Communion Of Dreams


The other 90% of you.

Your body has something on the order of 10 trillion individual cells. But surprisingly, it has nine or ten times that number of microorganisms which it hosts in some capacity or another, many of which we have co-evolved with and which seem to be critical to our long health. While these microorganisms are typically much smaller than human body cells, in one very real sense, “you” is actually only about 10% “you.”

These microorganisms have a substantial impact on how your body digests food. On whether you can resist various kinds of infection or develop any of a range of auto-immune diseases. Perhaps even on your mood and risk assessment.

Would it therefore be any kind of a surprise at all if doing something to change the “mix” of these microorganisms had an impact on you?

Hell, it’d be a surprise if it didn’t.

Almost all of us know what happens when you have to take a broad-spectrum antibiotic: usually some degree of diarrhea and intestinal discomfort. And in the last decade or two it has become commonplace for people to seek out some variety of probiotics, frequently in the form of live yogurt, as a way to replenish gut flora following antibiotic treatment. I do it myself.

So, extending that idea a bit, researchers are now investigating whether part of the slow-moving plague of obesity can be due to the changes created in the human-hosted microorganisms:

Early use of antibiotics linked to obesity, research finds

The use of antibiotics in young children might lead to a higher risk of obesity, and two new studies, one on mice and one on humans, conclude that changes of the intestinal bacteria caused by antibiotics could be responsible.

Taken together, the New York University researchers conclude that it might be necessary to broaden our concept of the causes of obesity and urge more caution in using antibiotics. Both studies focus on the early age, because that is when obesity begins, the scientists say.

As I’ve noted previously:

In Communion I have a post-pandemic society, one which is recovering from a massive disruption caused by a flu virus which caused rapid death in a large percentage of the population. But the reality of what we’re dealing with might be even more insidious.

More insidious in this case because we have done it to ourselves.

And perhaps not even with direct antibiotic treatment to deal with some kind of life-threatening infection. Consider that it is still a widespread practice to boost livestock weight gain through the use of antibiotics, and that leaves a residue of antibiotics in the meat. If it boosts weight gain in feed animals, why wouldn’t it do the same to us?

I’ve said before that there has been some kind of change to the way our bodies absorb nutrients in the last 40 or 50 years, and that that is behind the global rise in obesity. Previously there were indications that it might be due to some kind of virus. Or an immune response to the germaphobia of the 20th century. But maybe it is more directly our own damned fault, and we’ve traded the ability to defeat infections for a different kind of health risk.

Jim Downey

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Perhaps it is (was) a Liquid Sky* after all.

An item in the news the other day caught my attention: that scientists at the LHC had managed to create the “hottest temperature” ever, purportedly of some “5.5 trillion degrees.”

It was meant to be one of NPR’s little funny quips, so there wasn’t much detail, as you can see from the transcript in the link above. But that’s not really how scientists really talk about results from the LHC, so I filed away the news and figured I’d look it up when I had a chance.

Well, I just did. And I was right — the actual results weren’t really explained in terms of “temperature.” Rather, it was put in terms of energy (MeV), and more important than some abstract conversion into temperatures was what was achieved: the production of a quark-gluon plasma.

Why is this important?

Because it is a glimpse into conditions during the earliest moments of the Big Bang, and may explain *why* there is matter at all. Here’s an excerpt about earlier research conducted at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) which first glimpsed a quark-gluon plamsa:

Predictions made prior to RHIC’s initial operations in 2000 expected that the quark-gluon plasma would exist as a gas. But RHIC’s first three years of operation showed that the matter produced at RHIC behaves as a liquid, whose constituent particles interact very strongly among themselves. This liquid matter has been described as nearly “perfect” in the sense that it flows with almost no frictional resistance, or viscosity. Such a “perfect” liquid doesn’t fit with the picture of “free” quarks and gluons physicists had previously used to describe the quark-gluon plasma.

Essentially, this was just confirmed by the LHC, using a slightly different protocol which achieved very similar results:

Collisions of lead ions in the LHC, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, recreate for a fleeting moment conditions similar to those of the early universe. By examining a billion or so of these collisions, the experiments have been able to make more precise measurements of the properties of matter under these extreme conditions.

