Communion Of Dreams


Take me out to the ballgame . . .
April 30, 2008, 7:49 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, General Musings, Government, Health, Society

Via BoingBoing, news of just how vigilant they are in Detroit to make sure you read the label of any beverage you are served:

Boy, 7, taken from family after drink mixup at Tigers game

The sign above the Comerica Park concession stand said: “Mike’s Lemonade 7.00.”

So when Christopher Ratte of Ann Arbor ordered one for his 7-year-old son at the April 5 Detroit Tigers game, he had no idea he was purchasing an alcoholic beverage.

Or that his son would end up spending three days and two nights in the custody of Children’s Protective Services.

A park security guard spotted 7-year-old Leo Ratte drinking the Mike’s Hard Lemonade, confiscated the bottle and took the family in for questioning.

Yep. Didn’t just tell the guy to drink the damned thing himself. Didn’t warn him that giving the kid an alcoholic beverage in a public venue wasn’t a great idea. Took the family in for questioning. What followed was Kafkaesque. And all too common when one transgresses something that the authorities think you shouldn’t do.

They took his kid to a foster home, where he stayed for several days before being released into the custody of his mother. And the father was prohibited from living in his own home for a full week, so that he wouldn’t have contact with the child.

And that happy outcome wouldn’t have happened nearly so quickly had not the parents been professors at the University of Michigan, with the full power and resources of the University available to them to help deal with the nightmare. From the news article:

Don Duquette, a U-M clinical professor of law and director of the child advocacy law clinic, said he got a call from the chair of Ratte’s U-M department at 9 a.m. the next day. Duquette spent most of that day on the phone, trying to get Leo back into his parents’ custody.

* * *

Duquette said the fact that Ratte and Zimmerman got their son back so quickly was unusual and due only to their sophisticated legal counsel.

Ratte said he and his wife know that they were lucky to have the resources of U-M behind them.

“Class has something to do with the fact that the child was only in care for two days,” Duquette said. “What the referee said was that she would have kept the case for at least a week while the department completed the investigation. … If you’re not sophisticated, the system isn’t set up to give you very much of a chance to work against the ritual that’s ordinarily done.”

It took three more days for the judge to dismiss the complaint, allowing Ratte to return to his home. That happened after Leo and his 12-year-old sister, Helena, were taken back to Detroit for further interviews.

Imagine if it had been you. Think you would have been able to get your kid back so easily?

*Sigh* I am not against the state watching out for the safety of children, and following up on any reported cases of abuse. Not at all. But look at what happened – this guy, perhaps a bit clueless about modern alcoholic drinks (I’ll admit – I hadn’t heard of this beverage before – I pay no attention to ‘alcopop’ drinks. I drink beer, or scotch, and could have made the same mistake), no doubt distracted by all the excitement and activity of taking his 7 year-old son to a ballgame – accidentally gives his kid this bottle without carefully reading the label to see that it contains alcohol. Guard notices the kid drinking it. Guard confronts parent, who denies knowing that the thing had alcohol in it. Guard summons police, and the nightmare begins, and at no point does anyone in authority exercise the slightest bit of common sense.

Why? Probably because once the paperwork started, everyone involved on the side of the authorities was ‘just doing their job’.

I don’t know what Michigan law is on the matter, but a number of state laws allow parents to give their kids alcohol, so long it is consumed in the presence of the adult. In Europe, kids routinely drink alcohol with meals. It used to be that most cough medicines contained a large alcohol content, even the stuff made for kids (this may still be the case). I grew up having alcohol now and then with my family. OK, ignore that last item – I’m not the best example, godless heathen that I am.

Anyway, my point is that it isn’t like the kid was plastered, or that the father was doing anything dangerous. The guard should have just told the guy to stop. Once the cops were called, they should just have exercised a little discretion (which happens all the time, particularly if it is another cop involved in a transgression), warned the guy, and sent father and son on their way.

Insanity. Glad I don’t have kids.

Jim Downey

(cross posted to UTI.)



A personal triumph I thought I’d share.
April 29, 2008, 2:13 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Book Conservation, Health

This afternoon I was getting ready to take some books back to Special Collections, and since it was still a bit cool out, thought I’d toss on a nice leather vest I have.  This is a vest which was a gift a couple of years ago, designed for concealed carry, and which I find to be very useful for other purposes as well.  Anyway, I put it on, and noticed something . . . it felt a little loose.

Hmm.

Now, I knew I had been shedding weight since Martha Sr had died, as a natural function of getting regular sleep, more exercise, and not eating to excess as a function of stress.  Pants fit better, I’d taken my belt in a couple of notches, all those sorts of things.

