Communion Of Dreams

Whaddya know?
June 26, 2008, 6:22 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Comics, Failure, Humor, Publishing, Writing stuff

I’m just being environmentally conscientious.

Jim Downey


Someone is watching you.
June 25, 2008, 9:08 am
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Civil Rights, Daily Kos, Government, Politics, Press, Privacy, Society, Space, tech, Wired

Someone is watching you:

BERKELEY, California — For most people, photographing something that isn’t there might be tough. Not so for Trevor Paglen.

His shots of 189 secret spy satellites are the subject of a new exhibit — despite the fact that, officially speaking, the satellites don’t exist. The Other Night Sky, on display at the University of California at Berkeley Art Museum through September 14, is only a small selection from the 1,500 astrophotographs Paglen has taken thus far.

* * *

While all of Paglen’s projects are the result of meticulous research, he’s also the first to admit that his photos aren’t necessarily revelatory. That’s by design. Like the blurry abstractions of his super-telephoto images showing secret military installations in Nevada, the tiny blips of satellites streaking across the night sky in his new series of photos are meant more as reminders rather than as documentation.

It’s art, people. And art can have a purpose and an impact which is more powerful and insightful than journalism. Paglan is an interesting guy, but too often his stuff is used as some kind of substitute for actual journalism. I suppose in an era when so much our government does is tacitly ignored by the mainstream press this is understandable, but it almost misses the point.


Jim Downey

Cross posted to dKos.

June 24, 2008, 5:55 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Emergency, Guns, Health, Predictions, Survival

I worked over six hours yesterday.  Yeah, I took a few breaks, but still.  Something of a milestone.

* * * * * * *

Humans are remarkably adaptive creatures.  We can adjust to a wide range of environmental conditions, accommodate significant changes in diet, accept shifts in social structure.  Just look around the world and you’ll see what I mean, from variations in culture in response to climate to how people cope with extreme conditions such as war and famine.

There can be a toll to such adaptations, of course, depending on what they are, how long they last, and the particular individual or society.

In caring for Martha Sr I slowly changed my routine and focus to better meet her needs, so most of the changes I went through in that time were barely discernible from day to day.  Over the four plus years of intense care giving, however, both my wife and I underwent a very substantial shift in what could be considered our normal life.

I’ve mentioned some of those changes previously – the weight gain, the loss of concentration, the lack of sleep.  But I haven’t discussed the operative mechanism behind all those changes: stress.  Specifically, the physiological changes in hormonal balance which come with prolonged stress – the so called stress hormones of cortisol and norepinephrine.  Most people know these as the ‘fight or flight’ reflex effects: boost in blood pressure and heart rate, heightened sensory awareness, a slight time dilation.  It is our body’s way of preparing us to survive a threatening situation.  It is a very powerful experience, and can even be a bit addictive – anyone who characterizes themselves as an ‘adrenaline junkie’, who gets a kick out of doing dangerous things or watching scary movies, is talking about just that.

The problem is, those stress hormones come with a price – they exact a toll on the body.  For most people, occasional jolts of this stuff isn’t really dangerous, but for someone with a heart condition or an aneurysm waiting blow, such an event can kill.  That’s why you see those warning signs on roller coasters.

And consider what happens to someone who slowly ramps up their stress hormone levels over a prolonged period.  That’s me.  My formerly excellent blood pressure and heart rate is now scary bad, and has been for a while.  I’m lucky that I started this in good condition – but think back to this episode last year, and you’ll see what kind of effect the excessive stress hormone levels had.  In the final year of care giving, my system became saturated with stress hormones – my ‘fight or flight’ reflex changed from being related to a sudden threat to being an ongoing condition.  I adapted.

So now I am in detox.  That’s what the last few months have been all about.  Slowly adapting back to something resembling normal, at a very basic physiological level.  More sleep.  More exercise.  Better diet.  As I’ve discussed recently, I have started to see some real changes.  But as a good friend who is also a doctor reminded me recently, it will likely take a year or longer to make this transition, for my endocrine system to settle down.  Recently I have taken some additional steps to help this process, in terms of changes to diet and food supplements.  But it is a long and winding road I need to walk now.

* * * * * * *

I got up about 3:30 this morning for a potty run.  Stepping from our bedroom into the bathroom, I froze: there was a light coming up from the downstairs that shouldn’t have been there.  I quietly backed into the bedroom, put on pants and glasses, grabbed my cell phone, a pistol and a powerful flashlight.

I’m no ‘macho guy’ or wanna-be hero.  The smart thing to do if you have an intruder in your house is to batten down the hatches where you are, call 911, and let the police deal with it.

But what if you just left a light on by accident?

I was about 90% sure that was what happened.  So, carefully, I went to investigate.  Checked the house completely.  Everything was safe and secure.  The cats were confused by what I was doing up so early.

