Sunday, November 27, 2011

WinLink Classic

Somewhat of a geeky post, sorry ...

One of my recent ham radio adventures has been setting up WinLink Classic, for purposes of participating in NTSD, the digital arm of the National Traffic System.

This software is "maintained" by the traffic handling underground, since the authors don't want to have anything to do with it any more.  That is what makes it an adventure.  Originally I was sent a complete "working" radio station for NTSD - computer, TNC (radio modem) & rig, which was supposed to get me up & running right away.

The antenna tuner in the rig can't handle my wire antenna, however.  No problem - a new TNC/rig cable got me going with Pactor on my own rig & computer (see next paragraph).  I have been using WINMOR, a sound card application, to access WinLink for many months now.  I very quickly discovered that Pactor is much faster & more usable in poor conditions than WINMOR seems to be.  (The down side is that the SCS PTC-IIex TNC is quite a bit more expensive than an external sound card for the computer.)  WinLink allows me to send traffic by "radio email" to NTSD MBO (mailbox operation) stations that can put it into the NTSD system.  The MBO stations, however, have to do a manual operation to accomplidh that, however.  Same with them sending me traffic by WinLink.  Running WinLink Classic, like the MBO stations do, would make this much more seamless & also allow automatic routing of traffic.

Being software from the Stone Age, WinLink Classic requires a Stone Age computer.  Windows XP works, but only if the software is installed in Windows 98 compatibility mode.  Also, TNC requires a serial port.  The supplied computer definitely fell into that era.  It would not recognize one quarter of its own memory.  The fan makes it sound like it's about to levitate.  And it's SLOW ...

I lucked out in this regard.  A friend of mine heard me complaining & offered an XP desktop machine that had been languishing under her desk for at least a year.  In summary, it works great!  And it's at least as fast as my laptop.  Now for the installation of WinLink Classic ...

There isn't any nice installation package downloadable from the Internet.  The NTS Pacific Area Digital Coordinator sent me a CD & spent 2.5 hrs on Skype with me getting the software installed & configured properly.  Part of the "voodoo" of running this stuff is that, if you make a configuration change & save it, you are likely to have to save it at least twice before it sticks.  He didn't know why & I certainly don't.  I have to say it still doesn't work exactly right.  It will connect with a local MBO station, but it insists on switching to "keyboard mode" instead of "BBS" mode, so nothing happens.  When the CW contest ends later today, I will try saving the config changes a few more times & try again.

(CQ WW CW pretty much precludes a Pactor connection, as all the CW parts of an open band are packed with signals.)

The goal is to be able to check into the 6th Region MBO seamlessly, pick up traffic for my Section & if needed, send traffic out that I can't manage to get onto the CW nets.  The future might include becoming a more-or-less continuously operating NTSD MBO, as a backup to the current 6th Region MBO.  That requires quite a bit more work - a dedicated antenna & an automatic tuner that will handle it.  Not going to happen tomorrow.

It would be nice, though, if the NTSD could eventually use supportable software.  What will happen, for example, when Windows 8 comes out & we can't get an XP compatible computer any more?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Brass Pounders

Two of the activities most loved by amateur radio operators are contesting and "wallpaper".

In a contest, you make as many contacts as possible with other hams in other parts of the world, according to the rules of each contest, during a specified time period.  Often the time period is 48 hours (a weekend), so there is a certain amount of endurance required.  Some hams tend to be a little wild-eyed at the end of it.  This weekend was the CQ World Wide "phone" (radiotelephone) or voice contest, so everyone should be pretty hoarse by now.  Postings are already starting to show up on the contest club email reflectors, with estimated scores.

Another popular aspect of goal-oriented ham radio is called "wallpaper".  Wallpaper consists of certificates or plaques that you can get from sponsoring organizations (such as the ARRL) for collecting a "complete set" of contacts (verified by QSL postcards from the other station, after the contact) ... Worked All States, Worked all Counties, DXCC (DX Century Club - 100 different countries), etc.

I don't have a big antenna tower or a powerful DX (distance oriented) station.  My neighbors would probably pay me NOT to get a big amplifier.  Although I enjoy Field Day once  year, I find contesting rather dull.  After all, you send almost the same information to every station you contact (call sign, hows-my-signal report & some sort of exchange information required by the particular contest).  I like to do some "ragchewing" or BS-ing with other hams on the air, but mostly I handle message traffic & teach other ops how to do the same.  A lot of that is pretty dull, too, but there are some gems ... DAISY WANTS A BELLY RUB, for example.  I'm assuming that Daisy is a dog.  I digress ...

Guess what!  Traffic handlers  like wallpaper, too.  As I mentioned in a previous post, that is the Brass Pounders League.  Brass Pounders are traditionally Morse operators, since the old Morse keys were made of brass.  But in this context, Brass Pounders are people who handle a lot of relayed messages, whether on CW, voice modes, or digital modes.

