A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke

When I told an intelligent friend that I was researching Tim Bray, the Distinguished Engineer and Director of Web Technologies at Sun Microsystems, publisher of a popular weblog, ongoing, and co-chair of the IETF AtomPub Working Group, he countered:

“I’ve listened to an on-line interview of Bray done by another geek - lots of acronyms. It’s like they are speaking another language. Sort of like Portuguese might sound to a Spaniard. I can’t understand it. The best I can do is figure out they are talking about computer languages and systems. Your argument will be in the line of 'Tim Bray is a modern day deus ex machina. He makes things happen and no one (or almost no one) knows why.'”

My friend is right. After failing to understand the first chapter of Learning XML, by Erik T. Ray, even after repeated attempts, I concluded that computer programming is no different in complexity from a mason’s know-how for building a Gothic cathedral. While Bray pioneered search engines in the 90s, besides being the principal innovator of XML (extended markup language), he told me recently at my studio, “I haven’t done any work on XML in a few years. The other things I work on are important and interesting, too. Chances are, XML will lead my obituary.”

Tim Bray, who lives in Vancouver, defined XML for me in one sentence, “It is a method for packing up electronic data and documents so that having been packed up on one computer anywhere in the world, they can be reliably unpacked on any other computer (running any combination of software and hardware) anywhere else in the world, then or many years later, and used for whatever purpose desired, without regard to the originator’s intent.”

His answer to the question of what he did was clearer, “I help Sun by being aware of what the people who build the internet are thinking and doing (I have to help build the internet to do this.), and ensuring that those people and Sun know about each other.”

Through Wikipedia I found out that markup language is just a computer specific language, much more complex but no less useful that the original markups on handwritten or typed manuscripts by editors, and line editors for books and magazines.

XML, and most of Bray’s accomplishments, began after he went for a double major in mathematics and computer science at the University of Guelph in 1981. Bray added computer science when he realized that math teachers weren’t being hired. “In math I had worked like a dog to get Cs and all of a sudden I was getting As in the computer courses. God was reaching behind my shoulder; telling me, ‘Kiddo, this is what you ought to be doing.’ And I did.”

Bray’s road to Damascus experience happened while working at the University of Waterloo (1989-1990) with the Oxford University Press, computerizing the second edition of the OED. “We had a specially constructed search engine. In an early web publishing conference in 1994 one of the speakers stood up and said, ‘Search is going to be a good application for the new web “thing”.’ He set a bomb in my head. All of a sudden I could see how to build a web search engine. I went to live in Yaletown and worked on the engine for 6 months (I ate and drank beer at the Yaletown Brewing Company downstairs. I started the Open Text Corporation and Open Text, was a commercialized and early search engine based on the high-performance engine we employed in the OED project. We were (1995) one of the top ones and partnered with Yahoo. The way search engines are now was invented by many people inserting little contributions and Google put in the big one of link counting to rankings. I think I was the first person to number the results, 1. 2. 3….. There are little bits of everybody’s handiwork in there.”

Bray, who studied the cello for 20 years, is urbane and well read. He is a populist of sorts. He has a smile on his face when he talks about the web and especially about Wikipedia. Bray does not agree with the opinions of Silicon Valley insider Andrew Keen who in his recent book The Cult of the Amateur – How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture has this to say about Wikipedia,
“Wikipedia has become the third most visited site for information and current events; a more trusted source for news than the CNN or the BBC web sites, even though Wikipedia has no reporters, no editorial staff and no experience in newsgathering. It’s the blind leading the blind – infinite monkeys providing infinite information for infinite readers, perpetuating the cycle of misinformation and ignorance.”

Bray sees it differently. “By and large Wikipedia results are quite good and when errors creep in they tend to be self correcting on a fairly quick basis. There are errors in Wikipedia and there are errors in the Britannica, the difference is that the errors in Wikipedia get fixed. The reason it works well is that there is a community of engaged people who have found they have a passion for being amateur encyclopedists. It is a good thing because it should teach the really important lesson that you cannot believe what you read. If Wikipedia says something that is true, that is indicative, it’s not definitive. You need to look at the primary sources, but Wikipedia will take you there.”

After reading in the December New York Times Magazine the story Rewiring the Spy by Clive Thompson on how the American intelligence agencies are banding together with a proprietary weblog and wiki I asked Bray why he often goes to Washington DC. He said, “I have done a lot of work for the intelligence community, principally for the NSA (National Security Agency). I am a search expert. The NSA is a distinctly odd place. I love it. If I were to start my career again I just might well plunge headlong into intelligence.”

In trying to figure out the smiling man with the hat I remember that Bray once told me this, “I’m kind of an open book, my soul is there to read in my blog”


The above piece appeared originally here in the Georgia Straight in their third person style. The editors gave it the header Father of XML - Uncle of Search Engines. Mr. Tim Bray would like to clarify what he thinks is an error:

I'm really uncomfortable with the term "Father of XML". In fact, there were two other people whose contributions were larger. I'm happy with "co-inventor" or "promoter" or a bunch of other things.

Tim Bray


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