The Satisfaction of a Good Optimization Problem, Or, That Time I Obsessed About Some Wires for A Week Straight

I’m a tidy autistic. Compared to most of my friends, my home is uncannily organized; my routines are rigid and often inflexible. When I last moved house, my new home was 90% unpacked within the first week and firmly lived-in by the end of the first month, thanks to packing my previous home with destination rooms in mind and having a new floor plan for my furniture worked out in PowerPoint a month before moving day. With tape measures, notes, and detailed pro/con analyses, I worked out the best places for my sofa, television, display cases, desk, aquaria, and each individual houseplant, along with which new items to order and where those would go. Waste is sorted immediately and removed on a schedule, and cups never accumulate away from the drying rack. Mess makes me anxious and staying on top of these things is both a gift for and the result of my executive function, not done for others but to keep my home liveable for me. I pride myself on that level of masterful order and accept the neuroticism that comes with it as the price of success.

And that makes the state my PC, aquarium, and entertainment center cables were in until recently a bit odd. Truth be told, they were a mess. I got them functional when I moved in and I moved on, to the rest of the tasks that needed far more doing. It was the seedy underbelly of my immaculate world, and unlike real seedy underbellies that are where a town’s magic happens, this one had no redeeming qualities. Whenever I had to interact with the wires, such as to keep my aquarium filter from malfunctioning during a water change or remove my headset for travel, I had to confront the Tangle, and it was exponentially worse whenever I had to replace a specific component that had stopped working.

It was time to tangle…with the Tangle.

Fish Froth

The mess behind my aquaria had one fundamental cause: timing. I keep my aquarium lights (two on the fish tank, plus my turtle’s basking lamp) on a timer, and connecting them all to that timer involved a chain of electrical cords that I wish could have been any other way. The timer could accept one electrical plug as the output it would control, which was non-grounded, preventing me from connecting most multi-outlet adapters or power bars to it safely. I had picked the position of my turtle’s basking lamp based on a convenient hook in the ceiling (meant for hanging plants) and an orientation that would keep its light out of my eyes while I was at my desk, and that meant it was far enough away from the two aquarium lights that connecting all three of them to the same anything would require at least one extension cord. The solution, at the time, ended up being connecting the basking lamp to an extension cord and connecting that extension cord and the two aquarium lights to a second extension cord, which then plugged into the timer. After all of that, connecting the other four aquarium-related devices (two filters, a heater, and an airstone) to a single power bar was positively tame.

So, what was to be done?

I tried a spare, higher-end timer, which boasted a grounded output that would let me use a multi-outlet plug or power bar. Unfortunately, the orientation of its output and the size and shape of the timer meant that my three-outlet splitter would not fit once the timer was plugged into the wall. I could instead use a standard power bar, of which I had several, but that seemed excessive for such a small number of lights, and later steps in this adventure would make it seem even more superfluous. But I had one other tool: a small ungrounded-to-grounded adapter. With it, I could use my old timer and the three-outlet splitter instead of one of the extension cords, immediately removing the primary source of cord chaos behind my aquaria. The wires for the other, untimed devices had little length to spare, keeping them straight and easy to manage even without binding them together. In this singular effort, the wire situation behind my aquaria was rescued. However, completing this task exposed a greater issue that took more effort to address.

A lot of my aquarium equipment is old, low-end items cobbled together over years, suboptimal even when it was working at its best, which it no longer is. The power supply to one of my aquarium light fixtures is fragile and malfunctions when I interact with any of the wires, near it, and my old filter needs to be unplugged during every water change to prevent it damaging itself. Both needed to be laboriously coaxed back into behaving correctly after any interruption, which grew ever more tiresome as both devices continued to age. That light’s counterpart on the other half of my tank had already died and been replaced with a less functional backup lamp with a different color temperature that was causing algae problems, and the filter’s noise during its malfunctions was loud enough to make my office hard to tolerate. Tidying the wires helped make clear that it was time for some upgrades.

I have now replaced my old hang-on-back external power filter with a higher-end external canister filter and both light fixtures with a single LED fixture that exceeds the output, color temperature, and performance of its two predecessors put together. Switching these devices also required replacing my old, mismatched plastic aquarium hoods with new glass covers that let in much more light. This new arrangement has one fewer device to plug in and is much quieter than the older devices. It did crowd items out of my aquarium cabinet that I was holding for when I set up a third tank for a new friend I have not made yet, but that is a temporary nuisance. The algae problem is already resolving itself. I am excited for what the future holds for my fishy family. My scaly children, after all, deserve the best.

Schematic of the electrical connections in my aquarium wall.
So tidy.

