I will never forget that brisk October evening in 1996. I had arrived home from work, and followed the standard routine — drop off the backpack, boot up the PC, put the keys and wallet on the desk, sort through the mail, turn on the TV, etc. But what about dinner? Nothing in the refrigerator interested me, so I grabbed a $10 bill from my wallet, took my keys and headed off to a sandwich shop around 1/2 mile down the street, as I had done a thousand times before.
I ordered a chicken stir-fry sub with American cheese, large, to go, and headed off home. As I walked down one deserted street, I heard foot steps rustling in the leaves. Turning my head, I saw a figure 50 yards away walking in my direction. Nothing to worry about. The city is full of people. Then a few seconds later, I heard the person running in my direction. Nothing to worry about. I was near a bus stop, and no doubt he was rushing to catch his bus.
But there was no bus. Before I realized what was happening, he had come upon me from behind, knocked me to the wall, and with his left arm around my neck, pressed a blade against my throat with his right hand.
“Don’t turn around or I will plunge this knife into your chest cavity,” he said.
Many things enter one’s mind in such a situation. I’d like to say that my thoughts went immediately to self-preservation, or clever plans for escape, but in all honesty, my first thought was on how awkward his demand was phrased, how clichéd it was. “Plunge into my chest cavity”? I wanted a rewrite.
But a look down at the blade reminded me that this was not a prop, and that however inelegant his words, this gentleman and I had a business transaction to complete.
“Gimme your wallet,” was his request, as I had expected.
“I don’t have a wallet,” I replied.
And thus began a protracted negotiation session,where I offered my $3 and change, and even my sandwich, and this was repeatedly refused as being inadequate. We reviewed the alternatives. He suggested an ATM. I said the nearest one was over a mile away. He said I could drive him. I said I didn’t have a car.
And so we went on, trying to find mutually acceptable solution. When he finally demanded that we go to my apartment and I write him a check, I knew I had to take charge. For the first time that evening I was really scared. This needed to end now, on the street, while the mugger was still relatively calm. I was willing to fight and risk the blade before I would let him into my apartment, where I knew my odds would be greatly diminished. But was there any other solution?
Then it hit me. What if I put him in a context he was familiar with? If he is going to give me clichéd lines, why don’t I give him the same? We’ll work this out according to the book.
“This ends here. I’m not moving an inch more. I don’t have a wallet, and if you don’t believe me, then search me!,” I said in a louder voice that startled him a bit.
I threw my sandwich on the ground, faced the building, dramatically placed my hands spread above my head on the wall, and spread my legs, just like in the movies. He quickly got the idea, patted me down and satisfied himself that I was not carrying a wallet.
His final words were: “Don’t try to follow me.” He then tossed $2 of my $3 back to me and ran off, saying “I only need money for the bus”.
I then walked, a bit faster than usual, back to my apartment, locked and bolted the door, called the police and started eating my sandwich, with cold, shaking hands.
I learned two important lessons from that night. First, I now always carry enough money to satisfy a mugger, $40-$50. Carrying too little money is as risky as carrying too much.
The second lesson… Well, I’ll get to that later, after a few words about the DIS 29500 BRM.
I’m just back from Geneva, where delegations from 32 National Bodies (NB’s), plus Ecma, met for five days at the CICG. Present were 104 delegates in a large, double room with tables four deep, in two sections arrayed in a chevron. A microphone was placed between each two delegates. The delegations were generally arranged in alphabetical order by the English names of their countries.
At the front of the room was a table with the meeting officials, including the SC34 Chair and Secretariat, ITTF representatives (one of their responsibilities is to supervise “the application of the ISO and IEC Statutes and Rules of Procedure”), Ecma’s Project Editor and his assistant, and in the center (or centre) was the BRM Convenor, Alex Brown.
The agenda was essentially improvised based on NB interests. Each NB, called in alphabetical order, was invited to raise an item for discussion, from one of the 3,522 NB comments from the failed Sept 2nd. ballot, or from one of the 1,027 Ecma responses. A quick calculation shows that, a 5-day meeting in session 6.5 hours a day (9-5, with one hour for lunch and 15m breaks mid morning and afternoon) will have at most 1,950 minute of meeting time, or less than 2 minutes per Ecma response. This should have raised warning signals. More than warning signals, it should have triggered action. But not in JTC1. Fast Tracking a 6,045 page Ecma standard. No problem. Processing 1,027 Ecma proposals in one week. No problem.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
So with a bit of derring-do, we plunged into the work on Monday morning. We had a delightful mix of personalities. We had world-renowned experts in XML technologies (I won’t mention any by name for fear of giving offense by leaving one out), experts in JTC1 process, experts in accessibility, RTL writing conventions, computer security, etc. We also had many people who had never attended an ISO meeting before. Individual delegates came from a mix of backgrounds, some government bureaucrats, some standards professionals, independent XML consultants, academics and employees of small and large corporations. The presence of open source and open standards advocates was notable, and I’ll write more on the significance of that another day.
