Communion Of Dreams

Hey kids, let’s learn about SCIENCE!
September 22, 2010, 10:12 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Science, Sixty Symbols, Travel, YouTube

Sorry, in a bit of a mood.

But seriously, I came across this site last night and thought that I would share: Sixty Symbols. From their ‘Project’ page:

Ever been confused by all the letters and squiggles used by scientists?

Hopefully this site will unravel some of those mysteries.

Sixty Symbols is a collection of videos about physics and astronomy presented by experts from The University of Nottingham.

They aren’t lessons or lectures – and this site has never tried to be an online reference book.

The films are just fun chats with men and women who love their subject and know a lot about it!

Chances are, you already know something about many if not most of the different symbols featured. (Hey, if you read my blog you’re clearly above average in terms of intelligence and education, right?) But this is still a fun way to get a little deeper into some of those concepts.

I’m planning on going through each of the videos, about one a day, and posting about it. Not exactly a review of each one, more of a brief synopsis, perhaps with some additional background info thrown in.

The first one on their site is “Eclipse.” Approached through travel to Ningbo, China to observe the total solar eclipse of July 2009. There’s not a lot of explanation of the astronomy involved, but there probably doesn’t need to be. What you do get is the sense of delight of experiencing a total eclipse, even for someone who is a professional in the field. It is such an impressive moment that even understanding the science behind it, the astronomer is almost giddy. I only remember having been through partial eclipses, and that was magical enough – I can easily see how experiencing totality would be a real blast.

So, take the 9 minutes or so, and enjoy “Eclipse”.

Jim Downey

The other shoe drops.
September 21, 2010, 9:49 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Constitution, Failure, Government, Predictions, Press, Society

Back in May I wrote about the drug raid debacle that happened here in Columbia which got world-wide attention when the video of the raid went viral.

After initially handling the whole mess poorly, our (new since the raid) Police Chief has taken significant and substantial steps to address the root problems that led to the raid, and subsequent police actions have shown that those steps are working as intended. No longer is the city’s SWAT team called out to serve routine search warrants, and there have been several large scale drug busts that demonstrate the other changes are being observed. This is a very good and very welcome change, and the new policy seems to be working as intended.

And yet I am happy that another aspect of this whole matter has just been put into motion: the filing of a lawsuit by the family targeted in the initial raid. From the newspaper account:

A civil suit was filed around noon today in Jefferson City’s U.S. Western District Court against the city of Columbia and 13 other defendants concerning a February drug-related SWAT raid in southwest Columbia.

* * *

The suit seeks restitution for damages to personal property and medical and veterinary expenses, Harper said. Bullet holes, a dead dog and another wounded dog resulted in thousands of dollars in damages, he said. The suit is filed against the police officers who were on scene for the incident and their contribution toward the violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, he said.

“This is all about demanding professionalism from our law enforcement agencies,” Harper said.

Exactly right.

The policy changes instituted are good. But policy can be changed back entirely too easily. It is critically important that our police department, and our city, understand that there is a very real cost associated with that previous behaviour. That way they won’t have any incentive to return to it in the future.

Now, I am not happy, as a taxpayer, that any settlement or judgment arising from this suit will likely come out of the city’s coffers (some of it may be offset by insurance, but I bet the city will be held liable for most if not all of the cost). It means less money for the city to do other, more constructive things. But such is the cost of supporting the civil rights of all of us.

Jim Downey

PI Hunter.
September 18, 2010, 1:29 pm
Filed under: Gardening, Humor, Science Fiction

“Christ, did you see the size of that thing?”

“Keep focused on the task. One mistake and you’ll regret it for weeks.” I paused, looked up. “If you’re lucky.”

* * * * * * *

“It’s getting worse,” I said, taking a drink and then setting down the glass. “A lot worse.”

“How do you mean?”

“The toxin is getting more intense. You have less time to seek treatment.”


“Yeah, but that’s not the fun part. The fun part is that it has also become more virulent.” I took another drink. “Grows faster, larger. I’ve seen it as tall as a man recently. With leaves of concentrated evil that’d cripple you, given half a chance.”

She shuddered. Her face had gone pale.

