I am very excited and pleased to announce the launch of my new spinoff site, Off Grid Ham.
Twenty First Summer will continue as usual. I created Off Grid Ham as a separate platform to discuss technical topics related to amateur (ham) radio, electronics, and alternative & off grid energy. I feel this is the best way to serve two very different reading audiences.
I know a lot of technical people enjoy Twenty First Summer, and I hope all of you stick around! To dive deeper into the geeky stuff, please add Off Grid Ham to your reading list. If you are not a technical person, come on by Off Grid Ham anyway…you never know what you’ll learn.
New articles will not appear on Off Grid Ham on any particular schedule. If there is a topic you’d like to see me address, then please let me know and I’ll do my best.
It is because of the success of Twenty First Summer that I have the confidence to try a new venture. To everyone, no matter if you are a technogeek, a fellow blogger, or just a curious onlooker, thank you so much for your loyalty and goodwill.
I was twelve years old and the Citizen’s Band (CB) radio craze in the United States had already been going for a while. After successfully nagging my parents into letting me get a CB, which included mounting a large antenna on their house, I had a hot signal all over town. All my friends were doing CB, too. It was like the Twitter of its time. I did not know that the ghost of CB radio would still be sending out good vibes so many decades later.
The fad took off around 1975. It had its own quirky vocabulary. There were magazines and organized clubs devoted solely to CB radio. CB radio became a major theme in contemporary movies, TV shows, and gave birth to an entire genre of amazingly lame songs. No one used their real name on the air. Colorful “handles” (a made up name) were used instead. In our area we had The Lamplighter, Dream Weaver, Handy Andy, The Bookkeeper, Pizza Man, Old Grey Mare, Four String, Beholder, and dozens of others.
These people were not just voices in a box. They were friends and neighbors.
Most towns had an unofficial CB radio “home channel” where the locals would hang out and chatter away, often late into the night. In Naperville, it was channel 15. It was a cheerful place; even us kids were welcomed. CB has a practical range of about five miles (8.04 km); it was the perfect medium for an electronic town square where everyone can gather.
Every Saturday morning CBers would flock to Grandma Sally’s Pancake House for an “eyeball” (that’s CB lingo for a face to face meeting). On some weekends over twenty people would show up. If any of the regulars were not heard on the radio in a while, someone would go check up on them. These people were not just voices in a box. They were friends and neighbors.
As with all fads, CB radio fever quickly flamed out. Pop culture jumped to the next big thing and by 1980, the airwaves went dead as we kids got older and found other things to do while the adults likewise lost interest and fell away. No one even thinks about CB radio anymore: Smart phones and all the goodies that come with them have eliminated the advantages of analog CB radio, albeit with less personality and camaraderie. My run on CB lasted less than three years. But wow, what a great run it was!
Today, the CB channels are now mostly a wasteland of static and pirate operators running illegal amplifiers. About all that’s left of any significance is long haul truckers exchanging travel information and scattered hotspots of legitimate users such as farmers and outdoorsmen. No one uses CB radio just for socializing. High end CB radio sets that used to cost hundreds of dollars (in 1978 money!) can now be found at flea markets in working condition for about twenty five bucks or less.
At the time I didn’t know my Realistic Navaho TR-431 CB would turn into an obsession with amateur (ham) radio, which to this day I am still deeply involved with, and ultimately into a fulfilling career as an electronic technician keeping transmission equipment on line for a large telecomm company. Not many people do as adults what they dreamed of doing as kids, but I’m one of the lucky ones. The pedigree of my entire professional life can be traced back to that one CB radio.
The short lived glory days of the citizens’ band are indeed never coming back, yet CB radio has earned immortality in American culture and in many individuals’ lives. As anyone who has ever heard the Red Sovine song Teddy Bear can attest, CB had a lowbrow, tacky aura to it, kind of like a circus sideshow. Beneath the cheesy sentimentality, it also had a genuine homespun touch of class. The CB radio signals have faded forever but the happy vibe is still being received loud & clear.
