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Showdown in Geneva: OOXML Fails to Achieve Majority Approval at BRM
Authored by: Andy Updegrove on Sunday, March 02 2008 @ 11:44 AM CST

Thanks very much for taking the time to leave detailed comments.  I appreciate that, since clearly you are the most informed and knowledgeable person about what happened at the BRM.  Let me start by clarifying a few things, and then maybe you would feel more comfortable in our having a friendlier dialogue.
1.  If you haven't already done so, look at the updates to my blog entry.  As you can see, I'm gathering as much information as possible, and making changes as needed.  In short, I'm trying to be informative as possible  (cf. Jason Matusow's blog, which looks like it could have, and perhaps was, written before the BRM was even completed and I expect will stay that way).

2.  Everyone that I have talked to has been unanimous in their praise of the job that you performed in an almost impossible situation.  I respect that and congratulate you on getting through the week and in displaying Hemingway's definition of courage ("grace under pressure").

3.  Nothing I write is intended to be an attack on you personally or on the way you handled the BRM.
With that as prelude, let me also say the following before I come back to your individual points:
  • I believe that we need to separate _how_ the BRM was handled from whether a Fast Track BRM should have been necessary to have been held at all, but then return to that question at the end to see what is the impact of doing so.
  • I believe that I understand better now the rationale behind the final vote and what people were thinking when they completed that vote.  But - the question remains whether nominally completing the consideration process by the only means available, regardless of how thorough that process and how much improved the specification would be as a result of the efforts of the BRM in the time available,  was a good thing to have done.
  • Given the intense behind the scenes pressure that will be applied to NBs around the world, did the BRM achieve the nominal obligation of completion within one week at the expense of creating a misleading result that would make it harder for the NBs to vote on technical merit given the claims that would be made by OOXML supports and popularized ad nauseum (see Jason Matusow's blog entry).
I personally believe that there is a limit to how far one should go in trying to cram 600 pounds of potatoes into a five pound bag.  What I mean is that at some point I believe that it would be more useful and forthright for the final vote to have been something like the following instead:  "Do you approve, disapprove or abstain from the following conclusion:  "The National Bodies believe that it would be misleading to attempt to vote on any dispositions beyond those that have been discussed and amended, as necessary, in the ordinary course of a BRM" beyond the 200 or so that included only minor editorial issues.  At some point, I think that loyalty to the goal of completion becomes counterproductive, and even unwise.  After all, true democracy has been achieved only as a result of the willingness of those in the breach to revolt against the rules.

Could you find the right to  take such a vote in the Directives?  I don't know the answer to that, but I don't think that the Directives ever contemplated having to process a poorly written 6,000 page plus specification being submitted for Fast Track consideration.  So again, being too bound to the rules could lead to an unfortunate result.

With that by way of orientation, let me try and respond to your comments:

Alex:  Allow me to sympathise with your difficulty in understanding the JTC 1 rules, the BRM resolutions, and the conceptual framework surrounding them. These are hard topics. Normally standards people learn about such things through training, experience, mentoring and study. Not through floundering around in the comment section of a contentious blog entry, whose key assertions are the highly misleading consequence of a lack of understanding and suitable data.

Andy:  I do agree.  I should clarify, though, that what I have been writing is not just someone's clueless wandering around in the dark, but of an ongoing dialogue throughout the week with a number of delegates forming an opinion over time, including several who are quite adept at applying those same rules.

Alex:  Would you agree with me that your blog has become the epicentre of much of the current public understanding surrounding the BRM? Are you proud of that?

Andy:  If the alternative would have been that the public would only have had Jason Matusow's blog entry, absolutely.  His entry reads like a set of Microsoft talking points that were written before the BRM even ended.  I would be staggered if they have not been sent already to hundreds of Microsoft marketing people around the world.  Do you disagree?  The difference is that I will incorporate all changes into my record as they become appropriate (and have already done so).  I do not expect that changes will be made to Microsoft's marketing message.

