KA9S Web Log

Where opinions abound (mine)

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CW - My kind of mode!

CW (continuous wave) is otherwise known as Morse code. I have operated 100% of my on air time using CW. My rig came with a hand held microphone (which I have stashed somewhere in the garage) but I'm not sure I know how to operate it. My primary activity is HF CW rag chewing (otherwise known as shooting the breeze).

There are many Hams who harbor a hatred for CW and CW operators. It used to baffle me. I see now that CW is a skill that is not easily learned by some and even harder to learn by those who have no interest in learning it. As such, it represented an unreasonable arcane throw back to a by gone era. It’s proponents (CW operators) were the enemy, perpetuating the odious burden on the public.

The FCC has now dropped the requirement to learn Morse code as an element of obtaining an amateur radio license. Morse code has been dropped by radio services the world over. It pretty much only exists on the Ham bands now.

CW still persists. I am a living example that learning, knowing, and using this communication skill is rewarding to the many who dare to try it.

If you want to learn more about it, check the definitive work done by William Pierpont - N0HFF "The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy".

CW = Civility

I  guess our hobby reflects our society in general. People who put the work in to achieve a skill (CW in this case) do not want to squander that investment by alienating the very people they depend on to participate in their hard earned skill. People who have put no effort into leaning a skill (gurgling into a microphone) have nothing to loose by being rude or belligerent. There will always be another idiot with a microphone they can abuse tomorrow, when they come a dime-a-dozen. 

I've had nothing but good conversations on CW and have never, in all my years of Hamming (licensed 1970), come upon a rude or belligerent contact (I gather the same can not be said for voice modes). I think tapping out an obscenity on the O’l code key just doesn't give the same visceral kick that yelling one over a microphone does. I consider this a plus for CW while someone who is primarily interested in bringing their road rage to another medium would find CW undesirable. Anyway, I'm proud of it.

CW = Consideration
I  am loosing my hearing (it's genetic, I didn't choose my parents well). I now have great difficulty understanding the spoken word, but I am still able to copy CW with no problem. I don't know why this is never brought out in defense of CW. I guess helping the handicapped is not important in these days of political correctness.

Conversational CW

CW is talking. This is a stumbling block for many who “know” CW but never use it to hold conversations. I find there are three primary camps of CW operators. People tend to adopt one, two, or all three of them:

Contester, DXer, Rag Chewer

(Traffic handlers are a fourth group. They usually make good rag chewers too, but they are not that numerous, and are not included in this line of reasoning – sorry guys)

Contesters and DXers are competitive, aggressive hams who “want to win”. Both of these specialties require great skill. The top performers are able to conduct CW contacts at high speeds under great pressure and rough crowded operating conditions. Who can say these “Big Guns” don’t represent the pinnacle of CW operators? Yet I find many of these high speed big guns fall flat if you attempt to hold a simple CW conversation with them. They have the skill to make quick contacts exchanging predefined information in a specific order, but do not fair well with the unstructured, unpredictable nature of a casual conversation. You may encounter a contester easily cruising along at 35 wpm (words per minute) but if you try and strike up a conversation with him at that speed, you will often hear him slamming on the breaks, and slowing down to something around 20 wpm. Even then, he is likely to end the conversation quickly after he has failed to copy your comments and exhausted his normal list of safe topics.

Holding a conversation using CW is it’s own skill. A skill that is not as appreciated as it should be. It is a non-aggressive endeavor, and no one has to be vanquished in the process. In fact, the opposite is true. Everyone involved has to be accommodated for the CW conversation to succeed. A person who technically knows CW does not, by default, know how to conduct a CW conversation. There are additional skills that must be learned and mastered before one can comfortably proclaim they are fluent in conversational CW (a.k.a. – Rag Chewing).

A CW conversation is like writing a letter in “real time”. By this I mean the sending station has to formulate something worth saying, convert it into Morse code and send it out at the rate/rhythm of the code speed being used. They cannot “type ahead” (unless they are using a keyboard keyer). We call this multi-tasking, and it does not come without practice. I think of it as typing out each character of word, a sentence, a conversation, that I am composing “on the fly”, one character at a time to the rhythm of a metronome. Then I have to add in the proper spacing between the letters, words, and sentences to make it readable. Doing this puts a lot of pressure on a person if they haven’t put in a lot of practice first.

