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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Jim, WB5UDE's Knack Story

Hi Bill! ...

Of all the Amateur Radio related podcasts I've sampled, SolderSmoke has
been my favorite.  The reason is because of the passion you (and Mike,
too, in the beginning) bring to us each and every episode.  I've been
passionate about radio since I was 10 years old, and electronics in
general since I was about 8.  Many of the other podcasts seem to lack
this quality, or worse, try to have a "how to do things in Amateur Radio
the right way" focus.  I suppose their thinking is that hams listen to
podcasts to learn, so they assume their job is to tell someone how to
get started doing this or that.  However, the result often comes off
being preachy-- that there is a Right Way to do things, and that it's
important to do things that way, so they'll work out best.  That's not
what Amateur Radio is about!  Amateur Radio is about doing something
because you're passionate about it.  Even where your own passions are
concerned (e.g. individual analog components, no chips!) you acknowledge
that the other approaches are equally valid, and that we should all
do what we enjoy.  You're not shy about branching off into your other
technological passions, about space, RC aircraft, etc., which as you
rightly observe, so many of us have in common.

We share a passion for learning and understanding about radio/electronics.
Where we differ is in the depth of understanding we crave.  Actually,
I have experienced enough of that desire for total understanding to know
exactly what you're talking about, but I'm usually content without it.
I realized back when I was a teenager that some things would click for me
right away, and some others, I'd always struggle with.  I made peace with
that very early.  Still, I have wondered more than I could find ultimately
adequate explanations for about things like, OK...exactly what ARE these
radio waves?  More often, though, I am content to gain a sufficient depth
of understanding that I feel comfortable knowing how I might achieve a
particular thing.  I have great sympathy for your struggle with "holes" in
transistor theory.  That actually clicked for me, but not immediately--I
had to chew on it just a bit, but then it did gel.  If that "?" floating
over my head had refused to disappear, I might have found that a little
frustrating.  But to me, the really frustrating thing is that books so
often begin by talking about electrons and holes and depletion zones and
so forth.  I have found that a much simpler explanation is sufficient
for my tastes--I'm content to understand that there are N-doped and
P-doped sections, and that this allows the silicon to control current
in a certain way.  Knowing how we arrange the electronics around a
transistor to get it to behave in its own useful way in a circuit is
really all I've ever cared to know.  And furthermore!... I'd rather
have the whole presentation be top-down...I'd rather start with what a
transmitter and receiver are, and what their stages are, and what kind of
circuits go into those stages, then eventually, down to what components
make up those circuits.  It's all a natural progression, for me, of, "OK,
I understand that--now, how exactly does that part work?  Give me more
details, please."  The whole thing of just learn all these fundamentals,
and we promise we'll eventually tie them together into something useful
doesn't work well for me as a way to learn.  Worse than that, it doesn't
thrill me to the core the way gaining a gradually deeper and deeper
understanding does, as I drill down into more and more detail about
things I've caught an interest in, and remain content with a shallower,
surface knowledge of things I just want to know well enough to use,
when I need them.  So, I don't have the same burning desire to get down
to the bottom foundation in first principles all around that you do,
but I do love to learn, and understand.

I got my start in electronics when I was eight years old, and read a
book my parents had bought me about electricity.  I suddenly realized
that things like flashlights and motors didn't have to be a strange
mystery, but were things I could understand, and even try for myself.
I began reading everything I could find at school about electricity.
Meanwhile, over the next couple of years, I began appreciating music.
Reproducing music was something very special that electronics could do.
Even more special, radio electronics could bring you this music from
far away.  That whole combination, bringing communication from far away,
including things I found enjoyable, and doing it with this wonderful
magic of electricity, which it was possible to actually understand, was
(and still is to this day) quite thrilling.

When I was ten years old, I realized that, lo and behold, it would
actually be feasible for the amount of money my parents would be able
to spend for a Christmas present, to buy a pair of toy walkie- talkies.
I set a new level of obnoxiousness leaving the catalog open to the
page with the walkie-talkies, and finally, just flat out telling them
that's what I wanted.  I then exceeded that level of obnoxiousness when,
I'm ashamed to say, I absolutely chewed them out when they didn't take
the hint.  Instead, I got a tape recorder.  I actually enjoyed that, too,
but continued to campaign for the walkie-talkies, and when I still wanted
them a year later, my parents decided I meant it, and bought them for me.
(My dad knew a thing or two about radio himself, and my mother later
told me that my dad had been concerned that the walkie-talkies would be
fragile, would perform poorly, would chew up batteries like you couldn't
imagine, and would have a very disappointingly limited range.  He was
right about all those things, but it turned out I was right, too--in spite
of all that, I loved those walkie-talkies as much as I'd known I would.)

Meanwhile, I got a 100-in-1 electronics set for my birthday.  My parents
had wanted to find one that was about individual components, but all
they could find was one that was based on projects using a pre-built
audio amplifier, radio receiver, speakers, and battery holders.  Its only
component-based aspect was an apparent afterthought, an AM BCB transmitter
built on a cardboard circuit board.  This was really a bit too "appliancy"
for me--I would rather have been learning how to make components work--but
I still learned a lot from that.  I also bought an AM clock radio for
less than a dollar at a garage sale.  It didn't work very well, but this
was really good, because I learned that I could make it work much better
by wrapping a few turns of wire around its built-in loop antenna, and
attach that to various antennas I got to experiment with.  Months later,
I found a very nice tube-type AM/FM Zenith table radio at another garage
sale, and bought it for $5.  That radio went home with me strapped to
the back of my bicycle, then went on the bookshelf on the headboard of
my bed.  I learned to work its knobs backwards, reaching behind my head.
I listened to AM radio stations from all over the US until all hours of
the night, and my addiction to radio grew even deeper roots.

