March 26, 2023

Analog Radio for an Analog Life

Radio used to be a huge part of my life.

Back in the '60s and '70s, the outside world consisted of radio, TV, and newspapers.  That was it, and it was good (relatively speaking).  I can't remember a time when I didn't have a transistor radio in my back pocket.  From an early age, a radio was my constant companion.  We did have a TV set at home, but that was home - a young boy with a bicycle was rarely home before sunset.  

I listened mostly to music - what we now call classic rock - and the occasional baseball game.  One of my favorite programs was American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.  

As you can imagine, I burned through a few radios throughout childhood.  One was destroyed during a school baseball game.  I was out in center field, running backward trying to catch the ball, when I tripped and landed right on the radio in my back pocket.  Another time, the radio went bouncing down the road as I was pedaling my bike extra hard to get home by dinnertime.  The radios had a hard life, but somehow I always managed to get a replacement.  This one lasted the longest:

Almost all of the radios I had were made by General Electric.  My family had a loyalty to the company.  We had a GE refrigerator, washer and dryer, TV, dishwasher, and phonograph.  I'm sure it had something to do with employee discounts, but my family was also proud of their products.  My grandfather worked there, my dad worked there, and even I worked there for a few years:

I would dabble with other brands, too - like when Radio Shack came out with their Flavoradio:

I also got a Radio Shack Battery-of-the-Month card, which allowed me to get a free battery every month (I always chose a 9V over the AA, C or D choices).  That kept my radio habit going without putting a big dent in my allowance.

I got into AM band DXing before I even knew it was a thing.  We lived just north of Boston.  I noticed that, at night, I could hear stations all the way from New York or Chicago, but not very reliably.  It was fascinating to find out what the weather was like hundreds of miles away, or to hear of a traffic jam in a far-away city.  So I strung a 100-foot antenna wire out the bedroom window and up into the trees.  I also ran a ground wire connected to a cold water pipe in the basement up to my window.  I connected the ground wire to the negative battery terminal of my little radio, and wrapped a few turns of the antenna wire around the radio.  All of a sudden, I was starting to hear stations from all over the country.  I started keeping a log book of what I heard.  That led me into shortwave listening and, later, ham radio.  DXing back then was truly exciting.  Today, it is difficult due to RF pollution from cell phones, cell towers, computers, WiFi, Bluetooth, routers, microwaves, and anything with a microprocessor in it - but it can still be done.

About the time I graduated high school, GE came out with the Superadio.  Over the next decade, they would come out with two more models.  I wound up collecting all three:

The GE Superadio is known among radio enthusiasts these days as one of the best performing radios ever made.  It has a cult following all its own.  My dad would be proud. 

Radio, prior to the '90s, was a treat to listen to.  We had real DJs, and a wide variety of things to listen to - not anything like the homogenized programming of today.  The DJs were personalities that everyone knew by name.  In between the songs, they would give us trivia, tell jokes, play phone pranks, hold contests, take listener calls and song requests, hold interviews and, once in a while, let us know what they really thought about current events.  Newscasters were more stoic, but they were also household names, at least in the regions that they broadcast from.  Sportscasters were somewhere in between - often speaking with a monotone voice, but occasionally bursting with excitement when the game called for it.

That all went away when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  He removed all the conflict-of-interest protections in the (then) current law.  All of a sudden, the independent stations were bought up by huge conglomerates.  Until then, a media outlet was prohibited from crossing over into other areas.  Now, they can own or invest in anything they want, including the companies that advertise on their media.  The same people can own radio, TV, newspapers, and any other form of media, allowing them to control narratives across multiple media to fit their own agendas.  Deep pockets eliminated competition and fairness.  We now have about five people who own all the media.  You think you can get a fair idea of the truth by going to multiple sources?  Think again.  It all comes from the same place.  Instead of live, local DJs, we now have computer-automated playlists that get aired nationwide.  Syndicated, pre-recorded shows that are identical across the country, whether you're listening in Tampa or Tacoma, Portland or Peoria.  A small handful of people controlling what we hear and don't hear, see and don't see.

Ugh.  Let me take an aspirin and get back to the old days.

