Memories of a Not-So Golden Age

Ever since the economic downturn that followed the popping of the housing bubble in 2007, I have seen many people who are nostalgic for the economic boom of the 1990’s, and to a lesser extent 60’s and 50’s. Nowadays those decade were the “Golden Age” when the entire nation as a whole was becoming more prosperous, and there appeared to be no limits to what technology could achieve. However, after the most severe economic crisis since the 30’s it seemed like our economy stopped working. I have experienced this for myself since I have struggled with getting a proper job these past few years. But did the economy of the 90’s, 60’s and 50’s actually made life much better?

At a very naive level, of course. The 50’s and 60’s saw an economy that was growing, with relatively low unemployment and relatively high wages. This was less true of the 80’s and 90’s, but at least with the continuing growth in the stock market people had hope that their savings will continue to grow.

But this incredible economic growth caused all kinds of social problems. One major problem was overwork. During the 90’s I remember hearing a commercial (I think it was a public service announcement) which included a description of a man who worked 3 jobs to support his family. Nowadays when I remember that commercial I simply marvel at the fact that it was possible for a man to find 3 jobs, but back then I felt pity that the man had to work so hard. People back then were well-paid, but were also stressed from the pressures of having to work long hours. In extreme cases this lead to psychological problems, high blood pressure and heart attacks.

The overwhelming incentive to choose work over family and friends caused all sorts of strains in personal relationships. (This is true even now, but since the economy is not as good fewer people have careers so this is less of a problem.) From personal experience, I didn’t get to know my father very well because he worked so much overtime at his job. This was fairly typical for someone who worked in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. He was lucky in that his marriage didn’t fall apart, but only because my mom tolerated his dedicated to his career. (I bring this up because I saw a television documentary which explained that the founders of Silicon Valley had a high divorce rate.)

The consumerist culture of that time was also a problem. In order to have a strong economy you need a strong consumerist class to demand the goods you are making. However, consumerism also encourages a materialist culture that values commodities over human relationships. Children and teenagers today were (are still are) given a lot of money by parents who didn’t have a lot of time to spend with them. Many people were concerned that from an early age children are taught to value money over relationships.

As people get wealthier, they need to rely less on each other. In some instances this may be good, but it also erodes community spirit and encourage selfishness. An example of this comes from writer Douglas Rushkoff. He grew up in a neighborhood that was relatively poor. But even in their poverty, his neighbors often had barbecues where everyone contributed a little bit of food. Everybody ensured that everyone else was fed, and this created a sense of communal solidarity. As his family got richer they moved to a richer neighborhood, and this spirit of helping out your neighbor disappeared. Instead of cooperation there was competition, over who can afford the largest barbecue grill and the finest steaks.

I am not advocating that everybody should be in poverty, having been poor I know that it is a very unpleasant experience. What I am saying is that the nostalgia for a better times has lead us to ignore the problems inherent to our economic system for creating prosperity. Just fixing the economy so that everybody can have a well-paying job is a very flawed solution to our problems. Otherwise we would find ourselves living very stressful and lonely lives.

Part 1: The Death of Ivan

This is an excerpt from my novel, Girlfriend in a Box

I had a very special relationship with my father, Ivan. The memories of him in my mind are still strong, especially the times when he took me out fishing. There was a small pond about a fifteen minute drive from our house. Being wide and relatively shallow it harbored few fishes, and our catches usually consisted of pieces of garbage, and if we were lucky we would catch some tiny catfish so foul-smelling that no sane person will try to eat. Nonetheless I enjoyed the placid quietude of the lake and the surrounding environment. We spent much time lazily laying about on the shores watching cyclists rolling in front of the wooded landscape that provides a backdrop to this picture postcard scene.

Few people fished that lake, it may have to do with the fact that the wildlife and gaming department had closed it for that purpose. But since my dad knows the police and game warden well and was a renowned person in our community, nobody cared that we fished there. Of course we never took home anything we captured, dad used it as an exercise to expose me to the outdoors, and consequently I always had beautifully tanned arms almost year-round.

