Communion Of Dreams

“The terrorists don’t like art.”
June 13, 2007, 1:10 pm
Filed under: Art, Iraq, Religion, Society, Violence

A piece by Melik Kaylan titled “The Last Active Art Gallery in Baghdad” really hits home for me. I’ve mentioned before that I owned and operated a gallery of fine art for 8 years (for full info, see here), and something about some of the religious intolerance I had to deal with in that capacity.

But nothing like this:

Among the agonies imposed on Baghdad by tormentors in the guise of self-appointed religious enforcers is the proscription of fun. Novelty, convenience, any kind of post-Quranic ease from hardship infuriates them. Ice cream is an abomination, as is mechanized garbage collection, because such delights didn’t exist in the time of the prophet. A story is told that last year, on a road overtaken by jihadis, a DVD purveyor was ordered to close because DVDs didn’t exist in the time of the prophet. “Neither did the BMW you drove up in,” he responded. “When you come back and tell me again on a camel, then I’ll listen.” They shot him some days later, for his insolence.

Imagine, therefore, the onus of courage on anyone who dares open an art gallery, let alone keeps it running since January 2006 with 26 shows and as many receptions.

I might give the religious here a hard time, for their lack of open-mindedness, or believing in a sky-daddy, or what have you. And they deserve it. But reading something like this column tends to put all that in perspective.

Go read the whole thing, but here’s the closing passage:

A visit to Hasan’s friend Salam, one street over, shows how hard the task is. Salam opened his own gallery in 2004 and closed it in fear, in early 2006, after two employees were killed. It hasn’t reopened since. “I invested everything,” Salam says. The place remains pristine, perfectly curated with sculptures and paintings in several rooms untouched and unshown for eight months. “This street, there’s no embassy; the terrorists run around,” he says. “I am just a private project. I wait every day. The terrorists don’t like art.”


Jim Downey

(Cross posted at UTI.)


OK, let’s get something out of the way: I think that J. Michael Straczynski is a genius (hey, he loves Twain and The Prisoner – what more do you need to know about the guy?) . I’m addicted to his TV series Babylon 5 and its spin-off Crusade (basically, when I don’t have something else I want to see, I just cycle through the entire series and movies). So when I heard that JMS was working on a new Bab 5 project for direct-to-DVD release called “The Lost Tales”…well, like millions of other fans, I got a bit excited.

Now the trailer is out:


Jim Downey

Via Show Me SciFi.

Hey, cave-man.

Heinlein made a comment somewhere along in one of his books/stories that all architecture was basically humans just trying to build a better cave (from “And He Built a Crooked House”?)  The notion stuck with me when I read it in my youth, and seemed to play out in a lot of the offbeat architecture of the 60s and 70s.  One good example from Paleo-FutureMaison Bulle in France, originally designed by Antti Lovag.

The problem with all such structures is that they leak.  Well, that they are prone to leaking, anyway.  Getting away from standard building design means that you are relying on the builders to sort out how to translate what the architect comes up with to a finished, real, building.  And that means using non-standard materials and techniques.  Which may be visually exciting, and ground-breaking in terms of design, but can lead to functional problems that can make a building almost uninhabitable.

For Communion, I have a passing mention that structual design elements used in building space habitats had been adapted to use on Earth, incorporating new materials and tensegrity.  My thought was that during a period of rapid exploration and the beginnings of colonization, the images of buildings in space would appeal to the culture here on Earth, and be particularly suited to the home of the US Settlement Authority.  But really, I should have a throw-away line in there somewhere (perhaps in the scene in the cafeteria when Jon and Magurshak are having lunch, looking out over the city) about the fact that the damn roof still has leakage problems…

Jim Downey

More Philip K. Dick in the NYT.

Brent Staples has a good opinion piece in today’s New York Times, titled: Philip K. Dick: A Sage of the Future Whose Time Has Finally Come.    Staples notes that Dick is now getting the kind of recognition he deserves (see also this post on the subject previously), but I was particularly struck with the ending:

The science fiction writer’s job is to survey the future and report back to the rest of us. Dick took this role seriously. He spent his life writing in ardent defense of the human and warning against the perils that would flow from an uncritical embrace of technology. As his work becomes more popular, readers who know him only from the movies will find it even darker and more disturbing — and quite relevant to the technologically obsessed present.

I couldn’t agree more.

Jim Downey

Genetic manipulation.

As I mention in the post below, one of the technical weaknesses of the novel is in the biology behind Ling’s genetic make-up and what happens when people come in contact with the alien artifact.

[Spoilers ahead].

