Communion Of Dreams

Paradigm shift.

Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions came out when I was only four years old, but the ideas it contained percolated through the culture I grew up with, having substantial impact on everything I read at a crucial point in my life. In many ways, the concept of paradigm shift was self-fulfilling, as it came to define and dominate a lot of the intellectual backdrop of my formative years. This in no small part will explain a *lot* of the ‘meaning’ of Communion of Dreams.

And, unsurprisingly, it still has a major influence on how I see the world. Which is why sometimes I am willing to try seemingly absurd things: not because I think that they will necessarily succeed, but because I am looking for an inflection point, a fulcrum, which will allow me to assess and perhaps change perspective.

One of those things has been playing with the idea of doing a Kickstarter in lieu of a conventional publishing deal, as I mentioned previously. Of course, I’m hardly the first writer to consider this, since it seems that Kickstarter-type crowdfunding of creative projects has started to take hold in our society.

Well, I just came across another one, something of a template by author Seth Godin. Here’s an excerpt from his blog about it yesterday:

My idea: Kickstart + bookstore + ebooks.

The publisher (my key to the bookstore) is only willing to go ahead with the rest of the plan if my Kickstarter works. No Kickstarter, no distribution, the stakes are high. (As you saw at the Domino Project, the ebook part is easy now, but the bookstore is still critical to reach the many readers who find and buy books in stores).

If the Kickstarter works, then all the funders will get to read the book before anyone else, plus there are bonuses and previews and special editions. A few weeks after the early funders (that would be you) get to read it, the book will be available to book buyers for purchase the traditional way (wherever fine books are sold in the US, including digital readers). Of course, the Kickstarter funders get a better price, get it first and get unique bonuses, plus the pleasure of being in early–and knowing that they made it happen. The only way this book becomes real is if my readers get behind it now.

This was outlining his project, basically starting it. For the experiment he set a goal of $40,000 on his Kickstarter, and had it running for four weeks to see if it was viable.

He met his goal in three hours. And it is currently funded at $194,873 – almost 500% of his goal.

Now, Godin is a published author and successful self-promoter. He has a real following. Most authors, myself included, have no where near his level of support going into such an effort.

But he has found his fulcrum. He has proven that this is possible, at least under some conditions.

Are there other fulcrums out there? Is it possible for other authors to succeed under different conditions?

Specifically, is it possible for me to do?

Your thoughts welcome.

Jim Downey

Paradigm shifts.

In college (I graduated in 1980) I suffered repeatedly from peptic ulcers. My senior year it seemed that I lived largely on a diet of Maalox (which I came to loathe) and Tagamet, supplemented by Pepto-Bismol when I just couldn’t bring myself to drink any more Maalox. “Everyone knew” that ulcers were caused by stress, which produced an overabundance of gastric acid – technology had allowed for better studies of the production of gastric acid and the mechanism of it eroding stomach/intestinal lining – and there were more than a few occasions when my doctor recommended that I consider some kind of mild tranquilizer to help calm me down. I drank, instead.

Which, frankly, didn’t help my ulcers much. In fact, it just made me worse. My senior year was hell, and I actually got quite sick my final semester. Graduation helped, in that a big part of the stress was removed, and I backed way off of how much I drank, but I still had ulcer problems for the next few months.

But in the fall or winter of that year I developed a pretty nasty case of pneumonia (I’m prone to it), and had to go on a couple of courses of broad-spectrum antibiotics before I beat it.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but the following year I didn’t have any ulcer problems. In fact, since then, I haven’t had any ulcer problems. It wasn’t until several years later that medical science came to understand why. No, it had nothing to do with me, though I had inadvertently stumbled upon the same thing that researchers came to discover: that stomach ulcers are predominantly caused by a bacteria (H. pylori). And the best treatment is a combination of powerful antibiotics with bismuth subsalicylate, the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol. Yes, stress can be a factor in the development of an ulcer, but the real culprit is a bacterium. It wasn’t until the 1990s that this came to be the accepted model in the medical community.

This was my first personal, direct experience with how a paradigm shift can make a difference in our lives and health. Had I not gotten lucky with a combination of drugs and Pepto-Bismol, I might have been miserable with ulcers for another dozen years before medical science changed treatment regimens.

Now, I knew about Kuhn’s work – had read him in High School, I think, or at least in college. And his ideas were very influential in the science fiction I read, even my understanding of history (which I have written about before). And all of that plays out in Communion of Dreams, which is largely about a shift in perspective of what it means to be human.