I went back upstairs, hit the head, put away the various items I’d picked up, and crawled back into bed.

And have been awake since.

After an hour or so, I just got up.  Because I knew I wasn’t getting back to sleep anytime soon.  That’s the problem – the stress hormone receptors in my brain are so adapted to a regular high dose of adrenal squeezin’s that they hungrily lap the stuff up when it comes their way.

* * * * * * *

I worked over six hours yesterday.  Yeah, I took a few breaks, but still.  Something of a milestone.

Six hours may not sound like a lot.  After all, most people are expected to work eight or more hours at a time, with a couple of paltry breaks.

But for me, regaining the ability to focus in, to concentrate and work for that length of time is a real improvement.  It shows that I am making progress in detoxifying my system, of readjusting the endocrine balance.

Today is going to be a bit of a bitch, though, thanks to the early-morning jolt of adrenaline.  But I know how to handle it, and hopefully it won’t cause too much back sliding.  We’ll see.

The road is long and winding, and I must take it where it leads.

Jim Downey

The Woo of Tech.
June 22, 2008, 8:17 pm
Filed under: Amazon, BoingBoing, Humor, Marketing, Music, Society, Star Trek, tech

Man, I loves me some Star Trek technobabble as much as the next guy. But get a load of this: Product Description
Get the purest digital audio you’ve ever experienced from multi-channel DVD and CD playback through your Denon home theater receiver with the AK-DL1 dedicated cable. Made of high-purity copper wire, it’s designed to thoroughly eliminate adverse effects from vibration and helps stabilize the digital transmission from occurrences of jitter and ripple. A tin-bearing copper alloy is used for the cable’s shield while the insulation is made of a fluoropolymer material with superior heat resistance, weather resistance, and anti-aging properties. The connector features a rounded plug lever to prevent bending or breaking and direction marks to indicate correct direction for connecting cable.

And it can be yours for the low, low price of $499.99.

Seriously. A $5 ethernet cable.

But what is even funnier than considering the fact that they probably sell these things to the gullible are the merciless reviews right there on Amazon. Here’s one:

One of the unmentioned qualities of these cables is the reduced latency of the signal. Normal copper cables pass signals at about half the speed of light, but these puppies pass the signal at up to 3/4ths of lightspeed! This means that your data arrives faster, and since the Ethernet protocol involves collision detection, backoff, and retransmission this added speed means YOUR data is more likely to go ahead of competing data! Further, if there is no issue with other data sources, your data arrives 100s of picoseconds faster than with other cables. This can be important for gamers in multi-player situations! Or even for folks who just hate to wait for their data to arrive.

Marked down 1 star because it still won’t let you do the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.


I wish that I could give this product the full five stars. Based on its ability to enhance the musical, spatial, temporal and spiritual qualities of any recording, it is worth many multiples of the reasonable asking price. Unfortunately, Denon does not provide the necessary warning regarding the directionality of the cable. As I write this email, a small black hole is tearing through the space time fabric of my living room, consuming everything in its path (including my former pet Chihuahua, Wolfgang). A simple warning to prevent me from having reverse cabled my new joy for experimental reasons would have also spared me the horror of bidding adieu to 20 years woth of collecting (yes my cabbage patch dolls and hummel figurines are now faint memories of the past, for this dimension anyway). I bid you all adieu as I now see my walls dissolving… goodbye cruel worl


You pretend tech-jokers, laugh all you want – this cable is the real deal. When I first received mine, I rushed to hook it up to my system. and was crestfallen; the edge of the music sounded as if it had been routed through an echo chamber. It only lasted for a fraction of a millisecond, but *I* could hear it. I immediately got on the phone to Denon, and as you can imagine, their support was superb. After asking me a few questions about my rig, the support person said “this is a question I am hating to be asking you, but did you follow the directional arrows when you plugged it in?” Well, I felt like he could see the face go beet red.

I regained my composure, and explained how embarassed I was, especially as a binary engineer. How could I have expected to get clean ones and zeroes through a backwards wire? The best way I can try to explain this to a neophyte is this: imagine grating cheese with the grater upside-down. Now, you might argue that if you push hard enough, cheese will still go through, and I will concede this point. But is the cheese the same? No, of course not. Instead of smooth strands worthy of a gourmet taco, you end up with a mushy facsimile better left to melting on a bowl of chili (no offense, chili fans).

None taken.

Anyway, there’s like 16 pages of such hilarious mocking. Deservedly so, but it is nice to see it happen. Sort of restores my hope for humankind. For a few hours, anyway.

Jim Downey

(Via BoingBoing. Cross posted to UTI.)

The memory remains.

