Communion Of Dreams

Is there anybody out there?*
January 31, 2011, 11:33 am
Filed under: Astronomy, BoingBoing, Fermi's Paradox, Music, NASA, Science, Science Fiction, Space, tech

Lee Billings, a science writer I was not previously aware of, has a really nice little introduction over at BoingBoing on the topic of searching for exoplanets capable of supporting life. Here’s a bit:

I’m admittedly biased (just look at my Twitter feed—it’s clear what my interests are), but my argument rests on facts: The research architectures and observational capabilities required to find Earth-like planets in our region of the galaxy, and determine whether or not some of them harbor life, are already reasonably well-defined. Public interest in (if not knowledge of) the search for alien life is high, and nearly universal. And, in comparison to tasks like finding the Higgs boson, establishing the precise nature of dark energy, or experimentally validating string theory, completing much (though not all!) of this “planetary census” simply isn’t that expensive.

* * *

What if we are cosmically alone, on a planet as anomalously unlikely and fertile as a fruit tree flourishing in an arid wasteland, or a flower blooming in a desert? What if worlds like ours are common as grains of sand? Does the universe hum and throb with life, or does eternal silence and sterility reign outside of our small planet? The truth is, no one really knows. But that will soon change. And when it does, this knowledge can only fill our lives, our world, and our future with more excitement, mystery, and awe.

Interesting metaphor – the flower blooming in a desert. And exactly the same one I use in the beginning of Communion of Dreams for exactly the same reason. Obviously, the man is brilliant.

OK, to be a little more serious here, I just thought people might want to know about this fellow, since he is going to be reporting on the results of the Kepler mission over the next couple of weeks.

Jim Downey

*Gratuitous Pink Floyd reference.

Something old, something new.
January 29, 2011, 12:47 pm
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Guns, Promotion, Publishing, RKBA, Writing stuff

Thought I’d pass along a small note – I’ve been asked to do some freelance writing for

In spite of it being about the oldest and most obvious firearms-related domain name possible, not much has been done with it previously. Late last year a new crew took over management, and the new owners seem to have a pretty good attitude about what they want to develop it into. They like my writing on firearm-related topics, and starting next week I’ll be a regular contributor there. It should be fun, and I’m actually kinda excited to be involved with it!

This is very early in the game, but I think it has a lot of potential, not just for me but for anyone interested in almost anything to do with firearms. Check out their site if you get a chance. I don’t plan on cross-posting much here, but if something particularly interesting or noteworthy happens, I’ll probably mention it here and on Facebook.

Wish me luck!

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to the BBTI blog.)

For those wondering . . .

A break in my conservation work this afternoon, as I wait for some wheatpaste to hydrate properly before cooking it. And I thought I would take a moment and explain just a bit why I posted the political item I did this morning.

The basic answer is that I’m just . . . eclectic . . . in my interests. That’s a big part of the reason why I tend to write about so many seemingly unrelated things. Part of that is due to my political inclinations – independent, untrusting of dogma, skeptical of authority.

But specifically, the post this morning is related to the thinking/planning/research I am doing for the prequel to Communion of Dreams. Because that book is concerned with what a world where fear has won looks like – where we *have* given over (almost) all our civil liberties in an attempt to secure safety. That’s not all the book is about, of course, but it does form a big part of the context for the story.

To be a novelist – even “just” a science fiction novelist – is to be a generalist. In order to construct a convincing reality different from our own, you have to be able to look deeply into how and why reality works, and understand how what choices you make as an author change the reality you construct. A conventional novelist can just describe our current reality, and be convincing – the reader will fill in the details on their own, and map their own understanding of reality onto the story the author wants to tell. Someone writing about a different reality – whether it is from the past or the future, adjacent to our world or far from it – has to get the “how” of that reality right, and do so without killing the story with too much exposition.

Anyway. Just a small insight into why I blog about the things I do. Now the wheatpaste is ready for cooking, and I must get back to work.

Jim Downey

To paraphrase John Marshall:

The power to turn off is the power to destroy.*

I’m talking about exactly what we’re seeing in Egypt at present: when the power of the state is threatened, it will resort to almost any means to survive. Specifically, the government of Egypt has shut down the internet, mobile phones, and basically all modern communications in order to better control civil unrest.

