Tag Archives: Amateur radio

Radio – STEM Applied

Too many things today, in my opinion, are observer activities rather than ones that encourage participation. The term “couch potato” was coined to describe the sentient state television induced on humans.  Commercial radio and television behave the same way whether we’re involved or not; I’ve never intentionally watched a soap opera, but they are broadcast nevertheless.

However, there are participatory activities; you can probably guess where this is going.

My favorite means of interacting with radio is Amateur Radio; why “amateur?” because ham radio operators, by law, cannot charge for providing communications via ham radio. Why “ham” radio? No one knows; there are dozens of theories, but none of them can be proven.

So why does amateur radio even exist, and how is it different from CB, Family Radio Service, or, for that matter, cellphones?

sam-cristoforetti-01-320

Samantha Cristoforetti (Amateur Radio Call Sign IZ0UDF) is an Italian European Space Agency astronaut, Italian Air Force pilot, engineer, and Star Trek fan. 

Amateur radio is a service, defined by federal law (the Code of Federal Regulation, Title 47, Subchapter D, Part 97). As a service, this places certain obligations and requirements on those who are licensed. The first portion of the law explains its basis and purpose; I’ll give you the condensed version.

First, amateur radio is valuable because it provides noncommercial communications, particularly during emergencies. As a friend used to say, amateur radio exists to support emergencies. If there’s no emergency—have fun.

When Puerto Rico got hit (twice) by Hurricane Maria, virtually every mode of communications was disrupted, and that means cellphones, internet, wired telephones, television, etc. FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Administration) and relief organizations like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, etc. relied on amateur radio operators for communications. (one of my colleagues provided communications and has an excellent brief, if you’re interested.)

Second, amateur radio is intended to advance the art of communication. Make no mistake, it is an art; in far too many places,  it is a lost art.

The purpose of communications is, and should be, the means to share ideas. Far too often, though, it has been replaced by people who talk just to hear their own voice.

Third, the law addresses advancing skills for both communications and technical capabilities.

While ham radio uses voice for communications and Morse code, there are dozens of digital data modes, several ways of sending television, and some that use technology originally developed by a Nobel laureate astrophysicist, who just happens to be a ham.

Fourth, to expand the number of trained operators, technicians and electronics experts.

Amateur radio requires a license. However, having proven an understanding of electronics theory, rules, regulations, and proper operating procedures, hams can design and build their own equipment, able to transmit up to 1,500 watts. (By comparison, CB is 4 watts and cellphones 0.2 watts.)

Fifth, Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

Unlike the trolls on social media, hams are licensed and therefore not anonymous. In fact, standard practice is to follow up a radio conversation with a “QSL” card to confirm the contact. The card may be a physical post card, or it may be electronic; in either case, it includes the ham’s full name and address plus technical details. Hams collect this information and are proud of how may other hams in other countries they’ve contacted. .

Incidentally, the International Space Station has both a Russian and an American ham radio station. When their workload permits, astronauts schedule time to talk with children at their schools to encourage interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Unfortunately, with the shuttle traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, conversations are short. At that speed, the shuttle is overhead for only about 8 minutes. However, to a seventh grader who gets to talk to an astronaut, what an exciting 8 minutes they are.

Want to know more? Try the American Radio Relay League , email me (steve@sfnowak.com) or add a comment; I’ll try to give a good answer that we can share with others.

All th best, or as we hams say, “73!”

Swearing Off

Over the years, I have sworn off various things. Actually, it was more of a worn off than sworn off. Television programs lost quality, although there was a vast increase in quantity thanks(?) to cable. Too many choices, not have enough time to actually follow a series, so now it’s the occasional Netflix.

I do watch the morning news for the weather forecast and traffic report. Unfortunately it seems to be 80 percent commercials, so I have to pay strict attention while shaving or else I miss it.

I used to love computers, which led to a fascination with the internet. Most of what is available online is best left alone. Let’s just say that it’s a bit worse than a naked stroll through a tick infested patch of poison ivy complete with brown recluse spiders and venomous snakes. I admit that I deny reality and look for decent content. Unfortunately, the best I find are things like YouTube videos showing me how to adjust the carburetor on my weed eater.

So, what does that leave? Reading, writing, experimenting, ham radio, guitar, drums, or puttering around the house.

All things considered, much better choices.

