Communion Of Dreams

Bhutting up.
May 19, 2008, 7:08 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Gardening, Habanero, Health, Humor, YouTube

Remember this?

The pepper that the idiot bit into – twice – was a Bhut Jolokia.  Widely considered the hottest pepper currently in cultivation, they are rated at over One Million Scoville Heat Units – twice as hot as the peppers I talked about harvesting in this post last year.

So, naturally I had to order some in.

They should arrive Thursday.  And I spent most all weekend prepping the garden for their arrival.  Oh, yeah, I also planted the usual selection of tomato plants (five varieties, this year subbing in a German Green heirloom for the Brandywines I’ve grown the last couple of years) and standard bell peppers.  But really, the thing I am most looking forward to getting in there are my hot peppers, both the Bhut Jolokia and the Red Savina.  This year, in an effort to avoid the problems I ran into with the local deer population (mentioned here) I also put up a light fence around the entire perimeter of the garden.

And since I had the luxury of being able to spend as much time as I wanted in the garden this year, as opposed to the last few years when we were still caring for Martha Sr, I was able to get the ground properly tilled and my landscape fabric down (which I use to control weeds – it’s cheaper than using bales of straw, and more effective).  All told, I spent maybe 12 hours out there working.  And I have the aching muscles to prove it.  It feels good, no matter how much I complain to my wife, the dog, and all my friends.

So, I’m ready.  Bring on the peppers!

Jim Downey

Mirror, mirror.
May 17, 2008, 10:04 am
Filed under: Art, Failure, General Musings, Society, Violence

My friend looked up from her grilled salmon, surprise on her face. “I didn’t know your father was a policeman.”

* * * * * * *

I came across a very thought-provoking article a few days ago, about the intersection between idealism and reality when it comes to who should get a college education. It’s a longish piece, but definitely worth reading, and I have sent it to a couple of friends who teach at the college/university level. Here’s one particular passage:

There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level. Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. School custodians, those who run the boilers and spread synthetic sawdust on vomit, may not need college—but the people who supervise them, who decide which brand of synthetic sawdust to procure, probably do. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed? Will it benefit the correctional officer to have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health-care worker Arrowsmith? Should the child-welfare officer read Plath’s “Daddy”? Such one-to-one correspondences probably don’t hold. But although I may be biased, being an English instructor and all, I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and broadening and ultimately good for you. If I should fall ill, I suppose I would rather the hospital billing staff had read The Pickwick Papers, particularly the parts set in debtors’ prison.

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Crashes and burns? Yes, because as the author discusses, not everyone has the capability to function at the college level. This is obvious to anyone who has given the matter any consideration. But it is sobering to read the accounts of Professor X about being the one who has to convey this to actual, real, students.

* * * * * * *

Come Monday, across the street from my home there will be a big golf tournament. No, not some PGA event. It’s a benefit thing, done to help raise money and awareness for the local “Officer Down” fund. They’ve done this there each year for the last four or five. As I drive in and out of my neighborhood I’ll get to see the big signs touting the event.

It’s odd. Perhaps I should connect with the organizers. Perhaps I could be of some assistance. Because my dad was killed on the job, he was an “Officer Down“. That was almost 40 years ago, and you’d think I would be ‘over it‘ by now. You’d be wrong.

* * * * * * *

My dad dropped out of school in the 8th grade, though I think he got a G.E.D. later. Back in the 50s you didn’t need much education to get hired as a cop.

My mom graduated from High School.

I grew up in a very blue-collar household. Comfortable enough by the standards of the time, but not what you would call an ‘intellectually rich’ environment. I distinctly remember being told that I read too much, and needed to go outside and play more. We didn’t have books or original art around the house, though my mom did draw a little.

I did well in school, though. And even with my antics and acting out, I was a straight A student through High School. Thanks to something like our local “Officer Down” fund, and insurance, and money donated for that purpose, I was able to attend one of the best undergraduate schools in the country. It is entirely possible that had my father not been killed, I would not have been able to swing attendance at such a school for financial reasons. Because of this, I’ve always had some real mixed feelings about my college education, as excellent as it was.

* * * * * * *

My friend looked up from her grilled salmon, surprise on her face. “I didn’t know your father was a policeman.”

I am used to this. Have been for a very long time. The surprise that someone who is well read, well educated, who writes, creates, and owned an art gallery, could have come from such a background. My friend’s husband, who was there with us, was one of the artists I used to represent. We’ve dined and worked together, shared many conversations and experienced both joy and sadness in the turn of our fortunes. I make no pretense of being an intellectual, no claim to a true academic knowledge of any subject. But still, she was surprised to hear that my dad was a cop.

