Friday, 9 March 2018

FT8, Reasons to be Cheerful, and the end of our hobby as we know it.

The snow from Storm Emma has gone - we were only cut off for four days.

Before I get into this, say hello to my new 2m linear

Straight away it is clear that this device breaks the cardinal rule for linears - I have bought a linear which offers no significant power gain over the previous one. Yep, that is true.

I can see no reason to go for more power. 200W has always been fine for me, but running the previous device flat out for years no doubt did it no good at all. This one theoretically does 300W, but it will be more comfortable at 200W. I could have bought the 500W version or even a bigger one than that, but no.

A couple of weeks running barefoot leads me to conclude that a linear amplifier is only useful for my type of work to get people to turn their beams my way. I have managed perfectly well on tropo with 50W if I choose my moments when they are beaming at me. So for meteor scatter, aurora and so forth this will be useful, but for run of the mill contacts I do not need it so much and I DEFINITELY do not need more power.

The money which might otherwise have gone to upgrading to 500W is instead being spent on a mast head pre-amp. I reckon I need to hear them first.

Not conventional amateur thinking, I know, but I would rather have a balanced station than a powerful one.

I'll review this beast once I have had time to evaluate it.
"Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3" was a 1979 UK hit record for Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Dury was a strange figure. He was disabled by polio as a child, and was in constant pain for the rest of his life. His stage presence was enigmatic and almost threatening (he appeared in many films as a "tough guy"). Propped up on sticks or gripping his oversized mike stand he would declare his lyrics to the microphone as if reading poetry to a large crowd. He did not sing so much as rhyme in key, rather like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, but a million times better.

A product of the punk era, Dury was backed by an excellent band of musicians from various parts of the world both musically and geographically so that the music was definitely not punk (or I probably would not have liked it).
Ian Dury in 1978. Wikipedia Common Media.
Reasons to be Cheerful is rather different from his other songs, but then they were all different from everything else. This was no hit factory: the lyrics were crafted to be challenging, often a bit rude or even crude, anti-establishment, and broadly "of the people". Ian's lyrics were never going to get him a knighthood, as banal crooners like Cliff Richard or Elton John did, and anyway he died tragically young. Many of his songs featured collaborations with Chas Jankel, whose musical influences brought jazz and funk elements and made his strange style commercial.

The record is a "list song". Like other successful list songs (e.g. "We didn't start the fire" by Billy Joel) the trick is to pick your list from diverse and unexpected sources. The result works, but the listener is not sure why, nor what might come next. List songs do not strike you instantly; they take thought to appreciate that the list is not just a collection of random ideas. Yet, the diverse list contains things which it is hard to say are not significant.  So I might not like Wee Willie Harris or (even some of) Buddy Holly, but I cannot deny that they had a part to play and I can be cheerful about that.

The "Reasons to be Cheerful" listed in the song are the usual Dury risqué references, hidden away so that the record was not banned from radio play outright. But there is some great stuff in there - the reference to Scammells shows he knew his classic 18 wheeler lorries. Vincent Motorcycles, Smokey Robinson, Rico (another splendid musician now lost to us), John Coltrane, Bonar Colleano (who remembers him? He was also Robbie McIntosh's father), lots of great stuff, some of it a bit too smutty for this high minded blog.

For a man who did not have an easy life, this is a masterpiece in the art form called looking at the bright side of life. Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 reminds me that no matter what is going on there is always hope.

So I thought about the reasons to be cheerful related to amateur radio. It could be quite a list if we borrow Billy Joel's idea of a timeline. So I tried to see who and what I might put in (the timeline will be sorted later). I suppose some people might have to dive for Wikipedia or Google with this one, but obscurity is part of the game. What about ...

Continuous wave modulation, integrated circuits, DIN plugs, Kenpro rotators, bug keys, panoramic displays, RCA AR88, Lord Rix, bandpass filters, the next new radio from whoever, the sunspot cycle, the 6146, James Van Allen, Tokyo Hy-Power, double balanced mixers, cheap eBay components, Laskeys on Tottenham Court Road, the phase locked loop, Heathkit, Oliver Heaviside, Antex soldering irons, WARC bands, trap dipoles, transceivers, Jagadish Chandra Bose, earth rods, Inoue Communications, 4CX250B, N-types, the KW2000E, field aligned irregularities, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the photon, the 807, lumped components,  the R1155, Shure 444, single side band, meteor showers, Edwin Armstrong ... ?

Hmmm. I will have to make them into a timeline and then make it scan. Then I need a band. Why not get back into bed and forget it?

Well, there are loads of things that have made amateurs cheerful. It is a rich and varied path that has brought amateur radio to this place. I for one am hopeful for the future. There are lots of reasons to be cheerful.

Suddenly, doom is predicted. Apparently we are threatened by ... FT8!

