Communion Of Dreams


Not to worry, we’re right up there with China and Russia.

Intrusive governmental surveillance is a staple of Science Fiction, and was part of the horror of Communism during the Cold War. Just about every spy movie set behind the Iron Curtain showed it, and of course the fictional world of George Orwell’s 1984 was predicated on a complete lack of privacy.

We do not live in a totalitarian society. I was behind the Iron Curtain during the 1970s for a brief period, and saw what it was like first hand. And say what you will, 1984 did not become a reality.

But we are living in an “endemic surveillance society”. And it is as bad here in the US as it is in China and Russia. That is the conclusion of Privacy International‘s 2007 International Privacy Ranking. From the report:

In recent years, Parliaments throughout the world have enacted legislation intended to comprehensively increase government’s reach into the private life of nearly all citizens and residents. Competing “public interest” claims on the grounds of security, law enforcement, the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration, administrative efficiency and welfare fraud have rendered the fundamental right of privacy fragile and exposed. The extent of surveillance over the lives of many people has now reached an unprecedented level. Conversely, laws that ostensibly protect privacy and freedoms are frequently flawed – riddled with exceptions and exceptions that can allow government a free hand to intrude on private life.

At the same time, technological advances, technology standards, interoperability between information systems and the globalisation of information have placed extraordinary pressure on the few remaining privacy safeguards. The effect of these developments has been to create surveillance societies that nurture hostile environments for privacy.

Actually, while we are grouped in the tier of worst countries (along with China and Russia) when it comes to protection of privacy, our score is slightly better than both of them. This doesn’t give me a lot of comfort. Take one look at the map they have created, and you’ll shudder too.

Jim Downey

(Via BoingBoing. Cross posted to UTI.)



Chapter One
December 30, 2007, 9:18 pm
Filed under: Comics, Humor, Jeff Bezos, Kindle, Predictions, Publishing, tech

Berkeley Breathed echoes my opinion of e-books in today’s Opus strip.

Jim Downey

(Hat tip, ML!)



” . . . irrational, wasteful and pointless.”

That’s the description applied to most of the Security Theater (Bruce Schneier‘s excellent term) nonsense at our airports by a commercial airline pilot writing at the NYT Blog Jet Lagged. From the piece by Patrick Smith titled “The Airport Security Follies“, in which he discusses the fact that current security procedures are nothing but a sham:

No matter that a deadly sharp can be fashioned from virtually anything found on a plane, be it a broken wine bottle or a snapped-off length of plastic, we are content wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened, asked to queue for absurd lengths of time, subject to embarrassing pat-downs and loss of our belongings.

And:

In the end, I’m not sure which is more troubling, the inanity of the existing regulations, or the average American’s acceptance of them and willingness to be humiliated. These wasteful and tedious protocols have solidified into what appears to be indefinite policy, with little or no opposition. There ought to be a tide of protest rising up against this mania. Where is it? At its loudest, the voice of the traveling public is one of grumbled resignation. The op-ed pages are silent, the pundits have nothing meaningful to say.

* * *

As for Americans themselves, I suppose that it’s less than realistic to expect street protests or airport sit-ins from citizen fliers, and maybe we shouldn’t expect too much from a press and media that have had no trouble letting countless other injustices slip to the wayside. And rather than rethink our policies, the best we’ve come up with is a way to skirt them — for a fee, naturally — via schemes like Registered Traveler. Americans can now pay to have their personal information put on file just to avoid the hassle of airport security. As cynical as George Orwell ever was, I doubt he imagined the idea of citizens offering up money for their own subjugation.

Oh, I don’t know about that last point. Orwell understood quite well that almost any system is susceptible to the creation of an elite class – and in this case if you’ve got the money you can buy out of some of the pointless security hassles of flying. But the rest of the piece is a very powerful indictment of the stupidity of the current system, by one who knows how it functions from the inside. And, as the passages cited indicate, the piece is an indictment of us as well, who have been willing to trade off our dignity and civil liberties for just the illusion of security.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



Being prepared.

