brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell


Beating the dead horse: the search for “quality” in radio amateurs…

Last night the mailbox contained the latest copy of QST magazine, which always means at least a few minutes of interesting reading. I usually read the magazine more or less front to back, flipping through. I mostly enjoy technical content, but reading about other aspects of the hobby (contesting, etc...) as an interesting diversion.

Sadly, some things are more irritating than diverting, such as the "Letters from Our Members" on page 24. For the last couple of months, some insist on perpetuating the endless whining about the decreasing quality and experience of the newly licensed. Some small samples:

I feel that hams still need to spend at least two years in each license class before upgrading. I have always thought it was the Extra class licensees who we all looked up to because they had the experience that the lower license classes did not have.

Paul Eaton, KR4IN

Morse code is what distinguishes hams from other hobbyist wireless communicators; it's really the only differentiator. …

The excuse about being handicapped might have great merit for some, but not for me. I know and have worked hams who are blind, deaf, and paraplegic many times. …

Steve Katz, WB2WIK

When I read stuff like that, it just makes me weary for our hobby, even more so that QST chooses to continue to devote inches of their magazine to give a soapbox to such counter-productive discourse.

Paul is basically trying to make the assertion that the Extra license used to mean something that it no longer does: that if someone held an Extra class license, you could be assured that they knew what they were doing, that they were the acme of our hobby. I would submit that it was never true: that as long as so-called "incentive licensing" has been around, the only thing that you could be reasonably assured of was that someone had taken the required tests and received a passing grade. The idea that an amateur license conveys some expertise in itself is just credentialism: it prevents you from actually having to through the effort of actually trying to determine the skills and knowledge of someone else before you pass judgement upon them. There are hams who hold the "lowly" Technician class licenses who are incredibly skilled and knowledgeable, and Extras of many decades who are not. Judging someone's abilities based upon simple measures like how long they've been licensed or what class they achieved is fraught with peril.

A ham radio license is like a fishing license. It's a way for the government to limit access to a scarce shared resource that they manage for the benefit for society. The government's interest in testing you is to ensure that you use the resource in a way which is not harmful to other spectrum users, and without significant risk to the public. And that's it. All the other items listed as purposes in Part 97 are our shared responsibility as hams: to self-train, to help our communities in times of emergency, and advance the radio arts. Those responsibilities are what all hams should aspire to do, regardless of license class, regardless of experience level.

And Morse as the "only differentiator"? Sigh.

First of all, I wonder just who these other "hobbyist wireless communicators" are that Steve is referring to? Is he talking about CBers? People who use the FRS or MURS? Or perhaps the myriad wireless users of Part 15 based wireless access points? It's true, most/all of these services do not use Morse, but is that the only differentiator? Really? As hams, we are empowered by our license to build our own equipment and operate on frequencies and modes which are not available to the operators of any of these other radio services. And of course we are challenged to train and learn more about radio, which was never really a cultural component of any of the other "hobbyist" wireless options. Surely those distinguish us rather strongly from these other services.

And the fact that Steve does not accept the fact that there are people whose handicaps could keep them from passing a Morse code test does not actually mean that such people do not exist. But more than that: why should a parapalegic or deaf person have to struggle more to become a radio amateur than someone without these physical difficulties? After all, there are plenty of able bodied hams who struggled to pass these tests, only to never use Morse again. The service is not enriched by such people or their struggle. It's simply not relevant.

Hams like Steve and Paul are dinosaurs: clinging to a view of ham radio that's not healthy or relevant. The credential doesn't mean what Paul thinks it should. The importance of Morse is much, much slimmer than Steve thinks it is. Neither attitude encourages anyone to participate in this great hobby. They are just beating a dead horse.

Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Well said! I had a similar reaction when I read those letters, too.

  2. Just read those letter myself. As a new ham (Tech a year ago, General a few weeks ago), they’re not the most friendly/welcoming thing I’ve seen.

