The Kindle Update

So 2011 represents my second year of Kindle use, and it’s been quite an eventful year. In 2011 I adopted a policy of not buying dead-tree books any more. And, while I had intended to sustain my use of the Nook, it didn’t really work out and I’m not even sure where my Nook is any more. I still like the Nook’s business model better than the Kindle’s, but my momentum is with the Kindle.

I bought 60 books for the Kindle in 2011 and, as before, read some but not all. I have been reading my Kindle library on a wide range of devices: on my Kindle, of course, as well as on Kindle software for our iPad, our two Android tablets, my Android cellphone, my wife’s iPhone, on all of our Macs, and on the Chrome browser. This really makes it much more attractive for me to continue to acquire books for the Kindle than for any other medium because my library is available to essentially any device I end up using.

Title Author Read
Fight Club: A Novel Palahniuk, Chuck Yes
Loyal Character Dancer Xiaolong, Qiu Yes
Using Google App Engine Severance, Charles Some
Programming Google App Engine Sanderson, Dan Some
The Next 100 Years Friedman, George Yes
The Devil in the White City Larson, Erik
The Gun Chivers, C. J. Yes
The Innocents Abroad Twain, Mark Some
Unless It Moves the Human Heart Rosenblatt, Roger
Practical Chess Exercises Cheng, Ray Some
They Are Us Hamill, Pete Some
Alone Together Turkle, Sherry Some
The Second Self Turkle, Sherry
Anathem Stephenson, Neal Yes
The Mao Case Xiaolong, Qiu Yes
American Gods Gaiman, Neil
Real-time Control of Walking Donner, M.D.
A Short History of Nearly Everything Bryson, Bill Some
The Fifth Servant: A Novel Wishnia, Kenneth
All Your Base Are Belong to Us Goldberg, Harold
Quo Vadis Sienkiewicz, Henryk Yes
Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr | Summary & Study Guide Some
The Flaw of Averages Savage, Sam L. Some
The Age of Wonder Holmes, Richard
Drive Pink, Daniel H.
Nemesis Roth, Philip
The Quiet War McAuley, Paul J.
Symposium Plato
The Republic Plato
Among Others Walton, Jo Yes
Altered Carbon Morgan, Richard K.
Bullfighting: Stories Doyle, Roddy
Consider Phlebas Banks, Iain M. Yes
Germinal Zola, Emile
JavaScript: The Definitive Guide Flanagan, David Some
JavaScript: The Good Parts Crockford, Douglas Some
Onward Schultz, Howard, Joanne Gordon
Rule 34 (Halting State) Stross, Charles
Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick Dick, Philip K. Some
The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh Waugh, Evelyn
The Player of Games Banks, Iain M. Yes
The Quantum Story : A history in 40 moments Baggott, Jim Some
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe, Harriet Beecher
Wireless Stross, Charles
Works of James Joyce Joyce, James Some
jQuery Cookbook (Animal Guide) Lindley, Cody Some
Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata Odell, Michelle Le Blanc Colin Some
Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry Bulmer, Michael Some
The Great Stagnation Cowen, Tyler Yes
In the Garden of Beasts Larson, Erik Some
Debt: The First 5,000 Years Graeber, David Yes
Use of Weapons BANKS, Iain M. Yes
Exploring Online Games: Cheating Massively Distributed Systems Hoglund, Greg, McGraw, Gary
The Children of the Sky Vinge, Vernor
Ready Player One Cline, Ernest
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual Pollan, Michael
Embers Marai, Sandor
Reamde: A Novel Stephenson, Neal
The Unlikely Spy Silva, Daniel
Berlin Noir Kerr, Philip Yes

I had several interesting adventures with my kindle library this year, some of which I’ll summarize here.

Earlier in the year my brother-in-law recommended the book “Berlin Noir” to me. It is a trio of meticulously researched police procedurals set in Berlin. The first two are set in the early years of the Nazi era, while the third is set a few years after the end of the war. They all feature Bernie Gunther, a German ex-policeman turned private detective. Bernie quit the police force in disgust when the Nazis took over. Bernie isn’t a holier-than-thou boy scout – he’s not above the odd bit of vigilante justice and he is definitely looking out for himself whenever he can. But he has standards went out on his own when it became clear what was going on.

