Ham Forums Becoming Passé?

Is it just me or have the 'zed and eHam had significantly less article comments over the past six months or so?  One reason could be the bands, though I think there would be more people surfing the Internet and sharing their radio artisan enthusiasm online if that was the cause.  Perhaps Facebook and Twitter are taking their toll?  We'll have to see if this trend continues; perhaps we're entering a Maunder Minimum of ham forum activity.

While we're waiting for better bands, enjoy this video:

Hmmmm.  Maybe Youtube has something to do with this lack of activity....

Broadcaster Praises Amateur Radio, Decries CB

Last evening while driving from nightly target practice to a freedom rally and Constitution seminar, I listened to Glen Beck on AM radio. Much to my surprise he spent several minutes talking about amateur radio. There were some good quotes, all of which I'm taking from memory and some I may paraphrase.

Beck mentioned he has an uncle who is a ham and he's been somewhat following amateur radio for some time. He said amateur radio is a great hobby and if the "big one" ever hits, hams may be the only ones who will be able to communicate. Beck talked briefly about how to get licensed.  

Beck then spoke at length about the virtues of morse code or CW "as it's known by hams". Morse code always gets through, but it will also be valuable if it becomes necessary to defend our freedoms. Many people don't like Morse code, so much so that they petitioned the FCC to outlaw it several years ago. The left despises Morse code and won't learn it because liberals are inherently lazy. This makes Morse code a perfect means of communication for conservative independent thinkers fighting for our freedoms as progressive forces won't be able to intercept messages. Beck said he thought about learning the Morse code while recovering after his last operation, but it seemed too difficult after the post-operation sedatives and painkillers wore off.

Beck later discussed an organization behind the scenes of amateur radio, the "American League", claiming that the organization, despite the name, is "quite un-American". Beck claimed to have documents describing secret meetings with an FCC official codenamed "X Par-tay". In these meetings they make crucial decisions on how amateur radio will be controlled so that the left can insure that this means of independent communications will not threaten liberal-controlled media. The "American League" organization brainwashes radio hams into sending them large sums of money and pledging their lives to the organization. Beck urged hams to demand "American League" officials show their licenses to prove they are hams. "Has anyone actually seen their ham licenses?" Beck asked emphatically. A caller mentioned that all ham licenses are in a searchable Internet database, but Beck dismissed the database as untrustworthy as it's controlled by the FCC which is in turn controlled by the government. Furthermore, Beck claimed the FCC has been telling broadcasters like him for years what they can and can't say, noting "if that isn't fascism my friends, I don't know what is". Beck called on all hams to rise up and tell the government to keep their hands off of amateur radio.  "Amateur radio spectrum should remain in the hands of the people through industry and free enterprise, and not be taxed to death." Beck exclaimed.  "In many parts of this nation, ham radios are taxed!"

Beck went on to contrast CB radio with ham radio, calling CB a "failed big goverment experiment in socialism".  President Carter, who raised taxes, gave away radio spectrum to all citizens, hence the name citizen's band.  Hams on the other hand have to pay for their callsigns.  Beck said the government should take the spectrum and auction it off to broadcasters in the free market, estimating that the frequencies could create as many as 2,000 new radio stations in the US (40 channels times 50 states), and the proceeds could support a tax cut which would reduce the deficit and big government.  But this won't happen as it threatens liberal mainstream radio media, potentially increasing the number of conservative talk radio stations beyond its current 91% level.  Beck ended the segment by calling CB "Communist Band" and pointing out that both "Carter" and "Communism" start with the letter C.

This is a parody.  I only go to target practice once or twice before the big game hunting seasons start, everyday is a "freedom rally" here in the US, and I don't need to go to a seminar to understand the Constitution.  Glenn Beck didn't say any of the above, though it's conceivable he would if he was involved in amateur radio.  This is a hypothetical example of the fact-twisted, selective history supported, pseudo-intellectual punditry that is considered "edutainment" by some and unbiased news and information by others in the US .  Unfortunately AM radio in the US is now dominated by this sort of programming, and it's become some of the most popular programming on TV.  It's dividing our nation.

How about we restore honor to broadcasting?

When Everything Has Failed

During my radio and computer-free getaway on the high seas last week, I read World Made By Hand by Howard Kunstler.  The fictional novel takes place around perhaps 2030, several years after oil has run out or has become so scarce that essentially our entire modern infrastructure has ceased to function and we're thrown back into a lifestyle reminiscent of medieval times.  The electrical grid is non-functional, the telecom network is gone and forget about the Internet.  Transportation is entirely by animal or on foot.  Food is locally grown and no longer benefits from petro-chemicals or irrigation.  The government has broke down and civil wars have broken out in most of the major cities which are uninhabitable due to overpopulation.  Disease is rampant due to a lack of medicine or readily available medical care.  Overall, it's a rather bleak picture.

The main character of the story, Robert Earle, has lost all of his family due to epidemics and other bad stuff, but him and others in the town of Union Grove, NY are attempting to get back to normalcy, or the best that can be expected in this new world.  Radio surprisingly doesn't get much of a mention in the story.  At the beginning of the story the electricity comes on once every few weeks or months and for very short periods, sometimes seconds, with a household AM radio left on to signal its arrival.  Earle is only able to find a few AM broadcast stations carrying evangelists and unfortunately he lacks a shortwave radio.  Eventually Earle breaks with the past and his hopes for the old world to return and symbolically turns off the AM radio.

Being the radio artisan I am, my mind began to explore the technical side of this.  I think in this post-apocalyptic world some form of amateur radio would survive and would likely be the only network for information and communications.  We've proved over the years beyond a doubt that low power operation works, and with energy in such short supply, low power would be a necessity.  Even a simple low power radio fashioned much like a Pixie or a Rockmite would be priceless.  I envision radio communications networks forming, much like they did in the early 20th century, to pass messages.  When the Big One (tm) hits communications won't involve florescent yellow vests and go kits, it will be scrounging wire and parts from landfills and making homemade batteries and generators.  Who knows, maybe even spark will make a comeback.  In the story it's clear that those with food, energy, natural resources, and people are those with power.  Communications would undoubtedly be another source of power and those with the ability to communicate long distances would be an asset to their community, or as was often the case in the story, a feudal lord.

Despite being a story of gloom, pain, and despair, there were times of great joy, beauty, and simplicity.  It certainly made me think, especially while reading on a huge hunk of metal in the ocean with nearly 5,000 people on board and enough fuel to power a small city.

Mobile In New York City

Going through our photos from the cruise last week, I was surprised by this photo (caption added by me):

Hallowed ground?

But I digress....

Non-Ham / Non-Radio Enthusiast Wants Simple 2m Radio (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?)

That should have been the title of a letter to the editor in QST this month, which was instead entitled Simplicity Gained.  The reader wrote:

"I'm part of an emergency response communictions team in my retirement community.  After I got my ticket, I went looking to buy a 2 meter band radio.  A note: I am not a "ham" or a "radio amateur" or "enthusiast"; the only time I would get on the air would be in an emergency.
The reader goes on to talk about the complexity of "feature rich radios" and how a recent QST radio review touched upon the issue of "technology bloat" and how this affects usability which struck a chord with the reader.  He goes on:
"I would want a radio that can be operated out of the box by anybody within seconds, not after reading the fine print of a manual...... This begs the question: Why don't they make a simple 2 meter radio for people like me who use their radios only for emergency use?"
Admittedly I'm not a big fan of emcomm, but as I've mentioned before I respect its place in amateur radio when it's actually beneficial and not merely a way to play radio and pretend we're important, but this letter flabbergasted me.  If you're not a "ham" or a "radio enthusiast" (despite being an FCC licensed radio amateur) and all you want is a simple push-to-talk radio to communicate, why do you need a ham license or a ham radio in the first place?  Just get a set of business radios and file the FCC forms for a Part 90 or Part whatever license, send in your check for the nominal fee and be done with it?  One of the purposes of amateur radio can be emcomm, but it's not intended to be yet another way to get a batch of handie-talkies that mindless drones can operate.  That's why there are several tests and there are technical proficiency questions in these tests.  Furthermore, ignoring the technical skillset that is germane to amateur radio for a moment, is it unreasonable to expect emergency response communications team participants to actually read a radio manual and understand the basic functions of the radios regardless of complexity before an emcomm event occurs?

I'm sure the reader has good intentions, however there is clearly a mismatch here between the nature of amateur radio and this emcomm application .

Back From Vacation

"The hot tub is QRV!"

Things have been noticeably quiet here on the blog and in the shack this past week because I was on vacation.  For the first time me, the XYL, and the harmonic went on a cruise.  I think it was the first time I've been on a real vacation in 15 years where I could actually get away from work.  I didn't even touch a computer, though admittedly I had my Blackberry along which fully worked when we were in port and also worked with voice and SMS (no EVDO) out at sea as the ship was equipped with its own cellular service.  No, believe it or not, I did not bring a ham rig.  I figured I wouldn't have enough time to use it and I was right.  It was also great not having direct access to the news or normal TV broadcasts so I could fully disconnect from the crisis du jour.

We took Princess Cruises' vessel Caribbean Princess out of New York City and went up the coast and stopped at Newport, Rhode Island; Boston, Massachusetts; Saint John, New Brunswick; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The ship is an amazing engineering feat for us geeks.  The ship has a passenger capacity of about 3,600 and a crew complement of 1,200.  It's powered by six diesel generators, totaling 64 megawatts of capability, if my calculations are correct.  The main propulsion is two 18' propellers in the aft powered by electric motors.  There are also forward and aft thrusters that can be rotated much more freely than the rudders which enable the ship to spin on a dime in a tight harbor.  Fuel capacity and usage is measured in tons and not liters or gallons, with the capacity about 3,500 tons.  In talking with one of the navigation officers, I believe he said the trip from NYC to Halifax consumed 1,800 tons of fuel.  (He was Italian and there was a bit of language barrier.)

I could write a book about the trip and the excursions, but I'll close by saying if you can afford it and have never taken a cruise, I encourage you do it because you'll have the time of your life.

Antennas, Tomatoes, and Neighbors

Almost ten years ago I installed my first tower at my radio artisan lair.  I was really worried at the time that I would get verbal static from the neighbors.  So at first I installed a 30 foot Rohn 25 tower against the house with a hinge base.  I placed an FM broadcast antenna at the top in order to have some aluminum up there to get the neighbors and everyone passing by used to the visual anomaly.   No one said a word.

About six months later I had an antenna party and installed another ten foot of tower and a Lightning Bolt two element five band HF quad along with a Yaesu SDX-1000 rotator.  The thing was a monster, a three-dimensional monstrosity measuring about 16' x 16' x 8' with a four inch diameter boom.  Lightning Bolt, now a defunct company, must have been in a garage.  The antenna went together well, but you could tell it was very homebrew.  The element wire holders were made out of plastic brake line tubing and hose clamps.  The balun was a PVC plumbing end cap with plastic poured in it.  The boom end caps which held the fiberglass spreaders on to the boom were probably the most professional looking components as they were thick, welded aluminum.

I selected a quad at the time because I knew on this lot I wasn't going to be able to go much above 40'.  I didn't have to get a building permit, but a township official told that the fall zone had to be within the property line, so I wasn't going to push the height issue.  According my antenna modeling and articles I had read, the quad had a lower angle of radiation than a yagi at the same height.  Today I know the difference is negligible but a quad requires much more maintenance than a yagi and it takes up too much vertical real estate, especially on a short tower like my 40 footer.

But the antenna was magical.  Folks could have sworn my QRP signals, both phone and CW, were hundreds of watts.  In contests I could really stack the multipliers on 20 meters.  I got QRP DXCC in about two months after ARRL started the award.  My best catch was Bhutan, netting a contact with the first call on CW running a barefoot 100 watts.

The first two weeks I had the antenna I would drive home from work and see the top of the quad peeking up out of the trees from a mile away.  It made me somewhat sick seeing how big the antenna  was behind my house, despite understanding its technical beauty as a radio artisan.  People drove by and would rubber-neck looking at the huge antenna.  I know some folks called the thing a big fly swatter.  Eventually I got used to the appearance of it.

The neighbors on either side didn't seem to mind the antenna much.  I was concerned about the ones behind us.  It was their vacation home and they were usually there every other weekend.  The antenna was almost right in the middle of their view of the lake.  I would visit them maybe three or four times in the summer, bringing fresh vegetables from the garden.  They were friendly couple, but I thought the antenna might change that.

The first weekend they were at their vacation home after the quad went up, I made a visit with some fresh tomatoes from the garden.  We engaged in the normal conversational stuff: home projects, local news, and the weather.  The man, in his mid 60s, brought up the topic of the antenna.  Oh no, I thought, he's going to give me an earful about the quad.

"Does your new antenna do 40 meters?" he asked.

Slightly caught off guard I paused and said "Uh, no, it does 20, 17, 15, 12, and 10.  Ummm, how do you know about 40 meters?"

"Oh, I got a novice license back when I was a teenager.  I did it for a little while, but got into music and other things and let my license expire.  Do people still do ham radio these days?"  he inquired.

Needless to say I never had a problem with the neighbors :-)

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  • Matt W1MST, Managing Editor