Monday, November 30, 2020

Caught in the HP Printer Cartridge Wars


A few months ago, the old computer printer I was using expired, and as I'm working mainly from home these days and need to use the printer several times a day, I spent a half hour or so researching printers and ended up buying an HP 8035 unit.  It's a middle-of-the-line combination inkjet printer/scanner, and as long as the original printer cartridges lasted it worked fine.  And even once the red (I guess the technical name is magenta) cartridge gave out and I swapped a new one in, it was fine.  Then the yellow cartridge gave out, and I decided to swap out both the yellow and the cyan cartridge.

When I turned the unit back on, it gave me an error message that said in effect "These cartridges are not intended for use in this printer."  Now on some level, I was aware of the ongoing battle that printer manufacturers wage with those pesky cartridge remanufacturers and refillers who recycle used cartridges, refill them, and sell them for a fraction of what the manufacturer charges.  And if I'd gone out on the web and bought some of the remanufactured cartridges, I wouldn't have been too surprised to see such a message, as there are software ways HP can use to figure out what kind of cartridge was installed. 

But the cartridges I installed came out of an HP box I bought at the same time I bought the printer, and had HP labels all over them, and their expiration dates (if that's what the little date codes ending in 2021 or 2022 meant) were well in the future.  By all reasonable considerations, these cartridges should work in this printer.  But they didn't.

I ended up finding an odd part of HP's website where it instructed me to do a hard reset of the printer (unplugging it and plugging it back in), and if that didn't fix the problem, to answer a series of questions involving the printer's serial number and the date codes and place of manufacture (China or Malaysia) of the cartridges.  When I did that, I was informed that HP will, some day, send me some replacement cartridges, and in the meantime, here's how to print in black and white. 

HP and I go back a long way, though both of us have changed in latter years.  One of my prize surplus-equipment purchases in high school was a World-War-II era knockoff of the famous HP 200-series vacuum-tube audio oscillator that got the company going back in 1938.  It's still sitting in my garage, and the last time I tried to fire it up, it still worked.  During my brief stint in industry, I learned that of all the different kinds of test equipment out there, Hewlett-Packard gear was the ruggedest and most reliable, and typically exceeded its specifications even after a decade of use. 

Around the end of the 20th century, HP decided its future lay in the direction of computers and computer peripherals, and spun off the division that made the super-reliable test equipment.  That division became known as Agilent, and a few years later, Agilent fissioned into a biological and chemical division, which retained the Agilent name, and rid itself of the electrical test-equipment people, who became Keysight.  In the meantime, HP, which merged with the Houston PC maker Compaq somewhere along the way, was not doing that well, and eventually became known mainly for its printers, as far as I'm concerned. 

The consumer and enterprise printer business is a lot different than the lower-volume, sophisticated-customer test equipment business.  From what I can tell, one way to make money with printers is the way Kodak made money with cameras:  they could give the cameras away as long as people kept buying the film from Kodak.  I don't think HP does that with their printers, judging by what I paid for mine.  But it does seem like they could arrange things so that when you buy a set of printer cartridges that say they will work with the printer you just bought, that implied contract doesn't turn out to be a lie.

Admittedly, HP makes a bewildering variety of printers and an equally bewildering variety of cartridges to go with them.  Some cartridges include the printer head, others don't.  The ones I bought are evidently just little tanks with foam-covered outlets that soak the ink into the printer head, which is a separate unit.  I found out how that works when I tried to fix this printer's predecessor.  After replacing its cartridges didn't get it printing again, I ordered a new printer head (again, from some third-party place—they seem to be difficult or impossible to get from HP).  It didn't help, so I wasted about $60 on new cartridges and a printer head before concluding the unit was ready for the junk pile.  (Actually, I donated it to Goodwill, and if they can get it to work again, more power to them.)

But even given all the complications of selling different lineups of printers in different parts of the world, you would think that HP could keep their supply chains straight so you can't go out and buy a box of printer cartridges that say they will work with your printer, and wind up discovering that no, indeed, they don't. 

