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The politics and other realities of names....
Thank you for writing this RFI Andrew. Good job. I especially admire
your call for a formal proof that your grammar can not generate the
same string in two different ways, assigning two owners to the same
name: that's a good exercise and would be a valuable improvement to
the SRFI. Identifying issues like that and clearly stating what
problem needs to be solved is often 3/4s of the battle. I'll bet the
proof is easier than you think and you should give it a try -- maybe
someone closer to you can give some hints.
Here are some issues and proposed solutions.
* Add to the Issues List
I would add these issues:
~ What are the political and economic implications
of this proposal? Can those implications effect
the correctness of programs? Are the implications
arbitrary and harmful in any way and, if so, are
there ways to improve the design to reduce these
~ Related to those implications: what is the role
in name-space design of referential transparency?
~ Is there a way to improve the description of the
* Political and Economic Implications
** General Description
The proposal creates (by defining) an infinite name-space
which has a natural tree topology. By "tree topology"
we mean that every point in this name-space (each name)
is, aside from being a name-in-general, the name for an
infinite subspace of names which are uniquely "contained"
under that name. The proposed tree looks like this:
of the SRFI process
/ | | | \
schemers.org rNrs srfi-N DNS HTTP-URL
/ ... \ /..\ /..\ /..\ /..\
libA libZ r6 rINf 84 inf a .. z a/~ .. z/~
/ ..\ ... /..\ ... /..\ ...
X::Y ... Q::R ... F::G ....
The proposal is based on the idea of assigning ownership of
subspaces (subtrees) to specific authorities. Thus, ICANN is
authoritative for the DNS subtree; the scheme standard community is
authoritative for the rNrs subtree; etc. The proposal is pleasingly
and appropriately "rooted" at nothing more or less than community
recognition of SRFIs in general and srfi-84 in particular.
Ownership is hierarchical and complex. Thus, ICANN, W3C, and IETF
are authoritative for the `http://swiss.mit.edu' name-space but they
delegate that authority to MIT. MIT in turn has delegated
`http://swiss.mit.edu/~jaffer' to Aubrey.
** Referential Transparency?
A name is referentially transparent if, always, it refers
to "the same thing". We don't necessarily mean that names
in a program always refer to "the same string of bits".
For example, Aubrey may want a unique name for "a development
version of SLIB". Which collection of Scheme code is referred to by
that name may change over time but, always, the name refers to what
Aubrey has designated as an SLIB snapshot.
We ought to notice that in this design the hierarchy of authority is
at odds with referential transparency. At the whim of ICANN, W3C,
IETF, MIT, or Aubrey a name that Aubrey chooses under this proposal
can change meaning -- can no longer be the name for "a development
version of SLIB".
In fact, it seems inevitable that eventually such a whim *will* be
exercised. It is highly likely that, eventually, neither Aubrey nor
any direct or indirect designee of his will control
`http://.../~jaffer'. It is entirely *possible* that, sometime
after that point, the name will be re-used.
Of course some of this concern is purely theoretical (like worrying
about latency between Earth and Alpha Centuri while designing TCP).
For example, none of us should be seriously concerned that `http:'
won't have a stable enough meaning for our purposes. By the time
`http:' changes meaning *that* badly enough else will have gone
wrong that this Scheme name-space will be one of the least of our
One doesn't have to go far down the tree, though, before the
concerns are not so theoretical. I'm not too sure I see
strong continuity of operations guarantees for the `rNrs' subspace.
I'm pretty sure I don't see strong continuity guarantees for
the `schemers.org' subspace. By the time we get
`http:/.../~newbie' or open-source-project `joes:cool:hack' I'm
nearly certain that the subspace is a jump-ball on the scale of
just a few years, at best.
** Does it Really Matter?
In some sense these concerns about referential transparency are
exaggerated. The Scheme community knows, by observing other
communities who wrestle with name-spaces (e.g., Java), that we
can potentially get very, very far without raising these
Well, really, the question comes down to "what are these names
If these names are nothing more than (as in the Java world) a
local convention for convenience -- perhaps everything is just
I would like to believe that SRFI-84 has the potential for much
greater significance and that, if we can, we should design with
that in mind.
For example, some uses of this name-space may have historical
significance. They may wind up being used in R7RS. They may
be of use to future historians trying to figure out what this
or that mailing list discussion was about 100 years hence.
More immediately, I would like to believe that these names will take
on a role in access methods. I would like a Scheme loader to
understand a subset of these names and for their to be a rigorous
(perhaps local) correspondence between the name and what a loader
should do to find a named data set or a named code library.
I earlier pointed out that `http://.../~jaffer' is likely to
eventually slip out of the control of Aubrey's intentions.
What will happen, then, to systems which operate by loading
data/code based on those names? Will their correctness be
I earlier pointed out that it is *possible* for names in, say,
the `schemers.org' name-space of open source projects to be
re-used as economic control over the domain and political control
over the pages shifts.
