Why I like XML

So, I haven’t been programming long enough — and certainly not well enough — to be allowed an opinion on what other people should do. But, I do think I can share why I recommend using XML to other new programmers.

It’s fair to point out that I’m talking about programming in Python with the Element Tree library.

It behaves like you’d think.

I didn’t fall in love with programming until I discovered object-oriented programming. It’s just easier for me to abstract out the idea of the different parts of a program as ‘objects’ that interact. (I can write a bit on object-oriented programming, if you’d like, too!)

A lot of my programs are just collections of objects. I have a dictionary object that manages so many word objects, for example, in my ESL worksheet application. And, when I need to save all this as a file, it’s nice to have a format that makes sense.

The way that it makes sense to organize all this data, to me, in the physical world, would be a great big folder or binder with lots of other folders and binders in it. But also, with thousands of loose pages.

There would be a binder that is labeled “Dictionary” and that binder would probably have a name and, because I record dates unnecessarily, the date when it was created. Inside, each word would be a folder that contained information on the word, its German translation, space, maybe for other languages, as well as things like what part of speech it is and if there are other words that have the same text. (A real example from my teaching: I teach in one company where ‘forks’ normally mean the parts of your bicycle that hold the front wheel, but I also teach a lot of people who also think that a fork is something to eat with. Obviously, it’s going to make a difference in the worksheets.)

And these word entries should have a unique label of some kind (so the different kinds of ‘forks’ can be referenced later) and, of the other binder full of sentences contains a good example sentence for this word, I might want to store the unique label of that sentence.

That’s all the data I have in this binder, right? (In your typing trainer, the binder might be for a single user — with records on the letters they’re learning, another with a list of keys they often miss…) And what’s great about XML, is that it gives me a way to save data in this format, if I only think about it the right way.

Even more than just saving it in this way, the Element Tree library gives me objects (they’re called Elements and SubElements, when I write about using Element Tree I’ll write more about it.) that behave this way. That means I can assign an entire Dictionary to a single variable and pass it to a function or a method.

In fact, a lot of my programming is basically writing objects that take a single XML object and ‘bring it to life’ by adding methods to work with the data in it.

You can read it.

Here’s the other thing about XML: I can use it to store data and then, when I realize I’ve made a mistake (there’s a typo in a word, or students say a definition I wrote is unclear), I don’t need to write up a bunch of code to access that data and change it — though I should and eventually will — but instead I can open the file in any editor and edit the file.

I don’t think it’s possible for me to overstate how thankful I am that I can read and directly edit the information I have stored in XML. Even more than being convenient, it’s reassuring to me that I can fix my mistakes without too much effort.

This is the first in a small series I’m doing on XML for my nephew who is also a new coder. He recently wrote me that he’d rather just set up a text file for the Typing Challenge I set him. Of course, he can do what he wants, but I think it’s the prerogative of an uncle to send long, rambling dissertations on his opinions.


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