Communion Of Dreams


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.



Well, however you get there, I suppose …

Via Topless Robot, this article/video from the New York Times:

Sex Dolls That Talk Back

Matt McMullen has proved that some people are willing to spend thousands on sex dolls.

* * *
Mr. McMullen’s new project, which he is calling Realbotix, is an attempt to animate the doll. He has assembled a small team that includes engineers who have worked for Hanson Robotics, a robotics lab that produces shockingly lifelike humanoid robots.

Mr. McMullen is first focusing on developing convincing artificial intelligence, and a robotic head that can blink and open and close its mouth. He’s also working to integrate other emerging technologies, like a mobile app that acts like a virtual assistant and companion, and virtual reality headsets that can be used separately or in tandem with the physical doll.

 

It’s accepted wisdom that many new technologies come into their own and are quickly disseminated through the public when a way can be found to use them for sex and/or the depictions of same. Printing. VHS tapes. DVDs. The internet. Smartphone Apps like Tinder or Grindr.

So why not artificial intelligence?

Which isn’t the way I saw the technology for an expert system/assistant like Seth developing, but hey, I suppose whatever works …

 

Jim Downey



“But books, I now understand, are entirely different.”

A very nice meditation on physical versus electronic books, and how each has a role in the world: In a Mother’s Library, Bound in Spirit and in Print

From the piece:

Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth over the merits of print versus digital books so many times, it’s as if I were in an abusive relationship with myself. But my mother’s passing and the sentimental value of her library have finally put an end to that debate in my head. It’s not that one is superior to the other. They each have their place in this modern world.

For example, I love listening to audiobooks when I drive. And taking a Kindle on a long trip is nothing short of magical. But that doesn’t mean I want my mother’s old Kindle to remember her by. And I certainly wouldn’t get much from her Audible collection.

Instead, I want her physical books. I want to be able to smell the paper, to see her handwriting inside, to know that she flipped those pages and that a piece of her lives on through them.

I understand the “back and forth”. On the one hand, I love the fact that something in excess of thirty thousand Kindle edition copies of Communion of Dreams have been downloaded. On the other, I’m a book conservator.

As a conservator, as well as a huge fan of the appropriate use of technology, I’ll say this: for convenience, electronic. For permanence, print. My smartphone has dozens of different books on it, and access to millions more. But there’s not a digital technology out there that has anywhere the stability of paper and ink.

Choose wisely.

 

Jim Downey



Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

* * *

The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.

 

The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.

 

Jim Downey



“You’re oversharing again, Earth.”

Seth Shostak, on the topic of how to introduce ourselves to our neighbors:

A better approach is to note that the nearest intelligent extraterrestrials are likely to be at least dozens of light-years away. Even assuming that active SETI provokes a reply, it won’t be breezy conversation. Simple back-and-forth exchanges would take decades. This suggests that we should abandon the “greeting card” format of previous signaling schemes, and offer the aliens Big Data.

For example, we could transmit the contents of the Internet. Such a large corpus — with its text, pictures, videos and sounds — would allow clever extraterrestrials to decipher much about our society, and even formulate questions that could be answered with the material in hand.

 

While I still agree with Stephen Hawking on the idea of ‘active SETI’, I think that there’s merit in the idea of exposing other nearby civilizations to what we’re really like, warts and all. Because as soon as they decoded our transmissions well enough to understand the comments section of pretty much any major site on the web, they’d either completely wall off our solar system* and post warnings around it or just trigger our sun to go supernova. Either way, we’d never know what happened, and the rest of the galaxy would be safe …

 

Jim Downey
*gee, that’d make an interesting premise for a SF novel, doncha think?



This is a big deal.

Short paragraph. Big implications:

Abstract

Realizing robust quantum information transfer between long-lived qubit registers is a key challenge for quantum information science and technology. Here, we demonstrate unconditional teleportation of arbitrary quantum states between diamond spin qubits separated by 3 m. We prepare the teleporter through photon-mediated heralded entanglement between two distant electron spins and subsequently encode the source qubit in a single nuclear spin. By realizing a fully deterministic Bell-state measurement combined with real-time feed-forward quantum teleportation is achieved upon each attempt with an average state fidelity exceeding the classical limit. These results establish diamond spin qubits as a prime candidate for the realization of quantum networks for quantum communication and network-based quantum computing.

 

Decent explanation (at least from what I know) in this article. Excerpt:

Scientists in the Netherlands have moved a step closer to overriding one of Albert Einstein’s most famous objections to the implications of quantum mechanics, which he described as “spooky action at a distance.”

In a paper published on Thursday in the journal Science, physicists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at the Delft University of Technology reported that they were able to reliably teleport information between two quantum bits separated by three meters, or about 10 feet.

 

Ten feet may not sound like much, but it is a huge increase — previously, reliable teleportation of information was on the scale of just billionths of a meter. This change opens the door to functional quantum computing, which would have the same relation to current computing power that current computing power has to mechanical calculating machines of about the WWII era.

 

Jim Downey



Perzactly.

I said this in passing back in August:

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

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

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

 

Yeah. From the close of a long, disturbing article:

Another former insider worries less about foreign leaders’ sensitivities than the potential danger the sprawling agency poses at home. William E. Binney, a former senior N.S.A. official who has become an outspoken critic, says he has no problem with spying on foreign targets like Brazil’s president or the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. “That’s pretty much what every government does,” he said. “It’s the foundation of diplomacy.” But Mr. Binney said that without new leadership, new laws and top-to-bottom reform, the agency will represent a threat of “turnkey totalitarianism” — the capability to turn its awesome power, now directed mainly against other countries, on the American public.

