Tag Archives: ham radio

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.

Goodbye to an Old Friend

Long before my time, Theodore and Milton Deutschmann started a business to cater to the new field of wireless—specifically, amateur radio. They called their business Radio Shack.

rs

Why? Ships were among the first to adopt wireless communications, and since early transmitters created a signal by generating a huge spark, there was the risk of starting a fire. To minimize risk, the radio equipment was placed on the main deck, in a separate small building, which came to be called the radio shack.

Ham radio operators (no one knows for sure why they’re called “hams”) tended to call the place where their radio station was located as the radio shack, or ham shack. Amateur radio was shut down during both world wars, but hams returned to the air as soon as it was legal to do so. The end of the Second World War provided an added advantage with huge selection of inexpensively priced military surplus radio equipment.

When I was a youngster, there were a few radio stores around town where you could buy components or tools. However, periodically the mailman would deliver a catalog from Lafayette, Allied, or Olsen Electronics. The Sears Christmas toy catalog couldn’t compete with these for the pure lust they generated. I remember building a set of Knight Kit walkie talkies, purchased from Allied.

In the late 1960s, Allied began opening stores in malls, outcompeting most the other companies, which gradually faded away. Allied purchased Radio Shack, but the combined Allied-Radio Shack was determined to be too monopolistic, and the two companies were split up. Allied became the industrial supplier while Radio Shack stayed as the retailer in the malls. Radio Shack sold things that you couldn’t find elsewhere. The TRS-80 computer was one of the first personal computers. They introduced a pocket-sized computer and one of the first laptops. Radio Shack had a niche market—the nerds—but nerds were paying $2,500 for a radio shack computer before the general population knew personal computers existed.

You could find all the parts to build a stereo from tuner to speaker wire. How about a multimeter and a soldering iron? They sold CB radios, of course, but also some ham radio transceivers. Most everything was manufactured by someone else, but carried one of Radio Shack’s brand names.

If you were working on a project and need a 47 ohm resistor (usual price, 10 cents—Radio Shack price, two dollars) you could drive to the mall on a Sunday and finish your project before dinner, even on a Sunday afternoon. Yeah, their components were overpriced, but the convenience made it worth it.

Then, one fateful day, the brainless
pencilnecks management of Radio Shack decided to sell the same products (e.g., cell phones) that you could buy for less money at Best Buy, WalMart, RiteAid, etc.

I’ve been told by Radio Shack managers that the really profitable part of the store was the parts section with those overpriced resistors, capacitors, and semiconductors. You know, the ones you could buy whenever you needed them? The parts selection went from a large section of wall to a metal cabinet with multiple drawers. I think the cabinet got smaller, but in any case, there were fewer and fewer parts available. Cell phones—no problem. Parts? Sorry.

I hear that Radio Shack is still sort of, kind of, in business, but you couldn’t prove it by me. The last local store is now empty. Like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, you only hear about someone who knows someone whose brother-in-law saw one. It’s too bad—they could have coasted a few more years just on what I spent there.

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.

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.

Neither Fit for Man nor Beast

I repaired the antenna where the dog had chewed it. I had the kids, the tools and the supplies out in the semi-dark and full dark under the not-so inviting glare of the halogen work lights. Naturally a problem like this couldn’t happen during the long days of summer. Nope, it waits until the early darkness days of fall.

The Antenna Eating Dog from Hades

In any case, I fixed it.

I buried as much of the new cable as I could under the mulch so as not to attract the dog.

I used black duct tape to tape what I could to the antenna mast. So he wouldn’t be able to get at it.

Then to discourage the dog from hanging around the antenna, I placed mothballs around its base.

My son worried that the dog might eat them. I told him not to worry, that dogs found the smell repulsive.

As I cleaned up the tools and supplies, I realized that some of the smell of the mothballs had clung to me.

My mind immediately went to the days of my youth and visiting great aunts and uncles and having that pervasive smell of mothballs. How the smell would cling to you forever.

I don’t know if the smell will keep the dog away, but I’m glad the other end of the connection is in the house.

Because I’m certainly not going out anywhere near that smell.