Monday, 23 February 2015

Burnout?

After several years of quite a lot of HF operating, I'm beginning to show signs of burnout!

Not that I'm going off radio altogether, but the logbook is getting sparser in entries than it used to.

Part of the burnout sensation is down to having gained a load of basic awards under the various programmes.  I'm not interested in chasing operators on each and every band, or building up ever-more niche awards that seem to keep award programmes, rather than participants, happiest.

I'm happy to have proven I could do what I wanted to do - make good QSOs across the planet with a £275 second-hand rig, less than 100W and nothing more complex, at least initially, than a delta loop or GP.  Things have moved on a bit since the TS50, but this remains firmly a cheap, cheerful and efficient station.

This might alleviate the burnout sensation!


Ragchewing with the Old Colonies is of course always very enjoyable, as it is with anyone, anywhere who happens to have time and a lighthearted take on life.  Recently, I've spoken to a very senior US lawyer, a nuclear submariner, several Vietnam veterans, and a priest.  These people make for fascinating QSOs, even if some of them are tired of the curiosity!

I've never developed the VHF side of the hobby beyond a Chinese 2W or 5W handie, although my homebrew 5-ele quad has worked absolute wonders.  I think it's time to get a multimode transceiver and a more weather-resistant antenna.  The multimode VHF tcvr is not an easy beast to find.  Older ones usually have limited power and no CTCSS tones on FM.  It seems I'm doomed to spend money on something complex, new and expensive!

Living on an elevated site, I'd love to get into microwaves, and even nanowaves (I can see higher parts of NI and most of the IoM from here.) But, not being very technically adept, and with few apparently interested in showing newcomers the ropes, it seems I may take a very, very long time to achieve this.

Then there's EME with relatively simple antennas, and more work on meteor scatter at 6m.  I've even been wondering about 4m and 70cm.

Hey!  There's plenty to do!  All I need now is time and money!


Sunday, 22 February 2015

Solar Eclipse 20th March 2015

On the morning of 20th March, about 90% and more of the Sun will appear to be swallowed-up by the Moon as a partial eclipse covers the north Atlantic.  Totality is out to sea, passing through the Faroes, but all of the UK will see a very good partial eclipse - weather permitting!

The eclipse will be about this good from northern Britain.


The RSGB's G0KYA has a great experiment for the general public to participate in, which involves listening to a chosen medium wave broadcast station a few hundred km away, to see if the temporary darkness brought on by the eclipse leads to stronger signals due to much reduced ionising sunlight.

G0YKA's take on it is to use a simple transistor radio and just report the times when the signal is stronger and weaker.  Hams can use their rigs, which generally cover the MW bands on RX, and software can be used to record the proceedings for later analysis.

One avenue that isn't mentioned, and that might encourage involvement, is the use of software-defined radios available freely on the internet.  Choose one not too far away, and then listen to, say RUV 1 in Iceland (207kHz), which has a nice line across the shadow to the UK.

Degrees of darkness for March 20th, 2015.
 
One big advantage of the web SDR applet is that you can record .WAV files of the received signals directly onto your PC, so the whole listening experiment during the eclipse needs nothing more than a PC.

Having checked out RUV 1 during the day, it's only weakly detectable, but enough to confirm it's the station in question.  At night, I've confirmed it's obviously much stronger.

The web SDR sites, not all of which cover MW, are spread over the globe.  The best MW coverage receiver in the UK is sadly blighted by quite a lot of local noise, and hits RUV 1 quite badly.

So, instead, I'm using a very fine Dutch web SDR which has no nosie at all, found here:  http://websdr.ewi.utwente.nl:8901/ 

At least for this UK astronomical event, bad weather won't prevent some form of enjoyment of it going ahead!

Friday, 20 February 2015

RadCom, ha ha ha!

Well, I've heard it all now!

This month's RadCom is hot off the doorstep, wherein we have a lovely article about constructing a 'mini-quad' for, erm, 40m.

