How to cite this paper

Usdin, B. Tommie. “Welcome to Balisage 2020: Everything is the same, and everything is different.” Presented at Balisage: The Markup Conference 2020, Washington, DC, July 27 - 31, 2020. In Proceedings of Balisage: The Markup Conference 2020. Balisage Series on Markup Technologies, vol. 25 (2020).

Balisage: The Markup Conference 2020
July 27 - 31, 2020

Balisage Paper: Welcome to Balisage 2020

Everything is the same, and everything is different

B. Tommie Usdin

Mulberry Technologies

B. Tommie Usdin is President of Mulberry Technologies, Inc., a consultancy specializing in markup of textual documents. She chairs Balisage: The Markup Conference. She co-chaired and later chaired GCA’s SGML conferences from 1991 through 1997, and then Markup Technologies and then Extreme Markup Languages conferences through 2007. She has spoken and taught at conferences as varied as JATS-Con, Markup UK, Seybold, ACH, Xplor, TEI Annual Conference, Tri-XML, XML ’XX, XML Dev Con, Inera’s XUG, Typefi User Group, Java Developers, the DC XML User’s Group, and the BioMed Central Freedom of Information Conference.

Ms. Usdin is co-chair of the JATS Standing Committee, a member of NISO’s Standards Tag Suite (STS) Standing Committee, and a member of NLM’s Book Information Tag Set (BITS) committee. She began working with SGML in 1985 and has been a supporter of XML since 1996. She has worked with standardized and shared public vocabularies including JATS, BITS, STS, DITA, TEI, SAE J2208, MIL-M-28001, and the Pinnacles Standard. Projects include reference materials in medicine, science, engineering, and law; semiconductor documentation; historical and archival materials. Distribution formats have included print books, magazines, and journals, and both web- and media-based electronic publications. You can read more about her at

Copyright ©2020 by the author. Used by permission.


Balisage 2020 is both totally new and comfortably familiar. Balisage regulars will recognize many of this year’s presenters and welcome some new points of view on familiar topics. Logistically, technologically, we are on a new path. As markup designers, theorists, and practitioners, we are used to tiptoeing near the edge from time to time. I was saddened when I had to admit that Balisage-as-usual could not happen in 2020. I was delighted when it became clear that because we were now virtual, many old friends will be able to re-join us this year, and that this new format will let us welcome some newcomers to the Balisage community.

Table of Contents

Virtual Meetings Can Be Exhausting
Balisage Culture
Code of Conduct
Courtesy to Speakers
Virtual Rooms
Balisage Bard
Improving Balisage
Conference Committee


Welcome to Balisage! I am absolutely delighted to see so many people at Balisage 2020 — well, I’m not seeing you — I’m delighted to know there are so many people at Balisage 2020. As you can imagine, the planning process has been more than a bit bumpy, and I suspect the conference will have a few bumps too. We’ll figure it out as we go along.

I think we have managed to capture the essence of Balisage in a virtual Balisage. Some of the things are the same as they always were. We have a place to talk about markup in as much detail as we want without the sales folks saying Shush! You’ll scare away the paying customers! Paper submissions, peer review, selection, and the revision process were exactly the same as they have been in years past, with the exception that we got more high quality papers than we’ve ever seen. This means that we also had to turn down some good ones. I think the papers this year are phenomenal.

We have a mix of old friends, Balisage regulars, and some new speakers, just as the attendees are a mix of people who have been to many Balisages and first time attendees. We have achieved the goal of subject matter spread within the envelope of markup. This is a place where we are allowed to talk about failures as well as successes, and about challenges and things we would like to approach in the future. Balisage is a place where nothing gets dismissed as just an edge case. Those things others call edge cases are our interesting problems, and we care about them. Those are the things that are the same this year.

There are some things that are really different. We are tele-meeting with all the pluses and minuses that come with that. We have participants who haven’t been able to attend Balisage in person for a wide variety of reasons: challenges with travel permissions and costs, health issues, time restrictions, and family situations. Many people, who haven’t been able to come for a while but wanted to, are here today.

Another thing that is different, and that I don’t miss, is hotel logistics. You wouldn’t believe how hard it can be to get a hotel to provide enough power points that every participant can power their laptops. Convincing an unsympathetic hotel kitchen to provide gluten-free lunch options and not to put bacon in the vegan soup because everybody likes bacon is a lot harder than you would think. And issues about parking, and holding rooms for late arrivals, and the quality of the projectors, and … I don’t miss any of that junk.

