Communion Of Dreams

Go figure.
November 20, 2008, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Expert systems, Humor

Plug this blog into Typealyzer and what do you get?

The analysis indicates that the author of is of the type:

INTJ – The Scientists

The long-range thinking and individualistic type. They are especially good at looking at almost anything and figuring out a way of improving it – often with a highly creative and imaginative touch. They are intellectually curious and daring, but might be pshysically hesitant to try new things.

The Scientists enjoy theoretical work that allows them to use their strong minds and bold creativity. Since they tend to be so abstract and theoretical in their communication they often have a problem communcating their visions to other people and need to learn patience and use conrete examples. Since they are extremly good at concentrating they often have no trouble working alone.

Obviously, based on some version of the Myers-Briggs psychometrics, which I have always found interesting but a bit overly deterministic. In some 20 years of taking such tests (occasionally, not continuously), I have always been classified as an INTJ, but leaning to INTP.  And I do have to admit that the usual descriptions that go with these two classifications fit me very well.

Just a little bit of fun.

Jim Downey


You better watch out,*
November 20, 2008, 9:08 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Humor, Music, Politics, Religion

You better watch out,
You better all cry,
You better all pout,
AFA is telling you why:
The evil gays are coming to town.

AFA‘s making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out
Who’s naughty and nice.
The evil gays are coming to town.

They’ll get you when you’re sleeping.
Or even when you’re awake.
Evil gays are bad, not good,
So be good for God’s own sake!

You better watch out,
You better all cry,
You better all pout,
AFA is telling you why:
The evil gays are coming to town.
The evil gays are coming to town!

Jim Downey

*with apologies to J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie.  HT to Sully. Cross posted to UTI and Daily Kos.

November 20, 2008, 8:18 am
Filed under: Humor

I can be a grumpy bastard.  Particularly before I’ve had my coffee.  Or if I’m otherwise tired due to work or having to put up with too many people (and “too many” usually means “more than four”), or too much bullshit (such as letters from an insurance company, the IRS, or charities spending the money I gave them in asking me for *more* money).  Unfortunately, this means that I am grumpy waaaay too much of the time.

And so it is that I usually growl at the computer when someone sends me a slew of links/articles/pictures/jokes/whatever.

Why is it that we bald monkeys do this?  We always assume that people are going to share our particular interests – to the same extent and at the same time as we do.

I’m guilty of this.  Hell, just blogging is bad enough, thinking that something I have to say will be of interest to others.  But at least in this forum people can shut off the RSS feed, and not bother to hit the site.  When I send links to others, or even worse, embed images/video in an otherwise normal message, I am imposing my aesthetic and opinions on the recipient.  And filling up their inboxes with my crap.

For the last few years I have been trying to impose more discipline on myself in this regard – really trying to ask myself before I send something out whether the recipient will really want to see it, and then only doing so in such a fashion as to minimize the impact and give my friends the biggest option of ignoring the message (by giving a brief explanation of why I think the specific recipient will want to look at the link or read an article).  Also, I’ve learned to just limit links/articles/pictures/jokes/whatever to one or two at a time – no one is going to want to plow through a dozen of anything just because I say it’s funny or insightful.  Just as I have almost no interest in plowing through a dozen of the “gr8test LOLCATs evah!!” – that stuff is just going to get ignored, and likely will annoy me because it loads up my inbox and slows down my computer.

Yeah, I know – bitch, bitch, bitch.  I guess I need another cup of coffee.

Jim Downey

TSA: Defining 1% as success.
November 18, 2008, 10:33 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Constitution, Daily Kos, Failure, Government, Politics, Privacy, Society, Terrorism, Travel

Vice President Dick Cheney is reported to have set forth the “One Percent Doctrine” following the 9-11 attacks.  The basic premise is that if there is just 1% chance that an enemy is planning a serious terrorist attack, we have to treat it as though it were a certainty, and respond accordingly.

