Remembering Star Trek—50 Years

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 6, 2016

Leonard by William ShatnerThis is my week for revisiting Star Trek. Last weekend I saw Star Trek Beyond, and this weekend I read Leonard by William Shatner, a biography of Leonard Nimoy, explaining their fifty-year friendship. Between that movie and book I watched three old episodes of Star Trek:TOS just out of nostalgia. I have a rather love-hate relationship with Star Trek. Fifty years ago this summer, while staying with my dad in Key West, Florida, I saw the previews for a new science fiction show that would start in the fall. I can’t convey how excited I was waiting for Star Trek to premiere. Then the first episode was about a shape shifting monster that sucked the salt out of people. WTF? (Although, we didn’t talk in initials back in 1966.) The crew and ship was cool, especially Mr. Spock, but that first show disappointed me. Eventually, I saw other episodes that did wow me, so Star Trek was always a hit and miss kind of experience. To be honest, the only character I really liked was Mr. Spock, so what appealed to me were the stories, and their quality varied greatly from week-to-week.

The new Star Trek Beyond is a big hit – but not with me. Now I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, that would be silly when so many people love it. I just have some grumps, and that’s probably due to being old. I’m worn out on special effects. I’m tired of action movies. I’m sick to death of unrealistic violence in movies, especially the ones where the violence is less real than Three Stooges or Wile E Coyote. Superhero films have ruined action, thriller and modern westerns for me. They’ve all become power porn for people who fantasize that can pound people like Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne. Not my thing. I know I’m weak and gimpy, and would get my ass kicked by anyone over twelve. Especially those kids trained on action films.

I’d love to see a Star Trek film where special effects were kept to a minimum, with no martial arts, no space battles, and for god’s sake, where the damn crew don’t become hostages. How many times has Captain Kirk or crew been captured? How many times has the Enterprise been destroyed? And where’s the damn science fiction? Essentially Star Trek Beyond could be summed up as terrorist threatens civilization with bioweapon. The only sense of wonder I found in the film was when they introduced Yorktown. That was pretty cool. If they had spent the whole film just hanging out on that space habitat I would have been a happy moviegoer.

The three old TV episodes I watched were:

All three episodes were enjoyable, but none deserved an Emmy or even a Hugo. Each had a nice gimmick, and even though she didn’t do much, “Assignment: Earth” made me remember Teri Garr (although I had already seen in her in several films as an extra according to IMDb).

I’m going to give up on the Star Trek movies, and just watch the old TV shows from time to time. All three of the recent reboot films have been heavily laden with nostalgia I don’t feel. I like the new actors, and if they could break away from being clichés and caricatures of the originals, I would enjoy seeing a new Star Trek story that had some original science fiction concepts. The trouble is they have to make a film that will earn hundreds of millions and that means a cartoonish action film. I’d love to see them create a story that has the feel, pacing and creativity of Gattaca, Her and Ex Machina, but set it on Yorktown.

Now, the best for last. Leonard proved to be a surprisingly good read. I don’t know if Shatner or his co-writer David Fisher did the writing, but it’s very readable, and full of well research details. Shatner and Nimoy were born months apart to Jewish families. Both wanted to be actors and struggled for years to find success. Shatner’s chronicles of how he and Nimoy took any acting job they could get. I found that particularly interesting, especially when he covered television jobs in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Since I haven’t read any other histories of Star Trek or its actors, I’m not sure how much of the information in Leonard is new. It was enough to give me a satisfying sense of working on the original show and movies, plus memories about the Star Trek conventions. Shatner also summarized Nimoy’s work in theater, directing, poetry, singing, photography and philanthropy. Shatner convinced me that Leonard Nimoy was an exceptional person. The book is a moving eulogy to a friend. And like I said before, the book is very readable.

But Leonard is more than a biography. It’s a kind of confession. Shatner claims Nimoy was his best friend in life, and then admits that Nimoy had stopped talking to him years before he died. The psychology of this book is one for psychiatrists. Evidently the story of these two men is very complicated, and we’re only hearing Shatner’s side of things. I’m not sure if Shatner is very self-aware, but he does struggle to appear honest, and express his feelings. Even if you knew nothing about Star Trek, this book might be a worthy read because of how the story is told. It’s about acting, and what it means to become a pop icon success. Anyone interested in acting, old television, making movies, or working in the theater should find insight in this story.

