Anti-Buzz Hardware

The Anti-Buzz: Printers

The Buzz: Your printer has a mind of its own, and will only print documents when it feels like it.


The Anti-Buzz: Your printer is actually an agent of the Jok’tu Empire from the Horsehead Nebula, bent on slowly weakening humanity through strategic document denial.


Why: One day I will have a PhD in Computer Science, and on that day I still will not have a better explanation for your printer’s behavior.

Today I speak with you, not to you. Printers are annoying right? I’ve been here for some time, trying to act as the voice of rationality. I’ve been saying things like “computers are not magic,” and “they are just machines; they don’t have a mind of their own.” But printers? I don’t know. I am often tempted to crack one open and see if there isn’t just some gremlin in there, giggling and mashing his hands against two big “Yes” and “No” buttons.

Of course, printers are really just machines too, but for all my knowledge in this field, they still baffle me. I am capable of debugging printer problems, which is to say, I have a bag of tricks ready to try against them, but if you ever asked me why your printer stopped working or why the solution fixed the problem, I could only answer with, “I don’t know.”

Most of my printer adventures these days are in the computer science labs at the university. Here we have a situation not unlike the one you might have in your office: many printers, many computers, all of them on a network. This is the best recipe for printer-centric nonsense, if you ask me.

On one day I will have trouble printing to a specific printer. The next I will have trouble printing from a specific computer. On the third day all the printers refuse to print out any images among the text. On the fourth day all my documents will print out in landscape mode, (I even tried reverse psychology on this one, telling it to print in landscape mode, hoping it would print normal). On the fifth day the printers will only print out one copy at a time, so instead of printing one job of 15 copies I have to print 15 jobs of one copy. On the sixth day the margins on all my pages will be about three inches thick. On the seventh day I will rest; if I want to surround myself with malfunctioning printers, I can just stay at home.

The printers in the CS department are especially haughty, as if they know they have to try extra hard to baffle us. Most of them have a nice LCD screen on them, whose purpose seems mostly to be to tease us with its lies. “Processing…” it will say, or “Printing …”, but these messages rarely have any bearing on the reality of the situation. “Canceling job 1473 …” is often meant to scare you. Is job 1473 the document you are trying to print? Who knows. The only certainty is that you are at the mercy of the printer by this point.

Last week, one of these LCDs read, “Cannot find printer.” You’d expect this sort of thing from your computer, sure; it makes sense to think that your computer might not be connected to the printer. But for the printer to be unable to find itself

So the first rule of printer survival is to not feel stupid. No amount of tech-savvy will spare you from suffering the Wrath of Printar, (the evil god of printers).

But to more practical matters: what are printers, and what can we do about them?

What are printers?

Printers read postscript files, or .ps files. Postscript is a language used to describe how to print a document. The text itself is not enough – fonts, spacing, and the like need to be included. In old-fashioned printing press terms, you can think of this file as the text plus typesetting instructions. If ever you are printer shopping and the advertised printer tries to use the word “postscript” in some impressive techno-jargony way, don’t be fooled by the doublespeak. “This printer is a printer” is not an impressive slogan.

The postscript format allows for a universal way for applications to describe documents to a printer. If you’ve ever noticed that one application might print a document one way and another might print it in a slightly different way, this would be because each program generated postscript in slightly different ways. If you’ve ever noticed that one printer seems to print a document in slightly different way than another printer, it might be because the way the printer interpret postscript is different. Already we begin to peel away the printer’s malevolent-nonsense mystique.

When I reviewed solid-state drives, I said that your hard-drive was the last truly mechanical piece of your computer. This is true only because printers are not actually a part of your computer. Printers are more mechanical than electronical. They are our link to the pre-computer world, taking electronic data and sending it backwards through time to the point where it is on paper again. Put plainly, they take physical paper, and they mark it with ink or lasers or ink lasers such that it looks the way you want it to. The do this the printer has to mechanically take paper off a stack, move it into close proximity of its ink lasers, fire its printer beam, give the paper to you, and hopefully keep everything in a tidy order while doing it.

