Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Handiham World for 28 September 2011

Welcome to Handiham World.

What got you started in radio?
When I think about that question, I recall a little crystal radio kit that my dad bought for me.  It had a plastic housing to make it look like a real table radio, except that it was smaller and had only a single earpiece.  And of course it "magically" took a radio signal right out of the airwaves and turned it into music without any electricity at all!  It was one of several crystal diode radios that I had as a kid.  Another memorable one was made up in a round plastic ball that was supposed to be a satellite.  There was a tuning control that consisted of a slug-tuned coil. The brass screw from the ferrite slug extended out of the top of the "satellite" like some sort of antenna.  It had a little rubber cap on it to serve as a grip, so that the coil could be tuned more easily.  The real antenna was a piece of bell wire with an alligator clip at the end.  That allowed you to connect the radio to something conductive that might hopefully act as a better antenna and bring in a local AM station.  Of course today the term "satellite radio" means something completely different!
When I was a teenager, dad bought me a Knight-Kit Span Master two tube regenerative receiver.  It was not my brightest moment in radio when the kit manual called for putting "spaghetti" over some of the bare wire leads during assembly and I went down to the kitchen cabinet to find this apparently necessary but odd ingredient for a radio.  Dad straightened me out on that and we ended up using the insulating tubing that was actually already provided by Knight-Kit.  
Knight-Kit Span Master as shown in 1962 catalog.
Image:  Here is the Knight-Kit Span Master as shown in a 1962 Allied Radio catalog.  You could get the outdoor antenna kit for only 1 cent more, but the radio itself cost $25.95. 
The Span Master worked when it was finished, so I installed it in the vinyl-covered wooden cabinet that came with it and ran a wire out of my bedroom window to serve as an antenna.  The circuit might not seem like much, since it had only two vacuum tubes, but it turned out to be light-years ahead of the crystal radios.  One important feature was a speaker, so I didn't have to use headphones.  The tuning knob was connected directly to a variable capacitor, but there was a helpful bandspread knob connected to a second capacitor so that fine tuning was possible without pulleys and dial strings.  Furthermore, the radio had a band switch and covered not only the AM broadcast band but also several short-wave bands.  In spite of the two tube design, a fair amount of gain could be had from the simple regenerative circuit.  It was also possible to hear Morse code and even something that was new and mysterious back then:  SSB. You had to be patient and careful tuning it in, though.  It was more fun to listen to far off short-wave stations and find out what was happening all around the world.
I consider the Span Master to have been the radio that really got me interested in getting my amateur radio Novice license.  Today we can still find electronic kits, and who knows?  One of those kits might spark the interest of a future engineer, scientist, or teacher!  Consider an electronic kit as a gift for your child, making it age-appropriate, of course.  Then make it a parent-child project to assemble it and make it work. You will both have fun, and open the door to STEM:  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  
Next week: Thoughts about a broken water pipe. 
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Handiham World for 21 September 2011

Welcome to Handiham World!

Cartoon guy carring stack of ham radio books = all about ham radio.
A week from tomorrow (on Thursday, September  29) I will have the opportunity to do what I value most in amateur radio:  teach a class for my local radio club.  The topic will be the rules and regulations for the General Class, so it's not really either a "fun" or "technical" topic.  As the old saying goes, "it is what it is", and that means that:
1.  There is going to be a lot of memorization involved, and...
2.  It's not the most interesting stuff in the world.  
Nonetheless, I will try to keep the class awake for the two hours we will have to hit the high points related to legal and courteous operation. I plan to take advantage of the LCD projector and use PowerPoint to make sure that I stay on subject and on time.  If you have endured really boring PowerPoint presentations, you are probably stifling the urge to yawn even thinking about the prospect.  As a teacher, I can use some amusing graphics and tell a few stories to break the tedium.  Some instructors bring along small bags of candy - wrapped hard candies are great - and toss them out to the students as a reward for answering a question. When I talk about the rules, especially the frequency allocations, I like to emphasize the fun my students are going to have when they get on HF and start working those distant stations.  Remember, most of the students will be Technician Class operators whose only experience is getting on repeater systems.  Most will never have tried EchoLink or IRLP operation, either. The prospect of a new, more complicated radio and larger antenna might seem daunting, but why not present it instead as an exciting opportunity?  As marketing people know, it is all in how you tell the story.  It can pay off to tell a few stories about your first DX contact or your Field Day operations. The best one are the memorable ones where you were surprised by really great band conditions and worked some amazing DX or when you were able to pass a message that made a difference to a disaster victim.  
Everyone has an interference story.  When you talk about that part of the regulations, personalize it by saying a few words about what happened to you.  My story is that I was a young operator, living with my parents, when I passed my own General exam and was finally able to get on the phone bands.  All I had was a really basic transmitter, a Knight-Kit T-60.  It used a really lame circuit that they called "screen grid modulation", and it more or less (but mostly less) allowed for AM phone operation.  My antenna was a vertical mounted in the back yard, fed by 50 ohm coax with a tapped coil at the feedpoint.  It was pretty basic, to say the least.
Knight T-60 transmitter
Image:  Knight-Kit T-60 transmitter
Anyway, I had my new General ticket taped to the wall in my bedroom and was really excited to get on the air.  I found an open frequency and called CQ.  Now that I have been a ham for decades I know that it would have been better to listen and join a QSO in progress or listen for someone else's CQ, but I was really a newbie back then and didn't know any better.  Imagine my surprise when one day I was out fiddling with the tapped coil at the base of the vertical antenna, when our neighbor lady across the back fence got my attention and asked me if I was a ham radio operator.  She explained that she was hearing my transmissions on top on her favorite AM broadcast station, WCCO. I was apologizing for the interference, but she stopped me and told me that it was perfectly all right and that she was interested in learning about ham radio herself!  It didn't take her long to get her ticket and for many years afterward she enjoyed getting on the air herself.  Not every interference complaint is bad, it seems!  Telling a story like that can add a bit of interest to an otherwise dull topic.  Use your imagination and keep your students engaged!
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Handiham World for 14 September 2011

