Escaping from Planned Obsolescence

I bought my current home desktop computer, a Mac Mini, in 2012. I bought it on Father’s Day, and I sprung extra for the newly released version. It has reliably served my needs. I write, blog, pay my taxes, record podcasts and music, and play copious amounts of Crusader Kings 2 on this machine. It has been a solid investment.

This past week, I nearly destroyed it.

The new iOS on my phone is now sufficiently advanced that I cannot upload photos to my machine from it (I don’t use the cloud. I don’t trust the cloud. The cloud is a lie). In order to fix this, I needed to install the new MacOS, Catalina. Which I did.

I immediately regretted this decision.

In the first place, a bunch of apps that I regularly use won’t work with Catalina. Like Scrivener, which I use for writing. Like Microsoft Word. Like Garageband, which I use to record podcasts.

So Scrivener I can upgrade at a discouted rate by sending the developer an email with my receipt from the Mac App store I bought it from. Annoying, but doable. Microsoft word I can download for free, but they want $70 a year for an Office subscription. I feel like I can do better.

Garageband took some figuring out, but by deleting the old app I was able to download the new app, for free, and used it to record a podcast on Saturday. So far, so good.









Now, a new MacMini costs $800. And my wife’s computer is older, so she gets dibs on a replacement. Me shelling out that kind of cash because I let Apple shove me down the obsolescence treadmill is… well, it’s just dumb.

But, that generation of Mac Minis was designed to be user-upgradable (I know, is it even an Apple product?). So upgrading the memory will be really easy. I can do it myself for the price of some new RAM, which is currently on its way via Amazon.

And if that doesn’t work? I can try installing a new hard drive, which would actually be even cheaper. I didn’t go with it because there’s plenty of disc space on my existing hard drive, so I figured RAM was the problem.

The point is, I have options. I can gain expertise and understanding. I can do for myself instead of just chorfing the next part of the product cycle. I can, in short, act like an actual rational human.

And be silently thankful that Apple actually made choosing that option easy.

Digital Minimalism — Cal Newport — The Story’s Story

All of Cal Newport’s books could be titled, “How to Be an Effective Person.” Or, maybe, “How to Be an Effective Person In This Technological Epoch.” Digital Minimalism is, like Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, about why you should quit or drastically limit the digital distractions that have proliferated in […]

via Digital Minimalism — Cal Newport — The Story’s Story

Journalism is Dying Because It’s Not Free

Been a while since I came across a Megan McArdle piece I thought worth passing on, but this one is it.

This past week the axe fell in the newsroom, most notably at BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, but also…

newspaper chain Gannett swung the ax through several of its publications this week, including the Indianapolis Star, the Tennessean and the Arizona Republic.

…Fifteen years have been spent in a fruitless search for a viable business model that will support the kind of journalism the country expects — and, no, conservatives, I’m not talking about “the liberal media.” I’m talking about media organizations that pour resources into informing the public about the everyday, noncontroversial stuff that makes up the bulk of media content.

And why? Because people don’t, as a rule, want to pay for online content. They want to pay to have a thing. An e-book is a thing. A movie is a thing. A copy of a newspaper is a thing. The internet is a medium I access with a device. An online article lacks the same level of thingness.

If I’m browsing, and I click a link, and I hit a paywall, do I subscribe, before I know if the article is worth reading? No. I click away, and go read something that is free. Because anyone can access the internet, and anyone can put something there. That’s what newspapers are competing with. And losing.

A few salient points:

It’s telling that the conservative publications that were supposed to correct the flaws of mainstream media have instead often ended up in a symbiotic relationship with it. Instead of setting up comprehensive reporting operations of their own, they spend much of their time reacting to reporting done by mainstream outlets. Reporting is obscenely expensive, and no one — conservative, liberal or in between — has figured out how to fund it on shrinking advertising dollars.

One might go so far as to say that there isn’t any such thing as conservative media – there is only a conservative critique of media. This is a failure, but also an opportunity for someone on the right willing to build a media empire that pays for itself, that produces it’s own news, that shifts narratives and Overton Windows in the starboard direction. The print/digital version of Fox News doesn’t yet exist.

This of course raises questions about why it doesn’t exist, and what the sam-scratch all those “conservative” think-tanks are spending their money on. I think it’s fair to say that the National Review era of conservative media has passed – it has done it’s work, and it’s time for it to go. The Washington Free Beacon is probably more valuable.

Those links go to reporting subsidized somewhat by digital ads but mostly by print circulations and speculative investments from outside the industry. As the journalism business burns through the last of those subsidies, large swaths of the free Internet are going to be paywalled off, and readers and journalists alike will have to learn to think of news as their parents did: as something you pay for, or do without.

The last sentence underlines the deeper problem: to what extent to I actually need “news”? Am I visibly suffering for not reading the Washington Post’s day-by-day reportage? Am I any less happy for not having a soulless corporation rhetorically manipulating my worldview?

Until I find a news publication I can trust to keep my honestly informed, I have no need to spend money on it. To be ignorant is a misfortune, to be misinformed is a curse.

