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"The syntax view" was Re: [xml-dev] [OT] Re: [xml-dev] Lessons learnedfrom the XML experiment

On 11/17/13 2:19 AM, Hans-Juergen Rennau wrote:
Simon and John dwell on a person's right to see somthing as he likes;
Michael says that XML *is* syntax, and I suppose this is meant in the
historical sense. I ask you to change the plain, abandon the social,
psychological and historical, and focus on the technological.
Again, I must disappoint you.

My interest in markup is not purely technological, but rather about markup's being an almost unique intersection of humans and computers. Markup is a set of tools that lets humans gets directly in the information flow. Computers are certainly still involved, but their role is minimized to the extent possible.

Understanding XML requires understanding the structures - human structures and technological structures - within which it operates.

Let us
investigate the various benefits of the alternative approaches. So you
think I oversimplify things?
Yes. Utterly, and to my cost as well as your own.

My view, in a nutshell, once more: XML
technology is based on nodes, not syntax. Seeing syntax, I cannot deal
with technology; dealing with technology, I cannot see (or should not
see) syntax. And I take it for granted that we want to deal with
technology. But it seems that things are not that simple and the "syntax
view" offers something that has eluded me so far.
There are multiple ways to process and examine a given XML document, as Rick Jelliffe noted:

* Text
* Event streams
* Graphs of nodes
* Trees of nodes

The "syntax view" keeps the possibilities of that first option open.

* It reminds us that we are indeed 'marking up' documents that may have cohesive value on their own, not just as shredded and codified chunks of data.

* It recognizes that broken and incomplete documents may yet contain especially important information.

* It leaves the door open for information that didn't fit in someone's prized model, allowing for format evolution rather than cycles of standardization. The structure of a given document is almost always easier to change than the programs that process it. (The nodes view emphasizes the priority of programs and all too often celebrates the things that make them brittle.)

* It makes comprehensible possibilities that can't be reached if you lock yourself into nodes from the beginning. Overlap is the place I see this most often. Programmers indoctrinated into neat structure often see this as an utter corner case, but those who work with human documents know it exists regularly in the wild.

(It is certainly possible to create models for overlapping markup, but those models are substantially different from the models for simple trees or even graphs with clear boundaries. Think of them as paralleling the shift away from Euclidean geometry by removing an axiom: that elements may not overlap, rather than that parallel lines may not cross. The results are disconcerting but better reflect practice.)

I am sure I am missing something in this insomniac moment. Others doubtless have different perspectives.

It's not just a matter of preference, "a person's right to see something as he likes". I've watched the course of XML for the past 16 years. I saw what began as a simplification process turn into a reinvention of tools that worked well in one context but poorly in most others.

The "syntax view" brings the humility to avoid those disasters as well as possibilities all its own. It is rarely complete by itself, but the other modes are broken without it.

Which is a long way of writing "Your nodes are my tangle. Your concrete wall [XML syntax, that is] is my freedom to innovate."

Simon St.Laurent

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