We will have new logistical issues: concerns about using Zoom and concerns about the accessibility of the alternatives to it, and microphones, and speakers, and audio feedback, and visibility of slides and demos, and audio feedback, and all of the other logical things that come … and feedback, did I mention feedback?

Virtual Meetings Can Be Exhausting

I know virtual meetings can be absolutely exhausting. This is me attending XML Prague hours before daylight, earlier this year [see Figure 1]. We have participants worldwide and in many time zones. All this screen viewing is really hard on the eyes and can be tough on the keister as well! So, we have shorter days and more breaks. We’re trying to make this comfortable as well as interesting.

Figure 1: Virtually Attending XML Prague

feet up on low table with screen showing conference speaker


We are using a tool called Whova. If you’re listening to me, you have found your way to the conference through the Whova conference portal. Congratulations, you have done the hardest part!

When we start whining about the inconveniences of Whova, which we will, I want to remind you that we’re using Whova to mediate the conference Zoom sessions for several good reasons. The most important is that because we are using it as the portal to the conference sessions we don’t have to publish links to Zoom on the web, which means that there is another layer to negotiate if anyone with disruptive intent wishes to join us. No, I don’t think Balisage is a particular target for Zoom-bombing, but people who want to be obnoxious are not all that fussy about their targets. More concretely, it makes some attendees and their employers more comfortable with their participation. And it provides handy Q&A and chat windows, a feedback form for each session, and places for community conversations.

There is also a mobile app which provides some additional social tools. Use it if you want to, but you can attend all of the conference without it.


Before I start talking about the details of how we’re going to do things at Balisage 2020, I want to talk about the goals and the non-goals that the conference committee set for Balisage and that we tried to stick to as we made decisions.

A conference is complex system, not unlike many other systems you work with every day. Like any complex system, there are design decisions to be made, trade-offs to consider, and users who will be disappointed as well as delighted by many of those decisions. (It’s interesting, by the way, that the disappointed ones tend to say so loudly and in public while the delighted ones say so quietly and in private. That’s not just true of conferences; that seems to be true of the world.)

The goals we set for Balisage, most important first:

  • Holding a conference in 2020 (That was not necessarily a possibility when we were talking about it earlier this spring)

  • Having a face-to-face component of the conference (Obviously, we have not achieved all of our goals)

  • Making a Balisage that is solidly in the tradition of Balisage (It should feel like Balisage)

  • It should be interactive (It should not be or feel like a webcast)

  • It should be technical (Sometimes very seriously geeky)

  • It should be inclusive, and

  • It should be welcoming.

The non-goals for a project are as important as the goals. I believe in articulating non-goals, that is, things we are not aiming to do, both as a way to set expectations and as a way of clarifying the goals. Non-goals are things that perhaps others might think your project should accomplish, but that are not what you are setting out to do.

I’ve seen more than one project declared a failure because it didn’t do something it was never designed to do. One markup project in particular was designed to get content into several media (web, epub, and print) at the same time and far more rapidly than the previous systems was declared a failure, the principal advocates and designers fired, and the technology trashed because it didn’t support natural language translation … which was not a goal.

The non-goals for Balisage 2020 are similar to the non-goals for previous Balisage events:

  • We’re not here to sell. We’re not convincing potential users that XML is the greatest thing since sliced bread. We’re not selling the idea of declarative markup, and if you try to sell products here, you’re more likely to create hostility than sales.

  • It is not our goal to cover general computing topics that are not directly related to markup. We had a proposal a few years ago to talk about the importance of backups and the types of file systems that are most appropriate for backups of various sizes and volatility of files. I can’t say this isn’t an important topic, but it’s NOT Balisage.

  • Entertainment is not really a goal for Balisage, either. Not that Balisage isn’t fun for a certain type of markup enthusiast — clearly it is. How do I know? Because you’re here. But we don’t select presentations based on the public speaking skills of the presenter, but on the technical content of the presentation. We rehearse enough that it’s likely that the speaker can connect, be seen and heard, and that their visuals are, well, visible. We don’t coach our speakers on public speaking or graphic design. We don’t have professional designers enhance speaker visuals. This is not TED. (Don’t misunderstand me; I LOVE TED, but it isn’t Balisage). This is a technical conference.

Balisage Culture

Balisage has been going for a lot of years. It has developed a culture. In the conference opening, for example, I usually start by talking about the code of conduct and conference logistics. I point you to the washrooms and the coffee, tell you not to leave your possessions unattended in hotel, and talk about lunch, coffee breaks, and social hours.

