Communion Of Dreams

Caring for demented America.

The eighty-something man fumbled with the pocket knife he had carried his whole life. His hands trembled with age, rage, and fear, but if the hulking stranger refused to leave his house, well, then by God he’d force the man to leave!

The stranger easily took away the knife, and told the man to go back upstairs. Then he sat down on the mechanic’s stool next to his motorcycle and began to weep.

I was about 14, and had just witnessed age-related dementia for the first time.

The hulking stranger was my uncle, whom I had come to live with. The elderly man was his grandfather. We were at his grandparent’s home, using the garage under the house as a warm place to get a little work done on his bike. He and his grandparents were close, always had been. He had lived with them for a while when he was young.

* * *

President Trump is certain that he was cheated out of a popular election mandate due to voter fraud. Almost no one else agrees, and even members of his own party who are responsible for elections at the state and local level have said that there is virtually no evidence of actual fraud.

The President has also claimed that his inauguration had more people in attendance and watching around the world than any previous. The best evidence and estimates available from multiple sources do not support this claim.

I could go on.

* * *

I remember Martha Sr getting fixated on things which were weird, unpredictable. Fixated in such a way that no matter what we tried to  say or do, she was certain that we were wrong. Or just lying to her. Or something.

It was almost always some strange idea or memory or object which would catch her attention seemingly out of the blue and often at the most inconvenient times. The idea that the strawberry seeds in her yogurt were necessary for completing a crossword puzzle, so she had to pick them out and keep them. Or that she was going on a train trip, and had to make sure to go get her tickets right now. It drove us completely nuts, and was one of the more difficult challenges of being care-givers. We’d try to distract her with other things, or explain that we already had her tickets and she didn’t need to worry. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes she’d go on and on and on about whatever it was which had captured her attention, returning to it for days on end.

* * *

In the aftermath of the presidential election, many people who had supported Secretary Clinton were shocked, stunned, at the outcome.

Some started looking for ways to challenge the results. First there was an effort to get the Electoral College to not affirm Donald Trump as the winner, on the basis that Russia had influenced the election. Then there was a hope that the House of Representatives would not confirm the results of the Electoral College vote. Then there were challenges made to whether President Trump could hold the office, since he was in violation of the Constitution.

I could go on.

* * *

It seems like the long-respected norms of civic behavior are finally starting to break down. They’ve been stressed for a very long time, like a marriage which has gone badly wrong, but is held together out of fear for what would actually happen if one partner were to confront the other over perceived slights or suspected betrayal.

But now someone has had enough, and said words which cannot be taken back.

The shouting, the screaming, the breaking of china in anger and frustration has begun.

Young children stand in the doorway to the kitchen, tears streaming down their face, unsure what this means or what will happen next.

* * *

Someone punched a neo-Nazi. Plenty of people cheered. It’s hard not to cheer when Nazis get punched.

The day after the inauguration, millions of people marched in protest of the new president and his administration. Plenty of people cheered. It’s hard not to cheer the affirmation of civil rights and political empowerment.

The day after that, a top-level presidential advisor ill-advisedly used the term “alternative facts” when disagreeing about the turnout at the inauguration. Plenty of people jeered at her for doing so. It’s hard not to mock something straight out of 1984.

The day after that saw the start of a number of Executive Orders and memoranda signed by President Trump, putting into motion the changes which he and other members of his party had promised. Plenty of people cheered to see the change they wanted starting. Plenty of people jeered both the spirit and the letter of the changes.

* * *

I’m not saying that President Trump has age-related dementia. Not even the first signs of it. I’m a bookbinder, not a doctor, and am in no way qualified to make such an assessment.

And I’m not saying that the rhetoric and actions from those who oppose the new administration are equivalent to the rhetoric and actions of those who have supported it.

