Communion Of Dreams

To get your Monday started off right.

You may recall the 2001 effort to get people to register their religion as “Jedi”. Like some of the other silliness at the turn of the century, it was mostly harmless.

Well, it seems that earlier this year a couple of brothers in Wales decided to take it a step further:

Force strong for new Jedi church

Two Star Wars-loving brothers planning a Jedi church hope it will be much nearer than a galaxy far, far away.

Barney and Daniel Jones want fellow devotees to be able to join them close to their home on Anglesey.

Barney, 26 – or Master Jonba Hehol – and Daniel, 21 – Master Morda Hehol – head the UK Church of the Jedi, in honour of the film’s good knights.

And you gotta give the guys credit – they know how to keep their name in the news:

Anglesey Jedi Church announces plans for Moon colony

AN ORDER of Holyhead Jedis has begun steps to colonise the moon.

The UK Church of the Jedi, run by brothers Daniel and Barney Jones, of Holyhead, are setting up a micro nation on the moon.

They have bought a plot of land on the moon and the order plan to have a capital city and appoint worthy Jedi to positions such as Head of Galactic Affairs and Country Ambassador.

Alas, with notoriety also comes occasional tragedy:

Star Wars comes to Holyhead as Darth Vader strikes back in Jedi’s back garden

A Star Wars fan got closer to his idols than he would perhaps have liked when he was attacked in his garden by Darth Vader.

Jedi Master Jonba Hehol – known to family and friends as Barney Jones, 36, of Holyhead – was giving a TV interview in his back garden for a documentary when a man, dressed in a black bin-bag and wearing Darth Vader’s trademark shiny black helmet, leapt over his garden fence.

Wielding a metal crutch – his lightsaber presumably being in for repairs – the Sith Lord proceeded to lay about his opponent, whose Jedi powers proved inadequate for the task of defending himself.

After besting Master Hehol in single combat, Vader, who The Sun reports was under the influence of alcohol, went on to assault the camera crew and a hairdresser.

It’s always something.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.  Cross posted to UTI.)

Crossing over.

[This post contains mild spoilers about Communion of Dreams, particularly chapter 5.]

As I’ve been doing some conservation work this morning, I’ve been listening again to the audio version of Communion, done by Scot Wilcox of OwnMade AudioBooks, and discussed previously. I just enjoy hearing his interpretation.

Anyway, at the end of chapter five, as the first team of researchers is about halfway to Titan to investigate the alien artifact which has been discovered there, the protagonist has an odd dream which is described in some detail. In the dream Jon (the protagonist) crosses a bridge, and there’s lots of symbolism which is important for how the rest of the book unfolds. For this reason, I worked fairly hard to get the description just right. Scot’s reading of the passage is great, and really brought that scene to life for me.

Which is fairly easy, because it is based on a real scene – a real bridge: this bridge on the campus of the University of Iowa, which I crossed often while in graduate school at the Iowa Center for the Book. And the fun thing about that bridge – which I used for my own purposes in the description in the novel – is that because of the way it is built, it has a kind of spring to it as you walk across.

I enjoy knowing from whence artists and authors draw their inspiration and imagery, and thought I would share this on the off chance that someone else might be curious . (If anyone has better images of the bridge, feel free to post them/a link in comments – those were the best I could find with a quick search, but they are very dated.)

Jim Downey

I can’t resist . . .
March 29, 2008, 10:40 pm
Filed under: Humor, Music, PZ Myers, Religion, Science, Society, YouTube

. . . cross-posting this item from UTI, even though I put it up there this morning and the thing is all over the web now. It’s just too damned funny. The version below is low-res; be sure to go to YouTube and click on the “view this in higher resolution” tab, then expand it to fill your monitor.

Jim D.


OK, just in case you haven’t seen this over at PZ’s or elsewhere, here’s a hilarious and brilliantly done satire:

It takes some deconstructing, but the consensus is that it is indeed pro-science/skepticism.

UPDATE: Here are the lyrics, and here is a brief bit on the ‘cast’ – kudos to both authors!

Jim Downey

Why bother?

