NerdGuy #21: Submarine cables

You use them every day…perhaps 100s of times.

Did you glance at the BBC news? Send a message to a friend traveling in Thailand? Look at a webcam of a wildfire in California (but you don’t live on mainland North America)?

If so, you used an undersea cable. Satellite? Nope. By comparison those are both slow and very expensive. They’re better for beaming down large blocks of programming to a massive area to be picked up by big radio dishes to feed into local cable systems (and little ones at home). Bad weather can interfere with the signal, making frequent resends necessary (it’s all done automatically, but the repeating still slows everything down).

An Incredibly Brief History

  • The telegraph really worked well for the first time in 1839. A two-wire apparatus built by a British team.
  • By 1842, Samuel Morse had dumped a wire (his cheaper system required only one and, along with creating Morse Code, made him the father of telegraphy) into New York harbor. He coated it in hemp and India rubber, and submarine cable was born.
  • By 1853, a successful cable was laid across the English Channel.
  • There are now about 450 of them, many with a dozen or more interconnections to a single cable. I should amend that, there are about 450 active cables, there are (literally) 1,000s down there. Seriously cool active cable map:
  • There are more being laid every day.
  • A cable appears to have about a 20-year life. Not that they all fail, but because technology moves so fast that they’re simply too lame to bother with anymore.
  • Cables were originally mostly owned by telegraph and telephone companies.
  • Now, most of the new ventures are owned by Internet media companies: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Netflix, with some phone companies thrown in for old times sake. They are all investing billions of dollars into this infrastructure. Private enterprise is going for a 100% connected planet as fast as they can (and as governments allow). If a government chooses not to get hooked up, they’re simply be bypassed and fall off the information superhighway (a near-fatal mistake in my opinion, even just from a commerce point of view). Look at the landing points of the upcoming 2Africa cable to see what I mean:

The Cable Itself

There’s an old World War II submarine cable sticking out of a hillside not too many miles from where I live. We went to see the old anti-submarine observer tower that’s smack in the middle of a very upscale neighborhood. The cable has just been chopped off and left behind in a road cut with no indication if back in the day it was merely connecting to Boston or it stretched all the way to Europe. An insulated core wrapped in heavy armor (that’s all the twisty steel, not for conducting, just for protection). There would then be another protective layer over that, but the rubber has probably degraded out of existence (the tower is at least 75 years old).

WWII Submarine watch tower, Cape Ann, MA
WWII Submarine watch tower, Cape Ann, MA
Submarine cable at base of tower
Submarine cable at base of tower








They’re now fiber-optic thread (or a bunch of them), inside a copper tube (which carries a current to drive the repeaters that boost the signal every 100 km or so), inside armor, waterproofing, and so on. The whole cable will be only 2-3 inches across, all of it in service of a dozen threads of fiber optic each finer than a human hair.

Speed? Try 26 Terrabits per second on a recent trans-Atlantic cable. If I did my math right, that about 135 1080p (hi-res) movies per second. Or 1.3 billion hi-res pictures. Per second. That’s one cable for 1/86,400th of a day.

Now multiply by those 450 cables (despite varying speed and age), and you can see how they connect our world together.

Damage, Sabotage, and Tapping?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Every few days a cable is broken by rock slides, underwater earthquakes, or fishermen. In an extreme example in 2007, a couple of Vietnamese fishermen essentially unplugged the country. They pulled up 27 miles of cable with the intent of selling it as scrap. For over a month the country had to limp along on a single, aged cable.

Cutting a cable is easy.  The main safety against a cable attack at this time is simply the vast number of cables. To target even a significant number, at least in the first world, would be a monstrous task. In less connected countries, which may have only one or two connections, or worse yet may only be linked through another country’s cable, this is a higher risk.

Tapping one is harder, but both the Russians and the US have submarines that appear to have been specifically adapted to do this. Consider these links:

The submarine USS Jimmy Carter (with an extra 100′ section) took over duties from the USS Parche worked for the NURO, National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (part of the NRO??). And if you want to muckrake a little deeper, try this article.