  3. I personally don’t give comments like those the time of day. If they’re squandering their free time to the extent that they can articulate those thoughts, put them to “paper,” and send them off… instead of spending time in the shack at the bench or on the air, (or on the roof with the antenna, etc. ad infinitum) then they are truly missing out on a great hobby. Oh, and BTW I’m perfecting my technique with the no-knead bread, thanks for posting it! 73

  4. Thanks to all of you for your comments. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who finds such mewling to be annoying. Congrats Chris, on the General, and glad you are enjoying the bread making Jason (I’ll be making a loaf tonight myself!).

  5. The die-hard proponents of amateur radio, in my opinion, have been people who resent that the world has changed and want to go back to 1950. I’ve seen so many of them who think that amateur radio is one specific thing and are bent on pushing that view. It’s the reason I belong to none of my local clubs. I got my Tech license about 7 years ago, in preparation for a high-altitude balloon launch. And it was honestly the only reason I got my license. At the time, I happened to work with a guy who was a Ham and he kept trying to get me to QSO with him. I saw no reason for it, since I saw the guy every day already. He also kept trying to get his son interested in it. I felt sorry for the kid.

  6. Well said, I just shake my head when I read about these hams wanting to take the hobby back to 1958. Times change.

  7. Some folks confuse amateur radio, which is a hobby or pastime, with brain surgery, the Marine Corps or astronautics, which are something else entirely. The main reason governments license radio amateurs is to ensure they know enough to avoid doing harm to other users of the airwaves, to themselves and to anyone else. There is no reason that governments could not require a degree in electrical engineering as a prerequisite, but no government that I know of has done that. Qualifying for a drivers license doesn’t make you an expert driver. It only ensures that you know enough to avoid committing mayhem when at the wheel. In other words: Get over it.

  8. Well done. Code is dead. Long live the code. I have been a broadcast/studio eng for 36 years. Had a commercial 2nd Radio Telephone License at 25. I upgraded to “No Code” Extra in 08 I think. And the fact that the elitist old guard Hams are still grind on this gets me up in the morning. I go out of my way to point out my “NO Code” Extra status.
    KE6 Papa Chubby Tango

  9. I am a 5-week Zero to Extra with no on-air experience in that time – in other words, the target of all such scorn… I was able to earn Extra comfortably and enjoyably because of my prior academic coursework – I had bachelors in Chemistry and Physics. As a result, the prior exposure to E&M, as well as a passionate 4 semesters of calculus and two graduate level courses in Math, it was not hard. Passing the Extra, or even the Advanced as it was in the 1980s – is NO SUBSTITUTE for the personal growth obtained in a 4 or 5 year on-campus, full-time college degree in _any_ difficult subject. Prior to lurching into ham radio, I had built many electronic adapters and instrumentation integrations on breadboards, as well as vacuum tube amplifiers for my home. For folks that have never been to college, I am far more impressed by their portfolio of built personal projects. The ham exams were never intended as a substitute for college coursework, nor are they an IQ test; It’s simply a test to see if you have the ability to understand the responsibilities and implications of your actions when you operate on the shared bandwidth.

    — Jim AB1RW

  10. funnly enough – i found this colum as a result of looking for a program to run a cw beacon ( arduino ) so thanks for the coding for this – now one i am disabled ( visually and mobility ) – two i dont USE code as a stroke has affected my memory and sight – and which has caused me to “loose ” a lot of stuff – i used to be able to read code reasonably well – but now ………………

    and yet here i am using code – and much to MY surprise computery things – so it jut go’s to show there is room for ALL sorts of ability and interest in amateur radio – and “old dogs ” CAN learn new tricks ( if you had said to me “arduino” a few weeks ago i would have done a homer simpson on you DHU-OH ?? ) – but now i have 2 of em and plans for some AR projects i never dreamed of doing before

    i have a simple answer to those who dont LIKE this and that – there is always the OFF SWITCH – no one is forcing you to BE or remain a radio amateur – and if you feel its all gone to the dogs ?? – well – your choice to stay – a even use code – if you must – live and let live folks 🙂

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