Famous Group Friendships

by James Wallace Harris, 2/23/23

The TV show Friends was a huge success for many reasons. However, there is one important reason few people mention that I want to reference for this book review. Group friendships don’t happen often in our lives and they usually don’t last long — yet they are often the ones we miss most when they are gone. Group friendships are usually created for us, by the classroom, churches, sports teams, the military, the office, arts and crafts groups, or hobby clubs. I fondly remember several such friendships and miss them. I even dream about them.

Magnificent Rebels by Andrea Wulf and Jena 1800 by Peter Neumann are about a very special group of friends. Friends who made history. Friends who inspired how we think today. Because they were German and their relationships happened over two hundred years most people won’t know their names. However, those friends influenced people who became famous in the English-speaking world. We remember those friends as the founders of Romanticism. Interestingly, both Magnificent Rebels and Jena 1800 came out in 2022. Magnificent Rebels is longer, and the story is told more like a novel, and Jena 1800 is shorter but focuses more on the concepts, but both tell about the same people. I recommend reading Magnificent Rebels first to see if you like the people, and if you do, you’ll probably want to read Jena 1800.

As a kind of warning I must ask, do you really want to read a book about a bunch of Germans from the 18th century with hard-to-pronounce names? Names that are hard to remember because so many of them began with the letters Sch – Schlegel, Schelling, and Schiller. And there were too many damn Friedrichs. I admit this made the book hard to read but it was worth the effort.

Here’s the thing, I knew practically nothing about these people. I’ve heard of Goethe and Hagel, but haven’t read anything by them. The reason why I read Magnificent Rebels is that I read Andrea Wulf’s book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humbolt’s New World and was completely blown away. And I don’t even remember hearing or reading about Alexander von Humbolt before. Wulf opened up a whole new historical territory for me to explore.

For most of my life, I’ve read and studied English literature and science from the perspective of English history. I’ve read very few European novels and haven’t studied their history and culture. I knew about the English Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats), but I didn’t know or had forgotten, they were inspired by the German Romantics. Being introduced to this new knowledge was the first reason I enjoyed Magnificent Rebels.

But the second reason, and by far the more important reason, is I love reading about counter-culture friendship groups that spark a revolution. If you enjoy reading about the Beats, the Lost Generation, the Bloomsbury Group, the Transcendentalists, the Futurians, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or even the personal computer pioneers of the 1970s, then adding the German Romantics should be a pleasure.

Both books focus on the German romantics that lived in Jena which is in Germany. But their homeland wasn’t modern Germany. The books mainly cover 1796-1803, after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic Wars when Europe was in upheaval. At one point in this story, Jena is occupied by Napoleon’s army who sacked the city taking any food, valuables, and wood.

I admire books about a group of people who do something so exciting that biographies are written about the group and the individuals. Magnificent Rebels makes me want to read more books about the German Romantics, but also books by and about all the individuals involved. Here’s a scorecard for the main personalities in the book, and the ones I’d want to study more. There were many other people mentioned in Magnificent Rebels.

The first block list the young people that had all the love affairs. The next block is Geothe and Schiller who were best friends and mentors to the German Romantics. They were older and represented the previous generation. The final group was the philosophers and scientists who were friends of the first group, but who were also successful in other fields.

Caroline Schlegel and Wilhelm Schlegel were married but had a best-friends kind of arrangement. Wilhelm accepted Caroline’s love affair with Fredrich Schelling. Friedrich Schlegel was lovers with Dorothea Veit, who was married. That affair was far less accepted.

To me, both Caroline and Dorothea are the most interesting people in Magnificent Rebels. In a way, because they were women, they had the most to rebel against.

The German Romantics remind me of the 1960s counter-culture. The German Romantics weren’t exactly the hippies of the 1790s, but there are comparisons. They were rebellious, flouting sexual conventions, and excited about everything new. For a while they did everything together, reading poetry, going to plays and concerts, discussing philosophy, attending literary salons, hiking in nature, and defying what was expected of them. They almost had a little commune. The men taught at the university in Jena and promoted new ideas that attracted students from all over Europe. But the women were thinkers and writers in their own right.

