Communion Of Dreams

“Both sides think they can win.”

From a news story this morning:

A rebel fighter stationed here says the two sides are so close they talk to each other at night, yelling across the front line. They even know each other’s names, he says.

Right now this cold front line is lot like the fight for Syria: Both sides think they can win, but neither side is winning, so neither side is going to back down.

* * * * * * *

From Chapter 4 of Communion of Dreams:

“Thanks, but I checked your file. You saw fighting during the Restoration. You can figure this stuff out.”

“Yeah, but those are old instincts. And what I learned was mostly just practical survival.”

“Worth its weight in gold.”

Jon smiled. “See you in the morning.”

* * * * * * *

Politically, I don’t fit into any neat little boxes. I tend to describe myself as “left-libertarian”, which is to say that I am generally left-of-center on a lot of social issues, but I also tend to think that the lives of people should be largely be their own to determine with minimal government or corporate intrusion.  Both government and business can be very great sources of good, but they can also both be great threats to the individual if unchecked, particularly if their power and interests are aligned.

What this means for me practically is that I tend to be in the center of the political spectrum, keeping a wary eye on everything. And since I like to stay informed, I tend to read more political blather than is probably good for my blood pressure. Combine that with my interests in firearms, and, well, let’s just say that I have seen an awful lot of extreme rhetoric on both sides of the current debate about gun control.

* * * * * * *

One of the interesting things about working on St. Cybi’s Well is that I have to keep in mind details of the larger story. Partly this means making sure the story of the current book meshes with the story of Communion of Dreams. But it also goes beyond that. It also means making sure that I set the stage for other books I might write someday.

One of those would be set during the “Restoration” — that period of time when a fractured, post-pandemic America is being again forged into a United States. As it says on the first page of Communion of Dreams:

The Commons had been borne of the fire-flu, with so few people left out in the great northern plains after it was finally all over that it was a relatively simple matter to just turn things back over to nature. Effectively, that happened a few short years after the flu swept around the globe. According to law, it was codified almost a decade later in the late Twenties, after the Restoration was complete and the country was once again whole — expanded, actually, to include what had been Canada, minus independent Quebec.

As part of this whole process, then, I’ve been thinking about what would lead to a splitting-up of the US. I’m not going to give anything away, but suffice it to say that the fire-flu is only part of the explanation.

* * * * * * *

When people argue about gun control, one of the things you can bet on is that at some point a variation on the following will happen: First, one side will say that the intent of the 2nd Amendment is to allow for citizens to resist governmental tyranny. Then the other side will laugh and point out that Joe Gun Nut isn’t going to resist tanks and jets with his AR15. In response, the pro-RKBA side will likely point out that in both Iraq and Afghanistan local fighters managed to do a pretty good job in resisting the might of US & Allied forces for years. Then the argument will dissolve into disagreements over logistics, not knowing the local culture, corrupt indigenous military units, et cetera.  Laced through all of that will be those who hope just such a thing would come to pass, to finally resolve the issue and ‘show the other side’.

In these arguments, however, I think everyone is using the wrong examples. What would happen here isn’t what’s happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, with a cohesive military facing insurgents. It’d be like what’s happened in Syria: civil insurrection growing into civil war, with defections and confusion on all sides. From a news story this morning:

A rebel fighter stationed here says the two sides are so close they talk to each other at night, yelling across the front line. They even know each other’s names, he says.

Right now this cold front line is lot like the fight for Syria: Both sides think they can win, but neither side is winning, so neither side is going to back down.

Is Syria still too strange a place, too foreign, for you to map comparisons? Well, then how about Europe, just 20 years ago?

Careful what you wish for.