I read, and hear in lots of places, that this new mode is threatening everything. It will, apparently spell the end for us all. Research has shown that from zero in Summer 2017 to now the percentage of QSOs in Club Log using FT8 has risen to 52%. Apparently if this pace continues for another year, well if you take it literally, 110% (!) of our QSOs will be in FT8, which spells the end of SSB. This, it seems, will also spell the end for recruitment into the hobby and we will all die out.

Right so, I am the guy with the reasons to be cheerful. I am not put off by this nonsense. First of all, if people are flocking to FT8 then it must be good. I am old enough to remember old codgers who said that SSB would ruin the hobby and they stuck to AM until they popped their clogs, which was their right. Now it is the new-fangled SSB which is threatened. No doubt the same was said when AM phone threatened CW, and CW threatened spark. "Everybody" says that it is becoming too technical, too easy, needs too much gear and similar things every time this type of change comes up.

If you want to use SSB until you blow your final fuse, then go right ahead. There will always be somebody to work, so why have a problem with FT8?

I can see a statistical blip which was no doubt caused by there being no FT8, which fairly effectively puts zero at one end of the scale, and then later lots of people trying it, which makes the blip. I know one amateur who tried it and does not like it. "Feels too automatic and soul-less" he said. Well good for him for speaking up. He has no need to use it. It is not compulsory. There must be many giving it a try who will then drift back to SSB. Then again, not every QSO is listed on Club Log - I do not put any there for instance. Lots of phone contacts are never logged there. And people chasing awards and DXCCs might be very happy with FT8 and they generate a lot of contacts on Club Log. Club Log is not a reliable source for figures.

Someone said that we should develop a digital mode which allows rag chews, which of course FT8 pretty well frustrates. I think you will find that PSK31 already has been invented, has been used for years, and it is still an option if you want to use it.

If FT8 is successful should we not applaud it, rather than surround it with vague reports of doom?

Do I think a digital world of amateur radio would put off new entrants to the hobby? Not if they were interested in the first place. My national society has been promoting the "social side" of amateur radio, suggesting that like CB it is worth entering just to chat to people around the world. I am not happy about that as I doubt if governments will give up all the valuable spectrum and attend endless international conferences to allow us to gabble at each other. There has to be more to this hobby than a cheap social media experience. There has to be room for both. The problem with the progressive side is that it makes progress, while the waffling side stands still and resists anything new.

The other aspect of that argument is that I happily work the stations of hams who are entirely social operators, if they happen to be in a square or DXCC I want. Of course I do. However, I reckon that purely social operation is in decline. I feel that the hobby will get smaller as it becomes increasingly unattractive to people who just want a natter. Or rather, as it becomes easier to have personal communications without amateur radio, the social entrant will just drop away and leave the technical entrant still interested - sorry to point this out, but it is already happening.

The people who will still want to become radio amateurs will increasingly be in it for the technical electronics or propagation science learning which it provides. FT8 is terrific for both those pursuits. In the old days we attracted radio and television repair people into this hobby, but in case you hadn't noticed those job descriptions do not exist any more. These days you throw a broken-down TV in the bin. I am  not saying that I like that, but that is where we are.

I still find new reasons to be cheerful. Not withstanding FT8, there are still electronics experimenters, computer buffs, people seeking routes into propagation science, developers of new RF devices and circuits, etc., to fill the ranks of our hobby. Filled ranks, but a smaller hobby. The rag-chewers have got Skype. The budding marine radio officers have got ... well, you don't meet many of those people these days. There are many radio users in all walks of life who will want to join our hobby, to learn and to talk to each other on phone modes. But I doubt if there will be many soldering irons brandished, even though the people I hope will join us are perfectly capable of soldering if they need to.

If this becomes an increasingly digital hobby then I think it will be very appealing to people coming from (modern) technical and scientific backgrounds. I have great faith in that cohort of young people - a big reason to be cheerful. But as for fearing the end because there seems to be more efficiency and less waffling around then no, not in my book. Those who seek to push the technical and scientific boundaries will still natter on repeaters and gateways, but it is much more likely to be technical talk than someone I know who only talks about what he has to cook next in his microwave (his microwave produces more RF than anything in his shack).

It does not really matter what I think. If FT8 is popular then so be it. This hobby cannot be confined or ordered about by those afraid of change (not even by me). I look at the blogs and writings of a younger generation of radio amateur and I find lots of reasons to be cheerful to add to my list of what has already cheered us.
Finally, what is it about FT8 that gets everybody so steamed up? After all, it is less sensitive than JT65. And were we all majority SSB users before FT8? Here are the figures from my log from 2016, before we even had FT8. Remember I do not log local FM chats, and the total for that year is 1051 contacts ...

SSB = 372 (35.4%)
CW = 4 (0.4%)
FM = 14 (1.3%)
All machine generated = 661 (62.9%) That is JT65, JT9, JT6M, FSK441 and PSK31 combined.

GM4FVM was already almost 63% digital before FT8. What hope is there for me?
I wish Ian Dury had been a radio amateur. I suspect he would not have been an easy person to deal with.

But his blog would have been great.




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