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The new wild west of voltage rustling.

This story from The Register gives a fairly ludicrous story of overreach from some German police. Seeing a young man in a railway station using an Apple iBook plugged into a power outlet belonging to Deutsche Bahn, they came to the conclusion that the laptop must have been stolen and arrested him. Upon discovering that the iBook was not stolen, rather than apologising and letting him go (and maybe leaving themselves open to a lawsuit), they charged him with “voltage rustling”, that is with stealing electricity worth €0.002 from the owners of the railway station. (Actually I would think that “current rustling” or even “power rustling” would better describe that actual physics of it, but that might be just me).

Eventually (and hopefully inevitably) sanity prevailed and the charges were dropped and the man released. All I can say is that however much respect I have for the property rights of German railway companies, and even if he is a “Greenpeace activist”, I have great sympathy for him.

Although battery technology is far better than it was a decade ago, as more and more things go wireless, portable batteries are more and more the weak link in our modern electronic world. And for a certain type of individual (that includes me) keeping an eye out for accessible power sockets is just something you do. If you are the sort of person who spends most of your time at home, at work, or commuting between the two places, you are not likely to be terribly familiar with this problem, but if you are instead the sort of person who travels a lot, or is constantly on the road (or, sadly, who does not presently have a job and likes to work in coffee houses) then this rapidly becomes one of the major problems of modern life. With laptop batteries still running down in only a few hours, accessible power outlets are like clean public toilets in New York City: you take advantage of them when you can. Topping up your laptop batteries when you have the opportunity is just something you do.

If you are not away from home, the key time period is really the time between when you leave the house in the morning and when you come home in the evening. Plugging your electronic devices in in the evening and disconnecting them in the morning is a relatively easy habit to get into. Modern teens learn this automatically, as having your mobile phone run out of power is today one of the worst kinds of social death. However, with laptop computers the problem is worse, current batteries are not powerful enough to allow users to get from the morning to the evening without a recharge if the laptop is being used heavily. Topping up your mobile phone battery can sometimes be an issue too, although mostly you can get from the start to the end of the day. And I won’t even start on the special needs of people with iPods.

I think the modern world needs better etiquette in this regard. Third places of all kinds need to offer electricity as a basic amenity, the way that they offer chairs. If I sit down in a cafe it should simply be assumed that I may need voltage, and a power socket should be provided beside the chairs. Restaurants should understand this. Airports should understand this and provide power in their terminals. Airlines should understand this and provide electricity in their handrests. Many airlines and hotels are pretty good at offering this sort of amenity for premium customers, but these kinds of needs are becoming mass market needs. (My experience is that of chains of coffee shops, Starbucks are quite good in terms of accessible power sockets. Their British competitors are less so. If Starbucks would make their WiFi free as well, I would never go anywhere else).

This may be merely a transitional phase, and with the advent of good fuel cells or similar we may find that we have plenty of power to last the day in all our devices. And of course electronics companies in general are doing what mobile phone companes have been doing for years: which is designing their products for low power from the ground But I tend to think this is a problem that will be with us for a while. The sad fact is that batteries do not obey Moore’s law, and practically everything else does. This means that however rapidly battery technology improves, technological demands on them are going to increase faster. Which means that social etiquette and business practices need to change slightly.

People like Perry de Havilland understand this. If you visit his house, there are plenty of places to plug in, there is WiFi in the house, everything is fine and charming. And he normally also provides really yummy food.

I mean, what a guy.

28 comments to The new wild west of voltage rustling.

  • Actually, voltage rustling isn’t totally unapplicable here. The crime here is the actual connection to the power outlet regardless of the duration of the connection or the amperage drawn.

    I caution against too much sympathy here. If power outlets in public places have to be fitted with locks, it will be on the expense of the taxpayer.

  • Legend has it that during the recording of ‘Exile on Main Street’ at Keith Richards’ villa in Ville Franche sur Mer the local electricity supply was so flakey the Rolling Stones’ engineers hooked up their studio equipment to a nearby SNCF railway line.