However, like with the student revolutionaries of the 1960s, things fell apart, often because of egos. It’s hard for two people to maintain a friendship, and group dynamics are infinitely harder to maintain. When the Jena set broke up, it felt like the Beatles breaking up. What we think of as The Sixties was really only from 1964-1969. The Sixties really began with The Beatles arriving in America in February 1964 and ending with Altamont in December 1969. These two books about Jena cover a similarly short period.

Magnificent Rebels and Jena 1800 both try to capture a certain era of exciting social transformation that happened in a small town with a few colorful people seeding changes that spread across the world. I also compare them with the Beat Movement of the 1950s.


How To Play Shanghai Rummy

by James Wallace Harris, 2/11/23

We recently decided to play Shanghai when my sister came to visit. It’s a card game I first learned back in the 1960s. However, we couldn’t remember the exact rules so I looked them up on the internet. There were several sites that gave slightly different rules, and they called the game Shanghai Rummy. As we played the game trying out different rules I decided to consolidate on one set of rules. I made a crib sheet to help remember the requirements of each hand (see below). My goal was to blend how we used to play with the rules published on the internet to maximize the fun and challenge of the game.

Each hand or round requires a different combination of cards to make a meld, and I noticed that the complexity of each combination was related to the number of cards required to complete the meld. The game gets harder with each new hand. I settled on the sequence of 10 hands (rounds) based on the rules at Wikipedia and Bar Games 101.

But our family had one last hand that I’m adding as a bonus round. It requires 17 cards to make the meld. With 11 cards dealt, and 6 cards acquired in three buys. This requires making a perfect hand, meaning you go out on all the other players before they can meld. It’s very hard but lots of fun. Because that hand required 17 cards to meld, I thought there should be a 16-card meld, so I created another bonus round. I just liked the symmetry of 12 hands of increasing complexity going from 6 cards in the meld to 17.

Here are the sites I consulted:

Players: 3-5 with 2 decks, 6-8 with 3 decks.

The Deal: 9-11 cards depending on the round. It can always be 11, but fewer card in the early rounds speeds up the whole game.

The Draw Deck: The undealt cards face down.

The Discard Pile: Start by flipping over the top card of the draw deck.

Melds: Composed of a combination of Sets/Books and Runs. A set/book is cards of the same value. Usually, it’s 3 cards. A run is a sequence of cards of the same suit. Usually, it’s 4 cards. Aces can be low or high. Jokers are wildcards. We called sets books when I was growing up, so our family uses the word book, but the internet has settled on set.

Buys: 0 to 3 depending on the round. A buy is a way to acquire cards out-of-turn. See below. Buying is very strategic to the game. Buying cards helps and hurts because they add two cards to your hand in a game where you are trying to get rid of cards. We always played by allowing 3 buys for every hand but limiting the buys in the early rounds makes the round more challenging and speeds up that hand. Be careful buying cards you don’t need, but sometimes strategy requires making a buy to get extra cards to have a discard.

Gameplay: Turns go clockwise. A player draws one card, either from the deck or the discard pile. They must discard one card. Before the next player takes a card, the other players have an opportunity to buy the discard. They must also take one card from the deck. This adds two cards to their hand, and they don’t discard a card while buying. After the buy, the gameplay returns to normal.

The goal is to gather the required meld and lay down. Then get rid of all the other cards in your hand. Generally, the first person to lay down will have extra cards and the gameplay will continue. As other players make their meld and lay down their cards, they can play their extra cards on any sets and runs currently on the table – but only before they discard. Players who have made their meld can lay down on melds only during their turn. Players who haven’t made their meld can’t play on the melds that have been laid down. Each meld can be from Ace to Ace only. Cards cannot be swapped in melds.

