The End of Print Journalism

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 20, 2017

I’ve always been addicted to magazines. I even worked in a periodicals department at a university library for six years. Magazines used to provide reading content that was longer than a newspaper story but shorter than a novel. A good magazine essay might take more time to read than viewing a whole episode of the evening news. Reading some of the longest articles in The New Yorker or The Atlantic could take more time than watching a movie. However, as magazines compete more with television and the internet the content of each piece became shorter, no longer than the average crap or restless idle moment of internet boredom.


Even though I subscribe to a number of print magazines, get over 200 magazines via Texture, and subscribe to the online edition of The New York Times, I spend 90% of my periodical reading time on Flipboard.

Today I read “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” by Franklin Foer at The Atlantic. Foer was the editor of The New Republic and worked with Chris Hughes, a rich Silicon Valley entrepreneur to save the historic magazine from the internet reader. The article comes from his forthcoming book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.

Foer described what I’ve been seeing and wondering about already. Online journalism is not the same as the old print journalism I grew up with. Foer describes how writers and editors must write pieces that get massive hits on the web. Magazines of old had readers and subscribers and were sold as issues or subscriptions. Magazines were like albums, and today’s online essays are like buying hit songs on iTunes. To generate ad revenue essays must attract eyeballs. Most readers find their way to essays via Google searches or sharing on Facebook. So writers, editors, and publisher fine-tune each piece to get attention, and even the most serious pieces of journalism must act as click-bait.

Everything depends on unresistible titles. Writers write what titillate people into reading, rather than writing what people need to be reading. Reading Flipboard is like watching a thousand sharks being fed a barge of chum. Only the biggest creatures get fed.

Reading off my iPhone and iPad has ruined me for reading paper copies of magazines in the same way that they ruined me for reading newspapers. About once a year I’ll buy a copy of The New York Times for nostalgia’s sake. But it’s uncomfortable to hold, stains my fingers, and is stressful to my eyes. Last year I subscribed to National Geographic for the same nostalgic reasons, remember the magazine being visually stunning. Now, their printed images all look small compared to my 28″ 4K monitor and dull compared to my brightly lit iPad. Because I wanted to see the photographs enlarged, I subscribed to the online edition this year, and the pictures wow me, but I seldom read at my monitor even though it’s the absolute best way I’ve found to consume National Geographic content. (I just wish they’d stop their constant nagging to subscribe when I’m already logged in.)

My most common and convenient way I read periodicals now is on my iPhone 6s Plus. I always have my phone with me, and that convenience has made me addicted to reading by iPhone. I also read The New York Times on my iPhone, and listen to audio books from Audible on it too. It’s not the web that has changed my reading habits but the smartphone.

Foer warns us against the dangers of high tech journalism. I’m trying to go back to reading whole magazines, but it’s hard. Some magazines I loved like Discover and Popular Science are now laid out to like web pages, with countless short articles vying for my attention. Their tiny print and cramped layout are just too painful. I won’t re-subscribe. Scientific American is less frantic, an album of half-a-dozen long articles, but I’ve been ruined by the buy-a-hit-song mentality.

About a decade ago I gave up all printed periodicals for environmental reasons. Then a few years ago I decided to try print magazines again as an experiment to see what I’m missing from online reading. Their inflexible layout discourages me from reading them, and smartphone reading is now my habit. I’m letting all my subscriptions lapse except for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog. I’ve just resubscribed to these mags in print because I miss their covers, want to refer back to them, and never could develop the habit of reading their short stories when I subscribed to the digital editions.

And then there’s the sad fact that most non-fiction content in printed periodicals is available on the web for free. Foer describes the nightmare of trying to make money publishing journalism this way. To be honest, though, I resist all their money making efforts. I know online magazines need to make a profit but I find their methods annoying. Which is why I subscribe to Texture. My $15 a month is a contribution towards maintaining journalism. But it’s not the solution either. Texture doesn’t allow me to save and share articles like Flipboard. When I read something good in Texture I go to my computer, find the article and then share it on Twitter and Facebook, and save it to Evernote and Instapaper.

