Communion Of Dreams

Drawing the wrong lesson …

One of the oldest Science Fiction tropes is the development of technology intended to enforce compliance through pain. Two notable examples: the ‘shock collars’ used on members of the Enterprise crew in The Gamesters of Triskelion and the ‘pain givers‘ first depicted in the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams.

In both cases, and typically through most of the SF I can think of, this is meant to be a cautionary tale, to show how even a nominally benign or at least non-lethal technology can be perverted. The lesson is that the intentional infliction of pain is itself a bad thing, whether or not it actually causes real corporeal damage.

So, naturally, we have drawn exactly the wrong lesson:

Judge pleads guilty to ordering defendant to be shocked with 50,000 volts

A Maryland judge who ordered a deputy to remotely shock a defendant with a 50,000-volt charge pleaded guilty (PDF) to a misdemeanor civil rights violation in federal court Monday, and he faces a maximum of one year in prison when sentenced later this year.

* * *

The deputy sheriff walked over to where Victim I was standing and pulled a chair away to clear a place for Victim I to fall to the floor. At this point, Victim I stopped speaking. The deputy sheriff then activated the stun-cuff, which administered an electric shock to Victim I for approximately five seconds. The electric shock caused Victim I to fall to the ground and scream in pain. Nalley recessed the proceedings.

* * *

The authorities are increasingly using stun cuffs, which are about the size of a deck of cards, at detention centers and courthouses. They are made by various companies and cost around $1,900 for a device and transmitter. Some models can shock at 80,000 volts.




Jim Downey

You never know …

… how what you write, or say, or do, will inspire and encourage others:


Jim Downey

“Shields holding, Captain.”

Unsurprisingly, this has been making the rounds among my friends:

I say “unsurprisingly” because a lot of my friends are reacting to yesterday’s well-documented meteor explosion in the Ural mountains (Russia), and today’s near-pass of a much larger body:

As noted in the various science stories, 2012 DA14 is about 150 feet in diameter, and would have about the same effect were it to hit the Earth as Meteor Crater, depending on the exact composition, speed and angle of approach of the meteor. If you want to play with the variables, here’s a simulator I’ve had fun playing with in the past Impact: Earth!

On one end of the range of effects would be just another bright light in the sky, as the thing exploded in the upper atmosphere. On the other end, another mile-wide crater where a city used to be. Fun, eh? And remember – 2012 DA14 was just discovered last year, and then by pure chance. There are any number of such potential threats out in space. As the Washington Post puts it:

For the foreseeable future, then, Earth will continue to reside in a cosmic shooting gallery with an enormous number of currently unknown objects, some of which may have a direct bead on us without our knowing. While it is probably much more unlikely than likely, a potentially disastrous collision with an asteroid of at least the dimensions comparable to DA14 could occur anytime possibly with little or no warning in our lifetimes.

Keep your fingers crossed that our luck — and our atmospheric ‘shields’ — continue to hold until we no longer have all of our eggs in this particular basket.


Jim Downey


It’s always interesting…

…to see the sorts of things which come to mind for people as they read Communion of Dreams. Got the following note via email this morning:

“About I’m 80% through the book, and some niggle I’ve had in my head for a few days finally broke through.

Are you paying homage to the old Star Trek episode, the Tholian Web?”




Jim Downey

Just 11 days left – support the Kickstarter!

No, it’s not fake.
April 26, 2010, 8:04 am
Filed under: Art, Gene Roddenberry, Guns, MetaFilter, NPR, Science Fiction, Star Trek, tech, YouTube

Oh, this is much too cool:

Info if you want to see about making your own here.

Remarkable how the technology has evolved since my nutty art project.

Jim Downey

(Yes, via MeFi. When are you people going to learn and just start reading the damn site on your own?)

Nasty nasty!

How is it, being born in 1958 and growing up in the era of MAD (and with a teenage fascination with nuclear weapons), that I never heard of this insane/brilliant project before?

Project Pluto

On January 1, 1957, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission selected the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory‘s (LLNL) predecessor, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, to study the feasibility of applying heat from nuclear reactors to ramjet engines. This research became known as “Project Pluto“. The work was directed by Dr. Ted Merkle, leader of the laboratory’s R-Division.

Originally carried out at Livermore, California, the work was moved to new facilities constructed for $1.2 million on eight square miles (21 km²) of Jackass Flats at the NTS, known as Site 401. The complex consisted of six miles (10 km) of roads, critical assembly building, control building, assembly and shop buildings, and utilities. Also required for the construction was 25 miles (40 km) of oil well casing which was necessary to store the million pounds (450 t) of pressurized air used to simulate ramjet flight conditions for Pluto.

