Tuesday: Radio ham porn

Tuesday 3/6/2003One of the many benefits of rural Sweden is the quiet. Not necessarily a lack of sound -- anyone who thinks the countryside is peaceful hasn't been there recently -- but electrically.

Tuesday 3/6/2003
One of the many benefits of rural Sweden is the quiet. Not necessarily a lack of sound -- anyone who thinks the countryside is peaceful hasn't been there recently -- but electrically. Trying to pick weak shortwave signals out of the murk of the London airwaves is no fun: computers, light dimmers, microwave ovens, they all spew out random fuzz. The worst offender by a long way is, curiously, a video projector that transmits a loud ticking noise over a range of hundreds of metres even when turned off. But a Swedish farm? Silence. Distant thunderstorms, perhaps the occasional crackle as the pigs in the next farm blunder into the electric fence, but that's about it. Even the weakest long-distance (DX, in the parlance) signal has a good chance of getting through to my monkish cell -- once a chicken shed -- and when I'm not putting my fictional characters through various forms of distress, I take time off and wander the shortwave bands looking for choice DX. The most fun -- certainly to show off to passing agricultural types -- is SSTV, or Slow Scan Television. This is a bit like colour faxes sent over the airwaves, or loading pictures off tape in the days of 8-bit micros. Once upon a time, SSTV meant expensive, complicated machinery and a lot of dedication: these days, you can just hook your transceiver up to your PC's sound card and run some free software. So there's a lot of it about, with hams exchanging photo albums around the globe. Most SSTV pictures are anodyne; one might even say dull. A good 50 percent are pictures of the ham radio operator themselves -- almost invariably a balding man with glasses posing in front of what looks like the control panel from a 1950s sci-fi movie. Then there are pictures of flowers, butterflies and other wildlife; the suspect's house, a nearby mountain and so on. Although it's initially fun to see one of these float in from half-way across the road, the thrill diminishes after a bit. But then there are the Italians who, along with certain Russians, delight in transmitting stuff that wouldn't look out of place on Page 3 of the Sun. It's surprising how bursts of noise or fading signals conspire to bury the rudest bits, or how a well-positioned callsign keeps the transmission just this side of whatever it takes to stop the Italian or Russian authorities knocking on the door. But it just goes to show: even without broadband, the dedicated technologist need not go far to download porn.