Oh my, am I really considering XML?

Since writing Why Markdown is not my favorite text markup language, I’ve been thinking more about document formats.

More and more I begin to see the impetus for the design of XML, despite its sometimes ugly implementation. With XML you avoid much of the ambiguity of parsing plain-text-based formats and just write the document AST directly. Whether this is a good or bad thing seems to depend on the tools you have available to you, but I think I’m starting to see the light.

At $WORK, for example, I’ve been writing directly in the “XML-ish” Confluence storage format since it was introduced in Confluence 4. Combined with the right editing environment (such as that provided by Emacs’ nxml-mode), it’s easy to navigate XML “structurally” in such a way that you no longer really see the tags.

It’s sort of like being Neo in The Matrix except that, instead of making cool shit happen in an immersive virtual world you’re, um, writing XML.

However, not all is roses in XML-land. In an ideal world, you could maintain a set of XML documents and reliably transform them into other valid formats using a simple set of tools that are easy to learn and use. In reality, many of the extant XML tools such as XSLT exhibit a design aesthetic that is deeply unappealing to most programmers. The semantics of XSLT are interesting, but the syntax appears to be a result of the mistakes that are often made when programmers decide to create their own DSLs. Olin Shivers has a good discussion of the often-broken “little language” phenomenon in his scsh paper.

Speaking of Scheme, it’s possible that something reasonable can be built with SXML. I’ve also had good results using Perl and Mojo::DOM to build Graphviz diagrams of the links among Confluence wiki pages as part of a hacked-together “link checker” (Users of Confluence in an industrial setting will know that the built-in link-checking in Confluence only “sort of” works, which is indistinguishable in practice from not actually working — hence the need to build my own thing).

I’ve also been playing around with MIT Scheme’s built-in XML Parser, and so far I’m preferring it to the Perl or SXML way of doing things.