To qualify for the Brass Pounders League listing in the fine print of QST magazine, I need 500 points for the month.  This generally means handling about 250 messages; for most messages, you get 2 points (receive & send, receive & deliver, etc.).  I made it last month & I made it again this month.  To accomplish this I checked into 75 traffic nets and/or emergency drill nets.  Halloween is tomorrow & I'll be taking the evening off from the nets; my total points this month is appropriately 666.

If I want wallpaper (a certificate) I have to manage to do this for 12 months in a row.  And contesters think they have an endurance trial!  So if you see me with a haunted look & obsession with making my nets on time, this is why.

Much of the traffic I handle involves welcoming new hams to the hobby & people normally have more on their minds in December than passing the license exams.  So I'm planning out a strategy to get through December ... perhaps my "Christmas list" will get radiograms this year ...

... and please do let me know if you'd like to send someone a nice, retro message for the Holidays.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Internet back channel

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Internet is a handy back channel when learning to operate in the National Traffic System (NTS).  There are, for example, numerous email or chat conversations following, or maybe even during, nets.  "Great job on net control" to a first-timer, "Do you want help delivering all those?", etc.

This week, I sent a congratulatory message to an astronomy organization that I belong to (AAVSO = American Association of Variable Star Observers), on the occasion of their centennial meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts: CONGRATULATIONS TO AAVSO ON ITS CENTENNIAL X HAVE AN INSPIRING MEETING 73, sent to the AAVSO director, who is a ham.  I sent it on RN6 Cycle 4, session 1 (usual evening Morse net), on Monday.  I sort of hoped it would arrive during the meeting & end up with other good wishes that members probably sent by email.

However, Tuesday night I was eavesdropping on RN6 Cycle 4, session 2 & I heard a service message for me coming back, saying that my message was undeliverable, because there was NO OUTLET.  This means that the operator who had the message could not find anyone to take it further on its journey.  It was stuck & the service message told me that further attempts were being abandoned.  But the service message came from North Carolina!  Huh?  How could it get that lost?

Not really wanting to take no for answer & wanting to get the message there for the meeting, I took a step that sort of reminds me of the ending of an old animated feature Wizards.  I abandoned Morse code & the NTS net structure & sent the message by WinLink to a friend of mine who was at the meeting, who happens to be a ham & a handler of message traffic like me.  WinLink is a system originally set up for yachters on the high seas to send email to their friends & relatives via HF (short-wave) radio.  The messages go as far as they need to go by radio & then they enter the Internet as regular email.  The NTS has recently adopted WinLink as a major tool in its toolbox, expecting to use it heavily to move message traffic in major disasters when the power and/or the Internet is out in the affected area.  So my friend got an email at his usual email address, from, subject line "NTS QTC AB7IO 1; pse HXC this email" (This email contains one NTS radiogram for AB7IO, please let me know that you got received it).  We call this Type 1 radio email, or radio email carrying active radiograms.

Just in case might not get through his spam filter, I then send my friend a FaceBook message asking him to keep an eye out for the traffic.

On Thursday morning, while I was doing some routine task at work, I was also watching the AAVSO meeting on streaming video.  And what did I hear by my radiogram message first explained & then read to the  meeting attendees by my traffic-handler friend.  Success!!  But which route was the successful one?  The WinLink or the one through North Carolina?

I was still curious about the North Carolina connection. I started googling K4IWW, the operator who sent the service message.  Turns out that he is into a lot of different ham radio stuff, but one of the things that stood out is that he is often the Delta operator on Tuesday.  This is the really "long haul" part of the NTS, known as the Transcontinental Corps, or TCC, usually the most elite & experienced operators with the best stations.  Station Delta is the the one who picks up traffic for the Eastern Area from Juliet in the Pacific Area.  So Delta would very likely have gotten my message, on Tuesday.  If he then tried to take it to the Eastern Area Net & if Region 1 (which includes Massachusetts) didn't have rep there that day, then my message would have been stalled.  K4IWW lives in North Carolina, explaining everything.

The other NTS challenge that happened that week is that our own Section Emergency Coordinator tried to send a radiogram to his relatives in the Philippines.  Theoretically, this is possible, because the US has a "third party agreement" with regard to ham radio communications with the Philippines, meaning that hams here could send a message on behalf of a third party.  It's not done very often, though, so NO OUTLET is a likely possibility.  I heard this message get stalled twice & the spelling of PHILAPPINES was changed at least once.  On RN6, it had to be suggested that there might be someone in the EAN who knew what to do with the message.  Then, I also overheard a PAN (Pacific Area Net) report that said the message had been held over for the next net, presumably for the same reason.

No service message came back, however & I monitored enough nets to be fairly confident about that.  The traffic eventually did reach the Philippines.  It seems likely that it wasn't by HF radio, however, since the delivering operator spoke American English.  Skype is a wonderful thing ...

