Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I Love This Stuff!

Nothing of substance from me, just a video I found interesting. Hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Winter Decisions

Last winter, on the East Coast of the USA, was a doozy. We had tremendous amounts of snow and ice. While there is a lot of debate, in more learned circles, about how this winter is shaping up; but I choose to predict the weather by looking around outside. Here's what I'm noticing:

  • The deer are doubled and tripled up on fawns and the Bucks have already lost their velvet
  • Squirrels are going ape-crazy collecting acorns and nuts
  • The leaves are already changing
  • The air has "that" smell that proceeds fall
The animal signs are the most telling. It's going to be a long cold winter. Might as well get used to that. We're getting the house and yard ready. We have topped off the oil tanks and pellets for the pellet stoves. We are closing the pool tomorrow. So, pretty soon, we'll be all ready for the winter. The shack, however, needs a little TLC.

I've got a pretty flimsy pair of doublets up right now and I noticed today that the antenna ropes took a beating between last winter and all the early summer storms, so it's time for a change. This winter, I really want to get more active on 80M and 160M. Since I run barefoot (100W), I need a good solid aerial for the coming freeze.

This presents a bit of a challenge. For the low-bands, I think a full wave on 160M is the ticket. I have the wire and the space, but it's going to be a ton of work and it's going to take another ham. Hey W2PJM, are you listening? 

On the other hand, I decided earlier this year that I was going to layout a  serious ground plane for a 31' vertical so the wire disappears before next summer's Fourth of July party. I may have enough time to do both, but which one would I RATHER have? Chances are that either installation is going to present unforeseen issues and I don't want to get stuck with second best when the nights are too long and cold to changes things. 

Any suggestions, ideas, advice?  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Learning CW Faster...Faster

I've really let my CW slide. I turned on the rig last night for the first time in over a month and realized that I couldn't copy ANYTHING, so I pulled out the trusty iPhone and opened DahDit (my personal favorite Morse app) and restarted the tutorial. About three characters in, on a whim, I dial the speed up from 13wpm to 20wpm. Within three days, I'm at 85+% on 29 characters!

I never understood the whole, "Listen to the character, not the dits and dahs," argument. Now, however, it's beginning to make sense. At 20wpm, I can't accurately count the dits and dahs-as evidenced in my deplorable performance distinguishing "2" from "J" in the last few sessions. Which, by the way is even more disturbing because I have a 2 call. :/ 

I always approached CW like math: there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Now, I'm approaching it like rock-n-roll: feel the beat, let it move you, groove along. As a bass layer, I am so used to hear the subtleties of a good drummer that I should have picked up on the similarity sooner. Decoding, and sending to a free, is a lot like playing a musical instrument. Needless to say, I'm totally geeking out on Ham Radio again, which is the whole point of a hobby...right?

Once I get back up to speed, or in this case up to speed, I'll finally be able to hang around the 40M watering holes, rather than being limited to the area surrounding 7.110. Maybe I'll be able to hang with the big boys. I can't wait! I also might need to check out a bug, I hear they are even more musical than a paddle or straight out wallet, here I come again.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

We're Hams, We Can't Be This Lame


Okay, I apologize. I don't get it. We're Amateur Radio Operators. Right? We spend countless hours and dollars in the hope of communicating with others. Right? Is Yahoo Groups really the only online service we can find to share ideas? At the risk of being dogmatic. Yahoo Groups STINK!

I just spent twenty minutes. TWENTY MINUTES! trying to connect to a Yahoo Group. Are you kidding me? Then, when I got there, the search function didn't work, the header was the same as every other group I've ever seen, and the threads were so confusingly nested that I ended up tying the noose--I had hoped to use to put myself out of Yahoo Groups misery with--backwards! How, in this day and age, can we possibly stand such pathetic forms of community sharing. There has to be a better way.


One of the things I love about Hams is our ability to persevere. We will pound out CW on gear built before we were born, we will hold massive structures together with zip-ties and duct-tape, we will rush toward hurricanes and tornadoes to help others.

One of the things that drives me nuts about Hams, is our ability to persevere. We will use electrical tape instead of shrink wrap, we will install filters to deal with AC hum rather than properly ground our rig, we will insist on communicating through Yahoo Groups when there are a million better/faster/simpler/more effective ways to do so.

Want to share information? Blog about it. Or start a forum, they're way easier than you think. Want to share files? Dropbox and Google Drive are WAY better. Want to share photos? Backspace a few words and click those links. The point is: if we want to continue to be relevant, we need to embrace technology that works and especially web technology that works. Newcomers to our hobby will be turned away by our continued clinging to outdated and inefficient virtual hangouts. Youth won't stand for it. They'll find a group that "gets" technology. And who "gets" technology better than Hams? Nobody.