The reader feels Shatner loved Nimoy, but like Shatner, can’t understand why Nimoy hated him in the end. I searched the internet for answers, but realize I’d be jumping into a black hole and quit. It would be interesting to read an impartial, definitive biography of Star Trek, its creators, writers and all the actors. Is there such a book? I’m not a Trekkie/Trekker, so I don’t know. Star Trek is a phenomenon, so that makes it an interesting subject separate from the show’s fan appeal.

From the details within Leonard, and a bit of Google research on Star Trek, I get the feeling the Star Trek universe is huge. If you count the number of TV episodes from all the series, all the movies, all the books, comics, and so on, there must be well over a thousand artifacts to study, maybe a lot more. Even though, from 1966 on, I watched most of ST shows, I never took it seriously enough to become a true fan. And even though I’d like to know more, I’m not sure I have the time, or even if the endeavor is worth while. Leonard does convey the immense success of Star Trek, and that might be all I need to know, but it’s beyond my comprehension to really understand the Star Trek universe.

Personally, I have a kind of resentment against Star Trek and Star Wars. I remember how science fiction was before 1966, and I preferred when the genre was mostly unknown. Those franchises exploded the world of science fiction twice. Science fiction was defined by magazines in 1926, began shifting to books in 1946, then in 1966 the audience expanded tremendously with television, and in 1977, it’s appeal exploded again worldwide. Even though media science fiction can be fun, it was never the science fiction I found in magazines and books. In many ways, I think the definitive science fiction has always come from magazines. Of course, my view might be age related, and I’m revealing I never kept up with the times.

The difference between me and real Star Trek fans, is I never fell in love with the characters. With both Star Trek and Star Wars, I think their fanatical fans love the characters and can’t forget them. And to me, science fiction has always been about insightful ideas – the sense of wonder at discovering something that could or should exist in reality but something I never imagined. For me, the science fiction digests of the 1950s and 1960s had more sense-of-wonder revelations then anything I ever found in television and movies.

I still like Star Trek about as much as I liked it during the 1966/67 TV season. It has its moments.


Six 2016 Best Science Fiction Anthologies Covering 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ever since The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, there have been annual collections of the best short science fiction. For many decades now, there have been two or three. For some reason, in 2016 we have at least six big anthologies looking back at the short work of the previous year. There will be at least one more, because the Nebula Showcase that covers 2015 stories hasn’t come out yet.

clarke Dozoisguran

Links below are to Amazon, where you can buy, preview the table of contents, and maybe read the introductions in the Look Inside feature. I’ve already bought one ebook and one audio edition to read or listen on my iPhone. I might buy another in print. I’d buy them all if they were available on audio.

I’m the most excited about the Neil Clarke collection, because it’s also available on audio at I’ve been wishing for years that the Dozois, Strahan or Horton volumes would show up at Audible. Allan Kaster has been my only source of annual best short science fiction on audio, via his series The Year’s Top-Ten Tales of Science fiction (v1-7) and The Year’s Top Short SF Novels (v1-5), Kaster’s collections were never as giant as the Dozois or Strahen volumes. I wonder if Kaster has stopped his series, because his collections only cover through 2014 stories. I hope not.

Does this wealth of anthologized short science fiction represent increased interest in reading short science fiction? For decades the print magazines have struggled to survive with dwindling subscribers. Decades ago some SF magazines had over 100,000 subscribers. Now the major print magazines have only 7,500-20,000 paying readers and that’s declining. Has the internet changed the way we read?

Is the internet increasing readership of short SF? I love being able to read on my phone whenever I have a free moment, or listen to a short story while I walk or do dishes, or even have Alexa on my Amazon Echo play a story for me in the middle of night when I can’t sleep.

These stories are being collected from a much more diverse collection of sources. We’re moving away from print to digital. Here are some of the periodicals that publish science fiction short stories. Some magazines still print their issues, but my guess is buying and reading short stories on paper is going the way of the land line.

Many of these year’s best stories came from original anthologies.

I wish I had the time and patience to put all these short stories into a database and see which ones were most reprinted. For example, I noticed that “Capitalism in the 22nd Century or A.I.r.” by Geoff Ryman, is in the Clarke, Dozois and Strahan volumes.

It would also be wonderful if I could read all these stories and grok the nature of current science fiction. That probably won’t happen. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, I never have enough time for all the projects I want to pursue. But it sure would be fun to gorge myself on 2015 science fiction, then gorge myself on 1950s science fiction short stories, and after all that mass-consumption of short stories, write a comparison of how science fiction has evolved and changed.

