“Ham radio is dead”

This is in response to a Facebook post I saw. I responded there, but I’m going to break it out a bit deeper here. Sorry to those experiencing deja vu.

I was first licensed at 11 years old. I liked contesting, DX’ing, being on HF, operating CW/SSB, etc.. I did not like VHF. I did not like the tech stuff. I had very little technical interest, but I sure did like working multipliers. Being young made me the minority. Being of any age but interested in old-fashioned operating made me part of an even slimmer minority.

There was no BitX or Arduino or $50 QRP kits then. Had there been, I would have migrated into those. I didn’t have much money in middle school, so I was interested in doing whatever I could afford. Luckily, my parents bought me a TS-440 and a G5RV one Christmas and I was off to the races.

Then came high school, college, a career, etc. (in this case “etc.” means “girls”). I took down a lot of gear and was dormant for a while. I didn’t seriously return to the hobby until I was hired to work at ARRL HQ. Then I put up a tower, beams, bought an FT-1000, amps, and started chasing DX again. If I hadn’t been hired there, it would have taken me longer to return. This is because…

Ham radio is for middle-aged individuals with disposable income, a home, and an understanding spouse.

We spend so much energy trying to recruit young people, but that clearly isn’t a great return-on-investment when it comes to our numbers. Sure, kids are the future — but they have about two decades before they can carve out a realistic place for ham radio in their lives. There are certainly exceptions in our ranks, but we’re talking marketing “dollar per gallon” here.

If we did a survey, I suspect most of here have taken a hiatus from the hobby. I further suspect that hiatus came while we were getting jobs, starting families, and buying homes. So where would you sink the advertising money: on your 10 year-old self or on your 40 year-old self? My money is on the latter.

I’m thankful to have been in this hobby from a young age. At 28, I’ve been licensed the majority of my life. Heck, I can join QCWA before I’m even 40. So don’t read this as “ham radio is not for kids.” I’m just suggesting we avoid exclusively marketing to that crowd, and focus our efforts where the mileage is better.



DX cluster etiquette

For better or for worse, the DX cluster has been and will continue to be a part of this hobby. You can love it, you can hate it, you can write tirades about its merits or its evils — but it will still be there, quietly churning out spots to thousands.


Let the chaos begin

In this blog post, I won’t tell you if I love or hate the cluster. Frankly, I think my feelings are immaterial because they won’t change anything; the cluster isn’t going anywhere. I treat it as a tool, just like the processor on my radios or the grayline map on the wall.

Alternatively, I’ll propose a list of etiquette tips. Some of you may be running afoul of a few of these, but I’ve found it’s often because we forget there are operating techniques out there different from our own.

  1. Stop with the “can’t hear him” -spots. You may log into the cluster by telnet (or RF) and read each spot. In your case, you might receive a benefit from such a spot. However, you represent less than 5% of the cluster users. The rest of us see spots in a bandmap for our logging program or other application that strips away the “can’t hear him” -comment. In our case (which is the clear majority) your spot is a false spot. The easy solution for this is: ONLY SPOT WHAT YOU CAN HEAR. That’s the whole point of the system, no exceptions.


    How most of us see spots and why “can’t hear him” -spots are useless

  2. No brag spots. Spot what you hear, not what you just worked. Don’t bother spotting with a “TNX 4 QSO” -comment. The DX isn’t watching the cluster. You know he isn’t. We know he isn’t. We know that you know he isn’t. So you’re just blatantly sending a brag and wasting all of our bandwidth in the process. The truth is that nobody — and I mean literally nobody — cares who you just worked.
  3. Please DO spot (especially on phone). The proliferation of CW skimmer has caused a decline in “human-originated” spots, even on other modes. Be sure to post spots if the DX is useful. Don’t post spots if they violate #1 or #2 above.
  4. Maybe self spot. This one might surprise a few of you. With the birth of skimmer, self spotting has become a non-issue. A few guys might get their feathers ruffled if you do it, but they’ll be unable to articulate a reason beyond involving their own emotions. Remember that most contests forbid this behavior, so certainly avoid that, but if you’re running on 10m phone at dusk on a Tuesday night when the band is empty, I’d appreciate the spot so I can work you. Don’t do it all the time, don’t do it during contests, and only do it when it’s helpful; ask yourself “is this a weird opening everyone is missing?”
  5. Avoid mobbing one node. Certain large, reliable nodes seem to absorb most of the telnet traffic for planet earth. K1TTT is certainly one of them, AB5K might be another. But there are thousands of DX cluster nodes available. Try another one! Spread out the traffic and decrease stress on the system. The sysops will thank you.
  6. Don’t bother with an announcement. To think that you have anything interesting enough to post to 100,000+ people is pure arrogance. In two decades, I have never once found a reason to use the announcement feature. When I was running a node, I actually blocked all announcements from coming in. They’re silly, rarely helpful, and sometimes just offensive. Also, please don’t make false spots to serve as announcements (see “T0ALL” in the image above). You’re messing with our bandmaps and you look like a fool. Nothing (and nobody) is important enough for that.


If you have any tips or tricks to add, be sure to fire away in the comments below!



Remote Operation: an editorial

There’s a debate raging on the CQ-Contest list at the moment centered on remote operation. Both as a contest administrator and a participant, I’ve been familiar with the practice and even tried it once or twice. My station is, at the moment, capable of it (albeit with some amplifier limitations).

There are two sides to the argument:

  • “It’s internet.” The control of the station relies on the internet; that is to say, without internet, the QSO wouldn’t occur (even though it is strictly RF between the physical radios).
  • “It’s the same as a long mic cord.” The internet is not replacing any of the RF; it simply replaces the mic (or key) cord and other control devices.

I was pretty neutral about the whole thing until I read EI5DI’s piece, which is probably the ugliest, most petty opinion piece on the subject today. Now I’m convinced there is an entire class of operators who have chosen their decade and refuse to leave it. Let me save you the agony of reading that and paraphrase: remote operation is bad because it involves the internet in some way.

FACT: the internet replaces the control, NOT the RF. So EI5DI (and his ilk, whoever and wherever they may be) are really asking for a rule that says I must be mechanically connected to the controls of my station at all times. So for those of you who use wireless switchboxes or filter networks (like me): you’re out. Sorry.

Personally, I don’t care how long your mic cord (or any other control interface) is. I don’t care if you’re in the next room or the next continent. Like EI5DI says: facts are facts, so here’s a fact: remote operators are sending an exchange based on the physical location of the transmitter — the location of the operator is therefore immaterial. I’m not even sure how EI5DI can reach the conclusion that the location of the operator’s butt has anything to do with a radio contest.

Is it because we’ve made it too easy to win? Is it because this allows some of us to build far remote stations with great capabilities in advantageous locations? Sure. But that doesn’t stop EI5DI from doing that too. There’s realtors around the globe happy to help you find that dream location deep in a jungle and there’s airlines willing to fly you back and forth to operate it. To say that the difficulties of doing it for each major contest somehow discredits those operating remote stations is just blatant jealousy, especially when you consider the prevalence of rare zones in recent contests brought to us by remote stations.

This just becomes more embarrassing the longer I think about it. If anything, remote stations that rely on an internet or other data link for control actually have a disadvantage, as that link could go down at any time.

The hobby is always changing. If you want to sit in a room full of radios and use low dipoles in CQWW, that’s great — it’s about having fun. If you want to use cutting-edge technology and hand out a rare zone, that’s great too. But either way, for the love of Hiram, can we just let others do what they want and stop pretending they are lesser operators because they’re doing something we can’t?


Selecting a call sign

This post is a response to several Facebook group posts I’ve recently seen related to vanity call signs, and one asking for my specific opinion on them.

N1TA is a vanity. I selected it back when the vanity calls cost extra money (they are currently free) and it is my third one. Interestingly, I’ve applied for exactly three vanity calls in my entire life, only requesting a single call on the preference table each time. In all three cases, I got the call — even for N1TA, when there were several competing applications.

The process today is not so simple. Since applying is free, there are many more applicants. Getting the call you want is not easy anymore. There are plenty of resources, however. If you’re thinking of getting a vanity call, head to AE7Q’s website and read the entire site. Read every single page. Then read the forums. Then read everything a second time. Applications are rejected every day because the applicants were too lazy to first understand the process. Once you’ve read all there is on the subject, come back here.

But what makes a good call sign?

First and foremost: probably not your initials. I see these “initial call signs” all over the place. Most are 1×3’s, but the lucky few are 1×2’s. Very few of us have initials conducive to good suffixes. I’ve never been a fan of my initials, MD, in CW (although it’s OK on phone).

My selection criteria, as a contester, was low weight on CW and phone. TA accomplishes both. To determine this, I used the CW weight calculator from RadioQTH. If a call sign with MD had been available, it still would have been an unwise selection…

Call Sign Weight
TA 14
MD 20

I also prefer the N- prefix as it is shorter than K or W on CW…

Call Sign Weight
N 8
K 12
W 12

…but it lags behind on phone. “November” takes longer to say than “Kilo” or “Whiskey.” I was willing to compromise on that because the suffix was short and, after all, it was available.

I also decided to avoid call signs with characters ending with a single “dit.” For example, G, C, R, or E. Often, that last dit is lost in the noise.

My full set of requirements looked like:

  • Must be 1×2 (I’ve never liked 2×1 — just personal taste)
  • Preferably N, but would accept W or K
  • No trailing dit
  • Very small CW weight (fewer dah’s)

My tip for others is to think ahead. You might be blissfully enjoying repeaters or ragchew nets today, but your interests might change in five or ten years. Short calls work better for everything. Of course, you might be happy with your original sequential; there’s nothing wrong with that either! This is by and large a preference game, but I wanted to give some insight into my process.


The art of NOT QSL’ing

I dislike QSL cards. In fact, I’m of the opinion that they turn a thrilling weekend hobby into another day at the office, complete with all the excitement of filing, writing, record-keeping, and even accounting. I do all that stuff during the week; please don’t make me do it on the weekends too.

However, I recognize that others enjoy this part of the hobby and so I must occasionally participate. After all, it is a small price to pay when you consider how many of them bothered to work me in the last contest. Truth be told, it wasn’t that long ago I felt a flash of excitement when I got the brown envelope from the W1 bureau or – if it was a really good week – a direct card complete with SASE. Heck, I even sent a few of those. That feeling has dimmed somewhat for me.

I tend to think long QRZ.com profile biographies can become arrogant, especially so when they’re entirely committed to personal QSL information. However, given a recent surge of requests I’m receiving, I went ahead and made just that: an arrogant QRZ.com profile explaining exactly how to confirm your QSO with N1TA.

The average non-contest operator has little idea of the burden cards create. For example, we made 10,000 QSO’s in the past two months alone. If just a quarter of them send cards without SASE, that’s 2,500 envelopes at an average $0.50 postage each, that’s $1,250! That’s like donating a new radio to the USPS, and we haven’t even factored in printing costs or assigned a value to the labor cost.

Now figure this: in my experience, that figure above has been closer to half QSL rate than it is to a quarter, although this is admittedly decreasing as of late.

As I’m typing this, I see a card that reads “thanks for contest QSO…you are my third HF contact.” Obviously, I’ll return a card despite not receiving SASE in this case because I’m not a complete joyless monster.

So please, please, please: if you are a county hunter or are chasing some special award, consider using OQRS or just sending me an email. Save yourself the wasted card and save me the overhead. If you’re chasing DXCC, WAS, WPX, or VUCC, our QSO has likely already confirmed on Logbook of The World.

Let’s all try to modernize just a bit.


The case for multi-ops

Here comes an editorial. You’ve been forewarned…

Let me cut right to the bone: there need to be fewer single operator categories in DX contests. Now, before you eviscerate me, please allow me to explain that statement. For the sake of conversation, we’ll talk about CQ World Wide, since it seems to have the highest participation. On the current books, we’ve got Single Op High, Low, QRP; Single Op Assisted High, Low, QRP; classic and rookie overlays; and single band divisions.

You can see why the multitude of categories exist: we want people to operate and they’ll probably only operate if they feel they can be reasonably competitive. Some contests even go so far as to offer “tribander-and-wires” overlays — perhaps a response to the plague of HOA’s and covenants sweeping the planet.

But we’ve created a false binary where if someone can’t be competitive, they won’t bother operating. We need to remind ourselves that the sentence should be (and used to be) longer than that. It really should read: if someone can’t be competitive, they won’t bother operating from home.

These operators who cannot win from home, or are not interested in building winning stations, can still participate! There are many multi-ops scattered about (especially here and New England) but there certainly aren’t enough. The number of multi-ops has sat stagnant in recent years, with the big three and a wide valley until the “garage band multi-ops.” This valley exists because we’ve been incentivizing single operators but ignoring smaller multi-ops.

Think about your local club level. For every one person with a decent station there are five or six members (maybe more) with a peanut whistle station. It’s relatively easy to bring these operators into one room and let them compete from a workable station. The problem is that, in most contests, as soon as they do this they must compete with W3LPL, K3LR, and the like. Even the loudest of the loudest local guys probably are not setup to do this.

Paring off multi/2 and multi/single seems to help some. But it’s only recently we’ve added low power options to these categories; as most of us know, building a multi/2 is pretty easy until we introduce high power.

So what do I propose? Let’s get rid of the ridiculous multitude of single operator categories. Heck, let’s get rid of the assisted classification and just lump everyone together (scores show operating unassisted is hardly an impediment to winning). Split things up only by power: Single Operator High, Low, and QRP.

Then let’s take the multi-op categories and apply power rules. So we’ll have: Multi/Multi High, Low, QRP; Multi/2 High, Low, QRP; and Multi/Single High Low, QRP. Now the majority of us with at least one tower and wires can realistically host at least a Multi/Single (probably a Multi/2 with $500 worth of filters). Can’t compete from home? No problem — come on over and join the team.

The end result will be more contesters, better operators, and stronger active clubs.


Photo above: WPX SSB @K1TTT circa 2003. L-to-R NX1X (40m), N1TA (20m), KB1GHC (160m)