Tapping them on land is trivial, as Snowden revealed in his document theft from the NSA.

This is, of course, no surprise at all to any half-decent computer tech, and it is practically guaranteed that every country is doing it and has been all along. Snowden just happened to steal a document that exposed GCHQ (the British equivalent to the NSA).

The easiest attack point is where the cables come ashore. Any sailor knows the “Do Not Anchor Here” signs of a cable crossing. They often carry power to an island along with phone and cable. But they can also be crossing oceans. There are two options about what to do with the sea-to-land terminus: hide it or fortify it. Or do both. All of the examples in my recent release At the Merest Glance are real, except for the Senegalese one. I found solutions precisely like the ones I used there, but was uncertain of the precise location it actually comes ashore there. In the book I talk about the WWII solution at Porthcurno, Cornwall, where they buried the cables and the operators inside a sea cliff.

Yes, there’s an entire, utterly fascinating infrastructure that underlies our oceans and connects our world together. I hope that it only grows.

For the Total Geek

A neat 3-minute video of how cables are laid under the ocean.

A 43-minute special on how cables are: manufactured, laid, and fixed that I found riveting despite the narration style.

All this for a few scenes in Shadowforce: Psi #3

At the Merest Glance

At the Merest Glance

Series: Shadowforce: Psi, Book 3
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Tag: Novel

Sometimes seeing is believing, sometimes it takes feeling as well.

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New: At the Merest Glance

Shadowforce: Psi #3 has arrived!

Army helicopter pilot Anton Bowman could always see more than everyone else. Even as a kid, he could send his vision out to look around in places his body hadn’t actually gone.

Katie Whitfield embraces her lonely status as an outsider. Her livelihood as a wildlife tracker across the English countryside keeps her content and well clear of her uncaring family.

Both their lives change when the gifted members of the Shadow Force: Psi team travel to England as part of a security test. A test that uncovers unexpected dangers to both the UK’s network of undersea cables and to their hearts.


“You owe me the bloody fee and you know it.” Katie had only one other client ever stiff her, a lawyer. “Are you a lawyer?”

“No, I’m a photographer.”

“Well, whatever you are, you owe me my fee, Chas Thorstad.” She thumped a fist on the Ship Inn’s bar for emphasis.

“I don’t have the money, Katie.”

Katie wondered if it would be worth hitting a client, knowing it meant that she would never be paid. He was a good hand taller that she was and strong; if she hit him, it wasn’t likely to turn out well. Of course, most of the folks in the Ship Inn pub knew her and—

Chas seemed to levitate into the air until his feet were dangling near her knees. She stepped back to avoid being kicked as he struggled.

“Lady says you owe her a fee, my friend.” The voice behind Chas was deep and dangerously soft. “Seems to me she earned it.”

Katie looked up, way up, to see the person holding Chas aloft by his jacket collar. He was a giant of black man. His white t-shirt said, “BBQ Pit” in dripping red-sauce letters. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. His biceps barely seemed to bulge as he held Chas aloft.

Chas aimed a vicious elbow strike behind him, which didn’t work well with his jacket pinning his arms. It didn’t matter as it bounced off the giant’s shoulder.

The giant shook him once—hard.

Chas stopped struggling.

Still not setting him down, he reached out Chas’ wallet and handed it over. “How much does he owe you?”

She opened the wallet and riffled through the thick wad of pound notes. Screw it! She took her triple fee, then handed the wallet back. That would pay rent on her room for next month.

The giant stuffed it back into Chas’ pocket, then tossed him negligently aside. His aim was perfect.

In midflight, Chas squeaked in panic. Then he slammed against the front door and tumbled out into the street. A brief salty wind blew in from the harbor. Then Clive, still smelling of his day working the fish nets, shut the door and muttered, “Eejit. What a tuss.”

“You okay?” Then the giant looked down at her and his eyes went wide. “Holy shit!”

Katie knew she wasn’t the sort of woman that men said such things about.

Still, he kept staring.

“Do I know you?” She’d meant to thank him for his help, but he was somehow familiar. Not that she’d ever seen him before. There was no possibility of forgetting such a man.

