Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Amateur Radio "Lifetime Achievement Award" - 5BDXCC at 100 W

Saturday's mail brought a moment that any ham who has mailed off their QSL card collection can understand. A registered-mail cardboard box arrived containing all of the cards I had submitted for my 5BDXCC. That's pretty much a ham-lifetime of QSL cards, many of which mark once-in-a-lifetime contacts, from stations that cost hours of effort to contact, and more hours to get a card back from. I have never spoken to anyone who mailed away their collection of cards who wasn't at least a little unnerved by the experience. It is nice to have them home and have them all filed away neatly in their card boxes where they belong (I make my own). They've been gone since the week of Thanksgiving '09.

There, on the small form the ARRL returned with the cards, was a little asterisk after "5BDXCC". The footnote said, "* = Awarded". My certificate and plaque should be here soon, I guess.

5BDXCC is rightly considered a good measure of a quality HF station, effective from 3.5 to 30 MHz, and an operator dedicated to DX’ing. It brings to mind visions of rabid DX’ers running a “California” kW, way too much speech compression, splattering 20 kHz up and down from their transmitter, mindlessly yelling their callsigns into a microphone, while an 80 foot tower bristling with thousands of dollars worth of antennas sprays the ether – and burns their grass. Or, perhaps, a station on a farm with multiple towers, and arrays of full-sized verticals standing over miles of buried copper radials. Without that sort of station, working 100 countries on the 5 “classic” HF bands of 80, 40, 20, 15 and 10m is impossible, right?

Would it change your opinion if I said I got the whole 5BDXCC worked with 100 W output power? What if I added that I have always lived on pretty conventional 100’x125’ or smaller suburban lots? How about if I said that while I do have a tower, I’ve never owned one taller than 25’?

Your next thought is probably that it takes a lifetime. In my case, it did take many years, but it's not like I had the goal of getting it from the start of my amateur “career”. I was first licensed in 1976, and have always been drawn to DX’ing. As a Novice in those days, the place to hang out was 15m, where the band opened daily into South America, and a couple of stations would come into the Novice band to hand out “first DX” contacts. It’s really an extension of being a former shortwave listener, where the question was always “how far can you hear with that thing?” Radio monitors also call themselves “DX’ers”, you know. Over the intervening years, I was always drawn to DX’ing and gradually a started keeping track of which countries I worked and started collecting cards.

A few years ago, while submitting cards to update my 20 year old DXCC certificate and apply for CW-DXCC, I realized that 5B was really within reach, with some effort to work the bands I had previously ignored. For example, I had nearly 200 countries worked on 15m, over 100 on 10m, but only around 50 worked on 20m, 80 countries on 40m and only the
US on 80m. At the time, I had DXCC confirmed on two bands, 15 and 10. From the time I started to seriously pursue 5BDXCC until I logged #100 on 80 and completed the task was under 5 years. Getting from DXCC worked and confirmed on two bands to DXCC worked and confirmed on five, required both strategy and tactics.

Chances are, this is the last award I'll ever submit cards for. Chances are, with my modestly-sized station, the Honor Roll is out of reach. So this is my lifetime achievement award. If you're one of the stations I worked, thanks! If you're interested in trying to work 5BDXCC with 100W or less, drop me a comment and we can talk. If you, by chance, stumble across this and are puzzled by the whole jargon mess (5BDXCC, QSL, ham radio), likewise feel free to ask.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Difference Between Sports and Government

The difference between sports and government might be a perfect model for the difference between the private and public sectors.

Sports: let me confess publicly here that I'm a lifelong fan of the Miami Dolphins
Team Website). Three years ago, they had the worst year in team history and one of the worst in NFL history, going 1-15 (sorry, Detroit Lions). As the off season started, the head coach, Cam Cameron, was fired and Bill Parcels brought in. Soon, Tony Sparano was hired as head coach. They went about the business of putting their administration into place, firing old coaches, hiring replacements, releasing players who they thought didn't fit in any longer (such as Zach Thomas, and Jason Taylor - two stalwarts of the previous years) and bringing in others (QB Chad Pennington). They never said a word publicly about the previous coaches, just acknowledged that there were problems that needed to be addressed. The following season, they went from worst to first and won their division. Admittedly there was luck involved in some of those wins. There is always luck involved. Much of that luck vanished last year, but there's not much doubt that the major problems are at least being addressed.

