Interesting dilemma: do we lower standards by easier entry level licenses (like we have done in the past) or do we shut the door and let only rocket scientists in? It’s not that this question popped up when I woke up this morning. Over the past ten days, there were two distinct events that raised this issue.
First off: spring came to a halt a few days ago. It’s cold for the time of the year, we’ve had a few showers and thunderstorms already and the wind has been blowing more than I’d like it to. So no more playing outside, back to the living room and that dreaded laptop of course. I decided it was more than time to pick up the UBA contest log checking again. Given my current state of techno-aversion I was glad to pass the CW log submission deadline and call the log checking burden a day/week/month. It is yet another task with intense computer usage, which as you know I want to limit. So after about six weeks of inactivity I decided to pick up the log checking. The automated part for the SSB contest was done right after the deadline. There remain about 800 QSO to check by hand. Two way contacts logged on different bands: who is right and who is wrong? Cases of true NIL versus busts. Stuff like that. Soon after I started problems arose. Like every year.
There was a log that generated time offset errors for almost all contacts. Strange since the time between both logs was only off by two minutes tops, but most times were in synch. I only flag the contacts when the time is off by fifteen minutes. I checked and rechecked but the times were OK. So this must be a new bug in my old code. Strange that it never showed up before. My stomach ached by the thought of digging through the code to splash the bug. I’m not in the mood yet for a programming job. So once more I compared the contacts in the problematic log to the contacts in the other logs. Huh? The Cabrillo date was set to 2012 in stead of 2013. So my code DID get it right. Of course ;o It did not detect an offset of a few minutes, it detected an offset of one year and a few minutes which is greater than the fifteen minutes threshold. Yet another case of someone mangling his log. I forwarded my findings to contest manager Marc ON7SS and by coincidence he knew what was going on. It was a human error. Not by me of course 😉 and not by the operator. It was a ‘third party’ human error in the online log generator tool. Ain’t that right, Marc? 😉
Soon thereafter the same phenomenon occurred with a Portuguese log. This software home brewer distilled a moonshine-like elixir that according to his own comment, made Cabrillo from his MS Excel log sheet. Too bad the date got set to 2012 in stead of 2013. And of course some other irregularities show up all over the place like using the pipe sign ( | ) in stead of slash ( / ) for portable calls. Exotic formatted frequencies. And they want us to believe Cabrillo is a standard!
And this leads to the topic’s question: have we really sunk so low that every clown can become a ham? Now wait before you quote me on this one. It’s a question. Not a statement. Furthermore I have a tendency to use polarized language. Nothing personal. Unless you are a clown.
When I started out in the log checking business a few years ago, I was strict. The Dirty Harry of log checking. Bad log = bad log. Stamp it ‘invalid’ with my .44 Magnum and return to sender. Do you feel lucky, punk? Fix it and try submitting again. And again. And again. Because some hams don’t get a clue. Some don’t even get a full detailed explanation of the problem and how to fix it. Some hams are computer illiterate and can’t handle software. Some don’t understand English well and I am limited in expressing my feelings to Dutch, French, English and Morse’s code. But now I just don’t bother anymore. I save a lot of time and get less frustrated by just grinning, some cursing and then fix the log myself. A few years ago the motto was: “they’ll learn it he hard way”. Now the motto is: “they’ll never learn”. They? Those clowns who can’t generate a simple valid Cabrillo log yet do seem to have obtained a ham radio license.
Maybe you think that the lack of basic computer skills and amateur radio have nothing to do with each other. In a sense that is true. Both disciplines of technology have nothing to do with each other. It’s like the world’s best brain surgeon, a genius in his own league, that isn’t able to bring a liver transplantation to a good end. So just because he can’t do the liver job, it would be unfair to label him a clown and doubt his intelligence, right? But I assume that the brain surgeon as well as the expert liver professor both share a basic knowledge of the human body. Heart beat, blood pressure, injecting something in the body with a needle etc. Overlapping skills. So why can’t we assume that a licensed ham radio operator also knows how to handle a computer (like adjusting your PC clock please), install some contest logging program, log his contacts and submit a Cabrillo log?
In essence it’s not even about skill and knowledge. It’s about an attitude. An attitude of self-criticism. Review your own work. Check before you submit. Heck it’s just like I’m preaching to my students!
How can you come up with a computer generated contest log that has 2012 for all contacts when it’s already the last weekend of January? How can it be anno 2013 that your PC’s clock is off by more than three days? NTP anyone? And best of all (TRUE CASE a few years ago), how do you end up with a log that says ‘Generated by N1MMLogger’ in the header and have contacts logged on February 30th (!!!!!!!!!) in the log? I stumbled across that one since .NET applications like my log checking software actually crash on an illegal date! For the programmers: yes I do know how to catch exceptions. There are MANY cases where respected software is used yet the log is completely messed up. That can only be done BY HUMAN HAND right?
Back to the topic at hand. This may offend some people, but I am only human. Each time I come across such a goofy log and ask myself the “How can you come up with such and such” question from the previous paragraph, the horned sulphur smelling creature looking over my shoulder murmurs something like: “Stupid!”.
