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17 February 2015 » Pinter head clogging: a possible solution

Those of us who do their own printing know very well that printer head clogging is a major pain–you–know–where. Cleaning printer head clogs wastes a lot of time and, much more crucially, ink. I have grown used to dealing with the issue to the extent that it has essentially become an inseparable part of printing. Unimaginably, that changed in the end of last year when a kind reader wrote to suggest an ingenious solution to the problem (at least for the Epson 4880 printer that the reader and I use).

  Image: Epson 4880 printer  

Epson 4880 printer (image courtesy of Epson)

The solution is very simple: all you have to do is pour about one cup of plain tap water into the maintenance tank every four months or so. Evidently, the print head parks over the maintenance tank and the key to stop clogging is to keep it from drying out. Waste ink was supposed to do that, but in dry environments or with infrequent printing it is insufficient, and clogging quickly becomes a major issue. Adding water into the maintenance tank provides sufficient liquid to continue evaporating over a longer period of time. According to the reader, this was advised by an Epson engineer.

The life of the maintenance tank is not shortened by adding water because the chip/computer does not know you did so; also, the water evaporates over time, which is what keeps the print head moist and clog free. Naturally, you need to use judgment when adding water, i.e. you should not overflow it. The worst that can happen, though, is that you create a bit of a mess.

I first poured tap water into the maintenance tank in early November, thinking that I would observe how this would work over a longer period of time. Frankly, I was somewhat skeptical at first and did not see any noticeable changes right away; with hindsight, it apparently took some time for the water to evaporate and start providing a more humid micro environment. After a couple of weeks and a number of head cleaning cycles, however, things decidedly turned for the better: I mostly have not experienced head clogging since then, largely regardless of how often I print and how much printing I do in one go.

This may not necessarily work for other models of printers, nor may it be a panacea for printer head clogging, but the approach is definitely worth exploring.

31 January 2015 » Maxing out my Mac Pro

In the end of December I woke up one morning and, walking into my study room after breakfast, found my early–2008 Mac Pro computer unresponsive, power light blinking at high frequency. A quick online search on the iPhone revealed that some of the memory modules had failed; indeed, swapping and trying different combinations of memory units I found the pair that was no longer usable.

I occasionally monitor memory usage and over the longer period my conclusion has been that 16GB is the sweet spot: it suffices for most tasks, including some heavy lifting in Photoshop, while not requiring a major monetary outlay. Every once in a while, however, I would hit the ceiling seeing memory swap occurring. Rationally speaking, it is not a major impediment and can be easily dealt with by not lazily opening too many large image files in Photoshop; nonetheless, I decided to upgrade to 20GB while replacing the failed memory modules. Given how I use my computer, this should suffice for as long as the Mac Pro will last.

I usually buy memory and other crucial computer hardware from Other World Computing and, while perusing their Web site, my attention was drawn to the notion of PCI–Express Solid State Drives (PCIe SSD). I have been using a regular SATA–based SSD for the past couple of years, which offered an immense increase in speed when I switched from the original Hard Disk Drive (HDD) that came together with my Mac Pro. As the name suggests, PCIe SSDs use PCIe expansion card interface—the one used for, say, graphics cards—thus bypassing the speed–limiting SATA v2 bus interface of my Mac Pro; at least on paper, PCIe SSDs promised to go well beyond the 300MB/s limit of SATA v2. This seemed to offer another major boost in speed, and so I thought I would give it a try.

  OWC Mac Pro PCIe SSD  

Mac Pro PCIe SSD (image courtesy of OWC)

A few days later new memory modules and a 240GB PCIe SSD arrived, and I set out to see how much improvement I could actually get. As expected, extra 4GB of memory is beneficial only when I simultaneously work on several massive files in Photoshop (PSD files with a dozen adjustment layers that are based on 16–bit, 3200dpi scans of my medium format slides tend to be around 450MB; stitched panoramas go well beyond that). The change to PCIe SSD, however, brought about a much more notable impact: start–up time was shorter, applications launched faster, and overall performance felt just perkier. To support this perception with some numbers, I proceeded to do some simple testing.

I first measured computer start–up time: it has improved from 27 to 17 seconds*. Next, I ran Blackmagic Disk Speed Test application to see the difference in read and write speeds of the three types of drives. And here is the result: read speeds of my 2TB HDD that is used for data storage, 128GB SATA SSD and 240GB PCIe SSD tested at around 140MB/s, 250MB/s and 620MB/s, respectively; at the same time, their write speeds averaged at 140MB/s, 240MB/s and 410MB/s in that order. Amazing!

