Tinotopia (Logo)
TinotopiaLog → June 2001 archives
Tuesday 05 June 2001

‘Universal’ DC Power Supply

At home, my desk sits out in the middle of the room. I can’t deal with a desk that’s pushed up against the wall. I like to have something to look at, even if it’s only a wall that’s five feet away.

Anyway, the desk is in the middle of the room. One good thing about this is that it gives me ready access to all the wires dripping down behind (i.e. in front of, that is to say on the side I don’t sit on) the desk. One bad thing is that all these wires are out in plain sight. Here’s what it looks like:

You can see my toes (in socks) at the bottom of the photo.

Roughly speaking, from left to right: Toshiba DC adapter for scanner (which is an HP); 100 mb Ethernet hub; USB hub; UPS, into which are plugged: Sony DC adapter for laptop; unbranded Chinese DC adapter for Ethernet hub; unbranded Chinese DC adapter for speakers; Toshiba DC adapter for laptop; Archos DC adapter for CD-R drive; Viewsonic DC adapter for flat monitor.

This mess behind my desk is bad enough, but it’s a real nightmare when I’m travelling. I have to carry power supplies for my computer, my cell phone, my CD drive, my digital camera, and who knows what else. The exact inventory varies depending on the purpose of the trip.

It occurs to me that I am not alone. All this electronic stuff runs off DC power; if you don’t plug a brick into the wall to power your electronic device, it’s because it’s doing its power mojo inside. The only electronic items I know of that actually use the AC power itself for anything are TVs and VCRs. Everything else is purely DC.

Most manufacturers of DC-powered consumer electronics, though, seem to believe that their products are unique; so every device comes with its own power supply, one that’s usually incompatible with nearly everything else on Earth.

Radio Shack (among others) sell switchable power supples (like the one at left), that will produce any one of a number of voltages on command. These usually come with an assortment of plugs, one of which will probably fit the thing you need to power.

The biggest problem with these, though, is that you can’t power more than one thing at a time. I often need to charge my cell phone while I’m using the computer, or my computer and CD drive, or even all three at the same time.

The adapter shown above will not power most laptops, which usually like to see around 16 volts. Radio Shack sells a power supply that will power a laptop, but it’s a completely different animal, and comes with different plugs (so it won’t also recharge your cell phone, for instance).

And, adding insult to injury, these switchable power supplies are almost always of the very cheapest manufacture. There’s not much to the things, electronically speaking, so they’re pretty reliable nevertheless. But the cables are incredibly cheap — and pretty long — and they will break before too long.

I’ve written about this before, and even suggested a possible solution. Unfortunately, that solution has at its base the assumption that I am the Absolute Monarch of The World. Since we are still living in the interregnum, I propose another solution, to be used until I can force DC power supply manufacturers to bend to my will.

This solution is a modular DC power system, meant to be used behind a desk, on the road, or wherever it’s needed. It doesn’t use any radical new technology, it just repackages existing technology in a more useful and convenient form. Here’s an illustration:

The whole thing is about the size of a largish laptop power supply of current vintage.

There are a few basic components:

1. AC plug. Available in all major world standards. When you leave the country, you shouldn’t need to use those clumsy adapters that are always falling out of the wall.

2. AC cord. Available in a number of lengths, to suit your needs. Possibly there should even be an automatically-rewinding version for tidy packing.

3. AC/DC adaptor. The heart of the system, it accepts AC input on one side, offers it on the other, and outputs DC power in between. You can thus plug it directly into the power cord (see 16V module above), or you can plug it into another AC/DC adaptor (like the 3.6V and 12V modules in the drawing). The drawing shows three adaptors plugged together, but in practice the number that you could connect would be effectively limited only by the space you have available (AC/DC adaptors don’t use enough power, generally, for electrical limitations to be much of a problem). Most of the adaptors would probably have receptacles for two DC cords, should the user have two devices that use the same voltage.

4. DC cord. This is standard across the range, and available in a number of lengths. You might want a three-meter cord for powering your laptop while you sit on the sofa, but only a 10cm cord for charging your cell phone, since it wouldn’t be subject to tangling.

5. DC plugs. DC plugs would be available for everything under the sun, because this is where the modular power system meets the devices made by any number of manufacturers. Since some manufacturers will perversely use impossible-to-duplicate or very rare connectors, there would be a kit that would allow the end user to connect any DC plug to the system without too much trouble.

The main point here is that everything unplugs from everything else. This makes packing a lot simpler, and it allows the user to customize the lengths of the cords to the particular purpose — cutting down on tangling and bulk.

And the modular design lends itself to other uses, too! A UPS module (much larger, of course, to hold batteries) could hold a number of DC modules, eliminating the tangle of AC cords. An inverter module with a cigarette lighter plug on it would allow the things to be used in cars, boats, and RVs.

The main market, though, would definitely be the traveller who wanted to cut down on bulk and tangles, while maximizing convenience.

Posted by tino at 10:18 5.06.01

Jesus Nagar

Near where I live, there’s this surreal hair-cutting establishment.

Actually, perhaps I should take a step back. Very near where I live, there’s this plaza that wraps around an arm of a little man-made lake. This is Washington Plaza, the architectural centerpiece of Reston when it was built back in 1962.

There are some restaurants, a bookstore, a pharmacy, and about five hair-cutting establishments in or near the plaza. Some residences open onto the plaza, and some of these — the ones nearer to the center of things — have been partially or totally converted into commercial space.