But the bottom line was: the new leaders were leaders. They didn't bitch about the situation they inherited, they sat down and tried to find ways to fix it. They didn't blame the previous coaches for ruining the team. They came in, got to work, and worked long and hard to get themselves out of a bad mess.

Government: surely I don't have to link to the number of times the Obama administration has talked about the problems it inherited from the previous administration, do I? Even now, over a year in office, I don't think a week goes by without someone saying it. How about the Christmas Day underwear bomber? First we got "The System Worked" from Janet Napolitano, then an explanation that it worked in the sense that it didn't work at all. The only thing that saved the people on that plane was that the bomber was incompetent, and then the passengers jumped him. Not only did the system not work - this guy did everything but tattoo "Terrorist" on his forehead in fluorescent pink ink - but no one has been held responsible. No one has been fired or put in jail for it. Going back, no one was publicly held responsible for the 9/11 attacks. No one was held responsible for the sub-prime crisis. No, bad things "just happen" in a good system.

Look - no leader gets everything the way they want it.
In industry, you get hired to be the leader specifically because the company thinks the current situation is broken. You suck it up and get to work. Leaders don't blame other people. They take responsibility for what they're hired to fix.

And that's the essential difference between a private company trying to make a profit and a government office, trying to maintain itself.

When I started work as an EE, I worked in a company doing government contracts - DOD work. A wise, older, systems engineer had a model for the government that is as valid as any I can think off. Most of us have seen pictures of the rubber sheet model of gravitation, where a heavy object deflects the space-time continuum like a bowling ball on a rubber sheet. Gravity well is pretty much everyday language - at least for geeks. Think of a flat rubber sheet but add in peaks and valleys of responsibility - he called it the blame density function Every action a bureaucrat makes can be thought of as trying to avoid a localized peak of the blame density function. Every system is designed to spread out blame so that no one is left with high blame density.

Whatever happened to Harry Truman's "The Buck Stops Here" acceptance of responsibility?

I hold the highest title an engineer can hold where I work. I have been told it is because I "take ownership" of my projects. My philosophy comes from a simple fact: I know who's going to be fixing the thing at 10 o'clock on a Friday night and it sure isn't the "previous designer" (if there was one) and it sure isn't the guy telling me "you can't do it that way". And, yes, BTDT on a Friday night before.

But let me put it as an even easier question. If you were a fan of a losing team, which you would rather have: the leader who takes responsibility and tries to fix everything, or the bureaucrat who wants to assign blame?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Political Power Comes from the Barrel of a Gun

Much has been made of Obama's former Communications Director Anita Dunn quoting Chairman Mao as one of her two "favorite philosophers", and Ron Bloom (Manufacturing "Czar") saying "... We kind of agree with Mao that political power comes largely from the barrel of a gun... "

I have conflicting opinions on this. The first one I'll call the Glenn Beck opinion because it's the one he says. In so many words - no it doesn't; political power comes from the consent of the governed. It says so in our founding documents. The other opinion is the pragmatic one. If you don't think power comes from the barrel of a gun, try not paying your taxes for a while. I guarantee you someone with a gun will show up at your door after a while. You are then free to decide if they have power. Of course, in theory, we have loaned them that power so that they may enforce laws.

Practical matters like that aside, power really does come from the consent of the governed. That's why this is so unsettling: only 21% of Americans say the federal .gov has our consent. The article has more demographic breakdowns, but even a majority of Democrats agree that the Government has lost the consent of the governed. If you think of 21% as being loyalists to the government, that's essentially the same percentage that was loyal to the British in the Revolutionary War. What does that mean if or when civil unrest hits the country? Denninger has some thoughts that are well worth you reading.

By the way, did you notice how the brave Peoples Army soldiers hold the girl at arms length and get as far away as they can - to keep from getting too splattered?

