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Complexity Hurts

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Making "space radio" contacts with a portable, handheld station like this is not only possible, it's a really fun challenge. Photo courtesy of Tim Lilley.

A few weeks ago, Diocesan Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry Steve Dabrowski wrote a column about how complexity ruins things.

He’s right.

I can think of any number of ways that complexity hurts all of us; but in my opinion, complexity most impairs our ability to learn.

The easiest example I can think of involves a 1966 Ford Fairlane – my first car. It was so simple that I was able to change the water pump on the engine myself, without removing the radiator!

Raise the hood on whatever you drive and honestly evaluate whether you could change the water pump yourself – if you can even find it.

Complexity retards our ability to accept challenges; it can provide a false sense that we don’t need to be challenged because “technology can do it for us.” I see that kind of retardation/impairment on a regular basis in amateur radio – which I enjoy immensely. This might sound ironic because the very hobby involves technology at the highest level, but hear me out.

Growing up in the late 50s and through the 60s, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. Sadly, it does not appear I will make it into space – but my voice has. God has blessed me with the opportunity to make a half-dozen two-way contacts with astronauts on the International Space Station since 2008, and hundreds more with other earthbound “hams” who, like me, were bouncing their signals off of really small satellites in low-earth-orbit.

We hams know them as OSCARs – Orbiting Satellites Carrying Amateur Radio. Think of them as orbiting “repeaters” because they receive and re-transmit signals.

“Space radio,” as I refer to it, offers any number of challenges. Sadly, complex technology leads many radio operators to avoid some of those challenges by making things more complex than they need to be.

They use computer-based software to guide their antennas to follow satellites as they pass overhead, and they connect their computers to their radios and use software to have the computer tune the radio for the Doppler effect – an increase (or decrease) in the frequency of sound (or other waves, like light) as the source and observer move toward (or away from) each other. Doppler causes the changes in pitch we can hear in train whistles and sirens.

Trust me; it’s not difficult to manually tune for Doppler during OSCAR contacts. But it is, indeed, an educational challenge to keep radios “on frequency” from the time a satellite rises above the horizon at a given location to the time it sets. On these OSCARSs which are not geostationary, those “passes” generally last 5-10 minutes, although a couple satellites orbit high enough to extend that time to 15-20 minutes.

The picture shows me in my Athens, Georgia, back yard in 2008 with the complete satellite station I used for a couple of those ISS contacts. Seriously – it consists of a handheld radio that operates on VHF and UHF frequencies, and a directional antenna that I literally pointed at the sky as the ISS passed over.

Some of the satellites require different radios because that handheld uses the FM mode only. There are OSCARs above us that use, of all things, Morse Code! Contemplate the irony of that for a minute. Arguably some of the most sophisticated radio equipment ever created orbits the earth waiting to receive and re-transmit a series of dots and dashes. Those satellites are my favorites.

Back to my original concept – that complexity impairs our ability to learn. So, I have to have radios to make satellite contacts. I have to have antennas. But I don’t have to have computers and software to control the radios’ frequencies or point the antennas – not if I accept the challenges of learning how to track those satellites and manually tune for Doppler.

I literally have used a Morse Code straight key to make two-way contact with a ham on another continent – while tuning for Doppler and manually guiding my antenna. It’s not nearly as tough as it sounds because God has blessed us all with amazing capacities for learning.

Join me in thanking him for that – and join me in refusing to let complexity impair you.