Communion Of Dreams


Scotland 2018: 7) Spirits of stone. Spirits of growth. Spirits of hunting.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Friday, May 11.

We left Tain, headed south and through Inverness. On the east side of the city we stopped at the Battlefield of Culloden, the site where the Jacobite Rising ended. But since neither Martha nor I are particularly knowledgeable of or interested in this episode of history, we decided to just look around a bit and then move on.

But not far from the Battlefield, there was something we did particularly want to see: the Clava Cairns. This is a group of burial cairns and standing stone circles dating about 4,000 years ago, during the bronze age. It is a wonderful, magical, site:

Martha in one of the passage graves.

 

Part of one of the stone circles.

 

Stone circle around one of the cairns.

 

The other two major cairns beyond the closest one.

The ring cairn.

 

The Culloden Viaduct in the distance.

From the Culloden area we decided to drive east, taking the A96 more or less parallel to the coast. Our eventual goal was Aberdeen, but the idea was to enjoy getting there.

It was, as you can see form the image above, a grey and cloudy day. It was also windy. Crazy windy. So much so that where farmers had plowed their fields, the wind kicked up clouds of dust so heavy that it was impossible to see through. Some of these clouds obscured the roads at time, making driving even more fun that usual.

We decided to leave the A96 and take local roads out to the coast through the town of Kinloss and out to Findhorn.

Findhorn. Ring any bells?

Perhaps you remember it from the classic arthouse movie My Dinner with Andre (one of my favorites), where Andre discusses the remarkable spiritual community founded there in the 1960s, renown for the exceptional harvest of oversize vegetables, which was attributed to help from spiritual entities known as devas (catch the reference in Communion of Dreams?). I remember reading about Findhorn back in the 70s as a New Age settlement, and friends and family had visited there to experience the alternative cultural movement themselves. Having a chance to drop in for just a taste of the place was something I couldn’t pass up. So we did, and spent some time walking through the community, checking out the Original Garden, which still has a special place in my imagination. And unlike many things you see after so many years of anticipation, this one wasn’t diminished by reality. See for yourself:

One of several entrances.

That’s the founder’s caravan — what the Brits call a mobile home — which was the first shelter at Findhorn, adjacent to the garden.

Leaving Findhorn, we kept close to the coast, to the small village of Burghead. Why? For the Pictish Fort which is there on the point of the peninsula, which is still quite evident:

The Visitor’s Center, which also has an observation room for watching the sea life.

We headed further east. Got back on the A96 briefly, but then were again on local roads heading for the coast. To the small town of Banff. Why Banff? Because of another arthouse film from the early 80s which I love: Local Hero. The small town bar in that movie is actually a *really* small local pub called ‘The Ship Inn‘ in Banff. Where we stopped in for a bite of lunch and a pint. And were greeted by two local dogs, three patrons sitting on stools sipping their beer, and the landlady. There wasn’t room for much more.

Then it was further up the coast for another film location from Local Hero: the tiny seaside village of Pennan, which played the part of Ferness in the movie. Here ’tis, red phone box and everything:

So you can see just how little of a town as there is. That’s it. All of it.

From there we made our way to Aberdeen, where we had hotel reservations. In the oddest Hilton (Doubletree) I’ve ever stayed in. We were in what was ostensibly a “handicapped accessible” room, and which did indeed have the appropriate safety bars and call buttons fitted out in the bathroom for someone in a wheelchair. But which literally required us to go up two flights of stairs and down one to get to — there was no other way to get to the room. Seriously — there’s no way someone in a wheelchair could have gotten to the room without being carried there. Crazy.

But we had dinner in the hotel, and crashed early.

 

Jim Downey

 



Scotland 2018: 6) More Magical Movie Moments!

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Wednesday, May 9.

This was going to be another driving day, going back across Scotland, but further north. We had a nice breakfast at the B&B, and got on the road. The rain started just as we got on the road.

But it kindly paused, so that we could make a stop once we were back on the mainland: Eilean Donan Castle. This 13th century castle is extremely photogenic, being on a small island at the juncture of three major lochs. See for yourself:

It’s the traditional home to Clan Mackenzie, but you may recognize it as the home of Clan MacLeod from a certain well-known film:

Yeah, that’s the same causeway. Which was actually added just last century. But looks cool.

Still, it’s a very cool place. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside the castle. But there’s plenty more to see at their website.

Just as we got back to the car to leave, the rain started back up. I gotta say, the Scottish weather was most considerate for us this trip.

