Communion Of Dreams

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

Have another hit of conscience.

As I’ve noted before, writing a long work of fiction is a strange thing, at least for me. I spend a lot of time intensely chewing over ideas, doing research, starting to conceptualize a narrative theory for the book, outlining various relationships between images and characters, sorting out what it is I really want to say more than the actual words to use.

Betwixt & between all of this, some honest to goodness writing gets done, then reorganized and shuffled, with plans and outlines changing. More research, more thinking, more feeling my way through the darkness with the only illumination occasional flashes of lightning.

This morning, after a lot of consideration, I downloaded Scrivener. Over the next week or so I’ll play around with it a bit, see whether it will be a useful tool.

And over lunch, some research & reading. It might be interesting, or even telling, what it was that I found. Here’s an excerpt:

The effects aren’t entirely dissimilar. An easy, airy confidence. A transcendental loosening of inhibition. The inchoate stirrings of a subjective moral swagger: the encroaching, and somehow strangely spiritual, realization that hell, who gives a s—, anyway?

There is, however, one notable exception. One glaring, unmistakable difference between this and the effects of alcohol. That’s the lack of attendant sluggishness. The enhancement of attentional acuity and sharpness. An insuperable feeling of heightened, polished awareness. Sure, my conscience certainly feels like it’s on ice, and my anxieties drowned with a half-dozen shots of transcranial magnetic Jack Daniel’s. But, at the same time, my whole way of being feels as if it’s been sumptuously spring-cleaned with light. My soul, or whatever you want to call it, immersed in a spiritual dishwasher.

So this, I think to myself, is how it feels to be a psychopath. To cruise through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear—all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard—no longer trouble you.

Interesting, indeed.

And not unlike the high which comes with creating. Or entering a manic phase in my mild bipolar cycle.

Yes, interesting. Quite.

Jim Downey

Don’t say words you’re gonna regret*

Hmm. Quoting a lot of music lately. Wonder why that is.

It’s not explicit in the book, but there is an implication that the Experts of the government have access to pretty much *all* private conversations and communications in 2052. Having true Artificial Intelligences makes it fairly easy to break most routine security, and that’s why you have things like ‘privacy screens’ and military-grade isolation fields – it’s an attempt to maintain some level of privacy. There are also some explicit passages like this one from the beginning of Chapter Nine:

“After he experienced several instances of unusual dream activity, Jon asked my thin-film counterpart back on Earth to collect data on the subject. Reports in discussion groups, news sources, and public postings on any significant change in the
frequency of dreams or their content. My dup went back through the last year’s datafiles to establish a baseline for the study, then I compared that to activity for the last few weeks. There is a significant deviation from the norm.”

Think about that – Seth, Jon’s ‘Expert’, can casually go back through all the material of the previous year looking for a specific pattern to conversations. That is an immense amount of data, and a similarly immense amount of computing power.

And that’s the world we live in today. If you have any illusions that you have some modicum of privacy from our government, read this:

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)

* * *

In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret. To those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never Say Anything applies more than ever.

* * *

Breaking into those complex mathematical shells like the AES is one of the key reasons for the construction going on in Bluffdale. That kind of cryptanalysis requires two major ingredients: super-fast computers to conduct brute-force attacks on encrypted messages and a massive number of those messages for the computers to analyze. The more messages from a given target, the more likely it is for the computers to detect telltale patterns, and Bluffdale will be able to hold a great many messages. “We questioned it one time,” says another source, a senior intelligence manager who was also involved with the planning. “Why were we building this NSA facility? And, boy, they rolled out all the old guys—the crypto guys.” According to the official, these experts told then-director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, “You’ve got to build this thing because we just don’t have the capability of doing the code-breaking.” It was a candid admission. In the long war between the code breakers and the code makers—the tens of thousands of cryptographers in the worldwide computer security industry—the code breakers were admitting defeat.

