Incentives and Licensing

Jeff Davis, KE9V, wrote in his weekly letter, Quintessence, about something we’ve all heard on the air, the roundtable discussing and lamenting about those who are not real hams.  He posits this is one unintended consequence of incentive licensing, where new amateurs tend to stay on repeaters and not upgrade to acquire HF band privileges, creating this us and them mentality.  Newbies will always be on repeaters and the real hams are on HF.

Incentive licensing was introduced in 1964 by the ARRL and FCC.  I got my ticket as a teenager in 1984, but I don’t recall hearing the term incentive licensing or angst about it until perhaps ten years ago.  It never really occurred to me that there was something before incentive licensing in amateur radio.  It was always what I knew amateur radio to be, even when I was a budding radio artisan in the 70s.  License classes were an integral part of amateur radio, much like color television is in every living room today.

The original motivation behind incentive licensing was to get amateurs to increase their knowledge and skill.  While in theory it makes sense, in practice I don’t think it’s been very effective.  Today you can find Extras who are, well, quite simply, numbskulls.  While the exams can test for specific isolated technical tidbits, they never were able to test for operating skills, uncover deep understanding of topics, or examine practical skills like soldering a connnector.  Some would argue the CW exam tested for operating skill, but in reality it didn’t.  It tested operators copying CW for a certain period of time but didn’t really test whether they could copy weak signals, send code, or have a QSO.  It certainly didn’t test whether they were proficient operators or good and wholesome people.  A review of FCC enforcement actions and on air monitoring in which violators and LIDs most often are code tested Extras provides empirical evidence that exams and incentive licensing aren’t always effective at determining good operators or weeding out those guys.

Over the years I’ve found that license class has little to do with the technical proficiency of amateurs.  The biggest factor I’ve found has been professional experience and formal education.  The most technically astute amateurs are, ironically, professionals in telecommunications, electronics, and engineering.  Often these folks have access to equipment and resources that let them expand their knowledge, and amateur radio is a secondary technical endeavor.  The best of these folks seed the rest of the amateur radio community with technical know how.

Personally I’ve found passing amateur radio exams to be trivial.  While I’m a telecommunications professional with some schooling in electronics, I’ve thought tests were fairly easy to pass with just simple question memorization and very little, if any, technical study.  I’m not saying I didn’t know the material.  I could draw a bipolar transistor amplifier circuit from memory and do the calculations on a whiteboard or explain modulation.  Passing a test was merely an inconvenient formality.  Advancing my knowledge and skills in amateur radio has never been driven by a test or advancing in license class, like the original intent of incentive licensing.  It certainly wasn’t driven by getting an extra 20 kHz of space on 20 meters at the time.  Increasing knowledge has been triggered by my interests.  I really got into CW when I saw others using it and saw how quickly and efficiently QSOs could be had, not because I had to pass a 20 WPM test.  I took up rig building when I saw others making simple rigs from 2N2222s and it seemed cool.  I’m exploring satellites now because I find relaying a radio signal through a little box orbiting the Earth intriguing.

If incentive licensing isn’t really motivating amateurs to learn more and increase their skills, what purpose does it serve, other than supporting a needless hierarchy, one implemented back when post-war middle-agers and old codgers were bucking free love and turn on, tune in, drop out?  I think incentive licensing in the US has outlived its usefulness, and it’s perhaps time to eliminate it — one test and license class to rule them all.  What is the worst that could happen, someone new won’t be destined for that local repeater and its accompanying unfair stereotypes, and will instead make a QSO on HF, perhaps get interested in CW, build a rig, and then work through satellites or do moonbounce…and become… the proverbial real ham?  

Callbook Wars

Last year QRZ.com made accusations that callsign database sites HamQTH.com and QRZCQ.com stole QRZ callbook data, citing planted fake callsigns in the QRZ database appearing in their databases.  Both HamQTH and QRZCQ denied the claims.  QRZ appears to have recently upped the ante, having contacted at least one software developer, N3FJP, requesting him to remove HamQTH support from his logging program, claiming “Programs that facilitate the use of HamQTH.com are, in legal terms, are participating in “contributory infringement.”  HamQTH on Facebook continues to deny copying QRZ data, though it’s been noted that the site accepts publicly submitted data, so the possibility of QRZ lifted data exists.  HamQTH founder, Petr, OK2CQR, in a Facebook post quoted from a private email exchange QRZ founder Fred AA7BQ, “Your service does not offer anything to the amateur radio community that isn’t available elsewhere, which makes you a parasite, enjoying the benefits of the hard work of others.”  The comment struck me as ironic as Petr has no advertising on the HamQTH website and he also contributes to the community the free CQRLog logging program, which is open source software.  To people who know what Petr has done, he is hardly a parasite.  QRZ, on the other hand, generates revenue by hosting content others write.

