Communion Of Dreams

“Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.”*

When you see news like this in the mainstream press…

Rogue Cell Towers Could Be Intercepting Your Call

It seems rather far fetched at first glance. There is news that came out last week that rogue cell phone towers around the US are forcing mobile devices to disable their encryption making it possible that someone might be able to listen in to your call. “That could never happen to me,” you think out loud. But, apparently it could.

In 2010 at the DEF CON in Las Vegas, security researcher Chris Paget did the unthinkable. He built a cell tower of his own so that he could spoof legitimate towers and intercept calls.The device would mimic the type used by law enforcement agencies to intercept phone calls. In this case, he was able to build it for roughly $1500 US. Paget’s device would only capture 2G GSM phone calls. Carriers such as AT&TT -0.06% and T-Mobile would be vulnerable as they use GSM, unlike Verizon which relies on CDMA technology.

… it’s easy to feel a little paranoid. But is this a real threat? Has anyone actually seen things like this ‘in the wild’?


Rogue ‘Cell Towers’ Can Intercept Your Data; At Least One Found In Chicago

So-called rogue cell phone towers, the type that can intercept your mobile calls and data, are cropping up all over the United States, including here in Chicago, according to a company that specializes in developing highly secure mobile phones.

* * *

CBS 2 security analyst Ross Rice, a former FBI agent, said it’s likely being used illegally.

“I doubt that they are installed by law enforcement as they require a warrant to intercept conversations or data and since the cell providers are ordered by the court to cooperate with the intercept, there really would be no need for this,” Rice said.

“Most likely, they are installed and operated by hackers, trying to steal personal identification and passwords.”

Great. Just great.

Well, what can you do? There are some smart phones out there which are designed to thwart this kind of security threat. And I’ve mentioned another option previously. And now there’s a company with a whole line of clothing based on similar RF-blocking technology:

Kickstarting a line of Orwell-inspired clothes with radio-shielding pockets

“The 1984 Collection” is a line of clothing for men and women with removable, snap-in pockets that act as radio-shields for slipping your devices and tokens (cards, phones, etc) into to stop them from being read when you’re not using them.

Hmm … let’s see, there’s a passage from Chapter One of St Cybi’s Well that comes to mind:

Darnell stepped close to her, said in a low voice, “Give me your hand-held.”

She looked at him, raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I don’t want to make it too easy for anyone to listen in.”

“Really, Dar, or is this some kind of joke?”


She looked him in the eye, pulled her phone out of her small purse, held it out to him. “Here.”

“Either turn it off or put it into offline mode.”

She fiddled with it a moment then handed it over. He took it and dropped it into the RF-blocking pocket in his satchel. “Thanks.”

“Couldn’t I just have turned it off?”

“Nope. They can still turn it on remotely and activate the mic. This pocket,” he patted the satchel where he had put the phone, “blocks the signal. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good protection.”

I guess I need to get back into the habit of using my RF-shielding pocket.


Jim Downey

*Philip K. Dick, of course.


Artists lead the way.

One of my favorite characters in Communion of Dreams is the artist Duc Ng. Here’s the description of him when he is introduced in Chapter 2:

Duc Ng was an artist. A holo sculptor, whose specialty was slow-progression transformations. The works were beautiful, inspired, and appreciated by almost anyone who saw them. Ng had jacked-up cyberware to heighten his sensitivity, and used psychotropic drugs tailored to cause neurotransmitter activity to increase dramatically. This created an artificial synesthesia for a short period of time, during which the usual senses became blurredand intermingled, adding layer upon layer of perception.


Note the phrase “jacked-up cyberware”.  While it plays a role in the plot, I put this in there because I’ve always admired the way that artists are constantly pushing to adapt new technologies in the creation of their art. Here’s a passage from the beginning of Chapter6 when we first get a look at Ng using his skills:

There was just one other person in the room, standing at the side of the holo platform, hands dancing over a control board only he could see. It was Ng, dressed fittingly in a jumpsuit of the same black material from which the drapes and carpet were made.

“Isn’t that stuff hot?” asked Jon, nodding toward Ng’s clothing.

“Nah, I’ve got a coolpack plugged into it. Not as efficient as a real military stealth suit, but it works. Reduces the problems I have with creating my sculptures.”

Jon looked to the dance Ng’s hands played in the air. “About ready?”

Ng said nothing, but his fingers tapped a command in the air. Instantly, there appeared an image above the holo projector.


Check this out:

“These beautiful gloves help me gesturally interact with my computer,” says Heap, explaining how the wearable technology allows her to perform without having to interact with keyboards or control panels.

Pushing buttons and twiddling dials “is not very exciting for me or the audience,” she says. “[Now] I can make music on the move, in the flow and more humanly, [and] more naturally engage with my computer software and technology.”


