HAMNET Report 20th September 2020

Since the 15th September, Tropical Cyclone Noul has been threatening the East coast of Vietnam, with wind-speeds up to 120km/h threatening at least 3.3 million people. Forecasts predicted the storm would hit the coast on Friday, and then proceed in a westerly direction to involve Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. These storms tend to weaken once they cross over land, so the worst damage is always near the coast. However, first reports indicate the death of seven people in Cambodia, struck by lightning during the storm, while they were sheltering in a stilt house.

The Vietnam Red Cross Society has strengthened its preparedness for the Typhoon, by increasing its stock of emergency supplies, the VNRC Central Committee said on Friday. By the time the eye of the storm crosses into Thailand, it should have weakened considerably.

Protecting citizens in the face of disaster often requires far-reaching decisions to be made. Any assistance is welcome—including from Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Wildfires are increasingly getting out of control, as shown by recent events in California and Australia. Yet firefighters continue to battle tirelessly against the flames—and nowadays they have more at their disposal than just water and controlled burns. Digitisation has long been part of their arsenal in the form of geo-information systems, webcams and drones. These have become key tools in predicting and controlling wildfires, yet the huge quantities of data they produce quickly pushes human expertise to its limits. “AI is always useful when you’re dealing with masses of data,” says Benjamin Scharte, who heads the Risk and Resilience Research Team at the ETH Centre for Security Studies (CSS). Recently, he and his colleague Kevin Kohler teamed up to analyse the use of AI in civil protection.

“Being able to use algorithms to make predictions is pretty exciting,” says Kohler. Which direction is the fire front heading? Where should we set the next controlled burns? By crunching all the available data, AI-based modelling tools can help answer these questions. This data might include weather forecasts, drought duration, wind direction—and even the potential amount of fuel available to the fire. The resulting predictions can make disaster response more efficient. In the best-case scenario, they can even act as a form of prevention.

Civil protection is particularly responsive to the use of AI because, all too often, it is a matter of life and death—and every minute counts. Experts are often expected to make snap decisions with far-reaching consequences, so they are grateful for any assistance that can underpin those decisions with more robust data. Ultimately, however, the quality of a decision always depends on the quality of the data. “However smart my algorithm may be, it will be of little use in an emergency if I can’t supply it with the right data for the disaster,” Kohler cautions.

Even the highest quality data can never fully replace the experience gained by experts over many years, so the question of whether a human or a machine should make the final decision is highly complex. Taken as a whole, the algorithm might conceivably produce a lower economic loss or fewer casualties than its human counterpart, but it may also make decisions in individual cases that we find unacceptable.

So at what point might we be willing to let a machine make its own decisions? Scharte and Kohler agree that this depends on the context: “Civil protection is sometimes a matter of life or death. Humans should play a part in making those decisions—it’s not the place for machines to make fully autonomous decisions.”

A crucial factor is how much faith people have in the algorithm. Trust paves the way for acceptance, and both are enhanced when we are able to clearly follow what an algorithm is doing. Trust takes time to be built up, so progress will be slow.

A sad reflection on us old fogies involved in this wonderful hobby of ours comes from Frank Kemmerer AB1OC, member of the Nashua Area Radio Society. He says that lack of mentorship can prevent some hams from getting on the air. In a free QST article Frank looks at one club’s approach to the problem. For the last 5 years, the Nashua Area Radio Society (NARS) in Nashua, New Hampshire, has been actively providing licensing classes and training to help new amateur radio operators develop their skills. Their club has helped over 420 people earn or upgrade their licenses.

The Nashua Area Radio Society has spent quite a bit of time trying to understand why so many of the people who earn a license or an upgrade don’t get on the air. The number one reason they discovered is that the amateur radio community isn’t providing the mentoring that many hams need to get active. This is a bit of an indictment on all of us already licensed individuals, and I hope it doesn’t mean the dreaded apathy is creeping into our lives too. So do try to grab that new ham near you, and make sure he has the advice and skillset necessary to become a useful radio operator who enjoys his hobby.

As an example of the value of amateur radio, Jaime Stathis, writing in WIRED, says there’s no better time to be an Amateur Radio Geek.

“The most important component of staying safe during an emergency is the ability to give and receive information. When the power goes out—which it often does, not only during wildfires but also during hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, and tornados—the internet doesn’t work and cellular networks crash with increased demand. In Northern California, she says they often have their electricity cut to prevent fire during high-risk times, leaving millions of customers in both metaphorical and actual dark.”

“Although I spent most of my life thinking amateur radio was for geeks and grandparents, I now sit with [my partner] for twice-weekly check-ins with the local amateur radio club. It’s a way for ham radio operators not only to touch base with each other, but also to test their equipment. Amateur radio operators not only help themselves, but in emergencies they deploy to assist organizations, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Red Cross, and local public safety offices, to communicate and coordinate with the public, and with each other.”

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.

HAMNET Report 13th September 2020

Here’s another example of amateur radio coming to the aid of the community.

