Si5351A Investigations Part 6

The theme of this blog post is not lots of tedious work, but refinement leading to good results.

First off, let's talk about the funny I2C address on the parts which I received from Mouser. Since Digi-Key has no order minimums and very inexpensive shipping available (in the form of USPS First Class mail), I ordered another batch of Si5351As from them so I could see if they would respond to the correct address of 0x60. Sure enough, once I received them and used the Bus Pirate I2C address scan macro, they came up on address 0x60. So it seems obvious that Mouser has some oddball parts; perhaps they were custom parts that inadvertently escaped Silicon Labs. I'm still waiting to hear back from Mouser about the issue, but in the meantime, I would recommend you order from a different distributor until they fix this problem.

I also decided last Friday to try to get my KiCad skills back in order and crank out a cheap and cheerful breakout board for the Si5351A. It didn't take me too long to get back in the groove and design a small, simple PCB that would make it easier to prototype with the Si5351A. The board is 30 mm x 50 mm, with three end launch SMA connectors on the right edge and the power/I2C pins on the other side. I've also added wideband transformers (Mini-Circuits TC1-6X+) to the outputs to isolate them from the breakout board. Below you can see the OSHPark rendering of the board.

Si5351A Breakout Board

They will hopefully be here in about a week or so (one of the benefits of living in the same city as OSHPark). Assuming that they work as expected, there's a chance that I may end up selling these as kits, so stay tuned if that interests you.

Now on to the best news. The last big question in my Si5351 investigations is whether it would be suitable for VFO usage in a standard amateur radio receiver, where it would have to be tuned rapidly. Having seen in a Silicon Labs application note that the Si5351 can be tuned glitch-free by locking the PLL to a fixed frequency and only changing the synth parameters of the attached multisynth, I set out to implement that in the Si5351 avr-gcc library.

Next, I ripped the AD9834 DDS and crystal BFO oscillator out of my last CC1 prototype and substituted the Si5351 for the VFO and BFO. Long story short, after a bit of tweaking, the part performed beautifully! I can crank the tuning encoder knob as fast as I possibly can, and I get no hint of any glitching or other tuning artifacts. The Si5351 has enough oomph to drive the BF998 dual-gate MOSFETs as well. Into a high-impedance, the drive level was over 4 Vpp, which is a decent drive level for that mixer. The only slight hardware change I had to make was to change the I2C pull-up resistors to 10kΩ and reduce the I2C clock speed down to about 100 kHz in order to reduce noise from the I2C line getting into the receiver. This change seemed to have no adverse affect on the tuning speed of the Si5351.

At this point, I believe I have investigated most of the main points that I wanted to look at when this first began. Wonderfully, the Si5351 appears to be a very suitable IC for use in all kinds of amateur radio applications. The multiple independent outputs is a superb feature, and has the potential to greatly reduce parts count and price in ham radio transceivers. I'm already thinking of many applications where this inexpensive, stable, and versatile IC can be used.

Even though the main objectives have been met, I'm still not done with this IC. I would like to look into further details, such as phase noise. I also have a lot of plans, such as building a new radio from scratch using the Si5351, possibly selling the breakout board mentioned above as a kit, and maybe even creating a more complete development board (which could be used as a wide-range VFO) by incorporating a microcontroller, LCD display, and encoder knob. Keep watching the blog for further updates.

The CRX1 Is Here!

I'm happy to report that the CRX1 40 meter receiver kit is now in full production and is available for purchase in the Etherkit Store for $40 (which includes all controls and connectors, you just add some wires and an enclosure). Allow me to quote from the product page:

The CRX1 is a simple VXO-tuned superheterodyne receiver for the 40 meter band, with tuning centered around the popular QRP watering hole frequency of 7.030 MHz. It is entirely constructed from surface mount devices in the easy-to-build 0805 (US) size for passive components and SOT-23 class semiconductors. The PCB is large and single-sided, which provides for uncramped construction and makes the CRX1 an ideal warm-up kit for the CC1 QRP transceiver (coming soon). The CRX1 is not just meant to be a novelty to be tossed aside after construction. All of the support circuitry for muting, T/R, and sidetone is included, so it can be paired with virtually any transmitter which uses grounded keying. There is also a port for an external VFO to enable further user experimentation.