There’s a good piece by Seth Shostak over at about the possible motivations an extra-terrestrial race might have for visiting our pale blue dot. (Shostak is one of the principals of the SETI Institute, and knows whereof he speaks when he addresses these kinds of issues.) First, he dismisses the usual SF plot devices of an alien race wanting our turf, our resources, or even our bodies:

Taking our cue from Tinseltown, I note that most cineplex sentients come to Earth either to solve some sort of ugly reproductive crisis or simply to take over the planet. The former doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. You can’t breed with creatures at the zoo, despite the fact that most of the base pairs in the inmates’ DNA are identical to yours (note that this is a biological incompatibility, and not just zoo regulations). The aliens, needless to say, will have a different biochemistry, and probably no DNA at all. Forget, if you can, the breeding experiments.

Taking over the planet would only make sense if there were something really special about our world. The best guess of the exoplanet specialists is that the number of Earth-size planets in our galaxy exceeds tens of billions. That doesn’t sound like our hunk of real estate is terribly privileged.

They won’t come here to mine our minerals, either. The entire universe is built of the same stuff, and while the solar system has a higher percentage of heavy elements than found in many stellar realms, it turns out that this is precisely the condition that seems to foster planet formation. In other words, ET’s own solar system will be similarly blessed with these useful materials. So why would they come here and incur multi-light-year transport charges?

Why, indeed? These various issues are ones which are discussed in the course of speculation about the alien artifact discovered in Communion of Dreams. And while I never actually reveal the motivations that aliens might have for having left the artifact on Titan in my novel, I do have thoughts on the subject (which might come out in a future sequel to Communion.)

Be that as it may, Shostak does go on to make a pretty good argument that if indeed there are a large number of technological civilizations out there, that they may just not consider us worth the trouble of contacting/visiting. Again, from the article:

Then again, there’s that last point: they just want to learn more about us. Well, perhaps so. Maybe that’s really what’s interesting about Homo sapiens. Not grabbing our habitat, saving our souls (or our environment), or subverting our industrial output — but assaying our culture. I’m willing to consider that even very advanced beings might find our culture mildly worthy of study.

Keep in mind that if they’re near enough to find us, that implies that there are many, many galactic societies (otherwise the distances between any two of them will be enormous). If there are lots of them, then we’re just another entry in a big book. Once again, not all that special. Kind of like another weird fish found in the Atlantic. I don’t expect mammoth expeditions to be sent our way.

It is a good point. I would counter, however, that we have seen plenty of evidence in our own history of people going to enormous trouble to bother to learn about seemingly trivial things. One only has to look at the difficulties encountered in sea-faring during the time of the great naturalists – people were willing to go to great expense, to risk great hardship and a fair chance of death just to add another entry into the botanical texts or to discover a new species. Even today we mount insanely expensive expeditions into the deep ocean just to expand our knowledge.

We have no evidence of extra-terrestrial life, let alone advance civilizations. Yet I think that you can make a fair case that any space-faring race which may exist must have some degree of curiosity – and that curiosity may alone be reason enough to come check out the new kids on the block, whatever the hurdles or cost.

Jim Downey

Annoying, yet exciting.

Gah. I am either having a relapse of the very stubborn flu that had me laid low last month, or am fighting some new bug with similar (yet still considerably less severe) symptoms. This is highly annoying.

So, I’m about to go take a nap. But first a couple of quick notes, and then a bit from Phil Plait’s blog about a recent discovery that is very exciting.

Note one: downloads of the .pdf of Communion of Dreams have crossed 8,200 and downloads of the audio version continue to climb as well. That’s exciting.

Note two: heard nothing yet from the agent I mentioned contacting the other day. No surprise – I expect that it will take a month or so to hear from them. But I needed something else to note.

Now, about the news from space . . .

