Archive for October, 2007

Do You Like Puzzles? Play the Art of Stasi Game

Monday, October 8th, 2007

Stasi

Photo by Adam Lederer — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Who would have thought that the Stasi could create so much fun?

In one of the more artful uses of technology, an ingenious computer program is putting together what Stasi tore apart.

As the German Democratic Republic was collapsing in 1989, staff at the East Germany’s State Security Service (Stasi) was busy destroying the Normannenstrasse headquarter’s most precious jewels — documents. They began to shred the papers, but then the shredders broke down from overuse. Next they tried drowning the papers, but the plumbing became overwhelmed. Finally, they did what any of us would do: they began to tear up each paper by hand.

Now, approximately 600 million scraps of paper, some only a few millimeters long, represent 45 million A4 pages. The shreds were recovered from the building in the 16,250 bags the Stasi staff had crammed full.

According to Bertram Nickolay, Head of the Department of Security and Testing Technologies at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology in Berlin, if one were to organize matching up the shreds by hand it would take thirty people anywhere from 600 to 800 years to piece together each and every document.

His company has designed the pattern-matching technology to scan, sort, and complete each puzzle. Using sixteen computers, the process takes each bag as a group and then identifies each scrap based on the size, shape, and color of the paper, the type of ink, the texture of the writing, typed or handwritten, and if handwritten the style of the writer. Pages can range from eight to thirty pieces. Nickolay’s team has also made sure that the computer program is learning from experience as the pieces are not always a perfect fit from the tearing by hand. Already, two years into the task 400 bags are in the bag, as it were.

You can petition the BStU (Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic) to find out if there is a document on you. They documented not only their own citizens, but many travelers - fellow or not.

Should we send a thank you note to the former Stasi staff for helping to move our technology forward?

Think about how this process could be used to reassemble other artifacts of the world’s cultures.

Another take away: in a world where it appears rather easy to intercept/reveal electronic communications, maybe the handwritten piece of paper is the most private method of communicating.

All you need is pen and paper. (Burn bag not included.)

- Bill Reichblum

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ProCons Rescue Us from Culture

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Photo by Michael Hanscom — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

A Fest News story of the week covered a debate held at Yale University to examine the pros and cons of government support for the arts.

One has to believe that the cons are making more money from the lecture circuit on this issue than the pros are for making art.

As reported by the students’ Yale Daily News, the Yale Political Union sponsored the debate on the ties between government (i.e. tax payer dollars) and the arts (i.e. the cool people?). The advocate for leading the government as far away as possible from a role in cultural development, promotion, and integration into society was David Boaz of the Cato Institute.

The Cato Institute is its own kind of cultural phenomenon: a not-for-profit Washington, D.C. organization devoted to the “traditional principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace.” Cato has approximately ninety-five full-time employees, seventy associated scholars, twenty fellows, in addition to the white-shirt-red-tie interns. Of course, Cato does not accept government funding. The institute relies on contributions from foundations and individuals. So if you give your money to the Cato Institute the government will give you a deduction from your federal taxes for benefitting the Institute. As Joseph Heller would say, Go figure.

I wonder if the Yale supporters of Boaz’s position feel the same about the government providing financial resources to their university for research and for fellow students to be able to go to Yale through loans. Do they have a twinge of jealousy for those governments that provide their citizens with complete access to higher education? Apparently not.

Boaz’s point of view is that the U.S. separates religion from government and that religion is equivalent to, if not the same as, culture. Really?

Isn’t there a difference between a private choice of spirituality and a national identity?

After all, this was the same week in which the U.S. Congress held hearings, From Imus to Industry at public expense on rap lyrics. Yes, the United States government is addressing the real problems for the nation, and its international relations. This is a perfect election year issue for conservatives and conservative wanna-bees-to-get-elected, call them professional conservatives, or “procons.”

The Boazs of the world can’t have it both ways: if you want the marketplace to be the sole determinant of the national identity then you can’t complain when the marketplace works — that is, the marketplace’s dominant culture is the kind that makes the most money.

How noble: the arts, education, and health care should be about individual revenue and not national investment.

At this very same time, M. Sarkozy is thinking of giving free access to the nation’s museums.

Memo to the ProCons: Maybe there is value to government.

- Bill Reichblum

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