Not in Chicago anymore

Mundane life from rural Minnesota.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Why are we still here?

I am not a religious person. If pressed to provide my leanings in this area, I use the word agnostic. One of my great mysteries of life is, "Why are we still here?"

Somewhere around the middle of the 20th century we developed the ability to destroy ourselves. How many ways could we have unleashed the arsenal of nuclear weapons in the past decades? I know that one human is not supposed to be able to trigger this event and I know that there are many failsafe systems in place to keep it from happening. But I've been around technology too long to believe that any system is infallible.

Here is a somewhat sensationalized article from National Geographic that describes events during the Cuban missile crisis. The absolute truth of the facts is irrelevant; I'm sure that there were nuclear weapons in play and that there were humans who had control of them. We can speculate about what would have happened if the submarine had launched its nuclear weapon, but the worst-case scenario is that I would not be typing at this moment. Even the best-case scenario is awful.

Here's another account of a technical malfunction that could have triggered a nuclear holocaust. In this case the sun shining off of high clouds was interpreted as an ICBM launch.

There are many more. There's the crash of the B-52 with live nukes on board. There's the account of the failure of supposedly-failsafe systems. It goes on and on, but somehow the button has never been pushed.

And the button still exists. There's still plenty of weaponry out there to turn the planet into a lifeless hulk. Yet we're still here.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


A friend shared this video of a 1964 campaign ad via Facebook.  If you haven't seen it, it's haunting.  The speaker, smoking a cigarette, explains why Goldwater was a poor selection as the Republican presidential candidate because, among other things, he doesn't repudiate the support of the Ku Klux Klan.

But on a much lighter note . . . it reminded me of a funny story from that era.

I'm trying to figure how many people are still around that I could just tell this story with no background and they would understand.  Not many.  So here's your background:

  • Barry Goldwater was a ham radio operator, callsign K7UGA.
  • He was also a private pilot.
  • Hams often use their radios in their cars, in which case they add the word "mobile" to their callsign.
  • Occasionally hams use their radios in an airplane, in which case the designation is "aeronautical mobile".  (If you're on a boat, you're "maritime mobile".)
I had a buddy who had snagged the job of handling the public address and communications for the Tennessee Valley Agricultural and Industrial Fair in Knoxville.  This would have been in September, before the election in November 1964.  This is a big fair, but the job he had was pretty boring, so he brought along his ham station and set it up to operate on one of the frequency bands that is used for local communications (six meters).  At any given time you probably won't hear any activity but you can be pretty sure that there are a bunch of guys monitoring.

So one afternoon out of the blue he says, "Watch this."  Then he keyed up the transmitter and started excitedly calling, "K7UGA/aeronautical mobile!  K7UGA/aeronautical mobile!  This is [his call].  I hear you loud and clear."

There were a few seconds of silence.  Then about five guys jumped in at the same time calling K7UGA.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

More pining for "the good 'ole days"

Since there’s plenty of information available on the National Traffic System, I won't describe it in detail. Basically it’s a part of amateur radio, a structured facility intended for relaying messages, put in place in 1949 to provide a pool of well-trained operators and the organization to provide communications in disasters. For details, the Wikipedia article is good.

The ham radio hobby is many different hobbies rolled into one. Some hams enjoy building their own equipment; some like contests where you try to contact as many other hams as possible during a specific time; some are into contacting hams in faraway or exotic places; and some just enjoy chatting. The sub-hobby of relaying messages was my ham radio “thing”. It’s a challenge – there’s nothing quite like straining to pick out that weak signal between the Summer lightning crashes to completely take your mind off of anything else. The operators who invest their time in honing the specific skill of accurate message handling are really good at what they do and a joy to work with.

Hurricane Katrina taught me that things have changed just a bit since 1949 . . . while there still is a place for ham radio in disasters when the infrastructure is damaged, the goal is different. Historically NTS was a long-haul system that insured that the message got all the way from the originator to the recipient. Now the goal is to get the message just far enough out of the affected area that the operator can pick up the telephone and deliver it. With today’s unlimited long-distance service, it doesn’t matter if that operator is in Mississippi delivering a message to New York. When I returned to Minnesota from my time working along the Gulf, I learned that there had been no NTS-relayed messages into Minnesota from Katrina. That’s good; that means that they were delivered using more timely and efficient methods. But what it told me was that the basic concept of NTS as a long-haul message delivery method was no longer required.

Keeping a system like NTS healthy is a massive undertaking, and it was already starting to unravel before Katrina. The sources of the routine messages that kept people interested day-to-day were drying up; the allure of sending a radiogram was gone, and the ability to send hundreds of free “Arrived safely Naval Training Center” messages was no longer needed now that the recruit could pick up a phone and call home at no incremental cost. As much as I enjoyed the challenge of accurately relaying messages, and the satisfaction of working with other proficient operators, the basic rationale of maintaining a system that would be used for emergency events no longer existed. I found another use for the several hours a week that I was devoting to NTS.

So we take one more step towards being dependent on ever-more-sophisticated technology. I thank the FCC for forcing me to learn Morse code; it’s a skill that gave me vast amounts of pleasure over several decades, but not one I would willingly have mastered. Now no one is mastering it because there’s insufficient motivation to do so.  One wonders how many similar skills we’re losing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Original content

I have mentioned how much of the content I see on the web is repetitious, with and without attribution. I ran into this example today when Facebook suggested three related articles after I clicked on a link that a friend had posted.

ProPublica published an article on the Red Cross on December 15.  It's here.

The three articles recommended were exactly the same text:

I just find it kind of humorous that Facebook recommended three articles from three different sources, and they're all exactly the same.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Yes, I use an ad blocker

Here is another reason to use ad blockers.

Ad blockers, for those who might not know, are browser extension that block online advertisements. You will generally see blank space on the page where the ad would have been.

I have wrestled with the decision on using an ad blocker. After all, the pages that I am seeing are there because of the revenue generated by the ads. Skipping them is a lot like using TIVO to skip ads on commercial TV. According to the ad agencies, the world will end if we do this. I think it's more likely that the world will change if we do this. But I am confident that since the vast majority of web users and TV viewers will not invest the effort to install ad blockers or use TIVO that it's a moot point.

A few weeks ago I had a conscience attack and turned off my ad blocker. I lasted about two minutes before turning it back on. I do a pretty good job of mentally filtering out ads, but today's web pages are pits of ads with a little content thrown in to string you along.

The article referenced above seals the deal for me. I had visited the site mentioned and encountered the "Turn off your ad blocker or go away" mandate . . . so I turned it off and was appalled at the number of ads and the low quality of the actual information on the site. I wonder if I was infected by something during the brief time I was there. It's bad enough that our eyes are assaulted; I don't need to fret about catching a virus.

I would be perfectly willing to pay for useful content that I access on the web. I doubt that the current ad-based structure will change because it's working so well and so few people can even conceive of an alternative.

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