This year, my guidance is both the same and different.

Code of Conduct

The Code of Conduct is enormously important at Balisage. It’s a little different this year because it’s about a virtual event. It’s available on the Balisage website. Please take a moment to read it and think about it; we’re serious about it. Consider moderating your language if it might be received as offensive. I didn’t say intended as offensive. I said might be received as offensive. (By the way, I wasn’t attacking the person, just the ideas does not excuse inappropriate language; find a way to disagree respectfully. Saying no offense before being offensive doesn’t fly either.)

Courtesy to Speakers

Let the speakers do their presentations. During a conference session, everyone except the speakers and the moderator should keep their microphones muted and their cameras off. Do NOT interrupt. Do NOT interject. This is important in person; it is critical in this environment. Note that in the screenshot that I grabbed at one of the pre-conferences, everyone except the speaker has their microphones off [see Figure 2]. That’s the way they should be most of the time.

Figure 2: Muted mirophones for Everyone but the Speaker

in participant list, microphone icon for each participant has a strike-out line


Does that mean you can’t ask questions? Absolutely not. Questions, answers, and the discussions they inspire are the heart of Balisage. If you have a question or if you want to respond to a point the speaker made, say so in the Session Q&A window. The Session Q&A window is a place either to put your question or say I have a question about … the topic of your question.. You don’t have to be specific here, just provide the topic of your question or comment. In fact, you can’t put the full text of most questions here because of length limitations.

If you just want to make a remark about the presentation, do it in the Chat window. Other attendees will see it; the speaker will not see it until later, perhaps much, much later.

Don’t raise your hand in the participant window; there are far too many of us for that to be reliably visible or in any way useful.

After the presentation, the moderator will call on people who posed questions in the Q&A window, one at a time, in a sequence of the moderator’s choosing. The moderator may decide to group related questions, may call on less frequent participants before more frequent participants, or may start with questions that are likely to have short answers. The moderator rules; there is no appeal. Live with it.

During Q&A time, the only people speaking should be the moderator, the questioner, and the speaker. If you want to interject, ask to speak in the Q&A window; don’t just jump in and interrupt. We have too many people here for that. If we allow that, we will develop an in group of active participants, and everyone else will become the out group. That’s not Balisage.

Virtual Rooms

AFTER thirty minutes or so (plus or minus not very many, please) of the speaker’s presentation and AFTER twenty minutes for formal questions and answers (more or less approximately, but let’s try to stick with that), in a face-to-face event, most of the people in the room would head for the conveniences or the coffee, and a few people would gather around the speaker for informal conversation. That, by the way, is my favorite part of a conference, and we have a plan for that!

We have virtual rooms! You may have noticed in the agenda that the sessions are labeled Maple or Oak. These are our virtual conference rooms. Each room will open about a half hour before the session starts so the speaker and the moderator can get set. If anyone else wants to wander in at that time, you’re welcome. You’re going to see the speaker testing slides or adjusting a microphone, or perhaps the moderator checking a few details that will be used to introduce the speaker. Not much interesting going on here.

On the hour, the moderator will introduce the speaker. The speaker will have a half hour for the presentation. Then, the moderator will run the Q&A session, which is expected to last about twenty minutes. After that, the conference is officially on break for ten minutes. This room will stay open, and anyone who wants is welcome to stay and chat; like standing around after a session, just talk with the people who want to talk about the presentation. We’ll try to remember to announce when the next session is starting in the other room, but we’re going to leave this room open for anyone who wants to stay and talk, sort of like standing in the hall and chatting as the sessions go on in the conference room.

It’s an overlap scenario. Makes sense? Here’s a diagram of how it works [see Figure 3]. If you stay and chat too long after a session, you’re going to miss the beginning of the next one — just like in a physically hosted conference.

Figure 3: Balisage 2020 Room Use

session rooms remain open as next session starts

Conversation after a Balisage session may continue into the break and even during the next session if participants want to chat.


One of our goals is INTERACTIVITY. I’ve been talking about controlled interactivity in the Q&A time and uncontrolled activity after the session. We have a few other ways we hope to foster interactivity.

One of my favorite parts of a conference is the opportunity to eat lunch with people I don’t know; it provides a casual environment for meeting people I know are interested in markup because they’re at Balisage and with whom I may have other mutual interests. I’ve met some of the people who are now my best friends at conferences. It’s difficult to connect with friends from a distance; it’s even harder to make new friends this way.

