Thought provoking

I enjoy KE9V’s blog, Smoke Curls, quite a bit. Today his commentary on our “responsibilities” as hams made some valid points. EmComm seems to be on many a ham’s mind, at least locally. I’ve mentioned here before that while I’d gladly help out with communication in a disaster, I’d really want to move out of the way so professional emergency service providers can do their jobs.

Maybe that’s wrong. But let me float an example. I photograph weddings for fun and profit. When I’m shooting a wedding and the proverbial “Uncle Bobs” of the family — armed with comparable digital cameras, floppy zoom lenses, no professional experience  and a weekend workshop’s worth of understanding on light, composition and timing — start getting in my way, I tend to get annoyed really quickly. Let me do my job; I promise, my images are going to be better than Uncle Bob’s, almost 100% of the time.

So, for me the hobby of ham radio is just that — a hobby. And while I take pride in knowing I could establish a communication link in the event of disaster, I look at that as a consequence of building a certain skill set as a result of my tinkering. You know, with enough luck even Uncle Bob could probably shoot a serviceable wedding photo from time to time. But Uncle Bob isn’t getting paid to do that, nor is he trained for that work.

But KE9V says it best:

While the Internet is somewhat fragile, it was designed by the defense department to provide digital communication in the event of a nuclear war. So there’s that. And then there’s the matter that a local RF repeater is not without its own vulnerabilities. Does it have unlimited back-up power from solar or wind sources?

This all brings up a very good question. Do radio amateurs have a responsibility to provide emergency communications – and if we do, how severe a situation must we plan against?

The end of civilization, global thermonuclear war, total breakdown of social order?

Of course I do have plenty of HF gear that could be put to use in the event of a disaster though I have to tell you, if the nukes start flying, I’ll be too busy looking for suitable shelter and trying to survive to think about checking into a 40 meter net and I’d suggest you do the same.

I may get involved here locally with ARES, only because some of my ham buddies participate.  I promise not to be a “whacker” though…

The best of ham radio, 2012

While I was first licensed in August 2011, I didn’t get on the air in any capacity until the end of that year, and even then, it was only on the local repeaters. I got my HF station on the air back in February of this year, and the hobby really took off for me.

Here are a few of my favorite contacts and activities from 2012 related to ham radio. These are in no particular order:

  • Field Days! SPAR Winter Field Day was my first experience getting on HF. I made a handful of contacts from one of the shared stations at our FD site. Summer Field Day would see me operating my own QRP digital mode station on the 15 meter band. My partner and I battled extreme temperatures, humidity and poor band conditions to snag 23 contacts on PSK31.
  • Operating portable. I invested in a Yaesu 817ND and a Buddipole antenna system because I’m fascinated with the idea of working “backpack portable.” I tried operating from Little Mountain one weekend, but had no success. Later I hit the beach near Charleston, S.C. and made QSOs with this rig as far west as Texas and as far North as Canada.
  • The Columbia Amateur Radio Club. I started attending meetings of this fine group in January and I haven’t missed one yet. I’ve made a lot of friends, worked a lot of community events as a volunteer, and in December, I was elected treasurer!
  • Dragon*Con. I attended “Up and Down the Dial,” a discussion panel all about the wild stuff you can hear on the airwaves. Not specifically for hams, but most of the folks there were.
  • Good DX! I was very fortunate this year to work some very exciting DX stations. When you can reach Australia, you know you’re doing something right. In late March, I managed to log a QSO from the west coast of Oz. The very next day I logged an even more impressive “long path” contact to Australia. Overall, I have more than 70 DXCC contacts in my log, with about 30 of those confirmed on Logbook of the World.
  • VE sessions. I became an ARRL volunteer examiner back in the spring and I’ve assisted with a handful of testing sessions locally. The most memorable was one back in August, which was exactly a year to the day when I was first licensed.
  • Space communications. Back when I only had a 2m/440 handheld, I decoded SSTV from ARISSat-1. One of my goals in becoming a ham is to make a contact with the ISS. So far, I haven’t made that contact, but the last time I tried, I at least finally heard one of the astronauts onboard — the station commander no less!
  • Best ham radio podcast. I have to give credit to Jerry, KD0BIK, for hosting his Practical Amateur Radio Podcast. I listen to several ham radio podcasts, including a really well-known one hosted by ham radio celebrities. No offense to the famous guys, but Jerry’s podcast is what I listen to when I actually want to learn something. From PARP, I learned how to use JT65, how to QSL, all about Summits on the Air, how to get started with APRS, and much, much more. Highly recommended for those new to the hobby.
  • Best place for ham radio on the Internet. Reddit! I learn something cool every time I go to /r/amateurradio/.
  • Best use of social media. Worked All Twitter is the best marriage of social media and amateur radio I’ve ever experienced. When I came across WAT weekend back in November, it was a revelation. Using Twitter to self-spot and make contacts is brilliant, and it allowed me to speak with some of my favorite bloggers in the hobby. Definitely a much-needed, fresh spin on ham radio, and the most fun of any of the QSO parties I’ve participated in this year.