There’s a brilliant video which demonstrates the potential of her gloves:

[vimeo 90252137 w=500 h=281]


And she has started a Kickstarter to help develop the technology to share with other performance artists:


Wonderful. I’m in to support it. And yeah, I think that’s another prediction from CoD coming true.


Jim Downey

Via BoingBoing.

Looking back: Privacy? You don’t need no steenkin’ provacy!

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on November 12, 2007.


Over the weekend, news came out of yet another “Trust us, we’re the government” debacle, this time in the form of the principal deputy director of national intelligence saying that Americans have to give up on the idea that they have any expectation of privacy. Rather, he said, we should simply trust the government to properly safeguard the communications and financial information that they gather about us. No, I am not making this up. From the NYT:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, told attendees of the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s symposium in Dallas.

* * *

“Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity,” he said, according to a transcript [pdf]. “But in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity – or the appearance of anonymity – is quickly becoming a thing of the past.”

The future, Mr. Kerr says, is seen in MySpace and other online troves of volunteered information, and also in the the millions of commercial transactions made on the web or on the phone every day. If online merchants can be trusted, he asks, then why not federal employees, who face five years in jail and a $100,000 fine for misusing data from surveillance?

Or, from the Washington Post:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Kerr said. “I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up, in terms of anonymity, but (also) what safeguards we want in place to be sure that giving that doesn’t empty our bank account or do something equally bad elsewhere.”

This mindset, that allowing the government to just vacuum up all of our personal information, to monitor our email and phone communications, or whatever else they are doing but don’t want to tell is, is somehow equivalent to my posting information on this blog or giving some company my credit card number when I want to buy something, is fucking absurd. First off, there is a fundamental difference between what I willingly reveal to someone in either a personal or commercial exchange, and having my information taken without my knowledge or agreement. To say otherwise is to say that just because my phone number is listed in the phone directory, everyone who has the ability to do so is free to listen in on my phone conversations.

Even worse, it shows how we are viewed by this individual, and our government: as their subjects, without rights or expectations of being in control of our lives.

And the notion that we can just trust governmental employees with our private information is patently ridiculous. First off, saying that we should because we already trust commercial businesses with our private information is completely specious – how many times in the last year have you heard of this or that company’s database having been hacked and credit card, personal, and financial information having been stolen? This alone is a good reason to not allow further concentration of our private data to be gathered in one place. Secondly, think of the many instances when hard drives with delicate information have been lost by government employees in the State Department, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, or even at Los Alamos National Laboratory – and those are just the things which have actually made it into the news. Third, and last (for now), anyone who has had any experience with any government agency can attest to just how screwed up such a large bureaucracy can be, in dealing with even the simplest information.

I recently went round and round with the IRS over some forms which they thought I had to file. I didn’t, and established that to the satisfaction of the office which contacted me. Yet for six months I was still being contacted by another office in charge with collecting the necessary fees and fines – three times I had to send a copy of the letter from the initial office which cleared me of the matter, before they finally, and almost grudgingly, admitted that I owed them no money (for not filing the documents I didn’t need to file). These are not the same people I want to trust to handle even *more* information about me.

Allowing the government to take this position – that the default should be that they can just take whatever information about us they want, so long as they promise not to misuse it – is to abandon any illusions that we are in any way, shape, or form a free people. It would turn the entire equation of the Constitution on its head, saying that the government is sovereign and we its subjects. That such a thing is even proposed by a government employee is extremely revealing, and should cause no little amount of concern.

Jim Downey

Looking back: Binary Dreams.

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on March 29, 2007.


Some 14 years ago, a full five or six years before I even thought about writing Communion of Dreams, I made the following “artist’s book”. Full images are hosted on my website. The following essay was bound into the ‘book’, as well as on the floppy disk in the still-functional disk-drive.

Jim Downey

Binary Dreams

Binary Dreams

A bit of whimsy.

I’ve always loved books, as far back as I can remember. Even though the shock of my parent’s death ended my childhood early, and left me with only fragments and dreams of my pre-teen years, I do remember reading, reading, reading. Books were part of my life, too much so for my parents, who were intelligent but uneducated, and who wondered about my fascination with almost anything written. Often I was told to put down the book and go outside to play, or turn out the light and go to sleep. Even the black & white television given to me at Christmas when I was 8 (the year my sister was born…I suspect my parents splurged to offset my disquiet at having a sibling at last) couldn’t take the place of the books I constantly checked out of the library.

I got lost in science fiction as a youth, first as a feast for my imagination, later as an escape from the harsh realities of my world. All through high school, where the demands my teachers made on my time and intellect were modest enough to be met with a few minutes study, and even through college, where I would reward myself with a new book by a favorite author after studying hours and hours of Russian history, economics, or German. Always I would turn to science fiction as a release, maybe even as a guide to how I could bring myself through my own rebirth. It took a very long time.

