Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Not letting it go to my head -

Looked at the Rookie Roundup final results last night.  To say that participation in the Rookie CW contest was light is an very large understatement.  Looks to me like there were only 32 hams licensed in the last three years who use CW & managed to find time to participate in the Roundup.  That doesn't sound very good, but I note that there were only 65 entrants to the Rookie Roundup SSB.  I can't find results for the RTTY event.

So without much competition, I managed to place 2nd in 6th Calling Area & 9th in the country.  I thought that was pretty good for a traffic handler.  The overall first place winner was in California & the person that I had in mind when I said that some participants sounded like experienced contesters.  She is KE1BYL.  Watch out for her -

After I read that, I immediately proceeded to make a large mess of net control on SCN, the local slow-speed net.  It was a comedy of errors, so I'll relate it.

There was a ragchew going on, so I moved up 500 Hz & it took them a minute or so to find me.  I was really expecting what we have had nearly constantly for the last two months - a long band, basically dead for our local group of stations.  I was startled by check-ins & traffic!  The first check-in was a TCC op who for some reason checks into our net sometimes.  I copied his call wrong, do didn't realize right away who it was.  The regular guys came along right after that.  I managed to get the traffic listed & started sending people QSY (to another nearby frequency).  I seemed to be unable to keep track of what they were doing, though, since I had to take my hand off the key to write!  That works when people are passing traffic on frequency, then you have time to take notes, but not when they are QSY!  You have to keep it moving.

I also broke protocol regarding RN6 traffic.  K6IFF was RN6 rep, but I'd sent him off to get something else, so I took KI6BHB's RN6 traffic.  My mindset was that I had to go there anyway, since I had other traffic to take, I might as well take another one, too.  The correct & proper way would have been to instead give my traffic to K6IFF -

The guys were nice about letting me know when I'd screwed up, but it was embarrassing.

Then, when I went to RN6, I stumbled (over my key?) on my check-in.  Net control was someone I have never encountered before, he didn't copy my call & it just went downhill from there.  I did manage finally to get correctly checked in & the traffic got passed.  I managed to follow protocol, but bad nerves always make my CW worse.  Kept telling myself - "You may panic freely between transmissions."  Between nets would be even better.

One good thing I notice later about the SCN fiasco - I did not write down everything that was going on - I couldn't!  Yet, I didn't get lost - I head copied enough.  That is progress.  Still, one has to write.  The traffic list, who's where & what messages they are passing, etc.

I don't know if it would be harder for me to learn to write left-handed or key left-handed.  Both sound pretty daunting!  Yikes!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pineapple Express

I do believe that this run of rain storms is done.  Because the moisture blows in from the region of Hawaii, it is often called the Pineapple Express.  Not very cold storms, but wet.  We've been at it since last Thursday.  The grand finale for Pasadena was a thunderstorm cell that apparently passed directly over my house, while I was at work & the dentist, dumping several inches of rain.  I think there was about an inch of rain in the "rain gauge" when I left for work & there were six inches when I got home.  The dogs' yard was partially flooded, but everything else was fine.  Landline phone is still dead, but for some reason the DSL is working.  Of course everything is damp ...

So the total since last Thursday is about 17 inches.  For some areas that may not sound like a lot, but it is just about our average yearly rain.  Considering that we have a La Nino going on, which normally should be giving us a drought, I think this just goes to prove how difficult it is to predict climate & weather!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Customer non-service

It seems that my landline phone service has succumbed to five days (nine inches) of rain.  During the night, it generated a false 911 call, so I awoke at 1:30 am with the cops banging on my door & the dogs barking their heads off.  The officers suggested it might be a telephone problem - indeed, the dial tone sounds a lot like some of the noise on my radio!  I couldn't go right back to sleep, so I decided to open an on-line trouble ticket.  Of course the DSL wasn't working either, so I  used my G3 netbook.  No luck.  Even the robot sleeps at night - service not available until 5 am.

So sometime after 5 am, I got up, coerced the dogs with Milk Bones to go outside & do their business, then went to work.  Tried again to open an on-line trouble ticket.  At least there is a text box to explain the problem!  But again no luck.  High volume of customer complaints caused the system to not be able to access my account information.

So I tried the "611" repair number.  "Please call the repair number on your local phone bill."  Of course, now I'm at work, so don't have my phone bill.  I found a number on the web site, though, which a robot answered.  A trouble ticket got opened, but there was no option for customer input such as "it logged a false 911 call."  I'll have to "check on status" later & get that added.

I'm sure they can do some on-line testing, but the appointment they gave me for repair was on January 2, a week and a half in the future; sometime between 8 am & 7 pm, as if I have nothing else to do besides loaf around without DSL, waiting for them.  Yeah, I know that's "normal", but it's a low standard for customer service.

Maybe if & when things dry out, my service will come back on its own?  I actually don't use my landline phone all that much, but the DSL is important.  With a little luck, my service won't continue to disrupt the 911 system, or cause them to start ignoring calls from my location.

I also see this morning, that quite a large number of seismic stations are not reporting.  (I'm glad it's not me that's on duty!)  Many of their signals get here by various telephone company services.  So it seems that the telco is first in line to not be able to cope with Mother Nature.  I know that it's possible for a telephone system to work in the rain - otherwise places like Seattle or Hilo would have not phone service at all.

I have AT&T service.  Trouble with landline is that you have  no choice - whatever corporate lawyers may call it, it's a monopoly!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rookie Roundup

The Rookie Roundup - six hours of Morse fun with an emphasis on people who have gotten their ham licenses in the last three years, when there have been no Morse code exams.  These Rookies are totally self-motivated to learn the code.  I was VERY impressed with the speed & skill of some of the Rookies!  Some of them are clearly serious contesters.  Not measly traffic handlers, like I am.


Rumors that CW is dead seem to be pretty much unfounded.


The Sun was not really into the game, though - no spots at all on this side & solar flux was only 81.  20 meters was the only really open band until 3 pm, when 40 meters started to get good.  There were a few people on 15 meters, but I never caught up with any of them.

I got 41 QSO's on the 20 m & 40 m bands, distributed all over 25 US states & Canadian provinces.  12 of the contacts were with other Rookies.  That gave me a total of 1325 points.  I'm happy with that & I had a good time.

While I was under the headphones, it rained 3 inches at my location (in 6 hours)!  At least my station ground is nice & moist.  It's flooded, in fact!

So now I'm back net control (for no activity) on the SKYWARN net.  There are starting to be problems out there - flash flood watches, etc.  The ground is saturated & nothing of the rain coming in the next few days will be able to soak in.  It will have to run off., hopefully not taking too much with it.

It never rains in California ....

We have been having a rainstorm here in Sunny Southern California - actually a series of them.  Almost 3 inches so far where I live, more to the north between about Santa Barbara & San Francisco.  Authorities (well actually everyone) have concern about the possibility of mudslides below the areas burned by the Station Fire & other fires last year.  Some vegetation has grown in since the fire, to help hold the soil, but not very much.

Rain itself is not a serious concern, unless roads flood, or frantic Christmas shoppers forget how to drive in rain, etc. (that's no joke!).  But mudslides are a big concern.

I've been taking my turn running an ARES/SKYWARN radio net.  If any hams who live below last year's burn areas were to notice any severe conditions, they could check into this net & report it.  The report would then be forwarded to the National Weather Service, to help refine their warnings & updates.  There was no activity on the net overnight except well-wishers from ARES.  This is good.  Entertained myself reading The Life of Stars by Shaviv - a book on the history of stellar astronomy.

I was on from 10 pm to 2 am, then slept up to another net that I have at 8 am.  Now I'm back until 10 am.  My plan is to take part in the ARRL Rookie Roundup CW contest beginning at 10 am.  Been looking forward to this for awhile - I don't think there are all that many hams licensed since 2008 (considered Rookies) who regularly do CW.  Propagation conditions don't look very good, but we can always try.  Longer-time hams are supposed to get into the contest & help us get points.