I wish Texture had a web edition. When I read for writing inspiration I’m sitting at the computer. I’m wondering if I shouldn’t train myself to read off the monitor. I tend to quickly churn through content via Flipboard. One of the complaints Foer noted was content was becoming homogenized. I’ve noticed that too. Each day I see several lists of the-greatest-books-ever to read, many kinds of advice on happiness, productivity, retirement, investments, etc.

I should read, take notes, save essays, write reviews, and become more interactive in my reading. I should integrate periodical reading into both studying and memorizing. One thing I’ve noticed from hyper-reading Flipboard is the repetitive nature of story ideas. When that dentist killed Cecil the lion it generated 3.2 million stories on the internet. I sometimes do that myself when blogging, writing essays about what other people are writing about. Internet journalism gets readers into subject frenzies and we can’t let go. I’m not sure if that’s good. I’m thinking I should be more organized and careful about what I read. Reading from the monitor instead of the smartphone might help in that. I thought returning to printed magazines would help, but it didn’t. I need to be able to save and share, and photocopying and mailing just too inconvenient.

I have friends that also compulsively read Flipboard daily. Some of them have started to wonder if it’s a bad habit or at least too much of a time-waster. I think Flipboard has found an addictive way to read the news. Whether it’s a negative addiction or positive addition, I don’t know. Would we agree with a nineteenth-century person who complained the telephone has ruined face-to-face communication?




The Soul v. Evolved Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 19, 2017

I keep trying to understand the core cause of our polarized political conflict that’s pushing us to destroy our current civilization. We have the knowledge and technology needed to solve our problems but we don’t apply them. We choose to viciously fight among ourselves instead. Self-interest is winning over group survival. Decade after decade I keep wondering why. I keep refining my theories, and the current one says this conflict originates in a divide between theology and philosophy.

Most people don’t think in terms of theology or philosophy, so how could cognitive tools be the cause of so much hatred? People act on beliefs without being aware of their beliefs or the origins of their actions. My current theory explores if we’re divided by a fundamental sense of self: either assuming we have an immortal soul or an evolving consciousness.

Because science cannot explain why we’re conscious animals the origins of consciousness remain open to interpretation from theology and philosophy. Of course, even when science can overwhelmingly explain such mechanisms as evolution, many people refuse to accept science because of their innate theology, even when they can’t explain that theology in words or logic. But where does theology come from? Why do some people process reality with a theological perspective and other people with a philosophical or scientific perspective?

Humans are not rational creatures. We are rationalizing animals. Our thoughts are not logical, but seek to reinforce our desires. The perfect lab animal for studying this irrationality of humanness is Donald Trump. From my perspective, humans are the product of billions of years of evolution and we’re currently at a paradigm shift of consciousness, where half of us perceive reality in the old paradigm and half in the new.

The old paradigm assumes God created us, giving us immortal souls with time in this existence being temporary because there’s a greater existence after death. The new paradigm is reality is constantly evolving. I use the word “reality” to mean everything. We used to say, “the universe” to mean everything, but it now appears our universe is part of a multiverse, and even that might not be everything. So, I call everything by the term “reality.” It includes all space, time, dimensions, and everything we’ve yet to discover or imagine.

Humans are bubbles of conscious self-awareness popping into this reality that eventual burst. I believe our consciousness minds evolved out of brain evolution, which evolved out of biology, and biology evolved out chemistry, and chemistry evolved out of physics, and physics evolved out of cosmology. Other people believe a superior being called God using the magical power of the Word created us.

It comes down to the soul v. evolved consciousness. Humans whose thoughts arise out of a belief foundation of the soul perceive reality differently from humans whose thoughts arise out of the belief we’re a product of evolution. I don’t think it’s a matter of conscious choice either. I’m guessing our unconscious minds work based on how each paradigm has wired our brains. Obviously, only one paradigm explains our true existence, but individuals live their lives perceiving reality from one or the other paradigm. That perceptual different makes all the cultural, social and political differences.

The people who act like they have souls want to shape reality based on their beliefs, and the people who act like they are evolved consciousnesses want to shape reality according to their beliefs. This causes our political/social/cultural divide. People with souls don’t care what happens to this planet, people with evolving consciousness think this planet is vital.

Planned Forest Communities

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 12, 2017

One of the major causes of climate change denial is self-interest. Owners of oil, gas, and coal reserves have trillions of dollars in potential wealth they don’t want to give it up. These people will do anything to protect those riches, including intensive propaganda campaigns against science. So any solution should involve ways to compensate their loss of income.

