On or Off Topic? (was Re: Terminology for web servers and CGI?)

Subject: On or Off Topic? (was Re: Terminology for web servers and CGI?)
From: "Steven J. Owens" <puff -at- NETCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 18 Mar 1999 13:52:30 -0800

Carl Stieren writes:

> There is one point on which Steven J. Owens and I and I disagree:

I'm sorry you feel the need to be so defensive. I stand by my
original comment; the techwr-l list is drowning under off-topic posts.
While I'm always happy to help a fellow writer, I'd rather have
seen the question posted to an appropriate mailing list.

> > This specific question is off-topic,but I think I can make a more
> > general on-topic point, so I'll reply to the whole list. The short
> > version is, try to do your own homework. The web is an excellent
> > resource for questions just like this, the more so because this
> > question is *about* the web.
> When the question is understandable terminiology in general use, the first
> place I would look, but the LAST place I would use is an IETF or W3C RFC.
> Such specs are like laws (bills passed by the legislature). They're
> excellent prescriptive devices, but terrible descriptive ones.

Your request was for the appropriate terms or names for two concepts:

>>> I need names for a few other terms whose concepts are known to me ([...])
>>> but whose names elude me:
>>> [...]
>>> (I want to call this "Partial URL", but someone at my shop said there
>>> is a real name for it.)

Nothing in your post either specifically or generally indicated
that you were looking for alternatives to the standard terms for such,
and even if they had, it would have been appropriate to do the
research and give the standard or generally used terms and your
reasons for being dissatisfied with them.

> While I could have done more research on this topic, I deliberately
> went to TECHWR-L to see what other * technical writers * had used in
> their documentation for the user - even when the user is a system
> administrator or a programmer.

This is a weak and rather specious argument. I could just as
easily say that I'm posting about, for example, football because I
deliberately choose to post to techwr-l to see what teams other *
technical writers * are fans of.

> I've fought my way through some World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards
> before, including Resource Description Framework (RDF) Model and Syntax
> specification for XML.
> I have found most industry-wide specs counter-intuitive.

This claim is unsupported in your post, not to mention vague.
You claim they're counter-intuitive then immediately move on to
talking about intellectual snobbery.

And now, to try to introduce something worthwhile in this thread
(besides the efforts to discourage off-topic posting):

Certainly, like most technical standards the W3C specs are
complicated, boring, full of minutae (how the heck do you spell that
word anyway), and poorly written in a purely "writing" sense. Then
again, nobody reads these things for the narrative thrill. Anybody
involved in or familiar with serious software development (and even
more so research) knows the myriad reasons why such documents come out
the way they do. Sadonecrobestiality isn't my kink, so I don't see
the need to go into that topic.

If you mean that computer scientists and such often choose terms
that often seem or are counter-intuitive and that the field in general
is rife with overloaded technical jargon (*), you're right. That's
what happens when the technical language of a field grows up
overnight (**). In a historical terms computer science is quite young -
only a few decades old, compared to most other technologies that took
centuries to go through that kind of change and advancement. The
field is continually encountering new concepts and developing things
that have never needed to be named before.

Is it frustrating? Yes. Does that execuse us from dealing with
it? No.

(* For those who care: the word "overloaded" is it itself an example
of overloading; it comes from the phrase 'operator overloading', used
in the programing language C++.

An operator is a symbol in a programming language that causes the
computer to perform an operation. Typically these symbols are
punctuation or words. In some languages you can redefine the
operation that the operator causes, depending on the context where it

This is called operator overloading, and it's the subject of a fair
amount of debate withi certain niches of computer science over whether
it's worth the potential ambiguity it introduces into the source code.

The point of knowing this is that, like a lot of jargon, what seems to
be a complicated term becomes useful when discussing a specialized
field - programming language semantics and design.)

(** I started to write several paragraphs about how this comes to be,
but decided it was too far astray from the main point. Save it for
another day and another thread, perhaps on terminology origin and

> Now I don't know whether this is
> * necessity (the result of the complexity of the subjects), or
> * intellectual snobbery (that millenia-old practice of making concepts
> complex to exclude amateurs and trip up one's colleagues).

I've heard people toss around this "intellectual snobbery" phrase
in the past. I don't know why it keeps coming up, perhaps it's
bleed-over from the literary field (specifically literary criticism).
I highly doubt this is a factor here. Frankly, these *are* complex
concepts, and what often seems like hair splitting to the uninformed
are critical differences (in one context, a car is a car, but in
another, the difference betwen a manual and an automatic transmission
is critical).

The rest of the time, they are indeed hair-splitting, but it's
motivated by a combination of a focus on precise expression (remember,
their day job is telling a machine what to do in very precise terms)
and a bit of (perhaps healthy) paranoia over technical misinformation
and misunderstandings spreading. Not by malice or snobbery.

> What would you call the following extract from the above-mentioned spec at
> http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-rdf-syntax/ other than counter-intuitive?

I'd call it irrelevant, as per my comments above. However, given
that you've brought it up, another list member posted about the fact
that the author in question isn't a native english speaker. Perhaps
not an obvious fact, but then again any cursory research into the web
brings up the fact that it was started at the European particle
physics laboratory, CERN, where one can presume most of the staff are
not native english speakers.

The point is not that you missed this fact, but that you sem
predisposed to find some sort of hostility in the standards authors.
Maybe you had a tough day/week/month/year wth some SMEs, in which case
I sympathize. But I like to expect better of my colleagues.

Steven J. Owens
puff -at- netcom -dot- com

From ??? -at- ??? Sun Jan 00 00:00:00 0000=

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