Transcript - Episode 126 - Brooke Allen - N2BA
Eric 4Z1UG: QSO Today episode 127, Brooke Allen N2BA.
Welcome to the QSO Today podcast I’m Eric Guth, 4Z1UG, your host. While these interviews are not time bound or time sensitive, this is the first QSO Today episode in 2017, and now for something completely different. My QSO Today is with Brooke Allen Brooke, N2BA, who wrote a series of articles for the National Contest Journal about gamifying ham radio for contesters. As you will hear in this almost two-hour episode, we really leave the traditional QSO Today format to discuss Brooke's philosophy and outlook to change our own view of ourselves as ham radio operators and to rebuild our ranks with younger people based on this new perspective. This conversation caused me to pause and look at what amateur radio means to me. I hope that it does for you.
Eric 4Z1UG: N2BA, this is Eric 4Z1UG. Are you there Brooke?
Brooke N2BA: Yes, 4Z1UG, N2BA, I copy you 59.
Brooke N2BA: Okay. Let's see. My grandfather was a journalist and worked out for United Press International his whole life. It started when he learned the Morse code at age 14 and was a telegrapher and then eventually moved into becoming a pioneer in using shortwave radio and delivering the news. UPI would send him around Central and South America during the ‘20s and ‘30s setting up listening posts and news bureaus. That's how my dad was born in Havana, Cuba. His brother Bob and my dad grew up in Buenos Aires, and while in Buenos Aires, my uncle Bob became a ham radio operator.
In the seventh grade, my best friend, Mike, and I would spend all the time on the telephone, and my uncle Bob said, “Hey, you know, you should learn about ham radio so that you can, you know, let your parents use your phone once in a while. You could talk to Mike on the phone.” Mike and I discovered there is a ham club at the high school and we joined and we both got licenses. I have to admit we never once talked to each other on the radio.
Eric 4Z1UG: When was that?
Brooke N2BA: That was in 1966 so was 14 years old at the time. Mike and I didn't take the license at the same time, but I remember I spent about a week learning the Morse code and then I sat down and Mr. Brobst, our teacher, I don't remember his call either. He said, “Here, let's try some practice,” and he sent this message that was like, “If you can copy this, then you have just passed the novice Morse code test.” It was my first code practice; I passed it in 25 words a minute. There were three of us at the same time. Walt, he became WN2WID and Bill became WN2WIP and I became WN2RWY, and I have no idea why was it so far out of sequence. Walt became K2WK and he's a big-time contester and I don't know what happened to Bill.
Eric 4Z1UG: You got your first license in 1966 at age 14 and that was the novice license, and how did you upgrade from there?
Brooke N2BA: Then I got the general; that was pretty fast and then they had this incentive licensing. I'm kind of weird in this way. I kept forgetting where the new band edges were. I figured it would be easier to just remember all the questions and answers and stuff for the extra and pass my extra, so I could go back to the original band edges than have to remember where the band edges were. I just studied real hard for a couple weeks and got my extra but the reason was not so much because I wanted the privileges but because I didn't want to have to learn something new.
Eric 4Z1UG: That was easier than learning where the band edges were.
Brooke N2BA: Yes, that’s right. It's like I discovered that I'm really terrible at money-management, so I figured I’d work real hard to learning how to make enough money so I didn't have to care about money then figure out how to budget, same principle.
Eric 4Z1UG: Did that work for you?
Brooke N2BA: Yes. That’s a good principle. Why not?
Eric 4Z1UG: No, I think it’s a great idea. You got your extra class license in the same year?
Brooke N2BA: I don't remember. I figure was the next year. My motivation … Incentive licensing did incentivize me and it came in, I think, maybe, I don’t know, the next year you're after. I don’t remember.
Eric 4Z1UG: That call sign was WA2NRWY?
Brooke N2BA: It was WN2RWY then became WB2RWY. Then when they had vanity calls, I got N2BA, November, 2, bravo, alpha.
Eric 4Z1UG: Which happens to be your …
Brooke N2BA: Current call.
Eric 4Z1UG: Your initials?
Brooke N2BA: Yes.
Eric 4Z1UG: About that.
Brooke N2BA: Walt Kornienko became to K2WK, and he told me later that it wasn't a good choice because you know K2WK, it wasn’t a clear whether like there are so many K's and W's and stuff. It wasn't clear when there was a K that meant “over.” He's repeating his call. N2BA served me well.
Eric 4Z1UG: What was your first rig?
Brooke N2BA: My dad and had even before I gotten a license convinced me to build a shortwave … Heathkit had this four-tube, shortwave receiver. It was pretty bad but it got BBC.
Eric 4Z1UG: You remember the model?
Brooke N2BA: No, I don't; I could look it up. Then for a transmitter, I built this thing out of the handbook. They had this one-tube novice transmitter that used a TV sweep tube, so I got most of the parts for it out of an old TV. Our high school had a metal shop, so I made my own cabinet. It was really great. It was a TV sweep tube, no oscillator and [inaudible 00:07:58]; it was just one thing. It put out about 35 watts and a really cool thing about it was even though it’s crystal-controlled, it was pushing it so hard you could get a chirp out of it. I had this chirpy radio.
Then somebody came along and gave me a DX35. That’s where I got my general. Somebody gave me a DX35 with a VF-1 VFO. That was really cool because I had a VFO but with this really terrible four-tube radio. It was very hard to spot myself. I remember one time I found a clear frequency and a VFO was hardly calibrated. I called CQ a few times and nobody came back. I figured the band was dead. Then I got all a letter from the FCC that they'd heard me in Hawaii on 6150, something like that, and I tuned my VFO to the other side of the 455 kHz IF frequency. There was like a spur over there. For six months, my best DX was Hawaii; only it was the FCC.
Eric 4Z1UG: The FCC listening post?
Brooke N2BA: Right, yes. I think I ... , right yeah.
Eric 4Z1UG: Out of band because nobody in ham band heard you.
Brooke N2BA: Right, yes. I was never … Probably they did hear me and they’d be calling me but I wasn't hearing them because I was tuned to some birdie with a receiver but then I got an HR10. Then I saw this ad in QST that was like $135 for an EICO 753 kit. I went in to Mr. Brobst, and I said, “I have a $140 in savings. Should I send all my savings to this address in Long Island? Can I trust him?” and I remember he said, “Is his address the same as his call book address?” and I said, “Yes.” He said, “Then he's a ham. You can trust him with your life,” and that's a powerful statement, and I still think that's true today.
At some point I want to talk about the whole idea of community and what ham radio … what that means and how that's changed and how we restore that sense of community. The 753, I don't know if you have ever heard of that radio. It covered 8040 and 20 and it was famous for the fact that … It was called the 7-drifty 3 because the VFO would drift spectacularly.
Eric 4Z1UG: I think we actually had a ham in an earlier episode that had the EICO 753, and I think I've got a picture of it somewhere so I'll put a picture of it in your show notes page so that the people can look and reminisce. You know what? You mentioned, you talked about the ham radio community. I’ll say why don’t we start there because it seems to me that the ham radio community was somehow intricately involved in your early ham radio years. Do you want to start there or talk about that?
Brooke N2BA: Yes. I don't have a lot of friends who are ham operators, and I’m a member Frankford Radio Club but I'm not really active. In one way, I'm not really much of a member of the ham radio community and yet on the other hand, it’s had a significant impact on me. I'm a member of a lot of communities and they sort of compete but yes, let's talk about that.
In high school, I was a nerd. I think I talked once to a girl so hams were my people. We would hang out and talk about equip- Another thing that was really important and my parents really helped me with this was that it was perfectly fine in their opinion if I worked on building radios and came home and talk to people all over the world and didn't do my homework. I managed to get through high school doing almost no homework.
I had a calculus teacher. I was a good student. I did fine on the tests. It just didn't make sense for me to answer questions that it was obvious I could answer just to prove it to the teacher. I figured the teacher knows the answer. I'm not doing anything original here. My parents allowed me to have interests based on intrinsic interest rather than based on extrinsic rewards so that's a very important concept in motivating people and in motivating yourself.
