Sunday, January 1, 2012

Will Technology Spoil Rock Hunter?

aka The Laziness Factor

I like radios. I like listening to them. The problem is that I generally hate commercial radio. I don't like the political crap from either side, and most of the old-time regular talk guys, the ones who could discuss things other than politics, are mostly gone. I like Hotel California, but I'm sick to death of hearing it. Katie Perry and hip hop and country and whoever won American Idol last season don't do it for me. And I can only take so much of NPR before I want to drive off the road.

But there's a world between 1.720 and 87.9 MHz. It used to be called Shortwave, though shortwave is usually generic for anything other than commercial broadcast.

It's not just Ham radio, the guys who talk to each other with their giant antennas and their home built stations in the spare bedroom or backyard shed, because the Hams only get a small slice of the acreage.

It's often called World Band radio, because a hell of a lot of people all over the globe still live outside the normal broadcast areas, and a GE clock radio won't do it. And they don't necessarily have wi-fi or decent internet, so forget podcasts and streaming media. Their connection to the world is with a radio that picks up frequencies that skip greater distances, that run on AC power if it's running and batteries when it ain't. If they're lucky, they live in a country where the government doesn't jam anything uncontrolled by the despot-in-charge. If they're not lucky, they still might be able to pick up a broadcast from The Outside World that isn't being jammed.

Most of the stuff on World Band are state-sponsored broadcasts--the BBC out of Britain, Voice of America from the US are the ones people think of now. But you can also get Radio China from Beijing, and Radio Japan. The other night I was listening to Radio Havana Cuba. Some of the broadcasts are in English, but a lot of things are in various other languages.

The problem with world band (and also what's great about it) is that it's unpredictable. You turn on your regular radio and you know where your station is and it's always there. On world band you never know. On Monday your station is weak. Tuesday and Wednesday it's not there at all. On Thursday it booms in. On Friday it's another station entirely.

I've got an old radio and you have to turn a big dial to scan the frequencies and another big knob for fine tuning. There are a lot of frequencies to check, so it can be a tedious business. It's a balancing act--you go too fast and you could blow past a good signal; you go too slow and you'll grow old and arthritic scanning the bands.

It's a bit like hunting and fishing. You don't know from one day to the next, even one hour to the next, what you're going to get, if anything at all.

On the internet there's a guy who has a great setup. It's only for the ham bands, which means no world band stuff, you only get guys talking to each other about what ham gear they've using (I gotta Soombish 410E with a 6-10 splitter and a 90 foot line on a half-track...) or trading conspiracy theories worthy of a dumbass AM political talkshow.

Anyway, this guy's website has five HAM bands at 160, 80, 40, 20 and 10 meters, and each band covers a certain amount of territory. You can tune in to anything on any frequency that he picks up. AND he can handle up to 40 people simultaneously, so I can listen to some guy talking about the price of heating oil while other people can hear about someone's new yagi.

So what, you say?

Here's the thing. Imagine you have a radio and it's got a slide-rule dial, which is simply a long, horizontal glass with a needle pointer, and as you turn the knob, the needle moves across the dial. Most radios have those kinds of dials, even in this digital age.

On an ordinary radio, you see the dial and the pointer tells you what frequency you're tuned to. If you want to see what's on a frequency, you have to go to that position on the dial and listen.

This guy's website has something similar, except that there are graphics that show you where the activity is across each dial. In other words, I can see at a glance that someone's transmitting on a given frequency, and I can jump right to it to hear what's going on.


Not only that, but I can tell where the dead spots are. I can see which bands are active and which are dead. I can see where the noise is. I can see which transmissions are weak and will be faint and noisy, and which will be strong and clear.

What that does is take out the tedium of spinning the tuning knob, trying to find something to listen to.

So this should be fantastic, right? It is—but—

It takes some of the fun out of the hunt. It makes it too easy. Even though it's frustrating, one of the reasons I have an old radio is that I like sitting in the dark, lit only by the light of the dial, turning knobs and trying to pick out a voice out of space, and then making various adjustments to bring it in so I can hear it.

But the romance of that gets thin fast when I'm sitting in the dark, trying to find something interesting to listen to; my butt is sore, my shoulder is sore, my fingers are cold. All I'm picking up are broadcasts in Spanish or evangelists in English, plus bursts of noise that threaten to blow my eardrums or the radio speaker cone. That's when I visualize that website with the full spectrum analysis where I can see what's going on where and I can go right to where the food is, and if I don't like one thing, I can jump immediately to something else.

This is what happened with microwave food, too.

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