It’s Not About Hara

There’s been a festering, ongoing social media battle over Hamvention, its new venue, the fairground in Xenia, and the old Hara arena.  It seems this has bubbled up to the surface again with the recent tornado disaster in Trotwood which severely damaged homes and the venerable, but severely dilapidated Hara Arena.

I won’t dispute that Hara was a dump.  It was a major dump.  It was abused over the years and its long tenuous financial history is available for anyone who wants to find it on the interwebs.  Despite being a dump, Hara was an ideal venue for the Hamvention.  Hamvention started there, grew with Hara even through its physical decline, and the legendary event arguably was molded and enabled by the capabilities the site offered.  Hara may be rebuilt and Hamvention may or may not return to Hara, but I’m not going to bet on it or even entertain the thought.

What bothers me is that some dismiss any commentary or criticism of the Xenia location as merely Hara Arena fanatics sore over the loss of Hara, or simply as complainers.  That’s not the case.  I’ll acknowledge that Xenia was likely the best choice out of a few choices at the time, but it’s just not well suited long term for the Hamvention.   There’s a lack of major highways and hotels nearby. The mud pit parking has become legendary.  The buildings are more suited to host livestock than technology.  The flea market is in the grassy track center, because, well, there’s no where else to put it.  And last, the venue doesn’t feel like the largest amateur radio gathering in the western hemisphere.  It feels like a county fair with amateur radio.

It’s not realistic to think Hamvention will return to Hara anytime soon.  I think what many of us would like to see is a realization that Xenia isn’t an ideal location, and it has changed the character of the event.  Xenia was a prudent, stopgap measure taken under difficult circumstances.  Now that the immediate threat to the future of the event has passed, the Hamvention powers that be should seek a better venue for Hamvention and not settle for Xenia.

This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

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My Last Post Ever Regarding ARRL?

In the past I’ve been a strong proponent of ARRL.  I often mentally tied the past and future success or failure of amateur radio to the organization.  I’ve come to the conclusion that this just isn’t the case, and in my evolving opinion the organization is becoming less relevant as time goes on.  The elected leadership hierarchy to me seems archaic.  I tend to doubt the slate of new blood “change” candidates which got elected will change much, as long as the majority of ARRL leadership, and to some extent the general population of amateurs in the US, continues to have the demographic makeup that it does.  My life membership has essentially become a good deal on a perpetual magazine subscription, assuming that I don’t get hit by a bus anytime soon.  I’m convinced it’s non-centralized grass roots efforts from individuals that are going to make or break amateur radio in the coming decades.

So, one of my 2019 “amateur radio resolutions” is to stop worrying and pontificating about ARRL, and be that individual that leads my own grass root effort.

Meh

No doubt you’ve seen the recent ARRL proposal to increase Technician HF privileges and the expected ensuing online debate over it.  In general I’m not opposed to the proposal, however I find myself indifferent. As others have pontificated, it’s not much of a hurdle these days to upgrade to General to acquire more privileges.  I was very supportive of the code test elimination and various changes over the years that have simplified licensing.  However, to some extent I think we’re at a point of diminishing returns with benefits from licensing changes and privilege increases.  There’s perhaps one specific area I see the ARRL-proposed changes increasing on air activity: FT8.  If Techs are given HF digital privileges on lower bands, I suspect we’ll see a lot of Techs end up there, and stay there, like a lot of Techs do today with 2 meter repeaters, unfortunately.  With new radio amateur recruiting, participation, and retention, where should our focus be, what are the real stumbling blocks, and where is the opportunity?  It’s not privileges.  In thinking about the ARRL proposal, I’m kind of left thinking, “Meh.”

We need to look where the bulk of amateur technology hobbyist activity is today.  It’s the Maker movement.  These are intelligent, innovative, and inquisitive people who would be a great asset in amateur radio.  It’s often been said that amateur radio and its perhaps dated technology can’t compete with the Internet, Xboxes, and cell phones.  That may apply to your grandkids, but with Makers it’s not an issue.  Makers enjoy playing with retro technology, like Nixie tubes, for example.  They like building stuff and experimenting.  They also like cutting edge technology, like satellites.  Amateur radio has the perfect blend of retro and modern technology, and it has the opportunity to take Makers beyond the typical Maker fare of microcontrollers, single board computers, 3D printing, and robotics.  Unlike “preppers” coming into the hobby for a specific application for their own purposes, Makers will be active and contributing participants and arguably are more likely to advance the radio art, as amateur radio was intended to do.  But we need to have a culture that welcomes them, on their turf, and their venues, not just ours.

