£50m for atomic-scale chicken wire

One welcome piece of news from George Osborne's speech.

Do not adjust your Newstatesman.com but there's one bit of George Osborne's speech to the Conservative party conference that's worth praising: his commitment of £50m to research into the "wonder material" graphene. It was part of his package of science-funding announcements, including £145m for supercomputer research and £150m on extra mobile phone masts.

Graphene is a form of carbon in sheets one atom thick, described handily by Wikipedia as "an atomic-scale chicken wire". It won Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who are both Russian-born but based in Britain, the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics.

This amazing substance -- transparent, an electrical conductor, stiff but stretchy and completely impermeable -- could have a huge range of practical applications, for example in solar panels or touchscreens. Some 200 patents associated with it have already been filed.

Since Geim and Novoselov's groundbreaking research in 2004, the UK has fallen behind in the worldwide race to develop graphene technology (South Korea's Samsung is particularly keen). But with the research cash, it is hoped that a "hub", producing large quantities of the stuff, can be set up and staffed with some of the best researchers working today. The location will be Manchester, where Geim and Novoselov both hold posts at the university (and where the Tory party conference is being held). Or, as Osborne called it: "Manchester: where Rutherford split the atom and the Miliband brothers split the Labour Party".

Perhaps the new cash will change Geim's opinion about the coalition's commitment to science funding. He told the Independent in 2010: "I have no plans to move, but if George Osborne's axe is as sharp as the rumours tell, we will all be considering moving to places like Singapore, where they spend 3 per cent of their GDP on research -- not a paltry 1.5 per cent, which is going to be cut."

PS. For more on graphene, including the story of how sticky tape was vital to its discovery, there's a fascinating article by Geim here and a Q&A on the substance here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

20th Century Fox
Show Hide image

It’s 2016, so why do printers still suck?

Hewlett Packard recently prevented third-party cartridges from working in their printers, but this is just the latest chapter of home printing's dark and twisted history. 

In order to initiate their children into adulthood, the Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon weave stinging ants into gloves and ask teenage boys to wear them for a full ten minutes. The British have a similar rite of passage, though men, women, and children alike partake. At one point in their short, brutal little lives, every citizen must weep at the foot of a printer at 2am, alternatively stroking and swearing at it, before falling into a heap and repeating “But there is no paper jam” 21 times.

There are none alive that have escaped this fate, such is the unending crapness of the modern home printer. And against all odds, today printers have hit the news for becoming even worse, as a Hewlett Packard update means their machines now reject non-branded, third-party ink cartridges. Their printers now only work with the company’s own, more expensive ink.

Although it’s surprising that printers have become worse, we’re already very used to them not getting any better. The first personal printers were unleashed in 1981 and they seemingly received the same treatment as the humble umbrella: people looked at them and said, “What? No, this? No way this can be improved.”

It’s not true, of course, that printing technology has stagnated over the last 35 years. But in a world where we can 3D print clitorises, why can’t we reliably get our tax returns, Year 9 History projects, and insurance contracts from our screens onto an A4 piece of paper in less than two hours?

It’s more to do with business than it is technology. Inkjet printers are often sold at a loss, as many companies decide instead to make their money by selling ink cartridges (hence HP’s latest update). This is known as a “razor and blades” business model, whereby the initial item is sold at a low price in order to increase sales of a complementary good. It explains why your ink is so expensive, why it runs out so quickly, and the most common complaint of all: why your cyan cartridge has to be full in order to print in black and white.

But technology is complicit in the crime. HP’s new update utilises the chips on ink cartridges to tell whether a refill is one of their own, and have also previously been used to region-block cartridges so they can’t be sold on in other countries. Those little chips are also the thing that tells the printer when your ink is empty. Very good. Fine. Except in 2008, PC World found that some printers will claim the cartridges are empty when they are actually nearly half-full.

Back to business. Because this profit models means companies sell printers for so little, quality inevitably suffers. If they’re not selling them for much, companies will naturally try to keep the costs of making their printers down, and this is the reason for your “Load paper in tray two”s, your “Paper jam”s and your “Would you like to cancel this print job? Nope, sorry, too late, here are 100 copies.”

So why are printers bad at networking? This isn’t a set up to a lame joke (unless the joke is, of course, your life as you try to get your wireless printer and your PC to connect). There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to this, other than the fact that Bluetooth is still fairly patchy anyway. Some errors, just as you suspected, happen for no bloody damn good bloody reason at all.

On a bigger scale, the printers in your office are difficult because they work harder than you ever have. It’s a stressful job, for sure, and this naturally comes with errors and jams. The reason they are so hard to fix after the inevitable, however, again comes back to capitalism. Because printers don’t have a universal design, most companies will protect theirs, meaning you can’t know the specifics in order to fix a device yourself. This way, they also make money by sending out their own personal technicians.

Thankfully, although every personal printer you’ve ever bought seems to be on collaborative quest to drive you to madness, there is an easy fix. Buy a laser printer instead. Though the device and the replacement toner cartridges are more expensive, in the long-run you’ll most likely save money. In the meantime, there's only one solution: PC load letter. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.