Communion Of Dreams

I can’t imagine . . .
February 24, 2010, 11:44 am
Filed under: Guns, Society, Survival, Violence

. . . how anything could go wrong with this:

PARIS (Reuters) – Thrill-seekers in France tired of the usual array of white-knuckle sports are turning to a bizarre new service to get their adrenaline rush — designer abduction.

For 900 euros ($1,226), clients of Ultime Realite (“Ultimate Reality”), a firm in eastern France, can buy a basic kidnap package where they’re bundled away, bound and gagged, and kept incarcerated for four hours.

Alternatively, they can opt for a more elaborate tailor-made psychodrama, involving an escape or helicopter chase for example, where costs can quickly escalate.

Note – this is supposed to happen at a time and a place which the client/victim does *not* know, to add to the realism of the experience.

When in college, me and a couple of college buddies came up with how much fun it would be to stage a ‘mafia hit’ in some nightclub, preparing all the special effects (guns shooting blanks, small charges in walls to simulate bullets striking them, blood packs on the victim and one of the hit men, et cetera). We thought it would be hilarious to set up such a thing and spring it on some unknowing nightclub patrons who would only be told that they were going to be attending a “special event”.

Of course, we gave up on the idea shortly after having a good laugh, because we knew that it was insane. Exposing people to that kind of traumatic event – even as just a witness – was dangerous and irresponsible. Not to mention that there could be someone (off duty cop? actual gangster?) with a real gun loaded with real bullets in the audience who would react poorly to such stimuli.

And that was under the reasonably controlled conditions of one room.

Now, these idiots want to pull this kind of stunt in public?


Jim Downey

“…of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.”
February 21, 2010, 12:27 pm
Filed under: Artificial Intelligence, BoingBoing, Humor, Science, Science Fiction

His expert was one of best, one of only a few hundred based on the new semifluid CPU technology that surpassed the best thin-film computers made by the Israelis. But it was a quirky technology, just a few years old, subject to problems that conventional computers didn’t have, and still not entirely understood. Even less settled was whether the experts based on this technology could finally be considered to be true AI. The superconducting gel that was the basis of the semifluid CPU was more alive than not, and the computer was largely self-determining once the projected energy matrix surrounding the gel was initiated by another computer. Building on the initial subsistence program, the computer would learn how to refine and control the matrix to improve its own ‘thinking’. The thin-film computers had long since passed the Turing test, and these semifluid systems seemed to be almost human. But did that constitute sentience? Jon considered it to be a moot point, of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.

One of the things about Communion of Dreams which isn’t immediately evident is that the story isn’t really the story of the protagonist, Jon Thompson. That is the natural expectation – that the story is the protagonist’s story – so much so that even the editor from Trapdoor commented on how the protagonist allows other characters to grow within the storyline. It is, instead, the ending of the story of the old prospector Darnell Sidwell and the beginning of the story of Seth, the ‘expert system’ which is transformed into a true artificial intelligence beyond our scope to understand.

The quote above is from the first chapter of the book, and really sets the stage for this latter story. Jon doesn’t really think about these matters at the start – that’s not his job. But he is the vehicle through which the reader is pushed to explore these things, to become a philosopher and ethicist.

A few days ago I came across this brilliant little piece:

Artificial Flight and Other Myths
a reasoned examination of A.F. by top birds

Over the past sixty years, our most impressive developments have undoubtedly been within the industry of automation, and many of our fellow birds believe the next inevitable step will involve significant advancements in the field of Artificial Flight. While residing currently in the realm of science fiction, true powered, artificial flying mechanisms may be a reality within fifty years. Or so the futurists would have us believe. Despite the current media buzz surrounding the prospect of A.F., a critical examination of even the most basic facts can dismiss the notion of true artificial flight as not much more than fantasy.

We can start with a loose definition of flight. While no two bird scientists or philosophers can agree on the specifics, there is still a common, intuitive understanding of what true flight is: . . .

It’s well worth reading the whole thing. It’s only about a page in length, and gets across exactly the same message I tried to tell with my 109,000 word novel: how expectations constrain vision. A bird will naturally assume that flight means muscle-powered, biologically-based flight. Envisioning mechanized flight, let alone spaceflight, is something else entirely.