Ham radio for me was mostly fun, but it's a certain kind of fun that get … In the last few years, I’ve started studying game design because I really want to understand fun. Fun defined as pleasure with surprise. That’s pretty interesting, is it? Pleasure with surprise and that's why you’re sitting there running Europeans and then some like a 9M6 calls you, that's a surprise. There's an interesting and fascinating part of that as well which is that most of the time when something's pleasant, the surprise has to be unpleasant or it’s not much of a surprise. That's why it's important to keep this hobby vibrant that things go wrong.
Eric 4Z1UG: Right. What you’re saying then is that that we need a challenge every once in while in the process of having fun so that we’re stymied and it causes us to pause and think.
Brooke N2BA: That’s right.
Eric 4Z1UG: Is that what you're saying?
Brooke N2BA: Yes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Eric 4Z1UG: I did want to go back old a little bit and finish the high school thing because you brought up a couple things which I know that those of us that started really early can relate to. That is at least for some of us, ham radio became such an overwhelming obsession, did get in the way of dating, carful of radios was a little intimidating for the new girlfriend you're picking up before the movie.
Brooke N2BA: It wasn’t intimidating; it's just a big turn off. Also, I think that there's competition. I have a story about that. It didn't particularly hurt me and that on my first date with this young woman who became my wife. She made the mistake of asking me if I had any hobbies. After about a half an hour of bending her ear about ham radio, I asked her if she had any hobbies and she said, “Yes, sex,” and later she got a license. She's in N2GSG and she tells it as if … I think there was a movie called American Graffiti where some kid wouldn't propose to a girlfriend until she could pass a test on football or something, and she says it was like that. I don't remember that but I do believe … She says that I wouldn’t have married her if she hadn’t become a ham. I don't know about that but I guarantee that we wouldn't have gotten married if I didn't have an interest in her hobby.
Eric 4Z1UG: I see. Now, we’re trying to keep this a family show.
Brooke N2BA: That’s how our family came about.
Eric 4Z1UG: You tell a story in one of the papers about how … It goes along the same line with if it's always pleasant, it ceases to be a challenge, but you also talk about dating someone and she didn't get it. There wasn’t anything you could do to satisfy her. At the same time, the contesting satisfied. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Brooke N2BA: First of all, when you say one of the papers, I think you're referring to the series of forced articles I wrote for a National Contest Journal.
Eric 4Z1UG: That's correct.
Brooke N2BA: Game design for contesters and you could find those links on my website. You don’t have to get the NCJ so … There's two things, one is I might as well do a plug for where that is.
Eric 4Z1UG: I will actually put the links to those articles directly on the show notes page.
Brooke N2BA: I could tell you a couple of … I do remember early on in college that there was a girl who really wanted me to pay more attention to her, and I very much got the opinion that she felt that ham radio was like a competitor as if I had a mistress.
Eric 4Z1UG: I think that ends up being true for a lot of hams, that in fact in our obsession with ham radio does appear to be a competitor to the attentions of our significant other.
Brooke N2BA: Right and there's an interesting question and that is that ham radios like 98% male. I know that it's not politically correct to talk about intrinsic differences between men and women, but there seems to be something intrinsic. I don't know. There's a woman that we know in our town who’s about my age, I'm 64 now, and she has a very hard time dating. Her husband had died about 10 years ago on, and she says, “It’s just very hard to find interesting men. I said, “You’re hanging out in the wrong places. You’re trying to hang out women hang out. Hang out where men hang out,” and I suggested she go to a ham radio club, which she thought was great because I'm actually a fairly interesting person.
She went there and she came back and said, “It was awful.” I said, “Why? and she goes … “Were you a subject to prejudice? Did they treat you badly,” and she said, “No, they were fawning all over me and half of them were single, but they were really uninteresting because they weren’t interested in anything but that and I’m willing to add it to my interest, but there's got to be more than just that.” In fact, I was just thinking about this.
I just came back from operating as YN2SX in Nicaragua. This should be a good segue. I just sent an email to my host, Octavio, YN2N, who’s not a contester. He rents out his station to contesters, and I just did CQ World Wide 40-meter single band. Octavio is a really interesting three-dimensional person, and we mostly talked about non-ham radio things. I just sent him an email yesterday saying, It occurs to me that hams fall into two categories. There are ones in which … The most interesting thing we have in common is ham radio and then there are others were the least interesting thing we have in common is ham radio.” I put him in that second category. Ham radio is how we met each other but I said, “I hope we become friends even if I never operate your station again,” and I think he appreciated that.
I think that that's an interesting question. Can you become … Maybe it's … For hams, our obsession becomes an impediment. There's a lot we could talk about. Is that an interesting topic to you?
Eric 4Z1UG: I'm sitting here listening to what you're saying and I remember that as a teenager, I was absolutely obsessed with ham radio to the point that as a young adult I actually had to back away from it and took an almost 25 year vacation for a while. I'm sorry I did it on the one hand. On the other hand, I’ve experienced a whole different life for about 20 years before I came back.
I understand why a woman going to a ham radio club might be uncomfortable from the standpoint of the unwarranted attention at this on the one hand, but then the only thing to talk about is ham radio on the other.
Brooke N2BA: She loved the attention whether it’s warranted or not; attention is a good thing. It’s just like you want to talk about your interest and then you want to let them talk about their interest.
Eric 4Z1UG: That's right.
Brooke N2BA: I know one of the things you're interested in. Hopefully, we’re all interested in the news, what's the future of ham radio and what is its biggest challenges?
Eric 4Z1UG: I don't think I want to go there yet.
Brooke N2BA: Okay.
Eric 4Z1UG: I'd like to hear a contesting story because it's played a big role in terms of how you operate as a ham, and then we can come dive into the National Contest Journal article because I think there are some things in there that I like to talk about.
Brooke N2BA: Okay, sure. The very first certificate you got from the ARRL was called the Rag Chewers Club and it existed for that purpose, and the goal was … To qualify, you had to have one QSO that lasted half an hour. Of course five words a minute, a novice can drag out RST naming QTH in to half an hour. I got that but I’m going to have these long QSO where hams where I felt like I was going to shoot myself. We both were saying things that neither of us were interested in and it just felt weird.
I think that the thing I loved about contesting was it really was what my uncle said. Hams build all this equipment and then don't say anything. They want to know they can communicate but they don't. They don't actually convey any information. That, for me, was the pure essence plus the fact that I think with the 7-drifty 3, it was really great to have QSO so short that the fact that you’re drifting off frequency didn't matter.
I got into contesting and I also discovered that even when I wasn't in a contest, I could point the beam to Europe after school and just call people and only send a signal report and only send it once and I get a pile up. There were all these people on the air that weren’t answering a CQ who were afraid I'd end up telling them what my QTH was and what my weather was and all that other stuff. If I just made it a contest QSO even when it wasn't a contest, they appreciated that. Of course, now with QRZ.com and stuff, as far as I'm concerned signal report doesn't mean anything. I’d trust the Reverse Beacon Network to tell me how strong I am, not your S-meter. All I really care about and I think it's also fascinating that I can build lifetime relationships that started with a contact that lasted eight seconds.
Eric 4Z1UG: What was the format of that contact? If wasn’t a contest, would just go CQ DX and see who came back?
Brooke N2BA: Yes. I'd call CQ DX quickly at a high-speed and I'd give my call letters once, and then somebody will reflexively drop their call letter. I’d work and I'd say 579 and then they would respond and then within a couple minutes, I'd have a pile up because they would hear what sounded like a DX station. They didn't have to have a contact.
In fact, I lived in Japan for a few years and there we were in Tokyo which is on, what's the name, Honshu? Anyway, it's the largest island, the most populated island in the in the world for ham is right there. It’s like half as many hams on that one island as there are in the United States when I was there. I would just send out them my IOTA number and I get a huge pile up. If I told people I was in Tokyo, nobody would care. You just act like you’re interesting and people treat you like you’re interesting.
Eric 4Z1UG: Did your interest in ham radio made a difference in terms of the choices that you made for education and career?
