Monthly Archives: March 2013

Water companies to deliver Gbit broadband over wet string

Warning: to avoid wasting your time, and since it is no longer April 1st, be aware that this was published as an April Fool joke. Please enjoy it but don’t take it seriously:

Optical fibre is sometimes laid in conventional cable form just like copper wires, but because the actual fibres are so light, they can be coated with a rough surfacing that lets them be blown through plastic ducts using compressed air (the plastic ducts are under 1cm diameter). The fibre wiggles its way to the far end, carried by the air flow. It is simply called ‘blown fibre’ and is used extensively where ducts can easily be laid.

The water industry obviously has huge experience in making smooth channels for water to flow through to every building in the land. Blown fibre technology can adapt to this. Several years ago, advised by future technology consultants Futurizon, research produced a soft furry coating that makes it easy to flush coated fibres down water pipes. The coating is based on sugar and has the consistency of candyfloss. The clever breakthrough was making it so that it lasts until installation is complete and then dissolves harmlessly away in less than an hour.  It is of course safe to drink the tap water even soon after installation.  The remaining problem was how to route the fibres when they come to a junction. The inspiration came from optically guided missiles, which have steerable nose cones, that allow the missile to be routed in the required direction just by rotating the cone. Adding a tiny reusable nose cone capsule to the head to the fibre, and knowing the architecture of the pipework, the fibre can be routed correctly at each junction.

A global consortium of water companies now plans to install nationwide fibre networks via the water supply via a company called Fallopior. The main offices and roll-outs will be in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and the USA, all of which face issues of getting access to ultrafast broadband for rural areas and all of which have the carbon subsidy economics to make it work. The name of Fallopior presumably emerged because the system uses tubes for delivery and perhaps to try to tap into the female broadband market. At the home, a broadband ‘tap’ is installed that allows the fibre to emerge. Once the fibre is delivered and connected, it is pushed through a silicone plug that is pushed into the tap to completely seal it.

The fibre is routed all the way to the home by this means, and then the broadband tap is opened. A few litres of water later, and the fibre is delivered. It is far more environmentally friendly way of installing the fibre than digging up pavements and roads. The carbon savings and the selling of the associated credits are calculated to reduce the cost of installation to almost zero. This even works in remote areas since the carbon savings are of course far higher here too. The costs of the fibre are low enough to be absorbed into even a low rental agreement. Fallopior say that they can will offer 1Gb/s to any home even in the remotest parts of the country for as little as £5 per month, and this is easily enough to deliver all the high definition TV and internet a home.

Broadband providers have struggled with the economics of fibre to the home and many homes still have to suffer slow broadband, even though they pay far more than this, especially in the country. But all homes have a water supply, so this technology is perfectly adapted. Since the roll-out plans of the other UK providers are so sluggish, the water companies expect to seize massive market share almost overnight.

Some homes questioned about the potential service insisted they don’t want ultra-high speed broadband with the temptations it brings, and amazingly would prefer to have a slower service, even if it means they have to pay more to get less. Engineers have solved this one too. The coating allows very smooth thin nylon string to be coated temporarily and flushed down the pipes in the same way instead of fibre. Since the water keeps it lubricated, wear would be very low and it will only need replaced every 5 years. But that re-installation increases the cost to £7.50 per month.

Now to every nerd’s dream – just like two cans with string between them, this wet string will transmit high audio signals, 100KHz. With the phenomenal ability of today’s coding and compression schemes, this allows 3Mbit/s to be delivered, comparable with what many people receive today on their low speed broadband. Those questioned said they would be happier with this limit which lets them do basic internet access but not much else. It still competes extremely well on price with offerings from other providers so again Fallopior expect massive demand. In an emergency, when there is no electricity supply, a home-owner can still signal the emergency services by making a short series of tugs on the string. Simple Morse code SOS can easily be sent this way. 

