When you’re writing about ham radio but you don’t do ham radio, there’s little to tell. That’s the reason why I haven’t been adding much content lately. Ham radio (DX and contesting) is on the background for a while. Not that I’m through with it, not at all. My interest is still intact. It’s just that after a long winter of being indoors, I am glad to be outdoors. There are some projects to be done but I try to keep the content here strictly hobby and not reveal too much personal info. I have some small antenna ideas in mind (small ideas, big antennas) so I hope to have some fun in the shack and on the antenna farm in a few months when I (hopefully) can enjoy a few weeks of total freedom (meaning: no professional duties).
Another reason why I haven’t been doing much radio is that I have a temporary disgust of all things computer and technology. At least I hope it’s temporary. I just fold the laptop open to order something online. Or check the news for headlines since I don’t come around the TV hardly anymore. Or check the WX forecast to plan outdoor activities. Or follow a few blogs. Or read mails which I subsequently fail to answer quite often.
But no more programming, no more self-educating through online knowledge, no more trying to get a function on the Netduino going. No more browsing through code examples for hours on end or looking through forums for an answer until I’m blue in the face. NO MORE. I’ve had it. My technology pores are completely saturated. Let me try to figure out why.
As a kid I was already interested in science and technology. I wanted to know how things work and why things are the way they are. My dad taught me a lot in the ‘how and why’ department. Not that he had a teaching mission per se, but he had me helping him all the time. Since no job was too hard for him or no problem or construction too complex, I picked up a lot of knowledge and skills just by seeing his golden hands do things. In retrospect I wish he had learned me more things ‘hands on’ instead of watching him do things. But he always raised the issue of precaution and safety when handling dangerous tools. And of course his gigantic strive to perfection which he actually achieved pretty much of the time, which I obviously would not as a kid. I was like the nurse in the operating room and he was the surgeon. When he called for a hammer, I handed the hammer. When he asked for a wrench I gave him the right size wrench. When he asked for a drink, I went to get a drink. So after a few years I was the perfect helper. Carpentry, welding , masonry, electricity, gardening, car maintenance – you name it, I had seen how it could be done and most of the time should be done. Home improvement and DIY to the max.
I also loved those episodes of school TV that explained how things worked or how stuff is made. It’s almost thirty years ago but I still see the image of a falling tree that twenty minutes later ends up as a box of Union Matches. I turned twelve and along came computers. Of course we jumped the bandwagon. My dad, never afraid to try new things, jumped with me but in his late forties and in a completely new environment, the roles traded places. Soon I had to show him how things worked and I was on top of it. I was one of the first kids in my class to turn in assignments printed on paper and saved to disk for future reference while the others were still writing by hand. I gutted the savings pig for the home computer: a Schneider CPC6128. Dad chipped in for the dot matrix printer; the Seikosha SP1000AS. Don’t judge the combo by today’s standards – it was powerful back in the days. Tasword provided the word processing power. Bold and Italics made the matrix needles roar like thunder! ASCII art made for big banners: one letter on an A4 sized sheet.
A few years later, on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, we picked up a real PC. Oh yes I remember the dilemma: watch CNN for those green movies of precision bombings done by the stealth bombers or play with the new Personal Computer. Clocking 12 MHz, with a humongous 1MB of RAM and 45MB of HDD storage. And let’s not forget the trusty green monochrome screen made way for more pixels per inch and a dozen shades of grey on the monitor. The graphics adapter could show sixteen colors but the budget was too tight for an actual color monitor. The new system cost 1500 Euro in 1991. It ran MS-DOS and came with a thick book explaining all DOS commands and a crash course in batch file programming. I was turning sixteen and had a new fat bone to chew. Autoexec.bat and config.sys, copy versus xcopy. Old timers know what I mean. Soon I got hold of a box of 5.25” floppies containing WordPerfect 5.1 and I bought a book that taught me to use WP. During some holiday I crunched a chapter a day. Dad decided the time had come for a new printer. I believe it was the HP DeskJet 510, printing black only, costing almost 700 Euro at the time. Ink cartridges were rationed because very expensive. WordPerfect teamed up with DrawPerfect and once again this kid used new technology to print self made labels for audio cassettes. But I had to study to do this, since intuitive GUI’s were not common yet.
