Communion Of Dreams

September 30, 2008, 10:37 am
Filed under: Art, Politics, Society, Writing stuff

Bérubé’s back!!!

(Seriously – this guy is brilliant on several levels.  When he shuttered his blog in January ’07, it was depressing as all hell.  Catching his stuff at various other locations now and then was enough to keep hope alive.  Rejoice!  It is the Second Coming of Bérubé !!!)

Jim Downey


Last night I watched a movie made before I was born.  By coincidence, the timing was perfectly in sync with the news yesterday.

* * * * * * *

Over a year ago, I wrote this, about Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace (one of the speakers at the Heinlein Centennial):

Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”

And this, in a piece about Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets:

And there was a lot of thought early in the development of rocketry that such capability could be used for postal delivery. It doesn’t sound economically feasible at this point, but there’s nothing to say that it might not become an attractive transportation option for such firms as UPS or FedEx if dependable services were provided by a TGV Rockets or some other company. In his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein had his characters adapt a retired “mail rocket” for their own spacecraft, used to fly to the Moon.

I find this notion of private development of spaceflight more than a little exciting. When I wrote Communion of Dreams, I was operating under the old model – that the enterprise of getting into space in a big way was going to mandate large governmental involvement and coordination. I’m not going to rewrite the novel, but I am reworking my own thoughts and expectations – this is probably the single largest change for me from attending the Centennial.

Well, yesterday a Falcon 1 rocket from the Space X corporation made it to orbit.  From Phil Plait:

Congratulations to the team at Space X! At 16:26 Pacific time today (Sunday, September 28, 2008), their Falcon 1 rocket achieved orbit around the Earth, the first time a privately funded company has done such a feat with a liquid fuel rocket.

* * * * * * *

As coincidence would have it, about the time the Space X rocket reached orbit I was watching Destination Moon, a movie I had added to my NetFlix queue after the Heinlein Centennial, and which just now had floated to the top.

What’s the big deal?  Well, Destination Moon was about the first successful private corporation launch, not to orbit, but as a manned mission to the Moon.

It’s not a great movie.  But it was fascinating to watch, an insight into those heady post-war years, into what people thought about space, and into the mind of Robert Heinlein, who was one of the writers and technical advisors on the film (with connections to two of his novels: Rocket Ship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon).  Interesting to see the trouble they went to in order to explain what things would be like in space (no gravity, vacuum, how rockets would work, et cetera) because this was a full 8 years prior to the launch of Sputnik.  We’ve grown up with spaceflight as a fact, with knowing how things move and function – but all of this was unknown to the average viewer when the movie was made and released.  They did a surprisingly good job.  And the images provided Chesley Bonestell are still breath taking, after all these years.

* * * * * * *

It may yet be a while before any private corporation wins the Google Lunar X Prize, let alone sends a team of astronauts there and gets them back, as was done in Destination Moon.  But it’ll happen.  When it looks like it will, I may need to schedule another viewing of the movie, and not just trust to coincidence.

Jim Downey

“Rustic Missouri – The Experience.”
September 28, 2008, 11:00 am
Filed under: Architecture, Health, Society

“I feel like I’ve just walked into a Bass Pro shop.”

“Well, they own the place.”

* * * * * * *’

OK, I’m sick.  And I was sick when we left Friday morning, then drove 4+ hours to the  resort.  Take that into consideration for my comments to follow.

I grew up here in Missouri.  My folks were solid working class people, and so our vacations were mostly of the camping variety, in the southern part of the state.  There are numerous state and federal campgrounds, places to hike and swim, caves to explore, historic sites to be bored with.  I also had extended family who lived out in the sticks who we visited regularly, went hunting and fishing with.  Fried crappie with hushpuppies, or rabbit stew ‘n dumplings were meals we shared and loved.  To this day I’d rather have biscuits & gravy than just about anything else for breakfast – done right, with real whole-hog sausage (my family would make their own) and milk gravy, it’s a little bit of heaven.

I’m comfortable with a rural lifestyle, with the kinds of crafts that were necessities of survival for folks who didn’t have much money for ‘store-bought’.  Simple homes built out of local rocks and a little plaster, usually with an outhouse rather than indoor plumbing.  Furniture made out of sticks, lashed together with strips of green inner bark.  Seine-nets tied by hand, used to catch minnows for fishin’ and crawdads for eatin’.  I was in high school before I realized that the term “hillbilly” was pejorative and applied to more than just my cousins in the Ozarks.  Granted, I went away to college, and traveled, and have never had any desire to live the kind of life they lived back then, nor to have my world so bounded by the rough green hills.  But I still enjoy walking the forests, watching a lizard scramble over the rocks and deer stand and stare at you.  We own property south of town, on what is the northern tip of the Ozark plateau.  It’d be easy to move into a small cabin there, and ignore the world.

