Did you know the skies are full of amateur radio satellites? Well, not full -- but there are around thirty of them up there, all put into orbit for free by piggybacking on commercial or scientific launches. Hams like me use them to relay signals across the globe: it's great fun scrambling up on Hampstead Heath with a portable transmitter, pointing the aerial upwards and shouting at the skies -- and that's what I was doing, officer, honest. This has been going on for an amazingly long time -- the first Oscar (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio, natch) went up in 1961, just four years after Sputnik. Oscar 7 was launched in late 1974, and ran happily until 1981. Then silence -- until 21 June, 2002, when a Norfolk radio amateur, Pat Gowen, was tuning around the amateur satellite bands and heard a burst of morse code on an unexpected frequency. It was Oscar 7, come back to life and merrily chirping from the heavens. The signals it was sending back described its internal conditions, which were surprisingly healthy. Turns out it died because its rechargeable batteries short-circuited; twenty years later, one of the batteries then went open circuit. The solar panels, no longer shorted out, could power the spacecraft electronics again and normal service was resumed. It only works in the sunlight, but when it's there it's very happy. And so are the radio amateurs. There's one small quirk. The frequencies the satellite is designed to use are no longer allocated to space communications. They're in the amateur bands, and so people are using Oscar 7 to relay their signals with only a small guilty feeling, but it's still a tiny bit naughty. In this case, there's no problem. But the question is -- how much space junk up there retains the power to switch itself back on as it gets older and goes wrong? At the end of their useful lives, satellites are often pushed out to a parking orbit and told to shut up, but as they age they can forget what they were told and revert to a second childhood -- and if they're transmitting on a band now used for something else, the results could be most uncomfortable. Tscha. Every day, a new disaster waiting to happen. I'm getting back to my radios and monitoring the heavens... (145.975MHz, if you want to listen for Oscar 7) Tuesday 2/07/2002
Two of my bete noirs are being chased down by the forces of goodness this week: the mobile phone international roaming charge scandal and the extended warranty scam. Unsurprisingly, the perpetrators of these two money-sucking malfeasances are complaining long and loud that it's so unfair to be victimised. The telephone companies say that in these terrible times of financial torment they can't be expected to cut the only decent source of profit, while the high street electrical outlets that are most at fault for flogging unnecessary guarantees stridently claim that they are value for money and well worth it in terms of giving consumers peace of mind. Yeah. Right. I know how much peace of mind paying £130 for a 'five year guarantee' on a £180 Minidisc player would give me, especially since the darned things don't go wrong. It's especially rich when the sales staff give you a scary story about how difficult it is to get things fixed these days and how much independent repair shops charge, given the track record of some of the guarantee companies. And as for roaming: I'm not the only person who knows people who've inadvertently spent more than their airfare in phone charges. Remember: get your phone unlocked and buy a pay-as-you-go sim in the country of your destination. That's if you really must talk back home: text messages are the new postcards, you know. The phone companies must learn that incompetence in raising revenue in one way doesn't excuse cupidity in another. In any case, next time I go abroad I'm going to send my wish you were heres by Oscar 7. Y'all got two weeks to learn morse code. Wednesday 3/07/2002
More Tales Of The Bleeding Obvious: in news today -- genetic testing shows the Welsh are different from the English, unprotected sex makes people happy (although the consequences may make one's mood go down as well as up) and, blimey, people use search engines a lot on the Web. A survey from the Pew Internet Project -- is this any relation to the high tech park benches that councils are beginning to provide in parks? -- says that next to email, search engines are the most popular bit of the Net. And that people spend most time in Google, but visit MSN more often; unsurprising, given that Google works better but Internet Explorer dumps you in the MSN search engine at every possible opportunity. Where's the setting that lets me change that bit of Internet Explorer's behaviour, oh customer-centric Microsoft? All of which goes to show that the old question often asked of portal sites -- "Why bother, when Google does it much better?" has yet to be answered. As for Google itself, it shows all the signs of answering the other old question, "how do you make money from the Internet?" largely through rendering the first question unanswerable. Good ideas work out in the end, even on the Net. I know that's not bleeding obvious at the moment, but it's true. Thursday 4/07/2002
