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A Tribute To Yuri Rubinsky

The community involved in SGML and the electronic world of publishing has been saddened by the news that Yuri Rubinsky died January 21 at the age of 43.

President and co-founder of Toronto-based SoftQuad, which produces a Web authoring tool called HoTMetaL, Yuri Rubinsky served with me on the International World-Wide Web Conference Committee (IW3C2). At the Web conference in Boston last December, Yuri organized an awards ceremony to honor Doug Engelbart, the inventor of the "point-and-click" mouse interface, who in the late 60s demonstrated a system of network-based hypermedia documents. As a gift to Engelbart and the Web conference attendees, Yuri created a small, beautiful book of selected papers by Doug Engelbart, titled Boosting Our Collective IQ. On its title page verso, it read: "Typeset in Trump Mediaeval using SoftQuad Publishing Software from documents conforming to the IETF specification for HTML 2.0, an application of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML)."

Yuri brought a passion to electronic publishing that originated in his love of books and book-making. To publish in print or online was to participate in a time-honored tradition at the center of our culture.

He edited Charles Goldfarb's The SGML Handbook, published by Oxford University, a book that employed an experimental hypertext-in-print format. He was also the co-author of the historical novel, Christopher Columbus Answers All Charges, and was proud that it appeared in Braille at the same time it was published in print. Yuri was the Technical Chair of the International Committee for Accessible Document Design (ICADD) which developed strategies and techniques for the use of SGML to generate Braille, large print and voice-synthesized texts. He realized that electronic publishing could be used to benefit the reading-impaired.

Yuri understood that publishing is much more complex behind the scenes than most people realize. Electronic publishing is not just a matter of producing text using a computer - what is often called desktop publishing. It is an ecology of interrelated systems - the system for distributing information as well as the system for producing it.

The following excerpt is from a talk Yuri Rubinsky delivered at the Second Symposium on Scholarly Publishing on Electronic Networks in December, 1992.

I saw a revealing photograph of Disneyland in a United Airlines magazine, a shot of Mickey Mouse - who is enormous in real life - talking to a street-cleaning person in a very tall, very wide tunnel underneath Disney World. A complex network of tunnels is what lets the Peaceful Kingdom function as well as it does and why you never see Mickey or Minnie or Goofy or Donald ducking into a washroom or eating lunch. The analogy is pretty rich. The architecture of the tunnels is the same no matter what public facility they support. The services they provide are constant, and silent. They keep complications - like transport vehicles and emergency personnel &150; out of the visitors' way, while providing an underpinning to the whole operation.

On one level, publishing is like those tunnels, making available the attractions above ground with subterranean structures. But for me the most interesting aspects of the Disneyland tunnels are their dimensions and their materials and their layout. Why? Because they are completely consistent wherever they go. They're the same beneath a pirate ship and beneath a hot dog stand, providing the consistent system services below which support and enable the mad variety of extravaganza above.

That, incidentally, is what SGML is all about.

— Electronic Texts The Day After Tomorrow.

Yuri Rubinsky's devotion to the standardization of electronic publishing, which involved lots of travel and many tedious committee meetings, can best be described as a willingness to work in the tunnels. He realized, however, that developing standards was not merely custodial work. He actually seemed to enjoy the process because he enjoyed people. He had an all-too-rare ability for locating the business and technology of publishing in a cultural context, a context that defines common ground. After all, standards are a kind of compact, an agreement made for the good of everyone.

All of us who are caught up in "the mad variety of extravaganza" that is the World-Wide Web should be grateful that Yuri Rubinsky did his best work in support of open standards that make it all possible. Yet his passing also makes us step back from the madness and excitement to reflect upon our own claim on life.

Our condolences go to the family, friends and colleagues of Yuri Rubinsky.

Dale Dougherty (
President, Songline Studios
Songline Studios is an Affiliate of O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.