Because, for all that we Americans assume that we exist in a classless society, we still make huge assumptions about one another on the basis of education.

So, while I do not argue with Professor X that there are, indeed, those who do not belong in college, I think that it is always important that we try and make those opportunities available. I’m smart, but I am not exceptional – it is only because of my education that I seem not to be the son of a cop. Sure, some will fail in an attempt to get a college degree, or sufficient credits to earn this or that position. But they need the chance to find this out for themselves.

I realize that this was not the argument from that article in the Atlantic. Or is it? Judge for yourself from this concluding paragraph:

One of the things I try to do on the first night of English 102 is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don’t read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don’t really share a culture. To Kill a Mockingbird? Nope. (And I thought everyone had read that!) Animal Farm? No. If they have read it, they don’t remember it. The Outsiders? The Chocolate War? No and no. Charlotte’s Web? You’d think so, but no. So then I expand the exercise to general works of narrative art, meaning movies, but that doesn’t work much better. Oddly, there are no movies that they all have seen—well, except for one. They’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz. Some have caught it multiple times. So we work with the old warhorse of a quest narrative. The farmhands’ early conversation illustrates foreshadowing. The witch melts at the climax. Theme? Hands fly up. Everybody knows that one—perhaps all too well. Dorothy learns that she can do anything she puts her mind to and that all the tools she needs to succeed are already within her. I skip the denouement: the intellectually ambitious scarecrow proudly mangles the Pythagorean theorem and is awarded a questionable diploma in a dreamland far removed from reality. That’s art holding up a mirror all too closely to our own poignant scholarly endeavors.

Jim Downey

Sequel, sequel, who has a sequel?

I can’t say that I’ve gotten terribly excited about io9, the relatively new site that describes itself as “Strung Out on Science Fiction”.  Simply, so much of the content there seems directed at current TV shows that I’m not watching, it just doesn’t seem to make sense to plow through it all.

But every once in a while I’ll come across something posted elsewhere that links to io9, and will go take a look.  Like this piece, via MeFi:

7 Reasons Why Scifi Book Series Outstay Their Welcomes

Why do so many amazing novels sprawl into so-so trilogies? Let alone blah tetralogies, or dull ten-book series? Blame “Herbert’s Syndrome,” in which a great writer gets tempted to keep writing about a popular universe, like Frank Herbert’s Dune, long after its expiration date. (The Fantasy Review coined the term “Herbert’s Syndrome” back in 1984, so Brian Herbert didn’t enter into it.) Here’s a handy guide to the symptoms and causes of Herbert’s unfortunate ailment.

It’s a bit interesting to see what the author has to say on the subject.  But honestly, the discussion in the MeFi thread is more complete and insightful (which isn’t too surprising – a quick blog post is meant to provoke thought, not complete it).

I mention it because I often have people ask me whether I will be writing a ‘sequel’ to Communion of Dreams.  I think people naturally want to know ‘what happens next?’  But I like leaving the ambiguity where it is,  to make people wonder.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t plan on writing other books in the same ‘universe’ as Communion of Dreams.  I have mentioned previously that I have started St. Cybi’s Well, which is set at the time of the first outbreak of the Fireflu (about 2012 in that alternate time line).  As I recover from the last couple of years of being a care-giver, I will once again be returning to writing that book.  I also have an idea for a book set in the 2030s, in the Israeli colony on the Moon, which would feature an artist as the main character, but that is not very well developed yet.  It is possible that I could come up with other books which would fit within my alternate time-line, but I have no plans to just crank out a dozen books in such a series.  I respect those authors who have a single vision, a single story, which naturally plays out over the course of multiple books – but I have little respect or interest in those who just wish to cash in on a popular work.

Anyway, thought you might enjoy that discussion.

Jim Downey

R.A.H. would smile.
May 16, 2008, 11:02 am
Filed under: Government, Heinlein, Predictions, Robert A. Heinlein, Science, Science Fiction, tech

Yeah, ol’ Robert would get a chuckle out of this news item:

Robotic suit could usher in super soldier era

Rex Jameson bikes and swims regularly, and plays tennis and skis when time allows. But the 5-foot-11, 180-pound software engineer is lucky if he presses 200 pounds — that is, until he steps into an “exoskeleton” of aluminum and electronics that multiplies his strength and endurance as many as 20 times.

* * *

Jameson — who works for robotics firm Sarcos Inc. in Salt Lake City, which is under contract with the U.S. Army — is helping assess the 150-pound suit’s viability for the soldiers of tomorrow. The suit works by sensing every movement the wearer makes and almost instantly amplifying it.

