Communion Of Dreams

You are going to die.
December 31, 2011, 9:35 am
Filed under: Health, Hospice, Survival

A good friend posted this to her Facebook status:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Recognize that? It’s from Steve Jobs.

Now, I’m not a Jobs fanboy. I’m not that big into Apple products. But at least in this regard, I think that Jobs had the right perspective. Your time here is limited. You are going to die. We all die. Live your life on your terms insofar as possible.

Jobs, by all reports, tried to hang onto life with all of the resources available to a billionaire, including a liver transplant and experimental treatments. I hope that he found the quality of life he had in the last years of his life satisfactory, on his terms.

Not a choice I would make. Nor, it seems, would it be the choice for most doctors:

Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

The whole article is worth reading.

I don’t mean to be morbid, here at the end of the year. Usually, this is a time set aside for celebration – either for celebrating a good year past, or celebrating the hope of the new year to come. So talking about death may be a bit ‘of a downer’, to use a phrase more popular when I was a young man. But I think it is important to be honest with ourselves that our time is limited, and we should make the most of it on our own terms.

Happy New Year.

Jim Downey

Eight years.
December 28, 2011, 3:07 pm
Filed under: Art, Blade Runner, movies, Philip K. Dick, Predictions, Ridley Scott, Science Fiction, tech

My, my, my. Hit the mother lode: Future Noir.

Just one of the gems there is the Blade Runner Sketchbook.

Less than 8 years to go.

Jim Downey

Via Mefi.

“You got a license for that, bub?”
December 26, 2011, 1:28 pm
Filed under: General Musings, Humor, Mark Twain, Religion, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Writing stuff

Hold onto your hats: I’m about to say something nice about religion.

Don’t worry, I promise not to over-do it.

* * * * * * *

I don’t watch TV, but I have seen enough clips of the stand-up comic Louis C.K. online to be something of a fan of his stuff. News about his recent self-distributed, no DRM concert show raising over a million dollars in a matter or days brought him back to attention recently. And it was while reading about that massive success that I found an interesting essay that got me to thinking about some other things.

That essay is “Louis CK’s Shameful Dirty Comedy” and I recommend you read the whole thing when you get a chance. It’s an interesting exploration of this moment in our cultural history, and is quite insightful. But what in particular got me thinking along different lines was this bit about the nature of Louis C.K.’s comedy style:

Someone once asked Allen Ginsberg how one becomes a prophet, and he simply replied, “Tell your secrets.” Lewis Hyde’s done a bit of writing on shame in his book Trickster Makes This World, and he says that “Uncovering secrets is apocalyptic in the simple sense (the Greek root means ‘an uncovering’). In this case, it lifts the shame covers. It allows articulation to enter where silence once ruled.” CK’s comedy does the job of finger-placing our dirty, shameful thoughts. It doesn’t validate them, but it does recognize and identify them, and in their airing, we have to consider and deal with the lines that separate how we are expected to behave and think, and the shameful dirt of this world.

* * * * * * *

Shame. A staple of religion. Has been for the bulk of whatever passed for human civilization at any point in our history.

I don’t particularly want to write about shame. Not now, at least. But I want to touch on something related to it, which I have had kicking around in my head for a couple of years*, and which I think deserves a little attention. It’s called “moral license.”

What do I mean by “moral license”? Here’s a good discussion of the term, in light of some studies conducted a couple of years ago:

Sachdeva suggests that the choice to behave morally is a balancing act between the desire to do good and the costs of doing so – be they time, effort or (in the case of giving to charities) actual financial costs. The point at which these balance is set by our own sense of self-worth. Tip the scales by threatening our saintly personas and we become more likely to behave selflessly to cleanse our tarnished perception. Do the opposite, and our bolstered moral identity slackens our commitment, giving us a license to act immorally. Having established our persona as a do-gooder, we feel less impetus to bear the costs of future moral actions.

It’s a fascinating idea. It implies both that we have a sort of moral thermostat, and that it’s possible for us to feel “too moral”. Rather than a black-and-white world of heroes and villains, Sachdeva paints a picture of a world full of “saintly sinners and sinning saints”.

This is intuitively true to me. And, I think, to most of us. We formulate a mental “bank”, which allows us to make trade-offs: if I work out a bunch at the gym this morning, this evening I can have an extra serving of ice cream. If I scrimp by taking lunch each day rather than buying it from the corner cafe, then I can indulge myself with that new Kindle. If I spend time playing with the kids on Saturday, I can kick back and watch the game on Sunday. And so on.