* * *

In addition to giving the NSA access to a tremendous amount of Americans’ personal data, such an advance would also open a window on a trove of foreign secrets. While today most sensitive communications use the strongest encryption, much of the older data stored by the NSA, including a great deal of what will be transferred to Bluffdale once the center is complete, is encrypted with more vulnerable ciphers. “Remember,” says the former intelligence official, “a lot of foreign government stuff we’ve never been able to break is 128 or less. Break all that and you’ll find out a lot more of what you didn’t know—stuff we’ve already stored—so there’s an enormous amount of information still in there.”

The article is long, but informative. And frightening. That is, if you have any illusions that you have some modicum of privacy. As they also say in the article: “Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. ‘We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,’ he says.”

But are we even that far?

Again, I almost regret that “I . . . see . . . things.”

Jim Downey

*Don’t say words you’re gonna regret
Don’t let the fire rush to your head
I’ve heard the accusation before
And I ain’t gonna take any more
Believe me
The sun in your Eyes
Made some of the lies worth believing

The TSA = “steampunk”.

Via BB, an item in Wired from an insider telling all of us what we already know: that Airport Security is nothing but an expensive farce, based on bad science:

TSA is trying to get away from its stigma of being the guys who grope and photograph you. It’s taking the porno out of the scanners by getting rid of the “nude” imaging displays. Its director, John Pistole, talks about becoming an “intelligence driven” agency that compiles behavioral profiles of potential terrorists and — someday — targeting its toughest screening on only those who fit the profile. Kids no longer have to take their shoes off before boarding a plane.

Just one problem, according to Brandt: The behavioral science is no panacea. “The scientific community is divided as to whether behavioral detection of terrorists is viable,” he writes. According to the Government Accountability Office, TSA put together a behavioral profiling program “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment.” Even if the science was sound, the office found last year, TSA officers “lack a mechanism to input data on suspicious passengers into a database used by TSA analysts and also lack a means to obtain information from the Transportation System Operations Center on a timely basis.”

It’s like the government awarded military contracts during the Civil War for the development of æther craft in order to defeat the South – makes for a good story, perhaps, but has little or nothing to do with reality.

Jim Downey

The real point is . . .
October 9, 2010, 11:44 am
Filed under: ACLU, Civil Rights, Government, MetaFilter, Privacy, Terrorism, Wired

OK, news of this has been making the rounds:

Caught Spying on Student, FBI Demands GPS Tracker Back

A California student got a visit from the FBI this week after he found a secret GPS tracking device on his car, and a friend posted photos of it online. The post prompted wide speculation about whether the device was real, whether the young Arab-American was being targeted in a terrorism investigation and what the authorities would do.

It took just 48 hours to find out: The device was real, the student was being secretly tracked and the FBI wanted its expensive device back, the student told in an interview Wednesday.

* * *

Afifi’s encounter with the FBI ended with the agents telling him not to worry.

“We have all the information we needed,” they told him. “You don’t need to call your lawyer. Don’t worry, you’re boring. “

Most of the discussion I’ve seen about this has revolved around the government’s right to attach such a device to a vehicle without a warrant or the implications that there is some kind of internet-monitoring protocol in place which caught the posting of the image of the device on Reddit. Valid concerns, though I don’t find it surprising in the slightest that either thing is happening in our current security environment.

But the real point is what someone on MetaFilter said in a discussion on the topic:

All other things aside, when the government says “you don’t need to call a lawyer”, you should probably call a lawyer.
posted by davejay at 10:33 PM on October 8

Yeah, exactly. Why in the hell would you believe such a reassurance? And that’s just in terms of your personal interest. There is also a broader public interest in calling in the lawyers: this sort of crap has to be challenged. There are legitimate security concerns in this world, but just taking the government’s word for it is very dangerous. I’m glad the ACLU has decided to get involved, according to the article. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Jim Downey

Secret space plane? What secret space plane?
April 25, 2010, 1:48 pm
Filed under: DARPA, Government, NASA, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Space, tech, Wired, Writing stuff


The Air Force launched a secretive space plane into orbit Thursday night from Cape Canaveral, Florida. And they’re not sure when it’s returning to Earth.