The NTS is about practicing for disasters.  Otherwise we WOULD be using Skype, instead of sending text messages that can take days to get where they are going.  But the whole Internet is not likely to ever crash.  NTS is for getting messages in & out of regional disaster areas.  It's totally realistic to be using Google & Skype outside the affected area.  But we are also having fun poking the system, figuring out how to get around problems.  It keeps us on our toes, where we should be.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Another Outreach Event

Today, representatives of the Los Angeles Section Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) attended the Neighborhood Congress event at Los Angeles City Hall.  Along with them went two message traffic handlers from the NTS group: Jutti K6FRG and Robert KJ6RJA.  The idea was to get some of the attendees to send "Greetings by Amateur Radio.  This is one way I might contact you after a major disaster" messages to their out-of-town relatives or friends, just to promote awareness of the capability of amateur radio to operate outside the commercial infrastructure.

The word is that the hams made a good impression & had a good time, as well.  Out of the effort came nine messages, plus a better hands-on understanding of intermod, UHF propagation, and problems operating in an earthquake resistant building (lots of steel) such as the now-retrofitted City Hall.  A learning experience for all.

Radiograms collected were sent by FM voice mode, simplex or repeater, whatever was working at the moment, to Kate K6HTN in Pasadena.  Those bound for local addressees were delivered immediately by telephone & in some cases replies given before the event was over.   I have to say that the Keller Peak repeater, 70 miles away in the San Bernardino Mountains, is one awesome repeater!  It was our fallback.

For the "long distance" messages, the initial plan was to send them via Winmor (HF radio email) to the NTSD hub in Washington state, but the ionosphere was not cooperating.  K6HTN's VHF packet system is still not working, so we fell back to the traditional methods: CW (Morse code) on the Sixth Region Net this evening.

A good day's (& evening's) work.  Thank you, Jutti &  Robert.  And to the RN6 traffic handlers who probably were looking forward to short nets over the weekend!

Nice side effect ... if you read the fine print in QST, look for K6HTN listed under Brass Pounders' League this month (first time).

Traditionally, a Brass Pounder is a Morse code operator, Morse keys being traditionally made of brass.  Brass Pounders' League, however, is the "dean's list" of traffic handlers & open to voice & digital operators as well as Morse code freaks.  A lot of the top handlers don't report their station activity, but for K6HTN it is a novelty & a milestone.  If I can manage to achieve that level 12 months in a row, I'll get "wallpaper", i.e. a certificate, a symbol of the experience gained.

Friday, September 16, 2011

NTS Goes to Hamcon

Hamcon … the ARRL Southwest Division Convention ( is over.  It was great fun, but exhausting.  I got very little sleep & was “on” the whole time.  At least I didn’t spend much money in the vendors court, because I didn’t have time to go shopping.
            LAX Section set up & staffed 3 tables … ARRL, ARES & NTS.  The NTS table was my hangout for the weekend.  We set up on Friday – the display looked very nice, due to the “gov’t surplus” display boards & Jutti’s/Clara’s (K6FRG & KJ6CNO) excellent work with the content material.  We had decorative space next to us, so we actually took up two tables worth of space & we used it all.