So, I suppose it really is no surprise that all the absurdity of “behaviour detection” that the TSA employs at airports leads to just a 1% arrest rate, and that they proclaim this as “”incredibly effective.”  No, seriously:

TSA’s ‘behavior detection’ leads to few arrests

WASHINGTON — Fewer than 1% of airline passengers singled out at airports for suspicious behavior are arrested, Transportation Security Administration figures show, raising complaints that too many innocent people are stopped.

A TSA program launched in early 2006 that looks for terrorists using a controversial surveillance method has led to more than 160,000 people in airports receiving scrutiny, such as a pat-down search or a brief interview. That has resulted in 1,266 arrests, often on charges of carrying drugs or fake IDs, the TSA said.

* * *

TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said the program has been “incredibly effective” at catching criminals at airports. “It definitely gets at things that other layers of security might miss,” Howe said.

Sure it does.  Because people who are carrying drugs or using a fake ID are really the terrorist threat that you say you are protecting us from. And to achieve that, they had to have over 99% false positives.

It’s just more Security Theater, of course: the illusion of ‘doing something’, not any kind of practical prevention.  I’ve written about this often, and in looking back through those posts it is clear that the real effect of this whole bureaucracy is to make us more and more inured to the systematic destruction of any sense of privacy at the hands of our government.  As I wrote just over a year ago:

Over the weekend, news came out of yet another “Trust us, we’re the government” debacle, this time in the form of the principal deputy director of national intelligence saying that Americans have to give up on the idea that they have any expectation of privacy. Rather, he said, we should simply trust the government to properly safeguard the communications and financial information that they gather about us. No, I am not making this up. From the NYT:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, told attendees of the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s symposium in Dallas.

Little wonder that they’re happy to define 1% as “success” – it gets them exactly what they want.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI and Daily Kos.)

Extinction in the news.

Yeah, I know I said I’d try and get a nice cheery travelogue up next.  Oh well. This has more relevance to Communion of Dreams, which is ostensibly the focus for this blog, anyway, right?

Right.  So, here: seems that researchers have for the first time clearly determined the extinction of a mammal to have been caused by disease.

In 1899, an English ship stopped at Christmas Island, near Australia. Within nine years, the island’s entire native rat population had gone extinct, and scientists have wondered ever since what exactly happened.Now, researchers led by an Old Dominion University scientist think they have unraveled the mystery – and, they say, the lessons of Christmas Island apply today to issues such as disease, invasive species and the law of unintended consequenceTurns out, says ODU biology professor Alex Greenwood, that a British black rat had stowed away on the ship in a bale of hay. Upon reaching the island, the rat – or several rats – escaped on land and spread a “hyperdisease” among the native population.

“Anyone who has ever tried to kill a rat – let alone a whole population – knows how hard that can be,” Greenwood said in an interview Monday. “That’s what made Christmas Island so fascinating for so long. Imagine, a whole species – especially one as tough as a rat – gone within 10 years of exposure!”

OK, for those of us who are non-biologists, this may be something of a surprise: why wouldn’t extinction occur due to disease?  But the prevailing theory has long been that it was virtually impossible that a disease would wipe out all members of a species – and that any survivors would pass on their immunity to their descendants, thus continuing the Darwinian arms race.  To determine that this has happened – and to a robust and fast-reproducing species such as a rat – is real news.

Which touches on an older item I came across recently:

Reducing the Risk of Human Extinction
Jason G. Matheny

Abstract: In this century a number of events could extinguish humanity. The probability of these events may be very low, but the expected value of preventing them could be high, as it represents the value of all future human lives. We review the challenges to studying human extinction risks and, by way of example, estimate the cost effectiveness of preventing extinction-level asteroid impacts.

* * *

3. Estimating the Near-Term Probability of Extinction

It is possible for humanity (or its descendents) to survive a million years or more, but we could succumb to extinction as soon as this century. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. President Kennedy estimated the probability of a nuclear holocaust as “somewhere between one out of three and even” (Kennedy, 1969, p. 110). John von Neumann, as Chairman of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee, predicted that it was “absolutely certain (1) that there would be a nuclear war; and (2) that everyone would die in it” (Leslie, 1996, p. 26).