As I have mentioned previously, I enjoy shooting. And I carry a concealed weapon (legally – by permit and where allowed by law) pretty much all the time. This isn’t paranoia, just a simple recognition that we live in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world. That same mindset applies to preparations for any kind of small-scale disaster, whether natural or man-made. If you live in the Midwest, you understand that power outages occur due to weather (tornadoes in Spring, Summer, and Fall, ice-storms in Winter), and that you may need to be self-reliant for days or even a couple of weeks. I’ve long abided by the Scout motto of “Be Prepared”, and while you wouldn’t find a years worth of supplies and a generator cached here, we could manage pretty easily for a period of a couple of months. That’s not too far off what is recommended by both the government and independent health agencies. As I’ve discussed, the onset of a pandemic flu may well cause a disruption of normal economic activity for a prolonged period, and I cite such a disaster as the background for Communion of Dreams.

Anyway, in an accident during one shooting trip this fall I managed to slice open my right thumb pretty well. I had ridden out to the family farm where I usually shoot with one of my buddies, so didn’t have my car, which contains a fairly complete first-aid kit. And, as it turned out, my buddy didn’t have any kind of first aid supplies in his car. We improvised a bandage from stuff in my gun cleaning kit, and things were OK. When I got home, I added a real first aid kit to my ‘range bag’, and didn’t think much more about it.

Then, a couple of weeks later I was back out at the farm with my BIL. We were walking the border of the property adjacent to a state park and marking it as private, since a lot of people don’t bother to keep track of where they are and we’ve had a lot of tresspassing. At one point down in a secluded valley my BIL and I paused for a breather, and just out of curiosity I checked to see if I had a signal for my cell phone. Nope. Hmm.

Now, it was nice weather, just a tad cool and damp when we set out. But it was November, and the leaves were slick in places where a fall could easily result in a twisted knee or a broken bone. I got to thinking – if I were on my own, what did I have with me that I could use in the event of an emergency? Oh, I had plenty of stuff in my car – but that was the better part of a mile away. What did I have on my person?

In truth, I was in better shape than most people would likely be in such a situation. I always have a Leatherman multi-tool on my belt, a small LED flashlight on my keychain, and a pistol and ammo. But still, since I don’t smoke I’m not in the habit of carrying matches or a lighter, I once again didn’t have any first-aid items, et cetera. I had stuck a small bottle of water in my jacket pocket, but that would hardly last long. I could probably cobble together some kind of splint or impromptu crutch, but it would be a challenge to get out of such a situation on my own.

When I got home I got to doing a bit of research about emergency survival kits. Google that, and you’ll come up with about 30,000 hits to sites offering everything from bomb shelters to equipment for first responders. Not particularly helpful. I decided to take a different tack, and started to think about what I wanted to have in a kit small enough that I would *always* have it with me. I set my goal for constructing a kit which would fit into an Altoids tin, since that is small enough to easily slip into any pocket.

This problem has been tackled by others, and there are actually some such small kits for sale that’ll run you upwards of $50. I looked over the commercially available kits, saw what others have done to solve the problems inherent in such a project, and came up with the following:

kit02a.jpg

What you see there is:

  • Surgical Mask (can also be used as a bandage)
  • Fresnell lens for magnification or starting fires
  • 20mm bubble compass
  • Single-edged razor blade
  • Suture pack (curved needle mounted with suture thread)
  • Band-aids & steri-strips
  • Antibiotic packet
  • Emergency whistle
  • Superglue (repairs, fabrication, wound sealant)
  • Mini-lighter
  • Cotton tinder tabs
  • Water purification tablets (can also be used as antiseptic)
  • 30′ of Spiderwire (15 lbs test)
  • Safety pins
  • Small ziplock bag for water
  • Cash
  • Painkillers
  • Benadryl (anti-histamine, sedative)
  • Anti-diarrheal tablets

Yes, it all fits in the Altoids tin. Just. It is not entirely satisfactory, as I would have liked to have a large piece (say 18″x24″) of heavy-duty aluminum foil, a couple of garbage bags, some lightweight steel wire, maybe some duct tape or heavier cord. But it is a pretty good start – any small kit like this is by necessity an exercise in trade-offs. (Edited to add 06/01/08: I wrapped about 15′ of 24ga steel wire around the mini-lighter in a single layer, tightly wrapped.  Takes up almost no additional room, and will be easy to unwrap for use.)

In searching out the items I wanted (difficult to find items linked to my sources), it became clear that in some cases I would spend more on shipping for some of the components than I would for the actual items. So I made one such kit for myself, and another half dozen to give to friends. That got the cost down to under $10 each (not including the cash, obviously).

