Friday, May 13, 2016

I'd Like to Kill A Meme

I've mentioned before that I opened a Pinterest account.  I find it to be among the world's best time sinks.  Of course, I look there for the same interests I blog about here: ham radio and technologies, guns, machine shop ideas, wood shop, fishing, and barbecuing, but I can sometimes disappear down a rabbit hole for days hours at a time.  For about a month, I've been seeing this graphic displayed over and over.  That means people seem to like it. 
Someone had the bright idea that they could show how every character is related to the shape of the letters.  Cute, right?  As work of "art", OK, maybe.  As way of learning code, OMFG no!!

One of the weaknesses of Pinterest is that you can't comment on each others' "pins"; you can just pin it to one of your boards or follow someone else.  So, I pinned it on one of mine and added below it,
For the love of GOD, don't try to learn Morse code this way!! It will mess you up so bad, you'll never get past 10 WPM.
People have been trying to teach and learn Morse for over a century and it's been shown over and over that the most effective way to learn the code is by sound.   When you're listening to someone on the radio, the only thing you have is sound, right?  Something like this chart makes your mind go through multiple steps.  First you have to hear the character, which sounds like more like a "dit" or "dah", not at all like a dot or dash, turn the sound into a dot or dash, visualize the pattern, then remember what the chart looks like.  If you can do that fast enough, you'll be lucky to make it all the way to 10 words per minute. 

The most effective way to learn code is with fast characters spaced far apart, called the Farnsworth method, after Joe Bob Grismaldi.  Of course not.  It's named after Donald Farnsworth, who developed it in the 1950s.  At a slow enough speed, you can count the dits and dahs.  You can hear dididit and think "three dits - that's an S" or didididit and think "four dits - that's an H".  At a faster speed you just hear a blast and you know by length of the sound which letter it was.  Farnsworth figured out that the speed that worked for most people was 15 words per minute, so with his method you learn the characters at 15 WPM but spaced very far apart.  Maybe the first time you hear an E it takes you several seconds to recognize it's not a T.  As your reaction time improves, you very quickly increase your code speed.  Your brain has only two things to do: recognize a letter, write it down.  No counting dots and dashes, no visualizing a chart to tell you what the letter is. 

People learning with long slow characters, like the 5 WPM the FCC used to require for an entry level license, would then have a struggle to get to 13 WPM for the next license.  People who used Farnsworth's method had a slight barrier because 13 WPM letters sound slightly different from 15, but had an easier time slowing down their code than the other folks had speeding up their code. 

There's actually another, similar method called Koch's.  Instead of teaching the letters fast and spaced far apart, Koch taught the characters at the desired speed, with the proper spacing.  You learn two letters at a time; when you can get 90% on  test transmission, you add two more. 

Personally, I learned the worst possible way.  I built a code practice oscillator and made tapes for myself at about 5 WPM.  That's another example of "For the love of GOD, don't try to learn Morse code this way!!"  I struggled to get over the 10 WPM hump for months of daily practice.   I eventually got to 20 WPM that was required (at the time) for the highest amateur license, but today I can't write that fast!  For short transmissions, I can just listen to what they're sending as if we were talking.  For longer transmissions, I need to slow down.  One of the the stories I heard when I was starting to learn was that the military would take recruits who didn't know code or how to type and teach both at the same time.  Hear a letter, press a key.  By the time they were done, they could hear code and type at the same speed, and it was much faster than most people can write (30 or more WPM). 

Today, with no Morse code requirements at all, this knowledge seems to be fading.  I see this graphic used by people who put it in survival or prepping or other collections.  I bet that with the code not being required, the folks who are teaching ham radio classes don't teach it or don't even know how to teach it.  Let's not forget that hundred years of knowledge in how to teach and learn the code.  I'm all for figuring out ways to do it better, but if you know the principles this is obviously not better.


20 comments:

  1. So many years ago when I was in tech school at Biloxi Ms the squadron where I was billeted was close to the morse code school that some AF personal were attending. Consequently all of the "diddy bop" students were in our squadron and barracks. Without exception they were a little crazy. Probably from the stress of the school. They would walk around going "did dit did dah dah..." all the time. They talked to each other in diddy bop and had this far away look in their eyes. Those of us attending the electronics school were a little odd but by comparison we were normal. At least until week 20 when we got into tropospheric scatter.

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    1. Why tropo scatter? You guys spend your time yelling at clouds?

      I knew a guy in the early 80s who had been in monitoring stations in Europe during the 70s. He called it "diddly bop".

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    2. 21 weeks of basic electronics theory 6 hours a day with two hours of homework. Most of it was logical and as pure and simple to understand as math. I think the tropospheric scatter was everyone's boogeyman mostly because of the stress of week after week of the classes and it was the last or next to the last class (can't remember). Something to confront and finally finish before moving on to the job specific classes we still had to finish. This was in 1964, I was earning $86 a month as a E2 in the Air Force. Most of the guuys I knew spent their money on booze but I was a tee totaler and choose to take other GI's KP for cash. 12-16 hours of KP (depended on which shift you took) on a Saturday or Sunday would get me as little as $6 or as much as $10 on a holiday weekend. I must be a little crazy because I actually love KP and I most certainly loved money. The trick to KP was to get to know the head cook and to get there early. If you were a big guy and worked well with the cooks they would put you in charge of all the other KP's and it made their job easier. My "title" as head KP was "pusher". A very apt title and I spent my 12 plus hours pushing 16-20 guys to do their work. Middle management at it's most raw.

