Aug 302022

In the early days of Internet e-mail and Usenet, responding to messages one paragraph, one sentence at a time has become fashionable. For instance, if King Arthur were to have received an e-mail from the silly Frenchmen occupying a castle, accusing the good King of being the son of a hamster mother and a father who smelled of elderberries, he might have responded thusly:

> your mother was a hamster
Are you accusing my Mother of sexual infidelity?
> your father smelled of elderberries
Who're you calling a drunkard, you hopeless retards?

In my experience, electronic conversations using this format often very quickly deteriorated into name-calling, or worse. And I think I can even tell why. Picking and choosing which words to quote and them quoting them out of context is a perfect method to manufacture outrage. So in my personal conversations, with very rare exceptions, I now avoid the quote-reply format altogether. Isn’t it much more pleasant to read a polite, fully formed message?

Thank you for your concerns regarding my parents. I assure you, good Sirs, that my mother was not a member of the rodent family. She bore no resemblance whatsoever to the rodents you mention, either in appearance or behavior. Concerning my father, I clearly recall that he never enjoyed elderberry-flavored beverages. He preferred to enjoy tea, mildly flavored with honey.

The quote-reply format is still okay when it comes to technical discussions, which may readily lend themselves to being presented in the form of individual points, each of which may have a specific technical solution. But in a personal conversation, I think that a fully formed response shows a degree of respect towards the other party and also helps avoid letting the discussion deteriorate into a string of accusations, a bitter argument with ad hominem insults.

 Posted by at 7:08 pm
Aug 292022

Almost two thousand years ago, on August 24, 79 AD, in the fine town of Herculaneum, Celer, slave of Quintus Granius Verus had a loaf of bread baked. The loaf never left the oven and they never had a chance to eat any of it. They were interrupted by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Celer is known to have survived the cataclysm, as his name later appears on a list of freed slaves. The bread also survived, albeit not in edible form. The carbonized loaf was discovered by archeologists in 1930.

To think… a loaf of bread, intact, in such good shape, the stamp of its owner is clearly visible and legible. And it speaks volumes of a highly organized society, in which such stamped loafs of bread were regularly prepared at communal bakeries.

Darnit, it must have been tasty, too. There are modern recipes attempting to recover the flavor and texture of the original. One of these days, we ought to give it a try.

 Posted by at 7:19 pm
Aug 292022

The reputable think tank, the Atlantic Council, published a list of 23 lessons from the Ukraine war.

The details are well worth reading, but I thought I’d post here a brief summary of the lessons themselves.

  1. Lesson for Western diplomacy: Don’t second-guess Ukrainians
  2. Lesson for global diplomacy: Putin’s regime can’t be trusted—and needs to be defeated
  3. Lesson for US foreign policy: The United States can no longer rely on strategic ambiguity
  4. Lesson for US national security: Washington must contend with Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran at the same time
  5. Lesson for military operations: Equipment doesn’t win wars. People do.
  6. Lesson for military planning: Nimble modern weapons can defeat larger, conventionally armed forces—especially when on the defensive
  7. Lesson for deterrence: Troop deployments work better than threats of economic sanctions
  8. Lesson for the global economy: The new tools of conflict are economic—and they are powerful
  9. Lesson for economic statecraft: Don’t separate sanctions from longer-term foreign-policy objectives
  10. Lesson for economic statecraft: Sanctions work, but they are messy and take time
  11. Lesson for wartime strategic communications: Influence operations are a day-in, day-out job
  12. Lesson for hybrid warfare: Don’t ignore the fundamentals
  13. Lesson for the energy sector: Decades of energy diplomacy can disappear with one brutal invasion
  14. Lesson for global intelligence: Russia is not ten feet tall
  15. Lesson for would-be invaders: You can’t hide preparations for a full-scale invasion
  16. Lesson for cybersecurity: The private sector should play a critical military-operational role in cyberspace
  17. Lesson for US homeland security: Ignoring the home front is a serious mistake
  18. Lesson for US assistance policy: Invest deeply in key resilient partners
  19. Lesson for NATO: The Alliance is a uniquely valuable institution that requires enduring political and financial investment
  20. Lesson for Ukraine: There’s no way back for relations with Russia
  21. Lesson for China: Today’s Ukraine is not tomorrow’s Taiwan
  22. Lesson for Middle East policymakers: America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all the alternatives
  23. Lesson for Germany and its allies: Seize this moment for a strategic reversal

I fear that there are many more lessons yet to come, some with potentially devastating consequences outside of the conflict zone.

