I’ve been wandering early …

[21 October 2008]

I’ve been traveling a good deal lately.

This is the first in series of posts recording some of my impressions.

In late September the XSL Working Group held a one-week meeting in Prague to work on revisions of XSLT to make it easier to support streaming transformations in XSLT. By streaming, the WG means:

  • The transformation can run in memory independent of document size (sometimes constant memory, sometimes memory proportional to document depth, sometimes memory proportional to the size of discrete windows of data in the document).
  • The transformation can begin delivering results before all of the input is available (e.g. can work on so-called ‘infinite’ XML documents like streams of stock quotations).
  • The transformation can be preformed in a single pass over the document.

It turns out that for different use cases it can be necessary or useful to:

  • declare a particular input document as streamable / to be streamed if possible
  • declare a particular set of templates as streamable
  • declare that particular parts of the document need to be available in full (buffered for random access) for part of the transform, but can then be discarded (e.g. for windowing use cases)

Some members of the WG may have been apprehensive at the thought of five straight days of WG discussions. Would we have enough to do, or would we run out of ideas on Tuesday and spend Wednesday through Friday staring at the floor in embarrassment while the chair urged us to get some work done? (If no one else harbored these fears, I certainly did.) But in fact we had a lively discussion straight through to the end of the week, and made what I think was good progress toward concrete proposals for the spec.

Among the technical ideas with most legs is (I think) the idea that sometimes what you want to do with a particular node in the input tree can actually be done with a partial copy of the input tree, and that different kinds of partial copy may be appropriate in different situations.

If you perform a deep copy of an element node in an XDM data model instance, for example, you have access to the entire subtree rooted at that node, but not to any of its siblings or ancestors, nor to anything else in the tree from which it came. For cases where you wish to (or must) allow access to the subtree rooted in a node, but to nothing else, such a deep copy is ideal: it preserves the information you want to have available, and it makes all other information inaccessible. (This is essentially the way that XSD 1.1 restricts assertions to the subtree rooted in a given node: logically speaking the assertions are evaluated against a copy of the node, not against the node itself.)

Several kinds of copy can be distinguished. In the terminology of the XSL Working Group (using terms introduced mostly by Michael Kay and Mohamed Zergaoui):

  • Y-copy: contains the subtree rooted in the node being copied, and also all of its ancestor nodes and their attributes, but none of their siblings. It is thus shaped like an upside down uppercase Y.
  • Nabla-copy: contains just the subtree rooted in the node being copied. It is thus shaped like an upside-down nabla. (Yes, also like a right-side-up delta, but since the Y-copy requires the Y to be inverted, we say nabla copy not delta copy. Besides, a delta copy would sound more like something used in change management.)
  • Dot-copy: contains just the node being copied, itself, and its attributes if any.
  • Yen-copy: like a Y-copy, but includes the siblings of each ancestor together with their attributres (although not their children).
  • Spanish exclamation-point copy: contains just the node being copied, and its ancestors, together with their attributes. Shaped like an exclamation point (dot, with something above it), or like an upside-down Spanish exclamation point.

I’ve been quite taken recently by one possible application of these ideas outside of the streaming XSLT work. In the current draft, assertions in XSD 1.1 are restricted to / are evaluated against a nabla-copy of the element or attribute being validated, and the conditions used for conditional type assignment are evaluated against a dot copy of the element. These restrictions are painful, especially the latter since it makes it impossible to select the type of an element depending on its xml:lang value (which is inherited from an ancestor if not specified locally). But XSD 1.1 could readily support conditions on the nearest value of xml:lang if conditions were evaluated on a Spanish-exclamation-point copy, instead of on a dot copy, of the element in question. I don’t know whether the XML Schema WG will buy this approach, but the possibility does seem to suggest that there is value in the idea of thinking about things in terms of invariants preserved by different kinds of node copying operations.

2 thoughts on “I’ve been wandering early …

  1. Pingback: Messages in a bottle » Blog Archive » … I’ve been wandering late … (travels, part 2)

  2. Good names for the different kinds of copies; and if you put the tree root-down, you needn’t invert the name characters. 😎

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