The principle behind the nuclear ramjet was relatively simple: motion of the vehicle pushed air in through the front of the vehicle (ram effect), a nuclear reactor heated the air, and then the hot air expanded at high speed out through a nozzle at the back, providing thrust.

The notion of using a nuclear reactor to heat the air was fundamentally new. Unlike commercial reactors, which are surrounded by concrete, the Pluto reactor had to be small and compact enough to fly, but durable enough to survive a 7,000 mile (11,000 km) trip to a potential target. The nuclear engine could, in principle, operate for months, so a Pluto cruise missile could be left airborne for a prolonged time before being directed to carry out its attack.

That’s just the intro from the Wikipedia article. To get a better sense of just how demented this project was, check out this article from 1990: The Flying Crowbar. A couple of bits from that that gives you an idea:

Pluto’s namesake was Roman mythology’s ruler of the underworld — seemingly an apt inspiration for a locomotive-size missile that would travel at near-treetop level at three times the speed of sound, tossing out hydrogen bombs as it roared overhead. Pluto’s designers calculated that its shock wave alone might kill people on the ground. Then there was the problem of fallout. In addition to gamma and neutron radiation from the unshielded reactor, Pluto’s nuclear ramjet would spew fission fragments out in its exhaust as it flew by. (One enterprising weaponeer had a plan to turn an obvious peace-time liability into a wartime asset: he suggested flying the radioactive rocket back and forth over the Soviet Union after it had dropped its bombs.)

* * *

Because of its combination of high speed and low altitude, Pluto promised to get through to targets that manned bombers and even ballistic missiles might not be able to reach. What weaponeers call “robustness” was another important advantage. “Pluto was about as durable as a bucket of rocks,” says one who worked on the project. It was because of the missile’s low complexity and high durability that physicist Ted Merkle, the project’s director, called it “the flying crowbar.”

* * *

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, Pluto’s sponsors were having second thoughts about the project. Since the missile would be launched from U.S. territory and had to fly low over America’s allies in order to avoid detection on its way to the Soviet Union, some military planners began to wonder if it might not be almost as much a threat to the allies. Even before it began dropping bombs on our enemies Pluto would have deafened, flattened, and irradiated our friends. (The noise level on the ground as Pluto went by overhead was expected to be about 150 decibels; by comparison, the Saturn V rocket, which sent astronauts to the moon, produced 200 decibels at full thrust.) Ruptured eardrums, of course, would have been the least of your problems if you were unlucky enough to be underneath the unshielded reactor when it went by, literally roasting chickens in the barnyard. Pluto had begun to look like something only Goofy could love.

Nasty nasty! Now I know the inspiration for The Doomsday Machine. And possibly Reaver tech.

But consider also the brilliance behind Project Pluto. It required fundamental advancements in technology on the order of what was required for the Apollo missions. Again, from the Air & Space Magazine article:

The success of Project Pluto depended upon a whole series of technological advances in metallurgy and materials science. Pneumatic motors necessary to control the reactor in flight had to operate while red-hot and in the presence of intense radioactivity. The need to maintain supersonic speed at low altitude and in all kinds of weather meant that Pluto’s reactor had to survive conditions that would melt or disintegrate the metals used in most jet and rocket engines. Engineers calculated that the aerodynamic pressures upon the missile might be five times those the hypersonic X-15 had to endure. Pluto was “pretty close to the limits in all respects,” says Ethan Platt, an engineer who worked on the project. “We were tickling the dragon’s tail all the way,” says Blake Myers, head of Livermore’s propulsion engineering division.

I can see the appeal – but I’m glad they didn’t decide to wake that particular dragon.

Jim Downey

(Via a comment at MeFi.)

“Spock’s Brain” – Live!
March 24, 2009, 8:16 am
Filed under: Art, Gene Roddenberry, Humor, Science Fiction, Star Trek, YouTube

As you probably know, I’m a big fan of the old Star Trek series – the original one, not so much the various and sundry movies and spin-offs.  Sometime last weekend I came across this gem, which contains excerpts of a live stage production of the classic “Spock’s Brain” – brilliantly done:


Jim Downey

Gene Roddenberry was right.
March 17, 2009, 10:42 am
Filed under: Depression, Gene Roddenberry, Health, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Star Trek, Survival

Back in the 1960s, salt was just salt.  Known to be necessary for healthy life in most mammals, including humans, people didn’t give it a lot of thought beyond that.  Oh, sure, sometimes people would worry about a salt deficiency – I remember taking salt tablets regularly the summer I worked as a hot tar roofer – but otherwise, it was no big deal.  In fact, one of the early episodes of Star Trek had the M-113 Creature, as ‘salt vampire’ which killed by sucking the salt out of humans.

Then came the 1980s.  And the start of the great salt scare.

