Cable Sex
March 17, 2009 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Cables: Don’t like ‘em. Despite the rise of wireless technologies, the back of your computer or stereo is likely a tangle of wires. No matter how carefully you first connect them, they are soon gleefully entangled into a snarled mass. Mathematics offers insight into the problem.
posted by bitmage (54 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I hate cables. But more than that I hate that manufacturers keep telling you how cool and small and thin and light their new laptop is whilst ignoring that the charger - is an unwieldy, heavy monstrosity.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:27 AM on March 17, 2009


I couldn't even read the article because I was mesmerized by the pictures. Oh, and nice title for a url.
posted by cashman at 7:32 AM on March 17, 2009


> replacing a single cable means I have to untie the entire arrangement.

My stereo, speakers, television, VCR, DVD/CD player, turntable and Wii are all connected via approximately a mile of cable balled up behind my entertainment shelving, much of which I don't remember buying or hooking up. At least 50% of it is probably redundant or obsolete. If/when I move out of my current apartment I'm going to have to transport the entire mess as it is, because once it's unhooked...let's just say it's got a lot in common with Humpty Dumpty.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:34 AM on March 17, 2009


Cables should be your first order of business if you hope to comply with Clarke's Third Law. If I can see the strings, you're doing it wrong.
posted by jquinby at 7:36 AM on March 17, 2009


A string was placed in a cubic box and the box was rotated at constant angular velocity about a principle axis perpendicular to gravity, causing the string to tumble.

Can't wait for the SNL viral of this.

Strikingly, we were able to identify ≈96% of all knots formed (1,007 of 1,127)‡ as known prime knots having minimum crossing numbers ranging from 3 to 11. The prevalence of prime knots is rather surprising, because they are not the only possible type of knot.

Never even heard of "prime knots". More info.

Because the segments of a solid string cannot pass through each other, the principles of topology dictate that knots can only nucleate at the ends of the string. Roughly speaking, the string end must trace a path that corresponds to a certain knot topology in order for that knot to form.

That's what the string wants you to think. But seriously, so simple and obvious in retrospect. Their theory (confirmed by computer modeling) is pretty clear. This is going to revolutionize how I stow cables. Screw this wrapping method, all you really need to do is fix the ends.

Great link.
posted by DU at 7:37 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


There is a 50 percent chance that you will be greeted by the sound of my desk set banging against a radiator, because the spiral cord of my phone keeps tangling and assembling itself into a compact ball. Why? Am I unconsciously rotating or dancing while talking on the phone?

First, yes, you are. Second, this is one of my pet peeves. If I see a twisted up phone cord I have to untangle it. It's not that hard. I don't understand why people let them get that way.
posted by DU at 7:39 AM on March 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


> whilst ignoring that the charger - is an unwieldy, heavy monstrosity.

Like Apple's fucking AC adapters? I've never understood why a company that puts such an emphasis on elegant design can't come up with a laptop adapter that doesn't weigh five pounds, look like a bar fridge and wear out a little every time you unplug it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:40 AM on March 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


If I see a twisted up phone cord I have to untangle it. It's not that hard. I don't understand why people let them get that way.

I've seen little rotating pluggy things for phones, designed to alleviate this very problem.
posted by jquinby at 7:44 AM on March 17, 2009


I have told a credulous person on at least one occasion that this is what "string theory" is, though to be fair to me that's an easier sell than trying to convince some folks that knot theory actually exists and is actually fascinating.
posted by cortex at 7:46 AM on March 17, 2009


cortex, you could not be more right. The best thing about this post is that the field of knot theory now exists for me.
posted by sfts2 at 7:55 AM on March 17, 2009


Cables receive at least one nylon-tagged cable tie, marked with a very fine Sharpie as to what the cable does. If possible, cables match a color scheme associated with a computer, although I have mostly abandoned my efforts for such.

If the cable in question belongs to an AC Adapter, I print two copies of a label which says PS0017 (increment as needed). I affix one to the AC Adapter and one to the item it powers. I no longer have to wonder what adapter goes with what item.

I do not pull cables unless I can see a clear path and the cable itself is sturdy. Each time I add, remove, or otherwise change the position of a cable in a mass of cables, I take the time to untangle two other cables, selected mostly at random.

Cables traveling along a fixed path, like the legs of a stand, are attached to that path using Velcro straps, twist-ties, whatever is handy.

A little investment in time up front pretty much solves the majority of my cable woes.

