Communion Of Dreams


“… and I feel fine.”*

I ‘put to bed’ Chapter Nine of St Cybi’s Well yesterday. Meaning that it is completed well enough that I can move on to the next chapter, with the expectation that there will likely be some slight-to-moderate revisions later as the rest of the book is written.

That’s the halfway point in the actual writing of the novel, though since I have a lot of the rest of the infrastructure of the book done, it means that I’m probably more like 70% done. Exciting.

And also a little … sobering. I’ve mentioned it before, but given the events of this book (which is the historical backdrop of Communion of Dreams), this book has an understandable darkness to it. Here’s a bit from the last page of Chapter Nine to show what I mean:

The Jeconiah protocols covered a range of possible emergency conditions. Some would just require all available crews to report to base. Some would accelerate planned shipments. Some would mean preselected VIPs would be transferred to the Moon under increased security.

But Program One meant immediate isolation of the shuttle launch facility under the strictest security possible. Soon the Israelis would be launching all available shuttles with emergency supplies, using only crew who were already in normal pre-flight quarantine. This was in an effort to isolate and protect the New Ma’abarot colonies from whatever was happening here. As far as the Lunar colonies were concerned, Earth was now quarantined. It was a failsafe protocol – probably an over-reaction, but one they were willing to chance. If things turned out to be not too bad here on Earth, the quarantine could be relaxed later.

 

Or, you know, not.

So yeah, dark. Especially when I read something like this, in  a very good article about human extinction:

Humans have a long history of using biology’s deadlier innovations for ill ends; we have proved especially adept at the weaponisation of microbes. In antiquity, we sent plagues into cities by catapulting corpses over fortified walls. Now we have more cunning Trojan horses. We have even stashed smallpox in blankets, disguising disease as a gift of good will. Still, these are crude techniques, primitive attempts to loose lethal organisms on our fellow man. In 1993, the death cult that gassed Tokyo’s subways flew to the African rainforest in order to acquire the Ebola virus, a tool it hoped to use to usher in Armageddon. In the future, even small, unsophisticated groups will be able to enhance pathogens, or invent them wholesale.

 

Sarin. Ebola. Gee, where have I heard those names recently? Oh, yeah.

Damn, sometimes I hate to be so right about things …

 

Jim Downey

*Yup.

 

 



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



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



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

 



Toxic Security Administration.

I’m not sure which is more depressing: that this happened, or that I find it completely unsurprising that it happened.  What’s that? This:

…a harrowing story from Aditya Mukerjee about his recent attempt to fly from New York to Los Angeles. After being pulled aside in the security line, he faced hours of interrogation by uncommunicative officials from several different agencies. When he was finally cleared, his airline, Jet Blue, wouldn’t let him on the plane anyway. When he got home, he found evidence that it had been searched.

The entire sickening story, told by the man it happened to, can be found here: Don’t Fly During Ramadan.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve almost given up even mentioning the absurdity of the TSA’s latest actions. Like the revelations about what the NSA has been doing, it seems like there is really little point in it. I just keep filing away the latest news items and go back to adjust what is included in St. Cybi’s Well. Because no matter how egregious the violations of our civil liberties, there’s always someone to come along and say that they’re happy to have the “security” which is being provided.

 

Jim Downey

 



Fading.

As we were on our morning walk, I rolled my right hand over a bit and looked at the blade of it. My wife looked down at it as well.

“How is it doing?”

I flexed the hand back and forth a bit. The pale yellow-green of a late-stage bruise was still very evident.

 

* * * * * * *

U.S. Warns Syria on Chemical Weapons

WASHINGTON — President Obama warned Syria on Monday not to use chemical weapons against its own people, vowing to hold accountable anyone who did, even as American intelligence officials picked up signs that such arms might be deployed in the fighting there.

The White House said it had an “increased concern” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use such weapons, effectively confirming earlier reports of activity at chemical weapons sites. The administration said it would take action if they were used, suggesting even the possibility of military force.

“Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

* * * * * * *

From The Long, Twilight Struggle:

Londo Mollari: Refa, any force attempting to invade Narn would be up to its neck in blood–its own!

Lord Refa: We have no intention of invading Narn. Flattening it, yes–but invading it? We will be using mass drivers. By the time we are done their cities will be in ruins, we can move in at our leisure!

Londo Mollari: Mass drivers? They have been outlawed by every civilized planet!

Lord Refa: These are uncivilized times.

Londo Mollari: We have treaties!

Lord Refa: Ink on a page!

 

* * * * * * *

Chemical Weapons Convention

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Its full name is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. The agreement is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is an independent organization based in The Hague, Netherlands.

The main obligation under the convention is the prohibition of use and production of chemical weapons, as well as the destruction of all chemical weapons. The destruction activities are verified by the OPCW. As of January 2013, around 78% of the (declared) stockpile of chemical weapons has thus been destroyed.[5][6] The convention also has provisions for systematic evaluation of chemical and military plants, as well as for investigations of allegations of use and production of chemical weapons based on intelligence of other state parties.

Currently 188 states are party to the CWC, and another two countries (Israel and Myanmar) have signed but not yet ratified the convention.[1]

Syria is one of six UN member states who are not signatories to the Convention.

 

* * * * * * *

Shortly after the conversation above:

 

* * * * * * *

Syria crisis: ‘Strong evidence’ of chemical attacks, in Saraqeb

The BBC has been shown evidence which appears to corroborate reports of a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb last month. Eyewitnesses and victims say that government helicopters dropped at least two devices containing poisonous gas on the town.

The Syrian government says it did not and will not use chemical weapons.

Shortly after midday on 29 April, the town of Saraqeb came under attack from government military positions about five miles (8km) away. A local activist we met filmed as the shells landed.

 

* * * * * * *

As we were on our morning walk, I rolled my right hand over a bit and looked at the blade of it. My wife looked down at it as well.

“How is it doing?”

I flexed the hand back and forth a bit. The pale yellow-green of a late-stage bruise was still very evident.

“It’s healing. The pain has gone from being that bright, intense flash you get from a broken bone to a dull but substantial ache. That tells me that it’s knitting back together properly. A few more days of not stressing the hand, and it’ll be OK.”

We paused, watched the dog take care of his business. As I reached down with a plastic bag to remove the results from the neighbor’s lawn, I thought about how lucky I was.

 

Jim Downey



Reflecting (on) reality.

Any work of literature is, to some extent, part of the society in which it was written, and needs to be understood within that context. Whether you’re talking The Bonfire of the Vanities or On the Beach or Life on the Mississippi  or just about any novel you care to name, it is, to some extent, a reflection on the culture surrounding it.

Writers react to the events around them. Even science fiction authors like yours truly. We really can’t avoid it.

I mentioned events in Boston the other day.  Just a blog post. But it is some measure of what has gotten my attention. So it would be safe to assume that to some degree it will show up in St. Cybi’s Well. And it will. But perhaps not exactly as you might think.

Almost five years ago I wrote this:

This is nothing more or less than the peace of the gun. This is the abrogation of civil liberties as a solution for incompetent governance. Of course people like it – let things get bad enough that they fear for their lives more than they value their liberties, and you can get people to do almost anything.

Now, I don’t think that what happened in Boston was anything like what led to that blog post about HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. in August of 2008. In that instance, it was chronic problems with crime rather than a couple of domestic terrorists which brought about de facto martial law.

And I think that the police agencies involved in determining who was responsible for the attacks, and then seeking the suspects in a major metropolitan area did a very professional job. Just compare it to another recent dragnet and you’ll see what I mean.

But I keep coming back to that earlier blog post. Why? Because seeing a major city shut down, and then para-military operations going house to house searching for a suspect, gives me pause. I certainly can’t fault the police for taking precautions intended to protect their own lives and the lives of citizens. SWAT equipment and tactics have been shown to be very effective.

