A quick LOTW rant

UPDATE: So this process actually is pretty easy, as I suspected it was. A poster in the comments had a great “quick start” guide, which I didn’t even need to refer to, because it began the renewal automatically when I loaded up TQSL.

Ultimately, it’s fun ribbing the ARRL for their “quick and easy” 14-step process, but in reality, it’s not as bad as it sounds. I still contend the setup process for LOTW is what deters many hams from using it, although the setup is much easier nowadays with the modern version of TQSL.

The ARRL has been sending me e-mails this month reminding me that my Logbook of the World certificate is about to “expire.” Apparently, this happens every three years.

A link to renew is provided in the e-mail. For some reason I thought it would be as simple as clicking the link, and hitting a “Yes” button in a web browser. Similar to a “confirm your account” e-mail you receive after signing up for an online service.

Plus, the e-mail boasted that the renewal is “quick and easy” to do. So I clicked the link, and what I found was neither quick, nor easy. I found a 14-STEP PROCESS, written in that cryptic LOTW instructional style the ARRL is so fond of.

OK, so figuring this out probably won’t be hard for me because I’ve used LOTW for a while. I’ve set it up several times, managed a club certificate, moved certificates, etc., so I know my way around the system and understand how it works. But what about other people? LOTW is already enough of a pain to use, and here is yet another barrier. I know hams locally who never figured this out.

How about this ARRL… if you haven’t uploaded a properly-signed log in say, 2-3 years, THEN force the user to renew the certificate. Is there some reason this process can’t be more automated? Can we not just “follow a link” that automatically renews our cert?

Hey, maybe I shouldn’t complain. At least I don’t have to send off for another postcard.

LOTW is my preferred way to QSL. I would love it if all hams could use this, particularly DX stations. But the setup process and the usage is completely ridiculous. Also, the servers are still slow to process logs. We’re parsing plain text here, not trying to crack the Enigma. Why can’t they look at something like ClubLog and improve the product? Why is a 14-step process considered “quick and easy”?

At least it’s still free and you can’t argue with that. Set it up, ask for help if you need to, and stick with it. It’s worth it in the end.

 

 

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Extended duties = less time on radio

The first full week of the new year is already off to an interesting start. Monday, I conducted the first 2016 meeting of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club as the newly-elected president, and to be honest, I had a blast.

We dispensed with old and new business efficiently and got right into the program, which was a timely presentation on National Parks on the Air which segued into a quick update on the South Carolina QSO Party (we’re shooting for a “Carolinas Weekend” in February), and I closed the presentations with details on our Winter Field Day effort.

I started transitioning into my new role as the club’s president back in November, literally the day after I was elected. Since then, I’ve met with the club’s emergency trailer committee (we’ve since deployed the trailer several times to workout kinks and hope to use it in full capacity for Winter Field Day). I’ve met individually with our VP, and trained the incoming treasurer, and managed to get him on the bank account before the new year started. By comparison, when I was treasurer, it was more than a year before I was able to even sign a check.

I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with our board. I’ve been using Evernote to share out agendas and other club paperwork, I’ve been looping in the entire board on e-mail discussions, asking for opinions and feedback, passing around forms to get an idea what kinds of topics our membership would like, and I’ve assigned work to our directors. I brought in a new net manager, and he’s taken it upon himself to experiment with the tired net script and bring some new life into the proceedings.

We’ve already had a contentious board meeting that had its share of disagreement and anger, but I think we’re better for it. There are likely to be more disagreements, as we have some strong personalities on our board. That’s a good thing.

One thing I wanted to focus on this year included a commitment to helping bring more of our members to HF. I think we’re going to make that happen as we bring the club’s trailer into the field for some operating days. I also want to focus on making the monthly presentations great again, and bringing some real value to our workshops and education sessions.

I also have to be mindful of our club’s public service commitments, which are numerous. To that end, we’ve created a special committee to exclusively handle event planning. Next on the list will be an examination of how we select events to work. There is at least one event we support that is neither charitable, or connected to any sort of awareness campaign. I don’t personally believe in asking our members to support events unless they have a public component, else our volunteers are little more than free laborers.

So, in short our club is busy. And that makes ME busy by virtue of the new responsibilities I’ve assumed. That leaves me less time for radio on my own, but maybe I can help some new guys learn the ropes.

I do hope to work some NPOTA stations and my SOTA buddy (and club VP), Steve, is already making plans for us to activate a nearby national park. I can’t wait!