All controls and connectors are included with this kit, so you just need to supply an enclosure and a few knobs to finish the job!

Specifications

Frequency Range: Approximately 7.030 to 7.034 MHz (at +13.7 VDC power supply)
IF Bandwidth: Approximately 400 Hz
Current Consumption: 25 mA (at +13.7 VDC power supply)
Power supply: +9 VDC to +14 VDC
MDS: -123 dBm
3rd Order IMD DR: 84 dB
IF Rejection: 74 dB
Image Rejection: 67 dB
PCB dimensions: 70 mm x 100 mm
Antenna Connector: BNC
DC Power Connector: 2.1 mm barrel jack
Phone Jack: 3.5 mm stereo
Key Jack: 3.5 mm stereo
Reverse polarity protection
Muting, sidetone (user enabled), T/R switch, external VFO port included

Available Bands

40 Meters - 7.030 to 7.034 MHz

The CRX1 is a fun little receiver to build and is a great kit to get your feet wet with SMT construction!

On a side note, I've established an IRC server on my Raspberry Pi for Etherkit and it has been working great for the last month or so. Please do stop by for tech talk (and other occasional diversions) on channel #etherkit at irc.recursiv.com.

Wideband Transmission #1

This is the first in a series of blog posts covering a wide variety of topics. In the past, I have used Twitter for my microblogging needs. For a variety of reasons, I'm on a Twitter hiatus right now, so I'll be using this series to convey some of the disconnected (and possibly connected) random thoughts that I feel I need to get out there. I don't think I'll be abandoning Twitter completely, but I will be reworking the ways in which I use it once I come back.

I'm also in the process of disconnecting completely from Google, so I wanted to give fair warning to those who correspond with me via my Gmail account that I will be abandoning that service very soon. I've already deleted my Google+ profile, and will be deactivating the rest shortly. I'll probably describe my rationale for this later, but keep in mind that I've been a Google customer data mine for nearly a decade, so this is not something that I undertake lightly. I'll try to get alternate contact information to those of you who regularly correspond with me.

It is an age of new beginnings.

Clackamas 2 Prototype

With the introduction out of the way, let's get down to the good stuff. Above, you can see the latest project on the Etherkit bench. It's a re-work of the receiver from the Clackamas transceiver (the rig that I submitted to the 2010 FDIM 72-part challenge). I've decided to make this receiver into a cheap & cheerful little kit to get people warmed up for building the CC1. It's currently for 40 meters only, is a superhet, and is VXO tuned (covers 7.030 MHz plus a bit more). It is 100% discrete component (you can see a TDA7052 IC above, but I've abandoned it for a different AF amp) and will be SMT construction. The receiver itself is pretty simple, but you can see there's a fair bit of other circuitry on there. That stuff is mute and sidetone circuits. It's easy enough to design a standalone receiver, but most of them will probably just gather dust after being built unless they can interface to a transmitter easily. With this extra circuitry, you can just split off your transmitter's key line and connect it to this receiver to have built-in muting and sidetone. My goal is to make this project cheap and fun to build. I'll be fast-tracking this one so I can get back to the CC1 soon.

Oddly enough, another project from the FDIM Class of 2010 is also coming out soon. As spotted on The QRPer, the Cyclone 40 transceiver is based on the rig that Dave Cripe, NM0S submitted as his 2010 FDIM 72-part challenge entry. I recall that the rig had a very unique design and that the specs were impressive. Dave's a great designer, so be sure to buy one to get a rig unlike anything else you've seen before and to support 4SQRP.

Choking off the Internet firehose that I had previously directed at me has allowed me to devote a bit more time to enjoyable activities that I've neglected, one of those being reading. I'm currently enjoying a book I've had on my shelf for a while now called Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris. It's billed about being about amateur astronomers, but it does get into the professional side quite a bit as well. It's a good read and very entertaining, and I can't help but see a lot of parallels between amateur radio and amateur astronomy.

