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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Why old-school is still important

9 August 2017

We've got so many fantastic new technologies that have come from the advancement of electronics and computers that sometimes it's hard to imagine living without these bits of hi-techery.

But we should not get too complacent.

Why?

Because any number of natural or man-made disasters could render our "new tech" useless and force us to go back to "old-school" systems, many of which have almost been forgotten.

Read this Arstechnica story for just one example of why we need to keep old-school alive.

Yes, our GPS system could be hacked or otherwise disabled, either by a natural event such as a sustained CME, or by a malevolent actor who used hacking or missiles to bring down the network of satellites orbiting over our heads.

Without backup technologies, we'd be stuffed. I mean, how the hell could we find our way to a friend's place in a strange town if the SatNav in our car was not working?

But it goes beyond just the GPS system, far beyond.

Even something as simple as radio communications (including cellphones) could be disabled in the blink of an eye and the odds are that this will happen at some time in the not too distant future.

The irony is that, the more sophisticated the technology, the more susceptible it is to nature and bad actors.

Back in 1859 when the Carrington Event (a CME) occurred, telegraph was the primary method of hi-tech communications. Although it is reported that some lines were brought down (fused) as a result of induced currents from the solar storm, it didn't take long to get stuff up and running again -- due largely to the very primitive nature of that old tech.

Imagine the effects a similar event would have today on our delicate cellphones and the network infrastructure that makes them tick.

Even if the phones themselves survived the event, chances are that the power grid would be knocked out for an indeterminate amount of time so once all the batteries went flat -- click -- you're offline.

Interestingly enough, the switch to fibre for our internet infrastructure could actually make it more resilient to CMEs and such. Long runs of copper wire (even when buried underground) can produce huge voltages and currents when bathed in the magnetic effects of a CME. An optical fibre has no such problem.

The problem is however, that some of the delicate integrated circuits and other components found in modern electronic devices would almost certainly be destroyed by such an event and it would take a very long time to replace them -- mainly due to the manufacturing plants themselves being knocked out.

How quaint is it that old-school electronics, and I'm talking valve-based gear, would be far more resilient to such damage. That old valve radio you inherited from your grandfather might be the only bit of working electronics in the house -- if it hasn't suffered too much from the effects of time.

Failing that, perhaps the first level of communications restoration might be valve-based broadcast transmitters on the AM band and "crystal" receivers built by keen amateurs.

Yes, so long as you're close enough to such a transmitter, you can receive its broadcasts using little more than some copper wire, graphite from a pencil some aluminium foil and cling-film, plus a crystal earpiece, the latter being perhaps the most difficult to find these days.

Hmmm... I wonder... I might just make a video on this -- the lost art of building a radio out of common household items!

Anyway, as a civilisation, it worries me that we don't seem to have made any contingency plans to cope with another Carrington Event. Neither governments nor most individuals have any fall-back strategies (although I'm sure many Aardvark readers will have).

Just what would *you* miss most in the event that a CME or EMP fritzed all your modern electronic devices (yes, I know you're all about to say "Aardvark Daily" -- but what *else* would you miss most? :-)

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