  • Actually I would think that “current rustling” or even “power rustling” would better describe that actual physics of it, but that might be just me.

    “Charge” or “energy rustling”, surely? After all, stealing two hours’ worth of electricity is a more serious crime than stealing one hour’s worth.

    [P]laces of all kinds need to offer electricity as a basic amenity, the way that they offer chairs.

    Continuing a recent thread from Transport Blog, the first class carriages on GNER have a power socket at each table.

    A former flatmate of mine once lived in a slightly dodgy area of Aberdeen. He told me that he once came home from holiday to find that his neighbour had broken into his house, plugged an extension cable into a socket and was using his electricity. The nerve of some people is incredible.

  • Antoine Clarke

    It’s all a question of manners. If I wished to use a railway station’s power socket I would ask the station manager.

    I don’t know about Germany, but until recently both the railway and the electric company were privately owned, so it was theft.

    Remind me to send a donation to the Bundespolizei widows and orphans fund.

  • Andrew: Well, what is happening is that electrons are going out of one terminal of the electric socket and coming back through another, so I don’t think any net charge is being stolen. The flow of electrons is causing a chemical change inside the battery, which is how the energy is stored. So, no, I don’t think I agree with “charge rustling”.

    “Energy rustling” is clearly more accurate than either “voltage”, “charge” or “power” rustling, but it has the problem of not making it obvious that the energy being rustled is in the form of electricity. (I suppose I could argue that by plugging my device into the socket I am reducing the voltage available to other people ever so slightly – assuming that generation of power is not being adjusted accordingly, which over the immensely larger scale of the power grid it undoubtedly is being adjusted – but that is really splitting hairs).

    And the actual value of the electricity being stolen in such instances is so small that I do agree with Antoine that it is all a matter of manners than anything else. This is the sort of problem that will go away once everybody understands it and an appropriate etiquette evolves. I think the analogy with public toilets is actually fairly close. There are some instances where these are genuinely for the use of customers, and others where they are “public” in the sense that they belong to some other business and that any member of the public is welcome to use them if they also buy something (but where exceptions may be made in emergencies). And people do flaunt this etiquette from time to time, but this does not cause civilization to collapse.

    The issue with recharging your laptop is not so much the question of stealing or buying so much as the problem that there is nowhere to recharge it at all unless you improvise.

  • Michael, I appreciate why you ask that this individual be shown sympathy in this instance but this was a case of theft, albeit very small scale and rather unusual theft. Admittedly, the police probably wouldn’t've arrested this man if they thought he was simply plugging in to charge up his laptop but the fact that he was powering the laptop using the power outlet in a railway station must have suggested to the arresting officer(s) that the man was homeless or some such and hence might be using a stolen computer.

    I would treat as theft someone charging a laptop computer using one of my power outlets without my consent just because it happened to be easily accessible to a passerby or because I had allowed the person on to my property. Michael, your argument seems to be that the theft could be overlooked because the victim was a major rail company who could, presumably, quite easily afford to spare €0.002 of electricity – it’s a bit like the justification people use for taking bits of office stationery from their employers and it’s not a particularly good justification for theft.

    It would be useful to have more ‘public’ power outlets but restrictions of some sort would be necessary. All Virgin trains now provide one power socket per two seats in standard class with the condition that the sockets be used only to power or charge laptop computers and mobile phones.

  • Hah, the Soviets triumph! I recently took a train from Moscow to Nizhnekamsk, and each carriage had a power socket for shaving at each end, and the train must have been well over 20 years old.

    The socket didn’t work, but that is beside the point – perception is everything in the great Worker’s Paradise. Needless to say, my mobile phone conked out on the journey due to drained battery.

  • So, no, I don’t think I agree with “charge rustling”.

    Fair point, but by the same logic “current rustling” is wrong too.

    “Energy rustling” is the only term that makes sense to me, since the variable part of your electricity bill is determined by the how much energy you’ve used. The marginal cost of a unit of electricity is ultimately determined by how much fuel is burned up at the power station. You’ll impose the same cost per hour whether you plug your laptop into a 240V socket at 0.5A or a 120V socket at 1A.