If failure builds skill, then I should be an expert at a ton of stuff. The problem with this theory is that failure doesn’t by default make someone better. You have to want to be better, evaluate your shortcomings, and find a way to do it differently next time. Then go and actually do it. Failure is an effective teacher only when the student doesn’t stop trying.
Regular readers of my blog know that I am an very devoted amateur radio hobbyist and work professionally in the communications electronics field. I’ve spent this summer doing a lot of upgrades to my equipment and more than once I’ve been made painfully aware that for all the skill and expertise I’ve collected over many years of working on electronics as both a hobbyist and a professional, there is always something new tripping me up. Even more humbling is when I make mistakes performing easy tasks that I’ve successfully done before with barely a thought but at the moment cannot seem to grasp.
Someone who is admired and respected for their skill in a particular area make it look so easy, yet behind every flawless performance lies thousands of mistakes no one ever sees. Olympic athletes spend years falling down, missing the shot, not making their time, pushing through injury and illness. They take it all in and do better next time, until “next time” is the one single now-or-never Olympic event that is the denouement of their life’s effort.
On a far less Olympian but equally meaningful plane, there are everyday folks working as carpenters, auto mechanics, electricians, musicians, and teachers who are experts in their field and work largely unnoticed. After all, they don’t give gold medals for being the best accountant. The work may not be glamorous but it is important; the world runs better because these people did not quit the first time they failed at what they are now masters of.
Every now and then I am invited to give a public talk about the technical aspects of solar energy and how it can be applied to everyday life. I always bring along some of my equipment for a live demonstration of how it all works. My solar power station attracts a lot of interest and many flattering compliments. The system is a point of pride for me because I designed and built everything myself from the ground up. I want all my electronic projects to say, “the person who made this is a highly skilled craftsman who cares about his work”. A master does not brag about how good he is. He lets his results speak for him.
What the audience does not see behind me is is the decades-long trail of failure littered with burned out components, incorrectly wired circuits, blown fuses, ruined electrical connectors, a discharged fire extinguisher used on one of my alleged brilliant ideas, and spending hundreds of evenings and weekends in a college engineering lab doing it over and over and over until I had it right. I’m no genius. Usually I was the last to leave the lab because I was the slowest to figure it out. But I did figure it out.
For those who are driven to be accomplished at something, failure to keep trying is worse than failure at the task itself. Nobody wins all of the time. Show me someone who claims to have never been a failure and I’ll show you someone who has also never succeeded, or is a liar. The world rightly places a high value on success and winning, yet there is little talk of all the failure and pain and sacrifice that is the unavoidable price of being a master.
We live in a society that wants reward without risk, recognition without sacrifice, and no hurt feelings. The reality of life is indifferent to what society wants, or perceives as success, or how artificially low the bar is set to create as many winners as possible: Everyone knows which kids showed up early for practice every time, gave it all they had, and really earned the trophy, and which kids just can’t cut it and are being pandered to for the sake of appearances. Whether it’s winning an Olympic gold medal, beautifully playing a musical instrument, or expertly troubleshooting a complex electronic circuit, the hand of the master is guided by wisdom gained from the humiliation of uncountable failure.
Have you ever been at a party where one obnoxious loudmouth imposes himself on everyone and monopolizes the whole event, and the next day you can recall almost nothing he said? Meanwhile at the same party, there is also the composed and articulate man or woman who does not prattle constantly and is not heard across the room, yet always seems to have an attentive group around them? Those lucky enough to be in this person’s company will remember the experience in great detail, sometimes years later. That quiet, well-spoken party guest knows interpersonal communications. They know how to QRP.
Everyone, including those who never of heard the term QRP prior to reading this article, would benefit from applying its spirit to their own interpersonal communication. In the highly technical hobby of amateur radio (ham radio), there is a subspecialty known as QRP operating, which is radio geek lingo for worldwide communications with very low transmitter power levels. “Low power” is generally understood to be less than 10 watts (less than a laptop computer). By comparison, most amateur radio sets run at 100 watts. Some can go to over a thousand watts, and commercial radio stations average between 5000-50,000 watts. When properly done, these tiny low level signals can compete with the thousand watt-plus boomers.
