Communion Of Dreams


“In the before time.”

Some variation of the phrase “in the before time(s)” has been a staple of post-apocalypse Science Fiction for so long that it’s a well-deserved cliche, mocked even by South Park. Usually invoked by some grungy child reciting a barely-understood mythos, or an aged ‘elder’ thinking back to their youth, it served as a mechanism to explain what happened to civilization.

Of course, in our post-modern, self-aware world “in the before time” came to be widely used in a joking manner, to refer to some not-so-serious turning point in recent history. Before YouTube. Before Google. Before the internet. Before Fonzie jumped the shark. Whatever. It was funny, see?

Except in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started hearing it used to refer to the pre-Covid pandemic times. And not in a humorous way. People are using it completely seriously. Here are just two examples, the first from NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday program on 6/12:

New York Eater’s Chief Critic Isn’t Ready To Eat Out. Here’s Why

* * *

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried about the future of the restaurant industry? I mean, do you think it will look anything like what it resembled before the pandemic?

SUTTON: I don’t think anyone knows what the restaurant industry is going to look like in the coming months, never mind the coming year or so. We can only agree – is dining out in the future won’t look anything like it did in the before times. We’re going to continue to see a lot more takeout, and we’re going to continue to see, I think, a lot of people continue to eat at home rather than treating restaurants like extensions of their dining rooms. It’s not going to be a nightly fare anymore. And that’s going to cost a lot of jobs, and that’s going to close a lot of restaurants. And that’s just a terrible thing for everyone.

And the second from a FaceBook post a friend shared, about whether schools would/could open in the fall:

A high school teacher in this state has a maximum class size of 32-35 students, which gives the teacher around 200 students across 4-6 classes in beforetimes schooling. To mitigate coronavirus would then require 3 kindergarten teacher now to do the job of one kindergarten teacher a year ago. High school would require 24 high teachers to do one beforetimes high school teacher’s work and that is if we overlook the very awkward point that having half the class meet half the time might limit the children’s risk but only extends the hours of exposure to the virus that is faced by the teacher.

In doing a bit of quick research for this post, I also find that lexicographer Ben Zimmer (brother of excellent science writer Carl Zimmer) has noticed this change as well:

‘The Before Time’: A Sci-Fi Idea That Has Made Its Way to Real Life

(I haven’t actually read that, since I don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription. But it’s obvious that he’s noted the same shift in usage.)

Just an interesting observation about how our language changes, and another example of how science fiction has had an effect on the ‘real’ world.

Jim Downey



“Did we actually go there, or … ?”

One of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well added this note under “TRIVIA”:

Most of the chapters start with information that looks like it came from Internet websites. I typed in some of the URLs, and they are exactly what they seem to be, lending credence to the book.

And several people have commented both on Amazon and on Facebook that the book could function as something of a travelog.

That’s very much by design. The chapter header URLs & info I used in the book are straight from real sites online, though I intentionally used versions which date back to ~ 2012 (the date in the novel) whenever possible. And likewise, each location specified in the book is real. As well as every bit of Welsh history or myth I used.

I did this to lend the book verisimilitude. I really want readers to wonder just how possible the story is, to feel that ‘thinness’ I describe between one reality and another in the book.  I want them to visit the sites mentioned, to feel what I have felt there.

I didn’t start writing the book with this in mind. I figured that I would simply use my own experience in traveling in Wales to ground the book in reality, and use what little I knew of Welsh history & mythology to help add color. But as I wrote, I found myself digging deeper and deeper, spending more time visiting sites virtually, until they became very well known to me.

After a while, I started to lose track of whether I had actually visited some of the sites in person, or had only visited them online. This led to the very surreal experience during a trip we took in 2017 where in going to Craig Rhosyfelin I was absolutely certain that we had visited the site previously … but also absolutely certain that we never had (the latter which was confirmed by my wife). I had spent so much time exploring the site virtually, working through the descriptions and history of it, writing the interaction of characters there, that it really did feel like I had my own personal memories of the place. Bizarre.

