Fabian Pascal is Smarter Than Me

By Deane Barker on September 3, 2005

The legendary Fabian Pascal showed up yesterday to tell us all that we were stupid over in the relational data model post. Specifically, his comment was:

None of you know the relational model, which is why you think current products are relational, which they are not.

This whole thread is nonsense, because you never defined what “best” means, and “best for what?”.

He has a point, certainly, even if he was a jerk about it. I went to his site – dbdebunk.com – to see what he was talking about, and it seemes Pascal is a serious database bada**. He’s old school, from the street, yo. And all us playa’s are just frontin’ ‘bout our database skillz. He’s the Herbert Kornfield of relational databases.

Some quotes from the site:

[Current DBMS] deficiencies are, it seems to me, directly due to the widespread lack of understanding (not least on the part of vendors), of fundamental database principles.

A lot of what is being said, written, or done in the database management field—or whatever is left of it—by vendors, the trade press and “experts” is irrelevant, misleading, or outright wrong. While this is to a degree true of computing in general, in the database field the problems are so acute that, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, technology is actually regressing!

He’s written some books, along with his partner, C. J. Date. Date, for his part, wrote “An Introduction to Database Systems” which is one of the seminal books on the subject.

I’m going to sit down and do some reading over the weekend to try and figure out where I’m so mistaken, but it seems that most of the site consists of making fun of people who aren’t as smart as Pascal and Date – which is about everybody, and certainly myself, I’ll freely admit. Their quotes page is full of people they apparently consider to be idiots.

I can’t put it any better than Pascal’s own Wikipedia page:

He is known for his extremely vitriolic criticisms of almost all DBMS vendors, users, and experts, on the basis that they do not subscribe to a pure form of the relational model of database management

Comments (25)

fabian pascal says:

You are wrong: it’s not a question of just smarts, but KNOWLEDGE. The reason why most practitioners don’t make the distinction is because they never went thru an education process that taught them the difference.

They are products of an anti-intellectual society where people are not required to know or think much, just to talk and do. The status of the database field is just a small part of that more general problem.

What amount of knowledge, short of using some SQL product, makes you competent to discuss the relational model? Have you ever gone tthru a formal study of the subject? And if not, how can you possibly entertain a discussion on whether it’s the best model (whatever that means)?

If I am right and the industry is ignorant, how do you know that all you think you know about RM is correct?


Deane says:

What amount of knowledge, short of using some SQL product, makes you competent to discuss the relational model?

So unless you’re an expert such as yourself, you’re not even allowed “discuss” the relational model? If you go back and read the original post, you’ll see that it was framed as a big question. I didn’t know the answer. I was asking for opinions.

Then you jumped in to the conversation like the [deleted] you apparently are and insulted everyone, making it perfectly clear why a large portion of your peers hate you. The concept of social grace must not fit into a “pure” relational model since you seem to have worked very hard to avoid it.

Databases are meant to serve us, we are not meant to serve them. Wisdom is (1) knowing the rules, and (2) knowing when it makes sense to break them. And yes, sometimes breaking them is the best solution to some thorny problems. (Please, oh please, let that make your “Quote of the Week.”)

I’m desperately sorry if my methods don’t ascribe to the greatness you must contain in your big toe, but the stuff I do with databases solves problems and helps people do their jobs.

You and your blessed theory can kiss my problem-solving [deleted].

fabian pascal says:

I will leave it to the informed, educated, and able to think reader to decide who is the jackass here.

The fact that I am hated means that I must be doing something right. You cannot expose ignorance and stupidity (which you cannot distinguish between) and be popular.

Please spare me the “it was a question” crap. You really wanna know RM? Go read something by somebody who knows what it is (e.g. Chris Date). Don’t ask around on the Net for anybody who has used Access a couple of times, or knows Oracle and believes its relational, to tell you. How would you assess the replies if you don’t know what RM is? How do you know who is right?

And anyway: you did not ask “what is RM”, you asked “is RM the best?”. That is a stupid question to ask if you DK what RM is in the first place, you have no way to know who knows, and you have not defined “best” and “for what”..

The problem is that you don’t even know what the “rules” are, so how in the world can you know when to break them? And what do you know about the costs of breaking them vs the illusion of benefits you get?