Jim Downey

And so it begins.*
April 25, 2009, 7:34 am
Filed under: Babylon 5, Emergency, Flu, Health, Iraq, NPR, Pandemic, Predictions, Preparedness, Science Fiction, Society

I’ve often written about the prospect of a pandemic flu, and how it relates to what I did with the backstory for Communion of Dreams. And I can’t help but think when I see/hear something like this that this is exactly how the first reports of such an evident would come:

Fear, anger and fatalism over swine flu in Mexico

MEXICO CITY – The schools and museums are closed. Sold-out games between Mexico’s most popular soccer teams are being played in empty stadiums. Health workers are ordering sickly passengers off subways and buses. And while bars and nightclubs filled up as usual, even some teenagers were dancing with surgical masks on.

Across this overcrowded capital of 20 million people, Mexicans are reacting with fatalism and confusion, anger and mounting fear at the idea that their city may be ground zero for a global epidemic of a new kind of flu — a strange mix of human, pig and bird viruses that has epidemiologists deeply concerned.

* * *

Scientists have warned for years about the potential for a pandemic from viruses that mix genetic material from humans and animals. This outbreak is particularly worrisome because deaths have happened in at least four different regions of Mexico, and because the victims have not been vulnerable infants and elderly.

NPR and other news outlets have picked up on it this morning, as well, with the story still lost in the ongoing economic collapse, renewed violence in Iraq, and political struggles of several stripes. Just one more story. But, finally, the big one?

We’ll see.

Jim Downey

* Kosh, from Chrysalis.

December 16, 2008, 8:59 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Government, Humor, Iraq, Politics

Gotta love it:

The One

The One

More here: Iraq Shoe Tosser Guy: The Animated Gifs

As TNH said in the comments there: “Who knew that Bush’s most notable skill was dodging thrown objects?”

And more from me later.

Jim D.

Oops II: The Smell Lingers
September 25, 2007, 10:39 am
Filed under: Failure, General Musings, Government, Iraq, Nuclear weapons, Predictions, Society, Violence

So, three weeks ago I wrote about the initial reports that the Air Force had managed to lose track of some of its nukes, and accidentally transported them across the country.

Well, the story just keeps getting better. From the Washington Post this past Sunday:

Three weeks after word of the incident leaked to the public, new details obtained by The Washington Post point to security failures at multiple levels in North Dakota and Louisiana, according to interviews with current and former U.S. officials briefed on the initial results of an Air Force investigation of the incident.

The warheads were attached to the plane in Minot without special guard for more than 15 hours, and they remained on the plane in Louisiana for nearly nine hours more before being discovered. In total, the warheads slipped from the Air Force’s nuclear safety net for more than a day without anyone’s knowledge.

“I have been in the nuclear business since 1966 and am not aware of any incident more disturbing,” retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, who served as U.S. Strategic Command chief from 1996 to 1998, said in an interview.

Yeah, that’s disturbing, all right. But why bring it back up? We knew already that the incident was a colossal fuck-up. What more is there to be said?

Go read the Washington Post follow-up, and you’ll get a sense of why this is a big deal. Here’s another excerpt:

Military officers, nuclear weapons analysts and lawmakers have expressed concern that it was not just a fluke, but a symptom of deeper problems in the handling of nuclear weapons now that Cold War anxieties have abated.

But could there be something else at work?

The Air Force’s inspector general in 2003 found that half of the “nuclear surety” inspections conducted that year resulted in failing grades — the worst performance since inspections of weapons-handling began. Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing was among the units that failed, and the Louisiana-based 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale garnered an unsatisfactory rating in 2005.

Both units passed subsequent nuclear inspections, and Minot was given high marks in a 2006 inspection. The 2003 report on the 5th Bomb Wing attributed its poor performance to the demands of supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wartime stresses had “resulted in a lack of time to focus and practice nuclear operations,” the report stated.

Ah, there ya go. The stresses of the ongoing debacle in Iraq is now playing havoc with the security of our nuclear forces. That’s not a terribly comforting thought, is it? I mean, letting nukes sit unsecured out on an air force base for more than 24 hours means that any number of really bad things could have happened, up to and including the possible theft of one (or more) of the weapons. Gee, now think . . . who might want to have access to such a weapon? Even if you didn’t have the capability of using it as a nuclear bomb, you could still crack open the thing and get access to the highly toxic and extremely radioactive fissionable material. That’d make a swell terror weapon if used on American soil.

