Saturday, April 26, 2008

Live forever? Why not?

Several things this week got me to thinking about technological innovation and longevity of lifespan. First was the death of an amateur radio operator I never met but admired greatly--L.B. Cebik, W4RNL. He epitomized the ham spirit of helpfulness through his extensive writings and wonderful website devoted primarily to antennas. Though his true calling was as a professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, he brought that teacher mentality to his avocation, to the betterment of us all.

Well, that got me to thinking about mortality. Another ham radio acquaintance, Pete Sides, W4AUP, celebrated his 100th birthday last Saturday, and a group from the Birmingham area bused down to Montgomery, Alabama, to join him for a great party that featured some of his old ham gear and QSL cards from decades ago. I didn't get to go but I saw a video of the event at the Birmingham DX Club meeting this week. At one point, Pete said, "People are always asking me what I did to enjoy such a long life. I tell them I know exactly what the secret is. I had the good sense to pick the right parents and grandparents."

Of course! Genetics is probably the biggest factor in enjoying a long, healthy, productive life. Too bad we can't really pick out some long-lived ancestors. (Pete did give one other key to longevity: having a goal. He says his goal is to last at least long enough so he will have been retired as long as he worked, and that will be 2011! By the way, W4AUP is still active and can be heard most mornings at one of several frequencies on 75 meters.)

I've mentioned before in this blog an interesting statement I read someplace that the first person to live forever is already 60 years old. The implications of that are many, and especially to me, since I just turned 60 in December. And then, this week, I saw that the MSNBC web site is doing a very interesting series of articles on extending the life span of us human beings.

Is it because so many of the babyboomers are hitting 60 that we are suddenly so interested in extending our tap dance on this orb? Or is it simply the fact that medical knowledge has now progressed to the point that 150- or 200-year lifespans are not so far-fetched anymore?

As I tell my kids, they were a burden to me for at least 20 years. I expect to return the favor!

Don Keith N4KC

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A miracle...just south of 20 meters

You may have heard already about the amazing work of John Kanzius, K3TUP. Using his knowledge of radio waves, he has developed one of the most promising cancer treatments yet. He does not even have a college diploma, but he is now working with top researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, as well as a top Nobel Prize winner. And he is continuing his own battle with leukemia. John's wonderful story was featured last Sunday on 60 Minutes on CBS. If you missed it, click here to see it. It is well worth a few minutes of your time.

There are those who say amateur radio operators are no longer on the cutting edge, no longer using their knowledge and experimenting nature to advance technology. Maybe things have gotten too complicated for many of us to be able to contribute to the body of knowledge. But here's a guy who used his ham rig, a couple of pie plates, and a pack of hotdogs to make what may well be a major breakthrough.

Here's a curiosity, too. The frequency he uses for his cancer killer? Somewhere just below 20 meters.

You gotta love it!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Now that you have broadband and're obsolete, Lester!

Ponder this breathless prose from The London Times:

"The internet could soon be made obsolete. The scientists who pioneered it have now built a lightning-fast replacement capable of downloading entire feature films within seconds. At speeds about 10,000 times faster than a typical broadband connection, 'the grid' will be able to send the entire Rolling Stones back catalogue from Britain to Japan in less than two seconds."

No, you can't call up Verizon or Bellsouth today and get "the grid," but comparisons are inevitable between this new technology and how the internet that we know and love developed a mere dozen years ago. And if it is truly as spectacular as this article in The Times says it is, you just know everybody will have to have it.

What makes this thing so spectacular? "...the internet has evolved by linking together a hotchpotch (sic) of cables and routing equipment, much of which was originally designed for telephone calls and therefore lacks the capacity for high-speed data transmission.

"By contrast, the grid has been built with dedicated fibre optic cables and modern routing centres, meaning there are no outdated components to slow the deluge of data. The 55,000 servers already installed are expected to rise to 200,000 within the next two years."

But do we really need that kind of access speed to look at email and buy stuff off eBay? No, but get ready for what you will be able to do.

"Ian Bird, project leader for Cern’s high-speed computing project, said grid technology could make the internet so fast that people would stop using desktop computers to store information and entrust it all to the internet."

Hmmmmm. Or how about:

"Although the grid itself is unlikely to be directly available to domestic internet users, many telecoms providers and businesses are already introducing its pioneering technologies. One of the most potent is so-called dynamic switching, which creates a dedicated channel for internet users trying to download large volumes of data such as films. In theory this would give a standard desktop computer the ability to download a movie in five seconds rather than the current three hours or so."

There's the thing. If this system becomes a better way to deliver entertainment, it will become ubiquitous. This week, the National Association of Broadcasters are meeting for their annual convention in Las Vegas. Would you assume that digital broadcasting and high-definition TV (and even radio) are the main topics, considering analog TV disappears next February?

Wrong! That is so 1998!

The emphasis this year is on 3-D TV. Yes, 3-D. And there's talk of holographic content, where the American idols perform right there in the middle of your den. (Pretty disconcerting for guys like me who just now invested in a HDTV set!)

Can traditional, tower-on-the-mountain RF telecasting handle such bandwidth? Maybe. Or is everything going to have to be delivered through something like "the grid?"

Well, as they say, "Stay tuned."

Don N4KC
(Thanks to my friend Wayne Long for the link to the article cited.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Saddest Words I Know

“I don’t know how.”

My granddaughter was at the kitchen table, working with her new microscope, trying to see some brine shrimp eggs, but the viewer was dark.

“You have to adjust the mirror so the light reflects through the slide,” I told her.

“But Grandpop, I don’t know how!”

“Did you look at the instructions? Did you try to move the mirror around and figure it out?”

“No. Fix it for me.”

Ah, a teaching moment.

It would have been much easier to simply adjust the microscope so she could see the tiny eggs and hurry back to my easy chair and copy of CQ Magazine, but I decided to give her a quick tour of her new toy, lecture a little bit about optics and reflections, show her the section in the instruction sheet that addressed the subject, and sit her down to read it. Then I made sure she tried what she read until she got the results she sought.

Of course, she took one quick look at the infant shrimp, shrugged her shoulders, and ran off to something more flashy and glittery. But that’s not the point.

The saddest words I can imagine are when someone says, “I don’t know how,” and then stands there, waiting for someone to do it for them.

Look, I know that not all of us are naturally and incessantly curious. Sometimes we have no desire to know how something is done or how it works. We just want it done or working. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I have no interest in learning how to replace the brakes on my car. I’m perfectly willing to pay somebody to do that. While the mechanic changes them out, I get to do something I want to do or that makes me money to pay for the work. Meanwhile, he does his job, feeds his family, and the chances that the vehicle will actually stop when I want it to are ratcheted up considerably. New kitchen cabinets? I am convinced I could study and experiment and buy a fortune’s worth of tools and waste a bunch of expensive materials and learn how to build some perfectly good kitchen cabinets. But I choose to hire someone who already knows how, who already owns the tools, and who does a good job the first time. Though I do not acquire a desirable skill, I also know it is a bit of knowledge I would likely never use again. The XYL is happier, too, which is always a big, big plus.

However, when someone chooses a hobby or pastime or to get serious about any other endeavor, and he or she then makes the decision to not invest a little time and effort into learning more about it, it boggles my mind. Don’t get me wrong. Because we become amateur radio operators does not mean we have to gain the equivalent knowledge of an electrical engineer. I do not intend to open up my transceiver and take it apart just so I can put it back together again and learn how it works. What I am saying is that we should all have more desire to learn about things in which we have interest. Why would we take the plunge and insist on asking somebody else to do it for us?

The same thing goes for many other things in life. My granddaughter, the light of my life, begged for that microscope for months. Why would she ask grandpop to do the most basic of adjustments for her? Would you take up golf and then ask the club pro to hit the difficult shots for you? I think some would if they could!

How many people refuse to learn anything about income taxes (too complicated, no time, bad at math), then either fill out the short form because it’s easier or trust somebody else to do it for them, leaving money on the table? How many people blindly invest (do not understand financial stuff, don’t have time, don’t want to learn) their 401K contributions in only their company’s stock and lose scads of money in the process? How many people have never taken the time to learn the basics of how an automobile works and then are shafted by unscrupulous mechanics?

I cannot change the brakes on my car. I don’t know how. Again, I could buy a book, read the instructions, buy some tools, purchase a good jack, and change them, and I would then know how. I choose not to. But I know enough about the job to know if I am getting fleeced! And if I ever decide I want to do it, you can bet I’ll learn how to do it correctly. I am no expert on Wall Street, but I know enough to keep my meager retirement nest egg properly invested and diversified so I don’t get heartburn when the subprime mess dominates the headlines. I can read. I can comprehend. I have limited time, just like you, but I think it is important enough that I learn all I can about the subject.

I do not stand there, swaying back forth in the breeze, waiting for somebody else to do it for me. Or complain because nobody volunteers.

Maybe it is the lack of self-responsibility that seems to be so prevalent today. My generation was so conscious of protecting our kids from anything bad, making sure their precious self-esteem survived intact, and that they wanted for nothing that we raised a whole crop of, “I don’t know how. Do it for me!” Or gave them the attitude of, “I don’t want to learn a skill so I can make a living for my family. I can’t learn. It is too much trouble. I’m too dumb. Pay me anyway, though. It is not my fault I won’t learn.”

I see examples of it in the forums on the popular ham radio sites. Bless ‘em, they do have the gumption to ask, and that is a good thing. But the post usually runs something like, “I just passed my General and spent $10,000 on a rig and amp. What kind of antenna should I buy?”

There are enough curmudgeons out there that the first replies will not be all that friendly. No, they will be downright nasty. Eventually, though, someone with a true Elmer’s heart will ask some questions and provide the newbie with some valid info, pointing him in the right direction to learn more, politely inviting him to search the site’s archives for the hundreds of other answers to the same question, urging him to invest some time and effort in some of the myriad sources for antenna knowledge. With a little exertion, that newcomer will pick a good antenna and learn something about antennas in general in the process. He will likely never be an RF engineer, but he will enjoy the hobby more.

Sometimes the original poster comes back with a thank-you, and a report that he or she has invested in an antenna book, visited the W4RNL web site along with several others, and is busy soldering feed line to some wire. But too often, the follow-up post is, “What a bunch of rude SOBs! I just wanted you to tell me which antenna to buy. I don’t know how to make one!”


As never before in the history of mankind, we are blessed with access to knowledge. I can read about any subject I can imagine…free, no waiting except for the page to refresh…and some subjects I could never have thought of, even if I had wanted to. I just found a site that links to a dozen different free, online Spanish courses. Want to learn about the sex life of the tsetse fly? It’s there. Need a manual for a piece of gear that was discontinued in 1972? Odds are you can download the PDF. Do a Google for “antennas” and stand back!

If you want to learn about something, you can. You just have to invest the time and energy.

Let me make it clear. It is okay to ask for help. That is one of the best and most lasting traditions of our hobby. Many of us take great pride in being able to help newcomers get a good start in amateur radio, just as our Elmers patiently helped us, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Marconi and I were in the same pile-ups.

At the same time, the Elmer often learns while teaching, too. It is absolutely true that the best way to learn is to teach.

It is a cliché, but like most clichés, it is one because it is so true. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach that man to fish and you have fed him for the rest of his life. Of course, the caveat is that the guy has to want to learn to fish.

I have infinite patience with him if he does.

I have zero tolerance if he wants me to catch, clean, cook and spoon feed him that nice sea bass.

The saddest words I know: “I don’t know how. Do it for me.”

But maybe the most hopeful: “I don’t know how. Would you help me learn?”

Don N4KC