Communion Of Dreams

It’s the contract we make.

OK, I realize that I am probably the last person on the planet to hear of this, but nonetheless I want to rant about it. What it? The YouTube vid of the Utah HP Officer using his Taser on a guy pulled over for speeding which has been getting a fair amount of press and blog attention. Before I say any more, here’s the clip:

OK, first thing – my dad was a cop, and I’ve known cops all my life. I generally like cops, and respect the job they do – it’s dangerous, grim, and I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Next thing – it’s stupid to do anything other than smile nice and comply with what a cop tells you. Yeah, stupid. Because in that situation, out in the real world, the cop (or his buddy cops) is gonna win any argument. You got a problem, save it for your trial or a lawsuit against the cop/department/government.

Last thing – because we give cops this much power over us, we *have* to insure that they exercise their authority properly and appropriately. That’s the trade-off, the contract we make with the government.

And this HP Officer did not properly exercise his authority. I think any fair viewing of the video leaked out to YouTube pretty clearly indicates just exactly what happened: for whatever reason, this cop did not like having his power challenged, and escalated the situation in a completely inappropriate manner, endangering the man he’d pulled over, the man’s family, himself, and just about anyone else who was traveling that stretch of highway at that time. It was in violation of the HP guidelines:

Troopers that carry Tasers must take a four-hour certification course outlining how and when to use the devices, according to UHP’s nine-page policy. They are taught to use them in three circumstances:
* When a person is a threat to themselves, an officer or another person.
* In cases where the physical use of force would endanger the person or someone else.
* When other means of lesser or equal force by the officer has been ineffective and a threat still exists.

Now, will the internal review of the use of the Taser in this instance show that the cop behaved in compliance with the rules? Will the cop be disciplined? Will the victim see justice in court? I don’t know, I suppose we’ll have to see. And we’ll have to see whether the social contract we make with the government in this case is honored, or whether it is yet again broken by a system in which the government and its officials are seen to be our rulers rather than our employees.

What does all of this have to do with Communion of Dreams? Not a lot, directly. But a whole lot, indirectly. Because I see this abuse kind of power by the government today as part of the reason why, when in the ‘history’ of the novel things break down following the first fire-flu, there’s a lot of civil unrest leading to something akin to a second civil war. Because if people do not trust their government or its officers, then when there is a catastrophe they will not trust it to act on their behalf, and will seek to protect and defend themselves even from their own government. It is a throw-away line early in the book, but the post-flu US I see is largely libertarian in nature for this very reason.

Jim Downey

(A slightly different version of this rant has been cross-posted to UTI.)

All too true.
November 28, 2007, 9:54 am
Filed under: Comics, Feedback, Humor, Writing stuff

Today’s Pearls Before Swine (mostly the third panel) by Stephan Pastis is brilliant, and all too true.

More later.

Jim Downey

“Close to the veil, but fighting with everything she’s got.”
November 25, 2007, 4:11 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Hospice

It was the second time I’d been in this morning, checking to see what the sounds I’d heard coming over the monitor were all about. My MIL was over next to the side of the bed, almost up against the safety rail.”Are you OK?”

“Yes. I was just trying to turn on the lamp.”

The lamp is deliberately out of her reach, otherwise she’d turn it on in the middle of the night in her confusion. “Why did you want the lamp on?”

“So that they could find me.”


“The people who are coming for me.”

Ah. “Well, until they come, is there anything I can get you?”

“Do you know where my toothbrush is? And toothpaste?”

“Yes. They’re in the bathroom.”

“You’re sure?”


“Well, I don’t want to forget them.”

“We won’t forget them. And we won’t let anyone else use them.”

“You promise?”

“Yes, I promise. Now, see if you can go back to sleep. It’s still early.”


* * * * * * * * * * * * *

After my last post, and other conversations, my wife’s sister decided to come in a week early, rather than wait until her scheduled visit starting the day after Thanksgiving. She didn’t want to miss seeing her mom one last time before the end, since it seemed so sure that the end was close.

She got in late, and we chatted a bit before she retired. She asked how her mom was doing.