I have written previously about the Cassini probe’s 10 year mission to Saturn, and how there have been a lot of great images and information coming back to scientists about that planet and its moons. Information that helps to confirm what we knew when I was first writing Communion (since most of the action of the book takes place on and around Titan.) But there is news which would potentially require me to revise the novel slightly – not about Titan, but about its sibling Enceladus. You may have heard something about this, but I’ll go to the Bad Astro Boy himself for the news:

Life’s cauldron may be bubbling underneath Enceladus

A few days ago I wrote about how the Cassini Saturn probe dove through water ice plumes erupting from the surface of the icy moon Enceladus. The pictures were incredible, but it may very well be that the other detectors got the big payoff.

They detected organic compounds in the plumes.

Now remember, organic molecules don’t necessarily mean life. What Cassini detected were heavy carbon-based molecules, including many that are the building blocks for making things like amino acids and other compounds necessary for life as we know it.

Edited to add: Carolyn Porco, imaging team leader for Cassini, says:

[…] it is now unambiguous that the jets emerging from the south polar fractures contain organic materials heavier than simple methane — acetylene, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, propane, etc. — making the sub-surface sources of Enceladus’ dramatic geological activity beyond doubt rich in astrobiologically interesting materials.

Whoa. I mean, *whoa* . Seriously. It ain’t life, nor even proof of life – but it is *damned exciting*.

Now, a nap.  All this excitement makes me tired.

Jim Downey

Wish me luck.
March 25, 2008, 12:11 pm
Filed under: Failure, Feedback, Marketing, Promotion, Publishing, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

Well, there’s been another surge of interest in the book the last few days, and now there have been over 8,100 downloads of it.

As I told my wife on our morning walk today, saying “over eight thousand” sounds like a lot. I mean, it’s not just some kind of flash-in-the-pan interest thanks to one posting on a SF discussion forum or something. Over the last thirteen or so months, there has been a continued interest in the novel. And one of the most interesting things is that it largely seems to be due to word-of-mouth – I can only track about 1,200 downloads back to people visiting from other sites (and that is being generous in figuring that just because someone visits from a link on a site they decide to download the book.)

So, I decided to take a step I have been putting off for a long time: this morning I sent a query to a literary agency. In fact, I sent it to one of the agencies I had selected as being a good fit a year ago – they were one of only three who even bothered to respond to my query (of 9 or 10). And they turned me down, saying that they thought the book sounded interesting but were “insufficiently excited” about it. Here’s an excerpt from what I sent them today:

About a year ago, I contacted you concerning the possibility of representing me and my work. Your assistant at the time kindly declined on your behalf. But a lot has happened in the intervening year, and I would like you to reconsider. Given your long history working with science fiction authors, I still think that you are the agent for me.

My finished novel is discussed below. But first allow me to explain briefly why I think you may want to reconsider representing me.

When I set out to find an agent early last year, I also decided to put my novel online, available as a free download in .pdf form. Since then, over 8,000 people have downloaded the book. Some of this has been due to mention of the book in various forums, but that only accounts for about 15% of the downloads, according to my server statistics. The vast majority seems to have come about entirely because of word-of-mouth. And those numbers of downloads have continued to slowly grow. In the last week alone, almost 350 people have downloaded the book.

Shortly after posting the book online, I also started a related blog. The numbers there are not huge, but typically run about 100 visitors per day. Comments pertaining to the novel are almost uniformly very positive. Many people indicate that they are eager to buy the book in conventionally printed form. One person who produces audio books as a sideline was so enthusiastic about the book that he produced an unabridged audio version and made it freely available to me to use – this has just been added to my website in recent days.

Over the past year, as I was the primary care-provider for a family member with Alzheimer’s living here at home (culminating in her death last month), I also wrote about the experience of being a male care-giver for my blog. When I cross posted those entries to other forums, they always received a very enthusiastic response. That series of blog posts runs to about 40,000 words, and I am now planning on developing them into a book on the subject – a memoir, if you will.

So, we’ll see – see whether that is sufficient to entice them to represent me, or if I just get another rejection. Rejection hurts, kicks you right in the ego, there’s no doubt about it. But it is a necessary part of the process. And all of you who have downloaded the book, who have told others about it (and my blog), who have sent me comments and feedback – you all have made it easier to face the prospect of rejection. Thank you.