            There was some tension of Friday night.  I’d been told that the W1AW/6 people were planning to set up a 2-meter station for us at the social, as sort of public attraction (geek side show among geeks?).  It was an interesting thought, but they never did it.  Fortunately, Jutti K6FRG (my roommate for the weekend) & I knew from earlier experiment that we could hit the Keller Peak machine (70 miles away) from our 17th floor balcony, with our HT’s.  Thus we got into the SCN/V traffic net & disposed of the 2 messages that we picked up at the table on Friday.  It was quite a comedy, actually. NCS had no idea we were standing next to each other; in fact, we were sharing a radio.  It was dark, so we had one light stick, one radio & one mike.  We had to decline being sent QSY to simplex with KI6BHB, because we had no idea if simplex was possible.  We’d have gotten away with the charade, except that Jutti started busting up at one point.  I passed some non-Hamcon related traffic to her via Keller Peak.  No SAR points to be had in just handing over the message!
            Later on, though, I found out that K6YR worked PAN (Pacific Area Net) with W1AW/6 on 40 meters.  Says our Section Manager David N6HD, “he screams on CW,” meaning that he sends really fast.  But I already knew that.  Wish I’d known he was going to do that, I’d have gone to watch.  W1AW/6 did not have an 80-meter antenna, so we were never able to get to RN6.
            All of the rest of the traffic, a total of 43 messages collected from Hamcon’ers, were send via packet WinLink, in NTSD batch file format, to a gateway located on the 12th floor of the hotel.  From there they went to W5KAV, the Pacific Area Digital Coordinator, for insertion into the NTSD system.   Those for Southern California recipients ended up in the hands of Jim K6RXX in Long Beach & were (hopefully by now) all delivered in the usual way, by telephone.  A circuitous route, for sure, but one designed to illustrate that NTS has a foot in the modern world.  Not all of us do it only for the fun of the CW.
            Dennis Oszuczik KI6UNC, our Section Emergency Coordinator, lent his go box for the “downstairs” station.  Besides sending the messages, this unit helped attract people to our table, I’m sure.
            We had a ton of local traffic handlers helping to draw people in & get their radiograms formatted: Jack Eyster KO6V, Jutti Marsh K6FRG, Robert Allen KJ6RJA, Paul Zahoreck KJ6HRJ, Craig Keenan KJ6IJJ, Alice Bennett K6BNT
            We also had a presentation (“tech talk”) on Saturday morning.  This went well, except that I had to gloss some stuff to finish on time.  We packed the house!  I had no idea we’d get that many people & I underestimated when the convention asked for expected turnout.  The Division Director, Dick Norton N6AA complained at least twice to me that we got more people than the ARRL Forum did.
            The presentation consisted of two parts: 1) an intro talk given by me & 2) a panel discussion featuring some of the loftiest NTS folks that I could find: Rob Griffin K6YR, Chair of the Pacific Area Staff, Cycle 4 TCC op, Santa Barbara Section Manager & who knows what else; Bruce Hunter W6WW, Cycle 2 TCC op & Orange Section Traffic Manager; Ken Miller K6CTW, Cycle 4 Pacific Area Net op, with many years of experience behind him.  We got some pretty good discussion going on subjects such as the new-fangled digital operation & possible roles for NTS in a big disaster.  Mostly what people wanted to know, however, was what kind of antennas we use.
            Some of these guys are the archetypes of traffic handlers: terse & dry, by nature.  In spite of this, though, Rob managed to produce new 8.5 x 11 “Pink Cards” that include batch format in addition to all the other stuff – really HOT pink, too!
            After the presentation, we experienced about 5 hours of solid “business” at the table.  I’d bought my lunch at nearby Wahoo’s, but never got to eat more than a few bites.  I was mostly typing batch files, but kept getting interrupted for conversations & could not keep up with the rest of the crew, who were originating the radiograms.
            Following that was the banquet.  Speaker was Jay Jones, a professor at La Verne.  Good speaker, with some interesting prospectives on hams’ contributions to the rest of the world & how “primary experience” (hands on) facilitates this.
            The shock of the night, though, was that I received a plaque for “SW Division Volunteer of the Year”!  Yikes.  Yes, I’ve done a lot of work, but I thought it was premature.  But it felt good, anyway.  I have many supporters, though & I’ve tried to share the wealth by posting a picture of the plaque, in places such as here.

This was for trying to revitalize the NTS & teaching traffic handling & CW classes.
            After the banquet came the arduous task of staying awake until midnight, for the Wouff Hong ceremony (  The ceremony was well done & they obviously put a huge amount of effort into the costumes & theatrics.  Good stuff.  
            On Friday, we had more radiograms, but it was not as hectic.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Zen & Net Control

You are responsible for conducting a meeting of your colleagues.  It is not a “brainstorming meeting” or a “team bonding” meeting.  Time is very short, 45 minutes at max.  Everyone brings at least one bit of “hot potato” information that they desperately want to pass on to someone else, so they can get on with their work.  When they “check in” with you at the beginning of the meeting, they list what they have & what they are looking for from others.  Some of them have even less time available than you do.  Discussing everything sequentially would take far more time than you have & bore some people to sleep.

Even while the intros are still going on, you start pairing people up & sending them to various other tables to take care of their business, asking them to return when they are done.

You have to clear more urgent exchanges first.  You have to clear people on a tight schedule first.  After that, you need to clear short exchanges first, to release as many people as possible back to their work.

Some information, with data common to a number of exchanges, must be passed at the main table.  If someone unfamiliar with this style of meeting shows up, you also have to very briefly explain what is going on.

You must not lose track of anyone or anything.  You have your “bingo card” spreadsheet in front of you, to help you keep track.  

Now imagine that the meeting is really a conference call.  Let’s say that the other tables are individual telephone calls & all you are doing is pairing people off to make those calls.  Let’s say that if people all talk at once on the conference line, the VOIP garbles it.  Now it is easy to see why one person has to tightly control what happens & call on people.  Otherwise, there is chaos.

Can you do it?

Of course you can.  Many people do it several times per week & are quite proficient.  Many even do it in Morse code (not normally anyone’s first language)!

It doesn’t happen in a meeting room or on a conference call.  It happens on ham radio, during “traffic nets” where operators gather on a certain frequency at a certain time, with the sole purpose of relaying information.  The information consists of messages or “radiograms” sent by hams to their own friends, relatives & fellow hams, or to anyone on behalf of a “third party.”  They do it to keep alive a well-oiled system (the National Traffic System) for passing urgent messages during a disaster when the normal infrastructure isn’t working.  The National Traffic System also serves to train hams who respond to disasters, in net procedures & accurate/efficient message transfer.

On the radio, instead of sending people to other tables, you are sending them to other frequencies in the ham radio bands.

There are further consideration that I could not figure out how to include in a conference call analogy.  If you are operating on short wave, your ability to communicate depends on a the upper atmosphere, where there is a layer, called the ionosphere, that reflects radio waves back down to other parts of the globe.  The ionosphere changes as the day progresses & with solar activity.  You must be aware of whether or when some net members may “lose connectivity,” so you can clear them early.

