Net community goes spud crazy
Sir Walter Raleigh would have been proud
We ran a story on Thursday pointing out that the BBC, Slashdot and God knows who else had been duped into believing that 12 potatoes could run a Web server for several days at a time. BBC, Slashdot mashed by spud pranksters  obviously struck a nerve and we updated the story with yet more suckered sites several hours later.
Since then, our resourceful readers have scoured the Web and arrived with still more examples of gullible technocrats. Among the notables were: the original poster to Slashdot, the spud server's originator Steve Harris, the Mirror's IT columnist and, oddly, a whole range of site editors who gladly admitted they had been duped (not after hits are you, fellas?). Sadly, the BBC hasn't been in touch - they'd probably rather the whole thing disappeared.
Below is a small selection of the correspondence (you can decide how many of them you believe).
I'm not sure how guilty I should feel, but I'm the one who posted the story to Slashdot. I think that was then picked up by the BBC and others, including Dr.Dobb's Journal. They really should have known better. I certainly did when I posted it. A frightening number of Slashdot posters were taken in, though.
All you have to do is take a lump of copper, a lump of zinc and a multimeter. You get a current reading in microamps. You're going to need many hundreds of spuds. That and the "deliberate mistakes" in the picture of the server (the power connection is all wrong, for a start).
On the other hand, I'm pretty sure you could do it with a low-power processor (ARM perhaps) and a bucket of orange juice.
Still, I've enjoyed watching the story spread, and 'nuff respect to the team at totl.net.
Incidentally, we had several readers that pointed out the Monty Python foot image indicates humour - justification or easy escape? Probably both.
Hi Register Guys,
A few comments on the Spud Server Fiasco.
First off, I don't think that Slashdot believed it, they linked it with the Monty Python foot, which I guess means they saw it as a joke. They've seen our stuff before too.
We didn't actually intend to fool anyone, we run a humour site after all, and none of our regular readers would have though it was real for a moment, we claim to have done pointless and mad shit all the time.
The real problem was after the BBC Online article, I answered some questions from their reporter, and I thought he'd twigged it was supposed to be a joke, but obviously not.
Being Internet-only pranksters it was hard to resist breaking out into popular media, I guess its kind of out of order, but hey. After that USA Today picked it up (and printed it in their dead tree version), and I did so many interviews that I lost track of them.
The Sunday Times and Der Speigel have articles in the works so it will be interesting to see it they pull them in time.
The interesting thing for us was the amount of plagiarism between the news sites, there were several errors that got propagated by cut and paste.
After a while I started dropping bigger and bigger hints, but it didn't seem to make any difference. When TV crews wanted to come and film the bloody thing (and us) I told them flat out it was a joke.
We put it down to a slow news week, I mean, exactly how interesting is a vegetable-powered Webserver. And when it comes down to it would you trust the uncorroborated word of a bunch of guys from a Web site called "Temple ov thee Lemur"?
For reference, (we've had a lot of chemists email us) if you could run a computer off spuds its would work for quite a while, but you would need a lot. A guy from Sun reckoned about 450 tonnes for one of their servers ;)
We have links to (and translations of most of) the articles if you want them.
An astute article!
Although I wasn't one of the culprits behind the spud server (I only wrote bits of the FAQ), I have been watching the resulting media frenzy with some interest.
The spud server was intended to appeal to those of a techie persuasion, and we expected that most such people who gave it any thought would see through it - judging from correspondence, this seems to have been the case. We certainly didn't expect (or intend to create) this sort of reception from those outside the intended audience!
One observation that I'd like to make is that most of the news organisations that fell for the spoof were "old media" (print, television, radio), while almost all of the "new media" entities realised the spud server for the hoax it was.
Slashdot, for example, ran it as a humorous item. Their editors got the joke even if not all of their readership did - it was probably a bit unfair to claim that Slashdot "bought the bait", as you suggest in your article.
Meanwhile, most of the 'old media' coverage followed the BBC article, even reproducing some statements in the BBC article which didn't actually appear on our web site.
Obviously the BBC's stamp is such worthy provenance that checking stories is considered unnecessary!
Or maybe this has just been an international Slow News Week?
Spud powered 386 motherboards !!!!???
It's all very well in hindsight pointing out the Beeb falling for the joke, but so did everyone else including yourselves for a brief period [Reply to Ben read: "No we didn't. Hence the story"]. Because of the limited info & low res pictures it was hard to tell how they managed to feed the requisite +-5v which would be needed.
However shouldn't we congratulate the perpetrators rather than admonishing the rest of us for their (late) April Fool?
N.B. Something like this could be done; Web server for Palm pilot (another Register wind-up ?) So I suggest a competition to see if anyone (non-commercial) can achieve the "natural-chemical" battery powered web server.
Of course I will happily head-up such a project and give away the rights/profits for the not so luxurious countries of the world. (Clock-work web server anyone ?)
All the best as always,
This has to win the award for most entertaining reply of the week. Here's to you Alexey
Well, here we are, in Moscow. Just want to let you know that our newspaper Lenta.Ru, a sort of "Russian internet-newspaper number 1", was really impressed by the potato article on BBC. We did believe BBC, and we did the translation:
Be sure Lenta.Ru is pretty popular source of news, so today we saw our article copied or rewritten on at least five other sites. BTW, some old-way Russian newspapers (on paper) are used to copy Internet news for their next day's issue, so I believe we'll see lots of potatoes in the paper news tomorrow, too. And someone already heard the spud server story on some Moscow radio this morning.
