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Apr. 4th, 2015

Boxes, Staging, and the Miraculous Irishman

Living Room - 500 Wide.jpg

I know. I've been gone almost three weeks, which for Contra is a long time. Where have I been? Well, c'mon, where do I usually go?

We had a serious and difficult mission this time. Carol and I co-own a condo in Chicago suburb Des Plaines with our older nephew Brian, and have since 2007. Brian needed a place to live, and Carol needed a place to stay while she was looking after her mom's needs during Delores' last years. Carol's mom is now Home, and Brian is married and has his own place down in the city. So it was time to sell the condo. Long past time, in fact.

Having been mostly vacant for over a year, the place was dusty and cluttered. So for two weeks we sifted and sorted and dusted and scrubbed and re-polished the oak cabinets. Brian and Alexis took trunks full of stuff home, and Carol and I shipped five biggish boxes back here, loaded to bulging with clothes, kitchen gadgets, towels, plastic hangers, stuffed animals, books, odd computer parts, and much else. (The boxes arrived yesterday, and my initial reaction to the pile on the front porch was: What the hell is all this stuff?)

One subtask was to sell the bedroom set in the second bedroom. It was a nice, rugged item, bought in 1977 and used by Carol's parents for a long time. Carol figured out Craigslist, and listed it. Then the weirdness began. Many people inquired about it, some of them clearly on the far slopes of the sanity bell curve. A few came to see it. Some thought we were giving it away. Sorry, folks. "$100" is not a computer backplane. Several more seemed willing to pay for it, but had no idea how to get it home and broadly hinted that we should deliver.

Time was running out. We tried to give it to the Salvation Army, but they were unable to get a truck out for it any time soon. Getting the place ready to sell meant rearranging furniture, but until the bedroom set was gone we couldn't even begin. Not quite three days before we had to hop a plane home, Carol got a text from an Irish chap who said he loved the photos and would bring his pickup over to get it. When he arrived with a hand-cart, he handed me $100, scratched his chin, and then got it out the door, down the elevator, and into his Dodge pickup truck all by himself. He was chatty, and all the time that he was strongarming dressers while talking about growing up near Ulster and encouraging me to indeed visit County Mayo, from which my Irish forbears fled bad harvests in the 1880s, I was boggling at the main force he was exerting, he who was barely my height and 47 years old. It's not like he looked like a linebacker. Then again, my father didn't either, as certain North Side toughs learned to their sorrow in 1939.

Office Bedroom - 500 Wide.jpg

With the bedroom set gone, Brian and I shifted some desks and things around to make the now-vacant second bedroom look like an office, while Carol and Ali staged the condo. "Staging" means making it look like a model home. Some of this involves removing personal items and photos of relatives, and the rest getting the towels to hang just so in the bathrooms. Carol set the table as elegantly as Corelle would allow. Ali directed Brian and me in shifting the livingroom furniture here and there to get a balanced look. Four hours before our flight back, we looked around and said, Damn, is this our condo?

The unit is now listed on MLS, and our Realtor lady is actively showing it.

We'll miss the condo. It served us well during a difficult time in our lives. Freeing up our equity will making certain things possible, like a winter place in Scottsdale. We'll be exceedingly thankful when it sells. (I am already thankful to my late, beloved, and very Irish godmother Aunt Kathleen for sending us a muscular Irishman just when we needed him the most.)

And now, boy, is there some work to do, work that (huzzah!) has nothing whatsoever to do with real estate. More on this tomorrow.

Mar. 15th, 2015

Odd Lots

Mar. 5th, 2015

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 4

sad_puppies_3_patch.jpg

To summarize this series so far:

1. There is a monoculture problem in the traditional science fiction and fantasy (SFF) print industry, and sales are shrinking. The number of publishers is stagnant or falling. Advances are dropping and contract terms have gotten insane. For contrast, the SFF media industry (typefied by its conventions like DragonCon and ComicCon) is exploding in popularity.

2. This monoculture problem has several components, but from a height, it's a sort of "channel capture" effect: The SFF convention and awards infrastructure has embraced the notion that literary SFF--especially that focused on race/gender identity themes--is the "worthiest" sort of SFF and the sort that we all ought to read if we're to be taken seriously as cultured beings.

