Communion Of Dreams


All my best ideas occur to me while I’m in the shower …

Seriously. It’s a common thing for me. Usually I shower while listening to Morning Edition or The Diane Rehm show, picking up on the news or some interesting topic of conversation. The combination of engaging my brain while relaxing my body seems to prompt intuitive leaps and interesting insights. And I had an excellent one this morning.

From back in December:

He turned the hand-held on, did a quick check to make sure it had the software and apps he’d asked for. Everything was there. He’d pick up a burner phone later, and swap the SIMM card into the hand-held.

Compare it to this passage:

He turned the hand-held on, did a quick check to make sure it had the software and apps he’d asked for. Everything was there. It was a model with a ‘super stylus’ – one end for working on the screen like any stylus, the other which had an integrated camera and microphone system wirelessly tethered to the phone. With the range of applications available, this damned near made the thing a proto-tricorder. He’d pick up a burner phone later, and swap the SIMM card into the hand-held.

 

No big deal, right? Just two additional sentences. What constitutes a minor tweak, right?

Actually, it’s the first major revision of St Cybi’s Well. Granted, I’m only about halfway done with the first draft, so calling it a revision might seem to be a bit much. But it’s not.

Consider what you could do with such a change to our current technology. My present smartphone is a Samsung Galaxy Note II. It’s a great phone, with an amazing range of applications available for it. If you added a resident decent camera and mic to the end of the stylus, combined with the right software, this thing really would be almost like a tricorder. Particularly if the quality of the camera were such that it could pick up a wider range of EMR than just normal visible light, and the mic(s) were sensitive to a wider range of sounds. You might need to add in something like an IR or UV “flash/laser” on the phone body, but doing so would allow you to do a wide range of diagnostics well outside the usual range of human vision and hearing. Just off the top of my head it would be capable of:

  • Checking surface temperatures.
  • Night vision.
  • Rangefinder.
  • Motion detection.
  • Blood oxygenation & glucose monitoring.
  • Pulse/heart monitor.
  • Echolocation.
  • The ability to look around corners or over walls, into small crevices/holes …
  • The ability to listen to distant sounds and to estimate location of same.

 

You get the idea. And pretty much all that should be possible with our present level of technology (both hardware & software), just brought together in some slightly different ways.

So yeah, just two sentences dropped into the “Prelude” to the actual novel, but which sets the stage for me to allow my characters to know and do more throughout the whole book.

Fun stuff.

 

Jim Downey

 

 

 



Artists lead the way.

One of my favorite characters in Communion of Dreams is the artist Duc Ng. Here’s the description of him when he is introduced in Chapter 2:

Duc Ng was an artist. A holo sculptor, whose specialty was slow-progression transformations. The works were beautiful, inspired, and appreciated by almost anyone who saw them. Ng had jacked-up cyberware to heighten his sensitivity, and used psychotropic drugs tailored to cause neurotransmitter activity to increase dramatically. This created an artificial synesthesia for a short period of time, during which the usual senses became blurredand intermingled, adding layer upon layer of perception.

 

Note the phrase “jacked-up cyberware”.  While it plays a role in the plot, I put this in there because I’ve always admired the way that artists are constantly pushing to adapt new technologies in the creation of their art. Here’s a passage from the beginning of Chapter6 when we first get a look at Ng using his skills:

There was just one other person in the room, standing at the side of the holo platform, hands dancing over a control board only he could see. It was Ng, dressed fittingly in a jumpsuit of the same black material from which the drapes and carpet were made.

“Isn’t that stuff hot?” asked Jon, nodding toward Ng’s clothing.

“Nah, I’ve got a coolpack plugged into it. Not as efficient as a real military stealth suit, but it works. Reduces the problems I have with creating my sculptures.”

Jon looked to the dance Ng’s hands played in the air. “About ready?”

Ng said nothing, but his fingers tapped a command in the air. Instantly, there appeared an image above the holo projector.

 

Check this out:

“These beautiful gloves help me gesturally interact with my computer,” says Heap, explaining how the wearable technology allows her to perform without having to interact with keyboards or control panels.