That's a great segue to the final item, which is a bit of fun from our favorite Canuck astronaut, Cmdr Hadfield. He's leaving ISS in a few days and just released a surprisingly touching (although obviously light-hearted) rendition of Space Oddity by David Bowie (one of my guilty favorites). Cmdr Hadfield may not be on the level of Neil Armstrong or Yuri Gagarin, but he's definitely making a play for Coolest Astronaut Ever.

Stuff 'n Things

As a mild winter turns into an unusually nice spring here in Beaverton (last week we had multiple days with clear skies and highs in the upper 70s °F), a young ham's thoughts turn to portable activations, Field Day, SOTA, and the like. I've been looking forward to this summer for the opportunity to take the CC1 out in the field, but I may not get to be quite as adventurous as I hoped. Last winter, I slipped in a wet patch on the concrete in the garage and hurt my knee. As a typical guy, I didn't go to the doctor to have it checked out, I decided to "walk it off". It did heal, but not completely. So I finally gave in and saw my doctor about it a few weeks ago. She strongly suspects a torn meniscus, and ordered an MRI to confirm it. Unsurprisingly, my insurance company denied coverage on the MRI, instead expecting me to do a bunch of physical therapy based on at best a guess on what the problem is. Coming from a technical background such as mine, this boggles my mind. When you have a problem and you have the tools to make a measurement, you make the measurement to see what's wrong, not just take a course of action based on a guess! I understand that money is the driving factor behind this decision, but it still seems like a waste of resources for both myself and the insurance company. Not to mention that I don't have the faith in the efficacy of physical therapy that consensus medicine does.

So now I have to decide whether to shell out beaucoup bucks on physical therapy that probably won't do anything other than siphon money from our family to their coffers. And if that fails to miraculously heal the non-specific "knee pain" referred to by the insurance company, then I guess I get the privilege of paying for the MRI that I should have had in the first place.

I'm completely fed up with politics, so I have no desire for a political battle in my comments. I'm quite aware of the history of employer-provided health insurance in the US, and the effect of government distortions in the medical marketplace. There's plenty of blame to be handed out all around, so let's just leave it at that.

Anyway, I may not get to do any SOTA summits this year (except for perhaps a super-easy one such as Cooper Mountain right on the outskirts of Beaverton), but hopefully I can at least get out with the CC1 for portable ops to the park or while camping.

Speaking of the CC1, it's at a bit of a lull in its development right now. I'm waiting for all of the beta builders to complete their construction so I can be sure that I have all of the major hardware bugs worked out (which looks tentatively promising right now). I still have quite a bit of firmware coding to work on, then I'll be ready for the next (and hopefully last) PCB spin. With any luck, that should come in about 8-10 weeks.

In the meantime, I want to work on some side projects, and perhaps some opportunities to raise more capital to fund CC1 development. In that regard, I've been looking at a neat part recently. It's a MEMS VCXO from SiTime called the SiT3808. What's cool about this part is that it has linear voltage tuning, so that you don't have the uneven tuning response like you would from a varactor-tuned VCXO. The phase noise on the spec sheet also looks very good. I ordered some samples for 7.030 MHz and 28.060 MHz and breadboarded them to test the frequency stability. It was nothing short of amazing. The 7.030 MHz part had a long term drift of 5 Hz in 1.5 hours. The 28.060 MHz part drifted only about 20 Hz in 2 hours. That's pretty spectacular for CW use.

Since the 28 MHz part was so stable, I created a QRP transmitter for it by adding on a keying circuit and a couple of BD139 amplifiers. It outputs a very clean and stable 2 watt signal and has a tuning range of about 20 kHz. I also was fairly easily able to create a TX offset circuit, so that the transmitter can be paired with a direct conversion receiver (which I plan to do soon). Since tuning is linear, the offset is the same anywhere in the tuning range, unlike a typical varactor-tuned crystal oscillator.

I've been thinking about a way to introduce these parts to the ham community, since I don't believe that I've seen them mentioned by any homebrewers or used in any kits. Last week on the qrp-tech listserv, K7QO proposed a group build of the venerable NE602/LM386 direct conversion receiver (this one from chapter 1 in Experimental Methods in RF Design). Since this design is so well known, it seems like a "remix" of this design using the SiT3808 as the local oscillator might be a fun way to spread the word about the product. I breadboarded a version with the 7.030 MHz SiT3808 sample, which you can see below (the SiT3808 is in the upper-right corner, and it obscured by the tuning pot wiring).

