Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Hams

Once upon a time there were two young people who wanted to get involved in the Amateur Radio Hobby.  We'll call one Fred, and we'll call one Jane.   Both wanted to get on the air and be "Hams", and both wanted to self-study because there was no class available to them.

Fred just wanted to get on the air.  Fred crammed his way through the exam, passed with a score of  81 out of 100,   and he gained full HF band operational privileges, and yet if you asked him to explain anything covered in any of the exams, all he could say was, "that isn't on the exam".    Fred was not quite sure what his interests in the hobby were, but he had a lot of money, and he bought the best gear, and then set it up.  He found the manuals confusing, he found the conversations of other hams unintelligible, and he soon got bored of a hobby that for him, had turned into an exercise in button-mashing, and he soon exited the hobby.  Someone got a deal on a high end transceiver a year or two later.

Jane, on the other hand, wanted to understand what she was doing.  Jane found the study guide she used did not go into enough detail, so Jane went to the library and got out books, and she read and she read. She ordered a small set of electronics parts from eBay, and a breadboard, and learned how resistors and capacitors and transistors work by playing with them.  She wanted to understand electromagnetic waves and their behaviour. She wanted to know how a receiver really works, starting out with understanding how the very first working radio receiver worked, and going through the history of the technology, state by state, until we reach the current day.   Jane also wrote her exam and got 100 out of 100.  If you asked her why the test bothered to make you learn resistor color codes, she would say "Building stuff is fun. How are you going to do that if you don't learn the basics of electronics?".

I don't wish to belittle those who have no desire to learn the underlying technology of their hobby. Who among us can really understand all of it? I certainly can't.

I am simply using Jane and Fred as "symbols" for two sides of my own personality.  One side of me is like Fred; another side is like Jane.  When those two sides come into conflict, one has to win.

So if you are going to self study, I predict that you will meet your own inner Fred and your own inner Jane.  I met mine, when I noticed that I was not going to pass this test if I didn't learn how to answer a lot of questions in this form:

In a frequency modulation transmitter, the _________ is located between the frequency multiplier and the antenna.

A. oscillator B. power amplifier C. modulator
D. speech amplifier

The part of me that was irked that I had to learn "all that" is a Fred.   

 As a learner, I felt I was at a fork in the road, and the two forks in the road had signs on them. I would have to choose which path to walk down, either go to the left, or the right, the two signs were marked thus:

  • Expedience: Learn enough to pass the test, restricting my study to the artificial level created by the legal hurdles in front of me.  Study to the test, without interest in the physical universe beneath it.  Content yourself with the idea that you will come back later and try to understand the concepts later, and decide that not understanding, and not knowing, is better for you.
  • Knowledge is Power: Attempt to understand the physical real world below the concepts and block diagrams, enough that I could use that basis as something to build my enjoyment and understanding of the Amateur Radio hobby on a firm basis.   Scientia Potentia Est.

My own inner Fred chooses expedience, and my own inner Jane chooses knowledge.  I think I will enjoy my hobby pursuits more, in this hobby anyways, if Jane wins out more often than Fred.   Still Fred sticks around.   As I studied, my inner Fred felt annoyed that I had to memorize resistor color codes, Ohm's Law, and the abstract stages that exist in any real receiver or transmitter design.

If you are studying and considering Expedience, ask yourself "How will you suddenly become more motivated when there is no need to do so, to learn something which, if you apply yourself now, may increase your ability to understand and enjoy your chosen hobby, now and long into the future?"

If you just decide to be Fred, will you go the rest of your life without trying to plumb the depths of nature, as Jane has decided to do, or will you have a moment of conversion, and become a Jane later? You decide.  Your call. This is your hobby. Do what you like, new person who is considering this hobby.   Me, I think I'm a little bit of Fred and a little bit of Jane, and there is a bit of a battle on inside my head between them.

But it seems to me that the desire to understand things, and the desire to build things, lies at the root of about 90% of what is fun in the Amateur Radio hobby, for me.   If it is not the same for you, perhaps you have no inner fred, and no inner Jane, but are an entirely different person.  I can easily see how someone who is completely not a "geek" or into the technology could become a very effective radio operator, and have a lot of fun. They could specialize in helping people, in organizing and using the power of the whole community working together, to do amazing things.  There are many ways to have fun in this hobby without being Jane,  but my point is, that I don't think Fred is going to have much fun, or be much good to anybody.  So if you're neither Fred nor Jane, please don't think I'm slamming you if you're not "into" the technology side of this hobby.  I respect ANYBODY who wants to get into this hobby, and I don't need to know why you want to. I just want to share what it felt like for me.

