Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 201.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Tue, 10 Sep 2002 07:45:40 -0700
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Subject: a for-the-first-time residue?
In "What matters?", a recent keynote address at the Extreme Markup
Languages conference, Michael Sperberg-McQueen said that,
>Now it's true that in order to get validation, and a natural fit between
>serialization and data structure, we have given up some things which some
>will regard as (having been) advantages. Overlap, for instance, was not a
>problem before SGML. Pre-SGML systems had no trouble encoding what we
>would refer to as overlapping structures. Of course, those systems and
>their users didn't think of them as overlapping structures: overlap was
>not something that you would conveniently describe before SGML, because
>before SGML the notion that documents had structure was hardly something
>you could talk about coherently.
>Understanding and controlling your data, on the other hand, was a problem.
>Convenient manipulation of your data using its structural units was a
>problem, as was defining anything in the nature of an explicit contract
>between a data source and a data sink. Those were the problems....
>Don't underestimate the importance or the interest of overlap: it's an
>extremely interesting challenge. But I think it's important that we keep
>in mind that it is an interesting problem because it is the biggest
>problem remaining in the residue. If we have a set of quantitative
>observations, and we try to fit a line to them, it is good practice to
>look systematically at the difference between the values predicted by our
>equation (our theory) and the values actually observed; the set of these
>differences is the residue. We look at the residue because if there is a
>prominent pattern in it, it can tell us something about the data which is
>not captured by the equation we have fitted to the data. In the context of
>SGML and XML, overlap is a residual problem. It is a problem which emerged
> which allowed us to see it and formulate it only when we adopted SGML
>and XML. SGML and XML can in some sense be said to have allowed us to
>discover overlap, in that they have provided the conceptual framework
>within which the problem of overlap can be formulated concisely for the
This small section of his paper identifies, I think, two of the most
important topics in our field:
(1) the sense in which a computational approach to a pre-computational
artifact allows us to talk about it "coherently", to formulate a problem
arising from it "concisely", *for the first time*; and
(2) the question of the residue left over from a largely successful
approach to such a problem.
It seems to me that if we can be clear about what coherence and
concision mean in such a context and about the nature of
this residue, we will have a powerful argument for what we do.
Let me suggest two pre-conditions to working out the importance of what MSM
has said here (then I will go away). The first is that we hear and
understand the strenuous objections of our extra-computational colleagues
to that "for the first time" claim -- surely it must appear ridiculous if
unqualified; the second is that we pay close attention to the implications
of calling something a "residue". If one imagines a finite "problem-space"
(say, like a room), and one sees that one has taken care of 99% of the
problems in that space, then one is likely to regard the remaining 1% as
evidence that one has done really well. BUT (72-point bold) do we as
researchers, as humanists, work like that? What is that residue for?
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || firstname.lastname@example.org |
email@example.com | www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
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