And, unfortunately, I am no longer willing to dismiss entirely the possibility that our own government (or parts thereof) might be willing to see such a thing happen for their own reasons. Yeah, I know, tin-foil beanie stuff. But can you honestly say that you would put the idea 100% out of mind?

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

About 20 minutes worth.

So, Arecibo needs money. Not a lot of money. More than I have. But not a lot of money, as such things go.

Yes, the National Science Foundation has told the folks who run the Arecibo Observatory that they need to come up with outside funding to the tune of half their annual budget, or they will be shut down. How much is this? $4 million. From the news report:

But among astronomers, Arecibo is an icon of hard science. Its instruments have netted a decades-long string of discoveries about the structure and evolution of the universe. Its high-powered radar has mapped in exquisite detail the surfaces and interiors of neighboring planets.

And it is the only facility on the planet able to track asteroids with enough precision to tell which ones might plow into Earth — a disaster that could cause as many as a billion deaths and that experts say is preventable with enough warning.

Yet, for want of a few million dollars, the future for Arecibo appears grim.

The National Science Foundation, which has long funded the dish, has told the Cornell University-operated facility that it will have to close if it cannot find outside sources for half of its already reduced $8 million budget in the next three years — an ultimatum that has sent ripples of despair through the scientific community.

Hey, I understand how it is. The cost of gas is up. Economy is looking a little rocky. There’s a lot of competition for science funding. Things are tight all over.

Well, maybe not all over. See, that $4 million – that amounts to about 20 minutes worth of what we’re spending in Iraq, according to the National Priorities Project.

So, I know it’s a tough choice – maintaining the worlds foremost radio telescope for a year or pouring more money into the pocket of KBR for 20 minutes – but I think perhaps we should consider this problem carefully. I mean, we can continue to use a proven facility which can track near-Earth objects that threaten the lives of billions, or we can fund a pointless, hopeless, and futile war for another 1200 seconds.

Yeah, that’s a real tough choice.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.  Cross posted to UTI.) 

“The terrorists don’t like art.”
June 13, 2007, 1:10 pm
Filed under: Art, Iraq, Religion, Society, Violence

A piece by Melik Kaylan titled “The Last Active Art Gallery in Baghdad” really hits home for me. I’ve mentioned before that I owned and operated a gallery of fine art for 8 years (for full info, see here), and something about some of the religious intolerance I had to deal with in that capacity.

But nothing like this:

Among the agonies imposed on Baghdad by tormentors in the guise of self-appointed religious enforcers is the proscription of fun. Novelty, convenience, any kind of post-Quranic ease from hardship infuriates them. Ice cream is an abomination, as is mechanized garbage collection, because such delights didn’t exist in the time of the prophet. A story is told that last year, on a road overtaken by jihadis, a DVD purveyor was ordered to close because DVDs didn’t exist in the time of the prophet. “Neither did the BMW you drove up in,” he responded. “When you come back and tell me again on a camel, then I’ll listen.” They shot him some days later, for his insolence.

Imagine, therefore, the onus of courage on anyone who dares open an art gallery, let alone keeps it running since January 2006 with 26 shows and as many receptions.

I might give the religious here a hard time, for their lack of open-mindedness, or believing in a sky-daddy, or what have you. And they deserve it. But reading something like this column tends to put all that in perspective.

Go read the whole thing, but here’s the closing passage:

A visit to Hasan’s friend Salam, one street over, shows how hard the task is. Salam opened his own gallery in 2004 and closed it in fear, in early 2006, after two employees were killed. It hasn’t reopened since. “I invested everything,” Salam says. The place remains pristine, perfectly curated with sculptures and paintings in several rooms untouched and unshown for eight months. “This street, there’s no embassy; the terrorists run around,” he says. “I am just a private project. I wait every day. The terrorists don’t like art.”


