Friday, November 28, 2008

Enough hot air...

I just came across this article on Advogato:
Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, a hacker I know blogged about using object-oriented C to implement a lightweight imitation of some of C++'s features for his latest project; almost immediately, somebody saw fit to reward this charming piece of acceptably self-congratulatory writing with a stern and quite public deconstruction. Does this scene seem familiar? Why does this keep happening? And what, if anything, can we do about it? We can hardly hope to appease all of hackerdom's malcontent — but we can at least try to avoid stepping on each other's toes.
Amen to that. Remember, a few days ago when I wrote an article indicating that I agreed with an earlier post by Eric Raymond. Only to discover, a couple of weeks later when I returned to read Raymond's blog that he had a new piece that fell just short of calling me a "blithering idiot".

Had I done anything to merit that? Apparently, my sin was to remark that unless you are famous like Eric Raymond, it's hard to make a living purely from open-source, and that consequently, genuine open-source innovation is hard to find. Instead, I think that innovation generally attributed to "open-source" is still very much driven by corporate interests. I have personal reasons to hold that particular opinion (having put an innovative programming language in the open-source domain, being offered to work on open-source project multiple times, but never on my own project...) I find it surprising that it deserved being attacked by Eric Raymond so unnecessarily, even less so when I agreed so much with what he had written...

There is a psychological explanation

I read recently an explanation for that frequent behavior on the net. Apparently, the mechanisms that we use to throttle and moderate our social interactions are based very largely on visual cues, and they are very complex (they show up quite late in the human development, typically maturing in one's late teens). When we don't have these visual cues, our brain's moderation system doesn't quite work as it should, neither on the sender's nor on the receiver's side.

So, based on this explanation, it is likely that Eric Raymond read much more of an attack in my original post than I intended, whereas if we had been speaking face to face, he might have seen various expressions on my face that might have convinced some part of his brain that I was not that critical of open-source, that I was not implying open-source folks cannot innovate, that I was not downplaying his own intelligence.

Conversely, when he started writing, he used very scalding words like "blithering idiot" (even if he downplays that initial statement a few words later with "reasonably bright"). It is unlikely that he would have used such words in a face-to-face discussion, if only because our brains know very well how quickly a bad choice of words can lead to a non-verbal response or even physical harm... So when you talk to someone, you rarely say to anybody "you are an idiot", even if you really believe it.

... or is there?

When I first read that psychological explanation, it convinced me almost entirely. Since then, though, I noticed something interesting. Letters written on paper tend to be very polite, very nice.

So it seems that something else than just "not seeing the other guy" is at play. Writings between scientists of the early twentieth century, for example, are sometimes heated discussions between people who often squarely fall into the "genius" category. Yet I don't remember any "flame", any "hot air". Maybe that's just because I'm not familiar enough with these writings.

But the other possibility is that our modern society doesn't value politeness as much as it used to...

12 comments:

DanO said...

I've often wondered why some people seem to leave their manners at the door when they go online.

There is a thought provoking post at Jeff Atwood's "Coding Horror" site that may have some bearing on this: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000490.html

Could this explain the strange lack of empathy that some people display in their online communications?

Christophe de Dinechin said...

Hi Dan,


Yes, the explanation in that article is very relevant. It's quite possible that this is part of the problem.

Social communication is a very complex topic. Mastering it online is particularly difficult. I left a comment on Raymond's post that I almost immediately regretted. I feel childish for this outburst of pride. But I was hurt by Eric Raymond's words more than he probably wanted me to be.

Regarding Asperger's syndrome, I wonder if this is a binary condition, or more something like a continuum. It is certainly not a necessary condition. I have met geniuses that were also some of the nicest people on earth.

Steven said...

Having been at both ends of such conversations run amok and taking into account what you say about letters written on paper, I long ago formed the hypothesis that the speed of communication also has something to do with it.

Unlike the (hand)written letter, e-mails can be composed quickly and sent the instance you finish typing them. People rarely even read back what they've written, as they deem proofreading unnecessary what with the built in spelling and grammar checkers.

When I wrote letters on paper, I wrote a draft copy, proofread it, making any changes and ultimately wrote the final copy on a new piece of paper. It took a lot more time to do than simply typing into a wysiwyg editor, but at least that time also allowed me to think more thoroughly about the contents of the message.

Of course, when it was finally done, I needed to find an envelope, address and stamp it, then drop it off at the mailbox. Plenty of time to change my mind, as opposed to just hitting Ctrl-Enter.

Christophe de Dinechin said...

Steven,


Yes, the speed at which you can send things certainly has something to do with it. A related recommendation folks make about e-mail is: when you are unsure, sleep over it.

Hmmm. But then, I remember sending some of my most piercing e-mails after sleeping a few nights over them, which gave me new ideas of things to rant about ;-)

Chris said...

Writings between scientists of the early twentieth century, for example, are sometimes heated discussions between people who often squarely fall into the "genius" category. Yet I don't remember any "flame", any "hot air".

Look a bit further back, then - "If I have seen farther, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants". This is a short joke directed at Niels Bohr.

Christophe de Dinechin said...

Chris,


Would you care to elaborate? I've always seen this quote attributed to Isaac Newton, who died 150 years before Bohr was born. So I assume you made a typo and were thinking of someone else than Bohr, or someone later used the quote against Bohr?

Chris said...

http://www.xs4all.nl/~jcdverha/scijokes/9_3.html#Newton_19

Did some actual searching and I got the name wrong - he was talking to Hooke, who was a very short hunchback.

Christophe de Dinechin said...

Chris,


Thanks from the reference. But from your link, it looks like this interpretation is subject to debate:


So far as I can tell, this idea was first invented by Frank
Manuel, in his book _A Portrait of Isaac Newton _(Harvard, 1968).
I have never seen any reason to believe it.

Here is the passage (from Newton's letter to Hooke, 5 Feb 1676);
I quote it from the standard biography, Westfall's _Never at Rest_ (1980).
The topic is optics:

What Des-Cartes did was a good step. You have added much several
ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates
into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it
is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Westfall mentions Manuel's idea in a footnote but dismisses it.

Here are some reasons to doubt it:

1) Hooke showed no sign of unhappiness with Newton's letter;
and no one thought of giving it such an interpretation for
hundreds of years. That is not a guarantee, but certainly
we should be reluctant to suppose a letter had a meaning
quite different from what the people closer to its time
saw in it.

2) I do not see how "Giants" can be taken as anything but a
reference to the two people named immediately before that
sentence; and I do not see how it could be given a different
meaning for one than for the other.

3) When Newton writes in anger, he doesn't write
like this at all. Here for comparison is a bit of Newton
writing angrily somewhat earlier (also in Westfall):

"Mr Hook thinks himself concerned to reprehend me for
laying aside the thoughts of improving Optiques by
Refractions. But he knows well that it is not for one
man to prescribe Rules to the studies of another,
especially not without understanding the grounds on which
he proceeds."

As Newton wrote to Oldenberg then, he did not use "oblique and
glancing expressions," let alone subtle second meanings that
no one would detect for centuries.

William C. Waterhouse
Penn State

Sal said...

hi christophe

gotta say, like i said near the outset of esr's post's comments, i think he wildly misinterpreted what you wrote.

unfortunately, he seemed to then lock-in that misinterpretation regardless of what anyone said.

quite regrettable.

"cheers"
sal

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