How Socrates Predicted the Internet

Before getting into my subject, I would like to pause to salute those men and women who serve and have served in our armed forces. Today, more than ever, their service is dangerous and all the more necessary. Thank you all.

I am old-fashioned and not ashamed of it. Trends that I see among my children (who are in their 30s and 40s) and among the college students I teach concern me. None more so than their reliance on electronic devices and their unwillingness to memorize/remember anything.

As much as I try not to, I sometimes fall into the trap. Because I now have a smart phone, I don’t know my children’s phone numbers. All I have to do is press an icon to call them. (I started to say “dial” them, but that concept is antediluvian.) And yet I can remember the phone number of the girl I dated in eighth grade—MA9-7462—and my 12th-grade sweetheart—244-3149.

We don’t need to remember such things anymore. Someone has said that smart phones and Google make bar bets and arguments obsolete and make us stupid. We can get information instantly, so we don’t have to remember anything. But everybody can get that information, and how do we know if it’s accurate? Wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone at any time. Anyone can create a “fact” on any site on the web.

A student recently asked me about how a man in ancient Greece would propose marriage to a woman by throwing an apple to her. I asked him where he got that idea. He said it came off a Snapple cap. Of course, one of the first places I look for solid, well-researched information.

I did some searching and found several sites that passed this nugget along as fact. None of them were academic sites, but one did refer to “Plato, Epigram VII” as the source. Now we’re getting somewhere. In his biography of Plato, Diogenes Laertius inserts several snippets of poetry allegedly written by the philosopher. Scholarly opinion of their authenticity is divided. One of the epigrams does say, “I throw an apple to you and, if indeed you are willing to love me, then receive it and let me taste your virgin charms. But if you are otherwise minded (may the gods forbid) take this very apple and see how short-lived all beauty is.”

But here’s the kicker. The poem is dedicated to a young man named Agathon and has nothing to do with marriage. The author just wants to shag the young fellow. The whole apple-throwing image no doubt comes from the story of the Judgment of Paris. The goddess Eris (Discord) tossed an apple into a wedding party, to which she had not been invited. It was labeled “For the Fairest.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each claimed it. Paris, son of the king of Troy, was appointed to judge the beauty contest. Long story short, the Trojan War. Anyone in ancient Greece would have recognized the allusion in this poem. Today most people would probably think of “Trojan War” as a dispute over condoms.

No Greek man could have proposed marriage to a woman in this fashion. In that society marriages were arranged between families. The bride (usually age 14 or 15) and the groom (usually age 30+) had probably never laid eyes on each other before the wedding. Greek women did not stroll around in the streets, ready to catch flying fruit, unless they were prostitutes.

What does all this have to do with Socrates and the internet? In Plato’s Phaedrus (274Eff) Socrates tells the story of the god Theuth inventing writing. When Theuth shows his invention to the king of Egypt, he claims, “Here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory. I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” But the king replied, “Your affection for your invention has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it. They will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own . . . .You provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

I cannot think of a better description of many people I know who derive most of their information from the internet.

Socrates goes on to say, “Writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every word roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not.” [my emphasis]

There—not quite in a nutshell—is the fundamental weakness of the internet and of our system based on it. Socrates the philosopher, in this case, sounds more like the Socrates the prophet.

When less really is more

A few days ago—four to be exact—we put in what is going to be my smallest vegetable garden ever, not counting years when I had none at all.  The usual row of Blue Lake pole beans. Two green scallop squash plants instead of a sprinkling of seeds that degenerates to three or four or five plants. . Three beefsteak tomatoes, instead of five or six. And the three-year-old chard, much thinned and moved to another corner of the raised bed. That’s it.

It was either cut the quantity or put in cactus.

The tomatoes and the squash are already stretching out their arms, reveling in the space. Perfectly green and perfectly formed. Yesterday I noticed that several of the bean plants were breaking through. Today, only day four after the planting, there’s a solid row of them. And a half dozen volunteers in odd places.

In past years I’ve tried to jam too much into the 8X10 box. Getting to the plants on my tippy-toes, stumbling, mangling. For that matter, I’ve had entire decades where I’ve tried to jam too much into life and the result was pretty much the same. Tippy-toes. Mangling.

Why didn’t I ever notice that I don’t write  books that way? My first drafts are sparse. Not much more than a handful of beans. The book grows in rewrite. I’ve got plenty of space between the rows. Plenty of room to stretch out my arms. I can walk through the paragraphs without tripping over a semicolon.