3. People who used to read a great deal of SFF are rejecting this "message pie" fiction (by which I mean fiction that puts message and/or polemic first and story elements second) and are either re-reading older works, moving off to other genres, or out of recreational reading entirely.

4. Sarah Hoyt and several other writers have proposed a category called The Human Wave, which would stand in opposition to the current conventions of literary SFF, especially polemical literary SFF. The Human Wave emphasizes SFF as entertainment, celebration rather than denigration of the human spirit, plot, ideas, optimism, and sense of wonder. I endorse this without hesitation, and will have even more to say about it in future entries.

5. Basically, there are too few hands on the levers of power in the SFF universe. It's time to start disconnecting those levers and dispersing that power. It's time to inject some genuine diversity into SFF--not of authorship (we're already there) but of theme and technique.

Part of that disconnection has been going on for some years: Independent and self-publishing, enabled by improving ebook technology and online stores like Kindle, are expanding their share of the SFF market. In defiance of conventional wisdom, many indie authors are making money, sometimes a lot of it. In fact, print publishers have begun seeing the indies as a sort of farm team, from which they call up the most popular players and offer them print contracts. About month ago, SFWA announced some rule changes allowing indie authors to become full members if they can prove that they've sold a certain amount of work for a certain amount of money.

So change is happening, and indie publishing is behind most of the change we've seen so far.

Which brings us at last to the matter of Sad Puppies. It's an ancient question: whether to operate outside the current culture, or from the inside. Reforming anything from the inside is tough, because the Insider Alphas tend to arrange things so that change is difficult, as well as the tendency for reformers to simply be absorbed unless they arrive in overwhelming numbers.

Back in January 2013, Monster Hunter International author Larry Correia, in the context of a tongue-in-cheek rant about how he and other pulp-ish authors never get noticed by critics or awards committees, said this:

For as little as $60 you can become a voting member of WorldCon and nominate something awesome and filled with dragons, explosions, guns, heroism, actual good and evil, and a plot where stuff actually happens. And unlike Sarah McLachlan's sad puppy commercial, your donation also gets you a whole big ton of free eBooks and all of the nominated works, worth more than the cost of joining.

For the next couple of months, Larry recommended a lot of works he felt should be considered for the Hugos, not excluding his own. He caught some predictable shit for that. It's unclear how much the informal campaign changed the winners at LoneStarCon 3, but Larry got some people on the ballot who'd never been there before (like the formidable Toni Weisskkopf) and raised awareness of a lot of very good stories that would not otherwise have been on anybody's radar. Every one of these stories that I hunted down would qualify as Human Wave SFF.

What Larry did is neither unique nor new. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s I remember Mike Resnick sending MM paperbacks of his books to literally every name in the SFWA directory. He wasn't constantly chanting, "Vote for my books!" but he made damned sure that anybody who was in a position to vote for him had one. I had no trouble with that, and although I never voted for him, I did read his books.

Fast forward a year. The Sad Puppies concept grew legs, got a first-shot logo (Pugs! Why does it always have to be pugs!) and became a serious and semi-organized thing rather than a wisecrack in somebody's rant. According to Mike Glyer, Sad Puppies 2 placed seven of its twelve recommendations on the final Hugo ballot. To me, that's not mere success...that's beyond astonishing.

And another year, bringing us to the current day. Sad Puppies 3 now has a logo you can put on a patch (see above) created by Lee W. "Artraccoon" Madison. The slate is much larger, and its coordinator is now Brad R. Torgersen. Alas, I stumbled on all this right about the deadline for memberships qualified to nominate for the 2015 Hugos at Sasquan in Spokane, so don't run off to try and get in on it. (I'm generally too late or too early for things, so I'm doubly not a wizard.) However, if before January 31 you were a member of LonCon 3 (last year) Sasquan (this year) or MidAmericon II (next year) you can recommend. Recommendations themselves are open until March 10.