    …it has the problem of not making it obvious that the energy being rustled is in the form of electricity.

    “Electrical energy rustling” or “electricity rustling”?

    I have a feeling that you’ll need to trade off accuracy against elegance if you want a good phrase.

  • cirby

    Telling people they can’t use open power outlets seems to me like telling them they can’t use public toilets, or take tissues from prominently-placed boxes. Any rational employee with a drop of customer service in their blood would just say,” fine, go right ahead.”

    In most hotels, they wouldn’t even worry about whether or not you’re a guest at the place. The penny or two you’d use is more than offset by the bad PR they’d get from doing something so petty.

  • zmollusc

    I think that there IS a difference between using a power outlet that isn’t clearly marked ‘For use by any passing muppet who wants free electricity’ and using appropriately marked public conveniences.
    I had this pointed out to me by the local magistrate after I recharged the MolluscMobile ( my flourescent brown soft top custom milk float ) when parked outside the police station.

  • The goodwill argument doesn’t apply here: a railway monopoly doesn’t need goodwill.

    In other news, Michael’s point about Perry’s house brings me to another question: is there interest in a “Samizdata” social in a pub or similar venue in the near future?

  • The last time I was in Osaka, I was cruising through one of those unique retail concentrations that an American might refer to as a “mall” until they saw how ubiquitous they are in Japanese cities. I’d been out walking around the city, carrying a leather bag that also had my laptop in it. This is an older Vaio with the particular porblem that it does not run on battery power. Not even with a new battery. I don’t know why, and I should perhaps have it looked at, but there it is.

    I was a bit tired, and walked past a coffee shop & WiFi hotspot, where I might have sat down for a bite and a moment to hit my e-mail. I looked around the joint, however, and saw no power outlets anywhere in the customer area.

    I proceeded on to my hotel, and that establishment went without my business.

  • As a Burke-ian / Hayekian, I feel I have to weigh in on behalf of the Polizei here. You may disagree with the law, in which case you have the right to work to change it. But the law is the law, and abuse of the law – so long as it is not an unjust law – is abuse of the law. The same theory justifies the prosecution of Martha Stewart, basically on obstruction of justice and witness tampering charges, even though she wasn’t convictable of the underlying offenses.

    Stealing power is theft, an abuse of property rights of another. The de minimis nature of this particular theft counsels a wiser use of prosecutorial discretion and resources – but I can’t bring myself to condemn the choice on the merits. Abuse of any important social institution, especially a formal institution such as the law, should not be condoned.

    One other point, on the Green party activist, and an Apple computer product: once the words “Green Party activist” were written, did anybody need the additional information to know an Apple product was involved?

  • I was in fact briefly arrested once in Tokyo for electricity theft – mainly because I had unplugged one of the ubiquitous vending machines in order to get my fix. It was about 11pm and I needed the fix because my laptop (with its flat battery) contained vital information – to wit the phonenumber of the flat where I was going to stay the night but which I had forgotten how to get to. The police let me off with a “Gomennasai” letter once I managed to use the police phone and electricity to contact the flat and get rescued…..

  • Know the problem all too well. My son also discovered that some power converters don’ t enable him to recharge his GameBoy. This made him, at the ripe old age of 13, a keen spotter for an electrical outlet at the airport–no point draining battery power while still in the land of 110 volts.

    Some airport terminals have gotten a clue and are installing power stations, where you can do just what this man did–for FREE.

  • A former flatmate of mine once lived in a slightly dodgy area of Aberdeen. He told me that he once came home from holiday to find that his neighbour had broken into his house, plugged an extension cable into a socket and was using his electricity. The nerve of some people is incredible.

    Electric power in the U.S. being 110 for standard applications, I would hook such an extension cord (your expression cable is actually more accurate) into a 220 source, and if it were a 3 conductor cable I would run the hot side thru the ground wire.

  • I don’t know if it is still true, but at one time it was illegal to power electrical devices in Germany from energy received from radio stations.

    The very high power stations (when I visited RIAS in 1966 it ran 350KW input power) put out enough energy you could get enough power to do something useful with a simple wire antenna.

