Communion Of Dreams

Have they never heard of body cavities?

Look, not to be too explicit about this, but the use of full body scanners won’t make a damned bit of difference to someone who wants to smuggle a bomb or bomb components onto a plane (or anywhere else.) Because there are these things called body cavities, where people have actually been known to insert and hide stuff.

The Dutch have already announced that henceforth all passengers heading to the US will have to go through such scanners. Yesterday on All Things Considered I listened to professional fear-monger and former Bush Administration Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff claim that full body scanners are the solution, but that the evil ACLU had thwarted their use:

Mr. CHERTOFF: Well, a couple of years ago we began the process of testing them to see, first of all, if they worked and second, if they could be deployed without unduely restricting the flow of traffic. And the good news is that we were able to demonstrate that they were successful. We could use them without slowing up traffic and we could also protect privacy.

The difficulty is the ACLU and other similar organizations began a very aggressive campaign to limit or prevent the use of these machines and it culminated frankly last year in a vote by the House of Representatives to be very sharply restricted of the use of these machines. So, although we have acquired these machines, they are not as widely deployed as they should be.

Yeah, as reported this morning on NPR, there are concerns about the scanners being “intrusive”:

But lawmakers have been among those reluctant to deploy the machines. In June, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to restrict their use. The vote was big — 310-118 — and bipartisan. Members of both parties said they were concerned that the pictures were too intrusive and questioned their effectiveness.

That’s what also worries privacy groups, which have mounted a major campaign against the machines, now being tested at 19 U-S airports. They say there’s no guarantee the pictures won’t be misused.

“There’s nothing to prevent images from being retained even when they say they won’t be retained,” says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group at the forefront of the campaign.

But above and beyond the privacy concerns, is the simple fact that just scanning what is on the outside of someone’s body, or in their carry-on, or in their luggage, is insufficient. Because you can insert sufficient explosive into your rectum to do serious damage. In fact, it’s already been done on at least one occasion this year:

On the evening of Aug. 28, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister — and the man in charge of the kingdom’s counterterrorism efforts — was receiving members of the public in connection with the celebration of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. As part of the Ramadan celebration, it is customary for members of the Saudi royal family to hold public gatherings where citizens can seek to settle disputes or offer Ramadan greetings.

One of the highlights of the Friday gathering was supposed to be the prince’s meeting with Abdullah Hassan Taleh al-Asiri, a Saudi man who was a wanted militant from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Asiri had allegedly renounced terrorism and had requested to meet the prince in order to repent and then be accepted into the kingdom’s amnesty program.

* * *

But the al-Asiri case ended very differently from the al-Awfi case. Unlike al-Awfi, al-Asiri was not a genuine repentant — he was a human Trojan horse. After al-Asiri entered a small room to speak with Prince Mohammed, he activated a small improvised explosive device (IED) he had been carrying inside his anal cavity. The resulting explosion ripped al-Asiri to shreds but only lightly injured the shocked prince — the target of al-Asiri’s unsuccessful assassination attempt.

I’ve joked about this as the TSA’s “Grab your ankles, please” moment – but as a matter of simple fact, unless we actually go to full body-cavity searches, we cannot prevent this technique from being used in the future. Anything short of that is nothing more than a minor annoyance for terrorists, and an intrusion into the privacy of all other individuals who fly. Do we *really* want to take that step?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Time to invest in Kimberly-Clark,

the makers of Depends:

In the wake of the terrorism attempt Friday on a Northwest Airlines flight, federal officials on Saturday imposed new restrictions on travelers that could lengthen lines at airports and limit the ability of international passengers to move about an airplane.

The government was vague about the steps it was taking, saying that it wanted the security experience to be “unpredictable” and that passengers would not find the same measures at every airport — a prospect that may upset airlines and travelers alike.

But several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. It was not clear how often the rule would affect domestic flights.

That’s from today’s NYT’s article. Here’s what’s on the TSA site:

The Department of Homeland Security immediately put additional screening measures into place- for all domestic and international flights- to ensure the continued safety of the traveling public. We are also working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement on additional security measures, as well as our international partners on enhanced security at airports and on flights.

The American people should continue their planned holiday travel and, as always, be observant and aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious behavior or activity to law enforcement officials.

Passengers flying from international locations to U.S. destinations may notice additional security measures in place. These measures are designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere.

And here’s this from a tech news site:

Multiple sources, among them Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, have also been told that no electronics are allowed on international flights. None. So you can’t even play video games to distract yourself from how badly you have to pee.

