More changes; off-air again…

To say 2017 has been a year of upheaval for me would be an understatement.

A career change at the beginning of the year essentially obliterated my ability to attend meetings that I once enjoyed (amateur radio specifically), which in turn led to little to no involvement in the club that just the year before I’d been president of.

I’d been off-air for nearly a solid year, but this summer, I installed new high-performance coax and raised the 80-10m OCF dipole again, and got back to work making contacts, in search of the elusive remaining entities I need to complete the LoTW-only DXCC achievement (I need 4 more QSLs). I had a great run at the 13 Colonies, grabbing another full sweep.

Then I began a year-long photo-a-day project, which became a major commitment. I’m only halfway done. Once again, radio took a back-seat.

And now another change: I’ve moved across town. The shack is setup and I love my new home office space. Unfortunately, the property isn’t conducive to setting up a long dipole. I’ll be investigating some stealth options, perhaps even attic-based, or end-fed long wires. The shack is on the second floor, so that presents some feedline challenges, but I’m sure I can rig something up.

So in short, hopefully the new year will bring about a renewed interest in the hobby, along with some ideas on how to make radio work in this new location.

Now… what to do with hundreds of unused QSL cards that have the wrong address on them? Sigh.

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Back in business

After a nearly year-long hiatus from being able to operate HF from my home, I’m back on the air.

Right before last year’s 13 Colonies special event I discovered damage to my feedline. There wasn’t really anything I could do but junk the whole run of cable. I took down my dipole too, because I thought I would put up another type of antenna, such as an end-fed, or maybe even a Spiderbeam.

Weeks turned into months. And eventually I found myself at a crossroads, not only with the hobby, but with other aspects of life as well. I focused on other efforts, such as writing, and in fact another radio amateur and I cranked out two screenplays last summer.

I focused on some other hobbies, but I mostly worried about my career, as my previous employer was going through “a transition” of sorts. I knew I needed to seek other employment, or else I’d probably wind up the casualty of a reduction in force.

By the time December rolled around, I was basically done with ham radio. I shambled through my final months as president of the local club, an organization I loved, and had faithfully attended every meeting for the past five years. I’ve since stopped attending.

I gave up a prestigious position in the officer line at the lodge. It was a position I’d been waiting to take since joining the lodge, but something inside me said it was time to walk away, and so I did. I’ve also stopped attending these meetings. I didn’t renew my dues with other Masonic groups either, the Scottish and York rites.

By February, I was installed in a position with local government, essentially doing the same sort of work I’ve done for the past dozen or so years.

There was an uptick in radio interest for a moment. I participated with another club for the S.C. QSO Party and we smashed the scores for multi-multi operation. I had a brief flirt with some targeted DXing and grabbed two ATNOs, but my enthusiasm for that ended quickly.

I found a new hobby… playing the bass guitar. To purchase the bass, I sold off the 24-year-old American Stratocaster that I’d owned since college — an instrument I swore I’d never sell. I’m much happier with the bass to be honest. I don’t have a long history with it, but it’s more fun to play, and I’m already playing bluegrass basslines with a buddy of mine who plays banjo.

I also go interested in street photography again (I’m warming up for a trip I plan to take to Cuba in November), and I purchased a Fujifilm X100F for that purpose. I’m loving it!

I considered selling all my radio gear recently, but before I quit, I want to achieve DXCC via LOTW. I set a soft deadline to have an antenna back up before the 13 Colonies this year. I wanted to get the feedpoint of the antenna closer to my shack, but since I never figured out what kind of antenna I wanted to erect, I decided to just go with the trusty OCF again. This time, I opted for the stout low-loss LMR 400-style coax in an effort to minimize losses over the 150-foot run.

