Status, problems and future requirements

This is only a proof-of-concept implementation of the rudiments of a specification language. However, it is extensive enough to define a range of models including a variety of synapses and simple networks. This should help inform where further capabilities are needed. Some such areas are described below.


This proof of concept prioritizes various things that other specification languages treat as optional extras to be included in some distant version. In particular:

Notably, it does not have any support at present for user-defined functions. Somewhat surprisingly, it is possible that these may not be needed. See for example the implementation of the conventional HH model. A priori I would have expected any compact expression of this model to require user defined functions, but it doesn't use any functions and is still relatively compact. One could, of course, introduce a generic functions to express the functional form of, for example, the sigmoid used in the example, but it is not clear that this would make it more compact, readable or of lower entropy. At some stage, an external reference to a generic case is actually of higher entropy than a concise local expression with no other dependencies.

Technical issues

A number of technical issues exist with the specification and the interpreter. Some should be straightforward to resolve. Others may take more work.

* With respect to accessing variables on the running simulation, it may be that a good solution would be to (virtually) expand the component definitions to a full XML tree and use genuine XPath expressions over that tree. This could be more difficult than it sounds because of constructs like that in example3 which dynamically instantiate component instances (inserting synapses in this case) that are not defined in the component hierarchy itself. This may still work OK because the container for the instances is still there in the xpath, but a path to its contents won't resolve until after a model is built. On the other hand, since the focus here is on synapse modeling, not on large networks but it is probably reasonable to map the instantiated model to xml and use a standard XPath processor on that.

On another, related, point. Excluding visualization, parsing and file utilities, the current interpreter is about 4000 lines of Java (7000 with the parsers). I'd guess that, thanks largely to XPath, a model could be mapped to an XML representation of the runnable instantiation via XSLT with a similar, possibly smaller, amount of XLST. I'm not sure if this would be useful, but it would be very interesting to know. In general it seems that a good rule of thumb is that a specification such as this shouldn't include anything that can't be processed relatively easily in XSLT. If a need for such a thing arises, then it could suggest that the concept should be expanded into a "more declarative" form until it can be handled by straightforward XSLT.

Other problems

A system allowing user-defined types can go wrong in a number of ways. It could fail to work at all. It could prove too hard to use for anyone to bother. It could be formally powerful but too complicated for anyone (else?) to write an interpreter. It could yield model representations that are too messy to appeal to users (high entropy models). It could make it too complicated to do simple things that users expect to be simple. It could force people to think in an unfamiliar way to the extent that they choose to do something else. It could end up as just another programming language.

The last point is a particular concern. After all, a programming language is a pretty powerful user-defined type system: the thing that differentiates it from a model specification language is precisely the restrictions in the latter. If you keep taking restrictions away, at some stage it ceases to achieve other objectives.

Of these, the most likely pitfalls here seem to be that it could require users to think in an unfamiliar way and it could become too complicated for anyone to write an interpreter. Both of these issues relate to the three-layer structure involving types, components and instances (for comparison, SBML just has a 1 layer structure: models are the same as state instances). As far as I can see, three layers are the minimum for a low entropy model description capable of expressing the type of models that need to be expressed but I'm sure others disagree. The main counter-contender seems to be the NeuroSpaces approach with a smooth (rather than layered) hierarchy which makes a seamless transition from type to instance within a single layer by using prototyping throughout (rather than two class/instance divisions as here).

Miscellaneous observations


The need for user defined types in NeuroML parallels in some ways the goals of NineML. However, NineML is layered by design. LEMS is slightly layered, but not very: one could compare the structure available for defining types to the NineML abstraction layer, and the structures for using them to the user layer. However, looking at the list of elements (ignoring the deprecated bits), 95% is to do with defining types, and only one paragraph describes how they are used. If someone only wanted to use types, they would also need some of the information in the types section, such as the syntax of path expressions, so there would be a little more than one paragraph to a "user layer" specification, but it would still be an extremely short document. On the other hand, every example defines a new bunch of types: if these were included as part of the user level specification, then it could rapidly become very large. But a more natural place for these seems to be some catalog of type definitions rather than a specification document. There is scope for selecting a preferred set of types (eg for HH or Kinetic Scheme channels) so you don't get a proliferation of similar but incompatible models, but the best mechanism for doing this is not clear.

Single element type in the user-layer

Given the simplicity of the model specification layer, (defining components rather than types), where everything is a component or a parameter value, it could be argued that there should be some segregation into different component types (eg things that produce spikes, things that define connectivity etc). For convenience, I started with custom types for simulation and display elements but rapidly got rid of them. They are slightly easier to implement as custom types, but insidious problems keep cropping up. Eg, the runtime in a simulation specification element should have dimensions time, but specific dimensions, such as time are only defined in component-space, not type-space so you can't actually say that a hard-coded component has a parameter with a particular dimensionality. Issues like this strongly suggest that everything in a model should just be a "component" corresponding to a particular user defined type - no special cases. For expressive convenience, though, models don't have to be written "<Component type="MySynapse" .../>, but simply as <MySynapse .../>. This proves to be simple to implement and makes the models much more readable. But it would also cause confusion if there were any elements allowed that weren't the names of user-defined types - another reason to make everything a component.

