Sunday, May 28, 2023


Note: "Then & Now" (t&n) is a new version of what used to be the "Oldies but Goodies" (OBG) series. To demonstrate the superiority of a sound theoretical foundation relative to the industry's fad-driven "cookbook" practices, as well as the disregarded evolution/progress of RDM, I am re-visiting my old debunkings, bringing them up to the current state of knowledge. This will enable you to judge how well arguments have held up and realize the increasing gap between industry stagnation --  and scientific progress.


(email exchange with a reader originally published September 2002)

“Saw your latest and once again I think you have hit one of the many protruding nails on the head. Understanding one's data is so central and so crucial and yet so often ignored.

All this talk (not from you, I note) of silver bullets. Nothing new and I wonder if the paying customers and the big-ticket so-called technology strategy companies will ever wise up. Edward de Bono wrote of 'porridge words' that distract thought from the matter at hand. When used sparingly, they can facilitate new lines of thought but when, as they are in this field, they are used so casually and often they blur the real issues. All this technicalese of XML etcetera has this effect on me.

During one of the few times an employer allowed me to help people with logical design, I was having difficulty because the customer's IT staff knew very little English and had perhaps even less database background. I hit on the idea of explaining tables as relations and relations as sentences - sentences that must have the same 'size and shape'. Their faces seemed to light up and when they agreed that they had overloaded some of their tables, I was very pleased with myself. I felt vindicated a few weeks later when I read an article about predicates and propositions that Hugh Darwen had written in the now defunct DBPD magazine, put these thoughts much more precisely than I could, . Of course, the changes created new problems because the database product, like so many others, gave precious few ways to map the logical design to the physical one. But I regarded these as preferable problems since the staff was much more interested in the more concrete physical optimization techniques.

Without any disrespect to Dr. Codd (who I once met but was too awe-struck to ask any questions of), I have often thought that the language used by everybody in the field, with words such as "tables", nearly always brings connotations of physical arrangements to the mind of anybody who has done traditional programming. This seems unfortunate to me. Especially after I read Mr. McGoveran's proposals for results that might embody more than one table. (I wonder if these might not be part of the key for much better physical integration of databases with their visualization for users, not to mention smarter engines.)

I came across a site the other day, where a bunch of the System R people reminisced about its development on the occasion of, I think, the 25th anniversary of one of Codd's early papers. Presumably Mr. Date was absent from this gathering so that he could write his own most interesting history, which I remember reading five or six years ago. Anyway, I was struck again by how often their design decisions were either determined or distorted by physical considerations. And now, when many of the obstacles have been overcome courtesy of Moore's and other laws, some of those clever people seem regretful.

Also, please let me submit an historical, non-technical 'nit' to Mr. Date - I remember him writing that Codd did not coin the database term 'normalization of relations' as a result of R.M. Nixon's foreign policy excursion with China. But I also remember reading what I recall was an original interview with Dr. Codd in the DBMS magazine where he stated that this was the case. It's not really important, perhaps I'm just sensitive to it because I live in a country that established relations with modern China a year earlier!”

Monday, May 8, 2023


Note: Reader mail (rm) posts are my exchanges with readers that raise fundamental issues. I may improve language for clarity and amplify with notes for the benefit of readers.

I've written more than once about Chen's E/RM (see references) and recently a reader emailed me a reaction to one of these writings, offering E/RM as evidence that properties were not necessary in conceptual modeling -- everything could be expressed with just entities and relationships. That is, of course, incorrect, but I was working at the time on my latest series of posts on Relationships and the RDM, which was going to address that issue too and I intended to refer him to it. But knowing that David McGoveran knew Chen in the 80s, I asked him if he had any comments. He thought that something broader and more forceful regarding Chen's work was in order and suggested some text. We had some discussion on the subject and decided that I will post my reply (ON PROPERTIES IN CONCEPTUAL MODELING) and publish his reply to the reader later, which I do below.

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