Players can not make more than the required number of sets and runs. However, you can make larger sets and runs. So instead of a 3-card set of 3 queens, you could have 5 queens. Or a run of 2-3-4-5-6-7 of the same suit.

Strategy: It’s easy to order your cards and know what you need for the rounds where you only make sets or runs. Rounds, where you make up both sets and runs, are very challenging. How you organize your hand and which cards you seek requires various strategies. How often you buy and when becomes strategic. Sometimes it’s fun to hold your cards until you can lay them all down going out on the other players.

Going Out: The player that can lay down all their cards and have an unplayable discard wins the hand. This rule varies. Some Shanghai rules say going out is when you have no discard. If this method is chosen, the bonus round won’t be perfect and others can still play. Decide ahead of time on which method of going out you prefer. We like requiring a discard.

All other players must add up the values of the cards in their hand and the total is added to their running score. The player with the lowest score wins the game.

Card Values: 2s through 9s = 5 points. 10s through Kings = 10 points. Aces = 15 points. Jokers = 20 points. Other scoring variations include numbered cards = 5, face cards = 10, aces = 20, and jokers = 50. That’s how we scored growing up, but it makes for some brutally large penalties.

Speeding Up the Game: Playing all the hands listed can take 2-3 hours. You can speed up a game by skipping certain hands, especially the first two and the bonus rounds. However, the most complex hands are the most fun.

I have many fond memories of playing Shanghai growing up. Whenever our family visited my Aunt Let in Mississippi in the 1960s, we’d play Shanghai. After we grew up, my sister and I would play Shanghai with our cousins, Sonny and Eleanor, who often played it nightly with their kids, and visitors.

Shanghai is a great card game because it’s not just the luck of waiting for a specific card. Various strategies can be used. You try to arrange your hand so that drawing several different cards will improve your odds of winning.

In all my years of playing Shangai, I have only run into one other person that said their family played this game. If you’ve played Shanghai leave a comment. And if you have any problems with the rules or understanding the rules leave a comment. I hope they are clear and precise.


My Experiment With Plex Fails

by James Wallace Harris, 2/6/23

As I explained in my last post, I wanted to convert Susan’s favorite shows on DVDs to digital files so she could watch them with Plex. Because she sews and watches the same TV series, over and over again, I thought we could save money by canceling Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max.

Well, things didn’t work out as I hoped. I started with Friends and The Gilmore Girls. I bought both as complete series DVD sets for Susan for Christmases long ago. In the first two seasons of The Gilmore Girls, I had two bad discs. And I had one in the second season of Friends. In recent years I’ve discovered other bad DVDs. I tried them on three different players – no luck. The DVD is essentially a 21st-century technology, but now that we’re in year 23 I’m discovering they are not a true archival format.

At first, I wasn’t going to let a few bad discs stop me. I got Plex all set up with a couple seasons of both shows and configured her Roku TV to use Plex. Susan isn’t very picky about picture quality, but I realized that Friends episodes playing on HBO Max are in 1080p, while the rip discs are 480p. See the photo at the top of the page to compare the 4:3 aspect ratio to 16:9. Not only that, but the image quality was far superior – essentially Bluray quality to DVD quality. That depressed me. I don’t know if Friends was digitally reframed for HDTV, or if it was originally shot in 16:9 but it looks great on flat-screen TVs. Seeing it on Plex reminded me of old CRTs, which is how we watched Friends when it came out.

The final straw for me was the closed caption was so much better on the HBO Max version. I told Susan I was giving up. We are going to try and just subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Max one at a time.

But I also learned that ripping DVDs is a tedious business. It would have taken weeks to rip all our discs. Just messing with DVDs and DVD players is annoying. The whole reason streaming TV is great is not messing with machines and physical media. No wonder old DVDs are cheap at charity shops and library book sales.