NE602/LM386 Prototype Receiver with SiT3808
NE602/LM386 Prototype Receiver with SiT3808

It works exactly as expected. Wide open band signals directly dumped down to baseband, and a nice, stable LO. This particular SiT3808 part number only tunes about 4 kHz, but I will be able to get parts with a greater tuning range. I'm consulting with SiTime right now about bulk pricing, and hopefully I'll be able to do a kit run of at least 100 of these bad boys in the near future. Let me know in the comments if this is something that may interest you.

So that's my big rant for the day. Stay tuned for further updates on all of these projects in the near future.

The Thrill of QRP DX

Last night after the rest of the family was in bed, I was hacking on the CC1 firmware to add the BFO calibration routine so that I could get an accurate readout of my receive frequency. After successfully completing that task at the late hour of 0130, I decided to cruise 40 meters to see what was going on. Normally the best time for 40 meter DX at my QTH seems to be from about 0200 or so until sunrise, so I thought I might catch something.

Scanning below 7.030 MHz, I came across a very loud station. I figured it was somebody in CONUS, but decided to listen for an ID just in case. It actually turned out to be PJ2/K8ND in Curaçao. Not exactly rare DX, but it's still quite a ways from my QTH and it's a new one for me. So I figured I would take a crack at it with the CC1. Long story short, I set the CC1 in XIT mode and after an hour of trying, my 3 watt signal finally managed to crack the JA-wall. I was pretty excited! Not exactly a heroic snag in the annals of DXing, but it was a good one for me. My single HF antenna is a ZS6BKW only up about 30 feet, so busting a 40 meter pileup to a station 6000 km away made my night. My first DX contact on the CC1! Even better, I woke up to find that the FB op uploaded his log to LoTW immediately, and I've got +1 to my DXCC count.

QRP is fun!

CC1 #1

A brief post to show you the CC1 prototype, now inside of its aluminum enclosure. This is the actual enclosure that will be used for production, but I will have the end caps custom cut and silkscreened, so you won't have to do it yourself. Pardon my questionable metalworking skills, and please note the the production tuning knob will be different (a bit smaller so as to not interfere with the LEDs). At least this will give you some idea of what the final product will look like. The dimensions of the enclosure is 70 x 100 x 29 mm (or 2.75 x 3.93 x 1.14 inches). The first photo shows a size comparison with a standard deck of cards. The weight is 190 grams (6.7 oz).

After the latest circuit tweaks, everything is looking very good with this beta test. I will have more news for the beta testers in the near future. Exciting!

CC1-40 In Enclosure
CC1-40 In Enclosure
CC1-40 Front
CC1-40 Front
CC1-40 Rear
CC1-40 Rear

First RF

CC1-40 Prototype
CC1-40 Prototype

Two days ago, I received my pack of 10 CC1 prototype PCBs from Seeed Studio. The excitement was too much, so I immediately started building the first CC1 prototype as soon as my wife got home from work. Not surprisingly, I didn't go to bed until I completed the build, sometime around 3 AM. I knew it was futile to even try to sleep, as I'd just lie in bed wondering if I had messed something up with the circuit. The radio seemed to pass all of the basic checks early that morning, but had a few oddities that needed to be worked out.

Yesterday, I was able to tweak some component values and got almost everything in line with my Manhattan-built prototype. I could hear a good rush of band noise as the antenna was connected, signals were coming in, and there was a stable 3 W CW output from the transmitter. Everything was looking great, but by the time the radio was ready to go QRV, 40 meters was closed and I was dead tired anyway.

