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123RE: The elephant in the room is... (was RE: [caplet] Re: ADsafe, Take 6)

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  • Larry Masinter
    Oct 23, 2007
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      On standards:

      The benefit of HTTP and XML and HTML is not that they are well-designed protocol and syntax and language, but that there are many different and (more-or-less) interoperable implementations for many operating systems and languages and well-deployed support infrastructure; with enough general agreement about them at the lower layers that you can get on with it defining the next layer up. So a "let's redesign them to be cleaner" effort isn't helpful, really. You'd have to be 10 times or 100 times better before getting traction.

      Protocol designers don't "gloss over" escaping; protocol designers are software developers (or maybe developers-gone-bad) for whom escaping is generally an ugly after-the-fact design addition or compromise between allowing everything to be encoded but letting simple cases be encoded concisely. Think of it as Huffman coding at the design level.

      <p><html>... </html></p>

      is how you write html in html, not because &#xxx; and &symbolname; are wonderful quoting mechanisms, but because the &entity; syntax was already there, and inventing another one for what was seemed like an uncommon case appeared unnecessary.

      On quoting:

      No matter what your escaping and encoding system, developers will have problems with them: you either understand the general principle or you don't.

      I know (from ancient experience) that most programmers learning LISP had trouble with thinking about X, (QUOTE X) and (EVAL X) when learning Lisp. The problem is keeping track of the different layers of interpretation – it isn't the syntax.

      Common Lisp added many other escaping conventions: `(let ((,x "abc\"def") (y ',z)) ,w) so it's hard to claim that S-expressions have consistent delimiters.

      On layering of escaping/quoting:

      The multiple layered quoting systems work well enough, because each layer does its own escaping/encoding and unescaping/unencoding and tools either hide or assist with the process. It's only when you're writing a program trying to process multiple layers simultaneously that you have trouble.

      The reason that ADsafe is having trouble is that it is trying to do filtering without actually using the normal layer software for parsing and interpretation, and skip what turns out to be necessary complexity. Try to write a regular expression that will determines whether a Lisp program might divide by zero, and you'd have similar problems.


      On checking URLs:

      I think you can't check for invalid URLs by examining a program's syntax because (a) programs can construct URLs, and you can't check for invalid (vs. valid) URLs any more than you can do all array bounds checking at compile time and (b) the rules for what constitute a "safe" URL are complicated and evolving. After all, a URL is just a reference to a registry of protocols, which requires the registering body define some syntax for how the URL syntax might identify something or invoke some protocol or process. Each URL scheme has its own syntax and story for what might be "safe" to execute in different contexts, but that depends as much on the implementation of the URL-interpreter as anything else.

      If you're going to do dynamic URL safety checking, there's not much point in doing syntactic checking, because you'll get lots of false positives ("this is unsafe" when it isn't) and won't catch any more problems syntactically than would be caught by the run-time check.

      Larry
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