Communion Of Dreams

The Gala

Take a look at a map of the US. Let your eye more or less gravitate to the center. Chances are, what you’re looking at isn’t too far from Kansas City. Now, notice just how far this is from an ocean.

So, why the hell were most of the entrees at the buffet supper for the Gala at the Heinlein Centennial some kind of seafood? That was the question that everyone at my table wanted to know.

And since I live in this part of the country (about 2 hours from KC), I was the designated spokesman. What I told them was that a) it’s likely that the hotel providing the catering made the decision about the offerings, and the organizers just chose from a list, b) that seafood was likely chosen to ‘show off’ a bit, and c) besides, there are these things called airplanes, which can (and do) bring fresh seafood to even us uncultured louts in the Midwest.

Nah, the entrees were fine. What was actually a much greater concern to me was that for some reason, they had exactly ONE chocolate cake on the dessert table. And that was the *only* chocolate dessert. Huh? At a SF convention? I’ve not been to many, but my experience with other SF and Fantasy fans would lead me to believe that they’ve got a higher-then-usual appreciation for chocolate. Lord knows I sure do. But I got no cake that night.

Anyway, there was a reason why the Centennial was held in the middle of the nation. A fairly good reason, too: Robert A. Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, about an hour south of KC, and he spent a lot of his early years in Kansas City. Other places can (and do) claim him as one of their own, but KC was as logical a place as any to host the event. It was kind of fun to see the sign on the local SF club table which read “Join the same Science Fiction club that Robert Heinlein joined!” Fun stuff.

The Gala dinner was supposed to be dressy, and most people complied. (There were almost no people in costume all weekend, btw – another way in which this event differed from the Cons I’ve attended.) My friend ML and I joined a table full of charming chaps (well, of course they were being charming to her. Any straight male should be. And many are.) I had kicked in the ‘extrovert’ program, and was being outgoing to the point where one of the other people at the table asked me if I was the designated ‘celebrety’ who had been assigned to the table. Um, no. I dialed down the gregariousness a bit.

Dinner over, we left the round tables at the back of the hall and moved to row seating at the front. It was time for the Gala presentations and entertainment.

This comprised lots of various and sundry awards – Centennial writing awards, SFRA awards, John W. Cambell Award ( later I’ll tell how Ben Bova, this year’s winner for his novel Titan, came up and introduced himself to me…a particular thrill, since I have most of the action in Communion of Dreams take place on the surface and in orbit around that moon. OK, update – the story of that is told here.).

There were also speeches honoring and remembering Robert A. Heinlein, naturally enough. And then Peter Diamandis‘ brilliant, inspiring presentation about how he considered Heinlein to have written not just visionary fiction, but had actually mapped out a functional business plan with The Man Who Sold the Moon. Diamandis said his dream, his goal, was to be there to welcome NASA back to the Moon when the Constellation Program vehicle arrives. This brought a standing ovation and cheers.

The featured remembrance of Heinlein was provided by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, via pre-recorded message from his home in Sri Lanka. It was touching, all the more so for the evidence of Clarke’s own failing health.

Following were more presentations and performances, including information about the Stardance Project, a duet by Spider and Jeanne Robinson, an impromptu rendition of The Green Hills of Earth (the filk song popular in the SF community, drawn from Heinlein’s story of the same name), and finally ending with a screening of J. Neil Schulman‘s new offbeat movie Lady Magdalene’s. I decided to skip the last, but ML told me later that it was fun in a very silly sort of way.

There’s an excellent collection of images from the evening to be found here on the Midamerican Fan Photo Archive. I love people who know how to use a camera – a skill I never acquired.

Jim Downey

Hey, monkey…

Humans are still much better than computers with many types of pattern recognition. And a new effort called Galaxy Zoo is tapping into that ability, and the desire of many people to participate in scientific endeavours, to help sorting out images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. From the press release on the site:

Astronomers are inviting members of the public to help them make major new discoveries by taking part in a census of one million galaxies.

Visitors to will get to see stunning images of galaxies, most of which have never been viewed by human eyes before. By sorting these images into “spiral galaxies” (like our own Milky Way) or “elliptical galaxies”, visitors will help astronomers to understand the structure of the universe. The new digital images were taken using the robotic Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in New Mexico.

