Ham Radio’s Paper Trail

A new book from Standard Manual

Ham, or amateur, radio may quietly circumnavigate the ether but it has tangible components as well. There are the radios themselves. There are also QSL cards, which are sort of like business cards for individual ham operators — or more to the point, for their call signs. 

This is a QSL card from Italy
Pen Pal: Where better to begin than with a card from the home country of radio innovator Guglielmo Marconi?

A trove of more than 150 such QSL cards, formerly owned by an operator who went by the call sign W2RP, was obtained by designer Roger Bova. Bova then collaborated with the book imprint Standards Manual (full disclosure: I’ve done some work with the publisher’s parent company, the design firm Order) to collect them into a handsome volume. I’m reprinting some of the images here, with the publisher’s permission.

This is a Byelorussian QSL card, reproduced in the book.
Red Hot: A Byelorussian card reproduced in the book

W2RP, as it turns out, was no ordinary “amateur.” W2RP was the late Charles Hellman, who lived to the age of 106. The cards obtained by Bova are both a visual map and a physical manifestation of the numerous conversations he participated in over what is said to have likely been the longest continuously active ham license, more than 90 years. Hellman first obtained his license at the age of 15. Some historical context: he was born in 1910, one year after the Nobel Prize in Physics went to Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun for their pioneering work in radio. Hellman himself taught physics in Manhattan and the Bronx, and two of his students reportedly went on to win the Nobel in physics. (More on his remarkable life at qcwa.org.)

This shows a page from the book with a Ukrainian card, each bit of information highlighted to explain how the cards contain and express data.
Between the Lines: The book details how to interpret the standard information on QSL cards.

The letters QSL, as they relate to ham radio, don’t stand for anything, not in the sense that an acronym might. As I understand it, QSL is one of many three-letter Q-codes, all beginning with Q, used in radio to transmit information in a succinct fashion. “QAK” means “Is there any risk of collision?” while “QAU” means “Where may I jettison fuel?” Many involve urgent matters. “QSE” means “What is the estimated drift of the survival craft?” and “QTW” translates, ominously, as “What is the condition of survivors?” Others, given how old this form of communication is, are less currently useful. “QTC,” for example, means “How many telegrams have you to send?” 

A card from Poland in the book.

The more I read about Q-codes, the more I wondered about two things: 

First, why don’t people who make websites make cards for them?

Second, why haven’t any of these codes caught 🔥 in social media. I, for one, am going to try to make “QRI” (“How is the tone of my transmission?”) and “QRL” (“Are you busy?”) happen. I look forward to Bandcamp musicians adopting “QOI” (“Shall I send my tape?”). “QRH” and “QRN” are less likely to catch on; they mean, respectively, “What is your wavelength in meters?” and “Are the atmospherics strong?” (And to be clear, the codes aren’t just questions. They can also connote a response, depending on how they’re employed.)

A German card — with a little raccoon — from the book

As for QSL, the Q-code in question: it stands for “Can you acknowledge receipt?” A QSL is, it’s important to appreciate, more than a business card. You send it by mail to the person with whom you’ve communicated. It’s like a personalized receipt for a conversation. This time-honored convention explains the personal notes and markings on the many cards in Hellman’s collection. 

A card from, I believe, France

Now, I’m sure I’ve muddled some of the information I’ve shared here, so if you’re a ham operator, don’t hesitate to school me; I’m here to learn. And if you have some cool QSL cards yourself, please send me some pictures, and (with your permission) I’ll post them in a future edition of This Week in Sound. 

A card from England

More on the book, QSL? (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?), at standardsmanual.com. (And it’s worth mentioning that a search for “qsl card” on eBay yields nearly 100,000 returns.)

This Week in Sound: Are Electric Cars Killing AM Radio?

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the December 13, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound: thisweekinsound.substack.com.

BUG OUT: Scientists are recreating the sounds of ancient insects. It’s like Jurassic Park, but smaller, and less of a DEFCON threat. It’s also considerably older.

Scientists had already suspected that katydids might have changed their tunes before mammals evolved better hearing about 160 million years ago. But they had no evidence for that hypothesis until [Michael Engel [at the University of Kansas] and his colleague Bo Wang at Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology in China discovered a collection of 63 very well-preserved male and female katydid fossils, representing 18 species from the Middle Jurassic Epoch, 160 million years ago, in north-eastern China.

