Communion Of Dreams

Something to look forward to.
May 30, 2011, 11:22 am
Filed under: Bruce Schneier, Civil Rights, Failure, Health, Privacy, PZ Myers, Science, tech, Travel

I just took my blood pressure. Because of past problems with hypertension, I keep a pretty close eye on it. Here are three readings, using a very good automatic digital monitor:

  • 123/85
  • 121/88
  • 115/81

This is how they usually recommend doing it – taking several readings over the course of a few minutes, to help get a good sense of where your bp actually is since there are natural variations and just one reading can be misleading. And those numbers are pretty good – showing that my blood pressure is under control thanks to a combination of diet, exercise, and drugs.

Happily, my doctor trusts me to keep an eye on my bp, because whenever I go in to the clinic, my numbers jump. The readings above would probably be a good 20/10 points higher, if not a lot more. See, I have a mild case of “white coat syndrome”. I just dislike almost any kind of testing by strangers like that (one of the reasons I am happy to work on my own, in my own business, and on my own time).

I also hate traveling. Well, more accurately, I hate having to put up with the hassles and intrusion on my privacy that goes along with dealing with airport security. Flying is fine. So is driving around in a new place, seeing the sights, experiencing a new culture. But dealing with the TSA or any similar entity? Gah – I hate it with a passion.

And if the latest debacle of an idea to provide ‘security’ comes to pass, I’m probably going to hate it even more:

Terrorist ‘pre-crime’ detector field tested in United States

Planning a sojourn in the northeastern United States? You could soon be taking part in a novel security programme that can supposedly ‘sense’ whether you are planning to commit a crime.

Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programme designed to spot people who are intending to commit a terrorist act, has in the past few months completed its first round of field tests at an undisclosed location in the northeast, Nature has learned.

Like a lie detector, FAST measures a variety of physiological indicators, ranging from heart rate to the steadiness of a person’s gaze, to judge a subject’s state of mind. But there are major differences from the polygraph. FAST relies on non-contact sensors, so it can measure indicators as someone walks through a corridor at an airport, and it does not depend on active questioning of the subject.


Of course, scientists are skeptical:

Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a think-tank based in Washington DC that promotes the use of science in policy-making, is pessimistic about the FAST tests. He thinks that they will produce a large proportion of false positives, frequently tagging innocent people as potential terrorists and making the system unworkable in a busy airport. “I believe that the premise of this approach — that there is an identifiable physiological signature uniquely associated with malicious intent — is mistaken. To my knowledge, it has not been demonstrated,” he says. “Without it, the whole thing seems like a charade.”

As well they should be. Even the DHS spokesperson says that the FAST system was only “70% accurate” in lab tests. As PZ Myers notes:

Feeling anxious about the job interview you’re flying to? You will be strip-searched. Angry because the incompetent boob at the ticket counter bumped you from your flight? Your body cavities must be inspected. Steely in your resolve, forthright in your determination to strike the infidel? Welcome aboard!

More security theatre. Wonderful.

Jim Downey

Billions and billions.
May 29, 2011, 8:27 am
Filed under: Astronomy, Music, Science

No, not this:

But rather, this:

They’re starting to crawl up your trees now, and in the coming weeks, there are going to be billions — that’s with a “b” — of cicadas across the Midwest, mating and laying eggs on limbs.

And when the choir of 13-year cycle cicadas starts singing its mating song in unison, it might seem a little annoying, Bruce Barrett said. Rather than covering your ears and running for cover, though, Barrett encourages Columbians to sit back and enjoy the show.

“It’s one of those magical moments in nature,” said Barrett, a professor of entomology at the University of Missouri. “If you stop and think about it, this is really neat. Nature is elegant and sophisticatedly beautiful.”

* * * * * * *

It’s still early, but they’re already starting to sing. As I was working in the garden yesterday, you’d hear it start, building from the background buzz. Not the full chorus yet, just some warming up.

It’s interesting – the background buzz is very much like the slight ringing I have from tinnitus. So it is easy to ignore. But when they start to sing in unison, I notice.

* * * * * * *

The dog notices, too. He’s been distracted on our morning walks through the neighborhood. Not so much by the sound, as by the movement. For him, the cicadas are snacks-on-the-wing.

* * * * * * *

He’s not alone:

Just as Bubba Blue told Forrest Gump about shrimp in the classic movie, you can do just about anything with cicadas in the kitchen. You can boil ’em, fry ’em, bake ’em, saute ’em. You can make cicada pie, cicada wontons or cicada soup. Sprinkle some minced cicadas into your cereal. Or break out the blender, and you can quickly create a cicada smoothie or a fresh batch of cicada salsa.

Jenna Jadin of the University of Maryland Cicadamaniacs offers a Cicadalicious recipe for Emergence Cookies. “These should look like cicadas emerging out of a little pile of chunky mud!”

How about cicada-portobella quiche? Or “El Chirper” tacos?

* * * * * * *

With apologies to His Majesty:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for stars thou art, and unto stars shalt thou return.

Pizza, anyone?

