The Philosopher's Macs

Some years ago I came across a philosophical conundrum known as “The Philosopher’s Axe”. The Philosopher’s Axe poses the question “If over the course of use, the head and handle of an axe is replaced, is it still the same axe?”.

You may have come across this in the brilliant comedy series “Only Fools and Horses", in a sketch called “Trigger’s Broom”, click on the following link for your delectation and delight:

While googling this, I discovered this idea goes back even further than Delboy and Rodders. Here’s an extract from the Wikipedia entry:

“The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus' paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century. Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.

Centuries later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering what would happen if the original planks were gathered up after they were replaced, and used to build a second ship. Hobbes asked which ship, if either, would be the original Ship of Theseus.”

Now that second paragraph really bakes my noodle.

I’ve been using Macs since 1985 and in that time across all the systems I've used, I’ve had two internal power supplies fail, one motherboard fail and a disk drive fail. My current MacBook Pro celebrated its 5th birthday recently – but is it in fact the same Mac that I bought?

Last year, during the summer, the graphics card failed. Research at the time showed that Apple had built a batch of Macbook Pros with faulty cards and were running a recall program, but my Mac fell outside of this program, by virtue of it not being old enough. 

Rather than paying the £475 ex VAT repair bill, I played the EU consumer law card, which basically says that if a product unreasonably breaks or fails within 6 years of purchase, then it should be repaired or replaced by the manufacturer (something to possibly consider in the in/out/shake-it-all-about debate). Apple played ball, and the work was done by an Apple Dealer called Stormfront in Windsor. When I collected it, the store manager made what I thought was a strange comment “We had to replace the whole lid assembly as well as the screen”…

… an odd thing to do I thought, but that’s half a new laptop, thanks very much!

Three weeks ago the screen froze on my Mac, even the seconds on the clock were stuck in time. I rebooted, but half way through the boot sequence, the Mac booted into a completely grey screen. It did the same thing when booting into “safe mode”, and even from “internet recovery” and even more worryingly, from an external bootable hard drive.

Beth, the MacGenius at the Genius bar in the Apple Reading store diagnosed the problem, checked the notes from Stormfront, and concluded that while they had indeed replaced the screen and top lid assembly, they hadn’t actually replaced the faulty graphics card, which is what I took it to them to do! (quite how it's been working since then I have no idea).

No matter, Beth reassured me, Apple were now running a quality program for my vintage of MacBook Pro, and she duly booked it in for repairs – which consisted of swapping out the motherboard, the graphic card being an un-swappable subcomponent.

A week later, I’m happy to report, it was returned in full working order with a delightful £0 fee.

During September of last year, I’d cracked open the casing and fettled my Mac. I increased the RAM from 8GB to 16GB, and swapped out the original 128GB SSD for a 500GB SSD. As I no longer need to burn DVDs, I replaced the internal optical drive with a second internal disk drive that acts as a Timemachine backup drive, the optical disk drive going into an external USB enclosure for the occasional times I need one. 

All this activity means the number of original parts is few: the cooling fan, the keyboard and trackpad, the battery and the aluminium “unibody” enclosure are all that remain of the Mac as it rolled off the production line. It is in essence a completely new Mac, ready to go for another five years.

But it’s still my much loved Mac.