I am saying that things have changed. I think that we are on the precipice of something akin to Heinlein’s “The Crazy Years”. Things have changed so much, and so quickly, that I have had to go back and make substantial revisions to St Cybi’s Well. Because what before was a challenge to the reader’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ has been completely superseded by our reality. It’s not the president who is showing signs of dementia — it’s our society.

And I am saying that when you accept and embrace the use of violence against a political opponent, you open yourself up to the use of violence against you by your political opponents. Because there are always justifications and rationalizations for such use, and human history is filled with the resultant wars civil and decidedly uncivil. Be very careful what you wish for.

Jim Downey

Broadcast power.

Very interesting technology breakthrough: the use of metamaterials to harvest microwave energy and convert it to DC (direct current), with an efficiency on par with the best solar panels.  From EurekAlert:

With additional modifications, the researchers said the power-harvesting metamaterial could potentially be built into a cell phone, allowing the phone to recharge wirelessly while not in use. This feature could, in principle, allow people living in locations without ready access to a conventional power outlet to harvest energy from a nearby cell phone tower instead.

“Our work demonstrates a simple and inexpensive approach to electromagnetic power harvesting,” said Cummer. “The beauty of the design is that the basic building blocks are self-contained and additive. One can simply assemble more blocks to increase the scavenged power.”

For example, a series of power-harvesting blocks could be assembled to capture the signal from a known set of satellites passing overhead, the researchers explained. The small amount of energy generated from these signals might power a sensor network in a remote location such as a mountaintop or desert, allowing data collection for a long-term study that takes infrequent measurements.

This is a fundamental breakthrough, and one which will have a lot of applications/implications far beyond just those mentioned above. Consider what you could do with even our current electronics technology if you didn’t need to have access to charge batteries/capacitors. Already many devices are charged through induction, though that has a relatively short-range effect, and the magnetic fields used create their own problems (and are relatively inefficient).

Combine this with RFID technology as well as nano-sized processors/memory, and you quickly get to the point where ubiquitous computing becomes not just possible but economically viable. Fascinating.

The full pdf (just 4 pages) of the Applied Physics Letters article can be found here.

Jim Downey

All us zombies.*

I wouldn’t have the nerve to include this kind of thing in a novel … no one would believe that such an agency would have such a twisted sense of humor.

The magazine printed several slides alleged to have come from an NSA presentation referencing the film “1984,” based on George Orwell’s book set in a totalitarian surveillance state. The slides – which show stills from the film, former Apple Inc. chairman Steve Jobs holding an iPhone, and iPhone buyers celebrating their purchase – are captioned: “Who knew in 1984…that this would be big brother…and the zombies would be paying customers?”


Jim Downey

*Referencing this, of course.

I, for one, welcome our new NSA Overlords.

Everyone is thinking about the whole “NSA Spying” thing all wrong. This isn’t about surveillance. It’s not whether there is a trade off to be made between security and privacy. It isn’t a question of how much the government is watching you or that you shouldn’t worry at all if you have nothing to hide. Nope. It’s not about any of that.

It’s about whether you want to live forever or not.

The idea that we’re living in some kind of ‘simulated reality‘ has been a mainstay of Science Fiction for just about forever, whether you want to credit it to Philip José Farmer, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, or for that matter, Genesis. One popular twist on this perhaps best seen in The Matrix where at some future time hyper-intelligent computers have re-created our reality for their own purposes, using the best records available to run simulations and better understand us.

So don’t think of it as the National Security Agency. Think of it, rather, as a records-keeping entity. One which is doing everything possible to record as much of this world, and your life, as possible so that later it can be used to make an accurate simulation. Just call it the Nascent Simulation Archive, and rejoice that our government is being so ecumenical in trying to document as much as possible about not just America, but the whole wide world. Because it means that you’ll live forever.

And you want to live forever, right?


Jim Downey

Deuces are wild.

* * * * * * *

I liked “The Day After Tomorrow.”

No, not the movie. Gah.

Rather, I’m talking about the initial name for the Heinlein novel we now know as Sixth Column. I always figured that the trick of inventing a religion (one of the major plot devices of the book) gave L. Ron Hubbard inspiration. It’s not one of Heinlein’s best works — hardly — and you have to understand the blatant racism in the context of when it was written. But it’s decent pulp science fiction.

* * * * * * *

	Look, uh... we've got the overthruster, 
        but somebody shanghaied the Professor 
        right from the press conference.

	Ohhh... the deuce you say.

Gotta love Buckaroo. Text from here.

* * * * * * *

And they think it will make their lives easier
For God knows up till now it’s been hard
But the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
No the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card

Two days remaining. It ends the day after tomorrow. $7,781 to go. Bluff, or fold?

Jim Downey

PS: Oh, yeah, the Kindle Edition of Communion of Dreams will be free all day on the final day of the Kickstarter. Let everyone know. Thanks.

Falling on my head like a new emotion.*

It rained this morning.

* * * * * * *

There are two new reviews for Communion of Dreams up on Amazon. Here’s one in its entirety:

This was a thoroughly enjoyable book, full of intriguing ideas, appealing characters (including some quirky ones) and a well-crafted plot. That it is also a debut novel surprised me, and I hopefully look forward to more. James Downey can write!

* * * * * * *

Chatting over breakfast with houseguests yesterday, I was explaining how the logistics of publishing an electronic book work, that the best model currently seems to be to give away a buttload of free copies periodically, which in turn generates actual sales. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, as I have explained here previously, but it clearly works: after each promotional event giving away copies of the book, sales and overall ranking jump then tend to plateau with a slow drop-off. Two months ago Communion of Dreams was stuck at a ranking of about 30,000. More recently it was hovering around 3,000, and it wasn’t until about two weeks ago that the rate of sales started to fall off from about 20 a day to something more like 5 or 6. After Saturday’s promotion, Sunday almost 50 people bought the book, and sales overnight last night look decent — my guess is that it will again plateau around 20 sales a day for a while.

* * * * * * *

Here’s an excerpt from the other review:

I have been a reader of science fiction from an early age. I grew up with the great writers: Asimov, Henlien, Bradbury, Clark and F. Herbert … With that education of the genre I have found it difficult to find pure science fiction that comes even close to the standards I have for great books. With Mr. Downey’s Communion of Dreams, there is finally a writer I can look forward to reading his future works.

* * * * * * *

That’s the other thing which happens: more reviews following a promotional event. And reviews make a difference. I don’t mind a negative or critical review — they help other readers identify a book which may not be suitable for them, and I want people to be happy that they decided to invest the time (and sometimes money) to read my stuff. Yeah, sure, like anyone I like praise and people comparing me to true giants in the field of SF — it’s a real kick in the head. But even those writers had plenty of people who didn’t enjoy their work: just take a look at the reviews of their stuff on Amazon and you’ll see. Hell, Communion of Dreams has an aggregate rating which is higher than almost everything listed for either Heinlein or Herbert, according a my quick check just now.

Does that mean I’m a “better” writer? Don’t be ridiculous. It just means that so far a few more people have assigned a better arbitrary rating to this one book. No one gets universal acclaim. And I’d have to produce about a book a year until I am 75 to have the same level of output that these other writers accomplished (and to about 400 to be in Asimov’s league). *That* ain’t gonna happen.

* * * * * * *

It rained this morning.

That’s not extraordinary, of course. This isn’t a desert.

But it’s been about a month since we’d seen any significant rain. And it is welcome.

Jim Downey

*Of course.

More words.

Following up from Sunday

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

* * * * * * *

There was a very interesting discussion on the Diane Rehm show the other day with Stuart Firestein, who is the chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University as well as a professor of neuroscience. The whole thing is worth a listen, but in particular there were a couple of particular bits I wanted to share. Here’s the first:

So in your brain cells, one of the ways your brain cells communicate with each other is using a kind of electricity, bioelectricity or voltages. And we’re very good at recording electrical signals. I mean, your brain is also a chemical. Like the rest of your body it’s a kind of chemical plant. But part of the chemistry produces electrical responses.

And because our technology is very good at recording electrical responses we’ve spent the last 70 or 80 years looking at the electrical side of the brain and we’ve learned a lot but it steered us in very distinct directions, much — and we wound up ignoring much of the biochemical side of the brain as a result of it. And as it now turns out, seems to be a huge mistake in some of our ideas about learning and memory and how it works.

* * * * * * *

I stared at the body, blinking in disbelief. We were in the shadow of the First Step, so the light was dull. The body lay about 10 metres from where I stood and was angled away from me. It jerked – a horrible movement, like a puppet being pulled savagely by its strings.

We had been on a well-organised and, so far, successful trail towards the summit of Everest, worrying only about ourselves. Now a stranger lay across our path, moaning. Lhakpa shouted down at me and waved me to move on, to follow him up onto the Step. I looked back at the raggedly jerking figure.

From here.

* * * * * * *

From about halfway through Chapter 6 in Communion of Dreams:

“But smart how?”

Jon looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, there are lots of kinds of intelligence, and I’m not just talking about the reasoning/emotional/spatial/mechanical sorts of distinctions that we sometimes make. More fundamentally, how are they smart? Are they super-geniuses, able to easily figure out problems that stump us? Or maybe they’re very slow, but have been at this a very long time. Perhaps some sort of collective or racial intelligence, while each individual member of their species can barely put two and two together. There are a lot of different ways they can be intelligent.”

* * * * * * *

(Warning – the page from which the following comes contains gruesome images and text.)

Above a certain altitude, no human can ever acclimatize. Known as the Death Zone, only on 14 mountains worldwide can one step beyond the 8000 meter mark and know that no amount of training or conditioning will ever allow you to spend more than 48 hours there. The oxygen level in the Death Zone is only one third of the sea level value, which in simple terms means the body will use up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it.

In such conditions, odd things happen to human physical and mental states. A National Geographic climber originally on Everest to document Brian Blessed’s (ultimately botched) attempt at summiting, described the unsettling hallucinogenic effects of running out of oxygen in the Death Zone. The insides of his tent seemed to rise above him, taking on cathedral-like dimensions, robbing him of all strength, clouding his judgement. Any stay in the Death Zone without supplementary oxygen is like being slowly choked, all the while having to perform one of the hardest physical feats imaginable.

It makes you stupid.

* * * * * * *

Again, Stuart Firestein:

And in neuroscience, I can give you an example in the mid-1800s, phrenology. This idea that the bumps on your head, everybody has slightly different bumps on their head due to the shape of their skull. And you could tell something about a person’s personality by the bumps on their head. Now, we joke about it now. You can buy these phrenology busts in stores that show you where love is and where compassion is and where violence is and all that. It’s absolutely silly, but for 50 years it existed as a real science. And there are papers from learned scientists on it in the literature.

* * * * * * *

Update at 12:10 p.m. ET. Dragon Has Docked:

Dragon has finished docking with the International Space Station. That makes SpaceX the first private company to dock a cargo spacecraft to the space station.

That happened at exactly 12:02 p.m. ET, according to NASA.

* * * * * * *

“Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can’t help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime: the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

Last weekend four more people died attempting to summit Everest. Partly, this seems to have been due to the traffic on the mountain. Yeah, so many people are now attempting to climb the mountain that there are bottlenecks which occur, which can throw off calculations about how long a climb will take, how much supplemental oxygen is necessary, and whether weather will move in before climbers can reach safety.

In theory, everyone who attempts such a climb should know the odds. One in ten people who attempted the summit have died.

But we live in an age of accepted wonders. We think we’re smart enough to beat the odds.

Jim Downey

(PS: I hope to wrap up the third & final part of this set, get it posted this weekend.)