Now, 'mini quad' is clearly a relative term, because this thing still has sides of over 7.6m each!  That requires a pretty decent tower to get the bottom of the quad at a reasonable electrical height over ground.  Hardly something you could stick on a push-up aluminium pole in more than zero wind conditions.

IK1MNJ shows what a full sized 40m 2-ele quad looks like.  The 'mini' version is not vastly smaller.


So, I really had to laugh when I read the author's view that this reduced, 'mini' size was "very useful for typical suburban situations"!

Ha ha!  What?

The bloody thing is so big that the photographer struggled to fit it in the frame, even with a wide-angle lens!

If you think it's not actually that bad in the IK1MNJ photo, cast your eye away from comparison with the house to comparison with the bloke standing on the bottom right, in front of the fruit netting. 

Hands up if you have a plot big enough - and neighbours tolerant enough - to put up a quad of over 7.6m per side.  Come to think of it, hands up if you think that your resulting 'mini 'quad' would survive the next 70mph gales.

Sure, there must be a few folks who could stick something like this up.  But certainly not enough to make it of any real interest to the wider readership of RadCom.

Is it really very surprising that newcomers look at this kind of thing and decide amateur radio's not for them?

Monday, 2 February 2015

What's in a Signal Report?

I've never been one to hang on signal reports, being constantly rather bemused by the anachronistic obsession with issuing them.

So far as I'm concerned, signal reports are unnecessary if the bloke on the other end doesn't tell me he's having difficulty hearing what I'm saying.


It's also true that, for reasons of habit and 'just being nice', signal reports are typically unreliable, and often exaggerated.  The classic case of someone who asks for you to repeat the suffix about eight times, only to then give you a '59' is well-known and rather funny.

Similarly with the digitial modes, where PSK and RTTY, largely as a result of stored macro 'overs', simply spew out the '599' that someone entered into the macro years ago, when your name is coming out on the other guy's screen as '7&di;mir' and the real report is more like '359'

Now, a lot of store and column inches is given over to signal reports, despite the clear problems highlighted above.  Until things like WSPR arrived a few years ago, a signal report was one of the principal ways of assessing antenna performance.  Reading some of that stuff today seems, well, very dated, not least because trying to derive statistically-valid conclusions from signal reports must have been more like guessing than science.

Yes, I can hear you...


A number of simple wire and vertical users across the pond have been my unwitting test subjects over the past year or so.  Pointing a 3-ele monobander their way, and with lots of ground gain to assist me, I've been handing out nice 57s, 58s and 59s.  All genuine reports, and no pre-amp switched in.

Usually, those same operators will give me, the one with the Yagi, a significantly worse report back - maybe 55 when they are 57 with me.

Now, simplistically speaking, you'd think they're just being spiteful and want to give me a report that makes them feel better.  For sure, that does sometimes happen.  But it isn't what's generally going on.

No, the fact that the wire user is getting a good signal report - or any report - is down to the ability of my antenna (and the ground gain) to concentrate the RF from that omnidirectional or zero-gain antenna.  Without my 14dBi (check out my QRZ.com page as to how that is achieved), that wire user may well remain undetectable.

Similarly, when I transmit, my beam and reflections are concentrating the puny 60W into something more akin to a kW, but the guy on the other end has no gain, or very little, so he can't concentrate what I am sending to him, like another Yagi user could.  Consequently, I get a lower signal report.

So, those people who worry their signal reports are "consistently 2 'S' points below those given out", you shouldn't necessarily feel bad, as much angst on the internet chat forums tends to suggest they do.  As more sensible people will comment, maybe it's "your antenna that's doing most of the work."  Quite.




Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Troll is Back!

Over the past few weeks, a HB-based operator has been causing some difficulty for me when firing-up on OLIVIA mode at around 14.106MHz.

This operator first complained that 14.106 was a "calling frequency".

A calling frequency is, of course, where you call CQ and, once contact is made, you move off to another frq, leaving the calling frequency clear for others.