Jim Downey

(Cross posted at UTI.)

Yeah, what he said.

There’s a very good column by Eugene Robinson in Friday’s Washington Post, about the need for someone with some smarts in the Oval office. From the piece:

One thing that should be clear to anyone who’s been paying attention these past few years is that we need to go out and get ourselves the smartest president we can find. We need a brainiac president, a regular Mister or Miss Smarty-Pants. We need to elect the kid you hated in high school, the teacher’s pet with perfect grades.

When I look at what the next president will have to deal with, I don’t see much that can be solved with just a winning smile, a firm handshake and a ton of resolve. I see conundrums, dilemmas, quandaries, impasses, gnarly thickets of fateful possibility with no obvious way out. Iraq is the obvious place he or she will have to start; I want a president smart enough to figure out how to minimize the damage.

And even better:

Actually, I want a president smart enough to know a good deal about science. He or she doesn’t have to be able to do the math, but I want a president who knows that the great theories underpinning our understanding of the universe — general relativity and quantum mechanics — have stood for nearly a century and proved stunningly accurate, even though they describe a world that is more shimmer than substance. I want him or her to know that there’s a lot we still don’t know.

I want the next president to be intellectually curious — and also intellectually honest. I want him or her to understand the details, not just the big picture. I won’t complain if the next president occasionally uses a word I have to look up.

I wasn’t the smartest kid in my high school. But I was pretty damn close. I certainly wasn’t the smartest kid at my college – Grinnell was full of people as smart or smarter than me. But I have never, ever understood the instinct that some people have that their president should be someone “they’d want to have a beer with”. I don’t want to have a beer with them. I want them to bust their ass working to fix the myriad problems we face, or at least to mitigate the impact of those problems while we work to solve them over the long term. Not just Iraq, or terrorism, but Peak Oil, global warming, health care, the threat of a pandemic, rebuilding New Orleans, rebuilding the National Guard, et cetera, et cetera. I want someone who is at least as smart as I am, who is at least as well educated, who has some real life experience beyond just getting elected to office, and who has shown that they are actually competent in managing something more important than some bloody sports team. After six years of the Worst. President. Evah. you’d think that this would be obvious, but it is telling that it takes a columnist for one of the largest and most important papers in the country to come right out and say it.


Jim Downey

(Tip of the hat to Hank Fox for the link.) 

Tag ’em.

A story this morning on Weekend Edition – Saturday about the military’s efforts to recover lost or captured soldiers in Iraq brought up the topic of “tagging” our people with some kind of tracking device. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Gary Anderson was somewhat critical of the current Pentagon leadership that such an application of technology hadn’t been put into more widespread use yet.

His reaction is understandable. The idea of tracking devices of one sort or another has been extremely popular in fiction (everything from spy novels to SF) for decades, and we now have a widespread tech which could be fairly easily adapted for such use: Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID for short. Combine this with the already extant use of battlefield electronics, it should be possible to increase the range of such passive devices without sacrificing size and concealability, allowing for hiding such tags in clothing or even within the body of the soldier. Certainly, this would seem to fit with the current mindset of the military, and would fill the gap until current military tech evolves to have an ‘information-integrated force’ such as I stipulate for Communion.

[Mild spoiler alert.]

In Communion, I apply the tech of the period to have the soldiers ‘wired’ with an array of information-sharing devices, analogous to the type of integrated ‘cyberware’ used by the general population. For military applications, though, the tech is more robust, a little more cutting edge, a bit further advanced in application, to the point of even having “smart guns” which would only function for those using the correct encryption key. This does play a minor part in the plot development at several junctures, and assumes that at all times anyone can be tracked fairly easily.