Just now, my good lady wife was through to tell me that she’s off to take a bit of a nap. Both of us are getting over a touch of something (which I had mentioned last weekend), and on a deeper level still recovering from the profound exhaustion of having been care-givers for her mom.

Anyway, as she was preparing to head off, one of our cats insisted on going through the door which leads from my office into my bindery. This is where the cat food is.

“She wants through.”

“She wants owwwwt.”

“Any door leads out, as far as a cat is concerned.”

“Well, that door did once actually lead out, decades ago.”

“She remembers.”

“She can’t remember.”

“Nonetheless, the memory lingers.”

* * * * * * *

Via TDG, a fascinating interview with Douglas Richard Hofstadter last year, now translated into English. I’d read his GEB some 25 years ago, and have more or less kept tabs on his work since. The interview was about his most recent book, and touched on a number of subjects of interest to me, including the nature of consciousness, writing, Artificial Intelligence, and the Singularity. It’s long, but well worth the effort.

In discussing consciousness (which Hofstadter calls ‘the soul’ for reasons he explains), and the survival of shards of a given ‘soul’, the topic of writing and music comes up. Discussing how Chopin’s music has enabled shards of the composer’s soul to persist, Hofstadter makes this comment about his own desire to write:

I am not shooting at immortality through my books, no. Nor do I think Chopin was shooting at immortality through his music. That strikes me as a very selfish goal, and I don’t think Chopin was particularly selfish. I would also say that I think that music comes much closer to capturing the essence of a composer’s soul than do a writer’s ideas capture the writer’s soul. Perhaps some very emotional ideas that I express in my books can get across a bit of the essence of my soul to some readers, but I think that Chopin’s music probably does a lot better job (and the same holds, of course, for many composers).

I personally don’t have any thoughts about “shooting for immortality” when I write. I try to write simply in order to get ideas out there that I believe in and find fascinating, because I’d like to let other people be able share those ideas. But intellectual ideas alone, no matter how fascinating they are, are not enough to transmit a soul across brains. Perhaps, as I say, my autobiographical passages — at least some of them — get tiny shards of my soul across to some people.


* * * * * * *

In April, I wrote this:

I’ve written only briefly about my thoughts on the so-called Singularity – that moment when our technological abilities converge to create a new transcendent artificial intelligence which encompasses humanity in a collective awareness. As envisioned by the Singularity Institute and a number of Science Fiction authors, I think that it is too simple – too utopian. Life is more complex than that. Society develops and copes with change in odd and unpredictable ways, with good and bad and a whole lot in the middle.

Here’s Hofstadter’s take from the interview, in responding to a question about Ray Kurzweil‘s notion of achieving effective immortality by ‘uploading’ a personality into a machine hardware:

Well, the problem is that a soul by itself would go crazy; it has to live in a vastly complex world, and it has to cohabit that world with many other souls, commingling with them just as we do here on earth. To be sure, Kurzweil sees those things as no problem, either — we’ll have virtual worlds galore, “up there” in Cyberheaven, and of course there will be souls by the barrelful all running on the same hardware. And Kurzweil sees the new software souls as intermingling in all sorts of unanticipated and unimaginable ways.

Well, to me, this “glorious” new world would be the end of humanity as we know it. If such a vision comes to pass, it certainly would spell the end of human life. Once again, I don’t want to be there if such a vision should ever come to pass. But I doubt that it will come to pass for a very long time. How long? I just don’t know. Centuries, at least. But I don’t know. I’m not a futurologist in the least. But Kurzweil is far more “optimistic” (i.e., depressingly pessimistic, from my perspective) about the pace at which all these world-shaking changes will take place.


* * * * * * *

Lastly, the interview is about the central theme of I am a Strange Loop: that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon which stems from vast and subtle physical mechanisms in the brain. This is also the core ‘meaning’ of GEB, though that was often missed by readers and reviewers who got hung up on the ostensible themes, topics, and playfulness of that book. Hofstadter calls this emergent consciousness a self-referential hallucination, and it reflects much of his interest in cognitive science over the years.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

In Communion of Dreams I played with this idea and a number of related ones, particularly pertaining to the character of Seth. It is also why I decided that I needed to introduce a whole new technology – based on the superfluid tholin-gel found on Titan, as the basis for the AI systems at the heart of the story. Because the gel is not human-manufactured, but rather something a bit mysterious. Likewise, the use of this material requires another sophisticated computer to ‘boot it up’, and then it itself is responsible for sustaining the energy matrix necessary for continued operation. At the culmination of the story, this ‘self-referential hallucination’ frees itself from its initial containment.

Why did I do this?

Partly in homage to Hofstedter (though you will find no mention of him in the book, as far as I recall). Partly because it plays with other ideas I have about the nature of reality. If we (conscious beings) are an emergent phenomenon, arising from physical activity, then it seems to me that physical things can be impressed with our consciousness. This is why I find his comments about shards of a soul existing beyond the life of the body of the person to be so intriguing.