But this vest was a new one.  For the first time in a couple of years, I could actually button the thing up, and it felt comfortable.  Excellent.

I have no illusions about getting back into the sort of shape I was twenty years ago, when I was honestly in “fighting trim”.  But in the last three months I’ve probably shed close to thirty pounds.  If I can lose another twenty, I’ll be happy – thirty would be just about ideal, particularly if I can change some of what remains from fat and slack muscle into toned muscle.

Anyway, just a small personal triumph I thought I would share.

Jim Downey



You really gotta wonder.
April 29, 2008, 10:29 am
Filed under: Flu, General Musings, Pandemic, Predictions, Preparedness, Press, Science, Society, Writing stuff

Communion of Dreams is set in a post-pandemic world, some 40 years after a new flu strain has caused massive death and global disruption.

For the most part, people never really think about the flu or any other virus presenting much of a threat. Partially, this is due to not wanting to think about such things as death. Partially, it is because there really isn’t much in the way of treatment for most viral diseases. As a result, sometimes it is difficult to get much information in the news, unless you really work at it. A good example of this is the recent outbreak of EV71 in China – my wife caught a brief mention of it on the BBC news, told me. I had to really hunt around to find this:

Mass intestinal virus infection up to 1,520, kills 20

HEFEI — A lethal outbreak of intestinal virus in Fuyang City in east China’s Anhui Province has killed 20 children and befallen 1,500 others, the provincial health department said on Tuesday.

Du Changzhi, Anhui Provincial Health Department deputy chief, said the virus, known as enterovirus 71, or EV71, had altogether sickened 1,520 children, claiming 20 lives by Tuesday morning.

Of the sick, 585 had recovered thus far. At present, 412 sick children have remained in hospital for further medical observation. Of the total, 26 are seriously ill.

The Wall Street Journal did have this:

China Suffers HFMD Outbreak
Common Illness Catches Attention Of Global Officials

HONG KONG — A deadly outbreak in eastern China of a common childhood illness that rarely kills people has caught the attention of international health officials.

The outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease, or HFMD, has killed 20 children in Fuyang, a city in eastern Anhui province, and has affected some 1,200 children altogether, according to the Anhui provincial health department. Of those cases, 341 children are still in the hospital.

A report by the state-run Xinhua news agency late Sunday evening said the outbreak began in early March and cited the city’s health department as confirming that the disease was caused by enterovirus-71, one of several viruses that can cause HFMD.

* * *

China’s Health Minister Chen Zhu visited Fuyang on Saturday, according to the Xinhua report. Chinese health officials at the local level in the past have sometimes played down disease outbreaks early on, only to be caught off guard later.

Indeed. There have been a number of such problems with reporting outbreaks in China, as we saw with the SARS virus in 2003. What this means is that a new virus can get established before anyone really knows what is going on. And that could be really catastrophic in terms of implementing public-health plans to limit the spread of any major new disease.

[Major Spoilers Ahead.]

At the end of Communion, I reveal that the new engineered flu virus which has been released comes from China. I did this for this reason – to draw attention to this very real problem. It’s bad enough that some virus could pop up just about anywhere where there is very little public health infrastructure, and so be missed. That a threat could come, and be intentionally ignored, is really dangerous. You really gotta wonder just what people are thinking when they do this.

Just as you really gotta wonder why such things are not covered in the news, rather than the latest celebrity gossip or outrage.

Jim Downey



Convergence.

When I went away to college in 1976, I took with me the small black & white television I had received for my eighth birthday. Mostly my roommates and I would watch The Muppet Show before going off to dinner. Otherwise, I really didn’t have the time for television – there was studying to do, drugs and alcohol to abuse, sex to have.

Post college I had a massive old console color TV I had inherited. But given that I lived in Montezuma Iowa, reception was dismal. I found other things to do with my time, mostly SCA-related activities and gaming. I took that console set with me to graduate school in Iowa City, but it never really worked right, and besides I was still busy with SCA stuff and again with schoolwork.

For most of the ’90s I did watch some TV as it was being broadcast, but even then my wife and I preferred to time-shift using a VCR, skipping commercials and seeing the things we were interested in at times when it was convenient for us.

This century, living here and caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, we had to be somewhat more careful about selecting shows that wouldn’t contribute to Martha Sr’s confusion and agitation. Meaning mostly stuff we rented or movies/series we liked well enough to buy on DVD. I would now and then flip on the cable and skip around a bit after we got Martha Sr. to bed, see if there was anything interesting, but for the most part I relied on friends recommending stuff. And besides, I was busy working on Communion of Dreams, or blogging here or there, or writing a newspaper column or whatever.

