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Shady Illuminations

Subvirtues and Pseudovirtues

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  If your world seems out of kilter, your values may need to be adjusted—so that they are out of kilter, too.  

This is a list of what I call subvirtues and pseudovirtues. Subvirtues are subversive: they subvert conventional wisdom. Pseudovirtues are conventional wisdom, and I don’t like them. In my world, they are antipatterns. In your world, some of my pseudovirtues may be virtues and many of my subvirtues may be antipatterns. Suit yourself. This is my list.


If you write security software, you have to think like the bad guys. You have to adopt the mindset that they’re out to get you. You have to be paranoid. But is any other area of software development all that different? Instead of bad guys trying to break your security, you have stupid users seemingly trying to break your software. Your best strategy is to assume they are doing it deliberately: be paranoid. In software development, paranoia is a subvirtue.


This was not my first topic for this month’s column. I was going to devote the column to ridiculing NetFlix for their really abysmal handling of the infamous price increase. That it was seen primarily as a price increase is itself the best evidence of how badly they messed up. I was going to remind NetFlix customers that many of them signed up for a DVD-by-mail program and then started getting streaming videos as a freebie, and now that the streaming library was starting to be marginally adequate, they were being asked to pay for it, but were being given a discount on the original DVD-by-mail deal—and permitted to choose either delivery mode or both. I was going to ask how many of them really needed both the DVD and the streaming services, and how many were leaning toward streaming-only anyway, and were now being nudged to do what they would have done anyway, and being rewarded for it by having their monthly bill decreased. I was going to offer the opinion that NetFlix management almost looked like they wanted to drive the stock price down, the way they so messed up the framing of the policy change.

And then as I was starting to write the column, which, as usual, I had put off until the last possible moment, NetFlix management dropped another shoe in its corporate mouth, explaining how they were separating the two delivery modes and giving the DVD business its own name and website, in apparent preparation to sell it off. More classic public relations hara-kiri. Good thing I didn’t write that column early, or I’d have been stuck with an out-of-date diatribe. So I’m now holding off until the self-inflicted wounding abates. Procrastination is a subvirtue.


Perseverance is only a virtue for people who are not borderline OCD. Ask the people you live with if they think you have a problem sticking to the task when they want you to break for dinner, shopping, conversation, or whatever stupid thing they keep yammering on about. Oh, you live alone? I rest my case. Anyway, popularity is a pseudovirtue. Like perseverance.


Power is overrated. With great power comes great responsibility, the noted scholar Uncle Ben Parker tells us, and who needs more responsibility? Also, with great power comes great complexity, and you know that’s trouble. Somebody, probably Uncle Ben, said that the devil is in the details, but that’s wrong. Details are nodes. The devil is in the connections.

Ah, connections. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could connect all our social networking activity with if-then statements? That would be so powerful. Yeah. And how long will it be before somebody creates the first IFTTT infinite loop? Oops: it’s already happened, according to one tweeter. And that’s authoritative enough for me. Power is a pseudovirtue.


A dedicated pessimist will tell you that Murphy was an optimist. I’ll tell you that. And Murphy is the name of the devil who lives in the connections. This discipline, if you can call it a discipline, of software development is afflicted with more such deviltry than any other. Hence more opportunities for things to go wrong. Exponentially more opportunities. We live in Mr. Murphy’s neighborhood. Pessimism is a survival skill. Pessimism means never having to be disappointed. Pessimism is a subvirtue.


As Brian Hogan points out in HTML5 and CSS3: Develop with Tomorrow's Standards Today, porn is the leading testing ground for cutting-edge technologies. Some academic from Kinsey’s alma mater says, “Pornography... is a positive good that encourages experimentation with new media.” Whenever a new technology comes along, people use it to make porn. It drives innovation. Porn is a subvirtue.

I hope my little list has been helpful to you. But I doubt it.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. The thought that his pessimism, procrastination, and paranoia may be virtues depresses him. Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.