Digital radio is coming home! The first sub-£99 set is announced by Videologic -- the start of a range the company has planned -- while all the BBC's radio channels will be carried as part of the new terrestrial digital TV licence awarded after the demise of ITV Digital. Which means, I calculate, that a fully equipped household now has seven ways to receive Radio 4 -- analogue FM, long wave, Sky, cable, streamed Internet, DAB radio and digital terrestrial TV. Add in the Worldspace digital radio satellite carrying the World Service, shortwave and the odd medium wave relay transmitter, and we're easily into double figures for those really keen on their BBC speech radio. Fan as I am of Aunty and Radio 4 in all its rather stuffy wonderfulness, isn't this a little excessive? If you're not the BBC, it takes forever to get permission to broadcast so much as a local signal on FM -- and forget about setting up national services. Webcasting is getting increasingly difficult; the bandwidth isn't cheap, and the licensing conditions for music and other copyright material is likely to be even more onerous than for radio. This isn't the best use of new technology. With every new set of broadcasting channels, regulation should get looser and access should get easier. It's one thing to keep a tight grip on broadcasting when it's necessarily limited, but we're past those days now. A regulator worth its salt would include public access and diversity requirements on anyone who takes over a national transmission medium -- but not, it seems, in the UK, where we get the BBC and Sky doing what the BBC and Sky do anyway. Not very good, chaps. Friday 5/07/2002
Our Internet Fridge is settling in, and has become a firm friend of all. We particularly enjoy its speakers and Webcam, as distant workers can connect to these over instant messaging and chat to colleagues. The fact that many of us are now spending a good deal of time listening to voices from a fridge and replying would normally be referred to competent medical authorities, but I think we can get away with it for a while yet. Here are ten fridge facts: 1. The noted Balkan band 3 Mustaphas 3 escaped from their home town of Szegerely by being smuggled out in fridges, and regularly made use of a fridge in their live shows and songs. To many a Mustapha fan, the cry of "Take it to the fridge!" is a signal for particularly energetic dancing. It is normal. 2. The fridge magnet was invented in 1971 by a Canadian called Jaron Summers, who made a tiny magnetic pig with "Remember Your Diet" on it. Thanks, Jaron. 3. The refrigerator is normally the biggest consumer of electricity in the household, although modern fridges are much better. One made in 1990 uses as much energy in a year as a hairdryer would if left on for a month. 4. Magnetic fridge poetry was invented by Dave Kapell, a songwriter with hayfever. To cure his writer's block, he wrote a load of words down on paper and cut them out. To prevent his sneezes from scattering the verses he made with the words, he glued the paper bits to magnets. Then he went to the fridge for a snack while juggling some words, and left them there. His friends couldn't leave them alone, and the rest is history. 5. Albert Einstein and fellow physicist Leo Szilard patented numerous refrigeration technologies in the mid 1920s. Electrolux bought the rights to use some of these patents for $750. 6. The first known artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748. 7. The word 'refrigerator' was coined in 1800 by Thomas Moore, an engineer from Maryland in the US. He invented a butter transporter -- a metal container surrounded by a rabbit-fur insulated cedar tub filled with ice. 8. Early refrigerators used ammonia, sulphur dioxide or methyl chloride for refrigerants, which were very toxic, very combustible or both. Horrific accidents were not uncommon. Freon was invented in the 1920s to replace these -- it was inert, non-toxic and cheap. It also destroys ozone, a problem not discovered for another fifty years. 9. Many basic advances in refrigeration technology were made in the US in the late 19th century, after increasing pollution had contaminated the lakes and ponds that supplied natural ice and a series of warm winters had reduced the amount available. 10. The refrigerator is the commonest household appliance, being found in more than 99.5 percent of homes in the developed world. To have your say online click on TalkBack and go to the ZDNet UK forums.