Ten things

Get your priorities straight
There is nothing more important than enjoying your life. Making sure that other people are enjoying their lives comes in at a close second. You are not a useful human being if you are not enjoying your own life.

Don’t sweat the small stuff
Gary Player famously said that the more he practiced the luckier he got. You can reprogram the way your brain reacts to truly stressful situations by practicing positive, stress-free, reactions to the little things that go wrong every day.

Get some perspective
Most of the stuff you worry about is simply not important. Your family and friends are what matter. They are irreplaceable. Your car getting stolen, your house burning down, losing your job, while all sad and frustrating, should not result in emotional trauma.

Emotional trauma is scar tissue
Years ago I broke my big toe by kicking a wall. It was stupid and every now and then my toe hurts for no reason. If you repeatedly kick a wall your toe is going to hurt all the time and you are not going to be able to enjoy your life.

It’s not over until you’re dead
Your health is important, but not more important than enjoying your life. I’m not suggesting you start a small heroin habit, but worrying about your health is futile unless you’re doing it while calling a doctor.

Put on your big girl panties when dealing with family
There are situations in life where you just need to make hay, even if you’re allergic and the sun isn’t shining. The normal rules of engagement do not apply for family. “Not talking” to some branch of your family is an incredibly sad outcome that should be avoided at all costs. No one is asking you to paint each other’s nails while watching Thelma and Louise on VHS, but for everyone’s mental health, including your own, sometimes you just need to get out there in the rain and start throwing around some hay.

Appreciate what you have
Be thankful for the things you have, not because one day they might be gone or because others don’t have them, but simply because you do have them.

Stretch
This is not a computer game. When you die your life is over. Try and be incredible or die trying.

Yourself is the best you you can be
Countless Facebook posts will encourage you to sing like no one is listening. That is rubbish. Being yourself is the only way to be happy. This is not rocket science. If you want to sing, sing. If you want to spend your weekend reading a book to your cat, do that.

Stop
Close the door, put away your phone, sit down and spend some time thinking. Call it whatever you want but just do it, daily if possible.

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Leaving TrustFabric and joining Praekelt

This news is a few weeks old but I kept on meeting people who hadn’t heard so I figured a blog post was in order.

I have officially left TrustFabric and have joined Praekelt. Leaving TrustFabric was a hard decision. If Joe can pull of what he’s got planned, and I think he can, he will change the way we manage and share information online. I want that to be a reality.

My first few weeks at Praekelt have been great. I am now in a pure strategy role. Travelling back and forth between JHB and CPT, meeting amazing, talented people, having my mind expanded and learning constantly. My diverse background (travel, banking, advertising, telecoms, ISPs, online dating etc etc) is proving to be useful in ways that I never thought possible.

I’ll keep you posted.

Brain Insight

A few days ago I needed to get into my parent’s house while they were on holiday. I was driving to my house to fetch their spare keys and fretting about having forgotten their alarm code. As I opened my front door the alarm keypad began beeping. I instinctively started punching in a code. As I was pressing the keys I became aware that the pin I was entering was not the pin for my house but a totally different pin.

When I pressed the last number I realised that he pin I had just entered was the pin for my parents house. A pin that I could not remember a few seconds ago.

Mind blown.

Danny the capturer of the world.

Many years ago I worked at company that sold widgets. These widgets were very complicated and required lots of customisation. The company had developed a pretty large piece of software to help their sales people build complex widget quotes with lots of line items.

This company also had a big off the shelf enterprise accounting system that handled their real accounts.

I had worked at the company for almost 2 years as a software developer when one day I found myself sitting in the accounts department helping Danny with something unrelated. It was then that I learnt what Danny from Accounts actually did.

Every morning Danny would print out the previous days ‘accepted’ quotes from the quoting software resulting in a small pile of paper, one for each customer, with hundreds of line items, for every day. Then, using a ruler and pen to scratch out the lines, he would manually re-enter all of the customer data and their quote information, line item by line item, into the big accounting system. This process took him most of the day, sometimes more if business was good. He occasionally made mistakes that either cost the company lots of money or pissed off the customers.

As a software developer I knew that both systems ran off MSSQL databases. I knew that all the relevent information probably already existed to do the “job” programmatically. I knew that it would probably take a day or two to write a piece of software that did Danny’s job, perfectly every time, in a few milliseconds.

Danny had been doing that job for almost 6 years.

Since that day, whenever I start working with a new company, I try my best to meet everyone and get an idea for what they do and how they do it before I put my head down and start trying to solve any problems. That habit has served me well. In a team of ba/tech/strat/arch people I’m often the only one who knows how the accounts actually work, or how the stock is really procured, or what the weird hippies on the third floor do. (They’re always copywriters.)

