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Re: XML APIs

From: Stephen R. Savitzky <steve@rsv.ricoh.com>
Date: 02 Nov 1998 16:19:40 -0800
To: DOM List <www-dom@w3.org>
Message-ID: <qc67cxsk4j.fsf@gelion.crc.ricoh.com>
(NOTE: The casual reader will find the main point of this message in the
last two paragraphs.)

John Cowan <cowan@locke.ccil.org> writes:

> Stephen R. Savitzky wrote:
> 
> > Simple iterators that keep track of the current node and perform a
> > depth-first left-to-right traversal [...] behave
> > _predictably_ when the tree is modified during an iteration; whether this
> > behavior is ``correct'' or not depends entirely on what the programmer has
> > been led to expect.
> 
> I'm not sure I understand the meaning of "correct" vs. "predictable"
> here.

``Predictable'' means that it does what a programmer of average competence
would expect it to do given a quick perusal of the specification.  

`` ``Correct'' '' (note that the _original_ was in quotes) means that it
does what the application writer requires it to do in order to make the
application work correctly.

>  If the implementation is understood to be single-threaded, then
> all behaviors are "predictable" no matter how bizarre, since none of
> the node operations do arbitrary computation.  But even under a single-
> threaded interpretation, various "obvious identities" do not hold:

> 	(leftSibling(rightSibling(node)) = node,
> 		unless node is a lastChild;

...

> etc. etc. etc.  All of these are false under the DOM.

I do not understand your point.  They certainly hold as far as I can tell;
the classic algorithm for traversing a tree is:

traverse(node) {
  visit(node);
  if (node.firstChild != null) traverse(node.firstChild);
  if (node.nextSibling != null) traverse(node.nextSibling);
}
 
That had darned-well _better_ work in the DOM.  It's also trivial to
transform this into an iterator with "node" as its instance variable:

class depthFirst {
  Node node;
  Node toNext() {
    if (node.firstChild != null) {
	node = node.firstChild; return node;
    } else {
	while (node.nextSibling == null) {
	    node = node.parent;
	    if (node == null) return null; 
	}
	node = node.nextSibling;
	return node;
    }    
  }
}
	
A competent programmer can easily look at this code, or a well-written
specification of it, and predict that it will behave oddly if the document
gets modified out from under it.  It's even completely straightforward to
accurately predict exactly _how_ it will behave (for example, if I delete
the node, the iterator will return null on the next call to toNext). 

Piling additional complication into the specification in order to ensure
that every node in the tree will continue to be visited no matter what gets
done between calls to "toNext", which I believe is what the last spec that
included iterators attempted to do, is WRONG, because it makes the simple
implementation impossible and because it becomes too complicated for a
programmer looking at the spec to guess how it's going to behave.  It also
becomes next to impossible to specify _correctly_, because English is such a
lousy programming language (and predicate calculus is almost as bad).

> The difficulty is that the DOM is not a parse tree according to the
> meaning of the act; it is a tree-like API which provides access to
> an underlying implementation that may or may not look like a parse tree.

If it quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck otherwise behaves like a
duck, then you can't tell that it isn't a duck.  (I think it was Alan Kay
who said that.)  The API is designed to have an obvious model that looks
like a parse tree.  Any programmer, looking at that API, will ``see'' the
parse tree in her mind's eye and be able to make intuitive and accurate
predictions about how it will behave.  

Moreover, any programmer who wants to implement parse trees in a portable
and standardized way will take a superficial look at the DOM, and decide to
use it as the API for their parse trees.  They will then discover that, in
the details of the specification, the intuitive view of the DOM as the API
for tree-structured documents is WRONG, and that a great deal of non-obvious
machinery has to be added in order to make it work.

To the extent that the ``obvious'' (perhaps it would be better to use
``natural'') model fails to fit an actual implementation, the specification
is a failure.  Things like live nodelists and the children of
EntityReference nodes (it would be much simpler if they didn't have any)
violate the natural model, and hence are bugs in the specification.  One is
constantly having to say ``yes, this thing quacks like a duck and waddles
like a duck and otherwise fits the API of a duck, but in order to meet the
taste restrictions it has to be a turkey''.

I'm going to go a little further, and define ``natural model.''  The natural
model of an interface is a class in which all attributes are represented by
instance variables, and no other instance variables are present.  In other
words, there are no ``hidden variables'' (in the quantum-mechanical sense).
There is a similar concept in mathematics.

My claim is that any specification for which the natural model is not a
valid implementation is either incomplete (hidden variables have to be
added) or incorrect (it will lead both users and implementors astray).  It
is acceptable for a specification to be incomplete (e.g. a specification for
an iterator or a map _should_ leave out the implementation details), but it
is simply _not acceptable_ for the natural model or an extension of it not
to be a correct implementation of the specification.  It's simply asking for
trouble.

-- 
 Stephen R. Savitzky   Chief Software Scientist, Ricoh Silicon Valley, Inc., 
<steve@rsv.ricoh.com>                            California Research Center
 voice: 650.496.5710   fax: 650.854.8740    URL: http://rsv.ricoh.com/~steve/
  home: <steve@starport.com> URL: http://www.starport.com/people/steve/
Received on Monday, 2 November 1998 19:14:24 GMT

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