Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Handiham World for 22 April 2009

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Welcome to Handiham World!

Pat in shirt and tie, holding handiham coffee mugState of the program: Where we are in these tough economic times.

Is there anyone out there who doesn't know there is a worldwide recession? It seems like the tough economic times have reached into every corner of the world and every part of our existence. You cannot turn on the news these days without hearing about some company laying off hundreds or thousands of people, some bank going under, or some other negative economic news. As you might expect, non-profit organizations and programs of those organizations, like the Courage Center Handiham System, are certainly not immune from the hard economic times.

So far this year we have had to ask one staff member to retire, and we have had to eliminate the job of "Student Coordinator", where Jerry Kloss, N0VOE, put in so many wonderful years of dedicated, caring service to our members, especially those members who were just getting started in amateur radio studying for their Technician licenses. Fortunately, we have been able to turn the Student Coordinator position into a volunteer job, and Jerry is still able to help us by working from home and welcoming those who are just getting in to amateur radio by contacting them on the phone or by e-mail. Still, we are down by one staff member in the office because of this change, and volunteers can have other priorities. That is a big trade-off, but what do you do when money is short?

Then there is the remaining office staff, where hours have been cut back. We have had to eliminate office hours on Fridays. Even so, on the remaining days we can still provide most of the same services that we did before, only it sometimes takes a little longer. But who knows what the economy will do over the next year or two?

One big program change was that we had to cancel our plans to offer a California Radio Camp in 2009. The money just isn't there. We hope to not just eliminate that camp session altogether, but the only thing we can do is hope that better economic times will increase the value of our endowment fund and that our donors will continue to support us. Like many other nonprofit programs, we have money invested in a fund and use the interest to help pay the costs of running the program. Since the value of everybody's investments is down, that affects us as well and means that less money than ever is available to use for operating funds.

Believe me, membership fees and the small amounts of money brought in by program fees and equipment sales do not come close to covering the cost of running the Handiham System. On the plus side, the Internet has enabled us to serve more people in a more cost-effective way. Not only can we offer audio and other services online, but the Internet offers a quick and easy way to interact with our members to get questions answered and things done much more cheaply than by using older methods. If it weren't for the availability of the Internet, I'm not sure that we could ever keep up with our work! Nonetheless, there are things that remain in our program that still end up costing a lot of money. We need a certain amount of office space, we have storage for donated equipment, there are the ongoing costs of running any office; things like the cost of the space calculated by square foot that we use within Courage Center, the various utilities like electricity, phone, and Internet service, and the cost of office supplies. None of that stuff has gotten cheaper over the years.

We are optimistic that the upcoming Minnesota Radio Camp will be well-attended and successful. The camp is expensive to produce and operate, but it remains one of our core services, as does the distance education in amateur radio that we have always done. There are other services that we have offered over the years that simply cannot be sustained in the future. While we can offer excellent amateur radio access through the Handiham Remote Base station running the Kenwood TS-480, it is getting more and more difficult to offer refurbished used equipment directly to our members on a loan program. There are a couple of reasons for this change. The elephant in the room is eBay, where used amateur radio equipment gets traded and sold these days instead of being donated to us. Even though we have a dedicated volunteer, K0CJ, who comes in every week to help us with donated gear, there is still a cost to maintaining storage space and using staff time to manage the program of donated equipment. Sometimes weeks will go by with absolutely nothing coming in. This is one area where I, as the manager of the program, must make the hard decision to change the fundamentals of this service. My feeling is that it is better to offer our new hams who pass their Technician license exams at radio camp brand-new handheld radios instead of trying to support the used equipment program. I would like your input on this. Do you think you have other ways to save money and continue to offer the same services?

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that the Handiham program has always been primarily a volunteer operation. It began that way in 1967 and has always depended upon volunteers to help with our mission of "hams helping hams", whether it be to get licensed, learn more about their equipment and operating, helping to get newcomers on the air, and helping people with disabilities make friends and learn how to communicate using technology. That remains our mission; the question is how do we best maintain our strengths to carry it on into the future? I know it is a downer, but we have to consider the budget and work within the money and resources that we have available. If we can raise more money in this summer's upcoming Handiham appeal, it will certainly help. I welcome your ideas and, as always, your support whether it be as a financial donor, active Handiham member, or one of our very much appreciated volunteers.

Now let's move on to our next story. To introduce it, I want to remind you of a really popular phenomenon these days: MMRPG's. You are probably saying to yourself, "What the heck is an MMRPG?"

Although we have mentioned this term in the past, many of us probably have no reason to really use it or remember what it means. An MMRPG is a "massive multiplayer role playing game". Typically, it is a video game with Internet connectivity in which many participants from around the world interact in the game's virtual reality. Participants can communicate with each other, take on roles as "avatars", becoming the character that best suits their personality, and work their way through whatever mission or purpose the game theme might include. These things sometimes involve quests and battles, individuals working alone or in groups, and, as you might expect in a game, competition for a high score.

So you might ask a second question, "What does this have to do with amateur radio?"

I'm glad you asked that question! An MMRPG involves communication in a virtual environment. Everyone who participates in the game knows that the experience is one of virtual reality, and that if you participate you are not really fighting swordfights and climbing mountains, even though you might be doing those things while you are playing the game. Still, you are communicating with others who are playing the massive multiplayer role-playing game. The communication is real. The experience is fun. And there is something out there for amateur radio operators that is able to provide a virtual amateur radio station in a world of virtual amateur radio propagation where multiple participants can be "on the air" as part of a virtual shared experience. This is the same concept as the massive multiplayer role-playing game, except that it is for amateur radio. The system makes use of the CQ100 interface developed by VE3EFC. So, with that little introduction, I will let an enthusiastic user tell you more about it in our next story.

Patrick Tice

Handiham Manager