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Author: Sarah O'Keefe


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of maple syrup

Wednesday evening, I detoured from XML 2006 in Boston up to Nashua, New Hampshire, for a presentation at the STC Northern New England chapter.

(Thanks to Char James-Tanny for providing transportation!)

Traditionally, presenters are given a jug of maple syrup. Yum. I love maple syrup.

But sadly, the TSA does not permit maple syrup in quantities greater than three ounces in your carry-on luggage. And I don’t check luggage except under extreme circumstances. (And transporting maple syrup doesn’t — quite — qualify.)

My thoughtful hosts, however, decided to give me maple taffy and maple cream cookies instead. Much appreciated.

Note: Cattle prods and throwing stars are permitted in checked baggage only. Good to know before my next on-site class . (And no, I am not making this up. Look under “tools” and “martial arts & self-defense items”)

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XML 2006: Not the takeaway I was expecting

A conference presentation is a specialized form of technical communication — in addition to basic technical writing skills, a presenter needs the ability communicate effectively in a conference session. The presenters here are technical experts, but many of them are really terrible at the front of a room!

For example, they are making the following mistakes (some presenters are doing all of these):

  • Reading slides
  • Slides with too much text in too small a font (the vast majority of the presentations)
  • Mumbling
  • Poor microphone management (not talking into the microphone, moving back and forth so that the volume goes up and down)
  • Poor time management — spending too much time on introductory material and not enough time on the important bits of the presentation
  • Speaking in extreme monotones
  • Sentences trailing off in volume

I don’t know exactly how conference proposals were evaluated, but it looks very much as though content is king (sounds good, right?) Proposals were evaluated on technical merit and little or no consideration was given to presentation skills.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. If you have great knowledge, but are unable to communicate that verbally, then putting you at the front of a room full of people is not helpful.

And worst of all, there are NO EVALUATIONS! That means that there’s little or no chance that the situation will be addressed next year. (There is an overall conference evaluation form, but you have to remember to go get it at the registration desk.)

Joe Welinske of WritersUA does the best of job of speaker assessment I’ve seen:

  • He asks participants to fill out evaluations for each speaker. There are just a few questions, and each evaluation is an entry for a door prize. In other words, he bribes participants to fill out the evaluations.
  • Speakers who suck with poor evaluations aren’t invited back the next year.
  • He rarely allows panels or group presentations (too much diffusion of responsibility).
  • Speakers who were rated highly in the past get stars on their bios, so attendees have some additional information to help them choose a session.
  • Joe attends many conferences each year to evaluate prospective speakers and to gauge which topics are getting the most interest from attendees. He builds his program based on this research.

The contrast between the presentation quality here and at WritersUA is really quite stunning.

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XML 2006: Content Management APIs

How Google and wireless access have changed the world: I’m sitting in this session, and the presenter’s approach isn’t working for me. So, I google jsr 170 and I find this article at CMS Watch that explains it quite nicely.

Having skimmed that, I return my attention to the presenter, and find that he’s making a lot more sense.

The CMS Watch article has an excellent definition of JSR 170:

JSR-170 promises the Java world, and possibly beyond, a unified API that allows accessing any compliant repository in a vendor- or implementation-neutral fashion, leading to the kind of clean separation of concerns that characterizes modern IT architectures. Some people call JSR-170 the “JDBC [Java Database Connectivity] of Content Repositories.”

Now, we have Michael Wechner presenting on what is theoretically the same topic. Only not. He leads with this: “Today, every CMS is producing its own user interface, which is just kind of silly.” And then this analogy: mail servers are standardized, but you’re free to use your own client/front end. Similarly, CMSes need a common backend and you can do whatever on the front end.

I feel smarter already.

Wechner’s company, Wyona, is an integrator for open source CMS.

He points out that the ability to work offline is important because people aren’t always online. He uses the example of a train ride in Europe — the obvious equivalent in the United States is airplanes. (Side note: If people are permitted to yap on their cell phones in-flight, I’m probably going to stop traveling altogether. It’s bad enough on the ground at the gate.)

OK, and I think he’s proposing that you use existing protocols, such as Atom and WebDAV, to do CMS connections.

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XML 2006: XML in Legislation

Timothy Arnold-Moore of SAIC (I think). Good presenter with a sense of humor.

Magna CartaHe points out again that legislation has a shelf life of hundreds of years and so a typical word processing format, which lasts about 10 years, is really not an option. Look! A picture of the Magna Carta to illustrate his point. Bonus points for use of graphics. Even if he did (as I just did) pull it from Wikipedia.

