Communion Of Dreams

The memory remains.

Just now, my good lady wife was through to tell me that she’s off to take a bit of a nap. Both of us are getting over a touch of something (which I had mentioned last weekend), and on a deeper level still recovering from the profound exhaustion of having been care-givers for her mom.

Anyway, as she was preparing to head off, one of our cats insisted on going through the door which leads from my office into my bindery. This is where the cat food is.

“She wants through.”

“She wants owwwwt.”

“Any door leads out, as far as a cat is concerned.”

“Well, that door did once actually lead out, decades ago.”

“She remembers.”

“She can’t remember.”

“Nonetheless, the memory lingers.”

* * * * * * *

Via TDG, a fascinating interview with Douglas Richard Hofstadter last year, now translated into English. I’d read his GEB some 25 years ago, and have more or less kept tabs on his work since. The interview was about his most recent book, and touched on a number of subjects of interest to me, including the nature of consciousness, writing, Artificial Intelligence, and the Singularity. It’s long, but well worth the effort.

In discussing consciousness (which Hofstadter calls ‘the soul’ for reasons he explains), and the survival of shards of a given ‘soul’, the topic of writing and music comes up. Discussing how Chopin’s music has enabled shards of the composer’s soul to persist, Hofstadter makes this comment about his own desire to write:

I am not shooting at immortality through my books, no. Nor do I think Chopin was shooting at immortality through his music. That strikes me as a very selfish goal, and I don’t think Chopin was particularly selfish. I would also say that I think that music comes much closer to capturing the essence of a composer’s soul than do a writer’s ideas capture the writer’s soul. Perhaps some very emotional ideas that I express in my books can get across a bit of the essence of my soul to some readers, but I think that Chopin’s music probably does a lot better job (and the same holds, of course, for many composers).

I personally don’t have any thoughts about “shooting for immortality” when I write. I try to write simply in order to get ideas out there that I believe in and find fascinating, because I’d like to let other people be able share those ideas. But intellectual ideas alone, no matter how fascinating they are, are not enough to transmit a soul across brains. Perhaps, as I say, my autobiographical passages — at least some of them — get tiny shards of my soul across to some people.


* * * * * * *

In April, I wrote this:

I’ve written only briefly about my thoughts on the so-called Singularity – that moment when our technological abilities converge to create a new transcendent artificial intelligence which encompasses humanity in a collective awareness. As envisioned by the Singularity Institute and a number of Science Fiction authors, I think that it is too simple – too utopian. Life is more complex than that. Society develops and copes with change in odd and unpredictable ways, with good and bad and a whole lot in the middle.

Here’s Hofstadter’s take from the interview, in responding to a question about Ray Kurzweil‘s notion of achieving effective immortality by ‘uploading’ a personality into a machine hardware:

Well, the problem is that a soul by itself would go crazy; it has to live in a vastly complex world, and it has to cohabit that world with many other souls, commingling with them just as we do here on earth. To be sure, Kurzweil sees those things as no problem, either — we’ll have virtual worlds galore, “up there” in Cyberheaven, and of course there will be souls by the barrelful all running on the same hardware. And Kurzweil sees the new software souls as intermingling in all sorts of unanticipated and unimaginable ways.

Well, to me, this “glorious” new world would be the end of humanity as we know it. If such a vision comes to pass, it certainly would spell the end of human life. Once again, I don’t want to be there if such a vision should ever come to pass. But I doubt that it will come to pass for a very long time. How long? I just don’t know. Centuries, at least. But I don’t know. I’m not a futurologist in the least. But Kurzweil is far more “optimistic” (i.e., depressingly pessimistic, from my perspective) about the pace at which all these world-shaking changes will take place.