But I digress. After Gary told me about the books I went to the Kindle Store on my Kindle and ordered the book. It was delivered, at which point I realized that I’d been fooled. What I had bought was a study guide, like Cliff Notes, from a company called BookRags. I then looked for a Kindle edition of the book but did not find it. Some time later I did discover a Kindle edition and bought it. The Kindle edition is hard to find, however, and the obvious searches do not turn it up. And on the Kindle Store on the Kindle it was very easy to think I was buying the book when I was not. By the way, after finishing two of the three novels I browsed the study guide, which I found to be truly abominable. The glossary was full of inaccuracies and errors that indicated that the person who wrote it probably hadn’t read the book or had not read it carefully. Oh well.

Another adventure involved the reasons that I am now on my third Kindle device. The first Kindle, which was given to me as a Christmas present at the end of 2009, became a fixture of my life after a while. One day in 2010 I was flying to California on business. My seat, in coach, was close to the bathroom. At one point I got up to use the bathroom, leaving the Kindle on my seat. When I got back from the bathroom I found that the glass was cracked. Obviously someone waiting to use the bathroom had sat down on it and broken it. Oh well, when I got to California I got a new one at Best Buy and was reading again.

That Kindle lasted until March of 2011 when my wife and son and I went to Chile on vacation. My wife had taken to reading the New York Times on my Kindle while we traveled because it was the only way she could get the paper. She was walking with my son back from the lounge one day and accidentally dropped the Kindle into a decorative fountain in one of the lobbies. So I ordered a new one from Amazon and it was waiting at my apartment when we returned to New York. I was a bit crippled by the loss, but was able to keep reading on my laptop for the rest of the vacation.

The third, and most odd, adventure involved my own book. I have written a number of reviews of products on over the years and at one point in 2011 I wanted to find one to forward to a friend, so I searched for my own name. To my surprise I discovered that my book, which has been out of print since 1997 and only shows up as available used from non-Amazon sources, was listed as available as a Kindle book for an absurd price, over $80. Just to verify that it was my book, I bought a copy. It was, in fact. It looks like someone took the scan of the book that is available on Google Books and made a very low quality Kindle book out of it.

I wrote an email to Amazon protesting the offer of my book, whose copyright had reverted to me after the book went out of print. They sent me a form page instructing me to write them a paper letter asserting my claim to the copyright. I did so and after several weeks I got an email from one of their lawyers informing me that they had taken the book down and that they had fulfilled their obligations to me.

I checked, and they had not taken the book down, so I wrote her back and said that the book was not gone and reiterating my request for an accounting for all of the sales they had made of my book. I’m sure that at $80+ the only sale they had made was to me, but I wanted to see the accounting. They didn’t answer. A friend, who is a senior partner at a law firm specializing in intellectual property matters, wrote them a letter demanding an accounting, but they ignored this letter as well.

Sort of sad, since this behavior really trashed my admiration for Amazon dating back over ten years.

[Update: Since first writing this entry and putting it up on my blog, my lawyer friend got a response from Amazon to his letter about my book. It seems that the content was submitted to them in error by Springer. They made only one sale, according to their response. So everything is cleared up and I am very happy to restore Amazon’s good guy status in my heart.]

Anyway, this year I gave a Kindle Fire to a good friend and he loves it. And at the holidays all of the parental generation of the extended family conspired together and gave Kindles to all of the children, a total of six shiny new Kindle Touch devices. My son loves his … I see him reading it regularly now, which encourages me that he may yet become a reader by choice.

The Digital Museum (part two)

Four years ago, just before I joined Google, I wrote “The Art Ecosystem and the Digital Museum” on this blog.

At Google I worked to promote the digital museum concept and found a number of similarly motivated folks. A team in Europe had worked with the Prado to put a number of the masterpieces from that museum online in a dramatic way with tremendously high resolution images. Others turned up from around Google and joined in. [By the way, you can look at the fourteen Prado pictures in amazingly high resolution using Google Earth. Just turn on 3D buildings in Earth and then navigate to the Prado and you’ll get a popup for the images.]

Today Google launched the Google Art Project ( with participation from seventeen major museums around the world. The site is very cool.

Mr NYGeek’s Kindle – a year later

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about the new Kindle that a dear friend had given me and the affect that it had had on me. I wrote that item only a few days after receiving it, so it is interesting now to look back at the Kindle after a full year. Let’s look at some of the significant events of the last year involving the Kindle and the entire electronic book space.