You are “net control.”  The people with the time constraints are liaisons to other nets.  The nets run in cycles, with nets spaced 45 minutes apart.

Since hams send & receive messages every day, many traffic nets also meet every day, so it can be said that the National Traffic System is probably the only ham radio organization that practices for disaster 365.25 days per year.  (Normally with a different crop of hams each day of the week.)

Here is what the manual (Public Service Communications Manual, Appendix B “Methods & Practices Guidelines,” Chapter 5 “Net Control”)  has to say … “You may panic freely between transmissions.”

Otherwise, it is Zen as usual.  If you can control when you panic, then why bother?

Seriously, the samurai approach to martial arts & pouring tea can be very useful here … a combo of total concentration & relaxation is in good order.  

Then watch the coping skills spill over into the rest of your life!

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I’ve been around hams for a large part of my adult life, even if I wasn’t yet inspired to get my license.  Dorm-mates in college dated hams, for example, so I even picked up some of the jargon.  I knew what WX, DX, XTL, YL, XYL, etc. meant.

Ham radio has some very interesting & charming traditions.  Some of these common abbreviations, even those that text messagers now use, such as CU, probably go back as far as the telegraph.

A few, I’ve never been comfortable with.  88 for example, means “love & kisses.”  It’s used only with women, but even those the operator has never met.  It singles us out; takes me back to my college days, in physics classes that were 99% guys.  

Everyone else gets “73,” which means “best wishes.”

The other one that has always bothered me is that, in the world of ham radio, there are only “old men” (OM) and “young women” (YL).  If you are 80 yrs old & female, you are still a YL.  (Conversely, if you are 10 yr ole & male, you are an OM, which doesn’t make much sense either.)  Unless a woman happens to be married to a ham, then she is an XYL.  So, do you just turn ugly & wrinkly when you walk down the aisle?   

It is no shortcut, because “XYL” contains 12 code elements (dits or dahs), whereas “wife” contains only 10.

There’s no gender indicator on CW, aside from your first name.  When the question has come up (a couple of times), I have introduced myself on nets


The bed of white gardenias is coming out, folks, to make room for the antenna support structure …

That is all I have to say on this subject.  It’s hard to fight tradition & there are a lot of aspects of ham tradition that I like.  But now it’s on record that I don’t necessarily like all of it.


It has begun.

There was a time not so long ago, when the National Traffic System regularly passed a message that began WELCOME TO AMATEUR RADIO, directed at new Tech licensees, as listed in the daily updates to the FCC ULS data base.

At some point, a supposedly vital portal to the data base ceased operation & the author of these messages could no longer distinguish new hams from upgrades, address changes, etc.  (I’m pretty sure I don’t understand this part, since I don’t have any problem with this.)  So the message, although still congratulatory, changed to a generic form of  WE NEED TRAFFIC HANDLERS …

Of course, we do need traffic handlers, but many of us were having a great time wishing well to the new hams, inviting them to radio club meetings & generally offering Elmer advice.

So, with a little help from other local fanatics, Bruce W6WW, the Orange Section Traffic Manager, has started a local NTS welcoming campaign, to cover at least Southern California.  This started last night on the SCN/V net, with a book of five directed to Los Angeles County & one straggler in Palm Desert.

As this effort grows, Bruce hopes to be pulling some of the rest of us in as originators, as well as deliverers.

We hope that radiogram messages for particular areas will be supplied to us by radio clubs, as an outreach to possible new members.

There are several “up sides”: we have our outreach opportunity back; the traffic is more varied & interesting; as long as people keep passing Tech exams, there are no more nets without any traffic.

Some might say that a “down side” would be the increased traffic, but I feel that we can handle it.  If not, we need to get more people involved.  There should be a ready source among the not-quite-so-new hams who joined the ranks primarily with emergency communications in mind.  Passing traffic is about as close to a daily disaster drill as you can get & still have fun doing it.  Free instruction provided …
The only thing we can’t seem to do anything about is the persistent inaccuracy of the on-line white pages listings.  Ugh.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Morse strangeness

Sometimes I just cannot resist an unusual piece of junk from a ham radio swap meet.  Look closely & you will see two J-38 Morse keys stuck together sideways, to make a dual-lever paddle or a cootie key.  Don't know which, because it actually doesn't work at all right now.  I plugged it into the rig for fun & only got intermittent results on the thumb side.

It's a good paperweight, though.  It weighs about 5 pounds.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A New Visual Dimension in Radio

I’m enjoying my new Elecraft K3 transceiver, with its P3 add-on.  (For my non-ham friends, a transceiver is a two-way radio – one that can transmit & receive.)  This radio is highly rated by users & technical reviewers, plus the controls make a lot of intuitive sense, which isn’t always the case.  For example, the output power level  is on a dial on the front panel instead of in a menu.  Same with the CW (Morse) keyer speed.  Admittedly, it has a lot of features (& menus) that I don’t know how to use yet, but I was immediately able get started with it.  Nice.

