Making Things Work in the Real World

One of the things I talked about the other night was conventional wisdom not always being right; A + B = C under normal circumstances may objectively be true, but we neither live in normal times nor are all circumstances exactly equivalent across time and space. Conventional wisdom or rather memes, therefor, cannot always replace working knowledge of people who know what they’re doing.

In the Army one of the things an NCO is evaluated on is his ability to mentor his subordinates; if I can’t replicate my abilities in my followers, hopefully enabling them to surpass my abilities, I haven’t done my job. Period. End of story. The same is exactly true of most trades out there, which is why apprenticeships still exist among journeymen. Knowledge must be passed from the knowledgeable to the learners. Survivalism and its cavalcade of hobbies are no different from the other examples; the working knowledge gained over time of doing it far supersedes what some clown tells you works on the internet, all for it to fall apart when that untested, unverified theory comes apart at the seams as SGT Murphy would have it, when you need it the most. That way we’re not covering the same ground over and over.

Working knowledge then has two components, theory and practice. A theory of implementation is created; I can do this, with this. There is a demonstrable need. One works to make that happen, based upon what they know (or think they know) and begin to test. This is where practice comes in; the getting out and doing it; figuring out what works, what doesn’t, making notes, improvements, changes, and in doing so moving beyond the inconclusive ‘I think this works because ol’ so and so said so.

Radio is no different and in many ways, especially in the contemporary ‘prepper’ circle, with a lot of the conventional wisdom out there usually coming up short on the working knowledge end. A lot of people are picking up their licenses, and that’s great, but that’s only the beginning. It’s a gateway; a license in and of itself doesn’t teach much. I know a young lady, engineering student, who went off the street to Amateur Extra in one test session. Does that make her a radio wizard? Her background in electrical engineering certainly is a huge leg up, but still, there’s much she doesn’t know and readily admits. The working knowledge required very well makes the difference between being a success or having what you thought would work flat-out fail. Amateur radio used to have a thing called an Elmer; a teacher in a club who’d take in the new guys and teach them the nuts and bolts of how things really work; a phenomenon largely going by the wayside not simply from the internet but also from the rash of bad attitudes among many of the older-timers towards the younger generations not needing to learn code to earn a license. That’s neither here nor there but the point is, a lot of working knowledge is going by the wayside in lieu of the ‘get my baofeng and hit the PTT’ attitude prevalent among newer prepper-types. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, provided one understands the limitations.

With that being said, HF is an entire other animal from the standard VHF/UHF FM affair. HF doesn’t always do what you think it’ll do. HF, done right, requires at least some degree of working knowledge to be a success; it takes a heck of a lot more work than pressing a button. Near Vertical Incidence Skywave, an HF propagation technique covered extensively in this blog, is a perfect example of conventional wisdom versus working knowledge. The common knowledge is that NVIS works on 160-40m (1.8-7.300mHz) with the higher frequencies during the day and the lower at night. EMCOMM types know this, prepper forum commo gurus repeat it over and over, and it just becomes what is. But this isn’t always true- especially amid the solar minimum- thus a working knowledge becomes absolutely critical to success.

One of the things I do behind the scenes is help new folks of a survivalist slant get their signal needs squared away, working with them to not just learn but get on the air and do it so that we move past the theory and into practice. Besides, it’s fun to talk to your buddies hundreds of miles away on stuff you built and helped them build. PsyOp, my long time survivalist buddy, wanted to get on the air between his location and mine with an antenna he finally found the time to rig for NVIS use. What good is this stuff if we’re not doing it? We tried the top end of 40m early in the day- the bacon frying sound of the noise floor meant propagation was impossible. Moved down to 80m, the same. Tried 60m, barely heard above the noise floor. I suggested this based on the sound, trying to find the maximum usable frequency and minimum usable frequency, by sound, with the sweet spot for NVIS propagation in between. But by that sound, which we talked about over the phone, the atmosphere simply wasn’t supporting the propagation right then. The conventional wisdom failed in lieu of the working knowledge; I didn’t need to check the internet for band conditions, I knew by hearing because I do this regularly.  So…let’s try during the greyline, also known as mesotropic periods or to Infantrymen as Stand-Down and Stand-To. And what would you know- it worked. Not only did it work, but we went from unreadable to a full 5-9; just like he was sitting next to me. Not bad for a ~200mi regional solution. Without that working knowledge, communications may not have been made. And now he knows his equipment works and how to use it, even in extremely poor band conditions. That knowledge is empowerment.

Don’t take anyone’s word for it, no matter what it is. Put it into practice. Don’t believe it if you’re not doing it.

9 thoughts on “Making Things Work in the Real World

  1. Chris

    The Elmer thing goes both ways. With nearly 50 years as a ham, I always offer to help new hams in our local club. I’ll help them plan a station, put up an antenna, and use the thing. Perhaps new hams are too busy these days, but they rarely take me up on it.

    I had misgivings about new hams going right for Extra. Time was you needed at least a year on the air before you could take Extra. Since an Extra was presumed to be an expert, some experience was prerequisite. Recently a new ham changed my mind. He was one of the few who took me up on my offer to Elmer. He planned an excellent station (I only make suggestions and discuss alternatives – the final decision is up the the person I am helping) and his drive to get it right and excellence in execution convinced me that he fully deserved his Extra class license. Today he’s helping me with digital techniques.

    I find weekly NVIS nets to be very educational about what works (and what is working NOW). Something I’m still working out is exactly what I would want to communicate, and to whom, in a SHTF situation. And I think that largely drives my communications solutions.

    1. I agree completely with you on the Elmering- I’m a young guy (below 35)- and I see it, and have seen it, both ways. I also agree, being an Extra and VE, that there should be some experience level applied before gaining the entire spectrum. Your guy, whom my hats off to both of you, is the exception not exactly the rule (especially among the Baofeng-only users). But aside from those minor observations, my larger point was encouraging the sharing of knowledge somewhere other than the internet.

      As for NVIS and who to communicate with, it’s a regional thing. Practice while you can- survivalism, at least in realistic terms, is or will become a large group activity versus the anti-social lone wolf stuff most people think.

  2. B Woodman

    Yep. Trying to work some local 2m FM digital mode(s) now. I belong to a local EmComm group, and it’s always been a niggle in the back of my mind to work up a digital mode. I’ve heard of lots of HF and even 2m SSB digi modes, but not FM.
    My limitation(s) right now are The Eternal Two — Time and Money.
    I have most everything else, even know the interface I want to buy (ZLP MiniPro). Just need one of them there ’round toits. (sigh…)

      1. B Woodman

        That’s what I’ve been told. And you don’t even have to have a TNC anymore. There are newer versions of Packet that run off a computer and normal soundcard interface, just like any other digital mode. (gotta love it!)

  3. Mike Hohmann

    Built a 75′ ‘not so random’ wire antenna last week and hung it in a couple of trees in the park, used the 817 and my LDG Z817 tuner and reached out to Long Island, NY, Alabama and a few points in between on 20m from MN around noon… on 2.5 watts. Got stomped on a few times by folks running 1-1.5kw, but it’s all good at this point. Live and learn. Working on a dipole now for regional 10-40m. This is educational and fun! And I’m accumulating boxes of ancillary radio-related parts, similar to what’s happened w/ other ‘hobbies.’ Thx for your help along the way, ncscout!

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