I’ll keep you posted. This is just the first step – in coming days, I will probably spend some time to select a couple of other agencies and contact them as well. We’ll see what happens.

Jim Downey

All done.
March 25, 2008, 11:53 am
Filed under: Feedback, Harry Potter, Jim Dale, Podcast, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

Well, late yesterday afternoon I finished listening to the audio production of Communion of Dreams. Wow. As I told Scot at OwnMade AudioBooks:

Finished the last disc this evening, before dinner. Was a little disappointed – you need to have a closing spiel like Jim Dale has for the HP books. Seriously. It will add a nice “professional touch”. If you want to tag something onto the end of the last MP3, we can swap it out on the website (about 30 people had downloaded the audio version as of last night – not bad for the first weekend!).

Anyway, you may remember that I worked in radio for a few years before going to grad school. So I had been giving some consideration to doing an audio version myself. I’m really glad I didn’t – you make it sound easy. And I know better.

Your production values are really good – only once in a while would I catch a little ‘canned’ quality, likely from getting a little off from the mic’s sweet spot. A better studio might help here, or better equipment, but it will be marginal. The different voices were pretty identifiable – and only now and again did some of the characterizations seem a little overdone.

In all honesty, for the most part I didn’t notice your reading – it was simply an audio interpretation of the book, and you got me engaged in the story. That’s about the best tribute I can offer.

I know that they’re big files – total of about 1.2 gigabytes. But seriously, download them and give ’em a try. Feel free to burn them to CDs to take on a long car trip or something. As I have mentioned, I find the interpretation that he brings to the work to be a really good additional layer of understanding. And besides, they’re free. If you were to download a comparable amount of music from I-Tunes, it’s cost hundreds of dollars. Such a bargain!

Jim Downey

But think of the convenience!

One of the basic premises of Communion of Dreams is that over time we will introduce personal ‘experts’ – advanced Expert Systems or Artificial Intelligence – which will act as a buffer between the individual and a technological world. We will enter into a trade-off: allow our ‘expert’ to function as an old-fashioned butler, knowing all of our secrets but guarding them closely, in order to then interact with the rest of the world. So, your expert would know your preferences on entertainment and books, handle your communications and banking, maintain some minimal privacy for you by being a “black box” which negotiates with other people and machines on your behalf.

Why do I think that this will happen? Why will it be necessary?

Because increasingly, in the name of ‘convenience’, both government and industry are seeking to become more intrusive in our lives, all the way down to the level of what happens inside our homes. People want the convenience, but are starting to become increasingly aware of what the price of the trade-off will be. The latest example:

Comcast Cameras to Start Watching You?

If you have some tinfoil handy, now might be a good time to fashion a hat. At the Digital Living Room conference today, Gerard Kunkel, Comcast’s senior VP of user experience, told me the cable company is experimenting with different camera technologies built into devices so it can know who’s in your living room.

The idea being that if you turn on your cable box, it recognizes you and pulls up shows already in your profile or makes recommendations. If parents are watching TV with their children, for example, parental controls could appear to block certain content from appearing on the screen. Kunkel also said this type of monitoring is the “holy grail” because it could help serve up specifically tailored ads. Yikes.

Here’s another source:

Comcast’s Creepy Experiment Puts Cams Inside DVRs to Watch You

In a scene straight out of 1984, Comcast said it will begin placing actual cameras in DVR units to track data for who is watching the digital television.This statement is so farfetched I almost don’t believe it, but it came out of the mouth of Gerard Kunkel, the senior vice president of user experience for Comcast. At the Digital Living Room conference he said that Comcast is already experimenting embedding cameras into DVR boxes that actually watch the television watchers. Big Brother, anyone?

Comcast is shilling this as a type of customization features. The camera would be capable of recognizing specific individuals and therefore loading a user’s favorite channels and on the other hand block certain content as well. Stop the schtick, Comcast. Nobody, and I mean nobody would ever voluntarily allow you to place a camera in a household, for any purpose. It’s a shame that I can already imagine the headlines when Comcast does this involuntarily.

