Friday, May 31, 2013

Hoping to Get Clubbed

I recently re-joined the ARRL. I let my membership lapse two years ago during a time of financial trouble and a waining interest in anything and everything beyond surviving. Now that I'm on a more even keel financially and emotionally, it felt like it was time to get involved again.

I was perusing the site last night, looking for a radio club near my home in Western NJ. I was surprised at how many clubs were listed within 25 miles or so of home. I was also surprised by the numbers listed in the membership fields; especially since I cannot seem to find anyone anywhere on any repeater in the area. So I decided to check out a few of the club websites and plan to attend a meeting in the near future. That is when things really got weird.

I visited seven club websites. Not one…not a single one, had anything remotely recent posted. Some of the sites had not been updated since 2008. So, back to the ARRL list I went. Only one of these clubs seemed defunct. All the others had submitted annual reports in late 2012 or early What is going on?

I searched around a little more and jumped on to check out the listed officers of the clubs. Most appear to be active. Seriously? Why is there no club love? That got me thinking back to my first/last/only club experience. I joined the EDCARC (El Dorado Amateur Radio Club) shortly after I received my Tech ticket. I found them on the ARRL list, emailed then President Don Brooks, KJ6YST and received a warm and timely reply. I showed up at the next meeting, was met by Don, introduced to several club members and brought into the fold. At the next meeting I was asked to, "bring some new blood," to the Board. I accepted gladly.

For the next two years, I was very active with the club. There were weekly nets, monthly board meetings, monthly club meetings, and eventually ARES meetings, trainings, and nets. We had regular outings, field days, and public service events. There were people my age, much younger and much older. We all got along, learned from each other, and had a ton of fun. Then I got a new job and I was able to attend less and less. I missed it…a lot. In fact, I still do. Which is why I wanted to get into a new club ASAP, but apparently things are different here.

That got me thinking. Maybe I should start my own club. Then I considered how little time I have now and that idea went away. So then I thought about what I WANT in a club. I always find that defining what I want or what I believe should be, is a good way to frame the idea. Here's what I came up with so far:

  • Meetings should be social events, not a second job. They should be fun to attend
  • The bulk of the time spent should be on furthering the hobby, not servicing the club
  • Atmosphere should be fun and inviting
  • The club should attract people I would want to hang out with otherwise
  • Information should be redly available and regularly updated
  • Dues should only offset costs that are REQUIRED: e.g. renting meeting space, upkeep of a repeater system, printing or web-site costs, beer (just seeing if you're paying attention)

I'm not sure there is a club that meets these criteria, but I'm hoping there is. If not, I'm hoping that there are some other hams locally that are looking for similar things in a radio club, because I'm getting pretty bored playing radio all by myself.

What are you experiences in radio clubs? Have they all been stuffy haunts of rules and regulations? Have they been fun and informative? Do you belong to a club? Why or why not? Am I off the mark in what I hope to get out of a radio club? Am I missing something? Seriously, I'd like to know.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shacked Up

I spent a bit of the long weekend getting the shack back together. It needed it. It came out--surprisingly enough--much like my sketch. I still have some space for a power meter. I’m seriously considering the Daiwa SX-200, but I’m open to suggestions. (hint hint, comments, hint hint). I’ve read that it does very well both at 100W and at QRP levels and since I do both, that appeals to me. 

With that project wrapping up, it’s time to get back to the list and focus my attention on the ARRL Field day coming up in June. I want to finish my Hendrics PFR-3 and get some air time with it before the 22nd. I think I’ve decided on using the LNR EFT 10/20/40 Trail Friendly antenna on a hex beam push up mast, that ended up on my doorstep via a fellow ham. The only thing I need to figure out, it how to best rig and guy it.

With the bands falling apart, at least at my location, I’ve had some time to really work on my CW. It’s time to get some real air-time QSOs going. I’m focusing on sending this week and plan on actually transmitting my first CW CQ sometime next weekend. Ah, butterflies. I have to say, it’s exciting to get this close to a goal I’ve had for so long. All I have to do now, is figure out where to tune for the best chance of meeting a patient CW Op to wade through a mirky first QSO with me. Luckily, I’ve learned at about 13 wpm, so it won’t be too drudgingly slow. 

