Communion Of Dreams


Flexibility.

[This post contains mild spoilers about Communion of Dreams.]

One of the difficulties facing computer engineers/scientists with developing expert systems and true Artificial Intelligence is the paradigm they use.  Simply, working from structures analogous to the human brain, there has been a tendency to isolate functions and have them work independently.  Even in modern computer science such things as adaptive neural networks are understood to analogous to biological neural networks in the brain, which serve a specific function:

Biological neural networks are made up of real biological neurons that are connected or functionally-related in the peripheral nervous system or the central nervous system. In the field of neuroscience, they are often identified as groups of neurons that perform a specific physiological function in laboratory analysis.

But what if the neuroscience on which these theories are based has been wrong?

Here’s the basics of what was Neuroscience 101: The auditory system records sound, while the visual system focuses, well, on the visuals, and never do they meet. Instead, a “higher cognitive” producer, like the brain’s superior colliculus, uses these separate inputs to create our cinematic experiences.

The textbook rewrite: The brain can, if it must, directly use sound to see and light to hear.

* * *

Researchers trained monkeys to locate a light flashed on a screen. When the light was very bright, they easily found it; when it was dim, it took a long time. But if a dim light made a brief sound, the monkeys found it in no time – too quickly, in fact, than can be explained by the old theories.

Recordings from 49 neurons responsible for the earliest stages of visual processing, researchers found activation that mirrored the behavior. That is, when the sound was played, the neurons reacted as if there had been a stronger light, at a speed that can only be explained by a direct connection between the ear and eye brain regions, said researcher Ye Wang of the University of Texas in Houston.

The implication is that there is a great deal more flexibility – or ‘plasticity’ – in the structure of the brain than had been previously understood.

Well, yeah. Just consider how someone who has been blind since birth will have heightened awareness of other senses.  Some have argued that this is simply a matter of such a person learning to make the greatest use of the senses they have.  But others have suspected that they actually learn to use those structures in the brain normally associated with visual processing to boost the ability to process other sensory data.  And that’s what the above research shows.

OK, two things.  One, this is why I have speculated in Communion of Dreams that synesthesia is more than just the confusion of sensory input – it is using our existing senses to construct not a simple linear view of the world, but a matrix in three dimensions (with the five senses on each axis of such a ‘cube’ structure).  In other words, synesthesia is more akin to a meta-cognitive function.  That is why (as I mentioned a few days ago) the use of accelerator drugs in the novel allows users to take a step-up in cognition and creativity, though at the cost of burning up the brain’s available store of neurotransmitters.

And two, this is also why I created the ‘tholin gel’ found on Titan to be a superior material as the basis of computers, and even specify that the threshold limit for a gel burr in such use is about the size of the human brain.  Why?  Well, because such a superconducting superfluid would not function as a simple neural network – rather, the entire burr of gel would function as a single structure, with enormous flexibility and plasticity.  In other words, much more like the way the human brain functions as is now coming to be understood.

So, perhaps in letting go of the inaccurate model for the way the brain works, we’ll take a big step closer to creating true artificial intelligence.  Like in my book.  It pays to be flexible, in our theories, in our thinking, and in how we see the world.

Jim Downey

Hat tip to ML for the news link.



A tribute:
August 18, 2008, 7:57 am
Filed under: Health, Hospice, NPR, Survival

To a man I never met, and whose life I would not pretend to understand.

Larry Sievers has died from the cancer about which he blogged and reported the last several years.  He  was an exceptional writer, and brought us insight into his battle with a brutal honesty and grace.  More than that, he built an online community of which he was justifiably proud.  As he said in the farewell piece on NPR this morning:

But I am at peace because I have done my best to make a difference.  I hope when the real time comes, someone says that about each of us.

No worries, Larry.  Thank you for all you did in sharing your humanity with us all.

Jim Downey



Real Americans
August 17, 2008, 1:45 pm
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Government, Guns, Politics, Society

I just came across a clipping from four years ago – a political Op-Ed I’d written for one of the local papers. Thought I’d repost it, just for grins. Here it is, and it can also be found on my archive writing site.

