ODF and Jesus; Blood and Diamonds

by Rick Jelliffe

My previous weblog An interesting offer has generated more vitriol than the last time I suggested that torture wasn't entirely wonderful. One writer even speaks of 30 pieces of silver. I suppose this casts ODF as Jesus, ISO as Pontius Pilate, me as Judas, and MS as Satan in the guise of an angel of light called Ecma. Are OASIS the apostles?

Now, ODF does have kind of biblical connection, I guess: its universally respected editor Patrick Durusau used to work for the Society of Biblical Literature. But I don't think the virtue goes out of Patrick into ODF (to compare it to the woman with the issue of blood, one of my favourite passages) to the extent of making 30-pieces of silver an analogy that is anything other than offensive. But that is probably the point.

Another writer described OOXML (I think slightly tongue in cheek) as "horribly evil." I saw that movie Blood Diamond last night: excellent. Child soldiers being hooked on heroin and being forced to kill is horribly evil. I don't believe file formats reach that standard. That movie suggests that before buying diamonds, we insist on getting proof that they are not from conflict zones, where they fund real wars.


Asbjørn Ulsberg
2007-01-23 02:48:37
I just realised that I've stopped clicking on to read the full O'Reilly network articles because the feed entries I subscribe to only contain a substring of the article and not a real humanly written lead, the URLs seem to be going for the "I want to be the ugliest and longest URI you've ever seen" award, plus the CMS you're using doesn't have enough formatting options so all O'Reilly blog writers tend to WRITE IN UPPERCASE when they want bold text or even *UPPERCASE ENCASED IN ASTERISK* when they really want to make a point.

I may be a snob, but I just find the whole thing hideous and so unpleasant to the eye as well as the summaries so uninteresting (because they're just substrings) that I'll probably just unsubscribe. Unless these problems gets fixed of course.

2007-01-23 03:07:24
well something can be horribly evil in the context of what it is. In the wider context of the world is OOXML horribly evil, no it is just horribly banal (but then evil is supposedly banal I've heard), but anyway in the context of markup where the most child document authors ever get hooked on is Windows-1252 and are forced to whine about it OOXML might be a ratchet up of the evil gear.

Anyway I've had to do work with both (or at least WordML which is close enough to OOXML not to worry about) and I prefer ODF to OOXML in the same way that I prefer one form of annoying pain to another form of annoying pain that is ten times more painful! (how's that for a vivid analogy!)

2007-01-23 08:44:17
No, it is not even slightly "tongue in cheek" when I say OOXML horribly evil.

Yes, heroin-driven armies of child soldiers are of course a *more* horrible evil than Microsoft's monopolisticly criminal actions. But, the people who are actually working to end child slavery (and plenty of other more-evil-than-microsoft evils) are very much among the people who are severely encumbered by the prevalence of proprietary file formats. I realize not everyone thinks about it this way, but I believe that lasting freedom from [literal] slavery requires freedom of speech, which in turn requires removing the enormous artificial barriers erected by the present-day monopolies on communication tools.

Please don't forget that we are talking about TOOLS for COMMUNICATION here.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-01-23 09:13:39
Finite: So you are saying that ISO should not rubber-stamp Ecma Office Open XML because it would adversely affect people trying to stop child slavery? (Among other reasons, of course.) It is a salutary thought. Gosh. Ooh that wabbit...
2007-01-23 09:30:04
YES, THAT IS WHAT I AM SAYING! (particularly, among-other-reasons)

So are you suggesting that OOXML *won't* adversely affect 'end-users'? Or just not ones fighting against slavery? Do these people not need communication tools?

My experience has shown me that non-technically minded people are the people who are hurt most by this kind of thing, and many (most?) activists working against the more horrible evils are not technically minded people. They need communication tools, and they shouldn't need to think about file formats. If I had a $0.05 piece of currency for every time I've seen novices get frustrated and delayed by file format problems, I could almost afford a copy of MS Office.

Brian Donovan
2007-01-23 10:21:39
I think that your selection of what you consider to be overblown/exaggerated points from the comments to your initial post on this matter for this follow-on blog post is quite telling.