I could use a little more sleep, but it's only a 6-hour long contest.

On the other hand, though, we need to maintain the SKYWARN net for several days, as the rain keeps coming.  As N6VI just said, "It's free water from Hawaii.  We don't even have to pay for it."  With luck, he'll be right & won't have to pay for it ....

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A little contesting

Took part in the Straight Key Century Club's Weekend Sprintathon today.  This is a 24-hour CW contest, with mechanical keys only (straight keys, bugs & sideswipers).  SKCC turns out to be one of the fastest growing radio clubs, right now.  Normal CW contests, where keyboard sending at 30 WPM is standard practice, are too fast for me to follow still, but I find SKCC great fun.  There is a Weekend Sprintathon once a month & a 2-hour Sprint once a month.  Regular, good code practice.

Most SKCC contesters run about 15 WPM.  There are some new people, though & SKCC ops always slow down to accommodate them.  The other civilized thing about SKCC contests is that people actually sleep at night.  I like that.

The low bands were not great, but I was surprised to find people on 15 meters.  (So the Sun must be doing something right!)  I ended up getting 29 QSO's, which I think is a personal record.  Got 14 different states & one DX!  LW3EX in Argentina answered my 75 Watt call & surprised the heck out of me.  I really thought I had his call sign wrong & was trying to figure what I had wrong!

Check out http://www.skccgroup.com/.

So my CW brain cells & my hand are a little tired, but I had good fun.

Lego Antikytheria

Amazing - guess it's purpose is really known for sure, now that it's seen in action!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLPVCJjTNgk

Monday, December 6, 2010

Just FYI

The WINMOR now works!! I sent myself e-mail, via 80 meters to KE7XO in Las Vegas & from there onto the Internet. After this worked, I sent one each to a couple of my fellow traffic handlers. Then I sent a radiogram to a fellow ham this same way, via Las Vegas, to the Pacific Digital Coordinator in WA, hoping it will make its way into the NTS. We'll see.

I've wondered about this too

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Depth of backup

Had an interesting experience on the traffic nets Thursday night.

I was supposed to take traffic from K6IFF on SCN, the Southern California CW slow net, to the Los Angeles Net, which is a voice net on a local repeater system.  Only problem was that, as has been usual lately, 80 meter NVIS conditions stank.  Being a local training net, SCN has no members outside the area who can act as relays.  If we can't hear each other, there isn't much we can do.  I couldn't hear K6IFF, except to know he was there & take a guess on when he was done transmitting.  I could tell he had listed a lot of traffic, so I just held my nose & sent back "NEG CPY PSE EMAIL IT" & excused him.  Like the old animated feature "Wizards", sometimes you have to just bite it & use modern methods.

As luck would have it, the Time Warner cable internet system for all of southern California crashed just about then.  And this is the service that K6IFF subscribes to.

Sometime before the LAN started, though, I did get the traffic.  My internet is DSL & it was working fine, delivering me a nice message from K6IFF@winlink.org.  The message had made its way to Las Vegas by ham radio HF, to a Winlink node station, which then put it onto the internet.

Winlink has been around for awhile - very popular with yachters who are hams & becoming more so with hams who think about how to communicated in & out of a disaster area where the internet is not working.  It features strongly in the National Traffiic System's new App. B MPG - Chapter 6, "NTSD and Radio Email." So it was totally "fair" for K6IFF to send me traffic in this fashion (whereas regular e-mail is used in desperation, but definitely is not kosher!).

Until recently, a Winlink capable station was required to have a $1500. Terminal Node Controller (TNC) using a proprietary mode called PACTOR.  Not any more!  Winmor now gives the same capability using the computer's sound card, or an external sound card.  A bit complicated to set up, but much more affordable.

The traffic turned out to be for the ORG Section & not LAX Section, but that doesn't matter.  The point is that in the end, the successful method was ham radio.

So guess what I'm doing today .... downloading software & figuring out how to set up an external sound card ...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Crazy skip

Maybe somebody can help me understand this.

I have a pretty rudimentary understanding of the ionosphere. At night, when the Sun isn't shining, the ions recombine & only radio waves that come from some distance, thus hitting the F layer at a more glancing angle, can be reflected & then heard. So at night, "skip is long". You can hear distant stations well, but not stations near you.

So, last night at 7:45 pm, I was trying to check into the Sixth Region net (RN6) as usual. I succeeded, because I was lucky. Net control was in Berkeley, around 350 miles away from me. There was a lot of fading & I heard "QNA SCN" (Southern California Net please check in) between the fades. There was one other So Cal station checking in who was barely audible to me. I also heard a second No Cal station asking about the net, because he apparently could not hear Berkeley.

All this makes sense in my mental picture. Long skip. It agrees with the predicted foF2 numbers (http://www.spacew.com/www/fof2.html) - the critical frequency was lower than our operating frequency - & also with another propagation model web site (http://www.ips.gov.au/Images/HF%20Systems/Global%20HF/HAP%20Charts/San%20Francisco.gif). I was also able to clearly hear both the Seventh Region Net (RN7 - Pacific Northwest) & the Twelfth Region Net (TWN - Rocky Mountain states) at 7:30 pm, consistent with longer skip.

So here is the question. Between 7:30 pm & 9:30 pm, no sunshine impinged upon California. There were no solar flares, CME's, or any of that. Ions should have continued to recombine. Why were conditions between here & Berkeley, contrary to the model predictions, significantly BETTER at 9:30 pm? I have heard this happen once or twice before, but usually it's the other way around, the sensible way.

What the heck is going on up there? The rusty astrophysicist wants to know.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving all ...

I celebrate holidays, but not necessarily on the same day as everyone else. It does not bother me in the least that my best friends are out of town for TNXgiving day & we had our turkey already, on Saturday. I just finished up my breakfast of tea & leftover pumpkin pie & I'm off to ....

One of the things I enjoy doing is "keeping an eye on things" while everyone else is celebrating something. Today is a holiday for all, but Mother Nature didn't get the memo. The steady stream of the southern California's little earthquakes will not stop & we'll have a headache on Monday if we don't process any of the data. So off I go to work to do that. It's possible to do it from home, but DSL is slow enough to be very frustrating.

Tonight, well .... traffic nets, if it's possible to hear anyone. The ionosphere has gone south for the winter.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Go ahead and jump

Yesterday, I taught a three-hour training on how to handle radiogram traffic.  This effort comes out of the fact that the LAX Section NTS effort had sunk to almost zero a few years ago & it is one of the goals of the new Section Manager N6HD to revive activity.  It was the third time I've done this class & I tweak it a bit every time.  The venue this time was Southwest District ARES, but there was also a large contingent from the Palos Verdes Radio Club & some from Associated Radio Amateurs of Long Beach.

It is sort of an interactive class.  I teach them the message format, then have them make up a radiogram.  During the break, I check them if desired.  Common issues are X's between the blanks (not counted for the check) & or X at the end of the text, other punctuation added, etc.  Then after the break, they learn how to pass the traffic to a relay & they pass their newly written radiograms to their neighbors at the table.  Then I go into how to get in & out of the net, then how to be Net Control under duress (if the real Net Control doesn't show up).  Next time I think I will dramatize that, with volunteers.

It was gratifying that no one (that I know of) went to sleep & most were excited & still asking questions at the end.  I left them with a bunch of paper (such as the chapter in the Operating Manual) & on-line resources to go to.  Then I cross my fingers that some of them will show up on the nets.  From the previous classes, the record isn't that great.  When it comes down to it, they either are shy about the net, don't find it interesting, can't find the time, or whatever - no way to know.