I am so very, very alone.
posted by adipocere at 7:58 AM on March 17, 2009 [28 favorites]


My cable setup resembles clinging vines, with one or two cables loosely wrapped around a central core of others. I'd like see a botanical study of this phenomenon rather than a mathematical one.
posted by Spatch at 7:59 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


> I'd like see a botanical study of this phenomenon rather than a mathematical one.

I swear to God that some of my original cables have reproduced. It's the only rational explanation.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:01 AM on March 17, 2009


That was an awesome article. He's also the guy with the sons in love with the NY Subway, right?
posted by Phire at 8:02 AM on March 17, 2009


You should see my electronic drum kit. It's a mess.
posted by monospace at 8:02 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm with you, adipocere. I have an even lower-tech approach: whenever I get a new adapter or cable, I get a ziplock bag and cut the two bottom corners off. The bulk of the cable, loosely coiled, goes into the bag, with the two ends protruding from the corner holes. Just enough cable can then be pulled out to plug in or connect whatever needs to be connected. Because the excess cable is inside the zipped-up bag, there's less of a tendency towards tangling.

*vigorous self-congratulatory lateral saliva sucking*
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:09 AM on March 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


So is a slip knot considered a knot in these cases? I assume from a topological perspective a slip knot is not a knot. From the perspective of my desk, a loop or three pushed and tucked through other loops is a knotted mess.
posted by pointilist at 8:10 AM on March 17, 2009


I sometimes lament my choice of making a laptop my primary computing device for this very reason. With a tower you plug it and leave it alone until the next tower comes along. With the laptop I'm plugging/unplugging on average of twice a day and the resulting mess forces me to "rewire" my work area every month or so, just to create some semblance of order. This is true even though I coil and tie off excess cable length. At least everything is labeled so I avoid the "what does this do" issue during one of my reorganization efforts.

Additionally, you should see what the AC adapter + audio mini jack cables for the iPhone docking station in my car get up to after a week of commuting. Spatch's suggestion of using a botanical approach to studying this makes a lot of sense IMO.
posted by Fezboy! at 8:16 AM on March 17, 2009


...whenever I get a new adapter or cable, I get a ziplock bag and cut the two bottom corners off. The bulk of the cable, loosely coiled, goes into the bag, with the two ends protruding from the corner holes. Just enough cable can then be pulled out to plug in or connect whatever needs to be connected.

Brings to mind: Cooking with the Anal Retentive Chef
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:16 AM on March 17, 2009


A slip knot is not a knot.

Also, Slipknot is not music, it is noise with occasional gaps in the wall of sound which resembles instrumentation much in the same way that taking your hand off of a stove burner, glowing a baleful red, feels a bit like relief.
posted by adipocere at 8:19 AM on March 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


I get a ziplock bag and cut the two bottom corners off. The bulk of the cable, loosely coiled, goes into the bag, with the two ends protruding from the corner holes. Just enough cable can then be pulled out to plug in or connect whatever needs to be connected.

I'm gonna ziplock all my calbes too!
posted by autodidact at 8:23 AM on March 17, 2009


One help for cable messes is.. more cables! Specifically, one foot long power extension cables solve the problem that every ugly (#$*#*( transformer takes up 2-3 spots on a power strip. I bought a stack of ten tiny extension cables a long time ago and they are perpetually useful.

Cable ties are also fantastic. Although perversely I find myself being stingy with them, not using them often, because they're not reusable.
posted by Nelson at 8:23 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The trick to avoiding knots is to make sure all of your cables are stretched tight like piano wire. You may need to superglue the connectors in place to keep everything from coming unplugged.
posted by orme at 8:35 AM on March 17, 2009


Brings to mind: Cooking with the Anal Retentive Chef

I can't access that from the Great White North but I'm sure it highlights what a cool stud I am.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:42 AM on March 17, 2009


The trick to avoiding knots is to make sure all of your cables are stretched tight like piano wire.

And then malfunctions in your computer and its peripherals can be rapidly diagnosed by listening to changes in the various harmonic frequencies emitted.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:45 AM on March 17, 2009


I met a cool knot theorist cybernetician named Louis Kauffman. I would tell people about the cool stuff he did. They would be like "what does he do" and I would be like "knot theory" and they are like "umm what does he do again?" "knot theory!" "OK, not theory, but what?" "knot theory!!" "errr so like practice instead of theory?".
posted by idiopath at 8:50 AM on March 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


The web page of the aforementioned Lou Kauffman. It is good to be reminded of him, I am going to have to catch up on what he is doing lately.
posted by idiopath at 8:54 AM on March 17, 2009


This really just seems like a failure to follow the adage, "a stitch in time saves nine." Rather than throwing all the cables into boxes or bins, if the author had just organized them neatly (coiling them, etc.) then he'd have avoided these problems. I suppose he also wouldn't have had his whiny post for his paycheck either (though the illustrations are nice).