The Maker movement is a potential goldmine for amateur radio, one that needs to tapped, right now.  This goes beyond having an amateur radio display at a Maker Faire stocked with pamphlets.  If we really want to increase participation and new licensee retention, we need to pull out all the stops and target this demographic with technology, exhibitions, publications, and venues that tie amateur radio into their curiosities, interests, and projects.  We need to be seen as innovators, not preservationists or on air retirement communities.  There needs to be cultural change within amateur radio.  While more kilohertz for newcomers is nice, and fairly easy to implement, it’s not going to get sizable returns in participation and retention.  Targeting Makers will.

This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

Yet Another ARRL Opinion

For the first time in my amateur radio career, I’m beginning to look upon ARRL unfavorably.  About 15 years ago after I acquired a lifetime subscription, my grandfather chastised me saying I’d eventually grow tired of the League and would regret my subscription.  I’m sad to say I think that day may have come.

Over the years I’ve defended ARRL, in both in person conversations and online.  ARRL attracts a lot of haters, often unfairly, for wrong reasons.  For example, I’ve witnessed many hams hate ARRL, claiming they don’t like CW and worked to eliminate it, despite ARRL supporting code testing for Extra licensing in their FCC comments filings years ago, and offering daily code bulletins and practice over the air.  Despite ARRL’s faults and shortcomings, amateur radio would not be where it is today, and perhaps not even exist, if it wasn’t for ARRL.

With the recent Code of Conduct and censure incident and the proposed voting and membership changes, I’m left with the impression of an organization that is closed, secretive, adverse to dissent, and focused on self-preservation.  The Force of 50 debacle points to an organization eager to project to the public a disaster response “photo-op” image that neither the organization or the amateur radio service supports or deserves.  Over the years I’ve personally seen other examples that support these two impressions but never dwelled on them as ARRL garnered my utmost respect as I felt that the League, despite its flaws, in general was taking amateur radio in the right direction.  I no longer have that confidence in the organization.

While I could end my diatribe with the paragraph above, I really want to explore or ask, what is the solution to “fixing” ARRL?  ARRL does a great job with publications and education, contesting, and lobbying the FCC.  Does the large and seemingly complicated hierarchal governance structure really serve a purpose today?  It appears that structure is geared more towards emergency communications initiatives than an effective membership feedback vehicle or advancing the radio art.  Is this structure the problem and ARRL needs to be transformed into more of a flat, responsive, grass-roots kind of organization?

This article was originally published at Radio Artisan.

Answers to Top 10 Field Day Questions

Answers to the top 10 questions at Field Day, with questions omitted (and with 5 bonus answers):

 

15. Snakes.

14. Yes, I still hear the interference.

13. Behind that tree over there.

12. Because he knows his callsign and you don’t have to tell it to him three times.

11. Hit Return.

10. Hot.

9. Try rebooting it.

8. It doesn’t matter.  It’s not up high enough to have any directivity.

7. Just say QSL.

6. Rain.

5. Yes, this frequency is in use.

4. It’s on the sign right above the rig.

3. I filled it up an hour ago.  It’s good.

2. Yes, it’s done in the middle.

1. Hamburger.

 

This article was originally posted on Radio Artisan by a team of laptop-equipped squirrels.

Irony

The FCC issued Report and Order 17-33 which creates two new bands for amateur radio, 472-479 kHz (630 meters) and 135.7-137.8 kHz (2,200 meters).  As ARRL reported, it is a “big win” for amateur radio.  I’ve been waiting in anticipation for the 630 meter band as it’s an old yet new frontier for us.  With old Sol taking a bit of a nap for the past few years and perhaps for years or decades to come, lower frequencies are where we’re going to have to play for more fun.

There are a few caveats in using these bands.  The FCC is requiring radio amateurs be at least 1 km from electric power transmission lines using Power Line Carrier (PLC) systems on those bands.  PLC is a technology that uses low frequency signals on power lines to perform signaling and control functions, and often meter reading.  Amateurs will have to notify the Utilities Technology Council (UTC) of station location prior to operating on 630 and 2200 meters.  The UTC maintains an industry database for PLC operations.

Those who were around to experience the Broadband over Powerline (BPL) brouhaha around 2003 to 2005 may recall the UTC organization.  At the time BPL was billed by proponents as the next big thing in broadband Internet.  Amateur radio operators and ARRL argued vigorously against BPL, citing engineering and evidence that the HF signals on the power lines radiated into the ether and interfered with HF radio operations.  The FCC turned a blind eye to the issue.  Luckily market forces took out BPL as a viable broadband solution due to increasing bandwidth needs and numerous failed trials which uncovered its technical difficulties and business problems.  PLC and BPL are cousins, with PLC operating below 500 khz and HF BPL operating from 1.8 to 30 Mhz.