Solves problems my ass. You are working in cookbook mode and you are simply unaware of all the problems your ignorance costs. And you’re too stupid to be concerned. And you take advantage that your customers know even less than you do.

But then, you are a dime a dozen in this industry and culture.


Deane says:

Given that you and I have traded effective insults and made our respective positions quite clear, this seems like a nice place to end the discussion. Thanks for the exchange.

And, for the record, I will read some of Date’s work, and probably some of yours. Despite the fact that you’re a huge [deleted], I’m quite interested to read what you have to say.

Tell me – where should I start? You pick the book, I will read it. Allow me to learn at the feet of the master, oh Great One. After a few months of reading, if I’ve learned enough to truly believe I’ve be delusioned for so long, I’ll freely admit it right here on this site.

Perhaps one day I’ll understand the bare basics of the RM, and perhaps you’ll be less of an [deleted], and then we can have a nice discussion.

(And to all my friends, I apologize for my language in this thread. I really thought about going back and censoring my comments, but every time I’m confronted with how much a [deleted] this guy is, I just want to swear more.)

fabian pascal says:

Well, I made MY position clear. I dk what your position is. My guess is that by asking the question you were trying to confirm that RM is not the best model and that the rules – which you assume you know – should be broken. This is so common that I smell it from miles away.

I will again leave to the reader to decisde who is the dick here. But let me suggest that if you don’t want to be perceived as one, FIRST educate yourself, THEN participate in discussions on the Net. Otherwise, all you’re doing is generating more nonsense, of which there are tons.

The reason you wanna swear is because for the first time somebody stood up to your lack of knowledge and exposed it. This is usually not done in this culture, which is why it is in the abysmal state that it is, with anybody who works with databases thinking he knows what he needs to because nobody questions what he’s doing. Be concerned about the damage that ignorance does, not about its exposure. Otherwise your problem is not just lack of knowledge, but of insecurity and judgment.

If you are going to read about RM, you’re not doing anybody a favor, but yourself (and perhaps your customers, if you really care about them). There are Books and Publications pages on my site with recommended readings. It is up to you to choose which to read, and how much effort and time you want to put into it. Be aware that they are not product manuals and “how to” mechanics, though. They require some intellectual effort.

If after you read some of that stuff and have SPECIFIC QUESTIONS ABOUT IT, then I might be able, time permitting, to answer some. But most of the work must be yours.


Deane says:

First, I apologize for my language. My wife is sitting here reading this and has informed me that I started swearing first, which is true. This was cheap, so you have my apologies for that.

I’ll start with Chris Date’s book, “An Introduction to Database Systems.” How’s that? If you think that’s a good place to start, I’ll order the book tonight and I’ll even post regular updates here on this site explaining to everyone if/when I find some magic key that proves we’ve all been doing this wrong all the time.

I guess my anger here comes from the fact that you seem to live in an academic utopia where all data models must be perfect to provide any value. In the real world, this isn’t true. I’ve seen a lot of denormalized database that work beautifully and solve problems. And solving problems is what this business is all about.

Read this essay from Joel Spolsky about the difference between “smart” and “gets things done.” That’s the world I live and work in. You’re smart, there’s no doubt. I like to think that I get things done.

The reason you wanna swear is because for the first time somebody stood up to your lack of knowledge and exposed it.

Tell me, in your opinion, what percentage of database practitioners suffer from this “lack of knowledge”? In my experience, my knowledge of relational database design and development stands up quite well to my peers. Are we simply all confused?

fabian pascal says:

I am used to abuse and it usually reflects more on the abuser than on the target. For me it’s more important to get people “shocked” into educating themselves, rather than apologizing to me. Many think that’s not the way to get them to do it, but in an industry that has reached this level of ignorance, hardly anything moves people to stop focusing on tools without any clue what exactly is that they’re doing.

Chris Date is a good start, but it’s a big book, but requires some effort and in parts is not easy 2 read. I would recommend his newest book, which you can order via the Books page. I would also recommend my papers, but I am now revising them so when when the new versions are ready, you can try those.