Your best survival tool in any situation is your brain. But it doesn’t hurt to have a few advantages in the form of useful items close at hand. With this small kit, and what I usually have with me anyway, I am reasonably well prepared to deal with most situations that I can envision. And I thought that since I went to the trouble to construct it, I would put the information about it here for anyone else who might have some use for it.

Jim Downey



“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

I usually save the ‘political’ stuff for UTI or dKos. And, for the most part, I intend to continue that policy even through what promises to be a very ugly election year here in the U.S.

But I want to chat here about this morning’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Why? Because it ties in with Communion of Dreams a bit. And because I think that the news really should be examined more widely than in just ‘political’ or ‘news’ forums.

First, the Communion connection. [Mild spoilers to follow next paragraph.]

In the “history” of the novel, following the chaos of the world-wide pandemic flu, I have an unspecified regional nuclear war in Asia. The characters reference it in terms of the state of things in China and Chu Ling’s health. I kept the specifics of it rather vague, since I see about a dozen different ways that such insanity could easily occur, involving China, India, Taiwan, Japan, North and South Korea, and Pakistan. And, once started, such a regional conflict could easily draw in more than the initial combatants, depending on exactly what the alignment of allied countries was at the time. This would further cripple the economic powerhouses of Asia, and could be part of the motivation the Japanese would have for seeking to establish a colony on Mars.

OK, that’s fiction. I actually worry that reality could be worse. Worse? Yeah – rather than ‘just’ a regional war, this could precipitate a wider war, or draw in the U.S. in our current paranoia about Islamic fundamentalism.

Now, why do I say this? I’m not an expert on Pakistan’s political situation. In fact, I’d readily admit that I do not understand even all that I know about Pakistan’s current political situation – and what I know is quite limited. But Pakistan is only one part of this puzzle. At least as important are other components – the deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia, a global recession on the horizon, ongoing tensions of every variety in the Middle East, and our own jingoism and aforementioned paranoia here.

To sum it all up, I’ve got a bad feeling about this. It is the exact same sort of feeling I had when I heard of another assassination of a political figure several years ago: Ahmad Shah Massoud. It’s doubtful that you recognize the name. But maybe this will ring a bell:

Massoud was the target of a suicide attack which occurred at Khwaja Bahauddin on September 9, 2001. The attackers were two Arabs, Dahmane Abd al-Sattar and Bouraoui el-Ouaer, who claimed to be Belgians originally from Morocco. However, their passports turned out to be stolen and their nationality Tunisian. The assassins claimed to want to interview Massoud and set off a bomb in a belt worn by the cameraman while asking Massoud questions. The explosion also killed Mohammed Asim Suhail, a Northern Alliance official, while Mohammad Fahim Dashty and Massoud Khalili were injured. The assassins may have intended to attack several Northern Alliance council members simultaneously.[citation needed] Bouraoui was killed by the explosion and Dahmane was captured and shot while trying to escape. Massoud was rushed after the attack to the Indian Military hospital at Farkhor, Tajikistan which is now Farkhor Air Base. The news of Massoud’s death was reported almost immediately, appearing in European and North American newspapers on 10 September 2001. It was quickly overshadowed by the September 11, 2001 attacks, which proved to be the terrorist attack that Massoud had warned against.

The timing of the assassination, two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, is considered significant by commentators who believe Osama bin Laden ordered the assassination to help his Taliban protectors and ensure he would have their protection and cooperation in Afghanistan. The assassins are also reported to have shown support for bin Laden in their questions of Massoud. The Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Mujahideen leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Afghan Wahhabi Islamist, have also been mentioned as a possible organizers or assisters of the assassins.[19] Massoud was a strong opponent of Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan. The assassins are said to have entered Northern Alliance territory under the auspices of the Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and had his assistance in bypassing “normal security procedures.”[20]

So, there it is. An earlier attempt on Benazir Bhutto raised suspicions that the Pakistani security forces were involved. The method of attack was similar this time around, and only different from the assassination of Massoud in scope. Pakistan is struggling with democracy, martial law had just been lifted (and may actually be declared again by the time I am done writing this), there are known elements in the Pakistani government which are supportive of the Taliban (and Osama bin Laden), and they have nuclear weapons.

When I heard the news of Bhutto’s assassination this morning on NPR, I flashed back to that moment in September of 2001 when I heard of Massoud. And a chill ran up my spine.

