Hardware

Daily update: "Night Ops"

In the dense fog of a Nepalese night, two figures huddle in the darkness, trying desperately to connect to the satellite Morsviazsputnik. Will they accomplish their mission of sending a high-priority document halfway around the world?


4/26/00
Namche, Nepal
3:15 P.M. local time (5:30 A.M. EDT)

For all you technophiliacs out there, here's a special treat. I contacted Tom Clancy by satellite phone, and he agreed to write a special dispatch for us, called "Night Ops," about our adventure in Tangboche.
Note: All apologies to Mr. Clancy in advance. I just thought I'd cop a poor imitation of his style for my dispatch. Tomorrow, Dave does Stephen King, so sleep with the light on.



Mike and Dave performing night ops. In a misty Tangboche night, they coax the sat phone, battery, and laptop to beam their dispatches back to the U.S.


Tangboche, April 24, 2000. Mike Jackman gazed out the window of their teahouse bunkroom at the mists rolling in. He shook his head. David Bard took a compass bearing to the glass.
"We won't get a signal from here. Too far to the west," David advised.
"Looks like we'll have to go into the field," Mike said with resignation.

They gathered up their equipment—headlamps, a bag containing a 33-amp/one-hour gel cell battery, current inverter, power connections, Compaq Armada E500 laptop, and their precious Immarsat Mini-M worldfone. Working as a team, they lugged the 20-kilogram battery pack out into the thick darkness to a nearby field with a clear line of site to the satellite, hovering in geosyncronous orbit above them to the southwest.

The scene had grown muffled and dim. From far away, the glow of someone's flashlight made a bright, wide cone, exaggerated by the fog. Yak bells clanged softly nearby. Working with easy familiarity, they each took their tasks. Mike fed the terminal leads to the gel cell and powered up the laptop, while Dave aimed the Mini-M's antenna to the southwest, powered up the phone, and connected phone and laptop with an RS232 serial cable. The red light of the Mini-M blinked regularly as it searched for any available satellite.

In the mist, Mike could barely make out David's stick-thin figure. He had been rendered even thinner by a bout of high altitude sickness and loss of appetite. Like the good trooper he was, David didn't complain but continued operations.

Shortly, David reported, "Got it—strong signal." He bent over the phone's panel. "Good old Morsviazsputnik, reliable as always."
"Can I go ahead and dial?"
"Wait for the spot beam selection."
In a moment, David reported, "Okay, go ahead."

The blue glow of the Compaq's LCD screen washed over Mike as he opened Dial Up Networking. He had to make an eeny-meeny-miny-mo decision—which ISP connection would be reliable tonight? He scanned the choices: AT&T Chicago, AT&T Lexington, AT&T Louisville. He chose Chicago, one of his favorite cities, and double-clicked.

"Busy with call," David said.

Mike rubbed his hands together. He had had to remove his gloves to use the touchpad. The cold seeped in.

"Verifying user name," Mike reported.
"Transmitting," said Dave.
"Ok." Reciting the Buddhist good luck mantra he had learned (Om mani padme hum) for good luck, Mike hit Send And Receive.

There were no tones, no beeps, just the silent and slow movement of a progress bar as six messages began to be sent at the once-advanced but now archaic rate of 2400 bps.

A figure walked out of the shrouds towards them. David and Mike tensed. The spectacle of the high-tech spread always attracted crowds among the trekkers and the Nepalese, who watched the progress bar with as much fascination as fans did a college football game in Mike and Dave's native Kentucky. But it was a porter, just passing through the field. And they relaxed again.

David whispered the numbers, "24 K sent. 28 K sent. 30 K sent..."

In antiphony, Mike replied, "Message 1 of 6; message 2 of 6; message 3 of 6."

But they hit a snag.

"No response," David warned.

"Crap." In a few moments, the ISP would send an error message and shut down the connection. They knew this from tough experience in the field.

"Let's just disconnect and try again."

In the cold and damp, they had to try three more times before being able to send their messages. At last it was finished, and the laptop checked the server for any incoming message.

"Four incoming," said Mike. There was no mistaking the excitement in his voice at getting e-mail from home, over 7,500 miles away.

Suddenly the current inverter, whose fan had been hissing nearly silently, began a high-pitch squeal, as it did when it was drawing too much power. It made the pair of operatives vulnerable to the forces in the night—Euro travelers, curious porters. Mike quickly pulled the plug out of the laptop. The squeal cut off, and silence descended on them again. But would the laptop have enough power left to finish the job?

"How's the battery?" David asked, his worried tone clear.

"Only twelve percent," Mike replied.

The progress bar seemed to advance slowly, but at last, just before the laptop cut off for lack of power, the last message was received and the connection severed. The duo was now cut off from their headquarters but had the joy of communication. Their sighs of relief were palpable in the fog.

As quickly and surely as they had set up their equipment, they dismantled the paraphernalia in the dark and, unobserved, carried the gear back to their teahouse room. David laconically noted in his journal that night, "April 24, 2000. Tangboche nightops. Concluded successfully."
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Mike Jackman is an editor in chief of TechProGuild, an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional, and also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. Together with his co-editor in chief David Bard, he is traveling to Nepal to report on high-altitude technology and to climb 20,285-foot Imja Tse. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.

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