Linux for Hams…On a Single CD-ROM

I’ve always thought Linux and ham radio would be a good fit for one another, but the availability of ham radio related software that runs on Linux isn’t all that great. Perhaps it’s because Linux still isn’t that easy to install. Well, here you can get a CD-ROM with everything a ham should need to get started:

I haven’t tried it yet, but the web page says,

The CD contains a complete LINUX-Knoppix operating system and enough software to accomplish the usual tasks we all perform daily from our homes … web browsing, email, letter writing, etc. In addition, there is a huge library of programs for our Amateur Radio hobby.

Thanks to Glenn, KA8E for posting this notice to the local Linux Users Group mailling list.

Some suggestions for promoting amateur radio

In the March 2005 issue of Contact!, an e-mail newsletter for those interested in promoting amateur radio, Robert Homuth, KB7AQD, offers the following suggestions:

  • Leave ham radio magazines in your workplace breakroom.
  • Carry an HT with you everywhere — to work, at the bus stop, to the park, and to the mall. Most people will misidentify your rig as a fancy cellphone, but a few will ask questions, then you can promote ham radio.
  • Invite non-hams to a hamfest, reminding them that there’s other things to shop for, buy, and eat, other than ham radio.
  • Get behind the key and microphone at a museum station, and volunteer!
  • Donate a public safety scanner preprogrammed with local popular repeaters to a potential ham. My brother called me to tell me that his friends enjoyed tuning in to the local autopatch. He and his friends were impressed by the excellent audio quality of narrowband FM, and the heft and quality build of the HTs, compared to their tiny, screeching digital cellphones!
  • As tempting as it is…do NOT denigrate CB, FRS, internet, cellphones and other popular telecom modes to promote ham radio as superior. You cannot shame a potential ham into getting a license! My brother worked his first DX on an FRS radio — twenty miles with a half-watt UHF micro-HT, and now he’s going for his ham ticket. On the other hand, I once made fun of CB, to prove that ham radio was “superior”, and the CB op I was talking to was not happy, since he enjoyed shooting skip and getting directions on his 11M rig.
  • When promoting ham radio at a public gathering, dress like you are going to work, not changing oil in your lawnmower. The first time I saw a ham wear a “Ham Radio — Help All Mankind” t-shirt, it was on his torn and stained undershirt hand lettered with a laundry marker.
  • Offer to go to meetings that your friends attend–Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, etc.–and talk about amateur radio.
  • Offer to talk to engineering and electronics classes at local colleges. Tom, N7RPZ, took me to his engineering class at Glendale Community College. I did a brief talk on ham radio, and Tom followed up with “Now You’re Talking”. Of his sixteen students that semester, fourteen obtained their Technician class license, and the other two upgraded to General. Tom promoted ham radio as a way to turn the engineering and physics concepts they learned in class to real equipment the students could use in the real world.

I like all of these suggestions, especially the ones about dressing neatly and not denigrating other services. These two suggestions promote amateur radio by helping to improve our image.

General Class Ends; 8 or 9 Passed the Test

Well, my General Class license course ended on Thursday as our club VEs came in and gave the test as the last session. Only eleven people showed up to take the test, and of those only eight or nine passed the written test. (When I left, two of those who had failed the first time were re-taking the test. One of them missed by only one question, so I think she had a good chance of passing the second time.)

I honestly thought all of them would pass the test. When the head VE asked me if I thought any of them would fail, I said, “Of course not. A good teacher has to have confidence in his students, after all.” Of course, I wasn’t completely sure that all of them would pass, but I thought they all had a good shot. Those who I thought would have trouble passing just didn’t even attempt the test at this session.

To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed at this outcome. I thought more people would come to take the test, and that more would pass. Perhaps next time, I’ll assign some homework to the students, and then discuss some of the questions in class. That would give me a better read on their progress. (It would also help me to get to know the students. One of the odd things is that I didn’t get to know the names of many of the students until the class was over. Since I didn’t assign any homework, I didn’t have any way to associate names with faces as I would in a for-credit class.)