So, during the mid-day break, we’re going to try small group conversations. Everyone who is in that session five minutes after it starts will be auto-magically, randomly assigned to — well, invited to — a small group. If you want to, you can accept that invitation and go be in a break-out group with — well, we don’t know who — other people. Perhaps some people you already know. Perhaps some people you don’t know. Stay awhile or not, as you choose. Consider this your lunch table, and munch on a sandwich as you chat. (Perhaps mute yourself when you’re crunching celery, lest you chase everyone else away.) If these break-outs work well today, we’ll repeat the process Tuesday and perhaps Wednesday.

Balisage Bard

Thursday during the mid-day break is Balisage Bard, a favorite Balisage entertainment. Lynne Price, the Balisage gamemaster, is the person to ask about details. She has started a topic in the Whova Community called Balisage Bard Sign-Up. If you have a markup-related song or song parody, a poem, a skit, or a micro-movie, sign up. Yes, this year we are allowing canned presentations such as video as long as they are markup-related and two minutes or shorter. Start working on your rap song, limerick, or cartoon!


While I’m talking about interactivity, I will also address one of the most controversial decisions we made about Balisage 2020. We will NOT be recording Balisage. There will not be a video available either to attendees or the public. We have the Balisage proceedings which is a permanent public record of the event. (I’ll talk about that in a couple of minutes.)

To record or not to record is one of the most difficult decisions we had to make about Balisage, simply because there are many people in our community who think there is only one possibility … and they disagree about what it is. There are people who never considered the possibility that we would not record it and encouraged us to make the recordings public immediately. Others, who also don’t seem to have considered the possibility that we wouldn’t record it, encouraged us to sell access to the recorded conference sessions. Some suggested that we restrict access to the recordings to people who registered for Balisage. Some people want to watch the recording because they live many, many time zones away from Balisage Central and find it challenging to participate late at night or early in the morning; some want to be able to refer to the full presentations after the conference; and some will miss some sessions due to real-life conflicts. We would like to be able to accommodate all of these people.

However, others wanted to be assured they would be allowed to edit the recording of their sessions before publication. Some sought assurances that we would not record them and offered to withdraw their papers from the conference if we intended to record their presentations. We have been asked to turn off the recording during the Q&A sessions, so everyone feels free to participate. Some of our participants are very uncomfortable with the idea that we might recording of their presentations.

It seems to me that even in, or perhaps particularly in 2020, people react to the presence of cameras and recording in various ways. There are some among us — those most practiced in public speaking — who sparkle more when they know there is a camera pointing at them. These people perform for posterity and are at their best when they know that a presentation with be preserved. There are some among us who respond quite differently and become self-conscious and awkward and stumble over their words in the same situation. It’s very difficult for them to express themselves when they know they are being recorded. Some are afraid to be seen on camera, in some cases for what all of us would consider good reasons, and some for private reasons. (By the way, in my opinion, asking why someone doesn’t want to appear on camera is akin to asking why they have particular dietary preferences; it is simply rude! I was once told that I must drink to my brother’s health on his birthday. Raising a glass of apple juice was insufficient; here was the vodka which I had to drink right now to prove I loved my brother. Wow, that was a memorable moment that did not increase my respect for the person pushing the alcohol. Let’s not do that to our colleagues at Balisage.) Many of the people who would prefer not to be recorded work best in the small groups of people they know well; they find Balisage to be intimidating. There is, in my opinion, no correlation at all between this aspect of people and the value of and interest in their markup-related knowledge and opinions. We WANT to hear from people who are not necessarily comfortable performing on camera; we want to hear from them because they have interesting ideas to share. Similarly, we want questions and comments from everyone, not just from the people who would be comfortable doing it for posterity.

Improving Balisage

We want to know what you think about Balisage 2020, what you think about the tools we’re using, about the speakers, and about anything else Balisage-related. We’re a crowd with a lot of opinions — please share them. This year the feedback form is under the button called Rate Session in the portal for each session.

Your responses to the feedback questionnaire are anonymous … well, unless you type your name into one of the paragraphs. We will pass most of your comments about the speakers and their session on to the speakers. Why most of the comments? Because some of you are very eloquent when you don’t like something, and some of our speakers do not have tough enough skin to take some of your opinions. Just as we filter what some of the peer reviewers say before sending it to the speakers.

