Time to Break Out the Foil Beanies!
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Mar 10 08:30:00 GMT 2003

A ubiquitous communications network? One million nodes per square kilometer? And what were these "minders"?

Do you filter your email? I do. I've set up a filter that examines the source of each email message I receive. The good ones - like messages from editors with paying assignments - appear in my in-box highlighted in bright green. Spam goes straight to the trash. Mailing lists get sent to a special folder. Then there are "Foil Beanie" messages.

Example: a couple of years ago a stranger offered to sell me plans for an electronic device he claimed could make traffic lights change from red to green. He said I could install it on my dashboard and never have to stop my car at an intersection ever again. It sounded like hogwash. I wrote the guy and said so. He immediately replied and told me that the device really did work as advertised. In fact, it worked as well as the motor he'd built, which generated its own electricity. (It had something to do with twin gyroscopes mounted on swivels.) I replied that perpetual motion machines were impossible. He said I was wrong, and sent me a long paper he'd written that "proved" his claims. In his honor, I created the "Foil Beanie" filter.

Mind the Minders

In the last couple of weeks, I've been getting email from a fellow who works for a company in New Zealand called IndraNet. His first email started out by saying "G'day Mark," which is the way New Zealanders greet each other. That wasn't alarming or strange. It was actually quite charming. But when he started to explain what his company did, the needle on my internal B.S. detector started quivering. "We're engineering a ubiquitous communications network. The architecture is the fundamental reason the whole thing scales beyond 1 million nodes per square Km. Nothing else like it. Especially the cost of making these 'minders.'"

Wait a minute. A ubiquitous communications network? One million nodes per square kilometer? And what were these "minders"? They sounded slightly sinister, like something that fits in your pocket and beams alien instructions into the brains of everyone within range. I visited IndraNet's website and learned that the company is developing a mesh network application. But it's much more than that. The site describes it as a "fourth generation wireless broadband multimedia tridimensional fractal communication mesh network technology endowed with advanced computing capabilities." That ought to win them some kind of award for stringing so many buzzwords together in a single sentence. IndraNet also wins the prize for being the least humble company on the planet: "IndraNet, is a new paradigm, a new take, on communication networks based on the fundamentals of communication, concerning the sociology, psychology, economics, physics, mathematics, operation and systems research, and engineering aspects of communications."

After plowing through the rest of IndraNet's fancy website, I sussed out that these so called "minders" are transceivers linked into a wireless mesh network, which will be "self-routing" and "self-managing," eliminating the need for wired, cabled, and cellular tower infrastructure between long distance backbone carriers and end users. Here's IndraNet's claim: "When fully developed, the capacity of IndraNet telecommunication networks is expected to be at least 3,000 times that of the present phone at each subscriber's terminal." This was starting to sound fishy.

But I decided to give IndraNet the benefit of the doubt. I emailed the gentleman who'd been asking me to write about the company, and presented him with a list of several basic questions about IndraNet. I politely asked for answers to be provided in simple terms, free of buzzwords. But it seemed as though my friend had a sudden change of heart. He wrote back: "mmm, don't know if the IndraNet story here at TheFeature is quite our scene at present, mostly out of polite respect for Nokia. Our story may be deemed offensive. Easy does it." He promised to get back to me the following day, but never did. It's now been over a week since I've heard from him.

Usually companies with a promising technology are more than happy to answer questions from the press, so by this time, my B.S. detector was going crazy. I turned to Glenn Fleishman, who knows almost everything there is to know about wireless networks. He's the co-author of the Wireless Networking Starter Kit, and maintains the immensely popular Wi-Fi Networking News weblog. I asked Fleishman if he knew about IndraNet, and he said he hadn't heard of it before. I directed him to the site, and he commented: "The most innovative thing I've found on their Web site isn't their technology, but their naming and graphics."

I kept digging. Surely there was some piece of information out there that could help me make up my mind about IndraNet. Then I found it, right on the IndraNet website. Get this: IndraNet is not only developing the mother of all telecommunications systems, it's also working on a "low cost zero emission compressed air motive and energy storage" technology that it intends to integrate and adapt to its network technology. To me, focusing both on compressed air power supplies and mesh übernetworks at the same time makes as much sense as starting a business that makes fertilizer and milk shake mixers. But IndraNet doesn't see it that way. It says combing these two wildly disparate technologies will do nothing less than "redefine the economics, safety, security and environmental impacts of transport."

That did it. IndraNet, welcome to my Foil Beanie Folder!

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.