Communion Of Dreams

Fingers crossed.
November 30, 2010, 10:59 am
Filed under: NASA, Science, Space, Titan

This would be so very cool:

Did NASA Discover Life on One of Saturn’s Moons?

NASA is holding a press conference on Thursday “to discuss an astrobiology finding.” Are they going to announce that they’ve found evidence of extraterrestrial life?Blogger Jason Kottke took a look at NASA’s press release, which touts “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” (astrobiology, besides being a cool word, is “the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe”), and decided to investigate further by looking at the participants’ resumes. So who are the participants?

  • A geobiologist who’s written about “geology and life on Mars”;
  • an oceanographer who’s done extensive work on arsenic-based photosynthesis;
  • a biologist examining Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and its similarities to early Earth;
  • and an ecologist investigating the “chemistry of environments where life evolves.”

Keep your fingers crossed.

Jim Downey

Hat tip to Jacob for the link! Thanks!

Nah, they’d *never* do that.
November 30, 2010, 9:27 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Constitution, Emergency, Predictions, Preparedness, Terrorism, Travel, YouTube

Gah. One of the things I kept seeing/hearing from those who support the TSA security procedures is that if you don’t like the groping or scans, just take a train or bus. When countered with the response that these procedures at the airports could be extended to train and bus stations, it’s common to hear the comment: “Nah, they’d *never* do that.”

Guess again:

Jim Downey

Via We Won’t Fly.

And here I thought Heinlein was just a dirty old man…

By the time the dose of tempus was wearing off I had a picture of the United States in a shape that I had not imagined even when I was in Kansas City – a country undergoing Terror. Friend might shoot friend; wife denounce husband. Rumor of a titan could drum up a mob on any street, with Judge Lynch baying in the van. To rap on a door at night was to invite a blast through the door. Honest folk stayed home; at night the dogs were out.

The fact that most of the rumored discoveries of slugs were baseless made them no less dangerous. It was not exhibitionism which caused many people to prefer outright nudity to the tight and scanty clothing permitted under Schedule Sun Tan; even the skimpiest clothing invited a doubtful second look, a suspicion that might be decided too abruptly. The head-and-spine armor was never worn now; the slugs had faked it and used it almost at once.

That’s from Chapter XXIV of The Puppet Masters, the 1951 classic from Robert A. Heinlein.

It’s been a number of years since I last read the book – I think I read it prior to the release of the movie adaptation in 1994, but not since, so there were parts of the book which I didn’t remember. I had honestly forgotten that the alien invaders had come from Titan, for example – which is funny, since most of Communion of Dreams takes place there. And I forgot that Heinlein sets the book firmly in our current time – the first part of it is in July, 2007.

But what I hadn’t forgotten was the basic story line: alien invasion by quickly-reproducing “slugs” that can attach themselves to the human nervous system and completely control their hosts, using the full knowledge and abilities of those hosts. That made an impression on me when I first read the book in early adolescence. Scared the hell out of me.

What also made an impression was the above bit – the nudity. Hey, I was a hormone-soaked early teen. The idea of society quickly changing such that everyone would run around naked was . . . interesting.

When I re-read the book later (first semester of college at Grinnell – which so happened to be where the first bit of the book is set) and then again in advance of the movie, I just considered this bit to be part of Heinlein’s usual casual sexual tweaking of convention. It was no big deal, but I always just considered him of something of a ‘dirty old man’ who was looking for an excuse to get naked people into his books.

But now . . . well, I have to reconsider. He certainly nailed what people are like when frightened, and how that can have an impact on social mores. Consider my recent post about how willing some folks are to put up with the new security scanners and “enhanced pat downs,” and that’s just because of the *possibility* that these security procedures might make them marginally safer when flying. What if there was a massive threat which could be fought by shedding our clothes? People’d peel, and damned quickly.

So, Heinlein may indeed have just been something of a dirty old man. But he was also something of a prophet.

