Communion Of Dreams


This could be straight out of …

St Cybi’s Well, what with an incompetent theocratic government in place:

So imagine the scenario. A deadly flu pandemic is beginning in the northeast. TSA agents are asked to report for work in the germ incubators that are airports to keep the transportation system running. And while their bosses in Washington, D.C. can’t supply them with reliably functioning respirators to protect them from infection, they’re keeping thousands that may not work on hand, thinking they may hand them out for “employee comfort,” like security theater karma for those who make us remove our shoes and take our water.

But sadly, scarily, it isn’t. Rather, that passage is from the following news item:

The Department of Homeland Security Is Not Prepared for a Pandemic

As the Department of Homeland Security endeavors to prevent another 9/11, a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, it is worth remembering that there are far deadlier threats out there. I speak not of ISIS or Ebola, but the influenza virus. The flu pandemic that began in 1918 killed 675,000 Americans. That is to say, it killed about as many Americans in a couple years as the AIDS virus has in decades. Worldwide, that same flu pandemic killed an estimated 30 to 50 million people. It would take 16,000 attacks like 9/11 to equal that death toll. Those figures powerfully illustrate the case for redirecting some of what the United States spends on counterterrorism to protecting ourselves from public health threats.

Of course, money only helps if it isn’t squandered. Take the extra $47 million dollars that Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security in 2006 to prepare for a pandemic. As a recent Inspector General report explains in depressing detail, a lot of that money was wasted. And one darkly hilarious passage in the audit reveals what may be the most galling example of security theater ever.

Oh, joy.

But it’s OK, because the rest of the world is ready to step up and fight against a viral threat which could explode into millions of cases in just a few weeks, right?

Um …

Dire Predictions On Ebola’s Spread From Top Health Organizations

Two of the world’s top health organizations released predictions Tuesday warning how bad the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could get.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization agree that the epidemic is speeding up. But the CDC’s worst-case scenario is a jaw-dropper: If interventions don’t start working soon, as many as 1.4 million people could be infected by Jan. 20, the agency reported in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

*sigh*

Sometimes it feels less like I’m writing a cautionary work of fiction and more like I am looking back and writing an historical account …

 

Jim Downey



Encouragement.

It’s a funny thing. I feel like I am making solid progress on St Cybi’s Well. It’s going slower than I would like (hell, I should have been done with the book over a year ago according to the original plan). And I have the usual minor blockages and set-backs that anyone trying to write something substantial is going to experience from time to time. I freely admit that getting another rejection from an agent was more of a blow than I expected. But in general I am happy with the way the writing is going, and excited to keep working on it.

Then something comes along which makes me realize just how much a small boost can be an encouragement.

Specifically, I got a note from one of my ‘beta readers’ yesterday, giving me some feedback on the book through Chapter 9 (I’m about to finish up Chapter 10. There will be 19 chapters total.). With permission, here’s an excerpt:

I decided to go back to the beginning, and have read all the way through the book.  Wow.  Obviously I’m a fan, but I love where you are going.  The flow is really good – it feels as if the path Darnell is following would be one that the reader could easily take as well. And now I have to add Wales to my must see list!

I like the characters in the story.  Each seems drawn from life – as if you could meet someone just like them if you found the right pub or site.  Darnell’s character fascinates me.  I want to know more about him, yet I don’t feel like I would *have* to know more.  The bits of mystery surrounding him only enhance his appeal.

Encouragement, yeah. And a bit unexpected, since it had been a while since I sent out the last batch of chapters to my pool of ‘beta readers’, and have only heard back from a couple of them. I don’t like to bug people, and I don’t want to have them just send me positive feedback to get me to leave them alone. So having this unsolicited note show up was most welcome.

Onward. And hopefully, upward.

 

Jim Downey



Taking stock.

I decided that I needed to go through and re-read the entirety of St Cybi’s Well so far, start to finish, just as a way to refresh all the different elements of it in my head and to get an overall picture. While I regularly bounce back and forth in the text to make sure I’m getting this or that specific detail correct, it’s good to get a complete overview now and then. Being at the halfway point in the actual writing (though with all the planning and prep work the book is more like 3/4 complete), this seemed like a good time to do it.

So over the weekend, I did.

I’m happy to say that I’m pleased with it. Perhaps to be expected, since I am the author. But usually I’m very critical of my own writing, and seldom think that it is as good as it should be.

Anyway.

A year ago I gave a preliminary chapter list, and said that I had about 23,000 words of notes and descriptions. Well, I still have the notes and descriptions (and I am still very happy using Scrivener for the organizational aspects), but I now have a solid 55,000 words of actual book done. Here’s the actual title list so far:

  • Prelude: Cardiff
  • Chapter 1: Pennant Melangell
  • Chapter 2: St. Winefride’s Well
  • Chapter 3: St. Seiriol’s Well
  • Chapter 4: Snowdon
  • Chapter 5: Ffynnon Gybi
  • Chapter 6: Pistyll Rhaeadr
  • Chapter 7: Dinas Maelor
  • Chapter 8: Pentre Ifan
  • Chapter 9: St. Non’s Chapel

And the title of the chapter I’m currently writing is Y Garn Goch. These are all real, actual places, and you can look them up online if you want. In fact, each chapter opens with a brief passage from an online site (cited) giving a description/history of each location. So far some of the ‘beta readers’ have really liked this , where others … haven’t. At least not so much.