I wonder how far I can stretch this metaphor. Will I have a better garden and better books, too? A better life in all aspects? Nah. Just less frustration in the garden and a really good excuse to say that the drought has done me a favor.

Visiting Peyton Place

Peyton PlaceLea Wait, here, admitting that I just read Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place for the first time.

Yes, it was published when I was only ten, back in 1956, but I certainly heard about it then, and afterward. After all — it was a scandalous bestseller. I read Lady Chatterly’s Lover when I was twelve (my grandmother’s paperback copy, clearly and excitingly printed “Banned in Boston”! on the front), so, if anything, it’s reputation would have made it more enticing. But somehow my family (and local library) considered it “trash.” Not worth reading. I don’t remember seeing copies, despite its notoriety.

A few years later the movie version of Peyton Place was filmed in Camden, Maine, just up the coast from where I live. I didn’t see the movie, either. I don’t remember missing it.

But recently I saw a reference to Peyton Place in a book on writing. It was cited as having excellent pacing and plot, and characters who were believable New Englanders. I decided only sixty years after it was published, that I had to read it.

And – yes. I liked it. It wasn’t trash. Those horrible descriptive sex scenes I somehow thought were in the book? Not a one. Although a peak through a window gives us a glimpse of the rape and incest one teenaged girl must endure. Honestly – pretty tame stuff by today’s standards. Yes, there are awakenings, and domestic violence. Secrets behind middle-class doors. But, rather than being shocking, the plot seemed to me very realistic.  All families have secrets. And in a small town … people know some of them.

Peyton Place is a long book, but a “fast read.” The sort book groups gather to dissect.

It is almost  a sociological study of a small town and the relationships of the classes within that town.

Peyton Place.Worth  a read. And a visit.

Deep Time Eyes

By K.K. Beck

I am sitting in the train ready to leave King Street Station in Seattle, heading south on the Coast Starlight to visit my grandchildren in Klamath Falls, Oregon. While I was waiting in the station, I spent a lot of time looking up at the white plaster ceiling with its jubilant Beaux Arts embellishments—big rosettes with a vaguely Renaissance feel. There is a sort of balcony running around the waiting area like box seats in an opera house, and large gilt letters read “Tickets” and “Baggage.” There are Grecian columns and soft grey marble walls with a horizontal green stripe in twinkly jade and gold, and lots more of that optimistic, joyful architectural detail from the turn of the last century, ransacked from lots of previous centuries.

For a long time, the station had been allowed to go to rack and ruin. A creepy smoke-stained suspended ceiling of Styrofoam hid the amazing ceiling, and various cheap plywood add-ons gave it the look of a bad DIY basement rumpus room, but now it’s all been restored. This all makes me very happy, because I am kind of a geeky time traveler and get a huge thrill imagining how something looked back in its heyday.

King Street Station is a good place to do this, and because my family has lived in Seattle since the 1890s or so, and because I am one of those local history bores, I can never go to this station without imagining a murder that took place here in 1906. It was the second of two killings that were called the Oregon Love Cult murders. Hans Edmund Creffield—an unprepossessing but apparently charismatic cult leader from Corvallis, Oregon, who was, like most cult leaders, having his way with the women and girls in the cult, who called themselves the Brides of Christ—had been shot dead on a Seattle street by George Mitchell, the outraged brother of one of Creffield’s devotees.

Mitchell had followed his little sister Esther’s defiler up from Oregon, done the deed and turned himself in. A sympathetic Seattle jury let him off on the grounds that he was understandably crazy when he pulled the trigger, but he was sane enough right after the trial to take the train back home to Oregon. The victim, characterized in the local press as “a human monster” and “a reptile,” and by a witness for George Mitchell as “a human vampire,” hadn’t been too popular. But the sister whose honor had been avenged remained loyal to Creffield and gunned down her brother as he was about to board the train home. (You can read the whole story in an article I wrote about his case here.)

Time travel can be very disconcerting when you are old enough to remember your home town as it was many decades ago. I see a condominium complex in my neighborhood and remember the McDonald’s that used to be there when my children were little, and the old neighborhood bar called The Bounty (it was shaped like a boat with portholes for windows) that was on the site when I was a child. I tend to give people directions like “Turn left where the old video store used to be. Now, my grown children—in their thirties—get cranky when things from their childhood get torn down and replaced. Abby Adams, the charming wife of the late, great crime writer Donald E. Westlake, grew up in Greenwich Village and was still living there many years later. She told me she had the same unsettling double vision—seeing what’s there now and what was there them at the same time.