The experiment wasn’t a complete failure. I ripped the last three seasons of Perry Mason that I’ve always meant to watch. Watching Perry on Plex is nicer than messing with DVDs every night. I also ripped Survivors (BBC 1975-1978) a favorite series I’ve been meaning to watch again. It’s not streaming anywhere. I even ripped some documentaries on DVDs I recorded off of broadcast years ago that I wanted to save and a couple of DVD compilations of videos we took on vacation and another of my mother made by some of her distant relatives.

Plex is turning out to be something for me, not Susan.

I guess I’ll start going through my DVDs to get rid of most of them. This experiment has taught me I prefer watching movies and TV shows streamed rather than played by a DVD/BD player. I will keep those shows and movies that seldom get streamed or are my absolute favorites, which I will rip to Plex.

I guess the decades of trying to own our favorite movies and TV shows are coming to an end. I’m also glad I didn’t run out and buy that Synology NAS right away. Computers are getting smaller, and we store stuff in the cloud. Thank GNU for Dropbox.


When Will How We Watch TV Stop Evolving?

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/23

In the 21st century, it now seems air, water, food, shelter, and video are the basic necessities of life. Who lives without screens in their life? Changing times and technologies keep making us adapt to new ways of consuming video.

  • Broadcast TV originally conditioned us to watch television on a set schedule. The price of this technology was watching commercials.
  • Cable TV gave us more channels but we still had to follow the schedule and watch commercials. We now had to pay a monthly bill too.
  • HBO and other premium channels made TV better than movies and freed us from commercials, but we had to pay even more on that monthly bill.
  • VCR let us time shift shows and zip through commercials, and forced us to deal with a growing collection of VHS tapes. It also allowed us to buy or rent movies and TV shows. VCRs created that wonderful subculture of video stores. This gave us more freedom regarding what to watch, but TV was now becoming a growing monthly expense.
  • DVD gave us better picture quality but we had to buy new equipment and replace all those videotapes.
  • DVD R/W+- allowed us to make our own DVDs. It saved us money over buying movies by recording them instead but we had to zip through the commercials again.
  • DVR made it much easier to record shows and zip through commercials. It was wonderful to give up messing with VHS tapes and R/W DVDs.
  • TiVo made going back to broadcast TV fun for a while but the $12.95 monthly fee to record free over-the-air TV was annoying.
  • Netflix discs by mail killed our addiction to Blockbuster and saved us money. I miss Blockbuster.
  • HDTV made TV watching great and more addicting than ever, but now we had to learn about new technology and spend a whole lot more on TVs.
  • Netflix streaming killed our addiction to renting discs by mail and saved us money. $7.99 a month was a tremendous bargain! Bye-bye Blockbuster.
  • Smartphones and tablets have become a new way of watching TV for some people. When the power was out during an ice storm Susan and I streamed TV over 5G on our iPhones.
  • Streaming services allowed us to cut the cord and give up cable TV. That saved us money – for a while.
  • Streaming TV services like YouTube TV allowed us to have cable TV without the cable box and for less money while including an unlimited digital DVR. However, they are now racking up their prices. $70 a month is like a Comcast payment from a few years ago.

When will how we watch TV stop changing? Is it evolving or just the churn of change? I thought with streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, AppleTV+, etc. combined with YouTubeTV we had everything we could possibly want. That is until all these services started raising their prices. The fact that we can go months without using some of those streaming services is making me worry. I see that other people are thinking about it too.

TV used to be free. It used to be simple, three channels with a fixed schedule. Now it’s $150 a month, with thousands of shows that can be watched at any time on a variety of devices. TV now has too many choices. That’s mentally wearing. Even exhausting.

Looking back I see now that I subscribed to all those various streaming services to watch another popular TV show that everyone was talking about. Even today, when I talk with my friends they will tell me about the shows they love. Wanting to give them a try often means subscribing to something new. My friend Linda has solved this problem by only subscribing to one service at a time. But she lives with a lot fewer choices. But maybe that’s good.

