Thursday, March 7, 2013

Some Seismological Humor

Came across this list, which was created by a bunch of us, probably in the 1990s sometime.  You can see by some of the technological references that it's no longer current.

YOU MAY BE A SEISMOLOGIST ...

If your friends & acquaintances get panicked looks on their faces whenever your pager goes off ...

If you have ever eyed your watch during a damaging earthquake to get the S - P time ...

If your off-the-cuff magnitude estimate of said quake is less than 0.3 different from the final number ...

If you have ever felt a 1.8 ...

If you have ever driven off the road or caused a traffic accident while gawking at a fresh fault scarp ...

If unreinforced masonry, even on the East Coast, makes your skin crawl ...

If you seriously try to avoid stopping under (or on) freeway bridges ...

If you avoid parking structures (& apartments with parking underneath) at all costs ...

If you know the location of places like Agadir, Spitak, Chichi, Parkfield & Loma Prieta ...

If you continually get thrown out of yoga or taichi class because your pager will not stop going off ...

If you have ever take a laptop computer/cellular modem into a movie (or the grocery store) with you ...

If you have ever given directions like "Cross the San Andreas, then turn left on the first street" ...

If you have ever told someone not to worry about that big quake in southern Nevada, that it is "only a nuke" ...

If you can discuss the propagation of Love waves with a straight face ...

If you have an indoor windchime ...

If you have ever waked up from an earthquake dream & logged in to the office, just to check that it wasn't real ...

If you have ever operated seismographic equipment anywhere in your house ...

If you choose to live in a particular area because it has earthquakes ...

Etc.

Thursday, January 3, 2013




I've written a few times on this blog about the joys of learning CW (Morse code) at an age more andvanced than the teens.

I've never been all that interested in psychology or neural science, but I have come across some weird surprises along this journey.  For example, over the Christmas holiday, I started wondering whether I could learn to send code with my left hand & if so, how fast.  I am totally right handed & cannot make a legible scratch with my left hand, but I can use a computer mouse.  It's a little bit slower, but it works & it got me through a period of problem with repetitive motion syndrome once.

As a quick test, I turned my Touch Keyer (a good stand-along practice device which is much less forgiving than a standard keyer/paddle) upside down. That way the thumb was still on the dits & the index finger on the dahs.  I started off at 5 WPM & worked my way up to about 18 WPM.  This is only slightly below may normal right-handed "cruising" speed!  I made a lot more errors with my left hand & I "got confused" more, but it worked a lot better than I thought it would. My hand felt totally awkward, but the sound was pretty much right & no worse than my right hand was a year ago at that speed.

Then I discovered that, if I thought about the mechanics, I lost it.  I did a lot better when I just thought about the sound of the characters.  So ... the right & left hand seem to be "cross-wired" better than I expected, but apparently not through the concious parts of the brain!

It is close enough that practice might actually be worth the time.  If I could operate the key left handed, then I could keep my log right handed, etc.  No need for delay on the net while I picked up or put down my pen.  For the future ... As I said once before, it's interesting watching the brain bitch & moan while it learns.

Meanwhile, I cannot "cruise" at 21 WPM every day.  Some days it's easy & some days it's hard.  Some days I have to slow down.  I make errors at any speed (but different ones, having to do with timing & lack of coordination, mostly).  Some days I can hardly do anything right.

I think this has to do with stress (from any source).  I cannot send well, or run a net well, for that matter, if I'm having an anxiety attack.  Nets themselves can be very stressful, depending on who's checked into them & on what the ionosphere is doing.  If something doesn't go well, the stress gets into a positive feedback cycle with the sending errors or other confusion & it's all downhill from there.

I think this is the key (so to speak) of why this activity reminds me of "Zen & the Art of Archery" or whatever that title was.  It's really a mind game, within my own head.  I do have to remember how to spell a word conciously, if it's a long one, but beyond that, there needs to be no concious thought between the visualized letters & the sound that comes out of the monitor (& if live, the signal that goes out to the antenna).

I know the antidotes to this, just have to use them more.  One is practice. One involves visualization & another involves a zafu.

Maybe there is a reason why I catch myself expecting certain people to address me as "Grasshopper"!

Monday, October 15, 2012

K6HTN's Excellent Adventure



I spent the weekend at the ARRL Pacificon Convention in Santa Clara.  Pacificon is always a good hamcon & this year it was also the ARRL National Convention, so it was doubly so.

