Communion Of Dreams


This could be straight out of …

St Cybi’s Well, what with an incompetent theocratic government in place:

So imagine the scenario. A deadly flu pandemic is beginning in the northeast. TSA agents are asked to report for work in the germ incubators that are airports to keep the transportation system running. And while their bosses in Washington, D.C. can’t supply them with reliably functioning respirators to protect them from infection, they’re keeping thousands that may not work on hand, thinking they may hand them out for “employee comfort,” like security theater karma for those who make us remove our shoes and take our water.

But sadly, scarily, it isn’t. Rather, that passage is from the following news item:

The Department of Homeland Security Is Not Prepared for a Pandemic

As the Department of Homeland Security endeavors to prevent another 9/11, a terrorist attack that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, it is worth remembering that there are far deadlier threats out there. I speak not of ISIS or Ebola, but the influenza virus. The flu pandemic that began in 1918 killed 675,000 Americans. That is to say, it killed about as many Americans in a couple years as the AIDS virus has in decades. Worldwide, that same flu pandemic killed an estimated 30 to 50 million people. It would take 16,000 attacks like 9/11 to equal that death toll. Those figures powerfully illustrate the case for redirecting some of what the United States spends on counterterrorism to protecting ourselves from public health threats.

Of course, money only helps if it isn’t squandered. Take the extra $47 million dollars that Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security in 2006 to prepare for a pandemic. As a recent Inspector General report explains in depressing detail, a lot of that money was wasted. And one darkly hilarious passage in the audit reveals what may be the most galling example of security theater ever.

Oh, joy.

But it’s OK, because the rest of the world is ready to step up and fight against a viral threat which could explode into millions of cases in just a few weeks, right?

Um …

Dire Predictions On Ebola’s Spread From Top Health Organizations

Two of the world’s top health organizations released predictions Tuesday warning how bad the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could get.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization agree that the epidemic is speeding up. But the CDC’s worst-case scenario is a jaw-dropper: If interventions don’t start working soon, as many as 1.4 million people could be infected by Jan. 20, the agency reported in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

*sigh*

Sometimes it feels less like I’m writing a cautionary work of fiction and more like I am looking back and writing an historical account …

 

Jim Downey

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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



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



Toxic Security Administration.

I’m not sure which is more depressing: that this happened, or that I find it completely unsurprising that it happened.  What’s that? This:

…a harrowing story from Aditya Mukerjee about his recent attempt to fly from New York to Los Angeles. After being pulled aside in the security line, he faced hours of interrogation by uncommunicative officials from several different agencies. When he was finally cleared, his airline, Jet Blue, wouldn’t let him on the plane anyway. When he got home, he found evidence that it had been searched.

The entire sickening story, told by the man it happened to, can be found here: Don’t Fly During Ramadan.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve almost given up even mentioning the absurdity of the TSA’s latest actions. Like the revelations about what the NSA has been doing, it seems like there is really little point in it. I just keep filing away the latest news items and go back to adjust what is included in St. Cybi’s Well. Because no matter how egregious the violations of our civil liberties, there’s always someone to come along and say that they’re happy to have the “security” which is being provided.

 

Jim Downey

 



Italy, 2012: An unexpected introduction.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”

That may seem to be an odd choice to kick off a series of travelogs about my recent trip to Italy. The focus of the trip, after all, was on Classical Antiquity – specifically, “The Italy of Caesar and Vergil.” So what does a fictional character from 2019 have to do with it?

Well, me, not to put too fine a point on it.

Context is everything. While I had always kinda-sorta wanted to see Italy, it wasn’t a high priority for me. Other trips always took precedent. I figured I’d get around to seeing Italy sometime, or if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be a big deal. After all, while I knew the general history of that part of Europe, and even more than the average amount about Rome (and the Romans), neither was of particular interest. It didn’t play a part in my fiction. It wasn’t pertinent to my life. So I thought.

I was wrong. Hopefully, these travelogs will convey how.

* * * * * * *

An old and dear friend is an expert on Classical Antiquity. His name’s Steve Tuck. Associate Professor of Classics. Published author. DVD star. He’s one of those guys that gets called up when NPR needs a sound bite/expert on something in his field.