Jim Downey



“License, registration, insurance card, and fingerprint, please.”
December 24, 2007, 4:18 pm
Filed under: Constitution, General Musings, Government, NYT, Society

Ah, yes. Here’s another little footnote in the ongoing story of how your civil rights are slowly being eroded, as we move into the new and improved Police State of America:

Police Begin Fingerprinting on Traffic Stops

If you’re ticketed by Green Bay police, you’ll get more than a fine. You’ll get fingerprinted, too. It’s a new way police are cracking down on crime.

If you’re caught speeding or playing your music too loud, or other crimes for which you might receive a citation, Green Bay police officers will ask for your drivers license and your finger. You’ll be fingerprinted right there on the spot. The fingerprint appears right next to the amount of the fine.

Police say it’s meant to protect you — in case the person they’re citing isn’t who they claim to be.

Ah, yes, it’s “for our own good”. And don’t worry – the police department has issued an assurance that the fingerprints will not be entered into any kind of database.

No, of course they won’t. We can always trust our government to protect our civil rights, can’t we?

Merry Frickin’ Christmas.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



By the numbers.
December 24, 2007, 10:02 am
Filed under: Connections, Daily Kos, Feedback, General Musings, Promotion, Publishing, Society, Writing stuff

Just thought I’d take a moment and do a little meta stuff this morning.

First off, over 6,250 have now downloaded the novel. The pace has slowed somewhat in the last couple of months, with just 5 or 10 people a day downloading it. Still, I find that encouraging, given how little effort I have put into trying to promote the book. If you know someone who enjoys SF, send ‘em a link to it – a cheap and quick Christmas gift, if you want to just send them the .pdf of the the book. I figure eventually this will help me get the book published, so the more downloads, the better.

A little more surprising to me is how popular this blog has become. Typically, I get between 50 and 70 hits a day now, and the total is over 10,500 views, and that doesn’t include people who get an RSS feed. (If you do read this by RSS, either drop me a note or leave a comment, would you? I would like to have some sense of how many people do, and the WordPress software doesn’t let you know that.) I don’t get a lot of comments, which surprises me a bit, given how my posts (and cross-postings) elsewhere tend to generate discussion. But that’s OK, as there has been a slow but steady rise in readership and linkage from other sites. Sure, it’s nothing like UTI or Daily Kos, but still, I’m pleased that my random wonderings do regularly draw readers.

And yes, I do a lot of random wondering about things. Just a glance to the left will show you that – there are 239 categories. And this will make post number 241. For a blog which started out with the ostensible goal of discussing my novel, it has turned into something else almost entirely. But that’s OK – as I told a friend via email this morning, this allows me to keep my intellectual and writing skills somewhat sharpened during this time when my attention span is compromised by the demands of care-giving. If you figure my average post runs something like 500 words, I’ve written another full-length novel here – but given my current lack of ability to really concentrate and plan, a novel would be out of the question presently. This helps keep those other writing skills fresh, and that’s about the best I can hope for.

So, thanks for coming by. And Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Jim Downey



Power to the People!

I’m fairly sure the original seed of the idea for Communion of Dreams came to me back during my college days (some 30 years ago). It was after reading yet one more prediction that “within 20 years, fusion power should be a reality – and a home-sized fusion unit should be available shortly thereafter.” I grumbled to a friend that fusion power was likely to be discovered not by the big research institutions, but by some unknown genius, tinkering in his garage – and probably not even known to the world until after someone noticed that he hadn’t been paying any utility bills for power for ten years and went to investigate, only then discovering a functional fusion furnace supplying all his power needs.

How does that relate to Communion? Well, because with a few minor tweaks, that above scenario became the genesis of ‘Hawking’s Conundrum’, the basis for the revolution in tech that I stipulate for the book. In my alternate reality, Stephen Hawking comes up with a new model for physics which enables cheap and plentiful fusion power, but the results are so outlandish to conventional thinking that he doesn’t allow release the discovery until after his death some years later.

Cheap and plentiful nuclear power (whether fission or fusion) was a staple of SF going back to at least the 1930s. I think I likely first became aware of it through the writings of Robert Heinlein, though it is hard to say some 40 years later. Certainly, it was common – as were predictions of energy being “too cheap to meter” – and the availability of that energy allowed for all manner of technological innovation.