The team photographed the three-dimensional fossils to investigate the males’ stridulatory organs – a set of five structures on the forewings that produce and radiate sound – and both sexes’ hearing organs, which resemble a somewhat simplified form of the human middle and inner ear structures and are located on the two front legs. In both modern and ancient species, all katydids have ears, but only males have stridulatory organs.

SONIC REDLINING: Students of Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University, have looked at how different neighborhoods around Providence, Rhode Island, were affected differently by noise pollution: “In the areas around highways and in neighborhoods with more non-white and low-income residents, students in Walker’s class found noise pollution levels were higher — sometimes above the maximum decibel levels set by city ordinances.” As part of the research, they produced heat maps displaying the relative impact.

Island Noise: Relative volume levels of Providence neighborhoods

RED EAR: The Mars rover was hit by a nearly 400-foot-tall dust storm and lived to share what its onboard microphones recorded: “The sound of the dust devil, published Tuesday to accompany a paper in the journal Nature Communications, is subtle. It’s crackly and percussive, like radio static, though one might more generously imagine a breeze ruffling some distant palm fronds.”

“[ISAE-SUPAERO planetary scientist Naomi] Murdoch said the team’s success in capturing a dust devil’s sound reflects both luck and preparation. The rover’s microphone takes recordings lasting a little under three minutes, and it does that only eight times a month. But the recordings are timed for when dust devils are most likely to occur, and the rover cameras are pointed in the direction where they are most likely to be seen.” (Thanks, Mike Rhode, for the Washington Post gift link!)

RADIO INTERFERENCE: One victim of electric vehicles appears to be AM radio, which (see nytimes.com gift link) is being dropped by numerous manufacturers, including Audi, Ford, Porsche, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Volvo:

An increasing number of electric models have dropped AM radio in what broadcasters call a worrisome shift that could spell trouble for the stations and deprive drivers of a crucial source of news in emergencies.

Carmakers say that electric vehicles generate more electromagnetic interference than gas-powered cars, which can disrupt the reception of AM signals and cause static, noise and a high-frequency hum. (FM signals are more resistant to such interference.)

Despite this industry-wide shift, the eradication of AM isn’t necessarily inevitable: “Some experts say the reception problems are not insurmountable.”

TAPE HEADS: A perspective on physical recording media, via New Scientist: “[A]udio on cassette doesn’t sound as good as hi-res streaming, so what is the appeal? Well, it is the same reason vinyl has made a comeback – the enduring lure of retro technology. Earlier this year, a series of experiments carried out by a team including psychologist Matthew Fisher at Yale University showed that people tend to prefer technology they think was invented before they were born, an effect that holds even when the technology isn’t as old as people think.”

QUICK NOTES: WHALE OF A MYSTERY: Whales are making their songs deeper. Scientists have found “the tonal frequencies of the songs had been sinking to even greater depths for three straight years.” And no one knows why. (Thanks, Erik Davis!)SKULL CANDY: WBUR covered how Berklee College of Music professor “Richard Boulanger turns … brainwaves into music in a high-pitch, high-tech demonstration.” ▰ BAD LANGUAGE: “[Research] suggest[s] that some sounds — plosives and affricates in particular — are more suitable for profanity than others. This may be because they sound more abrasive or aggressive than other sounds, and so make language harsher when used.” (Thanks, Christian Carrière!)PIER PRESSURE: Noise pollution of Hong Kong is keeping dolphins from being able to communicate with each other. ▰ BAND AID: Apple’s watchOS 9.2 has expanded its environmental noise detection offering. ▰ F(L)IGHT CLUB: It’s not just people who get road rage: “A recently published study has found that human-made traffic noises are linked to increased physical aggression in rural European robins.” ▰ NORTH STAR: Anchorage, Alaska, has tripled the fee for noisy vehicles, to $300 from $100. ▰ DIAMOND AGE: “The earliest transistor gadget to hit the market was a hearing aid released in 1953. Soon after came the transistor radio, which became emblematic of the 1960s.” And now the transistor has turned 75. ▰ CAM NOT: The organizer of the Citizens Noise Advisory Group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is not convinced that so-called “sonic cameras” are the answer to the problem of vehicular noise pollution, noting vandalism, theft, and location avoidance as issues to be considered. ▰ RUMP ROAST: John Hodgman weighed in on whether the word “fart” counts as onomatopoeia — and whoever wrote the headline deserves a Pulitzer.