Before I get to all that, however, I must get to work. Argh! This whole having a career thing can really get in the way of a guys hobbies.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shack in Progress

I have mentioned before that I recently relocated to New Jersey. The move has been, for the most part, a good one. However, as a Ham, it's been a great one. Still, there is a lot of work ahead.

My "shack" in the last QTH, was a small desk crammed into the corner of the master bedroom. As you might imagine, late night contesting was out. Not only were my operating hours limited, so was the freedom to create a desirable operating position. The XYL is fairly supportive of my Ham passion, but not at the expense of aesthetics. So, when we moved to the new QTH, I was prepared to move the "shack" to the garage (a luxury we didn't have at the last place), but shortly after moving in, my wife mentioned that the hallway closet was, "...pretty big and should fit all your ham radio crap." SCORE! I had a room, with her blessing, in the house.

I painted the walls and stuffed a desk into the closet, set up my Icom IC-7410 and began listening. At first, I only had an attic mounted G5RV that gave me nothing but S9 +10db noise. A week or two later,  my Dad (W2PJM) arrived with a tennis ball gun under his arm and a smile on his face. "I've needed an excuse to try this thing out. What do you say?" He asked.

"Where's my antenna line?" I replied. Now I have an OCF up about 50' running NE to SW. It gets into Europe and across met of the US. I'm happy with it. That's not to say that more antennas aren't coming soon. In fact, better than the closet shack, I have a space less than 200' from the house to put a tower. And…the tower is sitting here waiting to be erected; ASAP. Since that project may take a bit, I decided to refocus my attention on the shack.

The more I have operated in that tiny little space, the more I like it. It's quiet, warm in the cool months and cool in the warm ones. The layout, however, sucks. So I've started to redesign it. I've been sketching up plans and making sure to leave some space for the K3 I'm asking Santa for. I've attached the sketch for no other reason than to archive my hair-brained idea of what it may look like.

I've had a few people ask what gear I'm using, so here is the current lineup:

Icom IC-7410 HF Tranciever
Yaesu FT-2800 2-Meter Tranciever
Uniden BC-396XT Scanner
Yaesu VX7R Tri-Band HT
Hendricks PFR-3: Build in progress
YouKits HB-1A
Bencher Paddles
American Morse Porta Paddle
Alinco DM-330MVT Power Supply
Heil Traveler (rewired for my Icom)
A decrepit Thinkpad that needs to be replaced ASAP!

So, that's my shack. Pics of the finished product should be up by this weekend.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A New--to Me--Ham App: Ham Morse

I've been using an IOS app called Dah Dit to work on my CW for several weeks now. It has worked wonderfully. I was able to learn the characters easily, but the app lacks when trying to learn to hear words.

If you you haven't learned CW yet, there is a dramatic difference in identifying a character and deciphering a complete word. The dahs and dits all seem to flow together at first. So I have been looking for something to fill the hole and keep me moving forward. Well, I think I found it.

Ham Morse by AA9PW is another Morse Code IOS app. The difference, at least for me, is that it is focused on sending letter groups, call signs, and words. You can set it up to send random words, random callsigns, mock QSOs, or even the daily news. I've been working with it throughout the day through my handy little bluetooth earpiece (so know on else can hear). It's been working very well. By playing with character speed AND spacing, I am making progress.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Coming Down / Setting Up

With the Dayton Hamvention behind me, it is time to think about the future again. I have lots of fun new gear and a few more tricks to try out on the air, but I'm the type that needs a goal...even in a hobby.

Goals are funny things. Sometimes, they motivate, other times they stifle. In this case, a goal reminds me that I have something to work toward. Without something to work toward, I often forget to pursue things that matter to me, for things that have deadlines. I'm not sure if that has to do with my upbringing, my need for success, or a hole in the ozone layer but a good solid goal keeps me engaged. I like to be engaged, especially if I'm doing something fun.