And for years he’s told me about the various classes and tour groups he’s taken to Italy. They always sounded like fun, if somewhat outside my own scope.

Well, just a couple of weeks before he was supposed to take another group over this summer, he dropped me a note. There was an unexpected opening in his tour – was I interested in filling in?

Sure. What the hell. It’d be a chance for me to get a out of my routine. Push the boundaries of my comfort zone a bit. Spend time with a good friend who I don’t see often enough. And maybe even learn something.

The tour was actually designed as a workshop for High School Latin teachers, and would help them be prepared for changes to the A.P. criteria going into effect. Part of most days the group would be in class, going over the scholarly material. And the site visits would all be tied to said material. While the rest of the group was in class, I’d have time to explore on my own, do some writing (note-taking), play tourist. When we went to sites, I’d get the same expert guide instruction as everyone else.

So, it was 24 Latin teachers, me and two other non-teachers (one the spouse of a teacher, one the mother of one), my friend and his Co-Director for the trip, a woman who is herself a Latin teacher but who also has extensive knowledge of the area/material and conducted the classroom sessions. 29 of us. Good number. Prime number.

* * * * * * *

Getting to Rome was pretty much routine international travel. Which is to say mildly annoying and took too long. I can’t wait until the TSA allows the use of transporter technology. (You did know that we actually have transporter technology, right? Yeah. They’re just trying to figure out how they can still get to hassle us about the size of our water bottles before they let us use it.)

I arrived in Rome early on July 11th. Going through Passport Control and Customs amounted to little more than blithely showing my passport to the bored agent who glanced at it an waived me on. Seriously, I stepped past the checkpoint and looked around for the Customs station. There was none. Or rather, there was off to the side, but the guys there were too busy talking and literally didn’t even look up at me when I paused to consider if I needed to take my luggage to them. Hell, everyone else was just walking past me and into the main concourse, so I figured I should as well.

It was about 9:00 AM. It was hot & humid in the airport. The first two ATMs I passed weren’t working. People seemed to be less harried than you usually find. Certainly, the uniformed staff were. But whenever I stopped and asked a question, they were happy to help, and pointed me on my way.

This, I found, pretty much summed up Italy.

Except Naples. I’ll get to that later.

* * * * * * *

The express train from the airport to the main station in Rome proper took about a half hour. It cost $14 (actually, 11 Euros, but I’m just going to use $ equivalents since I have a $ key on my keyboard and it will avoid confusion). The seats were comfortable, half the train was empty, and again there was no Air Conditioning.

Air Conditioning isn’t a big thing in Italy. This was something of a theme for the whole trip.

The train station was big. Hectic. Every variety of human, and most of our various languages being spoken. But the signage out to the bus stands was pretty clear, so I made my way through the crowds and went outside.

No buses. Taxis. But no buses.

There were supposed to be buses. I went back inside, looked at the signage. Yup. There were supposed to be buses. There was construction beyond the taxis, but no buses.

The only train station employees were all in windows with long lines of people waiting to talk to them. I decided that I could solve this problem on my own.

I went out the side of the station. Still no buses. But there across the street I saw an ATM (called a bancomat in Italy) in the side of a building. I walked over to it. It wasn’t working. There was another one further down, which was.

I decided that I’d just keep going, do a circle around the train station. The construction in the front of the building was still there. But on the other side of it, well-hidden from the station entrance, I found buses. Yay!

* * * * * * *

My friend Steve responded to my text message letting him know I was in town. Said he’d meet me at the bus stop. He did.

It was a fairly short walk over to our hotel, right in the heart of downtown. Steve showed me our room – in the “annex.” Up about 47 flights of steps. All lovely marble, mind. But still.

But still, it was charming. About halfway up we came out on a little outdoor landing where more permanent residents had their little rooftop gardens.

hotel landing

Rooftop gardens are very big in Rome.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off my bag, getting a little cleaned up from having been traveling the better part of a day, we went out. We met Steve’s co-director, Amy Leonard, and had a little lunch before stomping off across the city. Steve and Amy still had to do some checking on things before starting the tour stuff the next day.