We headed east on the A87 to the A82, stopping at Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness. Yes, that Loch Ness. Urquhart Castle is a ruin, dating back to the 13th – 16th centuries, but it is a *very* picturesque ruin:

We had a light lunch in the cafe, and got back on the road towards Inverness. Well, towards Tain, actually, on the coast north of Inverness, where we had accommodations for the night. But first we stopped here, to make arrangements to take a tour the next morning:

It may not look like much, but it’s the home of one of my favorite whisky lines: the Glenmorangie Distillery.

And this is where we had accommodations for the next two nights:

The Mansfield Castle Hotel. It was perfect — stylish, a bit old & stuffy, with just enough of a hint of having seen better days to give it a certain seedy charm. Hey, that same description applies to me, so I don’t mean anything negative by it.

We collected some items for a light dinner and enjoyed them in our room.

 

Thursday, May 10.

A really excellent breakfast at the hotel the next morning, with both Martha and I enjoying traditional kippers and eggs, in addition to all the other goodies. Then we popped back over to the Glenmorangie Distillery for our tour, and concluded with a bit of shopping there.  As it turned out, at each of the distilleries we stopped at on this trip, the very same whiskys were available for purchase back in the States (well, except for some absurdly high priced — I’m talking $3k and up — selections), so I didn’t get too carried away, and only brought home a few bottles as keepsakes.

It was still quite early, and we had decided to take a trip to the far north, all the way up to John o’Groats and the nearby Castle of Mey, just across from the Orkney Islands. I would have liked to spend some time in the Orkneys, but the logistics for this trip were just too difficult to arrange. Perhaps another time.

But the drive up was wonderful! We stopped in the small town of Wick to check out the Old Pulteney Distillery and Old Wick Castle (which was closed for work). We did get some great pics of the seashore there. Here’s one:

And then on to John o’Groats and Mey. Even though we arrived there mid-afternoon, it felt early because the sun was still so high in the sky. That’s because that part of Scotland is so far north that there was more than 18 hours of daylight in early May. We had a nice lunch in the Castle cafe, then enjoyed a guided tour through the Castle itself. Spending time in the Castle of Mey and the attached gardens was a delight.

Orkney Islands in the distance.

 

Castle of Mey

 

Walled gardens. Wall is about 4m tall.

 

As you can see, the gardens are extensive.

 

Looking north to the Orkneys.

 

We started back to Tain, taking our time to enjoy the land- and seascapes. We hit some pockets of rain, which didn’t last, but gave us some great scenes:

Somewhere, over the North Sea …

 

The gorse was gorgeous.

 

For my otter-loving friends, look close at the sign.

Again, we decided to take dinner in our room, just relax and unwind a bit after all the driving.

 

Jim Downey

 

 



Scotland 2018: 3) It’s more than a famous film location, but … pass the coconuts.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Sunday, May 6th.

We had a lovely breakfast at the B&B, and for the first time I had real, actual, haggis … and discovered that I quite liked it. It was our host’s own home-made, and the slice I had with breakfast was buttery, crunchy, full of flavor. Yum. The haggis I had a couple of additional times during the trip was similar, and likewise quite tasty.

Following that, we packed up, then went up to Stirling Castle, just up the hill. Stirling is a very substantial royal castle, on the order of such Edward I castles in Wales as Caernarfon or Conwy. But as with a number of additional castles in Scotland, Stirling had been renovated and updated repeatedly after the medieval period, serving different functions both personal and military up until almost the current time.

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The Great Battery.

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Nothing quite like commanding the heights.

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The Great Hall.

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Hmm … feels oddly familiar …

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Royal Chambers.

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King’s and Queen’s Knots, seen from the walls of the castle.

It was good that we were able to get there first thing, because by the time we had enjoyed our tour of the castle, the crowds were starting to get thick. We headed off on our way.

To Doune Castle. Doesn’t sound familiar? Maybe this will help:

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I love that they sell coconut halves there.

Yeah, Doune was used for multiple different ‘castles’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As Wikipedia outlines:

  • At the start of the film, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and Patsy (Terry Gilliam) approach the east wall of Doune Castle and argue with soldiers of the garrison.
  • The song and dance routine “Knights of the Round Table” at “Camelot” was filmed in the Great Hall.
  • The servery and kitchen appear as “Castle Anthrax”, where Sir Galahad the Chaste (Michael Palin) is chased by seductive girls.
  • The wedding disrupted by Sir Lancelot (John Cleese) was filmed in the courtyard and Great Hall.
  • The Duchess’ hall was used for filming the Swamp Castle scene where the prince is being held in a tower by very dumb guards.
  • The Trojan Rabbit scene was filmed in the entryway and into the courtyard.