There were several highlights, of which this is only one.  I got to operate K6KPH, right there from the hallway of the hotel.

K6KPH is the amateur station operated by KPH (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KPH_(radio) , the old Marconi/RCA ship-to-shore Morse code station.  KPH itself operates (at least) once a year on July 12th, "Night of Nights, when they commemorate the final commercial Morse operation in 1999.  I think I may have an earlier blog post about Night of Nights.  KPH is a historical monument on National Park Service land (Pt Reyes National Seashore).  The equipment has been restored & is operated by volunteer members of the Maritime Radio Historical Society.  KPH ops have commercial radiotelegraph licenses, but are still volunteers.

They operate the amateur station every Saturday & on special occasions, using the commercial transmitters at  Bolinas scaled back to the 1500 Watts legal for ham radio & using the big commercial rhombic antennas.  From Pacificon, they operated the Bolinas transmitters by remote link, while using a dipole receive antenna on the roof of the hotel convention center.  It was an interesting situation, since the transmitter could be heard literally anywhere in the world where the path was open (the ionospheric conditions were right) & quite loudly!  But the receive station was like your average amateur station, they may or may not hear the stations who answer them.  Also, the transmitters are crystal controlled, on the CW calling frequency & not able to move around the band.

When I got there & was wandering around the vendor area, I talked to Richard Dillman K6KWO (nemonic Kilo Watt Output?) & he urged me to "sit the circuit" for awhile.  I had quite a lot of trepidation - after all, the entire world would be hearing my keying mistakes! - but finally decided that it was one of the things I definitely wanted to do at the convention.  I sat for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, using a vintage J-38 straight key that was provided & the old style headphones that block out no external noise at all.  I did have some problems, not the least of which was that I'd never seen the receivers (there were three) before & didn't know how to adjust the volume.  At one point someone answered who was too loud & I just moved the headphones from my ear to my cheekbone.  In the process, one of them got turned around, to annoy the rest of the folks present.  I got a bit of ribbing about that later.

I got several QSO's on 15 m, some of which were quite long, because I had to explain why the transmitter was in a different location (QTH) than the receiver & why I could not hear them as well as they could hear me.  Talked to one guy in TX who answered me a second time later on, just to ask my personal callsign, so he could look up my email address & send me an mp3 file illustrating just how strong my signal actually was! I also had a DX contact from Barbados (prefix 8P6).  At least I thought he said Barbados.  He was pretty  weak (229).  After that was done, I walked over to the Northern CA DX Club table across the hall & confirmed that Barbados was indeed 8P6.  So these guys are in the log & if they want QSL cards, they need to contact the Marine Radio Historical Society as listed under K6KPH in QRZ.com.

After awhile, the too-loud Morse code assaulting my ears & perhaps some stress caused my allergies to act up & my ears to clog up.  At about that time, they decided to start giving me a light-hearted hard time about my backwards earphone.  I'd had enough for one day.  I'm seriously thinking about making a trip up to Pt Reyes (the normal receive site) in the winter, however, so I can sit their regular amateur circuit, using my own bug key & headphones & get a tour of the KPH installation.

I asked to send a radiogram to our Los Angeles Net net manager, who was not able to attend Pacificon.  This is the form that they gave me!



Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Next Challenge

This week I had the opportunity to check into the Pacific Area Net (PAN), as a sub for one of the regular operators.  I've probably been listening to PAN, when I get the chance, for almost a year now.  It was starting to make some sense ...

The National Traffic System (that somewhat anachronistic group of hams who shuttle short messages - radiograms - around the US & Canada) nets has a definite structure.  Local nets feed & draw from Region nets, Region nets feed & draw from Area nets, etc.  There are definite liaison roles that people take, that do this feeding & drawing.  On Wednesday, my role was "6T"  (6th Region Transmit) ... I took messages from our 6th Region net (RN6) to PAN, where I gave them to the appropriate TCC operator.  TCC stands for Transcontinental Corp - they take the traffic between Area nets.

PAN covers basically the western one third of the US & Canada.  There is also a CAN (Central) & EAN (Eastern).

