Communion Of Dreams

Thinking of ‘checking out’.
August 14, 2010, 5:39 pm
Filed under: Health, Survival

No, don’t worry – I’m not suicidal. Yes, I’ve been through a mild depressive bout recently, but nothing that severe.

But I have been thinking about the possibility of my own death. It’s actually something that I think about a fair amount.

Again – don’t worry. This is a natural outgrowth of losing one’s parents at a young age. You tend to be realistic about your own mortality. I’ve been like this all of my adult life. It’s not a bad way to be – I try and enjoy life in the moment, not take things for granted. I tell my wife I love her often, and my friends that I value their friendship. I have a preference for experiences rather than things, knowing that I won’t always be around to appreciate things. But I also see that things will live beyond me, and so prefer to have *good* things that others will someday appreciate. This last item is also part of the reason I do what I do professionally – both the book conservation and the writing. They are things which I will be happy to have outlive me.

Yesterday when I talked to the nurse at my medical group, she told me that she’d call in the new Rx for antibiotics, and that I should try and take it easy this weekend to let them work. She was also pretty insistent that I knew that if I am not feeling better come Monday that the doctor wanted to see me again.

I’m a little too smart for my own good. Upon hearing this (and promising to comply), I got to thinking about why the doctor would want to see me on Monday, given my symptoms. A couple of ideas occurred which explained it. One, he could just want to make sure I was getting proper monitoring for a lung infection, given my history of problems with pneumonia (which I have had four or five times). This is the most likely explanation. Or he could be concerned that I have an antibiotic-resistant strain of whatever infectious agent was at work. These days, that is not entirely unreasonable, and smart doctors are keeping an eye out for such problems. Lastly, a number of other possible problems could be manifesting as the symptoms I have, from whooping cough (not as severe in adults, but still…) to lung cancer (one of the most deadly cancers out there).

OK. So, those are the possibilities. Face them. Consider them. Consider the ramifications, from minor annoyance to “put your affairs in order”. There’s no reason to be afraid, just prepared. Fear is the mind killer.

Mostly, I live my life such that were I to be hit by a truck tomorrow, things wouldn’t be that hard for whoever had to clean up the mess. In this particular case, if I have some kind of life-ending disease, then that’ll be my wife. Some conservation work wouldn’t get done. My co-author would have to see to getting Her Final Year published. My dog would miss me. My friends would have to throw a decent wake, or I’d come haunt them. The cats *might* notice that someone else now feeds them. The rest of the BBTI testing would have to be done in my absence. Insurance would cover my debts. If I had some time (such as with a disease) I could find homes for the few things I would want others to have – otherwise, my wife would be happy to hold onto things as a memento (she’s very sentimental that way).

Chances are, if I am *not* feeling significantly better come Monday, that when I see the doctor it’ll turn out that he is just taking appropriate precautions. But, you know, I consider the alternatives. I hate surprises.

This is the way I think. Always have. Don’t dwell on it, but am well aware that I am just a temporary resident here. So I think it is better to be prepared.

Don’t you?

Jim Downey

A bit of magic to cheer me up.
August 14, 2010, 3:40 pm
Filed under: Art, Health, Humor, movies, YouTube

A friend who knows I’m not feeling well, and also knows that I don’t generally go to see movies in the theater (antisocial bastard that I am), sent me a link that he figured I probably hadn’t seen. It’s Presto, a short film from Pixar which ran as a special before WALL-E when it was out. Just in case you didn’t get to see it either . . .

Thanks, Jerry!

Jim Downey

August 13, 2010, 12:39 pm
Filed under: Ballistics, Health, Promotion, Science Fiction, Writing stuff

Odd little thing I just noticed…

OK, let me back up a bit. As mentioned earlier, I’m fighting an annoying and rather stubborn lung infection. I was doing better the first of this week, after a course of antibiotics, but in the last couple of days have started another downward dip. Just got another round of antibiotics from the doc, with instructions to take it easy and see him Monday if I am not feeling better. Because of all this I am feeling a bit pathetic and non-creative, but I am not feeling quite like I just want to nap – I’m hovering over a no-man’s-land between sickness and health, unmotivated to do much. So I read through the stuff that needs work on the care giving book, but am not up to actually doing anything about it.