 This blog will be based on a firm notion that the path of Knowledge is the right path for me, and that, for me at least, if I stop being Jane, I start being Fred again, and I do not want to be Fred.  Fred is a button-masher, a "lid", and a not-very-fun guy to hang out with.  Thus, I present the motto of my blog:

Scientia Potentia Est

So given that I wish to understand things, and know things, and thus, be able to do things, I have some suggestions for people like me, who are using the fantastic Study Guide for Canadian amateurs, made by great people who I earnestly respect, at Coax Publications.

In my opinion, they did a great job of trying to balance between those who want to learn technology (me) and those who want to pass the test and get on with their chosen interests in the hobby.

You can't write one book and make it perfect for every learner, and I certainly know that I'm not the average learner in any way.   So for me, and for my learning style, I feel that certain modifications (in my own study practices) are very helpful.  If you recognize that you are like me, you might find these help you too.  If they don't, don't worry.

Rule 1: I Love to Diagram All The Things, and Make Pretty Pictures

 Where possible I think it is better to draw an antenna that looks like an antenna, and draw a speaker that looks like a speaker.   However, what does a mixer or an intermediate frequency amplifier look like?  How am I to keep an RFO and a VFO mentally separated?

 If something is an amplifier or a mixer, I think it is better to learn the symbols used in the field, and use them.  Symbols, and glyphs and variables (I for current) have important symbolic power, and are part of the way that your brain (and mine) organizes, understands, and processes abstractions.

If there is a symbol for something, like a mixer, use it when you hand-draw your own versions of the block diagrams in the study guide. For me, nothing beats writing out that which you want to learn, in your own way, and with your own notation and conventions where convenient, and where you also include as many conventions and notations as you are aware of being used in the Real World.   Here is a symbol for a Mixer:

Now, my job of memorizing the block diagram just got easier. That visual symbol is laid out so that some information goes into this stage (the left side), and goes out of the stage (on the right side) and requires some supporting information (the up arrow from below).  The general flow of my block diagrams is always from left to right, and the stages that receive some intermediate form of information that is less processed in the desired manner (receiving a radio wave and turning it into sound, by stages) proceeds towards a more processed state, as I move from left to right.   Things which do not have an input and are only outputs, like a local oscillator, are mentally kept separate in my head while I learn, from the things that have both inputs and outputs.     Things which I am learning the purpose of must have distinguishing characteristics.

The authors of my study guide did a pretty great job of trying to explain each of the stages, but I found I struggled with this part, and was unable to even formulate any questions like "I'm not able to understand all the stages, and why I'm learning this".   I sat there and was mad at the designers of this test, for making me learn this.  Then I had a bit of an "a-ha!" moment:

If you want to play with radio transmitters and receivers, why are not not learning how they work?

I re-committed myself to the idea of understanding what I'm doing, and rejected the mental voice of expedience that I had previously been entertaining subconsciously.

Rule 2:  I Love Abstractions.  I Learn Best when I Collect Them And Understand Them.

I initially found myself annoyed at the people who decided that in equations we should use E for the voltage, instead of V.  Why was I annoyed? Why was I confused?  Why do some presentations of Ohm's law say "V = I * R" and some say "E = I * R".  What is the E?   It's a little piece of the history of science, dear friend.  Don't try to be so modern that you can't understand the past. That's my advice.
I started to see that understanding differences in notation and being able to read all of them, meant I was learning notations and abstractions. This is an important part of learning to communicate about technical subjects with other amateurs, and is the beginning of growing your mental capacity to read technical work and try to understand it.  Don't give up.

There is a reason for separating and understanding the use of the variable (E) the unit (Volts) and the physics concept (Electro Motive Force or EMF).  If some people write Ohm's law with a V and some write it with an E, you can probably handle both sides.  If you understand what is being expressed, and the history of the various ways of saying things, you will find they start making sense.

