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.)