Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Exploring innovative aspects of our hobby

If you are an ARRL member and don't get the "Contest Rate Sheet" email newsletter, you are missing out on far too much. Let me hasten to add that you do not need to have any interest whatsoever in contesting to enjoy this excellent update from Ward Silver, N0AX. In addition to news and calendar items of interest to contesters, the latest issue features such items as a link to a website devoted entirely to Sunspot Cycle #24, another that gives you three dimensional images of various types of trees, and several that allow you to map grid squares and find your QTH among them. There are also some good operating and technical tips many hams would find useful. Good--and interesting--stuff!

But my favorite part of this issue is an article by the editor that hits close to home. It deals with our tendency to find our favorite little nook and cranny of amateur radio and resist trying anything new. This leads to many of us getting bored or even losing interest in the hobby. And it almost certainly means that some of the amazing things happening in our hobby--technical and otherwise--will pass us by. With absolutely no permission whatsoever, I reproduce below a portion of Ward's article. I hope you, too, find it interesting.

Like many of my readers, I've been in this hobby a long time - 35 years in a couple of weeks. Indeed, I've been a ham for a good part of my adolescence and all of my adult life. I've made many thousands of contacts, on many bands, with many places, with many pieces of gear. Once a callow and nervous Novice, I'm starting on the fifth solar cycle that's come 'round the limb of Ol' Sol. You would think that with that background, maybe I've pretty much experienced all of what amateur radio has to offer. Interestingly enough, the answer is, "Not even close!"

In fact, what I've found is that the longer a ham has been licensed, the FEWER different aspects of ham radio he is likely to use. We are creatures of habit and once formed, we tend to follow those habits, frequently becoming incredibly deep experts to be sure, growing narrower, relatively speaking. (Many of us also grow wider in other ways, but I digress...) It is rare individual that can lay claim to being a Renaissance Ham.

As we develop and hone our expertise, we may also find that we have explored much of what there is to explore in our chosen niches. Our hamming begins to become permeated with a sameness that leads to "been there, done that." Does this stoic inertia sound familiar? How can this electronic ennui be excised? What is there to get excited about as modern ham radio approaches nonagenarianism? Let me tell you about a few things that have caught my interest of late...

Digital contesting - After years and years of languishing as lightly attended events "up there" in the CW bands, RTTY contesting is the fastest growing contest mode. To be sure, it started small, but it's
not small any more with digital contests nearly every weekend. The combination of excellent software and simple radio hookups make this incredibly easy to try compared to the Mechanical Ages. I do miss the smell of teletype oil, though.

VHF+ Roving - In case you haven't noticed, roving has become a huge part of VHF+ contesting. The stations that take to the grids in search of adventitious locations and routes are astounding in their capabilities. New rovers, making excellent use of their new all-band, all-mode rigs, are hitting the trail on contest weekends, too. Transverters, antennas, logging software, navigational aids, beacons - all contributing to more participants and more QSOs on more bands from more places. Now, if we could just get propagation to cooperate!

Mobile Operating - Similarly, down on the HF bands, those same radios do yeoman's work as a "shack on the dash" and put out quite a decent number of microvolts per meter. We have antennas that autotune, noise blankers that actually do, plenty of power, and the open road. To those of you that live in anti-tenna communities or risk upbraiding from RFI, welcome back! Who's the mobile?

Solar Cycle 24 - Just when we were about to give up hope, fearing another Maunder Minimum, the first baby sunspot appeared on the unblemished disk of the Sun. And there was celebration throughout the land. Of course, 10 meters, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, is still dead, but now we know it won't be for long. Spring is here!

40 Meters - Lest anyone forget, 40 meters will be given over to its rightful owners (ahem) starting in 2009 as amateur radio gets its mitts on more and more of those marvelous meters. And just in the nick of time, too! Why, the stew of digital contests, salted with CW ragchewers and peppered with phone signals nearly melts the cook pot! Look for more countries to open the gates to 7100-7200 kHz, too. Will "Listening this frequency and..." become a thing of the past? We can only hope.

China and India - When 15 meters starts to open up, I am pretty sure that North American hams will be astounded at the number of new and unusual call signs in the pileups. The conditions are ripe - a growing middle class, interest in technology, governments opening the airwaves to more licensed amateurs. When the world's two largest populations begin to sprout a few amateur radio operators, there is some real potential for exciting contests!

Remote Radios - We're just an RJ-45 and CAT5 cable away from being able to operate from nearly anywhere at just about any time. What does the band sound like from, say, Samarkand? Or Tokyo? Or Johannesburg? Or Santiago?

See? There's lots of stuff in which to take an interest. So if your groove has started to become a rut, there's no need for you to stay stuck. Take a look around and try something new before you give up on the world's most amazing hobby!

I am especially intrigued by the innovations that N0AX mentions that are just now beginning to infiltrate our hobby. Remote operation, SkyCommand, digital media, the effect of millions of potential new hams from India and China...interesting times! Go to the ARRL website and look at your member preferences if you want to begin receiving this excellent newsletter.

Don N4KC

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