I then captured a lovely video where the same HB-operator  spent a very long time on this supposed "calling frequency", having a full QSO with an OH station (who was acting perfectly normally.)

Oh dear.  Hypocrisy 1, HB operator 0.

There was also a complaint, made repeatedly and, like the first, without transmitting a callsign, that OLIVIA mode had "channels", and that these were spaced by "500Hz".  He later changed his mind to claim the spacing was "1000Hz".

Well, most times on OLIVIA, you get folks transmitting within each others' bandwidth; it's kind of inevitable when, at 32/1000, the mode takes up a lot of space.  OLIVIA copes with it perfectly well, even when two signals are almost directly on top of one another.  There's very little room for complaint about inadequate spacing, and I've never heard anyone else make such.

The HB operator also claimed he had been using this frequency for ten years, which is never a good sign.  In short, he was obviously (and later confirmed to be) quite elderly, and had become stuck in his ways to the point of viewing certain spots as 'his' and his alone.  It's not uncommon amongst older folk, but it isn't right.

Grumpy old HB-land troll.

This troll was so persistent that I took the unprecedented step of reporting this person, who went on to transmit his callsign in anger, and then issuing mildly abusive messages, which were captured on screen, to the HB authorities.  I received prompt responses, and that it would be dealt with "in the manner customary."

The operator hasn't been heard on OLIVIA for a while.  Then, this morning, at 14.203 USB, I came across an OH station angrily asking someone who had a very, shall we say, HB-like accent, for his callsign.  He refused to give it at least twice, claiming a ZL station was speaking to him.  He also claimed he'd been using the frequency for - wait for it - ten years.  The OH station told him, then, to get on with his QSO, at which point we both listened to see what happened.

Silence.

For three minutes, nothing.  I called to see if the frq was clear, at which point the OH station made contact and told me in more detail about what had happened.

So, the HB troll seems to have moved on from OLIVIA to SSB for a while, but still using the same old rubbish to annoy and interrupt others.

Of course, I am mindful that elderly folk often are lonely, or may be unwell.  Indeed, I make a point of trying to lighten such people's days quite often, and have even a number of such people who appreciate this and call in every day.  Indeed, I think radio must be a huge relief to some, who may never see other people for days, or weeks.

But others just want to be nasty, which is a terrible shame when our lives are so short, and that aggression is utterly futile.  Perhaps it's dementia, and the faculties are lost.  In which case, someone should be caring more closely for this person.


Wednesday, 28 January 2015

An American Take...

N0UN runs a regularly-updated and often very interesting blog

The other Day, N0UN, who is an avid DX-chaser with a station to match, issued his latest post.

In this, he dwells on the 'instant gratification' that DX chasers now expect, the role of the DX cluster, and the need to build a big station with lots of power over DECADES, to use his emphasis.  It's an interesting post.

Now, with the greatest of respect to my north American and, indeed, European colleagues, the desire to build big, expensive, complex and time-consuming stations (that can quickly become your only activity) is an attitude driven by relative wealth.  In other words, it's an attitude born of an affluent consumer society.

Now, I have no bones to pick with N0UN, other than the overall impression of 'one must have a big station built up over decades' to achieve anything notable in terms of DX is simply misguided.  That, and a fundamental clash over the use of kW-range output.

First of all, whilst N0UN's post is about pile ups and DXpeditions, not everyone gains excitement from shouting down a microphone, figuring out the current split RX frequency, and doing it for hours, perhaps days, to get a QSO logged.  Many do, but I certainly find myself tuning away from pile ups pretty much as soon as I realise there's one there. 

No, it isn't resignation to not getting the DX.  Whilst I put no store at all in it, my current confirmed DXCC is 146, with an as-yet unconfirmed 206 total.  Much of that has been achieved with a delta loop.  No, my approach is simply a realisation that, over time, my turn at that rare DX will come without the need for joining a baying crowd of people who haven't stopped to think 'why am I doing this?'  I will catch someone some other day, when I least expect it.  Indeed, if I pick a quiet day and call DX, someone very far away will probably call me!