But I’m not trying to pretend I have special powers. My point is that you can never assume that other people will have looked at problems like you do, with your knowledge-set. Most of the time other people won’t even see something like that as a “problem”. Danny’s boss never thought to question the process that admittedly pre-dated him. They all have no idea what SQL is and neither should they need to. It’s not their job. It’s yours. (Assuming you’re in a tech field)

What really excites me is how this kind of technology-discovery can be applied to people who traditionally live without the exposure to technology that we do. We now live in world where mobile phones can do things that sometimes even I think are quite magical (think SoundHound and Shazaam). I don’t know what “Danny the capturer of the world” situations exist in an under-resourced high school in a Soweto. I don’t know what efficiencies might just be waiting to be discovered in a clinic in Khayelitsha. I am however convinced that if a large corporate focused solely on profits with a really good, international, management team and a chartered accountant CFO all couldn’t spot that Danny was unintentionally wasting his time (and their money), then I can only imagine what amazing, albeit probably simple, tech-opportunities are waiting to be discovered in the “real” world.

I may not be ready to tackle the townships just yet, and I’m by no means assuming that there aren’t already smart people doing this kind of stuff, but I do look forward to one day being able to spend a few weeks immersed in the daily grind of a township school teacher or a minimum-wage worker, and maybe finding some way to bring a little bit of technological awesomeness and efficiency to their lives.

I know you’re wondering. I did write that software and Danny did need to click a button every morning and watch as the script whizzed by in less than a second, but he didn’t lose his job, instead he was able to move on to tackling more challenging things that actually needed his accounting skills. Everyone’s a winner.

Open Source Printing Hardware

Printing is unreasonably expensive. I’m sure hardware manufacturers like HP, Samsung, Canon etc lie in bed at night smiling in disbelief that we all seem to happily pay their ridiculous prices and drink their kool-aid.

I recently repaired a HP 2605dn colour laser. Those things are built with a pretty glaring design fault. While I was poking around in the optics box (LASERS!) I had an epiphany. If some well meaning university engineering department designed and built an open source laser printer, they could change the world.

A little bit of context is important. At the moment there are a few big printer hardware manufacturers. At the heart of every laser printer is something called the “Engine”. Only a few of the big guys make engines and you’ll probably find that whoever made the engine also built the printer, regardless of what brand ends up on it. Canon makes HP and Canon, Lexmark make Dell, Samsung and IBM while Xerox is made by Sharp. Who the actual designs belong to is unknown, but I suspect that most of the time the design IP belongs to the manufacturer, regardless of the brand.

It’s also important to know that most of the rollers, bearings etc inside a printer are made by someone else and bought en-masse. So it’s not like you’d have to start fabricating rubber in order to build your own printer.

How a computer talks to a printer is called the command language. At the moment something called PCL (Printer Command Language) (developed by HP) is the de-facto standard in most printers. (Don’t ask why we still need a bajillion printer drivers). The ownership/legalities of PCL is hard to figure out, and since HP will probably accuse any Open Source project that uses PCL of patent infringement it would be wise to develop a new (probably a lot simpler) page description language.

The fact that they do this is clear evidence that they’re ripping you off.

If the big manufacturers sold their cartridges for reasonable prices there would be no market for “compatibles”.

Manufacturers make a fortune from cartridges. They consider the cartridge design and interface to be their intelectual property and therefore anyone who builds a compatible cartridge will incur their wrath and lawyers. In an attempt to make it hard to refill the cartridges they’ve even gone as far as putting microchips directly on the cartridge that track how many pages you’ve printed and then when you reach a magic number, regardless of how much toner is left, stop working. They do this purely to make money. The fact that they do this is clear evidence that they’re ripping you off. If the big manufacturers sold their cartridges for reasonable prices there would be no market for “compatibles”.

And then there’s Asia where the whole idea of intellectual property is kinda-sorta-fuzzy. A good example would be guys like Nanchang who openly sell the microchips for specific printer cartridges to anyone. The printer manufactures lawyers would obviously like to prosecute anyone caught with those chips in the West. They’ll claim that he chips are the manufacturer’s IP and reverse engineering them is considered a breach of the DMCA. How those things live on Amazon is anyone’s guess. I wonder if the manufacturers would react if big retailer (Wallmart etc) sold those kits? (Do any?)

So how cheaply can a cartridge be made? Very cheaply. There is very little on a laser cartridge that actually wears. Toner (powdered ink) is really the only thing that runs out and as you can imagine, toner is cheap.

So there are manufacturers in Asia that can produce “counterfeit” printer cartridges for a fraction of the price of the originals, but due to legalities, those are hard to acquire in the West, and you never know whether you’re dealing with a reputable business or some fly by night that will screw up your printer.

If there was an Open Source printer and reference design for the cartridges, reputable manufacturers could build those printers and cartridges and reputable retailers could import them without fear of legal battles for a fraction of the price. Most importantly, an Open Source designed cartridge would almost certainly be designed from the ground up to be easy to refill at home.

