Communion Of Dreams

Let your fingers do the dancing.

From the beginning of Chapter 6:

There was just one other person in the room, standing at the side of the holo platform, hands dancing over a control board only he could see.

* * *

Jon looked to the dance Ng’s hands played in the air. “About ready?”

Ng said nothing, but just his fingers tapped a command in the air. Instantly, there appeared an image above the holo projector. It was the artifact, pretty much exactly as Jon remembered it from the first meeting a week ago.

There are many such passages in Communion of Dreams, just part of the augmented reality technology which exists at the time of the book. The basic explanation is that the user is wearing contact lenses which allow one to see a virtual reality overlay on the real world, and then within that overlay you can manipulate virtual objects/controls thanks to hand-tracking. When I wrote the book I figured that such technology would be available eventually …

… and here it is, even sooner than I expected:

Google’s new finger control technology is straight out of a science fiction movie

* * *

The company’s lab for advanced projects showed off new technology on Friday that lets users move their fingers in the air to control objects in the virtual world.

It’s called Project Soli, and it uses radar waves to detect precise finger movements or finger “micromotions.”

The result is something that looks like it’s from a science-fiction movie such as Minority Report or Her, in which characters manipulated virtual objects by gracefully moving their hands or fingers in the air.



Jim Downey

Well, however you get there, I suppose …

Via Topless Robot, this article/video from the New York Times:

Sex Dolls That Talk Back

Matt McMullen has proved that some people are willing to spend thousands on sex dolls.

* * *
Mr. McMullen’s new project, which he is calling Realbotix, is an attempt to animate the doll. He has assembled a small team that includes engineers who have worked for Hanson Robotics, a robotics lab that produces shockingly lifelike humanoid robots.

Mr. McMullen is first focusing on developing convincing artificial intelligence, and a robotic head that can blink and open and close its mouth. He’s also working to integrate other emerging technologies, like a mobile app that acts like a virtual assistant and companion, and virtual reality headsets that can be used separately or in tandem with the physical doll.


It’s accepted wisdom that many new technologies come into their own and are quickly disseminated through the public when a way can be found to use them for sex and/or the depictions of same. Printing. VHS tapes. DVDs. The internet. Smartphone Apps like Tinder or Grindr.

So why not artificial intelligence?

Which isn’t the way I saw the technology for an expert system/assistant like Seth developing, but hey, I suppose whatever works …


Jim Downey

Hopeless? Nah …

One of the lessons I’ve drawn from my years of book conservation experience is that what may initially look to be a hopeless case can sometimes surprise you. Take a look at this 1880s dance card for the Marshall Missouri ‘Christmas Hop’. Here it is this afternoon when I took it out of the stack of items a client had brought in:


Looks pretty bad, eh? Actually, it looks a LOT better there than it did in person, thanks to the automatic filters/functions on my phone camera. In person, that light grey was the color of charcoal, and almost no color or words were clear to the human eye. That’s because it was covered in charcoal — it had spent approximately 100 years hidden behind the chimney in a house.  The charcoal was more than 1mm thick over most of the card, and had to be physically scraped away before I got to the surface cleaning. Here it is after I spent some time cleaning it:


Not perfect, but a distinct improvement. Not everything can be fixed. Not every problem can be solved. And even when you can improve things, you’re seldom going to be able to make it perfect.

But that’s OK. That’s life. You do what you can. And almost nothing is completely hopeless — at least, not as hopeless as it might seem at first.


Jim Downey

“You write for the joy of writing.”

Another gem of a video from Open Culture:

The whole thing (about 4 minutes of actual interview, done as an impromptu chat in the back of a car about 40 years ago) is worth enjoying, but this bit in particular will resonate for anyone who writes:

If you can’t resist, if the typewriter is like candy to you, you train yourself for a lifetime. Every single day of your life, some wild new thing to be done. You write to please yourself. You write for the joy of writing. Then your public reads you and it begins to gather around your selling a potato peeler in an alley, you know. The enthusiasm, the joy itself draws me.

The joy, and the sublime struggle to understand. Like all art.


Jim Downey

Another take on book conservation.

Via Open Culture, here’s an interesting 10 minute video about my Japanese counterpart, doing a nice job on refurbishing a small dictionary. It’s entirely in Japanese, but that doesn’t matter too much — the images are all pretty self-explanatory.

If you want a glimpse into the processes involved in my work, this is a good one.

But it’s interesting to note the differences in his approach from my own. Most of it involves fairly arcane techniques which I’m not going to go into. And there may be reasons given in the narration which explain some of his choices, so I’m just going to make a couple of observations and leave it at that.

One, I was surprised at just how much he trimmed the edges of the book. Particularly on the fore-edge, you can see where the trimming has cut off part of the index icons. That’s a lot more aggressive than I usually am when I have to resort to trimming.

And two, the cover material seems to be an artificial or “bonded” leather, though that’s not entirely easy to determine from the video. While that would have been the original cover material, I would advise the client to go with something which would hold up much better over time, or the book will soon be back in the same condition that it was at the start of the video.

Again, there may be good reasons to make those choices, explained in the narration. So this isn’t intended as a criticism, just an observation.

And I like his little pink iron. It’s too cute. So how could I possibly criticize him? :)

Jim Downey

“Uh, he’s already got one, you see.”

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has rightly been called one of the most important scientific tools in human history. It has brought the cosmos closer to us, just as it has helped to drive home an understanding of precisely how far away those twinkling lights in the sky actually are … and connected to that, just how old our universe is:

The depth of Hubble’s data, however, has touched or rewritten nearly every area of astrophysics. Ever since the discovery of the expanding universe in the 1920s, astronomers had struggled with the rate of expansion and what it means. The so-called Hubble constant, the universal rate of expansion, was much in doubt, with two factions arguing very different conclusions from the data. The Hubble constant is also inversely proportional to the age of the universe, another key holy grail of science. One of the primary goals of Hubble was to measure the Hubble constant accurately, using a variety of distance indicators, and by the turn of the 21st century, this helped define a relatively accurate Hubble constant of 72±8 and an age of the universe, which the more recent European Planck satellite has refined further to 13.8±0.04 billion years.


It’s an amazing piece of technology.

But I can’t help remembering that even as amazing as it is, a few years ago it was revealed that it was considered so … obsolete … that US spy agencies had just given NASA two other surplus Hubble-type instruments they no longer wanted to bother to store. As I noted at the time:

…we’ve just found out that what we thought was at the limits of our technology is so obsolete that it can be handed off as so much surplus junk. And the implication is that while NASA is currently without the means to launch and service something like Hubble, that there are plenty other agencies within our government which are not so inconvenienced.


Which brings me around to the title of this blog post. Monty Python fans may recognize it from this scene in the Holy Grail:

Which I just happened to watch this week, and snickered over, remembering the news item about the HST from 2012. Though of course, in this case I hope that the National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t *quite* so taunting of NASA …


Jim Downey

Here’s the skinny.

I’ve previously mentioned that I do document conservation, such as a single leaf of the Gutenberg Bible. That item is paper, but one of the materials commonly used historically for important documents was parchment – an animal skin which is also called vellum. That was commonly used for grants of land or titles, affixed with one or more big wax seals. Such documents evolved over time, and the formal diplomas for college and graduate degrees you see today are their descendents — that’s why the term “sheepskin” is still used to refer to a diploma, because historically they were written/printed on actual sheepskin (or calfskin) parchment/vellum.

Parchment is still a wonderful material to write on, though it is expensive to produce and has one particular quality which needs to be taken into consideration: it is very hygroscopic — it reacts strongly to changes in humidity. Basically, when exposed to humidity that nice flat sheet of parchment wants to go back to being the shape of the animal it came from.  So when it is used for a document you want to frame and display, that needs to be accommodated in some way.

Here’s one way it used to be done:

Side before

Yup, the parchment was just folded over a wood frame and nailed down.

But a rigid mount like that usually tears loose over time, like this:

Top before

To repair it, you have to slowly humidify the document in a controlled environment (without actually having it come in contact with liquid water), allow the skin to relax, then dry it under mild restraint. Usually a couple of cycles of doing that will result in a satisfactory return to “flat”, though to remove all the distortions can require many hours of labor — not typically what a client wants to do, unless the item is of great historical value. Here’s what the above item looks like after a couple of cycles of flattening:

Front after

Now it is ready for proper mounting and framing, using one of several possible framing treatments which will allow the document to ‘move’ due to changes in humidity without trying to rip itself apart.

But a lot of frame shops don’t know that they need to handle parchment/vellum documents a certain way. In fact, many places don’t know that there is such a thing as animal skin parchment/vellum … that’s because a century or so ago, paper manufacturers started to produce types of paper which supposedly had the same qualities for writing/printing as real parchment, and they called that paper “vegetable parchment”. It was a marketing ploy which worked entirely too well, to the point where people became confused about the differences between the two materials, and many people forgot (or never learned) that there was such a thing as animal skin parchment/vellum.

Now, when you have something printed on paper, and if that paper becomes distorted by humidity, one quick and easy way to flatten it is by ironing it. So long as it is done with a mild heat, and a brief exposure, it’s not *that* bad for most papers. After all, one of the ways modern paper is made is by running the sheets between heated rollers to dry and finish them. So if you take a document to a frame shop, and they find that document is a little warped/cockled, they may plug in the iron and see about flattening it.

But if you do that to animal skin parchment/vellum, it’s like cooking the skin. It doesn’t flatten out. It does this:


Sorry, that’s not a very good image. It’s what the client sent me via email*, asking if there was any hope for fixing it. I didn’t think to take my own ‘before’ image. I told the client that I wasn’t very hopeful, because heat damage can be permanent. But I agreed to try, and he brought it to me.

So I gave it the treatment outlined above, but with *very* slight restraint — I wanted to allow the skin to slowly try and relax. Here’s a pic after the first try:


You can already see improvement, even as bad as it still looks. That gave me hope that I could get the document mostly back into its original condition. The client asked me to try. Here it is after two more cycles of humidification and drying under restraint, using a little more pressure each time:

Diploma 2

By no means perfect, but pretty good for a modest amount of labor. There’s always a trade-off with such work, between what is possible to do and what is reasonable to spend doing it. The client was very pleased with the result. So was I.

Just thought I’d share that.


Jim Downey

*Since the diploma is a private document for a living person, I asked the client’s permission to use and display these images. That permission was kindly granted.





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