Why Can’t I Let Go of Technology I Don’t Need?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, April 7, 2019

If you live long enough you realize that things have a lifespan too. When I was growing up there were payphones everywhere. I don’t see them anymore. They still exist, but they are dying off. I do miss them. I can imagine situations when I’d even want to use one so I think AT&T should maintain payphones. Of course, we should let AT&T just pull the plug on this outdated technology.

In my lifetime I’ve bought over 2,000 LPs and 2,000 CDs. I have no LPs anymore, and I’m down to about 700 CDs. I hardly ever play them. I’d like to get rid of my CDs because I’d like to use their space to store more books I won’t read but want to buy.  However, I struggle to let the last CDs go.

It’s not being able to let go that intrigues me. Why am I so attached to something that’s not being used? I know people that own everything they’ve ever bought, including their childhood toys. I’m not like that. If I kept every computer I’d ever owned, I’d need another bedroom just to store them. I actually like letting go of clutter. But not these CDs. Maybe I fear streaming music will fail.

I had no trouble giving up my LPs — I’ve done it several times in my life. That’s one of my problems. I get nostalgic for things I once owned and buy them again. I’ve built up at least four record collections. However, I think (I’m pretty sure this time) that I’m over LPs for good, and I’m almost sure I’m over CDs too. But not quite.

This week I was tempted to get back into the world of CDs again when I read about the Brennan B2. Its 2GB model can hold 5,000 CDs. I could put all my CDs on it, and then pack them away, or donate them to the library. The Brennan B2 connects to computers, stereos, phones, tablets, and just about anything that plays music. I could use my iPhone to call up any song from my collection and play it on the phone, or through my stereo system or on my HDTV.

The Brenna B2 is the perfect way to access a CD collection. Of course, (I chid myself) that I ripped my CD collection over a decade ago before I gave most of them away, and they are all on Amazon for me to play on my iPhone, iPad, computer, stereo or TV. But I don’t. Well, hardly ever. I just checked, and Amazon is still holding 1,792 of my albums for me. I was able to instantly play 45th Parallel by Oregon, an album I’d completely forgotten I bought. I probably should rip all those CDs I bought since that ripping project, but it would be a pain in the ass. And by the way, the reason I forgot I owned the Oregon CD is that I don’t like it. The reason why I only have 700 CDs now is I got rid of all the CDs I didn’t care about anymore.

So why am I thinking about CDs again? It’s that damn Brennan B2! It’s the coolest piece of technology I’ve seen in years. And when I read it’s built on top of a Raspberry Pi computer I believed it even cooler. But that inspired, “Hey, I could build my own CD server and save $679!”

Last night I was playing Spotify after I went to bed. I love dreaming while listening to music. And in my half-awake state, I told myself that the Brennan B2 could never match the convenience of Spotify or the size of its music library. So why am I agonizing over buying a Brennan B2 still? It’s become I’m still addicted to getting tech toys even though I have a lifetime of experience knowing I won’t use them for long.

I know in my heart of hearts I’d buy the Brennan B2, spend a couple of weeks ripping CDs to FLAC, build playlists, and then play with it for an afternoon. After that, I’d forget all about it. I see now that what I’m really thinking about doing, is spending $679 to have a couple weeks of tech toy playtime. By the way, that’s why I write these blogs sometimes, to think things through. But even this psychoanalysis through writing isn’t curing me of the urge to buy the Brennan B2.

I’m trying to talk myself now into getting out my Raspberry Pi that’s been sitting around doing nothing and building my own CD server. I even have a 1TB USB drive doing nothing to store those CDs that aren’t being played. I wonder if I could create a system that’s even half as nice as the Brennan B2? Did they write their software from scratch, or is it open source? I like the idea of accessing the music database through an IP address in a browser.

Of course, the Brennan B2 would be an amazing out-of-the-box experience.

No, no, no. This is crazy. Spotify lets me access millions of albums and I want to build a system that lets me access 700? Why don’t I realize this an idiotic urge? Well, the library sells old CDs for cheap. I could beef up my library considerably without spending too much. (Am I conveying my insanity well enough?)

There’s a joke in an old Woody Allen movie that he tells about a kid being told that masturbation will make him go blind. The kid replies, “Can I do it until I need glasses?”

That about sums up my ability to let go of technology I don’t need. I’m never ready to completely give it up.

JWH

Analog Reading in a Digital Age

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018

I used to be able to sit with my book for hours, lost in reading. Now I’m lucky if I can make myself sit in a chair and read a book for an hour or even thirty minutes. After years of digital reading, I’m craving old fashion books again.

reading in a digital age

How and what I read has changed in these digital times. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or the digital technology is changing me. Other factors come into play too, like having more content and greater variety. Or different ways to read – the printed page, the digital screen, or the audiobook.

