Communion Of Dreams


Thoughts while walking in the rain.

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last few weeks. Which, on the one hand, is surprising, since I’m about at the top of my natural long (18 months), mildly bipolar cycle. On the other hand …

… we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, one which has been incompetently managed at the federal level to the point where we’re likely to see hundreds of thousands of additional unnecessary deaths here before the end of the year. (Don’t bother to post a political comment disagreeing — I’ll just delete it.)

St Cybi’s Well has failed spectacularly to find an audience as of yet, with fewer than 500 total downloads/sales. Given how long I struggled with the book, and the very positive responses to it by people who have read it, that’s very frustrating.

… I’m having increasing problems with arthritis in my hands, which greatly limits how much book conservation work I can do. Given that I love doing this work, that’s been another source of frustration.

So it’s not terribly surprising that I would have this reaction. Lots of people are struggling with the stress of this current time. I know I am extremely fortunate in most ways, so I’m not asking for sympathy or anything.

But it pays to understand what is happening to me, and why. Only by doing so can I decide on the best way to proceed. And my morning walk helped.

I now walk 3 miles a day, about 5 days a week. Two or three days a week I take a break to allow my joints to recover a bit, or to accommodate appointments, inclement weather, et cetera. This morning I was supposed to have a solid couple hour window between thunderstorms to get my walk in, but I took along an umbrella just in case.

And it was a good thing I did. About 2 miles into my walk the skies were too heavy and unburdened themselves. I decided it was something of a metaphor, and that I should do the same. Hence this blog post.

No brilliant insights from this to share. I know how to deal with the frustrations, and am well equipped to do so. More precautions, in spite of the isolation. More writing, in spite of the failure. More work, in spite of the ache. More reaching out and doing what I can for others, in spite of the funk.

Jim Downey



Pick your future.

This one’s fiction ( Specifically, from Chapter XIV of Stranger in a Strange Land ):

The man said, “What is your interest in Gilbert Berquist?”

Jubal answered with pained patience, “I wish to speak to him. See here, my good man, are you a public employee?”

The man barely hesitated. “Yes. You must-”

“I ‘must’ nothing! I am a citizen in good standing and my taxes go to pay your wages. All morning I have been trying to make a simple phone call-and I have been passed from one butterfly-brained bovine to another, and every one of them feeding out of the public trough. I am sick of it and I do not intend to put up with it any longer. And now you. Give me your name, your job title, and your pay number. Then I’ll speak to Mr. Berquist.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Come, come! I don’t have to answer your questions; I am a private citizen. But you are not. . . and the question I asked you any citizen may demand of any public servant. O’Kelly versus State of California 1972. I demand that you identify yourself-name, job, number.”

This one’s nightmare (NPR interview with the mayor of Portland):

“But the difference between local and federal law enforcement is that we have clear policies, clear directives. We have a complaint process. We have an independent accountability and review system.

With the federal government, they won’t even identify who they are. We don’t know why they’re here. We don’t know the circumstances under which they’re making arrests. We don’t know what their policies are or what accountability mechanisms there are, to the point where even the U.S. attorney here in the state of Oregon is calling for an investigation, wondering, where was the probable cause to pull these people off the streets into unmarked cars?”

Of course, Heinlein’s book is set in an alternate “future”, so I suppose there’s still time for us to get there …

Jim Downey



The Waltz Dystopic

Why on Earth would you want to read a novel about a pandemic during a pandemic? Or why would you want to dive into a world where America is a dystopia of racial hatred and theocratic overreach when America is, well, trying to sort out racial hatred and theocratic overreach? There’d have to be something wrong with you to join in such a dance, wouldn’t there?

This was touched on in an interview on NPR I listened to this morning on my daily walk. In it, author Josh Malerman said that reading about a pandemic during a pandemic was somehow comforting; it was a way of saying “we know how to deal with this”.

In writing St Cybi’s Well I used an old literary technique to create some psychic space between the reader and my criticism of our American society, by not placing the story in America, but by having characters in the story reflect on and discuss what a dystopia American had become. This way the reader joins me in a dance, following my lead, but themselves moving through the story I’ve set out. The dystopia is there, but together we have defined it, perhaps tamed it enough that we can see it for what it is.

Of course, our reality is not the reality of St Cybi’s Well. Though it is still very early in the Covid-19 pandemic, I don’t think that it will be quite as devastating as the Fire-flu is in my book. And though we are perhaps at a turning point in the political history of our country, we’re not yet in a constitutional theocracy.

Take the lesson — or the warning — for what it is. That’s why you join the dance.

Jim Downey



Are hats next?