And some in our government want the US to have the same power:

On Thursday Jan 27th at 22:34 UTC the Egyptian Government effectively removed Egypt from the internet. Nearly all inbound and outbound connections to the web were shut down. The internet intelligence authority Renesysexplains it here and confirms that “virtually all of Egypt’s Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide.” This has never happened before in the entire history of the internet, with a nation of this size. A block of this scale is completely unheard of, and Senator Joe Lieberman wants to be able to do the same thing in the US.

This isn’t a new move, last year Senators Lieberman and Collins introduced a fairly far-reaching bill that would allow the US Government to shut down civilian access to the internet should a “Cybersecurity Emergency” arise, and keep it offline indefinitely. That version of the bill received some criticism though Lieberman continued to insist it was important. The bill, now referred to as the ‘Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act’ (PCNAA) has been revised a bit and most notably now removes all judicial oversight. This bill is still currently circulating and will be voted on later this year. Lieberman has said it should be a top priority.

Think about that. Do you really want to hand over that kind of power to the government?

Or perhaps I should say: “do you really want to validate that kind of power in advance?” Because I am not naive enough to think that the government wouldn’t just do this in the event of a real emergency (in their opinion). But like with Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War, there should be some check on such a decision after the fact – which there may not be with such a provision already in place. Handing someone that kind of power in advance is like handing them a loaded gun – they don’t necessarily have to use it in order for it to be a factor in all decisions which follow. Just the threat to use it is powerful, and shifts the whole dynamic.

Take another look at what is happening in Egypt. We never want to have to get to that point in trying to *reclaim* our civil liberties. Granting the government specific power to shut down the internet in order to ‘save us from a cyber security threat’ is just another in a long line of steps preying upon our fears. Don’t give in. And tell your senator what you think.

Jim Downey

*Marshall‘s actual quote was “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” From McCulloch v. Maryland.

On the subject of science fiction.

Interesting convergence of a couple of items I came across this morning. First, via BB, there’s a good discussion of “the future of publishing” to be found at SF Signal: the consensus seems to be that the existing publishing models will still be around over the next ten years, but the tech will shift from dedicated readers (of both the paper [books] and electronic [Kindle, Nook] variety) over to apps which can be used on existing machines [smart phones and laptop/netbook variations]. This would be my guess as well – I think that as our phones continue to evolve, building in this kind of functionality just makes sense, and would mean that people have to lug around one less item every day.

The other main item is a good discussion on MetaFilter about a post over on Crooked Timber which attempts to explore the portrayal of science in science fiction movies, using six fairly broad categories.

Now, why do I say convergence? Because part of the discussion on MetaFilter concerns the difference between science fiction *movies* and science fiction *books* in how they portray science (and the reaction to it). It’s a legitimate point, and one I would agree with, as far as it goes. But only so far. Because as we continue to move forward I think that the distinction between a book and a movie will grow more . . . vague. And that will be due precisely to the technology used.

No, not every book will be turned into a full-fledged movie as we think of it today. But more and more the technological tools are being developed, and a wide cultural body of reference material is being created, which would allow for a crowdsourcing creation of a true hypertext out of almost any simple book. Think about how we’re already seeing this happen with “mashups” between film clips and music (or another film clip). Or how about “autotuning” of speeches into songs? Or the cartoon vocalization and enactment of debates/discussions/essays? These are all early technologies/trends which will grow and become more sophisticated, until it’ll be a fairly simple (and likely common) matter to convert almost any straight text into something more – blending audio and video versions for the ‘reader’ to choose and use as he sees fit. Chances are, you’ll buy a book and it’ll come with several different versions for you to select from, perhaps with rankings as to popularity or creativity – it’ll be like browsing YouTube today, complete with recommendations from your friends and family.

Something to think about.

Jim Downey

Citizens of the republic of reading.
January 25, 2011, 11:23 am
Filed under: Government, Society, Writing stuff

I don’t agree with everything he has to say. But this piece by Philip Pullman is excellent on several counts, this passage among them:

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

I’ve got a wide streak of libertarianism – I don’t want others, particularly government, meddling in my life as though it were a nanny. But I was like Pullman – I came from a home which didn’t have books, and without a local library I would never have grown into the productive, creative adult I became. Not all kids will avail themselves of the opportunities a library presents, but it seems very much to me that Holmes had it right when he said: “Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.”

Jim Downey

January 22, 2011, 3:57 pm
Filed under: Survival, Tolkien, Writing stuff

I was finishing up some work in the bindery this afternoon, just as I was finishing listening to The Two Towers. And this passage caught my ear:

And then black despair came down on him, and Sam bowed to the ground, and drew his grey hood over his head, and night came into his heart, and he knew no more.