Monday went well. There was a little commotion and several objections when it was announced that detailed minutes would not be recorded. And one delegate did protest that the Head of Delegation for his country was improperly determined. But we plowed ahead and started hearing from delegations by 9:30am, starting in alphabetical order with Australia.
One NB, in lieu of a technical comment raised the objection that the DIS was too long and inappropriate for Fast Track. The response from ITTF was that we should do a “best effort” in the time available this week. If this is not sufficient, NB’s should change vote to No, or maintain No vote.
By lunch time we had made it to India. And what had we resolved? Ten substantive technical issues were raised by NB’s. One was resolved (add Ecma’s OOXML accessibility report as an informative annex) and 9 issues are taken off-line for further discussion.
Six more issues are brought up in the afternoon, as we made it through Malaysia. These items were discussed, and all taken-off line for further discussion. So net for Monday is 15 issues raised, and one resolved. Many of us had homework to do.
Tuesday and Wednesday proceeded much the same, but with time given in the morning and upon returning from lunch to update the BRM on the progress of the “off-line” discussions. But we were still clearly in the accumulation stage. Issues were piling up faster than they were being resolved.
By Tuesday at 12:11 we had made it once through the alphabet, so every delegation had the opportunity to raise, thought not necessarily resolve, a single issue of importance to them. We started again with Australia and end the day with Ireland. The BRM never completed the second pass through the delegations. As the days progressed, more and more time was given to reports from the off-line discussions and trying to gain consensus on those issues. Less time was given to raising new issues.
Given the constraints of the meeting, this was the appropriate thing to do. But the net result was that New Zealand had the last opportunity to raise new issues, on Thursday at 4:34pm. The US, being last in the alphabet, was able to raise only a single issue during the week.
As we reached mid week, we were presented with a set of ballot choices, to deal with the responses that could not be discussed during the meeting, for lack of time, which would at the current rate of processing amount to 800-900 of the 1,027.
As any real estate agent will tell you after a few drinks, the trick to selling a house is to make the buyer think they have made a wise decision. To do that, first show them a few overpriced, dilapidated houses, and then show them the house you want them to buy. A similar approach was used on the BRM.
The four options presented were:
- Option 1: Submitter’s responses (Ecma’s) are all automatically approved.
- Option 2: Anything not discussed is not approved.
- Option 3: Neutral third-party (ITTF) decides which Ecma responses are accepted
- Option 4: Voting (approve + disapprove) must be at least 9 votes. Abstentions not counted.
We were told that these options are not in the Directives and that we have been given these choices because ITTF “needs to act in the best interests of the IEC”. I don’t quite get it, but there appears to be some concern over what the press would think if the BRM did not handle all of the comments. One NB requested to speak and asked, “I wonder what the press would think about arbitrarily changed procedures?” No response. I thought to myself, why wasn’t ITTF thinking about the ‘best interests” of JTC1 when they allowed a 6,045 page Fast Track submission, or ignored all those contradiction submissions, or decided to schedule a 5-day BRM to handle 3,522 NB comments. Isn’t it a bit late to start worrying about what the press will think now?
We break for lunch.
After lunch and after more discussion, the meeting adopted a variation of option 4, by removing the vote minimum. I believe in this vote the BRM and ITTF exceeded its authority and violated the consensus principles described in JTC1 Directives.
Consider 1.2 of the Directives, the General Provisions:
These Directives are inspired by the principle that the objective in the development of International Standards should be the achievement of consensus between those concerned rather than a decision based on counting votes.
[Note: Consensus is defined as general agreement, characterised by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests and by a process that involves seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments. Consensus need not imply unanimity. (ISO/IEC Guide
However, 80%+ of the resolutions of the BRM were resolved by a ballot, without discussion, without taking into account any dissenting views, without reconciling any arguments. Indeed, there was not any opportunity to even raise an objection to an issue decided by the ballot. Many of the issues were decided in 6-5 or 7-6 split votes, with no discussion. How can that be said to be a consensus? This is an utter failure to follow the cardinal principles of JTC1 process.
Note that votes are explicitly allowed at a BRM, though they are discouraged. Section 13.8 of the Directives states:
At the ballot resolution group meeting, decisions should be reached preferably by consensus. If a vote is unavoidable the vote of the NBs will be taken according to normal JTC 1 procedures.
What are normal procedures? Section 9.1.4 says:
In a meeting, except as otherwise specified in these directives, questions are decided by a majority of the votes cast at the meeting by P-members expressing either approval or disapproval.
(Somehow this got this confused and O-member votes were included in the initial reported totals, but I assume this will get fixed and the results restated.)
The key observation is that there are a number of solitary experts at the BRM, those who bring a perspective or expertise that cannot be matched by anyone else at the BRM. For example, the Israeli delegation speaks with authority on matters of Hebrew writing, counting and calendaring systems. In fact, they made a number of valuable contributions to the meeting in these areas. Similarly, other delegation or specific delegates bring their own unique expertise to the table. If an issue is brought up,and the question is asked whether Ecma’s resolution is satisfactory, if Israel objects, their objection should be heard. Period. It doesn’t mean we necessarily will agree with, or adopt their suggested change. But they should be heard. This is what is meant by “seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments”.
