Things change, or, the “real meaning” of technical terms

B. Tommie Usdin

Mulberry Technologies, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 by the author. Used with permission.

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Things change, or, the “real meaning” of technical terms

Balisage: The Markup Conference 2012
August 7 - 10, 2012

Good morning. I want to do two things. I want to introduce a piece of technology that I am about to use. I want to introduce it primarily for the sake of the speakers, but I’ll show it to the rest of you as well. This is our timer. Set it to however much time you have to speak, and watch your time disappear! I am going to give myself twenty-five minutes. I don’t think I actually need all of it.

As several people have already said, we are absolutely delighted to see you. I see old friends, I see new faces, I see some people I have only communicated with in the past by email — maybe those are my favorite because it’s nice to actually get to know the people in person that you’ve been talking to by email.

This is a remarkable group of people. This is a group of people where when somebody says, You know, that’s not actually how it works. I wrote that, and what really happens under the covers is …, don’t laugh; they probably did write it. Maybe make a mental note to ask some more questions about it over coffee.

As a general rule, in this crowd, when someone makes a preposterous claim — maybe especially when they make a preposterous claim — it is probably true. It may not be sensible, but except when they’re playing Balisage Bluff, it’s probably true.

You’re also a funny group. You probably noticed — I know a lot of you noticed — that on the registration form one of the things we ask for is Special Requirements such as dietary requirements. And as I was looking through the registration forms, I was reminded of a very, very rainy Sunday afternoon at the end of a very, very long rainy week when my little brother was perhaps seven-years-old, and he said to my mother What can I do? And she proposed something, perhaps, Get out your crayons and draw. I did that yesterday. Okay. Well, why don’t you play with something-or-other? I don’t wanna. What can I do? She said, I already proposed two things. He said, What can I do that’s fun and I wanna do, and I didn’t do yesterday? And she said, You’re going to have to solve that problem yourself.

Well, looking at your special requirements — you as a group — I have a feeling that what you’ve been saying to us is What can I do that’s fun and I wanna do, and that isn’t folding towels, and that I didn’t do yesterday? I’m going to suggest to you that if you, for example, look at the options at lunch and say, There are two things there I’m allergic to and one I hate, therefore this lunch is awful, you’re going to be very unhappy. If you look at the options and say, There are two things I like and one that is what I probably ought to be eating, you will be very happy. It’s up to you, and you’re going to have to solve that problem yourself. What we have planned for lunch every day is: a fish-based option, a meat-based option, a vegetarian option, and a gluten-free option. Now I don’t know why the gluten-free option isn’t simultaneous with one of the others — and perhaps it will be — but if you have sensitivities or issues, ask. (We have also asked them to label the various options.) But we have a fair amount of variety.

So as with lunch, also the conference as a whole. I had a conversation — oh, now several months ago — with, as it happens, an attendee at this conference who had registered because Balisage seemed like a cool conference, and he wanted to come, so he got his institution to pay for it and registered. Then the preliminary program came out, and I got email saying How do I cancel my registration? I wrote back and said, Well, if you really want to cancel your registration, tell us and we’ll credit your credit card. Why do you want to cancel your registration? Well, there isn’t very much on that program that is directly related to my job, and I don’t have the background for some of it. I said, Please wait for the final program. We’ve got a bunch of late-breaking slots. And then the late-breaking talks were posted, and I wrote back and said, Okay, the complete program is up. Take a look at it. If you really want to cancel, you can cancel, but let me tell you that as far as I’m concerned, the fact that all of the conference doesn’t appeal to you is sort of par for the course. There are going to be several sessions at this conference that I will find totally bewildering; people are going to talk about things that are just so far outside my area of expertise I have no idea what they’re talking about. There are also several papers on this program where I can’t imagine why anybody cares; I’m going to be polite and not tell you which. My guess is that each of you agrees with me that there are several papers on the program for which you can’t imagine why anybody cares, but if the conference committee has done it right, we don’t agree on which ones those are. So, if you approach this conference — by the way, that person is here, and I hope enjoys the conference — as If every paper isn’t spot on for me at all times, this is a waste of time, then I can tell you right now, this is a waste of time. If you approach it as a place to learn some things, think about some new ideas, and maybe be exposed to some things that matter to other people but not to you (or at least not to you right now), you’re going to have a great time this week.