Not long after I had received the Kindle I chatted with a colleague, Teddy Kowalski, who had been involved with the Nook development at Barnes & Noble. Soon I ran over to a nearby Barnes & Noble shop, one destined to close in a few days, as it happens, and acquired a Nook. Now I had two different ebook readers.

I found the Nook to be quite comparable to the Kindle. The basic reading UI (forward and back buttons, primarily) is superior on the Nook, but the Kindle is a bit better on the less common functions like zooming around from chapter to chapter or searching.

The Kindle has a clever annotation facility that allows me to select text from whatever I am currently reading and post it to my Facebook wall with my comments. The first time I did this I was delighted to receive a bunch of interesting feedback from my circle of Facebook “friends” with replies and comments on my selection. I am not always interested in sharing my thoughts and notes socially, so the annotation feature is, at this point, cool but not quite as useful as I might like. It comes close to being a way to take notes on what I am writing.

My 2010 Books

Device Title Author Read
Nook Snow Crash Neal Stephenson Yes
Nook Children of Jihad Jared Cohen
Nook The Shape of Water Andrea Camilleri
Nook Death of a Red Heroine Qiu Xiaolong Yes
Nook Cyber War Richard Clarke
Nook Dracula Bram Stoker
Nook The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson Yes
Nook Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
Nook The Girl Who Played with Fire Stieg Larsson Yes
Nook The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Stieg Larsson Yes
Kindle The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson Yes
Kindle The Girl Who Played with Fire Stieg Larsson Yes
Kindle The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Stieg Larsson Yes
Kindle The Lord of the Rings (Trilogy) J. R. R. Tolkien
Kindle The Hobbit J. R. R. Tolkien Some
Kindle The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Mark Twain
Kindle The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
Kindle The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Mark Twain
Kindle The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
Kindle The Korean War: A History Bruce Cumings Some
Kindle Autobiography of Mark Twain Mark Twain Some
Kindle The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires Tim Wu
Kindle Zero History William Gibson Yes
Kindle I Remember Nothing Nora Ephron Yes
Kindle The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of The World Michael Pollan Yes
Kindle Essence of Decision Philip Zelikow Some
Kindle Spook Country William Gibson Yes
Kindle Tatja Grimm’s World Vernor Vinge
Kindle The Red Mandarin Dress Qiu Xiaolong Yes
Kindle When Red is Black Qiu Xiaolong Yes
Kindle Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew Some
Kindle A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again David Foster Wallace
Kindle Victory in Tripoli Joshua London Yes
Kindle The Pirate Coast Richard Zacks Yes
Kindle The Bedwetter Sarah Silverman
Kindle The Fuller Memorandum Charles Stross Yes
Kindle The Greatest Trade Ever Gregory Zuckerman Some
Kindle The God Engines John Scalzi and Vincent Chong Yes
Kindle Postwar Tony Judt Some
Kindle The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald Yes
Kindle What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly Paco Underhill
Kindle Case Histories: A Novel Kate Atkinson Yes
Kindle Reflections on The Decline of Science In England Charles Babbage
Kindle The Two Cultures C. P. Snow
Kindle Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman Some

In 2010 I acquired 47 electronic books, including several duplicates. I bought most of them, though several were free. I read 18 of them completely and substantial parts of another nine. While this is nothing like the amount I read back in the days when I was single, when I would read one or two books each week, it feels like a very significant uptick compared to the pace of the last several years.


In practical terms the Kindle/Nook devices have made my commuting time available for reading. I travel from home to work by subway and I generally have somewhere between ten and twenty minutes between time on the platform waiting for a train and the actual travel time. In the past that time was wasted or spent playing simple games on my smartphone, but now this is some of my prime reading time. The device fits in my jacket pocket when the weather is cold enough to require that I wear one or in my hand otherwise. Opening the device and getting to the place to resume reading is much quicker now than ever it was with paper books.

Nook Gym!

Beyond the commuting time that I have reclaimed, I find that these devices have enabled me to significantly enhance my exercise. I have historically tried to spend some time regularly, three or more times per week, on the exercise machines in the basement gym in my apartment building. The limiting factor for me has been how long I could tolerate the boredom. I can not stand to watch TV, a long standing deficiency of mine, and I have never been able to read paper books while working out – between the challenges of keeping the book open to the right page, turning the page when I’ve finished it, and the difficulty of keeping the small fonts in focus while I’m moving vigorously on the machine, I have never been able to combat gym boredom with books.