Jim Downey

A quick follow-up…
November 28, 2010, 10:11 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, Constitution, Politics, Privacy, Science, tech, Terrorism

…to yesterday’s post, in which I focused primarily on the civil liberties aspect of the latest TSA security procedures.

I am not competent to evaluate the technical or engineering safety of the equipment being used for full-body scanning. But this guy is:

I am a biochemist working in the field of biophysics. Specifically, the lab I work in (as well as many others) has spent the better part of the last decade working on the molecular mechanism of how mutations in the breast cancer susceptibility gene, BRCA2, result in cancer. The result of that work is that we now better understand that people who have a deficient BRCA2 gene are hypersensitive to DNA damage, which can be caused by a number of factors including: UV exposure, oxidative stress, improper chromosomal replication and segregation, and radiation exposure.

That’s the into to a post of his about the safety of one type of the new scanners. You should read the whole thing – it is well written for an intelligent lay person, though some of the technical stuff might be beyond your ken. It isn’t hyperbolic, but it is *very* sobering. Here’s the key paragraph which leapt out at me:

Furthermore, when making this comparison, the TSA and FDA are calculating that the dose is absorbed throughout the body. According the simulations performed by NIST, the relative absorption of the radiation is ~20-35-fold higher in the skin, breast, testes and thymus than the brain, or 7-12-fold higher than bone marrow. So a total body dose is misleading, because there is differential absorption in some tissues. Of particular concern is radiation exposure to the testes, which could result in infertility or birth defects, and breasts for women who might carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Even more alarming is that because the radiation energy is the same for all adults, children or infants, the relative absorbed dose is twice as high for small children and infants because they have a smaller body mass (both total and tissue specific) to distribute the dose. Alarmingly, the radiation dose to an infant’s testes and skeleton is 60-fold higher than the absorbed dose to an adult brain!

This isn’t the only serious assessment of this technology which has been critical – in fact, he is largely writing in reaction to the government’s effort to discredit a letter of concern about the technology from a group of scientists and doctors at the University of California at San Francisco. I think the procedures should be changed based purely on civil liberties concerns, as I have written previously. But when you add in the technical concerns, I think the need to stop the use of these procedures becomes even more apparent.

Jim Downey

Via BB – which prompted me to take the time and go read the whole post, though I had seen references to it elsewhere previously.

A “How To” manual?
November 27, 2010, 3:10 pm
Filed under: Book Conservation, Civil Rights, Constitution, MetaFilter, Politics, Privacy, Society, Terrorism

Many years ago, when I was just starting my book conservation practice and *very* hungry for business, a fellow came in looking to have some work done. He had a couple of books that he wanted rebound together “for convenience.”

I took one look at the titles, then flipped the books over and read a bit of the back cover. At a glance I could see that they were the worst sort of modern neo-nazi crap. I handed the books back to the guy and showed him the door.

* * * * * * *

I’ve been in something of a funk this week. No, it’s not my usual seasonal blues – not yet, anyway. Rather, it’s a reaction to having so many different things pending and beyond my ability to control or really much influence. I have invoices out that seem to have fallen into a bureaucratic black hole somewhere. I’m still waiting to finalize the book contract. The residual pain from the pneumonia I had this summer is still there, and while I have decided to just get on with life and get things done, it still is wearing. The publisher who would be a good fit to put out the care giving book still hasn’t bothered to respond to our proposal. That kind of stuff.

But there’s something more. A sense of alienation from the vast majority of Americans. The ones who seem to be willing to put up with the latest round of security theatre, as shown by polls, comments, and interviews.

* * * * * * *

His wife, Marti Hancock, 58, said that ever since she was in the air on Sept. 11, 2001, and feared there was a bomb on her plane, she has been fully supportive of stringent security: “If that’s what you have to do to keep us safe, that’s what you have to do.”

* * *

But people throwing around incredibly loaded terms like “police state” and “fascism” is ridiculous given that the actions shown in the video are clearly not part of TSA official regulations, an argument that’s made clear in the post itself. Let’s be real here.

