Total Electron Content: Sweat The Little Things

I study little things. I sweat the little things in life. So many people around me rush to accomplish something truly big with their careers, their relationships, and their lives not realising that life itself is made up of little things. It is the littlest of details that are vital to me after all little things make big things happen. I study Lepidoptera and Hymenoptera and all these little insects and creatures as a hobby but I also study things so small they are invisible to the human eye. Of all the little things I study and attempt to understand, as a radio scientist and radio astronomer, it is the electron that takes most of my attention. In physics they say the electron has no size at all, it is for all intents and purposes, infinitely small. Whatever the theorists and experimentalists say, these things are really, really, really little. I mean they are small, can’t emphasise that enough here. I sit and think about the theories revolving around the tiny electron, and the continued discoveries relative to this little particle. When someone flips a light switch, or turns on the headlights of their automobile, or dials through the stations on their car radio, my mind drifts to the electron. Such a tiny particle that, with other tiny particles, makes some really big things happen or prevents some big things from happening as is the case from time to time.

I sit on my balcony here at my Sanctum Sanctorum in Grid Square EL98gm (yeah I love the Maidenhead Locator System), I light a cigarette and sip my coffee and find myself staring off at the bluebird sky, and the soft cirrostratus clouds drifting overhead. Here in the Sunshine State, and most days we truly live up to that name, the Sun’s rays beat down creating amazing heat and humidity, but also creating some of the most scenic views and skylines I’ve ever seen in all my travels around the world. No skies like these anywhere, no matter what you think. I stare deeper, past the beautiful clouds, past the endless sea of azure sky, and I imagine myself seeing countless trillions of electrons buzzing around before my eyes. The sky disappears altogether, the skies turn black and I think of electrons. I think of the tiniest of tiny things that are the building blocks of the universe. My mind drifts, as if in a state of Zen, and I think of languages, communication, radio science, radio propagation, and all my studies over the last decade and a half. It is all in thanks to the Sun, the almighty, glowing, fiery orb that grants me and every person on this giant football called planet Earth life.

As I stare off into space, I clear my mind, focusing on my concept of electrons, and I try to imagine a tube of sorts between two points in the sky. I look to the east and imagine myself being able to run through this tube straight across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands from my little spot here in Florida. Then I shrink this tube and all in my mind I cross section it to a size of one metre squared. I picture this tube now filled with electrons, and begin picturing what scientists would refer to as the TEC or total electron content, which is a descriptive quantity in ionospheric studies here on Earth. TEC being the total number of electrons integrated, as stated above, between two points along a cross section tube of one metre squared, id est, the electron columnar number density. For those of you not understanding columnar number density it is simply a number density of quantity, the number or count of a substance as opposed to the mass, per unit area integrated along a path: N = ∫ n d s. Picture an ant colony in a cross sectioned tube if you will. Total Electron Content is reported generally in multiples of a TEC unit, also known as TECU, which is defined as TECU = 1016electrons/m². Have I lost you yet? Bored to tears yet? Well stick with me, because it gets a little more interesting, at least I think so anyway.

So TEC is reported in multiples of TECU and vertical TEC values can range from a couple to several hundred TECU. So what is TEC and why do I care so much about it that I sit and daydream about imaginary cross-sectioned tubes filled with electrons? Well as I stated above, I’m a bit of a radio scientist, and I deal on a day to day basis with radio propagation, whether I’m studying it, or teaching its principles to others. I work in electronics consultations and sales and I deal with a good amount of GNSS (Global Navigational Satellite Systems) technology, satellite communications, and UHF and VHF radio communications equipment. Understanding TEC as it pertains to satellite communication and satellite navigation equipment helps me understand the phenomena that can both promote and degrade the systems we use everyday in the commercial, military and private sector. So TEC is simply the total number of electrons existing along a pathway between say a radio transmitter and a radio receiver. Radio waves are affected by the presence of electrons, always, so it stands to reason the more electrons in the path of a radio wave or radio waves, the more the signal will be affected. So more or less electrons concentrated in the Earth’s ionosphere play an important role on radio propagation and any impedance or promotion thereof.

The TEC in the Earth’s ionosphere is altered by various factors including EUV (Extreme Ultra-Violet) radiation, geomagnetic storms et cetera, with radiant energy always proportionate to frequency. Unfortunately there is not just one standard TEC report to be had. The TEC depends on your local time, your coordinates on Earth, the season you’re experiencing, the particular solar cycle we’re in the midst of, the current activity of the Sun and various other tropospheric conditions. Radio waves are affected by the ionosphere and the velocity of these radio waves changes when the signal passes through electrons in the ionosphere. Thus the importance of being knowledgeable of total electron content can not be understated in most radio scientific and engineering fields. However, this being said, the frequency of the radio waves will determine the amount of delay suffered passing through the ionosphere and any impedance to the signal or outright reflection. If you understand basic radio propagation, some radio wave frequencies pass quite easily through the ionosphere, whilst radio signals at other frequencies are either absorbed completely, scattered or reflected back down to the Earth.

