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   The Myth of Explicit Relationships [Was: 3 XML Design Principles]

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  • To: "'XML Developers List'" <xml-dev@lists.xml.org>
  • Subject: The Myth of Explicit Relationships [Was: 3 XML Design Principles]
  • From: "Roger L. Costello" <costello@mitre.org>
  • Date: Sat, 5 Feb 2005 15:11:27 -0500
  • In-reply-to: <200501291720.j0THK3517843@smtp-bedford.mitre.org>
  • Thread-index: AcUGJsGRYo5JQY6qRZWNSr477/008QFl1K0g

Hi Folks,

This past week we discussed implicit versus explicit relationships.
This morning I carefully reread every message.  

Several people commented that "XML Doesn't Care" and "XML is just syntax".
I'd like to apply those comments to the notion of explicit relationships.

In this message I would like to reverse my stand and argue that
it is not possible for XML markup to state explicit relationships.
I will argue that explicit relationships in markup is a myth.

Consider this markup:

<Lot id="1">
    <Picker id="John">

What's the relationship between the Lot and the Picker?

The tag names have meaning to us as humans.  Thus, it is tempting for us to
read the markup and infer a relationship that in fact does not exist. 

To an XML parser the markup looks like this:

    <p99@% I8s="John">

That is, to an XML parser the tags are just a collection
of meaningless characters.

The advantage of us humans viewing the markup in this later form is that it
our overwhelming temptation to infer meaning.  Oddly, the relationship 
becomes clearer! We now see that the relationship is simply:

    p99@% is nested within W#*jQ10x


   Picker is nested within Lot

No other statements can be made regarding the relationship
between the Lot and the Picker.

Thus, it is erroneous to state this relationship: 

   The Picker is located on the Lot

This "located on" relationship may not be stated.  It is bringing
in knowledge that is not present in the markup.  (The knowledge
is coming from the mind of the reader)

In fact, even the "nested within" relationship is only known if
the processing application happens to be an XML-aware application.  A
application would not even be able to recognize the "nested within"

I make these two assumptions for this discussion:

1. The processing application is an XML-aware application.
2. The processing application is completely ignorant of our vocabulary.

Let us continue with our example.

Suppose that we decide that the "nested within" relationship is not
precise for our desires.  Can we design the markup to make the 
relationship more precise? 

How about this:

<Lot id="1">
        <Picker id="John">

It would appear that the <locatedOn> element is making explicit 
the relationship between the Lot and the Picker.

It is best to resist the temptation of our mind to add knowledge to the
So, let us convert the example into something less interpretable by our mind
equally interpretable to a machine):

        <p99@% I8s="John">

This makes it clear that the only relationships which can be stated are:

    p99@% is nested within vb*@34, which is nested within W#*jQ10x  


   Picker is nested within locatedOn, which is nested within Lot

Introducing the locatedOn element has done nothing to make the relationship
between the Lot and the Picker more explicit.  It has only served to push
the Picker 
to a deeper nesting level (and thus more digging is needed to get at it).

Any relationship information beyond "nested within" must be introduced
outside the markup, i.e., 
by human-engineered applications that process the markup.


1. No matter how you design your XML it won't make any difference in
   Specifically, nested elements will always yield the "nested within"
   and nothing else.

2. There is no such thing as markup that enables you to specify an "explicit
   between components.  Any relationship semantics beyond "nested within"
   is entirely a product of the application processing the markup.  

3. XML places the whole burden of semantics squarely upon the shoulders of 
   processing applications. Consequently, the sender and receiver must
   necessarily be tightly coupled (i.e., have shared semantics).

4. All message exchanges are nothing more than a series of encodings and

   For example, this message:

     "The Picker whose name is John, is currently located on Lot number 1"

   May be encoded like this:

   <Lot id="1">
      <Picker id="John">

   Or it may be encoded like this:

      <p99@% I8s="John">

   Either is a perfectly fine encoding.  Communication occurs when the
   possesses the proper decoder.  Thus, a decoder must be able to decode the

   above code back into the original message:

    "The Picker whose name is John, is currently located on Lot number 1"

   If the receiver does not have the proper decoder then communication
cannot occur.

5. Is it conceivable that a code could be processed by many different

6. Are there such things are "self-decoding codes"?  (I guess that a virus
   an example.)

7. Is it reasonable that a generic message format (i.e., XML) should carry
at least some of
   the burden of semantics?  Should XML 2.0 possess more semantics than is
currently found
   in XML 1.0?

Comments?  /Roger


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