Every time after we finished fishing, except for those deathly cold months in the heart of winter, my dad would take me out for ice cream. My favorite flavor, the one I almost invariably chose, was vanilla, the most cliché flavor in the world. (You might think I would enjoy more exciting flavors, however the story of my life is not a novel, so every minuscule detail doesn’t have to hold the reader in rapt attention.) After finishing licking my ice cream cone, the melted streams of white fluid would trickle down the corners of my mouth, which somehow always brings a smile to my dad’s face. He said that I look cute that way.

Unfortunately, as time passed my father and I grew apart. From about the time of my middle school all the way through university I decided to focus more on studying and less attention on him. To be honest I was growing aloof from everybody, not just him. When I find myself amidst a crowd of strangers, such as in a classroom, I usually my head down hoping nobody would be paying attention to my business. What kept me from completely lapsing into despondency was the love of nature my dad instilled in me. When I was indoors doing homework and studying for exams I still enjoy looking outside the windows at the trees, grass and birds, they have such an ability to calm my nerves.

My father died a few years ago and now all that is left of him are those pleasant memories he left behind in my mind. I can’t remember precisely which day it was, probably some time in September since the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn color, and walking to my class the air was saturated with dust kicked up by the leaf-blower. After entering the lecture hall I found John sitting at his usual spot and decided to join him. John is the only friend I made since attending college, and we had grown close enough that we took the same courses just to be in each other’s company. It also helps that he happened to be the same major as me.

When the lecture started the professor had begun speaking about artificial neural networks. 10 minutes into his lecture I heard a beep from my cell phone notifying me of a new text message. I felt embarrassed because I thought everyone else heard the notification too, but then realized no one else could hear these sounds because they were coming directly from my neural implants.

Using the electrodes implanted into my brain I entered the password into my phone without moving a muscle. It was a very clumsy experience because I was not used to this completely new interface, but after a few tries I succeeded. I saw a message from my mother in the overwhelmingly large screen that appeared in my field of vision. It was one of the strangest messages she ever sent because all the letters are capitalized, “PLEASE COME HOME IMMEDIATELY” followed by a URL. I followed the link, which lead to an article on a university website, title reading: “Ivan Walska, robotics pioneer, dies at age 47 from a heart attack.”

When I first read the article I thought it must be some kind of a joke. First, people don’t usually drop dead at at this age, and second, the last time I saw him he was still healthy, perhaps out of shape but who wouldn’t be at this age unless they were taking steroids? I immediately checked to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s day, then started to read the details. I still remembered that false death announcements are sometimes issued by mistake, but the further I read into the article the more details emerged that made it seem genuine. For example, it listed the exact date (yesterday) and cause of death, which would be details that would be missed if it were an accidental “leaking” of a prefabricated obituary. He wasn’t nearly famous enough to have had a prefabricated obituary, but I considered all possibilities at this point since announcement of his death was such a surprise. Being so engrossed reading the article I paid no attention to the lecture.

As the realization that my father had died sank in into my mind my body slowly slumped into my chair as a feeling of helplessness overtook me. I pressed my hand on my chest to ease a feeling of numbness where my heart used to be. My eyes were affixed to the article announcing my father’s death, it seemed like the only thing my mind could respond to. But at some deep level my mind was not able to accept this new fact, I almost expected to be awaken at any moment and discover that it had just been a nightmare. I started to cry but was worried I might attract attention from John who was sitting beside me, so I walked out of the lecture hall. Nobody, except for John, noticed me walking out of the room. He stared at me with eyes that looked like headlights as he followed me out of the exit.

I wanted to find a place where I can cry alone, fortunately there’s one building on campus almost completely devoid of people, the library. Ever since all books and documents became digital they became a superfluous institution that are only kept around for nostalgic reasons. I walked past a small garden to the entrance of the building, and upon entering the emptiness of the library was strikingly eerie. It was as if the place had been struck by that mythical weapon known as a “neutron bomb,” a device designed to kill humans but leave buildings intact. I began walking deep into the vast shelves of books endlessly aligned like rows of corn in a field to find a small corner where John could not possibly find me so I could cry properly.

Suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder, I jumped in surprised, then turned around and realized it was John. He looked even more startled than I was, and clutching onto his chest as though having a heart attack he said in a very apologetic voice, “Sorry, sorry that I sneaked up on you without warning.”

“It’s okay,” I said in a tranquil voice, then lowered my head to avoid eye contact with him.

He put his hand on my chin and lifted my head so he could look into my eyes, then asked, “Have you been crying? Your eyeliner look smudged.”

“No, it was just something in my eyes,” I said, shaking my head vigorously in order to persuasively convince John of my denial, but I can tell by the expression on his face he didn’t believe me.

“Both of your eyes?” he asked incredulously.

“Why not? There’s a lot of dirt blowing around since the wildfires last week,”

I was about to leave John when he grabbed me by my left arm, peered into my eyes with a stern look, and said, “I know something is wrong with you because you have never stormed out of a lecture like that. I can tell that something is bothering you because you look unusually sad, but I don’t know what. Please tell me so I can stop worrying.”

John’s forcefulness was making me withdraw into myself, but I knew he would not be satisfied until I confessed, so I said while evasively looking away from his face, “Oh nothing, my father has died, that’s all.”

A gloomy expression suddenly came over his face, he immediately switched toward an apologetic mood and said, “Oh my god, sorry that I didn’t understand. Will you be alright?”

I shrugged my shoulders, but did not give a verbal response.

“I’m worried about you because you never express your emotions openly. Looking at you from the outside it’s impossible to tell how you feel, as far as I know you might be suicidal. I don’t want to find you unconscious lying on the floor overdosing on painkillers like last time…” As soon as he mentioned my last suicide attempt memories of the knife slashing the back of my hand started flashing in my mind and I immediately broke into a stream of tears, sobbing uncontrollably. John panicked thinking that he has made the situation worse, and immediately pressed his chest against my face, allowing me to use his shirt as a handkerchief.

“It’s alright, it’s alright, everything will be alright,” he said, almost chanting the phrase like a mantra as he stroked my long hair in an attempt to comfort me. After I became more emotionally stable he wiped my face of tears and excessive makeup, then said, “Sorry that I’m so demanding on you but it’s because I am concerned about you. You seem unfazed by your father’s death and yet cry at the drop of a hat when I mentioned your past suicide attempt. I suspect you are hurting deep on the inside but are unwilling to express it, yet you wouldn’t be honest with me about this. I just don’t want you to…you know, make a bad decision that will cause harm to you.”

“You mean kill myself?” I asked.

He appeared puzzled, then said, “You see, you did it again! You concealed your true emotions underneath this artificial nonchalance. I wish you can be honest with me about your feelings so I don’t have to worry so much.” He took a deep breath to calm himself down, then said, “I don’t mean to be overbearing on you, I’m just very concerned. Would you mind if I take you back to our apartment?” I nodded, he held my hand as we left the library together.

John was relieved when we returned to our apartment, that way he could keep an eye over me to make sure I was doing well. When I returned to my room I simply laid in my bed with my face planted on the pillow in a torpor, occasionally checking the phone to make sure that my father was still dead. Even as the sun began setting, casting its amber glow in my room I did not turn on the light as it didn’t seem worth the effort. Finally the phone rang, I waited until about the second ring to answer, and my mother on the line.

“Darling, did you get the news about dad’s death?”

I began rising from the bed, my hair disheveled and eyes drooping, my spirit still weighing me down. But I had to present a stoic face in front of my mother so gathering my torrents of emotions and put them away while talking to her.

“Mom, why did you text me about dad’s death instead of calling me?”

“Sorry,” mom answered, her voice sounding rushed, “force of habit, I supposed. Listen, we just have planned the funeral, it will be on Saturday because that’s when I can organize everyone to be there. Well, not everyone, Uncle Theo couldn’t be there because he is arguing an important case in court, but everyone who we want to invite, as well as a few important people, will be there. You better reserve your plane ticket now, or otherwise there might not be any left by the time you show up at the airport.”

“Okay, do you have anything else to say?”

“Not right now, I’ll be too busy organizing the funeral over the next few days to talk to you. I hope you’re doing well, you’re taking the news well, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said resolutely.