We also have a feedback session scheduled for a half hour after the conference officially ends on Friday. This is a good time to come and tell us what you liked, what you didn’t like, what you suggest we do differently in the future; and hear what others think.


I said I was going to talk about the Balisage proceedings. I am really proud of the Balisage Proceedings. It’s a collection of conference papers and related materials covering a wide variety of markup-related topics that are simply not collective anyplace else. It’s now twenty-five volumes, including materials from 2008 to 2020 and more than 450 papers. The content is available by event, meaning the conference or symposium at which it was presented and by author. It is indexed by concept, specification, and process. Most of the entries are full papers, often accompanied by the slides or other visuals used at the conference. They are available in web format, print/mobile format, and ePub format. The source XML for the papers is also available in the proceedings because that is the way we do things, and you might be interested.

An important note: the authors for each paper have selected their own copyright statement; some are more open than others. Before using or re-using any of the materials, read the copyright statement on each paper you want to use. Some are Creative Commons attribution — no derivatives, some are All rights reserved, and some are Works of the United States government. You can do anything you want with some of them, but not all. Respect the individual copyrights.

We do not consider the Balisage proceedings as ephemeral. Please take a look at the conference Persistence Policy which says, essentially, that Mulberry, the Balisage host, will do everything we can to keep the proceedings up and available, including registering the papers’ DOIs with Crossref, for example. Because Balisage is run by a small organization that, given the fragile nature of human beings, cannot last long in archival terms, we archive the proceedings with Portico, who will make them available in the event Mulberry is unable to do so. The Balisage proceedings are also indexed by Google Scholar and ResearchGate.

I won’t go on anymore about the proceedings except to mention that Liam Quin will talk about his work to make the Balisage proceedings more accessible in his talk on Tuesday.


I should talk about Accessibility. Way back in pre-history when, although we didn’t know it, our world WAS puddle-wonderful, we planned on having a one-day single topic pre-conference today followed by three and a half days of Balisage. The topic chosen for the pre-conference was The Role of XML in Publishing Accessible Documents. Plans changed. Instead of a one-day pre-conference and three and a half days of conference, each with eight presentations, we have a one event, almost five days, with six presentations per day. And what happened to the Accessibility content? It was integrated into the conference — as it is now obvious was the right thing to do. Accessibility is not and should not be an edge case or a special consideration. It is, or should be, business as usual. It is, or should be, something we take into account all the time, another area in which we do our best at all times. I don’t regret merging the symposium into Balisage this year, except that we then had no use for the logo that Bethan Tovey-Walsh created for us [see Figure 4].


A few thank-you’s. I want to thank the Balisage sponsors. We have two silver sponsors, Docugami and Antenna House. You’ll see their logos on the conference portal and in the web app.

Antenna House was founded in August of 1984 in Tokyo, Japan as a software company focused on data usability. Antenna House, Inc. has led the data conversion sector in Japan since that time. The company currently operates out of four international locations and welcomes new partners from around the globe. For information, visit their website. Most of us at Balisage will recognize them for their page formatting tools.

Docugami is a Seattle-area document engineering start-up that transforms how businesses create and manage documents for greater productivity, compliance, and insights using breakthrough artificial intelligence. Founded in March 2018 by former senior engineering leaders from Microsoft, Docugami harnesses the wide range of artificial intelligence techniques, including natural language processing, image recognition, declarative markup, and other approaches to radically improve how documents enhance business processes rather than slowing them down with manual labor and disconnected data. Read more about Docugami.

We also thank NISO and oXygen for their support. It would surprise me if there are many Balisage participants who do not use at least one of oXygen’s products, and we thank them for their continuing support. If you haven’t looked at what they’re up to lately, take a look: Oxygen

It would also surprise me if there were many Balisage participants who do not benefit from the work of NISO, although I doubt most of you know that. I ask that you take a few minutes to learn what NISO is and what the various NISO committees and working groups do. Consider getting involved. I know, I know; you’ve got too much to do already. Go read about NISO.

Conference Committee

And there is the Conference Committee, the people who planned Balisage, who read every paper submitted and all of the comments of all of the peer reviewers, who selected the program, and who helped with organizing and logistics of the conference. You’re going to see them all week, introducing speakers, making announcements, and moderating questions and answers. Debbie Lapeyre, Jim Mason, Michael Sperberg-McQueen, and Norm Walsh have put huge amounts of work into making Balisage 2020 what it is, and I thank all of them.

Welcome to Balisage 2020, where everything is the same and everything is different!