This is largely due to my own lack of a solid background in biology, so I would not be in the slightest bit surprised to discover that I made some errors in the ‘explanation’ in the book about how genetic manipulation was used to reach back into the human genome’s history and pull out some traits which are no longer apparent in modern humans.

Then again, such things as residual genetic coding manifesting in oddball body structures are not really that rare, as this recent article in Discover demonstrates. From the article:

Nearly a century and a quarter after Darwin’s death, science still can’t offer a full explanation for why one outdated anatomic trait lingers in the gene pool and another goes. Modern genomics research has revealed that our DNA carries broken genes for things that seem as though they might be useful, like odor receptors for a bloodhound’s sense of smell or enzymes that once enabled us to make our own vitamin C. In a few million years, humans may very well have shed a few more odd features.

In reading this article yesterday, I was surprised not by the amount of useless genetic information remains in our genome, but just how prevalent the actual expression of such material is in humans. There are substantial variations in the human body in terms of who has what kinds of left-over ‘useless’ body parts:


Often mistaken for a nerve by freshman medical students, the muscle was useful to other primates for grasping with their feet. It has disappeared altogether in 9 percent of the population.


Our closest cousins, chimpanzees and gorillas, have an extra set of ribs. Most of us have 12, but 8 percent of adults have the extras.



More than 20 percent of us lack this tiny, triangular pouchlike muscle that attaches to the pubic bone. It may be a relic from pouched marsupials.

A personal aside: I was born with an extra toe (complete with additional metatarsal structures) on my left foot. This was likely due to some small hiccup in my embryonic development rather than either a mutation or the expression of residual genetic material. Nonetheless, it still gets interest from any doctor, and was one of the reasons for my assumption that there is greater ‘uniformity’ between human body structures that there actually is.

So, when you read that part of the book, cut me a little slack – maybe there really is something lurking in the “junk” of our DNA which would allow for Ling’s psychic abilities…something which the artifact could ‘activate’, allowing humankind to have the ability for psychic/faith healing.

Jim Downey

A friend weighs in.
June 6, 2007, 8:19 am
Filed under: Feedback, Predictions, Publishing, Science Fiction, tech, Writing stuff

JK, a good friend of mine, just had a chance to read the novel through for the first time, and sent me a response. He’s clearly going be biased by his friendship, but I still thought that it might be interesting to see the email exchange we had. Caution: [Major Spoilers Ahead.] JK’s comments are in italics, my replies after.

I really liked the book. For what it’s worth, I expected the return of the fire flu and guessed that Mallory was the carrier and that there was likely to be something screwy about the cyberwear he made, guessed that Gates had some strong connection to the clones, figured that Darnell had told earth about the artifact.

I’m not sure whether this was due to reading it so slowly that I had ample time to consider and reconsider or if it a result of my analyzing everything these days. As I restrict my access to the general noise in the human world I find myself looking deeper into those bits I do let in. It’s been getting to the point that when I take Tasha for walks that I have to remind myself about that little physics story – and that the sky is simply blue and has birds in it 🙂

Heheheheehehehe. I’m not in the slightest bothered that you were able to figure out those things – in fact, I’m glad to hear it. I was very careful to build the necessary clues into the narrative so that anyone could go back and find them. That carries a risk that a few people who are reading carefully and are smart enough will pick up on some or all of the ‘mysteries’. That you did so just means that I did a good job in having sufficient information there to draw the legitimate conclusions later – that I was ‘playing fair’ with my reader.

Anyway, I loved how you developed the action around my expectations. And the biggest surprise to me was the “use” of the artifact. I had really been convinced from early on it was going to be an alien art show direct to the solar system and the gel was part of the power system required for the “beaming” into our heads.

An interesting idea. I hope that the final revelation was nonetheless satisfactory, and fit the available data.

As I mentioned earlier, I found it especially entertaining to have the clear references to current and recent past happenings.

Good, good.

The only technical part I keep coming back to is the experts and their trouble with non-inertial frames. I haven’t gone back through all of it so the following is “lose”. The experts can’t travel well on the space transports but they can seemingly do ok with the quick change of the AG systems. I know for several of the technologies you mentioned oddities in the theories surrounding them. I don’t recall details about the AG that would explain the differences, but then I read Chapter one more than 6 weeks ago and I am nearing 50 🙂

Nah, it is a fair criticism. There are two ‘weak’ spots in the tech of the book – that is one of them, and the other is the biology which lead to the creation of Ling with her latent abilities (which, interestingly enough, I was going to blog about this morning). My only defense is that it *is* science fiction, and while I make a good-faith effort to keep everything working and compliant with science as we understand it today, there is some slop allowed for the effects of the artifact and discoveries we’ve not made yet.

