Communion Of Dreams

An excerpt.

Another in the occasional series of passages from St. Cybi’s Well:

“Hello, Colonel.”

Darnell looked at the man. He was slight, wiry. A simple blue business suit, complete with shirt and tie. Light blue handkerchief peeking out from his breast pocket in an almost casual way. Silver hair slicked back. No glasses, but probably wearing contact lenses. In an earlier age, he probably would have been called “dapper,” and would be seen by most as an almost stereotypical diplomatic attache – an aging, genteel man relaxing in what was probably his final posting.

Darnell had worked for the Israelis long enough to know otherwise. He nodded. “Eli.”

The man passed over the small shoulder bag. “The items you requested.”


“Curious why you just didn’t stop by our offices. Why meet here?”

Darnell looked out over the wall of the small tower, onto the castle grounds some ways below. “Oh, I like the touch of melodrama. Keep ‘em guessing.”

“Our American friends would know you’re here, either way.”

“Of course. And they’re not particularly my friends.”

Eli smiled. There was an edge to it. “But they are ours, and so allow you greater leeway than they would otherwise.”

“Only because I’m valuable to you.” Sidwell returned the smile. “And I think you enjoy annoying them.”

“Well, yes,” he laughed. He glanced to the bag. “So, the items you requested. That’s quite a large sum of money.”

Darnell shrugged. “It’s mine. This way I don’t have to fuss moving it into the U.K. Even with the way things have gone, the government here is much too willing to do the American government’s bidding.”

“It did raise some eyebrows, though.” He assessed Darnell, watching closely, his smile fading slightly. “You’re not preparing to do anything … rash … are you?”

Sidwell looked him in the eye, held his gaze. “Nope. I’m not that foolish. I just wanted to help out my sister’s charity, without giving the Americans an excuse to try and claim some of the money for themselves.”

“Ah.” A slight nod. “Good. Well, in addition to the money, the hand-held you wanted. As well as the gun and cartridges.”


“My pleasure.” The smile was now completely gone. “But please, do not do anything rash. It would cause us both a great deal of trouble.”


Jim Downey

Quick pix.

Remember this?

But that doesn’t mean that the book has to have an old look. Not at all. I’m playing around with some design ideas which will incorporate the cords, but which will feel more modern. Watch for some preliminary posts on that in a couple weeks.

OK, how about this?

Well, this afternoon NPR’s “All Things Considered” had a good piece about the tree, and the drought. And already I’ve had people ask whether it was the same one I had written about/used for the cover of Communion of Dreams.

Yup, that’s the same one. Here’s from the NPR website:

Well, can you take a guess what sort of design motif I’ve decided to use? Here, take a look:

Great Oak design.

Now, if you look at those images closely, you’ll see that there are a pair of lines just to the left of the tree trunk. Those indicate where the spine will be, just as with the paperback edition of the book:

Cutting the cover sheet - this is how it would normally be laid out for a conventional book.

Now, that’s all well and good, but how to create the ‘raised cords’ effect overall? Like this:

laying cords.

So far, so good. Now let’s test how it would look with some calfskin adhered down over that:

Calfskin test.

OK, I like that. But how will it look with goatskin? Here’s that:

Goat & calf tests.

OK, keep in mind that these are just tests to see how the leather looks over the raised cords. I’m happy with the results. But now I need to convert that simple bas relief 2-dimensional effect into a fully functional 3-dimensional sculpture which also happens to be a comfortable-to-read book, using some of the cords above as part of the actual structure of the book.

Sound difficult? Yeah, but remember that this has been my profession for over two decades. I like a nice challenge.

Just thought I’d share that little progress report.

Jim Downey

Pass the salt.

<sarcasm> Gee, I’m stunned </sarcasm>:

No Benefit Seen in Sharp Limits on Salt in Diet

In a report that undercuts years of public health warnings, a prestigious group convened by the government says there is no good reason based on health outcomes for many Americans to drive their sodium consumption down to the very low levels recommended in national dietary guidelines.

Not only did they determine that there was little benefit in pushing for such low levels of overall salt intake, there might actually be health risks associated with such low levels. From the same article:

One 2008 study the committee examined, for example, randomly assigned 232 Italian patients with aggressively treated moderate to severe congestive heart failure to consume either 2,760 or 1,840 milligrams of sodium a day, but otherwise to consume the same diet. Those consuming the lower level of sodium had more than three times the number of hospital readmissions — 30 as compared with 9 in the higher-salt group — and more than twice as many deaths — 15 as compared with 6 in the higher-salt group.

