Communion Of Dreams


“In the before time.”

Some variation of the phrase “in the before time(s)” has been a staple of post-apocalypse Science Fiction for so long that it’s a well-deserved cliche, mocked even by South Park. Usually invoked by some grungy child reciting a barely-understood mythos, or an aged ‘elder’ thinking back to their youth, it served as a mechanism to explain what happened to civilization.

Of course, in our post-modern, self-aware world “in the before time” came to be widely used in a joking manner, to refer to some not-so-serious turning point in recent history. Before YouTube. Before Google. Before the internet. Before Fonzie jumped the shark. Whatever. It was funny, see?

Except in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started hearing it used to refer to the pre-Covid pandemic times. And not in a humorous way. People are using it completely seriously. Here are just two examples, the first from NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday program on 6/12:

New York Eater’s Chief Critic Isn’t Ready To Eat Out. Here’s Why

* * *

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried about the future of the restaurant industry? I mean, do you think it will look anything like what it resembled before the pandemic?

SUTTON: I don’t think anyone knows what the restaurant industry is going to look like in the coming months, never mind the coming year or so. We can only agree – is dining out in the future won’t look anything like it did in the before times. We’re going to continue to see a lot more takeout, and we’re going to continue to see, I think, a lot of people continue to eat at home rather than treating restaurants like extensions of their dining rooms. It’s not going to be a nightly fare anymore. And that’s going to cost a lot of jobs, and that’s going to close a lot of restaurants. And that’s just a terrible thing for everyone.

And the second from a FaceBook post a friend shared, about whether schools would/could open in the fall:

A high school teacher in this state has a maximum class size of 32-35 students, which gives the teacher around 200 students across 4-6 classes in beforetimes schooling. To mitigate coronavirus would then require 3 kindergarten teacher now to do the job of one kindergarten teacher a year ago. High school would require 24 high teachers to do one beforetimes high school teacher’s work and that is if we overlook the very awkward point that having half the class meet half the time might limit the children’s risk but only extends the hours of exposure to the virus that is faced by the teacher.

In doing a bit of quick research for this post, I also find that lexicographer Ben Zimmer (brother of excellent science writer Carl Zimmer) has noticed this change as well:

‘The Before Time’: A Sci-Fi Idea That Has Made Its Way to Real Life

(I haven’t actually read that, since I don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription. But it’s obvious that he’s noted the same shift in usage.)

Just an interesting observation about how our language changes, and another example of how science fiction has had an effect on the ‘real’ world.

Jim Downey



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 … 😉



Scraping by.

I’ve been entirely preoccupied with a big book conservation project which landed in my lap unexpectedly and needed attention right away (and trying to keep work going on St. Cybi’s Well), but a news item I saw the other day has been kicking around in my head. Er, so to speak. It’s the notion that the quality of dental hygiene & health in the modern era is *much* worse than it was before the advent of civilization. Here’s a good passage from one of the better articles which sums this up:

Our mouths are now a gentrified shadow of their former selves. And as Carl Zimmer described earlier this week, ecosystems with an impoverished web of species are more vulnerable to parasites. He was writing about frogs and lakes, but the same is true of bacteria and mouths. The narrow range of microbes in industrialised gobs are more vulnerable to invasions by species that cause disease, cavities, and other dental problems.  “As an ecosystem, it has lost resilience,” says Cooper. “It basically became a permanent disease state.”

Of course, current thinking is that this is due to a fairly radical change in diet between the two time periods, with our reliance now on domesticated grain crops.

But I know the real reason:

“He had a nutty theory that early man had been shortlived, but impervious to disease. Something about being able to trace back mutation clues to some proto-genes that suggested a powerful ability to heal.” Jackie frowned.

Yeah, that’s from almost the end of Communion of Dreams. And is a topic we’ll revisit in the prequel.

Hehehehehehehe.

 

Jim Downey



It’s the End of the Year as we know it…

So, the WordPress Machine informs me that I’ve had a fairly busy year blogging here.

* * * * * * *

As I mentioned a while ago, earlier this month I had fallen prey to the nasty bit of cold virus going around.  Turned out that the damn thing was even more stubborn for my wife, who is still struggling with a hacking cough and various other annoying symptoms.  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it, watching for signs of secondary pneumonia, which would call for antibiotic intervention, but I think she’ll get past this on her own.

Which is good, because there really isn’t much we can do to fight a virus. In this sense, medical science is at about the same place in viral treatments as we were in dealing with bacterial infection 70 years ago:

In 1941, a rose killed a policeman.