Anyway. Because of being stuck in this state, the most I feel like doing is poking around a bit. Which I started to do with the stats for Communion of Dreams. Usually, I just check to see how many downloads have occurred and leave it at that. Those are the numbers that I report on here. But a bit ago I decided to see just how many hits the site has been getting.

And this is what I found curious. It’s now running about 10,000 hits a month, and has been for over the last year. Low during that period was 8,500, the high 13,000.

These are not huge numbers – the BBTI site has been getting about 8,000 hits a day of late – but they’re not too shabby, either. And what is curious is that in the first few months of 2009, the numbers jumped from about 1,500 to about 4,000 and then to 9,000 – and they have stayed at that higher level since.

I’m not really sure why. There has been something of an uptick in the number of downloads each month during that time period, but it was nothing like a seven-fold increase. It just seems that more people are coming by the site on a regular basis. I suppose it could be tied to the BBTI project, in that there is a link in my bio there to the CoD site, but I’d be surprised if that accounted for all of it.


Jim Downey

“Muscovy in Europe.”
August 11, 2010, 5:14 pm
Filed under: Book Conservation

Sent this note to a friend this afternoon:

Ah, go soak your . . .
. . . 1700 Russian map. Or at least the old piece of paper adhered to the back of it. With the hope that the relaxed adhesive will allow it to come up easily.

Thought I’d take a couple of pictures and show the process.

First, here’s the information I have on the map: “Muscovy in Europe.” English, ca. 1700 by John Senex. Size: 20.5 x 24″

At some point after the map was printed (probably in the 19th century from the looks of the paper) someone mounted a wide double ‘tape’ of paper at the center on the back. This was done to allow the map to be mounted into a book. But this paper was fairly stiff, and at odds with the weight of the map paper structure, and so had caused some cockling of the paper of the map. I recommended to the client that this paper tab be removed, and preliminary investigation indicated that the adhesive used was water soluble.

But I couldn’t just add water to the back of the map to get the old adhesive to relax. Because the front of the map was colored by hand using watercolor pigments. Getting the paper too wet would allow those pigments to migrate, blend, perhaps even wash away.

The solution was to use a poultice of wheatpaste, applied to a limited area of the ‘tape’. This would release moisture into the old ‘tape’ in a controlled fashion. So I applied the paste several times, testing between applications to see whether the old adhesive had yet relaxed. This first picture shows when the adhesive had started to relax, and I could lift off the old paper using a lifting knife:

The second picture shows that process somewhat further along:

The rest of the area where I applied the wheatpaste came up just fine, with a little careful attention. Tomorrow I’ll work on another 6″ section of the tape, repeating the process until I have all the old paper and adhesive removed. Then I’ll dry the map under some restraint to allow it to relax and flatten properly. Afterward, I’ll proceed with the rest of the treatment needed.

Addendum, 8/12: Profile of me in Vox.

Jim Downey


Perhaps it is the drugs, or the economic degree talking, but a curious thought occurred in consideration of a stock-market piece in the Atlantic: are we seeing the first real indication of some kind of self-aware Artificial Intelligence in the millisecond-to-millisecond world of automated stock trading?

OK, probably not. The cynic in me says that someone has just figured out a way to game the system to their advantage, throwing out a lot of confusing chaff to slow down the computer systems of other traders. Here’s an introductory paragraph to explain what this is all about:

It’s thanks to Nanex, the data services firm, that we know what their handiwork looks like at all. In the aftermath of the May 6 “flash crash,” which saw the Dow plunge nearly 1,000 points in just a few minutes, the company spent weeks digging into their market recordings, replaying the day’s trades and trying to understand what happened. Most stock charts show, at best, detail down to the one-minute scale, but Nanex’s data shows much finer slices of time. The company’s software engineer Jeffrey Donovan stared and stared at the data. He began to think that he could see odd patterns emerge from the numbers. He had a hunch that if he plotted the action around a stock sequentially at the millisecond range, he’d find something. When he tried it, he was blown away by the pattern. He called it “The Knife.” This is what he saw:

Followed by a graph showing a clear pattern. Then here’s the bit that tells how this could be an advantage to another trader:

Donovan thinks that the odd algorithms are just a way of introducing noise into the works. Other firms have to deal with that noise, but the originating entity can easily filter it out because they know what they did. Perhaps that gives them an advantage of some milliseconds. In the highly competitive and fast HFT world, where even one’s physical proximity to a stock exchange matters, market players could be looking for any advantage.

But think about this. What a delightful SF explanation it would be to have one of these powerful automated systems (they have to be some of the most powerful and complex computer/software systems on the planet) starting to “wake up” and experiment in manipulating its environment: the world of stock trading. Here’s a bit from the MeFi thread where I came across this:

All of the serious HFT firms these days use “natural language processing”, which means using artificial intelligence to extract profitable information from news streams. People think of this as just headlines but really it’s anything that might contain useful information – these computers have all of the cable news channels supplied to them digitally and use everything they can scrape. Some of the firms even use facial recognition software to determine whether the speakers believe what they’re saying. My friends joke about how Cramer is a goldmine for their algorithms but that the profitable trades rarely match up with his advice.

One of the facts about ‘hard’ AI, as is required for profitable NLP, is that the coders who developed it don’t even understand completely how it works. If they did, it would just be a regular program. What’s even stranger is that they can’t use regular tools, like a debugger, to observe the algorithms’ behavior, because it interferes with the processing and causes different trades to be emitted. In a very real sense, they can’t explain why their robots send the orders they do. They can tell you what data they “trained” it with, and what sorts of data they “feed” it, but they’re inherently unpredictable.

As a result, a lot of programmers at HFT firms spend most of their time trying to keep the software from running away. They create elaborate safeguard systems to form a walled garden around the traders but, exactly like a human trader, the programs know that they make money by being novel, doing things that other traders haven’t thought of. These gatekeeper programs are therefore under constant, hectic development as new algorithms are rolled out. The development pace necessitates that they implement only the most important safeguards, which means that certain types of algorithmic behavior can easily pass through. As has been pointed out by others, these were “quotes” not “trades”, and they were far away from the inside price – therefore not something the risk management software would be necessarily be looking for.

Even better, perhaps such an AI entity was aware enough to realize its position in the larger world stage, and also realize that one way to bring down humanity would be through the kind of economic crash we recently just avoided – something even worse than the Great Depression. How to do it? Well . . .

But already since the May event, Nanex’s monitoring turned up another potentially disastrous situation. On July 16 in a quiet hour before the market opened, suddenly they saw a huge spike in bandwidth. When they looked at the data, they found that 84,000 quotes for each of 300 stocks had been made in under 20 seconds.

“This all happened pre-market when volume is low, but if this kind of burst had come in at a time when we were getting hit hardest, I guarantee it would have caused delays in the [central quotation system],” Donovan said. That, in turn, could have become one of those dominoes that always seem to present themselves whenever there is a catastrophic failure of a complex system.

Think about it.

Curious, indeed.

Jim Downey

Do big cats dream of electric antelope?
August 7, 2010, 8:19 am
Filed under: Health, Humor, YouTube

OK, I’m sick with the latest iteration of lung gak, this time of the variety requiring inhalers, antibiotics, and codeine to suppress cough. And perhaps it is the drugs for why I find this hilarious:

Reminds me I need to get some fresh catnip…

Jim Downey

“Never underestimate . . .
August 4, 2010, 3:09 pm
Filed under: Bipolar, Book Conservation, Depression

. . . the power of human stupidity.

Gah. A bit of a rant.

Some people do not listen to a single word you say.

Last week one evening, as we were eating dinner, we got a call on our landline. I answered it.

It was a client, calling to see if her family bible was finished. Why was she calling me on my home phone, instead of at my business number? Well, she had lost my business card, see . . .

