Internet Cranks, Part 1

This evening I was browsing one of my favorite QRP homebrewing sites, QRP Homebuilder by VE7BPO, when I stumbed upon something that really struck a nerve. Todd does a really great job in documenting his projects and experiments, as well as walking you through his thought process in many of the design decisions that he made. There's a wealth of information here, and you'd be hard pressed to find someone who does a better job.

In this article, VE7BPO gives a very nicely detailed explanation of his methodology for testing the stability of the LC-tuned VFO circuit which is the subject of the post. He mentions that you can always use a stable receiver with a narrow bandwitdth to listen for VFO frequency shifts by ear (a perfectly valid method for homebrewer testing, in my experience). Well apparently, that's not good enough for some of the Internet experts:

I have taken some flack on the World Wide Web and by email for using my ears as a VFO stability tester. Perhaps this is well deserved criticism, as it does not quantify drift. However, the last time I checked, receivers are meant for listening to signals and almost any drifting oscillator beat note will not stay centered in a narrow IF pass band of a stable receiver. If a VFO stays put in a narrow pass band, I am pretty sure it is stable enough for use in a home-built transmitter or receiver. From my experience, albeit limited, any drift you can measure you can also hear. I sure wish some of my critics would publish their work so I wouldn't have to perform so many experiments to try to improve my hobby projects! The target audience of this web site is people who want to have some fun and perhaps do not have hundreds of dollars worth of test equipment. It is okay to use a receiver as a piece of test equipment if you want to or don't have anything better to use. Apart from digitization, miniaturization and the demise of HAM radio in general, I posit some of the other reasons that analog hobby electronics is dying is lack of mentorship, imagination and fear of failure. Every design or method generally has good points and bad points. This web site is truly for people who like to experiment with and enjoy building simple electronics circuits. This is the "popcorn" niche I aspire to. I have found that it is very easy to criticize, but far more difficult to contribute. Hopefully I am in the latter group! [Emphasis mine]

It really fries me to see people like Todd, who put such much time and energy into documenting their hobby for other people at no financial gain, get a raft of crap from online bullies. There's not much to add to his statement, since he pretty much nails it, but I've had a small taste of the same thing. Fortunatly, most of the hams I've interacted with online have been at least cordial; but I know how frustrating it can be to put a lot of energy into a labor of love, only to have it criticized by the know-it-all do-nothings of the world.

I emphasized one sentence in that quote to give everyone something to think about. It's quite tempting for someone who is freely giving their time to the hobby to throw in the towel on sharing their work when they are forced to put up with too much of this nonsense. So please, show support to your favorite authors and bloggers, they need all they can get.

Fashion Nerd Meets Ham Radio

I used to really like Make Magazine when it first launched, but lately they have been drifting off into areas that seem a bit thinly stretched to be labeled "Maker" activity. However, I'm happy to report that I got a pleasant surprise from Make in my feed reader this morning: a blog post about Dayton Hamvention 2009! Even better, it was written by a younger ham, and a YL to boot: Diana Eng, KC2UHB. Diana goes by the the pen name of Fashion Nerd on her blog, which as you might imagine, is primarily about fashion hacking, or integrating electronics into clothing. It appears that Diana recently got into ham radio, has an interest in satellite ops (not surprising given that she is a resident of NYC) and has already been on a DXpedition.

Fashion Nerd at Dayton 2009
Fashion Nerd at Dayton 2009

She gives a shout out to some popular names in ham radio and QRP, including a couple near and dear to my heart. My new employer, Buddipole, is mentioned as a popular destination at the con for portable antenna gear. She also singles out one of my favorite QRPers, Steve "Goathiker" WG0AT.

Neat to see that the great-grandaddy of the Maker movement is still getting some love from the new generation. Also great to see some more people near my age getting into the hobby.

Drought

I want to apologize to all of my regular readers for the complete and utter lack of content here recently. I know that there aren't a ton of you, but I do appreciate those who have gone through the trouble to subscribe to my blog.

If you have been paying attention to my Twitter stream, you may have noticed that I've been in a nasty funk regarding my interest in radio. I think it got started a few weeks ago with some online behavior between hams that I found extremely discouraging. I'm not going to name names, since I have no intention of trying to stir up hard feelings.

