Tag Archives: radio

An Incredible Story From Soviet Times

This was written by Tom Dailey, and I’ve lightly edited it:

In 1965, I was stationed at the Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Center in San Diego. I was a Radioman 2nd. Class in the USN, at the time.

One evening, at our radio club station (W6DCM – different license holder, now), I called CQ and got UAØKKC (it’s no longer around), with Ivan at the mic. After a time of the usual signal reports and such, we asked what each did in their lives – I said that I was US Navy radio operator.

He answered that HE ALSO was a Navy radio operator in the Soviet navy. Then we discovered that his station was at the SUBMARINE base at Vladivostok, and I of course was his DIRECT opponent.

Yes… we really DID laugh at that, and I shall never forget what he said (that I heartily agreed with):

“Thomas, isn’t it shame that we’re supposed to hate each other?”

“Yes, Ivan, it is – someday we’ll share a vodka, da?”

“Da”, he replied.

We’re often told we should hate people. Messages I have heard on the media over the last 10 years have said we ought to hate illegal immigrants, CEOs, radical Muslims, the French, Iranians, Mexicans, presidents, UN diplomats, climate scientists, oil company employees, Chinese people, conservatives, liberals, religious people, atheists, and oh yes, still Russians.

But I get to choose who to hate, and in fact, I choose NO HATE. Not only does it keep my stress level way lower, but it also lets me enjoy life more, and makes the world a better place.

We can all talk to people in other countries and with other backgrounds and viewpoints so easily thanks to the Internet. Sadly we rarely have very deep online conversations to the point of getting to know people. For whatever reason, ham radio lends itself to that better.

Even better: visit other places. I wonder how many people that say they hate some group of people have visited them and made an effort to make a connection? It is, after all, really hard to hate someone that is kind to you. Perhaps they’re afraid to let go of their hate.

Think also about this: for whom is it convenient if you hate people? There is usually a reason that hatred is stoked, and it doesn’t usually lead to good things for individual people.

Tom W0EAJ added:

I actually tried to locate him and the station, but both appear to have vanished. Ivan (his name was pronounced Eee-von) could have, it occured to me later, gotten into trouble for saying such things. I think both of us realized AT THE TIME, what an astounding counterpoint each of us was to the other.

Proof that if it were left up to the simple little guys like us, and not to the politicians, we might actually pull off living in peace.

Once, We Were Makers

I saw an article on Wired today: The Lost Tribes of RadioShack. It is well worth the read even if you’re not into electronics. A key quote:

[H]is shop is a lone outpost; in a single generation, the American who built, repaired, and tinkered with technology has evolved into an entirely new species: the American who prefers to slip that technology out of his pocket and show off its killer apps. Once, we were makers. Now most of us are users.

I remember as a kid eagerly awaiting each year’s new RadioShack catalog. I’d read them pretty much cover to cover for fun. And who wouldn’t? The catalogs had fun things like radios, telephone gadgets, calculators, tape recorders, electronic “lab kits”, books, components, LEDs… I loved the catalogs and loved the store.

My parents bought me a electronic kit (if memory serves 20 years later, it’s the “deluxe 160-project electronic kit” from page 156 of the 1988 catalog, though it may have been purchased a different year). I had endless fun with that thing. It had resistors, diode, capacitors, oscillator, speaker, LED, relay, etc — plenty to make a bunch of kid-friendly projects.

Just looking at the catalog makes me excited even today. On the next page from the kit I had is a $5 crystal radio kit which needs no power source — “Solderless. With earphone, instructions, theory.” On page 28 there was a revolving red light, and some microcassette recorders on p. 36 (I had one of those for awhile).

I had enthusiasm for building and figuring out things for a long time. My dad let me take apart an old lawn mower for fun once — I’m sure he knew ahead of time it would never be back together. One of his friends from work built homemade contraptions out of things like an old vacuum cleaner (attach a cardboard tube to the exhaust and you get a great tennis ball shooter). And there was always all sorts of fun junk to discover up in the barn.

I eventually shifted to a different sort of “making things”: programming. It has kept me busy for quite a number of years.

But the Wired article has a point. RadioShack is struggling. Many people have no interest in making or fixing things anymore. The best-selling smartphone in the world comes sealed in a metal case where not even the battery can be replaced, the software is dictated by a company in California, and good luck trying to program for it without signing your life away first. A far cry from the first computer I used, a TRS-80 Color Computer II, bought, yes, at RadioShack. Turn it on, and in a few seconds you get a BASIC prompt. Can’t really use it without programming. Being able to read its manual was an early motivation for me to work at learning to read.

It is sad that so many devices can’t be worked on anymore, and that so many people don’t care. It is difficult for me to give Jacob (and later, Oliver) the sort of experience I had as a child. Companies would love to sell us $50 DVD sets, $300 “educational” game systems, $40 educational games, and any number of $30 plastic toys (some of which we have and the boys enjoy).

I’d rather give him a $10 bag of resistors, capacitors, wire, battery holders, LEDs, and a book, and see what he can come up with (when he’s a bit older, of course). And, in fact, he and I built his first computer together. We installed the ultimate in operating systems for tinkering: Linux.

This all brings me back to RadioShack. I’ve been working on ham radio lately, with an eye to that being a project for Jacob (age 3.5), Oliver (just turned 1), and me to enjoy in the future. I needed some cable, and had been told by many people to visit the RadioShack in Derby, KS. It’s like the one mentioned in the Wired article: huge, selling everything from washing machines to bulk cable, except this one specializes in amateur radio.

I asked Jacob if he would like to come with me to a radio store. “Dad, I would LOVE that!” He brought his little semi-broken walkie-talkies with him to use during the hour drive there. At one point, he was concerned that a radio store is like a library and he might have to leave them on a shelf. I assured him he could keep them.

