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TEI-L  August 2003

TEI-L August 2003

Subject:

in memoriam Antonio Zampolli

From:

"C. M. Sperberg-McQueen" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

C. M. Sperberg-McQueen

Date:

Wed, 27 Aug 2003 08:57:08 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (189 lines)

As some readers of this list will know (from Humanist 17.199), the TEI
has just lost a close friend and champion with the untimely death of
Prof. Antonio Zampolli.  His passing should not go unmarked on TEI-L.

Antonio Zampolli was professor of mathematical linguistics at the
University of Pisa and the director of the Istituto di linguistica
computazionale there. From 1983 onwards, he was also the president of
the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC), where he
became such an institution that the organization's bylaws were changed
to ensure that we could keep him as president indefinitely instead of
having him stand down after some fixed period of time; in his role as
president of the ALLC, he played a crucial role in organizing the Text
Encoding Initiative and served on its Steering Committee for over a
decade, from the begining of the TEI until the three founding
organizations handed the project over to the TEI Consortium a couple
of years ago.

I think I first met Antonio at the meeting in Poughkeepsie, New York,
in November 1987 which discussed text encoding problems and
recommended that an initiative be launched to develop a set of text
encoding guidelines for use in scholarly work; the TEI grew out of
that meeting.  During an informal strategy session during the evening
after the first day, one of the participants asked the representatives
from the National Endowment for the Humanities whether NEH would be
willing to fund such an effort.  One of them responded that in
principle, NEH was willing to consider it, but it would be a very
important signal of the importance of the project if other funding
were also available. After a moment of silence, Antonio remarked that
he thought the project was very important and he had funding available
which he was willing to use to organize an initial meeting to work out
the details of a project plan.  He proposed to meet in Pisa four weeks
later.  (Need I say that the NEH people were suitably impressed?)
I've never been sure, but I suspect he raided his guest-lecturer fund
to pay for that meeting.

During that meeting in Pisa, Antonio drove the rest of us to Lucca in
the ILC van for dinner, a trip memorable both for the meal and for the
moment on the road when we crested a hill, driving somewhat faster
than the posted speed limit in the dead center of the rather narrow
country highway between two lines of trees, and found ourselves
staring into the headlights of an oncoming truck also driving in the
center of the road.  I remember thinking "Well, this text encoding
project seemed like a really good idea, it's a shame that it won't
happen -- what an irony for the entire planning committee to be killed
in a highway accident before it even gets started. Oh, well."  But
Antonio was not only an aggressive driver, he was also an imaginative
one, and had good hands.  And somehow or other we and the truck got
past each other.  On the return trip, as I recall, Nancy Ide decided
she did not want to sit in the front passenger seat again; Susan
Hockey drew the short straw.  The next day, when Antonio drove us to
the airport through town to catch our flight to London, Susan and
Nancy unanimously decreed that I would sit in the front seat.  There
were some exciting moments as he fought his way through a huge and
unexpected traffic jam of people leaving the soccer stadium. But we
caught the flight with plenty of time to spare, of course, just as
Antonio had predicted all along: we walked into the airport at least
twelve minutes before flight time, and they really didn't have to wait
for us very long at all before closing the door of the plane and
taking off.

Antonio got involved in computing early.  As a student, he undertook
to study the relative frequency of different phonemes in Italian.  He
started doing a phonemic transcription of a literary text (if I
remember correctly, it was Il matrimonio segreto) and keeping tables
of frequency, and he rapidly reached a point of deep despair over the
difficulty of managing the raw data, doing reliable counts, and
reanalysing the data conveniently when necessary.  After some thought,
one of his professors said, "you know, I think you should go up to
Gallarate and see Roberto Busa."  Busa, a Jesuit priest, was a pioneer
in the use of computers for full-text analysis of important historical
texts.  Antonio became one of his first and most prominent students,
and he devised methods for automatic translation from Italian
orthography to a phonemic transcription, both for computers and for
punched-card equipment controlled by a plug-board.  It is one of my
lasting regrets that I have never learned enough about plug-board
machines to be able to ask him how on earth one set about doing
phonemic transliteration with unit record equipment.  His own
background thus combined the concerns of computational linguistics
with those now called "linguistic computing", and one of his favorite
topics while we worked together was the need to keep the two
communities connected.

Later, he founded the Istituto di linguistica computazionale largely,
he once told me, so that there would be a place to do the kind of work
he wanted to do as a young researcher.  "But now that you have the
institute," I asked him, "do you personally have any time to do any
research?  Does it benefit you personally?"  "No," he said.  "I'm too
busy with administration.  I don't have any time to do any research of
my own anymore.  But I get to see it being done."  I think, in
retrospect, that he understated his connection to research.  But it is
true that he will be remembered very largely for his skills of
organization and persuasion.