This is a classic example of reform attempted from the inside. For all the foaming-at-the-mouth accusations of logrolling and ballot box stuffing, nothing about the Sad Puppies campaign violates the rules. What Larry and Brad are doing is in fact keeping a shrinking Worldcon alive by bringing in both money and new blood. An award with the prestige of the Hugos should not be decided by a few hundred people, but by tens of thousands of people. Otherwise it reflects neither quality nor popularity, but is rather a straw poll by an in-crowd heavily influenced by a handful of Insider Alphas.

Will it work? Depends on what you want from it. Seen as a publicity stunt (as many do) it's already working, bigtime. Seen as genuine reform, well, I'm less sure, as much as I'd like to see that reform happen. Maybe it just needs a few more years to cook. Many things do. I certainly wish it all success. It's already tipped my decision in favor of attending MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City in 2016.

However, if the goal is to popularize Human Wave SFF, there may be better ways. I'll throw out some ideas when I continue this series. For the time being, I need to take a breather.

Mar. 1st, 2015

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 3

I was nostrils-deep writing Ten Gentle Opportunities and wasn't paying attention when Sarah Hoyt quietly posted a bombshell: The Human Wave Manifesto. It was actually a manifesto in two parts, probably because I don't think she intended it to be a manifesto at first. (Sabrina Chase had a part in it too.)

But boy, manifesto it is, bigtime.

I powerfully suggest that you read Sarah's manifesto (perhaps twice) but I'll summarize for those in a hurry:

The Human Wave is a resistance movement. It's a reminder that SFF is about unlimited possibility; i.e., there are unexplored universes lying right outside our own navels. So first of all, it's about throwing off a 30-year accumulation of Thou Shalt Nots and These Are Necessary Rules that the Insider Alphas of the SFF world have laid down. Back in the 60s we had whole posters printed with just two words: Question Authority. That's what the Human Wave is about: questioning authority. The Insider Alphas are not authorities. They're just writers and editors of a certain psychology that always makes a beeline for the levers of power. The Human Wave is under the floor right now, disconnecting all the levers. (If only we can keep them from hearing us giggle...)

Human Wave science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is fiction that deliberately subverts those supposed rules (fetishes, actually) and re-takes what was once commonplace in the SFF universe. The guiding principles of the Human Wave (as laid out by Sarah Hoyt) are in fact exhortations to freedom:

  1. Write fiction that entertains; nay, fiction that makes us gasp.
  2. Write fiction that celebrates rather than denigrates the human spirit.
  3. Write fiction in which characters are characters, fully realized individuals and not primarily defined as members of groups.
  4. Write fiction in which the message doesn't overpower the rest of the story.
  5. Write fiction that isn't eaten by Grey Goo; i.e., fuzzy characters wandering around landscapes of indeterminate importance doing nothing coherent, learning nothing, and ultimately having nothing to say.
  6. Write fiction that is upbeat; or if it must be downbeat, make sure it's at least meaningful and that its insights are worth the downer.
  7. Write in a style that can be understood; i.e., don't let style overwhelm or obscure substance.
  8. Write fiction that has internal logic and is faithful to that logic, especially your explorations of science and magic.
  9. Write fiction that isn't boring, since ordinary life does not suffer a boredom shortage.
  10. Write what you write best and make no apologies; i.e., just shut up and write!

That's the best synopsis I can provide. I've broadened the concept to include fantasy (the second "F" in SFF) but otherwise have tried to be faithful to Sarah's intent. I will also add an eleventh commandment:

11. If you have that skill, write fiction that makes us laugh.

What I found heartening about the Human Wave is that it's how I've always written, even if I take it farther than caution might suggest. I have a primal fear of not delivering enough value to my readers. That's why I throw in dump trucks full of ideas, lots of explosions and gunfights, a little humor even in serious stories, and end with a mayhem-filled action climax. Yeah, I'm an old guy. I learned this stuff basically by reading the best of the pulps. There's nothing shameful about the pulps, just as there was nothing shameful about 1958 De Sotos. Just as we can now make far better cars than 1958 De Sotos, we can write far better popular fiction than the Fifties pulps. We just have to ditch the shame.

I'll also add this: Literature is good, and literary techniques can be dazzling in the right hands. I've read my share, and in fact have a degree in it, for what that's worth. My two objections to literary SF are that not everyone has the skill to write it, and even when well-written, it doesn't work as a steady diet. Let those who can write it, write it. Let's just not insist it's the whole picture, or even the worthiest part of the picture. Yes, literary is good. Choice is even better.

