Extended comments in XML (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 07 Aug 2012

Extended comments in XML

Quite a few programs these days use XML for their configuration files -- for example, my favorite window manager, Openbox.

But one problem with XML is that you can't comment out big sections. The XML comment sequence is the same as HTML's: <!-- Here is a comment --> But XML parsers can be very picky about what they accept inside a comment section.

For instance, suppose I'm testing suspend commands, and I'm trying two ways of doing it inside Openbox's menu.xml file:

  <item label="Sleep">
    <action name="Execute"><execute>sudo pm-suspend --auto-quirks</execute></action>
  </item>
  <item label="Sleep">
    <action name="Execute"><execute>sudo /etc/acpi/sleep.sh</execute></action>
  </item>

Let's say I decide the second option is working better for now. But that sometimes varies among distros; I might need to go back to using pm-suspend after the next time I upgrade, or on a different computer. So I'd like to keep it around, commented out, just in case.

Okay, let's comment it out with an XML comment:

<!-- Comment out the pm-suspend version:
  <item label="Sleep">
    <action name="Execute"><execute>sudo pm-suspend --auto-quirks</execute></action>
  </item>
 -->
  <item label="Sleep">
    <action name="Execute"><execute>sudo /etc/acpi/sleep.sh</execute></action>
  </item>

Reconfigure Openbox to see the new menu.xml, and I get a "parser error : Comment not terminated". It turns out that you can't include double dashes inside XML comments, ever. (A web search on xml comments dashes will show some other amusing problems this causes in various programs.)

So what to do? An Openbox friend had a great suggestion: use a CDATA section. Basically, CDATA means an unparsed string, one which might include newlines, quotes, or anything else besides the cdata end tag, which is ]]>. So add such a string in the middle of the configuration file, and hope that it's ignored.

So I tried it:

<![CDATA[  Comment out the pm-suspend version:
  <item label="Sleep">
    <action name="Execute"><execute>sudo pm-suspend --auto-quirks</execute></action>
  </item>
]]>
  <item label="Sleep">
    <action name="Execute"><execute>sudo /etc/acpi/sleep.sh</execute></action>
  </item>

Worked fine!

Then I had the bright idea that I wanted to wrap it inside regular HTML comments, so editors like Emacs would recognize it as a commented section and color it differently:

<!-- WARNING: THIS DOESN'T WORK:
<![CDATA[
  <item label="Sleep">
    <action name="Execute"><execute>sudo pm-suspend --auto-quirks</execute></action>
  </item>
]]> -->
  <item label="Sleep">
    <action name="Execute"><execute>sudo /etc/acpi/sleep.sh</execute></action>
  </item>

That, sadly, did not work. Apparently XML's hatred of double-dashes inside a comment extends even when they're inside a CDATA section. But that's okay -- colorizing the comments inside my editor is less important than being able to comment things out in the first place.

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[ 19:20 Aug 07, 2012    More tech/web | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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