Category Archives: Technology

Space – The Final Frontier

Gene Kranz–THE Flight Director

I grew up during the early days of the space program. At night, when Echo I–a satellite that was essentially a giant, shiny Mylar balloon–passed overhead, the whole family would go outside. A clear sky, the overflight time from the local newspaper, and we’d watch until we saw that tiny speck of light pass overhead.

The Mercury program gave us America’s first manned space flights when I was in grade school. For each launch, someone would bring a transistor radio–the latest thing–and the whole class would listen. Somewhere during the tail end of the Mercury program and the beginning of the Gemini program, the radio was replaced by a television. While most televisions were large and treated as a piece of furniture, some of my classmates had a smaller television that was (barely) light enough to transport to school. The picture was black and white, but then, most televisions were.

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, I sat on the couch with my girlfriend and watched, transfixed. Apollo 12 didn’t generate as much interest, but when Apollo 13 suffered a near catastrophic explosion, everybody followed coverage until the astronauts were safely home.

Later, when I lived in Florida, along the Space Coast, I could watch launches–including the space shuttles–from my driveway. One time I drove up to Cape Canaveral to watch a shuttle launch up close. First there was the sight of the liftoff, which was followed by the sonic roar and a pressure wave against my chest that attested to the power of the engines.

But, what I remember most fondly, is the final stage of the countdown as the flight director polled each section to ensure that the mission could be successfully launched .
“Medical?” “Go!”
“Range?” “Go!”
“CapCom?” “Go!”
“Flight?” “Go!”

Each function had to make sure their area of responsibility was ready. Each wanted desperately to add their affirmation–to say yes and to agree to move forward.

Contrast that with today when so many people are so eager to say “No.”

Boeing 737 Max B

Aircraft evolution is really quite fascinating—right up to the Boeing 737 Max 8.

Initially, the Wright Brothers (Wilbur was the real inventor, Orville was the trusty sidekick) actually bent the wings to cause it to turn. Fortunately, if wings are fabric covered wood slats held up by metal cables, bending them is easy. Soon, elevators (the little wings at the tail) controlled whether the aeroplane pointed up or down, and ailerons (movable sections of the main wings) determined whether a plane would angle and turn; the rudder helps turns but is mainly to keep the back of the plane coordinated with the front.

The United States entered World War II in 1941 with most of its aircraft still made of wood frames covered by fabric AND two sets of wings, but more modern planes were arriving and more under development. By 1945, the US Army Air Corps (there was no US Air Force until 1947) was flying multi-engine, high altitude aircraft with pressurized cabins. Next, jet engines replaced many propeller-driven airplanes. Soon passenger aircraft were taking business from the railroads.

The biggest change came when the technology changed from mechanical controls to computers. Small general aviation aircraft, for example, have cables connected from the pilot’s yoke (the thing that looks like a partial steering wheel) and the rudder pedals to the various control surfaces. The pilot pulls back on the yoke and the plane points its nose up; push and the nose goes down. There are other factors that that play a parrt, but you get the idea.

Fly-by-wire describes having a computer between the pilot and the aircraft control surfaces. When the pilot pulls back on the yoke, it is really a computer interface that gives a command to the elevators to move. It’s designed so that to the pilot, it feels the same regardless if it’s mechanical linkages or fly-by-wire. So far, so good.

Basic general aviation planes are built to be stable, and therefore forgiving. The Cessna 172 that I learned to fly, for example, could recover itself from some unusual situations (like a spn) if I just let go of all of the controls. I never tested this, but like most student pilots, I was harder on that little plane than it was on me.

When you add computers, there are all kinds of possibilities, starting with sophisticated autopilots. A military fighter aircraft ideally needs to be highly maneuverable, which means you sacrifice stability. However, by adding a computer, it’s not just the commands from the pilot, but hundreds of little adjustments by the computer. These invisibly make the aircraft act stable but still give the pilot control.

In a modern military aircraft, the pilot is the weak link. The aircraft can accelerate to speeds that would cause the pilot to black out. The aircraft can fly longer than the pilot can remain alert. The pilot’s main job is to provide judgment; even so-called “drones” are remotely piloted.