“The field of heavy-ion physics is crucial for probing the properties of matter in the primordial universe, one of the key questions of fundamental physics that the LHC and its experiments are designed to address. It illustrates how in addition to the investigation of the recently discovered Higgs-like boson, physicists at the LHC are studying many other important phenomena in both proton-proton and lead-lead collisions,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer.

The upshot of this is not just more experimental data, but an interesting new theory: that our universe is, in some sense, what happened when that quark-gluon plasma cooled and became ‘crystallized’, so to speak, complete with the fractures and imperfections common to all crystals. Here’s the abstract of the theory:

Quantum graphity offers the intriguing notion that space emerges in the low-energy states of the spatial degrees of freedom of a dynamical lattice. Here we investigate metastable domain structures which are likely to exist in the low-energy phase of lattice evolution. Through an annealing process we explore the formation of metastable defects at domain boundaries and the effects of domain structures on the propagation of bosons. We show that these structures should have observable background-independent consequences including scattering, double imaging, and gravitational lensing-like effects.

And here’s an excerpt from the press release which may make a little more sense to people like me:

“A new theory, known as Quantum Graphity, suggests that space may be made up of indivisible building blocks, like tiny atoms. These indivisible blocks can be thought about as similar to pixels that make up an image on a screen. The challenge has been that these building blocks of space are very small, and so impossible to see directly.”

However James Quach and his colleagues believe they may have figured out a way to see them indirectly.

“Think of the early universe as being like a liquid,” he said. “Then as the universe cools, it ‘crystallises’ into the three spatial and one time dimension that we see today. Theorised this way, as the Universe cools, we would expect that cracks should form, similar to the way cracks are formed when water freezes into ice.”

Fascinating.

Jim Downey

*Playing off the old and somewhat forgotten movie, of course, which was mind-blowing, not unlike the possibilities posed by this theory.

 



Piece by piece…

As I keep discussing, I’m working through multiple small components of getting ready to launch a Kickstarter for the next novel. I’ve got two things to mention today.

The first is a request for some help. Part of the normal Kickstarter project is to have a video. As they put it on their website:

A video is by far the best way to get a feel for the emotions, motivations, and character of a project. It’s a demonstration of effort and a good predictor of success. Projects with videos succeed at a much higher rate than those without (50% vs. 30%).

Now, I’m sure that my wife and I can cobble something together which would vaguely meet the “have a video” criteria for the project page. But I would really prefer to have something decent. Something original. Something put together by someone who has more than a vague idea of what they’re doing.

If you are such a person, or if you *know* such a person, and would be interested in working with me on this, please leave a comment or send me an email. And note that I say “working with me” rather than “do this for me” — for the very simple reason that I respect the artistic talents of others and see this as a collaboration rather than just a technical problem to turn over to someone else. And I’m not asking for someone to do it for just “exposure” either — compensation will be offered, and we can work out an equitable arrangement. Please think about it, and get back to me soonish.

The other item I want to mention today is that we’ve given my bookbinding website something of a facelift, updating information on it, modernizing the look & operation a bit. Check it out when you get a chance.

What does this have to do with a Kickstarter project for St. Cybi’s Well?

Well, I’m glad you asked. It has something to do with St. Cybi’s Well because some of the premiums for pledges to my Kickstarter will include hand-bound copies of the book. As well as hand-bound copies of Communion of Dreams. In hardcover. In hardcover covered with premium bookcloth. Or full calfskin leather. Or even in full goatskin leather.

These will be very rare, possibly unique books. And how many other writers that you know have my professional bookbinding skills?

*That’s* why we updated the Legacy website. To show off my bookbinding talents a bit. Well, and because I’ve added a photo series of restoring a 1633 Danish bible that was a lot of fun earlier this year and I wanted to share that.

So, two more pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.

Jim Downey



“An abnormally excitable way.”

