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cell id doc


Here's a document about what's going on with cell IDs, partly to explain
my thoughts to Rauli as he requested, but also aimed at the rest of the
team, in order to clarify what's going on (and in order to facilitate
the decision whether to merge the branch into the trunk or develop some
other scheme). It's also in Documentation/misc/cellids in CVS. Please comment.

- Benja (tired)

CELL IDS, and related issues


Consider the problem of global cell IDs. We want to:
- identify a version of a cell;
- identify a version of a cell so that when we update the space (and thus
  create a new version of the cell), our reference goes to the new version
  of the cell (this is what the Cell class does);
- identify the cell itself, not a special version of it, e.g. to reference
  a dimension.

Let us start with a simple ID that will reference the cell globally, and not
changed across versions. This will be called the constant ID, or cid. We
assume here that we can generate these somehow; more about that later.

Now, let us consider the ID for a given version of the cell. Let's assume
we have an ID for each space version, the ID of the mediaserver block
defining that space. Let's call this the version space ID, or vsid. The ID
of the cell version could then be defined to be vid = cid + vsid. In other
words, given the cid and the vsid, we can identify a single version of the

Now for the identification the Cell class does, i.e. the identification
that is updated when the space is updated. We would do this just like the
vid, except that instead of a constant vsid, we store a reference to a Space
object (whose version can change).

Let us now consider the problem of acquiring a cid. Remember that a cid must
be globally unique. We use a cells to refer to dimensions; however, a dimension
cannot be a specific version of a cell, it must be the "cell itself:" Each
time a space is saved, the version of all cells in that space changes. Yet,
if a cell refered to a dimension before saving, it should refer to the same
dimension after saving, too. It must be possible to use the same dimension
in any space, for example to define applitudes and their semantics. Therefore,
to refer to dimensions, we must use a cid which is unique across all spaces.
Two users should not accidentally create the same dimension, because that
could lead to headaches later (one main reason why we got rid of 
dimensions-as-strings, after all).

The solution seems simple: use the ID of the space version that created the
cell, plus a serial number for cells created in that space version. Let us
call these components the csid and the clid (for constant ID, space version
part, and constant ID, local part). Another scheme, creating unique IDs
as random numbers from some source, is nowhere near as appealing.

However, the implementation of that scheme poses a nonobvious problem.
Mediaserver IDs are only assigned after a block is written; all references
inside a single Mediaserver block need to be some kind of "local" refs,
meaning they refer to the block through somehow without knowing its ID.
If we create a new cell, we cannot refer to it through its "proper" cid until
we save the space-- we can only use some special reference saying "current
block," plus the clid (the serial number).

So what happens after we save the space? The former current block isn't the
current block any more-- instead, it has acquired a proper Mediaserver ID.
Next time we write a .diff, we want to reference the cell through the
correct cid; besides, now we also want to refer to the dimension represented
by that cell through the proper cid. We would need to update the ID-to-Dim
mappings, and *all* the Cell objects refering to that cell. Urgh!

The nonobvious problem has a nonobvious solution, which is to never reference
a csid directly as a String (from an existing Cell). Instead, we have a
Space.Version object which encapsulates a csid. There is only one Space.Version
for any csid, so Space.Versions have == equality. Now, the trick is to have
the "current block" be a Space.Version without an assigned ID: Space.Versions
which do not have an ID yet can be assigned one. A Space has a "current"
Space.Version which does not have an ID assigned. When the space is saved,
the Space.Version is assigned an ID, and a new Space.Version without an ID
is created which has no ID yet.

A Cell, then, contains a Space, a Space.Version (the csid), and a String
(the clid).

Now, consider the problem of creating a transcopy of a cell. I use the term
transcopy to refer to the creation of a new "instance" of a (set of)
whose content(s), and whose rootclone(s)' connections, are not the same. This
has two main uses:
- Create a new version/copy of the (set of) cell(s).
- Move the cell(s) into a different space.
- (also: both of the above)

The first of these cases occurs when we want to maintain two different
versions of something inside the same space. For example, let's say we are
writing a Clang program, and want to reuse a piece of code somewhere else
(but not create subroutine). Or, we have created a diagram and want to
re-use it as the basis for a new diagram we're creating. In each case, when
we create the new version, we don't want the old version to be changed when
the new version changes. Thus, clones don't work. Yet, it would be
to simply create new cells with the same content and connections, as we 
really want to keep-- and be able to show-- the connection.

