Re: Demystifying the Politburo (was: Re: Arabic encoding model (alas, static!))

From: Kenneth Whistler (
Date: Fri Jul 08 2005 - 14:31:26 CDT

  • Next message: Gregg Reynolds: "Re: Demystifying the Politburo (was: Re: Arabic encoding model (alas, static!))"

    Gregg Reynolds continued:

    > Thanks very much for taking the time to make a very informative and
    > even-tempered response

    You're welcome.

    > > It becomes dysfunctional
    > > when people try to use the list to voice complaints about
    > > ISO process or to wonder darkly about "who makes the
    > > decisions".
    > I suppose that is at least partially aimed at me.

    Well, it was inspired by the "who makes the decisions"
    comment, but I wasn't trying to make the response ad hominem.

    > I'm not wondering
    > darkly (fun as that is, rhetorically), I'm wondering openly. Nor am I
    > conspiracy minded; my original questions were made in good faith, driven
    > by an interest in getting a clearer picture of what the Unibeast is, how
    > it works, etc.

    And that's why I have been responding to your questions, attempting
    to provide some information about how the Unibeast gets to be
    the way it is.

    > One reason for this is that I've been thinking a lot
    > about things like alternative encoding design principles, the relation
    > of "industry" standards like Unicode to the larger community, whose
    > interests get represented and how, etc. (FWIW, I think Unicode is a
    > Good Thing, but it isn't everything.)

    I absolutely agree.

    > That in the interest of clarity
    > as to what Unicode is, what it claims to be (possibly the same thing),
    > and especially what it isn't. As any good sociologist will tell you,
    > institutions are more than the sum of their parts. Maybe this list
    > isn't the right place for such inquiries, but... see below.

    I think it is perfectly on topic on this list to discuss the
    impact of Unicode, how the standard (and the organization) articulate
    with the rest of the industry, with information technology in
    general, with interested and impacted communities, and so on.

    Where it tends to run off the rails is when people (or organized
    campaigns of people) show up on the list attempting to force
    some change on the standard. It's a technical (and, if you will,
    sociological and historical) discussion list -- not a lobbying
    campaign platform.

    > > Go visit *any* other long-established forum focussed on some
    > > particular issue.
    > I (like most people on this list, I suspect) have visited such forums
    > fairly regularly for over more than a decade. I've never seen anything
    > like the Unicode list.

    Well, in detail, sure. I was referring to very general patterns
    of list and forum behavior, which you can see anywhere from technical
    forums to videogame fan sites to gardening forums. When you
    have a long-established forum, with people who know each other
    and "know the ropes" -- and then when someone new shows up who
    is brash, who ignores the conventions, who insists on initiating
    off-topic discussions, who ignores gentle chidings, who rails
    or flames when criticized, and so on, you get conflict on the
    forum. Such behavior is one of the reasons why God invented
    moderators and private forums.

    You can end up with a pattern of defensive herd behavior by
    the in crowd, who "own" the forum, and identification and
    rejection of "interlopers". If that behavior gets played out
    in public, it results in the "this list isn't friendly"
    appearance for newcomers.

    > But I don't think this list is like other lists. It is, de facto if not
    > de jure, about many things. The "particular issue" covers a huge amount
    > of intellectual territory. One the one hand it is highly technical; but
    > on the other hand, it seems to be about something any literate can
    > recognize and understand, namely characters and written language.

    Correct. And one of the things that makes *this* list interesting
    is that there are so many participants who have backgrounds and
    expertise in so many aspects of characters and written languages --
    of all sorts. Such discussion is almost always welcomed on the
    list, and meanders where it will, unless it ratholes completely
    in things like reminiscences about ancient hardware history and

    > So
    > it is completely unsurprising to me at least that people show up on this
    > list and have things to say about their own written languages. Even
    > more so, considering the general nature of many of the discussions on
    > the list. Personally I don't think such people should be attacked.

    I agree. And in general, they aren't.