I woke about 1:00 this morning, rolled over and looked at the clock. My side hurt, the way it usually does. But it was the nasty bit of headache which had the bulk of my semi-conscious attention. I reached over to the nightstand, picked up the pain pill I had left there. I sat up enough to pop it into my mouth, then picked up the water glass, took a drink to wash the pill down.

About 4:30 I repeated the task.

I still had the headache when I finally woke at about 6:00, just before the radio came on.

* * * * * * *

Our house is about 130 years old. It has a narrow central staircase off the kitchen which leads to the second floor, making three 90-degree turns in the process. As far as I know, these stairs are largely original, though there were some minor modifications made at the bottom back in the 1950s.

Between the first and second turns there’s an exposed nail where someone made a mistake in construction. It came through the riser, but didn’t enter the tread properly. Part of the wood popped loose, and at some point broke away. But it doesn’t really hurt anything, and is out of the way, so no one has ever bothered to fix it.

I notice things like this.

* * * * * * *

The energy dynamic has changed again.

Well, to be honest, it is always changing. But while I had been riding fairly high in my bipolar cycle, now I can feel the old doubts, the old fears starting to creep back in.

Doubts? Fears?

Of failure, of course.

As I contemplate putting together the Kickstarter for St. Cybi’s Well, I start to worry. Will it be successful? How the hell am I going to reach the audience for Communion of Dreams to let them know about it? For that matter — can I even write the damned book, and if I do, will everyone just hate the thing?

* * * * * * *

Yesterday the Diane Rehm Show had a segment about migraines. From the transcript, this is Dr. David Dodick, neurologist at the Mayo Clinic and chair of the American Migraine Foundation speaking:

Well, Diane, when one does a functional scan, like Dr. Richardson just talked about, whether it’s a PET or a functional MRI, we see activation of certain regions in the brain and certain networks in the brain, particularly those networks that process sensory information, like light and noise and pain and emotion. So we see activation of all of these networks during migraine. And indeed what we’ve come to recognize now is that not just during a migraine attack.

But even in between attacks the brain is processing all of that sensory information in an abnormally excitable way. So, migraine was thought to be just a disorder that comes and goes and you’re perfectly normal in between. But we now recognize the fact that it’s an abnormal processing — abnormal network processing in the brain that continues even between attacks.

* * *

And that’s one of the reasons why we, as a medical community, absolutely must take this to sort of more seriously. Migraine sufferers are three times more likely to have psychiatric disorder such as depression, anxiety, bipolar illness. They’re twice as likely to have epilepsy. They’re twice as likely to suffer an ischemic stroke. They’re six to 15 times more likely to develop brain lesions.

 

* * * * * * *

I woke about 1:00 this morning, rolled over and looked at the clock. My side hurt, the way it usually does. But it was the nasty bit of headache which had the bulk of my semi-conscious attention. I reached over to the nightstand, picked up the pain pill I had left there. I sat up enough to pop it into my mouth, then picked up the water glass, took a drink to wash the pill down.

About 4:30 I repeated the task.

I still had the headache when I finally woke at about 6:00, just before the radio came on.

I’ve had this headache off and on for the better part of a week. Maybe longer.

The codeine I take each evening/overnight to deal with the torn intercostal muscle pain is also effective at disrupting the development of a full migraine. But the cycle still tries to complete. It’s annoying.

But some things you learn to live with. Like imperfections in old homes. Yes, I’ll see the Kickstarter through, as well as writing the book whether or not the Kickstarter is completely successful.

Some things you learn to live with.

Jim Downey

 



Gearing up.

So, I’m starting to get geared up to do a Kickstarter project tied to the next novel, and that means (among other things) getting the necessary infrastructure put into place.  One big component of this is having a unified visual design — a ‘brand’, if you will.

For Communion of Dreams, I always knew I wanted to use Peter Haigh’s stunning “Burr Oak at Twilight” image as part of this branding component. That’s the image at the top of this page, on the book’s website, and on the cover of book (more evident on the paperback than the Kindle edition). I use a small version of it as an icon/avatar where appropriate.

But curiously, the final design of the book cover didn’t happen until this past January. That was largely due to the fact that for the longest time I was hoping to have the book conventionally published, and I knew that any publisher would likely have some strong opinions on the matter of the book design. Hell, I was worried that I would have to fight just for my choice of title for the book.