Brooke N2BA: Yes. My freshman year, I went to an all-male engineering school in Indiana that’s called Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, and I imagined I'd become an electrical engineer About two weeks in, I had a an amazing teacher who said … It was in that classical called Humanities 1, and I remember his very first words were, “You’re here to become an engineer, and engineers are tasked with reinventing the modern world every generation. That means it's very important that you learn what it means to be a human and that you need to learn how to think, but you have to watch out for your beliefs because your beliefs are more important than your thoughts because you act on your beliefs not your thoughts, and you're not thinking most of the time.”
The very first book we had was something called the Web of Beliefs where you learned how a belief system works. Our very first homework assignment, he said, “Look. You’re at this school because you believe you should be here.” We have a question on there on an application process which is why you want to go to Rose? That's a leading question. It focuses your mind on the reasons why you want to be here but that's wrong. You need to identify all the reasons you don't want to be here and then overcome those objections; otherwise, one compelling reason not to be here is a good enough reason.
Our first homework assignment and if schools were teaching children how to think these days rather than enticing them to attend, this would be the required homework assignment. My very first homework assignment was to find all the reasons not to be at Rose, and one compelling reason was enough not to go there. One thing I realized was I was going there because I was afraid of girls and I realized that what I had to do was overcome that fear of girls and I wasn't going to do that in an all-male engineering school. There was a lot more to being a human than studying engineering and I needed to do that in an environment where there were lots of people who weren't engineers.
I wouldn't have gotten … Now interestingly, I have never heard of anybody giving that assignment anywhere else so had I gone … I transferred to Rutgers University and I took … As a sophomore, I took my first electrical engineering class and our teacher on the very first thing he said and I won’t forget that is he said, “Some of you are here because you’re a ham radio operator and you think electrical engineering is fun but it's not; it's hard work.” He made it hard work and he made it no fun, and I gave up on the electrical engineering because of that. In a way, I have to thank him because I'm not sure I would've been a good electrical engineer; I became a math major. On the other hand, I think he's making a mistake. He made a mistake in that electrical engineering, things can be both hard and fun. People who design games refer to that; it's called hard fun. There is easy fun but you do as a diversion and then there’s hard fun.
Easy fun is down at somebody else's station and be an appliance operator and have a European run because you've got in a six over six and a kilowatt and a half, and hard fun is building that station.
Eric 4Z1UG: Or operating those European stations QRP.
Brooke N2BA: That’s right.
Eric 4Z1UG: Perhaps.
Brooke N2BA: One of the questions I know you asked is what’s your favorite mode? My favorite mode is CW over a phone because it's harder and because there's more skill involved. Skill is when you get something down into like your muscle memory. That's one of the mistakes, I think, ham radio has made. It’s like getting rid of their code requirement means that we don't have a skill requirement for becoming a ham. We only have an intellectual requirement so passing … That’s something I reflected on.
In my work life, what I did was I became a skilled craftsman eventually. My craft was computer programming. That’s where you do the same thing but better and better and better and you bring your creativity to the next marginal improvement; whereas like when you’re a student, that's an intellectual endeavor where you get to like a test, you pass the test, and then that's behind you. That's much less satisfying and much more stressful than becoming a skilled craftsman. For me, the electronics part, the knowledge part means that I can you repair my radio, at least, make some repairs and the craftsman part is the part where I operate it.
Eric 4Z1UG: What rig do you operate now?
Brooke N2BA: I have a K3 and an FT-1000 MP. In my car, I have an Icom 706. I have a unit, the Titan, the big amp with a pair of 3CX800s that I never use. I have a … Why am I blanking on it? The 1KFA, the Italian-made all automatic …
Eric 4Z1UG: You operate a 100-foot tower from your local QTH?
Brooke N2BA: Yes. The first thing we did after I got married was we bought a four-acre property out in the country. It was a difficult compromise because my wife wanted waterfront and I wanted top of a hill, and there's a problem that water tends to go downhill. We found a place that had a … high up the steep grade down to a lake, and I put up 100-foot Rohn 55 and an HBDX 48. I had four over four on 20,15, and 10 and a two element “shorty” on 40. Then on my low tower, I actually put up this humongous KLM 7, 10-30 log periodic as my spotting antenna for the second rig which is a monster antenna and the tower wasn’t rated for it but it survived.
We sold that two years ago because we just weren’t going out there enough. You go out there and you spend all weekend cleaning up the property and mowing lawns and dusting.
Eric 4Z1UG: Right and having no time to operate.
Brooke N2BA: Right. It was easier if I just take the money we’re spending in taxes and put that into a travel budget. I could go operate from the DX site a few times a year. Interestingly, we thought it was hard to sell and it was hard to sell because all the real estate agents say, “I’m not even going to show this until you take those towers down.” Then this remote ham radio guys came along and said, “Hey, can we rent your towers?” and “Yes.” Then now, the people who bought the property actually did they pay enough rent for the towers that it pretty much covers their mortgage. These towers mean the new owners got the house for free. It’s pretty awesome.
Eric 4Z1UG: Yes, I think that’s pretty amazing. That's a tip for anybody listening that if they got a nice real property with some high towers that there's a potential for revenue there.
Brooke N2BA: Yes, that's right. YN2N, the ham that I went to operate in Nicaragua last weekend, he wants to sell his property and you could do the same thing down there. Your country property could be in Nicaragua and you could rent out that station or just operate it remotely. You could probably get more money. Remote ham radio guys might be interested in that but even … If it were a club, he's not asking a lot. I think he's asking 140,000, and it's a wonderful house and nice property.
Eric 4Z1UG: Okay, so now let’s go to the National Contest Journal article that you wrote called Game Design for Contesters. You wrote it in four parts. You said earlier before we started that you’d spent tens of hours on each part. I'm interested in the basic concept of this paper. How did it become a subject that you want to write about and how does it apply to ham radio?
Brooke N2BA: The first thing is, I think, in 2010, I was attending a conference. There is a woman who is talking about something, I forget what but a question from the audience was if you were to go to college today, back to college, what would you study that wasn't even taught when you were there? She said, “Game mechanics. I said, “Wow. That’s a great answer.”
What's game mechanics? Game mechanics is the actual scientific study of what it is that goes into a game. I realized my children were playing games all the time after school. They were putting as much effort into playing games as I put into ham radio after school. The difference was I kept asking my kids, “Don't you want to learn programming and write games? and they were like, “No. It's more fun to play them,” which is unfortunate. Because for me, ham radio, the act of creating the equipment and stuff like that, that was … Contesting was the game but I spent much more time getting ready for the game than playing it and it’s the getting ready for it that was the important part, the learning part.
I became very interested in game design and game mechanics mostly from the point of view of a manager. My career, of all, by 1988, I had moved from a university to American Airlines in operations research to a small computer company to consulting on Wall Street. By 1988, I was doing something called statistical arbitrage where you build models for what stocks might be mispriced who has become so eager to buy something, they’ve driven the price up and then would you want to take the other side? Would you want to be a seller to some eager buyer or would you want to be a buyer to some eager seller?
I created a software and that software actually was influenced by CT, the first … a ham radio logging program for the PC because it is very similar. It's as if you were sitting there looking at a band map waiting for some rare multiplier to show up and then you would look at it. You’d say, “Do I want to sell IBM at this moment?” and if you did, you’d click on it and then you would sell to it. I had to design for myself and interface to the marketplace that was enjoyable to do day in and day out.
I had to intuitively just to deal with my job to create for myself in the interface to my work that look like a game so I’d go to work and essentially do a radio contest except instead of it being I1BM and it would be IBM, would be a ticker symbol instead of the call letters and instead of working on myself 280,000 shares on a mouse click so that's interesting. Once I started studying it, I learned what makes ham radio addictive or at least contesting and that's a concept called flow.
Flow is the most addictive, non-chemically induced state that you can create naturally. Of course, it is chemically induced but you create the chemicals yourself in your brain. Flow is that state that athletes talk about when they’re in the zone that you get when you're playing a game. Flow is when you get in that state when you have a challenge that exactly it matches your ability that it absorbs your entire being but doesn't demand more. If the challenge is too easy then used drop into a state called boredom and if the challenge is too hard, you move into its state called stress. Your goal is to do something that takes your entire being.
