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No ham radio for old men...
January 29, 2011 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Amateur radio gets stick for being home to a lot of reactionary weird old buffers. How true. Many are put off by this. And that's a crying shame...

Because ham radio has a thousand good things for anyone who's intrigued by the science of communication. The original home of open-source hardware, you can build a transmitter from cast-off electronics, if you like, or spend thousands of dollars on gadgets that look like a Hollywood set dresser's wet dream. You can create a transmission site that lets you blast signals wherever you like through sheer muscle, or use the latest DSP techniques (as created by a Nobel Prize-winning radio astronomer, who occasionally takes over Arecibo for ham fun) to whisper tiny amounts of power into the ionosphere and watch them snake across the globe from your browser.

There's TV - slow, fast, digital - there are satellites and astronauts (they do talk back), there are plenty of new data modes, there are VOIP links (there's an app for that), there are collectors of the old and triers of the new.

Ham radio lets you do things nothing else lets you do.

And there are lots of good people out there to talk to... (Previously)
posted by Devonian (61 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

Personally, I'm holding out for Bacon radio.
posted by timsteil at 2:13 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Did this have anything to do with my comment?

(Thanks for providing a counterpoint to my 'wildly conservative old bigots'. If we don't get younger people in to replace the old bigots, ham radio's going to die and the FCC will auction off the spectrum to the highest bidder.)
posted by dunkadunc at 2:18 PM on January 29, 2011 [11 favorites]

I thought it might be related to this thread.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:25 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the interesting links. You are certainly right about the prevalance of reactionary/conservative viewpoints. Here is a depressing thread on QRZ about what the role (or lack of a role) of ham radio should be in the Egypt protests.

Narrow minded restrictions of what ham radio "should" be are going to strangle it, especially as the current generation of 60+ operators age out and the sounds of crickets fill the airwaves. Times have changed and we will be better off by moving to a less restricted and more open ethos without the heavy hand of government and self appointed cops policing the airwaves. Radio has almost unlimited potential, no where is that potential more visible than in the melding of the open source movement with the DIY hardware aspect of ham radio. Projects like HPSDR and GNU Radio fill me with hope, curiosity and enthusiasm. They are a return to the real nature of ham radio, bleeding edge experimentation and innovation out of a basement on a budget, crossing international borders and fostering the creative spirit.
posted by ChrisHartley at 2:26 PM on January 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

(they do talk back)

That was freaking cool.
posted by clarknova at 2:26 PM on January 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

A great start would be not holding the license exams at hours of the morning at which the younger generation(s - I'm not that 'young' anymore) are either at work or still asleep.

In the USA, the Technician license class is trivial to obtain for anyone with a modicum of electronics experience and common sense. And the ability to wake at 6am and drive to a fire station 50 miles away.
posted by nonlocal at 2:30 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I got my 20WPM code test for my Extra license at a VFW hall with M16 rifle practice going on in the background.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:32 PM on January 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have a deep-seeded hatred for ham radio because when I was a kid growing up my dad was (still is) a ham radio enthusiast. He had big antennas strung up from a tower in the backyard to a tree in the front. For hours every night he'd go out to his garage and argue politics (or conspiracy theories, or whatever) on the radio.

Every time he'd transmit, which is to say every 30 seconds, we'd get interference in every other sort of communications device we owned. It disconnected both dialup and DSL internet connections. It caused an ear-shattering "glahbwaglah" garbled voice sound to completely make the telephone unusable. It did the same thing to the TV, but not as loudly, so that the audio was strange and hard to understand, and introduced funky wavy lines to the picture.

Basically every night from just after dinner until about midnight, the TV, phone, and internet all became unusable. When we asked if he could stop he'd say "oh, I'll turn down the power." For one, that didn't fix the problem, just made it slightly milder. Secondly, he'd always turn the power back up a few minutes later anyway. If we took our complaints further than that, he'd say "my equipment's all FCC legal. It's your stuff that has a problem and can't filter out unwanted signals." or something to that effect.

I was abused by ham radio as a child.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:33 PM on January 29, 2011 [27 favorites]

The father of a friend of mine in Iceland is a ham radio guy. For some weird reason it's fairly easy to communicate between Iceland and New Zealand using ham radios. So my friend's father (who's fairly old-school left-wing, if anything, politically) sometimes goes on trips to New Zealand and travels around, staying with ham radio buddies. My friend went along once. It was all nice, agreeable people.

Once they were driving around the US together and left their road atlas behind. So my friend's father basically just navigated the entire route by ham radio, i.e. getting in touch with local operators and asking for directions. It went very smoothly.

