Communion Of Dreams

Because what is built, endures.*

About 13 months ago I wrote the following:

But redoing a 300’+ length of brick walkway is no small task. To do it correctly would require a lot of work and a fair amount of expense for proper landscape edging, landscape fabric, gravel/chat, and sand. And if we were going to go to the trouble of redoing it, we wanted to do it correctly and expand it a bit.

As noted in that post, we (my wife and I) didn’t expect to finish the entire length of the walkway last year before winter set in. But we did get about 180′ of it done.

And this summer, after our various trips and other obligations were completed, we got back to the project. A few days ago I was able to post these pics to my Facebook page:

As you might guess, that’s where the walkway ends, some 320′ from where it began. If you look carefully, you can see our house hiding behind some trees at the top of the second image.

It was a *lot* of work. No surprise there. But I found it interesting to estimate (with reasonable accuracy) some of the numbers involved to get a scale of the project. We used about 25,000 pounds of crushed limestone. Some 2,500 bricks (most first dug up from the old walkway, supplemented by some salvaged brick from another neighborhood building tear-down). And about 1,600 pounds of sand. I have no idea how much old, too-damaged brick and dirt I dug out of the old walkway, but it was substantial enough for a good start to a landscape berm we’re going to put in along one edge of the walkway, as seen on the side of this image:

* * *

When I wrote the blog post linked above, I noted that I was probably at about the bottom of my mild bipolar cycle. It runs about 18 month from trough-to-trough, or peak-to-peak, so that would mean I’m currently somewhere between a manic high and a depressive low, but heading down. That feels about right, and fits with the onset of cool weather hinting at the winter to come.

I don’t look forward to that. Wrestling with the black dog is never easy.

But I now have a new path to walk, when I need somewhere for my feet to take me. A path which was constructed with much sweat, some blood, and a whole lot of love. A path which respects the past, but builds on it, extends it, and makes it more durable, whatever comes. That helps.


Jim Downey

*Of course.

Drawing the wrong lesson …

One of the oldest Science Fiction tropes is the development of technology intended to enforce compliance through pain. Two notable examples: the ‘shock collars’ used on members of the Enterprise crew in The Gamesters of Triskelion and the ‘pain givers‘ first depicted in the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams.

In both cases, and typically through most of the SF I can think of, this is meant to be a cautionary tale, to show how even a nominally benign or at least non-lethal technology can be perverted. The lesson is that the intentional infliction of pain is itself a bad thing, whether or not it actually causes real corporeal damage.

So, naturally, we have drawn exactly the wrong lesson:

Judge pleads guilty to ordering defendant to be shocked with 50,000 volts

A Maryland judge who ordered a deputy to remotely shock a defendant with a 50,000-volt charge pleaded guilty (PDF) to a misdemeanor civil rights violation in federal court Monday, and he faces a maximum of one year in prison when sentenced later this year.

* * *

The deputy sheriff walked over to where Victim I was standing and pulled a chair away to clear a place for Victim I to fall to the floor. At this point, Victim I stopped speaking. The deputy sheriff then activated the stun-cuff, which administered an electric shock to Victim I for approximately five seconds. The electric shock caused Victim I to fall to the ground and scream in pain. Nalley recessed the proceedings.

* * *

The authorities are increasingly using stun cuffs, which are about the size of a deck of cards, at detention centers and courthouses. They are made by various companies and cost around $1,900 for a device and transmitter. Some models can shock at 80,000 volts.




Jim Downey

Out there … and down here.

Via Laughing Squid, a nice little animated exploration of the Fermi Paradox:

(Does not contain spoilers for Communion of Dreams. 😉 )

* * *

Been a busy week. Part of it was putting in my garden:


(That’s just the tomato plants — the super-hot peppers will go in next week.)

Part of it was a MASSIVE job converting a 16 x 16 storage space into the beginnings of a workshop:


(There’s still lots to do, but man, what a change from being hip-high in grungy boxes and scattered junk!)

