Communion Of Dreams

Oh! Pretty!
July 31, 2007, 9:30 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Climate Change, Global Warming, Light pollution, Science, Society, Space

Here’s a fascinating, and really quite lovely, image of the earth as seen at night:  The World At Night.  It’s in enough detail that it is fairly easy to identify individual cities, at least if you know your geography a bit.

Lovely, yes, but I must admit to somewhat mixed emotions in seeing it.  First, light pollution is a real problem, not just for astronomers but for anyone who enjoyed looking at the stars at night.  There’s a passage in Communion about how high-atmospheric dust caused by a small scale nuclear war has limited most people’s experience of seeing the stars considerably.  But realistically, we’re at that point now, due to light pollution.  The folks at the International Dark Sky Association have lots of information on this topic, and what can be done about it.

Secondly, all that light is created by electricity – which required power generation.  And right now, for the most part that means the production of greenhouse gases.  And that leads (or contributes) to climate change/global warming, which is likely the biggest threat we face.

But it sure is pretty.

Jim Downey

“Who Dies in Harry Potter? God.” Um, no.

[SPOILER ALERT – this post contains information about the final book in the Harry Potter series which some may consider spoilers. You’ve been warned.]

A good friend sends me links to book reviews. She knows that I don’t generally read book reviews, but every so often will see one that she thinks might tempt me, and passes it along. Every once in a while I’ll actually be interested enough to read one of the reviews she sends.

That was the case when I saw a link to a piece by TIME Magazine’s book reviewer, Lev Grossman, a couple of weeks ago which was titled “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God.” Given that this piece was published about 9 days before the last Harry Potter book was to be released, I thought it curious that the writer was making such a claim. So I read it.

It is an odd piece. I say that having read it four or five times. Here’s the relevant bit:

Rowling’s work is so familiar that we’ve forgotten how radical it really is. Look at her literary forebears. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien fused his ardent Catholicism with a deep, nostalgic love for the unspoiled English landscape. C.S. Lewis was a devout Anglican whose Chronicles of Narnia forms an extended argument for Christian faith. Now look at Rowling’s books. What’s missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.

And he ends his piece with this prediction:

When the end comes, where will it leave Harry? He’ll face tougher choices than his fantasy ancestors did. Frodo was last seen skipping town with the elves. Lewis sent the Pevensie kids to the paradise of Aslan’s Land. It’s unlikely that such a comfortable retirement awaits Harry in the Deathly Hallows.

OK, Grossman sure got *that* wrong. But in his actual review of the book, published July 21, he once again makes the assertion that JK Rowling has eliminated God, in this passage:

Her insistence on this point is a reflection of the cosmology of the Potterverse: there are no higher powers in residence there. The attic and the basement are empty. There may be an afterlife, and ghosts, but there is certainly no God, and no devil. There are also no immortal, all-wise elves, as in Tolkien, nor are there any mysticalMaiar, which is what Gandalf was (what, you thought he was human? Genealogically speaking, he’s closer to a balrog than he is to a man.) There is certainly no benevolent, paternal Aslan to turn up late in the book and fight the Big Bad. The essential problem in Rowling’s books is how to love in the face of death, and her characters must arrive at the solution all on their own, hand-to-hand, at street level, with bleeding knuckles and gritted teeth, and then sweep up the rubble afterwards.

I haven’t read either of the two novels that Grossman has written. And, as noted, I don’t read book reviews except very rarely and don’t believe I’ve ever read one of his. So I can’t say what his thoughts are on God and whether he intends this as a slam or not. But I have to say that I am not in the least bit bothered by the fact thatJK Rowling doesn’t turn to a super magic man to resolve things, and instead forces her characters to come up with their own solutions – to grow, struggle, and learn and then to live with the consequences of their choices. This is exactly the reason I have said all along that these books are not ‘children’s books’ in the usual sense.

Perhaps it is a commentary on how our society has changed since the time of Tolkien and Lewis that these books are different in this fundamental way, and are yet so phenomenally popular. But I don’t see it. Religion has a stronger hold on our culture here in America than it did some 50 years ago, and there have been concerted efforts by the far fringe faithful to ban the Harry Potter books from schools and libraries on the basis of them promoting witchcraft. No, I don’t think that Rowling has tapped into some kind of anti-religious Zeitgeist. Rather, she has told her tale with amazing skill, and has left plenty of room for belief or non-belief in the background, where it belongs. While many people of faith use that belief as a crutch, that is not a fundamental aspect of religion, nor is it an excuse for not growing up and dealing with the world in mature terms. We, all of us, people of faith and no faith, have to be responsible for the here and now, have to make difficult choices and live with the consequences. That is the pre-eminent message of the entire Harry Potter series, and I was very glad to see that Rowling did not shy away from maintaining that message to the very end.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Death wins.