"Possible" or "likely"? Well, if nothing in the scheme world
ever matters much -- "unlikely". If Scheme really starts serving
certain vital roles in the world -- it all comes down to cost v.
benefit, doesn't it?
** The Gist of the Nub of the Essence of the Political Foo
This SRFI draft defines a set of names for people to use
but the names selected by the definition have an independent
The names used by this draft exist prior to this draft, but
for some small details of syntax, in a contentious political and
economic space. The name `http://.../~jaffer' exists prior to
this SRFI. Control of the name is something people can and
do fight over (e.g., look at where ICANN is at).
How nasty can that fight get? The answer is determined by
how valuable the named things are.
That fight is already well under way.
Why drag Scheme into it?
In general we have seen that the current draft is weakened
by a dependency upon authorities over which control is
contingent and contentious. More or less by definition we
can define a *standard* for names which makes no reference
at all to *some* authority.
Does there exist a higher authority which is more stable
upon which we build universal names? It's a definite
** Crypto and Being Human to the Rescue
Math and physics, specifically the physics and math of computational
complexity, provide us a handy and apparently non-contentious
authority that mostly does the job. With hashes and signing we
can create names which are, for all practical purposes, as far
as we can tell, unforgeable. With signing, especially, we can
democratize this process.
We presume, in this SRFI, that individuals or groups wish to
allocate to themselves an infinite subspace of names. We
presume that they have enough social coherence to manage
internal-to-the-group secrets such as the password to a web site
or.... a public key.
We are not certain but I am far from certain we can do much
better than to appeal to, extend, and improve our math and
use math as the ultimate naming authority. Names for strings
of bits are ideally the best hashes we can muster. Names for
dynamic processes controlled by individuals or groups are
ideally cryptographically signed definitions of those processes.
** "But quick...."
The draft objects to this approach indirectly. Hash values
and signatures are, pretty much by definition, incomprehensible
and inconvenient. As the draft puts it, regarding a similar
"Quick! Is urn:uuid:f81d4fae-7dec-11d0-a765-00a0c91e6bf6 the
same or different than the example UUID found in the middle of
page 4 of RFC 4122?)"
Can we form a math-based proposal which avoids such objections?
** Short Names, Long Names, and Disambiguating Footnotes
Among certain close company I am certainly, simply, "Tom".
At a greater distance I may be "Tom, the GNU Arch guy" or
"Tom, the guy working on telemarketing and business development".
In some places I am "Thomas Lord, with federal tax id XXX-XX-XXXX".
You get the idea -- identity is one thing and names another.
Identity is fundamental (well... but that's another story) but
names exist in discursive context. Names are relative not just
to where the named thing is in the world but also to who is
speaking to whom.
In a paper, the reference `[Lamport 86]' has a precise meaning but
to disambiguate the meaning there is a footnote with a complete
bibliographic entry. Beyond that there is a style guide that
explains how to parse the bibliographic entry. Beyond that are
authorities like "The Association of Computing Machinery" who
can disambiguate further.
Lexical scoping, as in Scheme, reflects this locality property of
names. In a piece of code designed to be loaded into an environment
where, at the time of loading, `call-with-current-continuation'
is presumed to be defined I can usefully write:
(let ((call/cc call-with-current-continuation))
In doing so I have done two things:
1. I've defined a convenient local short-hand for
an unwieldy name.
2. I've resolved, in a stable context, a "global"
name by retrieving the named thing. Thereafter
(in the enclosed code) I am insulated from
redefinitions that may take space in the global
The same pattern can apply to a design for "Universal Identifiers"
once we acknowledge separate needs for:
1. "local" conventions for short-hand names
Me and 12,000 friends can all agree that it is safe
to cut and paste certain code between our works because
we all mean the same thing by "call/cc".
2. "global", math/physics/human-based disambiguators
We can all agree that names like:
have a precise-as-we-can-get meaning. We can do our
best to make collisions utterly improbable while also
taking steps to make sure we are not too badly disrupted
if, to our surprise, collisions eventually occur.
* Conclusions and Final Thoughts
The draft can be improved by:
a) distinguishing conventional short-hands from universal names
b) using crypto techniques to define universal names
c) defining mechanism for declaring conventional mappings from
universal to short-hand names
d) suggesting recovery for procedures for the contingency that
crypto techniques fail
Difficult but solvable issues in this program include distinguishing
cases where signatures are wanted from situations where hashes are
wanted from situations where some combination is wanted.
Reaching prematurely for too narrow a set of crypto technology
is probably a mistake. If we had this conversation too many years
ago it might have been tempting to say `hashes are MD4' and things
like that. Nothing has really changed.
A subtle point will be the idea of improving names over time.
Supposing I have an SHA-based name tomorrow can I smoothly transtion
to a better has tomorrow?