Well, we’re now one big step closer to that reality. Maybe.

No, fusion power is still elusive. But it seems that maybe the “home nuclear reactor” is a reality. (I say “maybe” because all I can find are variations of the same story circulating the web – no hard news outlets or official announcement from Toshiba.) The story:

Toshiba Builds 100x Smaller Micro Nuclear Reactor

Toshiba has developed a new class of micro size Nuclear Reactors that is designed to power individual apartment buildings or city blocks. The new reactor, which is only 20 feet by 6 feet, could change everything for small remote communities, small businesses or even a group of neighbors who are fed up with the power companies and want more control over their energy needs.

The 200 kilowatt Toshiba designed reactor is engineered to be fail-safe and totally automatic and will not overheat. Unlike traditional nuclear reactors the new micro reactor uses no control rods to initiate the reaction. The new revolutionary technology uses reservoirs of liquid lithium-6, an isotope that is effective at absorbing neutrons. The Lithium-6 reservoirs are connected to a vertical tube that fits into the reactor core. The whole whole process is self sustaining and can last for up to 40 years, producing electricity for only 5 cents per kilowatt hour, about half the cost of grid energy.

Fact? Fiction? A bit hard to say. Small nuclear reactors have been built and used for any number of military applications, though those are hardly self-contained or user-friendly. I know of no technical limitations to this sort of product, but then, I’m not a nuclear engineer. This other source has a lot more to say about the news, and how this application of known technology is more or less just an innovation.

I suppose we’ll see. The first such unit is supposed to be installed in Japan next year, and then brought to this country and Europe in 2009. You can be certain if this is actually attempted, it will generate some ‘real’ news attention, not to mention a lot of gnashing of teeth over whether or not the tech is safe.

Jim Downey

(Via  MeFi.)



“I hope I’ve made the right decision.”
December 21, 2007, 10:46 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, General Musings, Health, Hospice, Religion, Sleep, Society

I walked into the dark room, stepped up to the bed. My MIL looked up at me, and said “I don’t like these rails and straps.”

There are the standard ‘hospital rails’ on the side of her bed. And since she’s several times attempted to climb over them (and broken bones in the subsequent fall), we put some nylon straps across from one rail to the other in a sort-of cargo net arrangement. It allows her to move freely in bed, but stops her from trying to climb out on her own. “Well, I’m sorry, but they need to stay on.”

She smiled. “Doesn’t matter – I’ve decided that I’m going to leave today, go back home to Missouri.”

We live in Missouri. But I didn’t want to contradict her, not that early in the morning when there would be little point to it. If she went back to sleep, she’d likely forget the conversation completely, anyway. “That’s fine. But for now try and go back to sleep – you don’t get up until 8:00.”

“OK.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

While I am not religious (hardly), I nonetheless enjoy some aspects of the holiday season. Working in small-market radio for four years between college and grad school forever traumatized me in regards to Christmas songs of every stripe, but I enjoy gift-giving, feasting, some good Christmas cheer with family and friends. Yesterday afternoon during our ‘respite’ break, my wife and I went out and selected a tree from the family farm – cedar, the traditional family tree – and brought it home. Now that it is settling, we’ll get it decorated some time this weekend.

That’s late for us, and we got a smaller tree than usual. Simple reason for this: it’s less work. And right now, just about anything that’s less work is the default position.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Our regular hospice nurse was on vacation this week, so the agency made arrangements for another nurse to come by and check on my MIL. She arrived on time, bringing supplies and meds, and went in to chat with my MIL.

“I read that nice article about you!” she told my MIL.

“Article?” asked my MIL.

Out of sight of my MIL, I shook my head at the nurse, mouthed the words “She doesn’t remember it.”

She nodded.

I spoke to my MIL “She’s just talking about a nice article that was in the paper, about people who care for their loved ones at home when they get older.”

“Oh, did you write it?”

It surprises me sometimes the things that she remembers. I used to write a column for the paper. “No, I didn’t write it.”

“But you used to write such nice things.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’ve never obsessed about getting presents to people “on time” – most of my friends and family have busy lives themselves, and understand how things stand here with us. But this year we’ve really been caught short on planning, and our shopping has been sporadic, at best. I’ve been able to take care of a lot of routine things, and gotten a couple of special gifts. But for the most part I just haven’t had the energy and focus to try and find the right gifts for others. And the shopping we usually do for my MIL just hasn’t gotten done at all this year. That’ll be a disappointment to some.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I walked out with the hospice nurse when she was done checking over my MIL. Either my wife or I usually do this, so we can go over info we didn’t necessarily want to discuss in front of my MIL, the other staying and helping get my MIL dressed or back into bed.