Disquiet Junto Project 0552: The Radio in My Life

The Assignment: Record music in response to a John Cage and Morton Feldman conversation.

Each Thursday in the Disquiet Junto group, a new compositional challenge is set before the group’s members, who then have just over four days to upload a track in response to the assignment. Membership in the Junto is open: just join and participate. (A SoundCloud account is helpful but not required.) There’s no pressure to do every project. It’s weekly so that you know it’s there, every Thursday through Monday, when you have the time.

Deadline: This project’s deadline is the end of the day Monday, August 1, 2022, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, July 28, 2022.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto):

Disquiet Junto Project 0552: The Radio in My Life
The Assignment: Record music in response to a John Cage and Morton Feldman conversation.

This project is the second of three that are being done in collaboration with the 2022 Musikfestival Bern, which will be held in Switzerland from September 7 through 11. The topic this year is “unvermittelt,” which is a little tricky to translate. Literally it’s “unmediated,” but it can also mean “sudden,” “abrupt,” or “immediate.”

We are working at the invitation of Tobias Reber, an early Junto participant, who is in charge of the educational activities of the festival. This is the fourth year in a row that the Junto has collaborated with Musikfestival Bern.

Select recordings resulting from these three Disquiet Junto projects will be played and displayed throughout the festival.

Step 1: There’s a great moment in the recorded conversations of composers John Cage and Morton Feldman when they discuss a trip to the beach. Feldman isn’t pleased by the way transistor radios let music, and sound in general, appear in places it hadn’t previously. Cage jokes that having composed music that involves multiple radios, whenever he hears them he thinks, “[W]ell, they’re just playing my piece.” You can listen to it in the first 2.5 minutes of this excerpt:


Step 2: Think about Cage and Feldman’s conversation, in particular about the idea of what is and isn’t a sonic “intrusion” in our lives.

Step 3: Record a piece of music that reproduces or otherwise suggests the sympathetic (i.e., non-intrusive) commingling of radio and everyday sound.

Eight Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0552” (no spaces or quotation marks) in the name of your tracks.

Step 2: If your audio-hosting platform allows for tags, be sure to also include the project tag “disquiet0552” (no spaces or quotation marks). If you’re posting on SoundCloud in particular, this is essential to subsequent location of tracks for the creation of a project playlist.

Step 3: Upload your tracks. It is helpful but not essential that you use SoundCloud to host your tracks.

Step 4: Post your track in the following discussion thread at llllllll.co:

Project discussion takes place on llllllll.co: https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0552-the-radio-in-my-life/

Step 5: Annotate your track with a brief explanation of your approach and process.

Step 6: If posting on social media, please consider using the hashtag #DisquietJunto so fellow participants are more likely to locate your communication.

Step 7: Then listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Step 8: Also join in the discussion on the Disquiet Junto Slack. Send your email address to [email protected] for Slack inclusion.

Note: Please post one track for this weekly Junto project. If you choose to post more than one, and do so on SoundCloud, please let me know which you’d like added to the playlist. Thanks.

Additional Details:

Deadline: This project’s deadline is the end of the day Monday, August 1, 2022, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, July 28, 2022.

Length: The length is up to you.

Title/Tag: When posting your tracks, please include “disquiet0552” in the title of the tracks, and where applicable (on SoundCloud, for example) as a tag.

Upload: When participating in this project, be sure to include a description of your process in planning, composing, and recording it. This description is an essential element of the communicative process inherent in the Disquiet Junto. Photos, video, and lists of equipment are always appreciated.

Download: It is always best to set your track as downloadable and allowing for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution, allowing for derivatives).

