990.

    For now we can think of a 50 Percent Solution as a temporary goal, and I don’t think we need to wait until 2020 or 2050 to get down to business. How soon can you use 50 Percent less gasoline, or electricity or water, or paper, or any other product? Just pick something you use a lot of and study it. I bought a Kill-A-Watt meter to help me.

    My Dell Optiplex GX620 at work idles at 145 watts, but if I bought a Dell Optiplex GX755 it would idle at 43.9 watts. My job would be done having reached a 33 Percent Solution. However, if I start using sleep mode to its best advantage, I could save even more because in sleep mode the computer would only use 2.8 watts. My GX620 use 8 watts while turned off or in sleep mode. So even with my current computer if I let it go to sleep mode after 30 minutes of inactivity I’m already maybe into a 20 Percent Solution territory, and with optimized new technology I might get down to 4-5 Percent. (As compared to leaving my computer on 24×7 at idle which I used to do.)

    Using an older computer is like having three or four 100w bulbs burning, and some gaming machines with fast video cards are like having eight 100w bulbs burning. Turning them off doesn’t bring about darkness because even off these machines use 15w to 40w worth of electricity. Newer machines ran at the power of a 40w bulb and on idle waste a tiny dash-light of juice. That’s a big step forward. Tech companies are already selling computers that run in the 15w light bulb range. My GX620 uses 8 watts turned off. The GX755 uses .7 watts.

    If you switched to those newer energy efficient light bulbs you hit a 25 Percent Solution with little effort. I guess I use on average 1 gallon of gas a day or 365 gallons a year. I could go buy a Prius and maybe reach a 50 Percent Solution, but how many gallons of gas does it take to make a car? If I drove my old truck for 15 years would that save more resources? This is where things get harder to figure. The government should provide more research and guidelines.

    I’m about to replace my HVAC in my house and it might get me to a 50 Percent Solution, especially if I put in new insulation. And with a few other household efforts, I might actually reach my 50 Percent Solution for my total living within a year. Am I done? Am I free of global warming guilt? It seems too easy? And it is an illusion. How do I do a 50 Percent solution for clothes and food and entertainment?

    My wife now has to live in Birmingham to keep her good job, and commute home on the weekends, vastly increasing her gas usage, plus we now have to maintain two homes, so we’re back to 100 Percent Plus. To achieve a 50 Percent Solution with two homes would require achieving a 25 Percent Solution in each. Even that might be doable, but it goes to show you how energy wasteful our society really is.

    Then we have the problem of relative waste. I have an 1800 square foot house, and a 700 square foot apartment, but some people have 5000 square feet houses and others have 25,000 square feet houses, while some people live in an 8 square foot box. Carbon credits are like rich people paying poor people to stay in their cardboard abodes so they can legally stay in their 25,000 square foot mansions. Is that really fair? Is it ethical?

    I doubt people with five-car garage houses are going to move into my neighborhood, and I’m not likely to move into a one bedroom apartment. Thus I don’t know if the 50 Percent Solution is going to work on every concept.

    In the 1970s someone coined the term Spaceship Earth. It’s an elegant idea. Back then they wanted to suggest that living on Earth had limits – only so much oxygen, food and fuel so it shouldn’t be wasted. Since then rocket designers have moved onto the idea of making spaceships with renewal resources, in other words, reversing the analogy, which is also very elegant. No one knows what the Earth can sustain. Maybe its nine billion people each living in 1,000 square feet of technological luxury. Or maybe its nine billion people living like monks in a cell. It’s quite obvious that it’s not nine billion people with SUVs and their own jet planes, but it may be possible so the rich could keep their 25,000 square foot mansions that have minimal carbon footprints.

    The solution to global warming can’t require us all to live on equal rations because human nature won’t allow it. However, to allow the rich to ethically use more might be justified if they help the less off have more through efficiency. In other words the people of the U.S. might need to help citizens in other nations to have more through technology transfers or other kinds of aid because it wouldn’t be fair to ask some starving person in Africa to take up a 50 Percent Solution. As individuals trying to use less in an abundant society, we might contribute to charities that bring sustainable technology and resource management elsewhere. In other words, help other people to use more, but not in the wasteful way we have done in the past.

    In the long run there is no 50 Percent Solution that will solve all the problems. The problems are too complex. One reason so many people refuse to think global warming is man-made is because no one notices they are putting tons of carbon into the air every year. One graphic way for a documentary maker to illustrate this would be to show a line of people with a pile of sand next to them, with the weight of the sand being equal to the carbon that person helps create each year. A person from a poor country might have a can of sand, while an average U.S. citizen might have several pickup truck loads, and a billionaire might have a hill of the stuff.

    The idea of carbon credits is if you could stand beside your pile and it would disappear because you paid for ten thousand trees to be planted or invested in a solar energy plant.