Through it all, you seem to be seem to be blissfully ignoring the explicit Wikipedia guidelines against contributing to articles when you are being paid to do so. From Wikipedia: Conflict of Interest (Financial conflicts of interest):

If you fit either of these descriptions:

  1. you are receiving monetary or other benefits or considerations to edit Wikipedia as a representative of an organization (whether directly as an employee or contractor of that organization, or indirectly as an employee or contractor of a firm hired by that organization for public relations purposes); or,
  2. you expect to derive monetary or other benefits or considerations from editing Wikipedia; for example, by being the owner, officer or other stakeholder of a company or other organisation about which you are writing;

then we very strongly encourage you to avoid editing Wikipedia in areas in which you appear to have a conflict of interest. Wikipedia's neutral point of view policy states that all articles must represent views fairly and without bias, and conflicts of interest significantly and negatively affect Wikipedia's ability to fulfill this requirement.

I'm still having trouble believing that anyone within Microsoft would actually try pulling a stunt like this or that a reasonable person would even entertain the idea of taking the job.

2007-01-23 10:34:25
"This page is considered a guideline on Wikipedia. It is generally accepted among editors and is considered a standard that all users should follow. However, it is not set in stone and should be treated with common sense and the occasional exception. When editing this page, please ensure that your revision reflects consensus. When in doubt, discuss first on the talk page."

Wikipedia guidelines are explicitly not policy. If a company is being factually misrepresented on Wikipedia, and they know it, what would you suggest they do? Wait for the consensus to sort itself out?! Hiring wiki editors makes a lot of sense, and I'm sure this isn't Microsoft's first time.

The only thing surprising to me here is that Microsoft would ask somebody to do this and forget to make it very clear that this kind of disclosure is not allowed. (I mean, WTF did you really think your readers would say, Rick? "Golly, that sounds like a swell job you've got there?")

Rick Jelliffe
2007-01-23 11:27:27
Doug Mahugh has published on Slashdot the actual offer and instructions. See "Im the guy you're bashing today" at

Yes, full disclosure was part of the deal! I wouldn't have been interested otherwise; I would have missed all this fun for a start :-)

Brian Donovan
2007-01-23 11:50:28
Direct link to dmahugh's comment: hi, I'm the guy you're bashing today

Is what dmahugh posted really the entirety of the email? Was there just the one message? How much disclosure are you up for?

Also, would you like to tackle the issue of the Wikipedia conflict of interest guidelines?

As Finite felt compelled to point out, they're guidelines and not edicts written in the blood of martyrs, but the wording seems quite clear and very strong. The only real "out" would seem to be following the other suggestion for those who want to make edits to articles but are encumbered by conflicts of interest:

If you feel it necessary to make changes to Wikipedia articles despite a real or perceived conflict of interest, we strongly encourage you to submit content for community review on the article's talk page or file a Request for Comment to the wider community, and to let one or more trusted community members judge whether the material belongs in Wikipedia.
Rick Jelliffe
2007-01-23 11:51:18
Finite: Thanks for finding that clarifying passage. I don't feel so bad now.

As to what I think my readers would think, well everyone who knows me would think "Oh, he's a good person to get to do that" and I have no control over what people who don't know think about me, which is probably good for all concerned. If I do a good job, my reputation among fair-minded people will be enhanced. And I am sure that people at National Bodies who will be voting on the Ecma OOXML spec would prefer that their decisions were not informed by FUD.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-01-23 11:53:23
Brian: Ah, its never enough is it?
2007-01-23 12:48:46
"I have no control over what people who don't know think about me"

Rick, if you don't even realize that you are the number one influence on what people who don't know you think about you, then you are probably the wrong person for Microsoft to hire to influence what people think about them! (And if you're going to tell me that you honestly believe that this job isn't about influencing what people think about Microsoft... well.. If you believe that then I'll go away and stop wasting my time on your blog. I should probably do that soon anyway, actually, I think we're beating a dead horse here.)

But with statements like these, I can't help but reply!

"I am sure that people at National Bodies who will be voting on the Ecma OOXML spec would prefer that their decisions were not informed by FUD."