Albert Alexander, a 43-year-old policeman in Oxford, England, was pruning his roses one fall day when a thorn scratched him at the corner of his mouth. The slight crevice it opened allowed harmless skin bacteria to slip into his body. At first, the scratch grew pink and tender. Over the course of several weeks, it slowly swelled. The bacteria turned from harmless to vicious, proliferating through his flesh. Alexander eventually had to be admitted to Radcliffe Hospital, the bacteria spreading across his face and into his lungs.

Alexander’s doctors tried treating him with sulfa drugs, the only treatment available at the time. The medicine failed, and as the infection worsened, they had to cut out one of his eyes. The bacteria started to infiltrate his bones. Death seemed inevitable.

* * * * * * *

You may not have heard much about it here, but the norovirus is causing all kinds of grief in the UK. Cases are up 83% over last year, and are estimated to have hit over a million people already. In the UK the norovirus is commonly called the “winter vomiting bug” whereas here we tend to call it “stomach flu”.  As miserable as it makes people feel, it’s usually not a life-threatening disease for otherwise healthy people, and the best thing to do is just ride it out.

Of course, public health authorities have taken steps to try and limit the spread of the disease into populations where the virus could be life-threatening, and a lot of hospitals have curtailed or eliminated visiting hours. Furthermore, appeals have been made to the public to not to go see their doctors or go to emergency rooms for routine cases of the norovirus, since there is little that can be done to treat the virus and this just contributes to the spread of the disease.

Still, people get scared when they get sick, even when they know that it is a fairly common bug that’s going around — and one that most people have had before and gotten over just fine. So they tend to swamp available medical services, overwhelming the health care system.

Just think about what would happen if it was a disease which wasn’t known. And one which was killing people so quickly that they’d drop over in the street on the way home from work.

* * * * * * *

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, since it is an integral plot point to St. Cybi’s Well.  This isn’t a spoiler, since the advent of the fire-flu is part of the ‘history’ of Communion of Dreams.

But it is something which has had me in a bit of a quandary this fall, as I’ve been working on writing St. Cybi’s Well.

Howso? Well, because I kept going back and forth on making one final decision: where to end the book.

See, I know how the *story* plays out — I’ve had that all sorted since I first worked up the background for Communion of Dreams. But in going to write St. Cybi’s Well, I needed to decide exactly where in the story that book would end. Which is to say, I needed to decide how much, if any, of the onset of the fire-flu would be included. Because I could set everything up and have the book actually finish at the onset of the fire-flu — after all, the reader would know what was about to happen. Why drag the reader through that horror?

* * * * * * *

A week or so ago I made my decision, and I’ve been chewing it over since then as I’ve been busy with other things, making sure that I was comfortable with what I have decided, and why. I’m not going to give you the details, but you can safely assume from what I’ve said in this post that at least some of the pandemic will be portrayed.

I decided this not because I have a desire to write about the horror (in spite of what I may have said previously) but rather because it is critical for character development of the main character.

Poor Darnell.

* * * * * * *

So, the WordPress Machine informs me that I’ve had a fairly busy year blogging here. 293 posts (this makes 294), which is a faster pace than in some years. Of course, I’ve had a lot of promotional stuff do to with the launch of Communion of Dreams last January and everything to support that through the year, not to mention the Kickstarter for St. Cybi’s Well.

And while I’ve cautioned that I won’t be writing quite as much here on the blog as I’m working on St. Cybi’s Well, well, it does make for a nice change of pace.

So thanks for being along for the ride this year. Together we can see how things go in 2013.

 

Jim Downey

 

 



After the hype.

Today’s xkcd sums things up pretty well, I think: the actual discovery was cool, but the hype made it feel anticlimatic.

Above and beyond what this says about our press being driven by ASTOUNDING!! news and the failure to get even basic science stories right (with some very obvious and excellent exceptions), consider just what was behind the hype: excitement at the prospect of non-terrestrial life of any sort being discovered.

The initial speculation that NASA had proof of life on Titan swept like electronic fire around the world. It wasn’t just science fiction geeks. Or actual biologists. Or space buffs. It was pretty much the whole world, though some had more fun with it than others.

Why did this capture the imaginations of so many people? Easy: we’re hungry for this news, and have been for decades. It’s not just the countless science fiction books and movies which have fed this hunger (mine included) – it is also the very real science behind the search for extra-terrestrial life (or intelligence). Proof of the existence of life beyond our planet would likely be considered one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind, and the announcement of such a discovery would be a turning point bigger than even the first time that humans walked on the Moon.

It is easy in a time of recession, when money is tight for most people and the government is trying to figure out ways to cut expenditures, to under-value NASA or basic science research. And I am not arguing for this or that ‘big science’ program, per se. But all you have to do is look at what happened this week, to note the wonder and excitement which was launched by the merest possibility of the discovery of life elsewhere, to realize that this kind of knowledge is something that people around the world are waiting for with eager, almost palpable, anticipation. I think it is one of the very best things about humans that this is the case, and it should be encouraged and used.

