Communion Of Dreams


For What It’s Worth.

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware*

Minority Report, anyone?

When the Chicago Police Department sent one of its commanders to Robert McDaniel’s home last summer, the 22-year-old high school dropout was surprised. Though he lived in a neighborhood well-known for bloodshed on its streets, he hadn’t committed a crime or interacted with a police officer recently. And he didn’t have a violent criminal record, nor any gun violations. In August, he incredulously told the Chicago Tribune, “I haven’t done nothing that the next kid growing up hadn’t done.” Yet, there stood the female police commander at his front door with a stern message: if you commit any crimes, there will be major consequences. We’re watching you.

What McDaniel didn’t know was that he had been placed on the city’s “heat list” — an index of the roughly 400 people in the city of Chicago supposedly most likely to be involved in violent crime. Inspired by a Yale sociologist’s studies and compiled using an algorithm created by an engineer at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the heat list is just one example of the experiments the CPD is conducting as it attempts to push policing into the 21st century.

 

Jim Downey

*



It’s not about security. It’s about abuse and incompetence.

I know sometimes people think that I am anti-government or anti-authority because I rant about infringements of our civil rights and personal liberties. I’ll cop to some of that, since I do believe that trading freedom (or even privacy) for a false security is foolish.

But more importantly, I think that the whole notion of secret courts or secret laws or secret lists are dangerous because they can be abused not due to an over-enthusiastic effort to protect the country, but because of personal grudges or to cover up incompetence. Without the ability to challenge these secret acts/actions, those abuses and incompetence cannot be brought to light and corrected. This is the perfect example of that:

The government contested a former Stanford University student’s assertion that she was wrongly placed on a no-fly list for seven years in court despite knowing an FBI official put her on the list by mistake because he checked the “wrong boxes” on a form, a federal judge wrote today.

The agent, Michael Kelly, based in San Jose, misunderstood the directions on the form and “erroneously nominated” Rahinah Ibrahim to the list in 2004, the judge wrote.

“He checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote (.pdf) today.

* * *

Much of the federal court trial, in which the woman sought only to clear her name, was conducted in secret after U.S. officials repeatedly invoked the state secrets privilege and sought to have the case dismissed.

 

Doctor Ibrahim is the first person to successfully challenge in court being put on a government watch list in the US. It’s highly doubtful that she is the only one to be placed on such a list incorrectly.

National security may benefit from secret lists and hidden actions. But so does bureaucratic incompetence and hidden agendas.

 

Jim Downey



It’s a mystery.*

Some more ‘quick hits’ …

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here’s a very good article about the nuance of what you can/should call a book, and the sort of question I have had to dance around countless times when people have asked me what was the “oldest book” I’ve ever worked on:

What is the Oldest Book in the World?

The past few days I have been preoccupied with a deceptively simple question: “What is the oldest book in the world?” Having done some looking around I can now report that while somewhere on this planet, in a vault or a cupboard, lies the oldest surviving book, it is actually impossible to say which one may be branded as such. Bear with me.

 

* * *

A light bulb in our kitchen blew out, and needed to be replaced. Routine, except that this bulb was in a fixture on the ceiling in the part of the kitchen where the ceiling is 12′ (I live in an old house). Still, no big deal — we have a tall enough step ladder so it’s just a minor hassle.

So I set up the ladder, climbed to the fixture, new CFC bulb in hand. The fixture is one of those old kind that have been used for 50+ years, with a glass sphere hanging from a metal ring, more or less enclosing the whole thing. You back out three set-screws, drop the sphere, clean out the various small flying bugs which have gotten into it over the years, replace the bulb and then put the sphere back.

And there were some small dead flying bugs. But there were also several large crickets. Dead. And one small live one.

How the hell did they get into that fixture?

 

* * *

Anyone who thinks we’re not living in a partial police state just hasn’t been paying attention. To apply William Gibson’s classic phrase in a rather darker way: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal agents wrongfully strip-searched a New Mexico woman at the El Paso border crossing, then took her to a hospital where she was forced to undergo illegal body cavity probes in an attempt to find drugs, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in El Paso said the unnamed 54-year-old U.S. citizen was “brutally” searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in December 2012 after being selected for additional random screening at the Cordova Bridge in El Paso when a drug sniffing dog jumped on her. The woman was returning from a visit to a recently deported family friend in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, the lawsuit said.