The meat industry is also a major contributor to greenhouse gases. If all the lands that are currently used to produce meat were converted into forests it would be a significant step towards solving climate change. Of course, it would be unfair expect meat producers to sacrifice their wealth for public good. What we need are alternative income sources for each industry that would be hurt by economic disruption required to stabilize the climate.

The meat industry could be paid to not raise cattle equal to what they currently make. But it would be better for the environment if the land was returned to nature, and especially to forest ecologies. Can we imagine alternative economic activities for those landowners?

This got me to thinking about how to commercialize nature so it profited humans but also profited plants, animals, and the biosphere. Many people love nature, so I wondered if it would be possible to build planned communities embedded in forests. So instead of neat lawns, they’d have unfettered nature.

Is it possible to build houses that produced their own energy and coexisted with nature? Such houses would need to be fire and storm proof, could handle trees falling on them, last for centuries, be warm and cool as needed, not be tied to sewers and street systems, have access to water, safe from tiny to large critters, impervious to the elements,  and be appealing to live in? Plus, could such communities provide jobs for its inhabitants?

I would assume planned forest communities would have low human population densities. Maybe one family per 10-100 acres. The inhabitants could become caretakers, observers, scientists, researchers, users, and lovers of the forest.

I wonder if agriculture or minimal horticulture could be embedded into the forest ecosystem without major impact to the ecosystem. Such forest communities could support tourism, camping, hunting, fishing, bird watching, wildlife study, and so on. Also, if these communities were closed to being self-sufficient means their inhabitants wouldn’t need large incomes. We don’t need billionaires living in the forest, but people who require little economic success because they want other kinds of rewards from life.

forest community

[Photo is one of a series from “Eco-Friendly Forest Communities.”]

There is already a movement called community forestry where people volunteer to maintain a forest. Can you imagine living inside a forest? And there are already countless indigenous communities living in forests around the world. We can learn from them and should protect their way of life. The World Bank already does this. Urban living can theoretically be very energy efficient, but I think a significant portion of our population are tired of city life and might want to return to nature.

What appealed to me while meditating on this idea this morning was the challenge of constructing a modern home that fits harmoniously into the forest. How could we design back-to-nature communities that benefit the global ecosystem yet expand the local economic system? The push-back to solving climate change comes from people wanting to protect their wealth. Is it possible to generate compensatory wealth, and even generate new wealth from an eco-social-capitalistic system?

Our problem is a failure of imagination. Too many people can only imagine things being the way they were. We literally have an infinity of possibilities. Maybe even an infinity of better choices.




Distractions! Distractions! Distractions!

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 11, 2017

I’ve always wanted to be a person who could focus intensely on a project until it’s finished. Instead, I’m easily derailed by endless distractions. Don’t get me wrong, I love my distractions – that’s my problem – I love them too much. I have too many interests, too many things to do, too many people to visit, too many art forms to consume, too many ideas to write about, too many ambitions, too many book clubs, too many hobbies, too many distractions of all kinds.


As can be guessed from the previous sentence the solution is to have less of everything. I regularly meditate on the wisdom of minimalism but the best I can do is maintain a holding action against the thought-kipple hordes that eats up my time.

Psychologically I feel I have all the time in the world since I’m retired, but the reality is I don’t. Every morning when I wake, I spend a delicious half-hour planning my day or thinking about essays to write. I know not to be too ambitious. I’m quite aware of my limitations. Usually, I settle on three small goals, because that’s all I can remember. One task always involves writing. The other two deal with fighting the chaos that comes with everyday living.

If I ever found a genie in a bottle my first wish would be for the kind of mental focusing powers that allow complete control of going in and out of flow. Of course, as all the three-wishes stories tell us, there are dangerous side-effects to getting what we think we want. But this how I imagine focusing:


I know what it takes to get there. I’ve always known. I’ve written about it many times before. A great analogy is a rocket with a payload and a destination. The mathematics of space travel involves cruelly cold equations. Every bit of extra mass a rocket carries costs fuel. In the 1950 science fiction film Destination Moon, the astronauts used too much fuel landing their rocket ship on Luna. The only way to return to Earth was by jettisoning everything possible to lower the take-off mass.