Their homework is to create an "ARL FIFTY" (greetings by amateur radio) message to an out-of-town friend or relative, get onto a net & send it.  So far, with the first two classes, no-one has ever followed through with that.  I wish the students would just jump in.  I think they learn much more quickly, compared to in the classroom.  What they forget is that the other net members want the new people to succeed.  It is a somewhat formal, but very friendly environment.

On the way home from the class, I was listening to (regular broadcast) radio in the car, to a station that plays "oldies" from my era.  Here is what the DJ said leading into a song:

Go ahead and jump - the net will find you …

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Long winter coming

Since the change from Daylight to Standard time, RN6 has become a bear!  On Monday & tonight, Net Control was a Southern California station.  I'll be nice & say their signals were 229.  An experienced op might be able to copy it.  I can (usually) recognize my call sign.

So I just looked at the propagation models online & foF2 is about 3.5, more or less equal to the frequency we use. FoF2 is the critical frequency where a vertically directed radio wave just barely reflects any of the energy back.  This is the hairy edge.

If I want to hear KI6BHB on the other side of the Puente Hills, on 80 meters, the waves from his antenna must go up vertically & reflect off an ionized layer in the upper atmosphere (the ionosphere), back down to my antenna.  This process is called Near Vertical Incident Skywave or NVIS & it is what makes local HF (high frequency = short wave) nets work.  If foF2 is too low, though, no skywave comes back (it all goes out into space) & we are SOL.  Now we get a little bit of energy traveling along the Earth's surface between his house & mine, which probably accounts for what little bit I do hear.

Now, you cannot get a rock to skip off a lake if you just drop it in.  But if you give it a glancing impact on the water surface, it will skip.  What this means in the radio world is that, when the ionosphere over us is lame (like right now), I can hear the signals skipping in from Northern California, but I can't hear the local ones.  They are within our "skip zone".  "80 meters is long."  If KI6BHB wants to send me some traffic, he has to send it to someone in Northern California & that guy (a relay) has to repeat it back to me.

Actually, KI6BHB will hold his traffic & send it to me on the net at 9 pm, which is a voice net on the Keller Peak repeater, but that's not my point ...

So where does the ionosphere come from?  Why is there an ionized layer in the upper atmosphere?  It's one of the effects of the ultraviolet rays from the Sun, in particular from the hot plage areas around sunspots.  The UV light knocks electrons out of the atoms.  After the Sun goes down, no new ones get knocked out & those that are out wander back in, so the ionosphere gets weaker at night.  It also it gets weaker in the winter, when the Sun is shining mainly on the other hemisphere.

If the supposedly rising sunspot cycle ("Cycle 24") ever really gets going, we may get some relief, but if not, the nets will be a struggle for a few months.  I'm sure I will learn plenty - about the "netiquette" of using relays, etc. & how to copy out of the noise.  It's just not quite as fun.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Benefits of being a ham

I have been completely "slammed" (busy) the last couple of weeks.  This is why you have been subjected to (carefully chosen) LOLdogs & LOLcats.  Now I am getting a few minutes to write … the missing traffic handler is back; I'm retaining most of my RN6 liaison assignments, but I'm getting more comfortable with it.  I'm finding some time for (Morse) sending practice, etc.  So, even though I have maxed out my PSHR traffic points in the first six days of the month, I'm not feeling too stressed.  It's time for blog entry …

I wanted to try to set down what I'm getting out of amateur radio & traffic handling, that is making it so fun.

One of my initial justifications was that such a hobby would help me get more comfortable with electronics, equipment & general handy skills.  I think it is, although I still freeze up on this stuff sometimes.  I've always known how to paint & do basic house maintenance, but I had no idea what sort of stuff to buy at Lowe's to, say, attach an antenna mast pole to the side of the garage, until I watched my Elmer do it.  My soldering is not very skillful, etc.  But I figure it is a long learning process.  One day I will get it.

Oddly, another side of me that has cropped up, though, is the "preservationist".  I knew that I get joy out of acquiring unique, interesting & antiquated skills.  For example, I know how to train & handle a Border Collie to herd sheep.  I took part in sheepdog trial competitions for ten years or so, until urban sprawl made it nearly impossible to find access to sheep to practice on.  It really is amazing to watch someone stand there & blow a whistle, indicating "go clockwise", "go counterclockwise", "lie down", etc. to their dog 200 yards away, to guide a "flock" of five sheep through an obstacle course.  It is even more amazing to be able to do it, even successfully at times.  So I guess I should not have been surprised that I wanted to learn Morse code, another old & arcane skill, although not as old as shepherding.

I'm making some progress on unanticipated things, too, though.  One is focus.  I've always been one of these people who cannot follow a conversation in a crowded party.  I generally hate crowded parties for this reason.  So guess what?  I'm learning to listen to a pile-up & actually hear some of it.  I'm learning to focus on someone spelling everything at me in Morse & coming out with something intelligible at the end.  It is much easier to do this when stray thoughts about dinner, work, or whatever are not bouncing around the head.

(Not so long ago, I gave a live news interview about an earthquake.  The camera crew showed up in time, but the reporter did not, so they rigged me up with the IFB channel on an earbud.  The anchor in the studio asked me the questions & I held my own microphone.  I could hear the anchor talking, myself talking, myself on the circuit talking, myself on the censor's 3-sec delay & tech people chattering in the background.  I got through it & at least answered the right questions.  The babble was a mistake on their part, of course.  Afterwards, they told me that most reporters cannot do what I did without getting confused.  I attribute my success to ham radio; it's all just QRM.)

The process of learning this develops persistence & resistance to frustration.  I do my code practice every day, even if it doesn't go well, knowing that if I do it, it will be better later.  If not, it won't.  As net control, I'm learning to work through efficiently transferring a list of traffic, when I don't have the option to walk away & think about it.  As an operator, I need to be systematic about troubleshooting a problem that comes up - usually something I've done wrong in setting up the rig.  I am slowly learning to prevent anxiety from interfering with my Morse sending.

In traffic handling, specifically, there is a very welcome emphasis on accuracy over speed.  Most of the rest of the world is not like that, where instant gratification rules.  Computers have saved us a lot of labor, but probably atrophied parts of our brains in the process.

I love the simple, terse, but polite, formality of the traffic nets, that makes them so efficient.  I've developed an intense working relationship with several people whom I have never met.  In some cases I've never even heard their voice.  The same can be said of the internet, but the social media are not nearly as focused on working together to accomplish a task in an efficient manner.

The nets probably also satisfy some inner need for ritual, since there is a lot that is done the same way every time.  When I check into a net, I "knock" by sending a certain letter from my call sign.  Net control says "who's there?" by repeating the letter.  Then I check in with my full call sign & state my purpose (liaison to another net, "have traffic", or "no traffic").  I don't leave until I'm excused.  When I hear "Di-di-di-dit Di-Da-dit Da-dit Di-Dah-dit" (HR NR), my mind is instantly focused & my hand is ready.  Even in daily life, when I give someone specific information, I automatically change to "copy speed" so they can write it down & I spell ambiguous words.  Useful habits form this way.

At the hamfest, when W6WW & I "passed traffic" over the dinner table, we still said "thank you for bringing the traffic" & "thank you for taking the traffic".   It was sort of funny, in the context.

On a CW net, that would just be "TU GN 73" - thank you, good night & best wishes - these social conventions take up almost no time, compared to a "rag chew" & yet everyone is happy at the end.

The nets give structure in one's life, something predictable.  It is a complex structure & I depend heavily on my Google calendar to keep me on track, but it reminds me of a fugue in very slow motion.  The punctuality is nice, too.  On a traffic net, if net control is late by 15 seconds, someone is sure to send "RN6 ?", give it another 15 seconds & then call the net themselves.  This very seldom happens, because, if someone can't make their commitment (schedule, technical problems, lightning, etc.), they always call someone (on the telephone) for a sub.  If someone just didn't show, compatriots would start getting worried.