In one of these is a surreal hair-cutting establishment. It caters only to men, which may explain some of the surreality of it; this kind of place died out in the USA, for the most part, a number of years ago.

The whole place is decorated — if that’s not too strong a word — in mid-1970s faux-saloon style. I couldn’t quite say at the moment whether there are any sham WANTED posters on the wall printed with liberal use of Old West typefaces, but it certainly feels like there are.

Definitely on the walls are all sorts of panoramic photographs of various barbers’ conventions from the 1960s and 1970s, all held in large Manhattan hotels. The photographs are enormous group shots, usually taken from a balcony, of an entire ballroom full of people seated for dinner. Most of the men in the photos have unfortunate moustaches or side-whiskers, or both.

There are two rooms: a waiting room, and a cutting room. Both rooms have old commercial linoleum-tile floors and ceilings stained dark from tobacco smoke. The waiting room contains, in addition to the possibly non-existent WANTED posters: two ancient sofas, a huge coffee table covered with well-thumbed magazines and huge ashtrays, a fairly nice antique washstand that supports a TV and that serves as the establishment’s cash drawer, and one of those giant oval rugs that’s more like a spiral of soft(ish) rope than anything else. The overall effect is of being in someone’s ne’er-do-well uncle’s living room circa 1978. This impression is not lessened by the fact that you enter from the sidewalk through a sliding glass door.

The cutting room contains four hair-cutting stations, each with a chair, basin, mirror, etc. Only two of them appear to have been in use in the last twenty years. All of the basins are very, very ugly — they’re proper hair-washing basins, with the cutout for your neck and all, but other than that they are seashell-shaped, and made out of some kind of cookies-and-cream porcelain that must have been ugly even when they were new. Now, they’re awful. The basins at the two stations that are not in use are cracked. The other two basins are also cracked, but not as badly. The walls of the cutting room are covered with the panoramic group shots (see above), as well as a portrait of Robert E. Lee, which has a Confederate battle flag draped over it.

Two people work in this gem of a place. One, presumably the owner of the photos, the attendee of those conventions, the fan of General Lee, and the seeming owner of the shop, has an unfortunate moustache and a huge paunch, and looks to be about 50 years old. The other seems to be about 80 years old, allegedly speaks no English, and only does "razor cuts". He appears to have some sort of age-related mental debility. If you walk into the shop and do not assert yourself, your hair will be cut by the man with the paunch and the facial hair. He will bully "Frenchie" (as he calls the other guy) away from you and back to the television (which shows nothing but soap operas).

(In case you don’t believe any of this, please examine this photo I found on someone else’s website.)

The last time I was there, Frenchie was pushed out of the way and I sat down to wait for the other guy. He was already with a customer.

Frenchie looked out the window for a while, then came in to watch some TV, and then went back to the window. Sideburn-man and his customer, a skinny little Indian guy wearing an out-of-style golf shirt, came out of the cutting room. Sideburns went through the process of wrenching open the drawer under the TV (it’s an antique washstand, remember: the drawer doesn’t slide very easily), gave the guy change, and told me he’d be ready in a couple of minutes.

He swept up the Indian guy’s hair with a broom, put his combs back in the Barbicide, and did all those other post-customer things that barbers do. He then took out an enormous Meerschaum pipe, sat down in one of the spare barber’s chairs, and started getting ready to smoke.

When I say this was an enormous pipe, I’m not kidding. This is the kind of pipe that Svejk is pictured smoking in Josef Lada’s illustrations.

I’d never in my life seen anyone smoke one of these before, not even in Bavaria. He packed it full of the most foul-smelling tobacco I’ve ever come across, and lit it with a single match.

After he was lit, he said he was ready for me. He proceeded to cut my hair while smoking that pipe. Since both his hands were occupied with the hair-cutting, he would talk while holding it between his teeth. This resulted in the pipe bouncing up and down, spewing smoke and embers all over the place. It was also impossible to understand what he was saying, but that wasn’t a problem because I wasn’t listening anyway; I was too busy trying to keep hot coals from burning through the cape.

In good time he finished, and it was time to jiggle out the till drawer again in the other room. When we went out there, we found the skinny Indian guy coming back through the sliding-glass door with a handful of flyers. All the while looking at his feet, he handed one each to me, Mr. Pipe, and Frenchie. He mumbled something at us, but it was unintelligible. I smiled broadly at him, tipped Pipe man, and left.


All of that was just to establish the right mood, to let you know the background, to allow you to better understand the situation I was in when I was handed this flyer.

I was handed this flyer in early 2001. It’s dated April 1998, says it’s "Issue 2", and was established in 1992. It is obviously not published with any great frequency.

The basic premise of it seems to be that the skinny Indian guy (whose name might be Jacob Coipuram) wants donations to build this Jesus Nagar, or Jesus City, on 1/2 acre in India.

(Nagar does not precisely mean city. I don’t think there is an exact equivalent in English. It means something closer to community.)

Jacob isn’t pushy, though. The flyer explains that the funding will be according to "God’s provisions" and that it will be completed in "God’s planning time". I suppose you should just read the flyer:

And people say that nothing interesting happens in the suburbs. It’s hard to have this bizarre a morning in New York.

Posted by tino at 10:16 5.06.01