And part of it was we have a new addition to the family:


(He’s just 6 weeks old, entirely too cute, bold & adventurous, and tiny. For now. No name yet, though given his grey color I suggested perhaps we should go with Dukhat … )

* * *

I’m just now finishing up the first major revision to the working copy of St Cybi’s Well. I already have a couple of people lined up to take a look at it with fresh eyes, but if anyone else is interested also having a preview, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.

Lastly: for Mother’s Day weekend, the Kindle edition of Her Final Year will be available for free. Check it out, download it, share it with others!

Jim Downey

And the sky, full of stars … *

I should have some interesting news to share in a couple of days. But for now, I thought I would share this amazing post from Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy:


Yesterday, I posted an amazing Hubble Space Telescope picture. I don’t think it’s too soon to post another shot from Hubble… and I think you’ll agree when you see it, especially after you get an understanding of what you’re seeing.

First, the eye candy: The magnificent Andromeda Galaxy, as seen by Hubble.


And as Plait notes, that’s the low-resolution image.

Go enjoy the article, and marvel at the images he has/links to. Seriously — it is worth your while, if you’re any kind of a space-geek at all.


Jim Downey

*With apologies to JMS.

Go for a joyride in somebody’s brain.*

Carl Zimmer has put up a really interesting piece about recent developments which allow for visualization of brain structures which I would recommend:

Flying Through Inner Space

It’s hard to truly see the brain. I don’t mean to simply see a three-pound hunk of tissue. I mean to see it in a way that offers a deep feel for how it works. That’s not surprising, given that the human brain is made up of over 80 billion neurons, each branching out to form thousands of connections to other neurons. A drawing of those connections may just look like a tangle of yarn.

As I wrote in the February issue of National Geographic, a number of neuroscientists are charting the brain now in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. And out of these surveys, an interesting new way to look at the brain is emerging. Call it the brain fly-through. The brain fly-through only became feasible once scientists started making large-scale maps of actual neurons in actual brains. Once they had those co-ordinates in three-dimensional space, they could program a computer to glide through it. The results are strangely hypnotic.

Yeah, they are, and also very cool. One of the most interesting developments is a new program called the Glass Brain which is powerful enough to allow you to see how the brain is working in real time. From the article:

Imagine, if you will, putting on an EEG cap and looking at a screen showing you what’s happening in your brain at the moment you’re looking at it. That’s what this system promises.

The diagnostic and training potential is obvious. And if you consider the implications a bit, this could be a big step towards a true mind/machine interface. And then all bets are off for what could happen next.


Jim Downey

*Referencing Dust to Dust.

And a side-note. While I don’t make a big deal of it in Communion of Dreams, if you stop and think of the descriptions I use for the super-conducting ‘gel’ found on Titan, and what is revealed about it, you might notice that it would seem very similar to how neurons in the brain are structured and behave, though on a vastly different scale … 😉

Limits of perception.

From the beginning of Chapter 18 of Communion of Dreams:

“But there’s something else going on. Perhaps I was being too hasty in considering this to be just a four-dimensional problem.”

“Sorry? You lost me there,” said Jon.

Gish ignored him, his attention turning in on itself. “Yes. Clearly there’s a proximity effect. Perhaps anyone who touches the artifact becomes somehow connected to the outer surface of the bubble.”

“Wait, you mean that the artifact is some kind of doorway to another dimension?”

Gish looked at Jon, annoyed. “What? Doorway? No, just that the surface of the isolation field may not conform to our simple space-time geometry.”

Not too surprising that Robert Gish was aware of this recent theory, since he’s some 39 years in our future:

A Jewel at the Heart of Quantum Physics

Physicists have discovered a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality.

“This is completely new and very much simpler than anything that has been done before,” said Andrew Hodges, a mathematical physicist at Oxford University who has been following the work.

The revelation that particle interactions, the most basic events in nature, may be consequences of geometry significantly advances a decades-long effort to reformulate quantum field theory, the body of laws describing elementary particles and their interactions. Interactions that were previously calculated with mathematical formulas thousands of terms long can now be described by computing the volume of the corresponding jewel-like “amplituhedron,” which yields an equivalent one-term expression.