Later on I inherited a more powerful PC that was able to run Windows 3.11. Once again I had to start all over. Windows with its GUI was new. Icons to be clicked with a mouse pointer – how revolutionary. WordPerfect made way for an early version of Word (or was it something else first?). CorelDraw (I believe?) and Excel were the new tools. Halfway the nineties things sped up. Windows NT-95-98-XP. New versions of Word. New software for different tasks altogether. The Internet! Email! ICQ/mIRC. Napster! Ripping CD to MP3. Copying CD’s became available although my first writer cost me almost 400 Euro in 1998-99. I followed each and every step. It was a logical evolution and things in the digital world were moving fast. In the mean time I graduated and got a degree in electronics (majoring in RF). I learned TurboPascal in school and later on some Delphi and VB 6.0 by myself using expensive study books. Along came my ham licenses. All new stuff to learn. New skills to pick up. Not a biggie, since I had been ding so since my childhood.
Bear with me here, all this might lead somewhere :o)
About ten years ago I made a U-turn in my career. I traded the industry rat race for a job as a teacher. I partially teach AC theory and AC machines and the other half of my task is teaching simple programming, computer networking and basic HTML web design for our IT classes. Transformers and three phase motors have been around for ages. Ohm’s law has been established by now. But I need to keep a close eye on technology on the IT side. I started out with VB6 since I was familiar with that. After that it took me a year of rewriting old course material to get to the same level in VB.Net. Since then it has been VB 2005 / 2008 / 2010 and now 2012. Agreed: not much has changed on the surface level where I’m using the DOT NET platform. But the IDE changes and a new version means looking for new text books on a beginner’s level and in Dutch. So you see: it’s always changing and you’re always running behind. I stuck to XP for the Operating Systems classes. Then Vista got unleashed. Somehow I knew I had to let this train go. A colleague asked why I was still using and teaching XP and not moving to Vista. I told him no sane company would leave a stable and known operating system to jump into the abyss that is a brand new OS with all its related child diseases, bugs and missing hardware drivers. How right I was! That’s one round of studying and changing course books and assignments I could skip. But then came Windows 7 and I had to start over again – again. Believe me: all this takes a tremendous amount of time. Weekends and evenings are dedicated to get up to speed with evolving technology. And during the day time, the show that is teaching must go on. With all its related work (grading papers, tests, exercises, staff meetings etc).
Last summer I stumbled across the Netduino board. This hardware/CPU board was exactly what I was looking for. It promised to deliver what Arduino did (simple and cheap yet powerfull I/O for the masses) BUT in an environment I was familiar with, i.e. the Dot Net platform. So I ordered one, as you may know, and tried to get it working. Once again I was exploring and teaching myself something new. The problem as a teacher, at least the way I see it, is that I’m actually NOT developing a useful and practical project. In stead I’m always looking for a way to solve a problem – a problem encountered by one of my students. So in the end I know how to use all kinds of I/O and communication ports, yet I fail to actually MAKE something THAT DOES SOMETHING for myself. Very frustrating. And after spending a Sunday afternoon or a few evenings to solve a problem, I just don’t want to see that darn CPU board again. The same holds true for programming. If you spend an afternoon checking and grading the students’ projects, you had enough for the day and so you don’t work on your own projects.
Despite having adopted most new technology over the last 25 years, frustration grew over the last year. Everything changes so darn fast. I get the Netduino, install the Microsoft Micro Framework, flash firmware to the board and install an SDK. Then one week later the forum announces a new version of all these items. When you’re finally set to go it turns out they’re releasing a totally new board ‘version 2’with a new microcontroller that packs more RAM and clocks faster. This effectively makes things even more complicated since code samples (and firmware? and framework?) need to be checked for usability on a given version of the hardware. Add to that the frustration that had been building up by a poor support for VB users. Add to that that there is a MASSIVE amount of information and add-on hardware, and it’s even more complex to stay up to date.
Another example to state my case. A few years ago I attended a Microsoft workshop. One of their evangelists came preaching about Silverlight. They were about to release the SDK to the developer community and it would shatter everything else. Bye bye Flash graphics. Soon we would all be spewing out XAML and be using a bunch of new tools. No more Windows Forms. Everything would be Silverlight and run from the browser. Amen! That night I downloaded some of the stuff I had seen in the presentation. It was clear right away that being productive with this shit would demand yet another round of dedicated studying. So I came to the right conclusion to stick with what I knew and work with the tools I mastered. Wise decision because only three or four years later, Microsoft comes to tell us they’re abandoning Silverlight completely in favor of the New Religion that seems to be HTML5/CSS3. I guess the time span between their new flag ship Silverlight’s maiden trip and torpedoing it amidships, is just the time you need to master the technology.