This morning I came across another wonderful case study of this very same phenomenon of paradigm shift changing medical science, and how technology actually played a role in causing a misunderstanding of the mechanism involved, leading to more death and misery until a new paradigm came along:

First, the fact that from the fifteenth century on, it was the rare doctor who acknowledged ignorance about the cause and treatment of the disease. The sickness could be fitted to so many theories of disease – imbalance in vital humors, bad air, acidification of the blood, bacterial infection – that despite the existence of an unambigous cure, there was always a raft of alternative, ineffective treatments. At no point did physicians express doubt about their theories, however ineffective.

The disease? Scurvy. The case study? Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole. Here’s a bit from the beginning of the article:

Now, I had been taught in school that scurvy had been conquered in 1747, when the Scottish physician James Lind proved in one of the first controlled medical experiments that citrus fruits were an effective cure for the disease. From that point on, we were told, the Royal Navy had required a daily dose of lime juice to be mixed in with sailors’ grog, and scurvy ceased to be a problem on long ocean voyages.

But here was a Royal Navy surgeon in 1911 apparently ignorant of what caused the disease, or how to cure it. Somehow a highly-trained group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times. Scott left a base abundantly stocked with fresh meat, fruits, apples, and lime juice, and headed out on the ice for five months with no protection against scurvy, all the while confident he was not at risk. What happened?

It’s a long but fascinating article. And it perfectly recounts how technological improvements contributed to a misunderstanding of scurvy. One more passage from the article:

Third, how technological progress in one area can lead to surprising regressions. I mentioned how the advent of steam travel made it possible to accidentaly replace an effective antiscorbutic with an ineffective one. An even starker example was the rash of cases of infantile scurvy that afflicted upper class families in the late 19th century. This outbreak was the direct result of another technological development, the pasteurization of cow’s milk. The procedure made milk vastly safer for infants to drink, but also destroyed vitamin C. For poorer children, who tended to be breast-fed and quickly weaned onto adult foods, this was not an issue, but the wealthy infants fed a special diet of cooked cereals and milk were at grave risk. It took several years for infant scurvy, at first called “Barlow’s disease”, to be properly identified. At that point, doctors were caught between two fires. They could recommend that parents not boil their milk, and expose the children to bacterial infection, or they could insist on pasteurization at the risk of scurvy. The prevaling theory of scurvy as bacterial poisoning clouded the issue further, so that it took time to arrive at the right solution – supplementing the diet with onion juice or cooked potato.

Read it.

Jim Downey

Putting things in perspective.

Happy Thanksgiving, to my American friends.

Perhaps thinking about giving thanks, and the question of my perspective from this vantage point in life, is what made this post from the Bad Astronomer pop out in my reading this morning. It’s about a scale model of the solar system hosted on the web. From the site:

This page shows a scale model of the solar system, shrunken down to the point where the Sun, normally more than eight hundred thousand miles across, is the size you see it here. The planets are shown in corresponding scale. Unlike most models, which are compressed for viewing convenience, the planets here are also shown at their true-to-scale average distances from the Sun. That makes this page rather large – on an ordinary 72 dpi monitor it’s just over half a mile wide, making it possibly one of the largest pages on the web.

Just for reference, the image of the Sun on my monitor is about 6″ diameter. Yeah, Pluto is a speck about 6,000x the diameter of the Sun away.

I love these sorts of things which convey the notion of deep distance (similar to the concept of deep time). One of these days I’d like to make it to Sweden to see the Sweden Solar System, which uses the Globe arena to represent the Sun, with Pluto a sphere about 5″ in diameter almost 200 miles away.

This question of scale – of the deep distance from one planet to another here in our solar system – is one which I tried to deal with honestly in writing Communion of Dreams. It’s why it takes over a week for the researchers sent out from Earth to reach Saturn (Well, Titan, actually) even using a constant thrust of about one-third gravity, and why there is a time-lag in radio communications of about 90 minutes (yeah, I researched not just the average distances between the planets, but where they would be in their respective orbits on the dates in the book – as well as what the intermediate time lag would be en route at various points). Which presented a problem in the writing – what to do with the characters in the book during this period? Which, in turn, is what I think made the readers at the publisher feel that the book moved too slowly in the first half.

Well, I still haven’t heard back from the publisher about the revisions I sent (and I didn’t expect to yet), so I don’t know whether I was able to address this concern adequately with the changes I made. And once I do hear, I expect that my perspective on the matter will change – as it always does, after the fact. Such is life. Such is the universe.*

Again, Happy Thanksgiving.