I actually spend many hours reading every day, but it’s mostly off my PC, iPhone, iPad or Kindle. And most of those words aren’t from books. When I was younger, I was never much of a newspaper reader. I loved books and magazines. I could read for hours. I still read books, but I often don’t finish them, and I rarely read a magazine anymore. My mind has developed an impatience that leaves me too fidgety for books. Newspapers have long ago disappeared from my life, and magazines have almost faded into nonexistence. I don’t want books to go too.

Every day I spend at least an hour, maybe more reading the New York Times and Flipbook from my iPhone. Flipbook does gather content from magazines, newspapers, and websites from all over the world, so I’m actually reading articles that used to be presented in paper newspapers and magazines. But the experience is different.

In pre-digital times, my days had a smaller selection of articles to read. I would find something that interested me and generally read the entire piece. For some of my favorite magazines, I’d spend hours reading the whole issue. Now I flip past dozens of articles, maybe even a hundred, skim read ten to twenty, and hardly ever finish one. I usually add a few to Instapaper every day telling myself I’m going to go back and study them, but I seldom do.

I’ve become a vacuum cleaner of words rather than a reader. At least not in the old sense of reading. I still finish three or four books a month, but mostly via audio. I’m currently listening to Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s 26 hours and 20 minutes. The action is extremely slow paced, but I’m enjoying it very much. I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to read it. I did eyeball read Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit on my Kindle this week, but it was a mere 130 pages.

I finished Solnit’s book aching both to hear it, and to read a paper copy. Psychologically, I felt I wasn’t getting all of what Solnit had to say from the Kindle. I need to hear someone read it with the proper pacing, cadence, and inflections, plus I wanted to see the words on actual paper. I wanted to squeeze every idea out of her book, make notes, and distill all the points into one concise outline. I doubt I’ll ever take the time to do so. I did highlight passages in my Kindle and printed those out so I could discuss them with my friend Linda during our two-person book club. We discussed Men Explain Things To Me twice, but that wasn’t enough. What Solnit had to say was something I wanted to memorize, but sadly, the modern way we read means rushing on to something new.

With audio listening, I can get through very long books, including nonfiction and classic novels I never had the patience to read before. Plus I enjoy them far more. If I read Doomsday Book with my eyes I’d miss so much of its richness, especially all her work with middle English (it’s a time travel story). However, I recently discovered I was missing other aspects of novels by not reading with my eyes.

PBS is running a series now called The Great American Read. Each weekly episode has readers explain why they love their favorite books. I’ve listened to Jane Eyre, a book I would never have read with my eyes. The audiobook had a lush dramatic reading, and I admired the writing and story but didn’t really care for the characters. But when its fans were interviewed on PBS, they read a segment from the book, highlighting the words, and I realized why those fans identified and loved Jane Eyre the character.

I also saw that other readers like to savor sentences in fiction, something I don’t take the time to do. I love audiobooks because they are slow. When I was young I’d speed read through books anxious to find out what happens. I missed a lot. The slowness of audiobooks allows me to get so much more. But seeing the words of Jane Eyre on TV highlighted as a reader read them, I understood to get deeper into a book I needed to read with my eyes and go even slower.

Our technology allows us to feel we’re reading more, giving us the illusion that we’re learning more, but are we? Part of my problem is I buy far more books than I can ever read, and find far more articles each day than I can ever finish. The pressure to consume them all makes me rush by their words. Reading off the computer screen, iPhone screen, iPad screen, the Kindle screen allows me to feel like I’m mass-consuming information, but I’m not sure I’d call that reading anymore.

I love computers and technology. I have no doubts that it has enhanced my life greatly. But I’m realizing my brain can only process so much data per day. Sometimes I feel my aging brain is slowing down, but I’m not so sure. I feel much wiser at 66 than I did at 26. I know I’ve always been a skimmer over knowledge, that I’m a dilettante of learning. Digital technology gives us the illusion we’re more productive, but I don’t think it’s true.

I’m struggling with the psychology of reading. I’m discovering I need to read with both my eyes and ears and on paper, screen and headphones. That there isn’t one way to read. I’m beginning to buy my favorite books on Kindle, Audible and paper and feel the need to process the best books three times. Most books only need one “reading” but some need two or three. I’m also learning that I probably shouldn’t waste my reading hours on those one-time books anyway.

