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The Overhead.

The Internet c.1800s...

That was the semaphore system built by Claude Chappe in France around the time of the French Revolution. If the idea of big semaphore machines connecting a nation (indeed internationally) reminds you of the “Clacks” on Discworld then you are in the right ball-park – almost. There is a key difference which we shall come to though and it is a biggy.

Anyway, this is the size of the network…

... and its reach.

Now here is the big difference. What is the modern, electronic, internet as we know it used for? It is a chaos of chatter and (in)sanity, logic and weirdness, bank transactions, Christmas greetings, pornography, blogging, tweeting, facebook, gaming, terrorist plots and how to build a bomb or how to cook a risotto. It can be anything from an interview with One Direction or a seminar on quantum entanglement. It is humanity in toto.

The French clacks wasn’t (that is the “biggy” I mentioned) and neither could it technically be nor was intended to be. The inventor had this rather disingenuous thing to say,

“Chappe once claimed that a signal could go from Toulon to Paris – 120 stations across 475 miles – in just ten or twelve minutes. But he could not make that claim for a full message, even a relatively short one. Three signals per minute was the most that could be expected of even the fastest telegraph operator.”

In modern terms that is 1/20 bit per second (roughly – the Chappe code had a signal space of 98 symbols (2 beam positions and 7 positions each for the “arms” = 2x7x7=98) which is near enough the size of the standard 7 bit ASCII code – 128 symbols – to compare with allowing a bit of wiggle on human factors). Difference is the first common(ish) home modems worked at like 2000 bps or 40,000 times that speed. Sending a signal as simple as, “Advance at noon, reinforcements will meet on your left flank by 1pm.” would be nightmarish. And that is assuming absolute accuracy in transcription at all stations along the way. It need not be said that 2000bps is dismal. A slow ADSL line is over a thousand times faster and if BT Reach-Around has deemed fit to bother with laying fibre even ADSL on Cu is laughable. Sky (my broadband, TV and landline provider keep on trying to get BT to get us into the C21st – to no avail so far). There are always BT vans prowling and doing nowt. I’m not surprised. I used to work for BT and trying to get them to do anything to the porpoise is like assaulting Broadmoor with soft fruit. They might technically be private but they still behave like a state monopoly. Utterly complacent Bertram Blunts plus ultra.

Anyhoo, back to those old French folk. Not only was the system technically very limited (in that it was fast but with abysmal bandwidth) and therefore unsuitable for general communication but it was never intended for such use. Chappe again,

“…took it for granted that the telegraph network of which he dreamed would be a department of the state, government owned and operated. He saw it not as an instrument of knowledge or of riches, but as an instrument of power. ‘The day will come,” he wrote, ‘when the Government will be able to achieve the grandest idea we can possibly have of power, by using the telegraph system in order to spread directly, every day, every hour, and simultaneously, its influence over the whole republic.”

Chilling but not a million miles away from how our Lords and Masters see the internet. Fortunately they don’t really understand TCP/IP and all that jazz and I don’t think they understand the importance of a technology they simply don’t understand (they don’t understand much tech stuff). But they try, hence such things as the unbelievably poorly thought out violent and extreme pornography bill or assorted attempts around the globe to make pornography an “opt-in” service (for the sake of the children, naturally). And will it stop at porn? Does it ever stop? No, of course not!

Now obviously, there is a difference here – almost an inversion. The old French mechanical “clacks” was a way to govern and the modern internet is a way to keep tabs on the governed. This morning for the first time ever I used my bank card contactless (I’ve forgotten my PIN!!!). Some bugger at the NSA or GCHQ now knows what toilet paper I buy, the brand of ciggies I smoke and that I drink semi-skimmed milk. And yeah, I know they could harvest that from the chip anyway but… as a true believing physicist I find action at a distance, “spooky” ;-) That’s a quote from Einstein by the way though Newton himself was not 100% happy with gravity working like that. General Relativity is at least a locally realistic theory. It may be (usually) more mathematically complicated but Relativity makes far fewer metaphysical assumptions than did Newton. Newton has a fair few mad old dears stashed in the attic clad in their wedding dresses. But I digress…

The simple truth is that by hook or by crook any advance in comms will be seen by our Lords and Masters as a potential means of control. Whether it is owning the entire shooting match or just spying on it is a mere matter of tech to the L&M. Tech they will, thankfully, cock-up profoundly but they do try, bless ‘em.

All quotes from “The Information” by James Glieck.


  1. John Galt says:

    God bless Tor and all who sail in her for keeping the nanny state out of my communications.

  2. RAB says:

    1/20th bit per second. Tell me about it… I’m in Cardiff on the bastard Dongle!

    I was sent one of those Proximity Credit cards which don’t use a pin, and sent it right back again.