Confusing what I do with “academic utopia” is based on the very lack of knowledge that I’ve kept referring to. That’s the mistake that most people make. The relational model was invented for VERY practical purposes and the industry pays a heavy price for flouting it, except because of ignorance it does not realize it. It is one thing to know the fundamentals, but having to work with flawed products (at least u know what’s wrong with what you do and can take steps to protect urself from the flaws) and quite another to be oblivious to the problems and believe that what you use and do is right. In the latter situation there is no incentives for the vendors to make good products. They push crap like XML.

In my book, ignorance cannot be smartness. You think you’re smart only because you don’t have enough knowledge to know you’re not. There is a link on the Resources page to an article called “Unskilled and Unaware of It” that you may wanna read.

Your opinion is wrong. A vast majority dk but they think they know, and they are not interested in learning much, because there is no incentive for them to do so. You can do quite well even if you dk, because nobody, including vendors and customers, know any better. If you read through the postings on my site and my free Internet columns, they’re chockfull of proofs. But you first gotta have the knowledge to appreciate it.

Deane says:

There is a link on the Resources page to an article called “Unskilled and Unaware of It” that you may wanna read.

I’ve read that essay before. It’s fascinating and very true. I never thought it was describing me – I still don’t – but I guess I’m too stupid to know the difference.

Fabian, I just want to point out some of the theories you’ve advanced in this thread:


Almost all database products on the market are flawed.


Almost all the database practitioners in the field today are ignorant and content to remain that way.


No good application can come out of a data model that is anything less than purely relational. Put another way, the “success” of an application is measured more by how perfect the data model is, rather than by how well it works in practice.


XML is crap. And the way you worded it, it sounds like you think anything other than the pure relational model is crap.

Do you realize that this makes you sound like a loon?

(Notice I said “sounds like a loon” – I’ve matured a lot since the name-calling started two hours ago. You may actually be a loon, but my wife has advised me that it’s not fair for me to point that out. I will do some reading on your point-of-view and report back here with my final opinion of whether or not you’re a friggin’ loon.)

Deane says:

For the record, I just purchased “Database in Depth: The Relational Model for Practitioners” by your boy, Chris Date. (But I bought a used copy, not through your affiliate link, lest this whole argument result in money in your pocket.)

I hope you’re right in your theories, because being wrong is so much harder when you’ve been a total jerk about it.

Deane says:

In browsing Wikipedia on this subject and on the players involved, I found this description of “relational database.”

All data stored in and retrieved from a relational database is cast in the form of relations. A relation is a set of n-tuples that represents the extension of an n-adic predicate. However, these n-tuples are not the ordered tuples of mathematics; instead, their components, called attribute values, are identified and referenced by names. Queries and integrity constraints are expressed declaratively, without the use of iterative loops or pointers, using operators based on the relational algebra and relation comparisons. The relational algebra is complete with respect to first-order predicate calculus except that certain restrictions are imposed on the use of negation and disjunction to address problems of computability.

Fabian, you’re right – I don’t understand a friggin’ word of that. Don’t much care, either, to be honest. I have a feeling that after I’m done with Date’s book, I’m going to go right back to writing applications that people use to solve problems.

If that makes me a “dime a dozen,” as you put it, then so be it. One dollar would get you a hell of a development department.

Deane says:

Fabian, I did a little reading last night at your site, and I think we have an issue of semantics. You have a very specific definition of “relational database,” and you may be correct. According to your definition, I’ve been wrong all these years when I have referred to a “relational database.” Fine.

I’m going to try and purge that phrase from my vocabulary. When I say “relational database,” what I mean is “a storage mechanism to which I can persist data and retrieve it via SQL.” According to something I read last night, in Fabian-world, this is not a “relational database” but a “SQL database.”

If that be case, then that’s what I meant in that other post – “Is the SQL Model the Best Model.” In fact, everywhere in this site, when I say “relational database,” I mean “SQL database” in Fabian-world.

Does that make you feel any better?

fabian pascal says:

I don’t have a “specific view”, but the CORRECT view. What Codd did was to put database management on a precise, scientific basis: logic and math. Therefore, there are precise definitions of the model and its components. It’s the precision that confers the practical benefits. Deviate from that and you lose them. Can you have “different views” of the laws of physics when you build bridges? We know what trouble that causes. The same kind of trouble is caused by different views of RM, it’s just that the problems – wrong answers, higher costs – are more subtle.