This morning, when I went to check on her after hearing some stirring, my mother-in-law looked at me and asked if I knew where her toothbrush was.

“Yes. I know where it is. When you get up, we’ll be sure to use it.”

This simple reassurance allowed her to get back to sleep, and when we got her up at her usual time about 45 minutes later, she had completely forgotten the whole thing. See, she is well into the arc of Alzheimer’s, and has slipped to the point where she doesn’t really know where she is or who is around her most of the time. But little things like knowing that she has her own toothbrush, and she can use it, seem to make her happy, give her a measure of security. I don’t try to understand it. I am too exhausted for that. I just try to roll with it.


Last night a friend sent me the first news reports of the explosion at Scaled Composites, indicating that two people had died and others were injured, evidently during a test of one of their rocket engines. After reading the brief news item, I replied:

Well, shit.

But as everyone involved said during the Centennial – this is going to happen. And while we have to work to take precautions, we can’t allow it to stop the future.

My friend responded to this with:

Yes. If people say we should stop, I have just two words for them:

Apollo One.

My parents knew the astronauts. And if we’d let that fire stop the space program, well……..


I met Brian Binnie at the Heinlein Centennial. If you don’t recognize the name, that’s OK. Brian was the pilot of SpaceShipOne for the two flights which won the Ansari X Prize. He works for Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites. During his inspiring presentations and discussions at the Centennial, he conveyed a simple, honest love for what he did. He made no pretense that he was a brilliant engineer or scientist (though he holds a couple of advanced degrees), and poked fun at his own public speaking skills. He came across as a regular guy, highly skilled in flying test vehicles, and more than a little amazed to have been involved in making history. I like regular guys, people who are smart and extraordinary but don’t take that too seriously.

I hope Brian wasn’t one of the people hurt in the explosion. But even if he was, I bet that his attitude won’t change, and he’ll still be convinced that private spaceflight is worth the risk. On one of his test flights ofSpaceShipOne , the ship was badly damaged and he could have easily been killed. Obviously, that didn’t stop him then. I’m sure Brian, and all the others at Scaled Composites, will be going over the data from the test to see what happened, and how to avoid it in the future.

7/28/07 Update:  Scaled Composites named those killed in the blast:  Eric Dean Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg; Charles Glenn May, 45, of Mojave; and Todd Ivens, 33, of Tehachapi.  No word on the injured.

Panel Finds Astronauts Flew While Intoxicated

Jul 26, 2007

A panel reviewing astronaut health issues in the wake of the Lisa Nowak arrest has found that on at least two occasions astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so intoxicated that they posed a flight-safety risk.The panel, also reported “heavy use of alcohol” by astronauts before launch, within the standard 12-hour “bottle to throttle” rule applied to NASA flight crew members.

You know, if you were going to strap me as cargo to the top of a chemical rocket with a 1-in-50 chance of catastrophic failure, I might well be still a little drunk, too. Oh, not if I was going to be responsible for flying the damned thing. But if I was just along for the ride? Yeah, I can see getting drunk before hand.

But that’s no way to run a space program.


One day last week a steam pipe ruptured in New York City, killing one person and injuring many others. Each day in the US over 100 people are killed in vehicle accidents, and about half that number are murdered.

I was orphaned in early adolescence, one parent murdered and then the other dieing about 18 months later in a car accident. I came to understand death much earlier than most people in our country do. I’ve had a few close calls myself, all of them stupid and unexpected things that had my luck gone just a little differently, I would have died. Now, at middle age, I’ve got the typical health risks for a man which could mean an early and unexpected death.

But I don’t worry about that. Death wins. Every time. None of us gets out of here alive. We are all going to die, sooner or later. The only real thing that matters is that we live life as completely as possible, loving, creating, building the future. Brian Binnie understands that, and I’d bet that the others at Scaled Composites do too. I like to think that my parents understood that. My mother-in-law, who may not understand this on an intellectual level, still experiences life, still worries about her place in the world, still wants to make sure that she can brush her teeth.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)


I’m deep into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so may not have much in the way of substantive posts over the next couple of days.  Combining that with my care-giving responsibilities increasing over the last week due to something of a decline in my charge’s health, and I don’t have much extra energy or attention span.

But I wanted to note that we passed 3800 downloads of the novel yesterday, and I have been getting a bit more feedback here on the site to it.  These are certainly good things, and I would like to thank one and all who have helped promote the book by telling their friends or posting comments about it elsewhere.  Certainly, nothing that I have done has reached so many people.