Jim Downey

*Thanks, JB.

Another ‘The Day the Universe Changed’
May 6, 2008, 11:56 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Connections, James Burke, Science, Society, Space

Via Brian at Liftport, a link to this site hosting the entire series of James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed. As Brian said in an email:


You’re written before that you admire James Burke’s work on television.

While I don’t condone piracy, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out
that a blog is hosting a download of the ‘Day the Universe Changed’.
One episode per day, file will be up for a week and then it’s gone.

I put the first episode on my laptop, let it play and .. my kids liked
it. Which is what I expected but .. you never know.

I might be kidding myself by I think it was firing off neurons in my
13-year old son’s brain. I have no idea what my eight year old really
thought (he said he liked it) but he’s not the type to just watch
anything on TV; if it’s boring he’ll wander away and play with legos
or his dinosaur collection or go fool around in the backyard.

Yes, I have written about the series, and Burke previously. It really is excellent – and you should either add the thing to your NetFlix queue, buy it outright, or at the very least avail yourself of the chance to see it online.

Thanks, Brian!

Jim Downey

“Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You.”

I’ve mentioned previously the work of science historian James Burke. This past weekend I finished watching the last couple of episodes of his ground-breaking series Connections. Overall, you would probably enjoy watching the series, and will find a lot of chuckles over what was “high tech” in 1978 versus the reality of what we have today. But the closing bit was just stunning – it was a prediction of the need for and use of the Internet before DARPA had even begun to let the cat out of the bag. Here’s the last ten minutes:

In particular the bit that starts out at about 5:00 is the culmination of his entire thesis about change – that understanding how things change is the key to understanding everything. At about 6:45 is this remarkable passage (transcribed myself, since I couldn’t readily find it online – how’s that for irony?):

Scientific knowledge is hard to take, because it removes the reassuring crutches of opinion and ideology. And the reason why so many people may be thinking about throwing away those crutches is because thanks to science and technology, they have begun to know that they don’t know so much, and if they are to have more say in what happens in their lives, more freedom to develop their abilities to the full, they have to be helped towards that knowledge they know exists and that they don’t possess.

And by ‘helped towards that knowledge’, I don’t mean give everybody a computer and say “help yourself.” Where would you even start? No, I mean, trying to find ways to translate the knowledge, to teach us to ask the right questions. See, we’re on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that is going to make that more possible than ever before. Or, if that’s not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us who don’t have access to it as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb, and blind.

Digital divide, anyone? Anyway, I find it just fascinating that Burke was so dead-on in his prediction of the Internet, even if he didn’t have the term for it, and yet even he failed to understand how phenomenally all-encompassing it would be. Whereas he thought that it would be impossible to just give people access to the information and say “go to it”, that is exactly what we’ve got – and self-organization of information and resources like Wikis make that information understandable, not just accessible.

When, as often happens, I feel somewhat pessimistic, that our greed or violent tendencies will outstrip our maturing as a culture/species, it is helpful to come across something like this. And I think that is why I read SF, and have written Communion of Dreams: because there, with all the ugliness and human folly, there is nonetheless room for hope. Look at what we’ve done in just the last thirty years – what more can we accomplish in the next forty, if we don’t destroy ourselves?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

September 15, 2007, 10:45 am
Filed under: Connections, James Burke, MetaFilter, Science, Society, tech, YouTube

Via MeFi, this link to the YouTube collection of vids of the “Re-Connections” show – a look back at James Burke’s Connections program on the 25th anniversary of their initial broadcast.  Non-TV-watching heathen that I am, I didn’t catch this when it was initially broadcast, so I am looking forward to enjoying it this weekend.  Thought I’d share, since I had written previously about Burke and his different series.

Perhaps more later.

Jim Downey

He said what???

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin was interviewed yesterday morning by Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition. During that interview the following exchange took place, on the topic of global warming:

(Inskeep): Do you have any doubt that this is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with?

(Griffin): I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.

This morning’s program had a follow-up segment about how this conflicts with the general consensus in the scientific community, and other reports in the media point out that it is at odds with NASA’s own scientists. Even President Bush just came out with a plan to address climate change concerns in advance of a big global warming symposium being held in Germany next week.

The callousness of Griffin’s remarks is what has most people upset, I think. Because under most scenarios studied, significant global warming is going to lead to the death of millions of people. James Burke did a good series on how this will likely play out called After the Warming, and then of course there’s Al Gore’s book and movie An Inconvenient Truth. To have the NASA chief say that it would be arrogant of us to presume that this is “the best climate for all other human beings” seems assinine, at best.