What I’m writing about, though, is not the K3, but the P3.  This little device displays the power received at the various frequencies around where you intend to transmit.  So you can see any conversations or data transfers that are nearby.  The upper display is just a spectrum, power vs. frequency.  The lower display is what is called a “waterfall” display.  It shows the last few minutes of power received, continually moving downward.  So, if I want to look really close, I could see all the little dots & dashes.

There is a LOT of information here!

For example, if I am in a contest, I don’t have to just blindly tune up & down to find a contact.  I know ahead of time which signals are strong & for CW, about how fast they are sending.  If I want to call CQ, I can easily find an unused segment of spectrum (if there are any).

If I am checked into a traffic net, I can easily see what happens when the net control station sends the traffic handlers up or down to another nearby frequency to pass messages.   If net control calls a net a little off frequency – presumably because he could hear someone that I cannot, already using the nominal net frequency – I can see where he is.  If I am net control & want to send stations up or down – which doesn’t happen often on the slow net – I can see where the unused frequencies are.

It is educational, too.  I can very graphically see the difference in bandwidth used by voice, CW & data modes.  It is obvious to me now what causes “key clicky” sounds, when I see a very strong CW signal just outside my receive bandpass.  There is a lot going on, on the band, that I might want to be aware of.

Another visual that helps a lot, is on the K3 itself – that allows me to visually “zero beat” my frequency with someone else’s CW signal.  A difference in tuned frequency results in a difference in the audio tone, but I’m sort of tone-deaf, so I had problems with that.  I had learned how to listen for “beats” between the CW signal & an audio “spot tone”, but the visual method is much easier.  I can also use the P3 to just center the other person’s power peak in the middle of my bandpass.

It’s a vivid reminder, I guess, that I am more of a visual person than an audio person.  Not a surprise.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fun & Radio in the Middle of Nowhere

photo by "Camera Guy"

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to do some ham radio in one of the more remote parts of California, near the southern end of Death Valley, between Shoshone and Pahrump NV.  The occasion was the annual “Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup” relay foot race, between the aptly named town of Baker in California & Las Vegas.  Historically, this event came about as a challenge between two police departments, to shed the “donut shop” image & get moving.  This year was the 27th year.  270 teams competed, all composed of some sort of law enforcement personnel, from the Mens Central Jail, to the FBI, to the IRS.  Royal Canadian Mounties, even - without the horses.

The conditions are hostile for runners, even in the early spring.  The temperature was maybe 100 F during the day & quite chilly at night.  Humidity was in the single digits (to the point where, on the way home, the “desert” town of Barstow seemed quite humid).

Baker, Shoshone, Pahrump & of course, Las Vegas have cell phone coverage.  There is cell phone coverage all the way along Interstate 15, but the race is run on the lesser roads.  Ham radio is essential, including several portable repeaters for the occasion.  The race operation itself has its own ham crews for each relay Stage, plus Net Control, etc.  Most of the 270 teams running also have their own mobile ham crews that follow the runner.

Frequency coordination, I’m told, is a nightmare.  The director of the ham operation has a go-box containing a stack of mobile rigs that she calls The Tower of Babble.

This year was my first year, so I’m likely to convey an ant’s eye view of the whole thing.  My particular job was to copy transmissions from a “Late Early Warning” ham stationed 500 ft ahead of the Stage 8 chute, so that I could tell the Stage director who to have on deck to catch the baton & to catch the dehydrated incoming runner.  I also kept a backup list of bib numbers, in order & WWVB clock times, in case the transponders missed something.  The job was challenging enough, when the runners were clumped, to keep me from getting bored.  At our stage, the runners were spaced out over a nine-hour time period.

Near the end of our operation, when the some of the malfunctioning repeaters started functioning, I could understand that frequency coordination is indeed a problem, because I could hear both our Early Warning & Stage 13’s Early Warning hams, making it a little more confusing.  I could also hear our Stage’s Ham Lead sitting behind me somewhere, doing her own communications & fretting that things weren’t working right.  Also, of course, each team’s supporters were yelling encouragement & the paramedics were asking each incoming runner his name as they stumbled past me.  Random people walked up & asked where a certain runner was at the moment, which of course I didn’t know unless it happened to be between Early Warning & the chute.  I could not use my headset because I needed to wear a large straw hat.

There were repeater problems, but our 1-mile Early Warning ham could relay to Net Control.  The light-all’s failed, but one was finally repaired.  The long line of porta-potties became disgusting.  The race vehicles failed to turn off their headlights when they passed the Stage, so I got a headache.  But no-one fell down the berm at the side of the road.  Someone - presumably the support teams of “sworn officers” for each team - picked up all the trash, before the migrant mob moved on to some later stage.  Overall, it was a big success, apparently it always is.

It was amazing to watch an entire communications network & other support structure arise in the desert where there was none the day before, and then disappear just as quickly. One memorable scene - overlooking the road from the top of a bluff at Ibex Pass - a repeater antenna held aloft by a fully-extended bucket truck.  Many ham groups view “B2V” as their major disaster drill of the year.  Individual Stages are staffed by organizations: Disaster Communications Service, Auxiliary Communications Service, Amateur Radio Emergency Service, etc.