(The rootclone being different and thus its connections not being the same
is important because many abstractions of units in ZZ-- for example, Clang
functions-- rely on there being the rootclone, whose connections represent
the thing itself, and then the different clones, which put the thing in
different contexts.)

When we move a cell into a new space, we may or may not mean to create a new
version of what we transcopy at the same time. But of course, when we change
it in one space, in can by definition not change in the other one.
However, if
the cell is simply a reference to a dimension, possibly in some Clang code,
and we attach the space containing it to the original one, we may want it
to unify as a clone, i.e. become a clone of the cell it was originally
transcopied from. In that case, we treat it as a Remote Clone (see Ted's docs).

If, on the other hand, we transcopy a bunch of cells representing a draft
for a political paper, send it to a friend to review, and they send it back,
heavily modified because they think it'll be more successful that way,
and we
attach it to our space as a slice, we certainly do not want the clones to
unify. Let's say one cell somehow created by our text editor applitude refers
to a point we are making in the paper, and our friend has modified that point.
Now, the rootclone of that cell changes, and all the view show us there is--
our current version of the point, because the rootclone in the slice is not
our rootclone.

The exact way Remote Clones are done is way outside this document-- it is
part of the slice design. Suffice to say here that in any case we want to
create a new version of our cell(s) in a different space, and that the
identity (cid) of the cell(s) should remain the same.

(Note that a transcopy of a bunch of cells would be a single action giving
a space version to transcopy from, plus a list of cell IDs inside that space.
The contents of the cells and all connections *between* them would be copied.)

(Also note that the question isn't exactly limited to transcopies. Clones
should have the same identity, too-- all clones must represent the same

The pertinent question is now how to realize the connections between
transcopies (and clones) and their identities. RAULI proposes to create a
scheme similar to that of clones for transcopies. He requires that a
cell with
the same ID can be in different spaces; that is, he agrees that a cell should
be assigned a constant ID comprising creator space version ID plus a
local ID,
and extends this concept by other spaces which are not decendants of the
space creating the cell be able to use that cell as one of theirs, making
connections from/to it and setting their content. This is consistent
with the
status quo in GZZ space implementations, which treat any string as a
cell ID--
possibly of a cell which simply has never been touched yet. In a sense, he
requires that by being created in any space, a cell is automatically in all

Then, he proposes that the transclusion operation creates new cells in the
target space, connecting them and setting their content to reflect those of
the transcopied cells. However, he says the cells shouldn't be related
in any
way whatsoever through their IDs, in order to keep the number of
needed to define the functionality of ZigZag small. Instead, we should adopt
a system similar to the way clones are done, and maintain the information
about which cells origin where through a dimension. He proposes to have a
rank on d.transclusions, where all transclusions of a cell would be stored.

In the space where the cell was originally created, and in all spaces
descending from that space version (i.e., all later versions of that space),
the headcell on d.transclusion would be the original cell, i.e. the identity
of all the transclusions, the one we also use to refer to the corresponding

In a space which is not a later version of the space that created the cell,
the headcell on d.transclusion would again be the identity of all the
transclusions-- as mentioned before, that cell would automatically be in all
spaces. However, it would not have any connections or content (by standard,
that is-- the user would of course be free to go to it somehow and change
content and connections). Transcopies would then again be realized by
creating new cells in the space and connecting them the same way they
were in
the version we transcopy from, and by connecting them on d.transclusion to
the identity we transcopy.

Furthermore, Rauli proposes to use a preflet scheme that would
- unify the headcell on d.transclusion, so that when a slice is brought in
  which has the same cell, the two cells would be the same;
- unify the ranks along d.transclusion, so that in the joint space, the rank
  from d.transclusion starting from the unified cell would list all
  transclusions of that cell in all slices in the joint space.

