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Those Who Live in Glass Houses … - Reply to Meeks

by Fabian Pascal

It was inevitable—and dreaded—that I would get some reactions to my last column on multivalue databases. Dreaded because, as I stated at the beginning of the column

“[T]here hardly is a more confused bunch than the proponents of MV technology. Anything written by them is so incomprehensible and utterly confused that it readily invokes Date’s Incoherence Principle, which I paraphrase: It is difficult to treat coherently that which is incoherent. What is more, efforts to introduce clarity and precision meet with even more fuzziness and confusion. For anybody who believes that anything of value (pun intended) can come from such thinking, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.”

Sure enough, I got pestered by one David Meeks to respond to a series of poorly reasoned, uninformed arguments that thoroughly validate my above position. In fact, so bothersome he became that I had to filter out his emails.

There is no pleasure in responding to this kind of nonsense and I do it—quite reluctantly—for several reasons (a) to demonstrate that it is those with least knowledge and reasoning ability who are the most vociferous (b) to warn readers that they must be extremely careful with what they hear or read, which is driven mainly by the vociferous and (c) to prove that my reluctance to communicate with the vociferous is by no means due to inability to address their so-called arguments, but rather to unwillingness to waste time. Luckily—as I said many times before—I don’t need to delve deep into arguments to dismiss them. Just a few paragraphs will do.

Meeks begins as follows:

“I have to admit to the somewhat guilty pleasure I have in reading your numerous articles that can be found at various places on the web. I find your acerbic approach to your discussions occasionally enjoyable and often good for a laugh.  And, I respect your steadfast devotion to your obsession.  It has the kind of righteous zeal usually reserved for the extreme religious right.  Billy Graham has nothing on you...”

A problem right off the bat: Like so many practitioners, Meeks does not seem able to distinguish between dogma (religion) and science. To his mind they are equivalent. Obsession for the former is indeed “righteous zeal”; for the latter it is right zeal. What should we obsess on, if not rationality?

It is ironic that relational proponents have long been labeled “religious,” which is upside down and backwards: it’s we who have reason and science behind us; what do proponents of other “models,” MV included, have, other than “religion,” given that they dismiss science?

If the blatant inconsistency of Meeks’ position were not so sad, it would be funny.

On the one hand he accuses me of

      • “… a particular lack of logical reasoning in your arguments that, for someone so concerned with attacking others on all levels, strikes me as someone with more of an axe to grind than a point to make.” [emphasis added]

If so, then what are we to make of his following (“straw-man”) interpretation of my position, which he proceeds to “demolish”]

      • “If it’s not based purely on relational theory, it is bad

- The relational calculus/algebra that is used as a foundation for the logical representations you support is nothing more or less than what it is. The fact that the logical representations derived from this are mathematically based do not make it inherently BETTER or WORSE than any other representation.  Being relational, and even being mathematically defined does not make something good or bad, just definable.

We already know, for example, that the original relational model was flawed in design, thus prompting the further study, refinement, and expansion of the original ideas espoused in the early days of definition.  All of which are good things, incidentally, but shows that things change.

Additionally, much like the relation model has evolved over time, so has the MV-model.  The representation used in the 60s bears only a cursory semblance to the current representation.”

In other words, Meeks accuses me of lack of logical reasoning, then turns around and dismisses logic as a basis for data management. And he wants to be taken seriously?

Other points arising:

> Does Meeks really suggest that there is no difference between a logic foundation for data management and any other, ad-hoc approach, lacking a formal basis? Does he really mean to say that definability is not a requirement for any such foundation? Can he explain how correctness—defined as consistency—can be guaranteed in the absence of definability? (What a waste of time to have to make such points!)

Whether Meeks realizes it or not, whether he likes it or not, databases are collections of predicates and propositions and DBMSs are logic inference engines: they derive new propositions (theorems) from database propositions (axioms). What else does Meeks suggest to replace logic with, that is better than logic, and why?

> That science develops and improves is not justification to resort to nonscientific approaches. Taken to its logical conclusion, such a position leads to quackery as a substitute for medical science that is progressing over time.

No “evolution” of a non-theoretical approach can substitute for theory.

