Communion Of Dreams


Easy to predict.

In Communion of Dreams, I have “experts” who are A.I. assistants. As I describe them in that book when I introduce one as the character ‘Seth’:

His expert was one of the best, one of only a few hundred based on the new semifluid CPU technology that surpassed the best thin-film computers made by the Israelis. But it was a quirky technology, just a few years old, subject to problems that conventional computers didn’t have, and still not entirely understood. Even less settled was whether experts based on this technology could finally be considered to be true AI. The superconducting gel that was the basis of the semifluid CPU was more alive than not, and the computer was largely self-determining once the projected energy matrix surrounding the gel was initiated by another computer. Building on the initial subsistence program, the computer would learn how to refine and control the matrix to improve its own ‘thinking’. The thin-film computers had long since passed the Turing test, and these semifluid systems seemed to be almost human. But did that constitute sentience? Jon considered it to be a moot point, of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.

In the world of 2052, when Communion is set, these “experts” are ubiquitous and extremely helpful. Seth is an “S-series”, the latest tech, and all S-series models have names which start with S. I figured that naming convention would be a nice way to track the development of such expert-systems technology, and in the course of the book you see earlier models which have appropriate names.

So when the time came to write St Cybi’s Well, I figured that I would introduce the first such model, named Andi. Here’s the first bit of dialog with Andi:

“Hi, I’m Andi, your assistant application. How can I help you?”

“Andi, check local restaurant reviews for Conwy and find the best ranked Fish & Chips place.”

“You’re not in Conwy. You’re in Holywell. Would you rather that I check restaurants where you are?”

“No, I’m not hungry yet. But I will be when I get to Conwy.”

“Very good. Shall I read off the names?”

“Not now. It can wait until I am closer.”

“Very good. Shall I track your movement and alert you?”

“No.”

“Very good. May I help you with something else?”

“Not right now.” Darnell shut off the app, then the phone, and dropped it back into his pocket. The walk back to his car was uneventful.

Now, I wrote this bit almost eight years ago, long before “Siri” or “Alexa” were announced. But it was predictable that such technology would soon be introduced, and I was amused as all get-out when Amazon decided to name their first assistant as “Alexa”.

Anyway, I also figured that since the technology would be new, and unsophisticated, that Andi would be slightly annoying to use. Because it would default to repetitions of scripts, be easy to confuse, et cetera, similar to encountering a ‘bot on a phone call. And you can judge for yourself, but I think I succeeded in the book — the readers of early chapters thought so, and commented on it.

So this article in the morning Washington Post made me chuckle:

Alexa, just shut up: We’ve been isolated for months, and now we hate our home assistants

“I’m not a bad person,” Angela Hatem said. “I’m so nice to people.” But Alexa, the voice of Amazon’s home devices, isn’t a person, despite how hard “she” tries to emulate one. And coronavirus/self-quarantine/2020 has Hatem feeling a bit stressed out.

“I say things to Alexa that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy, if I had one. And I don’t know why. She makes me crazy. … I curse at her. I call her names. I’m very, very mean to her,” said Hatem, who lives in Indianapolis with her 1-year-old son. “There’s really few things I can vent at or vent to, and I’m making Alexa my virtual punching bag.”

 

Heh. Nailed another prediction.

* * *

It’s the first of the month. That means that both novels and our care-giving memoir are available for free download, as they are the first of each month. If you haven’t already, please help yourself and tell your friends.

Jim Downey

 

 



An excerpt from Chapter 14

I mentioned the other day that many of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well talk about how eerily prescient the book seems now.

Well, judge for yourself. This is an excerpt from the book (Chapter 14: Llangelynnin) when news of the pandemic is just really getting started. The main characters are discussing it, and their plans to collect medical supplies since the St Melangell Centre is a designated rural care center. I first wrote this portion of the book about two years ago, did major revisions last fall.

“The government here is asking people to just stay home if they have any indications of illness. They’ve implemented a week-long ‘bank holiday’, so people don’t go in to work or school, and declared that only essential government employees and emergency workers are to report in. All the bus and train lines have been shut down. They’re even talking about closing all the restaurants and pubs. We’ll probably hear more about that later today. And there have been more anti-immigrant riots in London and some other places. And not just the so-called ‘Tommys’.”

“People are frightened.”

“Yeah, no surprise.” Darnell nodded at the stereo again. “There was also some science reporting about VCS itself. Looks like it is caused by a flu strain which is similar to the 1918 virus, the Spanish Flu, but one which is even more virulent.”

Megan paused, her hands lowered. The towel hung limply by her side. “Didn’t that kill millions, world-wide?”