Much of our whole modern culture is predicated on this kind of trade-off, this kind of license. Studies have even shown the impact it has on how we behave environmentally, or in making decisions to donate to charity, or how we interact with others.

One interesting aspect of this is the danger of praise, whether it be external or internal. From the “General Discussion” conclusion of the aforementioned study:

In three experiments, we found that priming people with positive and negative traits strongly affected moral behavior. We contend that these primes led participants to feel morally licensed or debased. To compensate for these departures from a normal state of being, they behaved either less morally (moral licensing) or more morally (moral cleansing). We measured moral behavior by soliciting donations to charities and and by looking at cooperative behavior in an environmental decision-making context. In Experiment 2, we also showed that moral behavior or the lack thereof is related to changes in how individuals perceive themselves. Participants showed the moral-cleansing or -licensing effects only when they wrote about themselves, and not when they wrote about other people.

* * * * * * *

And here is where religion enters the picture, in two ways.

The first is the “moral cleansing” aspect: doing penance for some kind of moral wrong. This can take the form of confession & saying the rosary, or going on a pilgrimage, or paying a fine, or even a literal rite of cleansing such as washing away sins in the Ganges or through baptism.

The other way gets back to where we started: shame. Many religions inculcate a belief that the individual is “not worthy” of whatever grace or blessing the religion has to offer. Promoting such a belief would tend to offset the ‘credit’ in your moral bank, and so reduce the tendency towards moral license.

* * * * * * *

Of course, you don’t have to be religious to draw this moral lesson. Mark Twain’s famous The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg story deals with this exact issue: people who think that they are moral, who have led moral lives, are willing to exercise the moral license which would allow them to claim a fortune they haven’t earned. It is only after they have had their moral failings put on display that they learn the danger of thinking of themselves incorruptible, and then seek to challenge this assumption of themselves regularly.

* * * * * * *

And I think that this insight explains a phenomenon widely recognized in association with religious leaders. It seems that often, those who have the greatest religious ‘power’ – who hold high offices within a church or other such organization, who are some kind of ‘moral authority’ for their followers – are people who have great moral failings behind the scenes. It may come directly from a rationalization: “I’m a good person, therefore while what I am doing may raise some moral questions, my intent is good.” It may come from the moral licensing effect: “I accomplish great good for others, so it’s OK if I lapse a bit in this one small way.” Or it may even come from an unconscious attitude, as noted by one of the above authors:

When I read about these effects, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ warning about giving to the needy:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Of course, it could work the other direction just as well – that since these people have these moral failings, they try and “do good work” to right the scales in their mind. And chances are, it’s a mixture of both – a feedback loop that encourages and reinforces both a moral failing and attempts to compensate for it.

* * * * * * *

See? I told you I wouldn’t over-do it. Gotta balance these things out, after all.

Jim Downey

*There’s actually a lot of this stuff kicking around in the undertones of Communion of Dreams, though manifest in terms of philosophical discussions of ontology and epistemology. Yeah, it’s something I have been interested in for a long time. And I guess that makes the joke on me, since the whole question of the book ‘being made manifest’ has been such a contentious one for going on five years now . . .

As the days grow longer.
December 24, 2011, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Art, Depression, Failure, General Musings, Health, Migraine, Predictions, Survival

“So, how’re you doing?”

It’s the sort of question which comes after all the preliminary stuff, all the catching-up with an old friend who I haven’t seen in a couple of years. Your best friends are like that: able to ask the same question that everyone asks, but have it mean something more.

* * * * * * *

This morning I woke up, not hurting.

This was unexpected. Yesterday had been a long day, and I hurt a lot. The source of the pain was just a minor case of post-nasal drip. No, that didn’t hurt. But it caused me to do a fair amount of coughing. That’s what hurt. Yeah, because of the torn intercostal muscle high on my right side, which feels like a broken rib. The one I’ve had for about 16 months now.

So I expected to hurt. In fact, most of the time I expect to hurt.

Chronic pain is different than short-term pain. Oh, I’ve broken plenty of bones, and know what it means to *really* hurt for days, and then to ache for weeks. For a couple of decades now I’ve had a knee which can cause an immense amount of pain if I subject it to the wrong kind of use, and that pain will remain intense for a week or so. Pain is no stranger in my life. Never has been.

But chronic pain, that’s different, as I’ve come to learn. It almost takes on a physical weight, which you have to carry around. That wears you out, sometimes sooner in the day, sometimes later. It functions like a restraint you have to strain against to accomplish anything. It’s like having a migraine – a full fledged, nausea-inducing, sparkly lights & mild vertigo migraine – and still having to drive over an icy road into the sun.

