Kai Erikson, in his classic study of deviant behavior in early New England, Wayward Puritans, made the important observation that:
…the amount of deviation a community encounters is apt to remain fairly constant over time. To start at the beginning, it is a simple logistic fact that the number of deviancies which come to a community’s attention are limited by the kinds of equipment it uses to detect and handle them, and to that extent the rate of deviation found in a community is at least in part a function of the size and complexity of its social control apparatus. A community’s capacity for handling deviance, let us say, can be roughly estimated by counting its prison cells and hospital beds, its policemen and psychiatrists, its courts and clinics.
In other words, a community’s perception of social deviation is conditioned and limited by their capacity for controlling it. With equal number of punishment cells, equal-sized communities of cloistered monks and bloodthirsty pirates would perceive the same rate of deviancy. Of course the actual deviations would be different: Brother Maynard isn’t praying earnestly enough versus Greybeard slit a crewmate’s throat in the night, without warning the bunkmate below.
The late Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, took this idea and applied it to the social ills that America has increasingly faced since the 1960’s: mental illness, illegitimacy and violent crime. How does society react when the level of deviancy rises unexpectedly and rapidly above accepted norms? He observed, in an essay entitled, “Defining Deviancy Down”:
[…T]he amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognize” and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.
I look at the current situation with Office Open XML (OOXML) in a similar way. There is a clearly defined community — JTC1 member National Bodies — with the responsibility for reviewing submitted standards. However, their capacity for exercising control is finite. The JTC1 Directives allow them a fixed period of time to review any submission. They also have a fixed number of volunteers to perform the review, and a fixed (or at least highly constrained) number of meetings to discuss and agree on review comments. So, when presented with a specification of unprecedented length (over 6,000 pages), and rather low quality, what are they to do? Spend hundreds of hours reading the specification? Write up and report thousands of errors? No, the capacity in JTC1 to deal with this level of deviancy does not exist, so the natural way for the community to cope is to to define deviancy down.
How deviant is OOXML? The 6,000+ page length is one aspect. Another is the rate at which it raced through its Ecma review, 20-times the speed of comparable specifications. Certainly, a longer specification will tend to have more problems than a shorter one, and a rushed review will find fewer problems than a thorough one. But that is speaking in generalities. Is there anything we can say for OOXML defect rates?
The Groklaw review, which occurred over a few days found a large number of serious problems. But I think we can quantify this a bit more. I tried an experiment. I used a random-number generator to generate a sample of 20 page numbers in the OOXML specification. I then read each of these pages, looking for technical errors, platform dependencies, lack of extensibility, drafting errors, etc. I did not bother noting spelling, grammatical or usage errors. I recorded how many reportable errors I found on each page. Some pages had zero problems, others had 1, 2 or even 3 problems. I even found one particularly bad error that could send OOXML back to Ecma once reported — more on that another day — but the average errors per page was 1.0. So projecting out to a 6,039 page specification this leads to a prediction of 6,000 +/- 1,000 errors. Reviewing a larger number of pages would reduce the error bars on that prediction, but we seem to be dealing with defects numbering in the thousands.
Are NB’s able to deal with a level of deviancy this great? Do they possibly have the resources to detect and report this number of errors and then verify that they are addressed? If not, the natural reaction is to define deviancy down.
For example, OOXML is currently in a 30-day review period where “contradictions” with existing ISO or IEC standards can be alleged by National Bodies (NB’s). Although the word “contradiction” is not defined in JTC1 Directives, its meaning can be seen from a resolution unanimously adopted at a JTC1 Plenary in 2000:
Resolution 27 – Consistency of JTC 1 Products
JTC 1 stresses the strong need for consistency of its products (ISs and TRs) irrespective of the route through which they were developed. Any inconsistency will confuse users of JTC 1 standards and, hence, jeopardize JTC 1’s reputation. Therefore, referring to clauses 13.2 (Fast Track) and 188.8.131.52 (PAS) of its Directives, JTC 1 reminds ITTF of its obligation to ascertain that a proposed DIS contains no evident contradiction with other ISO/IEC standards. JTC 1 offers any help to ITTF in such undertaking. However, should an inconsistency be detected at any point in the ratification process, JTC 1 together with ITTF will take immediate action to cure the problem.
