$16.95 / Perfectbound
ISBN: 9781457505607
160 pages
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Excerpt from the Book
Chapter 1: Discovering Radio - July 2010

It’s a small town. It could be anywhere in the American Midwest. There are no traffic lights in the town center – only a flashing red light at the main intersection, where a farm tractor halts and then crawls forward. Radio waves swirl everywhere, but they are invisible.

Each day the little hamlet wakes up, rubs its eyes, and begins to move. One by one, cars stop at the blinking light. They pause and then proceed deliberately along Main Street – with extra care when children are nearby. People drift in and out of the Main Street shops, stopping to chat with friends and neighbors. A raised voice is rarely heard. It’s a friendly little place, and, except for the occasional political dispute, everyone gets along.

But technology has found its way to our little town. Shoppers have cell phones pressed to their ears. Drivers chat with invisible companions. A young couple sitting on a park bench beside the train depot uses their smartphone to check e-mail. Though they’re unaware of it, they’re connected to a wireless hotspot installed in the town center by a local civic group. There is free Wi-Fi service for all.

The pair of 20-somethings shows their new device to a passerby. Folks like to be connected, having family and friends always available and Internet information instantly accessible. Young people say wireless is “cool.” Their elders say it’s “handy.”

Like my friends and neighbors, I use my smartphone every day. It’s a cellular phone, e-mail reader, calculator, Web browser, music player, newspaper reader, book reader, calendar, camera, notepad, and more. Wireless technology and small computer-like devices have become part of our lives.

But, when my neighbors hear that I work with wireless, they ask questions. Why don’t smartphones always work? Why do Blackberrys sometimes garble voices or go completely dead, making it impossible to place a phone call or read e-mail? Why does an iPhone work perfectly in one corner of a room but not another?

I search for simple answers to my friends’ questions. Radio waves are the bad boys that stir up the trouble, but their mischief is subtle and complex. They act up in endlessly creative ways. Their misbehavior is diabolical. Designers of wireless devices scramble to outwit the impish waves but never claim total victory.

As I struggle to answer my friends’ seemingly simple questions, I flash back to scenes of my journey in the world of wireless. I remember vignettes from a lifetime searching for answers to its mysteries. But the answers to the questions depend on which of the bad boys is misbehaving. I leave the young couple, walking around a building’s corner and into its parking lot. My e-mail service stops working. Yet the Wi-Fi station is only a few blocks away. What’s the problem?

That night I drive my pickup out the highway north of town, and the truck’s AM radio pulls in a West Coast station. I hear other faraway stations fade in and out, crowding out the local ones. Sometimes I hear two voices at the same time, one from nearby and one from a few thousand miles away. A faraway station overpowers a closer one, allowing only the distant one to be heard clearly. Then the distant signal fades out, and I hear the closer one again. This never happens in the daytime. It happens only at night. Why?

I switch to FM, and a local station flutters in and out as I continue to drive. How can this be? The station’s transmitter is only a few miles away. And I don’t hear any distant stations on FM. Why not?

Even the cell phone service is spotty. I climb a hill, and my cell phone works, but, when I crest the hill and descend the other side, the connection is lost. Other times the cell phone’s sound quality deteriorates from bell-like clarity to noise-corrupted chaos in just a few moments. Then, suddenly, it’s clear again.

When I read e-mail messages on my smartphone or my Wi-Fi equipped laptop computer, the devices try to shield me from the shenanigans of radio signals. Because I don’t hear any radio garble, the problems are hidden. Sometimes an e-mail message or Web page appears on my screen and sometimes it doesn’t, but the underlying reasons are invisible.