* * * * * * *

I like things that are real.  Genuine.  Always have.  I think that this is why, even as a child, I did not enjoy such places as Disneyland. I think it also explains why I am a book conservator.

Oh, sure, I enjoy a good movie or novel, a bit of fantasy or flight of fancy is fine.  I think, as Communion of Dreams shows, that my imagination is as good as anyone’s.  But even here, I prefer honest fantasy to the easy lie, science fiction to soap opera or situation comedy.  I don’t think that a new car will make me a better person, or that my happiness depends on whether I have the right kind of sunglasses.  Give me a week tromping around Wales over a week on a cruise ship, any time.

* * * * * * *

There’s a Bass Pro Shop about a mile from my house.  I have one of their credit cards, and purchase enough stuff there to annually qualify as a ‘preferred customer’.  I actually like going there, and have a couple of friends who work there.

But I have always hated the design of the place.  Of all the Bass Pro shops, actually.

Well, “hate” is too strong a term.  But still.  The place is like a red-neck Disneyland.  Fake.  Even as it tries hard not to be.

* * * * * * *

“We’ll go in this way.  The other road is more direct, but they have this for effect.”

I nodded at my wife, turned the way she indicated.  “Sure.”

The road narrowed, and after a couple of turns we were on a one-lane, one-direction country blacktop.  To be more realistic, it should have been gravel.  But then you’d kick up dust and get the fancy cars dirty.  We came around a corner through the trees, and a vista opened off to our left.  There was one arm of the Lake, way down the valley.  Huge, faux 1920s rustic resort lodges were above us.  We crossed a “stream”, complete with a rock (and concrete) bed, then continued to wind our way down the hillside, switching back and forth several times and again crossing the “stream”.  Here’s how one travel website describes it:

A typical Ozark country road zigzags through the lush, manicured landscape, playfully forcing motorists to ford two shallow streams.

Well, except the fact that the “stream” is completely artificial.  I suspected as much from just a quick glance – there were none of the usual markers of a spring-fed stream in this part of the world, no moss, no trees or bushes growing nearby.  Just an Alpine-style stream cutting almost straight down the landscaped hillside.

And I knew what I was in for: a rustic “experience”.

* * * * * * *

I find that now, feeling under the weather, I don’t really have the desire to catalog the many aesthetic offenses of the place.  Suffice it to say that the whole resort is pleasant enough, but it’s just playing at giving people a sense of what rustic Missouri life of the last century was like.  And playing with a stacked deck, at that.  The furniture in our room was made to look like it was from sticks, but in reality was a combination of metal and plastic, probably made in China.  The wood-grained blinds were actually cheap plastic.  Even the tile wall in the shower wasn’t actual tile, just panels of fiberglass with an embossed tile-like shape to it.

There’s nothing wrong with kitsch, so long as it is honest kitsch.  This was not that.

Once I got moving yesterday morning (my wife went off for the series of meetings that had brought us to this place), I wandered down to what had been indicated on the resorts’s website as the “Truman Smokehouse”.  Well, as I walked up to the building, I noted that the sign had been changed to “Truman coffeehouse and cafe” (or something like that).  Hmm.  Went in, and was greeted with the familiar layout of your typical Starbucks-wannabe coffee joint.  Canisters of pump-your-own coffee on the left, displays of various huge muffins and whatnot on the right, a cash register below a tiny menu listing mostly paninni sandwiches in the middle.  Yeah, they had a “breakfast menu” that consisted of a “breakfast paninni” and “biscuits & gravy”.

Did I order the b&g?  Not on your life.  There is only so much disappointment I can take in one day.  I got a paninni and some coffee.  Went outside, parked myself at one of the umbrella tables, sat in metal chair with a stick-furniture motif.  Sipped my coffee, ate my sandwich, enjoyed the lovely autumn morning.  Across the valley you could see the first signs of color edging the trees.  The extensive flower gardens around the patio were doing a great business with butterflies and bees.  At least they were happy.

