Friday, December 22, 2017

WAE DX contest SSB, N2RJ North America winner!

Would you look at that!!! Seems like I made the winner's box :)

This was a pretty tough one, as we had absolutely horrid band conditions, with a radio blackout on Sunday. It was tough going. BUT you know what they say - when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So I powered through, despite bad conditions and QRM from Ethiopia.  I savor it for now, and hope I can repeat it for next year. I guess I need to figure out where on my wall the new plaque will be going. :)

A word about band conditions - I actually prefer worse conditions as it allows me to concentrate on one or two bands rather than having to make decisions about the higher bands. It also reduces the temptation to chase after multipliers on higher bands rather than focusing on rate. No more. I am focusing strongly on running with mult chasing on the 2nd radio almost exclusively. My strategy is changing, and it seems to be working.

Special thanks to Keith, KJ8DO for loaning me his Alpha 91B amp.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

160 meters and 9 band DXCC!!!

YEAH! I did it!!!

I finally got my DXCC on 160 meters. The last entity to confirm was ZA1WW in Albania. Thankfully it was via LoTW so there was no need for a trip to the card checker.

How hard was it? Not as hard as you think, but no cakewalk either.

The key to 160m operating is listening. "If you can't hear 'em you can't work 'em" is especially true on this band. For this reason I have done extensive research on receiving antennas, noise floor and operating techniques to maximize SNR. I fought many pileups, including some rare (on topband, anyway) entities in far off places like Cote d'Ivoire, and Annobon Island.

Anyway, I enjoy this for now and bask in the glory of 9 band DXCC!!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The FT8 conundrum

As I sit here I am working FT8 on 160 meters. It's a great mode to kill time and get some DX, states or new friends in the log. But this mode is not without controversy. Let's explore some of the controversies and see what can, and should be done. Or not.

What's the big deal about FT8 anyway?

If you haven't heard of the mode, I am thinking that maybe your radio isn't working or you haven't tuned up into the digital portion of the HF bands lately. So, briefly - FT8 is a digital "sound card" mode jointly developed by two really smart people - Joe Taylor, K1JT and Steve Franke, K9AN. It's not a rag chew mode. Instead, it provides basic QSOs exchanging grid squares and signal reports. One can optionally send a short message (13 characters) but the mode really isn't for this. FT8 was born out of other similar modes such as JT65 and JT9, which were also short QSO modes, developed for weak signal work. In fact, Joe initially developed the JT65 mode for meteor scatter and moonbounce (EME).

However, the problem with JT65 was that it took a full 6 minutes to finish a QSO exchange, because each transmission was 47 seconds plus 13 seconds buffer to allow an operator to queue a response. FT8 fixed this by reducing the sensitivity a bit but speeding up QSOs by a factor of 4. Each transmission was now 15 seconds, rather than almost a full minute.

Because of this, the mode took off like a rocket. JT65 was already popular, but FT8 basically said, "hold my beer!" and swiftly took its position as king of digital modes. I recall statistics from ClubLog or somewhere else saying that the number of FT8 QSOs had surpassed those of all other modes, and this was before the software came out of the beta RC phase!

Who can blame them anyway? There are many hams who run compromise antennas and low power, and can't have stacks and kilowatts of power. My friend Eric, N2KOJ operates out of his apartment a lot using FT8, and he has little more than a hamstick mounted on his car! Even with this modest setup, he has worked Japan and many other far away places that are normally out of reach. Additionally, due to the short transmission time, FT8 brought auto sequence, which queues up signal reports and procedural exchanges and sends them in order. This means that one can simply have one click QSOs, and when it's done, click another button to log.

So it's understandable why many hams are for the mode. But there are a few who are against it. There are also some who are against using it in a particular way. Let's see what the fuss is all about.

