Another way to enjoy meteor showers: HAM radio

Tonight we should see the peak of this year's Geminid meteor shower. I wrote about the weird scientific mystery surrounding this particular meteor shower yesterday, and Miles O'Brien wrote a great feature on it for us today.

In the comments on my post yesterday, reader Clayton Yarbrough mentioned that meteors have an effect on radio signals, and I wanted to follow up on that, because it's a pretty cool phenomenon. Basically, meteors can allow you to send radio signals farther than is normally possible. In the video above, you can watch 7th grader Jeffrey Kelly interview a ham radio operator who explains how this works. But first a little background.

Radio waves travel through the air. You are, of course, aware of this. But there's also a limit to how far they can travel. Partly, this is because the radio waves move in what could be characterized as a straight line, but the planet Earth curves. To get around that bend in the horizon, ham operators frequently bounce their signals off a part of Earth's upper atmosphere, called the ionosphere. What makes the ionosphere special? It's ionized, meaning the particles it's made of are electrically charged. That should give you all the background you need to follow along with the video.

Read more on skywave communications (bouncing signals off the ionosphere), and meteor scatter communications.

Tallest possible Lego tower height calculated


The good folks on the most-excellent BBC Radio/Open University statistical literacy programme More or Less decided to answer a year-old Reddit argument about how many Lego bricks can be vertically stacked before the bottom one collapses.

They got the OU's Dr Ian Johnston to stress-test a 2X2 Lego in a hydraulic testing machine, increasing the pressure to some 4,000 Newtons, at which point the brick basically melted. Based on this, they calculated the maximum weight a 2X2 brick could bear, and thus the maximum height of a Lego tower:

The average maximum force the bricks can stand is 4,240N. That's equivalent to a mass of 432kg (950lbs). If you divide that by the mass of a single brick, which is 1.152g, then you get the grand total of bricks a single piece of Lego could support: 375,000.

So, 375,000 bricks towering 3.5km (2.17 miles) high is what it would take to break a Lego brick.

"That's taller than the highest mountain in Spain. It's significantly higher than Mount Olympus [tallest mountain in Greece], and it's the typical height at which people ski in the Alps," Ian Johnston says.

"So if the Greek gods wanted to build a new temple on Mount Olympus, and Mount Olympus wasn't available, they could just - but no more - do it with Lego bricks. As long as they don't jump up and down too much."

How tall can a Lego tower get?

More or Less: Opinion polling, Kevin Pietersen, and stacking Lego 30 Nov 2012 [MP3]

World's oldest hacker radio show under threat

2600's Emmanuel Goldstein writes,

In the midst of the biggest natural disaster to hit the New York metropolitan area in modern times, most of the staff of community radio station WBAI was prevented from broadcasting - not because of a power outage, but due to management decisions that put prerecorded programming over the airwaves instead of the usual live broadcasts. The hacker/technology program "Off The Hook" has been kept off the air for an unprecedented three weeks, making it impossible to help listeners deal with the technological challenges of losing communications and connectivity throughout the crisis. While a small group of broadcasters was allowed to put live programs on the air during daylight hours, a 6 pm on-air curfew was imposed, effectively locking out the majority of the station staff, including "Off The Hook." This has led the members of the world's longest running hacker radio program to start searching for another broadcast outlet, as it doesn't seem that technology-based programming is taken seriously or considered a priority, based on these actions.

AN OPEN LETTER TO OUR LISTENERS FROM THE STAFF OF "OFF THE HOOK" (Thanks, Emmanuel!)

Radio documentary on elections and America's energy future: The Power of One, with Alex Chadwick

BURN: An Energy Journal, the radio documentary series hosted by former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick, has a 2-hour election special out. It's the most powerful piece of radio journalism I've listened to since—well, since the last episode they put out. You really must do yourself a favor and set aside some time this weekend to listen to “The Power of One.”

Energy policy, defining how we use energy to power our economy and our lives, is among the most pressing issues for the next four years. In this special two-hour edition of BURN, stories about the power of one: how, in this election season, a single person, place, policy or idea can — with a boost from science — affect the nation’s search for greater energy independence.

