The 1999 EBTI, ECAI, SEER and PNC Joint Meeting

Academia Sinica, Taipei

18-21 January

an unofficial report

Maybe I should start with the acronyms... EBTI The Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative is a loose international confederation dedicated to converting into electronic form the immense canon of Buddhist teachings and literature, currently surviving in all manner of exotic languages and formats. ECAI The Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative is a similarly unstructured group of scholars aiming to set up a distributed database of information about cultural heritage sites relating chiefly but not exclusively to Asian cultures and accessible via an integrated GIS interface; SEER apparently stands for Scholars Engaged in Electronic Resources , and is another loose federation of scholars interested in Asian literatures and languages, particularly ancient ones, with a broader and more library-oriented focus than EBTI; PNC The Pacific Neighborhood Consortium is a rather more technologically-focussed collaboration amongst a number of academic computing centres located in the "Asian Tiger" countries which has already established an effective regional wide area network and is now looking for content.

Presiding genius and visionary of both ECAI and EBTI is Lewis Lancaster from the Department of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, but both groups have an extraordinary roster of distinguished and energetic scholars and institutions scattered around the Pacific rim, co-operating in a number of equally impressive digitization projects. This was the third of their international conferences at which I have had the honour of being invited to present a TEI Workshop; previous events were held at Haiensa Monastery in Korea in 1994, and Otani University in Kyoto in 1996, and the next will be at Berkeley in California next year. The sheer scale of EBTI's interest, embracing canons of ancient texts in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and other less well-known languages, makes for a pretty rigorous test of the TEI's claimed ability to cope with all texts in all languages of all times. Put this together with a characteristically Buddhist atmosphere of mutual tolerance and altruistic scholarship (to say nothing of the lure of their exotic locations) and it is understandable why such invitations are hard to resist.

The 1999 event was hosted by Academia Sinica, a Taiwanese government funded research institution and the Taiwanese Ministry of Education. Academia Sinica has a long history of interest in SGML and XML; one of its chief luminaries being Professor Ching-chun Hsieh, architect of (amongst other things) the modifications to Unicode needed for it to handle the full range of ancient Chinese characters. Indeed, should the TEI decide that it needs a host organization in this part of the world, I think that Academia Sinica would be a natural first choice for a site to approach. Also in Taipei, at the National Taiwan University but in close contact with Academia Sinica, the CBETA project, is creating a TEI-conformant corpus of the Chinese Tripitaka. involving Christian Wittern, inventor of the Kanjibase system. Rick Jelliffe, creator of the Chinese XML faq is a recent recruit to Academia Sinica, and is converting several large structured-text databases to TEI. Both Christian and Rick are enthusiastic promoters of the TEI.

The conference proper was preceded by four tutorial workshops on Metadata and the Dublin Core, by Helen Jarvis (University of New South Wales); TEI (me); GIS by Lawrence Crissman (Griffith University); and Image Data by Jan Glowski (Ohio State). I missed all of these except my own, owing to a pressing need to revise my overheads and drink as much of the Academia Sinica's excellent coffee as I could afford, but the handouts indicate that they all provided a useful technical overview of these four key topics. After the workshops, Rick Jelliffe kindly shepherded a group of us long-noses around the famous night-markets of downtown Taipei, where I bargained furiously for brass ornaments, and eat lots of tasty sausages, and freshly cooked chestnuts. My appetite for exploration thus whetted, I must confess to taking a whole day off to wander around Taipei on my own which was an exhausting but extraordinary experience.

The conference itself spread over four days, with up to four parallel sessions running throughout, each devoted to progress reports and position papers about text creation projects, networking and digital library projects, and GIS applications in Asian studies. Most of the presenters came from Taiwan, Japan, USA, Australia or Korea, but India, Nepal, Thailand, Russia, Germany, France, Mexico, and the UK were also represented. We were fed at regular intervals with excellent Chinese buns and other goodies, quite apart from plentiful Chinese lunches, and there was much extra-session activity and discussion, involving the exchange of business cards. There was also a splendid Chinese banquet, held in the Taipei Business Club (a building that has to be experienced to be believed), complete with witty meditations on the approaching millenium from a very distinguished Taiwanese professor and a welcoming speech from the newly elected mayor of Taipei, whose election pledges apparently include Internet access for one in three inhabitants of the city, quite apart from finishing the rapid transit system that Taipei desperately needs. I'm not sure what we eat (apart from the Sharks Fin Soup) but it was all very tasty, and plentiful.

An opening plenary by Roy Weber from AT&T gave a taste of some of AT&T's more futuristic products, based on close integration of internet and conventional telephony systems: these included WISL, allowing for management of distributed telephone sales staff (did you know that nearly half of all calls to AT&T are to 800 numbers?); a deluxe form of video-conferencing called "virtual presence"; and the endearingly-titled "cyber fridge", (named after the fridge on which all good US families post family-oriented information) which we will all use to keep in touch when our homes have permanently active internet connexions, and flat display panels are built into refrigerator doors.