As well as also having served in other films and television shows, including Game of Thrones and Outlander.

Recognize any of these shots from the castle?

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Sir Galahad almost slept here.

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“You must spank her well, and after you are done with her, you may deal with her as you like… and then… spank me.”

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We’re knights of the Round Table, we dance whene’er we’re able. We do routines and chorus scenes with footwork impec-cable.

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In his own particular idiom.

And some other pics:

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From Doune we headed northwest through Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Driving through the beautiful Trossachs was wonderful, and reminded me very much of the area around Snowdon in Wales or parts of the American West in the Northern Rockies.

We had a very substantial lunch at a nice pub along the way, so weren’t very hungry that evening. We popped into a grocery store and got some snacks and cold cuts to make a light dinner. I was amused by the selection of decent scotches (at absurdly low prices) there in the little store:

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Mmmmmmmmm …

Jim Downey

 

 



Penny for the Guy?*

Hmm. Perhaps it’s time to invest in companies which make those Guy Fawkes masks

Even better, we can set up an investment fund which holds stock in companies which make yarn, knitting needles, Maalox, poster board, magic markers, etc. Just to hedge our bets, it should also look at firms which deal in security consultation, drones, police & military equipment, private prisons, and so forth. Pity there’s no way to own stock in the ACLU.

Oh, and I wish I held the copyright on 1984

Who’s in?

 

Jim Downey

*



Pop-up phantasmagoria*.

This is completely delightful:

 

Lots of news from the world of my life. Most of it good. I’ll share in a few days.

 

Jim Downey

*Reference



The Storytellers.

You should read this: Born to Be Conned. Seriously, it’s a very good examination of the human tendency to construct narratives to explain the world around us, and how that trait can easily be manipulated and used against us. Here’s a good passage, explaining why we’re susceptible to grifters of every sort:

Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.

And the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.

The piece also reminds me a lot of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, because of this insight:

Before humans learned how to make tools, how to farm or how to write, they were telling stories with a deeper purpose. The man who caught the beast wasn’t just strong. The spirit of the hunt was smiling. The rivers were plentiful because the river king was benevolent. In society after society, religious belief, in one form or another, has arisen spontaneously. Anything that cannot immediately be explained must be explained all the same, and the explanation often lies in something bigger than oneself.

I don’t mean to pick on religion here, just to point out that this is a very human trait. In fact, I have often wondered whether it is a defining human characteristic, something which could easily set us apart from other intelligent species. It’s fairly easy to imagine how intelligent, sophisticated, technologically-advanced civilizations could be constructed by species which don’t have this human gift for storytelling. You can, after all, have curiosity and scientific inquiry, art and poetry, even narrative and historiography, without having something like literary fiction.* I think that it might be interesting to write a science fiction story/series based on the premise that humans become the storytellers of the galaxy, because of our unique ability to create explanation narratives unrelated to reality.

How very meta.

 

Jim Downey
*Of course.



And you thought Skynet was scary …

Three billion bank accounts ended on August 29th, 2016. The survivors of the monetary collapse called it Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the War of the Billionaires. The cartel which controlled the money, Ca$hnet, sent several Terminators back through time. Their mission: to leverage the buyout of the remaining political system. The first Terminator had taken the form of Donald Trump, who quickly moved to consolidate power in the Republican Party. The second Terminator was known as Micheal Bloomberg, who sought disruption and control of the Democrats. By the time Terminators Gates, Zuckerberg, and Buffett showed up, the working republic which had struggled for decades was finished.

Then the Billionaires began to war among themselves …

 

Jim Downey

(With apologies to James Cameron.)
[I can’t believe I just said that.]



‘Watch the skies, everywhere!”

That’s from the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, one of the first (and defining) science fiction movies which set the stage for much of what was to come even to the present day.

It was also very much a product of the early Cold War era, reflecting the fear* of the USSR and atomic weaponry. This is typical — science fiction usually is a reflection of (or commentary on) the technology and social conditions of the era when it was created.

So, what to make of two news items which showed up this week?

Here’s the first:

First State Legalizes Taser Drones for Cops

It is now legal for law enforcement in North Dakota to fly drones armed with everything from Tasers to tear gas thanks to a last-minute push by a pro-police lobbyist.

With all the concern over the militarization of police in the past year, no one noticed that the state became the first in the union to allow police to equip drones with “less than lethal” weapons. House Bill 1328 wasn’t drafted that way, but then a lobbyist representing law enforcement—tight with a booming drone industry—got his hands on it.