When at last the blackness passed, Sam looked up and shadows were about him; but for how many minutes or hours the world had gone dragging on he could not tell. He was still in the same place, and still his master lay beside him dead. The mountains had not crumbled nor the earth fallen into ruin.

That may be one of the most masterful depictions ever written of how someone reacts to the death of a loved one.

Jim Downey

“What’s it about?”
January 21, 2011, 1:38 pm
Filed under: Science, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

I finished my shower, still thinking intently about the creative breakthrough I had just had. I toweled off, looked at my face in the bathroom mirror. Almost by habit, I reached over with my left hand and flushed the toilet – only noticing as I did so that I had done that previously, and there was nothing in there needing to be flushed away.

“Heh,” I thought. “Perfect.”

* * * * * * *

One of the most difficult questions I ever get about my writing is “What’s it about?” It seems like a simple question, but it isn’t.

Here’s a bit from the current homepage for Communion of Dreams:

At its surface level it is classic science fiction, in that a new discovery leads to a reevaluation of what it means to be human. Beyond that are levels of human psychological development and religious allegory, giving the text a depth which will appeal to a wide range of readers. Or so I hope.

* * * * * * *

An excerpt from an interesting article from the BBC:

“Dr O’Connor said ‘Karen what are you doing? Your hand’s undressing you’. Until he said that I had no idea that my left hand was opening up the buttons of my shirt.

“So I start rebuttoning with the right hand and, as soon as I stopped, the left hand started unbuttoning them. So he put an emergency call through to one of the other doctors and said, ‘Mike you’ve got to get here right away, we’ve got a problem’.”

The story is about a woman suffering from “Alien Hand Syndrome” – a medical condition which can occur from a number of different brain injuries or surgery. She had her corpus callosum severed in order to help cure epileptic seizures, and this worked, but it also resulted in this independent behavior of her left hand – a classic example of how the two hemispheres of the brain can operate separately under certain conditions.

* * * * * * *

There’s still almost nothing in the file I opened last week. But as I noted the other day, the weekend trip to Iowa gave me a chance to sort some things out. Since then, I have been working hard on the conceptual groundwork of the book. Well, a part of me has, anyway.

This is why it is hard to explain “What’s it about?” – only parts of my writing are conscious constructs.

To a certain extent, I play a game of tennis with myself, batting an idea back and forth between conscious thought and unconscious processing. Or between “sides” of my brain, if you will (though the left-right dichotomy of popular culture is not as simple as most people think). Part of the time I am thinking logically, working through problems. But part of the time I am processing emotion and insight below a conscious level. Last weekend I sorted out some ideas. This week I chewed over those ideas further, but in a way which I can’t really explain. And this morning once again they emerged into conscious thought.

It’s a breakthrough, an organizational insight. One of the basic levels of the book has now fallen into place. I’ve gone from the essential metaphor I mentioned previously to an understanding of how that structure plays out. Critical scenes are now starting to write themselves.

This is only another step, and in some ways a small one – I still haven’t written a word of text. But I have a deeper understanding of what I want to accomplish. I understand why my left hand is unbuttoning my shirt, or flushing the toilet, if you will.

Jim Downey

Play with your brain.
January 19, 2011, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Art, Humor, Science

Love it: Impossible Motions 2

Heavy snow. And my Good Lady Wife and I both have the latest cold/flu thing going around. I need diversions. So take what you can get.

Jim Downey

Finding the essence.
January 17, 2011, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Daily Kos, Politics, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

A long drive is good for thinking, sorting. This past weekend I drove north, to join friends who had decided to start on a new project: experimenting with home distillation.

* * * * * * *

Distillation. I’ve known the theory since at least grade school, and had read up a bit on the applications used in alchemy and then later to produce various alcoholic spirits. It can be very simple or exceedingly elaborate, from a basic alembic to industrial production. Here’s an image of the set up my friends used:

What you see there is an all copper still. On the left is the reaction vessel where all the stuff to be distilled goes. Vapor rises from this as it is heated, passes through the copper tube to the vessel on the right. That’s actually a coil of copper tubing inside a bucket, which you fill with cold water and ice. The light colored globby bits are a simple paste made from rye flour and water and used to seal the joints to minimize leakage. The still is resting on bricks over a woodfire in a friend’s kiln.

* * * * * * *

Years back, after I closed the gallery and started caring for Martha Sr at home, I started spending more time participating in political forums. It was an outlet for me as I tried to find some balance in life – a way to keep my mind active and alert, but without the same level of demands as trying to work on conservation projects or creative writing.

