It’s very rare for me to write a blog entry directed solely at what someone else has written, but there’s an exception to every rule. This one is directed at a posting by Alex Brown, entitled UK Open Standards *Sigh*.
The short blog entry begins with Alex bemoaning the hard, cruel life of the selfless engineers that create technical standards:
It can be tough, putting effort into standardization activities – particularly if you're not paid to do it by your employer. The tedious meetings, the jet lag, the bureaucratic friction and the engineering compromises can all eat away at the soul.
Poor Alex. It does sound tough, doesn’t it?
Presumably, being involved in standards activities that are highly relevant to the consulting and implementation business of Alex’s firm, Griffin Brown, has no impact on its fortunes at all. And engaging in some other type of community service – say, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or becoming a Boy Scout leader – would avoid all that tedious travel to the excessively dreary locations where SC 34 (the format standard working group) insists on holding its meetings. Places like Tokyo, Stockholm, Paris, Copenhagen, and Prague.
Fortunately, Alex notes that there are off-setting benefits:
But most people participating (particularly, perhaps, those not paid to do it by their employer) are kept going by the thought that, in the end, their contribution might make a difference. That in some small way the world will become a better place because of their efforts.
Sadly, it appears that a problem has come up. The U.K. government, you see, has had the temerity to post an on-line survey, asking for input on which standards it should consider adopting. Governments, as you may recall, increasingly interface with citizens through the Web. Governments are also the servants of the people, and not the other way around. So imagine – a government asking its citizens how they might want to better interact with their government? Or what would make it easier and cheaper for them to do so?
Of course, there’s actually a reasonable explanation why Alex objects so strenuously to the survey:
It is hard to know where to start with this: whether it’s the ignorance of what a “standard” (never mind an “open standard”) is; or the thought that having a check-box survey is an intelligent way to form an assessment of technologies leading into a standards policy.
Of course, the one aspect of an “open standard” upon which all definitions agree – and upon which SC 34, as well as all other ISO/IEC standards efforts are based – is that all of those that are affected by a standard should be able to offer input on that standard.
Except that’s not the way Alex sees it. Here’s how Alex closes his blog entry:
Faced with such clueless fuckwittery it’s tempting simply to ask: what’s the point?
Indeed. So the survey must have something very, very flawed about it. You can decide for yourself, by clicking here. If you do, you’ll find that it’s targeted at serious users of technology (no one else would have a clue on how to answer the questions), collects the type of information needed to form sound conclusions based on the input, and imposes no obligation on the U.K. Government to make direct decisions based upon what it receives.
The problem, it appears, is that Alex thinks that only those that participate in working groups like SC 34 are competent to judge what should be in a standard, or which among competing standards might be superior. Never mind, of course, that legions of formal standards have never been widely adopted at all, or that consortium standards are frequently adopted over formal standards. But forget that. Those who aren’t inside the formal standards process just don’t get what standards are really and truly all about, so why don’t all you ignorant sods just bugger off?
If the name Alex Brown rings a bell, don’t be surprised. Alex was the convenor of the one week OOXML Ballot Resolution Meeting held in 2008 – you know, the one that thought that a one week meeting was an intelligent way to resolve over 1,000 comments on an over 6,000 page specification in order to formalize an open standard. During that meeting, Alex made multiple decisions that were later condemned by many. Four countries filed formal appeals. Alex remains serene about that meeting, the decisions made, and the outcome.
Standards, you see, are not to be questioned by those that are expected to use them. They are to be accepted with the deference to which their developers are entitled. We, who are increasingly utterly dependent on what standards allow us to do, or not do, are never, ever to question the judgment of those that create these precious gifts.
Our role is to take what we’re given, and do what we’re told. Anything else would be “clueless fuckwittery.”
My God, Alex. Where is there an end of it?
Errrr – not sure what’s set you off on one here, Andy, but have you actually read this Cabinet Office Survey? Here in the UK everyone I kow who’s read it, across the software spectrum from pay-for corporate to FOSS, has seen it as an utter disaster.
Or are you content that that a survey on open standards includes such supposed ones as "Word (.doc)", "PowerPoint (.pps and .ppt)", "Lotus Notes Web Access (.nsf)", "HTML 5" and so on? Not to mention the host of naming and category errors throughout the document. Or is it too much to expect that our public money gets spent acquiring at least a basic clue?
As to your silly suppositions about what I think, I’ll let that pass without comment. Except to observe that perhaps now that "PJ" has gone you see a little niche in hatred and prejudice on the web where you can re-positon your blog? Tsk, for shame!
Hardly, and yes, I did read the survey, which could be improved, of course. But that’s no excuse to reject it out of hand, as your post did, or to take such an elitest approach to it, or to suggest that the poor individuals that set standards will have their great labours thwarted by the fact the government has seen fit to post a survey. A survey!
What "set me off" was your statements and your approach to the issue. It would have been far more useful to have offered some suggestions on how the survey could be improved than to call it that charming word that I’ve never heard before and that my spam filter won’t let me include in this comment – and then have the brass to post a comment at my blog accusing me of "prejudice and hatred."
Apparently, using potty-mounthed language to describe well-intentioned government efforts are acceptable editorial commentary, but rebuttals that do not use such language indicate an intention to occupy a "little niche of hatred and prejudice."
What a very interesting world you live in, Alex.
Andy, maybe it’s a cultural difference. In this country it is quite common to offer robust criticism of government when it falls short, even sometimes using rude words in the process 😉
I think govt – of all institutions – can take it.
Rest assured, "helpful comments" are winging their way in the UK govt’s direction through more formal and authoritative channels than a blog post of mine.
I have slagged-off the most powerful institution in our land because of (what you now acknowledge) are serious flaws in its work. You have constructed, and published, a nasty little fantasy narrative as the basis of a personal attack on me. This kind of thing brings a whole new unpleasant tang to your blog: I’m not sure it’s really you …
I’ve always been fascinated reading your comments in threads in the past, so thanks for another good example.
Step one: "Andy, maybe it’s a cultural difference. In this country it is quite common to offer robust criticism of government when it falls short, even sometimes using rude words in the process ;-)"
So step one is, "I will present what I did as being "robust commentary" in order to differentiate my behavior from someone else’s, even though there is no rationale for doing so – especially where the topic is blog commentary.
Step two: "I think govt – of all institutions – can take it."
So step two is another fallacy: goverenment should be able to take it, but an individual shouldn’t. Another curious argument. I was rather of the impression that bloggers should be able to take it, too. Vigorous words should expect vigorous responses, or they shouldn’t be offered for public consumption at all.
Step three: "Rest assured, "helpful comments" are winging their way in the UK govt’s direction through more formal and authoritative channels than a blog post of mine."
Step three is to now offer explanations that were not in the original blog entry, but are offered as reasons why the original blog entry shouldn’t be regarded as churlish.
Step four: "I have slagged-off the most powerful institution in our land because of (what you now acknowledge) are serious flaws in its work.
Step four – and one you’ve used so very often before – is to put words in someone else’s mouth that they did not utter. "Could be improved" is now "serious flaws." Sorry, Alex, my comment is stil there to be read.
Step five: "You have constructed, and published, a nasty little fantasy narrative as the basis of a personal attack on me. This kind of thing brings a whole new unpleasant tang to your blog: I’m not sure it’s really you …"
The final step is to label what was meant as a serious commentary as nasty, and then to be nasty.
It really is fascinating.