I’m already counting the activities coming up in January 2013: Club meetings, hamfests, SPAR Winter Field Day and more. Hopefully the new year will be at least half as exciting as 2012!

Thoughts on one year as a ham

Triumph Bonneville on a rainy day.

I awoke this morning at 6 a.m and headed out on my motorcycle to meet up with a group of hams for breakfast. Then we rode out to a VE testing session held at the local public television studio.

Exactly a year ago to this weekend, I sat in the very same room and met for the first time some of the same hams I’d just had breakfast with.  A year ago, I took and passed my Technician license exam at a VE session hosted by the club I now belong to.

It’s really incredible the difference a year can make. When I walked out of my first testing session with a fresh CSCE in-hand, I really had no idea what the hell I’d just gotten myself into. The summer turned into winter and I did nothing with the hobby. I researched radios, but it would be nearly December before I even purchased one, a Yaesu VX-7 handheld, and it was that same month I started attending meetings of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club and checking into the weekly nets.

Then things really started moving fast. By the end of December I’d upgraded to General, and had spent most of my hobby time working FM satellites, listening and occasionally attempting contacts. I hung around the local repeaters, mainly just lurking, and made desperate and failed attempts to contact ISS astronauts whenever the station passed overhead.

I had some time off in January earlier this year, as relatives gathered to be with a close family member who was entering his final week of life. In dark situations, I tend to fixate on activities that allow me to block out a large portion of reality — books, gaming, etc. Studying for the Amateur Extra license required that level of intense focus and detachment. Eventually we held a funeral. I traveled to a hamfest the next day and passed the Extra.

I can look back on the year with no regrets. I’ve met almost all my initial goals with the hobby, and then some:

  • I’ve setup an HF station
  • Started this blog to keep track of my progress
  • Worked 70 DXCC entities
  • Learned various digital modes (PSK31, JT65, RTTY)
  • Became a VE
  • Participated in winter and summer field days, in the latter case, operating 15 meter digital modes
  • Operated “backpack portable”
  • Tried my hand at fox hunting
  • Joined the local club
  • Decoded slow scan TV from a satellite
  • Started operating QRP
  • Had a contact with W1AW (on 5 watts SSB!)
  • Started learning CW
  • Volunteered for five events in a public service capacity

And then there are the happy surprises that have come out of the hobby. I’ve made some very good friends here in the local club. We’ve bonded over bikes, video games, VE sessions, late-night chats on 80 meters, Field Day trials, the challenges of working events, hamfests and food.

We closed Saturday’s VE session having granted one Technician license and two General upgrades. By now it was late morning and it started raining — a cold rain for summer here, not a torrential downpour, but a saturating rain that soaked straight through my jeans, jacket, gloves and boots.

Busy traffic and wet road conditions made for a harrowing journey home for this inexperienced rider. But at least I wasn’t riding alone.

A year ago I got into the hobby for the radios. I’ve stayed in the hobby because of the people.

Magical radio waves from Mars

Like many other science geeks, I stayed up late to watch the Mars Curiosity rover touch down on the red planet early Monday. I’m still suffering from a lack of sleep, but that hasn’t lessened my enthusiasm and interest in the new Martian rover.

One of my favorite moments of the descent was when the mission controllers used the UHF antennas on Curiosity to transmit telemetry up to the orbiting Mars Odyssey satellite, which in turn, relayed the data back to Earth, allowing us to get that “real-time” (but delayed by distance) information on every stage of the landing.