“Then, bye,” mom said before cutting off the phone call without hesitation. As soon as the call ended I sank back into bed, my will to live plunged right back down and did not go back up even as I drifted off into sleep.

New Novel in the Pipeline

For those of you who read my blog and are familiar with the novel Caroline, I am proud to announce that I will be posting portions of another novel I have been working on. Unlike the previous work I have put up, it will be science fiction, although with some elements of comedy. I am not sure what I will call the novel, but let me give you the outline of the first few chapters: Robbie Walska’s father built a robot named “Alice” which he has taken a liking to. Robbie wants Alice to be his girlfriend but since she is incapable of experiencing emotions, this is impossible. Robbie resolves to program Alice with emotions, and at this point everything hits the fan.

I am not sure when I will post portions of this novel, but expect it to be sometime later this week.

Inspiration

One of the major topics that I come across as I dove into the craft of writing is the idea of “inspiration.” Some writers have difficulty getting inspired to write, but that has never been my problem. Inspiration for writing has always come to be extremely easily, I get inspired while watching television, in the shower, standing in the check-out line at the supermarket, or silently contemplating some obscure math problem while in a bout of insomnia. When I do get inspired to write, I usually go into a mental state where I become so absorbed by an idea that words pour out of me freely without me having to put any conscious effort.

The problem isn’t that I don’t get inspired to write, it is that inspiration is a fickle resource. Sometimes there would be weeks or months where I receive no inspiration, and I stare at a the computer screen with glazed eyes unable to write a word. But the real problem with inspiration is that it often tells me what to write instead of the other way around.

Sometimes I would like to work on a science fiction novel, but all that comes out of my pen is a poem about the dreadful weather outside. (I rarely write using pen anymore, but the expression is so ingrained that it’s difficult to use any other word.) Sometimes I want to write a poem about something profound that has happened in my life, but all that could come out is the first chapters of a comedic novel. I even once wrote a 2,000 word introduction to quantum mechanics in the middle of a romance novel even though it didn’t make sense.

Some writers recommend that you forget inspiration, and simply treat writing as work that must be done like cleaning the house. I think that through a routine of writing everyday a person can obtain inspiration, but I think inspiration is a vital ingredient in writing and any creative activity. I can tell that the quality of my poetry is greatly affected by my level of inspiration. But the best argument, at least for me, on why inspiration is important is that inspiration makes writing fun. When I am compelled by an inspirational idea or vision to do work, it is no longer work but an exciting adventure through my imagination. To strip creative work of any inspirational qualities would make it regular old boring work.

Unfortunately, being inspired doesn’t necessarily mean being able to produce good work. After writing a piece of work, I still find it necessary to go back and fix the language I used, rewrite certain scene so they are easier to read, and discard scenes. I find such work not very inspirational, and the only thing that drove me was my sense of determination. Despite this, without a core of an inspired vision I don’t think my writing would be as interesting as it is.

Cat in Summer

Green leaves shine like polished jade
Under the warm Sun’s glaring glow
A cat reposed beneath the cool shade
Sleep in peace as gentle winds blow

Lying on the ground with restful eyes
On a bed of blood-red blossoms
His head beneath the song-filled skies
Rise from sleep with regal pride

The Future of Books in the Age of the Internet

When I was in high school, our English teacher had us read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. For those of you not familiar with the book, it is about a dystopian future world in which books are considered subversive and are burned. In place of books is television, radio and other forms of electronic entertainment, which lull the general public into a false sense of happiness as the world around them descends into nuclear war.

The book was the best expression of the sentiment that new forms of entertainment developed during the modern age (namely radio, movies, television, and more recently video games and the Internet) are somehow dangerous. Ray Bradbury was not the first one who had this sentiment, in fact it goes all the way back to the early 20th century when movies were the newest form of entertainment. Back then many intelligent people considered movies to be either lacking in artistic merit, appealing to the dumbest demographic, containing too much sex and violence, or all of the above. Every new innovation in entertainment seemed to bring a new wave of criticism along similar lines, be it television, video games or the Internet.

