Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Radio interference

I think there was something seriously wrong with the ionosphere yesterday.

I first noticed it as I came out of the shower. My normally excellent bathroom radio, tuned to NPR's Morning Edition, was getting terrible reception. I tried fiddling with the dial for a bit, and then realized that the reception varied depending on where I was standing. Now, I am a big guy, but I'm usually not able to interfere with FM radio reception. But yesterday I was.

I didn't notice anything much on the way in to work. I listened to the radio long enough to get confirmation that Kerry had picked John Edwards as his running mate (not John Edward, the fraud who likes to tell people he can talk to their dead loved ones - "Is there anyone here who has an older male who's passed? Anybody? No? How about an older female? Mother, aunt?.. Come on, work with me, people!" - but John Edwards, the guy who charmed his way into second place in so many of the Democratic primaries), and then I popped in a mix disc that I made for a friend's wedding a few weeks ago. (This was a backup mix disc that never got played because it turned out that the music was not appropriate for the crowd there, and there were so many live musical performers it wasn't even needed.)

We don't get to listen to the radio at work - after we were purchased a year and a half ago, the new company made some new rules, and these included eliminating the radio that had been piped through the building. So my first opportunity to pluck signals from the ether came at the end of the day when I finally got back into my car and tried to listen to Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air while driving around trying to pick up some items for the beach. Instead I just got static.

I live and work in a mountainous area, so as I drove around I kept playing with the radio, trying to get something, somewhere. Stations would fitfully flutter into coherence and then dissolve into static. I reached out of my window to see if maybe someone had removed my antenna to use in hand-to-hand combat, but no, it was still there. I started to wonder about whether some internal connection had come loose, and whether I could investigate this without causing certain damage to my car. I decided to wait it out. After a while I started to pick up a voice...Terry Gross, on the NPR station I had started out trying to listen to.

I did some shopping at a Target a few miles from where I work. On the way home I engaged in my very bad habit of calling my friends from my car phone. I work late, and I have a long commute home, and many of my friends go to bed early, so often the only time I can talk to them is in the car, on my ancient and powerful bag phone.

As I drove home, my friend asked me where I was. I saw a mile marker up ahead and did a bit of rapid computation and realized I was nearly 40 miles from home. As I reported this information, I noticed my friend seemed very unenthused. And quiet. I realized that my phone had just dropped a call...something unusual for an ancient and powerful bag phone, which draws its power directly from my car's battery.

After I was a bit closer to home, I called my friend again, and the same thing happened.

Gradually I noticed that radio stations were coming back. There was still about an hour to go before sunset. I wondered if maybe something funky was going on in the ionosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that radio stations are bounced off of. I had heard of weird things happening during solar eruptions, but I had not read anything about any unusual activity during my daily visit to the New Scientist website.

As one final check after getting home, I took a look at the plot of the Northern Auroral Oval. In the event of any wild solar activity, the croissant-shaped ring of auroral activity would enlarge and intensify, possibly even brushing the northern U.S. with auroral activity. Nada. Zip. Less activity than I had seen in a while.

(People in the Southern hemisphere - you know who you are! - can judge their odds of seeing the Southern Lights here.)

So what caused the poor radio reception, and the dropped calls? I don't know. Maybe it was just me, a loose connection on my car's radio antenna and a bit of bad luck with my phone. Maybe it was just ordinary atmospheric fluctuations. I'm wondering if anyone else noticed anything wrong with radio reception on Tuesday, July 6, 2004?

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