“Yeah, something like fifty million.”

“And this looks to be worse?”

“Yeah,” Darnell repeated. “This seems to spread just as easily, but kills faster. Well, kills healthy adults faster – that cytokine storm thing, which is basically the immune system going crazy, creating high fever and complete exhaustion, leading to the inability to get enough oxygen and general system collapse. Victims often develop cyanosis – a blueish tint to the skin, particularly on the face and hands. Anyone who is very young, or old, or otherwise has a compromised immune system, can still get the flu, but don’t generally have the VCS reaction. But there’s a good chance that they’ll develop pneumonia which can kill them in a week or so without proper treatment.”

“But there are treatments for pneumonia.”

“There are. And even some things that can be done for someone with Cytokine Syndrome, if you get to them soon enough. Or anti-virals, like Theraflu.” He sighed. “But there’s not nearly enough of those stockpiled. And how well do you think the health system here or anywhere will be able to handle such a fast-moving epidemic, particularly if health workers are among the most vulnerable group because of massive exposure? Do you remember how devastating hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola have been in isolated areas, because health workers are often among the first victims of the disease? And those require direct contact with bodily fluids . . . this flu is airborne.”

There was a wild look in her eyes, and for a moment Darnell thought he even saw fear. Then Megan closed her eyes, clasped the small crucifix necklace she wore, and muttered what he assumed to be a prayer. When she opened her eyes again, the wildness was gone, replaced with a cold determination. “We already have basic personal protection gear – surgical masks, gloves, even disposable gowns – and it sounds like we should wear them when we go to Llandudno. I’ll get them and meet you downstairs when you’re done with your shower.”

 

Jim Downey



“… telling you a tale that just *might* be real.”

So, almost two months ago I ‘officially’ launched the publication of St Cybi’s Well.

No, I didn’t forget to mention it here. Since I have allowed this blog to go quiet, I didn’t see it as an important venue to announce it, and figured that it would make a little more sense to just let the book exist in the wild for a little while, then write about the reactions to it.

Currently, there are 14 reviews on Amazon, with an overall rating of 4.9 stars. Some are from friends. Some are from acquaintances. Some are from complete strangers. Among the reviews I have my favorites, and not necessarily ones which say good things. At this point, after struggling with the book for so long, I have very mixed feelings about it.

But my strongest emotion about the book, and something that keeps coming up in the reviews of it, is just how surreal it is to have finished the book during the middle of a real pandemic, and having our reality seeming to follow the path I had laid out in the book. Here are some excerpts as examples of what I mean.

The first review, by someone who backed my Kickstarter and had an advance copy of St Cybi’s:

With some recent political developments and COVID-19, I found this unsettlingly realistic.

And from other readers:

That he wrote this well before our current pandemic was even a thing is a testament to his spooky prescience

And:

The images are vivid and remain. No one took epidemic plagues too seriously anymore, Polio was long ago. But since Covid and Ebola, there is a realization that the 4 Horsemen of the Apocolypse are alive and kicking.

And:

What I found most compelling is the almost prescient storyline of the Fire Flu and its attendant effects on society. I can’t imagine a more difficult proposition than trying to finish your novel about an apocalyptic disease while having to do so with one currently taking over the news. There are some eerie moments in the book where it feels as though it’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ story.

And:

Set in 2012, the overlap with current events in 2020 is uncanny.

And:

the story is kind of terrifying considering its striking similarity to current events

Of course, I’m not prescient. I had no real idea that the coronavirus pandemic was coming, though I had long known that we were about due for another pandemic and were likely unprepared for it. And what I put into the book about how the FireFlu virus spread, and how people reacted to it, was just based on history. What we’re seeing now … all the good and bad of it … was entirely predictable, because it is the sort of reaction that human societies have always had to pandemics.

Which, of course, doesn’t give me any comfort. As is said in one of the reviews:

I ended up feeling that the story is part of what science fiction does best – telling you a tale that just *might* be real.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Download my book, or order a paper copy. If money is a little tight, wait until the first of the month, and download it for free. And please, if you do read it, leave a review.

Thanks.

Jim Downey



No escape from reality.*

For fun, and to make someone’s year a little better, I recently rebound a friend’s SF novel, converting the paperback edition into a hardcover binding.

With my bookbinding skills it’s a fairly simple and straightforward process, but not a cost-effective one (so don’t ask me to rebind your favorite paperbacks). The result is usually very satisfactory and striking, and makes for a nice little present when I am in the mood to do something different from my usual conservation work.