Saturday I woke up and went to work getting the antenna back up. Is there anything worse in ham radio than hanging a dipole? Jeez. It always turns into a mess of backlashed rope/wire, fighting with limbs, etc. I used my fishing rod to cast a bolt over the same limb I used before, pulled up some paracord, and hoisted the OCF up. Everything was going well until I realized I’d literally been pressing my face into a patch of poison ivy while I was tying off the center balun. No ill effects so far…

Then I was off climbing a tree to tie off the short arm, and later, into the swamp behind the house, which was dank with primordial ooze from a recent storm. I was ankle deep in muck, hauling the long leg southward when I realized there could be wildlife back here. Like alligators. Most certainly snakes. I quickly tied off the antenna and got out of there.

Back in the shack, I was receiving signals nicely. 10 meters was even popping. I issued a CQ on 40 meters and 20 meters CW and verified I was being received on the Reverse Beacon Network for both bands. Yep, I was getting out.

And that was all the radio I did for the weekend. I’m glad to have the antenna back up and working, but I need to get motivated as well. How can I get my interest level back up? Suggestions?

Coax dead, HF down…

I was looking forward to chasing down the 13 Colonies again this year. I managed a sweep in 2015 and never sent off the QSL card, so I hoped to remedy that this year. It was late by the time I made it into the shack, I turned on the rig and tuned around. There were no signals to be found anyway. The panadapter showed no activity. The bands were utterly silent. Even for this low point in the solar cycle, that seemed unusual.

I unscrewed the coax from the back of the radio and jiggled it around a bit. That seemed to help and suddenly the bands were loud and I could hear some faint signals. So the coax jumper has gone bad. I’ll replace it. A few moments later, I had the same problem: very low noise and no activity on the bands.

At this point I figured maybe the antenna port on the back of the K3 was bad. I switched to the second port and had the same poor result. Time to hook up another radio. I connected the FT-817 and nothing, zip, zilch. Again, unscrewing the connector and jiggling it a bit seemed to help. At this point I realized I was simply shorting the coax and the cable itself was functioning as a rudimentary antenna. There must be a problem either in my dipole or the 150-foot run of coax leading to it.

At it was nearly 10 p.m. by now, there was very little I could do, so I turned everything off.

Saturday morning. I took the 817 outside, unplugged the external feed line from the window jumper and connected it to the 817. No signals. In inspecting the outdoor coax, I found several patches where the outer jacket of the RG8X had been chipped (chewed?) away and the braided shield was exposed and damaged. This could have certainly allowed water in. As I removed the coax, I came to a corner where it was really beat up and nearly severed in half. Even if the water didn’t get in there, the damage in this particular spot was enough to wreck the whole system.

I lowered the dipole, disconnected the RG8X and tossed it in the trash.

So now I had a long holiday weekend and no antenna… but wait, I DO own a Buddistick. That will have to do.

Saturday afternoon I deployed it on a mast in my front yard and ran a 50-foot run of coax back to the shack. I was able to tune it using the FT-817, to a fairly lower SWR in the voice portion of 40 meters.

Ugh, the noise! I had no luck on SSB so I switched to CW and despite a high SWR in the CW portion of 40, the K3’s tuner provided a match. (I should have gone out and re-tuned, but good lord it was hot outside Saturday…) I turned my power back a bit and let ‘er rip. I managed to get every 13 Colonies station I could hear in the log and also grabbed some on 20 meters later for good measure.

I worked a few more Sunday, including one of the bonus stations, WM3PEN on CW. In total I only managed 7 of the 13, three of those were SSB and the other four were CW. Pretty pathetic, but I did what I could with the vertical. I didn’t manage to get my own state, South Carolina, or our neighbor Georgia.

I did snag:

  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • New York (CW, two bands)
  • New Jersey (two modes)
  • Pennsylvania

Talk about coming up short.

Anyway, this is a good time for me to change my setup at home a bit. I’ve wanted a different antenna for some time now, even though the OCF dipole was doing a great job and it probably is the best antenna for my situation. My wife has told me I can “put anything on the roof” that I want, so I’m considering a hex beam, HOA be damned. That will be several months down the road though.

Looks like only temporary antennas for the time being.

My mobile antenna is cursed

Well, the mobile antenna is currently not attached to my car. It’s not really my fault. It never is.

When I first installed the thing we had a hail storm that same evening and I had to take it back down while my car was at the body shop for the next week getting a hundred dings ironed out.