    Jared Diamond’s book Collapse chronicles several societies from around the world that has collapsed in the past. Essentially these cultures each went full speed ahead with behaviors that lead to their destruction. I wonder did a few of those people on Easter Island preach a gospel warning their fellow islanders to stop cutting down all the trees? Did they introduce a 50 Percent Solution that no one followed? Maybe human nature doesn’t allow for changing direction. Look at that guy in Georgia who uses 400,000 gallons of water per month during the drought.

    Me personally, I don’t know what the solution is. Just to have a challenge, I’m going to try to live with less, but then I’ve been trying to live off fewer calories for decades and haven’t succeeded. It sure would be nice if I could reduce both my calories and carbon footprints, but maybe all those ancient societies Jared Diamond wrote about were populated with people like me – ones who knew better but couldn’t change.

JWH

    

 

    

    

    

Too Many Opinions on the Kindle and What it Says about the Internet

    Amazon introduced the Kindle on Monday and I ordered one on Wednesday. It didn’t take me long to decide I wanted one even with all the bad web press. I can understand why most casual readers wouldn’t feel the need for an ebook reader, but I can’t understand why so many people are attacking the device. I need large print books to enjoy reading, and the Kindle offers me the widest selection of reading for instant large font viewing. Easy decision. However, on Monday, the Kindle seemed to generate more opinions than the Presidential election.

    If you visit the Kindle site linked above you will find hundreds of customer reviews, most of which are by people who don’t own a Kindle and don’t plan to buy one. This really annoyed me. I shop Amazon all the time and I love reading the customer reviews but I hate when someone uses the service to just post their vague opinions. It wouldn’t bother me at all if Amazon only allowed people who purchased a product to post a review.

    Amazon releases a revolutionary gadget and hundreds if not thousands of writers across the net shoot it down because of whim opinions about the concept of ebooks. I think we need to show some self-control here because the ratio of signal to noise is cluttering up the Internet. Slashdot.org has always had that problem, as has every forum, bulletin board and mailing list since the start of the net. Slashdot however, has mechanisms to try to control the noise. I’m wondering if self-control shouldn’t be part of net-etiquette. Unless you have actual experience or expert knowledge, limit your comments to blogs, chats and fun forums, and let general information sites work at being clear and focused on their subjects. What if books, magazines and newspapers just let anyone jump in and say stuff?

    I’m sure Amazon appreciates having an active community on their customer reviews, but as a customer trying to buy something I’d like reviewers with actual experience posting comments. When I read general news and magazines sites I want a qualified person writing up a worthy review. I hate googling a product I’m considering buying and getting endless hits with a couple paragraphs of natter in the returns. I also hate getting dozens of product comparison pages that have no real information. People complain about Wikipedia not being valid, but it does have mechanisms to police its content. I think we need something like that for the web in general.

    I’m the first to talk since I’m a verbose bastard but blogs are designed for diarrhea of the brain. On the other hand, does every web page need a forum page attached to it allowing just anyone to chime in? Slashdot made a business out of the concept and they make it work with control. When I search the Internet I’m trying to find solid information about a particular topic, like when I was shopping for the Kindle.

     When David Pogue from the New York Times writes about the Kindle I expect a certain level of real information and he delivers because he’s an expert on technology and he has actually used a Kindle. When I go to Amazon and read customer reviews on the Kindle I expect to find less professional writers but ones who have actually bought the device and have used it. I also expect to read on any magazine or news site, whether based on a print edition, or purely online journalism, a professional level of writing based on actual experience.

    It’s too bad HTML doesn’t have tags like <news release></news release>, <review></review>, <opinion></opinion>, <discussion></discussion>, <news></news>, <scholarly></scholarly> or <advertisement></advertisement> and Google could filter returns based on those and other tags. Of course Google is in the business to sell ads so maybe it doesn’t have a real incentive to police the quality of information. The obvious solution is to learn to trust only specific sites and not use Google.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to use a search engine that allowed users to control how deep and wide to return searches? What if search engines had check boxes for:

  • Sites you have listed with us (we could list our favorites to save)
  • Top 100 sites
  • Top 1,000 sites
  • Top 10,000 sites
  • All the billions of pages
  • Sites noted for their authority
  • Scholar sites
  • Governmental sites
  • Sites tied to a print publication
  • Sites written by professional writers
  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Etc.

    When you go down to your favorite bookstore and buy a magazine you expect it to have high quality content, even if you’re just looking for celebrity gossip. I’ve gotten so used to using Google that maybe I should go do a search on search engines and see if someone hasn’t already developed the one I wish for above.