I even wrote a little, now and then. Starting with a junior high school fiction class, graduating to the novel I wrote while suffering in traction in the hospital in ‘78. After college I thought I would try and be a writer, with my old diesel-powered IBM Model C. But struggle though I did, I knew that I needed help with my writing that I couldn’t get from friends, or from the contradictory text I could find on the subject. A gentle man, an acquaintance I knew through work, was kind enough to read some of my stories and point to the University of Iowa. “The Writer’s Workshop,” he said, “an old friend of mine from grad school is the head of the program.”

I went to Iowa City, took a few courses. I was rejected for the Workshop by the ‘old friend’ because he didn’t like science fiction, but was stubborn enough to get into the English MA program, where I was allowed to take some Workshop classes on the same basis as those admitted to the program. I learned a lot, and the bitter taste of rejection was replaced by the realization that the Workshop thrived on angst, and that I had had enough of that to fill my life previously and didn’t need more.

I gathered together the credit hours needed to complete the degree, though I was in no particular rush to finish. And one day while looking for a signature for a change to my schedule I stumbled into the Windhover Press. Wonderful old presses and bank upon bank of lead type. I spent the next couple of semesters learning how to build a book, letter by letter, page by page, from those little bits of lead. I got a rudimentary course in sewing a book together, in pasting cloth, in terms like “text block” and “square”.

Then I met Bill. He led me through the different structures, and was tolerant of my large, clumsy hands. I spent hours just watching him work, watching how he moved with a grace that I could only dimly understand, as he slipped a needle onto thread, through paper, around cord. Trimming leather to fit a corner or a hinge. Working with the hot brass tools on a design that those magic hands formed seemingly without effort. But I didn’t spend all the time with him that I could, distracted by other things I thought needed doing. I squandered my time with him, not knowing what gifts I was passing up, what opportunity I allowed to slip from my hands.

But in spite of my best efforts to the contrary, he made an impression, and taught me a lot. Without quite realizing it, my hands became less clumsy, my understanding a bit brighter. I learned a few things, and came to appreciate much, much more. Somewhere in there my need for the refuge for science fiction diminished, though it was never completely left behind. Like a man who has long since recovered from an injury, but who still walks with a cane out of habit, science fiction stayed with me, occasionally coming to the fore in my interpretations of the world, in the ways that I moved from what I was to what I became.

Bill left us, in body at least. Part of his spirit I carry with me, and it surprises me sometimes, in a pleasant way. Now I am at home with paper, cloth, leather, and thread. I make and repair books for friends and clients.

The book is a mutable form, reflecting the needs, materials, and technology of the culture that produces it. Broadly speaking, a “book” is any self-contained information delivery system. And any number of ‘book artists’ have taken this broadly-defined term to extremes, some more interesting than others.

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.

So, in a bit of whimsy, I’ve decided to add my part to the extremes of “book art”. Consider this a transition artifact, a melding of two technologies, for fun. Black & white, yes and no, on and off. The stuff of dreams.

The gift that keeps on giving.

Man, sometimes I think the TSA exists solely to provide me something to write about when other news is slow. To a certain extent, it’s just too easy to rant about the ongoing farce. And constantly harping on the idiocy does nothing for my blood pressure.

But sometimes there’s a run of things which just require you to at least point to it and laugh. First, some items from Xeni Jardin over on BoingBoing (all links have a lot more content):

Who did the TSA terrorize today? A 4-year-old girl. Why? She hugged her grandma.

After picking on the elderly, today the TSA is bullying children. A 4-year-old girl who was upset during a TSA screening at the Wichita, KS airport was forced to undergo a manual pat-down after hugging her grandmother. Agents yelled at the child, and called her an uncooperative suspect.


TSA screeners in LA ran drug ring, took narco bribes

Four present and past security screeners at LAX took 22 payments of up to $2400 each to let large shipments of coke, meth, and pot slip through baggage X-ray machines. Oh, we are so very, very shocked.


TSA agents harass 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and developmental disability

The Transportation Security Administration launched the “TSA Cares” program to assist disabled fliers just four months ago, but a story making the rounds today proves that the TSA definitely does not. The Frank family was traveling from New York City’s JFK airport to Florida, and were abruptly pulled aside after a dispute over how their 7-year-old daughter Dina was screened. The child is developmentally disabled and has cerebral palsy. She walks with crutches and leg braces.

You can guess what happened next, of course.

