Here we go again

It’s ridiculously early for a Sunday morning, but the only plausible train to catch from Oxford if you want to connect with a 1220 Eurostar leaves at 0940. So here I am wondering, along with many others, where on earth is said train. We can see it in the sidings North of Oxford station, but it’s not moving towards us and the announcements are not reassuring. Maybe the stopping service to Ealing Broadway is a better bet: certainly standing around fretting on Oxford station is not pleasant. Some twenty bucolic minutes later, I detrain at Didcot in the hope of something better: which does indeed turn up in the shape of the 0940, now proudly running only 20 minutes late. I spend my uneventful trundle through the morning sunshine trying to work out what I have done to incapacitate tei-emacs on my laptop. Then an unspeakably horrible Circle line train bears me off to St Pancras, and the comparatively civilised space of the Eurostar lounge where I discover that in the general confusion of getting myself ready for this week’s set of French gigs I have failed to check something crucial into my nice new subversion repository. Ah well: no time to agonise over that, it’s time to get my disordered thoughts on the history of the TEI into some sort of plausible order, and to construct an appropriate French narrative around same. Which keeps me happily occupied for the rest of the day: out of London, across the wilds of Kent, under the channel, through Picardy into Paris, my nose barely strays a few inches from my laptop screen, tappety tappety tap, except for a few minutes degustation (I use the term advisedly) of a Eurostar snack lunch, and a few dirty looks in the general direction of some fellow passengers yapping away noisily behind me. Even nastier, but mercifully not noticeably longer than the Circle line is the hop by RER B from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon, where I resume work on board a nice peaceful TGV all the way to Lyon. With such good effect that my talk for tomorrow is all ready to go, even before I arrive at Perrache. Such virtue warrants dinner, even though it’s now a little late, so I stride purposefully across the Place Carnot to the brasserie Victor Hugo, order a hamburger a cheval (nothing to do with horses, this is a burger with a fried egg on it) frites, et un pot de cote and phone Marjorie to re-assure her that I am here and ready to boogie, before retiring to bed.

One hasty breakfast later, Dominique Roux and I set off in search of one of the many fine Universities in which Lyon rejoices, more exactly the vaulted basement dungeon in which Marjorie’s seminaire is taking place. The morning was supposed to be a double act, but since Paul Spence couldn’t make it his colleague Guilhem Pépin instead gave us an interesting lecture about medieval history before showing us some of the Gascon Rolls project. Pépin is a French (or more properly, Gascon) historian actually working at Oxford in the History faculty. There was a time when I might have huffed and puffed a bit about Oxford academics who take their TEI digital projects off to Kings College instead of using the local facilities, but these days I have become placid and boring. Anyway, Pépin was a good speaker and clearly an agreeable person to work with; and the material presented all sorts of interesting possibilities for analysis once marked up, even if he was almost aggresively reluctant to claim any expertise in the application of markup. Not for the first time, I wonder why it is perfectly acceptable for academics to profess ignorance of one technology that is essential to their work, whereas ignorance of others (say, bibliography) would seriously damage their career prospects. And then off we all went for a decent lunch, this being France: dos de colin avec ses pommes de terres lyonnaises, if I remember correctly. After which I gave my talk, which seemed (to me at least) to go remarkably well for a first outing: I suspect I will give it again, at least as long as people go on asking me to explain where on earth the TEI came from, and why it has not sunk without trace. It is a good story, with a good moral, I think. After a coffee break, Dominique Roux from the Presses Universitaires de Caen gave a thorough overview of their projects and preoccupations, presenting a variety of cool projects, a TEI-based workflow, some wise remarks about the use of TEI in commercial publishing, and much else besides. It’s a pity he came at the end of a long day with perhaps a touch too much Gasconnade in it, since it would have been good to discuss several of the ideas he presented with the masters students present — who had all been assiduously taking notes earlier in the day, but were clearly flagging somewhat by the end. I was sorry to have to rush off  in time to catch the train to my next gig, in Tours.