Wanna talk about the web? I subscribe to a bunch of newsletters but lately I just delete them unread. It seems that every day there is some new buzzword emerging. I feel sorry for those guys. Isn’t it impossible to keep up? Azure? The cloud? WPF? AJAX? jQuery? Ruby? Python? Framework this, platform that. As a developer, if you’re constantly invited to try and learn new things, how can you be productive? The app-hype even makes it worse. I consciously refuse to have a smartphone. No apps for me. Texting is as far as I’ll go. But nowadays it seems that if you can’t scan QR codes, you’re stuck in the woods never to get out. You won’t find me on Facebook. I have a few good friends that’ll probably never need defriending and I’ll use my own thumb if I like something. Should I ever feel the urge to poke you, I’ll jab my fingers between your ribs.
Having been a ham since 1999-2000, I have seen a lot of changes there too and adopted many of them. Telnet cluster sessions. LotW, Clublog and the new way of obtaining direct QSL. RBN which I like for signal comparison. Skimmer which I don’t like. A contradiction maybe but I like copying calls by ear. Remote stations over the internet: great for people without their own station but despicable when used to cheat with remote RX. My first kit was a stand alone K1EL keyer chip. Then moving to Winkey RS232 going to Winkey USB embedded as OEM parts in microHAM devices. You see: there’s a pattern. It’s always catching up with progress.
Progress is good, a few exceptions aside. Evolving along is desired and a must in some cases. But sometimes it feels like it’s progress for the sake of progress. And so I found myself boiling over with information and being troubled by the speed of change. Evolving along with technology is an attitude I adopted since my childhood. I have been doing so ever since. But lately I came up to a point where I really want to put all these skills and knowledge to work. That’s why I bought the Netduino board. That’s why last summer I bought a lot of parts (link & link). But the parts have been in the box ever since, and instead of actually building stuff with it.
And so, after a long winter of spending a lot of time behind the laptop, I find myself weary of all things computer and related stuff (programming, log checking, contesting). I questioned myself: what do you actually have to show for all this time spent over the last eight months? Nothing. It was not that the time had been wasted. But there is no tangible nor visible result. Furthermore there are a few negative side effects of sitting on my ass concentrating on some / someone else’s problem or doing school work or processing UBA contest logs. You become tame. Your body gets lazy because you only use your brain. And when “I’m in the zone” I am of no use to wife and kids. Even worse: I get cranky when they get me out of ‘the zone’. And I don’t want to sit on my butt no longer. And I don’t want to be mad at my loved ones when they address me. I tried working when they slept so I could not be distracted but I really do need my sleep so that’s no solution either. I needed a break. Not a short pause, but breaking my habits.
They say that old habits die hard but when the temperatures rose and the snow went (it returned twice but who’s counting), I ran outside. Shaving and trimming the trees. Do some gardening. Cleaning up the garage. I bought myself some new hardware like a mitre saw (tnx SJ2W for the hint) and a heavy duty 230mm disk angle grinder. Made shelves for the garage (hence the saw), lay some additional paving (hence the grinder). Trade 8m² of lawn for a small vegetable garden. Put up fencing to keep the dog out of the veggies. Cut down and removed 8 spruce trees. I had my neighbour cut the trunks for his fire place (outsourcing work!) and disposed four trailers of green leftovers. In a botanical wave I installed a small plastic foil greenhouse for the XYL to grow tomatoes in. She told me last weekend that since Easter I had done a lot of work outside and finished quite a few projects already. This acknowledgement was very welcome. Hell yeah: tangible results, visible outcome. I needed that. Furthermore I really should make solid short term plans to acquire some skills I have been wanting and needing for a long time. Like using a lathe. Or welding steel. These are skills that will make some future ham projects possible too. Skills that haven’t changed much over the last years, so when I mastered them, I will be able to perfection them in stead of starting all over again.
I haven’t turned on the radio since WPX SSB. Now I know why I couldn’t be bothered with WPX. Sitting in front of a computer screen for the better half of a weekend? No thanks. And I think I will stay off the air until WPX CW. I will do some more work outdoors until my body gets sore and keep away from the things that have pushed me into this state of ‘back to basics’. I bet by that time, I’ll be eager to rake up three thousand CW QSO in one weekend.