Similarity Breeds Dislike

When the wildly popular online multiplayer game World of Warcraft came out a few years ago, I played it for about six months. Like just about every other multiplayer game out there, WoW players a faction to belong to, in WoW’s case, either the Horde or the Alliance.

This choice is often arbitrary, although once someone has chosen a particular faction, their friends will often choose the same one so they can play together. But at the time a player joins, they have no particular love for the side they choose or hatred for their faction’s enemies.

This soon changes, however, especially on game servers that promote warfare between the factions (so called player-vs-player servers, such as the one I played on). A raging hatred exists between players on opposite factions that extends out of the game world and onto forums, blogs and so on, where people insult each other, claim the other side has an unfair advantage, etc.

In other words, people who have a ton of things in common, from their frequently similar personal characteristics (young, male, etc.) to their obvious appreciation for the same type of entertainment, spend hours flaming each other as a result of an arbitrary, meaningless choice when they first started playing the game.

As in the world of video games, so in the world of web development. I’m sometimes dismayed by the attitudes expressed by Python programmers towards Ruby programmers, and vice versa.

Don’t get me wrong: lots of people from these two communities are perfectly civil towards one another, and some of the tension is simply a healthy competitive rivalry. But that is not always the case, which is weird: after all, both languages are dynamic and cutting-edge, both communities are producing fantastic software, and both communities are generally contemptuous towards people who program in PHP. So what’s the problem?

Or check out the massive flamewar on Smashing Magazine because someone had the nerve to suggest that web developers don’t need to use Macs. Five hundred comments (and counting) of Mac users bashing Windows users bashing Mac users, occasionally interspersed by pious Linux users wondering what all the fuss is about.

But all of these people are web developers. Some, of course, are respectful to each other, but others are not: the fact they are speaking to someone who is probably much like them, with the same career and probably many of the same interests, does not matter as much (at least at that moment) as that person’s choice of computer.

When we’re online, we often disagree the most with the people who are just like us. Is this the result of competition, like the conjured up war between the Horde and the Alliance in World of Warcraft or the pressures of the hyperactive pace of web development? Or is it a way of insisting that we are unique individuals, even when presented with evidence to the contrary – our peers?

Offline, the situation changes. Put a Ruby programmer and a Python programmer in a room together at a party and they’re bound to meet at some point and trigger the kind of endless, arcane-to-normal-people conversation that prompts their wives to suggest leaving. Put a couple of WoW players into a room at a party – actually, never mind, WoW players don’t really leave the house.

There’s a simple solution for all of this then: when you deal with people online, treat them the way you treat the people you see every day, in person. Even if they still use PHP. Or they’re Horde. You ganking bastards.


What, you’ve never heard of Manny Schwartz?

If you’re fairly well-informed when it comes to science, you may often feel, and sometimes express, skepticism about someone else’s supposedly scientific claims.

For example, if you were to see Suzanne Somers on Oprah telling women that injecting estrogen directly into their vaginas (don’t worry, that link does not go to a photo) will make them look and feel younger, you may think, “that’s crazy,” and you may even feel compelled to remark to someone near you that you believe “that woman is freaking nuts”.

When you criticize an apparently ridiculous person or idea, however, you open yourself up to a common line of attack, which is to point out that history’s revolutionary thinkers and inventors were usually mocked when they announced their discoveries.

I’m slogging my way through Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought right now and I came across a brilliant counter-argument to that. In this paragraph, Pinker is discussing the radical linguistic theories of philosopher and psychologist Jerry Fodor:

Fodor correctly notes that history has often vindicated unconventional ideas – after all, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus and Thomas Edison. The problem is that they all laughed at Manny Schwartz, too. What, you’ve never heard of Manny Schwartz? He was the originator and chief defender of the theory of Continental Drip: that the southern continents are pointy at the bottom because they dribbled downward as they cooled from a molten state. The point is that they were right to laugh at Manny Schwartz. Extraordinary claims […] deserve extraordinary evidence.

So the next time someone pulls this one on you when you express skepticism about an extraordinary claim, just ask, “What, you’ve never heard of Manny Schwartz?”


Food Is Not Just Another Commodity

Wrote a blog post for RTH:

Global food prices continue to rise. United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has warned that “We risk the spectre of wider-spread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale”.

Food riots in Haiti, rice rationing in India and even the United States, panic buying in Britain: so far, Canadians have been insulated from these phenomena, but not for long. Our rendezvous with rising prices for life’s essentials is on the way.

To markets, food is just another commodity, subject to the same profiteering and speculation as tech stocks, minerals and oil futures.

The difference is that food, like air and water, is the most basic of necessities. Not being able to afford food is a death sentence.

Markets for food used to represent a means to fairly compensate farmers and a motivation for them to keep growing food. Now, global markets have set up a powerful and dangerous competition for a vital resource.

Go read the rest if you’re interested.


Wrong Again

I took a moment to blast some National Post editors on Raise the Hammer today. Check it out: Wrong Again: The National Post on Climate Change, Part 2.

Other semi-recent writings on RTH that I haven’t linked to from here include As Spring Arrives, Perennial Issues and Guerilla Gardeners Resurface and Vanishing into the American Gulag.

I hope you’re having a great summer!


“Those fanatical atheists”

Dan Gardner, who writes for the Ottawa Citizen, frames the atheism debate nicely in an article from last Saturday.

Those making this case [for atheism lately] have been dubbed the “new atheists.” They have also been called fanatics who are dogmatic, zealous and intolerant of other views — the mirror image of religious extremists. As one English university dean said in the Guardian, Richard Dawkins is “just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs in the Tube.”

Less Olympian thinkers have portrayed strident atheists as hacking away at the bonds of morality, which must inevitably lead to various forms of depravity ranging from the sexual to the genocidal.

Don’t you know Stalin was an atheist? That’s the way it goes. First you read Richard Dawkins. Then you have an abortion. Then you’re putting a fresh coat of paint on the Gulag.

This frames the debate in a pleasingly symmetrical way. Over on that side are the insane religious fanatics who fly jets into skyscrapers and march around with signs saying “God Hates Fags.” Over there are fanatical atheists. Between the two extremes are sensible moderates who take the Goldilocks approach to faith and reason.

He goes on to sum up the famous atheist Richard Dawkins’ message:

If you claim that something is true, I will examine the evidence which supports your claim; if you have no evidence, I will not accept that what you say is true and I will think you a foolish and gullible person for believing it so.

That’s it. That’s the whole, crazy, fanatical package.

Well worth a full read.

Life, politics, code and current events from a Canadian perspective.

Adrian Duyzer
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