It’s an absolutely fascinating article & theory, and deserves consideration: that many of the observational problems with quantum mechanics may be due to our limited perspective from this space-time, just as our perspective from one reference point gave rise to the notion that there is something which could be considered a “universal time” — a notion which a certain Mr. Einstein dealt with.

Which, while all the math is completely beyond me, makes a certain amount of intuitive sense from the history of science. Which is: the slow progression of realization that none of our privileged positions are true. That the Sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth. That humankind isn’t different from all the other animals. That our perception of time isn’t the only one. So why should this set of spacial dimensions be the basis for reality?

Which is why I felt comfortable coming up with the “theoretical discovery” at the heart of Communion of Dreams, as discussed in this passage from Chapter 3:

Apparent Gravity was the third major application of the theories set forth in Hawking’s Conundrum, the great opus of Stephen Hawking which was not published until after his death in the earlier part of the century. He hadn’t released the work because evidently even he couldn’t really believe that it made any sense. It was, essentially, both too simple and too complex. And since he had died just shortly before the Fire-flu, with the chaos that brought, there had been a lag in his theory being fully understood and starting to be applied.

But it did account for all the established data, including much of the stuff that seemed valid but didn’t fit inside the previous paradigms. Using his theories, scientists and engineers learned that the structure of space itself could be manipulated. The first major application led to practical, safe, and efficient fusion power. Rather than forcing high-energy particles together, the forces keeping them apart were just removed. Or, more accurately, the manifestation of space between them was inverted. It took very little energy, was easy to control, but only worked in a very localized fashion.

And just for fun, here’s a little hint from my work on St. Cybi’s Well: there’s a character in there who has something of the perspective of the people working on the “amplituhedron theory” and applies it in his own way to explain the dark matter/dark energy problem. Well, it amuses me, anyway.

And I should get back to work on that.


Jim Downey

Via MeFi and elsewhere. The MeFi link has a lot of other links in both the post and the following discussion, if you would like more information and … perspective. 😉

Oh, and this seems entirely appropriate – start at 35 seconds:

Moments of revelation.

“All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation.”

-G’Kar, Z’ha’dum

Sometimes you don’t recognize when things change — the moments of transition — except in hindsight. That could be because the change is incremental enough that you don’t notice it for a while, or it might be that you’re so completely involved in the moment that the realization of what just happened doesn’t sink in immediately.


* * *

This morning there was a news item on NPR which caught my attention: that perhaps the Voyager 1 spacecraft has already left our solar system.

Scientists have known for a while that it was approaching the limits of the heliosphere. The expectation was that there would be a fairly clear change in orientation of the magnetic field when the craft crossed the boundary of the Sun’s influence into true interstellar space.  But perhaps that boundary was less defined than we thought. From the story:

How did we miss that? As it turns out, it wasn’t entirely our fault. Researchers thought the solar system was surrounded by a clearly marked magnetic field bubble.

“There’s one at the Earth, there’s one at Jupiter, Saturn, many planets have them. And so just by analogy we were expecting there to be something like that for the solar system,” Swisdak says.

Scientists were waiting for Voyager to cross over the magnetic edge of our solar system and into the magnetic field of interstellar space. But in in the September issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, Swisdak and his colleagues say the magnetic fields may blend together. And so in July 2012, when Voyager crossed from the solar system into deep space, “Voyager just kept cruising along,” Swisdak says. All they saw was a change in the field’s direction.


* * *

Last Thursday my wife had a follow-up with her surgeon to see how she was doing in recovering from her emergency appendectomy.  She had been released from the hospital the previous Saturday, but there was some concern over the risk of secondary infection within her abdomen.

Well, without getting too much into the details, tests indicated that she might be developing exactly that sort of infection. The surgeon ordered a procedure called a needle aspiration and scheduled it for the following day.