Point is, if you get into ham radio, you can stay for free in nice people's houses in New Zealand and never have to deal with Google Maps or remember your road atlas again. That seems like a pretty acceptable trade-off to having to talk to the occasional crazy ol' coot.
posted by Kattullus at 2:33 PM on January 29, 2011 [16 favorites]

What clarknova said. Wow.
posted by circular at 2:33 PM on January 29, 2011

My first telephone chat on a "cell phone" was over a 2 meter car mounted radio through a repeater into the phone lines. In 1979 or so. Pretty awesome for its day. (actually, still awesome… free calls… and no "plan") I had a really cool grade school teacher who established a radio club in our school (complete with a shack and dipole). And he managed to get a half dozen of us dummies licensed. At age 11… back when you still had to take the test with the FCC. Alas, these days computers have overtaken communications for so many of us, but I'm still licensed (and upgraded) some thirty years later… ya know, just in case. :)

(you didn't think I was going to give you my call and void the warranty on my MeFi anonymity, didja?)
posted by readyfreddy at 2:36 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

That was freaking cool.

That was indeed freaking cool.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:40 PM on January 29, 2011

The reactionary/conservative old man bent of most US hams is a huge reason why I'm no longer active. I'm not really the ham demographic to begin with (in my 30s and a political moderate), but I just got sick to death of hearing about prostate trouble and the John Birch society. From what I understand, the teabagger crowd has become just insufferable on the local 2M repeaters.

That having been said, I set up my HF rig and put up a temporary wire antenna yesterday to see if I could hear anything from Egypt, and although I heard lots of people talking about what's happening there (including dozens of mentions of the word "islamofascist" from the elderly teabagger crowd), I didn't hear any Egyptian stations that I could identify. It was an interesting experiment, though.

73 de kg4rnoI'mnotgoingtotellyoutherest.
posted by deadmessenger at 2:43 PM on January 29, 2011

Point is, if you get into ham radio, you can stay for free in nice people's houses in New Zealand and never have to deal with Google Maps or remember your road atlas again. That seems like a pretty acceptable trade-off to having to talk to the occasional crazy ol' coot.

Kind of like this place.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:50 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've held Ham licenses twice. KB7RHQ and N7PWF. First time I let the license lapse because lack of money for equipment and lack of real interest. The second time I left because of local Old Farts complaining about a group of us doing digital work on *their* two meter frequencies and the fact I was completely bored with what was happening on the rest of the spectrum. Since I'm nearly 64 now, maybe it's time for me to get another license so I can complain about my latest aches and pains...
posted by jgaiser at 2:51 PM on January 29, 2011

Fun fact for all you punk fans: SST Records took its name from Greg Ginn's previous mail-order company, Solid State Transmitters.
posted by hydrophonic at 2:56 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, cool. More nifty ham links! Thanks.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:10 PM on January 29, 2011

Personally, I'd be more into radio if either of two problems were solved:

1) Commercial radios are expensive. If it costs more than a video game system or a computer, for a hobby I might not even enjoy, then that's too much for me.

2) Home-made receivers are essentially black boxes, despite having a parts list. The person who came up with the design knows what each part does, but I sure can't figure it out. I've tried. I know my E&M, know how radios work in general, read the ARRL books, never been able to figure out why this particular configuration of parts added up to a radio. Too many books start out with ohm's law, maybe an LC circuit, then suddenly throw a schematic at you for a superhet radio and expect you to somehow have learned how to build a radio. I know I'm being broad-brush, and I'd be happy if someone pointed out the lone book that does not do this, but that's how I've felt every time I picked up a radio book.
posted by kiltedtaco at 3:17 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm licensed, as is my wife. We got our licenses so we could help support local bicycle rides. I've used mine once, on someone else's gear, and my radio sits unused and uninstalled.

The local HAM folks are all tied up in disaster preparedness, which is fine, except that their meetings are all about how in the drills all communication is one-way to the fire department. Which means that as a function of real disaster prep, the general authorities see HAM as a way to keep the potentially problematic people otherwise occupied, not as a real asset.

Which also meshes with the people I've talked to who've been a part of the response after Katrina and in Puerto Rico: They all say "learn how to get point-to-point WiFi running quickly, it's way more useful than HAM".
posted by straw at 3:27 PM on January 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes, it was a reaction to some of the ham radio comments in the recent threads. I started in radio when I was around 15 and one of the youngest on the air. Sometimes, 30 years later, it seems like I still am...

I love ham radio - all radio, in fact, and think it's one of the biggest miracles of the age. The simplest possible machine is an aerial - just a length of wire - yet it can detect and retrieve information from its twin thousands of miles away, through utterly invisible means. Before Maxwell and Hertz, we had literally no concept of radio: look at it now, a hundred-odd years later.

But there are indeed a lot of gabby, cantankerous, plain unpleasant old geezers on the air (much more time to play when you're retired), and there are plenty of evenings when I get a rare canter around the bands and feel thoroughly depressed about what I hear. But all that's forgotten when I catch a rare and distant signal, unmediated by any third party except the heaving ionosphere born of the earth spinning through the weather of space. And, as I said, there are a lot of top chaps and chapesses out there to talk to; have a couple of decent conversations, and you'll find others listening in and ready to play ball.