* * * * * * *

Lastly, the interview is about the central theme of I am a Strange Loop: that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon which stems from vast and subtle physical mechanisms in the brain. This is also the core ‘meaning’ of GEB, though that was often missed by readers and reviewers who got hung up on the ostensible themes, topics, and playfulness of that book. Hofstadter calls this emergent consciousness a self-referential hallucination, and it reflects much of his interest in cognitive science over the years.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

In Communion of Dreams I played with this idea and a number of related ones, particularly pertaining to the character of Seth. It is also why I decided that I needed to introduce a whole new technology – based on the superfluid tholin-gel found on Titan, as the basis for the AI systems at the heart of the story. Because the gel is not human-manufactured, but rather something a bit mysterious. Likewise, the use of this material requires another sophisticated computer to ‘boot it up’, and then it itself is responsible for sustaining the energy matrix necessary for continued operation. At the culmination of the story, this ‘self-referential hallucination’ frees itself from its initial containment.

Why did I do this?

Partly in homage to Hofstedter (though you will find no mention of him in the book, as far as I recall). Partly because it plays with other ideas I have about the nature of reality. If we (conscious beings) are an emergent phenomenon, arising from physical activity, then it seems to me that physical things can be impressed with our consciousness. This is why I find his comments about shards of a soul existing beyond the life of the body of the person to be so intriguing.

So I spent some 130,000 words exploring that idea in Communion. Not overtly – not often anyway – but that is part of the subtext of what is going on in that book.

* * * * * * *

“Any door leads out, as far as a cat is concerned.”

“Well, that door did once actually lead out, decades ago.”

“She remembers.”

“She can’t remember.”

“Nonetheless, the memory lingers,” I said, “impressed on the door itself. Maybe the cat understands that at a level we don’t.”

Jim Downey

(Related post at UTI.)

Aliens, aliens, everywhere.

Yesterday I wrote a somewhat snarky post at UTI about the Vatican’s Astronomer giving his official blessing (almost literally) to the notion that alien life – even intelligent alien life – probably exists in the universe, and that this was not at odds with Catholic doctrine. A friend this morning sent me a link to this 1996 article in the New York Times:

Does the Bible Allow For Martians?

WOULD the discovery of life on Mars be a blow to the idea of biblical creation? Should the knowledge of alien organisms shatter faith in a God who was supposed to have created heaven and earth and life in a week?

As it turns out, biblical creationists have been touting the existence of aliens for years — and Mars itself has featured prominently in their scenarios.

Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of ”The Creationists,” a history of this movement, was himself raised in a fundamentalist Seventh Day Adventist community where belief in life on Mars was no big deal.

According to the Bible, Mr. Numbers explains, Satan and his cohorts were thrown out of heaven, so the question arises: Where did they go? At his high school in rural Tennessee, Mr. Numbers was taught by his teacher, who was also a Seventh Day Adventist, that they were hurled to Mars. The famous Martian canals were cited as evidence of this habitation.

In turn, that article was mention by another NYT piece yesterday (also sent by my friend) which discussed the Vatican’s stance on alien life. And in it, this is mentioned:

On Monday, Mike Foreman, a mission specialist during the recent Shuttle Endeavor voyage, expressed confidence in the notion, saying “it’s hard to believe that there is not life somewhere else in this great universe.”

Today, TDG also noted that another Endeavor crew member agreed, with this news item:

Astronauts who returned recently from a Space Shuttle mission said on Monday that they expected alien life would be discovered.

“Life like us must exist elsewhere in the universe,” Takao Doi, who had been on a 16-day Endeavour mission to the International Space Station, told reporters in Tokyo.

Mr Doi and his colleagues denied seeing anything that proved the existence of extraterrestrial life forms, but said the scale of the solar system and beyond had impressed upon them the possibility of alien life.

Of course, also in the news just about everywhere is that the British government is in the process of releasing their UFO files, gathered by the Ministry of Defense. As I quoted in my UTI post yesterday:

LONDON – The men were air traffic controllers. Experienced, calm professionals. Nobody was drinking. But they were so worried about losing their jobs that they demanded their names be kept off the official report.

