[sc34wg3] The Newcomb "howl" was: Re: New TMCL slides

Steve Newcomb srn at coolheads.com
Sun Nov 8 20:00:45 EST 2009

Patrick Durusau wrote:
> ...It may be true that some roles cannot sensibly appear in multiple 
> associations, such as Steve's rather clever example of the 
> Romeo/Juliet and Tristan/Isolde.
> But, that does not mean that it would be a sensible rule to say that a 
> role can *never* appear in more than one association.
> For example, in Louisiana law, not so terribly long ago (I don't know 
> if this is still valid law), the husband of the mother of a child was 
> presumed to be the father. Think about that for a moment. Note that 
> biological fatherhood isn't at issue but legal fatherhood is. This was 
> not a rebuttable presumption in all but a few cases. But, it was 
> possible to obtain support from the *actual* father of the child, 
> without making the child a "bastard" (a legal term in Louisiana law).
> So, we could have husband role (legal) - mother role - child role, and 
> father role (biological) - mother role - child role, where the mother 
> and child roles participate in two different associations.
Patrick, I think you're choosing to downplay the fact that one 
association is about biology, while the other is about social 
convention. They're not the same kind of association, and the 
mother/child roles are therefore not the same either, even though they 
have the same names, and some of their aspects are the same.
> I don't think that many people would say that the mother and child 
> roles in those two associations are different. That is to say, they 
> meet the test of "one subject per proxy" and yet as roles they appear 
> in more than one association. (Note that this isn't an analytical 
> issue. The law of Louisiana defines the subjects in these 
> associations. That we might model the subjects differently, for what 
> seem to us to be good reasons, isn't controlling. For topic maps in 
> legal systems, the subjects as defined by others are what topics 
> represent.)
What you seem to be saying is that there is absolutely no difference 
between social motherhood and biological motherhood. For me, that's 
obviously not true. And I would argue it's not true under Louisiana's 
laws, either, as least not as you describe them. The fact that the 
difference between these roles is obscured by the fact that they have 
the same name is not relevant, but of course you know that.

If your point is that "the law is an ass" in the precision of its 
definitions, I'm not sure how that makes your example convincing.

While it may be true that Louisiana's legislators saw no need to 
explicitly recognize a distinction that had no utility with respect to 
the purposes they had in mind while legislating, it doesn't follow that 
no such distinction exists, or that such a distinction should not be 
made when using a rhetoric that requires one-subject-per-topic (i.e., 
topic maps).

If you're arguing that the model of a legal relationship type in a Topic 
Map must be exactly as ill-defined and ambiguous as the law that it's 
supposed to represent, I'm sympathetic to that requirement. In fact, I 
enthusiastically embrace that requirement. But I think that requirement 
is easily met *without* breaking the one-subject-per-topic rule, at 
least in the case of your example. In fact, the goal of unambiguously 
representing ambiguity can *only* be achieved by *not* breaking that 
rule: by being explicit about the fact that there are two kinds of 
associations here. And that, in turn, requires that we recognize that 
the mother and child role types are, in fact, different subjects when 
they appear in the context of different association types. If we don't 
choose to recognize that fact, then, as I tried to explain in my howl, 
our whole notion of what a relationship is lacks integrity and isn't 

What you're saying sounds to me like, "the fundamental nature of the 
notion of "association" is whatever the author says it is, and that the 
whole question of what are the semantics of association (roles, the 
playing of roles, and the unitary nature (the uniqueness) of association 
instances) in Topic Maps is undefined by the standard or even by 
convention. I would argue that, at least in my own mind, that's not 
true, has not been true in the past, and should not start to be true 
now. I think to claim otherwise is implicitly to claim that, in fact, 
the "one subject per topic" rule itself is meaningless and without any 
real constraining effect on topic maps that claim conformance to the 
standard. I hope that's not your position (but it would lead to a very 
interesting conversation if it were, so don't hold back).
> My conclusion is that roles *can* appear in more than one association 
> and still meet the "one subject per proxy" test. That not *all* roles 
> can do so is interesting but should not lead to the rule Steve advocates.
I'm not convinced, not yet anyway. Your example either is not speaking 
to my point, or I don't understand your example, or there's some subtle 
but profound difference in our universes of discourse, here, or maybe 
you just reject my analogy between relationship type and scripted drama.

(If the latter, you must then claim that "role" is a poorly-chosen term 
of art that misleads people about the semantics of the notion of 
"association" in topic maps. I can assure you, for whatever the 
assurance may be worth, that the word "role" was very deliberately 
chosen with the intent of implying an analogy between scripted drama and 
association type.)

You'll be missed in Leipzig, Patrick!

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