And so it is with ourselves and the trait we think defines us.

Jim Downey

(Via BB.)

Making us safer . . .
February 19, 2010, 11:48 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Government, Guns, Humor

. . . by losing their guns?

Report: Officers lose 243 Homeland Security guns

Washington (CNN) — Nearly 180 Department of Homeland Security weapons were lost — some falling into the hands of criminals — after officers left them in restrooms, vehicles and other public places, according to an inspector general report.

The officers, with Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “did not always sufficiently safeguard their firearms and, as a result, lost a significant number of firearms” between fiscal year 2006 and fiscal year 2008, the report said.


And yet, one of the most common responses I hear to the idea of private citizens exercising our 2nd Amendment rights is that only law enforcement officers are trained adequately to safely handle and carry firearms.

Like this guy, no doubt:


Jim Downey

(Cross posted to the BBTI blog.)

How the SCA probably saved my life.
February 18, 2010, 12:56 pm
Filed under: Health, Humor, SCA, Survival

I put on a ball cap this morning, prior to heading out for my daily walk.

And my head hurt.

No, not a headache. A soft knot of pain localized right on my temple, where the cap fit just a little tightly.

* * * * * * *

I’ve mentioned the SCA here a number of times in the past. How I used to be very involved in it, how I still have a number of close friends from those days, how I learned a lot from my years of active participation.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned too much how I also blame the SCA for some of my aches and pains. But shall we say that I have been known to grumble a bit from time to time, how my days of fighting led to several joint surgeries, multiple fractures, and so forth. Oh, the SCA combat is actually quite safe, if you do it in a sane manner with decent armor. But in my younger days I didn’t always take the proper precautions, and pushed myself pretty hard to compete at the highest level – well beyond what I would consider ‘sane’ these days.

Still, those old reflexes probably saved my life.

* * * * * * *

Last October I wrote about an incident involving my stupidity and moving large chunks of wood, how it gave me a good smack upside the head and a pressure split of the scalp.

Sometimes it is only in hindsight, seen from something of a distance, that you can appreciate just what actually happened in the case of an accident. Such is the case with this incident.

It became pretty quickly clear in the weeks following that episode that I had actually suffered a concussion and likely a skull fracture. I say this because I know how bones ache when healing from a break, having broken something north of 15 of ’em over the decades. Other kinds of injuries just don’t feel the same.

Anyway, I didn’t seek treatment for it, because in spite of all the pain, there wasn’t much of an indication of anything really dangerous happening, and besides taking X-rays/cat-scans and confirming the break there wasn’t much that medical science would be able to do for me. They don’t put your head in a cast for a simple skull fracture, and I had painkillers sufficient to deal with things. Yeah, had there been some kind of bleeding inside my brain they may have done something, but I had no evidence of any such injury – I was extremely lucky.

I was *extremely* lucky.

* * * * * * *

Where the handle of the hand truck struck me on the temple was right where the cap fit a little tight. I was wearing that cap when the accident happened.

And thinking about it, and thinking about what happened and how, I now realize something that I didn’t really realize before. When, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the handle of the hand truck swinging my way, I flinched away.

A normal reflex.

Yes, but one which had been reinforced and conditioned by years – years – of SCA combat. Combat which largely consisted of people trying to hit me upside the head with stout sticks moving at high speed. Combat in which I came to be one of the best in the world for a brief period of time.

Now, I can’t prove it, and don’t care to test the hypothesis by duplicating the experiment, but I would bet that the injury I received – skull fracture, concussion – would likely have been a lot worse had I not had that honed reflex. Had I not seen the handle move, or had I moved in response just a little slower, it could well have left me with permanent brain injury or even dead. I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, just honest with myself about the close call I had.

And you know, I don’t think I’ll bitch quite so much about my aching joints from here on.

Jim Downey

Put yourself in his braces.
February 16, 2010, 12:46 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, Daily Kos, Government, Politics, Privacy, Society, Travel

Go ahead: what if this were you, or your four-year old kid?

Did you hear about the Camden cop whose disabled son wasn’t allowed to pass through airport security unless he took off his leg braces?