And just what makes you think the ECMA people are so daft that they can't see through the FUD that you in your infinite expertise can? And are they really basing their decisions on what it says in articles from the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit?

2007-01-23 12:52:31
And I think you are a little over-confident in stating so definitively what people who do know you will think about this. I humbly suggest that you might want to explicitly request that they not spare your feelings before asking them what they think.
Rick Jelliffe
2007-01-23 14:07:56
Finite: ISO voting is by national bodies who have technical committees, who often defer to a couple of technical experts. They certainly get their information from many places, but one thing people do is to get a general feel from collegues about a technology. So if someone says "Ooh, Ecma OOXML has terrible potential security problems" then that influences the technical expert. They may not be in a position to ask "What problems?" or "Does ODF have the same ones?" etc. Wikipedia is a prime source of information now that is exactly the kind of thing that someone looking to inform themselves is likely to read.
David Gerard
2007-01-24 04:29:22
At this stage I think the main problem to deal with is that both the OOXML and OpenDocument articles need serious attention from editors who are knowledgeable in the areas but care most about writing the encyclopedia. I put some calls out on the wikien-l mailing list for editors experienced in this sort of on-wiki conflict.

(What tends to happen is that an article or subject area attracts a core of editors who may have vast disagreements on the topic, but are (a) capable of writing neutrally in ways all sides can live with (b) are most annoyed when people they nominally agree with write stupid things.)

The Conflict of Interest thing is a guideline for those who understand what a conflict of interest is; picking it apart for loopholes is grossly missing the point. It should be obvious that paid editing from a very interested player is a conflict of interest, and no reasonable person should need more than to have it pointed out.

That said, I've asked Doug Mchugh to keep contributing to the OOXML talk page and I hope you'll give some much-needed cluefulness to both the OOXML and OpenDocument pages. And damn the advocates and anti-advocates; I certainly do, frequently.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-01-24 09:47:55
David: Thanks for that
2007-01-24 10:40:20
Rick, do you believe that OOXML will _not_ adversely affect end-users?
Stephen Turnbull
2007-01-24 10:58:38
Rick, if you want to avoid helping to fund real wars, you don't demand proof that diamonds aren't from conflict zones. *You just don't buy diamonds, period.* If you think that your boycott of *these* diamonds while still buying *those* diamonds is going to lower the demand for *these* diamonds appreciably, you're being naive. The diamond market doesn't work that way (although the market for, say, PCs or brands of cola might). Rather, demand will sort itself into "ethical" and "unethical" segments (with most buyers not caring which segment they're in), and almost surely nothing will change in the aggregates.

I think you're being similarly naive about Microsoft's standards. I think they are a necessary evil (technology will move on, and rich kids have more money and other resources to play with, so they'll produce a lot of the new toys ... er, technology), but within the bounds of necessity, they're evil. As somebody pointed out, for practical purposes OOXML is going to be impossible for third parties to implement satisfactorily (and probably Microsoft itself will suffer minor embarrassment from implementation boo-boos). So in the end, the official standard will be ignored by a large share of users in favor of Microsoft's implementation. Don't think that Microsoft is unaware of that, or that their strategists don't deliberately exploit it.
I imagine that you do know that, but ... hm, how to say it? I guess I'd like to see a little bit more acknowledgement of that point. Technology may be ethically neutral, but marketing is not.

I had a similar experience with Adobe Acrobat Reader and Ghostscript. Ghostscript was writing PDF files using an obscure feature of Adobe's standard ... and it crashed Acrobat on Windows, versions 4 and 5 (at least). I pointed out to my colleagues that Adobe admitted it was an Adobe bug but that didn't fly; my boss said it was *my* problem---I either had to fix Ghostscript or use a different PDF writer. (Fortunately pdftex worked for my purpose.) That's just the way these things work, and as with the diamonds, we'll need to forcibly change the rules of the game to "fix" that. But the amount of "force" needed will warp other aspects of the market; it's hard to be sure it will be worth it. (I guess my point about acknowledgement above is that this needs to be explained, rather than assumed.)