No one, they knew, would believe their claim an unidentified flying object landed at the airport they were overseeing in the east of England, touched down briefly, then took off again at tremendous speed. Yet that’s what they reported happened at 4 p.m. on April 19, 1984.

The incident is one of hundreds of reported sightings contained in more than 1,000 pages of formerly secret UFO documents being released Wednesday by Britain’s National Archives.

And naturally enough, lots of people are just certain that whatever is in those files isn’t the *actual* truth, because you just can’t trust any government with this stuff. As noted (again, via TDG) in this post by UFO investigator Nick Redfern which pre-dated the recent release of documents:

Yes, the Government knows something. It may actually know quite a lot. Perhaps (although I seriously doubt it) it knows everything. But the idea that it (as a unified body) has any interest in telling us the truth, purely because we go knocking on its doors, loftily demanding to be let in on the secret, is self-deluded, ego-driven yearning of a truly sickening “I want to believe” nature.

Call me a cynic, but if the government reveals the truth about UFOs to us, you can guarantee it will be a lie. And it will probably be a lie designed to scare the shit out of us and ensure that we surrender more of our freedoms and rights to old men who wear suits and lack souls. And still the real secret will remain hidden – either in the pages of some hefty classified file or in a cryogenic tank deep below Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Maybe…

OK, I’ve written before about news related to SETI, because it ties in directly with Communion of Dreams.  But why mention these reports and comments?  Why get into the whole woo-woo land of UFOs?

Well, as I said over a year ago when French government made their UFO files available:

A staple of Science Fiction has always been the question of how humanity will deal with the discovery that we are not the only sentients in the universe.  It is, of course, the main theme of Communion as well, and while I am somewhat ambiguous about what exactly is “out there”, I make no bones about the fact that they exist, and have even visited our neighborhood (hence the discovery of the artifact on Titan being central to the book).

Honestly, one of my greatest fears is that before I can get Communion published, we may indeed have such proof, and will get to see just exactly how that plays out in the public sphere.  My own private suspicion is that it will not go well.

And I can’t help but wonder what is behind this sudden upsurge in scientists, astronauts, and even religious leaders commenting about how they are sure that there is alien life, possibly even intelligent alien life, “out there.”  Sure the UFO community has always been convinced (it sort of goes with the territory), and vocal.  But why this interest being expressed from so many other sources?  I may have been snarky at UTI, but I do have to wonder whether or not there isn’t some larger agenda being played out here before our eyes.  Certainly, were I in a decision-making position in government and we had conclusive and irrefutable proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence, I would advise spending some time ‘preparing’ the public for the release of that information.

Just a thought.

Jim Downey

It’s a little weird . . .
April 24, 2008, 11:06 am
Filed under: Science, Scientific American, TDG, tech

I’ll turn 50 in a couple of months. It’s a little weird to realize that barely more time than that is required to go back from my date of birth to the first powered flight of the Wright brothers.

But, via TDG, this delightful bit from Scientific American:

100 Years Ago in Scientific American:

The Wright Brothers’ First Flight

An article from the May 1908 issue of Scientific American

Complete with the text and cover from that issue.


Jim Downey

What? Communion of Dreams didn’t make the list??
April 16, 2008, 12:25 pm
Filed under: Astronomy, Carl Sagan, Fermi's Paradox, Preparedness, Science Fiction, SETI, Society, Space, TDG

Via TDG, a link to “10 Must-Read ‘First Contact’ Novels” by someone who should know: Mac Tonnies of the blog.

Man, I just can’t believe that he didn’t list Communion of Dreams.  Huh.  But then, Contact by Carl Sagan didn’t make it either . . .

Jim Downey

Collective awareness?

[This post contains both minor and major spoilers about Communion of Dreams. As usual, I will insert an additional note prior to each paragraph where the spoiler occurs.]