The flip side of the schedule coin is that it’s nice to have a decent excuse not to go out on “work nights”.  Of course, with some people, we can’t get too specific about exactly how we spend our fun time, for fear of getting that “geek” or “nut” label.

Hams in general, though, are very tolerant of nerds & geeks, since many fit that description themselves.  As long as you refrain from making the same mistakes over & over again, they continue to fall all over themselves trying to help you.  I’ve never encountered a hobby quite like that before.  It's very pleasant!
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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Amazing edible equipment

Yesterday, I attended the Microwave UpDate conference (MUD), mainly because I was the banquet speaker, on the subject of earthquakes, ShakeOut, etc.  There was quite interesting talks, though, including the one about using the Owens Valley Radio Observatory 80 ft (?) radio telescope dish for EME (moon bounce) contacts, which I previously saw at the hamfest in September.

The banquet was completely over the top, though.  Excellent food (for a banquet) & a special-made cake, which was hard to tell from a stack of radio equipment.  Don't have a picture of the whole thing, but here is the piece that I bid $5 for (but they gave me for free):


I think it is actually rice crispy cakes & not actually cake, because it is fairly light.  It's not the taste, though, it's the artistry.  There was also a rice crispy Yaesu FT-817.  All this was sitting on a larger box that was the cake for the banquet.  Amazing.  Excellent truffles available, too.

Door prizes were over to top, too - the grand prize being an $8,000 spectrum analyzer.   Most of the loot was electronic components.  Luckily, my normal bad luck with door prizes held & I didn't walk away with something useful only completely out of my preferred HF band.  I did end up with a canvas bag that is suitable for tools.

Only problem was that my name was really MUD when I got home at 11:30 pm to feed the dogs!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

ShakeOut - the NTS

Since we had an opportunity to send some "TEST P" and "TEST W" messages (Priority and Health & Welfare, as opposed to R for Routine), I thought it would be fun to set ups some  time trials of a sort.  I was going to divide the small stack into three groups - one for NTSD (the digital National Traffic System), one for WinLink into NTSD & the third going by traditional modes.  All were given HXC handling instructions - report back time & date of delivery.

Not knowing as much about the NTS as I thought I did, I routed the TEST P messages through NTSD, thinking that they would not have to wait for a net to be sent.  What I didn't realize is that there are no or not many NTSD operators in Northern California, where some of the messages were going.  So they will likely be picked up by someone elsewhere & relayed on a CW or voice net anyway.  They will not be picked up & delivered until tomorrow.

I would have been better off taking those particular messages to RN6 (Sixth Region) CW net at 7:45 pm this evening.  Since they were Priority, they would have stood a chance of being delivered tonight some time.  Old guys (& gals) with keys win over fancy equipment … ?

The purpose of a drill is to learn things!

Another little zinger is that most of the staff who gave me TEST W messages to send did not have address information readily available.  So the messages went with just town & telephone number, decreasing the chance of being able to resolve a problem if an error develops.

Then there were a couple of instances of operator density, but we won't go into that.

When all the dust settles in the next couple of days (nets), I'll let you know who the winner was.

One thing that worked out well is that we were able to use the NTSD as sort of a "virtual NVIS" for getting messages across the metropolitan area, outside of FM simplex range.  This worked because we had two NTSD operators (in other words, it would not work in northern California).  Whether it was easier than real NVIS, who knows?  I guess if you don't have an 80 meter antenna, it would be easier, by definition.  In any case, it's nice to know that we can do it.

So, in summary, just some thoughts on things that worked & things that didn't work.  Know your NTS before you try to use it.

ShakeOut - the Drill

Today was California's annual earthquake drill, called the ShakeOut.  The biggest aspect of it is that the schools all participate, thus raising awareness among the children & hence their parents.  But there is also a lot of planning & actual improvement in preparedness that goes on, in all sectors of society.

My workplace is the Seismological Lab at Caltech, so of course we are involved.  Not all of Caltech participates in any give year, but we do.  This year we added the "early warning" aspect.  We are actually pretty close to having our automated detection & analysis systems being able to recognize that a very large quake has started & send alerts to folks farther away that the seismic waves are coming.  So this feature was added to the drill this year.  We had about 60 sec "warning", with a loud alarm & countdown "strong shaking in 15 seconds", etc.

Couple that with a big bass amplifier & earthquake sound track, the former supplied by a staff member who is a musician.  The result was somewhat of a minor adrenaline rush.  For the scenario earthquake, which is 7.8, the "shaking" (loud noise) goes on for about another 60 sec.

To add to the ambiance …

I'm in a temporary office right now, because of renovation, but I'll be back "home" soon & I want to do some major cleaning before I move back in.  So, just before the quake, I went in & neatly swept the contents of the top two book shelves onto the floor.  That should get me going to really clean it!  Anyway … my office (the one with the books on the floor) doubles as a ham shack, so I spend some time in there during the late morning, with the light off & the flashlight on, stepping over books & operating the radio.

It was the first real test of our setup & it worked pretty well (well, not the HF yet - SWR trouble).  We learned a few things though - first it's hard to monitor three nets at once with one radio, but I guess that's life in the big disaster.  I could not pick up the campus simplex activity on my HT, because the window faces the wrong way.  A certain amount of "operator error" occurred, but that is what drills are for.  Most of us are not exactly old hands.

When I was passing traffic on the temporary NTS net, I heard people behind me in the hallway.  Hope I didn't put on too much of sideshow!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Experimental training class

In September, I attended a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) earthquake drill, at the invitation of a friend & fellow ham.  I could not be there on time, because of an ARES meeting & when I did arrive, I was wearing my "regalia" - string of radio club, ARES, etc. badges.  They saw the one that said "Section Traffic Manager" & immediately started moaning about the mess Net Control was getting from the "field" damage assessment groups.  CERT has a lot of hams, but it also has many members who are not, who use FRS "walkie talkies" that you buy at Costco or wherever.  Could I teach them how to talk on the radio? … well, maybe.

First of all, I'm no expert on FRS radios, although I've used them before.  I'm no expert on CERT & ICS forms, although ICS 213 looks "familiar", since it's a radiogram with a few other things attached to it.  I had no idea how many of the people showing up for a class would be hams & if they were, how much radio practice they'd actually had.  My thought was the only thing I really know how to talk about is handling NTS traffic.  I should talk about that … with the intro that it is ONE method, based on a lot (95 years?) of experience, that we know works.  ARES uses it & many other groups copy it.

I decided to try the class.  Once.  If it didn't fall completely flat, then I could make improvements & try again.  That class was today.  It didn't fall completely flat & there are improvements in my head.

All my normal traffic training stuff was there, plus I engaged the students at the beginning by making them check into the class as if it were a net.  I got them to translate some damage assessment gibberish into clean & usable messages.  I got them to compose a radiogram, preamble & all, then relay it to the person sitting next to them.  And their homework is to "surprise a friend or relative in another state with a radiogram".  If they are a ham, they are assigned to check into one of the repeater traffic nets & send it.  If not, they are supposed to find a traffic handler to do that part (I volunteered).  I like using PowerPoint, but I'm not into just giving boring lectures.

A couple of our traffic handlers were there (to keep me honest & on track, I guess).  Two people that I know to be interested were also there.  I was surprised how many Pasadena Radio Club members were there.

I also asked them for feedback by e-mail.  We'll see.  I think it went okay, but I think the hams probably got more out of it than the FRS ops did.  I wonder how many messages will come to the nets.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Minor trial by fire

One more blatantly traffic post before I feel compelled to write on some other subject!

