Communion Of Dreams

“…while you’re busy making other plans.”*

Last week my wife was at a professional convention. She got home late Friday night, understandably tired. She was dragging a bit Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon said that her joints were aching and she felt a bit feverish. We figured that she had likely picked up a virus at the convention, since that’s not uncommon.

Sunday she wasn’t feeling any better, and had lost her appetite with a bit of a stomach ache. Mild headache. She elected to just try and sleep it off, taking OTC analgesics.

But come Monday morning …


* * * * * * *

Two weeks ago I had my annual physical. Routine stuff for the most part. My doc and I discussed some alternative pain-management strategies (I have chronic pain from a torn intracostal muscle – basically, it feels like I have a broken rib all the time. On good days it feels like a broken rib about four weeks into the healing process – mostly just a dull ache – and on bad days it feels like I just broke it, with intense and sharp pain). I have prescription meds for the pain, but even though they’re fairly mild as such things go, they dull my mind enough that I can’t really write very well when taking them.

But we also discussed dealing with another issue, for which I needed to start taking something else. A statin for cholesterol management. Which was fine by me, since diet only goes so far. I started taking the meds last week, and experienced the sort of side effect which is annoying but not really hateful as my body adjusted. Not wanting to get too graphic, let’s just say that I made sure to stay near a bathroom for a few days.

Anyway, I lost most of last week in terms of work, both in the bindery and on the novel. Neither one is easy to do when you have to keep running off to the bathroom at frequent intervals.


* * * * * * * *

Which really wasn’t too much of a problem, as far as it concerned writing St. Cybi’s Well, since for the last few weeks I’ve been somewhat … discombobulated … by recent news reports. Specifically, by the revelations of governmental spying, and the scope of the programs involved in it, all precipitated by the leaks from Edward Snowden.

Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows that these topics are ones I have discussed at some length in the past, well before the latest news. Just check the “Constitution“, “Government” or “Privacy” categories or related tags, and you’ll see what I mean.

And the things I have had to say in the past reflect a lot of what informs the background of St. Cybi’s Well.  I don’t want to give too much away, but a lot of the book is concerned with what happens when a government uses tools intended to protect its citizens to instead control them. And working off of what was already in the public domain about the different security programs, I made a lot of projections about where such things could lead.

Then came the Snowden revelations and subsequent discussion. As it turned out, I was very accurate in my understanding of the spying technology and how it could be used. Almost too much so.

See, there’s a problem with that: when writing about an ‘alternate time line’, you have to strike a balance between this reality and the fictional one.  And, well, some of my fictional spying programs are now shown to be just a little too close to real. So now I have to back up a bit and tweak a number of different elements in the book to get back to the correct (for me) balance. It’s not a huge problem, but one which has had me dancing/juggling  a bit.

Not unlike my body trying to find a new equilibrium with the meds.


* * * * * * *

But come this past weekend, things had settled down, at least as far as my body was concerned. So I was able to get back to thinking about the hand-binding of Communion of Dreams, and the promotional stuff related to that. So I went ahead and scheduled some ‘free’ Kindle days, and wrote the blog post announcing that I would also be giving away a leather-bound copy of the book, and outlining how people could enter for a drawing for said book.

My intent was to do a follow-up blog post on Monday, reminding people about that, and the fact that the Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams would be free all day. That was the plan, anyway.


* * * * * * *

But come Monday morning, well, things didn’t go as planned. Not by a long shot.

My wife wasn’t feeling any better. And she was poking around online, seeing if she could find out anything which would help. I popped into the bedroom to check on her, and the conversation went something like this:

“Hmm, it says here that appendicitis sometimes starts with pain high in the stomach.”

“Really? I didn’t know that. I thought the classic was when you got a sharp pain in the lower right quadrant.”

“Yeah, it seems like it can start high, then shift down.”


“You know, the pain I had in my stomach has shifted down …”

“We’re going to the E.R.”

And we did. Pronto. And I am very glad that we live about a mile from an excellent hospital. Again, I’ll spare you all the details, but let’s just say that my wife had surgery that afternoon, and they’re still pushing intravenous antibiotics into her. She’ll be fine, thanks to modern medicine. But it was a close call.

