Sunday, February 13, 2022

OBG: No Understanding without Foundation Knowledge Part 5: Debunking an Online Exchange 4

Note: To demonstrate the correctness and stability due to a sound theoretical foundation relative to the industry's fad-driven "cookbook" practices, I am re-publishing as "Oldies But Goodies" material from the old (2000-06), Judge for yourself how well my arguments hold up and whether the industry has progressed beyond the misconceptions those arguments were intended to dispel. I may revise, break into parts, and/or add comments and/or references. You can acquire foundation knowledge by checking out our POSTS, BOOKS, PAPERS, LINKS (or, even better, organize one of our on-site SEMINARS, which can be customized to specific needs).

A 2001 review of my third book triggered an exchange on SlashDot. This six-part series comprises my debunking at the time of both the review and the exchange in the chronological (slightly out of the)  order of the original publication.
Part 1: Clarifications on a Review of My Book Part 1
Part 2: Slashing a SlashDot Exchange Part 1
Part 3: Slashing a SlashDot Exchange Part 2
Part 4: Slashing a SlashDot Exchange Part 3
Part 5: Slashing a SlashDot Exchange Part 4
Part 6: Clarifications on a Review of My Book Part 2

Slashing a Slashdot Exchange - Part 1

(first published in 2001)

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 instead of  assessing 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, foundation and 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, [given that my target audience is thinking practitioners,] were my material to suddenly become "hot", I would worry as to where I did go wrong. But the odds for that are rather slim and, fortunately, there was no need for concern: 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 practically always 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).


DBDebunk was maintained and kept free with the proceeds from my @AllAnalitics column. The site was discontinued in 2018. The content here is not available anywhere else, so if you deem it useful, particularly if you are a regular reader, please help upkeep it by purchasing publications, or donating. On-site seminars and consulting are available.Thank you.


02/04 OBG No Understanding without Foundation Knowledge Part 4: Debunking an Online Exchange 4

01/30 TYFK Nobody Understands What a Data Model Is

01/21 Read My Lips: If There's NULLs, It's Not Relational

01/16 OBG: No Understanding without Foundation Knowledge Part 3 -- Debunking an Online Exchange 3

01/08 OBG: No Understanding without Foundation Knowledge Part 3 -- Debunking an Online Exchange 2

- 08/19 Logical Symmetric Access, Data Sub-language, Kinds of Relations, Database Redundancy and Consistency, paper #2 in the new UNDERSTANDING THE REAL RDM series.
- 02/18 The Key to Relational Keys: A New Understanding, a new edition of paper #4 in the PRACTICAL DATABASE FOUNDATIONS series.
- 04/17 Interpretation and Representation of Database Relations, paper #1 in the new UNDERSTANDING THE REAL RDM series.
- 10/16 THE DBDEBUNK GUIDE TO MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT DATA FUNDAMENTALS, my latest book (reviewed by Craig Mullins, Todd Everett, Toon Koppelaars, Davide Mauri).

- To work around Blogger limitations, the labels are mostly abbreviations or acronyms of the terms listed on the
FUNDAMENTALS page. For detailed instructions on how to understand and use the labels in conjunction with the that page, see the ABOUT page. The 2017 and 2016 posts, including earlier posts rewritten in 2017 were relabeled accordingly. As other older posts are rewritten, they will also be relabeled. For all other older posts use Blogger search.
- The links to my columns there no longer work. I moved only the 2017 columns to dbdebunk, within which only links to sources external to AllAnalytics may work or not.

I deleted my Facebook account. You can follow me:
- @DBDdebunk on Twitter: will link to new posts to this site, as well as To Laugh or Cry? and What's Wrong with This Picture? posts, and my exchanges on LinkedIn.
- @ThePostWest on Twitter where I comment on global #Antisemitism/#AntiZionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.


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 drivel 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 this 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. Among the comments I debunk some by a member of a W3C XQuery Working Group and an academic -- who should know better.


Here is the comment that triggered the hoopla:

“Kardamon writes, "In If You Liked SQL,You'll Love XQUERY 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 critique of an article by Don Chamberlin, the principal author of SQL, whose proposal served as the basis for W3C XQuery specifications.

Consider the following reaction by S:
“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.”
[Such blatant criticism of use of ad-hominem by using ad-hominem is a clear indication of absence of any relevant substantive knowledge -- no capacity beyond personals.]

Here is an "IT professional" who deems logic an "arbitrary standard" for database management. Is "impure logic" [a contradiction in terms] an acceptable foundation? More to the point, does he even know RDM enough to comment on it? 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 supporting 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 [on the basis of which it was legitimate to question his relational expertise]. I and others have documented numerous such flaws and have exposed them, including their practical implications, extensively over the years in articles, papers, books, seminars, consulting practice and, recently, on the Web, none of which S addresses. To S those critiques are just "words", but not to thinking practitioners, our intended and naturally modest audience. Of course, there is no supportive reason and evidence for 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 what a full-fledged formal education program has not instilled in them, either because of academic decay, or because they did not have time or appreciation for it. That’s at least one reason why a lot of technical jobs are in countries with proper education (see No Integrity: A Systemic Problem).