A good example would be this friend, Walt Kornienko, K2WK. I think he still holds the record for a 20-meter single band effort. The reason he got that was because he had some terrible tooth problem that required a root canal and he was in excruciating pain, and the dentist couldn't see him until after the contest weekend. He just put his all into the contest because when you get in that flow state you become completely unaware of everything else. This pain from his tooth wasn't about to let him go to sleep, but he had to do something to distract himself so that he didn’t feel that pain. What he did was he set the record for being the best.
Eric 4Z1UG: It's amazing.
Brooke N2BA: That flow state is interesting. It's a really interesting thing because as soon as you think about it you drop out of it. I don't know about … Are you a contester?
Eric 4Z1UG: No.
Brooke N2BA: Okay, so when you a contest …
Eric 4Z1UG: No, but I like to be in the flow state if I'm working on something on my workbench. I can get into the flow state but then it's hard on the people around me because when you're in the flow state, you don't hear anything.
Brooke N2BA: That's right. You’re in the flow state when you sit down at your desk and you look up and figure out better go get some lunch and it’s 9:00 at night. When I do a contest especially when I was younger and I could do contest 48 hours without sleep, the contest itself, the entire contest in my memory was compressed to a single point in time. I was aware that the sun was coming up and I needed to move to 10 and stuff like that. My memory of it was first time compressed. You lose dimensionality. You’re unaware of where you are in space and time, and it's a wonderful state to be in. It's like a very addictive state. You lose your ego, you lose everything, and you become one with the activity. I think that's interesting, the thing you just said, it becomes hard on the people around you and that's one of the things that's great about a contest is that it's not the people around you or in a multi-op, it’s not hard on them. We’re all trying to get that same state. We need to segregate ourselves from the people who want our attention and would like us to like have dinner with them or whatever.
Eric 4Z1UG: One of the things I just thought about is a study a contest is really you know it's an island in time that you could actually define to the rest of the family or the people who are not contesters and say for this period of time, I'm in this contest so that when you're in the flow state then they actually already know what the borders are because you've already presented them with the borders. Going into the flow state while working on something on your workbench is usually not an announced activity and so therefore, I should be able to hear the doorbell or the phone ringing or the dogs making their presence known and so I think that's probably the difference.
I have to tell you a lot of people want to be in this state. They will pay a lot of money for drugs or they’ll try to find something that gets them there. How do we get more hams to start thinking of contesting as an opportunity to enter this into the flow state in their brains?
Brooke N2BA: Let me mention a book before I forget it. There's a book that's self-published by our two people in Australia. It's called Living with a Creative Mind. It's written by a woman who is a psychotherapist and her husband who’s an artist. I think the motivation for the book, as I understand it correctly, was that one day she asked her husband, “What are you thinking?” and he said, “You really want to know? and she said, “Yes.” He just gave stream of consciousness what he had been thinking over the 10 minutes. She thought to herself, “Oh my god. This guy is like bipolar psychotic,” whatever it is and then she realized but he's not. He's a very high-functioning artist. She really delved into what is it mean to have the certain kind of mind, and it’s really a wonderful book if you want to understand that.
If you're the kind of person who can sit down and be creative for a single focus for … and then especially if you're also the kind of person that at another point you have so many different thoughts coming at once. You have to write them all down and then sleep on it and figure out which ones are crazy and which ones make sense. If you're that kind of person, you're probably a fairly creative person and that's a really great book. The reason I thought of it was because she talks in there about how when a person is in the flow state, somebody asking you, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” feels to that person like you poured the coffee on their head. It can take you half an hour to get back in to where you were just because you were interrupted with that question; whereas it feels to the other person like you're unbelievably rude. You just had an angry reaction to an offer of kindness.
Since I retired and I work from home and I do a lot of writing. Most of my flow-state time is in creative writing, and my wife constantly is asking me, “Would you like some tea?” I really am thinking about getting an office I can go work at somewhere else.
Eric 4Z1UG: Or maybe a red flashing light outside your office door that says “On The Air.
Brooke N2BA: I actually created a sign because we have an office at home. I actually created a sign that says, “In flow state, do not disturb. By the way, I don't drink tea.” She drinks tea; I don't. She keeps asking me if I want tea. It’s like after 30 years you could stop asking because I don't drink tea. She’s like, “That sign is just like permanently rude. It’s like a rude guy at home.” There is that issue of how do we craft us … I love your expression there's an island in space and time where we can be this other person. One of things is really good about contesting that's bad about commercial games is that what's good is it’s not relentlessly all the time around the clock. If there was always a contest on all the time, we would be in serious need of therapy, the act of preparing.
One of the things that I read recently was that a person who thinks and imagines creating something in the future that requires the use of both your hands and your intellect, those people seem to be immune from depression, right?
Eric 4Z1UG: Right.
Brooke N2BA: If you spend yourself thinking about creating something tangible that you can hold in your hands or see and then you realize it, you have the chance to realize it, that takes your mind away from dwelling, getting stuck in a circle. No wonder the worst questions ask yourself is, “What's wrong with me?” Believe me, ham radio operators have a lot wrong with them, but that's not the right thing for you to be asking yourself because you'll find answers to that. A better question to ask yourself is, “How can our hobby can become more attractive to the general population?” because that will require us as people to become more attractive to more people. A ham radio doesn't exist independently of ham radio operators. When the last human being dies, there is no more ham radio.
This is probably a long-winded preamble to the same question you were asking so what was the question you're asking again?
Eric 4Z1UG: The original question was why did you write the article?
Brooke N2BA: Let me answer that. I wrote that article because I believe that ham radio is facing an existential crisis. The average age of a ham goes up by something like 11 months every year. That means there aren't any new ones. There are new hams but the new hams are like octogenarians who are retired and bored and become hams because it's something they've wanted to do when they were in high school and never did. There are not a lot of kids in high school getting ham. There aren't even many college ham radio stations even at engineering schools. Lights are going to go out in 20 or 30 years and probably at the same time that we inherit the entire shortwave spectrum. You tune across the shortwave. The shortwave band, there’s hardly anything there. There probably will be a cut time when we’re going to get like 20 MHz of allocation, but there won't be anybody to use it.
The question is how do we make our hobby attractive to young people and females? That's a fascinating question. Game designers have a commercial interest in answering that question. Because females are half the population and half the marketplace, and young people are where you build up lifelong habits.
W2GD, John Crovelli, who is probably the best tower climber I know, I hired him one day to help me do some maintenance for my tower. At the end of the day, we went to dinner and I said, “I have to admit I don't know why I'm still so interested in ham radio,” and he says, “Oh, it's because you're realizing a childhood dream.” I thought about that a lot and he's right. We’re all trying to realize our childhood dreams. One of the worst things you can do is forget about, lose track of your childhood dreams. One of the worst things you can do to a child is not let them dream. That’s one of the things that my parents let me do was they let me have dreams, let me have my own interests, and they didn't over program me, and they didn’t even require me to appease teachers by doing homework where I didn’t know its relevancy.
Since I’m not actually working on a project, when we’re done with this, my son and I are going to work on a project that were calling durable dreams which we don't have to talk about in depth, but it actually is using game design principles to help people reconnect with their childhood dreams and realize them as adults regardless of whether … One of the things that pretty much all of us had in our prepubescent dreams we were heroes; we were heroic. Whether we were playing Superman or whether we were playing house, we were … The ideal heroic, able to leap tall buildings. Girls who were playing mom were the ideal mom, the perfect caring child to the dogs. We were heroic characters when we were young and sadly we lose track of that; we forget about that.
There’s even one of the most famous and still kicking social psychologist, this guy named Phil Zimbardo, famous for something called the Stanford Prison Experiment. He has a project called the Heroic Imagination Project which is you can't become something until you imagine being it first, and people can't even imagine being a hero. Now in some small way, if you join some multi … and you set a record for your 40-meter contribution, you’re a hero in a way. The good news about being a hero in the context of a game is that it's not mandatory, so the pressure of performance is off of you.