Hmmm. No thanks, ARRL…

centennial

This landed in my inbox today:

Have You Heard? You Qualify for the ARRL Centennial Points Challenge Award!

No! You don’t say?!? Great!

Congratulations, you have accumulated points, worked new stations, made new friends around the world and qualified for the Centennial Points Challenge Award!

Indeed! Right on! That’s what I’m talking about. Wallpaper!!!!

The Centennial Points Challenge Award is based on the accumulation of points from qualifying QSOs made throughout 2014 and uploaded to LoTW. Recognize your achievement with a beautifully designed certificate to display in your home, office or shack!

Yes yes!! Tell me more. I need this!!

Centennial Points Certificate ONLY $16 US.

Uhhhhhh… hmmm $16 eh? (insert “womp-womp” sad noise here) All for a piece of paper with my name on it to commemorate something that required no skill to achieve? I think I’ll pass.

Oh and by the way ARRL, where’s my doodad/award/trinket/challenge coin for being a W1AW/portable operator back last year? I know at least three of my buddies locally who got one of these… I believe it looks sort of like this. I was really excited to learn about those momentos, since I was very proud to have the chance to operate as W1AW/4 for several hectic evenings/afternoons, but it seems I’ve been overlooked somehow. (insert “womp-womp” sad noise, again)

Winter Field Day Flop

Hey, it's Winter Field Day!

Hey, it’s Winter Field Day!

Winter Field Day, sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of Amateur Radio (SPAR), has been a favorite event of mine since the first time I participated in one back in 2012. It’s a weekend of operating that I always look forward to, as it officially kicks off the new year of ham radio for me and gets me excited for events, hamfests, and contests to come.

Yet, the event has been hit-or-miss for our club. Despite good planning, getting the word out on the local nets, posting updates on our field day plan on the website, and another excellent setup at a local emergency operations center, this past weekend, I’m sad to report, was a miss.

We logged less QSOs logged than last year for sure, but we had more than 60 contacts, and that’s not horrible to be honest. I would say more than 90% of those QSOs were made with stations who were not officially participating in Winter Field Day, and who had no idea what Winter Field Day is.

Winter Field Day simply needs more participants. Since the event started in 2007 it has gained participants at a glacial pace. The first year WFD had a meager 28 logs submitted, and three of them were merely check logs. Seven years later, in 2014, SPAR reported 55 logs submitted.

According to the ARRL’s figures, some 35,000 amateurs participate in summer Field Day, and anyone who has looked at the results in QST knows many logs are submitted. In 2014, there were 2,634 logs submitted for summer field day according to ARRL’s official list.

Anyone who has worked summer Field Day knows that you can’t spin the dial without landing on a “CQ Field Day” call. I heard exactly two “CQ Winter Field Day” calls on Saturday, and that was hours after the event officially began.

wfd_2015_13

Comparing these two events isn’t really fair, but I put the numbers out there to show the divide between the two events. Summer Field Day is the ARRL’s premiere event. It’s THE main event in ham radio. Yet SPAR Winter Field Day is merely a ripple caused by the flutter of a butterfly’s wing on the contest calendar.

So what can we do to make more folks enjoy this fine event/contest?

Change the date. Late-January is a tough sell for some folks. We’ve just come off the holiday, money might be tight for gearing up, etc. It’s also so early in the year that people simply overlook it on their calendars.

Make CW and digital contacts count 2 points. This is the model for summer Field Day and it encourages amateurs to use those modes. As it stands now, WFD is mostly an SSB event, even though contacts using other modes get a multiplier.

Go to a 12-hour format. Perhaps more folks would participate in a shorter event. I know we’d retain some of our participants if they were only in for a 12-hour haul. Leave the 24-hour slog for summer.

Make the exchange easier to handle. The WFD exchange isn’t particularly difficult, but it is a lot of information to deal with: Station class — in our case M)ulti I)ndoor — section, and temperature.

So on Saturday, we were saying, “Please copy Mike India, in Sierra Charlie, with a temperature of 45 Fox” and since most of my contacts aren’t officially participating, I would then have to explain in more verbose language what all that meant, then grill the calling station on whether he was operating at home or outdoors or away from his home, try to get the temperature, and his ARRL section, which could be different from his state abbreviation.

I had a hell of a time doing this on PSK last year, particularly while fending off “brag tapes” and ragchewers, and I can imagine how hellish it would be trying to explain this contest to someone on CW.

