Communion Of Dreams

Marketing genius.
February 13, 2009, 9:22 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Humor, Marketing, Religion, Society, Travel

As in, it’ll take a genius to market this stuff:

India to launch cow urine as soft drink

Does your Pepsi lack pep? Is your Coke not the real thing? India’s Hindu nationalist movement apparently has the answer: a new soft drink made from cow urine.

The bovine brew is in the final stages of development by the Cow Protection Department of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s biggest and oldest Hindu nationalist group, according to the man who makes it.

Om Prakash, the head of the department, said the drink – called “gau jal”, or “cow water” – in Sanskrit was undergoing laboratory tests and would be launched “very soon, maybe by the end of this year”.

Is that a promise, or a threat?

As a friend said: “Gives a whole new meaning when people call bad beer ‘p*ss water’.”

The RSS in the past has promoted the use of cow urine as a cure for cancer and other medical problems. Now, I can see it as a way to lose weight – it’d certainly put me off food – but as a cancer cure? Woo!!!

So, if you’re planning a trip to India later this year, and are feeling a little adventurous, feel free to sample this lovely local beverage and report back to me, OK?

Jim Downey

(Via BB. Cross posted to UTI.)

Decidedly unlike Star Trek.

This item made the news yesterday:

Scientists eye debris after satellite collision

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Scientists are keeping a close eye on orbital debris created when two communications satellites — one American, the other Russian — smashed into each other hundreds of miles above the Earth.

NASA said it will take weeks to determine the full magnitude of the unprecedented crash and whether any other satellites or even the Hubble Space Telescope are threatened.

The collision, which occurred nearly 500 miles over Siberia on Tuesday, was the first high-speed impact between two intact spacecraft, NASA officials said.

Phil Plait’s take:

Wow: two satellites have collided in orbit, destroying both. This is the first time such a major collision has ever occurred.

The satellites were Cosmos 2251, a Russian communication relay satellite that’s been defunct for a decade, and an Iridium satellite, one of a fleet of communication satellites launched by Motorola in the late 90s and early 2000s.

* * *

There have been collisions in space before, but never from such large satellites — the Iridium bird was about 700 kg, and the Cosmos was about the same — and never resulting in a total wipeout like this. Again, if I have my numbers about right, the explosion resulting from the energy of impact would have been about the same as detonating a ton of TNT.

I had to chuckle at this comment in that thread at Bad Astronomy:

But wouldn’t the impact have made a new, ever more powerful hybrid satellite? It would have an over-arching need to communicate and would do so in Russian. The only way to make it stop broadcasting a constant barrage at us would be if it mistook someone for its designer at Motorola and then. . . Oh wait, this isn’t Star Trek.

No, not at all.  When you have two large satellites, each moving at something on the order of about 5 miles a second hit one another at nearly right angles, then you don’t get any kind of hybrid.  You get a mess.  As in a debris cloud of upwards of a thousand bits and pieces of space junk, some of it substantial, most of it still moving at thousands of miles an hour, and all of it dangerous.

I’ve written previously about the threat of real ‘UFOs’ to our space exploration.  From the quoted article in that post:

The reason is life-and-death. Since Mercury days, NASA engineers have realized that visual sightings of anomalies can sometimes provide clues to the functioning — or malfunctioning — of the spaceships that contain their precious astronauts. White dots outside the window could be spray from a propellant leak, or ice particles, flaking insulation, worked-loose fasteners (as in this latest case) or inadvertently released tools or components.

Whatever the objects might be, they pose a threat of coming back in contact with the spacecraft, potentially causing damage to delicate instruments, thermal tiles, windows or solar cells, or fouling rotating or hinged mechanisms. So Mission Control needs to find out about them right away in order to determine that they are not hazardous.

Right now the bulk of that debris cloud is about 250 miles higher than the ISS.  But it will slowly drift closer (the effect of atmospheric drag – even at that altitude, it will slow anything in orbit, meaning that the item in question will drop to a lower orbit).  At some point, this could be a real threat to the space station.

And beyond that, it is a further complication to *any* effort to get into something other than a low Earth orbit.  Currently we have something like tens of thousands of bits of “space junk” that have to be tracked – and while all of it will eventually fall back into the atmosphere and burn up, it can present a real danger.  If we’re not careful, we could encase ourselves in a shell of so much junk that it would basically eliminate the possibility of travel beyond our planet for decades.

