Monday, July 30, 2018

Lenin, Trotsky, Data Management, and the Tyranny of Knowledge and Reason -- Version 2

14 years ago I published an editorial with this title in response to a exchange triggered by one of my articles at The objective was to illustrate some of the damage done by the collapse of education to the IT industry, reflecting a trend in the society  as a whole. Things have only gotten worse since then, and for quite a while I considered a re-write. A recent Linkedin exchange provided the impetus, so here it is.


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“If something comes along that you don't like, there are a few sort of four-letter words that you can use to push it out of the sphere of discussion. If you were in a bar downtown, they might have different words, but if you're an educated person what you use are complicated words like "conspiracy theory" or "Marxist." It's a way of pushing unpleasant questions off the agenda so that we can continue in our own happy ideology.”
                                             --Noam Chomsky is targeted at thinking data professionals and users, so when it experiences traffic spikes, I worry I have done something wrong, as there aren't too many of those -- there were a few more 14 years ago, but not enough for a ten-fold spike. At that time one of my articles[1] triggered a 500-message thread there, and spiked the traffic at the then version of this site. Long threads tend to produce mostly heat (hot air, to be more precise), rarely light. In the familiar upside down and backwards manner, I was accused of "unsubstantiated claims", even though the only reason and evidence were in my article. This, in the database field -- founded on logic -- which explains why the RDM never had a chance (which reflects a general disregard for knowledge and reason in the society at large).

I debunked much of the technical nonsense elsewhere[2], demonstrating how unskilled and unaware of it[3] data practitioners, experts, and even academics are:  no familiarity with the foundations and history of the field, which does not stop them from making all sorts of false or absurd assertions. I will not repeat all that here, but focus instead on the disregard for knowledge and evidence, and inability to reason, which characterizes not just database practice or the IT industry, but the public at large.

One OscarGunther (OG) commented thus:

“Ever read any Trotsky? Or Lenin? Pascal sounds like any of the old Communists (not the later totalitarians, but the true believers who were old enough to have known Marx or Engels personally). His diatribe is entirely typical of the species. He gratuitously belittles his targets ... (Yes, Fabian, the co-inventor of SQL probably doesn't have a grasp of data fundamentals.) He sprinkles his text liberally with "quotes" and italics so you can "feel" his anger, his dismay -- indeed, you can almost hear him spitting the words in Chamberlin's face. You can almost hear him chortling to himself as he bangs away on his keyboard, demolishing his opponents. He venerates the Founder. Finding a quote that supports your argument settles the matter. Codd the Wise avoided the error that Chamberlin made; clearly the latter is the inferior intellect. And there's only a small core with the Founder. "We" are the true believers; all others are apostates and heretics. Overstatement is a definite tell. Chamberlin's explanation of the difference between SQL and XML data is "unbelievable." The nesting argument is "ridiculous." Industry pronouncements are "incoherent." And most prominent of all is the cutting remark that's meaningless to anyone not in the know or already in agreement.”
Chomsky is clueless when it comes to other cultures, and issues that do not fit on the left-right continuum, but on the American social system (which does fit) he is brilliant. What "unpleasantness" did OG want “to push off the agenda” by using the communism card? (see the personal comment on the irony of using the card against me at the end of this post).

As I have thoroughly documented for the last five decades, in large part due to the collapse of education and its replacement with job training, the IT industry in general (and its data management segment in particular) has operated like the fashion industry (i.e., from fad to fad), and in "cookbook mode". Practitioners, at best, know tools. Without proper education, they find it difficult to understand data fundamentals and their value, dismiss them as "theory without practicality", and resent insistence that more than experience and tools is necessary -- they perceive it as "tyranny" that forces them to know what they don't, rather than just "use the best tool for the job".

This is the context in which the reaction to my article -- indeed, to all my writings -- should be considered, which also explains
the wrath with which they are frequently met, and the absence of any counter reasoning and evidence.

My article[1] questioned the foundation knowledge of Don Chamberlin, a co-author of SQL and XQuery, as revealed by some pronouncements in his book. Consider now OG's reaction.

"Gratuitous belittling" means criticism devoid of substance. There is both evidence and reasoning in my article, and the reader can judge for her/himself whether my claims are unsubstantiated. But they (in the quotes and clarifying italics) are dismissed as "anger" (OG seems to project his on me), rather then disproven.

While I judge Codd's reputation by his work[2,3], as is often the case, OG judged Chamberlin's work by his reputation ("if he is co-inventor of SQL, he must be knowing data fundamentals"), which you must resort to if you don't have the ability to make your own assessment. This is, in fact, why most data practitioners rely on information from vendors and the media, which have no better grasp of fundamentals and largely ignore, misuse, or abuse them.