Welcome to Handiham World!

cartoon family holding hands
Helping others learn about ham radio or work on their radio equipment and antennas has always been an important part of amateur radio.  Indeed, being a mentor, one who helps other operators succeed in reaching their amateur radio goals, is a long-cherished tradition. Sometimes we hear this kind of helper called an "Elmer".  If you are curious about how that came to be, you can find an excellent explanation on the ARRL website.  
But that's not exactly what I'm thinking about today. This is something that's a little bit more subtle, and it has to do with figuring out when people might need help, and in how best to communicate with them.  
Okay, so here's the deal:  It is easy to make mistakes by assuming that others know the things that you know. Of course sometimes we also assume that we know something, when in fact we really don't have the whole story or even have the facts completely wrong.  Furthermore,  people perceive things differently, so I might look at a situation and come to one conclusion while you look at that very same situation and come to another conclusion. Mistakes, sometimes huge ones, happen all the time because of such misunderstandings. They happen everywhere, too. Government, industry, educational institutions, engineering projects, public safety… You name it; mistakes can happen anywhere when people fail to communicate clearly and make assumptions that perhaps we shouldn't be making quite so readily!
Consider these points:
Common sense is relative.  Odd as it sounds, so-called "common sense" can be quite different from person-to-person, culture to culture, age to age… In fact, I am almost tempted to think there really is no such thing as "common sense". I can remember being told one time that I was lacking in common sense and yet another time that I had an exceptional amount of common sense! How can both of those statements possibly be true? Of course what really happened was that a person who understood something in a certain way and discovered that I did not understand or perceive the situation in the same way he did then felt that I didn't have any common sense. In his universe, everyone would understand that situation or concept exactly as he did. Naturally the opposite happened when another guy told me that I had lots of common sense, but what he really meant was that I was pretty smart because I understood the situation or concept exactly the same way that he did. Common sense is determined by life experience. People will have different life experiences because they have been born and raised in different geographical areas at different times and in different cultures. When you are talking about electricity and electronics, you cannot simply assume a "common sense" understanding of even the most basic underlying concepts. Yes, we might assume that everyone understands basic electrical safety, such as never putting one's body between a voltage source and ground, but does a person from a culture where electricity isn't common understand that? Does a small child? How about an elderly person visiting the ham shack?  Or even your neighbor from down the block?  The fact of the matter is that you simply cannot assume that everyone has the same common knowledge that you do or that you yourself necessarily have the common knowledge that might be considered very basic in the world of academia or engineering. In other words, you have to be cautious and thoughtful when communicating amateur radio concepts as a mentor. The person with whom you're working does not necessarily understand things – even basic things – about electricity and electrical concepts the same way you do.
When people say that they understand, it isn't necessarily so.  I'll bet all of us have been in the situation where we have been sitting in a classroom listening to the teacher telling us all about a concept that is complicated and new to us. The other people in the classroom seem to be following along with the lecture and understanding the concepts, so a person who doesn't quite get what is going on can feel self-conscious about asking a question. Even if the teacher stops to ask if there are any questions, a self-conscious person might simply nod their understanding and hope whatever the teacher talked about doesn't show up on the final exam! You can't always assume that people are following along with your brilliant explanation of the FCC rules and regulations during that Technician licensing class you are teaching for the club. An experienced mentor will be watching for signs of puzzlement or misunderstanding and ask if perhaps there is another way that they can explain the concept. By the way, this goes for projects outside the classroom, too. If you are directing the organization of Field Day for your radio club, you cannot necessarily assume that everyone understands their roles exactly the same way that you do. You have to be flexible and willing to spend some extra time making sure that such a project runs smoothly and safely even though it may mean checking back twice with your other volunteers, just to make sure that everyone is "on the same page".
You have to make some assumptions, but be careful!  One of the worst bosses I ever had in my working career was a grumpy old sourpuss who always insisted that you should NEVER assume anything. I always felt that that was ridiculous advice because no one could ever get through their day without making hundreds of assumptions. For example, when I get out of bed in the morning, I place my feet on the floor. I have assumed that the floor is there and that I will not fall into a hole into the basement. I assume that when I turn on the water tap that water will flow. And – when it comes to electricity – I assume that when I flip on a switch or plug in a power cord that the circuit will be live and that electricity will flow. Sometimes assumptions are pretty sure things. I have never gotten out of bed and fallen through a hole in the floor to the basement, so I feel very safe indeed in assuming that the floor will be there. On the other hand, I have flipped on electrical switches and found that there was no power. Power outages happen for one reason or another, and we have all experienced them. The point here is that there are assumptions that a person can make with a high degree of confidence and others with perhaps only what we will call a high expectation. Other assumptions may be so wild and crazy as to be downright silly. An example would be to assume that you will win the lottery, so there's no point in putting any money away for retirement. Making careless assumptions can get you into trouble when dealing with amateur radio and electricity. You should ALWAYS assume that an electrical circuit is live until you have disabled it with certainty so that you can safely work on it. When acting as a project leader for your radio club, you cannot necessarily assume that others will show up to participate, or that the right tools will be carried to the project site by other volunteers. You have to have a plan! Spelling things out carefully for those who will be helping you can be a huge timesaver when you actually get on site and ready to put up that big antenna.
What I am getting at here is that when you are acting as an Elmer and mentoring new amateur radio operators or when you are leading a project for your radio club, you have to keep an open mind. Even though I have been an amateur radio operator for decades and have worked with many other ham radio operators in many capacities, I am still surprised sometimes by how we can fail to communicate simply because we assume that others know what we know or that we know something  that we really don't know! There is no single way to overcome this failure in communication, but we can minimize its effects by remembering to really press people to let us know that they truly understand what we are talking about.  Be patient.  Listen!  Observe.  Repeat: Go over the plan or concept again if it is important.  Assume what seems most reasonable up to a point, but check to be sure thereafter.
As you might expect, this is not an exact science.  The best mentors are those who are willing to learn as well as to teach.  
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice
Handiham Manager