In my day job, I stay up to date on any changes in GNSS technology, or changes to radio frequency allocation or new apparatus created for the functional use of GNSS whether it be in the American GPS constellation, or the Russian GLONASS or soon to come Beidou and Galileo constellations. Whilst dealing with clientele over the years I’ve heard odd reports of GNSS or GPS receiver malfunctions, bugs, quirks and general anomalies. Many can be disregarded as user error, others still as software-defined issues, but there have been many cases that puzzled me. We tend to forget that these cellular phones and GPS or satnav systems we use daily are radio equipment, but they most certainly are radio equipment and prone to the same pros and cons that come with all radio equipment and of course these pros and cons being dependent on the frequencies being transmitted and received from said devices. The ionosphere affects radio waves of any frequency, simple fact. To certain UHF (Ultra High Frequency) or SHF (Super High Frequency) signals there could be little to no effect, however to MF (Medium Frequency) and especially HF (High Frequency) signals there can be enormous effect. With the aforementioned GNSS equipment any alteration in the path and velocity of the radio waves at the corresponding frequencies in the ionosphere can have an impact on the accuracy of satellite navigation systems. If operators and technicians and engineers were to neglect changes in the Total Electron Content in the ionosphere it could result in tens of metres of error in positioning calculations. There is an empirical model known as the Klobuchar model, used in the Global Positioning System (GPS), the American part of GNSS, which calculates and removes part of the positioning errors that are caused by the ionosphere when single frequency GPS receivers are utilised. If conditions should deviate from those predicted by the Klobuchar model, GNSS systems could have larger positioning errors. This is just an example in a commercial, military and private sense where understanding and monitoring TEC is of importance to the radio community especially radio operators and the engineers designing and the technicians maintaining these systems. Of course TEC to the radio scientist is all too important in radio propagation and radiophysics studies.

So what does all this mean to you? Or to a radio operator? Well everything and nothing at all. It is what you want to make of it. Some key the mic on their transmitter and just hope for the best, others, like myself, obsess about the how, where, what, why and when of radio science. Maybe you don’t need to know how the jasmine rice is grown to enjoy its nutty flavour and rich aroma. In fact some have accused me of taking away the magic of radio technology and science through my constant studies and ramblings. But I can attest, that as I found out how the rice was cultivated, grown and promulgated and discovered the regions it originated from and the people who were involved in the entire process, I enjoy and cherish every bowl of that jasmine rice to this day, more so than before gaining this knowledge. As I dig deeper into the world of radio technology, radio science, electricity and heliophysics, it makes me appreciate my own little world so much more and the more I begin to understand it more, the more magical everything truly seems. There is no such thing as useless knowledge. I hope you enjoyed reading. If you did, share it on whatever social media. If not, I apologise, I really just type these blog posts for myself. The best way to learn is to teach, and I teach myself something new almost daily. Asante sana! – Packie, KY3I

Drums: The African Telegraph

The world outside of Africa for centuries upon centuries had no clue that drums could be used to convey information. In European or Asian cultures drums were utilised for music and perhaps the cadence of a marching army. Drums were used to signal an attack, or bells used as a call to prayer. Many in the world could not possibly fathom the idea of drums talking and still today many cannot. Early English slavers travelling the rivers and coastlines of West Africa noted that the drums were heavily involved in cultural dances, they would signal the approach of friends or warn of the arrival of enemies and sometimes be used as a cry for help from nearby towns or villages. A century later English sailors travelling these same rivers, this time helping abolish the slave-trade and map off the borders of their colonies, found that the Africans travelling aboard their vessels seemed almost enchanted by the sounds of distant drums as if they were listening not to an ancient rhythm but to a conversation taking place. There are some documented writings of English officials being told by Africans that they could hear the “drums talking”. It was still an unbelievable concept for a European or an Arab foreigner that all of these villages had a form of rhythmic correspondence with one another. It was one thing to note that European soldiers lived by the sound of the bugle and trumpet in their military manoeuvres but these were African savages pounding drums, they could not have a system of their own let alone one that seemed superior to that of the empires of the East and West.

This was a time in history where long-distance communications were much sought after and in fact the terms “telegraph” and “telecommunication” was yet to have been coined. The drums of Africa travelled so much faster than any man or woman on foot or horseback. The sounds of the drums could carry miles in seconds and were thus relayed from village to village and with these connections a message could roar through the quiet African night hundreds of miles in less than an hour. It was only a select few of each village and each tribe that were taught the art of the “talking drums” yet it seemed that many more could still understand the sounds of the drums and the information they carried. Drums played rapidly whilst others more slowly, the rhythms would cycle and recycle over and over again, and then the drumming seemed to invert or slightly change rhythm. It was clearly formulaic. The drumming representing tones and/or syllables of conventional sayings and traditional phrases of various African tribes and the rhythms would have to be translated into the rhythms of that particular group to be understood by speakers of different languages. Many early ethnomusicologists and scholars began to document the “drum languages” as a marvel of human ingenuity, whilst many other ignorant colonists began to outlaw the use of the drums out of fear of uprisings.

The populations outside of Africa were experimenting with early forms of electromagnetism, electricity, mechanical telegraphs, “mystical” load stones and other forms of communication at this point in time but they were still dependent on the horseback courier or the fire beacons to signal simple “attack” or “retreat” signals, or “yes” or “no” binary communications. Anything to be said at length was written on a letter to be hand delivered or a messenger was trusted to pass on the message from memory. Europe and Asia at this point was awash of flags, horns, smoke, mirrors, beacon fires, and crude symbols to communicate over land and sea. Yet, in our ignorance, we thought the Africans to be the savages when they clearly had a vast long distance communications network that spanned their entire continent. It would be a few more centuries before the lands in America or the nations of Europe could travel fast enough or communicate fast enough to experience even local time changes yet the Africans were already accomplishing the otherwise impossible. At this time in history no one on Earth could communicate as much and as fast and as unimpeded as Africans could with their drums. It was in the 1840s that British explorers and colonists truly discovered the talking-drums of Africa, even though their discovery was took as a joke back in their homelands, because Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse and many others in America and Britain were working on a telegraph system that would revolutionise world communication. The African savages could keep their drums!