Here’s Y reacting to quotes from my article (FP), complete with ad-hominem:

FP:"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 RDM in particular."

Y: “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.”

FP: "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."

Y: “This quote needs a position in the library of intellectual arrogance as well -- 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.”

[I'll let the reader judge who is the "crassly dismissive snit"], but how does one respond to such nonsense? 

Y perpetuates the "flatness" nonsense in ignorance and disregard of what my article clearly explains: [R-ables are flat visualizations of database relations on two-dimensional media and play no part in the RDM. Relations with N attributes represent groups of N-dimensional entities].

Ironically, one of the main early criticisms of SQL was that it was not "easy for people to grasp and manipulate." We have documented dozens of examples that confirm that [, but compare SQL with what preceded  and followed it. Whatever ease of use SQL has, it is all due to its limited relational fidelity and it fails precisely where it violates the RDM]. Be that as it may, the main reason SQL has become a de-facto standard was its support by IBM, then the Google and Amazon of today, that put it in the public domain; and Oracle -- as Ellison knew, being the first always provides the best chance of being adopted as standard -- that threw it into the market first, even though it was just a research prototype.

Besides, at the time when SQL was invented, anything would have been better than the then prevalent hierarchic and network monstrosities; the fact that SQL was so much better with whatever little relational fidelity it did have is an indication of what a fully relational true data sublanguage could have achieved. The point that I made in my article was that most of SQL's flaws are not, as is so often claimed, some sort of "compromises that IBM had to make for practical reasons" but, as we have repeatedly demonstrated, poor understanding of the RDM.

Note: For evidence of SQL flaws due to poor understanding of data fundamentals, I refer the reader to SQL Redundancy and DBMS Performance  and my book PRACTICAL ISSUES IN DATABASE MANAGEMENT.

If HTML was so good for what it does, why did we need XML? And before rushing to regurgitate "data interchange" I suggest Y read XML and the Second-Generation Web by two of XML authors, Bosak and Bray, who clearly saw XML as a solution to HTML’s lack of semantics. The industry keeps producing marketing fads that fail to address sound foundations, which in turn create problems that need to be solved by new fads and so on, in perpetuum. It’s quite a profitable endeavor, while users waste time on "integration, mapping, conversion and migration" among fads, rather than do productive work.

It may come as a shock to Y and others that rarely is a technology or product introduced or widely used on merit; more often than not it’s vagaries of history, vendor dominance and marketing prowess and trade media propagation. Wide use does not necessarily mean "goodness", often quite the opposite. And that is, in large part, due to the very disregard for 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 absence thereof. This too explains why the RDM, 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 -- while complexity is, OTOH, quite profitable. Practitioners are so much vested in convoluted products and practices, that they lose the ability to handle simplicity. I am dead serious.

Like so many, Y 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 data is never missing, but that SQL NULLs are a bad database representation thereof. As I explain in my book, in the real world a proposition is either true or false whether we know which it is or not. NULLs violate this two-valued logic (2VL) that governs the real world and break the foundation of the FOPL foundation of the RDM, with loss of DBMS ability to guarantee correctness of query results with respect to the real world.  Whether some data is known or not is data about data -- metadata -- and thus belongs in the database catalog, not mixed together with the data in the database, which is what the NULL approach does. Practitioners are oblivious to the consequences because they lack foundation knowledge, but that does not mean those consequences do not exist. Can Y explain why this is "blither"[sic]?

Note: For a relationally correct solution to missing data see The Last NULL in the Coffin.
Speaking of blather, who said that "anyone who simply uses a sequence counter as a primary key is the devil incarnate"? In fact, in The Key to Relational Keys: A New Understanding -- Primary Keys we actually advocate the use of surrogate keys, albeit according to important rules and requirements. But what this have to do with my article?

I don’t know what "radically different structures" means, but the structure in RDM is the database relation, not normalization [the misuse of this term is rampant and the subject utterly misunderstood, I refer the reader to my extensive writings]. And I dare anybody to make sense of, and reconcile, the following three statements such that it 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 data 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 that triggered the exchange I debunk here). 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, yet I am the one accused of unsubstantiated claims. Poor reasoning in a field founded on logic is scary, but it surely explains why the RDM failed in the industry.

S has it upside down and backwards: Demonstrating with reason and evidence that somebody is wrong is not "unprofessional", insulting and ad-hominem devoid of either is. Yet even though I never used their kind of language, it is nevertheless I who am always accused of insulting by those who blatantly do nothing but that. I do, however, understand that those who cannot sustain a substantive exchange can't but resort to insults, which tells me I must be doing something right. It would be surprising if S, Y and their ilk were not oblivious to the inconsistency of doing exactly what they baselessly accuse me of doing. [I used to have a label for this: "vociferous ignoramus".]

Worse than arrogance is ignorant arrogance.

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