Pushing buttons and twiddling dials “is not very exciting for me or the audience,” she says. “[Now] I can make music on the move, in the flow and more humanly, [and] more naturally engage with my computer software and technology.”

 

There’s a brilliant video which demonstrates the potential of her gloves:

 

And she has started a Kickstarter to help develop the technology to share with other performance artists:

 

Wonderful. I’m in to support it. And yeah, I think that’s another prediction from CoD coming true.

 

Jim Downey

Via BoingBoing.



All things are possible.*

This article is … surprisingly relevant to one of the main themes of St Cybi’s Well. Near the end:

Infinity gets us tangled up in knots. How are we to establish what is normal when, in the realm of the infinite, everything is possible? It is a mind-twisting notion that an infinite multiverse would have infinitely many copies of this and every other possible kind of universe.

A quick note on the two-day promo: there were very few additional downloads of Her Final Year yesterday, for a grand total worldwide of 56 copies. A bit surprising, a little disappointing. Communion of Dreams fared much better, with a total of 1092 downloads around the world. Thanks, everyone!

 

Jim Downey

*Yup.



Wisdom Day?

OK, now that the foolishness of April First is over and done with, a quick update on how things are going in the two-day promotion.

Currently, just shy of 800 copies of Communion of Dreams have been downloaded worldwide. The bulk of those are here in the US, though there are decent numbers in Europe (including one in Italy – been a while since seen one there!) and Canada. Plus a couple in Australia and another one in India. I still think that’s really cool. Anyway, Communion of Dreams is currently #1 in the Hard Science Fiction subcategory of the free Kindle store, #11 in general Science Fiction, and #286 overall of all books. Not bad.

Her Final Year is doing less well, but still respectably, with 50+ downloads worldwide (including in India and Australia!). It is #1 in the Aging and Elderly Parents subcategories. Nice!

So, the promotion continues today: get your Kindle edition copy of either or both books, if you haven’t already done so! And remember, you don’t actually need to own a Kindle — Amazon has a free Kindle emulator for just about every platform out there.

 

Jim Downey



“Fools! You’ll never stop me!”

From giving away copies of my novel and our care-giving memoir, that is.

Yup, in *spite* of the fact that today is April Fool’s Day, or perhaps precisely BECAUSE today is April Fool’s Day, both Communion of Dreams and Her Final Year are free to download all day today. No joke. Really!

Though I’d like to think that perhaps this new review posted on Amazon is a joke:

3.0 out of 5 stars just OK, March 31, 2014
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Communion of Dreams (Kindle Edition)
usually my kind of story, but felt it took too long to get to the heart of the story. Never felt “connected” to the characters. OK for a free book

 

Ouch. Ah, well, that makes three ratings each for one, two, and three stars, out of a total of 73 ratings/reviews. Can’t make everyone happy.

But I can try, at least by making the books free to download. Today. And tomorrow. So go get yours!

 

Jim Downey



Chill, dude.

Suspended animation of one sort or another has been a staple of Science Fiction just about forever.  Of course, as such it has often been dismissed as being little more than fantasy — just a magic trick that a lazy author will resort to in order to get around some technological barrier or another. Because, you know, it’s just completely unrealistic

NEITHER dead or alive, knife-wound or gunshot victims will be cooled down and placed in suspended animation later this month, as a groundbreaking emergency technique is tested out for the first time.

Surgeons are now on call at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to perform the operation, which will buy doctors time to fix injuries that would otherwise be lethal.

“We are suspending life, but we don’t like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction,” says Samuel Tisherman, a surgeon at the hospital, who is leading the trial. “So we call it emergency preservation and resuscitation.”

Yeah, you certainly wouldn’t want it to sound like Science Fiction. ‘Cause that stuff’s just nuts.