The philosophy of QRP radio states that what one lacks in brute force can more than be made up for with careful timing and the adroit use of the limited resources at hand. In a non-radio scenario that could mean waiting for the loud mouth to pause and then dropping a well thought out comment. You won’t get to say as much, but your comments will be noticed without your having to yell. It’s better to speak quietly for a minute and have it remembered than to shout for an hour and have no one care.
Walk through the busy downtown of any large city and you will eventually come across a street preacher. They stand on a corner and in a very loud voice attempt to sell their religion. I’m pretty sure none of these guys have ever scored a single convert among the thousands of passers by. The preachers may have good intentions and bring a lively vibe to the street, but the low yield of new followers exposes their lack of finesse. Meanwhile, the missionary who lives like an ordinary man among his flock, shows them what a good neighbor is, socializes with and befriends them, and relates to them one on one or in small groups will collect a bounty of believers. I know a guy who actually does this. He speaks and acts like a normal person, never dominating or raising his voice. You’ll never see him yelling on a street corner. Everyone around him, even those who don’t subscribe to his faith, respects him and pays attention to his words. He knows interpersonal communications. He knows how to QRP.
I once worked with a guy who was something of a hothead. One day in a moment of poor judgement, he aggressively approached the boss and made a loud scene in front of everyone about something trivial. The boss just stood there and let him carry on and on with his rant. When he finally sputtered out, the boss calmly replied in a completely normal voice, “I refuse to deal with you when you’re mad and out of control. When you decide to calm down, come see me in my office.” She then turned around and walked away. They did ultimately resolve the issue in a way that was satisfactory to both sides. She had a command of interpersonal communication. The boss knew how to QRP.
Both in radio and in life there appropriate moments to be powerful and loud. QRP is not suitable at all times. Unfortunately, a lot of people can’t discern the difference. They do not throttle down their loud mouths even when doing so would improve interpersonal communication. The quiet little voices are signals of wisdom and self control in a world of overbearing noise and disorder.
A few weeks ago the tiny nation of Nepal experienced two major earthquakes that killed thousands and left tens of thousands, nearly all of whom are poor and didn’t have much in the first place, homeless, injured, and desperate. The world responded with aid, but with Nepal’s communications infrastructure crumbled and broken, rescuers turned to the only communications medium that has never been known to fail because it has no formal infrastructure and does not require commercial power: amateur radio.
The average person thinks amateur (ham) radio is some offbeat anachronism their grandfathers dabbled in. They would be be surprised to know that it is still vibrant and thriving across all age levels. Even today, with modern satellites and fiber optic cables and cell towers all over the place, amateur radio still reigns supreme as the one and only unbreakable worldwide network still chugging along when a calamity takes the high tech stuff offline. It has no peers and no substitutes. There is nothing else even sort-of close.
Amateur radio is remarkable not only for its amazing utility, but even more for the people behind the signals who respond to trouble. They are ordinary citizens stepping up as unpaid volunteers using their own equipment to help people they will likely never meet. Within minutes of the Nepal earthquake, ham operators in India we relaying messages from the disaster area to the outside world. Organized rescuers and the government were depending on the hams because nothing else was working.
Here in the United States, amateurs have answered the call when Hurricanes Katrina & Sandy struck our shores as well as for wildfires and floods. On a lesser scale, amateur radio operators are key players in providing communications and support for countless large public events such as parades and marathons. Amateur radio is considered so important, many hospitals and public safety agencies have installed ham equipment at their facilities so it will be at the ready when the unthinkable happens…and the unthinkable has and will happen.
Amateur radio has a low barrier to entry. Anyone who can pass a fairly easy test can be a licensed operator. There is no age limit. From there, some people go all out with elaborate stations costing tens of thousands of dollars. Others simply want basic personal communications and own nothing more than a $50 handheld radio. Amateur radio can be as complex or as simple as your interest and wallet allows.
