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.

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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.

Stanley on my mind.

They say it is the journey and not the destination, and when you spend a month sailing across the South Atlantic you’d expect that saying to be particularly true… but while the month at sea was something quite incredible and I will write at length about it, I can not help but be amazed by my destination, a small town called Stanley.

Stanley is the capital of the Falklands Islands, a small group of islands off the east coast of Argentina. It’s British and there was a war in the 80s when Argentina invaded. That tension is not over. Argentina continues to rumble about new invasions and has sanctions on flights and goods leaving or entering Argentina.

When I said Stanley is the “capital” I had to use that term very very loosely. You can forget whatever image you had built up in your head of this place. It is almost certainly not what you think, but let me first mess with your head.

Stanley has an army, a cathedral, its own tv and radio stations, postage stamps, its own currency (complete with coins) and two airports. But, and this is where things get interesting, Stanley is tiny, insanely tiny. You could walk from the one side of the “city” to the other in less than an hour and during that walk you’ll meet enough locals that when you’re in the pub later someone who you’ve never met will invariably approach you and say “Hi, you must be Jonathan”. They don’t get a lot of new faces around here.

Stanley also doesn’t have any ATMs, elevators, escalators or optician. If you run out of cash after 3pm and you want to buy something from a place that doesn’t accept credit cards, well, you can’t. There are only two places that accept credit cards and they’re both “supermarkets” of the sort that also sell fishing equipment and 1 liter plastic bottles of vodka.

Being small definitely has its benefits. The idea of stealing someone’s car is hilarious to the locals. Where would you go? Muggings never happen because the chances of the victim not knowing the attacker are almost nil.

Stanley does however have a crime problem. Their prison is full. All 8 inmates and they recently had to build a new female wing to house their first female prisoner. Never fear though, the convicts are sent to the shops to buy groceries, ever so occasionally bumping into their victims along the way. This would almost be funny if it wasn’t for the issue that most of Stanley’s prisoners are pedophiles.

They take crime seriously here… the local youngsters telling us that getting caught with weed will “get you done” for 6 years and similarly driving under the influence, which is a hilarious concept as your house is almost certainly less that a 15 minute stumble away from the pub, is taken very seriously by the police force. By police force I mean the 3 cops, but only before 3am when it becomes “the cop”, and that cop has to man the phone, so really it’s more of an honor system.

Criminals are treated with such disdain that the monthly newsletter details an incident by incident run down of the previous months arrestees. The latest edition chronicles another pedophile who got caught, complete with a photograph, his full name and address. He hasn’t actually been found guilty yet.

Taking name-and-shame to a whole new level, the local paper also provides names and criminal history for all four of the previous month’s DUI and speeding arrestees. Please don’t forget, this is in a town with a population that is dwarfed by some big high schools.

Stanlians have their own accent. You wouldn’t notice it in the UK as they definitely sound British, but once you’ve met a few you realize that they all intonate in a very peculiar way that once you’re aware of becomes unmistakable. Another interesting quirk is that everyone seems very well educated and quite attractive, but you can’t help but shake the feeling that a lot of them look very very similar.

The Falkland Islands do not have any tertiary education institutions and as a result there is a very odd demographic. Most of the university age people are simply not here and it seems that most of the young professionals leave as soon as they can. I am yet to meet a 30 year old that isn’t disabled, an alcoholic or both.

What that does leave you with is old people, young people and immigrants. The young people are probably the most interesting. Most of them are either not yet in university or have just got back from university and have found that it’s easier to find employment on a remote island with a tiny population than back in the UK. Sadly that says a lot about the state of the economy in the UK.

A 25 year old in Stanley is unlike anything you’ve ever met in the UK or probably the rest of the world. Full of self confidence and lacking the routine hang ups associated with that quarter life crisis. This is a population of educated Hendrix and Led Zep fans talking about politics in a way that would make your average Che t-shirt wearing hipster stammer. They are fun to hang out with and are quick to invite your rag tag crew of dirty sailors back to theirs when the pubs close. Pub’s close at 11pm with a regiment that would make Hitler smile, but not before a 5 minute free-for-all where the locals boozily buy cases of beer over the counter at bartered prices that still seem too high. Then you’re off to theirs (usually in a taxi driven by a motherly australian woman who doesn’t even need to ask where you’re going) for some more drinks while you listen to an 18 year old tell you how they recently got into Oasis but really they grew up on Springsteen.

