The Idea Factory

The Idea Factory by John Gertner tells the story of Bell Labs from the 1930s to 1990s.  Bell Laboratories was the research arm of AT&T, the US phone company that had a monopoly position for decades, providing local phone service, long distance, and telecommunications equipment.  I just finished the book yesterday, and I highly recommend it. download Bell Labs was responsible for so many innovations and discoveries it is mind-boggling. In fact, it’s difficult to find a modern device or technology Bell Labs didn’t have some involvement in or influence on.  Some of the things they accomplished include inventing the transistor and solid state electronics, developed microwave communications, created the Unix operating system, created automated electronic switching of telephone calls, developed fiber optics, authored information theory which lead to the creation of the digital computer, developed integrated circuits, created lasers, launched satellites, invented solar cells, and designed cellular telephone.  Bell Labs was perhaps the greatest collection of inventors, scientists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, academics, and metallurgists ever assembled.  What made Bell Labs so unique and so successful?  Some reasons include:

  1. Bell Labs researchers understood how and why the technology worked.  It was a departure from “cut and try” inventing, like that of Edison.
  2. All employees could talk to and mingle with any other employee, and the buildings and corporate culture was designed to insure this interaction.  Junior researchers could bounce ideas off of senior (and often famous) employees in hallways, meeting rooms, and even in dinners in their home living rooms.
  3. There was no direct motivation to produce usable, profitable products.  Some technology research, like the laser, even had no identifiable problem to solve or real life application at the time.
  4. There was no pressure for researchers to seek funding or grants.  Funding came from revenue from the long distance and local telephone service operating companies of AT&T.
  5. Research projects that were not bearing fruit could be ended without damning the researcher.
  6. Researchers were free to pursue their own side projects and interests, and were actually expected to take on projects other than their direct assignments.
  7. Bell Labs shared all technology and research with the public, due to an agreement with the US government in exchange to preserve its monopoly.

From the start of research to use in “The System” as they called the Bell System, was usually 20 to 30 years.  Technology and equipment were designed to last 40 years, or more.  Bell Labs was split from AT&T after Divestiture in 1984 and is now a shadow of itself, a division of Alcatel Lucent, still in the buildings in Murray Hill, NJ where the transistor was invented.  Their innovations continue to live on in most electronics and communications we use today. Gertner covers the technologies and inventions of Bell Labs, skillfully and accurately describing them in a way that non-techies can understand but also resonates with technical geeks like me.  More importantly he goes in depth into the history of the people that made it all happen, people like Claude Shannon, Mervin Kelly, John Pierce, and William Shockley, not only talking about their accomplishments but also their culture, family, struggles, idiosyncrasies, and failures. The book ends with somewhat of an indirect commentary on the demise of Bell Labs and the irony in that the technology they created led to Silicon Valley and the bubble/IPO/get rich quick and quarterly corporate financial results mentality we have today.  It’s no longer possible to achieve the monumental discoveries in major leaps like Bell Labs accomplished.  Unfortunately we have resigned ourselves to incremental improvements focused mainly on selling products, and not the pursuit of pure science and technology, which ultimately leads to better products and improvements in our lives.  Gertner makes note of the outstanding accomplishments of Bell Labs in light of the relationship with AT&T, the government, and the monopoly that was maintained, noting that it shows the tight relationship between government and capitalism.  I think there are lessons to be learned by both sides of the political spectrum from this, in regards to government involvement and regulations, and large corporations, both of which are often demonized today. The Idea Factory doesn’t specifically mention amateur radio, but undoubtedly many radio amateurs worked at Bell Labs.  I think the book and the story of Bell Labs offers some lessons for us, however.  While none of us will have grand accomplishments like Claude Shannon, we can be be innovators, be creative, and pursue technology and science for merely the sake of pursuing it.  Most of the major Bell Labs researchers came from modest means, often in rural America.  The next Brattain or Bardeen may be that young kid in our midst who is interested in radio, astronomy, science fiction, or microcontrollers.  We need to not be satisfied with just being operators of radio technology, but understand it and experiment, and create. My writing can’t do Bell Labs or The Idea Factory justice, however if you’re into technology and innovation, I highly recommend this book. This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

Dayton 2015 – Part 2 of ?