Jim D.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Real Americans

A local radio station promotes itself as “Real Radio – for real Americans!” It’s a station that I listen to occasionally, because I like to think I’m a real American. After all, I was born here (on the Fourth of July, no less). I pay my taxes, try and make my community a better place, fly my flag and love my country. Some of the shows are interesting. Some of the hosts are funny (sometimes intentionally so). Some of the opinions are ones I agree with.

But since I only occasionally listen to this station, I guess I’m not a “real American.” Or maybe I’m partly a real American, proportional to the amount of time I listen in. OK, but do I figure that as the percentage of my time listening to radio overall, as a percentage of my waking hours, or what? Perhaps it should be calculated according to how much I agree with the politics stated on the radio station. Well, that leads to problems, too, because after all, even the hosts have major disagreements from one show to the next.

I don’t conform completely to most of the right-wing ideas espoused by this radio station. Nor do I comfortably fit in with the beliefs of the far left. I’m pro-choice but also pro-death penalty. I believe in concealed-carry, but wanted the assault weapons ban. I supported Desert Storm, but think that the latest Iraqi Adventure was nothing more than a Neocon con-job. I find opera boring, but NASCAR is also a snooze. I read The Economist, but also check out Mother Jones regularly. The current version of “JFK” is a pale shadow of the one I remember being assassinated, but then, the current President Bush can’t hold a candle to the intellect, experience, and accomplishments of his father. I’ve worked in Republican presidential campaigns, but have contributed money to Democrats. I’m somewhere in the happy middle, and don’t trust fanatics of any stripe, either in politics or religion. Most people are like me, using common sense and their internal moral compass to make tough choices in a complicated world. So maybe that means we’re all not completely “real Americans.”

The numbers would seem to bear this out: the radio station only has a small share of the market (let’s be generous and say it’s 10%). Does that mean that 90% of the people here who aren’t tuned in aren’t real Americans?

Or maybe the hype of the radio station’s promotional material is out of sync with reality, a reflection of the unfortunate tendency for the far right to think that they somehow have a monopoly on what it means to be a “real American.” This radio station isn’t the only example of this I’ve come across lately.

Recently on NPR there was an interesting interview with a nice couple in Dallas who are putting together a film festival for those with a more conservative inclination. They’re doing this because they feel that so much mainstream film reflects a Hollywood liberalism, and wanted to balance the ledger a little. Great. But in the course of the interview the woman said that they’re putting together the film festival for ‘real Americans.” When asked by the host what the woman meant by that, she stuck to her guns, said she meant “folks like us – in tune with the news, such as the War on Terror.”

Ah. So, if I keep up with the news, I’m a real American. Got it. But once again, does that mean that everyone who doesn’t keep up with the news, particularly the war on terror, doesn’t qualify? And how do I scale this? If I can point to Afghanistan on a map, can pick out Osama bin Laden from a line-up, and can name the three countries in the Axis of Evil, do I qualify? Do I get extra points for being able to identify the Americans killed this week in Iraq, or being able to explain how their deaths make me safer?

What if I am current on the news, but just happen to disagree with the way the War on Terror is being conducted? Somehow, I doubt that the nice lady who is putting together the film festival would think that makes me a real American. Would she say that those families who have lost sons and daughters in Iraq qualify as real Americans? Even the ones who oppose this war?

What about you, are you willing to let her decide whether or not you’re a real American? Isn’t it time that we asserted our status ourselves, rather than let some narrow partisan group or radio station claim that as their sole property? If you think that you’re a real American, whatever your politics, then don’t let someone else steal that from you. Patriotism isn’t only the province of the right; it belongs to all of us, and it’s high time we started saying so.

Jim Downey



Playtime!
August 16, 2008, 7:47 am
Filed under: Artificial Intelligence, Astronomy, Humor, MetaFilter, Science, Space, tech

OK, I spent *way* too much time playing this game last night: Orbitrunner. And because I’m the kind of guy that I am, I wanted to inflict it on you.