NT7S CC1 Beta Test QSL
NT7S CC1 Beta Test QSL

Tonight, I tried to make a first QSO with AA7EE, but 40 meters had already gone long by the time I was able to make it to the radio at 6 PM, and Oakland was well out of the skip zone. There were a lot of signals from Rockies and east on the band, so I cruised a bit looking for a CQ. No luck finding anybody CQing, so I found a clear spot just above the QRP watering hole and called CQ with the CC1 keyer memory. Right off the bat, I got a call from WA0JLY! We gave each other 559 reports, but he actually came up to 579 by the end of the QSO. It was a very short QSO, as just as we exchanged reports, I was called away to help with our 10 month old son Eli. So I apologize Denny for the cutting the QSO short and for my shaky fist! Earlier today, I made some special QSL cards to commemorate the occasion and WA0JLY will get the first one. I do plan on getting more on-air time with the CC1 over the next few months, something that I've set aside far too much while I've been doing design.

So the initial verdict for this CC1 beta test is looking good. I will be getting in touch with the original beta testers soon and soon after that will contact those who requested to be in on the next beta (if you are one of those people and you don't hear from me soon, feel free to contact me). As I've been saying recently, I'm cautiously optimistic about this board spin. I hope that I will be able to deliver a good product to my beta testers that has all of the original bugs eliminated.

Edit

I've had a lot of people ask for details about the CC1 and I forgot that it has been a while since I've last reviewed the details about the rig on the blog. So here's a quick list of specs. Please keep in mind that this is strictly preliminary and subject to change for the release version.

  • Monoband CW QRP transceiver kit
  • DDS VFO (AD9834), full band coverage
  • Mostly SMT construction (0805 resistor/capacitors)
  • Initial available bands: 40, 30, 20, 15 (probably will add 80 and 17 if there is demand)
  • ATmega328P microcontroller with built-in keyer and straight key mode, audio frequency annunciation, RIT/XIT, voltage supply readout, breakout headers to UART, I2C, ADC, GPS port for WSPR transmission (and hopefully APRS over PSK63)
  • TX output power: 3 W
  • RX current: ~40 mA
  • TX current (13.7 VDC, 3 W): ~370 mA
  • MDS: -125 dBm
  • IF rejection: 86 dB
  • Image rejection: 95 dB
  • Two-tone, 3rd order IMD dynamic range: 75 dB
  • PCB dimensions: 70 x 99 mm
  • Custom matching aluminum enclosure measuring 70 x 100 x 25 mm will be included

HNY

Yes, a belated Happy New Year greetings! It's hard to believe that 2013 is already well under way. I figured it was about time to give you a quick update on what's going on in the shack right now.

First up is the discrete component grabber receiver for 14.141 MHz that I prototyped to be paired with the OpenBeaconMini project. The receiver itself consists of a roughly 2 kHz wide crystal filter on the front end, feeding into a single-balanced diode ring mixer, which drives an AF amp using 2N4401 and 2N4403 transistors. Because I'm not able to put up a proper outdoor antenna for the grabber right now, I decided to put the VE7BPO cascode active antenna on it instead. It seems to work well, but I don't know for sure because there are basically no signals on this part of the band. I intended to use my Raspberry Pi with the receiver as a grabber, but I had no luck getting either LOPORA or QRSSVD to work properly and reliably. It may just be asking too much of the poor beast. So I'm going to try to appropriate another PC in order to get the grabber receiver QRV so that on-air testing of OpenBeaconMini can begin in earnest.

Discrete component monitor RX for 14.141 MHz
Discrete component monitor RX for 14.141 MHz

Next, I wanted to give you a very brief overview of my most recent purchase for the lab: a Rigol DS1022U arbitrary waveform generator. As far as I can tell, this appears to be pretty much the same as the DS1022A model that is sold in the US. But being a typical ham, I wanted to save a few dollars, so I purchased it off of eBay from seller who says he is an authorized Rigol dealer.