(…continued from Part 1)

This year I stayed in downtown Dayton, at the Dayton Marriott.  It was my first experience driving in downtown Dayton as last year I stayed at a hotel close to Hara north of town.  Dayton has obviously seen better days, and folks walking the streets living in poverty is a common sight.  Driving through downtown Friday morning I wondered what the locals thought of all the vehicles with antennas driving by for one weekend out of the year.  Do they know anything about amateur radio?  The word Dayton to us means amateur radio Mecca, but to them Dayton is just the place they live day in and day out, trying to eek out a living.  They were likely born here, will die here, and probably will not get to see much of the world outside of Dayton.  I think back to my childhood growing up in backwoods Pennsylvania, and I’m thankful for the people and opportunities I had that made me successful and steered me away from several perhaps less fortunate alternative realities.  Amateur radio was undoubtedly a positive influence, one that got me to where I am technically and professionally today.

Dayton has overhead electric wires for trolleys.  I can’t recall ever seeing this in my travels.  I didn’t see any trolleys, however there were several city buses using the overhead electric wires.  I wondered what it would take to equip an electric car with poles to attach to the electric lines and and get free energy for your vehicle (evil grin).   IMG_5696

Electric Avenue

Last year I promised myself that in 2015 I would spend less time on the flea market and more time on the floor and in forums.  I was partially successful, attending one additional forum this year, the Clandestine Spy forum.  This was a standing-room only presentation covering the equipment and techniques used by the Resistance during WWII.  There were a lot of photographs.

The AMSAT forum covered all the activities and projects the organization is working on, of which there are many.  In the Fox 1 program there are four or five satellite projects in progress and at various phases.  The big news was the potential for a geosynchronous payload, something satellite aficionados have been fantasizing about for decades.  The amount of work that goes into these projects from an engineering, fundraising, political, and project management perspective is mind-boggling.  It can’t be understated how complex this is.  It is indeed rocket science.  The expertise and human resources behind all this is impressive, and I can’t imagine the amount of time AMSAT volunteers and officers spend on this, as most undoubtedly have day jobs in engineering, technology, and science fields. IMG_5710

AMSAT Forum

One speaker in the AMSAT forum presentation touched upon something that really struck a cord with me and others.  Kids often see amateur radio operators as just operators.  What really sparks interest in kids are experimenters and experimentation.  What AMSAT is doing is experimentation, and at an extreme level.  Space is interesting to kids, but it’s difficult to be hands on with it due to the very nature of it, and these satellites and the projects AMSAT is leading gives them access to this.  AMSAT goes beyond providing flying repeaters for amateurs, but also partners extensively with universities, government agencies, and K-12 schools. IMG_5712

Where to find Fox 1

This is not meant to belittle other activities within amateur radio, but I don’t think most people realize just how complex and far-reaching the activities of AMSAT-NA and other AMSAT organizations around the world are, and the benefit this offers to amateur radio today and into the future.  While ragchewing, contesting, and DXing are traditional staple activities within amateur radio, the work of AMSAT has real world impact, and this is a vehicle for getting new people into amateur radio, ones that will likely stick around for the long haul.  Case in point, sitting behind me during the presentation were two young guys, both from Virginia Tech and recently licensed.  They are involved in an AMSAT project writing software for one of the birds.  In talking with them it was clear they were very intelligent and they had a passion for what they were doing.  Undoubtedly they will get high-paying engineering jobs upon graduating.  Will they ever pick up a microphone or CW key?  Maybe not, but satellite work has them hooked and it looks great on a resume. As one AMSAT speaker half jokingly quipped, there is no free launch. All of this costs money, and a lot of it.  AMSAT is continually seeking donations and new members.  With my annual membership running out, I decided to take the plunge and sign up for a lifetime membership.

The Ballonsat forum was quite interesting and was well attended with a good number of movers and shakers who frequently launch, track, and recover balloons and payloads.  A new area covered was pico balloons which are smaller balloons with extremely lightweight and small payloads.  Several people have been launching these around the world with great success, some traversing the globe five to ten times.

Friday night I attended the DX Dinner and got to network with movers and shakers in the DX world.  It was worth the cost of the meal as I won a Comet antenna analyzer door prize.  Not surprisingly, K1N was announced as the the DXpedition of the year.