The documentary examines how "individuals, new scientific ideas, grassroots initiatives and potentially game-changing inventions are informing the energy debate in this Presidential Election year, and redefining America’s quest for greater energy independence." It was completed and hit the air before Hurricane Sandy, but the energy issues illuminated by that disaster (blackouts, gas shortage, grid failure, backup power failure at hospitals) further underscore the urgency.

Read the rest

HOWTO follow FDNY radio scanners in an emergency

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During last night's storm emergency, I monitored the FDNY scanners to try and follow fast-moving and difficult-to-obtain details about what was happening where in NYC. For future reference, radioreference.com is an excellent way to do that (provided you have power and internet access). Along with that, you'll want to have two browser tabs open, for a cheat sheet on the codes the first responders use: Box Codes (find the location of the fire alarm boxes people use to get an FDNY response in an emergency), and FDNY 10 codes (shorthand developed in 1937 for common communication among first responders).

One good thing to keep in mind: not everything you hear on the scanner is confirmed fact. By definition, the first responders are often working with incomplete and unconfirmed calls for help, and chaotic situations. That, combined with the fact that it can be hard to understand what they're saying, make careful listening and sharing essential.

BBC radio documentary on same-sex couple coping with cancer and mortality

BB reader Jane Lowers sends along this beautiful BBC Radio documentary about two men in California who have been together for decades, now facing one's terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis. "I know both of them; Eric was a columnist at a radiology magazine I used to work for," says Jane. "Their house is every inch as insane as described. But the story -- trying to decide how to deal with a diagnosis, how to use the time you have, and how it can affect relationships -- was very well-described, I thought."

India's in the dark, are we next?

670 million people—roughly half of India's population—has been without electricity for two days, following a massive blackout. The United States has a much more modern grid, but only nine years ago a blackout in the Northeast of this country cut power to 45 million. How does a huge blackout like that happen? What are we doing to prevent another one? I'll be on Southern California Public Radio's Madeline Brand Show this morning to talk about how America's electric grid works ... and doesn't work. The show starts at 9:00 Pacific time and I'll be on around the top of the hour.

Radiolab marathon all day today

Minnesota Public Radio is playing a marathon of the NPR show Radiolab all day today. Hours of good, science-filled, story telling wonderfulness. Right now, at 12:32 central, they're doing a show about epidemiologists tracing the origin of AIDS back to the 1920s. Definitely worth listening to. You can listen to the entire marathon on MPR's live stream from anywhere in the world.

Catcopter artist explains all

In the event that you were wondering about the motives of the Dutch artist Bart Jansen, who attained notoriety by taxiderming his dead cat and retrofitting its corpse to serve as a quadcopter, wonder no more. The CBC's As It Happens recorded an interview with Mr Jansen, and it is one of the strangest, finest interviews in that show's august history. The producers were kind enough to provide us with an MP3 for your listening pleasure. Cory

Geoengineering and the Fight against Climate Change: Maggie on "To the Point" radio show (audio)

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Two of my favorite people talk about one of my favorite topics, all on the same radio program. Our very own Maggie Koerth-Baker was interviewed by my friend (and former NPR colleague) Alex Chadwick on KCRW's daily show "To the Point" today, to talk about "Geoengineering and the fight against climate change."

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything; and when people repeat that witticism, they make it sound as though someone should. Now, someone may. Geoengineering. Guest host Alex Chadwick explores whether we could use technology to alter the atmosphere and cool the warming planet. What could go wrong with that? There are scientists who think we should start trying to research exactly these questions.

Direct MP3 link, or you can play the program in your web browser here.

Alex has been doing a lot of interesting journalism around energy issues lately, most notably with BURN: An Energy Journal. He was sitting in for host Warren Olney today.

Energy and geo-engineering: Maggie on the radio

I'm going to be on the radio a couple of times today, talking about my book, Before the Lights Go Out, and the future of energy and climate. At 1:00 Eastern/Noon Central, you can listen to an hour-long interview with me on Minnesota Public Radio's Bright Ideas. You don't have to be in Minnesota to listen. It's streaming online. Then, about 2:10 Eastern/1:10 Central, I'll be on "To the Point", talking about climate, energy, and geo-engineering. Climate scientist Ken Caldiera will also be on that show and he's a great speaker. That will be online, as well.