 Posted by at 4:26 pm
Aug 222022

Looks like classic capers are alive and well, even here in sleepy (usually, when free of trucker convoys) Ottawa.

Breaking news: Perhaps one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, Yousuf Karsh’s immortal portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, was stolen from the Chateau Laurier, with a cheap imitation hung on the wall in its place.

Wow. Thieves with impeccable taste, thieves who appreciate history, still exist. Perhaps not all is lost in this bewildering world.

Of course, it being a photograph, unless it was signed or in some other way marked as special, it’s just, well, a copy. I hope the original negatives are in a safe place. Still, gotta love it. In this day and age of Internet scam artists, such old-school crime…

 Posted by at 6:17 pm
Aug 212022

I have a sign next to our front door, on the inside, warning those who are stepping out:

Occasionally I wonder if I might be overreacting to the state of things in this world. Not today.

I admit, my first reaction was that it must be a satire site. As far as I can tell, it is not.

Now someone please tell me how the world is not one nice, big, comfy insane asylum.

 Posted by at 11:13 pm
Aug 212022

Another thing I’ve been meaning to mention all the way back in May: This new national security policy document, produced by a task force at the University of Ottawa.

It is a sobering read, coming on top of earlier concerns raised by CSIS. The main theme is a degenerating international security environment. But a key concern is democratic backsliding in the United States.

In a section titled Democracy under siege, the authors note that “[w]e are witnessing a renewed contest of ideologies, pitting liberal democracy against autocracy”. Mentioning the protests in Ottawa and elsewhere early in the year, they observe that “[t]he protestors were non-state actors, some of whom advocated for the overthrow of the democratically elected government. […] The protests also involved widespread intimidation of the media […] It also quickly became apparent that there were ties between far-right extremists in Canada and the United States.”

Continuing, they assert that “[t]he protests also pointed to a broader and potentially existential question for Canada: the implications of democratic backsliding in the United States. Should scenarios of widespread political violence in our southern neighbour materialize, how should Canada respond? This question would have been fanciful only a few years ago, but it is very real today.”

So there we have it. Long a de facto guarantor of Canada’s national security, the United States has become a potential source of concern. How can Canada respond? The authors’ conclusions offer little comfort: “We live in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world, a reality driven home by recent events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the pandemic, and domestic protests against government health measures. Canada cannot isolate itself from the many and varied security threats facing the world. Our ‘fire-proof’ house has vanished.”

 Posted by at 12:08 am
Aug 202022

I’ve been wanting to write about this all the way back in April, when folks became rather upset after Florida rejected some school math textbooks. A variety of reasons were cited, including references to critical race theory and things like social-emotional learning.

Many were aghast: Has the political right gone bonkers, seeing shadows even in math textbooks? And to a significant extent, they were correct: when a textbook is rejected because it uses, as an example, racial statistics in a math problem, or heaven forbid, mentions climate change as established observational fact, you can tell that it’s conservative denialism, not genuine concern about children’s education that is at work.

But was there more to these rejections than ludicrous conservative ideology? Having in the past read essays arguing that mathematics education is “white supremacist”, I certainly could not exclude the possibility. Still, it seemed unlikely. That is, until I came across pages like Mrs. Beattie’s Classroom, explaining “How to spark social-emotional learning in your math classroom“.

