Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Handiham World for 28 April 2010

Welcome to Handiham World!

When did "anything goes" become acceptable?

blackboard with ABC on it

Today we are going to try something completely different. I want you to relax and close your eyes and empty your mind of all of the worries and details of what you are doing right now. Turn down the radio, turn off the television, and prepare to take a trip backward in time. Now, I don't want to admit that I am "old", but I have been an amateur radio operator for quite a few decades -- since 1967, in fact. For me, this trip back in time will take me to those teenage years in the 1960s when amateur radio first appeared on my horizon and ultimately grabbed my attention with its promise of communications technology and cutting-edge connections to science and learning. These were the days of the great space race when science and technology were really cool things and everyone knows that teenagers go for the "cool" stuff. Gee, today I'm not sure the word cool is even so cool anymore.

Some of you will be older than I am and will be able to remember World War II and the exciting and interesting role communication played during those years. Others will be younger but will still be able to remember a time when they became fascinated with amateur radio and its promise of civic engagement in public service communications, new and exciting technologies, and a great way to make new friends.

One thing that will be common to all of us traveling backward in time today and remembering those first days of fascination with amateur radio will be a good feeling about those who helped us to learn amateur radio and the civil and friendly nature of the amateur radio service. Sure, there may have been more rules about Morse code and keeping a log book, but the more important consideration was the fact that the amateur radio bands were by and large a safe place for a teenager to hang out, for a kid to learn basic electronics, and even for a grandma to work DX.

In fact, no matter how old you are you can probably remember kindergarten or your first few grades of elementary school and how you learned basic civil behaviors like sharing, being polite, not talking while others are talking, and what is and what is not appropriate language and behavior. Your teacher would certainly not allow you to wear a cap in the classroom or get up and start running around during a history lesson. If one of your classmates let loose with a swear word, even a mild one, it would certainly result in a trip to the principal's office and some sort of punishment. Oh, how we hated to stay after school on a sunny Spring day while the rest of our classmates headed out the school door to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

Can you guess where this little essay is going?

Well, I have to bring you back to today and reality. Yesterday I was tuning around on the HF bands. Propagation has been rather poor these last few days and I was anxious to find out if there was something wrong with my station after I had been away on vacation for a couple of weeks. You never know; perhaps a feedline had gone bad or something had happened to the antenna system. Anyway, in the course of my travels up and down the HF spectrum I came across a conversation on the 20 m band. As is often the case, I could hear some of the stations on the frequency but not others. Listening for a while allowed me to find out whether propagation conditions allowed communication to the east and west coasts from my location in Minnesota.

It turned out to be a more or less informal roundtable net without a formal net control station. In this kind of a situation, stations just take turns and remember who is next in the roundtable discussion. It generally works pretty well in a small group situation where all of the stations can hear each other. Of course I would not consider entering this roundtable myself, because I could not hear at least two of the other stations, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to listen along for awhile to see if propagation conditions would change.

That certainly proved to make for some interesting listening.

One of the stations started to go on what I could only describe as a rant about former VP Al Gore and how terrible he is and what a liar he is, and on and on and on. Another station picked up on that theme and spiced it up with several derogatory words that I can only say would not be acceptable in polite company -- and that certainly would have gotten him sent to the principal's office for detention had he been in Mrs. Cunningham's third-grade class.

Of course at this point my ear was glued to the speaker. How bad could this train wreck of a QSO possibly get? It wasn't long before I found out.

The roundtable continued along these lines of character-bashing and complaining with nary a single positive thing to say. In due course, one of the stations started tearing into President Obama, saying, "I won't even call him president; just Obama."

But wait, folks -- that's not all. This poor guy got himself so worked up about how awful President Obama is that he dropped the proverbial "F-bomb". Mind you, this is all going out on the air for anyone and everyone with a short-wave receiver to hear. No one in the roundtable group complained about this jeremiad and inappropriate language, at least as far as I could tell. It seemed like everyone in the group was like-minded, joining together in their celebration of stupid, boorish behavior.

Okay, so that's bad language being used on the air. My wife and I both drive and since we are often in the car together, we observe other drivers and their behavior. We have developed a theory about bad drivers: "When they're bad, they're bad." What this means is that when we see a driver failing to signal or wandering around the road while using a cell phone or some other careless behavior, it is also highly likely that that same driver will exhibit bad behavior across the driving spectrum. For example, that same inattentive driver is more likely to blow a stop sign if they fail to signal and wander back and forth across the driving lane. "When they're bad they're bad."

This same concept applied to the guy in the roundtable who dropped the F-bomb while trashing the President. He went on and on and on talking and talking even though band conditions were changing and the other stations in the roundtable complained over the top of him that they were only getting every third word or so. An operator who has one egregiously bad habit is more likely to exhibit other undesirable and perhaps illegal behaviors on the air, such as failing to comply with identification requirements as set forth in Part 97. When they're bad they're bad.

As part of our ongoing operating skills review, I think we need to not only revisit the necessity to comply with basic station identification rules, but we also need to recall a time long ago when we were taught in elementary school to be nice to each other and play well together. Courtesy, respect, thoughtful consideration of other people's feelings -- all of these things are basic to a civil society and good communications skills. Please don't get me wrong; I am not saying that no one should discuss politics or political figures on the amateur radio bands. What I am saying is that respectful civil language is called for at all times when we are using the shared resource of the amateur radio spectrum. Anyone could be listening. Furthermore, coarse, rude, or inflammatory language demeans and degrades the amateur radio experience for all of us -- even for those who were participating in that ghastly roundtable on 20 meters. A coarsening of language pulls everyone down and makes it more difficult to have an honest discussion about any topic.

I don't care what your politics are or what your religious or other personal preferences might be. When I first got started in amateur radio, I read and heard from others of the time that it was always best to stay away from topics like sex, religion, or politics while on the air. Of course times have changed. Commercial talk radio and cable television news channels cross over into territory where we don't want to go. Bad language and insulting and demeaning comments along with sexual innuendo might have found their way into these other services, but they are still not welcome in the amateur radio service. If you want to talk about politics, there is no rule against your doing so. If you want to talk religion, you can do that as well. The thing to remember is that as an amateur radio operator you have an obligation -- a duty, if you will -- to maintain the amateur radio bands as a place for anyone to safely visit for a listen. Political discourse can be polite and civil. Name-calling and bad language will only ruin the bands for everyone else.

So that is my operating skills lesson for today. Think before you speak and always be polite and civil even when you disagree with someone else. Share the bands and remember that children or newcomers to the short-wave bands may be listening anywhere and at anytime. Always be kind and helpful.

And won't you please use your callsign? Use it every 10 minutes during a conversation and at the end of a series of transmissions to comply with the legal requirements, but use it even more than that to help avoid confusion about who is talking and when. When I teach the Technician class for my local radio club, I tell these new hams to be, "Use your callsign often -- you won't wear it out."

Patrick Tice, Handiham Manager