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.

As We Return to the Story

I mentioned that I might not blog as often because I plan on devoting more of my time to finishing a story I began almost a year ago. The characters from that story were most unhappy at being constantly ignored. I agreed to a meeting.

I was afraid that it was going to be ugly –after all I’m dealing with R. Jonathon Wilkinson, whose pretty much dead and doesn’t like being left in limbo–if you’ll excuse the pun.

Rene and Sally are both accomplished professionals who rank somewhere above the top of the genius scale; their attitude is, “Play me or trade me!” which is quite understandable.

Then there’s Zaznoz (the closest I can come to spelling the name in English) who’s eccentric, but extremely powerful. Fortunately, he/it is not prone to using, much less abusing his power, due to the fact that he’s a good person entity. Zaznoz is definitely a human-like life form, but his/its kind do not identify in terms of sex. However, he’s brash, sometimes acts before thinking, and is a bit rough arund the edges, like a guy, so I tend to refer to him/it as him. Since he doesn’t mind, I shall continue to do so.

The meeting started out awkwardly. I let them speak first, and they made a number of reasonable observations and suggestions.

  1. “We are all too talented to spend our time in the literary equivalent of a waiting room reading outdated magazines.”
  2. “We just want to work and tdo the best job we can.
  3. “Working on our story is infinitely better than wasting time watching television–especially the news.”

They summed it up quite neatly and honestly, although it stung just a bit. “This isjust one more case in which management (me) does not have a clear focus on where we need to go and what we need to do. Therefore, there has been no plan and no progress.”

Sally, who is a lawyer by profession, told me straight, “You might as well be any one of the businesses and organizations out in the real world. You don’t know where we’re going, you aren’t sure where we are, and you have a piss-poor understanding as to from whence we came.”

Zaznoz added, “The only thing worse you could do is to reorganize, with the possible exception of reorganizing and downsizing. See how well you can develop a story with any of us gone.”

Rene pointed out, “Characters can’t just quit and go to another author. It’s been tried and the only place it succeeds is with young people–hence Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. On the other hand, look at Jack Ryan. He’s not the same as when Tom Clancy was alive and actually writing his own material.”

They’re right, you know, so I need to work with them. I’ll try to blog as I can.

 

 

Positive and Negative

Much of my discussion of radio has avoided the technical, such as how electricity flows. Initially, scientists guessed that it flowed from positive to negative; later, it was generally accepted that electricity flowed from the negative (which had an excess of electrons) to the positive (which had a defecit). It made sense, and generations of science teachers taught generations of students that this was the case.

Like most things in life, it’s a little more complicated.  Actually, the theory that seems to be most plausible is that electricity flows in both directions; the negative electrons in one, the positive atms in the other. However, even this is an over simplification as well [check out this article].

The beauty of science is that most ideas are described as theories, which is to say, beliefs. This means that with additional knowledge, the theory may need to be adjusted or even abandoned. It is seen as an advancement when an old theory is updated, not as an attack or a loss.

Might be useful in everyday life.

If I don’t blog as often, it’s because I really want to get a story I’m working on finished–and it’s got a long way to go. The characters are beginning to complain and are threatening to go on strike. I guess it’s only fair that we meet halfway.

 

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.

Radio–Continued, But Hardly the End

Throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, there is an inverse relationship between frequency and wavelength. We’ve already discussed frequency—how many cycles—times a signal completes a sine wave—per second. As frequency increases, the wavelength decreases. If you divide the 300 by the frequency in MHz, you can determine the bandwidth. Why 300? The speed of light—or other electromagnetic wave is about 300,000,000 meters per second, which is 300 megameters. Megahertz and Megameters—get it? It’s like comparing apples to apples.

So what?

First, the wavelength of a radio signal determines several things. First, the size of the antenna. An antenna is somewhat like a guitar string, in that it must tuned to a certain frequency/wavelength to work properly. Frequencies in the 4 MHz range referred to as the 75 meter band, and a resonant antenna will ideally be about 75 meters long. On the other hand, frequencies near 145 MHz—the two-meter band, require an antenna about two meters long.

Second, the different wavelengths act differently. The longer wavelengths can be used for more distant communications because the radio wave bounces off the ionosphere and back to earth, where it may bounce again. The higher frequencies/lower wavelengths can carry more information tend to work for “line of sight” communications—somewhere about 12-15 miles as the crow flies. However, if the crow is orbiting the Earth, such as in the International Space Station (ISS) or a CubeSat, line of sight straight up is much farther than 12 – 15 miles.

There are other differences, but those are the most basic. Incidentally, when I speak of a 75-meter antenna, we’re not necessarily talking about its physical size. We’re actually talking about its electrical length. There are various tricks to adjust the electrical characteristics of an antenna so that it acts like a certain wavelength when it is actually physically shorter.

I could go deeper into the physics, throw in some equations, and bore you to tears, but I think we all would see that as counterproductive.

What aspect of the electromagnetic spectrum will I write about next? Who knows! Did I mention the ISS and CubeSats? They’re both pretty interesting, in terms of radio, so maybe I’ll touch on them next.