Filed under: Astronomy, Fermi's Paradox, Humor, NYT, Privacy, Science, Science Fiction, Seth Shostak, SETI, Space, Survival, tech, Website at the end of the Universe, Writing stuff | Tags: astronomy, blogging, Communion of Dreams, Drake Equation, Fermi's Paradox, humor, jim downey, New York Times, science, Science Fiction, Seth Shostak, SETI, space, Stephen Hawking, technology, writing
A better approach is to note that the nearest intelligent extraterrestrials are likely to be at least dozens of light-years away. Even assuming that active SETI provokes a reply, it won’t be breezy conversation. Simple back-and-forth exchanges would take decades. This suggests that we should abandon the “greeting card” format of previous signaling schemes, and offer the aliens Big Data.
For example, we could transmit the contents of the Internet. Such a large corpus — with its text, pictures, videos and sounds — would allow clever extraterrestrials to decipher much about our society, and even formulate questions that could be answered with the material in hand.
While I still agree with Stephen Hawking on the idea of ‘active SETI’, I think that there’s merit in the idea of exposing other nearby civilizations to what we’re really like, warts and all. Because as soon as they decoded our transmissions well enough to understand the comments section of pretty much any major site on the web, they’d either completely wall off our solar system* and post warnings around it or just trigger our sun to go supernova. Either way, we’d never know what happened, and the rest of the galaxy would be safe …
*gee, that’d make an interesting premise for a SF novel, doncha think?
Filed under: Feedback, Podcast, Society, Survival, Violence, Writing stuff | Tags: belief, blogging, feedback, jim downey, loss, podcast, This I Believe, violence, writing
The folks at This I Believe have now put up the audio of me reading my essay “The Power to Forget“, as part of having it included in their weekly featured essay podcast, as I mentioned previously was in the works.
And I’d like to ask a favor: if you know of someone who might benefit from this essay, please share it with them.
No, not for any benefit to me. I’m not above self-promotion, but that isn’t why I ask for your help in this case. A decade ago when I wrote that essay, I had hoped that it might help others navigate through their own anger and loss. I thought that it had just disappeared into the foam of internet verbiage, until the people at This I Believe contacted me the beginning of this year. And now it feels somewhat like it has a second chance to do some good.
I don’t expect it to work miracles. Each of us who has suffered a loss — whether of a loved one, or our health, or our dreams, or an opportunity — have to deal with that loss in our own way. But it’s sometimes good to know what path others have taken, what worked for them. So maybe my essay will help someone.
Filed under: Augmented Reality, Connections, Faith healing, Science Fiction, Survival, Wales, Writing stuff | Tags: augmented reality, blogging, Darnell Sidwell, excerpt, jim downey, miracles, Roman, Science Fiction, St. Cybi's Well, Wales, writing, Y Gaer
An excerpt I thought I would share. I had been planning on the current chapter being titled “Maen-Du Well”, but have decided instead on going with “Y Gaer”, which is just the Welsh name for “The Fort” — this fort, actually. The following happens there in the ruins:
A path led around past the buildings, then into a fair-sized rectangular terrace, the remnants of the Roman walls still clear and exposed in places. And the western and southern gate foundations were still surprisingly intact, from what he could see even at a distance of a hundred meters or so. He decided to cross the grounds of the old fort, go directly to the south gate.
As he approached the south boundary, he saw a man sitting on the gatehouse foundation, looking across the river. An old man, his aged leather rucksack on the wall ruins next to him. Eleazar didn’t look back, didn’t say anything as Darnell entered the small fenced-in area which protected the ruins from grazing sheep. He just looked out across the valley, until Darnell sat down beside him on the sun-warmed stone. “I thought I might find you here.”
Eleazar smiled. He pointed down the slope. “It was a good posting. The old road used to run just there, between us and the river.”
“You make it sound as though you were actually here,” said Darnell.
Eleazar shrugged. “For a while. It was good to get back to Britannia, and my passage was with a cavalry unit, part of which wound up here.”
Darnell studied the man. For a while, Eleazar just continued to look out over the small river valley. Then he turned, and considered Darnell in return. “You’re looking for miracles. Are you so surprised to see evidence of one?”
Filed under: Book Conservation, Connections, Failure, Health, Marketing, Publishing, Survival, U of Iowa Ctr for the Book | Tags: appendectomy, appendicitis, art, blogging, book conservation, bookbinding, bookbinding techniques, bureaucracy, health, jim downey, Legacy Bookbindery, mortality, survival, teaching, training, University of Iowa Center for the Book
The summer before this past one I almost lost my wife to appendicitis.