Just for fun and to put things into perspective, I tested the old, 5400rpm, HDD of my wife's ancient MacBook (it actually is not that ancient, but it certainly felt prehistoric in terms of speed). And guess what? Both read and write speed tested at... 30MB/s! I changed the sluggish HDD to an SSD and the aged notebook is alive and kicking again.

No matter how you slice it, incremental hardware upgrades that can postpone replacing your entire computer for another couple of years are certainly worthwhile (quite crucially, they also tend to go mostly undetected by your better half). I now have plenty of memory, use the hyper–fast PCIe SSD as the boot volume, and store all data on a large capacity HDD. With this setup, I am good to go for another few years, which will extend the service of my Mac Pro beyond ten years (unless I want a new computer, of course).

And speaking of ten years, in my mind it is the threshold that makes something truly, admirably good, both conceptually and otherwise. Indeed, in my experience ten years is a barrier that very few things can pass: in the past decade I went through various digital cameras, camera bags, accessories, mobile phones, pieces of furniture, apartments and jobs; heck, even countries! Among the things that have been with me longer than ten years are my Hasselblad V–series system, Kirk BH–1 ballhead, a wrist watch, a few dozens of CDs, a couple of worn out dictionaries that have been following me since university—and soon enough, the Mac Pro.

In short, before you consider buying a new computer you should pop up the hood of your current machine and look into where the bottleneck(s) may be. Do you have enough memory? Are your hard drives fast enough? Do they have enough capacity? Close examination of these aspects and an inexpensive hardware upgrade may give your computer a new lease of life—and allow you to buy a nice lens with the spared money!

*From start–up chime to user long–in; upon that it is mostly instantaneous.

11 January 2015 » Roaming Western China: Daocheng Yading

The last photographic destination of the Sichuan trip that I undertook in October last year was Yading Nature Reserve in Daocheng County, a national park of incredible beauty: you get to see three distinctive snow mountain and alpine lakes in a valley that is only about ten kilometres long.

I photographed in the reserve previously and brought back a few images that truly speak to me. The timing of this trip, however, was not ideal: it was still about three weeks before autumn colours would peak. Looking at uninspiring colours, I thought I needed to do something more meaningful than repeating myself, photographically, under worse conditions. During the previous trip I did not make it to Milk Lake and Five Colour Lake, the two alpine lakes that sit just behind Mount Chenrezig: on the one hand, I did not have enough time as it was my first visit and there was a lot to see and photograph; on the other hand, getting to the lakes takes a long, strenuous hike, which I was not up to at the time. This time around things naturally fell into place for me to finally visit the lakes.

(A very big) Bird's view of Yading Nature Reserve

I knew it was going to be a very long and difficult hike, so in preparation I removed all non–crucial items from my camera backpack, essentially taking with me only the Flexbody camera, one film back, three lenses (50mm, 80mm and 150mm), filters and a few rolls of film. By leaving 503CW camera, 250mm lens, second film back, panorama kit and other miscellany at the hotel I reduced the weight by some three kilogrammes; this may not sound like a lot, but I felt it would make or break the hike. Surprisingly, I did not miss anything that I left at the hotel.

MapMyWalk App on my iPhone shows that altogether I hiked 32 kilometres on that day. Starting at Chonggu temple (3900 metres above sea level), first ten kilometres took me to the foothills of Mount Jambeyang and were fairly easy; the ascend to Five Colour Lake (4700 metres above sea level) from there on was really tough, though. If first ten kilometres took just over two hours, the remaining six kilometres devoured three hours; the track was covered with mud and stones and quite difficult to hike. By the time I got to Five Colour Lake I was totally exhausted; it was well worth the effort, though: the vistas around the lakes were absolutely spectacular. And when I look at the Milk Lake, Daocheng Yading image now, I do no think of the exhaustion; instead, I invariably wonder where that track behind the lake leads, and what lays beyond that pass.


Image: Mount Chana Dorje and Cloud, Daocheng Yading

Mount Chana Dorje and Cloud, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


Image: Five Colour Lake and Mount Chenrezig, Daocheng Yading

Five Colour Lake and Mount Chenrezig, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


Image: Milk Lake, Daocheng Yading

Milk Lake, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/150 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


Image: Five Colour Lake and Mount Chana Dorje, Daocheng Yading

Five Colour Lake and Mount Chana Dorje, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 4/50 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


Image: Forest, Daocheng Yading

Forest, Daocheng Yading

Hasselblad Flexbody camera, CFi 2.8/80 lens, Fujifilm Velvia 50 slide film


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