Specific types for networks and populations not needed

As well as starting with a hard-coded simulation element, the early examples also have hard-coded network and population elements. I had previously thought that this would be hard to avoid but it turns out not to be as bad as expected. The Build element with MultiInstantiate and ForEach children proved sufficient to replace the (albeit trivial) hard-coded population and connectivity elements with user defined types. Whether this extends to more subtle ways of specifying networks remains to be seen, but I suspect that by adding a few more constructs like ForEach (Choose, When, Otherwise, If etc) and using the selection rules effectively one could do most of what would be needed. This relates to the debate as to whether the NineML user layer needs network-specific constructs, and would tend to suggest that it doesn't.

Joys of dimension checking

Even from limited experience making up the toy models, the automated dimension checking for equations and transparent unit handling is invaluable. It cuts out a whole family of time-consuming potential errors. It is just a shame there isn't support for this kind of thing in IDEs yet...

What to do if you get beyond point process models

Everything here is to do with point models without any spatial extent. While it would be easy to define types to represent, say, a cell morphology, I have no clue how to attach a Dynamics to them in a meaningful way. For a morphology, one could imagine associating a membrane potential state variable with each section, and computing resistances to the neighboring sections, but that would be some kind of crime against numerical analysis since it would actually be representing a different model (one where all the capacitance was at the midpoints of the segments). A correct approach would involve introducing Dynamics elements for scalar fields and geometrical volumes but this could well increase the complexity to the point where it becomes useless to try writing an interpreter. Perhaps an intermediate route via magic tags to say for example "this structure can be approximated by a 1D scalar field satisfying equation ... etc" might work.

Retrofitting existing component types

After the false start with hard-coded elements for specifying networks and display settings, it proved surprisingly easy to retrofit user defined types to these elements. In general, this was not even restricted to creating equivalent functionality, but it could use exactly the same xml. If this applies in general, then it might be possible to retrofit more extensive building-block languages such as NeuroML or PSICS with user defined types. For the point models this could let a generic simulator run them. It wouldn't help with more complex, spatially extended, models but it would at least make it rather easier to read and process them. In a sense, the type definitions would just be acting like a rather restricted domain-specific schema.

Correspondence to XSL

If one ignores "apply-templates", the structures used for building populations and connections are more than a little reminiscent of XSL. In a way this is hardly surprising, given that they are both about processing nodes from a tree. It also suggests that maybe using XSL and XPath directly might work, and would avoid gradually introducing equivalents to half the element types in XSL as they prove to be needed.

Correspondence to CSS

Somewhat surprisingly, there isn't any. None of the examples seemed to fit better with a css-like pattern than with an XPath like one. Perhaps this is because you generally need to be sure which nodes you will hit instead of the rather heterogeneous matching that css is best for.


Model description languages differ markedly in where their focus lies and how they value (or disregard) particular features. Such features include how important it is for model specifications to be:

Low entropy

The term "entropy" is used as a loose analogy. The idea is that a model as conceived by a modeler or as described in a paper is highly structured. The quantities occurring in it are physical quantities (voltages and times rather than just numbers) and the structures are concise, hierarchical and minimally redundant. This is a low entropy representation. As the model gets converted into something that can be run on a computer, most of the structure is removed. Dimensional quantities get divided by units to provide dimensionless numbers and mechanistic concepts get converted to equations. It goes through a state of being a bunch of state variables and equations and eventually ends up numerical code implementing state update rules. This is the high entropy end. Models that are only available as compiled executables are the extreme high entropy end. Those that are only available as c-code are a close second which can only be converted to low entropy forms by extensive manual curation.

You can automate the process of turning a low-entropy representation into a runnable model, but in general you can't automatically get back to a low entropy representation from a higher entropy one. Simulators vary in how well they represent and preserve low entropy models, but, particularly older simulators tend to increase the entropy from the start and the only internal model representation used is often of rather higher entropy than the model representation created by the modeler. For example a modeler might be forced to render their model dimensionless before getting it into the simulator. The units they used to do this would probably be there in comments in the source files, but they are not part of the internal state of the simulator so it is unable to write out a low entropy model.

This proposal is all about expressing and protecting low entropy representations. These are the most valuable representation of a model because they can readily be turned into a variety of higher entropy representations as used by different simulators. Note that this low entropy focus may not be suitable to a model exchange language such as NineML which is intended to be writable by existing simulators. For that a medium entropy representation is probably required.

> For those familiar with software engineering, the entropy discussion is essentially a > variant of the DRY > (Don't Repeat Yourself, or 'DIE': Duplication Is Evil) principle in software design. >

Mathematical v. Physical/biological

There are two issues here. One is whether a bundle of state variables and equations is enough to make a model. Mathematically, of course, this is all there is to many models, but scientifically, such a representation is of relatively high entropy since the structure, hierarchy and relations have been lost. The second question is about quantities that go into a model. Are they numbers or are they physical quantities? The distinction is that for a mathematical model one might say (as eg CellML does) "v is a number which represents a voltage measured in milliviolts" Ie, its what you get when you take a voltage and divide it by another voltage which is 1mV. For a physical model, you'd just say "v is a voltage" and leave it at that. Then v is a rich quantity with magnitude and dimensions.

