Friday, February 23, 2007

How The Other Six-Billionth Lives

On a lighter note, it's amazing what you can learn from listening to podcasts. NPR has a weekly satirical news quiz show called Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me. It's worth listening to, and pretty funny. I've been catching up on previous shows, and one revealed this story.

Roland Mesnier, who was pastry chef at the White House for 25 years, retired and published his memoirs, All The Presidents' Pastries. (I'm not responsible for that, I just report.) The book tells this story. In the 80's, Prince Charles came to the US on an official visit and called on President Reagan, who received him in the Oval Office where tea was served. Specifically, a fine porcelain teacup filled with steaming water and with a teabag next to it was set before the prince on the coffee table, as he and the President sat on the couch to talk.

After a while, Reagan noticed that Prince Charles had done nothing with what had been offered, and asked politely if there was a problem. The Prince said, "I'm sorry, I just didn't know what to do with that little bag."

Reflect on that. Prince Charles, about 40 years old at that time, had never seen a teabag before and had no idea what to do with it!

Man. By comparison, the silver-spoon Bush clan are raging populists.

Monday, February 19, 2007

What A Disgrace

You've heard of FEMA? The Federal Emergency Management Agency? Here in New Orleans that's a four-letter word, and nastier than most of the familiar ones. In a competition between the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees that failed, and FEMA, which couldn't deal with the resulting disaster, it's neck & neck which is despised most by Orleanians. Mardi Gras is tomorrow and the parades have been running for ten days, and the parade Krewes that feature political satire have been hitting those two hard.

But there's plenty of blame to go to the White House, as spelled out in this New York Times Editorial. FEMA's distribution of federal funds in response to a disaster is governed by the Stafford Act, which requires matching funds from states to get federal moneys. The basic standard is that the state supplies 25%, and the Feds supply the rest. This is reasonable, for ordinary problems, like localized flooding from a bad rainstorm.

When the damage gets worse the standards change, and the basis is the monetary loss per capita, the cost of the damage spread over every member of the state. When the amount goes over $110 per person in the state the state portion drops from 25% to 10%. And if the damage is really severe the federal government, at the direction of the White House, can waive the matching funds requirement entirely. Since 1985 this has been done 32 times, when per capita damage was high and especially when it was a high profile incident.

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit the US, first in Florida and then in Louisiana. While four people were killed in Louisiana when it arrived here, the worst damage by far was in Florida with massive property damage and about sixty deaths. The federal matching fund requirement was waived. The per capita damage amount for Floridians was $139.

The horrible terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon cost 3,000 lives, traumatized millions, and seared our minds forever. The physical damage in New York, though, was limited to a fairly confined area of lower Manhattan. But recognizing the magnitude of this disaster, the federal government again waived the matching fund requirement. The per capita damage amount for New York state residents was $390.

The Katrina disaster zone, augmented by Hurricane Rita's, is orders of magnitude beyond these. The flood damage zone just within the city limits of New Orleans is nearly eight times as large as all of Manhattan Island. The actual damage zone extends over much of two states. Thousands of people have died, and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes, many never to return.

One bitter fact is that the true death toll will never be counted, and not just because of the bodies that were swept away in the storm. We here all know stories of those who managed to evacuate out of state to safety but simply could not rally. These often were people ill and elderly, ripped from their homes, sometimes the only home they had known, with no hope of going back. Many simply gave up and died, and I count in this group a very dear friend of mine whom I will always miss. But since these people did not die in Louisiana they will not be counted as victims of the storm, though we here all know that they were.

So in the face of all this what has been the federal policy? Have they waived the matching funds requirement, to help us out like they did Florida and New York?

They have not. The per person damage cost here is not $139, as it was in Florida after Hurricane Andrew. It is not $390, as it was in New York after 9/11.

It has been estimated at $6,700 per person in Louisiana. And they will not give us a waiver.

