Communion Of Dreams

I think . . .
May 18, 2010, 1:05 pm
Filed under: Weather

. . . I was camping through this kind of storm once or twice:

Be sure to watch it to at least the 2:00 mark.


Jim Downey

A kind of unity.
May 17, 2010, 11:56 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Writing stuff

I’ve mentioned working on Her Final Year, getting things transferred and re-organized. That process continues apace, and is going very well.

One of the things which has struck me recently has been seeing something which I hadn’t planned, but I don’t find too surprising: the structure of the book as we have set it up is reflecting the content of the book. Let me explain.

As I noted previously, the book is divided into “months”, each month reflecting a stage of the disease and the impact that it has on both the patient and care-providers. “January” is just the suspicion that there’s something wrong, “February” is detection of actual symptoms of dementia, et cetera. This way we convert the experience that two families had into a generic template which will fit anyone’s experience with the disease and care-giving.

Well, as we’ve gone through and allocated different entries relating to each “month” (entries drawn from blog posts, diary entries and email) there has occurred a striking distribution: just a very few entries in the early months when dementia is only a minor thing, the total rising until September, October, and November. These are the most intense stages of care-giving, the time when it completely occupies your life. Being in the role of care-provider is a labor of love, but it is also emotionally and physically exhausting – just as the number and intensity of the entries in those months shows.

No brilliant insight in this, I realize. But it is just one of those artistic things – a kind of ‘unity’ of design and message – which is very difficult to achieve intentionally, but is elegant when it happens.

Jim Downey

Oh, great – one more thing to worry about.

In listening/reading about the Toyota car crashes earlier this year, a thought had occurred to me: if it was a software problem with controlling the brakes or throttle, could that be something which could be used maliciously against the owner of a car? I mean, I could see where it would make an interesting plot point in a mystery – someone gets into the car’s computer system, mucks around, and then a couple of days later the car crashes, killing the driver. But since I don’t write mysteries (though there are elements of that in Communion of Dreams), I let the idea just slip away.

Now it seems that I wasn’t thinking on nearly a large enough scale:

Cars’ Computer Systems Called at Risk to Hackers

Automobiles, which will be increasingly connected to the Internet in the near future, could be vulnerable to hackers just as computers are now, two teams of computer scientists are warning in a paper to be presented next week.

The scientists say that they were able to remotely control braking and other functions, and that the car industry was running the risk of repeating the security mistakes of the PC industry.

“We demonstrate the ability to adversarially control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input — including disabling the brakes, selectively braking individual wheels on demand, stopping the engine, and so on,” they wrote in the report, “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile.”

Well, it’s too late to enter this year’s Fifth Annual Movie-Plot Threat Contest by Bruce Schneier, but that’d be a great one: terrorists design a computer worm which targets the control systems of cars, and when the worm is activated on a certain date, all the cars will suddenly go out of control on America’s roads, killing thousands and spreading mass panic. Given the level of dependence we have on cars & trucks in the US, this would quickly cripple the economy and destroy the country.

Make a hell of a book or movie, wouldn’t it? It could even be done as a 24 style TV show, where the protagonist has to track down and stop the mad computer genius behind the plot.

Gah. Now I suppose Homeland Security will be paying me a visit for coming up with such an idea . . .

Jim Downey

May 12, 2010, 1:30 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Health, Predictions, Publishing, Writing stuff

Whew – this morning I completed transferring entries for Her Final Year from the website my co-author set up so we could jointly work on it, and organizing them into files by “month” (this allows me to print out the entries and shift them around to find a good organic narrative in each month). Anyway, it was the first time that I had an actual sense of just how large a body of material we’re working with. And that material is 98,470 words in the current form – the length of a solid, commercial novel.

Now, there will be some adjustments to that total. Some editing will be done, and we still need to do the introductions for each month. Also, the entire body of the second (shorter) part of the book – His First Year, which is the recovery period following caregiving – still needs to be tallied. Even with trimming, I expect the final version of the book will still be in excess of 100,000 words – likely more on the order of 110,000 to 120,000.

