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Zero Bias: The Benefits of “Geekdom”

The Aurora Borealis as seen from Maine in early August. (Rachel Moseson photo)

Standing with my family, watching the sunset on top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park, my Blackberry buzzed to tell me I had a new e-mail. It was an alert from about an impending geomagnetic storm, including a notice that the aurora was likely to be visible later that night in upper latitudes. Viewing, it said, would be best starting around local midnight.

We didn’t know if our location at around 44 degrees north latitude was “upper” enough, but we figured that a dark mountaintop with a 360-degree sky view might give us an edge. We returned around 11:30–the only people up there – and saw what looked like a thin white cloud to the north in an otherwise cloudless sky. And it was lit up, as though reflecting lights from a city or a stadium beneath it. Only thing was, the ground beneath the “cloud” was dark. We figured out the best settings on our cameras to photograph this cloud in the middle of the night and were amazed to see that what looked white to us looked green to the cameras!

I quickly shot a picture with my phone of the image on the camera’s monitor and sent it to Chip, K7JA, whom I knew had seen auroras in Alaska and asked him if that was what we were seeing. By the time he texted back a “Yes!”, the answer had become obvious to us as parts of the cloud began to brighten and shoot out rays of light above and below the main area. Then the cloud began to expand vertically and the whole thing started drifting to the west. Directly overhead, the “carpet” of the Milky Way was clearly visible, and–this being a week before the peak of the Perseids–every few minutes, a meteor flashed by. It was truly a magical evening … that the four of us enjoyed in total solitude. No one else, it seemed, knew about the celestial show going on over their heads.

“The benefits of geekdom,” I joked to my daughter. “If I wasn’t on’s e-mail alert list, we wouldn’t have known about it either.” She responded, “Not too many people even know there’s such a thing as ‘space weather.’ ”

So… is there a ham radio connection here? Did I turn on my 2-meter FM rig and work Alberta off the aurora? No. First of all, Au doesn’t “work” effectively on FM, and secondly, I was too entranced by the visual aurora to even think about radio.

But this aurora resulted from a coronal mass ejection from the sun, an event which affected radio communications here on Earth as well as touching off visible aurora overhead. Such solar events are common in a rising sunspot cycle and have touched off speculation in the popular press about “killer flares” that could fry electronics here on Earth and cause billions– maybe trillions–of dollars of damage to our telecommunications infrastructure.

These “killer flares,” along with speculation at the other end of the solar spectrum that we are heading toward a period of decades with no sunspots, were the subjects of Dr. David Hathaway’s talk, “The Sky is NOT Falling,” at the Huntsville Hamfest a few weeks later. Hathaway is a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and one of the nation’s leading authorities on the sun, sunspots and solar-earth interactions. The crux of what he talked about–in terms of “killer flares,” the “death of sunspots” and his newest predictions about Cycle 24–are reported on this issue’s news page, so I won’t repeat them here. But the audience was another demonstration of the benefits of geekdom.

“I like coming here to talk,” said Hathaway. “Hams actually understand and appreciate what I’m talking about.” Fortunately for those of us who are not solar physicists ourselves, Hathaway is a lively and engaging speaker, and able to explain exceedingly complex matters of solar dynamics in terms that a well-educated ham can understand. The flip-side, of course, is that we hams like to hear what Dr. Hathaway has to say. And it is a testament to our collective interest in the science behind the art of radio communication that arguably the nation’s leading expert on the sun and sunspots is willing to give up part of his weekend once a year to come talk, unpaid, to an audience of hams. The appreciation and respect are mutual.

Young Hams…

The Clark family at the Huntsville Hamfest, including dad Mark, W4CK; mom Laura, KJ4HCU, son Will, WB4SCK; and daughter Sara. Will and Sara built working code oscillators at the hamfest's youth lounge.

The Huntsville Hamfest was home once again to the annual presentation of the Newsline Young Ham of the Year award, of which CQ is a co-sponsor. This year’s winner is 11-year old Kaitlyn Cole, KS3P, of Harvest, Alabama (see profile on page 69). In addition to coming to the hamfest to receive her award, Kaitlyn was also there to work, running the youth lounge for other young hams and children of hams. Activities included a scavenger hunt, a foxhunt and a learn-to-build table, where kids (with adult supervision) learned to solder by building code oscillators. We were visited by one family (see photo) with two children who successfully completed this project. Activities like these are incubators of the next generation of young hams, especially when run by other young hams themselves. Speaking of which, we saw a very healthy number of younger adult hams at Huntsville, many of whom were accompanied by their own young children. It is clear that such efforts as the Young Ham of the Year award and hamfest youth lounges are having an impact and are helping to attract more young people into our hobby. I continue to be confident that ham radio’s future is in good hands. (PS to young hams: it’s OK if people think you’re a geek. Geekdom is cool. It opens doors to meeting top scientists and being the only one to know when to go look for an aurora!)

