≡ Menu

The Legend of the Rat Farmer

The Tale

A long time ago in a land far away there once was a prosperous town called Hamelin. Everything was perfect in Hamelin until the year the rats came. The rats ate up the grain, bit the townsfolk in the toes and scared the young children. Something had to be done! So the Bürgermeister and the Council met together and decided to bring in an outside consultant, Pied Piper Enterprises, LLC. That did not go well. The rats were back the very next year.

So in the Spring the Bürgermeister again assembled the Council and they talked and talked and talked. Should they bring in another consultant? Should they abandon the town and move someplace else? They finally decided on a market-based approach to solving the problem. They would offer a reward, a bounty, to citizens who captured, killed and turned in rats. Turn every person in Hamelin into an exterminator. The signs soon went up all over town: “A Silver Thaler for every 10 Rats.”

The Bürgermeister tracked the results on a big chart on the wall of his office and the numbers looked very good. Each day more and more rats were being caught and killed. The citizens were busy at work. The rats would soon all be gone.

But then one day the Bürgermeister went home, and in the doorway of his house was his wife and she was very upset, “You shall have no dinner tonight! The rats have eaten all of the grain!”

“How can this be?” exclaimed the Bürgermeister. “The metrics show that we’re eliminating a record number of rats every day.  Come with, and I will show you the chart.”

“Chart, schmart. I’ll show you some metrics,” said the Bürgermeister’s wife, who then took him by the ear and led him around the town center, and at each house they stopped and heard the same tale. The rats are still eating up the grain. They are still biting townsfolk in the toes. They are still scaring the young children.

Nothing at all had improved in the quality of life in Hamelin. The only thing that had changed was that they now had a larger pile of dead rats, and a smaller pile of silver Thalers.

An inquest was held to account for the misuse of town funds. During this investigation it was found that a large portion of the reward money had gone to one old man who lived by himself on the outskirts of town. The Bürgermeister and the Council went to visit the old man. “How did you manage to catch so many rats?” they asked, “You are old and slow”.

“Simple,” he said, “Let me show you”. He lead them back around his house to an old barn. As he opened the barn doors, he revealed to the astonished Council hundreds of small wooden cages, each one holding 10 large rats.

“I don’t care for rats much myself”, said the old man. “But since you wanted them so much, I thought I could help out a little. After all, I could use the money, and rats are so easy to breed”.

“Bu…bu…bu…but we didn’t want more rats,” stammered the Bürgermeister. “We wanted fewer”.

“Nonsense”, said the old man. If you offer a reward for something, of course you want more of it, not less. This is just the free market in action.”

The Commentary

We see here the results from failing to specify an appropriate metric. As is often the case, we tend to latch on to metrics that are easy to measure, such as counting dead rats, rather than harder to measure, but more appropriate metrics that truly indicate the achievement of our goals. For example, a reasonable metric might have been a “resident satisfaction index” based on a weekly survey of Hamelin’s citizen’s to see if their rat problems were decreasing. Or the Bürgermeister could have sent out a commission to count how many rats they find in the grain and tracking that number from week to week. The point is to have a metric that clearly and directly reflects the attainment of your goals.

So the lesson is that you should always watch out and ensure that the metrics being suggested truly reflect your ultimate concerns.

With that in mind, let’s move forward to the present and what seems to me a similar confusion of metrics.

Jason Matusow, Microsoft’s Director of Corporate Standards has written a new blog post, which concludes:

The fact of the matter is that translation between formats has always been the path to interop (for document formats), and now with XML-based formats that path is even more appropriate than ever through translation.

China wants to create its own standardized XML format…translation will enable interop. Google Docs has its own format….translation will enable interop. OpenOffice has ODF..translation will enable interop (to MS Office, to Google Docs, to IBM Workspace). Adobe PDF is its own format…translation will enable interop.

Jason seems to be suggesting that increasing the number of different formats and translators leads to an increase in interoperability. This is akin to saying that increasing the number of umbrellas improves the weather. It just doesn’t work that way.

We need to step back and find the proper metric. If, for sake of argument, we define interoperability as the ability for different formats to work together, then obviously as we increase the number of formats and the number of translators then the sum total of interoperability (by that definition) in the world increases. In that case, let’s make the old 1-2-3 format an ISO standard, the WordPerfect format an ISO standard, WordStar an ISO standard, XYWrite an ISO standard, Quattro Pro an ISO standard, Manuscript an ISO standard, Harvard Graphics an ISO standard, Freelance Graphics an ISO standard, etc. Just imagine how much interoperability we could have in the world if we simply could standardize more formats. Every application, could have its own standard format, or maybe two or three.

