Pinewood Derby

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I am quite proud of my boys, who spent the last few weekends cutting, sanding and painting their Pinewood Derby cars. Sure I helped [a great deal], but they put in a very repectable effort and should be very proud of their own creations!

Charge Only MicroUSB Cable

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I’ve been using either Verizon, Sprint, or AT&T’s mobile broadband service for over five years. I’m now on my fourth technology iteration and I have a hard time remembering what it was like when Internet was only available at home, office, and the café. I refuse to return to those dark ages!

Until recently I used Verizon’s first generation of MiFi hotspot, the Novatel 2200. It’s a great little device that did exactly what I wanted it to. When I needed it to be a WiFi hotspot, it was a hotspot. When I was on the road and needed to charge it via my laptop’s USB port, that worked perfectly as well. Recently however, my company upgraded me to the newest MiFi hotspot, the Novatel 4510L. For the most part the new device is faster, shinier, has better reception… it goes to eleven!

The problem is, and I consider this to be a design flaw, is that when you plug the device into a PC, with the USB cable provided, it will only charge the device. The 4510 will neither operate as a WiFi hotspot, nor will it operate as a USB connected modem. I learned this the hard way last week when I spent most of the day at the green mermaid coffee shop waiting for the mechanic to finish my car repairs. As it was a crowded day in laptop land, I only managed to get access to a single power outlet. When the batteries on my MiFi hotspot were nearly tapped, I had to resort to swapping between the laptop charger and the MiFi charger every hour to make it to my car pickup.

Armed with a soldering iron and heat shrink tubing, this was an easy hack. A USB cable has four wires; two for power, two for signal. If you cut open the cable and clip the signal wires, then you effectively create a charging cable. Based on a support forum thread at Verizon Wireless (http://bit.ly/pBqf1h), I also learned that you can trick the 4510L into thinking it’s attached to its AC charger if you additionally short the signal wires on the MicroUSB side. So, I closed the circuit on the green & white signal wires on the MicroUSB end of the cable. Important: The signal wires on the host or USB A end of the connection must remain open or you risk shorting out your USB port or damaging your computer.

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Typical USB cable color coding: Red +5v, Black, GND, White Signal+, Green Signal-

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Tie the power wires together, solder & insulate. In order to trick the Novatel 4510L into thinking it’s connected to its AC adapter, short the signal leads on the device or MicroUSB end. Be sure to leave the signal wires on the host end of the cable open. Insulate all of the wires with electrical tape or heat shrink.

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Finished product. I only made the cable 6″ long so as not to add to the rats nest of cables that I already keep in my backpack.

[Update 2011-08-16 10:06 PDT]: According to Verizon Wireless, the shortcoming of not being able to charge and operate the Novatel 4510L while plugged into a PC USB port is a design constraint and not a design flaw. Many PC USB ports fall short of the 500mA power spec and do not provide enough energy to both charge the batteries and power the MiFi radios. My MacBook Pro happens to have enough juice (http://bit.ly/niXKgJ), so I feel it is safe to operate with my hacked cable. You may want to check the specs on your laptop’s USB ports before you proceed.

Hiding the Wires

I hate cords!  As a gadget freak, it feels almost heretical to make such a statement, but there you go. I try to hide the wires that race to and from my computer equipment whenever possible. They are unsightly, they are a tripping hazard, and all they ever seem to do is to collect dust.

In effort to keep all of the little electronic doodads that turn my home office into mission control out of sight and out of mind, I mounted them all to a piece of peg board and then hung it off the back of my filing cabinet. The doodads stay cool, there are very few wires left over to trip on, and it is easy to troubleshoot when things go wrong.

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At our last house, I was able to use a small corner of the garage, where I built a telco cabinet that had all of the phone, TV, and Ethernet cabling running through a central location. My electronic doodads where mounted on the wall beside the cabinet where they remained cool and out of the way. The problem is that my garage was also my workshop, and I was constantly blowing sawdust out of the nooks and crannies after a day puttering.

In our new house, the garage is too far away from the current phone and cable runs and I have neither the time nor the budget to run new lines (including Cat6) throughout the house. While I do have a closet in our home office, the space is too valuable to put up a gadget board within. The current fracas between the U.S. political parties over the debt ceiling pales to the negotiations I would have to initiate with my wife in order to take over the corner of one of our closets. So, this is plan B. I enlisted my well travelled, sturdy IKEA filing cabinet which was already on casters from back when it doubled as a saw horse. I tacked the pegboard hooks onto the backside, lashed the electronics to it, and then stuck it in a corner of my office under the window. Everything should stay nice and cool, and more importantly, the doodads should remain out of sight.

This is not an original idea. I first saw this post on Lifehacker a few years ago where the person mounted some pegboard underneath his desk. I’ve used the same technique at client’s sites, but I was always concerned about heat buildup when the devices are mounted underneath a massive object such as a wooden desk. I was afraid that the heat would not dissipate, so more often than not, I would mount the devices on a wall in a closet or utility room; somewhere where the heat could rise and be carried away by the air currents in a room. My filing cabinet is right under the window. So, even if the window is closed, there should still be some convective currents that will keep the air flowing past the doodads.