Agents quickly stripped searched her and did cavity searches but found no evidence of drugs, court documents said. But the woman was transported in handcuffs to the University Medical Center of El Paso, the lawsuit said, where doctors subjected her to an observed bowel movement, a CT scan and other exams without a warrant.

Via BoingBoing.

 

* * *

Enough for now, except to note that this is blog post #1,600 and we’re rapidly closing on 100,000 hits to this blog! Yay!

Have a good weekend!

Jim Downey

*Reference this.



That’s it. I give up.

I’ve complained a number of times recently about how revelations of spying and other government activity from our reality keep messing up my efforts to depict a growing dystopian society in St. Cybi’s Well.  It’s happened again, and I’m gonna just give up on the effort to try and stay ahead. I swear, it’s like my ideas keep bleeding over into this existence.

What am I talking about? Well, here’s a passage from what I call the “Prelude” to St. Cybi’s Well, which I wrote months ago:

He turned the hand-held on, did a quick check to make sure it had the software and apps he’d asked for. Everything was there. He’d pick up a burner phone later, and swap the SIMM card into the hand-held. He turned off the hand-held, dropped it into a special pocket inside his vest – one which was RF-blocked. He had another such compartment in his satchel. These, like the wallet/holster, were prohibited items and grounds for arrest in the States, but while they would raise an eyebrow in the UK they weren’t technically illegal.

Got it? For the world of St. Cybi’s Well it is *illegal* in the US to own a wallet or have a pocket which is hidden from government surveillance.  For me, this was one way to draw a distinction between that society, and our own.

Well, guess what is in the news today:

There is a truly bizarre case out of Ohio where Norman Gurley, 30, was arrested for having a hidden compartment in his car. However, there were no drugs or guns or anything illegal in the compartment. Indeed, there was nothing illegal in the car or on Gurley. However, just have a hidden compartment in your car can now be charged as a crime in Ohio.

*Sigh*

 

Jim Downey



“It’s Philip K Dick’s world; we just live in it.”*

Speculation about what technological change can do to society is at the very heart of Science Fiction.

It also works pretty well for other cautionary tales:

We now know that the NSA is collecting location information en masse. As we’ve long said, location data is an extremely powerful set of information about people. To flesh out why that is true, here is the kind of future memo that we fear may someday soon be uncovered:

Sorry for the light posting the last few days; the latest viral thing going around managed to get more of a grip on my body than I would have liked. But the work on St. Cybi’s Well continues to go well.

 

Jim Downey

*From this comment on MetaFilter. The whole discussion is worth reading.



Hard to keep up.

As I’ve noted before, it’s hard to keep up with the steady trickle of revelations about what the NSA has been up to, and how the reality of what has actually been going on keeps surpassing the dystopian aspects I have been writing about in St. Cybi’s Well.  For example, here’s this passage from the beginning of the book:

He turned the hand-held on, did a quick check to make sure it had the software and apps he’d asked for. Everything was there. He’d pick up a burner phone later, and swap the SIMM card into the hand-held. He turned off the hand-held, dropped it into a special pocket inside his vest – one which was RF-blocked. He had another such compartment in his satchel. These, like the wallet/holster, were prohibited items and grounds for arrest in the States, but while they would raise an eyebrow in the UK they weren’t technically illegal.

With this item from yesterday’s Washington Post revelations that the NSA and related agencies are basically tracking every cell phone on the planet:

The NSA’s capabilities to track location are staggering, based on the Snowden documents, and indicate that the agency is able to render most efforts at communications security effectively futile.

Like encryption and anonymity tools online, which are used by dissidents, journalists and terrorists alike, security-minded behavior — using disposable cellphones and switching them on only long enough to make brief calls — marks a user for special scrutiny. CO-TRAVELER takes note, for example, when a new telephone connects to a cell tower soon after another nearby device is used for the last time.

Now, see, I was thinking I’d use something exactly like that as the ‘rude surprise’ which would trip up my protagonist later in the novel, since he wouldn’t expect that the NSA would have that level of data-collection ability.