The Army believes soldiers may someday wear the suits in combat, but it’s focusing for now on applications such as loading cargo or repairing heavy equipment. Sarcos is developing the technology under a two-year contract worth up to $10 million, and the Army plans initial field tests next year.

Powered Armor, anyone?

Actually, we’re still some ways away from what Heinlein envisioned. In particular, a power source is problematic. But the necessary electronics are now in place, to the point where the suit mentioned above doesn’t require a huge amount of training to use – it’s fairly intuitive:

“It feels less agile than it is,” Jameson said. “Because of the way the control laws work, it’s ever so slightly slower than I am. And because we are so in tune with our bodies’ responses, this tiny delay initially made me tense.”

Now, he’s used to it.

“I can regain my balance naturally after stumbling — something I discovered completely by accident.”

Learning was easy, he said.

“It takes no special training, beyond learning to relax and trust the robot,” he said.


Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Aliens, aliens, everywhere.

Yesterday I wrote a somewhat snarky post at UTI about the Vatican’s Astronomer giving his official blessing (almost literally) to the notion that alien life – even intelligent alien life – probably exists in the universe, and that this was not at odds with Catholic doctrine. A friend this morning sent me a link to this 1996 article in the New York Times:

Does the Bible Allow For Martians?

WOULD the discovery of life on Mars be a blow to the idea of biblical creation? Should the knowledge of alien organisms shatter faith in a God who was supposed to have created heaven and earth and life in a week?

As it turns out, biblical creationists have been touting the existence of aliens for years — and Mars itself has featured prominently in their scenarios.

Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of ”The Creationists,” a history of this movement, was himself raised in a fundamentalist Seventh Day Adventist community where belief in life on Mars was no big deal.

According to the Bible, Mr. Numbers explains, Satan and his cohorts were thrown out of heaven, so the question arises: Where did they go? At his high school in rural Tennessee, Mr. Numbers was taught by his teacher, who was also a Seventh Day Adventist, that they were hurled to Mars. The famous Martian canals were cited as evidence of this habitation.

In turn, that article was mention by another NYT piece yesterday (also sent by my friend) which discussed the Vatican’s stance on alien life. And in it, this is mentioned:

On Monday, Mike Foreman, a mission specialist during the recent Shuttle Endeavor voyage, expressed confidence in the notion, saying “it’s hard to believe that there is not life somewhere else in this great universe.”

Today, TDG also noted that another Endeavor crew member agreed, with this news item:

Astronauts who returned recently from a Space Shuttle mission said on Monday that they expected alien life would be discovered.

“Life like us must exist elsewhere in the universe,” Takao Doi, who had been on a 16-day Endeavour mission to the International Space Station, told reporters in Tokyo.

Mr Doi and his colleagues denied seeing anything that proved the existence of extraterrestrial life forms, but said the scale of the solar system and beyond had impressed upon them the possibility of alien life.

Of course, also in the news just about everywhere is that the British government is in the process of releasing their UFO files, gathered by the Ministry of Defense. As I quoted in my UTI post yesterday:

LONDON – The men were air traffic controllers. Experienced, calm professionals. Nobody was drinking. But they were so worried about losing their jobs that they demanded their names be kept off the official report.

No one, they knew, would believe their claim an unidentified flying object landed at the airport they were overseeing in the east of England, touched down briefly, then took off again at tremendous speed. Yet that’s what they reported happened at 4 p.m. on April 19, 1984.

The incident is one of hundreds of reported sightings contained in more than 1,000 pages of formerly secret UFO documents being released Wednesday by Britain’s National Archives.

And naturally enough, lots of people are just certain that whatever is in those files isn’t the *actual* truth, because you just can’t trust any government with this stuff. As noted (again, via TDG) in this post by UFO investigator Nick Redfern which pre-dated the recent release of documents:

Yes, the Government knows something. It may actually know quite a lot. Perhaps (although I seriously doubt it) it knows everything. But the idea that it (as a unified body) has any interest in telling us the truth, purely because we go knocking on its doors, loftily demanding to be let in on the secret, is self-deluded, ego-driven yearning of a truly sickening “I want to believe” nature.

Call me a cynic, but if the government reveals the truth about UFOs to us, you can guarantee it will be a lie. And it will probably be a lie designed to scare the shit out of us and ensure that we surrender more of our freedoms and rights to old men who wear suits and lack souls. And still the real secret will remain hidden – either in the pages of some hefty classified file or in a cryogenic tank deep below Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Maybe…

OK, I’ve written before about news related to SETI, because it ties in directly with Communion of Dreams.  But why mention these reports and comments?  Why get into the whole woo-woo land of UFOs?