Several times I have run comparison queries between QRZ and HamQTH and have yet to find any unique QRZ data in HamQTH query results.  I’m not saying QRZ data doesn’t exist in HamQTH, it’s just that I haven’t found it and I haven’t seen evidence that the copying, if it occurred, is prevalent.  On the Facebook thread it was mentioned that email addresses have appeared in HamQTH profiles that may have come from QRZ.

After the claims by QRZ last year, the QRZ callbook listings for HamQTH founder OK2CQR (1) and QRZCQ founder DO5SSB disappeared.  DK5TX claims his QRZ profile was repeated edited without his knowledge when he linked to his HamQTH profile page.  (OK2CQR’s QRZ callbook entry reappeared a few days ago.)

While I should be concerned about copyright infringement, I have difficulty siding with QRZ in this dispute.  The information in QRZ is mostly information in the public domain and user contributed profile information was created by users, not QRZ personnel, though they created the system to store it and charge for XML access.  Email addresses of active radio amateurs can be easily harvested on the Internet by anyone and collected in a database.  Furthermore, I find the alleged QRZ manipulation of database data in retaliation disturbing.  As I indirectly attempted to illustrate in this satire piece earlier this year, QRZ is considered the de facto amateur radio callbook these days, and essentially has a monopoly.  QRZ’s dominant position dates back to the times when government agency radio amateur database data was difficult to acquire and process, before the Internet became mainstream and online query tools to government data became commonplace.  With this monopoly comes a responsibility, beyond generating paychecks for employees, but a responsibility to the community.  In my opinion it’s time to get this data in more open databases, and on sites that are not concerned with web clicks and revenue or those that host forums with often vitriolic exchanges that do not reflect well on amateur radio.

(1) http://hamqth.com/news.php, Posting from 20 June 2012

Freeware

Ham Radio Deluxe has announced that the final free version of HRD will be removed from their servers September 1, 2013.  After the HRD freeware product was sold by its author, it was converted to a commercial software product.  The current owner, W4PC, has stated that the freeware 5.x version will continue to be free, however they will no longer host the files for download and there will be no further development on the 5.x version.  Others may host the files for download free of charge.

I hate to keep sounding like a broken record, but the situation with HRD, and in particular with the 5.x freeware version, illustrates just why freeware is a problematic software model and ultimately a technological dead end for a hobby like amateur radio.  Luckily with HRD, development is continuing with the commercial product.

Do you use other freeware amateur radio programs?  Ask your favorite program authors if they would consider open sourcing their software.  If they don’t, ask them why not and what do they have to lose.

KQ?

wtf-catDid you ever hear a DX station calling KQ, all stuck together like a prosign, instead of calling CQ?  I’ve heard this several times in recent years and I’ve wondered what’s up with that.  Is it too difficult to throw the extra dit in there?

But I digress….

Misconduct and Consequences

Larry, W2LJ, recently wrote about a topic that all of us can identify with, the LID in a DX station pileup who ignores protocol and has no sense of manners.  They ignore DX requests for specific stations to respond and just blast the frequency, often with high power, until they get their contact.  The problem has existed for decades and is nothing new.  It’s one reason why I get turned off by DXing (despite dreaming of going on a high profile DXpedition someday), and it’s especially frustrating for a QRPer where timing and skill are much more important due to the power disadvantage.  Conversely, RF power often makes up for a lack of skill or manners, and the DX pileup LID makes a nuisance of himself to the point where the DX station can’t ignore him, and rewards him with a QSO.

The problem has been going on too long.  The reason it continues to exist is much like why we have email spam after nearly 20 years of the “mainstream” Internet.  There’s no cost associated it, and the bad behavior is rewarded.  The DX Code of Conduct is a great model for people to follow, but unfortunately it’s only the honest and polite people who follow it.  There must be consequences for bad behavior.

First off, DX stations need to stop rewarding these LIDs with contacts.  They need to call them out and let them know they’re not getting a contact during the DXpedition.  Perhaps we could create a specific Q signal that says “you’re blacklisted” to keep it short and sweet and avoid long on the air explanations.  Or they can work the station and not QSL the contact and let the station know through some means they got a non-QSL for their bad behavior.