A string plant in Cornwall has secretly been built in preparation and has stockpiled  over 100 million km of string. Others have been established on similar basis in the other consortium countries. As another carbon-subsidised activity, the UK site is attached to a 3MW wind turbine. This one looks a little unusual since the spinning motion of the blades is used directly via gears rather like a traditional windmill) to spin the string and power the machinery. String output therefore varies according to wind strength, hence the need to stockpile supplies. Nevertheless, the result is string that is entirely paid for via carbon subsidies. Location in remote Cornwall was chosen because of high winds and proximity to seaside resorts with easy access to local expertise from candyfloss experts. The late arrival of spring and hence the candyfloss market has meant that many were available and willing to assist on the project.

In spite of all the many benefits and promises of very low cost ultra-fast broadband, there is just one problem – as hinted by the unusual just-after-midnight timing of the press release by the Fallopior’s HQ in Auckland, New Zealand, and of course the company’s name.

Magic fingers and digital spells

There can’t be many readers who haven’t seen some film or TV programme or at least read a book where a witch or fairy points her finger and magic flows from her fingertip to execute her intent. Wizards can do it too, but they tend to use wands. Is it just that men like gadgets more and women are more in touch with their bodies? Maybe to a point, but that certainly isn’t universally true. Anyway, digital spells will be here soon.

Gesture recognition such as pointing at something has been around as a games interface since the Nintendo Wii, maybe before that. The Wii needed a cumbersome remote control, but with more recent machines, you can just use your fingers. That’s fine when you have the detector in front of you, and the computer only has to follow the direction of pointing and detect a key click or movement. But most of the time, you don’t. 

Some wristwatches have had digital compasses for decades, proving that they don’t need to be large. So do my iPhone and Nexus. But my iphone and Nexus are usually somewhere else, like my jacket pocket or briefcase, though I usually have a watch on when I am away from home. Some people seem glued to their mobiles, and they could also be used, but for those of us who aren’t, digital jewellery such as watches or signet rings offers a potential substitute to detect hand or finger gestures.

Knowing location and direction of pointing is fine if you can determine them cheaply and accurately in small devices, but adding a tiny and cheap camera to capture some visual context such as the shape of buildings nearby can help home in much on the target more accurately. Something like a signet ring, or indeed a watch, could easily house all that is needed. GPS positioning isn’t the only kid on the block. Wireless LANs, mobile phone networks and other gadgets you have in a pocket or bag will do just as well. I also think we will soon get urban positioning systems that give location to millimetre accuracy throughout urban areas.

Accelerometers can measure both the path and speed pattern of movements so fancy gestures could be used to determine the purpose of the point, i.e which digital spell to activate.

Also, your hand can make a lot of different shapes, and these can be determined by wearing a few rings and automatically monitoring their relative orientation. They don’t have to be bulky, even a very thin band could be enough.

So, pointing a finger and making a shape with the other fingers, or making some special hand movement before or during the gesture, you could make hundreds of spells. One to make a frog, another if you prefer mice. In augmented reality you’ll be able to do that. Your memory of which gesture links to which spell would run out long before the library of potential combinations would.

Digital spells could link into any electronic system or app as an intuitive interface. Paying for a drink, sending a message to an attractive stranger, passing a business card, authenticating identity to a bank machine, controlling a TV or a PC display to pretend it is touch sensitive. All of these could be easy. As augmented reality takes shape, your hands will become building tools.

Digital spells will make us feel more powerful too. Who wouldn’t get a thrill from making a gesture at an annoying person and turning them into something horrible?

And as Arthur C. Clarke used to say, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Has the sisterhood forgotten older women?

We just went through International Women’s Day and I was one of many people asked to write an essay on the above topic for a compendium of essays for the International Longevity Centre, highlighting problems faced by older women and asking if they have been forgotten by feminism.

The pdf of the whole compendium is downloadable from

At the moment of writing, it is available via Internet Explorer but not Chrome. I haven’t tested other browsers.