I managed to keep the antenna on a few more months, and then my electric-blue Focus was rear-ended in rush hour traffic.  The mobile antenna survived the crash, but it had to come down while the body shop replaced the rear hatch and bumper.

That brings me to the present. I took my car to a new local Ford dealer for routine maintenance Saturday (which happens to be just across the road from my local Scottish Rite Center, of which I am a member). The employees were nice, the waiting room was modern and spacious, and the service was fast.

I was about to climb into the car to drive off when I noticed my Diamond 2m/440 5/8ths-wave mast was gone. What remained of the mount was dangling off the skinny coax, although the bit that clamps onto the lip was still holding fast. They’d run the car through the automated wash and the brushes evidently just ripped the antenna off.

I located the gentleman who checked my car in. I explained what had happened, so he and a mechanic walked back to the car wash and returned a few moments later with the antenna, slightly bent and no doubt the threads on the mount are likely warped. The dealership told me to simply bring a print-out of a price list for the damaged items, or a receipt, and they would compensate me for the mishap. At least there’s that.

In other news, I am on DMR now, and loving it!

I’ve been using a Tytera handheld with the “stubby” antenna and it’s been getting out very well. It also helps that we have a large tower in my part of town. I can keep my handheld on the “Columbia East” zone and access everything I need, from the PRN, the local TG, the two “chat” groups, and the national TAC groups. A lot of the magic is in the programming file, or “code plug” that one of the local guys here developed.

While the DMR scene here isn’t bursting with activity yet, I can generally raise some folks I know if I toss my call out. We practically had a “net” going Friday afternoon when I was driving home and tossed my call out and a half dozen people responded. It will be interesting to see where this goes!

 

E-mail scam targeting ARRL addresses?

An e-mail landed in my inbox this morning that was from the “Arrl Webmail Admin” that mentioned so-called changes in the ARRL mail system. Like a lot of ARRL members, I have my arrl.net e-mail forwarding active for my callsign, so I assumed this was some change to the ARRL system. Since I was reading the mail on my phone as I was rushing out of the house for work, I decided to deal with it later.

Taking a closer look at this e-mailed raised a lot of red flags. For one, it wasn’t from any ARRL domain, and second, the content didn’t make a lot of sense:

This message is from arrl.net messaging center to all arrl.net email account owners. We are removing access to all our mail clients. Your email account will be upgraded to a new enhanced web mail user interface provided by arrl.net.

Effective from the moment this email has been received and response received from you. arrl.net will discontinue the use of our arrl.net mail and our arrl.net mail Lite interfaces.

To ensure your e-mail address book is saved in our database. Please click the reply button and enter your arrl.net

username here ( )
Password here ( )
City ( )
Country of Residence ( )

Well, ARRL has never offered any sort of “client” or webmail as far as I know. Furthermore, the e-mail asked for username, password, city and country — yeah, this is definitely looking like a scam.

I don’t know if anyone else has received one of these. I didn’t see anything on the ARRL website about it.

If you examine the header of this e-mail, you’ll see a very suspicious “reply-to” address, accountupgradingcenter@bitscn.net.

Don’t let ’em fool ya!

Three quick things…

This will be quick:

1. The South Carolina QSO Party is this weekend.  I intend to operate throughout the day exclusively on RTTY. Unless, of course, no one responds to 100 CQs, in which case I will switch to SSB.

2. I’m currently 13 confirmations away from DXCC. I should have been done with this by now, and when the summer began, I was trying to finish it off, but as with many things, I became distracted and ham radio hit the back burner. At least my K1N confirmations finally arrived!

3. More fun with Python. Here’s my “new and improved” Summits on the Air util. This one will load up the last 10 spots from sotawatch.org and display them in glorious 16-color ASCII/ANSI. The arrow keys can be used to scroll up and down through the list. Improvements include the scrolling routine, it pulls 10 spots instead of just 5 (I could pull more…), a command to refresh the listing on the fly, and some slicing to tame very long comment entries.