Throughout the 20th century, the response to each new form of entertainment had always been the same: encourage people to read books. This is the basic idea behind Fahrenheit 451, a Gnostic vision where we are constantly trapped and deceived by all these new forms of entertainment and only literature can liberate us and make us see the truth. I still remember during my childhood our teachers constantly encouraged us to read novels. Even though I didn’t enjoy it, it felt like a duty I had to obey, like eating all my vegetables. (This is ironic, because I actually like eating vegetables.) Looking back on it I now understand why teachers placed such an emphasis on reading books, it was a bulwark against the “bad influence” of “New Media” which supposedly degraded us morally and intellectually. (From now on I will use “New Media” to refer to radio, television, movies, video games and the Internet. It will be more convenient because I don’t want to say those same five words over and over again.)

Unfortunately there is a problem with this approach: it is fundamentally wrong. Books aren’t inherently good, it is the content in them which make them good or bad. I have read way too many terrible books and have seen way too many good television shows to know that it’s true. (Reading the Wikipedia article on Fahrenheit 451, even Ray Bradbury realized this fact.) I think the result of all this fetishization of books throughout the 20th century was to implant a sense of guilt that we haven’t read enough books instead of developing our taste for good content no matter the technology delivering it.

The truth is there was never a time in the past where everyone was reading Jane Austen novels and were inspired to cultivate refined manners, speak elegant English and dance in fancy balls. People in the past did read novels that are now considered classics, but they were almost always a small elite. Part of the reason was that throughout most of history literacy rate was low. Even when the vast majority of people became literate during the 19th century, most of them did not read “serious” literature (like Jane Austen) most of the time. Instead they read “dime novels”, which were usually sensationalized stories of crime and adventure, filled with so much gratuitous violence, scandalous behavior and sometimes sex that they wouldn’t be out of place on today’s television, movies or comic books.

The reactionary response of privileging books over the “New Media” may seem misguided, but it is understandable if you know the history behind it. It is not unusual for a society to take a long time to adapt to innovation, especially information technologies. Believe it or not, after writing was invented there were many people who were against this practice. The famous philosopher Socrates refused to write down anything, and thought spoken language was superior to written language in many ways. This distrust of writing existed in other cultures as well. In Hinduism, the Vedas were transmitted orally for thousands of years before being written down, despite the fact they had a written language. There was something similar in Judaism with the Talmud and Mishnah.

However, people eventually came to trust writing more and more and their memories less and less, and eventually we come to the point where writing is seem as more dependable than memory, and writing became privileged, at least in the West. (Amazingly some cultures today still privilege the oral tradition to writing. I went to elementary school in China for a few years, and studying Chinese literature meant memorizing long passages from the textbook. This seems strange to someone who received a Western education, but it makes perfect sense to a culture who believes the spoken word is more powerful than the written word.)

But the transition between an oral culture and a written culture took hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years. The transition from a written culture to the “New Media” happened much more abruptly and unexpectedly. From the middle of the 19th to the late 20th century there were a multitude of different information technologies. First it was the telegraph, followed by the telephone, phonograph, radio, cinema, television, video games, virtual reality and finally the Internet.

We did not have the privilege of hundreds of years to adjust to the new technologies, so our society panicked. (Our society did not actually panic. The vast majority of people welcomed the new information technologies, only curmudgeons and some intellectuals were bothered by it. But because many of them are influential people, they greatly affected the way we think about the subject.) Its reaction was to retreat and go back to what it knows best, the ancient technology of the printing press. They exalted books and encouraged young people to read more, as though they need encouragement. (Ironically young people are reading more, it’s just that most of it is Facebook or Buzzfeed instead of Jane Austen. Excuse me for constantly picking on Jane Austen, but she is the epitome of writers I don’t like.)

Knowing all this, what is the future of books? There is bad news, but also good news. The bad news is that I believe it will be more and more difficult for books as a stand-alone product to earn a profit. The main reason will be that it would be increasingly difficult to compete with television, movies, video games and the Internet. But there is a silver lining, namely that at least with the case of television and movies, many are dependent on books as their source material. The truth is writing talent is required to create good content in the “New Media”, except for video games. The problem then lies in how to harness talent of book writers in this new technological environment.