“And it is penetrating even our supposedly secure perimeter, where I thought we had eradicated it.” I gave a laugh. “What a joke.”

“What can we do? Poison?”

“Nah, even the strongest stuff will only knock it back for a while, and at the cost of everything else in the vicinity. And the authorities would look down on the use of nukes.” I looked at her, my gaze hard. “Only one thing you can do – send someone in to rip it out by the roots.”

She said nothing, just looked at me.

“That means me, getting in there in the thick of it.” I slung back the rest of my drink. “It’s what I do.”

* * * * * * *

The bush towering above me shook, threatened to rain the late season leaves down on my head. I eyed it carefully.

This was going to require just the right kind of motion.

Grasping the running tap root, a mass as big as a man’s thumb, I pulled while standing up and stepping back. It resisted being torn free, grasping all the other ground vines in a desperate attempt to survive. My heart pounded with the effort, and from the frightening prospect of the huge leaves just inches from my face. But then, all of a sudden, it pulled loose.

I let out my breath. Carefully I coiled up the huge poison ivy plant and shoved it into the trash bag.

Because that’s what I do. I’m a Poison Ivy Hunter.

Jim Downey

(With apologies to Harry Harrison. And yes, poison ivy is getting both more toxic and more virulent.)

Layers and layers of reality.
September 13, 2010, 9:20 am
Filed under: Art, Blade Runner, MetaFilter, movies, Science Fiction, tech

As I have said before, I’m a big fan of Blade Runner. So I was delighted to get a reference to this wonderful discussion of the incredible work put into doing the special effects for the opening sequence:

Blade Runner: Hades Landscape

In the first of a three part series, Doug talks about the creation of various effects sequences completed for Blade Runner. In this video, he focuses on creating the opening sequence referred to as the “Hades Landscape”.

It’s only 6 minutes, and shows the layers and layers of different effects which were used to create the reality of the movie – a perfect echo of the layers and layers of reality which exist within the movie world itself. Check it out.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Sometimes, I worry about me.
September 12, 2010, 11:17 am
Filed under: Humor, Science Fiction, tech, Writing stuff

There’s a sticky note with the words “Japanese toilet” written on it, stuck to the front of the shelf where my monitor sits, right here in front of me.

Why is there a sticky note with the words “Japanese toilet” on it on my desktop, where I can’t miss looking at it?

Because it amuses me. Or, more accurately, because the idea behind it amuses me.

Yes, I am an odd man. But not because I am amused by the words “Japanese toilet.” Or even the words behind such technological marvels. Wait – you do know about modern Japanese ‘supertoilets‘, don’t you? Here’s a bit about one of the models from the leading manufacturer of these devices:

Providing an unsurpassed Washlet® experience, the S300 cleans, soothes and pampers you with five warm water cleansing modes; a warm air dryer; an adjustable cleansing wand; a wireless remote; a heated SoftClose® seat; and an automatic air purifier.

Indulge your senses with the following Washlet S300 features:

  • Gentle Aerated Warm Water
  • Front and Rear Washing
  • Massage Feature
  • Warm Air Drying with Variable Three-Temperature Setting
  • Automatic Air Purifier
  • Heated Seat with Temperature Control
  • Convenient Wireless Remote Control with Large LCD Panel
  • Docking Station for Easy Cleaning & Installation
  • Reinforced Base Plate for Enhanced Durability

How does the Washlet work?

The Washlet is designed to introduce you to a level unprecedented comfort, while delivering on the promise of maximum cleanliness. At your command, an integrated, self-cleaning nozzle extends to release a warm, soothing stream of aerated water to provide the ultimate in personal cleansing.

There are videos there on the site, too. No, really.

Anyway, it’s not so much the toilet itself that I find amusing – though I do love that sophisticated tech has been brought to the complex problem of wiping your butt – it’s what one could do with that technology. No, not *that*, you kinkster.

Rather, something else. Use it as a plot device for a, er, tongue-in-cheek mystery/SF story.

How? Well, this is where I worry me, sometimes. Because consider how the aforementioned toilet works: by directing a spray of warm washing solution to cleanse “thy fundament.”