Nigel Vander Houwen, K7NVH, reported to the ARRL News on September 8 that some HamWAN users in the Puget Sound region of Washington, who were viewing the network’s camera feeds, spotted a large brush fire.

“They reported it to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which thanked them for the first report they’d gotten on the fire, and they’ve sent a team to try and keep it small and under control,” Vander Houwen said. “It’s estimated currently at around 50 acres, southeast of Enumclaw along Highway 410”. The fire was not said to be threatening any homes. State Route 410 was reported closed between Enumclaw and Greenwater, and drivers heading to Mount Rainier National Park were advised to take another route.

HamWAN is a non-profit organization developing best practices for high speed amateur radio data networks. It runs the Puget Sound Data Ring. So far, HamWAN networks have been used for such applications as low-latency repeater linking (including DMR), real-time video feeds, APRS I-gates, providing redundant internet access to emergency operations centres, and more.

Amateur radio licensees in the HamWAN service area can connect directly to the network with a modest investment in equipment and no recurring costs. The HamWAN Puget Sound Data Ring has cells deployed at numerous wide-coverage sites, interconnected with 5 GHz radios. The HamWAN technical team has been installing remotely controllable cameras at HamWAN link sites, and one of these was used for the wildfire report.

Thanks to the ARRL News for this report.

I’m not sure about the other regions of HAMNET in South Africa, but here in the Western Cape, we have taken to holding our monthly meetings online, during the lockdown. This seems to work well, although we don’t necessarily see all the same faces online as we see at the offline meetings, but there’s no doubt that it is very convenient to do the business online.

Reporting in Phys.org, Bryce Benda at Leiden University reports that astronomers there have published two articles on more sustainable astronomy in a special section of the journal Nature Astronomy. Among other things, they calculate that their online conference EAS 2020 consumed (I think that should be “produced”) 3,000 times less carbon dioxide than the face-to-face edition a year earlier. They also show that the programming language Python, which is often used by astronomers, demands excessive electricity.

The idea for a special section on sustainability and climate arose during the virtual conference of the European Astronomical Society (EAS). This conference was supposed to take place in Leiden last June but was held online due to the corona crisis.

The article on more sustainable conferences compares the carbon footprint of the 2019 European Astronomy Conference, held offline in Lyon, with that of the 2020 online conference in Leiden. It shows that an online conference emits three thousand times less carbon dioxide than a face-to-face meeting.

Leo Burtscher was one of the organizers of the online conference in 2020 and first author of the article: “Of course we expected that online would emit less CO2. But the fact that the difference was so huge came as a surprise.”

Burtscher and his co-authors suggest that a combination of online lectures with regional offline meetings could be a good alternative. These face-to-face meetings provide the interaction astronomers want and could, for example, take place simultaneously at various locations throughout Europe.

The article on more economical use of computers was written by Professor of Computational astrophysics Simon Portegies Zwart. He sums up five points of improvement: “Do your daily work, such as emailing and writing texts, on a simple laptop. If you use a supercomputer, don’t go to its full capacity. If you perform calculations on a fast workstation, don’t overclock that computer. For your calculations and simulations, use special computers with hardware based on graphics cards. And, very important: do not use Python if you want to do large calculations.”

Many astronomers won’t like the plea for less Python, thinks Portegies Zwart. That programming language is user-friendly and there are many collections of free code pieces that astronomers copy into their programs. Portegies Zwart calls for programming lectures for students to focus less on Python and more on programming languages that are much more efficient with the computer’s process.

Now, only in America will this kind of radio transmission take place.

Two airline pilots encountered unusual traffic near Los Angeles airport last week: a man with a jetpack flying around on his own at an altitude of around 900 meters.

The bemused pilots were on different flights when they reported the sighting, leading to incongruous radio communications with air traffic control: “Tower, American 1997. We just passed a guy in a jet pack,” reported one pilot, noting that the person was flying at about the same altitude as the plane, just about 300 meters away. The other pilot reported the same sighting seconds later, prompting air traffic control to urge caution.

Jet packs rarely fly at such high altitude. The FBI is still investigating the case.

Thanks to CGTN for that one. Incidentally, they also report on a trial in Botswana, where researchers painted eyes on the back of the haunches of a trial group of 683 cows in the Okavango Delta, and compared the results with a group of 835 unpainted ones. Believe it or not, none of the 683 painted cows were killed by predators in the four year study, whereas 15 of the unpainted cows were. Seems that the predator lions don’t like being watched as they attempt to sneak up on their prey!

I’m sure I enriched your HAMNET experience with that latter piece of news!

Finally, in answer to a question in the Physics Forum as to which form of life appeared first on Earth, authorities say that bacteria and archaea appeared first on earth. These are both prokaryotes, simple cells without a nucleus. After more than a billion years, the more complex eukaryote cells appeared (cells with a nucleus). From the initial eukaryotes, plants and animals evolved. There are also fungi and single celled eukaryotes that are neither plants nor animals. Probably plants arose first (in the oceans, that is), and probably also preceded animals on land. A big reason for animals to roam onto the land is to get food resources not available in the ocean. That would not happen before plants were there, plants that grow on land. Another reason for animals to be out of the water would be to escape predators.

