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Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial

The Age of the "Virtual Elmer"


*e-mail: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

Change of Address (for Us)...

By the time you receive this issue, we will have moved our offices to a new address in Hicksville (just across the parking lot from our old offices). Our new mailing address is 17 West John St., Hicksville, NY 11801. Our phone numbers and email addresses remain unchanged.

One of the trends we've seen recently in ham radio is the apparent drop-off in the one-onone mentoring that helped so many new hams of the past get off to a solid start in the hobby. This is reflective of a general trend in our society to seek out contact with other people online rather than in person.

We won't speculate on causes and we'll leave it to the sociologists to decide whether it's good or bad for society overall. But in our little corner of society, we see its impact in reduced attendance at club meetings and hamfests, and the fact that far too many new hams today enter the hobby without the benefit of one-on-one personal guidance from a more experienced amateur.

Often, this results in new hams either never getting on the air at all or getting on a repeater and finding that the only response they get to a call is someone yelling at them for doing something wrong. You don't need to have an Extra Class license to find the "off" switch on your radio, and many new hams today flip that switch and never turn it back on again. In the past, a new ham was likely to have a mentor, or "Elmer" if you must (I'd rather not, but some tides aren't worth bucking), who could offer tips on proper operating techniques and assurance that the loud-mouthed idiot on the repeater was just that, and not representative of the ham community as a whole. Your mentor might also help you with building stuff, deciding what gear to buy and getting your station set up and on the air.

We have an example of that sort of teacherlearner relationship here in this issue, courtesy of frequent CQ contributor Bob Hopkins, WB2UDC. Starting on page 28, Bob shares his memories of one of his Mentors (with a capital "M" — you'll have to read his article to learn why), Don Lawshe, W2DL, who became a Silent Key earlier this year. We share Bob's story with you in CQ not because it was particularly unusual, but precisely because it was not unusual. The friendship that Bob and Don built and maintained over the years was typical of how new hams were mentored and then became mentors themselves. In Bob's case, as in so many others, that early relationship led to a career in electronics and a passion for bringing new hams into our hobby.

Moving Mentoring Online

Unfortunately, that kind of personal relationship is largely a thing of the past today. But it is being replaced by a new kind of mentoring — "virtual Elmers" on the Internet, and especially on social networks, such as Facebook. There are dozens of amateur radio groups, pages and forums out there, and many of them provide great places for people to ask questions and get answers. Some of these sites enjoy the participation of well-known hams and/or experts in their chosen fields, so a question might receive a far more authoritative answer online than it might have at a local club meeting.

(You do have to be careful; being able to put up a blog doesn't necessarily mean you know what you're talking about. I recently came across one blog in which the writer — who says he has an Extra Class license — was explaining the use of Q codes and introduced it by stating that hams are not permitted to use CB/police 10-codes on the air. Wrong. It is a matter of practice, not regulation.)

In addition, there are countless video blogs in which various aspects of ham radio operation are not only explained but illustrated. It's just like being in your Elmer's shack, except that you're watching on a computer screen.

So … while the one-on-one mentoring that Bob describes in his article and that so many of us have received (but fewer of us seem to be providing) appears to be getting less common, a new form of one-to-many mentoring is growing in cyberspace. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, since we are far more likely to find a new ham today on Facebook than at a club meeting.

One Other Source...

Lest we forget, there is one other excellent source of one-to-many mentoring, and you're holding it in your hands. Every month, CQ offers a mix of articles that try to offer something for both new and experienced hams. This issue, for example, has three separate columns dedicated to test equipment (and we've grouped them together for your convenience). We start at the very beginning with KOØZ's "Learning Curve" column (p. 68), in which he covers the basics of using a digital multimeter — that most basic piece of test equipment — for its most basic function, testing continuity (he'll have more in upcoming issues). That's followed by KØNEB's "Kit-Building" column, in which he describes lowpriced oscilloscope kits you can build, and "The Ham Notebook," by KH6WZ, discusses bringing professional test equipment to a club meeting and having a program of testing and adjusting members' radios for peak performance. This month's focus happens to be on test equipment, but we've got instructive articles every month on both technical and operating subjects that should be helpful to both newbie and old-timer alike

But let's be clear: Neither online videos, blog posts nor even magazine articles can replace the value of in-person mentoring. And it's not just for new hams. I don't know about you, but I still have mentors today, even after 45 years in the hobby. Everyone sometimes needs a bit of guidance or some help finding their way in a project, no matter how long you've been a ham. Being able to call on someone more experienced is an invaluable part of our ham experience and it is essential that it continue into the future.

A Few More Notes on This Issue...

– First, we'd like to welcome our new Contesting Editor, Dave Siddall, K3ZJ. Dave is a communication attorney in Washington with a passion for contesting (not to mention a mountaintop contest QTH in West Virginia); Dave provides some more detailed background in his column, which starts on page 100. – Second, we've got a fascinating interview in this month's DX column with legendary and controversial DXpeditioner Don Miller, W9WNV1. Among other skills, Don could carry on three-tofour simultaneous CW QSOs while also logging with pencil and paper. Part one of his interview appears this month (p.93), covering his early days as a DXer and DXpeditioner; in part two, Don will offer his take on some of the more controversial aspects of his ham radio operations and his life in general.

– Finally, this issue offers a mix of ham radio's past, present and future, from our lead feature on introducing Scouts to amateur radio through Jamboree on the Air to two updates on previous project articles, a new project for building a tube-based QRP transmitter and a look at using "tactical Wi-Fi networks" for public service events and other activities. All in all, this is a "something for everyone" issue and we hope you'll enjoy it. – 73, W2VU

Note: 1. Don Miller's current callsign is listed in the FCC database as AE6IY. But during Don's absence from ham radio, a fan kept W9WNV active as the call of the "Don Miller DX Club," and now that he's back on the air, Don is the club trustee.

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