One of the two other Brits at the conference, Susan Whitfield, reported progress on the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, home of the "sponsor a sutra" digitization scheme. Not content with digitizing this extraordinary collection of 20,000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments, all now catalogued, the project is now developing an integrated catalogue of the Stein photo archive. This links extracts from Stein's diary of his turn of the century travels along the Silk Road with the photographs he took; its use of a geographic or spatial metaphor as a way of accessing disparate collections of digital resources seemed genuinely innovative to me and was a recurrent theme of the conference.

Tom Duncan, from the Museum Informatics Project at Berkeley, described some of the technology underlying their project, based on the use of Sybase as a data manager for 50,000 images, delivered via JTIP compression, and also as a means of providing full text retrieval from the Korean Buddhist text canon. They deploy a traditional thesaurus style access to these resources via a Sybase implementation of a range of standard thesauri. Howie Lan, also from Berkeley, gave an overview of other Digital Library research activities at Berkeley, but ran out of time before getting down to much real detail of his advertised topic of "multivalent documents" (I think this is mostly about combining digital images, transcriptions, and other views of a document)

I attended a business meeting of ECAI, my curiosity about which had been sparked by an introduction to the power of GIS systems which Ian Johnson kindly gave me during a long conversation about the relative merits of XML and RDBMS for organizing data. ECAI has an active technical group apparently largely driven by said Johnson and other Australians, and an interesting programme of work. The plan appears to be to collect metadata describing any and all datasets relating to Asian cultural materials using a modified (surprise!) set of Dublin Core descriptors, and to provide access to the corresponding distributed datasets via a new desktop mapping system called Timemap. I muttered about OAIS and the Warwick framework, and perhaps more significantly infiltrated a late night drinking session hosted by the imperturable Helen Jarvis (who is, incidentally, co-author of the definitive study of Cambodian atrocities ) and a frock-coated Matthew Ciolek (of WWW Virtual library fame). I hope to persuade some of those involved in ECAI's technical group to present a session at this year's DRH conference, since I think we have much to learn from the scale and scope of ECAI, quite apart from its intrinsic interest.

A recurrent theme of the EBTI sessions on ancient Chinese and Japanese texts concerned the difficulty of encoding such texts in a standard way resulting from the Unicode Consortium's decision to "unify" CJK scripts. Shigeki Moro, for example, reported that in encoding the Taisho Tripitaka (which includes both ancient Japanese and Chinese marterial) they had so far needed 5840 distinct charavcters, of which 1264 were unavailable in JIS and 338 were missing from Unicode. These so-called Gaiji have to be represented by SGML-like entity references, using numbers assigned by inventories such as Wittern's Kanjibase; when their textbase is converted to XML, they propose to use empty elements for the purpose. In the same session I learned of the existence of the Mojikyo Font Center , an admirable organization which provides free Truetype fonts for over 80,000 Japanese and Chinese characters.

Technical solutions to linguistic diversity was a recurrent theme in the EBTI sessions I attended. Amongst many others, I noted the following: Jost Gippert presented the TITUS (Thesaurus Indogermanischer Text- und Sprachmaterialien) project at the University of Frankfurt, demonstrating alignment of several texts from this immense collection using WordCruncher; the TITUS site also includes an ingenious set of pages for testing the ability of your system to deal with Unicode. Dhanajay Chavan from the Vipassana Research Institute in India demonstrated the new version of the Chattha Sangayana CD which allows the entire Pali canon to be viewed in Devanagari, Roman, Myanmar, Thai, Sinhalese, Cambodian or Mongolian scripts. Marvin Moser from Lucent Technologies in Chicago presented an input system for Tibetan script which (I learned) has similar "stacking" problems to classical Arabic. The Asian Classics Input Project , with which the OTA already has links, continues to create and distribute a vast library of Indo-Tibetan literature, recently expanded to include digital images of collections of such material in St Petersburg. Meanwhile, a team from Dongguk University in Korea has been quietly developing their own XML-aware Unicode editor for inputting the Korean Tipitaka, which may well turn out to have wider application, if it ever gets out of Korea; unfortunately I couldn't find out as much about this as I wanted to: this paper describing it is in Korean.

In another tribute to the lure of XML, Charles Muller (Toyo Gakuen University) recounted his experience in converting his Dictionary of East Asian Buddist terms into XML, using XSL to render it via Internet Explorer 5. The possibilities thus opened up of linking this dictionary with other resources such as the Rangjung Yeshe Tibetan English dictionary of Buddhist culture attracted much interest. Christian Wittern gave an excellent account of how encoding projects like CBETA could make use of the TEI which last he described in a memorable phrase as being "a travel guide not a catechism"; he uses UltraEdit, a programmable two-byte aware editor, to input and tag the Chinese corpus according to a modified TEI Lite, and delivers the result for browsing via Microsoft's free HTML Help wizard (an ingenious idea I propose to steal).

My account necessarily omits whole strands ofthe conference devoted to broader non-textual collections of cultural artefacts, and much discussion of the opportunities afforded by the fusion of networking and digital library, as well as some of the more specialist topics discussed, simply because one cannot be in two places at once. Nevertheless, I hope I have given some sense of the diversity and richness of this exceptional conference.