Whilst the outside world struggled with the problem of creating a uniform code to map an entire language into a stream of basic sounds, the Africans had solved this issue collectively through the generations of drummers in a centuries-long process of social growth. It is said that the message of the death of a colonial ruler travelled from West Africa to Southern Africa via the drums before the European ship that was to carry the official message ever left port to set sail to the southern colonies only to have the messenger and the ships crew shocked to discover the villagers of the southern colony already in mourning for the loss of that particular “dignitary.” As Morse Code and the electric telegraph took over the world and later the wireless telegraph still utilising Morse Code, many a traveller to Africa who discovered the talking drums made a comparison to how in mimicked Morse Code in a sense. They were wrong for several reasons, one being that the talking drums predated Morse Code by millennia and the analogy failed because in talking drums there was no code to decipher. Whereas Morse Code used dots and dashes, which had no direct connection to sound, representing only letters, which formed words, the drums metamorphosed speech. For centuries most African languages had no alphabet to be translated into rhythms.

A few English and Scottish missionaries in Africa saw the magic, the science of the talking drums. They knew that the Africans who utilised this rhythmic technology could not only hear the drums, but also understand the drums. They documented that the drums were used not just for announcements but for prayers, poetry and jokes, and the drummers were not signalling they were talking through their drums, and many were fluent in the language of the drums. To study the language of the drums one had to study the spoken languages of the drummers and their communities and to truly accept and absorb their entire culture. A missionary from England or a linguist from Japan could not just arrive and write down the rhythms and learn the language, you had to become one with the entire culture and one with the drums. This is how the Africans preserved their technology it was not for foreigners. The few foreigners who were able to document the talking drums did just that, they became more African than some of the Africans themselves and were greatly accepted into those communities they lived, worked and studied amongst. This exclusivity of the drum language would also contribute to its endangerment as time went by on the African continent. The Europeans, Americans, Arabs and Asians arrived with their languages and their technologies, which seemed more readily available. Like all colonial masters, fearful of their subjugated, the drum languages were not encouraged and often times outlawed. Information was lost and to this day the overall majority of Africans who came from talking drum cultures do not speak nor understand the language of the drums, no matter what they think. I do know many an African who feels because they are African they understand the drums better than someone from Europe or Asia and perhaps this is true but it does not mean they could communicate through their drums as their ancestors once did. That being said, in parts these practises survive and almost thrive, but they are scattered and isolated islands of culture, as in Nigeria, Togo, Benin and some parts of the Congo. However, the Africans forgot how to communicate with neighbouring tribes. They do no speak the same languages whether it is via the drum or via the spoken word and thus the vast communications network has been shut down. You can meet people all over Nigeria for example who play the talking drum, but they do just that, they “play” their drums; they do not know how to speak through their drums. I for one can play amazing rhythms on the talking drums from Nigeria, but I cannot speak with them. There are many elders in isolated villages that are teaching this tradition however to those who wish to learn but many opt for other forms of communication. The drum languages being replaced today, like everywhere, with radio technologies, cellular telephones, and Internet access.

I have been drumming since before I could walk or talk. I was born, like all human beings, with rhythm, but what separated me and the other drummers in the world is I did not forget these rhythms. Time became a part of me. Drummers explore the world acoustically and it was natural for me to want to explore the rhythms of India, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Spain, Ireland, and of course the great continent of Africa. My study of percussion and my honing of my rhythmic skills made me learn about new cultures, new languages and cuisine, different parts of the world. It was drumming that made me into a linguist, acoustician, radio operator, because it was all communications. I think in time whilst many other just think. I know many physicists that know more theories on sound, acoustic and electromagnetic physics than I ever will. I know radio operators that know more about the theory and practise of Morse Code and SSB technology more than I ever will, but they will never truly feel or understand it as I do, because I have time, I am time. I am a master of rhythm and I owe most of what I know to Africa, to Africans, and their great cultures, languages and their history of the drums. For if we believe Africa is the cradle of civilisation as modern science is pointing that means the first person to clap their hands musically or stomp their feet rhythmically did so in Africa. It is not something I overlook as I pound out rhythms on my Morse Code key. – Packie, KY3I

Abbé Nollet & The Electrified Monks

Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French clergyman and physicist, was born 19 November in the year 1700. He was born as a peasant and educated within the church. Nollet, known in history by his ecclesiastical title Abbé, experimented in many areas of science and physics but was particularly interested in the nature of electricity. The study of electricity was very much a new field and new science at this time in history and very misunderstood. Abbé Nollet was eager to explore this world, of what was considered magic in those days, and did so with the help of Charles François de Cisternay du Fay, a French chemist, and René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, a French scientist, naturalist and entomologist. Charles du Fay was already of some significance in the world of electricity. He is accredited with discovering, circa 1733, the two types of electricity that he named “vitreous” and “resinous”, which we now know today as “positive” and “negative” charge respectively. It was with the assistance of these two great scientists that Abbé Nollet began pioneering experiments with electricity. On an April day in 1746 Abbé Nollet conducted an experiment that would gain him entry into the history books of science. Had you been in the grand convent of the Carthusians in Paris on the day, you would have witness a very peculiar event indeed.