As the care-giving became more demanding, I found myself even more involved on one forum in particular – it gave me a kind of community, a form of support. Eventually I began sharing my blogging about being a care provider for someone with Alzheimer’s there, and that led to meeting GreyHawk and eventually to writing Her Final Year.

I spent a lot of time writing for the site – many of the items here tagged “Daily Kos” actually started as things I wrote for that site and then decided to cross post here. It helped me keep my sanity, and gave me a forum for exploring ideas which I knew would get a decent amount of feedback. A writer likes to have readers.

* * * * * * *

They started with two five-liter boxes of wine. The idea is that you have to make a conditioning run to clean off all the copper surfaces. It also gives you a chance to see how the whole thing operates, and to learn from a small batch.

The biggest problem was with controlling the heat on the still. The initial plan had been to use a propane burner, but the one purchased to go with the still was European, and it was discovered that there weren’t the necessary adapters readily available to hook it up to American propane tanks. This was a shame, because it meant that it would be difficult to achieve the correct level of heat over a wood fire in an impromptu oven. But my friends have experience in doing such things, and pretty soon they sorted out the right combination of brick configuration, draw, and amount of firewood to get the necessary control.

The other downside was that the use of the kiln meant we needed to be outside. In January. In Iowa. For hours and hours. The woodfire did give off heat, of course, but it also gave off smoke, so you wanted to keep your distance a bit. And we were working with water and ice, as it was necessary to change the water in the condensation vessel regularly.

* * * * * * *

I mentioned getting back to work on the prequel to Communion of Dreams the other day. There’s still a ton of research I have to do, but in the process of the drive I was able to sort out some basic ideas – to narrow down the essential metaphor of the book, as it were. This establishes a framework for building the rest of the book, gives it form and definition.

* * * * * * *

After the conditioning run, it was time for the first real batch. After dumping out the previous residual mess (which stunk to high heaven) and a quick rinsing, the reaction vessel was filled with about 20 liters of red wine, placed back on the heat. The rest of the still apparatus was put in place, and sealed. Water was added to the condensation vessel.

It takes a while to get that much liquid up to temperature. But after a while you start to hear a low rumble, a sort of gurgling. The first vapors to be condensed are called the “heads” – these are volatiles that you don’t actually want to save, since it contains things like methyl alcohol (“wood alcohol”, the stuff that’ll make you blind). But you can tell that the distillate contains these impurities because of the color and cloudiness. Once the stream starts to run clear, you can save it. This is traditionally called the “hearts” of distillation. Towards the end, you get more bitter flavors and an almost oily taste – these are called the “tails” and once they start to show up you stop that batch. Altogether you get about 10% yield of alcohol – say about two liters.

* * * * * * *

In recent months, I’ve noticed that I’ve put less time into writing items for Daily Kos. Looking at the things which I have cross posted here, I see that increasingly I’ve written them for this site, and then decided to post them over there (only I would know this, it’s almost impossible to tell from reading the pieces).

This is neither good nor bad. I think partly it is a simple matter of my being more busy with my own actual work – getting CoD ready for publication, getting HFY ready for submission. And partly it has been because as I’ve continued the long recovery from being a care provider, I have found myself more outgoing, less reliant on the support that I found in that political forum.

And to a certain extent I think I have become . . . bored. So many of the discussions have become repetitive, almost redundant.

Now I have a new book brewing. Other projects I am considering. It’s time to concentrate interests a bit – to find what is essential.

* * * * * * *

Five batches, all told. Total of about 8 hours from start to finish. Went through about 120 liters of box wine, distilled down to about two gallons of alcohol.

That two gallons was poured into a small barrel, bunged close.

We tested the batches as they poured out of the still, but only in very small amounts – a few drops on a finger. The alcohol bite was there, sharp and raw. But there was also a taste of the grape, some of the flavor of the wine.

Now that product will age in the barrel, becoming mellower, interacting with the charred wood. Because of the relative surface area, a small barrel like that accelerates the aging process by a factor of ten – meaning that in six months it’ll be like the liquor tastes 5 years old. It’ll be interesting to see how it changes.

* * * * * * *

A long drive is good for thinking, sorting. This past weekend I drove north, to join friends who had decided to start on a new project: experimenting with home distillation.

And that gave me a metaphor I had been searching for, in more ways than one.

Jim Downey

(Thanks to Wendy for the image, and to all my friends for welcoming me into their project at a late date.)