Table Turnover

Another improvement came to me by chance. While cleaning my guest bedroom, I discovered one of the lengths of coaxial cable that the previous owners had left behind. There were many like it, attached to cable outlets in the walls and, presumably, used for televisions. Meanwhile, my router was connected via a short length of the very same kind of cable to the main outlet, on the wall opposite my desk. I had long wanted to have my router with all my other computer peripherals and accessories, near me at my desk, and its enforced position on the other side of the room was an ongoing nuisance. It meant getting up to attend to it when it malfunctioned, turning around to check its status, and keeping it on a table near that wall so that it wasn’t on my floor getting accidentally kicked. I had checked all of the coaxial cable in my possession when the router was first installed and a few times since, finding them all too short to address the problem, and had given up. The cable in the guest room had sat there, behind a dresser, ignored for over a year, before I rediscovered it and realized that it was long enough to let me move the router to my desk. I would still have a wire trailing across the floor, but it would be more durable coaxial instead of fragile ethernet and the router itself would be where I wanted it.

It was not an instant fix. I had to rearrange the plugs in my surge protector to make a little more space on my desk and adding a new power and data wire to the nest behind my PC was not especially welcome. Fortunately, I had an abundance of shorter ethernet cables I could use to minimize the excess additional wire, instead of the long one that had once draped across the entire room. As a bonus, I could even use the previous long ethernet wire to connect a gaming console to the now more conveniently located router. The coaxial cable was stiffer than that ethernet cable, creating a minor tripping hazard, but some leftover pieces of the same carpet that covered much of my home could cover that wire as well, keeping it from entangling visitors’ feet. But the most unexpected perk was that this change meant that I could repurpose the table that had once borne the router.

At the far end of my living room, I had a trio of houseplants in pots in a large, disused litter box on the floor. Interacting with them was always inconvenient, but not inconvenient enough to do anything about it, least of all anything that would cost money. It turned out that the table from the router fit in that space, and under that tray, perfectly. This elevated the houseplants and made them easier to reach, while also getting them better light. The space the table left behind was going to be emptied eventually as a home for my third and final aquarium, when that ambition can at last be realized, and now it is done well in advance. Watching success cascade through a series of problems is one of the most satisfying parts of organizing a space, and I got to enjoy it once again, right before one of the more high-effort fixes of this whole adventure.

Computer Kerfuffle

My PC was the next mess to resolve. Computers are notorious for the sheer number of wires connecting their various peripherals to both electrical sockets and to wherever their data must travel, and cable management is nigh-mandatory for making any sense of them. The nest of wires behind my computer formed when I set up my office and had served to snag various items falling down the back of my desk ever since, while also complicating interactions with those wires. After a particularly mortifying video from Linus’s Tech Tips, I set to work disentangling this morass.

This was harder than it sounded. The wires were not only unbound, but intersecting in chaotic arrangements that had more to do with when each one was connected than any sense of utility. Attempting to bind them while they were still in this state would turn a loose weave into a tight web, worse than useless. Disentangling the wires meant deciding not just which ones deserved to be bundled together, but what those paths should look like, and from there, which ones needed to be disconnected and reconnected on other paths instead. I ultimately decided that the power cables would travel below the data cables, because I needed to interact with the data cables (such as USB and HDMI) more often. Arranging the two categories of wire this way made them easier to bundle separately, dramatically reducing the complexity of the situation. It was not the end, however.

It was tempting to bind every place where cables still shared paths. Such a tight arrangement would have looked orderly, and even been orderly, but it would not have been practical. The more ties held various cables together, the less simple it would be to replace those cables or those devices if and when their time came, and the more rigid the whole arrangement would have become. There were limits to how many ties could be useful instead of over-engineered, and it took a little more thought to find those limits. Three additional ties ultimately proved worthwhile: one more to restrain the USB and power cables from my printer, a second to hold together the wires issuing from my HDMI splitter (which serves to duplicate my PC’s screen on my television when desired), and a third to collect the wires from my monitor and adjacent webcam. Others tempted me—binding my keyboard and mouse wires to the monitor bundle to turn it into a “these are on my desk instead of in the cabinet” bundle, or attaching my printer’s USB cable to the nearby power cable bundle, or doing more with my HDMI cables—but ultimately, this smaller set proved more than sufficient. It was not quite as tidy as I wanted, but it retained practical utility it would have lost if I had gone further. I had restrained the cable dragon of my computer, and it was on to bigger and thornier problems.

Schematic of peripheral connections of my PC.
I have a copy of this in a plastic sleeve taped to the wall behind my monitor. It is oriented as if projected from the PC so that I can use it to guide my hands, sight unseen.