The UTC, several electric utilities, and a handful of BPL equipment vendors at the time claimed that BPL didn’t interfere with HF radio operations.  The explanations and claims baffled those of us experienced in wireless and RF engineering as it’s a fact that an unshielded conductor tens of wavelengths long, conducting RF signals, will radiate energy.  The math and science supported this and measurements in the field provided real life evidence.

The UTC notes the following about PLC operation:

“This Activity is established as provided for in the FCC Rules and Regulations, Part 90.35(g) (47 C.F.R. ‘ 90.35(g)) relative to PLC operation in the 10-490 kHz band, and the NTIA Manual of Regulations and Procedures for Federal Radio Frequency Management, in Part 8.3, under the heading “Notifications in the Band 10-490 kHz,” (see 47 C.F.R., Chapter III). Electric utilities are allowed to use power line carrier (PLC) transmitters and receivers for control signals and information transmission in the 10-490 kHz band without obtaining a license from the [FCC]. However, PLC users are not protected from interference from licensed radio transmitters.”

Part 90.35(g) states that PLC operates under Part 15.  With the distance separation and notification requirement for amateurs, the FCC has granted an unlicensed incidental radiating non-wireless service protection from a licensed wireless service.  This was essentially the case with BPL in the early 2000s with an unworkable process for resolving interference issues, and interference complaints from amateurs living in trial site areas languishing for months with no action.

With this latest frequency allocation to amateur radio and requirements for protecting PLC operations, the tables are turned.  It’s the electric utility industry, that once claimed power lines wouldn’t interact with wireless spectrum, that could potentially experience interference.  Undoubtedly many FCC staffers involved in BPL in the past are no longer at the agency and the electric utility industry has forgotten about the BPL fiasco and fail to realize the irony of needing to protect PLC from wireless.

All this being said, I’m not attempting to downplay or criticize the allocation of the two new bands.  I think it’s wonderful and I applaud ARRL’s success.  However, I hope amateurs wishing to enjoy these bands aren’t prevented in doing so.  While it’s unlikely a large number of amateurs will be excluded from operating due to PLC on high voltage transmission lines, PLC systems are used in meter reading applications in neighborhood power distribution systems.  Hopefully the majority of systems do not operate in the new 630 and 2200 meter amateur bands and we can peacefully coexist, unlike what occurred with BPL.

Study Finds Anomaly with Amateur Radio Operators

Results from a study published by University of California Berkeley in The Journal of Psychology found that amateur radio operators are 45% more likely than the general public to believe fake news articles or material with misleading or outright wrong claims.  Researchers weren’t specifically studying amateur radio operators, but discovered the correlation by accident.  The report noted:

“We tested over 15,000 adult subjects and recorded profiles of each person… the common attributes like age, race, ethnicity, etc. and also their likes, dislikes, hobbies, diets, habits, etc.  We discovered a strong and unexpected correlation with those claiming to be amateur or “ham” radio operators after running all of the data through an analysis using a recently developed Reverse Polish Bayesian algorithm.  The unexpected data correlation continues to have the research team puzzled and further study is warranted.”

There is currently no proven explanation for the correlation, however one plausible hypothesis has emerged, that exposure to high levels of radio frequency energy combined with very fatty diets and long periods of television viewing, with political and news programming exposure, causing the frontal cortex of the brain to rapidly atrophy.  Researchers are struggling to reproduce the characteristics as lab mice either die or become very disinterested when exposed to the combination of factors, especially when frequencies in the 3.5 Mhz range are used in experiments.

This article originally appeared in Radio Artisan.

Software

The brouhaha du jour in amateur radio is the Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) blacklisting scandal, for lack of a better term.  For those who haven’t read about this, you can get details over on Reddit here, here, and here.  The TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read) version of this is that HRD has been blacklisting customers who wrote negative reviews of their software.  The blacklisting manifested itself as denied support or disabled software.  As if that wasn’t enough, there are nasty tweets, threats of lawsuits, other bad stories about customer support, and even an excuse that the lack of judgement was caused by a prime employee suffering from diabetes and misadjusted prescriptions.  I’m not going to rehash the whole drama as you can follow the various links to get the lowdown.  (The one ham site that goes by three letters has 60 pages and counting of crowdbashing, and for once, rightfully so).

