Communion Of Dreams

Slices of Vega$, II
January 31, 2010, 10:45 am
Filed under: Humor, Society, Travel

I decided not to do formal ‘travelogues’ for my recent trip out to Las Vegas for the SHOT Show, but instead do a series of small vignettes, over the course of the next couple of weeks.

Jim D.


Suites at the Venetian start out at “Luxury” and get more indulgent from there. The smallest is about 2/3 the size of my whole house in grad school, and the largest is bigger than our house now.

Note, I said “indulgent” – not “useful” or even particularly nice. What do I mean? Well, there were three flat-screen televisions in the room: one in the ‘living room’ area, one facing the bed, and even a small one in the corner of the bathroom. But the alarm clock face was scratched up so bad it was barely readable in the dark, the controls were confusing and marginally functional, and the radio didn’t work at all. The big picture window that looked out on the Venetian’s outdoor pool had a blind and curtains which were remotely controlled, but there wasn’t an in-room coffeemaker. The sectional couch in my room was stained and missing most of the upholstery buttons, and the one in my friend’s room was mis-matched bits from several couches that used covering material from different dye lots. I could go on.

At first glance, or on the Venetian website, the rooms look sumptuous. And they probably were when they were first built or when they are periodically rehabbed. But when you see it in person, it’s just a bit grim and superficial.

But I suppose it does what it is intended to do. Gives you the false impression of luxury while at the same time pushes you to go out the door and down into the casino/shoppes for coffee or comfort.

* * * * * * *

The whole time I wandered through the casinos, looking at the plethora of games and flashing lights I was completely ignored by the wait-staff. Completely. No looks, no smiles, nothing. I was a non-entity. It didn’t matter what time of day or night it was, or which casino I was in. I was invisible.

But the one morning, when sipping my coffee, that I stepped up to a $5 slot machine and stuck a bill into it – without even sitting down in front of the machine – I instantly became visible. Between the time I fed the machine my $10 bill and the few seconds later when I pushed the “play” button there was a nice woman with a cocktail tray standing there asking me if I wanted anything. It was rather amazing – it was like she had teleported next to me.

I thanked her, said no. She left.

I sipped my coffee. Pushed the “play” button again. Got my little adrenaline hit as a reward. Then turned and started slowly walking out of the casino, just looking at the machines. But before I left the little cluster of $5 slots, another woman appeared, wanting to know whether I needed some more coffee. I guess I looked like I might put some more money into a slot.

* * * * * * *

We walked down Las Vegas Blvd (‘The Strip’), just seeing the sights. It was brutal.

No, not the crowds. I can deal with crowds.

Nor the loud music pouring out of the various open doors. I went to enough concerts when I was a kid to be more or less immune to the appeal of bad sound systems.

The glitz and flashing lights was a bit hard on the eyes, and I worried that before we walked the couple of miles they would trigger a migraine. But I put on a ballcap (no, not the one I got here – never wear a local brand when you’re not a local – it marks you as a sucker) and kept my gaze lowered to street level.

No, the thing that got me were the long lines of touts for the prostitutes.

Seriously, there were places where you had to walk through a gauntlet of them, dozens long. Short, cold illegal immigrants slapping their little photo cards in that universal style of attention-getting I have seen in London, Buenos Aires, New York and elsewhere. Images of large-breasted woman of every variety, some paired up with a friend, on cheap card stock that littered the ground. In places the cards were so thick as to make it slick to walk, usually just past these touts.

Brutal. For everyone concerned.

* * * * * * *

Now, it isn’t particularly insightful or clever to observe that Las Vegas is little more than a pleasant facade over a money vacuum, an artificial construct with the sole intent of relieving tourists of their money. In fact, it’s a cliche.

So, why bother?

Well, because it was all so obvious. Las Vegas laughs at any attempt to expose the reality. It brazenly and openly says “yeah, this is all just a ruse to milk the rubes. What’s your point?”

You almost have to admire that level of mercenary behaviour.

Jim Downey

Grim-faced men and women.
January 29, 2010, 12:29 pm
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Ballistics, Guns, Preparedness, Survival, Terrorism, Violence

“What’s that?”

“Oh, I got it for giving a donation to the snipers.”

I looked again at the pewter skull, about the size of a silver dollar, hanging on a thin ribbon on my friend’s chest. There was a hole in the middle of the forehead, through which the ribbon ran.

A shudder ran through me.

* * * * * * *

The SHOT Show was huge. Massive. Some 50,000 attendees. I heard that if you walked all of the paths through the various booths and displays, you’d cover something like 34 miles.

