Snake-Oil Solutions For Electrosmog (Part 2)

10/15/2012 5:43:11 PM

LAN cabling is more properly called UTP, for unshielded twisted pair, and what that means is that each LAN cable contains four pairs of wires, with each pair entwined around one another like the strands of DNA. The whole point of this is that the signals running down those wires are so weedy that they could be completely wiped out by interference from all manner of nearby devices, but once they’re entwined then what’s bad for one half of the pair is evened out by a balancing effect on the other half. That’s why a LAN can run on as little as a single volt (at slower speeds) potential difference to pump data the best part of 100m. Contrast this with the tongue-tingling 50V employed by old fashioned analogue telephones. So which is the nastier baddy when it comes to electrosmog? Come to think of it, if this whole idea were as important as it’s made out, why is there no rational point of reference, say an EU-standard electrosmog impact sticker on every item of electrical equipment, never mind on every item of networking equipment?

Description: UTP network cable

UTP network cable

The simplest answer,  of course, is that it’s all complete hogwash, and anyone who pipes up about discomfort when working with new technology is a prize chump, to be ridiculed and ignored. I have to say that I find that position almost as absurd as the superstition-driven electrosmog dogma. I’m pretty clear that EMFs are real and present, but I’m equally clear that far more significant and more manageable physical effects attend computing equipment, and that it’s possible to do something about them without completely rewiring your house (see Home remedies, above, for a positive list of simple fixes: a set of things you can try around people who complain about odd health effects while using computers. In my experience, such measures create an impression of caring a bit about them, and hence perhaps a real placebo effect, while not actually making matters any worse).

The most annoying aspect of this hogwash about electrosmog is that it may contaminate the rational research into POF itself. This technology has the    potential to be that holy grail of an easier, faster network fabric for home users who are drowning in clashing Wi-Fi footprints, or for medical installations that suffer really powerful EMFs from scanners and the like.

Even allowing for the sterling efforts of the wonderfully acronymed POFTO - and yes, I did Google its knowledge base for mentions of electrosmog, with nothing doing - I’m not done yet with the foolishness of the POF-in-a-wall plate concept. At higher data speeds, it’s a bad idea to sprinkle these kinds of multiple hops and repeaters all around your network, especially such small, cheap, low-powered ones. Devices that unite POF cabling with copper ought to work seamlessly, flipping bits on one side the instant bits flip on the other, but all too often they won’t. Either they fail to cope as traffic increases, or else they fib about what they’re doing and are actually storing and forwarding (waiting for a whole packet to arrive before passing it on). These kinds of problems become worse and more apparent as absolute speeds rise, so tricks that were invisible at lOMbits/sec Ethernet become mildly irritating at lOOMbits/sec - and showstopping at Gigabit speed.

Why hasn't fibre taken off?

I really enjoy persuading people to employ optic fibre in their LANs even when they don't strictly need its unique attributes, such as its medium to long range, or its immunity to outside risks such as water or lightning. My preference arises because there's a deplorable tendency to build ordinary copper networking devices down to a price, whereas fibre gear is still built up to a performance level. A good-quality fibre Ethernet add-on card in a server can sling bits at 100% loading 24 hours a day, where its copper equivalent runs out of buffers, kicks up a fuss about auto-negotiation, fails to report packet drop rates, mucks about with the system CPU because nobody bothered to tick the Offload option in the driver...

Description: Why hasn't fibre taken off?

Why hasn't fibre taken off?

So why hasn't fibre spread far more widely? The first reason is painfully obvious, and that is because you can't just cut fibre and expect it to work. Squaring off the ends of cut fibres is something that normally needs to occur in the back of a very clean van, or within the confines of a super-neat toolkit, using all manner of weird gritty pastes to render the super-thin cut ends of the fibres optically smooth. Personally, I'm one of those wretches who can't even cut a copper Ethernet cable and expect it to work either, but chopping that stuff up can in principle be done by anyone with access to tools from Maplin. A copper crimper for making cable ends costs about $30, whereas a fibre-polishing kit costs 500 times that.

The second reason is that speeds in fibre networks can't jump up smoothly by way of auto-negotiated connections. In fact, if you need a faster fibre, the right way to do it is to take out all your fibre cables, cards and switches and replace them with a complete matched set of quicker ones. There are exceptions, but they're not at all predictable. This may be acceptable for mega-corporations (although, actually, I know a few with so much old fibre that it's very far from acceptable), but it certainly isn't for smaller business or home users.

The third reason is that there are rather too many connectors and standards in play when you're buying the kit of parts. Of course, their names sound pretty simple: LX is long haul, SX is short haul, LC and SC are large and small connectors, and then there are GBICs and mini-GBICs, but all their permutations are far more challenging than with copper. That's especially true given that a mismatch between the ends may produce not merely a slight slowdown, but no link at all.

Home remedies


Computers and dry air don't mix, which is a shame because high powered ones actually lower the relative humidity of a room. Both computers and people operate rather better with water vapour around: dust clumps together better and falls out of the circulating air sooner; static electricity can't build up so easily; heat is conducted away more rapidly from surfaces and components because water absorbs much more heat per gram than plain old air. Almost any humidifier will work, from a damp towel over a radiator to the poshest, reactive, ultrasonic mineral water tank dispenser.


Not just quashing the white noise of fans, but a host of other odd sources such as buzzy old TFT backlights, the sharp whine of that SCSI drive you daren't turn off, even the clattery racket of a power-managed laser printer. Such background psychological irritations add up, and get misdiagnosed as electrosmog while getting tantalisingly close to the real problem. My printer lives three floors away, but then I have a real network and a real networked printer.

Description: electrosmog

Light show

Beware the excessive contrast of bright screen against darkened wall. Philips TVs have the option of a neat little tube on the back that lights up the wall behind the set to reduce eyestrain from prolonged watching. This is an easy trick to emulate provided you don't thereby fall prey to the other big subconscious irritant, flicker. I don't mean the photo-sharing service, but that insidious, edge-of-perception stutter that arises not from the simple 60 cycles of mains AC, but interference of several fluctuating light sources (your computer screen, certain energy-saving lamps, the TV set) running in the same room together. The fix is rather hard work, especially since incandescent light bulbs become ever rarer, but a general rule seems to be to avoid electronic dimmers and compact fluorescent tubes, and go for bang-up-to-date flicker-free LEDs.

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