Well, as I said over a year ago when French government made their UFO files available:

A staple of Science Fiction has always been the question of how humanity will deal with the discovery that we are not the only sentients in the universe.  It is, of course, the main theme of Communion as well, and while I am somewhat ambiguous about what exactly is “out there”, I make no bones about the fact that they exist, and have even visited our neighborhood (hence the discovery of the artifact on Titan being central to the book).

Honestly, one of my greatest fears is that before I can get Communion published, we may indeed have such proof, and will get to see just exactly how that plays out in the public sphere.  My own private suspicion is that it will not go well.

And I can’t help but wonder what is behind this sudden upsurge in scientists, astronauts, and even religious leaders commenting about how they are sure that there is alien life, possibly even intelligent alien life, “out there.”  Sure the UFO community has always been convinced (it sort of goes with the territory), and vocal.  But why this interest being expressed from so many other sources?  I may have been snarky at UTI, but I do have to wonder whether or not there isn’t some larger agenda being played out here before our eyes.  Certainly, were I in a decision-making position in government and we had conclusive and irrefutable proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence, I would advise spending some time ‘preparing’ the public for the release of that information.

Just a thought.

Jim Downey

When would you go?
May 13, 2008, 7:17 am
Filed under: Architecture, General Musings, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Travel

So, I’m curious – given some kind of time-travel technology, what would you like to witness from the past? Let’s say that something about the technology prohibits you from interacting with the past – all you can do is passively watch/listen.

And note I said “from the past”, not “from history”, because while I would want to see some of the famous events, I think I would actually more like to see little things that seldom show up in history books. Like the building of our house (go down to the “Hurst John” house second from the bottom). Or maybe something from my childhood, since I remember so little of it. Sure, everyone would want to resolve some of the mysteries from history, and to witness specific events, but it’s more interesting to hear what personal moments of the time would attract your attention.

When would you go?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

“No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.”
May 12, 2008, 12:27 pm
Filed under: Gene Roddenberry, MetaFilter, SCA, Science Fiction, Society, Space, Star Trek

No, I haven’t been sleeping the last four days.

The weekend was entirely occupied in playing painter in my wife’s new office suite. When I wasn’t painting, I was either too tired or too sore to do much of anything else. I’m not used to that much physical activity. Pathetic.

And I can’t stop to play much here now, either – have conservation work that needs tending, having spent this morning cleaning up and after a sick dog. Too much fun.

But had to share this item from the Daily Mail, via MeFi – excerpts from William Shatner‘s latest memoir. Here’s one passage:

One morning, shooting a Star Trek movie in the desert, I had a very early call.

So I told the wardrobe girl: “Give me my uniform and I’ll put it on at the house so I don’t have to come in any earlier for wardrobe. I’ll just wear it to the set.”

So at 4am I was racing across the desert to our location. I was way over the speed limit, figuring there wasn’t another car on the road in the entire state.

It turned out there was one other car – and it had lights and a siren.

I got out of my car, dressed in my uniform. The police officer looked me up and down, frowned and asked: “So where are you going so fast at this time in the morning?”

I told him the truth: “To my spaceship.”

He sighed. “OK, go ahead,” he said, before adding the Vulcan blessing: “Live long and prosper.”

I haven’t read any of his other books (which surprises some friends, given how fond I am of the original series) and probably won’t read this one. But I thought it was a good anecdote.

And sometime when I have a little more time and remember to do so, I’ll have to write up the surreal story of attending the first “Trek Fest” in Riverside, Iowa over 20 years ago, celebrating the “future birthplace” of James T. Kirk. I did so as part of an SCA Demo (huh? What’s the connection to Star Trek?). Held in the back of a bar . . .

Jim Downey

(Extra points if you can name the source of the quote in the title. Not who – that’s obvious – but from where?)

Sleep is the default.

It’s now been three months since Martha Sr died.

You’d think by now that I’d be caught up on sleep. You’d be wrong. As I look over the last few month’s posts I note that time and again that I mention sleep. It is still the default that I want more, more, more. Even when I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, and am not fighting any kind of cold or flu, a nap in the morning or afternoon tempts me. For someone who thinks of himself as energetic, productive, it kind of goes against the grain. For someone who has a backlog of work running to years, it can be a little maddening.

Yet, sleep is still the default.

* * * * * * *

My sister called the other day.

Thirty pounds?  Wow. Be careful.”

I assured her that I wasn’t trying to overdo anything. That it was just my body moving back towards a natural set-point, as mentioned in that blog post.