I'm not the only one with this problem.  A cursory web search turned up at least two sites discussing the fact that if certain packages of HP cartridges have an expiration date earlier than, for example, January 2021 (which is still a good bit in the future), they won't work with certain printers that they are nominally supposed to work with.  Evidently, this is part of a game, or war, that HP is playing in order to stay a step ahead of the recycled-cartridge people.  But now they're updating things so fast that they are obsoleting lots of their own cartridge inventory that is still in the supply chain somewhere.

This is not how the old Hewlett-Packard company would behave.  But that organization is just a fond memory, and now we have to get used to being caught in cartridge-war crossfire if we buy a new printer.  Some day I'll be able to print in color again, but until HP deigns to send me replacement cartridges, I'll just have to settle for a monochrome world.  And by the way, what about these other new cartridges I bought at the same time?

Sources:  Discussions of HP cartridges not working in their designated printers can be found at and  I also referred to the Wikipedia entry "Hewlett-Packard." 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Technology, Demography, and Destiny


Most people, including most engineers, suspect there is some relationship between the advances in transportation, communications, sanitation, and health care brought about by modern science-based engineering on the one hand, and the tremendous and rapid growth in world population that has taken place since 1800 on the other hand, when there were only an estimated 1 billion people worldwide.  Now there are about 7 billion.  Something happened beginning a couple of hundred years ago that had never happened before in the history of the world, and the effect was to make population soar at an unprecedented rate. 


Whatever your opinion on whether this is a good thing or not, demographer Paul Morland has done us all a favor by writing The Human Tide:  How Population Shaped the Modern World.  The job of a demographer is to study the details of human population statistics:  birth rates, death rates, migration, and their effects and causes in relation to economics, politics, and the rest of life.  So far, so dull, you think?  Not in Morland's hands. 


It turns out that no matter what nation or ethnic group you're talking about, the encounter with modernity (which mainly means modern methods of transportation, communication, etc.) gives rise to what Morland and his colleagues call the first type of "demographic transition."  For most of human history, population was limited both by the scarcity of food and the brevity of human life due to disease and starvation.  In Biblical times, for example, nearly everyone lived on a farm, and married women typically had four or more children so that enough of them would live long enough to become useful farm hands.  Everyone lived in what Morland calls "the Malthusian trap," named after the English cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).  Malthus said that any increase in the food supply will only tempt people to have more children, and the increased number of mouths to feed more than makes up for the original increase, meaning that near-starvation will be the typical lot of humanity into the indefinite future.


But Malthus had no way to tell that the coming century would bring with it technological improvements in agriculture (steam and gasoline tractors), transportation (railroads, automobiles), public sanitation (clean water, sanitary sewers), and health care (improved pediatric and geriatric medicine), all of which enabled first England, then parts of Europe, the U. S., and other countries to escape the Malthusian trap.  And it turns out that everybody escapes more or less the same way, although the timing varies from place to place.


First, falling infant mortality and increasing lifespans lead to a tremendous boom in population, as women keep having those four or six children they've always had, but most or all of them now survive to adulthood and live much longer lives, into their fifties or sixties.  After a generation or so, especially if the cultural setting encourages literacy and advanced educational opportunities for women, they stop having such large families.  The means by which this happens is something of a mystery, as it involves decisions and behavior that are not easily observed on a mass scale.  But in culture after culture, country after country, even in religions as different as Christianity and Buddhism, the first demographic transition works more or less the same way.


Once the average family size comes down to replacement level (typically about two and a fraction children), some countries move on to what Morland calls the second demographic transition:  a further reduction in the birth rate below the replacement level.  This does not immediately result in an overall population decline, because large numbers of young women may still be growing into childbearing age, immigration into the region may be significant, and many other factors can intervene as well. 


But in some cases such as Japan, the birth rate is extremely low, the overall population is declining, the median age is among the highest in the world, and it is estimated that up to 30,000 elderly Japanese die alone in their homes every year, giving rise to a whole industry that specializes in removing abandoned bodies. 


This is not necessarily the fate that all modern industrialized countries face.  Some countries such as Sri Lanka seem to have stabilized themselves at a comfortable balance with replacement-level birth rates, reasonably long lifetimes, and a fairly constant population figure.  But every country that encounters modern technology eventually goes through at least the first demographic transition.