* * *

Mid-morning on March 19, his parents wheeled his stroller to the TSA security point, a couple of hours before their Southwest Airlines flight was to depart.

The boy’s father broke down the stroller and put it on the conveyor belt as Leona Thomas walked Ryan through the metal detector.

The alarm went off.

The screener told them to take off the boy’s braces.

The Thomases were dumbfounded. “I told them he can’t walk without them on his own,” Bob Thomas said.

“He said, ‘He’ll need to take them off.’ “

You know the rest of the story, no doubt. The screener insisted that the boy’s braces come off (in violation of the TSA’s own guidelines), and the kid walk through the metal detector. Debate ensues, and eventually the boy hobbles through the detector. Parents are ticked off, make a bit of a scene. A supervisor was called, who just walked away when told that the boy’s parents wanted to file a complaint. There’s a bit more of a scene. The local police (this was at the Philadelphia airport) show up, and here’s where things change from the usual story line in these cases. The local police find out the father was a cop, and things get smoothed over enough that the family was allowed to go on with their flight.

But put yourself in that picture, instead. What would have happened to you? What would have happened had things deteriorated to the point where the local cops were called?

Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten annoyed and insisted that the TSA screeners and then the supervisor treat your child with a little bit of consideration and in accord with their own regulations. And maybe you shouldn’t have threatened to file a complaint. But according to everything else that everyone saw, you did nothing more than this.

Again: what would have happened to you?

If you were *very* lucky, and if you were *very* chagrined when the local police showed up, you would only have been taken to a small room somewhere nearby and hassled, probably missing your flight. Unlucky, or stand your ground, and you likely would wind up being held in jail for at least a few hours to ‘teach you a lesson’, perhaps with some actual charges filed against you. It happens all the time.

Policeman Bob Thomas got cut a little slack. He’s a cop, and I don’t really begrudge him that. And he called a local columnist, who has done a couple of stories on the Philadelphia airport’s TSA nightmares. This prompted the local TSA spokesperson to confirm that the whole incident was poorly handled, TSA rules were not followed, and she said that Thomas had received an apology last week from TSA’s security director at the airport, Bob Ellis. She said that Ellis provided Thomas with the name of the agency’s customer service representative, should he have a problem in the future.

Good. I’m glad that this got the attention of the press.

But imagine if it were you.

Jim Downey

(Via BB. Cross posted to dKos.)

A blue valentine.
February 14, 2010, 2:10 pm
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Carl Sagan, NASA, NPR, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Titan

I’m not big on Valentine’s Day. No, I’m not some kind of cold, unloving bastard. Quite the contrary – I resent the cynical manipulation by the greeting card and floral industries creating the expectation that men can only show their love on one special day each year. I love my wife and try to show it to her in many honest ways throughout the year.

But February 14th is memorable for me for another reason.

20 years ago on this day we received a picture – a perspective, if you will – which we had never seen before. That of Earth from the vantage of the Voyager 1 spacecraft – an image which has come to be known as the Pale Blue Dot. The book of the same name helped inspire and inform my writing of Communion of Dreams – a fact which can be seen in several passages, but which most readily comes to mind for me as this dream sequence:

The bridge was perhaps three meters wide, and arched slowly up in front of him, so that he couldn’t see the other end. It had walls of stone about a meter high, and periodically along those walls he could see small sculpted stone vases in which grew roses. Blue roses. He went over and peered into one of the buds, a clean blue light almost like a gas flame. The petals spread, until the flower was completely open.

Turning, he started to walk toward the rise in the center of the bridge. After a few dozen paces, he was almost halfway across the bridge, but he couldn’t see the other side. The fog seemed to rise up from the surface of the river, the bridge stretched off into a muzziness of grey. Then he noticed that the roses in a nearby vase were smaller, the light somehow more distant.

Another couple dozen paces and the end of the bridge where he had begun was almost out of sight. The roses had continued to shrink in size, and the light of each receded. It had grown darker, too, the sun had begun to shrink in size, as though retreating from him. He walked on. There was still no end in sight, just the bridge continuing into a growing dimness. The sun was smaller still, and had lost enough intensity that he could look straight at it without discomfort. The roses here were so small as to be hard to make out, the blue dot of light in each flower becoming pale. And he noticed that the walkway beneath his feet now felt spongy, like it was becoming insubstantial.