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DX Pileup

While I lamented about about flea market Neanderthals in the first part of this article, there were positive social aspects to the Hamvention.  One morning walking in the crosswalk across the road going into Hara I observed an attendee thanking a black police officer stationed in the street for his service as a police officer.  At lunch I could strike up a friendly conversation with anyone, total strangers.  Folks stopped me to take a picture of my Morse code key tee shirt, many commented and laughed about it.  There continues to be a sense of camaraderie in amateur radio.  For this I’m thankful. IMG_5714

Flea Market Pedestrian Mobile

The ARRL area was superb.  ARRL folks should be commended on the layout and organization of their area.  They have all the bases covered and all booths within the area were well staffed.  I brought a stack of QSL cards in for DXCC checking.  The staff there did a great job of helping me out, after figuring out I initially screwed up my paperwork.  I’ll continue to say it, but despite ARRL’s flaws and our disagreements, we are truly lucky to have such a hardworking organization within amateur radio. IMG_5691

ARRL Area

Those often annoying, sometimes threatening death machines known as rental scooters continue to roam the Hamvention.  I don’t know if it was that I’ve become more accustomed to them or there truly are less of them, but it sure seemed to me that there weren’t as many as last year.  What’s happening to the scooter people?  Are they dying off?  Are they disappearing during the Hamvention?  Inquiring minds want to know. Undoubtedly the liability insurance for such an activity would be expensive, but I would love to have a scooter demolition derby some Hamvention afternoon.  Folks could rent dilapidated scooters or bring their own pimped-out scooters for a battle royale of destruction and excitement.  (Hamvention committee members, I can make this happen, you know where to reach me.  I want a cut of the profits from beer sales. :-)

….to be continued…

This article was originally published on the Radio Artisan blog.

Dayton 2015 – Part 1 of ?

I made the trek again to Dayton this year, my second pilgrimage to the largest amateur radio event on this side of the planet.  Realizing there are several other blogs, podcasts, and Internet broadcast shows covering Dayton, I will attempt to limit my observations to those you likely won’t see elsewhere.

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The Hara Arena we all know and love continues to be, well, Hara Arena.  The good news is renovations are in the works.  A Hamvention official told me it’s for real and probably a three to four year project.  Yaaaaaay!IMG_5681

Tower Girl, Back at Dayton!

The differences between the Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, and Elecraft booths were quite notable.  Yaesu was giving away hats and entering people for prizes drawings.  They often had a line extending well out into the concession area and their System Fusion hats were worn by hamfest goers everywhere.  They had employees stationed at each area of the booth and the booth had a continual number of visitors.  I stopped by and looked at HTs and a friendly Yaesu employee helped me out.

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Yaesu’s New FT2DR HT

Icom’s booth was smaller, but was more high tech and hip-looking.  It was more crowded due to its small size.  Icom was generating a good deal of interest, with visitors often extending out into the aisle area.  Icom should really get a bigger booth next year.

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Icom’s Tower Motif Booth

Elecraft’s booth was very busy, as usual, and was well staffed.  They even had volunteers staffing the booth.  It was difficult to make your way into their booth to see the rigs on display, it was that crowded.   A table on the end had three order takers.  Even one of the founders of the business was busying taking orders.  It goes without saying, but Elecraft essentially has a money-printing machine that is running full tilt with no signs of stopping.

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The Kenwood Booth

Kenwood’s booth was well built and arguably the most spacious, but it was the least visited.  There was much whitespace on the walls.  I looked at their three HTs on display and I couldn’t get any of them to power up.  I looked around thinking maybe someone would notice me and assist.  Behind one podium there were two Kenwood employees talking to each other.  Behind the other podium the two Kenwood employees were talking with visitors, one employee chomping down a candy bar.  No one was out walking in the open booth area, and no one helped me.  This seemed to be the general state of the Kenwood booth each time I walked by.  It’s like no one is really trying and the goal was merely to show up, which they did.  Being a long time Kenwood fan, this really troubles me.

In regards to equipment, two notable announcements were the Elecraft K3S and perhaps the Flex Radio Meastro.  The Elecraft K3S is essentially an update to the now-discontinued K3.  The buzz on the street is that it’s a performance upgrade, mainly to get the platform back up to the top of the performance charts.  Several current K3 owners and recent orderers are reportedly a bit miffed, which is to be expected.  The Flex Radio Maestro is a hardware frontend / remote dashboard unit for the Flex radio 6000 series.  Yaesu did not announce an FT-817 replacement, which salespeople in the booth sheepishly acknowledged.  Yaesu was pushing System Fusion like mad.  Icom had a separate D-STAR booth that was educational and impressive. Kenwood…?

