XML: the lingua franca of Web 2.0

lingua franca: a language for communication between communities (Wikipedia)

In the beginning was HTML. And the words were tagged And the words were beautifully simple:

<h1>This is your headline</h1>
And this is your text.<br>
<b>And this is your text in bold.</b>

See the words:

This is your headline

And this is your text
And this is your text in bold.

And then came the browser wars and bloated HTML fell upon us and the bloat was bad for everyone, but especially bad for web developers:

p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal
font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";}
{mso-style-link:"Heading 1 Char";
{font-family:"Courier New";
mso-ascii-font-family:"Courier New";
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-hansi-font-family:"Courier New";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Courier New";}
{mso-style-name:"Heading 1 Char";
mso-style-link:"Heading 1";
@page Section1
{size:8.5in 11.0in;
margin:1.0in 1.0in 1.0in 1.0in;
<!--[if gte mso 10]>
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
font-family:"Times New Roman";
<body lang=EN-US style=:"tab-interval:.5in">
<div class=Section1>
<h1>This is your headline</h1>
<p class=MsoNormal>This is your text.</p>
<p class=MsoNormal><b>And this is your text in bold.</b></p>

See the bloat:

This is your headline

And this is your text
And this is your text in bold.

And then came XML, the eXtensible Markup Language, to save us from the Babel and babble of proprietary tags and browser-specific coding:

  • XHTML can be thought of as the intersection of HTML and XML.
  • XML 1.0 became a W3C Recommendation on February 10, 1998.
  • By leaving the names, allowable hierarchy, and meanings of the elements and attributes open and definable by a customizable schema or DTD, XML provides a syntactic foundation for the creation of purpose-specific…languages.

Here are three links to get you started:


  • A community-based site for XML standards which goes beyond specifications to include practical applications and free educational resources.


  • As the name suggests, a practical explanation of XML with easy to understand explanations of more advanced technologies such as XSLT.


  • An article on how XML provides access to visually-impaired students.

XML is behind AJAX (which stands for Asynchronous JavaScript And the XMLHttpRequest object), the acronym coined to describe Google Maps. XML is behind the publication of podcasts on iTunes. And RSS, a dialect of XML, is a familiar application. For example, using a styled RSS file like this:

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 01//EN" "http://www.worg/TR/html4/strict.dtd">
<title>RSS Feed</title>
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1">
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="rss.css" title="rssstyle">
<script language="JavaScript" src="http://itde.vccs.edu/rss2js/feed2js.php?src=http://technology.blurst.com/feed/&chan=y&num=3&desc=100&date=y&targ=y type="text/javascript"></script>
You must have JavaScript enabled to access this RSS feed

enables you to add an XML-driven RSS feed to your Web pages, even to your Blackboard posts; all you have to do is publish an HTML page linked to a CSS file.

  1. Go to our webspace (http://webspace.utexas.edu) and login with your EID.
  2. Create a new folder and name it “www”.
  3. Right-click the www folder, select Manage, and then select Permissions.
  4. For the Public group, select the Viewer (Read-Only) radio button, and then click the Apply button.
  5. Select the option to “Apply the changed permissions to this folder as well as its sub-folders and files” and click OK
  6. Upload all of the files for your Web site into the www folder.
  7. The URLs are shown below (replace my EID with yours).

RSS Plain: https://webspace.utexas.edu/~mwa5589/RSSPlain.html

RSS Styled: https://webspace.utexas.edu/~mwa5589/RSSStyled.html

If you want to insert this into Blackboard as an HTML page, you must first turn off Blackboard’s WYSIWYG editor so you can add the JavaScript function that processes the feed: PERSONAL INFORMATION > SET VISUAL TEXT BOX EDITOR OPTIONS > Unavailable.

Pretty RSS


Burke, Sean. Making RSS Pretty. Retrieved 2/6/2009 from http://interglacial.com/~sburke/stuff/pretty_rss.html.


The article describes how to marry an RSS feed (which is an XML document) to a CSS file to style the RSS feed for a browser; browsers typically render an RSS feed as an XML tree but by using the xml-stylesheet tag, the tree has “leaves” (sorry to stretch that analogy). While the single line works only with an RSS feed, the author suggests an easy modification to handle RDF and Atom documents. Further, by using XSL (eXtensible Style Language), the author offers a method for marrying CSS to any XML for rendering in an HTML browser.


I discovered this article while trying to figure out how to format a text-only RSS file with CSS in order to bring an external feed into a Blackboard page for a faculty member who wanted to deliver dynamic content. The technique described in the article was actually a dead-end because it works only when you add the xml-stylesheet tag to the original RSS feed (and I was trying to format someone else’s feed). I ended up using the less elegant (but more familiar) link rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css” tag; however, the article confirmed my belief that I could style an RSS feed, and in that sense, it led to the solution.

SVG Prediction


Cagle, Kurt. Understanding XML: The Future of SVG and the Web (2005). Retrieved 8/19/2005 from http://www.understandingxml.com/archives/2005/08/the_future_of_s.html although this site throws a 404 error on 2/6/2009. A portion is still available at http://brokekid.net/2005/08/18/understanding-xml-the-future-of-svg-and-the-web/.