Now-a-days we don’t even have cable. There’s just no reason to pay for it. I’d much rather get my news and information online. So, basically, I have missed most every television show and special event in the last thirty years. There are vast swaths of cultural reference I only know by inference, television shows that “define” American values I’ve never seen. I don’t miss it.

And you know what? You are becoming like me, more and more all the time.

* * * * * * *

Via Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, this very interesting piece by

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

* * *

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.

OK, I try and be very careful about “fair use” of other people’s work, limiting myself to just a couple of paragraphs from a given article or blog post in order to make a point. But while I say that you should go read his whole post, I’m going to use another passage from Shirky here:

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

And I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some fancy sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that message–I can do that, too–is a big change.

It is a huge change. It is the difference between passively standing/sitting by and watching, and doing the same thing yourself. Whether it is sports, or sex, or politics, or art – doing it yourself means making better use of the limited time you have in this life.

* * * * * * *

And now, the next component of my little puzzle this morning.

Via MeFi, this NYT essay about the explosion of authorship:

You’re an Author? Me Too!

It’s well established that Americans are reading fewer books than they used to. A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed hadn’t read a book in the previous year — a state of affairs that has prompted much soul-searching by anyone with an affection for (or business interest in) turning pages. But even as more people choose the phantasmagoria of the screen over the contemplative pleasures of the page, there’s a parallel phenomenon sweeping the country: collective graphomania.

In 2007, a whopping 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from 300,000 in 2006, according to the industry tracker Bowker, which attributed the sharp rise to the number of print-on-demand books and reprints of out-of-print titles. University writing programs are thriving, while writers’ conferences abound, offering aspiring authors a chance to network and “workshop” their work. The blog tracker Technorati estimates that 175,000 new blogs are created worldwide each day (with a lucky few bloggers getting book deals). And the same N.E.A. study found that 7 percent of adults polled, or 15 million people, did creative writing, mostly “for personal fulfillment.”

* * *

Mark McGurl, an associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of a forthcoming book on the impact of creative writing programs on postwar American literature, agrees that writing programs have helped expand the literary universe. “American literature has never been deeper and stronger and more various than it is now,” McGurl said in an e-mail message. Still, he added, “one could put that more pessimistically: given the manifold distractions of modern life, we now have more great writers working in the United States than anyone has the time or inclination to read.”

An interesting discussion about this happens in that thread at Meta Filter. John Scalzi, no stranger at all to the world of blogging and online publishing, says this there:

I see nothing but upside in people writing and self-publishing, especially now that companies like Lulu make it easy for them to do so without falling prey to avaricious vanity presses. People who self-publish are in love with the idea of writing, and in love with the idea of books. Both are good for me personally, and good for the idea of a literate society moving forward.

Indeed. And it is pretty clearly a manifestation of what Shirky is talking about above.

I’ve written only briefly about my thoughts on the so-called Singularity – that moment when our technological abilities converge to create a new transcendent artificial intelligence which encompasses humanity in a collective awareness. As envisioned by the Singularity Institute and a number of Science Fiction authors, I think that it is too simple – too utopian. Life is more complex than that. Society develops and copes with change in odd and unpredictable ways, with good and bad and a whole lot in the middle.

For years, people have bemoaned how the developing culture of the internet is changing for the worse aspects of life. Newspapers are struggling. There’s the whole “Cult of the Amateur” nonsense. Just this morning on NPR there was a comment from a listener about how “blogs are just gossip”, in reaction to the new Sunday Soapbox political blog WESun has launched. And there is a certain truth to the complaints and hand-wringing. Maybe we just need to see this in context, though – that the internet is just one aspect of our changing culture, something which is shifting us away from being purely observers of the complex and confusing world around us, to being participants to a greater degree.

Sure, a lot of what passes for participation is fairly pointless, time-consuming crap in its own right. I am reminded of this brilliant xkcd strip. The activity itself is little better than just watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island or Seinfeld or whatever. But the *act* of participating is empowering, and instructive, and just plain good exercise – preparing the participant for being more involved, more in control of their own life and world.

We learn by doing. And if, by doing, we escape the numbing effects of being force-fed pablum from the television set for even a little while, that’s good. What if our Singularity is not a technological one, but a social one? What if, as people become more active, less passive, we actually learn to tap into the collective intelligence of humankind – not as a hive mind, but as something akin to an ideal Jeffersonian Democracy, updated to reflect the reality of modern culture?

I think we could do worse.

Jim Downey



Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam within a dweam.

A discussion over on UTI about a post I made there took a bit of an odd turn, engendering some interesting discussion about polygamy. This morning I made a comment that I thought I would share here, since it does relate directly to some of the things I do in Communion of Dreams. You’ll see what I mean.