For context, when posting the track online, please be sure to include this following information:

More on this 552nd weekly Disquiet Junto project — The Radio in My Life (The Assignment: Record music in response to a John Cage and Morton Feldman conversation) — at: https://disquiet.com/0552/

Thanks to Tobias Reber and Musikfestival Bern for collaboration on this project. More on the festival at:


More on the Disquiet Junto at: https://disquiet.com/junto/

Subscribe to project announcements here: https://tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto/

Project discussion takes place on llllllll.co: https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0552-the-radio-in-my-life/

Sound Ledger¹ (Fast Radio Burst Times)

Audio culture by the numbers

3: Number of seconds of the persistent fast radio burst (FRB) recently detected from a “far-off galaxy”

1,000: Number of times longer that is than the average FRB

2007: Year of the first FRB detected


FRB: mit.edu.

Originally published in the July 18, 2022, edition of the This Week in Sound email newsletter. Get it in your inbox via tinyletter.com/disquiet.

This Week in Sound: Fake Birds, Fake Radio, Early Chimes

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week are lightly adapted from the January 10, 2022, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound (tinyletter.com/disquiet).

As always, if you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

This New York Times story by Anthony Ham about the rediscovery of the Australian ghost bird includes the tantalizing statement that the person who did so has been charging in the past with having “faked audio recordings of the birds.” And people thought the big concern about deepfakes was in politics.

Great piece by Louis Chude-Sokei, a professor of English at Boston University, on using your ears when you travel: “I’ve been in cities and towns in Africa where a brutal, deafening din seemed to have no impact on the residents at all and in seaside locales in the Caribbean where the lull of water made people endlessly irritated.”
(Via Rob Walker’s Art of Noticing email newsletter)

“At a crucial moment during 2020’s racial justice protests, Seattle police exchanged a detailed series of fake radio transmissions about a nonexistent group of menacing right-wing extremists,” reports Daniel Beekman.
(Via subtopes)

The Ring line of residential products now has a sensor that can alert you if it recognizes the sound of breaking glass. Cue the Nick Lowe.

“Much ‘early chime development’was done in California.” The chimes refered to in this piece by Tessa McLean are doorbells. She’s quoting expert Tim Wetzel on the subject of longbells. “I think there is sort of a zen to ringing the doorbell and hearing a nice door chime on the inside,” says Robert Dobrin, founder of the company ElectraChime, “because it bridges the inside with the outside and invites the visitor into your home.”
(Thanks, Lowell Goss!)

KQED has sonification of the data of snowfall in California’s Donner Pass for the past half century:
(Thanks, Mara Wildfeuer!)

The company Eargo has made a name for itself with hearing aids that are barely visible. Now, writes J. Trew, they’re getting more sophisticated: “the company claims its proprietary algorithm can automatically sense your surroundings and the hearing aids will automatically optimize themselves to give you the best settings for it.”

“You’ll also no longer be able to change your Speaker Group volume using your phone’s physical volume button.” Such is one of the results of a ruling in favor of Sonos in a patent lawsuit against Google, per Lauren Goode: “The lawsuit is especially fraught considering that Sonos and Google are still partners in technology: Sonos’ newer smart speakers can be controlled by Google’s voice assistant, something Sonos was compelled to integrate after it found itself years behind in developing its own AI-powered voice assistant.”

“Our improved understanding of underwater sounds on coral reefs might help scientists keep track of how these ecosystems are faring,” writes Iain Barber, Deputy Dean, School of Animal, Rural & Environmental Sciences, Nottingham Trent University.

“The Cradle 1.0 listening blocker prevents your smartphone from hearing your conversations and those annoying times it accidentally activates when it’s not supposed to. Whether it’s on your nightstand, your desk at work, or in the living room while watching TV, rest assured your smartphone won’t hear a thing.”

The Clubhouse app (first on iOS, then Android) now works in browsers. Filipe Espósito thinks this may be too little, too late: “While this is definitely important in helping the platform become more popular, it may be too late for Clubhouse as it has been losing ground to competitors like Twitter Spaces – which has been available on iOS, Android, and the web for a while now.”

A new, pandemic-era mask can protect you and “amplify your voice by 60 decibels up to one meter away,” writes I. Bonifacic. The mask comes from the company Razer, most associated with video game equipment, as the mask’s design shows.