The majority has the right to have its will enacted. That is the easy part. The responsibility of the Convenor, however, is to ensure that the minority has the right to be heard, and the equal opportunity to make their case. That is the price of consensus. This is the price of open standards.
This point was demonstrated when one set of comments was being approved. The list of response numbers was projected on the screen. The Convenor asked if there were any objections to approving this batch of comments, which were said to be all related. Three hands went up, objecting, from three delegations, including the US. “So resolved” was the response, without asking the nature of the objections. Certainly, if the only thing that mattered was majority rule and efficiency, and if JTC1 did not have explicit consensus goals, then this might be the correct thing to do. But how, in practice, can one determine the “absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests” without hearing what the objections are?
In this case the US Head of Delegation continued to gesticulate and was eventually recognized to speak. We stated that we observed that the list of response numbers in this resolution was in error and included a response number that should not have been part of this bunch. Once pointed out, the proposer of the resolution agreed, and the US change was adopted without dissent.
This is the kind of thing you lose with an electronic ballot. There is no way to object, no way to discuss, no way to amend or to substitute language. It is not a consensus process. It is just a Hobson’s Choice — take it or leave it, and the BRM suffers for it, as the value of solitary expertise is the room is neutralized by the NB’s who voted blanket approval for all of Ecma’s proposals.
As the meting progressed into Thursday, the tension mounted. As new issues were identified, they were taken off-line and told they could be brought up “Friday morning”. But no one really believed that. It was clear that there was not enough “Friday morning” to go around.
Thursday 9:20am, a delegation objects that they were told only to review Ecma’s responses to their own comments, and that there was never sufficient time to review all 1,000 Ecma responses since January 14th. ITTF’s response: “Nothing we can do about it in the rules — Nothing we could have done in our judgment”.
2:18pm the Convenor announces “This is zero hour”.
There is clearly not even enough time to fully discuss in the meeting the resolution of items that were taken off-line for further discussion. The US is not allowed to present our multi-part proposals to the meeting. We are told get consensus outside of the meeting first, so it can be brought up for quick approval.
Into Friday the BRM spirals further downwards. The issue is not now that NB’s cannot raise new issues. The problem is now that NB’s who have been diligently working on issues off-line with other delegations, meeting over lunch, or early in the morning or into the evening, may not be able to have their proposals heard and acted on.
There simply is not enough time. The anxiety-driven, frantic delegates push even harder. More resolutions are approved with 2 or 3 delegations trying to raise objections, but without being recognized. Tempers grow short. One highly respected Head of Delegation, of unimpeachable reputation and experience started to voice an objection “I am extremely disgusted by the way procedures have been…” before being called out of order by the Convenor, saying that discussion of procedural issues will not be allowed. Another delegation tries to raise a new issue, as they had for the last two days without luck. “We’re using the public money from NNN to come here to speak on our issue. Can we speak on our issue?” Convenor – “We have run out of time.”
And so the BRM came to an end, with the announcement of the results of the paper ballot. Five delegations gave default approval to the Ecma comments (Chile, Cote D’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Finland, Norway) and four gave default disapproval positions on the undiscussed Ecma responses (India, Malaysia, South Africa, United States). Most delegations gave a default abstain position, or registered no position. A delegation could additionally override their default position on any particular issue.The net is that, although the discussions on Monday and Tuesday demonstrated that the quality of the Ecma responses was such that almost every one required substantial off-line work to make it acceptable, we gradually lowered our standards, so that by week’s end, we approved 800+ comments without any discussion, even in the presence of clear objections.
I want to make it clear that I in no way wish to criticize the Convenor. I think Alex did a remarkable job in trying to carry out his duties and be fair in this no-win situation. He was given an impossible task and had to find out how to fail in the least offensive way. There is an art to crash-landing an airplane and we must acknowledge that.
There is an art to being mugged successfully as well and I have learned that lesson. But when someone tells you, “Your money or your life”, although one is better off having that choice than not having it, one can still complain vigorously at the injustice of having a choice forced onto you. It is an artificial constraint, determined entirely without your consultation, and without considering your welfare, that limits you to those two choice. Similarly, the choices given at the BRM were arbitrary, artificial, and not to the benefit of JTC1, NB’s or to users and implementors of DIS 29500.
As the meeting concluded, ITTF requested that we not call the vote a “default” vote. “These were your choices, voted according to the rules you adopted,” we were told. I reject this revisionist portrayal of the events. This was not my choice. This was merely the least bad of several bad choices that the ITTF deigned to allow us at the end of a grueling week trying to resolve 3,522 issues in bloated, technically immature proposal that has been mismanaged from the start.
“Your money or your life”. Not a day goes by that I am not appreciative I was given that choice. But that decision was made under duress, and does not diminish my revulsion of the person who forced that choice upon me. The question is, why do NB’s put up with this OOXML Fast Track nonsense? Who is holding a knife to our throats?