There are solutions to most of these problems that take no time at all. Headphones? Wrap them around the device (iPod, etc.). If they get twisty, unplug, let hang, and they'll untwist. The same thing can be accomplished with phone cords.

The key really just is understanding that breaking something down should be done as carefully and methodically as putting something together. Once you have that mindset, you avoid these problems. I'm glad people have figured that out; I'd never get to see Pinback live if their techs packed cables like this guy.
posted by explosion at 8:56 AM on March 17, 2009


*arranges marriage for adipocere and explosion*
posted by DU at 9:03 AM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Purse Lock cable ties can help organize cable bundles, and they re-open to make changes to the bundle.
posted by jjj606 at 9:05 AM on March 17, 2009


explosion: some day we will be taught to care for cables in elementary school, alongside tying our shoes and dialing the telephone. The illustrations are poignant because this is how most people treat their cables, so many of us can understand his pain.

Also: wrapping too tight (or, according to some, wrapping at all) accelerates the destruction of the cable, little threads in the braided copper lines of the cable tend to break when you bend at too sharp an angle. This is particularly a problem with audio cable, where you want the ground cable to be significantly more material than the signal, so to save money they have only a few tiny threads for the signal line (thinner cable also reduces capacitance in the cable line, which means clearer high frequencies). With a thinner strand, the cable is ruined after just a few tight bends. This is one of the few reasons a Monster Cable may actually be worth it - they are actually sturdier than the cheap stuff (though probably not enough so to be worth the extra money unless you set up and break down your cabling 100 times a day).
posted by idiopath at 9:08 AM on March 17, 2009


I am so very, very alone.

Yours is an honorable solitude, adipocere.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:09 AM on March 17, 2009


Although it sounds simple, here is my partial solution to the problem: Home Depot sells this little spool thingy in the plants department for wiring up... plants I guess. It contains about a mile of bendable green wire and a handy little cutter built right in. I just spool up the cables one by one into a 3" loop and then twist a couple of green wires across from each other on the loop. This is really helpful for that certain desk drawer in your house (you know which one) that contains hundreds of cables twisted into a Gordian knot.
posted by digsrus at 9:11 AM on March 17, 2009


With the laptop I'm plugging/unplugging on average of twice a day and the resulting mess forces me to "rewire" my work area every month or so

This is a solved problem. Buy a docking station. Unless youre crazy enough to buy a laptop without a docking port, then you will simply suffer.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:15 AM on March 17, 2009


I am doomed to suffer...no docking station for this generation of MacBook Pros. :(
posted by Fezboy! at 9:25 AM on March 17, 2009


whilst ignoring that the charger - is an unwieldy, heavy monstrosity

If only Moore's law would work its magic on the basic laws of physics, electromagnetism and thermodynamics. I mean, Jung already disproved hysteresis, right?
posted by GuyZero at 10:23 AM on March 17, 2009


You should see my electronic drum kit. It's a mess.

You need a modular synthesizer to go with that.
posted by waxboy at 10:23 AM on March 17, 2009


I used to do some work with a lawyer at a prestigous midtown law office. The cord to his telephone handset was so entagled with the strings for his blinds, that he had to place his head on the desk to make phone calls.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:58 AM on March 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Cable ties are also fantastic. Although perversely I find myself being stingy with them, not using them often, because they're not reusable.

With the thin point of a knife, you can easily lift the plastic tooth that locks the cable tie and open it back up. I do it all the time because ties are so expensive.

Wait -- that's not it. It's because I have no life. That's it.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 11:00 AM on March 17, 2009


The proper way to wrap cables is alternating each loop overhand, underhand, overhand, underhand, etc. It keeps the cable from twisting during wrapping and eliminates tangles.

Also every time I see someone wrapping an extension cable around his hand and elbow I want to punch him in the throat.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:03 AM on March 17, 2009


...I want to punch him in the throat.

That level of devotion to an ideal is admirable.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 11:17 AM on March 17, 2009


the pile of cables behind the tv used to bug me...then i went to the toy store, bought a bunch of rubber snakes, and threw them into the mix...now it's much much funnier.