Bernard Suits who is a philosopher of games said, “Games are the voluntarily overcoming unnecessary obstacles.” The rules of ham radio were invented to create obstacles that nobody needs to overcome so we opt into it. If we all had to do it by law, it would become like taxes; we’d hate to do it.
Avery important thing for ham radio, I believe, is to figure out how to identify the essence of what we’re doing and tie it to fun but also allow create games and that everything can be a game now; everything is in a game. We have games that are economics. We have games that are war. We have games that are love. We even have games that are sex. Everything can be a game. We need to tap into the game aspects of ham radio that are most advanced among contesters right now but have a heroic aspect to it.
For me, for example, in Nicaragua when they had the earthquake in 1972, Walt and I manned directors ham radio station for like more than a week doing relief traffic in and out of Managua. General Somoza was a ham. I think he was like YN1N or something, and we were the only lines of communications for like 10 days in and out of that country. We saved lives, probably tens of thousands of lives because what we're doing there. We were real-life heroes on the station that we mostly built our skills on being contesters.
When I went down to Nicaragua this last time, not only was Hurricane Otto bearing down on Nicaragua, also there was an offshore earthquake at the same time and there is a tsunami warning. I didn't know I was flying into Nicaragua if I was going to be operating a ham station or if I was going to be helping in the relief effort. I was certainly hoping for the relief effort other than that people's lives might be at risk because that's much more meaningful than operating a contest but it's the same thing; it’s being a hero.
Eric 4Z1UG: What is your reaction to people who say that amateur radio is antediluvian or belonging to a time before the flood?
Brooke N2BA: Yes, that's right. I didn't even know what the word antediluvian meant and I think you found that in my article.
Eric 4Z1UG: In your paper.
Brooke N2BA: Right and it's because I was attending a conference on game design and I was describing ham radio and this guy said it's antediluvian. Of course, the guy is just ill-informed. I tried telling him that and he wouldn't admit it, but he had an opinion based on lack of knowledge. He had no idea that most of the astronauts and our ham radio operators that there's a ham station on the space station and that we’d put up satellites and that we were pioneering packet radio and all; he had no idea. What's my response to these people?
Eric 4Z1UG: Yes, because I think what we’re missing is an elevator pitch that rings true to people that have no understanding, but they're worried about the cell phone tower and the building across the street yet they sleep with their cell phone under their pillow. They have fears that are unjustified and then we only get a few seconds with them in order to be able to make our case for ham radio.
Brooke N2BA: I think what you're saying is that like when I was a kid 1966, nobody didn't know what ham radio is and today almost nobody knows what it this. I blame that on … We don't have TVI anymore. Everybody knew somebody who was hassling with their neighbor over their hobby because it was interfering with their television set. This may sound weird but I bet there's evidence of it that the TVI spread the word about what ham radio is more than anything else because it interjected itself into the lives of all the people within two blocks of a ham operator and now you don't even know; you wouldn't know that somebody's a ham. That's a negative way of getting ham radio into the public.
There's is this truism of publicity that all publicity is good publicity so that's a case. There's no such thing as negative publicity. Here's the question. There are people who say, “Listen. I want to get more hams into this contest, into contesting.” Why? They want more hams to be on the air operating radio contests so that they can have better runs because they are afraid that they're going to run out of people to work but that's selfish. They're not asking the question, “What does ham radio have to offer the people who have never heard of it?”
I'll give you an example. YCCC asked me to come up and present my paper and then brainstorm on what a contest would look like that would be appealing to people who are not currently hams. I said, “Great. What would that contest look like? What would an exchange in a contest look like?” This one guy said, “I know what would appeal to females.” “What's that?” “The exchange would be, “How do you feel right now?” What would that sound like? You’re 59, “I’m giddy. QSL59, “I’m depressed.” QSLQR said, “Really?” What if the person said, “59, I’m suicidal,” wouldn’t you have to stop the contest and talk to that person?
We have to completely rethink what it means to be a ham in the context of what it means to be a human. Then re-engineer what it is we’re doing so that what we're doing is appealing to people in which they say, “Oh my god. What you guys have in common?” “Oh, we all have this hobby called ham radio.”
Think about a religion that's recruiting people on the street corner or running a soup kitchen and only after they've you know saved you from alcoholism or homelessness do you ask, “By the way, what you guys have in common?” They’re like, “Oh, we’re all Jesuits.” I'm not sure I know the answer but I do know the question. The question isn't, “How do we get other people to be like us?” The question is, “What do other people want to need and how can we help them?”
Eric 4Z1UG: You raise a very interesting point and it’s causing me to even question my assumptions. It seems to me that it’s very important for ham radio that we have new people enter the hobby especially young people into the hobby. I'm thinking about this and I'm trying to convince myself, why is that a good thing? Now, I have this idea that makes hams unique in the world or, at least, our unique place in the world up to this point is that because we have this understanding of technology and we've integrated it into equipment that we can build and we operate so therefore it's led to all kinds of advances in technology because hams always seem to be at the forefront of new technology and innovation. Then I'm thinking here and I'm trying to think, well, why is that so important? It's almost a religious idea.
The fact is it may not be important at all because certainly people can be innovators about being ham radio operators. This idea that we have to propagate ourselves maybe even more fundamental to we are rather than whether ham radio is really that important.
Brooke N2BA: That's what happens when an existential question becomes an existential crisis. Let me give you an example. I'm working on an essay the roots of which you can find on YN2SX page on QRZ.com.
When I was going down to Nicaragua, Octavio asks me, “What call letters do you want? and I said, “How about YN2SEX?” Because I remember in field day, there was a station W6SEX and they had no trouble getting callers. Nicaragua, I’ll get people who are in the contest because it's a multiplier, but I wanted to get people weren’t in the contest who would work me even though they worked Nicaragua before just because it's cool. I said, “Yes, how about Y2NSEX?” and he says, “That's great. Let's do that.” It turns YN2SEX was already taken, so he said, “You have YN2SX,” and I said, “Okay.”
I am going to make a special event station commemorating the 1,200,000,000th anniversary of the invention of sex. It turns out the universe is like 14 billion years old, and earth is like 5.4 billion years old. Sexual reproduction actually started 1.2 billion years ago so. There are all these like really silly reasons for a special event station so you that can get a pileup and not have to say anything. It's like what I used to do in high school. I said, “This is about as silly a thing as I can think of. I designed a QSL card and all of that and then promoting my operation.
I noticed these two French guys and some Twitter thing. Two French guys say, “Oh, ham radio is a service and this is doing a disservice to our service, and this shouldn’t be allowed,” or something like that. I'm thinking to myself so these guys are saying in essence that I'm not allowed to have fun in ways they disapprove of and then ham radio is a service. Now, nobody is objecting to the idea that for me to go down to Nicaragua and spend a couple of thousand dollars to repeat 5907 2,508 times that that is providing a service. What kind of service is that? That's silly; whereas to get hams to get over themselves and to think that's not providing a service?
One of the things I created was a phony organization that's called hamwidows.org. You can look it up, hamwidows.org. I created a PowerPoint presentation riffing on something my wife came up with back in the first contest. It's like, “Listen. If you’re going to spend all this money on a contest, then there should be some kind of like escort service that I could spend money on, so I get somebody who takes me out for a nice romantic weekend,” so I created that. The Twitter “sphere” is really good, that these guys have no trouble dissing my idea.
I’m thinking, okay, this really brings up a fundamental point. The thing that Octavio and I have in common that’s stronger than ham radio is that we think we should be allowed to have fun and in these ways. The thing that I have in common with those two guys in France is that there are times I shoot off my mouth before I think twice, and that's what I think they're doing. Now, they may you not defend themselves to the death, but before they do, I want to survey the French people and see if associating ham radio with sex might be denigrating sex. It’s like we do have to develop a sense of humor if we’re going to try things that we might fail at. Let's really riff on that idea.
