The Days Before USB
January 23, 2008
If you're bit of a computer enthusiast, you may remember the days before USB (Universal Serial Bus), that now ubiquitous connector that allows any device to communicate to your PC; exchanging data, providing power and generally working.

USB evolved as a necessary standard by which a proliferation of accessory devices could dependably work with newer hardware. In the olden days, you could connect an accessory via a serial port, a parallel printer port or, in some cases, an expansion card (it might be PCI, it might by SCSI). Anyone with more than one external device was undoubtedly faced with the arduous task of resolving interrupt conflicts, a situation where multiple devices would attempt to communicate to with the PC on the same frequency. It was a maddening, circular process. If you've ever tried to find the faulty bulb on a string of Christmas lights, you know what I'm talking about.

Today's modern PC's (and include Macs when I say PC, at least in this example) have all but resolved this by dynamically assigning unique addresses and allowing devices to identify themselves for the selection (or downloading and install) of necessary drivers. Universal Plug & Play pretty much assures you that plugging in a printer, a camera, an iPod or a USB Christmas tree will "just work" without much effort on your Mac or PC. As I alluded above, this wasn't always the case but seems to mostly work today.

This is a long setup, but I was reminded of all this while attempting to change the kitchen faucet in my home. I've been in my place 5 years now and I'm happy to report that my loft has been, for the most part, maintenance free. Some things are showing their age, but most of the mechanicals are in fine working order. A notable exception is my kitchen faucet. Its a typical Kohler faucet with the pull-out sprayer, handy for cleaning pots, pans and dishes. Somehow the pull-out sprayer hose got a permanent crease in it such that whenever you pulled out the sprayer, the hose would double over and the water would be cut off. Not very handy. This can't repaired so I opted to replace the faucet.

I bought the first faucet on Monday from the Home Depot Expo. The faucet came with most of the installation hardware, but not all. And the manner in which it attached to my plumbing was quite different from the previous one. These were not insurmountable challenges, but I did have to make two trips to the hardware store to get the right parts, mostly adapters of some sort, two bridge the various components together.

Long story short, I didn't like the faucet I bought; it was too big and didn't fit well (for example, I couldn't turn the hot water all the way on). After some deliberation, I opted to exchange it for something else. By now my experience had taught me to open the box and inspect the installation instructions to see what parts would be necessary. I was pleased to see the connection hoses were present, however dismayed to see that none of the connectors necessary to attach any of the hoses to the plumbing were included. These are inexpensive parts (about $2.00), but hard to find and harder to explain. I visited 4 different plumbing and hardware stores (including Home Depot) before finding the elusive 3/8 inch compression nut and stem valves. Total parts: $4.98. Total gas: I'm sure about $30.

My search also revealed the fact that I was obviously not alone in this experience. I met others trying to pull off similar feats. In addition, each store stocked an enormous array of various connectors, hundreds, all labeled, "Standard Kitchen Faucet."

My point in all this is that standards aren't really noticed or appreciated until they're woefully lacking. It was interesting that there was such a variety of kitchen faucet connectors, yet only one for toilets: A Universal Toilet Connector (UTC - different lengths, but the same coupling on each end). There was a weird nostalgia of trying to connect an Olivetti printer from my Commodore 128 to Windows 3.11 PC in 1992. Sinks are at the same point in their technical evolution.

When you see a USB port, you can confidently and comfortably plug it and do what you need to do. Similarly, installing a toilet is just as simple and straightforward as using one.
tags: technology