323: Ballmer Peak
Title text: Apple uses automated schnapps IVs.
This comic is about alcohol and programming ability. Programmers sometimes have a reputation for drinking habits, and programmer gatherings (such as hackfests) tend to offer copious amounts of alcohol. More generally, intoxicated programmers can get the impression that, by being a little disconnected from physical reality, they become more efficient at their programming. The comic is a take on this belief, with two references:
- In atomic physics, "Balmer peaks" (with one L) are peaks in the emission spectrum of hydrogen (named after the 19th century scientist Johann Balmer).
- Steve Ballmer (with two Ls) is a key figure of Microsoft and its CEO from 2000 to 2014; he is known for energetic outbursts and outlandish behavior in public (with some videos gone viral), which can give the impression that he is constantly intoxicated.
The curve in the comic suggests that, while generally decreasing with alcohol intoxication, at just the right level, the skill of a programmer gets terrific indeed. Randall named the peak after Steve Ballmer, as if discovered by him; this references the analogously named Balmer peaks (with one L), and the idea that Steve Ballmer makes for an easy association of programming and alcohol. The peak of the curve occurs at a BAC of 0.1337%, which is a reference to leet. (See this interview with Randall).
The end of the comic turns the whole idea into a sideways jab at Windows ME, a version of Microsoft Windows often criticized for being buggy, slow, and unstable: it suggests that ME was developed by programmers completely drunk, because their managers wanted to exploit this "Ballmer peak," but did so without any precaution. That idea fit the result of a buggy and unstable product well.
An actual research paper published in March 2012 showed that the situation described in this comic is not far from reality. Researchers found that intoxicated participants performed better than sober participants on a test that evaluates creative problem solving skills, and were also more likely to evaluate their own solutions as insightful. However, the study only tested a B.A.C. of 0.075%, not between 0.129% and 0.138% as displayed in the comic.
- [A graph with "programming skill" on the Y-axis and "blood alcohol concentration" on the X-axis. The Y-axis slowly goes down, but spikes at 0.1337%.]
- [Cueball is making a presentation with the graph.]
- Cueball: Called the Ballmer Peak, it was discovered by Microsoft in the 80's. The cause is unknown but somehow a B.A.C between 0.129% and 0.138% confers superhuman programming ability.
- Cueball: However, it's a delicate effect requiring careful calibration – you can't just give a team of coders a year's supply of whiskey and tell them to get cracking.
- Spectator: ...Has that ever happened?
- Cueball: Remember Windows ME?
- Spectator: I knew it!
In the above-mentioned speech at Google, Randall Munroe explained that he tried to experiment on himself about the relationship between alcohol intoxication and intellectual skills, by solving a Rubik's Cube repeatedly while getting more and more drunk. He eventually found that he could get deeply drunk without degrading very much his performance at solving the puzzle (contrary to, for instance, finding and picking up the Cube which became something of a problem towards the end). He suggested that the Rubik's Cube wasn't a good test to study this relationship, the cube probably being solved with muscle memory rather than real intellectual skills.
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