Planes like the Boeing 737 Max 8 have an upgraded computer system. The new 737 seemed so similar to previous versions, except for the computer and software, that the Federal Aviation Administration didn’t require the exhaustive testing required of a brand new aircraft. It’s possible that the new software has some flaws, flaws that reportedly cause the plane’s nose to drop and not respond when the pilot pulls the yoke back to correct it.

This is only a guess, based on various news reports. When a thorough investigation is complete, including reviewing the data from the flight recorders—the “black boxes”—then we should know more.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is*

I’ve never been crazy about switching back and forth between standard time and daylight savings time. I realize that daylight savings time is worth billions of dollars to the outdoor grill and charcoal industries, the gulf courses, and–at least on Halloween, the candy manufacturers.

But why switch back and forth? Oh, I forgot, our Congress came up with that idea to save energy, even though it actually uses MORE energy and there’s a great loss of efficiency whenever we change.

Time is pretty arbitrary to begin with. If you set up a sun dial in your backyard, with precise orientation, the time at your location is very unlikely to match the time your clock/telephone/nuclear synched weather station, etc. We have time zones because the railroads needed it back in the 19th century–today I guess it’s for network television.

Take the Eastern Time Zone. It stretches from Qaanag (Thule), Greenland to Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. In Qaanag, sunrise today is at 0819 (8:19 AM) with sunset at 1912 (7:12 PM).

In Indianapolis–in the same time zone–sunrise is at 0758 (7:58 AM) and sunset at 1949 (7:49 PM). On the east coast of Virginia, sunrise is at 0719 (7:19 AM).

Since it is so arbitrary, anyway, why don’t we just stop switching back and forth. Personally, I’d prefer staying on daylight savings time–I like a little sunshine after I get off of work.

Twenty-First Century Customer Servcie*

In many retail stores I find several recurring themes–none of which are particularly appealing.

  1. Everything gets moved around. This is true at WalMart, the local grocery store chain, and who knows where else (I don’t shop too many other places).
  2. Once everything is moved (at least at the grocery stores), the prices are raised by about 10 percent.
  3. Of course, the idea of having employees available to answer questions, like, “Where are the clocks that used to be here?” died a long time ago.
  4. There are employees available, but they’re busy stocking shelves. Shelves are no longer stocked at night, but instead, at the peak of business activity, and giant carts loaded with merchandise are used to make passage through aisles absolutely impossible.
  5. It’s bad enough that shoppers are expected in 9 out of 10 cases to scan and bag their own purchases. However, the use of the plastic bags that defy all human efforts to open them (i.e., the front and the back stick together no matter what you do) manage to raise the bar on customer frustration to an all-time high.

Each of these practices are irritating, but since they seem so widespread, I have to ask. Did some retail guru (perhaps from Radio Shack, Sears, or J.C. Penney’s) promote these ideas? We may never know, but we are entitled to our suspicions.

 

* Yes, I know it’s misspelled. You see, it’s a sarcastic jab at poor customer service. Besides, I want to be the originator of a meme like covfefe or hamberder. So use Servcie every chance you get! Servcie! Servcie? servcie

Hey! Haven’t We Seen Him Before?

reg

Reg Blank, Max Headroom, William Morgan Sheppard, and . . . Sheppard as a Klingon?

Everyone–or at least everyone of my age–has heard of the six degrees of separation (from Kevin Bacon). If you don’t know->click here.

I’ve read some reasonably academic(ish) articles about how people are connected, and in the entertainment world it is not the big-name actors who are the connectors, but the character actors. Why? Sylvester Stalone, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, or (add your favorite star here) carefully choose the roles they will undertake. John Wayne, for example, was an action figure–a cowboy hero, a military hero, etc.

Character actors, on the other hand, show up in a variety of movies and television shows. They get to play all kinds of roles. They also (probably) get to go to the grocery store without being accosted.

However, character actors still have roles that leave lasting impressions. One great character actor, William Morgan Sheppard, died in early January. You can check him out on IMDB if you wish–you’ll probably find something familiar.