But I don't blame BBC for giving us this fake story. I blame you guys, and your Register! Didn't you know potato is Russian national food, our third national symbol after vodka and Kalashnikov? Didn't you realize you just killed the Great Russian Dream when you explained this magic spud server won't work?! You guys better be careful when taking such dreams from us.
It's like telling Christians there is no God the sky, only clouds and spy satellites!
Though this Chechen war is a boring thing. The Spud Server was much prettier. Damn, it was almost The Matrix! So bad it doesn't work!
Lenta.Ru, Internet Section
The bluesnews link of the day for the spud server is still there, you just have to go to the right day. He posted it on Monday, March 22. Your mention of him, however, casts an unfair light upon his reporting skills, his LOD's are for amusement purposes and are not meant to be taken as actual news.
They're just ways to lighten the day. If he links to an LOD that's funny enough, you can be sure it will be all over the web within a week. The hampster dance and the turkish stud are two examples that come to mind.
I mailed BBC soon after the article surfaced :
Subject: Potato power
Date: Tue, 23 May 2000 15:59:03 +0100
From: Tony Howat
I can't believe you went for this!
1) The picture of the "potato powered computer" shows a PSU (big fat white thing)
2) A 386 chip on its own draws more current than 12 potatoes can possibly survive.
3) The picture shows no evidence of a "cut down" board.
4) The TOTL site refers to "gullible journalists".
5) Their last prank was a 486 in a fridge running at 246Mhz. Err. Yes.
...and the link titled "commodore 64 servers" links to machines which are C64's in name, not hardware. They're based round 486 boards. They're brand new machines. A server could potentially be powered by potatoes. Quite easily in fact - it's no great shakes. You can power ARM boards off single battery using a bit more current than one of those LCD clocks.
Whatever happened to _researching_ articles, then?
They didn't take the article down for ages.
Loads of people went for it in the newsgroups too. Nice to see how objectivity flies out of the window when people see a cute idea.
First off, if his story is foul, we're guilty as well:
But let me explain why that's so popular in Germany. The biggest and usually best news agency "dpa" (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) spread it on Wednesday in a report "Brits invent potatoe-driven web server". The quote the BBC there on and off, so to Germany it looks like they started it all.
The dpa-report is why ZDnet, several newspapers and even poor old tecChannel picked it up.
We'll leave it on the site, as long as no one officially recalls it or puts it right. Hope The Reg gets the BBC to do it.... ;-=) If not, I'll drop my friends at dpa a note... But that's on Monday earliest. I'll have to help Bayern Mnchen now to retire their best player, Lothar Matthus.
We said in our update that we couldn't find the spud article on USA Today. Andy B Glover, Jeff Cody, Tom Deiderich, Dan Greenblatt, Ben Tudor, Tanya Bell to namecheck just a few (sorry to the others, but any more and it'd get boring) corrected us and provided the URL. All sites known so far can be found at the end of this posting.
We fell for it too at Geek.com. I'm not going to take it down, though ;) I'm going to proudly admit the mistake. Guess I got sucked in by the BBC article and the low-power 386.
Thanks for the heads up on the devious Potato Pranksters.
Oy, Flipchip was duped last night but has rectified the situation with a timely delete.
Of course, there are always those who will always have a different perspective
Well, with "web servers" in 8-pin SMD chips on a low-power PPP-link, the potato (or hamster) powered web server is not too far fetched.
I didn't read all the articles in detail (You'd need quite a lot of potatoes to power *my* web server :-), but I think people fell for your prank because it is probably possible with today's technology. The stuff with the 8-pin SIM Webserver was on Slashdot some weeks ago.
Yours, Christian Treczoks
PS: Do you do autographs (SP?/GR? Sorry, non-native speaker)? I'll be over in London in July, and I'll hunt the Register for autographs on my Register T-Shirt ;-)
I would like to point out that the spud powered web server is a distinct possibility. Let's see if I can find the link:
This page describes the worlds smallest web server based on a: Microchip PIC 12C509A (embedded microcontroller).
According to the datasheet this chip draws 2milliamps at 4MHz. 15microamps in low power mode. The 24LC256 serial eeprom probably has similar power requirements.(No datasheet links, I'm feeling lazy)
I believe a few spuds could probably supply the current needed for this thing. The demo link to the PIC server seems to be broken right now but I can vouch for the fact that it used to work.
Oh well, if you're not too busy check it out.
Those suckered sites in full(ish):
BBC  (removed)
Annanova  (removed)
ZDNet Germany 
USA Today 
Geek News 
Dr Dobb's Journal 
Blue's News 
User Friendly 
Norwegiannews-site Nettavisen 
Sueddeutsche(one of Germany's main newspapers) 
Techannel (Germany) 
Also included (but without URLs)
CNet. On its "more news from around the Web" (bottom of news.com's front
Danish newspaper Politiken
The Herald Sun, Melbourne, Australia
While it's all been a great laugh, can we let this be the end of it now please? Any more cutting and pasting of URLs and I'm liable to have a fit.