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Re: [Groff] The future redux

From: James K. Lowden
Subject: Re: [Groff] The future redux
Date: Tue, 25 Feb 2014 23:24:19 -0500

On Tue, 25 Feb 2014 11:06:09 -0500
"Eric S. Raymond" <address@hidden> wrote:

> More precisely, it is not the presence of presentation-level requests
> from the year zero that makes groff-as-it-is unfit to play in the
> semantic-markup world, it is the fact that macro packages presently
> *cannot disable access to the lower level*.

Yes.  If macros can be "enforced" then the input language can
reliably be sent to another processor for independent interpretation.  

> man pages don't really need expressive typography.  

Man pages are constrained by xterm.  A better display system would
invite tables, graphs, equations, and links.  

> That is, I don't see any reason why a combination of stylesheets with
> in-document processing instructions to declare local exceptions

How are "local exceptions" different in kind from dropping in a bit of
raw troff?  

> In actual fact the stylesheet-based engines are not quite that good
> yet.

Despite two decades of development.  To me, any technology that fails
to meet its own objective in that much time has demonstrated it never
will.  That doesn't make the technology useless; it means the objective
is probably not attainable.  

I guess I'm labelled a presentationalist, but I'd like to take (local)
exception to it.  

Semantic markup is fine for its purpose.  If you want to denote one
string as a filename and another as a book title, and later decide all
filenames and titles will share some presentation characteristics,
that's just great.  I miss that sort of thing in ms, and even
sometimes in mdoc.  

But do you seriously think every presentation choice can be mapped to a
semantic one?  Is there a markup language that doesn't admit
straight-up bold and italic?  Doesn't the use of a stylesheet language
inherently constrain presentation?  

Even if it doesn't, no semantics can escape the influence of the
presentation medium.  The document is affected by the medium in which
it's presented. McLuhan said as much, and it's confirmed by our
experience.  Show me your favorite example of a single source document
that is rendered equally well in HTML and PDF.  I suspect readers of
this list will find aspects that favor one or the other.  

Semantic markup wasn't invented for multiple media.  It was invented
for multiple *authors*.  More precisely, it allowed authors to express
ideas meaningfully, and non-authors to decide questions of
presentation.  In one medium.  

At the time no one thought to call them Content Providers.  

That's telling.  We have this idea today -- because of the web, because
as programmers we're trained in abstraction, because publishers baldly
treat texts as mere your-content-goes-here filler -- that documents are
just stuff to pour in some vessel.  And sure, it can be done, if not
beautifully then at least usefully.  Hesse called it "the radio music
of life": the intent survives, despite the vessel.  

So let's please keep these two ideas distinct in our minds.  Semantic
markup is great for semantic purposes.  The goal of "write once,
read anywhere" involves either compromises or significant effort toward
tailoring for each presentation medium.  

But that was never the goal in the first place.  The goal of all
writing is to be *read*.  

Thanks for listening.  


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