I would like to talk to some of the speakers at this conference for a moment. You’re going to have a platform; you’re going to be allowed to say pretty much what you want to say. But I would like you not to sound like the teenage child of a good friend that I spent some time with not so long ago. I spent a week with a teenager who taught me that I don’t know anything about music. Well, that didn’t surprise me. I learned that I don’t anything about fashion. In fact, I don’t even know how to wear a scarf. I learned that I don’t know anything about technology, or at least about technology that matters, such as, for example, how to get the most out of a cell phone or even what phone to buy. I learned that I don’t read the right books or watch the right television. I learned that my job is easy. And I learned that there are simple answers to all questions: technological, financial, political, and ethical. I would like to think that most of us have matured just a little bit beyond this particular child who knows everything. The experience sensitized me to easy answers through simplification — something that many of us in this room do tend toward. This process does seem to underline many of the pronouncements that I have heard at other conferences and suspect we will hear a little too much of this week.

While most of my colleagues are a little more circumspect in the way they phrase it, I nonetheless would like to warn you not to say My problem area is very complicated, and your problem area is not; there is a simple answer to the thing you are working on — let’s focus on the thing I care about. Now I don’t mind you focusing on the thing that I care about, but you know, the things other people are working on, maybe those are hard too. Let’s assume this week that if someone is struggling with a problem you’ve just learned about for the first time that the obvious solution that pops into your mind just might not take all the subtleties into account.

Let’s be careful with our terminology. We all deal with significant complexity: complex issues, complex technologies. And the way we communicate is through the use of technical terminology — jargon. The use of jargon is important. It makes our meanings clear; it demonstrates that we know what we’re talking about. It establishes credibility. I have a client who knows a lot about her documents and her document systems and the ways documents are created and produced, and I fairly regularly have to remind myself of this because as we’re talking about document models, she not only talks about modifying the DDT — I know what she means, I really do know what she means, but I alo heard what she said, and it’s a problem. Worse than that, when what she means is Let’s make that attribute have a set of defined values, what she says is Make that a pick-list. Now, in fact in one of the tools — not even all of the tools she’s going to use — in one of the tools she is going to use, that’s the way that will be visualized. But that’s what she says, and what it does is erode her credibility. I’m warning you here that this audience is even fussier than I am about correct use of terminology, and if you use a technical term incorrectly, there will be a line at the microphone, and somebody will very politely say That is correctly called a zagorgaflesh, you know.

I was recently confused by someone else who sent me email complaining about the pointy-bracket-date-close-pointy-bracket thing in a tag set. Date element? I don’t believe this tag set has a date element. And I did a lot of digging around and searching until I figured out that the thing in email that was spelled pointy-bracket-d-a-t-e-close-pointy-bracket was an attribute. Because I didn’t look for it there!! Surrounding things with pointy-brackets in our world has a well-established meaning. The guy in email lost a lot of credibility because he spelled the name of an attribute with pointy-brackets around it.

Now, these are terms with well-established meanings. What about when you’re working in the world where most of us are going to be talking at Balisage — a world where we don’t quite have well-established meanings? Where the meanings drift over time? Meanings of words change all the time. I don’t mean necessarily technical terms or jargon, but in the real world. For example, I’m old enough and picky enough to find it really irritating when people use the word decimate to mean to do serious damage to or totally destroy. That’s not what that word used to mean, and I’m enough of a curmudgeon to think it’s not what the word should mean. But nonetheless when I listen to somebody giving a speech at a political rally and they say that something or other will decimate the economy, I know that they don’t really mean remove 10% of it; they really mean it’s just awful.

Our technical terms do the same thing, and while I’m telling you to use technical terms correctly, I’m also warning you that that may not actually be possible. What is the real meaning of a technical term? The meaning of the first person who used it? The popular meaning? The current meaning? The meaning in Wikipedia? We’re going to encounter that issue a lot during this conference. Imagine, if you will, a situation that several of you in this room who are speaking are going to encounter in the next few days: You invented something. You thought of something really clever. You coined a term for it — either you made up a new word or you borrowed a word somebody else was using. (You can’t win; if you coin a new word — if you make up a new word — you’ll confuse people. If you use a word that means something else in some other context for your new thing, you’ll confuse people, so, you know, there’s no winning.) But you came up with this new thing, you gave a couple conference talks about it, you published a couple of papers about it — it’s clever, it’s new, it’s yours — and now somebody else is talking about this same idea. Do you get bent out of shape if they don’t use your word? Or do you get bent out of shape if they do use your word? What if what they’re talking about isn’t exactly what you were talking about; it’s sorta similar. Do you want them to use your word for something sorta similar? Or do you want them not to use your word because it isn’t your thing? What if their work was based on your work? You want them to cite your paper — do you want them to use your terminology? They’re not using it right because they’ve moved in some direction that probably isn’t the direction you were going to move. What if they invented the same thing at the same time more-or-less-approximately, but they’re not crediting you because they figured it out too? Is there such a thing as simultaneous invention? Yes. Would it be polite if they cited your paper too? Yes. Do they have to use your vocabulary? Think about it. I don’t know. What if they’re using your term just plain incorrectly? Is this a good thing because people are going to call attention to your work too? Is this a bad thing because they’re doing it wrong? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do think you want to think about it. And it’s the kind of thing we’re going to be seeing at Balisage.

