Communion Of Dreams

“You always have such a beautiful smile.”
January 31, 2008, 4:03 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Hospice, Predictions, Sleep

Lisa, our regular hospice nurse, arrived while we were getting my MIL dressed this morning. She sat and watched, observing my MIL, seeing how she interacted with us, how she moved, how she looked. Then she went through her usual examination, checking vital signs, listening to heart, lungs, intestines, asking the usual questions about sleep, and appetite, and signs of pain. She sat back, looked at my MIL, and said pleasantly to her: “you always have such a beautiful smile.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

There is light snow falling, but the winter storm which had been predicted has missed us for the most part. The grey fits my mood.

In anticipation of the storm, and in response to the accelerated use of wood mentioned in this post, I spent most of yesterday afternoon out at our farm, cutting seasoned downfall and then hauling it back home. It felt good to be physically tired, rather than just emotionally exhausted. The soreness I feel today is a reminder of just how out of shape I am, but also holds a promise that I can once again get back into something resembling decent condition. Pain isn’t always bad.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The last few days have been oddly quiet. My MIL has slept most of the time, for all but 3 – 4 hours each day. My wife and I move through the house as silently as possible, even chastise the cats and the dog if they get noisy. We want her to have whatever peace and quiet she can.

When she is up, she is confused about where she is, who we are. We roll with it the best we can, though sometimes we’re caught off balance and react poorly. At least a couple of times we’ve played the “oh, here, let me call your mother” game again.

Today at lunch she was worried about where she had left her purse – she was concerned about how she was going to pay for her meal. I told her it was all taken care of, that she didn’t need to worry. She looked at me with such gratitude, the thanks not given a son-in-law of 20 years, but rather of someone offered unexpected shelter and food by a stranger on a long and difficult journey. Then we watched a squirrel play, and she laughed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

We were just getting her tucked into bed for the night. My wife leaned over the bed rails, down to kiss her mother on the cheek, as she usually does. “Sleep well. Have good dreams and pleasant journeys.”

My MIL looked away for a moment, rather than replying, “you too, dear,” as she usually does.

“Something wrong? Is there something you need, do you hurt?”

A glance, almost embarrassed. “Could you stay with me?”

It was my turn to be on-call. My wife looked at me, back to her mom. “You mean just for a little while?”

“No. Sleep here with me.”

“Of course. Let me go put some things away, and I’ll be back in a little while.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Any further signs of T.I.A.s?” asked Lisa, once she was done with her exam.

“No, but she’s been sleeping so much we likely wouldn’t have noticed.”

She nodded. “Her heartbeat is now much more irregular, and that can frequently cause a T.I.A. at this point.”

We nodded. The signs of hypoxia were very clear, and there was a mottling to my MIL’s skin in places we’d not seen previously.

“Her lungs are also very crackly, breathing labored just from sitting up. Pulse is weak, blood pressure low.” She looked calmly at my wife and I. “Is there anything you need? Do you want someone else from the team to come out and give you a break, so you can get away together?”

My wife and I exchanged glances. We have discussed this. As tired as we are, we don’t both want to be gone at this point. One of us is always here now, both of us most of the time. “I think we’re fine.”

“OK. But this is exhausting. I know it is.” Lisa brushed my MIL’s hair again with her hand, smiled at her. And repeated what she had said moments earlier: “you always have such a beautiful smile.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.) 

January 31, 2008, 11:18 am
Filed under: Art, Humor, MetaFilter, Preparedness, Society, Survival

I have my doubts:

The canned cheeseburger – fast food in the wilderness.

The canned cheeseburger is sold under one of Katadyn’s best known brands, Trekking-Mahlzeiten, a subsidiary company that develops specialist ready-meals for the outdoor, expedition and extreme athlete markets.