Thursday is my only night to "liaise" between SCN (Southern California Net) & RN6 (Sixth Region Net) in both the RN6 (inbound & outbound) sessions.  The inbound session (Second Session) starts at 9:30 pm. With minimal solar activity, 80 meters is starting to be pretty near DEAD (well, actually "long") at that hour.  So I had this to copy:

NR 11 R W7EKB 26/27 MOSCOW ID OCT 11
K6YR
BT
PAN SUN OCT 11Z W7EKB
NCS J W7IZ G I
7R WB6UZX 6R NN7H TR
TT WA6MBZ 6T VE7ANG 7T
NO 5 QTC 13 IN
22 73
BT
KEN W7EKB
AR

Being used as I am to message text that is either "commonly known" (& not sent at all) or readable such as ARL SIXTY SEVEN or some such, this one was somewhat of a challenge!  If you are familiar with this stuff, you will recognize it as a PAN (Pacific Area Net) net report, from a Net Control Station to the Net Manager.  (No personal info there, so I can share it on my blog.)  It was pretty much gibberish to me.  I tried to get "fills" for what I'd missed, but the other station & I were having so much trouble hearing each other, that it was not working.  I finally asked for the whole text over again.

If you are familiar with the stuff, you will also catch my single error.  "5" should be an "H", a difference of one dit.

So I didn't ace this particular trial by fire, but I did pretty well.  Once I learn what all this stuff means, errors like that will raise red flags for me to check on.  Hint - no other single digits in the whole thing, but many single members of the alphabet.

As luck would have it, the sending station was Net Control when I clumsily checked into my first traffic net & sent my first  message (on the Northern California Net), close to a year ago.  Very patient, as they all seem to be.

Oddly, the band improved a little bit, as soon as we were done passing this particular traffic.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Deja vu

Started experiencing deja vu regarding a couple of the more unusual addresses heard on the traffic nets.  At first I didn't know if it was because I'd heard the same messages on my "copy practice" visits to RN6, or if there really were multiple messages.  So I took a few minutes to dig into my files & check it out.

Turns out that N1IQI sent the guy a friendly reminder to renew his ham license.  Then he must have done so, because W1GMF then send him a congratulations on his license renewal.  So, whatever these guys are doing & however they have divvied up the world of spam, it seems to be working!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Return of the Iron Man days

As far as I can tell from my reading (e.g. Two Hundred Meters and Down & "How It All Started - the NTS" by George Hart W1NJM in Aug 1974 QST), there have been basically two eras in the history of ARRL traffic handling. Recall that ARRL stands for American Radio Relay League - the organization was formed at least partly to facilitate the passing or relaying of messages.

The early days were the Iron Man era, where certain individual operators along 14 "trunk lines" carried all the long-haul traffic. To be appointed an Official Relay Station, in those days, was a great honor & very hard work, five nights a week. These people were dedicated brass pounders & it was all code in those days, too. They were known as the Iron Men.

Gradual changes started in 1935, with QNM, the Michigan Net - heralded now as the first public service net. Frequency control had advanced to the point were a group of operators could actually meet at a pre-arranged time on a pre-arranged frequency. The idea of the traffic net was born. Once this idea grew in parallel with the trunk lines & eventually caught on, it was possible for an ARRL effort, lead by George Hart, to reorganize the traffic handling into the National Traffic System as we know it today.

Handling traffic became a popular way to "give back" in terms of public service. Net liaison, net manager & net control positions became highly sought after, with a good waiting list. The same nets would function on different days of the week, with an entirely different staff. No-one, except possibly the TCC (Transcontinental Corps) operators, had to carry the brunt of the traffic load. But that was before cheap long-distance telephone calls, the Internet, Skype & text messaging. Before the county fair became mainly about eating the grossest fried foods possible & less about sending cheery ham greetings to relatives.

Now?

One of the three to five key people in the Southern California Net scene has recently had to take a few weeks off for family reasons. That did leave the rest of us scrambling a bit - extra assignments, a confusing (to me, at least) schedule. Maybe a new person stepping up to the plate of regular traffic activity - definitely a good thing! But we had to sit up, take notice & make changes. One person's absence does make a difference.

So now that I am on RN6 (Sixth Region net) more often, I'm hearing Net Control saying stuff like QND QNN DE K9JM ALSO P1 P2 NCN, meaning that the same person is Net Control, liaison up & down to PAN (Pacific Area Net) & liaison to the Northern California Net. When there are three or four pieces of traffic, which is often the case, this works fine. But it means that nobody can be sent off frequency to pass traffic "in parallel" with the net, so a high volume could not be handled in a time frame that would allow the liaisons to meet their schedules.

What happens to the traffic that cannot be passed on the net? Some of it, generally the spam, just gets serviced NO OUTLET. Some of it, sadly, get's e-mailed to the next traffic handler, who then delivers it the normal way. Transparent to the user. On some nets, a handler speaking for listed traffic has the option of taking it on the net or by e-mail! This probably won't be possible when the chips are down, after the next big disaster, because the Internet may be down, slow, or flaky. I do not know where the extra traffic handlers will come from, to keep NTS working when that happens. Maybe we will get a bunch of rusty old-timers, or high-speed contesters who are not familiar with traffic net operations. It should be interesting.

The last new NTS CW recruit was me, about ten months ago. The one before that was KI6BHB, about three years ago. There may be a couple of more in the works. CW traffic handling is a hard recruit these days. It doesn't help that most people's yards in urban California are small & they don't necessarily have an antenna for 80 meters.

Section traffic is distributed for delivery on LAN, the Los Angeles net & SCN/V, the Southern California VHF net. LAN has anywhere from two to five people checking in, sometimes just the Net Manager (NM) & the Section Traffic Manager (STM). And these are FM phone nets; no Morse skills involved. SCN/V, having been around longer, is somewhat better attended. In spite of the fact that traffic experience is excellent training for emcomm operators from, say ARES, NTS is still a hard recruit.

My point here is that it is very easy (& fun) to be on traffic nets five to seven nights a week, and be sorely missed when you are not there. The Iron Man days are returning!

Folks, traffic handling is fantastic code practice! If you are trying to become proficient with CW, come join the fun! There is a slow net near you!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

CW practice net a success

I just finished as Net Control for the Pasadena (CA) Radio Club slow speed CW practice net.  It was very gratifying to hear that both of the club members who checked in sounded very good.  There were some problems, but overall it was pretty smooth.  This net has been going for about eight or nine months & was sort of a struggle at the beginning, for Net Control who was barely able to perform that function & for the members.  We have all gotten a lot better.  Before we started the net, a couple of us used to practice back & forth over the kitchen table, but it was too easy to just break out laughing or start talking instead of sending.  There is nothing like being on the air.

Tonight, not only did we have a pretty smooth discussion, the annual nominating committee transacted some business, convincing someone to run for the club board!  All in Morse code!

So I ended by reminding them that the SCN/CW traffic net is looking for some more operators.  I think it's time.  I know that the 80 meter antenna issue is a challenge for some, but for NVIS it doesn't have to be very high off the ground & it doesn't have to be in an exactly straight line, either.  My signal is living proof of that!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A very fine gift indeed


Actually two … from the Elmer of at least one of my traffic Elmers, none other than K6YR.  One item I knew was coming because I asked about his at the SW Division convention on the weekend … a pin that says "CW FOREVER".  But the other, the patch pictured here, was a complete surprise because I did not know they existed.  It's beautiful.

TU ROB DE K6HTN

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some thoughts on learning Morse code as a senior citizen

Believe it or not, I get asked about this ...

Probably a 10-year-old could compress my last year and a half of code learning into a few weeks.  Great!  Glad they are interested!  I'm addressing this, though, to the AARP crowd.

I am no expert on Morse code, but I've done a lot of reading & listening to people who are experts.  I've also been-there-and-done-that fairly recently.  I may have something to say.  First, here are a couple of good references:


A) http://www.qsl.net/n9bor/n0hff.htm

B) http://www.qsl.net/ik0ygj/enu/index.html

Next, let me say that I PRACTICE EVERY DAY, just like learning a musical instrument or a new language.  I do the practice regardless of whether I feel like it or how bad my session seems to go.  The sessions don't have to be long, though, especially at first.  I'm told that the optimum lesson time for learning something completely new is around 5 minutes.  I found that I needed at least a half hour a day to make progress, but the time could be broken up into smaller segments.  Later on, you will want to build up your concentration to where you can handle a long ragchew or traffic net, but in the beginning, keep it short.