Jim Downey

Beyond hype?
February 11, 2009, 12:57 pm
Filed under: Daily Kos, Government, Terrorism, Violence

Via dKos, this story:

Report: ‘Dirty bomb’ parts found in slain man’s home

BELFAST, Maine — James G. Cummings, who police say was shot to death by his wife two months ago, allegedly had a cache of radioactive materials in his home suitable for building a “dirty bomb.”

According to an FBI field intelligence report from the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center posted online by WikiLeaks, an organization that posts leaked documents, an investigation into the case revealed that radioactive materials were removed from Cummings’ home after his shooting death on Dec. 9.

* * *

It says that four 1-gallon containers of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, uranium, thorium, lithium metal, thermite, aluminum powder, beryllium, boron, black iron oxide and magnesium ribbon were found in the home.

Also found was literature on how to build “dirty bombs” and information about cesium-137, strontium-90 and cobalt-60, radioactive materials. The FBI report also stated there was evidence linking James Cummings to white supremacist groups. This would seem to confirm observations by local tradesmen who worked at the Cummings home that he was an ardent admirer of Adolf Hitler and had a collection of Nazi memorabilia around the house, including a prominently displayed flag with swastika. Cummings claimed to have pieces of Hitler’s personal silverware and place settings, painter Mike Robbins said a few days after the shooting.

OK, skepticism is in order. We’ve seen a “terrorist threat” hyped too many times in the last 8 years for me to trust any initial reports of some guy who may have just had a bunch of random chemicals in his house. But the whole story seems to hold together reasonably well if you read it. Be interesting to see what comes out over the long run. Certainly, it seems more credible to me that it is being handled in what I would consider an intelligent and professional manner, rather than the Attorney General holding a press conference to claim that some huge plot has been foiled.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

No surprise: it’s not that simple.

I’ve written previously about synesthesia, and most recently said this:

The implication is that there is a great deal more flexibility – or ‘plasticity’ – in the structure of the brain than had been previously understood.

Well, yeah. Just consider how someone who has been blind since birth will have heightened awareness of other senses.  Some have argued that this is simply a matter of such a person learning to make the greatest use of the senses they have.  But others have suspected that they actually learn to use those structures in the brain normally associated with visual processing to boost the ability to process other sensory data.  And that’s what the above research shows.

OK, two things.  One, this is why I have speculated in Communion of Dreams that synesthesia is more than just the confusion of sensory input – it is using our existing senses to construct not a simple linear view of the world, but a matrix in three dimensions (with the five senses on each axis of such a ‘cube’ structure).  In other words, synesthesia is more akin to a meta-cognitive function.  That is why (as I mentioned a few days ago) the use of accelerator drugs in the novel allows users to take a step-up in cognition and creativity, though at the cost of burning up the brain’s available store of neurotransmitters.

And now there is more evidence that synesthesia is a more complex matter than researchers had previously understood:

Seeing color in sounds has genetic link

Now, Asher and colleagues in the United Kingdom have done what they say is the first genetic analysis of synesthesia. Their findings are published this week in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Researchers collected DNA from 196 people from 43 families in which there were multiple members with synesthesia. They looked exclusively at auditory-visual synesthesia, the kind where sound triggers color, which is easier to diagnose than other possible forms.

They expected to find a single gene responsible for synesthesia, but they found that the condition was linked to regions on chromosomes 2, 5, 6, and 12 — four distinct areas instead of one.

“It means that the genetics of synesthesia are much more complex than we thought,” Asher said.

No surprise there.  The article goes on to discuss what may be happening physiologically – researchers are still trying to construct a model of how synesthesia actually happens in the brain, and still tend to see it as something which “goes wrong” developmentally.  The supposition, according to the CNN article, is that there is a failure of a necessary “pruning” of cross-wiring in the young brain.

But what if it is instead a meta-cognitive function, something which is emerging as part of ongoing evolution of the human brain?  In other words, an enhancement of our current ability to think and remember, by allowing our brains a bit more complexity in the neural connections?


Jim Downey

This is how the invasion begins.
February 9, 2009, 9:42 am
Filed under: Humor, Preparedness, Science Fiction, Star Trek

OK, I’m back from my wanderings. And naturally enough, I have a nasty touch of plague to show for it. Even though I have way too much to do, I will mostly take it easy today and see if I can get rid of the gak, so that I can be more productive later this week.