On RN6, I am used to being sent by the Net Control to another nearby frequency, to do the actually traffic passing.  The volume of traffic is fairly small, up to perhaps 10 messages per session & there are only five roles (NCS = Net Control, P1 = 6T, P2 = 6R = 6th Region Receive, NCN = Northern California, which includes Nevada & SCN = Southern California, which includes Hawaii).  If you understand Morse at about 20 WPM, it's not too difficult to understand what is going on.  It is very rare that more than one secondary frequency is used.

On PAN, the prevailing code speed is 25 to 30 WPM (words per minute).  There are no pauses.  There could be upwards of 20 to 30 messages involved.  The cast of characters is larger, amounting to (up to) 12 hams (NCS, 6T, 6R, 7T, 7R, TT = Twelfth Region Transmit, TR, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India & Juliet - the last five being the TCC ops).  There can be three or even more secondary frequencies active.  Net control does not expect to be repeating instructions if you don't get it right the first time.  An hour is allotted for PAN, but generally, it is done in 20 minutes.

I didn't go into it completely cold.  The guy I subbed for clued Net Control in that there would be a green operator.  I got a welcome & my instructions were slower than 25 WPM.  Both NCS & the other operator waited to hear the "G" = "Going" from me, to indicate that I understood.  I was probably checked in for less than 10 minutes & transferred three messages: one for TWN (12th Region) & two for Juliet, the TCC for  EAN.

There was only one slight hitch & that occurred on RN6, 45 min before, where I was Net Control.  P2  (called 6R on PAN) - also a sub - didn't show up.  For a brief panicked moment, I was afraid I would have to go to PAN as "BOTH" (6T and 6R).  But I managed to get a volunteer.

It was fun.  I'd do it again.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Care & Feeding of a Section NTS Group


I wrote this a while back for a proposed NTS (National Traffic System) newletter, which may or may not come to fruition ...


A little over a year and a half ago, the previous LAX STM (Bill K6IFF) recommended me to the Section Manager as his successor & quit, to concentrate on learning the more esoteric Area & TCC level skills.

At that point I had been licensed for only about 15 months.  I had my General, was on HF & was completely self-taught & self-motivated on CW.  Early on, after passing my Tech exam, I’d read the ARRL Operators Manual cover-to-cover, to see what I might want to do with my new license.  For some reason, the chapter that attracted my interest was the one on Traffic Handling.  I wasn’t quite sure how to get involved, however.

I joined SKCC & FISTS to get some support on my CW learning curve.  One day not long after that, I answered the phone to hear some guy say he had a radiogram for me!  In retrospect, it was ARL SIXTY NINE FISTS.  Perhaps to make conversation, the delivering ham asked me what FISTS was.  When I told him it was a CW club, he invited me to the Southern California slow net, SCN.  I did listen to it, but it was too fast & I could not follow it.  Also, I had no 80 m antenna yet.  So I just continued my daily code practice, my ragged ragchews & SKCC sprint contests.

During one of the latter events, I made a contact with Dave KI6BHB.  Upon looking him up on www.QRZ.com, I learned that he was involved in a trivia contest (http://ntstalk.wikidot.com/activity:trivia-traffic) where questions & answers were sent via radiograms.  He was patient enough to start skeds with me at 7-8 WPM, taking & delivering my trivia traffic.  One day, he sort of set me up: he gave me a question that he had authored, meaning that I could not give the answer directly to him, if it was to go through the NTS.  So one evening, in the dead of winter when 80 m was long, I went to the club station on the campus where I work & checked into the Northern California Net NCN (I could not hear SCN).  When acknowledged, I announced DE K6HTN FIRST TFC NET PSE QRS QTC SCN 1.  I sent Dave his trivia answer.

I then went to an ARES meeting & inquired about traffic training.

Six months later, I was the STM.

A couple of years before that point, the NTS in southern California had nearly died, as rumor would have it, from a spam overdose.  Most of the active members had become dissatisfied with the quality of the traffic & quit.  K6IFF, KI6BHB & Bruce KI6RUW (now W6WW) - the latter two in ORG Section, were in the process of trying to revive the NTS presence.  They had re-instituted the SCN/CW net twice a week & organized SCN/V three nights a week on a repeater at 8,000 ft elevation, with an awesome footprint.
A few months before my appointment, the SM, David N6HD, had started the Los Angeles Net (LAN) on a linked repeater system, two nights per week.  K6IFF & KI6BHB served as RN6 liaisons.  Often we got no traffic; sometimes we got no check-ins.  Usually, it was three or four messages, most often trivia or “friendly reminders.

