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.