I've also noticed an uptick of condescending nastiness from hams online towards those who hold moral, religious, and political views similar to mine. I don't mind small amounts of these types of discussion in my ham radio content (whether I agree with the view or not), but the level of vitriol has been really bothersome to me lately. Personally, I try to steer clear of mixing these topics with my ham radio stuff, although I have been occasionally guilty of letting a bit of it sneak through at times. In the past, I just ignored the stuff that I didn't like. But considering the state of the world, right now I just want to get away from all of the negativity and back-biting when I read about radio. However, it seems like all I see lately is exactly this type of behavior. I just don't have the stomach to deal with it at this point. I guess you could say that I have a thin skin at the moment.

Sitting down to operate or melt some solder didn't seem to help either. Usually I can sit down with an idea or a circuit and have a lot of fun tacking the thing together and getting it to work. Now, I just don't seem to have the attention span to get through even a simple build. Perhaps I'm coming down with a case of ADD, LOL!

Add in the stress of my greatly reduced paycheck, uncertainty about my employment stability, and planning and paying for a wedding, and you've got the recipe for a bombed out Jason.

I have been enjoying doing other things, such as fixing up our new home, working on putting in our new vegetable garden, baking bread, catching up on reading, and watching the Trail Blazers make their first run to the playoffs in many years.I am extremely grateful that I have other things that I still enjoy, which tells me that this probably isn't some kind of depression.

I suspect that everyone who is into a passionate hobby or profession hits the wall like this after long enough. I just need to find the trick to recovering the passion. Maybe I need to completely unplug for awhile to give my psyche a rest.

I don't intend to let this place blog fade. I still have a ton of neat ideas floating around in my head and in my notebook. But I also do not want to post a bunch of worthless crap here about my psychological state that you don't care about while I try to get out of the funk. So I've been silent, hoping to regain that spark quickly. Since it still hasn't come back, I wanted to at least let you know what's going on so that you are aware that the blog will be back on track at some point. The question now is "when?"

Watch This Space

Last week, I was informed that everyone in our company would be receiving a temporary (but indefinite) 10% reduction in pay. To make matters worse, it looks like we will be taking more mandatory shutdown days in the current quarter; we've got five coming up over the next few months. This is also another open-ended cost cutting measure; there is a possibility of more shutdown days in the upcoming quarters. As might be expected, my first reaction was anger and frustration, but I've cooled off a bit since then and let rationality replace emotion. The truth of the matter is that they economy sucks real bad, and only appears to be getting worse at the moment. I believe the company leaders when they say that this was done to avert more layoffs. Given the choice between a 10% reduction in pay and a 100% reduction in pay, it's pretty obvious what the best option is. I still can't say that I'm terribly thrilled, but this wasn't entirely unexpected either.

So now the belt needs to be tightened a bit more at our household. Given my personal theories about what's going on in the world, I seriously doubt that this is the worst that we will see. Let's just say that I will be extremely grateful if I still have this same job in a year from now. With that in mind, I have been giving serious consideration to getting into the kit-selling business. Not that I expect to ever get rich selling kits to hams, but I really enjoy design and it would be nice to at least be able to supplement my income now that it's taking a pretty big hit.

Along those lines, one of the reasons why the technical content has been light around here lately is that I have been working on a kit for a well-known QRP club. I don't know when I can spill the beans or how much I can say about it, but I think it should be an interesting and fun kit for a lot of builders. Keep an eye on the blog for more details about the kit when I'm able to release them.

Furthermore, I have some other kit ideas that sprang from this original design. Those are the ones that I would like to bring to market under my own banner, along with some other unique designs that aren't currently on the market. At best, it will still be months before you see anything commercial coming out of my lab, but I'm going to do my best to get the ball rolling very soon since I've now got a fire lit under my butt. I'm still going to post other technical content when I can, just don't be surprised if that category is a bit light for the next few months while things spin up over here.

Trashing The Old

I'm going to veer off my normal blog fare a bit and get into a topic which might be slightly controversial, but has been buzzing around the ham blogosphere lately. I make it a personal goal to not delve into political topics in my ham radio activities, but I've been finding this increasingly hard given that current political events have seeped into virtually every ham blog that I read. So I will fully admit that I'm a flawed man, and I'm going to break my own rule this time. Relatively speaking, my place in the ham blogosphere is as a plankton next to the ham radio minnows that are the big boys in our corner of the Internet sea. I know that this is probably an exercise in futility and might drive off a portion of the small number of readers that I have. Sometimes, you just have to speak out if you think your community is going off the tracks. I've had no epiphany, just an increasing desire to put out a counterpoint to a meme which is picking up steam in our community.