Entertainment Extravaganza

The example of my PC proved instructive for my entertainment center. Like my PC, my entertainment center had two central hubs where cables came together, and like my PC, there was one main place from which those cables issued. My entertainment center has two large holes in its backing for cable passage, reducing a forbidding series of numerous cables from numerous devices to two exit points. Taking a page from my PC adventure, I decided to use the lower of these openings for all the power cords and the upper for data cords. I could bind the power cords for my various devices into a single large bundle right up to that lower opening and leave their excess length inside the cabinet where the devices themselves resided, a convenience that the varying cord lengths, varying AC adapter locations on my PC’s peripherals, and varying device locations relative to my surge protector did not allow.

The data cables were not so easy. I had two upgrades for my setup to install, an HDMI switch and an adapter that claimed to be able to turn a Nintendo 64’s output into an upscaled HDMI signal. With most of my entertainment devices using HDMI as their output mode, the HDMI switch would let me have them all plugged in at once instead of just two, solving one problem. However, this particular switch had its ports along two sides instead of in a single row, limiting the feasibility of a single-bundle strategy for the wires leading to it. What’s worse, most of my HDMI cords were of greatly excessive length for their application, leading to large amounts of cable to wrangle. That excess, in turn, was not the same between all the devices, making bundling them all together difficult.

While I investigated my options and did a belated dusting of my entertainment center’s exposed shelves, I decided to move my Nintendo 64 to the top, outside the shelving, where the television itself is. Although the shelf the N64 was on was deep enough to allow switching the top-loading device’s cartridges, clearing the shelf made the data cords from the other devices easier to visualize and created space for a future ambition. The fact that I already needed to fuss with the N64’s wires to install the HDMI adapter made this the perfect time to move it. Keeping it separate from the other HDMI devices also kept its much shorter HDMI cable from complicating the rest of this process.

The solution for the data wires, in the end, was as inelegant as it was simple. There was a hidden area in the bottom shelf of my entertainment center seemingly designed to help manage AC adapters and other cord-related mess, and it proved capable storage for all manner of excess cable. I had initially planned to attach plastic hooks to the back of my entertainment center and hang the looped HDMI cables there, but the improvements already achieved gave me an idea. By tightly binding the two longest HDMI cables together, I could conceal them inside that same hidden area, without getting them entangled with the power cords. It would then be a challenge to extricate either cable if one of them needed replacing in the future, but with both cables being the same age, quite new, and used infrequently, that seemed an unlikely and far-off problem. I could hide the other, smaller excesses—the smaller HDMI cable connecting the HDMI switch to the television, the component video cable for my Xbox, and the N64’s new HDMI cable—in the empty space within the entertainment center, keeping both the front and back wonderfully tidy.

The shelf vacated by the Nintendo 64 now holds its four controllers, waiting for when I can have a group again for some split-screen play. But it will eventually also hold a VCR sufficient to enjoy some childhood documentaries and add a charmingly retro touch to my whole setup. With that in mind, I have kept my composite video switch in place, a device otherwise rendered superfluous now that only one device, my original Xbox, is using it.

Table-of-contents-style listing of how to access each media device connected to my television.
I keep a version of this in a plastic sleeve on my entertainment center now. This version is held in reserve for when I add something.

Conclusion

I did an exemplary job optimizing the location of my furniture. Every now and then, I check whether certain tempting alternatives, such as switching the locations of my aquaria and my display cases, would work, and each time I find the same result: at best, the switch would be neutral, effort spent for no improvement. More often, it would create some problem that the current arrangement escaped, the exact reasoning that led me to set things up as I did the first time. I have known people who rearrange their furniture every few months just to jostle their minds with false newness, but from where I am, an arrangement so carefully optimal that any deviation from it is objectively worse feels like an achievement. From the locations of my electrical outlets to which circuit breakers they are on to which surfaces my cats can easily reach, I have checked and re-checked every relevant factor, making it easy to be arrogantly certain that there are no further improvements to be had.

Venturing into cable management, and with it the upgrades I decided to pursue along the way, was a pleasant reminder that, no matter how good I get at making sure things are already the best they can be, I can still find ways to make them better, ways that are not likely to be themselves supplanted anytime soon. And every one of these problems leads to another eruption of diagrams that I can pour joyous hours into, fussing with the situation digitally to make it understandable in the world of touch and smell and creating a record of what I have done that I can consult even when the work itself is hard to view and enjoy.

I am looking forward to the steps to come.

Flowchart depicting the connections between various devices in my entertainment center.
This is ASMR for the eyes.
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The Satisfaction of a Good Optimization Problem, Or, That Time I Obsessed About Some Wires for A Week Straight
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