Tentatively taking a few more steps, at last he felt his foot sink into the bridge, and he started falling forward.

That’s from the end of Chapter Five, as the protagonist and his team of scientists are en route to Titan and are metaphorically crossing from the known to the unknown. Just as Voyager continues to do.

Happy Pale Blue Dot Day.

Jim Downey

All Things Considered had a nice piece about this photograph and what led to it last Friday, which includes this nice bit from Carl Sagan:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Farewell, Ray.
February 12, 2010, 3:44 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Emergency, Health

Just a quiet note, to follow up to a post from November. Our neighbor, Ray, passed away this morning.

Martha and I had been to visit him several times where he had been receiving care for his fall, the last time a bit before I went out to Las Vegas last month. It was clear then that his health was deteriorating quickly. He was happy to see us, but was no longer as mentally sharp or aware of his surroundings as he had been, and in fact he struck me as being more than a little impatient to be ‘moving on.’ It was almost as though he felt he had overstayed his welcome, living to 97.

So I had been expecting this news. Still, it is a sadness.

But I’ll remember him for as long as I grow tomatoes. One thing he did last year, when he was still very much aware of this world, was to tell me to take his tomato towers, wonderful 6′ tall box-wire supports that are about as old as I am. The last few years I had borrowed these, ‘renting them’ in exchange for keeping him supplied with fresh tomatoes through the summer, dutifully stacking them back in his yard at the end of the season. Now they’ll have a new home.

As I suppose Ray does, in our memories.

Jim Downey

Do they give you an air-sick bag?

Ah, very cool. A new demo toy via the brilliant minds at Google: Liquid Galaxy.

Right now it seems to be primarily computer constructs, rather than tied in to actual satellite or StreetView images. It most reminds me of the data arcologies of William Gibson’s Burning Chrome collection.

But what a fun toy. Imagine what this will be like by the end of the decade.

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

That’s nice.
February 11, 2010, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Daily Kos, Feedback

Feeling a bit down today – I think I am just getting a bit tired of all the ‘neighborhood’ stuff I have been doing lately. But did just get a nice note that I thought I would share:


Just finished your book, and I must say I really enjoyed it. As I typically do I devoured it in less than 2 days and will now go back and read it at a more leisurely pace.

I found your link to the book in a comment you left at DailyKos. Though I don’t necessarily agree with alot of what is written there, I enjoy reading all intelligent points of view, and you never know where you will find a gem such as your book.

Do try to get it published, and please continue to write. I look forward to your next book, as certainly I hope there is another one to come.


John O.

I wrote him back, thanking him. Now if only it was feedback from Trapdoor . . .

Jim Downey

I love it.
February 9, 2010, 1:14 pm
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Ballistics, Feedback, Government, Guns, Science

I mentioned the other day that the BBTI site was closing in on 2 million hits. And, with the site chugging along with 3,500 – 4,500 hits a day, I figured we’d get there before the end of this month. But then, over the last couple of days, hits about doubled, approaching 7,000 hits a day.

Now, this happens. Usually it is due to BBTI being “discovered” and posted on a new gun/shooting forum someplace – so a bunch of people who haven’t heard about the project yet run off to check it out, and send links to their friends. And it has also happened when I’ve posted some new information to the site (such as when we added in the additional testing results last spring) or announce something new in the works (as with the cylinder gap tests).

But that wasn’t the reason why we saw the bump up this time. Instead, it was because of an announcement from the FBI.

See, the FBI has announced that they are going to go to a .40 S&W AR-15 carbine. And in discussing that decision, people started citing our numbers on the .40 S&W cartridge performance in different barrel lengths. You can see what I mean at The Firearm Blog, at Calguns, and elsewhere. This is something I have mentioned before, how BBTI has come to be increasingly used as a resource for evaluating firearm performance, but this is the first time that I’ve seen it happen in response to some newsworthy item. And I think that is really pretty cool.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to the BBTI blog.)