Jeez. As I noted back in September, Bruce Schneier has already talked about an ‘underwear bomb’:

For years, I have made the joke about Richard Reid: “Just be glad that he wasn’t the underwear bomber.” Now, sadly, we have an example of one.

Time to invest, I tell ya. The demand for Depends is going to go up. They’re not just for grandma anymore.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

We create the meaning. (reprise)
December 25, 2009, 11:32 am
Filed under: Religion, Society

I thought I would repost this item from the end of 2006. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all – I hope yours have the meaning you create.

Jim D.


I had lunch the other day with an old friend and fellow atheist. It’s ironic that we really only get to see one another during the Christmas period, when he is in town to visit family.

In the course of the wide-ranging conversation (we share many opinions, and differ just enough on some others to keep things lively), he mentioned that he thought that what my wife and I were doing in caring for her mom was praiseworthy.

I thanked him, and explained something I usually don’t tell people. I told him that some time back, when my wife and I were discussing such plans with her mom (back when she could do so, understanding the relevant issues), she indicated that she didn’t want to go to a nursing home, but wanted to stay in her home of 50+ years until she died. Nothing unusual in that – it is a common enough desire. But I felt that since she, herself, had cared for a child born with a significant disability (cerebral palsy) for over 40 years, she deserved to have her wish honored, insofar as we were able to do so.

My friend nodded. “Without having recourse to a heaven for our rewards, we have to create the ‘meaning’ of our life here, now, ourselves, and do the same for others when we can.”

I think that this is something that theists just do not understand about us atheists. Or perhaps the implications of it just scares the living daylights out of them. Without a sky-daddy, or tribunal, or Karmic Wheel, or Big Magic JuJu Guy (thanks, Hank, I love that!) to sit in judgment of our lives and hand out punishments and rewards, the *responsibility* for making this life have meaning is ours and ours alone. We don’t get to pass the buck upstairs, or just shrug and say that it is in God’s hands. We, and only we, can work to make things better. With all of the resources available to us, with the powers created by human ingenuity, we could make this world, this life, a paradise, if we so choose. That we haven’t, that much of the world still lives in poverty and fear, that much of our energy is turned to hate and destruction, is one hell of an indictment.

May we all work to have a better year than this one has been. Best wishes,

Jim Downey

December 24, 2009, 11:15 am
Filed under: Humor, Marketing, Music, Promotion, Weather, Writing stuff

Or 1-800-Lotta-Posts.

Yup, this is post #800. And since I’ve gone this far, I should at least see it to 910.

OK, I’m in a bit of a silly mood. Blame it on the big muckin’ storm rolling our way.

Anyway, 800 posts. It’s been 6 months since the last big round number, so it looks like I have slowed down some in my posting, but not a lot. Since then, there have been another 12,000 hits to this blog, and about 5,000 more downloads of the novel. I’ll have a final tally on the year after the 1st, but it looks like things have picked up a bit overall in 2009.

Have a Merry Christmas, everyone. Be safe if you have to travel. And try not to let the family drive you nuts.

Jim Downey

“There,” says he, “if that line don’t fetch them, I don’t know Arkansaw!”*
December 23, 2009, 3:59 pm
Filed under: Bad Astronomy, Humor, Mark Twain, Phil Plait

Gods, this is funny:

Q: Is the ButtCandle really a candle?
A: Yes, but not necessarily what you might picture as your dining room table variety of candle. In length and diameter, it’s similiar to common candles. However, a hollow channel is cut from bottom to top which causes air to be drawn from the base to the top. In practice, this creates a vacuum at the base which, when inserted in the rectum, gently dislodges intestinal and rectal blockage.

That’s from the ButtCandle FAQ.

Yup. ButtCandle. Which is just like it sounds. A candle that you stick in your butt, then light “with the 10″ wooden match that is provided.” You know, like those silly “Ear Candles” that you can find in woo-shops? Which is how I stumbled across it, over on Phil Plait’s site.

Don’t use it after having chili, though.

Jim Downey

*OK, this is a passage from Twain, which was originally referencing a bawdy story that was popular in the 19th century about a vaudville performance featuring some git with a candle stuck in his butt who pranced around on stage with the thing lit. Yeah, I know, obscure. Blame it on grad school.

It’s all winter fun until someone pulls a gun.
December 20, 2009, 12:45 pm
Filed under: Civil Rights, Failure, Government, Guns, Humor, Press, YouTube

Well, maybe there is a use for Twitter, after all. Seems that in the middle of the big snowstorm smacking the East Coast, some folks in DC decided to organize a good ol’ fashioned snowball fight. You know, show up, informal sides, throw snowballs at one another. Some 150 – 200 people joined in. And everyone was having just too much fun.