*sigh*

I’ve written previously about ‘mundane science fiction‘, the idea being that we have to stick with what we know to be technologically realistic. The thing is, what we consider to be technologically “realistic” keeps changing, often in surprising ways. I remember the energy crisis of the mid-’70′s, and when US energy independence was considered to be little more than a fantasy talking-point of presidents. Well, the US currently produces more oil than we consume. Sure, it has come with real costs/problems, but it is nonetheless true. (And actually, I think that sort of trade-off makes for a more interesting Science Fiction story overall, exploring both the benefits and problems of new technologies.)

Clarke had it right: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  That doesn’t give a Science Fiction writer complete latitude to just make shit up. But it also cautions against dismissing any technology as “unrealistic” out-of-hand.

Just ask the first person who will be saved due to “emergency preservation and resuscitation.” Chances are, sometime later this year you’ll be able to do so on his/her cell phone.

Jim Downey



Timescales.

One of the things which has always really interested me is how the perception/experience of time is so very … plastic. Partly that is because of curiosity about the nature of time itself, but partly it is also because the experience of time is so highly variable between species* and even individuals. Personally, I have been through experiences when subjective time dilation completely changed my perception of reality. There are some hints/references about this interest in Communion of Dreams, and there will be others in St Cybi’s Well, but I have yet to really get into dealing with the notion directly.

Anyway, that’s why things like this always fascinate me:

 

Jim Downey

*I went to college with one of Dr. Forward’s kids, and had the pleasure to hear him give guest lectures/chat with him prior to his first novel being published.



Go for a joyride in somebody’s brain.*

Carl Zimmer has put up a really interesting piece about recent developments which allow for visualization of brain structures which I would recommend:

Flying Through Inner Space

It’s hard to truly see the brain. I don’t mean to simply see a three-pound hunk of tissue. I mean to see it in a way that offers a deep feel for how it works. That’s not surprising, given that the human brain is made up of over 80 billion neurons, each branching out to form thousands of connections to other neurons. A drawing of those connections may just look like a tangle of yarn.

As I wrote in the February issue of National Geographic, a number of neuroscientists are charting the brain now in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. And out of these surveys, an interesting new way to look at the brain is emerging. Call it the brain fly-through. The brain fly-through only became feasible once scientists started making large-scale maps of actual neurons in actual brains. Once they had those co-ordinates in three-dimensional space, they could program a computer to glide through it. The results are strangely hypnotic.

Yeah, they are, and also very cool. One of the most interesting developments is a new program called the Glass Brain which is powerful enough to allow you to see how the brain is working in real time. From the article:

Imagine, if you will, putting on an EEG cap and looking at a screen showing you what’s happening in your brain at the moment you’re looking at it. That’s what this system promises.

The diagnostic and training potential is obvious. And if you consider the implications a bit, this could be a big step towards a true mind/machine interface. And then all bets are off for what could happen next.

 

Jim Downey

*Referencing Dust to Dust.

And a side-note. While I don’t make a big deal of it in Communion of Dreams, if you stop and think of the descriptions I use for the super-conducting ‘gel’ found on Titan, and what is revealed about it, you might notice that it would seem very similar to how neurons in the brain are structured and behave, though on a vastly different scale … ;)



Coming soon, to a reality near you.

There are over 70 reviews of Communion of Dreams on Amazon, and if you poke around online you’ll find a bunch more. In addition, I’ve heard from countless friends and fans about the book in private messages and chats. And one of the most common things people will note is just how much they like the character of Seth, the Expert/AI executive assistant for the main character, Jon. The book opens with Seth contacting Jon about something which has come up, and you can get a sense of how useful such a virtual assistant could be:

“Sorry to bother you, Jon, but you’ll need to come back immediately. Business. I’ve made the arrangements. Transport waiting for you in town, take you to Denver. Then commercial flight home.” Audio only. That meant a lot. Tighter beam, easier to encode and keep private. Security protocol.

He wondered if something had gone wrong with the Hawking, the experimental long-range ship undergoing trials, based out at Titan. That was about the only thing he could think of that would require his cutting short his first vacation in four years. No use in asking. “All right. Give me a few minutes to pack my things, and I’ll get started.”

“Understood.”

