Send your name in Morse code!

This sounds like great fun for Boy Scouts or any youth-oriented radio activity. Here is the description from Dan Romanchik’s blog ( about teaching Morse at the Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire.

As usual, I had my collection of keys and was teaching kids (and some adults) how to send their names in Morse Code. I have a chart of the characters (see right) that I tape to the table next to the key, and when someone approaches the table, I ask if they’d like to learn to send their name in Morse Code, and if they say yes, I ask them to tell me the first letter in their name.

After they tell me, I show them the character on the chart and then show them how to send it. Once they’ve successfully done that, I tell them to look up the rest of the letters and then send them as well. If they successfully do this, I thrust out my hand and say, “Nice to meet you, Joe (or whatever name they just sent me).” The look on some faces is priceless.

I love the way this goes straight to “do” with a minimum of “tell”, then gives an immediate reward. The “tell me the first letter” method is really clever and makes it almost like a magic trick. You can also manage several people at the activity, as long as you can copy very slow Morse.

Send your name in morse code

Chart in PDF and in Microsoft Word formats.

Quoted with the kind permission of KB6NU.

Update: Don mentioned two things that make it simpler for the participants. First is to use “dit” and “dah” instead of dots and dashes, to start them on sound instead of pictures. Second is to leave off the numbers, since few people have numbers in their names. I’ve updated the chart to follow his excellent advice.

Guy Shopping

A guy fashion crisis is when they stop making the shoes I’ve been wearing for the last 12 years. That is because “guy shopping” is buying the same thing in the same size as quickly as possible. But sometimes, I get wild.

My L.L. Bean field watch finally died after the most recent battery replacement. It had a good 15 or 20 years, not quite sure how long. I’ve been wearing earlier versions of the watch for decades. This one lasted longer because it had a flat mineral crystal. I’m pretty good at banging my watch against things and breaking the crystal.

This time, I decided to level up, but it took a while to find a watch that I really liked. This radical departure is a Seiko Kinetic Field Watch with a 5M82 movement. It was surprisingly hard to figure out if it had the features I wanted, like stopping the second hand (hacking), and not replacing the battery (Seiko Kinetic uses a spinning weight to charge a capacitor).


Oh, yes, I replaced the strap with a G10 NATO strap. And surprise, there is a dedicated tool for dealing with the spring bars (instead of using a screwdriver and scratching the watch case like I’ve done forever).

Apple vs. Google or Apple with Google?

I just read a very good article that takes too long to get to the point. The “tl;dr” version is that Google and Apple were competing head to head for a while, but might be evolving to complementary areas, Apple with personal experience (ResearchKit, CareKit) and Google with big data analysis (diagnosing diabetic retinopathy).

Best quote: “Throw incomprehensible amounts of information at an enormous amount of computing power and basically brute-force a treatment protocol that functions better than humans ever could.”

Of course, this doesn’t work for Kevin’s genetic syndrome. He’s the only one with that particular mutation. A single case is not exactly “incomprehensible amounts of information”. We will still need the amazing inductive instrument inside our heads.

The author misses that humans decide the target for that incomprehensible/enormous tool.

Also, don’t use “incomprehensible” about information around me. I can comprehend extremely large amounts of information. I’m OK with “number of atoms in the universe”. Yes, I took two years of philosophy, so I know about the ontological argument. Personally, I’m with Tillich and process theology.

The Five Promises of Scouting

The Scout Law, the Scout Oath, the methods and aims of Scouting; all these are things the Scout is supposed to do. What does Scouting do for the boy?

The eleventh edition of the Boy Scout Handbook started with a list of five things that Scouting promises to each Scout.

I used these promises as the outline for a Scoutmaster Minute at an Eagle Court of Honor. I talked about how the new Eagle Scouts had made the most of these promises during their years in Scouting, giving specific examples for each Scout.

The five promises aren’t in later editions, so I’ll quote the entire page here.

Scouting promises you the great outdoors. As a Scout, you can learn to camp and hike without leaving a trace and how to take care of the land. You’ll study wildlife up close and learn about nature all around you. There are plenty of skills for you to master, and you can teach others what you have learned. Everyone helping everyone else—that’s part of Scouting, too.

Scouting promises you friendship. Members of the troop you join might be boys you already know, and you will meet many other Scouts along the way. Some could become lifelong friends.

