Sunday, June 24, 2007

I wish I could have written this article ...

I was visiting DL6KAC's spiffy new HAMDigg website, I found a link to a terrific article about ham operating practices written by Mark, ON4WW, entitled simply "Operating Practice", although I think that the title of the introductory page "Let's Make DXing Enjoyable Again. Please." really says it all.

The main article should be required reading for all hams, not just for new hams (though they will probably benefit a bit more than most). Mark explains that there's precious little practical (i.e. things like what are the mechanics of a QSO, why you should use the official phonetic alphabet, etc.) information available for new hams, and uses a great analogy about getting a driver's license when talking about getting a ham license. He points out how ridiculous it would be if you got a driver's license by just taking a theoretical exam, yet that's what happens with a ham license.

As for that title of this entry, I wish I could have written this article:

  • because I wish that I had enough experience to do so
  • because I would love to be able to write something as useful as the article to help out others
  • because it would mean that I'd have a lot less to learn :-)
I think this is the first time that I've ever done a blog entry just about someone else's article, but I just found that really terrific. Please read it, I'll bet you learn something.

Friday, June 22, 2007

SMIRK contest

I'm a bit behind in posting, but nothing terribly exciting has happened over the last week. The one thing that I did do last weekend was to make about three dozen contacts in the SMIRK Contest. SMIRK (Six Meter International Radio Klub) is an organization who's purpose is to promote the use of the 6 meter (50 mHz) amateur radio band. Like most contests on 6 meters, the general idea is to contact as many stations as possible, with each grid square being a multiplier. Two points are given for contacts with a SMIRK member (though you don't have to be one to participate), and one point given for all other contacts.

Unlike the previous weekend, where 6 meters was not "open" (meaning that all contacts were essentially "local", with almost no enhanced propagation (meaning that the signals travel via "ground wave" along the surface of the earth, rather than by bouncing off the ionosphere, which results in longer distances, and usually more, contacts), there were a number of good band opening for the SMIRK contest. As a result, in about an hour or so, I made about 1/3 as many contacts as I made during about 10 hours of operating during the previous week's ARRL VHF contest. This makes it a lot more fun, though since I didn't really plan to participate at all, I had some non-radio things to take care of and didn't spend a lot of time operating.

I wasn't even going to bother submitting my score, but my friend Larry, N4VA pointed out that nobody has been awarded first place in NJ for the past few years, so I sent in my score, thinking that perhaps my my meager 1300 point score will be enough to win the state.

The other thing that I did was to join as a member of SMIRK. In order to do this, you need to collect the SMIRK numbers of six other SMIRK members, and of course the contest provided an easy way to do that. They've made things really easy to join: you send the SMIRK numbers and callsigns of your six contacts to to club via email, and you can pay the membership fee ($6, of course) via Paypal. I got an email back from the club secretary, Dale, AA5XE the next morning with my newly-assigned SMIRK number: 6759.

Monday, June 11, 2007

6m Contest time

This past weekend was the ARRL VHF QSO Party contest. The name is a little misleading (it is a regular contest, just like others I've mentioned), and I recall something a few years ago where our club was trying to get permission from one of the nearby towns to operate as a group from one of their parks, and our liaison with the town kept telling us "Don't call it a party!", thinking that the town would assume it was one of those drinking/loud music kind of things.

Having a very modest station (compared to just about anything), I know that I'm not going to be particularly competitive, which is fine, as I don't consider myself a particularly competitive person. I generally set some pretty modest goals for myself, which usually consist of some minor improvement over the prior year's contest. This year was an exception, for two very-related reasons:

First, last year conditions were absolutely spectacular from a propagation perspective. (Although a bit more than I want to go into here, 6 meters, which for me at least is the meat-and-potatoes band for the VHF contests, is known as the "magic" band, at least in part because unlike the lower HF bands, it's almost impossible to predict any kind of propagation in advance, but when the band does "open", it seems to be "magic" that determines where your signals will go.) I set a personal best during that contest, working 69 grids over a weekend which seemed, at least for about a month, to be the best I'd ever do. (It turns out that the conditions for the CQ Worldwide VHF contest were even better, and I worked 95 grids over roughly the same period of time.) In fact, I actually won the 6m single-operator low-power category for my ARRL Section, which was probably more of a surprise to me than anyone.

Second, conditions this year were pretty awful at the beginning of the contest (and in fact, never really improved very much.) As a result, I decided that it would be nice to beat my score from 2 years ago, which is the last time during this contest that conditions were "normal". From my perspective, I think I did reasonably well this year, spending about 10 hours operating, and scoring around 5,000 points and working 28 grids on 6 meters.

Although for a pretty significant part of the contest I mostly just sat in front of the radio while the voice keyer (a device that will transmit a recorded message at set periods, saving the operator's voice) in the N1MM contest logger called CQ, occasionally a bunch of stations would turn up, and I'd get to "run" them. "Running" stations is when you basically say on the radio "Hey, I'm here, anybody want to make a contact" and stations answer you. If you get more than one or two answering at once, it can be a challenge, but a lot of fun, to "run" them.

As an aside, the "exchange" for this contest consists simply of your callsign and a specially defined indication of your location using something called the Maidenhead Locator system. In this case, my locator is FN21, so a typical exchange would sound something like this:

  1. Me: CQ Contest, CQ Contest, from K2DBK FN21 (repeat a few hundred times, then):
  2. Other station: N2SE
  3. Me: N2SE, thanks for calling, my grid is FN21, over.
  4. N2SE: I copy FN21, my grid is also FN21, over.
  5. Me: Thank you for FN21, good luck in the contest. QRZ from K2DBK FN21 (QRZ technically means "who is calling me", but it's often used as a shorthand for "Next!")
Actually, in most contest, standard radio phonetics are used to reduce the possibility of errors, so it actually sounds more like:

Me: CQ Contest, CQ Contest from Kilo Two Delta Bravo Kilo, Fox November Twenty One (etc.)