So I spent some 130,000 words exploring that idea in Communion. Not overtly – not often anyway – but that is part of the subtext of what is going on in that book.

* * * * * * *

“Any door leads out, as far as a cat is concerned.”

“Well, that door did once actually lead out, decades ago.”

“She remembers.”

“She can’t remember.”

“Nonetheless, the memory lingers,” I said, “impressed on the door itself. Maybe the cat understands that at a level we don’t.”

Jim Downey

(Related post at UTI.)

Does the truth matter?
June 20, 2008, 8:20 am
Filed under: Art, General Musings, Music, Society

I got the following fantastic anecdote from a good friend (who is a musician) in the course of a discussion about the arts.

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches.

To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an unforgettable sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.

By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play.

But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke.You could hear it snap -it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do. People who were there that night thought to themselves: “We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage – to either find another violin or else find another string for this one.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before. Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.

When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done. He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind ever since I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that should be the way of life – not just for artists but for all of us. So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.

By Jack Riemer, Houston Chronicle (Feb 10, 2001)

Inspiring, no?

Problem is, it evidently didn’t actually happen.

I wanted to give Riemer proper credit, so started doing a little searching in order to come up with a link to the original article. A Google search gave hundreds of references to various blogs and newsletters which had repeated the article, each giving credit to Riemer, some providing the date the piece ran. But none of the first couple score of hits were to the Houston Chronicle itself.


So I went to the Chronicle’s site, and started searching their archives. I don’t know if there is something wrong with their search function, or the archives are incomplete, or if the piece never ran, but I couldn’t find it.


One of the first places I head when I start getting suspicious about an email item is Snopes. And there it was:

Three Strings and You’re Outre

Claim: Violinist Itzhak Perlman once finished a concert on an instrument with only three strings after one string broke.Status: False.

Example: [Collected via e-mail, 2001]
Origins: The piece quoted above did indeed appear in The Houston Chronicle (on 10 February 2001). Verification of any of the details contained within it has proved elusive so far, however.

There’s full details there about how they came to this conclusion, with citations.

Now, the question is: does it matter? I have seen Itzhak Perlman perform in person. Yes, due to the effects of the polio he suffered as a child, he does indeed approach the stage exactly as described. And the man is justifiably considered a genius, one of the greatest violinists ever. So why not just accept the anecdote as an inspirational piece about how genius can overcome challenge?

Well, that was exactly what I initially intended to do, before I started to dig a little in order to give proper credit to the author of the piece.

But I think that what I found is actually more interesting. Hundreds of sites have used the anecdote. Thousands, if not millions, have read it and likely found it inspirational. Why?

Because we want to believe in the power to overcome hardship.

And there’s really nothing wrong with that. The anecdote makes an important point. Yet I would say that it is not necessary to have this particular anecdote to be true – it just makes it easier to be inspired. Itzak Perlman has overcome hardships, developed his latent talent further than most mortals, and worked hard to achieve the success he has experienced. Isn’t that enough?

Jim Downey

Oops III: The Other Shoe.
June 19, 2008, 7:22 am
Filed under: General Musings, Government, movies, Nuclear weapons, Predictions, tech, Violence

I’ve written previously about screws-ups with control of nuclear weapons and components thereof. And the recent dismissal of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne also caught my attention, with the explanation that this was due to a failure to properly safeguard the handling of nuclear materials. Now it seems that there was more behind that dismissal than was initially indicated:

US N-weapons parts missing, Pentagon says

The US military cannot locate hundreds of sensitive nuclear missile components, according to several government officials familiar with a Pentagon report on nuclear safeguards.

Robert Gates, US defence secretary, recently fired both the US Air Force chief of staff and air force secretary after an investigation blamed the air force for the inadvertent shipment of nuclear missile nose cones to Taiwan.

According to previously undisclosed details obtained by the FT, the investigation also concluded that the air force could not account for many sensitive components previously included in its nuclear inventory.

One official said the number of missing components was more than 1,000.

You know the ‘warehouse scene’ at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? That’s how I always envision any government-related storage or supply system. And everything I’ve ever heard from friends who have served in the military has done nothing to change my opinion – well, for the better, anyway.

So it comes as little surprise that substantial amounts of “sensitive nuclear missile components” have gone missing. Not that this is particularly comforting, mind. As I’ve said before, I’m one of the people who grew up fully expecting a nuclear war of some variety sometime during my life. And in spite of the ‘detargetting’ bullshit of the ’90s, I still do. That’s bad enough. But it would *really suck* if such a thing were made possible because of the lax clerical policies of our own government.

Jim Downey

Cross posted to UTI.