For fiction, I feel the first reading should be audio. Audio has the greatest impact if it’s read by a skilled dramatic narrator. The second reading should be on the Kindle so I can highlight passages, especially if I want to write about the book or discuss it with friends. But for longterm enjoyment, I feel I need to bond with a printed copy of the book, one that I actually admire for its cover, design, fonts, and paper.

For nonfiction, I feel it’s best to start with the Kindle edition, and then go to audio. I like a physical book to flip through randomly. I’ve always loved hardbacks, but I’m starting to think smaller trade paperbacks are nicer for flipping.

I don’t like big heavy books or books with tiny print. So any book that’s hard to hold or requires squinty-eyes to read I leave to audio or Kindle. The other day I almost bought a beautiful hardback edition of Poe’s complete works. It looked new but was only $3 used. But I realized I wouldn’t like holding it. I still regret not buying it, but it was the right decision.

For years now I’ve been buying my favorite books on audio and Kindle, but now I’m also wanting a copy to hold. The hold-in-my-hands copy must have a kind of charm, either a beautiful cover or a unique character. I’m thinking of thinning out my library so the books I keep are ones I loved to hold and read with my eyes. (Thank you Marie Kondo.)

I don’t know why this craving to read books has returned to me now. I don’t feel anti-technology. I would never give up audiobooks or Kindle reading. I guess what I’m learning is no matter how carefully I read a book, with whatever technology, I never get all it has to offer.

JWH

 

 

How Important is Screen Size to Television Watching?

by James Wallace Harris, Mondy, June 11, 2018

Some people love watching movies on their smartphone even though those film premiered on IMAX screens using Dolby Atmos speakers. Evidently, the essential quality of a film is in the storytelling. Television viewers used to watch widescreen Technicolor movies on nineteen inch black and white sets and still enjoyed them immensely.

So why should I worry about upgrading my TV to a larger screen and better sound?

Last night I watched a 1957 western, Night Passage, on a 56″ DLP television via a local over-the-air station called Grit TV. I had recorded it with my TiVo and it cut off the last few seconds. Luckily, I had a DVD copy to watch the ending. When I played the disc I was startled to discover this old western was in 2.35:1 widescreen and the color levels were completely different. When watching the over-the-air version, it didn’t feel like the aspect ratio of 4:3 of old TV pan and scan, because the frame was more rectangular. It had been cropped to be slightly widescreen in appearance.

Below is my way of faking what I’m talking about. I wish I could provide real screenshots, but this is close. I just cropped a widescreen scene with Brandon De Wilde and Jimmy Stewart to 400 x 300 pixels and converted it to black and white to imagine what 1950s TV might have been like (it would have been fuzzier). The second is a photo I found that feels more like the Grit TV version. I assume the third photo is the right aspect ratio.

Night-Passage-fake-4to3

Night Passage cropped

Night Passage widescreen

The thing is, I enjoyed the heck out of seeing this movie again. I especially enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The first time I watched this film was on a black and white television set — and I love it then too. I always remember it as a black and white movie even though it’s in color because of first seeing it on a black and white TV set. But when I looked at the DVD version, I felt like I had missed a significant portion of the film. The DVD widescreen view showed far more scenery, was much sharper and probably the color palette more accurate.

What artistic qualities do we miss from movies and television when we only focus on the storytelling? We could just read books instead if all we wanted was a story.

Would I have enjoyed the film more if I had watched the DVD from the beginning? I have dozens of my favorite westerns on DVD and Blu-ray, but quite often I watch them off of Grit TV. It’s just convenient.

I’ve been contemplating giving up the physical technology of CDs, DVDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray discs. 99% of the time I stream music or television. It would simplify my life if I got rid of all my discs.

I love the idea of minimalism, but what am I sacrificing by rejecting the higher resolution discs of my favorite movies, TV shows, and albums? For the most part, streaming music via Spotify isn’t that different from listening to CDs unless I’m concentrating. Streaming movies with Netflix and Amazon are almost as good as Blu-ray if I’m not concentrating.

Watching the DVD on my 56″ TV is probably as close as I can currently get to having seen Night Passage in the theater in 1957. That would be even truer if I had a larger television set. I assume the more I can recreate the cinematographer’s original vision, the more I can experience the original story to its fullest. But what are those extra dimensions beyond storytelling?

Visual and aural realism.

I was looking at TVs at Best Buy today, thinking I’d upgrade to a 65″ television. But my eyes loved the 75″ screens more, and I was blown away by an 83″ model. The bigger the screen, the more I felt like I was seeing reality. That’s also the difference between books and movies. Before movies, writers spent more words describing what readers would see. Such descriptions added realistic details. The better the author was at describing the world in details, the more readers felt like they were reading something based on truth.