While the major prediction of the article–that SVG will be the graphics standard by 2008–has not been realized, the author’s focus on the importance of XML has certainly been realized. In particular, the following predictions have come true (to greater or lesser extents):

  • Syndication replaces the Web page: while RSS has gathered greater market share than Atom, the idea has materialized in feeds and social bookmarking; the advocacy of REST over SOAP is also starting to play out as Google switches technologies.
  • AJAX fades, need doesn’t: AJAX has not faded as fast as it should have, but the identification of the core AJAX technology–the XMLHttpRequest object–as the new paradigm is on target.
  • Ubiquitous personal content: while we’re still not “there” in terms of the portable identity envisioned by the author, the appeal of mashups and personalization drives most of what we call the read/write Web.


Predicting the future is always dangerous: if you’re not right and for the right reasons, you risk having your basic points ignored. However, evangelists must make predictions because they point us to potential futures. Even when they are wrong (as they must be inevitably), they lead us (in the best cases) incrementally. What I especially appreciated about this article is that the predictions were made in advance of the Web 2.0 label.

Gender-Based Behavior in WoW


Kavetsky, Jennifer. Men Behaving (Not So) Badly: Interplayer Communication in World of Warcraft. Thesis submitted to the Graduate College of Bowling Green State University. 2008. 1-76.


Based on theories from Butler and Tannen that gender effects language use, this thesis examines a successful guild in WoW to determine:

  1. how men use language to construct social networks in WoW
  2. if men in WoW follow male linguistic patterns
  3. if those linguistic patterns intersect with gender performance
  4. how WoW affects behavior patterns

Based on Putnam’s argument that a decline in community interaction causes a subsequent decline in general reciprocity, the author predicts a lack of interaction will produce a lack of reciprocity in the game. In fact, after recording and transcribing three raids, and then measuring the utterances against non-game male behavior, Kavetsky  found increased interaction and reciprocal assistance. She also refutes Duchenaut’s research that players are playing alone together (interestingly, Duchenaut was a co-author on the article that found signicant social interaction in WoW) and concludes that American men define masculinity in opposition to other men in RL but not in WoW.


The central question–why does WoW favor a style of communication that is so different from RL–is not answered. However, Kavetsky did uncover possible direct ties between game goal success and gender-typical linguistic behavior: a raid with increased requests for help and admissions of weakness (or lack of knowledge) was able to defeat the game in half the time; a raid that had a player who used traditional male linguistic patterns (making statements rather than suggestions) was the least successful raid. The author, after starting from an admittedly feminist perspective, determines that male behavior in WoW is different from (and better than) RL, with the game environment affording a greater emphasis on connections, thereby creating more fulfilling game experiences and relationships for male gamers.

Social Stratification in WoW


Williams, Dmitri, et.al. From Tree House to Barracks: The Social Life of Guilds in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture 1.4 (2006). 338-361.


While the statistics on  game use seem commonplace now (compared to the “old” days of 2006 when this article was written), the discussion of social capital in games is even more relevant today with the growth of MMORPG’s. The central question–are game networks emergent or formal–infuses the research and is rephrased as bridging social capital (loose connections) or bonding social capital (traditional social support mechanisms).

The premise that MMORPG’s are more “‘place’-like” than a text-based chat room is at once obvious and significant. The chat rooms of AOL were like phone calls: social capital could be generated but generally mirrored RL interactions; the immersive (even if text-based) environments (even if 2D) of games provides an overlay of realistic fabric. And the mechanics provide the incentives and coded rules of the game.

The research looks at 3 questions:

  1. The size and management of guilds
  2. The roles and relationships (and consequences) that develop in guilds
  3. The impact of the WoW interface on social interaction.

The research methodology consisted of learning the game, surveying players, and  ethnographic interviews. The results showed a deep concern for player welfare that belied the game’s focus on functional goals. The results also showed a clear distinction between leadership styles in small and large guilds: in the former, success (continuance and lack of churn) was fostered by a supportive style; in the latter, success depended on traditional controlling functions.

A key suggestion for future game development emerged: because high-centrality players (who are not necessarily guild masters) tended to belong to more structured guilds, games which provide organizational support to guilds should produce more vibrant communities.


The tension in this article for me comes from the early Lessig quote: “the architectures and rules…are anything but organic.” How do I reconcile that with the feeling that virtual worlds are indeed real? The answer lies in the social interactions. Despite the artificial rules, the interaction of individuals provides the social impact which produces the game’s feeling of reality.

The findings on guild size were fascinating:

  • Larger guilds became more focused on game goals and thus evolved in sent sub-groups (as in real life–with a long-expected reference to Dunbar)
  • Most small guilds represent real-world bonds extended into WoW (accounting for a third of the players–far larger than expected)
  • Larger guilds need more formal organization (such as recruitment and expulsion policies) and the use of VoIP

While the research showed almost equal components of  bonding (for players who were friends in RL) and bridging social capital, the game itself creates bridging while enabling bonding. The role of role-playing, an area which is under-studied, suggests that in the absence of role-play rules, “few gamers act as anything other than themselves;” the question then becomes: if we give them roles, they will play them, so what is the benefit of providing roles?

Symbolic learning & the grounding problem


Harnad, S. “The Symbol Grounding Problem.” Physica D 42 (1990). 335-346.


In a short paper, the authors attempt to define symbolism as a cognitive science but find that the theory fails due to the symbol grounding problem: that symbols are composed only of other symbols and thus self-referential.

They define 6 basic learning behaviors:

  1. discriminate
  2. manipulate
  3. identify
  4. describe
  5. produce descriptions
  6. respond to descriptions

which cognitive theory must explain. Examining the first and third behaviors, the authors propose a dual representation: iconic (symbol) and categorical (internal analog transforms). However, they admit one “prominent gap:” no mechanism to explain categorical  representations. The authors thus dismiss symbolism as a sole solution and turn to connectionism as a hybrid solution: “an intrisically dedicated symbol system…connected to nonsymbolic representations…via connectionist networks that extract the nonvariant features.”


The authors likely succeed for theorists but this was a little dense given my lack of background. I think I got the idea that a symbol (for example, a swastika) exists by itself and combined with “rules” (our prior learning and knowledge that the symbol has a recent association with the Nazi Party) to produce a composite symbol (loathing). I also took away that humans, especially in groups, are too complex to be semantically interpretable, and that connectionism (based not on symbols but on pattern activity in a multilayered network) may offer some answers.

The dual representation–iconic (symbol) and categorical (internal analog transforms)–seem to suggest a symbol paired with a real-world (our experience with/background on/knowledge of) event; however, the authors later define that as an interpretation. In addition, I’m not certain why the iconic representation is not symbolic as the authors state.

The conclusion makes sense (although this is classic Vygotsky–and connectionism seems like just another word for community): if a category is defined as a symbol (image) plus our experience with that symbol, I started to believe that all our knowledge is interconnected (within a single human) with past experiences–and agree that it may not be possible to model learning in a purely symbolic (i.e., no connection to the real world) fashion.

Instance-based and rule-based learning


Taatgen, Niels A. and Wallach, Dieter. “Whether Skill Acquisition is Rule or Instance Based is determined by the Structure of the Task.” Cognitive Science Quarterly: 2.2 (2002). 163 -204.


The traditional view of skill acquisition as “a gradual transition from behavior based on declarative rules in the form of examples and instruction towards general knowledge represented by procedural rules” is challenged by instance theory. While the latter seems to explain the inability of experts to verbalize rules, research on the directional asymmetry of rules seems to support the traditional importance of rules.

ACT-R’s instance-based architecture is based on 2 key arguments:

  • the strategy to use or the memory to retrieve is based on which has the highest expected gain (optimization)
  • declarative memory is activated (and filtered) by environmental demands and past experience (which has been encoded as production rules by procedural memory)

At the symbolic level of ACT-R, procedural rules are applied to declarative chunks which store information in a proposition; chunks are either new (perceptions) or created internally by prior knowledge/experience. Each rule contains a condition- and an action-part, and declarative items are pattern-matched to the condition and applied in the action. The subsymbolic level of ACT-R deals with the choice of which rule to apply according to Bayes’ Theorem (increases base-level activation each time it is retrieved and decays over time).

The article seems to imply that if instance-based learning fails (because the problem is too time-consuming–no discernible pattern), learners will attempt to derive some sort of rule. The authors argue that instance-based learning works best when the relationships between variables is very difficult; rule-based learning (simplified cases) is more successful with a large number of cases with obvious relationships.  The authors then test this hypothesis with two detailed experiments.

The results:

  • Previous research showed no learning through observation without direct rules (explicit relationships)
  • Subsequent research, indicated that exploratory participants did better than observers, but that observers could better verbalize and construct a causal model.
  • This research shows evidence of learning by observing even without rules; and participants seem better able to answer questions about old systems than new. Both results support instance-based learning.


ACT-R seems to offer tremendous explanatory power. However, instance theory seems related to the concept of expert (tacit?) knowledge:

  • know when to apply
  • gets better over time (more instances)
  • gets better with use
  • additive for community

Because production rules that propose new declarative rules are not accounted for in the ACT-R architecture, this “missing link” may be the elusive transfer element; the authors propose partial-matching in ACT-R retrieval as a solution.

In instance theory, encoding and retrieval seem more closely linked to temporal/spatial reality than to attention as the authors claim; however, the view of memory as evolving from algorithmic processing to memory-based processing succinctly describes expert knowledge.

The recommendations for design strategies seem profound:

  • Instance-based learning takes over from rule-based over time
  • Creating declarative rules is the most important (first) step
  • Analogy works best at the start but declines quickly
  • Declarative rule works well at start and persists
  • Instance continues to improve over time to become best