Monday, February 5, 2018

3Y0Z Team Bouvet headed back to Cape Town

Update from the team:

MV Betanzos
South Atlantic Ocean
5 February 2018 --  0930 UTC

Our captain has decided that it is in the best interest of safety and expediency to proceed directly to Capetown, South Africa rather than Punta Arenas, Chile.  We are currently heading north to avoid the possibility of encountering ice.   Currently there is no ice in sight or on radar.  In due time we will head easterly toward Capetown.
Our entire team is safe.  Most are resting in their bunks and in good spirits.  We will keep the amateur radio community and our families informed as we continue our journey.

Ralph - K0IR
Bob - K4UEE
Erling - LA6VM

Saturday, February 3, 2018

ARRL BoD meeting minutes released

The much talked about BoD meeting produced some decisions and the minutes of that meeting was finally released. Here it is.

It seems odd that they released it on Friday evening. Then again, not so odd. Releasing bad news on Friday is a very common tactic among politicos. Release a bunch of news on Friday, because nobody reads the paper on Saturday.

It seems like Newington is taking a few lessons from Washington?

Either way, the minutes are worth a read, if for nothing else but to see what your league is up to.

Z60A - $20 for a QSL? Not really.

We all know that the ARRL BoD is not the most popular entity these days. But one of the things they did recently made a tiny Republic which was part of the former Yugoslavia into a new officially recognized DXCC entity. Yes, this is Kosovo, and it's now an official DXCC entity.

Well, our friend from Finland heard of this news and flew in to Pristina pronto, as he wanted to be "on the ground" to get things well activated. Love him or hate him, he is "Martti on the spot" when it comes to new DX entities. Immediately the pileups came through thick and ferocious. Electric power consumption increased worldwide as transceivers and amplifiers fired up, beaming glorious RF to the newly recognized entity.

Ah, but there is one wrinkle. When it's done, it ain't done until the paperwork is done. You see, the contact is one thing, but DXCC rules require written confirmation. You do this either with a QSL card, a letter, or through ARRL Logbook of The World (LoTW).

The controversy seems to stem from the fact that the Z60A operation is offering a $20 early QSL option. Yep, you can skip to the head of the QSL queue for US$20. I can imagine since only 9 people are on #1 Honor Roll right now that a lot who were knocked off are anxious to get back on.

Some people think this isn't ethical. Some are OK with it. Some are ecstatic (I would imagine a lot of the #1HR folks are). My friend and well respected DXpedition team leader Paul, N6PSE thinks it's a bad idea and the start of a bad trend and harmful to smaller operations. He does make some good points.

I am sort of on the fence on this.

For one, I am generally against the exploitation of ham radio contacts for monetary gain. However, I agree with Paul and I realize that DXpeditions have real costs and those costs often aren't insignificant. So I can understand asking for a few bucks above what postage and QSL card printing costs. I often donate significantly above what is asked, if I felt a DXpedition deserved it. I think it is important that those going to these places aren't fully stuck with the bill (even though in most cases the team members do lay out substantial sums).

But I have heard a few views which make me lean on the side of "the $20 donation is not a bad thing IF and only IF it is used for good."

First of all, the claim by the Z60A team is that the money is going to be used to develop Amateur Radio in Kosovo, especially among youth. If that is the case, and they are a new country after all, I am more than happy to support them on that basis alone.

I was told by another DXer that the money is going to be used to sponsor a Kosovar team to the WRTC. If that is the case then I am all for it. After all, a new country having a team at the ham radio olympics? They will be very proud of that. I can't confirm this claim's authenticity but it sounds noble.

That said - I don't like the idea of this becoming a trend IF it is used to pay DXpedition costs. Sure, there are DXers who would pay a lot of money to work a rare one, and donate tens, hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get a new one on the air. But I don't think it should ever be a requirement. It isn't in this case, but some may seize on this idea.

Quite simply, the slippery slope is well in sight.

Today you are paying for priority QSLs and LoTW, tomorrow you are paying for...? The idea that eventually you'll be paying for private skeds, priority in the queue and - heaven forbid - guaranteed QSOs, makes my blood curl.

I don't think that every DXpedition should simply give away all QSLs for free. It is absolutely fine to ask for postage costs, and maybe a little extra to cover extraordinary costs such as transportation.

However, there are some hams who will work every slot 10 times over, rule the leader board then request a free bureau card, which to me is simply taking advantage. So I am 100% fine with a DXpedition asking for $5-$10 for postage, and maybe asking for a voluntary donation above that. Per DX foundation rules, they will upload the entire to LoTW within a set time frame.

There has to be a balance, and while I truly believe Martti's request and offer is noble, akin to a kickstarter reward, I think that this should really be looked at long and hard before it becomes a trend.

Anyway, that's all I have for now. What do you think? Sound off below.

3Y0Z - Bouvet 2018 Aborted!

The much anticipated 3Y0Z Bouvet Island DXpedition has been aborted.