With these electronic devices, however, everything is different. I make the font bigger so that I can keep my eye on it while working out, and the device sits flat on the console of most of the machines. Turning the page is a simple button press. So now, when I go down to the gym to work out on the treadmill or the elliptical I now take along a Nook or Kindle and I have no trouble staying on the machine for an hour at a time, enabling me to return from the gym drenched in sweat and feeling very satisfied that I have both spent an hour reading and have contributed to my fitness. I have been tracking my exercise in Google Health since the new goals and diaries features were released this past summer and I find that in the last four months I have worked out over 77 times, almost 2/3 of the days.

Broken Books

Not all of the electronic versions of books are completely readable. Thanks to a recommendation from Chacho I started reading the wonderful police procedurals by Qiu Xiaolong set in 1990s Shanghai. When I got to “A Loyal Character Dancer” however, I discovered a problem with the book, which I communicated to Barnes & Noble by email:

I bought a copy of “A Loyal Character Dancer” for my Nook. I was reading it on my Nook today and I found that there is what appears to be a significant section of text missing at location 94 of 296.

In particular, the sentence begins”

‘… she paused to take a sip of her ‘

and continues

‘Zhu upstairs, something could have been done to the steps.’

It is clear that a significant quantity of text is missing from the book.

They responded promptly and courteously:

We apologize for the difficulties you are experiencing.

We have reviewed your order and downloaded the same eBook to our nook. On page 94 of 296, we see the same exact text as you do. Because this file is provided by the publisher, we are forwarding your feedback to them for review.

Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconveniences this may have caused.

We conducted a dialog over the course of a month or more afterwards, but they were unable to get the book corrected and ultimately refunded my money and removed the book from my Nook.

Of course they may have fixed the book by now, but they may not have done. The only way I can tell, I suppose, is to repurchase the book and look to see if it is defective. The process of getting this resolved was so protracted and unsatisfactory that I’m unwilling to start again. I could buy the book in paper, but I so much prefer to read on the Nook and Kindle that I’m loath to do that. So I have paused in my reading of the Inspector Chen Cao books for now.

This highlights a problem with electronic books that do not exist with paper books. In the past when I had the misfortune to purchase a paper book that turned out to be defective I could inspect the replacement copy and verify that it did not suffer from the defect. With electronic books, however, the only way to inspect it is to buy it. Of course, if one copy is defective, every copy will be, so there’s no point in trying to buy another one and see if it is any better.

Devices as far as the eye can see …

I have an iPod Touch and a Nexus 1 smart phone. Nook and Kindle applications are freely available for both, which permits me to read my Kindle and Nook libraries when I don’t have one of my ereaders otherwise available. Now we have an iPad and a Samsung Galaxy Tab and both of them have Kindle and Nook applications, so my wife and I can now read from our ebook library whenever and wherever convenient. This is quite nice, since the iPad and Galaxy Tab reading experiences are quite pleasant, though I’m not sure I have a strong preference for them over the Nook and Kindle eInk.

I recently stopped in to a Barnes & Noble store and played with the new color Nook. It has gorgeous full-screen color and has a full-screen touch pad. This machine is about half the price of an iPad or Galaxy Tab, so I can’t believe that we won’t see competition from B&N in the tablet market, though they will have to reposition the device in the marketplace.

Mr NYGeek Gets a Kindle

So, Santa, was I naughty or nice? The Kindle you gave me for Christmas is quite delightful, which makes me think that you must have noticed some of the good things I did in 2009. On the other hand, my relationship with books is somehow self-abusive – I buy far more of them than I have the time to actually read. All it takes is a well-written book review or an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend or even an acquaintance and my history quickly gets ever longer.

Back when I was courting my wife I remember telling her about one night when I woke up disoriented in my (then solitary) bed completely covered with books. It seems that my towering reading list, piled high on the night table, had become unstable and collapsed on me. I thought the story was funny, she thought it was cautionary. She was right.