Anyway, I made this book and mailed it to my friend where she works. She opened it and shared it with her co-workers, who thought it was “pretty darn cool.”

Which, you know, is cool and all. But consider: making that book, that physical object, took me maybe an hour and a half actual labor time. But I’m sure that it took my friend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of labor to write that book. To conceptualize it. To make notes. To research. To stare at the blank computer screen in abject terror. To write the first draft. To edit.  To stare at the words there in horror and disgust at how horrible her writing was (I assume this happened anyway, since almost every serious writer I’ve known goes through this multiple times with any book). To write the second draft. And then the third, after getting feedback from friends and editors. Et cetera, et cetera.

But what her co-workers thought was “pretty darn cool” was a simple physical object.

Now, I’m sure that if you asked them, her co-workers would say that her book — the written words — was also pretty darn cool. And maybe some of them have even read it.** Still, the fact remains that for most people written work is mostly an abstraction, one which takes real effort and time to understand and enjoy. Whereas a tangible artifact like an artisanal hardcover book can be handled and appreciated as reality.

People are funny, aren’t we?

 

Jim Downey

*Naturally.

**A confession: I haven’t yet myself, since I am still in the middle of doing battle with St Cybi’s Well, and I just can’t read long fiction when I am trying to write it, since it just messes up my own writing. But you can bet I will when I finally finish this book.



And then one day you find ten years have got behind you …*

Happy anniversary!

Yeah, ten years. More than 1850 posts here (though not many in the last year). Big changes in both the history of the novel and in my life. Mostly good changes, though it has been a rough road at times.

Thanks for being part of the journey.

 

Jim Downey

*Of course.

 



My ambivalent year.*

2016 was odd. Just plain odd.

On the one hand, I had the same dumpster-fire of a year that everyone had, in terms of notable deaths, bizarre & unexpected election results here and abroad, and surreal news & social trends.

On the other hand, I’m alive. Which is something of a small (technological) miracle.

I now understand better (thanks to more discussion with my doctors, research, and experience) what happened with my heart, and what it really meant. Turns out that I didn’t have any plaque build-up even in the convoluted artery in question, as I initially thought. No, it was just that badly kinked, and probably had been all my life. I had started to notice it just because of normal aging, meaning that the normal parts of my heart were slowly getting weaker.

In the last six months or so I have finally been able to strengthen the 1/3 of my heart which had never had proper blood supply. Meaning that now I am actually in better cardiac health than I have ever been before. I walk three miles most mornings (5-6 days a week, usually), and don’t feel the slightest bit fatigued from it. The other parts of my 58-year-old body may limit me, but my cardiac condition isn’t a problem at all. Part of me wonders what it would have been like to have had this kind of stamina when I was young and athletic. Another part of me realizes that those limitations helped me develop awareness and self-discipline which I may have missed, otherwise.

Related to that, as mentioned in this post, early last year our financial situation stabilized for the good. We still need to be reasonably prudent about how we go through life, but I no longer feel as if I am hanging on by my fingernails sometimes. Without that change, I may not have felt secure enough to have my heart checked out when I did — meaning that I was very much at risk for the slightest little blood clot to trigger a massive heart attack.

Unrelated to any of that, the election lead-up and results also proved to be both a blessing and a curse for me. I was astonished at the results of both the Brexit and US presidential elections (and no, I’m not going to argue the point in comments — so just refrain from making any on this topic), yet it solved a problem for me with writing St Cybi’s Well. See, in the alternate time-line of Communion of Dreams, prior to the onset of the fire-flu, the US had become an authoritarian, semi-theocratic state. But I was having a really hard time explaining how we had gotten to such a point when actually writing SCW; everything I came up with just seemed too outlandish for the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

Well, that’s not a problem any longer. No, I’m not saying that I think that the US is headed for an authoritarian, semi-theocratic state … but because of the rhetoric and rise in power of some groups both in the US and the UK, that is no longer an unimaginable future. As a result, I have been revising the finished chapters of SCW to reflect these new insights, and I think that the book will be *much* stronger for it.

So yeah, I have really mixed feelings about 2016.

Oh well, I suppose that at least I’m around to have them. And that’s a good thing.

Happy New Year. Remember, today (and the first of every month until I say otherwise), both Communion of Dreams and Her Final Year are available for free download.

 

Jim Downey

*You should watch this sometime. Fun movie.



Making an impression.