I'd like to think that with the revival of interest in making clever things and in the open-source, collaborative, shared tradition that is recently abroad, there'll be another renaissance in amateur radio. I think there are signs of that, especially in the US, and especially now so many fantastic things can be done in digital on the workbench at home. But that means talking about the good stuff, and letting the old guard fade away.
posted by Devonian at 3:35 PM on January 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

kiltedtaco - get the book Basic Radio by Joel Hallas ASAP. I know EXACTLY what you mean about radio theory being a black box where they jump from V=IR to superhet. That was the book that made it click in my brain where nothing else had come close. The step-by-step progression of explanations is very clear and accessible. Really, you should check it out.
posted by ChrisHartley at 3:43 PM on January 29, 2011 [7 favorites]

The reactionary old Ham radio heads are the survivors of the golden era of US prosperity. Most of their parents were probably broke dirt farmers. The old buffers managed to earn plenty of money during the boom years, and have the defined benefit pensions, VA healthcare and so on.

They've managed to forget that but for US government programs and deficit spending, they'd still be dirt poor on a farm somewhere. We should remind them of this more often.
posted by wuwei at 3:55 PM on January 29, 2011 [6 favorites]

Is it true the FCC won't allow ham radio to connect to the internet? Because I have always thought that would be a nifty, disaster-resistant ISP.
posted by Monochrome at 3:55 PM on January 29, 2011

There a bunch of cranky old men on my local repeaters. Luckily, they're getting fewer and fewer as the years go by.
posted by tommasz at 4:09 PM on January 29, 2011

I worked for a guy long ago who was a ham radio nut (NU5K), I only remember his call sign because it was pretty much everywhere and was most of what he talked about.

Ham radio is excellent if there are major disasters for communicating across the radio spectrum.

Other than that it is comparable to a non-archived voice version of mIRC ie: a bunch of sad lonely guys who want to carry on conversations about pretty much nothing over a long distance.

oh wait...
posted by AndrewKemendo at 4:11 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]
posted by hank at 4:12 PM on January 29, 2011

We should remind them of this more often.
posted by clavdivs at 4:17 PM on January 29, 2011

APRS is really neat; it lets you wireless upload data packets to the Internet from anywhere. It's a lot like old school Fidonet or Usenet, only via amateur radio bands. Mostly it's used for location tracking, see this map. I wrote up some more info on my blog.
posted by Nelson at 4:23 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

You can carry TCP/IP over ham radio using the AX.25 protocol. The Linux kernel has robust support built in. The FCC's problem is that you can't transmit encrypted data over the ham bands (no HTTPS or SSH, plaintext passwords only) and you can't cuss (ruling out pretty much the entire Internet).

As a ham you can also use higher power 802.11abgn networking gear but the same no encryption/no cussing rules apply.

Mesh networks, which typically operate within the no-license-required restrictions of standard 802.11 can provide fault tolerant decentralized Internet access but the fundamental problem is that for each node your data crosses you lose 50% of your bandwidth. If you live 4 nodes away from the Internet connected node you better not plan on watching youtube much.
posted by ChrisHartley at 4:27 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is it true the FCC won't allow ham radio to connect to the internet?

Not so much any more, but it has been a problem. There are two big restrictions on what you can use ham bands for: no commercial stuff (which can be hard to ensure if you're passing arbitrary Internet traffic) and no encryption (likewise). There are good reasons for these; spectrum is a scarce resource, and the ham bands are the part of the spectrum set aside especially for these restrictions. Other parts are set aside for other purposes. If you want more of a free-for-all, try the ISM bands— that's where most WiFi operates, for example (as well as many cordless phones, microwave ovens, induction heaters, some RFID tags, etc. etc.)
posted by hattifattener at 4:38 PM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

timsteil: "Personally, I'm holding out for Bacon radio"

That's what they call ham radio in Canada.
posted by symbioid at 4:41 PM on January 29, 2011

Thanks for the recommendation ChrisHartley, I'll check it out.
posted by kiltedtaco at 4:54 PM on January 29, 2011

I come in an out of the hobby. Living in San Francisco earthquake country I try to keep up with my skills and help others in the local NERT teams learn how to use their radios.

I'm also really interesting in the Software Defined Radio technology (aka SDR) as seen here

The last few years have been horrible for long range communications due to the low sun spot cycles making it harder for new hams to go out long distances there with the lower level licenses.

Once things get a little better I'm hoping to put together a small QRP (low power, typically a 9 volt or lower battery) rig for morse code. (When the sun spots are active you can use morse code to talk around the world on a radio you build for $10
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:02 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

or spend thousands of dollars on gadgets that look like a Hollywood set dresser's wet dream

I don't even know exactly what that does and I need it so very badly.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:04 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

kiltedtaco: there's some really cheep but quite good equipment coming from China now. I got this dual-band Wouxun HT for about $100, and it's great.
posted by Emanuel at 5:09 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ham radio was the internet of much of the 1900's. Free, long distance communication with the world, relatively unhindered by the governments/industry. Like Omegle... random chats with strangers.

Those of us who KNOW how radio works, and in my case, know how the internet/computers, etc. works, I think are a bit more with it than code heads who can set up a wireless router and haven't the simplest idea of how the signals get from here to there, and how the intelligence is superimposed on a carrier.

There are lots of 'old farts' in the hobby, of course. I've actually been watching the WW2 generation that used to occupy the airwaves gradually going dark for years, and feel the same way about those folks as most of us do about the rusting gas stations along Route 66.