It’s actually a very interesting bit of gaming, for as simple as seems at first glance. Here’s the description from the site:

Control the Sun with your mouse. Use it to manipulate the planets’ paths. The Sun’s pull gets stronger as planets get closer. If the gravity is at a right angle to the direction of travel, an orbit can form. Make sure planets don’t leave the screen or collide!

I’m sure that they have established some fairly basic approximations for your computer to manipulate, but it still addresses one of the classic problems of physics: how to calculate the orbital dynamics for two or more bodies in motion. Even if you restrict the interactions to one orbital plane, this is a surprisingly difficult problem for more than two bodies, and has been for centuries. From ScienceWorld:

The three-body problem considers three mutually interacting masses , , and . In the restricted three-body problem, is taken to be small enough so that it does not influence the motion of and , which are assumed to be in circular orbits about their center of mass. The orbits of three masses are further assumed to all lie in a common plane. If and are in elliptical instead of circular orbits, the problem is variously known as the “elliptic restricted problem” or “pseudorestricted problem” (Szebehely 1967, pp. 30 and 39).

The efforts of many famous mathematicians have been devoted to this difficult problem, including Euler Eric Weisstein's World of Biography and Lagrange Eric Weisstein's World of Biography (1772), Jacobi Eric Weisstein's World of Biography (1836), Hill (1878), Poincaré Eric Weisstein's World of Biography (1899), Levi-Civita (1905), and Birkhoff (1915). In 1772, Euler first introduced a synodic (rotating) coordinate system. Jacobi (1836) subsequently discovered an integral of motion in this coordinate system (which he independently discovered) that is now known as the Jacobi integral. Hill (1878) used this integral to show that the Earth-Moon distance remains bounded from above for all time (assuming his model for the Sun-Earth-Moon system is valid), and Brown (1896) gave the most precise lunar theory of his time.

And Wikipedia has a very good entry (beyond my math level) about the broader n-body problem:

General considerations: solving the n-body problem

In the physical literature about the n-body problem (n ≥ 3), sometimes reference is made to the impossibility of solving the n-body problem. However one has to be careful here, as this applies to the method of first integrals (compare the theorems by Abel and Galois about the impossibility of solving algebraic equations of degree five or higher by means of formulas only involving roots).

The n-body problem contains 6n variables, since each point particle is represented by three space (displacement) and three velocity components. First integrals (for ordinary differential equations) are functions that remain constant along any given solution of the system, the constant depending on the solution. In other words, integrals provide relations between the variables of the system, so each scalar integral would normally allow the reduction of the system’s dimension by one unit. Of course, this reduction can take place only if the integral is an algebraic function not very complicated with respect to its variables. If the integral is transcendent the reduction cannot be performed.

Well, have fun with it. And be amused about that all that phenomenal computing power at your fingertips making a simple little game. Such is the future.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi. Cross posted to UTI.)



“Come on baby, light my fire.”*
August 15, 2008, 12:31 pm
Filed under: Genetic Testing, Preparedness, Science, Science Fiction, Synesthesia, Titan, Writing stuff

I’ve written previously about the emergence of consciousness and the role that the biochemical stew in our heads plays in awareness and cognition. But let’s get a little more basic in our analysis. Let’s consider fire. No, not the slow fire of chemical reactions in our bodies, but actual burning of wood, and the role that it may have played in the development of human intelligence.

* * * * * * *

The Greek myth of Prometheus bringing the holy fire of Zeus to mankind, and thereby enabling civilization, has usually been understood as being an explanation of the role which technology plays in human development. After all, fire allows humans to control our environment, from living in colder climates to clearing land for farming to metallurgy. And, of course, to cook food, making a wider range of nutrients available.

But what if fire made human thought itself possible?

Cooking and Cognition: How Humans Got So Smart

After two tremendous growth spurts — one in size, followed by an even more important one in cognitive ability — the human brain is now a lot like a teenage boy.