But she has a good reason to be concerned: in our family, weight loss is one of the markers for the onset of the family genetic curse, Machado-Joseph disease. To be honest, this is one of the major reasons that I have always felt a little comfortable in being a bit overweight – it provided some sense of protection against the disease (which was very poorly understood or even known as I was growing up). That’s not how it works, of course, but it was always there in the back of my mind. If you’d lived with seeing what the disease does, you’d be willing to risk obesity, too.

* * * * * * *

Go back to any of the entries from last year under the tag Alzheimer’s, and you’ll see that one of the most common things I talk about is just how tired I was. For years – literally, years – my wife and I had taken turns being “on call” each night, lightly dozing while listening to a baby monitor in Martha Sr’s room. On those nights you’d barely get anything which amounted to real rest. When you weren’t “on call” sleep usually came, but wasn’t as easy or restful as it could have been – having your partner there more or less awake next to you all night wasn’t that conducive. Sure, there were naps whenever we could squeeze them in, but I would still say that my average sleep per 24 hour period was probably about 5 hours, maybe 6. Things did improve once we had a health aide three nights a week, but by then we were in hospice care, which had its own stresses and demands.

* * * * * * *

ATLANTA – People who sleep fewer than six hours a night — or more than nine — are more likely to be obese, according to a new government study that is one of the largest to show a link between irregular sleep and big bellies.

* * *

The research adds weight to a stream of studies that have found obesity and other health problems in those who don’t get proper shuteye, said Dr. Ron Kramer, a Colorado physician and a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“The data is all coming together that short sleepers and long sleepers don’t do so well,” Kramer said.

The study released Wednesday is based on door-to-door surveys of 87,000 U.S. adults from 2004 through 2006 conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Surprise, surprise.

* * * * * * *

I’ve got a pretty strong work ethic. And it was shaped by conventional standards: get up, go to work for 8 -10 hours, come home. That’s not how I work – hasn’t been for years – but it is still the baseline instinct for me, the initial criteria I use for whether or not I am “getting things done”. So it is frustrating to feel sleepy and want a nap. That doesn’t pay the bills, get the backlog under control, get the next book written or the ballistics research written up.

Three months. Seems like a long time. And our culture doesn’t understand grief well, nor leave a lot of room for recovery that takes time. We expect people to “get over it”, to take a vacation and come back refreshed. It is part of who we are – part of who I am.

But I try to listen to my body. It is naturally shedding the excess weight I put on, now that regular sleep and exercise are again part of my life. Realistically, it is only halfway done – I’ve another 30 pounds or so to go to get back to a point which I consider ‘normal’ (though that’s still about 20 – 30 pounds heavy for me, according to the ‘ideal’). Does that mean I have another three months of wanting naps all the time? Yeah, maybe. Maybe more. I’ll try and give it that time.

I’ll try.

Jim Downey

Here comes the Fourth Reich.

Via the Bad Astronomer:

Towards the end of World War II the staff of SS officer Hans Kammler made a significant breakthrough in anti-gravity.

From a secret base built in the Antarctic, the first Nazi spaceships were launched in late ‘45 to found the military base Schwarze Sonne (Black Sun) on the dark side of the Moon. This base was to build a powerful invasion fleet and return to take over the Earth once the time was right.

And, in 2018, it is. Welcome to Iron Sky:

This actually looks really kinda cool. Somewhat like Man Conquers Space. The site has a nice retro sort of feel, with a fair amount of content and a blog. Poke around. Have fun. Tell them to hurry up and finish the damned movie – I want to see it.

Jim Downey.

Another ‘The Day the Universe Changed’
May 6, 2008, 11:56 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Connections, James Burke, Science, Society, Space

Via Brian at Liftport, a link to this site hosting the entire series of James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed. As Brian said in an email:


You’re written before that you admire James Burke’s work on television.

While I don’t condone piracy, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out
that a blog is hosting a download of the ‘Day the Universe Changed’.
One episode per day, file will be up for a week and then it’s gone.

I put the first episode on my laptop, let it play and .. my kids liked
it. Which is what I expected but .. you never know.

I might be kidding myself by I think it was firing off neurons in my
13-year old son’s brain. I have no idea what my eight year old really
thought (he said he liked it) but he’s not the type to just watch
anything on TV; if it’s boring he’ll wander away and play with legos
or his dinosaur collection or go fool around in the backyard.

Yes, I have written about the series, and Burke previously. It really is excellent – and you should either add the thing to your NetFlix queue, buy it outright, or at the very least avail yourself of the chance to see it online.

Thanks, Brian!

Jim Downey