I have mentioned this passage from the prelude to St Cybi’s Well a couple of times previously:

He turned the hand-held on, did a quick check to make sure it had the software and apps he’d asked for. Everything was there. He’d pick up a burner phone later, and swap the SIMM card into the hand-held. He turned off the hand-held, dropped it into a special pocket inside his vest – one which was RF-blocked. He had another such compartment in his satchel. These, like the wallet/holster, were prohibited items and grounds for arrest in the States, but while they would raise an eyebrow in the UK they weren’t technically illegal.

 

And even earlier did a blog post about a commercial product to isolate a phone that way when I first thought of it: Off the Grid Bag. (Which actually works quite well, as a matter of fact; I got one of those and have tested/used it exactly as intended.)

Well, now someone has come up with the idea of making actual articles of clothing using the same idea:

Sure, you could just turn off your phone. But that would be too easy. Now, thanks to Trident (yes, the chewing gum) and fashion designer Kunihiko Morinaga, you can repel all cellphone transmissions simply by wearing these hip threads called Focus Life Gear—made of radio frequency shielding fabric.

 

I suppose that since I haven’t actually published St Cybi’s Well yet I can’t claim to have predicted this tech, but no matter — it’s an obvious application of existing technology and desire for privacy. But still, kinda fun.

 

James Downey

Tip of the radio-wave-blocking hat to Tim for the news item! Thanks!



“We’d never even *dream* of doing such a thing. Really!”

Well, anyone paying attention should have known this was coming:

Pentagon scientists show off life-size robot

Washington (AFP) – US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got a first-hand look at a life-size robot that resembles Hollywood’s “Terminator,” the latest experiment by the Pentagon’s hi-tech researchers.

But unlike the cinematic version, the hulking Atlas robot is designed not as a warrior but as a humanitarian machine that would rescue victims in the rubble of a natural disaster, officials said on Tuesday.

The 6-foot-2-inch (187 centimeters) Atlas is one of the entrants in a contest designed to produce a man-like life-saver machine, the brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

 

Right. Because the Pentagon would never *dream* of putting weapons on any new piece of technology

Well, they’ve got 15 years to get to the level of the T-800 model.

Sheesh.

 

Jim Downey



It’s not about security. It’s about abuse and incompetence.

I know sometimes people think that I am anti-government or anti-authority because I rant about infringements of our civil rights and personal liberties. I’ll cop to some of that, since I do believe that trading freedom (or even privacy) for a false security is foolish.

But more importantly, I think that the whole notion of secret courts or secret laws or secret lists are dangerous because they can be abused not due to an over-enthusiastic effort to protect the country, but because of personal grudges or to cover up incompetence. Without the ability to challenge these secret acts/actions, those abuses and incompetence cannot be brought to light and corrected. This is the perfect example of that:

The government contested a former Stanford University student’s assertion that she was wrongly placed on a no-fly list for seven years in court despite knowing an FBI official put her on the list by mistake because he checked the “wrong boxes” on a form, a federal judge wrote today.

The agent, Michael Kelly, based in San Jose, misunderstood the directions on the form and “erroneously nominated” Rahinah Ibrahim to the list in 2004, the judge wrote.

“He checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote (.pdf) today.

* * *

Much of the federal court trial, in which the woman sought only to clear her name, was conducted in secret after U.S. officials repeatedly invoked the state secrets privilege and sought to have the case dismissed.

 

Doctor Ibrahim is the first person to successfully challenge in court being put on a government watch list in the US. It’s highly doubtful that she is the only one to be placed on such a list incorrectly.

National security may benefit from secret lists and hidden actions. But so does bureaucratic incompetence and hidden agendas.

 

Jim Downey



That’s it. I give up.

I’ve complained a number of times recently about how revelations of spying and other government activity from our reality keep messing up my efforts to depict a growing dystopian society in St. Cybi’s Well.  It’s happened again, and I’m gonna just give up on the effort to try and stay ahead. I swear, it’s like my ideas keep bleeding over into this existence.

What am I talking about? Well, here’s a passage from what I call the “Prelude” to St. Cybi’s Well, which I wrote months ago:

He turned the hand-held on, did a quick check to make sure it had the software and apps he’d asked for. Everything was there. He’d pick up a burner phone later, and swap the SIMM card into the hand-held. He turned off the hand-held, dropped it into a special pocket inside his vest – one which was RF-blocked. He had another such compartment in his satchel. These, like the wallet/holster, were prohibited items and grounds for arrest in the States, but while they would raise an eyebrow in the UK they weren’t technically illegal.

Got it? For the world of St. Cybi’s Well it is *illegal* in the US to own a wallet or have a pocket which is hidden from government surveillance.  For me, this was one way to draw a distinction between that society, and our own.

Well, guess what is in the news today:

There is a truly bizarre case out of Ohio where Norman Gurley, 30, was arrested for having a hidden compartment in his car. However, there were no drugs or guns or anything illegal in the compartment. Indeed, there was nothing illegal in the car or on Gurley. However, just have a hidden compartment in your car can now be charged as a crime in Ohio.