I’ll take some of the blame. The classes were sometimes disorganized. The reason is that this year I decided to not use the suggested lesson plans in the ARRL Teachers Manual. Last year, I did use them, and it was even more disorganized, imho. I think the sequence of topics was pretty good this year, but I need to work a bit more on how much to cover in a single week.

dah di dah dit, dah dah di dah
Three people took the code test, and fortunately, all three passed. It seems a bit odd to me, but all three of them would have failed if the only way to pass the test had been by answering seven of the ten questions correctly. They all failed to do this. Instead, they all passed by copying at least 25 characters in a row correctly.

Three of the students passing the written test had already passed the code test, or were given credit for the code test for having been licensed as a Novice. That means that out of 26 students who started in January, six now have General Class licenses. That’s actually kind of disappointing.

I do think that most of the others are going to take the test at other VE sessions, so I’m sure that percentage will improve, but I’d hoped that more would be ready to go at this test session. I’m going to keep on them until they all get their tickets.

Brother Ham Radio Clubs

Earlier this afternoon, I read through an item on QRZ.Com that talks about the number of licensed amateurs in this country. This is quite an interesting item, and one that I’ll write more about later.

In reading through this item, Jim Haynie W5JBP, ARRL President, describes a recent visit to Nicaragua. He notes that they must make do with little or nothing in the way of equipment and materials. By comparison, we have an embarassment of riches here in the U.S.–oftentimes hams here have more equipment than they know what to do with.

One thought that came to mind was perhaps the ARRL could start a “brother clubs” program somewhat similar to the “Sister Cities” program. The program would pair clubs around the world with clubs in other countries. My original idea was that the program would pair clubs in developed countries with those in less-developed countries, with a a view to the richer clubs helping the poorer clubs.

Of course, the program need not be limited to that. Clubs in developed countries could also become “brother clubs,” and these could exchange information about club activities and other cultural information. In either case, both clubs stand to get quite a bit out of this type of program.

Update 3/26/05
After posting a comment similar to this post on QRZ.Com, I got an e-mail and then a phone call from Jim Haynie, W5JBP, the ARRL president, on this topic. He sent me some two documents describing a program developed by the IARU, Region 2, called Partnership for Amateur Radio Societies (PARS). This program was developed by Rod Stafford, W6ROD, now president of IARU Region 2.

Unfortunately, there’s no publicly available information on this program, and it’s limited to Region 2. Also, the way that the documents I’ve seen are worded, it looks as though the program is geared to funneling equipment from “active societies” to “less active societies.” There’s not much consideration for cultural exchange, and it’s not clear whether the program is to work at the national society level or the local club level.

I’ve been in touch with W6ROD about this, and I hope to hear back from him shortly.

Who ever thought testing antenna insulators could be so much fun?

On the Elecraft mailling list, there was a thread recently discussing portable antenna insulators. One guy noted that he scrounges Lexan scraps and makes insulators out of them, to which Mike VP8NO replied,

Seems like overkill to me. By using synthetic “string” to tie off the ends you have all the insulator you need. OTOH I use plastic “corks” from wine bottles on the end of the elevated radials of my 30 metre GP, microwave oven tested naturally. Much more fun to collect than Lexan scraps.

I e-mailed Mike and asked what he meant by “microwave tested.” He answered:

The idea is to test insulators/dielectric material by putting them in the microwave oven along with a mug of water to provide a load. The water should boil but the dielectric under test should stay cool indicating a good low loss rf material. I have noticed a growing take up of plastic “corks” in mid price range wines from VK, ZL, CE and ZS. Never had a bad bottle failure with one. Cork “corks” on the other hand, depending upon quality, have anything up to 5-8% failure rate. I guess not all natural cork is created equal and poor quality just lets air through. Contrary to expectation the UV doesn’t seem to kill them too quickly either.

Makes sense to me. I’ll have to start some of my own, errrrp, research.

Crazy Stuff on 30m

Thursday night, I was tuning around on 30m around 0315Z, and heard the following:

  1. 5R8GZ (Albert in Madagascar) with a decent 559 signal on 10.105 MHz. Unfortunately, I couldn’t break the pileup and work him. This is the second time I’ve heard him, but failed to work him.
  2. a CW “numbers station” on 10.125 MHz. The station was sending groups of letters this time. The letters were being sent in groups of five at about 20 wpm. Here’s a sample of what I copied: TNIGT, UUIMM,WMDAA, GTTWU, RNIUM, MWWGR, NNRTW, IAIUM, RUGTN, etc. I copied a couple of minutes of this, then got bored. When I tried tuning it in about ten minutes later, the station was gone.

Open Shack Nights

One of the problems amateur radio faces is that people are all very busy these days, and when push comes to shove, amateur radio is one thing that often gets shoved. It’s just not a priority with people.

This is understandable. Amateur radio takes a lot of time. Setting up a station, building antennas, and then actually operating all take time. BUT, so do other activities. To get the maximum enjoyment and benefit out of any relatively complicated activity, you have to be willing to put in the time.

Assuming that it’s a “good thing” that those with amateur radio licenses become more active amateur radio operators, the question then becomes how do you get people to put in the time? I think it’s a matter of education.

We’ve made it very easy for people to get amateur radio licenses. While it’s debatable as to whether or not it’s too easy, I don’t think you can argue, that nearly anyone of average intelligence can get a Technician class license. Unfortunately, many do not progress beyond the Technician license.

Yes, you can do many cool things with a Technician class license, but because the test is so easy, many Techs just don’t have the tools to do those cool things. So what happens is that their experience of amateur radio is a lot more limited than those who do know more and can do more.

For some hams, this is OK. They enjoy the camaraderie of belonging to a club and talking to their friends on a repeater. For many, however, they quickly find ham radio–at least their experience of it–to be boring. They file their license away and stick the HT in a drawer. Some even become critical of ham radio. This is not a good situation.

This is a shame because those of us who are experienced amateur radio operators know how much fun it can be. If you’re like me, you want to share your experience with others and help them have fun with ham radio. The question is how can we do this?

One idea that I either came up with or stole from someone (I honestly forget which) is “Open Shack Night.” The basic idea is to invite people into your shack, show them your equipment, make a few contacts, and answer their questions. The goal might be to talk about a specific topic, such as operating CW or PSK-31, or about operating on the HF bands in general.

I hosted my second Open Shack last night. Four hams–all Techs–who are currently in my General Class license course came over. None of them, I don’t think, had ever been on HF before, so my goal was to try to show them how cool it can be, and since I’m a big CW guy, I was trying to show them how particularly cool CW could be.

When the first guy arrived, I was having a contact with OE5IMD on 30m. I explained what was happening, but his signal was not that strong, and we were operating pretty fast, so I’m not sure he got that much out of it. For my next QSO, I QSYed to 40m and found someone that would work me at 10-12 wpm. I think that worked better, as my guest could copy at least some of our QSO.

The other guests arrived, and I worked a couple more people on 40m CW. I’m not sure how much of an impact this had on my guests, though, because even at 10 wpm, we were operating too fast for them to make much sense out of it all.

In an attempt to keep them interested, I decided to try to scare up a phone contact. I found an empty frequency, but repeated CQs went unanswered. That was really frustrating.

Giving up on that, we just started talking. Being on the cusp of getting their General tickets, they were interested in knowing how they should decide what HF radio to buy. We discussed the pros and cons of buying used gear and then talked a bit about the different levels new gear available today. I think that proved to be interesting and useful for them.

All in all, my Open Shack was successful, but perhaps, not as successful as it could have been. I’m going to have to rethink how I demonstrate the coolness of HF. Perhaps I should concentrate on making a few phone contacts first and then making a few CW contacts.

I do think that doing this was a good thing. I’m going to do more of them, and I encourage others to do the same. I think new hams are starving for this kind of information, and no amount of reading magazines or talking on the repeater is going to provide it. They need up-close and personal demonstrations and hands-on activities to make ham radio more real.

