Balisage - The Markup Conference - August 2016

January 4, 2017

Liam Quin

Balisage is one of several annual XML conferences. It’s not only the longest-running, continuing a heritage that began in SGML days, but it's probably the only conference that combines digital humanities, commerce and business, philosophy and poetry. Read more about why you should go to Balisage!

A first impression of the Balisage markup conference might be that it’s a small conference with fewer than two hundred attendees. But then you’ll quickly notice that those attendees are very welcoming, always happy to talk and to listen, and almost all are working on a daily basis with documents. Quite a few of these are people who have thought very deeply about markup and documents and text. Here you can meet people who worked on the design of DITA, of the Text Encoding Initiatives Guidelines, of JATS, of XML itself; people who use XML for technical documentation, in business, for transcribing medieval or Roman documents, or even just for fun. People who have changed the world and people who continue to change the world.

A deeper impression might be that you’re surrounded by people who simply take as a given that XML is a helpful and useful tool, that XML and the tooling and culture around it is useful for what these people are doing and want to know, and that these are people who get together to share ideas and learn from one another.

And you'd be right.

You can find the full program, many of the presentations, and full papers, at the Conference Web site, Balisage - The Markup Conference. Some highlights from 2016 include:

  • An overview of the W3C Timed Text Markup language (TTML) for video captioning; the Working Group for this specification subsequently received a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS). Andreas Tai from the Institut für Rundfunktechnik, Munich, spoke on this.
  • Ways to represent overlapping hierarchies as sets of changes from one to the other, given by Robin La Fontaine of DeltaXML; since XML documents most naturally represent tree-structured information, there have been many ideas about the best ways for any given application or situation to represent regions that overlap or are asynchronous, such as spoken dialogue that crosses verse boundaries in poetry or text highlighted as important that goes from the middle of one paragraph to the middle of another in an aircraft manual. Robin described a method that attempts to maximize usefulness and readability of the combined document.
  • Evan Lenz, well-known in the XSLT world, showed a database-backed Web-based visual debugging environment for XSLT that looks very promising.
  • Tommie Usdin of Mulberry Technologies (the conference chair, although the papers are peer reviewed) was one of a group of four people whose presentation about graceful ways to extend XML vocabularies (or tag-sets as people with SGML backgrounds sometimes call them), and Jeff Beck of the US National Institute of Health (NIH) went through a set of principles in this area that was developed for the JATS journal article tag-set.

As with all the best conferences, the questions and answers after the talks are often very informative. Allan Renear commented on the talk given by Todd Carpenter of NISO that, “I'm the dean of a library information science school, so I liked what you said about archivists, librarians & other professionals in such institutions;” Todd noted in response that the “Silicon Valley” programmers tend not to recognize the skills and knowledge of the library and information science communities.

For some participants the highlights of the conference were the informal dinners and hallway discussions. For some, the talk about a JavaScript translation of Saxon, the XSLT processor, running in a Web browser, with its accompanying demonstration, was particularly exciting. For others it was some other talk, the poster sessions, having lunch with some of the people who designed XML and the XML stack, a game of “werewolf” in the evening, or simply being at perhaps the only conference where the philosophy of markup is as prominent a topic as the technology of markup.

Balisage has always been particularly welcoming towards newcomers; come and see for yourself!