So now I have yet another way to consume the written word. My wife will be pleased, since the Kindle will hold in its capacious storage a quantity of books far beyond the remaining available shelf space in our New York apartment. Perhaps I’ll even buy Kindle versions of some of my favorites and consign their dead-tree equivalents to the great recycling bin in the sky, or at least to the used book store on Broadway across from Zabar’s.

Thus I am introducing a new series of blog posts for “Hacks From the Bleeding Edge,” “Mr NYGeek gets a Kindle.” I will report on the surprises, the joys, the anti-joys, and what I learn. If no one reads them, that’s OK. I’m writing mostly to capture what I learn before I forget it or lose track of it, not because I think I’m going to pioneer major new technical, literary, or intellectual territory.

New York Times

One of the first things I did was sign up for the New York Times on my Kindle. I have recently discussed with several colleagues a study of the Kindle and its competitors (the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony PRS-600, the ViewSonic VEB-612, and others). The research program isn’t complete, but we’d like to understand the benefits and costs of various media choices.

Some observations.

For background, I read the New York Times in paper at home every day. I have read this newspaper daily since I was in middle school. In addition to reading it in paper, I regularly go to the Times website ( and read articles there. And now I have the Times on my Kindle.

How does my reading differ in the three media?

With the paper I find that I pick specific sections and browse them from beginning to end, reading part or all of articles that catch my attention. Since the lineup of sections varies with the day of the week, my selections vary. Also my choices vary depending on how much time I have. If I have little time I may limit myself to just the main section and the business section. When I have more leisure I will read Style and Arts sections. With yet more time, I’ll open the Book Review and even read the Sports section for more than just the league tables for whatever sports happen to be in season.

On the web I find that I have a much more focused style. I usually use the Web site to look up specific articles so that I can send links to people. I do this a fair amount, several times a week. In addition I sometimes read specific sections, particularly Op-Ed, on days when I am rushed in the morning and don’t have time to wait for my wife to finish reading the main section before I have to leave for work.

So far on the Kindle I find that scanning the entire paper is much quicker and easier. I go to the section list at the front and then go into each section and browse the list of titles and writers presented there. I dig in to the articles whose titles appeal to me and read part or all of them, returning to the summary page using the “Back” key when I’ve finished an article.

I find that this process is fast and efficient enough that I have browsed the contents of all of today’s (Sunday’s) sections and read at least one article in each section, more than I probably would have done reading the paper edition.

Today after reading in the Kindle I went through the paper edition manually. As a result of hooks, mostly photographs, in the articles I read two or three more items that I had skipped in the Kindle. I also read the football and basketball league tables, which don’t seem to be published in the Kindle version of the Times.

Leaves of Grass

I looked around for various books that I wanted to put on my Kindle. Many of the titles that I sought are unavailable, for instance I’m presently rereading Patrick O’Brian’s “The Yellow Admiral” but none of the Aubrey-Maturin novels are available for Kindle. I looked for a copy of “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, an old favorite of mine. The Amazon web site smugly informed me that there were 197 matches ranging in price from $0.00 to $48.79. I guess Clemens’ copyright must have expired by now, poor him, so anyone with a copy of the text can publish an edition.

Not all of the 197 are copies of “Huckleberry Finn.” Some are groups of chapters bundled separately and others are scholarly commentary and analysis. In at least one case you get both “Tom Sawer” and “Huckleberry Finn” together in a single Kindle edition.

Dismayed by the plethora of choices, I tried some other titles. I ultimately decided to order a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” another old favorite. This book of poems was Whitman’s great commercial success from its original publication as a slim 95-page volume in 1855 through numerous editions to the final “Deathbed Edition” of 1892, reported to be over 500 pages in length. Fearing the worst, I bypassed the free and very cheap editions and plumped for a $3.00 edition. Oops. No table of contents, no indication of what edition of “Leaves of Grass” I had purchased. The comments on the Amazon website were a confused commingling of all different media and editions, making it hard to tell what Kindle edition, if any, was better than another. Worse yet, it’s almost impossible to distinguish Kindle editions from one another.

The lack of a table of contents is lethal, in my view, and the failure of the downloaded instance of the book to clearly identify itself and its “publisher” is disturbing.

“Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer”

This evening I tried again with “Huckleberry Finn” and this time crawled through the many instances (editions?). In an effort to get some sort of bead on quality, I bought two instances, both for $1.50 each. One is branded as a Modern Library edition and the other as a Penguin edition. Both are brands that I know and respect. Of course, if I’ve learned anything as a digital pioneer, it is never wise to assume that a trustworthy organization in one medium will manage to maintain their quality standards in a new medium, so watch this space for more feedback on the Huckleberry Finn editions.

