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
NO 5 QTC 13 IN
22 73

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.


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!