Not that long ago, I wouldn’t have understood much of that. But now, having learned about the UHF band, listened to satellite downlinks from birds like ARISSat-1, learned a bit about space communications, transponders, repeaters, antennas, and radio wave propagation, I was able to enjoy the landing that much more.

CW operator? Did you know that the Curiosity rover is leaving imprints of Morse code on the surface of Mars? Code spelling J-P-L (.— .–. .-..) is imprinted on the rover’s tires.

I’m encouraging a close friend of mine to take his Technician exam, and he’s started studying, but hasn’t committed to getting the license. I knew he was watching the Curiosity landing, so I e-mailed him immediately after touchdown and asked him if he’d watched Odyssey become a “repeater in space” to relay Curiosity’s telemetry and images back home. I hope that got him a little more excited about getting his license.

I think opportunities like the Curiosity landing are a great time to highlight the “magic” of radio. A cheesy sentiment, yes, but it’s true. Without radio, we wouldn’t have a space program. Just knowing the small amount I know about radio, got me very excited to learn more about the systems NASA uses. Fortunately, NASA makes all that information available to the public in beautifully illustrated technical manuals.Want to know all about how data is relayed from the surface? Have a look at this PDF on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Telecommunications. It’s deep, complex stuff, but utterly fascinating.

I’m still amazed Voyager 1 and 2 are out there, 35 years later, quietly sending signals back to Earth. I’m equally amazed that a group of hams received a signal from Voyager 1.

Seems like if the hobby wants to help itself, mixing ham radio with space exploration would be a good strategy. One of the reasons I entered the hobby was because I heard you could talk to astronauts on the ISS. I’ve never been successful in that endeavor, but in being exposed to radio, I’ve enjoyed meeting an incredible group of hams locally. I’ve discovered the world of HF, contesting, Field Day, and the list could go on and on.

Use the Mars landing to advocate for ham radio. After all, someone is going to need to build space radio systems in the future. Might as well be a ham.

Turn it down on JT65

It’s been 3.5 years since I wrote this post and I’m not sure the information in it holds up anymore, as I was a very new ham when I wrote it and I was still learning. As with many things in ham radio, the obvious solution isn’t always the right one. I’d defer to Jarrad’s comment below as a good clarifier. — KK4DSD

Check out those alligators swimming on the right side of my waterfall!

I wasn’t having much luck making phone contacts tonight, so I tuned over to the popular JT65 frequencies and heard a lot of activity. I switched off my QRO rig and fired up the FT-817, running on battery power, as it wasn’t connected to my station power supply at the moment.

On 40 meters, I started CQing with 2.5 watts and had a station in Ohio respond immediately. He had a nice signal, -7, and came back to me with a -8 report.

I reasoned that if I was that loud on a stateside contact at 2.5 watts, I could go with much less power and conserve my battery. So I dialed the 817’s power back to its lowest setting — half a watt. I CQed again and a station from Illinois responded, giving me a -11 signal report, well within range of a copyable signal for JT65.

I CQed once again and a Quebec station 1,000 miles away came back with a -12 signal report. Again, a very good signal for this mode.

I decided to try my luck on 20 meters and see if I could score any DX. I CQed repeatedly, but never had any takers, then I noticed several VERY loud signals in the waterfall. One of the stations had a booming -3 signal and he was basically quieting the entire frequency on transmit. Then another signal came crashing in, and the weaker signals not wiped out by the -3 station, were certainly wiped out by the second loud station.

Folks, JT65 is a weak signal mode. Five watts is considered high power for JT65. I have no way of proving it, but I suspect stations are raising their power levels a good bit. One thing’s for certain, if you are full-quieting the frequency, you’re using too much power. You’re stepping on everyone else on frequency who is trying to operate in a proper manner. And by the way, check your ALC, because some of you gators are causing splatter comparable to the best death scenes from Italian horror films circa 1980.

I enjoy JT65 because it lets me make QSOs on a very small amount of power. I have a high level of success with the mode, as long as folks play nice and keep the power down to a considerate level.

And if you don’t believe me, check out the JT65 Power Calculator, one of the best tools I’ve come across concerning this mode. (Edit: It looks like the power calculator has been down for at least several days. I hope it comes back to life, as it’s a very nice tool.)