> Can Meeks specify the “flaw” in the design of the relational model that made it inferior to technologies like MV, or XML, which lack a formal model altogether, confuse the logical and physical levels, and add complexity, but not power to database management?

Since Meeks’ starting point is my purported “lack of logical reasoning”, the foregoing is sufficient ground to rest my case: given his reasoning, there is neither a need, nor a point to bother with the rest of his arguments. Be that as it may, let me briefly dismiss some other misinterpretations of my positions:

      • “Relational theory is perfect, but no one has implemented it because they are lazy.”

> I never claimed that relational theory is perfect. But it is vastly superior to anything else proposed in the industry, and the fact that neither of the alternatives survives—except where there is vesting in them—is an indicator of their inferiority. As I did claim so often, because data fundamentals are not addressed—what relational technology was invented for—most of the effort is being spent on migrating from fad to fad, mapping, integrating, etc. No time left for productive work

> I don’t say “they” are lazy—although many certainly are and I have documented such cases—but uneducated, and insistent on remaining so. This is not entirely their fault, but rather a flaw of the educational system and society as a whole. To quote one of the smarter minds:  

“The ongoing process of becoming more and more an a-mathematical society is more an American specialty than anything else (it is also a tragic accident of history).
The idea of a formal design discipline is often rejected on account of vague cultural/philosophical condemnations such as ‘stifling creativity’; this is more pronounced in the Anglo-Saxon world where a romantic vision of ‘the humanities’ in fact idealizes technical incompetence. Another aspect of that same trait is the cult of iterative design.

Industry suffers from the managerial dogma that for the sake of stability and continuity, the company should be independent of the competence of individual employees. Hence industry rejects any methodological proposal that can be viewed as making intellectual demands on its work force. Since in the US the influence of industry is more pervasive than elsewhere, the above dogma hurts American computing science most. The moral of this sad part of the story is that as long as the computing science is not allowed to save the computer industry, we had better see to it that the computer industry does not kill computing science.”

— E. Dijkstra

      • “Logical/Physical separation is important, and no one gets it.

      • Confusion over what 'value' means.”

These are simply facts! And we have backed them with ample evidence in our writings, lectures and web site. If he disagrees, Meeks should publish his own evidence to the contrary, or refute ours. Simply declaring them untrue doesn’t cut it.

      • “Regarding your aforementioned article, you make a serious logical/physical error.  You make a key point regarding the MV file vs. relational table.  Again pointing to your lack of a fundamental understanding of the MV world, you make an error here. In the 'RDBMS' world, a 'table' has multiple meanings. At the logical level, it's a representation of a view on data. And, from a product implementation perspective, it is also a physical representation.  It defines the storage representation of the data.  Likewise, in the MV world, a 'file' has multiple connotations. As you imply, it has a physical representation. However, it is also a logical representation similar to that of a table.” 

Now, this takes the cake. While arguing that I suffer from logical physical confusion, Meeks proves that he is utterly confused about the two levels. A table has “multiple meanings” only for confused minds like Meeks’.

Tell you what: I was going to address his other arguments, but I won’t. I just don’t have the time.


Fabian Pascal has a national and international reputation as an independent technology analyst, consultant, author and lecturer specializing in data management. He was affiliated with Codd & Date and for 20 years held various analytical and management positions in the private and public sectors, has taught and lectured at the business and academic levels, and advised vendor and user organizations on data management technology, strategy and implementation. Clients include IBM, Census Bureau, CIA, Apple, Borland, Cognos, UCSF, and IRS. He is founder, editor and publisher of Database Debunkings, a web site dedicated to dispelling persistent fallacies, flaws, myths and misconceptions prevalent in the IT industry. Together with Chris Date he has recently launched the Database Foundation Series of papers. Author of three books, he has published extensively in most trade publications, including DM Review, Database Programming and Design, DBMS, Byte, Infoworld and Computerworld. He is author of the contrarian columns Against the Grain, Setting Matters Straight, and for The Journal of Conceptual Modeling. His third book, PRACTICAL ISSUES IN DATABASE MANAGEMENT serves as text for his seminars.

Special Offer: Author Fabian Pascal is offering readers copies of his papers and abstracts at a discount. To receive your discount, just let the editor know you're a DBAzine reader!

Contributors : Fabian Pascal
Last modified 2005-04-12 06:21 AM
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