Scenes from a Recommendation 3: Boston, Prudential Tower

Another memory from the development of XML.

It’s November 1996, at the GCA SGML ’96 conference, at the Sheraton in Boston. The SGML on the Web Working Group and ERB have just been through an exhausting and exhilarating few weeks, when from a standing start we prepared the first public working draft of XML. At this conference, we have been given a slot for late-breaking news and will give the first public presentation of our work.

Lou Burnard, of Oxford University Computing Services, the founder of the Oxford Text Archive, is there to give an opening plenary talk about the British National Corpus, a 100-million-word representative corpus of British English, tagged in SGML. Lou and I are old friends; since 1988 we have worked together as editors of the Guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative. Working together to shepherd a couple dozen working groups and task forces full of recalcitrant academics and other-worldly text theorists (“but why should a stanza have to contain lines of verse? I can perfectly well imagine a stanza containing no lines at all”) from requirements to draft proposals, to turn their wildly inconsistent and incomplete results into something resembling a coherent set of rules for encoding textual material likely to be useful to scholarship, and to produce in the end 1500 pages of mostly coherent prose documentation for the TEI encoding scheme, Lou and I have been effectively joined at the hip for years. We have consumed large quantities of good Scotch whisky together, and some quantities of beer and not so good whisky. We have told each other our life stories, in a state of sufficient inebriation that neither of us remembers any details beyond our shared admiration for Frank Zappa. We have sympathized with each other in our struggles with our respective managements; we have supported each other in working group and steering committee meetings; we have pissed each other off repeatedly, and learned, with a little help from our friends (thank you, Elaine), to patch things up and keep going. No one but my wife knew me better than Lou; no one but my wife could push my buttons and enrage me more effectively. (And she didn’t push those buttons nearly as often as Lou did.)

Tim Bray is also there, naturally. He and I have not worked together nearly as long as Lou and I have, but the compressed schedule and the intensity of the XML work have made it a similarly close relationship. We spend time on the phone arguing about the best way to define this feature or that, or counting noses to see which way a forthcoming decision is likely to come out (we liked to try to draft wording in advance of the decisions, when possible). We commiserate when Charles Goldfarb calls and spends a couple hours trying to wear us down on the technical issue of the day. (Fortunately, Charles called Tim and Jon Bosak more often than me. Either he decided he couldn’t wear me down, or he concluded I was a lightweight not worth worrying about. I’m not complaining.) Like Lou, Tim often reads a passage I have drafted and says “This is way too complicated, let’s just leave this, and this, and this, and that, out. See? Now it’s a lot simpler.”

At one point I believed it was generally a good idea for an editorial team to have a minimalist and a maximalist yoked together: the maximalist gets you the functionality you need, and the minimalist keeps it from being much more than you need. Maybe it is a good idea in general. Or maybe it was just that it worked well both in the TEI and in XML. At the very least, it’s suggestive that in the work on the XML Schema spec, I was the resident minimalist; if in any working group I am the minimalist, it’s a good bet that the product of that WG will be regarded as baroque by most readers.

It’s the evening before the conference proper, and there is a reception for attendees in a lounge at the top of the Prudential Tower. I am standing chatting with Tim Bray and Lauren Wood, and suddenly Lou comes striding urgently across the room towards us. He reaches us. He looks at me; he looks at Tim; and he says, in pitch-perfect tones of the injured spouse, “So this is the other editor you’ve been seeing behind my back!”

One thought on “Scenes from a Recommendation 3: Boston, Prudential Tower

  1. Chuckles. But you know the weird thing is, the way I remember this story, is that it was *Tim* who said that. Maybe you should ask him…

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