SGML: Memory of Yuri Rubinsky (1952-1996)

SGML: Memory of Yuri Rubinsky (1952-1996)

Article: 12417 of comp.text.sgml
From: (Charles F. Goldfarb)
Newsgroups: comp.text.sgml
Subject: Re: Yuri Rubinsky (1952-1996)
Date: Thu, 01 Feb 1996 02:24:27 GMT
Organization: Information Management Consulting
Message-ID: <4ep89t$>
References: (12283) <>

                    Recollections of Yuri Rubinsky

              Spoken at Deer Park United Church, Toronto
                           January 27, 1996

                        By Charles F. Goldfarb

Yuri Rubinsky was a brilliant visionary, a creative intellectual,
a man of near-saintly compassion and sensitivity -- but he wasn't

I first heard of Yuri around 1987 because a new company called
SoftQuad was circulating a history of SGML -- and it was thoroughly
inaccurate. At a technical documentation conference that year Yuri was
introduced to me as the author of that history. I liked him
immediately; as far as I know, so did everyone who ever met him.

I wasn't even angry about the bogus history -- which gave the U.S.
Defense Dept. the credit for my invention. I knew that Yuri and his
company were very special because they were like the chess-playing
dog. It didn't matter that the dog lost every game -- it was amazing
that it even tried to play! Yuri may have gotten the history wrong,
but the fact that he made the effort to give credit -- outside his own
company -- for the technology that SoftQuad was exploiting, marked him
as a rare and caring individual.

That respect and appreciation for the people who created the
technology of his industry continued for as long as I knew him. On the
day before he died he telephoned to tell me of the look of surprise
and pleasure on the face of Doug Engelbart -- inventor of the mouse
and pioneer of many of the techniques used in today's World Wide Web
-- on receiving a tribute organized by Yuri and a cash award provided
by SoftQuad.

Yuri also had an unflagging belief that anything that ought to be done
_could_ be done. He also had the drive and commitment to back up that
belief. I benefited personally from that commitment not long after I
met Yuri. I had had to stop working on The SGML Handbook because of
neck surgery and it was unclear when I would be able to type again.
Yuri thought it important that I finish the book -- not just because
he believed it to be of seminal importance to electronic publishing in
general, but also because he needed it to train the staff at SoftQuad!

Yuri's solution to my keyboard incapacity was to organize a production
team -- largely conscripted from SoftQuad -- the mainstay of which was
an expert transcriber for my taped dictation. Yuri himself acted as
editor of the tapes, as well as indexer, cross-referencer, designer,
and production manager. As a result, the Handbook got into print in
1990 and has been there ever since.

Yuri Rubinsky was an incredibly social being. He loved people and
believed in their abilities, and they responded the same way to him.
So it was only natural, given his dedication to SGML, that he should
wind up as chairman of the annual series of SGML conferences sponsored
by the Graphic Communications Association. These conferences had not
been of great consequence before Yuri took over. I never even attended
one myself until he twisted my arm into giving a keynote speech one

Now, thanks largely to Yuri, these are the most respected of SGML
events and attendance at them has increased 30-fold. Every year
attendees comment on the wonderful sense of SGML community that the
conference engenders, inspired by Yuri's own love of people.

And Yuri took that skill at community building beyond the SGML
conferences, helping to organize and lead SGML Open, a consortium of
some of the most fiercely competitive vendors who ever shared a common
technical ideal. You can see some of them in the congregation today --
warily eyeing one another. Yuri helped them to "eye" the benefits of
cooperation as well, and in just a few years SGML Open became a
major force in creating public awareness and adoption of SGML.

Yuri also had a passionate dedication to applying computer technology
for the benefit of the visually impaired. One of the principles of
SGML is that the computer can store the innate _structure_ of a
document -- the chapters, paragraphs, headings, and so forth -- so
that it can be displayed in a variety of formats, on paper or online.
Yuri seized on this idea and felt that Braille, spoken word, and other
delivery forms for the visually disabled should always be among
the available formats. His tireless technical and political efforts,
in committees on several continents, eventually succeeded in adding
such accessibility to major document standards.

Yuri liked to refer to SGML as the "quiet revolution", because of the
profound change it makes in the way information is managed. Like all
good revolutionaries, he and I used to conspire a lot -- planning
which committees to join, what papers to write, which speeches to
give. And since we lived thousands of miles apart, most of that
conspiring -- seven or eight hours worth a week -- was conducted by

Of course, because Yuri was never in one place for very long, he was
always the one to call me. And to keep his expenses down, I always
used IBM's phone to call him right back. IBM's auditors must still be
wondering why so many long distance calls were made to airport phone

Yuri Rubinsky was a brilliant visionary, a creative intellectual, a
man of near-saintly compassion and sensitivity, the leader of the SGML
community -- and a dear friend whom I'll miss more than I can say. But
since we mostly communicated as disembodied presences -- at opposite
ends of a phone or e-mail connection -- I guess there's no reason we
have to stop communicating now. If my spirit runs low, I can always
draw on his.

Yuri's existence on earth was only half a life long -- but it was four
lives wide and eight lives deep -- all of them filled with a boundless
energy that infused everyone whose life he touched. It was
uncharacteristic of Yuri to run out so abruptly from the many projects
in which he was involved. He was always so considerate of others, and
would never leave us alone, unaided, to finish the books, plan the
conferences, build the products.

And indeed he hasn't left us alone. There's some of that limitless
Yuri energy and spirit in everyone who worked with him. So,

  ... when SGML '96 is better than ever this year,

  ... when SoftQuad releases another cutting-edge product,

  ... when SGML Open creates another education program,

  ... when a revised SGML standard is published,

  ... whenever SGML vendors and users work together as a community,

some of the energy for the project will be Yuri's. Like our love and
memories of him, it will never run out.