Jim Downey



“The dollar bill in the couch.”
December 2, 2010, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Bad Astronomy, Brave New World, Carl Zimmer, NASA, Phil Plait, Science, Science Fiction

Well, it’s not life on Titan. But it is very damned cool nonetheless:

NASA’s real news: bacterium on Earth that lives off arsenic!

NASA scientists announced today an incredible find: a form of microbe that apparently evolved the ability to use otherwise toxic arsenic in their biochemistry!

To understand just how important this is, let’s turn to an analogy from one of my favorite science writers: Carl Zimmer.

The search for alien life has long been plagued by a philosophical question: what is life? Why is this so vexing? Well, let’s say that you’re hunting for change under your couch so that your four-year-old son can buy an ice cream cone from a truck that’s pulled up outside your house. Your son offers to help.

“What is change?” he asks.

“It’s…” You trail off, realizing that you’re about to get into a full-blown discussion of economics with a sugar-crazed four-year-old. So, instead, you open up your hand and show him a penny, a nickel, a dime. “It’s things like this.”

“Oh–okay!” your son says. He digs away happily. The two of you find lots of interesting things–paper clips, doll shoes, some sort of cracker–which you set aside in a little pile. But you’ve only found seventeen cents in change when the ice cream truck pulls away. Tears ensue.

As you’re tossing the pile of debris into the trash, you notice that there’s a dollar bill in the mix.

“Did you find this?” you ask.

“Yes,” your son sobs.

“Well, why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s not change. Change is metal. That’s paper.”

OK, I have just broken the usual standards of “fair use” and I hope Carl will forgive me. I’ll compensate by saying that you should go read the whole rest of the post, because it explains far better than I ever could what the full ramifications of this actually are. Seriously – go. I’ll write more tomorrow. Come back then.

Jim Downey



Better to just get it over with.
July 8, 2010, 11:26 am
Filed under: Carl Zimmer, Failure, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Science

I noted yesterday the decision from SEED Magazine/Science blogs to sell their credibility to Pepsi.

Well, word this morning that they have reconsidered, via Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers. From Pharyngula, here’s part of the statement from Adam Bly of SEED/Sb:

We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.

We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.

Good move. When you’ve screwed up that badly, and are taking damage for it from all sides, best to just reverse the decision and get it over with.

Jim Downey



Astonishingly poor judgment.

Part & parcel of being a science fiction author (at least from my perspective) is trying to keep up with recent scientific discoveries. One good way for me to do this has been to surf Science blogs regularly. This has mostly shown up here in linking to PZ Myers, but he is hardly the only one of the many Sb bloggers that I read.

Well, yesterday something happened which threatens that source – SEED Magazine/Science blogs decided to sell their credibility to Pepsi.

The world has not been kind in return.

This shows astonishingly poor judgment on the part of the management team at Science blogs/ SEED Magazine. As Carl Zimmer said:

Here’s the quick story: the powers that be at Scienceblogs thought it would be a good idea to sell Pepsi a blog of its own on the site, where its corporate scientists could tell the world about all the great nutrition science Pepsico is doing.

Yes. Really. I’m totally sober as I type this.

Good lord. What were these people thinking?

Money is tight, and every business has a hard time paying bills. Advertisement is a necessary evil (remember, I worked in advertising for about four years between college and grad school). But really – trading your credibility on independent science writing for some coin from PepsiCo? Really?

Gads.

Jim Downey



Throw another branch of the family tree on the fire.
March 25, 2010, 12:16 pm
Filed under: Carl Zimmer, Science, Science Fiction, Survival

Fascinating:

Fossil finger points to new human species

In the summer of 2008, Russian researchers dug up a sliver of human finger bone from an isolated Siberian cave. The team stored it away for later testing, assuming that the nondescript fragment came from one of the Neanderthals who left a welter of tools in the cave between 30,000 and 48,000 years ago. Nothing about the bone shard seemed extraordinary.

Its genetic material told another story. When German researchers extracted and sequenced DNA from the fossil, they found that it did not match that of Neanderthals — or of modern humans, which were also living nearby at the time. The genetic data, published online in Nature1, reveal that the bone may belong to a previously unrecognized, extinct human species that migrated out of Africa long before our known relatives.