Knowing this wisdom doesn’t change who I am, that takes more of something I evidently don’t have. It requires I throw out all my beloved interests but one. I usually spend my days alone in solitary pursuits. I love being with people in the evenings. This gives me six to eight hours to pursue whatever I want during the day. That should be more than enough to achieve take-off to any destination.

I dream of spending all those hours on one big ambition, writing a book. However, right now I can’t muster that kind of focus. The older I get the harder it gets to spend even two hours on writing small essays like this one. The reason why I write essays for this blog and other sites is that short essays allow me to pursue many subjects, and that appeals to my scattered-brained thinking. I’m like a dog trying to chase six squirrels at once. I enjoy the hell out of the pursuit but I don’t catch any squirrels. I need to pick just one.

And if that one squirrel I pick to chase is writing a book, it means giving up essay writing, something that’s become a habit during this last decade. Up to now, I couldn’t make that commitment. But today I’m wondering if I could try it for a month?

So, the plan is to spend the rest of August finishing up some projects and commitments and spend all of September thinking and writing on one subject as an experiment. I’ve imagined writing a nonfiction book by writing fifty blog-sized related essays on one subject. 50 x 1,200 words = 60,000 words. I’ve probably written 1,500 essays since 2007, or about 30 books worth of words. The challenge will be to plan one coherent topic that’s divided into fifty chapters that locked together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle.  I’d need to learn to constantly redirect my thoughts to that one topic. I have a topic in mind too, but I don’t want to talk about it ahead of time.

Now that I’ve thought this out I need to spend the rest of this month jettison all the extra mass I can.


Science Fiction: Red Pill or Blue Pill?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Would you do anything if you were sitting on a deck chair of the Titanic and just finished a science fiction novel about an unsinkable ship crashing into an iceberg?

When I was young I was constantly told that science fiction was silly kids’ stuff. I refused to believe that. I loved science fiction and wanted it to be important, valuable, and even educational. I made all kinds of rationalizations that science fiction taught people to prepare for the future – to avoid extrapolated pitfalls or build what we imagined possible.

Was I fooling myself? I know perfectly well that most science fiction fans read for fun, not enlightenment. I was taught serious literature provided deep insights into human existence and genre fiction was escapism. Is reading science fiction swallowing the blue pill and reading serious literature taking the red pill?


Can fiction ever describe reality in a useful way like science? Literary writers work to describe their experiences in novels. How close can they get to recording reality realistically? Other writers use fiction to illustrate their philosophical observations on existence. How accurately can they paint in words? Are novels ever like photography was to paintings? And what about science fiction with settings of time and space entirely imagined? Can science fiction ever make observations that we can validate and use?

I like to believe science fiction is a cognitive tool for examining the edges of reality. Of course, science fiction is usually a form of entertainment that plays at the edges of reality. Religion used to be a cognitive tool for exploring those edges. Now it’s the opium of the masses. I worry that science fiction is becoming fictional fentanyl. Humans have an exceedingly difficult time accepting reality. Often, we want far more than what reality offers, even though our reality is infinitely rich. Analyzing science fiction and our favorite science fictional fantasies can reveal our subjective desires with external possibilities. Such psychoanalysis should reveal what percentage of our map of reality is based on delusions.

I think every time we read a book we should ask ourselves: Are we taking the red pill or the blue pill?

We Are Legion We Are Bob by Dennis E. TaylorI’m going to illustrate this idea by examining We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor. I chose it because it was new and popular. It has garnered 32,675 ratings since 9/20/16 with the average score of 4.7 out of 5 stars (as of 8/2/17). Some readers will think I’m attacking We Are Legion (We Are Bob) in this essay even though I rated it 5 stars at Goodreads and Audible. The book is no literary masterpiece, but very entertaining Sci-Fi. I want to dissect why. This might come across as critical – it’s not. I just want show how reading Taylor’s book can be a blue pill or red pill activity.

