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Is it safe?

My mind sometimes works in weird associative ways. One thought leads to another, all connected, but only tenuously so. I was having a conversation the other day with my wife, and I was all over the place and it only struck me later that the topics were all connected by their tangential association to a ukulele. What would Freud say? But I digress…

I had a trip to the dentist on Monday. Whenever I have to go to the dentist I have images in my mind from the 1976 film Marathon Man, namely Lawrence Olivier as Dr. Szell, the elderly Nazi war criminal, torturing Dustin Hoffman with various unorthodox dental procedures. I figure that if I mentally prepare for the worst, the real dentist will be gentler in comparison. I sometimes mention this movie to the dentist, but they all deny ever having seen the movie. Very odd. I think they are hiding something. Surely this classic must be a staple of dental school film societies everywhere. That and the Tim Conway dentist skit from The Carol Burnett Show. What else is there in terms of great moments in dental cinema?

In any case, a story is told, perhaps apocryphal, that Hoffman prepared rigorously for his role in this movie by depriving himself of sleep for two days, so his character would appear worn and haggard. Olivier, seeing Hoffman that morning, and hearing of his co-star’s preparation, is said to have quipped, “Dear boy, next time why not try acting?”

I’m reminded of this line when I witness Microsoft’s machinations in JTC1, as they attempt to get OOXML approved. They are mounting an enormous offensive and expending great sums of money to convince ISO members that this rubbish heap of a format is acceptable as an ISO standard. Someone needs to ask, “Dear boy, next time why not try engineering?” Instead trying to force this ill considered mess through JTC1 (causing a great deal of collateral damage in the process), why not take your great base of engineering talent and produce a good standard and have that sail through JTC1 with thanks and praise?

We’re also seeing a shell game at play with the technical comments. Many of the technical flaws were uncovered and discussed on this blog back last summer and fall, before OOXML was even completed by Ecma. Microsoft didn’t fix them then. In the 30-day contradiction period, in February 2007, many NB’s raised these same issues. Microsoft didn’t fix them then, saying that they should be raised in the 5-month ballot. Now these same comments are being raised for the third time, in the 5-month ballot, and Microsoft is suggesting that they can be fixed at the ballot resolution meeting (BRM) in February 2008. At the BRM I predict that Microsoft will suggest that the issues should be fixed during maintenance of the standard. That would fit their plans well since they have already petitioned JTC1 to have the maintenance of OOXML handed over to Ecma TC45, closing the circle. Microsoft will never need to fix any problems in OOXML at this rate.

Another curious ploy is the way Microsoft is trying to convince JTC1 members that “Yes” means “No”, that if they have serious issues with OOXML a NB should still vote Approval. Let’s look into what the voting rules really are.

First a simple question to warm up. If you see a tunnel with a sign that says “exit” do you think that you can enter it as well? If you answer “No,” then congratulations, you are smarter than Microsoft thinks you are. Microsoft is essentially arguing around the globe that unless the tunnel has a sign that says “do not enter”, then you are welcome to enter the tunnel regardless of the “exit” sign. They are arguing that a NB can do anything they want unless the JTC1 Directives explicitly forbid it.

The counter argument is actually quite simple. You just need to consult Section 9.8 of the JTC1 Directives, 5th Edition, Version 3.0, which I’ve extracted below:

As it says, an Approval vote is approval of the technical content as presented. It is not approval pending the addressing of comments, or contingent on future work being performed. It is not approval of the importance of the proposal or approval of the market importance of the technology or approval of the company or organization making the proposal. It is explicitly approval of the technical content as presented. Although comments may be appended, the approval is clearly not contingent on anything at all happening to those comments, since the language clearly says the approval of the DIS as presented. Nowhere in the Directives does it suggest that NB’s may substitute their own criteria or procedures for evaluating a Fast Track DIS. The criterion is clearly stated, Approval of the technical content of the DIS as presented. In fact JTC1 Directives, Section 1.2 says “These Directives shall be complied with in all respects and no deviations can be made without the consent of the Secretaries-General.” So any NB that substitutes their own evaluation criteria for the language of section 9.8 is violating the Directives.

Now, for a Disapproval vote, the Directives say that disapproval is made for specifically stated technical reasons, accompanied with proposals that would make the DIS acceptable, and that if these changes are made, the NB has the opportunity then to change their vote to Approval. Note that it is giving a clear ordering. The NB first votes Disapproval, listing the reasons why along with their proposals to fix the problem, then if the changes are accepted, the NB has the opportunity to change their vote to Approval.

This mechanism is called out again a few lines later when it speaks of “conditional approval” and that it should be registered as a Disapproval vote.

Note that under JTC1 Directives, neither Microsoft nor Ecma has the power to accept an NB proposal. They do not own DIS 29500. They are not NB’s. Ecma’s ownership of the proposal ended when the 5-month ballot began. The only entity that can formally address NB technical comments is the assembled NB’s at the Ballot Resolution Meeting. Certainly Ecma can offer an opinion, but it is no longer theirs to accept or deny changes at this point. If Microsoft is promising resolutions to NB’s, then it is promising something which is not theirs to give. (Before you buy a used car from someone, it may be wise to first verify that they actually own it.)

