The Power to Divide: Laptop Power Supplies and Electoral Politics

The other day, I was at a presentation of the library of the law school I attended. I wandered over by the reference desk, and noticed something interesting. There, more or less permanently mounted, was a power cable for a laptop computer. “Brilliant!” I thought, “now everyone who sits down over here can just plug their machine in and they’re good to research without having to run out of power.

Then I looked a little more closely at the plug.

It was a power plug, alright, but one that would fit only Dell computers. A wide barrel with a central pin, I don’t know of any other machine that uses that connector. Of course, it makes perfect sense, since Dell is the company that supplies computers to the law school for faculty. But if you had a Toshiba? An Acer? A Lenovo? An Apple? Forget it.

Now, one of the more interesting things about that is that while the connectors are different, almost every computer power supply delivers around 19-20 volts DC at 3 or 4 amps. In theory, you should be able to connect nearly any power supply to your laptop and charge it. But.

Different companies use different “barrel sizes” for their connectors. Some, like Dell and Lenovo, add an extra pin, which performs an unnecessary function. Some companies reverse the polarity of the connector, so that instead of the (more common) outside being – and inside being +, the outside is +. Some companies use magnetic connectors, which are kind of cool, but which are not interoperable (Microsoft and Apple, for example) while still others use different connectors across different product lines (I’m looking at you, Mr. Lenovo “ThinkPad”, “IdeaPad”, and extra-thin.

This was, until recently, the problem with phones. Each had its own power supply and connector (my RAZR (V8, I think) even used the same connector for power and headphones). If you found your phone low on power, you had to find the right charger or you were SOL. The advent of smartphones that could talk to computers and so used USB connections changed that to the point that there were essentially only two standards (MicroUSB and whatever Apple was selling that year).

There is simply no excuse for this, since the smarts for charging the battery are all inside the computer (or phone). It’s as if Ford, Toyota, Honda, and GM all owned gas stations, and as if each company had its own distinctly-shaped nozzle that would only connect to its own tank inlet. Ridiculous!

The only reason for doing things differently like this is branding. That is, making the power supply and computer a system that you can’t easily escape. And branding means, generally, paying more (when I was in law school, I had a side business repairing damaged power supply cords).

Someday, perhaps with the advent of USB-C, we will see interoperable power supplies (as we have seen with most phones). But in the meantime, branding will keep us divided.

It should be clear that I don’t think much of branding (please don’t get me started on the lack of interoperability among bicycle components).

But I think even less of branding in politics. I have watched, recently, and with no little amusement, the war in the Republican party. Trump, as should not surprise anyone, is the ultimate brand. The ultimate divider. Any question about any of his policy positions (to the extent that he has policy positions) and you’re out. No surprise there.

What concerns me is seeing a similar sort of thing in the party to which I generally give my allegiance. If you say you’re for Hillary, you are assailed for being part of the establishment. If you say you’re for Bernie, you may be a sexist (in all fairness, and in my limited experience, Hillary fans tend to be very slightly more tolerant than Bernie fans). And the partisans on both sides are sounding a dangerous drum: “If Hillary (Bernie) is the party’s nominee, I probably won’t be able to vote for her (him).” That’s a great way to lose an election. Am I saying that Democrats shouldn’t challenge each other’s’ positions?


Am I saying that the candidates should treat each other as basically good people?


What I’m trying to say here is this: It is a mistake to be doctrinaire. If I were a Republican, I might (like an attorney I regularly work with) be pulling out my remaining hair. But I feel like, as a Democrat, I am faced with a set of wonderful choices. Each is good, each in his or her own way.

So this is likely to be the one time I urge you, the one or two people who will read this blog, to consider carefully who it is you support. Sometimes, you don’t get exactly what you want. But remember who it benefits for you to be divided.


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