Sorry for the rant, but...


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Things No One Else Will Tell You About Field Day

I'm nostalgic. I like traditions. I like to camp. I like to stay up all night from time to time. I like to play on the radio--but you knew that already. So, it makes sense that I would like the ARRL's Annual Field Day. In fact, since becoming a ham I haven't missed one yet. Okay, that's not really a major feat, as I've only been licensed during the past four Field Days, but I am on a roll that I hope to keep going. So like many other amateur radio operators, I've marked June 28-29 on the calendar and informed the XYL of my intentions to operate the, "entire weekend this year. " 

In case you're wondering: she rolled her eyes and gave me her best "whatever" look before informing me that I would have three children as company and that she would be happy to be left alone in the house for, "the entire weekend." She said it very menacingly.

If you've never partaken of the Field Day festivities, there is plenty of literature available online and in print. The books and website will give you the basics: what the point is, who might be on the air, what you'll be hearing, where to go, what t-shirt to buy, how many commemorative mugs you should consider parting with your dollars for...but there are a few things they don't tell you. For instance:

Field Day IS a contest

They will say it isn't. They will assure you that it's a test. They will tell you there is no winner. They are all liars! Of course it's a contest, but the points are a little tricky to calculate, so here is a handy guide to calculate your score.

Field Day 2014 Ham-N-Roll Point System

Visible Insect Bites 1 Pt./Ea
Antenna Rope Burns 1Pt./Inch
Hair Physically Torn Out During FD 10Pts./Square Inch
Caffinated Beverages Consumed 1 Pt./8 oz.
Pens/Pencils Rendered Useless 2 Pt./Ea.
Sleep -25 Pts./Hour
Speaking to Non-Hams about Event 10 Pts./Minute
New Friends Made Priceless
Sunburn Percentage of body covered expressed as a whole number i.e. 50% of body Sunburned=50 x total points
Lost Voice Multiply points by db SPL lost from June 28 at 1800 UTC to June 29 at 2059 UTC

Field Day is a GREAT Weekend for DX

Sure the bands will be crowded, sure people will be piled up like I-5 during rush hour moments after an armored truck rolled over spilling it's contents across 8 lanes of asphalt. It also means that just about everyone in the world with na HF rig will be pointing their antenna stateside to witness the madness. If you're anything like me, you'll find those little RF holes in the spectrum and call CQDX a few times, you might be surprised at who answers. Last year, I added 7 new countries. 

You Don't Need an HF Rig to Enjoy Field Day

There are a few ways around the lack of a HF rig in your shack. You can join a club or group who is participating and use their gear at a GOTA (get on the air) station--find a group here. You can find a friend who has an HF rig and beg, borrow, or steal it for the weekend (I do not advise the latter, the fines and jail time will really hamper your chances at DXCC). Or you can take you FM mobile or hand-held out to the highest geographic location within a reasonable distance and score some major fun working simplex. If you decide to go that route, take a few minutes and a few dollars (<$20) to build a tape measure yagi and double your distance. Here is a link to some great plans for one.

Even if You Are Set Up on the Moon Bring Bug Spray

Field Day's one draw back is that it is always concurrently scheduled with the annual AMFGNEAH festival. The AMFGNEAH (Annual Mosquito Fly Gnat and Noseeum Eat A Ham) Festival is notorious. Google it. Never mind the robots must be sleeping, there are no results. Seriously though, you would be amazed at how many Field Day points (see the chart above) you'll acquire if you ignore this little tidbit: Bug Spray=Good, Mosquito Coils=Good, Sugar water=No Bueno. 

37% of Field Day Happens at Night

Field Day is twenty seven hours long, ten of those hours are in darkness, unless you live in Alaska or you are operating inside a building (which, for the record, is not a Field and therefore cheating...regardless of what the rules say). No one remembered to tell me this the first year, so imagine my surprise when I was trying to test my battery voltage at three in the morning without a flashlight. Luckily the arch of electricity alerted a fellow ham that I needed some light...and an icepack. Make sure you have some means of seeing after dark, I prefer an LED headlamp. It leaves my hands open and reduces shadows where I need to see. Also, it's easier to find after thirty cups of coffee and eight hours of breathing bug spray fumes.