* * * * * * *

My garden still hasn’t been put to bed for the year. Yeah, it’s really late.

It’s just one manifestation of how this year has gone. Everything has taken longer than I expected, cost more than I thought it would, and didn’t work out quite the way I hoped it to.

Partly this is due to the chronic pain. Partly it is due to mistakes on my part. Partly it is just because of chance. By turns this has made me depressed, disappointed, disgusted. Sometimes even on the brink of despair.

And yet…

* * * * * * *

“So, how’re you doing?”

It’s the sort of question which comes after all the preliminary stuff, all the catching-up with an old friend who I haven’t seen in a couple of years. Your best friends are like that: able to ask the same question that everyone asks, but have it mean something more. I am fortunate enough to have several such close friends.

“It’s been a long year. And not a good one.” I looked at my friend. She nodded. “But I’ve had worse. And I’ve had an idea about a new story I want to tell…”

Jim Downey

Very nice.
December 23, 2011, 10:32 am
Filed under: Society

This link comes and goes – probably gets swamped from time to time. But if you have a chance, check it out:

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: they’re taking the choir to Isengard!*
December 20, 2011, 12:48 pm
Filed under: movies, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Tolkien, Travel, YouTube

Today is cloudy and a bit grim. No, I’m not talking about being in New Zealand. I’m talking about here, in mid-Missouri. The winter solstice is just a couple days away. And I think I have been putting off this last installment of our New Zealand adventure because I don’t really want it to be over. It was, after all, a far green country.

* * * * * * *

We had breakfast, then waited with other members of the group who were going on a bit of a private tour. No, nothing connected with the Choir. This was a LOTR tour.

Most of my friends and readers will understand exactly what that means. But just in case . . .

Lord Of The Rings was a three-movie adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s epic of the same name. Most people know that it was filmed in New Zealand by director Peter Jackson. And as a result, there is lots of LOTR-related tourism throughout the country. You can easily spend weeks in New Zealand, just doing that. There’s a great book on locations from the movies, if you’re interested.

We opted for occasional mentions from Helen, our Choir guide, combined with this 4 hour specific tour with Pure Glenorchy.

The vehicles rolled up. Four medium-sized SUVs. The drivers/guides were all pleasant, typical Kiwis. We had some laughs over the absurdity of our fandom for the movies/books. But hey, this was probably the only time we were going to make it to New Zealand, right? And where else would you get to:

Visit Lord of the Rings Locations and take a journey with us deep into Middle Earth. Explore Isengard, Wizards Vale, Lothlorien Forest, the Dead Marshes, The Misty Mountains, Ithilien and many more. Stories and secrets will be shared by guides who have a great insight into the filming.

* * * * * * *

We rolled down the highway, heading towards the hamlet of Glenorchy. This is a place about 45km from Queenstown, and is so small it has no police force, two pubs, and a “library” the size of a garden shed which is open two hours a week. When the weather is nice. No, I am not kidding. The Queenstown folk consider it something of a hippie retirement community.

It is also quite beautiful. Here’s a shot looking towards Glenorchy from the highway leading in:

* * * * * * *

As it happened, the driver of our SUV was Mark, the owner of the tour company. Young (late 20s/early 30s), outgoing, and well informed. He knew the locations and a lot of the history of the films quite well, and had fun telling us about related stories. How many people took time off from their regular jobs to go play extras in the films, since the pay was good, they were well fed, and got to be outdoors. How the caterers learned to feed the extras playing Orcs separately from the rest of the crew, since said extras tended to run roughshod over the food like the characters they portrayed. How the local rancher who owned a lot of the property where the filming was done managed to make a tidy profit off licensing his land for use, and so build quite the little odd mansion in the middle of nowhere. And so on.

We stopped first here:

From the best I can tell, we’re standing just about where the tower of Orthanc was in the movies.

And here’s a shot of the current filming for The Hobbit:

Yeah, you can’t really see much. Sorry. But you didn’t see it here first.

* * * * * * *

We next went into the Mount Aspiring National Park, a primeval red beech forest. The location is protected such that it is illegal to take anything out of the park, or to leave anything in it, for environmental reasons.

Which presented some real challenges for the film crews which filmed the scenes with the attack of the Uruk-hai and the death of Boromir, according to our guides. But we saw where Boromir died, then had a pleasant lunch.

Following that, it was back to Queenstown.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off things at the hotel room, Martha and I decided to go up the gondola and enjoy the sights. Here are some pictures:

* * * * * * *

After tromping around Queenstown just a bit following our trip up the gondola, we got back to the hotel in time to meet the rest of the group for our last adventure: taking the TSS Earnslaw across Lake Wakatipu to the Walter Peak High Country Farm.