* * *

Nearly two-thirds of Americans support the new full-body security-screening machines at the country’s airports, as most say they put higher priority on combating terrorism than protecting personal privacy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

* * * * * * *

Some folks say don’t blame the TSA agents who are stuck with doing this job – it’s a tough economy, and a secure job is a secure job. From the ‘front page’ of Daily Kos a few days ago:

But as you travel this holiday week, here’s something to keep in mind: The TSA screener monitoring the scanners, or touching your body, did not make the policy. They’re just doing their job, and not one they have a lot of control over:


Like it or not, there are soldiers in the field, and special ops trying to root out folks that want to put bombs on planes.

They aren’t with their families over the holidays. They are making sacrifices.

Yet when it comes to security checks at airports some Americans can’t stop whining.

Typical. Americans want to have their cake and eat it too.

If you see a TSA agent over your holiday travels, how about saying Thank You instead of f*** you.

* * * * * * *

A big part of the problem is with the psychological make-up of humans, which make us prone to falling into these kinds of roles. This has been documented time and again. Things like the Milgram Experiment, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, which show that most people will default to obeying authority even over their own moral code. From the Wiki article on the Milgram Experiment:

Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, “The Perils of Obedience”, writing:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.[3]

From the Stanford Prison Experiment homepage:

How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.

I feel like these sorts of studies, which I remember quite well from the 1970s, have been adopted as something of a “How To” manual by those who want to systematically destroy our heritage of freedom.

* * * * * * *

There are times I wonder whether anyone is paying attention.

But then, I come across a comment like this in one of these discussions:

When I use a term like “police state,” I do so specifically. I am not exaggerating when I say that, if we cannot travel within the country by bus, train or plane without undergoing a body search, we will be living in a police state. All authoritarian states restrict travel in similar manners. It’s a distinguishing characteristic. You don’t really see that implemented as policy outside of police states.

And when I say things like this, it gets attention and usually positive responses:

When people are scared, they’ll do things they normally wouldn’t.

Think about that. Who has been scaring the public? Who benefits from us losing our heads in fear?

And once rights are lost, they are damned hard to reclaim.

So, perhaps there is a growing awareness of the issues involved.

* * * * * * *

I don’t want to sound like some kind of conspiracy nut or libertarian crank. Sure, there are those who want to exploit any given situation for their own personal gain, and that is probably more than sufficient explanation for our slow slide away from our Constitutional freedoms. But it seems like the infringements that started with the “War on Drugs” and ramped up at the beginning of the “War on Terror” are coming even faster now. We’re accelerating somehow.

Dystopian science fiction was popular when I was growing up, and it lives on in the form of the popular Zombie genre. There are good reasons why I envisioned it as part of the background of Communion of Dreams. But it is just damned depressing to think that we actually have to live through it.

Jim Downey

There’s an obvious solution.
November 21, 2010, 12:37 pm
Filed under: Civil Rights, Failure, Government, Terrorism, Travel

No doubt, even if you don’t read my blog regularly and only pay minimal attention to the news, you’ve heard of the increasing aggravation and frustration over the new TSA security procedures. Even the President and Secretary of State have said that they find the procedures problematic:

WASHINGTON – Would Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton like to submit to one of those security pat-downs at airports?

“Not if I could avoid it. No. I mean who would?” she told CBS’ “Face the Nation” in an interview broadcast Sunday.

It’s bad enough that there are semi-organized efforts to jam the system on this Wednesday, expected to be the busiest day of the year for airports:

CHICAGO – As if air travel over the Thanksgiving holiday isn’t tough enough, it could be even worse this year: Airports could see even more disruptions because of a loosely organized Internet boycott of full-body scans.

Even if only a small percentage of passengers participate, experts say it could mean longer lines, bigger delays and hotter tempers.

But the procedures are “necessary”, as the head of the TSA just re-affirmed:

WASHINGTON – The head of the Transportation Security Administration on Sunday acknowledged that new full-body scanners and thorough pat-downs can be invasive and uncomfortable, but he said that the need to stay a step ahead of terrorists rules out changes in airport screening procedures.