    The birth of the Radio and TV Llcencing was all about Govt wanting control. You can adapt radios to sent as well as receive, so they wanted a handy list of all potential subversives or spies more than they wanted the revenue.

  3. Bod says:

    Except, let’s just remember how thoroughly Tor’s network was infiltrated by the FBI.

    Tor, and services like Tor, that allow people access to either true darknet communications, or communications via generally uncooperative governments are great, but we need more of them, with more people like us having some way to ensure they can be trusted.

  4. NickM says:

    I have an unbreakable cypher. Oh, yes! Alas, it is very breakable if you know the algorithm. But if you don”t an embed it in PGP or similar first and last then they won’t get it. Let me tell you a truth. When I was a kid (<19) I played in this park. I couldn’t send or receive piccies as such but I could code them as ASCII and then get QBasic to turn ‘em back to VGA. It astonised my classmates at University (Nottingham, Physics) were bamboozled. They knew nowt about computers but what I could do with a 386DX33 haunted them. I knew computers and the 1 and the 0. It was beautiful. I got top marks for the labs that involved building Lego robots controlled by 386s. Cool or what? I got credit (and an easy first) playing with Lego. So cool! Some poor saps had to read Ezra Pound and say pseudo clever things but I got to play with QBasic and Lego for credit!!! Science is just such fun. And I’m sorry, Paul, I don’t agree with the idea of univerisities promulgating leftist ideas. Never happened to me. I just did science and maths. Oh, I knew people who did humanities but so what?

    I played with Lego. And computers.

  5. AndrewWS says:

    Totally irrelevant comment coming … I lurve your nude girl and Dalek.

  6. NickM says:

    I think that is Jo Grant and whilst she and her metal pet seem popular here I vaguely recall the BBC taking a rather different tack on it. They were not amused. Anyway, she’s not nude. Those are knee-high boots!

  7. John Galt says:

    @Bod: You misunderstand, Tor can have many uses. Yes, sure it can be used to access the darknet (.onion networks), but apart from activities which I have no interest in (Cheezy Pizza, purchase of drugs or laughably hitmen – a site for the gullible if ever I heard one), there is nothing on the darknet that I find of interest, just bullshit, gore, trolls and script kiddies pretending they are 1337 haxxors.

    I use Tor to bypass controls placed on me by governments in the locations where I live and work (Malaysia, UK and Switzerland), to allow me to do things that they otherwise forbid. I use a combination of HTTPS, Expat Shield VPN and Tor to impede tracking and monitoring and make it appear as if I come from somewhere else.

    I am fully aware that groups like the NSA and GCHQ are able to and monitor people’s activities and that their resources are vast, my use of technology is not meant to defeat the determined espionage organisation, but to defeat the prude and the censor.

  8. Bod says:

    You’re totally correct on the current state of the darknet – although I like to invoke it in conversations for the same reason some people in the US like to open carry firearms – to habituate the public to its presence and to stop scaring the horses.

    I do anticipate that as meshnets and other practical countermeasures against surveillance become better known (pace the other thread), that governments will latch onto ‘The Darknet’ as the problem, and I’d like to think that Mr. and Ms. Average Citizen would respond with a yawn, rather than sending an “Appropriately Alarmed of Aldershot” letter to The Times.

    Your comment about Expat Shield is interesting – I’m going to take a look at that service – I’ve been using a commercial VPN offering for a while, but in all other respects, you and I have adopted identical strategies. I signed up with the VPN I use about 2 months before The E.S. Event, largely because I could, and in a response to my firm deciding it was going to migrate both its CRM *and* commercially sensitive data to a Cloud-based application, for no better reason than “Everyone’s doing It, so there’s nothing to be worried about”.

    Casual readers. Please investigate (free) VPN services, no matter where you are, simply because the more of us there are that use them, the harder it is for the likes of GCHQ and the NSA to plant their Doc Martins on everybody’s face.

  9. John Galt says:

    *** Evidence of extreme alcohol consumption has been removed ***
    - John Galt

  10. Bod says:

    I’m getting old, but I think it was Heinlein who suggested petty acts of vandalism upon bureaucracy, by paying trifling additional sums to the servants of Leviathan, so they can’t clear the ledger. An extra $4.37 to the IRS. $1.34 for that ‘fee’ they charge you when you pay (a legitimate) parking ticket late.

    I always had a slight twinge of guilt when I used to do this, because it simply grows the state and incurs a heavier financial burden upon all taxpayers, but I’ve Embraced The Suck now and am enthusiastic about immanentizing the collapse of these fascists.

  11. Sam Duncan says:

    Heinlein might have done it too, but the one who immediately springs to mind is Patrick Moore, Bod. I’m sure I’m misremembering the quote, but he said something like, “The people who run the Revenue are always complaining that it’s on the verge of collapse, and if it’s put under any further strain, it will crumble to dust. This must be your goal.” A great man, sadly missed.

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