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Handiham World for 07 September 2011

Welcome to Handiham World!

I don't know how it is for you, but in our household Labor Day here in the USA marks the unofficial end of summer.  Yes, I know that by the calendar September is still really a summer month. Autumn isn't official until Friday, 23 September 2011.  But if you are an early riser like me, you can notice quite a difference week to week as the morning daylight retreats and it is really quite dark when you make that first pot of coffee or take the dog out.  analemma:  Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License. 
Image: The analemma as depicted for the northern hemisphere.  A typical globe of the world has an analemma to help describe the Earth's progress through its seasons. 
The reason for this quick change in daylight hours is, of course, that the Earth is reaching that portion of its orbit around the Sun where the tilt of its axis favors direct sun over the equator instead of here in the northern hemisphere.  We call this the Autumnal Equinox, and it means that our daylight hours are roughly equal to our night time hours - depending on location, of course.  If you look at the analemma on a globe of the world, you can see that it looks like a rather tall figure "8", with the very top of the 8 representing the summer solstice in the north and the very bottom representing the winter solstice in the north (or summer solstice in the southern hemisphere.)  The center of the 8, where the lines cross, represents the two equinoxes, autumn and spring. The thing about the length of the days is that as we make the trip around the top of the figure 8 the days are long and there is little change, but once we start our wild ride down the steep slope of the 8, the roller coaster really seems to speed up and the days get shorter fast!  
For amateur radio, this has some interesting implications.  Since the days are getting shorter, there is less direct sunshine, which in turn means less absorption on the lower HF bands like 160 and 75 meters.  Those bands are also hard to use in the high summer months of July and August because of the thunderstorm static.  Thunderstorms are ultimately driven by sunshine that heats the ground and builds huge clouds from rising air. The jet stream pulls storms through the upper Midwestern United States all summer long, creating a cacophony of noise on the HF bands. As the sun appears to retreat to the south at this time of year, the storms and RF noise also retreat. This makes the HF bands much more useful.  During the winter months the long nights will mean better conditions for long-distance contacts on 160, 75, and 40 meters. If you have not considered getting on these bands, you might think about it now while the weather is still pleasant enough to allow for some serious antenna work. Most of us use either simple wire antennas or verticals for these bands because of their wavelength and the obvious problems one encounters constructing directional antennas for such frequencies. A one half wave dipole for 3.9 MHz would be around 120 feet from end to end, which makes it pretty impractical to try to put on a tower and rotate!
So what that means is that for a few bucks and a little elbow grease, you can get on the air and have an antenna that isn't that different from what everyone else is using.  This is certainly not the case for highly competitive bands like 20 meters, where some stations are equipped with large directional antennas on tall towers.  You will get a chance to be as competitive as you like on the lower frequency HF bands, but you have to get your antenna work done now!
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice
Handiham Manager