I found myself doing this in a book I wrote called Tipping the Valet—which will be published by Perseverance Press this September. Some of it is set in a Seattle neighborhood called Ballard that used to be a small town of its own with a shingle mill and a working waterfront. Now, condominiums are replacing the old maritime businesses, and young kids who write code for Amazon have replaced the Norwegian fishermen who lived there. I cherish the remaining corners here and there that provide time travel opportunities, such as the fishing trawlers that loom up from the water next to a supermarket parking lot where I sometimes park. As I wrote the scenes set in Ballard, my own crotchety voice kept bursting into the narrative, waxing sentimental about the old days—some of which I don’t even remember personally.

I mostly reined myself in. I am trying not to let this time travel habit and related desire to blather on to young newcomers how it used to be around here infect my work – or my life. I remind myself that things get better as well as worse. Back in the day, I wouldn’t have been able to get the New York Times delivered to my doorstep every Sunday morning. There was no Trader Joe’s. And people didn’t care enough to restore the old King Street station. What is now the local PBS station had nothing but University of Washington professors writing on a blackboard while teaching math or Spanish in front of a stationary camera, and we called it “educational TV.”

As I write this in the observation car on the train, a volunteer from the National Park Service is giving a tour and informs the passengers that Mount Rainier, a local now-dormant volcanic landmark, used to be 2,000 feet taller than it is now until 6,000 years ago when it blew its top, setting off a 450-feet-high wave of mud that traveled fifty miles an hour and filled up a huge part of Puget Sound, transforming it into a flat valley. Of course, that valley used to have charming little farms and now there are strip malls and Outback restaurants, but I’m trying not to think about that.

Things change all the time, and I’m working on developing what environmental biologists call “deep time eyes.” It’s hard to believe, for example, that humans were already living in the San Francisco Bay area before there was a bay. All they saw where the bay is now was a river. If they were around now, they’d probably be complaining about how different everything is.

Writing Crime Fiction Changes Your POV Forever

I’ve been publishing mysteries since the 90s and whether I want to or not, I often figure out a twist in a thriller or mystery without even trying–especially if it’s a movie or show.  I just can’t stop that part of my mind from working even if I want to be an ordinary audience member.  And something about seeing it rather than reading it makes the upcoming twist much more obvious to my writer’s mind.

Recently fans of Scandal went berserk when a hero of the show, Jake Ballard, was stabbed and left for dead, and the preview for the next week showed his bloody body laid out on a table, with one of the show’s character’s, Quinn, yelling that he was dead.  Even though I was emotionally caught up in the surprise attack where Jake was viciously stabbed, as soon as it was over, I knew for sure that he wasn’t dead.  I blogged about it for The Huffington Post while the Twitterverse and Facebook erupted in disbelief and rage. The mystery writer in me knew that when writers want someone indisputably dead, that person’s throat is cut deeply to make sure they die ASAP or they’re stabbed in the head like a zombie ditto or in the heart.  Jake was stabbed in the torso; people survive worse injuries in real life and this, after all, was only TV.  The next week’s episode proved me right.


That same week in Vikings, the third season finale ended with great drama. Ragnar Lothbrok, the King whose army had unsuccessfully attacked Paris twice was apparently dying of battle wounds.  He’d also been mourning his dead friend Athelstan, a monk captured in an earlier raid on England.  In a deal to leave “Francia,” the Vikings received a huge amount of gold and silver, but Ragnar demanded to be baptized and then later get a Christian burial. The Emperor Charles agreed and we saw Ragnar’s beautiful coffin, reminiscent of a Viking ship, borne into the walled city’s cathedral.  Watching this impressive scene, I mused, “Wouldn’t it be something if he rose from the dead, popped out of the coffin and attacked the king?”  That’s exactly what happened. His funeral Mass was a terrific ruse for sacking the city.


I wasn’t trying to figure out either plot or second guess the writers, it’s just that the many pleasurable years of writing (and reading) crime fiction have shifted my perspective forever.  I don’t enjoy thrillers or mysteries or a show with a plot twist any less, but that inner watchful eye (much friendlier than the Eye of Sauron), just never seems to blink.

Has this happened to you?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books–including The Nick Hoffman Mysteries–which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Spring Cleaning, Ear Worms, and Other Matters

Everyone has an ear worm from time to time–a song playing in the head that will not go away.  As an annoyance, ear worms rank right up there with watery eyes and hiccups.  My husband, who is musical, hears only the melody, whereas my affliction can be triggered either by the tune or by the words of a song.  I remember both.  The most obnoxious example I can think of is “It’s a Small World After All.”  I first heard it at Disneyland when my son was six.  He’s now fifty, so it’s been at the top of the charts for a long time.