Yet …

… I feel somewhat like the owner of a couple of highly trained and massive guard dogs, who has just watched those dogs chase off/control a threat. There’s a satisfaction in watching them do the task so well. But there’s also a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, things could be bad if they ever decided that they no longer wanted to obey commands.

Nah – no need to worry. That has never happened before.

 

Jim Downey

 

 

 



All mixed up.

It’s been a confused Spring. The redbuds are just coming into color, while the Bradford pears are in full bloom and the magnolia trees are already shedding their petals. That’s all mixed up.

* * * * * * *

Our vet was here (yes, he only does house-calls) this week for the critters’ annual check-up and shots. We started with our oldest cat, who is 13 this year.

After going through his routine, sitting on our kitchen floor still holding the cat, he looked up at me and said: “Not bad for a body designed by nature to last just three or four years.”

* * * * * * *

There was recently a bit of a flap over the appropriateness/quality of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, prompted by a new stage production of the play.  I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, but I know this sort of thing pops up from time to time, due to changing societal norms about marriage, sex, and violence. This paragraph from the linked article sums up the current qualms:

Romeo and Juliet itself hasn’t aged well. The story follows Juliet Capulet, who is 13 when she meets Romeo Montague at a party, falls head over heels in love with him, and marries him within a day of meeting him. Romeo’s age isn’t specified in the play, but the quickness with which he throws over a former flame for Juliet doesn’t suggest a particularly mature man. Maybe this works on the page, when we’re not forced to watch actors and actresses who are clearly in their 20s and 30s behave like early teenagers. But the effect is embarrassing and unsettling for today’s theater audiences, perhaps already fretting over suspended adolescence and stunted millenials.

* * * * * * *

It was a rough week in Boston. To say the least.

And, like much of the rest of the nation, I was distracted almost to the point of obsession by the latest developments in the news, and how it all played out. Part of that distraction manifested in following discussions on several sites, including one of my favorites, MetaFilter. Which is where, last night after the second suspect was captured, there was a sentiment expressed which I found to be curious and challenging. This sentiment:

I won’t feel bad for feeling bad for this kid. And while he is legally an adult, I think back to when I was 19, and I sure as shit wasn’t making adult decisions then. YMMV. He did something unspeakably horrible, yes, but, he is still a human being. Maybe they were psychopaths, but we don’t know yet why this happened. Right now, this was a senseless act of violence, and I want to know why this happened. I want to know the motive that led to a friend of mine holing up in his basement two houses away in Watertown while this shit went down. I cannot rationalize this, but I also grew up in a peaceful suburb, and not, you know, a wartorn Soviet nation. If I believed that people were just born evil, I don’t think I could survive in this world. Again, YMMV, but compassion is helping me cope with this.
posted by Ruki at 8:01 PM on April 19

And a bit later, this one (an excerpt):

This young man was once someone’s cute 8 year-old. Somehow, somewhere, that adorable hope that we see in every 8 year-old was replaced with something sinister, and he made terrible decisions that caused death and pain. And now, even if he’s only given life in prison, his life is OVER.

I am sad that a life that had such potential has gone so badly awry. I am sad that his mother, who surely had great hopes and dreams for her children, is seeing those dreams shattered, is dealing with the grief and maybe even guilt of both of her sons turning to violence and terrorism.

Maybe it’s because my sons are so close to him in age. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, grieving that a young person has thrown his life away without really understanding the consequences of doing so. I don’t know. But I hurt for everyone involved – the people who died, the people who were wounded, the elder brother who should have known better, and this 19 year-old kid who had the world at his feet. It sucks all around, and I don’t know what else to do except feel great sorrow over the entire situation.
posted by MissySedai at 8:29 PM on April 19

* * * * * * *

From the closing paragraph of the Romeo and Juliet article:

But beyond that, the vision of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths uniting their families is an adolescent fantasy of death solving all problems, a “won’t they miss me when I’m gone” pout. There’s a reason that, in the best modern riff on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Maria lives after Tony’s death to shame the Sharks and the Jets, her survival a seal on the truce between them. Dying is easy. Living to survive the consequences of your actions and to do the actual work of reconciliation is the hard part.