Imagine that.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Now this is cool

There is an extraordinary thing called Project Gutenberg. It is an amazing, huge, non-profit project which aims to put as much of the world library on line, in searchable form, as possible. Here's what they say about their origins:

In 1971, Michael Hart was given $100,000,000 worth of computer time on a mainframe of the era. Trying to figure out how to put these very expensive hours to good use, he envisaged a time when there would be millions of connected computers, and typed in the Declaration of Independence (all in upper case--there was no lower case available!). His idea was that everybody who had access to a computer could have a copy of the text. Now, 31 years later, his copy of the Declaration of Independence (with lower-case added!) is still available to everyone on the Internet.
Hart essentially invented the e-book at that time, long before anyone but defense researchers at DARPA had heard of the Internet. As of now, they have about 20,000 books online, available to all, totally free. They range from ancient classics to history to Sherlock Holmes to early 20th century writings. The only requirement is that they be public domain. They have online writings in Chinese, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Tagalog. That's just the major languages, with more than 50 titles each. The minor ones include writings in Afrikaans, Catalan, Frisian, Mayan, Napoletano-Calabrese, Romanian, Sanskrit, and Welsh, to name but a few.

They take the best available copy of each title and scan it. They also work with Google, which is engaged on a similar and highly publicized project, that of scanning the total contents of many major libraries, and making at least a sample of them available online. By sticking to public domain materials, Project Gutenberg is avoiding the nasty copyright fights that Google is already getting drawn into. I'm afraid the re-thinking and re-definition of copyright is going to be THE biggest and nastiest issue of the developing online information world.

Anyway. This original scan really just produces a photo of each source page, which is not machine readable, not searchable, meaning search engines like Google can't find the data in them. So they use the best Optical Character Recognition software available and have it make a transcript, one that can be edited like an ordinary text file, and can be accessed and indexed by search engines. But even the best OCR software is not perfect, especially when dealing with odd typescripts or old microfilm. Its output has to be reviewed by an intelligent mind that can recognize letters obscured by smudges and piece things together from context.

That's where we come in.

There is an affiliated project, called Distributed Proofreaders. It's a clearinghouse for volunteer proofreaders who want to help Project Gutenberg prepare texts for final release on the Web, and I'm helping them out. Every text goes through several stages. First is basic proofreading, which is all I've done so far. A split screen shows you the image of the original scan and the best OCR transcription. You compare them, and correct the transcript. Once you've got it done as best you can, you click a button, the page is saved and sent onto the next stage, and they send you another page. There are later stages of further proofreading, then formatting, and eventually HTML versions are created for the Net.

I just LOVE this. It's not just a service to civilization, by my standards, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. It's similar to the pleasure I took at dealing first hand with collections materials at the museum. It's so cool to know I may be the first person in over a hundred years to really read this stuff. Things like:

  • A literary and social journal published in London around 1838, containing a memoir of the legendary actor Edmund Kean playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, as well as a review of the latest from Mr. Thackeray. Also were some gossip notes from a young American lady visiting Paris. She wrote of her visit to an elderly exiled Polish prince and his young wife, who made exquisite embroidery and sold it at an annual bazaar to benefit other Polish exiles. She also wrote about visiting an archive where she examined plans of French fortified towns, including the one where Napoleon's nephew was imprisoned.
  • An essay from a scientific journal of the 1880s, inquiring into the precise definition and determination of death, by exploring suspended animation, namely how close animals could be taken to true death and then revived. Remember that this was a major issue at a time when you you could not scan for brain activity to settle the matter, and many people were terrified of falling ill, becoming unconscious, being pronounced dead, and then buried, only to wake up imprisoned in a coffin to die of suffocation in terror. This was important.
  • A collection of speeches by Bertie, the Prince of Wales, in the 1880s and 90s, before his mother Queen Victoria died and he became King Edward VII. A lot of routine speeches -- the anniversary dinner of the Royal Geographical Society, opening a hospital -- but intriguing at this distance in time, at least to me.
  • An issue of Stars and Stripes, the US Army newspaper, published in France in 1918, during World War I. Lots of letters and articles complaining bitterly, and from experience, of the incompetence of the people who designed and manufactured the uniforms they had to wear and the weapons they had to fight with. Also ads about how to wire their wages back home to their families via Wells Fargo.
Is this cool or what? I'm having a ball doing this. It can be disjointed, it's not like reading a book or an article straight through. You get presented with pages out of sequence, due to other proofreaders working on the same project when you're offline. But when the final version is published on the Gutenberg Project, you can read it if you wish, straight through.

I think this is great fun, and a great thing to do for a civilization that needs all the help it can get. And if I were offering advice to somebody like -- oh, I don't know, a nephew or someone who might need to find a good senior project in a few years -- I'd say he could do a lot worse than to check this out.