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The Best Essay Ever - On Cable Laying??

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How did Neal Stephenson do it? Way back in 1996, he managed to make what's clearly the most boring subject on Earth -- transcontinental data cable installation -- into a clever, engaging 56-page article. Well, he probably did in the same way he made cryptography exciting in Cryptonomicon and a dystopian corporate future funny in Snow Crash: by being a super smart guy writing about stuff that's actually interesting, beneath its veneer of super-dorkitude.

In Mother Earth Mother Board, Stephenson declares himself the "hacker tourist," as he "ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth." Discussed: the insane past, present, and future of data cables; mastery of slack; Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage Lords; more. Here are some selected bits from the article:

[On the laying of redundant "FLAG" cables to connect the same points.] This raises questions. The questions turn out to have interesting answers. I'll summarize them first and then go into detail.

Q: Why bother running two widely separated routes over the Malay Peninsula?

A: Because Thailand, like everywhere else in the world, is full of idiots with backhoes.

Q: Isn't that a pain in the ass?

A: You have no idea.

Q: Why not just go south around Singapore and keep the cable in the water, then?

A: Because Singapore is controlled by the enemy.

Q: Who is the enemy?

A: FLAG's enemies are legion. ...

Dr. Wildman Whitehouse and his 5-foot-long induction coils were the first hazard to destroy a submarine cable but hardly the last. It sometimes seems as though every force of nature, every flaw in the human character, and every biological organism on the planet is engaged in a competition to see which can sever the most cables. The Museum of Submarine Telegraphy in Porthcurno, England, has a display of wrecked cables bracketed to a slab of wood. Each is labeled with its cause of failure, some of which sound dramatic, some cryptic, some both: trawler maul, spewed core, intermittent disconnection, strained core, teredo worms, crab's nest, perished core, fish bite, even "spliced by Italians." The teredo worm is like a science fiction creature, a bivalve with a rasp-edged shell that it uses like a buzz saw to cut through wood - or through submarine cables. Cable companies learned the hard way, early on, that it likes to eat gutta-percha, and subsequent cables received a helical wrapping of copper tape to stop it. ...

In 1870, a new cable was laid between England and France, and Napoleon III used it to send a congratulatory message to Queen Victoria. Hours later, a French fisherman hauled the cable up into his boat, identified it as either the tail of a sea monster or a new species of gold-bearing seaweed, and cut off a chunk to take home. Thus was inaugurated an almost incredibly hostile relationship between the cable industry and fishermen. Almost anyone in the cable business will be glad, even eager, to tell you that since 1870 the intelligence and civic responsibility of fisherman have only degraded. Fishermen, for their part, tend to see everyone in the cable business as hard-hearted bluebloods out to screw the common man. ...

I encourage you -- no, I urge you -- to go read Stephenson's essay. Print it out, block out a few hours, and prepare for some wonderfully geeky edutainment. (Note: above I've linked to the printer-friendly version; there's also a standard version, but it requires clicking "next" 56 times.)

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Slow Wi-Fi? It Could Be Your Neighbor's Fault
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If your Wi-Fi connection remains interminably slow no matter how many times you restart it, you can probably blame your neighbor. It could be that there are too many people using Wi-Fi connections on the same channel, even if you're all on different networks. But, as Tech Insider teaches us in the video below, there is a way to circumvent this, returning you to the prime TV-streaming Wi-Fi speeds of your dreams. (These instructions apply to Mac users, but if you've got Windows, How-To Geek recommends a tool called the Xirrus Wi-Fi Inspector to do the same job.) It seems like a lot of steps at first, but it'll be worth it—we promise.

If you’ve got a Mac, hold the Option key while clicking the Wi-Fi symbol in your top menu bar. Go to “Open Wireless Diagnostics,” then when that opens, go up to the top left menu bar and click the drop-down menu “Window > Scan.” That will open up a window with all the nearby Wi-Fi networks. Click the “Scan Now” button on the bottom right, and your computer should recommend the best channels for you to use—say, you’re on Channel No. 1, but the best 2.4GHz channel is No. 3. Tech Insider recommends writing those down (there are options for both 2.4GHz channels and 5GHz channels).

Now, you’ll need to break out your iPhone. Download the AirPort Utility app, and go to your phone’s settings. Scroll down to the AirPort Utility app in your app list, and enable “WiFi Scanner.” Use the app to scan your house for Wi-Fi networks and note which channels are commonly used by your neighbors’ networks. (If you don’t have an iPhone, you can also use Acrylic Wi-Fi for Android or Windows phones.) This will help you avoid the most congested networks.

Then, log onto your router on your computer by typing your router’s IP address into your browser, just like you would any web address. From there, go into Wireless Settings, and change the channel your network operates on to one of the recommended options that you wrote down from your computer's diagnostics window earlier. And don’t forget to save!

This should help you get a faster internet connection by minimizing the amount of interference from other networks around you. Because the best neighbors are the ones who don't slow down Game of Thrones for you.

See the process step-by-step in the video below.

[h/t Tech Insider]

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This 'Smokeless' Fire Pit Promises a More Efficient Burn
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BioLite

For thousands of years, people have gathered around open flames to cook food, find warmth, and share stories deep into the night. Campfires have been around since the dawn of humanity, but what if there was a way to use modern technology to make them even better? The people at BioLite believe they've found one.

The FirePit is the outdoor gadget startup's answer to the recreational, backyard fire. It offers the same benefits as a more conventional product: a space for building wood or charcoal fires, a removable grate for grilling, and metal screens on each side to protect onlookers from embers. But the yellow battery pack is what sets it apart from anything else on the market. With the press of a button, a fan inside the FirePit stokes a hotter, more efficient blaze without producing all of the smoke and soot people are used to.

Couple sitting by a firepit on the beach.
BioLite

"Air injection makes the fire burn more completely," Ryan Gist, one of the lead engineers on the project, told Mental Floss. "So you basically get all the energy out of your fuel." The result is a fire you can enjoy without worrying about your eyes and throat burning, moving your chair every five minutes to avoid a gust of smoke, or having your clothes stink for weeks.

It also makes for a fire capable of burning longer and brighter with less wood. Smoke is made of tiny fuel particles that haven't fully burned up. Using a fan, the FirePit can draw that runaway fuel back into the fire before it has a chance to escape. "It's like when you're stuck on the highway behind a truck and it's got black stuff coming out of the tailpipe," BioLite marketing director Erica Rosen told Mental Floss. "When you see black stuff coming out of a fire, it's the same thing. So what we've done is, we've given fire a tuneup."

FirePit's built-in fan makes the fire easy to control. If campfire gazers want to see big, roaring flames through the box's X-ray mesh, they can turn the air down low. The higher fan setting produces a smaller, more intense burn, which is perfect for chilly autumn nights. Adjusting the blaze can be done remotely with the BioLite Energy app or manually from the control panel on top of the battery pack.

People sitting by a fire.
BioLite

BioLite designed the FirePit for backyards, but its foldable legs make it convenient to carry to the beach, a campsite, or anywhere else where you might bring a cooler of the same size. Once it's cooled down after an evening of grilling hot dogs and toasting marshmallows, the pit fits neatly into its solar panel case, where it can recharge in time for the following night (the battery also features a USB plug for charging indoors).

The FirePit recently debuted on Kickstarter, where it's available along with its solar carrying case for a special deal of $169 (once the first 300 FirePits go, it will be sold for the regular price of $199). To help the campaign reach its $100,000 funding goal, you can reserve yours today with shipping estimated for May of next year.

Skewers cooking on a grill.
BioLite

All images courtesy of BioLite.

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