The book also made me wonder what relationship should obtain between the way large groups of people behave on average, almost regardless of culture or faith, and the ideals of certain faiths, particularly Christianity.  Morland points out that the universality of demographic transitions happens because nearly everybody (a) would rather live longer than die young, and (b) wants the same for their children, however many there are.  So when the technical means become available to achieve these ends, a society adopts them, and eventually quits having six or eight kids per family unless there are extremely strong cultural or religious reasons to keep doing so.  Morland does mention exceptions such as the Jewish Haredim ultra-orthodox sects and Christian groups such as the Amish, who tend to have large families whatever their circumstances are.  But unless such convictions become widespread in the general population, it's unlikely that large families will become the norm in modern industrialized countries.


Is that a moral failing?  Admittedly, there is a wide spectrum of opinion or conviction even within Christianity, ranging from liberal groups that favor abortion rights to conservative elements of the Roman Catholic Church that look not only upon abortion, but on any form of birth control other than "natural family planning" (formerly known as the rhythm method) as sinful.  So in one sense, it depends on who you ask.


What Morland taught me is that while demography isn't all of destiny, it does have a lot to say about the histories and trajectories of regions, countries, and even continents.  Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is the only place where the majority of countries are still undergoing their first demographic transition, with extremely fast population growth that has not yet been dampened by that mysterious collective decision to have fewer children per mother.  Whether countries such as Nigeria end up managing their transition well and stabilizing like Sri Lanka, or whether they get mired in the chaos and civil strife that seems to accompany having lots of young unemployed men in your population, is a question that remains to be answered. 


But when the answer comes, people like Paul Morland will have helped us understand how the invisible hand of demography contributes to history in general, and the history of technology too.


Sources:  Paul Morland's The Human Tide:  How Population Shaped the Modern World was published in 2019 by Public Affairs Publishing, New York.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The COVID-19 Vaccine: When, Where, and Who?


Most experts agree that the only thing which will put the current COVID-19 pandemic to rest is some kind of vaccine.  One firm—Pfizer/BioNtech—has progressed to what is called a Phase 3 trial, which involved about 43,000 people who took it with apparently no serious side effects.  There is still a long way to go even with the most advanced projects, because achieving "herd immunity"—enough immune people to discourage the virus from spreading—may require on the order of several billion doses.  And many of the prospective vaccines require two injections spaced weeks apart, which further complicates matters.


Engineers are familiar with tradeoffs that are usually imposed by economic restrictions.  When I was a young engineer just out of college, I was teamed with an older and more experienced engineer, and one day we were talking about various possible ways to tackle a certain problem in a new design we were working on.  I described three or four different ways to tackle it that I thought were pretty clever, but he seemed unimpressed.  Finally, I asked him why he wasn't more excited about these innovative ideas I was proposing.


"Heck, I can build one of anything!  The real challenge is making thousands of them work at a price we can afford."  The harsh realities of the marketplace had educated him to look not just for technically sweet ideas, but for ideas—new, old, or otherwise—that would do the best job for the least money.  That taught me that having clever ideas—or one dose of a highly effective vaccine—is only a small step toward solving a real-world engineering or technical problem.


Making a billion high-quality vaccine doses in a short time is a challenge that hasn't been discussed much so far.  But supposing that vast production problem is overcome, and reliable vaccine doses begin to enter the pipeline, who is going to get them first? 


An interesting study cited by a recent BBC article says that the first doses should go to different groups, depending on how effective the vaccine is.  No vaccine is 100% effective, and this is especially true of virus vaccines.  The annual flu-virus vaccine that millions of people get is rarely more than 60% or so effective, depending on the particular year and the mix of viruses that show up after the vaccine is developed. 


There are different ways to measure the effectiveness of vaccines.  One way is to measure how many people who are vaccinated and then exposed to the virus develop symptoms.  Another way is to measure how likely a vaccinated and exposed person is to spread the disease to others, whether or not they manifest symptoms.  The study's authors point out that if you developed a vaccine that was only 30% effective in preventing symptoms, it would fall below the U. S. Food and Drug Administration's 50% threshold and wouldn't even be approved.  But if it happened to be 70% effective at stopping people from spreading the virus, it would actually do more good than a different vaccine that prevented symptoms with 100% effectiveness but allowed the virus to spread.


