[Humanist] 23.778 inadequacies of markup

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Apr 29 07:24:52 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 778.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Desmond Schmidt <desmond.schmidt at qut.edu.au>              (48)
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.776 inadequacies of markup

  [2]   From:    "Dino Buzzetti" <buzzetti at philo.unibo.it>                 (25)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.776 inadequacies of markup

  [3]   From:    Christian Wittern <cwittern at gmail.com>                    (71)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.775 noticing the inadequacies

        Date: Mon, 26 Apr 2010 20:36:46 +1000
        From: Desmond Schmidt <desmond.schmidt at qut.edu.au>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 23.776 inadequacies of markup
        In-Reply-To: <20100426051016.249C8526F8 at woodward.joyent.us>

I'd like to thank John Walsh for reading my article. I am very grateful for having this public discussion of its contents. But I'd like to respond to his two points, not because I want to refute them (I don't think that is really possible) but because the other side of the argument needs to be stated for those for those who won't read whole thing.

On point 1: It's just a fact - unpleasant or otherwise - that XML is an industrial tool. XML is based on SGML, which was standardised by IBM, and is much more widely used in industry than by humanists. SGML predated TEI - the original specification left it open as to which tool should be used. IBM's SGML was then chosen, having not been developed by humanists at all (to my knowledge). In fact some of SGML's more humanist-friendly features such as markup minimisation and CONCUR were left out of XML. I'm not really criticising XML. I use it every day in my work and it is a wonderful engineering tool. What I argued in the paper was that it is unsuited to encoding historical texts in the humanities that never had such codes in them when written.

On point 2: It's a matter of opinion how significant the embedding of subjective markup codes into the text actually is. In the paper I argued that the thing being interpreted is the text, not the markup. It's not just archiving that is affected. The sharing of texts containing someone else's interpretations biases the research that another person wishes to undertake. It is true that even transcribing a text sans markup is an act of interpretation, but the effect is slight compared to the amount of subjective markup that is then embedded on the basis of that largely academic argument.

Dr Desmond Schmidt
Information Security Institute
Faculty of Information Technology
Queensland University of Technology

        Date: Mon, 26 Apr 2010 19:42:44 -0200
        From: "Dino Buzzetti" <buzzetti at philo.unibo.it>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.776 inadequacies of markup
        In-Reply-To: <20100426051016.249C8526F8 at woodward.joyent.us>

I, for one, have not found anything "sloppy, careless, and
thoughtless" in Desmond Schmidt's paper.

All best,      -dino buzzetti

Dino Buzzetti                     <buzzetti at philo.unibo.it>
Department of Philosophy
University of Bologna                 tel.    +39 051 20 98357
via Zamboni, 38                       fax                98355
I-40126 Bologna BO           http://antonietta.philo.unibo.it 

        Date: Tue, 27 Apr 2010 15:28:15 +0900
        From: Christian Wittern <cwittern at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.775 noticing the inadequacies
        In-Reply-To: <20100425080710.19FCB5303F at woodward.joyent.us>

This is a reply to the note by Desmond Schmidt on his LLC paper and the 
following [excerpted] comment by WM:

On 2010-04-25 17:07, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
> I wonder, here outloud, whether collaborative projects, based on a
> common understanding of what's going on, don't tend to attenuate
> creative thinking. I wonder whether standards (so-called or otherwise),
> which enable a common effort, don't at the same time dampen experiment?
> Once something that can be routinised is moved from the laboratory to
> the factory, isn't it time to move on? Or, even more annoyingly perhaps,
> isn't it time to question our successes?
As always, I think a cautionary note and a hesitating mindset is 
appropriate, but on the other side, I think that exploring the inner 
regions of this newly discovered continent seems to be more appropriate 
than to quibble about which exact width our railway tracks should have.  
Once we settle on one measure, we should busy ourselves to built the 
network, connect the remote locations and enjoy our findings.  At the 
same time, there might be room for developing high-speed trains to 
connect some key areas, or other experiments, but such projects would by 
necessity proceed with a different priority, and probably on a different 

I agree with Desmond Schmidt (and, as he says most others who have 
thought about this), that we are still in the age of digital 
incunables.  Text Encoding is still in its infancy and a *lot* of 
experimenting is still going on, whole new archipelagos are discovered,  
even as in the areas were we arrived first some factories started working.

Now to take up some points from Desmond's paper, I think it is important 
to not forget the 'I' in TEI which stands also for 'interchange'.  While 
the TEI Guidelines are used by many projects I know of as primary 
formats, there are also many projects that internally use a different 
format (for a whole range of reasons), but strive to be able to express 
their results *also* in TEI, in order to be able to exchange data with 
other projects, but also as archival versions that might be used in 
later stages of the project.  This is enabling us to talk with each 
other, observe and name the features in our text in a way that bridges 
the individual projects.

The issues Desmond raises against the way textual variants are encoded 
in TEI are valid and well taken; this is an area that indeed requires 
more research and experiments; the MVD list structure is a welcome 
contribution in that respect.  I do think it should be both possible and 
worthwhile to come up with a way to encode such graph and list 
structures in TEI.

Another area where important concerns are raised is the level of 
expertise that is required to work on XML encoded TEI texts by directly 
editing the source in an XML editor.   This is where the demands of the 
technology frequently gets in the way of its users and obscures rather 
than illuminates -- we definitely should strive to do better.  However, 
I am not convinced that the "command line interface" against "graphical 
user interface" dichotomy, that Desmond tries to construct here goes to 
the heart of the matter.    It seems to me that we have to learn is to 
build tools that combine both a GUI that hides unnecessary details from 
the users, but still allows the power of working with commands, which 
for example also includes the ability to chain together frequently used 
commands to a new single command.  The Author mode of oXygen is an 
attempt to do this, as was a similar mode of "hiding the tags" that 
early tools like Author/Editor did provide.    I think that the 
combination of XML databases and the dynamic interaction with text they 
enable with new user interfaces (possible browser based, but maybe even, 
gasp, with Emacs?) has an enormeous potential here and expect to see 
some innovation in this area in the next years.

This brings me to another point that Desmond makes in his paper, about 
the "industrial use" of XML, which he makes sound a bit dirty.  To me, 
this means that as Digital Humanists, we can expand our toolbox and 
expect to be able to tap into a much larger pool of talent and 
developers that we could have available otherwise.  A mixed blessing 
maybe, but I see quite a potential to find a way here to leave the 
craddle of digital text and enter in early childhood -but there is 
certainly a lot of growing up to expect and certainly a lot of creative 

Christian Wittern, Kyoto

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