And here’s the second:

Welcome to the World, Drone-Killing Laser Cannon

Hang on to your drone. Boeing’s developed a laser cannon specifically designed to turn unmanned aircraft into flaming wreckage.

The aerospace company’s new weapon system, which it publicly tested this week in a New Mexico industrial park, isn’t quite as cool as what you see in Star Wars—there’s no flying beams of light, no “pew! pew!” sound effects. But it is nonetheless a working laser cannon, and it will take your drone down.

* * *

Instead of a massive laser mounted on a dedicated truck, the compact system is small enough to fit in four suitcase-sized boxes and can be set up by a pair of soldiers or technicians in just a few minutes. At the moment, it’s aimed primarily at driving drones away from sensitive areas.

 

I’m already seeing posts by friends on social media complaining about drones being operated by annoying neighbors, with discussion about what possible solutions there might be to deal with them (both by legal recourse and um, more informal approaches). There have been a number of news items already about people who have shot down drones, and there’s even a company advertising a specific kind of shotgun ammunition for just that.

“Watch the skies!”, indeed.

 

Jim Downey

*As good an explanation as any.



A meditation on what isn’t there.

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

 

* * *

I first heard of Michael Heizer in a sculpture class in college, sometime in the late 1970s. Well, that I remember. It’s entirely possible that I had seen some coverage of his work in the press before then. But my professor got me thinking about how sculpture defined space both by physical presence and absence, and I know that it was then that I became aware of Heizer’s work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his basic concepts would manifest in my life in many ways, showing up in my interests in martial arts, book design, even writing.

* * *

In the movie, John Bowsher (then the Project Manager for Levitated Mass at LACMA) says this:

His ideas are incredibly simple, when you pare it all down to just its physical nature, it’s really quite simple, and you see it again and again in his work. To achieve that degree of simplicity is like, almost the hardest thing in the world to do.

 

* * *

Not being there when your opponent strikes.

Drawing the eye to the empty space.

Allowing the reader to fill in the suggested, but missing, description.

Each of these engages and enlightens in ways that no amount of force, or color, or detail ever could.

 

* * *

Chrissie Iles, Curator at the Whitney Museum, talking about Heizer’s Double Negative in the movie:

Micheal Heizer makes you aware of space and your relationship to space and how you move through space,the role of the sky, the role of the land, beyond what you’re looking at. You have to rethink the nature of who you are physically in relation to what you are walking around inside and observing from a distance and up close.

 

* * *

We’re not always aware of what we do while we’re doing it, or why. Sometimes, the trajectory of a life is determined by little things, subtle things. Even things which are mssing.

 

* * *

I finally got around to seeing this the other day, and I have been thinking about it ever since:

Shortly after I had conceived of the idea behind Paint the Moon, I knew that it wasn’t actually feasible. But the idea delighted me. And after some thought, I realized why: it was taking the principles of Michael Heizer’s art — of paring down art to the very simplest, physical elements of experience — and going one step further. Remove the physical object altogether, and replace it with pure experience, pure concept. Hence my description of the project as a “collective lyric fantasy”.

You can’t see the artifact of that project at a museum. There is no massive boulder to walk under, or a negative space in the desert to encounter.

But there is the Moon overhead, and the memory of a moment in time.

 

Jim Downey



Let your fingers do the dancing.

From the beginning of Chapter 6:

There was just one other person in the room, standing at the side of the holo platform, hands dancing over a control board only he could see.

* * *

Jon looked to the dance Ng’s hands played in the air. “About ready?”

Ng said nothing, but just his fingers tapped a command in the air. Instantly, there appeared an image above the holo projector. It was the artifact, pretty much exactly as Jon remembered it from the first meeting a week ago.

There are many such passages in Communion of Dreams, just part of the augmented reality technology which exists at the time of the book. The basic explanation is that the user is wearing contact lenses which allow one to see a virtual reality overlay on the real world, and then within that overlay you can manipulate virtual objects/controls thanks to hand-tracking. When I wrote the book I figured that such technology would be available eventually …

… and here it is, even sooner than I expected:

Google’s new finger control technology is straight out of a science fiction movie

* * *

The company’s lab for advanced projects showed off new technology on Friday that lets users move their fingers in the air to control objects in the virtual world.

It’s called Project Soli, and it uses radar waves to detect precise finger movements or finger “micromotions.”

The result is something that looks like it’s from a science-fiction movie such as Minority Report or Her, in which characters manipulated virtual objects by gracefully moving their hands or fingers in the air.

Bingo.

 

Jim Downey