SIGAVDI #95: Muhammara Edition

Hello friends,

Spring is in the air, here in St. Louis. Nothing is blooming yet, but the daffodils are looking optimistic. I find myself, for the first time, attempting to plan a garden. In preparation for the warmer months I also finished cleaning the last of the moving-overflow out of my garage, a feat of which I am unreasonably proud.

A photo of a Humboldt Penguin
Not pictured: the astonishing bellowing that periodically emerges from these birds.

The last freeze is soon, if not already past. The Humboldt Penguins at the St. Louis Zoo are in no hurry.

What’s Good

What’s New

A lot! Let’s see…

  • The other day I sat down (virtually) with Rails performance maestro Nate Berkopec for a whirlwind introduction to how he instruments and diagnoses web app performance issues. We recorded the session, and with the help of Tyler the Content Minion I’ve edited it into four ~20-minute fully-transcribed and annotated videos, and added them to the Robust Ruby course.
  • …which brings me to: Robust Ruby is now done. Finally! 24 RubyTapas-extracted videos plus these brand-new Rails performance videos, covering an array of topics loosely organized around the production concerns of monitoring, optimizing, and failure -management. It’s available as a standalone course, or as part of a Graceful.Dev Pro membership. If you’re reading this as a SIGAVDI subscriber, you can take 10% off either one with code: []
  • I’ve continued to write about the practice of running a “banana stand” business. I wrote about The Pre-Sale Trap: how I’ve done myself few favors by pre-selling products that didn’t exist yet. And about The Enterprise Riptide and why I’m presently in the process of replacing most of the services my business has relied on over the past 10+ years.

What’s on my mind…

At some point in my late teens or early twenties I discovered Christopher Hitchens, and his collection of essays Letters to a Young Contrarian. “Contrarian!” I thought. What a wonderful word. That’s what I am, I decided: a contrarian!

I had been groomed to be a contrarian before I ever heard the term. I was raised in the backwoods by a dad who proudly proclaimed us to be “weird”. Normal was bad, in my childhood lexicon. Ordinary was something other people were. Less interesting people.

I was also raised on unconventional ideas. Like Creation Science: the assertion that the history related in the Bible is factually accurate in all of its particulars, and nature backs it up. If you know where to look.

I grew up with picture books of dinosaurs coexisting with humans on an earth that was only 10,000 years old. Explanations of how the “Leviathan” of Job was in fact a dragon-dinosaur, and how dragons could (in turn) be explained in terms of modern bombardier beetles. I remember being driven hours away to some convention where Creation Scientists were giving speeches about how some gorge being cut by a flood in a few days disproved everything “known” about how long it takes for canyons to form.

Many of my adult mentors who shared these beliefs were well-educated, thoughtful, in some cases legitimately brilliant people. They had jobs doing technical work like audio engineering and circuit design for satellites. How could these people be mistaken? Clearly, the rest of the world was in the dark.

It was all very exciting. We were weird, and we knew better than anyone else! This background primed me for future contrarianism as a young adult, and by the time I discovered that word I was more than happy to claim it.

Having these experiences young left me with certain lifelong impressions:

First, I recognize that the urge to contrarianism is real, and that I have it to a strong degree. I can see where my opinions often germinate from wanting to believe the opposite of the conventional wisdom, and then looking for facts to support this angle.

I still indulge my contrarianism on some topics. For instance:

  • Believing that Apple computers hasn’t been a very good computer company for a while now (in my defense, I was ALSO right about Apple being the future of laptops back when the first TiBook was launched 😝)
  • Believing that everything about the way we do tech hiring is wrong and regressive and borderline abusive.

…but I am at least a tiny bit aware that my urge to be contrary often precedes my developed, elaborated opinions.

Second, I feel like I can often recognize this contrarian streak in others.

And third, I feel like I understand the momentum of contrarianism. It’s this last point I want to talk more about.

There is a belief floating around out there that given enough information and enough sunlight, the truth will win. How can lies and conspiracy theories survive in a world with ready access to voluminous amounts of scientific research?? How can any rational person continue to take themselves seriously, talking about Adam and Eve riding their pet Triceratops to the Tree of Life?

And then we have a global pandemic. And suddenly, somehow, enough people believe that vaccinations and masks are a global conspiracy of subjugation, for that belief system to shift public health policy!

I know there has been sociological research on this phenomenon. I’ve only read a little of it, and I can’t remember enough to link to a paper. I just know what I’ve experienced. And what I can tell you is this: the more contrarian you are, the more your world will confirm your beliefs. No matter how outlandish they are.