If your modeling system takes the first approach, it can force the user to render quantities dimensionless themselves or can provide some support for unit conversions. But in either case, the quantities in the equations that the modeler enters are just numbers.

In the second approach, the quantities occurring in equations are dimensional quantities. This is the norm in written model descriptions but it is generally not the norm in model description software. Being focused on turning things into executable code (involving bare numbers) the latter tends to dispense with dimensionality as soon as possible. This seems unfortunate because premature non-dimensionalisation opens up all sorts of cans of worms for the modeler and indeed for the software developer that simply don't need to be opened up. Sticking with dimensional quantities throughout the model description phase makes most of these problems vanish.

Incidentally, this is related to the xml construct often seen in model specifications where a quantity has both a value and a unit as in '<mass value="3" unit="kg"/>'. This suggests that somehow the mass of the item, (the 'value' of its mass) was '3' and that the mass itself has a unit, rather than its mass (or the 'value' thereof) being '3kg' as in normal usage. In fact, of course, neither the '3' or the 'kg' are attributes of the mass. Exactly the same quantity could be expressed with '3000' and 'g' or '3E-6' and 'Ton'. Neither is meaningful in on their own, so ideally this looks to call for an XML datatype.


In the light of the above discussion, this proposal prioritizes:

A consequence of these priorities is that it is probably going to be very hard to automatically export models in this format from existing simulators unless they already have a low-entropy internal representation. In general, it will involve rewriting them by hand.

Canonical form

This format is not intended as a canonical form for a model, although there is a clear need for such a model specification format. Rather, it is better to think of it as lightweight XML user interface to a nascent canonical form. Canonical forms are inevitably hard to work with directly (eg, a canonical form for model specification should probably use MathML which requires an intermediate tool to read or write) and the present form makes a much simpler structure within which to develop and explore model specification capabilities. Once a suitable structures have been arrived at, the corresponding canonical form can be specified.

It is intended that a relatively simple XML mapping should map losslessly between this format and the canonical form with a couple of constraints. The present format allows multiple ways to express the same model. For example, the same quantity can be expressed with different magnitude units and elements can be written in a number of different ways. Such variants of the same model should all map to the same canonical form. For the mapping to be invertible, the additional information (such as that the original value of a current was given in nA for example) will have to be stored in metadata in the canonical form of the model.

More on canonical forms.

Comparison with other systems

There are strong parallels in VHDL. The hierarchical components proposal for SBML level 3 looks to be heading towards the same end point from a different direction. There are also comparisons to be made with the facilities for modular model representation in CellML 1.1. Like SBML, it is arriving from the other end, with a substantial body of models expressed in a standalone, medium entropy form and a curation process to abstract out modules that can then be referenced from several models.

There are also close parallels with NineML, which may, ideally, provide a standardized format for losslessly writing and re-reading models expressed in LEMS.

Comparison with 'building-block' languages

The great thing about a building-block language is that a model can be reliably and relatively easily mapped onto efficient code to execute it. This is not the case with the present proposal or with other general systems where the user can define their own equations. One way round this is to develop smarter symbolic algebra capabilities so that efficient numerical implementations can be generated from the equations. This could work in some cases. It is hard to see it working in all cases. Another way round it is for an implementation to spot structures it recognizes and map them to efficient hard-coded implementations, but to keep the capability to run new, unrecognized, structures (albeit more slowly). However, I'm not aware of any implementations that actually do this yet, so it remains to bee seen whether it is a workable approach.

If a system in which modelers develop new models and simulators gradually add hard-code support for the most popular ones is to be made to work, then there must be a strong incentive for reusing an existing type (that can then be recognized by the simulator) rather than re-expressing the whole model from scratch. This is probably more of an issues for simulators and model sharing infrastructure than for the language itself, although, of course, the language itself must provide capabilities to do this cleanly.

XML format

It is designed to be read and written by hand (as well as machines). Nevertheless, the parsers used for the XML and the expressions are among the more straightforward parts of the implementation. The most common alternative is to to pre-parse the expressions and make the XML store the parse tree. This would make it easier to process in a simulator (no need for an expression parser). Similarly, dimensional quantities could be split into a number attribute and a unit attribute which would also make it slightly easier to process. However, these benefits are slight, and would only accrue to the small number of developers writing simulators. In the meantime, every modeler would have to write quantities out the long way and find a way to generate the xml parse trees for expressions. At the very least, an interpreter should provide tools for the user to do this, so the user can write input as a normal expression. But if the interpreter can do this, why standardize on the unreadable post-parsed form rather than the concise form written by the user? It has been suggested that this is necessary to avoid ambiguities in what a model means, but I suspect that is more of a hypothetical danger than a real problem, given all the other thins that can go wrong with a model specification.

Finally, for those who want it, it is straightforward to convert models in this format to pre-digested element-only XML with parse trees instead of expressions. Indeed, the interpreter will generate this format if called with the '-p' qualifier in 'java -jar lems-x.x.x.jar -p model.xml'.