Communion Of Dreams

A complex man.
May 31, 2010, 10:48 am
Filed under: Heinlein, MetaFilter, Robert A. Heinlein, Science Fiction, Society, Violence

I’ve written about Robert A. Heinlein a fair amount, or referenced his work. It’s safe to say that he has had a significant impact on me and my thinking. Though many people have a superficial knowledge of him and his work, based on one or two novels, I think that an honest assessment of him as a writer has to be that he was a complex man who changed a lot over the course of his life. Not all of those phases were particularly attractive – there are times when he can only be described as being a right cranky old bastard. But sometimes for very good reason.

Here’s one slice of him I hadn’t seen before, and I think it gives some further insight into Starship Troopers. It’s a letter he wrote to a friend and young fan in January 1945, following the death of that man’s brother in the war. An excerpt:

Forry, you have sought my advice on matters which worried you in the past. You have not sought my advice in this matter, but I am going to presume on our old friendship to offer you some. I know that you are solemn in your intention to see to it that Alden’s sacrifice does not become meaningless. I am unable to believe that fan activity and fan publications can have anything to do with such intent. I have read the fan publications you have sent me and, with rare exceptions, I find myself utterly disgusted with the way the active fans have met the trial of this war. By the fan mags I learn that many of these persons, who are readily self-congratulatory on their superiority to ordinary people—so many, many of these “fans” have done nothing whatsoever to help out. Many of them are neither in the army nor in war work. Many have found this a golden opportunity to make money during a war boom—by writing, by commercial photography, through the movies, or by other worthless activities—worthless when compared with what your brother Alden was doing. These bastards let your brother die, Forry, and did not lift a hand to help him. I mean that literally. The war in Europe would have been over if all the slackers in this country had been trying to help out—would have been over before the date on which your brother died. The slackers are collectively and individually personally responsible for the death of Alden. And a large percent of fans are among those slackers. Alden’s blood is on their hands.

Today seemed to be the appropriate day to share this.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Emotional endings.
May 30, 2010, 3:23 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Guns, Writing stuff

“Alwyn? What is it, bud?”

My dog was next to the bushes beside the small porch on the SW corner of our house. This used to be a separate entrance for the doctor’s ‘surgery’, when our home was built 125 years ago. Something under the porch (which is about 4′ off the ground level) had his attention.

I went over to see what it was.

First thing I noticed were the flies.

* * * * * * *

Once I had re-defined the “months” a bit, making the mental shift for ‘October’ to be the start of Hospice/Placement in the Nursing Home, everything else fell into place pretty easily.

I wrapped up October. Actually, it was really pretty easy – straight chronological order (for the most part) of all the blog posts and emails from that period of care-giving. The only real trick was to weave the two different narratives – the ones from Martha and I caring for Martha Sr and the ones from John and Kathi caring for Georgia – together in the most natural narrative.

* * * * * * *

“Ah, hell,” I said to myself. There, under the open porch, were two very small raccoon kits. One was already dead, and had been for at least a couple of days. Hence the flies.

The other one lifted its head from its sibling’s body. Shakily, it stood and looked at me. Four weeks old, at the most.

It fell back down.

“Alwyn, sit!”

He sat, eyes still on the raccoon.

* * * * * * *

November and December were just as straight-forward. First, the month of quick decline, of saying goodbye while you still could, while it still meant something with an Alzheimer’s patient.

Then the month of passing, the end playing out in two different scenarios, but somehow the same. I guess it always is the same, really, when it comes down to it.

The only difficult thing about arranging the entries were the tears in my eyes. They made it a little hard to see.

* * * * * * *

The little kit raised its head again, just above the body of its sibling. It looked me in the eyes.

And never felt the bullet.

Alwyn didn’t flinch – my .22 air rifle is powerful, but nearly silent. I leaned the rifle against the porch, put on my gloves, and crawled in after the kits.

They weighed less than a pound each. I don’t know what had happened to the mother – I haven’t seen a raccoon around, nor evidence of one – but she had clearly been gone at least a couple of days.

But they didn’t die alone. The first had its sibling. The other had me.

Excuse me, I think I need a drink. Been an emotional day.

Jim Downey

Watch until the end.
May 29, 2010, 9:05 am
Filed under: Humor, YouTube

It’s worth it:

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Jim Downey

“It’s . . . really complicated.”
May 28, 2010, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Babylon 5, Writing stuff

There’s a scene in season four of Babylon 5 where Dr Stephen Franklin is feeling flummoxed by a medical problem. Brilliant as he is, he is just not up to resolving the complex task before him, and which he has been struggling with for weeks.

He gets a phone call from his superior officer, who wants to know the status of his work. Clearly frustrated, Franklin says “It’s . . . really complicated right now. I’m trying to keep it all in my head at once . . .”

I feel a little bit like that.

I’ve mentioned working on the care-giving book, and how that is progressing. Right now I’m at the stage where I am going through, attempting to find the natural ‘dialog’ which emerges from the multiple entries by my co-author and I and our spouses. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s very much like trying to solve a puzzle of thousands of pieces when you don’t know what the picture is supposed to be. I’m working with a rolling window of three months at a time, shuffling individual entries back and forth until things ‘gel’ into a form that makes the most sense. At present, I’m in August, September, and October – three of the largest months for entries. I’ve got individual entries printed out, clipped into sections, and laid out physically in my bindery – covering the table of my large board shear, my 5’x5′ layoff table, and in four of my large flat file drawers. It’s something like 120 individual entries all together, and like 40,000 words.

And I am trying to juggle all of these in my head at the same time, so I can relate the different entries and find that natural conversation between them. It’s like trying to do some kind of relational database in my head.