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Momentous Day

If you are one of the millions of Americans, like I am, who have a concealed weapons carry permit, today is a banner day for you. It is now legal to carry your concealed weapon into a National Park, as long as you are obeying the laws of the State where you are. This was attached to the credit card reform laws that went into effect today, February 22, 2010. What does a credit card act have to do with concealed carry? Yet another example of the old saying, "the less men know about how laws and sausages are made, the better they sleep at night".

Predictably, the perennially nervous are quaking in their boots. "Ohz, Noz!", "OMG!"

C'mon folks, can we get a grip.? Every time a new law extends concealed carry or firearms rights, some group wets themselves. Every single time, they shout, "they'll be blood in the streets". It never happens. "People want to feel safe in the (park, restaurant, whatever)". I think they should feel more safe. I'll bet anyone that in 6 months, none of the predicted disasters will have happened.

Out of sight, out of mind. What most of these folks don't realize is that (depending on the location) around 3 to 5% of the population has a concealed carry license and is carrying now. That means when you're in a grocery store, chances are someone is carrying. Same for the department store, the church or the restaurant. They're not shooting people now, why do you think they'll suddenly start?

Look, I'm kind of new to the concealed carry world. I've only had my license since last summer (Florida, by the way, issues a Concealed Weapons or Firearms license, a CWFL, instead of just a Concealed Carry Permit). In my year or so of becoming fully integrated into this world, I have been continuously impressed with how conscientiously law abiding the CWFL holders are. They almost have to become part time students of law. Just the laws of our one state require a book for you to understand how to be safely in compliance and legal. One attorney makes a nice little living selling this inch-thick book.

Listen: those who say, "we just need some commonsense gun laws" don't have a clue about how many laws there are. There are national laws, state laws and city laws. These laws vary from essentially forbidding private firearms ownership (Chicago, NYC) to any form of carry being allowed (Vermont, Alaska). Stories abound on the Internet about people going to jail after crossing a state line with something perfectly legal on the other side. How to get from one state to another without being arrested after a random traffic stop is a constant subject of discussion on concealed carry websites.

What's the anti-carry folks' beef? That people who endure criminal background checks, fingerprinting, long waits for their license and pay well over a hundred dollars for their license - not to mention several hundred for a gun - are going to be unable to resist poaching a squirrel??

But how about this couple of paragraphs:

"Even if few park visitors flaunt their firearms, knowing the person next to your family at an evening campfire or on a ranger-led hike might have a gun will have a chilling effect, critics say.

'Visitors come to the parks to try to leave behind their day-to-day worries,' said Scot McElveen, president of the Association of National Park Rangers. 'Some of that escapism is from worrying about crime or guns.' "

We would all really like to not worry about crime or guns. But to assume that someone who has gone through all of what you go through to get a concealed carry permit is somehow dangerous is defective thinking. And to think forbidding carry in a park is going to stop someone who doesn't obey laws at all is even worse thinking.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Economic Mess That Changes Everything

Let’s start with a recognition of a basic fact: things that can’t go, on won’t go on. Pretty darned obvious, isn’t it? Nothing can go on forever. Let’s face it; infinity is a nice concept in Math, but it doesn’t exist in the real world.

Now look at this:

Notice the bottom line, the total “unfunded liabilities”. At the time of this writing, it’s somewhat north of 107 ½ trillion dollars (and I’ll use “ATTOTW” as an abbreviation for that phrase to save some typing as I go through this). This is money the .gov has promised to us citizens and is obligated to pay, but (using a method that would get any business in America thrown into prison) keeps “off the books”. If you or I did that, we would be room mates with bad men in heat.

The point of that is when you hear people talk about our national debt and our deficit spending, they almost never include those numbers. This can’t go on, so we can know it won’t go on. The big buzzword these days is unsustainable. When you look up “unsustainable” with an online dictionary, you should get a link to the debt clock.