So. Where do we go from here? I'd certainly like to see a list of authors who embrace the Human Wave, as well as stories that embrace it, whether their authors ever heard of it or not. Such a list has not been attempted, to my knowledge. Although I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with it, I've already begun such a list. If you have authors or stories to nominate as part of the Human Wave, please send them along or share them in the comments.

Maybe it's finally time to bring hardsf.com to life.

Now, although I consider this entry the heart of the matter, I'm not done yet. I'm a little nervous about the last topic in the title. Give me a few days to figure things out, and we'll wrap this series up.

Feb. 28th, 2015

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 2

As I expected, I'm getting some pushback on the notion that SFF has a monoculture problem. So here's the deal: If you like what's on offer in SFF right now, there's no problem...for you. I think it's a problem, and I've begun to hear from other people who also think it's a problem, along with reading a great many people online (whom I don't know) saying it's a problem, and for pretty much the same reasons.

If enough people think it's a problem, then we really do have an objective problem. Lots of people who used to buy lots of SFF aren't buying it anymore. Too much of that, and the genre goes into a kind of death spiral. Publishers consolidate, distribution shrinks (and shrinks faster than shrinkage of the retail book business generally) and fewer people find anything that appeals to them, so they drop out. The cycle then continues. We can argue about why this is happening, but it's happening. I think it's about monoculture. I'll hear your explanation if you have one.

What I call social monoculture comes into play here. I encounter it when I go to cons, especially in the midwest: I see the same people I was seeing in the mid-1970s, when I discovered cons. We're older, grayer, and (alas) more likely to be sick or dead. Young people are scarce. Fandom has no lock on this, by the way. Ham radio suffers from a similar monoculture, though it's improving now, probably because Morse code has been out of the picture since 2007 and young people are coming to hamming through the Maker movement. ($35 HTs sure don't hurt!)

SFF fandom has always tended toward cliquishness. Sam Moskowitz nailed it with his old but fascinating book The Immortal Storm, which documents all the fannish palace coups and nerdy attempts to draw lines between True Fans and Mundanes Who Sometimes Read SF, back in the Elder Days from the 1920s to WWII. Half of what I saw in fanzines in the 70s and 80s rehashed all that same material, and SFWA has been obsessed with who qualifies as a "real" SFF writer for decades, which is one reason why I no longer belong to SFWA. (There are others.) I never saw many attempts to welcome obvious newcomers. I have to grin to recall speaking briefly with a young woman at (I think) Windycon 1980, who complained that nobody would talk to her. I spotted her several more times that weekend, wandering around by herself, looking wide-eyed and lost. My guess is that she thought SF conventions were about SF. Well, um, not really...

The problem with social monoculture, especially one dominated by people at middle age or beyond, is that tastes converge on what a relative handful of social alphas deem acceptable. Without a steady stream of new people to challenge the influence of social alphas, uniformity rules, boundaries contract, tribalism emerges, nonconformists are marginalized, and the overall population of the culture collapses.

Industry monoculture may in fact be a consequence of social monoculture. (Certainly, the two feed on one another.) When social alphas work at publishing companies, they become gatekeepers, and their tastes become holes of very specific shapes through which all published work must pass.

Well, there's a timer running on industry monoculture. Publishing is no longer capital-intensive, and as print book retailers drop off the edge, it's become less and less distribution-constrained. (Just getting bookstores to shelve our books was a hideous problem in Coriolis' early years. If we hadn't had a magazine to do direct sales with, we might not have survived to the Internet era.) Publishing requires skills but not credentials, and those skills aren't string theory. People I know personally are making money self-publishing, and some here and there are making a lot of money. Obviously, a writer has to produce material that readers want to buy. (Getting your work noticed by those readers is a separate challenge, one I'll take up over time.) But once you step outside the conventional NYC-dominated world of print publishing, constraints imposed by social alpha gatekeepers pretty much vanish.

So: A spectre is haunting monoculture: the spectre of the Human Wave.

Stay tuned, kids.