“Not bad. Of course, now that you’ve rearranged your schedule to be here I’m sure she’ll live until January or something.”

“Yeah, but had I not come early, she would have died this week. That’s the way of it.”

“True enough.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

There’s a common phenomenon with Alzheimer’s patients which has been known to drive care-givers nuts: that for short periods, they can rise to a level of lucidity which makes it almost impossible to tell that they are suffering from the disease. This usually happens in response to the visit of company, particularly family members, whom they don’t get to see often. As a result those family members will have a decidedly mistaken impression of how their loved one is doing, and will wonder whether the care provider has been over-dramatizing things, or what. It is insidious, in that it undermines the support the day-to-day care giver gets from the rest of the family, who think that things really can’t be as bad as they say. And it leads to a lot of tension between the care giver and the patient, since the care giver will sometimes resent the ‘performance’ put on for other family members but not them.

The solution to this is to have a family member stick around long enough that the facade fails and the true condition of the patient is shown. Since my SIL usually comes to visit for a week or more, this always happens with her mom, and she has come to expect it. This time, however, the period of performance was extremely short, reflecting my MIL’s deteriorating condition. I think that, as much as anything else which has happened in the last ten days, told my SIL that she was right in coming early.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was the third time I came into the bedroom. “What are you doing, MIL?”

“I want to get up.”

“Well, it’s early still. You don’t get up until 8:00. See, the clock says that it is only 6:50.”

“But I have to get up early to get to school!”

“Don’t worry, today is Saturday. There’s no school on Saturday.”

“Oh, OK. ”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I was napping when the Hospice nurse came to visit this past week. Because of the holiday the schedule was rearranged, and she came in the middle of the afternoon rather than first thing in the morning. I’m trying to do a lot of sleeping now, banking it while my SIL is here to help out, because the coming weeks are likely to be even more demanding. So I didn’t get to hear what the nurse had to say. It sounds like it was the usual routine – slow decline, we’re doing all that can be done, let her know if there’s a problem.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

My MIL started choking and coughing at the dinner table, disconcerting the other family members who were over for the big Thanksgiving meal. As she coughed spasmodically, her face turning red, my wife and I looked at her, and in unison called out loudly “Take a deep breath. Real deep. Hold it. Now cough real hard.”She did, and it cleared the blockage caused by aspirating some of her food. In a moment she was back to eating, her attention focused on the food before her, mostly oblivious to the reaction around the table.

“That’s the best way to clear it – she just had a bit of something go down the wrong way,” I said to the others. And from the look on their faces I realized that my wife and I must’ve appeared unconcerned and relaxed in the face of what seemed to be a sudden crisis. My SIL nodded.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I came down from a nap this afternoon, came into the kitchen where my wife was doing some baking. The monitor to her mom’s room there on the counter, the sound of my MIL snoring emanating from it.

“Good nap?”

“Yeah.” I nodded at the monitor. “How’s she doing?”

“Pretty well. We got her up from her morning nap, and she wanted to know where her mom was. Said that she had been in bed with her just a little bit earlier.”

“That’s becoming pretty common.” It has – my MIL has said some variation on this almost every day for the last week.

“Yeah. She’s close to the veil, but fighting with everything she’s got.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to dKos.) 

This is a remarkably bad idea.

I notice that I’ve been writing a fair amount on civil liberties and the encroachment on them by the government thanks to the “War on Terror”. I’m not really that obsessed with this stuff, but I just keep stumbling across things which should make anyone concerned.

The latest is an item I saw on Yahoo! this morning, from the AP:

AP: Firefighters help in war on terror

WASHINGTON – Firefighters in major cities are being trained to take on a new role as lookouts for terrorism, raising concerns of eroding their standing as American icons and infringing on people’s privacy.

Unlike police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel don’t need warrants to access hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings each year, putting them in a position to spot behavior that could indicate terrorist activity or planning.

You know, at first glance this doesn’t seem that unreasonable, and I’m sure that is what the government is counting on as the word of it spreads to the public. Sure, if some firemen happen to stumble across a big pile of bombs in the basement of someone’s apartment, it would be reasonable for them to report it. What’s the big deal?