“Yes. No. I know…” He stumbled over his words, shook his head like a wet terrier, then tried again. “I definitely…uh, would remember you.” His words didn’t sound quite truthful. The first part was okay, it sounded like a sincere compliment. But there was something gone awry in the latter part of that short sentence.

His familiarity bothered her. It was recent. Not the sight of him, but the…feel of him? Now she was getting into her best friend’s Earth-Mother interconnected-universe crap. Dora would already be going on about souls meeting and—

“Uh, look. Glad I was able to help. If you want to join us, me, my friends…” he nodded toward a couple at the bowsprit table. “Well, anyway. It’s a pleasure to actually…uh…meet you in person.”

“In person compared to what?”

He looked at her wild-eyed, grunted something, then picked up the three pints James had pulled for him and hustled off to his table.

She picked up her own pint of Mena Dhu “Black Hill” stout, and tossed James a fiver from her new-found wealth. She took a sip and let the toasted, dark-chocolate taste roll across her tongue.

The giant was familiar. Recently, like…this evening.

However, it had been only her and Chas out at the badger sett.

She chatted with James long enough to find out about Tabby’s newest attempts to take her first steps. His little girl was apparently furious that her body couldn’t yet do what her brain could already picture.

Then she turned, and down the length of the room the big guy was looking right at her over the rim of his glass of the same stout she was drinking. He snorted his swallow, choked, and the tall redhead leaned over to pound him on the back with an easy familiarity—though none too gently. Then she leaned against his shoulder obviously teasing him about something.

Katie knew that she didn’t have much power over men. Definitely not like his redheaded companion must wield. She’d been fairly sure that he’d been flirting with her, if doing an even worse job of that than she would have. Why would he do that when he was obviously so close to the stunning redhead?

Still, the fact that Katie was able to completely discomfit him, and that he’d helped her get paid, led her to nod thoughtfully to the end of James’ story, then stroll down to the table.

“You the one upsetting Anton?” The redhead asked by way of introduction.


A holly-berry red cowboy boot shoved out the closest chair. “You just gotta join us. Always glad to meet someone who can mess with my demi-brother’s head. I’m Michelle. This quiet boyo, he’s Ricardo.” She leaned over and kissed him on the temple in a way that clearly stated, “This one is mine,” without appearing to be rude about it.

Ricardo, a sleek Hispanic, tipped his beer glass to her in acknowledgement, then swept it ever so slightly toward the empty chair. Which still didn’t explain what the redhead was to Anton.

Demi-brother?” Katie sat before she had a chance to really think it through.

“No, don’t—” Anton started, but then yelped. Katie had the distinct impression that Michelle had just kicked his shin under the table with the toe of those red boots.

“Okay, demi is too much. What’s less than half?”

Anton was still watching her a bit wildly. It was getting a little unnerving.

“Less than a demi?” Katie sipped her beer slowly to draw out the moment. “How about a dram-brother?”

“Like a dram of whiskey. How much is that?”

“A dram is an eighth of an ounce.”

“An eighth of a—” Michelle squealed. “That’s perfect! Everyone, raise your glass.” When they all had, she announced loudly enough for the entire pub to overhear. “To my dram-brother and the woman who messes with his head.”

They all clinked glasses, even Anton, and drank to the toast.

He didn’t appear the least put out by Michelle’s declaration of his unimportance.

“Step-sibs,” Ricardo spoke for the first time.

“Dram-sibs!” Michelle turned on him ready for a fight. “We’re nowhere near step-sibs. Thank God!”

His response was to cup her cheek and kiss her very soundly. A choice that softened the hard-edged woman with a surprising abruptness.

“Newlyweds,” Anton whispered in that lovely deep voice of his. His affection for both of the others clear in his tone.

Now she knew where he was familiar from. “Tonight. You were…” But that was impossible. It had been only her, Chas, and the badgers. Yet, somehow, he’d been there.

When she tried to look into his eyes, his gaze slid aside too fast.

“You were there. How? I didn’t see you.”

