Nomadic computer components must be civilized
November 29, 2008 10:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for inspiration on how to reduce computer clutter. I run a lot of machines and make them do a lot of cool things, but in a 92sqm apartment where we're also trying to manage massive DVD, magazine, and book libraries, and where my previous work station (which was never all that orderly) has been conquered by my girlfriend's rampaging makeup and sewing stuff, it ain't easy. I want to compartmentalize, organize, and speed up the process of accessing my stuff. Ideas?

The crux of the problem is that I have a LOT of "computer stuff", and that the network of stuff which we currently have is about to be scaled up, bigtime, due to an impending move to a bigger house. I'll want to include scalability and a solid phalanx of l33t gadgets in the future.

I've just been booted by my fashion designing wife off the corner of the room I used to use for more of her albums of pictures exactoed from fashion magazines. And, in the past year and a half, I've gone from 1 buggy laptop and a big USB hard drive to a substantial accumulation of knowledge and stuff, as I've begun exploring exactly what open source software can really do. I've been suitably impressed made much progress with it, paring down our AV setups from crappy independent DVD players, cords, and all kinds of discs to an interconnected system all controlled from my laptop. Up to now, I've kept the extra stuff in...well, piles. But the recent chaos of her expanding business, my expanding capabilities with hardware, and our impending move is a chance to get this beast under control before it becomes a cancer that conquers all of our available desktop space.

My inviolable principles include:
a) that one of my hobbies is fixing up junk and giving it away. It's an interesting means to get to know people, expand your network, and learn and practice computer skills. Gift economy 4 lyfe.
b) I'm a strong believer in ghettotech, and almost everything I own on the list was inherited. I've spent maybe $500 on computer stuff since 2006. Triple-R 4 lyfe.
c) I take an "appliance" approach to computers - the "all-under-one-box" approach has never worked for me, as something's always gone wrong or I've filled up the hard drive or busted the software and had to reinstall, and I've wasted much too much of my life on downtime and much too much of my money on new machines that proceed to break and not do what it says on the box. Modular single-purpose units 4 lyfe.

We have:
3 desktops
- a sweet media/gaming FrankenPC that gets hooked up to the living room projector
- a gutted box that serves as an uberNAS, with 6 IDE slots, 2 SATA plugs, and 12 USB ports (you bet your ass my data is redundant)
- a clumpy old workstation for volunteers in my organization who can't travel to our main office or the other side of the city; my house is the only locale we have on the east side of the city, and in Beijing, where a lot of the students we rely on to do our volunteer work sometimes don't have computers, or need to work or train with me in person

2 laptops
- my trusty daily driver, from whence I also manage this stuff, a 2005 ultraportable
- my lady's beater, an early 2004 Dell Inspiron, which is likely about to bite the bullet, and will need replacing soon

- bluetooth mouse & keyboard x2, for when I, and the woman don't feel like hunching over my/her laptop
- USB mice and keyboards for the desktops (or laptops if we want to)
- USB bluetooth adapters when necessary, I think we're at 4 now
- an optical drive in an external case - it keeps me from having to buy separate ones for each unit, and we rarely use it, but sometimes I do need to burn things (I work in post-production, clients occasionally just want a multiplexed DVD) or get at something on a disc (rip, mount to virtual drive)
- a grip of thumb drives that I use for data transport, disk images, booting, what have you, all neatly labeled
- a VOIP handset
- CORDS!!! yards and yards of wire in every shape and size, 'cause, y'know, things gotta get linked to things
- a totally sick wireless router
- hard drive USB cases, leftover from the days when I didn't have an uberNAS, and waiting for more hard drives to be connected to the uberNAS
- much of this all needs its own power cord, and I have them in abundance
- the odd RAM & PC card, motherboard, and whatnot waiting for a home in the computers I take home and patch up for friends and family
- various backup hardware in case something important goes kaput
- a couple WIFI cards for laptops, mostly for guests, but the woman's laptop currently needs one to get online.
- 2 monitors for the workstation, gaming machine, and occasional maintenance.

Right. Well, we're moving from a 92sqm apartment to a much much larger one in the coming months (as soon as the decorators are finished!), and we'll be expanding from our current setup of:
- 2 TV's controlled by the media machine
- uberNAS in a corner behind the couch
- laptops on the coffee table
- workstation on a teensy desk in the bedroom
- one phone hookup

to a two-floor apartment with:

- 4+ TV's & audio setups on two floors that all want access to the uberNAS
- a dedicated office for the woman's girlygirl stuff (er, actually, her job) and my own office/den/schmoke lounge for manlyman things
- wherever the uberNAS goes, probably my office
- an upstairs living room with
- the gaming box
- a PS3 (!!!)
- and a downstairs all-purpose studio that wants access to same (this room is a party area, yoga/dance studio, movie screening room, all kinds of fun stuff, but it all calls for proper geekery, and will likely want powered USB gadgets)
- a gajillion phone jacks and in-wall wiring for just about everything but VGA and HDMI
- probably more area and rebar than one wireless router can handle

The wife's hobbies call for lots of shelving and workspace, while mine only calls for a philips screwdriver, voltometer, and lots of teensy compartments. All this stuff, other than the stuff that's actually out and in use, calls for, at most, a dresser-drawer-sized space, but it requires a lot of compartmentalization and protection from dust and spills. I'm looking for inspired solutions on how to minimize and properly store the cords, components, peripherals, and other buildup that goes along with a hobby like this.