Something else I remember from the '70s and into the '80s was a weekly program called the CBS Radio Mystery Theater (CBSRMT).  It was fascinating to listen to these suspense stories play out on the radio.  Unlike TV or movies, you could really exercise your imagination.  It wasn't until the '90s that I really found out about OTR (Old-Time Radio).  Like CBSRMT, these were collections of golden age radio shows - ones that were on the air before my time.  Comedy, westerns, drama, science fiction, game shows, soap operas, musicals, you name it.  I've since collected thousands of hours of these programs.  Some of my favorites are:

  • Fibber McGee & Molly
  • The Great Gildersleeve
  • X Minus One
  • Dimension X
  • The Whistler
  • The Shadow
  • Our Miss Brooks
  • Amos and Andy

These (and hundreds more) can be found at - but it's really not quite the same listening to these programs on a computer, phone, or mp3 player.  For the full experience, I wanted to hear them coming from a real radio.  So, I invested in one of these:

This device lets me transmit any audio source onto the FM band to be picked up by any radio.  It has about a 1/2 mile range, unlike those little dongles made to be used with a car radio.  They're only strong enough to transmit a few feet.  Now, I can go sit out under a tree with nothing but my pocket radio and relive the joys of yesterday - or go flip on the radio in the shop while I'm puttering around and hear a game that was played 50 years ago in its entirety.

I'm now working on a computer program that will create a daily radio programming schedule so I can just let it run continually, unattended.  A small Raspberry Pi SBC with an 8TB hard drive containing my OTR & music collection, connected to the transmitter.  Curated music, news, weather, OTR, and whatever else I want to add.  It will be my own personal radio station.  I've already done that for TV - I have my own TV station that's been in operation for nearly ten years.  No cable, no Netflix, no streaming.  That's my way to unplug from the narrative.

March 24, 2023

Some Thoughts About the Grid

What are the most important things to have in a disaster situation?  Food, drinking water, fuel for heating & cooking, and money (assuming you already have shelter and clothing).  There's also self-defense, but let's table that for the moment.

How would you get these essentials if the disaster turned out to be a long term, grid-down event?  It's not as unlikely as you may think.  All it takes is a strategically placed EMP, a few wrong people in charge of "the grid", or a geomagnetic storm like the Carrington Event of 1859 (or the one we narrowly missed in 2012).  There's also the fact that the grid is now controlled largely by software, with different regions connected to each other via the Internet.  That carries a whole new set of vulnerabilities.  And remember, if the grid goes down, the Internet goes with it.  The interdependence is ironic when you think about it.

Let's start with water.  Whether you get your water from a well or the municipal supply, both are pumped by electricity.

Oh, you have a generator?  Great!  What happens when it runs out of gas or diesel?  You won't be able to go to the filling station to refuel, as all the pumps today are electric.  That also means no more fuel for cooking or heating.  Even if you could find some way to get fuel delivered to you, at some point, the refineries will need to convert crude oil into more fuel when the local supply runs out.  Refineries don't work without electricity.  You heat with coal or oil?  The blowers are still electric.  Propane?  Electric ignition and blowers.

How will you pay for that fuel (if you can get it)?  ATM machines are out, and the bank won't even know your balance, as everything is kept online these days.  No paper ledgers, and any back-up systems also require...electricity.  Your funds are, at best, inaccessible, if not completely erased.

What about food?  If you can't get to your bank account, how will you buy food?  First off, you'd need cash.  Card readers won't work.  Everything in the stores is priced with barcodes now, and barcode scanners need electricity.    The clerks won't know what to charge you without looking up the prices on the store's POS system which, surprise, needs electricity.  How long would it take for the merchants to reimplement the methods they used in the pre-barcode, pre-computer days (50+ years ago)? Oh wait, they don't make old-style cash registers anymore.  They're all electronic.  Looks like it will have to be pen & paper accounting.  A lot of customers will get desperate - fast - long before a workable trade system is in place.

I've been shopping more than once when the power went out.  The conversation is always the same: "We can't do anything until the power comes back on."  "But I have cash".  "I'm sorry, I don't know how to handle that - the register is down".  They have no backup plan.  Total dependency on "the system".  Many don't even know how to make change without a calculator.  After a few days with no power and no alarm systems, looting is inevitable and the shelves will be empty anyway.

Forget the stores.  Do you have a garden?  Will it sustain you and your family?  How will you water it?

Let's say you're resourceful.  You can build a hydroponic garden, capture rain water, set up a greenhouse, construct a reverse osmosis water filter, and forge a wood stove (with hand tools only).  All you have to do is watch a few Youtube videos and look up some horticulture data on the...oh, wait.  No Internet, no Google, no information sources other than physical books that you already own.

You remember this place called a library - but most of them are mere shadows of what they once were.  Chances are, the info you need, if there at all, has been scanned into a digital format, with the paper originals long gone.  And the library computers are now unusable.  

Cell phone communications go down about 12 hours after the grid.  That's how long the battery backup in a cell tower lasts.  After that, no phone calls, no texts, no Internet.  There's no point in charging your phone, even if you could.

These issues are just the tip of the iceberg.  We haven't touched on sanitation, waste removal, first aid, transportation, or law enforcement.  Pray that you don't depend on life-sustaining medications, or need the services of a hospital.

