Date: Fri, 19 Dec 2003 14:57:10 -0500
Subject: Big Book
From: J A Stevens <jane.stevens@xxxxxx>
To: Rhonda Gushee <gusheerg@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
X-Junkmail-Whitelist: YES (by domain whitelist at mirapoint.uc.edu)
I thought this might interest you!
For a Small Kingdom, a Visual History in a Big Book
December 15, 2003
By STEVE LOHR
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - The Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan are
worlds apart geographically, culturally and
technologically. For decades, M.I.T. has turned out
engineers whose labors have helped fuel America's high-tech
economy, while Bhutan, a remote land of Shangri-la vistas
and exotic species, has pursued an economic plan whose
stated goal is "gross national happiness."
Yet these two disparate worlds have touched in a research
project that has produced a bit of publishing history,
"Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Himalayan Kingdom,"
the largest commercial book ever published, according to
Guinness World Records.
"Bhutan," to be released today, is five feet high, opens to
nearly seven feet wide, and weighs more than 130 pounds. A
picture book of 114 pages, it pushes the technological
frontiers of digital photography and computer printing.
Each book uses a roll of paper 5 feet wide and 400 feet
long, a third longer than a football field. Each copy
consumes two gallons of ink and takes 24 hours of printer
The big book is also a philanthropic endeavor. The plan is
to print 500 copies of the book, with a price of $10,000
each. Each book costs about $1,000 to produce; the
remaining $9,000 will be a tax-deductible charitable
contribution. The proceeds will go to the Bhutan ministry
of education and into a scholarship fund to send Bhutanese
students to college abroad.
The Bhutan book project can be seen as an act of
engineering performance art, and the mastermind behind it
is a 42-year-old computer scientist of a decidedly artistic
bent, Michael Hawley. He is the director for special
projects at M.I.T., but for a decade until 2002 Mr. Hawley
was a professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab, heading
imaginative research programs like "Toys of Tomorrow" and
"Things That Think."
Before M.I.T., Mr. Hawley worked at the pioneering computer
graphics arm of Lucasfilm, which was spun off to eventually
become Pixar Animation Studios. He then joined Steven P.
Jobs at NeXT, the technically celebrated, if commercially
unsuccessful, maker of graphics work-station computers. His
research interests range widely across fields and
disciplines touched by digital technology, including
education, photography and music. An accomplished pianist,
he won the Van Cliburn amateur competition in 2002. His
home - a loft in a converted church here - has two pianos,
including a Steinway grand.
Beyond technology and philanthropy, the book project
represents an expeditionary approach to education that Mr.
Hawley says he wants to expand at M.I.T. The idea, he
explains, is to take students to see new places, meet
people from other cultures and use technology in the field.
The Bhutan book is a byproduct of four such trips from 1988
to 2002, each involving a few M.I.T. students.
"What I'm pushing at M.I.T. is that the world is our lab,
not just the campus," Mr. Hawley said. "These kinds of
trips can be life-altering for the people who take them. We
learn from differences."
Charles Darwin is Mr. Hawley's favorite proof of the value
of educational expeditions. At 22, Darwin seemed headed for
the clergy after graduating from Cambridge University. But
he balked, took a round-the-world voyage, and came back to
present his theory of evolution in, "The Origin of
Species." Without the expeditionary adventure, Mr. Hawley
said, "He would have ended up Pastor Charles Darwin,
Ming Zhang, a 22-year-old graduate of M.I.T., went on one
of Mr. Hawley's Bhutan trips in 2002. When Mr. Hawley first
asked him, Mr. Zhang replied with a question, "Where's
Bhutan?" Mr. Hawley explained that the kingdom is high in
the Himalayas, bordered by India and Tibet. It is a nation
the size of Switzerland, but with a small fraction of the
population, nearly all living in rural villages.
Mr. Zhang's family moved to Boston from Wuhan, China, when
he was 8 years old. His parents are professors at Harvard
University and Boston University, and Mr. Zhang has lived
in sizable cities all his life. "Bhutan was just completely
what I wasn't used to," he said.
Mr. Zhang recalled looking out the van window while on the
two-lane highway that connects Bhutan's larger towns,
seeing nothing but a sheer drop, and wondering if going
along with Mr. Hawley was such a good idea. But he also
recalled the extraordinary natural beauty, and the serenity
of a culture of close-knit villages.
Evenings were spent downloading photographs from cameras
into notebook computers and assembling a database of 40,000
photos, all sorted by location using global positioning
system, or G.P.S., technology. A lot of programming was
done on the road. There were no help desks or textbooks to
consult, and Internet connections were scarce. "Nothing
really matches making technology work in the field," Mr.
The technical challenges of producing the book were many.
To make such large pictures print crisply and clearly
requires densely packed image files of about two gigabytes,
which strain the capacity of today's software and printers.
Pushing the limits of every element of the hardware and
software technology at once meant constant tweaking and
Recently, as he tried to revive a crashed printer, Mr.
Hawley wondered if the project was folly. "But I've always
felt that any interesting endeavor should have a daft
quality to it. You ought to aim high."
Mr. Hawley's most impressive achievement in the Bhutan
book, according to colleagues, has been in engineering the
entire project, not only the technology but other elements
as well. He taught Bhutanese children how to take pictures
with professional cameras and explained the technology to
them. Some of their photographs appear in the book. He came
up with the fund-raising idea and rounded up support from
several technology companies.
"The true creativity is in marshalling it all, bringing
everything together in ways that might never have been
dreamed of," said David Salesin, a professor at the
University of Washington and a senior researcher at
Mr. Hawley has proved to be an engaging salesman for the
Bhutan book. Seed money for the project came from the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation, M.I.T. and Microsoft.
Corporate sponsors who contributed equipment, shipping or
technical support include Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft,
Amazon, Federal Express, Apple, Kodak, Adobe and Dell.
Mr. Hawley makes the calls for corporate support himself.
When he called Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of
Amazon, Mr. Hawley told him the Bhutan project gave him an
opportunity to be the world's largest book seller,
literally. "Jeff loved it," Mr. Hawley recalled.
Persuading a bookbinder to take on the project took some
work as well. Mr. Hawley was fortunate in finding Acme
Bookbinding in nearby Charlestown, Mass. Acme is a company
with a long history of custom work. When Mr. Hawley first
came in, Paul Parisi, Acme's president, recalled, "We
looked at it and said, 'Mike, you're crazy.' "
But the more Mr. Parisi thought about it, the more
intrigued he became, and Acme took on the job. The binding
was an innovative design combining Japanese and European
techniques, new materials and hand craftsmanship. Each book
takes two people with long arms about two days to assemble.
The challenge lies in ensuring durability in a book of so
great a size and weight. "The danger is that the book
fights itself," Mr. Parisi said. "The hinges and structure
had to be designed so the book finds its own center. It's
like a huge, intricate machine."
Will there be a sequel to "Bhutan"? It depends, Mr. Hawley
said. "After this," he said, "we may have saturated the
market for huge books."