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Re: Coming up with a new Oracle (was: Re: First call for votes for the Lenny release GR)

[ Moving the discussion to -project.  Please do remember to drop -vote from the
recipients list if you follow up.  ]

On Tue, Jan 06, 2009 at 10:09:52AM +0100, Raphael Hertzog wrote:
> > > Your lawerish-like interpretation of everything that happens in Debian
> > 
> > (I assume that was a typo for "lawyerish".)
> > 
> > For the record, I am offended by this description (not so much the reference to
> > lawyering, though I'm sure you intended it as an insult, but that you seem to
> > think I interpret the bug reports I receive in a lawyer-like fashion).
> It was not meant as an insult. I wanted to tell that the comparisons you
> made to countries/institutions and the like do not help resolving our
> issue because we do not face the same problems and don't have the same
> objectives.

That is not, however, what you wrote (and I don't see how one can get from
lawyers to comparisons to countries).  (And I don't think the message your
comment was a response to contained any comparisons to countries.)

I certainly agree that trying to model Debian as a sovereign state is futile,
for much the reasons you outline.  I may have made that mistake a couple of
times when I was younger - I seem to recall having made enthusiastic comments
along those lines years ago - but not recently, I believe.  In fact, whenever I
see that sort of argumentation from someone else, I wince.

At the same time, I don't think it is useful to avoid all analogues to the
institutes of a country.  Any such analogue will, of course, have to be
justified by the situation at hand.  If I notice that Debian, in my opinion,
needs an arbitration body that needs to decide on Official Facts and Official
Interpretation of some ratified text, I will look at the courts of law of
various countries for inspiration on how they might be organized, simply
because they are vast reservoirs of experience.  Similarly, when our
Constitution gives the Secretary constitutional adjudication powers, I feel it
is not only possible but *useful* to tag those powers as "judicial" powers (and
apply to them judicial standards) - with no intention on my part to impose a
governmental structure on the rest of it.

> The constitution should really be clear so that interpretation is almost
> never needed.

That, unfortunately, is not possible.  Certainly any ambiguities that have been
caused actual trouble should be plugged, either by changing the text or by
establishing clear (and respected) precedents, but you can't produce a document
that is at the same time clear and unambiguous.

Even if you somehow manage to come up with a text of the Constitution that is
for all intents and purposes clear and unambiguous, someone will trot out,
given sufficient reason, a tenuous misinterpretation to support their cause.
Most of the time, that someone will be a loner, and laughing at them will be
quite sufficient, but there may come a time that their cause is shared by a
significant portion of the developers, or simply few developers with sufficient
clout, and they may decide to pretend the misinterpretation actually had any
merit[*].  In such a case, you need some mechanism for slapping them down - a
constitutional arbitration body, or an Oracle as I have described it in this

[*] I'm sure people on both sides of the recent events might, at least on bad
days, claim that this is actually what happened late last year - with the
*other* side being the bad guys.

A constitutional interpretation, no matter how well the original document was
written, will remain unchalleged only while there is no acrimony within the
developers.  But then again, who needs a constitution when we all agree anyway?
(In other words, the supreme rule of writing contracts - assume that the nice
guy sitting on the other side of the table get hit by a bus tomorrow and their
inheritors will be of the worst possible kind, and write the contract to
withstand that catastrophe - applies, mutatis mutandis, to writing the
constitutions of non-governmental organisations like Debian.  Except that,
unlike most NGOs and most contracts, we don't have any practical recourse in
Debian's matters to any court of law backed by some sovereign state.)

> We should fix the constitution so that we can leave the duty of
> interpreting the constitution to the secretary. We just need to make it
> clear that the secretary doesn't have to interpret the foundation
> documents to handle his secretarial work and that he must apply 3:1 ratio
> based on what the GR says (explicit supersession or not) and not on what
> he believes it means in practice.

I do not think that is a good idea.  All interpretation ought to be based on
the actual situation, not on rules-lawyering like "it doesn't explicitly say
it, therefore it isn't".  If you don't trust the Secretary to interpret the
facts correctly, then don't empower him to make the decision.

Even dropping the supermajority requirements altogether (Ian's option A) would
be better.

Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho, Jyväskylä, Finland

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