That is why there is no single answer to the question, "Who should get the vaccine first?"  If it is most effective in preventing the virus from spreading, then the target population should be the ones who spread it the most.  Currently that appears to be older children and younger adults, say between 10 and 35.  Few people in that group die of the virus, but just because many of them have either mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, they spread it very easily. 


On the other hand, if the vaccine is good at preventing symptoms but not so good at stopping the spread, you probably want to target the population that is most vulnerable to the disease:  people in rest homes and over 65.  That will save the most lives in the short term, while giving us time to vaccinate the rest of the population to approach the goal of herd immunity.


Any way you slice it, we face a very long uphill battle in fighting this disease.  In some countries such as the U. S. and China, the expense of buying and distributing the vaccine is relatively trivial compared to other things the government is doing.  But in poorer countries, vaccinating the majority of the population with anything is a major challenge, and so we can expect the disease to hang around in pockets long after it has been controlled in more economically well-off places.  So the last thing to go may be travel restrictions concerning COVID-19, at least to some countries where it may not be controlled for several more years.


Within a given country, the distribution of the vaccine may be implemented mainly by the government, mainly by private enterprise, or more typically by a combination of the two.  As it is in the interests of every government to free its citizens from the threat of COVID-19, substantially free distribution would seem to be a no-brainer, although there are practical obstacles to that as well.  Certain minority populations have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19, and the U. S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has stated that there is a "moral imperative" to make sure that this imbalance is addressed in any proposed distribution scheme. 


And last but not least, there is the problem that not everybody is going to want to be vaccinated.  We are a long way from the 1950s, when Jonas Salk was universally praised as a god-like hero and millions of U. S. citizens gratefully took their children to receive polio vaccine injections without raising even a quibble concerning its safety.  Nowadays, the pronouncements of experts always inspire somebody on the Internet to say, "Sez who?" and the small but vocal opponents of any kind of vaccination have persuaded lots of people at least to hesitate before believing uncritically anything an expert says. 


Even with all these uncertainties, it does look like we we get a vaccine sometime, and eventually it will begin to slow down the spread of COVID-19.  As far as I'm concerned, it can't come too soon.


Sources:  The BBC published the article "COVID:  How close are we to a vaccine?" on Nov. 12, 2020 at  The New York Times published "Who should get a COVID-19 vaccine first?" at on Nov. 5, 2020. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

Those Disagreeable Inventors

Inventors don't play much of a role on the public stage these days compared to the glory days of Marconi and Edison.  But they are nonetheless vital to modern civilization, as technical progress is the main economic engine that drives advanced industrial societies.  Martin L. Tupy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute think tank, says in a recent issue of National Review that we ought to be careful how we treat present and future inventors, even if they prove to be rather disagreeable.  And he makes a good case that many of the best ones are just that, and their disagreeability is intrinsic to what makes them good inventors.

Citing several books about psychology, innovation, and DNA, Tupy says successful inventors tend not to care what other people think, and may even take delight in discomfiting their more powerful peers.  It's ancient history now, but the legendary 1984 Apple commercial shown during the Superbowl portrayed a young—woman—wearing bright colors—running freely—as she charges through a gray crowd of drones hypnotized by Big Brother's face on a telescreen, throws a sledgehammer into the screen, and literally busts up everything.  It has Steve Jobs' fingerprints all over it.  Numerous sources show that Jobs, who is probably the leading candidate for the most famous inventor of the latter 20th century, was not an agreeable person.

So why can't inventors just get along with people like the rest of us do?  Tupy contends that those who successfully seek innovative technical solutions to problems also tend to be loners, somewhat socially awkward, and not terribly concerned about fitting in and getting other people to help them with problems.  Rather, they prefer to work with things and ideas on their own to solve problems.  The umbrella phrase for this type of personality is autism-spectrum disorder, which of course can be crippling in its severer forms, although inventors such as Temple Grandin prove that even clinical-grade autism can be overcome.

