Communion Of Dreams


Man, I love serendipity … all along I had planned on including the Pillar of Eliseg as one of the sites in St Cybi’s Well. It was one of the first places I saw in Wales, and I’ve always loved it and the nearby Valle Crucis Abbey. Well, they’ve recently discovered that there is an Early Bronze Age cist under the medieval ‘pillar’ — something which I also wanted to include for other reasons related to the story.

Now, the protagonist of this novel — Darnell Sidwell — lives in Tel Aviv, and we know from Communion of Dreams that he has some history doing volunteer work on archeological digs in Israel. So I checked the Wiki entry for Tel Aviv University, found a member of their archeology faculty who it would be logical for Darnell to have known and volunteered for. I just like to have those sorts of details all accurate or at least plausible. Yeah, it’s part of the reason why this book is taking me so long to write.

Anyway, I found a faculty member who fit the bill, and who is a specialist in the Early Bronze Age. Cool — everything worked out just fine. But in continuing to dig a little into that guy’s background and research, I found that he has done a lot of work at one particular site which it would be logical for Darnell to have also visited, if not actually volunteered there: Tel Megiddo, or often as just Megiddo.

But you probably know it as “Armageddon“.

Hehehehehehehe …

Jim Downey

That’s just cool.

Via BoingBoing, fun video from NASA of the unboxing of a shipment of the first printed tools and tests parts from the ISS:

Perhaps it’s just the conservator in me, but I loved the documentation process, and how they’re going through everything carefully. No doubt that some or all of those items will eventually wind up at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.


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.




A change in perspective.

Excerpt, set here:

She reached a hand out to help, steadying herself with her other hand on the tiller, and Darnell stepped down onto the small deck area. There was a low rail around the deck, about knee-height, but there was nothing else between him and the low rail of the bridge trough. And on the other side of the trough rail was a drop of almost 40 meters to the valley floor.

“Very nice,” said Darnell, one hand on the roof rail, as he leaned out and looked over the edge. He turned back, extended his hand to the woman. “Thanks. Name’s Darnell.”

“I’m Sharon. And welcome to the Tedford’s Folly, if only for a short hop to the other end of the aqueduct.” She patted the tiller in her hand, then gestured off the open side of the boat. “Pretty remarkable, isn’t it? You know the history of the Pontcysyllte?”

“The basics, anyway,” said Darnell. “And yeah, it is remarkable what people can achieve when they put their minds to it. Both for good and ill.”

She smiled, and there was an intensity to her bluish-grey eyes. “I love all the canals, but especially this one. There’s always something new to be found when you cross over from one side to the other. A new perspective, depending on the time of year, the time of day, and where your head is at. But not everyone understands that.”


Jim Downey

Preserving something nicer.

Other than the Hitler book, it’s been a while since I shared any pics of my conservation work. So, here’s something a little nicer: the family bible of Missouri’s first Governor, Alexander McNair.

The date on the bible is 1848, and the inscription on the flyleaf is 1851. So this was evidently owned by Governor McNair’s children. This is actually a fairly common pattern you see across the US, where the first generation of settlers on the frontier don’t have these kinds of family artifacts — it’s their children who do.

Anyway, this is how the book came to me:

Cover before

You can’t tell from the image, but the sewing structure was also broken, which meant that the whole book needed to be disassembled, repairs done as needed, and then resewn before remounting into the extant covers, saving the endpapers because they have inscriptions on them.

Here it is after:

Cover after

Cover has been cleaned, redyed, and protective consolidation done on the edges and corners. There’s a new piece of leather (goatskin) providing a new structure to the spine. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spine is wider than it was originally – that’s because in resewing the book, due to the age of the paper, I had to do it in a way which gave it strength and support – but that meant more “swelling” of the spine. It’s a trade-off you have to make: either more fragile, or slightly bigger. Usually in conservation work the choice is for more strength.

Here’s a pic of the inside front cover, showing an inscription on the fly-leaf. If you look closely you can also see a gap along the spine. That’s where the original hinge is broken, and the cover partially detached.

Inside before


This sort of inscription was common during that era, where a husband (or father) would give the book to his wife (or daughter) with wishes that she will study it and live according to it. If you look along the edges, you’ll see damage from handling.

Here’s the inside front cover and fly-leaf after treatment:


Inside after

The flyleaf has been de-acidified, with kozo repairs to the tears along the edge of the page, and then trimmed slightly. Again, it’s hard to see, but there’s a new hinge and the cover has been securely mounted to the resewn text block. The original endpaper has been lifted up, and the new hinge has been inserted under it. This maintains the original appearance as much as possible, but gives the book a secure structure.

And if you like, you can see it in person at the First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site.


Jim Downey

“You’re oversharing again, Earth.”

Seth Shostak, on the topic of how to introduce ourselves to our neighbors:

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 …


Jim Downey
*gee, that’d make an interesting premise for a SF novel, doncha think?

Another step.

From page two of Communion of Dreams:

He paused there at the railing, right hand manipulating the thin-film controls under the skin on the back of his left hand. Looking out over the herd of slowly moving animals, a see-through display came up before him. Nothing new on the nets. So, whatever the emergency was, it wasn’t public knowledge yet. He turned, opened the door to the station, and stepped inside.

From a new article on Wired this morning:

Gannon is exploring modeling techniques that use the human skin as their primary interface. Her prototype is called Tactum. Instead of creating free-floating models in software like CAD, Gannon’s setup uses a Kinect camera and a projector to create a virtual modeling environment right on your hand.

The projector beams blue lights onto the skin. That light represents the base geometry of the band you’ll eventually wear. The Kinect tracks your body and space and keeps the projection aligned. To adjust the design, you drag it with your fingers; there’s no layer of mediation, you just manipulate the form directly. “You could be pinching, touching, poking, prodding and that visual geometry on your arm without having to go through any computer,” Gannon says. “Your skin and hand are the equivalent of the mouse and keyboard.”

Another step in Communion of Dreams becoming reality.


Jim Downey


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