More recent predictions of human extinction are little more optimistic. In their catalogs of extinction risks, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees (2003), gives humanity 50-50 odds on surviving the 21st century; philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that it would be “misguided” to assume that the probability of extinction is less than 25%; and philosopher John Leslie (1996) assigns a 30% probability to extinction during the next five centuries. The “Stern Review” for the U.K. Treasury (2006) assumes that the probability of human extinction during the next century is 10%. And some explanations of the “Fermi Paradox” imply a high probability (close to100%)of extinction among technological civilizations (Pisani, 2006).4

I haven’t spent the time to look up the entire paper and read it, though I have followed this topic in the (popular) scientific news for most of my adult life. It is, in fact, one of the reasons why I decided to write Communion of Dreams – to explore the idea of humanity on the brink of extinction (as well as to examine Fermi’s Paradox, as I have written about previously).  Just as most people seem to prefer ignoring their own mortality, we as a species seem to prefer ignoring the possibility of our own extinction.  Even the vast majority of Science Fiction (including my own) written with humankind facing the possibility of extinction is resolved with some kind of salvation – it’d just be too bleak for most readers, otherwise.

And that doesn’t sell.

Jim Downey

If you want another insight . . .
November 16, 2008, 8:43 am
Filed under: Emergency, Failure, General Musings, Government, Politics, Predictions, Preparedness, Society

I have a friend who complains that when he goes to check his usual blogs on Monday mornings, he has to brace himself about the bad economic news I’ve written about on Sunday.  I hadn’t really realized that I had this weekly schedule, but what the hell. In that spirit, if you want another insight into just how f*cked-up the Wall Street financial crisis really is, spend some time with a long piece by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker. Here’s an excerpt from The End:

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

He’s talking about his experience on Wall Street over 20 years ago.

It’s long.  It’s fairly dense in places.  But it does a phenomenal job of explaining how we got to the point we have, and how the situation is actually much more grim than most people realize.

OK, I’ll try and post a nice cheery travelogue later.

Jim Downey

Paging Through History’s Beautiful Science.
November 15, 2008, 2:01 pm
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, NPR, NYT, Publishing, Science

If you would like a small insight into why I love doing what I do for a living, be sure to check out this delightful feature which was on NPR’s Weekend Edition this morning:

Paging Through History’s Beautiful Science

Listen Now [6 min 13 sec]

What makes something beautiful?

Is it exquisite colors? Elegant form or striking style? Or can something be beautiful simply for the ideas it contains?

The answer to that last question is a resounding “yes,” according Dan Lewis, Dibner senior curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. He’s the man responsible for a new exhibition at the library called “Beautiful Science: Ideas That Changed the World.”

* * *

The exhibition focuses on four areas of science: astronomy, natural history, medicine and light. Some of the books featured are Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, the book where Newton codified the laws of motion and gravity; Nicolaus Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, the description of a solar system which had the sun, not the Earth, at its center; and Petrus Apianus’ Astronomicum Caesarium, a collection of strikingly beautiful, hand-illustrated star charts published in 1540.

And be sure to take a few minutes to listen to the audio link embedded there, where you will hear this comment from Lewis:

That’s probably the question I get asked the most: ‘why aren’t you wearing gloves?’ People will gasp audibly when they see that I am handling this stuff. We found that the lack of sensitivity you suddenly get when you’re wearing gloves is is far worse than anything you might have on your hands. Well, almost anything you might have on your hands. It’s always my premise that rare book librarians and archivists and doctors are the people who wash their hands more than anyone else.

I love it. I get this question/response from people all the time. They assume that I must always wear gloves when working on books – and this is exactly what I tell them. I lose count how many times a day I will wash my hands – it’s just automatic that I do so after this or that operation, or between handling books, and certainly after I have eaten or touched any food. It’s not a compulsion, just a job requirement.

Anyway, check out the story, and be sure to look at the different images/multi-media components, as well.  Some great stuff there – the sort of things I get to work on and handle regularly!

11/17 UPDATE:  Thanks to Lisa, here’s a link to an article from the NYT recently, on the same topic:
Handle This Book!

Jim Downey