Week 30, all over the housetops

Jefferson Asher receiving!

San Francisco Chronicle, December 26, 1909

On Saturday, I passed the FCC’s amateur radio license exam. As of 8 a.m., I had done precisely zero preparation. I have some basic physics and electronics knowledge in my head, thanks to adjacent nerdery, but the exam goes way beyond that. I was ignorant of any/all radio rules; I didn’t know a thing about the ionosphere.

HOW DID I PASS? All shall be revealed. First, a few items of interest.

I published something new this week: a short essay about scale and speed on social media platforms, presented as an archived thread from a fictional social network. (“Ah yes, the familiar ‘imaginary software’ genre.”)

I know it’s digital, not paper, but this is really my zine for July. It captures an argument that I’ve made many times in person, but never published anywhere. This week—after once again making it in person—I decided I ought to try to write it out.

As best I can determine, about 10,000 people have read this essay/thread so far, which, as you’ll see, sort of “rhymes” with its argument in a nice way.

An aside: it’s interesting how skills sneak up on you. If you’re a JavaScript person and you view the page’s source, you’ll see that it’s very simple, but/and, to my surprise, I was able to construct it very quickly, and very nearly “straight through,” without opening a thousand Stack Overflow tabs (just one this time!) and hunting down the names of basic functions for the millionth time. I hadn’t expected that; sometime in the last year, my JavaScript fluency ratcheted up one (1) notch. It’s a fun thing to realize.

Has anyone reading this ever organized a political fundraising event for, e.g., a presidential candidate? An event that felt good? What was it like? This is entirely alien terrain for me. Not only have I never attended a political fundraiser… I have never even been invited to a political fundraiser.

I have questions! Email me!

An ongoing self-admonishment: quit bellyaching and participate.

Or, to quote the American poet Trina,

Don’t talk about it, boy / Be about it, boy

Readers in Japan—or readers with a Japanese contact who might be convinced to order something on their behalf—should know that Tokgo Sogensha, publisher of Penumbra and Sourdough in Japanese, is at last selling plushes of their mascot Kurari,

My buddy

who is a black cat disguised as a bunny.

:) :) :)

Maybe I ought to see if I can be their official U.S. distributor… (What was the other thing I was gonna see if I could distribute? Oh! The Sky Emma art book. BRB, starting extremely niche import business)

An experiment this week involved writing some code that pulls data from the Online Etymology Dictionary. For me, Etymonline is easily a top-five internet resource; I use it more often than Wikipedia. I would happily read detailed etymologies all day. (The name of the Mazg from Sourdough comes from this one.)

Poking at the site this week, I read its creator’s bio for the first time, and found it really lovely: evidence of a patient, self-possessed, stubborn mind.

Etymonline just happened to be the one site I made that grew legs. Its birth is eccentric and probably unrepeatable. I couldn’t do it today; the technology has gotten away from an amateur like me. Some people call it a gem. If it is, it’s a pearl: The accidental production of an irritated oyster.

So, this amateur radio license:

Eight hours after walking in with zero preparation, I took the exam and earned a perfect score. I wasn’t alone in this undertaking; thirty others started with me at 8 a.m., and I think every single person passed.

This “ham cram” session has been running in the Bay Area for twenty years. The approach is breathtakingly cynical: you sit and review a thick packet containing all the possible multiple-choice questions that might appear on the exam, each with its correct answer provided. The packet is very thick—there are hundreds of possible questions—so you’re not memorizing the answers.

Or at least, not consciously.

That’s the key. The cram session’s organizer repeated it often: “Your pencil is smarter than you are!” He had taken great pains to format the questions in the study packet to match the FCC’s exam exactly. That way, we could learn to recognize the correct answers in part by shape and position. As I sat there reading, it felt like the questions were flowing more into my visual, spatial, and muscle memories than the abstract zone where facts and rules go.

Perhaps some some fraction of you are recoiling at the crassness of this approach. Surely, you are thinking, the point of a government licensing exam is to learn the material? Maybe! To me, the ham cram felt practical and small-d democratic in an appealing way. “You’re gonna learn all this stuff,” the organizer said—I’m paraphrasing—“and it’s fascinating—radio has been my life for fifty years, and I love it—but you’re gonna learn it by doing it, and you’re gonna learn what you need, when you need it. Studying for a multiple-choice test isn’t the right way to understand this material, so, we’re going to get you over this hurdle, and then you can really start learning.”

