Communion Of Dreams


Drawing the wrong lesson …

One of the oldest Science Fiction tropes is the development of technology intended to enforce compliance through pain. Two notable examples: the ‘shock collars’ used on members of the Enterprise crew in The Gamesters of Triskelion and the ‘pain givers‘ first depicted in the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams.

In both cases, and typically through most of the SF I can think of, this is meant to be a cautionary tale, to show how even a nominally benign or at least non-lethal technology can be perverted. The lesson is that the intentional infliction of pain is itself a bad thing, whether or not it actually causes real corporeal damage.

So, naturally, we have drawn exactly the wrong lesson:

Judge pleads guilty to ordering defendant to be shocked with 50,000 volts

A Maryland judge who ordered a deputy to remotely shock a defendant with a 50,000-volt charge pleaded guilty (PDF) to a misdemeanor civil rights violation in federal court Monday, and he faces a maximum of one year in prison when sentenced later this year.

* * *

The deputy sheriff walked over to where Victim I was standing and pulled a chair away to clear a place for Victim I to fall to the floor. At this point, Victim I stopped speaking. The deputy sheriff then activated the stun-cuff, which administered an electric shock to Victim I for approximately five seconds. The electric shock caused Victim I to fall to the ground and scream in pain. Nalley recessed the proceedings.

* * *

The authorities are increasingly using stun cuffs, which are about the size of a deck of cards, at detention centers and courthouses. They are made by various companies and cost around $1,900 for a device and transmitter. Some models can shock at 80,000 volts.

 

Oops.

 

Jim Downey



The Storytellers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How very meta.

 

Jim Downey
*Of course.



And you thought Skynet was scary …

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

Then the Billionaires began to war among themselves …

 

Jim Downey

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



I hate to say ‘I told you so’, but …

Last week I wrote the following excerpt from St Cybi’s Well:

Megan came out of the bedroom, dressed, but still toweling her hair. “Done. Bathroom’s all yours. What did the BBC have to say?”

Darnell glanced over at the stereo system, then back to her. “The government is asking people to just stay home if they have any indications of illness. There’s talk of a week-long ‘bank holiday’, so people don’t go in to work or school; we’ll probably hear more about that later today. And there have been more anti-immigrant riots in London and some other places. And not just the so-called ‘Tommys’.”

“People are frightened.”

“Yeah, no surprise.” Darnell nodded at the stereo again. “There was also some science reporting about VCS [Viral Cytokine Syndrome, which is the initial name for the spreading illness] itself. Looks like it is caused by a flu strain which is similar to the 1918 virus, but one which is even more virulent.”

Megan paused, her hands lowered. The towel hung limply by her side. “Didn’t that kill millions, world-wide?”

“Yeah.”

“And this looks to be worse?”

“Yeah,” Darnell repeated. “This seems to spread just as easily, but kills faster. Well, kills healthy adults faster – that cytokine storm thing, which is basically the immune system going crazy, creating high fever and complete exhaustion. Anyone who is young, or old, or otherwise has a compromised immune system, can get the flu and there’s a good chance that they’ll develop pneumonia which can kill them in a week or so without proper treatment.”

“But there are treatments for pneumonia.”

“There are. And even some things that can be done for someone with Cytokine Syndrome, if you get to them soon enough.” He sighed. “But how well do you think the health system here or anywhere will be able to handle such a fast-moving epidemic, particularly if health workers are among the most vulnerable group? Do you remember how devastating haemorrhagic fevers like Ebola have been in isolated areas, because health workers are often among the first victims of the disease? And those require direct contact with bodily fluids … this flu is airborne.”

Today, from NPR’s coverage of a new global health risk report:

Sands says the Ebola outbreak of 2014-15 was a wake-up call. It showed that the world is not prepared to deal with a rapidly spreading disease.

“The alerts were raised too slowly. Local health systems were quickly overwhelmed. The international response was slow and clumsy,” he says. “We lacked many of the medical products we needed, either therapeutic or vaccination or indeed even effective diagnostics.”

* * *

If an outbreak like the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed more than 50 million, were to happen today, the economic damage would be in the trillions of dollars. And the psychological toll could make things worse. Sands says news of a deadly, highly contagious pathogen could prompt people all over the world to panic.

“We are much more connected not just physically but by media nowadays,” he says. “Hearing about and seeing infectious disease outbreaks on TV can spread fear even more rapidly than the disease itself. That in turn can grow changes in behavior and policy which magnify the economic impact.”

*sigh*

 

Jim Downey



The shape of things to come.

From Chapter 3 of Communion of Dreams:

Apparent Gravity was the third major application of the theories set forth in Hawking’s Conundrum, the great opus of Stephen Hawking which was not published until after his death in the earlier part of the century. He hadn’t released the work because evidently even he couldn’t really believe that it made any sense. It was, essentially, both too simple and too complex. And since he had died just shortly before the Fire-flu, with the chaos that brought, there had been a lag in his theory being fully understood and starting to be applied.

But it did account for all the established data, including much of the stuff that seemed valid but didn’t fit inside the previous paradigms. Using his theories, scientists and engineers learned that the structure of space itself could be manipulated. The first major application led to practical, safe, and efficient fusion power. Rather than forcing high-energy particles together, the forces keeping them apart were just removed. Or, more accurately, the manifestation of space between them was inverted. It took very little energy, was easy to control, but only worked in a very localized fashion

Then there’s this excellent non-technical explanation of a new theory of Shape Dynamics. An excerpt or two:

Their latest offering is something called “shape dynamics.” (If you’ve never heard of shape dynamics, that’s OK—neither have most physicists.) It could, of course, be a dead end, as most bold new ideas in physics are. Or it could be the next great revolution in our conception of the cosmos. Its supporters describe it as a new way of looking at gravity, although it could end up being quite a bit more than that. It appears to give a radical new picture of space and time—and of black holes in particular. It could even alter our view of what’s “real” in the universe.