Rigol DG1022U Arbitrary Waveform Generator
Rigol DG1022U Arbitrary Waveform Generator

The DG1022[U|A] has two channels that can output a sine wave up to 25 MHz in 1 mHz (as in millihertz) steps. It can also provide square, ramp, pulse, noise, and arbitrary waveforms at lesser frequencies. It can modulate the waveform in a variety of ways, including AM, FM, PM, PWM, and FSK. It can, of course, also do sweeps of various parameters. The output amplitude into 50 Ω ranges from 10 Vpp on Channel 1 or 3 Vpp on Channel 2 down to 2 mVpp on both channels (or -50 dBm). The shielding on this AWG seems to be excellent. Using my HP 355C/355D attenuator combo, I can get a signal down to about -140 dBm (disclaimer: not a scientific measurement, made using my ear as a detector and listening on my IC-718). The dual outputs makes it very useful for a variety of two-tone receiver measurements, one of the big reasons driving my purchase. The Channel 2 output also doubles as a 200 MHz frequency counter input. Paired with the USB connectivity of the device (it seems to enumerate as a usbtmc device), that will be extremely handy for measuring oscillator drift. The DG1022 can also link the two channels together and give them a specific phase difference, as you can see below. This will make it very handy as a I/Q LO when I want to experiment with phasing and SDR rigs.

I/Q Output from DG1022U

So far, I've been very pleased with my purchase. I don't feel like I've had it or used it long enough to give you a full review, but I thought that this preview would at least be a bit helpful for those thinking about using it. One of my goals for the new year is to do a much better job of characterizing everything that I build. Since I intend to start selling transceivers in the near future, it's doubly-important that I can make accurate measurements of my products so that I can properly state their specifications. To this end, I've decided to sell off a bunch of my unused or replaceable test equipment (please take a look at the for sale posting) in order to finance the new, calibrated test gear. Next up on my purchase list is a Rigol DSA815TG spectrum analyzer (just reviewed favorably in the February 2013 QST), but that's going to require the sale of everything on that page!

Finally, I've got the CC1 prototype PCBs on their way from Seeed Studio right now. It looks like they just cleared customs in the US, so hopefully they will be in my hands in the next few days. With any luck, I'll have the first one built by the weekend and will be well on the way to a new beta test. I'll put up a quick post to show off the PCBs, and when the first prototype unit is completed. Stay tuned!

Inflection Point

Hello there. Yes, there is still life at this blog, although whether it is intelligent is still indeterminate. I feel awfully guilty about the lack of content for the blog in the last year, but I've been in a horrible time crunch since getting Etherkit off the ground. When it comes to making the choice between moving your small business forward so you can feed your family or writing a vanity blog post, I'm sure you know which will win pretty much every time. I have no intention for the blog to fade away, so I hope that you all will keep me in the feed reader so that when the time crunch eases up a bit, I can get back to blogging more often and can share some interesting stuff with you.

Anyway, on to the main point. For a fair bit of time now, I've had a vague impression that something was going a bit sour in the online QRP/homebrewer community. It never really surfaced consciously all that often, but I distinctly recall there being a general aura of discontent around my feelings about the state of the community. It has dawned on me that even though we have more communication channels available to us than ever before, we are becoming increasingly insular and fragmented, even within our own little sub-hobby. I don't think it's a coincidence that this has happened while our choices of online communication channels has exploded.

I'm going to attempt to put some substance to this impression, with the hope that if I'm right about it, that maybe I've planted a seed for a way forward in one of my readers. This is probably going to come across as a bit of an Airing of Grievances, but that is not the point of this post at all. I will give you supporting data for my point of view, but I also intend to take a critical look at myself as well, as I'm sure that I've also made plenty of my own mistakes.

I believe that I got my first wake-up call a few months ago, when I learned that one of the most esteemed members of our group, Wes W7ZOI was hanging it up on his online amateur radio technical activities. Not only that, but whatever his motivation for withdrawing, it was also strong enough to make him pull all of his previous content off the web. This hit me like a punch in the gut. Wes has always been a most gracious virtual Elmer to many of us out here. He always seemed eager to pass on his enormous breadth of knowedge to those who asked for help. I have no knowledge of what transpired to change his mind about our community. The only public clue seems to be this quotation left behind on what's left of his technical web page:

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

Whatever the catalyst was, Wes seems to be leaving us based on some negative experience. I can't begin to tell you how much this troubles me. People like Wes are an extremely rare treasure in any community, not to mention one as small as ours. I can't draw any firm conclusions based on the very limited information that we have, but it is not a good statement on the health of our community when such a luminary finds it worthwhile to withdraw, instead of continuing to engage.