I know this is an emergency exercise, but I’m personally not a fan of the weather report (hey, it’s winter, we know it’s cold in most places!), and would rather just issue RST + state, or alternately, RST + temp.

Suggested frequencies. Generally, I’m not a fan of these, but if it helps cluster some action around a portion of the dial and makes it easier to find participants, then I’m all for it.

Get the word out. SPAR has a PR problem; no one has ever heard of Winter Field Day. We need to change that. Refresh the web site, hit some forums, e-mail reflectors, blogs, etc. Use social media. Get more clubs engaged. Could the ARRL possibly want to get involved in helping this become a bigger event?

Regardless of how any of these suggestions may have an impact, I really think getting the word out is key, and not just posting news on a club site, or mentioning it on a radio net — but getting out and operating.

wfd_2015_10

Desperate, dark times as the quest nears the end…

If I have any readers left, they are no doubt tired of me talking about this WAS Triple Play quest. These last few QSOs are driving me to desperate methods to locate the stations I need, for example:

  • Reaching out to Twitter via the #hamradio hashtags. I got the idea to leverage Twitter from one of KD0BIK’s podcasts, in which he mentioned that occasionally there will be folks on Twitter willing to help people who need states/countries for paper-chasing. Today’s effort has not resulted in anything.
  • Using the K3UK Sked Page 24/7. Well, I use this every day, but now I’ve taken to leaving it up all the time so I can see who’s on. I wish there was an alert function so if say, Nebraska shows up, I can get a text message.
  • Using the Reverse Beacon Network. I just started digging into the filtering that this site is capable of. And dammit, if I were at home in front of my rig, I could be tearing up some CW right about now. Anyway, in my hunt for DE and WY, I have some filtering setup to look for stations in those regions. I’m thinking this will probably be the most helpful method thus far.
  • Using HamSpots. This hasn’t done anything but frustrate me to be honest, since it’s heavily weighted towards digital modes, but I keep thinking a new North Dakota station will suddenly appear and I can hunt him down.
  • And perhaps the most desperate method: E-mailing guys and begging to set up scheduled contacts. I really hate doing this, and it hasn’t proven helpful at all. The one response I have received was from an operator who was restricted to low power data modes.

I mentioned my efforts to another ham who simply asked me, “Once this challenge was done, then what?” DXCC I suppose? But his comment did bring things into perspective. Why is this important? Why am I rushing to finish it now, after casually loafing along on it. Why the pressure?

It’s because I have a specific personal challenge in mind that extends beyond simply earning the wallpaper: I want to be the first KK4-prefixed station to complete the Triple Play. This callsign, which unfortunately often brands me as a newbie, or a young ham, can also be a badge of distinction under the proper circumstances.

In regards to that, my ham friend offered me some advice: “The last few steps of a long journey are the hardest.”

Indeed they are.

LOTW isn’t hard…

For some reason, the Logbook of the World naysayers have been popping up here and there recently, with the overall complaint STILL being that the service is too difficult to set up.

I can understand those who don’t want to support LOTW for philosophical reasons (they don’t like the ARRL, for example). And I reckon if you don’t own or use a computer during the commission of your ham radio work, you wouldn’t use LOTW. The computer has been, and will always be an integral part of my station, whether I am using it for RTTY, digital modes, setting up a QSO sked, checking propagation or logging. I really couldn’t “do radio” without one, hence I tend to look at those who don’t use them in their shacks as being somewhat anachronistic at best, and a Luddite at worst. But I digress…

K8GU expressed his thoughts on the LOTW quandary in a recent blog post, and I found myself nodding in agreement. His posting coincided with a minor plea I issued on the local 2-meter net Sunday, for all hams who work HF, to please use LOTW, even if you aren’t chasing paper. Also, I can’t believe how many folks don’t understand what LOTW actually is: namely, LOTW isn’t used as a logging program to replace the (awful?) QRZ logger, Ham Radio Deluxe Logbook, or DX Labs, etc. — but rather, it’s an online tool to store generated logs for the purpose of QSLing.

Setting up LOTW is NOT HARD! The ARRL has published several PDFs with explicit instructions on how to get the package up and running, how to move it to another computer, troubleshooting, etc. It’s all on the LOTW site.

The majority of problems seem to arise with the fact that LOTW isn’t an instant service. You must apply, and wait a short time with patience until the ARRL sends you your authentication postcard. If you are in the US, this only take a few days.