I will leave it to the knowledgeable reader to ponder what the following statements:

  • "Relational data is "flat" (what, pray, other than dismay, should be the reaction when the designer of the de-facto standard relational data language state it?); and,
  • Discussion of data structures.
say about Chamberlin's foundation knowledge. But as I (and others) have shown, SQL has very poor relational fidelity and language design [4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11], which would not have been the case had its authors had a good grasp of data and relational fundamentals. So OG, not I, is the "true believer who venerates" Chamberlin; and it is he who considers me an "apostate and heretic" for questioning Chamberlin's knowledge and, probably, the industry.

Note: With respect to my "veneration" of Codd, we did criticize his four-valued logic (4VL) that inspired NULL, and will discuss some other problems as we go along[12], but “Codd the Wise avoided the error that Chamberlin made” is a non-sensical statement. Codd invented the RDM, and SQL was intended to be a relational data language, so it was SQL's poor RDM support that was a serious mistake. To be fair, there was considerable pressure at IBM to expedite product implementation, which bears some responsibility for cutting relational corners by commercializing a research prototype language, but this does not absolve SQL authors of theirs[13].

Real education, distinct from job training, instills foundation knowledge, respect for sound theoretical foundations, evidence, and ability to reason. They discipline the thought process and limit the freedom to be inconsistent, vague, confused. Without proper education (the current "academia" provides the opposite), all this is difficult and, thus, dismissed/ignored -- with reliance on the industry/market relieving professional practice from the tyranny of knowledge and reason[14].

Note: Consider the comment, “Fabian Pascal is smart and well-informed, but a zealot. Like all zealots he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything for his vision of technical purity.” Should we ground database management in "impure logic"?

A Personal Note

I was born and raised in one of the harshest members of the Soviet bloc. When emigration was permitted, anybody who could, fled, including our extended family. We scattered all over the world, and lost contact and everything we had. Yet in the US I "sound like any of the old Communists ... the true believers who were old enough to have known Marx or Engels personally ... entirely typical of the species", because I insist on a sound theoretical foundation for database management -- as far from dogma and "religiosity" as one can get[15]. Upside down and backwards.

I got involved with databases during my PhD studies in political science, during which I researched, taught and published on political systems and behavior for 15 years. So not only did I actually live under Soviet communism, but I also studied politics, for which reason I have better knowledge and understanding of social systems than armchair ideologues, who pummel their chests in defense of freedom without a clue as to what that means, are ignorant about communism and capitalism (and confuse them to the Soviet and American distortions thereof, respectively); and who, my guess is, never read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao, but are, nevertheless, quick to throw their books at anybody with whom they cannot sustain an intellectual argument.

My studies helped me realize the fundamental similarity of, and difference between the American and Soviet systems: while their objective is, for all practical purposes, the same -- manipulation, control, and exploitation of the public  --
their means differ. All societies indoctrinate with propaganda, but because the Soviet system had unlimited coercion at its disposal, the propaganda did not need to be convincing, so it was blatant and absurd. The government did not care if you believed it, only that you did what you were told -- if you stepped out of line, they disappeared you. The US system is more limited in the level of coercion it can deploy (which increases over time), and the propaganda must be believed, so it is subtle and psychologically attractive (freedom, competition, efficient markets, equal opportunities, and so on). It’s no coincidence that marketing and advertising has been perfected here.

The result is that under Soviet "communism" everybody had to believe in the party, but nobody did. Under American "capitalism" everybody must believe in the market and everybody does, without the need for much coercion. Express any doubts or criticism of the system and you will be marginalized and isolated professionally and socially, and find it difficult to function, of course, to a degree dependent on how influential and, therefore, dangerous, you are perceived to be. Quite elegant, which is why the Soviet bloc collapsed first.

The IT industry is part of the same system and culture -- the same mechanism is operating.


[1] Pascal, F., If You Liked SQL, You’ll Love XQuery.

[2] Pascal, F., Slashing a Slashdot Exchange Parts 1,2,3,4.

[3] Kruger J., and Dunning D., Unskilled and Unaware of It.

[4] Pascal, F., SQL Sins.

[5] Smout, E., and Pascal, F., SQL's Incomplete Set-lization.

[6] Pascal, F., Precision, Procedurality and SQL.

[7] Pascal, F., Language Redundancy and DBMS Performance: A SQL Story.

[8] Pascal, F., To Really Understand Integrity, Don't Start with SQL.

[9] Pascal, F., Moving in Circles: RDBMS-SQL Conflation & Logical-Physical Confusion.

[10] Pascal, F., Thinking Logically: SQL, NoSQL and the Relational Model.

[11] Pascal, F., NoSQL and SQL: A Plague on Both Their Houses.

[12] Darwen, H., Why Are There No Relational DBMSs.

[13] McGoveran, D., LOGIC FOR SERIOUS DATABASE FOLK, forthcoming.

[14] Pascal, F., Theory: As Far from Religion As You Can Get.

[15] Pascal, F., Industry Practice Is Not Substitute for Foundation Knowledge.

Note: I will not publish or respond to anonymous comments. If you have something to say, stand behind it. Otherwise don't bother, it'll be ignored.

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