But you may smell a rat in the above argument. Interoperability of formats is not the appropriate metric. A simple look at the lack of OOXML support on the Microsoft’s Mac Office shows that the introduction of OOXML has reduced interoperability, not increased it. Similarly, scientific journals like Science and Nature have already come out saying that they cannot accept the OOXML format. Translation among multiple formats only partially and imperfectly attempts to work around a break-down in interoperability caused by having multiple formats. It is a band-aid approach and does not address the core issue.

A more appropriate metric than counting piles of semi-functional translators is to look at things from the perspective of the user exchanging documents. The end user doesn’t see or care about formats. They care about their documents and the people and processes that work with these documents. The question for them is: what is the cost to exchange their document with other users and business processes? In other words, what is the cost to interoperate? That is the metric that counts.

Several cost drivers come into play here:

  1. What are the choices and costs in application software necessary to author a document?
  2. What are the choices and costs in application software needed by the recipient of this document, in order for them to read it, or collaborate with me in editing this document?
  3. Will others see the document as I intended? Or will there be fidelity loss from conversions?
  4. Similarly, what are the performance, security, stability, legal and licensing implications of introducing any translation steps?
  5. How easy is it to program this document format? In other words, what is the cost of business process integration?

When looked at from this business perspective, we can get away from counting piles of dead rats and thus come to a quite different conclusion:

None of the cost-driver factors lead to reduced costs with multiple formats. They all have minimal costs when there is a a single format in use. So if the metric for interoperability is the “cost to interoperate”, then interoperability (and choice as well) is maximized when a single application-neutral and platform-neutral document format is natively supported by multiple applications at a range of price/function points. Introducing even a single additional format into your business will escalate costs, degrade fidelity of document exchange, and reduce interoperability.

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Anonymous 2007/05/31, 6:15 pm

    A wonderful story, and irrefutable logic. The image that comes to my mind when I see Microsoft’s logic go down like the Hindenburg is that of a group of people standing in front of a duck. Another person is standing across from them pointing at the duck and loudly declaring it’s a buffalo. The people are shaking their heads in dismay and telling him it’s a duck. So maybe the guy who wants the duck to be a buffalo holds up a thousand dollar bill and says, “who else sees a buffalo here”?

    I think this is a case where both forsight and hindsight are 20/20. I have this nagging fear though, that the future will look back at us (the past) with dismay about the subject of standards. “Why didn’t somebody tell them it would be so much easier with one real standard instead of going through all that trouble.” They won’t see the legions battering away at Microsoft and Microsoft battering back with money, influence, power, lies and self preserving ignorance.

    To those from the future who may be reading this in some archive, the outcome of this standards battle with Microsoft is not assured. We feel confident that we (the public) will win, but Microsoft is very powerful. In fact, they are the most powerful software vendor and one of the most powerful corporations in the world. Our only hope is to convince the weak willed and possibly paid-for politicians and bureaucrats that one standard is the best for all of us.

    Richard Chapman

  • Anonymous 2007/06/01, 2:08 pm

    The truth in Matusow’s post is also in what he does not say, in that what Microsoft wants is to become the pivot format, the only format that is accurately described, rendered, and around which all second-class formats play.

    But I wonder how this is possible with Microsoft reluctence to start a real interop project when you know that not even Office 2007 reads, writes and processes ECMA 376 documents.

    For the record, Office 2007 reads, writes and processes Office 2007 documents which are extensions of ECMA 376 documents. The extensions are undocumented and, as Rob said, are the DNA of the Office 2007 source code implementation itself.

    Heck, even Office 2007 compatibility mode is full of bugs. I have to worry about problems every week with regular Excel (.xls) files that open well in Excel 97-2003 and not well in Excel 2007. And vice versa.

    The dirty trick in the whole MS XML interop initiatives? That it is real easy to start a new project, since the barrier is so low. See MS blogs these days, that’s all they are doing (of course, if you take further look at who is doing what, you’ll soon realize that these are paid MS consultants, or people who have a direct interest in trying to make MS look like the good guys). But the ease to start an interop project is by no mean an indication of the ability to successfully provide round-trip scenarios. Especially when round-trip scenarios involve direct infringements of Microsoft IP (i.e. all the undocumented pieces). Best example so far : Novell’s basic implementation of VBA macros.

    Anyway, business as usual…

    -Stephane Rodriguez

  • PolR 2007/06/01, 6:47 pm

    Found on Updegrove’s blog. There is a link to an interview of Microsoft’s UK national technology officer, Jerry Fishenden.

    A choice quote:

    “If standards meant that the first standard approved was the only one that you could use, then how would that differ from patents? You’re effectively saying this has now got a monopoly on how you will do things.”