Ham radio has challenged me from the very beginning. As a new ham with no experience in electronics or RF theory, I had to learn a great deal before I was ready to take my Technician exam. Weeks of study… then it was weeks more study to pass the General, and yes, more weeks of study before the Extra was in my grasp. Then I actually had to set up a station — find a rig, find an ideal antenna, figure out how to get coax into the house, figure out how to raise the antenna, work out a grounding solution, search for and purchase things like power supplies, cabling, audio interfaces, antenna tuners, get the rig interfaced to my computer, etc., after which I had to learn how to make it all operate together.

A lot had to happen over a course of MONTHS before I was able to complete a single QSO. All of that was a heck of a lot more difficult than following the ARRL’s linear instructions to set up LOTW.

Hams are some of the smartest guys I know. Surely, setting up LOTW shouldn’t bring them to their knees.

Misinformation…

Facepalm

This load of hogwash was getting lots of comments today on the Facebook Amateur Radio Operators Group:

Sources inside ARRL confirm a new public service program to aid our government in the war on terror. LOTW logs are being shared with the National Security Agency. This monitoring of our communications with foreign nationals began 2 years ago and is apart of the program known as PRISM.

Reading the whole article, it doesn’t take a media analyst to figure out that it’s a load of BS. It’s fake, and not even of the well-written variety like Ham Hijinks produces.

Of course, some of the folks on Facebook are reacting predictably, threatening to quit the ARRL, threatening to quit using Logbook of the World, raging against the government, etc. This irks me… because we sure don’t need less people using LOTW.

Even if this were true, y’all do remember that everything we transmit is already public right?

Keep it classy Columbia…

I had the job of calling tonight’s net for the Columbia Amateur Radio Club this evening, as I generally do once or twice a month. Last night, in talking with our club president about a potential topic for the net, he asked me if I would remind everyone listening that “kerchunking” is not an acceptable practice.

Kerchunking is the illegal act of keying up a repeater for a second or two and not identifying. It makes the characteristic “kerchunk” sound when the repeater comes online and establishes a carrier and then suddenly drops. According to Part 97 of the FCC’s law an operator must identify by callsign at the beginning and end of all transmissions.  Part 97 isn’t some obscure piece of law; it’s the very foundation of the amateur radio practice, and as such, all amateurs should understand it. You MUST know portions of it to simply pass the technician exam.

I don’t really get bent out of shape at the occasional kerchunk — sometimes I’ve done it accidentally when I’ve grabbed the speaker mic — but seriously, how hard is it to say “KK4DSD testing”? If someone comes back and wants to chat and you aren’t in the mood for a ragchew, simply thank them, issue a 73 and get out.

So before tonight’s net started, multiple kerchunks came over the frequency. I started the net, but before I took check-ins, I mentioned the FCC’s stance on kerchunking. Sure enough, for the remainder of the net, some lid continued to kerchunk the repeater repeatedly in between transmissions as if to spite me.

I can already envision the culprit. Some crank who has just purchased a pair of Chinese “Wox-Uns” and is trying to figure out if they work. Note this individual probably isn’t licensed but is planning to “get his technician” because he’s heard that Chinese FM handhelds are going to be the key to his survival during an EMP or zombie attack. Good luck sir. I will happily sign your CSCE for you when that day comes. But until then, get the hell off my net.

Prepper wisdom from Reddit

I recently met up with a buddy of mine for an afternoon of target practice at a local range. I figured we’d be plinking off some targets with handguns, so I was taken aback when my buddy produced a trio of hand-built AR-15-style automatic rifles, fully equipped with fold-out bipods, flashlights, lasers, bayonets and scopes. Alongside this impressive display of zombie-splattering long guns, my buddy had a very nice go-kit filled with emergency gear ranging from first-aid supplies to glo-sticks.

I mentioned to him that he needed to get his ham license and a couple radios to complete the kit. He admitted he already owned a pair of Chinese-made handhelds, but didn’t know anything about how to use them.

So when this thread, “Preppers buying cheap 2m/440 HTs” popped up on Reddit today, I was reminded of my apocalypse-welcoming friend and his quandary.

Some great quotes here concerning those folks who dive into radio for prepping without learning how to use it. All these excerpts are from different Redditors:

The problem is most of them don’t know shit about emergency protocols, passing traffic, net controls, etc. so they’re going to be clogging the airwaves in a real emergency and hampering any efforts to provide actual emergency communications.

Uh huh. Yep.