I think I learned all the characters fairly reliably in a couple of months.  Four months after I started, I found that I could not handle Field Day, as an operator, but I was useful at the CW table as a logger & could fill in some of the exchange information.  Six months into the adventure, I had my first QSO & a month or two later my first DX.  Nine months in, I checked into my first slow-speed traffic net & sent traffic.  Now - nineteen months - I can check into the region net & I take my turn as Net Control on the slow net.  I also run slow speed practice net for people who are like I was a year ago.

If you are a musician or otherwise an auditory learner, you may be able to cut months off this.  I am the worst case, a totally visual learner.  It took me awhile to convince my brain that code was information & worth actually listening to!

So, this is what all the gurus say & it agrees with my experience:

1) Don't touch your key or oscillator for a few months, until your gut understands what perfect code sounds like.

2) Don't EVER LOOK at code printed or written on a page in dots or dashes.  Don't try to memorize little pictures or funny rhymes, gimmicks, or mental associations.  Code comes in through your ears, not your eyes & you should not have to make any two-step associations.  The goal is instant Pavlovian recognition.

3) Get a computer program to teach you the code.  If you use a PC, download G4FON.  If you use a Mac, Morse Mania is about the only one.  OR (if you have high-speed internet), you can use a web site called LCWO.net.  That stands for Learn CW On-line.

4) Go through the "Koch method" lessons in the computer program, from the beginning.  LCWO has 40 lessons.  At first, it will teach you only 2 letters.  Set the "character speed" to at least 15 WPM, preferably 18 WPM & the "word speed" at 5 WPM, or whatever it takes to give you the time you need to recognize the characters.  Do this until you have gone through all the lessons & know the alphabet, numbers & major punctuation marks.  BTW, in case you care, Koch was a psychologist employed to train U-boat radio ops.  He formalized this method, including the order the characters should be learned.

5) Setting the character speed higher than the word speed, as just described, is called the "Farnsworth method".  The reason for using a high character speed is so that you learn to recognize an entire character & are not tempted to try to "count dots".  Once you are doing well with particular settings, start slowly increasing the word speed, keeping the character speed the same.


6) You can either write your copy down or type it onto the computer.  Do whichever you think you are likely to do "in real life", or you'll be learning inappropriate Pavlovian responses.  In other words, if you will be writing, you won't want to be visualizing a keyboard to figure out what the character is.

7) Take opportunities to listen to perfect code even if it is too fast for you.  (You should be able to pick out characters.)  You can do this on your computer, from W1AW, repeater id's, or wherever you can find it.  W1AW can be heard in California, at least sometimes & the code practice can be picked up as MP3 files on the ARRL web sites.  There are books out on the web, in Morse, including e.g. Edgar Rice Burroughs Princess of Mars.  You can follow along in text you can download from the Gutenberg Project.  There are programs & web sites out there that will translate text you input into Morse MP3 or MIDI files.  There are others that will send it to your cell phone to use as a ring tone (mine says CW IS DEAD LONG LIVE CW).

8) When you know all the characters, spend a couple of months practicing on the computer, primarily with random "code groups".  On LCWO, this consists of 5-character gibberish "words".   Both LCWO & Morse Mania will give words of different lengths, similar to real language, but nonsense.

9) For variety, you can do "word practice" with commonly used words, or "call sign practice".  LCWO has a nerve-wracking option for this.  You can set it to increase your speed every time you get one right & decrease it every time you get one wrong, like some kind of "video" game.  It's tough, but the score allows you to view your progress over time.  This is called the "RufzXP" option, after the computer program that Eastern European fanatics use to train for very high speeds.

10) When you feel like you know how perfect code should sound & you don't have to think more than a fraction of a second about the characters, then you can get out your new practice oscillator, or hook up your key to use the side tone on your rig.  Most gurus say that you should start by mastering a straight key, because you are not distracted much by the mechanics of keying.  Aside from correct spelling & characters, you want a smooth rhythm of sending.  No pauses while you try to remember how to spell something. The goal is "a fist that sings".

11) Send yourself newspaper articles, stuff out of QST, your own e-mail, whatever.  Then start to "ad lib" it, as you will when you are on the air, still trying for a smooth flow.

12) By now your family members & pets may hate you, unless you use headphones.

13) By now, you are also listening to other people's QSO's on the air, code practice nets, traffic nets, etc., writing down everything you hear.  (If you live in the L.A. area, try 28.245 MHz.  Figure out what it is by copying the code.)

14) You can practice face-to-face "QSO's" with a code-practice buddy.

15) Be prepared to have annoying snips of code "stuck in your head" like stray bits of music.  It will start out as one character, then two.  Pretty soon, it will be your whole, entire call sign.  Then you will find yourself calling a net to order.  When you start to "get it", Morse will invade your dreams.  It is fun sometimes watching the brain bitch & moan as it learns.

16) Pretty soon, you will be able to tell who has a "bad fist" & you will be saying to yourself "I can send better than that!".  You won't (send better) the first time, but it will seem possible.

17) So you don't chicken out, make a sked with a sympathetic op you know, who is very good with CW, but can also go as slowly as is necessary ... on a frequency, distance, time, etc. that you know the band should be open (no excuses!).  Make sure you know which way to go if the frequency is busy.

18) Prepare to have anxiety attacks all day.

19) When the time comes, sit down & carry out the pre-arranged call.  If you "freeze up", say to yourself, "Self, it's easy to close that key ..." then a second later,  "... now I'm legally obligated to identify myself".  Do your best, but don't worry if you make mistakes.  Know what the convention is for correcting mistakes, do it & then just go on.  If you don't copy something, simply ask for a repeat.  You've listened to a lot of QSO's by now, so you know what to say (RST, name, QTH, rig, antenna, WX, etc.).  Another approach is to listen for someone calling at your speed & answer them, but you may end up with someone as green as you are.

20)  Check into a practice net, such as the W6KA (Pasadena CA Radio Club) net at 8 pm every Sunday, 28.13 MHz.  The script is available to help you follow the check-in procedure.  We use 10 WPM, but will slow down further if that is needed.  Do cultivate Elmers; people who know good sending from bad & will gently tell you all about it.

21) Find out, from the contesting column in QST, when the W1AW code qualifying runs are.  Copy the run, mail it in to ARRL & get a "Certificate of Code Proficiency" at 10 WPM, with the possibility of later endorsements for 15 & 20 WPM or faster.

22) Join SKCC or FISTS or both.  They have e-mail reflectors full of very encouraging people.  You will learn a lot from the e-mail.  You can join their sprint contests & have a good time.  Unlike most CW contests, you will find hot-shots with award letters attached to their exchange info, calling CQ at 10-15 WPM just to attract newcomers.  From FISTS, you can get a T-shirt that says "Proud to be a Know Code Ham".

23) At some point you will want to not have to write absolutely everything down.  You will want to "head copy" as much as you can.  The Word Practice function on LCWO is very useful here.  I started literally with three-letter words, listening & typing nothing until I had decoded the word.  I slowly worked up to longer words.  For me, it is incredibly difficult to remember the first few letters in a word long enough to receive the rest.  I have to consciously direct my attention to remember the first letters.  This is much more difficult than I thought it would be.  It is a first grade skill & I am no longer in first grade!  My scores are slowly getting better, though. I'm telling myself I am increasing my short-term memory & building up defenses against any future Alzheimer's.