This time, planning on publishing the next book myself changes the whole order of things. Particularly since I am hoping that a successful Kickstarter will help make the process of getting the book written and prepared for publication go much faster/easier. As a result, we’re starting with the cover design, and will be working to incorporate that into the rest of the visual ‘brand’ of the book. And here it is:

I really like the way this hints at certain elements of the story. Hehehehe.

Jim Downey

PS: Speaking of Kickstarters, some friends of mine are doing one currently to expand their jewelry-smithing. It’s a very cool project, and they are definitely people who will make good use of the new tools and skills. Check it out, support it if you can — I have — there’s 10 days left, and they’re just a bit over $4,000 from their goal: Ancient Metalsmithing Made Modern, or Perfecting Pressblech



Well, when you put it like *that*…

I’ve noted in the past that there have been a number of interesting comparisons of Communion of Dreams with the works of Arthur C. Clarke in general, and with 2001: A Space Odyssey in particular.  Which isn’t surprising, since the book is an intentional homage to that book, referencing it directly at several points. I’ve tried to be clear that I am not trying to claim that my writing is on the same level as Clarke’s — if nothing else, I have only written one book and am very conscious of the fact that I am following along a well-worn path, one which he initially cut through the wilderness and many others have since trod. Still, it is flattering when someone else thinks that my book is good enough to even consider a comparison to 2001.

Well, that sort of thing has happened again, with a new review on Amazon which went up yesterday. It’s quite positive, and says things like this:

James Downey has written a very strong sci-fi story that, like all good sci-fi, takes the reader on a wonderful journey into the realm of future human possibilities.

Then, amusingly, it closes with this:

The only reason I did not give it five stars is because I don’t rate it as great a story as say the classic Isaac Asimov Foundation series or Frank Herbert’s Dune, but otherwise it is a book well worth the time to read and savor.

Yeah, when you’re judging my book against such classic works as those, hell, I’d give it only 4 stars as well. Once again, those works were trail-blazers, and that alone makes it difficult for anything which follows to be fairly compared.
Anyway. I’d like to ask two things:

  1. If you have read Communion of Dreams, and have not yet written your own review, please PLEASE do so. As I have hinted several times recently, I have something new in the works, and very much need as many solid reviews as possible in place to help people have a realistic idea of what to expect.
  2. If you’re on Facebook, please go “like” the Communion of Dreams page. And tell your friends about it. Again, this will help a great deal with what I have coming up soon.

 

Thanks – I really appreciate your help.

Jim Downey

 

 



Italy, 2012: Rome Alone.

We left the villa early on Monday morning, since it was a drive of some hours back to Rome and we needed to get there about noon to allow some members of the group to make travel connections.

There had been rain overnight. When we left, this was the view of the sea from the villa:

 

 

Taking the inland interstate-style highway, we got to see part of the country we hadn’t before.

 

 

And I discovered that the rest stops in Italy are much like rest stops anywhere, complete with baffling toys…

 

No idea . . .

…and various products to help you stay awake:

Actually, I bought some of the “pocket espresso” things – and they weren’t bad. About an ounce of high-density caffeine with a lot of chocolate, in liquid form like an extra-small juice box.

* * * * * * *

We got to Rome, dropped off several people at the main train station. Most of the rest of us were back in the hotel we had stayed in the first few days of the program. We got checked in, dropped off bags and then made plans for the afternoon.

Most of the remaining group were leaving the next morning, just a few staying on to Wednesday. The bulk of the group made plans for dinner together that evening. But Steve & Amy needed to get a number of things done to wrap up the trip (and plan for the next one), so they were inclined to not join in on another big dinner.

In all honesty, I think they were also tired of being “in charge” and just wanted a little down-time. I know that when I have been in such a role for a week or two, I feel wiped out, and no offense to the people in the group but I am usually ready for a break.