But I just had to take a moment and post this item, sent by a friend while I was gone:

Klingon sword used in two Colorado Springs heists

A man wielding a “Star Trek Klingon-type sword” robbed two Colorado Springs convenience stores early this morning, police said.

The first robbery happened at about 1:55 a.m. at a 7-Eleven at 145 N. Spruce St., Colorado Springs police said in an incident report. The second robbery happened at about 2:20 a.m. at a 7-Eleven store at 2407 N. Union Blvd.

Witnesses told police that a man wearing a black mask, black jacket and blue jeans entered the stores carrying a sword. The armed robber took an undisclosed amount of cash and fled on foot from both stores, police said.

Officers searched the area but didn’t find the robber or the weapon, which was described as a “bat’leth.”

You have to wonder if that is how it was actually described in the police report. If so, some cop in Colorado Springs is a serious Trek fan. And someone should contact the Department of Homeland Security – this could be an indication of a real illegal alien problem.

Jim Downey

(HT to Wendel Kate. Cross posted to UTI

Harry Potter and the Superstring Revolution

(This is one of my newspaper columns from Columbia Daily Tribune, updated with links. Thought it might be of interest while I am away for a few days.  – JD)

Harry Potter and the Superstring Revolution

One of my favorite String Theory blogs (yeah, I have rather eclectic interests) recently got into a discussion of the new Harry Potter movie. Even hard-core physicists like to discuss movies in addition to the latest research into 11-dimension supergravity and the advantages of D-branes over M-theory. Which is good, because when these people start throwing around the advanced math wizardry needed to really understand these concepts I’m just a Muggle. But if they talk movies or art, I can chime in with the best of them.

Anyway, the discussion of Goblet of Fire turned into a debate of whether or not the Potter books themselves should really be considered literature. And, frankly, it was rather funny to watch a bunch of really smart people try and wrestle with something so completely outside of their field of training. Sure, most of them had taken some lit classes while undergrads, but they were working with tools not really suited to the problem. It’d be like me, with a little bit of math from college 25 years ago, trying to engage one of them on the validity of the Superstring Revolution. I might have a general understanding of the issues involved, but I’m completely unequipped to contribute anything meaningful to the debate in the language of science.

What was really interesting about this, though, was that none of them saw it that way. They were all certain that their opinions of literature, as an intellectual exercise, were completely valid. They had fallen into the trap of thinking that their likes or dislikes in literature was all that was necessary to have an informed debate.

This is a common problem with all the arts. Non-artists usually think that their personal preferences are all that matters. If someone doesn’t like a Pollock drip painting, then it isn’t “art.” If they think that opera is boring, then that’s sufficient to consider it outmoded and useless. And conceptual art . . . well, it’s beyond the conceptual boundary horizon for most folks and so doesn’t even exist. Might as well be magic.

Furthermore, if you challenge these opinions people will get really indignant and defensive. They don’t want to hear that an understanding of the issues involved is necessary to appreciate some art. The old line “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” will pop up in one form or another very quickly.

And on one level, that’s OK. I wouldn’t think of telling someone that they couldn’t form an opinion about what they like or dislike in art any more than I would consider telling them what they liked to eat for breakfast. But if you’ve never even heard of eggs, how can you have an opinion on the proper preparation of a nice quiche? It’d be like having strong feelings about word choice in the translation of Rilke’s Der Schwan when you don’t speak German. Sure, you can have an opinion, but it’s not something I’m going to take particularly seriously.

This isn’t to say that only an ‘expert’ can have a valid opinion about art. Hardly. By its very nature art is designed to elicit a response even in the uninformed. It’s perfectly OK to say “I like that painting.” Or, “I don’t care for opera.” But when someone starts to try and talk about the validity of a particular work of art (or music, literature, et cetera), they need to know what they’re talking about. Otherwise, people will treat you like the guy sitting in the sports bar who keeps yelling “pass the ball” at the TV during the baseball game. Or, perhaps more appropriately, like the guy at the Quidditch match who keeps calling for a relief pitcher.