I tried the same trick with “Tom Sawyer” but without immediate success. The water is muddied by the smelly footprints of Twain’s ongoing milking of the “Tom Sawyer” franchise with dreck like “Tom Sawyer, Detective” and “Tom Sawyer Abroad,” both of which I have had the misfortune to read. I can’t seem to find a Penguin or Modern Library edition of this book for the Kindle. This isn’t terribly surprising, since “Tom Sawyer” is such a minor book by comparison with “Huckleberry Finn.”

News at 11.

The Digital Museum and the Art Ecosystem

Why do art museums exist? To preserve the cultural heritage represented by art objects and educate the public about art, if you examine museum charters. But why do they survive? Or more to the point, how do they survive? Museums are expensive operations and the immediate economic value of the cultural heritage and public education they provide may seem small, at least to the narrow-minded. Nonetheless, museums seem to survive and even thrive, so there is some sort of economic engine operating behind the scenes. What can it be?

Well, let’s examine the set of players involved in art. There are artists and collectors, of course. Beyond that there is the general public, people who are in the main neither artists nor collectors. Next we have museums, which are different from collectors in the use to which they put their collections. Collectors assemble art for their own enjoyment, while museums do so in order to share it with the general public. There are middlemen like art dealers, auction houses, and appraisers, people whose living depends on the existence of an active trade in art. And lastly there are governments.

Just the existence of such a complex ecosystem tells us that there is a lot of vitality in the art community. What are the primary drivers?

In the bad old days the drivers of art, at least the art that survives, were wealthy patrons. Their desire was to have beautiful and interesting things in their homes. The tastes of the wealthy have always driven art, but tastes change and what is fashionable and attractive in one year may suddenly be uninteresting the next. What to do with the gigantic Titian that was the centerpiece of the drawing room last season and is now out of style? Demote it to some lesser venue – a less important room, a country house, or even a basement or attic. Some individuals, whether through discernment or driven by the same sort of pack-rat tendencies that cause my closets to fill up today with things I can’t bear to throw away, became collectors. Because they were wealthy, they could spend the resources to catalog and properly store their accumulations of objects.

Major museums, by which I mean large art collections open to the public, began to appear a few centuries ago (the British Museum in 1753, the Musee du Louvre, long the site of a royal collection, opened to the public by the revolutionary government in 1793, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York chartered in 1870), about the time when governments began to discover the consent of the governed and concern themselves with educating and pleasing us, the great unwashed.

Art education seems to have agreed with the middle classes. They have supported governmental grants of tax-exempt status to museums and they have filled their own houses with art. Perhaps not the fabulously expensive major works that capture the headlines, but enough to make the art marketplace expand to meet the demand.

So what does the modern art ecosystem look like? Artists create new works. Collectors rich and not-so-rich fill their houses with them. When the attics get full, the collectors donate some of their less-beloved works to museums and sell the others through auction houses and galleries. While they keep them they buy insurance to protect them and pay appraisers to evaluate their collections so that insurers have something on which to base the policy. Acquisition decisions, whether by direct purchase or by acceptance of gifts, by major museums validate emerging artists, causing the values of works by the same artists in private collections to appreciate in value. Gifts by collectors of appreciated works to museums provides tax breaks that may exceed the amount spent by the art-lover in the first place.

Today we see a mature ecosystem operating. It sustains artists, art schools, collectors, appraisers, galleries, auctioneers, critics, historians, and art-lovers.

So all’s right with the world, right?

Well, maybe not.

Already we see things happening in the library world that should be causing excitement and anxiety in the museum world. Back in the bad old days every major city and university needed at least one large comprehensive library to provide access to an archive of knowledge to support the local populace’s needs for education, research, and commerce. With a scanned image of each book on a server on the Internet, however, the need for a lot of old stone buildings full of beautiful wood shelves lined with dusty old books, the happy home of much of my youth, is eliminated. Why bother traveling to a library to look at a book when you can do it from any convenient web browser?