Thank you!

Jim Downey

Tossing out the junk.
July 23, 2007, 12:54 pm
Filed under: Astronomy, General Musings, NASA, Space

I remember, when I was a kid back in the 60s, that it was still fairly common for people to routinely and without much thought to just toss junk out of their cars onto the side of the road. I’m not talking about the occasional idiot with no care for the environment – I’m talking about your typical American. The roadsides, as a result, were awful. This was also still the era of private and informal ‘dumps’ all through the countryside where people would just literally fill up a small creek valley with their trash and unwanted junk. It wasn’t really until the nascent environmental movement got going that people started to think of the world a bit differently, and within a decade or so it was no longer culturally acceptable to just toss junk out of your car or dump your trash.

So, when I see this kind of news item, I am taken back to those days:

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A spacewalking astronaut tossed two large chunks of junk off the international space station Monday, hurling the old equipment into orbit.

Clayton Anderson, a sportsman who enjoys officiating basketball games back on Earth, heaved a 1,400-pound, refrigerator-size ammonia tank away from the station. His first toss was a 200-pound camera mounting.

Mission Control declared the tank throw great and “right down the middle.”

Um, guys, is this really the image we want to send? I know that the two items are expected to ‘de-orbit’ and burn up on re-entry within a year, but still . . . There are over 100,000 bits and piece of space junk in orbit already, complicating launches, threatening satellites and space-based telescopes, and even risking astronaut survival in orbit. The US Space Surveillance Network tracks like 10,000 of these items. Adding to this mess isn’t smart, and treating the disposal of junk as though it were some kind of game seems to me to be a very bad idea. It’s like we’ve stepped back 50 years, to a time when it was OK to just treat the Earth as our garbage dump. Have we learned nothing?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.

“Nobel Prize for Jo”
July 21, 2007, 11:28 am
Filed under: Failure, General Musings, Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, Society

Just a quick post, a look-back on this day to what is undoubtably my biggest failure to date: my ill-fated effort four years ago to organize a letter-writing campaign to persuade the Nobel Prize committee to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to J. K. Rowling, for the Order of the Phoenix.  As noted on my Wikipedia page, it was a complete and total debacle – even the Harry Potter fans hated the idea.

Ah well.  You can see the original webpage from the effort here, archived on my afineline site, though the site nobelprizeforjo has long since lapsed.  Be curious to see if anyone else will pick up on this idea, now that her series is finished.  As I said at the time, “who else has done more to promote literacy worldwide?”

Jim Downey

Rejecting Jane Austen.

How would you like to have been the guy at a publishing house who sent back J. K. Rowling’s query for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as the book was first titled in Britain)? Purportedly, over a dozen people have this bit of professional shame lurking in their past. There are plenty of other such stories out there of writers who had trouble selling their first book, who then went on to hugely successful writing careers. But given Rowling’s phenomenal success (which I think is fully deserved), this is the tale I find most amusing as I struggle in obscurity with my own writing.

Getting published these days is largely a matter of luck. Oh, if you are already a celebrity, then getting a book published is a simple matter. But as we live in an age of celebrity, I don’t find that in the least bit surprising. But for a first-time novelist, breaking through is really a matter of luck as much as anything.

Don’t believe me? Figure that quality will eventually attract a publisher, the way that J.K. Rowling did after a dozen rejections?

Tell that to David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Lassman, a frustrated novelist himself, decided to see what would happen if he sent around sample chapters and plot outlines for some ofJane Austen‘s work to British publishers. From The Guardian:

After making only minor changes, he sent off opening chapters and plot synopses to 18 of the UK’s biggest publishers and agents. He was amazed when they all sent the manuscripts back with polite but firm “no-thank-you’s” and almost all failed to spot that he was ripping off one of the world’s most famous literary figures.

Mr Lassman said: “I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen’s work.”

Lassman barely tweaked some of the names and titles, but left the text largely alone. And so, one of the most celebrated authors in the English language couldn’t get past the first-line readers employed by most publishers and agents to filter out unsolicited submissions.

As I try and psyche myself up for making another round of passes at agents, trying to convince them that having over 3500 people download my novel based almost entirely on word of mouth is an indication that there is indeed some demand there, I will remember this. I do not delude myself into thinking that I am a writer on the same level as Austen or Rowling. Hardly. But not all published work is in anything like that league. Further, the decision as to what gets published, what gets past the poorly paid staff stuck with opening envelops, is largely a matter of just dumb luck rather than the reflection of any sort of quality judgment at all.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.) 