My, how time flies …

I’m a little startled to discover that it’s been three years since I last posted about doing the leather bindings for the custom edition of Communion of Dreams. No, I know it’s been a while — but I have been giving this binding a lot of thought, so it seems like it was still a recent ‘pending’ project. I liked the idea of using the sewing structure to incorporate classic raised leather cords on the spine of the book, but I just didn’t like the sparseness of the rest of the cover design. The initial tests were OK, but the more I thought about them, the less satisfied I was with what the final product would be. The problem was that while the cords under leather gave a nice tactile effect, there wasn’t enough detail possible.

So I kept trying to figure out how to keep the relief I liked but to get more definition. I won’t go through all the different iterations of ideas I considered, but there were a lot, mostly along the lines of trying different ways of mounting different weights of cord/string or molding/engraving the board under the leather. But each approach failed to give me the definition I wanted. Worse, each one felt further and further removed from the image of the “Williamson Oak” by Peter Haigh I had used for the paperback/printed hardcover/website.

Then recently another bookbinding project got me to thinking about using something like a woodcut as a way to make an impression on a leather cover, and I realized that I had gotten so set on the idea of using the raised cords of the sewing structure as the basis for the rest of the cover texture I hadn’t considered the possibility of impressing the leather rather than trying to raise it. What would be required would be to make a plate which would press down most of the leather, leaving the design I wanted alone so that it would stand up (and out).

So that what I tried today. Here’s how I did a quick test:

20160529_160407

That’s my high-tech, fancy “polymer plate” … also known as a plastic cutting board. I did a quick sketch on it with a marker, then carved into it using a couple of different cutting heads on a Dremel tool.

Then I mounted a piece of goatskin and a piece of calfskin onto some bookboard, got it good and damp, and then pressed it quickly in one of my book presses. Here are the results:

20160529_160343 20160529_160355

This was just a trial to see if my press would generate sufficient pressure, and if the plate would hold up to it. I am very happy with how well they turned out, and I learned what I need to change for the final version (such as smoothing out the surface of the plate, adding more detail and title, and — oh, yeah — reversing the image).

So, progress! Hey, it only took three years for me to get past my perceptual bias … 😉

 

Jim Downey



Spread your wings and … walk?

No, this is not about the ongoing fiasco which is the TSA. But it certainly could be.

Rather, it’s a chuckle I thought I would share about my cardiac rehab sessions. Remember those? I started them about a month ago, with all the expected advice about diet and exercise. Since then, except for a trip to California to visit family early this month, I’ve been a good boy about going to my sessions and putting in the time and effort to meet the goals they have for people who had a couple of stents installed like I had.

Actually, let me amend that: I met all the goals they have set with my first workout session. As in, for where they want you to be at the end of 36 rehab sessions. Today, at my tenth such session I hit twice those goals. That isn’t to say that I am some perfect physical example of athletic prowess; rather, it’s that typically when people have the procedure I had done, it’s usually because they have systemic atherosclerosis with all the problems that entails. I had a genetic defect. And while I am overweight and out of shape, I’ve managed to avoid the real damage of cardiovascular disease.

Anyway, I’ve been going to rehab 2 – 3 times a week, in addition to my regular morning walks and other yard/garden work. Frankly, I mostly hate it. I hate the TVs which are always on, tuned to some inane morning show. I hate the cheery encouragement of the nurses, particularly when they want to go over yet another handout they have about reading food labels and strategies for managing portion control when eating out. And I hate the pap of “motivational posters” featuring lovely outdoor images (which are fine) with mostly trite inspirational phrases in a very distinct typographical style. There are about a dozen of these things on the walls, mixed in with yet more posters about diet strategies and charts showing exertion and pain levels.

But …

… I noticed this one, lost in among all the others:

20160525_090230

It’s a little hard to read, with all the reflection/distortions, but it says: “Limitations. Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can walk.”

Er, what?

Turns out (as one of my friends noted on Facebook) that this is actually a DEmotivational poster. Yeah, one mocking the usual trite inspirational phrases ones.

I think that this is absolutely hilarious.

I don’t know whether it was slipped in there by someone as a joke which no one else has ever caught, or it was seeded among the others to give cynical bastards like me a chuckle, but it works. I get a laugh out of it every time I go to rehab. It makes the grim process of exercising slightly less annoying. And I think that is wonderful.

 

Jim Downey

 



The virtuous heart.

I got an object lesson in privilege yesterday. My privilege.

I went in for my first session/assessment for cardiac rehab, following the stent procedure I had two weeks ago. The RN who did my assessment had been a cardiac surgery nurse, and knew her stuff. She also had all of my medical records pertaining to my procedure, and was completely familiar with my overall health and particularly my cardiac health (which, as I have mentioned previously, is actually really good).

