Communion Of Dreams

Welcome to our old friend, the Plague, version 2.0

In this post from last week, I talked about the relevant issues confronting us with pandemic threats such as the bubonic plague. Well, as you may have heard over the last day or so, public health authorities have acted to impose quarantine restrictions on a man with a drug-resistant form of TB. He’s now being treated with antibiotics as the authorities try and back-track his recent trip to Europe and see who he may have exposed to this particularly nasty strain of the disease.

In my early thinking about the ‘fire-flu’ which forms the back-story of Communion, I was intending on it being a strain of influenza which had developed resistance to early anti-viral treatments. I thought I’d have a series of serious but not pandemic flu strains weaken the global economy, and then have a really nasty one hit that was drug resistant. But so few people understand about the problems presented by widespread and inappropriate antibiotic use, that I gave on on that mechanism, figuring that it would just take too much explanation. Going with the ‘weaponized’ form of flu gave me some additional plot devices to work with, as becomes clear when you read the book.

But that doesn’t mean that the threat isn’t real. In fact, the reaction of the public health authorities is telling, I think. They know that having a nasty, drug-resistant form of TB widely spread by someone this way is a very serious threat, and could easily present a huge problem, and turn back the public-health clock 100 years.


Jim Downey


A suggestion early on was that I do a series of podcasts of the book.  The topic came up over dinner with friends the other evening, too, with my friends (only one of whom has read the book) being very positive about the idea.

I’ve got some experience in radio and public speaking.  I think I could do this, though it would require me to relax in my speaking style (my good lady wife, when I bounced this idea off of her this morning, was somewhat more frank than my friends about my tendency to become “RadioMan!”…you can see what she means in this interview I did with NPR almost 6 years ago), and go with something more conversational.  It would also require me to go through the learning curve and get the necessary components (hardware and software) to produce the podcasts, though I’m less concerned about that.

Given that at this time I find it difficult to maintain the kind of concentration necessary to be working on a new long piece of fiction, this might give me an additional creative outlet.  It could also help to market the book, and is a strategy being used by many other authors.

So, if you have some thoughts on the matter, or some advice to offer, I’d love to hear it.

Jim Downey

View of the Street

Via MetaFilter and O’Reilly comes news of a new Google service: StreetView. This is the first step into a true ‘augmented reality’, such as I envision for Communion of Dreams. For right now you’ll need to be in one of the few locations offered, and have to have your laptop or some other suitable device running, but this is still a big advancement. With StreetView, you can move through real space, seeing clear images of your immediate environment overlaid with location and directional information. Go play with it – it’s a fun tool that you need to use to really appreciate.

It’s still a long way until there is a seamless overlay provided by your own expert system, projected onto contact lenses so you can just move through real space without hassle, but this is clearly where we’re headed. I do so love to see real tech coming online that supports my predictions of what the world will be like in 50 years…

Jim Downey

Matter of principle.
May 29, 2007, 12:39 pm
Filed under: Book Conservation, Depression, Feedback, General Musings, Society

When I was still new to being in business as a bookbinder, I had someone call me one morning about doing some conservation work to a musical instrument. After I carefully explained that I was a book conservator, not an artifact conservator, they said that what they needed was the replacement of a small piece of leather which had been pared down to suitable thickness and then mounted, and that there wasn’t anyone in 100 miles who could do this for him. The guy practically begged me to help him out. Finally, I relented, and told him to bring the instrument in so that I could see what exactly he was talking about, but I made no promise that I would do the work.

He was in that afternoon. Opened up his case, took out his instrument. It was an accordian, about a century old. Needed a small piece of leather to function as part of the bellows assembly, if I remember correctly. Wasn’t very big, just a few inches across and about the same wide, and would need to be mounted under a strip of metal on each side. But the leather would have to be pared down very thin – a simple, but time-consuming task. I told him that it would take altogether about an hour and a half of my time, and with materials would run about $50.00 (my rates were only $25.00 an hour then).

He looked at me like I was nuts. “But it’s only a little piece of leather!”

“Well, yeah, but it’s going to take me 90 minutes to prep the piece, remove the old piece, mount the new one, and get everything secure.”

“But this thing is only worth about that much,” he protested. “I won’t make any money on it if I pay you that much to fix it. How about $10.00?”

I sent him on his way. And learned that it was pointless for me to try and help people who don’t really need it or want it. Unless someone values my services, and wants them applied in a suitable fashion, it doesn’t make any sense for me to try and convince them otherwise.