Hiberling was there with their rig you can’t afford.  DZ Kits had an interesting booth with their rigs scattered about, many with the covers off and in various states of assembly or disassembly.  There were several (many?) little DSP rig companies, so many that it’s difficult to differentiate them.  I wonder how many are selling sufficient numbers of rigs to state financially afloat.

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Icom’s Rig You Can’t Afford

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Yaesu’s Rig You Might Be Able to Afford

The flea market had the usual wares, but it’s shrinking.  The parking lot continues to evolve from asphalt to black sand.  I recognized several items for sale that I saw last year at stands.  Folks, if you’re bringing the same stuff back to Dayton each year, it’s probably overpriced.  I don’t care if it was $10K thirty years ago, you’re not going to get $300 for a solid brass ship compass or a gas mask.

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Need a 25 Watt Laser for your World Domination Plan?

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Deals You Can’t Refuse

On four occasions I walked up to flea market stands where gruff-looking, optimism-challenged OFs were talking about politics and one where the single digit IQ attendee was complaining about people speaking Spanish.  I guess if your junk isn’t selling and you’re bored with amateur radio it’s difficult to be positive and talk about the hobby or something other than politics.  I wish these people would just stay home rather than putting their mantras on display at the Hamvention.  Attendees who agree with this OF mindset can get their fill by listening to broadcast AM radio, and those who don’t didn’t come to a hamfest be schooled in political drivel.  But I digress.

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Got Mics?

It was nice to see a few unattended flea market tables with “pay what you want” and honor system payment boxes.  Perhaps the Hamvention could increase flea market occupancy by offering free spots to sellers doing all “pay what you want”, unattended, or all free giveaway tables.  What extra amateur radio stuff I have I would rather give away than sit behind a table for two days, only to garner a few bucks selling half of it and taking the rest home.

The Hamvention appears to be continuing to pursue a Maker theme, but there is a dearth of Maker content and products for sale.  I don’t fault the Hamvention team for this, and applaud their efforts.  I think it’s going in the right direction and is going to be crucial to keeping the Hamvention, and other hamfests, sustainable into the future.  (More about this in a future article.)  Rather than just write or complain about this, I am plan to make an effort to help.  I’m going to write a proposal for an Arduino forum and a related activity.  If you’re interested in presenting or participating, send me an email (anthony.good@gmail.com).

More about Dayton 2015 in the next article…

Thanks Comet and SWODXA!

Friday night at the Dayton DX Dinner I won in a drawing this wonderful antenna analyzer from Comet, the CAA-500.  It features a measurement range of 1.8 to 500 Mhz and displays SWR and impedance.  It is powered with five AA batteries or an external 8 to 16 volt DC supply can be used.

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Thanks Comet and SouthWest Ohio DX Association!  This will really come in handy considering I’m in a new QTH and I’m in the process of putting up antennas and reassembling the radio artisan shack.  I couldn’t have asked for a more useful measurement tool.

(I am back home and I have several reports from Dayton to post in the next few days.  Stay on frequency…)

Dayton!

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Yay!  After a nine hour drive I made it to Dayton.  This year I drove solo so I got to listen to audiobooks and actually did several long business phone calls.  I forgot how flat Ohio is, but at least they have several three and four lane highways which makes the drive go quicker.

I’m in the Dayton Marriott if anyone is around and wants to have an eyeball QSO and a cocktail =)

Are You Going To Dayton?

This is a question I ask of vendors I order equipment and amateur radio goodies from. You should ask the same of your vendors. If your vendors don’t support Dayton, perhaps you should consider supporting different vendors. Why, you ask? Dayton is the largest amateur radio event in the US and perhaps the western hemisphere. It’s struggled over the years.  However, the visual appearance and condition of Hara Arena tends to tarnish the state of the Dayton Hamvention, in my opinion.  I think the Hamvention is actually doing well.  Attendance was up last year.  Looking at the schedule of seminars this morning, it’s a wonderful collection of varied topics, with something for everyone.  The flea market is huge and it’s exhausting to cover the entire area in the three days.  If your vendor is devoted to amateur radio, they should come to the Dayton Hamvention.  If they can’t make a profit attending and selling products or generating sales leads, perhaps something is wrong with their products, marketing, or business model.  If a vendor devotes the time and effort to come to Dayton with products to sell, buy their warez!  The Hamvention is more than a hamfest, it’s a social event, a gathering, a celebration, and an economic ecosystem for amateur radio.  See you at Dayton!

Heathkit Announces Acquisition of Radio Shack

Heathkit announced today they have reached an agreement to acquire the assets of Radio Shack for $300M, blocking efforts from mobile wireless carrier Sprint to acquire a large portion of the struggling and now bankrupt North American consumer electronics retailer.  No further details were mentioned by Heathkit other than they “had big plans” and “everyone should stay tuned to the website for details.”

Radio Shack CEO Joseph Magnacca was quoted in a press release as saying “We are very happy and excited about the pending transaction with Heathkit.  The Heathkit team has shown us they have a more viable business plan than Sprint, and our creditors agree that the Heathkit team brings a higher level of management, leadership, and strategy to Radio Shack, more than the company has ever had.”

Immediately after the announcement amateur radio online forums were alive with discussions and speculation on when closed stores would reopen.  Several commenters reminisced about the days when Radio Shack offered amateur radios and components.  One person noted how difficult it is to get good 68k ohm resistors and Radio Shack could chart a course to profitability if they just stocked these resistors.  Others bemoaned Radio Shack’s practice of asking for customer addresses, claiming it was a front for NSA information-gathering efforts.  Several commenters agreed that Radio Shack should offer a vacuum tube code practice oscillator kit.

Spurious Emissionz

AMSAT is offering a discounted satellite antenna package to members.  The package consists of two M2 antennas, one for 2m the other for 440, both circularly polarized.  Looks like a nice package at a decent price.  I’m going get this for the new bachelor pad QTH.  If you’re a satellite aficionado and not a member of AMSAT or another organization that launches birds, you should join and support one so we can keep satellites orbiting the globe.

 

Make has an article on how to turn your Raspberry Pi into a “pirate radio”.  This appears to be done all in software by outputting a high frequency bit stream on a GPIO pin.  The software will frequency modulate the carrier and it’s intended mainly to be a short range (i.e. unlicensed FCC Part 15 here in the US) FM broadcast transmitter you can play your tunes through while on the beach.  A more technical article, mentions it has 1 to 250 Mhz capability.  This might make a cool little exciter for QRP CW, with appropriate filtering to clean up what undoubtedly has a lot of odd order harmonics.

 

There’s this cool little Kickstarter project called Tsunami.  It’s an Arduino-based audio signal generator and analyzer.  Undoubtedly this could have some amateur radio applications, like generating and decoding digital modes.

 

One of the original Arduino founders who ran the main firm which manufactured Arduino boards is accused of going rogue and registering the Arduino trademark in Italy.  Arduino.cc is the original, core Arduino team and the Arduino LLC entity, and Arduino.org is Arduino SRL, the rogue manufacturing company.  Arduino SRL is no longer paying Arduino LLC royalty fees and Arduino LLC is now in a legal battle.  Any Arduino board that was purchased in the last year that was made in Italy did not have royalties go to the Arduino team which has been responsible for design, creativity, and energy behind the Arduino project.

 

BFDs

Some things are BFDs and some things just aren’t.  What are BFDs?  Well, son, this video might help you out.  BFDs would include passing healthcare legislation, your first kiss, discovering plutonium, or your parachute not opening.  There are two news items in amateur radio right now that, despite all the hubbub, aren’t BFDs.

Remote operation from anywhere is now allowed for DXCC awards.  ARRL will now allow contacts from remotely-operated stations to be submitted for DXCC awards, regardless of where the control point is located.  This seems to be a BFD for many people because of instead of buying a multi-giga dollar megastation, which was the previously accepted way to buy your way to DXCC, today with modern technology and better living through chemistry you can rent a megastation with a credit card and operate it with your favorite computing device from the comfort of your meager home station, hotel room, or police station drunk tank.  Why is it not a BFD?  Remote operation contacts were allowed for DXCC credit before, the only thing that has changed is where the control point is allowed.  The contact is still made over the air.  This isn’t like Echolink computer-to-computer contacts.  The remote station must be located within your home DXCC entity.  If you still want to get your DXCC the old fashioned way, you can.  DXCC is about personal achievement, and how you got it is a BFD to you, not anyone else.

The FCC will no longer issue paper licenses.  Why is this not a BFD?  There are several reasons.  The online ULS record is considered your official credential.  If you want a paper license, you can go to the ULS, download a PDF, and print it out.  One can also request the FCC send them a paper copy.  What is BFD is that the FCC will save $304K a year with this change.