Thursday, December 29, 2011

Troubling Events at 75 Meters

I listen to shortwave radio. I realize this is an odd anachronistic hobby for a 39 year-old suburbanite who should be empowering himself with yoga, reality television and crap purchased from the Apple Store. But long ago I had a shortwave radio in high school, a time before the interwebs were capable of delivering live streaming of any radio station you could fathom. Perhaps I listen to shortwave radio now to re-experience the wonderment that I felt then, alone in my room, pulling in signals that seemed to arrive from anywhere and everywhere, as though through some magical cypher.

I have a Grundig G3. It is an amazing little machine, and well worth the $129 it costs. It is able to pull in many international broadcasts as well as aeronautical communications and amateur broadcasts. I must confess to being most intrigued by what I might find discussed by Ham Radio operators. As I got back into shorwave, it was easy to presuppose that amateur broadcasts were ocean of anti-government Obama-haters, writhing in the seats of their remote Ham Shacks, imploring any and all who might be listening to prepare for the End of Times.

I spend most of my time on shortwave listening to Hams. I track their call signs and document everything I hear. I do this mostly out of curiosity - it's interesting to see the vast distances from which I can pull in a signal on such an unsophisticated receiver. And to my surprise, most Hams are enormously likable and listenable men (I've only heard one female amateur operator). Rather than spewing venomous political crap, they mostly are looking to make connections with other Hams to discuss the shortwave conditions in the ionosphere and the effectiveness of their antennae. And once these connections are made, Hams generally just converse about their lives - what they're doing that day, how the weather is, what they're planning to do next summer.

I've been listening and documenting religiously for almost a year now. But now, due perhaps to the oncoming shift and uncertainty popular culture believes Planet Earth will endure in 2012, the Ham universe has taken a decidedly darker direction.

On December 11th, I was listening at 3827 kHz on the lower side band. A Ham operator was delivering a long religious speech, which at times seemed mildly anti-Semitic. Other Hams were trying to break into his broadcast, either by speaking or by sending out Morse code. Still, other Hams began attacking those Hams who were looking to disrupt this broadcast. A consistent voice trying to counter the religious broadcast was met with another countering voice decrying his attempts by repeating: "That's an ARRL Member jamming a legal QSO" (meaning 'hey - that's a licenced operator trying to disrupt a legal broadcast').

It was all very unsettling. Since then, I've encountered other hotbeds for political diatribes, most infamous being 14313 kHz during the daytime. These exchanges are nothing more than verbal versions of any anonymous internet comment board. But there's something scary and sinister here. Hearing the actual voices of their adversaries doesn't seem to deter the anger these men feel. One would assume that the anger a man might feel for another man who does not share his viewpoint might be assuaged if the two men, rather than conversing through the blindness of an internet chat room, could actually hear one another's real voices. This is not the case, unfortunately.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best Reads of 2011

It's been a little over three years since I started Slimbo's Shelf. I never really gave any thought to how long it would last when I started this blog. This, of course, was a time when blogs were relevant. Now, amid the constant flurry of ever-changing interweb social media, blogs seem to have gone the way of the cassette tape or fax machine.

Yet I carry on. The only alternative to writing on this blog is to continually write in my notebooks. I have a stack of these spiral notebooks in my closet. One might mistaken them for artifacts of my old school days, but oh no, sir. These are the ramblings of a contemporary suburban madman. I don't remember what's been written in half of them, but they are densely packed with my words. Occasionally, I'll mine out an idea from these dusty tomes, perhaps to transpose into an idea I'll work through here, on this blog where it goes unread amid the ocean of unread blogs that now populate our fair planet.

Ah, fuck it. Let's talk about what Slimbo read in 2011.

Super Sad True Love Story - Gary Shteyngart. Written between 2006-2009, this story portrays a New York riddled with materialistic protagonists obsessed with their hand held devices trying to understand love amid a New York severed by income inequality protests while the US Government defaults on its debt. This work is oddly prophetic of our current lives, as we pretend to be amused by Occupy's theatrics, all the while commandeered by whatever devices Apple tells us we must possess on cue.

At Madame Swann's - Marcel Proust. As noted before, I am continuing my lifelong quest to read all of Proust's work. In this installment, young Marcel finds love with Gilberte, loses his love for Gilbert and eventually transitions into his love of Albertine. In the midst of all this, he spends WAY too much time obsessing on dresses and flowers. Just sayin', sports fans. Sometimes, I read Proust believing I'm ingesting the greatest writing ever executed in any language. Sometimes I want to smack him. I'd like to think you, my imaginary readership, feel the same about me.