Claim: FT8 is not "real ham radio" because it is just robotic QSOs

I would say that 80% to 90% of CW DX chasing and some phone DX chasing would fall under this category too. How many of us use memory keyers? New radios are coming with memory keyers built in. So a lot of us do push button QSOs anyway. There is no shame in this. It's what we do. I should also point out that in the heyday of PSK31, a lot of hams would make contact and then dump a whole brag file on top of you, then say 73 and move on to the next. So isn't FT8 the same thing? It's similar in that respect, I would say.

However, I can see the argument for the art of conversation being lost. It is unfortunate that FT8 will be many hams' primary exposure to amateur radio and they are not encouraged to try other digital modes or CW. So what's the solution? If you interact with hams in other venues, such as social media, why not encourage them to get on other modes? Today I see a resurgence of hams interested in learning CW, and CW can be a great mode to have a conversation. But there are other digital modes such as PSK31 (and PSK63), Olivia, Hellschreiber and even RTTY. These can give you the opportunity to make friends on air and exchange more than a signal report and grid square. 

Bottom line: ham radio is a big tent, as I had explained in another article. Don't stick to one corner! If you want to learn CW, I highly recommend CW Academy from CWOps. If you want something self-paced and online, I would also recommend LCWO by DJ1YFK.

Claim: FT8 is a low power mode! You can't use more than X watts!

I strongly disagree with this. WSJT modes are weak signal modes. There are many times I struggled to work stations even at 1500 watts. Of course, your own good judgment should always apply. Don't forget that Part 97 states that we should use the minimum power required to carry out the desired communications. Sometimes that is 5 watts. Sometimes it's 50. Sometimes it's 500. Sometimes it is 1500. It depends on the band and all sorts of other variables, such as propagation. So use as much as you need, but no more!

As always, ensure that you are generating a clean signal, especially if you run power. Overdriven audio and improperly designed transmitters and amplifiers can cause splatter and all sorts of other problems. As the licensee, you are responsible for compliance of your station's emissions. 

Claim: You need a computer to run FT8!

That is true (did you think I would say it isn't?) I could easily say that this is 2017 and that in a technical hobby, one should know how to use a computer, but I won't. Instead I will say that other modes still exist, and you can use them. I enjoy QSOs on all modes, with hams with or without computers.

However, logging on a computer has one huge advantage - you can upload your QSOs to Logbook of The World (LoTW), eQSL or QRZ logbook and easily collect confirmation for awards. 

In conclusion - get on the air!

I've said it before - FT8 helps hams get on the air, with their own equipment, even. It keeps people active and enjoying the radio magic. It's a great way to make friends as well, since many who know me online or from other places contact me on FT8. I have made many friends and I will continue to do so. Incidentally one can also use JTAlert to send text messages to other users on FT8. Yes, it goes via the Internet, but it's a way to communicate with those you make contact with. 

Ria, N2RJ

Saturday, December 2, 2017

LED lamp QRM - solved!

Last week I became really scared because I turned on 40 meters and there was AC buzz all over. I have a relatively quiet noise floor which is advantageous for contesting and DXing, and my fear was that my neighbors had bought some cheap device with a switching power supply that would spew noise all over the HF bands. Or was it the new fridge we bought? Or was it something else? Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and I went about finding the noise source methodically. Watch how I got it done!


The very first thing I did was to get a shortwave radio and verify that the noise was there. Indeed, a portable shortwave radio confirmed that it was there. Actiually, I used my Kenwood TH-D74A in general coverage shortwave mode. It works well for this purpose.

The next step was to shut off the main breaker in the house. We did that, and the noise was gone. This alone was a huge sigh of relief! The noise was inside this house, and this means I had full control over it, at least.

Then, I took the shortwave radio and began to walk throughout the house, bringing it close to things. This is a classic noise hunting technique that previously netted me a computer switching supply that was wiping out 80 meters.

I noticed that the living room produced more noise - aha! It's in here! So I began pointing to more and more stuff, switching off things one by one - TV, UPS, blu-ray (you still have one of those, right?) Then, almost quite by accident, I shut off the lights. The noise fell silent. What??? Yes, I had found the source! It turned out to be the living room lights, track lighting connected to a dimmer switch. I knew one of them had to be the culprit, but which one was it?