I believe in global warming. I believe that it is likely a huge problem facing us. For the world of Communion of Dreams, set about 50 years hence, I had to deal with what I expect will be the reality of global warming. Since I wanted to deal with other issues, I decided that I needed a way to explain why the effects of global warming hadn’t yet created additional huge problems for humankind. My initial choice was to have an asteroid impact kick up a lot of dust into the stratosphere, and thereby slightly alter the albedo of Earth. When that additional disaster seemed to be too much for my initial readers, I changed it to having a man-made source: limited nuclear exchanges in Asia, creating a mild “nuclear winter” effect. Given that this term was partly a product of Carl Sagan’s scientific research, it seemed a fitting solution. (As I’ve mentioned previously, Sagan was part of my inspiration for Communion.)

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see whether Griffin survives this little climate change in his job situation, created by his own hot air.

Jim Downey

The Day the Universe Changed

In my previous post, I commented that the universe had just changed with the discovery of 581 c. A friend who saw this responded that no, the uninverse didn’t change – our perception of it did.

Well, yes, and that was exactly what I meant. I was referring to the wonderful series The Day the Universe Changed by science historian James Burke. If you are unfamiliar with it, by all means track down the series and enjoy. It is primarily about Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift, leavened with a nice helping of applied philosophy. If you’ve seen any of the Connections series that Burke has done, you’ve probably got an idea how he would approach this issue.

The idea that our perception of the universe fundamentally determines our actions is one that I use explicitly in Communion of Dreams. [Spoiler alert.] In the book, the entirety of the scientific community believes that ours is the only civilization still active in at least our little corner of the universe. That belief is challenged by the discovery of an alien artifact on Titan, the moon of Saturn. From then on the story line spins out exploring the very nature of perception and knowledge in the very midst of a paradigm shift – all tightly controlled (at least at first) within the small community of people involved. At each stage of revelation, the characters have to confront and integrate new knowledge, and how they cope with that radical shift is at the very heart of the story that I tell.

This is why after posting my brief “welcome” last night, I kicked back and had a wee dram of my favorite scotch. Because whether or not most people realize it, this event was a turning point in our history. Yes, we all expected that sooner or later such a planet would be found – but now it has happened, and the universe around us is now viewed differently. Sure, the universe itself hasn’t changed – but how we understand it has undergone a shift. Just a small one, but an important one nonetheless.

And just think what will happen when we discover life elsewhere. Particularly intelligent, technological life. And after you start to understand the impact that will have, sit back and once again consider what it is my characters in Communion are going through.

Jim Downey

Someone noticed.
March 4, 2007, 11:24 am
Filed under: Feedback, Heinlein, James Burke, Science Fiction, Society, Writing stuff

Got an email from someone last evening about the book (he had just finished chapter one), and he made the following observation:

One page 1, you speak of “he – he – he,” but don’t initially give us Jon Thompson’s name or description. I can live with learning his name on page 2, but I wonder if you might consider sliding in some sort of physical description of him in this chapter?

My reply was this:

Um, that was a very conscious decision. Nowhere in the book will you find any real description of him. Tied with a fairly “close” perspective with him, it makes it easier for the reader to subconsciously identify with the character, thereby becoming engaged with what happens that much quicker. And congrats – of all the people who have read it and commented to me so far, you are the first to notice this application of my literary theory. If an editor convinces me otherwise somewhere down the road, I might change it.

And I thought I would elaborate somewhat on this.

There has been a lot of scholarship into how a reader interacts with a text. 20 years ago I studied that as part of my graduate work at the University of Iowa. And while I can no longer cite authors off the top of my head, I do know that I drew several practical conclusions from those studies. This was one of them – that allowing the reader the ability to imagine themselves as a character (in this case, the main character) will help transition the “suspension of disbelief” necessary for a work of fiction, particularly Science Fiction.

Different authors do this in different ways. But for me, the most powerful books were always the ones which allowed me to step into the role of the main character – to imagine myself as Muad’dib or Valentine Michael Smith, learning about a strange world and my place in it. With Jon Thompson in Communion of Dreams, I wanted the reader to do the same thing: speculate upon their own understanding of themselves in a world that is changing around them, not through technology, but through revelation. It is James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed applied to fiction, and hints somewhat at some of the deeper layers of what the novel is really all about.

Jim Downey