I know it's customary to end a year with a look back and a look ahead, but we've already doing that with our 2006 top online article listing (you do get the Planet Analog newsletter, right?) and our editors' Crystal Ball outlook for 2007; if you are busy, just read my own high-level view from the analog perspective!
But sometimes, you have to also take another tack: there's strong satisfaction in simple projects! Two items I did this year cost little, involved no software or even active components, yet solved tangible, irritating problems.
First, like most of you, I had a rat's nest of AC cords and wall warts plugged into outlet strips of various heritage/size/configuration under my desk. It looked bad, it made troubleshooting a pain, and it was an insult to my professional esteem. So one day I'd had enough: I went to the local office-supply store, bought four nice 6-outlet strips for $2 each on special. I made sure they had mounting holes, and were UL-approved; I also looked relatively rugged design in case the UL approval was fake (that happens more often that you know).
I mounted them on a sheet of Plexiglas I had on hand, making sure the strips had enough spacing to handle those wall warts and also take several three-unit plug-in taps, handy for plugging in small cords such as from a lamp (see photo #1).
Photo # 1 (Click to enlarge)
Sure, I lose outlets due to the daisy chaining, and I could have purchased a serious power strip containing many outlets. But those cost serious money, and I also wanted near-instant results. Total cost was under $10 and the improvement in appearance and wiring is tremendous. Total time to plan and assemble: one hour. Best of all: debug time was zero.
My second success also involved power, but this time low-voltage dc. I got frustrated whenever I had to reach down and around behind my DSL modem and its companion wireless router, to unplug them from their wall-wart power sources each time I needed to do a hard reboot or some network maintenance. Apparently, the vendors decided to delete the basic on/off switch from their BOMs, to save around fifty cents each. I understand their dilemma; after all, these units retail for under $50 each. Still, it was always pain crawling around behind everything to pull the little dc power plug.
But rather than complain, I decided on a straightforward solution. I built a small box (photo #2) that has a pair of on/off switches, one for each unit's wall-supply cable.
Photo # 2 (Click to enlarge)
The box also has a dc connector receptacle and an extender cable with a dc plug for each supply.
The real challenge was finding the receptacle and plug pair that matches each ac/dc wall unit. As you know, there are over a dozen sizes in common use, and they differ by just fractions of a millimeter in outside diameter, inside diameter, and center-pin diameter. Luckily, a nearby electronics store (U-do-It Electronics) has a nice set-up, with every available plug and receptacle mounted on a board. You bring in your wall-wart, use trail-and-error to find a match, and you know which one you need. It makes a difficult selection easy and accurate!
The final box is nothing fancy, cost around $10, and makes crawling and reaching around a thing of the past. Construction time was short, there's no worry about software, and it should work as intended for a long time.
So take a moment to think about what annoyances you deal with on a regular basis (sorry, that does not include your boss!) and what you can do to solve the problem. Remember, there are those who complain, and there are those who solve problems. The problem-solvers are called “engineers”—so go ahead and be one, even if the problem and its solution are relatively unsophisticated!