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Re: [xml-dev] An inquiry into the nature of XML and how it orients our perception of information


I think that the form of the modeling expression language has a huge impact upon the approach that one takes in dealing with the world. I have a good, real world example - I was recently hired to develop documentation for Mozilla's JetPack interfaces. The development team, for the most part, are people who come from a background that mixes C++ with JavaScript - developers who are agile, facile with object models, and generally quite bright. Most of their documentation system is built on a Mediawiki engine, with DekiWiki support integrated into it. Most of their documentation was consequently created in a fairly ad hoc manner, based upon copying templates and modifying them - essentially a form of cut and post. This has meant that their documentation was fairly labour intensive to create, and hence comparatively expensive.

After having spent the last several years immersed in XML pipelines, XQuery and XSLT transformations on the other hand, I came into it with the realization that if they could control the input model and run it through a production pipeline, so long as the input model was simple and familiar they could actually maintain things such as document APIs with considerably less effort and far less chance of document corruption or transcription errors, while at the same time providing all of the necessary metadata and semantic infrastructure to make the documentation much more like applications than passive text. The final form I came up with for the input model was something that looked vaguely JSONic, in great part because most web browser devs seem to have an almost pathological reaction to anything even hinting at pointy brackets.

Yet the key to all of this really came from the XML background - the devs were used to dealing with dynamic object models that did things, rather than working with declarative, functional pipelines and languages. To most JavaScript developers, a web page is a collection of objects, to most XML developers, a web page is a fairly uninteresting XML document that's either the input to or (more likely) the end state of a series of pure functional transformations. So yes, I think that one's "native" language has a huge impact upon your perceptions of how to solve a problem, for better or worse.

Kurt Cagle
Managing Editor

On Fri, Nov 20, 2009 at 4:16 AM, Costello, Roger L. <costello@mitre.org> wrote:

Hi Folks,

I oftentimes hear of people creating XML in an Object Oriented (OO) form, i.e., as classes and subclasses, or of people creating XML in a relational database form, i.e., as tables with rows and columns. I wonder if such forms are appropriate for XML? Does OO serve the same purpose as XML? Do relational tables serve the same purpose as XML?

Yesterday Philippe Poulard expressed a similar sentiment:

   I'm not sure that this OO paradigm can be applied
   in XML: a class is defined by its unordered members that
   a subclass can simply override, whereas the sequential
   nature of XML doesn't allow overriding only a given part
   of a content model.

   With ASL, I didn't try to adopt at any cost a feature that
   doesn't fit well in XML technologies, I'd rather tried to
   think different.

Lately I have been reading a couple of books [1][2] that have shaped my thinking on this subject. [1] asserts that the "form" in which information is expressed influences "what" can be expressed. Here are a few passages from the book:

   We experience the world through various lenses: speech,
   the printed word, the television, and others.

   Each form classifies the world for us, sequences it, frames
   it, enlarges it, reduces it, and colors it.

   The form in which ideas are expressed affects what those
   ideas will be.

   Each form makes possible a unique mode of discourse by
   providing a new orientation for thought and for expression.

In the computer information world there are various lenses: relational databases, XML documents, OO models, and others. Each form classifies, sequences, frames, reduces, enlarges, and colors our view of information. Each form orients our thought.

If you accept that a relational/tabular form orients ones thinking a certain way and that OO orients ones thinking in another way, then it appropriate to inquire whether such forms are suitable for XML. Must not an XML document orient ones thinking in a way that is harmonious with the XML form? From [2]:

   The Parthenon did not serve the same purpose as its
   wooden ancestor.

   ...the structure of a building is the key to its beauty;
   ...new methods of construction demand new forms

What are the consequences of constructing XML documents as a collection of classes and subclasses, or as tabular rows and columns? Do we destroy the beauty of XML? Is the lens provided by XML distorted? XML orients our thought. In what ways?


[1] "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman.
[2] "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand.

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