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Slashing a Slashdot Exchange - Part 1

by Fabian Pascal

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

I was recently contacted by a reporter for an interview. When I expressed my disappointment with the trade media’s tendency to regurgitate vendor marketing claims rather than assess them, he admitted “that is what happens about 98 percent of the time,” but added, “There are some outlets with a good piece from time to time that deal with serious architecture issues,” mentioning Slashdot as one of them.

There is, of course, a Catch 22 here: to judge the seriousness of such outlets, substantive knowledge is necessary in the first place. And, alas, reporters possess even less of it than vendors and users, (see, for example, The Ignorance Mechanism, On Trade Media’s “Balance”), without which sources may appear serious even when they are nothing of the sort. As luck would have it, I ran into a good opportunity to prove this point for Slashdot.

It so happened that shortly after my exchange with the journalist, Database Debunkings experienced a sudden ten-fold increase in traffic. Now, were my material to become very popular, I would have to worry as to where I have gone wrong. But the odds for that are rather slim and, fortunately, there was no need for concern in this case either. An email from a reader informed me that “there recently was an article posted to which refers to and Mr. Pascal/Date” and “There [were] some 443 comments to that posting.” Such volume is usually indicative of heat (hot air, to be more precise), rather than light. Ah, well, I thought, yet another source of weekly quotes (as if one was needed).

Now, I am not exactly known to underestimate the poor level of discourse in the industry, but as jaded as I am about it, even I was taken aback by the Slashdot exchange, for which I know no better characterization than to quote Archie Bunker: crappola. When I tried to select the best “pearls” for quotes and to debunk, I ended up with almost each and every message in the thread, so I gave up.

It is practically impossible to address even a fraction of the blather in the exchange, which it certainly does not merit, but given that it is representative of a large part of the industry, I did not want to simply ignore it either. So I decided on a multi-part rebuttal, this first of which, via a couple of representative examples, gives the reader a flavor of what passes for “serious discussion of architecture” these days. I will debunk comments by a member of a W3C XQuery Working Group and by an academic in future columns.

Here is the post that triggered the hoopla:

Kardamon writes, “In an article on DBAzine, Fabian Pascal writes that SQL is not a good representation of the relational model, and is afraid the situation will get worse with XML and XQUERY. An overview of some of the reactions on the positions Pascal and also C.J. Date take on this issue is given in this article over at by Sara Cushman.”

The reference is to my previous column here, If You Liked SQL, You’ll Love XQuery, a critique of an article by Don Chamberlin, the principal author of SQL, whose proposal served as the basis for W3C XQuery specifications.

Note: Participants in the thread use aliases rather than real names. So much for the courage of their convictions.

Consider, for example, the following:


“What an arrogant twit.

It’s one thing to say that either SQL or XQuery have their problems, because they do. It’s quite another to say that SQL is bad because it doesn’t live up to some arbitrary never-achieved (and perhaps unachievable) standard of relational purity that even Codd himself found superfluous. When Pascal does nothing but the latter, and in addition takes a dozen thoroughly unprofessional swipes at Chamberlin for having been involved in both SQL and XQuery, his professional jealousy is becomes thick enough to choke on. I wish he would, so we would be spared the incessant ranting of someone whose whole career has been marked by a lot of words and not a single deed to back them up.”

Points arising:

      • Here is an IT professional (I should put quotes around the term) who deems logic an “arbitrary standard” for database management. Is “impure logic” an acceptable foundation? More to the point, does he even know the relational model? If, as is obviously the case, he does not, is he in any position to judge whether (a) it is a proper standard, (b) it is achievable, (c) products should live up to it? Can he substantiate any of his negative positions on these issues?
      • Can he quote any source that supports his claim that “even Codd himself found [it] superfluous”?
      • Did I criticize Chamberlin “for involvement with SQL and XQuery”? That’s absurd. What I criticized were flaws in his article, as well as in the two languages of which he is a principal author. I and others have documented numerous such flaws and have exposed them extensively over the years in articles, papers, books, seminars, consulting practice and, recently, on the Web, including their practical implications, neither of which Salamander addresses. To him those are just “words,” but not to thinking practitioners, our intended, if modest, audience. Besides, what backing does he offer for his (absurd) statements?

