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.

Don't rust.

Speak to any sailor long enough and eventually they’ll moan about the number of yachts that sit in marinas year round without ever being used. It’s depressing and a huge waste. Don’t live your life sitting in the harbour.

Lonely robot in a wasteland
rusting in a lonely harbor
Lonely robot in a wasteland
rusting in the harbor’s water
I Blame Coco – Selfmachine, The Constant.

A ship in a harbor is safe- but thats not what ships are built for.

How to install CyanogenMod 7 on an HTC Desire

Quick post because I wrote most of this out for a friend and figure it was internets worthy.

Firstly, why would you want to do this?

  1. CyanogenMod gives you Apps2SD functionality which means you can store apps on your SD card regardless of whether they support being moved to SD. The Desire has some or other issue with storage space and you’re forever running out.
  2. Android 2.3.3 is slick and should almost double your battery life.
  3. CyanogenMod has hundreds of tiny tweaks that make your phone better and faster.

Warning: This should be obvious but following the steps below will essentially factory reset your phone and you will lose all apps etc. Since your contacts are probably backed up with Google and all the apps are available via Market, you shouldn’t need to stress.

From start to finish this entire process should take less than an hour.

  1. Plug your phone into a computer and copy everything off your SD card. This is only necessary if you care about your photos and movies etc.
  2. Use unrevoked to root your phone. Don’t stress if it automatically reboots once or twice. It does that… no idea why.
  3. Install Clockwork ROM manager from the Market. (the free one is fine)
  4. From inside the Rom Manager, “Flash ClockworkMod Recovery”. Takes a minute and will give you a success message when done.
  5. From inside the Rom Manager, “Partition SD Card”. This partitions and formats your SD card to give you Apps2SD functionality and also a bit of swap memory. I used a 512mb Ext partition and a 32mb swap partition. (Your phone will reboot and do the partitioning in the recovery mode)
  6. From inside the ROM manager, use “Download ROM” to get the latest Stable CyanogenMod. It’ll ask if you want the Google apps as well, tick the box to say yes.
  7. Wait for it to finish downloading (might take a while since it’s about 90mb of downloads)
  8. When done it it will ask if you want Backup Existing ROM and Wipe Data and Cache. If this is your first CyanogenMod you’ll want to tick the last two (Data and Cache). Additionally you probably also want to backup your existing rom. (it backs it up to the SD Card)
  9. Your phone will reboot into recovery and start doing stuff. It’ll do the backup first (take about 10 minutes) and then it will install the new ROM (takes about 8 minutes) and then it will reboot.
  10. The first reboot is slow. Don’t stress.
  11. Boom, you have CyanogenMod 7 with Android 2.3.3 (at time of writing)

Content and delivery.

Recently a friend who’s in the magazine industry was complaining about how their company (who is a very large media company) continually cut the magazine budgets while  spending gob-loads of money on their “Online” and “Mobile” people. The techies have access to iPads, iPhones and brand new Macbook Pros, while just down the passage there are magazine teams, retrenched to a fraction of their previous size, running on 10 year old macs.

The print-media industry is no doubt floundering. Seeing demand for their products dropping by significant numbers every year (We’re talking overall sales figures of around 20% what they were 10 years ago) while ad-sales is becoming more and more brutal due to the “global economy”, but probably more realistically because they’re losing ad sales to online channels. Fewer people want to buy newspapers and magazines and they media industry is making less and less (from ad sales) off the reduced distribution numbers.

So you can imagine the kind of pressure the industry is in and how incredibly easy it would be to come to the very foolish conclusion that the correct remedy is to spend those gob-loads on “Online” or “Mobile” to the detriment of the content producers.

My father was a printer, technically an offset lithography “machine minder”. He was badly paid, worked long shifts, went to work in blue overalls and came home covered in ink. The work was tough. You needed to have an expert eye, understand some of the chemistry, have delicate hands and be able to perform running repairs on dangerous machines. We’re talking about giant room sized printers and the “minder” having the ability to hear that the third roller bearing on the transfer shaft dingle dangle needed oil in the next 30 minutes or the machine would fail. (I’m paraphrasing)

The reason my dad was badly paid even though his job required so much skill was because lithography was an old technology. The mystique had been removed from the process hundreds of years earlier and the machines looked after themselves just enough to allow an unskilled worker become fully skilled in 3 years of on the job training.

The technology was mature and there was solid competition in the market. This drove the printing prices down, which pushed the salaries down, which meant that eventually the job of “machine minder” was only slightly more attractive a career than something like panel beating.

Compounding this, in the last 30 years printing has evolved to the point where the machines are easier to use, faster and even more reliable. Instead of hiring one or two “minders” per machine you can now have a few roaming engineers for an entire factory of printers. Putting ink on paper has never been cheaper.