* * * * * * *

“You guys grow ‘em long,” continued our vet, as he released the old cat. “The last one lived to what, 19?”

“I think so. We’ve been lucky.”

* * * * * * *

It’s been a confused Spring. The redbuds are just coming into color, while the Bradford pears are in full bloom and the magnolia trees are already shedding their petals. That’s all mixed up.

Soon I’ll have the garden tilled. Just yesterday I placed my annual order for pepper plants, which will be delivered in a couple of weeks. That’s still too early to plant them, but I’ll be able to ‘harden them off’ in the shelter of the carport until the latter part of May. Then they’ll have a much better chance of thriving in my garden. I’ll do what I can, but at some point they’re on their own.

 

Jim Downey

 



Updating PT Barnum.

OK, granted, it probably wasn’t P.T. Barnum who uttered the famous phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  But if I titled this post “Updating David Hannum” almost no one would have recognized the name.

Anyway.

While I think the maxim still holds true, I think that it could be updated to reflect current usage more accurately.  Sure, there are still some “suckers” around — people who are ignorant or unsophisticated generally, or who have just enough larceny in their soul to tempt them to take risks they should know better than take (“you can’t cheat an honest man”) — but the kind of ignorance or unsophistication which existed in Barnum’s time is fairly uncommon now.

With one major exception: people who are suckers because they’re scared.

Fear short-circuits our decision making abilities, particularly if you’re not aware of what it can do and trained to recognize and counteract it. Unfortunately, even though plenty of people are aware of what effect it can have, most folks aren’t very good at recognizing when it is working on them, nor what to do to negate the effect. To borrow a phrase, we’re “little brains”:

Bob Diamond: Being from Earth, as you are, and using as little of your brain as you do, your life has pretty much been devoted to dealing with fear.
Daniel Miller: It has?
Bob Diamond: Well everybody on Earth deals with fear – that’s what little brains do.
Bob Diamond: …Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything – real feelings, true happiness, real joy. They can’t get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy, you’re in for the ride of your life.
Daniel Miller: God… my three percent is swimming.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Partly because it is a major component of the ‘background’ of St. Cybi’s Well  (you’ll see) but also because of the 10-year anniversary retrospective of the start of the Iraq War. A war which I think most people in the U.S. will now agree was sold to the public more on the basis of fear than objective evidence. Whether or not those who did the selling were also acting out of fear I leave for others to argue.

And because I’ve been thinking a lot about how fear is used in this way, I’ve been seeing more and more examples of how that is done. Just this morning I came across a very good article about personal cyber security which was a perfect example of fear-based reporting. Yeah, sure, the article raises legitimate concerns, and ones which each of us should address, but the overall tone (and response by many people) is one of fear. And this kind of thing is done routinely by news outlets; there’s always some new cancer-causing food scare, or story about child predators, or a report on how fragile the economy/environment/whatever is. And all of this is used to sell us something. Sometimes it’s just page clicks. Sometimes it’s newspapers. Sometimes it’s Home Security systems. Sometimes it’s guns. Sometimes it’s a war.

And we buy it. Because we’re suckers. Because we’re “little brains.” Because we’re afraid.

So, back to updating David Hannum, er, I mean P.T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Personally, I like “There’s a little brain born every minute” but it requires too much context for people to understand. Defending Your Life wasn’t *that* popular.

How about “There’s a sheep born every minute”, then?

I think that works pretty well. Conveys the timidity of a somewhat panicked animal, one which is used for the benefit of others. “Sheeple” is already a common slang term. And it references the classic SF novel by John Brunner. Which really isn’t important for a generic cultural maxim, but amuses me.

Yeah, definitely: “There’s a sheep born every minute.”

 

Jim Downey




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 175 other followers