Communion Of Dreams

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

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

  • 123/85
  • 121/88
  • 115/81

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Of course, scientists are skeptical:

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

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

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

More security theatre. Wonderful.

Jim Downey

After the hype.

Today’s xkcd sums things up pretty well, I think: the actual discovery was cool, but the hype made it feel anticlimatic.

Above and beyond what this says about our press being driven by ASTOUNDING!! news and the failure to get even basic science stories right (with some very obvious and excellent exceptions), consider just what was behind the hype: excitement at the prospect of non-terrestrial life of any sort being discovered.

The initial speculation that NASA had proof of life on Titan swept like electronic fire around the world. It wasn’t just science fiction geeks. Or actual biologists. Or space buffs. It was pretty much the whole world, though some had more fun with it than others.

Why did this capture the imaginations of so many people? Easy: we’re hungry for this news, and have been for decades. It’s not just the countless science fiction books and movies which have fed this hunger (mine included) – it is also the very real science behind the search for extra-terrestrial life (or intelligence). Proof of the existence of life beyond our planet would likely be considered one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind, and the announcement of such a discovery would be a turning point bigger than even the first time that humans walked on the Moon.

It is easy in a time of recession, when money is tight for most people and the government is trying to figure out ways to cut expenditures, to under-value NASA or basic science research. And I am not arguing for this or that ‘big science’ program, per se. But all you have to do is look at what happened this week, to note the wonder and excitement which was launched by the merest possibility of the discovery of life elsewhere, to realize that this kind of knowledge is something that people around the world are waiting for with eager, almost palpable, anticipation. I think it is one of the very best things about humans that this is the case, and it should be encouraged and used.

Jim Downey

For a day that started out with “You’re going to die,” this was turning out all right.
September 26, 2010, 8:11 am
Filed under: Health, Hospice, PZ Myers

We all die. Only some of us know that our death is imminent. If it turns out that I’m one of those, I hope I’ll be able to come to terms with it with the kind of grace Mike Celizic did.

Edited to add: No, there’s no subtext here. I’m not trying to prep my friends for any bad news. Sheesh, people, you know I’m more blunt than that. I just thought it was a good article.

Jim Downey

Via PZ.

Better to just get it over with.
July 8, 2010, 11:26 am
Filed under: Carl Zimmer, Failure, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Science

I noted yesterday the decision from SEED Magazine/Science blogs to sell their credibility to Pepsi.

Well, word this morning that they have reconsidered, via Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers. From Pharyngula, here’s part of the statement from Adam Bly of SEED/Sb:

We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.

We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.

Good move. When you’ve screwed up that badly, and are taking damage for it from all sides, best to just reverse the decision and get it over with.

Jim Downey

Astonishingly poor judgment.
July 7, 2010, 6:00 pm
Filed under: Carl Zimmer, Failure, MetaFilter, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Science, Science Fiction, Society

Part & parcel of being a science fiction author (at least from my perspective) is trying to keep up with recent scientific discoveries. One good way for me to do this has been to surf Science blogs regularly. This has mostly shown up here in linking to PZ Myers, but he is hardly the only one of the many Sb bloggers that I read.

Well, yesterday something happened which threatens that source – SEED Magazine/Science blogs decided to sell their credibility to Pepsi.

The world has not been kind in return.

This shows astonishingly poor judgment on the part of the management team at Science blogs/ SEED Magazine. As Carl Zimmer said:

Here’s the quick story: the powers that be at Scienceblogs thought it would be a good idea to sell Pepsi a blog of its own on the site, where its corporate scientists could tell the world about all the great nutrition science Pepsico is doing.

Yes. Really. I’m totally sober as I type this.

Good lord. What were these people thinking?

Money is tight, and every business has a hard time paying bills. Advertisement is a necessary evil (remember, I worked in advertising for about four years between college and grad school). But really – trading your credibility on independent science writing for some coin from PepsiCo? Really?


Jim Downey

Where the danger lies.

Last week I mentioned the genetic breakthrough accomplished by J Craig Venter and his team: the creation of functional man-made DNA. Since then, lots of very smart people have been trying to sort through the implications of this development. One of the better collections of such discussion I have seen can be found at Edge.

Here’s a bit from PZ Myers (also on his blog) that I find particularly insightful:

Nature’s constant attempts to kill us are often neglected in these kinds of discussions as a kind of omnipresent background noise. Technology sometimes seems more dangerous because it moves fast and creates novelty at an amazing pace, but again, Venter’s technology isn’t the big worry. It’s much easier and much cheaper to take an existing, ecologically successful bug and splice in a few new genes than to create a whole new creature from scratch…and unlike the de novo synthesis of life, that’s a technology that’s almost within the reach of garage-bound bio-hackers, and is definitely within the capacity of many foreign and domestic institutions. Frankenstein bacteria are harmless compared to the possibilities of hijacking E. coli or a flu virus to nefarious ends.

Let me repeat that last sentence: Frankenstein bacteria are harmless compared to the possibilities of hijacking E. coli or a flu virus to nefarious ends.

It’s almost like he’s read Communion of Dreams, eh?

Jim Downey

It’s Alive!
May 20, 2010, 1:07 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Brave New World, MetaFilter, PZ Myers, Science, Science Fiction, tech

Just breaking:

WASHINGTON – Scientists have created a living cell powered by manmade DNA.

Here’s some more, from the source:

Now, this scientific team headed by Drs. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison have achieved the final step in their quest to create the first synthetic bacterial cell. In a publication in Science magazine, Daniel Gibson, Ph.D. and a team of 23 additional researchers outline the steps to synthesize a 1.08 million base pair Mycoplasma mycoides genome, constructed from four bottles of chemicals that make up DNA. This synthetic genome has been “booted up” in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome.

Implications? I agree with Freeman Dyson:

I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.

The stuff of science fiction, now made fact.

Edited to add 5/21: PZ has a good explanation of the actual science you may want to read.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi, BB, and other places.)

March 4, 2010, 9:26 am
Filed under: Art, Health, Humor, Music, Pharyngula, PZ Myers, Rube Goldberg, YouTube

Sorry, been sick with the latest viral lung thing going around *and* trying to get a lot of spring cleaning and minor home repair stuff in prep for this Open House tomorrow night, so I haven’t had much in the way of energy to do any writing. But just found this over on PZ’s site, and for the two or three people who check out my blog and haven’t seen it, had to share:

Inspired madness. Discussion of it, how many takes it took, et cetera to be found here (and probably elsewhere).

Jim Downey

Tell me about this.
April 28, 2009, 7:12 am
Filed under: Amazon, Emergency, Flu, Government, Health, Pharyngula, Predictions, Preparedness, PZ Myers

I need to run out foraging this morning, now that the WHO has gone to DefCon 4 but I have a question that I hope someone can help me with.

I was doing my usual poking around online this morning, hitting my usual haunts, and saw a comment over at PZ’s that caught my attention. It referenced the “Black Swan Theory” of Nassim Taleb.

Hmm. That rang a bell somewhere deep in my memory. I did some poking around, and found that it was from a book that came out in 2007. Well, I think I heard about it, but I never did get around to reading much of Taleb’s work. What I found looks intriguing – but is it worth my time to get a copy and actually read it?

Jim Downey

Watch out,
December 22, 2008, 11:37 am
Filed under: Art, Humor, PZ Myers, Society

Dr. Horrible – there’s a new league of Superheros around!

Wow – that’s just awesome. So, what would your Superhero name be? I’ve already been GalleryMan, but I suppose I would need to come up with something new now. Hmm…

Jim Downey

Via PZ. Cross posted to UTI