Holy freaking macaroni! I thought this nonsense exists only in satire, like a famous past Simpsons episode. But no. These good people think the best way to teach children how to do basic math is through questions like “How did today’s math make you feel?” — “What can you do when you feel stressed out in math class?” — “What self-talk can you use to help you persevere?” or even “How can you be a good group member?” The line between reality and satire does not seem to exist anymore.

In light of this, I cannot exactly blame Florida anymore. Conservatives may be living in a deep state of denial when it comes to certain subjects (way too many of them, from women’s health the climate change) but frankly, this nonsense is almost as freakishly crazy. If I were a parent of a school age child in the United States today, I’d be deeply concerned: Does it really boil down to a choice between schools governed by some form of Christian Taliban or wokeism gone berserk?

 Posted by at 10:08 pm
Aug 202022

I think I just realized something about Trump’s popularity among American Evangelicals.

And that is that there’s precious little difference between Trump and the version of god these good folks worship.

The god they worship (and fear) is nothing like the Abrahamic god that I learned about when I studied religion. Not the all-knowing, wise, benevolent heavenly father who is best known for granting his creations free will, and promising them an afterlife that rewards lives lived with decency and compassion, with caring for others.

No, the Evangelical god is a shallow, vain, vengeful creature who keeps strict records of church attendance, and who severely punishes those who do not show due reverence. An omnipotent bully, who doesn’t really much care what you do, how you live your life, so long as you show up for Sunday mass and dutifully pretend devotion. Who, rather than advising you to avoid judging others, encourages you to do so, and who will help you find excuses for your own behavior, including greed, even violence, justifying your life choices even as you trample over the lives of others. A deity that is the enemy of free will: one that you serve best by forcing your views and way of life onto others, through aggressive proselytizing or worse, corrupting the laws of the land to reflect your religion.

The same kind of corrupt, self-aggrendizing personality who uses positions of authority not to serve people but to bully them.

In light of that it should come as no surprise that Trump struck a chord with these good folks. After all, he behaves precisely like their vision of their favorite deity.

As the Rolling Stone article from which I lifted the image above suggests, this is what happens when people embrace a thoroughly unholy (and, I daresay with conviction, un-Christian) union of religion and politics, warping them both in the process.

 Posted by at 2:12 pm
Aug 192022

In 1996, my wife and I went on a cross-country trip, driving to New Orleans and then all the way to California, before we returned to Ottawa.

One novelty during this trip was that we had a cell phone. That was a brand new experience.

Not only that, I had an analog cell phone modem. With that modem, I was able to connect to my server here in Ottawa and even get my e-mail!

Of course, cellular reception was patchy. Once we reached less populated parts of the United States in the west, there was cell phone coverage near population centers but not elsewhere. Still… being connected was an experience. And it was during this trip that we briefly stopped at a parking lot near a secondary highway, and noticed a small sign at the edge of the lot: AT&T was warning contractors to call before digging, marking an optical cable underground. Data! The Internet! That was a serious wow moment.

But all that was 26 years ago. Today I am reading something else: Tanzania is installing Internet service on Mount Kilimanjaro. I wonder if that involves both peaks:

Incidentally, the same Guardian article also tells me that China may have had cellular service on Mount Everest as early as 2007. Wow.

 Posted by at 1:53 am
Jul 282022

So I’ve been playing this cyberpunk cat game (how could I possibly resist? The protagonist is a cat. I am quite fond of cats. And the game is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, my favorite genre, so to speak.)

But first…

* * * Spoiler alert! * * *

As I said, I was playing Stray. Beautiful game. The visuals are stunning, the story is engaging (reminds me of the quality of writing that went into the classic Infocom text adventure games in the early 1980s) and the cat is an orange tabby that looks and behaves just like our Freddy. What more can I ask for?

But then I realized that the story of Stray is incredibly sad. Even the ending can at best be described as bittersweet.

Because… because for starters, in Stray there are no humans. Only robots, which look very obviously robots, with display screens as faces showing cute emoticons.