And there is the point: not being heard in a pile up does not equate to an underlying inability to be heard.  


The other overall impression that someone might get from reading N0UN's latest missive is that big stations, big power and a whole lifetime are necessary factors to enjoy good DX and build up a score, either under your own or someone else's programme.

I wholly disagree.  This kind of thinking also damages the hobby.

Why?

Because, if you insist on formal contesting, there is ample reward for working the world (and off it!) using 5W or less - entering the QRP categories.  If you want to compete with yourself, simply to find out 'how far can it go?', then you need only a ground plane antenna on a beach and similar low powers - more if you want - to work any DX location you like.

Sure, operating relatively cheap, simple stations like this does demand more patience, time and good operating, as well as informed location and time of operation selection.  It invariably won't get you the kind of instant pile-up busting response of which N0UN has many recorded examples upon his blog.  But those foregoing factors are all interesting aspects of the hobby.  In many cases, you'll find they are aspects the consumerist DXer will have ignored over those decades.

Let's not portray ham radio, as it already so often is, as a hobby only for the retired rich in the west.  This is symptomatic of almost every hobby I can think of.  Amateur astronomy, for example, portrays itself in the hobby magazines as something that demands £10,000 before you can begin.  But then, magazines would, wouldn't they, because they owe their very existence to advertising for those very same, very expensive products.  Ham radio is exactly the same.  Consumers in the west are just sheep dancing to some salesman's vision of nirvana.

Nirvana, of course, is for those who attain it through the calmness and wisdom that rejects temptation and egotism.

What I came to the conclusion was that, whilst N0UN was bemoaning the instant DX gratification expected nowadays, brought about by the internet, it seems he might have been pursuing that very same gratification in a different way - through the deployment of a big station! 

One might suspect that the argument arising there is that you can only join the big guns if you are affluent.  And so we seem to have come full circle...








Lighting Tower Section Rotation.

Lighting towers are often found for good prices on internet auction sites, and make for very good towers for single HF antennas or lighter VHF arrays.

I bought one of these for just £300 many years ago, and all in all, it must be about 30 years old.  Apart from a few minor crash dents on a couple of braces, it's perfectly serviceable and has withstood ferocious winter gales, over and over.

The only problem with these types of mast is that the sections, especially the inner (top) most one can rotate a few degrees when the wind is stronger than a breeze.  The problem this then gives rise to is an antenna, that has a reasonable amount of mass, that gains momentum.

This puts repeated pulses of high torque stress ('banging stops') on the rotator, which needs to arrest the attempt to turn it.  Whilst most medium to strong rotators can do this comfortably, ultimately, millions of banging stops over years of use will weaken something to the point of failure.

The answer to tower section rotation!


For many years, I've simply used timber wedges, which can be hammered lightly into position.  These work fairly well, but do fall out regularly as the small amount of residual rotation slowly but surely eases them out, or they shrink between wet and dry weather.

I scratched my head for all this time, wondering what kind of adjustable 'wedge' I could come up with that would allow both robust prevention of the rotation and quick removal if needed (such as when a huge gale comes from nowhere, and the tower really has to tilt over.)

A spreader with two runner bars reduces the amount the jaws spread apart under load.


The answer was as simple as it was, thankfully, cheap (£10): a brake pad spreader.  There are very many types of these, and most will probably do, except, perhaps, for the 'silicone gun trigger' type that you operate by squeezing the trigger, rather than a screw thread.  Try to get the ones with two runner bars rather than one, as this helps keep the spreader pads running in parallel.  Use only the 'heel' (the bit nearest the thread) to push the tower sections apart.


Having installed one of these, liberally coated in grease, to push the innermost section against the next one, the very annoying and ultimately damaging rotation has completely been stopped.  Remember to tie a rope and secure the rope to the outside of the tower such that, if it comes off, it doesn't fall on someone's head!