    And of course, some may remember crystal radios, which operated completely from off-the-air signals even in the US.

  • David Mercer

    Crystal radios can still get signals from strong stations that are fairly close by. I think RadioShack may even still sell a kit!

  • Mike G

    You use the restrooms in a public place? You’re stealing water!

    Seriously, this is all silly because he was a CUSTOMER of the rail line, presumably. And they should no more go around arresting customers for using the available facilities than Starbucks should if you grab an extra napkin to take in the car for later.

  • Stephen Maturin

    So, let’s see, you feel proprietors of all kinds should offer free electricity to you, because they can afford to do so — that would be “from each according to his abilities” — and you believe they should do this because, well, it’s tough for you to get from sunrise to sundown without it — that would be “to each according to his needs.”

    Sounds like good socialist thinking to me. Can’t imagine what it’s doing on a site purportedly about individualism, tho’.

  • Alex

    In the states, Delta Airlines is beginning to roll out charging/workstations at their gates. They also have pay T-mobile wifi. Highfalootin’ Burkean/Keynesism aside, I choose Delta when I can for this reason. Energy to charge batteries is a cheap way to get lots of goodwill.

  • Dave

    The question isn’t whether or not it is bad manners to use the electricity. As far as I’m concerned that’s settled. The question is whether or not it is bad manners to ask someone who is sitting by an available outlet but not using it to please move. (Especially an issue in airport waiting areas where there might only be one or two outlets for the entire planeload of people waiting for their (delayed) flight.)

  • Just posted a version of this quick comment to NoodleFood:

    Claiming that plugging in a laptop in a business constitutes stealing seems to me to imply a very rationalistic understanding of rights. Most businesses are happy to provide complimentary services to their customers. Although we may ask where the restrooms are, we do not ask our waitress whether we have permission to use them. When we buy a latte at Starbucks, we do not ask permission to consume some of the sugar or take a napkin. Such social conventions facilitate human interaction and trade by establishing a default, a default which may nonetheless still be overridden by express statements. Notably, that default is limited to a certain range of reasonable action. We certainly do not have implicit permission redecorate the restaurant’s bathroom or to take hundreds of napkins.

    Although the phenomena of plugging in laptops is a relatively recent one, there is little reason to suspect that the convention is resented or unwelcome to business owners. If it were, we would expect to see blocked off outlets, stickers on outlets forbidding plugging in, and so on. We would expect business owners to throw out plugged-in laptop users or perhaps even call the police to arrest them. (Notice that was not what happened in this case, as the police directly intervened.)

    People often don’t notice these conventions of trade, precisely because they are so completely taken for granted. (One of the hazards and excitements of foreign travel is that such conventions do change.) Nonetheless, they are a real and important part of social interactions, one which claims about rights violations ought to be sensitive. To ignore them is to treat rights as floating abstractions unconnected to actual facts about social interaction… and that only leads to trouble.

  • Anonymous Schmuck

    BWI has “pay-for-power” outlets set up in some of the terminal waiting areas. I was too disgusted by the thought to investigate.

  • Parker

    He was obviously a

    joule thief

    .

  • Diana – the cafe in the Borders bookstore in Davis, CA, has signs explicitly disallowing plugging in to their plugs, right next to the sign requiring you to move on after one hour.

    The fact that they feel it necessary to post such a sign tells me that there is a general expectation otherwise. In law, this is an example of “the exception proves the rule”.

  • Mark

    I plug in regulalry at airports here in the states. I’ve done it with my laptop, and I’ve even done it with my iPod when I did not have a laptop. If outlets are not designated for such use, I would expect to see a sign indicating so, otherwise I would think that such minimal use as charging goes under a complimentary airport amenity.

    The real question is what is the etiquette if multiple people are looking to charge their devices. I don’t know, but if I should ever have the problem, I would consider bringing along a powerstrip on my next trip.

  • John SF

    Parker:
    Perhaps he was a joule thief, but was he really at volt? Perhaps he just forgot he was not at ohm?