Big chunks of the show were dedicated to booths catering to “Law Enforcement,” though there was more than a little para-military stuff in these areas. Not surprising, given how much police agencies deal with para-military tactics; they need para-military equipment.

I wandered through these areas, along with pretty much all the rest of the show. Not that I have any real interest in any of the stuff most of them were featuring – I don’t have a ‘wannabecop’ mindset. I was just curious. And it was . . . educational.

* * * * * * *

Ballistics by the inch? What’s that all about?”

The man stopped next to my table in the food court, looking at my name tag. It was early evening, but I was beat from walking most of the show and dealing with the crowds. I don’t do crowds well. My ‘extrovert batteries’ were worn out, and all I wanted was just a light dinner before going to hide in my room and charge up again for the next day of the show.

But, he was smiling, and seemed nice enough. I gestured to the empty chair across from me. He set his tray down, and we introduced ourselves.

“Well, BBTI is a project myself and several friends did, testing how muzzle velocity varies according to barrel length for 16 different handgun cartridges.” I handed him a card.

“Just external ballistics, then?”

“Yeah. But we’ve put all the data online for people to use freely. We launched the site about 14 months ago, and we’re now approaching 2 million hits.” I’d given this little spiel enough times already at the SHOT Show that it pretty much rolled off my tongue automatically. “Why?”

“Well, I’m into ballistics, too. Though that isn’t my ‘day job.'”

* * * * * * *

One of the major reasons I went to the SHOT Show was to make contacts, to meet people with whom I had corresponded. One of these was Kathy Jackson, editor of Concealed Carry magazine and the person behind the excellent Cornered Cat website. I had chatted with Kathy many times over the years, and we worked with her on the great article that Concealed Carry did on the BBTI project.

Anyway, when we did finally have a chance to meet in person the last day of the show, it was a delight. There were four of us, all chatting together. In the course of the conversation, she asked “what is the silliest thing you’ve seen here?”

There was, truth be told, a *lot* of silly things at the show. There was the odd little bayonet which was supposed to affix to your pistol. There were the “mall ninja” toys and people who wore them. There were the science fiction/fantasy themed custom knives which would be useless in the real world. But I said “All the grim-faced men and women in the advertising photos and banners in the LE section of the show.”

* * * * * * *

“What’s your day job?”

“I’m a research scientist. We do a lot of work for NASA and the various aerospace industries, mostly things like orbital mechanics.”

“What brings you to SHOT?”

“Launching a new ballistics calculator, for long-range shooting. Really long range shooting. Stop by the AI booth tomorrow, and I’ll show you.”

We chatted from there, comparing notes on the show, discussing our respective backgrounds in shooting and what got us each interested in the projects we developed. Smart guy. Very smart guy.

* * * * * * *

There was a very interesting post last night on MetaFilter. I know I mention MeFi a lot, but that’s because I am frequently impressed with the quality of the discussions which take place there. This one was about Simo Häyhä, one of the most deadly snipers in history with over 800 confirmed kills during the Finnish “Winter War“. The whole thread is here, but what caught my attention was the discussion which ensued concerning the ethics of being a sniper.

Several people commented that snipers were little more than sociopaths who took some pleasure at killing. Here are two such comments:

How does it feel to have personally murdered that many people?
posted by monospace at 9:11 AM on January 28


Also, the idea that “legalized killing” is really conceptually different from illegal murder would seem to imply that the people who are best at “legalized killing” are temperamentally unrelated to those who murder. I do not buy this. Häyhä’s lack of retrospective remorse is no doubt related to the fact of why he was such an effective killer in the first place: hurting others didn’t have much of a negative emotional effect on him. He probably enjoyed hurting people, which is how he was so calm and good at doing it.

It’s not a stretch to believe that the dispositions that make the best soldiers/snipers are identical to the dispositions of the worst rapists and serial killers. The only difference might be a slightly different life context. The difference between a certain person being celebrated as a war hero or reviled as a serial killer might come down to the chance event of a war happening at a certain time.

posted by dgaicun at 1:59 PM on January 28

There was a lot of push-back against this mindset. The best is from a woman who lived through the siege of Sarajevo. Here’s an excerpt from her:

Sarajevo was a city with a mixed Serb, Croat and Muslim population, as well as significant numbers of Jewish and Roma people. Probably the most obviously “multi-ethnic” city in the former Yugoslavia. It was also a peaceful, cosmopolitan place. This made it a particularly significant target for those Serbs who used ethnic hatred and “the practical impossibility of people living together” as justification for genocide and violent aggression. Sarajevo’s existence proved that to be a lie. Naively, many Sarajevans – myself included – assumed that our solidarity as a city would magically ward off any attacks. Wrong!