The next data point I present is a blog post from John AE5X, published earlier this month. It's a succinct entry, so I suggest that you click over and read it for yourself. In the case that you don't, the Cliff's Notes version of the post is a reflection on the changes in the QRP community in the last decade. Some of the relevant ideas that I'd like to point out are:

QRP-L was alive with real content. People were talking about the latest kit they built and what they were doing with it. The QRP contests and events were well attended, providing further topics for discussion on QRP-L. Norcal 40A’s, SST’s, great rigs from Small Wonder Labs and Oak Hills Research could be heard, worked and talked about.

There was diversity among QRPers too – the hang-a-wire-in-a-tree gang and the QRP DXers all rubbed shoulders on QRP-L. As a result, all QRPers were exposed to various aspects of the 5-watt realm.

and

On the negative side, QRP-L is little more than a small circle of the same dozen people making 90% of the posts that occur there with the real meat of QRP technical discussion taking place on a specific rig’s dedicated YahooGroup. Ditto for the operational aspects of QRP: SOTA and IOTA have their own forums, leaving QRP-L relegated to sharing space in the dusty bins with newsgroups.

and

I am more thankful than I can describe at the exposure I received to ideas, techniques and equipment on the old QRP-L. That doesn’t happen anymore with the real brain power having been sucked away to specific forums.

John hits the nail on the head. I started being active in QRP a bit more a decade ago, right at the same time about which John is writing. And my memory is exactly the same as his. There was an excitement, vitality, and cross-pollination that made QRP-L nearly indispensable to both the QRP operator and the QRP homebrewer. QRP-L was pretty much the only game in town, at least on the online frontier. Today, it's a pale shadow of its former self. Nothing new is happening. Hardly any new blood is joining (or if they are, they are not speaking up). At least that was my last impression of it, because I rarely even look at it any more. I'm still subscribed to QRP-L (and a handful of other listservs), but I admit that I hardly even open up the Mailing List folder in my mail application any more. The amount of worthwhile content just doesn't seem worth it any more in exchange for the time spent sifting through the flame wars, pissing contests, and endlessly regurgitated arguments.

I don't mean to pick on QRP-L, but I think it's very illustrative of the issues we face. Almost all of the best and brightest has left, for one reason or another. And yes, people have been bemoaning the death of QRP-L for years. I bring it up because I think it's a leading indicator of the state of our online community. One of the most important statements in John's post is where he identifies the brain drain to all of the tiny little niche forums in our already-small sub-hobby. The QRP-L exodus happened in earnest years ago, but I think we are now starting to see the second order effects of this phenomena. We have scores of Yahoo Groups, forums, and social networks for our specific little area of interest within QRP or homebrewing or for our favorite rigs or vendors, but we don't come together under the larger banner of QRP any longer, in any way. I suspect that this gets us a bit locked in to our little corners of the 'net. I don't know about you, but I'm finding myself having an increasingly harder time managing all of my different communities of interest. Which tends to make me just throw my hands up and ignore large swathes of those communities at times.

This brings us to the new kid on the block: social media. The big dogs on the block are of course Facebook and Twitter, with smaller networks like Google+ also getting some play in the ham communities. I've never used Facebook for a variety of reasons, but I've been on Twitter for a few years now and did dabble in Google+ for a bit, so I can speak from experience on those two. The nice thing about the social media networks is that you do break free from that self-imposed ghetto mentioned above. Once you get a well established network, you tend to have connections to all kinds of different hams.

But that blessing can also be a curse. The reason for this is the different expectations that different hams tend to have with each other on these networks. A fair number of people expect that if you have a Twitter account with ham radio as your primary focus, you should only talk about ham radio. Likewise, I found that a number of hams on Google+ did not like it if you posted anything non-ham related to all of your "circles" ("circles" are your self-defined groupings for the people in your network). It's a fair point of view, but it isn't the one that I have subscribed to. I am person with different interests and I just don't have it in me to manage different social media accounts for each of my interests. Nor do I expect others to curate their output to cater to my desires.

