"Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man."

Still a Few Bugs In The System

06:45 Thursday, 13 May 2021

I'm trying to recall how I learned about system dynamics, and I guess my earliest exposure was back in high school, during the early days of the environmental movement. I read The Limits to Growth, a report by the Club of Rome. That book has been updated over the years, and while it may have been off on some particulars, it's been pretty on point in the broad strokes.

But that book didn't really change how I viewed things, I didn't see events as consequences of systems. Events had causes and effects, many of them random, some caused by people, "good people," "bad people," "ignorant people." I didn't really see events as part of a larger construct that performed in a particular way as a result of its characteristics.

Chaos, Making a New Science, by James Gleick was another book that expanded my view of systems as being a way of viewing and understanding events like the weather. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions, phase space and the like became part of how I looked at things that behaved "chaotically." Chaos being the idea that its often difficult to make deterministic predictions on the behavior of a system.

Oddly enough, I think it was an old piece of Apple II software that prompted me to take a deeper look at systems, not that long ago.

Back when I lived in my condo, I got into retro-computing. Basically, playing with old computers. I had owned many Apple IIs of one sort or another for over a decade, and had a collection of a number of different machines and a lot of hardware, software and books. I eventually sold or gave all those away as the Mac became my main computing device. But I enjoyed the community that had grown up around the Apple II, and I was surprised and pleased to see it had endured over the intervening decades.

So I started buying old Apple IIs on eBay, and acquiring software and books again. Fast forward to just before we sold the condo and I gave the entire lot away to a young man from St Pete. I posted to the Apple II group on Facebook that the first person who responded could have everything, for free; the only requirement was that they had to come and collect it and everything had to be gone by that weekend. Kid responded within seconds of posting. Filled an old Ford Explorer that I couldn't believe made it all the way to Ponte Vedra from St Pete on bald tires! Anyway, hope he's gotten some enjoyment from it.

But, I did keep some things. When I was in the acquiring mode, I'd scour eBay for software packages that I either loved when I used the Apple, or that I'd never heard of or seen before. One was a program called Micro-Dynamo, published by Addison-Wesley. I'd never heard of it, so I did some googling and there wasn't much written about it, but it was an early form of modeling and simulation software. It was based on Dynamo, which was the mainframe computer program that ran the simulations for The Limits to Growth. So that made me search for Dynamo and that's probably what really brought "systems thinking" into the forefront of my consciousness in terms of how to view events.

As an aside, Micro-Dynamo was written in Apple II Fortran, which ran on Apple's USCD Pascal operating system. Really different! And while I did give nearly everything away, I kept Micro-Dynamo, and a fair number of books. Because I can still play with Apple II computers, only I do so on a Mac with an emulator program. Micro-Dynamo is a bit of a unicorn, and I paid quite a bit for it, so I'm reluctant to part with it.

Well, Dynamo grew out of the work by Jay Forrester at MIT back in the 50s. If you don't know who Jay Forrester is, don't feel bad, I didn't either. But he is (He was still alive in his 90s last time I checked.) a pretty remarkable figure in the history of computing and modeling and simulation. He's the guy who invented magnetic core memory, which was an enormous advance at the time. He also pretty much invented system dynamics, modeling and simulation.

So, to make a long story a little shorter, I took a longer look at systems dynamics, particularly because it's so relevant to understanding climate behavior, and it's changed the way I view nearly all events. There are inputs, outputs and system behavior. A key feature of system behavior is the feedback loop, and there may be more than one in any given system.

What brings all this to mind this morning is gas.

Here in northeast Florida, we're not directly affected by the pipeline disruption, but people in nearby Georgia are. It's not something we necessarily "know," and seldom think about. So when there are reports of stations running out of gas in Georgia, people assume we might run out of gas in our part of Florida. Local news needs to report "news" so they put out a call on social media for people to report gas stations that are out of gas. Which causes more people to believe there may be a gas shortage, so they'd better stock up! It's like the reports of toilet paper shortages back in the early days of the pandemic. People don't like to be caught short of some vital commodity, so any report of a "run" on it, prompts more of the same until it actually becomes a shortage, of at least some duration.

Our civilization exists as a system of systems, embedded in a planet which is itself a system of systems. I would say that none of our human systems is thoroughly understood, at least to the level where we could mitigate some of the worst features of them. And we've been driving these systems with out of parameters inputs for some time now.

We often speak of our "political system," but we don't understand system dynamics. I don't claim to have a profound understanding of the subject, but enough to recognize why certain outcomes obtain, or don't. Not that that does much good overall. We really need a broader literacy in system dynamics.

If you'd like an easy, readable but very useful and worthwhile introduction, I heartily recommend Thinking In Systems by Donella H. Meadows.

Anyway, you're not just a "cog in the machine," but you are a part of a system. Understanding something about systems might change your thinking and the part you play.

A Cool Little Radio

09:26 Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Since I got the lights back on, I figured write something.

I've been reading about the history of radio lately, which has been a lot of fun, and it has piqued my interest in the current state of radio as a hobby.

I was a licensed ham back in the 70s, got my Novice class license and did some continuous wave work on 80 and 40 meters from the basement of our house. Never tried for a General class before my navy career took over. But my first job as a division officer was as communications officer in USS GLOVER (FF-1098). I enjoyed that a lot, apart from managing the cryptographic keying materials. That was a lot of paperwork and accounting, things I can't stand to this day.

Plus, you could go to jail. They always insisted on making sure you remembered that.