Note: Ironically, when I refer to my writings, I am accused of crass commercialism. Several of the participants in the exchange expect to be spoon-fed via email what a full-fledged formal education program has not instilled in them, either because of academic decay, or because they don’t have time or appreciation for it. That’s at least one good reason why a lot of technical jobs are offshore (see No Integrity: A Systemic Problem).

Here’s another example, which quotes me:


“ ‘One does not know whether to laugh or cry. It has been quite obvious that the designers of SQL had little understanding of data fundamentals in general, and the relational model in particular. ’

This quote needs to be placed toward the beginning of the Grand Encyclopedia of Intellectual Arrogance. Let’s see, you have flat tables with a defined primary key and you form relations between these flat tables.

I do agree that SQL is not the best possible query language, but it succeeds where the other languages fail, it is easy for people to grasp and manipulate. Likewise, HTML has many faults. Plain HTML is still the preferred choice of most web designers because it is easy to learn and write.

Personally, I think the primary intellectual impulse is to add convolution to simple processes. There will never be an end to the stream of blither about how nulls cannot exist, and anyone who simply uses an sequence counter as a primary key is the devil incarnate. HTML and SQL have two things that almost all the stuff coming from arrogant snits like this author lack. They were designed by people who were actually doing stuff.

This quote needs a position in the library of intellectual arrogance as well:

‘Indeed, data/information management requires “some organizing principle” ; that is, structure; anything “unstructured” — and many in the industry promote XML for that purpose — is not data, but meaningless random noise that carries no information.’

A snit crassly dismisses several millennia of literature because it is unstructured.

Quite frankly, meaning and structure are independent of each other. It is possible to find meaning in things with radically different structures. It is true that there is a correlation between structure and the ability to communicate meaning, but a healthy mind can find meanings in things that have not been normalized.

Likewise, you can have meaningless garbage in relational databases. A case in point is the large number of fake web sites that do things like join the FIPS database to product names so that they can have millions of pages that show up in search engines. Likewise, we see academician filling volume after volume of publications with meaningless tripe.”

How does one respond to such nonsense? Let’s see:

      • Like Cheney on the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida, Yintercept reiterates the “flatness” falsehood, completely ignoring the truth stated in my article: Tables are flat because they are pictures of relations on flat media. But they represent N-attribute relations that are N-dimensional entities.
      • Ironically, one of the main early criticisms of SQL was that it was not “easy for people to grasp and manipulate.” And we have documented dozens of examples that substantiate this argument. The main reason SQL has become a standard was its support by IBM, which put it in the public domain (and Oracle, which implemented it first). IBM was at the time what Microsoft is today; nobody could afford incompatibility with IBM (and being the first always provides the best chance of becoming the “de-facto standard,” particularly with lots of marketing). Besides, at the time when it was invented, anything would have been better than the hierarchic and network monstrosities prevalent then; the fact that SQL was so much better with whatever little relational fidelity it had is and indication of what a fully relational language would have achieved. The point that I made in my article is that most of the flaws SQL are not, as is so often claimed, some sorts of “compromises” that IBM had to make for “practical reasons” but, as we have demonstrated, they are due to poor understanding of the relational model.

Note: For evidence of SQL flaws due to poor understanding of data fundamentals, I refer the reader to my 1987 article “SQL Redundancy and DBMS Performance,” and “Appendix 4B, Language Redundancy and Duplicates” in Practical Issues in Database Management.

If HTML is so good for what it does, why do we need XML? And before he jumps to regurgitate “data interchange,” I suggest Yintercept read the original article in Scientific American by two of its authors, Bosak and Bray, who clearly saw it as a solution to HTML’s lack of semantics. The industry keeps producing fads that fail to address core needs properly, which in turn create problems that need to be solved by yet other fads, and so on. It’s quite a profitable endeavor, while users must waste time on “integration,” mapping, and conversion between fads, rather than do productive work.