Some Hope that BPL is Going Nowhere

MediaPost.com reports:

ON FRIDAY, DURING THE CLOSING day of Madison Avenue’s annual media conference, the government’s top media technologist predicted electric utility companies might transform the telecommunications industry providing broadband services anywhere there is an “electric pole,” and transmitting data to anything that “uses electricity.” If that proves the case, it was not evident in a recent survey asking consumers whom they wanted to receive their telecommunications services from. Asked whom they believe would provides the best service and value for bundled TV, phone and Internet service, U.S. consumers overwhelmingly selected TV service providers including cable system (29 percent) and satellite TV (22 percent) operators, according to results of an annual study scheduled to be released today by Knowledge Networks/SRI. Local phone companies placed a close third (21 percent), followed by Internet service providers (19 percent), but electric utility companies (8 percent) didn’t exactly show the juice. “Based on the response to this survey, utility companies don’t appear to be much of a factor, at least not yet,” said David Tice, vice president-client service at KK/SRI. He noted, however, that the concept of telecommunications service from utility companies is still relatively knew – the FCC only recently authorized broadband over utility lines – and that the results likely reflected “an incumbent issue.”

Seriously, though, how can you realistically trust a utility company to reliably and economically provide data service? AC power is one thing. Broadband data service a completely different thing. One can only hope that utility companies will realize that they are in over their heads and pull the plug on BPL.

Read the entire story here.

You Just Never Know…

One of the beauties of amateur radio is that you never know who you’re going to talk to, and what can happen as a result of a QSO.

For example, on Saturday, I worked Gary, N5PHT. As I usually do, I looked him up on QRZ.Com. On this page, Gary noted that at the VA Hospital where he works they have a club station. Well, that certainly piqued my interest. Our club has been looking for that our station could call home for quite a while now.

When I got the chance, I asked Gary about the club station, but unfortunately band conditions changed and we could only chat briefly about it. I asked if I could send him an e-mail to continue the discussion, and he agreed. On Sunday, we swapped some e-mail. I asked him how he went about getting permission to set up a station there, and he replied that several of his hospital’s employees were hams, and that the VA even had a policy on establishing club stations in VA hospitals. He said he would try and get in contact with someone here in Ann Arbor and introduce me to him or her.

This morning, I was copied on an e-mail he sent to the director of the Ann Arbor VA Hospital, and an hour later, I got a call from the hospital’s chief of police! He listened very intently as I described ham radio and what services we could provide to the hospital, including recreational opportunities for the patients and emergency communications. While it’s certainly not a done deal, I’m very encouraged by this turn of events. With any luck, this will turn into a win-win situation for both the VA Hospital and our club.

Gary noted that there are three VA hospitals in Texas that he knows of that have amateur radio club stations. It seems to me that this is something that other clubs looking to set up club stations should look into.

Are Blogs the New Ham Radio?

In a recent post to his blog, Steven Streight, aka Vaspers the Grate, takes on Lev Grossman, who in the December 31, 2004 issue of Time compared blogging to amateur radio. In that issue, Grossman said, “Before this year [2004], blogs were a curiosity, a cult phenomenon, a faintly embarrassing hobby on the order of ham radio and stamp collecting.”
Grossman’s impression seems to be that hams do nothing more than talk about ham radio (which is, of course, ridiculous) while bloggers spend an inordinate amount of time blogging just to blog. They’re filling many Mbytes of disk space with nothing more than jabbering.

Steven, who’s not an amateur radio operator, went some pains to set the record straight (pun intended). He actually did a littlle research–unlike our friend Grossman–and came away with a much more favorable view of amateur radio. He writes:

My opinion is that blogging, ham radio operating, and stamp collecting involve some degree of thinking and human communication, and in the case of stamp collecting, artistic sensibility and foreign culture appreciation.

I’d also add that amateur radio operators also come to appreciate foreign culture, perhaps even more so than stamp collectors. Ham radio is, after all, an international brotherhood (and sisterhood), and many of us form friendships with hams in countries outside our own.

So is blogging the new ham radio? In some respects, it is. They’re both communications media for one, and to be honest, both have idle jabberers. But beyond the jabbering, both serve a useful purpose. The amateur radio service helps supply the need for technically competent individuals who stand ready to serve in emergencies. Blogging also helps us to communicate by allowing us to get around the mainstream media, which is increasingly under the control of fewer and fewer corporations. But just as you need a receiver capable of filtering out the signal from the noise to successfully use amateur radio, so too must you be able to filter out the noise in the blogosphere to receive the useful signals.

Streight concludes by saying some nice things about this blog. I won’t quote them here–I’ll let you read them for yourself. He also plans to include my blog in his next book, Secrets of the Blogging Pros.