Is there even a reason to use JT65 for casual QSOs if you have higher levels of power to burn? If I had more power, I’d run PSK or RTTY, because frankly the “Russian ice cream truck” sound of JT65 isn’t THAT fun to listen to. I use it because it lets me make contacts with my low power, not because I enjoy a 6-minute macro-based QSO with no real interaction.

Field Day tension?

I’ve recently discovered the /r/amateurradio section over at Reddit, and I’ve enjoyed the lively discussions and comment areas on a variety of current amateur radio topics. It’s a nice filtered look at the interesting articles and Internet finds that other hams are buzzing about.

Yesterday a topic pertaining to Field Day came up, and it’s something that I’ve thought about also: The “tension” on Field Day between those who want to contest and operate competitively, and those who simply want to hang out, set up emergency gear, test new gadgets and do public outreach. The whole thread makes for some very interesting reading.

Here’s an excerpt from the original poster:

… the different ideas that different groups have about what Field Day should be sometimes cause friction. A contester may become frustrated that others don’t want to operate all night, or that the group doesn’t have the most up-to-date contest logging software, or that the techniques used are not optimized to get more contacts faster.

And some of the follow-up comments have been just as interesting:

This “contester vs non-contester” friction extends well past Field Day. For instance, time and again I’ve been jammed/heckled on the air during contests. It’s like the jammer can’t just move to a WARC band or join in the fun, or go mow the f***ing lawn (and maybe sober-up a bit). (From “jackspace”)

This commenter took a strong stance against contesters:

That post is a good example of why I cannot stand to be around contesters, either in person, or on the air. It’s the “our way is the only right way, we’re the only ones taking this seriously, we’re better than you because we spend stupid amounts of money on equipment, etc” attitude. Saying most contesters wish that everyone else would recognize this really translates to “you should acknowledge your superiors”. (From “fotbr”)

And here’s a “pro-contest” stance:

If it’s not a contest then why are they awarding points per Q, Points for emergency power, points for getting the media involved and so on and so on. Then they PUBLISH the point by category. It looks like a contest, It feels like a contest, It tastes like a contest. IT’S A CONTEST. (From “ItsBall”)

It’s fun reading, no matter what side of the fence you are on, and all the commenters have great points to make.

Personally, I enjoyed the competitive aspect of Field Day. Perhaps it’s further evidence of the “gamification” of every aspect of our lives, but it gave me more of a goal to work towards. The setup of our station was nothing that I hadn’t done before, but the attempt to make a large number of QSOs specifically for points was a new experience for me. It was EXCITING to see the numbers go up, knowing that I was contributing points to our team.

The emergency preparedness aspect of the hobby is interesting to me, but ultimately a little boring. The guys in our club are just too good at it. They make it look easy. Consequently, most of them operated out of trailers in comfortable conditions. I fully suspect these guys would be ready for any disaster and would respond with enthusiasm and professionalism.

So if I was so into making QSOs, why didn’t I operate all night or the next day? Well, aside from working a band that closes at night, I worked with a partner, and both of us wanted to be able to enjoy aspects of our weekend beyond the radio. Field Day, being the mild contest that it is, allowed us to work when we could, without feeling like we were letting the club down.

Field Day is really about the diversity of the hobby and I think it offers something for everyone. I look forward to the next one!

Already tired of Windows 7

Last week I ordered an inexpensive laptop computer so I could run some of the Windows-only ham utilities. I also needed a small machine I could just throw into my pack for mobile operations. Many hams recommended Lenovo computers since they are fairly sturdy and don’t emit as much RF interference, so I found a cheap refurbished model on eBay, the model B570, with an i3 CPU and 4 gigs of RAM.

The machine itself is barebones — just the way I like it. It’s nicely constructed and has a decent keyboard. It’s no speed demon, like my loaded iMac i7, but it seems plenty powerful.