Help us win the Dr. Dave Challenge!

Thanks to everyone who has helped us with donations to the Dr. Dave Challenge so far.  I don't have an update this week due to the high volume of phone calls and the holiday weekend. Money is tight these days and we desperately need your support.  Now, thanks to a generous challenge grant by Dr. Dave Justis, KN0S, we have a chance to help fill the budget gap.  Dr. Dave will donate $5,000 to the Handiham System if we can raise a matching amount.  That means we need to really put the fund-raising into high gear!  If you can help, designate a donation to Handihams, stating that it is for the "Dr. Dave Challenge".  We will keep you posted in our weekly e-letter as to the progress of the fund. 
Nancy can take credit card donations via the toll-free number, 1-866-426-3442, or accept checks sent to our Courage Center Handiham address:
Courage Handiham System
3915 Golden Valley Road
Golden Valley, MN  55422

Be sure to put a note saying "Dr. Dave Challenge" somewhere in the envelope or on the note line of the check.  If you donate online as detailed toward the end of your weekly e-letter, be sure to designate to Handihams and then send me an email letting me know you donated to the Dr. Dave fund:
Thank you so much for your support!

W0GLU License Plate

W0GLU amateur radio license plate - Minnesota circa 1971- Gift of Miriam Kiser.
This vintage automobile license plate was issued to Rex Kiser, W0GLU, in 1971 by the State of Minnesota. It has renewal stickers for 1972 and 1973. Rex is now a silent key, but had literally decades of volunteer experience for the Handiham program. The license plate was a gift to us from Miriam Kiser, Rex's wife.
Rex's specialty was repairing and modifying amateur radio equipment for the use of our members with disabilities. He soon became our crew leader, taking charge of shop activities. Back in the early days, the modifications to equipment included mounting clothespins on band-switch knobs so that people with muscle weakness could get enough leverage to change bands by themselves. The Handiham System also kept a "fleet" of loaner CW transceivers, Ten-Tec Century 21 models. These would be modified by Rex and his crew for use by blind hams. The mod included cutting away part of the plastic bezel covering the radio's frequency display dial and putting tactile bumps on the dial to mark frequency intervals. The blind user could put his or her fingertips through the hole in the bezel and feel the raised markings on the frequency display dial. This was about as analog a frequency display as you can get! It was only in later years that frequency displays started going digital and the door began opening to voice frequency announcements.
In later years, Rex and his crew installed voice modules in radios like the venerable Kenwood TS-440SAT, a very popular radio that appeared in the late 1980's. The VS-1 speech module made it the most blind-friendly HF radio of its day, and the built in automatic antenna tuner in the SAT version freed blind users from the hassle of fiddling with manual tuners. Needless to say, Rex and his crew knew these radios inside and out!
W0GLU was also a regular net control station on the PICONET, which meets daily except Sundays on 3.925 MHz. I would describe Rex as a well-rounded ham radio operator who enjoyed many aspects of radio and electronics. Injured serving his country during WW2, shrapnel pierced his spinal column and he never walked again. That didn't keep Rex from driving his own car and maintaining his considerable upper body strength. I was surprised when he decided to take up adapted skiing with his disabled vets group, but I shouldn't have been. As I said, Rex was a well-rounded guy, interested in helping others by volunteering and in living a good and worthy life.
Rex Kiser, W0GLU - A great ham radio operator who inspires us still.

Image: Rex poses for the camera in the Handiham repair shop.