Feb. 26th, 2015

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 1

A spectre is haunting fandom: the specter of monoculture.

I haven't done much in SF for almost two years, having spent a great deal of time learning some new technology and then writing about it. (That saga is painful and may end badly, as I'll explain when it does end, one way or another.) So I come back and begin preparing several things for publication on Amazon, including Firejammer, The Cunning Blood, Drumlin Circus, and a number of my longer stories. As I flip around the screamosphere seeing what's up after my two-year absence, wow: A rumble has begat a manifesto that begat an attempt to break out of the worst rut the SFF world has ever seen. "Monoculture" is the polite word for a rut so deep that it threatens the viability of an industry. That's what we're up against in SFF, and that's what I'm going to be discussing for a few entries here on Contra.

One warning: This issue makes people of certain psychologies slobberingly, incoherently, hatefully, murderously, roll-eyes-back-in-the-head angry. If that's you, well, about face, forward march. You are not allowed to be angry here, and if anger is your hobby, you won't find much to enjoy.

To begin: I read a lot of SFF. I've been reading it for over fifty years. Recently, instead of new fiction, I find myself increasingly reaching back to the 90s and prior for things I've read not just once or several, but often many times. I do try new fiction, but I rarely finish it. These are the primary reasons:

  • It's depressing. Depressed characters with depressing 10,000-word backstories wander around depressing worlds through depressing situations where nothing is learned, no one is redeemed, and in truth nothing of consequence ever actually happens. (Sarah Hoyt calls these "grey goo stories.")
  • It's preachy. Good polemic is hard, and should be subversive, not in-your-face. Clever writers can preach via story without being too obvious about it, but sermons in story costumes are dull, off-putting, and in many cases excuses for scapegoating and tribal hatred.
  • It's slow, and talky. I don't necessarily demand fistfights and explosions on every other page. Still, shut up, put those coffee cups down and do something!
  • It lacks ideas. I may be peculiar in this, but to me a story without interesting ideas lacks an SFF soul.
  • Humor is nowhere in sight. I like funny SFF. As best I can tell, it's now extinct.
  • From a height, it just isn't fun. Fun is what we do this for. Fun is subjective, and hard to define, but damn, I know it when I read it.

When I begin reading a new work of SFF, I start a mental timer. If at some point the fun doesn't start (and that point depends on my current mood and available time) I put the book down and go on to something else. Such books rarely get second chances. I gave Bowl of Heaven a second chance because it's an idea story by authors with good records, but the fun took a long time to start and really didn't go anywhere coherent. I haven't given it away yet, so a third chance is possible, but as it's the first volume in a saga, I may wait until the second volume actually appears.

I've been slowly drifting away from SFF for a number of years. Discussions with people I know suggest that I'm not alone.We're all still reading as voraciously as ever, but the reading has gone over to other things, especially nonfiction. Nonfiction matters: I've noticed that I've become a better fiction writer since I've become an insatiable nonfiction reader. Fiction, especially SFF, is not 100% imagination. On the other hand, when you set aside a recent Hugo-award winning novel for being tedious and generally lame, well, that says something.

Note well (especially you hotheads) what I'm saying and not saying here: I'm saying that the SFF universe is losing readers because of a steadily narrowing focus on dark, dull, misanthropic, idea-free titles. I am pointedly not saying that such titles should not be published, nor read. What I want is a broad selection. What I am against is monoculture.

Having given it a great deal of thought, I see the monoculture issue in four parts:

  • Political monoculture. I hate politics and loathe talking about it, so I'll let others handle this one. It's just an extension of the monkeyshit tribal wars that seem to dominate our culture right now.
  • Social monoculture. This is tricky, and has to do with the fact that the SFF fan community is aging and grouchy, and young people are for the most part going elsewhere. For example, how many people go to Worldcon? How many to Dragoncon? From what I can see, the dragons have it twenty to one.
  • Industry monoculture. SFF publishing has become a reflection of NYC publishing as smaller presses are engulfed and devoured by conglomerates or simply go under. It's the same people and the same companies working in more or less the same place, with fewer and fewer gatekeepers who are mostly all alike. There's a time limit on this one, as anybody who's paying attention can tell. (Much more on this in future entries.)
  • Technique monoculture. Critics and gatekeepers lean strongly toward literary techniques, and against techniques that emerged from the pulps, and the pulp descendents that many of us grew up on: adventure, action, and upbeat themes that express the triumph of the human spirit. Yes, characters are critically important. Characters are not the whole show.

