Of shortwave, the BBC, earthquakes, crushed children, and international satellite monitoring

I like listening to the BBC. Of course there’s the Internet, and NPR often broadcasts BBC’s World Service at night (and increasingly slipping in some BBC coverage during the day time, in the middle of All Things Considered. Truly… strange…) A decade ago, though, I saved up a couple of paychecks and bought a nice shortwave radio from RadioShack.

Shortwave is good, consider it your friend. Even in the age of the Internet there is a WORLD of news, cultural radio, you name it, out there still bouncing around on shortwave circuits. The advantages can include – IF one knows what one is doing – using them to listen to digital “utility” transmissions, many of which still are, to this day, are military long haul communications circuits.

Several years ago I remember listening to fighter pilots during the Kosova/Serbian conflict.  In the clear. Can you imagine a young man’s excitement hearing news as it happened, by the pilots making the news, thousands of miles away?

But it sobered me – realizing that human lives were being affected. Whether your sympathies were with the Kosovar Albanians or the Serbs, realizing that human lives were being snuffed out, pretty young women coming home from work immolated in moments, kindly old men bouncing their baby grandchild on the knee smiling, blown to bits in a wink of an eye.

I always think about these things. It is hypocritical for me, and a sign of weakness, not to consider what is happening in other people’s lives. This makes them human to me, not abstractions, but flesh and blood people with stories much like mine.

On shortwave you can also – sometimes – find circuits used by merchant mariners and freighter ships. Over the last decade satellites took over most sea communications, but there are some interesting voice and “utility” transmissions to be found here and there. There is a magazine devoted to this art and hobby, Monitoring Times.

You can also, if lucky, locate diplomatic circuits, however they are usually encrypted. By this I mean some foreign embassies and consulates maintain long-haul shortwave communications circuits that are encoded with ciphers. Some nations still use outmoded ciphers, which can now be broken by intelligent young boys with access to enough computer CPUs to build a cluster or, for those with a larger budget, actual FPGA chips.

No, I do not know how to do this, but if you are interested you may ask your friendly neighborhood University math majors for a crash course in crypto analysis and hang out at some Ham Radio fests or 2600 hacker meetings and awkwardly chat people up until you find someone willing to chat a bit more. Or they may avoid you in total paranoia. But nothing ventured, nothing gained eh?

Back to the BBC. And things that melt my heart.

I like listening to the BBC’s World Service, and their near pornographic artsy historical dramas (increasingly catering to the lesbian crowd at times) are always interesting. And of course, the typically dry British comedy programs are nice. But I really like the radio World Service.

BBC World Service carries news and cultural material providing timely understanding of current events. All assisting, of course, overall cultural domination, and hegemony, of Anglo-Saxon civilization, worldwide. Since it is common knowledge that lingering British imperial dominion exerts itself, in subtle nuanced ways, through such cultural carriers, I will not push the point further. Professor C. Quigley’s “Anglo-American Establishment” gives good background material. It is common knowledge that the BBC historically has been an outlet of official British government propaganda, so we need not linger on this point..

..because I happen to like the BBC.. AND I DO LIKE THE BBC. I am grateful that Labour governments fund it with their constituents taxpayer dollars.

For one, I’m a bit fond of that estuary East-end London accent, and two, BBC propaganda is more subtle than the CRAP that passes for news over here in the US. I like it when biases and propaganda are expressed subtlety enough not to annoy me, but apparent enough that I can still sense and taste them, and consciously decide how to mentally filter them. American news, even the CNN, displays biases such blatant and coarse way it offends my tastes. I can enjoy the BBC’s news and cultural programming. I cannot enjoy Fox News. Also in providing news coverage the BBC does not condescend to degree that American news outlets do. The BBC carries useful and thought provoking analysis.

Anyway..
A couple of years ago I was listening to the BBC cover the anniversary of a rather large earthquake over in Pakistan. While listening to the reporter covering the tragedy my heart sobered quite a bit, and I found cause to reflect deeply.

The point of the news special concerned the massive destruction of schools in the area most badly hit. Even a year later thousands of schools were being held in tents or in the open air because the demolished schools were not able to be rebuilt.

