Last Call for C. J. Date Course

Note added 3 April 2009: When I wrote this post, we were counting down toward 2 April as the date for our preliminary go/no-go decision. That date is now behind us, and we have made the preliminary decision to Go. We are accepting further enrollments. —Cary Millsap

Thursday 2 April 2009 is our last call for enrollment in C. J. Date’s course, “How to write correct SQL, and know it: a relational approach to SQL.” I’m looking forward to this course more eagerly than anything I’ve attended in the past ten years, …maybe twenty.

SQL and I never really got along too well. When I first joined Oracle Corporation in 1989, I was new to relational databases. I had done one hierarchical database project in college. I enjoyed the project ok, but it wasn’t something I ever wanted to do again. When I joined Oracle, I didn’t know much about relational technology or SQL. In my formative first couple of years at Oracle, though, I just never learned to like the SQL language. Prior to my Oracle career, I designed languages and wrote compilers for a living. From a language design standpoint, it just seemed that SQL (at least “Oracle SQL”) could have become something really cool, but it didn’t. For Oracle to treat an empty string as NULL, for example, is a decision which I still can’t believe made it into the light of day…

I had a lot of respect over the years for the people I met who knew how to make SQL do what they wanted it to do. Dominic Delmolino was one of the first people I ever met who could make SQL do things I had no idea it could do. I’m still amazed when I see the things that Tom Kyte can do with SQL. I was never one of the SQL people.

Lex de Haan is the first person I ever met who really revealed to me what my problem was. A few years ago, Lex delivered a Miracle presentation in Rødby, Denmark, that dropped my jaw. He explained a better way to write an application with SQL. He showed how to write a completely unambiguous specification using a language I understood, predicate calculus (“this set equals that set,” that kind of thing). He then showed how to implement that specification in SQL.

Here’s the problem, though. SQL doesn’t implement many of the set-theory/predicate-calculus operations that I expect. I’m not looking at Lex’s notes as I write this, so I’ll show you an example outlined recently by Toon Koppelaars, Lex’s coauthor on the brilliant book called Applied Mathematics for Database Professionals (Expert’s Voice).

In SQL, there’s no “set equality” operator. That’s right, although SQL is a set processing language, it has no operator for testing whether one set A equals another set B. But set equality “A = B” can be rewritten as “(A is-a-subset-of B) and (B is-a-subset-of A)”.

Unfortunately, SQL doesn’t have an is-a-subset-of operator either. But “A is-a-subset-of B” can be rewritten into “A minus B = the-empty-set”.

But SQL also lacks the concept of an empty set. The way to express that is to test whether the cardinality of a set is zero, as in “count(*)=0”.

Over the course of an hour-long presentation, Lex showed me a dozen or so operators that are missing from SQL, which we really need for expressing our intentions clearly in SQL. He put structure around the negative feelings I had toward the language. And then he showed an equivalent translation for each missing operator that could be implemented in SQL, which invested back into the language a new power. That’s the trick that caused my jaw to fall. In Lex’s presentation, the game of writing applications in SQL went from this:

  1. Implement complex thoughts in crappy language that requires me to record my thoughts in a format that doesn’t much resemble my thinking.
  2. Worry whether the implementation was really right.

…to this:

  1. Record complex thoughts using a language designed well to record exactly such thoughts.
  2. Translate the specification of the program into SQL, using translation patterns.

Since our predicate calculus expressions were explicit enough to be provable, and since we could prove the correctness of the translations we were using to move from our specification to our SQL, we could actually then prove the correctness of our SQL. It was a beam of hope that developers could actually write correct applications …and know it!

That’s the first day I ever got excited thinking about SQL.

So, on April 27–29 in Dallas, I’ll get a chance to enter the next phase of that thinking. On top of that, the message will be delivered by Chris Date, who I really enjoyed at the Hotsos Symposium earlier this month, and who is one of the pioneers who invented the whole world our careers live in. I’m looking to forward to it. It should be an interesting classroom, with Chris Date in the front and Karen Morton, Jeff Holt, and some others with me in the back. I hope you won’t miss the opportunity.

Like I said, the final day to sign up is this Thursday 2 April 2009. I know that economic times are tough these days, but this is a one-of-a-kind education event that I believe will deliver lasting value to everyone who goes.


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