Whew. That should be enough to get me in serious trouble for the rest of my next three lives. Heh. See if I care, as I go more deeply into these points in future entries.

Feb. 25th, 2015

All the Myriad Waze

Several weeks ago, Carol and I got stuck in traffic on I-25 on the south end of Denver. We were trying to get home to Colorado Springs, and traffic was at a standstill. We didn't know where the problem was, nor how to get around it. So we took most of an hour to get a couple of miles. The next day I tracked down a fuzzy memory of a mobile app that maps traffic congestion using crowdsourced reports from app users. It only took a minute to find Waze. I installed it on my phone, and Carol and I have been playing with it ever since.

We don't punch a clock anymore and have no commute, but whenever we have to go across town (which for Colorado Springs is about fifteen miles tops) we fire up Waze and look at the prospective route. It's definitely saved us some stop-and-go time, especially on I-25, which is the only freeway we have here.

Waze is basically an interactive map on which reports from users are plotted in something very close to realtime. These include speed traps, wrecks, potholes, construction, and other miscellaneous hazards. The reports are generally accurate, right down to the potholes. When traffic is slow, Waze knows it, because GPS can calculate your speed. When two or more Waze users are going slow on a particular route, Waze paints the road in red and indicates what the speed currently is.

This is cleverness but not genius. Back in the wardriving era when GPS was first commonly available (back in 2000-2003 or so) I had this notion that a system could gather information about speed traps, if only there were a way to get reports to the central server from user cars. Then, wham! Smartphones happened. The rest is history.

No, the genius part of Waze is that its creators turned it into a sort of combination video game and social network. Waze users are plotted on Waze maps right along with the speed traps and potholes. It integrates with things like Foursquare. You get points by submitting reports and spotting errors on Waze maps. (You actually get points just by driving around with Waze running on your phone, which allows them to gauge speeds on the roads.) People with the most points get swords, shields, or crowns to wear on their little ghost-like Waze icons. Intriguingly, you can send messages to other Waze users, create teams of drivers, and other things that I haven't quite figured out yet, including searches for cheap gas. Even doing as little driving as we do, in three weeks we managed to rack up over 900 points. There's a stack rank of users for each state. (We're down in the 100,000 range for Colorado.) Carol got some points for making roadkill out of a piece of hard candy that mysteriously appeared on the Waze map in front of us. If that sort of thing appealed to us, I suspect we would be addicts, like the people with over half a million points obviously are.

There are two fairly obvious downsides to the Waze system:

  • To be useful, Waze requires that a certain critical mass of users be prowling around your town, reporting things. Here in the Springs, this rarely happens outside rush hours. I'm guessing that in smaller towns, Waze never really gets out of first gear. Like so much these days, it's a YUH (young urban hipster) phenomenon.
  • As if I even had to mention, it's yet another driver distraction, probably in the same league with texting. That's why we only use it when we're both in the car, and Carol typically does the reporting and the sniffing ahead for congestion.

I'm starting to see articles about how cops hate it because of speed trap reporting, which suggests that, at least in large urban areas, it's working as designed. I like it for the sake of the traffic reports, which I suspect will be even more useful the next time we're in Denver, or lord knows Chicago. Problematic for one, useful (and sometimes fun) for two.

Cautiously recommended.

Feb. 23rd, 2015

Odd Lots

Feb. 14th, 2015

Review: The Impossible Baofeng HTs

3 HTs - 500 Wide.jpg

I bought my first ham radio handheld ("handied-talkie" or HT) back in 1977. The Standard Radio SR-C146 had five crystal-controlled channels and weighed two pounds. (No wonder they called it a "brick.") No TT pad, no CTCSS. I don't recall what I paid for it new, but I'm thinking $350--and that didn't even include a charger. (I built a charger for it from scratch!) That would be about $1400 today. It was a really big deal, and I used it for almost ten years, until I bought an Icom HT at Dayton in 1986.

In truth, I never used HTs all that much except at hamfests. I've had 2M mobiles in various cars, and for the past 18 years or so have used an Alinco mobile rig as a base. I still have the Icom in a box somewhere, but the case is cracked and it's been in the corner of my mind to get a new HT for almost ten years.

Then Bob Fegert mentioned the Baofeng dual-band UV-82 HT, which now sells on Amazon for $37 brand new. (I actually paid $35.) In 1977 dollars, that would have been...ten bucks. So I ordered one. While cruising the Web looking at reviews and commentary on the unit, I happened upon the Baofeng BF-888S. Amazon had those for $15. $3.85 in 1977 funds. So I bought one of those as well, just to see what a $15 HT could do.

Both radios put out 1W or 4W selectable. The UV-82 covers the 2M and 70cm bands. The BF-888S covers only the 70cm band. Well, actually not only the ham bands, which is an issue worth a little discussion here. Many commenters on the ham boards loathe these radios, for a simple reason: They claim the ham radio positioning is only a ruse, to get around FCC type acceptance.

The problem is that for use on the several business bands, the Family Radio Service (FRS), the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and the Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS), a transceiver must meet certain FCC requirements and pass tests to ensure that it meets those requirements. This is called type acceptance. A type-accepted radio will transmit only where its type acceptance allows. There are other requirements that aren't about frequency. FRS radios, for example, may not have removable antennas. Ham radio gear, on the other hand, does not require FCC type acceptance at all.

These are software-defined radios. Within a broad band of frequencies dictated by the output power amp, they can receive or transmit anywhere you want them to. A free program called CHIRP allows you to create a special-purpose database of frequencies and other settings, save it as a file, and then squirt it into the radio through a USB cable. It's nominally illegal to use a radio like the BF-888S on FRS or GMRS, but a quick Web scan shows that it's evidently done quite a bit. The type acceptance process takes time and money, so a radio pitched for amateur use can cost less.

The flexibility of using CHIRP to set frequencies and settings allows these radios to also act as scanners and receive public safety and weather channels. It's possible to disable transmit on any frequency, which I did for the weather channels. (One of the downsides of the display-less BF-888S is that it's not always obvious what frequency you're tuned to. Mistakes are possible, and in this case may be rule violations that may cause interference.)

As 2M and 70cm radios, they're pretty good. I can hit all the repeaters I usually reach from here, just using the "rubber duckie" antennas. Audio is clean and strong. The UV-82 has a better receiver: Weak local signals will break squelch on the UV-82 when they won't budge the BF-888S.

There are some downsides:

  • Neither radio has a squelch knob. Squelch levels are parameters that you set from the keypad (for the UV-82) or in CHIRP. This can be annoying if your noise level rises and falls for some reason, or if a weak signal is right on the edge of squelch. (The BF-888S has a button that turns squelch off while pressed, which is better than nothing.)
  • The chargers are flimsy and almost weightless. I'm not sanguine about how long they'll last, and they certainly aren't physically stable. Nor are the chargers or charge voltages the same for the two radios.
  • The antenna connectors are SMAs. I had to order some SMT-UHF adapters so that I could use my discone antenna up in the attic.
  • Both radios "speak" a channel number when you move up or down the channel set. With the BF-888S this is the only reliable way to know where you're sitting, as the numbers on the channel select knob are almost invisible.
  • The UV-82 has a broadcast FM radio feature, which works fairly well but is not easy to use, especially if you switch stations a lot. (It is a little weird hearing classical music coming out of a ham radio HT.)
  • Although it would be very useful, I don't think it's possible to control (rather than simply program) either radio through the USB cable.

Both radios have white LED flashlights built-in, for what it's worth.

So. I'm sure a Yaesu or an Icom HT would be better in a great many ways. However, Icom HTs don't cost $35. Given how little I use HTs, the price was irresistable. How well they will serve over time is an open question. They seem rugged enough to withstand a certain amount of outdoor rough-and-tumble. If they break (or if anything weird happens) I'll certainly tell you here.

So far, recommended.

Feb. 8th, 2015

Odd Lots

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