Well, think a little more about it, and see what else is in the news report:

When going to private residences, for example, they are told to be alert for a person who is hostile, uncooperative or expressing hate or discontent with the United States; unusual chemicals or other materials that seem out of place; ammunition, firearms or weapons boxes; surveillance equipment; still and video cameras; night-vision goggles; maps, photos, blueprints; police manuals, training manuals, flight manuals; and little or no furniture other than a bed or mattress.

Be alert for someone who is hostile? Uncooperative? Expressing hate or discontent?

That is dangerously close to thought-policing. If the simple act of expressing discontent (or being perceived as doing so) with the government or any of its agents is enough to get you reported to Homeland Security (which is what the firefighters are being trained to do), then we have slipped past simple awareness to making judgement calls as to what is appropriate political behaviour.

And think about how this might be received: do you seriously want any community or individuals who *might* be at-odds with the political leadership of the state, local, or federal government to be reluctant to report a fire, for fear that some literature they have sitting on a desk could be perceived as necessitating a call to Homeland Security? Isn’t that a good way for a fire to get hold, perhaps destroying whole apartment blocks or close-together urban neighborhoods?

Or put another way, would you want your neighbor, who maybe does a little pot on the weekends, to be afraid to call 9-11 for you when you’re having a heart attack, because he fears that the EMS team might notice that he’s a little red-eyed when they show up? Or have your roommate, who likes to go target shooting and is set up to do his own reloading, not want to call when you think you’ve accidentally swallowed some poison, since the EMS team might see his guns and gunpowder?

This undermines our trust in the neutral agency of our emergency-response personnel, and so makes us all less safe in the long run. The government has the authority to serve us when in need, not spy on us when it wants. If they want to conduct police actions, they should have to meet the necessary legal requirements to do so, and not try to pull some end-around trick like this.

*Sigh* A reminder that I need to renew my ACLU membership.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Added: Bruce Schneier reminded me of this post of his touching on the same topic earlier this month. Definitely read it.



I have a special place in my heart for Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday program. Oh, I’ve long enjoyed his reporting and work at NPR, but in particular it was the experience of being interviewed by him in 2001 for my “Paint the Moon” art project which endeared him to me. As it was just at the beginning of the media coverage of that project, and most people as yet didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the project, it would have been easy to mock the idea and portray me as something of a fool – but Simon was kind and considerate in his interview with me (which took almost an hour to do from my local NPR station facilities), and the end result was an interesting and insightful segment for his show.

Anyway, I go out of my way to try and catch the broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday each week, and today was no different. One of the segments this morning was an interview with Pat Duggins, who has covered over 80 shuttle launches for NPR and now has a new book out titled Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. In the course of the interview, Simon asked the following question (paraphrased; I may correct when the transcript of the show is posted later): “Are Americans unrealistic in the expectation of safety from our space program?”

Duggins paused a moment, and then gave an unequivocal “Yes.”

I had already answered the question in my own mind, and was pleased to hear him say the same thing. Because as I have mentioned before, I think that a realistic assessment of the risks involved with the space program is necessary. Further, everyone involved in the space program, from the politicians who fund it to the NASA administers to aerospace engineers to astronauts to the journalists who cover the program, should all – all – be very clear that there are real risks involved but that those risks are worth taking. Certainly, foolish risks should be avoided. But trying to establish and promote space exploration as being “safe” is foolish and counter-productive.

I am often cynical and somewhat disparaging of the intelligence of my fellow humans. But I actually believe that if you give people honest answers, honest information, and explain both the risks and benefits of something as important as the space program, they will be able to digest and think intelligently about it. We have gotten into trouble because we don’t demand that our populace be informed and responsible – we’ve fallen very much into the habit of feeding people a bunch of bullshit, of letting them off the hook for being responsible citizens, and treating them as children rather than participating adults. By and large, people will react the way you treat them – and if you just treat people as irresponsible children, they will act the same way.

So it was good to hear Duggins say that one simple word: “Yes.”