‘It’s not just for fun’ said Kevin Schawinski of Astrophysics at Oxford University where the data will be analysed. ‘The human brain is actually better than a computer at pattern recognition tasks like this. Whether you spend five minutes, fifteen minutes or five hours using the site your contribution will be invaluable.’ Visitors will be able to print out posters of the galaxies they have explored and even compete to see who’s the best virtual astronomer.

So, put your monkey brain to work in a good cause. You’re better at this than any current expert system or artificial intelligence program. Even Seth in my novel has limitations in this regard…well, at the beginning of Communion, anyway. Go sign up – Pretty pictures await.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.) 

Fox and squirrel.

Standing there, looking out the window to the driveway just below, I saw the fox take the unwitting squirrel. One quick, quiet leap from behind a tree, a snap, pause to snap again at the struggling grey mass, and it had breakfast. A pretty, lethal thing, yellow-red short fur, characteristic long legs and bushy tail, eyes sharp as it looked around. Probably weighed twelve to fifteen pounds, lean and long. Made me consider keeping the cats inside.


Peter Diamandis received a standing ovation for his presentation on the absolute need to go into space. It wasn’t just that the attendees at the Heinlein Centennial Gala were predisposed to his message – it was because his energy and enthusiasm swept away all doubts that this was *going* to happen, that it was economically inevitable, once we realized that it was actually possible. What’s that? Charlie Stross and others have said that while something like asteroid mining might be possible, it won’t lead to colonization? Yeah, that’s the argument. But Diamandis calculates that one 0.5 kilometer metallic asteroid will contain a *lot* of valuable metal…to the tune of 20 Trillion dollars worth. Sure, such asteroids only comprise about 8% of the known bodies anywhere near our space…but still, you’re talking tens of thousands of such asteroids of varying size. That’s a damned big incentive to build infrastructure, and once the infrastructure is in place, once the basic research has been done and there are multiple private corporations, countries, and even private citizens exploiting this resource, there are going to be some who find it advantageous to actually locate in space (semi-)permanently.

Diamandis joked that his strategy is going to be to issue a lot of ‘put options’ for the precious metals, then announce that he is going to go grab one of these asteroids and use the procedes to finance the expedition. Hey, when a man worth that kind of money makes such a joke, people should take it seriously.


I watched, one afternoon last week, while my mother-in-law suffered a slight TIA. She was sitting in her wheelchair, having just gotten up from her afternoon nap, and was finishing some yogurt. I was sitting and talking with her, when she just slowly sort of folded in on herself. While she is 90 and suffers from Alzhemer’s, she is usually capable of responding to direct questions about immediate events (how she feels, if she likes her yogurt, et cetera), but she suddenly went quiet, almost insensate. I checked to see whether something like a heart attack was in process, and asked if she was hurting or if there was some other indicator of a serious emergency. Eventually I got enough information to conclude it was likely ‘just’ a TIA or some similar event, and got her back in bed. I monitored her, and all seemed to be well. She woke two hours later, with no evidence of damage. But it was an indication of her condition, and likely a hint at things to come.


I want to have Jeff Greason’s baby.

Greason (pronounced ‘Grey-son’) is the head of XCOR Aerospace, and is one of the many companies trying to build the infrastructure of private commercial spaceflight. He and his company have accomplished a lot in the development of dependable, reusuable, and powerful rocket engines…engines sufficiently well engineered that they show no indication of wearing out after even thousands of operating cycles (being turned on and off). As he explains, the two biggest problems previously with rocket engine design was that there was wear leading to failure on both the throat of the engine (where the burning fuel exhausts) and on the nozzle (which creates the high thrust needed). The XCOR designs have engineered these problems out, and they’re still waiting to find out what other life-span problems the engine might have. And once you have dependable rocket engines, you can build a reusable and dependable vehicle around them.

But that’s not why I want to have his baby. Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”


In one of the sessions, people got to talking about what drives technological development, and one of the big things that people focused on was war. This has been a common theme in a lot of SF, including my favorite series Babylon 5 (see the Shadow War arc). I don’t entirely buy it. I tend to think that economics are a bigger force in tech development – even in wartime, most of the tech developed isn’t something like a pure weapon such as the atomic bomb; it is all the support infrastructure which has dual-use and can be adapted easily after a war because it is economically advantageous.