Movies give verisimilitude to storytelling. The widescreen version of Night Passage made me feel Jimmy Stewart was actually in all those natural settings and not on a soundstage. When movies were black and white and had an unrealistic square aspect ratio, they were mostly filmed on sets and backlots. Those old films had a tinsel town feel. When we got Technicolor and widescreen, moviemakers went on locations around the world to give us more realism.

Would I experience art as more true-to-life if I built a home theater with a projector TV with a screen in the 100-120″ range? Probably. Is it needed? No. If I was watching a 4K nature documentary I’d certainly feel like I was there more than when watching a smaller set. It’s like when I play CDs and SACDs, I only hear the extra sound texture if I’m concentrating diligently.

It was when I watch a turtle swimming underwater on the largest sets a Best Buy that I noticed the details of the sand and plants it swam over. I then felt like I was there scuba diving. If I watched The Sweet Smell of Success, another 1957 film, I’d feel what it was like sitting in a glamorous smoky bar in New York City with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

If we watched Downton Abbey at an IMAX theater, the realism of the sets and costumes would be stunning compared to TV watching. Of course, when I tell my wife I want to get a giant screen television she thinks I’m crazy. Why spend so much more money when we already love our twelve-year-old 56″ television? Well, Susan isn’t a good judge of TV technology. She watches television while playing games on her laptop or using Facebook on her iPhone. She needs much less from a story to enjoy it.

The older I get the more I withdraw into my home. Our television set is the way we view the world and visual arts. Is it worth upgrading to 4K? If Night Passage was available on Blu-ray or 4K discs, should I buy them for that extra realism?

Should I give up over-the-air TV? MeTV shows old Perry Mason episodes cropped for modern widescreen TVs without any distortion. Perry never looked better. I tried to find a streaming version of Night Passage to compare, but it’s not available that way. Handmaid’s Tale is stunning to look at on a 56″ TV at 1080p, but what would it look like on a 75″ 4K set, or even projected to 120 inches?

Is wanting a humongous screen just crazy? I could give up all my high-resolution discs, and only live with convenient streaming on a modest 65″ television, but what would I be missing? I suppose someday streaming music and movies will have the same quality as discs and wall-size televisions will be affordable by all and we won’t have to worry about making such decisions.

JWH

 

 

 

Social Media Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 9, 2018

AFF_MarApr2018_400x570I’ve been reading the new March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I’ve found two stories we could call social media science fiction. I’ve read many other examples of this emerging sub-genre but can’t recall them at the moment. But I smell a trend.

Since I’ve been reading stories from Astounding Science Fiction, Analog’s previous title, from 50-80 years ago I can’t help but imagine what readers 50-80 years from now will think about these two stories.

The first story, “The Streaming Man” by Suzanne Palmer is about a fellow named Rohn who is an inventor of implantable medical monitors. For fun, Rohn programs these monitors to also play different musical instruments based on data from his body, so his body generates music and he puts that feed online. His unique compositions gather a large following of online listeners who become addicted to the music of his body. Rohn likes to interact with his followers via something like Twitter. His followers try to guess what Rohn is doing based on the music he makes. The story itself has other characters and complications but for us readers, this story tells us how creative the internet is and will be.

The second story, “Razzibot” by Rich Larson is about a fourteen-year-old girl, Marisol, receiving a Razzibot for her birthday. This device is a small AI driven drone that flies around Marisol filming her life for a live feed to the internet. Between Marisol’s need for followers, and the AI’s ability to always seek shots that flattery Marisol’s looks and appeal to the viewers’ voyeurism, the number of her followers grow and grow. Through the story, Marisol knows when she’s playing up to the camera, but also knows when she’s revealing too much of her personal life. The tale is about ego and technology.

These two stories are very engaging. Besides good writing, I assume their relevant topics would make them appealing reads to most people. Both of these stories feel very possible. In fact, the science might already exist to allow them to happen. The stories are so close to now I have to wonder if we should even call them science fiction. They could be considered contemporary social commentary. If a reader in 2068 reads them what will they think? I can easily imagine future readers believing these stories were realistic fiction about 2018.

That’s the thing. When I read technology and science news I often feel that I’m already living in a science fictional future. I also find it really hard to imagine the next fifty years experiencing as much change as I have in the last fifty years. It’s one thing for Dick Tracy comics to imagine a wrist phone back in 1946 that’s a lot like an Apple smartwatch, but it’s a whole other thing for us to imagine what people will be using in 2090. All the easy to imagine inventions have been fictionally invented.

