Hey nerds, I’m back! Still not all that recovered from mental health garbage, but turns out writing is a big part of my mental health, so stopping that for a while was a bad idea. Gonna ease back into things, which means this newsletter will be a lighter write. That’s right, it’s time for a recommendation!
There’s this blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, by Bret Devereaux, about nerd culture and military history. It has nothing whatsoever to do with programming. My first exposure was his seven part series demolishing the myths that Spartans had in any way an admirable society or were particularly good at fighting. From then on I was hooked.
So what makes it so good? ACOUP showcases the potential humanities has for our culture by exemplifying that potential. Most pop history just conveys historical information to the reader. It’s flat. It follows the same mindset as a textbook on history. Deveraux, while writing for a nontechnical audience, tries instead to convey history as from the mind of a historian. The process of being a historian. The best I can describe it as “writing research papers that are intended to be read by layfolk”. The same principles and ideals as one academic writing to another, or a professor in a discussion group with her grad students, lifted and translated into pop history.
What does this look like? About a year ago he did an eight-part series on Saruman and Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings, discussing the battle from a military history perspective. During one bit of Part 7, he claimed that Saruman gave terrible pre-battle speeches. To support that, he compared it to those by Roman and WW2 commanders. Which raises the question “how do we know our recorded Roman pre-battle speeches are historically accurate and not embellished by propagandists?” Here’s his answer:
Crucially, pre-battle speeches, alone among the standard kinds of rhetoric, refuse to follow the standard formulas of Greek and Roman rhetoric. […] Greek and Roman oratory was, by the first century or so, quite well developed and relatively formulaic, even rigid, in structure. The temptation to adapt these speeches, when committing them to a written history, to the forms of every other kind of oratory must have been intense, and yet they remain clearly distinct. It is certainly not because the genre of the battle speech was more interesting in a literary sense than other forms of rhetoric, because oh my it wasn’t. The most logical explanation to me has always been that they continue to remain distinct because however artificial the versions of battle speeches we get in literature are, they are tethered to the ‘real thing’ in fundamental ways.
This history, and the heuristics he used to situate that history, are used to teach why military speeches look the way they do, which in turn gives a greater appreciation for Lord of the Rings. Devereaux uses the humanities to help us enjoy things more (or less!), and he uses the things we enjoy to help us understand the world better.
I love this blog so much.
Okay that’s cool and all, but how does it make me a better programmer? Turns out a lot of the historical concepts the blog discusses have parallels in modern software. But not the wishy-washy Art of War “attack when they are weak” parallels, but coherent concepts backed by a lot of literature and references. Stuff that obviously applies to specific things in specific ways. Some of a few:
Cohesion is a blanket term for the psychological forces which hold soldiers in the line under the stress of combat. … In particular, while a cause may get you to the battle, by and large it is the fear of shame, either before comrades or close social contacts (friends, family, neighbors), or the desire to protect those same people which keeps soldiers in the line under extreme stress. — Source
Modern studies of unit cohesion tend to focus on the bonds between small groups of individual soldiers at ‘ground level,’ as it were. This is the ‘primary group’ model of cohesion – soldiers fight for the other soldiers in their unit. […] Roman military literature is interesting in this regard, because every so often the facade of elite discourse breaks and it becomes increasingly clear that the leadership that held Roman armies together was not that of the elite aristocrat-general, but instead the leadership of the experienced (but often decidedly non-elite) centurion (roughly the equivalent of a modern senior sergeant). — Source
Reading that reminded me of many conversations: “I don’t like my job, but I don’t want to let my team down.” People loyal to those around them, not the leadership or mission of the company. This seems to also be a really important thing in understanding the culture of larger corporations: local team dynamics play a much larger role in people’s understanding of the culture than the top-level dynamics.
Armies are hugely complex things, involving many moving parts (people, equipment, animals, etc). Friction (pedantry note: here in the sense used by Clausewitz) is simply the tendency for things to begin to go wrong with that system as it moves and fights. As Clausewitz says (drink!), “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is hard.”
You can think of it this way: when an army first jumps off on the offensive, it has had time to plan and prepare. Positions very close to the army are under good observation, so information is more accurate (and there has been time to sort out the inaccurate reports). Everyone is in the right position, everyone’s weapons are in good condition, everyone is fed and rested. As soon as the first step forward is taken, that begins to break down: key specialists are killed, equipment breaks, soldiers get tired, scared, lost, bored. Intelligence is swallowed in the fog of war. An attack is thus at its most dangerous at the very beginning, before it is worn down by friction. An attacking army is in the most danger at the end of an assault, exhausted and worn down – such a moment is the perfect time to counterattack, if forces remain to do so. — Source
I now see friction everywhere. People think plans fail when they miss something big, but it’s more often the collected weight of little things. If one small thing goes wrong, you can adjust for that, but that makes dealing with the next thing to go wrong a little harder, and then the thing after that… And often it’s not actually a snowball effect, where one thing causes the next problem. Everything happens independentally, but you have finite resources and second-order effects have a nasty habit of compounding. This has lots of connections to system safety, too.
Also this emphasizes the importance of planning and rehearsing. Rehearsing smooths out many of the small things that can go wrong, so your plan is less strained when the stuff you didn’t catch rolls around.
For a soldier viewing a hostile army at a distance, one way he might be trying to gauge the quality of the fellows he is facing is by how much expensive, high-end metal equipment they have. A gleaming formation of shining steel and iron would thus be – and we are repeatedly told this by our sources – absolutely terrifying. So instead, things like armor, weapons and often tools were instead polished (to remove any rust) and then coated in oils (olive oil and fish oils both work quite well and seem to have been used historically) to stave off further rust. Such a coating would need to be regularly reapplied (…I can attest from experience…) which is part of why ‘shining armor’ was such a signifier of a good, diligent knight or soldier – you could see how carefully his equipment was maintained. — Source
There’s just so much locked in this. Cultural memes arising out of practical heuristics. Importance of morale and how environmental signals affect morale. Just a whole lot on signaling information via unusual channels. Cross-constraints and conflicting requirements. The entire series that’s from, on premodern ironworking, is great.
Is it cheating to pull something from his Twitter? Nevermind, it’s a good thread. “we are better at practicing for war because we have spent literal millennia getting better at it”. How military practice — drilling, general staff, planning institutions — took millennia for us to develop, while we’re barely a century into pandemic planning. Really importanto to realize that bureaucracy and human systems are also technology, and can be researched and innovated as much as medicine can be.
I’ll limit this to one-offs instead of his longer pieces.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and the Unfortunate Implications. A fantastic example of valuable source criticism. By close reading, Devereaux shows that the developers made the game with a colonialist mindset, even though they tried to be as progressive-minded as possible.
Megacorporations: Megacorporations playing the role of states were (and are) a real thing, but were universally “outsourced imperialism” by states, and states could casually dismantle them without a thought. “States are the best organizational structure for the wielding of violence” is a recurring theme of the blog.
Why Don’t We Use Chemical Weapons Anymore?. It has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with how modern militaries are organized.
The Preposterous Logistics of the Loot Train Battle: ” As I tell my students, pre-modern armies are like sharks, they must swim or they will sink.“
My Country isn’t a Nation. The first essay I read in a long time that made me actually feel patriotic.
Anyway this blog is extremely good and goddamn am I out of writing practice