What we have accomplished in space, from the earliest days right through to the present, has always been risky. But for crying out loud, just going to the grocery store is risky. None of us will get out of this life alive, and you can be sure that for even the most pampered and protected there will be pain and suffering at times. To think otherwise is to live in a fantasy, and to collapse at the first experience of hardship.

I think that we are better than that. Just look at all humankind has accomplished, in spite of the risks. To say that Americans are unwilling to accept a realistic view of death and injury associated with the exploration of space is to sell us short, and to artificially limit the progress we make. I think it *has* artificially limited the progress we have made.

One of the most common complaints I get about the world I envision in Communion of Dreams is that the exploration of space is too far along to be “realistic”. Nonsense. Look at what was accomplished in the fifty years that lead up to the first Moon landing. In a world filled with trauma, war, and grief, some risks are more easily accepted. In the world of Communion, post-pandemic and having suffered regional nuclear wars, there would be little fixation on making sure that spaceflight was “safe”, and more on pushing to rapidly develop it.

We can go to the planets, and then on to the stars. It is just a matter of having the will to do so, and of accepting the risks of trying.

Jim Downey

British nukes secured by bike locks.
November 23, 2007, 12:39 pm
Filed under: Bruce Schneier, Government, Humor, Nuclear weapons, NYT, Predictions, Society, tech

Via Bruce Schneier, this delightful little BBC story of the nuclear age:

Newsnight has discovered that until the early days of the Blair government the RAF’s nuclear bombs were armed by turning a bicycle lock key.

There was no other security on the Bomb itself.

While American and Russian weapons were protected by tamper-proof combination locks which could only be released if the correct code was transmitted, Britain relied on a simpler technology.

Woo-hoo! Yeah, see, you just had to open a plastic cover, use an Allen wrench to select the yield on the warhead and fusing options (air burst? ground contact?), and then insert and turn a bicycle lock key 90 degrees – and you’re good to go!

Sheesh, and we worry about what safeguards the Pakistanis have on their nukes.

It’s simply amazing that we haven’t lost a few cities to nuclear bomb accidents. Simply amazing.

Jim Downey

“Is that a tracking device in your pocket, or are you just happy to let the Feds know where you are?”

I’m always surprised when people *don’t* know the limitations and liabilities of the technology they take for granted. Take for example this Washington Post story about cellphone tracking:

Cellphone Tracking Powers on Request
Secret Warrants Granted Without Probable Cause

Federal officials are routinely asking courts to order cellphone companies to furnish real-time tracking data so they can pinpoint the whereabouts of drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminal suspects, according to judges and industry lawyers.

In some cases, judges have granted the requests without requiring the government to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime is taking place or that the inquiry will yield evidence of a crime. Privacy advocates fear such a practice may expose average Americans to a new level of government scrutiny of their daily lives.

Gee, ya think?

See, here’s the thing: cell phones have to maintain steady contact with cell towers in their area, in order for you to have reliable service. Also, the Enhanced 911 system needs to be able to figure out where you are if you call, so the technology is built-in. And many phones simply have a GPS system. Your mobile phone service provider can basically track your movements at all times, so long as you have your phone with you. There have even been cases where people have been disciplined/dismissed from jobs based on cell movement monitoring by their employer. And Google “cell phone monitoring” (or any variant) and not only will you get a lot of hits, but off to the right are a bunch of sponsored links from companies offering to help you monitor the movement of someone based on their cell phone. Charming, eh? Do you seriously think that the government wouldn’t take advantage of this?

Oh, and one more item to keep in mind: remember, your phone doesn’t even have to be ‘on’ for this to work. So long as the battery is plugged in, it is ‘live’. And if they want to, your cell phone company (at the behest of the authorities?) can turn on the mic to listen in on your conversations even when you aren’t using the phone.

Yeah, you’re carrying a tracking device in your pocket. And a ‘bug’. Welcome to the future.

