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The Tankard Brigade

I have a guideline that seems to apply to many pursuits and hobbies: any activity can be fun until there’s too high a density of men with beards and tankards.

Of course, they aren’t all men (though many are) and don’t all have beards and tankards (though many do). But they can turn any enjoyable pastime into a maddeningly frustrating pursuit of ever-receding goals, like Zeno’s arrow approaching but never reaching its target.

Some background. For any activity there will be different levels of engagement; different extents to which once can take it seriously. For most people (apart from, in this simplified model, two people) there will be a collection of people who are less invested than they are, and a collection of people who take the pursuit more seriously.

Often, this doesn’t cause any disharmony. Some natural outgroup bias might make people believe that those who take it more seriously take themselves too seriously, and put too much effort into what should be an enjoyable way to spend one’s time. Similarly, those who take it less seriously are perhaps not really engaged with the activity, and can be a bit too frivolous. Of course the distance between my level of engagement and perception of the outgroup’s investment is decidedly non-linear: pro golfers and non-golfers do not cause as much difficulty for year-round and fair-weather amateurs as these two groups cause for each other.

This is all largely harmless snobbery and joshing until the men with beards and tankards come along. A man with a beard and a tankard (even if only figuratively a man with a figurative beard and tankard) is someone whose level of engagement with a pursuit must be the greatest of everyone in the room or online forum.

A single man with his solitary beard and tankard in a group can be harmless, endearing or slightly irritating. He will have bought the most expensive equipment available, and will gladly tell everyone who’ll listen (and many who would rahter not). He’ll explain why he got it, why it’s better, and why you simply can’t appreciate the subtleties and nuances of what you’re participating in (and apparently enjoying very well, thankyou very much) without the basic investment in a good…whatever that thing is they bought. Moreover, there’s only one way to engage in the activity, and that’s the way in which he does it. Anyone who has a different way, particularly one that invovles spending less time or money, is looked on in smiling condescenscion as one who simply doesn’t – and perhaps can’t – appreciate the craft in all its majestic glory. It might involve some eye-rolling, tutting, and perhaps a strategic choice of seat at the society Christmas dinner, but you can usually cope with one man with his beard and tankard.

Two or more, on the other hand, start to get out of hand (this one or the other one), because each wants to be at the apotheosis of his craft, neither can afford to be outdone by the other. The effect is of course an inescapable ratchet of dedication and investment, much like the ever-accelerating and ultimately ruinous cycle of gift-giving in potlatch societies. When one comes in with some new piece of kit, the other must have it or the one better than it. When one adopts some new and laborious way of interacting with the pursuit at hand, the other will immediately adopt or surpass it. Their interactions with each other are best described as ‘banter’, that particularly masculine (and indeed beard-ridden and betankarded) species of chatter that seems on the surface to be friendly ribaldry but that covers a seething and complex web of mistrust and hatred.

As I said earlier, I think that what really counts for enjoyment of a pursuit is the density of men with beards and tankards. Some activities seem able to hold at once both people with large individual investments, and a welcoming attitude toward newcomers and casual participants. Many runners and cyclists, regardless of how much they spent on their kit, will be happy with and friendly toward anyone who turns up to the same event to run or ride alongside them. The next person may be on their super-list carbon fibre frame with $5000 wheels and bespoje saddly uniquely contoured to fit their cheeks, when you turn up on the $250 bike you got in the January sales. But they’re a cyclist, and you’re a cyclist, so hey, let’s get some cycling going.

Some activities are clearly at the transition, where variations in the density of the tankard field can locally push it past the critical limit. Most motorcyclists are happy to acknowledge and welcome other bikers (though obviously not scooter riders), with a few notable exceptions. Harley riders tend to only notice other Harley riders. The extreme end of the amateur track circuit only pays attention to how much you’ve bored out your cylinders (and anyone who’ll listen) and the amount of time you spend riding a dynamometer. And that certain class of BMW rider who watched The Long Way Down can’t believe that you don’t have mud pans, GPS, and aluminium flight cases attached to your bike when you go to the corner shop for a pint of semi-skimmed. But still, most bikers accept most other bikers, and talk to them about most biking.

And then there are the activities that are forever lost to the men with beards and tankards, for which the ratchet has turned so far that even if the barrier to entry is theoretically low, the barrier to sociable entry – to engaging with the community as an equal – can be insurmountable.

Consider astronomy. It used to be that if you had some cheap army surplus binoculars, you could go along to your local astronomy society and discuss what you’d seen of the moon, the planets and some of the brighter objects in the Messier catalogue. Then, with the introduction of the charge-coupled detector, the tankard brigade arrived in force. Now people will swap photos constructed from multiple hundreds of exposures through different narrow-band filters, taken with their large reflecting telescopes with computer-controlled star drives and the latest in CCDs (all probably permanently housed in purpose-built observatories in their gardens). No multi-thousand-dollar telescope (perhaps even no garden)? Nothing to discuss.

In some circles, folk music can have a more practice-driven ratchet system. The British folk revival of the 1970s brought with it literal men with actual beards and genuine tankards who defined what folk singing was (in apparent contradiction to the idea that it should be up to the folk to decide). Now there exist folk clubs where unless you have that certain nasal folkier-than-thou timbre in your voice and practiced wobbly delivery, and unless you can remember all of the words to all twelve verses without recourse to the book, you probably shouldn’t take part.

All of this leads me to my questions. As a programmer, which of the practices I participate in are pragmatic, which necessary, and which informed by the ratchet of the men with beards and tankards? How much of what we do is determined by what others do, and must be seen to be done before we can claim we’re doing it right?

And which things? Is it the runaway complexity of type systems that’s the ratchet, or the insistence of programming without the safety net at all in a dynamic language? Or both?

My naive guess is that tankardism manifests where unnecessarily highfalutin words are deployed, like ‘paradigm’ for ‘style’ or ‘methodology’ for ‘method’. And yes, that sentence was deliberately unnecessarily highfalutin.

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