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September 30, 2004

The Voice of America

By Ingrid Eisenstadter

Fifty-two-year-old quant, Brooke Allen, is head of the statistical arbitrage group at Maple

Securities in Jersey City, New Jersey. His staff of eight includes four traders who run the firm's stat arb books and hedge funds. They move a few million shares a day, working with proprietary models, according to the firm.

Allen has been with Maple Securities since 1995 and says his job is fascinating, but not particularly stressful. "I've got teenagers," he says. "Now that's stressful."

To escape the stress, Allen heads for his country house on the weekends and logs into the biggest chat room of them all: the world.

Allen has been an avid ham radio operator for 38 years, landing his first license from the FCC when he was only 14. Decades before the Internet and e-mail, this teenager could turn on his radio and talk in English to friends all over the globe. And some of his live chat has been very interesting indeed.

In 1968, Allen recalls, he was still in high school when he learned about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia hours before it made news. He heard about it in realtime, from another ham.

A few years later - when he was a student in New Jersey at Rutgers University - Managua, Nicaragua, was decimated by an earthquake. All the communications went down. However, a lone ham operator in the devastated city located a generator. For the next week he and Allen relayed emergency messages into and out of Managua, helping international relief efforts to get underway.

During the Gorbachev coup attempt, when Allen was in Tokyo with Merrill Lynch, he says, "I'd come home and read the news to Russian hams in Siberia because there had been a news blackout for them." Their government had been jamming normal broadcast signals from the BBC and Voice of America.

Ham Friends

In the U.S., Allen's ham friends know him by the call letters N2BA. (He affectionately refers to his wife, Eve, also a ham, as N2GSG.) In Japan, however, his friends call him 7J1AGE; in Fiji he's 3D2HQ; in the Seychelles, S7BA; in Barbados, 8P6IM; in Australia, 8P6IM; in Antigua, V26BA. And add call letters for another 21 countries because Allen has been licensed in 28. He had to visit all of these countries to get the licenses. For globetrotter Allen, international travel is a big part of his hobby.

Nevertheless, Allen does not consider it a laid-back hobby. "For me, amateur radio is a cut-throat competitive sport," Allen says. "In radio contests, hams all over the world compete with each other for the biggest number of contacts." When he's participating in one of the weekend contests, he says, he'll "easily talk to 2,500 people."

In 1980 in Curacao, he was part of the team that set an all-time world record, making more than 18,000 contacts "in nearly every country on earth."

When the contests are over, the hams send each other their custom-designed postcards to confirm the contacts. Allen says he mails about 3,000 postcards a year.

How much does it all cost? Allen reckons he has spent about $30,000 on his hobby, buying equipment, radio towers and antennas. "Buying the land to put it on is another matter," he adds, referring to his upstate New York country house. It is sufficiently isolated so the neighbors don't complain about the 114-foot radio tower that he and his wife put up behind the house.

Brooke Allen sees similarities between his trading world and his life as a ham radio operator. To him call letters are like ticker symbols. And during a busy day at Maple Securities, he says he'll print a few thousand tickets, while in an active radio contest he'll log a few thousand contacts.

"One big difference," Allen says, "is that in a contest my score stays positive and only goes up. In trading, I can try really hard and still end the day with a negative score. I've got to work on that."