  • Rob 2007/06/01, 7:28 pm

    That’s an interesting quote. It shows a misunderstanding of patents, standards and monopolies, all within a short space, quite an achievement.

  • Wesley Parish 2007/06/03, 5:08 am

    Perhaps we should also ask Microsoft to consider an analogy in Intellectual property Rights, preciousss!!!

    Perhaps we should ask Microsoft to consider the importance of pressuring the Peoples Republic of China to respect Microsoft’s IPR, if by analogy, wildly differing ISO standards on the same subject matter, are permissible and indeed, desirable. If the PRC has one idea of the value of IPR and Microsoft has another, that’s just the marketplace at work. On the other hand, if Microsoft succeeds in pressuring the PRC to adopt Microsoft’s views on IPR, then that is monopolistic abuse, according to “Microsoft exec talks patent politics”, 24 May 2007,

  • Chris Ward 2007/06/03, 3:53 pm

    You forgot about requesting an ISO standard for IBM Lotus SmartSuite (i.e. Lotus WordPro).

    However, maybe we should all forget about IBM Lotus SmartSuite. I can’t see it getting ported to Linux :-)

  • Anonymous 2007/06/04, 3:33 am

    Just to let you know, such an example was also used in “Astrix and the mansion of the gods”, by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mansions_of_the_Gods).

    There they used trees.


  • phillip brown 2007/06/04, 7:53 pm

    The story is similar to a Dilbert comic from some time ago. The PHB offers a reward for every bug found. The last panel has Wally saying “I’m going to write me a new minivan”

    Matusow obviously doesn’t travel overseas, or if he does, doesn’t bring any type of electrical appliance. Does he sincerely believe that life is better by having to have multiple adapters for the various types of electrical plugs used by different countries? I guess if you are in the business of making these adapters, the status quo is a lot better than if all the plugs were the same.

  • Rob 2007/06/04, 8:57 pm

    Astrix and Dilbert used it as well? I’ve heard the same basic economic argument used to criticize rewards given by anti-virus companies for the first instance of a new virus submitted to them.

    I think the rat version is apocryphal, though it pops up occasionally, set in Singapore, or Dudley, England. I tried to make my version suitably fictitious, and in the style of a fairy tale.

  • Anonymous 2007/09/19, 5:16 am

    Actually, rat bounties have been common throughout history, and are still popular today, from Bangladesh to central Lousiana. And yes, there are documented instances of people breeding rats for the bounties.

    The funniest is the case of Seattle. Seattle offered rat bounties various times in the 19th century without incident, but in 1907, there was a minor scandal when a rat farm was discovered. As soon as this was reported in the press, of course, other people started doing the same thing. The City Council joked about taxing rat farms to pay for the rat bounty, then actually took it seriously enough to vote on it (they voted no), then finally eliminated the bounty. Less than 30 years later, during the Great Depression, they instituted a rat bounty into the Hoovervilles, and this time there was an explosion of rat farms. The press had a field day–starting with the Seattle Times, but spreading nationwide–laughing at the gullible Seattle government getting caught by the same scam twice. Other documented cases exist in French Colonial Hanoi in 1902 and Beijing in 1899. Given the popularity of rat bounties throughout history, it’s undoubtedly happened many more times.

    However, many of the stories are clearly apocryphal. People in San Francisco occasionally misremember a bounty-related scandal from 1906; the actual story had nothing to do with rat farms, but rather with people enticing small children into hunting rats for them (at the time, people believed these rats were carrying the Plague) by trading candy for rat tails. In Los Angeles in 1903, some racist troublemakers blamed the Chinatown rat problem on local residents breeding rats for food (supposedly the Chinese considered rats a delicacy), and after the city offered a rat bounty, the story mutated into the Chinese breeding rats for the bounty, but there was no truth to either version.

    After the Seattle scandal, journalists in New York and London began “reminding” people of similar events in their cities’ pasts, although there doesn’t seem to be any contemporary account of any of these events (although most of them are vague enough that it’s hard to prove either way, that doesn’t exactly lend them credibility). The Seattle Underground tour tells visitors a slightly distorted version of their first rat farming story, which is probably responsible for the recent spread of the story as a sort of urban legend that can be placed in any city at any time (including Ankh Morpork in the Discworld books).

  • Hillary 2016/08/25, 8:07 am

    Hi there!

    I wanted to let you know that I liked your iteration of the Rat Farmer story. I am a teacher, and have I modified your version of the story a bit for my high school students so that we can use the story to talk about metrics in my Engineering class. If you would like the modified version, please let me know!

    Best, Hillary

Leave a Comment