There are few other things I would like to say about Balisage. As far as I’m concerned, you’re my guest. You’re here — you’re my guest. And so is everybody else in this room. And what that means is: You must treat everyone else who is here as one of my guests. I do not want anybody being negative at anybody. I said that a couple of years ago at this conference and thought, That’s kinda preachy and prissy, and why on earth do I need to say that? And then the next year I didn’t say it, and several people said, We really need to be reminded of that. I thought about it, and somebody said, Did you hear that guy at the microphone who said to a speaker, `That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!’? I said, Oh. Yeah. I did hear that. Let’s not do that. No personal attacks. By the way, that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard is not about the idea — that’s a personal attack. And don’t language lawyer at me and say, No, no, it’s about the idea, not the person. It’s a personal attack, folks. We don’t do that here. That idea won’t work because … Have you thought of this? That’s talking about the idea. That’s the worst paper I’ve ever heard. If you have to say that, say it on the critique forms. You know why it’s safe to say that on the critique forms? They’re going to be edited before they go to the speakers. Because some of you use very colorful language, and we’ll tone if down before passing it on.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I want you to sit carefully in your seats with your hands folded and behave like — I don’t know — some notion of how school children behave. I’ve never actually seen school children behave like that. This is a lively environment. This is an environment in which, in my opinion, the more successful a talk is, the longer the line will be at the microphone of people who want either to ask the speaker a question or disagree with something the speaker said. There will also be people who are inspired during talks to say either Yes!! or Ooh! And if you have either of those sort of mono-syllabic comments to make where the point of it is the tone of voice and not the content, just shout. However, if you really have something to say that involves words, use the microphone. Even if you are sitting in one of the first two or three rows and the speaker will be able to hear you if you speak from your seat, the people behind you will not.

There are a few notions that we saw and that peer reviewers called out in some of the papers that were submitted to this conference. They were rarely this bald, but there were some people who said, for example: If I don’t need it, you can’t have it. There is this big complicated specification, three-quarters of which I don’t need in my environment, and therefore the way to make all of our lives easier is to eliminate the stuff I don’t need. Be careful when you’re saying, Nobody needs something because I don’t need it.

We had several draft papers that included statements on the general order of Everybody doing XML does this or Nobody in the XML world does that. If you say, Everybody I know in the XML world does this or Everybody in my industry … although you might want to make that Everybody in my industry that I know does this, you’re on solid ground. I am not aware of anyone who needs something or other — you’re fine. But Everybody in the XML world does their analysis this way or Nobody uses that specification — it’s a good bet, you’re wrong. (Well, with the possible exception of XLink. Oh, you mean that somebody does use it? Hmmmm. Maybe there are no possible exceptions.)

A few other things that I want us to think about. If you have more data, you’re more important. If you have more data, your problems are harder. Any solution that works for people who have the maximum amount of data and resources is the right answer. Or conversely, Any solution that cannot be implemented by a person with good intentions but no programming background and no budget at all doesn’t work. If I can’t do it with what I know for free, it can’t be done. Let’s not go there either.

And one of the ones that I think we’re likely to spend a lot of energy on: If some people who used to use XML stop using XML and do something else, then they must be stopped, or XML will be a failure. That’s almost as sensible as If everybody on the planet doesn’t use XML and know that they are using XML, then XML is a failure. You’ve got some funny notions, folks. If something works for some users for some applications, it is valuable and useful and interesting to talk about at Balisage. If something is important to some users and it is something that you don’t need now, that doesn’t mean you won’t need it in the future. For example, we have, to me, a surprising number of papers that will talk about JSON this week. The big threat to XML, right??? Woooooo! But then again I remember when XML was the big threat to Java, which never made any sense to me; sliced bread is not a threat to toasters. JSON is not a threat to XML, and the fact that there are environments in which some technology other than XML might meet some people’s needs does not make XML obsolete or useless or necessarily in need of changing so those people will use it. Nor do those people need to be bullied into using XML because XML is better than anything else.

We’ll also hear people saying that about overlap. Everbody knows that in XML, structures don’t overlap, and therefore you don’t need overlap and therefore we should not talk about it at conferences. Right? Except sometimes those rules get a little tight, and sometimes there are things that don’t quite work in that world. That dirty little secret is something we’re allowed to talk about here.

We’re also allowed to talk about other things that don’t quite work and don’t quite fit and haven’t been quite solved. That’s what we do here. And that is what I think it’s time for us to start talking about. Welcome to Balisage!