I’ve been reading articles on memory, others on language, and a book (The Singing Neanderthals) on music, memory, and language.  When I was in elementary school, it was still common to have to memorize poems and speeches, and of course all children had to memorize the multiplication tables as far as ten.  But that had gone by the wayside by the time I reached high school.  After fifty years of rejection, the idea of training the memory seems to be reviving faintly.  The theory was that, with calculators and computers to serve as artificial memory, teachers should focus on other kinds of learning.  Too many students had serious trouble in the memory sweepstakes.

I didn’t.  I started memorizing poetry when I was two or three.  My mother read to my brother and me, and what she read was poetry.  (Hello, John.  Happy birthday.)  She read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses mostly, but also narrative poetry, some of it comic, from an anthology called Poems for Enjoyment.  I relied heavily on memory all the way through school and college.  My mother died in 2011 at 93.  I’m glad I thanked her for training my memory, though my training does make me super-vulnerable to ear worms.

What my brain has chosen to remember is odd.  German grammar, for instance.  I had four years of German in college, but I’ve only visited Germany once and then for less than a week.  I also studied Spanish and much later French, so why don’t those languages stick in my head the way German does?  Ich weiss nicht.  I also recall the process of extrapolation from trigonometry, though I’ve had even less use for trig than for Deutsch.  And most of all (or maybe worse of all) my head is full of poetry–other people’s.  Not just Shakespeare and John Donne but totally crappy country and western song lyrics and commercial jingles.

Since I’m at the age when people worry about dementia, I’ve thought about the advantage of having a head stocked with ready-made language.  Is it a good thing or a bad thing?  I don’t know, but sometimes I’d like to spring clean my head and erase a bunch of it.  Maybe then I could get rid of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “If I were a Rich Man” and all the other ear worms, especially “It’s a Small World.”  After all.


Clearing Away the Clutter

My condominium is 859 square feet, according to the various bits and pieces of paper I have in my files. When I first looked at the place 20-plus years ago, it seemed quite large. Well, it was empty when my real estate agent and I unlocked the door. I remember thinking, wow, all that closet space!

Of course, all the rooms, and the closets, are now full. As my cousin Susan says, stuff expands to fit the space available, plus two boxes.

So the condo feels small now. But it really should be adequate space for me and a bunch of cats. After all, the cats don’t take up that much room (unless they all decide to sleep on the bed with me).

It’s the stuff. Too much stuff.

I’ve been cleaning my office as long as I’ve lived here. At least that’s what it feels like. I have a lifetime accumulation of books and assorted knick-knacks. Some of these have sentimental value, such as books that have been signed and personalized to me. As for the knick-knacks, they have sentimental value, too, such as that vase that belonged to my Great Aunt Flora.

Then there are those files of newspaper clippings, saved because they that might possibly find their way into a book. They sometimes do. I once clipped a small article from the San Francisco Chronicle and kept it tacked up on my work station, vowing that I would use it, some day. And I did. It wound up as an important plot point in Bit Player.

I’m such a paper magnet. Through the years I’ve written down story ideas and notes for plots. I still have all those pieces of paper. If I ever get writer’s block, I’ll know which file folders to mine for material.

At least I got rid of the old bank statements that went back years. The old contracts for books that are no longer in print? I think I’ll scan those and shred the paper.

Letters, remember those? Missives written before the advent of email? I save letters. The ones from my grandmother are tucked away in a folder, and they are important to me. So are letters from my mother.

What do I save? And what do I throw away? That’s a question Jeri Howard asks in Bit Player, as she sorts through old letters written by her grandmother to solve a decades-old mystery.

And that’s just the office we’re discussing. The dresser drawers? The closet of clothes I haven’t worn since I retired? Well, I’ve started a donation bag. That’s a step in the right direction.

I have reached the stage of life where I want to downsize. All that stuff I have feels like it’s dragging me down. I want to have less stuff.

However, getting rid of stuff is not a matter of opening a large garbage bag and sweeping the offending stuff into the bag. For me, at least, clearing away the clutter is a very personal thing. It involves going through the stuff to decide what to keep and what to throw away. Sometimes the answer to that conundrum varies, depending on the mood I’m in at the time. It could be, “Why am I keeping this?” Or it could be, “Maybe I’ll need this someday.”

I’m not at the “Hoarder” stage yet but sometimes I wonder. At least I got a short story out of the subject. It’s a cautionary tale, called “Pack Rat.”


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