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.


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:



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  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". 


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:

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 (, 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 (

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 ...