While the HRD allegations are pretty heinous, this sort of bad behavior in the amateur radio software world isn’t new or unique.  I’ve experienced it from various individuals and camps. I encountered a freeware logging software forum with a toxic culture where people openly and privately ridiculed others seeking support, and the software author condoned the culture with his silence.  Another freeware software suite has an openly arrogant software creator, with an ego the size of the moon.  He claimed his development process was essentially infallible, despite his user interface having flaws that a novice software development student could easily identify.  A freeware contest logging development team refused to give me any assistance in the workings of a protocol their software supports.  I was told I should go buy a commercial device that supported the protocol rather than attempting to write code to emulate it, because the device was cheap and they didn’t support homebrew endeavors.

For some reason, too many amateur radio software authors think offering free software to the community affords them the privilege of being arrogant to users.  How this apparent culture was created within a company profiting financially from sale and support of software, like HRD, is puzzling.  However, the HRD story illustrates in spades the problem of “free-as-in-beer” software.  HRD was originally offered by its creator as freeware.  Several years ago the source code was purchased by a commercial interest and it’s been commercially licensed software ever since.  If the project would have been open sourced rather than sold, support and development of the product would not have been dependent on one entity.  While freeware authors appear to be benefitting the amateur radio community, in the long term their refusal to open source their creations is detrimental to amateur radio as the community is left with software that gets sold, unsupported, or at the mercy of the whims or incompetencies of a single party.

This article was originally posted on Radio Artisan.

Opportunity

Maker Faire is a gathering of makers, essentially anyone who builds stuff such robots, electronics, clothes, tools, and equipment.  It’s a very heterogeneous culture of people young and old, and includes do-it-youselfers (DIYs), teachers, engineers, scientists, hackers, and geeks.  Think of Maker Faires as hamfests for makers.  I attended Maker Faire New York City this year, my first Maker Faire.  Think of Maker Faire NYC as the Dayton Hamvention of hamfests.

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Any drive into The City, as we call it around here, is adventurous.  This Faire was located at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) in Queens.  You couldn’t park anywhere near the event, but there were numerous public mass transit options and two offsite parking areas with shuttle buses.  We chose to park at Queens College and take the shuttle in.

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The Faire consisted of mostly outdoor and some indoor exhibits, including ones that are part of NYSCI.  I can’t do this event justice with the pictures I took, but there’s a pretty good slideshow on the Maker Faire site.

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The most popular area, at least judging by the line of people awaiting to enter, was the Radio Shack booth, believe it or not.  They had a build your own drone activity that people seemed to be falling all over themselves to get in.  If only Radio Shack could get lines like this in their stores.

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The coolest contraption in my humble opinion was a toasted cheese sandwich machine.

On the Faire map I was pleased to see an area labeled Amateur Radio.  I donned my baseball cap embroidered with my callsign, normally reserved for the annual Dayton pilgrimage.  The way the map was labeled, I expected to find a whole row of amateur radio stuff.  There was one booth with two pop up canopies, manned by perhaps four hams.  One side of the booth had a portable rig mounted in a plywood enclosure with some accessory boxes, perhaps a digital station.  The other side of the booth had two tables with components and some kids soldering.

I want to be careful not to diminish or criticize the efforts of these amateurs and the organization they represented.  After all, these guys made the effort and had an amateur radio booth (which is more than I can say for other organizations).  But admittedly I was disappointed.  I was really dismayed there weren’t more booths, especially considering the number of amateur radio operators there are in NYC, probably more in a five mile radius than I have in my entire rural county in PA.  This is undoubtedly the largest gathering of people on the east coast who are interested in how things work, how to build things, and they’re smart people.  Wireless for many makers is just a shield that you buy and plop on an Arduino or a USB dongle you plug into a Raspberry Pi.  Amateur radio has so much to offer.

ARRL needs to have an exhibit at this event, in a big way, and not in the fashion they do at Dayton.  There needs to be interactive hands-on displays by enthusiastic high energy amateurs.  Not hardcore contesters or DXers, but amateurs who build stuff and can talk about practical applications that these makers can relate to and integrate into their existing projects and pursuits.  Even CW displays would be interesting for this audience, it just needs to not be presented as a code proficiency course or a rite of passage, but something that is fun.  Retro tech intrigues these people.  Vacuum tubes would be considered cool by many makers, especially if you had some homebrew rigs built on plywood with filaments lit up and some RF meters dancing around or big old speakers crackling with the sounds of code or sideband coming from a direct conversion receiver.  Fox hunts.  This crowd would eat that up.  Make a crystal radio with six components.  There are plenty of high power AM stations in NYC that you can receive on a simple crystal radio.  Kids holding Arrow antennas and listening to a satellite passing over.  There’s just so much that could be done to showcase amateur radio at this and other Maker Faires, and draw people into the hobby.  We’re missing a huge opportunity.  Huge.

This article was originally posted on Radio Artisan.