Cable ties are also fantastic. Although perversely I find myself being stingy with them, not using them often, because they're not reusable.

i found some that are. they're at the rite aid in the hardware department. the lock part has two tabs that you squeeze to release. they are also flourescently colored.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:38 AM on March 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


The proper way to wrap cables is alternating each loop overhand, underhand, overhand, underhand, etc.

just to be clear: unless the reader already knows what you're talking about, this description doesn't make any sense. since I don't already know what you're talking about, your description makes no sense to me. how do you wrap anything underhand?
posted by shmegegge at 11:57 AM on March 17, 2009


You haven't seen tangled cables until you've set up a large AV show. Last week, I was a projectionist at a show where we had 23 flown projectors, and all but three of them were wired with 5-wire (RGBHV) BNC-terminated cables. Everything else (audio, lighting) was flown too. The majority of these projectors made home-runs across the truss (about 1500 feet of it), picked down the ends, and terminated at a 32x32 RGBHV router. This monster has 320 connectors on the back in a grid. The "neatened" pile of cables off of the back of it, all labeled and over-under coiled, took up about 100sqft of floor space.

It took three days to set up, and five hours to tear down and get into trucks.

On preview for shmegegge, this is over-under cable wrapping. If you don't know how to do this well and fast, you won't last long in the media production or live event industries.
posted by tomierna at 12:05 PM on March 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


I just spread everything that needs plugged in around my apartment until they are so inconvenient that I don't want to use them anymore.
posted by jon_kill at 12:07 PM on March 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks, tomierna. I'm at work and have no YouTubes, otherwise I would have looked for that myself.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:58 PM on March 17, 2009


Surprised no one mentioned the velcro reusable cable ties...better than the plastic doohickeys, come in a roll?

My biggest problem in my entertainment setup is that I have old TV with one out + digital antenna + converter box + DVD player. I have a little adaptor thingy that's supposed to make the TV play nice with the DVD player, and it does, but not if you put the converter box and antenna in the mix. So if I want to switch from TV to DVD, it's unplug/plug/curse because you can't remember if you should use "Antenna out" or "TV in" etc. etc.

I always assumed that I was doomed to this sort of thing by my cheapness in refusing to get cable or a new TV, but now I feel better that even high tech types can't get their mess together.
posted by emjaybee at 1:11 PM on March 17, 2009


If you don't know how to do this well and fast, you won't last long in the media production or live event industries.

funny thing. I actually work in a live event industry, but confine myself exclusively to on set editing at the events because I wouldn't last very long doing production work.
posted by shmegegge at 1:27 PM on March 17, 2009


just to be clear: unless the reader already knows what you're talking about, this description doesn't make any sense. since I don't already know what you're talking about, your description makes no sense to me. how do you wrap anything underhand?
It's funny, because i already know what he's saying, so i got it at once. And that's what i actually do with, you know, cables. Learnt that on sail boats, work wonders, i could show it real easy, but i don't know how to explain it with words.
posted by vivelame at 2:56 PM on March 17, 2009


I was going to ask if the roadie wrap also worked on thicker electrical extension cords, but it apparently does. I use a weird sort of running-knot-chain-thing that I saw a plumber use once (see here about halfway down). You yank one end of it, and the whole things come undone . Most of the time.
posted by jquinby at 3:10 PM on March 17, 2009


Here are some examples of cabling done the right way and the wrong way. Having had to fix more than one such network cabling disaster, I think the most important thing is having a cabling plan before you start installing any equipment. Without that, doom is certain.
posted by FishBike at 3:41 PM on March 17, 2009


For AV cable porn, it's hard to beat Whirlwind and Ramtech.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:04 PM on March 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is it wrong that the mathematics article turns me on?
posted by Alex404 at 5:43 PM on March 17, 2009


The proper way to wrap cables is alternating each loop overhand, underhand, overhand, underhand, etc.
I think that's what a sailor would call a figure 8 flake? There are a bunch of nautical techniques for coiling rope without imparting twist or tangles, none of which I remember well enough to describe or to find on the net.

Some of the darkroastedblend wiring jobs aren't actually bad. In particular, trying to neatly dress wire-wrapped circuitry will increase crosstalk.

As for zipties, I just use the twist-ties that I get on my produce. Looks like crap, but there's always one handy.
posted by hattifattener at 12:56 AM on March 18, 2009


« Older Real men do it like this ...   |   He whose head is in the shadow of love will have... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments