Who’s Afraid of Amateur Radio? And why do our babus fear it?

When I was in my early teens (back in the early 1980s), I developed a great interest in radio. Not just in listening to radio broadcasts, which I did regularly while growing up in a country that had no television, but also in building a radio that could both receive and transmit signals.

My school teacher father, who encouraged me in many of my diverse pursuits, bought transistors, condensers and other ‘building blocks’ for a basic radio set. With the help of an amateur radio handbook, and through trial and error, he and I actually built a functional transmitter. It was exhilarating to listen to local and shortwave broadcasts on a home-made radio set, but even more exciting to be able to transmit rudimentary signals.

Even as a kid, I was not contented in being a passive recipient of information; I wanted to give out as much as I received…

That particular fancy didn’t last long: I soon moved on to other challenges, and never persisted with being a serious amateur radio enthusiast (or ‘radio ham’), but it left a lasting impression. A few years later, after leaving high school, I became a regular freelancer at the local radio station. By age 23, I was hosting my own weekly show on national radio, and my association with the radio medium would last for much of my 20s.

The humble low tech that saved the day...
My interest in amateur radio lay dormant — until five years ago, when I read reports about how radio hams helped revive emergency communications in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

The decades old practice was hailed as the ‘low tech’ miracle that literally helped save lives. Where electricity and telephone services — both fixed and mobile — had been knocked down, radio hams restored the first communication links. They were at the forefront of relief efforts, for example, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India, and in Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka.

This intrigued Sir Arthur C Clarke, inventor of the communications satellite and long time resident of Sri Lanka. Shortly afterwards, he wrote in Wired magazine: “We might never know how many lives they saved and how many minds they put at ease, but we owe a debt to Marconi’s faithful followers.”

If Sir Arthur were alive, he would have been dismayed to find what has happened since. Notwithstanding their celebrated role after the tsunami, radio hams have been sidelined in Sri Lanka. Their very hobby is being frowned upon by the state on the grounds of…national security.

Looking back, it seems like the public-spirited radio hams were given their 15 minutes of fame and then soundly ignored. Worse, the short-lived prominence may have attracted new bureaucratic hurdles.

This is the thrust of my last op ed essay for 2009, published on 31 December 2009 on Groundviews.org under the title: Who’s Afraid of Amateur Radio? Tsunami’s heroic technology has few backers in Sri Lanka

“As the applause died away, everything was forgotten,” I quote Victor Goonetilleke, one time President and current Secretary of the Radio Society of Sri Lanka, which networks amateur radio practitioners in the country.

One reason for this bureaucratic fear and negativity, I argue, may be simple ignorance of what amateur radio really is — reflecting the disturbingly low levels of media literacy in Sri Lanka.

Read the full essay, and join the conversation on Groundviews, or on this blog.

Essay republished on AMIC Alternative Media Portal

2010: The Year We Make Contact…?

We apologise for the delayed arrival of the future?

The year 2010 has finally arrived, but as they often say in the imagination business, the future isn’t what it used to be.

Actually, any number of futures can be anticipated — but only one of them becomes real. Which one does depends on an infinite number of actions (and inactions)…

2010 holds a special significance for science fiction and movie buffs because both a well known novel and a movie have been set in that year by the grandmaster of near-future imagination, Arthur C Clarke.

2010: Odyssey Two is a best-selling science fiction novel by Clarke, published in January 1982. It was a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The story is about seven Russians and three Americans who embark on a joint space mission to Jupiter to figure out what happened to the previous Jupiter mission nine years earlier. They start off as acquaintances and end up as friends – the author hoped that would help improve understanding between the US and the USSR.

The book was dedicated to celebrated cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and Andrei Sakharov, physicist, Nobel laureate and humanist, whose outspoken views led to his internal exile in Gorky until 1986.

In fact, the spacecraft in 2010 is named Alexei Leonov. As Sir Arthur recalled a dozen years later: “I had just sent the manuscript of 2010 to my editors when I visited Russia for a most memorable and enjoyable visit. In between toasts at Leonov’s apartment, I revealed that most of the action in my novel was taking place on board the Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. A delighted Leonov quipped: ‘Then it must be a good ship.'”

The novel was adapted as a movie by Peter Hyams and released in 1984. Its promotional title was 2010: The Year We Make Contact! (although this never appears in the film itself.) Unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, the novel and the screenplay were not written simultaneously, and there are significant differences between the two. According to the Wikipedia, the film was only a moderate success, disappointing many critics as well as viewers.

If nothing else, the book and movie of 2010 remind us how difficult it is to write near-future stories — most of them are completely overtaken by reality.

Several elements in 2010 have become anachronistic in the years following their original release. The most striking is the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the once mighty Soviet Union (which ceased to exist in 1991).

As Sir Arthur said in an interview in May 2005: “I’ve been more interested in the medium to long-term prospects for humanity, rather than in near-term developments. Politics and economics are so unpredictable that it’s practically impossible to make geopolitical forecasts with any degree of certainty.”

Alexei Leonov (left) and Arthur C Clarke at their last encounter in Colombo, 16 Dec 2007
Interestingly, he had peppered the novel with names of various Soviet dissidents, including physicists Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov, human-rights activists Mykola Rudenko and Anatoly Marchenko, Russian Orthodox activist Gleb Yakunin, among others. That was the author’s not-so-subtle jibe at the Soviet Union, despite the fact that he was both admired and respected in the country that pioneered humanity’s entry into space.

At first, this had somehow gone unnoticed by the Soviet censors. The Russian language youth magazine Tekhnika Molodezhy began serialising 2010: Odyssey Two. Halfway through the story, the serialisation was abruptly stopped. The Central Committee then summoned Cosmonaut Leonov to ask why in the novel the crew of the spaceship Alexei Leonov consisted of Soviet dissidents. (Clearly, that was another regime that couldn’t discern between fictional and real worlds — and tried, in vain, to rule over both.)

That’s when Leonov, Hero of the Soviet Union and one of its most decorated citizens, told off the Central Committee: “You aren’t worth the nail on Arthur C. Clarke’s little finger.” This was revealed years later in Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race, co-authored by Alexei Leonov and American astronaut David Scott (Simon and Schuster, 2004).

As Sir Arthur – a long standing friend of Leonov – remarked in a review of their book, Leonov was “perhaps the only man in the USSR who could have got away with that kind of remark”.

Well, that 2010 is finally here — even though Sakharov and Clarke never lived to see it, Leonov is very much with us. We are not yet heading to Jupiter, but at least the Cold War is now history…

Who can predict what surprises await us as the real 2010 unfolds?