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Showdown in Geneva: Most OOXML Dispositions Fail to Achieve Majority Approval at BRM
Authored by: Andy Updegrove on Monday, March 03 2008 @ 06:30 AM CST
Alex,

Thanks once again  for responding.  I think that from my point of view we're probably getting close to the "agree to  disagree" point (assuming that you're willing to cut me that much slack), so let me start with the central point where I don't think that one of use is likely to convince the other, as there may be some benefit to that.  I'll then go on to your individual points.

The main point at the 30,000 foot level is that I don't think that the implications of allowing the Fast Track process to be used on such a large and insufficiently prepared format  can be separated from the impact that this decision had on every stage of the process, and most especially on the BRM.   It was this decision that placed you and everyone else in the BRM in the impossible position that you found yourself in. 

Taking this down to ground level:  I have just read Rob Weir's piece, and its recital of "no time" decisions notwithstanding several objecting hands in the air, the "newbies" from NBs struggling with language issues and what was going on, the inability of NB's to advance objections (I have personally received a number of emails from delegates flagging further proposals that they were unable to get heard), the accounts I have personally received from delegations saying that it was impossible to go more than a small way through such a long list in so little time, and so on, all of which I heard first hand from people when I was in Geneva as well.

I cannot square this with any confidence that the decisions made under the ballot will be good technical decisions.  While I do not question the right of those in the room to have made the decision, I do not accept that this decision may not be questioned by whoever is troubled by it.  I have written before and I am sure will be writing again that I think that the integrity of the de jure standard setting process is taking a terrible beating as a result of the OOXML experience - and this in an organization that created the ISO 9000 series!

I am, of course, also particularly disturbed by the lack of transparency, which, absent stories like my own and the willingness of delegates to speak could lead people to have greater confidence in the results than I believe is warranted.  As you know, there will be tremendous pressure brought to bear on NBs all around the world.  Unless they have more public facts to point to, they will be defenseless to resist pressure to approve OOXML, whether they are as disturbed with quality issues or not.

Alex, I understand and respect your dedication to accomplish the job to which you were appointed.  I don't think that it would be fair for me to expect that you, as Convenor, should have attempted to declare a failure of the BRM to complete its task.  But I do think that the delegates collectively would have better served the process had they voted earlier in the process to declare that they could not complete their job.  That's where you and I will certainly differ, so on this point I think we need to  agree to disagree, as each of us is entitled to his opinion.

Now, on to your individual points.

Alex:  Your headline has now transitioned from being "not even wrong" to "wrong". If you want to fix it you should remove the words "fail to". However, since this is not then a very on-message headline for you I suggest maybe you should have something like "OOXML still in flux as clock ticks down" or "BRM performs emergency surgery on OOXML in desperate rescue attempt" or some such.

Andy:  If you and I were having this discussion before I posted the blog entry, I would have had no particular objection to "OOXML still in flux as clock ticks down," but at this point I think that it isn't honest for me to keep tinkering with a title that has already been read and linked to by so many people.  I think the text and comments together will give a clear picture.  I also think that a really accurate title that we could both agree on would have to be more like the following, but it would be a little long:
ODF Advocate contends that approval of most OOXML dispositions by a single ballot with 18 out of 32 NBs having too little time to perform an adequate view  and abstained with respect to anywhere from some to all of the more than 900 listed  proposed dispositions does not constitute  "Majority Approval" of those  dispositions for purposes of directing that they be  taken into account in preparing the final draft of OOXML for final March Vote.
That said, if we can agree on the above, I will add it in at the top of the text by way of an update and indicate our consensus on it.

Alex:  I think it is wrong for you to claim your original headline was some kind of necessary counterbalance to Jason Matusow's: his was predictably on-message (from the MS POV), yours was (and is) factually misleading.

Andy:  I think that we're spending too many words on the title, but that's just my opinion.  When someone reads the text, I believe that the meaning of the title becomes clear., and I doubt that many people will read the title at my blog and not the article.  Note also that the blog entry you are talking about, while based on data, also  clearly was as much an editorial as a fact piece, and this would hardly be a title that would be inappropriate on an editorial page where projecting message and point of view is the purpose of a title.  All  that said, I accept that you didn't like it, and I have already clarified it. 

Alex:  Also, by my records Charles Schulz was not a BRM delegate as you categorize him.

Andy:  Right you  are.  I corrected this not long before you posted your comment.

