Sanctimonious Preaching

Merry Christmas

2013-12-24 14.04.01

This has been a very unique Christmas for me. For most of my adult life, as someone without children, Christmas wasn’t exactly the exciting holiday that it used to be as a kid, of course. It was still nice to get together with the family to exchange gifts and have a dinner feast. But the old magic had pretty much faded.

Now that I have two little ones, I’m getting to experience a new aspect of Christmas. I’m sure this is old news to most of my readers, but living Christmas vicariously through your young children is pretty fun. My oldest boy Noah is now 3.5 years old, so he’s really able to understand what’s going on, unlike previous years. His little brother Eli isn’t quite 2 years old yet, so he doesn’t really get it yet.

It was a joy to play Santa Claus this year; wrapping and hiding the gifts, preparing the stockings, sneaking out to put everything in place, and of course getting the cookies and milk as a reward. Seeing Noah’s anticipation as I showed him the Santa Tracker online and his excitement as he woke up this morning to Santa’s presents was the most fun I’ve had on Christmas in many years.

In a time when humanity hasn’t exactly been impressing me lately (especially the online denizens), it’s a lift to my spirits to disconnect from the craziness and enjoy the holidays with my family. It reminds one of what is real and what is transient noise.

I hope that all of the readers of this blog had a wonderful holiday season and sincerely hope that you have an even better 2014.

2013-12-25 09.44.49

 

Ham Culture, QRP, Sanctimonious Preaching

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.

Meta, Sanctimonious Preaching

On Politics

A quick note on a change to the site. If you’ve been paying attention to the events of the last year in American politics, you have probably noticed that there has been a highly contentious atmosphere. I’m someone who follows news, politics, and current events quite closely, and I have strong opinions about nearly every subject. However, I don’t want any of that to bleed into this blog, which is supposed to be primarily about radio. I’ve dropped a handful of ham bloggers out of my Google Reader in the last few months because I can’t take the blatant political content that appears regularly. A tiny bit of it on occasion does not bother me, but when the majority of the content is about politics or puts a political spin on ham radio, I don’t want to read it any more. I enjoy radio because it’s time away from bitter, divisive topics such as these.

Therefore, in order to enforce a more strict firewall between my personal political feelings and this blog, I’m removing the Twitter sidebar. I do have a bit of a loud political mouth on Twitter, and I don’t want to completely take that outlet away from myself. I’m sure that some of my strongly worded opinions can be a turn-off to those who come to the blog for technical content. I’ll still use Twitter to chat about whatever topics interest me, but I’m going to do my best to keep Ripples in the Ether as apolitical as I possibly can.

For those of you who have stuck around, thank you sincerely for being a regular reader of the blog. Lately, the content has been light because much of what I have been working on are things that I can’t currently discuss. As Dayton approaches, I expect the content level to pick up again. I’m excited to blog about my FDIM 2010 QRP Challenge entry, which is shaping up to be a neat little rig. Stay tuned…

Operating, QRP, Sanctimonious Preaching

QSY

I’ve noted with quite a bit of interest the recent surge of comments on QRP-L favoring a QRP exodus up from 7030/7040 kHz to [part of] the old Novice watering hole of 7100 to 7125 kHz. The esteemed Arnie Coro, CO2KK seems to have ignited the fire with this post to the reflector:

Dear amigos :
The 40 meters band changed last year … when the worldwide assignment for ITU Regions I, II and III was finally made totally compatible for the first 200 kiloHertz. According to what we have learned here, this was a difficult to work out agreement, but at the end
thanks to the presence of radio amateurs sitting as members of many of
the nation’s delegations attending the ITU WARC… it became a reality…
So, now we have the 7100 to 7200 segment for radio amateurs exclusive use. My understanding is that the US FCC decided to expand the 40 meter phone band down to 7125 kiloHertz…
That leaves the segment from 7100 to 7125 kiloHertz quite useable for CW…
My suggestion is to start using 7105 or 7110 kiloHertz as the QRP
meeting frequency, replacing 7030 and 7040 kiloHertz that are under so much QRM, especially from digital modes. I agree that many stations have already equipment with crystals for either 7030 or
7040 kHz… but for those of us with VFO capability, enjoying the much
more clear channels between 7105 and 7110 kHz opens up the possibility of many more QRM free QSO’s…
My observations carried on during the past several days confirm that
that segment of 40 meters right next to 7100 is clear much of the time  !
Let’s give it a try !!!

