Communion Of Dreams

Ever been a tourist?

Have you ever been a tourist, and taken pictures of your trip? Have an interest in architecture or large engineering projects? Perhaps like to draw or paint plein air? Or maybe you’re a writer wanting to make notes about a particular location you want to use in a book or story?

Welcome to the Terror List:

Terror watch uses local eyes

Hundreds of police, firefighters, paramedics and even utility workers have been trained and recently dispatched as “Terrorism Liaison Officers” in Colorado and a handful of other states to hunt for “suspicious activity” — and are reporting their findings into secret government databases.

It’s a tactic intended to feed better data into terrorism early-warning systems and uncover intelligence that could help fight anti-U.S. forces. But the vague nature of the TLOs’ mission, and their focus on reporting both legal and illegal activity, has generated objections from privacy advocates and civil libertarians.

* * *

Here are examples of specific behaviors that terrorism liaison officers deployed in Colorado and a handful of other states are told to watch for and report.

• Engages in suspected pre-operational surveillance (uses binoculars or cameras, takes measurements, draws diagrams, etc.)

• Appears to engage in counter-surveillance efforts (doubles back, changes appearance, drives evasively, etc.)

• Engages security personnel in questions focusing on sensitive subjects (security information, hours of operation, shift changes, what security cameras film, etc.)

• Takes pictures or video footage (with no apparent aesthetic value, for example, camera angles, security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.)

• Draws diagrams or takes notes (building plans, location of security cameras or security personnel, security shift changes, notes of weak security points, etc.)

Depending on how someone wanted to perceive it, either my wife or I have done every single thing on that list on our vacations in this country and abroad. Yeah, even the ‘counter-surveillance efforts’ – in trying to find a given location in unfamiliar territory, we’ve often taken wrong turns or had to double back to a missed road. I’ll talk to watchmen or cops, because they usually know the most about a particular location. My wife is an architect, so is interested in structures. I like big engineering projects. We use binoculars. I’ll often make notes about places I think might fit in good with a story idea.

If I’m not already, I’ll probably wind up on someone’s terror watch list. Not because I am the slightest bit of a threat. Not because I am doing anything in the least bit illegal. Because of stupid, pointless paranoia.

Man, I can’t wait for Friday to get here so we can celebrate living in the land of the free.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi. Cross posted to UTI.)

All you need to know . . .

. . . about human nature is summed up very nicely in one little comment I came across on MeFi, in a discussion about news of some potential life-extending medical breakthroughs.  Here it is:

people dying isn’t a bad thing


Yes. Yes it is. If you don’t think so, you’re welcome to accept it with equanimity. I, on the other hand, would club little old ladies to be first in line for some biotech that would prolong a healthy lifespan.

[Mild spoilers ahead.]

Part of the crucial history of Communion of Dreams revolves around what people would do when they think they have been denied life-saving treatment during a pandemic.  When I was thinking this through, I had to stop and wonder just how cynical I was going to be – there are, after all, plenty of instances of people making sacrifices to save others during a crisis.  But I decided that given the timing of the pandemic (in our near future), and given how I was going to ‘set up’ that history, the likely response would be much uglier.

Sometimes I hate being right.

Jim Downey

I’ve mentioned . . .
June 29, 2008, 9:56 am
Filed under: Comics, Darths & Droids, Preparedness, Star Wars, Survival, Violence

. . . Darths & Droids previously, and particularly want to point to today’s strip.  Why?  Because of the commentary:

You can tell inexperienced roleplayers from experienced ones quite easily. Put them in a room that might contain traps or lurking monsters.

The inexperienced players will check behind the furniture, under the rugs, around the walls, etc, etc. The experienced players will check the ceiling. All the worst things are concealed on the ceiling. Really experienced players will have a 10-foot pole handy, specifically to poke and prod the ceiling, just to make sure it doesn’t have any lurking monsters, collapsing sections, more lurking monsters, cunningly concealed deathtraps, even more lurking monsters, rusty spikes that might drop on you if you so much as breathe, and, of course, yet more lurking monsters.

And you can tell veteran adventurers in most fantasy worlds by the way they keep glancing up every few seconds.

Or veteran veterans, for that matter.  Or anyone who pays attention to the surroundings.  It’s called ‘situational awareness.’

Jim Downey

Give me a birthday present?
June 29, 2008, 7:29 am
Filed under: Marketing, Promotion, Publishing, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

OK, I know that it’s a bit tactless to ask someone to give you a gift.  So I’m tactless.

Last time I updated the count on downloads, we were at 9,500 (give or take a few).  That was June second.  Since then, we’ve had 160 downloads of Communion of Dreams.  I don’t know if it is the summer doldrums, or what, but that is a big drop-off from the previous months averages of 500+ downloads a month.