Yeah, so much for plans.

Anyway, about 120 people downloaded Communion of Dreams on Monday. It’ll be available for free next Monday, and the two Mondays after that. The deadline for writing a review and getting your entry in is the end of August. Remember, you have to post a link in the initial blog entry about the contest.

And some advice: don’t plan on doing it later. Take care of it now. You never know what might come up.


Jim Downey

*Of course.

With a Little Help from My Friends*



What would you do if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me.

You’d certainly be entitled to do so, though my wife assures me that my singing isn’t nearly as bad as I usually make it out to be.

The truth is, singing is something I have always wanted to avoid, because it generally implies a public performance aspect. And, frankly, I find that frightening enough that I usually try and limit it to things I feel more confident about.


Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,
And I’ll try not to sing out of key.

This is key: pleasing an audience.

That doesn’t mean always giving them what they want. Rather, I think, it means satisfying them that you have given them fair value. For their time. Perhaps for their money.

Long ago I learned that no matter what, you can never please everyone. But if you set your goal that you give them fair value — an honest effort, based in real training and preparation, generally people will be satisfied. I *haven’t* spent time learning to sing, or play an instrument, so I don’t offer those things to an audience with any expectation that they will pay any attention to me. I *have* spent a lot of time and put a lot of effort into trying to learn to write, so I am comfortable in offering my words in a public transaction of fair value.


Oh I get by with a little help from my friends,
Mmm,I get high with a little help from my friends,
Mmm, I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends.

We’re in the closing hours of the Kickstarter for St. Cybi’s Well. It’ll end tomorrow evening.

And I don’t know whether it will achieve the funding goal. Right now, it doesn’t look promising.

But that doesn’t mean it would be a failure. Hardly. For each and every person who has stepped forward and made a pledge to back the Kickstarter, that is an affirmation that my efforts at writing have been judged successful. That means more to me than I can ever convey.

Thank you.

Jim Downey

*Yes, The Beatles. Though Joe Cocker also did a great cover of it. And thanks to my friend ML who suggested this song a couple days ago in a comment. And remember, tomorrow Communion of Dreams will be free for download all day – spread the word.

Fab Four.*

Just four fabulous days left until the end of the Kickstarter.


Yeah, I love this time of year. I like the somewhat cool weather, the changing of the leaves, everything.

And while there’s a considerable ways to go before the Kickstarter is successful, it has been an educational and enlightening experience. As I have tried to convey to those who so far have backed the Kickstarter, I appreciate their vote of confidence, tangibly conveyed by their pledges. The amounts pledged mean much less to me than the fact that they have taken the time and energy to do so.

Join them if you can.

Jim Downey

*Oh, yeah, these guys. Specifically, this.

“If you build it . . . “

“Vir, do you believe in fate?”

“Well, actually, I believe there are currents in the universe, eddies and tides that pull us one away or the other. Some we have to fight, and some we have to embrace. Unfortunately, the currents we have to fight look exactly like the currents we have to embrace.”

Recently, I came up with an audacious idea. This is something which happens to me now and again. Most of the time, I chuckle over it, consider the possibilities, then let it slide back into the creative froth. But every now and again I get an idea I take somewhat seriously, and consider practically – not so much on whether I think it will work, but on whether I think I can convince enough other people that it will work.

Through the last couple of decades I’ve done better at this than you might think, batting about .500. Here’s a list of the big ones, along with a synopsis:

  • Opening an art gallery. This *almost* worked, but remains my most expensive failure to date. It’s very sobering to lose money that belongs to family and friends who trust your judgment, not to mention all the work of yourself, your partner, spouses and employees.
  • Writing a novel, and getting it published. Looks like this one will actually work.
  • Paint the Moon. My biggest artistic success to date.
  • Glass Canopy. This caught the imagination of a number of people, and generated a lot of discussion locally. Now such structures are used elsewhere for exactly this purpose. A failure, but not a total one.
  • Nobel Prize for JK Rowling. A debacle, in that so many people hated the idea. But perhaps I was just premature.
  • Ballistics By The Inch.  A huge success. This was in no way just my idea, and I only did part of the work, but I think the vision I had for how the project would be received was largely mine.
  • Co-authoring a care-giving memoir. Still early in the evaluation period on this, so can’t say whether it is a success or not.