“Anything to add?” she asked.

“No, not really. We’re just unsure of where we are. Not knowing is difficult.”

“Well, I can’t say for sure. But the end could come fairly quickly. You’ll just have to let us know if you see a sudden downturn, so we can be here every day rather than just weekly.”

I nodded.

“You know, you guys are doing just an incredible job in caring for her. I wish that half of our patients got even half as good care as your MIL is getting.”

“Thanks.”

And as I turned to go up the stairs, back into the house, eyes watering, she repeated: “You guys are doing an incredible job.”

Then why do I feel guilty? Like I should be doing more?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

“I hope I’ve made the right decision.”

“What decision is that?” asked my wife, as she helped her mom sit up on the side of the bed.

“Well, I think it’s time I went home. I’ve enjoyed my stay, but I think that I should be getting back.”

“That’s fine,” said my wife, putting slippers on my MIL’s feet. “But how about some breakfast, first?”

“That sounds nice, dear.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jim Downey

(Cross-posted to dKos.)



Thanks, Carl.*

*This post previously ran at UTI last year. And while some of the personal details mentioned in it have changed – I did indeed keep that promise to tweak my manuscript, obviously, and things have continued to progress with my MIL – the sentiment is the same.

Jim D.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This has been a hell of a day. Not as bad as some, perhaps, but as far as routine days go, not the sort you want to pop up often in the queue. It started with my mother-in-law being ill. Now, most adults know how a young child (either their own or one they’ve babysat) can be when sick. Think intestinal bug. Think explosive diarrhea, of the toxic/caustic variety. Poor kid doesn’t understand what’s going on, or how to best cope with their misbehaving body (if they are capable of that on their own yet). Then picture that not in a toddler, but in a 95-pound woman well into dementia before the effects of dehydration and fever kick in. Took my wife and I two full hours to get her and the bedroom cleaned up.

And then I was on deadline to write my final column for my newspaper. Yeah, my *final* column. My decision, and if I want to go back the paper will be glad to have me. But because of the demands of care-giving, I could not adequately keep up with the art scene in my community (what I wrote about – weird to see that in the past tense). And I was feeling a little burned out with it as well. But still, closing off that particular chapter of my life was somewhat poignant.

So it’s been a day. Which is all just prelude to explaining that one of the refuges I seek after such a day is one of my “regulars”. Typically, it’s Twain, likely his Roughing It, which I have long considered some of his best and funniest work. But tonight, I turn to another old friend I never met: Carl Sagan, particularly his book Pale Blue Dot.

I’ve said before that I’m not a scientist. Which is perhaps why I don’t have some of the same quibbles that many scientists have with Sagan. But I really respect someone who can take scientific research and knowledge and present it in a form an intelligent layperson can understand. Stephen Jay Gould could do that for me. PZ Myers does it for me. So does Carl Zimmer. I could name others, but these are people I respect. In that same way, I really respected Carl Sagan, who I knew more as an author than as the host of of the PBS series, most of which I missed in its initial broadcast. Sagan helped introduce me to whole areas of science I had never considered before, and his considerable human decency in his atheism helped me understand that my own misgivings about religion were not an indication that I was lacking in morals or ethics.

So it was that when I started to write my first novel, Communion of Dreams (unpublished – yeah, yeah, I know I need to finish tweaking the mss and send it out again), I set most of the action on Saturn’s moon Titan, as a tribute to Sagan. Sagan had formulated a theory as to the nature of Titan’s atmosphere (that it contained a complex hydrocarbon he called “tholin”) which accounted for the rusty-orange coloration of the moon. His theories were pretty well borne out by the Huygens probe, by the way, though he didn’t live long enough to know this.

So tonight, on the tenth anniversary of his death, on a day when I’ve been through my own trials, I will nonetheless raise a glass, and drink a wee dram of good scotch to the memory of Carl Sagan. And I’ll promise myself, and his memory, that I’ll get that manuscript tweaked and published, if for no other reason than to honor him.

Here’s to Carl: Sorry you had to leave so soon.

Jim Downey




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