My father moved to the publishing world about 30 years ago and has been wearing chinos to work ever since… Though I’m pretty sure he would still prefer to deal with machines than colleagues.

The costs and skill required to deliver content will always drop. Technology takes care of that, whether it’s a slightly more reliable room sized printer, or software that makes building an iPad app easier, the world is pre-programmed to make processes more efficient.

However, We will never have Artificial Intelligence that can drive to Darling and write about an Evita Bezuidenhout show, take photographs of the flowers in the Karoo or write about swimming with dolphins on a cool Sunday morning.

100 years ago quality content made money… Nothing has changed and it is unlikely to ever change. How content is delivered should never become more important than the content itself.

You might be able to wow people with your swanky iPad application with annoying faux-turning-pages animations, but eventually, just like the printing press, the technology will mature and everyone will be building swanky iPad apps. The cost involved in building those apps will drop and the big boys will be consistently competing against small, leaner, startup content producers. It took hundreds of years to get the cost of printing so low that we could print a daily newspaper and sell it to the masses. The cost of producing an Ipad app drops constantly and, as the technology evolves, it becomes trivially easy for anyone with some good ideas and camera to create something that other people want… and god forbid, would actually pay money for.

So, if you happen to be the CEO of some big ass media giant, spare a thought for Gutenberg and then Google “ios and android development frameworks” before deciding not to buy your content producers some decent computers. You could even do it on your iPad.

Letter to my 15 year old self.

Hi, it’s me, the 30 year old Jonathan. Here’s a list of things I wish I’d known when I was 15.

  1. Stop trying to be cool.  Being “cool” requires you to act “cool” so you end up acting like other people who are also acting “cool”… Eventually everyone is acting like someone else. Just be you.
  2. You have an extraordinary amount of free time, most of which you waste watching TV.  This might be your single biggest regret. STOP IT. Do something else, write software, hitch-hike to joburg, whatever, just stop watching TV.
  3. Take risks, be unpredictable, do things spontaneously. You might get in trouble but it’ll be worth it.
  4. Don’t let yourself become a nerd, but also don’t worry about being a nerd. Nerds are cool.
  5. History is actually very cool. Don’t drop it. Accounting is lame.
  6. God, in any form, does not exist. Humans have always created gods to explain the things they could not understand. Creation, Solar Eclipses, “miracles” etc. Native Americans dancing around a fire asking god for rain is no different to Christians praying for healing etc. Read up on the Placebo Effect and then think about religion.
  7. Be a good person. You don’t need a book to tell you what is wrong and right. Don’t tease anyone for any reason.
  8. Don’t waste your time trying to get a girlfriend. Girls are awesome but you don’t need a girlfriend now.
  9. You’ll make some great friends over the years. Make an effort to be a good friend back.
  10. You can be anyone, achieve anything. Who you are is as much a journey of discovery as any other great adventure.

The end. Don’t stress kid. You’ll be fine.

ps. Invest all your money in Google and Apple, but only after they fire Steve Jobs the first time

Grocery shopping went like a dream.

Have you ever had a real life experience that was so utterly bizarre that you thought it might have been one of those annoying dreams… like the one where you’re stuck in a warehouse full of tinned goods and just can’t find the exit… Just me then?

So today I go to Claremont Pick and Pay to do some grocery shopping.