Perhaps they should have had eyes painted on their behinds to protect them from said predators!

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.

HAMNET Report 6th September 2020

Since Sunday the 30th of August, there have been warnings out for Tropical Cyclone MAYSAK, and subsequently Tropical Cyclone HAISHEN, following it into the seas between Taiwan and Mainland China to the West, South and then North Korea to the North, and Japan to the East. Twenty million people in these densely populated areas were in the path of the 120km/h storm winds by last Sunday, predicted to increase to 220km/h in the two Korean nations as the cyclones advanced.

Aljazeera said on Monday that the Japan Meteorological Agency warned that Typhoon MAYSAK could bring with it storm surge, heavy rains, high waves and violent winds, potentially causing a “major disaster” in the Okinawa region.

The agency also called on residents to “evacuate to sturdy buildings before winds get stronger”.

MAYSAK was expected to gain further strength, with maximum winds of 252km/h as it closed in on the island from late at night, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki said in a statement on Sunday.

A total of 180 flights to and from the Okinawa region had already been cancelled and many schools and public offices were closed from last Monday afternoon, the Okinawa Times newspaper reported.

By this Saturday it was Typhoon HAISHEN causing the trouble, following in the tracks of MAYSAK, and threatening 15 million people in its path.

Fraser Cain, writing in his weekly UniverseToday Blog, notes that it was in 1950, that Italian-American physicist  Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior, as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?

This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence for it. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the Berserker Hypothesis. This theory suggests we haven’t heard from any alien civilizations because they’ve been wiped out by killer robots!

Also known as the “deadly probes scenario,” this hypothesis may sound like something out of science fiction (the name itself is actually taken from an SF franchise, in fact), but it’s actually rooted in scientific research. It also touches on other proposed resolutions to the Fermi Paradox, such as the Hart-Tipler Conjecture (i.e. aliens don’t exist) and that it’s the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself or others.

Central to Fermi’s famous question was a discrepancy between the assumed likelihood of that extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the lack of evidence to support this assumption. But given the number of stars in our galaxy (200 to 400 billion), the number of Earth-like planets in our galaxy (an estimated 6 billion), the number of galaxies in the Universe (as many as 2 trillion), it’s not farfetched to assume intelligent life must exist elsewhere.

In 1961, American physicist and SETI researcher Dr. Frank Drake illustrated this conundrum during a meeting at the Green Bank Observatory. In preparation for the meeting, Drake created an equation that summed up the probability of finding ETIs in our galaxy, thereafter known as the Drake Equation

And yet, after an additional 70 years of searching, Fermi’s Paradox and the “Great Silence” persist, as no compelling evidence has been found. This has led to multiple proposed resolutions from astrophysicists, astrobiologists, and other scientists and researchers.

As the saying goes, the show ain’t over until the fat lady sings, so watch this space!

Byron Spice, writing in ScienceDaily notes that it wasn’t long after Hurricane Laura hit the Gulf Coast 2 Thursdays ago, that people began flying drones to record the damage and posting videos on social media. Those videos are a precious resource, say researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, who are working on ways to use them for rapid damage assessment.

By using artificial intelligence, the researchers are developing a system that can automatically identify buildings and make an initial determination of whether they are damaged and how serious that damage might be.

“Current damage assessments are mostly based on individuals detecting and documenting damage to a building,” said Junwei Liang, a Ph.D. student in CMU’s Language Technologies Institute (LTI). “That can be slow, expensive and labour-intensive work.”

Satellite imagery doesn’t provide enough detail and shows damage from only a single viewpoint — vertical. Drones, however, can gather close-up information from a number of angles and viewpoints. It’s possible, of course, for first responders to fly drones for damage assessment, but drones are now widely available among residents and routinely flown after natural disasters.

“The number of drone videos available on social media soon after a disaster means they can be a valuable resource for doing timely damage assessments,” Liang said.

Xiaoyu Zhu, a master’s student in AI and Innovation in the LTI, said the initial system can overlay masks on parts of the buildings in the video that appear damaged and determine if the damage is slight or serious, or if the building has been destroyed.

Now, a nice story to end off with. Fred Hall M3CTW, celebrated his 100th birthday last Tuesday. The retired clock and watchmaker from Wilshaw in Yorkshire says he loves driving and still does drive, having easily passed an extra driving test at age 94. He has been a widower for 11 months, and is known the world over for his amateur radio activity, being on the air on a daily basis. He continues to show an iron will and a carefree determination to enjoy life.

This was evidenced in his mid-90’s, when he was still climbing on his roof installing aerials, although a few years prior to that he had fallen out of a tree and broken a limb!

“I have a very loving family who are in regular touch, and it was lovely on Tuesday night when I came back from York, and everyone in the courtyard where I live came out to greet me and wish me well”, says Fred.

As for the secret to his long life, he says he is teetotal and makes sure he eats well. I note he omitted to add that the actual reason for his longevity is Amateur Radio!

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.