Out of town centres are the most viable future for physical shops

So the government’s ‘retail guru’ Mary Portas has said that some high streets are doomed and should be turned over to other uses. I don’t share the government’s high regard for her but I do agree that it is time to reconsider the structure and location of retailing.

As usual, I’ll highlight the problem first, then suggest the solution.

I live on the edge of Ipswich. The area is a nice place to live but I rarely go into town. To be absolutely honest, I try hard NOT to go into town. I am sure they don’t want me there anyway, since they try hard to deter me from going in.

In the last year, I’ve been to radio studio three times, the cinema once (that involved over 20 mins looking for a car parking space nearby, eventually parking much further away and walking), and shopping once, dragged kicking and screaming, having to wade through a lake in a waiting-for-brown-field-development car park on our side of town that we used to avoid the trauma of traffic congestion. The planners were presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a lot of the congestion when they started redevelopment of the docks, but instead actually worsened the traffic routing and created even more congestion.  I don’t know why they did that, but they did. You could say that Ipswich had been a one-horse town, but the planners shot the horse. Ipswich could have been a great deal better with just a bit of thought. Having said that, there are far worse places, far worse. I’m probably just a troglodyte that owns a shaver.

Like many other towns, a lot of the shops are closing. The issues are familiar all over the country. Congestion, lack of parking and high parking fees compete with easy home delivery from online purchases. Congestion is not the same as throughput, and even though it seems busy, town centre businesses obviously aren’t getting enough business or they wouldn’t be closing. 

I’ve written on the future of high street retailing before:

Online shopping offers formidable competition, and in those previous blogs I looked at what can be done to compete . This time, I want to concentrate on the location of shops.

Sometimes I just want to get out of the house and go shopping. If I don’t have anything particularly in mind, I go to Woodbridge and Felixstowe, mainly because they are just as fast to get to as Ipswich, but prettier, it is far easier to park there, and parking doesn’t cost a fortune. If the trip is purely functional, I will often end up at a retail park. They are easy to get to, I can park close to the shop I want, and it is free.

There has been huge resistance to out of town shopping centres over the last decade or two because they obviously take customers away from town centres, and involve driving so were considered environmentally unfriendly. Let’s look at both of those in the light of the new reality.

Big retail parks are mostly full of enormous warehouse stores that offer a purely functional destination. Some are selling stuff that is best suited to online purchasing and the less competitive ones are likely to die or shrink. As they free up the big warehouses, these could be attractively redesigned to house many shops that once lived in town centres. So when someone goes to their local retail park to look at furniture or DIY kit, they might well spend an extra while wandering through some interesting small shops.  The big stores would act as a functional magnet, and the small shops would add interest and serendipity, making a boring functional trip into an enjoyable experience that could fund a flourishing retail community. Provided the rents and rates are OK, and that parking is free and abundant, this could work well as a model for high street condensation and relocation. It could even rejuvenate physical retailing, especially small businesses.

As for environmental impact, being stuck in a traffic jam is far more polluting than driving along unimpeded. Out of town centres can be placed to work well with the local human geography and roads so that traffic can flow smoothly and make less pollution. Parking must be adequate to cope with latent demand or that will drive potential customers onto the net, or force them to drive round and round car parks looking for places, polluting as they go. People who live in town centres generally have ready access to public transport and it is just as easy to aim routes at out of town centres as it is to town centres. If the old high streets are re-purposed, then retail business would just be moved to more viable locations where they could flourish.

If we move shopping out of town, almost everyone benefits. People living out of town would not have to go into town to shop, and congestion there would probably fall so that it would be less traumatic when they do have to go in for other reasons. People living in towns would still have public transport access to shops, just in different locations. The few who live within easy walking distance of town shopping centres would suffer having to go further to shops, but they will suffer their loss anyway if they don’t move.

For people out of town, well designed out-of-town shopping centres offer the potential of reinvention and to rekindle the joy of shopping. For townies, the alternative to shops that are a bit further away might be to have no shops at all. That’s probably the new reality and we either embrace it or suffer it. Government and planners should recognise that and make policy accordingly.