My birthday is July 4th.  I will turn 50.  And I’m asking for a gift: help get the download count over 10,000.  All we need is 340 downloads.  I’ve had twice that number downloaded in one day, previously, when someone somewhere posted a link on a bulletin board or some such.  So that’s what I’m asking – just help spread the word.  If you belong to a SF discussion forum, or blog about books, or whatever, help me cross that 10,000 threshold.  It won’t cost you anything, and it won’t cost the people who want to download the book anything.  Just a couple of minutes of your time.  And I’d appreciate it.

I never really thought that Communion of Dreams would get so much attention – but now that we’re so close to 10,000, it’d be a cool thing to reach that number before I cross a threshold of my own.


Jim Downey

The tyranny of inherited stuff.*
June 27, 2008, 6:25 am
Filed under: NYT, Society

This piece in the NYT yesterday is the perfect compliment to what I was talking about in this post:

Here is the problem with family furnishings: they are never simply stuff. As hard as it may be to dispose of a piece of furniture you bought with the fellow who turned out to be your ex-husband, it is far more difficult to get rid of a piece bequeathed to you by a member of a previous generation, which carries with it not only your memories, but his or hers as well.

Even today, when so many people favor simple, modern décor, turning your back on a grandmother’s tea set or ornate settee can feel like betrayal. Admit to your family you’re thinking of getting rid of such a piece and you’re likely to kick off a family opera, with crescendoing wails of “How could you?” Quite likely, you’ll be torturing yourself with the same question.

Ambivalence and guilt, it seems, are central elements of furniture inheritance, the anchoring pieces around which everything is organized, like the sofa in a living room. Barry Lubetkin, a psychologist and the director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy in Manhattan, has observed this in a number of patients living with inherited furniture they hate. It’s an unhealthy setup, in which people become “slaves to inanimate objects,” he says. “Once you’re defining it as something you can’t get rid of, you’re not in control of your life or your home.”

There are many reasons it happens, he adds, including simple nostalgia. But it is also often connected to a primal anxiety: the fear of disappointing one’s parents.

Ayup. And one of the reasons why I am going to be pretty scarce around here when the siblings come to divvy up Martha Sr’s household possessions this weekend. My wife knows my preferences in the matter, and I don’t want to get in the middle of any family drama.

Jim Downey

*Title taken from a line in the story. Hat tip to ML for the story.

It’s a damned shame I have work to do . . .
June 26, 2008, 9:06 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Civil Rights, Constitution, Government, Guns, RKBA, Society

. . . because I sure feel like celebrating with the *good* scotch:

Court: A constitutional right to a gun

Answering a 127-year old constitutional question, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to have a gun, at least in one’s home. The Court, splitting 5-4, struck down a District of Columbia ban on handgun possession.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion for the majority stressed that the Court was not casting doubt on long-standing bans on gun possession by felons or the mentally retarded, or laws barring guns from schools or government buildings, or laws putting conditions on gun sales.

In District of Columbia v. Heller (07-290), the Court nullified two provisions of the city of Washington’s strict 1976 gun control law: a flat ban on possessing a gun in one’s home, and a requirement that any gun — except one kept at a business — must be unloaded and disassembled or have a trigger lock in place. The Court said it was not passing on a part of the law requiring that guns be licensed.

I know a lot of people don’t want a gun in their home. Fine, don’t have one. But this is a good decision for our civil rights, even if Scalia wrote the majority opinion.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

I never really ‘got’ that. Until now.

The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.

William Faulkner.

I’ve read my share of Faulkner, as appropriate for someone getting through a high school English class in the 1970s. And then I read a lot more in graduate school. Always loved his use of language, but I never really ‘got’ that quote, though it nicely sums up one of the major themes of his writing. Partly, this was just being young. Partly it was because of a conscious effort on my part to forget some of the worst aspects of my own personal history.

Oh, sure, I understood how the past shapes the future. In fact, that was a big part of my interest in both economics (one of my college degrees) and the SCA – knowing history allows you to understand how things develop in the ways they have, and can provide analogs which can be useful to understanding new situations when they arise. (That is discussed explicitly in Communion of Dreams, in relation to the the industrial archaeologist brought onto the research team.) But for me, the past has always been the past: dead, immutable.

Until now.