Salt was tied to hypertension.  Salt was found to be overused in all kinds of prepared foods (since it augments flavor and increases food density – what the industry calls “mouthfeel” by saturating food with more water).  We were told that salt kills – and that you had damned well better cut back on the amount of salt you ate.  Anyone with high blood pressure or heart disease was told to go on a low- or no-salt diet, using salt substitutes or just going without.

What wasn’t really discussed by the public health officials who got this bandwagon started was that only some people are salt-sensitive, i.e.: react to excess salt in their diet.  I’m not going to dig back through all the research papers now, but I remember that it was estimated that for the US this was about 30% of the population.  For those people, salt could indeed pose a problem.  But most people didn’t have this kind of reaction – their system would just flush excess salt out through normal kidney function.  Here’s a passage from the Wikipedia article on salt which addresses this:

Sodium is one of the primary electrolytes in the body. All four cationic electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium) are available in unrefined salt, as are other vital minerals needed for optimal bodily function. Too much or too little salt in the diet can lead to muscle cramps, dizziness, or even an electrolyte disturbance, which can cause severe, even fatal, neurological problems.[29] Drinking too much water, with insufficient salt intake, puts a person at risk of water intoxication (hyponatremia). Salt is even sometimes used as a health aid, such as in treatment of dysautonomia.[30]

The risk for disease due to insufficient or excessive salt intake varies because of biochemical individuality. Some have asserted that while the risks of consuming too much salt are real, the risks have been exaggerated for most people, or that the studies done on the consumption of salt can be interpreted in many different ways.[31] [32]

Now, from a public health perspective, it makes sense to try and limit the average intake of salt.  As noted, many prepared foods have a *lot* of salt in them.  If you can stop 30%, or one third, or one quarter, of your population from developing high blood pressure without causing problems for the rest of the population, then why not?  And I think that this is probably the reason and rationale behind the extensive public health campaigns to get people to cut back on salt intake, though I bet it would be difficult to get most public health officials to admit that this was the case.

But . . . what if a decrease in salt presented problems for that other portion of the population that is not salt-sensitive?

Salt is ‘natural mood-booster’

University of Iowa researchers writing in Psychology and Behavior say salt may act as a natural antidepressant.

Tests on rats found those with a salt deficiency shied away from activities they normally enjoyed – a sign of depression.

* * *

The tests carried out by US researchers found that when rats were deficient in salt, they shy away from activities they normally enjoy, like drinking a sugary substance or pressing a bar that stimulates a pleasant sensation in their brains.

Psychologist Kim Johnson, who led the research, said: “Things that normally would be pleasurable for rats didn’t elicit the same degree of relish, which leads us to believe that a salt deficit and the craving associated with it can induce one of the key symptoms associated with depression.”

Now what?  Risk hypertension, or fight depression?  What is the biggest public health concern?

As I’ve noted before, I *do* have problems with high blood pressure (though thanks to changes in lifestyle – specifically, getting regular sleep and exercise – combined with drug therapy, it is now coming down to close to the “normal” range).  But I don’t seem to be salt-sensitive – drastically cutting my salt intake makes no difference in my blood pressure.  My doctor doesn’t worry about my salt intake, saying that other factors are likely much more important in dealing with my hypertension.

But what about depression?  Or just worrying about whether you’re going to die from too much salt?

I think Gene Roddenberry was right: sucking all the salt out of us is like sucking the life out of us.  Or at least the joy of living.

Jim Downey

Ah, damn.
January 15, 2009, 8:58 am
Filed under: Art, Gene Roddenberry, General Musings, movies, Science Fiction, Star Trek, The Prisoner

I caught the news last night, but somehow had managed to miss this comment to my post of a week ago – Patrick McGoohan has passed away.

Ah, damn.

And so has Ricardo Montalban.

Ah, damn.

We tend to think of actors as their most important (to us) roles.  People who won’t recognize the name of McGoohan probably know him as #6 from The Prisoner.  Likewise, Montalban is forever known better as Khan Noonien Singh to generations of SF fans.  And while this is unfair – both men were accomplished actors who played many roles, and who lived interesting lives – it is understandable, because they came into our lives for only a limited time and in this particular context.  And they live on in those characters in our minds.

So, yes, farewell to each.  But I will always cherish their memorable performances.

Jim Downey

Playing a little catch-up…

…with some of my favorite blogs, I came across this from about 10 days ago:

Dammit Jim, I’m the Doctor!

What happens when you take the two greatest things in the entire Universe and put them together?


If you are a Trek and a Who fan, then watch the whole thing, until the very end of the teaser for Part II. It is without any fear of exaggeration or contradiction when I say that it is the best thing ever to have happened ever in the history of everness. Ever.

OK, allowing for Phil’s little-girl squeee! of all things Dr. Who – related, he’s mostly right.  It is pretty damn good.

Jim Downey