You might think that most of this stuff could be done in advance. That information about museum opening times and whatnot would all be available online. And it is available online. You just can’t trust it.

This was one of the key things I learned about Italy: the randomness of how things work. You can take nothing for granted. Places which are supposed to be open certain hours seldom actually are. Shows/galleries which are supposed to be in place frequently aren’t. Things which are supposed to be available “just ran out.” Things that are supposed to work, don’t. You get more-or-less used to this pretty quickly, and learn to be relaxed about it, staying flexible about anything and everything.

So Steve and Amy had to do a lot of checking stuff to see what was actually there, what would actually work. And I tagged along for the walk.

* * * * * * *

Yeah, walk. The things we needed to see were all within walking distance. Well, walking distance if you’re used to walking a lot. I thought I was. I walk about 1.5 miles every morning. Briskly. Up and down hills. So when Steve and Amy said that things were within walking distance, I just grinned and said “sure.”

I’m an idiot.

Well, no, not for saying that I’d be able/willing to walk that much. For making a last-minute decision to wear some decent but lightweight Nike walking shoes on the trip, rather than the heftier hiking boots I usually walk in.

See, downtown Rome is paved with cobblestones. Oh, not all of it – there are some main roads which are concrete and whatnot. But the vast majority of places where you walk is cobblestones. My feet were aching and bruised before we were halfway done.

* * * * * * *

Well, what did I see?

This:

Roman Forum

And a lot more like it.

* * * * * * *

When they were mostly done checking to make sure that their plans would work, we paused. All along the way Steve (mostly – occasionally Amy would chime in) would point out this or that notable structure. He didn’t go into detail with me, as all of this stuff was on the agenda for a complete explanation with the entire group, and there was no need to thrash over it all now.

But we paused on the east edge of the archeological site of the Forum. There was a raised platform about ten meters square.

“That’s where the original Colossus was” said Steve. I think he added something about it having been replaced by Nero with a statue of himself, which was subsequently torn down.

In the background was the Colosseum.

I looked around. Between all the walking, the jet-lag, and the quick intro into Rome, I was stunned. I looked back at Steve. At Amy. “I don’t know if you guys can still appreciate this, since you’re used to it, but this . . . this is . . . incredible. Just the scale of it. I mean, I have seen all of these things in images and documentaries all my life. But in person . . . they’re just overwhelming. You don’t really get a sense of how big, how grand, these things are.”

* * * * * * *

On the way back from the reconnoiter we stopped at Mad Jack’s Irish Pub for a beer.

I was still stunned. Still reeling from the size of the structures. From the scale of everything. From the deep history of the place.

I was used to seeing castles in northern Europe. Stuff six or seven hundred years old.

Where I had breakfast for the next three days was in the basement of the hotel. Or, more accurately, in part of the entry way to the Pompei Theatre, which was over 2,000 years old.

Sorta puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Jim Downey

 



Taking it on faith.

A couple weeks ago I quipped that I was thankful for the TSA, because they are always good fodder for a blog post when things were otherwise slow. Well, likewise, I’m glad that the big multinational banks are around to put my own mistakes in some perspective:

A billion here, a billion there

JPMORGAN, widely considered the best run of all the large banks in America, if not the world, on May 10th provided the kind of news that has become all too common in the financial industry: a $2 billion charge for errant trades. The markets responded within seconds of the opening on May 11th, sending Morgan’s share price down 9%, and its value by $14 billion. Late on May 11th, Standard & Poor’s announced it was downgrading the outlook for the company, and Fitch knocked down its ratings.

* * *

The bluntest criticism of Morgan’s failure came from the bank’s own chief executive, Jamie Dimon. He said the losses were the result of self-inflicted “sloppiness”, “poor judgment” and “stupidity”, for which “we are accountable”.

And the news this morning is that a number of the executives involved in the losses have ‘retired’. No, not in the Blade Runner sense. But in the sense that they’ll not be drawing a salary of more than a million bucks a month. Though I imagine that these people have more than a bit of savings and contractual retirement income to cushion the blow.

Anyway.

