Daily Archives: August 26, 2012

Third Order Effect

Ham radio isn’t a hobby – it’s about 400 hobbies. You can transmit computer signals, text, television, speech and other modes. You can assist in disasters, public service events and talk with the astronauts in the International Space Station. There are satellites that are dedicated to amateur radio, contests and then there are the local repeaters. Repeaters are used to increase the range of small low power transmitters used in cars or that are hand held. Repeaters tend to be like neighborhoods – you find one where you share interests and tend to favor that repeater. Most mornings on my way to work I talk with some of the same folks, which makes the drive much nicer.

The other day we were discussing how years ago there were many mail order electronics companies from whom you could purchase parts at bargain prices. They were kind of like the online computer stores of today, except that they sold resistors, capacitors and such rather than complete computer boards.

When manufacturing jobs left the United States, the people who worked in the factories lost their jobs – the primary effect. The people who worked at the places where these laid-off workers spent their paychecks were also affected – everyone from the restaurant where they ate to the babysitter who watched their kids when they went out. These are the second order effects. We do tend to recognize that these exist. However, what about the ripples that continue from there?

The bags of resistors we could buy by mail were the surplus parts that came from the manufacturers. Perhaps they finished a manufacturing run and no longer needed that specific type of transistor. Maybe the parts were ordered by accident or maybe while awaiting a backorder they placed a second order in order to get delivery in their required time frame. In any case, they ended up with surplus that they sold.

Someone started a business that bought the surplus from the manufacturer and made it available to others by mail. This meant jobs for those who worked for the surplus business, as well as the folks who manufactured the shipping boxes, the postal service and so on. Naturally all of the people in this market used their pay to make other purchases with their own second order effects.

We know that the loss of manufacturing jobs had significant impact on the economy, but here’s another issue. As a youngster, the availability of parts allowed me to experiment – not always successfully, but try things out nevertheless. I wanted to know how and why things worked the way they do. How does a transmitter work? What about a receiver? I remember building a crystal radio and later finding out that in the Second World War soldiers in prisoner of war camps built radios out of a safety pin, wire, a pencil lead and a razor blade. The only commercial item they needed was a set of headphones. How cool was that? How did they do that? That questioning has stayed with me all these years and has helped me immensely.

Compare that to today. With computers in everything from our phones to our automobiles, there’s a wealth of technology. Yet if you ask a teenager today how a video board works, they haven’t a clue. If you ask them how a USB flash drive – one of those key fob memory sticks – works, the same answer. Software? Firmware?

With the loss of manufacturing, with the loss of the “leftovers”, we no longer fuel the imagination in young people. Instead of encouraging them to ask questions and actively seek answers, we instead give them computer games that provide some mental simulation but not the type that will help them in the future.

I guess we gave up a lot more than we thought we did by saving a couple of bucks per product by having it assembled in Mexico, China or wherever.