Communion Of Dreams


Gee, like this is a surprise.

Survey: Americans make 41M fewer air trips

WASHINGTON – Nearly half of American air travelers would fly more if it were easier, and more than one-fourth said they skipped at least one air trip in the past 12 months because of the hassles involved, according to an industry survey.

The Travel Industry Association, which commissioned the survey released Thursday, estimated that the 41 million forgone trips cost the travel industry $18.1 billion — including $9.4 billion to airlines, $5.6 billion to hotels and $3.1 billion — and it cost federal, state and local authorities $4.2 billion in taxes in the past 12 months.

When 28 percent of air travelers avoided an average of 1.3 trips each, that resulted in 29 million leisure trips and 12 million business trips not being taken, the researchers estimated.

Gee, like this is a surprise. Between the airlines doing everything possible to squeeze each and every last penny out of their customers to cover increasing fuel costs and their own ineptitude, to absurd security theater practices, to idiotic behaviour by TSA personnel, travel by air has become such a pain in the ass that it is hardly news that people avoid unnecessary air travel whenever possible. But it is good to see some solid numbers on the impact these factors are having, and perhaps it will prompt some changes. I can hope, can’t I?

How about you? Have you changed travel plans in the last couple of years to avoid air travel? Because we were 24-hour care providers for someone with Alzheimer’s until early this year, my wife and I have had limited opportunities to travel recently. But I certainly would not have flown anywhere if I could avoid it. And we’re planning a trip out to Denver to visit friends this summer, and are going to drive the 12 hours rather than fly (as we did some years back when we last went out there) in order to avoid all the hassles. So yeah, the air travel environment has definitely changed *my* behaviour.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



I wonder which model Nexus this is?

Well, someone sure has been having some fun:

The company AI ROBOTICS was founded 2 years ago by Etienne Fresse and Yoichi Yamato, both robotics specialists working on developing cutting-edge technologies. During the last 3 years the two founders have dedicated all their time and energy to their project “robot woman LISA” which thanks to the support of numerous foreign investors will be presented to the public on June 11 2008. The company’s philosophy is to enhance the conditions of human life and to give as many people as possible access to new technologies. The company AI ROBOTICS is based in Kobe, Japan.

And to think that some people on MeFi (where I came across this) thought it was for real.  Sheesh.  But it does generate some discussion about what happens in the future when this reality does actually show up.

Hmm . . . seems that someone has considered this matter before . . .

Jim Downey



Coming back online.

You may have noticed that some of my posts have gotten a little longer over time, at least in the last couple of months.  I haven’t been doing word counts or anything, but that is my sense of it, looking back over the archives.  This is because I am emerging from the exhaustion of caring for Martha Sr, slowly but surely.

And as this progresses, it is interesting to see how certain aspects of my life are starting to come back to me.  My wife and I have started to resume something that can be called a social life, getting together with friends for lunch or dinner, having people over.  I finally got that book review of the Matheson Companion done – that had been hanging over my head for a while.  I’m putting together the stuff for the ballistics testing, and figure that we’ll have the website for that up next month some time.  I got my garden in, and am harvesting strawberries.  This is good.

And I’m starting to get a creative itch again.  No, not the low-level sort of creativity that goes with this blog and my conservation work.  I’m thinking about the next novel.  I’ll probably toss out what I have written of St. Cybi’s Well, and just start fresh – those first couple of chapters were so long ago that I barely remember what I intended to do with them.  It takes (me, anyway) a lot of mental energy to juggle all the various threads in a decent novel, and I’m not ready just yet to tackle that.  But I am thinking about it, and that is a very good sign.

And I have another idea for something completely and totally unrelated, which would also be a lot of fun.  But I have to wait to get a new computer system for that – this old thing just doesn’t have the capabilities which would be required.  I would also need to learn some new software programs.  From these facts you can guess that this idea would have something to do with the ‘net, and you would be right, but that’s all I’ll say for now.

Oh, yeah, and I need to learn survival Spanish sometime before going to Patagonia in October.

It’s nice to feel this way again.

Jim Downey



I’d do it.
May 25, 2008, 10:41 am
Filed under: Mars, NASA, NYT, Science, Space, tech

Most everyone is paying attention to one thing scheduled to fall through the sky today.  That’s the Phoenix Mars Lander, and there’s good reason to do so: the lander is designed to come down softly near the north pole, and search the permafrost there for evidence that the planet was capable of supporting microbial life.  The problem is that NASA has had a string of failures in achieving such a soft landing on Mars in recent years.  From the AP:

The time it takes the Phoenix Mars Lander to streak through the atmosphere and set down on the dusty surface has been dubbed “the seven minutes of terror” for good reason. More than half of the world’s attempts to land on Mars have ended in failures.