The quickening of the pace of the story in the final chapters was exhilarating! To quote a hackneyed phrase – I couldn’t put it down. Really. I read straight through from C 15 to the end (letting the weeds have a reprieve 🙂 )

Excellent. Paul [another friend] and I were talking about this last night, and he said that he just couldn’t understand people who wouldn’t feel compelled by the book this way. I know I have had a couple of people tell me that was the case. Then again, I have had several tell me that they dived in and didn’t put it down until they were finished 12 or 13 hours later. I don’t expect *everyone* to love it, or even like it – people have different tastes, and that’s OK.


My pleasure. With your permission, I’d like to post this entire exchange on the blog, since it might just help some agent or publisher to see that there is a readership out there for the thing. I’ll not ID you other than by initials, unless you want to claim ID.

Well, about time to get MMIL up, get the morning really going.

So, there it is. Draw your own conclusions, or make your own comments.

Jim Downey

Fahrenheit 451: “It’s not about censorship.”

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands.This, despite the fact that reviews, critiques and essays over the decades say that is precisely what it is all about. Even Bradbury’s authorized biographer, Sam Weller, in The Bradbury Chronicles, refers to Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship.Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

Ray Bradbury has a subtle point to make in trying to change how we view his novel Fahrenheit 451, saying that the death of reading is more important than the imposition of censorship. It is a valid point, and shows some of the depth the author has now, and indeed had even at the time of the writing of the book, since the text is clear in how he saw the possibility of his dystopia occuring.

But this does not make the generations of scholars, teachers and readers wrong when they focus on the overarching role of censorship by the government in the novel. Bradbury has a right to point to the additional messages and meanings of his work, as any author does. But in some very important ways, the way the work is understood beyond the author’s own intent is just as valid, perhaps moreso. Any text is a living document, seen with new eyes each generation – eyes that understand it in the context of their own lives, their own experience, their own society. This is how we read any great work of literature, from the Bible to Declaration of Independence. Jefferson may have penned his document as a justification of colonial rebellion against England, but it is now seen in a broader context, as one of the great treatise of human rights. George Orwell may well have been writing a cautionary tale about the future of the Soviet Union, the West, and Asia, but we understand 1984 now as a more general warning of the power of a fascist state to control, corrupt and destroy anyone it wishes.

Ray Bradbury is welcome to add to the discussion of his work, to provide information for his intent in writing it, to explain his understanding of the most important message it contains. We, as readers, should listen to his thoughts on the book. But his comments are not definitive, rather are part of a dialog between author and reader. Just as he brought his experience and understanding of the world to the writing of the book, we must bring our own experience and understanding of the world to the reading of it. Fahrenheit 451 may not be about censorship, but drawing the lesson from it that censorship is to be avoided is completely legitimate.

Jim Downey

(Via a comment from Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing. Cross posted to UTI.)

Well, it *sounded* like a good idea…

A friend sent me a link to a CNET news item from last week about how a new ‘color alphabet’ was going to revolutionize communications. From the article:

Lee Freedman has waited a long time, but he thinks the moment is finally right to spring on the world the color alphabet he invented as a 19-year-old at Mardi Gras in 1972.

For 35 years, between stints as a doctor, a real estate agent and a pizza maker at the Woodstock concert in 1994, Freedman has been working on Kromofons–an innovative alphabet in which the 26 English letters are represented solely by individual colors–waiting for technology to catch up with him.

And now, thanks to the Internet, the ubiquity of color monitors, Microsoft Word plug-ins and his being able to launch a Kromofons-based e-mail system, Freedman thinks he is finally ready.

Well, maybe.

Science fiction authors have used various tricks at evolving language and written communications, one of the most memorable for me being Heinlein’s Speedtalk from the novella Gulf. And working in other senses is a common tactic, up to and including extra-sensory perception (such as telepathy). This is part of the way I use synesthesia in Communion of Dreams: as a method by which the human brain can layer meaning and information in new ways, expanding the potential for understanding the world. It is noteworthy that many synesthetes will associate colors with a given word or even letter – it may be possible that Lee Freedman drew upon such an experience to create his color alphabet.

(An aside – I have experienced mild episodes of synesthesia upon several occasions. Sometimes these episodes have been induced by drugs, sometimes by intense concentration, sometimes of their own accord. I think that this is a latent ability everyone has, but not something which we usually access, because it is poorly understood by the general populace.)