As for me, of all the roles he played, my favorite was on Max Headroom. There was a group of nonconformists who refused to be connected to the computerized network and were not identifiable. To the network, they merely appeared as missing data–blanks–and Blanks were what they called themselves. Sheppard played one of the key blanks who even had his own radio program. His name? Reg Blank.

Great character acting. Great concept. Frighteningly prescient for a Facebook connected world. Here’s a peek.

Bill, if I may, thanks for adding your flavor to the world of entertainment.

 

Medical Tests

I spent many years in healthcare, starting as a radiologic technologist (or, using the pejorative, x-ray technician), moving into management and eventually becoming a Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives. I maintained my clinical and management certifications throughout my extended recall to active duty–complete with continuing education requirements–until I accepted a position outside of healthcare. Then I dropped my healthcare credentials–after all, the annual memberships and continuing education requirements amounted to over $4,000 per year. With school age kids at home, that was a luxury that could not be maintained.

Nevertheless, I have maintained as active an interest in healthcare as Sherlock Holmes did for tobacco ashes. (If you don’t what I mean, read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books.)

So why do I even mention this?

First–So many things that were medically disastrous or fatal during my clinical days are now routinely managed if not cured. Halleluiah!

Second–There are so many new areas of medicine that address real issues that were written off before. Again, Halleluiah!

Recently, where I work, they shrunk the functional sized workspaces, with 7 foot high sound absorbing dividers to playpen size (48″ x 48″ x 48″) work areas with which offered almost no sound absorption.

Hey, what could go wrong? The salesman said it would be wonderful!

So, if you make one extremely stupid move, and it creates problems, the next step is to make an even more extremely stupid move. Since everybody can hear everything everyone says, instead of bringing the old cubicle materials out of the warehouse lets ———–

INSTALL NOISE GENERATORS!

The theory of noise generators is that by adding noise on top of noise, the existing noise will be less noticeable. (To me, this is like blasting a diesel horn to drown out traffic noise, but then I am not an expert in interior design.)

The salesman claim that it is not additive–huh? Add X deciBels on top of Y deciBels and you will end up with Y minus X deciBels? (Can I have whatever you are smoking?
Thanks, man! Got any munchies?)

A select few of us don’t hear the noise generators, but instead feel a pressure in the ears similar to a small plane climbing to altitude–accompanied by the feeling of the world was spinning around.

Ergo, we get to spend our time sequestered in areas without the NEW! IMPROVED! sound reduction.

BUT we get to go to physical therapy. This where I found out about a whole new specialty in Physical Therapy that deals with labyrinth issues (the part of the inner ear that impacts balance and such). (In my experience, no new medical specialty emerges without a demand; does that tell you something?)

I’m optimistic that the physical therapist will be able to help me. In the meantime, my free advice to anyone interested:

  1. Don’t accept everything sales people say as gospel.
  2. The scientific method demands that we challenge, prove or disprove, not blindly accept things as fact.

Just something to think about, but that’s what this blog is all about.

Writing Is Sometimes Work

Writing can be like a partial conversation among friends. Writing can be therapeutic by admitting to things that concern or anger you. Writing can be artistic as you commune with the muse whose job it is to inspire you.

However, writing can also be work.

Lately, I haven’t written much because inspiration has been difficult. As an idealist who likes to believe that by pulling together we can accomplish anything, today’s “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude is a definite buzzkill.

What’s wrong with “My opinion and your opinion are mutually exclusive and universally exhaustive, but go ahead and tell me about your opinion anyway,”? Nothing, but instead of conversing, we prefer to find an internet site, radio station, organization, or whatever that reinforces our own opinion. It’s easier than critcally thinking.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a flawed–if not faked–study that linked autism to childhood vaccinations. The study was discredited and the former Dr. Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. However, some believed–and continue to believe Wakefield’s tripe.

Right now, in Asheville, North Carolina, 36 children are suffering from chickenpox. While chickenpox may not be fatal–although in some cases it has, it hopefully won’t be for any of these children. Meanwhile, their parents will most likely continue to limit themselves to associating with others who agree with their concerns about vaccinations.