I, on the other hand, feel that versions of the same cell, with the same
identity, should be connected through their ID. Before all implementation
considerations, I think that the cell ID should somehow identify the cell's
identity. When an entity (a something) travels through the computer world,
we want it to retain its identity so that we can e.g. compare its versions--
and that is most easily done by assigning it a lasting ID, not by maintaining
references between the different "copies" of the thing. (This is an important
part of the Xanadu concept, I'd say.)

Additionally, I feel that making the identity part of the ID is a cleaner
solution, as well as suited to the particular case at hand. With the current
way clones are done, and the way Rauli proposes transcopies being done,
one can excise a cell from a rank of clones, and move it on a different one;
that is, you can "give it a new identity." As I consider a transcopy a version
of the *same* cell, I do not like that, and as I consider a clone an
incarnation of the *same* version of the *same* cell, I like it even less
for clones. (Of course you can create safeguards that prohibit that, and
verify .diffs when reading them in, etc., but I don't like that either.)

Instead, I propose we store the identity of a cell in its ID, the ID thus
comprising of the cid, which is the identity, plus a tid which has the same
form as the cid, but identifies this specific transcopy of the cell. (The
original, not transcopied version of the cell would not have a tid part
its ID.) A tid would be generated by the normal "new cell ID" procedure;
that is, no cid is also a tid and the other way around. I also propose that
all clones of a cell have the same cid-- i.e., identity-- as the rootclone;
the cells could be created as transcopies, even if they're made clones
in the
conventional way of connecting them along d.clone.

The idea of having clones be identified through the ID somehow has a certain
appeal to me. That would mean they would not be identified by connections
along d.clone, although they could be shown that way, but solely through their
ID. In the above scheme, they could have an ID of the form
cid + tid + clone ID. I like this mainly for two reasons: One, there is no
way to disconnect a cell from d.clone, then reconnect it and give it a
different ID. Basically d.clone could only be changed by cloning and deleting
clones. Two, the rootclone would be obvious from the cell ID: cid + tid,
without the ID of the clone. As clones *are* supposed to be the same thing,
this makes a lot of sense to me.

Another appealing idea is to base the IDs of transcopied cells on the history
of transclusions; that is, when cell C is transcluded into space version S,
then from there to space version T, the transcluded cell's ID would be
something like C+S+T. Two reasons for this: First, it is easily recognizable
that C+S+T is closer to C+S+V than to C+X+Q+E, and that C+S+T and C+S+V have
C+S as their "least common denominator," so to speak. That may be useful in

Second, the ID parts appended each time a transclusion happens would
not need to be unique IDs; rather, all cells transcluded together could get
the same (otherwise unique) ID appended. That way, cell D transcluded together
with C would be D+S+T, not D+S2+T2 or some such. If we only store the cid
and the tid, i.e. lose the previous tid when transcopying, using the
same tid
for all cells transcopied together might not yield unique verison IDs: namely,
if we transclude *two* versions *of the same cell* *together*.
Therefore, this
"history" being a part of the cell ID might be useful. (At the very
least the
history should be easily accessible through a convenience function looking
at the previos space versions actually doing the transclusions, but that would
not influence the IDs.)

In any case, I disagree strongly with Rauli's opinion that his scheme is
cleaner than even the simple cid + tid. I also dislike the way he puts the
original/identity cell in all spaces, but gives it the role of being the
transcopied original only in the space that originally created the cell, while
in the other spaces it would basically be an empty cell in the middle of
nowhere, just serving as the common identity of a couple of transclusions.

The current implementation, in Cell.java in the branch_20010704_gid_try,
implements the cid + tid scheme. It works like this:
- The Cell object contains, besides the space, a Space.Version and a ID string
  local to that Space.Version, as explained above.
- Additionally, it contains a reference of type Cell, called identity.
  Cell.identity always refers to the Cell object whose Space.Version and
  local ID part represent the cid of the Cell object.
- Now, the original, not transcluded Cell object contains its own cid, and
  its identity field refers to "this," i.e. the same Cell object. It has no
  tid, so we need not worry about that.
- A transcluded Cell object contains its tid, and its identity field refers
  to a different Cell object containing its cid.
- To know whether a Cell contains its tid or cid, we simply ask
  "identity == this?"
- If the space the original cell is in is not currently loaded, we simply
  create a Cell object with space null.

I think this is reasonable.