One anecdote from a poor village Mullah; an old man with a wispy white beard choking up in tears talking about how he pulled his 12 year old daughter from the rubble. She survived, but was deathly ill. Another young man described seeing his little brother’s body lying in rubble, his head smashed in.

Imagine being a young man combing the wreckage and coming across your own brother, his head smashed in, almost unrecognizable. Imagine being an older father straining to pull aside rocks and concrete, and finding your living daughter’s battered body, so frail, and helpless.

I am not trying to provoke guilt. Forget guilt, forget cheap hallmark emotions. Think about yourself and your situation.

Life is incredibly fragile, we skate through life feeling nothing but security, comfortable in the civilization we’ve built up around ourselves. But that bubble of security can be popped in a moment’s notice. A wildfire, a hurricane, an act of war or terrorism, a bomb, a plane flying into your work building, a plague or epidemic, and yes, and earthquake.

Imagine these things over your Starbucks coffee.  We feel so freaking isolated, sometimes, from life’s realities that it takes hearing about little girls pulled from rubble by their graying aging fathers and little boys with their heads smashed in to remind us of how fragile life is.

If you figure, they lived in Pakistan, a third world country, this cannot happen here, you are being a fool.

Horrible events regularly puncture our calm lives in America, the fact that our country is the size of a third of a continent does isolate us from distant events, but there are landslides, wild fires, tornados, peoples lives like yours and mine, people who look like you and I, who speak our language, people of your race, or my race, of your culture, or my culture, of your religion – or lack thereof, in Gap blue jeans, excited over their hot date later tonight with the cutie whose eyes they met at the Safeway last week, excited over their midterm grades, frustrated with their new job, pissed off at their boss, waiting to go hang out with their friends for something to drink and a game of pool – people like you and I here in the USA find themselves suddenly facing a fate more severe than anything we imagined.

Life runs smoothly for us, when it stops running smoothly often we do not know what happened, what we are doing, where we are going. We live, we die, in confusion and fear and anxiety aching for one last chance, aching for one last possible chance, to tell someone we love them, that we care, that we are sorry. Sorry for something.

Think about this.

NEXT, returning to the first point – short wave radio can be your friend. So too can large aging C-Band satellite dishes, for those who know what they are doing and which satellite transponders to point them at, and what gear to connect them to. Beyond listening in on satellite phone conversations, you might, just might, catch an ordinary international landline phone conversations when the long haul trunks carrying them are switched over Satellite circuits.

Which is sometimes the case for cheap Quickie-Mart phone card conversations. Much of this stuff is carried over VOIP nowadays but it is still possible to catch a listen  to hapless Central American drug mules chatting with their bosses back home. Wholesome fun for the family.

How does one do this? Google a few terms and hit a local department of engineering library, and take a few ham radio courses.

A bit of good information still floats in the public sector, on monitoring everything from shortwave up to microwave satellites, much possible with a simple modified TVRO dish. The principles can be used, also, for aggressive ISM band monitoring of, say, Wi-Fi 802.11 wireless networks..

Such interception is illegal under US Federal law, so you are sternly advised not to do it. In fact, frankly put, do not do think about doing any of this, for it is illegal and if you are caught you will be prosecuted. Some people however may simply find the technical knowledge of how to do such things to be, well, stimulating. Knowledge is stimulating.

On the side, all radio receivers I am aware of produce an intermediate frequency that escapes the unit’s chassis. This frequency can be picked up some distance away, and mathematically computed to determine what initial frequency you were monitoring.

So if you are camped out in your buddy’s white delivery van with a modified TVRO dish mounted on a tripod on the side wired to an receiver that can do single side band, stepped to a Shortwave radio, busy monitoring something you really shouldn’t, and the friendly FCC van comes by, with their antennas, and pick up your receiver’s emissions and determine you are listening to something you shouldn’t well, it truly sucks to be you.

Back to the BBC, in the old days when it was illegal to own a TV in England and use it without paying certain taxes they would catch people watching TV by driving around trying to pick up intermediate frequencies, in a van with directional antennas. Ah the joys of overzealous beurecrats. Your tax dollars go to pay for entertaining propaganda and they tax you again for the right to watch it. That’s a thing of the past of course, but it is an interesting historical tidbit all the same.

This can be evaded through Tempest style hardening done for you, of course, by your local neighborhood competent electrical engineer and/or hacker.

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