    Where people get defensive is when things go over the line into
    shrill polemics that amount, in net, to "The Unicode Standard is
    screwed up because XYZ in my language is handled wrong, and the
    developers of the standard are ignorant asses because they don't
    know my language as well as I do."

    Generally -- not invariably, of course -- such statements are
    delivered in contexts that make it clear that the person making
    them doesnt' understand much about the Unicode Standard, its
    implementation, or the standardization process.
    > Contrast this with other lists (e.g. an XML list or a compiler
    > development list) where it's easy for everybody to be aware of what they
    > don't know.


    > Also, most software projects have at least two lists, one for users and
    > one for developers, and maybe one for announcements. Which leads to the
    > obvious suggestion of splitting this list.

    Such suggestions have been made (and tried) before. It is unlikely
    that they would work now, any more than before. The problem with
    attempting this in an email distribution list (as opposed to
    a bulletin board forum format), is that people end up crossposting
    anyway or moving whatever their topic is into whatever is the
    highest traffic list, regardless of whether it is appropriate.

    We see enough of this kind of crossposting already with the
    existing specialized topic lists (bidi, hebrew, etc.).

    > Well, sure; that goes for anybody who rants. But what about newcomers
    > (or oldcomers) who don't rant? I've been repeatedly astonished at the
    > sheer rudeness with which honest questions/comments have occasionally
    > greeted here. But I guess there's nothing anybody can do about that.

    I agree. There is really no excuse for true newcomers with honest
    questions to be met with rude brushoffs.

    By the way, you may not realize it, but a good proportion of
    that kind of first-timer inquiry is handled not on *this*
    list, but via the web form for questions and reports:

    That is lower overhead for most people than signing up for
    an email distribution list -- and the questions posted there
    are invariably fielded politely and cordially, and if they
    can't be answered by Unicode staff, are forwarded here or
    elsewhere where someone might be able to respond appropriately.
    > That's
    > > the way forums and lists work. People who want to be accepted
    > > and have influence on a list need to spend time learning the
    > > focus, interest, attitudes, concerns, and history of the
    > > forum or list, and to learn how to contribute. If they don't,
    > > they may end up getting hostile responses or worse.
    > >
    > Ok; but that strikes me as a little self-defeating. Essentially you're
    > saying (as I understand it) that the barriers to entry are very high,
    > tough luck if you don't like it.

    Well, yeah. One of the "barriers to entry" is more than passing
    acquaintance with a densely written and highly technical 1450
    page standard with half a dozen more complicated annexes and
    megabytes of associated data files.

    Now, because of the nature of the beast for character encoding,
    not everybody has to understand the whole thing to contribute
    meaningfully. One of the reasons this list is so lively is that
    we *can* have discussions about individual characters (chi-rho/
    khi-ro, anyone?) without dragging in the *entire* standard to
    make sense of the issue.

    But there is the everpresent danger of the fluency fallacy --
    often seen in cocktail party discussions, where someone assumes
    that because they can read and write their own language well
    that that qualifies them as a linguist and grammarian.

    > So you get a self-selecting group of
    > encoding geeks.

    Some of us wear our geek buttons proudly. ;-)

    > I would think a standard that affects basically every
    > literate community on earth would put a high priority on lowering those
    > barriers in an effort to attract native speaker/reader participants.

    This can be constructive or destructive, depending on how it
    is organized.

    The best constructive example I can think of recently was the
    organization of nearly every qualified Balinese expert and
    stakeholder of note for an organized meeting (in Bali) to work through
    all the encoding issues and to help develop a highly
    detailed encoding proposal with serious consensus backing it
    before presentation to the UTC and to WG2.

    Some of the least constructive examples are when someone
    gets all upset and starts a letter-writing campaign that
    spams this list and random selections of Unicode Consortium
    addressees with nearly idential protest letters regarding
    a perceived mistreatment of their language for this that
    or the other thing in the standard.

    In the first case, you get constructive movement towards a
    character encoding that opens a door to information technology
    development. In the second case, you get noise.

    > Which is where separate lists might be useful. Maybe

    Well, sure, but who is going to post to, when
    that identifies them as a whiner? ;-)


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