* * * * * * *

As mentioned previously, we’re in the process of dividing up Martha Sr’s estate. This includes the household items. When someone has lived in one house, and raised a family there, for over 50 years, lots and lots of stuff accumulates. In an effort to be completely fair and above board, we’ve had assessors in to evaluate the furniture and household items, so that each family member involved can be sure that they get their share. This coming weekend my wife and her siblings are going to go through and divvy everything up. Then over the coming weeks stuff will get moved out and we’ll deal with whatever no one wanted. Eventually, only those things which are ours will remain, and my wife and I can proceed to actually getting settled here.

Because when we sold our house and moved in here to care for Martha Sr, we wanted to disrupt her home environment as little as possible. We wedged ourselves into rooms which she didn’t use much, put a lot of stuff into storage. It was a pain, but one we were willing to put up with while we cared for her.

Now, of course, I am looking forward to actually getting settled. As I told a friend recently:

It was frustrating to be shoe-horned in here the last six years, but I was willing to put up with it for Martha Sr’s sake. As I have been recovering from the care-giving, I have been wanting more and more to feel less and less cramped up here – I can only put up with this level of chaos and annoyance for so long.

But of course it is a little different for my wife, who now sees her childhood home being split up, her memories associated with this or that piece of furniture bereft of a physical connection.

* * * * * * *

I never met my father in law. He died before my wife and I got together. But he was something of a local character, and over the years here I have had many people tell me anecdotes about him. Seems most people either loved him or hated him. He evidently carried on a number of long-term feuds.

One such was with a local builder, who is now the executor of a family trust which owns the property next to us (part of a large tract in our neighborhood which has caused some grief for people here). For various legal reasons (limitations on the trust), this property has always been undeveloped. But now those reasons are being resolved. And it turns out that what we thought for some 50 years is part of our property is actually part of the trust. This includes a substantial strip of our lawn and even a chunk of my garden, about half of the fenced in area I created for my dog, and a substantial number of huge trees. My wife’s family has maintained and used the strip of property for that entire time.

So for the better part of the last year we’ve been involved in some legal wrangling to settle this issue. Because, you know, the matter couldn’t be settled simply, due to the aforementioned feud. And yesterday things came to a bit of a head, as the son of the executor came onto our property to ‘do some maintenance’.

I had words with him.

OK, let’s recap: I, who never met my father-in-law, had a potentially dangerous confrontation with the son of a man who had a feud with my FIL.

Given my current attempts to recover from prolonged and excess stress, this could have gotten stupid very quickly. And I spent a lot of time afterwards carefully considering the situation. And somewhere in there last night I realized that I finally understood just exactly what Faulkner meant. Now I know why border disputes and blood feuds are carried on for generations, pulling people in who otherwise would react in more sane and rational ways. Because, without desire or intent on my part, I am in the middle of exactly one such episode of history intruding on the present.

This is insane.

* * * * * * *

My wife and I discussed the matter at some length last night, once I had stepped back from the adrenaline stew that had me jumped up. Our attorney will seek a restraining order on the other parties to prevent them from doing anything to the disputed strip of property until the matter is resolved in court – to just keep things ‘status quo’. I have asked for specific instructions from our attorney about what I should do in the event that we have a recurrence – ignore it, call the cops, confront them, what?

But beyond that, I have decided that I am going to try and disentangle myself from this historical mess. I just want a resolution to the matter, and of the feud, so I can get on with my life. But I cannot make that resolution – this is a problem for others to sort out; their problem, not mine. Because I finally ‘got’ what Faulkner meant, and understand that unless I disentangle myself I am likely to contribute to a perpetuation of this feud, damaging my own sanity and soul in the process.

Jim Downey

Whaddya know?
June 26, 2008, 6:22 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Comics, Failure, Humor, Publishing, Writing stuff

I’m just being environmentally conscientious.

Jim Downey

Someone is watching you.
June 25, 2008, 9:08 am
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Civil Rights, Daily Kos, Government, Politics, Press, Privacy, Society, Space, tech, Wired

Someone is watching you:

BERKELEY, California — For most people, photographing something that isn’t there might be tough. Not so for Trevor Paglen.

His shots of 189 secret spy satellites are the subject of a new exhibit — despite the fact that, officially speaking, the satellites don’t exist. The Other Night Sky, on display at the University of California at Berkeley Art Museum through September 14, is only a small selection from the 1,500 astrophotographs Paglen has taken thus far.

* * *

While all of Paglen’s projects are the result of meticulous research, he’s also the first to admit that his photos aren’t necessarily revelatory. That’s by design. Like the blurry abstractions of his super-telephoto images showing secret military installations in Nevada, the tiny blips of satellites streaking across the night sky in his new series of photos are meant more as reminders rather than as documentation.