Sadly, all that nice hardware goes to waste with an operating system like Windows. I forgot how utterly DIRTY the Windows experience is. Examples:

  • McAfee Antivirus. It came pre-installed and it nags, nags, nags and nags some more. Even when I was a die-hard PC devotee, I never ran McAfee. I always figured smart browsing and common sense would prevent any strife. Sadly, that’s not the case nowadays and some form of protection is almost required. Wow, is this program a piece of garbage. Not only was it burning up my CPU and slowing everything down, but it wouldn’t even let me browse certain websites in the default configuration. I’ve disabled it altogether, and now it’s bitching at me that my computer is wildly insecure. A buddy suggested I used Microsoft’s latest security utilities instead of McAfee, so I’ll explore than in a few days.
  • Device drivers. Simply, my USB-serial adapter just… doesn’t… freakin’… work. I’ve tried about a dozen different versions of the driver and the end result is always the same. “Device cannot start.” As a result, I haven’t been able to connect my FT-847 to the laptop and play with Ham Radio Deluxe. I’ve ordered another adapter that allegedly works with Win7. I’ll keep the old one on my PPC Mac, as it works beautifully on that machine.
  • Speaking of device drivers, wasn’t it Steve Jobs who once uttered “Windows is just a collection of poorly-written device drivers”? Good to know some things haven’t changed. I felt like I was using Windows 95 for the first time again.
  • Windows and its patronizing attitude. Windows wants to do everything for you: “Locate the best device driver” or help “troubleshoot this device” … the problem is, IT NEVER WORKS. At least for me it never does. Why does Windows want to do everything for you, rather than follow Apple’s lead and just make it easy and logical to do complex things.
  • Why all the reboots? Change one setting. Reboot. Install anything. Reboot. Turn off a security session. Reboot.
  • Paranoid security. I’m using Karen’s Time Sync to ensure my clock is set properly for JT65. I had to disable the HIGHLY annoying User Account Control system so that Karen’s Sync would run at start-up.
  • Constant software updates. All the damned time….
  • Bloatware. Even on this barebones machine, I have trial versions of Office, and some crappy utils for webcams and so forth.

I could probably go on and on, but why bother. I’ve used Macs exclusively since 2005, and have had my hands on Apple machines since the mid-1980s. I’ve also built PCs, and I was a huge fan/advocate of Windows 2000. A decade ago, I would have told you that Macintosh stands for “machine always crashes if not the operating system hangs.”

But nowadays, using OS X is like a breath of fresh air after sucking on the exhaust pipe of Windows.

I’m not giving up. I’ll get all this sorted out and Windows will run just fine once it’s customized to my liking. Already, I’ve been listening in on JT65 QSOs and Fldigi seems to work great also. Sadly, all the jacking around getting this PC set up has cut into my radio time. I haven’t had an SSB contact in days.

And if all else fails, I suspect this machine will run Linux just fine…

Christmas is coming…

The long wait begins. Yes, that’s right. I’ve ordered the Elecraft KX3. If you believe the hype, it’s the rig that Jesus himself would have run if he’d been a ham radio operator.

And I didn’t wimp out on the features either. I ordered the roofing filters and the antenna tuner too. Now, when will it ship? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’d hoped to be doing some SOTA activations by now, and I wanted to operate “from a backpack” for field day this summer. I looked for an FT-817ND a few months back, but every online retailer is out of stock on that rig. Then I started hearing about the buzz about the KX3.

Sure, I wasn’t instantly in love with the boxy chassis — only slightly more attractive than the militaristic metal-box charm of my LDG autotuner. But dayum — that display puts everything else to shame! The layout has real knobs, buttons and a big VFO dial. The SDR internals. The portability. The superiority of the receiver. I dare say this rig is probably going to give my FT-847 a fine thrashing in the reception department.

Oh and I’ve come around to the looks of it now: Unpretentious, elegantly engineered, stately. Not a bunch of molded, injected plastic crap that looks like spare parts from an H.R. Geiger alien model kit.

I’ve even re-committed myself to learning CW, just so I can lay hands on that sweet little machined paddle keyer.

Being a newbie ham and moderately liddish, I don’t deserve a KX3. But I’ve ordered one. I made the decision last week and pushed the button this morning. Now the long wait begins.

If you are one of the souls who purchased the rig back in December when they began accepting orders, you’ve waited nearly five agonizing months for your KX3. Shipments for those orders only started going out last week, and Elecraft is predicting it may take weeks for those orders to be fulfilled. From their web site, posted just the other day:

December 27th was the first day we took KX3 orders and we received many hundreds that day, so we’ll be working our way through those first day orders for the next several weeks.