That makes it hard for science fiction writers. Coming up with the idea of making music from monitoring bodily functions is clever. Thinking up an always-on selfie robot is good too, but less original. They already have drone selfie cams on the market. Building in the AI to make users internet interesting is not such a stretch. SF writers probably have a hard time keeping up with real science and technology.

Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radios go back 72 years. It wasn’t called a phone. His creator didn’t imagine cell phones. Portable two-radios were already getting smaller back then, so it wasn’t a big leap to imagine one on the wrist. We’d be far more impressed if Chester Gould had imagined a cellular phone system or a computer network.

Science fiction often imagines too much, thinking up magical inventions, like teleporters, brain downloading, holodecks, or spaceships that can make interstellar flights in a few hours. We know computer chips are getting smaller, but should we expect smartphones to get smaller too? They were, but then they got larger. There’s a practical limit to what’s useful to hold. I figure most people want to over-imagine things and suggest people in 2090 will have smartphones built into their heads, and thus providing techno-telepathy.

I find Blu-tooth headsets annoying to wear and use, and I don’t see many people sporting them like years ago. And if you’ve ever talked to Alexa or Siri you know that there are limitations in doing things verbally. I suppose we could wear necklaces that are phones which operate by voice commands and have auxiliary tablet screens for reading. But I find hearing people talk on their cellphones annoying, so picturing a world where everyone looks like they are talking to themselves and not holding anything will be even more aggravating. The other day I saw a man walking down the street shouting angrily. I told myself, “I hope he’s on a phone.”

There are countless implications to everyone having a smartphone, especially one tied to our physiology. What happens to privacy? What happens to crime when everyone’s location can be tracked in great detail? There are endless stories there, but what happens to the old-fashioned mystery novel? We’d always know who-did-it. Have you ever noticed how many classic movies would have had their plots invalidated if the characters had cell phones?

Both “The Streaming Man” and “Razzibot” assume technology will make certain individuals more interesting than others. But if everyone has the same technology will that be true? Marisol is interesting because her friends don’t have a Razzibot. Rohn is interesting because he’s the only person making music with his body.

I’m wondering if technology will eventually even out and a return to privacy will become compelling. Today I read “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned” by Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. Manjoo got better news by getting his news from slower news sources. I would think some science fiction writers might work on imagining a backlash to more technology.

I know I’m getting irritated by so many people calling me every day. Maybe we’ve become too accessible. Which is the driving force of the plot lines of these two short stories.

JWH

Tim’s Vermeer–Art History Meets Technology

Penn and Teller’s new documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, is about Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, a man with no drawing skills, deciding to paint a picture equal to one by Johannes Vermeer by using technology to aid him.  Jenison was inspired by David Hockney who wrote Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which developed the Hockney-Falco thesis.  Basically, Jenison attempts to completely recreate a Vermeer to test this theory, and David Hockney appears in the film to judge his results.  Jenison decides to paint The Music Lesson, and goes so far as to recreate Vermeer’s studio in a warehouse, use the same handmade pigments Vermeer used, and grind his his own lenses to exclude modern technological advantages.   The film is about the years it took to prove a Vermeer like painting could be made using the Hockney-Falco like techniques.

I found the film dazzling for several reasons.  First, Tim Jenison is an inspiration for anyone with big ambitions.  Second, and most importantly, I loved seeing the Vermeer paintings blown up to the size of theater screens.  Third, the film shows just how tedious it is to paint a picture.  Fourth, it’s just so damn far out to see how technology works.  It really doesn’t matter if you believe the hypothesis or not, because the documentary is a wonderful example of how inventors works.

Here is the original Vermeer.  Click to see larger version.

the music lesson

Here is Jenison’s painting.  It’s different because the studio and models he used were different.

jenison-the-music-lesson

The trouble with the hypothesis is it can’t be proved.  We have plenty of contemporary painters who paint dazzling photo-realistic paintings that don’t use similar optical technology.  Tim’s Vermeer’s feat of invention just proves that photo-realistic painting can be painted by a non-artist using technology.  Essentially, Tim Jenison became a very slow photographic emulsion.

The hypothesis contends that beyond a certain point the eye can only see so much and the Vermeer paintings represent something beyond human capabilities.  I’m afraid they are misjudging the capabilities of the mind.  Just study Oliver Sacks.

Look at this video about Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to see, remember and draw.

 

Or look at what modern painters can do, such as Alyssa Monks.

monks_smirked_450

 

Or watch this painting of Morgan Freeman being made on an iPad by Kyle Lambert.

If you want to know more, please read:

JWH – 4/2/14