I normally refrain from the “social commentary” discussions that are plentiful around ham radio circles. However, something happened today that really touched me that I wanted to share with all of you.
We were having lunch with a former coworker and his family. Our families have been friends for many years, but we only see each other once or twice a year, usually at Christmas. The subject of music came up and my friend’s wife remarked that her son had “quite an ear”. He asked if I wanted to see what he had been up to and I said “sure”.
He reaches into his pocket and produces a smartphone. Being a polite kid, he had not used it at the table previously and was paying full attention to his company. He showed me that his phone had a music sequencer program. Having owned a home recording studio, I was familiar with sequencers and had used them before with keyboards and computers.
Joseph proceeded to tell the story about how the family was on a 9 hour trip to Memphis. Using a piano keyboard drawn onto the phone’s tiny touchscreen, he had composed a piece of music. It was intricate, consisting of 4 or 5 parts and rich “10 finger” chord. The piece was over 5 minutes in length. I was amazed! The amount of patience it must have taken and the quality of the finished product blew me away.
The conversation progressed and he told me about a summer technology game he had attended focused on video game development. When he said “I really enjoy writing Z-80 assembler”, I nearly fell out of my chair! Teenagers programming computers is nothing new, but for a 13-year old today to be working with the same hardware I hacked on as a kid was quite a surprise. Turns out a modern version of this chip is still used in TI Graphing calculators and an assembler SDK is available.
After lunch, we went back to my house and I gave him the “grand tour” of my electronics bench and ham shack. He told me that this tremendous interest had been seeded by using emulators. He was dying to get his hands on physical hardware which, up until now, he had not had access to.
I started by showing him the Arduino Uno. For those of you unfamiliar, it is an inexpensive 8-bit microcontroller prototype board based on the popular Atmel AVR microcontroller. I showed him programming the board using freely available tools for both C and assembler. As I mentioned, his Dad was a former coworker (also a software developer), so the three of us discussed the finer points of assembler listings and stack pointers.
He spotted my KX3 and paddles on the desk, pointed at it, and said “hey is that for sending Morse code?” I replied in the affirmative and gave a quick demo of amateur radio. Thanks to the KX3’s decoder, he was able to follow a conversation and see that the remote station was in the UK. Both father and son were amazed.
Next, I showed him some of the other projects I had constructed – several QRP rigs and the atomic clock. We talked a bit about leap seconds. He then mentioned that he had been designing microprocessors. I thought he meant designing boards around processors, but then he told me about working around a problem where the move instruction had the data ready before the memory and having to add not gates to form a delay line.
Again, this was something he had done in emulation due to the magic of software that is available to hobbyists. While we can all agree that simulations aren’t “the real thing”, the amount this kid was able to learn by trying freely available software tools was nothing short of amazing. How many “real hams” have fabbed their own silicon? I certainly haven’t.
Next, we made a stop at my bookshelf. I gave him copies of several old microprocessor manuals along with “Getting Started in Electronics”. I also showed him the Sparkfun website where he could get a plethora of interesting add-on modules for the Arduino. (NB – The Arduino boards can be purchased locally at Radio Shack). Last but not least, we went outside for a tour of the antenna farm.
I’m not sure what Joseph is going to do for a career (he’s in the 8th grade). However, he seems to have quite a foundation and a burning interest in all things technical. He is very excited about the prospect of going to a magnet high school. Perhaps he will pursue a ham radio license. Regardless of whether he does or not, he certainly embodies the “homebrew spirit”.
So, the next time you see a youngster pecking on a cell phone, don’t dismiss them as lazy or unmotivated. They could be doing something really amazing! And, before you start the “these kids today” speech remember Joseph. He’s an amazing kid and there are thousands more like him. He is following a path not unlike many other ham radio and electronics enthusiasts. Perhaps some of you were also Josephs in your day.