We are lucky that no real disaster requiring ham radio operators happened that weekend.   Before I left I sent an email to one my traffic handlers, who happened to have another commitment & could not leave the city: “JUST KIDDING - Between B2V & the DX Convention in Visalia, the entire Los Angeles Section field organization is gone. Most of ACS, DCS & ARES are also gone.  In case of a disaster, you are in charge.  JUST KIDDING.”

After the race ... S'mores!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

To Spam or Not to Spam

That is the question.  Well, one of them, anyway.  Spam is everywhere, on your doorstep, your voice mail, your email inbox … it’s obnoxious.  Unless that one particular slice appeals to you somehow.

Almost two years ago, I was still struggling with the letters L and Y.  Visions of Sesame Street were passing through my head:  “This is the letter L.  Meet the letter L.  Dit-Dah-Dit-Dit.”

For psychological support, I joined an organization called FISTS, the International Morse Preservation Society.   Although capitalized, because there are no upper & lower cases in Morse, FISTS does not stand for anything.  Rather, your “fist” characterizes how you sound when you send code.  If you have a good fist, you sending will be clear & easily read.  If it is irregular, or has too much “swing” (variation in Dah length for emphasis or perversity), you may be called “ham fisted.”  Or someone may ask you if you are QLF; sending with your left foot.

Anyway, I got a nice welcome to FISTS, via the National Traffic System.   ARL SIXTY NINE FISTS, or “Welcome to FISTS.  We are glad to have you with us and hope you will enjoy the fun and fellowship of the organization.”  The traffic handler who called me up on the phone & read this message to me asked what FISTS was, because he’d never heard of it.  Many traffic ops are chatty & get into some quite interesting conversations.  When I told him it was a CW club, he invited me to participate in the local slow-speed traffic net on Tuesday & Thursday night.

This got my attention, because I sort of wanted to do that anyway.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have an antenna for 80 meters yet & the net was still WAY too fast for me.  But this particular cold call planted a seed.  I remembered.

Now that I’m actually on the nets, I realize how MUCH (almost all) of the traffic is basically spam:  “WELCOME TO AMATEUR RADIO”, “WE NEED TRAFFIC HANDLERS”, “A FRIENDLY REMINDER YOUR AMATEUR RADIO LICENSE EXPIRES …”, etc.  Those are the three main sources, competing for top honors in the QST fine print, under Brass Pounders League.  I tell myself & I have told recipients of messages that I’ve delivered, that these three ops are keeping the NTS alive in case it is really needed one day.  But I’d still like to be relaying more unique & interesting traffic.  Even ARL FIFTY THREE QSL CARD would do.

The Big Three spam operations are very much a shotgun effort, though.  Every new ham, upgrade, address or other change in the FCC data base, license renewal or impending expiration gets at least one.  It makes no sense to send “WE NEED TRAFFIC HANDLERS ON PHONE CW AND RTTY” to someone who just got his Tech license & probably doesn’t even recall from his cramming what the NTS is.  You’ll get a very low return & probably annoy people.  Even people just joining FISTS may not be a high return.

But what about members of, say, the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) who have just earned their “Centurion” award by logging a CW QSO with their first 100 other SKCC members?  Perfect!  Old hands at CW already have made their choice whether or not to handle traffic.  New members may not have the skills yet.  But new Centurions are quite likely to be able to handle the slow nets & maybe the regular nets, too & may be ready to try something new.

So … I’m seriously thinking of joining the unclean ranks of the radiogram spammers.  At an average of 2 to 3 new “C’s” per week, I won’t make Brass Pounders League & I probably won’t overload or annoy anyone (especially STN 6T & the TCC ops, whom I definitely don’t want to piss off!).  But I may have some fun & gain some experience.  (For example, I just learned that outgoing bulk messages should be “booked” by the addressees’ Area net, so they can go intact through the TCC level.  Makes sense.)

And, who knows?  NTS may pick up one or two more CW traffic handlers.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Stress test

Last night was like one of those arithmetic word problems from school days:

“K6HTN held 6 pieces of traffic.  Struggling with QRM on RN6/1, she picked up 1.  Following RN6, she then got 10 more on a sked before LAN started.  After LAN, where she was NCS, she had 3 left over, plus 1 she picked up for RN6.  Then she got 6 on RN6/2 & delivered 2 of those immediately via WINMOR.  The last two copied were both difficult PAN net reports.  How many messages were there now on her hook at the end of Cycle 4?  Which ones were they?

Well, 4 of them have to be the ones from RN6/2 that were not delivered by WINMOR, because there is nowhere else for them to go.  The one picked up for RN6 also had nowhere to go that night, so that one is left.  The 3 left over from LAN all happen to be from the original 5, but you don’t know that from the problem.  So that  - 8 – is how many I have.

But that’s not the point.  

The point is that they are all accounted for.  Even the one with the horribly mangled address.  It turns out that the address was mangled somewhere between the VEC & the FCC data base, not in the NTS.  I was lucky, that addressee was known personally by the handler who picked up that message on LAN.