No wonder it seems like a lot of work. It is.

Jim Downey

Extreme Autonomous Driving.
May 11, 2010, 2:08 pm
Filed under: Artificial Intelligence, Expert systems, Science, Science Fiction, YouTube

Man, the robots get to have all the fun these days:

I couldn’t do it. You?

Progress marches on.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Following up.

I was gone over the weekend, and didn’t get back home until last evening. Since returning, I’ve been playing a little catch-up to our drug raid debacle, which has continued to get attention nationwide. So, some quick follow-up . . .

First, the issue hasn’t died down at all. The YouTube vid in question has now been seen by almost a million people, and the issue has now shifted from being one about pot laws to being more one about civil liberties in general and the use of paramilitary force by police in specific. It’s not often that I am in agreement with political commentary on FOX News, but this whole interview from yesterday is almost something that I could have written.

The initial response from the mayor and police chief last Thursday was seen as entirely inadequate, and yesterday afternoon the Chief held another press conference to announce a number of changes. The Missourian has the best coverage of this news conference so far. Here’s a bit from that article:

The changes include:

  • A captain in charge of the area where the raid is to take place has to approve the operation.
  • The location has to be under constant surveillance once the warrant has been issued.
  • A raid is not to take place when children are present except “under the most extreme circumstances,” Burton said.

“We will always police with common sense,” he said.

This *is* a step in the right direction, but it hardly goes far enough, and it remains to be seen whether it does much to quiet the tumult here locally or even nationally. Why do I say this? Because they have not yet addressed the basic issue of when it is appropriate to use paramilitary levels of force. There is a growing awareness that this policy question has to be resolved: why is SWAT being used when there is not an imminent threat to the public safety? The local discussion boards have gone nuts (full link round-up of the Tribune’s coverage and discussion here) and appropriately so. Tomorrow night there will be a meeting of the new Civilian Review Board and next Monday during the regularly-scheduled City Council meeting there will undoubtedly be discussion of the matter. Supposedly, the internal review of the raid is to be completed and released later this week, and I bet that will just fuel the debate further. People are really pissed off.

This is not over. Whether it will lead to any changes here locally or perhaps even nationally remains to be seen.

Jim Downey

Well, OK then.

Yesterday I wrote about the latest local battle in the War on (Some) Drugs, which led to the shooting of two dogs, the terrorizing of a family, and the diminution of our civil rights as police departments adopt increasingly militarized tactics. But not like I was alone in this, since the story has been picked up and published in countless posts online as well as getting attention from the mainstream media. Facebook posts, hits to the YouTube vid now over 200,000 (it was 2,000 when I posted the vid yesterday), et cetera.

So, the heat is starting to build. Of course, this can’t be ignored by the local police department, so they chatted with the Tribune to give their side (a bit). And what did they say?

“It was unfortunate timing,” said Lt. Scott Young, SWAT commander. “We were in the process of considering a lot of changes. We were already having meetings to improve narcotic investigations, then this happened.”

Columbia police spokeswoman Jessie Haden said there sometimes was a lag between the time a warrant was issued and when SWAT could execute the warrant. The problem was SWAT members’ primary assignments, such as their role as beat officers or investigators, would take precedence over SWAT and they would have to work overtime to participate in SWAT operations.

Well, OK then. It was just a case of unfortunate timing. The warrant was going to run out, you see, so they *had* to act in the middle of the night when the SWAT team was available.

Er, what?

SWAT teams were developed to cope with particularly dangerous situations – something which presents a major threat to the safety of the public. They train to deploy quickly, to secure a dangerous environment while dealing with someone who is heavily armed. Almost by definition, anything which presents a major threat to the public safety and security requires a very fast response – you don’t want to leave a hostage situation hanging until you can make sure no one is going to be getting in too much overtime. And likewise, if narcotics distribution is going on, if a major drug deal is happening, you don’t want to wait more than a week to schedule your SWAT team.