Actually, this sort of thing is where I see the tech of the personal expert system AI like Seth developing for Communion of Dreams. Such an entity could function as a screen for you – keeping track of your movements at all times, providing the necessary safety & convenience, but being a ‘black box’ to any outside agency. Almost like how a good butler or house-elf would serve someone but jealously guard their privacy/secrets. And in the ongoing battle between prying eyes and effective counter-measures, such systems would be pushed to develop greater capabilities and eventually intelligence.

Jim Downey

(Slightly different version of this cross-posted to UTI.)

Just in time for the holidays.
November 21, 2007, 1:36 pm
Filed under: Constitution, General Musings, Government, MetaFilter, Politics, Society, Terrorism

Just in time for the holidays, comes this friendly bit of advice from your Big Brother:

As the busy holiday travel season approaches, TSA would like to help you get through the security checkpoint quickly and have a safe flight to your destination. Our Transportation Security Officers will be working around the clock to provide an efficient security process. We’re asking you to become an active partner in your security experience by knowing the rules and carefully packing your carry-on bags.

Pack smart to get through faster. Keep luggage organized by layering items; this will increase visibility for the security officers. When approaching the checkpoint, be prepared.

Yes, be prepared. I recommend the little packets of KY Jelly, or the ‘personal lubricant’ of your choice, in order to comply with security regulations and reduce pain.


I know full well what is going on – they just want to reduce the hassle of getting hassled. Comply like good little sheep in their absurd bit of Security Theater, and everything will be fine. Pack your bags to make it easier and faster for them to sort through your personal possessions. Be sure to leave any memory of the Constitution at home.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we all just started a passive resistance movement – packing our bags extra sloppily, making sure to have IDs tucked away in the bottom of your purse, wearing shoes and coats which are bulky and hard to remove. Nothing that’d get you put on The List, or pulled off for a little extra ‘personal attention’, just slow things down by a couple of minutes. If everyone just refused to cooperate a little, soon the airline industry would be crying for less intrusive (yet more effective) security measures, and we might – just might – once again have some semblance of respect for our personal effects and private business from our Government overlords.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI. Via MeFi.)

Still a long way to go.

A friend dropped me a note last night, asked what I thought of Kindle, the new e-book reader from Jeff Bezos/Amazon. My reply:

I think it is still a hard sell. $400 is a chunk for something which only kinda-sorta replaces a real book. And if you drop it in the mud, it isn’t just $7.95 to buy a new copy. But it does seem to be an intelligent application of the relevant tech, and sounds intriguing. There will be those who snap it up, just ’cause – but Amazon has a long way to go before it is mainstream.

That’s my guess.

As I mentioned in this post back in March, something like the Kindle has been a staple of SF going way back. Way back. But for all our progress in tech to date, I think it’ll be a while before actual paper & ink books are obsolete. It’s a simple matter of economics and risk, as I indicate in that note to my friend above. Joel Johnson at BoingBoing Gadgets says much the same thing in his review – here’s an excerpt:

Although I can hold a $400 eBook reader in my hand, it only feels truly valuable because I have a $7 book inside that I want to read. If Amazon can find a way to lower the barrier of entry on either side of the platform—a cheaper Kindle, or free content—it may then be worth wider consideration.

Bezos might be right, and me wrong. Certainly, I don’t have the track record he does, and haven’t earned the kind of money he has with his hard work and predictions. Then again, he has the wealth to afford being wrong for a long time before he is right, as may happen with this kind of project .

Jim Downey

Weirdly . . .
November 20, 2007, 7:12 am
Filed under: Comics, Darths & Droids, George Lucas, Humor, movies, Music, Science Fiction, Star Wars, YouTube

In response to my last post on Friday before skipping town for a few days, a friend reminded me of this Weird Al Yankovic version of American Pie:

What adds a bit to the weirdness is that one of the people I was visiting with this past weekend was from Clear Lake, Iowa and hence is more than a little sick of American Pie, and the song was the topic of considerable conversation and humor. Having this version pop into my inbox this morning was more than a little serendipitous.

Anyway, while I usually only enjoy Weird Al in somewhat small doses, I do respect his particular variety of genius, and this is a good example of just what he is capable of. Enjoy!

Jim Downey