Friday, November 13, 2009

Shortwave, The Internet and Papua New Guinea

In the days before computers became household fixtures, I used to turn to radio. Art Bell was a favourite, especially on an overnight shift. His choice of ghosts, extraterrestrials and other topics at the edge of science made for fascinating listening.
I didn't believe everything he broadcast but was left with the conviction that science attempts to describe truth rather than defining it. He took the algebraic x out of algebra and inserted it into life in general.

Then there was the alphabet soup of national radio stations. Radio Havana goes back to my childhood. I found it a lot livelier than radio Moscow and radio Prague. The best news programs came from the BBC and Monitor Public Radio (now defunct) which was the broadcast arm of the Christian Science Monitor.

The numbers stations, in which a radio announcer would simply read sequences of numbers, with no apparent pattern were coded instructions for spies around the world. Thinking about someone taking their coded marching orders fascinated me.

The extreme right used to have a strong presence on short wave. I used to occasionally listen to Ernst Zundel and other holocaust deniers. There were those who believed it to be unconstitutional to pay income taxes. Some ideas were entertaining, and there were occasional facts thrown in. It made me feel like a fly on the wall among people I might never have a chance to meet. I even used to pick up broadcasts from Aum Shinkyo, the Japanese cult that gassed people on the Tokyo subways back in 1995.

My grandparents used to listen to shortwave in Germany, getting information that was not available in the Nazi controlled press. To me, shortwave always made me feel that truth has wings, that words spoken freely can fly over the walls we erect to maintain them.

Shortwave is not clean and crisp like local AM and FM radio. It has a lot of interference. Certain frequency ranges can only be heard at night. Others are better in the tropics. Others can be picked up near daybreak. There is hissing and fadeouts. Sometimes you have to lean towards the speaker and listen attentively as though the receiver were a wispy voiced old woman. Some of the sounds between bands reminded me of cars speeding down a highway. The audio interference reminded me of the distances between people. tuning in a station that faded in gave me a feeling of having climbed walls and transcended space. It reminded me of the old song "Two Cigarettes in the Dark" that I found in my parent's old collection of 78's.

My favourite discovery was a broadcast out of Melbourne Australia that was in Pidgin English and targeted at listeners in Papua New Guinea. I was only able to pick it up around 4:00 AM. They had really good music that was influenced by the outside musical styles. There was rap, reggae and other styles to which they gave local language and flavour. I found out later that Papua New Guinea suffers from an astronomically high murder rate that includes police crime and witch burnings. It is aggravated by an unemployment rate estimated to be around 80%. Undoubtedly, high crime scares away investment that could solve a lot of problems. The country has about 850 languages in a population of 6.5 million. Pidgin is the language that holds much of the country together. You Tube has helped me keep up with the music scene there. One of my videos is from a group called "Scholastic" that was killed under mysterious circumstances. The one song in the video that I heard (presented below) leads me to believe that they had a promising future before their untimely demise.

It is now the internet that is my way of transcending the distance between peoples and continents. It reminds me of the Colony Coin Shop I used to go to as a child, watching the old men playing cribbage and asking countless questions about the stamps, coins and old memorabilia. It is the flying carpet of this generation that enables common people to find alternate takes on generally accepted truths.

But it is short wave that I will always remember as my "first love". It was on short wave that I made the electrifying discovery that I could broadcast a quarter of a mile on citizens band using my own walkie talkie. (If the FCC would have picked me up I would have been in a heap of trouble.)

Today, without expensive hardware, it is possible to read from bloggers around the world. For almost two years, I have been able to post my own articles and reach around the world through the ether. There is an imperfect yet intriguing democracy to cyberspace. I hope it stays that way.


I have included below two reggae songs and a memorial video to "Scholastic". All of the music is from Papua New Guinea Sphere: Related Content

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