As reported on DX-World, there were issues with getting weather clearance to fly their helicopters, which would delay them for a week and more. The island is pretty, the weather is not. Winds of up to 80 knots and more caused the ship to bob up and down making helicopter takeoff and landing extremely unsafe. Basically as one DXer put it - "it's like a cork in a flushing toilet." 

Then came this update from co-leaders K0IR, K4UEE, LA6VM:
During the last 72 hours we continued to experience the high winds, low clouds, fog, and rough seas that have prevented helicopter operations since our arrival at Bouvet. No improvement was predicted in the weather forecast for the next four days. Then, last night an issue developed in one of the ship’s engines. This morning the captain of the vessel declared it unsafe to continue with our project and aborted the expedition. We are now on our long voyage back to Punta Arenas. As you might imagine the team is deeply disappointed, but safe. There is already talk about rescheduling the DXpedition.

Folks, to say this is disappointing is an extreme understatement. The team were all prepped, and ready to roll. Some of these guys are personal friends of mine, and I know that they are heartbroken to an extreme. Not to mention the team at FlexRadio are extremely disappointed since their radios are on board and they are a principal sponsor.

However, SAFETY always comes first, and I'd hate for us to lose some of the best minds in the ham radio world to mother nature and Murphy. So, I am hoping for news of when they will reschedule. I will gladly donate again for a 2nd attempt, if they choose to do so.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

FlexRadio SmartSDR 2.1 is here!

At long last the next release of SmartSDR 2.x is here.

You may download it from here.

As you may remember, Flex had released SmartSDR 2.0 in Summer 2017. This made the Flex-6000 series the first ever amateur radio transceiver platform that can become an internet remote base out of the box. Other systems have had remote capability but Flex was the first to do it without having to add firewall rules (for most people) and incorporated modern technologies like social login and multi factor authentication (MFA) for enhanced security. The backend for authentication is powered by Auth0, one of the leaders in the industry.

SmartSDR 2.1 is the next incremental update, and is mostly designed with new hardware in mind. That said, I don't have one of the new radios, but I do have my 6700, and for us with the previous generation of radios, we have inherited the new features that are non-hardware dependent. This includes visual enhancements like shaded panadapters and tuning guides. It also includes some bug fixes and performance enhancements under the hood.

DISCLAIMER: I am an alpha tester for Flex. However, it is important to note that while I test pre-release software, I am not compensated by them in any way, shape or form. All hardware and software is purchased by me. 

The first thing one will notice is that the logo has changed. Whoa, what happened? I was told that there was a bit of a branding change, but there really hasn't been any big fanfare behind it. Not sure why, but the new logo seems a bit nicer looking. Some love, some hate, but it's what we got now, and I like it. So, it's a marketing thing really. As you may have seen from photos and blogs by others, the PowerGenius XL also carries the same logo.

Here it is:

New logo

Another thing you'll notice is that the panadapters are now shaded, or can be shaded. I mention this like this is a small thing, but in reality it has been a much requested feature by users. I don't necessarily get why but it does look nice.
Shaded panadapters

You can actually turn off or adjust this shading from the left side "Display" button, if it's not your cup of tea.

Otherwise, at first glance the SmartSDR UI mostly looks the same.

SmartSDR 2.1.30

Well, except for the metering which has gotten a user-suggested makeover, and is now much easier to read.
New, more readable meters
Oh, and the button that used to say "Remote" is now called "PC Audio" but it does the same thing - i.e. routes the audio through your computer, rather than the front of the radio.

With this, Flex has fixed a longstanding item that I considered a bug. Previously if the audio happened to route through a DAX device, it would result in a crash. Now, it simply disables the capability unless you have a valid sound card device. I have tested this with regular headphones, HDMI audio and bluetooth headphones and speakers. It works really well through all of them.

There is also a panel for the upcoming PowerGenius XL, but as that is still not fully released yet, that will be in a future post detailing operation of the amplifier. Suffice to say this will make operation of your amplifier pretty seamless - as if you were using a 2kw transceiver. "Into a dummy load of course" because I only operate legally, which means up to 1.5 kW on air.

The biggest update of them all though is the tune guide feature. Yes! Tune guides! This can allow you to see the frequency as you hover over the panadapter and optionally enable single click tune (via the settings menu).
Enable tune guides with a right click

Hover over and see where you will land!
Another minor update, the MAC address is now visible in the network settings:

A word about MAC addresses: The OUI in your radio was previously a Texas Instruments OUI. With the new software release this will update to an OUI provided by Flex. This was done as a result of kernel changes and other software changes. If you set your radio to a static address via your router's DHCP reservation or similar feature, this will have to be updated in your router to keep the reservation intact.

You can also use the mouse wheel to hover over and adjust by rolling/scrolling.

Maestro also shares many of the same enhancements and UI changes. The interface should also be similar on the 6600M and 6400M, which are now shipping. Incidentally there are two Maestro hardware revisions now, since the tablet module in the original Maestro has gone out of production. The new revision of Maestro is functionally identical to the previous revision and visually identical except that the power button is now on the left side, instead of the top.

SmartSDR for Maestro (also on 6400M and 6600M)
Maestro does gain one very important feature - TNFs are now available! Just hold down your finger on any part of the panadapter to drop a TNF there.