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On Winter Field Day; more Python fun

I received a comment on my grumpy Winter Field Day post from earlier this year. It seems some other hams were a little frustrated with their WFD experience and have branched out to create a “Winter Field Day Association.”

I think many of us who participated this year were frustrated by SPAR’s handling of WFD. As it stands, no participants have been able to submit logs from the January 2015 event, as the e-mail address for log submissions seems to be broken. If I recall correctly, our club made a decent effort during the event and logged more than 60 QSOs. We certainly hate to see that effort go to waste.

From Tom, WD8MBE, yesterday:

Would like you know that WFD is still alive with or without SPAR support.
A Winter Field Day Association has been created and we are in the process of creating a website just for WFD. Soon, we will have the ability to accept logs, leave comments, etc.

We are hopeful that the 2015 logs can be resubmitted to our website for proper scoring.

And I certainly hope they are successful. There is also a “Winter Field Day” Facebook group active. Just search for it.

So it looks like some enthusiastic WFD fans are making some in-roads into getting this event back in shape. I couldn’t be happier. As I’ve said in the past, this was the event that really made me a ham radio operator.  I don’t want to give up on it!

Pooping around with Python

So I wrote a little about incorporating some Python coding on my Linux-based “old-school bulletin board system” in a previous post. A few days ago I finished my second ham radio BBS util, the “HamCall” callsign look-up tool. This one, as expected, grabs data from QRZ.com.

This one was slightly more complex than the solar data util, as it needed some “exception handling” to account for missing data fields on some QRZ accounts. For example, if a user queried a callsign without a listed e-mail address, the program would bork. Similarly, I don’t like how QRZ stores certain info: License classes for example, are just E, G, T, etc., so I did some simple checks to produce a nicer output.

Some screenshots of it in action are below. I had to get a flying pig in there of course!

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Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 9.47.59 AM

A couple very random, yet ham-related things

I’ve been slacking on my ham radio duties because I’ve made a commitment to learn Python (or at least learn enough to do something useful with it, more on that later), but radio has still been at the forefront of my various hobbies.

clay_andersonExhibit one: A page from astronaut Clayton Anderson‘s new book, The Ordinary Spaceman.

I had an amazing opportunity last week to meet Clay and hear him talk about his time with NASA. I got in line to get him to sign my book, and I asked him about his use of the amateur radio station onboard the ISS. I wanted him to sign with his personal callsign, and it seems he left out a letter, but he was pretty busy signing books and taking time to talk to everyone. We also chatted about watches in space, and he told me he used one of the newer Omega Speedmasters with the digital/analog display. He also told me he was an ambassador for Giorgio Fedon watches (I’ve never heard of this brand), and was sporting a really cool chronograph from the company.

Exhibit two: My first Python “thing” — An ANSI-based tool for reading solar data from N0NBH.

Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 10.45.34 AM

I woke up last Saturday with this idea in my head. But some background… I’ve recently put my old dial-up style bulletin board system (BBS) back on telnet, and since it runs on Linux, I can do some interesting things like run Python scripts right from the BBS. I want to create an entire suite of ham radio-related tools for the board, and I thought it would be fun to re-create Paul, N0NBH’s ubiquitous solar-terrestrial data widget as a BBS application.

A couple hours later I had the basics down, but I was struggling to bring in the HF and VHF conditions data in a pleasing way. I came back to the script Monday afternoon with a few new ideas and discovered a few different methods for dealing with Paul’s XML feed. I wanted to color-code the band conditions like the N0NBH web widget, so I learned a few new tricks to accomplish that. I also intend to change the sun graphic according to solar flux conditions, e.g., low SFI results in an “unhappy” sun!

I also created a tool to display the latest SOTA spots, and I’m nearly done with a QRZ.com lookup gadget that will hopefully present callsign data in a pleasing way. I’ve sort of halfway hacked together a DX cluster thing as well.

So I’m going forward learning Python by applying it to technology from 20 years ago. The irony is not lost on me.