Now, in the comments at both sites, there is disavowal by Comcast executives that the company is actually going to do this – they’re just “looking into it.” Sure.

More importantly, there are a lot of comments about how this is just yet another step into the world of total surveillance, another incremental loss of privacy. Sure, these comments come from tech-savvy people, who are well aware of how the technology may work – moreso than most people. And they are also aware that for many folks, this will be seen as ‘no big deal’, and a welcome convenience.

But the tech-savvy are the ones who will be developing the tools to counter this kind of intrusion. Sooner or later someone will figure out that there is a service to be met, creating a buffer of privacy between the individual and the corporate-government union. It may not be a huge market to begin with, but it will be the first start in the creation of the kind of expert systems I predict.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi. A slightly shortened version of this has been cross-posted to UTI.)

The Magic Bus.

I’ve written previously about how the early NASA space program filled my youth and fueled my imagination, and how that enthusiasm persisted through the cynicism of young adulthood and even into the more resigned reality of my middle years. To this day, movies such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 trigger an upwelling of that excitement, that pride.

Some of the most iconic images from those movies is the actual launch sequence – the ignition of the rocket engines, of brave astronauts riding fire into space. Well, via Phil Plait, here is a wonderful video of the inside of the flight deck of Shuttle Endeavour during the final countdown and into low orbit of STS-123. As the Bad Astronomer says:

You can see three astronauts in their suits preparing for the mission, and it’s really remarkable how they act. They’re clearly excited, but mostly all business. During the actual launch, they seem to be very nonchalant, simply doing what they need to do; it doesn’t look much different then I must look as I fasten my seatbelt, adjust the rear view mirror and pull out of my driveway in my car.

It’s a really odd juxtaposition! All the usual words we hear when we watch a launch are there, but somehow I expected the astronauts to be more animated, more excited. Instead, they mostly just sit there. They look like they’re taking the bus downtown, not a multi-billion dollar rocket into space!

He’s right – but what a magic bus it is! It isn’t nearly as dramatic as the movies noted above make it look to be – it’s actually more like the sort of casual acceptance of spaceflight found in SF. Because for these people, it is reality.

The video is just under 24 minutes long – and most of the ‘action’ takes place during the first five minutes or so (the three minutes before launch, then the first two minutes of flight). Because of our conditioning by movies and television, you might find yourself getting bored by it all – reality seldom comes with dramatic music. But if you sit back, and try to let it sink in that this is actually happening (well, has actually happened, almost two weeks ago), there is almost a sense of awe that sinks in. At least there is for me.

Jim Downey

Further insight.

Of all the many wonderful characters created by J. Michael Straczynski for his Babylon 5 universe, I have always been particularly fond of the Technomage Galen. Why? Well, actor Peter Woodward is just plain cool (he understand real weapons and fighting like few actors or fight directors do – his ‘Conquest‘ series for the History Channel a few years back was one of the best such documentary series I have ever seen). But more than that, the character Galen uses *exactly* the kind of technology that I envision is commonplace in the world of Communion of Dreams: the cyberwear which allows the user a functional augmented reality.

Recently, I wrote about how researchers have made a first important step in this direction, with the development of “a flexible, biologically safe contact lens with an imprinted electronic circuit and lights.”

Well, now Wired is reporting that – surprise, surprise – DARPA is interested in the development of this technology. From the article:

Today, a handful of soldiers with advanced gear can see a few digital maps, through helmet-mounted monocles. Some pilots can get data about their world, on heads-up displays. But one day, troops could see an info-“augmented” reality all around them, with contact lenses that provide “first-person shooter-type video game” environments to those that wear them. At least, that’s the idea behind the latest project from DARPA, the Pentagon’s blue sky science and technology division.

The agency’s Information Processing Techniques Office announced Wednesday that it’s looking for information on “the creation of micro- and nano-scale display technologies for the purpose of creating displays that could be worn as transparent contact lenses.” And not in some far-off future. But in “three to five years.”

Three to five years. As I said in that post in January:

Woo-hoo! I love it when my predictions start to become reality!

Jim Downey