The steam ship is about to celebrate its centenary, and is a delight to explore for anyone who appreciates old machinery. The trip across the lake was about just long enough to enjoy a pint of beer.

Dinner at the Walter Peak High Country Farm was quite enjoyable, and the view of Queenstown across the lake at sunset gorgeous. The display of “working” dogs and sheep sheering was of little interest to me. I’ve seen both done before, and better, and not at the end of a long trip when I was both tired but not really wanting to leave yet. I decided to forgo another beer on the return trip across the lake.

* * * * * * *

When we got back, there was a final gathering in the hotel dining room for all of us on the tour. A bittersweet farewell not just because the tour was coming to a close, but also because the Choir was going into a period of dormancy. It had a good 10-year run, but now many of the key participants wanted a break. There’s nothing wrong with honest sadness at the close of any adventure, and not all tears are an evil.

* * * * * * *

The trip home was uneventful, less unpleasant than it could have been, even though it was incredibly long. I think that Monday for us was some 42 or 43 hours altogether, until we finally made it in the door and back to life as we know it.

Jim Downey

* From this, of course. Which kept running through my head the whole time we were in that beautiful valley where Isengard was located:

Bullets of light. And the other sort.
December 13, 2011, 11:28 am
Filed under: Ballistics, Guns, Science, tech, YouTube

Wow: a milimeter-long pulse of laser light caught with a camera taking images at a trillion frames per second.

Description from the site:

Volumetric Propagation: The pulse of light is less than a milimeter long. Between each frame, the pulse travels less than half a milimeter. Light travels a foot in a nanosecond and the duration of travel through a one foot long bottle is barely one nanosecond (one billiongth of a second).

There’s complete description of how they do this, along with other videos and images of this effect, there at the MIT site. To see a bunch of great high speed video of actual bullets, check out the work done by Brass Fetcher.

Jim Downey

Via MeFi. Cross posted to the BBTI blog.

Scenes from a trip: beyond standing room only.
December 12, 2011, 9:11 am
Filed under: Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

The cold made the clouds that much more threatening. And sure enough, we had snow as we headed into the Southern Alps.

* * * * * * *

Dunedin is on the Eastern shore of the South Island. We headed almost due west towards Queenstown, which is on Lake Wakatipu, just a little ways inland from the West Coast, on the lee side of the bulk of the mountains. Getting there means winding on a lot of mountain roads, all of it through beautiful country. I was glad I wasn’t driving and could just enjoy the scenery (and not worry about road conditions).

We stopped at the small town of Arrowtown, an old gold-mining community not that far outside of Queenstown. It’s now mostly a tourist/vacation destination, and they’ve done a lot to maintain the historic feeling of the place. Many of the buildings date back to the early days of the town (mid-late 1800s), and there’s a ton of great little shops and restaurants/bars there.

* * * * * * *

I had been waiting to get to Arrowtown for one primary reason: Pounamu, the New Zealand nephrite jade which is also colloquially called ‘greenstone’. I mentioned that I had been on the lookout for some of this stone while in Dunedin. But Helen (our tour-guide) had said that Arrowtown was one of the best places to get the stone, and jewelry/art created from it.

I wanted a couple of pieces of jewelry as gifts. But I also wanted a rougher piece for my own, to fashion into a tool.

Pounamu was highly prized by the Maori for use in making tools and weapons. For generations it was fashioned into chisels, axes, and adzes. While I very much appreciated the beauty of the many pieces of art I had seen created using Pounamu, for me the most memorable souvenir of the trip would be a bookbinding tool called a ‘folder’ made of greenstone. I didn’t expect to find one ready-made, but rather to find a piece of the stone which I could shape to my own use.

And I did. It’s about 5″ long, roughly an inch tall and an inch wide, slightly tapered towards the ends. One side is already highly polished, the others relatively smooth. I’ve already used it as is, and need to spend some more time with it before I decide whether it needs more shaping or not.

Another good thing – while a small piece of greenstone fashioned into jewelry can be quite expensive, this large and relatively unworked piece was about $25. The perfect memento of the trip, as far as I’m concerned.

* * * * * * *

After doing our shopping, Martha and I settled into a nice little cafe and had a late lunch. The weather had mostly cleared off, and it was a pleasant time just sitting there and relaxing before rejoining the rest of the tour group.