The notable date on my Ham calendar is Field Day. Having recently moved to New Jersey, I haven't found a club yet. Furthermore, I doubt I'll be able to get involved in one before Field Day, since all the ones in my area only seem to meet when someone signals them from Gotham City. I have not been able to locate a single one with a set meeting schedule or location; instead, they seem to roam the New Jersey pavement like nomadic hobbyists in search of a purpose. Since I'm not sure which bat-signal to follow, I haven't yet figured out where to go and meet these wayward Hams.

Being club-less (there I go, making up words again) and dead-set on operating abroad, I'm setting my sites on a little QRP Field Day atop a semi-local mountain-top. When I say "mountain-top" I mean the tallest spot in NJ, which is a little less than 2000' lower in elevation than my last QTH. This brings up a few challenges to overcome in the weeks ahead.

  • I need to get my power setup built and tested. I have all the parts for a great little solar/battery setup, I just need to put it all together into something that doesn't look like a pile of electrical intestines torn from Robbie the Robot.
  • I need to finish my PFR-3!
  • I need to actually get on the air and have some CW QSOs. I don't expect to be hosting huge pile-ups on Field Day, but I don't want to sound like an idiot either. I've been in learning mode so long that its about time to try and use it.
  • I need to test out a few antennas to decide which will serve best for that particular weekend.
For the minute, those are my Ham Radio goals. They're sure to change, but at least I have some direction to aim my "beam" as it were. Before I get to all that however, I have to get to work so I can pay for all the new toys I acquired in Dayton.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Day 2 Download

Day 2 of Hamvention started late. The lack of sleep for the trip in left me way too tired to start early this AM. I arrived a little after 10 AM an the sun, hidden above the clouds, had already heated the sauna that is the Hara Arena parking lot. But, in spite of the heat I dragged on. It didn't take long to find something I couldn't pass up.

The Radio Shack DSP (21-543) was hidden behind a pile of boxes on a small table under a tent behind another booth tucked behind a get the idea. I saw it and asked the gentleman if if worked. "Like a charm." At $20, I didn't even blink and paid the man. It's a good thing I did too. Just as I left the tent, another ham passed me and I heard him ask the man if the DSP was still there. Sorry buddy, the time to buy a gem is when you find it.

I've never had the opportunity to try one of these units, but I've read a bit about them and I needed an external speaker for my PFR-3 project anyway. So I was happy to begin with. Tonight, back at the hotel, I dialed in some CW on 40m. It was, like expected, full of noise, but I engaged the DSP and the audio popped out. I'm very happy with the initial experiment and I really can't wait to try it out at home.

My next find took me a while. I cruised the flea market baking (more like steaming) in the overcast air/water/sweat. Them I spotted someone selling a complete Hendrics QRP rig. As u stopped to admire it, I noticed a You Kits HB-1a, after haggling a bit, we made a deal. Score!

A Presley and a lemonade later, I was back to "work." Next on the list were a few cables, connectors, odds, and ends. Along the way, I ran into some friends of friends and shot the breeze before remembering that the DX Forum was about to start.

I arrived just in time to secure a seat (the room fills FAST) and only had to wait a few minutes for the first speaker. The presentations were all excellent, but AA7JV hit it out of the park speaking about the PT0S DXpedition. He said something that will stick with me, "Male your expedition relevant or you're just a tourist playing with your radio." I need to remember that as I start heading out to operate QRP remotely. Relevance is an important part of keeping people listening for that little 5w signal.

Well I'm wiped and heading to bed. 73 WE2F

Friday, May 17, 2013

Dayton Day 1: Wanna See My Booty?

Well, day 1 is in the bag and I'm smoked! My feet are feeling it, but I ended up with some great new gear. Before I tell you what I got, here is the disclaimer: no prices, my wife might be listening. :)

CG Antenna Ltd. Remote Auto Tuner

At a fraction of the cost of most remote auto tuners, I cannot wait to see how this performs. Look for a detailed review in a few weeks when I have a full wave loop on 160 attached to this tuner.

MFJ-888 Frequency Counter

Now that I'm building transceivers, I really needed this.

American Morse Porta Paddle

Had to have a new key for my nearly finished Hendrics PFR-3, right?