Preparation for said next gig took up quite a bit of the journey, quelle surprise; indeed I don’t think I looked out of the window once. And yes, it is possible to get from Lyon to Tours without passing through Paris, if only once or twice a day. The TGV concerned stops at a place I have never heard of called Massy, and then at St Pierre des Corps, before zooming on to Caen. St Pierre des Corps is a dismal little junction from which a variety of trains shuttle into the architectural splendour of Tours central, about 5 minutes away. Even when entirely enclosed in scaffolding as a part of its restoration as a patronomial monument, Tours station is an uplifting spectacle late at night, when everything around it is closed except for Macdonalds. Equally good for the soul is the Grand Hotel of Tours which has retained and lovingly refurbished its charming 1930s decor, all peacock feathers and wooden panelling and geometric patterns. Last time I was here in December, the wifi was misbehaving but everything seems to be fine now, and the breakfast is excellent. Next morning, it’s a quick trot across town to the Centre d’Etudes Superieures de la Renaissance to give my contribution to their Master 2 professionnalisant Patrimoine écrit et édition numérique : initiation à l’encodage des textes patrimoniaux. This is the third or fourth year I have done this, so you would think I had it sorted by now. My contribution this year consisted of a ninety-minute lecture on manuscript encoding (much revised to recognise the existence of the new <sourceDoc> element, as of release 2.0 of TEI P5 — this was the talk I thought I had mislaid, but hadn’t); followed by another 90 minutes on Roma and schemas and such like mysteries, using the Virgolos project as a case study (called TEI a la cartes, geddit?); and finally another 90 minutes attempting to explain XSLT pour les nuls. This last was a rather more quixotic and under-prepared venture: although novices quite quickly grasp the basic ideas and usefulness of XPATH, grasping exactly what an xsl template is and why you might want one is rather more of a challenge. But the punters seemed content to be slightly baffled at the end of a long and varied day, and I am sure that the local team will clarify any residual bewilderment next week. Dinner was at the Odeon, another piece of lovingly restored 1930s kitsch, where the food was excellent (I had the rognons since you ask), and Marie-Luce and I discussed the notion of a weeklong residential formation approfondie sur la TEI under the auspices of the Cahiers consortium, plus anyone else who might like to play.

Tours is in the process of acquiring a tramway, which means that large amounts of it are being dug up and knocked down, notably near the railway station: I observed this with interest over breakfast, before hastening off rather late for a short consultation with the CESR team about how to autogenerate an ODD from their Epistemon corpus (sort of difficult if you don’t have Saxon installed), and some discussion about how best to proceed with their ongoing project of revising the project’s encoding manual. The plan is not only to update but also to generalise this manual for use by other similar projects, which would certainly be useful: there isn’t a lot like it in French, aside from the BFM manual. However, I have a train to catch this morning, so I have to sprint back through the marche des fleurs, looking neither to the right nor the left, regretfully for there is much to see, and resisting the temptation to stop to buy fresh garlic or dried flowers or a sandwich for the journey or even take some photos of the pavements now decorated with a rich and colourful assortment of flowering bedding out plants. Tours is a charming place with much to recommend it. And so, off to Paris where I have a couple of crucial meetings to attend, crucial enough to propel me into an irrational anxiety about the progress of my train which suddenly decides to slow down and stop in the middle of nowhere more frequently than is decent, even for an intercite. In the event, though, we pull into Austerlitz ten minutes early, allowing me to take a pleasantly-paced walk through the Jardin des Plantes and up the hill to the TGE Adonis office in good time for my appointment with my directeur, Jean Luc Pinol. We discuss the coming year’s work plan for MEET; this being satisfactorily resolved, Ariane agrees to release a PUMA forthwith (don’t ask) … I spend the afternoon catching up on the gossip with TGE colleagues before checking into this week’s hotel which is conveniently located opposite a nice bar and round the corner from a rather excellent brasserie. Here I dine, expensively but deliciously on foie de veau patates et encore un pot de rhone. It’s tiring work all this gluttony, you know.

Next morning, I rise at a civilised hour, and catch up on my committments at the TGE most of the day, taking however an extensive lunch break to discuss with Mathieu Andro from the Bibliotheque Ste Genevieve a wondrous new digital library project which has apparently secured 1.7 million euros of local funding to finance a deposit archive for the digitized outputs of a select bunch of Parisian libraries, and wants to use the TEI. Did I hear that right? The lunch was pretty good too. Finally, I put in place some hasty arrangements for another meeting in Paris next week, and then trek on foot across town to Chatelet (where there seems to be, as usual, a manif going on) to catch the metro to Gare St Lazare  (which, post-renovation, seems to be mysteriously disguising itself as the gare de l’est), to take the train to Caen, for the last gig of this tour, namely viz Matthew Driscoll’s ongoing TEI seminar at the MSH. The Hotel Quatrans is much as I last saw it, and so, I am pleased to report, is the little restaurant called “Les saveurs de la Reunion” just round the corner from it, where Matthew, Eric, and I enjoy some rum, some gateaux piments assortis, two bottles of muscadet, and a tasty carrie cabri before retiring for the evening.

