Archive for Opinion

It takes more than a big-gun station to make a top operator.

May 31 2012

I happened across this article this afternoon on the ARRL website. I found it rather timely given a rather regrettable affair between two fellow hams (whose calls I will not name – they know who they are) that should have been kept private, but was unfortunately aired in the rather public forum of the EARC e-mail reflector.

The article is great reading, if rather sad. However, to make my point, I’ll cut to the chase (emphasis is mine).

During my drive home later that night I tried to imagine why any ham would want to ruin the enjoyment of Amateur Radio by anyone else. The ego, selfishness or anger issues that I mulled over as the possible answer reflected so poorly on the other operator that I finally gave up and concluded that his behavior was simply beyond my comprehension. Ham radio is a hobby that should be fun for all participants regardless of their equipment or skill level. If those unwilling to play nicely with others succeed in driving people away, the eventual result will be a few big-gun stations that quickly work each other and then spend the rest of the contest weekend calling CQ endlessly without being answered because the operators who might have replied have quit the hobby.

‘Nuff said.

Filed Under: Opinion

“Transceiver does not have CB frequencies…”

Mar 4 2012

OK, I admit it. Ham radio has a PR problem. Most people know more about its more free-wheeling cousin, CB. And others tend to mix the two up or think they’re one and the same. However, it’s one thing for someone not to have heard too much about ham radio. It’s another thing altogether for someone to lodge a review about a ham radio, with his review showing to the world just how utterly clueless he is about it.

Malcolm (KH6MSH) forwarded a review to the EARC net control station list written by one Brad Boutan. It was for a Yaesu FT-7900R mobile dual band radio. (I have its older cousin, the FT-7800R – it was my primary radio until my FT-857; it’s now part of my go-kit.) I have to admit, I had a pretty good laugh at first. But reading it again, some of the stuff is just plain false. It basically showed a fundamental lack of knowledge about what ham radio is. So, in case you happen on across this review, I hope this sets the record straight. Let’s address his bullet points one by one:

First the bad news. 1. Transcever [sic] does not have CB frequencies. I was under the false impression that it did…

I have more bad news for you, dude. CB is CB, ham is ham, and on the airwaves, never the twain shall meet…legally, that is. CB has its own FCC band (11 meters), and although it’s a close neighbor to the ham radio 10-meter band, if a ham radio transceiver is legal in the U.S., it cannot include 11 meters. Nor can a type-compliant CB radio transmit on 10 meters. So if you’re looking for a radio that can transmit on CB, look elsewhere. Like, an actual CB radio. Next.

2. Documentation inadequate for proper sellection [sic] of antenna, and power supply.

The documentation for a ham radio presupposes that you have a license. And having a license implies that you passed the Technician class exam, which covers the basics of antennas and DC power in some length. True, some of this stuff comes from learning from other hams, but even then, if you went through the Technician exam, you have the basic knowledge to understand what antenna you need – you’ll have the basics of SWR (and why it’s a bad thing); you’ll understand why your quarter-wave vertical mobile antenna needs a pizza pan to work, and so on. You can even make your own. And you’ll know that you need 12V to run it. So, if you need to be told what kind of an antenna you need – you need to pass the exam first.

3. Inadequate public notice of requirement for U.S. government license.

Oh, come on. Hams put their callsigns on display for the world to see – especially on their cars. Not all radio users have government issued callsigns, which implies that it’s something special, and maybe (gulp) needs government approval? I’ve known for a while that hams needed licenses, and getting one was on my bucket list for a while until I finally got it in 2007.

Now, this criticism could apply to some radio services, such as the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). You wouldn’t know, on reading the packaging on those two-way radios in your local Best Buy or Wal-Mart or what have you, that you need a license. I’m talking about those radios that boast about a 10-15 mile range. (Which, by the way, is only true under ideal conditions – that is, true line of sight or flat ground. Add mountains, obstructions, or buildings, and you’re lucky to get 2 miles at most.) You can use the radio out of the box on the Family Radio Service channels at the FRS power limit of half a watt, but to legally use the full power, you need to apply to the FCC and pay a little-more-than-nominal fee of about $80. (For comparison, with some time and effort, you can get your ham license for as little as the typical exam fee of $14. And if you’re really adventurous, you could run the table, go from zero to Extra in one sitting, and pay as little was $42.)

But ham radio is not one of those. It’s not a secret that hams need licenses. And if it’s news to you…well, what can I say?

4. Again inadequate documentation for proper user friendly operation of all features of Transcever [sic].

OK, I’ll concede that owner’s manuals are not the most user-friendly things in the world. That said, learning all the bells and whistles of any piece of equipment takes work. The most essential function is transmission, and that’s pretty much the same across all radios. But there are essential skills in ham radio that you need to know, but the specifics of doing so may vary from radio to radio. For instance, knowing how to set your radio between repeater/duplex mode and simplex mode. Or memorizing frequently used frequencies. Or learning how to listen on the “reverse” – i.e. the input frequency of a repeater.

You do need to read your manual. I hope our reviewer friend knows how.

5. Non disclosure of Manufacturer (ie. is it from a Hostile nation with computor [sic] circuitry designed to malfunction or other harmfull [sic] acts.)

The manufacturer is pretty clear – it’s Yaesu. They’re a well-known name in radio communication and particularly among hams. All the radios I use are made by Yaesu. They’re not the only one out there (their competitors, ICOM and Kenwood, come immediately to mind), but they’re well respected. By the way, they’re a Japanese company, so I don’t think they’re going to harm anyone, unless you really, sincerely think that Pearl Harbor will ever happen again.

6. Has permenant [sic] auto shut off of Transmitting capability if FCC detects ANY operator transmitting without a license. Even if a one time, 5 second transmission is made, results in auto shut off. Even on very obscure frequencies. … Unite [sic] must be taken to Ham shop to reset trip.

OK, here’s what I picture – the FCC constantly monitoring 2 meters, and seeing if anyone is transmitting unlicensed so that – BOOM – they can send some weird signal that short-circuits their radio and turns it into an expensive paperweight.

And if you believe that, can I interest you in some prime land on the slopes of Kilauea?

<sarcasm>I’m sure the FCC can tell if someone has a license just by listening to their transmission for a mere five seconds.</sarcasm>

I’m also sure the FCC has better things to do than to do that. And I’m sure that they’re not going to fine you $5,000 if you momentarily lapse and drop your callsign after 10 minutes and 2 seconds.  They’re not THAT strict. However, if you habitually forget to ID, or do other things that are no-nos, the FCC can take complaints and take action. Hams will defend their frequencies against abuse.

The whole licencing scheme is a scam of Freedom of Speech Right, and Right to Public Access.

Freedom of speech has never been absolute. You’ve heard of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, right? (The ham bands have an equivalent: falsely declaring an emergency on the air.) And right of public access? The roads are publicly available, but you still need your driver’s license to operate a motorized vehicle on them. Safety, safety, safety. I talk about the hows and whys of ham radio licensing at length here, but suffice it to say that if you transmit unlicensed and break some of the rules in the process, you’re going to sound like a total fool, you’re going to have quite a few hams ticked off at you if your transmission causes interference, and you’ll probably attract the attention of the friendly neighborhood FCC.

In the end, dude, no one is forcing you to go into ham radio. If CB is more your speed, more power to you (up to 12 watts, of course). And next time, you might want to read up on ham radio before actually purchasing one. And yes, I know you actually purchased it. Amazon says so.

Filed Under: Opinion

A time to be brief, a time to be polite…

Jul 30 2011

So there I was, on a lazy summer afternoon at home in Hawaii, surfing the ionosphere for PSK31 contacts. One of the first things I say on my waterfall was a very strong booming signal:

CQ CQ CQ de <other guy> <other guy> <other guy> k

I’m not picky about who I work on PSK31, so I responded using my macro:

<other guy> <other guy> de WH7GG WH7GG WH7GG kn

The response caught me off guard a bit:

WH7GG DE <other guy> UR 599 k

Normally at this point one would see a bunch of pleasantries in addition to the signal report: the station’s QTH, his name, his grid. And usually it’s via a macro on the digital software that automatically sends this info, and one would respond in kind. Still, this response in this situation came across like walking up to someone at a party and saying, “Hi, whatever-your-name-is, I hear you.”

I had to check for a minute. There are no PSK31 contests I know of, not that I’ve seen on the waterfall. This guy is not on a DXpedition or working a special event sign. Still, I sorta got the message that he wanted just the REAL basics, so I responded, free-typing:

<other guy> de WH7GG ur 599 in Hawaii also k

Then came his response back.

WH7GG TU QSO <other guy> QRZ? k

Ummmm…OK, so you don’t care about my name or where I’m from. In fact, I’m not even a human to you. All I am to you is a call and a signal report. I got the message, loud and clear.

I later looked up his info on QRZ.com, and saw this note at the bottom:

Quick note : sorry guys looking for a ragchew etc (especially digital modes) I just need call and report (min. required for a valid QSO)

I am always doing other stuff when on the radio (working on the side), unless when I’m contesting.

So no need for name, qth, antenna, pet’s name, grid, club number, favorite color, year when born, month when conceived, etc.etcetc I dont even read that

Thanks a bunch !!

That didn’t sit well with me. Of course, he does have the right to make contacts however he darn well pleases. And yes, during contests, DXpeditions, and such, brevity is key. The point of those is to make as many contacts as possible, bam bam bam bam bam. In the short time I’ve been on HF, I’ve worked contests before on voice and on PSK31, and know the drill. Exchange calls, signal reports (in a contest you’re always 59 to the other guy and vice versa), and your required other piece of info, and move on.

Still, not all of ham radio is a contest. Not all situations call for a QSO stripped down to its bare essentials. Especially on HF, where you’ll run into hams from all walks of life and all countries and cultures of the world, it’s good to be open.

And it is worth noting that there ARE humans on the other end.

Truth be told, even on voice I have yet to master the art of the ragchew. In my case it’s more of a rag-nibble. I’ll exchange signal report, name, QTH, maybe weather, maybe talk about my rig, maybe another comment or two, but then I’ll let the other station go. I’m not very talkative in real life, and ham radio is no different. Still, when I’m working someone, he or she has my full attention, as it should be even in face-to-face conversation. And I’m polite as I can possibly be. After all, I understand that his impression of me is based how I conduct myself on the air.

I often find that being from Hawaii and having a KH6-region call sign opens up a lot of conversation possibilities. On voice and PSK, I often find that saying I’m from Hawaii elicits fond memories of a visit here, or if not, a desire to do same. Similarly, say you’re from Oregon, and I’ll wax poetic about the natural beauty of the Northwest, my time at Lewis & Clark College, and my many trips since then.

I really wonder what this guy is like in person. I wonder what sort of impression people get of him when they work him on the air. Sure, he must be a contester extraordinaire, with skills as polished as that. But it must be REALLY boring to have a conversation with him, if his ham persona outside contesting reflects real life. Does he have a life outside ham radio? I wonder, too.

Filed Under: Opinion

The magic of ham radio

Feb 17 2011

About a week and a half ago, Wired magazine came out with an article on ham radio, entitled “Why Ham Radio Endures in a World of Tweets.” (It’s an excellent article; read it.) Reaction to that article, however, revealed what appears to be a deep split among hams. On one hand you have hams like G4ILO, who say, The more high-tech ham radio becomes, the less magic there is. On the other hand, hams like AB9RF counter that, “There is no magic in ham radio. Ham radio is nothing but technology. Without technology, ham radio is nothing.”

I have to say, though, that I find myself disagreeing, to some extent, with both of them.

I agree with AB9RF that transmitting something, getting it digitized, sent halfway across the world, then getting it decoded and retransmitted so it’s heard over a radio can be, in a way, just as fulfilling and just as worthy as sending that same transmission on HF on a day when the solar flux index is in triple digits. I’ve done both. There is a place for advanced technology in our hobby, and in fact, it really should be a breeding ground for this type of stuff.

But as for AB9RF’s comment that there is no magic to ham radio? That it’s all technology? OK, sure, ham radio is well grounded in Ohm’s law, RLC circuits, and the basic laws of electromagnetics. Anyone who has passed even the Technician exam has been exposed to it, and those of us who have gotten all the way to Extra have had more than enough. But even then, I believe Clarke’s Third Law applies in ham radio at any level. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I firmly believe ham radio, even at its most simplistic level, is sufficiently advanced from a technology standpoint to be quasi-magical under Clarke’s Law. It certainly seems so to outsiders, but occasionally things happen that make a ham say, “Hmmm.” Case in point: I have a double bazooka oriented east-west, and my first HF DX contact was with a station due south of Hawaii. Science tell me that a dipole transmits best perpendicular to the wire (assuming it’s in free space, mine is not); how the heck was I able to get a strong enough signal in a direction parallel to the wire? That’s where ham radio jumps off the foundation of science and becomes an art. On a given day, five watts from Hawaii on 20 meters can get you a 59 in South Africa. On another day, 100 watts barely gets you a 53 on the West Coast, if anyone comes back at all.

I willingly live in two technological worlds. On the one hand, I have an iPhone 4 – one of the most technologically advanced communication devices known to technology – it calls, it texts, it computes; using state of the art digital technology, it does everything but wash my car. But on the other hand, I have a Yaesu FT-60R, a solid, solid-state, if not state-of-the-art, handie-talkie that puts out five watts of signal using time-tested FM technology. And on the third hand, I have a Yaesu FT-857D, which can put out from 5 to 100 watts of SSB power that can, under the right conditions, reach halfway around the world, even to my QTH’s antipodal point, or close to it. Each has its uses. I enjoy using all of them. (Plus, some have pointed out G4ILO’s own use of high-tech.)

Finally, does using high-tech make a contact less valid? My friend Rich, KH6DAD, also an Extra like me, has a friend in South Africa who was his first international contact. He made the contact through IRLP, and he still talks to him using the local IRLP link on UHF. Within two days of making my first DX contact on HF, I made an HF contact to South Africa on 20 meters, talking to ZS3Y. Because Rich used so-called “advanced technology” to make his contact, and I used the time-tested HF bands to reach the same country, is he less of a ham than I am? Of course not. We made a contact, either way.

And that’s where the “magic” of ham radio lies. It’s not about using advanced technology or avoiding it. It’s not about embracing the latest modes, or railing against their proliferation. It’s all about the person-to-person contact. It’s about reaching out across the miles to touch another person with your voice. Or with digital messages generated by your hands on keys – be it a CW key, or keys on a computer keyboard. My primary Elmer likes to point out that ham radio is about making contacts. And if we lose sight of that, then ham radio has lost its reason for being, in my opinion.

Your turn: To what extent do you agree or disagree with G4ILO or AB9RF? In your opinion, does technology enhance or detract from ham radio?

Filed Under: Opinion

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