It’s art, people. And art can have a purpose and an impact which is more powerful and insightful than journalism. Paglan is an interesting guy, but too often his stuff is used as some kind of substitute for actual journalism. I suppose in an era when so much our government does is tacitly ignored by the mainstream press this is understandable, but it almost misses the point.


Jim Downey

Cross posted to dKos.

June 24, 2008, 5:55 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Emergency, Guns, Health, Predictions, Survival

I worked over six hours yesterday.  Yeah, I took a few breaks, but still.  Something of a milestone.

* * * * * * *

Humans are remarkably adaptive creatures.  We can adjust to a wide range of environmental conditions, accommodate significant changes in diet, accept shifts in social structure.  Just look around the world and you’ll see what I mean, from variations in culture in response to climate to how people cope with extreme conditions such as war and famine.

There can be a toll to such adaptations, of course, depending on what they are, how long they last, and the particular individual or society.

In caring for Martha Sr I slowly changed my routine and focus to better meet her needs, so most of the changes I went through in that time were barely discernible from day to day.  Over the four plus years of intense care giving, however, both my wife and I underwent a very substantial shift in what could be considered our normal life.

I’ve mentioned some of those changes previously – the weight gain, the loss of concentration, the lack of sleep.  But I haven’t discussed the operative mechanism behind all those changes: stress.  Specifically, the physiological changes in hormonal balance which come with prolonged stress – the so called stress hormones of cortisol and norepinephrine.  Most people know these as the ‘fight or flight’ reflex effects: boost in blood pressure and heart rate, heightened sensory awareness, a slight time dilation.  It is our body’s way of preparing us to survive a threatening situation.  It is a very powerful experience, and can even be a bit addictive – anyone who characterizes themselves as an ‘adrenaline junkie’, who gets a kick out of doing dangerous things or watching scary movies, is talking about just that.

The problem is, those stress hormones come with a price – they exact a toll on the body.  For most people, occasional jolts of this stuff isn’t really dangerous, but for someone with a heart condition or an aneurysm waiting blow, such an event can kill.  That’s why you see those warning signs on roller coasters.

And consider what happens to someone who slowly ramps up their stress hormone levels over a prolonged period.  That’s me.  My formerly excellent blood pressure and heart rate is now scary bad, and has been for a while.  I’m lucky that I started this in good condition – but think back to this episode last year, and you’ll see what kind of effect the excessive stress hormone levels had.  In the final year of care giving, my system became saturated with stress hormones – my ‘fight or flight’ reflex changed from being related to a sudden threat to being an ongoing condition.  I adapted.

So now I am in detox.  That’s what the last few months have been all about.  Slowly adapting back to something resembling normal, at a very basic physiological level.  More sleep.  More exercise.  Better diet.  As I’ve discussed recently, I have started to see some real changes.  But as a good friend who is also a doctor reminded me recently, it will likely take a year or longer to make this transition, for my endocrine system to settle down.  Recently I have taken some additional steps to help this process, in terms of changes to diet and food supplements.  But it is a long and winding road I need to walk now.

* * * * * * *

I got up about 3:30 this morning for a potty run.  Stepping from our bedroom into the bathroom, I froze: there was a light coming up from the downstairs that shouldn’t have been there.  I quietly backed into the bedroom, put on pants and glasses, grabbed my cell phone, a pistol and a powerful flashlight.

I’m no ‘macho guy’ or wanna-be hero.  The smart thing to do if you have an intruder in your house is to batten down the hatches where you are, call 911, and let the police deal with it.

But what if you just left a light on by accident?

I was about 90% sure that was what happened.  So, carefully, I went to investigate.  Checked the house completely.  Everything was safe and secure.  The cats were confused by what I was doing up so early.

I went back upstairs, hit the head, put away the various items I’d picked up, and crawled back into bed.

And have been awake since.

After an hour or so, I just got up.  Because I knew I wasn’t getting back to sleep anytime soon.  That’s the problem – the stress hormone receptors in my brain are so adapted to a regular high dose of adrenal squeezin’s that they hungrily lap the stuff up when it comes their way.

* * * * * * *

I worked over six hours yesterday.  Yeah, I took a few breaks, but still.  Something of a milestone.

Six hours may not sound like a lot.  After all, most people are expected to work eight or more hours at a time, with a couple of paltry breaks.

But for me, regaining the ability to focus in, to concentrate and work for that length of time is a real improvement.  It shows that I am making progress in detoxifying my system, of readjusting the endocrine balance.

Today is going to be a bit of a bitch, though, thanks to the early-morning jolt of adrenaline.  But I know how to handle it, and hopefully it won’t cause too much back sliding.  We’ll see.

The road is long and winding, and I must take it where it leads.

Jim Downey