License Agreements

When we download software (since many computers don’t have optical drives anymore) the first thing we see is the licensing agreement, which is very long and complicated. Here’s what all that legalese boils down to:

  1. You are obliged to send us money.
  2. We have the right to keep it.
  3. We are not responsible for the software failing to work, containing malware.
  4. In fact, we are not responsible for anything.
  5. We have the right to sell your personal information to anyone.
  6. We have the right to rewrite the software so you have to buy it again.
  7. We have the right to limit the time you can use the software.
  8. If there is a dispute, you will not sue; the dispute will be settled by arbitration.
  9. We reserve the right to pick someone we like and who likes us to act as arbitrator.
  10. When you lose (and you will), you will be responsible for paying any and all expenses for said arbitration.
  11. We paid one or more lawyers a lot of money to write this agreement, so we have included that cost in the price for this product.

How much money does the software industry spend each year on lawyers? Probably more than they do on software engineers–but tha’s just a guess.

Feel free to add “whereas,” “heretofore,” “hereinafter,” etc., as many times as you like.

Verizon

If you’ve ever had a problem with a large corporation, you may appreciate this actual letter

Hans Vestberg, Chief Executive Officer
Verizon
140 West Street
New York, NY 10007

I have been a Verizon FiOS customer for over ten years. Initially, it was a reliable service, and I chose Verizon for television cable, internet, and telephone. Unfortunately, Verizon’s service has not gone downhill, but rather over a cliff.

First, Verizon migrated its e-mail to AOL. If I wish to remotely access my email through AOL [advertisement spam] I have [advertisement spam] to wade through [advertisement spam] a series of [advertisement spam] screens. I normally receive my email through Microsoft Outlook, so, most of the time it was not an issue. However, [advertisement spam] at times [advertisement spam] I have to go [advertisement spam] through the AOL [advertisement spam] website.

Next, Verizon shifted email accounts to the Yahoo domain without informing its customers. I have two Verizon accounts that I access through Outlook; one migrated successfully to Yahoo while the other did not.

It is impossible to access Verizon customer service. There are no telephone numbers on the web page; clicking on “Contact Us” takes the customer to automated chat, customer forums, or a bounce back to the previous page. The Customer Forum is especially Verizonesque—it shifts the responsibility to customers to fix Verizon’s problems; the most recent forum posting about email is dated 22 June 2014.

I contacted [advertisement spam] AOL [advertisement spam] only to be told, albeit politely, that this was a technical problem and technical service required a subscription of $14.99 per month. They gave me one month free, but required a credit card, to automatically renew unless I canceled. I grudgingly provided my card information.

I was transferred to technical support (~20-minute wait time) and after two hours, absolutely nothing was accomplished.

So, I’m left with the same problem I had before. Incidentally, there are a number of sites on the Internet, easily Googled, with other customers facing the exact same Verizon/AOL/Yahoo e-mail problem.

Perception

Perception is a strange and wonderful thing. Many people live with the perception that “it will never happen to me.” Objectively this sounds foolish, if each of us included everything that could, indeed, happen to us, we would  be paralyzed with fear and spend our lives quivering under our beds in a fetal position.

However, since we are not data driven, realistic, computational intellects, we take totally unnecessary chances that make no sense and what do we have to show for it?

  • The ability to fly
  • Transplanting organs from a dead person to a living person
  • Automobiles, with gas stations full of highly flammable/explosive fuel located throughout the world
  • And a very humongous, etc.

On the other hand, a logical, realist would be naked and cold, banging stones together outside his cave because fire is just too dangerous.

 

Sears

So, Sears is in big trouble. That’s a shocker.

When I was a child, there were various stores that were ubiquitous in my part of the world.

F.W. Woolworth’s, founded in 1878, was a so-called “Five and Dime,” which was also noted for its lunch counters. In 1962, management decided that it needed to be a superstore, which it named “Woolco.”  It died in 1983.

S.S. Kresge was another five and dime; it was founded in 1899, and, also in 1962, its management decided that it too needed to become a big-box superstore, which operated under the name of K-Mart. K-Mart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2002. When it emerged from bankruptcy, its business geniuses decided that it should purchase another retailer, Sears, in 2004.