Ever since The Skylark of Space by E. E. “Doc” Smith we’ve been too enthusiastic about our science fictional hopes. We assume given enough time and technology we can make anything come true. Can we even tell reality from fantasy anymore when it comes to science fiction? Doesn’t the mania for Star Wars border on science fictional porn? Are we people who can’t grow up because of our childhood addiction to science fiction?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we had nightmares about WWIII and nuclear annihilation, although those horrors were sometimes relieved by hopeful fantasies of the high frontier. Neither futures were inevitable. Now we live with the near surety of the collapses of the economy and ecosystem. Wealth inequality will probably destroy our civilization well before climate change can. Yet, we ignore both and party like it’s 1999. Does a choice of apocalypses on the menu even matter?

Why aren’t we doing something? We know we’re on the friggin’ Titanic. We know we have a date with an iceberg. Is watching Star Wars sequels on our iPads while we lounge in our deck chairs an acceptance of predestination?


First off, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed We Are Legion (We Are Bob) and finished it quickly because I was always anxious to get back to the story. This novel was fun like Galaxy Quest the movie, or Ready Player One, the book, both of which lovingly relish the science fiction subculture. It doesn’t have much of a plot, sort of a serial problem-solving story that made The Martian so much fun. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is funny and light, a serious story told in a non-serious way, but not absurdly zany like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I would consider this novel the perfect how-would-I-do-it fantasy for science fiction fans. Just replace Bob with your first name. I would love to have Jimiverse adventures.

Now I want to get out my literary scalpels and dissect We Are Legion (We Are Bob) into its component parts. I’m sure some folks will consider me kicking the crap out of the book, but that’s not my intention. My goal is to explore how I felt about science fiction when I was young and compare it with how I feel about science fiction now.

I’m trying to compare Jim-2017 with how I remember Jim-1967. Fifty years have changed me. I’m also comparing Science-Fiction-2017 with how I remember Science-Fiction-1967. And let me up front about something. I don’t think science fiction is the same for everyone, nor do I think all the views of science fiction today are any different from all the views of science fiction back then. I’m looking at my own view of science fiction and exploring how it’s changed over my lifetime.

Even though I found We Are Legion (We Are Bob) very entertaining, I didn’t find it very strong on the speculative science fiction scale. I’ve always made a distinction between science fiction as I define it and how other fans define the genre. What I call science fiction is speculation about possibilities, which I believe is different from entertainment that uses science fiction for story setting. The difference is subtle. Think of it as traveling back in time to the Jurassic and visiting Jurassic Park. The whole time I was reading We Are Legion (We Are Bob) I realized I was on a science fiction thrill ride. Fun, escapist, but little I can claim as red pill understanding of reality. However, it might say a lot about how I’d want my blue pill to affect me.

I’m impressed with what Dennis E. Taylor created with We Are Legion (We Are Bob). Any introverted science fiction fan would probably sell their soul to be Bob. Hell, if you offered them sex with a hundred of their most desirable sex objects or life as Bob, most would opt to live the life of Bob. Taylor has imagined a science fictional heaven. Which makes We Are Legion (We Are Bob) a perfect example of blue pill science fiction. Here are just some of the SF ideas it uses:

  • Suspended animation to get into the future. In this case cryogenic freezing. The beginning reminds me a bit of The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein.
  • Brain downloading to a machine. A popular topic in and out of science fiction.
  • Observing reality with a digital consciousness
  • Intelligent space probes/spaceships
  • Interstellar flight at sublight speeds
  • War between intelligent machines
  • Von Neuman probes
  • First contact
  • FTL communication
  • Prime directive
  • Berserker machines
  • End of humanity on Earth
  • Migration to the stars
  • Space battles
  • Xenocide
  • Colonizing planets
  • Terraforming
  • Uplifting new species
  • 3D Printers

Science-Fiction-2017 is far slicker than Science-Fiction-1967. The people who create science fiction stories and movies know they are in the entertainment business. When I was growing up, most of them knew they were in the entertainment business too, but some of them worked as crazy-ass philosophers or sociologists (Heinlein, Le Guin, Dick, Brunner, Russ). They lacked the authority or degrees to be serious intellectuals, but they had plenty of theories to promote. I see Kim Stanley Robinson as a philosophical descendant of Heinlein and Clarke.