FSQ – A new digital mode

I have been asked to give a presentation at our club’s October meeting, so I suggested maybe I could take a look at the new digital mode recently profiled in QST, “Fast Simple QSO” or FSQ. I played around with the software on the 30 meter band Sunday and it’s definitely unique.

FSQ attempts to create a “chatroom” or IRC-like environment. First of all, you don’t tune around to find FSQ. You go to the assigned frequency for your particular band and you “hang out there” waiting for action. You don’t live-type as with RTTY or PSK. You enter text in a box and hit enter. If the software doesn’t detect any signals on the “channel” it will key up your rig and send your message.

There’s some other neat stuff you can do, such as send SSTV images and query other users in interesting ways (For instance, you can query another user for his station information, what other stations are hearing him, an automated signal report, etc.

It’s a really intriguing mode that I have barely scratched the surface on.

Updates + a new game for 75 meters

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here, and as before, it’s largely because I simply haven’t been on-air or involved in the hobby in a meaningful way over the past few months.

I tried to get back in action this week and scored a few CW QSOs (Croatia and Italy), and a quick SSB QSO with a station in Scotland, who immediately confirmed on Logbook of the World, giving me a new DX and placing me 18 confirmations away from the DXCC wallpaper. My only quest at the moment is to finish DXCC.

In my previous post I was lamenting my luck at a recent swap meet because I couldn’t seem to find a buyer for my FT-847. Well, the FT-847 has been SOLD. I posted it on a regional ham swap board a few weeks ago and within 24 hours I had an “I’ll take it!” response. The gentleman that purchased it from me has some mutual acquaintances and he intends to use the 847 at the heart of a Moonbounce station. I couldn’t be happier selling it to him.

As Field Day approaches, I’m looking at doing “something different” this year with some close friends, rather than with my club. While I enjoy the camaraderie of the club and seeing the enthusiasm of our members, the actual operating and competitive aspect seems to get lost in problem solving, equipment issues, QRM from adjacent stations, and the constant hovering and chatter from bystanders. I just find it very hard to operate when I feel like I’m on exhibit in a zoo. However, I am still the public information officer for the club, so I do feel obligated to come out and greet any media or ARRL representatives.

On a lighter note, I saw this amazing scavenger hunt game on Reddit today and it made me want to dial up a 75 meter frequency and play along!

Close but no cigar at the swapfest

Our club held its annual “swapfest” this past weekend, and I took a trunkload of gear that I’d hoped to sell, namely a Baofeng UV3R, a programming cable for that radio, an old 2m/440 antenna with a drill-through mount and a magmount, an old Icom desk mic, and my old Yaesu FT-847 station, complete with LDG autotuner and the Yaesu desk mic.

The Baofeng handheld went fast and I picked up nearly as much as I originally paid for it. I ended up giving away the ratty dual-band antenna along with the two mounts. The Icom desk mic also went on its merry way. I’d never had much luck with it and it will need the connector rewired anyway, so I didn’t mind parting with it.

I’d especially hoped to unload the Yaesu 847, tuner and mic as one complete package. (Plus extras: a custom Signalink cable, and a duplexer for dual band antennas) It’s been unused and in the original box since I put my K3 online. Ironically, the first person to come over and ask about it was the gentleman who sold it to me back in 2012. I jokingly asked he if wanted to buy his rig back, and he seemed to seriously consider it for a moment, and mentioned he’d thought about getting another 847. Ultimately, the conversation turned to drones, astronomy and photography, and there was no sale.

Another guy there mentioned he wanted to get into 2-meter SSB and was very interested in the rig. He told me how much cash he brought, which was in line with how much I needed for the rig, plus I lowered my already deeply-discounted asking price a bit more in an effort to sweeten the deal, but again, no sale.

I guess my next step will be to put the station on the local Yahoo “ham swap” reflector and see if anyone bites.

In other news, thanks to recent contests, I’ve picked up a few more LOTW confirmations for the DXCC chase. I now need 19 confirmations to finish up DXCC mixed. Looks like I’d be better off trying to exchange QSL cards than hold out hope for a few of these. Wonder when K1N will upload for non-donors?