Abbé Nollet gathered two hundred monks, volunteers for his experiment, and arranged them some say in a snaking line, others in a circle, about 1.6 kilometres long with pieces of iron connecting them. Each monk held one end of a 7-metre iron wire in each hand, connecting that monk to the monk on either side. Once everyone was in place and everyone was gripping their wire, Abbé Nollet took a primitive battery, known as a Leyden jar, and without any cue to the monks connected the end of the line to the battery and instantly electrocuted all the monks. Don’t worry they all survived this shock. Now this may sound interesting to some, insane to others, or fun to the more perverse, but I assure you Nollet did not derive any pleasure from this experiment. He did not enjoy electrocuting monks in a convent in the middle of Paris. This experiment had a serious objective and helped push the continued, to this day, study of electricity. Abbé Nollet was studying the properties of electricity. At this time in history we knew very little if anything about the subject, and he wished to know how far electricity could travel through certain conductors and just how fast it travelled.

Abbé Nollet’s experiment was a big deal for science. The simultaneous shouts, grunts, facial and bodily contortions of a kilometre and a half long line of monks demonstrated a few things: electricity could indeed travel a distance, and it did so extremely quickly, faster than we could really imagine at the time of this experiment. The electrical current from the Leyden jar batteries travelled a great distance, through some misfortunate monks, and as far as one could tell, it covered that distance instantly. Amazing! The results and conclusions of Nollet’s experiment left a profound mark on science. It was beginning of studies that continue to this day in the various scientific fields of study regarding electricity. So much was this achievement that I sit here, on a personal computer, known as a laptop, typing on a software programme and soon to be posting this on a website of the internet. Do you understand how far we have come off the patience of 200 monks and a curious Abbey? I once spoke to a scientist regarding a project she was working on, she felt it was not as exciting or as ground breaking as projects her counterparts were working on. I told her there is no project bigger or smaller than another, there is no such thing as small science. Abbé Nollet had no idea what effect his experiment would have on the world of electricity, communications, technology and the advancement of all of the above. Something considered minor and simple at the time led to entire fields of science. There is no small science. Experimentation is a crucial part of all science. Allessandro Volta once said “The language of experiment is more authoritative than any reasoning: facts can destroy our ratiocination not vice versa.”

Now one important thing I must point out is that Jean-Antoine Nollet was a priest and a scientist. Something about this is special. He lived in a time where the “Church” actually embraced science. Now perhaps, the “Church” sought to control science and horde the information for itself? Perhaps they had the intentions of keeping the masses in the dark? Or perhaps even still it was so early in the days of “modern science” that the Church had not yet become threatened by the works of the scientists and monks that served them? The reality however is that all of Abbé Nollet’s experiments were public knowledge and published and encouraged by the Church. Today we live in a world of religion versus science when even in the so-called “darker times” of Nollet and his experiments, religion was something very different from science and the people openly embraced both. We can learn many lessons from the works of Abbé Nollet: open-mindedness, eagerness to discover and experiment, and the knowledge that your scientific findings and understandings are not a threat to other people’s beliefs or way of life. So get out there and experiment, learn, teach, explore. I am not advocating attempting Nollet’s experiments at home, but if you so choose please electrify monks responsibly. Thanks for reading. – Packie, KY3I

National Pride or Radio Pride?

It is hard sometimes to have national pride. An intelligent human takes the good with the bad; the bitter with the sweet and all too often the bad may outweigh the good. Throughout the entire world there is someone living somewhere that wants to be from somewhere else or at least living somewhere else. I have a Nigerian friend who wants to live in Canada, and I have a Scottish friend who resides in Australia that wants to live in Kenya. I know others who are leaving Michigan and heading to Thailand and others still that just wanted to get out of Florida and head to Maine. Speaking on behalf of myself it can be hard to be an American sometimes. I’m sure many enlightened Americans will agree with me, just as I am sure as many enlightened Russians or Brazilians or Zimbabweans feel the same about their own nation. Corrupt politicians, wealth disparities, poor public school systems, high-priced everything, crappy healthcare, unnecessary wars in other lands, and a population ignorant, not stupid, just completely unaware. It seems at every turn in the USA, I see rural populations of Christian fundamentalists and gun-toting morons, and in the urban environment I see a growing population of loud-mouthed, uneducated street urchins and self-entitled and pompous young urban professionals living beyond their means. Not a lot around you day-to-day to make you stand up and proudly wave your nation’s flag. You find things to be proud of that your nation has produced, music, culture, art, food, various forms of expression, or even certain technologies. Things that have helped illuminate our society and not degrade our society; various things that were born in your nation that it contributed to the world. Or you become more provincial, as I have, and find things about your home region or in my case my home State of Florida, that I love from the wildlife, the climate, the ecosystems and the unique history of the State. With all of this, however, I still don’t walk around saying hooray America! I would also like to state that I am not Anti-American at all, but I am an advocate of progression and change for the betterment in my own nation and always an informed-critic where critiquing is necessary.

I think the first time I felt genuine pride in the United States is when I first became a Federally-licensed Marine Radio operator. I had this piece of paper granted to me from the Federal Communications Commission that gave me operator privileges and authority over a vast array of marine communications equipment. Something about that was very nice. Perhaps it was just the accomplishment? Or, perhaps it was my obtaining something that only a minority of U.S. citizens had? As I gained more Federal licenses in GMDSS, General Radiotelephone, Ship Radar, Amateur Radio, General Mobile radio et cetera, I felt my sense of pride grow, and I realised not only for my accomplishments, but I had entered a world that not many Americans had entered, but it was a world that some of the greatest Americans had entered, the world of radio, communication and technology. I had found a family, albeit a minority, inside my own nation, a sense of belonging washed over me and yes, pride. I took a deeper interest in not only the world of radio-physics and radio technology but also its history, specifically the history here in the United States of America, and in the key players that shaped that history here in America. Alfred Vail, Samuel Morse, Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla, John Renshaw Carson, Claude Shannon and so many other greats that changed the face of communications and shaped the world of radio and did a lot of it right here in the United States.