$150 a month is not bad for how much pleasure we get. However, I cut the cord with cable TV because cable TV forced hundreds of channels on us I didn’t want. It irked me I had to pay $7+ a month for ESPN when I didn’t even watch it. Now, with all the streaming services I’m paying for thousands of movies and TV shows, I don’t want to watch. And I just can’t tune out all those unwanted offerings. Each time I click on Netflix or HBO Max I end up scrolling and clicking and scrolling and clicking to see all my choices. By the time I finally pick something I’m worn out. My sister Becky often yells “I HATE SCROLLING.”

I discovered something very revealing when I started ripping my DVD/BDs for Plex. I have several hundred movies and TV shows I’ve bought over the last several decades. Once I converted DVDs to digital files for a couple of TV series I started watching them. I was no longer interested in streaming services. On Plex right now I have two choices (Perry Mason and Survivors), both of which I want to watch. Imagine Netflix with just two TV shows. (And wasn’t AppleTV+ much better when it had fewer choices?)

When company comes over and we then decide to watch a movie together picking a show depresses us. It makes people happier if I pick out a movie and invite people over saying we’re going to watch X. Susan and several of my TV-watching friends get annoyed if they have to decide on a show. Maybe my current problem with watching TV by myself is having too many choices.

The nightly TV program Susan and I watch together is Upstairs, Downstairs which we get from Britbox. We know what we’ll be watching at 9:30 every night – two episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs. I like that routine. Susan watches other shows by herself while she sews. If I want to watch something on my own I’m currently satisfied with either Perry Mason or Survivors. When I finish those series I’ll rip a couple more.

We did sign up for the current sale for Peacock+ ($29.99 for one year). If all the subscription services charged like that I wouldn’t mind keeping several subscriptions going. However, even though Peacoak+ has lots I think I want to watch, I just don’t feel like watching anything yet. Maybe when I finish with Perry I’ll give one of their shows a try. Maybe the key for me is to only have a couple of shows I follow (besides the one I watch with Susan).

I’ve been very happy the last few days puttering around with ripping DVDs and setting up Plex. I’m not sure Susan will like a very limited TV environment, but I do. I’m not going to try and rip all my DVDs and Bluray discs. I’m just going to rip something when I’m ready to watch it.

I would be perfectly fine just subscribing to BritBox for several months. That’s how we get Upstairs, Downstairs. I’ve already canceled HBO Max and Netflix. I want to cancel Hulu but can’t until I rip some DVDs for Susan. I’d love to cancel YouTube TV, but Susan can’t let go. I only use it for Jeopardy, NBC Nightly News, and Turner Classic Movies. But those two shows are available on YouTube for free, and we’ve got hundreds of old movies on DVD.

It feels like I’m trying to de-evolve my TV watching to back like it was when I was growing up. Just a few channels. Susan is still addicted to the cable TV level of variety. I’m trying to get her to notice that she uses YouTube TV to watch old TV shows all the time. Except for things like tennis matches and cooking shows she seldom watches anything new.

I have friends that watch a lot of television and go through many new shows each year. I used to be that way. I don’t know if it’s getting old or not, but I’m tired of the new show rat race.


Renting vs. Buying TV Shows

by James Wallace Harris, 1/29/23


  • Streaming services keep raising their prices
  • Content is spread over more competing streaming services
  • 99% of the content is not something I want to watch
  • Favorite TV series keep switching services
  • Some of my favorite TV shows aren’t streaming
  • It’s hard for two or more people to limit subscriptions

For some reason, I can’t get into watching TV anymore. I flip through Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV+ regularly trying to find something I can watch. But I quit most shows after five minutes. I’m ready to give up on streaming TV. I mainly watch YouTube Premium which is $11.99 I think. I definitely get my money’s worth there since I watch a lot of YouTube channels and I hate commercials.

Susan on the other hand, cross-stitches all day long watching all her old favorite TV shows over and over again in the background. But we’re paying about $60 a month for streaming services for Susan to watch those same old TV shows over and over. That seems wasteful.