Jim Downey

16th Century Breviary Project
February 5, 2009, 7:08 am
Filed under: Book Conservation

(While I’m off to the East Coast for a few days, thought I’d schedule some stuff that I hadn’t shared here before. This is from my professional website. JD)

* * * * * * *

16th Century Breviary Project

Recently I did a rebinding project for a private client, and thought I would share a little of the process (with the permission of the client). This is not intended to be a formal instruction of the process, and my descriptions use common terms rather than more accurate technical terms.

The book was dated 1568, and was in its original binding. Overall size was about 5″ x 3″ x 2″. The sewing structure of the book was breaking down, the covers were badly worn, the pages rubbed but in good condition overall. In discussion with the client, he elected to have a new cover of full calf with blind tooling similar to the tooling on the original cover. I also resewed the book in the late medieval style, onto double cords which were later laced into the new boards for the cover.

(The full piece and photos can be found here.)

The electric bandage medicine show.
February 3, 2009, 6:30 am
Filed under: Faith healing, Health, Psychic abilities, Science, Science Fiction, Space, tech

(A time-delayed post while I am off to the urban jungles of the Northeast.  Pray for me.  –  JD)

(Fortune Small Business) — It may sound like quack medicine, but electricity can help cuts and wounds heal faster. Studies published in the journal Nature in 2005 confirmed it: Our cells work like tiny chemical batteries. Wounds short-circuit them, and a jolt of voltage helps heal them.

Now a small medical company hopes to cash in, with the world’s first over-the-counter electric bandage.

Vomaris Innovations, based in Chandler, Ariz., recently went to market with the Prosit adhesive bandage, which uses microscopic batteries mounted on a flexible membrane to pass a tiny amount of current – 1.2 volts – over the affected skin. Though the process isn’t understood entirely, Vomaris founder Jeff Skiba, 55, won FDA approval for use of the Prosit in hospitals after an impressive array of clinical trials showed that it jump-started healing for all patients.

“The process isn’t understood entirely…” Well, I can tell them.  It’s obvious.

[Spoiler alert.]

Clearly, what happens is that somehow the mild voltage charge across the skin manages to create a slight weakening of the supression field all around us caused by the alien artifacts surrounding our solar system, thereby allowing our natural psychic abilities to work properly and heal ourselves quickly.  It’s all explained completely in the later chapters of Communion of Dreams.  I swear, when will these people just simply read my book?  It’s all explained in there.


Jim Downey

More Yum!
February 1, 2009, 4:43 pm
Filed under: Faith healing, Government, Health, Humor, MetaFilter, Science, Society, Survival, Violence

Hey, it’s the Stupor Bowl! Time for some special treats! What’s better than some nice maggot cheese?

How about a little “blood marmalade”? Yum! It’ll cure what ails you:

The Healing Power of Death

Were Europeans once cannibals? Research shows that up until the end of the 18th century, medicine routinely included stomach-churning ingredients like human flesh and blood.

* * *

In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, recipes for remedies like this, which provided instructions on how to process human bodies, were almost as common as the use of herbs, roots and bark. Medical historian Richard Sugg of Britain’s Durham University, who is currently writing a book on the subject says that cadaver parts and blood were standard fare, available in every pharmacy. He even describes supply bottlenecks from the glory days of “medicinal cannibalism.” Sugg is convinced that avid cannibalism was not only found within the New World, but also in Europe.

In fact, there are countless sources that describe the morbid practices of early European healers. The Romans drank the blood of gladiators as a remedy against epilepsy. But it was not until the Renaissance that the use of cadaver parts in medicine became more commonplace. At first, powders made from shredded Egyptian mummies were sold as an “elixir of life,” says Sugg. In the early 17th century, healers turned their attention to the mortal remains of people who had been executed or even the corpses of beggars and lepers.

Welcome to the Enlightenment!


OK, why this walk into the grotesque? Because it is good for us to see exactly what magical thinking can lead to. See, the idea was that by consuming these bits and pieces of other humans, you could gain some of their “vital essence”. One more excerpt from the article:

Sugg even attributes religious significance to human flesh. For some Protestants, he writes, it served as a sort of substitute for the Eucharist, or the tasting of the body of Christ in Holy Communion. Some monks even cooked “a marmalade of sorts” from the blood of the dead.

“It was about the intrinsic vitality of the human organism,” says the historian. The assumption was that all organisms have a predetermined life span. If a body died in an unnatural way, the remainder of that person’s life could be harvested, as it were — hence the preference for the executed.

That’s some strong ju-ju there, man.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi. Cross posted to UTI.)