Perched atop an Atlas V rocket, the Air Force’s unmanned and reusable X-37B made its first flight after a decade in development shrouded in mystery; most of the mission goals remain unknown to the public.

The Air Force has fended off statements calling the X-37B a space weapon, or a space-based drone to be used for spying or delivering weapons from orbit. In a conference call with reporters, deputy undersecretary for the Air Force for space programs Gary Payton acknowledged much of the current mission is classified.

The X-37B looks like a miniature space shuttle, and evidently the design was based on that system. The much smaller size (about one quarter the size of the shuttle) does give some indications of the limitations of the missions it could be used on, and it seems to not be quipped for life support – but beyond that, not much is publicly known.

One particular reason I find this of interest is that in the ‘future history’ in which Communion of Dreams occurs, this is exactly the sort of secret tech which has been developed by joint US & Israeli efforts – a fleet of these sorts of unmanned vehicles forms the basis for a concerted effort to establish a colony on the Moon, which are then supplied with personnel by use of new full-size shuttles which have built using the same technology but equipped to handle human life support. One of the main characters of Communion of Dreams, Darnell Sidwell, is heavily involved in this effort, and his role is mentioned in CoD. In my future history, this whole development is about ten years ahead of what is indicated by the news of the X-37B launch. In fact, most of this story forms the background for the prequel to CoD which I have mentioned previously, titled St. Cybi’s Well.

But then, who knows how much of what we’re now finding out is the actual truth? I mean, the Atlas lift capability has been around since the Apollo days. The basic shuttle design goes back to the 1970s. Do you really think that they stopped improving the tech for military applications until just ten years ago?


Jim Downey

(Also via MeFi.)

Makes you wonder…
October 29, 2009, 5:40 pm
Filed under: Humor, MetaFilter, Promotion, Society, Wired, YouTube

. . .what’s going through the mind of the flies:

OK, quirky. I like quirky. But I also wonder what people who experienced this kind of thing thought about it later. That the product being promoted was as nasty as flies? That the advertisers who came up with this were just mean bastards? Not to get all PETA about it, I think that it’s a fairly cruel trick. Yeah, sure, the tag at the end says that the banners were mounted with wax, and came off on their own after about an hour, but still the flies were clearly struggling.


Jim Downey

From Wired.UK. Via MeFi. Cross posted to UTI.

Wait, seriously???
August 3, 2009, 11:04 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, George Orwell, Government, Privacy, Society, Wired

OK, I’m having a hard time believing this, good skeptic that I am:

Government wants more CCTV cameras in homes
Latest Home Office initiative wants to watch 20,000 problem families 24/7

The UK Government’s Children’s Secretary Ed Balls has announced a controversial new CCTV monitoring scheme, in which thousands of problem families are to be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Balls claims that the £400 million “sin bin” scheme will put up to 20,000 problem families under 24-hour surveillance in their own homes, to ensure children go to bed and school on time and eat proper meals.

“Private security guards will also be sent round to carry out home checks, while parents will be given help to combat drug and alcohol addiction,” reads a report in the Sunday Express.

The other sources I find also link to the Express article, which can be seen here. Here’s a bit from Wired:

Britain To Put CCTV Cameras Inside Private Homes

As an ex-Brit, I’m well aware of the authorities’ love of surveillance and snooping, but even I, a pessimistic cynic, am amazed by the governments latest plan: to install Orwell’s telescreens in 20,000 homes.

The rest just repeats what is in the Express article. From that article:

Pupils and their families will have to sign behaviour contracts known as Home School Agreements before the start of every year, which will set out parents’ duties to ensure children behave and do their homework.

The updated Youth Crime Action Plan also called for a crackdown on violent girl gangs as well as drug and alcohol abuse among young women.

But a decision to give ministers new powers to intervene with failing local authority Youth Offending Teams was criticised by council leaders.

Les Lawrence, of the Local Government Association, said they did “crucial” work and such intervention was “completely unnecessary”.