*Sigh*

 

Jim Downey



“It’s Philip K Dick’s world; we just live in it.”*

Speculation about what technological change can do to society is at the very heart of Science Fiction.

It also works pretty well for other cautionary tales:

We now know that the NSA is collecting location information en masse. As we’ve long said, location data is an extremely powerful set of information about people. To flesh out why that is true, here is the kind of future memo that we fear may someday soon be uncovered:

Sorry for the light posting the last few days; the latest viral thing going around managed to get more of a grip on my body than I would have liked. But the work on St. Cybi’s Well continues to go well.

 

Jim Downey

*From this comment on MetaFilter. The whole discussion is worth reading.



Hard to keep up.

As I’ve noted before, it’s hard to keep up with the steady trickle of revelations about what the NSA has been up to, and how the reality of what has actually been going on keeps surpassing the dystopian aspects I have been writing about in St. Cybi’s Well.  For example, here’s this passage from the beginning of the book:

He turned the hand-held on, did a quick check to make sure it had the software and apps he’d asked for. Everything was there. He’d pick up a burner phone later, and swap the SIMM card into the hand-held. He turned off the hand-held, dropped it into a special pocket inside his vest – one which was RF-blocked. He had another such compartment in his satchel. These, like the wallet/holster, were prohibited items and grounds for arrest in the States, but while they would raise an eyebrow in the UK they weren’t technically illegal.

With this item from yesterday’s Washington Post revelations that the NSA and related agencies are basically tracking every cell phone on the planet:

The NSA’s capabilities to track location are staggering, based on the Snowden documents, and indicate that the agency is able to render most efforts at communications security effectively futile.

Like encryption and anonymity tools online, which are used by dissidents, journalists and terrorists alike, security-minded behavior — using disposable cellphones and switching them on only long enough to make brief calls — marks a user for special scrutiny. CO-TRAVELER takes note, for example, when a new telephone connects to a cell tower soon after another nearby device is used for the last time.

Now, see, I was thinking I’d use something exactly like that as the ‘rude surprise’ which would trip up my protagonist later in the novel, since he wouldn’t expect that the NSA would have that level of data-collection ability.

*Sigh.* So much for my trying to come up with a dystopian reality …

And this is timely:

 

Non Sequitur

 

Jim Downey



Hey, it’s just $900 million …

Well, that’s terribly surprising: the GAO is out with a new report from their investigation of the TSA’s Behavior Profiling program, and it turns out that it doesn’t work.  From NPR:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal probe of a Transportation Security Administration program to screen suspicious behavior of passengers at airports suggests the effort, which has cost almost $1 billion since 2007, has not been proven effective, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Government Accountability Office said its investigation found that the results of the TSA program — called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques — were “no better than chance.” Under the program, agents identify suspicious looking people and talk to them to determine whether they pose a threat. The investigators looked at the screening program at four airports, chosen on the basis of size and other factors.

“TSA has yet to empirically demonstrate the effectiveness of the program despite spending about $900 million on it since 2007,” said Steve Lord, who directed the investigation for the GAO. He said the GAO, which is the research and investigative arm of Congress, “conducts active oversight of the TSA for the Congress given their multibillion-dollar budget.” He said “the behavior detection program is viewed as a key layer of aviation security.”

Yeah, a “key layer” that doesn’t work. From ars technica:

It sounds pretty science-y, but it turns out that, in practice, BDOs across the country are referring passengers for secondary screenings at very different rates. For a program based on “objective” biometric measurements of deception, this is not the result one would hope to see. (Even the TSA admitted to GAO auditors that some of the observations were “subjective”; it is trying to rein these in.) And Ekman, who helped set up the program, told GAO three years ago that no one knew “how many BDOs are required to observe a given number of passengers moving at a given rate per day in an airport environment, or the length of time that such observation can be conducted before observation fatigue affects the effectiveness of the personnel.”

For the report, GAO auditors looked at the outside scientific literature, speaking to behavioral researchers and examining meta-analyses of 400 separate academic studies on unmasking liars. That literature suggests that “the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance (54 percent).” That result holds whether or not the observer is a member of law enforcement.

It turns out that all of those signs you instinctively “know” to indicate deception usually don’t. Lack of eye contact for instance simply does not correlate with deception when examined in empirical studies. Nor do increases in body movements such as tapping fingers or toes; the literature shows that people’s movements actually decrease when lying. A 2008 study for the Department of Defense found that “no compelling evidence exists to support remote observation of physiological signals that may indicate fear or nervousness in an operational scenario by human observers.”

Like I said, surprising.

Or, you know, not at all.

But at least they spent almost a billion dollars of our money. That’s something.

 

Jim Downey