Until some idiot in a Hummer drives through the intersection where this party is going on, and his vehicle gets smacked by a few snowballs. Said idiot jumps out of said Hummer, and draws a gun.


Seriously, that’s what happened. There were plenty of witnesses, plenty of pictures, plenty of video. Here’s a good one, where you can clearly see the gun in his left hand:


Nice, eh?

And here’s the *really* good part: the guy in question is a D.C. police detective, tentatively identified as Detective Baylor. But don’t take my word for it, here he is himself:

Rest assured, the DC police administration are on the case:

D.C. police have said they are investigating the incident. Assistant Chief Pete Newsham, who leads the department’s investigative services bureau, has said the detective in question “was armed but never pulls his weapon.” Photos and videos posted online appear to contradict that, though none show the detective pointing his gun at anyone.

* * *

According to Newsham, the detective approached the group of snowball fighters and had “some kind of interaction” with them. He said the detective holstered a cellphone, and someone from the crowd called to report a man with a gun.

“I think what probably happens is somebody probably saw his gun and called the police,” Newsham said.

OK, there are many things wrong with this . . . First, the behaviour of those who threw snowballs at the Hummer, but that’s a pretty mild transgression. Then there’s Detective Baylor’s behaviour is jumping out of his vehicle – again, a fairly mild transgression, and an understandable one for most people. But then the idiot pulled his weapon. Because people were throwing snowballs?? Are you fucking kidding me???

He’s frankly lucky that he didn’t get shot when uniformed officers showed up on the scene, after someone did call in a “man with a gun”. Kudos to the reporting officers for keeping their heads about them, in dealing with Baylor and with the crowd.

But what may even be worse was the knee-jerk reaction of Assistant Chief Newsham in dismissing the reports that one of his detectives behaved in a manner which is completely unacceptable. Supporting your officers is one thing – making statements to the press blankly denying that what happened, happened, is extremely unwise. Detective Baylor may need some anger management classes, or to be moved to a nice desk job or something. Newsham needs to lose some rank or even his job.

Why? Well, because he has just betrayed the public, and even the officers in his department. You deny reality (or jump in prematurely) like this and you show that you cannot be trusted to appropriately investigate any charges against your officers. Do that, and the public will respond appropriately by not providing you their faith and cooperation. Furthermore, and this is the thing that really pisses me off, they won’t trust your officers, either, and not give them their help and cooperation. And cops need all the help they can get.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Well, Jiminy Cricket, this is a great idea!
December 18, 2009, 11:37 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Civil Rights, Failure, Guns, Humor, Marketing, Music, RKBA, Society, Survival, Violence

When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong,
give a little whistle!

Taking the old song lyrics to heart, if inverting the intent a bit, police in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park have come up with a cunning plan to thwart crime:

Oak Park crime: Police pass out whistles to help residents fight back

Jump in burglaries and robberies prompts giveaway

Thousands of Oak Park residents are being equipped with a simple device to help fight crime in the village.

Police are passing out whistles that they are urging citizens to blow if they are victims of or witnesses to a crime.

Officers distributed hundreds of the shiny whistles at two stations along the CTA’s Green Line in Oak Park on Friday and will be passing out more Wednesday along the Blue Line. Giveaways elsewhere are expected to take place in the weeks ahead.

“We think they are going to go quick,” said Oak Park Police Cmdr. Keenan Williams.

The village conducted a similar program in the 1980s, and Police Chief Rick Tanksley earlier this year suggested bringing it back after statistics showed that burglaries and robberies were on the rise.

I’m sure that criminals will now flee Oak Park, in the face of this devastating new crime-fighting tool. I mean, they might actually have their hearing damaged, should a brave citizen use their police-issued whistle. And based on previous experience, and the complete eradication of crime in Oak Park following the last time this tactic was used . . .

. . . wait, what’s that? You mean crime wasn’t eliminated in Oak Park by the whistles last time? Huh. Maybe that would explain why this brilliant program hasn’t been put into effect in cities around the country.

Then why do it? Well, here’s another small bit from the Tribune article:

The village had about 3,000 whistles delivered at a cost of about 50 cents each, he said. The cost was paid by Community Bank, whose logo is on the side of each whistle.

I mean, I hate to be cynical or anything, especially this time of year, but it sure seems like nothing but an advertising gimmick to me. One backed by the boys in blue. I wonder who in the city government got what kind of special favor for that little trick?