Ben Bova

If I published 4 books a year, for the next 25 years, I’d have accomplished in my 74 years what Ben Bova has accomplished in his life so far.

Yeah, it reminds me of that line from the short-lived series Crusade: “Whenever I get to feeling too proud of my accomplishments, I remind myself that when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for six years.”

Bova is a legend in Science Fiction. Justifiably so. But he’s more than that. He’s a decent human being.

I say that for two reasons, both observed up close at the Heinlein Centennial. The first is summed up nicely by the James D. Miles quote which I have long appreciated:

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”

During the Centennial, I was waiting for a friend at a rendezvous point before going off for some lunch. The session I had attended had wrapped up early, so I was just standing there in an entrance hall, minding my own business. From one of the adjacent corridors came a distinguished gent, walking towards me. As he got closer, I recognized him. It was Ben Bova.

He came up to me, peered down at my Centennial badge, and quietly introduced himself. There was no implication that I should be impressed or honored – he was just one guy introducing himself to another stranger who happened to be in the same place at the same time. A part of me, experienced with countless hours of public relations, took note and admired how smoothly and genuinely he did this. The other part of me tried not to stammer too much in response to his queries and comments. We chatted for a few minutes, him telling me that his flight up from Florida had been delayed, asking me why I was attending, et cetera, and then the person he had been waiting for came up (I’m embarrassed to say that I cannot recall his name . . . he was another ‘V.I.P.’ who knew Bova evidently as an old friend). Bova introduced us like I had been his old army buddy. We all chatted for a minute or two. My friend ML came up. Bova took the initiative of introducing himself and his friend to her. Then he glanced at his watch, and said to his friend, “Well, I suppose it’s time I should get in there.” With a smile to us, he asked, “Will you be joining us?”

My friend glanced at me as he turned to go. I nodded, said quietly, “Um, let’s roll with this.”

We followed a few paces to one of the empty meeting rooms. Just inside the door Bova and his friend stopped, Ben looking around somewhat confused.

“Um, perhaps you’re still on Eastern Time? There isn’t anything scheduled during the lunch break . . .” I volunteered.

“Ah, right you are,” he said, somewhat chagrined.

“You’re welcome to join us, we were just about to go get some lunch.” (Hey, lunch with Ben Bova? How cool would that be?)

“Oh, thanks, I really should go get checked in. I just got off the shuttle, and thought I was going to be late getting to this session.”

We (ML and I) slipped out, Bova said goodbye to his friend, and the three of us went one direction, Bova off towards the reception area for the hotel in the other.

Now, that was the first insight. And I concede that it could well have all been just a highly-polished act by an author long experienced with dealing with fans at Cons and whatnot. But the next bit provided the other reason for my assessment.

ML and I had our lunch, and I returned to the room where Ben Bova had thought that he was to be participating. I had planned on going to that session anyway, since the other speaker was Frederik Pohl, and the topic was “Editors in Transition,” about the early days of SF publishing.

And here’s the second thing. I haven’t a nice little quote at hand, but I can assure you that it is true: you can also tell a great deal about someone by how they treat the elderly, particularly if that elderly person is suffering some form of diminished capacity.

Frederik Pohl, to my eye, is still as sharp as a tack. But he’s pushing 90, has had some health issues, and is getting a little forgetful . . . nothing that should come as any kind of a surprise in someone that age. As the full-time care-giver of someone who has Alzheimer’s at 90, I can honestly say that there is no reason to think that he suffers from any kind of dementia or mental deterioration. He’s just evidencing the normal traits of age, and even that very mildly indeed.

The thing is, watching Ben Bova interact with Fred Pohl during the hour long free-wheeling discussion of ‘the good old days,’ I saw another side of Ben Bova that most people probably don’t. There was the usual deference and respect, but there was also a genuine warmth, what I would characterize as perhaps even a kind of love. It’s the sort of thing that allows a person to smile quietly and let slide an error or mistaken memory without the need to correct it or even bring it to the attention of the older person. It is, in my experience, a deep reverence borne of long understanding of another, and reflects that person’s own self-confidence and self-understanding. I didn’t know it until I started to do the background research for this post, but Ben Bova has long experience with the martial arts, and that was the quietude I recognized in him.