OK, can anyone else, maybe someone in the UK, shed any light on this? Because I just have a hard time believing that the UK public would put up with any scheme which would put CCTV cameras into the homes of people for 24-hour monitoring. I don’t care how used the Brits are to having their public life tracked by these cameras – this just strikes me as extremely unlikely. So, is this just the Express making shit up, or what?

Because if not . . .

Edited to add, 12:50 PM:
Discussion on MetaFilter seems to conclude that the whole story is just BS from the Express, which has an agenda to push. That fits with my first impression of the story. Anyone else?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Weird science vids . . .
September 8, 2008, 10:18 am
Filed under: Art, Humor, ISS, MetaFilter, Music, NASA, Science, Space, String theory, tech, Wired, YouTube

. . . from Wired Science:

Top 10 Amazing Physics Videos

Tesla coils, superconductors, and hilarious music videos are great reasons to be excited about physics. Here are some of our favorites.

OK, you may have seen some of these, but they’re all worth a look. Because I’m a bit of a pyro, here are two of my favorites from the collection:

A singing Tesla coil:

And a Reuben’s Tube:

You’ll also find the LHC Rap, fun with water in space, playing with a boomerang on the ISS, Adam Savage (of MythBusters) sounding surprisingly like Penn Jillete, superfluid oddness, superconducting effects, and supersonic compression. Have fun!

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

You can’t get there from here, version 2.0.

Bit over a year ago, I wrote about Charlie Stross’s pessimistic views on space colonization. Pointing out that Stross was correct in terms of the current technology curve, I said that the bigger issue was a failure to understand that forecasting breakthrough technologies is almost impossible. From my post:

The thing is, it is difficult in the extreme to make solid predictions more than a couple of decades out. In my own lifetime I have seen surprise wonders come on the scene, and expectations thwarted. Technology develops in ways that don’t always make sense, except perhaps in hindsight. 100 years ago, many people thought that commercial flight would never become a reality. 40 years ago, people thought that we’d have permanent bases on the Moon by now. You get my drift.

Everything that Charlie Stross says in his post makes sense. You can’t get to that future from here. But “here” is going to change in ways which are unpredictable, and then the future becomes more in flux than what we expect at present. For Communion of Dreams, I set forth a possible future history which leads to permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars, and Europa, with functional space stations at several other locations outside of Earth orbit. Will it happen? I dunno. I doubt that exactly my scenario would come about. But it is plausible.

And I have pretty much the exact same reaction to this item from Wired:

Rocket Scientists Say We’ll Never Reach the Stars

Many believe that humanity’s destiny lies with the stars. Sadly for us, rocket propulsion experts now say we may never even get out of the Solar System.

At a recent conference, rocket scientists from NASA, the U.S. Air Force and academia doused humanity’s interstellar dreams in cold reality. The scientists, presenting at the Joint Propulsion Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, analyzed many of the designs for advanced propulsion that others have proposed for interstellar travel. The calculations show that, even using the most theoretical of technologies, reaching the nearest star in a human lifetime is nearly impossible.

Well, yeah. And if you asked medieval blacksmiths about about building a weapon that could kill a million people instantly, they’d also say it was impossible. For them, it was. For us, it’s technology which is 63 years old as of last month.

I’m sure everyone attending that conference (professionally, anyway) knows more about rocket science than I do. And probably about any exotic propulsion technologies on the horizon as well.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right. In fact, even if they aren’t elderly, they’re very probably wrong.

And even they know it. From that same article in Wired, after saying this:

The major problem is that propulsion — shooting mass backwards to go forwards — requires large amounts of both time and fuel. For instance, using the best rocket engines Earth currently has to offer, it would take 50,000 years to travel the 4.3 light years to Alpha Centauri, our solar system’s nearest neighbor. Even the most theoretically efficient type of propulsion, an imaginary engine powered by antimatter, would still require decades to reach Alpha Centauri, according to Robert Frisbee, group leader in the Advanced Propulsion Technology Group within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Frisbee says this:

As for interstellar travel, even the realists are far from giving up. All it takes is one breakthrough to make the calculations work, Frisbee said.

“It’s always science fiction until someone goes out and does it,” he said.


Jim Downey


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