“I’m a little nervous on the inside. I’m getting butterflies,” Peter Smith, principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said on the eve of the landing. “We bet the whole farm on this safe landing and we can’t do our science without this safe landing.”

And yeah, I’m as interested in this as most people, since I support pretty much any kind of space exploration, whether it is robotic or manned, governmental or private.

But what I’m most interested in today is whether another “fall through the sky” project comes off as scheduled.  That project is Le Grand Saut (The Big Leap).  From a New York Times story yesterday:

He has spent two decades and nearly $20 million in a quest to fly to the upper reaches of the atmosphere with a helium balloon, just so he can jump back to earth again. Now, Michel Fournier says, he is ready at last.

* * *

He intends to climb into the pressurized gondola of the 650-foot balloon, which resembles a giant jellyfish, and make a two-hour journey to 130,000 feet. At that altitude, almost 25 miles up, Fournier will see both the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth.

Then he plans to step out of the capsule, wearing only a special space suit and a parachute, and plunge in a mere 15 minutes, experiencing weightlessness along the way.

If successful, Fournier will fall longer, farther and faster than anyone in history. Along the way, he can accomplish other firsts, by breaking the sound barrier and records that have stood for nearly 50 years.

The record mentioned there?  A jump by Joseph Kittinger from over 102,000 feet that was part of Project Excelsior in 1960.  I’ve known about that jump pretty much my entire life, and always thought that it would be a fantastic experience.  It was one of the reasons why I decided that for a birthday a decade or so ago I was going to do a tandem jump from a perfectly good airplane from 12,000 feet, which included free-fall for over a mile.  I didn’t have the time nor money to take up skydiving as a hobby, but I could do that jump.  And it was a phenomenal experience that I have always cherished, adrenaline junkie that I am.

So, Fournier’s project?  Yeah, I’d do it.  No question.  And while I will be keeping my fingers crossed for Phoenix (figuratively speaking – I’m not actually superstitious), my real attention will be on one man doing something completely insane.

Jim Downey



Nothing special.

One of my favorite episodes of the SF series Babylon 5 comes in the final season (not my favorite season, by a long shot). It is episode #92, A View from the Gallery, and is unusual in that the main focus of the episode is on a couple of maintenance workers, and their ‘common man’ perspective. Here’s what the series creator, J. Michael Straczynski, had to say about the episode:

One of the things I always do is look for ways to turn the series format on its head, and show us our characters from other perspectives, since perspective is so much at the heart of the show. Whether that’s jumping forward in time, or an ISN documentary, or seeing everything through the eyes of a third party (or two), it’s always a risk, because it’s never what one expects to see, and a lot of people like to see what they expect to see.

“… a lot of people like to see what they expect to see.” Indeed.

* * * * * * *

A new study comparing our sun to the general range of ‘main sequence‘ stars has concluded that it is pretty much run-of-the-mill. And this has significant implications for the possible development of life elsewhere. From NewScientistSpace:

There’s nothing special about the Sun that makes it more likely than other stars to host life, a new study shows. The finding adds weight to the idea that alien life should be common throughout the universe.

“The Sun’s properties are consistent with it being pulled out at random from the bag of all stars,” says Charles Lineweaver from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. “Life does not seem to require anything special in its host star, other than it be close.”

And from Cosmos:

To get a better answer, Robles and his co-workers simultaneously compared 11 stellar characteristics that could plausibly influence the evolution of life.

They looked at parameters such as: the Sun’s mass; age; metallicity (the amount of elements heavier than helium and hydrogen, such as oxygen, carbon and nitrogen); as well as its rotation rate; its whereabouts within the galaxy; how it ‘bobs up and down in the galactic plane'; and the activity of its photosphere. Using statistical methods, these were measured against data available on other stars.

* * *
“When analysing the 11 properties together, the Sun shows up as a star selected at random, rather than one selected for some life-enhancing property,” Robles said. “The upshot is that there doesn’t seem to be anything special about the Sun. It seems to be a random star that was blindly pulled out of the bag of all stars.”

