Saturday, March 19 2005
Rebecca, one of Gretchen's paternal second cousins, rode a bus up from Queens last night with her fiancé Sten. (We'd had a festive dinner with them and others at Rebecca's parents' house this past Thanksgiving.) Though they live relatively close, this was their first visit. Today Gretchen took them to see a big star-studded Woodstock Film Festival benefit, leaving me at home to continue my antenna installation wankery.
Ever since I was a teenager, I've wanted to have an antenna rotator that I could load with directional antennas to help me examine all that radio noise that usually passes unnoticed through my body. I loved multi-band radios and was amazed at all the information that could co-exist in an instant. Remember, this was before the information age had really taken off, before most people had come to believe that electronics would go on shrinking forever. A radio that could arbitrarily tune into hundreds of different signals was mind blowing, even if the technology to do such things had existed well before I was born.
But I never had enough money to afford an antenna rotator when I was a younger. I'd make do by manually rotating the antennas that I mounted atop simple poles. One of my most clever antenna rotating systems was for an antenna pole I placed high in a tree above my Shaque. It featured three wire cables attached at three equally-spaced points on a metal disk's circumference, and the antenna pole passed through the center of the disk, attached as tightly as available technology allowed. By pulling on the cables I could theoretically rotate the antenna, but it didn't work very well or accurately. The main inconvenience was having to go outside (away from the radio or teevee) to do the rotating. Having to run a hundred feet to see if that action you've just taken is producing results is not the hallmark of a quality interactive environment.
Now, though, I have an antenna rotator that can sit under my left hand like my mouse sits under my right. I can rotate the antenna to any arbitrary direction and then hit refresh on a web page to see what wireless routers can be found. It's not an especially useful setup, since there's little to be gained even if I manage to borrow someone's internet access. It's more of a proof of concept for a future internet that will be a lot more ad hoc and less subject to regulation than the existing one. I'm imagining a future day when information jumps in little leaps between people, vehicles, and buildings, and all sorts hitherto unimagined applications depend on proximity as well as connectivity. Grey market P2P, social networking, and security applications will all be revolutionized.
Also, by changing a single setting in the WiFi bridge, my installation becomes an internet provider beaming a powerful signal in any direction I choose. If I know someone will be hiking with a WiFi-capable PDA on the northwest slope of Shaupeneak Mountain, I can hook that person up.
When I was designing my antenna installation, I knew I'd want to include more than just a WiFi antenna on the rotating mast. It would also be nice to pick up local television broadcasts to supplement the sketchy "local" offerings made by our DirecTV satellite, parked 22,000 miles over a spot in the Pacific 600 miles west of the Galapagos. It would also be nice to pull in radio stations, particularly hitherto-unknown Public Radio stations (partly to avoid the pledge drives). I know this doesn't make as much sense as it once did, now that so much streams over the internet. But there are still a lot of things that don't stream. And antennas can be used to broadcast as well as receive.
So yesterday I bought a large VHF/FM/UHF antenna at Lowes and today I spent some hours getting it onto the end of the mast, which I first had to bring back down to horizontal. I was just barely able to maneuver it into place in the space I had available to work on the laboratory deck.
Once I had the antenna in place, I tried tuning in teevee stations using my computer's unfortunately-named ATI All-in-Wonder card, which has a TV tuner built in. After overcoming a problem related to my use of two monitors (and inadvertently rendering Adobe Photoshop useless; God I hate Windows!), I was able to receive about 13 different television stations, most of them based in Connecticut. This isn't surprising, since the eastern horizon as viewed from the antennas is in that state.
In addition to the two antennas, the rotating antenna mast also includes a 120 volt spotlight that can be rotated to point any direction (in a more or less horizontal plane). To switch it on and off I use an X-10 remote. Using the versatility of the antenna rotator, then, I can shine a spotlight anywhere in the yard or on my laboratory deck. Or I can use it to point at eastern mountains, which could help me should I ever need to locate the direction of the antenna mast from many miles away. I could, for example, replace the spotlight with a green bulb and look for it from, say, the top of Shaupeneak Mountain.
Other things I could put on the rotatable mast includes a webcam and a loudspeaker. If it had enough equipment for transmitting and receiving "sensory input" and "sensible output" it could come to be a sort of "head" for the house.
As I worked on today's antenna installation, I was also attempting to dogsit Lexie, a young Pit Bull belonging to a neighbor from up the street. But Lexie was rather high maintenance, continually threatening to go out in the road or off the edge of the roof. She'd also get strange notions of where in my laboratory she could safely explore, occasionally precipitating landslides of falling equipment. It's was a terrible distraction while I was busy at the somewhat dangerous work of installing a huge antenna, so eventually I had to take Lexie back home.
This evening Gretchen and I went out with our houseguests to Kyoto Sushi in Kingston. I always forget how great that place is. The food is delicious, but the main draw is more the staff, particularly a wild and crazy waitress who makes a flamboyant show of drinking abundant quantities of sake while on the clock. Tonight when Gretchen asked for water, this waitress admonished her for wasting stomach space on a fluid that didn't contain alcohol.
There was much talk during the meal about the amazing strides being made in the meat substitute food industry. At some point Gretchen said that her kosher upbringing would make it difficult for her to eat tofu pork or fake shellfish, just as I probably wouldn't want to eat fake cockroach or fake dog and most people wouldn't want to eat ersatz human meat. This gave me a surreal thought: perhaps artificial intelligent life forms won't result from the work of computer engineers but instead from that of food engineers. At a certain point tofu ducks will come to approximate real ducks, even to the point of walking around and quacking before having their fake heads chopped off and having their fake feathers plucked. This will inevitably lead to tofu humans who can be enslaved to do our bidding and slaughtered and fed to our dogs without any moral qualms.
The other day my father sent me this clip from the Staunton Daily News Leader, March 4th 2005. Mr. Allen makes my old letters seem warm and fuzzy by comparison. What court case is he going on about? Brown v. Board of Education? Reading letters like this remind me how backward and provincial western Virginia was when I lived there. It's changed a little since then but it still has a ways to go. I don't think the Germans would have encountered much resistance had they managed to blitzkrieg down the Shenandoah Valley.
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