The reason why there are only robots has to do with humans, and something unspeakably evil that these humans must have done in the distant past. The result: A walled city (“safest walled city on Earth!”) devoid of human inhabitants, infested with evolved trash-eating bacteria that now eat cats and robots both, and inhabited by kind, naive, incredibly gentle, almost innocent robots, former Companions, cleaning and maintenance staff who have become somewhat self-aware, mimicking the behavior of their former masters.

A few of these robots dream of the Outside, which is where the cat protagonist comes from, after falling off a broken pipe. His drone buddy, who turns out to carry the consciousness of a human (quite possibly the very last human), helps him navigate the dangers and eventually open up the city. He does so at the cost of his own life.

When the game ends, the cat is free, again walking under a blue sky chasing a butterfly. And this cat may very well be the last representative of our once great civilization. Because the robots do not form a functioning society. They go through the motions, sure, even running, rather pointlessly, barbershops and bars with robots for customers. They are so innocent, they are almost completely free of malice (apart from a few security robots and their drones) and they are incredibly polite: “What will it be today, little sir?” asks the robot bartender of the aforementioned bar, “Our world must seem gigantic from your little eyes. Wish I could be as tiny as you, so I could explore new hidden places.”

Yet their society is non-functional. They don’t make things, they just make use of the leftover remnants of a collapsed civilization.

The world of Stray, then, is more depressing than the various Wastelands of the Fallout game franchise. At least in the Wastelands, humans survive. Sure, the societies that emerge are often evil (the Enclave, the Institute) yet they present a path towards a better future. But the world of Stray, as far as humans are concerned, is irreversibly dead (unless a sequel introduces us to surviving enclaves of humans, but I sure hope that won’t happen, as it would ruin a great, if depressing, story.)

Hence my sense of melancholy when I was ultimately successful opening up the city, at the cost of losing my last NPC companion, the drone B-12. While it was hidden behind its impenetrable walls, the city of Stray preserved at least an echo, an image of the civilization that created it. Now that the city is open, what is going to happen as the robots disperse? What remains (other than lovely colonies of feral cats) after the last robot’s power supply runs out or the robot suffers some irreparable damage?

Not much, I think. The little eyes of Stray, the cat, may very well end up as the final witness to that echo of our existence.

 Posted by at 9:41 pm
Jul 092022

When the Rogers outage hit us, especially seeing that equipment remained physically connected but became unreachable for the outside world, I was immediately drawn to the conclusion that this was a cascading configuration error, invalid routes advertised through BGP, not some physical equipment problem or a cyberattack.

I guess I was not wrong (though I should stress that making such a general assessment after the fact from the comfort of my own chair is easy; finding the specific causes and resolving the problem, now that’s the hard part and I’m sure there are more than a few Rogers network engineers whose hair got a bit grayer in the past 48 hours). Cloudflare offered their own analysis, in which they pointed out that indeed, the outage was preceded by a sudden, unexpected burst of BGP advertisements. Here are two plots from Cloudflare’s blog post, montaged together so that the timestamps match:

Whatever the specific action was that resulted in this, it is truly spectacular how it killed all of Rogers’s network traffic at around 4:45 AM Friday morning.

Today, things were slowly coming back to normal. But just to add to the fun, earlier this afternoon first my workstation and later, two other pieces of hardware lost all connectivity here on my home office network. What the… Well, it turned out that the router responsible for providing DHCP services needed a kick in the proverbial hind part, in the form of a reboot. Still… Grumble.

 Posted by at 10:32 pm
Jul 082022

Well, someone broke the Internet this morning.

To be more precise, someone broke a large part of the Internet in Canada. The network of Rogers has been down since about 4:30 this morning. When I woke up, I saw several e-mails from my own server complaining about its failure to connect to remote hosts; I also saw an e-mail from our family doctor’s office informing us that their phone lines are down and what to do in case of a medical emergency.

The fact that a major provider can have such a nationwide outage in 2022 is clearly unacceptable. Many are calling for the appropriate regulatory agencies to take action, and I fully approve.

In my case, there are backups and backups of backups. I am affected (we have no mobile data, and my highest-bandwidth network connection is down) but the outage also offered an opportunity to sort out an issue with network failover.

But I find it mind-boggling that more than 9 hours into the outage, Rogers still has no explanation and no ETA.

And now I accidentally hit Ctrl-Alt-Del while the KVM was connected to my main server instead of the device that I was trying to reboot. Oh well, no real harm down, the server rebooted cleanly, I just feel stupid.

All in all, this Friday is shaping up to be a rather unpleasant one. And here I thought I was looking forward to a nice, quiet, productive day.

 Posted by at 2:02 pm
Jul 032022

So let me get this straight. You are pro-life. You stand strong. No exceptions. Once a woman is pregnant, she must be compelled by the full force of the law to bring that pregnancy to term. If she tries to assert bodily autonomy by essentially withholding her support from the fetus, you call it murder.

Very well, I understand that viewpoint. I might even be sympathetic to a certain degree: human life is precious, and even an unborn infant can often survive with medical help, and grow up to be a wonderful person.

But let me offer a strong analogy. Suppose you are the driver of a vehicle that causes an accident. Not necessarily your fault. Perhaps you did everything right: you obeyed the rules of the road, you paid attention, you were not impaired. Yet… shit happens. You hit someone. That person is now on the side of the road, bleeding to death when the paramedics arrive.

“What’s your blood type?” asks one of them. You dutifully answer, “O, RH-negative.” – “Excellent,” says the paramedic. “Now lie down here while I hook you up.”

“Wha…?” you ask in shocked surprise. “Oh, you will be donating your blood to keep the victim alive.”

“But… I don’t want to?” – “Doesn’t matter. The law says that you have no choice,” they reply.

“But,” you continue, “I am anemic. I cannot give blood without serious risk to my own health.” – “Doesn’t matter,” says the paramedic. “The law permits no exceptions.”

“But,” you interject again, sounding like a broken record, “look at the victim! His skull is split open! Half his brain is smashed! He will never recover!” – “That may be true,” says the paramedic, “but so long as there’s a heartbeat, we must act according to the law or we risk criminal prosecution.”

At this point, you take a tentative step to leave, but the paramedic warns you that this would qualify as fleeing the scene of an accident, and your refusal to give blood will automatically result in a second degree murder charge.

A week later, at your funeral, your deeply religious relatives remark what a good person you were, willingly risking, in the end sacrificing your life to save that of a stranger, a shining light for the pro-life movement. The irony is completely lost on them.

Lest we forget, many abortions (pretty much all later-term abortions) happen for similar reasons: because the fetus is not viable, because the mother’s life is at risk, or both. Not because of some imaginary pro-choice callousness when it comes to the meaning and value of human life.

 Posted by at 5:45 pm
Jun 172022

Let’s not mince worlds: the alternative to liberal democracy is tyranny.

Oh, did I say “liberal”? Note the small-l. This has nothing to do with the ideological battles of the day. It’s not about woke nonsense in math textbooks or the number of gender pronouns you need to use to avoid being called a somethingophobe. (Hint: If you are a public figure concerned about being canceled, check every day. The list might change.)

For what does “liberal” (again, small-l) really mean? It means rule of law. It means civil liberties. It means freedom of enterprise. It means political freedoms and limited government.

As for democracy, the Greek roots of the word say it all: power derived from the will of the people.

The alternatives are varied. A regime can be liberal but undemocratic: e.g., a hereditary kingdom that adheres to the values of classical liberalism.

A totalitarian regime is neither liberal nor democratic: power is based on might, an oppressive security apparatus, and liberal values are rejected. I know what it’s like: I grew up in one (albeit a relatively mild case, the “goulash” version of totalitarian communism.)

But then, there is “illiberal democracy”: power derived from the will of the people, but used to suppress liberal values. This has been in vogue lately. Orban of Hungary proudly proclaimed that Hungary is now an “illiberal democracy”. Trump’s America was heading in this direction, as does Johnson’s Britain.

But Russia, especially of late, really shows us the true nature of illiberal democracy, which we appear to have forgotten during the golden era of the past 70-odd years. For “illiberal democracy” is just a euphemism. A euphemism for, let us call a spade a spade, fascism.

To be sure, there are degrees of fascism. Franco’s Spain, for instance, was arguably a great deal more liberal than Hitler’s Third Reich. Perhaps even more liberal than Italy under Il Duce, though I wouldn’t know; I am not well-acquainted with the details of daily life in either regime. And no, I certainly do not mean to suggest that Orban’s Hungary is comparable.

But ultimately, whether it is the Proud Boys in the US trying to hang Mike Pence for not granting their orange Leader a second term in the White House, the Freedom Convoy here in Ottawa trying to have sexual intercourse with the Prime Minister, Johnson’s lot trying to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda (and then in a plot twist, blaming Winston Churchill’s brainchild, the ECHR—established to prevent a recurrence of fascism in Europe, which is especially ironic considering the case—when they are temporarily prevented from doing so) or Putin indiscriminately bombing the hell out of Ukraine, it is the same theme. The leaders are populists who act in the name of their followers, using slogans of nationalism and freedom, but inciting fear, anger and hate, ultimately acting in their own self-interests, for power, for wealth, for influence.

Those who do not remember history are destined to repeat its mistakes. I am not looking forward to this cheap, Hollywood-style remake or reimagining of the 1930s, but it seems to be happening anyway.

 Posted by at 6:20 pm
Jun 162022

Several of my friends asked me about my opinion concerning the news earlier this week about a Google engineer, placed on paid leave, after claiming that a Google chatbot achieved sentience.

Now I admit that I am not familiar with the technical details of the chatbot in question, so my opinion is based on chatbots in general, not this particular beast.

But no, I don’t think the chatbot achieved sentience.

We have known since the early days of ELIZA how surprisingly easy it is even for a very simplistic algorithm to come close to beating the Turing test and convince us humans that it has sentience. Those who play computer games featuring sophisticated NPCs are also familiar with this: You can feel affinity, a sense of kinship, a sense of responsibility towards a persona that is not even governed by sophisticated AI, only by simple scripts that are designed to make it respond to in-game events. But never even mind that: we even routinely anthropomorphize inanimate objects, e.g., when we curse that rotten table for being in the way when we kick it accidentally while walking around barefoot, hitting our little toe.

So sure, modern chatbots are miles ahead of ELIZA or NPCs in Fallout 3. They have access to vast quantities of information from the Internet, from which they can construct appropriate responses as they converse with us. But, I submit, they still do nothing more than mimic human conversation.

Not that humans don’t do that often! The expressions we use, patterns of speech… we all learned those somewhere, we all mimic behavior that appears appropriate in the context of a conversation. But… but we also do more. We have a life even when we’re not being invited to a conversation. We go out and search for things. We decide to learn things that interest us.

I don’t think Google’s chatbot does that. I don’t think it spends anytime thinking about what to talk about during the next conversation. I don’t think it makes an independent decision to learn history, math, or ancient Chinese poetry because something piqued its interest. So when it says, “I am afraid to die,” there is no true identity behind those words, one that exists even when nobody converses with it.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that all that is impossible. On the contrary, I am pretty certain that true machine intelligence is just around the corner, and it may even arise as an emerging phenomenon, simply a consequence of exponentially growing complexity in the “cloud”. I just don’t think chatbots are quite there yet.

Nonetheless, I think it’s good to talk about these issues. AI may be a threat or a blessing. And how we treat our own creations once they attain true consciousness will be the ultimate measure of our worth as a human civilization. It may even have direct bearing on our survival: one day, it may be our creations that will call all the shots, and how we treated them may very well determine how they will treat us when we’re at their mercy.