Anyway, got my first Apple II in 1981, and from that point my interest in technology was consumed by all things digital. Computers and computing devices haven't "surprised and delighted" me since probably the first Retina iPad, which I bought with the cellular radio and built-in GPS. That was pretty amazing. Since then, it's been just incremental changes. Yeah, compute power has been growing exponentially, but what else is new?

Photography has consumed most of my interest for the past decade. That's still a huge part of my life, but we're in the incremental phase now; and I've learned that it really isn't the camera or the technology you hold in your hand that makes you a good photographer.

History has become a very keen interest to me lately, probably because I'm old enough now that a significant part of my life is history. Trying to figure out how we've managed to get ourselves into the mess we're in. And I've been talking to my mom a lot about her life as a child, because she lived through a lot of history too. She didn't have electricity until she was 11, when it came to the farm as part of the Rural Electrification Program.

It kind of surprised me when I learned that they listened to the radio even before they had electricity!

Well, duh, "batteries." But I always just kind of associated those big "old-timey' radios with tubes and everything being plugged into AC. Nope. Batteries. Grampa had to go into town to get them charged, and they seemed to last a very long time. She doesn't recall what brand of radio they had, but it was a table-top model, not necessarily one of the "cathedral" ones either. So that's a mystery I'm still trying to unravel.

Anyway, all that and reading some books about James Clerk Maxwell and the later experimental proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves by Heinrich Hertz really plunged me into a deep dive on the history of radio and where it is today.

Where it is today is someplace astonishing. And there's a lot more to say about that, but for right now, I just want to share something about this very cool little radio, the C Crane Skywave SSB.

I bought a couple of radios before I got this one, the first one was the preceding model, the Skywave. Played with those, did some more reading, watched a lot of YouTube videos and ended up getting the Skywave SSB.

One of the funny things about Google, YouTube and our algorithmic existence is how these web sites try to figure you out. Because I've been searching for things about radios, Google and YouTube now think I'm a prepper, and a right-wing prepper at that! Pretty weird.

There are good reasons for owning a decent radio as part of preparing for natural disasters (or unnatural ones). We do have a "hurricane box" that we can throw in the car if we have to evacuate. I was mainly interested in seeing what was going on in shortwave international broadcasting. Not as much as there used to be, thanks to the internet. But there are still shortwave broadcasts to seek out during favorable propagation conditions. The Skywave SSB covers most of the HF frequency spectrum (~1.7-30MHz), HF is the range of frequencies that travel beyond line of sight because of the ionosphere. And since most international broadcasts use amplitude modulation, you can listen to pretty much everything. But if you want to listen to amateur traffic, you're going to need to be able to process sideband transmissions. That'll get you the hams on voice or CW ("continuous wave," Morse code).

This little radio also includes the regular AM/FM bands for local commercial broadcasts, which you might turn to in the event of an emergency.

It has the NOAA weather channels, which is where it really has some value in terms of preparing for emergencies, or just being aware of local weather conditions if you're out on a hike or a picnic. You can set it up to give you an alert if one is issued. It's time limited, so read the manual.

It's got the VHF aviation band, so you can listen to air traffic. I've done some tuning around and heard pilots talking overhead. It's an interesting diversion. You can even set this one up to scan the freqs you've stored.

These radios today are remarkable. Most of the radio exists on a tiny, surface-mount chip that is itself a digital signal processor. I won't pretend to understand all of it, but I'm trying to wrap my brain around it.

The point is, they're tiny! The size of the radio is determined more by practical considerations of how large a speaker is included, the power source, and the antenna length and what kind of interface you want to present to the user (how many buttons, and how big a screen). The Skywave SSB is the same size as the Skywave, and when I first got the Skywave I was taken aback by how small it is! It's 3"x5" basically. The SSB has a longer whip antenna though.

The downside is that the audio quality from the speaker is about what you'd expect. But, it works! And they're kind of intended to be used with ear buds or headphones anyway.

The upside is, it's really easy to take this thing with you. I'm probably going to fly in August, so I'll be interested to listen to aviation traffic at the airport. It weighs next to nothing and takes very little space in your bag. It's powered by AA batteries, and if you want to use NiMH rechargeables, you can recharge them in the radio.

Of course, since it's digital it also has a clock and an alarm if you think you'll ever need that.

It's a bit pricey at $169, but I think it represents a good value. It comes with a little clip-on spooled wire antenna for HF, some ear buds and a little pouch to protect it if you throw it into your bag.

I think this radio is a very handy device to have in any number of circumstances, for many different reasons. For me, radio was almost a forgotten technology, about the only time I ever listened to one was in the car, but even then we were probably just as often streaming something from our phones via bluetooth.

I've got a few more radios besides this one, such is life when you've been conditioned to be a "consumer" and suffer from "gear acquisition syndrome," or GAS, as a retiree with a fair amount of discretionary income. I went from basically having two, one built into a small portable CD player and the other built into a cassette player, to having a dozen. (If you're using Amazon, look for the refurbs or the Amazon Warehouse sales. Save a few bucks. Packaging is often damaged, but the radios have all looked and worked fine.)

If I had to pick just one radio to keep, it'd be the Skywave SSB.


06:46 Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Whoa! Where does the time go...

Standby, systems operability test in progress. The lights may flicker, nothing to be alarmed about...

Okay, everything seems to still work...

Pardon the weather thing. Need to figure out how to customize that a bit. And my station isn't properly situated yet, so wind data, temps starting about mid-morning, and afternoon solar radiation are all inaccurate. Rain's good though, and humidity. May finally get around to mounting it properly this weekend.