*Sigh.* So much for my trying to come up with a dystopian reality …

And this is timely:

 

Non Sequitur

 

Jim Downey



Hey, it’s just $900 million …

Well, that’s terribly surprising: the GAO is out with a new report from their investigation of the TSA’s Behavior Profiling program, and it turns out that it doesn’t work.  From NPR:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal probe of a Transportation Security Administration program to screen suspicious behavior of passengers at airports suggests the effort, which has cost almost $1 billion since 2007, has not been proven effective, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Government Accountability Office said its investigation found that the results of the TSA program — called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques — were “no better than chance.” Under the program, agents identify suspicious looking people and talk to them to determine whether they pose a threat. The investigators looked at the screening program at four airports, chosen on the basis of size and other factors.

“TSA has yet to empirically demonstrate the effectiveness of the program despite spending about $900 million on it since 2007,” said Steve Lord, who directed the investigation for the GAO. He said the GAO, which is the research and investigative arm of Congress, “conducts active oversight of the TSA for the Congress given their multibillion-dollar budget.” He said “the behavior detection program is viewed as a key layer of aviation security.”

Yeah, a “key layer” that doesn’t work. From ars technica:

It sounds pretty science-y, but it turns out that, in practice, BDOs across the country are referring passengers for secondary screenings at very different rates. For a program based on “objective” biometric measurements of deception, this is not the result one would hope to see. (Even the TSA admitted to GAO auditors that some of the observations were “subjective”; it is trying to rein these in.) And Ekman, who helped set up the program, told GAO three years ago that no one knew “how many BDOs are required to observe a given number of passengers moving at a given rate per day in an airport environment, or the length of time that such observation can be conducted before observation fatigue affects the effectiveness of the personnel.”

For the report, GAO auditors looked at the outside scientific literature, speaking to behavioral researchers and examining meta-analyses of 400 separate academic studies on unmasking liars. That literature suggests that “the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance (54 percent).” That result holds whether or not the observer is a member of law enforcement.

It turns out that all of those signs you instinctively “know” to indicate deception usually don’t. Lack of eye contact for instance simply does not correlate with deception when examined in empirical studies. Nor do increases in body movements such as tapping fingers or toes; the literature shows that people’s movements actually decrease when lying. A 2008 study for the Department of Defense found that “no compelling evidence exists to support remote observation of physiological signals that may indicate fear or nervousness in an operational scenario by human observers.”

Like I said, surprising.

Or, you know, not at all.

But at least they spent almost a billion dollars of our money. That’s something.

 

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



Just wanting to help.

Almost every morning me and the dog go for a walk through the neighborhood. We have a well-established track about a mile long, which allows the dog to check his pmail and me to enjoy the changing seasons. At several points we have to cross from one side of the street to the other, and the dog has long since learned to pause at these junctures and wait for me to give him the go-ahead to cross. He’s a smart guy.

One morning recently a fellow in a big red pickup stopped at one of these crossing points, and kindly waved for me and the dog to go ahead and cross. He was just wanting to help.

 

* * * * * * *

Did you remember that yesterday was Constitution Day?

 

* * * * * * *

John Moses Browning was a firearms designer who was born in 1855. His design for the M1911 is considered to this day to be one of the best designs for a handgun, and 1911 variants are still extremely popular. Of the 1911 it has been said “designed by a genius to be used by morons.”

 

* * * * * * *

FISA court releases opinion upholding NSA phone program

A federal surveillance court on Tuesday released a declassified opinion upholding the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s sweeping collection of billions of Americans’ phone records for counterterrorism purposes.

The gathering of “all call detail records” from phone companies is justified as long as the government can show that it is relevant to an authorized investigation into known — and, significantly — unknown terrorists who may be in the United States, the Aug. 29 opinion states.

Moreover, the government need only show that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” the records will be relevant to the investigation, a lower burden than required in ordinary criminal investigations. That is justified because the goal is to prevent a terrorist attack, not solve a crime that has already taken place, the court said, affirming the government’s position.

 

I feel safer already.

 

* * * * * * *

Almost every morning me and the dog go for a walk through the neighborhood. We have a well-established track about a mile long, which allows the dog to check his pmail and me to enjoy the changing seasons. At several points we have to cross from one side of the street to the other, and the dog has long since learned to pause at these junctures and wait for me to give him the go-ahead to cross. He’s a smart guy.

One morning recently a fellow in a big red pickup stopped at one of these crossing points, and kindly waved for me and the dog to go ahead and cross. He was just wanting to help.