Scouting promises you opportunities to work toward the Eagle Scout rank. You will set positive goals for yourself and then follow clear routes to achieve them.

Scouting promises you tools to help you make the most of your family, your community, and your nation. The good deeds you perform every day will improve the lives of those around you. You will be prepared to help others in time of need.

Scouting promises you experiences and duties that will help you mature into a strong, wise adult. The Scout Oath and the Scout Law can guide you while you are a Scout and throughout your life.

Adventure, challenge, learning, responsibility—the promise of Scouting is all this and more. Are you ready for the adventure to begin? Then turn the page and let’s get started.

The Boy Scout Handbook, 11th Edition, 1998, page 1.

We talk about Scouting as “a game with a purpose”. The purpose is pretty clear, it is the three aims of Scouting: character, citizenship, and physical fitness. But what is the game?

I like these five promises because they explain the game: adventure, friends, achievement, helping others, and growing into new responsibilities.

Troop Leader Guidebook

The long wait is over. I can finally put the 2004 Scoutmaster Handbook in the recycling and enjoy the new Troop Leader Guidebook by Mark Ray. I was embarrassed to recommend the earlier handbook, but the new one is beyond excellent.

Troop Leader Guidebook Volume 1

Listing the wonderful things about this book would be nearly as long as the book itself. The point is probably better made by listing the areas where I was disappointed. I had to dig pretty deep to find two disagreements.

I was hoping that I’d finally find some direction about a Venture Patrol in the troop. This has been a thing for a very long time, going back to “Exploring in the Troop”, which replaced “Senior Scouting in the Troop”. No joy, but there was discussion of an “older Scout patrol”. National does still sell the Scout Venture strip, so I guess the Venture Patrol is still a thing.

Venture strip

Also, the book comes down hard in favor of new Scout patrols, regular patrols, and older Scout patrols as the way to organize a troop. I’m sure that works, but I’ve seen the mixed-age patrol model work wonderfully for twenty years in our local troop. The older Scouts in the patrol teach the new Scouts and pass on the patrol traditions. It is a perfect match to the EDGE requirements for ranks, something that is harder to achieve with the recommended patrol organization. I’d prefer a balanced presentation of the two models.

That’s it. I can’t think of anything else in this book that is not wonderful.

A few exceptionally great things, though:

  • Pointing to the Service Project Planning Guidelines. This is a tremendously useful worksheet that I recommend to all the Scouts I counsel on their Eagle projects. Every service project should use these when planning.
  • Moving the annual planning process out of the Troop Program Features and into the handbook. I discovered that documentation a year after I was no longer Scoutmaster. Oops.
  • Strong, strong emphasis on the aims of Scouting over the methods of Scouting.

I recommend buying at your local Scout Store, especially if that store supports your council. But you can also buy it at

We all need to thank Mark Ray for writing this new edition of the Scoutmaster Handbook. He’s taken it from a nearly useless manual to an essential one. I’ve been recommending that Scoutmasters read the Senior Patrol Leader Handbook to get the real information on running a troop. That is still a good idea, but now there is a proper handbook for Scoutmasters. A handbook which happens to recommend reading the Senior Patrol Leader Handbook, of course.

And in your spare time, follow Mark Ray’s blog. If you are like me, you want to read everything he writes.

Meanwhile, I’m standing in line for volume two.

History of Morse Code in the Boy Scouts

Morse code has been in and out of the Boy Scout requirements for nearly a hundred years. During that time, Morse has changed from a career skill to a rewarding hobby, from a vocation to an avocation. Also, radio has grown to include voice communications, data communications, and broadcast.

Morse interpreter strip

I’ve gathered all the requirements I could find: rank, merit badge, or skill award. For context, I’ve included a few historical milestones from amateur radio and from digital and voice communication.

1910: Boy Scouts of America founded.

1912: First amateur radio licenses in the US.

1916: First regular radio broadcasts in the US.

1918: Wireless merit badge introduced, requires Morse at ten words per minute.

1930: Radio merit badge (replacement for Wireless) lowers the requirement to five words per minute.

1937: First Class requirement 4: “Send and receive by Semaphore Code, including conventional signs, thirty letters per minute; or by the General Service Code (International Morse), sixteen letters per minute, including conventional signs; or by Indian Sign Language Code, thirty signs per minute; or by the Manual Alphabet for the Deaf, thirteen letters per minute.” [In Morse, this is about three words per minute.]