Dennis E. Taylor obvious loves science fiction. He’s an older fan, claiming he didn’t start writing until his late fifties. He’s a computer guy and his story is equally inspired by Wired, Silicon Valley, and SF writers like Cory Doctorow, Ernest Cline, and John Scalzi. And that’s part of the problem with writing science fiction today – it must compete with the legacy of older science fiction and with all the young Turks. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is not speculative heavy like Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, cutting edge like Lix Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past, or narratively innovative like the Ancillary books by Ann Leckie. Taylor is fun like Becky Chambers’ Galactic Commons stories. Taylor reminds me of John Scalzi more than he does Kim Stanley Robinson.

One of the major plot conundrums of science fiction is how to get a person from our time into the future. Sleep is often the answer. One of my favorite novels is Heinlein’s The Door into Summer which uses “cold sleep” to get Dan Davis into the future. Taylor uses a modern variation of this idea by getting Bob to buy a contract to have his head frozen when he dies. In a way, this is like Professor Jameson stories – he had to die first.

Strangely, Taylor gets Bob into the future not to explore the future, but to get him the technology to be downloaded. From there on out in the story, Taylor does not speculate about future technology but merely uses slightly refined current day technology like 3D printers.

I must wonder if Dennis Taylor is an introvert because this story is very introverted. Most of the characters are copies of the original character. They live in VR rooms and manipulate the outside world. I do that myself in a way since I stay mostly at home and observe the world and reality at a distance. Each version of Bob is different. That I found troublesome since each is a program that is copied from a backup of a previous Bob. Taylor said earlier drafts of the novel had them the same but it didn’t work as fiction. But Taylor doesn’t give us adequate reasons in the story for each Bob to be different. This is where I started dissecting the story.

Downloading human minds into computers has been a hot topic for decades. There are scientists who study the idea. Personally, I think the idea is about as real as dying and going to heaven. But let’s give the idea a chance. Taylor only makes a minimum effort to help us imagine what being a computer program would be like. That’s unfortunate. Obviously, he believes readers want to get on with the adventure of exploring space and saving humanity. I didn’t – I wanted more about digital reincarnation.

I wanted Taylor to speculate about living without a biological body. Without chemicals (hormones) would we have emotions? Wouldn’t a digitized version of ourselves be an emotionless thinker with only vague memories of once being alive? And what would drive our thoughts if we didn’t have emotions?

Here’s my problem. I believe real science fiction must be realistic speculation. Star Wars science fiction is escapist Disneyland fairy tales exactly equal to religious fantasies of the past. In other words, promises of things that will not happen. Religion has always promised life after death, and downloading minds is just another empty pipedream.

Aurora by Kim Stanley RobinsonOf course, my assumption about how reality works stops the story cold. Here’s the problem for current science fiction writers. More and more science is showing that our minds are 100% tied to our bodies, and more than likely, our bodies are going to be 100% tied to our Earthly environment. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson is an excellent exploration of the second part of that statement.

This is where Jim-1967 differs from Jim-2017. Jim-1967 had a lot of ideas about the future that have since turned out unscientific and impossible. The trouble is Science-Fiction-2017 keeps believing in those ideas.

I feel somewhere between 1967 and 2017 science fiction forked into two branches. One branch is entertainment science fiction that most people love, and the other branch is speculative fiction that seriously tries to understand the limits of reality that science has yet to define. We Are Legion (We Are Bob) belongs to the entertainment branch, and I believe is a very entertaining story for people who love that kind of science fiction. I believe it only pays the slightest lip service to the other branch. Is that because Taylor wants to be a successful writer and attract hordes of readers?

Or am I wrong, and Taylor actual thinks everything in the story is possible? If my brain was digitized and I was reborn inside a computer I think I could be happy with that existence. But is that belief only because it’s my only hope for avoiding death? Am I being realistic?

I’m not sure realistic science fiction isn’t considered a downer by readers. I considered Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson to have been the best science fiction novel of 2015 but it wasn’t up for a Hugo in 2016. Is that because it questions the faith of science fiction believers?

Why don’t we see more science fiction about climate change? The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, another book from 2015, is a novel that deals with climate change, but it was also ignored for the Hugos. For the 2017 Hugos, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders addresses climate catastrophe but not directly. Interestingly, it’s a story of magic v. science, and science appears to be the evil bad guys. Anders personifies nature with magic, but magic will not solve the problem of capitalism and technology run amok.