I can’t imagine how these editors read so much. I wish Dozois would write a book about editing science fiction. And he could write a wonderful history of the evolution of the science fiction short story.


Buying a 65” TV in 2016 and Avoiding Smart TVs

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 27, 2016

I’ve been rethinking HDTVs. Buying a TV should be simple – but it’s not. There’s too much technology to compare, too many standards, too great of a price range, and too many options to consider. Psychologically, it’s hard to think about spending $3,000 for a TV set, when I can remember being a teen in 1964 wishing I could buy a Ford Mustang. Back then, the Mustang had a list price of $2,368. Then, and now, a big color TV is about 1/10th the price of a car. It hurts to spend that much.

I’ve been wanting a new 65” HDTV. My old 56” DLP Samsung is ten years old and the picture is only good when it’s dark outside. I’m on my third replacement lamp.  I’ve been shopping for a new, slightly larger, much brighter, 4K HDR HDTV. When I pick out all the technical features I want, I end up lusting after a 65” Samsung SUHDTV that runs $2999 at Best Buy. More than I want to spend. Best Buy also has a 65” Vizio E65U-D3 for $999. What does shelling out $2,000 more actually get me?

CNET claims the Vizio P-series ($1,999) has one of the best pictures around, and the cheaper M-series ($1,499) is almost as good. However, Vizio’s new design at first turned me off. They don’t come with a tuner or smart TV features. Instead they supply an android tablet to stream shows. My first impression – that’s a stupid idea. Then I saw the genius of their madness. They’re designing televisions for how people use them. Most kids love streaming content. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I stream most of my shows from a Roku 3, and I by-pass the built-in tuner of my existing set because I have a TiVo Roamio, with four tuners.

vizio M

A flash of understanding came to me. All I want from a HDTV is for it to be a monitor. I don’t care about smart TV features, 3D, curved screens, speakers, fancy options, zillions of inputs/outputs, or most of the other gimmicks. I don’t need a tuner. All I need is a screen, a cord for power, and one HDMI 2.0a HDCP 2.2 input. Just like a computer monitor. Maybe a Ethernet jack to update the firmware, but there might be a route around that too. And Vizio, I don’t want your tablet, which pushes me towards your E-series, but I prefer the tech specs on the P & M series. (It’s a shame the E-series isn’t just a M-series without a tablet.)

I have a component system. A/V receiver with multiple HDMI inputs and one HDMI output, Roku, Blu-ray and TiVo. All the intelligence I need are in those devices. The TV needs no smarts. I know there are people who buy a smart TV to do everything, but I’m not one of them. I prefer an external Roku. I considered TCL’s new Roku TV, but it doesn’t support HDR, and I’m not sure it’s built-in Roku can be upgraded. If the Roku released an upgrade to the Roku 4, or comes out with the Roku 5, that supports the emerging HDR standards, Dolby Vision or HDR 10, or the Ultra HD Premium standard, I can just buy a new Roku box.

All I want is a screen that’s fantastic, with full screen back lighting, instead of edge lighting. HDR is more important than 4K, but I want 4K to be ready for the future. The Vizio M-series would be great, if it didn’t come with that stupid Android tablet. Why pay extra for a mediocre tablet? I’ve already got an iPhone 6s Plus and a Nexus 7. I don’t think I’d ever stream from a tablet anyway. I bought a Chromecast a couple years ago and never used it. The Roku does all the web streaming I want, and the TiVo covers over-the-air broadcasting.

Right now I’m hung up on “full-array local dimming” and the E-series has 12 zones, the M-series 64 zones, and the P-series 128. The price difference at Best Buy is $999, $1,499, $1,999. The M and P have a VA panel, which CNET prefers, but they don’t know what kind of panel the E-series has. The M-series comes with a 720p tablet, and the P-series a 1080p tablet, meaning I’m spending hundreds for something I won’t use.

This makes me completely rethink HDTVs. Fancier sets want to replace Roku/FIre/Apple TV boxes, and even A/V receivers. They want to be our only device – and that makes sense for some people. But I prefer Roku over WebOS or Tizen. People have 4K content now because of Roku 4. I’m realizing it’s the Roku box that’s #1. It just needs the perfect display. I’m even rethinking my TiVo.