Occasionally, other "fun" things happen: A brief "opening" to the mid-west or to Florida, or I'll run into a friend who I haven't spoken to on the air and we'll stop for a chat. (Because this contest was relatively "slow", I did that a bunch of times. When conditions are good, nobody wants to yak away, because you'd be missing possible contact, but when it's slow, people will stop and "rag chew" for a while.).

This time, some extra fun was that while I was CQing, I got called by 4U1UN, which is the radio station that is located at the headquarters of the United Nations, in New York City. I've worked 4U1UN many times before (because they are physically located so close to me), but this was the first time that I've ever worked them during a contest, and one of only about two times when they've called me. (Special thanks to Bernie, W3UR, who is a very well-known DXer, and who was operating 4U1UN at the time, for calling me.) Because they count as a separate "entity" they are somewhat rare for DXCC purposes, but for this contest, because they are located in NYC (and specifically in locator FN30), they actually weren't anything "special", just another contact. However, that doesn't stop it from being fun anyway.

And fun is what it's all about.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Online Logs

I'm spoiled. I started in ham radio in 2000, by which point computers had made serious inroads into our hobby. Many hams were already logging their contacts using computer-based loggers (as I do, using DX4WIN for DX logging, and N1MM's contest logger for contesting), and stations were increasingly using computers along with their radios for things like radio control and for both new (PSK31) and old (RTTY) digital modes.

But perhaps the most important thing to me about computers and ham radio is the ability to use computers in ways only indirectly connected to the actual radio itself. For example, the ability to use the Internet to research topics (such as those mentioned in the last paragraph) has made it possible to learn about things without having to run out to the library and without keeping a few dozen linear feet of books on your shelf. (Don't get me wrong, I have copies of the ARRL Handbook, the ARRL Antenna Book, and others on my shelf, and I use them with surprising, at least to me, frequency.)

One of the best "indirectly connected to radio" things has been the availability of online logs. Many rare DX stations, DXpeditions, and even regular folks provide the ability to search through their logs via the Internet. For rare countries and DXpeditions, especially those who are able to update their logs while still operating, this provides the ability for someone who has worked the station (or at least thinks that he's worked the station) to know that the contact was valid. (Or conversely, if a contact doesn't show up, it lets the operator know that another attempt to make contact is in order.)

Most of the online logs are set up in such a way that you can find if you (or anyone with a callsign) has made a contact, and usually even what band and mode was in use, but the time and date is hidden to avoid from someone with a similar call from "stealing" credit for a QSO. The operator needs to provide that specific information, which is not available online, in order to get a QSL card from the other station.

I'd been thinking for a while about making my Cayman logs available online, since I'm pretty sure that I'll have Internet access at the location where we'll be staying. My initial thought was that I'd definitely want to upload to the Logbook of the World, but I starting thinking that it would be nice to provide the logs for everyone, not just LotW users. (Though everyone should use LoTW!) I played around with some software that I'd found and had installed on a private section of my web site, but I kept running into various glitches (one package didn't support operation on 6 meters, another had been written years ago using a now-obsolete version of PHP, and I was spending more time trying to fix it than it was worth.) It then occurred to me that Chris, DL5NAM, provides a free log search to any ham at his web site. I signed up at Chris' site, read the instructions for uploading logs, and I was pretty much set to go.

All the logs that Chris hosts are on his website, but upon request, Chris will set up a direct search link for you. I dropped him an email, and by the next morning, Chris had taken care of that, and my logs had their own search page. I "embedded" that in a page of my own (because I wanted to be able to track usage), and I was all set. If you're interested, you can look at the ZF2DK log search page which is linked to from my main ZF2DK page. While the Cayman Islands aren't really rare, they are in demand in some parts of the world, and I hope that by providing this it will be a useful addition.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Son of Quiet Week

This was another quiet radio week. I've been busy with a number of non-radio things that, unfortunately, have had to take precedence. I know that I missed a couple of good openings on 6m, which is unfortunate, but the summer sporadic-E season is really just getting started, so there will be more. I just checked my log and discovered that since my last posting, I've only made two contacts; one was Hawaii (KH6) on 17m phone (that's a new band for me for Hawaii), and one 6m contact this morning with AA4V down in South Carolina.

One thing that I did do that was (in a way) radio related was that since my lease is up very soon on my current Chevy Trailblazer, I've started to look at either getting a new one of those, or perhaps getting something else. The radio-related part is that I've been trying to make sure that I can get a radio into the new car reasonably easily. I was looking at one car (a sedan) yesterday and was pleased to note that not only was the battery in the trunk, which is where I'd mount the body of the radio, but it had a sort of "cutout" on the side of trunk where a radio could easily be installed which would keep it out of the way of any luggage that would be put in the trunk. On top of that, it's trivial to bring the various cables forward into the passenger compartment because of the way that the rear passenger seats are built. So, we'll see what happens soon, since I do have to turn in the trailblazer in July.

One last thing: While I don't normally "re-publish" DX news, I read something today on the DX World of Ham Radio blog that I hadn't seen before, which is that the cards for N8S (Swain's Island) will be coming out starting on June 5.