In summary, when Microsoft says that an NB should vote Approval, with comments, and that they promise that all comments will be addressed, this is defective analysis for several reasons:

  1. The Directives clearly state that Approval indicates that the NB accepts the technical content as presented. Certainly, if the NB has only small editorial comments but otherwise accepts the technical content, then an Approval vote is entirely appropriate. But if technical content is not acceptable as presented, then they must vote Disapproval or else they ignore the plainly stated language of the Directives.
  2. Voting Approval, with comments with a private promise from Microsoft that your comments will be addressed at the BRM anyways — this contradicts the clear statement that “conditional approval should be submitted as a disapproval vote.”
  3. Neither Microsoft nor Ecma is competent to provide any assurance as to what the BRM will or will not do. They do not run the BRM and they do not control what comments are addressed. The BRM is an NB meeting.

The tragedy of this is that for so many NB’s, with talented technical committees, the NB process for OOXML has failed to be a technical evaluation, but instead has quickly become a political game, where committees are stuffed, where governments are pressured to change their votes, where billionaires call in favors, where competitors are blocked from participation, where voting rules are ignored or replaced at whim, etc. All we can do is stand by and watch as Microsoft takes over JTC1. The cost to Microsoft will be great, but so much greater is the cost to JTC1. What will it mean for JTC1’s future to be known as a body that does not follow its own rules, does not evaluate proposals on technical merits, but has procedures so weak and poorly written that it allows itself to be taken over and dominated by a single company? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

{ 22 comments… add one }
  • orlando 2007/08/23, 2:11 pm

    “Dear boy, next time why not try engineering?”

    |-) |-)) |-))) :-) !!!!

  • Ted Swart 2007/08/23, 4:21 pm

    What a wonderful discovery Rob Weir. It sure needs to be trumpeted from the rooftops. In every truth there is no such thing as “Yes with comments” — despite MS’s attempt to get national standards bodies to vote that way.
    What can I say: Well done that man!

    . . Ted Swart . .

  • Anonymous 2007/08/23, 4:40 pm

    Yes, it’s the classic case (which applies to both people and companies) of what you say you are vs. what you really are. And MS’s true nature has been obvious (to anybody paying attention) for a couple of decades now.

    I think you got very close to “The tragedy of this”, but not quite. It’s not the political machinations per se. I think it’s more of a common human failing: to repeatedly take people at face value, when you know that they’re lying to you.

    I’m pretty sure some Ancient Greek playwright explored the issue in depth. Or whoever first wrote “…fool me twice, shame on me.”

  • red floyd 2007/08/23, 5:00 pm

    The only other great moment in dental cinema that I can think of is Steve Martin in “Little Shop of Horrors”

  • Doug Webb 2007/08/23, 6:00 pm

    If OOXML is accepted by ISO, every big company in the world will rush to get their own formats for whatever accepted as international standards, which will render standards and the ISO completely meaningless.

    Does the ISO realize that accepting OOXML is like smoking a stick of dynamite?

  • Anonymous 2007/08/23, 8:23 pm

    I’m just wondering… in all this time, has Microsoft done anything but promise to fix any of these issues someday?

    In other words, have they (and can they?) fix all the horrible problems in their spec instead of trying to ram it through with brute force?

    Or is fixing sub-optimal to them in terms of their time to market?

  • Anonymous 2007/08/23, 9:42 pm

    Rob Weir said:

    What will it mean for JTC1’s future to be known as a body that does not follow its own rules, does not evaluate proposals on technical merits, but has procedures so weak and poorly written that it allows itself to be taken over and dominated by a single company?

    I say:

    They become no better than ECMA. I can’t think of any ECMA standards that carry near the same weight as an ISO standard. The problem here is accountability. If something goes awry, who do the participants have to addresses issues to, if those in power are having their ears whispered into.

  • Eskild 2007/08/24, 2:04 am

    What we se is MicroSoft applying its (in-)famous EEE strategy to the Standardisation process


  • Arnd Layer 2007/08/24, 2:06 am

    The “voting YES with comments” fairy tale is a nice – but lame – cover story for all those members that let MS push themselves into voting yes. It is just a formal excuse for voting in a way MS requests.

    All the ISO rules have been created in order to achieve consensus between skilled people who want to reach the best solution for a problem. Due to this the rules are weak. They are just not made to withstand a marketing machinery trying to abse the system. I wonder whether ISO would still be able to achieve the goals if the rules were stronger.

  • The Wraith 2007/08/24, 3:07 am

    As we are well aware in the OpenDocument standardization there were also quite a few “Yes with comments” and this led to OASIS creating a v1.0 second edition version (a very strange thing cause it seems that correct versioning should have required a v1.1 or v1.01).