In the early days they said "Megacycles" and these days it's "Megahertz". If you can understand and follow along, you can read the old articles and the new ones, and glean much from both.  Know both.

There are old abstractions, perhaps dusty and discarded.  Understand their place in history of your technology and your hobby. There are shiny modern forms.  Know both.

Abstractions like the notion of Current and Voltage are analogues to real physical processes involving the real physical universe, but are abstractions because they represent a simplification of what are, at the bottom level of our current understanding, phenomenon that are results of quantum laws.   I suspect, but I do not know for sure, that the quantum laws we now know are but abstractions, which will  later be replaced by even lower-level physical observations than those we now observe at the quantum level.  I think it is possible that in 300 years people might have some new stuff in the introductory electronics textbooks.  Progress marches on.  

I have some sympathy for history, for explorers, and discoverers.   There are two kinds of "Current" flow directions used in basic textbooks about electronics. As a new learner, this kind of complexity may throw you for a loop, discourage you, and confuse you.  I know I found it confusing when I first tried to learn some electrical and electronics concepts.  I think a sensitive introduction to a subject, for a new learner like me, who is a techie and a history buff, needs a large dose of history.

Much has been said about Ben Franklin being "wrong". In some sense, yes, these early pioneers were "wrong". If one posits the electron's existence, and its direction of flow, and then later finds out that reality is otherwise, then, yes, the scientific and sensible thing to do is to say, "you're wrong".

The part of my that is by nature a historian, an observer of truth unfolding over time, is that I think it is anachronistic and obscures the truth of history to simply say "they were wrong".  They were, precisely, choosing a path because a choice of path was required, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, chose what seemed a perfectly reasonable notation and convention at the time.

Personally, my goal is to understand the value of both the simple literal physical realities we observe, and the abstractions we build on top, and the history of how we got where we are right now.  I notice that some text-book writers share my preference, and some do not.  I happen to need to know the various bends in the road, the various discoveries, the various controversies, or disagreements, the famous experiments, and the ways by which we learned that which we now proclaim as "fact" to people who can not understand how we got there.

So I do not think  "conventional" current is wrong. It is a valuable abstraction.  History is good to know.  We are throwing a wrench in the works if we only state "it was wrong, now fix it", and then try to erase the "wrong" information.   Instead, what we need to do is understand the history of "how we got here", and include the now-discarded initial wrong hypothesis in our study, or we will remain confused forever.

I suspect that the whole electrical engineering world is on a swing towards the "rewrite everything" and "simplify and erase history" mode, and that in the Amateur Hobby at least, important books like the 2014 ARRL Amateur Radio Handbook have resisted this tendency and are trying to stay the course of traditional engineering discipline and notions.  The fact that one should state one's conventions and then stick with them creates an important and useful way of working with complex matters like electricity, electronics, and fundamental physical reality.

For example, when we define a capacitor, or an antenna, we can choose to think mentally of a perfect capacitor, or some ideal or abstract source of radio waves.  This is useful precisely because we can have one equation model everything we need to model about this not-real capacitor and this not-real antenna.  Then we can describe all the real capacitors and antennas and compare them to the real ones, and thus to each other.

Abstractions are great.  Formulas and rules, and so on, are great. They allow us to organize and understand how the world works, and then provide a baseline for comparison so we can determine the causes (and corrections) of things which do not fit with our abstractions.

Rule 3: When your brain is full, stop.

The most useful thing I learned during my study was to let myself take a break, and not study any more for two days, or three days, if my brain gets full.  When my brain gets full, I get frustrated, I get confused, I can't think straight. My brain isn't capable of absorbing massive amounts of information at all times of the day and the night.

That's all I've got for today. If you want to be a Jane, and feel that you have to fight the tendency to be a Fred, you might find my rules helpful. If you don't, feel free to ignore them.  This is your hobby.  If you know how to get where you want to go, and you know how to have fun, please don't let me tell you want to do.  

If you have any suggestions or corrections to what I have written, to make it better, more helpful, or more clear, I will entertain any suggested edits and corrections.  I especially welcome any corrections for errors of fact, or imprecise or improper descriptions of things.


  1. Nice black mixer on a black background. Maybe the symbol shouldn't just look like the light bulb symbol (;

  2. Yeah, that was crap wasn't it!? I changed to a plain white page.