Communion Of Dreams


Touch and go.

OK, this project from NASA is pretty damned cool:

 

Phil Plait describes it:

This is not a special effects scene from a science fiction movie: This is real. It’s a video showing the Morpheus Project prototype vertical takeoff and lander doing its thing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Mar. 5, 2014 (and you absolutely want to make it full screen and turn the sound up to get the full effect).

 

Furthermore, it’s a completely autonomous system — onboard software — doing the take-off and landing.

Impressive.

 

Jim Downey



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



Thinking about the unthinkable.*

Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the release of the classic film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” It’s long been one of my favorite movies, even as a kid. Yeah, I was a strange kid. Don’t act like you’re surprised.

Anyway, Eric Schlosser has a good article in The New Yorker reflecting on how the movie, originally considered a farce, was actually frighteningly accurate. From the article:

A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.

 

“Detecting nuclear detonations” … hmm, where have I heard that phrase recently? Oh, yeah:

A Sound of Cosmic Thunder: Earth-Impacting Asteroid Heard by Nuke Detectors

On the second day of 2014, a small asteroid blew up high in Earth’s atmosphere. It was relatively harmless—the rock was only a couple of meters across, far too small to hit the ground or do any real damage—and it disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean anyway.

What’s cool is that now we know for sure this is the case: Infrasound detectors designed to listen for nuclear bomb detonations actually heard the explosion from the impact and were able to pinpoint the location of the event to a few hundred kilometers east off the coast of Venezuela.

NASA put together a nice informative video explaining it:

 

Gee, it sure is a good thing nothing like that has ever hit the territory of the old USSR … er, oops.

And now that I’ve given you a nice dose of fright, let me make it up to you with a reminder that you can download Communion of Dreams (which has it all … game theory, nuclear exchanges, and more than a little of my old strangeness) for free today and tomorrow!

 

Jim Downey

*The title of one of Herman Kahn‘s books about nuclear war/deterrence, and where I think I was first exposed to the concepts behind game theory.  I’ve got Schlosser’s book Command and Control on my to-read list when the Kindle price comes down a bit.



“I, for one, …”

… well, you know the rest.  Granted, the RoboSimian is still tethered, and moves fairly slowly, but it certainly is another glimpse into how quickly robotics are progressing. See for yourself:

 

Jim Downey



Not exactly ‘The Prisoner’, but …

A small excerpt from the current chapter I’m writing:

“Explain,” said Darnell.

“Simple: however hostile you are to the government, you still love your country and don’t want to see it harmed,” said Smith.

“We’re not asking you to do anything in support of the government,” added Jones. “However, if you hear of something which might be a threat to the people of America, please let us know.”

Darnell sipped his wine, looked out over the estuary below the terrace. The image of Patrick McGoohan racing across the sand flats, trying to get away, came to him. He looked up. “Hear something? Why should I hear something?”

Why yes, that scene is set in Portmeirion. :)

The writing continues to go well, though I occasionally have small crises of confidence, panic attacks over the thought that I have anything to say. Ah, well, it’s part of the process, and you just have to set those fears aside and get on with the story as best you can. I think that this is where my training and work as a book conservator comes in handy — I understand tackling jobs which at first seem to be too much, to be beyond my skill level. Because when you break them down into small steps, they’re manageable. I don’t have to write the whole novel; I just have to write the next scene.

 

Jim Downey

PS: Completely unrelated, but do yourself a favor — go read this, and watch the embedded video. Trust me.



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




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