I can’t say anything bad about Stanley other than the food. There is one place that supposedly has good food but it looks like an old age home and has food prices that should include a night’s accommodation. Everywhere else has food that seems designed for the squaddies (soldiers who live on the base over the hill) or oil workers; deep-fried everything and almost no flavor so you end up coating your entire meal in tomato sauce and/or mayonnaise depending on how British you feel like being.

Sadly I’m flying out of here tomorrow, but rest assured that tonight will be spent in the bars, all 3 of which where everybody knows my name.

Photos to follow when I’m in a place that doesn’t charge for internet by the minute.

Why we do what we do.

Weather permitting I’ll be leaving next Wednesday. I’m going to sail about three and a half thousand miles, across the South Atlantic, from Cape Town to a tiny group of islands called the Falklands off the coast of Argentina. I like to think that the reason I am doing this is obvious and for most of my friends the reason seems obvious too.

Though, every now and then I get asked “Why?”. As if it would be simpler to just fly there. Which is true. It takes 44 hours to fly from Cape Town to Stanley on the east Falklands. 44 hours and 5 separate flights. Sailing there takes 25 days and you sail through some of the roughest seas on the planet. The Falklands are about as close as you can get to Antarctica without actually being on Antarctica.

Is it dangerous? Of course. There are more dangerous things one could do, but when you’re 2000 miles away from the nearest hospital and in a very unpredictable environment, anything can happen.

Will I miss home? Of course! I’ll miss my wife, my cats, my comfortable bed, being able to take a warm shower whenever I want, deciding what I want to eat, being able to be alone, going out to get a coffee etc etc. I’ll be stuck on a 75 foot yacht with 7 people I barely know.

So why am I doing it? I don’t really have an answer. I have answers. But the sum of all those answers is not the answer.

I want to stretch my mind. I want to sail away, leave land behind, wake up in the morning and have to check a map to know where I am. I want to be surrounded by nothing but sea.

I want to learn to be a better sailor. We live in a world full of experts who know nothing. Rockstars who learnt everything they know in the previous 3 weeks. We’re all bullshit and truth bending. Teach yourself brain surgery in 24 hours. When your life is in your own hands you’re forced to be honest about your abilities.

I want to push myself and see where the cracks appear. I want to be bored and be forced to write. I want to spend an idyllic evening on deck eating freshly caught fish. I want time to think. I want to be scared. I want to ride out a storm and watch the sun rise on a perfect morning. I want to see land and long to touch it. I want to have a story to tell and to write those stories that are banging around in my head. I want to miss my wife, my friends, my family and my country.

I want to fly home and know why I sailed away in the first place, but I’m sure I won’t, and that is why I am doing it.

You can, satellite gods willing, follow my adventures here http://arbitrarysailor.tumblr.com/.

Why I am going to stop banking with Standard Bank.

I think it is important to preface this by saying: Shit happens. It will happen at every bank, every online retailer, every restaurant, no matter who you are or where you go. What separates the good from the bad is, and always has been, *how you fix the problems when they happen*. Unfortunately when greedy business practices become institutionalised and the institution chooses to tie the hands of anyone trying to remedy the problem, well then you are left with little option but to walk away, with your money.

Strike 1. When all other banks are offering SMS updates for free you choose to charge customers.

Strike 2. You offer that service free to your private banking clients, ignoring the demographic that represents the bulk of your income, and instead decide to charge them even more.

Strike 3. As a customer with a Standard Bank home loan, vehicle loan, cheque account and credit card  I am patently aware of how much money you make out of me every month. When I speak to the most senior person I am deemed fit to speak to (not actually the bank manager) I am told that even the bank manager is unable to waive the R17 fee. That sort of hand-tied’ness makes me want to cry.

I could handle greed.
I could handle badly thought out products.
I could handle incompetence.

But I can not handle all three simultaneously from an organisation making hundreds of rands off me every month.

Time to do some bank shopping when I get back.

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.