One big attractive thing for Facebook is dating. One of the biggest things that happen in the evolution of Facebook was when Mark Zuckerberg put on a way for you could give your status; I'm single, I’m married, I’m attached, or whatever. You can browse somebody's profile and say, “Oh, they’re single. I’m single. Maybe I could “friend” that.” One way of making ham radio attractive to young people is make it a way that young people could meet each other and, say, flirt.
Now, interestingly, two nights ago in Washington DC, I stayed with a ham and then 3RP, also YN2RP who met his now wife over the air. It's not inconceivable but we have to think about that people have not everybody is trying to avoid having social relationships with people of the opposite sex. Some are trying to have that. Why can't we find a way of doing that? Now one of the things that ham radio does that's very attractive when you're on the dating scene is it requires authenticity. You have to get licensed. My name and addresses been attested to by the US government. Another thing that happens in our communication over the airwaves is that everybody can hear us.
Let's imagine there was dating nets where you could meet people but you had to meet certain levels of decorum, and you had to be who you said you were. You can't be married and faking being single because it's out in the open. There is a full disclosure aspect to it. That is something that's very attractive. In fact, I’ve been researching it. I’m actually involved with people that are pioneers at the leading edge of entrepreneurship. Some people sold their companies for billion dollars and so. We’re in the process of the Internet going from anonymity.
Back years ago, Myspace allowed you to make an account where you didn't have to be who you said you were to authenticity. Facebook has all kinds of algorithms to try to weed out people who try to create a phony account. It's hard to create a phony account today to accountability which is there is … I have a friend who's working on something called hypothes.is. Spell the word hypothesis back up and put a period before the I-S. That's a website that allows anybody to annotate anything anywhere. You could take my QRZ entry and annotate it without my permission and tell me I'm not who I say I am or that I've been running illegal power or whatever.
Hams have had that authenticity and accountability from the beginning. That thing that my teacher said, “If that guy has an address you can send a check to the address in the call book because you can trust him with your life.” That is one of the most powerful things, in my opinion, that ham radio has in terms of its power as community, that we have to be who we say we are. Also it's not easy to join. There's a hurdle you have to get over to join.
When I shut down my business in 2014 in February, right before shutting it down, I took my staff to something called a startup weekend. Startup weekend is like a contest where instead of, I don't know, trying to win a contest, you trying to invent and start a business in the weekend. You pitch the idea for business on Friday night. You have all day, Saturday, to build it and launch it and get your first customer by Sunday morning. Then Sunday afternoon, you’re pitching your idea to experts and investors and so on. My most junior programmer who’s a woman who I taught programming to before I hired her even though she responded to an ad; she wasn't a friend. I ran an ad that said I'll train you first and then hire you.
She pitched the business which is called Vidcode, V-I-D-C-O-D-E. Her question was how come girls like her aren’t getting into computer programming? Programming is a profession that has the same problem ham radio has; only something like 13% of professional programmers are females. The reason is they’re not getting into it as teenagers. She and her small team had figured out how to do that. The way they did it, the thing they did on that weekend, was they … There’s this website where you can do transformations on pictures, make them black or white or sepia or … It's very popular among girls. They sent pictures to each other. It turns out you can lift the lid and hack that and write code to change the transformations. What they do is they have this series of courses that you could take that show you how to edit this tool by coding, and then it will send this then you can send your pictures to friends and I'll be tag saying, “I bet you can't do this. Go over to Vidcode and learn how to code.”
They started with the thing that's most popular among young girls, and they made it attractive to be a programmer. They started with those people in something they wanted and saying, “Now, if you want that, you have to learn how to code.” That's a good model for ham operators. Let's find out what people want that you could get with ham radio. Young people would like to meet girls. Girls, by the way, would like to meet boys because boys are really making themselves unattractive these days as it turns out.
Eric 4Z1UG: Or scarce. Frankly, I think I've listen to some Ted talks where they say boys and the games have completely disappeared from the social scene.
Brooke N2BA: That's right.
Eric 4Z1UG: There's a shortage of available young men out there because they're distracted. Using the distractions like video games and amateur radio to avoid social interaction.
Brooke N2BA: That's right. There was a problem back before the Internet itself became much of a thing, back in the ‘90s.I remember some sociologists did this study of valley girls out in California. What happened was in high school valley girls or whatever girls would become and they were all into these social interactions among these females that were superficial. The guys were all getting into computers. Back then, programming was the thing not using programs because there weren't that many attractive programs to use but the same cohorts that were ham operators when I was a kid had become programmers. We don't need to distract them from that because programming you’re going to get a much better job knowing how to program than knowing what propagation what bands are open at seven in the morning.
What this woman said was the problem was that the boys who were getting into programming were developing a hobby that had a market value; whereas the girls getting into their cultural scene that they were creating for themselves had no market value. You weren’t going to go get a job being a valley girl. You could get a job playing a valley girl on TV, but you weren’t going to get a job …
We're facing that problem again and so I think we need to do what programmers called re-factoring, go back and figure out what are the fundamental things about ham radio and what are the things that people who are not hams need. One of the things that people who were not hams need is to know how to make things. There's a movement now called the Maker Movement which if you look into it’s not much different than what were. When I was in high school, we had a shop class. We had to take driver's Ed, but driver's Ed included knowing how to change your spark plugs and your tires and the oil. Drivers having involved knowing how a car worked and I took metal shop to learn how to him to create my chassis and we had been working in all of those things that today are called maker things were just on the curriculum when I was in school. Electronics needs to be on the on in the curriculum, engineering.
There’s a good point that I remember. High schools have two years of chemistry, two years of biology. one or two years of physics, no engineering and yet we drive everything we're involved with are engineered more than science. We sit in the car, we have no idea how it's engineer for so that is so ham radio to and from my point of view is a hobby entry point into understanding engineering. Engineering needs to address that thing Peter Varri, my first professor in engineering school said, “You need to know what it means to be a human,” so I think that that people who care about this in the ham radio community should stop worrying about like how do I get more hams into my ham club? How do I get more people to pass license? How many how do I get more people to answer my CQ when I’m in the contest? They should care more about what is it that ham radio is really doing. What's the transformational experience that I had when I was a kid? What's the analog to that today for a young person? What are the dreams that young people could actually have that they can realize later in their adulthood, and how do we get from here to there, and how do we be of service to them?
Just in one example was I went to my high schools. Years ago, I went to my high school science class and I said I want to teach your class for a week where. What do you want to do? The first thing we’re going to do is take a TV set were going to take it apart. We’re just going to find out all the things that are in there and what they’re called and what they do. The kids absolutely loved it. They said we’re going to learn how the camera works. We’re going to take a camera apart, put it back together, take pictures, develop the film, and nobody is doing that. That's what I think we need to do. I don't think that showing up at a marathon and providing communications for it is that useful because we can do that with cell phones. That’s already taken care of. From my point of view, ham radio has to learn how to transcend itself. One of the things we could do is have a contest with that question.
Eric 4Z1UG: Can you give an example of something for those of us that are sitting here listening and thinking, okay, so how would I make a transcendent experience out of an amateur radio? Can you give an example?
Brooke N2BA: Let me give an example of how one of how collectively we can answer that question.
Eric 4Z1UG: Okay.
Brooke N2BA: In January, I think this is the third weekend of January. The Game Design community has something called the Global Game Jam where it’s a weekend game where the product is a game, and something like 37,000 people are registering for this. That's as many people as have the most popular ham contest is the CQ World Wide phone contest in which somebody found, I don't remember this, some statistics like 35,000 unique calls across all the logs. More people are trying to design games than are trying on this one weekend and in January than are actually playing the game that we have. We could have a global ham radio jam where the goal is to spend the weekend perhaps away from our radios coming up with ideas for games.
One of the winners said at the Global Game Jam was this very abstract game of two stars that started out as little small stars and they go through a lifecycle. As young stars, they play with each other and later they fall in love and eventually they peter out and die. It's a game that makes use of something called theory of mind. Can you look at something abstract and come up with emotions behind it?
