Power to the People

I’m certainly not shy of technology, though I wouldn’t say I was an out and out technophile either. But every time I cross the threshold of my humble dominion, I do seem to find an extra electronic gadget convincing me of its necessity wherever I go.

It’s got to the point now where I feel naked without a phone, MP3 player, camera, PDA, flashlight, radio, wireless headset and a complete backup of my essential files, company accounts, music and a couple of series of Star Trek (damn, I guess I am a technophile after all, Cap’n). This kit can be thinned down if it’s just a trip to the shops for a pint of milk or a copy of What Technological Baggage Monthly, but any kind of extended excursion (being an hour or more away from the desk) requires a full personal network of electronic paraphernalia.

Not that I count this as a habitual obsession that needs to be conquered. I’m happy to lug around my porta-office, and on those wonderful, rare occasions when someone casually drops into conversation, “Phew! I wish I had a copy of The White Room by The KLF right now!” or I get an email asking for an invoice from four years hence, I pet my PDA, phone and gigabytes of storage with gleeful charm. And you can guarantee that the next time I step outside the door, there’ll be even more potentially vital reams of data stored about my person, or a new electronic leg hair straightener, laser-sighted catapult or can of Shark Repellant Bat-Spray. I need this stuff and thrill to feel its weighty caress across my bent spine.


The problem for me isn’t the extended personal area network itself; my M65 regiment field jacket has been custom modified to accommodate the internally wired interconnections of a dozen different devices throughout the pockets, sleeves and collar. And, with the extra cables I’ve bought, it can remain wired up so it doesn’t require regular reinstallation. No, this isn’t what dogs my technological heels – keeping my mobile self-powered is where the system falls apart.

There was, for a few brief months, a period when my gadgetry and its power sources existed in beautiful harmony. This was just before every mobile phone sported a full color screen, gigapixel camera, 3-D game system and heated turkey baster. My old black and white Nokia managed to function as a terrific, fully operational telephone while lasting for a week or more on a single charge.

Likewise, my grayscale PDA was thin, light and full of electronic life, not being sucked dry by a 400MHz processor, full Windows operating system, 20 trillion billion colors and enough different forms of wireless connectivity to start World War III (although the war would have to be over pretty damn quick, as the nuclear missiles would be falling out of the sky after an hour when my damn battery went flat).

My cassette-based Walkman was a bitch to pry off the battery cover on those rare occasions when the two alkaline AAs went flat, but at least it didn’t corrupt my homemade mix tape when it did finally run out of juice. Any device that didn’t contain its own built-in power source (of which there was only mobile phones, really) ran on AA or AAA batteries, which were so common you could buy them up from crack addicts selling shit out of a shopping trolley on a downtown street corner. Portable power was a common commodity, and I took it for granted.

The perpetual pillage and rape of the technophile’s pockets when it came to buying over-priced add-ons caused my interest in a portable office to wane. Being regularly chased from shops by starving salespeople makes it hard to keep up with techno-trends:

“Would you like an extra battery with your new phone, sir? No, it won’t take standard ones, but the manufacturer’s is only half the price of the handset when you buy four together.”

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“I’d definitely recommend a car charger, sir. You’ll need the officially licensed one, however, as your new music player requires a 17.847815872359 volt input.”

“The bundled headphones aren’t very good, sir, no. This authorized alternative has the same four pronged abnormal interface module, though. Yes, sir, they do cost as much as my mother makes turning tricks.”

So, for a couple of years, I found my personal area network gradually disintegrating. My pockets carried “paper” books; I was forced to interact with people instead of using headphones to ignore them; if I wanted to check my horoscope, I had to buy a paper. It was like being in the frigging dark ages.

Quite without any action on my part, I was made to suffer a Pocket PC for work and my yearly mobile phone upgrades forced a new level of power hungry equipment back into my tough-guy jacket pockets. Not that it wasn’t welcome, in many respects, as my absence from such devices meant a new world of connectivity and computing capabilities to rediscover.

It’s thrilling to find you can now scan someone’s business card instead of entering their contact details manually (that function must have added minutes to my life – I think I’ll use them to watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force on my mobile phone, on my death bed), that I could photograph people who fell in the street for all of YouTube to see, that my Bluetooth headphones not only paused the music while I took a call, but did away with the wayward wire I used to battle with so furiously.

Naturally those urges to electronically equip myself came flooding back, but the huge leaps and bounds that technology had gaily taken did the harmony twixt machine and battery asunder. A day of moderately abusive use now leaves me with terminally flat batteries, and a new addition to the M65 mobile office jacket is required: battery chargers.

Since my Rambo-esque coat once again became a hub of personal interconnectivity, I’ve become something of an unwitting expert when it comes to keeping my pockets full of electronic life. Being as I’m of the obstroculous mindset that thriftily minimizes the need for excessive, after-sales accessory shopping, I always put some forethought into the power connection of the gear in question. (One of the reasons I don’t own any Sony [bony] – not that it’s bad tackle, quite the opposite, but I’ll put a blunt bullet through my knee before I willingly make accessory salesmen rich, God damn it.)

Third-party manufacturers, I find, make a much more concerted effort when it comes to helping out the power-hungry, mobile technophile and, against all efforts from first parties to stop them, regularly attempt to provide the Holy Grail of portable power; the universal charger.

They laughed at Trevor Baylis when he invented the clockwork radio, but a pocket sized, wind-up charger is now an affordable emergency power source, although panting into a mobile phone while vigorously pumping away at a hand-held dynamo, desperate to retain a waning signal does have an adverse effect on your social status.

A multitude of external battery packs have also become available, although your personal area network jacket will need an extra pocket for all the adaptors and cables, which, inevitably, will only be suitable for 75 percent of your technological baggage.

The future makes vague, noncommittal promises about a next generation of portable power supplies, but none seem to be the revolution my gear is waiting for. Fuel cells are a pretty significant talking point for laptop and mobile phone manufacturers, though the evidence of their practicality has yet to be presented. From a consumer’s perspective, it’s hard to care exactly what kind of electro-chemical reaction is powering my DS Lite, so long as it lasts for ages and is easily replenished, and it’s this latter aspect that raises my suspicious eyebrow at fuel cells.

Fair enough, a methanol-powered battery might well deliver three times the current for twice as long as its lithium equivalent, but carrying around a canister of explosive liquid doesn’t ring my bell. Refueling my mobile phone, on the bus, with highly volatile accelerant splashing all over the other riders would make me pretty unpopular, I suspect. Especially if the bus caught fire and exploded while I was listening to “The White Room,” oblivious.


Rumors seep from MIT about gas-powered miniature jet engines the size of coins, with micro-turbines spinning at a million revolutions per minute. The jet engines of a Boeing 747 output the same amount of juice as a nuclear power station, so apparently even a fairly poor, underpowered miniature jet engine can dramatically outperform current batteries. But this is technology that’s still prohibitively out of reach, and it also begs the question of refueling and coping with a mobile phone that needs an exhaust port. Micro-jets of super heated gas waste burning though your jacket (and into your skin) is a price still a little too high for 20 hours of talk time.

As dictated by Morpheus, a power source as abundant as the sun must surely provide some hope for the power-hungry commuter, and much of the research into new batteries seems to be angled toward the sky. Already we can pick up a solar collector pretty cheap, though the trickle charge that dribbles from them (particularly in today’s greenhouse gas addled climate) is only useful to top up a battery during extended periods of inactivity. A well prepared user can make good employ of such photovoltaics, of course – leaving one ready on the dashboard or in the office window, topping up the iPod for the journey home, but even the flexible, printed versions now becoming available don’t quite replace a tube of lithium ions.

One of the most exciting (for me and my personal area network, at least) is currently to be found undergoing military tests at the Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center in Natick. Different fibers of nanostructured material are being woven into an active fabric that can generate and store electrical charge, making soldier’s uniforms into both battery and charger. Again, this is distant enough to ensure we won’t be seeing it branded with a cell phone carrier logo any time soon, but it’s one of the few genuinely exciting developments in combating the portable power shortage from which the modern man about town is suffering.

Of all the recent developments in accessible power, the USB socket has proven to be the most useful. Not that the computer data bus was designed for that purpose, but the world’s mobile technology is gradually changing from three-, six, nine- and 12-volt power requirements to a nice, round five – the new universal standard as established by the USB port.

Since most gadgets will now talk to a PC, it seems the manufacturers thought it’d be a good idea to tap into the five-volt supply at the same time, and since the USB port is not a difficult hole to find in the desks and walls of the modern world, personal area network users tend to agree. A range of rechargeable AA batteries are even available now with a flip top cover that reveals a USB plug for direct recharging, so although a universal charger still hasn’t quite been achieved, at least we have a more suitable outlet than the national power grid.

Perhaps it’s not entirely the onus of the manufacturers to ensure our electronic friends remain lively, however. It would seem that for the foreseeable future, the personal area networker is going to have to accept responsibility for his own power requirements. Technology is advancing faster than the power supplies – a demand driven by mobile technophiles like myself – so we must face the some of the storm when it comes to perpetually dead batteries.

Our pockets are rich with dynamic, exciting gadgetry that makes portable power an increasingly valuable commodity and an exciting realm that’s surely due for a revolutionary breakthrough. Factoring a recharge contingency into your personal area network in the meantime is a small price to pay until the nano-batteries are woven into the fabric of your M65 regiment field jacket and you become your own power source.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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