Disaster Communications

This past weekend, amateur (ham) radio operators in the Western Hemisphere participated in an annual emergency exercise called Field Day. In the event of a disaster, regular communications is often disrupted. Not only can cellular equipment be damaged, but the system can be overloaded by increased usage; in some cases, cellular communications can be limited to essential personnel ONLY by FEMA.
Most home telephones (for those who still have them) are not independent circuits, but are part of the house’s internet/cable television system. If power is lost, anyone with a wireless telephone won’t be able to use it.
Handling short range communications via amateur radio is relatively easy. Field Day is to practice as to how long range communications can be ensured without relying on existing systems. Our local club set up seven radio stations at a local park; antennas designed for the various operating frequencies were strung from trees, with the highest being at least 60 feet off the ground. The radios—along with computers, and the all-important coffee maker—were powered by solar cells or generators.
The actual communications portion of Field Day began at 2:00 PM on Saturday and continued around the clock. During that time, over 700 other stations were contacted; most were other stations set up for the drill, but there were amateur operators from around the world that made contact with us as well.
Most of us hope never to have a fire, but we have smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and fire insurance. The few of us that do have a fire are relieved to have the additional protection. The same holds true for amateur radio’s role in communications. It’s not needed every day, but when it is needed, it can be a life saver.
The best part? Hams often arrive with their own equipment and provide the service at for free. THAT is the reason it’s called the Amateur Radio Service; hams cannot be paid for the services they provide.

The Plight of a Blogger

For several years now, I’ve been writing this blog. My original intent was to stir up debate—to encourage people to think and respond. Sometimes, I’d write strictly to get a reaction, because I LOVE critical thinkers. Somewhere, deep inside me is a teacher, but one who unfortunately lacks patience with young people.

However, even though I speak of great thinkers, I confess, if I could, I’d be the next Dave Barry, except that he and I are almost the same age. I love his ability to look at any normal situation and point out how it’s actually insane. Well, maybe not insane, but nevertheless, totally funny.

So, after careful analysis, I’ve concluded that real people—like you and I—are too tired at the end of the day to engage in meaningful Sophratic intercourse, because we’ve used our last pathetic brain cells to tell our children why they must (X) or cannot (Y).

So, the best I can offer is that after work today, both my teenagers came out and helped me repair my ham radio antenna, which had been downed by a very large dead branch. I tried out the radio and lo and behold, everything worked! Neither is fond of ham radio, but neither complained about helping.

My antenna. Can't see it in the trees? How about that!

My antenna. Can’t see it in the trees? How about that!

Life is not usually about the grand victories, just little, precious, and important ones.

So—thanks, kids. You made my day.

(If you were expecting great thoughts—re-read the above. Kids helping parents is a great and wonderful thing.)

QSL

Ham radio operators traditionally exchange cards after making a radio contact, an expected courtesy. These “QSL” cards get their name from the “Q” sign – three letter shorthand signals. Back in the days of Morse Code only, three letters beginning with “Q” and not followed by “U” were used to convey various questions and answers. “QSL?” meant can you confirm you received? “QSL” without the question mark meant, I confirm.

I hadn’t been as active on the ham bands as I would have liked, so I hadn’t ordered any QSL cards in a while. For those contacts I did make I designed and printed my own QSL cards, but they were just not right. Actually, I printed and sent fewer than I owed.

Recently I broke down and ordered some professionally printed cards. As the older guys who used to print these have retired, younger guys took over and I had to find one. I did, and he put together a great card for me. (Hams, if you’re interested – contact Glade at www.gggraphicsstore.com.)

It’s amazing how – over 8 years – a few contacts here and there can add up. I’m busy now, catching up on filling in, labeling and addressing the cards that I owe.

I wonder if I have enough stamps…

Hey, 1980s!

shack

I’ve been thinking about Radio Shack’s Super Bowl commercial, in which the clerk answers the phone and tells a co-worker that the 1980s called and they want their store back.

Radio Shack goes back to the beginning of the 20th century when it was aimed at ham radio operators. The term “radio shack” (vice the trademark) refers to the location of a two way radio station; in the early days of “wireless” the radio shack was a separate structure built on the deck of a ship. Since radios utilized a spark gap, it was deemed wise to keep the sparks away from flammable cargo.

To this day, ham radio operators still call their operating position the radio shack, or just the shack.