Jim Downey

Music of the (Exploding) Spheres
May 26, 2011, 10:35 am
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Music, Science


From April, 2003 until August, 2006, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope watched four parts of the sky as often as possible. Armed with the largest digital camera in the known universe, CFHT monitored these four fields for a special type of supernova (called Type Ia) which are created by the thermonuclear detonation of one or more white-dwarf stars. These explosions are extremely energetic, and can be seen across vast distances in space.

The resulting 241 Type 1a supernova which were documented were then assigned a musical note, according to distance, duration, and intensity. A delightful little ‘sonata’ was the result:

It may seem a bit silly to do this, assigning an arbitrary note to such data. But I think it helps non-scientists appreciate some aspect of the research and what it means. No, don’t take the whole thing literally, or even very seriously – but rejoice in this artistic interpretation of the wonder of the universe.

Jim Downey

What goes around . . .
May 24, 2011, 3:18 pm
Filed under: NPR, Science, YouTube

Ah, this is truly delightful:

Full information and background from Robert Krulwich.

Jim Downey

The future is indeed here.
May 20, 2011, 3:41 pm
Filed under: Amazon, Failure, Jeff Bezos, Kindle, Marketing, Predictions, Publishing

News item of interest today:

Kindle Books Outsell Print Books on Amazon

* * *
Before the Kindle, Amazon started selling traditional paper books in July 1995. But now, Amazon has announced that Kindle books are outselling paperbacks and hardcovers.

Since April 1, Amazon has sold 105 Kindle books for every 100 print books sold. These numbers include books that have no Kindle edition. Also, for all of 2011 so far, Amazon has had the fastest year-over-year growth rate for its books business due to the overwhelming Kindle sales and steady print book sales.

* * *

“Customers are now choosing Kindle books more often than print books,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO. “We had high hopes that this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly – we’ve been selling print books for 15 years and Kindle books for less than four years.

When the Kindle first came out, I was *very* skeptical that it would replace conventionally printed books. Here’s what I said in November 2007:

I think it is still a hard sell. $400 is a chunk for something which only kinda-sorta replaces a real book. And if you drop it in the mud, it isn’t just $7.95 to buy a new copy. But it does seem to be an intelligent application of the relevant tech, and sounds intriguing. There will be those who snap it up, just ’cause – but Amazon has a long way to go before it is mainstream.

That’s my guess.

Well, I was wrong, and Jeff Bezos was right. Well, sorta.

The Kindle 3, which came out last summer, is a lot different than the original Kindle. It’s smaller. Lighter. Works better. And costs less than half what the original did. In fact, just yesterday I ordered one for $189.

Yeah, let me repeat that: I ordered a Kindle yesterday.

I had been doing research into the e-reader in preparation for publishing Her Final Year and part of that preparation was going out and playing with the latest version of the Kindle at a local store. I’ll be honest, I was flat-out impressed with the current machine.

As I’ve noted before, I’m a ‘late adopter’ of technology, always willing to wait for things to mature enough that the bugs are worked out and the price comes down. And I’m also a professional bookbinder & book conservator. When *I* am willing to buy an e-reader, then things have changed. As I said 18 years ago:

For me, the book is a codex, something that you can hold in your hand and read. From the earliest memories of my science fiction saturated youth, I remember books becoming obsolete in the future, replaced by one dream or another of “readers”, “scanners”, or even embedded text files linked directly to the brain. Some say ours is a post-literate culture, with all the books-on-tape, video, and interactive media technology. I think I read somewhere recently that Sony (or Toshiba or Panasonic or someone) had finally come up with a hand-held, book-sized computer screen that can accommodate a large number of books on CD ROM. Maybe the future is here.

Maybe. Lord knows that I would be lost without a computer for all my writing, revisions, and play. The floppy drive that is in this book was taken from my old computer (my first computer) when a friend installed a hard drive. It is, in many ways, part of my history, part of my time at Iowa, and all the changing that I did there.

Yeah, the future is indeed here. Mine should arrive the first of next week.

Jim Downey

An old, blind cat.
May 14, 2011, 10:33 am
Filed under: Health

She showed up 17 years ago, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, all mouth with a little skin and bones thrown in.

* * * * * * *

We call her “Her Majesty” now. Partly, a play on her name (she was named after Eleanor of Aquitaine, due to her feistiness if not her intelligence), and partly just because as she has gotten older, she has taken on a regal bearing which demanded certain sacrifices from her human servants. Like being fed *only* canned food. In small servings, so she doesn’t upset her delicate tummy. About once an hour, or as often as she can manage it.

She’s also become more, um, casual about her litterbox habits. My wife and I have become more adept at finding her little surprises. We’ve had to.

* * * * * * *

A couple of weeks ago, we first noticed something was wrong. Her Maj likes to curl up on my wife’s lap whenever she can, which is usually possible while my wife is working at the computer. And following dinner, when we’re watching a movie or something.

Anyway, she came into the living room, where we were on the couch, and wanted to jump up into my lap. This is somewhat unusual. The fact that she jumped headlong into the small lap table I was using was even moreso. And she was clearly disturbed by this, to the point where she didn’t even pull the usual feline “I meant to do that” routine.