Ham enthusiasts were sending email (via something called packet radio) before many mefites were born. Ham enthusiasts were bouncing signals off the moon with backyard radios, and off the ion trails of meteorites with stuff they designed themselves.

Having worked in engineering for years, I am often flabbergasted by flocks of engineers who can set up a development environment for a TI micro, but flail around like little tykes when asked to design a simple inductor or antenna.

There's no such thing as useless knowledge. Radio, of any sort, is a place to learn some really useful knowledge. Sure, amateur radio has its problems and idiots. Good thing the internet has neither! /sarcasm
posted by FauxScot at 5:14 PM on January 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Lance Bass is a ham? Wow, I don't know why but that really surprises me.

I'm just glad that Canada did away with (for the most part) the CW requirement. Hams in the US thought it would turn the bands into CB but most Canadian hams are pretty respectable (quirks and old-boy's club crap aside), and I've heard a lot more CB-like behaviour coming from our ham friends south of the border, from the old timers with morse code qualifications and big amps.
posted by 1000monkeys at 5:30 PM on January 29, 2011

I've been wanting to get my first license for a few years now, slowly puttering through an ARRL book; the recent Egypt stuff got me to study some more (there are some very convenient iOS practice test apps).

The thing that kills my enthusiasm is 1) no cussin', and 2) no music. 1 isn't a huge deal in and of itself, but more what it represents (government imposed censorship), and 2 is frustrating because it seems like it'd be pretty fun to set up short live music sessions to broadcast.

But it's still appealing if for no other reason than because it's all really there.
posted by curious nu at 5:54 PM on January 29, 2011

I was abused by ham radio as a child.
My advice is Get Over It!
posted by tustinrick at 6:23 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

curious nu: for music, there's always setting up a microbroadcasting station. Years ago, when streaming audio over the network wasn't really a thing yet, a coworker had a micropower station set up so we could all listen to his multi-disc CD player.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:42 PM on January 29, 2011

Burl Ives and Marlon Brando were HAM operators
The Woz also
posted by clavdivs at 8:48 PM on January 29, 2011

Reading this makes me glad the repeaters around here are so...normal.
Maybe it's just the area, but we really don't get a bunch of cranky old men rants, at least not on the times I've been listening.
posted by madajb at 9:18 PM on January 29, 2011

Oh god, I never considered the teabagger contingent. I found ham radio pretty insufferable in the mid-90s. I can't imagine how god-awful it must be now.

I got a license on a lark at 14, just because I already knew all the material. Never bought a transmitter, although I spent a good bit of time listening in on my wideband receiver. The 2M repeaters were just a bunch of boring old guys. Why talk with them when you could listen to pager traffic on 931.3725MHz? I'm pretty sure I spent more hours listening to the pagers.
posted by ryanrs at 10:13 PM on January 29, 2011

Those of us who KNOW how radio works

Eh, those old ragchewers don't understand modern radio any better than the IT guys. How many of them do you think understand OFDM and MIMO, or even direct sequence spread spectrum? For the most part they're just shooting the shit on technology that's older than they are. I wish there were more clubs doing exciting stuff, but it's a rare club that's doing anything innovative these days.
posted by ryanrs at 10:36 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

no music

I'm not sure music is specifically forbidden. It's broadcasting that's against the rules.
posted by ryanrs at 10:40 PM on January 29, 2011

They talk instead of type. I will grant you that Mefites don't tear up the TV or the neighbors' clock radios like hams and CBers running boots. Be grateful that they stay on radio; if they got computers your email would be stuffed with even more 3-year-old forwards.
posted by Cranberry at 11:04 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Spectrum is a finite shared resource; the bit bucket is not.
posted by ryanrs at 11:55 PM on January 29, 2011

"Here" is a depressing thread on QRZ about what the role (or lack of a role) of ham radio should be in the Egypt protests."
posted by ChrisHartley at 10:26 PM

jeez, depressing is not the word for it. they may as well all have written "Fuck you protestors"
posted by marienbad at 5:18 AM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


How many of them do you think understand OFDM and MIMO, or even direct sequence spread spectrum works?

Uh... that would be me, but I do agree... they are mostly rag chewers shooting the breeze about the old days and nothing much of consequence. I'm thinking 'Reddit', more or less. The newer tech is always a challenge, and the math of DSP is mostly beyond most of the current crop of EEs, let alone self-taught hobbyists.

OTOH, my last (non-self employed) job saw me dealing with such basics as controlled impedance transmission lines, in a company that sold remotely guided military vehicles. I found myself constantly explaining that you couldn't just run radio signals through teflon coated wires, or co-locate antennas of video transmitter and control transceivers and expect decent performance. I introduced a $100 million per year revenue company to the miracle of the TDR and spectrum analyzer and the RF power meter. They didn't even have a video generator or know why you would want a standard video waveform to evaluate your system quality. They did not have a single RF source, nor adapters, nor attenuators, nor any idea what they were for.

In short, they sucked at radio. Honestly, they had no idea that you even had to test the stuff. Yet, one of our stars was an MIT PhD EE. He and another yahoo (also PhD with an optics speciality) were young-earthers! I've routinely encountered such organizational ignorance because the PRACTICAL part of RF wasn't part of a college degree.

At the same time, find me a licensed general class ham radio operator who doesn't know any/all of the above. This is useful knowledge, enhanced by experimentation with real hardware.

Do you think you could communicate with anyone on the other side of the globe with a 1 Watt transmitter? Do you think you could bounce a signal off the moon and tell if you were actually successful? These are pretty interesting things, IMO.

For yuks, I used to setup elaborate antenna systems to get full stereo signals on an FM station over 100 miles away, right next to a local 100 KW station on the dial. Just to prove I could do it. To pull it off, it needed a highly directional antenna, supplemental amplification, and modifications to the IF bandpass filters on an old Kenwood FM receiver. These involved evaluation of ceramic bandpass filters with a sweep generator and spectrum analyzer to pull out the best 2 of a few hundred filters. None of this involved OFDM, but it did involve good application of highly relevant RF skills.

Another EE I worked with at TI back in the 80's made his own satellite dish system. He designed his own LNA and fabricated a proper geometry dish from fiberglass in his back yard, plus worked out a positioning system. He later went on to be a VP of Grass Valley Systems, a Tektronix division dealing with RF. He was a Sacramento State U EE, and a ham.

OFDM isn't the end-all of RF tech, and truly comprehending it is an accomplishment. Understanding its subtleties is a real challenge. IME, however, its application by uninformed hacks who think they can use a coat hanger for an antenna system leave a lot to be criticized.

Not sure what you find interesting, but again, the fundamentals are pretty interesting. aZAaZAaaa
posted by FauxScot at 6:03 AM on January 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

It's interesting that ODFM does get quite close to the Shannon limit, which is roughly the information theory equivalent of the speed of light. It defines how much information you can get through a channel (Claude Shannon deserves a post to himself, assuming there hasn't been one. He invented the bit, and married a computer).

So you might think to yourself - ah well, that's that bit of radio done. No more bandwidth to be got per Hertz. But then someone comes along with MIMO and says - you haven't really considered what 'a channel' is, have you?

Or you're lost on the way to the airport, and pull up Google Maps on your £90 phone. A network of orbiting atomic clocks deliver your position to within a few metres, within a few seconds. A detailed map, with high resolution images, appears a few seconds later. You tell your friend in Australia, who you'll be seeing in a day's time, that you're still on schedule. It's cost you a fraction of a penny. Go, radio.

If you get your rocks off thinking about such ideas, but are still tickled pink when you make a crystal radio out of a length of wire, a rusty razor blade and a pair of headphones - and voices come out! - then radio is for you. Get stuck in. Ham radio means that you can get really stuck in, and it also safeguards chunks of spectrum so people like us can carry on getting really stuck in. The spectrum is a unique resource and it belongs to all of us, and I want to see it stay that way.
posted by Devonian at 7:30 AM on January 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've been studying to get my ham ticket. I call it "ham ticket" because that's what my father called it, and I'm looking to get mine because I found that I could reclaim his old call sign. It's sentiment of the worst sort, to be sure, but I don't care.

I grew up basking in roiling, invisible storms of radio emissions, an imaginary presence I liked to think one could almost see like heat waves around the long, long wires my father strung between enough of the twenty hundred year-old oaks in our yard to create a gigantic radio array spanning much of our property. At night, the light from the one grimy basement window would advertise that he was down there, at the code key, making connections, and I lift up the heavy outside door, climb down stone steps, and sit at the workbench on the other end of the room with my soldering iron crowned with a curl of burning rosin as I made point-to-point connections on perfboard.

We rarely saw eye-to-eye, but we worked in similar ways.

A couple years ago, when there was an epidemic of pinhole leaks springing in pipes around Maryland, a single point appeared in a pipe in the northwest corner of my basement, just large enough to create a aerosol haze of escaping water over a shelf where I'd stored some of the things I'd salvaged from the old house in the last days. It went on for days, so quietly that my normal visceral sense of which sounds in this place were okay and which were indicators of repairs I'd need to make. I can hear sediment in the southwest sump pump, the gentle growl to the boiler's circulator motor, and the bubble of a clog in the northern sewer drain, but that pinhole was as quiet as a whisper.

There was a rainbow in the basement, and a heaviness to the air, and I paused, taking things down to my workshop, long enough to realize that the pinhole fairy had struck again, and on a side of the basement where these things never happened. Cardboard boxes sagged and bulged, old clothes flopped out in multicolored mildewed excess, and I cleared box after box, determining what could be saved and what couldn't. Some of it hurt, but not so much as the pasteboard carton labeled QSL in my father's handwriting, which lay splayed out, scattering postcards.

Decades of connections were there, QSL cards in a kaleidoscopic array of designs and levels of formality, from the jokey, hand-drawn cards of Arkansas truck drivers to the beautiful iron curtain issue, and they were neatly rubber-banded in bundles—wet, mildewed bundles, stuck together so well I could hardly separate them. I cursed a lot, then settled into a grim state of funk, re-wetting the bundles to separate them and lay them out on screens we used to use to dry photographs. The prized card, an elegant one from King Hussein of Jordan, had survived, but was marbled with blue veins of mildew.

I spent weeks ironing the cards, then stored each one in an acid and lignin-free microfiche envelope, tucked into a seal plastic box with an archivist's desiccant cartridge. Years spent working as a microfilm conservator and archivist came in handy, but I rued the damage.

These days won't come again.

"Son, you've got the key wrong," he said, explaining that you don't clutch the code key like a door knocker, choking your articulation. "Like this," he added, and his hairy paw danced on the key like a bearish ballerina, the practice oscillator rendering perfectly-formed code.

"Why can't we build that keyer kit?" I complained, referring to a paddle-keyed electronic unit from Heathkit that actually timed out the dit and dah. The Vibroplex bug that sat on a shelf over the desk also served my need to step over the obstacle of my lack of ground-level competence by going for a complex technical solution to a simple problem of basic perseverance, and my dad would laugh every time I'd pick it up.

"How 'bout we get you a Citroën for your first car, too," he'd chuckle, a jibe that was prophetic, but off, as a Citroën was my ninth car. I wasn't up to the task, back then—too impatient, too jumpy and mercurial, and too ready to find the next new and amazing thing in the world.

I gave up, halfway through my instructions, irritated that I needed to learn a technology I thought best belonged in another century just to get into seemingly better things like slow-scan and digital data transmission. My first modem killed it all, and while my dad sat at his Ten-Tec, the key gently tapping, I'd dial up my favorite local BBS, a friendly place called The Circuit Board, on the heavy black rotary phone that now sits on my desk at work, wait for the screee-eeerrrrrgghh, then clap the handset into the rubber cups of the modem attached to the Apple ][ plus.

300 baud worth of text crawling across the green-screen changed my world, and radio became a beautiful background for sleeping, with my shortwave tuned into the catholic chanting channels, phasing in lush sweeps as the ionosphere rose and fell. I listened for the radio drama, and I used radio in an ill-advised and illegal venture into self-promotion, but I never revisited the ham world again, except for the occasional hamfest, where I go for obscure theremin coils, and the last day in the ham shack, where I packed up the last of my dad's things when the bank got our old house.

I always stop by the tent of the Laurel Amateur Radio Club on event days in my town, mainly to see my old next door neighbor, who's always working the booth. In conversation, I mention it'd be neat if you could get a call sign that was an older one, and it turns out you can, just like getting a vanity tag for your car.

So I'm studying.

I built a nice little regenerative receiver kit from Ten-Tec, and I've cleaned up my father's old receiver, just for listening, but it's a little dispiriting. Radio belong to one of those mysterious ad hoc guilds that create a parallel world for the knowing, with lingo and cultural codes of its own, but there's definitely a distinct element of old white crankiness there. Check the bumpers out in a ham fest parking lot, and you'll be astonished at the level of adhesive anti-Obama invective. I just...just don't want to let that keep me away from something I'm interested in, but there are moments where you just tire of being the outsider.

It's just one of those strange things. My father was also a pilot, and pilots are crazy. Me, I'm a synthesist, or whatever you'd call it, and well, our meet-ups are awfully heavy, white, awkward, and badly-dressed affairs (I fit in perfectly, alas). Ad hoc guilds just sort of go that way, and that's a wall that keeps change and new blood out.

Ham's buried behind that wall right now, kept alive in some ways by the tea baggers and the cranks and the phony traditionalists and all the other people who cling to technologies that are survivalist-friendly because they feed their impotent fantasies of rebellion and their neurotic fears. At the same time, it's radio. It's words riding the waves, changing worlds, connecting souls. We have to refuse to cede that to the ignorant folks wallowing in their undeserved privilege even as they do nothing but complain about it.

I have a little property in West Virginia. My nearest neighbor is a pleasant enough Libertarian with a wife so angrily right wing that the merest mention of the wicked word "Obama" around the campfire will send her stomping back to their cabin for a little closed-door swearing at no one in particular. The other is a tea bagger who plays gangsta rap a bit too loudly while he's chopping wood, though I never even see the guy, except when he's chugging through my right-of-way. My best friend in the area is a gay bowhunting farmer who lives a mile down the tracks, where the rail crossing is, in the house where he was raised.

He's got balls, and put up OBAMA signs ten feet tall on his property in the midst of the campaign, and speaks his mind, but it's ix-nay on the ag-fay uff-stay when his hunting buddies are there. We'll be in his kitchen chatting over building projects and the odder neighborhood characters while he's dressing squirrels and laying them out in neat rows before mixing up his notorious barbecue sauce, but when the trucks pull up, he gives me the raised eyebrow and the keep-it-straight squint.

The guys come clumping into the kitchen in autumn camo, and it's always a blast, because they're just about the drinkenest, cussinest, bullshittinest bunch you'd ever meet, but they'll ask if I'm married in some peripheral off-handed way and I'm suddenly feeling like a drag queen standing on stage with the Miss America finalists, covering an adam's apple with a fluttery and very large hand.

"Bitch had the good sense to leave me years ago," I say, to guffaws. You just sort of adapt, I guess. Sometimes it's okay, sometimes you feel like an undercover agent.

At the hamfest, I stand in a line, with a few particularly rare coils in hand, something for a project I have in mind after seeing Randy George on youtube and deciding that my ten-year refusal to return to theremin building might be up for a little variance, and goddammit if there's not some fucktarded cluster of whitehairs going on about taxes, O-fucking-bama, muslims, and so on. I grit my teeth a bit, get out my wallet, and pay.

Sometimes, I want to argue. Sometimes I do. It's too easy. I can crush a teabagger in a conversation, but I can't seem to make headway with restoring their rationality or convincing them about real issues. Will I be in the same boat on the airwaves, talking to right-wing astronauts and Alaskan survivalists?

I don't know.

When I'm up in West Virginia, lying on my back in the cool grass at night, I can see the whole sky that's just not there at home, as black as velvet and full of stars bright enough you can tell what color they are. I can lie there for hours, stargazing and wandering loose in my thoughts, interrupted here and there by the bracing roar of freight trains rumbling through my front yard. The way I think, and how I live, and who I am, isn't celebrated up there, but I own that night sky and the perfume of woodsmoke drifting from my chimney and the trains and the sound of the birds down at the river below.

I am usually the lone queer on the group ride, motorcycles banking in unison around the bend, the solitary esoteric secret sissy with a closet full of feather boas who's up to my armpits in engine grease and tools, and the only socialist at the shooting range, but whether I'll make any headway as a ham or just add it to the long list of adopted and abandoned pursuits that I keep to shame myself is an open question. I just hate to be told I don't belong, and I make it my place to force my way in.

"Listen," my dad said, adjusting the dial on his receiver. He turned up the volume knob and the low, dim space in the cellar filled with a ticking, tapping, clattering sound. "That's the Russian woodpecker."

"What is it?"

"No one knows, really. They think it's some sort of top secret radar installation."

"It's sounds spooky."

"Yeah, it's pretty weird," he said. He had no idea, and neither did the rest of the world, really. It went silent in '89, and was later exposed as the product of the awesomely unsettling Duga-3 array a stone's throw from Chernobyl. Having caught my interest, he went on to introduce me to numbers stations, which scared me to the point of giving me nightmares, but I still tuned them in on the old boat anchor vacuum tube shortwave I kept in my room.

I'm still listening, though it's on the treasured RF-2200 that used to sit by the window in his woodshop. I tune in on the Ten-Tec to the bands I'll be on when I'm licensed, and with luck, I'll be a voice out there for that other side, the side that thinks that the world's impossible, amazing, and something to leave us in awe, rather than just a source of more cranky, interminable vitriol.

There's always a world of frustration out there, but there's also a moment when my dad, using plans from a magazine, sat me down with a reel of copper magnet wire and an oatmeal box, taught me how to solder, and helped me build an ugly radio on a piece of 2x8 lumber. He strung a long, long antenna between the trees, slung it in through my window, and we hooked it all up. The headphones were spidery and black, bakelite and steel hoops with fabric covered wire, low-impedance leftovers from three or four wars earlier, and I put them on, turned the big open-air variable capacitor, and heard tinny music on a radio with no obvious source of power. I was eight or nine, science was better than magic, and almost everything was possible.

Whether I'll have anything to say, instead of just listening, is something else entirely.
posted by sonascope at 7:47 AM on January 30, 2011 [51 favorites]

marienbad, you if you read to the third and later pages of the qrz thread you linked to, you see some spirited rebuttals to the knuckle-dragger trolling.
posted by HLD at 7:50 AM on January 30, 2011

great read/good writing sonascope.
posted by clavdivs at 11:06 AM on January 30, 2011

What sonascope said, and also noting the earlier comment: In short, they sucked at radio. Honestly, they had no idea that you even had to test the stuff. Yet, one of our stars was an MIT PhD EE. He and another yahoo (also PhD with an optics speciality) were young-earthers!

I have noticed time and time again that engineers are often (but of course not exclusively) the most nutty of the nutcases when it comes to conservativism, wacky conspiracy theories, or quack science. I'm not really sure why this is, but I have seen it an awful lot. This spills over into amateur radio because there's a strong engineering overlap, along with all of the 'emergency response' folks who usually don't do much more than get in the way.

Here's why amateur radio is dying from someone who SHOULD be the future of amateur radio: relevance.

As background, I hold an extra class license with a general class from when I was about 14 (with code). I really enjoyed radio as a young teenager, but it didn't hold my interest in college. I 'rediscovered' it about 10 years later, and was fascinated with the new tiny radios, the surge of great QRP gear, and new modes like PSK32. I have built lots of gear, including radios, worked lots of modes, and have a love for tinkering. The last thing I was into was APRS, and used it to bounce signals off of the ISS to send e-mails to my wife while I was working outside of phone coverage areas. I even built an APRS to AOL Instant Messager server once to try to blend radio and the internet in a new way.

All that, and I haven't touched a radio in years.

The moment it died for me was sitting in a local radio club meeting, discussing the possibility of setting up some kind of wireless internet network. I did my best to convince them that we should do something totally new (WIMAX was brand new at the time, with no commercial networks in existence), but they were all really keen on setting up long-range wifi networks. What was the point? This was a solved problem that actually didn't require an amateur radio license, and no one in that room could actually contribute anything to that problem other than tweaked antenna designs. (Of course you could use higher power with a license, but no one even remotely suggested building higher-power gear). We could have done something cool that no one else was even ALLOWED to do, and learn something to boot, but no one was interested. This isn't true across the hobby, but real innovators used to be plentiful, and now they're amazingly scarce.

The internet fundamentally killed amateur radio. It used to be fascinating to have a box in your room that you could use to potentially talk to anyone in the world. But you can now do this cheaper and easier with a computer.

I enjoy having the MacGuyveresque skills to be able to build a radio out of just a tiny handful of parts and to know morse code, but at this point, the skills are right up there with buggy whip making - interesting and quirky, but of no real use to anyone. A problem only compounded by the fact that the airwaves are full of people that aren't worth talking to.
posted by grajohnt at 12:43 PM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've dusted off my soldering station and am in the midst of building my first SDR receiver, the RxTx Ensemble II. It's a monster-feat of a kit (I'm backtracking already - never had to do that before), but will be very satisfying when I'm done. I got my license last year, mostly to help my local NET (neighborhood emergency team), but also because I'm a sucker for learning something new. HAM has been fun so far!
posted by dylanjames at 1:22 PM on January 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have noticed time and time again that engineers are often (but of course not exclusively) the most nutty of the nutcases when it comes to conservativism, wacky conspiracy theories, or quack science. I'm not really sure why this is, but I have seen it an awful lot.

I think it may be that many people with the habit of mind of reducing everything to a series of hacks are drawn to both engineering and conspiracy theories (to me, $wing politics and quack science are subsets of conspiracy theory--it's all about the STUFF 'THEY' DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT!)

My beloved father-in-law has never met an herbal nostrum he doesn't like. He's a brilliant man, multi-patent holder, who's just a sucker for anything that's wrapped in enough contrarianism and promises of shortcuts to catch his attention.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:05 PM on January 30, 2011

I was first licensed in my teens, had a lot of fun - mobile on 2 meters with a WW2 aircraft transceiver (SCR-522, anyone?) but kinda let it go after college. Got interested again when I found that I could get my dad's old call, and I like boatanchors... vacuum-tube radios, restoring early stuff, the like.
Ditto what sonascope and grajohnt said- I find that I'm not that much interested in ragchewing with a bunch of "people that aren't worth talking to"- but I do find, occasionally, someone intelligent and worthwhile halfway around the globe. When that happens, it's one of the neatest things I can imagine.
My dad was the first amateur licensed in Arkansas. He had the call 5CB- I have a QSL of his from the Byrd expedition to Antarctica in 1928. The last call he had was W5GNF, and that's the call I have today.
The sense of history is what keeps me interested.
posted by drhydro at 8:59 PM on January 30, 2011

@ Sonascope I remember those number stations on my fancy-schmancy shortwave/longwave radio, pondering with deep intensity for the meaning and rationale of this mystery. Every once in a while I'd get on and listen to HAM's and wanted so badly to be one of them, but I was a girl and didn't fit in in those days. The test was too hard. I remember distinctly the 'Well' it was a source of ultimate fascination and the elite of the BBS. I met brilliant people in the forums there, and regret now meeting some of them in person. This link is a hybrid for the 21st century and beyond. It would be a shame for this type of communication went to the wayside, because even for the operator's curmudgeon personalities, during a crisis they are like a well tuned piano playing a melody of perfection, marching into their respective roles, organizing and filling in like troopers in a battle. Ego's fade and a legion of airwave warriors carry on while the rest of us stare blankly into our flaccid IPhones. I, for one would be proud to be one.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 9:03 PM on January 30, 2011

The point about engineers is apt, and may explain some of it. The area where I live is completely surrounded by various skunkworks, like NSA, Fort Meade, APL, Aberdeen, Fort Detrick, the Naval Research Facility, and lots of other places where your neighbors will only reluctantly acknowledge working, and only with the vaguest of confirmations.

There are a few confirmed liberal engineering types in our circle of family and friends, and instead of being blissfully spared the bullshit of insane tea baggery, I get dragged into endless discussions about the goddamn WTC 7, which is apparently what liberals go bugshit about when they lose their minds these days.

It would appear that Occam's Razor doesn't come with one's engineering degree, alas.
posted by sonascope at 8:46 AM on January 31, 2011

the events in Egypt and the the fact that there is a bill in the US hoping to enact a similar internet kill switch makes me want to go get my ham license.
posted by jrishel at 9:24 AM on January 31, 2011

From "20 Ways to Circumvent the Egyptians Governments' Internet Block"

04] #hamradio frequencies for #egypt PLEASE SPREAD IRC:

05] Ham Radio Software software for PC, Mac and Linux Communicate w/ #egypt
posted by hank at 5:43 PM on January 31, 2011

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