Heinlein’s use . . . of non-standard family structures got me thinking about many of these issues when I was very young, and helped me form my opinions intellectually before getting into emotional commitments.

I tend to think that the serial monogamy that we see as a default in Western countries reflects the differences between societal conventions and evolutionary inclinations, with a big helping of “we live a whole lot longer now than early humans did” thrown in for good measure. It is rare to see a marriage last more than ten or fifteen years these days, and I think that makes a lot of sense – when most humans lived until 30 or so, it would make sense that pair-bonding would be a good strategy to raising and protecting children into early adulthood. That would mean a “marriage” of about the length I mention above.

But we live a lot longer now, and people grow and change throughout their lives. So it is unsurprising to me that divorce is common (something like half of all marriages end in divorce) as a way of dealing with these changes. Some people find a way to grow in tandem with their partner, and some find ways of allowing a certain freedom of definition for each partner within the structure of an ostensibly conventional marriage (some, of course, do both). Different cultures have found different strategies to accommodate these stresses – some allow for polygamy of the ‘conventional’ sort (think the Mormon or Islamic variety), some make divorce easy, some de-emphasize marriage itself, some ‘look the other way’ when one or the other partner in a marriage cheats or has a formal concubine system.

A fairly recent development in all of this has come to be known as polyamory – defining relationships as being more open and less “possessive”. There are some fairly well-known practices and practitioners, such as Penn Jillette. This attitude pretty well covers most of Heinlein’s alternative marriage structures and can work for some people, though it would understandably require a different sort of approach and mindset than what is commonly considered about marriage/love/relationships. In an homage to Heinlein I had originally used alternative family structures as the “norm” in my SF novel set about 50 years from now (a survival-strategy response to environmental conditions), but early readers of the book got too hung up on that so I changed it. Perhaps if/when I am an established author I can get away with it, as RAH did.

Children? I dunno – don’t have any, by choice. Not an issue for me, in several senses of the term.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

To me, the novel actually does work better the way I had the family relationships defined before, with a group marriage built around a small number of adults who have just a couple of fertile people at the core.  This would allow for those precious few who are able to have children (remember, the fire-flu plague had not just killed vast numbers – it also left most people who survived it sterile) to do so with minimal stress, the rest of the family caring for them and the children born into the family.  Think how it would be otherwise: the few fertile couples trying to have and raise children in a society desperate for kids, maybe even willing to steal them or force child-baring couple to give their children to others.

But this change was just too hard for some people to wrap their heads around comfortably – they wanted to turn it into something about sex rather than about children.  Maybe they felt threatened by the idea, since the time-frame of the novel was so close to our own.  I dunno – my head doesn’t work that way.  So I made the change, and tried to work in enough explanation for the type of ‘family’ that exists in the book, while removing the polyamory element.  So far no one has commented on the current version as being a problem for them, and that is likely how it will stay.

Jim Downey

(Again, if you didn’t recognize the quote used in the title, shame on you.  It’s from this.)



It’s a little weird . . .
April 24, 2008, 11:06 am
Filed under: Science, Scientific American, TDG, tech

I’ll turn 50 in a couple of months. It’s a little weird to realize that barely more time than that is required to go back from my date of birth to the first powered flight of the Wright brothers.

But, via TDG, this delightful bit from Scientific American:

100 Years Ago in Scientific American:

The Wright Brothers’ First Flight

An article from the May 1908 issue of Scientific American

Complete with the text and cover from that issue.

Wild.

Jim Downey



Quick update.
April 24, 2008, 9:04 am
Filed under: Feedback, Marketing, Predictions, Promotion, Publishing, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

In the month or so since I posted this, there have been more than an additional 800 downloads of Communion of Dreams.  Meaning that we’re now approaching 9,000 downloads altogether.  This tends to happen in ‘clumps’ for some unknown (to me) reason, where there will be a baseline of 5 – 10 people a day downloading the thing and then it will suddenly jump to a seventy-five or a hundred or a couple hundred downloads for a day or two.

Anyway, it’s likely that sometime in the next month or two, total downloads will cross the 10,000 mark.  Going to 5 digits seems like a cool threshold, and I’m thinking that I should do something to note/celebrate/mark the occasion.  But I have no idea what.  So if anyone has any suggestions, leave a comment or drop me a note, OK?

Oh, and that contact of the agent mentioned in the post a month ago?  Still haven’t heard back from them.  Because of other things I’ve mentioned being busy with here, I haven’t gotten around to contacting any other agents.  I suppose I should do that.  Ah, well.

Jim Downey




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