It's this amazing game is called The End of Us, and I'll send you a link to it. It's an amazing game that you can play. It’s very simple and half the people who play it at the end up crying. Imagine we were to have a global contest where the contest was to come up with contest as orthogonal as possible to the contest we already have. For example, that idea of a contest where how do you feel right now? That's a great contest idea in my opinion. It’s a great contest idea. We can implement that on the Internet so you don't need a license, and then we can challenge hams to show up and play that game so that they can get in touch with their feelings so that you could answer … Or how do you feel at 4:30 in the morning during the lull before the sun comes up? Those …
Eric 4Z1UG: Which by the way sounds like a very interesting topic for anybody that's been a contest or who's sitting there waiting for that change for the gray line.
Brooke N2BA: That's right. We should have a literary contest and QST. The woman who is now editor of QST, I talked to her for about an hour or two. Her previous editing job was something else. She is somebody who was hired because of her editing skill who they said, “Look. We can't really hire you until you get a license,” so she got a license. I talked to her and I said, “Look, we really need to have more stories like what you're doing, the narrative.”
One of things in my game design thing was in my series of stories I remember I had a coworker named Mohammed. He and his son and I and my son were going to driving from New Jersey to Boston to attend the American Association for Advancement of Science conference, annual conference.
I said, “Let's take my car. I have a ham radio in the car,” and he goes, “Why does it matter? My car has got my cell phone and Bluetooth and I have Skype in my car.” I said, “Yes, but we’re going to talk to strangers.” He goes, “Who cares about that?” I said, “Let me explain how we’re going to talk to strangers. I have a little device in my car. It's going to take about the number of electrons that it takes to drive a 100-watt light bulb. Only instead of a filament, it's going to be attached to a seven-foot tall fiberglass whip round with wires and it's going to boil off enough photons off of this piece of wire that are going to go often every which direction all over the world, and it's going to bounce off the ionosphere and the ocean and the ionosphere and the ocean again. It's going to be picked up by somebody in Italy or France or Spain or Japan or South America. It's going to induce in a piece of aluminum or copper enough motion in the electrons there that they’ll be able to amplify that and hear her voice. That mode of communication is called FM. Do you know what FM is?”
He goes, “Yes, it’s frequency modulation.” I said, “No. It's called frigging magic,” only I didn't used to word frigging. “It's magic. When you understand the magic …”and his jaw dropped and he said, “Oh my god. We have to take your car. We have to do that.” We did talk to people in Italy and Japan and Argentina and a bunch of other place, and it was magic; that's magical. Also what is magical is that it's not reliable. It doesn't work perfectly all the time. It needs to be difficult but not impossible.
These are the aspects of ham radio that we need to try to figure out how to incorporate the next time we get a band. Somebody gives us something like 10 MHz because the shortwave spectrum is being unused. What if we took a segment and we said, “This is to be used only in modes by people who are not hams in ways that hams don't use it.” The hams are allowed to try to figure out a way, but you can't … It's gotta be different. It's got to be orthogonal.
In fact, this is the second time I've used the word orthogonal. There's a great video, and I'll send you a link to that too is called the Social Skills for Nerds. One of its rules is never use the word orthogonal. What I mean by orthogonal mathematically it means perpendicular and statistically it means that the correlation is zero. What I mean by that is in a way that's completely different from how we’re doing it.
The way ham radio is going to be saved is by non-hams telling us what they need from us not from us telling anybody what they need. It’s just not going to happen.
Eric 4Z1UG: Let’s go on a different tangent for just a moment. Why is the summertime Burning Man festival in the desert near Reno the ultimate field day site?
Brooke N2BA: All right so for your listeners, we should first talk about what Burning Man is. Burning Man started, I don’t know, 31 years ago when some guy who is distraught and his name was Harvey something. He was distraught about his girlfriend, took some, I don’t know, two by four, so made an effigy of a man and burned it on the beach in California and invited some friends. Then the next year, it grew and within a few years, they were building 60-foot tall things and burning them and getting in trouble with the police because they didn't have a license to burn some huge thing. Then they moved to a desert in Nevada, the Black Rock Desert which was pretty much deserted desert. There is nobody there where nobody cared what they were doing; it is public land. This thing grew organically. It grew on its own.
It's now 70,000 people and you need a ticket. It costs $300, I think, for a ticket, maybe 400, and they sell out in less than one second. My wife and I went for the first time in 2009. In 2010, I went with my son, my college roommate, and his daughter. In 2011, I went with a friend and his daughter who was 13 so it's a family event as long as you're willing for your children to see nudity because clothing is optional. Whenever it was in 2015, I went again with my wife and that year is when they sold out in a second. We’re just very lucky in getting tickets.
Now, it's a very high tech event. There are a lot of hams there. You can get on 52 and get a pile up. The technology is being put into artistic things. An example would be … and it's huge. It's the size of Manhattan below Canal Street. It lasts a week and you can't see the whole thing in a week, and you need a bicycle to get around because it's too big but it’s field day. Field day is where people go out in the field and they set up some radio equipment and for 24 hours, they talk to people all over the world and they break it down and so on.
What is Burning Man? It's where a few thousand people go out in a desert and they build an entire city from the ground up with complete infrastructure with roads, with streetlights, with a hospital that where could if you have appendicitis you’re so far away from places that the doctors will do an appendectomy there. The airport port, they have a runway you can land a Learjet on. If you have some serious problems, somebody will fly you in to Reno. It's got a huge infrastructure and they have camps of all kinds.
One year when we set up a ham set, another ham and I found each other. He came, I brought the rigs; he brought the antennas. He had this high tech push-up mast where there was a fastener that was missing from that mast they just forgot to bring and now it's useless. It turns out there's a camp called the Hardware Camp where it's a city and a people figure what does a city need and voluntarily people say, “What was missing last year?” and people realize what was missing was a hardware store.
The hardware camp, we go to this thing and not only does it have like all these bins with all the things you could find in a Home Depot. They had numerically controlled lathes and 3-D printers, so if they didn't have the part, they would mill it for you or they would print it for you. As it turned out, they had this fastener. Now, the interesting thing is they just gave it to us. Because one of the rules of Burning Man is it's a gift economy. You're not allowed to commercialize anything. You're not allowed to buy, sell, trade, or advertise anything. It's a vacation from commercialism, from materialism, and that's what ham radio is. I'm not allowed to charge you for me making a contact or delivering a message or whatever.
In some ways, it's the little aspects of what made ham radio attractive to me written large. The aspect of what a field day is only instead of week a month. I'm sorry instead of a day, a week and instead of one dimension communication, it seemed higher aspects of life that people go out and they reproduce and there's no reason why … As I say, there are plenty of hams there but people bring lots of low-power FM and AM radio stations and they broadcast and you’re used to be a regular ham radio club that stopped going and somebody who needs to restart that. There's no repeater there for now, for example, but there used to be a repeater. There is an airport and the airport is now on the FAA sectional maps even though it only exists for one week.
Eric 4Z1UG: When this festival is over, it's my understanding that everything that was brought to the playa is removed. It's like a zero-impact camping event.
Brooke N2BA: That's right, not only is it removed, not only are you … because it’s your obligation to leave nothing but footprints and then tire tracks. About a thousand volunteers stay for the remainder of September, and they walk out arm’s length apart the entire distance of the camp. It takes them a month to do this, and they carry GPS-enabled recorders and they stop and they pick up anything they find. This includes things like sparklers that girls like to put in their hair and then you get all over and they pick that stuff up with tweezers. If anybody falls, when that happens when somebody stops, the GPS records that they’ve slowed down. If they can catch up, then that part of a map that's created digitally turns yellow. If there's so much stuff that's left behind that somebody else has to run in and fill their spot in this wall of people marching across the desert, then that spot turns red.
There's a map that's left behind that you can zoom in to where you were. Nobody else knows where you are. You don't register to be in a certain place; you can if you want a special camp. You can zoom in and discover, “Oh my god. I left something that somebody else had to pick up.” That's another aspect. Ham radio, we really are on our honor in almost all regards and that's important. We need to learn to be good people and live together, and hams have figure out how to do that. In a very narrow space, the space we live in is a radio spectrum.