Over my career, I have met several, and gotten to know a few, inventors who actually profited from their patents, or at least saw the companies or organizations they were associated with profit from them.  Few of them meet the classic description of an autistic personality:  intense aversion to social interaction, preference for solitude, etc.  I would say that while the autism-spectrum observation is true as far as it goes, and it may be close to necessary to some degree, it is by no means sufficient.  And for this I will turn to some history I'm very familiar with:  my own.

 When I got to college, I was surprised to see that someone had made a poster that showed me as a classic nerd.  It wasn't really mea, but it might as well have been:  plastic-framed glasses, button-down sweater, shirt pocket bulging with pens, slide-rule case hung on belt, etc.  I had spent most of my spare time growing up playing with electronics rather than football or socializing.  I never dated in high school.  And I went to college at what was then probably the West Coast's capital of nerd-dom:  Caltech.  If being on the autism spectrum was all it took to be a successful inventor, I should have done fine.

But I think most successful inventors have a drive that I mostly lacked:  a desire to show up the established order and make it look foolish, not by words, but by actions, hardware, and (nowadays) software.  That part of the successful inventor's personality is missing from my makeup.  On the contrary, I tend to revere established institutions and procedures, not delight in their ruination, even if such ruination works to my benefit.  This attitude of reverence toward existing structues is exactly what you don't want if your job is to convince others that your idea is better than theirs.  It's that simple.

My name is on a couple of patents, one of which (obtained with my Ph. D. supervisor at U. T. Austin in the 1980s) could conceivably have become quite valuable, as it anticipated the future growth of what is known as RFID technology—the little tags that set off alarms if you try to shoplift a pair of sneakers from Walmart.  But as it happened, the university that paid for the patent didn't do anything with it, and neither my supervisor nor I had the time or inclination to do the hard work of convincing people that this was the coming thing.  It would have involved starting a company, and that was not on my scope screen at the time, nor has it ever been since.

The reason Tupy wrote what he did was to make the point that societies which discourage disagreeableness of the type in question may be shortchanging themselves when it comes to innovation.  Nobody knows how to create inventive people.  It's like farming:  the farmer doesn't really grow anything.  He or she just creates conditions under which growth of desirable plants can occur.

So cultures that allow people to do things differently, to play around with ideas without having to worry about getting in trouble with their peers or the government, tend to be cultures in which innovation and invention thrive.  A good contrast here is between the U. S. in the 1950s and the old USSR (Soviet Union), where everyone had to be constantly on guard lest they be heard to say something even slightly negative about the government, at which point their neighbors might rat on them and they'd end up in the Gulag for twenty years.  The USSR was not a hotbed of technical innovation then, although it supported scientists who aided its nuclear-weapons program.  But as far as economically profitable inventions go, it was no contest, as the U. S. was far and away the best place to be for that kind of thing, even in the allegedly conformist and repressive 1950s.

By all means, let's preserve what freedoms we have, to allow those cranky inventors among us to be by their lonely selves, cooking up ideas and gizmos that will make them and others millionaires and benefit the rest of us in the bargain.  But being a nerd isn't all it takes—you have to want to make fools of the complacent powers that be, and succeed at it, too.

Sources:  Martin L. Tupy's article "Disagreeability, Mother of Invention," appeared on pp. 18-20 of the Nov. 16, 2020 print edition of National Review.  The 1984 Apple commercial, which everyone ought to see at least once, can be viewed at

Monday, November 02, 2020

Asteroid Dust, Anyone?


Last Thursday, Oct. 30, the NASA spacecraft Osiris-Rex sampled about four pounds (2 kilograms) of material from an asteroid named Bennu.  If the rest of the mission goes as well as it has so far, in October of 2023 the sample container will land in the Utah desert, bringing the largest amount in history of asteroid material to earth.  Japanese space probes have previously succeeded in sampling pieces of asteroids, but never as much material as we will get from Bennu.


