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.