When I was in junior high, I talked my parents into letting me get a CB radio. All my friends were on CB; it was the social media of its day. It was a lot of fun, but yapping with the locals is interesting for only a little while. At the age of fifteen I earned my amateur operator’s license and scraped up enough cash for a used Heathkit radio and a busted up antenna I had to repair myself to make it useable. Without any internet, I was soon chatting with Asia and Europe and Africa from my bedroom in the middle of the USA. I wasn’t sure of what I was doing, but I knew it was cool. To me it never gets old. Decades later, I am still an active operator and I still feel the same excitement I had as a teenager.
The main problem with modern communications technology is that it depends on many interconnected things to work right, and it always breaks when it is most badly needed. Technology has not been able to come up with anything as reliable or simple as amateur radio. Without the burden of complicated infrastructure or multiple points of failure, ham radio can reach out through any adversity. Earthquakes, hurricanes, ships at sea in peril, tornadoes, floods, forest fires, blizzards, riots, wars…amateur radio is always a soothing voice bringing order to the chaos
As I discussed in my last article, being ready for emergencies is not just for whackos. The other half of the equation is that a “disaster” does not have to come in the form of an epic 300 foot tidal wave or alien invasion.
Overnight, my territory in the upper Midwest USA got clobbered by about ten inches (25 cm) of snow, with about another 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) still to come before it’s over. The temperature, which is actually above freezing right now, is expected to drop to 5F (-15c) before sundown, then the high winds will kick in.
By local standards, this storm is not a particularly big deal. Yet there are people who will face serious weather-related problems that could have been entirely avoided with even a little planning. Already, I’ve had to give some gas to a guy up the road because he ran out and needed to fill the tank on his snowblower. This storm was predicted three or four days ago. Why didn’t he fuel up when he had the chance? I just don’t get it. There will be fatalities because of this storm.
The following is a pictorial account of my life during a snow storm. I took all the photos myself.
This photo was taken from my kitchen window. It looks very pretty and serene. But beyond the backyard things get rough.
This is as about as “plowed” as it’s going to get for a while. I saw very few cars on the road, only 4×4’s. Everyone else is stuck at home. Even in my big truck, it was a challenge getting around.
The temperature has dropped from almost 35F (1.6C) when this photo was taken about an hour ago to 31 (-0.5C) now. It also went from no wind to a modest breeze. I can’t get a wind speed because the weather instruments are frozen. Strong winds are expected later today.
The weather alarm does not lie. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. As much as I trash on the government in this blog, I have to be fair and say NOAA and their network of radio stations is a very valuable and worthwhile public service.
It is not possible to overstate the importance of amateur radio in times of mayhem. It requires almost no special infrastructure and can be run on backup power. There are hundreds of thousands of amateur radio operators in the Unites States alone. None of them are paid for their services and nearly all supply their own equipment. When there are no cell towers, internet, or landline phones, ham radio is there. Always. It’s the ultimate “mesh network” that is almost impossible to to take down. The top photo of UHF & VHF antennas is just a portion of my rooftop communications complex. The center photo is my HF (shortwave) radio capable of worldwide communications and a 75 watt 2-meter VHF radio, with a range of about 25-30 miles (40-48 km). The VHF is especially valuable when the public communications system goes down. All of this equipment is powered by off-grid solar energy.
The snow covered angled items on the roof in the top photo are a few of my solar panels. The bottom photo is the charge controller for the solar power. The photo was taken during daylight but due to all the snow on the solar panels, the system thinks it it night time and shut itself down. The 12.8 volts on the battery means I have a good charge and should be ok…for now. We are not expected to have any real sun for a few days, so at some point I’ll probably have to change my batteries off the generator.
Sometimes life here can be a real pain in the ass, but it is a great feeling to be in a nation where I can make my own choices and fly or fall on my own. For my readers outside the USA, it is customary for Americans to display a flag on their homes. Flags are most often seen on patriotic holidays or in times of war, but at my house, the flag is out 24 hours a day, every day. It is the symbol of a land and people who are not easily beaten down.