Jim Downey

Another round, bartender.
September 26, 2008, 9:40 am
Filed under: Architecture, Failure, Health, N. Am. Welsh Choir, Patagonia


I mentioned the antibiotics I was taking last week.  Well, by the time I finished my full course last weekend, I was feeling pretty good.  Energy levels back up, exercise felt good, et cetera.  So first part of the week I went and got a Hep A vaccination for our upcoming trip, as I had planned.  Wednesday I was feeling a little achey, glands a bit sore, and just figured that it was a normal reaction to the vaccine.


By late yesterday I was really pretty miserable again, sore throat on the left, nasty headache I had all day, shooting pain behind my left ear.

Yeah, another infection.  Saw my doctor first thing this morning.  Got another round of antibiotics, something a little more suited to this kind of thing.  Anticipate feeling miserable for the rest of the weekend.

Which is unfortunate, because here in about 90 minutes we’re leaving for an AIA retreat thing my wife has.


But I want to clear this up and make sure I’m healthy before our trip to Patagonia in less than three weeks.

Anyway, I’ll be mostly offline for the rest of the weekend.

Jim Downey

OK. Go.
September 25, 2008, 11:47 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Bad Astronomy, NASA, Phil Plait, Science, Science Fiction, Space

Play with your brain.  Or, more accurately, let the universe play with it.

Jim Downey

Ah, yes – “To Protect and Serve.”
September 25, 2008, 8:09 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Government, Society, Violence

Another for the “Taser Abuse” files:

NEW YORK (AP) _ A naked, distraught man fell to his death after a police officer shocked him with a Taser stun gun as he stood on a building ledge, authorities said.

The man, Iman Morales, 35, was pronounced dead at a hospital after his nearly 10-foot fall Wednesday. Police said he suffered serious head trauma when he hit the sidewalk.

The death of the man, who witnesses and neighbors said had become distraught and had threatened to kill himself earlier in the day, brought renewed focus to the use of Tasers by the police.

Gee, I can’t imagine why.

Then there’s this:

Man Passes Gas, Charged with Battery on Officer

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) — As if getting a DUI wasn’t enough, a man arrested for driving under the influence got in a lot more trouble at the police station.

Police stopped Jose Cruz on Route 60 in South Charleston Monday night for driving with his headlights off.

Then, he failed sobriety tests and was arrested.

When police were trying to get fingerprints, police say Cruz moved closer to the officer and passed gas on him. The investigating officer remarked in the criminal complaint that the odor was very strong.

Cruz is now charged with battery on a police officer, as well as DUI and obstruction.

Mr. Cruz should just be happy they didn’t Tase him, I suppose. Of course, that could have led to ignition of his gas. And then they’d have to charge him with terrorism, I suppose.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI. HT to ML for the first story.)

“You’re in the desert, you see a tortoise lying on its back, struggling, and you’re not helping — why is that?”*

So, according to FOX News, our friends at the Department of Homeland Security will soon have a new trick up their sleeve: MALINTENT.

Homeland Security Detects Terrorist Threats by Reading Your Mind

Baggage searches are SOOOOOO early-21st century. Homeland Security is now testing the next generation of security screening — a body scanner that can read your mind.

Most preventive screening looks for explosives or metals that pose a threat. But a new system called MALINTENT turns the old school approach on its head. This Orwellian-sounding machine detects the person — not the device — set to wreak havoc and terror.

MALINTENT, the brainchild of the cutting-edge Human Factors division in Homeland Security’s directorate for Science and Technology, searches your body for non-verbal cues that predict whether you mean harm to your fellow passengers.

I’m . . . sceptical.  Let me put it like this: if this thing actually, dependably, reliably works the way they tout it in the article (go read the whole thing, even if it is from FOX), then the TSA would be perfectly fine with allowing me to carry a gun onto a plane.  After all, I have a legitimate CCW permit, have been vetted by a background check and accuracy test, have had the permit for three years, and have never demonstrated the slightest inclination to use my weapon inappropriately.  If I could pass their MALINTENT scanners as well, they should be completely willing to let me (and anyone else who had a similar background and permit) carry a weapon on board.

Just how likely do you think that is?

Right.  Because this sort of technology does not, will not, demonstrate reliability to the degree they claim.  There will be far too many “false positives”, as there always are with any kind of lie detector.  That’s why multiple questions are asked when a lie detector is used, and even then many jurisdictions do not allow the results of a lie detector to be admitted into courts of law.