Best practices for legislation:

  • Updates are made to bills from the floor of the legislative chamber and are thus near-instant.
  • Provide information about bill status, proposed amendments, consolidated form of amendments
  • Provide the “as made” versions as soon as enacted
  • Consolidate amendments unofficially. Side note: The US Code takes more than two years for official updates. (ed: That is pathetic.)

Working with legislative XML requires some heavy lifting in revision tracking. Interesting. They have the proposed act in one document and a separate Change Description Document. They integrate the two to produce the amended version(s).

Nice demo of the Tasmanian EnAct system. This presenter is familiar with the concept of “show, don’t tell.” They use an SAIC product, TeraText, as the foundation.

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XML 2006: Vendor PechaKucha

At its best, the PechaKucha was highly entertaining. At its worst, it was painful, but at least the bad presentations were short.

After about an hour, though, the entertainment value started to wear off and tiredness set in. Perhaps, in the future, these mini-presentations could be interleaved among the other stuff.


  • Ken Holman of Crane Softwrights instructed the audience to yell “bing” as the slides changed behind him.
  • Carlo Minollo (sp?) of DataDirect got up, talked very fast, and was perfectly synchronized with his slides without any apparent effort. (This means, by the way, that he practiced. A lot.)


  • A series of dreary presentations from Oracle. One presenter said, “Don’t look at me.”
  • Binary XML? Ugh.

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XML 2006: External vs. internal DTDs

The presenter is describing a workflow in which there is an “editorial” DTD and a “delivery” DTD. It makes me cringe on general principle, but I see where they are going with it.

They optimized the editorial DTD for content creators and optimized the delivery DTD for their publishing workflow.

I’d like to see a detailed assessment of why they did this instead of some other approach.

Ah…good question: This decouples the editorial process from the delivery process. Does this buffer the editorial people from what is happening downstream? Answer? Sort of.

In response to a question from me, the major disadvantage to the dual-DTD approach is that the end result XML is extremely loose, so occasionally the output looks weird or search doesn’t work properly. That’s the one thing they’d like to go back and fix, so that the various content contributors have more constraints and better conformance checking.

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XML 2006: Day Two Keynote

Darin McBeath of Reed Elsevier spoke on Unleashing the Power of XML. He had a very interesting survey that was conducted across the organization (I think).

The biggest challenges for publishers?

  • Migration of existing content
  • Training

Main weaknesses of XML?

  • Namespaces
  • Schema is too complex
  • Everyone can do it

He had some data showing that XQuery is gaining in popularity, both at the conference and in general technical discussions.

Finally, a list of why XML is important to publishers:

Several of these warrant entire presentations.

Key phrase: mind the gap. Pay attention to the chasm between the programmers and the content creators. (see my previous post)

Great keynote — a nice big-picture overview, which is exactly what a keynote needs to do.

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XML 2006: Scribus non grata

When presenters at this conference mentioned content creators, their attitudes ranged from dismissive to contemptuous. “Stupid authors” seems to be the universal undercurrent. Authors complain about XML-based publishing systems, authors whine whenever something minor changes, authors don’t understand the glories of XML, and so on.

Perhaps the presenters have forgotten that without authors, there are no documents?

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XML 2006: XML, InCopy, and InDesign

Summary: There is no magic bullet.

The presenter spoke about an inherent conflict between structured content and desktop publishing. That’s an interesting way of phrasing it that I hadn’t seen before.

There are several ways to work with XML and InDesign:

  • InDesign Exchange format (INX): The INX exchange format produces 18,000 lines of XML for a four-page InDesign document. Hehe.
  • Adobe Tagged Text: It’s not XML, but it’s tagged, and might get you started.
  • Manual or semi-automated tagging: reasonable features, but well…manual

This is followed by a lengthy demo of the InDesign XML features. If you need details, try the InDesign and XML Technical Reference white paper (which I wrote a while ago).

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XML for Magazines

Peter Meirs from Time, Inc. They produce their published layouts, then convert the content to PRISM XML, a “standard XML metadata vocabulary for the publishing industry.”

The first presentation today in which XML is clearly an intermediate format, rather than the storage format.

I missed the introduction, so I don’t know whether they explained this. Presumably, they are not ready to make their authors and publishers work in XML editors. Obviously, XML editors won’t support highly designed magazines, but I wonder whether it isn’t possible to create articles and other content in XML and then flow them into Quark or InDesign to produce the magazines.

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