In Conclusion

Field Day is a blast and the stories I have from my first four are some of my favorite Ham moments. If I could only impart one thing, it would be this: enjoy your time. No matter how many or how few contacts you make Field Day is always interesting, challenging, and usually a lot of fun. Take time to work stations having trouble, go out of your way to chat up younger hams. Be ready with a smile and plenty of charm when someone stops by to see what all the racket is about. Field Day is a blast, but only if you make it one.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

146.52 Reasons to Monitor VHF Simplex

Before things get out of hand, I have to be honest: I don't actually have 146.52 reasons for monitoring simplex prepared.  Still, there are plenty of reasons, so I hope you'll stick around.

As I'm sure you are aware the Dayton Hamvention was last weekend and I attended it with my father, W2PJM. We had a lot of fun, but I can honestly say that one of the best parts was the ride there. We left NJ early on Thursday morning and monitored 146.52 the whole trip. After a few hours of quiet, some chatter broke through the squelch and we began to hear other Hams moving in the same direction. Before we knew it, we were chatting it up on simplex.

I make a point of monitoring 146.52 whenever I drive. It's a habit that my first Elmer W6LSW instilled in me. Around home, I almost never hear anyone on simplex. I put out a call occasionally, but I'm rarely met with a response, but I still monitor it with dogmatic fervor. Why? I'm so glad you asked.

It's an Easy Way to Meet New People and Get Information

How many times have you been riding down the highway when a car that resembles an AWACS flys by in the fast lane? Don't you want to know how he or she can fit that many antennas on a car. Wouldn't you like to see a picture of the dashboard of such an aerial-laden vehicle? Well, if you were both monitoring 146.52, you'd have the answers to you questions.

Let's explore another scenario: You are driving through a new or unfamiliar area and you forgot to program your mobile for the local repeaters. You scan and can hear them, but you cannot remember how to use that nifty CTCSS code scan function the salesman convinced you was worth an extra $100. If you jumped on 146.52 and there were other Hams monitoring (or at least scanning it), you could have an answer.

Like Morse Code, It's a Universal Ham Standard

Arguably, the best thing about Morse Code is that it is ubiquitous. Any Ham that learns the code, quickly redoubles his/her reach in the amateur community. It simplicity and consistency lend the code to being a Ham Standard. Even Hams that don't know the code, know what it sounds like and can probably pound out a few letters--even if it's just S.O.S.). The same goes for 146.52. If every Ham in the world (or at least the USA) took the time to monitor and make calls on simplex, there would be a more universal feel to the VHF allocation rather than tiny little cells and haunts or local repeater groups.

In an Emergency...

Except in cases of dramatic tropospheric ducting, VHF signal are regulated to reasonably short-range communication. This is not the case with a repeater. With the advent of linking and internet connectivity, you might ask for help on a repeater and be talking to someone that is at the farthest conceivable geographical point from you or they may even be floating above you in an orbiting space vehicle. 

Generally speaking, if you can work someone on VHF simplex with a mobile rig (35w or so) or HT (5w or less), they are close enough to help you out in a pinch. So, if you happen to run out of gas, get a flat tire, or find yourself navigating the aftermath of a natural disaster, being able to raise a like-minded Ham on 146.52 could prove very helpful.

The Problem

The problem is, most Hams don't monitor VHF simplex anymore. Why? Who knows? The most reasonable argument I have heard is, "No one is ever there." While overstated, it isn't far from the truth. The point is, unless a large chunk of us start to monitor and use the frequency, it will be continue to be silent and worthless. 

The Solution

The solution is simple. Tune into 146.52 simplex whenever you can. Announce your call and see if anyone responds. If you hear another, return the call. Program the channel into your scan lists too. You can still spend time working your buddies on the repeater, but why not try and contact them simplex; whether it's on 146.52 or some other frequency. And, if you ever see my little black coupe rolling down the highway, give WE2F a call, I'll be listening. What about you?

Monday, May 19, 2014

4 Ways to Maximize Your Next Hamfest

The dust has settled and the car has been emptied of coffee cups and ham gear. I've unpacked my bags and begun to organize all the little bits and pieces that followed me home from Dayton. This was a great Hamvention weekend. It was my third year in four and by far the best time yet. On the long drive back to New Jersey, I had some time to ruminate on what made this trip so much better than the last. I've come up with several ideas, but four stick out most. Best of all, they aren't specific to Dayton. So, no matter what Hamfest you might be heading to, here are four way to get more out of the experience:

1.) Go with someone fun

People in our lives generally fall into three categories: people we enjoy, people we don't, and people we have to be be around whether we enjoy them or not. When going to the Hamfest, only take the first kind of people. This might sound simple, but don't pass over it too quickly. Consider that Ham radio--and by extension a Ham Fest--is not for everyone, whether you enjoy them or not. So take someone you enjoy, who also enjoys Ham radio and you'll have a great time. Drag along a friend, spouse, or mother-in-law that cannot understand why you, "waste all that time in the garage fiddling with your radio," and you're both in for some serious spurious emissions that may make RF burns the least of your worries.