Furthermore, the risk of a “false negative” would be far too high.  Someone who was trained/drugged/unaware/elated with being a terrorist and slipped by the scanners would still be a threat.  As Bruce Schneier just posted about Two Classes of Airport Contraband:

This is why articles about how screeners don’t catch every — or even a majority — of guns and bombs that go through the checkpoints don’t bother me. The screeners don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be good enough. No terrorist is going to base his plot on getting a gun through airport security if there’s decent chance of getting caught, because the consequences of getting caught are too great.

Contrast that with a terrorist plot that requires a 12-ounce bottle of liquid. There’s no evidence that the London liquid bombers actually had a workable plot, but assume for the moment they did. If some copycat terrorists try to bring their liquid bomb through airport security and the screeners catch them — like they caught me with my bottle of pasta sauce — the terrorists can simply try again. They can try again and again. They can keep trying until they succeed. Because there are no consequences to trying and failing, the screeners have to be 100 percent effective. Even if they slip up one in a hundred times, the plot can succeed.

OK, so then why do it?  Why introduce these scanners at all?  Why intrude on the privacy of people wanting to get on an airplane?

Control.  As I noted earlier this year, about the news that the US military was deploying hand-held ‘lie detectors’ for use in Iraq:

The device is being tested by the military. They just don’t know it. And once it is in use, some version of the technology will be adapted for more generalized police use. Just consider how it will be promoted to the law enforcement community: as a way of screening suspects. Then, as a way of finding suspects. Then, as a way of checking anyone who wants access to some critical facility. Then, as a way of checking anyone who wants access to an airplane, train, or bus.

Just how long do you think it will be before you have to pass a test by one of these types of devices in your day-to-day life? I give it maybe ten years.  But I worry that I am an optimist.

An optimist, indeed.  Because here’s another bit from the FOXNews article:

And because FAST is a mobile screening laboratory, it could be set up at entrances to stadiums, malls and in airports, making it ever more difficult for terrorists to live and work among us.

This is about scanning the public, making people *afraid*.  Afraid not just of being a terrorist, but of being thought to be a terrorist by others, of being an outsider.  Of being a critic of the government in power. The first step is to get you afraid of terrorists, because then they could use that fear, and build on it, to slowly, methodically, destroy your privacy.  Sure, the DHS claims that they will not keep the information gathered from such scanners.  And you’re a fool if you think you can trust that.

Jim Downey

Via BoingBoing. Cross posted to UTI.

*Recognize the quote?

September 23, 2008, 11:24 am
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Humor, Science, Society

An academic buddy of mine and I like to joke that this time of the year is called “Pass-over.” No, not Pesach – that happens in the spring. Rather, this is the time of year when the MacArthur Foundation announces their annual Fellows, the so-called ‘genius grants’ given each year to a group of particularly brilliant (though sometimes obscure) researchers, writers, academics, artists, and performers. This year 25 such Fellows were announced, and each will receive $500,000 over the next five years with no strings attached – in order to help facilitate whatever they do.

Man, who wouldn’t want to win that??? Nah, it’s not just the money and prestige – it’s the vote of confidence that they so believe in you that they’re willing to turn you loose with that sum of money, just to be creative.

And of course, we call it “Pass-over” because, well, we get passed-over for such each year. Like this year. Again.

Hey, I’m an artist! I’m a writer! I’m obscure! Depending on who you talk to (and how much I’ve paid them), I’m brilliant!

Ah, well. So it goes. Congrats to all the 2008 winners – go, and make the world a better place.

Jim Downey

September 22, 2008, 9:15 am
Filed under: Amazon, BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow, Jeff Bezos, Kindle, Marketing, Publishing, Science Fiction, Society

Via Cory Doctorow, a lengthy look at the End of Book Publishing as We Know It in New York Magazine.  It’s a very long piece, but worth going through for anyone interested in the current state of the publishing industry and some possible directions it may go in the future.

As I have said in the past, I think that the industry is essentially “broken.”  Increasingly, the traditional publishing system relies on gimmicks and celebrities (most such artifically created).  From the article:

But overspending isn’t going away, even with a rotten economy. Last month, Harvard economist Anita Elberse wrote a piece debunking the hypothesis of Chris Anderson’s anti-blockbuster blockbuster, The Long Tail (which Bob Miller acquired at Hyperion for a mere $550,000). Elberse led off with a tidbit from a study of Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing. Of 61 books on its 2006 list, each title averaged a profit of almost $100,000. But without the top seller, which earned $5 million, that average drops to $18,000. “A blockbuster strategy still makes the most sense,” she concludes.