73 and DX
Arnie Coro
CO2KK

The positive response to Arnie’s call to action was immensely gratifying to me. In addition to all of the reflector replies, there have also been some ham bloggers taking up the topic. I’ve long been a fan of this little slice of bandwidth, but at times it has been hard to scare up contacts there. In the last couple of years, SKCC has probably been making the most extensive use of the sub-band, which has increased the traffic there a fair amount and has brought more attention to the frequencies as a place to have a nice, relaxed CW QSO.

Not to long ago, I dreamed about ways to help increase the use of these frequencies, and even started chatting with a few other hams about ways to spark some interest. However, like a whole lot of my ideas, they never get off the launchpad since I just don’t have the time to invest in all of them. After having a few unpleasant encounters with RTTY contesters running me off 40 meter frequencies last weekend, I’m even more determined to help promote 7100-7125 as a QRP (and general CW) safe spot.

I’ve become inspired enough that I’ve decided to take a new design for a minimalistic superhet rig that I’m working on and adapt it to operate on these frequencies. If there’s any interest in it, I might even take a crack at offering it as a kit for purchase. Long live 40 meter QRP!

Sanctimonious Preaching

Reflections

This is a reply that I wrote in response to a thread on the “old” QRP-L regarding the dying of ham radio in the US. The post that I was replying to lamented the instant gratification culture that we have developed in the country. I felt that I should stick my reply here on the blog as well.

I believe that it’s true that the addiction to instant gratification in American culture is a huge contributor to the problems with getting younger folks interested in ham radio (the other major factor being the stinky, unkempt, loudmouth curmudgeon contingent). However, with the huge economic challenges facing the USA, I truly believe that we will have to abandon this type of lifestyle and return to some semblance of thrift, frugality, and ingenuity. Instant gratification is going to mostly die, by financial necessity. I don’t think most families will have the resources to just buy the kids a new $500 game system every two years and a new $60 game every month. Nor will many of us be able to afford a lot of the other luxuries that we are accustomed to, such as the $150/mo cable package, dining out most days of the week, and purchasing a lot of the frivolous trinkets that we think we need that actually end up gathering dust in the corner of the garage.

As QRPers, we are uniquely poised to take positive advantage of this situation. We are used to making the most out of the least. We are the weirdos who like to scrounge for junk and salvage components from the cast-off electronics that others have trashed. We can take a handful of cheap parts and turn it into hours and hours of entertainment, as well as education. We are already seeing some of this mentality take root in the “Maker” movement, so there’s potential to rekindle some of the radio magic with the younger generations. The standard ARRL path of getting a kid to take the Technician test and giving them an HT is a dead end. Not many kids are going to be interested in 2 m/70 cm repeater operations. We can’t treat young people like they are too stupid or simple-minded to do anything more than yak on a repeater. They need to be challenged, and our particular slice of the hobby can challenge them.

There’s not going to be any grand, centralized, ARRL-type movement that’s going to change things. We each have to make sure that we live up to the standards that will present the best face for ham radio and homebrewing. Do your part, whether it is through Elmering, evangelizing the hobby in a positive way, designing kits for new hams, taking part in the Maker movement, talking to the media, or anything that uses your strengths to advance the art and science of the hobby. As times get more difficult, keep a positive outlook on things. People will look for outlets from the lousy times, and we have the opportunity to offer them an outlet with a unique combination of fun and learning.

Sanctimonious Preaching

Adapt or Die

In one of his recent blog posts, Dan KB6NU, asks why ham radio has no presence at the Maker Faire. You may have heard of Make Magazine from Bill at SolderSmoke or other places on the web. Dan writes:

About a week ago, I got an e-mail from a ham down in Texas who had attended the Maker Faire. “Makers” are people who love to tinker and make things. They even have their own magazine, Make.

He was amazed at the lack of any amateur radio content.

This ties in with the “Ham Spaces” e-mail that I wrote on qrp-l.org a few weeks ago. I’m not going to argue that ham radio is dying, but there’s no doubt that we need new blood in the hobby. With the resurgence of interest in building your own electronics, now is the perfect time to get ourselves out there.

Ham radio needs to be at these events and get plugged into the “maker community.” The Faire has not yet released attendance figures for this particular Faire, but more than 65,000 people attended the Faire held in May 2008. Dayton, with its attendance of about 20,000, looks anemic by comparison.

Quite a stark contrast, especially given the reports that attendance at Dayton falls nearly every year. Surely, there’s a large untapped potential to recruit Makers into the ham radio fold.

I blogged about this back in May. One of the things I suggested then is moving Dayton to some place like Austin. Seriously, if you were a new, young ham, where would you rather go, Dayton, OH or Austin, TX? Let’s be real here.