It consumes huge amounts of calories, is rather temperamental and, when harnessed just right, exhibits incredible prowess. The brain’s roaring metabolism, possibly stimulated by early man’s invention of cooking, may be the main factor behind our most critical cognitive leap, new research suggests.

OK, that article is a little light on actual information.  So I went to check the research paper.  It’s a bit thick, but the basic idea was to study the rise of human cognition via two methods:

In this study, we attempted to identify molecular mechanisms involved in the evolution of human-specific cognitive abilities by combining biological data from two research directions: evolutionary and medical. Firstly, we identify the molecular changes that took place on the human evolutionary lineage, presumably due to positive selection. Secondly, we consider molecular changes observed in schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder believed to affect such human cognitive functions as the capacity for complex social relations and language [612]. Combining the two datasets, we test the following prediction: if a cognitive disorder, such as schizophrenia, affects recently evolved biological processes underlying human-specific cognitive abilities, we anticipate finding a significant overlap between the recent evolutionary and the pathological changes. Furthermore, if such significant overlap is observed, the overlapping biological processes may provide insights into molecular changes important for the evolution and maintenance of human-specific cognitive abilities.

Got that?  First, you determine the differences due to evolution (specifically as seen in DNA/mRNA divergence between us and chimpanzees), then you see where the brains of people who have schizophrenia are different from ‘normal’ brains.  That can give you some indications of how cognition works, since schizophrenia is known to primarily impact cognition.

What did the researchers find?

In order to select human-specific evolutionary changes, we used the published list of 22 biological processes showing evidence of positive selection in terms of their mRNA expression levels in brain during recent human evolution [13]. Next, we tested whether expression of genes contained in these functional categories is altered in schizophrenia to a greater extent than expected by chance. To do this, we ranked 16,815 genes expressed in brain in order of probability of differential expression in schizophrenia, using data from a meta-analysis of 105 individuals profiled on 4 different microarray platforms in 6 independent studies [14]. We found that 6 of the 22 positively selected biological processes are significantly enriched in genes differentially expressed in schizophrenia (Wilcoxon rank sum test, p < 0.03, false discovery rate (FDR) = 11%), while only 0.7 would be expected to show such an enrichment by chance (Figure 1; Table S2 in Additional data file 1; Materials and methods). Strikingly, all six of these biological processes are related to energy metabolism. This is highly unexpected, given that there were only 7 biological processes containing genes involved in energy metabolism among the 22 positively selected categories (Figure 1; Table S2 in Additional data file 1). The mRNA expression changes observed in schizophrenia appear to be distributed approximately equally in respect to the direction of change, pointing towards a general dysregulation of these processes in the disease rather than a coordinated change (Table S3 in Additional data file 1).

Simply put: it’s metabolism.  The brain eats up a lot of energy, about 20% of all the energy you take in as food.  That’s a lot – for chimps the number is about 13%, and for other vertebrates it runs 2 – 8%.  The conclusion:

In this study we find a disproportionately large overlap between processes that have changed during human evolution and biological processes affected in schizophrenia. Genes relating to energy metabolism are particularly implicated for both the evolution and maintenance of human-specific cognitive abilities.

Using 1H NMR spectroscopy, we find evidence that metabolites significantly altered in schizophrenia have changed more on the human lineage than those that are unaltered. Furthermore, genes related to the significantly altered metabolites show greater sequence and mRNA expression divergence between humans and chimpanzees, as well as indications of positive selection in humans, compared to genes related to the unaltered metabolites.

Taken together, these findings indicate that changes in human brain metabolism may have been an important step in the evolution of human cognitive abilities. Our results are consistent with the theory that schizophrenia is a costly by-product of human brain evolution [11,37].

When did this take place?  From the LiveScience article first cited:

The extra calories may not have come from more food, but rather from the emergence of pre-historic “Iron Chefs;” the first hearths also arose about 200,000 years ago.

