The day the rat entrails mystery was solved

Table dancing around the Greek islands

Ionian blog Today was the day I tried the web-cam over satellite. It was also the day the "rat's entrails" fight came to a head. On balance, I think I came out ahead of the cook.

The idea of running a web-cam over a satellite was a misunderstanding. It does work! - but not using the setup we have out here in the South Ionian sea on this flotilla yacht. To remind you: it's a Thrane & Thrane satellite "dish" which talks to an Inmarsat BGAN satellite, providing broadband wireless to remote places. And I use it, when I can, to transmit pictures like the one, below, to you.

The "rats entrails" bit is important to the story, and it goes like this...I am not French, and love Greek food and drink. The cook is not French, either - but he lives in Poitiers, which is in France. And he rather fancies himself as a wine buff.

So first night out, moored at the bottom of a tall cliff in Spartahori and having dinner at the top (a hundred odd metres higher up) The cook and the Irish rugby player were full of scorn for my selection of local wine. They ordered the top-of-range red (Greek, yes, but vin rouge) while I ordered half a bottle of Retsina.

"Oh, God, Guy, you don't want to drink THAT!" they shouted. They proceeded to regale me with awful cautionary tales about the time (singular) they'd tried retsina, and the incredible hangover, complete with (fully detailed) nausea, which had resulted. And they christened the drink rat's innards, because it sounds vaguely homophonic; and quickly enhanced that to rat's entrails, because, I suppose, it sounds gross.

I drank my Retsina, and headed back down to Summer Lightning, because I had work to do. Specifically, to try the webcam.

We move forward to today. Several Register readers have clubbed together with advice for me, because of my problems with keeping the Inmarsat modem powered up. And, exactly as I suspected, there is a quite simple trick to configuring the Thrane & Thrane device. It has an in-built web server, one user informed me.

"So, you can login to the terminal directly via your web browser," he reported. "It should default to The Admin login, if it hasn't been changed (you should change the password, for security reasons) is the default of "admin" and "1234" as the password. Within the Admin settings you should see (hopefully) a setting to disable the unit from turning itself on every time you plug it in to charge."

The mystery which he couldn't solve, was the mystery of the missing solar mat. I have to say, it's one I will confront Inmarsat with, because from what this user says, it would have solved all this farting about with fridges and martial-arts Cooks. More on that later...

And, he added: "You can also disable all the unuseful error messages from there."

Which useful advice I instantly applied. And then, I came to the meat of his comment: "You won't be able to send video. For that, you need streaming."

Streaming is a special feature of Inmarsat BGAN. It's not entirely surprising Inmarsat decided not to include this feature in my subscription, because the cost is non-trivial: $20 per minute! - one careless journo with a Yahoo! webcam could cause all their satellites to run for the opposite horizon in an hour. But for anybody who is doing serious video reporting, it's a bargain.

"We do it a lot," he explained. He works, it seems, for the charity "Concern" - and they deal with development and humanitarian needs in over 30 countries and directly with Humanitarian Disasters and Emergencies as they break out. "Our aim is to be there on the ground within 24 to 48 hours. From the ITC end of things here, we aim to have those members of the Emergency Response Team up and going with communications anywhere in the world within those 24 to 48 hours. Can be difficult and technically challenging at times."

Before BGAN, it was a serious problem transporting enough kit, and an even more serious problem setting it up. "Typically during emergencies in the likes of Iraq, Afghanistan and so on, media companies were  using video phone calls over an ISDN link, on the older GAN units (like the EMS Storm GAN, still a fantastic unit, though expensive and fairly heavy/bulky). ISDN, as you know, runs at 64k but you could "bond" two GAN units together to run at 128K."

It was technically difficult for non-technical people and cumbersome to carry two 13Kg sat phones around with you, not to mention the rest of the gear required, but it worked.

"With the BGAN you can do all of that but double the speed for less price, less weight, easier for users (simple LAN cable is all that's needed to connect to your laptop), less cumbersome, and also (important!) easier to get through customs without heads turning or sticking out like a sore thumb. You could nearly say your BGAN was a set of iPod speaker it's that small."

The cost, of course, is because you get a dedicated transponder.

Each BGAN satellite is utterly different from the old comms birds. The latest ones have not one, but 220 odd "dishes" deployed, each pointing at a different area of the planet. And if you want to, you can pay for a single - uncontended - link, running 256 kilobits bi-directionally. That's what costs $20 per minute - but for the BBC or CNN, that sort of money barely shows up on the budget.

During the tsunami emergency in Indonesia, Inmarsat actually moved another satellite to give extra coverage to the region there in order to cater for the NGO's and media organisations trying to get the message and reports out to the public around the world. "They also (said my source) shot up the costs of calls and data usage over the service at the time, but sure I guess what they giveth with one hand they taketh away with the other!"

Meanwhile, back to the sailing. The cook, you may remember, I left at the top of the hill in Spartahori. He and the Irish rugby player (drinking healthy, non-resinated red wine) tripped over the gang-plank a couple of hours later.

I won't go into details. Suffice it to say that their appearance, after the treatment, was not a sufficient advertisement for me to feel any inducement to switch from Retsina to whatever it was they were drinking.

Afterwards, I did enquire, politely, what they'd been doing, and apart from some muttering about "table dancing" which, they allowed me to believe, was vaguely connected with pole-dancing, they changed the subject.

Here is where it helps to have the only PC on board.

The cook has a nice little Panasonic camera, but one with only 256 meg of Flash. It filled up. "I'll have to start deleting pictures!" he wailed.

Table dancing, do not attempt at home, or when sober

"Not at all," said the helpful skipper (me). "Give the thing to me, and I'll save all the pictures to disk!" - and I was as good as my word. And, of course, that gave me the opportunity to check out the pictures from Spartahori. Table dancing, as shown in the attached image, demonstrated by the cook and The Irish rugby player...their faces are concealed to avoid vendettas.

Also, I think the threat to publish the pictures that do show the faces is probably a better and more convincing threat than an offer to have them keel-hauled...but we'll see! ®

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