Because Sarajevo is in a valley surrounded by mountains which quickly were controlled by Serb forces, we were in an indefensible position. We didn’t have much to defend ourselves with in any case. We were, at first, a purely civilian population. But we were shelled and massacred anyway.

Slowly, some of the men in town who owned rifles (for hunting) realized that one of the only ways to defend themselves was by becoming snipers. These were the same guys who – only weeks or months earlier – argued that only through pacifism would we survive and show the world. We soon discovered the world didn’t care much. As many of us lost family members and started starving, we realized that if snipers would slow the numbers of civilians being killed, that’s what needed to happen. There wasn’t any other choice.

I lived frighteningly near the frontline. So much so, that in quiet moments, there would occasionally be dialogue between “our” snipers and the Serbs shooting and shelling us from the hills. Usually, it was our guys shouting at the Serbs in the hills to lay down their arms. (Most of the Serbs were “local” and frequently each side personally knew the guys on the “other” side.) These requests were quite obviously ignored. It didn’t stop our guys from trying, and they were heartfelt pleas. Our snipers were engaged in self-defense, and I’m amazed that people are so ignorant of war – even in secondhand terms – that they see no difference between self-defense and aggression.

posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:26 PM on January 28

And another from the same comment:

I can’t idolize a sniper, no matter how tough he was. To be a sniper you have to be no more than one notch away from a psychopath. To kill 800 people, looking at each of them in the face, you have to be dead inside.

How can I say it? That’s just fucking stupid. Maybe, if you know you’re firing on civilians in an act of senseless aggression, it takes a kind of heartless person to do that. But that certainly wasn’t true for Häyhä, who was defending his country and people and likely saved many more lives than he took. Unlike probably everyone else on MetaFilter, I have been a victim of snipers twice, with scars to prove it. That’s not including a shelling that killed my parents, broke my scapula to bits and put me in a coma for weeks. Or the white-hot shrapnel. So if anyone has a right to judge snipers harshly, I am her. But I make the distinction between the people who shot me for no good reason and those who were defending a peace-loving, multi-ethnic city. Because there is a difference.

* * * * * * *

We stopped at the Accuracy International booth, and the fellow gave us a demonstration of the ballistics calculator he’d developed. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail, but suffice it to say that this hand-held device was extremely well designed and robust, capable of holding up to the worst kind of weather and, um, ‘field conditions.’ With it, a capable marksman with the right kind of gun could easily hit a moving target at the range of thousands of yards. Indeed, it is so sophisticated that it will calculate air density differentials according to elevation, and the effect that they would have on the flight of a given bullet at a given angle, because it was meant to be used for making shots up or down the sides of mountains. It’s such a powerful tool that it actually falls under the US laws concerning weapons technology transfers.

* * * * * * *

My comment about the grim-faced men and women was missed in the general chatter, and I’m glad. I meant it, because using those images was so over-the-top in many applications as to be absurd. You know, the whole ‘warrior’ images being tied to a particular flashlight or type of boot. Just . . . silly. Those I know who have been in real grim situations seldom celebrate the fact or try to draw notice to it.

But it is easy to misunderstand that. Sometimes a little black humor is entirely appropriate.

Before I left the show I stopped by the sniper’s table and quietly left a donation. They were out of the little skulls. Which was just fine by me.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to the BBTI blog.)

Slices of Vega$
January 28, 2010, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Humor, Society, Star Trek, Star Wars, Travel

I decided not to do formal ‘travelogues’ for my recent trip out to Las Vegas for the SHOT Show, but instead do a series of small vignettes, over the course of the next couple of weeks.

Jim D.


It rained.

It rained more in four days than it rained for all of 2009.

And of course, I was there for it.

* * * * * * *

Well, it’s a good thing that you basically don’t have to go outside when in Vegas. Ever. And that the rain doesn’t present problems for such festivities as taking a gondola ride at the Venetian. Like the Miss America Pageant contestants did.

And I was there for it.

No, seriously. And it was seriously weird.

Me, Jim K, and John E were having some top-notch pizza and a couple of beers at Postrio there in the strangeness that is St. Mark’s Square. When all of a sudden there was some pomp & circumstance happening around us. Of the sort that involves scant clothing on plastic women and men wearing tuxes. One of my dining companions mentioned that he thought the Miss America Pageant was being held the next week, and this must be some kind of preliminary event.