OK, you say, that’s fine for books where the information is mostly text and the main value is in the abstract content and not the physical object, but for art, for Art, it’s different. You have to be able to see the texture of the paint on the old wooden board to appreciate the Mona Lisa or the surface of the marble to apprehend the Pieta. You have to be able to walk around the sculpture of David in Florence and see it from different angles in different lights to properly understand and enjoy Michelangelo’s work.

Quite right. But many of these things can be captured digitally and delivered over the Internet. The technology for capturing detailed representations of complex 3-D objects, including surface textures, is available today or will soon be available. Rendering the appearance of a surface under arbitrary illumination and viewed from any distance or angle is well within the reach of most of the graphics engines incorporated into modern desktop and laptop computers, particularly the ones built to play the latest video games. The technology is available now to deliver many of the experiences we seek from fine art objects over the Internet. Of course, what’s lacking is a comprehensive supply of digitized representations of these objects. How hard would it be to solve that problem?

Smaller museums have always struggled. What has kept them alive has been the need to have a survey collection available at universities and important regional centers. In the future, however, the survey collection will no longer be an important function of the regional museum because that will be provided over the Internet from major central museums. The only way for a small museum to distinguish itself is to specialize in some niche and develop the definitive collection of some important category of object. Small museums all over the world are now beginning to face up to this reality, so we should see them reshaping their collections over the next several decades.

One of the first things that was done preparing to renovate the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s in anticipation of its centennial was to create an immensely detailed and highly accurate 3-D map of the surface, gathered by laser photogrammetric techniques, as reported in the press at the time. Since then progress in technology has created 3-D scanners capable of mapping the surfaces of moderate-sized objects in considerable detail. This, combined with appropriate photography and texture-mapping can, at least in principle, produce digital representations of medium-sized, medium-complexity objects that would be suitable for many casual art education purposes. Support for more detailed close-up examination would probably involve additional techniques, some of which may be uneconomical at present. The work of Octavo in creating digital representations of rare books gives us a hint of what is coming.

Of course, this will take a lot of time and money. But the results will be fascinating. The largest collections are so vast that the exhibition halls that seem so large to us when we visit are nonetheless incapable of displaying more than a tiny fraction of the available riches. With digital representations available interested people will be able to explore in the sort of depth that is only available today to accredited researchers. Moreover, people living in remote locations not convenient to a large comprehensive public collection will have access to the cultural riches of humanity.

Of course, this begs the question of how it will be funded. The existing art ecosystem may not be as stable and healthy as it seems. Already the need for funds has forced smaller museums to “deaccession” parts of their collections. Only the largest and richest museums located at major global crossroads have any clear path forward. As we’ve seen as music and movies have begun their migration from the bricks and mortar past into the digital future, change can be disruptive and traumatic. A new economic ecosystem for art will evolve over time and stability ultimately will return. With the lessons of the music and video worlds behind us and the clear evidence that the new ecosystem that is emerging has the potential to be lucrative, we can hope that the evolution of museums will be much less traumatic.

Books versus Covers

Back when I was a young scholar there were several things one learned that violated the “never judge a book by its cover” rule. One was that when you saw a disheveled fellow walking down the street talking to himself, you could reliably assume that he was disturbed and probably not taking his medication. And you could assume that a nicely typeset and printed article was worth reading.

Things have changed.

Now when you see an unshaven fellow in rumpled clothes walking down the street conducting an animated conversation you can’t assume that he’s off his Chlorpromazine. He might just as well be an investment banker working on a big deal.

Why did typsetting signify quality writing? Dating from the days of Aldus Manutius typesetting a book or an article attractively in justified columns using proportionally spaced fonts was a time-consuming task involving expensive skilled labor. Because of that high up-front cost, publishers insisted on strong controls on what made it to press. Thus we had powerful editors making decisions about what got into commercial magazines and books. And we had legions of competent copy editors engaged in reviewing and refining the text so that what did make it to press was spelled correctly, grammatically sound, and readable.

No one ever had to explicitly tell us that nicely typeset stuff was generally the better stuff, we learned it subconsciously.

Some years ago, in the first blush of desktop publishing, someone handed me a beautifully typeset article. Shortly after starting to read it I realized that it was hopeless drivel. After a few repetitions of this experience I came to the realization that with Framemaker, Word, and similar systems prettily typeset output could now be produced with less effort than a draft manuscript in the bad old days. An important cultural cue was lost. The book could no longer be judged by its cover.