We chatted. I told her I had been waiting to hear back from her on whether she wanted the work we discussed done or not.

She insisted she had.

I knew she hadn’t.

See, she had left the book with me at the beginning of the summer – she was leaving to go on vacation, and the book actually belonged to her mom, from whom she would need approval to have the work done. (This woman was at least my age, likely older.) Furthermore, for new clients I always require a 50% deposit on work before I start on it. A deposit which I had not received. And that once I had a deposit, I would schedule the work to be done – but that usually takes 4 – 6 months before I can get to it.

So I knew she hadn’t given me the green light to proceed.

But I also knew that I was nearing the bottom of a mild depressive cycle, with minimal tolerance for people. With that self-awareness, I figured that telling her she could come by and pick up her damned book and shove it up her butt was probably not the best thing. I asked her to give me a week to get the work done, and that I would call her.

This afternoon early I finished the work on the book. I called the client, explained that I was finishing up the work, and that the book would be dry from the final procedure and ready to pick up anytime this evening or the rest of the week, at her convenience. I asked her to let me know when she was coming by, so that I could make sure to be here (not running errands or something.) All of this is standard for me, and the way I have conducted business for 6 years.

Well, guess who just showed up a few minutes ago. Right. No, she didn’t call first. Of course not. I’m reasonably sure had I asked her, she would have told me that I said she should come right over and get the book. Because she didn’t listen to what I told her, at all.


Jim Downey

October: Hospice, or placement?
August 3, 2010, 1:31 pm
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Writing stuff

(I’ve been working on the care giving book, creating introductions for each month/chapter. This is the one for October, and I thought I would share.)

Jim Downey


October: Hospice, or placement?

After all you have been through, after all your care giving, it has come to this: you need help. Not just a weekly break, not just someone coming in to help clean a bit, or check in on your loved one. No, you need some serious help. Because the Alzheimer’s has progressed far enough that it is clear that the end is in sight – meaning more intense care needs, increased physical problems, actual medical attention required.

What are your choices? What are your options?

Because it isn’t a simple matter of “do this, or this.” Insurance coverage varies widely from place to place and plan to plan. Government programs at the local, state, and federal levels all have their own arcane rules. Visiting Nurses associations may be in your area, and able to help. Or not. Hospice programs may exist and be able to provide care. Or not.

It’s a mess, frankly. And you’re probably now so exhausted from the years of being a care giver that you can’t make sense of it. At all. Chances are you’ll grab at whatever straw is first offered. Will it be the right choice?

There * is * no right choice. There is no wrong choice. Come to terms with that now. Or you will beat yourself up for no reason. You can only do the best you are capable, at the time. It may be hospice, if one is available. It may be placement in a full-time nursing facility. It may be something else entirely. You may have little or no control over your choices, and the decision may be made for you by external factors.

Well, it’s a start.
August 2, 2010, 7:54 am
Filed under: Blade Runner, movies, Predictions, Science Fiction, tech, YouTube

Though I think they’ll have a hard time upgrading it to full Spinner status in just 9 years:

Jim Downey

“I said, ‘Hit Me’.*
August 1, 2010, 10:17 am
Filed under: Ballistics, movies, Predictions, Promotion

Rolling out some stats for June and July . . .

Complete versions of Communion of Dreams were downloaded 780 times in June, and another 692 in July, putting the total a bit shy of 26,000. Whew.

But the real news is with BBTI. On May 23 I wrote this:

Just a quick note: yesterday we crossed 2.5 million hits – total is 2,505,951. We’re averaging over 7,000 hits a day now, and at that rate we’ll break 3 million hits in about 10 weeks.

Well, we haven’t broken 3 million yet. But we will sometime late today, about a week earlier than I predicted. The total as of yesterday was 2,993,557 hits. That breaks down as 192,007 hits in June and 224,458 hits in July. That puts July as the second-highest all time total, with only the first full month the site was up beating it.

Well. Bit stunning, all in all.

Jim Downey

*Victor ‘Boss Vic Koss’ Kosslovich. Cross posted to the BBTI blog.