* * *

In most situations, shape dynamics predicts what Einstein’s theory predicts. “For the vast majority of physical situations, the theories are equivalent,” Gryb says. In other words, the two frameworks are almost identical—but not quite.

Imagine dividing space-time up into billions upon billions of little patches. Within each patch, shape dynamics and general relativity tell the same story, Gryb says. But glue them all together, and a new kind of structure can emerge. For a concrete example of how this can happen, think of pulling together the two ends of a long, narrow strip of paper: Do it the usual way, and you get a loop; do it with a twist and you get a Möbius strip. “If you glue all the regions together to form a kind of global picture of space and time, then that global picture might actually be different.” So while shape dynamics may recreate Einstein’s theory on a small scale, the big-picture view of space and time may be novel.

Another prediction come true?

Not really — there were intimations of this theory when I was working on CoD, and it is a *very* long way from being accepted as valid, as the Nova article discusses.

But still …

 

Jim Downey

PS: new review of Communion of Dreams was put up yesterday. Check it out.

 



In defense of laziness.

I started this blog 9 years ago. Well, OK, that isn’t technically true until next Saturday.

That was 1,823 blog posts ago. And something on the order of a million words, give or take about a hundred thousand, according to my best estimates.

During the same time period I wrote another hundred thousand words or so for freelance articles (here, and elsewhere). And 187 blog posts/another 100,000 words here.

In addition, I helped write/compile/edit Her Final Year (which is available for free download today, btw). And rewrote/edited Communion of Dreams (also available for free download today) at least twice.

Oh, and I’ve been working on St Cybi’s Well. Have about a hundred thousand words done on that.

That’s between one and a half and two million words, depending on how you want to figure it.

And saying it that way sounds a bit impressive, and makes me feel better.

Feel better?

Well, see, I haven’t put up a blog post in almost a month.

And only 10 in the last three months.

And St Cybi’s Well was supposed to be finished more than two years ago.

What gives?

I’m not entirely sure. It’s not writer’s block, exactly, since I have been making progress on SCW, all along. For the last few months I have been in a steep downturn in my usual bipolar cycle, but it hasn’t been so bad that it has caused me the sort of depressive lethargy which can be deadly — I’ve actually had a clear mind and have been fairly productive in other aspects of my life.

Perhaps it’s just laziness.

But I’m not lazy. Oh, I mean that I can be lazy, sometimes, but it is just not usually a defining characteristic of my personality.

Perhaps …

… I dunno, perhaps it is just something that happens to authors, sometimes. And that’s OK. Really.

I guess you could call it unprofessional. Un-workmanlike. But let’s go ahead and call it laziness.

You know, like the laziness of everyone who is overweight. They’re too lazy to go to the gym.

Or the laziness of everyone who isn’t rich. Because clearly, they just don’t work hard enough to earn money.

Or the laziness of all those people who don’t do well in school. Hey, a little more effort, and they could have graduated from an ivy league.

Or the laziness of being judgmental, thinking that you know what other people need to do to improve their lives. To meet your expectations.

Oh, wait, that really is lazy. Sorry.

 

Jim Downey

PS: This isn’t meant in any way to excuse my failure to meet my obligations with my Kickstarter backers. Any such who would like a refund are certainly welcome to it; and for those who continue to tolerate my delay, I will make it up to them when the project is finished.



Phase two.

Excerpt from Chapter 8 of St Cybi’s Well, titled “Pentre Ifan”, which I wrote 18 months ago:

Darnell nodded. “Sure. Now let’s take a look at that satellite map.”

He pulled out his phone again, tapped it a couple of times. Soon they were looking down at their current location centered on the map, with the resolution such that Pentre Ifan was off on the very left edge of the screen. St. John pointed at a slightly lopsided ring due north of Craig Rhosyfelin about the same distance from Pentre Ifan. “There. See?”

Darnell zoomed in on the image. The ring expanded until it was about half the size of the screen. It was actually a double ring of trees, bisected by a chevron of a single line of trees. “Yeah, OK. Not a perfect circle. Looks like it has a bit of a pinch on the east side, almost as if pointing that way.”

“Exactly!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow you.”

St. John pointed at the screen. “Points due east. That’s because before it was made into a hill fort, there’s evidence to suggest that it was a henge.”

“Huh.” Darnell looked at the image again. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“And I think that it wasn’t just any henge. I think that it was the precursor to Stonehenge.” St. John looked at Darnell, and there was a slightly mad gleam in his eye. “In fact, I think that the henge which was there was disassembled and then transported to Wiltshire and rebuilt as the iconic structure we all know today.”

Go ahead, take a look for yourself.

Then take a look at this item from yesterday. Here’s a good excerpt:

“We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC,” he said. “It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view. It’s more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire.”

The dating evidence suggests that Stonehenge could be older than previously thought, Parker Pearson said. “But we think it’s more likely that they were building their own monument [in Wales], that somewhere near the quarries there is the first Stonehenge and that what we’re seeing at Stonehenge is a second-hand monument.”

I scare myself sometimes.

 

Jim Downey




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