Anyway, the idea of tagging our people in that kind of war environement seems to be a no-brainer to me.  Yeah, there are privacy issues to be concerned with for the use of such tagging in civilian life, but that is much less an issue for someone in the military.  I expect we’ll see it implemented across the board in the near future…the first step into my predictions about in-body cyberware.

Jim Downey

There are no simple answers.

I’m adapting this from a comment I made during a discussion on UTI, now that I’ve had a chance to digest things a bit. It is a follow up to this post of last Tuesday.


When a tragedy like this (well, any violence directed against innocents is a tragedy, really) occurs, people naturally want to look for ways to curtail the threat in the future. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

In 1994 something like 800,000 Hutus were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, and almost all of that was done with machetes. Almost 200 people were killed yesterday in Iraq, by someone using car bombs. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 with fertilizer and deisel fuel on this day a dozen years ago.

Guns do kill – something like 12,000 homicides and an additional 6,000 accidents/suicides each year here in the US. My father was one of those people in 1969, and my step-brother a little more than a decade ago. You never really get over that kind of personal tragedy, as I mention here.

But cars also kill. About 30,000 Americans a year, if memory serves. And about 18 months after my dad was killed, my mom was one of those people. But because it wasn’t an act of violence, it is somehow easier to accept that. Which is curious, because we do seem to accept that level of death in our country (and others) relatively easily.

People are violent. It is part of who we are. Now in the UK guns are almost completely outlawed – yet gun violence is once again becoming a problem in some areas. In an effort to control the results of violent behaviour, the UK is now increasingly becoming a nanny-state, outlawing the carrying of pointed knives, limiting their sale even for home use, forcing pubs to shift from glass bottles and drinking vessels to plastic ones because the others were being used to bash and cut others in pub brawls…you get the idea.

As I mention in that blog post cited above, I hate the facile arguments on both sides: that getting rid of all guns would solve the problem; and that if only someone with a legal CCW had been there they could have stopped Cho earlier. The best you can say is that it is possible that stricter gun control (even to extending to effective bans) *might* have stopped Cho from being able to murder so many so easily…or that someone legally armed on campus *might* have been able to stop Cho once he started shooting. No, there is a lot of slop there on both sides – no one knows the answer to ‘what if?’

For me it comes down to a couple of different deciding factors. We have over 200 million guns in this country, something like 80 million handguns. So, getting rid of them isn’t a practical answer for at least a generation. And prohibiting them will basically mean that you are telling criminals that they can count on law-abiding citzens being disarmed. Which means you either accept the increased power advantage of criminals, or you move towards an increasingly police-heavy state, with all of the implications that carries.

Further, the 2nd Amendment was put there for a reason: to control the worst instincts of wanna-be tyrants. The founders understood that humans being what we are, you needed to control the worst instincts of those who would rule rather than govern. They built checks & balances into the Constitution between the different branches of government – but knew that the real check and balance had to go further – had to go all the way down to the individual citizen. In preserving the right to keep and bear arms, they made sure that there was a final option available to curb dictatorship. Granted, my pistols and rifles will not stand up in a full-fledged firefight to modern military weapons – but that isn’t the point. You only have to look at Iraq to see the effectiveness of small arms and improvised explosives to see what a population can do in resisting a military force. That alone changes the calculus of anyone – foreign or domestic – who thinks that they would like to impose their will on the American public by arms.

Lastly, having the *option* of carrying a concealed weapon legally means that you have more possible courses of action open to you when things go south. No, I would not claim that I would have been able to draw my weapon and stop Cho before he killed anyone. That’s just macho posturing. But I carry a 9mm pistol – the same calibre weapon he used to kill most of the 32 he murdered. I *might* have had a chance, if everything had gone just right. Maybe only a small chance – but that would have been more of a chance than the poor bastards who didn’t have that option open to them had.

Yeah, there are no easy or simple answers. I am willing to consider possible solutions – but we have to consider the entire issue completely and make a rational decision, not one based on the immediate emotions following such a horror.

Jim Downey