As this blog has discussed in the past, many classic American businesses are disappearing in an economy that is supposed to be jumping back to life. The losses are sad for nostalgia but also bring hope because times change and for every business that goes extinct a newer version takes its place and gets a shot at becoming a legend. In theory, it’s a zero-sum game.
That Radio Shack is soon going to be on the register of lost legends truly bothers me. First, because it was a key player in my choosing to go into electronics professionally, and second, because it has no replacement. It is the only one of its breed; there is no fresh contender coming up behind it. For now Radio Shack is still open for business as usual but no one is fooled by corporate prophecies of a big comeback. Depending on which financial analyst you want to believe, Radio Shack has between one and ten months’ worth of operating capital and no viable course to profitability. We are in death watch mode. Founded in 1921, yet another thread in the colorful fabric of America will almost certainly go the way of the vacuum tube and Betamax tapes.
Radio Shack was once a wonderland of electronic components, parts, tools, batteries, kits, how-to books, wire, connectors, and everything else. As a young person I would stop at “the Shack” at least once a week, oftentimes more, eager to drop my paltry teenage income on electronic goodies. If not for the readily available supply of raw materials for my hobby I might have ended up being an insurance salesman. It was the only place in the world where I could get a PNP transistor at 3:00 on Sunday afternoon. And I often needed one, among other things. I’ve built transmitters and power supplies and countless experiments entirely from parts purchased off the shelf at Radio Shack. They sold me the very first test instrument I bought with my own money–an analog multimeter. Long before I ever saw the inside of a college engineering lab I had a strong electronics education from “Radio Shack Tech.”
The sad reality is that the quirky retailer that helped me turn a boyhood fascination with electronics into a lucrative career as an adult has been on a slow slide down for years. The world moved on and Radio Shack didn’t keep up the pace. They’ve tried reinventing themselves as a computer shop, a consumer electronics repair vendor, a high end audio dealer, a cellphone emporium, and most recently, on-site smartphone & tablet computer repair. None of it stuck. The Best Buys and Amazons of the world rolled right over them. The last time I shopped at Radio Shack was half a decade ago to buy a specialty electrical connector. What used to be hundreds of square feet of cool geek stuff had been shaved down to one tiny little section in the back. It wasn’t fun anymore. The exciting vibe I knew and loved was gone.
I hate to admit it, but I’m part of the reason Radio Shack is on the way out. Better & cheaper sources for supplies came along and I took the bait (hellooo, internet!). No one makes money selling single diodes and capacitors anymore, much less from a store in a mall. Did I let an old friend down, or did the old friend let me down? It’s a trick question: Old friends sometimes drift apart and it’s not really anyone’s “fault.” I’m not sure if anything could have saved Radio Shack. They served their market well since they early days of electronics and there is nowhere for them to go. Maybe in that way it’s not even their fault they are in terminal decline. It’s just the natural cycle of things. Before my old friend passes on, I want it to know generations of geeks are grateful for the fun and the education, and in an unknown number of cases, supplying the seeds for what would grow into a fulfilling career.
When I was a teenager just getting started in the amateur “ham” radio hobby, a local radio club included me in an annual event called Field Day. For the unfamiliar, Field Day is a worldwide contest held on the last weekend in June. The official purpose of Field Day is to practice emergency radio communications under simulated disaster conditions. Participants set up their equipment in a park or other outdoor area, put up temporary antennas and power everything with portable generators or off-grid electricity. Once on the air, the clock is ticking and operators have twenty-four hours to make contact with as many other stations as possible. Obviously, things move quickly. There are no lengthy bull sessions. We just exchange station ID, location, and signal data. Because amateur radio is capable of worldwide communications using only radio signals and does not need any wires or the internet, Field Day is truly a global event with operators in almost every country joining in.
Individuals may participate on their own, but most Field Day activity is organized groups or clubs that have several radios going at the same time, with operators rotating in shifts for the entire 24 hour event. These “encampments” can be quite large and impressive. The stations often attract media attention and the curious public; all are warmly encouraged to ask questions and see for themselves what ham radio is all about. In addition to an emergency drill, Field Day serves the secondary purpose of community outreach.
Anyone watching me get ready for my first Field Day might have thought I was planning a voyage to Mars. I was sixteen. I spent weeks excitedly making supply lists and collecting gear together. After successfully nagging the car out of my parents, I proceeded to cram it with hundreds of pounds of radio equipment, antennas, extension cords, spare electronic parts, tools, test instruments, batteries, a sleeping bag, lots of food and water, and something for almost every possible way-out there scenario. The older guys teased me; at the end of the event 90% of the minutiae I dragged out there went unused and was dragged right back home in the exact same unopened box I originally packed it in. Today, the idea of stuffing enough junk for a NASA mission into a two door Dodge Aspen just to spend one weekend in a suburban park less than an hour from home seems like the brain storm of an obsessed crackpot.
Decades out from that weekend, I am“the older guy” now. I still enjoy ham radio and my predisposition for always being ready for (most) anything is also as strong as ever. My methods have become more thoughtful and refined over the years even if the occasional teasing has not. What I don’t understand is that almost everyone close to me acknowledges the utility in being prepared but almost no one actually does it. There is a cognitive disconnect between thought and action.
The basic daily take-alongs such as keys, wallet, and a cellphone are standard for most, including me. In addition, I can’t feel ok leaving the house without a Leatherman tool (similar to a Swiss Army knife), a flashlight, and sometimes a (legal) gun. The gun is for my personal security because, as the saying goes,“when seconds count, the police are minutes away.” Fortunately I’ve never faced a problem that required a firearm to solve, but the Leatherman and the flashlight come in handy surprisingly often. My friends think I am quirky for bringing all that hardware with me, yet I use it all the time to deal with many small but annoying problems. One time when I was hanging out with my friend and his teen son, I used my Leatherman to rip open a box, tighten a screw, and along with the flashlight, un-jam a vacuum cleaner. When my visit was over and I was leaving, the young son commented that my Leatherman was pretty cool. I told him I’d buy him one for his birthday and he replied, “Thanks, but I can’t see too many times when I would need something like that.” I was speechless.
I got involved with ham radio at a young age because it’s a fun and interesting pastime. Through my hobby, I had a loose awareness that it was important to be ready for trouble but failed to apply it in my own life. Even after participating in several Field Days, the lightbulb did not click on; it seems I too got sucked into a whirlpool of cognitive disconnect. There was no big moment of enlightenment. The lightbulb started dim and came up slowly.
As I paid more attention to current events, it became clear that overdependence on modern convinences creates a complacent society. I can see it in my own neighborhood: The lady who has just-in-time groceries delivered from an on line service. The perfectly able-bodied guy who calls a contractor for even the smallest task. The house with a stack of empty pizza boxes at the curbside every single week for trash pick up. To everyone reading this blog and thinks I’m a little whacked, I ask: If your power went out, all the store shelves were picked clean, and the gas stations were offline, how long could you get by with only what is in your home right now, and what would you do when your supplies ran out? Just sit there cold and hungry and wait for the government to save you? Steal what you need from others?
I think when normally lawful people become desparate to provide for their families no matter what they will resort to looting, probably from folks like me who had the foresight to plan ahead. Be warned that “folks like me” are heavily armed in anticipation of when the pizza box guy and his ilk run out of legitimate options. I may not be the last man standing, but I sure as hell aint going to be the first one down.
As I write this article on July 4, 2014, hurricane Arthur is beating the crap out of the American east coast. Most in the area will either ride it out on luck, resort to crime, or wait like compliant little sheep for the government to bail them out. I choose none of the above. The lessons of Field Day are not only for radio hobbyists. A week or so supply of food & water, some flashlights, and other basics is not particulary expensive. Having them ready before they are needed could mean the difference between being a survivor and being a fatality.