Anderson Power Pole Connectors

I can never have enough of these. I also picked up a Red-Dee 2 PS-4 Power Pole splitter, so I can charge HT and run my QRP rig from my solar/battery setup.

Weaver Throw Weight

This is cool. It's a small canvas bag loaded with lead shot. It will be a small simple addition to my field kit. Getting wire antennas up will be much easier with this guy.

EndFedz EFT-10/20/40 Trail Friendly Antenna

This little guy was the find of my day. I have a soft spot for EndFedz in the field. They are simple, easy to set up, and the work. This model is their newest addition and, as you can see, it is tiny. It will handle 10 watts and fits in my pocket along with my wallet. Which is so empty now that the last sentence might not mean too much.

Tomorrow, I'm focusing my energy on the flea market. I know there's a gem hiding out there with my name on it. Now I'm heading to bed.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

In Defense of Paper Logs

I love my paper log. In fact, I'll probably never give it up. Why, with all the fancy computer logging software available, would I subject myself to such antiquated and technologyless (Look, I made up a word) form of tracking contacts? Glad you asked.

I've only been a ham for four years now, but I have been asked at nearly every turn why I continue to use a paper log. Last year, I attended a club radio event at a children's festival that coincided with the California QSO party. Being that we were their to demonstrate amateur radio and there were literally hundreds of stations looking for El Dorado County on that day, I worked both the event and the QSO party…with my paper log. Within a few hours, I had logged nearly one hundred contacts. One of the club members looked over my shoulder and remarked that with a computer, I would have much less trouble checking dupes and keeping accurate on my count. He also pointed out that it would be much easier to upload a digital log to the contest afterward. He was right on all counts, but it didn't change my preference.

I spend all day at a computer. I am constantly looking at a screen full of numbers, spreadsheets, technical documents, Facebook, Twitter, HTML, blah, blah, blah. When I get some time to spend with my hobby, the last thing I want to look at is a computer screen. I think that there are three primary reasons I like a paper log so much better:

1.) They let me focus on the contact and not the computer.

I don't know about you, but I cannot abide a messy spreadsheet. So when I'm logging on a computer, all of the spacing must be exact, caps in the right place, and every cell filled to the brim with useful and properly spelled data. In my paper log, it could be chucked scratch, but at least the time, band, and call-sign are there. But more importantly, there are usual notes floating around the page about what I was hearing on the bands beyond what contacts I made. Which brings me to number 2.

2.) My paper log holds more useful information than my computer log.

Look through my HRD log and you can see who I talked to. Look through my log book and you can see what the band sounded like on June 3 of last year. What was the QRM like? Where were the strongest contacts originating? What rare DX was operating? Who couldn't I reach, even though they were 20db over S9 and only running 100 watts? That information is priceless in adjusting my station to reach out and touch them on the next chance. Now, I am aware that I could have a note file up on screen that let me capture all of this information at the same time. But, this brings me to reason number 3.

3.) My paper log can go anywhere, any time, and doesn't eat batteries.

Of all the things I love about my paper log, the thing I love the most is its simplicity. It doesn't require power, it fits in my backpack, and I can use it as easily in a tent as in my shack at home. It is a go anywhere solution that doesn't require schlepping an extra 10 pounds up a mountain for a SOTA activation or an impromptu QRP expedition to a local park. And I fI turn on the radio just in time to hear that one rare entity calling CQ, I don't have to wait for my computer to startup to log the contact.

In the spirit of full disclosure: there are times when I power up my computer and use it for logging. There is no way I could keep an accurate log for a Club Field Day for instance. There are too many contacts happening too quickly and the pile up won't stick around if I need more time to write. They have their time and place, but for my time, it will always be a paper log.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Accounting Before Dayton

     The Dayton Hamvention is this weekend. I, along with thousands of other hams, will be in attendance. Also, along with thousands of other hams, will be deep in debt by the time I leave. Not really, but it is a candy-store atmosphere and I have a shopping list an arm's length longer than my budget.