  • The first level of parking is full… I drove around twice.
  • The second parking level is full. It’s not marked very well so I almost found myself stuck in a queue to exit.
  • The third parking level, which I didn’t know even existed, was full too… Everywhere there were people desperate for a parking spot.
  • Eventually I find myself on the forth level waiting for a guy who turned out to be just dropping off his gym bag in his boot.
  • Without exaggerating, by this stage I had spent about 15 minutes looking for parking and decided to just park my car near an entrance and wait for someone to leave.
  • I waited about 3 minutes until a bay opened. I parked and headed to the nearby entrance.
  • The lift didn’t indicate which level the shops were on so I took a gamble and pressed “G”.
  • When the doors opened and I walked out, around a corner and realised I had done something stupid because I was basically inside a Virgin Active.
  • At this point I’m like “Ok, I give up, I’ll just leave now and try this whole shopping thing another day”.
  • So I head back to the lifts… Once inside I’m faced with buttons G through 9. I parked on P4. There are no P’s.
  • I press 4 hoping that maybe that’ll be it.
  • The elevator door opens into a swish office suite lobby.
  • I feel like I’m in the twilight zone.
  • Unsure of whether to go up or down I just randomly start pressing buttons.
  • Over and over again the doors open and I’m faced with office suites… Now I’m wondering if perhaps, on that ground floor I’d re-entered into the wrong lift.
  • A girl gets in and I ask her which floor is the “top level of parking”. She confidently tells me it’s 6, which is where she’s going, and so I confidently follow her…
  • We exit the lift, turn right, she swipes a tag to open the door and I’m starting to get nervous… Relax, she assures me that there are stairs I can use to get onto the right level.
  • We walk out onto a parking platform, she points out the stairs in the distance and starts walking away.
  • About 3 seconds later I realise I am in the completely wrong fucking place. This is an entirely different parking garage in an entirely different side of the building.
  • I turn back to note the locked, rfid tag protected, door separating me from freedom.
  • The girl has disappeared and suddenly I need to pee.
  • I walk over to the door and luckily a few seconds later it opens… I act cool. Me, no, I’m not lost… I slip through as the dude who totally realised I was lost walks to his car.
  • I head back to the lifts. I ask another random woman where the parking is. She has a clue and asks me whether I mean the corporate parking or the public parking.
  • My angel informs me that the level I am looking for is 2… I had already tried 3… so close.
  • As we head down, the lift doors open on the fourth floor. Three people walk in. Making a total of 5. The doors won’t close and the Overload sign starts blinking.
  • The most rotund of the guests exits making a comment about this lift being faulty… “Own it” I think to myself.
  • Eventually the door on level 2 opens and I recognise the decor…. this was indeed where my car was… I turn right and exit into the familiar parking garage resolved to just go the fuck home.
  • As I walk to my car I notice large writing on the wall. “<- Gym Lifts     Shopping/Trolley Lifts  ->”
  • “I’ve come so far, why quit now?” I think to myself as I start walking randomly in the direction of the arrow to find the other set of lifts, which turn out to be about 200m around the corner.
  • Eventually inside PnP I start shopping. This is about 40 minutes after arriving at the parking garage.
  • I overhear a dude saying “Babes, Where are you?”.  “Where you left me” she replies… Typical guy says “Where?”… The girl, obviously losing her patience says “Jesus! In the next aisle!”…. a second passes before a random man replies “Jesus would never forsake you”. Everyone giggles except an old granny who for some reason is staring at me.
  • I can’t find the sugar and ask a shelf packer. He motions that he’s deaf and doesn’t understand me. I, don’t ask how, happen to know the sign language sign for “sugar” and instinctively, before I can stop myself, sign it… The guy’s face lights up like he’s met an old friend and he takes me to the sugar. I sign the “thank you” sign and he signs the whole “it’s a pleasure” thing. At this point I’m basically waiting for the part in the dream where Natalie Portman needs my help to rescue the world.
  • I pay and make my way to my car, carefully making sure that I pay for my parking ticket on the way because I just know how that would end… I would be the guy at the boom without a ticket and 5 cars behind me hooting and making comments about my mother.
  • I get to my car. The parking lot is still madness and a very attractive gym bunny girl is parked waiting for an opening. She smiles at me like I’m about to rescue her world.
  • I can’t find my keys… then I feel them (through my pants) in my back pocket… but for some reason every time I put my hand into my pocket, it is empty. I’m like SERIOUSLY starting to doubt my sanity at this point.
  • So I can feel my keys but can’t get them out, so, through my pants, I molest my ass in an attempt to, through the fabric, locate my car key so that I can at least unlock the car (remotely) and start unpacking the trolley, biding myself some time to solve the “keys *inside* my pants” conundrum.
  • Attractive gym bunny girl is staring at me while I appear to be having a stroke and pleasuring myself at the same time.
  • The car unlocks and I start to unpack the trolley the whole time wondering how I am going to get the keys out from *inside* my pants without attractive gym bunny girl phoning the cops.
  • I close the boot and run the trolley over to the trolley place. Still wondering how the fuck my keys are playing hide and seek with me.
  • Trying my best to hide behind a pillar I reach into my back pocket again… I again reach the logical conclusion that I reached earlier. I MUST have more than one pocket, but I just cant find the opening to it.
  • Eventually, after what seems like an hour of public indecency, I manage to get my hand into the TINY, *other*, pocket that contains my keys and triumphantly pull them out, trying hard to stop myself from making a point of showing them to attractive gym bunny so as to explain my recent retardation.
  • I get into the car, pull out and drive around the rabbit warren than is the various levels of parking lots, cul de sacs, private parking zones etc, to find the exit.
  • I end up in one of those narrow spirally ramps, heading downwards towards a boom, there are four cars in front of me, two behind me,  There is no “forgot my ticket” slipway and the car at the boom seems to be having a ticket problem. Minutes go by while I practice my breathing techniques.
  • Eventually I get out of the mall… I feel triumphant, like a hero, returning home after an epic battle in a foreign land.

That is my story. Every ounce of it is true. I would not believe it either.

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.