The TiVo lets me record over-the-air shows. But I mostly record the nightly news, some PBS documentaries, and old movies and TV shows from the 1950s. There are other sources for that content. I could jettison the TiVo and outside antenna and simplify my setup even more. However, I want to keep the Denon receiver and 5.1 speaker system. I play Spotify music, via the Roku, into the Denon, and it sounds fantastic. So the Roku provides both great video and great music. Plus I use it with The Great Courses Plus for lectures and learning.

When I take things apart like this, I realize I only want an HDTV set to be a monitor for the Roku. I was leaning towards the Samsung because it has a breakout box for all its connections. But the Denon A/V receiver does that.

I have to wonder if smart TV features will go the way of 3D. On the other hand, some people have always liked all-in-one combo units, like stereos with turntable, CD, tape drive, receivers housed in one case, or TVs with built in VHS/DVD players. I’ve always liked stereo component systems where I can upgrade each feature separately.


Collecting Great Westerns

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Yellow_SkyMy primary goal here is to identify and remember all my favorite westerns. Because I focus on collecting, this page will be updated periodically. I also want it to be of use to others, so I’m adding links. Clicking on the year will take you to a description of the film (to Wikipedia until I can write my own reviews). Titles will link to Amazon. The letter grades represents my reaction to the film, and not a critical judgment. Many films won’t have a grade until I see them again. I’m going to also list the format of the discs I own, but that’s only useful to me. Most of these films I’ve seen once, for many, twice, and some, many times. I will eventually add television westerns.

Finally, I want to analyze why I love westerns and what makes a good western. That will happen in the future. Today, I’m just starting with a list. I’ll eventually add content after the listing. I’ll also write reviews to films and link to them when I get time.

Westerns represent a philosophy, reflected in the genre. I’m a liberal, so explaining why I love a genre that’s so conservative will take some effort. Westerns portray details about history, while revealing changing attitudes towards history. Eventually I want to rate both historical value and how well each film fits the genre. For now, I’m going to use a very simply list format to make it easy to expand and edit. In the future, I’ll convert the list to a table, add film cover images, and other annotations.

I should point out I only collect films I enjoy rewatching. There will be many omissions. That means I either don’t like the film, don’t think its fits the genre, or is set outside of the 19th century.

My Favorite Westerns:

  1. The Big Trail (1930), John Wayne, A+, [Blu-ray]
  2. Cimarron (1931), Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, B+, [DVD]
  3. The Plainsman (1936), Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, A
  4. The Texas Rangers (1936), Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, B+, [DVD]
  5. Destry Rides Again (1939), James Stewart, A+, [DVD]
  6. Dodge City (1939), Errol Flynn, A+
  7. Jesse James (1939), Tyrone Power
  8. Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne, A+
  9. Union Pacific (1939), Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, A+, [DVD]
  10. Santa Fe Trail (1940), Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn
  11. The Westerner (1940), Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, A+, [DVD]
  12. They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Errol Flynn, B+, [DVD]
  13. Western Union (1941), Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, A-, [DVD]
  14. The Outlaw (1943), Thomas Mitchell, Jane Russell, B-
  15. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, A+
  16. Tall in the Saddle (1944), John Wayne
  17. Along Came Jones (1945), B, Gary Cooper, Loretta Young [DVD]
  18. Duel in the Sun (1946), Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Jones
  19. My Darling Clementine (1946), Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, A+, [DVD]
  20. Angel and the Badman (1947), John Wayne, Gail Russell, A+
  21. Ramrod (1947), Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake
  22. 3 Godfathers (1948), John Wayne, B+, [DVD]
  23. Blood on the Moon (1948), Robert Mitchum
  24. Fort Apache (1948), John Wayne, Henry Fonda, B+, [DVD]
  25. Four Faces West (1948), Joel McCrea
  26. Red River (1948), John Wayne, Montgomery Cliff, Walter Brennan, A+
  27. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Humphrey Bogart, A
  28. Whispering Smith (1948), Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, A-, [DVD]
  29. Yellow Sky (1948), Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, A+, [DVD]
  30. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), John Wayne, B+, [DVD]
  31. Broken Arrow (1950), James Stewart, B+, [DVD]
  32. The Gunfighter (1950), Gregory Peck, A, [DVD]
  33. Rio Grande (1950), John Wayne
  34. Winchester ‘73 (1950), James Stewart, Shelley Winters, A+, [DVD]
  35. Rawhide (1951), B+, Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward [DVD]
  36. Westward the Women (1951), B+, Robert Taylor
  37. Bend of the River (1952), James Stewart, B, [DVD]
  38. The Big Sky (1952), Kirk Douglas, B+
  39. High Noon (1952), Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, A-
  40. Rancho Notorious (1952), Marlene Dietrich, B
  41. Man in the Saddle (1952), Randolph Scott, B
  42. Hondo (1953), John Wayne, [Blu-ray]
  43. The Naked Spur (1953), James Stewart, A-, [DVD]
  44. Shane (1953), Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, A+, [DVD]
  45. The Far Country (1954), James Stewart, Walter Brennan, B+, [DVD]
  46. Garden of Evil (1954), A-, Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, [DVD]
  47. Johnny Guitar (1954), Joan Crawford, B
  48. River of No Return (1954), Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, B+, [Bluray]
  49. Vera Cruz (1954), Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, B+
  50. A Lawless Street (1955), Randolph Scott
  51. The Far Horizons (1955), Fred MacMurray, Carlton Heston, Donna Reed, B
  52. The Man from Laramie (1955), James Stewart, B
  53. Ten Wanted Men (1955), Randolph Scott, Richard Boone
  54. The Searchers (1956), John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, A+, [DVD]
  55. Seven Men from Now (1956), Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, Lee Marvin, A-, [DVD]
  56. 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, A
  57. Decision at Sundown (1957), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  58. Forty Guns (1957), Barbara Stanwyck, C+
  59. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas,  B+
  60. Night Passage (1957), James Stewart, Audie Murphy, A, [DVD]
  61. The Tall T (1957), Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, B+, [DVD]
  62. The Tin Star (1957), Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, B+
  63. The Big Country (1958),  Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston
  64. Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  65. Cowboy (1958), Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, B+
  66. The Law and Jake Wade (1958), Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, A, [DVD]
  67. Man of the West (1958), Gary Cooper, [DVD]
  68. Saddle the Wind (1958), Robert Taylor, Julie London, B+
  69. Day of the Outlaw (1959), Robert Ryan
  70. The Horse Soldiers (1959), John Wayne
  71. No Name on the Bullet (1959), Audie Murphy, [DVD]
  72. Ride Lonesome (1959), Randolph Scott, [DVD]
  73. Rio Bravo (1959), John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, B+, [Blu-Ray]
  74. Comanche Station (1960), Randolph Scott
  75. The Magnificent Seven (1960), Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, A
  76. The Unforgiven (1960), Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, A
  77. The Comancheros (1961), John Wayne
  78. One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Marlon Brando, Karl Malden
  79. Two Rode Together (1961), James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, B+
  80. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, B+
  81. Ride the High Country (1962), Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, A-, [DVD]
  82. A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Clint Eastwood
  83. For a Few Dollars More (1965), Clint Eastwood
  84. The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), John Wayne, Dean Martin
  85. El Dorado (1966), John Wayne, Dean Martin
  86. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Clint Eastwood
  87. Nevada Smith (1966), Steve McQueen, A
  88. The Professionals (1966), Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin
  89. The Rare Breed (1966), James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara, Brian Keith, B
  90. Hombre (1967), Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone
  91. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Henry Ford, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards
  92. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Paul Newman, Robert Redford
  93. The Wild Bunch (1969), William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, [Blu-ray]
  94. Chisum (1970), John Wayne
  95. A Man Called Horse (1970), Richard Harris
  96. Little Big Man (1970), Dustin Hoffman, A+, [Bluray]
  97. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, A-
  98. Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Robert Redford, Will Geer, A+, [DVD]
  99. Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Burt Lancaster
  100. High Plains Drifter (1973), Clint Eastwood
  101. Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, B+
  102. The Missouri Breaks (1976), Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson
  103. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Clint Eastwood
  104. The Shootist (1976), John Wayne, Ron Howard, Lauren Bacall, A-
  105. Heaven’s Gate (1980), Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges
  106. The Long Riders (1980), David Carradine, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid
  107. Pale Rider (1985), Clint Eastwood
  108. Silverado (1985), Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner
  109. Lonesome Dove (1989), Robert Duval, Danny Glover, Tommy Lee Jones, A+, [Blu-ray]
  110. Dances With Wolves (1990), Kevin Costner, A, [Bluray]
  111. Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman,  A+
  112. Tombstone (1993), Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Dana Delany, A
  113. Wyatt Earp (1994), Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid,  A, [Blu-ray]
  114. Riders of the Purple Sage (1996), Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, A-
  115. Open Range (2003), Robert Duval, Kevin Costner, A
  116. 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, A
  117. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Brad Pitt, [Blu-ray]
  118. Appaloosa (2008), Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, A+
  119. True Grit (2010), Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, A
  120. The Revenant (2015), Leonardo DiCaprio A+