    I’m tired of web pages that look like Venus flytraps for Google ads. I’m also sick of writers and articles that have an array of icons trying to get me to increase their readership on forum sites like Slashdot and Digg. I accept the reality of advertisements, but integrate the ad visually into the web page like magazines do in print. And if you want me to read your content, format the text so it’s easy to read. I’m tired of web pages looking like racing cars. And if I’m going to have to wait through an ad page before seeing my content you better make sure the content is worth it.

    The content level of the web is quickly moving towards total noise. Even in blogs and forums I think we all could spend more time focusing on what we write and trying to be clear, because many blog writers are now producing content that’s better than some professional sites. Maybe we should all work on content and spend less time trying to trick the system into returning our link on the first page of a Google search. I hope I’m not hypocritical.

JWH

    

Who is Still Playing Buckwheat’s Songs?

There is a song I love, “On My Own” by a guy named B. W. Stevenson, but sad to say it’s not easy to find anymore. I recently discovered that Lone Star Music has reprinted several of his old LPs as 2 for 1 CDs and I ordered a couple from Amazon. However, I wished Buckwheat’s music (that’s where the B. W. comes from) was on Rhapsody. I don’t like buying CDs anymore, because if it not on Rhapsody it tends not to get played by me. After playing B. W. Stevenson’s Best of Album on LP, I just had to order some more of his music. I’m getting rid of all my LPs, and a few inspire me to play them just one last time, like Buckwheat’s album. I sometimes think of getting rid of my CDs, which is why I hate ordering CDs, because I know I’ll be have to make another sad farewell in the future. CDs tie me to old technology that I’m very anxious to leave behind.

I hate to think of lost music and lost artists. How many 78s were converted to LP? And then how many LPs were saved for the future by conversion to CDs? And now, how many physical albums, from all that were ever recorded and published will make it to the new digital world of music? 113,895 visitors (since 7/22/01) have clicked on that B. W. Stevenson site above to see his discography, so we know he has some fans out there. I’d love it if all the digital subscription services and digital music sales sites had to report their data to a central service. How many people played “On My Own” in 2007?

I keep up with a forgotten writer, Lady Dorothy Mills, who published fifteen books in the 1920s and early 1930s. She’s forgotten today. I maintain that web site on her. I’m one of her last readers as far as I can tell. I get about one email a year either asking about her or providing me with a new snippet of information. If her books were reprinted as ebooks on the Internet would she gain new readers? If Buckwheat’s music was on Rhapsody, Napster and Zune, would he be acquiring new fans?

Lee, a friend of mine, told me how much he loved the old British folk group Fairport Convention and I was able to find 14 of their albums on Rhapsody, including 7 of their first 20 albums. I’m playing the first right now. Does being on Rhapsody help or hurt the group? They would probably make more money from actual CD sales, but as long as I can listen to digital music and not have to mess with a physical media to file and store, I want to leave the world of CDs forever. B. W. Stevenson’s music isn’t on Rhapsody. Except for “Shambala” on a 70’s hit record, his albums aren’t on iTunes or Amazon MP3 sites either. Why? Why does Fairport Convention get 14 albums preserved? Is it because Buckwheat is pretty much forgotten and Fairport Convention was famous enough to maintain a momentum into the future – for right now. Amazon has 12 of their records for sale as MP3 albums.

As a fan I’m more concerned about hearing the music I love, but I suppose the owners of the music, they are more concerned with making the maximum amount of money. Copyright protects their work, we’d like to think. I’ve always wondered how much artists make from providing their work on subscription services like Rhapsody. But I have to ask, does being available count for something? Would young people be listening to more Beatle songs if they were legally online? Rhapsody is catching on. Rhapsody is now on TiVo and cell phones and subscription music is a new feature on some cable TV systems, and offered by some universities to their students via campus networks. And companies like Sonos make Rhapsody America and Napster even easier to access – almost like science fiction magic. Subscription music is the music distribution system of the future, even if it’s not quite a success now.

It’s like that old question about a tree falling in a forest, who will hear Buckwheat’s music when all the songs are played digitally? Like I said, I’m giving up my LPs, and maybe my CDs soon, and even my SACDs. Eventually I’ll have to decide do I want to own music, like how I just ordered the B. W. Stevenson’s CDs, or do I just want to play music by beckoning it out of cyberspace? I own about 20,000 songs. Rhapsody lets me play from about 5,000,000 in the library, with a good deal of overlap. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. If I hadn’t ordered those CDs from Amazon I would have lost access to “On My Own.” I don’t know how long I will continue to do that, just to save some old favorite songs. I did rip “On My Own” from the LP to save it before I discovered it on CD. But I hate saving and managing MP3 songs – it’s such a pain to preserve gigabytes and soon terabytes of information.

I’m moving to a new paradigm shift as a fan of music, movies and books. Instead of having a giant personal library where I hang onto everything, I’m moving towards a future where I discover stuff just as I use it and let it go when I’m finished. Rhapsody and Netflix work like dream in that new paradigm.

JWH