     Before I leave this Thursday afternoon, I am doing the normal things: packing, programming for the repeaters along the way, and preparing my wife for what might follow me home. I've also decided to prioritize my list into three categories:

  • What I "Need":
    • A set of CW paddles (new or used, but must be light enough for QRP expeditions
    • Anderson Power Pole Connectors
    • Dual Time Zone Digital clock
    • New paper log book
    • A copy of The Complete DXer
  • What I Want:
    • A Watts Up Meter 
    • A pair of 4.5Ah Gel Cell or AGM Batteries
    • Heil Proset
    • A Tribander for the tower I'm planning on erecting this summer
  • If I Find a Bag of Money Along the Way:
     What do you think of my list? Am I missing anything? Do you have a bag of money you're looking to dump on a worth ham?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Learning CW: Rock-N-Roll Style

     I have wanted to learn Morse Code since my first ham club meeting. I lived in Northern California when I first got my ticket and attended the EDCARC (El Dorado County Amateur Radio Club) regularly while there. At my first meeting, we watched a video about the K5D DXpedition  to Desecheo Island. As soon as I watched those ops pounding out CW, I wanted to know how to do it. So I did what any other newb does, I asked the guy sitting next to me and the guy sitting next to him. Over the course of an hour, they told me three ways that were the "only" way to do it. Frustrated, I tried all three ways and failed.

     Over the four years since then, I have tried every software, CD, mp3, and web-based course that promises to have me pounding brass with the best of them in less than forty-eight hours at 25 wpm. By the beginning of 2013, I was ready to do just about anything, short of sacrificing my first-born to lear the code, but it seemed hopeless. So I decided to figure out my own method. So far, it's working WAY better than any other method I've tried so far.

     So what's the secret trick? I'm not sure yet. At least, I'm not sure if it's going to work out in the end. I just know that I am now understanding most characters at 20 wpm and I am able to pick out words after two or three trys rather than banging my head against the shack wall in dispair. I downloaded DahDit for my iPhone and started listening to the characters at 20 wpm with the spoken character before the tone for the first fifteen minutes of my morning commute. During the first fifteen minutes of my commute home, I switched the spoken characters to after the tones, giving me a chance to hear/guess the characters coming. I did this for three weeks so far and just started listening to random generated words at lunch time and before bed.

     Why do I think this is a "better" way to learn the code? I don't necessarily. It's just better for me. Next week my new CW rig (a Hendricks PFR-3) should be complete*. I'm also heading to the Dayton Hamvention, where I plan on picking up a set of paddles. Once I have both, I'll begin sending into a dummy load until aI'm ready to get on the air; hopefully within another week's time.

     I don't know if my method will work for anyone else, but it's working for me. The point is: no one has the "best" way to learn the code, because we all learn so differently. However, I do believe that it is impossible to learn it (well) in forty-eight hours or less. It may take weeks, months, or even years. It may take trying hundreds of methods, but like all things worth achieving, putting in the time will eventually pay off.

*More on this in a futre post

A Bit of Ham with a Dose of Rock-N-Roll

     I love being a ham. I love being a musician. I love working in live production. I love writing.  I love being a husband and father. That sums me up pretty well. So why this blog? Why now? Thanks for asking.

     I have been involved in many facets of amateur radio for the past four years and I've noticed a trend. There are generally two camps: the preppers and the fuddy-duddies. It seems like the majority of the people I have met in this hobby are awesome, interesting, and fun people; yet the only thing I seem to find on the web about ham radio is: how to prepare for the doom coming soon to a neighborhood near you or diatribes on how much better radio was way back when. There is great information coming from both camps, but neither of them are very fun to read. Hears the deal, I'll always choose fun over good information; especially when it comes to my hobbies. Since I was having such a tough time finding anything informative, interesting, AND fun, I decided to do it myself. So that's what this is all about.

     I hope you enjoy what you find here. If you do, please drop in from time-to-time, comment, email me, answer my CQs (seriously,, please answer my CQs) and feel free to speak your mind, ask a question, demand an answer, or wax eloquent on the details. I welcome you all. But please, no fuddy-duddy, prepper-intense doom-and-gloom, just light-hearted fun discussion about one of the greatest hobbies in the world.