I experience this myself, still. It works like this:

  • I rant about (let’s say) tech job interview practices on Twitter
  • Most people shake their heads and scroll on: Avdi is on one of his sanctimonious tears again.
  • A few people engage with me, equivocating, about how it isn’t all bad
  • A few people feel seen and validated in a way they didn’t before, and get in contact with me about their horrible experiences. They point their friends to my writings as well.
  • This last experience is my strongest signal! I feel totally validated, like I’m onto something. I’ve uncovered the dirty laundry under the bed!
  • I use what people have confided (in privacy-respecting ways) to feed future, even more pointed rants.
  • Plenty of people might disagree with me, but don’t have the energy or will to engage. Many more just don’t care.
  • My loudest feedback is
    • a) people who vociferously agree with me, and
    • b) people who disagree with me so violently that they feel compelled to reply. This latter self-selecting category is often so cartoonishly opposed to everything I’m saying that they reinforce my beliefs in a harmful system that is indoctrinating people.
  • As a result, I feel like I’m tapped into a deep vein of truth!

I can see this cycle at work, and also think I’m right about tech hiring. Contrarianism doesn’t make you wrong, per se. Often it functions as useful prompt to question assumptions.

The important thing to understand about this phenomenon is that you will always be validated in your contrarianism. There isn’t some green lamp that lights up when your contrarianism draws you to uncover a hidden truth, and a loud buzzer that goes brrrrrrrrrrrrt when it leads you down a dead-end alley.

The fact that there are actual, literal flat-earthers in this day and age is proof that there is no belief so unhinged that the momentum of contrarianism won’t carry you further into it. If you let it. The further you go, the more most people will roll their eyes and distance themselves, the more a few very motivated people will feverishly encourage you, the more those latter people will fill your personal sphere, and the further you will go.

And at some point you cross the line from contrarianism, into the momentum of radicalization.

“Rationality” is no impediment to this slide, because the methods of rationality are trivially subverted—especially by smart people who believe themselves to be rational. If anything, rational skeptics are more prone. Often they come out of an insular religious/cultural background like mine, and they attribute their own self-extraction from a cult-ish belief system to their contrarian streak. If you believe you liberated yourself from a false belief—rather than, in truth, having liberated yourself from a niche belief reinforcement cycle—it can be hard to know when to stop disbelieving everything said by the people around you.

(This is where the Outside View can come in handy.)

It’s relatively easy to trigger someone’s slide down this slope, if you understand the cycle. Statements like “Some people are asking questions about [insert provocative, seemingly outlandish assertion]” work well. At first they might dig to give the lie to this absurd suggestion. But in the back of the contrarian head, there’s that little buzz of “what if there is hidden knowledge to be discovered…?”

You’ll hear these teases in popular podcasts that play to the egos of people who pride themselves on “questioning everything”.

Or perhaps you’ll notice it in the increasingly reactionary writings of a “bad boy” tech rock star. Maybe one who experienced so much success and adulation from running his company in a contrarian fashion, that the contrarian validation loop has become his north star.

Just as a random example.

Contrarianism is a hell of a drug. Eventually whatever you are “anti” doesn’t spark that giddy mix of scandal and intrigue anymore. That feeling of a blindfold ripped away. You start looking at your friends as the new sheeple, and for ways to stand apart from them.

Christopher Hitchens, having cut his teeth in the 1960s Marxist counter-culture and anti-theism, eventually turned his contrarianism on the Left. He picked fights that won him the attention and adulation of a brand-new reactionary audience. His writing turned to bloody-minded misogynist warmongering before he died in 2011.

I have little doubt the pull of contrarianism will always be with me. Sometimes it will even lead me to insight. But this note is a reminder to myself that the fact that “everyone is doing it” doesn’t automatically make “it” suspect. A personal prod to define myself less in terms of what I’m against. Or even in terms of what I’m for. I think the heuristic of “who I’m with” is a steadier compass.

We made the most of the cold snowless days this winter with lots of co-op board games. Particularly Arkham Horror (the card game version, now) and Gloomhaven. And also Wildermyth, which is technically a computer game, but basically counts as a co-op board game.

If you play these games (or games like them) I’d love to hear about your characters and adventures. Write back!

That’s enough for today, I think. Just a reminder that if you like SIGAVDI, you’re welcome to share it with your friends. And if you really like it, consider supporting my Patreon! $1/mo gets you access to Tensegrity, the Discord server where Jessitron and I hang out with our friends and rant about software stuff, etc.

Thanks for reading,