In most animals, the gut needs a lot of energy to grind out nourishment from food sources. But cooking, by breaking down fibers and making nutrients more readily available, is a way of processing food outside the body. Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, Khaitovich explained, thereby freeing up calories for our brains.

* * * * * * *

In Communion of Dreams, I posit the use of “auggies” – drugs designed to maximize the utilization of neurotransmitters in the brain.  When combined with increased sensory information thanks to technology, an artificial kind of synesthesia occures, allowing for insights (artistic, cognitive) otherwise beyond human ability.  But it is a cheat – you ‘burn up’ the available neurotransmitters quickly, accelerating brain function, but are left then less capable for a period of days after as the body replenishes.  This is by and large a metabolic function – the same way an athlete can burn up energy stored in muscles in one brief period, but then needs time to recover.

I wrote this with an instinctive understanding of the mechanism involved – we’ve all experienced something akin to this phenomenon of pushing ourselves mentally for a short period, being tired and less able to think clearly afterwards.  It’s a bit surprising to find that it may have literally been the same mechanism which lead to the rise of human intelligence to begin with.

And as for the alien artifact on Titan, which causes a similar phenomenon?  Just coincidence that Prometheus was one of the Titans in Greek mythology.

No, really – just coincidence.

Jim Downey

*and yes, I realize that this isn’t quite what The Doors meant.



“The Peace of the Gun.”

There’s a line from a Babylon 5 episode (I’m a big fan of the series) which has always stuck with me. Several characters are discussing the political situation on Earth following the imposition of martial law. One character says that people love it – crime is down, things are calm, peaceful.

“Yeah, the peace of the gun,” replies another character.

And that, my friends, is what we have today, here in the US. Specifically, in one small city in Arkansas:

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. – Officers armed with military rifles have been stopping and questioning passers-by in a neighborhood plagued by violence that’s been under a 24-hour curfew for a week.

On Tuesday, the Helena-West Helena City Council voted 9-0 to allow police to expand that program into any area of the city, despite a warning from a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas that the police stops were unconstitutional.

Police Chief Fred Fielder said the patrols have netted 32 arrests since they began last week in a 10-block neighborhood in this small town on the banks of the Mississippi River long troubled by poverty. The council said those living in the city want the random shootings and drug-fueled violence to stop, no matter what the cost.

“Now if somebody wants to sue us, they have an option to sue, but I’m fairly certain that a judge will see it the way the way the citizens see it here,” Mayor James Valley said. “The citizens deserve peace, that some infringement on constitutional rights is OK and we have not violated anything as far as the Constitution.”

From another source:

Controversial Curfew in Helena-West Helena

Mayor James Valley has given residents in one high-crime neighborhood two choices…. go home or go to jail.

Valley’s issued a mandatory curfew for Second Street and the surrounding blocks — a place he considers to be a “hot spot” for crime. The curfew applies to anyone of any age at any time of day.

* * *

“This turf belongs to taxpaying citizens, not to hustlers and drug dealers….We are going to pop them in the head,” Mayor Valley said.

* * *

The mayor only has the power to issue a 48 hour curfew – so he says when this one expires, he’ll issue another one, and another one.

Predictably, the ACLU is taking a rather dim view of this:

Mayor: Curfew Constitutional

The ACLU has written a letter to Helena-West Helena Mayor James Valley protesting the curfew he imposed on a portion of the city. The mayor says he’s received the letter, but believes it’s intentions are misplaced.

* * *

Mayor James Valley says no constitutional rights have been violated — he says they’re doing what’s needed to clean up the streets.

No doubt. And he’s willing to be reasonable:

Helena-West Helena Curfew Changes

Leaders in Helena-West Helena have come up with a new plan after criticism by the ACLU of the mayor’s recent curfew on a particular part of town.

This past weekend, Mayor James Valley issued a mandatory curfew for Second Street and the surrounding blocks — a place he considers to be a “hot spot” for crime.

* * *

Valley’s curfew will remain in place for all minors, but adults will be allowed out if they can answer questions about their need to be outside their homes.

