Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Oh, the irony!

By Don Keith

Interesting news stories--with a common theme--in the October 2017 issue of the amateur radio magazine CQ. They are:

A report that the U.S. military has, after much experimentation and testing, decided that the high-frequency radio spectrum (HF, often referred to as "shortwaves") offer excellent communication capability and could be of great value. The story includes a quote from a Navy spokesperson that, "We tested our ability to talk, and we were able to send text to one of our other units that is across the Pacific Ocean." The military release goes on to say, "HF has become a viable alternative for military forces when more common forms of communication, such as satellites, are unavailable." Such technology offers legitimate and valuable backup to whiz-bang satellites and digital yakking.

Well, "Duh #1!" Even now, when solar propagation is approaching a minimum, the shortwaves do offer propagation to all parts of the world. Talk across the Pacific?  Heck, I did that just this past weekend...from my basement!  Guam and Japan, to be exact, all the way from Alabama. And I also made a contact with a ham radio operator in Western Australia via what we call the "long path," not the usual 11,000-mile route to my west and to the Land Down Under.  No, we communicated with my signal leaving my basic little wire beam, running about 500 watts, and headed eastward, across the Atlantic Ocean, over Africa, across the Indian Ocean, about 13,500 miles to the other amateur's station. If the U.S. military is still not convinced of the capabilities of HF, I invite them to take a look at my logbook.

Then there is another report that the Navy is revisiting more ancient technology, the LORAN earth-based radio navigation system that has been mostly replaced by GPS satellites. Someone realized that those satellites can be hacked and most ships at sea would instantly be lost...unless they could locate their sextant and wait for a night sky. (Last I heard, most Navy vessels, and especially submarines, still carried that truly ancient device, the sextant, just in case. They can only hope somebody aboard knows how to use them.)

"Duh! #2."  LORAN worked pretty well, I understand. The fact it was based on radio and required some rather bulky antennas spelled its doom years ago. Appears, though, that somebody realized that sparkly, spangly new technology may have its flaws.  Just as with our trusty and reliable computers, a backup is always a good idea!

And finally, it probably would not surprise you to know that most people under 25 years old would have no idea about what a 33-and-a-third RPM record was. Or an 8-track tape. Or even a cassette tape. Not even, in many cases, a music CD. But did you know that many younger folks today don't realize that your television set can pull in programming from, in most cities, more than a dozen 24-hour-a-day content generators?  A source not associated with a satellite or cable? And that such stellar programming is absolutely free?  It's called over-the-air television broadcasting! Yes, a tower on the hill, pumping out hundreds of thousands of watts of high-definition TV programs. These stations DO still exist! All you need to get this programming is an antenna.  Your TV set is already equipped to pull in the signals. And once you pay for the antenna, the rest is free. Gratis. No cost whatsoever, other than having to watch commercials.

The CQ article quotes a story in The Wall Street Journal reporting that the National Association of Broadcasters--the industry group that represents, in part, those over-the-air telecasters--says one in three Americans are completely unaware of such technology. They also quote a merchant that sells antennas saying that many of his customers question the legality of intercepting this programming for no charge. "They don't believe me when I tell them that these channels are not only free but legal, too," the merchant says.

The final "Duh!" Technological change has become so rapid that even existing technology that still offers real benefit--HF radio, LORAN, over-the-air TV--can get lost in the swirl of sexy new stuff.

(And a personal note, my dad became a TV repairman and antenna installer way back in the early 1950s. That was when people realized that they could get television programming in their home, that it was like radio only with pictures, and they only needed to purchase a set and put up an antenna. My dad put up masts with antennas on top of them all over East Central Alabama. Maybe some of those are still up there after sixty years and can still pull in a picture. Who knows?)

Oh, the irony!



