Breaking My Own Rule

For years, I’ve advised people not to do something tech-related. And a few months ago, I did that very thing: I bought a cheap inkjet printer. Allow me to explain why I broke my own rule.

We’ll start with a little background. Not long ago, cheap printers were everywhere. There were free ones, too: When Apple wouldn’t let its retailers discount its Macs—it still doesn’t—catalog sellers, like MacMall and MacZone, would offer free printers with their Macs as an incentive to buyers. A perverse incentive it was: The printer may have been free, but the ink to feed that beast was an ongoing, potentially large, cost. An often-mentioned axiom was inkjet printer manufacturers were following Gillette’s business model: Give away the razors, and make money on razor blades.

With this in mind, I used to advise almost anyone who was shopping for a printer—and who would listen—to look past the cheap/free color printers and go with a monochrome laser printer. This was always my recommendation if the person was printing mostly text. The initial cost was higher, I’d argue, but the cost per page—a much better indicator of the printer’s ultimate cost—was lower.

I practiced what I preached. My first laser printer, an HP LaserJet 6MP purchased in 1995, is still working, but I retired it in 2010 for an HP LaserJet P2015dn because the latter prints “duplex” — that is, on both sides of the paper. (Another big money-saver, by the way.)

So why did I go hunting for a cheap inkjet in 2013? Because I was traveling for 10 days and needed to do some printing while on the road. I didn’t need a printer with a long working life, or that was super-cost-efficient over the long term; I needed something tough and reliable, with low initial cost. I got an HP DeskJet 1055 for $30 at Target, and spent that much again for another set of ink cartridges.

A little about my decision-making process: First I looked for mobile or portable printers, but I found them to be much more expensive than their technology justified. They main reason they’re costly, it seems, is because they’re battery powered. This would be a great feature for a building contractor who needed to print a work order on a job site, but I would be in a hotel room in southwest New York with reliable electric power.

Then I looked at inexpensive inkjet-only printers from online retailers. I had almost settled on the Canon PIXMA iP2702, a well-reviewed machine that I could buy from NewEgg for $30 (with free shipping) and have sent (general delivery) to Chautauqua, New York. (Our lodging wasn’t settled.) Then the HP showed up in a Sunday circular at Target, and a little poking online found it to be a generally well-regarded printer with one critical (to me) feature: the ability to print using just the black ink cartridge. (There I go, trying to save money again.) Plus, by buying it locally I could make 100% certain that it would be where I wanted it, and when—with no snafus and/or finger-pointing between USPS and a third-party carrier. The printer in its protective box took up fully half of a very large suitcase. (Fortunately, we were otherwise packing light — and flying Southwest, which doesn’t charge for luggage.)

After the fact, I’m satisfied with my decision and my choice. The printer did just what I needed it to do — that is, print — and now it’s found a home in our home office, where it does some scanning as well as occasional color printing. Yes, I still use my monochrome laser most of the time, but it’s handy to have this printer around. The moral of the story is that advice — including technical advice — has to fit the circumstances. And when those circumstances change, it’s useful to look again at our opinions and preconceived notions to make sure they still fit.

Multi-Storied Past

My requiem-of-sorts for Cal State East Bay’s imploded Warren Hall, written for Cal State East Bay Magazine, is now online. The concluding passage:

“Perhaps there is more to a building than the tons of concrete, steel, and wood in its structure. Perhaps the mark Warren Hall will leave is on the minds and hearts of the faculty, staff, students and community it served, rather than on the land where it stood.”

Throwback: Database Benchmarking

(This appeared in the March 2001 issue of Oracle magazine. I was particularly happy with the lede.)

Database benchmarks abound. What do they mean and how well do they address real-world performance questions?

The human desire to measure things is as old as civilization itself. In 3000 B.C. Egypt, measurement of the cubit was so accurate that the pyramids were built within .005 percent of geometric perfection. Five thousand years ago, the Mayans had developed a calendar that precisely accounted for leap years. Chinese astronomical “Oracle Bones” from 1302 B.C. were used by NASA to determine that the length of a day was 47/1000ths of a second shorter then than it is now. (Oracle Bones is NASA’s name, not ours.)

But measuring anything can be fraught with subjectivity and politics. Take the precise Egyptian cubit: It was based on the distance from Pharaoh Khufu’s elbow to his fingertip. Our obsession with measuring continues to this day, but now we measure distances between stars and the weight of subatomic particles. And, of course, in the database industry we measure performance. We want to know how fast a database is and how much it costs to run so we can determine which one is the best value.

Database benchmarking attempts to measure these and other factors. But as with any sort of measurement, the challenge is to devise a test that’s accurate and fair—and that gives truly useful numbers. Sometimes the process seems as complicated and difficult as building the pyramids.

Read the full article here.