The national debt, about 12.4 trillion ATTOTW, is financed largely through the sale of long term bonds. Note the line in the middle, “US Total Debt”; ATTOTW 54.8 trillion dollars – that’s the outstanding total of these bonds and other debt instruments. Just like your credit cards, we need to pay the interest on the debt, or 1.9 trillion.. There is much going on lately that says these bond sales are failing and will get worse soon. First off, think of how much money that is. With a deficit of 1.4 trillion year to date (again, ATTOTW), we have to sell around 280 billion in bonds per month. Who has the money to soak up that much in bonds? According to the 2009 CIA World Factbook, that’s more than the annual GDP of economies smaller than the 32nd largest economy of the world (South Africa). See: this list on Wikipedia which is pretty much the only kind of facts I trust to the Wikipedia. So who can continue to buy up that kind of debt? Things that can’t go on, won’t go on.

Now take a look at Social Security, bottom left of the debt clock. ATTOTW, the obligation is around 14 trillion dollars. If you’re older than your teens right now, you’re probably aware that people have said Social Security is going to go bankrupt out in the future. 2015, 2020; I’ve heard a lot of different years bandied about. Don’t look now, but the SS fund is running a deficit right now (see, for example, ) The economic collapse we are currently going through has caused many people that can collect SS to start collecting it.

Many people have written on the history of SS, how it was intended only as supplemental insurance for widows; how the age of eligibility was placed well beyond the average lifespan; how it started out with a large number of workers for everyone collecting it, and how when the baby boom retires, it will be one or two workers for every retiree. Whatever. What can’t go on, won’t go on. If you think that 20 year olds in 10 years are going to work at a dead end job and give large chunks of their pay to keep you in social security, you live in a different world than I do.

I am chagrined to say that I demographically belong to the baby boom. I don’t like to think of myself as part of that, but by the usual definition, I’m firmly in the boomer years. Unlike many of my generational cohorts, when I first became aware of the problems with SS, and started studying the problem, I reached the conclusion that I would probably never receive SS payments. Figuring there was no way that SS could go on, I started putting money into a 401k almost as soon as they started. I don’t know how it will be taken away, but I can imagine that those of us who have tried to prepare for our future will be excoriated as the “evil rich” and told we don’t need it. There could be means testing; if you have more than some threshold of retirement savings, your share of the SS pie goes to someone else (mmmmm…..pie…..). It’s possible the answer will be to just decrease everyone’s payout to such a small contribution that it’s useless for anything. This could be done by reducing benefits or by inflating the currency so much that the guaranteed payouts are meaningless. Think it can’t happen because of the laws linking the SS payout to the cost of living – the cost of living adjustment? They changed the method of calculating the COLA before, what makes you think they won’t do it again? Right now, cost of living numbers from the .gov don’t include food and energy costs – as if you can live without food or energy.

The stock market crash of ’08, with the concomitant collapse of many 401k plans, has given the .gov an excuse. There is talk of nationalizing our 401k plans – in not so few words – so that we can replace those “risky” plans with a gubmint guaranteed (but teeny tiny) yield. See, for example, this piece on Market Ticker There's a good reason to think this is coming; our unsustainable debt has to be financed by selling bonds. Now that the sales of bonds are failing internationally, the .gov can sell them by forcing them into our 401k accounts!

The same reasoning applies to Medicare, bottom middle of the debt clock. Medicare and Prescription Drug coverage (Medicare part D) together are 93.4 trillion dollars in unfunded liability. When do they go bankrupt? Pick an author, they’ll give you a guess. For all intents and purposes, it’s bankrupt now. We are funding it through the same process of selling bonds and running deficits. What can’t go on, won’t go on.

The problems are not limited to the US Federal government – it extends to the states as well. State revenue and state debt is in the upper right corner of the Debt Clock. Even though states are not legally allowed to run deficits, guess what: they’re doing it. Most of us have heard of California’s problems, and paying state obligations in IOUs. The state IOUs can be thought of as their own monetary script. The state is printing its own money. When California goes into default, do you not think the Federal government is going to hold them up? Do you honestly think they are going to shut down everything in the state, fire all the government workers and let the whole state collapse into anarchy?

Don’t worry; it’s not that bad. It’s worse. Much worse. The same basic situation is going on all over the world. With our greater inter-connectedness, all world economies are depending on each other. No economy in the world is on a solid basis now. The vaunted Chinese have a bubble going in the Shanghai stock market as sure as any bubble has ever been. They have banking troubles that make ours “look like a sixth-grader's birthday party” (thanks to Denninger). The EU, the world’s number one economy, is in tatters thanks to the profligate spending of the “PIIGS”, and while they are begging to be bailed out by the rest of the EU (read France and Germany), the situation of there not being enough money in the world to bail them out raises its head here, too.