My first task was to figure out where to get more traffic handlers & more traffic.
I did not think shuffling traffic in itself was going to appeal to our Section hams, with their smart phones & iPads.  But I did think that the skills to handle traffic would be of great value for the ARES operators, even if the emergency messages they passed were not actually radiograms.  So I expanded a bit on class material that N6HD & N6VI, the SW Division Vice Director had been using.  I gave it a catchy name (“TFC School”) & arranged for ARES to sponsor it in each of our five Districts.  TFC School is a lively 3-hr class, that involves writing radiograms,“passing them” to classmates & mock net activity.  I am now starting the second round through the Districts.

Only about 5% of the students become active traffic handlers.  But that is enough for growth.  We have about 10 regulars on LAN & 5 on SCN/CW.  We are a chummy group & we enjoy taking over the back row at ARES meetings.  I’ve had a few proud moments watching a couple of guys whom I trained, shuffling out of a local radio club meeting to the parking lot & coming back later with a stack of paper.

We now have a Morse code class.  I’ve tried to promote interest in WinLink, packet & now Fldigi.  This is starting to pay off, with ARES packet nodes popping up where there were none before.

Obtaining quality traffic was a little bit harder, at first.  We had the local trivia & otherwise it was mostly bulk traffic.  On Field Day, I sent out quick & easy instructions through the Section email database, for earning up to 200 bonus points.  Some of the earthquake drills & public preparedness events have had traffic handlers attending, ready to “send a sample message to your out-of-town contact.”

I have often said to our handlers, “If you don’t like the traffic, send some of your own.  Send it HXCE.”

At the SW Division Convention, we staffed a table, collecting radiograms & sending them on the spot through a portable packet WinLink node on the 17th floor of the hotel.  We organized a panel discussion including some TCC ops, all the way up to the Chair of the Pacific Area Staff.  Not expecting a huge interest, we reserved a small room; we packed it.

Our first big break came when W6WW decided to go into the bulk traffic business, with traffic specifically aimed at new licensees.  These are the most fun messages to deliver (especially when they are going to young people) & the project gave our members a good dose of enthusiasm.  Out of his fire hose of output, Bruce gives me a few per day for “code practice,” making me an active & more proficient member of RN6.  W6WW has since moved on to other projects & a “gang of four” LAX handlers have taken over the welcoming task.  (Did you know that you can use Word/Excel/Mailmerge to create NTSD batch files?)

Our second big break was the formation & growth of radiograms@groups.yahoo.com.  Just the presence of a database of hams interested in conversing by radiogram has been extremely stimulating.  The phenomenal growth of the reflector as a resource to ask questions of the top people is even more appreciated.

The third break was making arrangements to exchange traffic with the Sixth Region NTSD MBO, Jim K6RXX.  Due to software issues & skip problems (we are a geographically small Section), this has so far been by Airmail & WinLink, so there is much more work to do.  But it has provided an influx of traffic for our local nets.

At least some percentage of interesting traffic seems to be the key to getting & keeping the interest of the local handlers.  A reasonably large volume of traffic is also necessary to challenge skills & maintain interest.  It is one thing to know how to format a radiogram & send it.  For true emergency preparedness, it is also necessary to deal with net issues under mild pressure.  The NTS is the only branch of ham radio that I know of that practices for disaster 365.25 days per year, so let’s do enough of it to stay awake.

LAN sessions are now lasting an average of 45 min & handling 20 to 30 messages.  Our record is 58, on a net that lasted rather longer than 45 min.  We have rotating liaisons (in other words, it’s not me all the time) to RN6 & SCN/V.  We have half a dozen net control ops, who get better at it every time they do it.  We are learning to use “QSY” to simplex or WinLink, to make things more efficient.  We are learning to work around propagation problems on HF & linkage problems on the repeaters.  We all work together to gently remind each other about writing good service messages, correctly voicing traffic & not speaking before the repeaters have time to link up.

Most of the steps in the re-growth of LAX NTS have been baby steps.  Some, though, have been leaps of faith, such as planning the Convention effort without knowing for sure whether we had a working WinLink node to send to.  Or taking net control on RN6 for the first time.  I’m sure we have plenty of other adventures ahead of us.