24) My current favorite for daily practice is the news.  I downloaded an application called CWCOM, which grabs the RSS news feeds & translates them into code.  Depending on my mood, I either type it at 15 WPM, write it at 20 WPM, or struggle with head copy.  I've discovered that head copy is easier at higher speed, maybe because of the limited short term memory problem.  CWCOM also allows you to have a CW QSO over the internet, with someone else who is connected, using the down-arrow key as a straight key.  It is incredibly difficult, but taught me that the ear is much better than the software decoder!

25) Find your local slow speed traffic net, check into it & start moving traffic.  It is superb practice in accuracy & efficiency.  It will also calm down your nerves over time, as you gain confidence.  Don't trust the internet for accurate net times & frequencies.  Find out who your Section Traffic Manager is & ask them.

26) When you gain a little speed, you will want to switch to an "iambic" keyer w/paddles or a mechanical "bug" speed key.  Both of these require a significant amount of practice, so get a head start before you think you will need it on the air.  The bug also requires serious attention to proper adjustment (six set screws & an adjustable weight).  Instructions can be found on the web.

The most important thing is sufficient repetition.  Writing this conjures up the old joke about the guy in New York who asks a passer-by for directions "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" & gets the answer "Practice, practice, practice". 

73 ES GL BT CU ON THE NET SOON

Monday, September 20, 2010

traffic handler jokes?

The photo in the previous post prompted one of my FaceBook friends to ask what one has to say to make an NTS traffic handler laugh.  That got  me going on possible traffic jokes.  I haven't got very far, but here is what I have so far:

How many traffic handlers does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the old bulb must be retained & an OP NOTE added to explain why a new one is in use.

Or maybe the answer is that, once installed & approved, a light bulb may not ever be changed.

How many traffic handlers does it take to change a light bulb? Don't know .. give me an hour or two & I will look it up in Appendix B, Methods & Practices Guidelines.

And what would happen if N1IQI forgot to renew his license? Would 50,000 hams send him a friendly reminder?

Then there's the one about the traffic handler who missed the net because he got stuck in ... oh, never mind.

Help me think of some more ...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

small collection of odd characters?

This photo may be a little less dour than the first one I posted, even though it's off center & something interesting is clearly happening to the photographer's left. Anyway, this is what traffic handlers look like - at least the ones that I work with.  Thanks to Christy Hunter KB6LTY for the photo.



(my T-shirt says "I'm proud to ba a know code ham")

ARRL Southwest Convention in San Diego

In the parking lot, it looked like a convention of porcupines, with most vehicles adorned with at least one antenna, likely more.  "Funny" license plates (call signs), etc.  A bunch of people walking around with radios on their belts, various club badges on their shirts or hanging from a lanyard.  For some reason a small crowd of young beauty queens & princesses were selling the raffle tickets & generally helping out with hosting duties.  Weather was good, the hotel was nice & unlike a convention of amateur or professional astronomer, we did not crash the hotel's internet.  There was a lot going on, so I had to pick & choose a little bit.

One of the best things was getting to meet some of the traffic handlers & other people that I work with all the time … W6WW, KD6YJB & K6YR.  Not all the traffic people made it to the convention, but many did.  None of those fit my preconceived notion of what they would look like.  Somewhere out there, there is a photo of all of us together that someone has promised to send me.  Among these people was K6YR, the poor recipient of my bad sending last week.  He had nothing negative to say except to point out an omission that I already knew I'd forgot to do (send AA - end of line - at the end of each line in the addresses).

As LAX STM, I had some involvement with the ARRL booth & did sit there for awhile.  We tried convincing people to sent radiograms & did manage to get a few.  But we didn't try very hard.  The display was just a pile of forms & pen - nothing colorful.  I know how to do it better next time … Part of the issue was, once they were collected, how to get them moving.  Friday was easy - I passed the traffic to W6WW over the dinner table ("thank you for taking the traffic", "thank you from bringing the traffic" - traffic handling is terse, but quite formal) & he sent them from his mobile radio to the net on the Keller Peak repeater.  The Saturday ones were a little tougher as the Keller Peak net is not active then.  There was an HF station operating at the convention: W1AW/6.  We had permission to use it for traffic nets, but they had no antenna for 75/80 meters, which is where the nets are.  W1AW/6 was interesting … one operating station with 1970's vintage equipment, one with modern equipment & then one Electraft K3 set up for CW.

I spent a lot of time wandering around & talking to people & my knee did eventually start complaining.  I did go to some talks.  One was about an EME (moon bounce) competition, where a group from the San Bernardino Microwave Society were lucky enough to be able to use a professional radio telescope in Owens Valley.  Great photos.  This really took me back to my student days, because at that time I was in radio astronomy & I have used that exact telescope.  Some great photos.

Another good talk was about Amateur Radio Expo, which is a basically a group of people who go to fairs & whatnot when possible, with booths encouraging young people to get into technology, by introducing them to ham radio.  They use "snap in" electronics educational kits, give the kids a certificate for sending their name in Morse code, let them have an HF contact, preferably DX, etc.  In one example they had a slow-scan TV setup in a remote-controlled helicopter.  Looks like they have good fun.  I might volunteer on that occasionally.  They said they had a shortage of people who can receive Morse code.  (If you are not a ham, you may not realize that code is entirely voluntary now - not required for a radio license.)

A big part of any convention is the vendors area, of course.  I didn't make any big purchases, although I was drooling over that Electraft K3.  I don't need it - my radio works fine - but it has very good recommendations from everyone I know who has used one & everything seems to be where is should be (e.g. power & keyer speed are controlled by a knob on the front panel & not buried in a menu somewhere).  Later.  Small purchases - some LED light bulbs, toroids & choke filters for my neighbor, etc.  I did not win anything in the raffles.  Several of us noticed a complete lack of CW equipment of any sort among the regular vendors.  My evil key collector twin emerged at the swap meet & bought a J-38 mounted on a board with a telegraph sounder, something I've never had a chance to play with before.  The swap meet, by the way, started at 6 am.  It was mostly still dark. 

One thing that I had wanted to attend, but that they didn't have, was the traditional midnight "Wouff Hong" (excuse me if that is spelled wrong).

Anyway, it was a well-spent weekend & I put in my registration for next year, when it will be in Torrance.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How to raise a good sweat

Months ago when I started taking my poor, slow Morse code skills to the air waves, on the traffic nets, I used to drip sweat!  Slowly, it got easier until I could almost hold a conversation - still slow, though.  Gradually over the months, I've gained a little bit of speed.  (Once I even engaged in a little tech support conversation in Morse, when I was talking to someone & trying to access his web site at the same time ... another anachronistic story.)

So today I decided to send off a "book of 4" messages thanking the recipients for contacts made this past weekend in the previously mentioned contest.  Sent them in the Region 6 net (RN6), which covers California & Nevada, which is generally quite a bit faster paced than the "slow nets" that I usually frequent.  It  was only the second time I've checked into RN6 & I was going a bit too fast for me (slow for them) ... 17 WPM according to my keyer.  I even practiced at this speed for awhile before the net.  Made a ton of mistakes anyway, which made me more nervous, which made my sending worse.  I was dripping.

I was sending them to K6YR, who was acting as P1 on the net.  He will now take the messages to the Pacific Area Net (PAN), where a TCC op (Transcontinental Corps, no kidding) will take them to the Eastern Area net (EAN), where the book will separate & the messages will go to their separate recipients.  All this upper level stuff also makes me nervous, of course.

At the end of all this, with all the mess-ups & repeats, K6YR just says "QSL TU", meaning "I got it all. Thank you."  My jaw dropped!  He got all that?  No fills?

In general, I do more copy practice than sending practice, so I can copy faster than I can send.  Probably I should reallocate my practice time a little, if I'm going to pull this RN6 stunt very often.

Sunspots or lack of them


This sounds rather dire!  I realize that scientists have spectacularly unsuccessful at predicting the course of our current sunspot trend, Cycle 24, so there's no reason to believe this prediction more than any other.  But it is possible!  Between 1645 and 1715, there were apparently almost no sunspots.  It could happen again.