2.) Make a Point of Learning Something New

The draw of Amateur Radio is complex. There are the Emcomm types, the CW purists, the PSK314787096505 digital modes types, the "Good Buddy this here ham radio sure beats CB" types, and there are people that want to bounce signals off satellites or the Moon or Mars (at least that's what there antennas suggest). The point is, no matter what you've tried in Ham Radio, there is at least one more things you haven't tried. If you're at a Hamfest, chances are someone there knows about it. Go ask questions, sit through a forum,or  grab some literature. You never know what you'll discover. For instance, I learned that my Raspberry Pi, is a really good platform for building a repeater controller at the Embedded Linux Forum this year at Dayton. Why did I go to that forum? It was the only one where I could find a seat. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Now I have another avenue to explore in Ham radio.

3.) Go With a Purpose and Maybe a List

It is SO easy to come home from a Hamfest with a trunk full of junk. There is a lot of STUFF at any Hamfest, but chances are, you don't need that much stuff. In fact, you might not need any stuff at all and that's perfectly acceptable. The best way to avoid all the Junk in the Trunk is to avoid carbohydrates (sorry I was trying to hold back, but I couldn't resist). The best way to avoid buying a bunch of stuff you don't need is to go with a plan and maybe a list. You might not find what you're looking for, but that gives you an excuse to go to the next Hamfest (win-win). With a solid plan you will be focused on finding something useful. 

Another thing: don't give up. I went to Dayton with a few small bits and pieces on my list: toroids, connectors, a few semiconductors, but at the very top of the list was an Elecraft K1. I've wanted one for a while, but shelling out the money for a new one has been impossible. For months I've been convincing myself I'd find a used one at a Hamfest. When none showed up, I doubled down on Dayton. Like they say, "If you can't find it at the Dayton flea market..." Well, I couldn't and it bummed me out. I was just about to blow some money of something else to satiate my QRP thirst when I spotted a K1 sitting on a table where it didn't belong. Ten minutes later, I was walking off with it after striking a deal that even my XYL thought was reasonable. The point is, know what you're looking for, don't give up, and keep you eyes open.

4.) Talk to People, Meet On-Air Contacts, Join a Club or Group

Ham Radio is social. So be social. It's one thing to know people's on-air voice, but when you can meet them face-to-face, it makes the on-air meetings more interesting and meaningful. Talking to and meeting new Hams is also a great way to initiate more on-air contacts and it's also a great way to find new friends. If you're shy, join a group or a club and slowly wade in to the social interaction. Before you know it, you 'll have more people to go to Ham Fests with and more people who sympathize and offer alternatives next time your XYL puts her foot down on your plan to run a radial field through her rose garden.

Hamfests are a blast. So find one nearby or even one not so nearby and make a day of it. With some forethought, a few friends, a willingness to learn, and a purpose for going, you'll be sure to have an amazing time. Just remember, it's easy to spend money at a Hamfest, but it's how you spend your time there that counts.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Packing for Dayton Hamvention

The famous Dayton Hamvention is this coming weekend! I can't wait. This will be my third year at Hara Arena, an oft-discussed...or was it disgusting...venue for all things Ham radio. W2PJM and I will be heading out first thing Thursday morning and I will be live-tweeting the event from the Hara Arena. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @rocknrollriter for up to the minute happenings, including a rumored announcement from Ten-Tec. Could more open-source radio be on the docket? It would make sense with this year's "Maker" theme.

I'll also be posting about the Hamvention here each night. I'd love to have you along for the ride. Also, if you can't make it, but wish you could be there to ask questions...let me know and I'll do my best to ask for you. I plan on spending plenty of time talking up the reps for all things QRP and Homebrew.

Catch you all in a few. 73

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Uh Oh, I've Got Some Flowers to Buy

Oh boy, I may be in trouble again. I was messing around on eBay and another QRP rig jumped into my cart. Seriously, I was just looking around innocently and then *BANG* PayPal receipt. It wasn't my fault. Honestly. The guy priced it way to low. How can I be held accountable for such insanity? Right?

Think my wife will buy it? I hope so, because a Norcal 40A seems to have followed me home. I know, I know; ANOTHER radio. I'll get rid of one I promise.

I have been eying the Norcal 40 for some time. The receiver performance and especially the RX current draw have always peaked my interest. At 15 mA, the 40A will run for days on a 4.5 AHr gel cell. Further more, it's small, I'm talking fanny pack small (not that I carry a fanny pack, but in case I decide to start). Best of all, it is solid state and has a tuning knob. I love my PFR-3, but that knob is really calling my name.