The problem is that as much as I try to be tolerant of the diversity of other people's interests and ideas on the social networks, I'm not always successful. Admittedly, I unfollowed a few dozen Twitter accounts (not all hams, but definitely some) right after the last election due to either incessant gloating or whining. Probably not my finest moment, but I guess election fatigue got to me. On the flip side, while I don't think I have been a flaming partisan most of the time, I didn't leave my feed politics-free either. I have no doubt that I have annoyed my share of followers and drove them away due to my politics (especially since I'm a devotee of a political ideal that is not very popular).

My point in bringing this up is not to whine, but to contrast the social networks with the "old-school" communities such as QRP-L and web forums. It seems that you have two different extremes, neither of which lend themselves very well to the type of online QRP community which would be nice to have (at least in my view): knowledgeable, open, free-flowing, fun, and mostly on-topic but not on lockdown.

One other point I'd like to bring up that applies to all of us, regardless of what communication medium we use, is our etiquette. I'm sorry, I'm not trying to be a nanny, I know we're all grown adults. But I would also bet that the majority of us are on the left side of the bell curve when it comes to emotional intelligence (me included), which means that we are more apt to give and receive offense at times when we should not. For example, in my "career" in the QRP world, I can think of at least three different times when I've deeply offended very prominent people in the QRP world. And I can say that each time that I was notified of this offense, I was completely taken by surprise. Without getting into details, I've done and said some incredibly boneheaded things. Not because I was trying to troll the QRP stars, but just because I didn't think through the consequences of my words or actions, or didn't clearly enough communicate my intentions. Likewise, I've been wounded by the words of others, who meant no harm, but I didn't realize that until later. (We'll leave aside the issue of the intentional jerk, for whom this essay would mean nothing anyway)

All of this butthurt really damages our relations and breaks down the community, perhaps more than anything else. Again, I'm not trying to be your mommy, but I do ask that you sleep on the stridently-worded rebuttal to the post which offends you, or that you forgive the newbie question that might seem stupid or obvious. I don't know for certain, but there's a decent chance that something like this is what caused a number of our best QRPers to leave the online QRP world. Let's not shoot ourselves in the foot any longer, eh?

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

—H.L. Mencken

Why have I rambled on for so long about all of this? I'd like to see some of that old magic recaptured. When I designed the Willamette DC transceiver and organized the group build on the now-defunct qrp-l.org listserv, I had one of the best experiences of my ham career. I'd love to do something like that again. But I don't know where or how. I'm pretty sure that the current QRP-L would not be the place, and definitely not on a web forum like QRZ.com or eHam.com. I have the capacity to host my own forum (I could even stick it under my Etherkit forums), but it would be too insulated, as mentioned above. I have some ideas for some simpler group project builds that I'm itching to get out there, but I'm honestly at a loss of where to present them. I'd love to reach a wide audience of QRPers. Where would that be?

So if you're still around, you're probably thinking "wrap it up already!" OK, I appreciate that you had the fortitude to stick around to the end of this diatribe, so I'll get to the point. I think I've outlined an issue that needs to be addressed, but I don't have a solution. But I think I may know some elements that will be part of the solution. We need some common meeting ground like that has the same "melting pot" formula of the old QRP-L. With the withdrawal of some of our sharpest minds (and the loss of others as silent keys), we seem to be a bit adrift of leadership. The old guard is departing. Not that we need people trying to take charge and give orders. But we do need new thought leaders and innovators; people to inspire by example and by word.

I am quite fond of QRPARCI and all that they do for our community (especially QQ and FDIM), but I think it could also use a bit of a kick in the pants. A rejuvenation effort brought about via ARCI could be very effective, if done correctly. I'd hate to see it get stagnant and not take advantage of the great resource that it has: it's large number of QRPer members.

Hopefully I've given you some serious ideas to chew on, and with any luck, just might inspire one or two of you to make a positive change to help our community. I'm not one who will be any good in trying to rally others to a QRP renewal, but I hope that I can at least reach out to one who is.

Now on a much lighter note, my next blog post will be back to my normal fare! I'll give you a peek at the little group project idea that I've been working on. Who knows, maybe we can get this going somehow.