Two problems there:

One - Solar activity makes the ionosphere, which keeps hams happily talking to each other around the world.  DX conditions are pretty dismal right now & I'd hate to think they might not get better any time soon.

Two - The 1645 to 1715 period is referred to as both the Maunder Minimum and also the Little Ice Age, because the climate was unusually cold during this period.  Sunspots are less hot than the rest of the Sun, thus appear dark, but they are surrounded by brighter "plage" areas, so the overall effect of high solar activity is slightly more sunlight & a warmer climate.  No sunspots, few plages, cold climate. A repeat of the Maunder minimum might offset global warming, at least while the it lasted.  Unpleasant surprise at then end of the minimum, though!

In any case, my personal timing is often bad & this is an example.  I put off getting a ham license for three solar cycles & look what happens.  Maunder minimum!

Nice try !

The other night I had the bright idea to enter all my QSO's from the weekend's SKCC Weekend Sprint into the new "logbook" feature on QRZ, in lieu of sending out the standard the standard cardstock QSL cards.    The entry process wasn't too difficult, since there were only 19 Q's.

Today I went looking at my own QRZ logbook to see if anyone had confirmed any of them ... only to find out that if I want to see any more than the latest ten entries in my own logbook, I have to pay for a subscription!  Logbook is a teaser!  I admit that web sites have to cover their costs, for server space & whatnot.  But QRZ is a VERY high traffic site, by ham standards & it has a LOT of advertising on it.  I'm not too worried about them going belly up.

In any case, a "rust-colored badge person" (volunteer for the ARRL QSL Bureau) told me last night that the QRZ log is not allowed by ARRL as confirming evidence for awards (such as "Worked All States", e.g.).  He said only LotW (Log Book of the World) & of course, paper cards are accepted.  So forget the QRZ idea.

Until I get my new cards printed, you will have to make do with radiograms.  They do not count for awards, either, but at least they entertain the NTS & are educational for me.  I learned how to "book" them by Area, so e.g. those for the Central Area (TX, MI, etc.) can travel efficiently as a group until they get to the Central Area, where someone will "unbook" them & send them off to each Region Net within the Area.  I've already sent off some of the local ones & will start with the long-distance ones tonight on RN6.

Monday, September 13, 2010

And one that is no longer on YouTube

This one doesn't embed, but it's certainly worth a visit:

http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=2025791097

The Best YouTube on my list ...

Because I know how hard it is to do. The DOGS don't even get in the credits, either!

One of three "best" YouTube videos I've ever seen

Geeks are not without their sense of humor.


out of line?

On a non-ham radio subject ... this morning when I was leaving for work, I noticed Betelgeuse just about equal to Rigel in brightness, which would make in magnitude 0.1.  Maybe even a tad brighter.  This is not what I'd expect from the recent light curve.  It has been running about 0.4.  If you are an early-rising variable star observer, have a look at it ... remember to glance at it rather than stare, because Betelgeuse is red & Rigel is not.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

a little contesting

One nice thing about being on call for the weekend is that I stay home.  That means, if there aren't any pressing items that need to be done, time on the radio.

My favorite contest is the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) Weekend Sprint.  This is because it is less frenetic & more user-friendly than most radio contests.  The pace is slower, consistent with using an old-style "straight key" or telegraph key (although any mechanical key, such as a bug, is allowed).  The Weekend Sprint isn't much of a sprint, though, since it lasts 24 hours.  Most SKCC members are civilized enough to sleep some during the contest, however.

I have to go back & look at my log, but I'm pretty sure that this is my best WES so far.  I made 19 contacts, in three different bands.  The new dipole antenna improves things quite a bit on 80 meters & 40 meters.  Also, my Morse copying is getting smoother.  I didn't feel like I had to have all of the required exchange information from someone's previous QSO's before I answered them.  That made things go faster.  I was also able to hold a frequency and call CQ myself for seven QSO's in a row.  This is a feat requiring no significant time gaps; otherwise someone will assume your frequency is not in use & start using it.

I did want to have a contact on 80 meters, even though on that band, my antenna is for fairly close distance contacts (NVIS).  I knew that I was likely to find KI6BHB (a know SKCC member) on the Sixth Region (RN6) net last night, so I eavesdropped & ambushed him after the net.

I did actually hear people from the Midwest on 80 meters last night, but I really doubt I would have been heard if I answered.  The dipole got me contacts in PA & KY on 40 meters, though.  A good band for late at night.

Spam, spam, spam, spam ...

Had a midnight conversation on FaceBook with a friend of mine KE1ML in the Boston area, who is also an NTS traffic handler.  He told me that he has been Net Control on traffic nets with as many as 50 (fifty) radiograms passed.  (Generally called "pieces of traffic", which makes me laugh.)  The most I have ever seen in one net is 15.  This disparity made sense, though, when I thought about it.

There is a lot of bulk traffic "spamgrams" out there.  Even the ARRL National Traffic System has spam.  And two of the main sources are located in the Boston area.  All those would have to funnel out of the Boston area in one net or another, or on the NTSD (digital version).

This sort of spam is not malicious at all, although it does get boring sometimes.  It's stuff like "friendly reminder" to renew your ham license, "welcome to amateur radio", "we need traffic handlers both phone and CW".  It is there to keep the NTS going in the days of cell phones, give it something to do & to keep the operators sharp in case they are needed in a disaster.  Personally, I like the trivia game better (http://ntstalk.wikidot.com/activity:trivia-traffic), but I can't complain too much about the spam.  I don't think I'm ready to be Net Control with 50 pieces of traffic, though!

Hotel Tango November

I have only been a ham (KD6HTN, then K6HTN when I passed my Extra) for 19 months, but I have been HTN since high school - a long time.  It is my "observer code" with the American Association of Variable Star Observers AAVSO (www.aavso.org).

First post

I'm not sure what has possessed me to start a new blog.  Maybe it's because I have been having one heck of a good time in the last 19 months "learning a new alphabet and the technical means to use it" … in other words: ham radio and CW.  I have absolutely no idea why I didn't take this step a long time ago.  I am having a blast.

I spent my first year or so dabbling around … ragchewing on repeaters, contesting a bit, even pack roving, a little DX (although my station really isn't up to it), etc.  The specialty with the most adhesive, however, is traffic handling.  It started as code practice.  Wait, back up a little … it started when I joined FISTS, the Morse code preservation society.  For that, I received a radiogram.  The nice ham who delivered it over the telephone didn't know what FISTS was.  I told him it was a CW club & he immediately invited me to join the SCN traffic net.  It took me a few months to do that, because my copy was still too slow, but eventually I started using the traffic nets as code copy practice, gradually understanding more and more of it.  I started playing a trivia game over the NTS, at first through a very slow sked with one of the game's perpetrators KI6BHB.  Eventually, 10 months ago or so, I found myself in a position where I had to go to a net & send my own messages.  The ionosphere was so lame (winter of sunspot super-minimum) that NVIS was not even working on 80 meters, so I had to go to the NCN (Northern California Net) to do it - I'm sure they wondered why, but their signals were stronger than SCN's & their speed was also slower.

So now I'm the Los Angeles Section Traffic Manager (LAX STM), which I think shows how slim the pickings are as far as personnel are concerned.  That's another long story for a later post.  I'm on traffic nets five nights a week, although there are only two nights that I have rigidly in my schedule.  I also copy the region net for code practice, gradually catching more & more of it.  Some of those folks are FAST!

So there's my first post.  Most of the blog will likely be about new, geeky stuff that I learn, adventures that I have with the National Traffic System.  Don't expect a soap opera!  Please indulge someone who wishes she'd gotten a ham license, say, in college.

Meanwhile, back to the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) Weekend Sprint ...