* * * * * * *

We made one last stop on the way into Queenstown, at the Kawarau River bridge. It’s a gorgeous place, and also the first commercial bungee-jumping operation. No, I did not jump. Over 50 + over-weight + high blood pressure = bad idea to seek out high-G forces for fun. I’ve gone sky diving and done other crazy things when I was younger, and am happy to enjoy those memories as memories.

* * * * * * *

Queenstown is a lovely place. The city is well known as New Zealand’s center for adventure tourism. Its location on the edge of the Southern Alps means that it is well positioned for skiing, jet-boats, white-water rafting, and so forth, not to mention such mundane activities as hunting and fishing. It very much has the feeling of being a university town, say like Boulder CO, though there isn’t a university there.

We rolled into town, got to our hotel, located right on the lakefront. Got settled, then did a bit of exploring in the downtown area (which is quite small – just a few blocks total.) The choir had a rehearsal.

* * * * * * *

ML and I went over to where the choir was rehearsing, to get set up to sell CDs. It was a small but very warm & friendly church by the name of St. Peter’s. It was clear from the outset that the local Welsh community had gotten the word out about the performance, and a number of the church members were there to help us get settled into place.

This was to be the “farewell” concert for the tour. We couldn’t have asked for a better venue or crowd. The space was small enough that it felt very intimate. And it was packed to the gills. All the pews were filled. Extra chairs were put in the aisles. People crowded in the back, standing. One of the church members had to actually put a sign on the door announcing that the church was over-filled, and no one else would be admitted.

Not only was the space full, but the crowd was very enthusiastic, both with their applause and with their participation. I swear, the Welsh must have an extra gene which compels them to sing at any opportunity. That church was bursting with sound and love.

And we sold a bunch of CDs.

* * * * * * *

Following the concert, the choir was hosted to an informal reception in the church meeting hall. Refreshments and good company were served and savored.

I was exhausted as we walked the couple of blocks back to the hotel. Nonetheless, we stopped for a bit and enjoyed the fireworks being set off on the lakefront. It was Guy Fawkes Night.

Tomorrow would be our last full day in New Zealand.

Jim Downey

December 12, 2011, 8:29 am
Filed under: Music, YouTube

Jim Downey

OK, thanks.
December 9, 2011, 11:43 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Ballistics, Guns

(Cross posted from the BBTI blog.)

I had a bit of a temper tantrum the other day. I won’t apologize, because it was how I really felt. But I will say that a couple of things have happened which have helped me get past my grumpiness.

And those couple of things have been donations. Both of them were decided votes of confidence that our work on BBTI is valued, all our time and effort appreciated.

This may seem silly, because OF COURSE our site is appreciated. Except . . . well, I pretty regularly get emails or come across comments on forums which are complaints. Yup: complaints. That we didn’t test a particular ammo. Or that we’ve slighted some brand or model of firearm by not including it in our tests. Or that we haven’t put our data into this or that form of file so that people can just download it. Or that our data isn’t perfect – that we’ve made mistakes. Or that we haven’t conducted rifle cartridge tests. Et cetera.

It gets old. It gets a little demoralizing, to be honest. The sense of entitlement which some people have is pretty amazing – we’ve busted our asses, worked hard and incurred all the costs of conducting the tests as well as creating and hosting the data on our website, and people bitch because the data isn’t up to *their* standards or expectations. It is very much like we owe it to them to do exactly what they want, and right now.

I don’t mind the criticism. I don’t mind people pointing out where there are areas where we could improve our procedures or range of items tested. We fully recognize that there are more things we could do, ways we can make the data better. And we welcome suggestions on what particular improvements people would like to see – that helps us to make decisions about what is important enough to sink another big chunk of time, money and energy investigating. This isn’t a full-time job for us, after all.

So when I get a note from someone saying “thanks, and oh, have you thought about this…” I welcome it. When someone sends us a donation – of any size – that is a tangible statement that they think our efforts are worthy of supporting. And if someone does send a donation, along with this kind of message, it really means something:

I have used your website for the past two years as a reference tool, and I find the data available amazing. Thank you for putting all of that information together. I was able to donate $x.xx today and I hope the rest of your viewing public gets it and drops you a few dollars as well.

I am sure there is a tremendous personal expense involved in the guns and ammunition used, and I get that you use your personal guns.

Glocks are obviously absent from your data set. I get that you cannot test everything, however with the enormous amount of Glocks in the public, it would seem prudent to at least have one in each caliber and I am positive with your connections they could be provided to you for testing.

You can also just tell me to buzz off… 😉

Thanks again for the awesome data.

Now, *that* is how you make a suggestion which will be remembered.

So, thanks to those who have sent thanks, as well as the donations. It really does mean a lot.

Jim Downey