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Thursday, 25 March 2010

Another Vatican abuse case


Got your attention, didn't I? Well, this probably isn't what you were expecting, so calm down.

The Vatican library is about to enter the digital age, apparently--for once--with no help from Google. This is an excerpt from their March 24, 2010 Newsletter:
The digitization of 80,000 manuscripts of the Vatican Library, it should be realized, is not a light-hearted project. Even with only a rough calculation one can foresee the need to reproduce 40 million pages with a mountain of computer data, to the order of 45 petabytes (that is, 45 million billion bytes). This obviously means pages variously written and illustrated or annotated, to be photographed with the highest definition, to include the greatest amount of data and avoid having to repeat the immense undertaking in the future.

And these are delicate manuscripts, to be treated with care, without causing them damage of any kind. A great undertaking for the benefit of culture and in particular for the preservation and conservation of the patrimony entrusted to the Apostolic Library, in the tradition of a cultural service that the Holy See continues to express and develop through the centuries, adapting its commitment and energy to the possibilities offered by new technologies.
Now, what I wish to focus on, and pick apart, is the following phrase: "without causing them damage of any kind." Simply put, this is fallacious thinking, but of a sort that is all to common to mankind, no matter the level of expertise behind such a statement.

Damage is an inevitable part of human existence, extending even to pride, which can be wounded, and feelings, which can be hurt. Nothing in human experience is immune to damage, and damage is so universal that its occurrence can only be limited to various extents; it can never be avoided altogether.

Now granted, leaving a book on the shelf in the darkened room of a climate-controlled library is the best way to minimize damage. Under such conditions, a book can be expected to remain in good condition for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But that is not why books were written, nor why they are retained. Books are made to be read.

What the Vatican curators hope to accomplish by this digitization project--indeed, what they can hardly fail to accomplish--is to both slightly prolong the life of the books by ensuring that they will hardly ever need to be taken from the shelf again, and to greatly expand the usefulness of the books by making them available to be read virtually, anywhere in the world, and by as many people as have access to the digital files in which their images will be stored.

This is a very noble goal, well worth the time and expense that need only be applied once in order to be effective for a long time to come. But meeting this goal comes at a cost--that of taking the books off the shelf, opening their pages to the light, laying them flat, and then turning each and every page for exposure to a bright flash. This act alone will probably age some of these books more in one day than they have aged in the past one hundred years of occasional but careful use.

This is damage, and it is unavoidable. The only question to be asked is whether this one-time dose of damage is worth it in the long run, and the answer to that question is undoubtedly, "Yes." One last dose of damage now, and the book can go back on the shelf, perhaps never to be opened again. For that matter, the book can be used to kindle the woodfire for the next Papal Conclave, with relatively little loss to the global knowledge of which it has heretofore only been a physical, rather than a virtual, part.

But "without causing them damage of any kind?" It's an unnecessarily lofty ideal, and one that simply cannot be realized. Yet we meet with this sort of thinking again and again. Take for example, the adage that having borrowed or rented an item, you should "return it in better condition than you got it." Inasmuch as any use of an item causes damage, even returning it in identical condition is impossible. To return it in better condition would require that you do something to improve the item while it is in your possession, thus making up for and even reversing some of the inevitable damage. You could, for example, shine a pair of shoes that you borrowed. This would certainly make up for the polish worn away from the tops of the shoes while they were on your feet, but would do nothing for the leather worn away from the soles. And if the shoes were already polished when you received them, all your noble efforts would still result in you returning the shoes somewhat the worse for wear overall.

To take this line of thinking in a slightly different direction, most people assume (or did until a couple of years ago) that their house, as a result of them living in it for a few years, will become worth more than they paid for it--at least if they do a good job of keeping it up. This fallacy is actually based on two different assumptions, in addition the the assumption that it is possible, by taking great pains, to "avoid causing damage of any kind" to an item being used.

The first of these assumptions is that nominal cost is equal to real cost. In this way of thinking, if you bought a house for $7500 in 1940, and could sell it for $100,000 now, your house is worth over $92,000 more than you paid for it. On the contrary, it's worth close to $10,000 less. Had the value of your house kept pace with inflation, you should be able to get $109,425 for it today. Only when all figures are adjusted for inflation do you see the change in an item's real value.

The other assumption is that the only cost of a house is its purchase price. While that may be true for the first few months, a period in which no one expects the value of a house to have had enough time to go up, the fact is that to continue holding on to a house has unavoidable ongoing costs. Many experts recommend an annual spending of 4% of the house's value on keeping it up. Under such a plan, even if your house is still worth $7500 in 1940 dollars, you already spent more than twice what you paid for the house just keeping it looking nice from 1940 up until 1990, and you're now closing in on paying for it the fourth time in annualized nickels and dimes. All this, even if you paid for it in hard-to-come by cash, and had no mortgage expenses during all those years. And don't forget property taxes! To truly turn a profit on your $7500 investment held for 70 years, you'd have to get well over three--quarters of a million dollars for it today: a one-hundred fold nominal increase would still leave you under water in the kind of terms that real investors use.

So, to get back to the original title: What is the Vatican abusing now? Well, if not the English language, at least the science of Economics. While it is less abusive to the delicate manuscripts in the long run to subject them to the indignities of being photographed for all the world to see, it is simply impossible to maintain that it can be done without causing them any damage at all.

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