I should have the new rig in time for the weekend. So after a few honey-do chores, I'll be on the air looking for some QRP love. I've also ordered an Emtech ZM-2 tuner to accompany it...wait, no I didn't. What do you mean it says so right there?
Uh oh, better scoot. I've got some flowers to buy.

Great Video on CW for Beginners

I've been home sick for the past two days. Feeling under the weather, especially when the weather has been so terrible, gave me far too much time to lay about. I reached the end of my book and there was nothing worth watching on TV, so I jumped on YouTube® to watch a few ham videos. I cruised through the usual reviews and QSO's but then stumbled upon this excellent video by K1OIK. Rather than read me describing it, have a watch.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

D-STAR...Well...Okay...Why Not?

I received an extra and unexpected gift from Santa last night. It was a little late, but who's complaining? I have never really tried to figure out the ICOM D-STAR thing before, but now that I have a shiny new ID-31a, I might have to.

I've been hesitant to look into D-STAR for two reasons: its inherently "closed" nature--which feels like a slight against the purpose and draw of Amateur Radio--and its prohibitive costs. Let's break these down a little.

D-STAR audio runs on a closed digital codec (AMBE). This is fine in most consumer electronic products, but as an Amateur Radio operator and VERY Amateur electronics experimenter, it simply isn't attractive. I like to hack. I like to build. I like to tear things apart and see how they work especially when dealing with software, but (as you might imagine) ICOM doesn't make hacking, building, or tearing down D-STAR very easy. So until recently, D-STAR was barley a blip on my radar. However, between the ID-31a and this shiny new Raspberry Pi I'm beginning to play around with, a DSTAR gateway might be in my future...interesting...Still, I'm disappointed at the proprietary nature of the operating "mode."

To be perfectly honest, the biggest impediment to my involvement in D-STAR was cost. I simply couldn't justify the money on something so one-sided. I'd much rather buy an Elecraft K1 or K2 (I hope you're paying attention Santa), some new test gear, or a tri-bander for the top of that empty tower on top of my hill. But, since Santa dropped one in my lap, I might as well give it a chance; right?

Luckily (depending on how one defines "luck"), I live in a relatively populated area of the USA with several D-STAR Repeaters within 5w UHF reach, so I should be able to see what the hype is all about. But--and here's another frustrating D-STARism--it's not as simple as programming a few frequencies and hitting the PTT. There is a registration process. It's confusing and there really doesn't seem to be a good place to point the new user, so as I figure it out, I'll report back. In the meantime, I'm off to play with my new unexpected toy.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Raspberry Pi QRP Station Computer

I love to start new things. I love the feeling of learning and stumbling. I’m really good at being a Newb. Following through on projects I began…well, not so much.

I have at least a thousand projects currently under way. So, obviously, I’m ready for a new one. All these feel stale. Do you ever feel that way? I’ve often felt bad about going in so many directions without ever really settling on one, but my sporadic interests have also allowed me some unique opportunities that might not have been available if I wasn’t familiar with so many different things.

If you read around the web or the bookstore, there are a lot of “experts” out there, but no one seems to be selling themselves as a “generalist.” Why is that? Is a lot of knowledge about one thing more valuable than a little knowledge of a lot of things? I’m not sure. But this is the string of thought that I’m using to justify a new purchase and a new project. J Enter the Raspberry Pi.

While this little computer is on order, I am thinking through how I plan on incorporating it into my radio operations. A few ideas I am playing with:
  • Logging contacts on portable ops, especially during SOTA or Field Day
  • A dedicated Packet and/or digital modes computer
  • A mobile web server for ARES activations or club events, especially field day
I have read about a lot of hams buying a Pi and not ever using it, but I think they were expecting a lot more from a mini computer. The Pi isn't meant to replace the shack computer, it's meant to perform computing tasks on a more sparse level. It's design and architecture allows a high play to pay ration, which is also appealing. I'm excited to get tinkering with it as I continue my quest for the "perfect" portable QRP Shack.

I'm also excited about the possibility of interfacing the Pi with my TenTec Rebel 506. The "Rebel Alliance" on the TenTec Rebel 506 Yahoo Group have already developed some great software and hardware hacks for the chipKit(TM) Uno32 (Arduino compatible) platform, but a micro controller like the Uno32 has its limitations. Many of these limitations can be overcome by the processing power of the Pi, without necessitating a full-fledged desktop or laptop powerhouse, or weighing down an already heavy SOTA backpack with more computer than needed.

Here's to a fun new adventure in Ham Radio.