And looking over that list, thinking about it, one of the clear things I see which helps make something a success is the amount of work I (and others) put into it. When presented with a zany idea, most people will be amused, say why they think it is crazy, and then more or less forget about it. But if confronted with the fact of an idea made manifest, a lot of that skepticism disappears (or never occurs to people in the first place.)

This isn’t very profound, of course, and certainly isn’t at all new. But I am still somewhat surprised to see how much it actually operates in the real world. It’s like imagination is so difficult for people that they just can’t get past their initial dismissal. I asked for comments on my latest idea, and so far have only heard from one person, who pointed out potential problems with it (this was actually a very helpful response). I can only guess that most other people consider it too nutty an idea to even bother with – but in my gut I’m pretty certain that if this resource existed it would be hugely popular and widely used.

But who knows? Was the voice a ghost or just hallucination? Do you embrace the current or fight it? Failure is real – both due to risk as well as inaction.

Jim Downey

Well, we can’t have *that*.
December 10, 2008, 10:35 am
Filed under: Humor, John Lennon, Space, Travel

One of those odd bits of news from one of my favorite parts of the world:

Councillor: ‘I watched six UFOs over North Wales’

A SHOTTON man is baffled after witnessing SIX UFOs in one night.

Town councillor William Barton saw the strange spectacle in the town’s skies last Friday evening at about 7.44pm.

He rushed to grab his binoculars and called on neighbours to show them the phenomenon.

Coun Barton, of Mill View, said: “They seemed to come from the Ewloe area and float towards Shotton. There were about six of them and they appeared and then vanished for a while.

But here’s the fun part:

Coun Barton says the objects appeared to be flying higher than 1,500ft, which means they would have been breaking air traffic regulations.

Well, we can’t have *that*.  And I love this:

A spokesman for Air Traffic Control at Liverpool John Lennon Airport said: “Nothing out of the ordinary was seen at this time.”

How cool is it that there’s a John Lennon Airport, eh?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Reality is what happens to you while you’re busy coming up with other theories.*

*Apologies to both John Lennon and Philip K. Dick.

Last Saturday, my sister and her husband came to town, and we celebrated Thanksgiving.  Yes, about six months late.

* * * * * * *

About two weeks ago Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance had a teaser post up about a new article of his in Scientific American.  Carroll has long been one of my favorite reads in cosmology, and his discussion of the cosmological basis for time’s arrow was delightful.  From the opening of the article:

Among the unnatural aspects of the universe, one stands out: time asymmetry. The microscopic laws of physics that underlie the behavior of the universe do not distinguish between past and future, yet the early universe—hot, dense, homogeneous—is completely different from today’s—cool, dilute, lumpy. The universe started off orderly and has been getting increasingly disorderly ever since. The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

The arrow of time is arguably the most blatant feature of the universe that cosmologists are currently at an utter loss to explain. Increasingly, however, this puzzle about the universe we observe hints at the existence of a much larger spacetime we do not observe. It adds support to the notion that we are part of a multiverse whose dynamics help to explain the seemingly unnatural features of our local vicinity.

Carroll goes on to explore what those hints (and the implications of same) are in some detail, though all of it is suitable for a non-scientist.  The basic idea of how to reconcile the evident asymmetry is to consider our universe, as vast and ancient as it is, as only one small part of a greater whole.  We are living, as it were, in a quantum flux of the froth of spacetime of a larger multiverse:

Emit fo Worra
This scenario, proposed in 2004 by Jennifer Chen of the University of Chicago and me, provides a provocative solution to the origin of time asymmetry in our observable universe: we see only a tiny patch of the big picture, and this larger arena is fully time-symmetric. Entropy can increase without limit through the creation of new baby universes.

Best of all, this story can be told backward and forward in time. Imagine that we start with empty space at some particular moment and watch it evolve into the future and into the past. (It goes both ways because we are not presuming a unidirectional arrow of time.) Baby universes fluctuate into existence in both directions of time, eventually emptying out and giving birth to babies of their own. On ultralarge scales, such a multiverse would look statistically symmetric with respect to time—both the past and the future would feature new universes fluctuating into life and proliferating without bound. Each of them would experience an arrow of time, but half would have an arrow that was reversed with respect to that in the others.