Carl Zimmer has about the best explanation I’ve found (no surprise – his writing on science in general, and evolution in particular, is nothing short of brilliant). Here’s a good excerpt:

The scientists succeeded in fishing out human-like DNA from the pinky bone, and so far they’ve sequenced its mitochondrial DNA–that is, the DNA that is housed in mitochondria, sausage-shaped, fuel-producing structures in our cells. The majority of our DNA, which sits in the nucleus of cells, comes from both our mother and father. But mitochondrial DNA comes all from Mom. When the scientists compared the pinky DNA to DNA of humans and Neanderthals, they got something of a shock. If you line up the mitochondrial DNA from any given living human to any other living human, you might expect to find a few dozen points at which they are different. Compare human mtDNA to Neanderthal DNA, and you’ll find about 200 differences. But when the scientists compared the Denisova DNA to a group of human mitochondrial genomes, they found nearly 400 differences. In other words, their DNA was about twice as different from ours than Neanderthal DNA.

The implication, again from Zimmer:

The Denisova DNA split too recently from our own to have been carried by H. erectus, the first globe-trotting hominids. But paleoanthropologists have found a fair number of other hominid fossils in Europe and Asia that might belong to more recent waves out of Africa. (Here, for example, is a report on hominids in Europe 1.2 million years ago.) So perhaps there was at least one other wave aside from H. erectus, the expansion of Neanderthals, and the spread of modern humans. If that’s true, this new discovery also means that this wave produced a long lineage of hominids that survived long enough to live alongside humans. We coexisted with yet another species of hominid–along with Neanderthals, H. erectus, and those lovable hobbits, Homo floresiensisfor thousands of years. Our current solitude is a recent fluke.

So, out of five (or more??) species of hominids, only we’re still here. Luck, or violence, or absorption – whatever the reason, at one time there were other similarly intelligent species right here on this one planet. I’m amused in how this supports my vision at the end of Communion of Dreams in two ways [spoiler alert!]: the revelation of humankind’s deeper history/ability and the fact that there are many other advanced races among the stars.

Jim Downey



Thanks, Carl.*

*This post previously ran at UTI last year. And while some of the personal details mentioned in it have changed – I did indeed keep that promise to tweak my manuscript, obviously, and things have continued to progress with my MIL – the sentiment is the same.

Jim D.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This has been a hell of a day. Not as bad as some, perhaps, but as far as routine days go, not the sort you want to pop up often in the queue. It started with my mother-in-law being ill. Now, most adults know how a young child (either their own or one they’ve babysat) can be when sick. Think intestinal bug. Think explosive diarrhea, of the toxic/caustic variety. Poor kid doesn’t understand what’s going on, or how to best cope with their misbehaving body (if they are capable of that on their own yet). Then picture that not in a toddler, but in a 95-pound woman well into dementia before the effects of dehydration and fever kick in. Took my wife and I two full hours to get her and the bedroom cleaned up.

And then I was on deadline to write my final column for my newspaper. Yeah, my *final* column. My decision, and if I want to go back the paper will be glad to have me. But because of the demands of care-giving, I could not adequately keep up with the art scene in my community (what I wrote about – weird to see that in the past tense). And I was feeling a little burned out with it as well. But still, closing off that particular chapter of my life was somewhat poignant.

So it’s been a day. Which is all just prelude to explaining that one of the refuges I seek after such a day is one of my “regulars”. Typically, it’s Twain, likely his Roughing It, which I have long considered some of his best and funniest work. But tonight, I turn to another old friend I never met: Carl Sagan, particularly his book Pale Blue Dot.

I’ve said before that I’m not a scientist. Which is perhaps why I don’t have some of the same quibbles that many scientists have with Sagan. But I really respect someone who can take scientific research and knowledge and present it in a form an intelligent layperson can understand. Stephen Jay Gould could do that for me. PZ Myers does it for me. So does Carl Zimmer. I could name others, but these are people I respect. In that same way, I really respected Carl Sagan, who I knew more as an author than as the host of of the PBS series, most of which I missed in its initial broadcast. Sagan helped introduce me to whole areas of science I had never considered before, and his considerable human decency in his atheism helped me understand that my own misgivings about religion were not an indication that I was lacking in morals or ethics.

So it was that when I started to write my first novel, Communion of Dreams (unpublished – yeah, yeah, I know I need to finish tweaking the mss and send it out again), I set most of the action on Saturn’s moon Titan, as a tribute to Sagan. Sagan had formulated a theory as to the nature of Titan’s atmosphere (that it contained a complex hydrocarbon he called “tholin”) which accounted for the rusty-orange coloration of the moon. His theories were pretty well borne out by the Huygens probe, by the way, though he didn’t live long enough to know this.

So tonight, on the tenth anniversary of his death, on a day when I’ve been through my own trials, I will nonetheless raise a glass, and drink a wee dram of good scotch to the memory of Carl Sagan. And I’ll promise myself, and his memory, that I’ll get that manuscript tweaked and published, if for no other reason than to honor him.

Here’s to Carl: Sorry you had to leave so soon.

Jim Downey