I’m also told by the same handler that the phone numbers were all wrong.

The point is that I went from one net straight to another, with no time to recopy messages, check them against, or any of the normal detective work that we do before delivering the messages by telephone or asking another traffic handler to do it.

I made a couple of recoverable errors, but I juggled the messages without losing any.  My voice started giving out (after all I read 12 out of the 15 messages that I took to LAN, which is a local voice net) before my fist did.  I didn’t forget any Morse code.  My protocol may have been a little wacky by the fourth net, which was RN6/2, but I did it.

Stress test passed.  Two years & two weeks after I got my first ham license.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

NTS operators needed, psychic ability a big plus ...

I received a message last night with ARL SIXTY FOUR, ARL SEVEN, and no return address information, just a first name & call sign.

ARL SEVEN means "Please reply by Amateur Radio through the amateur delivering this message. This is a free public service."  Basically the same as HXE.  OK, fine.  Normally I could get the address from & the phone number from

But ARL SIXTY FOUR means "Arrived safely at _____."  So this guy is far from home.  The context of the message suggests he is likely to stay a while.

Sure hope the addressee knows his whereabouts!  We are good, but we aren't that good.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Now for something a little different

I took a CERT I class this weekend. CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Teams. These teams are meant to take care of much of the "easy part" of suppression of small fires, first aid, search & rescue, triage, etc. freeing up the Fire Department & paramedics for more difficult situations. It is recognized that after our big earthquake that is coming some time, the professionals will have way too much to do & communities need to be somewhat self sufficient.

We learned how to properly use a fire extinguisher, how to triage (sort) the wounded in a multi-casualty incident, how to immobilize various body parts with splints made from cardboard boxes & how to "crib" or use basic physics to lift debris.

We also got to plug ham radio a little bit. This particular area has a simplex net every Sunday morning & all the hams in the class checked in.

Cramming it all in one weekend is a bit much. I feel like I would have to take it over again if I were going to join a community team & actually be able to do it. Probably this won't happen anyway, until I retire. As it is now, I am already oversubscribed as far as response is concerned, at least if the emergency is an earthquake.

It is all good stuff to know, though! Who knows when (not if) you might need it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

More traffic handlers' humor

Observed on RN6/2 last night ...

NR 380 etc.

(That normally would be BOOK OF 8, followed by the "common parts" preamble (R HXC, etc.), then the eight different addresses.  The text is not necessary, because we have it all memorized.  Everyone who's ham license is about to expire on Apr 2 gets one of these.  Tomorrow it will be Apr. 3.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Touch Keyer

Weekend before last I picked up a new toy at a hamfest swap meet: a touch keyer.  The two paddles don’t move, or not much anyway, but the most minute pressure you put on them triggers the keyer.  I like it a lot, so far & have been practicing with it daily.  The touch keyer is prone to send something if I just brush it by accident, so lots of practice is needed.  (I’m not the most coordinated person in the world.)

The more I practice with it, though, the worse my fist gets using my other paddles (Vibroplex).  Even after I loosened up the spring tension & narrowed the gaps almost to the point that it creates its own sending errors, the Vibroplex now feels “clunky” & requires too much pressure.

Two nights ago, I decided that the learning curve had intersected the fist degradation, so I switched over & have been subjecting other net members to the resulting mess (sorry, guys!).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Trivia Traffic - fun with the NTS

If you have been around the National Traffic System at all, you have to admit that some of the traffic gets pretty dull.  So dull in fact, that some of the texts are not even sent, because everyone knows them already!  “Welcome to amateur radio …”, “We need traffic handlers …”, “A friendly reminder …” that your license is about to expire, etc.

I’ve posted briefly on this before, but one effort that has been going on is a trivia game of sorts:  The way it works is that people post trivia questions on the web site, in the form of quasi-radiograms.  Then, when someone visits the web site, a random question from the trivia pool is presented.  The visitor may then look up or otherwise find the answer, compose it into a radiogram in NTS format & send it via the NTS - or if they are not a ham, find someone who can send it – to the originator of the message (the person in the Signature section).   The originator will then reply with a radiogram as to whether the answer is right or not, or provide a further hint if needed.

WL2K & EchoLink are permitted, as long as part of the path is by radio & not just telnet.  It is better to exercise & amuse our traffic handlers, however.  If WL2K is all you have available, send it to another traffic handler, not the originator, so that it does go onto a net somewhere.

If you are outside the U.S. & Canada, third-party rules might apply if you are not yourself the originating station.

Some questions are humorous, some throw an interesting light on geeky history & some are intended to provide difficult copy practice on phone or CW, to keep our traffic handlers on their toes.  The ultimate goal of it all is to be sharp in case of an emergency where amateur communication is necessary.

Go for it!

Also, you can make up questions of your own & add them to the Trivia Traffic pool on the web site.  Be sure to provide enough information in the Signature section for the delivering ham to find you.

Here is one to get you started: