What can I say, I really am a nerd! All the gardening and beekeeping are just there to keep the tech guy in check. It got away from me lately. It all started when I ran into my old “Electroluminescent Receiver,” a four band ham kit radio I found on the internet that I built a decade ago. I had modified that radio to cover all the shortwave listening bands as well, and learned a lot about radio circuitry in the process. At the time I never thought about getting a ham licence because there was a Morse Code requirement that I was unwilling to put the time in to master. In 2007 the FCC abandoned the code requirement. This time, when bitten by the radio bug, there was no reason not to go for the license. I studied a little, took the exams, and was awarded an amateur radio operating license in February as an Amateur Extra with call sign AF7NX. Little did I know what a club I was joining! It comes complete with its own lingo, special handshakes, and hangouts. Much of ham on-air culture consists of making brief contacts with other hams and exchanging information. The HF bands were given to the hams long ago because they were never “reliable” for communication. Radio signals must reflect off of the ionosphere to propagate any distance, which they are very prone to do given the right circumstances, but then again conditions vary and there will be no signal path where there was one just minutes before. This “worthless” band is perfect for hobbyists because it naturally rations the airwaves to only those path over which propagation is possible, yet provide the allure of world-wide communications with just a few watts of power. But the fickle nature of HF communications also means that you want to say your piece quickly, clearly and efficiently before the tenuous connection path with the other party disappears. Hence the handshake — call sign to call sign, signal reception reports and location exchanged, then say good-bye. Minimally, all that can be done with about 20 characters and only take a few seconds, if you know the special handshakes and ham lingo!
After I got my license, I needed to get a radio. The radio world is turning upside down with the advent of fast digital electronics in the past couple of decades. But I learned electronics when analog was king, and that is where I feel comfortable, so I picked up a couple of thirty year old radios on eBay to become my station. The uncomfortable paring of radio that-knew-no-computer with laptop sound card was accomplished to let the radio talk on-the-air in modern digital modes. The digital modes are largely replacing Morse code as the preferred method of on-air low-power discourse, and is part of the reason that there is no longer the code requirement for the license. Although voice/phone remains an important part of ham radio, I find myself more attracted to the keyboard than the microphone. Voice also requires more bandwidth and consequently more power to be reliably intelligible over long distance. For now I am content with a few watts to make connections around the globe. Challenges arise regularly as I become proficient at operating the radio. I quickly realized the need for a good antenna. A good antenna can make any old radio great, whereas a poor antenna will ruin a fine radio. The technical and cultural aspects of this fascinating hobby will be the subjects of a few future posts, as the blog steps out of retirement for a while.