The clear meaning of this is that contradictions are to be avoided, and that some of the defining characteristics of standards with contradictions are that they are not consistent, that they confuse users, and that they jeopardize JTC1’s reputation.
Further, we have precedents of other contradictions raised within JTC1, such as just last year, when the NB’s of the UK and Germany both alleged contradictions against Microsoft’s C++/CLI specification, then submitted for Fast Track processing from Ecma. The contradiction raised by the German NB (DIN) in that case said in part:
On a technical level, there are some rather different approaches between C++ and C++/CLI which can easily cause considerable confusion when both languages are considered to be “C++” or add unnecessary overhead when trying to write C++ code usable with C++ and C++/CLI. Below are a few example although if there were sufficient time to to thorough analysis of the C++/CLI document more could probably be found.
This is simple, easy to understand, and well within the spirit of the JTC1 Resolution quoted earlier.
But in a notable case of defining deviancy down, we’re starting to see the word “contradiction” defined very narrowly. For example, Microsoft’s Brian Jones suggests contradictions should be looked at this way:
[T]his is where you want to make sure that the approval of this ISO spec won’t cause another ISO standard to break. In the case of OpenXML, there really can’t be a contradiction because it’s always possible to implement OpenXML alongside other technologies. For instance, OpenOffice will soon have support for ODF and OpenXML.
An example of a contradiction would be if there was a standard for wireless technology that required the use of a certain frequency. If by using that frequency you would interfere with folks using another standard that also leverages that frequency, then there may be a contradiction.
To be quite fair, the Chinese WAPI defeat in ISO is also a precedent, but when searching for a definition of “contradiction” all precedents should be considered, not just one. Arguing exclusively from a wireless protocol standard precedent when dealing with the case of an XML markup standard is dubious when contradictions just last year were alleged to a programming language, a technology much closer to OOXML than a wireless protocol is. Surely, since C++/CLI is Microsoft’s technology they would be aware of this precedent? But still they didn’t mention it.
I ask you to consider the impact of taking Microsoft’s definition of “contradiction” and applying it to virtual technologies, like document formats, image formats, presentation formats, programming languages, operating system interfaces, API’s, security protocols, anything in the realm of software rather than hardware. None of these can ever conflict by Microsoft’s definition. Never. Therefor there is never grounds for a contradiction, and JTC1’s own Directives, which adopted the contradiction clause only a few years ago, is a procedural nullity, a no-op, meaningless, a waste of time for a large part of the technologies JTC1 has standards authority for. This is a clear example of defining deviancy down.
Let’s go back in time, 750 years ago to Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica, the 13th century’s God: The Missing Manual. Aquinas had some apt words on contradictions, when discussing whether the powers of God were infinite and omnipotent (Question 25, Article 3):
Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility… For whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word, because no intellect can possibly conceive such a thing.
Aquinas here allows that God can do all things that are possible, but cannot do something which is a contradiction in terms. Going back to Microsoft’s proposed definition of a contradiction, it seems that they are only willing to acknowledge a contradiction if it amounts to a co-existence problem so severe that even God could not resolve it. This seems to be a rather high hurdle to reach, and is clearly not what JTC1 intended. This is defining deviances down, way down.
This is the essential problem JTC1 has with the OOXML submission. It is too large and has too many problems with it for the control mechanisms available to JTC1 (in particular review time and volunteers) for handling the presented level of deviancy. The only recourse available to them is to define deviancy down to the level where they can handle a much smaller number of problems. Of course, this will lead to a much lower-quality ISO Standard than we are accustomed to, but what other choice is there?
This lesson has clear ramifications for Microsoft. The bigger the specification, the less throughly it will be reviewed. If you make it large enough it will barely be reviewed at all. The plan for 2007 should be to combine the .NET, OPC, XPS, JScript, J#, C#, XAML, WPF, HD Photo and whatever other specifications you have handy, put them all into one 50,000 page document, call it the “Open Microsoft Specification” rush it through Ecma and then Fast Track it into ISO. No one can really stop you. JTC1 Fast Track is broken.