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 irs.gov 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? irs.gov 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.

Self Portrait Series, Continued

One of the assignments in my college photography class was a self portrait. I shot a series of reflective portraits, my imprint on things like my leather bike seat, the soles of my shoes, and the fading on my jeans. This is another in that series.

Tina didn’t like the orange-hued leather of my iPhone case when I first got it, but it has darkened as I held it and my skin oils worked into the surface. The frame broke in one area, so I replaced it with the same model, but you can see the effect of my hand holding the leather over two years.

Guess which is old and which is new.

IPhone case

Thanks to Peter Brown for making an introvert shoot self portraits. And the real winner from that series wasn’t the imprints, but a straight shot of myself where I wrote the enlarger exposure on the front of the print instead of the back. I’ll post that sometime.

The background? That is a cube-crate from Ski Hut. It is sized just right for LP records. It says “Ski Hut” and below that “Berkeley” and “Palo Alto”. We have two of those, serving as end tables in the family room.