Westerns I want to see:

  1. The Covered Wagon (1923)
  2. The Iron Horse (1924)
  3. Tumbleweeds (1925)
  4. Pursued (1947)
  5. Wagon Master (1950)
  6. The Shooting (1966)
  7. The Great Silence (1968)
  8. The Hired Hand (1971)
  9. The Claim (2000)
  10. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)



When Is Forgetting Natural or Dementia?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 25, 2016

This morning I sat down to write an essay, “What are the Most Important Concepts You’ve Learned Reading Science Fiction?” I was going to base it on Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. I knew I’ve mentioned Empire Star many times on my blog, so I searched on that title. That’s when I discovered I had already written, “What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?” And it was just over a year ago! How could I have forgotten that? Even the titles are almost identical (but not quite).


I’ve written 1,039 essays for this blog, and I’ve written hundreds more for other reasons. Let’s call it 2,000 essays. At what point is forgetting what I’ve written something natural, and when is it a sign of impending dementia? Occasionally, I’ve rediscover essays I’ve written and have no memory of writing them. Sometimes reading them brings back vague memories, sometimes not. Who remembers every meal they’ve eaten? Some forgetting is natural. Who can remember 2,000 of anything? Has any writer forgotten a whole novel?

Sometimes I know I’ve written an essay and intentionally rewrite it hoping to do a better job. Not this time. I thought I had a new idea. And I don’t think I could do better if I tried again. In fact, I was planning something smaller.

I don’t think I have dementia, but I wonder about the dynamics of forgetting. One of the fascinating aspects of getting older is learning my limitations. Everyone has limitations, but they’re less obvious when we’re young.

I wonder what the second essay would have been like if I hadn’t discovered the first.

Have I written this essay before?


Interpreting Songs—Postmodern Jukebox

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 23, 2016

My generation embraced singer-song writers back in the 1960s. We wanted bands that played their own instruments, and wrote their own songs. Before that, bands and song-writers were often not the same, and popular songs would be performed by all the crooners of the day. Hell, jazz musicians made an art form of interpreting songs. Being part of the generation that grew up with The Beatles, made us prejudice against “cover bands.” I had to age some to appreciate Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra.

Last year I discovered Postmodern Jukebox, a group that specializes in taking modern songs and putting a period spin on them. The best way I can prove what I’m talking about is to play the songs off of YouTube. Listen to “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. It’s from 2003, and very edgy. Meg’s spare drumming and Jack’s angry guitar make the song unique, driving, defining it’s era. It’s gotten 97 million hits on YouTube. Listen to this original version of “Seven Nation Army” first.

Can you imagine anyone covering this song? Now, lets listen to how Postmodern Jukebox arranges the song. Is it even the same song? Musically, it’s still simple. The words are the same. But the mood of the song has changed. The music of The White Stripes grabs me, but the lyrics dominated in the Postmodern Jukebox production. Of course it’s hard to ignore Haley Reinhart, the vocalist, but she really makes the words more important than the individual instruments.

Here is Radiohead’s “Creep.” The two versions are much closer. Is Thom Yorke just creepier than Haley, so he fits the lyrics better? Is Haley too pretty to be a creep? How much does the rock sound color the song compared to the vintage arrangement by PMJ? Does each of these versions convey a different message?

When Haley sings, “I want a perfect body, want a perfect soul” do you think something different than when listening to Radiohead? Are songs less authentic when sung by people who didn’t write them? Especially if we feel the original songs represent the artist?

How much of a song’s flavor comes from the time in which it was produced? If Elle Goulding had been recorded back in the 1960s, would she have sounded like the Postmodern Jukebox version?

Do I prefer this oldie version because that’s how music sounded when I was growing up?

What if Postmodern Jukebox did the opposite of what they normally do – taking a new song and making it sound old – and took at old song and made it sound new. I’d like to see what they would do with “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” by Frank Sinatra. Could they do it in the fashion of The White Stripes, Radiohead or Elle Goulding?

Visit the Postmodern Jukebox page on YouTube for dozens of more great interpretations.

[If you got this as an email, you’ll have to follow the link below and visit the web to hear the songs.]


Overcoming Inertia in Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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

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

countdown to ecstasy

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

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

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

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

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

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