See, like I said – he’s being perfectly reasonable about this. You can leave your house. If you can explain to authorities why you need to do so.

How could anyone possibly object to this?

*sigh*

This is nothing more or less than the peace of the gun. This is the abrogation of civil liberties as a solution for incompetent governance. Of course people like it – let things get bad enough that they fear for their lives more than they value their liberties, and you can get people to do almost anything. Mayor Valley is just applying the same logic as he applied in mid July when he, well, here’s the news report:

Mayor Orders Dogs Released Into Forest

You’ve heard it before…..Arkansas animal shelters struggling to take care of unwanted dogs and cats. One mayor has decided the best way to fix the problem in his town is to set the animals free.

KARK visited the Helena-West Helena animal shelter back in January. Conditions were dirty and animals were in poor health.

Thursday, KARK learned the town’s mayor James Valley has taken the unconventional approach of releasing the animals into the wild. In a press release, the mayor says “we fed and watered them and took them to the St. Francis National Forest.”

Yeah, he just turned them loose.

Like I said, incompetence. Let things get so bad, and then you can take absurd steps.

Like imposing martial law.

Is this just a trial run for other cities? Other levels of government? Because you can be damned sure that there are power-hungry people watching this situation very closely, and drawing their own conclusions. If a small-town mayor can get away with it, why not a large city mayor? Or a governor? Or a president?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI and Daily Kos.)



So, you think you know Orwell.
August 12, 2008, 9:25 am
Filed under: George Orwell, Government, Politics, Privacy, Publishing, Society, Writing stuff

Or maybe you don’t. My own knowledge of George Orwell was limited to his most popular novels (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four) until graduate school, when I also delved into some of his essays. Any would-be writer, and almost anyone interested in political rhetoric, should be familiar with “Politics and the English Language”. His piece on “Why I Write” had a powerful impact on me, and I still find that this passage at the end resonates strongly:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Well, anyway, if you’ve enjoyed Orwell’s writing, you may also enjoy his diaries. The Orwell Prize has just started running entries from Orwell’s diaries 70 years ago, posting them day-to-day as a blog starting with the first entry dated August 9, 1938/2008. As stated on the blog:

From 9th August 2008, you will be able to gather your own impression of Orwell’s face from reading his most strongly individual piece of writing: his diaries. The Orwell Prize is delighted to announce that, to mark the 70th anniversary of the diaries, each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.

What impression of Orwell will emerge? From his domestic diaries (which start on 9th August), it may be a largely unknown Orwell, whose great curiosity is focused on plants, animals, woodwork, and – above all – how many eggs his chickens have laid. From his political diaries (from 7th September), it may be the Orwell whose political observations and critical thinking have enthralled and inspired generations since his death in 1950. Whether writing about the Spanish Civil War or sloe gin, geraniums or Germany, Orwell’s perceptive eye and rebellion against the ‘gramophone mind’ he so despised are obvious.

I’m looking forward to it, to seeing how this man’s mind understood the changing events of the world around him at a critical juncture. Maybe you will, as well.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)



“The air shimmied, light danced . . . “
August 11, 2008, 8:03 am
Filed under: Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, tech, Writing stuff

Jon walked to the edge of the pool. He heard a noise behind him, turned slowly to look at it.

From beside a large bush a pile of boulders shifted. The air shimmied, light danced, and a crouching figure emerged, covered in a fabric drape that tried to keep up with the changing surroundings. One hand pulled the drape to the side. Another was holding a very large sidearm.

Excerpt from Chapter 18 (page 258 of the .pdf) of Communion of Dreams. That’s my description of a military ‘stealth suit’ being used by one of the characters. Why do I mention it? Because:

WASHINGTON – Scientists say they are a step closer to developing materials that could render people and objects invisible.

Researchers have demonstrated for the first time they were able to cloak three-dimensional objects using artificially engineered materials that redirect light around the objects. Previously, they only have been able to cloak very thin two-dimensional objects.

The findings, by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, led by Xiang Zhang, are to be released later this week in the journals Nature and Science.