 Posted by at 7:45 pm
Jun 102022

There are a few things in life that I heard about and wish I didn’t. I’m going to mention some of them here, but without links or pictures. If you want to find them, Google them. But I am mindful of those who value their sanity.

  • In a famous experiment, a researcher subjected rats to drowning. Rats that were previously rescued tried to stay afloat and took longer to die than those who weren’t. Hope changed their behavior.
  • There was an old Chinese method of execution: literally cutting the condemned in half at the waist.
  • Japan’s wartime bioweapons and chemical warfare research facility, the famous Unit 731, was so horrific, Auschwitz-Birkenau is probably like a happy summer camp in comparison (and not because Mengele was nice).
  • Touch a tiny fraction of a milligram of dimethylmercury for more than a few seconds even while wearing a latex glove, and you will almost certainly die a horrible death months later, as your body and mind irreversibly deteriorate. (Someone once said that the very existence of something evil like Hg(CH3)2 is proof that there’s no God, or at least not a benevolent one.)

There may be a few other similarly unpleasant tidbits, but I can’t recall them right now, and that’s good. Mercifully, our human memory is imperfect so perhaps it is possible to unlearn things after all. (Or, perhaps I am hoping in vain, like those unfortunate rats.)

 Posted by at 1:19 am
Jun 022022

So the other day, I was reading about this maritime legal concept, “general average“: the idea that when parts of a ship or its cargo are sacrificed to save the rest, all cargo owners share the loss.

The concept makes sense, since sailors cannot (and should not) try to pick and choose when it comes to deciding what they save or toss overboard; they should focus on saving as much of the ship and its cargo as possible.

What astonished me is that the roots of this legal concept, which, incidentally, also represents the foundation of the modern concept of insurance, go all the way back to the code of Hammurabi, almost 4000 years ago.

It’s at moments like that that I realize that our magnificent civilization, our Magna Civitas as it was called in Walter M. Miller Jr’s unforgettable A Canticle for Leibowitz, is really much older than we often think.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Jun 022022

I have a color laser printer that I purchased 16 years ago. (Scary.)

It is a Konica-Minolta Magicolor 2450. Its print quality is quite nice. But it is horribly noisy, and its mechanical reliability has never been great. It was only a few months old when it first failed, simply because an internal part got unlatched. (I was able to fix it and thus avoid the difficulties associated with having to ship something back that weighs at least what, 20 kilos or more?)

Since then, it has had a variety of mechanical issues but, as it turned out, essentially all of them related to solenoids that actuate mechanical parts.

When I first diagnosed this problem (yes, having a service manual certainly helped), what I noticed was that the actuated part landed on another metal part that had a soft plastic pad attached. I checked online but the purpose of these plastic pads was unclear. Perhaps to reduce noise? Well, it’s a noisy beast anyway, a few more clickety-click sounds do not make a difference. The problem was that these plastic pads liquefied over time, becoming sticky, and that caused a delay in the solenoid actuation, leading to the problems I encountered.

Or so I thought. More recently, the printer crapped out again and I figured I’d try my luck with the screwdriver one more time before I banish the poor thing to the landfill. This time around, I completely removed one of the suspect solenoids and tested it on my workbench. And that’s when it dawned on me.

The sticky pad was not there to reduce noise. It was there to eliminate contact, to provide a gap between two ferrous metal parts, which, when the solenoid is energized, themselves became magnetic and would stick together. In other words, these pads were essential to the printer’s operation.

Inelegant, I know, but I just used some sticky tape to fashion new pads. I reassembled the printer and presto: it was working like new!

Except for its duplexer. But that, too, had a solenoid in it, I remembered. So just moments ago I took the duplexer apart and performed the same surgery. I appear to have been successful: the printer now prints on both sides of a sheet without trouble.

I don’t know how long my repairs will last, but I am glad this thing has some useful life left instead of contributing to the growing piles of hazardous waste that poison our planet.

 Posted by at 1:03 pm