I made it to the Balisage conference this year. I’d been eyeing the conference for a couple of years, so I submitted a paper proposal that was accepted and spent the first week of August in Montreal. I confess, aside from a couple of morning runs in the Mount Royal Park, (which is just fantastic) I saw very little of Montreal, but what I did see this week was quite spectacular – the conference itself. Looking at the conference proceedings doesn’t give even a hint as to the uniqueness of this event, the pictures that Tommie Usdin, the conference chair, posted do show a bit of the peculiar (peculiar in a good way) side, but neither of those things bring it all together. This post is my feeble attempt at capturing some of the magic.
The conference is small – about 100 attendees this year – but with luminaries in the XML world like Michael Kay and Norm Walsh in attendance (and Jon Bosak on the advisory board) it’s clearly about quality over quantity. The very eclectic group of participants includes philosophers, computer scientists and librarians, opensource practitioners, folks that produce commercial products, consultants and standards body representatives. The talks were equally diverse ranging from theoretical (TagAl: A tag algebra for document markup), through very practical (Including XSLT stylesheets testing in continuous integration process) to even a game-playing session (Balisage Bluff – an Entertainment). It’s clear that many of the folks involved have known each other and worked together for a great many years, but even as a newbie, by the end of the week I felt a part of the group.
And here’s the punch line (I’ve never been good at holding it to the end) – I really get the sense that this small, quirky conference has significant influence on the shape of the XML landscape. There were several talks that presented work coming out of discussions that happened at last year’s Balisage. For example, Michael Kay did an impromptu session one evening showing usSaxon running in the browser, work that he says came as a direct result of Vojtech Toman’s paper last year on XProc running in the browser. As you might know, browser vendors have not moved to supporting XSLT 2.0 in the browser, severely limiting what developers can do there (XSLT 1.0 is, well, just that, a version 1 spec – v2 is so much more powerful). Saxon-CE (client edition) gets us out of the proverbial chicken-egg situation, giving developers a chance to demonstrate the value and perhaps it will lead to native browser support in the future. New stuff this year included a proposal for blending parts of XSLT and XQuery, a language and processing model for sequences of XML items and tag libraries for XSLT and XQuery – I really liked this paper as it provides a means for implementing custom “HTML tags” using XML-based languages instead of Java. And, because not every attempt is successful, there were new looks at old things like Eric van der Vlist’s paper on multi-ended hrefs, something with potential reach well beyond XML. There were two security related papers (and I actually got them), one showing the risks of XQuery injection and the other that shows promise in allowing encrypted XML to still be processed in certain ways – it was really cool! There were SO many ideas flowing, in a very open and collaborative style, that I think everyone left with renewed enthusiasm and a very full queue of things to explore moving forward.
I’ve been to lots of conferences, marketing conferences, developer conferences and earlier this year, the World Wide Web conference which is quite academic/research focused (and very large). And while I was just about to say I’ve never seen one anything quite like Balisage, come to think of it, the Linked Data on the Web workshop that was co-located with WWW 2011 had a bit of the feel that Balisage has – quirky group of participants, luminaries in the field, work presented that was influenced by previous workshops, lots of excitement. At the time of that workshop I suppose it didn’t make as much of an impression on me because I was an observer in that space rather than a participant. The WS-REST workshop, in which I was a participant, didn’t quite have that same magic, perhaps because it is relatively young. Hmm… have to think about that.
In any case, it was just a fantastic week. I have a ton of stuff I want to work on as a result, and I plan to be back next year to share and see what else has cooked in the mean time.