Friday is seminar day. Serge Heiden ARE YOU READING THIS SERGE? from the ENS Lyon opens proceedings with an update and an impressive demonstration of the textometrie project, which goes from strength to strength. They have an equipex in which they will be working with hundreds of Historians, and a number of other collaborations in prospects, some ANR, some DFG-funded. The software is, of course, still available from sourceforge, and they are also in the process of setting up a portal for general access to some demonstration applications of it   . Serge discussed the way the software uses TEI and other forms of markup; they have now fixed on a TEI-conformant pivot format, for which an ODD is in preparation. He also demonstrated many XAIRA-like features of the software and reported some work done by Alexei Lavrentev in importing and analysing the markup of a large corpus of texts from Frantext.  He was followed by Antoine Widlocher who described the  search engine under development at Caen’s Greyc research group initially for use in the Descartes project Its data model uses graphs rather than trees, and much of his talk therefore concerned the difference between the two, although he did also present the user interface envisaged for the system; this is, of course, SPARQL-based, and will access a triple store in which XML and other annotations are all represented in RDF. All very interesting if, perhaps, a little computer science oriented. Maud Ingarao commented that the project resembled  Edouard Portier’s work on multistructured documents; I should have mentioned Desmond Schmidt, but didn’t. After lunch (in the student canteen; n’en parlons plus) Maud gave a brief overview of a newish XML database system called BaseX, and demonstrated some of its jazzier features: she also noted that a test basex server has now been implemented as part of the TGE Grille de services. Frederic Glorieux then gave a nice talk demonstrating how the presence of detailed markup in his version of Francois Ganaz’s “XMLittré” project facilitated several interesting searches: he proposed tthe average size of text fragment within a TEI document might be an interesting stylistic indicator; and remarked on the high frequency of emotive words like “dieu, homme, roi” in the examples cited by Littré. Finally in this session Marie Bisson demonstrated the current state of the Juxta collation system under Windows, and working on three manuscripts of Thomas Le Roy. Juxta apparently has its own XML markup but  does now also (more or less) grock TEI .

Last but one session of the day concerned “quantitative codicology“, a term, I learned, which is even older than the TEI, having apparently been invented by someone called Ornato in 1980, according to Matthew, though it is a concept which can be seen to underlie Don McKenzie’s 1985 Panizzi lectures on bibliography as the “the sociology of texts”, or the so-called New Philogy of Stephen Nichols at the start of the nineties. I liked Matthew’s use of the phrase “the artefactual turn” to describe his increasing certainty that the meaning of text should not be dissociated from its “embodiment” or the historical and social forces that documents manifest, and intend to appropriate it for use when presenting the TEI’s recent reinvention of <sourceDoc> . Matthew and colleagues described the Fornaldarsögur norðurlanda project, which aims to provide an account of the production, dissemination, and reception of the “chirographically transmitted texts” of 36 stories from prehistoric times which can be identified in some 1500 texts presented in over 750 distinct Icelandic manuscripts. These are described using (inter alia) a reduced and tightly constrained schema derived from TEI P5, extended to include information derived from the transcriptions of the mss such as the average written area, the number of abbreviations per line, etc. as well as such features as the presence of decoration, or the types of text included. Sylvia Hufnagel presented some hypotheses about possible connexions between these evidential characteristics and assumptions about the wealth or status of the owner or person believed to have commisioned creation of a manuscript, though there is really insufficient evidence so far to justify any generalisations one might be tempted to make about (say) the emergence of the “prestigious reading manuscript” distinguishing (as it were) “coffee table” manuscripts from “paperbacks” . Eric Haswell described clearly and concisely the technologies used in the project, contrasting the “data centric” and “document centric” notions of relational and xml databases, and also showing how their web-service based implemetation based on eXist made it possible very easily to extract query results as CSV for input into traditional spreadsheets or as JSON for use by cooler things such  simile widgets. Finally, I gave that talk about linguistic annotation and why people say such terrible things about it. Not sure how appropriate it was to the day, but people seemed to be listening anyway. Final dinner of this week of over eating, was at Le Bouchon du Vaugueux where I (and others) tucked into a four course gastronomic menu, including some excellent roast duck, and rather a lot of stewed pears.

And on Saturday, the journey home, which was all very pleasant till I actually got to London : trains cancelled without warning, inadequate fallback facilities, Great British Public mustnt-grumbling etc etc. It took longer to get from London to Oxford (about 100 km) than from Caen to Paris (about 200 km), and involved a train that was so overcrowded it could not leave the station, not to mention a 30 minute wait for a replacement bus in the cold outside Reading station. Never mind, next week I’m going back to France, where the trains (mostly) run on time and the train crews are (usually) helpful and less demoralised when they don’t.

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