In other words, if it ain’t an emergency, SWAT shouldn’t be used.

Think about that. If the situation requires the use of such militarized tactics and equipment, then how the hell can you just let it wait until you can make sure that everyone on the team has completed their other routine job requirements?

Yet that is what they did. Again, from the Tribune:

The warrant authorizing SWAT and investigators to enter Whitworth’s home was approved by Boone County Associate Circuit Judge Leslie Schneider on Feb 3., and the raid happened Feb. 11.

8 days. They waited 8 days to act. How the hell does that qualify as the sort of emergency situation for which SWAT is required?

It doesn’t.

Here’s the video, again:

Yet they had been sitting on that warrant for 8 days. 8 days during which they hadn’t even determined that there would be a child inside the home.

Welcome to your police state. When the SWAT team can be used for any police action, so long as there’s a justification of War on (Some) Drugs involved. And time to make sure the bust doesn’t mess up any of the officer’s schedules.

Jim Downey

Now it’s local.

Wait, I thought we were no longer at war with our own people? Seems someone forgot to tell the local cops, who sent their SWAT team out in the middle of the night because of a pot pipe and a misdemeanor’s worth of pot (which is decriminalized here, and subject only to a ticket).

Here’s the video. Warning, it’s tough to watch, particularly for anyone who cares for dogs:

The comments at the local paper’s site are now pushing 500 – that’s easily 2x the size of just about other story I can think of, and I pay attention to what people are thinking. And it’s been picked up by Radley Balko, who is a nationally-read proponent of limiting the militarization of police forces around the country. And folks are posting it to their Facebook pages as well as to other sites. It is, in other words, going viral.

Now, a couple of things. First, the SWAT team was executing a legal warrant, signed by a judge. Second, the warrant was issued because it was thought that the culprit was a drug dealer – not just some low-level user. Third, cops always have to make sure that they secure a site when they go on such a raid, and in doing so will use whatever force they think is necessary.

But . . .

The information provided to get the warrant was extremely poor – the police didn’t even realize the man listed in the warrant was married, nor that there was a small child in the home. This could have easily led to a tragedy. And the video, released due to Sunshine Law requests, is decidedly at odds with how this raid was characterized when it was announced by local police spokespersons (one of whom I know) back in February.

Readers of this blog will know that while I support the police (my dad was a cop, after all), I have often objected to the absurd increase in military tactics and weaponry being used at the local level – which is entirely due to the way the War on (Some) Drugs has been conducted over the last decades. The sort of things shown in this video just sour the populace on their police, and put people (including cops) unnecessarily at risk. And it is frighteningly indicative of a slide into a true police state.

Watch that video. And think – who is served by this sort of debacle?

Jim Downey

OK, I’m going to have to see this.
May 5, 2010, 7:53 am
Filed under: Architecture, MetaFilter, SCA


A team of architectural experts, working together with historians of the Middle Ages and dedicated artisans, is raising a genuine, full-sized, fortified castle, with 45 foot high towers, a drawbridge, and 6 foot wide stone walls surrounding an expansive inner courtyard, using the materials, techniques, and rules of the 13th century.

Here in Missouri. Well, just across the border into Arkansas, actually, south of Springfield.

I appreciate insane projects.

Jim Downey


Publishing – how it actually works.

Charlie Stross recently wrote a series of long posts on his blog which explains how commercial fiction publishing actually works, at least from his well-informed perspective. I read those over the weekend, and got some nuts & bolts info that I had only known vaguely before – a nice intro to the whole process as I stand on the verge of it happening to me. I would heartily recommend that anyone interested in the economics of publishing or getting published take a look.

Then, as luck would have it, this morning Stross was the first to post in a discussion related to this topic on MetaFilter: How to Pay the Writer.

Interesting. Thoughts?

Jim Downey