Now, what if you were wanting to kill someone. Or several someones. Or drug them to make them more pliable, or to do your bidding? But you wanted to do so in a manner which would be very difficult to detect?

And let’s say you were in modern Japan. Or in some other highly-advanced technological location. Maybe on a spaceship, where systems are designed to minimize consumables (like toilet paper) and perfect recycling.

See where I’m going with this?

Yeah, you could use a contact poison which would be absorbed through the mucus membranes. And have it added to the washing solution used by the “washlet”. Who the hell would think of looking *there* for the source of the poison?

Well, I did. Which is why I sometimes worry about myself.

Jim Downey

(If anyone would like to take this idea and run with it, feel free – so long as I get an acknowledgment linking to this post.)

Daisy, Daisy . . .
September 8, 2010, 6:04 pm
Filed under: Arthur C. Clarke, Artificial Intelligence, movies, Music, Science Fiction, Space

I haven’t written about it a lot here on the blog, but I have discussed the matter elsewhere: Communion of Dreams is, in many ways, a retelling – or an homage – of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have always loved the movie, Kubrick’s ambiguous ‘message’, and the implications of what was behind the discovery of an alien artifact on the Moon.

So, when I saw this today, I had to share: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Here’s the one that most resonates with CoD.

But check out all the images – wonderful!

Jim Downey

September 5, 2010, 5:13 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Society, Survival

“Can you tell me your wife’s birthdate?” asked the salesperson.

I was there to pick up a Rx for my wife, just running an errand. I looked at the woman. “I didn’t know there was going to be a pop quiz.”

* * * * * * *

You know those online ‘security’ questions that some sites use, to make sure you are who you say you are if you ever forget a password or something? Well, a lot of times one of the options is the birthday for one (or both) of your parents.

I never choose that option.

No, it’s not because it would be too easy to look up, and therefore not a very good security question. It’s because I don’t remember.

That may seem odd. Who doesn’t remember the birthday of your parents? What kind of child are you??

I ask myself that sometimes. I probably should know this. And I feel vaguely guilty that I don’t.

But I didn’t grow up celebrating my parent’s birthdays. At least not that I remember. I may have when I was young. But most of that part of my life was wiped away after my parents died.

* * * * * * *

You’d think that after almost 23 years of marriage, I’d know my wife’s birthday. Sheesh. It’d take a real dipshit not to, right? Or it’d be an indication of a lack of attention, or caring, or love.


Well, maybe. Maybe not.

This is part of the intro from one of the “months” (November: Endgame) in the caregiving book:

In the last year or so of care giving for Martha Sr, I got sick and tired of hearing some variation of the comment “You’re a saint for doing this.”

Oh, those friends and acquaintances meant well, when they said it. So I didn’t respond except to thank them for their kind words.

But I knew I was not a saint. I did not do this out of some kind of religious belief. I did it out of simple, intense love and respect – both for my wife, and for her mother. And in doing it, I became a better person.

* * * * * * *

My sister was born on July 30. Or maybe 31. I can never keep it straight which one it was.

I remember the event. It’s one of the few real anchors I have left from my childhood.

But it happened close to midnight. And I have been confused about which day it was, ever since.

* * * * * * *

“Dates are . . . slippery things,” I said. I was trying to explain to my wife about picking up her Rx. “You know it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you, right?”

“Of course.”

She turned and went up the stairs, to shower.

“I love you.”

“I know. I love you, too,” she called as she disappeared upstairs.

* * * * * * *

“Can you tell me your wife’s birthdate?” asked the salesperson.

I was there to pick up a Rx for my wife, just running an errand. I looked at the woman. “I didn’t know there was going to be a pop quiz.”

The salesperson looked at me, with a certain amount of pity. Or maybe that was my imagination.

“It’s March 21. Or the 27. I can never keep it straight,” I said.

She wrote both dates down. “Thanks.”

I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t lack of attention, or a lack of love.

Jim Downey

“you die; she dies… everybody dies!”*
September 3, 2010, 11:04 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Mars, movies, NASA, Predictions, Preparedness, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Survival, tech

How many times have you seen someone die in space? I mean in science fiction movies. Ignore the mass deaths from some huge battle. Think instead of individual deaths of a crew member on some kind of ship.

