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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