Receiving a CW conversation is also more of a challenge than running a contest contact or bagging a DX contact. In both of these cases, the other station sticks to a predictable predefined set of information delivered in the same order (RST, QTH, OP, serial No., etc.). The receiving operator can anticipate what will be sent next. This is a great advantage in “decoding” what is coming in over the air. In a CW conversation, the receiving operator has no idea what is going to be coming next. Every one has something different to say and has a different way of saying it. This forces the receiving operator to copy everything, all of the time, without any hints as to what is coming next. Again, doing this puts a lot of pressure on a person if they haven’t put in a lot of practice first.

It can be embarrassing for the receiving operator who is inexperienced in conversational CW and finds himself panicking part way into a rag-chew QSO. The CW that used to seem familiar and predictable is suddenly throwing unknown words and phrases at him, and the world just seems to “lock up”. What excuse can he have for this? He just finished breaking a DX pile-up at 30 wpm and is now choking at 20 wpm? Sending can be as much a problem. Staring at the key hoping IT is going to come up with something worth to saying. He never gets tong tied on phone.

To make life easier, the operator who is not comfortable conducting a CW conversation tends to make the conversation more predictable. The operator sticks to a predetermined set of topics in a predictable order (cookie cutter QSOs). The conversation goes something like this:

K4xxx de W8yyy FB OM UR RST 589 589 QTH Myhome / MI Myhome / MI name John John WX is cloudy and cold 43 deg rig is Kenwood TS-570D running 100w ant is a G5RV Age is 58 es been a ham 42 yrs hw cpy? K4xxx de W8yyy K

This makes sending easier because the operator does not need to come up with new material to speak about and can focus on the technical side of generating Morse code. It makes receiving easier because the other operator can predict what is coming next making the decoding of the Morse code easier.

It makes the conversation boring.

My personal un-favorite is the weather report. I have a computer. I have a television. Both get the weather channel. I didn’t set up an expensive radio station and contact a new person with unique life experiences to get the weather report from “Myhome / MI”. Unless you are currently being hit by a tornado or your house is being washed down a hill by a flash flood, while you are talking with me, I really don’t care to hear about the weather.

I don’t mind thinking of the cookie cutter comments as background information for further conversation. But all too often the QSO starts and ends there. I try to extend the conversation into new topics. This often prompts the other operator to claim that the XLY just called and he must QRT – such a waste. I can understand why some one who never explores beyond the cookie cutter format would eventually grow bored with CW and quit, or, move over to more exciting CW activities such as contesting or DXing.

Hams that are new to conversational CW and want to experience the fun need two additional skills. They are, greater proficiency in sending and receiving Morse code, and general conversational skills. Time on the air will take care of the Morse code proficiency issue. Just keep making CW contacts (non-cookie cutter QSOs) and your CW proficiency will build. The vast majority of CW rag chewers will be happy to QRS to whatever speed makes you comfortable. There is no reason to be embarrassed asking a speed demon to please slow down, even if you are answering his high speed CQ. We have all been where you are now. We all started out slow. All of us. No kidding. We get it. It’s OK.

The conversational skills are the harder part. There is no absolute here. I’m not sure I can cover it properly or can lay claim to being “top notch” my self. I can only give my view here and a couple tid bits of advice. You could take a dozen people who have a common experience, ask them to describe it to you, and you will get the story told in twelve different ways. None of the stories will be “wrong”, but some will be more interesting to listen to than the others. Those are the people who are good at conversation.

I talk to people like I have been talking to them all my life. I don’t assume they know anything about me, but I do act like we are already best friends and we are just catching up on things that have happened since the last chat we had (even though it may be our first QSO ever). I pay attention for clues to what may be unique about the other operator and then ask a question about their unique aspect. I look for common interests we may have (ham radio itself is an obvious choice) or ask what other hobbies they may have. I bring up anything unusual that has happened to me in the last week or two. If it doesn’t spark any interest on the other end, I let it go and try something else. I don’t go back farther than two weeks because the conversation takes on an “autobiographical” flavor (boring). I keep very short notes in my logbook about the unique things I have learned about someone. The next time I talk with them, I look at the notes and bring up the ones that weren’t completely covered last time we talked or those which were projects that may have been worked on. Oh yes – religion, politics – you know better don’t you?

I find it very rewarding when I sense the other operator easing out of the cookie cutter mode.  It is gratifying to me when he energetically launches into some topic he is genuinely interested in. The conversation takes on a momentum all its own. These QSO generally runs out of steam about an hour later with the other ham telling me what a great QSO it has been. They often seem surprised that they could hold an hour-long QSO and have fun doing it. I do it all the time. This is my way of feeling like a “Big Gun”.

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