Digital jigsaw of Stasi files

A research team in Germany has developed a computer-software system to piece together some 45 million pages of secret police files ripped into 600 million pieces. The files were torn up nearly 18 years ago by panicking agents of communist East Germany’s dreaded State Security Service (Stasi), writes Ned Stafford in Nature‘s online news service.

The pieces of torn documents are scanned on both sides, and the digital images are then analysed by a cluster of 16 computers for 25 features, including colour, shape, texture, handwriting and typeface. Just like a person doing a jigsaw, the computer then groups the images into clusters with similar features, and finally fits pieces in each cluster together.

The torn documents date from the autumn of 1989, when the communist government of East Germany collapsed and jubilant West Germans and East Germans broke down the hated Berlin Wall. But not all East Germans were dancing in the streets. Stasi agents in ensuing weeks were holed up in offices around East Germany desperately trying to destroy evidence before West German authorities gained access to the files.

The Stasi lacked enough paper-shredding machines to do the job right, and began tearing documents by hand and stuffing them into bags. The plan had been to transport bags bulging with documents by trucks to locations where they could be burned, but by January 1990 East German citizens had taken control of Stasi offices and the plan could not be carried out. West German authorities eventually seized still-intact Stasi documents and more than 16,000 bags of ripped documents.

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Second Nature and a history lesson

Link: A Natural Fit: For Science Journal, Web Is ‘Second Nature’ – International – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News.

Above is a link to an article about some new and not-so-new online activities of Nature and Nature Publishing Group: according to the article,  "as shocking as the Queen moving to Las Vegas". Timo Hannay, director of web publishing, responds:  "The core business of Nature is not to produce a magazine," he says, "but to facilitate the exchange of ideas among scientists."  More and more nowadays, that exchange happens to be taking place electronically." "

The article continues:

"Would you like some coffee?" Hannay asks, as he sits down at his computer and directs his digital representative, Timo Twin, to the Magic Molecule Model Maker, which looks vaguely like a gumball machine. "Let me make some caffeine," says Timo Twin, and soon brightly colored atoms begin bursting onto the screen, combining to form a coffee molecule. As big as scaffolding, the molecule floats in cyberspace in front of the Timo avatar, three-dimensional and easily rotated. All it takes is a mouse click and the virtual machine starts spitting out other molecules: adrenaline, Viagra, aspirin — just as requested. "The Magic Molecule Model Maker sounds like a game," says Hannay. "But chemists use it a lot when they need a three-dimensional image that can be rotated for a presentation or a discussion." "

The article goes on to describe some of Nature‘s online activities, not so modern as some might think, perhaps, in concept at least:

"The digital pub, with its green-haired avatars and podcast chatter, may seem futuristic. But it is also strongly reminiscent of the generation of Nature‘s founders. At the time, more than a century ago, there was bitter competition among various young, often underfunded and short-lived scientific publications (Nature’s current competitor Science almost went out of business several times and frequently changed ownership). But Nature had a decisive advantage. Its publisher, Alexander Macmillan, loved a good party. He would routinely invite the cleverest thinkers of his day to his house for what he called "Talk, Tobacco and Tipple." This principle also served as the basis for his magazine. Science, Macmillan reasoned, simply had to be fun."

However, my local Nature history expert reports:

"Alexander Macmillan did indeed host the famous ‘tobacco parliaments’ in the 1860s and 70s with scientific heavyweights of the day where art, literature and science (particularly Darwinism) were debated with much drink and cigars. It worked in the sense that Macmillan cared enough about science to found a journal, and support it for three loss-making decades!

History pedant corner: the para afterwards is not really correct:

"The generation of people who founded Nature continued to meet for decades in London in a sort of offline community for meals, drink and talk. The group called itself the X Club because it accepted only one rule: that there would be no rules."

The X-club was different. Macmillan was not a member, nor was Norman Lockyer (Nature‘s first editor). And most, if not all, of the X-club members would write for other journals too. In fact, it was Lockyer’s non-association with the X-club that allowed him a free reign as editor to stoke controversies — a tactic to increase circulation and keep the journal on people’s lips when there was much competition around."

Harry Potter stamps of approval

Potterstamp372 On 17 July, the  Royal Mail will issue a series of seven stamps depicting the colourful covers of each of the books in J.K. Rowling’s series. The commemorative designs will be released to coincide with the 21 July  launch of the last of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Via James Long and The Guardian,

and via my morning station-platform read of The Times.

Unfortunately, you do not seem to be able to buy the stamps direct from the Royal Mail website; here is the link in case they rectify this mysterious omission later.