The best ideas I've had are toolboxes or tackleboxes for the loose stuff, twist-ties for the cords, a moratorium on any new desktops in the system (any new TV/media hookups are going to be disposable 2ndhand laptops w/ S-video outs and wireless), and a desk area that can be cleared for maintenance if need be. And that might be good enough, but I bet I could improve on it.

I'd love to hear creative, inspired storage solutions if you got 'em!
posted by saysthis to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If your apartment is as cluttered as this AskMe, it's no wonder your wife is pulling her hair out.

Compartmentalize, man!

Seriously, if there is a question here, I'm having a hard time finding it. In fact, the needless inventory list and the vague plea for "ideas" while squawking about your domineering wife makes this post reek of chatfilter.

I run two pcs - one is my gaming / surfing / entertainment rig, the other is my downloading / file serving system and handles whatever other mundane processes that I don't want eating cycles on my main system (ripping DVDs, CDs, etc.) Both are connected to a single LCD and I switch between them by selecting the input on the monitor and then using Synergy as a virtual keyboard and mouse switch. That alone negates the need for more than one LCD and one set of inputs.

So, I think if you stop all your inane prattling about all the "kewl" stuff you own, and actually think about how you use it, and what you really need, then you'll find a good starting place to simplify things.

If you're looking for ideas on how to store you hardware, hide cables, and get the most out of your space, then Ikea Hacker and Apartment Therapy are two great places to start.

Other than that I don't know what else to tell you other than that the things you own, wind up owning you. That probably doesn't mean much to anyone who uses the word "l33t" free of irony, though.
posted by wfrgms at 11:03 PM on November 29, 2008 [8 favorites]

Rack-mount anything that can be rack-mounted.
Anything that can't be rack-mounted... can also be rack-mounted for one so inclined.
posted by lekvar at 11:12 PM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: As far as cable/component storage goes, I use "drawer storage cabinets" for my electronic components. I'm not sure where you'd find an equivalent in China, but I own one of these for discretes (ICs, transistors, resistors, caps, etc) plus random small bits, and several organizers with larger shelves like these (I think mine have 8-1/2"x11" shelves but they're sterilite brand and look similar) to organize cables. I have a drawer each for HP cables, cat5 patch cables, unused power bricks, usb cables, firewire, etc. I keep the sterilite organizers in a closet and the big component organizer on my workbench, next to my soldering iron/reflow station. Neither of these solutions are suitable for display to your high-class visitors, but they keep crap organized assuming you're willing to commit to putting crap away when you're done with it.
posted by Alterscape at 11:51 PM on November 29, 2008

Since you have all this surprise new bonus space, why not dedicate one room to be a sort of computer workshop / mad science lab, and let it become the messiest disaster of an exploded network hell ever.

But then leave the rest of the place tidy, with discreet thin client boxes on all your TVs and wifi access points tucked up among the ceiling fixtures. Other than a laptop or two laying around, the place should look pretty much un-wired.

As long as nobody breaches your inner sanctum of computing evil, all will look tidy.
posted by rokusan at 2:10 AM on November 30, 2008

Best answer: Perhaps this schema can help:

Personal Private space (one for you, one for mate; unmanaged and uncriticized)

Shared Private space (collectively maintained for adequate order; being considerate is the order of the day)

Public Space (rigorously maintained for order)

What you put in each of these is obvious. Keeping it policed, a little less obvious. I've found that the stresses of living together are moderated when one has space of one's own. The 'public' face of the space always looks good, and the shared private spaces serve as a means to communicate consideration to your mate.
posted by FauxScot at 6:04 AM on November 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

I was going to give a long anecdotal answer, but I think FauxScot summarized my point far better and more concisely. That layered approach to privacy and personal works really well. It's nice for guests (who don't have to wade through your clutter and personal artifacts to find the couch), and it's nice for cohabiting (because both people have space that is completely, totally their own, making compromises easier in the shared areas).
posted by Forktine at 6:34 AM on November 30, 2008

Response by poster: @wfrgms - I'll have you know, sir, that the only syntactical value left for l33t in the English language is to convey shameless, obnoxious irony. I'll also have you know that my wife is far from domineering, sir, and she's far from pulling her hair out. On top of that, I've found that when asking scattershot questions, it's best to give as much information as possible, thus the inventory and stated goals of the system. Furthermore, sir, the stuff I own is a means to an end, that is, I want to make my house do cool stuff and create a system wherein I suffer minimal downtime if one of my machines crashes, find a sustainable way to practice "computer skills", and organize my workspace. Given the utility of what I've built, I certainly don't feel as owned by my stuff as I did when I didn't know what went on in the box.