As I swam deeper and deeper into the world of radio, its history, the achievements, the innovations, creations, various modes of radio, ad infinitum, I found myself studying the works of greats from all over the world: James Clerk Maxwell (Scotland), Heinrich Hertz (Germany), Michael Faraday (England), Isaac Newton (England), Hans Christian Ørsted (Denmark), Georg Ohm (Germany), Joseph Henry (USA), André-Marie Ampère (France), Alessandro Volta (Italy), Niels Bohr (Denmark), Alexander Popov (Russia), Claude Chappe (France) and so on and so on. So was it national pride that I felt? Or, was it radio pride that I felt? I found myself proud to belong to a group of scientists, experimentalists, theorists, operators, maintainers, and engineers that existed without borders spanning the entire globe. From the Radio Officer aboard a cruise line in the Caribbean, to the radio-astronomer in Tromsø, Norway, to the Amateur Radio operator communicating via Morse Code from South Africa, to the trucker in Utah chatting on his CB radio or the child camping in Canada and playing around with his first ever set of GMRS “walkie-talkies”. I found myself a member of an international and select group.

How much of my pride than was in America and being American? After all the word telecommunication is a compound of the Greek “tele” meaning “distant” and the Latin “communicare” meaning “to share” and the word “télécommunication” was invented in France in 1904 by engineer and novelist Édouard Estaunié. Just the word telecommunication could not have existed without the international community. The radio community is an international community and the reason for its existence and growth was to unite the world communicatively. Anytime you pick up the microphone and press-to-talk your radio transmission now belongs to the world, not to Russia or America or France or Namibia. It transcends international boundaries. Radio does not know nations or flags or ethnicities or gender or race or sexual preferences. This is the world to which I now belong. Perhaps my national pride comes from the contributions of the United States and American citizens and even those living and working in America to the great art of radio. I find my pride in the United States in the good things it has done for the world, and radio is a huge part of its contribution. I am a proud member of the American Radio Relay League and have come to love its history and contribution to radio here in America and to the world, and it’s sub-branches such as the National Traffic Service that couriers messages throughout the nation, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service that volunteers their communications skills during times of crisis and in public services and I am a member of a few various clubs some international some national that keep this world of radio and telecommunications alive.. I think my national pride and radio pride coexist in a neat little package. It is radio that shows me that truly we are all part and parcel of the whole. I am proud to belong to this world. I am proud to be an American radioman. – Packie, KY3I

Maritime Mobile: Amateur Radio At Sea.

As a Merchant Mariner and Marine Radio operator, I can say without any reservations that your marine radio is one of the most important work-mates on your vessel. For mariners and sailors near-shore your marine VHF radiotelephone is your main form of emergency, urgency, safety and routine communication. For those venturing further from shore your marine SSB radio or more formerly your marine MF-HF radiotelephone is the long-distance equivalent of your VHF radio. Hopefully my fellow mariners, sailors and boaters know the advantages of having the proper maritime communications and safety equipment aboard their vessel, whether it be a kayak, sailboat or tanker-ship. Marine radio equipment keeps you in touch with maritime emergency authorities, port authorities, and other vessels at sea, and gives you access to crucial weather broadcasts. Marine radio is about clear and concise communication and these communications generally pertain to emergencies, issues related to safety, navigational concerns, meteorological information and your vessel’s needs.

Besides my licensing in Marine radio and GMDSS operations and maintenance I am also, as some of you who’ve read my prior blog posts know, a proud licensed-Amateur radio operator. I love blending my love of the rivers, seas, lagoons and lakes with my love of radio. I am a big advocate of every vessel having a licensed Amateur radio operator aboard and the appropriate Amateur radio equipment. I am of course not advocating replacing proper marine radio equipment with Amateur radio equipment. Not at all! Every vessel should outfit properly and by the requirements of that vessel; Amateur radio does not replace Marine radio! However, there are many reason to have Amateur radio equipment aboard your vessel and perhaps after reading about some of these advantages it will encourage you to get your Amateur radio license or perhaps encourage your Marine radio operator aboard to get his or her Amateur license and set up an Amateur rig before you make way. For those of you currently licensed perhaps the idea of Maritime Mobile operating will strike your fancy and encourage you to take your rig out on the water.

Because Marine radio is dedicated strictly to maritime safety information, emergency, port operations, commercial communications, bridge-to-bridge and Vessel Traffic Services, it is not the radio of choice for a general everyday ragchew. However, if you ever scan the marine VHF channels on your radio, depending on where you are, you will hear all sorts of misconduct, misuse and long drawn out conversations amidst boaters. Here is where Amateur radio comes into play aboard vessels. If you really want to preserve Marine radio for its primary functions, and are looking for radio communication equipment with fewer restrictions, than Amateur radio is the best choice. As long as you’re licensed, not using profanity nor using the radio for commercial or pecuniary interest, you can talk as freely as you’d like on Amateur radio. Just by getting licensed as a Technician Class operator (the first level of Amateur radio in the United States), you gain access to over 17 different frequency bands over a wide array of radio transceivers and antenna systems. As your progress through the various ranks in the Amateur Radio Service you gain access to more and more frequency bands and more forms of communication from phone, digital, continuous wave, microwave et cetera. This offers you more ways of staying in touch with dry land and/or civilisation and also gives you the opportunity to shoot-the-breeze with other boaters or contact loved ones from afar.

