Communion Of Dreams

Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahaha …
April 20, 2015, 2:00 pm
Filed under: Brave New World, Failure, Feedback, Humor, Predictions, tech | Tags: , , , ,

Damn, I just can’t stop laughing over this. It is so painfully true.


Jim Downey

Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

* * *

The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.


The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.


Jim Downey

Out for a stroll.

I mean, who doesn’t want to get out now and again, stretch your legs a bit?

More info here:

Recently, NASA released some pretty spectacular footage captured by an astronaut wearing a GoPro camera while spacewalking around the International Space Station. In the videos, Earth slowly rotates below the space station while astronauts fiddle with cables, install antennae, and work on the robotic arm.


Jim Downey


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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 336 other followers