LED lights

LED and CFL lights get a bad rap for interference, and rightfully so. A number of tests by ARRL labs and others have shown them to be prolific noise generators. However, I had tested the bulbs that were installed here for ham radio friendliness before the return window had expired, and I returned any that were bad. What I was left with was a mix of GE, Cree and Kichler (Lowe's house brand it seems). 

The culprit was a  Cree BR30 LED floodlight. I noticed that one of them was taking 1/3 of a second longer to start. Removed it, and *poof* the noise was gone. 

Happy ending!

This lamp all of a sudden began to spew noise when it was fine for well over a year. I am thinking that a capacitor became defective over time. This would also explain the delayed starting. 

I'm going to contact Cree and see what they say.

See you on the low bands.
Ria, N2RJ

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

6 meter opening this evening

Mike, VA3MW alerted me to an opening on 6 meters tonight (11/28 EST, 11/29 UTC). Just as I had walked in the door. I dropped everything, put on dinner quick then went to work the opening on FT8. It didn't last too long, about 40 minutes. At least for me, as I started well into it.

Anyway, here is a PSKReporter screen shot of who was hearing me. I was running 1kW into 6 elements wide spaced (34ft boom). Furthest hearing me was NA6L in California. My other friend Howard, KY6LA told me that NA6L heard me for one cycle and tried to call. But the opening had probably started fading out by that time I suspect. Oh well! 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Some thoughts on ham radio, millenials and the future of the hobby.

Why this post?

So let's start off by saying that this won't be yet another reply to Sterling, N0SSC's article about why Millenials are "killing" ham radio.  I am in the millenial demographic, but I come from 20 years of experience in the hobby, starting off as a teenager. However I feel that an alternate view is important because Sterling's post does have a few valid points, but a lot of it ignores what is right and wrong with the hobby.

The spark.

I can't really pin down what was the spark that got me specifically into amateur radio. I can say that ever since I knew myself, I was always fond of technical things. Suffice to say, this is what got me into the hobby. I had a few great elmers along the way, mostly SK now, but they nurtured me in the hobby.

Why ham radio?

Why did you get into this hobby? For me it was a vehicle for electronic experiments and science. I later on discovered things like DXing and contesting which were simply a way of applying the results of my experiments. There was also the mystique of doing clandestine things on the radio - particularly scanning, which was forbidden in my former home country. But everyone did it anyway, even listening to cordless and cellular telephones. Building antennas to listen further was really fun. This is part of the fun of ham radio, and radio hobbies in general.

But back to why. People do ham radio for a lot of reasons. They want to build stuff and experiment, they want to talk across the world, they like the idea of wireless communications, or they want something for emergency use. Regardless, we are here and there are reasons why.

Yes, talking across the world on a piece of wire without use of the Internet is still fun. It's still magical, and if you don't understand that, too bad, maybe ham radio isn't for you. But if you want to understand that, then yes, we have a hobby for you.

I will add that my knowledge of geography has increased 339 fold since I became a DXer. Maybe you learned something too.

Ham radio is "dying" and needs "saving"

No it's not. I have heard that nonsense since I got licensed. Whether it be no-code, contesting, bad behavior, 75 meters, "non-technical hams" or whatever, there have been naysayers throughout history. But in truth the numbers have never been better. Quality over quantity? I believe there is a lot of quality these days. This year alone my contest club has seen tremendous growth in terms of membership and participation. I also get a lot of hams new and old asking me for advice on technical and operational issues.