Our dependence on the Internet is bad enough, but we've become entirely too dependent on electricity itself.  I don't know of a single business that has an alternative plan to electrical dependency.  We've put all our eggs in one basket.  If you've ever tried to shop when the power went out, or navigate the streets when all the traffic lights are dark, you've gotten just a little taste of our dependence.  Imagine if that lasted for weeks or months.  Or years.  It's estimated that a Carrington-Event-like storm happening today would take us 4-10 years to recover from.  And the odds of such a storm hitting us in the next 10 years is 12%!

Take out the grid, and you take out everything we depend on, all at once.  In our rush to embrace technology, I think we forgot to develop a Plan B.

UPDATE:  I found this History Channel documentary that remarkably parallels much of what I speculated above.  I found it a little spooky, actually:

History Channel - Doomsday S1E5

March 21, 2023

Recovering the Past

From the time I was born (early '60s) to the time I graduated high school (late '70s), my family had moved nine times.  It wasn't out of necessity, nor due to job obligations (except once).  My mom was just never satisfied with any house that we ever lived in.  On their 40th wedding anniversary, my dad calculated that they had, by that time, moved a total of 42 times.  Once, they even moved out of one house and into the house next door.  I had struck out on my own by then - to the opposite coast (where I've been settled in the same spot for the last 30+ years).

One consequence of this constant moving is that I have almost no childhood mementos.  You see, every move was an opportunity to "downsize", so non-essential things tended to get left behind.

The only possessions I managed to hang on to are a copy of a family "newspaper" I made when I was 11, a typewritten collection of my grandmother's poetry, and a shoebox full of photographs.

The saving grace in all of this is that I still have vivid, near photographic memories of all the things that were important to me during the first 18 years of my life.  I have been blessed to find exact duplicates of most of these things, 40-odd years later.

What strikes me is that my most cherished possessions turned out to be rather ordinary things.

For example, there was this very specific, red and grey 3-hole paper punch:

My dad brought it home from work one year, along with a couple of 3-ring binders which became my personal scrapbooks (if only I still had them!).  The punch has "Property of General Electric Co." stamped on top of it.  General Electric is where my dad worked (as did I at one point, many years later).  I found the one pictured above on eBay from a seller in my home town.  For all I know, it may actually be the same one I had those many years ago, since it has a scratch in the same place that mine did!

Then there was this Ace Pilot 404 stapler:

I found this one at Goodwill.  It's the same model as the one my dad gave me (again, brought home from work).  I remember using this to staple my home-made newspapers together, as well as school reports.  It has a very satisfying "thwack" when hit (but it has also drawn blood on occasion).

Of course, there's the typewriter that got me through high school, a Smith-Corona Galaxie Deluxe:

I picked up this identical model for $25 from a lady in the next town.  I don't remember how I got my original typewriter.  It came to me about the same time that puberty hit, so that period is a bit foggy.  I think it was a present from my parents, but it may also have been a hand-me-down from a relative.  

Then there's my grandmother's typewriter, a Royal KHM:

She let me play with it each time I visited her.  It's the first typewriter I ever touched (probably around age 7).  My grandmother was a bank vice president and part-time poet.  She even had some of her work published, and I have all of her originals, each one typed on this machine (it was already over 30 years old at the time).

The one pictured above showed up on Craigslist about a week before Christmas last year.  I showed the ad to my wife, mentioning that it was identical to my grandmother's typewriter, while hoping that she would get the hint.  She then showed the ad to my daughter-in-law and, to make a long story short, it turned into my best Christmas present last year.

Then there are these two PaperMate Contour pens:

These were my prized possessions in elementary school, even though they probably cost only a dollar apiece at the time.  I just loved the way they looked, felt, and wrote, and nobody else I knew had one - which made them even more special.  It took me quite some time to find these in the exact colors I had way back then.  They seem to be rather rare.

Another cherished piece was this Swingline Tot 50 stapler:

It really belonged to my mom until I commandeered it.  It was just the right size for small hands, and it fit inside my pencil box, unlike the Pilot 404 which was relegated to a desk.

Here's another favorite pen, the Bic 4-color:

Amazingly, these are still being sold new.  I would draw on loose-leaf paper with this pen for hours on end, making creative use of the limited color palette.  Car caricatures were a frequent subject, as were Snoopy and his doghouse.

And then there are the PaperMate Flair felt-tip pens:

I remember having only 4 colors:  red, blue, green, and purple.  The purple one saw the most use. I had to hide them from my sister, as she would invariably smash the tips.  These, too, are still being made, though the barrels have a slightly different design than the ones I had as a child.  I feel spoiled having Flairs in more than 4 colors now.

Well, that's more than enough material for one post.  I may continue this at a later date.