“I think it’s already starting to happen,” he said. “That’s what we have to stop.”

 

Perzactly.

Back to writing. Before my predictions of dystopia all become entirely too real.

 

Jim Downey



You’re history.

The actor James Gandolfini died this week, from a massive heart attack. He was 51.

I did not know him.

 

* * * * * * *

Recently I met with an institutional client about some book conservation work which needed to be done. I’ve done work with this client off and on for a number of years. He’s a smart guy, well educated, and very much an experienced professional with decades of work in his field. His responsibilities include oversight of a very large collection which includes books, documents, records, artwork, and physical plant. In working with him, I’ve always been impressed with how conscientious he is about collection management.  The items entrusted to his care are important historical and artistic treasures, and he is doing his level best to make sure that they are preserved and protected for future generations.

As it happens, the physical plant of the collection needs some work. This necessitates moving a large number of items into safe storage for the duration, and he is handling all of that with his usual skill. After we had discussed the specific needs of the books I had been called in to evaluate, and that business was done, we were just chatting a bit. And I noticed a large sketchbook (18″x24″) on a desk in his office.

Seeing my attention thus directed, he smiled and picked up the sketchbook, opened it. Each page was a scale drawing of each of the rooms which needed to be closed, showing the exact location of each of the pieces of art, with notation as to which item it was, how it was positioned (if a wall piece, how high off the floor, etc.). Just a simple drawing, done with a ballpoint pen and a ruler.

“I want to make sure we get everything back to where it belongs,” he said.

 

* * * * * * *

In a profile last year of my friend and papermaking instructor, Tim Barrett, there’s this passage:

Barrett’s connection to the old papers was becoming more than simply technical. It was emotional. He detected life in them. He once found the imprint of a person’s thumb on a page in a Renaissance book. “Maybe the papermaker was rushing to fill an order, and grabbed the corner of the sheet too firmly,” he said. “To me, that fingerprint marked the sheet with the humanity of the person who made it. I could feel his presence.”

I’ve heard him tell that same story. Several times. You might say that it made an impression.

 

* * * * * * *

“I want to make sure we get everything back to where it belongs,” he said.

I nodded. “You know, you should get some deacidification spray and treat each page. Also, make a note as to when you drew them, and sign them.”

He looked at me like I was nuts. Deacidification spray is expensive. “Why, they’re just sketches for my own use.”

I smiled. “No, they are wonderful documentation of exactly how each of these rooms was arranged in early 2013.”

“So?”

“So now you use them, treat them, and then file them away in one of your flat files. They’ve just become part of the history of this place, and in a couple hundred years some researcher will delight in holding these simple drawings of yours.”

He looked down at the sketches in his hand. “Huh.”

“Yeah, you’re history.”

 

* * * * * * *

The actor James Gandolfini died this week, from a massive heart attack. He was 51.

I did not know him.

But I did know Paul. He was an old friend of mine, though in the last few years we’d only been in sporadic contact. I woke this morning to the news that Paul died last night from a massive heart attack. He was about my age.

I turn 55 in a couple weeks. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve got a couple health issues which need ongoing attention and treatment, but in general I’m not doing too bad. Particularly with as hard as I’ve been on my body.

But I could have a massive heart attack tonight. Or get hit by a truck tomorrow. People die, unexpectedly, every day.

I don’t dwell on this, though it has been an emotional reality for me since I was 11. But on occasions like today, after just losing a friend and reading all the tributes to that person online, I am perhaps more aware of it than usual.

Because whether we prepare for it or not, we’re all history.

 

Jim Downey



From small beginnings…

Got a note from a friend, with a link to an article. The note said “Yet another shade of Communion of Dreams.” Here’s the start of the article:

As Bison Return to Prairie, Some Rejoice, Others Worry

WOLF POINT, Mont. — Sioux and Assiniboine tribe members wailed a welcome song last month as around 60 bison from Yellowstone National Park stormed onto a prairie pasture that had not felt a bison’s hoof for almost 140 years.

That historic homecoming came just 11 days after 71 pureblood bison, descended from one of Montana’s last wild herds, were released nearby onto untilled grassland owned by a charity with a vision of building a haven for prairie wildlife. Some hunters and conservationists are now calling for bison to be reintroduced to a million-acre wildlife refuge spanning this remote region.

This is from the first page of Communion of Dreams:

He could see four or five thousand buffalo, one of the small herds. They stretched out in a long line below him, wide enough to fill the shallow valley along this side of the river, coming partway up the sides of the hill, not fifty meters from where he stood. The sky was its perpetual blue-grey, as clear as it ever got at this latitude, though the sun was almost bright. Late winter snow, churned into a dull brown mass by the buffalo where they trekked along the valley floor, nonetheless glinted along the tops of the hills. Weather forecasts said more snow was coming. It was Friday, April 12.

He leaned on the railing, looking down, the windows of the research station behind him. He liked the solitude of the open sky of the National Buffalo Commons. Though he had many painful memories associated with these plains, they could fill the void inside him in a way that no place else could. He had grown up not too far away, back when people used to live out here. Now there were only the stations – small shelters where scientists could study the herds as they migrated, or where people with enough connections could escape for a few days.

The Commons had been borne of the fire-flu, with so few people left out in the great northern plains after it was finally all over that it was a relatively simple matter to just turn things back over to nature.

Every writing instructor or book out there will tell you that the opening sentences/paragraphs of a novel has a huge job: to establish the set and setting, introduce tone, and intrigue the reader enough that they want to keep reading. I think the opening page of Communion does that.

And so does the release of two small herds of bison.

Jim Downey