Entertainment science fiction must constantly borrow from speculative science fiction to give an illusion of maintaining its science fiction bona fides. Usually, entertainment science fiction mines past science fiction for settings and plots. Entertainment science fiction is as realistic as Disney recreations. But isn’t animatronics getting more realistic all the time? Isn’t the seduction of VR that it’s a better reality that reality?

As a lifelong science fiction fan, here’s my existential problem of being Jim-2017. I wish I could live the entertainment science fiction life. I wish those futures were possible. As Jim-1967 I believed those futures were possible. But Jim-2017 knows they are not. So, Jim-2017 craves speculative science fiction that’s honest. I want to die knowing what the realistic possibilities are for humans living in this universe. By those standards, We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is of little use – it’s a blue pill and not a red pill.

If you live long enough you’ll notice that some people get stuck in pop culture dreams. Has that happened to science fiction fans?

Below are some of the 21st Century SF books I’ve read. I’ve marked some which I think have a reasonable degree of reality in them. Of course, that might be my optimism or pessimism showing through.

  1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  2. The Martian by Andy Weir
  3. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
  4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  7. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
  8. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  9. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
  10. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  11. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  12. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
  13. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  14. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  15. Redshirts by John Scalzi
  16. The City & The City by China Miéville
  17. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  18. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  19. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  20. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  21. Accelerando by Charles Stross
  22. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  23. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  24. Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
  25. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  26. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  27. The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
  28. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
  29. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
  30. WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer
  31. WWW: Watch by Robert J. Sawyer
  32. WWW: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
  33. Feed by Mira Grant
  34. Lock In by John Scalzi
  35. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  36. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson
  37. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  38. Flood by Stephen Baxter
  39. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
  40. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
  41. New York City 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson


Jazz Noir

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 31, 2017

I’ve been swept up into a new musical genre called Jazz Noir. Others call it Dark Jazz or Crime Jazz. There’s no listing for it in Wikipedia, which implies the size of its fandom. I didn’t know the genre existed until recently but have been loving music from it for over fifty years. I guess others like me who resonate with this kind of sound have finally named it. The music is slow and moody, and is usually found on soundtracks for film noir movies of the 1950s, but has modern equivalents, including video games like L. A. Noire, which has captured the essence of the genre perfectly.

My wife thinks jazz noir conveys a sense of depression, but it instills philosophical contemplation in me. The music is not jazz in the traditional sense, although many old jazz albums have songs that fit the genre. I assume people call it jazz because of the horns and saxes, and maybe the atmospheric piano playing.

The music feels like it comes from late at night, and it’s easy to imagine the music used in certain scenes in films. I discovered Jazz Noir from an ad on Facebook from TCM selling the 6-CD collection of 7 film soundtracks Jazz on Film: Film Noir and Jazz Noir a 3-CD anthology.

Jazz on Film - Film Noir

Jazz Noir

Here’s an example of a modern musician playing what fits into the genre.

Notice the feel of this piece is similar to the L. A. Noire cut, and they both run nine minutes, but I like this one even better because it’s slower and moodier. Both might have been inspired by Miles Davis and his playing for the soundtrack of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud from late 1957.

Wikipedia claims Miles was asked to create something for the soundtrack like what Modern Jazz Quartet had created for Roger Vadim’s Sait-on jamais (Lit: ‘Does One Ever Know’, released as: ‘No Sun in Venice’). I’m including it here to show how jazz noir evolved out of traditional jazz.

Many jazz noir enthusiasts hark back to Henry Mancini classic TV soundtrack to Peter Gunn, a favorite of mine. Back in the 1960s, I got into soundtracks for spy movies like From Russian With Love, The Ipcress File, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Our Man Flint. I called it spy music back then. Some of the slower cuts are now identified as Jazz Noir tunes. Many love “Royal Blue” from the soundtrack to The Pink Panther.

But my favorite Mancini track is “Dreamville” from Peter Gunn. I haven’t seen it on any of the many Jazz Noir playlists, but I think its mood fits perfectly.

I’m not sure there is a precise definition of jazz noir. It’s one of those definitions you know it when you see it, but in this case, when you hear it. I’m afraid many fans have identified a very narrow style, mostly built around soulful plaintiff horns. Here’s a modern soundtrack, The Black Dahlia, with the cut “No Other Way” by Mark Isham. To someone who doesn’t care it will sound the same, for those who do it will be very different.