He served (or so it appeared to outsiders) on every expert group the
European Commission and European Science Foundation ever formed in the
area of computational linguistics and language resources, and it was
often rather a challenge to try to schedule meetings with him because
his calendar kept changing unpredictably depending on conditions in
Luxembourg.  For that matter, it was sometimes a trying experience
even after you got the meeting scheduled, since his visits invariably
involved the receipt and transmission of some variable number of faxes
and telephone messages which tended to stretch to the limit whatever
telecommunications resources were available (in the early days of the
TEI, my computer center didn't have a fax machine -- I think we were
skeptical because the transmission was analog rather than digital --
and I could only send and receive faxes by walking two blocks down the
street to the university Telecommunications department, which had a
fax machine and was willing to bill my department back for the usage
charges).  Sometimes, this was only a problem before and after the
meeting, but it didn't always stop at the meeting room doors.  In
Poughkeepsie, he arrived with two assistants who camped out in an
office working on a proposal of some kind and consulting periodically
with their colleagues in Pisa. From time to time they would bring him
messages and he would confer with them and dictate answers -- I
thought he was not paying attention to the discussion in the meeting
proper, until later he showed that he had been.  I count myself
fortunate never to have had to chair a meeting Antonio was
participating in, though now that it will never happen I grow morose
with the knowledge that I'll never face that challenge.  Things only
got worse after he acquired a cell phone. (John Unsworth has confided
that he was at times tempted to throw Antonio's phone out of the
window.)  He was a remarkably unmanageable participant, but -- and
this is part of his unmanageability -- also an essential one, whose
input one disregarded at one's peril.

The more important an issue, the less directly he liked to approach
it, and he always preferred it when the first formulation of the
proposal he favored came out of someone else's mouth.  "How important
do you think it is that X?" he would ask, and once assured that X was
indeed important, he would ask another question, and another, until
eventually someone would be led to propose that in order to make it
more likely that Y, which would be an important pre-requisite for X,
we should approach Z for help with doing W.  "For heaven's sake,
Antonio," I once remonstrated, "why don't you just propose W and be
done with it?!  Wouldn't it save time?"  But he never did, I think
because he knew that it would not actually save time.  Sometimes I
called him Socrates; he would laugh that I had seen through him, but
he never abandoned his Socratic approach.

He livened up any gathering he was in, either through conversation --
he was consistently amused by the descriptions of dishes on American
menus, and wondered how a restaurant could make money by telling its
patrons so bluntly that it didn't think they were well enough educated
about food to know what the names of standard dishes meant -- or
through other means.  If the local organizer of an ALLC conference was
a woman, he always ended the closing session by embracing her and
kissing her on the cheek; otherwise he tended to shoo Susan Hockey
toward the local organizer, encouraging her (somewhat against her
somewhat more reserved instincts) to do the same.  I seem to remember
he got great amusement from trying to make Nancy Ide sing a song
called "Oh Sir Jasper do not touch me" (in which the same line is
repeated for each verse, dropping one more word from the end each time
around, until in the last stanza the line is just "Oh").  I don't
believe he got his way that evening, but his charm was such that he
often did get his way, even when it involved persuading total
strangers to drop everything and do things for him.  Five minutes
after his first arrival at my home, my wife had put supper on hold and
was wrapping a package for him to mail to Italy.  An hour after the
end of a TEI steering committee meeting in Chicago, the concierge at
his hotel had succeeded in getting him a ticket to a Stanley Cup
playoff game that had been sold out for weeks (he told me he had
played goalie in his youth).

In the late 1980s, he single-handedly arranged for financial support
for European participation in the TEI by twisting arms in the European
Commission (or at least, it looked single-handed to me), and although
he made himself a perfect pest in discussions of the TEI budget, he
was ingenious in finding ways to stretch our resources.  His active
English was rather hesitant at the beginning of the project, and from
time to time we tried to persuade him to say crucial things in French
(his French was very good) so we could understand what he was saying.
Over the years, as he collaborated more and more with American
researchers, his English got better and better; I heard indirectly
that some of his European colleagues joked that he was practically
becoming an American.  I don't think that was so, but he was always
alert to the opportunities and necessity for international
cooperation, including cooperation across the Atlantic and across the
Pacific, and he was a master at finding ways to make things happen.
One of the many things he helped make happen was the TEI, for which
all who care about the TEI owe him gratitude.

It will seem strange to many in the humanities computing and
computational linguistics communities to try to make things happen
without Antonio's help.  I will miss him very much.

-C. M. Sperberg-McQueen
  World Wide Web Consortium
  MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)

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