Alex:  First, I simply _cannot_ _believe_ your entry title, which states "OOXML Fails to Achieve Majority Approval at BRM". Anybody who has read any of the key documents associated with this process (the Directives, the FAQ, the agenda, even my blog for heavens sake) knows that the BRM does not "approve" or "disapprove" OOXML. That is BRM 101 stuff. Had you really not grasped the basic fact that the meeting only changes the text, and does "approve" or "disapprove" the spec?

Andy:  I agree that the title should have read "OOXML _Dispositions_ fail..."  However, I have consistently made clear in everything I write, and the text of this entry makes clear, that the final vote is only now taking place.  I was putting in 18 hour days all week as well (I do have a day job), so we shared fatigue all around.  I've changed the title now that you've flagged it, but will stand by the proposition that "abstentions" do not represent approval under these circumstances.

Alex:  Now, turning to some of your other issues:

> [Andy's comment} If the only vote received was from an NB other than the NB that had lodged the comment it seems that this vote would prevail.

This is a nonsense statement. NBs vote on proposed dispositions, not comments. This concept of the comment sponsor having extra weight in their vote is completely alien to ISO and IEC voting procedures. What strange place is this stuff coming from?

Andy:  From common sense,  which makes me wonder whether the rules display any?  Tell me where I go wrong here:  A proposed disposition is created in response to a comment appended to an NB vote.  Let's assume that the comment was, "OOXML only supports Western texts that read from left to right; we request that it also support languages that read in the opposite direction."  The proposed disposition agrees.  The original NB doesn't bother to vote on this, or does vote "yes," and two NBs vote "no."  Is the disposition then defeated?  If so, is this a good result?

Alex:  > [Andy's comment} If only two votes were received on that disposition, one from the NB most interested and one vote from another NB, and the two votes were not the same, then two would cancel out, if I understand the process correctly.  What exactly would that tell you?

The only two kinds of vote that would "cancel out" are an approve and a disapprove. In this case the vote on the disposition would be a tie and the disposition would not be approved. Draw from that what conclusion you want!

The conclusion that I would draw is that this is a poster child example of why disposing of 900 proposed dispositions with an overnight ballot does lip service to completion and serves noones best interests.

Alex:  >[Andy's comment} If no one voted on a single disposition (even the original NB that made the comment that generated the proposed disposition), does that mean that it's a good one, or that no one had the time to really think it through, or couldn't decide?

Who knows what it means, this is voting not mind reading. BTW, there were no such "unvoted on" dispositions.

Andy:  As someone who will have to live with the consequences of OOXML if it is adopted, I say again that this is an example of why the decision made to batch vote on all 900 was unfortunate.  Before you say that the NBs will be well able to factor this into their responses, recall the intense pressure that they will be under. 

> [Andy's comment} those dispositions that were discussed were almost invariably changed

well yes, obviously. If a country brought up a disposition for discussion it would probably be to get some change made, right? It is a false inference from this that _every_ comment would require NB change.

Andy:  No, but when we are already dealing with a specification that came in the door with very poor quality which then had to be worked over in a limited time period with the input of only selected parties, many of them interested, then making it a bit better is not much of a victory.  I say again that if the best that can be done is to make something a bit better, then a more forthright conclusion of the BRM would be not to lend its credibility by approving that proposed disposition at all.

Alex:  > [Andy's comment} Does that sound like a rational way to do the analysis?

Andy, I wish you many happy hours with the spreadsheet. But I'm not sure what you propose will get you anything useful or significant.

  Actually, I was responding to the suggestion of a delegate that if one took on this unusual and arduous job that I would be comforted.  I tried to accept that suggestion and see how such an analysis could be productively performed.

> [Andy's comment} if someone chooses not only not to vote on an individual disposition, but to abstain on the rest, then it's hard for me to see this as anything other than "no comment."