Women in particular have become more active. Typically (sadly) when a YL gets a license it's because her husband/boyfriend has one. Today though we are seeing women actually taking the reins in the hobby and doing things on their own, which is WAY cool. "The future is female" sounds like a worn out campaign slogan from last year but in reality if we don't involve women in our hobby it will die out. Thankfully most OMs will help us and encourage us. We are here, we are only growing, so expect us to be more active. And please, do welcome us! We do like to be full members of this hobby as well, and I would like to think we are well past the time of lace gimmicks and 200 meters and down. (because 200 meters and down isn't even true anymore...)

I blame several things for this new resurgence. For one, the Internet. I have never seen so many hams collaborate as they do today. From ham radio how-tos on YouTube, to tech articles on various websites, to facebook groups and Reddit (admittedly that's one place I don't go to) there are many hams online, collaborating, jointly figuring things out. The elmer tradition is alive and well. It is also replacing the monthly club meeting for information and ideas exchange. This is probably a bad thing as the last thing we need is to stay in our shacks, but at least we are sharing ideas, which is GOOD. 

The other thing I blame is NPOTA (National Parks On The Air). Yes, this one specific thing. This brought many, many people out of the woodwork.  The feedback I generally got was that people enjoyed getting outdoors and getting to the parks, running a portable station and making contacts. It was loads of fun, and especially YLs got more involved and on the air. It was a huge hit! ARRL should run another similar event. Sorry, but grid chase doesn't cut it. Something with history that allows people to do ham radio and something else. Grids are meh. Parks are fun. 

The maker movement? Maybe. But I don't see that having a huge impact. I do agree we should get them involved. But don't think they are make or break. A lot of makers and IOT people (I am one) aren't really interested in ham radio and that is fine.

Ham radio is a "big tent"

Would it be nice if every ham was an engineer? No. That would be boring. Ham radio is a big tent. We have doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, firefighters, software engineers, kings and yes, electrical engineers. Nearly every profession is represented.

Why I mention this is because being technical is nice and all, but there are other things in ham radio besides just the technical aspects. With that said, the technical aspects are still very important. However not everyone has to be an engineer. We all enjoy it for different reasons.

The shack on the hip?

I've said repeatedly that a handheld is a terrible first radio. Repeaters are pretty much silent these days, with only DMR and DSTAR (and fusion) are bringing life to old repeaters. Instead, since every new ham has HF privileges, they should try to get on HF. It doesn't have to be expensive. We didn't start with 150 foot towers, stacks, and kilowatts of power. We started with old radios and wire antennas. Nothing is wrong with that! A favorite old rig of mine is the Kenwood TS-440. It is built like a tank and  available cheaply. It's one of many good, functional, basic solid state radios that can be had in good condition.

I notice the Chinese radios tend to be popular. There is nothing wrong with them if you get them tested out first. There have been reports of many of them putting out spurious emissions to illegal levels. I own a few of them and they have been a mixed bag. The best one I own is a TYT MD380 DMR radio. 

The remote elephant in the room

Sterling's reference to remote operation seemed a bit like an ad. Not that it was, but it seemed that way. But an analysis of remote users shows that this particular commercial enterprise doesn't really bring young people into the hobby. Yes, they give a free year of service to some lucky youth but I don't see people running to sign up who aren't otherwise interested in ham radio. 

Instead, a lot of the internet remote operator demographic seems to be people who live in restricted communities (HOAs, condos) or contesters who live in less than favorable contest locations who want to try to win a contest by operating within spitting distance of Europe (Maine).

The bottom line with remote operation is that it will enable people to live in retirement homes or other places without antenna space, or with restrictions and still get on the air. However - it will not bring youth into the hobby in any significant numbers. 

The other thing is that if youth are not interested in "talking on the radio" why are they interested in remote operation of someone else's station? The two ideas seem to be in opposition to each other. 

Remote operation in and of itself is not a bad thing. I have a remote station, running FlexRadio's SmartLink. It has enabled me to use my radio when I am away from home to work rare DX and also to keep in touch. As long as it's used legally and ethically (eg. don't use a remote listening receiver to cheat at 160m DXCC) it's 100% fine and is a perfectly good way to enjoy the hobby. 