IBM messed up when they implemented RM as SQL and they would not listen to Codd who was there. So most of the practical benefits of relational were lost. And now people who don’t learn RM confuse it with SQL, they don’t get the benefits; and all the problems that they encounter in SQL they think are relational problems. That ensures that instead of implementing the true RM and solve many of the problems, the industry messes up even further by fooling around with crappola that will never be able to really solve the fundamental problems that RM can. They are regressing to the days of applications and files, pointers and hierarchic databases (XML).

It’s an industry of ignorami who can’t and don’t wanna think, who work in cookbook mode, without really UNDERSTANDING what it is that their doing, and never getting the real solution to their problem.

Anonymous says:

There isnt much to respond to all your other comments, because you made them without the benefit of knowledge.

Even though your interpretation of my claims is not exactly accurate, I stand behind the gist of it. It is valid. One of the problems is, indeed, that it’s had to believe that everybody’s wrong and Fabian is right, but unfortunately that is a fact and I have produced tons of evidence to that effect, and NONE of my detractors have been able to address my evidence. They just either dismiss it without backup, or insult me, like you did. That alone suggests I am right.

So after you read proper material, prove that I am wrong. Anything else is grinding water.

fabian pascal says:

If you have an industry and society of loons, then he who is right seems a loon.

Anybody who exposes ignorance and stupidity in large scale will be deemed a loon. Comes with the territory and that is why so few people go against the grain, which reinforces the impression that those few are loons. The price to pay for it is huge and you need to ponder who is more likely to be right: the conformist who does not question anything or think for himself, or the he who pays the price for sticking to the truth.

Anonymous says:

As to your revised question, there is an easy answer: you don’t need to ask it: since SQL is a bastradization of the relational intent, it is not the best anything. But neither is anything else that the industry has produced, because it ignores the real solution.

fabian pascal says:

The article says “Unskilled and UNAWARE of it”, so how did you expect to know that you were one of them?

fabian pascal says:

Regarding wikipedia, I would repeat that it is risky to look for informati on about RM on the Net. The chances of getting correct information are too close to zero to be worth it. Even if correct, it may not be by somebody who is a good communicator. That has been one of the difficulties educating on RM.

I also warned you that even reading a good intro to relational stuff, it’s not like product manuals and requires some intellectual effort and time. Not because it is hard, but because it requires thinking in abstract terms. A vast majority of the gradueates of the so-called american system of education lack the tools to be comfortable with that, which is why they dismiss what they cannot handle as"don’t bother me with theory, i have practical things to do”.

So it would not surprise me at all if you gave it up and continue to do what you do. As I said most people conform and don’t bother to make the effort because there is neither help, nor incentive from the system, industry and society. That’s why ignorance persists and cannot be overcome.

But at the very least I hope you would not get into subjects you know nothing about.

fabian pascal says:

One last comment: here are my free Net columns which are closer to practice than wikipedia. But they are not substitutes for a solid intro to data fundamentals, including RM.

http://www.dbazine.com/top-auth/top-auth-pascal/ http://www.tdan.com/featurecolumns.htm http://www.inconcept.com/JCM/index.html http://www.dbm.nl/site/ http://searchoracle.techtarget.com/tipsIndex/0,289482,sid41tax301453alpD_idx0,00.html

My previous book, UNDERSTANDING RELATIONAL DATABASES probably solves better the problem you found w. Wikipedia than Date’s, but it is out of print (used copies may be available). However, it requires bringing up to date, but publishers are too busy publishing XML books to be interested in serious material.

Deane says:

I keep coming back to this point, Fabian –

What I need in a database is place where I can persist and retrieve data. Those are my requirements – let me persist data somewhere, then let me get it back when I need it, in the form that I need it.

Relational databases – whoops, I mean SQL databases – have allowed me to do this for years. And how exactly can that be so bad?

But, apparently I’m unaware of my own ignorance in this field. There must be some massive failing in the current database offerings that haunts all my applications. I need to get educated to fix this hidden flaw (man, I knew I should have paid for overnight shipping on that book...)

It makes me wonder – all the people that love the stuff I write for them, are they unaware of their ignorance too? Have I failed them, but they just don’t know enough to call me on it? Their happiness – is it illusory? Are they working in The Matrix, thinking things are great but not knowing that they’re really lying in a puddle of non-relational data goo?