Yesterday’s Kindle promotion for Communion of Dreams wasn’t a huge mistake, but it also wasn’t a stunning success. A total of 1,571 copies of the book were downloaded. Chances are it wasn’t what was needed to kick us up to the next orbital level, but neither did it crash & burn.

What *was* surprising was that our care-giving memoir Her Final Year proved to be very successful, with a total of 3,112 downloads. Wow.

I find it hard to explain just how happy this makes me. As I had noted previously, I was very disappointed with the response to Her Final Year. Only recently have I come to understand that it was about more than just simple sales.

See, I have been very pleased with the response to Communion of Dreams. The sales are nice, and the income helps. The reviews and ratings are rewarding. But what really makes me happy is that the book has found an audience, a home in people’s lives, a place in their imaginations.

That Her Final Year hadn’t found such a home was what bugged me. Because I have a lot of faith in the book. Faith that it can help others, if they would just read the damned thing. But that faith had been betrayed by my inability to get any attention for the book. Or, rather, I felt like I had betrayed my faith – and the book – by my inability to promote it.

Now, just because 3,112 people downloaded the book yesterday that doesn’t mean that the book will be read. But it sure as hell is a lot more likely that it’ll be read than just having the thing sit forgotten on Amazon’s servers. We’ll just have to see.

But no longer do I feel like I have betrayed the promise of the book. That gives me a happiness, and a hope, which I haven’t felt for a long time.

Thanks, everyone.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to the HFY blog.)



The fox which wasn’t there.

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox.

* * * * * * *

A friend reacted to something I had posted elsewhere, which involved one of the instances cited in this recent blog post:

I have worked with the TSA screeners in [town]. I have worked with the management team that leads them. I know them personally, and I can tell you this is patently false, disjointed, prejudiced, half-assed reporting of the situation.

* * * * * * *

There was a fascinating long-form segment on NPR’s All Things Considered last night, looking into the “Psychology of Fraud.” The entire thing is worth reading/listening to when you get a chance, but basically it was the case study of how one otherwise ethical man wound up engaging in a series of financial frauds – and how he drew in multiple different people to help him do so.

Like I said, the whole thing is worth your time, but the thing which got me thinking was this bit:

Chapter 5: We Lie Because We Care

Typically when we hear about large frauds, we assume the perpetrators were driven by financial incentives. But psychologists and economists say financial incentives don’t fully explain it. They’re interested in another possible explanation: Human beings commit fraud because human beings like each other.

We like to help each other, especially people we identify with. And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical.

Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, points to the case of emissions testers. Emissions testers are supposed to test whether or not your car is too polluting to stay on the road. If it is, they’re supposed to fail you. But in many cases, emissions testers lie.

And what’s critical in this case is that we help those we identify with. Those emissions testers? They’re much more prone to help someone who is driving an older, inexpensive model car. Because those emissions testers don’t make a whole lot of money themselves, and have cars like that. Someone comes in with a high-end car, they’re less likely to identify with the owner and cut them some slack with the emissions tests.

* * * * * * *

A (different) friend asked me this morning whether I still spend much time reading up on game theory. It was something new to him when he saw it in Communion of Dreams, and my recent posts about it had again piqued his interest.

I replied that I don’t really follow the current scholarship on the topic specifically, but that I saw it in terms of a larger psychological dynamic. I then recommended that he should read Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Why? Because it would provide an insight into how humans are very similar to other primates in how we exist in hierarchical groups, and how we act because of our identity to a group – how that we look to our authority figures for cues on how to behave. He’s currently serving in Afghanistan, and I told him that it would forever change how he would see the military as well as those local tribes he’s dealing with.

* * * * * * *

A passage from Wikipedia:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.[4]

* * * * * * *

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox. It cut across the back of our large yard, disappeared into some heavy brush in the adjacent empty lot.

“Alwyn,” I said, and pointed towards the back of the lot. My dog dutifully jumped up, trotted around the raised bed, and started sniffing the ground. Quickly he caught the scent of the fox, and rushed off to the edge of the yard where it had disappeared.

But he stopped there. He’s well trained, well behaved.

I petted the cat, then headed back towards the house.

My dog followed.

Jim Downey