73, W2VU

Zero Bias: Remembering 9/11, a Decade Later

Smoke rising from the World Trade Center site the day after the September 11 attacks. (W2VU photo)

From the top of my street in the wintertime, you could see them, reflecting the afternoon sun or the colors of a sunset. You could also see them from the CQ headquarters office, which is about as far east of Manhattan as my house in New Jersey is west of it, and from Sandy Hook, the northernmost point of the Jersey shore. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were a beacon for New York City, visible for miles in every direction. In the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed them, so was the seemingly never-ending column of smoke and dust that rose from “Ground Zero” (see photo). Even for those of us in the New York metropolitan area who did not know someone personally touched by the tragedy—and there weren’t very many of us—the loss was personal.

So here we are ten years later. How have our lives changed? How has ham radio changed? How safe are we from another 9/11-scale attack?

Some answers are obvious. Just try to get on an airplane. For all the questions that some people may have about how effective airport security measures really are, the fact is that there have not been any additional successful terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda in the United States in the past ten years. That’s not for a lack of trying, either. There have been several well-publicized attempts (along with others that we don’t know about, I’m sure), many of which have been thwarted by quick-thinking citizens.

Another long-term change as a result of 9/11 is that we Americans, as a group, have become much more proactive in protecting ourselves and our neighbors. The “don’t fight back” advice of the ’80s and ’90s has been replaced by a credo of “If you see something, say something,” and when the danger is imminent, do something.

This renewed ethic—a tradition that goes back to sheriff’s posses in the old west and the Minutemen of the American Revolution—has led to a greater acknowledgement by public safety officials that they can’t always handle everything on their own and that citizen involvement in our collective security is good and necessary. This has resulted in the creation of groups such as CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams), the involvement of schools and businesses in emergency planning, and a greater recognition of the value of amateur radio as part of an emergency or disaster response plan.

Since 9/11, ham radio has provided high-profile assistance in other large-scale disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Chilean earthquake, and this spring’s tornadoes in the southeast … and emergency management leaders have noticed. But there have been mixed results in putting this new-found appreciation into practice on the local level. While we have strong support at the highest levels (such as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate; see “Public Service” on page 13) and some municipalities have welcomed ham radio with open arms, others have been more resistant, mostly because their communications systems have yet to fail.

To them, I offer these two quotes: (1) The director of London’s emergency medical service, speaking at a conference I attended, said “an emergency becomes a disaster when communications fail;” and (2) the former emergency management director in my hometown once told me, “The more sophisticated these (communications) systems become, the more likely they are to fail, and when they fail, we’re going to need you guys.”

But he retired … the new director doesn’t have the same vision, and ham radio no longer has a voice on the Local Emergency Planning Committee. This is despite the fact that ten years ago, just 15 miles away, perhaps the most sophisticated emergency communications system in the world failed when the twin towers literally collapsed on New York City’s Emergency Operations Center. And in those critical early hours, it was ham radio that kept city agencies in touch with each other until a backup EOC could be activated.

Ham Radio a Decade Later

How has ham radio itself changed since 9/11? There now seems to be a greater emphasis on our emergency communications capabilities, which is all well and good, except that it appears that a whole lot of people have gotten their ham licenses solely to be able to use amateur radio in the event of an emergency. Our licensing numbers are now at record levels, but many of these newer hams do not appear to be getting involved in the broader ham radio community by getting on the air, joining clubs, joining the ARRL, or subscribing to magazines. For them, ham radio is only a tool, not a hobby. But one of the reasons ham radio works “when all else fails” is because of hams who regularly use their equipment on a hobby basis and are familiar with its operation and capabilities so they can hit the ground running in an emergency. A ham who keeps a handheld locked in a drawer along with his or her license, waiting for the next emergency to arrive, won’t be able to do that. Besides the fact that the battery will likely be dead, he or she likely won’t have the training and experience needed to be truly useful as an emergency communicator.

Disasters such as the 9/11 attacks demonstrate the ongoing need for the services that ham radio can offer. But we must offer more than warm bodies with licenses and handhelds. Radio amateurs at the highest level of their game—be it in emergency communications, satellites, digital modes, or other specialties—are those whose thirst for advancement is insatiable, both technologically and operationally.

One group of hams who regularly stretch the limits of their equipment, their skills, and the ionosphere is contesters. This was demonstrated once again in the 2010 CW weekend of the CQ World-Wide DX Contest (results begin on page 31 of this issue), with record participation and several new scoring records, despite marginal band conditions. Contests such as the CQ WW demonstrate the dedication of participants to making sure that their equipment and their skills are always at peak efficiency. A combination of these factors is necessary to keep ham radio vital, growing, FUN when everything is working as it should be, and ever-more capable of helping our communities at those times “when all else fails.” 73, W2VU

Zero Bias: The Chinese Connection

I’m in the middle of reading a fascinating book, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, about Chinese voyages of discovery in the early 15th century. The author claims to have evidence that, among other things, the Chinese landed and established colonies in the Americas about 80 years before Columbus “discovered” the New World. I haven’t gotten far enough in yet to comment on that, but the first part of the book lays the groundwork by discussing medieval Chinese history and culture and explaining how China spread its influence and came to dominate foreign trade in Asia and Africa at the time.

