Friday, May 23, 2008

The world -- in your dash!

I have speculated here and in other forums about what a major sea change will happen when wifi internet access is as ubiquitous as cell phone signals or--dare I say it--broadcast radio. Well, it is here, now--at least in a few lucky spots--and it seems to be working moderately well.

Read this article and tell me it is not inevitable that each of us one day has a browser in the dash. God help us if people actually try to surf the web while negoatiating expressway traffic! But think of the ability to listen to radio streams from around the world, as the fellow in this article did, or dialing up MapQuest for driving instructions on the fly (assuming the GPS is not soon as common as the turn signal lever). I think you will see browsers with knobs and dials like radios, or pushbuttons that take you directly to bookmarked streams.

Hey, how about rig control from your car, even if you and your vehicle are in San Francisco and your radio--hooked to the 4-element SteppIR and a 1.5KW amp--is back in Birmingham. Kind of gives "mobile" a whole new meaning, right?

Hang on! This is going to be fun!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Are the Arabs and eBay Killing Hamfests?

Interesting discussion threads are now active on a couple of amateur radio web sites about the fate of our hobby’s staple meeting event, the hamfest. In the past, these gatherings primarily featured flea markets (“boneyards”) and in-person contact between guys that typically only communicated with each over the air. Larger gatherings included booths manned by manufacturers and distributors and a number of forums, common-interest group meetings, and the like.

I suppose the discussion about how hamfests are faring is being kindled by the world’s largest—in Dayton, Ohio, this week—and how the gas prices and other changes in the hobby will affect attendance there. The general feeling is that eBay along with the ability to buy and sell equipment on the Internet has crippled the traditional ham gatherings. Stratospheric gas prices and other travel expenses are contributing to their demise. Many are struggling. I don’t dispute that times have changed, that some long-running hamfests are either gone already or fading fast, but I also see some events that are still thriving.

My observation—from a very narrow perspective, I grant you—is that small swap meets, pulling from a closer region, and offering lots of socialization and a decent boneyard, will continue to prosper. One reason is that a single bad year, due to weather or energy prices or some other unforeseen factor, doesn't put them out of business. Their investment is small so their risk is, too.

I remember back in the 1970s when the Birmingham Amateur Radio Club had designs on becoming the premier hamfest in the rapidly growing Southeast U.S. But we also realized that with the high rent and overhead for a suitable venue, the dependence on a few major manufacturers and suppliers to show up and support the event, and the other considerable expenses necessary to market such a major gathering, we risked bankrupting the club if something outside our control happened. A spike in fuel costs, a bad weekend of weather, somebody else in some other part of the country deciding to usurp “our” weekend—any of those things could put us out of business. Or a bunch of amateurs—“amateurs” in both radio and convention marketing—might simply not be savvy enough to break even, much less turn a profit.

The type of gatherings I'm thinking of that seem to do well, even with gas approaching $4 a gallon, is like the one at Dalton, Georgia. This is a prime example of a successful, flea-market-driven gathering. Oh, I believe we will continue to have several "national" events—Dayton, Orlando, Dallas, Visalia, and, yes, Huntsville, AL—keyed more to time of year so as not to conflict with each other and within short driving distances of a lot of people. There manufacturers will exhibit, key personnel from major vendors will be present, and important, personality-driven forums will be held. There will be less opportunity to socialize and flea markets will not be the primary draw (though both will continue to be factors). Discount dealers will offer bargain "show specials," distributors of parts and accessories will thrive because attendees can shop for all those odds and ends in one place, manufacturers will debut new gear and support loyal customers and early adopters, and we will all have the opportunity to learn from experts and take in top-line presentations by the "stars" in our hobby.

Certainly the economy and energy prices (as well as the Internet) affect many kinds of events. We see it in trade shows now. Thomas Nelson, a major publishing house (my publisher on the latest book, THE ICE DIARIES), pulled out of the industry's two biggest trade shows this year. Now they bring their key accounts to a big shindig at their place where they can control how they wow them and have their undivided attention…and save money in the process. For them, it is just a better way to do business. The annual radio broadcasters' show now has more exhibitors than attendees and could be on its last legs. Vendors are better off paying for customers to fly to their factory for some kind of roll-out party, knowing they don’t have to compete with the guy across the aisle or the casinos down the street for the customers’ attention. And again, it is much more cost effective than putting scores of employees in airplanes and hotels for a week and shipping tons of equipment to a convention somewhere.

Call it Darwinism, but I believe the shows or events that adapt, that offer what people want, will survive. But those that try to operate and rely on the same draws as they did in 1965, or who make assumptions about what will compel someone to come to their event, will likely go the way of the dinosaur.

That certainly seems to apply to hamfests.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Does your puppy have an IP address?

It's only a matter of time before each of us, along with our pets, our cars, all our worldly possessions, have our own IP (Internet protocol) address. That means we will be able to be even more exact in addressing people, critters, and things via the Internet, issuing commands, monitoring status, controlling stuff no matter where we are.

Example: you get up in the morning when the alarm clock rings--at a time you pre-set it to do so the night before from your laptop. The wife sleeps on beneath her electric blanket, set for her comfort by the microprocessor in the bed control, just as was your side of the blanket and the hardness of the mattress. You smell coffee perking and the toaster pops up a nice, perfectly-toasted bagel while you shower in water that is exactly the right temperature, just the way you set them to do in the software suite on your office machine. A traffic report for the route to work is available and waiting on your PDA, constantly being updated, as well as the weather for your little corner of the world, and the pre-opening prices on your stocks. But you don't watch them on the tiny little PDA screen. You have relayed them to your 52-inch TV to view while you eat breakfast -- in one window. The other two show ESPN's "Sports Center" and trailers for the new movies due to be in local theaters this weekend, streamed to your TV from a distant website.

Still thirsty when you get to the office, you touch the vending machine in the break room with your PDA and it drops a bottle of vitamin water into the slot for you and charges $1.50 to your phone bill. During the day, you send your browser on your desktop to Fido's IP address to make sure he's okay, has water in his bowl, and is leaving the cat be. You also check on the temperature in the house, answer a call from a telemarketer on your home phone (then hit one key to blacklist that guy's IP), and accept delivery of a new VHF radio the UPS guy brought to your front porch.

(Of course, when the boss is not watching, you fire up the rig in the shack at home from your desk, rotate the beam to the heading you saw on the DX spot on your wrist watch readout, and work a DXpedition while propagation was right.)

If it's a cold day, you start your car out in the deck about ten minutes before quitting time so it will be nice and toasty when you get there. Of course, the vehicle has its own IP that you can address, including choosing the exact temperature in the car and the station that will be selected on the radio when you climb in. Of course, that station could be a stream from Europe featuring blues music or a bluegrass station from California. You could even program the exact songs you wanted to hear, in order. Or you may have the mobile rig already tuned to the roundtable frequency and the screwdiver antenna properly adjusted for you when you get there, just in case you want to talk with the guys on the way home.

The wife sends a text message to the readout on the car's dash letting you know she ordered up some groceries--including two piping hot deli meals--from the grocery store and they'll be waiting at the pickup window...but only once the store's computer senses that you are five minutes away. The meals will be hot and the ice cream won't melt.

Sound far-fetched, futuristic? Most of what I just described is possible today. Is the time coming when everything around us has full Internet addressability? Will we be issued a Social Security number and an IP address when we are born? Is all this good or bad or indifferent? Is that Fido on the dashboard readout, reminding me to pick up his tasty treats?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

N9N -- Update May 3

Things are progressing nicely on our Nautilus North Pole anniversary operating event. I heard from Chuck Motes, K1DFS/NNN0HAL, yesterday and he and his group are having discussions with LCDR Caskey and his staff at Historic Ship Nautilus about where we will be able to set up the stations. The really exciting news is that we will have the okay to operate continuously from 0900 Saturday, August 2, through 2359 Sunday night, August 3. That means someone will get a QSO with N9N at 2315 EDST, August 2, the precise moment when Nautilus and her crew of 116 "pierced the Pole," and became the first vessel to reach that point on the planet.

It also appears that I will have the opportunity for a book signing and speaking event at the Naval Submarine Force Museum and Library sometime that weekend--probably on Saturday. My publisher is also working on some other events in the Groton/New London area as well.

I will continue to update the special events station here on the blog and, if this turns out to be as successful as I suspect it will be, I will do an article on the whole operation so other groups can learn from our experiences. I really like the idea of doing special events stations in public locations. With all ham radio has to offer these days, I think it's a worthy goal to show it to as many people as possible, then let them decide if they want to learn more.

Of course, the reason for N9N is to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of a truly historic event that has somehow not gotten its due with the current generation. That one voyage by the world's most famous submarine literally changed the course of the Cold War and lifted the spirits of Americans at a time when they needed it most.

NOTE: Locate N9N on for details of the special event operation, including days, times, frequencies, and QSL info. By the way, one thing I did not anticipate was that QRZ would post the information so far in advance of the event. As you may know, special event callsigns like N9N are issued for short periods of time and may be issued to several groups during a year. I understand a contest group had the call sign recently and operated in the 7-land and New England QSO parties. That was NOT us from Nautilus. We only expect to activate the call letters on August 2 and 3 or a day or two either side.