Outside routine communications and conversation, the biggest advantage to Amateur radio operation and equipment aboard a recreational vessel, Merchant or commercial or military vessel is ancillary communication. If your main Marine radio goes down or your GMDSS somehow fails you, you still have Amateur radio equipment to rely on that operates over a wide variety of frequencies and distances with millions of licensed Amateur radio operators around the world listening in and most more than willing to support a ship in distress in anyway they can, should they receive your call. Besides emergency ancillary communication, specific Amateur radio “nets” or networks have been established the world over to handle messages a Marine radio operator may send. In the USA you can find a list of Maritime Mobile net schedules via the ARRL, our national association of Amateur radio. Maritime Mobile Amateur radio operators can within a certain distance of shore access the wide range of Amateur radio repeaters that are established throughout the United States and many countries around the world. For your General Class and Extra Class operators utilising HF radios as Maritime Mobile stations you of course have the long-range advantages of HF frequencies and SSB phone as well as the energy and bandwidth efficient CW for Morse Code operating. Having an HF radio aboard can also gain you access to digital modes with even allow for the transmission and reception of emails via the Internet, all for free.

I could type up an entire book on the advantages of Maritime Mobile Amateur radio. There are so many reasons why you should have an Amateur radio rig aboard your vessel, whether it be a VHF handheld transceiver operating on the 2 metre band on your kayak or skiff, or an HF mobile or base station rig with the proper antenna system on your offshore vessel. Perhaps I’ve overlooked one of the largest advantages of Amateur radio on the water, fun. The overall majority of your contacts on Amateur radio will be with other operators like yourself communicating from the comfort of their radio shack or home. Other times you will contact mobile operators communicating as they commute to and from work or on a road trip. On the rare occasion you will reach a portable operator on foot hiking a trail or walking around town. How often to you hear a contact coming from a kayaking drifting down a river in Oklahoma or a stand-up paddle boarder in a lagoon in Florida, or from a sailboat off the coast of North Carolina, a lobster boat offshore in Maine? Rarely. When you do make those contacts it is just something special and when you reach that local repeater on your UHF or VHF transceiver and they ask you your QTH (location) imagine the other operators surprise when you tell them Lake Ivanhoe or 5 nautical miles SE of Key Largo. Look into Maritime Mobile operating and look into the US Navy’s MARS programme as well. Keep Amateur radio alive on the water, it helps keep mariners alive on the water and have some fun. Thank you for reading, 73 de Packie KY3I/MM (stroke Maritime Mobile).

Radio Diversity: Finding Your Niche.

I ran into Jonathan, a young Technician Class operator and experimenter, around my marine centre the other day. Jonathan and I run in different circles and don’t see each other that often but when we do, we always talk radio. He asked me what I was up to and I mentioned my recent radiotelegraphy studies and interests, and he spoke to me about his recent SDR (software-defined radio) endeavours. The conversation turned from a general stop-and-chat radio conversation into an argument over the efficiency of different modes and styles of radio communication. Now when I say argument, I mean the classical definition of an argument, “an exchange of diverging or opposite views”, not today’s definition of an argument being “a heated and angry exchange.” I am a radio scientist and understand arguments are necessary, healthy and can help accomplish much. Whilst discussing CW (continuous wave) propagation and Morse Code, Jonathan chuckled and stated that “Morse Code is dead man” and when I spoke of its value and radio efficiency he said, “learning dots and dashes is not efficient at all”. I valued his stance on CW and Morse Code, whereas many in the CW community, upon hearing Jonathan’s statements, would’ve burst into rage and come to the defence of their chosen art. I respect Jonathan for his views. Jonathan’s argument, right or wrong, was that SDR, packet radio, and other forms of modern digital radio modes were the future of Amateur radio. In his own way, he was right, but his ignorance was the idea that his chosen mode or modes of radio communication were right and others were wrong. I embrace opinions, arguments, ideas, and concepts from my peers in radio, whether I totally agree with them or not.

What is the future of Amateur Radio? Well, Jonathan is right, the world of DSP (digital signal processing), SDR and many new and exciting forms of digital modes are very much a part of the future of radio. However, if people continue to operate on SSB (single-sideband) or CW and improve on its technology and carry it on into the future, these modes are then a part of the future of Amateur Radio. Whatever we so choose to make the future of Amateur Radio is the future of Amateur Radio. I hope to see everything carry on into the future of Amateur radio and see newer modes and styles emerge. So this brief conversation and healthy argument with a fellow Amateur got me thinking about right and wrong, the future of Amateur Radio, and just how diverse the radio communications world is and how overwhelming, to a new comer, this crazy, fantastic world of radio must seem. What do I do? What mode is right for me? What can I afford? Do I have room for this? What can I actually get involved in? What is the most important mode of radio? All these questions and thousands more arise when entering the wide world of Amateur radio. You have to think long and hard, and find your niche in the radio world. It is not always an easy task, but you will always find a place in this international community.

First, there is no right or wrong mode of radio, nor is there a better mode than the other. Each radio mode whether it be CW, SSB, FM (frequency modulated) Phone, AM (amplitude modulated) Phone, data, RTTY (radio teletype), Packet radio, SDR, microwave, weak signal, et cetera, has its own strengths and weaknesses, has its own efficacy and value. More important questions and realistic questions, a new Amateur must first ask himself or herself is what can I afford? Radio can range from dirt-cheap to cripplingly expensive. This often forces an Amateur’s hand into one arena of radio over another. Will you be operating portable radio on your walk to work or hiking the countryside? Will you be taking your rig mobile in your vehicle or aboard your vessel? Will it be a base station at your home? These are important questions you must consider. Another important question is what do I have room for? If you own a house with 2 hectares of land and a lot of space, you may find you have room for particular modes and bands of radio for which an apartment dweller in the city does not possess room. For example you won’t see many residents of apartments utilising the 160m Band due to the sheer volume of space for antennas, tuners, and the size of radio equipment needed to function on this frequency band efficiently. However, this is where radio innovation and experimentation kicks in and I know many an Amateur operating on bands from small suburban homes and apartments that I would think would need the space of an radio observatory to string up the antennas. There is always a way! Nothing is impossible! Remember that much about radio!