1947: First amateur radio contacts over SSB at Stanford University.

1965: First Class requirement 4: “Send and receive a message of at least 20 words, using either international Morse or semaphore codes and necessary procedure signals.” [No speed requirement]

1965: An amateur radio license is accepted as proof of Morse competence for Radio merit badge.

1967: Viterbi decoder invented, beginning of modern digital communication.

1972: First Class drops Morse requirement.

1979: Morse returns as an option for the Communications Skill Award: “Signal by two of the following methods: silent Scout signals, manual alphabet, sign language for the deaf, Indian sign language, sports signals, Morse code, semaphore code, Scouts trail signs.” [This long list of options requires fourteen pages of documentation in the Handbook. Oddly, the handbook includes the Braille alphabet, though it is not one of the signaling systems listed in the requirement.]

1981: Space Shuttle STS-1 mission uses digital voice communication.

1984: Broadcast and SWL options added to Radio Merit Badge requirements, Morse dropped.

1990: First Class drops Morse requirement (again).

1991: FCC introduces no-code Technician license.

1999: Morse replaced by satellite for global maritime distress calls (no more SOS).

2007: FCC drops Morse requirement for all amateur licenses.

2010: Morse returns for one year in the centennial Signaling merit badge with three requirements around Morse.

2012: BSA adds Morse interpreter strip.

2015: Morse returns yet again as part of the Signs, Signals, and Codes merit badge: “Send or receive a message of six to ten words using Morse code.” [No speed requirement]

There are probably many choices for the beginning of modern digital communication. I chose the invention of the Viterbi decoder, because that supported low-latency error correction in hardware for digital codes. And it is really cool technology.

All the BSA requirements after 1965 are from my bookshelf. The 1937 First Class requirement is from the 1937 Scoutmaster’s Handbook. The remainder are from on-line resources.

Ultraseek vs. Google Search Appliance

On the occasion of the Googlebox end of life news, it is time to talk about what a weak product it really was.

Sandia Labs was an Ultraseek customer and ran a relevance experiment where Ultraseek trounced the Google Search Appliance. But first some history.

Many of the US national laboratories used Ultraseek. I don’t remember how it started, but I was invited to give talks about search at two of their IT conferences, one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (auditorium named after Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner) and one at SLAC, Stanford Linear Accelerator (first website outside Europe).

The labs were quite happy with Ultraseek, but at Sandia, the search team was asked to evaluate the Google Search Appliance. Like good scientists, they set up an experiment. They formatted the results from the two engines in similar, anonymous styles. They set up a table in the cafeteria, offering free cookies for people to try searches and choose the best results from the two engines.

This is a simple but very effective evaluation technique. I like it because it judges the whole result set, both ranking and presentation. It isn’t good for diagnostics, but it is great for customer satisfaction. I call this approach “Kitten War“.

Ultraseek won the experiment, 75% to 25%. That is a three-to-one preference. I’ve never seen that magnitude in a search experiment. In search, we break out the champagne when we get a one percentage point improvement in clickthrough. I’m not kidding. This is beyond massive.

Whoever was pushing Google at Sandia asked them to re-run the experiment with the logos. With that change, Google won 55% to 45%.

Also, performance? Ultraseek was spec’ed for 15 queries/sec and surpassed that spec. The first release of the Googlebox was spec’ed at 30 queries/min, thirty times slower. They later increased that to 60 queries/min. That is one query per second.

Ultraseek actually ran at around 25+ qps, though some new features dropped us closer to 15 qps.

We were the public search engine for through Anderson Consulting. Instead of reading the specs, Anderson promised what they had measured instead of the specs, then complained to us. They were massive a-holes about it, even after I made it very clear that it was their fault. But we made Ultraseek even faster, because who wants the IRS search to be slow? ran a cluster of fifteen Ultraseek servers. Would not want to try and make that rate with Googleboxes.

Sadly, the relevance test was the point when Ultraseek should have just given away the source code and gone home. The Google logo was enough to sell a massively inferior product. There was nothing we could do in engineering, sales, whatever, to compete with the Google logo.

Sandia Labs did stay with Ultraseek and we continued on for a number of years, but the writing was on the wall.