Most people wouldn’t think of it this way, but this is a robotics problem, albeit an extremely specialized one. I remind you again that computers are in fact terribly stupid, and this becomes even more exaggerated when you have them interact with the real world, as printers do.

And this brings us to our first class of problems: mechanical failures.

What to do about your misbehaving printer.

Mechanical failure – paper jams, crooked printing, grabbing more than one sheet at a time, and our dear favorite “that thing where if you don’t have 20 sheets of paper in the tray, it won’t be able to grab any of them”, (the Ancient Greeks probably had a word for that one) – have to be taken in stride. Frequent mechanical problems leave you with two options. 1) Get creative and jury-rig a solution. 2) Replace the printer.

For the newcomers, keep in mind that your printer has guide rails and other mechanisms that are meant to keep the paper lined up and such. Crooked printing or messy trays or frequent jams can be caused by bumping these around by mistake, so try to make sure everything is positioned right before storming off and making a voodoo doll of your printer.

Also, paper jams can be invisible from the outside, especially in larger printers. If the printer insists that it is jammed, but this appears to be nonsense, you’ll have to open it up, (consult your manual), and look inside. Say hello to that gremlin for me while you’re in there.

Our next class of problems: unresponsiveness.

These are the problems most are familiar with. In one way or another, your printer just isn’t printing. The evidence can come in many forms, all equally baffling: your printer is not an option when you are trying to print, your printer shows up as “offline” in your control panel, your printer “is not responding” after you try to print to it, or, wickedly, your computer claims that everything is working fine and that the printer finished printing your document and everything is great minus the fact that the printer actually did nothing.

These are the situations comedy routines are made of. The generic guide to solving this mess is as follows:

1) Power cycle. I refer you to the joke about the engineers on a road trip. Turn the printer off, and then back on again. If you are feeling bold, turn everything off – your printer, computer, router, modem, whatever – and then get everything back online, saving the printer for last.

2) Reinstall drivers. Rather than hiring three Computer Science PhDs to understand the problem, (because that is how may it would take), just play Armageddon and reinstall your drivers from scratch. You might have to search online for the right drivers to your printer. Look on the printer itself for a model number and such. Preferably only download drivers from the manufacturer’s website.

3) Start from the beginning and troubleshoot. Make sure the computer sees your printer. Make sure your printer can print a test page. Follow the wires with your hand if you need to. Consult the user manual. Start small and isolate the problem. Print other documents. Print from other programs.

Lastly: network problems.

You dentists probably have a network and probably have more than one printer. Nothing makes a frustrating piece of hardware more frustrating than networking it. Now you can have all manner of nightmares at your finger tips.

Imagine, pretending that the printers are working fine at the start of the day. Network traffic is high so printing your 30-page memo is a bit slow to start. Frustrated, you tell it to print again. The first job still hasn’t started after a while so you do like some guy on the Internet said and you power cycle the printer. Your 60-pages are still on the network somewhere, probably gossiping with the other print jobs. Meanwhile, Sam is trying to print his trim, 15-page memo, but you’ve turned off the printer. By the time you turn the printer back on, Sam is consulting the I Ching for guidance.

You try printing again and quickly find that your document is coming out! It is actually printing one of the earlier print jobs, but you can’t detect this until you notice two more copies come out afterward. Meanwhile, you’ve bogged own an already slow network. Print jobs time out for Sally and Ben. They decide it is time to upgrade the printer’s firmware, and they do it right in the middle of Sam’s 20-page memo on the merits of consulting the I Ching. By the end of the day, your employees are offering human sacrifices in the break room, hoping to appease the mighty Printar.

What’s better is to minimize such confusion with good policy and good communication. Printers can be frustrating enough without your workforce stepping on its own toes. Good support for your network can probably prevent a lot of printer-related problems too. Communicate with your employees that actions performed in frustration can often serve to make things worse.

Or, if printing just isn’t your thing, you could always go paperless.

One reply on “The Anti-Buzz: Printers”

So true! Thanks for the helpful advice. Does the same thing apply for a fax machine that is somehow “jammed” as you watch the perfectly straight piece of paper simply stop going through the feed for no reason? 🙂

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