So you have decided on portable, mobile or a base station rig and you have considered how much space is required and how much space you have to dedicate to your rig and antenna system, then you either decide to homebrew (build your own) or purchase the radio and antenna system that you think you’d like. Now what? Do I just talk over the airwaves? Do I get into Morse Code and CW? Can’t I just use my computer? There are still more questions that will arise as you are pushing into the world of radio. For my colleague Jonathan I can assume coming from a generation surrounding by tablets, “smart-phones”, SMS text messages, and having an big interest in IT (Information Technologies) and computer design he was naturally drawn to SDR and various digital modes of Amateur radio. Your radio niche seems to match your interests and personality. You use radio technology in everyday life, for example that iPhone or BlackBerry or Samsung you own is a radio, most people outside the radio world tend to forget that, or didn’t know that at all. So, ask yourself how do I use my phone? Are you the type of person who loves to call and talk to your friends for hours at a time? Do you prefer speaking to someone over phone or would you rather shoot him or her a text or type out an email? Are you into short information exchanges like Twitter? Or more into the visual stimuli one gets from uploading and downloading photos on Facebook? Do you like archaic looking exchanges of information like Reddit? Or do you despise “apps” and phone in general, and simply use your phone for emergency purposes or work? Or are you the type of the person that has to crack their device open to see what’s going on and see if they can put it back together again? The answers to these questions will give you insight on what type of Amateur you may be.

I for one speak a lot, I am said to have the “gift of gab” and I speak all day in my career in electronics sales and consultations, I speak at seminars, I talk to on a slow day a hundred customers and spend many hours training co-workers and clientele alike in one on one settings. However, when I pick up my BlackBerry Q10, possibly because I have done nothing but talk and teach all day long, I’d prefer to text people or use WhatsApp or BBM over giving them a call. The idea of getting on the airwaves for a ragchew (general conversation) on Phone (voice) modes, does not appeal to me. I am thus naturally drawn to non-voice modes. I am a student of history, and it was the history and origins of certain types of radio that drew me into it. So I tend to lean more towards some of our more “ancient” and original modes of radio. I am an apartment dweller and do not own a vehicle so the idea of QRP (low-power) and minimalist portable radio operating is a must for me. Less is more in my world. I am a lover of the seas, an avid sailor, kayaker and a Merchant Mariner, so radio and the water mixes well for me, and I love Maritime Mobile Amateur radio operating. I am an environmentalist and a hobbyist linguist. I am all about conservation and preservation and sustainability. I want to see our wildlife, natural resources, ecosystems protected, restored and preserved, just as I believe we should do what we can to protect, teach and preserve endangered and threatened world languages. So I tend to have a soft spot for certain modes of radio that I see as disappearing from the world. So through the process of knowing myself, knowing my interests, personality, my finances, circumstances and what I can effectively accomplish in my day-to-day life, I have developed a process of elimination. Perhaps it’s a HF rig powered by a small battery and solar cells pumping out QRP CW from a kayak as I drift down a slow river. Or a HF or VHF backpack rig on my walk to work. Perhaps a small RTTY station from my apartment. To thy own self be true.

Now, this might be my cup of tea, but may not fit the next Amateur’s personality or interests, and that is fantastic. You see, diversity is a must! We have millions of species of animals and insects and plants. We have thousands upon thousands of different languages. Diversity in ethnicity, cultures, interests, fields of science and medicine, philosophical thought, food and everything else is what makes this world so amazing. So Amateur radio is no exception to this rule. I am glad that my colleague Jonathan is turned on by SDR and digital modes of radio. I am glad when I scan on my wideband receiver and hear hundreds of QSO (contacts) on HF, VHF and UHF phone. I am happy to see people getting involved with internet-protocol modes like D-Star, Echolink, and HSMM (high-speed multi-media). I love that there are QRP minimalist radio operators using a ½ watt to 5 watts of output and small wire antennas and I love there are QRO “big gun” radio operators blasting 100 watts to 1,500 watts out of monster sophisticated radio equipment. I love that a whole new generation of Amateur experimenters are advancing the state of the art and thousands of Amateurs around the world dedicate their radio work to emergency services and public service. I know many that do very little operating and spend more time homebrewing new antennas or radio apparatus, perhaps fixing or tweaking their friend’s rig for them. There are a lot of Amateurs that dedicate their time to radio-physics, radio astronomy and propagation studies. Some are fanatics when it comes to SSTV/FSTV (Slow-Scan and Fast-Scan television). We need each and every flavour to help keep our community alive and well and we need to utilise every band we have at our disposal.