I thought back to the 1980s. Radio Shack had one of the best lines of computers. They sold pocket sized computers (I even wrote a book about how to use them). They had lots of electronics parts. You could buy antenna cable by the foot from a large spool. They had their own brand of ham radios.

My father used to worry that I’d spend all my money at Radio Shack.

Today, with a few exceptions (such as “Make” items and Arduino microcontrollers) almost everything you see at Radio Shack, you can find at other stores like Best Buy or even Walmart. I used to stop at Radio Shack, just to see what they had, and invariably bought something. I still do, but my stops occur every other month rather than every other week.

So how’s that working out for them?

In the late 1980s Radio Shack I believe was profitable. Its stock sold for $8.00 a share – not its highest, but certainly better than today’s $2.26 a share.

Maybe they should have kept the old business model.

 

 

Anonymity or Identification?

One of the problems with the internet and the World Wide Web is that anyone can say anything about anything.

Anonymously.

Courtesy disappears completely when people can hide behind “squirrelbrain321.” It makes the cable news talk shows seem downright civil by comparison.

American Radio Relay League - 100 years of Service www.arrl.org

American Radio Relay League – 100 years of Service http://www.arrl.org

My son asked me the other day why I liked talking with people via ham radio when it’s possible to connect to people all over the world via the internet.

I originally said because hams tend to have more in common – a technical and science orientation. Some degree of intelligence – at least enough to pass the license examination. Oh, and at least a common interest in radio communications.

Later I realized that another reason is that most hams try to interact in a friendly and collegial way. There are always a few jerks in any group, but they are in the minority.

Why do hams interact this way? Because each of us has a unique identifier – a call sign, that we’re required to transmit every ten minutes and at the end of every radio conversation. If you don’t have a call sign, no one will talk to you. If you make up a call sign, you get discovered pretty quickly. Break the rules and you can lose your license (and end up with a hefty fine.)

Oh, and the Federal Communications Commission can isolate where a signal is coming from quickly and accurately if you decide not to play by the rules.

Since hams have to identify themselves and have something to lose, it’s in their best interest to play well with others. Best of all, nobody seems to mind. It’s not a burden to be polite.

I understand that there are many good reasons to protect anonymity on the internet, however, enabling people to be abusive jerks isn’t one of them.

Ham Radio Kind of Day

Hams can be found anywhere. NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, Expedition 24 flight engineer, uses a ham radio system in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station.  Courtesy NASA

Hams can be found anywhere.
NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, Expedition 24 flight engineer, uses a ham radio system in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station.
Courtesy NASA

I went to the hamfest in Virginia Beach, VA today. No, it’s not a meeting about pork products – it’s an opportunity for amateur radio operators (hams) to get together and buy or sell equipment.

I like looking for “treasures” at garage sales and thrift shops, although for many, the statement “As is, no refunds” means “It’s broke and parts aren’t available.” Hamfests seem to be different. One reason is that ham radio equipment is meant to be experimented on, so repair information and parts tend to be available. Today, however, I was less inclined to buy a radio that needed repairing and more interested in tools and parts to finish up some of the projects I’ve been working on. I was successful.

After getting home, I set about on some of the to-do’s that needed attention, pausing to flip on my radio. In a matter of (literally) seconds I was engaged in a short conversation with a ham radio operator in Serbia.

I plan on adding a nap and then cooking out on the grill. That’s my kind of day.

Emergency Preparations

hurr

It’s now June, so Hurricane Season is officially upon us, although if you live in Oklahoma, and your calendar wasn’t blown away with the rest of your house, you might not be impressed.

They say that the best way to prepare for a disaster is to have a plan. On the other hand, they also say that all plans become ineffective once the first incident occurs. Believe it or not, this is not contradictory. In many cases, the planning process is what’s important.

At our house we have emergency supplies from flashlights to dog food. There’s a battery operated television and a generator sufficient to power the refrigerators, the microwave and a window air conditioner. There’s also extra cans of gas and bottles of drinking water, and of course the ham radio equipment.

Even with all that, tonight, I’m going to sit down with my family and discuss what we should do in the event of a storm. In that discussion, I expect that some of the things I haven’t planned for will come up. Even more importantly, everyone will have a better understanding of what we plan to do so when the plan falls apart, there’s a better chance at arriving at a successful alternative.