The Bishop - Anton Chekhov. Free on Kindle - download it now! This story chronicles the last thoughts of a bishop marooned in a country parish as he lives out his final days. Death comes to him suddenly. Palm Sunday, he is fine but by Easter he will be dead. His terrible and beautiful musings are juxtapositioned against the rituals and mystical comforts of Holy Week. The Bishop is one of the most moving stories I've ever read. It is a simple, albeit heavily Russian, exploration of life's meaning written as Chekhov himself was dying.

Yondering - Louis L'Amour. I picked this up in Utah and it seemed fitting to read rugged old school man-fiction while I was out there absorbing the mysterious power of those towering Rockies and windswept plains. For an East Coast guy, being there was exhilarating (Wow, I think I grew a few hairs on my chest just writing that - call it Slimbo reaching out to Red State readers). I've got a soft spot for L'Amour. He toiled in the WPA Writers Project with Jim Thompson, whom I hold in enormously high regard. I over-idealize men like these two. I'm too ready to romanticize about the obstacles they faced as they were maligned as Reds by the years that followed WW2 as the Red Scare choked off the oxygen to the gray matter of our national intelligence. In reality, these were just two guys looking to make a buck, any which way they could. Thompson never made the bucks he should have, but L'Amour tapped into the post-war machismo volcano that yearned for his Westerns - validations of American manliness, once the M-1 rifles went silent in 1945.

Yondering is not typical L'Amour, though. These are short stories of varying settings, but all adventures pitting strong hard men against indomitable odds, scoffing at death. Each story is a homage to Hemingway and/or Jack London. Each story avoids the need to explain the existential meaningless of violence and each story veers ever so gently to some formulaic articulation of American exceptionalism and red/white/blue righteousness. Ah shit, who am I to judge? Reading this made me want to go back in time and be 19 again. These stories made me want to piss away all the plastic conventions and scour planet Earth inch by every nasty inch.

Conquest of the Useless - Werner Herzog. This is a painstakingly detailed account of the filming of Fitzcaraldo, as gleaned from the journals of German director Werner Herzog. The Shelf offered a slice of Conquest's offerings in this post. To complete Herzog's unbelievable vision for Fitzcaraldo, wherein he executed the impossible feat of towing a ship over a mountain, Herzog had to navigate the "obscenity of the jungle" while also manage the departure of his initial leading man, Jason Robards for the blessed, yet cursed presence of Robard's replacement, the ever insane Klaus Kinski.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hey Look, it's the World's 7th Largest Army

Mattathias Schwartz reported something astonishing in a recent article in The New Yorker. He reported that just as Mayor Bloomberg was sending in the world's 7th largest army to break up the Occupy encampment at Zuccoti Park, the Occupy Movement's leaders were themselves preparing to break down camp for the winter and call it a victorious 2011.

But now, thanks to the heavy-handed tactics endured, the circus must continue for Occupy to save face. All in all, I've been following Occupy with the same detached bemusement I hold while watching my New York Mets play the Yankees. I know it's all going to end bad for the good guys, so why bother getting excited about anything.

Still, I think Occupy can claim victory right now. Just this week, the President (finally!) gave an impassioned speech addressing the vast polarization of wealth and power in this nation that is likely going to bring the end of our democracy if something drastic is not done. Did the enduring presence of Occupy finally enable Obama to find his spinal structure? We don't know.

On a more local level, some jackbooted brainwashed freak is going around my town and posting up signs that say, "Don't Believe the Liberal Media". I find the rhetoric delivered by these signs ironically parallels Mao's playbook from the Cultural Revolution. This horseshit really annoys me. It's one thing to make the conscious decision to turn on Fox News and allow a plutocratic fascist like Roger Ailes to fill your brains with hourly inputs of batshit. But to bring the narrative onto the telephone poles in my town is an affront to my pursuit of happiness (it's also a violation of section 110.3 of the town code). Tag sales and lost kittens - that's what telephone pole postings are for, and if that freakshow Michael Moore ever tried to post something here, I'd be ranting the same rant.

Now it seems, some ambitious countering bastard is going to each one of these signs and spray painting over it. Or at least he (or she) is spray painting over the words 'Liberal Media'. So the signs just say, "Don't Believe". Rather a dour outlook on the human condition isn't it?

And everything does look dour. 2012 is almost here and good God what a hell of a year it's going to be. We're going to have to watch as all of America must choose between giving the editor of the Harvard Law Review another four years to do whatever the hell it is he does; or do we hand the nation over some morally bankrupt enabler of the aristocratic corporate class?

I'm beginning to hope those Mayans were right and that 2012 holds nothing more for us than to be blasted into stardust by some roving rouge asteroid. But I am still undone by this unanswerable question: if the Mayans were so great at predicting the end of our world, how come the sucked so bad at foreseeing the end of their world?