So in closing, know yourself, and you will find your niche in the radio world. Before you jump on buying that VHF mobile rig for your car and start hitting the repeaters because that is what your friends do, well ask yourself if EME (earth-moon-earth) propagation isn’t more to your liking. Before you go and spend 5,000 dollars on a super QRO HF rig, see if maybe you can get the job done on a 500-dollar QRP rig. Or perhaps you may want to spend your time and finances building a repeater on a certain band in your area to help the greater community contact each other. You can be scientific, build communication bridges, just chitchat, be prepared for emergencies, advance the state of the art, experiment, whatever you so choose. Know thyself and you will know they art. I want to thank you for reading and taking the time to be a part of our worldwide Amateur radio community. Anything you decide to do with radio will be great, because its what you want to do, and I love it. – Packie, KY3I

Get Out Of The Shack: Taking the “Ham” Out Of Ham Radio

There is a funny line I was once heard, “America has more fat people than people.” I still laugh when I think of that line. In all is absurdity it is hilarious, and of course unsettling. It’s not really possible to have more people than you have people, but America does suffer from one of the highest obesity rates in the world. Americans are indeed fat. Conservatives may quote it at 40% of the population of the United States being overweight but in reality it may very well be more towards 60 to 70% of the population. Take a society that has been made lazy by advancements in technology, television, iPads, video game systems, automotives, chemical-ridden snacks, alcohol, fast food, and the media and let’s blend this with Amateur radio. Amateur radio is not the most physically demanding hobby or “sport”. It requires sitting and talking, or driving and talking, as most operations nationwide involve either HF SSB Phone or VHF/UHF repeaters. Perhaps the RTTY operator or CW operator is a little more active typing away on keyboards or pounding out Morse code on a telegraph key, but ultimately it is about sitting and communicating.

My friends may sit in front of an X-Box game console all day on their day off, but at one point may venture out to play a game of basketball or at least a run to the movies. When an Amateur radio operator isn’t at work or is done with the latest episode of that series they love on HBO they are heading over to their radio shack, whether that be a mobile system mounted in their vehicle or a base station in their home or apartment. They go from sitting and snacking and watching to sitting and snacking and talking. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak. There is of course a group of Amateur operators that operate on portable rigs. There are those that work SOTA (Summits On The Air); a group of operators that are scaling the peaks and national parks of the United States and communicating from higher elevations whilst documenting their treks and contacts. There are some out on the trail or walking around their neighbourhood with their handheld transceiver. Now, let us not make the false assumption that because someone owns a portable handheld transceiver that they are indeed portable; in fact most are still operating from their homes and apartments and simply invested in a handheld transceiver for sake of storage and a less expensive alternative to those 600 to 2,000 dollar base stations. Just because someone owns and operates strictly on Amateur handheld transceivers doesn’t mean their operating them whilst out hiking or jogging.

We need to be more health-conscious not just as a nation but also as members of the Amateur Radio Service. We are meant to be advancing the state of the radio art. We are meant to encourage growth in our hobby and our love of radio. We are, as Amateur operators, a billboard for the Amateur Radio Service, and as it is now we are not the most attractive of role models. For the young, hip, intelligent kids of the USA and of the world, who may take an interest in Amateur radio may very well be turned off by the morbidly obese ranks of “Hams” that currently populate the ARRL and the ARS throughout the United States. It sounds shallow, but people can be very shallow and very fickle. They want to be into interesting things, cool things, exciting things and there is nothing overly exciting about meeting to talk about Amateur radio at a rented out hotel conference room with a group of people so fat that half of them have to get around on electric scooters and the other half are sweating from the walk into the front lobby. Yes, the image of the fat, weird, shut-in is still an image that many people have in regards to Amateur radio operators throughout the USA. Is this a stereotype? Yes. Is it an unjust stereotype? No. For every healthy and fit Amateur you may meet there are 200 to 300 overweight operators. Some may say my numbers are an exaggeration, perhaps they are, or perhaps from my provincial point of view most of the Amateur radio operators in Florida are overweight. Perhaps the Amateurs in California are built like Captain America or the Amateurs in Massachusetts are all marathon runners, but I highly doubt it. Am I saying all Amateurs are fat? No. Of course not, but the majority are overweight and out of shape. Is this blog meant to be hateful against heavier set people? Of course not, I know there are fat people, skinny people, tall people, short people, people of all shapes, sizes, complexions and personalities and I love them all. But we must admit there is a difference between a person who may be genetically bigger or heavier than I and a person who is sickly overweight and abuses their body with food and a lack of exercise.

So what can we do to change this stigma? Take care of yourself. Eat healthy. Exercise. I walk 6 kilometres to work and 6 kilometres home. Now not everyone is going to do that, but we can get out and take a long walk. Go portable, break out the old handheld and go and try to work some stations out on foot. Drink plenty of water and get rid of your unnatural sugars and carbonated corn-syrup drinks. Set up a portable CW QRP rig and head out into the fields and woods and try and get through. Don’t wait for Field Day once a year for an excuse to take radio outside and get some fresh air and some sun on your skin. When I operate radio I’d prefer to do it from a natural setting like the side of a pond, lake or stream. I would much rather communicate from a mountaintop or hilltop than my stuffy apartment. I love nature and wildlife and I love radio technology and operations. I combine them in a healthy way. Of course I’m not saying scrap the home base station. I would love to have a powerful base station with a great antenna system set up, and I encourage anyone who has one to use it and cherish it and keep it maintained and on the air. But if you’re weight is increasing and your health is failing its time to go mobile. Time to go portable. And of course you don’t have to be operating to go exercise. Just get out of the shack. Let’s take the ham out of Ham radio. Throw down some fruit or nuts, go for a jog or a walk, or drop and do some crunches or push-ups. Exercise is not about vanity it is great for the body and the mind. The more you take care of yourself the more you are taking care of the world of Amateur radio and this is something we need now more than ever. We need to stop treating our radio equipment better than we treat ourselves. Thank you for reading. – Packie, KY3I