Why Civil War Battles Were Fought That Way

This being the anniversary of Fort Sumter, I thought it useful to blog a bit about a topic near to the heart of The Sword.

Chickamauga Hero
The Battle of Chickamauga – Civil War Trust

The nature of battles – the typical maneuvers used and paths to victory – changed very little from the time of Alexander to the time of Napoleon. Some have gone so far as to say that if you put Alexander the Great in a time machine and gave him a command in 1800, he would have – after a short period of adjusting to the sound of gunpowder weapons – known exactly what to do.

But a mere 100 years after the time of Napoleon, war was vastly different, and the tactics that worked for thousands of years were no longer operative. The Trench warfare of World War One meant that the entirety of the Franco-German border became a giant line of siege works that extended through Belgium to the sea. The development of heavy artillery, rapid-fire weapons, smokeless powder, and mass-produced rifled-small arms mean the old battle tactics simply could not work. Alexander, skilled besieger though he was, would have been out of his depth at the Somme.

This transition was about half-way underway at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860’s. We see the early versions – breech-loading rifled cannon, Gatling Guns – of the weapons that bled Europe white fifty years later. But we also see the same old Napoleonic infantry tactics, centered around moving and marching in a line. And we still see  in the uniforms – Blue and Grey – that pastiche of Napoleonic pageantry. One of the sillier trends in military dress of that era were Zouave regiments, with uniforms of short jackets, fezzes, baggy pantaloons and calf-length spats. It was a fashion imported from the French in North Africa, and numerous regiments North and South were uniformed thus. It’s hard to imagine Americans fighting battles in such accoutrements, but thousands did.

“The Brierwood Pipe” by Winslow Homer. 5th New York Zouave Regiment.

The modern habit is to regard the odd things about the past as a lack of enlightenment, a failure to come to grips with the truths we have since learned. How absurd, we assume, for these men to march together in tight formations, wearing such colorful outfits. Were they trying to get shot?

And to be fair, the old tactics were losing their effectiveness. One of the things we see regularly in Napoleonic battles – massed cavalry charges – almost never happened in the American Civil War. From the time of Alexander through the time of Napoleon the speed and power of the horse made it an effective means of moving a warrior to a weak point in an enemy army. When effective range of firearms did not extend beyond 50 yards, cavalry could charge infantry and win. But by the 1860’s, improvements to standard infantry firearms made this practice completely untenable, and the use of cavalry as a combat arm was declining. The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War of 1853-1856 was the death-knell for that sort of thing.

What were the changes to the infantry weapons? They were twofold:

  1. The Percussion Lock. Say it with me: Lock, Stock, and Barrel. The three parts of a gun are the lock, where the trigger is pulled and the powder ignited, the stock, the part you hold with your hands and that, in long guns, goes to your shoulder, and the barrel, where the explosion of the powder sends the bullet to its target. In the Revolutionary War/Napoleonic days, weapons were largely flintlocks. The trigger sent the hammer with a piece of flint against a steel plate, which created a spark that ignited the powder. They were an improvement over older matchlocks and wheel-locks, but they still misfired – i.e. the powder didn’t go off – about 30% of the time. With a Percussion Lock, the hammer strikes a small copper or brass cap containing fulminate of mercury or some other explosive substance. This cap is put on a small metal nipple underneath the hammer. Percussion locks reduced the rate of misfires to about 10%, and they were much more robust in bad weather.

    flint vs. percussion
    Above: A Flintlock Below: A Percussion Lock
  2. Rifling Becoming Standard. Rifling is the practice of carving grooves in the inside of a gun barrel. These grooves are curved, so as the bullet travels down the gun barrell, it is made to spin. This spin, like the spiral on a thrown football, makes the bullet go farther and more reliably get to where it’s intended. Rifling doubles if not triples the effective range of a gun. Now, rifling wasn’t a new technology in the 1860’s – but until mass industrialization it had been time-consuming and expensive. By the Civil War, almost all infantry muskets were rifled.

Consequently, the musket of the 1860’s was more accurate, more reliable, and had a greater range than those of the 1810’s. This not only stopped cavalry charges, it made infantry charges less effective. Strong defensive positions became all but unnassailable. One needs only look at the Battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga to see the ease with which even an inferior force in a strong position could hold off a superior enemy. By the time we get to the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-65, we see elongated siege works that almost perfectly predict the trench warfare of WWI fifty years later.

Trenches at Petersburg.

So yes, improvements in technology meant that the way of fighting in massed formations that had been used since time immemorial no longer held the same effectiveness. So why were they still used? It’s tempting to say, “because they were too blind and too hidebound to realize what had changed”. And that might explain some of it. But there were other reasons why, despite the changes, the Union and Confederate Armies still fought in the grand old way. To wit:

  1. Rifled or not, Percussion or not, they were still muskets. Which is to say, they were still muzzle-loaders, that had to be loaded and fired through an elaborate series of steps, with ramrods like cannon.