We got to the RadioShack and he loved it. He couldn’t even really contain his excitement. He ran back and forth along the bright green stripe running down the middle of the carpet. He excitedly watched them measure out 60ft of RG-8 coax for me. He pushed buttons on the demo clothes dryer, looked at all the antennas, and just had a great time.

And he’s been interested in my radio, too. When I was talking to somebody on it the other day, he said, “I think he is at the radio store. He is having fun there.” Right now, everybody I talk to on the radio is at the radio store to him. Jacob loves the fact that the backlight on my FT-857D can change colors, and often comes into the office just so I can put it into setup mode and let him spin the big wheel to change the colors. He enjoys opening boxes of components, and came out to help (and run around) while I suspended a dipole from some trees last Friday.

I had told Jacob when we got to the store that “This radio store is called RadioShack.” He obviously took that to heart, because now if he hears me talking about “a radio store”, he will say, “Dad, actually it is radio SHACK.”

So I say thank you to the Derby RadioShack for keeping the magic of making things with your dad alive for another generation.

KD0MJT

Wow — tonight was thrilling. It’s hard to explain why, but it’s pretty exciting to have a radio setup that is all wrong in so many ways work well enough for me to sit in my kitchen in Kansas and talk to someone in Indianapolis using only two-way HF radios.

I recently passed my technician and general amateur radio exams. I’ve been talking to some very nice people locally on the 2m band, which permits local (say, 100-200mi radius) communication. It’s been fun, but Kansas is sparsely populated enough that sometimes there just isn’t any activity. At all.

Earlier this week, my Yaesu FT-857D and two antennas arrived. I tried it first on VHF, and had a nice chat with Kent (KB0RWI) a few miles away. But tonight was the big experiment.

I bought a 20m dipole antenna. This is basically a 30-foot-long wire, connected to a balun and a coax feed line in the middle. You’re supposed to put it at least 30 feet off the ground, and away from trees, houses, etc. You’re supposed to have a nice RF ground for your transmitter, power supply, antenna tuner, and all that stuff. You’re not supposed to just run the coax under that (until today, annoying) small hole in the seal under the kitchen storm door. You’re supposed to have to have the correct connectors on your coax, instead of soldering an RG-8 PL-259 onto some RG-8X because you’re new at this and didn’t realize that you need to buy an adapter.

And, I’m really pretty sure that you’re not supposed to have an aggressive outdoor cat — complete with a full set of claws and teeth — attack the coax RG-8X cable as it’s being pulled through the grass.

Fail to do any of these things, and the thing might not work well, or might not work at all, or for people that use old equipment, might burn out your radio or something.

So anyway I got out the ladder today, and I got the antenna maybe 10-15 feet in the air. I have three trees in a row with the perfect separation to hang each end and the center balun from. So while Jacob went around playing with water and trying out the ladder on occasion (with my help), I used some string to hang the antenna. In the trees, not far from them. Near the house. Not 30ft off the ground.

I strung the feed line into the house, set up all my equipment on our kitchen table, flipped the switch. And — nothing. Just the occasional familiar whine while tuning. I tried the 20m band, then the 40m, then even 15, 12, and 10. No activity anywhere. So what was wrong?

I improvised some grounding — extracted the ground conductor from an old strip of AC house wiring, shoved it into the ground, and grounded the tuner and transmitter. No difference.

I unplugged the coax, and tested it with my multimeter. It tested out OK.

I plugged it back in and wiggled the connector. Turns out the connector isn’t in great shape, but it had been working.

I tried transmitting. The tuner made a whole bunch of alarming-sounding clicking noises (sounded like a symphony of relays), indicated SWR over 3, and the ammeter on my power supply went a bit nuts. Later I realized that I just wasn’t giving the tuner enough time to tune up; with a few more seconds, it tuned up just fine on every frequency. (So yes, it was supposed to do that.)

And, it turns out, that all I needed to do was wait a little while longer to hear some signals. Pretty soon I was finding stuff all over the 40m band. I heard a discussion from Chicago, another from Oklahoma City, some apparent broadcasters from Africa.

I decided I would try and transmit. I was hearing one side of a discussion very clearly and decided I would wait for an opportunity to try to contact that person. I heard his callsign, K9RM. I looked it up, and realized he was near Indianapolis, where I had lived for awhile.

Eventually he invited a station trying to get in to participate. And:

“KD0MJT” (I announced my callsign, as a request to join the conversation)

He said he only made out the 0, but eventually we were talking quite well. It was a brief conversation, but interesting; the person he was talking to was in Portland, and couldn’t hear me (and I could barely hear him, but not loud enough to make out).

That with no phone lines, no Internet provider needed, etc. And with a rig that is far from being at peak efficiency. I had no idea what to expect tonight — and was surprised that just tossing an antenna up in a tree let me talk to someone in Indiana. That’s 650 miles away. I wonder what I’ll be able to do once I get things done the right way.

This hobby is going to be fun. Many thanks to Mike_W for equipment suggestions, Kent and Dan from Newton ARC for encouragement and coming out to the house to test things, Kent for being my first ham radio contact ever (on 2m while I was using an old 1981 radio), Chuck (K9RM) for taking a few minutes to be my first HF contact, and my dad for helping plan out exterior wall penetration methods that will eliminate this coax under the kitchen door and lack of grounding business.

Jacob, by the way, still loves his radios and is starting to take an interest in mine. It wouldn’t shock me at all of he’s one of these kids that gets his technician license in the 2nd grade or something. I think he and I can do this together for a long time.

Update 11/1/2010: My callsign has changed to KR0L.