NBs abstain for all kinds of reasons, so you should hesitate to interpret it in any particular way. In my experience, abstention most usually signals the wish to register a lack of technical understanding or engagement (which is perfectly ok).

I agree that this would be the normal situation.  It's a bit harder to tell when someone who is already frustrated and tired is checking off a ballot overnight that has over 900 items to vote on.  Had each of the 900 been brought up in the normal course, would some of the abstainers have joined in the discussion?  Unquestionably.  Would the vote have come out differently on some of them?  Statistical probability makes that almost inevitable.  Would the text of some of the dispositions be changed as well?  I don't think this can be questioned.  Would the final dispositions in toto have been improved?  The answer to me is obvious

Alex:  > [Andy's comment} But was that actually a good idea?  My personal view is that [...]

The key point here is that it was, almost by definition, a good idea because it is WHAT THE MEETING VOTED TO DO. With no dissent.

Andy:  Ah, here is where we finally get to the nub of the matter, and where I think the process and the fast track questions must come back together.  Just because a decision is made in accordance with rules does not make it a good decision - just a conformant decision.  I accept that you,  as convenor, were under a duty to try and cover all 1,100 dispositions, and you deserve credit for upholding the rules and achieving that result.  But I do not accept that the result was a good result, or that the delegations should have passed this vote.  When the rules were not made to address such a contingency, then following the rules blindly does not serve an honorable purpose.  For some time now, the phrase "We were only following orders" has not been as credible as it used to be, eh?

Andy, you then go on to make some general criticisms about the Fast Track process which are all fair play (not that I will comment). However, I am very concerned about the misleading headline of your article and the misleading presentation of figures which supports it, leaving aside sundry other inaccuracies which are less important but which could usefuly be corrected once accurate information is available from ISO and IEC, and a fuller picture can emerge.

Andy:  I acknowledge some inaccuracies, which I have already addressed; if there are any remaining, do bring them to my attention and I'll address them as well.  After all, you have to acknowledge that the public wasn't allowed to listen in first hand, although they do  have to live with the results. 

But I disagree that we can really separate the issue of whether OOXML should have been fast tracked with how the BRM concluded.  This whole OOXML process from the beginning has been like a runaway train careering down the tracks, with no one willing to pull the emergency brake line.  Blindly following the rules can, and often does, result in disaster.  If OOXML is finally adopted at the end of March, the BRM will have assisted in a far less useful standard being adopted to ensure that those "billions and billions of documents" remain accessible.  As an interested party in such a result, along with everyone else in the world, I look  to those that control and participate in the process to protect me.

There have been situations in my career where I have resigned positions rather than remain part of a process that I thought was off the rails.  I think that those in the BRM process who were trying to do the right thing simply lost sight of what the right thing might be.  I also expect that this is much easier to realize from the outside than it was in the inside in the heat of the moment and under the fatigue of the effort.

I'm sorry that we didn't meet in Geneva, and hope we have the opportunity to do so in the future.

[ Parent | # ]
Showdown in Geneva: OOXML Fails to Achieve Majority Approval at BRM
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, March 04 2008 @ 04:44 AM CST
In all the different (political) meetings I've ever been in as either a participant or a chairman, it was customary for the chairman to draw up the agenda for a meeting according to the following rules:
1) schedule proposals on which the decision is a formality (to do away with stuff that can be implemented) and decide on them right away
2) then do a tally of the remaining proposals and draw up a schedule on what needs to be discussed
3) suggest (controversial) proposals where a large number of the participants indicate their urge to be heard to be taken off-line, either to resolve them by the end of the meeting or at a later date.
4) schedule proposals with little comments to be handled first.

Alex, as far as I can tell the way you approached this BRM is the exact opposite of what I described above and (as you indicate yourself) in the end leaves a lot of room for interpreting the meaning of the votes on the comments not being discussed.

With 20-20 hindsight, would you have chosen a different approach to the BRM, for example with the (universally) tried and tested method I described here?
[ Parent | # ]