A Look Inside Iron Mountain, a Fort Knox of Cultural Treasures

A local television station got inside Iron Mountain, a secret records facility that’s the equivalent of Fort Knox for original records and archives.  

The underground bunker is a records repository for some of the country’s most valuable cultural history, with vaults housing hundreds of thousands of original film negatives from major studios, iconic photos of celebrities and figures like Albert Einstein and Rosa Parks, federal government records, data centers, and who knows what other priceless treasures that private clients pay to keep safe from the apocalypse. With 15 Walmart-sized vaults (and more to come) across a 1.8-million-square-foot mine, the space is cooled to optimal temperatures through pumps fed by water from an underground lake. 

Given the financial and cultural value of its contents, the bunker’s location is completely secret, and security is tight, so this may be the best look most of us will ever get at the treasures hidden under western Pennsylvania.

[h/t: Digg]

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Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
AI Is Decoding the Vatican Secret Archives, One Pen Stroke at a Time
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image

The Vatican Secret Archives comprise 600 collections of texts spanning 12 centuries, most of which are nearly impossible to access. The Atlantic reports that a team of scientists is hoping to change that with help from some high school students and artificial intelligence software.

In Codice Ratio is a new research project dedicated to analyzing the vast majority of Vatican manuscripts that have never been digitized. When other libraries wish to make a digital archive of their inventory, they often use optical-character-recognition (OCR) software. Such programs can be trained to recognize the letters in a certain alphabet, pick them out of hard-copy manuscripts, and convert them to searchable text. This technology posed a challenge for the Vatican, however: The many older texts in its collections are written by hand in a cursive-like script. With no spaces between the characters, it's impossible for OCR to determine what's a letter and what isn't.

To get around this, the research team at In Codice Radio tweaked OCR software so that it could recognize pen strokes instead of letters. The OCR can identify the pen strokes that make up letters in an alphabet by looking for spots in the text where the ink narrows rather than presents full gaps between characters. The strokes aren't very useful on their own, but the software can combine the pieces to form possible letters.

To help the software perform even better, researchers recruited students from 24 Italian high schools to check its work. As the researchers explain in their paper, the students were shown a list of acceptable versions of a real letter, such as the letter A, and were then given a list of characters the software had guessed might be the real letter. By selecting the characters that matched the acceptable versions, they were able to slowly teach the software the medieval Latin alphabet.

All this information, plus a database of 1.5 million Latin words that had already been digitized, eventually brought the OCR to a place where it could use artificial intelligence to identify real letters on its own. The final results aren't perfect—a good portion of the words transcribed so far contain typos—but Vatican archivists are a lot better off than they were before: The software can identify individual handwritten letters with 96 percent accuracy, and misspelled words can still provide important context to readers. The goal is to eventually use the software to digitize every document in the Vatican Secret Archives.

[h/t The Atlantic]

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Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?
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Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

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