In the nature of such projects, planning probably began more than a decade ago.  This is the type of project that scientists devote entire careers to, and I'm sure that dozens or hundreds of people have been working on it for most of the twenty-first century so far.  The spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in September of 2016, and spent about two years catching up to Bennu, whose orbit lies partly inside that of the Earth.  In fact, one reason Bennu was chosen as a target is that there is about a 1 in 2700 chance that it will collide with Earth some time in the next ten years.  Bennu is a small asteroid by asteroid standards, only about 490 meters (1600 feet) across.  But it's big enough to do plenty of damage if it entered our atmosphere.  An old rule from combat is "know your enemy," so if we find ourselves scrambling to avoid Bennu's wrath and want to do something about it, knowing what it's made of will help.


Once the spacecraft reached the asteroid, it went into orbit about a mile away.  Even an object as small as Bennu has enough gravity to enable a satellite to orbit in that fashion.  Then, in a horribly tricky 36-hour process, Osiris-Rex crept up to the surface and snatched a four-pound sample and put it in a can to return it to Earth.  And NASA has pictures to prove it.


The entire project, including the launch rocket, cost under $1 billion.  That is chump change compared to the least expensive manned mission the U. S. undertook, Project Mercury back in the early 1960s, which cost about $2 billion in 2020 dollars.  My point is that if you just leave the people at home, you can do extremely impressive things in space for a whole lot less money.


What do we get for that $1 billion?  Well, if you like to put it this way, the world's most expensive dirt, at $250 million a pound.  Space exploration and astronomy seem to be the main beneficiaries these days of what is left of pure-science curiosity.  That is why the U. S. government found the wherewithal and the consistency to fund the Osiris-Rex project from its inception in the early 2000s to its completion sometime in 2023. 


And that is appropriate, because from my worm's-eye view teaching young people who are technically inclined (electrical engineers), many of the best of them seem to seek out space-related jobs.  One of the best electromagnetics students I ever had went to work initially for Boeing, and she is now at Blue Origin, the spaceflight company founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.  And just last week, I was talking with a former grad student of mine who wants to go into aerospace engineering or science to develop space probes. 


In terms of frontiers of exploration, it makes sense to look upward, as there's a lot of room out there and a lot of things to find out.  Every age has what philosopher Richard Weaver calls its "metaphysical dream."  This is not necessarily a religious thing.  But just as most of us need some basic reason to get out of bed in the morning, a society needs something to look forward to and hope for.  Astronomy and especially space exploration, both manned and unmanned, seem to satisfy that need in a way that few other current enterprises do.


While interest and pride in unmanned projects like Osiris-Rex is justified, another point to be made is that if exploration is all you want to do, leaving the people at home is by far the most efficient way to do it.  This argument does not go down well with the space-as-manifest-destiny crowd, who believe that Earth is to space as Europe was to America:  a place we'll simply look back on and say yes, we came from there, but we're glad we're here now. 


The danger in making space the ultimate destiny of mankind is the same danger that any other utopian project brings.  For whatever reason, it seems that if people convince themselves that there is a perfect future out there for them, infinitely better than anything we have now, they begin to justify all manner of wickedness and injustice in the present for the sake of the ideal perfect future that somehow never arrives.  This sort of thing is most easily observed in the history of Marxism, which led to the death of millions on the altar of the perfect workers' paradise that never got here. 


Maybe you think that hoping to colonize other planets or space in general can't cause serious problems here on Earth.  Well, think of it this way.  Marriage is supposed to be a lifelong total commitment of two souls to each other.  But if one of the parties starts thinking, "Well, things are fine now, but if (he, she) gets old and floppy, I can always find somebody else," just the harboring of that thought can cause invisible corrosion of the relationship that can eventually lead to a total rupture.


Once we start looking at Earth not with the eyes of a homeowner, but with the eyes of a renter who has no long-term commitment to the upkeep of the property, you can see what problems might arise.  Everybody involved in Osiris-Rex deserves praise for their persistence, skill, and commitment to a long-term project that could benefit all of humanity, and not just a few space scientists.  By the same token, let's not look on Earth as just a starter apartment, but as the place where humanity has committed to stay and live peaceably and responsibly as long as we can.


Sources:  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer carried the AP article "Asteroid samples tucked into capsule for return to Earth" on Oct. 31, 2020 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Osiris-Rex, Bennu, and Blue Origin.