I did see more of Ben Bova in the course of the weekend – his giving autographs, accepting awards, making little presentations, interacting with friends and fans. I didn’t attempt to claim any more of his time or attention – no reason to be a nuisance. He had been very generous with me already in that regard. And besides, I’d seen enough to understand some things about him which I deeply respect.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Suits me.
July 17, 2007, 10:15 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, MIT, NASA, Predictions, Science Fiction, Space, tech

Via BoingBoing, word of a new design of space suit under development at MIT which would replace the bulky pressurized suits used for the last 40 years:

Newman’s prototype suit is a revolutionary departure from the traditional model. Instead of using gas pressurization, which exerts a force on the astronaut’s body to protect it from the vacuum of space, the suit relies on mechanical counter-pressure, which involves wrapping tight layers of material around the body. The trick is to make a suit that is skintight but stretches with the body, allowing freedom of movement.

This is exactly the kind of suit I envisioned for Communion of Dreams, something that looks more like a wetsuit than a small spacecraft. Not that that is a new idea, since it is also the kind of suit envisioned by many SF writers and movies/shows since the 60’s. It just makes sense that the tech would evolve this direction, not unlike how early deep-sea diving rigs became more sleek and user-friendly over time.

There’s another benefit to the direction that the MIT team is going with their design: it will aid in maintaining physical conditioning, which is always a problem for prolonged weightlessness. From the news release:

The suits could also help astronauts stay fit during the six-month journey to Mars. Studies have shown that astronauts lose up to 40 percent of their muscle strength in space, but the new outfits could be designed to offer varying resistance levels, allowing the astronauts to exercise against the suits during a long flight to Mars.

Images available here.

Jim Downey

Going postal.

One of the panels I attended at the Heinlein Centennial included Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets. I got there a bit late, and he had a call which pulled him away early, but the few minutes he spoke about his company and the future of spaceflight as he sees it were fascinating.

As opposed to the large-scale space project, such as we’ve seen both in government (NASA) and with Peter Diamandis‘ vision (mentioned previously), Bahn has a very mundane, almost boring approach of incrementalism. He figures that it makes more sense to just keep expanding at the margins – to develop dependable, suborbital services which will bring about a demand for increased services, which will spur additional innovation in the necessary tech, which will in turn make more expansion possible, et cetera, in an upward spiral which will eventually get us off this rock in a stable and dependable way. His basic strategy is expressed in this article he wrote three years ago:

In the late 1970’s, Business Week magazine ran a cover story on the latest Cray supercomputer and how it was going to revolutionize American business. Deep inside that same magazine was a small story mentioning that Apple computer was now selling micro-computers. Business Week was correct that a computer was going to revolutionize American society, they were just wrong about which machine it was going to be. Fifty percent of the American public and 99 percent of the aerospace industry are convinced that a moon program will revitalize and grow a new space era. Meanwhile, 1 percent of the industry is working on the systems that will actually do that.

For the last 2 years a quiet change has been occurring. Small, privately funded teams have been flying prototype systems that have not received much notice. Armadillo Aerospace in Dallas, XCor and Scaled Composites in Mojave, Blue Origins in Seattle and TGV Rockets in Norman, Okla. have all begun pushing equipment off of the drawing boards and into the skies.

The key is cost effectiveness. Rather than have thousands of people servicing a custom-built, highly advanced vehicle with an extensive support system going for orbital capability, a small suborbital reusuable vehicle should be able to serve much the same market as a first step into space, with minimal support staff (TGV stands for “Two Guys and a Van”) for a tiny fraction of the cost. That market? Scientific, military, even conventional business needs. And the cool thing, Bahn said at the Centennial, is that if you are working with scientists, they will go out of their way to help you, since it is in their nature to want to get the best performance out of equipment by tinkering and adapting it.

This notion of providing a limited and possibly passing service is not a new idea. Bahn has in the past compared the current state of suborbital launch capability to where private aviation was in the 1920’s:

“One of the big business models was to fly up and take a picture of your house and sell it to you for $5,” he said. “That was a big deal.”

“There were many things that were done in the 1920’s that did not suvive the long term test. Wing walking is not what you would call a real market. Never-the-less, many markets matured and outgrew many of the experiments of the era.”

And there was a lot of thought early in the development of rocketry that such capability could be used for postal delivery. It doesn’t sound economically feasible at this point, but there’s nothing to say that it might not become an attractive transportation option for such firms as UPS or FedEx if dependable services were provided by a TGV Rockets or some other company. In his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein had his characters adapt a retired “mail rocket” for their own spacecraft, used to fly to the Moon.

I find this notion of private development of spaceflight more than a little exciting. When I wrote Communion of Dreams, I was operating under the old model – that the enterprise of getting into space in a big way was going to mandate large governmental involvement and coordination. I’m not going to rewrite the novel, but I am reworking my own thoughts and expectations – this is probably the single largest change for me from attending the Centennial.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)