Alex:  You then raise several points about the adequacy of the Fast Track process. Fair enough; no comment. On the particular questions about in-meeting voting I can tell you:

  • Yes, it was a good idea to take votes (congratulations to the BRM on wisely choosing this route)
  • Yes, it was within my, and the meeting's, powers to allow it
  • Yes, what happened was fully in accord with the JTC 1 Directives (O-member voting and all)

OBVIOUSLY (given the red hot controversy here) voting procedure was discussed in minute detail, and decided, in consultation with ITTF before the BRM started. I (as somebody primarily used to SC participation, rather than fast tracking) had some un-learning to do, and I think some other commentators do too. If a country has a complaint it can appeal formally -- that (rather than wittering to the press) is the correct way to do it.

Andy:  I don't have any concerns over whether the 900 vote was within the rules or not.  Others may, but that's not the issue to me, so I'm fine with all of this.  As indicated earlier,  the big issue for me isn't whether deciding to vote on all 900 was a good idea.  Clearly, those in the room thought it was, and that's fine.  But it's also perfectly fine for those outside the meeting, as with any other political process, to state that they think that it was a bad decision. 

Alex:  You then turn to the question of what votes "mean". Rather than venturing further into the mental maze you have made for yourself, let's take an actual example and work it through.

Consider a very simple and uncontroversial Response, no. 637. This concerned a comment raised by AFNOR (France) that noted an "extraneous square bracket at the end of [a] line". AFNOR's suggested solution was "remove the extraneous square bracket."

Ecma's proposed response to this was to edit the text to remove the square bracket.

Now, this is just a PROPOSED resolution; in order to make it into the DIS text (unchanged since Jan 2007) it HAS TO be blessed by the BRM. BRM delegations can take one of three positions on Ecma's proposed response. They can:
  • approve (broadly, "yes, we want Ecma to do this")
  • disapprove (broadly, "we do NOT want Ecma to do this")
  • abstain (broadly, "we don't know/care")

A key point here is that if no decision is taken, nothing happens. In other words, if no decision is taken the text stays in its original state.

Now imagine you are a NB considering voting on Response 637 -- Andy, what would you have voted for in this case? And would you have been happy not to be able to take any decision at all because of time constraints?

Now multiply this process by 800 and you'll know what voting was. For added realism, try staying awake all night, and wearing this: http://www.cafepress.com/freesociety.234283639 (thanks to the Portuguese delegation).

The voting form also had boxes for registering an overall position, purely as a labour-saving device. So if (for example) you as an NB approved 700 responses and disapproved 100, you could simply record an overall position of "approve" and then mark the 100 disapproved comments as "exceptions" to your overall vote. To save typing, many NBs (as Inigo Surguy has noted above) simply recorded an overall position of "abstain" and then recorded the exceptions to that position. Your reading of significance into the way this overall position was recorded is about as sensible as reading significance into whether NBs user uppercase of lowercase “X” characters on their voting form!

Andy:  First, while I appreciate you going into this much detail (which is helpful), I think that we start going sideways when we get down to this level of detail.  I've had email from delegates who said that they didn't have close to enough time to get close to getting half way done, making these finer distinctions, in my view, often academic in the breach.  If the ballot had gone out a week before the BRM, I agree that all of this would be more relevant.

Alex:  Finally, I deplore your mention of the Nuremburg Defence (“only following orders”) in relation to my role as convenor. Invoking the Holocaust (however indirectly) as a suitable parallel to a document format standardization project shows a total failure of perspective.

Andy:  Noted.  The phrase is a useful shorthand for saying that one puts the appointed task ahead of the consequences, and points to the rules to show why those consequences should not be taken into account.  Everyone in the course of their life is likely to be placed in a situation where they can choose to follow the rules, or to refuse to do so when they think that the situation at hand is a square peg to a round hole of rules.  Different people will make different decisions when they find themselves in such a situation.   It did not occur to me yesterday,  but there is another phrase, this time from the 1960's, that I could have used instead:  "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." 

In my view, the BRM delegates lost sight of the possible consequences, repeatedly saying, "This is not the venue where other than technical details can be discussed," and then even failed to take the consequences into account in the area of its appointed purview.  The result is that it lent its authority to the result by adopting a mechanism that was - in my opinion - not a responsible decision, although undisputably well-intentioned.  You are asking me to take responsibility for my decisions in writing my (equally well-intentioned) blog entry, and I am simply doing the same with respect to the decision of the delegates.

Once again,  I do  thank you  for taking the time to post your comments here, and I do think that it will help concerned individuals to have more insight into the decision making that went on inside the room.  While I respect that you did not like the way in which our dialogue came to happen, I hope you will agree that where we have ended up may have a useful purpose in supplementing public understanding of a stressful process.

Best regards,

  -  Andy
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