But this discussion took another familiar turn: that only after we have threatened ourselves with extinction through something like a nuclear war, would we find the will to go into space in a big way. That, actually, is one aspect of Communion of Dreams, but I don’t see mankind being able to survive a major nuclear exchange and then still have the capability to get into space. The infrastructure necessary to support a space-faring tech is really quite extensive, even if you have just small private companies and individuals building and using the rockets/spaceplanes to get to low-earth-orbit. Take out that infrastructure…wipe out the industrial base of the major nations, or even kick it back 50 years…and you will not have access to the kinds of composite materials, computing systems, et cetera, which are necessary components of any spacecraft. Burt Rutan will not be making SpaceShipTwo unless he has the parts – it’s that simple.


There are a few things I’ve learned in my 49 years here. One is that we age, and we will die (sure, I’d love for Heinlein’s rejuvenation technology to come into play, or some version of ‘Singularity’ to save me from personal extinction…but I’m not counting on it.) It might be through something like the advancing senescence of global warming which we should see coming but act on too late. It might be something quick and unexpected, perhaps one of Diamandis’ $20 trillion rocks taking us out before we get around to using it for other purposes.

We should be like the fox, not the squirrel. The quick-witted one. The one who takes the future and makes it his own, rather than the one who is unpleasantly surprised for a brief and painful moment.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

July 9, 2007, 3:51 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, General Musings, Health

Here’s a small insight into caring for someone with Alzheimer’s/Dementia: any change to routine will have repercussions for a day or more.

As mentioned previously, I attended the Heinlein Centennial this past weekend, while my wife was performing with the North American Welsh Choir. My wife’s sister made arrangements to come and care for my mother-in-law while we were to be gone. This is essentially what we have to do whenever we want to both be gone anywhere, and logistically it is problematic: my sister-in-law not only has her own life, but she lives on the west coast and has to fly in to be here. Given that she’s a couple hours away from an airport on her end, and we’re effectively the same here, it’s more than a little bit of a hassle.

But even beyond that, our being gone presents other difficulties. Specifically, it throws my mother-in-law ‘off’, compounding the problems presented by her disease. My sister-in-law is good about rolling with this over a short time period, but then it happens again when we get home – which tends to negate the psychological benefits of being able to get away for a short period of time. An example from this afternoon: My mother-in-law had been napping after lunch, as is her custom. We have hospital rails on the sides of her bed, and a simple ‘web’ of 1″ nylon straps over the top, from railing to railing, to prevent her from getting out of bed. But she only sometimes remembers that she needs help getting out of bed, let alone standing or moving. As I told a friend in an email a bit ago:

*sigh* Been unbelievable this afternoon.

About 2:45 I heard her moving around. Not usually a big deal, since she will shift position. But then I heard something concerning, so went to investigate.

She had managed to slide her legs up to mid-thigh out between the bars (which are horizontal), dangling them over the side of the bed. She’d then gotten tangled up in the webbing, trying to sit up. I asked her why she didn’t just call if she wanted to get up, and I got a snarly response about her not needing any help, et cetera.

After sitting there and letting her try to untangle herself and get her legs back in bed, I got her sorted out. She was still snarly, said that I just wanted to keep her in bed for no reason, that she could do just fine, thank you very much, if I’d get ‘that stuff’ out of the way. Fine. I removed the webbing, put down the rail. Some minutes later, she finally admitted that yeah, maybe she did need some help to get up and onto the potty.

She’s suitably chagrined now. That *might* last the rest of the day. Or maybe not.

That’s just one example. The whole thing, from start to finish, took over an hour. And through it I had to explain repeatedly where she was, that her mother wasn’t here, who I was, et cetera. Some of this is ‘normal’ (perhaps I should say ‘typical’) behaviour – she’ll fuss with the webbing or some such, rather than calling for help. But this is the first time that she’s tried to slide between the bars of the railing, and it is rare for her to be hostile like that for any length of time. We’ve seen other examples of behaviour that are somewhat extreme as well. I can’t prove it, but I’m certain that this is all fallout from the change first of our being gone and my sister-in-law being here, and then her being gone and my wife and I being here.