It’s inherently risky, though. You have to wonder about the prospects for one new book that Elberse had her students case-study—Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. Grand Central, inspired by the best seller Marley & Me, is betting on the new mini-genre of cat-related nonfiction. Grand Central initially offered $300,000, then went up to $1.25 million. Gobs more will be spent on marketing. You’ll likely be hearing about Dewey when it comes out this month, and if half a million of you still feel that you can’t get enough heartwarming pet stories, it just might earn back its advance.

So, what happens?  Well, I think that we’re seeing it: the “publish it yourself” strategy, for authors on their own or teamed up with Amazon.  Yeah, I don’t like the Kindle, but it does look like otherwise Amazon is moving in the direction of becoming vertically-integrated, and Bezos’s baby may be a major component in that process:

Publishers have been burned by e-book hype before. A few years back, analysts were predicting we’d all be reading novels on our Palm Pilots. Barnes & Noble even began selling e-books. Though it doesn’t quite look the part, Bezos’s chunky retro Kindle is the closest so far to being the iPod of books. In mid-August, a Citigroup analyst doubled his estimate for this year’s sales of the readers—to almost 400,000.

Why weren’t publishers elated? What’s wrong with a company that returns only 10 percent of the books it buys and might eventually eliminate the cost of print production? Well, it doesn’t help that Amazon, which has been on an intense buying spree (print-on-demanders BookSurge; book networking site Shelfari), lists publishers as its competitors in SEC filings. Editors and retailers alike fear that it’s bent on building a vertical publishing business—from acquisition to your doorstep—with not a single middleman in sight. No HarperCollins, no Borders, no printing press. Amazon has begun to do end runs around bookstores with small presses. Two new bios from Lyons Press, about Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, are going straight-to-Kindle long before publication.

So, what does this mean for the average non-celeb writer?  In other words, what does it mean for me?

I’m not sure.  As I have said repeatedly, I would like to have a conventional publishing gig – “sell” Communion of Dreams to one of the imprints who handle Science Fiction (or even better, “speculative fiction”) and have copies of the thing sold in bookstores all across the country.  That’s what I grew up with.  But it may well make more sense to get go through one of the self-publishing services, and just sell the thing off my websites and through Amazon.  With almost 12,000 copies downloaded, there may well be a market for a hardcopy version.


Jim Downey

Well, maybe there really *is* an international banking conspiracy . . .
September 21, 2008, 9:55 am
Filed under: Emergency, Failure, Government, Predictions, Preparedness, Society

I’m not real big on conspiracies. I don’t think that the US government was behind the 9-11 attacks, or that the UN has an agreement with extra-terrestrials to reveal their presence and influence in our world in 2017. While the Warren Commission had problems, I don’t think that Oliver Stone was right about the JFK assassination.

But maybe – just maybe – the International Banking Conspiracy nuts have a point. I’ve never really thought so, despite the growth in power and scope of multinational corporations, the increasing symbiosis between politics and industry, et cetera. I just figured that normal political & economic forces were at work.

But the Big Bailout Debacle(tm) has me wondering. From the AP:

US to ‘press’ countries to forge financial bailouts: Paulson

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States will press other countries to forge bailout plans for financial institutions where needed, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Sunday.

Paulson said the Treasury’s proposal to Congress for authority to spend 700 billion dollars to buy toxic mortgage-related assets from financial institution could serve as a blueprint for foreign authorities facing similar problems.

* * *

Asked whether the plan provides for government purchases of tainted assets owned by foreign institutions, Paulson said that would occur as long as they have operations in the US.

“Obviously, we’d want to buy from financial institutions that are employing people, and are an important part of our economy. Because to the American people, if an institution is doing business here is clogged, and can’t perform the role they need to do, it’s a distinction without a difference — whether it’s a foreign or a US owned.”

“Remember, our system is a global one,” he said.

But don’t worry, he feels really bad about the whole thing. No, seriously:

Paulson said that “it pains me tremendously to have the American taxpayer put in this position but it is better than the alternative.”

Yeah, right now the thought of some vast, shadowy, international conspiracy that actually knows WTF it is doing being behind all of this is actually kind of comforting.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)