Then, when I was 13, I found a Zenith Transoceanic portable at a
garage sale, for $15.  I raced my bicycle home as fast as I could.
(This radio was a little too big for the bicycle.)  I got my mother to
drive me back there (urging her to hurry!  before someone else bought it),
and brought that one home....  then spent that whole evening driving my
parents nuts by running into the room where they were every few minutes,
excitedly exclaiming something like, "and NOW I'm getting a station from
GERMANY!" and then running back to see what I could get next.  Of course,
I had even more fun with it after I put a decent outdoor antenna up.

When I was 16, I finally met an Amateur Radio operator.  I'd read an
ARRL book about becoming a ham, and building one's own station, but the
books were a little expensive, and I wasn't sure how to go about it all.
Pat Barge, WB5OEB, about one year older than me, had earned his license
about a year before, and was eager to pass along the favor of showing
the ropes.  I got to listen as he operated his station, and he told
me which books would give me the specific knowledge I'd need to pass
the tests.  I was 17 when I got my first license.

While I was learning what I'd need to get my first license, I got my
next great receiver--this time, an RAL-7 regenerative receiver.  You and
I very much see regenerative receivers differently, but then, I had
the pleasure of learning on the best regenerative receiver ever made.
Back in those early days, I'd sometimes hear the opinion that the RAL-7
was not merely the best regenerative receiver ever, but the best receiver
ever, period.  I think all those old-timers have died off, though.

I've enjoyed building a bit over the years, too.  I haven't found nearly
as much time for it in my adult years, so I think to this day, about
half of my building was done as a teenager.  I haven't done anything
impressive, but I have made contacts using things I've built myself, and
what a thrill that is!  I've built more than a dozen projects (but fewer
than two dozen).  The most fun I've had was several years ago, following
the advice of a post to the Glowbugs list, I began experimenting with
crystal radios, then slowly began to ramp the circuits up, adding tube
amplifiers, tuned circuits, etc.  My favorite successful project was
a SWL converter to feed a car radio.  I built a doubly balanced diode
ring mixer and a crystal oscillator.  I used a 3-gang air variable
as the foundation for a 3-stage front end filter.  I had an 8.x MHz
crystal that put signals from (depending on where I tuned that 3-gang
air variable) either the 49 m or 31 m shortwave broadcast bands in the
tunable IF provided by the AM car radio, which fed a nice 3-way speaker
from a stereo, for the most beautiful sounding SWL listening of my life.
Like all my projects at that phase, it never left the breadboard stage,
but it stayed on the breadboard for a long time, while I paused in my
building to enjoy listening for a while.

I serve as one of the net control stations for a local two meter FM net
that meets weekly to discuss technical topics.  We got our start back
before most folks had Internet access, and served a very useful role as
the place where hams who had a problem to solve or wanted to ask how to
get started in a new phase of Amateur Radio could come and get answers to
their questions and ideas about how to do things.  In these days where
it's easier to Google for answers, we've morphed into more of a general
discussion session among a small, dedicated group, but it's still a lot
of fun.  It gives me a chance to do what I enjoy the most consistently
in Amateur Radio, which is to understand, talk about and explain things.
In fact, that's often all I find time for.  Other than the weekly net,
I sometimes go a long time without actually getting on the air.

When I do get on the air on HF, it's almost always CW.  I've always
struggled with Morse, which has never come easy to me, but I enjoy it.
Every time I return to HF after having been away for a while, I think,
"This time, I'm going to do some SSB" but every time I actually sit down,
I think, "But tonight, I'm going to do CW."  I can't explain why I like
it better, but it just seems to me to be a particularly special part of
the magic of radio.

Before closing, I'd like to finish by responding to something you
mentioned in episode 162.  You told about a member of the audience at a
talk you gave, who was asking about how much time it had taken you to
build a particular radio, seeming to suggest there was a price to pay
by investing all that time.  I love to explain to people that there is
a whole different economics to Amateur Radio.  In my professional life
in IT, I'm always promoting the idea that we should deploy and install
systems so that we will expect them to work trouble free throughout
their anticipated lifespan.  People balk at the expense of doing it
that way, but it's my job to remind them that the cost of having it
fail, in lost productivity, is far greater than the expense of doing
it right in the first place, not to mention the fact that coming along
later and remediating an inadequate deployment usually costs more than
it cost to do it wrong the first time, let alone the incremental cost of
doing it right.  Similar ideas prevail with radio.  We see professional
radio installations where many thousands of dollars are spent doing
things that we hams rarely even consider.  For many of us [raises hand]
we must do Amateur Radio out of a meager budget for entertainment,
or not at all.  But even more importantly, if we enjoy doing these
things, then the time spent laboring at our projects--transmitters,
receivers, antennas, etc.--is not a liability at all; it is an asset!
If assembling a kit, or planning and building some unique project, or
putting up a different antenna every six months, is something we truly
enjoy--even LOVE doing--then that time spent is no hardship at all.

Thanks, Bill, for the time and effort you put into providing us with
an episode of SolderSmoke from time to time.  All my life, I'd wished
for TV and radio shows about Amateur Radio, and now, they're finally at
my fingertips.  Your gift to the hobby is deeply appreciated.



  1. Well said Jim.

  2. Jim,

    Wonderful story!


    I enjoy the two-person podcasts.
    It makes the enthusiasm x2 !

    Bill N5AB


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