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  2. I learned the code when I was 12, at the Novice classes given by the local radio club. The old guy that taught the code portion used a method similar to Farnsworth, but I never heard that name until decades later.

    He was an old shipboard radioman who could talk to you, smoke a cigarette, drink a cup of coffee, and carry on a CW contact all at the same time.

    He used a bug, and had an excellent fist.

    Between the W1AW code practice broadcasts, and my Novice on-air experience, I got up to a solid 15wpm.

    BUT....the first time Mom and I took the train up to Chicago, and walked to the Federal Building so I could go to the FCC Field Office for the General class exam, I was so excited/scared/flustered that I flunked the code exam.

    Mom was NOT happy!

    I was doing a SOLID 25wpm when we went the next time, and I passed with flying colors.

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  3. I heard that Morse is not taught at all in the Navy, but I do not have proof of the rumor. The Navy also used signal flags to send information from ship to ship. The "skivvy wavers" were the Signalman Rating, and that rating went away in 2003. I do not know if flag semaphore is taught at all. And I do not know what the WPM speed for flag semaphore is.

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    1. The last marine CW stations ceased operations years ago, so I'm not surprised if the Navy dropped it entirely. I'm pretty sure that the ham bands are the only place where CW is heard anymore.

      Which is fine, I just don't want to see all the peppers and other newbies making it harder on themselves.


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  4. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if they don't teach it anymore.

    The Battleship Iowa was last "modernized" in the 1980's, and the ONLY place you can plug in a key is the front panel of the transmitter, two decks below the Communications Center.

    Everything was RTTY and Satellite communications, and the other three Iowa-class ships were upgraded even further for Gulf War duty.....

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  5. Thanks for this! I have this on my "To Do" list and am sure it will help in my prepping.

    You guys slipped in "CW" on me. Not being in the radio realm, what is that? And what the heck happened to Joe Bob? he he

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    1. Oops. CW is what hams call Morse code communications. It stands for Continuous Wave.

      And Joe Bob is an inside joke, but it's so inside that I may be the only person who knows it's there. Everyone who invents anything is named Joe Bob. I think I snuck that into my "The Least You Should Know" series a few years ago.

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  6. CW = "Continuous Wave", ham-speak for using Morse Code.

    Also called "OOK" for "On-Off-Keying" indicating that you are "keying" the transmitter between a full power unmdoulated carrier, and no carrier.

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  7. From a ham who used this site to get proficient very quickly, and to relearn what the ears forgot a couple of years later, I highly recommend lcwo.net Has both Koch and Farnsworth tools to learn and several practice tools to get your speed up afterwards.
    K0SIP

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  8. I need to do this, I got lazy and set myself up to transmit PSK31 which is just as efficient but good luck communicating to someone with it by tapping on a table, blinking, or with a flashlight. Morse is a must even outside radio use in my mind.

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  9. AWESOME! I just got my Technician license a couple of weeks ago, and thought it would be interesting to learn CW. I've bookmarked both sites to help. Thanks!

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  10. had a heck of a time learning code until i found code quick

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    1. Do you mind me asking how fast you can copy? It sounds like another step to go through in your mind compared to just learning sounds.

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  11. I am only a Novice but that is for life, best I remember. I would like to move ahead with the General. As an Old Guy, everything takes time and results in prioritzing. That said, for me the key issue was understanding that "speed" on the key was related to bringing the "Dits and Dahs" closer and making the space between larger. One starts to hear "patterns" for letters and not single "dits and dahs". Just an additional suggestion for learning.

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    1. That's cool! You discovered Farnsworth's method on your own. Making the space between dits and dahs closer and sending letters farther apart is exactly what he does. This is the way the ARRL taught code. All of their low speed code practice is sent with 15 WPM letters spaced farther apart. Using the ARRL code practice sessions is the main way I finally re-learned code and got to 13 WPM for my General (in 1976!).

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  12. I understand that elite military forces are still taught, and use, the code because it'll get through when nothing else will.
    I learned the code in a cage and we copied five-letter coded groups on a manual sprocket-feed typewriter which we called a "mill." See you in Dayton!

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    1. Not surprising at all that elite forces in deep black operations would use code.

      I got from 15 or 18 WPM to a solid 20 by copying random code sequences that my Heathkit keyer sent. There is no better training than random code groups.

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  13. I would say Morse is one of those skills that is still worth learning. Even if you never pick up a radio you can communicate with eye blinks, taps on a wall, flashlight flashes, flags, squeezing someone else's hand, etc.

    Note: Morse is also still used in aviation, particularly VORs.
    http://www.flightsimaviation.com/aviation_theory_4_VHF_Omnidirectional_Radio_Beacons_VOR.html
    (Although I believe some VORs may be going away.)

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