It may come as a shock to Yintercept and others (see “Silly Seeley”) that rarely is a technology or product widely used on merit; more often than not, it’s vagaries of history, vendor dominance, marketing, and the trade media that propagate fads. Wide use, therefore, does not necessarily mean that something is good; I would even venture to say quite the opposite. And that is, in large part, due to the very lack of foundation knowledge that the participants in the Slashdot exchange exhibit to the point of pride.

      • The “rush to convolute simple processes” is indeed a hallmark of the industry, and it shows. It is not an intellectual impulse, though, but rather the lack thereof. This too explains why the relational model, one of the main purposes of which was simplicity, did not fare well in the industry. As I stated in the preface to one of my books, there is an economic incentive for complexity. Simplicity does not require as many books, magazines, seminars, consultants, conferences, and so on, that complexity makes quite profitable. Practitioners are so much vested in convoluted products and practices, that they lose the ability to handle simple ones. I am dead serious.
      • Like so many, Yintercept confuses missing data in the real world, with how it is represented and treated in databases, which are distinct. When I say that there are no NULLs in the real world, I do not mean that no data is ever missing, but that SQL NULLs are a bad implementation of it. As I explain in my book, the fact that we don’t sometimes know whether a proposition is true or false does not change the fact that in the real world that proposition is either true or false. The use of NULLs mixes together data about the real world and our knowledge of the data (data about data, if you will). As a poor representation of reality, NULLs violate this two-valued logic of the real world and break the foundation of the relational model. This loses the DBMS its ability to guarantee that query results are logically correct with respect to the real world. That practitioners are oblivious to the consequences because they don’t bother to learn fundamentals does not mean there are no problems with NULLs. Can Yintercept explain why this is “blither”[sic]?
      • Who said that “anyone who simply uses an sequence counter as a primary key is the devil incarnate,” and what this have to do with anything, let alone my article?
      • I don’t know what “radically different structures” means, but the relational structure is the relation, not normalization. And I dare anybody to make sense of, and reconcile, the following three statements in a way that invalidates my quoted argument:
            • “meaning and structure are independent of one another”
            • “it is possible to find meanings with radically different structures”
            • “literature is unstructured”

What is really astounding is not just the almost total lack of knowledge by practitioners, experts, and even academics, of the history and foundation of their own field, which does not stop them from making broad pronouncements; they even boast about it (“Unskilled and Unaware of It” indeed). Rather, it’s also the lack of most basic reasoning ability — confusion, vagueness, inconsistency and a total disregard for evidence. In my writings I at least strive to be logical, and back arguments with either direct evidence, or references to sources (the reader is invited to judge to what extent I succeeded in my article under consideration). Yet in the whole Slashdot exchange, the reasoning and evidence for my arguments are thoroughly ignored, while nothing resembling such is offered for opposing arguments, and then I am the one accused of unsubstantiated claims to boot. Poor reasoning in a field founded on logic is scary, but it surely provides yet another reason why the relational model has not been properly appreciated.

Note the insults in both cases, and there are more where these came from (see my editorial “Lenin, Trotsky, and ‘Freedom from the Tyranny’ of Knowledge and Reason”).

I will leave it to the reader to decide who is the twit or the crassy snit here, but Salamander has it upside down: Demonstrating with evidence that somebody is wrong is not “unprofessional”; insulting without any evidence is. Yet even though I never used their kind of language, it is nevertheless I who am usually accused of insulting, not those who do it blatantly.

I do, however, understand that those who cannot sustain a meaningful argument often resort to insults, which tells me I must be doing something right. I would not be surprised if  Salamander, Yintercept, and their ilk were oblivious to the inconsistency of doing exactly what they baselessly accuse me of doing.

Worse than arrogance is ignorant arrogance.


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, UCS, 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 Foundations 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 subscriptions to the Database Foundations Series of papers at a discount. To receive your discount, just let him know you’re a DBAzine reader before you subscribe! Contact information is available on the “About” page of his site.

Contributors : Fabian Pascal
Last modified 2006-01-04 01:38 PM
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