Later, we noticed her navigating by whisker through the kitchen. And bumping into chairs moved slightly from their usual place.

* * * * * * *

“So, stroke?” I asked the vet. I love our vet. He only makes house calls. When necessary, he uses a surgical suite after hours at one of the local animal hospitals. He’s smart, personable, sensible.

He was sitting on our kitchen floor, holding Eleanor, checking pupil dilation and all her other vitals. He’d done this as part of a routine exam just a few weeks previously. “Probably. When did you first notice something was wrong?”

I told him about the incident with the lap table. And that she had a day a couple before that when she was lethargic and uninterested in food.

He nodded. “Probably, though she isn’t showing some of the classic symptoms of a stroke. It could also be a brain tumor or some kind of lesion. We could schedule her for a MRI, find out for sure.”

He looked at my wife and I. We looked at each other.

* * * * * * *

She showed up 17 years ago, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, all mouth with a little skin and bones thrown in. That memory flashed to me as I saw her there in his gentle hands.

“I don’t think we need to put her through that,” I said.

“Yeah, I’d only recommend it if you guys needed to ‘do everything for her’ for your own peace of mind. In the end, it really wouldn’t make much difference in either treatment or outcome. At her age, surgery to remove a tumor probably isn’t the best idea, and any cancer treatments wouldn’t help extend her life much.”

“We just want her quality of life to be as good as possible, for as long as makes sense,” said my wife.

The vet nodded again. “She’ll probably do OK for a while. She may recover her sight to some extent – cats are more resilient than people when it comes to such things. A baby aspirin every three days will help if there is a small clot which caused a stroke, and won’t hurt otherwise.”

“And we should expect more strokes down the line,” I said.

“Yeah. Probably.” He scritched her ears, popped a baby aspirin down her throat. He made it look easy. Then he let her go. “Don’t move the furniture around too much on her.”

* * * * * * *

Jim Downey

To hold it, in your hands . . .
May 13, 2011, 11:21 am
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, Publishing

My wife and I have been doing some work for a friend who has put together a miscellany – a collection of texts and images which he finds worthy, and which all inter-relate in some interesting ways. It’s been a fun project, working to design the layout and format of the final book, doing editing and so forth. It’s been a project which has been some months in the making.

Just now I finished running through a printer’s proof, showing how all the pages go together in the proper sequence so the thing can be properly sewn in sections, then bound – work I will take joy in doing. This is a fairly straight-forward matter, but you do have to check it, page by page and section by section, to make sure it was done correctly. It was, and now the proof is back off to the printer.

And it was wonderful to hold that proto-book in my hands. Wonderful, and a little wistful.

Wonderful, because while most of the actual work has been done already, it just didn’t seem entirely “real” until I had those pages in my hands, was able to flip through them, handle the physical artifact. It’s another example of turning a dream into a reality.

Wistful, because of the frustrating delays in getting my novel to the same point. And something of the sense that the caregiving book will not seem entirely real when it is just in an electronic format. I’m a bookbinder, used to handling books as artifacts, some of them centuries old, so I suppose it goes with the territory. A bias in my reality.

Jim Downey

May 9, 2011, 2:26 pm
Filed under: Ballistics, Science

Just thought I’d post a link to the BBTI blog post I just wrote, with a lot of images from last week’s long series of testing.


Jim Downey

“You must think in Cat.”*

So, the massive ballistics testing is done. Most everything has been cleaned up and put away. My head has stopped throbbing from the repeated low-level concussion of firing over 7,000 rounds of ammo, much of it very powerful and from very short barrels. Now it’s time to see if I can get my attention shifted over to all the other stuff I’ve ignored for the last couple of weeks.

Like this wonderful glimpse of the future here now:

I think it says something – a lot, actually – about the state of the world today that some of the first applications of functional brainwave-controlled mechanisms would show up in this kind of consumer product rather than a military application. It’s not the first such toy, either. Which isn’t to say that DARPA or some similar organization hasn’t been experimenting with such tech, but still.

Again and again, I am surprised at how quickly some of the predictions from fiction (including my own) are coming to be actuality. But that’s just the nature of the beast – what you think is going to happen later happens sooner, what you think is going to happen sooner sometimes doesn’t happen at all.

Related, I’ve just about given up on ever getting a straight answer from Trapdoor about if/when Communion of Dreams is actually going to be published. I’ll worry about it after I see to getting Her Final Year out. Some things I can control with brainwaves (indirectly), some things I cannot.

Jim Downey

*This, of course.

Getting through it.
May 3, 2011, 7:22 am
Filed under: Ballistics

Madness. It was madness to think we could get all of this done.

I’m talking about doing over 6,000 rounds for the gap testing, then chop tests on three other cartridges, along with some associated 30 “real world guns” all in a week. We’ll probably get the gap testing done, but that will likely be all.

Still, we’ve got 2,500 rounds done already, and some interesting information is emerging. More later when I’ve had a chance to catch my breath – been something of a marathon.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted from the BBTI blog.)