“Hey,” Michelle reentered the conversation by slapping her dram-brother on his shoulder. “Is that what you were doing earlier?”

“Missy,” Anton growled at her.

“Michelle,” Ricardo’s soft admonishment brought brilliant color to Michelle’s cheeks.

“Uh, don’t mind me.” Then she concentrated on playing with her beer glass though her cheeks continued to flame as brightly as her hair.

“How were you there and not there?” Katie turned back to Anton. The group had shifted from fun to suddenly tense in ways that she didn’t like one bit.

“How did you know I was? Uh, I wasn’t…” Anton struggled.

Katie pushed to her feet. She didn’t need these people. Didn’t want to know any more about—

When she turned to leave, she almost plowed down a beautiful woman only a few centimeters shorter than she was.

No, not just some beautiful woman. This was one of Hollywood’s hottest rising stars, Isobel Manella.

“Holy shit!” She couldn’t think of what else to say.

Buy now to read At the Merest Glance! You can also pre-order #4 right now.

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NerdGuy Friday #20: A bit of PSI

No, I’m not talking about atmospheric pressure (pounds per square inch), the Planetary Science Institute, or even the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano). I’m going to briefly nerd out on parapsychology.

It was a hot ticket in 1970s science fiction, perhaps most prominently led by Anne McCaffrey’s To Ride Pegasus and the seven follow-on novels of her Talents Universe. Also, the famous human-draconic telepathy of her dragon series and empathy of the Dragonsigner trilogy.

At that time, there was hope, perhaps even belief, that this was the next evolutionary step of humankind. Thought psi has faded far back in popularity, it still lies at the core of some stories, the movie Looper comes easily to mind.

I think that in fiction, interest in these skills was mostly wiped out by the superhero genre of the X-men and their ilk.

A Brief Background

Back in 2016, Desiree Holt approached me with an invitation to include a romantic suspense story in her upcoming Kindle Worlds launch. I was beyond flattered. She was one of the early powerhouses in RS. It was only later when I had read several of her books that I realized quite how different our styles were.

Desiree Holt was a queen of super steamy romantic suspense mixed with telepathy. While I’m not the former, my old love for McCaffrey as a teen kept me in the plan. Plus, it was only one short novella, to which I’d never get the rights back. That was clear in the Amazon Kindle Worlds contract and I was fine with that for the promotional opportunity.

I wrote the story (more on that in a moment), and it rocketed to #2 in Kindle Worlds and remained there for over a month. I made a little money as did Desiree, which was nice, but I was befuddled by the title’s popularity. No other title from that initial 10-book launch in her world came close.

Then, Amazon shut down Kindle Worlds. The rights reverted to a story I never expected to have back. Desiree offered to republish it under her own imprint, or fully revert the rights if I removed her characters. I chose the latter and redrafted the last half of the book with new secondary characters.

The Sum Is Greater became At the Slightest Sound. And, because I can’t write just one (writing is a lot like potato chips for me), I followed it with At the Quietest Word. Now books #3 and #4 in the series are coming to complete the series. (August 25th and September 29th)

But that’s not what I want to nerd about.

PSI Powers

Psi (or parapsychology) is the study of extra-sensory perception and even telekinesis (moving stuff with your mind).

Wikipedia offers these as the primary areas of study of psi:

  • Telepathy – mind-to-mind communication
  • Precognition – knowing ahead
  • Clairvoyance – seeing remotely
  • Psychokinesis – moving stuff with the mind
  • Apparitional experiences – seeing ghosts, or sensing from their belongings

The problem I had with writing about any of these is that they’re sort of the “first idea.” One thing that writers talk about when they’re together is the “low-hanging fruit” of the first idea that comes to mind. As we advance as writers, we learn to discard the first, second, perhaps even the third idea. Why? Because that’s what comes to everyone else’s mind too. How do we make it new?

Telepathy with dragons? Empathy with fire lizards? Absolutely unique. But Ms. McCaffrey’s “Talents Universe” is an obscure body of work by any comparison. Why? I think it’s because she went right up the middle lane. This person is a telekinetic and can move things. This one is precog and knows things before they happen (even if sometimes too late). They are flawed people with challenges of their new talents putting them in danger.