Of the five TV shows and movies Susan currently has on repeat mode (Friends, Andy Griffiths, MASH, Harry Potter movies, and Gilmore Girls) we already own all of them except MASH on DVD or Bluray. There are a few other shows Susan will put on sometimes, like Gray’s Anatomy and How I Met Your Mother. She does change things up sometimes but not that often and with not that many shows.

Anyway, I was wondering if it would be cheaper to buy the complete series of TV shows she likes and rip them to Plex than to subscribe to all those streaming services? Plex is a program for creating your own customized streaming service. You convert your DVDs to files that are stored on a computer. You run a Plex server program on that computer to fetch the files, and a Plex app on your smart TV, Fire Stick, Roku, or other streaming device to play them. Plex acts like any other streaming service but it shows you what’s on your computer. It can also play music files, show photographs, or videos you made yourself, or stream content from the web if pay for the premium Plex service.

Right now, Amazon has all 11 seasons of MASH for $54. If we canceled all the streaming services we’d pay for it in one month. How I Met Your Mother is $43. The Big Bang Theory is $73, which is another favorite of Susan’s watches from time to time. I doubt Susan would add more than another six or eight series in the coming years. Since she doesn’t try new series, she’s not gaining any old favorites.

The downside of Plex is the time it takes to rip all the DVDs and the price of the server and hard drive. I have old equipment that works for now that costs me nothing. However, it might be nice to buy a new little mini-PC and a very fast SSD to make it fast to rip and copy files. Playing files from my old 5th-generation NUC is very fast. I’m thinking even with new equipment we’d be saving money in less than a year. Or I could buy a fast DVD/BD drive for my main computer which is a 12th generation NUC and rip the DVDs there.

We stopped watching our DVDs and Blurays because it’s annoying to use them, especially after the convenience of streaming. However, if I took the time to rip them, they would be as convenient to watch as streaming. I stopped watching Perry Mason in the 7th season. I could finish that series if I could get back into the mood of watching that show. I have all the discs. In fact, I have complete series of several old TV shows. Plus we have hundreds of favorite movies we could put on Plex too.

Maybe we don’t need streaming services anymore. It’s gotten rather annoying how streaming services keep raising their prices and offering even more shows we don’t want to watch.

Idea #1

What would be great is a streaming service that offers just all the old TV shows for $9.99 a month. It’s all those new movies and original content that are rising the prices. Spotify gives me access to nearly all music for $9.99 a month, so why couldn’t some streaming service for old TV? The trouble is there are too many streaming companies wanting us to subscribe.

Idea #2

If Amazon sold digital complete series for the same price as DVD sets I’d buy them because streaming from Amazon Prime is easier than maintaining a Plex server. The complete Friends on DVD is $53. But it’s $200 to buy all ten seasons digitally. Amazon should promote building digital libraries which they house. I bought the complete Andy Griffith Show for Susan on Amazon and she plays it every day.

Idea #3

The owners of TV shows should sell the complete series on USB drives. A $15 drive must be far cheaper than producing all those DVDs. That way people could buy the USB drive and easily copy the shows to their media servers like Plex. That would be far more convenient than ripping DVDs. Or they could sell a complete series as a download.

The reason why people are cutting the cord with cable is they’re tired of spending a lot of money for a lot of shows they don’t watch. Streaming services are getting like cable used to be – expensive and full of unwanted content. I’d much rather buy movies and TV shows and put them on my own server.


We could always subscribe to one streaming service at a time to have some new content to supplement the old content we’re buying. We spend very little going out. And we don’t go on vacations. Hell, we used to go to the movies once or twice a week before the pandemic. So four or five streaming services are much less than that. They are a bargain. And they are convenient. But I’m getting so tired of seeing hundreds of shows I don’t want to watch and thinking I’m paying for something we don’t use.

Let’s see how I feel after ripping a couple hundred discs. It might not be practical. But it’s kind of fun creating my own streaming service.


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