John Pistole told CNN’s “State of the Union” that, despite the public uproar over new screening techniques, “we are not changing the policies” that he said were the best ways of keeping the traveling public safe. TSA screeners, he said, are “the last line of defense” in protecting air travelers.

* * *

“Clearly, if we are to detect terrorists who have proven innovative, creative in the design and implementation of bombs that are going to blow up airplanes and kill people, we have to do something to prevent that,” Pistole said.

Absolutely. Stopping terrorists from attacking our air travelers has to be placed above every other concern. But the new procedures won’t do that, as evil-doers could just conceal bomb components in their body cavities, as they have done before. No, this won’t suffice.

But there’s a simple, obvious solution which would eliminate the risk of any kind of terrorist destruction of airplanes: just stop people from flying. Shut down the whole system, within the US and incoming flights from other countries. That’s the only certain way to stop the attacks and thwart the diabolical plans of those who would want to harm us.

Jim Downey

To be touched by “water.”
November 18, 2010, 11:06 am
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Failure, Health, movies, Survival

There are over 150 posts here on my blog with the tag “Alzheimer’s.” That’s tens of thousands of words I have written about caring for Martha Sr and related issues. My co-author and I put together tens of thousands more into a book which we’re now trying to get published. And yet this short movie managed to convey what it is like to care for someone with a profound disability (which isn’t Alzheimer’s) and how that has an impact on everyone in the family:


Toby yearns for a life like any other eight-year-old kid. But his mentally disabled father is a constant reminder that life for Toby, will never be normal.

‘Water’ is a film about a young boy’s struggle to accept his fears, his mentally disabled father and his possible future duty.

It is an incredibly touching film, expertly done. Take the fifteen minutes or so and watch it. Though the description given doesn’t say so, I think you will find your life enriched and your day brightened in ways you will find surprising.

Jim Downey

Via MeFi.

Gets better and better.
November 16, 2010, 12:39 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, Failure, Government, Predictions, Privacy, Society, Travel

I haven’t written a lot about the most recent outrage over the “porno scanners” though it seems that my predictions almost a year ago are certainly coming true. And now the folks at Gizmodo have a nice addition to the mess:

One Hundred Naked Citizens: One Hundred Leaked Body Scans

At the heart of the controversy over “body scanners” is a promise: The images of our naked bodies will never be public. U.S. Marshals in a Florida Federal courthouse saved 35,000 images on their scanner. These are those images.

A Gizmodo investigation has revealed 100 of the photographs saved by the Gen 2 millimeter wave scanner from Brijot Imaging Systems, Inc., obtained by a FOIA request after it was recently revealed that U.S. Marshals operating the machine in the Orlando, Florida courthouse had improperly-perhaps illegally-saved images of the scans of public servants and private citizens.

* * *

Yet the leaking of these photographs demonstrates the security limitations of not just this particular machine, but millimeter wave and x-ray backscatter body scanners operated by federal employees in our courthouses and by TSA officers in airports across the country. That we can see these images today almost guarantees that others will be seeing similar images in the future. If you’re lucky, it might even be a picture of you or your family.

Something to look forward to from our fine friends at the TSA.

Jim Downey

Revenge is . . . sweet.
November 15, 2010, 1:27 pm
Filed under: Health, Humor, SCA, Survival

Sometimes hard work is more satisfying than other times:

That’s what I just did. It’s my form of getting even with the damned wood that just about killed me a year ago. Took two hours to split it all, using a maul and a star wedge. That’s not quite 5′ tall, about 10′ wide. And yeah, I hurt, and will probably hurt more later once I cool down.

But damn, that felt good.

Jim Downey

And, as an antidote…
November 12, 2010, 5:15 pm
Filed under: YouTube

…to my post earlier, here’s this:

There’s a weird Zen quality to watching it.

Jim Downey