So, I set out to make my characters different. Nothing magical. Not Dragonriders of Pern. But different.

A Different Kind of Psi

For the original title, I went poking around for ideas that I’d never heard of before. I’ve had a great deal to do with sound in my life. I was a professional soundman for live theater for several years. I’ve sold high-end home stereos, even redesigned the entire living room of one of my first house specifically for the best acoustics from my ridiculously tweaky sound system. I’ve studied music for years on a wide variety of instruments (regrettably with little talent and a tin ear) but I love music and acoustics.

I’d never read about acoustics as a psi talent (not that its a genre I’d read heavily, but it sounded different). Then I got to thinking about the fact that it was a romance. How could I use an acoustic psi talent to bring my couple together?

At the Slightest Sound places a Night Stalker and a Delta Force operator in the weeds of an operation gone bad. She can create little sounds to distract the enemy. They quickly discover that, with the hero’s help, she can create far bigger sounds.

But that was too easy. It had that low-hanging fruit feel to it. Add in that my Delta Force heroine can’t hear the sounds she makes, and is debilitated whenever my hero amplifies them, and I felt I finally had something interesting.

Continuing the Quest

While putting my own characters into book #1 to replace Desiree’s, my characters informed me that this was a four-book series. I’d only intended to republish that first book, but the characters had other ideas.

So, I needed more cool psi.


Well, telepathy was a pretty easy idea. So, how to make it more interesting? It’s a romance, so having it strictly connect the hero and heroine rather than being some kind of broadcast made perfect sense. But what if it wasn’t that simple?

What if… Hmmm….

In writing, we often get a character’s internal dialog as distinct from their narration. Something that they might mutter aloud to themselves if they were alone. Smooth move, Matt. Way to really not make a good first impression. (Let’s just say that was practically a mantra back in my dating days. I was never, even remotely, Mr. Smooth.)

What if one character could hear the other’s internal dialog, but not vice versa? That should make them both a bit nuts. Oh, and add a distance limitation on that ability, but not on the telepathy? Cool. That gave me: At the Quietest Word.

Seeing and Tracking

The next couple was fun. I already knew that my hero was a remote-viewer, a clairvoyant…with issues. He could go out and look places. The problem was that he had to walk his vision there–even worse, if he tried to “run” his vision, it was beyond exhausting. So, he could go and look at nearby places, but only if he wasn’t in a hurry.

I wanted to match him with a complementary talent. The heroine…is a tracker. This is a fascinating skill that the deep practitioners call an art. A trainable art, but an art. What if–a writer’s favorite question–what if it was more than an art? What if our heroine could feel where people had been? A bit of the apparitional skill above?

And what if, like my first couple, their skills could somehow augment each other, but only in a strange, fractured way?

That last was an important part for me. I didn’t want superheroes. I wanted normal people whose exceptional skills had just as many problems as everyone else has with daily life. That gave me: At the Merest Glance.

The Empath

The empath decided that she stood at the center of my team. I’m not quite sure when that happened, and neither is she. But it had been useful to her Hollywood career to know exactly who had good intentions and who were the total shits.

But I couldn’t seem to find a psi talent that would be an interesting challenge for her. That would somehow match what was broken in her, or something like that.

It was my wife who solved the problem right away. Regrettably, as I’m a bit of a pigheaded writer, she had to suggest it several times before I could finally hear it. Who better for an empath, head of a team of psi talents, than a normal human–except he was the only human whose emotions she couldn’t read.

And, as an appropriate counter gift, he’s actually very good at recognizing everyone’s emotions (despite no special skills). Everyone’s except his own, of course.

And that’s how I came up with the many skills and four novels of Shadowforce: Psi.

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Free Fiction on the 14th: Emily’s First Flight

The Ides of Matt:
A free short story,
every month from the 14th-20th.

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It’s still available for purchase:

Emily’s First Flight

Emily’s First Flight

Emily Beale didn’t magically become an amazing pilot. First she had to decide she was.

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