Please be patient as we ramp up production. During the first several weeks we will be slowly ramping up shipping as we begin manufacturing and get everything stabilized on the production line. We will then continue to ramp up production over the following weeks to our final production.

Dang. A single day of orders is causing weeks of logjam. I don’t have patience.

My step-father, a lapsed ham himself, had a saying when we were kids and we “wanted something real bad.” Simply put, he would tell us: “Christmas is coming.” As a kid, hearing that utterance in February or April was like a crack of damnation, because Christmas was a looong time away.

And that’s how I feel now, because it looks like it might be December before my KX3 gets here. Heheh.

In other news, I made a few decent QSOs this weekend:

Friday night I logged my first contact with a station in Montana, NB7V.

Saturday morning I met up with the local club and we worked a local charity bike ride. I was feeling a bit squirrelly afterwards and arrived back home in time to make about a dozen rapid-fire QSOs, mostly from a pair of state QSO parties happening: Georgia and New Mexico.

I also had a neat contact with the  Brunswick Shores Amateur Radio Club, N4GM, who were activating the “Old Baldy” Lighthouse (USA 039) in North Carolina.

I also managed to bust pile-ups on two Titanic-related stations, both in Maryland: The Titanic Wireless Association, K3MGY, and special event station W3R. I finished the afternoon with a Mexico station, 6H6IARU, celebrating the 87th Anniversary of the founding of the International Amateur Radio Union, IARU.

I made a single contact with an Argentina station Sunday, LU2HOD, and had no luck at all Monday evening.

I hear they have a good Olive Garden in Grand Forks…

I follow Dan, KB6NU, on Twitter and I enjoy reading his ham radio blog. He always does a great job finding ham-related items in the news. This week an article about a Myrtle Beach, S.C., ham and his wife caught my eye.

Apparently the couple have purchased a home in North Dakota, site unseen via eBay, because it would be an ideal location to set up a ham shack. And based on the sparse number of hams in that part of the country, it sounds like his station is going to become “rare DX” in short order.

My wife and I have often thought about moving downtown to be closer to our friends and where we work — it’s not like we live “out in the country” by any means. We have a very modest home in a neighborhood where the houses are jammed up uncomfortably close to one another. It’s not the sort of home where you’d expect a ham radio antenna, especially a 145-foot long OCF dipole. But the unused swampland behind our house is practically my own private antenna farm. If we moved downtown I’d lose that and likely be stuck on two meters with my handy-talkie.

If I stick with this hobby and get really serious, an honest assessment of yard space and the ability to setup two or more antennas must be part of the discussion! So I must commend our Myrtle Beach ham for taking such a bold step for the love of the hobby.

And by the way, I hear they have a fantastic Olive Garden out that way.

Why yes, I can afford to operate on 60 meters

Well I’ve been taught a bit of a lesson tonight: I reckon I should check my gear more thoroughly.

Wait a sec. Read my previous post regarding the 60 meter band plan.

Just for fun tonight, I manually entered one of the 60 meter channel frequencies on my FT-847. Now keep in mind, this rig was made before the 60 meter allocation. I was amused to learn I could get on the channels using direct entry — then I was SHOCKED to learn I could transmit on them.

I thought for sure the LDG autotuner would glitch out when I attempted to tune up my dipole on 60. I got a high SWR warning initially but the LDG chattered away, eventually settling in with a 2:1 SWR. Not great, but seemingly usable. I turned my RF power down to about 50 watts.

I heard two strong stations on 5371.5 and transmitted my call after they broke. Silence. Then very loudly, KD8NLL, Chuck, out of St. Augustine came back to me. He told me I was 10 db over 9.

Mind blown: 50 watts on a non-resonant antenna with a wonky SWR, on a band I’ve never worked, on a rig that wasn’t made to work on 60 meters. And I get one of the best signal reports I’ve ever had.

This all coming just hours after I decided 60 meters wasn’t worth messing with.

I’m still scratching my head about my FT-847. Obviously one of the previous owners modified the rig. When I bought it, I was told it hadn’t been modified. I can’t switch to 60 meters using the “band up and down” buttons like I can 160, 80, 40, etc. I can only get to 60 meters with direct keypad entry. But I’ll take that one-off quirk any day over buying a new rig.