Sears & Roebuck was founded in 1892 and after malls became popular in the 1960s, it was often one of the “anchor stores.” Sears had a reputation for not reinvesting in its core business but focusing, instead on shareholder dividends and purchasing or starting other businesses, such as Allstate Insurance, Dean Witter Financial, Coldwell Banker Real Estate, creating the Discover Card, etc.

Today, Sears is showing dismal performance, which it blames on its requirement to pay for the pensions that its retirees earned. My mother worked for K-Mart and with the bankruptcy and merger, she lost her pension, so we’re not talking about every Sears/K-Mart employee, only some.

Incidentally, most of us who get a paycheck have money deducted each payday for Medicare, Social Security, and possibly some type of retirement plan and/or other savings. Shouldn’t Sears have done something similar and invested money over time so that they wouldn’t have to pay pensions out of their operating budget today? However, their priority was shareholder dividends and purchasing other companies. They apparently were neither interested in their future, nor their people.

COincidentally, today retail is shifting to remote purchases that are then delivered to the consumer, usually by US Mail. For many years, Sears was known for its mail order catalog–during my childhood, it wasn’t Christmas without the Sears catalog and its extensive toy section.

By today’s standards the mail order catalog process seems a little slower with sending in an order by mail, but it was the same basic concept. In other words, it’s just possible that if greed were not so huge a factor, Sears could have been Amazon rather than on the verge of collapse.

Whatever Shall Be Will Be

Hurricane Florence is getting closer. The eye of the hurricane will be about 250 miles to the south of where I live, but, it’s not the eye that causes problems.

Hurricanes–cyclones–rotate in a counterclockwise direction. (Cyclonic means counterclockwise.) This means that if one’s location is above the eye, the hurricane is going to push the water in (deja vu–didn’t I say this yesterday????). So being above the eye is not necessarily a good thing.

Florence is now a category 4 hurricane, which means it moves faster and inevitably covers more territory. It may become a category 5. In any case, I’m going to get wet.

My wife, being much smarter than me, is taking our children to safety, far west and uphill from here. After all our years together, she knows that I live to help, so she understands (but does not necessarily give explicit approval) to my plan to stay here and provide emergency communications.

I expect to be successful, but this could be my last rodeo. After this, I may have to hang up the emergency communications hat and satisfy myself with the more sedate aspects of amateur radio; maybe I’ll take an occasional cruise, or whatever.

Actually, I look forward to that.

Major League catchers eventually succumb to their knees. Superstar quarterbacks succumb to traumatic brain injury. I suspect that, after this storm, I’ll succumb to whatever affliction affects disaster junkies.

Maybe I’m due to have some fun instead of a having one more additional fulltime job.

What do you think?

Pick at the Peak of Ripeness!

florence_tmo_2006257_lrg

September is when the hurricanes off the east coast of North America become ripe enough to be harvested and truly enjoyed. Like grapes or tomatoes, there are a few outliers that ripen earlier, but also like tomatoes and grapes, early hurricanes lack that full-bodied flavor that literally knocks you off your feet–sometimes permanently. Like tomatoes, hurricanes are best when picked fresh off the vine and tasted immediately.

If you don’t live in an area that experiences hurricanes, it is difficult to truly share the experience, but, I shall try. First, although the wind looks impressive on television, it is the storm surge of water that kills the most people. In Virginia, where we have been assured that there is no climate change, the sea levels have inexplicably risen and the land has subsided–a fancy word for “sunk.” The land sinks because industries such as paper mills pump so much water out of wells that the land actually sinks.

Evacuation is an option, but if you are not on the road at least three days before a hurricane makes landfall–with a confirmed reservation at a hotel well inland–you are going to bounce around in your car stuck in a 200 mile traffic jam in high winds heavy rains, and other cars tunning out of gas.