Which brings me back to this post, which generated some good feedback here and at UTI, and in private correspondence. I’ve thought a lot about this matter over the last several days, and thanks to the discussions I’ve had I’ve come to understand that this, like the above episode, is a matter of principle for me. And the principle is that I cannot force these people to do the right thing – I can only offer my services in a suitable manner, at a fair price, and then let them decide for themselves what the best course of action is for them. It’s not my job to save the world, or even to save the books in this collection from the people who now own them. It is simply my job to do good work when contracted by those who want my services. The rest is on their shoulders.

Jim Downey

Sometimes, you wonder…
May 28, 2007, 9:57 am
Filed under: General Musings, Publishing, Society, Writing stuff

…why anyone would even bother wanting to have a book printed any more these days.

Tom Wayne has amassed thousands of books in a warehouse during the 10 years he has run his used book store, Prospero’s Books.

His collection ranges from best sellers, such as Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October” and Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” to obscure titles, like a bound report from the Fourth Pan-American Conference held in Buenos Aires in 1910. But when he wanted to thin out the collection, he found he couldn’t even give away books to libraries or thrift shops; they said they were full.

So on Sunday, Wayne began burning his books in protest of what he sees as society’s diminishing support for the printed word.

“This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today,” Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

From this story.  And it’s depressing enough that I don’t think I have anything else to add, except to note that it has now been three full months since I sent off my batch of queries, and have yet to hear back from 5 of the 7 agents I contacted.  All of whom stated that they would respond within a month…

Jim Downey

It’s all about image.
May 25, 2007, 11:35 am
Filed under: Book Conservation, General Musings, Society

This week I had cause to travel to a nearby city for business, responding to a query I’d received about my conservation services. A small private educational institution had recently acquired a large collection of books of historical interest, and they wanted me to take a look at the collection and give them some kind of estimate on what the costs might involve. This is a fairly typical request, and I’m used to discussing these matters with the appropriate staff and administrators.

However, when I got to the appointed meeting, it quickly became clear that in the mind of the administrators, “conservation care” meant exactly one thing: rebinding all the books to look new. To make the collection all nice and pretty, like one of those fake bookshelf sets in some office or as a movie prop.

Huh? Why on earth would someone want to take books ranging back to about 1500, and turn them into this kind of visual wallpaper? I mean, this sort of thing was done by rich collectors who just wanted to show off their impressive personal libraries in the 17th and 18th centuries, without care for what the books really contained. Why would a learning institution want to do such a thing?

Because, as the Vice President for Institutional Development told me, it’d be easier to get big-money donors to contribute to something that would have a strong visual impact like that. The protection and care – even the USE – of the books themselves was entirely a secondary consideration. In fact, the sort of rebinding they were wanting, if done poorly or with machine efficiency, would damage the bindings of the books and make them less usable. But that wasn’t what was important. The image of all those books in fancy cases was what was important. This, at an accredited school offering advanced graduate degrees.

They hadn’t considered – weren’t even aware that it was an option – the proper care of the books with an eye towards preserving their unique historical value as artifacts reflecting the time they were written and published, or the way those artifacts carried with them a record of their use and care over the centuries. They simply knew that the books were old, and could be just rebound to make them look “more impressive”, and to use that to leverage money out of donors. This is all about image in their minds…the image presented to get donors. Since most people don’t really give a shit about books (sad, but true), how they look on a bookshelf is more important than either functionality or even content.

So I talked with them for some length, opened up the whole new realm for them of actual conservation care. I have three bindings to work on to show them what I mean, and how it would save the historical character of the books. The chief librarian was all for my approach (no surprise there) and was relieved that it was the position I took. And I can get a couple of authorities on curatorial care of Special Collections to back me up, plus plenty of online sources. But I am somewhat skeptical that the necessary comprehension will sink in.

Still, I’ll make a good faith effort to convince them, and save their collection from the horrors of just being turned into a photo prop. We’ll see. I hate to see a real collection of books ruined.

And I hate to think what this says about the larger values of our society.

Jim Downey
(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

Birthday party for Robert A. Heinlein.

Via BoingBoing, info about a Heinlein Centennial celebration to be held in my neck of the woods 7/7/07:

July 7, 2007 – 07/07/07! – will be the birth centennial of American author, futurist, philosopher and spaceflight advocate Robert A. Heinlein. The science fiction Grandmaster’s Centennial year will be marked with a grand event on the weekend of July 6, 7 and 8 in his home town of Kansas City, Missouri.

The clock is ticking down, and only weeks remain before this exceptional event. The time is now now NOW! to make your plans to join us for this huge, once in a lifetime gathering, remembrance and birthday celebration. Whether you’re a science fiction fan, a student of Heinlein’s work and legacy or involved with the growing world of commercial spaceflight… This is where you’ll want to be that weekend. Don’t miss out!

