Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial
When Failure IS an Option
BY RICH MOSESON,* W2VU
Failure can be a great teacher (if you let it). As regular readers of this column know, I've been building a fair number of projects recently. Fortunately, f them have worked the way they were supposed to, from the start. But then … but then, there are the others … the ones that look perfect in every way except one: They don't work. And those are the ones from which I'm really learning.
It's wonderful when you tackle a project and it works the first time out. I don't care if it's building an electronic project, building a bookcase, or raising milkweed from seeds you've kept in the refrigerator all winter (one of my wife's current projects). You get great pride of accomplishment and (hopefully) learn how to properly use your new widget or enjoy watching butterflies finding food in your garden.
But it's the projects that don't work that really come packed with educational potential. Why isn't it working? Did you install something wrong? (Usually); Is it a design flaw? (Rarely; a designer usually finds those before releasing a project publicly); How do you track down the problem part(s)? (Sometimes, it's as easy as spotting the charred component!); Why did the part(s) fail? What can you do to resolve that issue so you won't just burn up a replacement part?
There are two projects on which I've been working that have become highly educational for me. One is a fairly complex transceiver kit (mostly because it packs a lot of components into a very small space) and the other is what should be a very simple and straightforward audio amplifier (from plans, not from a kit). On both, I've been learning a lot about tracing circuits, measuring voltages, checking (and double-checking) soldering, and more. On my "simple and straightforward" amplifier, I have so far discovered that I left out the wire supplying power to the IC (ouch!), miswired one of two audio jacks, didn't really get one pin of the IC jack securely soldered to its pad and misread a 2.2-ohm resistor on the schematic as 2.2k-ohm. The project has only nine parts and I have (so far) discovered four mistakes! The kit is even more of a challenge. I've replaced one burned-up part only to cook another! I now have long list from the kit designer of things to check and things to measure as I move forward in my troubleshooting adventures.
That's another educational aspect of this whole process, and one that has always been an important part of the ham radio experience. I haven't been "flying solo" here. I've had help at every step of the way, with suggestions and ideas and even a few replacement parts heading my way. I have been very fortunate in both of these cases to have help directly from the circuit designers. But that really isn't necessary. A more experienced builder/troubleshooter who's willing to work with you is all you need. There is no specific knowledge in this case, other than familiarity with the circuit, which the designer has that another experienced builder will not. You may notice that I have specified "more experienced builder" here rather than "more experienced ham." There are two reasons for this: 1) I'm a pretty experienced ham but in this case need to seek help specifically from people with more experience in this particular area of the hobby; and 2) those people don't necessarily need to be hams. I'm sure I could get equally helpful tips from some folks in my makers' group who are experienced builders, whether or not they're hams. Speaking of my makers' group, I've "made lemonade" from my recent trials by putting together a new demo on basic troubleshooting, called "What?! It Doesn't Work??" that I bring along for exhibits at technology fairs and similar events. It's a topic with which anyone who's ever built much of anything can identify and provides kind of a back-door introduction to ham radio. The "kid-magnet" at all these shows, however, continues to be the telegraph key and code oscillator. Kids make a beeline for the key or keys, and love to make them "talk." Anyone who tells you kids today have no interest in Morse code clearly hasn't met the kids I have.
Back to the main topic, the other thing I've received from my building "Elmers" beyond specific advice is general encouragement. After telling the designer of my amplifier project (which is built "dead-bug" style with pads glued onto a PC board ground plane) that my progress in the early stages had been marked by "an adventure in Super Glue," his response was, "So many amateurs are afraid to take that first step in building (from scratch). You have done it, and that is saying a lot!"
So let me pass along his encouragement … if you haven't been a builder (maker) so far in your ham career, or you're out of practice, give it a try. There are tons of kits out there at levels of cost and complexity that range from nearly nothing to top end. Plus, of course, we nearly always have practical project articles here in CQ that you can build, then put to use in your shack or on your workbench. If you are a longtime builder and you're looking for a new challenge, mentor a newbie and help perpetuate one of ham radio's oldest and greatest traditions.
"Get Out! And Don't Forget Your Radio..."
This issue is our annual "Take it to the Field" special, featuring a variety of articles on different types of portable/outdoors hamming, from operating bicycle- mobile on a lakeshore in Albania to building (there it is again) a tripod-based antenna mount to give you a stable, secure base for multiband antennas built with popular "hamstick" mobile elements. We also take you sailing and offer WØRW's "Top Ten" tips for successful portable operating.
In addition, "Math's Notes" columnist Irwin Math, WA2NDM, challenges readers to explore the communications possibilities of the upper end of the electro- magnetic spectrum, with frequencies in the terahertz and wavelengths in the nanometers — beyond visible light and into the ultraviolet (UV) range. Remember, a century ago, shortwaves were thought to be useless for communications and it was hams who discovered their unique ability to propagate radio signals over great distances. Could there be similar possibilities in the UV range and beyond?
I'd like to endorse Irwin's challenge and add to it, with a similar challenge on the other side of the visible light spectrum, infrared. Think about it. We use infrared wavelengths every day for very short-range communications (e.g., wireless remote controls) and infrared astronomy has allowed us to "see" some of the most distant celestial objects ever observed. Does it make sense to simply go along with the "accepted wisdom" that there are no communication possibilities at intermediate distances using infrared wavelengths? Or is it worth experimenting with these frequencies, as well as those above the visible light spectrum, to see what we can discover? As with building a kit, we will learn something regardless of the outcome, and it's always better to try and fail than to fail to try.
Enjoy the summer's "take it to the field" opportunities!