But every day, it is something.  What do I have to say to someone that I can say by radiogram?  Shall I organize short presentations just for our group, in our post-ARES meetings?  Who has the traffic & who is the liaison?  What is the health of the repeater system today?

I guess the bottom line is that if you want to expand your local NTS, you have to be very enthusiastic yourself & have a lot of energy.  You need a lot of ideas, either yours or you can borrow some (with credit, of course).  Thank people constantly.  Be prepared to spend a lot of time on it & check into a lot of nets.  Just like code practice, just keep at it.  It will come.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

FLdigi

Our ARES group has recently been introduced to FLdigi (NBEMS).  This is software for passing messages in many different formats, through many different digital radio modes. We’ve tried it so far on 2 m FM (JT63 format) in its most basic operation – hold the radio mic up to the computer speaker!

Surprisingly to me, this work, even in the presence of noise around the room.

Another nice feature is an accompanying program FLmsg, which has forms for easy entry of several formats: radiograms, Red Cross, ICS 213, etc.  These help ops who may not be totally comfortable with the form to avoid messing things up.  The message is transferred as plain text & FLmsg can pick it up & put it back into the form.

How exactly do we use this in our local NTS operations?

We actually do a lot of VHF simplex transfer of messages, both “QSY” during nets or outside of the nets.  Say K6HTN cannot make the next net, but holds traffic, K6FRG agrees to take the traffic.  If it’s one or two messages, it’s easiest to use voice.  For more than that, FLdigi is usually a better choice, once we all know how to use it & what are settings are.

Accurate?  Not 100% of the time, at least with mic & speaker.  We have to scan through for obvious problems, dropped sections & ask for fills as we do on voice.

We also found that we dropped the radiogram form pretty fast & went back to “flat file” text (“generic” tab in FLmsg).  It is easier for multiple messages & “books”.

It’s another nice “tool in the box”.

Pushing the Envelope a little

In one way, the National Traffic System has a leg up over most ham radio emergency communications (emcomm) organizations: they “practice” every day.  Not everyone practices every day, but there is someone practicing every day.  There are opportunities every day.  Messages get slung across the country every day.  Messages get delivered every day.

At the very least, it gives operators a chance to learn how to format a written message (we pick one format – the ARRL radiogram format - & use it, but the skills apply to any formal message). 

Then they get to learn how to check into a complex directed net.  A lot of weekly “emergency nets” are directed nets, but most only check stations in at the beginning & out at closing.  There may be some announcements.  But, there is nothing as complex as arranging multiple pairs of stations to pass messages off frequency, come back, go to another frequency, etc.  (I’d sure hate to have to learn to do this when the heat is on!)

They get to learn to send the messages (voice, CW or arrange for digital transfer) in the clearest & most efficient manner & to ensure that the missing parts are filled in correctly.  They also learn to be on the receiving end of this process, know when they have it right & when they need to ask for parts to be repeated.

That’s not all there is to training for disaster, though.  Another big issue is the volume of potential message traffic.  If your usual routing outlets cannot handle the volume, you have to be creative!  The right messages have to go to the right routes.

One way to stretch your capability is to try a “bulk traffic” operation.  There are a few of us who mine the FCC data base daily for new hams & send them a welcome message.  There are people who send birthday greetings to members of certain radio clubs, etc.  The first time I took on one of these operations, I managed to find routing snags in even the digital system.  Until I got my personal routine down, I had difficulty producing batch files with exactly correct format on a reliable basis – it took a couple of days to get it right.  I found that my usual outlet was a bit overloaded & I had to find alternate outlets.

Maybe aspiring emcomm operators should try this for a month or so, just “for fun”?

Another aspect of a disaster that doesn’t get simulated in drills all that well, is stress.  Here is one of the things that I do.  The monthly social gathering of one of my radio clubs conflicts with a traffic net.  However, the meeting takes place in the club shack, so I check into the net & do my usual traffic passing during the meeting.  Headphones block out enough of the noise.  I’m also using a key & rig that I don’t use all the time.  There’s a lot more RF noise, which I don’t have most of the time (why?  That’s another entry …). I hate it & I’ve threatened to skip meetings many times, but I do it.  Because who knows what worse conditions I may have one day.

On the tactical side of communications, I also love doing comm support for “events” (foot races, etc) in the pouring rain.  Or in the middle of Death Valley … “Baker to Vegas” is coming up!  It’s not NTS, but it’s still fun & one always learns something.