We dutifully reported to the hospital for the procedure. It didn’t go smoothly, and the upshot was that it didn’t help her condition at all. A couple hours later we left the hospital, and she’s been mostly resting since. We’re now waiting to hear from the surgeon about what happens next. And what it means.


* * *

Some six years ago I wrote what could be considered a companion piece to this blog post. In it I quoted a friend, talking about Communion of Dreams:

“Yeah, but it’s like the way that the people involved in your book – the characters – are all struggling to understand this new thing, this new artifact, this unexpected visitor. And I like the way that they don’t just figure it out instantly – the way each one of them tries to fit it into their own expectations about the world, and what it means. They struggle with it, they have to keep learning and investigating and working at it, before they finally come to an understanding.” He looked at me as we got back in the car. “Transitions.”


* * *

Where Communion of Dreams was largely about transitions, in many ways St. Cybi’s Well is about revelations. How we experience them. How we understand them. How we do or don’t recognize them when they happen.

The Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams is free today. And you have less than two weeks to enter into the drawing for a hand-bound, full-leather copy of the book. So far only two people have entered. Don’t miss the moment.


Jim Downey


Thought I’d share something I hinted at last week, and which explains a bit why my posting to the blog has dropped off so much in recent weeks: I’ve shifted over from primarily working on the structure and individual scenes of St. Cybi’s Well to writing the bulk of the text. To use an analogy, I’ve got the skeleton done and am now putting flesh on the bones.

So while I only have about 23,000 words in the manuscript so far, and very little of that is what most people would recognize as parts of a novel, it’s actually probably a significant fraction (perhaps one-third? half?) of the overall amount of work which will go into the book. That’s because I know not only the overall plot and major characters of the book, I also know the pacing, the locations, and how all the major elements will work together throughout. In fact, you could grab a map of Wales and then find each of the locations tied to the individual chapters to get a sense of how the whole thing will progress. Here’s the working list of chapters:

  • Prelude: Cardiff
  • Chapter One: Pennant Melangell
  • Chapter Two: Holywell/Conwy Castle
  • Chapter Three: Portmeirion/Caernarfon
  • Chapter Four: Snowdon
  • Chapter Five: Ffynnon Gybi/Criccieth
  • Chapter Six: Pistyll Rhaedr
  • Chapter Seven: Pentre Ifan
  • Chapter Eight: St. Non’s/St. David’s
  • Chapter Nine: St. Govan’s Chapel/Gumfreston Church
  • Chapter Ten: Deheubarth
  • Chapter Eleven: St. Cenydd’s Well
  • Chapter Twelve: Brecon Beacons
  • Chapter Thirteen: Maen-du Well/Ffynnon Gynydd
  • Chapter Fourteen: Tintern Abbey/Stonehenge
  • Chapter Fifteen: Ynys Môn
  • Chapter Sixteen: Ffynnon Gelynin
  • Chapter Seventeen: Ffynnon Sarah
  • Chapter Eighteen: St. Cybi’s Well
  • Chapter Nineteen: Castell y Bere

If you care to dig around my various travelogues, you can actually find descriptive passages about each of these places.  Those passages will be used as part of constructing verisimilitude through the novel.

And yes, “Prelude” rather than “Prologue.” Partly it ties in with this. Partly … well, you’ll see.

Jim Downey


As we were on our morning walk, I rolled my right hand over a bit and looked at the blade of it. My wife looked down at it as well.

“How is it doing?”

I flexed the hand back and forth a bit. The pale yellow-green of a late-stage bruise was still very evident.


* * * * * * *

U.S. Warns Syria on Chemical Weapons

WASHINGTON — President Obama warned Syria on Monday not to use chemical weapons against its own people, vowing to hold accountable anyone who did, even as American intelligence officials picked up signs that such arms might be deployed in the fighting there.

The White House said it had an “increased concern” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use such weapons, effectively confirming earlier reports of activity at chemical weapons sites. The administration said it would take action if they were used, suggesting even the possibility of military force.

“Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

* * * * * * *

From The Long, Twilight Struggle:

Londo Mollari: Refa, any force attempting to invade Narn would be up to its neck in blood–its own!

Lord Refa: We have no intention of invading Narn. Flattening it, yes–but invading it? We will be using mass drivers. By the time we are done their cities will be in ruins, we can move in at our leisure!

Londo Mollari: Mass drivers? They have been outlawed by every civilized planet!

Lord Refa: These are uncivilized times.

Londo Mollari: We have treaties!

Lord Refa: Ink on a page!


* * * * * * *

Chemical Weapons Convention

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Its full name is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. The agreement is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is an independent organization based in The Hague, Netherlands.

The main obligation under the convention is the prohibition of use and production of chemical weapons, as well as the destruction of all chemical weapons. The destruction activities are verified by the OPCW. As of January 2013, around 78% of the (declared) stockpile of chemical weapons has thus been destroyed.[5][6] The convention also has provisions for systematic evaluation of chemical and military plants, as well as for investigations of allegations of use and production of chemical weapons based on intelligence of other state parties.

Currently 188 states are party to the CWC, and another two countries (Israel and Myanmar) have signed but not yet ratified the convention.[1]

Syria is one of six UN member states who are not signatories to the Convention.


* * * * * * *

Shortly after the conversation above:


* * * * * * *

Syria crisis: ‘Strong evidence’ of chemical attacks, in Saraqeb

The BBC has been shown evidence which appears to corroborate reports of a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb last month. Eyewitnesses and victims say that government helicopters dropped at least two devices containing poisonous gas on the town.

The Syrian government says it did not and will not use chemical weapons.

Shortly after midday on 29 April, the town of Saraqeb came under attack from government military positions about five miles (8km) away. A local activist we met filmed as the shells landed.


* * * * * * *

As we were on our morning walk, I rolled my right hand over a bit and looked at the blade of it. My wife looked down at it as well.

“How is it doing?”

I flexed the hand back and forth a bit. The pale yellow-green of a late-stage bruise was still very evident.

“It’s healing. The pain has gone from being that bright, intense flash you get from a broken bone to a dull but substantial ache. That tells me that it’s knitting back together properly. A few more days of not stressing the hand, and it’ll be OK.”

We paused, watched the dog take care of his business. As I reached down with a plastic bag to remove the results from the neighbor’s lawn, I thought about how lucky I was.


Jim Downey

Reflecting (on) reality.

Any work of literature is, to some extent, part of the society in which it was written, and needs to be understood within that context. Whether you’re talking The Bonfire of the Vanities or On the Beach or Life on the Mississippi  or just about any novel you care to name, it is, to some extent, a reflection on the culture surrounding it.

Writers react to the events around them. Even science fiction authors like yours truly. We really can’t avoid it.

I mentioned events in Boston the other day.  Just a blog post. But it is some measure of what has gotten my attention. So it would be safe to assume that to some degree it will show up in St. Cybi’s Well. And it will. But perhaps not exactly as you might think.

Almost five years ago I wrote this:

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.

Now, I don’t think that what happened in Boston was anything like what led to that blog post about HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. in August of 2008. In that instance, it was chronic problems with crime rather than a couple of domestic terrorists which brought about de facto martial law.

And I think that the police agencies involved in determining who was responsible for the attacks, and then seeking the suspects in a major metropolitan area did a very professional job. Just compare it to another recent dragnet and you’ll see what I mean.

But I keep coming back to that earlier blog post. Why? Because seeing a major city shut down, and then para-military operations going house to house searching for a suspect, gives me pause. I certainly can’t fault the police for taking precautions intended to protect their own lives and the lives of citizens. SWAT equipment and tactics have been shown to be very effective.

Yet …

… I feel somewhat like the owner of a couple of highly trained and massive guard dogs, who has just watched those dogs chase off/control a threat. There’s a satisfaction in watching them do the task so well. But there’s also a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, things could be bad if they ever decided that they no longer wanted to obey commands.

Nah – no need to worry. That has never happened before.


Jim Downey