As far as getting paid by Microsoft to edit the Wikipedia goes, "Golly, that is one swell job you've gotten; I wish I could have one like it!" Bias? Conflict of interest? I don't see it; what's important is that you write precisely and well. If you write precisely, people who have clue will quickly discover, point out, and correct any bias. Disclosure of the support from Microsoft only speeds up the process.

I'm saddened by the number of people who think that getting paid by someone with an interest automatically constitutes a *conflict* of interest, especially that Mr. Gerard thinks so. Of course there's potential for conflict of interest, and it may introduce some bias, but a professional is supposed to be able to counteract that. Disclosure is necessary, and in cases where the professional is supposed to be fully impartial (as if that were possible!), accepting payment from interested parties constitutes conflict of interest. But honest advocacy, where all viewpoints get balanced presentation (not necessarily, in fact usually not, from the same author), and there's no FUD, may be expression of interest, but not a conflict of interest.

I note that Wikipedia's *published* guidelines demand "writing from a neutral point of view" (NPOV), not impartiality. You don't have to *be* impartial; you just have to write that way. Furthermore, in the same spirit of disclosure, Wikipedia provides an obvious way for you to ensure NPOV: you just mark everything you edit where your client has a related interest with the POV-check template. And of course you comply with the guidelines about wording and verifiably.

I think that's likely to produce a much better and more impartial article than litmus tests like "is this author competent and expert enough to get paid? ban him, ban him, he must be a shill!" Sad.

2007-01-24 12:21:49
"Rick, do you believe that OOXML will _not_ adversely affect end-users?"

Well I don't know about Rick, but I've had to work with both WordML and Open Office and have read parts of the the submitted standards (yes ooxml is not wordml but it is pretty close for the parts I had to deal with). I can't say I love ODF but WordML sucks. That said I don't think OOXML will adversely affect end users - at least not directly.

2007-01-25 13:23:41
"At least not directly"?!

To be clear: The primary adverse affect that I expect OOXML will have on end-users is to perpetuate lock-in. I don't doubt that it will well suit the needs of MS Office end-users who do not desire interop or choice in software.

So maybe the question is better phrased "Do you believe that lock-in is _not_ an adverse affect for end-users?" or "Do you believe that lock-in is _not_ a primary design goal of OOXML?"

Rick, I don't understand how you can seriously say that you are a champion of plurality and choice, and yet be willing to work to promote acceptance of a "standard" that appears to be largely designed to lock people in to a single company's software -- unless you don't believe that it is actually designed for that purpose! Which is why I ask these questions.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-01-26 03:14:09
Update I have now looked at the Wikipedia guidelines for conflict of interest pretty carefully, and I don't believe there is actual conflict of interest under their rules. There would be if MS paid someone to correct entries on MS or its brands, but draft ISO OOXML is not an MS brand. See What actually is Wikipedia's guidelines for conflict of interest?
David Gerard
2007-01-26 17:08:36
I should add - our policy on conflict of interest is pretty hard-arsed because of everyone's eternal friends, the spammers, marketers, search engine optimisers and so forth.

The problem in the general case, as I said, is that it's hard to get a clue across to people who think their income depends on not getting said clue. Hence our eternal friends the marketers, SEOs and other spammers. So we went hardarsed because they'll take a mile whether you gave an inch or not.

We're currently working very hard on how the hell we can construct a workable channel for reasonable complaints about editorial matters - such as this - that volunteers (who will work their arses off ... when they feel like it) will go through and work on, without it being flooded with idiocy. (You should see my email box. Or answer my phone.) This is ... a tricky one.

It really isn't good for Wikipedia either that Doug's innocent offer led to bad press for Microsoft around the globe - we don't want people scared to touch us in case it happens to them.

Rick Jelliffe
2007-01-26 23:45:31
Yes, and can I distance myself from buying into either MS' press comments on IBM or criticism of particular Wikipedia editing decisions in the past. Microsoft have their reasons and experiences, and it is not necessary for me to share them or even make decisions whether I agree with them in order improve Wikipedia entries and satisfy everyone of good faith.

I personally don't care about MS getting bad press around the world, I do care about me getting bad press around the world. I was happy to see some good corrective views being put: NetWorld has a good item Microsoft didn't 'bribe' standards expert.