Arrogant, politically incorrect and not nice? Perhaps. It just happens that I link a ham radio license to a certain degree of intelligence and I accredit certain skills to ham radio operators. Skills like, to name a few, reading contest rules, following contest sponsor’s directions and guidelines, knowing what year it is today. And thus I ask myself: is the quality (whatever that may be) of ham radio declining? Was it better in the past? Have we really traded quality for quantity like some say? Is it really all too easy to obtain a ham radio license anno 2013? It’s a genuine open question. It’s not a statement.
The first event that recently raised the issue was a conversation two weeks ago with my neighbour ON4KV. Since 2004 Belgium offers the ‘basic license’. It’s a really simple test to pass and it covers the very basics of our hobby. Something about frequencies and power levels. Basic antennas and propagation, ohm’s law, something about safety. Very lightweight. There are dozens of thirteen – fourteen year olds who have successfully taken the test. Including ON4KV’s daughter around that age. So you don’t need advanced mathematics or a complete insight in complex circuitry. This basic license got introduced by the UBA in 2003-2004. I was a member of that task force. The goal was to get people into the hobby. People who got paralyzed by the very hard and unearthly HAREC test. I exaggerate but people often picture it like that. Urban legends by people who never made it. By lowering the threshold, those people would enter the hobby and take the bands by storm, see how much fun it is, and then suddenly find the motivation to persevere to study and pass the full HAREC test. That was the plan. It failed. We were naïve. They passed the test alright. They got on HF by storm alright. They had tons of fun. Some of them had been an SWL for ages and now were happy to actually communicate legally. But they didn’t upgrade to the HAREC license. Not many at least.
You see: the only real restriction the basic license had on HF was a 10W power level limit. Belgium’s creed is that “it ain’t a crime if you don’t get caught” so soon there were rumours of ON3 stations blasting away with ‘a few more watts’ than ten. About a year ago the Belgian telecoms regulator decided to allow more power (50W) since power is hard to check anyway. But in turn they took away parts of the spectrum on the bands. This left the ON3 guys with ‘no go zones’ on HF. In fact they are not allowed in the DX windows anymore for both CW and SSB. That effectively crippled their DX and contest operations. Crippled? Mowed off both legs! Ouch. In my opinion this really should be an incentive for the serious ON3 to upgrade to the HAREC license. And if I recall it was exactly this that ON4KV (an engineer himself) and I were discussing. His point was that not everyone has the intellectual capabilities to pass the HAREC test, I quote: “not everyone graduates from some polytech institute”. I replied jokingly that you could pass the test a dozen times in a row until you finally succeed.
For me it was all too easy to pass the exam. I took the test only one year after I graduated and got a degree in RF electronics. When applying for various jobs over the last year, I had taken some similar technical tests during job interviews too. My technical knowledge was more than adequate. I just had to learn the specific ham radio lingo and study the Belgian rules and regulations (frequencies, power limits, what can be done and what can’t). It took me one profound reading session of the study book and a few cross checking sessions. A round trip to Brussels later, the HAREC license was in the pocket. The funny thing was that I didn’t have real plans to actually become an active amateur radio operator. I just joined a few guys from work because I didn’t want them to look smarter than me when they passed the test. And most co-workers held a license though none were active. I was young and ambitious. But that’s another story.
A century, maybe even up to half a century ago, you needed such a background to become a ham. In fact the hobby got created by technical innovators and engineers who used their technical knowledge to make TX/RX. Going from sparks to vacuum tube to semiconductor, from CW to sideband to FM. The early inventors created it, played with it and then commercialized it to the public. But along the way things changed. We have been caught up by engineering. Current engineers aren’t hams anymore but feed their creations into the hobby (SDR, digital modulation) where it’s happily picked up and adapted for ham radio purposes. Knowing many hams, I quickly did a mental survey. Only a small minority of the hams I know have a background in electronics or similar by education or job. Some have a firm personal interest in technology. But most of them are just in the hobby for the sake of the hobby. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And if they have a ham radio license, they must know something about radio technology and electronics since they passed the test.
So can any clown become a ham today? Sure. If you can read and write either Dutch or French in Belgium, you can obtain a basic license. But the reverse doesn’t hold true at all: not all (new) hams are clowns. Lucky us! Some are though. Just listen to the pile up for a DXpedition. Or my supposed-to-be-clean-cabrillo-logs, sometimes submitted by long time respected hams. But does a higher level of testing and raising the bar guarantee this won’t happen? No. The ability to study for and pass a multiple choice test is no substitute for common sense. There are some people who will never be able to pass a test yet would be great hams. They are blessed with what we call in Dutch ‘boerenverstand’, farmers’ wisdom. But today they face a brick wall when it comes to passing the test.
So that still leaves us with the original questions. Do we want amateur radio for the masses or do we want to be an elite group? Should the fear of running out of fresh blood command us to drop our pants? Is the level of the exam correlated to the quality of the operator? Was it better in the past and will it be worse in the future?
I just don’t know. But a fool can ask more questions in a day than a wise man can answer in a lifetime.