I’ve written previously about psychic abilities, and specifically addressed how they may function in the way I use them in Communion. Via TDG, another perspective on how a collective awareness among humans which functions below the level of consciousness may demonstrate this. From the article about the Global Consciousness Project:

From then on, Dr Nelson was hooked. Using the Internet, he connected up 40 random event generators from all over the world to his laboratory computer in Princeton. These ran day in day out, generating millions of different pieces of data. Most of the time, the resulting graph on his computer looked more or less like a flat line. But during the funeral of Princess Diana something extraordinary happened: the graph shot upwards and reached for the sky. It was clear that they’d detected a totally new phenomena. The concentrated mental effort of millions of people appeared to be influencing the output of random event generators around the world. But how? Dr Nelson was still at a loss to explain it.

In 1998 he gathered together scientists from all over the world to try and understand the phenomena. They, too, were stumped and resolved to extend and deepen Jahn and Nelson’s work. The Global Consciousness Project was born.

Since then, the project has expanded massively. A total of 65 Eggs (as the generators have been named) in 41 countries have now been recruited to act as the ‘eyes’ of the project. And the results have been startling and inexplicable in equal measure. The Eggs not only ‘sensed’ the moment that Princess Diana was buried, but also the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the Kursk tragedy and America’s hung election of 2000. The Eggs also regularly detect huge global celebrations such as New Year’s Eve. Even more bizarrely, they sense the celebrations as they sweep through the Earth’s different time zones. The project threw up its greatest enigma on September 11th 2001. As the world stood still and watched the horror of the terrorist attacks unfold across New York, something strange was happening to the Eggs. Not only did they register the event as it happened, but the characteristic shift in the pattern of numbers began four hours before the two planes hit the Twin Towers.

The article, and the Wiki entry about the Global Consciousness Project, explain more of the background behind the Project. Basically, in the 70s experiments were done using random number generators to see whether individuals could effect the outcome of the machines. Some tantalizing results were found, and further research lead to even more possible evidence of some kind of psychic ability, particularly among groups of people. I followed a lot of this work being reported in the popular press and was always intrigued with it.

[Minor spoilers in the next paragraph.]

When I got to thinking about Communion, I decided to make use of some of the ideas generated by this research – ideas pertaining to the collective awareness of a large group of people anticipating some significant forthcoming event. This is specifically why I have the AI Seth being directed to perform large-scale analysis of discussion boards, chat rooms, personal blogging (though I don’t call it that), and so forth, to see if there are any keyword descriptors which pop up with some unexpected frequency. The assumption is that in a survey of a large enough population, some collective hint of the future is possible.

[Major spoilers in the next paragraph.]

It turns out that not only is there indeed a collective awareness operating, but that it clearly and closely reflects the personal experiences of the protagonist Jon, as seen in his ‘dreams’. Hence one of the meanings of the title of the book: Communion of Dreams. This, however, turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg – that there is not just a collective unconscious awareness that can be tapped into (individually through dreams, or statistically by seeing the sorts of things that people are discussing), but that there are other psychic abilities which have been artificially suppressed as a result of outside interference. I have my own thoughts on how these mechanism would operate, and some of those are hinted at in the text, but I decided that it would be better to leave some mystery about that, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Now, I am a skeptic – I do not ‘believe’ in things unless there is sufficient data to support a theory explaining how something works. But I also keep an open mind about areas where the data provide some insight but support no conclusions. This is one of those areas – and as such, perfectly suitable for use in a book of Science Fiction . . . as has been used by countless authors over the last 150 years or so.

Read the article. It might challenge your thinking.

Jim Downey

Another little hint . . .
March 6, 2008, 9:10 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Ballistics, Civil Rights, Guns, RKBA, Science, TDG, tech, Wired

In email discussion with a friend the other day, I realized that I had left something dangling which I had meant to address here some time back. Here’s the relevant email exchange:

I am really glad to hear that you are getting well enuff to get out and blow off some cordite.

Ayup. That was one of the things that helped keep some shred of sanity for me the last couple of years. And I am enjoying it even more now that I have a buddy here who shares that interest (and knows more about guns than even I do!)