But wait, there's more!

Marcus, DL8MRE has also been hard at work on getting SmartSDR for iOS also polished up and updated. I have been fortunate enough to help him with testing it. He has added the shaded panadapters and support for the PowerGenius XL. He has even added color shading that is not found in the desktop version. Some other features found in SmartSDR for Windows may or may not be added.

SmartSDR for iOS on an iPhone X

As far as my impressions go - I will say that this release is pretty good, but is not going to be a huge feature update. Considering that Flex has been working on four new radios, plus the amplifier, and a new partnership with 4O3A signature, I think they have done pretty well. There will be more to come as they continue to update and evolve Version 2.

As far as the new radios go, I am on the fence, as I am very happy with my 6700. However if I plan to set up a remote site, I may consider a 6400 or 6600 for it. It comes down to money and willingness to take the risk. The new radios do bring some better filtering, an extra transverter port and modular design, along with a lower price. However, they take away the 2 meter capability and are limited to four (4) slices. I am one of those weird people that opens up 6-8 slices on a regular basis. So we will have to see.

Mega kudos to the FlexRadio team on this release! Every one of them has been hard at work trying to get the new hardware and software out. Kudos to the alpha team as well who has helped tremendously with finding bugs and supplying performance and other data to the development team.


Friday, January 19, 2018

ARRL CEO Tom Gallagher to retire, cites tax laws as reason.

Press release from ARRL:

I found it somewhat surprising, since President Rick Roderick, K5UR recently dug in his heels when it came to league governance, citing a "misinformation campaign" which was really nothing more than members becoming rightly concerned about the move toward less transparency and the dilution of their vote.

Gallagher has often been subject to much criticism, and many have cited his leadership as part of the reason that the league is in such turmoil with membership lately. I am trying to keep neutral on this, and personally I do not know if he was directly responsible, but it would seem to me that all of these new moves toward reshaping the league started on his watch. So this is either a great coincidence or he is the one responsible.

Personally I don't care who is responsible, except for possibly removing bad actors from office in order put the brakes on any detrimental changes. That said, his departure is a welcome sign, but I take it with a grain of salt. There is much work to be done with the actual BoD, who actually hires the CEO.

On a side note, Gallagher blamed the newly enacted federal tax laws for the change, stating that it made it unattractive to work in Connecticut. I don't know his personal financial situation, and I don't live in Connecticut, but I do live in New Jersey. These two states are similar in that they both have high state and local taxes (SALT). The new law limits deductions for state and local taxes to $10,000. However, it seems too much of a coincidence, given all of the recent activity. I can't say for sure what his problem with the new federal tax law is, but based on my assessment of the law and its impact on residents of high tax states, I think that it was something given to us "to hold" and the real reason was the political climate at the league.

Either way, I wish Gallagher the best on his future endeavors and I hope that the league can find a suitable replacement. I also hope that every league member remains engaged as to what is going on with our league, because our hobby literally depends on it. This goes even for DX hams who are not members because of ARRL being the international secretariat of the IARU. Whether your interest is public service, DXing and radiosport, balloon flights, satellite operation, rag chewing, kit building and homebrewing, digital modes,  ATV, or any of the myriad of activities that the amateur service supports, you have a stake in this. We cannot allow the ARRL to fail, and it will fail only if we let it.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Team Bouvet enroute

The biggest DXpedition of the year (unless someone can somehow convince P5 to issue a license) is about to get underway. Yep, that's the 2018 Bouvet island DXpedition. Over a decade in planning, it is about to become reality, and sure to make many happy - and frustrated - when they make or don't make a contact. But that's just how DX goes.

Surprisingly, I don't need Bouvet as an all time new one, since I worked Petrus, 3Y0E in 2008. One of the few to do so, as he was pretty weak. In fact, in Northern NJ nobody heard him for weeks until there was a magic opening. However, a combination of hilltop location and a MonstIR antenna helped me bag that one pretty easily. However I am appreciative for bandfills, and I hope I can work them on every band that I can.

Anyway, my friends are off to Bouvet - and on this team you will find some of the best operators in the world. You'll also find that they are using Flex-6000 radios, on bands from 160 through 2 meters EME, along with two Power Genius XL amplifiers that I personally had the chance to see and help Gerald, K5SDR check out at the FlexRadio labs in Austin, TX before they were packed and shipped. They are also using some Acom amplifiers which were generously supplied by Acom.

By the way, this is also a record breaking, expensive DXpedition, so please support them by making a donation at their website. - and please consider these tips when working them:

  • LISTEN before calling. They may call for different geographical areas - Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, etc. It is of no use calling out of turn and only spoils it for others.
  • SPLIT OPERATION is almost always going to be the default. Don't call on their listening frequency.
  • Only one contact per band and all 3 modes. Don't make 10 contacts on a single band, like some ops have been doing. It deprives others of a chance, and you won't get any extra DX points for doing so.
  • Be grateful if/when you make a contact. These guys are risking life and limb so you can get them in your log.