A tantalizing hint of a larger picture, indeed.

* * * * * * *

Philip K. Dick, tormented mad genius that he was, said something that has become something of a touchstone for me:  “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

It is, in fact, a large part of the basis for my skeptical attitude towards life.  But it also leaves open the idea of examining and incorporating new information which might be contrary to my beliefs.  It is this idea which I explored over the 132,000 words of Communion of Dreams, though not everyone realizes this at first reading.

But what if reality only exists if you believe in it?

That’s a question discussed in another longish piece of science writing in the current issue of Seed Magazine, titled The Reality Tests:

Most of us would agree that there exists a world outside our minds. At the classical level of our perceptions, this belief is almost certainly correct. If your couch is blue, you will observe it as such whether drunk, in high spirits, or depressed; the color is surely independent of the majority of your mental states. If you discovered your couch were suddenly red, you could be sure there was a cause. The classical world is real, and not only in your head. Solipsism hasn’t really been a viable philosophical doctrine for decades, if not centuries.

But that reality goes right up against one of the basic notions of quantum mechanics: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Or does it?  For decades, the understanding of quantum effects was that it was applicable at the atomic-and-smaller level.  Only in such rare phenomenon as a Bose-Einstein Condensate (which in Communion is the basis for some of the long-range sensors being used to search for habitable planets outside our solar system) were quantum effects seen at a macroscopic scale.  But in theory, maybe our whole reality operates at a quantum level, regardless of scale:

Brukner and Kofler had a simple idea. They wanted to find out what would happen if they assumed that a reality similar to the one we experience is true—every large object has only one value for each measurable property that does not change. In other words, you know your couch is blue, and you don’t expect to be able to alter it just by looking. This form of realism, “macrorealism,” was first posited by Leggett in the 1980s.

Late last year Brukner and Kofler showed that it does not matter how many particles are around, or how large an object is, quantum mechanics always holds true. The reason we see our world as we do is because of what we use to observe it. The human body is a just barely adequate measuring device. Quantum mechanics does not always wash itself out, but to observe its effects for larger and larger objects we would need more and more accurate measurement devices. We just do not have the sensitivity to observe the quantum effects around us. In essence we do create the classical world we perceive, and as Brukner said, “There could be other classical worlds completely different from ours.”


* * * * * * *

Last Saturday, my sister and her husband came to town, and we celebrated Thanksgiving.  Yes, about six months late.   Because last year, going in to the usual Thanksgiving holiday, we had our hands full caring for Martha Sr and didn’t want to subject her to the disconcerting effect of having ‘strangers’ in the house.  Following Martha Sr’s death in February, other aspects of life had kept either my sister or us busy and unable to schedule a time to get together.

Until last weekend.  And that’s OK.  Because life is what we make of it.  Whether that applies to cosmology or not I’ll leave up to the scientists and philosophers for now (though I have weighed in on the matter as mentioned above and reserve the right to do so again in other books).  This I can tell you – it was good to see my sister and her husband, and the turkey dinner we ate was delicious.

Jim Downey

October 18, 2007, 10:38 am
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, John Lennon, Light pollution, MetaFilter, Music

Via MeFi, news that Yoko Ono has completed a “light tower” in tribute to her late husband. Here’s an excerpt of what Amy Goodman wrote about it:

John Lennon would have turned 67 years old last week had he not been murdered in 1980, at the age of 40, by a mentally disturbed fan. On his birthday, Oct. 9, his widow, peace activist and artist Yoko Ono, realized a dream they shared. In Iceland, she inaugurated the Imagine Peace Tower, a pillar of light emerging from a wishing well, surrounded on the ground by the phrase “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages.

The website for the project has some very cool images of the construction, testing, and final result (here’s my favorite). This type of use of light is becoming increasingly popular (and is more tangible than my own Paint the Moon project from Communion of Dreams). It can be problematic, though, since light pollution is a real problem, and not just for astronomy. Still, I’d rather have things like this than just random searchlights marking where some car dealer is having a sale.

Jim Downey