A good portion of the ham blog intelligentsia have been riding the currently popular "change" meme right through our isolated little corner of the net. There's been a lot of rhetoric about how we need to turn our backs on our past, discard nostalgia, and make the great leap forward into the future. The theory is that all of the old farts pining for the "good ol' days" is driving away much of the new blood needed to revitalize the hobby. It is claimed that if we fail to make this fundamental change in our focus, ham radio will wither and die.

I will be the first to admit that there are two very unappealing aspects of ham radio for me: the cranky curmudgeons and the whacker brigade. The first group seems to have taken up a second home on the Internet when not on 75 meters, berating all lesser beings and regaling the rest of us mere mortals with their tales of heroics. The latter group pretty much speaks for themselves. Every time I tried to get involved with EMCOMM (before I became wise to the realities of that world), I came away severely discouraged about the clique mentality and the lofty goals coupled with the laziness of the majority of members. That said, most of the hams that I have met do not fit into these categories. Sure there are plenty of nutjobs in our hobby, but show me one hobby (especally a geeky one like ours) that doesn't have their share of cranks.

The question is then whether abandoning our history is going to change these aspects of our hobby for the better. No, it's not. The two have nothing to do with each other. Yes, the curmudgeons invoke The Past as it were the golden age which we will never obtain again. Does that make the past inherently bad? Of course not. Nostalgia in itself is not a bad thing or a good thing, it just is. It has its place in reminding us where we came from and what makes our hobby a special thing. As with just about anything else in life, it can be used postitively or negatively.

One problem is the growing number of people in our culture who want to banish something because they don't like the negative aspects of that thing. Part of being a responsible adult is recognizing that when you have the freedom to do something, you have to accept the good and bad aspects of that activity and deal with them accordingly. I don't need someone to decide what's best for me, and I suspect that you don't either. The last thing we need is some kind of reality bubble to eliminate the things that make us uncomfortable.

Another thing that bothers me is the nebulous aspect of this desire for a shake-up in the hobby. There seem to be no concrete proposals for how to improve things, other than sending our past down the memory hole. Change simply for the the sake of change, in any endeavor, is insane. I'm not on board the change bandwagon. Too many incredibly destructive and stupid things have been done in this world in the name of progress.

If something works, you don't just throw it out because it is old. What is wrong with enjoying something just because you enjoy it? You always hear about non-hams who ask hams why we use amateur radio, when we could just pick up a cell phone. The answer, of course, is that we do it because we enjoy it, not because it is superior. Why go fishing when you can just buy a fish at the supermarket? Same principle. It seems that we lose sight of this concept in our own little ham radio subgroups. So what if you think CW is the only true mode. What does it matter if you think life is too short for QRP? Who cares if you don't like boatanchors and AM? There are plenty of hams who do, and they should be able to pursue their interests as long as it stays within the rules. I'm sure that for each ham who likes a particular aspect of amateur radio, there are plenty of others who hate it and want it to go away. If there's anything this hobby needs, it's more of the live and let live attitude.

There is another reason why we shouldn't just throw away our past. Recall the old maxim: KISS. Many times, the simplest solution is also the best. Just because a technology is old does not make it inferior. I won't belabor this point, since it has already been thoroughly covered in other places (especially with the CW aficionados). But we should not act like children with ADD, discarding the old because we like the new, shiny toy better.

Let's get down to the bottom line. The magic of radio is reason that most of us are in the hobby. Sure, there are those who got a ticket because they are weather spotters, because their spouse has one, because someone at the ARRL told them 10 years ago that it was just as good as having a cell phone. However, the majority of us are into amateur radio because we like radio for radio's sake.  The stories of our illustrious past remind us of this, which is why we enjoy them. Gutting our history will remove the soul of our hobby and take away that which makes us unique. Might as well just trade in our Elecraft K2s for Motorola TalkAbouts.

What we need is advancement of the radio art, not undefined change. There are areas where we are still making progress in developing the art, although not nearly as much as we used to. But how can we compete with the rapid development pace of the old days? We can't. As with any nascent technology, radio was pioneered by the tinkerer and the amateur. But radio has now matured into a multi-billion dollar industry. There is no way that we can compete with the R&D resources that industry can pour into new product development. Most of the leading edge ham technology these days often comes from those who already work in the radio industry and have access to many resources that the average ham does not. This does not make us worthless, but we have to be honest about our place in the world of radio.

No, we are never going to live up to the glory days of our predecessors. No amount of progress will ever get us back to the same level as the commercial radio industry. But that's OK; it means that we did our job, and that radio is one of the most successful and transformative technologies in the history of mankind. Wireless is becoming more and more important each day. We should take pride in knowing that we paved the way, and that we still have a link to that spirit of radio which brought us such wonderous inventions.