To quote Karl Denninger over in “The market is bigger than any one man or any one nation and it does not suffer arrogance lightly. Virtually everyone who has tried to tangle with it has wound up with their head between their legs after not only their head was chopped off but both arms as well.”

Perhaps the most worthwhile thing Barack Obama has said in his presidency was when a reporter asked him, “when do we run out of money” and he said (in a uncharacteristic moment of honesty), “we’re out of money now”. Exactly. Where we part company is that I believe the answer to facing tough problems is to face them, not kick them down the road. In cranking up spending, all they are doing is guaranteeing that we will eventually hit the wall. We either face economic collapse or a miserable economic quagmire. As someone has pointed out, the dollar is in collapse right now, it’s just in slow motion. Why do you think gold went from $250 an ounce in 2000 to $1100 now? The dollar is collapsing in value.

I can hear you saying, “so where are you going with this?”. The world has been on this path of borrowing and spending for a long time. A little debt to a government is like a little debt in your own life. It’s manageable if you account for it. The cost of that new computer, car, or whatever you want to buy seems low, but if you include the interest paid over the time it takes you to pay it off, it’s not quite as good a deal. If you get to where you can only make your monthly minimum payments, or you are borrowing from one card to pay another, your personal debt is unsustainable. We are virtually at that point as a nation. Our current path is unsustainable and that which can’t go on, won’t go on.

Peggy Noonan wrote in an October 2005 column ( here ) about a cocktail party story from Ted Kennedy’s nephew. “Everyone was laughing. Then, writes Mr. Lawford, Teddy “took a long, slow gulp of his vodka and tonic, thought for a moment, and changed tack. ‘I’m glad I’m not going to be around when you guys are my age.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart.’

Mr. Lawford continued, “The statement hung there, suspended in the realm of ‘maybe we shouldn’t go there.’ Nobody wanted to touch it. After a few moments of heavy silence, my uncle moved on.”

Lawford thought his uncle might be referring to their family—that it might “fall apart.” But reading, one gets the strong impression Teddy Kennedy was not talking about his family but about . . . the whole ball of wax, the impossible nature of everything, the realities so daunting it seems the very system is off the tracks.”

The current course of our government can only be explained in one of two ways. Either they are unaware of how bad things are and that they can’t keep it from collapsing (i.e., they are not as smart as Teddy Kennedy) or they know it is going to collapse and are trying to benefit themselves and their friends as they collapse it. Perhaps they intend to collapse the country as a way to solve those intractable problems of hundred trillion dollar unfunded liabilities. The New States of Amerika would be able to say those obligations are gone, just as a bankrupt company can reorganize and pay pennies on dollars, paying its debt off.

What the next few years looks like, I can’t say. I’m reminded of the quote from the height of the cold war, maybe the ‘70s, “I don’t know what technology the next war will be fought with, but the one after that will be fought with sticks and spears”. We could go into a full tilt, great depression-style collapse, but with Ben Bernanke literally promising to drop currency out of helicopters to prevent it, a Weimar or Zimbabwe-style inflation is also possible. I just know that after it’s over, in – perhaps – 10 years, there will be more sanity in government finances. My hope is that liberty survives and that my kids, and their kids, can live in a place more like the Founder’s Republic.

Oh, Great. Another Blogger

I've put off having a blog for a long time. I suppose I figure you have to be pretty self-centered to think people around the world will be hanging around waiting for your pearls of wisdom.

But I have been told I have some unique perspectives on things, perspectives that come from a my "inner statistician", that come from a tendency to be overly analytical, and a pretty good "BS" filter. I hope that other people might enjoy them, or get something out of them.

What will you find here? Like everyone, I will tend to write on the things that interest me. They might be current events, current conditions, technical looks at various electronics topics, ham radio, and making things of various kinds.

I have no idea how long I'll be here, but here's to the ride!

the GrayBeard