Second, DX organizations and organizations like ARRL, CQ,  and perhaps RSGB need to maintain a “three strikes” policy.  If they receive evidence, such as recordings, of bad on the air behavior three times within a given period, the offender has awards stripped and they’re identified on a blacklist that can be accessed by high profile DXpeditions.  The minutia of appeals and reinstatement and the level of public notification can be debated, but I think the basic idea is sound and something that needs to be done.

This all may sound harsh, but in order to change bad behavior there needs to be consequences. All too often in amateur radio we don’t call out bad behavior and it affects the enjoyment of the hobby for the rest of us.  It’s time for the organizations who have the power to enforce consequences, to take action, rather than continue to provide rewards.

Why Are You Here?

The Newtown, Connecticut tragedy has naturally been dominating the news and conversation here in the US the past several days.  As happens after any horrific event like this, debates arise over the cause and how we can prevent such atrocities from occurring again.  Similar to previous school tragedies, this recent event involved guns and a troubled soul.  Predictably the media and the public debate homes in on gun control and mental health diagnosis and care.

I had a discussion with several of my amateur radio friends, all advocates of weapon ownership.  I own several weapons myself, though I limit my activities to sporting and don’t really get into personal protection.  One of my friends took the position that we need to equip teachers with weapons to prevent or lessen these now more frequent violent events we’re seeing in schools.  I countered that it’s not practical, besides raising a host of day-to-day safety issues, equipping teachers would require massive amounts of training to really be effective.  Weapons in the hands of the untrained are statistically more dangerous than beneficial, and training needs to go well beyond merely being able to hit a target.  Most people, myself included, just don’t have the time or inclination to get this training and maintain it.  It’s essentially a lifestyle, and one that I don’t care to live.  I don’t want to continually be preparing for the worst and have to carry a weapon in my daily activities.  To me it’s quite honestly a deplorable and depressing existence, one that we shouldn’t have to live in this day and age.

My friend responded that to an extent as an amateur radio operator, I do live that existence, preparing for disaster.  He saw amateur radio as part of a regime of self protection and preparation for bad times, and presumably got his license for just that purpose.  The difference between our perception of amateur radio immediately struck me, to the point that I had difficulty formulating a response.  I’m in amateur radio because I enjoy radio, not because it may help me get through a disaster or combat an enemy.

There is a sort of society that has developed in the US over the past several decades, one of a combination of “preppers”, doomsday-ers, cynicists and political prognosticators.  They have a rather apocalyptic outlook on life, where no one can be trusted, especially the government.  The ills of life can be tracked back to legislation, taxes, freeloaders, or merely those with opposing viewpoints.  These people seem to make it their mission to inject their mantra into day-to-day conversation, whether it’s at work, at church, or even on the air.  You often hear this tuning across the phone portions of our bands.  Often they feel some need to “educate” others, fire up outrage, or just spread their narrative of negativity, a tapestry of plausible but often incorrect quotes and statistics.

I sometimes think of my estranged father who past away two years ago at 62.  He often complained about the course of the country. His death was untimely and unexpected.  I don’t know whether he’s with a creator now, or if such a creator exists, but his death made me aware of the futility of agonizing over bad scenarios when our time here is so limited.  While we certainly want to make this a better place for future generations, does this agonizing over what is possible but not probable serve a purpose?  Looking at this another way, what good is stocking up on guns and ammo if you’re very overweight and you get taken out by a heart attack?

I’m here to enjoy life.  We’re beyond feudal societies, the threat of barbarians invading, and drinking out of lead cups.  The world is not coming to an end, not from this tragedy in Connecticut, not from whether I may have to register my weapons, not because we don’t teach religion in schools, not because I have to pay taxes, not because any particular person is President, not because some state legalized smoking a plant or allows any two adults to marry, and certainly not because someone says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.  I don’t want to spend my life as though everything is going to hell in a handbasket or live in continual fear or disdain of some enemy, real or manufactured.  But we seem to have a segment of our society living in this bubble or abyss, determined to pull the rest of us into it.

Why are you here, here on Earth?  Is it to live or just survive?  Perhaps you are concerned about the world, but are you concerned about it for everyone, or just for yourself, your wealth, and your rights?  We have a problem that needs fixed.  Venturing further into the darkness that led to it won’t solve it.  We need to focus on living, and not just survival.

Freeware versus Open Source

Today I was getting caught up on my reading of QST.  I had gotten two issues behind for various reasons, and was browsing the November issue.  In the editorial there was a quote from a popular contest logging program author implying that their software is open source.  I was really puzzled by this as I know for a fact that the software isn’t open source and I re-verified on the web that the source code isn’t freely available and is only given to select people upon request.  This software quite simply isn’t open source, it’s freeware.

There seems to be a lot of confusion within amateur radio over just what is open source,  and I’ve even seen amateurs berate others for wanting open source software because it’s thought someone wants a free lunch or wants to copy a product.  This couldn’t be further from the truth and it really shows an ignorance of the modern software world.  Amateur radio collectively has never really understood or embraced open source, opting for freeware offerings since the days of DOS.   Freeware software authors are often put on a pedestal in the community as selfless contributors doing a great service.  Most have good intentions, but freeware is not necessarily a good thing.

Freeware is not free and is a technological dead end.  Now that I’ve lost half my readers and puzzled the rest, please stick around and I’ll explain.  But first, what is freeware? Freeware is software that you can install without paying any licensing fee.  You can use it all you want and share it with others, but you can’t sell it, reverse engineer it, or modify it.   Freeware is not open source software.  You do not get the source code for freeware.

So how could freeware not be a good thing, or even a great thing?  It’s written by someone, one person or perhaps a team of people, giving their time and energy to a project that they derive no income from and get only satisfaction and accolades for providing a free tool to a group of users.  And, did I mention it’s free?  So, we should really be thanking them and indebted to them, right?  To an extent, yes, but long term they’re doing a disservice to the community.

Freeware “sits” in between commercial and open source software.  It’s my belief that commercial software is more beneficial to amateur radio than freeware.  With commercial software there is a motivation (revenue) to keep the product up to date and functional and not let it whither on the vine like some freeware projects have over the years.  With a commercial product, the desire for revenue drives quality and responsiveness to the user community.  With open source, quality drives usage and community participation.  If the product is popular, but quality later suffers, the community can fork a new initiative to maintain and improve the software based on the original project’s source code.  With open source there is a built-in mechanism to bypass lousy or absent code writers, or unfriendly supporters of software like we’ve sometimes seen in the freeware world.

Development of new features in the freeware world is usually at the whim of one person.  This can also be said of open source software, however because the source is available, anyone with the requisite motivation and skill can modify the code and not involve the original developers at all if needed.  Living within the walled garden of freeware is great until the gardener decides to stop maintaining the flowers. The same could be said of commercial software, but for better or worse money is a great motivator.

Often de facto standards develop around a piece of software.  This isn’t really the case with a logging program, but there’s a least one digital mode and one messaging system that have developed proprietary standards around them.  To interoperate with these standards one has to reverse engineer the standard based on the behavior of the application.  In the case of a messaging system, and one that is centralized, a homogeneous software environment can fall apart when a latent bug rears its ugly head.

So what is the reason for someone to offer freeware and not open source applications?  I’ve often pondered this question and can come to only one conclusion, a desire to someday go commercial with the product.  With open source, the intentions of the author are quite clear and in the open.  When a freeware software author refuses to open source their project for fear of it being copied and a competing product being created, they don’t quite understand that this sometimes happens in the open source world and as mentioned above, is known as a fork.  It usually occurs when someone feels they can do a better job improving the software and meeting the needs of the community.  Forks are often short-lived but in some cases a fork will become more popular than the parent it was spawned from and it becomes the de facto parent project.  This is a risk, but ultimately it’s a better process as it results in a sort of software Darwinism.  Forking is not plagiarism, as long as the original code is attributed to the original authors, and forking is an accepted practice in the open source community.  Nit-picky “armchair programmers” who are often the bane of freeware authors have nothing to complain about with open source as they can improve the software themselves or be put in their place when they discover they’re not really skilled programmers.

Open source enables collaboration.   I had to put considerable time into developing a specific feature on my open source Arduino keyer project.  If I would have had the source for a logging program that implemented this particular protocol, it would have saved me much time in developing this feature, or I could have even written and contributed a module for a logging program to implement the feature rather than having to write what I did for the Arduino in a roundabout way.  Arguably the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today, or perhaps not even exist, without open source software and the collaboration it creates.  Undoubtedly amateur radio has missed out on some collaborative opportunities over the years due to a lack of open source software.

I think it’s time for amateur radio freeware authors to take their commitment to the community a step further, embrace what became popular in the mainstream software development world two decades ago and open source their code for a long term benefit to amateur radio.