I was not trained for this. Writing a novel is tough because you have to constantly juggle all the little bits and pieces so that the plot points come out right and when you want them, the characters are consistent, and no one accuses you of pulling a fast one with some deus ex machina stunt. But at least there I was the one who made up everything, and could tweak it so things would fit. Here I am working with individual entries from four different people, over a period of about five years time. Sheesh.

And then there’s the complicating factor of how emotional this stuff is. Even being somewhat distanced from it, it triggers certain responses – pushes certain buttons.

Well, my lunch break is over. Back to it.

Jim Downey

Dirty fingernails.*
May 25, 2010, 4:10 pm
Filed under: Art, Gardening, Heinlein, Robert A. Heinlein

So, got my plants in:

It’s a nice, meditative process: decide the layout of where I want what.  Place the individual plants (I planted 3 of each of the above, except the Red Savina peppers – did 6 of those). Then I go from location to location with a bag of organic fertilizer and a large Bowie knife.  The knife was made by an uncle of mine, back in the era when people were wearing coonskin caps.  I doubt he ever thought it would be used for such a purpose, but it is great for this, and has been a favorite gardening tool of mine for at least a decade – one of the highest compliments I can give.  With the knife, I make a large X cut in the landscape fabric, then loosen the dirt.  Reaching in with a bare hand, I scoop out the dirt, piling it nearby.  In goes a handful of the fertilizer.  Pop the plant out of the little plastic container, and position it.  Loose dirt around the side to hold it in position.  With the tomatoes, add in another handful of the fertilizer – the peppers don’t need it.  Then pile the rest of the dirt up on the plant, to about the point where the first leaf cluster branches off.  Push down lightly to make sure everything will stay put.  Water lightly.

Doesn’t sound like much, I suppose.  But after being on my knees doing it for about two hours, I was knackered.  Took a little more time to put up some temporary “doors” covering the gaps in the deer netting, and called it a day.

Tomorrow, or perhaps the next day, I’ll get my tomato towers in place, and think of Ray. After, place the soaker hoses. Then keep a nervous eye on how things proceed.

Jim Downey

*No, not that kind!

Where the danger lies.

Last week I mentioned the genetic breakthrough accomplished by J Craig Venter and his team: the creation of functional man-made DNA. Since then, lots of very smart people have been trying to sort through the implications of this development. One of the better collections of such discussion I have seen can be found at Edge.

Here’s a bit from PZ Myers (also on his blog) that I find particularly insightful:

Nature’s constant attempts to kill us are often neglected in these kinds of discussions as a kind of omnipresent background noise. Technology sometimes seems more dangerous because it moves fast and creates novelty at an amazing pace, but again, Venter’s technology isn’t the big worry. It’s much easier and much cheaper to take an existing, ecologically successful bug and splice in a few new genes than to create a whole new creature from scratch…and unlike the de novo synthesis of life, that’s a technology that’s almost within the reach of garage-bound bio-hackers, and is definitely within the capacity of many foreign and domestic institutions. Frankenstein bacteria are harmless compared to the possibilities of hijacking E. coli or a flu virus to nefarious ends.

Let me repeat that last sentence: Frankenstein bacteria are harmless compared to the possibilities of hijacking E. coli or a flu virus to nefarious ends.

It’s almost like he’s read Communion of Dreams, eh?

Jim Downey

Sometimes the things we do impress the hell out of me.
May 22, 2010, 7:21 am
Filed under: Art, NASA, Science, Space, tech

As you likely know, the Space Shuttle program is coming to an end, and each of the shuttles are on their final launch schedules. Take a few minutes and watch this amazing time-lapse vid:

Go For Launch!

The action starts in the hangar-like Orbiter Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where Discovery has been outfitted for its STS-131 mission. The vehicle is then towed to the 525-foot-high Vehicle Assembly Building, hoisted into a vertical position and lowered onto its external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters. Then it’s off to the pad on the giant Mobile Launcher Platform, where the shuttle is encased in its protective Rotating Service Structure until just before launch on April 5, 2010.

Sometimes the things we do impress the hell out of me.

Jim Downey

May 21, 2010, 8:23 am
Filed under: Art, MetaFilter, movies, Science Fiction, Space, YouTube

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

It’s Alive!
May 20, 2010, 1:07 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Brave New World, MetaFilter, PZ Myers, Science, Science Fiction, tech

Just breaking:

WASHINGTON – Scientists have created a living cell powered by manmade DNA.

Here’s some more, from the source:

Now, this scientific team headed by Drs. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison have achieved the final step in their quest to create the first synthetic bacterial cell. In a publication in Science magazine, Daniel Gibson, Ph.D. and a team of 23 additional researchers outline the steps to synthesize a 1.08 million base pair Mycoplasma mycoides genome, constructed from four bottles of chemicals that make up DNA. This synthetic genome has been “booted up” in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome.

Implications? I agree with Freeman Dyson:

I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.

The stuff of science fiction, now made fact.

Edited to add 5/21: PZ has a good explanation of the actual science you may want to read.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi, BB, and other places.)

May 20, 2010, 11:37 am
Filed under: Ballistics, Guns, Science

I was checking the web stats, saw that BBTI is closing in on 2.5 million hits (probably hit that mid-afternoon tomorrow). A link from a site listed in the referrals had this comment about the project that I thought I would share:

“As I recollect, it was actually someones Master’s research project at the University of Iowa. Can you imagine doing graduate level work in external ballistics? Kinda cool.”

At first I just thought it was amusing, since we explain right on the homepage what prompted us to do the testing. But then thinking about it a little further, I realized that it was actually a nice compliment and somewhat insightful: what we did could be seen as being comparable to graduate-level study and research. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to the BBTI blog.)