You've got some good stuff there though. Synergy looks fantastic, and I imagine I'll make good use of it. And Ikea Hacker and Apartment Therapy have already inspired my wife to draw up some changes in the shelving for the decorators. Though we find no common ground in our communication styles, sir, I do thank you sincerely, because you have done me a good turn.

@lekvar - True, and I'm planning to build some when we finally move in and figure out what goes where and how much space/stuff we have/need. Still a bit far off though, and I'm still wondering what kind to build.

I'm planning to start on the uberNAS now, though, and build a rack that will hold a boatload of harddrives in cases plus a PC box and still look ok. That's the most obviously rackable thing I have.

@Alterscape - I love the cord drawers. I'll go out and look for some of those next week, because those...well, we need them now. Things like that exist in China, I've seen them.

@Rokusan - Yep. My office is upstairs, and I expect a portion of it or the closet next to it will look like a Borg with no skeleton. I'm still thinking of ways to minimize that and have workspace that can be cleared away reasonably quickly.

@FauxScot & Forktine - Yes, we've had that problem, and it's one of the things both of us are looking forward to at the new apartment. As the computing stuff goes, though, she's been as enthusiastic as I have. We both love the new NAS setup, not having to load and unload DVD's, music on cue from laptop, etc. We've agreed that her stuff takes precedence in space though, since it's for her business. In the future though, I want to make sure the computers don't take over my own personal space, because I dislike looking at them more than she does unless I'm in the middle of something.
posted by saysthis at 6:45 AM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Growing up poor my family was loathe to actually throw anything away. Far from pack rats, we were taught that before something could be put in the trash it must be completely broken or consumed.

This mentality followed me into adult life and even today, in my mid-30s, I find myself stashing something away with the thought that I might one day need it or use it. Those shoeboxes full of 3.5-inch floppy disks and ZIP disks, for instance. Those old parallel port cables. Those semi-functional hard drives. The amount of computer junk grows exponentially and all of it has at least some kind of minimal value, so it's very hard to dispose of, psychologically.

It took me years but I finally learned to throw away stuff I didn't need, and that's the mantra I try to stick to. However, with economic times being so difficult these days, I'm finding myself slipping back into old habits.

If you don't mind spending a little more, head to your nearest Container Store and check out their storage solutions. Not all are great but they have loads of stackable plastic bins, shelving units and other types of containers. IKEA also has some nice stuff, but not ll of it is great.

Lastly, consolidate! My current plan is to replace my aging PowerMac G5 with an Intel-based tower. This will allow me to get rid of the old Dell tower that I use for testing by running WinXP via Parallels on my Mac. This reduces my desktop footprint by half or more.

If you are like me you have a stack of peripherals that don't anything except sit there and whir and click. Look around for a short table or shelving unit that can sit either behind your computer monitors, above your monitors or underneath the desk by your feet. Stick your peripherals there and your desktop footprint is reduced even more.
posted by camworld at 8:24 AM on November 30, 2008

I find myself stashing something away with the thought that I might one day need it or use it. Those shoeboxes full of 3.5-inch floppy disks and ZIP disks, for instance.

If you have any floppy 3.5" floppy disks that aren't high density, please MeFi mail me.

The best ideas I've had are [...] twist-ties for the cords

I got a box from work marked "5 x 500 sheets of paper". Coil the cable neatly, tape the coil with one and a half turns of brightly coloured electrical tape, and put it in the box. Put the box at the bottom of a cupboard/wardrobe/whatever.

Furthermore, sir, the stuff I own is a means to an end, that is, I want to make my house do cool stuff [...] I certainly don't feel as owned by my stuff as I did when I didn't know what went on in the box.

I think what wfrgms was getting at is: As long as you ask for inspiration on how to reduce computer clutter, then say your inviolable principles call for 4+ TV's in a house with two residents, it sounds like the advice you'll accept isn't going to help much.

To use a metaphor, having more than two computers and one TV per person, then trying to cut down clutter with shelving systems and cable organisation, seems like buying a Ford F150 then trying to cut down fuel consumption by half-filling the tank to save on weight.
posted by Mike1024 at 10:00 AM on November 30, 2008

I tend to agree here that your problem is deeper and basically comes down to electronic clutter. The solution for that is the same as anything else: If you haven't used it in X time periods, get rid of it. Before you bring something new in, throw something old out (or give it away). Maybe throw out two for every one in for a while. Have a regular decluttering routine where you stack up piles of stuff to toss, stuff to donate and stuff to sell. Basically, you have to learn to say No, even to yourself, and become boss of your own technology again.
posted by dhartung at 11:19 AM on November 30, 2008

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