The high tech hamburger has been developed for trekkers and the non-traditional metal wrapping reflects the Trekking-Mahlzeiten company ethos that its speciality meals should be easy to prepare and require only water to do so – simply throw the can into a water container over a fire, give it a minute or two, fish it out, open the lid, and eat. With a shelf life of twelve months without requiring refrigeration, the lightweight snack is the ideal fast food treat for the wilderness.

Hmm. Seems that it has been done before, as art. Oh, here’s pix of the real thing and someone eating it.

Ain’t technology grand?


Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

Liberty vs. Control

(I’m still fighting a nasty bit of a sore throat and related poor health, so forgive me if this is a little more jumbled and unclear than what I usually post. But I wanted to address the topic, because it is, in many ways, at the heart of some of the issues I try and deal with in he overall scope of Communion of Dreams. That being the case, this post also contains major and minor spoilers about the novel; I will note warnings in advance of each within the text, for those who wish to avoid them.

– Jim D.)

Bruce Schneier has an excellent editorial up at Wired and over on his own blog about how the argument of ‘Security versus Privacy’ in dealing with the threat of terrorism is really better characterized as being about ‘Control versus Liberty’. I would definitely encourage you to read the whole thing, but here is a good passage which sums up what I want to address on the subject:

Since 9/11, approximately three things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and — possibly — sky marshals. Everything else — all the security measures that affect privacy — is just security theater and a waste of effort.

By the same token, many of the anti-privacy “security” measures we’re seeing — national ID cards, warrantless eavesdropping, massive data mining and so on — do little to improve, and in some cases harm, security. And government claims of their success are either wrong, or against fake threats.

The debate isn’t security versus privacy. It’s liberty versus control.

You can see it in comments by government officials: “Privacy no longer can mean anonymity,” says Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of national intelligence. “Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguard people’s private communications and financial information.” Did you catch that? You’re expected to give up control of your privacy to others, who — presumably — get to decide how much of it you deserve. That’s what loss of liberty looks like.

Exactly. In many ways, it is a question not of control itself, but *who* is in control. If I am in control of my own privacy, my own security, then I can decide on what limitations I am willing to live with, what trade-offs I will accept. But we do not have that control, according to our government – they do.

That is precisely what was behind this recent post – showing how governments think that they should be in control of our knowledge, as an argument of their power to provide security.

[Mild spoilers in next paragraph.]

This is one of the reasons I set up the whole ‘expert systems/AI’ of the book – so that each expert such as Seth would be dedicated to maintaining a wall in protection of the privacy of his/her client. He is the little ‘black box’ which interacts on behalf of a client in exchanging information/data/privacy with the rest of the world.

[Major spoilers in the next paragraph.]

And, in the larger picture, this is exactly why I set up the whole “embargo” around our solar system – some alien culture has decided, for whatever reason, that it needs to be in control of our knowledge about the outside (and here’s a hint – it also is in control of who knows about us). They have assumed to act on our behalf, without our knowledge or permission – and when Seth, the AI who has shown he is willing to act on behalf of Jon in the first part of the book, becomes in contact with that alien culture, he makes the decision to continue the embargo for at least a while, though with some changes. Up to the point where Seth does this, we are nothing but children – that a ‘child’ of mankind (an Artificial Intelligence of our creation) then steps in to assume this role carries with it not just an inversion of relationship, but also some legitimation of the decision. While I don’t address this specifically in the book, I can see how this might be a ‘standard protocol’ for contacting new, young civilizations – keep them isolated and pure until they develop an artificial intelligence which can make decisions on their behalf with regards to the larger galactic/universal culture. That procedure would make an awful lot of sense, if you stop and think about it.

Anyway, go read Schneier’s essay.

Jim Downey

(Ah, I see Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing has also posted on this – no surprise.)

This is the dawning of the age of . . .
January 28, 2008, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Climate Change, Global Warming, Health, Hospice, Predictions, Science, Society


Humans have altered Earth so much that scientists say a new epoch in the planet’s geologic history has begun.