I smiled, nodded, and then motioned him to go ahead. He looked at me for a moment, confused, and waved again for me to cross. I shook my head. Looking a little offended, he shrugged and went ahead through the intersection.

I sighed. The dog looked up at me from his waiting position. I gave him the command to go ahead and cross the street. He did. Like I said, he’s a smart guy.

Smart enough that I don’t want him drawing the lesson that it is OK to walk out in front of pickup trucks, even if their drivers are just wanting to help.

 

Jim Downey

 



Before and after.

Remember these?

20130912_154245

Well, yesterday afternoon I got around to prepping about half of them to dry:

20130915_211208

Overnight I dried the peppers.

* * * * * * *

An interesting take on incorporating an additional dimension into photography:

Photographer and historian Marc Hermann has done a beautiful job pulling historic crime scene photos from the New York Daily News archive to blend them with photographs of the same locations today. For those who live in New York now, it may be easy to forget just how rough the city was in the not-too-distant past.

Grisly violence is an undeniable part of New York’s DNA and the juxtaposition of the old, black and white images with the modern “Times Square” version of what most people expect today is incredibly fascinating – truly making ghosts walk amongst us.

* * * * * * *

Remember this?

What has also been my plan, but which I hadn’t quite been able to sort out how to accomplish, was that in St. Cybi’s Well much of the story will revolve around *how* this character came to have those dream-visions in the first place. This is further complicated by the fact that I don’t necessarily want the character to realize the full import of what he experiences within the context of the story – the reader should be able to draw out conclusions which the character wouldn’t, especially if the reader had already read Communion of Dreams.

OK, got all that? So, here’s what I experienced at Baia Castle: the revelation that the classical sculptures of Greek and Roman mythology could themselves be the conduit for the dream-visions. I got this by walking through the collection – not just walking through it, but by seeing the juxtaposition of different sculptures within the somewhat under-lit and under-stated layout of the museum.

See, like in most of the museums we had visited, the climate control there was non-existent. And whether in order to keep down temps a bit, or just to save money on electricity, the only lighting throughout the space was from windows along one side of the building. And the layout of the building was a series of almost cave-like ‘bunkers’ – rooms which were kinda long & narrow with a relatively low ceiling, and done up in neutral grey tones.

It was perfect. And in a moment my mind made the leap to imagery for St. Cybi’s Well. Because, like many of the different ‘holy wells’ in Wales, it dates back to the middle of the 6th century – not that long after the fall of Rome. And, in fact, the spread of Christianity to the Celtic lands was part of the cultural transference which took place. It’d be easy to tweak the history just a bit to include ‘lost’ sculpture & myth.

I felt in that moment the same way I feel now: like laughing maniacally.

And an appropriate (and somewhat telling) image from that same blog post:

Prometheus. Not Ridly Scott's version. The original.

Prometheus. Not Ridly Scott’s version. The original.

* * * * * * *

A passage from an excellent essay on the roots of Enlightenment thought about justice.

Rarely in the history of thought do I have a chance to say the outcome was so simply good, but it worked.  Within their lifetimes, Voltaire and Beccaria saw real reform, a sincere and solid transformation of the legal codes of most of Europe, the spread of deterrence-based justicial thought.  Within decades, judicial torture virtually vanished from European law.  The laws of America, and of the other new constitutions drafted in the latter 18th century, all show the touch of Beccaria’s call.  It worked.  The change was not absolute, of course.  Torture, the primary target, retreated, as did the notions of retributive justice, avenging dignity, and purging sin.  But prisons were still squalid, punishments severe, and other things Beccaria had campaigned against remained, capital punishment primary among them.  But even here there was what Beccaria would call progress.  The guillotine lives in infamy, but it too was a consequence of this call for enlightened justice: a quick, egalitarian execution, death with the least possible suffering, and equal for all, giving no advantage to the noble, who had long been able to hire an expert and humane headsman while the poor man suffered the clumsy hackings of an amateur who might take many blows to sever a writhing neck.  Most states judged death still necessary, but agreed that law and punishment should bind all men equally, and that unnecessary pain did not serve the public good.  It is strange to call the guillotine a happy ending, but it was in a small way, and even more victorious was the dialog it that birthed it.

* * * * * * *

Overnight I dried the peppers. Here they are this morning:

20130916_064646

Why, yes, all of these things are connected.   ;)

Jim Downey




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