    What this meant was that you had to be standing to load your weapon. You could theoretically fire it prone, but since they were so heavy most didn’t, especially since you would just have to stand up to load it again anyway. So while you were loading a gun, it made sense to have a fellow nearby firing his. Hence, mass formations still served a tactical purpose. It was common practice after firing one or two volleys to be ordered to “fire at will” so just this sort of cover-fire could be achieved.

    Breach-loading weapons, and even repeating weapons, such as the Spencer and Henry rifles existed, but they were like rifled muskets in the Napoleon’s time: rare and expensive. A mere year after Appomatox, the Prussians had perfected their breech-loading bolt-action Dreyse “Needle-Gun” to knock the snot out of the Austrians, who were still using muskets. Prussian troops were able to fire prone with a rate of fire 5 times that of the Austrians. But it had taken 25 years of fine-tuning to get the Dreyse ready for prime time. Muzzle-loading weapons demanded muzzle-loading tactics.

  2. And they were still using blackpowder. The use of cordite, or smokeless powder, as an explosive in firearms was still a generation off. Civil War weapons, like those of almost every firearm since the 9th century, used that classic mix of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate), known as blackpowder or gunpowder. Gunpowder is nowhere near as explosive as cordite, and gives off a great deal more smoke when ignited. Consequently, Civil War Battlefields, like those of their predecessors, were covered in smoke. So even though yes, their muskets had better accuracy and range, the reduced visibility of older battlefields were still there. You can’t hit what you can’t see.

    This explains the uniforms. They weren’t just peacocking plumage; they provided what is perhaps the most useful information on a smoke-covered battlefield – who is a friend, and who is a foe. And while it might seem like an advantage to dress wrong to fool the enemy, you’re just as likely to fool your friends and get shot by them by mistake. In the early days of the Civil War, the lack of uniform standards among locally-raised regiments resulted in numerous friendly-fire incidents.

As a consequence, while the massed infantry formations proved largely useless against strong defensive positions, they still worked well enough in the open field. And the technology had not yet allowed for the next phase of infantry tactics. And as World War One demonstrated, even when the tech was there, learning to use it would be yet another step.

Music Modernization Bill Sounds Good.

I am generally distrustful of bipartisan legislation, especially when the CEO of RIAA is this enthusiastic, but this doesn’t look too bad on its face:

A key provision of the bill is for Congress to establish the equivalent of a SoundExchange for songwriters to track credits and distribute royalties when digital services use their work. The switch to a market-based rate standard for artists and writers, closing the pre-1972 loophole that denied digital compensation to legacy artists and the addition of copyright royalties for producers and engineers are other changes widely hailed as improvements by a wide range of industry organizations, from the Recording Academy and the RIAA to ASCAP, BMI, the American Association of Independent Music and the American Federation of Musicians.

Sounds like a good compromise on the needs of artists and distributors. Establishing the means to accurately enforce contracts is what we have a govenrment for.

via Music Modernization Act Approved by House Judiciary Committee — Variety

Why Chess Computers do Not Signal Skynet

An excerpted chapter from Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise is worth reading in its entirety. It deals with how Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997:

Deep Blue had won. Only, it had done so less with a bang than an anticlimactic whimper. Was Kasparov simply exhausted, exacerbating his problems by playing an opening line with which he had little familiarity? Or, as the grandmaster Patrick Wolff concluded, had Kasparov thrown the game,47 to delegitimize Deep Blue’s accomplishment? Was there any significance to the fact that the line he had selected, the Caro-Kann, was a signature of Karpov, the rival whom he had so often vanquished?

But these subtleties were soon lost to the popular imagination. Machine had triumphed over man! It was like when HAL 9000 took over the spaceship. Like the moment when, exactly thirteen seconds into “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the synthesizer overpowers the guitar riff, leaving rock and roll in its dust.48

Except it wasn’t true. Kasparov had been the victim of a large amount of human frailty—and a tiny software bug.

The bug occurred when the computer, unable to select a best move, defaulted to a random move. This move was so divorced from what looked like a sound move that Kasparov decided that Deep Blue must actually be twenty steps ahead of the game. The idea that the computer had acted in error – out of a programming bug – never occurred to him, because computers do not make mistakes. Rattled, Kasparov resigned the game.

Clarke’s Third Law applies. When a computer — a device all of us use and almost none of us understand — can beat a human at something that humans find very difficult to do, some of us begin to wonder if we really are building something too powerful to control. If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, is any sufficiently advanced supercomputer indistinguishable from God?

Silver has his doubts:

Computers are very, very fast at making calculations. Moreover, they can be counted on to calculate faithfully—without getting tired or emotional or changing their mode of analysis in midstream.

But this does not mean that computers produce perfect forecasts, or even necessarily good ones. The acronym GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”) sums up this problem. If you give a computer bad data, or devise a foolish set of instructions for it to analyze, it won’t spin straw into gold. Meanwhile, computers are not very good at tasks that require creativity and imagination, like devising strategies or developing theories about the way the world works.

A highly advanced machine remains a machine. It does what is programmed to do. It does not program itself.

Of course, neither do we, but consider this:

[I]t is not really “artificial” intelligence if a human designed the artifice.