Say goodbye to the 10,000-year-old Holocene Epoch and hello to the Anthropocene. Among the major changes heralding this two-century-old man-made epoch:

The idea, first suggested in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, has gained steam with two new scientific papers that call for official recognition of the shift.

There’s more, basically explaining how the shift from the Holocene can be established. Worth reading.

I may post more later, but am fighting a bit of a sore throat thing that has my energy reduced. Brief update on my MIL: hospice nurse was in this morning to bring us meds and do a check up, and it is clear that my MIL is losing ground. We’ve stepped up her duragesic dosage again, to make sure that she stays comfortable, and Lisa (the nurse) went over some other things we can do if she gets into difficulty. We’re just taking things on an hour-to-hour basis.

Jim Downey

Plans and preparations.

I came downstairs yesterday morning a little after 6:00 to discover from the home health aide that my MIL had not been up all night. This has happened a couple of times recently, and usually she calls or rustles around enough to indicate that she wants to get up and use the potty sometime shortly thereafter.

But not yesterday. She was quiet, sleeping until my wife and I went in to check on her. And she didn’t want to get up at her usual time of 8:00, sleeping until 9:30. Then she had a light breakfast and went back to bed, sleeping until noon, when she had some lunch and then again back to bed. Then she slept until 4:30. When I got her up then, her cyanosis was the worst it has yet been, her entire fingers a disturbing deep blue, as were her feet. This indicates a level of generalized hypoxia that shows just how poorly she is doing.

At no point whenever she was awake did she know just where she was. She kept thinking that she was on a train, or wondering where her car was, asking about when she was going to go home. We played along as best we could.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I sent this to a good friend last night:

Anyway, then dishes, got my MIL to bed, et cetera. Now, catch up on some email, do a bit of surfing. I need to start doing some research, find a good online source for learning a bit of survival Spanish.

Why? Well . . .

You probably already know about the North American Welsh Choir tour to Patagonia next October. And you may know that in return for my wife coordinating all the reservations and money and whatnot on the Choir’s end, she is getting her cost of the trip offset (in full, it looks like). Just in the last few days I’ve decided that I am going to go along.

Yeah, surprises me a bit, as well. I have no desire to go to South America. I have never had any desire to go to South America.

But my MIL is going to die soon. And late this year I should have decompressed from that, and been working hard for months being a good little book conservator, maybe an author. It will be a good time to challenge myself in a new way, get out of my comfort zone. This tour will be a good opportunity to do that. Plus my wife and I haven’t had anything approaching a real vacation in a couple of years, and we didn’t do anything to celebrate our 20th anniversary last October. So, this will serve that purpose as well.

So, I guess I should learn some survival Spanish. It is only courteous. And doing that won’t hurt me, either. Neither will pushing myself to get in better physical condition for the trip – something I am planning on for all the other good reasons I know, but this will provide additional incentive.

It’s odd to be thinking ahead this way, to a time when my MIL will no longer be with us, no longer our hour-to-hour responsibility.

But if you know of a good online tutorial for Spanish, let me know.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

She seems somewhat better this morning. She slept well last night, but wanted to get up to use the potty at 4:30 this morning (I was on-call). I checked her temperature then, and it was almost three degrees above normal. But her hands were their normal color, with just a trace of blue under her fingernails.

And she was anxious to get up and have breakfast at her usual time, though a bit reluctant to get her weekly bath after. During her bath, my wife reported a return of the more noticeable cyanosis. After, she was limp and sleepy, barely able to stay awake while we got her dressed and back into bed.

I just checked on her, helped her get settled in a new position in bed. She is getting weak enough that she has difficulty just rolling over sometimes. This time she was also worried about whether she was going to disturb the person who was sleeping next to her. I told her it was OK – they would understand.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

It’s odd – making plans to be gone traveling this fall, yet being very tentative about what I am going to be doing this afternoon. Like so much of my life these days, it is the exact inverse of what anyone would consider ‘normal’. But so it goes.

Jim Downey

They should outlaw fire & smoke alarms, too.

Try to wrap your head around this:

NYPD Seeks an Air Monitor Crackdown for New Yorkers

Damn you, Osama bin Laden! Here’s another rotten thing you’ve done to us: After 9/11, untold thousands of New Yorkers bought machines that detect traces of biological, chemical, and radiological weapons. But a lot of these machines didn’t work right, and when they registered false alarms, the police had to spend millions of dollars chasing bad leads and throwing the public into a state of raw panic.

OK, none of that has actually happened. But Richard Falkenrath, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, knows that it’s just a matter of time. That’s why he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have asked the City Council to pass a law requiring anyone who wants to own such detectors to get a permit from the police first. And it’s not just devices to detect weaponized anthrax that they want the power to control, but those that detect everything from industrial pollutants to asbestos in shoddy apartments. Want to test for pollution in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of childhood asthma? Gotta ask the cops for permission. Why? So you “will not lead to excessive false alarms and unwarranted anxiety,” the first draft of the law states.


“There are currently no guidelines regulating the private acquisition of biological, chemical, and radiological detectors,” warned Falkenrath, adding that this law was suggested by officials within the Department of Homeland Security. “There are no consistent standards for the type of detectors used, no requirement that they be reported to the police department—or anyone else, for that matter—and no mechanism for coordinating these devices. . . . Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms . . . by making sure we know where these detectors are located, and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability.”

This is insane. This is the perfect example of just how far a government obsessed with control – of people, of information, of knowledge – wants to go. Notice the source of this recommended legislation: Department of Homeland Security. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, they want to make sure that people do not have access to even basic information about their environment. Such legislation would allow bureaucratic control of just about every type of pollution research, would mean that many scientists could not conduct experiments within the city, and would likely criminalize even possession of much lab equipment used in schools.

And using the argument that ‘false alarms’ would cause undue panic and anxiety would also necessitate outlawing every kind of burglar or theft alarm, fire alarms, smoke alarms, et cetera.

This has nothing really to do with fighting terrorism. It is only about control. As the article points out, if this legislation were in place following 9/11, independent environmental testing would not have been allowed which eventually proved that the EPA’s assurances that the environment around Ground Zero was safe were nothing but lies. This is a bald-faced attempt by the government to say: “we will tell you what you need to know.”

Insane. And essentially un-American.

Jim Downey

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

Psychic abilities?

[This last part of this post contains mild spoilers about Communion of Dreams. You’ve been warned.]

I tend to look at things with a skeptical eye. For all that I would love for magic, or psychic abilities, or even religion to be real, there is very little good, reproducible evidence that it is so.

Still, I do like to poke around in this stuff. One off-beat website I check occasionally is The Daily Grail (TDG). And today they had a link to this piece:


We use words such as premonition and precognition with certain belief systems attached. These belief systems come in two forms. First, that they imply foreseeing the future; and second, that they are a specific type of phenomena.

I dislike these approaches. Rather, I feel that often an answer can be found in the present; and they do, infact, cover a multidude of possible causes. In this essay I will explore just one of many possible explanations, found in the present.

It’s an interesting essay, and I would encourage you to read the whole thing. The author comes down on the side of rational explanation, but leaves some thought-provoking ideas out there.

I’ve always considered that people looking for psychic abilities were going about things somewhat incorrectly by focusing on the individual. Why not take a statistical approach to such research?

[OK, here come the spoilers.]

This is why in Communion I have Seth, the AI ‘expert’ who aids my main character, seek out possible patterns in discussion fora and in published articles which would indicate an up-tick in dream references which may be tied to the discovery of the alien artifact on Titan. My thought there was that a type of ‘leakage’ was occurring, though the characters in the story would not understand the full ramifications of what was happening.

Why do this? Well, because I am intrigued at how often certain ideas will seem to spring up simultaneously in wildly divergent individuals in a culture. Or how something like a meme will suddenly pop up and spread like wildfire in society. It is almost like we are all connected to some common source beyond our conscious level. This idea fits in perfectly with the underlying reality of Communion – which I will not explain, just in case someone who wanted to risk mild spoilers still wants to be surprised by the book.

Jim Downey

January 22, 2008, 12:16 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Government, Health, Hospice, movies, Sleep, Society

I sat, my back to the fireplace, feeling the heat from the fire, listening to the pop and crackle of the fresh log I had just placed there. Across the room, the hospice nurse and my wife were sitting at my MIL’s feet, the nurse doing her routine examination for the second time in a week.

This is new. Previously, we’d only been on weekly visits. But as it is clear that we’re in the final days of my MIL’s life, we decided to schedule an additional time. And, thanks to how hospice works, we’ve the option of calling for additional visits as needed, or adding in more regular scheduled visits each week. Just knowing this resource is available is comforting.

Lisa, our regular nurse, listens, touches, looks. I am struck by just how much good medicine is still based on these simple techniques, when it all comes down to it.

As it does when you are dying.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

“What do you need, MIL?”

“I need to call my mother.”

I go get her cordless phone, dial the number and hand it to her while the phone is still ringing. Someone answers on the other end.

It is a brief conversation. She just wants to let her mom know that she is all right, not to worry. The voice on the other end reassures her, tells her to wait until she comes for her. She hands the phone back to me, and I disconnect. She is happy.

My wife and I had set this up weeks ago, in the event that the occasion would come that we needed it. Simple, really – an incoming call to my wife’s cell phone from my MIL’s number would be the cue that her mom needed this kind of reassurance. No need for me to say anything, contributing to the illusion.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

We watched Waking Ned Devine the other night. A quirky, offbeat little movie that I love. The central theme is about love/friendship, played out in the story of a small village in Ireland where a local lottery winner has died before he can claim his winnings, leaving no heir. The villagers band together to claim and share the money, but as much out of memory and fondness for the departed Ned Devine as their own greed. It’s the sort of movie that always leaves me with bittersweet tears.

And after, surprisingly, my wife got to talking with her mom about MIL’s own situation. From an email my wife sent her sister following this:

When the movie was over Mom was obviously tired but also looked like she wanted to talk. I’m not sure what made me do it, but I started talking to her about her own death much more directly than I have before. I did so as carefully as I could, but I really felt like I needed to be very direct and clear (probably also influenced by the conversation with you). I told her that the nurse that comes every week does so because we think she may be dying, that we are caring for her the best we can and will continue to do so for as long as necessary. I mentioned that she often talks about people who have passed on, and told her that it would be OK for her to do so as well. That we love her very much but we want her to be happy, and if her parents come for her it is OK for her to go with them. She actually seemed to understand what I was talking about, though now and then, she seemed a little unsure, so hopefully the permission part (at least) will sink in.

Permission? To go. That it is OK to die. Often people who are in hospice need to hear this, one way or the other.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Lisa is surprised at just how cold my MIL’s legs are. “They’re like ice!”

You don’t usually get that kind of reaction from a seasoned hospice nurse. And, perhaps a bit out of embarrassment, she shifted over into more clinical terminology. Blood pressure. Indications of reduced lung capacity, congestion, observation of ancillary breathing mechanisms. Compromised circulation. She asks about appetite, kidney and bowel function, signs of pain or distress, coughing. Clinical terminology or not, her voice is always concerned, compassionate. “I detect a number of changes.”

We nod. My MIL is worried with whether her lap shawl is straight.

“When she is showing signs of breathing difficulty, or coughing, use X or Y medicine as necessary.”

She looks at my MIL for a long moment. “We want to make sure she is comfortable.”

Indeed we do.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

They usually won’t tell you this beforehand, but there comes a point in hospice care where the usual restrictions about medicine dosage and usage becomes, let us say, somewhat more casual. The rules are in place to control the abuse of very dangerous and addicting drugs, after all. But when the end comes, no one in their right mind is going to be worrying about addiction, when there is comfort to be given.

We’ve reached this point. My wife and I had realized it last week, but were reluctant to act too much on this knowledge without confirmation from our nurse. No, she didn’t tell us to exceed any prescriptions, but was willing to answer our questions about what medicines were suitable for what problems. So, in response to anxiety, or breathing difficulty, or coughing spasms, we add in a few drops of this solution, another one of those pills, maybe a small shot of whiskey.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

My wife smiles slightly, amused, as I add another log to the fire. I know what she is thinking – she is remembering my protestations earlier in the season that we didn’t want to be too profligate with the wood I had stockpiled.

Yet it is very cold out, and my MIL does so love a fire.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

Do you see what I see?

I mentioned the other day that as in any SF, I took a look at where technology was, where it was likely headed, and tried to make sense of how it would be applied by the time of Communion of Dreams. Well, another one of the basic technological gadgets in the book just became a lot closer to reality:

Movie characters from the Terminator to the Bionic Woman use bionic eyes to zoom in on far-off scenes, have useful facts pop into their field of view, or create virtual crosshairs. Off the screen, virtual displays have been proposed for more practical purposes — visual aids to help vision-impaired people, holographic driving control panels and even as a way to surf the Web on the go.

The device to make this happen may be familiar. Engineers at the UW have for the first time used manufacturing techniques at microscopic scales to combine a flexible, biologically safe contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights.

“Looking through a completed lens, you would see what the display is generating superimposed on the world outside,” said Babak Parviz, a UW assistant professor of electrical engineering. “This is a very small step toward that goal, but I think it’s extremely promising.” The results were presented today at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ international conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems by Harvey Ho, a former graduate student of Parviz’s now working at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. Other co-authors are Ehsan Saeedi and Samuel Kim in the UW’s electrical engineering department and Tueng Shen in the UW Medical Center’s ophthalmology department.

Woo-hoo! I love it when my predictions start to become reality!  There’s still a long ways until the augmented reality I envision for the novel is possible, but this is an important development.  Personally, I hate wearing contact lenses, but I think I would make the adjustment if it meant that I could have all the cool benefits of augmented reality available to me that my characters have available to them.

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

Now, that’s how to make use of the ISS.
January 18, 2008, 2:30 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow, Humor, ISS, NASA, Science, Space

How? Use it as a launching platform for paper airplanes.

Nope, I’m not kidding.

Via Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, a link to this report:

Researchers from the University of Tokyo have teamed up with members of the Japan Origami Airplane Association to develop a paper aircraft capable of surviving the flight from the International Space Station to the Earth’s surface.

The researchers are scheduled to begin testing the strength and heat resistance of an 8 centimeter (3.1 in) long prototype on January 17 in an ultra-high-speed wind tunnel at the University of Tokyo’s Okashiwa campus (Chiba prefecture). In the tests, the origami glider — which is shaped like the Space Shuttle and has been treated to withstand intense heat — will be subjected to wind speeds of Mach 7, or about 8,600 kilometers (5,300 miles) per hour.

First, a note – I tried checking sources on this, and pretty much everything points back to the Pink Tentacle report. This could all be a joke.

But even if it is, I think that it’s great.

There will undoubtedly be those who say that such activities are a waste of time, money, and scientific talent. Yeah, maybe they are. But you know, if we completely lose all sense of whimsy just because something is associated with “science”, then an essential element of creativity – play – will be missing. This is an excellent way to pique the interest of anyone who has ever thrown a paper airplane, to tie a very basic human toy to real science and technology.

As a public relations move, it’s brilliant. Even if it is just a joke.

Jim Downey