The world is full of religious wars.
When I say “religious wars” I’m not referring to the daughter of Hope and Fear or to shooty things where stuff blows up. No, I’m referring to differences of opinion that become… intense. Too intense. If people disagree about, say, whether hot dogs are better than hamburgers, they’ll probably agree to disagree. But if they disagree over which end of a boiled egg to crack? That might lead to six rebellions, eleven thousand deaths (including one emperor) and a bloody war with tens of thousands of casualties. (Literary casualties only. Fortunately.)
Like the egg thing, the religious wars I’m thinking about have one major thing in common: they’re almost always about something trivial. (People who have no strong opinion on the subject at hand generally think that both warring factions are behaving like idiotic children.) And because they’re about trivial issues, what better place to look for them than the computer industry?
Some of the longest-running of these are the ‘editor wars‘. These have been about different things at different times but for many years they often boiled down to “Which is better, Emacs or vi?” (These days, of course, the argument has changed a bit because many (most?) computer users have probably never heard of either of them. In certain circles, though, opinions can still get quite… heated.)
For the record (not that anyone cares), while I can use both, I’ve been an Emacs advocate (but, I would claim, not a particularly crazy one) for at least two decades. (Heck, this blog — every single post — has been written using Emacs.) I have the T-shirt, I have the books and I know what this stuff means.
(Well, some of it.)
There have been tons of wars about other subjects, of course. There are timeless classics — “my computer is better than your computer”: Windows vs Mac vs Linux (vs Amiga vs GEM vs BeOS vs…), some perennial favorites: “my web browser is better than your web browser” — Mosaic vs Netscape was the quibble du jour in 1994 (the names have changed since then but little else) and of course there are sepia-tinted oldies like Un*x (and which kind) vs VMS. There have been wars over mail clients (everyone knows VM is the best even though no one has ever heard of it), over keyboard layout (vt100 or DEATH), over WYSIAYG vs command-driven (Don Knuth is a very clever man) user interfaces. All kinds of things.
More recently another religious war has appeared (No surprise, new ones appear all the time.). This one is, more or less, about cell phones because the cell phone industry has an increasingly large overlap with the computer industry. These days the fight often starts with “Which is better, iPhone or Android?” Quite apart from the difference in price, I hate studlycaps with a passion so it’s unsurprising that I ruled out Apple (and BlackBerry of course) and opted for Android when I was last shopping for a phone. (If I had known about the NSA that would have been a factor too.)
Once you have an Android device you will probably want to put stuff on it (Applications. Books. Films. Stuff like that.) This usually involves a visit to the official Android market, although there are good reasons to look elsewhere from time to time. (Of course, it’s no longer called ‘the market’ — Google unilaterally changed the name to something significantly less descriptive but significantly more trademarkable (I’m guessing of course but I’m pretty sure that I smell a lawyer. Probably more than one.). I still call it the market because, you know, that’s more or less what it is.)
When I fire up the market application, the first thing that I notice is that Google has helpfully recommended stuff. (Gee, thanks!) They recommend this crossword application because Mr. B likes it. They recommend that football game because the Mad Viking likes it. Then I look a little closer and things start to become a little less clear. I see a recommendation for Toy Story. Wait, what? Why?
A couple of months ago I acquired a new Android device. (Quick review — I like it a lot and it does everything I want it to pretty darned well at an acceptable price. The corporate ties are a little worrisome, the default mail application has issues and the application for coaching a curling team needs a little polish but all things considered it was a successful purchase.) When I bought it Google ‘gave’ me a couple of presents — they ‘gave’ me a book that’s in the public domain and a short film that almost certainly isn’t.
This is where the recommendations come in — the market ‘saw’ that I ‘owned’ something by Pixar so it happily recommended the entire Pixar back catalogue to me based on a short film that I had never even heard of before that day.
I looked for a button labelled ‘Do not use this film — this film that I’ve never even seen — to make recommendations.’ I couldn’t find one so I clicked the ‘Not interested’ button on every single offering and moved on.
The next thing I noticed was a recommendation for an application to time contractions for women giving birth. It was recommended to me because I had installed a stopwatch application (sorry — ‘sports timer’; apparently that’s what they’re called these days) on my phone. (Stopwatches are often used in curling, after all.) This connection actually made a little sense but there are no pregnant women in my life at this time so I looked for a button labelled ‘There are no pregnant women in my life at this time’, failed to find it, clicked ‘Not interested’ and moved on.
The next thing I noticed… This requires a little background. I play an online game called ‘World of Tanks‘. It’s an extraordinarily violent game in which you drive around in heavily armed and armoured vehicles and shoot complete strangers WITH CANNONS while people on your own team (also complete strangers) try to do the same while calling you names (‘moron’ is about as polite as it gets) and committing suicide in as pyrotechnic a fashion as is humanly possible. The developers of the game have created an Android application that provides access to all sorts of in-game statistics. (Using it I can tell that I have Kolobanov’s medal and that I’m a crappy player. I didn’t really need a computer program to tell me that last part.)
Anyway, there on my list of recommendations was one for an application that would let me track the progress of my fetus during my pregnancy. This was recommended to me (it said) because I was a user of the World of Tanks app.
Say what? Because I shoot people with cannons I’m probably pregnant? That’s a damned odd leap of logic and/or a completely unexpected correlation.
So I looked for a button labelled ‘Not only are there are no pregnant women in my life at this time, I myself am neither pregnant nor a woman’, failed to find it, clicked ‘Not interested’ and moved on.
That’s when it got really weird.
One of the people with whom I play hockey is a Famous Canadian Writer. The Toronto Star (my daily newspaper) praises his ‘moral earnestness’ and ‘structural rigour’ while Friendface tells me that he’s roughly half as popular as fruit flies. (I guess ‘Famous Canadian Writer’ has to be taken in context.) He’s an excellent writer and a darned good hockey player (better than me, but who isn’t?). To his credit, he didn’t beat me up on Monday. (Then again, he didn’t have to — a teenaged girl did a more than adequate job.) I only own one of his ten books (the one mentioned in the review). Despite having the actual book, though, I downloaded a sample from the Android market to see how I felt about reading books on a screen. (I decided that I prefer dead trees.) Google, though, ‘saw’ me reading his book and used that to make some recommendations. They recommended several mysteries, a few books of poetry, a couple of coming-of-age stories and….
two volumes of lesbian erotica.
So Google claims to have found a correlation between readers of his short stories and consumers of lesbian bondage porn. Interesting.
Maybe I should tell him.