It was. The line of women wandered through the ‘outdoor’ restaurant, just a couple of paces from our table.

I looked up, saw what was going on, then turned my attention back to the pizza. At least that was real.

* * * * * * *

Did you know that there is a Star Trek slot machine game?

And a Star Wars one?

Also ones for Indiana Jones, the Wizard of Oz, and dozens of television shows?

I didn’t. I thought slot machines were all those classic things with just three spinning wheels that contain numbers or symbols.

What a rube from flyover country.

But one morning before I left, I dutifully went over to one machine, donated a $10 bill to it, and played twice.

Oh, sure, I could have gotten a thousand plays at a “penny machine”.

But two hits from that adrenaline pump were quite enough, thank you.

* * * * * * *

My traveling companion needed to get some additional cash the morning we left.

The ATM there on the floor of the casino just gave $100.00 bills.

Tells you all you need to know about the casino business.

Jim Downey

Home again, home again . . .
January 26, 2010, 11:59 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Ballistics, Guns, Health

Yup. Got back last night about midnight, after two days of 15 hour drives. Exhausting.

As was the SHOT Show. Well, frankly, the whole trip.

But good. Lots of things to tell. More of all of that, later.

But today is recovery, laundry, playing with the dog, catching up on email and the news of the world.

Jim Downey

January 16, 2010, 10:32 am
Filed under: Ballistics, Depression, Emergency, Guns, Health, Predictions, Publishing, Writing stuff

Well, I’ve been in a funk all week.

The news that UTI is closing down, a decision I respect and even prompted, is still news of one aspect of my life coming to an end.

And there are others.

My shooting buddy here in town is moving to California. We’ll still be able to keep in touch, but it is still a loss to have him go. He’ll be leaving this week – while I am gone to the SHOT Show.

And our old neighbor, Ray, is slipping in health. This is common in the elderly when they have taken a fall, or moved out of their home. We saw him the other day, and, well, I’m glad his daughter is in town this weekend to visit him.

Even the really good news about the book I got last Monday is a bit bittersweet. That may be hard for some folks to understand. But for me, I enjoy the process of working on something – and miss it when a project is done. I started thinking about the story behind Communion of Dreams about 15 years ago, and really started writing it over a decade ago. There’s a lot of my life tied up in that book.

So, forgive the funk. A lot of changes, all at once.

I will be mostly unavailable through the 26th, but will try and schedule some posts to cycle while I am gone. And I may have a chance to post some thoughts about my trip while out in Vegas – we’ll see.

Jim Downey

A farewell.
January 13, 2010, 10:52 am
Filed under: Writing stuff

Just a note to link to my farewell post over on UTI: Like tears . . . in rain.

I’ll explain a bit more after the owner of the site has a chance to offer his own comments. But I want to re-iterate here that it has been a real pleasure working with him and writing for that site these last few years.

Brent’s now posted his news over on UTI: He’s decided to shut down the site. Since it had largely been just me posting there for the last year, my voice had grown ‘stale’, and so I suggested to Brent that he consider what direction to go with the site. As I told him, I know that this was a tough decision, but one that I respect.

Jim Downey

January 11, 2010, 5:47 pm
Filed under: Predictions, Publishing, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

I’d mentioned in my 2009 review that I was still waiting to hear back from the publisher about the revised Communion of Dreams manuscript.

Well, I just got an email. Nothing is finalized yet, but it looks like the book will be published, perhaps in the second quarter of this year.


They have asked about a couple of changes to the text (ones I will have no problem making, either emotionally or mechanically). I’ve told them that I can make those changes within a month, even allowing for me going to the SHOT Show next week.



Well, keep your fingers crossed – no contracts have been signed yet. But this looks like it’s going to happen. The editor *really* liked the book – one excerpt from the email I received:

The protagonist, Jon, was consistent throughout, and I think he provided a good center through which the evolution of the other characters occurs. The Sidwell character was a surprise, in that I expected him to be a static character, but he turned out to have much more depth. Even the commander of the Marines, Navarr, seemed non-stereotypical to me.



I think I need a drink.

Jim Downey

The stuff of Dreams.
January 9, 2010, 11:57 am
Filed under: Architecture, Art, MetaFilter, movies

Watch this. Full screen. It takes 12 minutes, but it is worth every second.

Lovely. Just incredibly lovely.

And it is entirely CG (Computer Generated), by Alex Roman.