I think the best solution would be to encourage licensing and participation in clubs to prepare for an emergency. You not only need to know how to be polite on the air, but also simply how to use your radio. Imagine trying to deduce all the concepts of radio starting with nothing but an HT.

Yep, our club has been doing quite a bit of that lately.

The whole “reach out to the prepper community” is the approach to increasing numbers of hams the ARRL has used the past 10 years or so (The appeal to EmComm). It’s recently been recognized as a less than beneficial goal for Amateur Radio as a whole. Sure, it increases the number of license holders – but the actual number of operators, let alone operators on the air, hasn’t increased. Look up some of the stats on numbers of new hams compared to numbers of active hams and try not to cringe.

PREACH brother!!!

If they don’t intend on getting a license, they can buy all the FRS/GMRS/MURS/CB radios they want and use them whenever they want. These people tend to be the type that don’t trust the eeeevil gubmint anyway, so it’s pointless trying to get them to put their names in a government database. I also think it’s ironic that these gun-totin’ True Americans™ are advocating buying Chinese radios.

Another guy who is reading my mind…

Ultimately, the radios are low-powered and their signals aren’t going to propagate beyond line-of-sight. Therefore it’s unlikely that their misuse is going to affect much. They’re probably smart enough to not transmit over the police.

Again, this is what I’ve been telling folks in my club all along. Wanna do something useful with your radio? Get on HF guys.

JOTI throws JOTA under the bus?

JOTA-2013So I’ve been asked to help out this weekend during the Boy Scout’s Jamboree on the Air (JOTA).

The call to action was something like this:

Phone call: “Hey we need some help with JOTA next weekend. How well do you work with kids?”

Me: “I don’t.”

Phone call: “OK so I’ll put you down then. Can you bring a station?”

And that was that. Hey, I didn’t get the club’s “Flex Award” last year for nothing.

So my buddy Steve and I will head out to Lexington County Saturday and set up a radio station and let some Cub Scouts talk around the world. We’ll teach them about how the rig works, Morse code, how waves bounce off the ionosphere, bouncing waves off the Moon, and how to talk with astronauts with a $40 Chinese handheld radio. Fun stuff. Interesting stuff.

In trying to learn more about JOTA, I discovered there is also a component of the day known as JOTI — Jamboree on the Internet. From the JOTA-JOTI website:

JOTI started with chatting (by keyboard) on the chat channels of ScoutLink. In the chat channels you can meet scout from your own country or around the world. Who you will find in the chatroom depends on what channel you enter. The chat channels are monitored and moderated by members from ScoutLink, so it is safe and fun. You can join a chat channel by installing an “IRC Client” on your PC, or by using a web-based client.

JOTI-2013I honestly can’t think of anything more dull for a young scout than to use IRC to chat with other people. Oh, they use Skype and Google Talk also. And TeamSpeak (What? No Ventrillo?) Aren’t kids already doing this stuff on their own? Don’t they talk and interact with kids in Europe and beyond on their Xbox Live accounts? These kids have grown up in an era where there has always been Internet and global communication in a keystroke. It’s like using electricity.

So I clicked back over to the JOTA page. Apparently, JOTA has been an event since 1957, BUT, and I quote directly from the web, poor grammar and broken sentences and all:

The last years the availability and possiblities of internet make JOTI more suitable for the core objective of the event: let scouts meet and do things together.

That’s on the JOTA page, which begrudgingly goes on to say ham radio “remains a very fascinating hobby” … gee thanks for that. I think ham radio has just been pimp-slapped by JOTI.

Yeah I get it. Ham radio was your grandfather’s hobby. The Internet and cellular networks facilitate instant, efficient communication. But where’s the magic in it? Isn’t scouting all about being prepared and learning new things? Isn’t that a large part of what ham radio is about?

Next year, maybe the scouts can just SnapChat each other.

If the ham radio jab isn’t enough, somehow they are issuing a challenge called the “Gangnam Scout’s Style Movie,” which is a reference to Korean pop artist Psy’s hit song/video “Gangnam Style.” If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t Psy accused of anti-American lyrics in a 2004 song?

I’m not prone to jingoism, but this sure does get me ginned up. The scouts have obviously changed since my step-dad took me to Camp Barstow in the early 1980s, where I learned archery, leatherworking, performed songs and plays under the stars in the amphitheater, built a rope bridge, and learned how to cook meals in tin foil pouches by burying them under the coals of a camp fire. Now they can add to that: Sit on your can and watch YouTube videos and use Skype.