A Philosopher's Blog

Living Far from the Bleeding Edge

Posted in Business, Environment, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 3, 2013
IBM Portable Personal Computer :: Retrocomputi...

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I rather like technology and, as I have noted in other posts, I have sometimes shown poor judgment in my attempts to enhance my computers. Back in the day, squeezing out extra performance, drive space and so on was actually rather important-computers were so slow and storage so small that every increase really mattered. After all, if the hard drive is 20 MB, then saving 1 MB by compressing stuff was a big deal. These days when hard drives are 1TB or larger and processors scream with speed, such efforts are less essential-though some folks still like to get out on the bleeding edge. For example, DIY overclocking is still popular and still melting the occasional processor.

Thanks to being a professor, I’ve generally not been on the bleeding edge of technology. This is not from lack of desire, but a combination of reason and limited finances. Because of my budget, I cannot afford to spend the thousands it would take to be on the bleeding edge. Being rational, I do not endeavor to do this. Instead, I live way back on the plateau, watching the blood spray up into the sky.

As might be suspected, I tend to take a philosophical approach to this matter (or perhaps I am just rationalizing). While I have bought a few new computers, I generally have either built my PCs or acquired somewhat obsolete tech. Building a PC matches my view that a person should have the skill to repair anything he owns and depends on as well as a basic comprehension of how it works. This allows me to handle my own problems without having to impose on others. As might be guessed, I believe that people have a moral obligation to have a basic level of competence with their key technology. After all, they otherwise become burdens on others and waste time that could be better spent.

Using somewhat obsolete tech also matches my values. First, I’m from New England and hence have those famous frugal tendencies. I do not like to waste money and staying away from the bleeding edge helps a great deal. One reason is, obviously, that older tech is much cheaper than newer tech (in general) although the difference in performance need not be that great. To use the obvious example, the high end modern processors can cost well over $1,000. While they are very fast, they tend to be far more than the vast majority of folks would need. Since I have been working with computers for a while, I remember when people spoke of the blazing speed of the 486 chip relative to the 286, then spoke the same way about the Pentium. The same was true for the Mac: the 68000 was slow compared to the blazing 68040 and then there was the G3 and then the G4 chips. While this power can be useful for things like video editing and gaming, I obviously do not write any faster on my i7 920 than I did on my 68000 Mac Classic.

In practical terms, except for folks who need the speed (like folks rendering video, doing graphics work and hardcore gaming) a PC that is five or even ten years old would probably do the trick. It is, of course, possible to get last year’s models at a modest discount and even older ones for far less. Of course, old machines might have problems-which is why it is important to have the right skills if you decide to go with the older tech.

I also scavenge and rebuild fairly often-when I help people with their new machine, they will often give (or dump) their old or dead tech to me or sell it for a modest price. I’ve gotten laptops, desktops, iPods and such that way. In some cases I had to create a Frankenputer, but the price was right.

Second, I hate to waste stuff. Old tech that is not in use tends to end up in the landfill. By keeping old tech in use, I am able to keep some stuff out of the landfill. I also give away what I do not use-there is always a student who needs a laptop or a parent who needs a PC for the kids. This enables people to have a usable computer without having to spend what little money they might have. This Monday, I gave away my 2004 iBook G4. While I got in back when Office 2004 was brand new, after a restore of the OS it was actually quite snappy, what with its 1 GHz processor, 30GB hard drive and 768 MB of RAM. While Office 2004 is way out of date, it still works quite well-in fact, for most of what folks do, office 2004 is more than enough.

Of course, I do hope that some folks keep buying on the bleeding edge-the blood eventually trickles down to me and folks like me. Hmm, I guess that trickle down thing sort of works.

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3 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 3, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Mike, if too many people were like you, then technological progress would stop completely because nobody would buy the new products.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 3, 2013 at 10:40 am

      I lift a Red Bull to the tweakers and fanboys as they buy those shiny new toys. For when those toys have lost their shine, then they shall be mine.

  2. WTP said, on April 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    I believe that people have a moral obligation to have a basic level of competence with their key technology. After all, they otherwise become burdens on others and waste time that could be better spent.

    My mother drove a car just fine for decades without understanding that piece of her key technology. The cars were Dad’s responsibility. But it was not a “burden” on him because she took care of things, such as the house, us kids, and grocery shopping, which he could very well do, but she did them better. My wife understands not a whit of technology but it’s not a burden on me to help her out because she helps me out with decorating the house, etc. Outside a family situation, these sorts of things are handled by professionals who are not “burdened” because it provides them with a job and income. That’s not to say that there is not a significant value in being able to do many of these things one’s self, but it comes down to what you value more, your money or your time. If you have much time but little money, you use your time to solve problems. If you have money but little time (like most successful people) your best option is to pay someone else to do the job. I put the dividing line at what does it cost to have a professional do it vs. how much I make, or would make, in overtime. There is also a significant quality factor involved in hiring someone who does that sort of work consistently. Also someone with greater experience can do the job more efficiently and thus more cheaply (measured both in time and money). There’s also a factor of how much satisfaction and pleasure one gets out of the kind of work involved. Such are some of the fundamentals of economics.

    Hmm, I guess that trickle down thing sort of works.

    There’s hope for you yet, Mike.

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