Oh, speaking of that, I could stand to have a couple new people take a look at the book so far and tell me what they think. If you’re interested, drop me a note.

Just thought I’d share this little progress report.

 

Jim Downey

PS: Remember, there’s just until this Friday to get your bid in to be immortalized in St. Cybi’s Well!



Matter of perspective.

This will probably come across as a little brag-y. Sorry about that. Not my intention.

The other day I got a phone call. For Legacy Art. The gallery we closed May 31, 2004. Yeah, more than ten years ago.

And after I got through abusing the telemarketer over this point, I got to thinking about the many changes in the last decade.

First thing I should say up front: I’m at a low point in my bipolar cycle, as I’ve noted recently. That means that my self-image isn’t all that great. This isn’t a debilitating depressive episode or anything — I’ve managed to continue to work steadily, as well as enjoy the usual aspects of life. So not horrid. But it is sometimes difficult to not focus on the things which haven’t gone well, and my own failings which are often a component of that. And one of those failings is a sense of not accomplishing much, of being lazy, of wasting my time and the time of others.

Anyway. I got to thinking about the changes in the last decade. And surprisingly, more positive things came to mind than negative ones. That fed on itself, and I found myself making a mental list of the accomplishments.

In no particular order or ranking: wrote two books (one of them as co-author). Most of the way done with another. Visited Wales. And Argentina. And New Zealand. And Italy. Wrote several thousand blog posts. Became something of an authority on small caliber ballistics. Wrote several hundred articles and columns for publication. Was the full-time caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s. Have done conservation work on something more than a thousand (that’s just a guess … may be closer to two thousand) books and documents. Made some great hot sauces. Raised, loved, and then said farewell to a great dog. Tried to be a good friend, and husband. Tried to help others when I could.

We all fail. We all have things we’ve done that haunt us in one way or another. Sometimes, those fears and demons overwhelm. Me, at least.

I may or may not be at a turning point in my bipolar cycle. But I’m glad that at least I can think of things I have accomplished. That helps.

Back to work on St. Cybi’s Well.

 

Jim Downey



You Are There.*

An excerpt:

A very short distance down the road was another simple black and white sign which said “Llangybi”. There was a stone house not far past it, but no sign of a real town. Darnell kept going. He passed a few more homes and farms. Then he came to a split in the road and stopped, pulling off to the side in front of yet another stone house. There were some workmen on scaffolding at the near end of the house, doing something to the chimney.

Workmen? What workmen?

Why, these workmen.  (It’s a Google Streetview location. You have to let it load, then activate it.)

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been doing a lot of double-checking of locations and descriptions using a variety of map tools. Google has made this very easy, between their satellite, Earth, and Streetview map apps. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that to amuse myself I have been including things actually caught in the Streetview images now and again, so that if anyone actually looks up a particular location I cite on Streetview, they will see what is described in the text. This has mostly applied to storefronts and the like, but also includes the occasional bit like the passage above — where a little later I have Darnell (the main character) actually stop and chat with these workmen, asking them for directions.

It’s a little thing which almost no one will ever discover, just my version of an Easter egg. And whenever Google updates the images used on these locations, they’ll no longer apply. But what the hell.

 

Jim Downey

*For those who don’t know of/remember the series.

 

 

 



The view from 250 feet.

This is fun:

It’s a view of Wales most of us will never see.

This video was filmed from the cockpit of a Typhoon fighter jet which flies over North Wales before heading to the Lake District.

The man behind the controls is Flight Lieutenant Jamie Norris, the RAF’s Typhoon display pilot and a member of RAF Coningsby, based in Lincolnshire, who calmly talks viewers through his manoeuvres at altitudes of between 250ft and 40,000ft.

There’s an embedded video which is a real delight, too, for anyone who isn’t afraid of heights/motion.

I haven’t flown at low altitude over Wales, so I can’t really speak as to how this compares to the slower velocity of a small plane or helicopter. However, I was struck by just how similar the video is to viewing the same terrain via Google Earth, which I have done a *lot* of in the last couple of months as I write St. Cybi’s Well.  The ability to zoom in, rotate orientation, and even change the angle to the horizon allows you very much get the sense of flying through the landscape — it’s a very cool technology.

And speaking of very cool technology, just thought I’d share this little item, which gives a nice bit of perspective: Everything from 1991 Radio Shack ad I now do with my phone. It’s a pretty impressive list, and shows how a whole pile of electronics valued at about $5,000 in today’s money has been replaced by a smartphone that fits in your pocket and costs about $500.

And speaking of 500 … that’s about the total number of world-wide downloads of Communion of Dreams so far in the current promotion. Which in itself is a pretty cool bit of technology. If you haven’t yet gotten your copy of the Kindle edition of the book (which you can read on, yes, smartphones as well as any number of other devices), pop over and get it today!

 

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




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