    Therefore there is precedent for Yes with comments and it leading to changes in the specification. I have no doubt that many of the issues found by IBM and others will be addressed in the ballot resolution process. For example the excellent finds on the spreadsheet formula’s here by IBM.

    Btw, can I ask you that as a member of Ecma how many of those issues found by IBM has IBM actually send to Ecma before they created their final draft version.

  • Anonymous 2007/08/24, 4:21 am

    I have mentioned the film ‘Marathon man’ to my dentist before now, and guess what? He had/has never heard of it, let alone seen it also :-)

  • Anonymous 2007/08/24, 12:50 pm

    http://edge-op.org/iowa/ http://www.iowaconsumercase.org /011607/3000/PX03096.pdf

    The above is a VERY interesting document from Comes v. Microsoft that some Groklaw comment mentioned. It’s a copy of some old files from the Developer Relations Group back when they were fighting OpenDoc. Their strategies appear to be almost the same now as they were back then.

    I sent it to Slashdot, too, but it’s definitely worth a read. I’m not even going to try to extract any more quotes, there are too many good ones that are better appreciated in context, like the “Rule to live by: Never Lie” that comes right before the “Be selective in which facts you emphasize.” …

  • Anonymous 2007/08/24, 1:44 pm

    Perhaps the USA should propose a new ISO standard for measurement. By Microsoft’s logic, two standards are a good thing. Perhaps people around should have a choice of which measurement system to use, too.

    For one, we would have a new standard unit for measuring length, using such measurements as the inch, foot, yard and mile. These are already in use by millions of people and are clearly superior to the meter.

    Second, we would add the standard measurements of fluid volume, the ounce, cup, pint, quart and gallon. The world would certainly benefit by being able to choose between pints and liters.

    Third, the standard measure of weight, the ounce, pound and ton. These are clearly better than having everything based upon the gram.

    Finally, temperature would be measured in degrees Fahrenheit. Millions of people are more familiar with this than with degrees Celsius.

    Actually, no I’m not serious. But how would that be different than OOXML?

  • Anonymous 2007/08/24, 1:58 pm

    Quoted from:
    http://lxer.com/module/forums/t/25871/, the following is apparently an excerpt from the Comes v. Microsoft document mentioned in the comment above this:

    “The document admitted into evidence also says, “The key to stacking a panel is being able to choose the moderator,” and explains how to find “pliable” moderators–those who will sell out.”

    VERY interesting when I compare it to how OOXML is getting approval in some of the NBs …

  • Queen Elizabeth 2007/08/25, 12:14 am

    This article only shows that Microsoft is only behaving in a rational manner, one fully allowed by the rules.

    Tunnels do not say “Exit.” Instead, and for a reason, they bear signs reading “DO NOT ENTER.”

    If national bodies are not acting as would be desired, the blame lies not with Microsoft but with poor decision-making procedures, i.e., ambiguities and loopholes in the ISO rulebook.

    So why don’t we fix that first?

  • eckenheimer 2007/08/25, 2:41 am

    Rather than bemoaning yet again Microsloth’s (for now) success though unethical machinations, I’d like to note that both Groucho Marx and W.C. Fields have done excellent dental comedy, and that Tim Conway’s routine was derived from these two classics.

    FYI: An effective method for predicting Microsoft’s behavior is to simply assume they will continue to behave as a psychopath would. (psychopath: one with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse.)

    in a world without walls or fences, who would need windows or gates?

  • Rob 2007/08/25, 8:45 am

    I forgot about the W.C. Fields skit. Mr. Bean has a version of it too, well worth seeing. It is up on YouTube as well as a 1931 Laurel and Hardy dentist skit. Seems this is one of the great comic set pieces.

  • znephf 2007/08/26, 9:25 pm

    So, when JTC1 approves a standard with lots of votes being made without regard to their own rules what is this thing worth anyway?!

    What comes to my mind: When cheats at an exams it is obvious that it will not be accepted. Everybody sees how the NB’s are playing for MS against _their_ rules and they still are _allowed_ to vote?

  • wvhillbilly 2007/08/28, 7:36 pm

    Microsoft’s tactics in its push to get OOXML approved remind me of the story of Rosie the runner. Rosie was competing in the Boston Marathon, so the story goes, and decided to ride the subway for part of the race. She won the race, but alas, her cheating was caught on camera and Rosie was disqualified. And most likely disgraced, too.

    My thinking is, if Microsoft continues with its cheating and sleazy tactics, it may end up meeting the same fate Rosie did.

  • Travis Smith 2007/09/03, 10:40 pm

    Re: “First a simple question to warm up. If you see a tunnel with a sign that says “exit” do you think that you can enter it as well? If you answer “No,” then congratulations, you are smarter than Microsoft thinks you are. “

    Well, you go to the “Start” menu to “stop” (shut down) all recent Microsoft OS’s… Or is that just black comedy for those of us booting into Linux (or similar)?

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