Frustrating, particularly in that it disrupts my ability to think and write further, meaning some of the stuff I wanted to get done today (such as writing some additional posts about the Centennial) isn’t going to get done. So it goes.

Jim Downey

So, these three guys walk into a panel discussion…

Over the next week or so I’ll be writing a lot about some of the things I saw/heard/experienced at the Heinlein Centennial this past weekend. It was a fantastic, and for me, transformative experience, which will play out in interesting ways for some time, I think. Here on CommunionBlog I will be posting everything I write, some of which will be also posted on UTI and dKos). This will not be in any kind of order, and this first item was in fact just about the last thing that happened over the weekend.

Jim D


I went to the Heinlein Centennial for a lot of reasons. Robert A. Heinlein was one of the ‘Big Three’ SF authors of the 20th century. His work had a profound effect on me in my early years, and still informs much of my world view. There was going to be a large component to the Centennial devoted to private space ventures, with leaders in the field there talking about the work they were doing and what was on the horizon. There were going to be any number of other top-notch SF writers in attendance. And it would provide me the opportunity to do some networking, in promotion of my own writing.

I am not much of a fanboy. I’ve only attended a few SF conventions – I’m not real big on large crowds, and the time period of my life when most people get plugged into that world I was busy doing something else which entirely preoccupied my time and energy. By the early ’90s I was busy (and broke) starting a business, then re-inventing that business in ’96, then closing that business in ’04. Since then I’ve been largely devoted to caring for my Mother-in-law, as noted in my brief bio on the left.

Anyway, while I knew the routine and what to expect from such an event, I was a bit of an outsider, a noob. On the other hand, because of some of my other life experience, I can usually pull off having a ‘presence’ – of looking like someone who is a little more established, a little more experienced, a little more than just a noob. (More on that later.) But the truth is, I had been largely fighting out of my weight class for three days, bluffing my way into discussions, handing out cards for my novel, et cetera – and was pretty much exhausted from it all.

So, the last panel discussion I decided to attend yesterday was on a topic of interest to me, but somewhat outside my main areas of knowledge, and I went intending on just keeping my fool mouth shut and listening (I’m keeping all the details vague for a reason). The three panelists came in, got started with introductions, a brief statement on the topic, and so forth. I’d seen a couple of them in other panel discussions, and had some idea of what to expect. Then one of them made some silly statements about his new-agey religious beliefs that didn’t really pertain to the subject, but he thought they did, about how the soul exists outside of the physical body, et cetera.

One of the other panelists, an academic with established cred on the subject, an author with a number of highly-regarded books to his name, got up and nicely, but very energetically and with considerable verve, tore Mr. New-Age a new asshole and shoved all the crap he’d been spewing back into it. It was a thing of beauty to behold, and I sat there thinking “cool – this guy’s a rationalist, in addition to his other credentials”.

The panel discussion proceeded, returning to the topic at hand, and everyone had a good time. Mr. New-Age didn’t seem to mind the slam-dunk he’d suffered, probably because it was done with such artistry, and the contributions of the other panel member and the audience kept things lively and interesting. I kept my mouth shut, but the fellow who’d shut down the nonesense made a comment about something that made me think he might be open to reading my book. When all was wrapped up, and the room was emptying, the panelists gathering together their things, I stepped up to the table, said something to the Rationalist, and handed him my card. As is usual in such situations, he made nice noises about thanking me, said he’d check it out if he had a chance, and I turned to go.

As I did so, I heard an exclamation behind me: “You’re Jim Downey!” (The business cards I’d had printed up say ‘James Downey’.)


I turned to see what the hell caused that. Mr. Rationalist looked like he’d just been handed a big fat check, standing there, my card in hand, looking from me to it and back again with a huge grin on his face. “You’re Jim Downey!”

He thrust his hand across the table at me. “I’m a raging atheist – I read Unscrewing the Inscrutable all the time!! In fact, you’re the reason I’m here! I read the post you put up a couple months back about the Heinlein Centennial, and so I contacted the organizers and told them I wanted to participate! Wow!”