From 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., we read and reread (and reread and reread) the questions in tranches, taking fifteen-minute breaks every hour to walk around and give our eyes a rest. At the end of the cram session, just before we were set to take the exam, my brain felt… very weird. Like one of those supersaturated solutions where, for example, a ton of sugar is dissolved into hot water and eagerly forms a crystal around anything solid.

In fact, that’s almost exactly how it played out. As soon as I began the exam, I realized the organizer had been correct. My pencil proceeded confidently; all I had to do was follow. Presented with a question, I just… knew which answer to select. It was about as close to “I know kung-fu” as I’ve ever experienced.

Anyway, I got a perfect score, and it won’t surprise you to hear that it’s actually not possible to spend eight hours with all that material and fail to learn anything at all. I walked out knowing quite a bit more about the ionosphere than I did walking in—and now I can legally push the “transmit” button on my little Baofeng radio. (Apparently my call sign will arrive via email from the FCC sometime in the next 7-10 days.)

In case it’s interesting, here’s the context for all this:

The reason I wanted to get my license and will now try to plug in, at least loosely, to the amateur radio community in the Bay Area is that I am pretty sure—how do I say this without sounding like a prepper? I’m not a prepper!—that internet and cell communications are going to get disrupted for several days (or longer) sometime in the next ~five years, and I want to have a backup.

My labmate Alexis is writing a book that zigs and zags through Bay Area history, and one great benefit of sharing a lab with an energetic journo-historian is that I get to hear about his weirdest and most wonderful finds in real-time.

This week’s discovery had a spooky synchronicity to it. Digging into Silicon Valley’s deepest roots in radio (!), Alexis came across this amazing full-page spread from the December 26, 1909 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Youthful Wireless Operators!

San Francisco Chronicle, December 26, 1909

From the story:

The handiwork of this young wireless expert is seen all about on housetop and barntop in the form of a pole a few feet long projecting above the gables, with a few wires running to a top window. Such signs denote the residence of a lad who may some day, somewhere, if not in San Francisco, assist materially in perfecting the system of wireless telegraphy that, while considered by electrical wizards to be still in an embryo condition, is one of the greatest achievements of modern times.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about the story is that, after the writer has introduced you to these “young wireless experts” in a sort of familiar newspaper-y way, he devotes the entire second half to… detailed instructions for the assembly of your own wireless rig!

I mean, it’s the whole shopping list:

In making the receiver, first get a 1000-ohm double pole, watch case receiver and cord, three small dry cells and one pound of No. 18 single cotton-covered wire; eight pieces of sheet brass, 3 × 5 inches; a candelabra lamp and receptacle; a piece of platinum wire 0.001 of an inch in diameter and three inches long; a small thermometer tube; a ten-point switch; a one-point switch; and a half a pound of German silver No 27. single cotton-covered wire.

It goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs like that—nerdy and strange and lovely. It feels a bit Whole Earth Catalog, actually, and it’s a welcome reminder that there has always been this strand in the Bay Area, of tinkering and learning and sharing information freely. It is one of this place’s best and most essential qualities; it comes and goes, usually in rough inverse to the shocks of wealth that roll through, but if it’s ever extinguished completely, that’ll be the time to turn off the lights and move on. (I don’t think it will ever be extinguished completely.)

As you read this last part of the story, just think of the writer—his name was Ross Miller—punching out these sentences in San Francisco in the winter of 1909. The great earthquake and fire had happened just a few years earlier. It’s possible the young wireless experts’ aerials were set up beside a few houses still in ruins.

The “wireless” fad is contagious.

Just imagine this city, this feeling.

Once a strange boy meets a “wireless fiend,” goes to his home, sees his “set,” hears him tell of his experiences, is allowed to finger with the key and to hear the tick-tock of the Morse code through the telephone receiver that serves as receiver for the station, he at once gets the “fever” and the “fiend” is only too glad to tell him what he knows of the game, and with a few instructions, another call or two,

(and here it becomes poetry)

the strange boy becomes an experimenter in the amateur field of wireless telegraphy, ready to instruct any friend in the art; thus, the aerials spring up all over the housetops like mushrooms in a field after a rain.

Youthful Wireless Operator


July 2019, Oakland

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