Then there was this item from Cory Doctorow earlier this week:

95 year old veteran and 85-year-old friend humiliated, searched and robbed at San Diego TSA checkpoint

Omer Petti is a 95-year-old USAF veteran with artificial knees and a heart condition. Madge Woodward, his partner, has an artificial hip. They recently flew home to Detroit from San Diego, and were humiliated and robbed at the San Diego airport TSA checkpoint. The metal in their bodies set off the TSA magnetometer, and Petti was instructed to put his $300 in cash in a bin. Then he was further detained when a swab detected the nitroglycerin residue from his heart pills. He and Woodward were subjected to humiliating patdowns, and then discovered that their $300 had gone missing. When Petti asked where his money had gone, the TSA agent required he and Woodward to remove their shoes again and empty out their pockets, and asked if they were “refusing his request” when they objected. The TSA manager checked the security footage, but reported that it was “too blurry” to see what had happened to the money. The two elderly people were loaded into their wheelchairs and taken to their plane at full tilt, barely making it. They never got their money back.

In each case the response from the TSA is some variation on the theme of “TSA has reviewed the incident and determined that our officers followed proper screening procedures…”

No surprise there.

And lest you think this is just BoingBoing’s obsession, how about this article from Kip Hawley, former head of the TSA, who has decidedly changed his tune:

Why Airport Security Is Broken—And How To Fix It

You know the TSA. We’re the ones who make you take off your shoes before padding through a metal detector in your socks (hopefully without holes in them). We’re the ones who make you throw out your water bottles. We’re the ones who end up on the evening news when someone’s grandma gets patted down or a child’s toy gets confiscated as a security risk. If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably hate us.

More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.

The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk. In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.

Bruce Schneier, who recently debated Hawley in the pages of the Economist, has his (very positive, all in all) reaction here.

Any bets on whether or not this will change anything in the slightest?

“Welcome to the TSA checkpoint. Hand over your valuables and grab your ankles, please.”

Jim Downey

“Yeah, but . . . “
March 20, 2011, 5:32 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, MetaFilter, Predictions, Publishing

Via BB, this ‘bingo card’ from John Scalzi, on the subject of e-publishing:

Scalzi’s website contains complete information, and you should read it – Scalzi knows what he is talking about, and has been having these arguments for the better part of a decade that I’m aware of (I follow his blog, and see him discussing these issues on other forums, such as MetaFilter).

That said, just because he knows what he is talking about doesn’t mean that he is *always* right, nor that his position is a simple black/white one on the topic. He’s too thoughtful and nuanced for that.

When I voted to go the self-publishing/e-publishing route with our care-giving memoir, I did so fully aware of all the pros and cons (in large part thanks to discussions I’ve seen with Scalzi.) What he says is valid, but I find myself saying “yeah, but . . . ” as pertains to Her Final Year, largely because the care-giving memoir is a niche market, and therefore many of the problems with publishing are more manageable than they are for general or genre fiction.

But we’ll see. I’ll be asking for your help to beat the odds.

Jim Downey

TSA news of the day.
March 5, 2011, 11:40 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, Constitution, Cory Doctorow, Failure, Government, Privacy, Travel

Two items to share about the agency everyone loves to hate.

First, a state legislator has come up with a great idea down in Texas:

Texas Legislation Proposes Felony Charges for TSA Agents

Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) introduced a package of bills into the Texas House of Representatives on Tuesday that would challenge the TSA’s authority in a number of ways. The first bill, HB 1938, prohibits full body scanning equipment in any Texas airport and provides for criminal and civil penalties on any airport operator who installs the equipment. The second bill, HB 1937, criminalizes touching without consent and searches without probable cause.

In theory, Texas may be able to do this, under the 10th amendment of the Constitution. In practice, I bet the federal government would threaten to pull all funding support for airports and other transportation options, as well as challenge the law in the federal courts under the Commerce Clause, and the Texas legislature would cry "uncle" in short order. Shame, really, because it would be nice to reclaim our privacy rights and stop the groping.

But not only will we not be allowed to reclaim those privacy rights, the TSA wants us to pay even more for the privilege:

TSA Wants To Increase Airport Fees Because You’re Not Checking Your Bags

To avoid bag check fees, travelers are routinely opting to carry on their bags, but the TSA says that the cost is just getting shifted to tax payers, to the tune of $260 million a year. That’s because the more bags that don’t get checked, the more bags the TSA has to inspect by hand at security checkpoints. Now the TSA is looking to get a cut of some of the checked baggage fees the airlines collect.

* * *

The TSA has also been pushing for an increase in the airport security fee travelers currently pay. Currently passengers pay up to a $5 fee each for a one-way ticket.

Five bucks? That seems low to me – don’t sex workers usually charge more for such hands-on activity? No wonder the TSA wants to increase the charge.

Jim Downey

Via Cory @ BB. Cross posted to dKos.