Another study, published in 2011, followed 28,800 subjects with high blood pressure ages 55 and older for 4.7 years and analyzed their sodium consumption by urinalysis. The researchers reported that the risks of heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure and death from heart disease increased significantly for those consuming more than 7,000 milligrams of sodium a day and for those consuming fewer than 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day.

OK, current CDC guidelines, dating back to 2005 (though based on research going back into the 1980s):

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), 2010 recommend reducing sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day. The DGA’s also recommend you should further reduce sodium to 1,500 milligrams (mg) per day if:

  • You are 51 years of age or older.
  • You are African American.
  • You have high blood pressure.
  • You have diabetes.
  • You have chronic kidney disease.

The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the U.S. population overall and the majority of adults. Nearly everyone benefits from reduced sodium consumption. Eating less sodium can help prevent, or control, high blood pressure.

How does this compare to what people actually consume? Well, sodium consumption from salt around the world is about 3,400 mg per person per day. This amount is pretty consistent across cultures, and has remained pretty stable over decades. In other words, the current governmental recommendations say you should be ingesting half to two-thirds of what people have been consistently ingesting. And there have been efforts by governments to impose increasingly strict limitations on salt consumption, usually through limitations on salt use in prepared foods.

There are two problems with that: one, there really isn’t good science to back up the limitations (as noted above). And two, limiting salt in prepared foods changes not only the flavor of the foods, but also the “mouthfeel“. And one of the easiest/most common ways to correct this is with the increased use of lipids (usually fats of one sort or another), since they have a similar effect to salt in creating food density. Meaning that people are probably ingesting more calories in response to prepared foods which has less salt in it. And since obesity is increasingly problematic …

Talk about your unintended consequences. Such is the danger of social engineering of just about every sort.

I started this post with the <sarcasm> </sarcasm> cues because I’ve long been skeptical of the science behind strict salt limitations. As I have noted previously, the evidence backing up strict limitations has been very mixed for decades. And there has been indication that for at least a substantial segment of the population, salt sensitivity wasn’t a problem at all. Now seeing that there is little evidence that lowering salt levels is beneficial for the general population, and that indeed there may be real risks in doing so?

Pass the salt, please.


Jim Downey




As we were on our morning walk, I rolled my right hand over a bit and looked at the blade of it. My wife looked down at it as well.

“How is it doing?”

I flexed the hand back and forth a bit. The pale yellow-green of a late-stage bruise was still very evident.


* * * * * * *

U.S. Warns Syria on Chemical Weapons

WASHINGTON — President Obama warned Syria on Monday not to use chemical weapons against its own people, vowing to hold accountable anyone who did, even as American intelligence officials picked up signs that such arms might be deployed in the fighting there.

The White House said it had an “increased concern” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use such weapons, effectively confirming earlier reports of activity at chemical weapons sites. The administration said it would take action if they were used, suggesting even the possibility of military force.

“Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

* * * * * * *

From The Long, Twilight Struggle:

Londo Mollari: Refa, any force attempting to invade Narn would be up to its neck in blood–its own!

Lord Refa: We have no intention of invading Narn. Flattening it, yes–but invading it? We will be using mass drivers. By the time we are done their cities will be in ruins, we can move in at our leisure!

Londo Mollari: Mass drivers? They have been outlawed by every civilized planet!

Lord Refa: These are uncivilized times.

Londo Mollari: We have treaties!

Lord Refa: Ink on a page!


* * * * * * *

Chemical Weapons Convention

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Its full name is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. The agreement is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is an independent organization based in The Hague, Netherlands.

The main obligation under the convention is the prohibition of use and production of chemical weapons, as well as the destruction of all chemical weapons. The destruction activities are verified by the OPCW. As of January 2013, around 78% of the (declared) stockpile of chemical weapons has thus been destroyed.[5][6] The convention also has provisions for systematic evaluation of chemical and military plants, as well as for investigations of allegations of use and production of chemical weapons based on intelligence of other state parties.

Currently 188 states are party to the CWC, and another two countries (Israel and Myanmar) have signed but not yet ratified the convention.[1]

Syria is one of six UN member states who are not signatories to the Convention.


* * * * * * *

Shortly after the conversation above:


* * * * * * *

Syria crisis: ‘Strong evidence’ of chemical attacks, in Saraqeb

The BBC has been shown evidence which appears to corroborate reports of a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb last month. Eyewitnesses and victims say that government helicopters dropped at least two devices containing poisonous gas on the town.

The Syrian government says it did not and will not use chemical weapons.

Shortly after midday on 29 April, the town of Saraqeb came under attack from government military positions about five miles (8km) away. A local activist we met filmed as the shells landed.


* * * * * * *

As we were on our morning walk, I rolled my right hand over a bit and looked at the blade of it. My wife looked down at it as well.

“How is it doing?”

I flexed the hand back and forth a bit. The pale yellow-green of a late-stage bruise was still very evident.

“It’s healing. The pain has gone from being that bright, intense flash you get from a broken bone to a dull but substantial ache. That tells me that it’s knitting back together properly. A few more days of not stressing the hand, and it’ll be OK.”

We paused, watched the dog take care of his business. As I reached down with a plastic bag to remove the results from the neighbor’s lawn, I thought about how lucky I was.


Jim Downey

Because …

… I’m a big 2001: A Space Odyssey fan, as well as a paleo-future geek, I offer this wonderful insight into my past/future:

“2001: A Space Odyssey” Howard Johnsons Children’s Menu (1968)

Yeah, that’s what it was like back in ’68. Definitely.


Jim Downey

Via MeFi.



Yes, this *is* the future.

How cool is this?

How cool is Chris Hadfield?


Jim Downey

Goodbye, Herr Gutenberg.

My wife came through the kitchen, past the back door, and stepped into my bindery. I was in the process of gathering and folding the sections for the limited edition of Communion of Dreams. I paused, looked up.

“Did you see Annie’s email?” she asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, just a few moments ago.”

* * * * * * *

Because of the crazy weather we’ve had this spring, it seems like everything has been out of kilter in the garden. As a result, I’m just now getting around to doing the usual spring maintenance on the raised strawberry bed. Yesterday, as I was finishing up the weeding, having removed a couple bushel baskets worth of henbit and no small amount of rogue grass, I decided to see if I could get out the entire root of some large and nasty prickly thing.

To do this, I dug down into the surrounding soil with a weeding tool, then grasped the base of the plant with a large pair of old pliers. These plants are tenacious, and this is about the only way I have found to get most of their roots out of the ground without resorting to explosives. Anyway, I got a good grip on the root with the pliers, positioned myself, and pulled mightily.

The root started to come out. But then it snapped off suddenly. My right hand, grasping the pliers, flew free. For about 8 inches. Then it encountered the back edge of the concrete block used in construction of the raised bed. I knew I had broken the fourth metacarpal (the bone in the hand which goes from the wrist to your little finger) before I even raised my hand to look at it.

* * * * * * *

I met him by accident, and it changed my life. It’s a story I’ve told many times, but I don’t recall writing about it before.

I was a couple semesters into work on my MA in English Lit at the University of Iowa. I was looking to get a drop/add slip signed, and opened the wrong door.

See, there were these two doors, side by side. The one on the left went where I intended to go. The one on the right led into the Windhover Press, the fine letterpress at Iowa. But I didn’t notice the sign on the door, and didn’t realize my mistake until I was already a step or two inside.

A short, greying man wearing thick glasses was busy doing … something … behind a piece of machinery I didn’t recognize. He looked over the top rim of his glasses, and gruffly asked: “Can I help you?”

It should have been my cue to stammer out an apology for interrupting him, then turn and leave.

Instead, I stopped, looked around more. It started to sink in what it was I was looking at. “Wow, what *is* this place?”

My appreciation for tools and fine equipment must’ve shown on my face.  He smiled. Just a little. And stepped out from behind the Vandercook proof press he was working at, wiping his hands on the  (once) white apron he was wearing. “Like it says on the door, this is the Windhover Press. The fine letterpress. We make books here. By hand.”

“People still do that?” Well, I knew that they did. In the abstract. But being confronted with the no-nonsense reality of it had me a bit stunned.

“Yeah. Let me show you around.”

He did. I was fascinated. I did drop the class I was planning on dropping, but rather than some class on literary theory I added in a class on “The Hand Printed Book”.

* * * * * * *

‘He’ was Kim Merker. I spent two semesters taking his class. And I learned a lot about letterpress printing, about paper, about ink. And a bit about bookbinding. I also met one of my closest friends, Annie, who was Kim’s assistant at the press and who usually referred to him as “Herr Gutenberg”. Actually, it was Annie who taught me a lot of what I learned there.

Because Kim was gone a lot. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was busy putting together something new. Something which necessitated a lot of meetings, a lot of schmoozing, a lot of travel. That something was the embryonic Iowa Center for the Book.

So Kim and I never became particularly close. Oh, I got along with him just fine, and was always happy to see him in the press when I went there for one of my ‘classes’. And he did teach me a lot, himself.

But I found I was more interested in the simple bookbinding techniques I learned, and shifted my attention to doing more of that as time went on, moving on to taking other classes, learning from other artisans who had been brought together for this new and somewhat vague ‘program’ called the UICB.

Still, without him allowing his work to be interrupted and taking the time to show a gob-smacked grad student around, I never would have become a book conservator and book artist.

* * * * * * *

I felt the sharp pain that comes with a bone break. Dropping the pliers, I lifted my hand and looked at the back of it. There was already a knob there at the point of impact. I felt it. Flexed my fingers. Couldn’t feel any shifting of bone or fragments. And while it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, there was no additional pain from moving my fingers. Just a weakness in my grip in the little finger.

Yeah, I broke the metacarpal. I was certain of it. I finished up the last few bits of the weeding I hadn’t done, using my left hand, and then replaced the boxwire panels which protect the strawberry plants from birds and critters.

I came inside, washed my hands, and again did an assessment. Was there any reason to seek medical attention? Not really. I’ve broken enough bones and had enough other injuries to be able to tell when I should see a doctor or head to the ER. In fact, I’ve broken four metacarpals in my life, and this was actually the second break for this particular one. Only for the first one was a cast needed — because I had shattered the bone when I was 16. (That was the last time I hit anything in anger.)

As I explained to a friend: I prefer to lead a somewhat rough & tumble life rather than a completely safe one. Sure, there are more hurts that come along with that, but the risks are generally worth it.

* * * * * * *

My wife came through the kitchen, past the back door, and stepped into my bindery. I was in the process of gathering and folding the sections for the limited edition of Communion of Dreams. I paused, looked up.

“Did you see Annie’s email?” she asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, just a few moments ago.”

Kim Merker had passed away two weeks ago. Word was just now getting out beyond his family and those who knew him best.  There was a statement up on the UICB website.

I had looked at the dates of his life. And counted the years to when I first met him. I’m almost the same age as he was then.

“I’m going to want to try and attend the memorial service they have for him this fall,” I said.

My wife nodded. I went back to gathering and folding sheets.


Jim Downey

I watched a movie…

This brief post is about the recent science fiction movie Looper. It contains spoilers.  You’ve been warned.


* * * * * * *

Last night I watched Looper. This in itself isn’t unusual, since I try and keep up with interesting science fiction movies, usually watching them some time after the release hype has calmed down.

Looper generated a lot of discussion in reviews and related discussion threads. Lots of people really liked it, though there were the usual arguments about the theories of time travel that you almost always encounter. Personally, I thought that this was handled reasonably well in the film, and I was able to maintain suspension of disbelief.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Not really. Rather, because I am deep in the middle of writing St. Cybi’s Well, another aspect of the movie really stood out for me: it is a meta-narrative on the process of writing itself.

I just Googled the phrase “Looper as meta-narrative“. Over 600,000 hits. I’m not going to get into what others have had to say — I don’t have time this morning (er, so to speak). You can look for yourself.

Instead, just let me say this (and here’s the spoilers part): as depicted in the movie, when events in the past are changed, we see how those changes play out in the bodies of people in the future. If a character gets shot, a scar appears on his future self. If someone loses a finger, we see the person in the future go from having four fingers to three. And in a couple of instances characters will inscribe a message to their future self literally into their own flesh.

And this is just *exactly* the same process that an author uses as he or she revises a text. If I decide that I want to change something that a character says or does early in a book, I need to track that change and make sure that it appears through all aspects of that character through the rest of the book. Same thing for description, plot, background, … everything.

I’ll leave it at that. I have a busy weekend ahead of me, and I need to get things ready for that. And, unfortunately, I don’t have a time machine at hand to allow me some extra leeway.


Jim Downey


Traces of the fire.

The words we read are just traces of the fire burning in the mind of another.

This is lovely:

Sorry for the quick posts. Lots of interesting things happening. I should have more to share on all of that next week.


Jim Downey

*Via MeFi, where there are more good links related to this artist.