* * * * * * *

When I was growing up, I always wanted to think that I was special. I was that unlikely hero from so many Science Fiction stories, the kid who had some undiscovered special ability or trait that would prove to be remarkable. Believe it or not, the death of my parents just as I was entering adolescence fed this fantasy. Think about literature, and you’ll see that this is actually a fairly common trope: the orphan who discovers his ‘real’ history, and goes on to greatness. There are even elements of this in Communion of Dreams, both with the main character and with the Chinese girl. It is a very common theme.

Of course, real life isn’t like that. As smart and well educated as I was, I didn’t grow up to be particularly remarkable. I’ve had plenty of successes, plenty of failures, accomplished things which gave me a touch of fame here and there. But for the most part, I am like most people – just trying to get through life with my self-respect more or less intact.

And that’s OK. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fantasy – of having dreams and desires, goals that you work towards even though they may never be achieved in quite the way you would like. I wouldn’t have started this blog, were that not the case. But it is healthy to maintain perspective, to understand that only wishing for something will not make it so.

* * * * * * *

“… a lot of people like to see what they expect to see.”

Think about that again. JMS was talking about some of the flack he took over doing something a little bit unconventional with what had become a well established and much beloved television series. But he did not betray any of his principles, didn’t go for some kind of a cheap emotional trick. He just offered a different perspective, challenged people to open up their thinking a bit.

For centuries, one of the basic tenets of common belief was that God put us here, and that we were at the center of creation. As science has expanded our understanding, we came to realize that we weren’t at the center of creation. Or the solar system. Or the galaxy. Or the universe.

As I mentioned a few days ago, there is a growing awareness that Earth may not be unique in holding life, even intelligent life. Discovering that there is nothing particularly unusual about our local star adds to this awareness. We may be nothing special, just one island of life in a universe teeming with the stuff.

And that’s OK.

Jim Downey



I admit it. I’m an addict.

Hello, my name is Jim. I’ve got a writing problem.

Via PZ and Evolutionblog, news that blogging (and writing in general) is actually a therapeutic form of self-medication:

Blogging–It’s Good for You

Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not.

Scientists now hope to explore the neurological underpinnings at play, especially considering the explosion of blogs. According to Alice Flaherty, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, the placebo theory of suffering is one window through which to view blogging. As social creatures, humans have a range of pain-related behaviors, such as complaining, which acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied,” Flaherty says. Blogging about stressful experiences might work similarly.

Flaherty, who studies conditions such as hypergraphia (an uncontrollable urge to write) and writer’s block, also looks to disease models to explain the drive behind this mode of communication. For example, people with mania often talk too much. “We believe something in the brain’s limbic system is boosting their desire to communicate,” Flaherty explains. Located mainly in the midbrain, the limbic system controls our drives, whether they are related to food, sex, appetite, or problem solving. “You know that drives are involved [in blogging] because a lot of people do it compulsively,” Flaherty notes. Also, blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to stimulants like music, running and looking at art.

OK, I don’t know about doing it ‘compulsively’, but I do know that writing has always been a way for me to cope with stressful events in my life, and I can honestly say that writing about caring for Martha Sr for the last year of her life with Alzheimer’s helped me keep some hold on my sanity.

Likewise, writing at UTI about the absurdities of modern life, with a particular emphasis on the effect of religion and politics, allows me to blow off a little steam and keep things in perspective. Some dialog with others, getting feedback and another perspective, also helps, and is the appeal (to me) of blogging over just writing for myself. This blog has a different emphasis, though there is some overlap (and why I cross post a fair amount between the two). I tend to be more personal here, and to tie things more often to the vision of the future portrayed in Communion of Dreams.

And as addictions go, it’s a lot less self-destructive than many options.

Jim Downey

(A slightly different version of this is at UTI.)



Just sayin’.
May 23, 2008, 7:45 am
Filed under: Art, Humor, Paleo-Future, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Science Fiction, Space

Via PZ, a delightful Paleo-future T-shirt site:

Retropolis Transit Authority

The Retropolis Transit Authority welcomes you to its streamlined, ultra-retro-modern collection of apparel for the World of Tomorrow! Our shirts are colorful, high quality tees and jerseys imprinted with the cheerful advertising slogans of yesterday’s tomorrows, along with thoughtful, humorous and sometimes thought-provoking retro futuristic graphic emblems…

Now, I have a 50th birthday coming up in a few weeks.  Prefer XXL, in dark base colors.  Just sayin’.  ;)

Jim Downey




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