Damned impressive. The technology to bring Communion of Dreams to life is now available.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Quoth the Grackle, “Nevermore.”*
January 8, 2010, 9:55 am
Filed under: Humor

You may have heard something about the nasty cold snap that we’ve been experiencing here in the Midwest. Oh, yeah, it has gotten some attention for making it a bit chilly as far south as Florida, but hereabouts temps have been hovering around zero, with wind chills down into the actually dangerous zone.

Well, yesterday was no exception. We’d gotten about 6″ of fresh snow the night before, and winds had picked up to about 20mph, gusts to almost twice that. Not fit for man nor beast. Nor, I now know, birds.

We’ve got several bird feeders outside our kitchen, in an area adjacent to the carport. Particularly when it is this nasty, I make sure to keep them filled, and all day whenever I passed through the kitchen I could see birds clustering around, all floofy and puffed up, trying to stay in the lee of the wind and eat as much as possible.

So, about sunset I stopped working in my bindery and started to help prep dinner, before I had to go off to a stupid meeting. Part of that entailed collecting the various rinsed-out cans and whatnot and putting them in the recycling bag outside the door to the carport. Gathering up an armful, I moved with deliberation to the back door, opened it, and stepped out into the bloody damned cold.

And behind me, something exploded.

Well, “exploded” in a figurative sense. What happened was there was a Grackle hiding out in the corner there, out of the wind, under one of the shelves that has potting soil and whatnot on it. And I scared the crap out of it. But I was also standing there, screen door blocking the way out from under the carport, me blocking the other way. But there was this nice escape route leading into the house. So, it went inside.

Eleanor, our old-lady cat (she’s 16), had been following me around, wanting some food. And she thought that I had just delivered dinner on the wing, leapt up to catch the Grackle as it came inside.

This did not amuse the Grackle any. It kept going.

My wife, Martha, who was standing in the kitchen, ducked as it flew past her and headed upstairs. By this point I was back inside. My wife looked at me. “What the hell was that??”

The cat mewed. Our dog, Alwyn, came trotting into the kitchen to see what all the excitement was about. He’s the kind of dog that can’t stand to be left out of fun.

Just then the Grackle came back down the stairs, alighted on top of the microwave. Martha again looks at me, like this was some sort of weird joke. I, of course, start laughing my ass off.

Well, Martha started closing doors in the kitchen (there are four, leading off into other parts of the house), to limit the bird’s escape options. Eleanor scrambled around our feet, watching the bird. Alwyn took off, convinced that we were all nuts. I grabbed a towel from the top of the dryer, and after a couple of false starts caught the bird (I wanted to do so gently, not hurt it).

I took the Grackle back to the carport, and released it. With a loud caw! it took off like a bat outta hell. Inside, Eleanor paced around, eyes sharp, wondering where her treat went. Alwyn hid in the front room, certain that somehow he’d be blamed for everything.

We got dinner made, ate. I went off to my meeting, still chuckling.

Jim Downey

*With apologies to Edgar.

That’d be my luck.
January 6, 2010, 1:47 pm
Filed under: Civil Rights, Emergency, Failure, Government, Predictions, Preparedness, Privacy, Terrorism

As if the introduction of full-body scanners after some nut set his nuts on fire wasn’t enough – now security officials have decided to play a game of “hide the Semtex” and wound up losing a lump of it in a passenger’s baggage on an international flight. A lump big enough to down a jetliner. And then they didn’t bother to tell anyone for three days.

No, I am not making this up:

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — A failed airport security test ended up with a Slovak man unwittingly carrying hidden explosives in his luggage on a flight to Dublin, Slovak officials admitted Wednesday — a mistake that enraged Irish authorities and shocked aviation experts worldwide.

While the Slovaks blamed the incident on ”a silly and unprofessional mistake,” Irish officials and security experts said it was foolish for the Slovaks to hide actual bomb parts in the luggage of innocent passengers under any circumstances.

The passenger himself was detained by Irish police for several hours before being let go without charge Tuesday.

The Irish were also angry that it took the Slovaks three days to tell them about the Saturday mistake and that the pilot of the airplane decided to fly to Dublin anyway even after being told that an explosive was in his aircraft’s checked luggage.

Can you imagine being the poor bastard who unwittingly was the mule for this little exercise? That’d be my luck:

Ding dong.

“Honey, there are some gentlemen here from the FBI, Secret Service, and Homeland Security who want a word with you . . . ”


Anyway, now that this delightful stunt has happened, I expect that we’ll all have to stop taking any luggage whatsoever, for fear that some security official somewhere will forget where he left his “bomb components”.

Hey, makes as much sense, and would do about as much good, as the full-body scanners we’ll all soon have to go through.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)