The same is true of several other locations in the book, to the point where my wife and I now joke about it. “Did we actually go there, or … ?” has become a standard in our travels.

And of course now, with the limitations imposed by our own real pandemic, such virtual travel is all we have at present. So if you need a vacation, maybe spend a little time in my novel. The links included on the website will help.

Jim Downey

 



Easy to predict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Heh. Nailed another prediction.

* * *

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

Jim Downey

 

 



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



It’s a Mil-Tech SF future; we’re just living in it.

Yeah, it’s cool and all, but I can’t be the only one who looked at the news about Google X’s Drone Program

A zipping comes across the sky.

A man named Neil Parfitt is standing in a field on a cattle ranch outside Warwick, Australia. A white vehicle appears above the trees, a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull. It glides towards Parfitt, pitches upwards to a vertical position, and hovers near him, a couple hundred feet in the air. From its belly, a package comes tumbling downward, connected by a thin line to the vehicle itself. Right before the delivery hits the ground, it slows, hitting the earth with a tap.

… and thinks “generation 1.0 Hunter-seeker“, right? I mean, this basically jumps from needing a large military drone to having a backpack assassination tool. Why worry about collateral damage with a missile when you can just drop a cigarette-pack lump of high explosive in someone’s lap, using a cell phone and facial-recognition software to make sure of your specific target?

Or how I look at the self-driving car and think “hmm, add a Ma Deuce and/or 30mm cannon, and you’ve a small autonomous tank”.

Yeah, OK, perhaps I’m just too cynical. But human nature being what it is, you’ve gotta think that there was a reason why DARPA has been behind the development of these technologies …

 

Jim Downey

 



You Are There.*

An excerpt:

A very short distance down the road was another simple black and white sign which said “Llangybi”. There was a stone house not far past it, but no sign of a real town. Darnell kept going. He passed a few more homes and farms. Then he came to a split in the road and stopped, pulling off to the side in front of yet another stone house. There were some workmen on scaffolding at the near end of the house, doing something to the chimney.

Workmen? What workmen?

Why, these workmen.  (It’s a Google Streetview location. You have to let it load, then activate it.)

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been doing a lot of double-checking of locations and descriptions using a variety of map tools. Google has made this very easy, between their satellite, Earth, and Streetview map apps. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that to amuse myself I have been including things actually caught in the Streetview images now and again, so that if anyone actually looks up a particular location I cite on Streetview, they will see what is described in the text. This has mostly applied to storefronts and the like, but also includes the occasional bit like the passage above — where a little later I have Darnell (the main character) actually stop and chat with these workmen, asking them for directions.

It’s a little thing which almost no one will ever discover, just my version of an Easter egg. And whenever Google updates the images used on these locations, they’ll no longer apply. But what the hell.

 

Jim Downey

*For those who don’t know of/remember the series.

 

 

 



Sometimes the future is cool …

… and sometimes it is just chilling.

First, meet Seth’s grandpa:

Watson is a cognitive capability that resides in the computing cloud — just like Google and Facebook and Twitter. This new capability is designed to help people penetrate complexity so they can make better decisions and live and work more successfully. Eventually, a host of cognitive services will be delivered to people at any time and anywhere through a wide variety of handy devices. Laptops. Tablets. Smart phones. You name it.

In other words, you won’t need to be a TV producer or a giant corporation to take advantage of Watson’s capabilities. Everybody will have Watson — or a relative of the Watson technologies — at his or her fingertips.

Indeed, Watson represents the first wave in a new era of technology: the era of cognitive computing. This new generation of technology has the potential to transform business and society just as radically as today’s programmable computers did so over the past 60+ years. Cognitive systems will be capable of making sense of vast quantities of unstructured information, by learning, reasoning and interacting with people in ways that are more natural for us.

Next, consider the implications of this idea:

Now think of another way of doing this. Think of a website that is a repository of all these IDs, and is government-owned or certified. Why can’t I just visit a police station once, pay a fee (so the government doesn’t lose money on this), show all my documentation, have the government scan and upload everything so that all policemen and pertinent authorities can have access. Then my car insurance company, my health insurance company, the car registration agency can all notify this government repository if I stop paying, or if my insurance policy is not valid anymore.

Imagine a world in which the police has tablets or smartphones that show nice big pictures of you, in which whatever they currently do secretly with NSA-type agencies they do openly instead. If they find you without an ID they ask, “who are you?”, and once you give your name, they can see your photo and a ton of information about you. It would be so hard for anyone to impersonate you. I find it paradoxical that while some government agencies spy on you and know all about you, others pretend to know nothing until you show them a piece of plastic that if you lose, somebody else can impersonate you with. We need to evolve from this. We need to evolve into a system in which we have no wallets and a safer world!

Yeah, safer

TrackingPoint, the biggest name in “smart” scope technology today, is rolling out their next big project. Not too surprising, it is a military endeavor. Called the “Future of War,” TrackingPoint is gearing up for a new market.

The company has been getting a lot of attention with their high-end big-bore hunting rifles that are designed to track targets up to 1,000 yards away. The “smart” aspect of the scope technology is a host of rangefinders and sensors that, combined with optical image recognition software, calculate the ballistics of the shot and compensate for it automatically.

TrackingPoint’s hasn’t exactly concealed their intentions to develop arms for the military market. That was always a possibility and something they all but confirmed when they began talking about their second-generation precision guided rifle systems that, chambered for .50 BMG, are expected to be effective well over 3,000 yards. The cartridge, .50 BMG, is a devastating long-range anti-personnel and anti-material round.

From TrackingPoint’s website:

Target handoff can be achieved by leader touching a smart rifle icon and map location at which point the designated user will see an arrow in his scope directing him to look at handoff location. Whether from shooter to shooter, leader to shooter, drone to leader to shooter, shooter to leader to drone, handoff is a simple touch interface via a mobile device and mobile apps augmented by the appropriate a la carte communications gear.

Emphasis added, because:

The MADSS is one mean robot. Developed by defense industry leader Northrop Grumman and currently being showcased at the Fort Benning, Ga. “Robotics Rodeo,” the MADSS is a 1 1/2-ton unmanned ground vehicle designed to provide soldiers with covering fire while cutting down targets.

Make no mistake, it’s an automatic shooting machine, But it requires people to operate it and set targets. The MADSS — Mobile Armed Dismount Support System — tracks and fires on targets only once it gets the green light. It won’t shoot unless a soldier is directing it.

It’s half killer robot, half killer giant remote-control car.

But you know, not all cars need someone in control of them these days:

In Silberg’s estimation, the reason is that Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz drivers are “already accustomed to high-tech bells and whistles, so adding a ‘self-driving package’ is just another option.” Throw in the possibility of a special lane on highways for autonomous vehicles and the ability to turn the system on and off at will, and premium buyers were sold on the option full-stop.

Considering that Audi, BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz all plan to have some kind of semi-autonomous, traffic jam assistance feature either on the market or coming in the next few years, and it’s obvious that luxury brands are well aware of what their buyers want.

Draw your own conclusions.

 

Jim Downey

 



“Welcome to the Google Cafe.”
September 6, 2013, 10:40 am
Filed under: Augmented Reality, Google, Humor, Privacy, Society, tech | Tags: , , , , ,

“Can I show you to a table?”

“Yeah, sure.”  I followed the young, trim man over to a small table by the window.

“Will this be OK?”

“Fine.”

I sat down.  The waiter stood next to the table.

“Would you like to order your mocha and cheese danish?”

“Sorry, what? I haven’t even looked at the menu yet.”

He glanced at a pad in his hand. “Our records show that you usually order a mocha – slim – and cheese danish whenever you come into the cafe at this time of day.”

“Um, not yet. I’m waiting for someone.”

“OK.” He glanced to the door. “Here she comes now.”

I turned, saw Sam enter. I looked back at the waiter.

He looked back. “Samantha Jones. 37. Two kids. Her husband, Joe, isn’t aware that you’re having an affair.”

I goggled. Sam came over, glanced at the waiter, sat down.

“Good morning! So, that’ll be coffee, black, for you, sir, with a fresh fruit platter. And Samantha will nibble at a blueberry muffin and drink water.” He gave us a wink. “Don’t want to get too full.”

Sam blinked, looked at me a little confused. We both looked to the waiter. “Yeah, sure.”

He nodded and smiled. Tapped a few keys on the pad, then just stood there.

I looked at Sam. She looked at me. I looked at the waiter. “Something I can help you with?”

“Oh, no sir. But thanks for asking.”

“Then, will you go away?”

“Oh, no sir. I’m here to facilitate anything you may need. Perhaps interest you in a special offer for a weekend getaway?” He glanced at the pad. “It’s been almost three months since the last one.”

“Um, but we’d like a little privacy.”

He smiled. “Not to worry, sir. I won’t share your information with anyone. This is just a service we provide. Completely routine.”

“Yeah, but, you know, we’d like to be … alone.”

“Sorry sir, but you agreed to the terms of service when you came in here. And the courts have ruled that you have no expectation of privacy in a public place such as this.”

“Yeah, but …”

 

 

Jim Downey

 



Believe it, or Not!

I usually refrain from posting anything on April Fool’s Day. I mean, seriously, why would you want to? My sense of humor is quirky enough that most people don’t *quite* share it. And the competition for a good April Fool’s gag is really stiff. But on the other hand, if you try and post anything ‘serious’ — particularly the odd or innovative stuff I like to blog about — there’s a fair chance it will be either ignored or dismissed.

So I usually just don’t bother.

But today there’s three new reviews up on Amazon, and I thought I should share. Even if they do leave me wondering whether they’re a gag in themselves.

Well, not this one. At least I don’t think so.

Loved the premise, but the in my opinion, the book fell short of delivering. “Set up a meeting Seth, set up another meeting Seth” seemed to be a lot of the dialogue. Might have been better as a short story. Took me a long time to read as it never “grabbed” me.

That’s the whole of it. Well, other than the two stars and the title of the review: “borderline boring

The next review isn’t much longer. In fact, it’s even a bit shorter. Here it is:

Jim Downey is evocative of Arthur C. Clarke at his best. Downey has taken Clarke and led us to the place where Clarke left us. i can’t remember a book of this genre that i’ve recently enjoyed more than this one. MORE please!

Nice, eh? Particularly with a five star rating and bearing the title: “Clarke left us, Downey is taking us onward now.

But it was posted after I (jokingly) whinged about it on Facebook. So I wonder whether it was a serious review, particularly since the same person also posted a review of Her Final Year:

now, with parents getting older, mother with alzheimers, father with rheumatoid arthritis and stupid doctors, this book was perfect! i passed it on to the sister that’s handling all the problems since we live over 300 miles away. she and i agree that it is invaluable for caregivers.

But that sounds serious, so …

Damn. I hate April Fools Day. It always leaves me so confused.

Say, did you hear about Google Nose?

 

Jim Downey

 

 



Ride a painted pony*

“Could you take care of this for me?” I said. “I find myself surprisingly … attached.”

* * * * * * *

Just a couple pages into Communion of Dreams, there’s this passage:

He picked up a meal at the airport and ate in the car on the way over to his office, relaxing and watching the city roll by around him.

Early in the second chapter there’s this one:

The car he was in threaded through the old suburban streets, past still vacant houses and the occasional empty lot. Following the great death of the fire-flu, many homes had simply been abandoned.

The opening paragraph of Chapter 3:

‘What was it?’ he wondered as the car wound through the streets, stopping before the USSA building. He got out, standing there in the plaza, looking up at the golden plasteel supports and the draping glass fabric.

As a writer, particularly of science fiction, you have to know what to explain and what to just assume. By this I mean you have to explain certain things to the reader, enough to give them a grasp on important story elements, but that you can assume they will fill in the background with other less important elements on their own.