Burning Man is an experiment in people living together orthogonally from the way we live together normally. What's more interestingly you’re not allowed to trade anything, so if you give something to somebody, neither should you expect anything in return nor should you give anything in return because is that cheapens as a gift. The only thing you should give and return is gratitude.
It's an ultimate field day site because if you're a ham, it'll be very different for you so why not? It’s like going on the expedition. Experience something different and it will be transformational. It will be a good way for you to think differently from the way you are. Then think about what your next field day site should be like. Maybe you should make a clothing optional or maybe you should make it … put it in the middle of a shopping mall.
Eric 4Z1UG: Right and then see what kind of impact it has on the locals.
Brooke N2BA: Right.
Eric 4Z1UG: I'm thinking that you want to do something out of the ordinary just to be able to get people to think about ham radio differently than what they may traditionally already think about ham radio if they think anything about ham radio at all.
Brooke N2BA: Yes. I think for a lot of hams ham radio is an escape just like video games are for a lot of people. Its real value is when you become reflective and say, “What are the lessons that I'm learning here that I can translate into other parts of my life?” A ham radio is … Here’s one, by the way, that's really interesting. I was reading the classified ads in the back of QST and there's an ad for a ham radio operator by a company called DE Shaw. DE Shaw is one of the largest competitors of mine doing statistical arbitrage. I'm thinking … and they want hams who are good at design, circuit design, especially IF design. I'm thinking, “Why do they want that?”
Then it occurred to me what's happened in the financial markets at the core of my model is as a low-pass filter. What happens is the low-frequency signals in the marketplace are the things that are actually trending, the things that are meaningful and the high-frequency stuff is just the noise. It's just like somebody deciding he's got to liquidate 800 shares of his stock to send his kids to college doesn’t mean anything; whereas somebody buying a million shares or something over next week, that means something and that's going to have a long effect. If you take my models and you look down at the core of it, it’s a digital filter.
What was happening was that the financial markets are becoming so fast. Trading is happening now and at Nano seconds. It used to be minutes and then seconds when I was in it, but now it's down at nanoseconds. My bet, I don't know, but my bet is they're looking for hams good at crystal filter design, mechanical filters and the recent analog filters and the reason is because digital filters introduce a delay and they have artifacts. What they need is a roofing filter on their financial market data that doesn't introduce a delay; that's my bet. Think about that. Think about the relationship that somehow filter design that I thought about when I was a kid ends up being at the core of my entire … It might come full circle that we need analog filters in order to keep up with financial markets these days. That's amazing. All you have to do is stop thinking just about yourself and just about the thing that you're staring at in front of you and start thinking what does this mean and where can it lead?
Eric 4Z1UG: What advice did you give to new or returning hams?
Brooke N2BA: There’s big difference between a new and a returning ham.
Eric 4Z1UG: There is.
Brooke N2BA: I think probably the advice I would give everybody is see if you can reconnect with your childhood dreams. If you're new ham and you’re young, what are your dreams? A good place to start are what are your heroic dreams? What would it mean to be a hero?
Heroes, Phil Zimbardo, the person I mentioned before. He defines heroism, if I can remember correctly, it is putting yourself at risk for the benefit of others or in the service of an ideal. He said, “Altruism is heroism-like. It's where you do something without an expectation of return would you don't put yourself at risk.” When you’re building or climbing a tower, you're putting yourself at risk when you have an amplifier with 3,800 volts on the plate current. You're putting yourself at risk but why and how does it benefit others?
When I go operate in Nicaragua or wherever, I'm doing it for the benefit of the people on the other side of my contacts; I'm giving them a multiplier. When Mario Craan, HH2MC, convinced her Baby Doc in Haiti right after his dad Papa … His dad, Papa Doc, discovered ham radio. I believe it was in 1955 because hams did such a great job of organizing themselves for the relief effort in the hurricane that had decimated Haiti the Papa Doc who is this ruthless dictator realized that that ability to organize and communicate yourself was a threat to his dictatorship, so he made ham radio illegal and impounded all of their equipment.
Now, in 1978, I guess it was, ’79, he had died and his son had taken over and his son wasn't particularly ruthless. This one guy, Mario Craan, who is a well-respected businessman convinced a Baby Doc to allow ham radio again, but there was no ham radio equipment in the country. Now, I worked for American Airlines at the time, so I got to fly for free if there was space. For seven weeks in a row, I flew down to Haiti bringing in transceivers, amplifiers, antennas, stuff like that. I helped re-equip returning ham population in Haiti. They were getting back on the air, but they were doing something heroic. They weren't certain if they were putting their lives on the line.
There were rumors that Papa Doc had murdered some hams just to teach them a lesson back in the early days. Seven weekends in a row I went down there. On the eighth weekend, the plane was full and Mario called and said, “Look. I don't think you need to come back to Haiti anymore because when you didn't show up, you were being observed by Tonton Macoute which is this …
Eric 4Z1UG: Secret police.
Brooke N2BA: I would hardly call them police. They were enforcers from Papa Doc and they were given AK-47 and a few hundred rounds of ammunition, and they were licensed to kill anybody they wanted. If they decided they wanted to live in your house, they would just say, “Move out or I’ll kill you,” but you get to continue to pay the taxes and what not and find your own place to live
They noticed that I was bringing all this equipment, and they didn't know what it was and they didn't get the memo from Baby Doc. When I didn't show up, they’d come around asking, and Mario said he got a knock on the door with my picture like, “Who is this guy and what’s he doing?” He said, “You might want to lay low for a while.”
How does that does that matter? It turns out that ham radio, a reciprocal licensing agreement concerning hams, was the very first treaty with Haiti that the US signed. If you look at things like opening up Myanmar and Albania, that started with hams knocking on the door and we’re knocking on the door in North Korea right now. We’re saying, “Here's this thing that we’re doing for fun and it's just a hobby. Can you please let us do it? It does connect you with the rest of the world and so there's a risk and that.”
Hams and our hobby still has a role to play, a heroic role in the evolution of what it means to be a human, and we need to think about that and we need to tap into that, and we need to talk about that because that's vastly more interesting to a young person. We’re a returning ham. One of the big problems with being retired is feeling like you're of no use to someone. If your hobby is just a distraction from feeling like you're of no use to someone, that's nearly as fulfilling as being of use to somebody. It kind of makes sense.
Eric 4Z1UG: Before I thank you for the QSO, Brooke, and wish you well, I’d say that we've really gone off the traditional QSO Today rails here, and we've had probably one of the first in a really philosophical ham radio discussions that I've had in a long time. I'm used to having technical discussions. I'm used to having discussions about ham radio and radios, but you've really caused me to think deeper in terms of what it all means and what it all means to me. I've had the thoughts before and I'm back so obviously after a 25-year hiatus, it meant enough for me to come back and I really appreciate your kind of shaking the tree again and having this conversation with me.
Brooke N2BA: Yes. Maybe you should have a QSO Today net. Maybe there could be a philosophy today that on the air where people do talk philosophy what it means, the meaning of life and all the kind of things we’re talking about. Why not?
Eric 4Z1UG: Yes, why not?
Brooke N2BA: Right, and the kind of thing where the people who want to talk and talk with the people who just want to listen in, read the mail, as we say, are welcome to do that too.
Eric 4Z1UG: That's one of the advantages of a podcast in that respect and that is that we can have this conversation and people can either stay with us and hopefully the majority of the listeners have stayed with us to this point. Those that want to look at the mail and have moved on to the next podcast, they've already done that too. It was a treat for me to discuss ham radio in a different way, and I thank you very much for that. With that, I want to wish you 73.
Brooke N2BA: Yes and thank you and I wish you 73s as well.
Eric 4Z1UG: That concludes this episode of QSO Today. I hope you enjoy QSO with Brooke. Please be sure to check out the show notes that include links and information about the topics that we discussed. Go to www.qsotoday.com and put in N2BA, N, 2, bravo, alpha in the search box at the top of the page.
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