In Guatemala, pirate Mayan radio connects marginalized indigenous communities

I missed this great read published a few months back by photojournalist Connor Boals in Columbia Journalism Review, but it's worth revisiting now: a story about the indigenous pirate radio stations that connect poor rural Mayan communities throughout Guatemala.

Read the rest

Hunger-striking Bahraini dissident Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja near death; Formula One president still plans to run races in Bahrain


Tuesday night's As It Happens program on CBC radio featured a segment on the terrible human rights situation in Bahrain, opening with an archive interview with Zainab Al-Khawaja, daughter of the dissident Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who was snatched, beaten and indefinitely detained by Bahraini police a year ago. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is now on a hunger-strike and may die soon. As It Happens then interviews his daughter again about her father's situation and the human rights situation in Bahrain. Zainab Al-Khawaja explains that her father is risking his life to draw international attention to Bahrain's awful human rights situation, the hundreds of dissidents rotting in jail, some as young as 12 years old, facing torture and inhumane conditions.

As It Happens then interviewed Bernie Ecclestone, president of Formula One, whose big annual race is to be held in Bahrain this year. Ecclestone is the perfect picture of denial and callousness, as he blithely asserts that Bahrain is a perfectly nice place where protest is tolerated. He's smug about his race for expensive cars in a totalitarian police-state, and blames the media for any negative impression the world may have gotten about Bahrain.

Here's a recent CNN article on the Al-Khawajas, here's Murtaza Hussain on Salon on the same subject, and here's Democracy Now!'s archive of pieces on the family. Zainab Al-Khawaja tweets as @angryarabiya.

As It Happens's producers were kind enough to supply an MP3 of the segment for us to host (linked below). As It Happens is my favorite news magazine program. I download the previous night's episode every day and listen to it on my waterproof MP3 player on my daily swim.

As It Happens Bahrain dissident segment (MP3, 11 mins, 11MB)

Will the FAA stop prohibiting electronic devices on commercial flights?

As I noted in a Boing Boing post yesterday, there's news of a possible change ahead for in-flight gadget rules in the US.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits passengers from using electronic devices on commercial flights when the plane is below 10,000 feet in altitude. But the FAA announced this week that after widespread demands to modify restrictions, there may be new efforts to review whether devices like the iPad or phones in "airplane mode" can be permitted safely during takeoff and landing.

Aviation journalist and pilot Miles O'Brien, who uses his iPad for navigation while flying his own plane, joined KPCC's Patt Morrison show today to discuss the news. Here's a direct MP3 link to the radio segment. It's a good listen.

Great Squanderland Roof: funny BBC radio drama about austerity

Julian Gough sez, "I get the feeling you and some of your readers are, um, not entirely unconvinced by austerity as an economic strategy. So you might like the BBC's free Drama of the Week podcast. It's a satire on Eurozone austerity economics called The Great Squanderland Roof, by, er, me. It's free, downloadable worldwide till Friday, and it stars some great actors, like Dermot Crowley who was in Fr. Ted and, er, Return of the Jedi. What can we do but laugh? Hope you like it. Here's the official BBC blurb on it:"

Jude lives in a henhouse with no roof, in the bankrupt Republic of Squanderland. Purchased for ten million euro at the height of the credit bubble, his henhouse has been rated the asset in Europe most likely to default. To solve this small but symbolic problem and restore confidence in the markets, Europe's leaders need a plan. Sadly, putting a roof on Jude's henhouse quickly escalates out of control. Soon they are committed to building a roof over the entire country, half a mile above the startled voters... But what happens when a structure that's too big to fail finally fails? To the horror of Europe's bankers and politicians, Jude comes up with a dramatic (and rather romantic) solution to the Eurozone crisis... 'The Great Squanderland Roof' stars Rory Keenan as the hapless Jude (whose recent credits include 'The Kitchen' at the National, 'A Dublin Carol' at the Donmar and 'Birdsong' on BBC TV) in his debut BBC Radio role, Dermot Crowley as a banker turned government minister, and Stephanie Flanders, the BBC's Economics Editor.

The Great Squanderland Roof 2 Mar 12 (Thanks, Julian!)