Over time there would be design revisions (bugfixes) and eventually the printers would be as good (probably better) than the built-in-redundancy printers that the big manufacturers currently produce.

Open Source Hardware creates a unique ecosystem. It is naturally competitive, pushing prices down on consumables and making sure that people pay for build and print quality rather than brands.

Who invented the lightbulb?

Lets get one thing straight. Thomas Alva Edison did not invent the lightbulb.

This story requires context:

  • In 600AD the greek writer Thales of Miletus started writing about Electricity. Mostly this was all about rubbing Amber together and noticing static charge
  • In 1760 French physicist Charles-Augustin Coulomb starts actually making sense of electricity.
  • In 1779 Alessandro Volta builds the first true battery.
  • In the late 1700s and early 1800s every scientist, tinkerer and hacker is playing with electricity.
  • 30 years later, in 1809, Humphry Davy builds the first true electric lamp. This is 38 years before Edison is even born.
  • 50 years later, in 1860, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan builds an electric light bulb and starts tinkering with carbon-filament incandescent electric bulbs (The same stuff Edison eventually used).
  • Ten years later in 1877, the American Charles Francis Brush manufactured carbon arcs and was lighting public parks and office blocks.
  • In 1879, three years after Brush already had electric light in office blocks, Thomas Alva Edison discovers that a carbon filament in an oxygen-free bulb was able to stay glowing for up to 40 hours.
  • Two years later some dude named Lewis Howard Latimer makes a better filament.
  • 20 years later another guy called Willis R. Whitney invents a process to stop the globe getting dimmer as it got older
  • Seven years later, in 1910, a guy called William David Coolidge invents a tungsten filament that lasts a lot longer than the carbon ones.
Thomas Alva Edison - Douchebag Extraordinaire

So all that Edison ever “invented” was that a vacuum increased the lifespan of the filament.

So, the next obvious question is, why does everyone think that Edison invented the light bulb? The answer to that question is an interesting one because it has more to do with propaganda than it does to do with invention.

A lightbulb is useless without electricity, Edison knew that… and, like any clever businessman, Edison knew that real inventors are generally very bad at making money out of their inventions because they’re always too busy working on version 2.

Edison realised that the only way to make real money was to get electricity into people’s houses so that you could sell them lightbulbs, and electricity… This was brilliant because it’s the “Give away the razor, sell the razorblades” plan except both lightbulbs and electricity are consumables… so its more like “Give away the connection and sell the lightbulbs and the electricity”. Edison also wasn’t the first person to figure this out, he was just really really good at marketing… Or really really bad at marketing, depending on how you feel about Elephants.

Topsy the Elephant

Another person who realised that Electricity was going to make a lot of money was a rich businessman called Westinghouse. Westinghouse had become friends with an eccentric Yugoslav scientist called Nikola Tesla who had been experimenting with electricity his whole life. When Tesla wasn’t busy building Tesla Coils or trying to harness the power of lightning (or trying to harness energy from outer space, I shit you not) he worked with Westinghouse to build electricity generators and plan electricity distribution systems. Tesla knew more about electricity than pretty much anyone else alive at that point and early on had realised that Alternating Current (AC) was far better at distributing electricity than Direct Current (DC). So Westinghouse and Tesla started generating and distributing power to the rich and famous.

Edison didn’t like this. Not only were Tesla and Westinghouse competitors, but they were also proposing a different, better, system (AC) that Edison knew would eventually win the battle. Edison had managed to market himself as the father of electricity — a magician and folk hero — and he was getting incredibly rich.

Nikola Tesla - True Genius

So Edison did what any self respecting douche-bag marketer would do… he started publicly torturing animals… and filming it. Thomas Alva Edison, the “inventor of the lightbulb” went out into the streets and publicly electrocuted, to death, animals in a bid to show the public that Alternating Current was far too dangerous to be in their homes. And yes, in case you’re wondering, that reference to elephants earlier is because Edison even electrocuted, to death, an adult elephant.

Of course AC isn’t really any more dangerous than DC and Edison knew that… While there are some issues with AC’s 50-60 Hertz frequency being closer to that of your heart, both AC and DC are equally able to kill elephants and small children.

Sadly the public was gullible and Tesla was devastated… He went from being an eccentric socialite magician to being that guy who wants to murder small children and animals. Westinghouse had thicker skin and managed to keep his chin up, but Tesla became a recluse and started working in isolation on increasingly crazier ideas like harnessing power from the stratosphere. Tesla believed that it would be possible to get this power so cheaply that it would become free. Whether Tesla was onto something or whether his eccentric genius mind had finally snapped will never be known… In 1943 he died, alone, drowning in debt, in a hotel room.

Thomas Edison was no doubt a very clever man, but he was also ethically a disgusting person who thought nothing of destroying others to elevate his own fame.