As the storm approaches, the water comes into the rivers and tributaries at high tide, the wind tends keep the water trapped inland, so the next few high tides keep adding. Then, there’s the rainfall. Yesterday–long before the hurricane is due, we got between 3 – 5 inches of rain. Since the most important thing around here is real estate development, all the low-lying wooded areas have been elevated so that instead of the water flowing into those areas, it flows the other way, into mature neighborhoods. Since electricity is also lost early in the game, the sewage treatment pumping stations fail; the water flowing through the streets tends to exhibit wads of toilet paper and worse.

The loss of electricity also means, given that there was never any global warning, everybody gets to enjoy the 90+ degree temperatures and 80+ percent humidity sans air-conditioning. Plus, ATMs, gas pumps, cash registers, etc. don’t work without electricity, so forget your debit or credit card. It’s exact change, cash only.

Afterward, the streets are lined with soggy wallboard and furniture from houses that were flooded. These sit, bake in the sun, grow mould, get rained on, wash the mould into the watershed, repeat. But, hey, Katrina barely bothered Louisiana and Maria was no problem for Puerto Rico, so what, me worry

It’s not a complete picture of what you may be missing, but hopefully it will help you share in our experience.

 

The Story

I’ve been working on a story for a while, but writing it keeps getting in the way.

I’ve always admired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes,” which was published as a serial in the Strand magazine, a monthly publication. My story–“The Story”–has been under development for a while. Like most writers, I d-r-a-g things out far too long as I write them. It’s a case of “Wait! It was a small dog, not a puppy!.”

As George Lucas supposedly said, “Movies are never completed, only abandoned.” The same is probably true of stories, so I’m going to publish–on this blog–at least a chapter a month. I make no promise that a particular chapter (including one that I may publish) will not be removed or eliminated.

Welcome to the wonderful??? world of writing. You may have the chance to experience my dreams, frustrations, pain, and stupidity, as I try to write a story.

I’ve already changed at least five chapters, but, interestingly, all of the characters remain, although their experiences might be different. If I share, I’ll try not to be too confusing (I’m not responsible for confusing myself).

If it’s worthwhile–I hope you enjoy.

Chapter One is coming soon.

Us vs. Me

 

illustration-of-human-evolution-ending-with-smart-phone-resize

“Wait, I need to take a selfie!”

Far too many events today are due to decisions by people who think only of themselves.

This is unnatural.

The hermit, alone in his cave, has always been an idiosyncratic caricature. The word hermit is derived from the word for desert or desert dweller. Deserts are not particularly attractive to people who depend on hunting and gathering. Deserts are more successful as after the invention of are air-conditioned houses and refrigerated food trucks. (Casinos, although optional, seem inevitable.)

Humans from earliest times sought out one another.  Our ancestors, the Homo erectus, (stop thinking dirty thoughts–it refers to having the ability to stand upright) or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis  tended to keep their families together, eventually becoming tribes. Some believe that the reason that there are no identifiable descendants of the Neanderthals is because the two groups combined and interbred, ultimately resulting in us, Homo sapiens.

We belong together, but sometimes are reluctant to admit it. As such, in order to survive and prosper, we must look at things in terms of the common good. Life is not a zero-sum game (if I win, you lose). It is a life-or-death struggle in which WE win or lose.

I could wax poetic for another 300 pages, which I might enjoy, but WE, as a totality, would not, so I’ll stop.

* Links courtesy of Wikipedia. If you use Wikipedia, then use PayPal to send them a few bucks–better yet, a few bucks a month.

Tithing

In ancient times, the Israelites, or if you prefer, the Jews, were expected to set the first ten percent of their harvest aside as an offering to God. Many of us–Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, have roots reaching back to that same practice. Of course, back then, they slaughtered animals, the priests took a portion for their services–after all, they did not farm or own herds–but the rest was burnt on the altar as a sacrifice.

Most churches today, wouldn’t know what to do if someone placed a lamb in the collection basket. Even worse, the children in the congregation would be traumatized by the idea that a cute little lamb (although they really are dirty and stupid creatures)  would be slaughtered (even though they might very well enjoy that same lamb–with mint jelly–if it were packaged on a Styrofoam tray covered with shrink wrap at the grocery store).