Now, in all honesty, I do actually carry a whistle with me. No kidding. But when it comes to wanting a defense against crime, I’d prefer one of my concealed-carry pistols.

Except, of course, that that isn’t allowed in Illinois. Hmm.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Emit fo worra.*
December 16, 2009, 11:27 am
Filed under: Art, Cosmic Variance, Science, Scientific American, YouTube

Nice – here’s another show for “The Explosions Channel“:

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi. *Apologies to Sean Carroll.)

Pays to be suspicious.
December 15, 2009, 12:54 pm
Filed under: Government, Humor, Politics

So, last night I had to attend a “public information meeting” in my capacity as Lord High President of our Neighborhood Association. I got there a bit early, to do the usual schmooze with people, and we waited chatting in the lobby of the City building downtown. A bit before 5:30, we made our way up to the mezzanine office where the previous meeting was held, which was open and lit, and which is the only meeting room in the building I had ever used other than the formal (large) Council room.

Well, 5:30 comes (scheduled start time), and no sign of City staff or the applicant for the rezoning, I note. 5:35, and I check my postcard notification to confirm time & place. Wording on ‘place’ is a bit vague. I go wandering up to the P & Z offices, poke around until I find someone, and ask. Well, gee – seems that they’re using a “conference room” up there which isn’t readily obvious to the public (it is literally in the corner of the building, with no signage or ready access from the public corridors). So, I go downstairs, announce this, and lead everyone up to the correct location. I get a dirty look from the applicant’s attorney as one of the City staffers there thanks me for getting everyone to the right room and explains that this room is “sometimes used,” and that is why the wording on the postcard is such as it is. Right.

Gee, I cannot *imagine* that someone would move a meeting, leave no indication of it, and then close the public meeting once an ‘appropriate waiting period has passed’ and thereby avoid having to actually let people know what is going on. I’m sure that it was all just a harmless misunderstanding on our part.

But I’m glad I’m suspicious enough to go looking.

Jim Downey

“My Father’s Gun”.
December 11, 2009, 11:55 am
Filed under: Connections, Guns, Health, Privacy, Society, Survival, Violence, Writing stuff

I just sent the following email:

University City Chief of Police
Colonel Charles Adams
6801 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130

Colonel Adams,

40 years ago, in the early hours of 12 December, my father, Wilbert James Downey, died while performing his duties as a patrolman for the University City Police Department.

Your department, and the people of University City, have always graciously recognized his sacrifice, and honored his memory. This has always been a comfort to my family, and to myself, though I have not participated in any of the remembrances in recent years.

This morning I would like to ask your assistance in doing some research for a book about my father. I need some information which is not readily available, but it may be in your archives or in the collective memory of the department.

I would like to know about my father’s service revolver. I know that it was a .38 special, probably a S & W Model 15. If you could confirm this, or provide any additional information, I would greatly appreciate it. Is it possible that a serial number was recorded? Was the revolver retained by the department, or was it considered personal property?

Any help in this matter would be most welcome. If there is someone else there at the department with whom it would be better for me to correspond, please let me know.

Thank you for your time, and your service to the community –

James Downey

And with that, I have begun a new project, a new journey, likely a new book.

I’ve mentioned before that this time of year always leaves me feeling . . . nachdenklich. This year the intensity of the rumination has been greater than before. I’m not entirely sure why. Regardless, the feeling is there, and it has been growing on me all this year.

So, I’ve decided to embark on a quest to find my father’s gun. Specifically, his service revolver mentioned above. And through this, to find him.

Because the gun itself doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the journey. As I told my sister in an email this morning:

I too had been feeling that this year was somehow more ‘significant’, and it has had a greater impact on me than in most past years. In fact, this morning I was going to draft a letter/email to Chief Adams at the U City PD, and thereby initiate something I had been thinking about for the last couple of years: writing a book about dad through the mechanism of trying to track down his service revolver (working title idea “My Father’s Gun”). My intent is to explore a lot of the things I have thought about and wondered about over the last 40 years, as a way of understanding him and the lives he touched. I was planning on incorporating all my correspondence and such available resources as I can find – which will also mean my finally coming to terms with things I have deliberately tried to avoid (I think for good reason).

I’ve invited her to join me on this journey (we get along very well, and could work together on such a project easily), adding her perspective along the way. We’ll see.

Just thought I would share this.

Jim Downey

Update: I did hear back from the Chief’s office, have the serial number now, and have confirmed by it that was a Model 10 which was manufactured in early 1961. This fits perfectly with about the time my dad started on the force. JD