So we spent the afternoon hitting a couple of different sights, mostly giving Steve and Amy time to do something of a post-mortem on the workshop – discussing what worked, what didn’t go so smoothly, how to perhaps change the schedule. I mostly kept my mouth shut, though occasionally I was able to offer some perspective as a tag-along. We had coffee & conversation on the Piazza Navona, then eventually Amy went off to take care of some errands and Steve and I went to see the Carravagio paintings (The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew) at the nearby San Luigi dei Francesi. Naturally, I had seen reproductions of these pieces, but seeing them actually in the space they were intended for was breath-taking.

Following this, we wandered back to the hotel room. We both wanted a chance to rest and shower before getting back together with Amy for drinks and dinner that evening.

Dinner that night was worth mentioning: a place which specializes in dishes with porcini mushrooms. We ate heartily, washed the food down with some local artisanal beer. According to Amy & Steve, such beer is a relatively new thing in Rome – but it was quite good, though it was odd to have it served in what was basically a champagne bottle.

* * * * * * *

The next morning we mostly went our separate ways. Steve & Amy needed to check out a couple different museums for the next program. I was tired of “Roman Stuff” and opted to do a bit of exploring on my own.

Starting with a completely delightful exhibit I had noted on previous wanderings: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Big Machines”. I had seen that there was a traveling version of this show which made it to the US, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it for myself. Here are a few images of the fun items in the exhibit:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, this *was* shown to be a fake entry – but it’s still fun to see it produced in da Vinci’s style.

This was mostly geared towards kids, but it was still fun to see actual mock-ups of a number of da Vinci’s drawings. And one thing which was completely new to me was the octagonal closet which was completely lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. You stepped into this closet, closed the door, and were able to see an infinite regression of images – like being in a room with two facing mirrors. Except that in this case, because of the placement of all 8 mirrors, you were able to see yourself from every angle – and it is a very odd thing to see your own back full size, in real time. What’s most impressive about this is, of course, that during da Vinci’s time it was impossible to make mirrors of sufficient size or quality to demonstrate this effect – he had done it all through basic knowledge of optics, applied as a thought-experiment. Very cool.

* * * * * * *

I got some lunch from a street vendor, then decided to go see this:

 

 


Yeah, the Trevi fountain. I’d promised a friend I would toss a coin in for her, and fulfilled that promise.

Two things I want to note about seeing the Trevi fountain: one, it was crazy with crowds. Seriously, just a block away there were few tourists. But in the square with the fountain it was packed. Nuts. Worst crowds I had seen anywhere in Rome.

And two, I had gotten to know my way around Rome well enough that it was pretty easy for me to dead-reckon with minimal reference to a street map. This got me to and from the Trevi fountain with minimal problems. This made me inordinately happy.

* * * * * * *

I made my way back to where the hotel was, stopping by once again to just stand inside the Pantheon. It was the sort of place I could probably visit a hundred times.

Along the way back to the hotel, I noted this interior courtyard:

 

 

No idea what that was. But it was cool.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off my bag at the hotel, I popped over to the Campo de’ Fiori – the little market square I mentioned previously. I got a beer and some snacks, sat down to write some notes and just observe what was going on in the square.

And what was going on was the take-down of the market stalls and subsequent clean-up:

 

 

 


One thing in particular I want to point out:

 

That’s one of those little motor-cycle carts as seen in “Roman Holiday”. I was a bit surprised to see that they’re still very much in use in Rome, since that movie is even older than I am. But quite a number of the different merchants had them, and they seem quite practical for such use given the narrow winding streets in the heart of the city.

* * * * * * *
Dinner that evening was again just the three of us: myself, Steve, Amy. We ate at a place not far off the Campo, which is to say not that far from the hotel. This was by design, since we had to be up early to catch a private van to the airport.

Which we did the next morning, leaving about 6:30. My flight was later than the other’s, but it made the most sense for me to just get to the airport a bit early.

Of course, as it turned out, things all ran late at the Rome airport for me, and I could have gone over much later in the day. And the delays meant missed connections and the usual travel-foo. But I got in to St. Louis eventually, and in time to catch the shuttle home.

Yes indeed, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”  I almost don’t believe it, myself.

Jim Downey