WorldRadio Online Debut

I just saw (via the Southgate Amateur Radio Club feed) that the first edition of WorldRadio Online has been released. I've made a quick scan of it, and my initial thoughts are that I'm impressed. Right off the bat, you notice that it looks better. The same general format is carried over, but it's in color and looks much better than the crummy cheap newsprint version. It appears that all of the same content and regular columns are pretty much still in place. I'm not a subscriber, so I'm not 100% sure of that, but I would get my teaser copy about every 6 months, so I do have some idea.

They also appear to still have all of the advertisments, which in my opinion is great. If they can get the sponsors to continue to pay for advertisments, while keeping the publication free, that would be a great step forward for ham radio publications. I am curious how they are going to change their ad pricing structure, since all of the traditional readership metrics have to be tossed out the door with online distribution.

One interesting change is that the QRP column has been reappropriated to now focus on trail friendly radio. I'm curious what the impetus was for this shift, but it should still be interesting. The regular columnist, KI6SN, has even setup up a new blog to compliment his revamped column.

I'm pleased to see that WorldRadio seems to be carrying on with the same level of professionalism as before. This shift in the distribution model could be healthy for the hobby (*ahem* QST *ahem*), but only time will tell if this is sustainable or not.

Some Ham Video Goodness

On qrp-l.org and Twitter, I've had the pleasure of running across Jeremy Chase, N1JER. He's just getting into operating HF CW, kitbuilding, and homebrewing, and it's always a treat to get the perspective of a younger guy who is just getting into ham radio. I guess I'm interested because there's not a ton of us in the under-40 crowd getting into ham radio. Anyway, Jeremy has been having a lot of fun learning this stuff, and has been cool enough to make some videos documenting his progress. I've embedded a few of them below for your viewing pleasure. Be sure to check out his blog for more interesting stuff. A little birdie told me that more videos might be on the way!

All Twitterpated

So I've taken the plunge into the strange and magnificent world of Twitter. I resisted it for a while because I didn't see much value in it, but I'm starting to get what the hype is all about. One area where I will freely admit that I have a weakness is in keeping up with my e-mail. I subscribe to tons of e-mail lists, which is bad enough. But it's easy enough to mass delete posts from mailing lists. However, having a big web presence (at least for a ham) means that a lot of people e-mail you personally. Don't get me wrong, I love getting e-mails from people who stumble upon my writings on the web. The problem that I have is that I feel obligated to put as much time into replies as senders put into their e-mails. So when someone sends me a great e-mail that is 10 paragraphs, I feel like I have to reciprocate in kind if I'm able to. The problem is that it gets me into a rut where I feel like procrastinating because I can't sit down for 20 minutes in one stretch to craft a worthy reply. Not very cool, and not very fair to those who are expecting a response.

On the other hand, Twitter molds your messages into a forced austerity. I feel quite a bit more liberated in my ability to shoot off quick replies to Tweets from my ham buddies, knowing that I've taken care of business and have moved on. The back-and-forth dynamic is also very invigorating compared to e-mail. It's almost like a live chat, but just a tad bit slower.

Twitter is also quite good as a place to get raw information about breaking events. The recent Mumbai terror attacks proved that, much to my surprise. You have to filter this kind of raw data (well any kind of Internet data) through a skeptical eye, but it was amazing how much of the live Tweets from incident turned out to be essentially accurate.

Of course, there's always a downside to any trendy new technology, and Twitter is no exception. As you may have noticed throughout the ham blogosphere, folks are finding that it's hard to filter the good stuff out of the cruft once you start following large numbers of people on Twitter. Really, no one cares that I'm currently trimming my nose hair or that I'm in the 5th hour of my Top Chef viewing marathon. The challenge for me is to fight the information overload. Much like a raven with ADHD, I find information on the Internet to be like one shiny bauble after another. It's extremely easy for me to lose myself in the irresistable ebb and flow of the information currents. Seeing those Tweets pop up is quite destracting and hard to ignore. There's no doubt that you have to have self-discipline to be an effective Twitter user.

Now that I've taken my turn beating this quite-dead horse that 20 people in line in front of me have already taken their whacks at, I have my catharsis. Isn't that what the blogosphere echo chamber is all about? I'll do my best to actually publish some real content here on the blog, instead of more navel-gazing introspection. But what do you expect from an introvert anyway?