Monday, November 20, 2017

So, is the Internet going to be the death of amateur radio?

by Don Keith

Lazy man's post today as I continue to work far more than a "retired" guy should.  (Massaging two potential movie/TV scripts and writing a novel.) But a good ham radio blogger, Bob K0NR, has posed this fascinating--and probably unanswerable--question: is the Internet killing amateur radio?
Read it in its entirety HERE.
I tend to agree with Bob's final opinions. As with any other aspect of rapid technological change and its effect on ham radio, it all comes down to what you enjoy. I happen to take advantage of many of the new developments in our hobby and am convinced it is a healthy trend and will attract more folks to ham radio.
For example, I check in regularly with a net devoted to 1960s music and TV trivia. That net is centered with most of its members in Central Arizona and uses a 220-mhz repeater on Mt. Lemmon north of Tucson. I use EchoLink and my desktop computer to check in but the net control hears me via the repeater station, over the air. We have guys checking in from all over the country including one ham who travels extensively. He uses his smartphone from various hotel rooms, restaurants, city streets (he often walks for exercise while answering those trivia questions) and airport terminals.

I also use computer logging, Logbook of the World to go for various on-air operating awards, Internet uploads of radiosport logs, and more. 

I have no issue with remote operation of an amateur radio station either. The station "location" is wherever the transmitter, receiver and antenna(s) are located. If the operator happens to be 10,000 miles away using VOIP or other modern gizmo to control the station then so be it.
Whenever old-line hams say all this computer and Internet stuff is not real amateur radio, I point out that other generations of ham operators said the same thing of every innovation that came after spark gap. I even remember vividly when there were actual fistfights and on-air screaming matches between those who believed single-sideband was the death of the hobby and those who saw this "modern technology" as just another aspect of technological change that could make ham radio more fun and communication more effective.

And guess who was right?  

(This from a guy who still has a weekly chat on "ancient modulation" AM on 75 meters.  That's because I just happen to like the way a good AM signal sounds. Oh, and the fact that it is just plain fun to fool with!)

73 de N4KC

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

That ugly term "for-profit" rears its ugly head...again

By Don Keith

(Pardon me while I step away once again from the primary purpose of this blog, keeping track of rapid technological change and its effect on media, society, and my hobby of choice, amateur radio. I've become riled again about a subject that seems so utterly simple and understandable, yet one so many get so wrong. Help me understand why other seemingly sane and intelligent people can't see it my way!)

All the breathless hyperbole was inevitable after yet another president and Congress declared yet again their intention to radically alter how we tax revenue earned by citizens of this country. Too many oxen get gored, too much political patronage becomes threatened, and too many people who have careers and earning schemes and entire industries predicated on the inner workings of this mess. Also, the sheer complexity of the tax code and the fact that we have come to depend on the "temporary" income tax to fund every worthy cause or complete boondoggle assures that changing anything meaningful in regard to taxation is going to be problematic. Maybe impossible.

Even now, as Congress wrangles, we see clear-eyed predictions that what they will eventually propose will either make taxation beautifully balanced and perfect or it will create the death of the middle class as we know it while the filthy rich become even filthier and richer. Never mind that nothing is final yet, or the fact that these predictions fall perfectly along a line of demarcation depending on whether the predictor is a Democrat or a Republican. Partisanship will be the death of this democracy. Mark my words.

Well, today I received from a friend a link to a Washington Post op/ed piece that pretty much says anything that ends up in a new tax plan is in there not because it is a good idea.  It is becoming the law of the land because certain key legislators already have cushy jobs lined up after leaving Congress and will put anything in the plan that it takes to close the deal on those employment contracts they are busily negotiating.

Bull feces!  I'm as cynical as the next guy. But I also am certain as I can be that we need to change the way we do taxation in this country. Perfect or not, any plan that lowers taxes for anybody...ANYBODY...is a good thing.  And especially if it forces us to also finally consider how we spend taxpayer money. Hard-earned and begrudgingly surrendered taxpayer money that is rightfully ours, not the government's.

By the way, if you are one of those who think it is a legitimate goal of a central federal government to assure every citizen gets FREE medical care for life or FREE college, regardless whether or not you take care of your health and use that medical help wisely or whether or not you should even go to college, you may as well stop reading now.  You and I will never agree.

Now, my real problem with this op/ed piece: the continuation of the trend to treat terms like "CEO" and "profit" as sleazy, dirty, despicable words. Anyone who leaves Congress to go to work for a consortium of business people has to be a crook, a plant to get those evil, greedy businessmen less taxes and more slimy profits while crushing the struggling middle class so the crooks and thieves in business can line their own bulging pockets with more and more ill-gotten gains.

First of all, "CEO," "profit," and "business" are not dirty words. "Taxation" often is. Especially "taxation" when it is applied to punish those who dare to work, risk, innovate and create in the name of making a profit for themselves, their employees, and their stockholders. And to make better stuff for their customers, too.  I am convinced it is time for us to get over this insane jealousy and distrust of everybody who tries to make a profit, assuming that if they do make money they accomplished success by illegally and immorally squashing competition, creating dangerous products or services, and by bribing every public servant in sight to keep their ill-gotten gains.

(If you have time for even more ranting on this subject, see my blog post from several years ago on this very subject, culled from my previous experiences in a business that actually does a much better job in its field than many of its government competitors and have caught its share of hell for daring to do so...in the name of...yeeccchhh!!!...profits.  See that blog post HERE. But be aware: my wonderfully well-written set of arguments did not change a damn thing. And your government has almost succeeded in putting out of business most of its competitors in that particular field, a true loss for students, the middle class and employers everywhere. Your government is especially adept at putting anyone it wants to out of business, believe me. I speak from direct experience.)

Let me be unequivocal. Any reduction in any taxation for anybody is a good thing. I get so tired of hearing about tax breaks for "the rich." Many assume that if rich folks get to keep more of their profits, that would remove money from circulation and we regular folks will have no chance of ever getting any of it. Or that we are just encouraging companies to do bad things by allowing them to keep more of that money earned on the backs of their poor, beaten-down workforce.  Neither is true!

Those CEOs don't back up the dump truck filled with all that misbegotten money and drop it into a hole in the ground out behind their polluting factory, and cover it up with the ashes of even more burned money! Or make their pitiful, overworked, mistreated workers man shovels and cover it over.

If they truly seek profit and success--for themselves, for their employees and for their stockholders--they reinvest it in their companies, doing R&D, creating new, innovative products, building a place to house all those new employees and labs and factories and warehouses, purchasing transportation, hiring more workers, paying more for them. That's because there will be competition for good, skilled employees, vying with each other and willing to pay for the best. And, at the same time, paying more and offering promotions and even better working conditions for the valuable employees they already have. If they don't, somebody else will recruit them away.

Oh, and successful businesses will pay more taxes even if their rate is markedly lower. But if a 40% tax lurks out there, good CEOs--looking out for themselves, their employees, their stockholders--use every legal loophole they can find, even if it does drag down the economy where they would prefer to compete, but they also know how difficult re-investment and innovation and planning for future growth will be. Or, as so often happens, they realize they simply can't compete with at least 40% coming off the top and they scale back or go do something else. How does that create reinvestment, hiring, training, innovation, increased wages and, naturally, more taxes paid, or all those other things that are not yet negative buzzwords?

And yes, if they and their companies become successful, some CEOs will buy themselves more yachts, more luxury cars, bigger mansions, more vacation homes. But every yacht for which they place an order creates many more jobs and successful manufacturers of yacht-building-stuff, and more profitable marinas and...well...more! And those yacht builders and yacht-part-companies and marina owners will build more factories and warehouses and boat slips, pay more taxes and hire more people who will pay more taxes and buy more non-luxury cars and new homes and take vacations they could not previously afford, which creates more non-luxury-car and home-building jobs for people who will earn more, spend more, pay more taxes...

And many of those flourishing yacht companies and non-luxury-car manufacturers will have their own rotten, mean-spirited, greedy, soul-crushing CEOs who are trying to come up with better products, hire more people, increase their market share and raise their stock value so they, too, can buy more yachts, more luxury cars...

Some may even become so rich that they spend most of their time finding ways to give away some of that money to worthy, deserving causes.  Causes that the government cannot assist because it would require a massive bureaucracy and books and books of new rules and regulations and paperwork-reduction guidelines to get a fraction of the money to those who need it or could do good with it.

Heck, some of those terrible profits may end up with financial institutions who will be able to open the vault every so often and allow somebody to borrow some of it in order to start a new company, build a new factory, create a new software system, buy an overseas competitor or do something else profitable and positive and life-changing for people just now entering the workforce.  Or who might dare to do so over the next few decades while they wait for free college or healthcare.

Do I like the fact that a guy who sits on a key taxation-policy committee has already decided that he is going to work for a consortium of businesses in Ohio that is lobbying for lower taxes?  Nope.  That's one "onerous" regulation I'd like to see put in place.  Congressmen should not be able to parlay public service into cushy jobs afterwards. But show me quid pro quo here. We want citizen politicians yet when they come to office from the business world or return to civilian life when they get fed up, we automatically assume they got that dream job because of all the shafting they did of the people they were elected to serve. Not necessarily so.

In fact, I'd bet this guy was already for lower taxes on business anyway. Always has been. Ran on such a platform idea. Truly believes allowing business to keep more of what they make--just as with individuals like you and me--leads to more reinvestment or productive spending or saving somewhere down the line. And that he is qualified for the job he will get. And we are probably wrong if we assume there is some kind of collusion here, that they are not really hiring him because he is going to steer sensible business tax law into reality as opposed to keeping the incomprehensible and deflating mess we now have.

And am I all sweetness and light, certain that there are not some terrible CEOs or terrible companies out there who would eviscerate their mothers for a 2% uptick in first quarter revenue? If course not. There are bad actors, polluters, bribers, rapists and pillagers out there, but reasonable...REASONABLE, consistent, predictable...regulation and prosecution will keep that to a minimum.  So will an open and unfettered marketplace.

The fact is that such bad-acting companies will only make a profit for a limited amount of time if they operate in a truly free, transparent, competitive, reasonably- and predictably-regulated marketplace.  Especially now, when anybody with a cell phone can report such bad acting to a vast audience. Customers quickly learn who the shysters are and who the good corporate citizens are, and the right folks will ultimately get rewarded. "Ultimately" being much quicker than ever before in our history of railroad barons, trusts, monopolies, and "too big to fail."

Maybe this opinion writer in the Washington Post is correct, though. After all, that Ohio group is made up of businesses and CEOs and we know how evil--at least according to many columnists and Hollywood--that insatiable profit motive is.  That all business people are dedicated to squashing the little man, keeping sweat-shop employees on subsistence wages, all while making as gargantuan a profit as they can by turning out shoddy, dangerous products and foisting them on a stupid public.

Then, once they have accumulated all the money in the world and have bought everything they can possibly buy for themselves, they take the rest of that filthy lucre, put it in a dump truck, and drop it into a hole in the ground and cover it over so nobody else can get it. Or force their miserable employees to do it with spoons for shovels while upper management lash them with cats-o-nine-tails.

Or use some of it to bribe Congressman so the CEO and his damned company can make more money to bribe even more Congressmen.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I don't know why I expected anything better

by Don Keith
If you are a friend on Facebook or frequent some of the more popular amateur radio hobbyist groups  there, or if you follow me on Twitter, I owe you an apology. Yesterday I received a tweet from ARRL letting us know that the very popular CBS Network TV show "NCIS" would have a strong plot line featuring ham radio. Since I'm always excited when people are exposed to a hobby I have enjoyed and benefited from for better than half a century, I posted the news everywhere I could.

I wish I had not. I don't need any help from Mark Harmon to get my blood pressure up.

I should have known from past experience that most portrayals of our hobby are bogus and ill-informed, from Herman Munster to the space alien Alf, though they were light years better than the pitiful mess on "NCIS" last night. 

There have been a few decent ones: "Last Man Standing" on ABC (Tim Allen even got his ham license in real life because of his character's interest in the hobby) and the movie "Frequency," even though the characters transmitted on an old Heathkit RECEIVER throughout the film. But at least the characters were not depicted as socially challenged dweebs who "perfectly fit the stereotype," an actual line from "NCIS."

Okay, I confess I have not watched a full episode of any of the flavors of "NCIS" because I found the situations totally unrealistic and what few I have spent more than a few minutes with were just downright silly. Therefore I should not be surprised that this attempt to include ham radio was just downright wrong at best and mean-spirited in actuality.

For the life of me I can't understand why, if they are going to make amateur radio a key element of the story line, they don't get a little input and get it right. A quick visit to the ARRL web site could have helped immensely.  Asking the local ham club to give input would have kept them from being absolutely insulting.  Maybe.

  • Hams don't use "handles." That's CB. Common mistake but why do it? Oh, that did fit into the plot somewhat since they had to use direction-finding to locate one ham they wanted to talk with about a murder. And they couldn't have just looked up a call sign on QRZ.com or the FCC database. That would have made the geniuses at NCIS unnecessary.
  • There are plenty of real but unused call signs they could have used instead of that silly mishmash they came up with. 
  • The two ham "shacks" they showed must have had a dozen transceivers in each. That was just an effort to further demonstrate how crazy these hams were.
  • The log book they showed would have had call signs in it, not "handles," and it would have been a snap to look them up on many web sites or in the FCC database. 
  • "His antennas have a range of 80 square miles." Ridiculous! The conglomeration of radios the murdered guy had and the big beam antenna and ham gear at his buddy's house can reach the other side of the planet. But they had to keep the dead guy's coverage down in order to determine that there were 630 licensed amateur radio operators that could possibly be able to talk to the poor fellow. And a quick look at their names instantly gave them the likely "handle" of the person they wanted to speak with. Wow!

But the worst parts were the constant references and portrayals of the amateur radio guys in the story as socially repressed loners, holed up in their shacks, grown men living with their mothers, unable to function except for jabbering for hours on their radios. Such a stereotype is absolutely untrue and, frankly, insulting. I have no data but I'd bet the number of socially non-functioning personalities in our hobby is actually less than in the general population. 

See, we communicate all the time, not just via radios but in many other ways, too. 

What they said about amateur radio often being the only means of communications during disasters is absolutely true. We've seen plenty of that in the past few months in flood- and hurricane-ravaged areas. Thanks for throwing us that bone anyway, NCIS. 

But when you consider the premise for this episode is that the drug cartel is hauling in cocaine, mixing it with sand, and dumping it into the traps on a golf course...well, again I should not be surprised at the hatchet job they did on a fine one-hundred-year-old hobby that almost a million-and-a-half of us enjoy and that does so much good for so many.

I've seen some scathing posts on many of the group pages this morning already. Many have written the network expressing their disappointment.  Hey, I know everyone is easily offended these days, and being politically correct seems at epidemic proportions, but why does a network, a show, its writers and producers feel they can malign a group of hobbyists as they did.  Here is just one such note to CBS that I believe says it well:

"You have insulted over 1,352,000 Amateur Radio Operators. Or Ham Radio, if you prefer. Did your writers do ANY research? The profile you depicted on tonight's program of NCIS was wrong on so many levels, it is hard to begin to correct. Most Hams are average people with normal jobs and normal life styles and families. We belong to clubs and churches. I know several doctors and police who are Hams. We volunteer with local Emergency Management Agencies as well as the National Weather Service and FEMA. Also, Tim stated he used a "Handle", and Ham operators do not. (CBers do) He also used a really bogus call sign that would never be issued. The equipment shown would have worked stations all over the world, not the 80 mile distance Tim said. Not only did you do us an injustice, you did the American people an injustice by misleading them. Who do you think has been providing the communications out of the islands hit by the recent hurricanes? I am very disappointed in your writers and I am seeing some bitter comments on social media. But then again, that's Hollywood. Don't let the facts get in the way of a good (or bad) story." 

As noted, I've never watched a full episode of this show. Now I'm glad I haven't wasted all that time if this is typical of the silliness they propagate. If you recorded it to watch later, don't bother. At least not for the amateur radio content. Or the goofy crime and how they eventually solve it, for that matter!

I'm just glad I decided to watch the World Series and give out candy to trick-or-treaters. After DVRing "NCIS," I was able to fast-forward through about a half hour of commercials and watch the silly show during breaks in the game.  

Even so, that's time I can never get back!