You may remember that I mentioned a ballistics test that we were planning – here.   Well, everything is now proceeding, and in about ten days we’ll do the first batch of tests. Three days of actual shooting time – see how far into it we get, and then schedule however many additional sessions we need in the coming weeks. With over 7,000 rounds of ammo, it’ll take a while to do it all right. By summer we should have all the data and the website set up – it will be a major source of information for the gun world . . .

In looking back at that post, I see that I had intended to discuss more about the project. But of course the fall didn’t go the way I planned, mostly because of the increasing demands of caring for Martha Sr. Oh well.

But now things are in full swing in preparing for the first session of actual testing. We’ll be doing the shooting on private land, and are deeply into preparing all the logistics necessary (everything from testing equipment to work tables to the chop saw to food & drink) and ironing out our protocols so the data is most valuable. We’ll start setting everything up next Wednesday, then test for three days, and take everything down on Sunday. I am expecting that it will take two more such sessions to complete the tests, but I could be wrong – we’ll just have to see how far we get this first time. It should be an awful lot of fun, as well as a lot of concentrated work – don’t expect me to do a lot of blogging during that time.

Oh, and on the subject of ballistics . . .

Via TDG, this Wired magazine article from last month, about the military’s Barrett M107 long range sniper rifle. It’s somewhat interesting, but misleading in places. This bit:

But the gun’s real selling point is physics. Its big kaboom largely obviates the need for DOPE, data on personal equipment. Putting a bullet into a target takes more than lining up crosshairs — complex equations combine muzzle velocity, ammunition weight, and ballistic coefficient with environmental factors like wind speed and air temperature. But the M107 is so powerful, all I have to worry about is gravity and not flinching when I pull the trigger.

And even the title: “A Goliath Sniper Rifle May Take Some of the Physics Out of War” is just plain wrong. None of the physics are negated. And while the M107 is indeed a powerful weapon (shooting a .50 caliber bullet with over 11,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy), effects of windage and air temperature are still noticeable at sufficient distances. Even in the article, the author has to have a correction made to the scope alignment to allow for wind. Surprise surprise – physics still works.

Well, anyway, I’m looking forward to doing the testing next week. Almost a vacation of sorts.

Jim Downey

Psychic abilities?

[This last part of this post contains mild spoilers about Communion of Dreams. You’ve been warned.]

I tend to look at things with a skeptical eye. For all that I would love for magic, or psychic abilities, or even religion to be real, there is very little good, reproducible evidence that it is so.

Still, I do like to poke around in this stuff. One off-beat website I check occasionally is The Daily Grail (TDG). And today they had a link to this piece:


We use words such as premonition and precognition with certain belief systems attached. These belief systems come in two forms. First, that they imply foreseeing the future; and second, that they are a specific type of phenomena.

I dislike these approaches. Rather, I feel that often an answer can be found in the present; and they do, infact, cover a multidude of possible causes. In this essay I will explore just one of many possible explanations, found in the present.

It’s an interesting essay, and I would encourage you to read the whole thing. The author comes down on the side of rational explanation, but leaves some thought-provoking ideas out there.

I’ve always considered that people looking for psychic abilities were going about things somewhat incorrectly by focusing on the individual. Why not take a statistical approach to such research?

[OK, here come the spoilers.]

This is why in Communion I have Seth, the AI ‘expert’ who aids my main character, seek out possible patterns in discussion fora and in published articles which would indicate an up-tick in dream references which may be tied to the discovery of the alien artifact on Titan. My thought there was that a type of ‘leakage’ was occurring, though the characters in the story would not understand the full ramifications of what was happening.

Why do this? Well, because I am intrigued at how often certain ideas will seem to spring up simultaneously in wildly divergent individuals in a culture. Or how something like a meme will suddenly pop up and spread like wildfire in society. It is almost like we are all connected to some common source beyond our conscious level. This idea fits in perfectly with the underlying reality of Communion – which I will not explain, just in case someone who wanted to risk mild spoilers still wants to be surprised by the book.

Jim Downey