I got my wife to listen to a Jazz Noir playlist in the car and she tired of the sound rather quickly. I, on the other hand, find much to explore in infinite variations on a theme. However, let me include some playlists to see what I mean.


We Need More Democracy

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The other night I watched Requiem for the American Dream about Noam Chomsky. He said something that surprised me. Chomsky talked about how the amount of democracy was variable. That the history of the United States showed democracy ebbing and flowing. I always thought democracy was an either or situation. Chomsky said the people who rule in a democracy usually wanted less democracy. We can certainly see that happening now.

Requiem for an American Dream

This documentary is currently showing on Netflix and other online sources.

This got me to thinking. How do we get more democracy? This is a rather tough problem because of the people in power controls the amount of democracy. If we want to change things we have to plan end-runs around their power.

This morning a friend sent me an email about 5 Calls. It’s both a website and app for your smartphone. All it does it help you call your representatives. If a bill is coming up, it provides information on that bill. Evidently, our representatives value phone calls over other means of letting them know what we think.

What I find revealing is when Congress votes opposite of what their constituents want. Today the Republicans are trying to ram through a repeal of Obamacare, yet if we look at the polls, Americans don’t want that. Is that democracy?

If we had maximum democracy every registered voter would vote on every bill without using representatives. Since we have a representative democracy, our elected proxies should vote the way we want. Often, this doesn’t happen because they work for a minority rather than the majority. This is called an oligarchy, and since our oligarchs are rich, we call our form of oligarchy a plutocracy. I guess that’s fancier label than Rule by Billionaires.

Interestingly, Chomsky talked about how in ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the minority rulers also wanted to limit democracy. Recently I read White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America which chronicled the history of various American leaders who wanted to shape the nation and how they dealt with the democracy problem. The ruling elite has always sought ways to marginalize our needs in favor of their wants.

What we need is a shadow democracy that exactly shows our wishes. A system that allows registered voters to vote from their smartphones with perfect validation. The results should be public and separate from the current legal voting system. So for every issue, referendum, bill, law, etc. that comes up, we could have a peoples’ vote. Then we could compare the peoples’ votes to the representatives’ votes. Over time representatives might have to pay more attention to our votes than the plutocrats who currently run the system.

Since smartphones have fingerprint sensors, GPS locators, and other tools for ID validations, it should be possible to develop a system where legally registered voters re-register with the people’s voting system. It should be a system that has near foolproof validation for controlling one vote per qualified voter. Having a voting app on your smartphone should make voting so easy that we’d get very high turnouts.

This system wouldn’t replace the current legal voting system, but be a tool to fight backroom political shenanigans. By comparing the two systems a real time voting record could be made for every representative to show how well they supported the desires of their constituents.

There’s a book version of Requiem for the American Dream. Both the book and film cover ten ways those in power stay in power:

  1. Reduce democracy
  2. Shape ideology
  3. Redesign the economy
  4. Shift the burden
  5. Attack solidarity
  6. Run the regulators
  7. Engineer elections
  8. Keep the rabble in line
  9. Manufacture consent
  10. Marginalize the population

What the population at large needs to do is invent ten ways to control their elected representatives. The trouble is we can’t expect them to change the laws to reduce their own power. The electoral college benefits political parties, not people. Politicians don’t want referendums because it cuts into their power. They don’t want laws on contributions because it cuts into their power. We should have a law against voting on combining bills because that lets them make deals that benefit each other.

The 2016 election seemed to be a vote against Washington, but Donald Trump hasn’t changed the power structure or increased democracy. In fact, he seems hell-bent to give more power to the plutocracy.

Noam Chomsky quote

Our country is facing a wealth inequality crisis. It will probably destroy us before climate change does. In fact, it’s easier to solve climate change than wealth inequality. It’s understandable why the plutocrats are against doing anything about either problem. Fixing wealth inequality and climate change will cost them wealth and power. Of course, we have to live with the poverty and climate change chaos.

Increasing democracy might break the deadlock. But then again, it might not. Among my most cynical friends, there is no hope for the future. I like to think all problems have possible solutions. To solve many of our problems will require more democracy to create a sustainable form of capitalism. Right now capitalism is destroying the environment and distilling the wealth to a very few. My cynical friends will be right if we can’t change that.