We need high speed data!!!

We do have high speed data. Right here. The problem is that this doesn't interest youth to flock to ham radio either. Oh, and it's on UHF and microwaves. You want that on HF? No way. You can't really get a lot of speed on HF without a lot of bandwidth. And no, we shouldn't open up the phone band to digital hash and wideband PACTOR modems, which are primarily used by sailboats for email while at sea (again, not youth). 

The truth is that HF frequencies are lousy for high speed data modes anyway. Even in a closed circuit system like cable TV, lower frequencies have too much noise and reflections for high speed use. Special modulation techniques like S-CDMA have to be used (which aren't suitable to be used over the air). 

The slow modes like FT8 or JT65 do attract a lot of activity. This is because they enable people to make DX contacts and experience the excitement of making a contact using the radio. They also don't have any of the nuances with phone operation. But I really don't have any statistics as to what demographics use those modes. I have seen all ages. 


Seems like a good idea. Why doesn't someone take it and run with it? We do have a lot of GPL ham radio software. Even WSJT-X, (perhaps the most used piece of ham radio software today) is not only GPL, but GPLv3, where any derivative work is required to be published. Even my friend Gerald, K5SDR and the developers at FlexRadio have created a completely open source SDR application called PowerSDR that is still being updated and improved by third parties today.

Professionally I've done many hackathons, hack weeks and other code till you drop type of events. They're OK, and they kind of remind me of LAN parties in the 00s, which means that they appeal to a certain kind of people. Not my cuppa.

But we should promote the development of open source software in the radio community... actually nothing is stopping anyone from already doing this. You, too, can be the next Joe Taylor - if you want to. Well, probably minus the Nobel prize. I don't think anyone is discovering binary pulsars again. ;)

The generation gap

There is that cliche. But it does seem to be true for a lot of things in this hobby. So we should market it to people who are interested. People of any age. But at the same time we should not start a war among generations. We get it, older folks feel that they lived during the good old days, and today's youth are lazy and unwilling to do what it takes. Younger folks feel that they know it all and the previous generation is arrogant and unwilling to help. There is middle ground, which is that both sides should try to work together. The older and/or more experienced hams should look to improve youth experience in the hobby by passing on knowledge and maybe being open to some new ideas. Younger hams should try to understand that you do learn from experience, but at the same time they can bring fresh perspectives.

The idea here is for generations to coexist and mutually benefit each other. Younger hams have enthusiasm, health and strength. Older hams have knowledge and experience. They can both join forces and have more fun. 

So what do you suggest?

I think that you can't really drag people into the hobby who don't want to be in it in the first place. But at the same time don't keep your hobby a secret. Everyone knows I'm a ham, I am loud and proud and people. I try to encourage people, especially someone who has been curious. I try not to waste my time with unlicensed preppers who have no interest other than stockpiling Baofengs to use in the apocalypse, but if they are generally interested in radio, no problem. Most people know me as an elmer for SDRs, station integration and other things. In reality I am willing to share my advice about anything. 

And you should too. 

And this goes for anyone of any age. Millenial, gen X, baby boomer, whatever. 

Homebrew is still alive. Yes, it's with arduino, raspberry pi, etc. But it's still there. Yes, it is with software but there is a lot with hardware that can be done to. The comment about Elecraft is somewhat inaccurate. Elecraft didn't have to offer radios pre-built because homebrewing is hard. They did so because they built a high performance receiver and the market wanted that pre-built. There are still lots of kits produced by lots of people. Joe, K0NEB's column in CQ magazine is of keen interest to the kit builder. There is absolutely nothing like melting solder. 

We got our kids (the triplets) snap circuits for their birthday. They are absolutely in love with it. It brings electronics simple enough so they can understand (they're 7). Proof that even simple circuits and experimentation can bring that spark. The same spark that drew me in. Maybe it will draw them in too. We are already building bigger things...

See you down the log.