I was gobsmacked. Bumfuzzled. (And if you’ve never had your bum fuzzled, you don’t know what you’re missing.) I’m sure I stood there like an idiot as he continued: “Oh, here, let me…”

He reached over to his bag and pulled out his latest book. Inscibed it to me. “I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to run and catch the shuttle to the airport, so I can make my flight…I really wish we had time for a drink or something…”


Mr. Rationalist, I wish I could convey to you what an astonishing experience that was. (Actually, I dropped him a note and told him that I was going to be posting this, and invited him to come by and contribute – but I don’t “out” someone without expressed permission.) As I mentioned, I was weary from fighting the good fight all weekend, having a phenomenal time, but also very much feeling like I was completely outclassed by all the brilliant engineers, entrepreneurs, academics, and writers. To have one such panel member even recognize me based on my ramblings here, let alone to be so enthusiastic and gracious about it – well, it was a shot of rejuvenation juice which would make Lazarus Long jump for joy. Thank you.

Jim Downey

UPDATE: and in comments: Mr. Rationalist has dropped me a note and said it was OK to ID him: Richard Hanley, Assoc. Prof of Philosophy at U. Delaware, and author of South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating and The Metaphysics of Star Trek among others. I mean, how cool is that?


(Cross-posted, with tweaks, from UTI.)


With The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should: Rather than forcing his own extraordinarily capacious imagination into its stuffy confines, he makes the genre—more precisely, genres—expand to take him in.

Gah. That’s from Ruth Franklin in Slate on May 8th. Brought to my attention by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing. But he made up for it by posting this response from Ursula K. Le Guin:

(10/15/07: Text has been removed because of copyright issues. See this post by Cory Doctorow for a complete explanation. Since I took the text from BoingBoing, I feel it only appropriate to respect the wishes of the parties involved and remove it now.  You can read it in its entirety at the Ansible link.)

Damn. And that’s only about half of it. Not for the first time I read her work and think “I wish I’d written that.” But hey, anyone who writes science fiction is obviously just an untalented hack, according to Ruth Franklin, so I guess it can’t be any good.

Jim Downey

Something for the 4th.
July 3, 2007, 8:54 pm
Filed under: Fireworks, movies, Science

Hey, it’s my birthday, and I have other things I’ll be doing all day. So I thought I’d post this delightful little contraption – Rube Goldberg (who a friend reminded me shares my birthday, making this even more appropriate….) meets Pyromania:

Jim Downey

That first novel…
July 1, 2007, 9:32 am
Filed under: Failure, Mark Twain, Marketing, NPR, Promotion, Publishing, Writing stuff

There was a very good segment on this morning’s Weekend Edition Sunday with Jon Clinch, the author of the novel Finn. Clinch talks about his experience in working on several prior novels, none of which were satisfactory to him, before embarking on Finn. It is interesting that he used the web to first promote himself, then land an agent, then get a publisher for the novel – the same kind of thing I am attempting to do with this site and Communion of Dreams.

But even more interesting was the business with his attitude towards his previous novels, which he thought were important in helping him as a writer, even though they were “failed” projects ultimately in terms of artistic satisfaction (and not being published.) I think we tend to underestimate the value of failure, in our focus on success. I have lots of what would conventionally be characterized as “failures” in my life, but each one was an experience which helped lead me to new understanding about myself and the world. Basically, I’m of the opinion that if a failure doesn’t kill you, it isn’t really a failure. And since none of us gets out of this life alive, anyway, we’re all doomed to “failure”.

The most interesting people I know are not the ones who have only succeeded in everything they’ve tried – that type is either too self-satisfied to be interesting, or so unambitious to have never pushed themselves. Give me people who go too far, who push themselves in what they do past their abilities, who are ambitious enough to want to Paint the Moon. Those are the people who are interesting.

Communion was not my first novel. No, during college I wrote one, another near-term speculative novel, once again based on the notion that a pandemic had caused a general societal collapse. I think it is stuck away in a box someplace in the attic. Even though post college I spent several months trying to rewrite it, it is fairly dreadful, and deserves banishment to the attic. But it helped me learn a *lot* about writing a novel, and allowed me to work out a number of themes and ideas which I then used in Communion to much better effect. So that book (titled Equipoise) was not entirely a failure. And I’d bet that most ‘successful’ authors have one or more such books tucked away in a box somewhere, if you can only get them to admit it.

Anyway, I enjoyed the interview with Clinch, and will have to look up his book one of these days.

Jim Downey