16.201 a for-the-first-time residue?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Tue Sep 10 2002 - 10:51:28 EDT

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                   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 <w.mccarty@btinternet.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
    >first time.

    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 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk |
    w.mccarty@btinternet.com | www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/

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