The new work moves scientists a step closer to hiding people and objects from visible light, which could have broad applications, including military ones.

Wow. Another prediction coming true in my lifetime.

Jim Downey



Beats a sculpture of Popeye.
August 10, 2008, 8:13 am
Filed under: Art, H. G. Wells, Humor, Mars, MetaFilter, Science Fiction

Now, this is the way to honor an author:

it’s a fucking tripod from the war of the worlds and can be found in horsell woking, england (h.g. wells’ hometown and the area in which the first martian cylinder landed). imagine walking round the corner and coming face to face with it for the first time, groceries in hand. i’d be close to soiling my pants.

* * *

built in 1998 by michael condron, the 23ft high sculpture was “commissioned to celebrate the centenary of hg wells’ the war of the worlds” and as you can see in the last photo, next to the tripod, seemingly half-buried in the ground, is the cylinder. there are also bacteria represented by designs on surrounding stones – go here to see them. as with the baby tower, congratulations to the local authorities for giving this shiny chunk of brilliance the greenlight. it’s fantastic. if something like this existed outside my local shopping centre then i might actually go near the place.

Cool.  Reminds me of a sculpture we saw while in Wales some years back, in terms of being not the usual sort of boring pigeon perch.  Check it out.

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.



Been busy.

I took some books back to Special Collections yesterday afternoon.  As I was unpacking items, one of the staff members asked how I was doing.

“Pretty well.  Been busy.”

She looked at me for a long moment.  “You look – rested.”

* * * * * * *

On Wednesday, in response to a friend who asked what I had going on, I sent this email reply:

Need to do some blogging this morning, then get settled into the next batch of books for a client.  Print out some invoices.  Also need to track down some camera software and get it loaded onto this machine, and finish tweaking things here so I can shift over the last of the data from the old system and send it on its way.  Need to work on learning some video editing, and start uploading clips from our ballistics testing project to YouTube.  Then I can get going on creating the rest of the content for *that* website. Play with the dog.  Should touch base with my collaborator on the Alz book, see where he is on some transcriptions he is working on. And then prep dinner.  In other words, mostly routine.  Yeah, I lead an odd life.

An odd life, indeed.

But here’s a taste of some of the documentation about the ballistics project that I have been working on:

That’s me wearing the blue flannel overshirt.  Man, I’m heavy.  I hope video of me now would look better.

* * * * * * *

The chaos continues.  Yeah, we’re still in the process of completely re-arranging the house, and of seeing to the distribution of Martha Sr’s things.  Looks like there’ll be an estate auction in our future sometime next month.  But that’s good – it means that things are moving forward, heading towards some kind of resolution.

As mentioned in passing in the email cited above, I’ve been shifting over to a new computer system I got last week.  My old system was starting to lose components, and was becoming increasingly incapable of doing things I need to be able to do.  Well, hell, it was 7 years old, and was at least one iteration behind the cutting edge at the time I bought it.  Thanks to the help of my good lady wife, this has been a relatively painless transition – though one which has still taken a lot of work and time to see through.

And one more complication, just to keep things interesting: My wife is moving her business practice home.  This had been the tentative plan all along, once Martha Sr was gone, and for a variety of reasons it made sense to take this step now.  She’ll be able to devote more of her energy to seeing to her mom’s estate, hastening that process.  And she’s going to take on the task of shopping my book around agencies and publishers.  Now that there have been over 10,000 downloads (actually, over 11,000 and moving towards 12,000), it would seem to be a good time to make a devoted push to getting the thing conventionally published, in spite of the problems in the industry.  We’re hoping that she’ll be better able to weather the multiple rejections that it will take, and I’ll have more time and energy for working on the next book (and blogging, and the ballistics project, and – oh, yeah – earning money for a change).

* * * * * * *

She looked at me for a long moment.  “You look – rested.”

“Thanks!”

It says something that with all I’ve been doing (as described above has been fairly typical, recently), I look more rested now than I have in years.

Actually, it says a lot.

Jim Downey