The flip side of that, of course, is that I know I could die suddenly, as well. And while I have done a number of crazy and stupid things, I’ve always tried to keep an eye on the real risks involved. It’s not smart to lose track of the fact that you’re mortal.
But being there in the hospital with my wife, as she recovered from an emergency appendectomy, reflection on my own mortality took a slightly different direction. Rather than just thinking about what I had accomplished, and whether it had been a full life, I got to thinking about what I had to offer. And one thing I started thinking about was that I had accumulated a lot of very specific experience which was fairly rare: my book conservation skills.
Now, there are some really good schools out there to train conservators. As well as professional organizations, and workshops and all the sorts of things you would expect. But not a lot. Certainly not enough to meet the need for trained conservators; a need which will only continue to grow as more and more books and articles are published only in electronic format, and the current inventory of printed material starts to age and grow fragile.
Since I have been in private practice as a conservator for 20+ years, I haven’t done a lot of just low-level routine repairs. Rather, I’ve worked on the more valuable items from both private and public collections — the sorts of things which individuals and institutions felt it was worth paying me for my expertise. In other words, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on the cream of the crop from multiple collections, as it were, which has given me the opportunity to further hone a wide range of techniques and demanded that I do my very best by the books and documents entrusted to my care. And with that experience came judgment about what techniques are appropriate in what cases, what will work and what won’t. Judgment which often isn’t even conscious, but lives in my fingertips and can only be shared by close example and repetition.
That’s what I have to offer. And that’s what would be lost were I to die suddenly.
That’s what I got to thinking.
As luck would have it, about the same time I started working with an old acquaintance who had developed an interest in medieval bookbinding. He doesn’t live close, so we had to discuss things online and over the phone, with his coming to visit for weekend training now and then. Because *nothing* compares to hands-on, face-to-face training.
And working with him reminded me of how much I enjoy sharing my skills and love for my craft. Oh, I’ve taught plenty of bookbinding classes over the years, and that has been enjoyable. But there is nothing like working with a student who shares my intense passion for caring for historical texts, rather than someone who just wants to make some blank books for Christmas gifts or needs to have another example for their arts portfolio.
So I got to thinking of how I could find another mechanism to share my skills with people who already share my passion. And I decided to sound out a local institution about perhaps training some of their staff (many large libraries and archives have one or a few preservation technicians, who do the valuable basic repair work on the collection). I knew that while the budget environment wasn’t good, there might be a way for us to work out an arrangement for long-term, careful training in depth of some of their staff, allowing me to transfer both specific skills but more importantly nuances in judgment through hands-on work of items in their collection.
The institution was certainly receptive, and for a while we worked hard to see how to bring my initial thoughts into reality within their system. Meetings were held, brain-storming sessions conducted. Lots and lots of meetings, involving lots of different people and departments, different budget lines and facilities. The prospects were very promising, and I was very excited about the possibilities to begin a new phase of my book conservation career, teaching others part-time. But ultimately the bureaucracy proved too hard to overcome; rather than starting a long-term, fairly permanent training program, the bureaucracy could only accommodate a temporary ‘pilot’ program within its usual rules and guidelines for professional development.
And here is where the title of this post comes into play: knowing when to walk away.
Because when all was said and done, there was a chance … but only a chance … that the temporary pilot program teaching two or three people might find a home (and funding) within the institution. Maybe.
What should I do?
I considered and consulted with some close friends. After all the discussions, after all the meetings and brainstorming, I was deeply vested in seeing this work out.
But I had to take a step back and think about my initial goals, and rationally assess whether or not this would accomplish what I wanted. I decided that it didn’t — that I would be committing too much time and energy to trying to meet the needs of the bureaucracy rather than my own needs, and that I would have too little control over what I could teach.
I can’t blame the bureaucracy; it exists for a reason. Trying to change it, to get it to do something unique and risky, was probably a fools errand from the start.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, though. The bureaucracy at the institution in question, as well as the bureaucracy at many such institutions, is already set up to handle another version of training for their staff: specific workshops conducted by outside consultants, lasting from a few hours to a few days.
So that’s what I am going to do. In the next couple of months I will put together the initial offerings of training workshops for specific conservation techniques. All will have detailed descriptions of what the workshop will include. All will include plenty of hands-on practice under close supervision. All will be completely modular, so that any institution can select from the menu of offered workshops without being committed to other workshops.
I may not be able to do in-depth training of a small number of people, but I can share my skills and judgment with a much wider selection of institutions. It’ll be a lot more work on my part, but will hopefully also accomplish more.
We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted as to developments as things happen.