Why are there never free power sockets when my Y-fronts need charging?

If I had my way, I'd have sparks flying from your underwear

Something for the Weekend, Sir? "No, it's not going in. It's a couple of inches too short."

As Reg readers will be aware, it is a strict ISO requirement that power cables for electronic devices are manufactured in one of two lengths:

  • 25.4mm shorter than required
  • 2 metres longer than necessary

The seasoned road warriors among you – that is, mobile users boosted with a pinch of salt and a twist of black pepper – will have opted for the latter. It means having more bulk crammed into your Wenger, the contents of which explode spectacularly across the room like a party popper as soon as you pull open a zip. Having hooked up your laptop to the mains socket at your feet, the surplus coils of springy cable begin to animate creepily in slow motion, gradually snaking their way around the tabletop in order to sprawl provocatively across a corner of the keyboard or give you a fright by suddenly flopping in front of the display.

Everyone else you meet, however, is armed with the cable that's just a little bit too short and won't quite reach. No, not everyone: lots of people seem to struggle through life with no power cables at all. Connecting an electronic device to a mains socket in order to keep it charged throughout a long day is possibly something that has never occurred to them.

And so it is today.

These on-site training days follow a pattern. A customer requests group training to take place at their premises, a training needs analysis is drawn up, a course outline agreed upon, a meeting room duly booked and, on the day, the delegates file in with their laptops. They fight over the coffee and tea dispensers, polish off the decent cookies (avoiding those weird coconut biscuits that leave you picking between your teeth until lunchtime) and settle down for their software education.

An hour and a half later, the first howl rings out across the Formica savanna.

"I'm down to 6 per cent. Does anyone have a charger I can borrow?"

Just three out of the dozen delegates have brought laptop power cables with them. We call a coffee break so that they can unplug and toss cable-ends at each other. This is followed by a few minutes of crawling around the floor because, being too short to reach where they need to go, these tossed cables immediately twanged straight back and slid straight down the cable-tidy cutways in the boardroom tabletop, chuckling maliciously as they went.

This in turn leads to half an hour of seat shuffling because despite there being 20 places around the massive table, there are only two power sockets in the room and they are located on the wall furthest from the presentation screen, next to a rat trap and directly under a dripping air conditioner unit.

I'm already using one of these two wall sockets. The other is being shared on a three-way power block "extension" that extends all of 30cm closer to the boardroom table.

My dozen delegates congregate at the end of the table closest to the sockets. Even so, stretching the already-too-short cables to reach adjacent laptops is akin to stringing a guitar. It appears safer for them to switch seats than stretch three taut power cables an extra few inches to reach each other's laptops.

By the time we pick up the training again, the delegates are huddled at one end of the room, squinting at me and the presentation screen distantly located at the opposite end, hazily obscured by inner-city air pollution and the natural curvature of the Earth.

Everywhere I go, with one glorious exception – a brand new office building whose meeting rooms were furnished with multiple power points fitted at every seat position around the boardroom tables – it is the same old story. There are never enough conveniently situated mains sockets or enough power cables or any extension cables apart from those I brought with me.

And yet more and more stuff needs electricity simply to exist, including all that IoT tat which increasingly clutters up our workplaces and homes. You can't amble down the aisle of a train carriage or march to the counter in a cafe without tripping over someone's cable as some device or other is recharged.

The correct technical response to this situation is to demand that manufacturers produce battery packs with bigger capacity. But being a dimwit, allow me to proclaim my unbridled ignorance by pleading for an unthinkable alternative: that manufacturers produce electronics shit that consumes less power in the first place.

For example, would you like to hazard a guess as to the optical efficiency of the backlight shining through an LCD pixel in your laptop or mobe's screen? 80 per cent? 50 per cent? Less?

It's 3 per cent.

Take Bitcoin and its ilk as another hackneyed example. Quite apart from the many excellent reasons for dismissing cryptocurrencies for use as actual currencies – crypto is a commodity, not a means of exchange – it is to electricity as Mike Ashley is to doughnuts. Even the pseudo-populist Ethereum Foundation has finally been shamed into developing code intended to reduce the insane electricity demands of the spending and mining of ethers. Each Ethereum transaction typically eats up more power than an average American household might consume in a whole day.

Look, the whole crypto thing is misconceived if the wallet that holds your money needs to have enough charge merely to allow you to spend any of it. It's a difficult life when you're a hipster Bitcoin billionaire knowing that buying a vegan pizza involves the roasting of 100 newborn kittens with 10,000 incandescent 200W lightbulbs merely to conduct the financial transaction.

You want a receipt? That'll be another 100 kittens, please. A refund? Nothing less than the total extinction of the Siberian tiger will suffice.

Now I'm told smart clothing is a thing. That's right, everything from overcoats to Shreddies will soon need charging up every day. With the tech actually woven into the fabric, Jacquard by Google products let you take phone calls, navigate GPS directions and play music through the threads you're wearing. No, really, you can buy this shit now.

That weird guy on the street tugging at his crotch? He's probably just skipping to the next track. Kneel down close and he might let you sing along.

Surely instead of inventing ways to piss away even more of the world's resources simply by getting dressed, we should design clothing that generates electricity. Thankfully, there are one or two people in research labs who agree – such as Linden Allison and Trisha Andrew of the University of Massachusetts. Instead of just consuming power, fabric wearables could work as thermoelectric generators, gently harvesting body heat by the millivolt.

In fact, why can't everything be designed to generate electricity as well as use it up, no matter how little? If a Japanese company can develop a desk tidy for your pencils that transforms into a hand-wound phone recharger, what are the rest of us waiting for?

Just remember to include a cable that reaches, OK?

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He is a fairly recent convert to the benefits of USB-C but, by heck, those cables are damn short. He says it's like rigging up external RAID storage with SCSI in the 1990s. @alidabbs



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