Despite having the world’s largest army and navy, and having already invented gunpowder and developed firearms, this book’s author says it wasn’t China’s style to simply invade a place and take it over. Rather, the Chinese sent treasure ships full of the finest goods, not only to trade but to bestow as gifts on local rulers. Once trading relationships were established, these rulers were given every imaginable luxury and invited to major events in China—with the Chinese providing transportation and picking up the tab for everything.

Of course, all this came at a price. If the foreign rulers wanted to continue to benefit from China’s largesse, and if they wanted their highly profitable trade with China to continue and grow, then they had to pay tribute to China, both financially and by swearing allegiance to the Chinese emperor. The Chinese came to dominate the region, generally without firing a shot (even though they were the only ones at the time with guns). It would do us well here in the west to study more Chinese history.

I bring this up because, as many of you are aware, the past year has seen the introduction to the U.S. market of ham gear from China. The two major brands we have seen so far are Wouxun (pronounced OH-shin) and TYT (Quanzhou TYT Electronic Co.). The prices are very low and from all reports we’ve heard, the radios work well, too. At Ham-Com in Texas this past June, one dealer selling these new rigs wanted to be sure everyone in the hall knew how well they were doing, so the booth staff banged a big gong every time a ham bought one. Following a commercial tradition that is at least 700 years old, the Chinese are establishing themselves in the ham radio marketplace with quality goods at low prices that significantly undercut their competition.

Of course, their competition is acutely aware of this, especially the Japanese manufacturers who know from their own experience how effective this strategy can be. After all, it’s been just over 40 years since the first ad for a Japanese radio appeared in U.S. ham magazines. The Japanese manufacturers used a similar approach, offering quality goods at low prices that significantly undercut their competition, starting with low-cost VHFFM gear and then moving into higher-priced HF equipment as well.

Most of the “long-established” U.S. manufacturers (I put that in quotes because many of them had only been in business for about 40 years themselves at that point!) could not or would not respond effectively and eventually dropped out of the amateur market, giving the Japanese manufacturers market dominance for the past three decades. Now, the Chinese manufacturers appear to be adopting similar tactics, and the question becomes whether the Japanese manufacturers will learn from their own success and how (or if) they will adapt to meet this new challenge.

Ultimately, it will be up to you, the consumer, to decide which radios from which manufacturers give you the greatest value for your dollar. Other issues that may merit consideration by consumers include possible Chinese government subsidies to hold down prices on exported goods, and questions about working conditions and worker pay at Chinese factories (we know nothing about these specific companies, only that this is an issue in the broader topic of U.S.-China trade). And, of course, we the consumers should not forget that the U.S. amateur radio manufacturing industry has rebounded, with newer companies taking leadership positions in several areas of the ham marketplace. One thing is certain: radios from China will be a part of the ham radio landscape for many years to come, and the presence of these new “players” in the market will continue to be seen in magazines, on dealers’ shelves and at hamfests around America.

Dayton and Dallas

Speaking of hamfests, both Dayton and Dallas (Ham-Com) seemed to be down a little in attendance this year, but most dealers reported strong sales nonetheless. Getting to and from Dayton proved to be challenging this year—it took me 13 hours to get there from New Jersey, which wouldn’t have been too terrible if I was driving…but I was flying! And after the show, both Ad Manager Chip Margelli, K7JA, and Popular Communications and WorldRadio Online Editor Richard Fisher, KI6SN, got stranded overnight at different airports while trying to get home to California.

Ignoring all that, actually being at Dayton was its usual incredible experience. Yes, there was the sewer backup that shut down nearly all of the restrooms on Saturday afternoon and sent sewage seeping across parts of the flea market. But on the other hand, there was the unplanned and unannounced visit on Saturday morning by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the usual controlled chaos at the CQ booth.

Working a booth at Dayton is a lot like running a pileup on a DXpedition. There’s a constant line of people waiting to “work” you; you can only “work” one at a time, and you have to hope all the others behave until you get to them (99% of the time, they do). But the people you get to meet are the best part. Attendees at Dayton truly cover the full spectrum of the ham radio hobby. All, of course, are  just-plain-hams, having fun and chatting on a first-name basis … even though among those just plain hams were at least one Nobel laureate, two retired admirals, a former ambassador and at least one astronaut. It sure is a good thing we don’t have to QSL all those “eyeball” QSOs at the booth!

A couple of issue notes: Our coverage of ham radio’s response to the wicked spring weather across the U.S. continues this month with a detailed look at how SATERN (Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network) volunteers helped out in Joplin, Missouri after a massive tornado struck that city (p. 13); and Youth Editor Brittany Decker, KB1OGL, shares her experience with—and lessons learned from—a too-close-for-comfort encounter with lightning at her home in New Hampshire (“A Striking Story,” p. 38). Plus, of course, we have the SSB results of last year’s CQ World Wide DX Contest. Once again, this truly worldwide contest made its own propagation — nearly two dozen new records were set – and we received over 6500 logs, showing operation from 232 countries … including China.

73, W2VU

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  • Matt W1MST, Managing Editor