And can there be a worse place for an event than Hara Arena? The parking lot, where they hold the flea market looks like a mine field, and it usually rains, making the flea market a wet, unpleasant experience. Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer vendors choose to haul stuff out there? Some of us older hams might fondly reminisce about the bargain we found while traipsing around wearing a trash-bag poncho, but a story like that is not going to resonate with new hams.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to badmouth the Dayton Amateur Radio Association or the Hamvention. I actually think that they do a great job, all things considered. I’m just pointing out that if ham radio wants to again be part of the mainstream, we have to get with the program. Unfortunately, that program probably won’t be at the Hara Arena.

I’ve never been to Dayton, but these stories about the quality of the venue are well-known. It’s not going to be easy to get younger folks (especially females) interested in the hobby if they are immediately turned off by the whole environment. Like it or not, image is important these days. We’re going to have to clean up and reform ourselves just a bit if we want the opportunity to pass our hobby down to a new generation.

Ham radio has got to figure out how to latch onto the Maker phenomenon. At the very least, the ARRL should have a booth at the next one, and in addition to all the books and t-shirts, they need to come up with some kind of demo or display to attract makers into ham radio. I don’t know what exactly, but I’m willing to start talking about it.

I agree that the ARRL is missing a huge opportunity here. Their public outreach programs, while well-intentioned, seem a bit anemic and off the mark. They’ve got to start recruiting some new, younger blood into the HQ (W1KRB was a great example, but it appears that she’s gone now) and start making the rounds to these new DIY events. It also wouldn’t hurt to integrate more fully into the social networking sites (I know that there is some effort by private hams in this area, but we’ve got a long way to go to catch up to the Makers).

This phenomenon might also be a boon for clubs who hold hamfests. Just as the computer craze turned ham swaps into ham and computer swaps in the 80s, perhaps ham clubs could turn their hamfests into a combination hamfest and Maker Faire in their communities.

As I said earlier, Makers are exactly the kind of people we want in ham radio. Let’s go out and get them.

Indeed! We need to start building these bridges if we want the hobby to gain some new vitality. Otherwise, I expect ham radio may get pushed further out onto the edges. Meanwhile, with the continued explosion of wireless consumer products, there’s plenty of interests who would love a chance to get their hands on our spectrum. There’s no reason for this to happen, as we have a ready-made pool of new potential hams to recruit from!

Sanctimonious Preaching

It Was the Worst of Times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When you boil it down to the true essense, no matter the lofty press releases that the ARRL produces about the public service aspects, ham radio is just a hobby for most of us. I think we all get frustrated with aspects of the hobby (and the jerks who ruin it) at times, and we have different ways of dealing with it. If things get really bad, most hams can just turn off the radio or unsubscribe from the reflector full of loudmouthed trolls.

Side note: I don’t know what it is about the more technical hobbies (and professions), but they seem to attract a large contingent of zealous acolytes who could give the most rabid religious fundamentalists a run for their money. Disagreements often turn into the “intellectual” equivalent of a pissing contest, with all of the irrationality that implies. Particularly strident defenders of the faith see those who disagree with them as akin to a heathen atheist or a card-carrying Satan worshiper. There must be some pathology of the brain responsible for this kind of reaction. In some folks it manifests as fervent belief in their particular brand of religion, in others it shows up as a certainty in their unique knowledge of The Scientific Truth™.

Usually you get pissed, then you give yourself some downtime, spend some more time with the family, or play with a different hobby for a while. The problem comes when you start to get yourself more wrapped up in the hobby than usual. When your enjoyment and fate in the hobby starts to be tied to ensuring the success of others, it’s not quite as easy to pull yourself out without having a negative impact on others. The case in point for me is the difficulties with the 2nd kitting of the Willamette QRP transceiver. This project has been a source of great excitement and enjoyment for me (as well as others, I think). But now it feels like the albatross around my neck. My life is going though a lot of changes right now, and changes equals stress. The last thing I need right now is the added stress from a hobby project gone sour. It would be nice to be able to just brush aside the troubles, but I feel that would be a betrayal of those who are counting on getting what they paid for.

Truly, this is a bittersweet topic. If it wasn’t for all of the great times I’ve had and good friends that I’ve made, I would have probably already given up. But I feel that there have been too many positive effects from the project to let it end on a bad note. I’m praying that we can soon arrive at an outcome that satisfies most of the participants. Perhaps that will salvage some of my faith in humanity and will help to keep me from wanting to give up on these public projects.