SGML: Memory of Yuri Rubinsky (1952-1996)

SGML: Memory of Yuri Rubinsky (1952-1996)

Separate tributes below from TEI Editors Michael Sperberg-McQueen and Lou Burnard

From @UTARLVM1.UTA.EDU:owner-tei-l@UICVM.CC.UIC.EDU Thu Jan 25 13:05:37 1996
Message-Id:  <TEI-L%96012511043892@UICVM.UIC.EDU>
Date:         Thu, 25 Jan 1996 11:02:35 CST
Reply-To: "C. M. Sperberg-McQueen" <U35395%UICVM.bitnet@UTARLVM1.UTA.EDU>
Sender: "TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) public discussion list"              <TEI-L@UICVM.UIC.EDU>
From: "C. M. Sperberg-McQueen" <U35395%UICVM.bitnet@UTARLVM1.UTA.EDU>
Organization: ACH/ACL/ALLC Text Encoding Initiative
Subject:      Yuri Rubinsky, 1952-1996
To: Multiple recipients of list TEI-L <TEI-L@UICVM.UIC.EDU>

Much of the news we get through the Internet is just plain dull.  Some
of it can be amusing, original, even infuriating.  Some of it is
essential to our work.  And some of the time, the news we get shakes the
whole world up, and makes everything we've been thinking and talking
about seem oddly unimportant.  That's what happened to us at the start
of this week, when the news of Yuri Rubinsky's death reached us.

Last Sunday evening, quite suddenly, Yuri Rubinsky of SoftQuad, Inc., in
Toronto, was taken ill with a violent headache, painful enough to send
him to the hospital; he died several hours later of a massive heart
attack.  He is survived by his wife, his parents and sister, and a
world wide community of friends and admirers, of which we are proud to
count ourselves members.  An electronic wake is being conducted on the
news group comp.text.sgml, and messages of tribute from the SGML
community may be read there, many from individuals better equipped to
describe his career and accomplishments as a whole than we are.  But,
for what it's worth, here is what we saw and knew of him personally.


A short, bald, bearded man with energetic behavior and manic
disposition, Yuri seemed interested in everything.  I first met him at
SGML '88, the first of the annual conferences he organized for the
Graphic Communications Association.  He had invited several academics,
including myself, to describe the problems we faced in creating
electronic texts, and our use -- in my case, still only a potential use
-- of SGML.  At the time, the TEI had still not decided finally whether
to use SGML, because we weren't sure that SGML could do the job.  Yuri
had attracted enough of the SGML community, though, to ensure that I was
able to pick the brains of many of the brightest people working with
SGML -- including Yuri.  I came away convinced that there was no type of
information I could describe which could not be represented in SGML (a
conviction I still hold), but even more I came away impressed with the
collegiality and friendly spirit of the SGML community.  Many of my
basic assumptions about SGML were shaped, I realize in retrospect, by
that conference's characterization of SGML as 'the quiet revolution' and
by Yuri's opening talk in which he discussed the French revolution (as a
less quiet one) at some length and drew out analogies with the way SGML
affects information storage.

Under Yuri's vigilant eye, the GCA SGML conferences have been models of
open technical discussion even among commercial and technical rivals.
They are marked by their substance, and while business is certainly done
in the halls, in the exhibits, and over breakfast, the formal
presentations are kept scrupulously non-commercial and informative.
Yuri himself set an almost alarming example in this regard:  in one
session a few years ago, one user almost went without an answer after
suggesting that what the world really needed was a network-capable SGML
browser.  I waited for Yuri to rise and mention that SoftQuad had
announced such a product the previous month -- but he never did.
Someone else eventually made the point, but Yuri never wanted to appear
to abuse his position as chairman of the conference, and avoided
anything that might have seemed like a commercial announcement -- even
for software which his company was giving away for free.

Besides chairing the GCA conferences for the last eight years, Yuri
helped organize SGML Open, the industry-wide consortium which works to
improve the interoperability and utility of SGML software.  He set an
example for the rest of the SGML community when he firmly greeted the
rise of the World Wide Web and its sort-of-SGML markup language, HTML,
and when he brought both HoTMetaL and Panorama to market as tools for
working with the Web.  He has been instrumental in seeing to it that the
International Committee for Accessible Document Design (ICADD) has
received respectful hearing and support in the SGML community, and
worked actively to help devise the ICADD set of architectural forms,
which make it possible for SGML documents in any ICADD-aware DTD to be
translated automatically into Braille as well as producing large-print

One of the SGML community's most striking characteristics is that unlike
many other software markets, the term 'community' can be applied to it
seriously.  My initial impression in Boston has only been strengthened
in the succeeding years:  SGML vendors, users, and enthusiasts, in all
their lively and sometimes noisy discussions, do enjoy a striking degree
of mutual trust, respect, and admiration.  For this, I think, Yuri is in
large part responsible, through the way he organized the GCA meetings
and gave his personal support, as well as SoftQuad's commercial support,
to cooperative, non-commercial ventures which benefit all users and
potential users of electronic texts.

The TEI, and I personally, have had reason to be grateful for Yuri's
generosity in providing us with software we could not otherwise have
afforded.  But I am more grateful for his constant interest in, and
enthusiasm for, the goals of the TEI.

He was a good man, a great force in making SGML what it is, and a good
friend.  I'll miss him a lot.

-CMSMcQ [C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen]


I first met Yuri, not in person, but on the shelves of a discount book
shop, where I was sufficiently intrigued by the title "The History of
the End of the World" to buy what proved to be a remarkably cheerful
overview of assorted apocalypses from Babylonian myth to Dr Strangelove.
When, a few months later, I came across the same name as head of a major
software vendor, my feelings to said vendor were correspondingly all the

Yuri was personally generous to me and to the TEI in many ways, some of
which Michael has already mentioned. The last time I saw him was at the
Montreux SGML conference: he listened patiently to me ranting on about
the SGML projects I hoped to get moving at Oxford in the next few years,
diligently taking notes in a large A4 notebook. I remember noting the
number of pages already filled in and wondering how many other people
had been bending his ear in similar manner.

Like Michael, I thought of Yuri as "one of us" -- and am constantly
surprised to find the number of other people in the world who think the
same. He had an enthusiasm for whatever you wanted to talk about, an
ability to pick up on your concerns, and a richness of technical
knowledge to support what in others might have been mere dilettantism.
He had a fundamental sympathy with uses of SGML far removed from many of
those which concerned many of the key players in the industry, and a
charmingly playful streak which many others lacked. If life were a
Disney cartoon, he would be the small furry animal which makes a fool of
the armour plated dinosaur. We needed, and need, people like that.

-LB [Lou Burnard]