It’s a different world. Today, very few of us raise sheep (my friends in New Zealand excepted, of course), so that’s not what we bring as a sacrifice. So what do we offer?

  • Church goers often donate cash to their church.
  • Many people donate money or goods to various charitable organizations.
  • Some people donate time to soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless.

But their are other opportunities to contribute to the good of all, even if you can’t help out at a soup kitchen and wouldn’t know which end of a hammer to use for Habitats for Humanity.

You can donate computer time. and it’s painless.

When you are not using your computer, you can let it work for others. Calculations that once required a supercomputer are now divided up into byte-sized (sorry about the pun) chunks and sent to thousands of personal computers. Each personal computer is limited; a hundred personal computers has possibilities; a thousand personal computer is awesome.

A million personal computer working on a problem might just solve it.

If you participate, you can set your computer to work on such issues whenever you aren’t using it. There are sites working to track asteroids that threaten the earth, the cure for various diseases, the global warming issue–does it exist? What causes it, and what should we do?

There are a variety of other questions to be answered. Curious? Check out

boinc.berkeley.edu.

 

Goodbye to the Newspaper

When I was growing up, almost everybody took the local newspaper. Many cities had several competing newspapers, although Toledo’s two papers–one morning and one evening–were owned and operated by the same company.

Journalism is dead, having given way to commentary. Many newspapers are moribund. In my area, so few people subscribe to the actual news that the newspaper distributes a free weekly printing of advertisements. They probably copied the business model of the US Postal Service, which became a model of financial success when junk mail became their most profitable business.

Many papers already rely primarily on the wire services for their content, which means that in the morning paper you’ll see the same articles you read online the day before. With reliance on wire services–of which there are basically two–the entire nation receives the information as perceived by one writer. While I don’t like this, I must admit that it is an approach that has worked well for Vladimir Putin.

News is framed so as to attract everyone’s attention–in other words, it must be sensational or salacious–ideally both. This results in the media altering our perception. Travel by airplane, for example, is very safe, which is why an emergency landing on a highway with no injuries is considered nationally newsworthy and causes some people to perceive airplanes as dangerous. On the other hand, automobile accidents are so common that it must involve a self-driving vehicle, have a dozen or so fatalities, involve over 50 cars.

It’s sad that most people don’t want journalism because it requires readers to think. It’s easier to find some online source that reinforces their existing position and biases than to have to think and possibly change their minds occassionally.

A Slight Diversion

Just an update —–

I’ve continued to work on my story, but there is my day job, and, because of my interest in electronics, I recently acquired a 3-D printer kit and assembled it over the weekend. That’s the problem with radio–it entices you to keep on wanting to learn new things.

SONY DSC

I’m working on learning the software, so I haven’t printed any three-dimensional thingies just yet.

Don’t worry, I consulted with the key characters in my story, and they approved. They told me it’s what they would have done.

Radio – STEM Applied

Too many things today, in my opinion, are observer activities rather than ones that encourage participation. The term “couch potato” was coined to describe the sentient state television induced on humans.  Commercial radio and television behave the same way whether we’re involved or not; I’ve never intentionally watched a soap opera, but they are broadcast nevertheless.

However, there are participatory activities; you can probably guess where this is going.

My favorite means of interacting with radio is Amateur Radio; why “amateur?” because ham radio operators, by law, cannot charge for providing communications via ham radio. Why “ham” radio? No one knows; there are dozens of theories, but none of them can be proven.

So why does amateur radio even exist, and how is it different from CB, Family Radio Service, or, for that matter, cellphones?

sam-cristoforetti-01-320

Samantha Cristoforetti (Amateur Radio Call Sign IZ0UDF) is an Italian European Space Agency astronaut, Italian Air Force pilot, engineer, and Star Trek fan. 

Amateur radio is a service, defined by federal law (the Code of Federal Regulation, Title 47, Subchapter D, Part 97). As a service, this places certain obligations and requirements on those who are licensed. The first portion of the law explains its basis and purpose; I’ll give you the condensed version.

First, amateur radio is valuable because it provides noncommercial communications, particularly during emergencies. As a friend used to say, amateur radio exists to support emergencies. If there’s no emergency—have fun.