Anyway, while Kromofons or something similar is certainly possible in the context of computer display (of almost any variety, including nano-tech paint) , there are some real limitations that I can see. First off, you wouldn’t want to have to have a full set of color pencils/markers and keep changing them in order to just write something down in the ‘real world’. Printed material of whatever variety would also be subject to degradation from light-fading: some pigments fade more quickly than others, some inks are more frail than others, some colors react to different lighting conditions in different ways. (Those are all problems I’ve experienced as a book & document conservator, as well as owning a gallery of art.) Even in the world of computer display, variations in lighting and equipment could render some colors ‘untrue’. Not to mention problems experienced by people as they age and color perception skews, or from the small but real percentage of the population which suffers from one type or another of color blindness. Sure, a good AI or expert system would be able to ‘translate’ for people who had such limitations, in the context of augmented reality, but that tech isn’t currently available except in its very infancy.

So, while I enjoy a slightly-nutty idea as much as the next person, and can see some ways that Kromofons could be used for fun, I don’t really see the idea going too far.

Jim Downey

Yeah, what he said.

There’s a very good column by Eugene Robinson in Friday’s Washington Post, about the need for someone with some smarts in the Oval office. From the piece:

One thing that should be clear to anyone who’s been paying attention these past few years is that we need to go out and get ourselves the smartest president we can find. We need a brainiac president, a regular Mister or Miss Smarty-Pants. We need to elect the kid you hated in high school, the teacher’s pet with perfect grades.

When I look at what the next president will have to deal with, I don’t see much that can be solved with just a winning smile, a firm handshake and a ton of resolve. I see conundrums, dilemmas, quandaries, impasses, gnarly thickets of fateful possibility with no obvious way out. Iraq is the obvious place he or she will have to start; I want a president smart enough to figure out how to minimize the damage.

And even better:

Actually, I want a president smart enough to know a good deal about science. He or she doesn’t have to be able to do the math, but I want a president who knows that the great theories underpinning our understanding of the universe — general relativity and quantum mechanics — have stood for nearly a century and proved stunningly accurate, even though they describe a world that is more shimmer than substance. I want him or her to know that there’s a lot we still don’t know.

I want the next president to be intellectually curious — and also intellectually honest. I want him or her to understand the details, not just the big picture. I won’t complain if the next president occasionally uses a word I have to look up.

I wasn’t the smartest kid in my high school. But I was pretty damn close. I certainly wasn’t the smartest kid at my college – Grinnell was full of people as smart or smarter than me. But I have never, ever understood the instinct that some people have that their president should be someone “they’d want to have a beer with”. I don’t want to have a beer with them. I want them to bust their ass working to fix the myriad problems we face, or at least to mitigate the impact of those problems while we work to solve them over the long term. Not just Iraq, or terrorism, but Peak Oil, global warming, health care, the threat of a pandemic, rebuilding New Orleans, rebuilding the National Guard, et cetera, et cetera. I want someone who is at least as smart as I am, who is at least as well educated, who has some real life experience beyond just getting elected to office, and who has shown that they are actually competent in managing something more important than some bloody sports team. After six years of the Worst. President. Evah. you’d think that this would be obvious, but it is telling that it takes a columnist for one of the largest and most important papers in the country to come right out and say it.


Jim Downey

(Tip of the hat to Hank Fox for the link.) 

He said what???

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin was interviewed yesterday morning by Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition. During that interview the following exchange took place, on the topic of global warming:

(Inskeep): Do you have any doubt that this is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with?

(Griffin): I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.

This morning’s program had a follow-up segment about how this conflicts with the general consensus in the scientific community, and other reports in the media point out that it is at odds with NASA’s own scientists. Even President Bush just came out with a plan to address climate change concerns in advance of a big global warming symposium being held in Germany next week.

The callousness of Griffin’s remarks is what has most people upset, I think. Because under most scenarios studied, significant global warming is going to lead to the death of millions of people. James Burke did a good series on how this will likely play out called After the Warming, and then of course there’s Al Gore’s book and movie An Inconvenient Truth. To have the NASA chief say that it would be arrogant of us to presume that this is “the best climate for all other human beings” seems assinine, at best.

I believe in global warming. I believe that it is likely a huge problem facing us. For the world of Communion of Dreams, set about 50 years hence, I had to deal with what I expect will be the reality of global warming. Since I wanted to deal with other issues, I decided that I needed a way to explain why the effects of global warming hadn’t yet created additional huge problems for humankind. My initial choice was to have an asteroid impact kick up a lot of dust into the stratosphere, and thereby slightly alter the albedo of Earth. When that additional disaster seemed to be too much for my initial readers, I changed it to having a man-made source: limited nuclear exchanges in Asia, creating a mild “nuclear winter” effect. Given that this term was partly a product of Carl Sagan’s scientific research, it seemed a fitting solution. (As I’ve mentioned previously, Sagan was part of my inspiration for Communion.)

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see whether Griffin survives this little climate change in his job situation, created by his own hot air.

Jim Downey