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On the Extreme Fringe of XML

August 03, 2005

The "X" in XML stands for "extensible." It doesn't stand for "expert" or "extreme." But when I think of XML I always think of the Extreme Markup Languages conference as the place to become expert in XML. I say it's where the graduate seminars in XML are held. The marketing slogan for Extreme once said it's where presenters don't have to be afraid of being technical. ("A week of geek speak," as the Extreme wiki currently has it.)

When I attended my first Extreme, in 2000, I was new enough to XML that I thought that meant everything would go over my head. That's what I thought was meant by, "Not for beginners, nor the technically faint. This is the edge, the hard bits, the theory behind the practice, the practice that outstrips current theory — the Extreme." Instead I found plenty of people in my circumstances there, people responsible for planning and implementing new directions in their organization, who knew a bit already but not everything, and who wouldn't quail to have a presenter go into specifics. There were lots of geeks and über-geeks, but primarily people who could listen to geeks talk about "everything touched by the question of how best to allow information to describe itself" — the stuff of XML itself.

There was also a strange, extraordinary quality to the conference. When I figured it out, I pulled aside one of the conference chairs (there are five, the same five each year) and said in amazement: "There's nobody in the halls during the presentations! Everyone is sitting in a presentation!" This was no exaggeration. Literally every single attendee was listening to a presentation. This we attributed to two things — after every other presentation, there's a 45-minute interlude so that all the private conversations necessary for a conference to succeed can take place without anyone missing anything. At first, that seemed excessive to me; now I regard it as a necessity. No one wants to miss anything.

The other aspect of 100 percent attendance wasn't incredible affinity between audience and subject (which is high but not supernatural), but an awareness, I think, of how focused one's own experience is and how you can't solve all your own problems. I'm saying this poorly, but what I mean is that the technologies I'm dealing with today are ones I first heard of at Extreme three or five years ago and thought at the time to be irrelevant to my problems. I can see now that the sessions I attended to deal with my then-current problems — electronifying a publisher's content — were helpful and saved me a month here and there in resolving things. But I didn't know then what I would need to know now. And I wasn't alone. That's why no one wanted to miss any sessions. Might be on the test!

For instance, I work for a publisher and have always worked for publishers, as an editor and production person in IT support and new technologies. Four years ago, kind of out of nowhere it seemed, the conference organizers invited Elaine Svenonius to come and give a keynote address. Well, you probably have never heard of Svenonius, because she's not exactly a computer person. She's a librarian (well, professor emeritus of library science at UCLA to be precise). Hello? Is this really keynote material? And Allen Renear, another academic, gave a paper the next year on the problems librarians were having identifying electronic files — the old breakdown of work, manifestation, edition and item, whereby you could clearly place the Wizard of Oz; whether you were talking about the conception, play, movie, or specific copy of the book, was breaking down, as it were.

I listened politely. I was not excited, shall we say, but I was there. Luckily for me, as it happens. Last month I wrote a report to my management pointing out that with our electronic, online activity, we were more like a library than a publisher: locating information is the main service we were providing. The problems of locating information are just what librarians have been grappling with for two-hundred years.

And now my two bedside books are Svenonius' Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization (which, despite its formidable title and MIT press imprint, is really an introductory text for a nonlibrarian like me) and Vanda Broughton's Essential Classification, a straight library-school text. This latter title was recommended to me by someone I met at Extreme, Murray Altheim, who was then modularizing XHTML and who is now grappling with these same issues. And the bibliography of Renear's paper makes up half my current reading list.

That first Extreme I attended was the infamous one where the RDF people and the Topic Map people first approached each other, ready to duke it out, it seemed, and instead emerged warily as new best friends. I was so caught up in the practical end of markup that I concluded, "This is fringe stuff I definitely don't need to know about," and pretty much ignored it. I actually skipped a session!

Today, where I work, we are implementing a topic map-based system. And a major reason I'm going to Extreme this year is a paper Lars Marius Garshol is presenting on interoperability between Topic Maps and RDF using "Quads," or RDF-triples-plus-identity. (Full disclosure: I'm also going because the organizers offered me a deal, and I'm stay at an 1830 B&B that costs only $45 a night, the Alacoque.)

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