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Conferences

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.

Highlights:

  • 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.)

Lowlights:

  • 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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Panel, part III

Clyde Hatter of Propylon discusses OpenOffice and XML.

“Most normal people–which includes nobody in this room–would rather eat a plate of broccoli than use an XML editor.”

I like him already.

OpenOffice looks sort of like a modern version of Ventura Publisher, he says.

OpenOffice is in fact an XML editor with a fixed DTD.

“Structured documents can be produced via disciplined use of styles.” Well, yes. But isn’t that the case for any application?

Ah. Constrain OpenOffice further and end up with something that does let you produce useful XML. His case study is the Parliamentary Workbench used by the Irish Parliament. Highlights:

  • Style options are constrained and arranged in palettes.
  • OpenOffice documents are transformed into LegislationML.
  • Legislation is complex because the data model is 700 years old. Hehe.

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Panel, continued

Mark Jacobson of Really Strategies launches into the Word part of the session.

He describes WordML as “a better source to convert Word to XML.” In other words, the WordML is now a reasonable starting point to produce actually useful XML.

“Word-based” XML environments often involve post-processing steps in a real XML editor downstream to clean up the problems that are too difficult to resolve in Word.

The decision to look at Word and XML depends on:

  • Editorial workflow
  • Degree of influence that you have over authors
  • Complexity of requirements
  • One-off content versus maintained content

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XML 2006 panel: Word and OpenOffice for XML authoring

“People have a need to control formatting” says Jon Parsons, of XyEnterprise.

A high-energy, fast-paced walkthrough of word processors versus XML authoring.

And then, the money slide…why put them together?

  • Business needs meet corporate culture
  • People dislike change
  • Technology takes a while but also makes things possible
  • If you win the users, you will win with XML content

So far, he has by far the best presentation skills. And some good content, too.

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ODF plug-in, continued…

The idea is to get to round-tripping between Word and OpenOffice/ODF. Currently, round-tripping is “poor.”

Youch. The questions are brutal. The presenter made the mistake of focusing more on Microsoft-bashing and politics and is now being reeled in with questions that start like this, “Aside from the political rants, please tell me…”

The ODF format is being justified by the “100-year” issue; state governments are concerned about being able to access their content for the next 100 years.

The plug-in is also intended to help with migration from Word to OpenOffice.

Providing the plug-in removes Microsoft’s argument for submitting Word XML as another standard.

What about batch conversions? “They are not a good idea.” Whaaaa? “Because you can’t predict which documents will have problems.”

One interesting tidbit. All Microsoft formats apparently use RTF at some point. That provides a choke point of sorts that you can use as a jumping-off point.

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XML 2006: The ODF Plugin for MS Office

Presentation tip: Don’t read your presentation.

Having said that, the presenter just compared the document debate to Star Wars…with an empire and forces of light. He left it to the attendee to figure out whether Microsoft or the OpenDocument Foundation represents the Empire.

The OpenDocument Foundation has an ODF plugin for Microsoft Office. A 6MB download, it allows you to output ODF format from Microsoft Word. I think.

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XML 2006: Transitioning from SGML to XML at Cessna

A very interesting presentation from Michael Hahn, focused on the transition Cessna is making from SGML-based to XML-based authoring.

He broke down the conversion issues into three types:

  • Tools
  • Process
  • People

It should come as no surprise that the last one presents the biggest problem. Most of the conferences I attend are tech writer-heavy; this conference is clearly XML Geek Central. It’s interesting to see how this universe perceives authors; for example, in the Cessna session, I heard things like:

  • “The changes are basically transparent to the authors, but they’re going to have a fit anyway.”
  • “The authors complain whenever we change anything.”

Most of the people here seemed perplexed by the authors and their weird foibles.

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LiveBlogging: XML 2006: If I had a hammer…

According to the keynote speaker (who works at Oracle), the purpose of XQuery and a bunch of technology I’ve never heard of (FLWOR, XAP) is to convert the web from a collection of documents to a collection of database-driven applications.

You’ll have to pardon me if this doesn’t make my little heart go pitter-patter. Certainly, there is room for applications on the web, but I fail to see why all content needs to become application-ized.

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LiveBlogging: XML 2006 Keynote

The keynote is packed to the gills — hotel staff were stuffing extra chairs into the back of the room at 8:58 a.m. After the usual administrativia, there was a brief interlude to look back at SGML 96, the conference at which XML was first introduced. At the time that XML was developed, it was quite radical, and nobody really knew what would happen with it. Today, of course, XML is a given.

Before discussing the keynote content, let me just give you some free presentation advice: Speak clearly and pay attention to your microphone.

The keynote presenter was Roger Bamford, Principal Architect, Oracle Server Technologies, speaking on the XML/XQuery Ecosystem.

He started with a review of the Olden Days — applications 30 years ago. Highlights:

  • The interface was like chess: The user thinks, does something, and then waits for the server response.
  • Complexity means that do-it-yourself is not an options. Changes to the system must go through the IT/development group and take months or years.

I suppose it’s not surprising that an Oracle guy is all about databases. It’s interesting because we do our work with minimal interaction with databases, so it’s definitely a new perspective. I am getting that “when you have a hammer, everything feels like a nail” feeling, though.

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Fun in Long Beach (?)

Registration has opened for WritersUA. Now in its fifteenth year, the 2007 conference will be in Long Beach, California from March 25-28.

The schedule and session descriptions are available, and they look great.

I will be doing two sessions:

  • Coping with the XML Paradigm Shift (my original title was Paradigm Shifts are Never Pretty, so you can see where that one is going)
  • Introduction to DITA (a double-length, hands-on session). A few years ago, XML was the buzzword. Now it’s DITA. This session will provide the information you need to make an informed decision about DITA.

In addition, I see presentations from a lot of the Usual Suspects — Char James-Tanny, Neil Perlin, Alan Houser, Jared Spool, Dave Gash, and many, many others.

Don’t miss it.

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