We went through what is the normal procedure for such things: I got hooked up to a heart monitor, she checked my blood oxygenation, my blood pressure, my pulse. All were excellent. Then we went through my exercise and dietary habits in pretty thorough detail, discussing the few points where my eating habits deviate from ‘accepted medical recommendations’ (which are actually just ‘outdated medical recommendations’ such as limiting how many eggs you eat in a week to just one or two) according to the forms she had to fill out. All that was routine, and the same material I had been over with at least half a dozen other medical professionals in the last month.

Then we got into discussing just exactly what the condition of my heart now was, and what was recommended to help me improve it, post-procedure. She started out with the model heart on the desk, relating it to how my own chart compared, and complimented me again on the fact that I basically have no other evidence of atherosclerosis or plaque build-up anywhere in my heart other than the one problem section of my RCA that they stented. She said something to the effect of “genetics plays a role, but undoubtedly your regular walking every morning for the last decade has made a huge difference.”

“I’m lucky. I’ve been able to arrange my life so that I could take the time out to do that, for the last dozen years or so,” I said.

She nodded. “A wise choice.”

“Well, not one a lot of people can make. Most people can’t just schedule an hour for daily exercise. Like I said, I’m lucky. Very lucky. ”

“True,” she said. “But I always tell people that whether or not to exercise is a choice they make.”

I paused, considered, then nodded. We went on with the rest of the assessment.

Why did I hesitate? Because in that moment — in her statement of my ‘choice’ — lies a perfect summation of my privilege.

I’m a ‘virtuous patient’, in the eyes of most of the medical community. I’m a nice guy, who is well educated, professional. I exercise regularly, eat (relatively) healthily, don’t smoke at all, and rarely drink to excess. I maintain good social integration, and work to have a happy marriage and a good support network of friends. I even floss more than is probably average.

So, since I do all those things, in their eyes the quirk of a fault that is my kinked coronary artery isn’t really my fault. It’s just a small bit of bad luck. A small bit which can be forgiven, because I make a lot of ‘good’ choices about how I go through life.

But while I have indeed made a number of choices which can be considered to be virtuous, my privilege lies in having been able to make those choices.  Realistically, how many people who are earning minimum wage are able to plan to go walking through their neighborhood (or at the local YMCA or city activity center or mall) every morning? How many people living in a food desert have access to plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables? How many people who are actually obese (I need to lose a good 50 – 60 pounds to be at my ideal weight), would be perceived as being lazy rather than working to maintain good health? How many people have the formal education and time to stay on top of modern medical research and discussion of best practices such that they can discuss the nuances of diet and exercise and the role it plays in cardiac rehabilitation?

I could go on and on. But I’ll refrain. For those who are already concerned with such matters, it isn’t necessary. And for those who seldom or ever consider how privilege affects health, it won’t be sufficient. However, perhaps a few people — you? — will take the opportunity that my privilege has presented to realize that how we judge the choices of others comes mostly from how we perceive them as people.

 

Jim Downey

 



The shape of things to come.

From Chapter 3 of Communion of Dreams:

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

Then there’s this excellent non-technical explanation of a new theory of Shape Dynamics. An excerpt or two:

Their latest offering is something called “shape dynamics.” (If you’ve never heard of shape dynamics, that’s OK—neither have most physicists.) It could, of course, be a dead end, as most bold new ideas in physics are. Or it could be the next great revolution in our conception of the cosmos. Its supporters describe it as a new way of looking at gravity, although it could end up being quite a bit more than that. It appears to give a radical new picture of space and time—and of black holes in particular. It could even alter our view of what’s “real” in the universe.

* * *

In most situations, shape dynamics predicts what Einstein’s theory predicts. “For the vast majority of physical situations, the theories are equivalent,” Gryb says. In other words, the two frameworks are almost identical—but not quite.

Imagine dividing space-time up into billions upon billions of little patches. Within each patch, shape dynamics and general relativity tell the same story, Gryb says. But glue them all together, and a new kind of structure can emerge. For a concrete example of how this can happen, think of pulling together the two ends of a long, narrow strip of paper: Do it the usual way, and you get a loop; do it with a twist and you get a Möbius strip. “If you glue all the regions together to form a kind of global picture of space and time, then that global picture might actually be different.” So while shape dynamics may recreate Einstein’s theory on a small scale, the big-picture view of space and time may be novel.

Another prediction come true?

Not really — there were intimations of this theory when I was working on CoD, and it is a *very* long way from being accepted as valid, as the Nova article discusses.

But still …

 

Jim Downey

PS: new review of Communion of Dreams was put up yesterday. Check it out.