Nowhere in Communion of Dreams do I state that cars are largely self-driving. There’s really no need to. Most readers are used enough to the tropes of science fiction that they can read the above passages, and fill in that detail on their own. It’s a little trick which helps anchor the reality of the book in the mind of the reader quickly.

* * * * * * *

And, honestly, the notion of a self-driving car is only barely science fiction at this point. I mean, one of the primary issues right now is having our legal system play catch-up with the technological changes in this field. From a discussion on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday:

GJELTEN: So the — I guess what — driverless cars have been in development for many years. But the big news this week is this law that passed in California allowing some driving of self-driving cars. Tell us what’s in this law exactly.

LEVANDOWSKI: Well, this law is called SB 1298, and it sets forth the framework for the DMV to set up the guidelines that vehicles will need to adhere to in order to, in the future, be able to drive themselves with or without people inside them. It outlines the type of technical standards, the types of insurance requirements. Everything that you would expect a person to go through when they get their driver’s license, you would expect a vehicle that doesn’t have a driver in it to be able to have.

* * * * * * *

“I do feel that I’m a very lucky, lucky person, in all sorts of ways. And one of the ways in which I’m fortunate is Harry Potter set me free to write whatever I want to write. I don’t — you know, we’re not living hand-to-mouth — I, clearly I can afford to pay all of my bills and now my writing life is a great experience. I can really do whatever I want to do. So I’m a fortunate person — I’m a fortunate writer.”

From JK Rowling’s interview on “Morning Edition” today.

* * * * * * *

“Could you take care of this for me?” I said. “I find myself surprisingly … attached.”

“Sure,” said my wife.

Attached?

Yeah, to my car.

Which is a surprise. Because I don’t usually become attached to things. Oh, I keep some things for sentimental value, because they are somehow connected to an important person or event in my life.  But otherwise I tend to be very pragmatic about material things.

I got the car new 20 years ago. A Subaru wagon, which served me well. The last five or six years when it needed work I would weigh the pros and cons of getting the work done — was it worth it? Could I afford it? Could I afford not to?

See, I don’t *really* need a car. I work at home. For a while now when I needed to drive any distance, I took my wife’s car anyway, since it is a few years newer and in substantially better shape.

This past spring it developed some exhaust problems. The work it needed was more than the car was worth. I decided the time had come to just sell it and be done. Consolidating down to one car for the household would be a minor annoyance, but made the most sense.

Well, I made the intellectual decision. The emotional one, I found, wasn’t quite as easy.

Why?

I owned, and drove, that car for more than half the time I’ve had a driver’s license. There was simple ‘time in harness’ associated with it.

But there was more. Specifically, status.

I don’t worry a lot about status. As in, conventional measures of “success” in our society. When you don’t make a lot of money, you learn to not put so much store in such things, or it’ll drive you completely nuts. And as I noted earlier this year, I don’t make a lot of money.

But confronting the hard truth that I can not afford to buy a new car was a bit more than I really wanted to face. And selling my car meant exactly that. Because in our society, if you sell your car, you’re supposed to get another one. Preferably a new one. At the very least, a newer one. To not do so means you’re not successful.

And you should never, ever, under no circumstances, admit that you’re not successful.

So, yeah, the emotional truth was harder to come to terms with. Which would mean that I would be piss-poor at selling my car — at advertising it, at negotiating a sale, all that stuff.

But I’ve come to realize that there are other approaches to defining success, other strategies which can change how you accomplish things. My Kickstarter project is one such, stepping in to crowd-fund what a conventional publishing contract would previously do.

So I asked my wife to take care of it. She didn’t have the same emotional baggage to contend with. And she took care of it in her usual competent & efficient manner: last night the car drove away from our driveway for the last time.

Who knows? Maybe next year, after St. Cybi’s Well is done and available, it’ll be enough of a hit that I’ll be able to afford a new car. One which can partially drive itself. Stranger things have happened. Just ask JK Rowling.

 

Jim Downey

*Well, it seemed appropriate.