I cannot wait for the moment when I finish Date’s book then look up and say softly, “I know kung fu.”

Sorry – that was a joke. But let me get back to what I know is true: the success or failure of an application is based on one thing: does it solve the problem it was meant to solve without creating new ones?

That’s it. Period. You can say whatever you like, my elitist friend, but that is an eternal truth that overshadows anything you have written or will ever write.

And one other thing –

You are, without question, the worst possible advocate for the pure relational model. That theory could not have been cursed with a worse champion than you.

Trying to push a theory in the way that you do – utterly devoid of any concept of tact or social grace, and seemingly reliant on telling everyone they’re idiots – is worse than not pushing it at all.

The best thing you could do for your cause is start to endorse XML the same way. Then perhaps everyone would hate that instead.

I’m looking forward to reading Date’s book. I’ll post back on this site with what I find. Thanks for the debate, and I’ll try not to let the door of your ivory tower hit me in the ass on my way out.

fabian pascal says:

I am sorry, but your way of looking at things is very limited by your lack of knowledge. And because of that limitations, you don’t see what the problems are. This is true of your customers too. That causes you and them to see what you do as the right solution, because you have no idea what a correct product would let you do that the current products don’t, and you’re not aware of the problems that they cause.

This lack of knowledge is rooted in the anti-intellectual nature of american society. It has a lot to do with faith-based instead of reality-based reality (and Katrina consequences too). It’s not something that an individual book can solve and often it too late to try to instill in people what they should have been getting in school and university and did not: intellectual development, rather than just training.

So it’s not entirely your fault, but your society’s. Now you can try to rise above it, make a serious effort and educate yourself. Or you can be a mechanic, do what you know, and have a profitable career exploiting the lack of knowledge of others. That is YOUR choice. I made my choice a long time ago.

Read the following, paying particular attention to Juan Cole’s comment at the beginning:


PS – I wrote a response whose posting was delayed, dk why.

fabian pascal says:

I have given up on “social tact” a long time ago. Now I call a spade a spade. Social tact is effective only when you’ve got 90% knowledge and 10% crap. When the ratio is reversed, anything short of calling ignorance what it is is a waste of time.

I don’t do what I do to convince people on what you call “pure model” (which is complete nonsense). I do it for the minority of those who appreciate the difference between ignorance and knowledge and who can think, so that they don’t feel they are insane in the middle of crap. All the majority is doomed, as doomed as those in New Orleans and Iraq are doomed. That’s what ignorance can do, except the ignorant can’t see what stares them in the face.

The chances of convincing the doomed are almost nil. But for the benefit of those who know and think, they must be exposed. Because if not, they have no way of knowing at all that they are unskilled and unaware of it and, like you, they continue to focus on “social tact”, rather than on the damages of ignorance.

Deane says:

In the end, Fabian, I live in America and am a product of its educational system, I love databases as I’ve used them thus far, and – despite my language earlier in this thread – I am a Christian and I have faith in things I cannot empirically prove.

I suppose you and I will never see eye-to-eye on this issue. However, I will make an attempt to see your point of view because I believe that you should keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

And I’ll also say a prayer for you tonight. Not because I think you’re somehow in need of it (although everyone needs it), but just because I get the feeling it would drive you nuts.

fabian pascal says:

I had figured that out already.

You love databases, but you never learned what they are and what they are supposed to do. You think that what you know is all there is to it just because your custoemers are accept it. That is business, not education.

Perhaps you’re so used to believe in things you cannot prove, that you prefer to believe what you want about the things that are proven, but you dont care to learn.

That’s actually what is driving America down the drain, except you don’t understand it and refuse to accept it.

fabian pascal says:

As to prayers, it makes no iota of difference to me. And actually not to anybody, but that hasn’t stopped anybody who want to believe from believing.

Deane says:

And with that, I think we can wrap this conversation up. We’ll talk again in a month or two, after I’ve made an attempt to become educated.

I’m closing comments here, because otherwise Fabian and I will go on and on ad nauseum, and the conversation started to drift in the very end into places that are bound to illicit some angry rebuttals.