When Puerto Rico got hit (twice) by Hurricane Maria, virtually every mode of communications was disrupted, and that means cellphones, internet, wired telephones, television, etc. FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Administration) and relief organizations like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, etc. relied on amateur radio operators for communications. (one of my colleagues provided communications and has an excellent brief, if you’re interested.)

Second, amateur radio is intended to advance the art of communication. Make no mistake, it is an art; in far too many places,  it is a lost art.

The purpose of communications is, and should be, the means to share ideas. Far too often, though, it has been replaced by people who talk just to hear their own voice.

Third, the law addresses advancing skills for both communications and technical capabilities.

While ham radio uses voice for communications and Morse code, there are dozens of digital data modes, several ways of sending television, and some that use technology originally developed by a Nobel laureate astrophysicist, who just happens to be a ham.

Fourth, to expand the number of trained operators, technicians and electronics experts.

Amateur radio requires a license. However, having proven an understanding of electronics theory, rules, regulations, and proper operating procedures, hams can design and build their own equipment, able to transmit up to 1,500 watts. (By comparison, CB is 4 watts and cellphones 0.2 watts.)

Fifth, Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

Unlike the trolls on social media, hams are licensed and therefore not anonymous. In fact, standard practice is to follow up a radio conversation with a “QSL” card to confirm the contact. The card may be a physical post card, or it may be electronic; in either case, it includes the ham’s full name and address plus technical details. Hams collect this information and are proud of how may other hams in other countries they’ve contacted. .

Incidentally, the International Space Station has both a Russian and an American ham radio station. When their workload permits, astronauts schedule time to talk with children at their schools to encourage interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Unfortunately, with the shuttle traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, conversations are short. At that speed, the shuttle is overhead for only about 8 minutes. However, to a seventh grader who gets to talk to an astronaut, what an exciting 8 minutes they are.

Want to know more? Try the American Radio Relay League , email me (steve@sfnowak.com) or add a comment; I’ll try to give a good answer that we can share with others.

All th best, or as we hams say, “73!”

Still Thinking about Radio

Why, you are probably asking, am I so fascinated by radio? While the media’s use of radio, television, and social media sensationalizes and encourages controversy, argumentativeness, and even violence, I find that focusing on the technical application of physics is far more enjoyable.

Back in the day, you could take things apart to see how they worked, and even try putting them back together. A mechanical alarm clock that was headed for the trash is a perfect example–all those gears. It was expected that when you tried to put it back together, there would be pieces left over, but it still gave you some idea as to how it worked–and that was without a Youtube video to explain it. Then there was the other direction–building things–anything–not huge projects, but small and interesting ones.

cat whisker

Did you ever  build (or even see) a crystal radio? A length of wire for an antenna, a second wound around a tube (such as a toilet paper tube), another wire connected to a ground—such as the center screw in an electrical outlet a galena crystal, and a set of headphones. By moving a flexible wire around the crystal, it is possible to tune in a station. In the Second World War, soldiers would build a “fox-hole” radio using a razor blade as the crystal and a pencil lead for the cat’s whisker. When I built my first crystal radio, I began to understand how a basic radio receiver works and was hooked.

I built my first computer, which arrived in the mail and consisted of a circuit board and a plastic bag full of parts. It initially had 256 BYTES of memory and had to be programmed using hexadecimal numbers (that’s where you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, 10). By the time I was done with it, it had 8 kilobytes, stored programs and data on cassette tapes, used a mechanical teletype and I programmed it using “Tiny Basic.”

Could I build a smartphone? No, I cannot, but then neither can you. I do, however, have a conceptual understanding—and can explain—how the various parts of a smartphone work and how those parts are integrated. When I’ve asked my kids if they understood how theirs worked, their expression seemed to indicate wonderment as to why anyone would ever want to know.

There’s hope, though, through the MAKE movement, which encourages young people–especially girls–to build, modify, and experiment. I hope they enjoy it. Al I can say is that over the years, my interest in radio and the electromagnetic spectrum has caused me to learn, but more importantly, to think.