Hmm…KC is only about 2 hours away from me…may need to see what’s going on that weekend…could be a chance to do a little networking, meet some people (the list of participants includes quite a number of interesting people, from Buzz Aldrin to moviemakers to SF luminaries…)

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)


This is an old clip, from the TED2006 conference, with Jeff Han making a presentation about his multi-touch sensing interface. I got into a discussion with friends the other night, and had reason to look this up to share it with them, thought I would post it here:

This is pretty much the sort of interface I envisioned for Communion, though done entirely as a ‘virtual’ tech made possible by the AI entities I call ‘experts’, coupled with the integrated cyberware that the characters have. But of course, having it as a physical object first makes sense, and can be considered to be an antecedent to my predictions of how the technology will develop.

Anyway, it’s a long clip, but very intriguing.

Jim Downey

Welcome our old friend, the Plague.
May 22, 2007, 12:10 pm
Filed under: Flu, General Musings, Pandemic, Plague, Predictions, Science Fiction, Society

We, as a species, have already experienced pandemics countless times. And we have seen pandemics alter or almost wipe out entire advanced civilizations many times in recorded history. There’s the impact of the Black Death in Europe during the 14th century, which killed off about one-third of the population and arguably lead to the destruction of the feudal system. And the collapse of native American culture due to smallpox being introduced to a vulnerable population. And to a greatly lesser extent, but closer to our own society, is the Spanish Flu of 1918, which I used as a starting point for considering the potential of the fire-flu in Communion of Dreams.

Via today’s Rude Pundit, comes word of the advent of our old friend, the plague – this time occuring in squirrels and monkeys in Denver:

The point here is not that the plague is “back” or any such shit. We know that it never goes away in America, especially out on the flea-ridden varmints of the West. But there’s a reason that Spanky’s story is getting more play than the fact that New Mexico had its first plague case this year, a man who got it from, of course, a flea bite. It’s because as long as the plague stays rural, it’s distant, it’s not a cause of concern to the majority of us who stay esconced in our cities. But if Denver’s puss-squirting squirrels are dropping like flies and killing the zoo monkeys, well, shit, all of a sudden the plague is very fuckin’ real. And Colorado’s gotta do something about it before some white child gets it.

I mention this for several reasons. One, I just like the Rude Pundit’s blog. Two, he’s right about the plague never really going away – it is endemic among several animal populations, which function as a disease reservior (and a great place for mutations to occur). Three, he highlights the fundamental problem: we ignore the threat until it suddenly shows up on our doorstep.

And then it is potentially too late. Yeah, modern antibiotics can treat most forms of the plague known. But all it takes is one nasty mutation, and we may well be left defenseless against this old enemy. In fact, I considered using the Bubonic Plague just that way, rather than going with the “fire-flu”. But even in a worst case scenario, plague would still likely respond to broad-spectrum antibiotics. I decided for my book to go with something viral, since modern medicine has many fewer tools to cope with such a threat.

Besides, in the event of a pandemic such as I stipulate for Communion‘s history, we will undoubtably see the re-emergence of many different secondary epidemics, as the infrastructure of our highly interdependent society grinds to a halt. Charming thought, eh?

Jim Downey


The tech of Communion of Dreams is based on a seamless connectivity of almost all electronic components – it is what enables the AI/expert systems such as Seth to move freely through the world on behalf of their clients, augmenting reality in such a way as to allow for much deeper insight and understanding of the world. I don’t say it explicitly in the book, but in part this level of connectivity is what allows for the actual development of true artificial intelligence (an homage to Heinlein’sThe Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

Via BoingBoing comes news that Tim Wu has an excellent piece up about the forthcoming auction of wireless spectrum, and how it presents the opportunity to encourage the kind of innovation necessary for the world of Communion to become possible. Wu, a leader in the promotion of net neutrality and broadband tech, understands that establishing common standards and then allowing inventors to attach their gadgets to wireless networks will be the critical infrastructure of the future. An excerpt:

The right to attach is a simple concept, and it has worked powerfully in other markets. For example, in the wired telephone world Carterfone rules are what made it possible to market answering machines, fax machines and the modems that sparked the Internet revolution.

Attachment rights can break open markets that might otherwise be controlled by dominant gatekeepers. Longshot companies like Ebay or YouTube might never have been born had they first needed the approval of a risk-averse company like AT&T. If you’ve invented a new toaster, you don’t have to get approval from the electric company. Consumers decide how good your product is, not some gatekeeper.

It’s an excellent position paper, all the better for being brief and to the point. Read it, share it.

Jim Downey