“And contact my family, let them know I’m on my way back. “

“Will do. Anything else?”

“Not at present. See you when I get there.”

Of course, CoD is set in 2052, and there have been huge advances in technology which allow for a very natural interaction between a human and a computer.

What’s been fun for me in writing St Cybi’s Well, set in our own time (well, actually, in October 2012), is that I get to plant the seeds for the technology which then shows up in Communion of Dreams. And one of those seeds is an Android app which is a ‘virtual assistant’ named Andi. It’s er, not quite up to Seth’s standards:

Darnell sat there, scanned the blog post. As he read, the assistant repeated “The page you requested is displayed on your screen. Do you need something else?”

“Um, yeah. How about a map to St. Seiriol’s Well?”

“A map is now displayed on your screen. You are presently at the location of St. Seiriol’s Well. Do you need something else?”

“I’m not at the Well. I’m in the parking lot. Where is the Well itself?”

“I’m sorry, available maps indicate you are presently at the Well. Do you need something else?”

“Go back to the Well Hopper site.”

“Very good. The page you requested is displayed on your screen. Do you need something else?”

 

A bit annoying, eh? Well, the people who have been reading the early chapters of the book have certainly thought so. Which was exactly what I was going for. Because technology doesn’t arrive fully developed. It shows up in an early, buggy form, and then gets improved over time. Think back to when we all had dial-up modems: they were annoying, klunky, and expensive … but they also were very, very cool because they allowed us to “get online”.

Anyway, I had to chuckle over a story on NPR yesterday afternoon which reminded me of this. Here’s the intro:

We’re already giving voice instructions to virtual personal assistants, like Apple’s Siri. But artificial intelligence is getting even smarter. The next wave of behavior-changing computing is a technology called anticipatory computing — systems that learn to predict what you need, even before you ask.

Google Now, which is available on tablets and mobile devices, is an early form of this. You can ask it a question like, “Where is the White House?” and get a spoken-word answer. Then, Google Now recognizes any follow-up questions, like “How far is it from here?” as a human would — the system realizes you’re still asking about the White House, even without you mentioning the search term again. It’s an example of how anticipatory computing is moving the way we interact with devices from tapping or typing to predictive voice control.

It wasn’t a prediction on my part to see this development, rather just paying attention to the current technology and tweaking it a bit to fit into the alternate timeline of CoD/SCW. But still, kinda fun to see things going just the way I envision.

 

Jim Downey



Bank your voice.

A somewhat related item on NPR this morning reminded me of an idea I had a while back. The gist of it:

Come up with a simple computer/smartphone app which would contain a few hundred basic words which you just read aloud and record. Save the file, and later it could be used for basic communication should you not have direct use of your voice for whatever reason.

Speech scientists/therapists could compile the standard list of words (for whatever language), perhaps with “expansion packs” of additional words some people might want to also record. When you have a few free minutes, you just run down the list, say a few words and save it. Then later you could use something like a standard text-message app to compose the words into sentences for ease of communication, and the app would just plug your recorded words into place.

It wouldn’t have the normal sort of nuance of inflection that comes with natural speech (though there may be a simple way around that — I’m not knowledgeable enough to know), but at least it would be in your own voice.

Who would use such a thing? Well, all of us face temporary or permanent loss of our voice throughout our lives, for all kinds of reasons. So there’s that. But I could also see uses where the app could be mated with any email or texting use, so that the recipient could directly hear you “talking” to them with it. I would think that it would have all kinds of uses beyond that, as well.

Just a thought.  If someone wants to come up with such a thing, cut me in for a percentage, will you?

Jim Downey

PS: Hmm, I may have to incorporate this kind of tech into St Cybi’s Well. I can think of a few ways it could be useful …

PPS: Following posting this, I contacted one of the speech scientists mentioned in the NPR program this morning, Dr. Rupal Patel. And while it isn’t exactly the same sort of thing I envision, she did share with me the effort she is involved with, which has an app currently in beta testing: http://vocalid.org/ Looks like a very worthwhile endeavor, check it out and ‘donate’ your voice.




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