OK, and what usually happens with such an individual, post-mortem?

Right, it’s some variation on “burial at sea”. Unless there’s a specific reason why the body is kept for scientific purposes. This just makes sense – there’s a long tradition in many human cultures of burial at sea, for all kinds of practical and superstitious reasons. And while we’re still very much at the beginning of humankind’s ventures in space, we do think of it as akin to traveling the ocean.

So, how do you think NASA is planning on dealing with such an eventuality? Well, Mary Roach has a brief, but very interesting piece up at BoingBoing about a proposal for how to cope with a death on a trip to Mars. Here’s the intro:

The U.S. has plans for a manned visit to Mars by the mid-2030s. The ESA and Russia have sketched out a similar joint mission, and it is claimed that China’s space program has the same objective. Apart from their destination, all these plans share something in common: extraordinary danger for the explorers. What happens if someone dies out there, months away from Earth?

Swedish ecologists Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and Peter Mäsak are the inventors of an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation and burial, called Promession. The technique entails freezing a body, vibrating it into tiny pieces, and then freeze-drying the pieces, which can then be used as compost to grow a memorial shrub or tree. The pair recently collaborated with NASA and design students in Denmark and Sweden to adapt Promession for use on a Mars mission.

Roach’s article contains illustrations and explanations from the proposal, showing how the system could be adapted for use on a long-term mission to Mars. Technically, it seems very straight-forward. Interestingly, it uses a ‘body bag’ type system similar to what I have in Communion of Dreams .

But I think that the article, and the proposal, show a curious mindset from NASA: they are still very much thinking in terms of being Earth-bound, and doing Earth-bound science, rather than exploration. Because exploration involves inherent risk, whereas in doing science one tries to eliminate risk in order to get dependable, testable data.

A couple of years ago I wrote about a proposal for a “one way” trip to Mars – where the astronaut(s) would accept that they would die on the planet rather than try and return. This hugely simplifies such a trip, since you don’t have to carry all the equipment and fuel needed to get back. Here’s a quote from that original newspaper item:

“When we eliminate the need to launch off Mars, we remove the mission’s most daunting obstacle,” said McLane. And because of a small crew size, the spacecraft could be smaller and the need for consumables and supplies would be decreased, making the mission cheaper and less complicated.

While some might classify this as a suicide mission, McLane feels the concept is completely logical.

“There would be tremendous risk, yes,” said McLane, “but I don’t think that’s guaranteed any more than you would say climbing a mountain alone is a suicide mission. People do dangerous things all the time, and this would be something really unique, to go to Mars. I don’t think there would be any shortage of people willing to volunteer for the mission. Lindbergh was someone who was willing to risk everything because it was worth it. I don’t think it will be hard to find another Lindbergh to go to Mars. That will be the easiest part of this whole program.”

As I said in that previous post, we’re all gonna die – only the manner and timing of our deaths are unknown. I think that McLane is right – there would be a huge number of people willing to volunteer for a ‘one-way’ trip to Mars. But even beyond that, if we’re dedicated to the idea of a return-trip (and there are plenty of good reasons to want to do so) mission, there are still plenty of people who would accept the personal risk and want to be “buried at sea” should they die during such a trip. Why bother with additional specialized equipment and supplies to cope with returning the body of a deceased crew member? Hauling all that extra weight to Mars and back makes no sense at all.

Perhaps, when we have advanced the technology of spaceflight sufficiently, to the point where it is akin to transportation here on Earth now, it’ll make sense to have mechanisms in place to return the bodies of explorers and scientists and military troops. But we have a very long way to go before we get to that point.

Jim Downey

*Heavy Metal

September 1, 2010, 9:59 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Promotion, Writing stuff

That’s how many downloads of the novel there were in August. That puts the total number of downloads to 26,500. Who woulda thunk it?

Also, share a bit of other good news: I’d had some ongoing issues with complications of the pneumonia I struggled with most of last month, but I just heard that X-rays I had taken this past Monday are all clear, meaning that there is nothing serious going on. Yay!

Well, I have a Skype chat with my co-author to talk about Her Final Year, so I better get to that.

Jim Downey